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Laima Vince is a novelist, poet, playwright and literary translator from Lithuanian into English. Her novel, This Is Not My Sky, has been translated into Lithuanian and published by Alma Littera, the largest commercial publishing house in the Baltic States. She has written five works of literary nonfiction and five plays. Laima Vince earned a MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants and a National Endowment for the Arts award in Literature, as well as a PEN Translation Fund grant.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Laima Vince, Pandemic Angels

 

The Quarantine Diary

 

 

Excerpts

The global quarantine of 2020 was like the game musical chairs. Wherever you were on planet earth when the music stopped and the quarantine went into effect, that’s where you stayed. I found myself on a sandy strip of shifting dunes held tentatively in place by ancient forests of pines and firs. The Curonian Spit is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Park. This narrow strip of land, forests, dunes, and long stretches of wild coastline are flanked on one side by the Baltic Sea and on the other by the Curonian Lagoon. The Curonian Spit is only two and a half miles across in its widest section and in some places only half a mile separates the sea from the lagoon. An international border between Russia and Lithuania, and two different systems of governance, one autocratic and one democratic, slice through the middle of the Curonian Spit. The Russian resort town of Zelenogradsk is located at one end of the 60-mile-long two-lane road that stretches across two countries while the Lithuanian village of Smilytnė is at the other. Nine sparsely populated fishing villages are nestled in the dunes between these two points. Most of them explode into tourist destinations in summer. Three of those villages are in the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast and six in Lithuania. I spent over a year of the pandemic (March 2020 – May 2021) in one of those villages. The name of my village, Juodkrantė, translates from Lithuanian into English as “Black Shores.” The village is at a slightly higher elevation than the others, and when viewed from a boat in the Curonian Lagoon the shoreline appears dark and mysterious.

However, to be even more precise, I lived in an enclave of three low apartment buildings surrounded by forest a few miles down the road from Juodkrantė called Gintaro Įlanka, or Amber Bay. In 1855, workers dredging the bottom of a small inlet that connects to the Curonian Lagoon, pulled up chunks of amber. The discovery led to the establishment of the V. Stantien and M. Becker Amber Excavators. They named the inlet Amber Bay and operated there until 1890, excavating from the inlet’s mud 165,346 pounds of amber, and also carved amber amulets dating to the neolithic and bronze ages. The heyday of Amber Bay ended in 1890 once the amber load was exhausted. Today Amber Bay is a sleepy inlet where local fishermen barely eke out a living, setting out at sunrise to cast their nets and haul in a modest catch of smelts and vimba bream, which they sell to locals out of battered garages on the edge of the lagoon or to small restaurants in the village.

I quarantined in Amber Bay in a small studio apartment with dormers that extend from the ceiling to the floor. I cooked on a hotplate and slept with the triangular bedroom window open to cold air blowing in from the lagoon. I woke to the first rays of the sun over the inlet. In June I’d listen to a chorus of frogs performing an amphibian opera from the depths of the inlet and in winter I’d hike across the frozen lagoon to where local men fished from deep holes drilled into the ice. I spent many hours wandering in the old growth forest that archeologists claim as a Baltic pagan sacred place of worship. Appropriately, the forest that stretches from Amber Bay to the Baltic Sea coast has been named since ancient times, “The Witches Hill” (Raganų kalnas).

If starved for human contact, I’d find an excuse to buy some groceries and engage in aimless conversation the older woman who worked as a cashier at the miniscule grocery store a few miles down the road in Juodkrantė. My neighbors in the two buildings flanking mine were mostly elderly people who had that look about them of having been forgotten by the world. There was also a young fisherman and his girlfriend, and an enraged lonely sculptor. Beyond the parking lot stood a strip of garages illegally converted into dwelling places with chimney pipes poking out. These cavernous spaces were inhabited by several indigent alcoholics who smoked fish and drank together amicably behind the garages, but otherwise never bothered anyone. A few men among their group were the first to test positive for Covid-19 when the virus emerged in our far-away neck of the woods. It later turned out that a woman from Klaipėda carried the virus over with her on the ferry when she came out to drink with them.

Several young families with children owned apartments in my building that they maintained as vacation rentals. When the schools shut down in the cities, they came out to live in Amber Bay. We quickly became friends and after a few weeks of social distancing, decided it was safe enough to meet outside around the fire pit and sip wine or beer and cook shashlik on the small metal portable barbeque they had brought from Vilnius.

No one ever forgot that I was “the American” – to them, an eccentric woman in her early fifties living alone in the forest. They became my impromptu family during the pandemic. When my 2006 Toyota Verso wouldn’t start, four men from my building stood outside in the single digit freezing cold pulling out my old battery and installing a new one so that I wouldn’t be stranded. They refused any payment and would only accept a thermos of hot lemon ginger tea as thanks.

