I is for Idling

July 2, 2014

Gracious Living Day by DayIdling.

blue sky

This is the definition from dictionary.com:

i·dle

[ahyd-l] adjective, i·dler, i·dlest.

  1. not working or active; unemployed; doing nothing: idle workers.
  2. not spent or filled with activity: idle hours.
  3. not in use or operation; not kept busy: idle machinery.
  4. habitually doing nothing or avoiding work; lazy.
  5. of no real worth, importance, or significance: idle talk.

When I was a child I loved to idle. I sat for hours and observed the world, observed and listened. I sat so quietly that I practically disappeared. Into a wallflower. Into a witness.

During the summer holidays, while visiting my grandparents in the Serbian countryside, I remember sitting in the shade on hot afternoons while the adults worked in the fields. Alone, or with my sister and cousins, I sat on a blanket, played, read or idled.

What I remember most about those afternoons was the thunderous noise the insects made. There was no other activity, no other sound but the sounds of buzzing, chirping, humming, rustling, whirling, whooshing. They were the whole world and they were busy. I felt so lucky, so golden not to be a busy bee but a girl quietly sitting on the blanket, looking at the clouds floating across the deep blue sky. The bees had no time. I had all the time in the world.

Is there anything as delightful as the luxury of experiencing a moment? The gratification of being a witness to a second of life: the whiff of lavender on the air, the caress of sunlight on one’s ear, the sound of a bee’s passage from flower to flower?

As I grew up, I got busy.

Not every girl grows up to be a busy bee, but I did. My parents, sister and I moved to the US and I embraced this busy new culture with all the zeal of a convert. There was so much I wanted to do, to learn, to see. There were not enough hours in a day for all I wanted to experience.

I moved far away from those idling afternoons, far away in time, far away in distance. And I forgot that word. Idling.

Many years later, when Mike and Nena were very little, and before Sam was born, I was reading them a children’s book one lazy summer afternoon. It was an alphabet book picturing little bears. Each page illustrated a letter with a scene and a short sentence.

The page with the letter I showed a little girl bear lying on a soft blanket, her arms folded under her head. A busy little bee was buzzing around her nose, but the bear did not look at the bee. She was dreamily observing the clouds in a deep blue sky.

The word for I was Idling. And next to it was the writer’s definition of the word: Witnessing Life.

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Harvests and Funerals

June 30, 2014

Gracious Living Day by DayLast summer, while I was in Serbia, the wheat harvest started in mid July.

During those broiling, humid days everyone was busy from sunrise to sunset. In Vizic, my father’s family village, I could taste the dust on my tongue at any time of day or night.

Vizic Harvest, July, 2013 Vizic Harvest, July, 2013

My uncles and aunts and cousins and every able bodied member of this tiny village of around five hundred souls worked endlessly to get everyone’s fields harvested before the rains fell. If the wheat got wet and moldy a year of hard work could be lost.

Everyone had a job to do. There were the organizers who directed the combines to the fields around the village perimeter. There were the combine operators and the hay collectors. There were the mechanics who stepped in if the combine engines broke down or needed a new part. There were the cooks who prepared meals for the workers.

Sam, Nikki and I  helped as much as we could. Sam loved driving out into the wheat fields with the men. Nikki and I mostly helped by cooking, baking and cleaning. Nikki commented that she had never seen people work so hard.

During this entire time the village had been anticipating the death of one of its own.

Vizic, Main Street Vizic, Main Street

Djoka Kotarlic, a man in his 60′s, had been paralyzed and in a partial coma since suffering a stroke two years earlier. For more than two weeks he had been slowly dying.

In the middle of the harvest season, at midday on a very hot Friday, Djoka Kotarlic finally died.

The news spread through the village in a couple of minutes but the work did not stop. The combine engines thundered til the end of the day.

My uncle Jova came home from the fields that evening, washed up, and we ate dinner together. Then he and my aunt Angelina went to the house of Djoka Kotarlic who was laid on a table in the middle of his living room with a handkerchief tied around his jaw. The village sat around him, quietly talking, keeping the family company through the night.

On Saturday morning while the village prepared for the funeral, the combine engines idled silently.

