Tintern Abbey

And when we say that we know what we mean — set it down in stone and walk away — the story does not end.

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Tear the roof off and it reappears, wider now, enclosing the arc of grass and rock and river. Burn the books and the words leak out, silence men and they never stop echoing. Words not for speakers, prayers not for answers, echoes not for hearing — but for moss and wind and stone and sky.

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Here is the outside come in. Here is the window that is the world, the silence that echoes, the fire that has no flame.

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Shouldn’t be hot to the touch, then? If energy has a present and a future — why not a past? A memory. A song. A story. A secret. Shouldn’t it be boiling here? How can you stand it? The veins of the place, stretching out like lines of magma into the heart of the earth and rising up again through your fingertips and into the air.

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Trace a finger along the arc of stone and shiver. The spark of like-meets-like along a conduit. The shock of being recognized in a crowd. The sound of your own name.

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Is it conceivable, then? That there was a time that is not this place? Or a place when you did know what you are? That even you forgot you — before you were remembered?

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Kneel here. It is stranger than it looks, the thing we sing to, less unknown than unknowable. That it grows stronger in the silence, louder in the stillness, closer in the banishing. Argue and it waits. Turn and it finds. Fall and it catches.

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All of that and none, none of that and then some. And who are you? And why did you come here? And now that you’ve come , what measure of you can leave? No stone is forever, anymore than violets, but nothing said is unsaid and the name rolls forth forever.

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Stanchakistan, Ukraine and the peril of false homelands

liberty

Lady Liberty, seen from the water.

Whenever I read depressing news from eastern Europe 1, I look up and utter a short prayer. It goes like this:

Thank you, great-grandfather. 

I’ve never met him. He died before I was born. But he did more to shape my life than anyone I’ve ever met. A little more than 100 years ago, he decided to leave Ukraine and come to America, leaving behind all the terrible things that would happen in that part of the world in the century to come. Because of him, those problems are all someone else’s. Not mine. 2

But the story of the Stanchaks in America isn’t like most European immigrant stories. There was no master plan to start fresh in America, no drive for a better life. My great-grandfather wasn’t one of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. He came over on a lark and then one thing led to another and then there was a war and he just kind of … stayed. 3  He left people behind. And some of those people must have died in the horrors to come, but not all. Some survived and had children, who had kids of their own, who had kids of their own. And some of those people came to America later and are some still over there. I know. I’ve checked. 4

***

When I was nine or ten, I asked my father’s father if he spoke any Ukrainian.  He was quiet for a second, like he hadn’t heard me. Then sat down beside me, looked me in the eye and said,

“You don’t need any of that. Always remember that if it were better there, we would have stayed.”

That was good enough for me. At least, until I went away to boarding school.

My school had students from all over the world. I disliked them all instantly.  I told myself it was because they insisted on speaking German or Thai or Korean to each other, which I saw as both rude and foolhardy. Didn’t they know English was the best language? Didn’t they know that if wherever they were from was better they would have stayed?

But of course, I was just jealous. Nothing puts a middle-class Pennsylvania childhood into sharp relief like hearing about someone else’s much more exotic upbringing. I envied everything about their homelands, even the parts they found embarrassing. Being from another place gave them a story to tell, a secret to share — and an excuse for any and all uncool behavior. 5  I wanted what they had. I wanted a better story to tell.

I started to play up my Ukrainian heritage. Of course, I didn’t actually know anything about Ukraine, its people or their customs. I was just making educated guesses by extrapolating family traits into national ones. My dad was always feuding with one of our next-door neighbors, so blood feuds became a part of my ethnic identity. My grandfather was a great salesman, so of course I came from a mercantile culture. You get the picture.

If I’d been more modest in my fabrications, the whole thing would have been out of my system in a week. Someone would have called me out for making stuff up and that would have been the end of it. Very embarrassing. But I never tell a small lie where a big one will do — and luckily the big lies were funny ones. The whole thing morphed into a series of running jokes about my “homeland” and its goofy traditions. As the hyperbole got more ridiculous and profane, I started to feel bad about pretending I was still talking about Ukraine.  And so I made up a new homeland for myself: Stanchakistan.