I have spent the past thirty years of my life since Lithuania became independent from the Soviet Union engaged in a sort of perpetual homecoming. Only, this time I hadn’t planned on my homecoming to stretch into months and months of strict quarantine with no end in sight. On this lonely strip of weather-beaten land, one hears Russian fighter jets breaking Lithuania’s NATO airspace and sees the NATO jets take to the skies to escort them back. One hears the rapid staccato of machine gun fire as both NATO and Russian troops engage in war games on either side of the border in an ever-changing landscape of nationalities and political interests, Russian, Lithuanian, German. Here, in this land of loneliness and infinite beauty I wrote this quarantine diary, a 40-day covenant with myself to speak my truth, to be honest, to examine my life at a time when it really did seem as though the world were coming to an end.

My diary documents forty days of quarantine early in the pandemic. I remained in isolation in the forests of the Curonian Spit another fourteen months. During the winter of 2020-2021 the government set up police barricades to prevent movement between municipalities and banned all unnecessary travel. Other times, when restrictions were eased, I made it out to Vilnius to regain my balance, spending a few days in the city. However, for the most part, my experience of the pandemic was defined by living on my own in a remote sparsely populated forest on the Baltic Sea coast. Today, having come this far, and not knowing what lies ahead, I send out my diary, written under conditions of quarantine during a long pandemic, a document of my life in these unusual times, as a bundle of love letters addressed to the world.

 

March 24, 2020
On Keeping a Diary…

All my life, since I was a young child, I’ve kept a diary. I bought my first diary at Woolworths when I was twelve. The diary had a shiny soft blue vinyl cover, gilt edging, and a tiny lock and key. At the top of each page there was a special space to write the month, day, and year, starting from January 1st.

I bought my diary with money I’d saved working as a papergirl. The diary was my first independent purchase made with my own money. I also bought a miraculous pen that wrote in four different colors of ink: Blue, green, red, and black. I dreamed of the day I would start writing in my diary, each day in a different color. Since I’d purchased my diary in July, I resolved to wait patiently until January 1st to start writing my first diary entry from the start of the year. That decision required a lot of discipline.

As summer passed, I impatiently waited for autumn to come, and then winter, so that I could write in my diary. I chattered away to my mother about all the secret things I’d write in my diary. Mama said to me: “If you want to write in your diary so much, why don’t you start writing today?”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I need to wait until January 1st because my diary must start from the first page on January 1st.”

My father burst out laughing.

My father, a World War II refugee from Lithuania, said to my mother in Lithuanian, “Laima is waiting for her diary to ripen.”

He meant like an apple ripens.

All summer we waited for the small tart apples on our trees to mature and ripen.

They both burst out laughing.

I was annoyed.

Mama explained to me that all I had to do was to simply find a page in the middle of the diary about where July ought to go and begin writing from there. In this way, I’d eventually cycle back to January 1st and could start writing about the new year from the first page of the diary.

What a brilliant idea! I’d never thought of that. I got to work writing immediately. I’ve not stopped keeping a diary ever since.

Back when I was twelve and a papergirl, I’d write each diary entry in a different color. I wrote about the adventures of my cats and dog. I described the games I played with my brothers and sister and neighborhood children out in the backyard. I wrote about how my older brother, Vilius, teased me all the time. I wrote about the variety of insects I found in my backyard, ladybugs and water bugs. I chronicled how much money I earned in tips each week on my paper route and what I’d spend it on. Every night, I’d lock up my diary with the little key and hide it away from Vilius’s prying eyes under my mattress or in the bottom of my dresser drawer.

I’d worked hard to earn the money to buy my first diary. I bought it with the tips I received delivering newspapers throughout the neighborhood after school each day and early on Sunday mornings.

I was a papergirl from the age of eleven and all through high school.  I even had a paper route when I was a college student because it was a good source of extra income. In 1988, when I received a Soviet visa and an invitation to spend a year studying Lithuanian literature at Vilnius University, I saved up the money to pay for my plane ticket from JFK to Frankfurt, then from Frankfurt to Moscow, and from Moscow to Lithuania, working all summer as a temp at Simon and Schuster and supplementing my savings working a local paper route.

My brothers and my sister all had their own paper routes. We coveted the routes with the least steep hills. When my second eldest brother, Vilius, graduated high school and left for college, I inherited his paper route and added it to the route I already had, doubling my income. I later passed my routes on to my younger sister, Kristina, who passed them on to our younger brother, Andy, who in later years passed the routes on to our youngest brother, Vincas, who unlike the rest of us, who delivered newspapers on bicycles, delivered newspaper riding up and down the hills  on a skateboard.

If you’ve ever seen those American films where a teenager leisurely rides his bicycle down a cheery sunlit suburban street, casually tossing newspapers onto people’s lawns, you should know that a real paperboy would never get away with that. No manager would ever let a paperboy or papergirl get away with tossing a newspaper randomly onto a lawn. You wouldn’t dare expect the customer to go any further than his doorstep to fetch his newspaper or to hunt for it in the shrubbery. When three of my brothers and my sister and I had paper routes the rule was that we had to park our bicycle at the curb beside every house, and then carry the newspaper to the front door, and tuck it neatly under the doormat.

