The Valentine’s rose from my unlikely friend in San Francisco

I had not thought of Wayne in long time… or the things experienced in San Francisco. But yesterday these special and very significant memories came back so vividly.

It happened while listening to a group of young foreigners, mostly American, who are spending time in Rīga. Not only to experience this beautiful city but also to get to know and bless some of its people. It is a group of young Christians who believe that in some mysterious but also practical ways God can use them to show divine love. Even to random strangers while giving out roses at a local coffee shop on Valentine’s Day. Or giving small gifts, Valentine’s cards and flowers to women who work as prostitutes on Rīga streets.

Suddenly it brought back memories of when I had just turned 21 and joined a very similar group. Except the locations were reversed and I, as a Latvian, traveled to the USA to study in Oregon and later spent one month in San Francisco. And the time in San Francisco changed me and left a very deep imprint on my heart.

Wayne was the biggest part of this story. The least likely person for me to get to know while in San Francisco and I met him on the famous (or infamous) streets of Haight & Ashbury. An area of the city which some decades earlier had become known as the hippy hub. The times had changed and Generation X had taken over but there were still plenty of flower and peace symbols, New Age shops, arts galleries, vintage clothes stores and very strong hippy vibe.

The streets were truly vibrant and there was a strong sense of community. Many friendly, interesting, creative, welcoming people but also many broken ones.  I was very naive and, for example, had never been around so much drug abuse. My mentor had to explain to me the bizarre and even dangerous behaviour I was often observing. But sometimes ignorance and naiveté is a bliss and I simply wanted to make friends without keeping people at arm’s length because of their addictions or mental and psychological issues.

That is how I met Wayne. We were walking down the street together with my friend Heidi, looking for people to hang out with. Then Heidi was approached by a homeless guy who first asked if we had a cigarette and launched into a long, serious conversation about the meaning of life. He was lightly drunk and kind of smug but my friend Heidi was not put off by it and they talked for a long time.

Meanwhile I was completely put off by his homeless friend  – an old man sitting on the sidewalk, completely drunk, dirty and smelly – who kept calling me to come and talk to him. I tried to ignore him and kept thinking to myself “I did not come here tonight to talk or hang out with you, an old drunk. I don’t even talk to old drunks like you on the streets of Rīga. Plus, you are weird and stink so bad. It will make me sick to be near you.”

He kept calling… and finally I gave in. Walked over, sat down on the sidewalk and turned my head where I could feel the fresh breeze instead of the stench of alcohol and uncleanliness. I was shocked to learn that Wayne was not so “old”. I had guessed a man in his 60’s but he was actually in his mid 30’s. Originally from Ohio if I remember correctly but had lived on the streets of San Fran for many years. Sleeping in the parks, under the bridges, eating in soup kitchens, drinking with his buddies and living one day at a time.

Little did I know that this was the first of many deep conversations. With a smirk, Wayne asked if I was with a group of Christians (which was clearly obvious) and then proceeded to talk about his faith in God (probably expecting to be evangelized). He told me he really liked the teachings and the life of Jesus but he did not like most of what is called ‘the church’. He even liked the evangelist Billy Graham and in his youth had sent money to this ministry.

That night I simply listened as Wayne did all the talking. It felt like he just wanted someone to listen. I did not even sense the typical manipulative “feel sorry for me”. His story made me sad, for sure, because he was a very intelligent guy with such a destructive lifestyle. The following weeks when my friends and I went to Haight & Ashbury, I started to look for Wayne and usually he was there. Often sober. Sitting on the sidewalk where we continued our discussions about life, God, joys and sorrows, friends and family.

Before actually remembering my name, Wayne started calling me “the Russian girl” and his “Russian friend”. The word got out and got stuck. Every time his other friends would see me, they would say “hey, you are the Russian girl, right?” (Since then I have learned to explain the geographic location of Latvia differently because as soon as you explain that Latvia borders Russia, many people remember Russia but forget Latvia. I say, for example, Latvia is south of Finland or across the Baltic Sea from Sweden or between Estonia and Lithuania 🙂 )

One evening we brought a big container of hot water, shampoo and scissors for any of the homeless men and women who wanted a haircut since one girl in our group was a professional hairdresser.  The police did not mind as we did it right there on the sidewalk. Wayne also got a haircut and for the first time we saw him without his dirty beanie. Afterwards the whole street block smelled like a shampoo and there were many happy, clean faces.

