ti jean

Downtown Northport, Long Island, just a week ago. Gunther’s Tap Room, Jack Kerouac’s famous watering hole, burned down not too long ago (and Pete Gunther, the bartender who served him, died suddenly too). Gunther told me in an interview that Ti Jean once paid his tab with an autographed copy of Tristessa, his 1960 novella about his Mexico City junkie girlfriend, which Gunther attempted to read and then quickly discarded, perhaps to the trash. While Kerouac and his bartender are both now gone, someone has affixed Jack’s ghostly image to the bar, anticipating his inevitable future Christ-like return.

Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle owned a home in Northport in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The town is referenced in his 1962 novel Big Sur (page 5, “so I had sneaked into San Francisco as I say, coming 3000 miles from my home in Long Island (Northport) in a pleasant roomette on the California Zephyr train watching America roll by …”) The writer complained about beatnik wannabes climbing over the backyard fence. This was a good two and a half decades before I started school at Saint Philip Neri, just up the hill from Gunther’s on Main Street, unaware of the drunken literary great who had walked its ways.

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wrembel at barbes in brooklyn

On Sunday evening, I took a train into the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and then walked the N blocks to a bar called Barbes on 9th Street to see Stephane Wrembel, who is in my opinion, the best gypsy jazz guitar player today. There are many great players out there, most of whom are dexterous, proficient, and skillful, but great jazz guitar playing is not just about technique, it’s about grease, that hidden slick element that makes the same song sound compelling when played by one guitarist and clinical when played by someone else. My phone camera captured these darkblurred images of the room, where I took a front seat before the players. Later, I had Wrembel autograph my copy of Scott Fitzgerald’s latest and last collection, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories.  “You want me to sign your book?” Wrembel asked. “He’s dead,” I told him. “But you’re still alive.”

rapla witch

Rapla-Selver

A place where nothing, nothing ever happens.

IT WAS A SUNNY COOL DAY and Rapla seemed almost too peaceful, just like heaven, if heaven really is a place where nothing happens. I stood outside a shopping center, buying some Greek strawberries to bring to the healer or ravitseja Ivika. The doors opened and shut, motorcyclists arrived and departed with a dream-like lull. Always departed, because who really stays in Rapla? It’s a remote place. Its people are so proud that Kristiina Ehin and Vaiko Eplik are from here, but it doesn’t surprise me. Rapla is beyond the grasp of the real. People from such a town have no choice but to turn within.

Ivika’s home is down a dusty dirt road. When I arrived, two strange older country gentlemen stood in its garden eyeing the foreigner from beneath the apple trees and I felt immediately that I had entered into new territory. The woman herself met me at the door, a country woman with long black hair and the epicanthal fold, skin that comes down over the corners of the eyes that connects the Estonians with kindred peoples in the east, traversing the ice to Alaska, down the spine of the Americas to Peru. The Estonians are only Europeans in part, of this I am now certain. They know other things.

“Your problem,” Ivika announced to me in her room in Estonian, “is that you are trying to be someone else.”

Of this I had no doubt, yet it was reassuring to hear it again in the country people’s language.

“Once you relieve yourself of this contradiction, all of your health problems will fall away.”

Ivika stood before shelves of Orthodox Christian icons and other symbols and for a moment I thought of what the good monks of Mount Athos in Greece, or Pope Francis himself might think of me, a supposed Christian, submitting to the care of country healer. Yet Rapla felt so far away from Greece’s sun-kissed chapels. There, Christianity seemed to grow naturally out of the rocky Mediterranean soils. Here, it was still a foreign import, imposed by sword or staff. Among the maarahwas, the Estonian country people, especially, Christianity still feels a little out of context. What could any of it mean to an apple orchard or a golden field of rapeseed? It has felt far away for me too as my mind succumbed to the Estonian way of thinking, much the same way that I silently intuit its grammar and even make mistakes in English when I tell someone to “put the door closed” — pane uks kinni — instead of to “close the door.” My dreams seem more profound here in Estonia, my longings, urges, and desires more meaningful, all connected to something the locals chatter on about called “energy.”

Energy. This is the crux of the matter: to have one’s energy cleared. Hence, people turn to healers like Ivika.

I wasn’t there for a miracle cure or a quick fix though, and I didn’t want her to tell me my future. I went there because I saw a tiny white spot at the end of a tunnel. I sensed that by liaising with her I might get closer to where I needed to be. It does take courage to accept that though. It takes the courage to surrender to her presence. It takes courage to abandon your defenses and let her understand you. You have to be willing.

When Ivika began to speak, her eyes became as distant and as hazy as two far-off islands. She spoke and I suddenly understood what aspect of my life was in focus. She kept talking about my daughters, but she didn’t specify which one, so I had to determine to whom she was referring. It was a fun kind of game. Rewarding. Her observations were so precise though that I had to laugh, a heavy chuckle that wouldn’t go away. I stared up at a poster on the wall of a lake in Alaska, with mountains around it, and I imagined that I was on the shores of this lake, and that every bear in the Alaskan mountains could hear my laugh. “You are really smart,” I told her.

She was still somewhere else.

“You are stuck between two lives, and are afraid to come out of the old one,” said Ivika. “But don’t worry about the others. They have their own lives too and will grow into them. You won’t lose your connections with them.”

At the end of our meeting, I tugged the box of Greek strawberries nervously from my bag. There are all kinds of Estonian social customs to which I am still oblivious. Sometimes it is rude not to give a gift upon visiting someone, sometimes it is unnecessary, which might as well be rude. Estonians don’t care for unnecessary things.