Besides, those movies are filmed in southern California where the weather is always warm, and it never rains or snows, and the terrain is flat. On rainy and snowy days, you had to carefully pack each newspaper into a plastic bag. If the newspaper got wet and ruined, you had to pay for it out of your tips, which was your only profit. The money paid for the newspaper subscription had to be paid back to the route manager, typically housewives who drove around in rusted-out station wagons dropping bundles of newspapers at the top of your driveway.

On Sundays, you had to assemble the papers, organizing all the extras—like the comics, book reviews, and travel section—together with the main paper. You loaded all the newspapers into twin baskets on the back of your bicycle and off you went, up and down the hilly neighborhood streets. On Friday evenings you did the rounds to collect the money for the newspapers you sold. We called it, “collecting.” There were the usual deadbeats who made up excuses not to pay, and those who let their bill fall into arears. If you could not collect from them, you had to cover the losses out of your tips.

On collecting days you’d witness the range of human behaviors, kindly housewives who’d hand out bigger than usual tips of fifty cents or customers who subjected you to a long rant on politics or whatever else was published in the newspaper that they did not agree with, because, after all, as the papergirl, you represented the newspaper.

There were a few hazards you learned to avoid on the paper route: Barking and snapping dogs set loose to protect the property and middle-aged men who’d open the door wide open and say: “Pretty little papergirl, why don’t you come inside?”

The other occupational hazard was the neighborhood bullies. They knew Friday was collection day, and too lazy to maintain their own paper routes, they’d sneak up on you to get their share of your “easy money.” My sister, Kristina, although two years younger than me, was exceptionally good at fighting off bullies. I’d stand there and lecture them, telling them that one day they’d get their moral retribution, as my sister hurled stones or pummeled them with her fists.

It’s been years now since New Jersey law has made it illegal for children to have paper routes and work as paperboys and papergirls. Now adults distribute the newspapers from the safety of their cars, and yes, now they do toss the papers onto the driveway and the customer must venture outdoors to retrieve it.

My years of delivering newspapers from a young age taught me all that I need to know about work, and persistence. The paper route taught me determination, organization, endurance, and a work ethic. Every day the newspaper had to be delivered. Your day revolved around getting your paper route done. Only then could you relax, and only after you’d earned your tips, could you save up for something you really wanted (Jordache jeans in my case) and enjoy the independence of making your purchase with your own hard-earned money.

You need all those skills to be a writer. You also need all those skills when you resolve to faithfully keep a diary.

Writing a diary takes discipline. You’ve got to write every day, no matter whether you feel like it or not, and no matter whether anything worth taking note of has happened throughout the day. Writing is a craft. Writing is a discipline. You have lucky days when inspiration strikes, but most of the time writing requires dogged persistence. Most of what you write in a diary will never be considered great writing, or even good writing, but the practice of writing daily builds your muscles for when the good writing comes.

Writing a diary is an intensely private business. You write for an audience of one, for yourself. If you think that you are writing for posterity, then that will make you feel self-conscious, and if you are self-conscious, is your writing truly private?

Writing a diary takes a completely different approach to writing than when you write a piece for publication. Writing a diary allows you to completely relax, but at the same time it demands that you take stock and account for your day, for your actions, choices, thoughts.

At home, my closet shelves are stuffed with my old diaries from various periods of my life. One of my first published books, Lenin’s Head on a Platter (Lithuanian Writers Union Publishers, 2009), is my actual diary that I wrote during the years 1988-1989 when I came to Lithuania as a student to study Lithuanian literature and the independence movement started. My professors, most of whom were active in the independence movement, asked me to volunteer as a translator. That book reads like a short film, or series of photographs from an old album. It documents the collapse of the Soviet Union from within. Now, come to think of it, I’d love to sit down and read through the diary I wrote during the last two years I spent living in Beijing, China.

I think before I die, I will need to gather up all my old diaries from my closet shelves on both sides of the Atlantic and burn them, lest someone get the brilliant idea of publishing them. On the other hand, I doubt if anyone would be interested in reading what I wrote in those old diaries anyway.

You might be wondering why I advocate burning diaries? That’s because the writing in a diary is all about process and not product. A proper diary serves as a stream of consciousness of one’s thoughts and experiences. For a writer, a diary is like the sketch that will later be developed into an oil painting. A diary is a place to work out a thought before it has reached its full depth.
But I digress...

The whole pleasure of writing a diary is not to adhere to any order or rules. The end goal is a moment of illumination, or an epiphany, that you reach by writing without any concrete goal or purpose. And it ought to happen in the present tense.

I teach my Creative Writing students:  Always ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.

