January 17, 2011

My Sheltering Chair

Posted in Books, Children, Family, Home, Weather tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:49 am by Liliana

My Reading Chair

My Sheltering Chair

All around the world, people have been assaulted with extreme weather. Snowstorms on the East Coast, ice storms in the South. Intense cold in Europe, terrible floods in Australia and Brazil. Warming temperatures in Antarctica.

We, here in Michigan, have been dealing with darkness, low temperatures, snow and ice. Driving on dark, snowy, ice-patchy  highway every morning has been taking its toll on my nerves.

In this kind of weather the large, cozy, green chair in my living room is my favorite place in the world. Sitting in the confines of this sheltering chair is like being embraced by my grandfather.

We bought the chair years ago, when the kids were little and it has withstood years of use and abuse. One arm has been noticeably bent since Mike, Sasha and Sam wrestled on it and caused a bit of damage to the frame. The silky velor fabric has thinned out in most used places. The back pillow has lost some of its feathers.

Still, the chair is as soft, warm and comfortable as a beloved old robe. It sits in front of a shelf of books that covers one wall of our living room. Books that various family members have accumulated over many years line the shelves. Jeff’s college editions of Plato and Nietzsche are there. Mike’s South American history and travel books. My childhood paperback copies of Mark Twain and a hardcover collection of Pushkin. Nena has lately been buying books for the beauty of their covers so we have some unusual editions of Emily Dickinson, John Cheever and Dostoevsky.

In front of the books are many framed pictures. There is one of Mike as a young boy carrying baby Sam on his back. Sam is dressed in a clown costume. There is one of five year old Nicky and her uncle Jeff, the niece lovingly holding her head on her uncle’s shoulder. From a light wooden frame, six year old Nena is grinning while swinging a baseball bat. She is wearing an official team t-shirt and ruffled polka-dot shorts. Sasha and his mother are smiling from a graduation photo. My mother is dreamily gazing into the distance as a sixteen year old girl in an old black and white photograph.

When I sit in that chair with a cup of coffee in my hand, I feel I can face the day. The shelf behind me, and the memories it holds, gives me energy and the courage to forge ahead into the darkness of the cold morning.



November 1, 2010

The Comfort of Tolstoy

Posted in Books, Family, Health, Women tagged , , , , , , , , at 6:49 am by Liliana

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

I am not sure when I read my first book by Tolstoy, but I know this – he was in my life long before I was born.

Tolstoy was my mother’s favorite writer.

We had old, worn out, hard cover copies of his books sitting on our bookshelf. I don’t know where they came from, maybe my mother’s schoolgirl days.

Each book was divided into a number of volumes. The books were bound in soft, stained red leather. The paper inside was fleecy white and had a distinctive dusty, book-y smell.

The feel and the smell of those books has been imprinted on my consciousness forever.

And the characters and the stories? They live with me every day.

I named my daughter Natalia (nicknamed Nena) after Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. Sam’s middle name is Leo (Tolstoy’s first name.)

Both my mother and I reread all of Tolstoy’s books many times during our lives. We talked about them again and again. We changed our minds about different characters and interpreted events and relationships in contrasting ways. Tolstoy gave us the vocabulary to discuss themes and subjects that we might not have had the courage to discuss otherwise.

As my mother grew sicker from Alzheimer’s Disease, she grew fearful and suspicious of the world around her and all its inhabitants. She slept less and less. Nothing seemed to follow the rules of behavior that her reshaping mind dictated.

Except for Tolstoy.

In the last year of her life she could not read. She hardly slept. She did not know who any of us were. She had lost most of her connections to the outside world.

But many nights, Jeff and I found her lying on the living room sofa tightly holding on to one of the volumes of the soft, worn out copy of War and Peace. She pretended to read.

Sometimes she held the book upside down.

When none of us could bring her comfort, Tolstoy did. Not with direct words anymore, but with the deeply ingrained memories and shadows of the world he created. Of the girl and woman that she once was. It was the one stable, unmoving constant in a life rapidly degenerating out of control.

My mother held on to that book until she died.

August 4, 2010

A Long Holiday

Posted in Books, Family tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 9:56 am by Liliana

A perfect escape

A perfect escape

I haven’t been able to take a relaxing vacation this summer.

Our family has a lot going on.

We celebrated three graduations  (one high school and two college); people moving out of and people moving into our house;  lots of visitors; children preparing for law school, college and jobs; people starting graduate school.

It has not been a lazy summer, but eventful and overflowing with new and transitional events.

