Monday, October 14, 2019

Why I Never Worked in a Factory

Here’s my latest column for Chicago’s Polish Daily News. Please leave a comment at the paper, linked below.
WHY I NEVER WORKED IN A FACTORY
The purpose of college is to keep from working. That’s the why I saw it, and that’s why I went to college in 1966.
My dad wasn’t happy with the idea. He was a hard-working Polish guy who had spent most of his life working harder than you or I can ever imagine. Like a lot of Poles, he had been a slave laborer for almost 5 years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany during World War II.
How hard was the work he did there? The slave laborers worked about twelve to fourteen hours a day without any kind of pay on about 600 calories of food per day. When my dad was liberated, he weighed about 75 pounds. He was one of the lucky workers. About 25% of workers there died each year.
When we came to Chicago from the DP camps in Germany in 1952, my dad didn’t stop working. In fact, one of the things that drew him to Chicago was that there was so much factory work here he could work double shifts and make some real money. My dad used to joke that he liked America better than the slave labor camps because at least here you could take a shower and get a cold Budweiser after a day of work.
When I graduated from high school in 1966, I told my dad I planned to go to college, and he tried to talk me out of it. He took me aside and gave me some advice. He said I was smart, and I could speak English like a true American and that if I got a job in a factory I would probably be a foreman in 10 years, and in twenty I would probably own the factory. I laughed.
I didn’t want to work like he did. I had looked around during my last year of high school for a job, and what I saw was that most of my friends with a high school education and no talent were working in factories. I even applied for some of those jobs – jobs making candy or unloading trucks or packing appliances into boxes. The funny thing was that I didn’t get called back for any of those factory jobs I applied for, and the more I filled out those applications the less I wanted to work in some factory.
So I ignored what my dad told me to do, and I went to college. I kept at it until I got a Ph.D. and was lucky enough to get a job teaching. Teaching beats making candy in a candy factory or doing what my dad did–pulling paper tubes out of a chemical bath for 30 years until his lungs got so eaten up by those chemicals that the owners of the factory fired my dad because he couldn’t stand up any more.
PS – I wasn’t the only one that my dad gave that advice to about going to work in the factory and being a foreman and then being the guy who owned the factory. He told my friend Dennis that, and Dennis took my dad’s advice and ended up the millionaire owner of a factory that made burger packaging for McDonalds!
——

Click HERE.
http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/dlaczego-nigdy-nie-pracowalem-w-fabryce/

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Transcribing Notes while Waiting for FEDEX



So I'm staring out the window waiting for the Fedex guy to show up and pick up this case of wine we never ordered and didn't want, and I'm wondering what can I do while waiting.  I don't want to do anything where I have to focus too much because then I might miss the Fedex guy.  But I don't want to be wasting my time, so I decided to finally get together all the notes for poems that I’ve been collecting for the last 6 months. 

Here’s what I mean:

I’m always writing down stuff that pops into my head, lines for poems, words for poems, topics for poems.  I write this stuff down on a piece of paper, or rather many many pieces of paper.  I have legal pads and scratch pads scattered around the house and when something interesting hits me, I write it down on one of these pads.  I do this all the time, write stuff down, because I know that if I don’t then I’ll just forget the line or the phrase.  

Trust me, it happens all the time.  

Just this morning while I was exercising on my stationary bike two lines, a couplet, came into my head.  I went to write it down but couldn’t find a pen that worked, and before I got to the bedroom where we store dozens of pens, the lines were gone.  You know what that’s like.  Even if they were dreck, you’ll never know because they’re lost.  And what if they were the lost chord that Leonard Cohen always sings about?!

So while waiting for the Fedex guy, I figured I would gather all these notes together and type them into my computer, and while I’m doing this I can start shifting these lines and trying to see if they come together as poems or possible parts of poems.  My long poem "Third Winter of War: Buchenwald" that's included in Echoes of Tattered Tongues came together this way.  I spent about a year just jotting stuff down and finally when I sat down and typed it all into the computer there was the book.  A good poem in fact.  then it appeared as a chapbook The publisher nominated it for a Pulitzer Prize!