One spring I wrote a gag article for the April Fool’s edition of the school newspaper about a new class being offered in Stanchakistani studies. I sent a copy to my dad. He responded with a list of “factual errors” in the original piece. From then on, Stanchakistan wasn’t my joke; it was ours. Now we bat around ideas for national mottoes on car trips, we debate what the currency should be called over lunch. At this point, my dad has added more to the mythos than I have. He’s drawn up maps, people. Real maps for a fake country. 6

***

Does that mean I’m from Stanchakistan?

It’s 2008 now and I’m having lunch with a cousin I don’t see very often. 7 I make a casual reference to Stanchakistan and she stares at me blankly. I explain the joke. It’s not that she doesn’t understand it — she’s just not sure how she feels about it.

At this point, I’ve been making up my own heritage for a decade. My immediate family might think its funny, at least part of the time. But I’ve never consulted any of my other relations about Stanchakistan. Explaining it to my cousin, I feel embarrassed. That’s never happened before. 8 I realize how weird it must sound to her, hearing that I’ve invented a shared identity for my family without consulting them — especially since a lot of the mythology centers around us being shiftless, untrustworthy schemers. The trouble with being the father of your country is that you’ve got to share it with other people.

***

I’m willing to bet that before last fall, the average American knew nothing about Ukraine. A small percentage would be capable of one of the following three sentences:

  1. That’s where that nuclear power plant exploded, right?
  2. Is that the one with all the mail order brides?
  3. The Ukraine is weak! 9

I know a little bit more about it, but I’m no scholar. After all, if it were better, we would have stayed.

A lot of the uncommon stuff I know about the country comes from a charity flower show Blair and I attended, which was sponsored by the Ukrainian embassy. The day was dedicated to the handful of things Ukrainians do really well —  decorating eggs, braiding hair and pretending that cold beet soup is edible. Volunteers were handing out a tourism brochure called “Ukraine? Ukraine!”. 10 The booklet was a list of incredibly specific “frequently asked questions” such as “Was Odessa one of the largest cities in the world in the 12th century?”, “Did Balzac have a Ukrainian lover?”,  and “Is the Bandura the national instrument of Ukraine?”. 11 Of course, anyone who would be capable of asking those questions would already know a fair amount about Ukrainian history and culture. They gave us too much credit. They should have started off small — maybe with “So where exactly is this place?”

I went home conflicted that day. On the one hand, I really dodged a bullet here. Ukrainian history is incredibly sad and the cultural highlights are beautiful, but they’re also very specific. On the other hand, none of that matters.  You don’t get to choose your ancestry. You may as well say you don’t care for the moon.

***

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says we are all Ukrainians.

I don’t think that’s true. Many people don’t know or care about what’s happening there now. I won’t pretend that I have an especially deep understanding of the conflict — or that my blood somehow makes my opinion more legitimate than anyone else’s. I’ve read more than enough copy in the past few weeks written by people who have deputized themselves as speakers of the cause. It upsets me, perhaps more than it should. I suppose it’s because I think that in difficult times, people draw comfort from the knowledge that they’ll get to tell their story one day. I think that comfort is being chipped away at in Ukraine.

I’ve never been to Ukraine — and now I probably never will. 12 I know my place is far away from it. I will read the news and fret. I will worry about all the strangers there who bear my last name.  I will think about doing something. I will realize there’s nothing to do.  The sun will go down and I will fall asleep, untroubled.

What is happening now is a Ukrainian problem that will, for good or ill, be resolved by Ukrainian people – real ones who live and die by their decisions. Ukraine is not Stanchakistan. It doesn’t conform to whatever narrative we place on it. Homelands don’t have narratives; they have people. And every last one of them gets to tell their own story. Remembering that is all I can do. That and say the family prayer.

Thank you, great-grandfather.

