Archive for June 2011

Monsoon Report from the Patio

June 30, 2011

It is the end of June and we are sizzling in Tucson with 110 °F almost every day. Wow! “Where is the lovely monsoon rain?!” I ask myself, as many Tucsonans also ask lately. As of yesterday there was no sign of it.

It is so unfortunate that recently other states in the country have been suffering from too much rainfall and too high water levels in their rivers. Devastating floods were the nightmare and the reality. Meanwhile Arizona firefighters struggled for days and days with beastly wildfires. We had not had a drop of rain for a long, long time. Maybe that’s why it feels like the monsoon is late this year. I am also late with our departure to Cape Cod for this summer.

“Such intense heat as we have experienced lately, plus some winds, should bring the monsoon rain soon,” I tried to convince myself, feeling fatigued by the heat as never before. Yesterday ended no differently than other days – a mostly clear sky above and our patio unwalkable in bare feet beneath. The hope for rain went to sleep along with the sunset.

I went to sleep too, but did not sleep well at all. Around 3 am I decided to start the new day. While sipping coffee from my favorite mug, I glanced through the book Sing Down the Rain which has been with me since I began living in Tucson. It is a children’s book written by the professional storyteller Judi Moreillon and richly illustrated by Michael Chiago whose art work is inseparable from his Tohono O’odham heritage.

Cover of Sing Down the Rain
….When the sun is white hot, in May and in June,

This dry land is waiting — rain will come soon.

….Clouds swollen with rain that’s waiting to fall

Will bring cooling water for one and for all.

The poem-story is about the Saguaro Wine Ceremony which is one of the most important celebrations of the Tohono O’odham Nation of southern Arizona.

“The majestic saguaro cactus provides the fruits used to make sacred wine used in the ceremony,” explains the publisher’s note on one of the book’s flaps. “For two nights, the men, women and children dance in the ‘Rain House’ to ask for plentiful rainfall.”

Knowing this story, I often comment half-jokingly that we – the newcomers living in this area – do not dance enough and that we should follow the tradition of the people who are rooted here and know how to bring down the rain. While reading some passages of the book again, I discovered suddenly a little tap-tap-tap sound on the roof. Could it be the sound of falling rain drops? I jumped to the door, opened it widely and… there they were — the very first drops of rain falling on the warm, rough surface of the patio! It was 3:30 in the morning and just a few minutes later the impressive lightning and roaring thunder arrived. The rain became intense. I ran across the patio to my studio to open its door and let the smell of rain come in. Then I sat and watched the beautiful performance of Mother Nature. I wish I knew how to take good photos at night! I tried anyway, but without much success. However, I salvaged a couple just to share with you.

Water on a brick patio Feet on a wet patio
Rain on the patio at night

“The storm” ended a bit after 5 am and I had fun wading in the puddles on our patio. When my shadow, my faithful companion, regained some strength with the rising sun, I took a few more pictures.

Reflection of clouds and umbrella in wet brick patio Photographer's shadow and her feet on wet brick patio
Reflections (umbrella and my shadow) in a large puddle on the patio in the early morning

At 9 am the patio was still walkable and the sky a bit hazy with the clouds whispering about rain. That whispering faded away by noon.

There is a lot of hope for more rain on this long 4th of July weekend. We in Tucson should dance and sing (and perhaps skip the fireworks) to celebrate the arrival of the monsoon season as well as Independence Day. Our friends on the Cape and in Boston can truly enjoy fireworks and dry weather with a touch of sunshine after some wet days there in the past weeks.

Happy Fourth of July wherever you are and whatever you do!

Alicja spelled out in freworks

The credit for this photo goes to the Falmouth Fireworks Committee on the Cape. Kudos for such a clever design of the fund-raising card. I bet people smiled, as I did, seeing their name in the sky — if only on the postcard.

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Text and photos (other than book cover and card) copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.

My Father – Made of the Sky

June 17, 2011

“My father was made of the sky,” I concluded while pondering what I was made of in an essay in my book Looking at the World Twice. Yes, my father Kazimierz, who was fearlessly passionate about flying, was definitely made of the sky! And not just any sky, but the sky above Poland. A jet pilot and later a high ranking officer of the Polish Air Force, he could not imagine himself in any place but in Poland. He raised me with the expectation to feel the same. So my decision to emigrate from Poland was extremely hard for him to accept. “Cosmopolitan,” a word which I used often, was a ‘dirty’ word in his mind and for others with his political beliefs. It meant not belonging. It meant not being loyal. It meant not being patriotic.

A true believer in the ‘socialistic system’ of post war Poland, my father wanted me to feel the same. But I did not. I developed a strong dislike of the Soviet style system and the Soviet domination of Poland. When I was mature enough to stand against his political opinions, our relationship become painfully rocky and even hostile. Still our love and respect for each other prevailed. That respect was a crucial element of our bond and was based on a painful sincerity. At times I just wished we could simply lie….