I needed to escape.

And I have, with an intriguing book. For the last few weeks, I have been reading The Passage, by Justin Cronin.

It is a frightening account of a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world – part social commentary, part science fiction. It is not the kind of book I usually like to read.

But for this summer, it is perfect.

A serious and accomplished writer, Cronin has weaved an engrossing plot with engaging characters and elegant prose.

This first book of a trilogy is over 700 pages long.

A perfect escape. A long holiday.

July 16, 2010

Back to School

Posted in Books, Career, Children, Family, Good people, Home tagged , , , , , at 6:47 am by Liliana

Joe and Sasha (at Sasha's graduation)

Joe and Sasha (at Sasha's graduation)

At forty nine, my brother-in-law Joe is back in graduate school. This summer has been very intense for him. Classes every day, from morning until late afternoon. Tons of reading. Several papers a week.

It’s funny (and a bit alarming) to see him acquiring the behaviors of a typical college student. He is full of energy, ideas and new information. He doesn’t have time in the evenings for much besides studying. He stays up late almost every night.

I woke up around 1 AM last night and noticed that the light in the study was still on. When I opened the door, Joe blinked at me sleepily. In the midst of writing a long research paper, he was lost in thought and educational theories.

“Almost done?” I asked.

“Three pages to go on this one. And then I need to write another one.” He answered.

Well, I went back to sleep, but Joe staid up and wrote and wrote.

The kids, worried about him, checked on Joe several times. Mike, Sam and Nicky repeatedly came to see if there was something they could do to help. There wasn’t.

Still, in one way, Joe is totally unlike a typical college student. When I came down this morning at 6:30 am, to get ready for work, he was up already. Joe was writing in his journal, having a cup of coffee, and about to take Kaya on their early morning walk.

“How many hours of sleep did you get?”

“Maybe three, “ Joe answered. He was tired, but in a good mood. He didn’t even think of disappointing his dog. But as the two of them left for their walk, he got back into the mode of a student again.

He left his paper for me to read and edit. It was excellent!

June 10, 2010

Mark Twain and I

Posted in Books, Travel tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:19 am by Liliana

Mark Twain and I

Mark Twain and I

From my earliest childhood, I loved to read. My favorite memories are of sitting in some dark, snug corner, straining my eyes, losing myself in a reality very different from my own. Any book, comic, pamphlet, magazine – anything with words or pictures (or both) – was fair game.

I don’t know how old I was when I first discovered Mark Twain. It was love at first sight. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn became my favorite people in the entire world. I loved the mischief, the humor, the danger, the exotic atmosphere of the land that I knew nothing about. I loved the English names of the people and curious words like Mississippi and Missouri. I loved the sense of adventure.

Years passed. My parents, sister and I traveled to the US and I went to college in New York City. I moved on to other writers and other worlds. I hardly thought of Mark Twin in those days.

But during my senior year of college, while deciding where to go to graduate school, a professor suggested St. Louis, Missouri. And that word, Missouri, brought with it a flood of memory. I applied, was accepted and got a scholarship. All the stars were aligned just right for me to travel westward, and I decided to get my degree there and then move back to Yugoslavia.

The first month in St. Louis I met a young man named Jeff.  We went to movies, theater and poetry readings. We talked about philosophy and argued about Nietzsche and Heidegger for hours.

But the way he won my heart was by suggesting, on a whim of a moment, in a middle of an ordinary school day, that I miss my Milton class and that we drive the couple of hours to Hannibal, Missouri. This is the town where Mark Twain lived as a boy and where he set two of his most famous books.

Jeff had a very old, ugly and beat up yellow car that he called – the frog. We drove the frog down the banks of the Mississippi and I looked out in wonder. Here I was and this world was real. Mississippi. We walked all over the small town of Hannibal and it seemed frozen in time. It was touristy, and tacky, but I loved it. The old houses were small, the rooms miniature and childlike – fitting for memories of a young girl. We ate fried trout at the Becky Thatcher diner. We had ice cream in the Tom Sawyer ice cream parlor.

I never made it back to Yugoslavia.

May 31, 2010

Learning by Heart

Posted in Books, Children, Family, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , , , , , at 7:30 am by Liliana

Battle of Kosovo

The Battle of Kosovo

I grew up in a family of storytellers, but the best storyteller by far was my grandfather, Nikola. A shy and tender man, always a perfect gentleman, he entertained his grandchildren with stories and wondrous recitals of Serbian epic poetry. Every story and poem he told us was from memory. I never saw him read a book but I know that my love of books and literature descend directly from the creative mind of this gentle man.

