Friday, July 12, 2019

A Funny Story

My Dziennik Zwiazkowy column. Please consider leaving a comment at the newspaper’s website, linked below.


Our ten-year old granddaughter Lulu was over this morning, and Linda and I were sitting around the dining room table drinking coffee and finishing breakfast when Lulu suddenly looked up from her bowl of cereal and asked, „You want to see my animal ballet?”
We weren’t sure what an animal ballet was, but we said, “Sure, let’s see it.”
So she started doing her animal ballet.  First, she did the giraffe ballet dancing slowing and gracefully with the longest neck she could manage, and then she did the elephant ballet full of wagging ears and a trunk that wouldn’t stay still, and then a queenly lion ballet and an incredibly cute panda ballet.  And each one was perfect.  She hummed a tune and danced like each of the animals would dance a ballet if it could.
It was great, and we applauded and applauded, and Lulu bowed the way a panda would bow.
Then she turned to me and said, „Now, it’s your turn.”
I can’t dance.  I’m an old man with a bum knee and two feet that are still both recovering from getting broken in a fall about a dozen years ago, so I said, „Can I tell you a story instead?”
She seemed a little disappointed at first, but then she nodded yes, and I start ad-libbing.
I do this all kind of story telling all the time, just some kind of goofy stuff, one silly plot point after another.  This time I’m telling her a story about a panda and a horse and how the horse gets lost in the panda’s jungle and how the panda doesn’t want to help the horse get out of the jungle no matter what so the horse starts eating all the panda’s bamboo.
And then I suddenly stop.  The story was just some dumb ad-libbing that ended as soon as it began, and I said to my granddaughter, „That’s it, Lulu.”
And she paused for a moment and didn’t say anything. She was clearly thinking, thinking harder than I was thinking when I was making up the silly story about the panda and the horse, and then suddenly her eyes shone all bright and bubbly and she said, „Oh I get it.  It’s like Aesop’s Fables.  The panda first refuses to help the horse and so at the end the horse sort of punishes the panda by eating its bamboo.  The panda should have been nicer.”
And I sat there and marveled.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Praying in Polish

My Dziennik Zwiazkowy column this week is about Praying in Polish and what this meant to me.  Please consider leaving a comment at the newspaper’s website, linked below.


I still remember my childhood Sundays at St. Fidelis Church in Chicago, the church packed with old Polish immigrants and new Polish immigrants, the ones people called Displaced Persons (DPs) – and all these Poles praying out loud. The old women and young women in their babushkas praying out loud. The working men in their dark blue suits that they would finally be buried in praying out loud. Even the kids who would rather be outside running and laughing praying out loud.

Everyone praying out loud. Everyone praying in voices that were like no other voices I heard anywhere else in America.

What I came to feel then and still feel now is that true prayer could only be prayed in Polish. There’s a human sincerity and ragged artlessness in Polish prayers that I don’t hear when prayers are spoken aloud in English.

In fact, I don’t hear much praying out loud in the English churches I’ve been in. People mumble prayers sometimes when the priest or minister asks them to pray, but it’s not the kind of full-hearted praying I remember in the Polish churches I went to when I was a kid. In some English-speaking churches, the priests and ministers are trying to convince their congregations to pray out loud because they feel that praying out loud has a spiritual and psychological value to it. However, it’s not easy to convince people to pray out loud. I’ve even heard that there are some non-Polish churches that feel people shouldn’t pray out loud. The folks in these churches will point to passages in the Old and New Testament both that question the validity and value of prayers spoken out loud. God apparently doesn’t want to hear them.

But it wasn’t like this in the Polish churches I attended as a child. When people there prayed out loud in Polish, you heard their hearts speaking plainly and directly about the things that mattered to them: their poverty, their despair, and their hope.

Prayer in English? It’s what you saw on TV–faces cleaned up and all the words stripped of their pain.

When my mother died, the funeral director found an old recording of Lil Wally, a Polka star big in Chicago in the old days, singing the prayer/song „Serdeczna Matko.”

It sounded like the prayers I remember from the old days, the prayers prayed out loud in those Polish churches I remember. 

