We buried my Uncle John yesterday.
He died a week ago, on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. I haven’t been able to write about his death. I think it’s because it still doesn’t seem real. Even standing with family and friends, watching as his grave was filled with dirt, it was still so hard to believe.
John Chychula married my aunt, Hanusia Dudycz, when I was just 8. I think that theirs was my first real example of courtship as I watched him become a part of our family. Growing up, we have those examples in films, in books, or in life, of couples who have the kind of magic we hope to someday find. I never told Hanusia or John, but for the little girl version of Valya with her head full of dreams, they were that couple for me. He serenaded her! They would dance together. They were in love. They were my fairy tale.
I was just old enough and they were just young enough, that I remember seeing them together before they got married. I loved seeing them dressed up--in costume from the Halloween Maskarada or dressed up in fancy clothes for Malanka. They always looked like they were having such fun together.
However, if I had to point to one thing though that stood out to me, to the little romantic kid watching from the corners—more than the singing or the dancing, more than the way he would put his arm around her—it was the way that John looked at Hanusia, like she was the most remarkable woman in the world. You can see it in their photos, but in life, it was even more powerful. It was magic.
For me, John and Hanusia were better than any movie prince or princess, because they were real, and he was a prince who took the time to play with us—the gaggle of little kids in the Dudycz family. I was always delighted when he was at Baba’s house, because he got down to our level. In one moment, he would be silly and do tricks with his fingers or his eyelids, making us laugh. Then in the next moment, he would ask us questions about our lives and really listen to the answers. It was easy to read on his face that he genuinely cared. Again, it was something in Uncle John’s eyes—they were so kind and gentle.
When I was older, I worked for a few summers downtown in the Department of Human Services, which was in the same building as Drivers Services where Uncle John worked. I would see him at work, and he always treated me like an adult, like an individual, not just his teenaged niece. But that’s how I saw John treat everyone. He took the time to listen to people, to really pay attention. He cared about people. That made an impression on me—the way he moved through the world with such a generosity of spirit.
My oldest daughter is only a few years younger than John and Hanusia’s twin girls. So again the wheel turned, and my relationship with them evolved as we found ourselves parents of young children around the same time. I watched the way he adored his girls, and the way he was once again a doting uncle, this time to my kids and the children of my cousins. I am so grateful that they had the opportunity to know and love him.
Some people have a way of caring about you that makes you feel accepted no matter what. It’s rare, and it’s special. Uncle John was like that—openhearted.
That is the best word I can find to describe John Chychula. If you knew him, if you ever had the pleasure to spend time with him, if you were blessed to be his friend or family, you know.
Uncle John, you will never be forgotten. Вічная пам'ять.
It's been too long. I have been writing, but not here. I've had a deadline for this nonfiction book that I'll announce soon (and is finally nearly finished) and the next novel. I've essentially been off social media and devoting all the time not with my kids, to the writing. It hasn't made for a very fun or social Valya; but I've been productive, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
My next post (that I'll put it up after this one) is about my Uncle John who passed away a week ago. I didn't want to post the tribute without some quick note in between.
Life and death. Spring to Summer. The wheel turns. Before long Autumn winds will be blowing leaves in circles. Life is so fragile. I want to hug all the people I love, all the time. (Consider yourselves hugged. Virtually. Hopefully in person soon.)
That's the update.
More to come.
Next month, Chicago is hosting the 50th Annual Nebula Awards and Nebula Weekend! A few years ago, I had no idea about the rich resources and networking opportunities afforded by something like the Nebulas. I really wish I had known, and so I'm passing this along to writer friends in the Chicagoland area (and those looking for an excuse to visit Chicago…Come!)
The Nebula Weekend is an amazing opportunity, and it rotates cities. This year (the 50th Anniversary!) and next, Chicago will hosting the weekend. (Chicago in June is so lovely--finally warm and sunny, but not yet sweltering. The lake breezes are perfection, and we have such lush, green spaces.)
The panels offered are targeted at authors. There will be a self-publishing workshop on Thursday, and experts are participating throughout the weekend to discuss things like the future of cities, intellectual property law, and selling your work to Hollywood.