 

  1. Is there any other kind?
  2. You could argue that I wouldn’t exist at all if he hadn’t left, because then my exact genetic makeup would never have occurred.  I like to think I am more than my DNA — but even if that’s the case, there’s a still a decent chance my direct ancestors would have been wiped out in one of the wars or man-made famines or political purges or nuclear disasters that casually befall Ukraine from time to time. The odds were not in my favor.
  3. You could do that back then, apparently.
  4. They’re on the Internet and they’re not hard to find.
  5. If nothing else, it seemed like coming from a foreign culture would make the whole teenage rebellion thing much easier. How do you cast off Pennsylvania? Root for the Bengals?  Forswear UTZ potato chips? Move to New Jersey?  That hardly seems worth it.
  6. I used to insist that Stanchakistan was an “unmappable land” — that its territory consisted of everywhere Stanchaks happened to be at any given moment. I liked the idea that I was always on home turf — that I carried a nation with me when I walked.
  7. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people. Even people I really like.
  8. Not even when I came up with the moves for our national dance, The Funky Shrew.
  9. I actually own a t-shirt with that printed on the front. I no longer wear it.
  10. How can you not love a country that is the answer to its own question?
  11. You bet your sweet ass it is.
  12. I’ve lived so close by for more than a year before the trouble started. I didn’t go. I thought there would be time! I always think I will have more time than I do.

Behold, the heroin of milk!

Too wonderful for words.

Too wonderful for words.

One of the oldest, weakest jokes about England is that the food is terrible. And I’ll admit that I’ve complained in the past that some English foods are downright terrifying. But you know what? Some foods are actually better over here.

The eggs and dairy of England are top notch. They beat equivalent products in the U.S. hands down — no matter where you shop and no matter how much you pay. It doesn’t matter if the egg-laying chickens are free range or if the milk is hormone-free or if everything is organic — because we store everything wrong. We heat-treat our milk and we refrigerate our eggs and they’re never the same after that*.

But it’s not just that. I think standards are just higher over here**. And one look at the cheese section of any market will confirm this: pasteurized processed cheesefood*** is a fever dream that goes unrealized, while Stilton, Double Gloucester and Red Leicester reign.

Some of this takes a little getting used to. You’ve got to try all these new cheeses to find out which one is best, after all. And you’ve got to get used to new labelling conventions. For example, in America milk is labelled as skim, 1%, 2% or whole. This always confused me growing up — why does the milk go from 2% all the way to whole? Why can’t I get, say, 47% milk? Are we that uninterested in the other 97 steps in between 2% and 100%?

At the market down the road from me, you can buy skimmed milk, semi-skimmed, whole milk — and then something called Jersey Gold. Jersey is an island in the English Channel known for being full of cows and tax dodgers, so it stands to reason that their milk must be pretty good. And the label says it’s 5% fat! At last! That fabled step between 2% milk and whole is a reality. It was all I could do not to buy them out of Jersey Gold on the spot.

I went home and had a bowl of corn flakes that would make you weep. It’s like your tongue is wearing magical satin pajamas that make everything taste awesome. I couldn’t imagine drinking anything else ever again.

Then I ruined everything by looking it up. If you learn nothing else from reading about my life and travels, learn this: Your happiness will never by improved by learning more about the thing that is making you happy. Ignorance might not be bliss, but research is the father of all buzz-kills.

Because, you see, I did not actually understand how milk works. I thought the percentages involved in 2% milk and 1% milk referred to the ratio of whole milk to skim — so that whole milk would be 100% and skim would be 0%. It turns out that those figures refer to how much of the beverage is fat.

There is no 100% milk — even clarified butter is only 99% fat. What we call whole milk is more like 3.5% fat. So at 5%, Jersey Gold isn’t a step between semi-skimmed milk and whole; it’s a step between whole milk and half-and-half. It is delicious and wholesome and perfect – and as a responsible, health-conscious adult, it is something I can never justify buying again.

I’ve heard people say that once you do heroin, being sober is automatically depressing. Not because there’s anything wrong, but because your personal bar for what counts as wonderful is so much higher now, that everyday existence is intolerable by comparison. Jersey gold is the heroin of milk. For the rest of my life, I’m going to put skim on my corn flakes and sigh, remembering that time my tongue wore satin pajamas and everything around me burned just a little bit brighter.

 * I know these steps are supposed to be taken to prevent food-born illness. But I don’t see anyone over here complaining.
** They still have honest-to-goodness milk men driving around and delivering dairy in the early hours of the morning. 
*** As a rule of thumb, if a substance feels the need to reassure you that it is in fact food by putting that word in its name, it is undoubtedly something you are better off not eating.

Never get lost in the desert with me

The camels know I'm a terrible person. That's why they're keeping their distance.

The camels know I’m a terrible person. That’s why they’re keeping their distance.

I began life as a treasure-hunter’s apprentice.