It sounded like the first prayer prayed by the first man in a voice that didn’t know what prayer was–the primal voice pleading for just a moment of understanding and wondering if it would ever come.


Monday, June 17, 2019


Someone should write a history of it.
Think about it. Probably for the first million plus years that we were here on earth, we were up to our ears in solitude. We’d watched the sky and the horizon for a bit of smoke, listen for the turning of a clumsy wheel or a whistle coming from some tall grass. Anything that might signal that our solitude was about to end.

At night, we’d sit in a tree or a cave and practice our smiles and handshakes on the off chance we’d meet somebody the next day coming toward us through that tall grass. We’d also practice our “company’s coming” talk, „Hi, I’m Abel from this tree here, glad to meet you. You just passing through? Like to stop? Care to have a banana?”

Sometimes you see a bird all alone on a tree, turning his head this way and that, pausing and listening the way birds listen to the sounds in the wind when they’re all alone. Well, you know we were probably like that bird most of the time we were on this earth–maybe up to about 15,000 years ago when we learned to hunker down together.

It was probably a good break from the solitude and what was behind it and always coming closer, the loneliness.
A person gets tired of sleeping with his back exposed to the wind and the weather. He wants to have someone behind him keeping his back warm. It was probably that way when he was a baby, his momma pressing his back into her warm belly. You miss that kind of loving and go searching for something that will break the loneliness and the fancy Sunday-dress version of loneliness, solitude.

Yeah, we want to get away from the solitude that – as the great blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday used to say – “haunts us.”

But then something happens, and we start getting a little too much of that pressing, that closeness, that togetherness we felt when we were babies and kids growing up.

Maybe it’s the growth of cities or the rise of the merchant class or the start of the industrial revolution with its ugly factories, and sometimes we feel that all we got now is people pressing into us, some pressing in a loving way but more often just pressing, just pressing a little harder and harder each day — until we start thinking down into our DNA and remembering the solitude we had so much of so long ago, and we start missing that solitude.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Mother's Day Poem

My Mother's Optimism

When she was seventy-eight years old
and the angel of death called to her
and told her the vaginal bleeding
that had been starting and stopping
like a crazy menopausal period
was ovarian cancer, she said to him,
“Listen Doctor, I don’t have to tell you
your job. If it’s cancer it’s cancer.
If you got to cut it out, you got to.”

After surgery, in the convalescent home
among the old men crying for their mothers,
and the silent roommates waiting for death,
she called me over to see her wound,
stapled and stitched, fourteen raw inches
from below her breasts to below her navel.
And when I said, “Mom, I don’t want to see it,”

She said, “Johnny, don’t be such a baby.”
Eight months later, at the end of her chemo,
my mother knows why the old men cry.
A few wiry strands of hair on her head,
her hands so weak she can’t hold a cup,
her legs swollen and blotched with blue lesions,
she says, “I’ll get better. After his chemo,
Pauline’s second husband had ten more years.
He was golfing and breaking down doors
when he died of a heart attack at ninety.”

Then my mom’s eyes lock on mine, and she says,
“You know, optimism is a crazy man’s mother.”
And she laughs.
From my book about my mom and dad and the people they were through war and misery and love.
Echoes of Tattered Tongues.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

May 3rd — Polish Constitution Day

Here’s my latest column for Chicago’s Polish paper Dziennik Zwiazkowy. The column talks about the importance of May 3rd to Poles when I was kid growing up. Please feel free to share and leave a comment at the paper’s website. The link appears below.


In the 50s, when I was a child growing up around Humboldt Park in Chicago, the biggest non-religious holiday was not Halloween or the 4 of July or Memorial Day or Labor Day. It was always May 3, Polish Constitution Day, Trzeciego Maja, the day Poles celebrated their Constitution, the second one in the world.

My family would start preparing weeks ahead of time, cleaning the house, sprucing up what needed to be painted, sanded, or nailed, making sure we would have the food and drinks we’d need for all of our guests.