On Friday evening, the Mass Autographing session is FREE to the public, with more than 50 authors expected to participate, including Cixin Liu, Larry Niven, Greg Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jody Lynn Nye, Connie Willis, Aliette de Bodard, Daryl Gregory, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Fran Wilde, Alyssa Wong, Usman Tanveer Malik, Sam J. Miller, and so many others!
There's also the Awards Banquet and Ceremony on Saturday evening with toastmaster Nick Offerman, best known for his role of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation!
Incredible writers and editors who are brilliant and inspiring and delightful are coming in from all over the world. So because I adore many of them, and I adore many of you…you should meet!
Do let me know if you're coming because I will be there all weekend.
When I'm writing with a looming deadline, I tend to get hermitty, only leaving the house when I absolutely have to. I drop the kids off at school, make a pot of coffee, and start writing until I have to pick them up again. Then after I put them to bed, I'm back to writing again. I'm an introvert at heart, albeit a social one, so I can sustain this for quite a while before getting antsy.
That said, I find that scheduling one coffee or breakfast during the week, or at least a conversation via skype, helps to reinvigorate me, nourishes my spirit. The time spent away from my manuscript also often helps me to process things I have been turning around and around in my head.
So yesterday, before delving into the work, I had a coffee chat with my friend, Scott. A fellow writer, we met while teaching at DePaul (over 15 years ago now!) Our conversation turned to a psychiatrist/neurologist whose name I recognized, but whose work I did not know well, Viktor E. Frankl. A Holocaust survivor, Frankl wrote about man's search for meaning (which is how his name came up in the first place), and I was intrigued enough to do a little digging this afternoon.
Several snippets of his work resonated with me on several levels, and I wanted to share a few here from his book, Man's Search for Meaning.
Here he writes about his love for his first wife, Tilly, who died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp:
"I knew only one thing--which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.
I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. 'Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.'"
And this from the same book:
'But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how'.”
And a link to a video, because it's so interesting to see the Frankl speaking:
May we all find our why's.
Back to writing.
Once again, I've fallen behind with blogging. The year began cold and chaotic. Winter lingered and lingered. We had a few brief breaks of warmth and sunshine, but far too many grey, blustery, snowy days in March for my liking.
In Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote, "Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring."
Chicago does seem to have a reluctant Spring--as if the season is too delicate. Chicago appears to want to go straight from the gray grit of Winter to the sunny swelter of Summer. BUT there are usually a few rare days in May when Chicago's Spring is glorious and green.
The first few signs are appearing: pussy willows have their catkins, the magnolia buds are bright white or pink against still bare branches.
The sight of blossoms against the sky calls to mind one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, E.E. Cummings. Here's a part of it:
"here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)”
I'm going to attempt to blog with greater regularity as part of my revamped writing routine--a few minutes to warm up and then leave the day behind before shifting into one of the two books I'm working on (more on that later).
I've got things to catch up on here, but if I write a bit each day, I should get caught up pretty quickly.
Here's to a day of catching up. I hope that your Monday is peaceful and productive.
- Current Location:The kitchen of Casa del Lobos
- Current Mood:intent
My Rhysling-eligible poems for 2014 are:
* * *
- Current Mood:reflective
My father-in-law, Donald Lupescu, passed away on the morning of February 6th. He had gone into the hospital on Friday evening after a fall, and they discovered severe bleeding on his brain and an infected valve in his heart. It proved too much for his body, and he became unresponsive on Saturday and slowly slipped away, giving family the chance to sit with him, talk with him, and say goodbye.
One of the last things that Don did before he was taken to the hospital was pick out a birthday card for me that Eleanor later passed down. On the front it reads:
“Any woman can be a daughter-in-law. But it takes a certain spirit, an openness, and generosity of heart to make the “in-law” part drop away, leaving that comfortable word “daughter.”
In this same way, from the beginning, Eleanor and Don were Mom and Dad. They welcomed me into their family with so much love and generosity of spirit. Together we enjoyed long conversations over leisurely dinners and glasses of wine as we got to know each other and discovered mutual interests like travel and wine and excellent restaurants…and books.