My grandfather was a semi-professional knickknack man who spent a lot of time at flea markets and yard sales, buying junk for nickels and selling it to collectors. He had a wonderful eye for junk, but he also had a habit of growing attached to it — and so his house was full of collections of plates and wind-up toys and Toby jugs and Lord knows what else.

When he couldn’t get to a sale, sometimes he’d go out with his metal detector and hunt for junk left behind in parks and school yards. And on hot summer days, he’s take me along, ostensibly to help. In exchange, he’d give me all the loose change we found*.

My duties were two-fold:

  1. Carry the little spade he used to dig up coins.
  2. Carry two cans of Coke in a plastic bag for when we grew thirsty from our labors.
A fine example of a place where it would be unwise to get lost with me.

A fine example of a place where it would be unwise to get lost with me.

Duty number one was always a bust. I could carry that spade for maybe two blocks before one of my arms fell off, or so I invariably claimed. The sodas, however, were a different story. I never complained about their weight. I never mentioned them at all, until he asked me for a can.

“I drank it.”
“So give me the other one.”
“I drank it.”
“You drank both cans?”
“Yeah. I got thirsty.”
“Sonofagun. Boy, I hope I never get stuck in the desert with you.”

This happened every single time we went out together.

You might be thinking to yourself that this was an irony-laden farce that we played out together — him knowing what I would do, trusting me anyway, and showing mock outrage (along with inner delight) at the impishness of youth. Nope. Not even close. There was nothing ironic about the inner life of Peter Yuslum.

He would make me solemnly promise to save him a drink. And he always believed me. And I invariably betrayed him. And he somehow did not murder me with that spade and bury my body in the park. That is love.

***

“Why didn’t you just carry three sodas? Two for you and one for him?,” Blair asks.

The prettiest woman in the world, right before she is betrayed.

The prettiest woman in the world, right before she is betrayed.

It is a hot June day in Caversham. I am drinking a rare full-sugar** Coca Cola as we walk home. I am telling my wife about how Coke on a hot day always makes me think about betraying my grandfather. She is, understandably, a little concerned by this revelation.

We tried that,” I say.I think we even carried four cans once. I always drank everything while he wasn’t paying attention.”
“That’s horrible.”
“No, what’s horrible is that I never even thought about it while I was doing it. When I’m thirsty, I have a drink. It’s almost automatic.***”
“I hope I never get lost in the desert with you.”

***

It is July now, and we are lost in the desert.

Well, not lost exactly. We know where we are: Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, as seen in Lawrence of Arabia and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The trouble is that the sun here is so hot that our guide’s truck no longer works. He has managed to coast the truck into the shade of a mountain. We’re hoping the shade eventually cools the truck enough that the engine will start again. We are 40 minutes by truck from the nearest road. No one has phone service.

“I’m thirsty,” says Blair.

And it is at this moment that I realize that the bottle of Sprite I just finished is not the only bottle I’d had that day. Somewhere in the course of the day’s travels, I absent-mindedly opened the other bottle and continued drinking, as if we had an unlimited supply. I have no memory of doing this. All I have now are two empty bottles and serious regret.

Real talk: No one is ever going to look for my body out here.

Real talk: No one is ever going to look for my body out here.

I smile weakly at the women I promised to love, honor and obey.

“No!” she gasps.

“In my defense, I did tell you this would happen.”

We are 40 minutes by truck from the nearest road. We are led by a man with exactly three teeth who would probably do anything for 200 Jordanian Dinar. The wolves and foxes of the desert would make short work of my remains. I have seen enough camel bones that day to know this is true. And let’s be honest, you might be a little sad if I disappear one day. But no one is going to look all that hard for the body.

She laughs. It is not the bright, cheerful squee I am used to. It is a dry, desperate noise from a dark, dark place — the sound of a chemical fire in the heart. She laughs. She does not have me murdered. That is love.

* He never sold these expeditions to me as treasure hunts — those were my other grandfather’s specialty. But I still expected to find great treasure chests of gold, lost just below the surface of Mechanicsburg. Because I didn’t understand how treasure works.
** The rare part here is the sugar. Anyone who has spent even a minute with me know that I knock back diet soda with a frequency that can only be described as “troubling.”
*** There are many reasons why I don’t drink alcohol. This is one of them.

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