We lived only about a half a block from the park where every year Poles celebrated the 3rd of May, and we knew that there would be dozens and dozens of our Polish friends stopping by to help us celebrate after the big parade in the park and all of the speeches by local and national politicians.

This holiday was important not just because it gave Polish friends a chance to celebrate the way they did in the Old Country, but because it re-affirmed a promise they had made to each other and to Poland. They had promised never to forget Poland, never to give up fighting for her freedom.

Poland had also made a promise to them, and the 3rd of May was the day when she re-affirmed her promise. She promised that despite all the chains that she was shackled by, all the foreign armies that occupied her and raped her and spat on her, she would remain the country of their dreams and hopes forever.

This was one of the things my dad taught me, the sacredness of the 3rd of May, and the sacredness of this promise.

Shortly after he died, I wrote a poem about the 3rd of May and what that date meant to him. It’s called „Poland.” The poem is about what Poland meant to him, a young man who was taken to the slave labor camps in Germany and was never able to go back to the Poland he loved.


They’ll never see it again, these old Poles
with their dreams of Poland. My father
told me when I was a boy that those who tried
in ‘45 were turned back at the borders

by shoeless Russians dressed in rags and riding
shaggy ponies. The Poles fled through the woods,
the unlucky ones left behind, dead
or what’s worse wounded, the lucky ones

gone back to wait in the old barracks
in the concentration and labor camps
in Gatersleben or Wildflecken
for some miracle that would return them

to Poznan or Katowice. But God
wasn’t listening or His hands were busy
somewhere else. Later, in America
these Poles gathered with their brothers

and with their precious sons and daughters
every May 3, Polish Constitution Day,
to pray for the flag. There was no question
then what the colors stood for, red for all

that bleeding sorrow, white for innocence.
And always the old songs telling the world
Poland would never fall so long as poppies
flower red, and flesh can conquer rock or steel.

— (the poem is from my book about my parents Echoes of Tattered Tongues: Memory Unfolded)


Wednesday, May 1, 2019


Cat in the Sewer

Our cat Lydia was a stay at home cat for a long, long time. When we would open the door, she’d just sit there in the living room or at the back door and sniff the air. Nothing more than that. She would just sniff until the door closed. She didn’t seem interested in going out at all.

All that changed about 5 months ago.

When my wife Linda opened the door one morning last fall, Lydia didn’t just sniff the air. She hopped up and walked straight out into it. Linda and I shouted for her to come back, but she wouldn’t.

What we were worried about was the wildlife in the neighborhood. You see, we live in a wooded area in Virginia, just south of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This place is crawling with deer and bear and coyotes and dogs. Now I’ve never seen any of the bears, but I’ve seen all of the other animals in the neighborhood – especially the dogs. It’s like everybody in the area is afraid of the bears and coyotes and deer, so they keep dogs around — big, mean, barking, cat-eating dogs.

And when Lydia ran out into the yard, we were afraid that some dog would chew her up.

It didn’t happen of course. About 15 minutes later, she came home and everything was fine. In fact, it was so fine we started letting her go out 3 or 4 times a day. She’d leave, sniff around, chase her tail and come back in about 5 minutes. No worries.

No worries, of course, until last week Wednesday.

Linda let Lydia the cat out for her usual late evening romp, but she didn’t come back. An hour went by and then another.

My wife was sure something had happened to Lydia. I tried to re-assure her that the cat would come back. I told her in fact I would get up out of bed periodically during the night and check to see if she was at the backdoor scratching.

She wasn’t.

We waited for two more nights for the cat, and it looked like she was never coming back.

The cat was clearly gone for good.

I’m a guy, and I took this news with a shrug, but my wife? It about broke her heart. It was like her baby had disappeared into the darkness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And my wife blamed herself because she was the one who opened the door and let Lydia out that night when she disappeared.

Last Saturday, our daughter Lillian came over to do some laundry at our house because her washing machine was busted, and she walked in with a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. She set it down and said, “I just saw something weird a couple doors down. A woman was lying in the street next to the sewer grate. Another woman was sitting next to her. I’m going to see what’s going on.”