When it came to our last days in San Francisco, I was hoping to say “goodbye” to Wayne and to simply tell him that God does really love him and sees him whatever situation he is in and knows every hair on his head. And that I will continue to pray for him. It happened to be Valentine’s Day which I did not know since we did not celebrate such day in Latvia. I could not find Wayne in the regular spot but finally spotted him. He greeted me with a big smile and a red rose: “Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend! I was hoping to see you before your group goes back to Oregon. Thank you so much for sitting with me on the sidewalk, thank you for our talks and for listening me! I will miss it.”

So, here is the plain truth and the real mystery… meeting and getting to know this broken, homeless man turned out to be the most spiritual experience from my time in San Francisco and in fact one of the very significant spiritual experiences in my whole life. Which I could have almost missed by proudly walking by or looking over (and surely I have missed many similar mutually enriching connections and even friendships).

I planned to tell Wayne “I am glad I see you. But most importantly God sees you and really loves you.” But he beat me to it. By extending the rose as a farewell gift, he communicated without words which I translated it as: “Thanks for seeing me. I see you and God sees you. Most importantly God sees and loves all.”

For those who read this – happy belated Valentine’s!

2019… what do I see

It is time for New Year’s resolutions and I will confess… I usually don’t make them. I am not good at keeping promises to myself because most of  my time and energy is spent trying to keep promises to others and that is difficult enough.

But if I was to have my way, I would ‘plan’ more fun. Like dancing, swimming, reading classic novels, live concerts, hikes in the woods, museums and traveling around! Maybe this is how every student feels in the final year of his/her studies when Facebook becomes really annoying 😦 It somehow gives a (hopefully false) impression that others have all the time in the world.

So, what do I see when I think about 2019? In a larger, even global sense. Nothing rosy! Things used to be more predictable, forecasts more popular and every new year promised to be different and somehow better. And for some odd reason I have the feeling of ‘same old but more of the old’ to come. What I mean is that every new year, in fact, every month, week and day brings new challenges which also provide great new opportunities. Yet we stubbornly miss those opportunities again and again. (Don’t even get me started on sustainable global development issues!)

Here I am speaking of my sentiment over current affairs. Not gloomy but simply sad. Sad that many of our countries have become so consumed by domestic concerns and politics that our interconnection with the rest of the world and the global ecosystem is neglected, ignored or even bemoaned. Why should we care about other’s problems? Look how many problems are right here and right now!  Why should we think critically and use our brains when we can just go on social media and stop caring for facts and find people who will tell us what to think? Especially what to think of those “others”! Much easier and much more pleasant  is to live in our imagined ‘Whoville’ and get all upset when we are told it simply does not exist!

I know that this sounds like a broken record and we, especially in the West, keep going in circles with our discussions of politically divided communities and nations. But not until we are really fed-up with circling our ideological, theological, national ‘wagons’ and desperate enough to enlarge our hearts to love all our neighbors, we will just keep muddling through and keep up the frequent ‘mud-throwing’.

What we need in 2019 are more prophets! Not as fortune tellers or social protesters, but as people who, according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, “understood the possibility of change as linked to emotional extremities of life. They understood the strange in-congruence between public conviction and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness “fresh from the word.”

I do not claim to have this kind of prophetic voice but I do know people who speak, write and, most importantly, live with this prophetic ‘newness’. I gravitate toward them because they see something that most of us do not see yet. They themselves do not claim that they ‘know’ or that they ‘see’. To me this is actually one of the marks of a prophetic person – they are never know-it-all or the expert. They are simply on the road less traveled which requires more courage and trust in hope…

So, here is my New Year’s resolution – I want to walk on the road less traveled! And I see a small, winding path and it probably goes uphill…

 

 

 

 

 

Filmmakers as the spies of our present and future

“I refuse your version of humanity and I will continue to struggle against it”, is one of the lines from “The Forgiven”, a British movie directed by Roland Joffé which came out last year . The story focuses on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa which was established as one of the restorative justice and national healing mechanisms after the end of apartheid. The role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu is played by Forest Whitaker (who does a great acting job as always) and the other main character is Piet Blomfeld, a fictional former security operative played by Eric Bana (also job well done).

Desmond Tutu was the chairperson of TRC and the movie portrays his personal struggles with faith, forgiveness and mercy when facing the ‘in-your-face’ evil committed and now publicly admitted. There are some very intense and emotional scenes in high-security prison where Tutu visits Blomfeld and the two worldviews collide. Blomfeld tries to shock and win with violence, hatred and his version of life. Tutu responds with words: “Brutality is the aberration, not love. Think on that!”