So I’m sitting at the desk, looking out the window for the Fedex guy, and typing. 

Typing slow.

Typing slow because I can’t easily read my writing for the most part.  When I dash these lines and phrases down, I usually write as fast as I can so that I don’t forget what I want to write.  This results in about 40% of the writing being a blur—is it “a land time egg” or “a long time ago”?   “Felt the brown stuff” or “Feel the torn skin”? 

So I’m doing this and keeping an eye on the window and typing and pretty soon I realize that most of everything I’m transcribing from the notes I’ve taken in the last 6 months is shit.

Holy smokes.

Really.

I’m not being coy and looking for praise,  I’m not looking for you to tell me, really this stuff is great. I can see it on the pages I’ve typed.  It’s all junk.

Let me give you a few of the pages I’ve transcribed:

  • ·        In the dark there is fear and fantasy, dreams and nightmares

  • ·        when we breathe our last we breathe still—all is well all is well all is well

  • ·        thank you for listening

  • ·        If a man has legs he should walk.

  • ·        a man walks into a kitchen looking for a knife

  • ·        the knife is looking for him

  • ·        The Polish word for hand is ręka.  In German it is shovel, rake, fork, and knife.

  • ·        Spring—I watch the earth as if feeds its dead.  I don’t know what to say.

  • ·        A man will drink water if there’s no beer, no liquor, no love of a woman he knew as a boy.

  • ·        No god waiting for his mother and father at the door of the home he knew as a child

  • ·        For a second just then before dawn the sky is red.

  • ·        All babies are born left-handed.

  • ·        Some men turn to sorrow, others to anger

  • ·        There is death before birth and birth before death

  • ·        The last man on earth asks for a drink of water
  • ·        there is no one to give it to him

  • ·        There’s no pain like loneliness

  • ·        Love isn’t love when it doesn’t exist

  • ·        It came back like the devil and his son

  • ·        Man was not built for staying put,    that’s why god gave him two feet  and a soul that itches.

  • ·        Self defense is the law of nature not the law of Jesus

  • ·        forgiveness is indifference

  • ·        in July the grass is dry, the leaves in the trees as green as they’ll get. 

  • ·        if a man stands still for a moment, what he’ll hear is the silence

  • ·        Winter is ahead, waiting for the world to catch up

  • ·        The trees of heaven have roots that go deeper than sorrow. 

  • ·        Love is a kind of literature

  • ·        Anything but the wire.

  • ·        His voice a violin at a funeral

  • ·        Hell is the place where they keep the cigarettes

So I’m typing this kind of stuff up and getting tired and taking breaks to look for more notepads and slips of paper with lines written on them, and it’s getting later and later, and I’m getting disgusted with the stuff I’m typing up on my computer and wondering where all of it leads, and how come I don’t just stop typing and do something else, and I’m looking at the street through the window, and wondering where the Fedex guy is, and suddenly I see him.

There he is.  A big fedex ground truck.  My truck. 

And I’m ecstatic because I can stop worrying about the case of wine, and the money it’s going to cost me if I don’t get it picked up, and I can stop worrying about the shit I’m transcribing that refuses to cohere, to come together in some kind of shape that I can work into a poem.  All of the world is suddenly golden because the Fedex guy is here, and I’m happy at last, and then suddenly the truck starts up and the truck is over the hill and out of sight in a couple of seconds.  He’s gone.  Him and his truck.  And he never even got out of the truck, to walk up the sidewalk to the house and ring the bell or knock on the door to pick up the case of wine that was waiting just inside the door.

He’s gone.

And I’ve got to go back to transcribing all of this rotten poetry.

All of it—that I can’t read and that doesn’t make any kind of sense.      
           
So I type from the sheets of note pads:

  • I just want to say to the world, hold me.
  • And here’s what’s God say, “Not now.” 
  • He keeps me waiting like a cow.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Age of Medical Miracles and Wonders

The Age of Medical Miracles and Wonders

Here's an article I wrote for the Polish Daily News of Chicago about my swollen knee and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever problem and how I'm dealing with this medical mess and the different way my Polish parents dealt with their medical problems.