My earliest memories are of us (a number of very young grandchildren) begging our grandfather to tell us a fable or recite a poem about the heroic battles of the glorious Serbs fighting the Ottoman Turks. My grandfather loved children and even when he was extremely busy with the work of running a farm and taking care of his land, I never remember him refusing our requests.

Grandfather made a magical game out of every experience. On the spacious veranda of his old house, he would set little stools in a circle for us to sit on, settle in the middle of our group and start a poem. Transported in a second, we left the village on the wings of my grandfather’s rhymes and floated to the heroic adventures of Serbian medieval warriors.

Knights, ladies, silk gowns, gold, honor, swords, betrayal, vengeance, family, friendship, pride, love, death, Serbian valor, Turkish valor, history, Kosovo – those are the topics that fired our young imaginations. Told from memory, in predictable and well ordered rhyme, we knew all those poems by heart ourselves without even noticing that we have learned them.

They are still with me. They never left.

The Banquet on the Eve of the Battle
(a fragment)

Prince Lazar his patron saint doth honour

On the fair and pleasant field Kossovo,

With his lords is seated round the table

With his lords and with his youthful nobles

On his left the Jug Bogdan is seated,

And with him nine Jugovitch, nine brothers;

On his right Vuk Brankovitch is seated,

And the other lords in their due order;

Facing him is Milosh, that great warrior,

And with him two other Serbian leaders

Kossanchitch, and young Toplitza Milan.

Tsar Lazar lifts high the golden goblet,

Thus he speaks unto his Serbian nobles:

“Unto whom shall this my cup be emptied?

If it be old age that I should honour

Then, oh Jug Bogdan, I must now pledge you;

If it be high rank that I should honour

Then Vuk Brankovitch, I must now pledge you;

If the voice of feeling I should follow

To the Tsaritsa’s nine well-lov’d brothers

To the Jugovitch, my toast is owing;

If it beauty be that I should honour

Ivan Kossanchitch, I must now pledge you;

If heroic looks I now should honour

Then Toplitza Milan, I must pledge you;

If heroic deeds are to be toasted

I must drink to that great warrior Milosh,

I can surely pledge no other hero.

Milosh Obilitch, I drink to thee now,

To thy health, oh Milosh, friend and traitor!

Friend at first, but at the last a traitor.

When the battle rages fierce to-morrow

Thou wilt then betray me on Kossovo,

And wilt join the Turkish Sultan, Murad!

Drink with me, and pledge me deep, oh Milosh,

Drain the cup; I give it thee in token!”

To his feet leaps Milosh, that great warrior,

To the black earth bows himself, and answers:

“Tsar Lazar, for this thy toast I thank thee,

Thank thee for the toast and for the goblet,

But for those thy words I do not thank thee.

For—else may the truth be my undoing—

Never, Tsar Lazar, was I unfaithful,

Never have I been, and never will be.

And to-morrow I go to Kossovo

For the Christian faith to fight and perish.

At thy very knees there sits the traitor,

Covered by thy robes he drains the wine-cup,

’Tis Vuk Brankovitch, th’ accurséd traitor!

And when dawns the pleasant day to-morrow

We shall see upon the field, Kossovo,

Who to thee is faithful, and who faithless.

And I call Almighty God to witness

I will go to-morrow to Kossovo,

I will slay the Turkish Sultan, Murad,

And I’ll plant my foot upon his false throat;

And if God and fortune so befriend me,

I will take Vuk Brankovitch then captive,

Bind him to my battle-lance! Yea, tie him

As a woman ties hemp to her distaff,

And I’ll drag him with me to Kossovo.”

This is a fragment of a famous epic poem about the “Last Supper” set on eve of the battle of Kosovo. The translation does not do it justice, but it is the best I could find.

Source: Serbian Epic Poetry

March 20, 2010

My Little Reader

Posted in Books, Children, Family tagged , , , , , at 7:12 am by Liliana

Nena - my little reader

Nena - my little reader

When my children were young, we had a little, green, two-shelf bookcase in our family room. It was low enough for the kids to to reach anything they wanted to take, and it was full of colorful picture books. All three of my children love books. But while Mike and Sam love to read in order to acquire new information, for Nena books and stories are an end in themselves. Long before she could read, the pictures, letters and sounds of words themselves captured her imagination.