In my family, it is no secret that I’m the odd one—the nerdy dreamer with her nose in books. With Don, I found a kindred spirit. He loved comics and science fiction novels, and he had raised his boys to do the same.
With Maya, Liam, Lana, and their cousins, he had a new crop of Lupescus to initiate into the world of technology, toys, and all things geeky, from Super Hero Squad to Star Wars to the Spectacular Spider-Man, and other storylines that I could not keep up with.
Don started recording superhero cartoons and passing them down to us on dvds, classics and new ones. As the kids’ personalities developed, he knew the best new toys for each one. He would peruse the shelves of Targets to get all the Cars movie characters or the best new Wii game. It was not just that he had a shared love of these things, Don was always thinking of others.
Mark and I were talking earlier about his father, and he said that his father will be remembered by the way he treated people, by his many acts of kindness. It’s so true. Mark’s father and mother have always been some of the kindest people I have ever known.
I was looking back over my many emails from Don today, and so many of them were thanking us on behalf of him and Eleanor for a visit or a dinner or photos sent. He was always appreciative and always thinking of his children and grandchildren. He would see something animal-related and share it with Maya, or something car-related to share with Liam. He knew my love of music, especially folk music, and he’d record Bob Dylan special that had aired on PBS, or dozens of other concerts and music-related tributes for me, because he knew I would never have the time to do it myself. During the years when the kids were babies, I would not have seen any films if it were not for those shared by Don. He knew our tastes, and they were movies I usually ended up loving but would never have seen otherwise.
Don and Eleanor would come over and play with the kids a few times each month, and the kids loved that time. I’m so grateful for the many good memories that we have to hold onto. The kids treasured that time with Grandpa Don and Grandma Ellie, as did we.
After dinner and dessert, when the kids would run off to play on their own, the adults would sit with our coffees and chat—about episodes of Lost, or the newest Doctor, or the penultimate episode of Battlestar Galactica, or the latest Hobbit movie, or who got killed on the Walking Dead.
Other than Mark, Don was the only one in my family who read Neil Gaiman’s comics and books (and got a chuckle at Miss Lupescu in The Graveyard Book). Don was one of very few I knew who had read Gene Wolfe and understood his importance as I was planning the Fuller Award to honor Gene.
For those years when we were living back and forth between Chicago and Germany, when the kids were babies (and I was sleep-deprived and not very social), Don was one very few people with whom I could discuss the geekier things in my life. He was not just supportive of my writing, he also understood the continuum that I was a part of: those writers who came before me and shaped the stories I am now trying to tell.
Don was someone who loved a good story—in a book or a tv show or a movie. He was someone who delighted in clever plots and characters, and he enjoyed talking about them. He was a kindred spirit who questioned and wondered and imagined.
There are many other people, friends and family, who can speak with greater authority about Don’s life: his childhood in Chicago, his education, his service in the Army, his career at ComEd, his marriage to Eleanor and life with his sons, the things he accomplished, the places he traveled, the lives he touched, the people he loved and those who loved him.
I only had the privilege of knowing Don for 15 years, but in that time I got to know a man who was intelligent and creative, clever and playful, generous and appreciative, and so thoughtful. Don opened his home and his heart to me, and I am a better person for having known and loved him.
I’m grateful that the kids had a chance to see him and say goodbye on Wednesday, even if Grandpa Don was just lying there peacefully through it all. They each held his hand, and they told him they loved him and would miss him. I had explained to them that hearing is one of the last things to go when a person is dying, and I truly believe that Grandpa Don could hear them and his spirit was present and close, even if body gave no sign.
Don had a beautiful singing voice and loved music in a way that we love music, and so at the hospital, the kids wanted to sing a song for him.
In that tear-filled moment, they could only think to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the slightly altered version I have sung for them before sleep since they were babies:
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,
there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.
That’s where I will go tonight when I dream of you.
Dreams have always been important in my family, and I like the idea that the dead can visit us in our dreams. I feel like my grandparents connect with me in that way, as well as my friend Myron and occasionally others.
