anghara: (Dunavska)
I was born into a secular world - when I was a little child in the Yugoslavia-that-was, we didn't do Christmas (and even if we did it wouldn't come on December 25, it comes on January 7, because the Orthodox church still uses the old calendar for matters eccleisiastical). What we did... was New Year's Eve.

It was the only night of the year that I might be allowed to stay up until midnight. MIGHT. There was magic in that alone - the deep night, which was a stranger to me, and every passing moment made it deeper and stranger and more magical.

The tree wasn't a Christmas tree, it was a New Year's Fir, and it was decorated by those classic glass ornaments that you only see in vintage catalogues these days. And chains of tinsel. If we had lights, they were real candles - yes, that was a more innocent time - I remember tiny candleholders that pinched onto the ends of the evergreen branches, and although I cannot in all honesty tell you now that I remember clearly a tree that was aglow with these candles I can also guarantee you that if it did happen there was nobody standing by wringing their hands and holding the household fire extinguisher. (There WAS no household fire extinguisher. Such things were unheard of.)

The tree had presents underneath it, brought by Grandfather Frost. He looked an awful lot like Santa Claus except that there was no pretence that he was anything saintly, just a jolly old gent from the North Pole or some such place with a fluffy white beard and a red coat. If there was any mention of reindeer, I don't remember it - I certainly don't recall having heard of Donner, Blitzen, Vixen and company (and certainly not Rudolph) until I crossed through the veil and emerged into the Western Christmasland on the other side. I don't think I gave it much thought - at the very least I can't tell you exactly what I believed - but Santa/Grandpa Frost didn't arrive via chimney. I was a kid of the apartment block. The apartment I best remember was three rooms on the first floor of a small residential building on a tree-lined street; before that, we had lived on the tenth floor of a concrete skyscraper. My grandparents lived in an older house which was heated by something called "kaljeva pec", which was a wood and coal burning free-standing in-room furnace faced with ceramic tiles which gave wonderful warmth - but the burning part was accessed by a small iron gate at the foot of the furnace. I didn't know what a chimney WAS, open fireplaces were not the norm anywhere, and if Grandpa Frost attempted ingress through the furnace he would have had his work cut out for him, indeed. So my childhood beliefs were far more nebulous than a Western kid's might have been. Grandpa Frost just... arrived, on New Year's Eve, and the packages were there under the tree.

I cannot for the life of me remember any of my childhood presents. I know I had lots of lovely dolls - not Barbies, real dolls, the kind that are a foot or two feet tall, with real hair and eyes that closed (I wish I knew what became of those, eventually - I'd like to think some other kid found joy in them somewhere along the line...) but I remember a present we once conspired to give my grandfather. Yes, THAT grandfather. The poet. The lover of language in all its shapes and forms. We bought him a large lavish volume on grammar - only he would have found something to love in that, but hey, we knew that, so that's why we got it - but we then put the book inside a conveniently sized box that had once held chocolates before we wrapped it up for him. (Digression - chocolate boxes - does anyone actually remember chocolate boxes? The ones with pretty pictures on the lid, made of hard heavy cardboard, with chocolates nestled inside in individual rustly paper cups... and wrapped in foil, which I as a kid used to take off carefully, smooth it out on a hard surface with a fingernail, and lay the bright shiny things away between the pages of books - I still have one fall out of some old book sometimes, forgotten there these twenty years or more...) When we handed Grandpa his present, he unwrapped it and found... the chocolate box. Now he had a sweet tooth, don't let's dismiss that, so as far as presents go he knew he would have got something out of it - but the appreciation on his face was muted, adequate, shall we say, for receiving a box of chocolates. He was pleased, but no more than that. And then we all said, "Open it! Open it!" and he probably thought we wanted to plunder his prize - but he good-naturedly complied... and then his face lit up, for real, when he lifted the flowery chocolate box lid and saw the book nestled within. I still remember that luminous smile as he looked up from his treasure. I think that was the moment I learned how to love giving the perfect gift - I have been chasing that smile through the years, on the faces of family and of friends, a sign that I had thought about who and what that person was and that I had chosen something that would not give just pleasure, that would give *joy*.