Around 11 am I put on my darkest, severest dress and headed to Djoka Kotarlic’s house with my aunt and uncle. People were gathered in groups all around their yard and veranda. I tried not to look at Djoka Kotarlic as I entered the living room to pay respects to his sobbing wife and daughters. But I couldn’t help myself. I quickly glanced at this grey, shrunken shell and had trouble recognizing the man so full of energy and mischief.

Everyone had a job to do. The family quietly mourned. Women prepared soup, roasts and baked bread in the summer kitchen. Men carried the coffin into the living room, placed Djoka Kotarlic inside and closed the lid.

The church bells thundered, both joyous and solemn, announcing the setting forth of the funeral procession.

The priest headed the long cavalcade. A few rows behind him I carried wreaths of flowers with the other women. The men trailed with the coffin on their shoulders. It was noon by now, the sun enormous and merciless.

We walked through the streets stopping by every house while the priest chanted a short prayer; a send-off for Djoka Kotarlic from each family in the village. After half an hour or so we made it to the church yard in the center of the village square. The coffin was taken into the old church and the priest held a long service. Some mourners went inside, others sat on benches under the linden trees. People offered each other cool glasses of water.

After the service, we continued walking through the dusty, unshaded streets. With all the stopping it seemed to take an enormous length of time to get to the cemetery but no house was skipped over. We walked outside the village, up a steep hill and through the iron gates of the ancient cemetery.

Vizic Cemetery Vizic Cemetery; my niece Jovana kissing our grandmother’s grave

We headed to the shady corner where Djoka Kotarlic’s family has been buried for generations. I examined the stones as the priest chanted and the church bells loudly tolled. The old women wailed. The coffin was placed in the open grave and covered with dirt.

Slowly, people fanned through the lanes between the graves, visiting their own family members. I left a few stalks of wilted roses at the graves of my grandparents. At the exit, under an enormous oak, a wooden table was laden with flat bread, bottles of plum brandy, wine and mineral water. I washed my hands and face at the water fountain, then sat on the bench next to my uncle Jova and had a glass of water. He placed his arm around my shoulder.

In broken little groups we slowly headed back to the house of Djoka Kotarlic. Under the shady grape arbor tables were set with the best family china. We all sat down, cheerful and companionable, exhausted but light in our relief. Tureens of soup were passed around; then boiled chicken with tomato, dill or garlic sauces; roast chicken, pork, potatoes; roasted peppers; tomato, cucumber and onion salads.

As I chatted with cousins and childhood friends, the bitterness of thick Turkish coffee balanced the sweetness of walnut strudel and apricot torte piled high with thick cream.

The rains held for another week. People said that it was the best harvest year anyone could remember in a very long time.

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Summer Updates

June 27, 2014

Gracious Living Day by DayI try not to feel guilty when I don’t have time to write, but I do. I try to pretend that I have outgrown this kind of self reproach when, really, I am the same person I have always been. Only older.

I am being too hard on myself. I have made a few advances through the years after all, one of which is not having to finish every book I start reading, even those that I don’t like. Still, even in this regard I would be lying if I claimed foolproof consistency.

For the last few months I have been reading a book by an Italian writer about the historical and cultural influences of the river Danube on the territories along its flow. I find the book pretentious and stuffy, but I can’t stop reading it. I feel I would be deceitful to this river I love (my mother’s family has lived in a village on the Danube for many generations) if I didn’t follow it all the way to the Black Sea.

Banostor, Serbia Banostor, my mother’s village, with the Danube in the foreground

I hate using the same old excuse of being busy, but that is the plain and honest truth. I haven’t had time for writing because I have been very busy.

My niece Rachel got married this spring and my sister and I worked hard to finish the quilt that the two of us designed and made by hand for her. My niece Nicole graduated from college a few weeks later. My father and step-mother came to visit and celebrate all these wonderful events with us. And through it all I worked on a big freelance project.

My children have been coming and going all spring and summer, our little house bursting at the seams. Mike hurt his knee playing basketball last winter and has been confined to the living room couch, writing and working from there, trying not to go crazy from restlessness and impatience. Nena and her puppy Flaika are home for a few months, Nena making excursions to various places (the East Coast, Israel) now and then, leaving Flaika with us. Sam is spending the summer taking classes and working on environmental research in the depths of the Michigan forests.

And I have finally managed (with Nena and Flaika) to escape to our cottage near Lake Michigan.