I like to think that Don will do the same, that in my dreams, we will have a slice of chocolate cake or a Swedish Flop and coffee with some sweet-flavored creamer. Then we’ll talk about the newest X-Men movie or Doctor Who episode. I’ll ask him about death, and first he’ll make a sarcastic remark about the actual state of the Pearly Gates, and I won’t quite know that he’s joking until he grins at me (Lupescus and their sarcasm). We’ll talk about the kids, and he’ll listen with a bemused grin as I ramble on about my latest writing project or travels. Then I’ll give him a hug (because he was also a good hugger).
And I’ll tell him what he already knows—that we love him and miss him, and he will never ever be forgotten.
We already miss you, Don. Vichanaya Pamyat (“Eternal Memory”).
- Current Location:Casa del Lobos
- Current Mood:reflective
- Current Music:Beatles - Yesterday
Last night I had the pleasure of listening to Neil Gaiman read a story he had begun in 2004 and finished last year, "The Return of the Thin White Duke." Neil was originally asked by artist Yoshitaka Amano to write a story to accompany Amano's sketches for a fashion spread featuring David Bowie and Iman, but only the first half was published in 2004. Neil completed the piece for his upcoming short story collection TRIGGER WARNING (to be released in February 2015).
The inaugural reading coincided with the closing of the David Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I had the opportunity to view the "David Bowie Is" exhibit a few weeks earlier when Brooke Bolander was in town, and it was wonderful--provocative and inspiring.
While I have always enjoyed Bowie's work, I had not previously encountered the full scope of his creative vision. Taken from his personal collection and accompanied by corresponding Bowie songs, the exhibit included storyboards and relics, books and sheet music, videos and photographs, and so many exquisite clothes.
All of them came together to create a portrait of a man who seems to delight in creating new experiences for his audience--reinventing himself, challenging expectations and norms, using his persona and music to affect change.
Neil's reading closed out a steady stream of Bowie admirers and cultural icons who have graced the MCA stage over the last four months to celebrate Bowie and his influence.
I adore Neil's writing, and his short fiction in particular. He is a master storyteller. Whether set in primeval oceans, Elizabethan pubs, wolf-infested walls, or alternate dimensions, the worlds Neil creates are vivid and populated with characters who feel authentic. When Neil reads his work aloud, it all comes crashing into life, words like waves washing over an audience who will raptly follow him anywhere.
During the Q&A, Neil talked about the challenges of writing historical characters that remain "true" to the reality of the person, in particular those who are still alive. In "The Return of the Thin White Duke," Neil has captured something of the enigmatic yet almost archetypical essence of David Bowie. Rich with the "fantastic," yet grounded with carefully selected real-world details, "Thin White Duke" feels like something that could easily exist in one of the multiverses of Bowie's mind, snaking its way into his songs and sketches.
Neil talked about how when he was young, Bowie's songs presented him with doorways that in turn, led Neil to new information and ideas, things that inspired him. Interesting that while standing in line and waiting in the auditorium, I heard the same thing said of Neil and his work. So many people talking about the influence that Neil's fiction and tweets and blog entries and comics have had on their work, their art, their lives. Neil, like Bowie, presents us with doors. It's a creative continuum, ripples from artist to audience, and artist to artist, and so on.
Sometimes a story provides us with a welcome escape; sometimes it opens the door to a new world; and sometimes a story gives us exactly what we needed to hear.
"The Return of the Thin White Duke" is a beautifully crafted Neil Gaiman story inspired by another risk-taking artist who continues to challenge us to "turn and face the strange."
I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say it is a story about transformation and sacrifice, a story about the ways we reinvent ourselves when we try to get back in touch with our heart--and these things at this moment in time resonated with me in a way I did not expect. It was a gift of serendipity, and another kind of door opened.
"You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need."
Rolling Stones, You Can't Always Get What You Want
- Current Mood: contemplative
- Current Music:Rolling Stones
A new year--the way we name one cycle of the earth's orbit around the sun.