If you like the piece, please leave a comment at the newspaper's website. I've got a new editor and I have to convince her people are reading my columns in the Polish Daily News/Dziennik Zwiazkowy. So be sure to leave a comment. The link appears at the end.

THE AGE OF MEDICAL MIRACLES AND WONDERS

When I was a kid, I seldom saw my parents go to doctors.

When my mom and dad had an ache here or there, they would use the remedies they brought with them when they crossed the seas from Poland. If my mom had a cold coming on, sometimes she would take a clove of garlic and rub it on her nose. If she had a swollen ankle, she’d drink some water mixed with vinegar. If she saw that I had some kind of ulcerations or bruises on my legs or arms, she’d warm up some cabbage leaves and wrap my bruises in them. If the remedies she believed in didn’t clear up the problem, she’d go visit her friend, the Polish herbalist down near Milwaukee and Division, and get a second opinion.

My dad tended to take a different but equally unusual approach. If his back was throbbing from trying to lift a 50-gallon trashcan by himself or if his hands were hurting from some kind of assembly-line accident he experienced down at the factory, he would grab a bottle of vodka and go down to the basement of the apartment building we lived in near Humboldt Park. Down there, he’d open up the furnace door, pull up a chair, and start drinking the vodka – slowly of course – and letting it and the heat from the furnace do their stuff. Generally, a couple of hours later, he’d come up starts smiling and feeling better.

Sometimes I think my parents had the right idea.

About seven months ago, I was doing some jumping jacks. I wasn’t doing a lot, just three as a part of a daily exercise regimen, but I guess three was too many for a 70 year-old man. A couple days later, I noticed that I had some pain in my left knee. At first, I didn’t give it any mind. I figured it would go away if I just took it easy for a week. But it didn’t go away. After a week, the swelling around my knee was so bad and walking was so difficult that I decided to see my doctor.

I didn’t think at all about what my Polish parents with their old-world health remedies would have suggested. I just contacted my doctor. He sent me to an urgent-care facility connected to his office. They looked at the swollen knee, nodded their heads, took X-rays, and said I needed physical therapy. I said great and started doing fourteen sessions at the local therapy center.

When I got done at the end of June, I was feeling better. The swelling had gone down a lot and walking was only a little painful. The physical therapist told me to keep doing the exercises and soon I would have the knees of a twenty-year old. She even celebrated my successful graduation from physical therapy by giving me a red T-shirt that says, “I Love Physical Therapy!”

Things were going well until the start of August. I looked at my left knee one morning, and it was swollen more than it had ever been before. And I was limping like I hadn’t been limping since a couple days after that jumping jack fiasco. And I suddenly realized that it wasn’t only my knee that was bothering me, but I had aches and pains all over my body, in my chest, my ribs, my neck, and even in my groin area. And I noticed also that I was sweating for some reason. My temperature was hovering around 100.3. And when I got on the scale I immediately realized I had lost five pounds.

I did what any modern person would do. I went to see my doctor again. He was shocked and gave me a couple cortisone shots. I was great for two days. Then all the pain, fever, and misery came back, and I lost another five pounds.

And what did I do then? I went to see my doctor. Of course.

This time he was even more shocked, and he prescribed not only an antibiotic but also an opioid for the pain that was making it almost impossible for me to walk, stand, sit, or lie down.
I thought that finally we had found out what the problem was, and the antibiotics and opioids would fix the swelling in my left knee, rid my body of all the pain and all the sweating, and give me back my appetite so I would stop losing all this weight.

But it didn’t. The fever and the pain and the swelling are back. And I’ve been given another set of opioids and another two-week round of antibiotics because the doctor thinks I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the doctor also set up an appointment for me to see an orthopedic surgeon in the hopes that he can figure out what this mess is all about.

And me?

I wish my parents were still alive, so I could ask my mom what she would take for my pain and fever, and I would ask my dad if he wanted to go down to the rec room in the basement with me and sit by the fireplace and share a bottle of vodka.