What I mean by that is that if you ask a question and believe that you already have a good sense of what the answer ought to be, then you shouldn’t ask that question. You won’t learn anything new from asking that question. The point is to enter into the unexplored territory of the mind.

The word “quarantine” has its root in the Italian word, “quaranta,” which means forty. In the colonial era, when tall ships set sail out of all the major European ports for the Americas, India, Africa, it was normal practice in Italy when the ships returned to keep the sailors on board for forty days before releasing them into the port city, where they could possibly infect the local populace with diseases, they’d brought back from abroad for which they had no immunity.

It was a wise practice, I believe. In the global era we crisscross the globe and upon arrival on another continent immediately meld in with the local population, not considering what viruses we may pass on to others, or what we may catch. This is how coronavirus spread so rapidly within a few weeks to 213 countries.

The Italian sailors would sit out those forty days and pass the time onboard their ship, gazing out at what must have been the tantalizing site of land after so much time at sea. But time moved more slowly in centuries past. In our era of globalization, our sense of time has sped up to a dizzying blur. This enforced quarantine may just slow time for all of us.

I have resolved to write my quarantine diary for forty days. I will be like those sailors of times past. I will allow time to slow down for me and my diary shall be a place to reflect.

Yesterday on the National news, the Lithuanian government reiterated that this quarantine will last two weeks. That is only fourteen days and not forty. We can take it. Even if the quarantine is over in two weeks, I will stick with the ancient Italian tradition and wait out the full forty days. Perhaps, in those forty days, this diary will ripen like a fruit, as my late father said once years ago.

 

March 30, 2020
On Quarantine Cuisine...

It’s a good thing I know how to cook. I learned how to cook meals from nearly nothing when I lived in Soviet-occupied Lithuania in 1988 – 1989. That year, the food shortages in the Soviet Union had gotten particularly bad and ration coupons and long food lines were the norm. I lived in a dorm the locals called “Kamchatka” because it housed researchers, scholars, and doctoral students from the Eastern bloc countries and was isolated from the regular dorms.

Two American doctoral students and I were assigned the luxury of single rooms. One of them, Anita, was fluent in Russian and was researching witchcraft in Russia. She was often away doing fieldwork in the Urals and other unlikely locations, while the other, Mark, was studying Soviet economics. Then there was a conscientious objector from France, Jean, who, rather than military duty was serving his time as a lecturer on French culture at Vilnius University. A depressed Austrian, whose name I forgot, was teaching German at Vilnius University. There were several East Germans, whom I was friendly with, one of them a young mathematician named Crystal who was only a few years older than me and who helped me hang up protest posters for the Lithuanian independence movement. Because of the predominance of German speakers in our dorm, our lingua franca was German, backed up by Russian. We had a system where throughout the day if any one of us could get our hands on perishables, usually rye bread, apples, sour cream, blocks of cheese or potatoes, we would bring them back to the dorm kitchen to share. This fare was supplemented by salami gifted to me by relatives in the countryside, and good French or Austrian wine pulled out of the bottomless suitcases of the Frenchman or Austrian. We’d meet in the evening and cobble together a meal from these ingredients, adding lots of salt and pepper for taste. Then, we’d sit around in the kitchen and eat, drink wine, and converse. Time seemed endless back then. There was no internet and television hardly seemed worth watching.

I learned to prepare a meal out of whatever ingredients I had on hand, allowing the ingredients to dictate what the meal would be rather than the other way around. Living under quarantine with possible food shortages looming ahead, I have now revived my culinary survival skills. 

I brought staples with me from Vilnius. I have sacks of buckwheat, rice, potatoes, and oatmeal. I have plenty of eggs, and of course, several bottles of cooking oil, because as my friend Jūratė’s 87-year-old mother pointed out to me, without cooking oil you can’t cook anything. These are foods that do not spoil quickly and, providing you have the right spices on hand, these ingredients can be transformed into a number of tasty dishes.

My kitchen here in Amber Bay is really more of a camp kitchen than a proper kitchen. In other words, I don’t actually have a kitchen. I have a sink and I have a portable hot plate with one burner. I can only heat up one pot or pan of food at a time. That means that if I want to cook vegetables with rice, first I must boil the rice, set it aside, and then fry the vegetables. It’s important that I don’t forget to open the skylight in the dormer, which serves as my stove vent, to let out the smoke and steam from my cooking.

However, these conditions hardly inconvenience my ability to cook a tasty meal. I cook myself pancakes and omelets for breakfast. For lunch I cook stir fry or pan-fried fish purchased from the fisherman across the street. I make beet soup from shredded beets, simple vegetable soup from carrots, potatoes and whatever else is on hand, and chicken soup. If I feel like a treat, I’ll make myself a pan of yummy potato pancakes, adding a dollop of sour cream. Sometimes I eat salted herring out of a jar with a side of boiled potatoes. What I eat here is all typical East European fare – comfort food. But more importantly, its inexpensive local food that is fresh and fairly healthy as long as you know how to make it from scratch. My single burner hotplate serves that purpose just fine.

