One year ago this month, I discovered Lithuania to my absolute delight, because “Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it’s amazing,” according to their racy tourism campaign. Actually, business brought me to Vilnius . . . but it was a pleasure.
They’re not kidding about it being nuostabi (amazing).
How could a place be so incredulously alive in the same buildings that hold onto the chains and death stains of its violent past?
Everywhere is both now and then/old and new/them (whichever foreign government/military was occupying) and us. In the self-proclaimed Republic of Užupis, “us” was a group of bohemian artists that decided to write its own constitution stating how things were goin’ be in this part of Vilnius old town including “Any artificial intelligence has the right to believe in a good will of humanity.”
Also: Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies. A dog has the right to be a dog. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee[d].
At the Lover’s Bridge, I crab-walked with Armand (my favorite lens) to get a good angle on the locks over the River Vilnelė to Užupis. If I looked down into the water below, there were these stones balanced precariously in the water that flowed fast and dark around them. Some of the trees along the banks were wrapped with old books threaded through their spines with twine…weathered, drooping like a Dali painting.
Almost anywhere there’d be worn pavers engraved with news of who’d been shot in that random spot–some Lithuanian poet I’d never heard of before . . . a stairway up a hill is devoted to its literati, their names are remembered.
Vilnius is cloistered in resilience . . . a monument to survival, or, more accurately, to what survives.
Not just art, but the need to create it.
If Lithuania has a color, it’s red. Even the air is rufescent with the Catholic churches fogged in a thick incense of frankincense and fir resin, and the blunt cigarettes glowing in dark cafe windows as I walked at dark-thirty through Vilnius old town. The sound of red whines under the wheels of sleek cars driving too fast on brick streets . . . the taste of it is beetroot and vyšnia vyno at room temperature.
And Vilnius feels the red of dried blood . . . very much haunted by its history . . . which Ruta reminded me wasn’t very long ago.
Indeed, Lithuanians have many terms for red. There’s raudonas which is scarlet red from a cut, and rudas which is a Judas-tainted red of shame. There’s komunistinis red, and rauda, a wailing red lament . . . and revoliucinis, the red of revolution.
On January 13, 1991, my friends Ruta, Rima and their families joined thousands who formed a human chain circling the Vilnius TV tower in celebration and solidarity for their newly proclaimed independence when the Soviets forcibly tried to retake the city. They remember that night well, describing the sound of bullet tracers as we walked up the same hillside towards the tower where 14 civilians were killed in the fray.
That night we went up an elevator in that very tower under quite different circumstances. We had dinner in its revolving restaurant that is now the pride of Lietuva. I drank Starka and ate cepelinais. Cepelinais are potato dumplings stuffed with pork and topped with bacon and sour cream. Starka is made from fermented rye. I tried to decide if it burned as much as the malūnininkų did the night before, or the Trejos Devynerios did the night before that.
I’ve never had so much official alcohol. This was a business trip. I was speaking at a conference (which was dry) so it’s more accurate to say I’m not sure I’ve ever had this much unofficial alcohol . . . mano Dieve it was stout stuff. My friends were amused by my facial antics as I imbibed. Three fingers of “wodka” later (I love how the ‘v’ sound drops in and out of their language), I was thinking I’d be lucky to stand up, much less keep up with them.
I saw people drinking at breakfast, lunch, laiminga valanda, dinner, and after dinner, and night caps. I limited myself to dinner, except for this one early afternoon I went into a little cafe across from The Lady of the Gate of Dawn chapel to avail myself of their tualetas (sound it out) and a table of soccer fans invited me to have a brandy with them in a rather stoic celebration of Lithuania’s win over Ukraine.
Well, what the pragaras . . . when in Lietuva!
And, okay, there was that other time we had a drink in Trakai before lunch because it was raining and we were wet-cold. I don’t remember what it was called, but I think the name translated to “moonshine” which means the same thing moonshine means in the states . . . except stronger.
Vytautus taught me how to toast as the Deaf do in Lithuania. Since it’s not about the noise of glasses clinking for them, the etiquette is to make direct eye contact while your fingers touch.
And with that, I never want to toast any other way ever again.
Joana introduced me to the loveliest drink I had: Medaus Vyno (honey wine) one evening on Gedimino Prospektas, which is the main street in Vilnius. It shuts down to cars at 7pm every evening so the locals can walk along and enjoy the cafes, which they very much do.
These Lithuanians know how to have a good time, dausos knows they deserve one . . . they have had very bad times. The synergy of that dynamic is exquisitely beautiful. Powerful and fragile. Ancient and modern. Magnificent in its mourning or morning.
Once you’ve found it, you can never unfeel Lithuania.
I was created from the air, water, algae, spark, and the murmur behind the hills of Vilnius. – George Kunchin, Lithuanian Poet
Really excited to see Greg Graves’s book headed to press (#BenBellaBooks). Co-writing and editing a tome on #ESOPS (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) with Greg opened my eyes to a proven solution to #economicjustice and recovery: #employeeownership
#CreateAmazing is exactly what this country needs right now!
And getting an endorsement from THE bestselling author #JimCollins instantly solved the challenge of a front cover squib!!
After a little over a year, we went from a conversation to a book. Thanks, GG, for this:
“Thank you to my co-author and editor, Leeanne Seaver. I met Leeanne while she was penning the University of Kansas Health System turnaround story. She is very good at what she does. She’s a wordsmith and collaborator; tough as to her standards of quality and integrity, but also consistently patient and encouraging of me. Hiring Leeanne was my best editorial decision. She shepherded me to the end.”
It would be hard to articulate how I felt when she told me what she’d finally settled on as the subject of her next painting–the one that was for me. After months of pondering, the talented, divinely-inspired artist, Thimgan Dodd Hayden picked the photo that Wolfy took for me.
It was a tough choice, given that she had to pick from amongst a thousand or so images on my photography blog, and the only input I gave her was headed in a completely different direction. That she picked this one (only a half dozen or so duly-credited photos on that site aren’t mine) without knowing how special it is to me just blew me away.
Thimgan (pronounced TIMee-yun) is a Celtic name, aptly enough. Of course she’d find that November sky to paint.
That Scottish sky was taken for me by Wolfy, my eternally-present but far-away companion who lives in the UK. I met him when he was fishing off the dock at Cromarty in October 2012; I took this picture of him.
Wolfy’s glorious sunset was taken at Melvaig the month after we met. He was on his way to the lighthouse there because he had this amazing gig where he just drove to these incredibly remote places throughout the Scottish Highlands and did engineering checks and repairs on the BBC radio towers.
Now it’s hanging in the entryway of Swanchurch above the water pitcher that belonged to Jill’s grandmother and the small red mourning candle I got in Vilnius last October on the table below. The ornately painted Persian mirror with tiny doors from Faegheh hangs on the other side of my office door above Makena’s walking stick from the UU bridging ceremony at People’s Church, and my own (made by Geo from tanglewood) leaning into the corner.
It is understood that nearly everything at Swanchurch (where I live) has a story, including its name.
In a few months, Thimgan says the painting will be ready for varnish then framing.
Last night as I turned out the lights before going to bed, I noted how the painting’s setting sun seemed to hold its own even in the dark. This made me smile and consider a new aspect to my routine . . . smiling at the light of the sky inside the dark each night before sleep.
I’m so utterly delighted and blessed to have it here.