The deep dark December days were usually snowy, and frost would put a hard glitter on the snow which twinkled under 19th-century streetlights as I walked down the wide avenue downtown where the tables were set out selling new year's cards and tinsel decorations for trees. The snow crunched underfoot and my breath misted out in front of me, my hand in the hand of a grandparent or a parent, dancing along on the snow, mittened, a woollen hat stuffed down across my ears, feet in small sturdy boots, looking up at the glow of the streetlights, at the smiles of the passers-by, at the sky that was either low and luminously gray and heavy with snow still to come or full of sharp twinkling winter stars.

And soon, soon, that midnight hour would come, and the clocks would chime twelve... and the magic would happen, and the year would change. SOmehow, I didn't know how, but somehow things were different the next morning. The world had taken a breath, held it at midnight, and on the morning after it exhaled, and started thinking again of the tomorrows that were coming. New plans, new duties, new everything crowded in. It was tradition to wear something new on New Year's Day morning, just to symbolise the new beginning. Come a few weeks or a few months, everyone's birthday would roll around again, and we'd all be a year older - but we already WERE a year older, magically, on New Year's Day morning because the clocks had chimed, and the midnight hour had struck, and the world had changed yet again, turned underneath us. And we continued. It was a magic spell, a charm, we had to do the right things and say the right things and look up at the right star or it would all vanish at midnight and we would be no more than a fading dream.

Perhaps that was why I found it so hard - so impossible - to live with the Southern Hemisphere where I spent half my life. I grew to know and love that sky, too - the Southern Cross is still the only constellation I can identify without an instant's hesitation - but it was just so WRONG to have this magical moment, this midnight hour, fall at high summer, and the new year celebrations and parties being thrown on beaches and around barbeques with people wearing swimming costumes and flip flops. It was wrong. WRONG. There should be frosty snow, and misting breath, and a child's high happy laugh on a winter night under winter skies.

I remember those years.

I remember the light of my grandfather's smile.

I remember waking up and feeling all new, all different, older, greater, more full to the brim of brand new thoughts and passions and ambitions.

New Year's Eve still makes me tingle inside with the memory of those things.

My bedtime has long since been my own to set and midnight has lost its enchantment - I suppose I could have expected that, everything that becomes freely accessible and without restrictions inevitably becomes workaday and humdrum and mundane eventually. I've been awake many a midnight since I was a small child waiting breathlessly for the year and the world to change around me. But it's still there on THIS night of all nights - although I know that I can stay up until midnight, or two AM, or four AM, any time I choose I am a child again on New Year's Eve, awaiting midnight, knowing that somehow somewhere the whole world is doing it with me as the seconds tick away.

And they come at midnight, the ghosts. The ones I have loved, and lost. And even though I am no longer a child, the dark winter night is still lit up with me with the glowing joy in my grandfather's smile. I still wish them Happy New Year, my loved and vanished dead. They live within me, within my memory.

The world has turned yet again. We are in 2009, a year that looks like it belongs in science fiction stories and not my everyday reality. But here it is, and here I am, and we are going forward together, the new year and I... and my ghosts.

May it be good for you all, this new year, whose first day I tore off the calendar today. May it bring you joys and memories. See you again the next time the world turns older.
anghara: (Default)
Well, no. I'm not Karen Blixen.

But every now and then the nostalgia bites, oh, how it bites...

We just got done watching the pilot for a new TV show called "Life is Wild". It's... kind of... feeble, really. The storyline ranges from the improbable to the patronizing to fake-pathetic. I've looked the thing up on the internets, later, and it's been described as an African edition of "7th Heaven", which is the sort of saccharine syrupy preachy nonsense that [ profile] rdeck and I were almost literally tearing our eyes out with rusty farm implements rather than watch - and yes, there is a lot of that in it. Take a nice but dysfunctional family from "civilization" - Papa the vet who wants to Do Good; Second-Wife-Mama who used to be a high-powered Manhattan divorce lawyer but is now gung ho to restore and run a run-down safari lodge operation; Sainted Late Lamented First Wife Mama whose family's "ancestral" lodge this is, and whose borderline alcoholic father still snoozes his afternoons away on the falling-down porch; mix'n'match kids from two marriages, "his and hers and ours" - a pretty blonde teen queen who bemoans the lack of MySpace, a rebel without a cause bad boy who wanted to get his lip pierced back home in good old New York and who is the cause they are all there (and much angst is hung thereon), a precious and sensitive younger brother who is also idiot enough to wander off into the bush by himself causing the entire family to scare off after him, and a younger girl who is precious enough to be afraid of bears and tigers and monsters outside when the animals howl (and who is reassured that there aren't any bears or tigers in Africa, but then says, "but you didn't say anything about the monsters!"