I have a special interest in movies about reconciliation, especially ethnic or racial but usually these stories are not the big box office successes and often you have to be very intentional to find them. When asked about “The Forgiven”, the Australian actor Eric Bana said in an interview: “If you find films like [The Forgiven], it’s a no-brainer. That’s what most actors want to be doing. But they’re getting harder to find, they’re getting harder to fund, and they’re getting harder to get some air to promote.”  True and sad , isn’t it?

There are two more recent films  – “The Journey” and “The Insult” – which I can recommend on this topic. The first I have seen and the other not yet. “The Journey” focuses on Northern Ireland conflict and St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. Directed by Nick Hamm, it is a political drama based on true events with a fictional version how two sworn political enemies meet and start working together. Ian Paisley, a loyalist and Protestant minister, and Martin McGuinness, a republican and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader share a car ride and are forced to simply start talking to each other.

As in any reconciliation and peace process, the first and hardest step are the questions of truth. Whose truth is correct? Which version of historical events is the right one? Which perspective is the most just? There is an immediate clash when ‘enemies’ start talking about ‘facts’. “The Journey” creates a fictional situation but it is not difficult to imagine the ‘real’ meeting between people who could not be more opposite in their views.

In real life Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness did talk for the first time in 2006 and few months later they were working together in the new Northern Ireland government where the power is shared between the unionists/loyalists and the republicans. McGuinness said to the international press, “Up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything—not even about the weather—and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us…. This shows we are set for a new course.”

And “The Insult” (L’insulte) is the story about a minor incident between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee which turns into an explosive trial that ends up dividing the two communities. It is on my list to see. If you have seen it, tell me what you think!

Someone said that “any human crisis is a creative situation” and it seems it gives creative energy to the artists, including the filmmakers. They see and feel the social processes and often lead the way in starting difficult conversations which others do not dare. Latvian sociologist Dagmāra Beitnere Le Galla said that “artists are the spies of future while historians look at the past”.

What is the version of humanity we choose? These films make us think…

Answering before listening is both stupid and rude

This nugget of wisdom comes from the book of Proverbs (18:13). In the same chapter you will find that “Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth.”

I can be both. Stupid and rude. And few other adjectives if you ask people who know me the best. My mom would have probably never admitted to others that she found me arrogant and too opinionated in our conversations. (Simply because she was the kind of mom who always ‘covered my sins’.) And don’t ask my husband. It is a given.

Why the confession? Because it is hard to practice what we preach. There is a general universal lament that we need relearn the basics of good, respectful, well-mannered, thoughtful conversations, dialogue, discussions, debates. Anything that falls under human communication. And the crucial skill of listening and actually hearing what the other person or group are saying and why do they see things differently from us.

Recently I attended a large meeting where the stakes were high and the main goal was to deal with polarization within an church organization and for two groups of opposite views to have a dialogue. I considered myself a neutral observer (since I was not from this church) who came to learn and listen and in the process I realized a few things.  How  I identified with one group or the other and how easy it would be to take sides. How difficult it was to listen respectfully to those who expressed views I did not agree with. Still, being a neutral person has one advantage – it helps to hear better what each side is saying. This is what mediators do – they help each side to be heard and sometimes step in as interpreters.

I also realized that booing and jeering is an understandable emotional response when you feel misrepresented, threatened or attacked (which happened at the church discussion I attended) but it is not a way to communicate effectively. If the goal is dialogue and understanding, booing only communicates “thumbs down” and the speaker will either ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ back more. And how can you listen and hear while booing?

There are too many examples of bad or non-existent communication. The mouths are moving fast, words are spoken but the ears seem closed and the meaning is lost. Just watch some of the talk shows or expert panels on TV. Much of the time there is no dialogue, only opinions. Even when the participants are polite and don’t interrupt. Or read many of our social media threads where you can observe the same thing. Are the people actually interested in understanding the ‘other side’ or do they simply care to win?

That’s just it. Our driving desire is to be “right” and for our “truth” to have the upper hand. We feel that our very identity is threatened if we are somehow “wrong”. The urgent contemporary question each one of us has to answer. Is it more important to be right or to relate rightly and righteously?

Without emphatic listening we cannot relate to others rightly. Full stop.

Latvian:

“Ja kāds atbild, pirms uzklausījis, – tā viņa muļķība, tas viņa negods!”