____

Click here to access the Polish Daily News where you can leave a comment.
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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Wild Place -- the best book about the DP Camps

The Wild Place
This the title of the best book I've ever read about the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany after the war. It focuses on the Polish DP camp at Wildflecken.
It's written by Kathryn Hulme who was the UN director of the camp and also a fine writer. Her most famous book was The Nun's Story which was made into a classic film starring Audrey Hepburn.
For a long long time this book for some reason was out of print. You might find it in an old book store (for a 100 bucks) or some university library, but otherwise you couldn't read it.
Somehow, the book is now available as a Kindle.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about what it was like for the Poles who survived their years of slave laborer in Germany and then waited in DP camps for some country to take them in.

Here's the link to the kindle: Just click here.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Everyday I will Remember


Everyday I Will Remember by Christopher Kuhl

This excellent book of poems by Christopher Kuhl about his family and their experiences in the Holocaust is now on sale at Amazon for $3.29, marked down from $12.99.  When I saw that this price had been reduced so much, I couldn't believe it.

Here is a review I wrote of the book:

No single book or group of books will teach you about the Holocaust, what happened when the Germans decided to cleanse the earth of Jews and Gypsies and Poles and Gays and the people the Germans considered mules or subhumans or devils.

My mother spent 3 years in the concentration camps in Germany. When I would ask her what it was like, she would just say, “If they give you bread, eat it. If they beat you, run away.” Unsatisfied, I would press her for more, and when she would finally give in and speak, all she would say was, “You weren’t there. You will never understand.”

So where does that leave you and me, who weren’t in the camps, who will never know what it was like?

It leaves us wondering and asking questions and looking for the answers wherever we can find them. It leaves us reading books by those who survived, great writers like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankel and Wladyslaw Szpilman and Olga Lengyel. And it leaves us reading books by writers who have somehow listened to the voices of those who survived and in those voices heard something that allows them to continue the legacy of those who survived and wrote about it.

Christopher Kuhl is such a writer.

Like the best of them – contemporary poets like Charles Fishman, William Heyen, and Cyrus Cassells – Christopher Kuhl blends stark moments of misery and death with a poetic vision that gives those moments an intensity that we will never forget.

We see this throughout his book Everyday I Will Remember. He tells us about those survived the camps and those who didn’t and what they saw and heard: the selections, the ovens, the bayonets in the ribs, the screaming, the diseases, the voices of the German soldiers, the dead children, the mass graves, the boxcars, the empty villages, the electric fences, the bodies piled so high.

But showing us the Holocaust is not all that Christopher Kuhl does. He helps us remember the Holocaust. He does this through his language, his images, his poet’s vision. This is most felt I think in those poems in the second half of the book, the section dealing with the time after the war, after the liberation from the camps. In this section, the survivors and the descendants of survivors are themselves seeking the words that will make some sense of the Holocaust.
We see this, for example, in the poem “A Mother’s Prayer to Her Son: Remember Me”:

I gather the wind
In the palm
Of my hand:

Son of my womb,
Son of my vows,

You have stirred my
Shadow to life . . . .

Christopher Kuhl also brings to his telling of the story of the Holocaust a poet’s gift for asking the ultimate questions the Holocaust forces us to ask.

Why did so many die? What do we owe a God who allowed this to happen? Why do such genocides go on and on? Why did the Germans do such terrible things? Do the dead know why they suffered? What is it like to be dead? How should we remember those who suffered?

And why should we remember them?
In an era where people are forgetting the Holocaust and questioning even whether it ever actually occurred, Christopher Kuhl reminds us as only a great poet can why we should never forget.

Click here to go to Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Everyday-Will-Remember-Christopher-Kuhl/dp/1643453157/