My father Kazimierz Pieniazek, circa 1960
My father, Kazimierz, as I like to remember him from the times of my life in Poland

I love memories and images of my father from my childhood years. I loved his slate colored uniform, high boots and his strong hands that could pick me up high without any effort. The idea that he could master those powerful metal beasts and take them to the sky was very romantic. My father was a symbol of strength and courage for me and I simply adored him. I even liked the smell of the tobacco he used for making his cigarettes, as well as watching him clean his fifkas — special glass holders for those cigarettes.

My memories of that time are painted in earth tones: colors of the forests where he taught me the art of mushroom hunting and gathering hazel nuts; the bluish gray of the lakes and rivers where he was tirelessly fishing in summer and hunting in fall; the color of the wheat fields and brown horses in the countryside where I spent part of my summers to “experience life so different than ours,” as he used to explain. It was my father who read with me my first real books and talked about geography and distant countries where he would fly occasionally on governmental missions.

When I finished first grade, I was asked to write my name as beautifully as I could (my nickname Ala to be exact). It was then traced, made into a gold inlay, and placed in the upper right corner of his hefty, silver cigarette case. The other corners were occupied already by his monogram (KP), my mom’s name, and the emblem of the Polish Air Force. I felt very proud to see my name on that silver surface each time he used his cigarette case. And he used it often. Now I am the owner of that case. I inherited it in the year 2000.

My father's silver cigarette case Alicja Mann, about 8 years old
My father’s cigarette case Me, Ala, at about 8 years old

It was at the beginning of 2000 that I moved to Tucson, leaving behind familiar Cape Cod. Just as I had settled a bit into my new place, a night call from Warsaw interrupted that settling. The voice of my uncle was filled with urgency. “If you want to see your father alive, come to Warsaw as soon as possible!” he stated.

I was not surprised by that call, but I did not expect it to come so soon and to be so urgent. I knew that my father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was having some new health problems and had been in and out of the hospital a couple of times, but….

That night in late February I learned that Kazimierz was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and that not much could be done for him, “especially considering his age,” as the messenger of the bad news stated. “But 79 is not so old!” I cried into the black phone receiver. There was no response — only the long characteristic sound of disconnection. The next day I booked my flights to Warsaw.

When I entered my father’s room in the hospital a few days later, he was greatly surprised. “Why are you here?! I thought you were coming in June,” he scolded me. After hugging he continued, “So why are you here? Is it sooo bad?!” I did not know what to say.

The next day, after consulting with me, the lead doctor decided to deliver the verdict to my father personally and asked me to be there. My father looked at the doctor’s eyes straight with all his attention, understanding the importance of the visit. He did not blink when the words “lung cancer”, “impossible”, and “we are sorry” entered the room like deadly bullets. Some explanation of why Kazimierz could no longer stay in this hospital followed. My father behaved like a good soldier. He did not ask any questions and responded shortly — “I understand.”

The hospice in which I placed him was very pleasant — modern, well furnished and with an excellent kitchen. That made my father happier for a while as he liked to eat well and was tired of boring hospital meals.

I spent a lot of time in that hospice witnessing his ups and downs. His body was failing him and that made him angry, especially when he lost his ability to walk and had to stay in bed most of the time. Later he calmed down.

We did not talk about death as I thought we might, nor did we talk about the future. We talked about his meals and about my new place in Arizona. He became preoccupied with the small 8.5 x 11″ laminated map that I brought for him from Tucson — one side had the USA and the other had the World. He examined that map endlessly and would not part with it for anything. I wondered where he was flying….

The final visit before my return to Tucson arrived and it was filled with silence. I could almost hear my pounding heart. I sat on the side of his bed and we stared out the window nearby. It was April already. The trees looked energetic with their new green leaves and the sun dancing on them. The outdoor world that my father loved so much looked beautiful!

I procrastinated as long as I could and finally gave him that last, long hug. I whispered into his ear, “I wish you a soft landing.” A short silence and his “me too” followed. I wasn’t sure if it was for him or for me.

The next day I landed safely in Phoenix. Two days later he landed softly in the everlasting darkness.

Alicja Mann and her father Kazimierz Pieniazek Cover of CD by Michael Mann: Pilots Will Always Fly
My father and I — as I like to remember him from numerous visits to Poland after my emigration Michael’s CD

You may click to hear the special song composed by my son Michael for my father — his dziadek.

Polish and English lyrics of "Pilots Will Always Fly"
Text of the song in Polish and English

Eleven years have passed and I still wish I could call him this coming Sunday to say “Czesc Tato — Happy Fathers’ Day!”

