The Bonds That Tie

Sometimes, between the Facebook screeds and muffled screams of  despair in response, I pause to simply look over the pictures of people I know: family, friends, acquaintances, hoping to find something reassuring. At times, a recognition begins quickly but is too well bound up with history to see with freshness,  still, I try. On occasion, I succeed and that something reveals itself. An inner vault opens, so to speak, flooding me with primal images, memory pictures embedded deep inside my being.

My brother, three years older and a world apart in type and temperament, I remember from these earliest recollections as a hero, a larger-than-life figure who could play any sport with ease, hit the ball harder and farther, punch harder, run faster, jump higher than only the superheroes we watched together in Saturday morning cartoons.

A cousin I remember as gregarious and intensely sensitive, a natural-born musician whose vocal and musical talents I stood in awe of as he taught himself to play guitar and whose naturalness at the task I still have never seen again.

Now I look at family pictures and see not the awkwardness I felt at the time of being in the presence of blood kin who looked like me and yet were so different, but instead I see echoes of a longer bond which transcends all those new found distinctions we adhere to such as opinions and political convictions. An older bond, ancient, familiar and yet distant too, in a way, which ties us together.

It is odd. On the one hand, as I attempt to allow the warmth of memory to reveal itself without filter, I smile at how deeply imprinted that bond of blood is upon me. On the other hand, age and distance, experience and cultivation have changed us all, and some of those relationships have passed entirely into memory, while others have become strained reflections of what they once were, and others retain their hold, if only for nostalgic embrace of a verdant past. A smaller number remain confusing aggregates of history, impressions, topical fragments of shared interests in clothes or music; with them, I linger a bit and move on, with scarcely a look back.

Family ties are obviously the strongest and are for me, also the most puzzling. They exist in that archetypal realm we cannot name,but instantly recognize. When my children are able to see their cousins and play with them or speak via video I am struck by their displays of that same primal recognition, a curiosity at first, then a deepening of impressions, recognition, and then an acknowledgement of difference, and they move on. Their curiosity remains though, and I am pummeled to this day with questions about this or that cousin of theirs, or mine (from my Puertorican side of the family which they do not know as well as their Icelandic cousins who live nearby.)

This “oddness” lies mainly in the intensity of perceived difference, coupled with the deeper intensity of felt sameness. Let me elaborate.

Without apology I lead a life firmly committed to accumulating as much information as I can assemble in order to distribute and selectively highlight to as wide an audience as I can reach, in order to be of service to the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the poor of the world, all of whom I regard as my kin, my family, my people. Yet this very same attitude apparently goes against the grain of imbibed notions of nationality and cultural “loyalty” by some, and has earned me the wrath and enmity of people who are, by blood, my biological family, my biological kin. These differences are held onto tightly by all sides, and are seen as the defining qualities of personal identity, pretty much above all else.  But, possibly by nature, I don´t share such notions of Other vs. Us and partly because of this, I am ostracized. Still  I continue, nevertheless, and am proud of my efforts to be a “connector” of ideas and people to each other.

But those bonds again…their psychic ties on me remains firm, if the actual grasp invisible and elusive. I am at odds with people I may not have seen in 30 years and yet, just viewing their faces is an act of subtle pleasure, a noticeably bittersweet acknowledgement I face daily.

I am now old enough to see the adult children of my cousins and see in their faces the same features I saw in my father or mother and in their families before and recognize in myself and my own children.  I see these people now, most of whom I have never met, and marvel at how easily I smile at seeing them at even the most ordinary of tasks or poses, smile at their lives and stories, smile at their shared experiences. I am tied to them by bonds I concede as vitally important, and yet, I remain apart, divided because of my acceptance of other bonds which also tie me: to others not so well regarded, not so tribally regarded as “our” blood, or national identity.

What do we owe those bonds? Why are  notions of blood kinship worth holding onto so tightly that they displace wider notions of kinship with other people, other races, other cultures, other species, even? Is this perhaps some grander lesson, that our smaller bonds are to be regarded as launching pads for a wider Compassion as Buddhists say,  becoming at last a concern for “all sentient beings” which is to displace narrower ideas of “kinship?