Monday, August 19, 2019

Packing and Moving

Packing and Moving
It never stops.
In the 45 years Linda and I have been married, we have moved about 15 times. We’ve moved across town and across the state and across the country. We have moved to Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, and Virginia, our present home.
Since we moved to Virginia ten years ago to be close to our daughter Lillian, we have lived in 3 different houses and two different cities. There were even times when my wife Linda moved to one state and I moved to another because of job demands.
When I tell people about all these movies, they always seem surprised.
What surprises me is that they seem surprised. The statistics I’ve looked at suggest that 15 moves isn’t that different from what most Americans do. The average American, according to a study conducted by the US Census Bureau, moves 11.7 times in his lifetime.
And when they move, they move a lot of stuff.
I read an article recently in Time Magazine about how the average American household has about 8,000 pounds of stuff.
My wife and I probably have more, and it’s all my fault. I’m a book collector. You pick up a book, and it feels light, unless it’s something like Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy, but that lightness disappears when you have a box of books. That box will weigh about 40 pounds, and I typically move with about 135 boxes of books. That probably comes to about 5,400 pounds, 2 and a half tons. But that’s just me. Most people will have other stuff that weighs them down.
They will pack and move their 8,000 or 10,000 pounds 11.7 times and wonder, as I do, what the point of moving is. Do we move to get a better job, a better view, a better set of neighbors, a better living room, a better school district, or do we move because moving is fixed solid in our DNA? Or does it go back even further and deeper in our collective history?
Maybe people like you and me have been nomads ever since God threw us out of the Garden of Eden and told us to take a hike.
PS. Before I end this, I better tell you I’m not the one in the family who does most of the heavy lifting and packing. It’s my wife Linda who does it. She packs up her stuff and my stuff (all those books!), boxes it all and preps it for each and every move. She’s the moving engine, and I’m the caboose.
It all reminds me of a story my mom told about the time we moved from the refugee camps in Germany to America. She said when she asked my dad in the refugee camp to help her pack to come to America, he took a little drink of vodka and bundled all the clothes together in a bedspread like America was just across the street.
I think I inherited some of my dad’s foolishness when it comes to moving. I start packing a box up, and I end up typing at the computer–just like this.
____
This is my most recent column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish paper in America.
Feel free to stop by the website linked below and drop a comment. It makes the editor think I'm not just slouching.

http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/przeprowadzka-packing-moving/

Saturday, August 10, 2019

My Summer So Far

MY SUMMER SO FAR 

July 5

There is heat and stillness, and a car’s been parked in front of my house for two weeks. Not moving. Ever. A black Buick Le Sabre. Maybe a 97 or 98.

Maybe this doesn’t seem odd to you, but it does to me. We live on a quiet street. There’s not much traffic and it’s not often that cars are parked in front of houses. In this neighborhood, people have driveways and garages. They don’t park on the street.

But that’s not all.

Something is killing the hedgehogs in my neighborhood. I saw 4 dead ones in the streets this morning while driving my granddaughter Lucy to her summer day camp.

Each one had its head cut off. You could see this plainly. There was blood but no heads.

I never see hedgehogs, and suddenly there they are in the street. With their heads cut off, missing.

Have other people noticed the dead hedgehogs and the heat and the stillness and the car parked in front of my house?

Who’s doing this? And why? What harm has a hedgehog ever done anyone?

Why kill a hedgehog?

JULY 6

The black car is still there.

Last night I marked the right, rear tire with some yellow chalk I found in the basement.

I thought this would help me figure out if it had actually not moved.

It hadn’t. The yellow chalk mark is still there on the tire.

I saw one of my neighbors, a new guy, standing in his yard looking at the car. I don’t know his name yet. He’s a skinny guy. He waved me over. Asked me about the car. He said he thought it had been there for three weeks. I said I thought it was two.

He asked if I had noticed the oil spot near the rear tire. I said yes.

He said, that car’s not going any place. You should call the police. That’s what I’d do if it were parked in front of my house.

I said, maybe tomorrow, and then I asked him about the hedgehogs.

I told him I’d been seeing dead ones on the streets around the neighborhood.

Had he seen any? He said he hadn’t.

I didn’t tell him the ones I saw were headless. That’s just too weird.

JULY 7

The black car has moved.

It’s been pulled about 20 feet forward.

Where it sat for 2 weeks is a white car. I think it’s the same model, same make. Just white.

It’s in the exact spot. I’m not kidding, not telling you a story. The exact space.

Yesterday, my granddaughter Lucy asked me to play an iPad game with her at the library. It was all about hedgehogs. They were doing cute things and running around a lawn chasing each other and trying to avoid a guy mowing the lawn. I didn’t understand the game at all, what the purpose was, but I played anyway.