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Pilots Will Always Fly and CD cover copyright © 1999 by Michael Mann. Text and photos copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.

Magic of a Writing Hand – Part Two

June 2, 2011

Hand with pen, copyright 2011 by Alicja Mann

Submerged in the nostalgic thoughts triggered by my previous post of this blog, I found myself on a tiny “island” surrounded by piles of letters, postcards, photographs, tapes, and newspaper clippings. My brave attempt to organize them ended up with reading them! Special attention went to a relatively new pile of letters written by my own hand and which were mailed to Poland years ago. I retrieved them after my mom’s death (my father died several years earlier). I was surprised by the length of the letters I wrote at that time. My parents and I had very few chances to visit each other due to the great distance, cost of travel, and political atmosphere between Poland and the United States. Telephone communication was not available or not reliable. So we wrote letters…. Mine were written mostly at night as I was busy with my professional work in science and raising two small children.

Here are some pages of my letters, some photos, and in the center a letter from my father.

Collage of letters, envelopes and photos

His letter was written on pages pulled out from a notebook. It appears that the pages were torn out impatiently and that the writing was done in a hurry, as indicated by numerous corrections so uncharacteristic of his other writings. The letter was written in 1980 and the poor quality paper has yellowed considerably after 31 years. I read with great curiosity his hurried words of concern and worry about my future. He was upset about my decision to separate from the father of my two very young sons. I was touched by my father’s concerns which I dismissed at that time. Mostly I was touched by the authenticity of these pages demonstrated by their ruggedness and imperfections.

Many memories were awakened and I was falling down into a big dark hole of sadness. I was drowning in the past. An invitation to a friendly, colorful Memorial Day party offered a great escape from it.

After such a welcomed break, handwritten letters from the past were again on my mind. The books of published letters by some well known and not so well known persons suddenly became more visible among the other books in our home, as if asking for special attention.

Four books

Above we have:

Letter to Mother, an anthology of over 100 letters that start with the words “Dear Mother.” They are written by well known politicians, poets and writers, painters, musicians, scientists, and philosophers. Among them are letters of Henry Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Anton Chekhov, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Henry Thoreau, Helen Keller, Tom Wolfe, Franklin Roosevelt, and Richard Wagner.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh — this book is well known and does not need any explanation.

Letters to Olga is a collection of letters written by Vaclav Havel, a playwright and Czechoslovak dissident at that time (1970s). He wrote them from prison to his wife Olga. After the fall of Communism Havel became President of his country.

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is a very recent publication by Verso. “Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a Polish-born Jewish revolutionary and one of the greatest theoretical minds of the European socialist movement,” as the publisher of the book introduces her. It is a huge collection of Luxemburg’s letters to her friends, lovers and colleagues. To describe this book is impossible in this space, but I would like to salute my friend George Shriver for his excellent translation of Luxemburg’s letters.

My very favorite books of published letters are pictured below:

Two books

Mother and Son: A Wartime Correspondence of Isoko and Ichiro Hatano. I simply love the tenderness and kindness of the words exchanged by Isoko Hatano (mother) and Ichiro Hatano (son) in the period 1944-1948.

Letters from Prison and Other Essays by Adam Michnik is one of my favorite books of political writings. Period! And who is Adam Michnik? Another impossibility for this small space. Starting in the late 1960s Michnik played a prominent role in the political opposition in Poland that subsequently gave birth to the Solidarity movement. He was a major intellectual force of that movement. One of the best minds of Eastern Europe, he was often referred to as a tactician of the non-violent struggle against the Soviet totalitarian system.

Regardless which letters one would read — Van Gogh’s, Michnik’s, or one of the Hatanos — there is an aura of the author’s personality and a feeling of the moment in history in such letters. Their authenticity and their permanence are their greatest assets. Those letters survived years in their handwritten form and will survive much longer in printed book form. No special technology is needed to read them now or will be needed to read them in the future.

So I wonder what will happen to our contemporary electronically written words and images stored in the corners of our own computers or on Facebook or some other social networking contraptions. Will we be able to find them and read them twenty, thirty, or fifty years later?

Tucson’s poet Judy Ray ponders a different, yet very relevant, question:

Ink of the ballpoint fades and is gone.
The pen continues across the page
with little pokings up and down,
circles left and right, pressing firm
on paper its invisible message.

I can get up and fetch another pen.
But what if I were in prison
And this my sole, rationed tool?
Like conserving water in the desert,
there would be only sips of words
written small….

Copyright © 2009 by Judy Ray

If we could not write or our writings were to be lost, we would feel that thirst for words. A power of the handwritten word lies in its endurance.

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Fragment of the poem titled Written Small is from the book of poems To Fly Without Wings by Judy Ray, Other text and photos copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.

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