A woman lying in the street? Maybe this happens all the time in a city like Chicago where I grew up, but here in Lynchburg it doesn’t happen ever, so my wife followed Lillian out.

Took me a while to get to the street because I couldn’t find my shoes, but when I got to the sewer grate, one of the women was dropping cat treats from a back down into the sewer, and my wife Linda and Lillian were talking into it.

I couldn’t believe it.

Lydia the cat was down in the sewer, about 10 feet down, looking up out of the darkness and saying, “Meow… meow.”

I knew what I had to do. I tried to lift the sewer grate, but the thing wouldn’t budge. It must have weighed a 100 pounds. It just felt like it was bolted into place.

I turned to my wife and said, “Keep talking to Lydia, don’t let her slink deeper into the sewer. I’ll see if I can get somebody to help us get Lydia out of the sewer.”

I got back to the house and started calling.

Saturdays, Lynchburg is the sleepy southern town I imagined when I was a kid growing up in Chicago. I called Animal Rescue, and they were closed for the weekend. I called the water and sewage department and nobody was there, so left a voice message. I called the fire department, and they were only taking 911 calls related to houses and barns burning. Finally, I called the city police department, and the person who answered scratched his head and said, “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”

Shaking my head, I figured I better get back out to the street and the sewer, and tell my wife and daughter the bad news. There was no help for Lydia, no way to get her out of that sewer dungeon she was stuck in.

But as soon as I opened my front door and stepped outside, I saw a police car, and my wife and daughter were standing next to the sewer hole. I ran up to them and looked down into the hole. There was a woman police officer climbing up out of the sewer with Lydia clawing into her shoulder like she was never going to let go.

What happened was that while I was wasting my time on the phone, Lillian called a friend of hers, a woman cop, and she came right over, and she and Lillian and Linda lifted the sewer grate that I couldn’t budge, and the police officer climbed down and got that silly cat.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, but I do know that Lydia is never going outside again without a tight lease around her throat.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Burning Harry Potter Books

Earlier today, I read about some priests in Poland burning some of the Harry Potter books written by J. K. Rowling.  At first, I thought it was just another ridiculous news story, but I soon discovered that people in fact were taking this burning of the Harry Potter books very seriously.
I’m a moderator for a Facebook page dedicated to Polish-American issues, and someone posted a piece about the burning there.  The discussion that ensued got very very hot (no pun intended).
The people who are for the burning of the Harry Potter books are basically opposed to what they see as the tendency toward cultural paganism in Harry Potter, an attack against the Catholic Church not that different from what they see as the Muslim attack on western religion and civilization.  The people who are against the burning see the burning of books as an assault on civilization reminiscent of the kinds of book burnings that characterized the rise of Nazism.  Hitlerism, this group feels, is coming back to haunt us. As I said, the argument got very very hot. One woman, in fact, — who felt the priests were justified in burning the books because she felt the books advocated a totally anti-Christian view –eventually told another woman to go have sexual intercourse with herself.  
The woman who opposed the burning told the other woman to do the same.
The discussion became so heated that the person who runs the Facebook page asked me finally to delete the discussion.  It was all arguing and ugliness — nothing else.
Is Harry Potter’s magic wand a symbol of the end of civilization as we know it?
Or is burning Harry’s magic wand a symbol of the end of civilization?
Who knows?
If we are headed toward the apocalypse, we are probably going to get there in more ways than one.  The arguments between Catholic priests and Pagans, between the alt right and the left, and between the Muslims and the Christians, all of these suggest divisions that are just going to get more and more divisive.
And then on top of that I also read this morning that an enormous glacier (the size of Florida) was going to break off from Antarctica, and once it melted there would be 4 feet more of sea water in all the world’s oceans.  And if this isn’t bad enough, this glacier breaking off is going to cause other glaciers near it to break off. And all of this will raise the level of the sea by about 13 feet.
Imagine the world’s oceans rising 17 feet and what that will do!
Whatever fires are burning Harry Potter books will surely be extinguished along with life as we know it.
All I can say is holy smokes!  (Really, I think that the proper response is „We are fucked” — but even though the world is coming to an end, it’s still not considered correct or polite to say that.)