Šis gudrības grauds atrodams Bībelē, Sakāmvārdu grāmatā (18:13). Turpat ir teikts: “Netīko muļķis pēc saprašanas – ka tik izrādīt savu prātu!”

Man padodas gan muļķība, gan negods. Un vēl daudzas līdzīgas lietas, kuras mani tuvākie cilvēki var viegli raksturot. Mamma drošvien nevienam nebūtu atzinusi, cik augstprātīgi un visgudri es ar viņu bieži vien runāju (jo viņa bija viena no tām mammām, kuras ‘apklāj savu bērnu grēkus’). Un manam vīram var pat neprasīt, jo viņam nebūs ilgi jādomā 😉

Kāpēc šī atzīšanās? Jo ir viegli pamācīt, bet grūti izdarīt. Mani, tāpat kā daudzus,  satrauc zemā sarunu kultūra, it sevišķi tajās jomās, kur darbojas sabiedrībā ievērojami un iecienīti cilvēki, kuriem būtu jārāda piemērs. Acīmredzami mums ir jāatgriežas pie daudzām pamatlietām, lai prastu cieņpilni, pieklājīgi, saprātīgi sarunāties, diskutēt un debatēt.  Un viena no visbiežāk iztrūkstošajām praksēm ir klausīšanās ar mērķi tiešām sadzirdēt savu sarunu biedru, pat ja viņam vai viņai pilnīgi nepiekrīti. Pirms nedēļas piedalījos praktiskā nodarbībā sarunu skolas “LAMPA” ietvaros, un tur tas tika ļoti labi pasvītrots. Lektore Ilze Dzenovska aicināja padomāt, kāds ir labs klausītājs, kāds ir labs stāstītājs, kādas ir mūsu reakcijas sarunās, un kādas ir mūsu vajadzības.

Nesen apmeklēju arī šobrīd aktuālo diskusiju LELB vidē, kura tika rīkota Lutera draudzē Torņakalnā. Saruna, kurā ir sajūta, ka daudz ‘likts uz kārts’, un uzstādījums divām (vai vairākām) pusēm uzklausīt vienam otru, patiesi sadzirdēt un atrast veidu, kā būt labākās, draudzīgās, cieņpilnās attiecībās. Es neesmu LELB draudžu locekle, un varētu uzskatīt sevi par neitrālu novērotāju, kura vēlas labāk izprast kaut kādus šībrīža procesus sabiedrībā. Tovakar es atzīmēju sev dažas lietas, piemēram, cik normāli ir identificēties ar runātājiem un cik viegli nostāties vienā vai otrā pusē. Cik grūti ir klausīties ar cieņu cilvēkos, kuri liekas nosodoši vai agresīvi. Cik ļoti šī saruna jeb sarunas nepieciešamība nav par LELB, bet par Latvijas (un ne tikai Latvijas) sabiedrībai svarīgiem jautājumiem kopumā. (Vērtīgu komentāru uzrakstījusi Bella Briška, Lutera draudzes locekle. Lasīt šeit)

Tajā diskusijā man bija tikai viena priekšrocība. Tā kā mani tas neskar tik personīgi kā LELB draudžu locekļus, arī manas emocijas bija mazāk iesaistītas. Žurnālists Aidis Tomsons godam pildīja savus moderatora pienākumus. (Jā, moderatoriem/mediatoriem parasti ir iespēja sadzirdēt labāk, ko abas puses vēlas pateikt, un palīdzēt veidot komunikācijas tiltu.)

Par emocijām karstās sarunās runājot ir saprotama cilvēciskā vēlme izrādīt neapmierinātību ūjinot, utt, kad jūties nesaprasts un/vai apdraudēts, bet tas neder un nepalīdz. Ja vēlēšanās ir tiešām saprasties, tad ūjināšana vienkārši apzīmē ‘īkšķi uz leju’, un runātājs vai nu padosies un apklusīs, vai vēl vairāk centīsies aizstāvēties un cīnīties. Ūjināšana der, ja vispār nevēlamies uzklausīt kāda viedokli. Ja esam tik dusmīgi, ka “aizbāžam ausis”.  Jo kā cilvēks var vienlaicīgi ūjināt un klausīties?

Šodien vardarbīga komunikācija nav tālu jāmeklē. Var uzgriezt kādu TV raidījumu, kur tiek aicināti pretēju viedokļu pārstāvji. Var palasīt (vai labāk nelasīt) komentāru palagus Facebook, kur neuzklausīšanu un nedzirdēšanu var redzēt ik uz soļa. Tāda kārtīga virtuāla klope! Mēs pārāk bieži esam kā Sākamvārdos minētais muļķis.