For years, raising my children, I cooked for my family of five on a simple student grade stove attached to a propane tank outside under my kitchen window. When traveling with my children, I’ve prepared our meals on a campfire. It’s important to have the right spices and not to overcook anything. Those are my two basic rules for cooking.

Cooking like this under quarantine conditions, I manage to overeat. It’s though I’m eating and eating all the time. Everything suddenly tastes so good, and especially good after a long brisk walk in the cold temperatures. Or is it psychological? Am I behaving like people during the years of the Black Plague in Europe, feasting, gorging myself while anticipating death? After all, who knows if we will be alive in a week’s time, so we might as well feast! There is a Lithuanian proverb that goes back to the age of the Black Death in Europe: Puota maro metu, a feast during a time of plague.

When my grandfather died in 2006, I inherited from him crates of whiskey from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. My grandfather, Ambassador Anicetas Simutis, together with Ambassador Stasys Lozoraitis, were diplomats in exile. They had served as foreign diplomats in interwar independent Lithuania and by chance were abroad in the West when the Soviet Russia occupied Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Fate made them into Cold War Anti-Soviet political dissidents. During the half century of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, my grandfather kept the Consulate General of Lithuania in New York operating. When Lithuania regained its independence in 1991, the newly elected Lithuanian government appointed my grandfather Lithuania’s first Ambassador to the United Nations. During the long years of the Cold War, together with diplomats from other occupied nations, and the Lithuanian-American community, he celebrated Lithuania’s prewar independence day every February 16th. On those memorials, my grandfather would serve his guests Scotch whiskey and gift bottles to dignitaries and diplomats representing countries sympathetic to Lithuania’s independence. Whatever bottles were left over, he would store out in his garden shed. Over the years, unopened bottles of whiskey accumulated. He never gave in to the temptation to taste any of the whiskey himself. That would have been sacrilege. The whiskey was only to be opened on Independence Day.

Or perhaps he was waiting for Lithuania’s independence to open the rest?

After my grandfather’s death, while cleaning out his house and organizing his papers, my mother and I found an entire shed filled with boxes of old Scotch whiskey. My brothers and sister and I split up the boxes and each took some home. I save my bottles and only open them on special occasions, like on Lithuanian independence, a birthday, anniversary, or other special event. This winter we opened and shared a bottle of my grandfather’s whiskey in his memory at a memorial for his 110th birthday held at the Consul General of Lithuania in New York. In Beijing, we opened a bottle on Independence Day and shared it with diplomats from the Lithuanian Embassy and other guests. We recently shared a bottle at the opening of my painting show at the Savickas Gallery in Vilnius, also the headquarters of European Parliamentarian, Petras Auštrevičius. Every time I open and share a bottle of my grandfather’s fifty-year old (or sometimes older) whiskey is an opportunity for me to remember him, and to tell others about my grandfather and about his dedication to Lithuanian independence.

When I came to Amber Bay, I brought with me one of my few remaining bottles of whiskey. I considered that I may need the whiskey as medicine. After all, in the American West, and during the Civil War, whiskey was used as medicine and as a disinfectant on wounds. Have you ever seen one of those old Spaghetti Westerns where the cowboy cleans out his fallen comrade’s gunshot wound with whiskey? Even during the American Prohibition in the 1920s whiskey could be legally imported into the United States and sold in pharmacies because it was used as a tonic.

I’m convinced that my 80 percent proof whiskey is helping me disinfect my body during the pandemic and is protecting me from illness. I have with me a bottle of 1962 Canadian Club whiskey. Living alone in quarantine, and while still recovering from the lingering effects of a flu that has dragged on for weeks, I allow myself one small luxury every evening. I make myself an Irish hot toddy. I pour a snort of whiskey into a glass, add a thick slice of lemon, slather in a generous spoonful of honey, add grated ginger, pour hot water, and let it steep. I sip my drink throughout the evening as I read or write in my quarantine diary.

Is this sacrilege? Perhaps? Or perhaps not. The hot whiskey soothes my sore throat and abates my cough. I am thankful for this healing gift from my grandfather.

Once I used my grandfather’s whiskey to heal a friend’s wound. Last year, when I was teaching in Beijing, my friend Neringa and her husband came to attend Design Week. I’d set up an acupuncture and massage session for Neringa with my Chinese medical doctor, Debbie, in the Lama Temple neighborhood. Neringa and I agreed that after her session, she’d take the metro to my neighborhood, which was a few stops away, and we would have dinner and she’d stay over, since her hotel was an hour and a half away by metro.

When I rode my bicycle over to pick up Neringa from my local metro stop, I found her seated on a folding chair outside the police booth holding a tissue up to her bleeding forehead. She told me that while climbing the steep metro stairs, her knee gave out and she tripped and fell, hitting her head on the steps, splicing open her forehead.