Throw in the Big White Boss who is running the hugely successful lodge next door (and is slated to be the villain of the piece, you just know it), his two perfect children who seem to have stepped straight out of the casting pool at MGM Starlets Incorporated, and a couple of black characters who appear to be poised for a career as Token Native Sidekick and/or Temporary Romantic Interest (at least as long as the AMerican teens are there anyway and to be tearfully waved goodbye to, no doubt, in the final episode after a year of living dangerously, as it were).

Oh, it's a soapie. A YA soapie, at that.

But, oh. Africa.

I sat there watching the spreading acacia trees over the waving golden grasses; I watched vivid sunsets paint themselves over the sky; I listened to the orphaned lion cub's incessant chatter and remembered the one that I was once deeply privileged to be able to hold in my lap (and yes they DO talk all the time). And I'm suddenly missing it, the wide skies, the veldt, the beasts of woods and plains, the great herds of impalas, the stately elephants, the giraffes, the cheetahs, the lions.

It gets under your skin, Africa does. And stays there. And every now and then that part of itself that it leaves within you makes you strain to hear distant drums, or a lion grunting in the purple twilight, or the rain coming down in tropical sheets from the sky. The smell of it, the smell of dust and sweat and animal musk and raw red earth and the delicate scent of the acacias. The colours of it, the purple jacaranda trees and the scarlet flame trees and the brittle golden yellow of the savannah and the crimsons and molten golds of the sunsets. The sounds of it, the whisper of wind in the dry grass, the scream of an animal, the laughter and chatter from the marketplaces where the women gather, carrying half the world in a massively unbalanced bales of stuff on their heads, often apparently packed with a degree of slipshod carelessness that makes you want to run behind them with a safety net to catch escaping items which somehow all stay put in their place.

I didn't have a farm in Africa. But I had three houses there, lived in them, grew up in them, left them all behind. And sometimes I still miss them and the beautiful, powerful, wounded, astonishing, brave, corrupt, wide-horizon'd continent on which they still crouch, giving other families, other children, a sheltering roof.

Forgive me while I go and dream of drums tonight.
anghara: (Dunavska)
When I was little, it was such a tradition - every year, January 1, the TV wouldcarry (live!) teh Neujaahrkonzert from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Audience dressed up to the nines, in a hall so stuffed with flowers that from some camera angles it seemed amazing that they had got any people in there at all. And some of the waltzes and polkas were accompanied by choreographed dances in the halls of Schonbrunn and other palaces of Imperial Vienna - dancers with floaty chiffon dresses and lavish gowns and jewels in their hair dancing on the parquet floors and under the painted ceilings of Old Vienna. Many of the waltzes and polkas one knew - "Tales from the Vienna WOods", "The TritschTratsch Polka" - and others were minor works by the Strauss family, or overtures from Viennese operettas - it was part of my own heritage, part of old Europe, part of who I was growing up when I would get up and dance the beautiful ballets in my own weird little choreographies in my stocking feet, maybe all of six or seven years old, the one-two-three of the waltz running through my blood like an elixir.

We left the old country when I was ten, and after that it was sporadic - we'd catch a Konzert here or there, and the conductors changed, and the music was always a general mixture of Straussiana old and new - but every concert ended in a traditional way, with three encores. THe first was always a mystery, announced on the night, and was yet another waltz or polka, and could be anything. But the second and the third, everyone knew.

There are only a handful of melodies which require no more than one note to be instantly recognized.

And for me... there really is only one waltz.

That first tremulous chord of the "Beautiful Blue Danube" always makes tears come to my eyes - my river, MY river, *mine*, born on its banks, walking on its levees hand in hand with grandpa hearing stories of the times the river froze over and they held horse-drawn sleigh races on the ice, smelling the ripe old mud, thinking about the ancient slow-moving catfish that meandered in its murky depths. Never blue, not where I was born, already an old and muddy river which sometimes stank of rot and of diesel... but my river. MINE. And so is that waltz, that first trembling note, and then the unravelling of that rich tapestry which I know so well, know to the note, which I could cheerfully replace the orchestra conductor and conduct the orchestra in its performance myself.

And then the last encore, the traditional envoi, the Radetzky March, scored (only in Vienna) for orchestra and audience, which comes in with a rhythmic clapping when the conductor turns and leads them to join in.