Nāk prātā trāpīgie M. Lutera Kinga Jr. vārdi: “Mums jāiemācās dzīvot kopā kā brāļiem, vai arī iesim bojā kopā kā muļķi.”

Tā ir viena no iezīmēm mūsu nesaprašanās un konfliktu problēmām. Vēlamies, lai mums būtu taisnība, lai tā uzvarētu, un attiecību kvalitāte tiek nostumta zemāk. Mums liekas, ka mūsu dziļākā būtība un identitāte ir apdraudēta, ja neuzvarēsim vai ja mūsu uzskati izrādīsies ‘kļūdaini’ vai, pasarg Dievs, ‘nepareizi’. (Par idenitāti reliģioziem cilvēkiem vispār vajadzētu uztraukties vismazāk. Galu galā kristiešu identitāte ir Kristus, nevis pareizība.)

Tātad… vai mums svarīgāka ir ‘mūsu patiesība’ un ‘mūsu pareizība’, vai taisnīgas, labas un mierpilnas attiecības ar līdzcilvēkiem?

Bez ieklausīšanās un sadzirdēšanas nu nekādi. Punkts.

 

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

Beware of narrow vocabularies and two-dimensional world

The great “back to school” migration has begun… public transport packed with excited or anxious children, proud or worried parents and other happy or annoyed passengers who observe this happy noise and energy. In fact I am building up my own excitement for continued studies in Latvia University which begins on Monday.

In Latvia (and many other post-communist countries) it is called the Day of Knowledge. I think about my studies with far more expectations for myself than for my professors.  They certainly have lots of knowledge in their scientific fields and different styles for conveying it to us but ultimately it is up to me to take it or leave it or store it for later. I love my field of study – theology and religious studies – because it wrestles with the truly important and relevant questions of human life. One classmate who would not describe himself as particularly religious commented that he came to this faculty to explore the big question of “Why?” Don’t we all?!

There is one thing that I absolutely love about being a student again. The libraries! There is not enough hours in the day and not enough days in year to take full advantage of these amazing archives of human exploration and resources. Our faculty has a small one but still it is one of my favorite spaces in the whole building. Books, books, books… thoughts, concepts, reflections, facts, thesis, questions, answers, arguments, paradigms, worldviews, research… and words, words, words.

Recently I read a small, short manifesto book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder, a prominent American historian. He wrote that “the effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal.”

He also reminded of authors and thinkers like George Orwell whose novel 1984 portrays a world where “one of the regime’s projects is to limit the language further by eliminating ever more words with each edition of the official vocabulary. Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.”

It feels like George Orwell novel when our societies/politicians/media/we become narrow in our vocabularies. Or words gets changed, diluted and become meaningless.

Word like ‘humility’ should mean “the greatest among you shall be your servant. Fōr whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Jesus Christ)

Word like ‘greed’ should mean “Do not covet” or “There is enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Word like ‘dignity’ should mean “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” (Aristotle)
Where is your mental armory? How do you develop it?
IMG_2626

The beautiful old library at Trinity College, Dublin (from personal archive)

 

 

Time to bridge the chasm of dividing memories in my own nation… Latvia

Does time heal all wounds? Few months ago I was asked by an American how much more time we need in Latvia to bridge our ethnic and historical divides and to have a real sense of ‘one nation’. 30 years? 40 years? More? Wait a few decades when the older people will be gone and the personal memories will fade and the conflicting versions of history will cease or not be as painful?

And I shook my head, “No, I don’t want to wait  and see what happens.” What if nothing happens? What if the younger generations pick up the same hurts and stories and don’t want to hear the ‘other’ side? And what about my generation who grew up with one foot in the ‘past’ of the USSR and the other foot in the ‘present’ of free and democratic society? We were told that we can finally dream of a better future for Latvia and this is exactly what I have been doing.

In Latvia, May 9 is a tense and strange day. People either celebrate, remember, speak against or simply try to ignore it. Most of Europe commemorates  May 8 as the date when WWII ended in Europe but in most countries that used to be part of the USSR, May 9 is celebrated as Victory Day (to understand this better, follow the link), but for the Republic of Latvia it did not mark the end of WWII because the Nazi troops and regime were exchanged with the Soviet troops and regime which only ended in 1991. Because of our history, geography and people, we now have two days, two stories and two memories.