I immediately offered to take her in a taxi to the hospital, but Neringa had forgotten her passport in her hotel room. In China a hospital will not treat you without a passport. Neringa decided that the trip back to her hotel, and then to the hospital, would exhaust her after an already long day. Instead, we took a taxi back to my apartment, leaving my bicycle at the station. I had some tea tree oil, and I had a bottle of my grandfather’s 80 proof whiskey from the 1960s that I’d brought to China with me. Neringa washed her face with the tea tree oil and then sat on the couch, dabbing at her wound with the whiskey, while intermittently taking a shot. In the morning, she felt great, and the wound was healing nicely. There was no longer any need to go to the hospital. I saw Neringa a few weeks later when I traveled back to Lithuania over autumn break. I could not even tell that there had ever been a cut on her forehead. The whiskey treatment was so good that it didn’t even leave a scar.

Now I am healing myself with my grandfather’s whiskey. My grandfather’s whiskey is providing me with protection against Covid-19. The whiskey also helps me relax during the long dark evenings alone in quarantine. But most of all, my grandfather’s whiskey gives me the opportunity to remember him after missing him all these years. 

 

April 5, 2020
On My Feminist Upbringing...

When I was a little girl, my Lithuanian father would drive me crazy by saying in Lithuanian: “I have four children and two girls.”

“No,” I’d correct him, thinking in English, but speaking in Lithuanian, “you have six children.”

“No,” he’d insist stubbornly, “I only have four children.”

The noun for child, “vaikas” in Lithuanian is in the masculine; therefore, according to my father’s logic, only his sons counted as his children and not his daughters.

My father’s linguistic game hurt me deeply. It felt as though my sister and I were excluded, as though we were not his children. Also, if my sister and I could not be children, then how would we ever grow up to be adults?

After living in Lithuania for many years, a linguist explained to me that in the regional dialect that my father spoke it was actually true that the word for “child” was the same as the word for “boy” and therefore indicated that a child was by default male.

Did that mean that the culture of discounting girls in the family was linguistically built into the Lithuanian language? Because I’ve since learned that the same concept holds true for the lowland and highland dialects, as well as my father’s dialect. Were girls always considered outsiders in their own families? And if so, who did they then belong to? My father had brought this concept on gender with him to America from a faraway foreign land and I resented his antiquated way of thinking inflicted upon my American childhood. 

My sister and I grew up in a New Jersey suburb just outside New York City in the seventies and eighties at the height of the Women’s Rights era. At the time, this social movement was known as “Women’s Lib.” In our childhood, our school, all the social organizations around us, the news, the media, the entertainment industry was all oriented towards embodying feminist ideals and a new vision for women in the future. We girls were to be the first generation to grow up under a feminist ideology. One of our favorite sitcoms was the popular TV show, Laverne and Shirley. This sitcom was about two young women who rent an apartment in the city, get jobs in a factory, and seek to build a life where they can express their identity and embody the new vision of what it meant to be a single, independent, self-sufficient woman. The seventies were the first time in American society when it was possible for women to live on their own and support themselves without social stigma. I remember my mother telling me about how when she was an art student in the 1950s, she and a girlfriend tried to rent an apartment together in New York, Queens, or Brooklyn. One landlord after another refused to rent to them. Her natural need for independence was dictated by societal norms at the time, leading to an early marriage and obedience to her husband. Lavern and Shirley, and other sitcoms, like Three’s Company, showed us girls a newly emerging reality for women, one that my generation could embrace.

Daddy, Daddy, won’t you please give me a male-chauvinist piggy-back ride was a popular joke from those times.

When I was six and my sister was four, we used to play with two Italian American boys, our neighbors, Peter and Marco Del Toro. Their parents were immigrants and spoke with lilting Italian accents. Mr. Del Toro was a university professor in the City (for New Yorkers the only city is New York City, and hence the City) and Mrs. Del Toro was an elementary school teacher. Peter and Marco’s parents spoke with them as though they were little adults, according to the new pedagogical approaches towards child-rearing. They also were very affectionate with their sons and hugged and kissed them and praised them to the horror of my father, who as a cold northern European not only never showed affection to his children but cringed in disgust every time Mr. and Mrs. Del Toro kissed and hugged their sons and praised them for their slightest accomplishments.

One day Peter came running into our yard to tell us about the latest news.

“My Dad told me that scientists have discovered a new operation,” Peter explained breathlessly, “Now doctors can turn a girl into a boy and a boy into a girl. It’s called a ‘sex change operation.’”

“Really?!” My sister was thrilled. “I want that operation!”

I thought about this shocking news Peter had brought us. A sex change operation meant that I could become a “child” just like my four brothers. But then I considered that it would mean cutting off my long blond hair, giving up playing with the dolls my mother sewed for me, and no longer wearing my mother’s beautifully embroidered homemade dresses. No, being a boy would be boring.