The PBS carried the 2007 Neujaahrskonzert this year, and TiVo taped it for us, and we always used to watch it live on January 1 but I am no longer six years old and I no longer live in the old country which is in the same timezone and so we watched it tonight. And I am no longer six years old, but the Danube that flows through my heart is still and always blue, and I still, in spirit, dance.

I'm sure most of us have something like that buried inside of us - that music which took a child and transported it to a magic world. May you always remember your own, may you always, in your heart, dance.

Once again, with feeling, from me and from that pirouetting six year old who could not possibly have known where her roads would take her - far from home and yet always standing on the childhood shores of that majestic old river - happy new year.
anghara: (Dunavska)
I don't entirely know what set me off. Not really. I haven't suddenly seen a batch of brand new babies somewhere or a crocodiel of preschoolers meandering across the street, nor even a snailtail of graybeards doddering on the sidewalks - nothing to set off the "time's passing" bells except, well, just time passing.

In various cultures around the world, as well as in times not too long past, I would have been considered either OLD or or on the verge of being so. Instead, in the culture and the time that I live in, I am... oh, dear lord... sliding into that bracket known as "middle age". Which means I can expect to live about as long again as I have lived so far, and if I'm VERY lucky I might live to see my nineties without being senile, sick, or completely solitary. But I'm of an age where earlier generations of my family are gone or are stepping into the realm where the possibilities of going are increased, and I've already had friends who have spent their allotted span of days on this planet. This not to say that I am getting decrepit or that anyone immediately around me is, but I am just... looking back, and my life is a photo album.

It's like I've got all these little sepia thumbnails back there, some starting to fade rather badly - they aren't memories, themselves, but they're mnemonics and if I go and toggle one of them a memory will emerge. Sometimes vivid, sometimes trembling and paper thin and wavering in the slightest breeze like a chiffon veil.

I remember things from my childhood.

I remember the smell of the flowering linden trees in the courtyard of the Orthodox cathedral in Novi Sad, to this day the only place where I believe God lives. I remember the smell of beeswax candles and incense. I am not a churtchgoing person, but there - that place - those gilded and icon-painted walls hold the souls of the people I have once loved.

I remember the scent of lilac.

I remember receiving my first ever award for writing (at school, in winter, wearing horrible Seventies boots and in a sheepskin coat because the awards ceremony was outdoors in November).

I remember sitting in a school library (different school) while a Real Writer talked to my class about herself and her work, and I remember that the dream woke that night as the damp darkness of an English autumn quietly descended outside, and that I became a writer in my heart that day and I never stopped being one since.

I remember the skies of Africa.

I remember a school dance to which I asked a cousin of a roommate of mine, a young Greek god (he really WAS greek [grin]) with curly blond hair and a gorgeous smile and made my roommate (who was planning to ask him herself but I got in first) very jealous - I remember talking quietly to this guy for a long time as we stood in the empty courtyard in the aftermath of the dance, myself with my back against a pillar and him leaning over me with a hand resting on the pillar behind my shoulder, smiling down at me, and yes, the kiss, and then, not long afterwards, learning that some learner driver had hit his motorbike from behind and catapulted him over the handlebars into the path of another incoming car - I remember trying to talk to him on the phone, in teh aftermath of surgery and coma, and crying like a chile because this beautiful vivid human being had completely lost the ability to remember anything at all in the short term and could not even keep straight for the duration of a short phone call to whom he was actually speaking. He was only nineteen.

I remember growing up.

I remember my first year at University, the kid always so easily and brilliantly competent at school brought down and humbled by the workload of the first year at college where I could not rely on memory alone - we covered a year's worth of syllabus in two weeks, in a SINGLE subject, and I took four courses in the first semester. I remember having to learn how to study, from scratch, when I was seventeen. I remember the ivy covered walls of my University, on the slopes of Cape Town's Table Mountain. I remember being the only one smar enough to spot a loophole in one exam that brought me several easy marks (yeah? You want to know?... Really?... [grin}) I remember running with a couple of friends to catch the train down to the next suburb where the cinemas were, grumbling all the way, to go and see "Chariots of Fire", complaining about being dragged to see a sports movie dammit and I had no interest in sport - and coming out in tears and in love and going back to see that movie at least twice more in the theatre (and countless times since). I remember graduating, becoming a postgraduate, graduating THAT, trying to find my blundering way in the world of science and research, fighting with blistering headaches, trying to hold on to a career I had sweated and worked hard for... and then segueing sideways into scientific writing and editing, and losing the headaches I had not forgotten that night in the school library, just... put it on hold, as it were, and all the science years were leavened with poetry, with stories, with at least two unpublished novels.