I cannot do justice to all nuances and complexities in such a short blog. For thousands of ethnic Russians (and Ukrainians, Belorussians and others), this is a very emotional and important memory which brings a lot of pride and gratefulness for the sacrifice of previous generations. Likewise for thousands and thousands of ethnic Latvians, an image of a Soviet soldier brings up pain, bitter memories and grievances over previous generations. Latvians simply stay away from May 9 commemorations.

So, here we are… and what can we do?! If you follow my blog, you know that I am a strong believer in restoration and reconciliation. Each generation has choices to make. We cannot change the past and we are also not responsible for everything that took place before our time. But we are responsible for today and tomorrow. My choice is healed, diverse, united and respectful society.

Lately I meet more and more people who make the same choice and do their part (often very personal and difficult) to build the bridges. I am a Latvian and I also carry some pain of my family who suffered under the Soviet regime. My great grandparents were arrested and sent to Siberia because, as landowners and farmers, they were the class enemy. I look at the few old photos which my grandmother received from them while they were living and doing hard labor in Irkutsk region, Russia and I get very emotional.

My great grandmother had lost her mind while in exile and as a little child I remember she used to swear in Russian. She used bad words like ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and ‘fascist’. When I would repeat them, my parents scolded me but when I told them where I heard it, they went silent or tried to explain to me that granny was crazy. Later I understood that her fragile and broken mind remembered the names she had been called in Russia.

You see why my first introduction to Russian language was not a very positive one but it is not anymore. I can speak Russian, I learned it in school and I loved it because I could watch all my favorite cartoons and films in Russian and my parents could not use a ‘secret’ language anymore when talking about us, kids.

See, I have to do my own homework when I talk about this stuff. I am grateful for everyone who is doing it or has already completed. People who have listened, who have forgiven, who have apologized, who have accepted the “other” and who have moved on to the bridge. I think and I hope that I am on this bridge, too.

This week there was an event “8/9: Words crossing the gap of memories” at the Anglican Church in Riga organized to promote reconciliation. Reconciling our memories, our narratives, our communities, our people. There were prayers and Bible readings and two very personal speeches. One of them was quite extraordinary and I will translate few of the words here. It was written and read by Denis Hanov, a professor and Doctor of Humanities, a Latvian whose ethnicity is mixed Russian/Ukrainian and mother tongue is Russian.

He started by saying, “Tonight I will speak about things that I have been thinking about for a long time. More precisely, for 20 years I feel that I need to talk to be able to understand what is happening to me here, in this land, in Latvia.”

I hope to translate the whole speech in English and include it in another post, but let me conclude with his words, “Can pain form our future or is it possible to break it? Pain cannot be cancelled, cannot be forgotten and cannot be hidden, but it can be overcome. (…) Therefore tonight I decided, by my own initiative with encouragement of many friends and skepticism of others, to bury the pain of 20th century and to create my personal bridge to cross the gap. I will build this bridge according the the highest standards of safety – I will try to hear others and ask for forgiveness.”

And Denis did. He asked forgiveness and he asked to be heard.

I heard him and I hope that I will be heard, too. I don’t have time to wait 50 years. Latvia does not either.

To be continued…

Siberia

My great grandfather Jānis Kūda (bottom left) doing hard labor near Irkutsk, Russia around 1950

Latvian:

Vai laiks dziedina visas brūces? Pirms kāda laika man viens amerikānis jautāja, cik ilgs laiks vēl vajadzīgs, lai Latvijas sabiedrība tiktu pāri savām sāpēm un sašķeltībai. Paaudžu maiņa? 40 gadi? 50 gadi? Kad visi vecie nomirs, un visiem būs tikai vēsture, varbūt tā izbālēs, un vairs nevienam nesāpēs?

Man tas izklausījās briesmīgi. Es negribu gaidīt, man nav laika gaidīt, kas notiks. Ja nu nekas nenotiek? Ja nu nekas nemainās? Vai arī paliek sliktāk? Varbūt jaunā paaudze vienkārši pārmantos šos stāstus un sāpes un konfliktējošo skatu gan uz vēsturi, gan uz tagadni, gan nākotni. Un kā ir ar manu paaudzi? Kas uzaugām ar vienu kāju PSRS “pagātnē” un ar otru kāju Latvijas Republikas “tagadnē”. Kur beidzot varam sapņot par labākiem laikiem un labāku nākotni Latvijai un visiem cilvēkiem Latvijā. To es arī cenšos. Gan sapņot, gan darīt.