“I don’t care,” I said to Peter. “I’d rather be a girl anyway.”

That same summer Peter came running over to our yard to tell us about a new game he’d invented. As children of the seventies that is how we spent our time when we were not in school—either out in the yard making up games and playing them with the neighborhood kids or watching Bugs Bunny and other cartoons after school or on Saturdays.

Peter said excitedly. “I saw a TV show with my dad about man-eating piranha fish. They have real teeth, and they chew up people. We’re gonna play a game called “man-eating piranha fish.”

“What are the rules?” I asked.

“We all run around the yard like little fish. The grass is the water, and the back stairs are dry land. When I yell, ‘man-eating piranha fish!’ we pretend that the killer fish are coming, and we all run up onto the stairs to escape them.”

“Wait a minute,” I said indignantly, stomping my foot for emphasis, “I can’t play this game!”

“Why not?” Peter asked, disappointed.

“Because I’m not a “man.” I’m a “wo-man.”

“Don’t you get that “man” means both men and women?” Peter said, perplexed.

“No! I’m not playing!” I insisted stubbornly.

I suppose I had my opinions even as a little girl.

Often our childish games ended in squabbles between Peter and me. We both wanted to be the leaders of our gang of neighborhood kids. I had a secret weapon, though, my elder brother, Vilius. He always took my side in any argument with Peter and made sure I got my way. He would set up painting contests and appoint himself the judge, and I’d always win.

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was always a strong student. When we had to take yearly standardized tests, I was always in the top percentile for mathematics and reading. I had no problem in math class. That is, until I reached the eighth grade.

In eighth grade a new young and dynamic math teacher came to teach at our school. We all loved Miss Buxbaum with her stylish outfits, long hair pulled into a bun, witty comments, and pleasant smile.

Miss Buxbaum constantly repeated throughout Math class: “Girls have a hard time with math. Girls can’t do math because they lack strong spatial visual skills.”

Probably, she was quoting research from some study to us, but after a while I began to believe her. Suddenly, I could no longer do math! I fell behind with one concept, and then another, and all the way through university I never quite regained my confidence in solving mathematical problems. I would just look at a math problem and mist would fog over my mind. I felt lost. At Rutgers, after I twice failed the required math class in my senior year, the Dean insisted that I speak with a counsellor. I was diagnosed with “math anxiety.”

When I was a young teenager in the early 1980s, a popular ad for the perfume, Enjoli, played frequently on television and became the unofficial feminist national anthem of my generation. This ad was a major influence on my own psyche as I began to form in my mind the type of woman I wanted to be. In the ad a beautifully coiffed woman with a great body, dressed in a sexy dress, and then in a business suit, dances around holding a frying pan in her hands singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you’re a man, because I’m a wo-man!”

The woman in this ad embodied the vision in that moment in America of who a woman should be: A career woman who “brought home the bacon,” and then an adept housewife who “fried it up in the pan” and who read “tickity tock” to the children, and then a sexy woman in bed “who never ever let you forget you’re a man…” Nobody ever told my generation of young women, the first generation raised as emancipated women, how difficult it would be to be all three of those things at once: A career woman, a mother, and a wife. Nobody ever told us that we would work hard to try to be all those things in that ad and that in a decade or so we would burn out, go through divorce, find that it is not really all that easy to manage being a good mother with a career and a husband who always expected you to “never let him forget he’s a man.”

By the time I was thirty, I had earned my graduate degree from Columbia, was teaching as an Assistant English professor, had earned a Fulbright, had bought my own house with my own hard-earned money, had a husband and two boys, and a daughter on the way. I’d married young, had children young, and all the time that I was not working in my career as a writer, translator, and university professor, I dedicated to my children and family. I kept a perfect house and cooked all our meals at home. I could do it all, because, after all, I’m a wo-man!

After years of this, I was exhausted from being a wo-man!

Although my parents did not attend the Catholic Church when I was growing up, I did. We lived in an Italian American town and Church was important. Although I attended public school, on Tuesdays after school, like almost all the children in our town, I attended religious instruction over at the Catholic School. In the summers, our family (like many of the Lithuanian war refugee families) would spend our vacation at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. For two weeks in the summer, I’d attend the Lithuanian Catholic Girls’ Camp Neringa in Brattleboro, Vermont. On Sundays, mass would be held out in a pretty birch forest that the nuns called, “The Holy Shrine of Birches.”

One Sunday when I was around nine, I was listening to the priest’s homily about Saint Casimir. The priest was explaining that Saint Casimir was holy because he “avoided the company of women.”

“What????” my mind shouted, bringing me out of my pleasant daze, “what was wrong with women?”

The beauty of the birch forest, the Vermont sun rays sparkling off the twinkling leaves, had lulled me into a stupor, but now I was wide awake.