You know I kept thinking about the other hedgehogs, the ones in the street.

JULY 8

When I woke up this morning, the white car was gone, but that’s not all. A black Ford pick-up is in front of the house now.

I can’t believe it. It suddenly showed up there this afternoon. My wife Linda and I were driving home from dropping our granddaughter off at our daughter Lillian’ s house, and we came up the hill and there it was. Enormous and parked in front of our house.

My neighbor Scott, the stockbroker guy, was outside watering his boxwoods when we pulled into the driveway, and he came up and asked us whose truck it was. We said we didn’t know.

He said, somebody is jerking around with you.

I nodded.

The good news? I haven’t seen a dead hedgehog in a couple of days.

JULY 9
The hedgehogs are gone. The dead ones and the live ones both. They were everywhere a week ago and today they’re not.

You won’t believe this, but the cars are gone also. The black one and the white one both. The truck is gone too. Like I told you, the black car sat there right in front of my house for two weeks. I chalked its tires so I would now if it moved, and it didn’t, and then it did, and now it’s gone.

A cool wind came through early this morning. I was mowing the front lawn, and I felt it and enjoyed it. For the first time in a week, it felt cool outside. A hired guy mowing the lawn next door — someone I don’t know — saw me standing there enjoying the breeze, and he stopped mowing and raised his hands, as if to say, „Ain’t it something.”

It is.

I’m not so foolish as to think that summer is coming to an end or that the cars and trucks in front of my house are gone or that the hedgehogs won’t be back, but it’s pleasant to think so.

It will help me get through the rest of this long, hot summer.

——-

This is my latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy.  Please consider leaving a comment at the newspaper’s website.  

http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/moj-letni-pamietnik/


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Monday, July 29, 2019

Speaking of Friends

Speaking of Friends

Have I ever told you about the guy who used to be my best friend when I lived in downstate Illinois?

He was an English teacher at the local community college — before he lost his job.

Why did he lose his job?  Well, besides being a failed novelist, he was an alcoholic and a pill popper and a slob. He lost his driver’s license because he had too many DUIs, and then he lost his job because he kept drinking booze and popping pills and writing novels no one — even his friends — wanted to read.

But he was also a really lovely guy with a great heart.

I went to his house one day after he lost his job.  He wanted me to come over because he had a gift for me.  I had helped him run errands, that kind of stuff, because he couldn’t drive.  So he felt he wanted to give me something.  I was okay with that.  I understand the need to be thankful.

First, we had lunch, a great lunch of Tequila Sunrises and homemade Mexican burritos, and we talked about novelists we both loved.  Most of his favorites were Russians, most of mine were Americans.  But that’s okay too.

And then he gave me the gift.  I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just there at his place to have lunch and talk about books and authors, but suddenly my friend got up and went to his desk and came back with a beautiful, golden, narrow wooden box. And inside of it was a $100 fountain pen. It was brand new, with the price tag still on it.

I was stunned. The thing was gorgeous, but what do you do with a gift like that? I write all the time, but I never write with a pen. This is the age of computers and iPads. When I write, I write with my fingers tapping on a keyboard. You know what that’s like.

But like I said, the pen was gorgeous, so I took it and thanked my friend. And so now this pen sits on my desk, and every time I see it I think of him and our friendship — even though finally he decided I was a jerk and a terrible person and he didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I wouldn’t lie to the judge when he was brought up on even more Driving Under the Influence charges.

——

This is my latest column for the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the oldest Polish paper in America.  

Please consider leaving a comment on the website linked below. 


http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/skoro-juz-mowa-o-przyjaciolach/

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Funny Story

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

A FUNNY STORY

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.

PRAYING IN POLISH 

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.

/http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/modlitwa-po-polsku/

Monday, June 17, 2019

Solitude?

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.

MAY 3rd — POLISH CONSTITUTION DAY

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.

Poland

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)

http://dziennikzwiazkowy.com/guzlowski/parada-trzeciomajowa-may-3rd-polish-constitution-day/

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