8. maijā Anglikāņu baznīcā Rīgā notika samierināšanai, nožēlai un piedošanai veltīts pasākums. “Atceroties 2. pasaules kara traģēdijas un piedzīvojot pretnostatītas atmiņas par to, meklēsim saprašanos un izlīgumu.  Pasākums krievu un latviešu valodās.” Bija lūgšanas, bija Bībeles lasījumi, un bija divas ļoti dziļas un personīgas runas. Un es nolēmu, ka vienu no šīm runām iekļaušu šajā blogā. To nevar sagriezt, to jālasa pilnībā. Tā ir uzruna no Denisa Hanova, RSU komunikāciju fakultātes profesora, kurš pats dzimis jauktā krievu/ukraiņu ģimenē, un kura dzimtā valoda ir krievu.

“Nožēla un cerība – Deniss Hanovs

Šovakar es teikšu to, par ko domāju jau vairākus gadus. Precīzāk, 20 gadu garumā es jūtu, ka man ir nepieciešams runāt, lai saprastu kas notiek ar mani šeit, šajā zemē, Latvijā.
Viss sācies ar to, ka es piedzimu 1977. gadā valstī, kura nedrīkstēja pastāvēt, jo bija varas spēļu, politiskā ārprāta, cilvēku bezspēcības, baiļu, moku, represiju, nodevības un akluma rezultāts. Es piedzimu Padomju Latvijā, kas tapa kā svešas varas projekts.
Tīņa vecumā vēlme studēt augstskolā izmeta mani ārā no Pļavnieku guļamrajona noslēgtās vides, no noapaļotās vienaldzības pret 20. gs. vēstures lūzumiem un to salauztajiem cilvēkiem.
Tā es atklāju ka par spīti tam, ka krievu kultūras šedevri ir kļuvuši par Eiropas kultūrmantojuma daļu, krievu valoda trolejbusā var pēkšņi likt kādai grumbainai sejai sarauties nepatikā, skumjās un tam var sekot dusmīga piebilde kas man nesaprotamā veidā ir saistīta ar manu tautību – krievs. Ilgstoši negribēju pieskarties šādai sejai un noskaidrot kāpēc cilvēkam var sāpēt, kad viņš dzird manu valodu. Neviens arī necentās man to skaidrot, klusēja vai vienkārši nezināja – nācās skaidrot pašam.
Vēlme noskaidrot citu sāpes un to cēloņus pati veidoja vidi, laiku un telpu, kas pavēra man durvis uz līdz šim nezināmo.
Latvijas Kultūras akadēmija – šauri klosteru gaiteņiem līdzīgi koridori, pavisam jauni studiju priekšmeti, savādāka Latvijas vēstures interpretācija un arī mana paša dalība sarunās, noklausoties stāstus, izlasot atmiņas, apmeklējot izstādes – tas viss lika man saprast, ka arī mana klātbūtne var būt sāpju avots. Mana un manas ģimenes klātbūtne var
sāpināt. Izrādās, ka sāpes ir pārmantojamas, tāpat kā vecas grāmatas, vēstules vai slimības.
Tad es sapratu, ka Čaikovska Oņegins vai Tolstoja Nataša sadzīvo ar sētnieku īstenoto stučīšanu, ar nāvi un mokām cietumu pagrabos, ar neaprakstāmiem vergu darbiem nometnēs, arī ar ilgstošām, klusām bailēm glabāt atmiņas par tuvākajiem, kuru līķi bija izmesti ceļā uz Sibīriju. Par to man atgādina tukšie koka vagoni dzelzceļa stacijās Latvijā, veco cilvēku klusās asaras vai pāris fotoattēli – viss kas palika pāri no iznīcinātas dzīves pirms 1940 gada.
Kāds man ar to visu sakars?
Netiešs, un pavisam tiešs – jo nakts vidū mājās iebrukušie zaldāti, NKVD virsnieki iznīcināja 20.gs. cilvēku atmiņas un sakropļoja dvēseles, krieviski izkliedzot pavēles, lamājoties, rakstot viltotus protokolus, liedzot brīvi domāt, cenzējot, bojājot zinātniskās karjeras, neļaujot izbraukt no valsts, publicēties. Kopš tā laika daudziem vārdi “krievs”, “krievu”, “Krievija” ir baiļu un naida sinonīmi. Man tas jāpieņem, jo tāda ir traumētas sabiedrības realitāte. Latvijā naktīs, cietumos, kolhozos, darba vietās, parkos, universitātē 1940. gadā un pēc tam vēl pusgadsimta garumā nāve, fiziska un psiholoģiska vardarbība runāja krievu valodā, mainīja ielu nosaukumus, aizliedza iepriekšējo topogrāfiju, aizvietojot to ar nevienam nepazīstamu un nevajadzīgu revolucionāru biogrāfijām.