I don´t know. I know those original bonds are there, and I am tied by them. They actually feel good. Yet, there are other bonds, not as old but just as meaningful nevertheless, which tie me to others,all over the world, whose power I must acknowledge too.

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Another Fall

The first frost was seen on the car early in the morning last week.  I saw it, liked it, then quickly dismissed it. For now, the car still sits in the shade of the house which faces the port and the “harbor-fjord” (which is the name of the town I live in, Hafnarfjörður) about a quarter mile down below the hill we are on.

Today I saw it again. That thin, icy grey frost covering the car and lightly blanketing the grass with crusty glitter. I had to turn the car on, scrape the ice off, and let it warm up before taking the kids to school.

Early morning frost is the harbinger of Fall, my ostensibly favorite season, although it signals another fall, a decline in cognitive skills and emotional balance. It is appropriately called  SAD: Seasonal affective disorder, and each Fall I notice it: the darkening internal shadows at the edge of my days, an indelicate, unexplanable sadness which intrudes on even the most benign moments, and a growing unease or jitteriness  which manifests itself as shortened anger fuses and a nagging irritability at pretty much everything.

My first winter here in Iceland was eerie, it was categorized as a new experience and felt as the beginning of an adventure, which it was. The second was stunning–I was able to notice qualities about the long, dark winter more, the skies, the northern lights, the stars, the crispness to the light when we had it and the sharpness of the diminishing light during the day.  By the third winter I noticed I began to decline within–I began to feel BAD. By the fourth … I was near suicidal.

This will be my 11th.

Icelanders have adapted it seems. Most will  say they are usually “happy,” though grumbling about the awful financial situation (despite Mssrs. Krugman and Hudson´s paeans to “-re-adjustment” policies) continues. But to live year in and year out on this volcanic, moss-covered, hot spring heated rock up in the frigid north Atlantic, often buffeted by winds so tempestuous that no matter which way you turn you are struck by cold, glass-like blades of rain drops which ravage your skin and tolerance, instills a patience as well an edge of insanity they are now comfortable, even genetically, with possessing. Then, of course, the average daylight is so appreciated that, on particularly clear, sunny days, it is assumed many people will call in “sick” in order to lay outside and soak up the sun on their porches or yards.

In the summer, as daylight lasts almost 20 hours per day at its peak, the liveliness of the populace is palpably felt. (I become ecstatic.) But while global climate change has made the summers here warmer and brighter, the winters, though in general warmer, have also become more erratic and we have seen some horrible snowstorms which made the normally tough, dark winters unimaginably stressful.  Not necessarily colder, but more wind, more snow drifts, less sun, more misery all around. Icelanders grin and bear it, as usual. And for Icelanders, the Fall seems to shake off this this manic joy and tempers it, but only a bit; blithely they continue, talking about the weather and soaking up fashionably what sun they can eek out from these diminishing light days.

I, on the other hand, feel like I am losing a great struggle deep down to my own genetically predisposed tendencies to need “real” sun and warm water and … did I say, sun? Light … luminosity … the comforting warmth of  a bright, humid day filled with the rich passion of a sun baking the earth to robust fecundity. Ah, yes … to be genetically Puertorican is something too easily forgotten until I face the upcoming darkness.

I meditate twice daily and eat fairly well and healthily. I do not drink often nor to excess when I do.  My coffee intake is limited to morning and noon and in quantities not all that bad for me. I take “B-stress” tablets every day, and exercise every other day with weights. I walk a lot as I pick up my boy from school, walk back, and usually later, after homework, walk him to a friend´s house, walk back home, and have to get him before dinner so all in all, about a mile a day, give or take a bit, every day almost and of course, I try to hike some on weekends.  Still, the beginning of Fall signals another fall–one of mood and Life quality that I dread even as I celebrate my favorite season filled with cool, clean air and the various crimson-colored leaves.

A Dedication, A Small Reminder

Today, today it began again, back then
and those who cry for this new beginning to end,
from Syria to Iran,
from the homelessness of kids on the streets of America,
to the fiction of choice behind the madness of the next “election”, all dismissed
as “America bashers”;
To them who resist, I offer this,
to remember and pass along,
if they dare,
and challenge, as they must,
alone, facing the condemnation of their peers,
and the inevitable dust:

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.