It is sunny and warm this morning, crisp and clear, not a drop of humidity in the air. Nena and I are sitting opposite each other at the long dining room table, writing. Through the screen door, Flaika is guardedly observing the antics of our neighbor’s big Siberian Husky, Storm.

It’s very quiet; all one hears are the birds. A big, bright bluejay just landed on the window sill.

A bowl of freshly picked Michigan strawberries is on the table.

Nena writing Nena writing

Nena is writing a collection of stories about our family in Serbia and we plan on spending the afternoon sitting on the front porch, talking. I will tell her what I know about the lives of great-great grandfathers and grandmothers and uncles and aunts and cousins. Maybe this is why I was always keeping records, remembering, listening. Since earliest childhood I have been a witness. Maybe this is why.

In early evening we plan on taking a long walk along the Lake Michigan shore. Flaika loves running along the beach, shooting like a bullet, dumfounded at her own speed and abandon. We’ll be tired and spent by the time we get back to our little cottage.

Flaika at the beach Flaika at the beach

Tonight, before I fall asleep I will spend a few hours reading the Italian’s version of the history of the Danube. We are in Bulgaria now, almost at the entrance to the Black Sea. I can’t wait to arrive. Other authors are waiting on my night table, among them Jane Smiley and Tony Morrison.

Dear readers, I have missed you. Have a wonderful summer!

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Three Buses

May 18, 2014

My daughter published a story, “Three Buses,” in the literary magazine Phoebe. It is a story of many voices about the former Yugoslavia. Read it. Tell me what you think. Share and Enjoy:

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Congratulations, Mike!

April 18, 2014

Congratulations to my son for graduating from law school and passing the New York Bar. Mike is mostly interested in international and human rights law. He recently started his own blog – AdviseAndDissent.com – where he writes about domestic and international issues that interest him. Mike has written about the situation in Ukraine, minimum wage […]

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Flaika at the Window

April 12, 2014

My daughter Nena is a graduate student in Tuscaloosa, AL. This is Flaika, her cockapoo puppy, and her faithful companion. Nena and Flaika are coming back home to Michigan in a couple of weeks to spend the summer here. I can’t wait. Nena reproaches me for looking forward to seeing Flaika more than I am of […]

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John In the Sun

April 11, 2014

Rosanna, my reader from rural Pennsylvanian, sent me this picture of her cat John. Is there a lovelier way to spend a sunny spring day? Share and Enjoy:

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First Day In the Garden

April 2, 2014

I’ve managed to spend the winter hardly moving at all. Other than shoveling snow and walking to and from my car, I hardly moved. I love to walk, but our streets and sidewalks were impassable for months. Covered with layers of snow, ice, then snow and ice again, they were slippery minefields, impregnable and treacherous. […]

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Another Spring

March 19, 2014

Spring arrives tomorrow. Spring. proleće, primavera… are there lovelier sounds in this world? Today the day is dark, overcast, stormy and rain is steadily whipping the window panes. The dirty snowbanks still clinging to the muddy ground don’t have a chance. Their time is over. This time last year we had just moved into our […]

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Playing Dice

March 5, 2014

March is here. It is still very cold, but the once pristine snow is getting dirty, the jagged icebergs along the roads are showing signs of wear, and the goodwill of the Olympic games is turning into a new cold war. I am so weary of winter. I am so weary of aggressive, arrogant, bellicose […]

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A Life

February 27, 2014

I just finished reading a biography (in Serbian) of Mileva Maric Einstein, the first wife of Albert Einstein. It was hard for me to read this book. I drove my family crazy talking about it relentlessly at the dinner table and even to myself I sounded angry and shrill. Here’s why. Mileva Maric was born […]

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Past the Middle of February

February 19, 2014

We are past the middle of February and even though the cold has been intense and the snow bounteous, there is a different feeling in the air. As I shoveled our driveway yesterday, I got so overheated I had to take my jacket off and work in a sweater. The ice patch in front of […]

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The Deep Freeze

February 6, 2014

More snow fell yesterday. Our driveway and path to the house are becoming deep tunnels. The temperature is consistently below zero. All around us stretches an expanse of clean whiteness. Long icicles hang from trees and roof-lines. The bird feeder is snowed in and the birds are nowhere in sight. The tips of the young […]

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