Man ir jāpieņem, ka jauni cilvēki var drūmi atskatīties atpakaļ, kad dzird krievu valodu, jo viņi kļūdaini, bet droši zina, ka valoda un es esam līdzatbildīgi. Un man jādzīvo tālāk ar atziņu, ka 1940. gada Rīgas jūnija putekļos tie bija krievu tanki, kas atnesa krievu laikus, nevis padomju. Es varu ilgi stāstīt par 30. gadu atklātajiem procesiem Krievijā pret padomju opozīciju un GULAGA iemītnieku miljoniem, es varu rādīt studentiem “Saules nogurdinātos”, viss paliks pa vecam – sāpes būs klātesošas, tās veidos pagātni un tās būs saistītas ar manu klātbūtni Latvijā. Vai sāpes drīkst veidot nākotni, vai tās var pārtraukt? Sāpes noteikti nevar atcelt, nedrīkst aizmirst un nevar paslēpt, bet tās var pārvarēt.
Pārvarēt var tad, ja saproti, ka turpināt ciest nav jēgas, ka viss ir aizgājis, ka nav iespējams atgriezties pagātnē, kaut gan ļoti gribētos, lai saprastu ka es, mēs, mūsējie ir varoņi vai upuri, un citi tikai varmākas un noziedznieki. Šādā sadalījumā mēs apmānām paši sevi, meklējot vienkāršotus skaidrojumus šodienas sarežģītībai.
Tā mēs visi un es pats palikšu ieslodzīts 20. gadsimtā. nespēsim iet tālāk. Tā es nekad nesadzirdēšu Cita sāpes.
Bet es vēlos iet tālāk, man jāiet tālāk – pasaule ir sagatavojusi vēl daudzus skaistus mirkļus ko atminēt, atklāt, izstāstīt citiem. Tāpēc šovakar es, pēc paša iniciatīvas, bet ar vairāku draugu atbalstu, arī skepsi, nolēmu apglabāt 20. gs. sāpes un plaisu vietā veidot savu personīgo tiltu.
Es būvēšu savu tiltu atbilstoši visdrošākajiem celtniecības standartiem – es mēģināšu sadzirdēt citus un lūgt piedošanu.
Es pieņemu, apzinos, izdzīvoju un saprotu ebreju, latviešu, lietuviešu, poļu, romu un visu citu grupu, kopienu un atsevišķu cilvēku sāpes, sēras, skumjas, kas izēd dvēseles un saindē domas, kas bloķē skatu uz nākotni. Tālis Tisenkopfs, kura tekstus es apbrīnoju, ir rakstījis, ka vēl piecdesmit gadus viņa sirds būs ciet – mums nav tik daudz laika. Jāpasteidzas… No padomju varas vardarbības cietām mēs visi.
Ar šo runu es no sirds dziļumiem un ar cerību lūdzu piedot man, lūdzu pieņemt manu personīgu visdziļāko nožēlu par noziegumiem pret Latvijas cilvēkiem, kas mira, cieta, palika garīgi un fiziski sakropļoti, iztukšoti, vientuļi. Es neesmu vainīgs, bet es jūtu atbildību – morālu un pilsonisku – par padomju okupāciju un tās sekām. Es lūdzu piedot, es lūdzu pieņemt mani. Un es aicinu iet tālāk kopā, kopīgi sērojot par visiem aizgājušajiem, bet vienlaikus pieņemot visus, kas veido mūsu Latvijas sabiedrību, ar viņu atmiņām un emocijām, kurām ir tiesības pastāvēt daudzveidīgajā sabiedrībā, kurā brīvība ir visaugstākā vērtība. Es ticu, ka nožēla un žēlsirdība dara brīnumus, spēj pretoties naidam, dusmām un politiskām fantāzijām. Citēšu vienu 18. gadsimta tekstu: “Taisnīgums, ko pavada žēlsirdība, ir cēls.”
Tu šodien esi klāt, un dzirdēji manu lūgumu. Lūdzu neklusē, lūdzu sadzirdi, lūdzu runā ar mani.”

Es sadzirdēju, un arī man ir ko teikt. Turpinājums sekos nākamreiz…