The priest continued his homily talking about how women were temptresses to be avoided and that all sin started with Eve, whose disobedience got her and Adam thrown out of paradise. The older priest, a Lithuanian war refugee himself, continued talking about how the source of evil in the world was women, and how that is all confirmed in the Bible. And this was his homily to a group of nuns, female camp counsellors, and little girls?

“How dare he talk about us like that?” I raged inside. I felt as though I was about to explode with anger. My girlfriends at camp were all such loving little girls, and the counsellors and the nuns were all women, and they were kind, and then there were our mothers and grandmothers. I wanted to stand up and demonstratively stomp out of the “Holy Shrine of Birches.”

But I’d been raised to be a quiet nice little girl. So, I sat patiently listening to the mass with my hands folded across my lap and my chin tilted upwards in rapt attention. I shot a quick glance at the girls seated on either side of me. I wondered what they were thinking. They appeared to be lost in a daydream. Probably, they were not even listening.

A few decades later, as the mother of three children, when my marriage was coming apart and I did not feel safe nor happy in my home, I’d go to the Catholic Church on Sundays and pray to God to save my marriage, to bring peace to my home, to change my husband.

But God didn’t listen to my prayers.

For years I was angry with God. I would not step foot in the Catholic Church. But then eventually it dawned on me: God didn’t grant me my prayers, because God wanted me to find the strength to save myself.

It took me time to let go of the belief that I’d learned years ago: Women are meant to suffer in marriage for the sake of the children.

My Chinese friend Lijia told me that she only learned to feel empathy for other women after her wonderful husband, who’d been the love of her life, left her for a younger woman. Chinese culture is very traditional and at the time when she lived through her divorce, it was highly unusual for a Chinese woman to end up as a single mother on her own. In any culture, even the most liberal and empathetic, after divorce a woman with children ends up on the edge of society, in a sort of self-imposed exile, often riddled with guilt and awash with a sense of failure. But freedom may be found in that exile.

This has been my road as a product of the feminist era. I’ve learned many bitter lessons that I would not wish on anyone. I still disagree with my father. Girls have the right to be children.

During this quarantine I’ve watched how the young women in my building have coped with balancing working online with their children’s online learning while managing all the uncertainties of the future. For me, one of the saddest sights (although I know it is nothing compared with the images of freezer trucks filled with bodies or stacks of coffins in Italian churches) are the empty playgrounds taped up with caution tape just in case any child dare try to play. Other women friends are caring for elderly and infirm parents under quarantine conditions. Everything seems to fall on women’s shoulders in Lithuania. One of my friends is caring for her 90-year-old father-in-law with dementia, managing her two young rebellious teens’ online schooling, babysitting two toddler grandchildren, and buffering the complaints of a husband absorbed in his own work, all at the same time, and while living together in a three-room cramped apartment. If she can get out for a few minutes to walk in a circle around her building, then it’s a good day.

When I weigh all the challenges of this pandemic, I think to myself: Women do have immunity against man-eating piranha fish…

 

April 14, 2020
On My Inner Child…

I’ve been in quarantine about a month now and I feel as though I’m reverting to who I was as a child, that is, to my real me. I am once again that quiet child who likes to draw, write stories, wander the forest, converse with God… That child had to disappear so that I could grow up to become a responsible woman, mother, teacher. That child had to go away, so that I could take care of the wellbeing of others, so that I could become a responsible contributing member of society, moderately informed, at least enough to live in a democracy and vote.

Most of us kill off our inner child as we progress along life’s path. But now, my long-haired, lean, playful little Laima has returned to me. Together with her I go out for walks in the forest. Together with her I draw, I paint, I teach her new things. I calm her. I listen to her. I comfort her. For many, many years she had gone away somewhere far off, where I could not reach her. I could not hear her voice, even when she shouted: Protect me! Or when she said: Please don’t leave me.

To be a child again is a challenge. What will others think of me? How will I look? My inner censor holds me back just as my inner child gets the notion to show herself. She’s always there now, somewhere where she should not be. Yet, this pandemic, the threat of catching coronavirus, the knowing that most likely every single one of us will get sick in the end, and not all of us will recover, seems to have released all our inner children. They scream at the top of their lungs, they screech, they cry, they moan and complain, they punch the walls with their fists, they kick, but they also scamper joyfully, and they love us.

But are we able to love them? Embrace them? Just be with them for a while?

Do nothing…

Can we tell our inner children the truth? The truth about ourselves?

If we want our inner child to trust us, then we must speak the truth. Often, the truth separates us from others. Even while writing this diary, trying so hard to speak my truth, I am still afraid of being entirely open.

I think about if there are people out there reading my words are wondering whether I’ve lost my mind?

Has all this isolation finally driven me mad?

Oh, are we all running the risk of finally removing our masks, and I don’t mean our medical masks.

This time is given us to take off our social masks and simply be who we are, which is just human.

And to be human is to live peacefully, consistently, in harmony with fate, with nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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