As a toddler, Nena would come down from her room early in the mornings, and the first thing she did was pad over to the little green bookcase. She would take out as many books as she could, make a little mound and sit on top of it. Then, comfortable and happy, she would pull books out from under her bottom, one at the time. She would look at pictures, and tell or sing to herself what she believed to be the story. If she wanted more information, she would bring it to her dad or to me, settle herself in our laps and patiently listen while we read. Nena could sit like this for hours.

Nena hasn’t changed her attitude towards books over the years. Books are her portal to a world that few of us can see or imagine. She is twenty one years old now, and about to graduate from college. Frequently, when she comes home to visit, I will find her in her room. All around her, there will be piles of books and she will sit in the middle of them, that dreamy, faraway look still in her eyes.

March 9, 2010

Learning to Remember

Posted in Books, Children, Family, Serbia, Traditions tagged , , , at 8:02 am by Liliana

How to Remember

Learning to Remember

When I was a young girl, my grandmother helped me learn ways to memorize my school lessons. Memory was a large part of an European education. Memorizing pages of poetry, Shakespeare, history lessons, multiplication tables, Russian or English vocabulary – was all routine part of our school day. I was always reading something out loud and trying to chisel it deeply into my brain.

I would sit at our kitchen table, my grandmother across from me, and read my lesson out loud. When I was finished, she would ask me to summarize what I had just read. I would explain the plot to her in my own words. On evenings prior to tests (oral or written) my grandma would remind me to read my assignment before I went to bed. And then, as the last step in this process, I would place the book under my pillow and sleep on it. My grandmother said, and I earnestly believed it, that all the knowledge from my book would flow into my head as I slept. Frequently, I dreamed about Napoleon or the Russian revolution. And in the morning, it was magical! I would really know the information, and remember the minutest details of my lesson.

Recently I read that scientists have discovered that repetition, reading out loud, summarizing the plot and consciously placing the physical book under one’s pillow, all help in retaining long term memory. The very act of believing that you will remember something, helps your brain remember it. My baba knew what she was doing!

Through the long years of elementary school, high school, college and graduate school, I never varied my learning regimen. I studied for my lessons by concentrating, reading the information out loud, summarizing it to myself, and always, ALWAYS, sleeping with the book under my pillow. As the books got bigger and fatter, it was no easy task. But I believed in it so earnestly, that I was willing to suffer the consequences. A little pain in the neck was well worth the price.

January 31, 2010

A day alone

Posted in Books tagged , , , at 8:17 am by Liliana

A day alone

A day alone

I like solitude. Not for terribly long periods of time, but every once in a while, I find it necessary to regain my strength by spending a day alone. This has not been an easy month – not for the world, nor for my family. Tragedy in Haiti, economic depression, political stand-off, friends and family members who are losing their jobs, or have been unemployed for long periods of time. And then the relentless bitter cold of a Michigan winter.

I drove through the snow to our cottage on Lake Michigan. Our neighbors had turned on the heat, so I entered a warm, snug house. I unpacked and lay down on a couch to relax a bit. I fell asleep. When I awoke, I felt happy and refreshed. I made some lunch – a simple omelet with toasted rye bread. We had blueberry jam in the refrigerator, and eating it brought thoughts of summer. Then I sat down to read. I was reading two very different books: Julian Barnes’s “Nothing To Be Afraid Of,” on facing mortality and one’s fear of death, and John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” about climbing Mount Everest. One to face life, the other to escape it.

By late afternoon, I had to go for a walk despite the fact that it was freezing cold. I put on two sweaters and a fleece under my jacket, a warm woolen hat, a scarf and gloves. My neighbor, Lisa, had lent me her boots to use, since I had forgotten mine. I was ready for an outing so I walked down to the lake. Very few people were around, and the lake was one cold and frozen mass of jagged ice.

Once I got back home, I sat down to work on Nancy’s quilt. The house, and the town beyond it, were blissfully quiet. I didn’t turn on the music or any other distraction. I sat in the glow of soft light, concentrating on one stitch after another, not thinking about anything in particular, letting my mind and emotions run free. People I hadn’t thought of for awhile came and went, like gentle callers on a winter evening.

I got hungry, but was too lazy to cook. Looking in the refrigerator, I found some yogurt and fresh berries. It seemed like the perfect dinner. Then I had a slice of peach pie and a cup of tea. My books were calling me again. Which one to read? I closed my eyes and picked one at random. I settled in my bed, and quickly escaped to Mount Everest. I read and read and sometime before the climbers reached the middle of the mountain I was already asleep.