So the old year comes to a close, and we collect the major events of those 365 days. We review them like a catalog or a library or a photo album. The years do seem to take on personalities, smaller characterizations that pertain to our selves or our circles, a larger Zeitgeist when we attempt to look at the year globally, greater than the sum of our personal experiences.
Then we move into a new set of days. While I’m generally not a fan of the flashy side of the holiday, this is what I do like about New Year's Eve. When we end one thing, it creates a new beginning. That's a rather remarkable gift. It's permission and a challenge. A new year gives us the time and space for new beginnings, to pay attention to things we may have missed, to make something out of nothing.
Last year was not an easy year. 2014 had a lot of heartaches and challenges. Overall, I'm not sad to see it go, though there are moments of grace and beauty that I treasure.
To use a running metaphor, I feel like 2014 was a series of sprints. Professionally and personally, I moved in small, productive bursts, counting the days in between deadlines and holidays.
Last year had a lot of in between days.
In 2015, I'm shifting my focus to goals that may stretch a bit further into the horizon, to longer projects and novels, to seeds planted last year that require still more nurturing to come to fruition.
If 2014 was made up of sprints, 2015 will be a marathon. I hope to move through the new year with better organization and momentum. I think I'm a creative sprinter at heart, so this feels counterintuitive, but we'll see.
As far as the world and those I love, this is my wish for the new year:
May we treat each other with more kindness in this next circle around the sun. May we cultivate relationships with people to whom we can entrust our hearts and our dreams. May we find ourselves looking into the eyes of someone who truly sees us and believes. At the end of the next 365 days, I hope we are all paying closer attention, and I hope that somehow there is more love in the world.
Happy New Year.
- Current Mood: hopeful
I first heard about Yara Arts Group over a decade ago, when I read about its founding director, Virlana Tkacz, traveling to villages deep in the Carpathian mountains to record ancient pre-Christian winter solstice rituals and songs. In an essay about her experiences, Virlana writes:
"That day I heard a beautiful epic story about a dashing young man who rides a raven black horse around Kryvorivnia turning down gold and silver, but accepting the hand of a fine young lady. I also heard one about how the sun, moon and fine rain come to visit the mistress of the house. I was enchanted, but puzzled. What did any of this have to do with the story of Bethlehem? Eventually, I learnt that the koliadas are part of a winter ritual that now coincides with Christmas, but is much older in its origin, traditions and symbolism."
The weaving together of past and present, the magic of songs and stories passed down from generation to generation, the ways that myth and folklore resonate with current events...these are ideas I am passionate about and themes I explore in my writing, so I was fascinated with Virlana's research:
"I was struck by how many of the rituals we witnessed were attempts to bring together the present with the past and to create a greater community that would include all the living (both human and animal), the spirits of the ancestors and forces of nature. All would have to come together to create the next harvest and a bountiful future."
I have been wanting to see one of Yara's Koliada winter performances ever since. I was so excited when my trip to NYC last weekend coincided with Yara's "Winter Light" piece, which wove together Koliadnyky (winter song singers from Kryvorivnia, Ukraine), an 18th century Baroque Nativity folk opera, and scenes from the current crisis in Ukraine.
Photo by Waldemart Klyuzko
Created and directed by Virlana and performed by an excellent ensemble, the hauntingly beautiful vignettes blended the magic of the ancient winter rituals with the drama of recents events in Ukraine.
This montage (taken from different performances) will give you a taste of the music and songs from the Carpathians:
In 2015, Yara Arts is staging "Dark Night Bright Stars" at La MaMa based on the meeting of beloved Ukrainian poet/artist Taras Shevchenko and African American actor Ira Aldridge. In 1858, Shevchenko had been released after a 10-year imprisonment (his poetry was critical of the Russian Tsar) when he met Aldridge, who had left the United States to perform Shakespeare in Europe and Russia. The two men became close friends, and Shevchenko drew Aldridge's portrait:
The piece is described as "multilingual and is about communication beyond language." I love to see the ways that Virlana and Yara Arts breathe life into Ukrainian stories and traditions, and I hope to make it back to see the "Dark Night Bright Stars."
- Current Location:Casa del Lobos
- Current Mood: content
- Current Music:Koliada