I remember moving by myself from South Africa to New Zealand, brand new country, knowing nobody, alone, finding my way. I remember finding a temporary job - and through it getting involved in a disastrous relationship that I should have known better than to have gotten involved in but did it anyway because the guy involved made me LAUGH, fatally, and after taht it was easy to believe in things that were pure fantasy. In the aftermath of THAT, I remember meeting a man with whom I connected completely and deeply, who told me on our second date "If you don't want to make this a long-term thing walk away now..." and who ended that relationship, just about a year later, by accusing me of having "expectations" of him and couldn't we just be friends?... I remember the emotional desert which I entered, where even the writing dried up for a full year. and I remember crying inconsolably and without seemingly being able to stop the first time that a man I might care for showed me tenderness I could accept, after about a year of that. I remember that I was terrified of EVERYTHING what that man showed me in a hundred little ways that he loved me and cared for me and would always be there for me, and I eventually married him.

I remember coming to America. ANother new country. Another new start. I remember seeing the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, my first glimpse of the fabulous and improbable skyline of New York (that was a movie set. It had to be...) I remember being driven down to the Florida Keys, swimming with dolphins for the second time in my life, tasting alligator, running from a hurricane. I remember writing a book in the office I shared with my husband, with a desk which had started out life as a door but had been coopted as a flat working surface, the office itself part of a converted outbuilding which used to be the garage - when we moved from Florida, at last, I remember going to take a last look at the empty hole that used to be that office, with its dingy brown carpet and stained tiles of its dropped ceiling and bookshelves made of two-by-fours on cinderblocks and I remember crying because this was where "Jin Shei" was born.

And then, closer now, faster, I remember weeping at my first snowfall in Washington state; the vivid garden which bloomed in the spring after an autumn of planting bulbs, my first rhododendron blooms, the frustrations of blackberries; the arrival of two frisky kittens into the household and the passing of an elderly and ornery and increasingly failing character of a cat.

The first summer in Washington, and the aftermath of [ profile] rdeck's stroke, and his long recovery.

I am thinking of the memories waiting to be made in the months and years to come.

SOmetimes I get scared, or frustrated, or depressed about stuff I really have little control over. Mostly I am a sum of my parts, I am what my life has made me, and I am ridiculously content. And every time I say that I feel like reaching out and knocking on wood because I can see, around me out there in the world, traces of people whose lives have evolved in pictures very different from my own. In pictures of fear and fire and foes, perhaps, with memories of wreckage and ruins and blood where I remember a childhood of a grandmother's love and daffodils and honey from my grandfather's bees. I haven't had a heartbreak-free life - but I have, in context, in perspective, been so utterly and incredilby lucky with my lot in life that sometimes that takes my breath away and I am frightened at how much I owe my destiny.

Last picture. CLose of day, with another summer coming to an end, sitting in a pool of light from my desk lamp, typing this. Asking you all, perhaps, to look at your own albums, and remember.
anghara: (Default)
- as they are every year since 2003. It's an anniversary filled with difficult memories.

Here's an inkling as to why.

cut for length )
anghara: (Dunavska)
When we were both little, the cousin I always call my sister (in my language she is my sister-from-aunt, which confuses the heck out of everyone who knows that we were both only children...)were always playing catchup. I was born in July, she in APril the following year; I would always turn something, in terms of age, and then she would "Catch up" with me when her birthday came around.

Well, she caught up again today. And I spoke to her on the phone across the many thousands of miles that divide us, to wish her happy catch-up day.

And neither of us knows how we got to be the age we are. It seems like only yesterday that we were little girls too enthralled by our games and fantasies and the safe, secure cocoons of our childhoods - and overnight, almost, we turned into adults, people who own their own homes, people who (in her case, anyway) have children, people who have careers, who have bank accounts, who pay bills every month, whose hair is turning or, in my case, is already completely gray. I look back, sometimes, and the years are like a rollercoaster - and I can't see the place where it began any more.

One grows, so fast. One grows older.

Heppy birthday, coz. Wait till July. I'll escape again into the future.

May 2009

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