Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Places

Sometimes when I'm doing poetry readings, I get questions about whether or not my sister and my parents and I were ever happy given the kind of experiences my parents had in Germany during the war. I can't talk for them, but I know that there were times that I was happy when I was growing up. This is a piece I wrote a couple years ago about those times.

We all have special perfect places, places where we feel most ourselves, most comfortable. In these special places, we feel our “self” most fully; we feel that what we were meant "to be" is suddenly "is"; we feel that our pasts, our presents, and our futures are mingling. We feel the joyful arms of our guardian angels and personal saints embracing us, and we feel their warmth touching us in seventeen places all at once. For some people, this special place is a chair in the kitchen or a bleacher at a baseball game.

Happy people are those who know where this place is.

They can go there when they need to: maybe not in their darkest moments (at the bedside of a dying parent or friend, or when a woman or man they truly loved leaves them finally with no offer of a hand to hold for even a moment), but surely in those moments after those moments they can turn to these holy places.


For me this place was a place in time: The June day I turned four, a Sunday in 1952, when I stood in the garden in the back of a house we were renting from a veteran of the First World War, an alcoholic with a plate in his head to cover the spot where a shell fragment had carried away a piece of his skull (his name was Ponchek which means donut in Polish and always made me laugh to say it), and I stood in his garden among Black Eyed Susans with their yellow petals and long necks. And my mother in a white dress with little blue flowers sat in the garden between me and my sister, and my father stood in front of us with a Brownie Cadet box camera.


He was asking us in Polish to smile, while my mother told me about the day ahead, how we would go to Kiddie Land up in Melrose Park, Illinois, and my sister Danusha and I would ride on the blue and yellow and red cars and the roller coaster built just for kids. My mother made it sound like there was something special about being a kid the way she talked about the day we had planned.

It makes a picture I don’t want to forget.

Maybe we remember these special places and special times and turn to them because they were the places and times our parents were happy, before their lives took their inevitable turns. Maybe not. Like most of us, I’m not good at figuring out the complex why of things.

But I remember a Sunday morning, and you remember sitting at a ball game between your mother and father, and both are screaming at the batter in a way that frightens you just a little but you know is okay; or you remember a day on a beach in Ocean City with your mother laughing at your father wearing her bathing cap pulled down over his eyes; or you remember your father sitting at the piano with a cigarette between his lips playing a piece you love like “Wild Colonial Boy” or “Stardust” while your mother stands at the ironing board straightening a pleat in her skirt with steam.

10 comments:

The Accidental Existentialist said...

John,

Your writing moves me. It is like a warm cup of coffee on a morning that is barely light and still holding onto the chill of darkness.

John Guzlowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Guzlowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Guzlowski said...

My friend Chris Meyers sent me the following:

John:

You went to the beach at Ocean City? Is that Ocean City, NJ?

My family used to go to the boardwalk at Ocean City every year. We would camp in Sea Isle City in a pop-up camper and once a year we would go to the boardwalk.

One time we were just arriving at the boardwalk in Ocean City and somebody was unloading stuff for themovie theatre. A huge bag of popcorn, probably 3 feet in eight, had a hole in the bag, so the delivery guy gave it to us. I'll never forget that big bag of popcorn. I think it lasted the whole summer.

Chris

John Guzlowski said...

Here's a comment I received from Wanda Sawicki who works with aging Polish women in Canada:

John,

Thank you for this posting. It's so timely for me, as the latest poem I sent you was about the Polish women dancing, the first poem about something to do with them that shows some happiness. Like you, I've often been asked whether these women are ever happy, because my presentations have dealt mostly with their grief and trauma. I'm hoping that I've worked through enough of that for myself so that the poems on the sweetness of life that can follow or co-exist with post traumatic stress may begin to appear.

I'm sending you a song that has helped me a lot in walking between the bitter and the sweet. It's by Canadian Jane Siberry, called Calling All Angels from her CD When I Was a Boy. The whole CD is about the soul's life journey, from becomin incarnate, walking the earth in a human body, loving and hurting and healing, and returning to the realm beyond, perhaps to wait for another turn. In this particular song, the soul has just landed and become aware of its body, and calls for angels and saints to walk with it as it begins to take its first steps. At one point the words go "...if you could, do you think you would trade in all the pain and suffering? Ah but then you'd miss the beauty of the light upon this earth, and the sweetness of the leaving..."
I hope you enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,
You said, "Sometimes when I'm doing poetry readings, I get questions about whether or not my sister and my parents and I were ever happy given the kind of experiences my parents had in Germany during the war. I can't talk for my parents or my sister, but I know that there were times that I was happy when I was growing up."
You probably don't mean it that way, but that last sentence kind of makes it sound like you've had no happy times since growing up.
For myself, I know that what ever my circumstances are, how I respond to them is my choice. Intense experiences overwhelm us while they are happening, but we don't have to let them control how we act once they are over. We can choose to react to something else.
Our minds don't really do multi tasking, they only appear to because we can switch our attention from one thing to another and back again at very high speeds. When we focus on one thing, everything else is relegated to the background. It's easy to relive pain and anger from our pasts, but it's just as easy to remember the good stuff. When you think about one memory, it precludes you from thinking about another. It's a choice that anyone (anyone without OCD anyway) can learn. It just takes practice.
A long time ago I was sick a lot. There were times when I didn't know if I would be able to breath anymore. There were times when I didn't know if I cared if I would breath anymore.
Here's something I wrote to encourage myself to keep on going.
SECRETS OF LIFE:
Nothing is perfect.
Nothing lasts.
None of it is personal.
It’s going to hurt.
No one gets out alive.
Almost everything is a matter of degree.

So:
Do the right thing.
Do your best.
Prioritize.
Seperate facts from opinions.
Verify all facts
Cultivate useful knowledge.
Cultivate non-attachment.
Choose some strong attachments.
Be cheerful.
Have fun.
Play fair.
Treat others well.
Stand up for your beliefs.
Think about what matters.
Be clean, strong, and brave.
Listen to others.
Listen to yourself.
Take nothing on faith.
Use the correct words.
Make your evaluations as solid as you can.
All the facts are seldom available, so cultivate your instincts.
Tell the truth when you can.
Lie only if you must.
Act decisively.
Know when to stop.
Violence and surgery are the last resorts, except when they are not. You'd better know the difference.
Do what has to be done, especially when there’s nothing to lose or nobody is looking.
Be here now.
Learn from the past.
Make mistakes, but one time only for each.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Never whine.

Peter

Manfred said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Manfred said...

It's important that we put aside our beliefs and opinions and try to be happy in the moment. We have to invite happiness before it will venture to come to us. I'm grateful that your parents could smile and occasionally laugh after what they'd been through. You kids were their hope for a normal life.

Manfred said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Manfred said...
This comment has been removed by the author.