When Ivika saw the strawberries, she squinted at me ruefully and I was afraid I had offended her. Who wants to be on the bad side of a healer? “You like to be liked, don’t you?” said Ivika with her hands on her hips. “But you don’t need to be liked! You need to love yourself first!” Then she accepted my gift and even laughed and gave me a hug. It was such a good feeling and I felt that she was a friend. Whether the experience could be called real or surreal was immaterial.  What was important was that I felt like I had gotten somewhere.

södermalm

I first came to Stockholm when I was a month shy of 22, took a room in a hostel in Zinkensdam on Södermalm, the city’s fashionable southern district, wandered its streets. I never would have thought that I would return to this place so many times in my life, or that it would continue to fertilize my spirit with its custard- and mustard-colored houses, yellow-headed pretty people, green parks, Indian curries, long-playing vinyl, bell-ringing bicycles, high cliffs, and soothing cool harbor sea air. 

the last bit of mourning

last leafPEOPLE WANT ME TO SAY SOMETHING intelligent about divorce. I have nothing intelligent to say. This is not because I am one of these stiff-upper-lip characters who try to shrug off the greatest changes in their lives. Far from it. If I could articulate it, get it down good on the page, I would do it.

“You should just write it all down and be done with it,” a good friend told me over coffee in Viljandi. “You can should call it the last bit of mourning, the ‘viimane leina tükk.'”

I don’t know if I can even mourn anymore, but I do know that I have at last reconciled myself to the changes in my life. This wasn’t always the case. I remember how angry I was when I read Jaan Tätte’s book, Vaikuse Hääl – The Sound of Silence — just a few years ago. I remember where I was exactly, in Haapsalu, how from a high window I watched a lone truck driving along the Suur Viik with the autumn sun setting behind it, the book open in my lap. “Monogamy is not encoded in us, it is but a cultural recommendation,” wrote Tätte. “No one belongs to another,” he said. “We all die alone when our time comes.”

Such was Jaan Tätte’s grim prognosis for the married life.

As Estonia’s principal renaissance man, a sailor-adventurer type with a guitar, wispy hair and those steely eyes, it was hard to be angry with Tätte. But I was furious with the man.

Mostly because I knew he was right.

Divorce is something that illustrates his idea well, I think. We cling to the illusion of stability, to permanence, but when it ends, things do get windy. It’s like an airplane door being opened mid-flight, creating enough pressure to suck the passengers out and into the air where they float, vulnerable.

Sometimes I think of two mountain climbers roped together, suspended over an icy crevasse. One slips and is pulling the other one down, so the top climber pulls a knife out and then decides to cut the rope and let the other one fall.

It’s not the fear of colliding with the ground and dying that scares you, but that recognition that you are in free fall, that exhilarating and death roes sensation of being left loose in the air, that moment when you realize that you really are on your own and there is no one there to catch you. There is such wind all around that your lungs feel heavy and hurt deep.

It’s like ozone poisoning.

For months that sensation of falling would revisit me. I would feel it in the supermarket, or while I was driving. I would read sometimes or listen to music just so that wind would die down. Another friend promised it would get less windy. Maybe there would be a gentle breeze? I hoped he was right.

Sometimes I really felt like someone had died and I felt like mourning. But we both survived, fortunately, and there was no one to blame for what had happened, because nobody can control the wind. Only in recognizing your loneliness can you at last look across the line and empathize with the other person, who probably felt as much in free fall as you did. You must mourn, you must feel sad. Then you must decide to let go.

This is something you must decide to do.

When my Viljandi friend mentioned mourning, a final image came to me: a solitary tree with one last leaf. We have all seen these autumn trees, how those last few leaves cling. Until another stronger wind comes along and frees them and they float slow and elegant to the crisp piles on the ground.

And then it’s done, just like that: the last bit of mourning.

The “viimane leina tükk.”

the breaking point

ice

IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED SOME TIME AGO, around the time that Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, pulled me aside in Tallinn and asked me how old I was. It was at a library. He had come to read from one of his favorite books. He must have known something was going on with me. But what was it?

“Thirty-five,” I told him. I was at the time.

Jüssi has a solid countenance — you could chisel that old face into rock — but when I answered him, he winced a bit, as if I had shown him a flesh wound. “Thirty-five?” he said. “That’s tough.”

When I asked him why, he gave me his rundown on life. “The thirties are hard on everybody, but they are especially hard on men,” said the venerable Jüssi. “At some time during this decade, you will reach your murdeiga — breaking point.” He clasped me on the shoulder with a heavy hand.

“Breaking point?” It sounded ominous. “What does that mean?”

“Everything that once mattered to you will soon become meaningless,” said Jüssi. “And suddenly things that meant nothing to you will become the most important to you and mean a great deal.”

With that Fred released his stone grip and headed along on his way. Jüssi is in his eighties now. He knows.

I think of Jüssi’s words now that I am on the other side of this imaginary breaking point. At least, I better be on the other side of it. It’s hard to even imagine or conceptualize such a break. A fissure in the ice? A fracture in the bone? A darkening horizon? Whatever it is, it makes sense. You begin life as an idealist or optimist, and so you remain, deep into your twenties, when decisions are made and paths selected.

By your mid-thirties though, there is a breaking down, a diminishing, an unraveling of the dreams. Reality trickles in with those first few gray hairs, those divorces and drama. You live through it, true, maybe even feel tougher for weathering the storm. What is harder though is to see others, male and female, a little younger or older, entering their own eras of upheaval, their own hurricanes of discontent, and then being asked to take on the role of Jüssi, to grip them by the shoulders, give them the wise old man talk, tell them it will be all okay when nothing is for sure.

Each of my friends’ stories is different, but they do a share a common theme — a loss of interest, a diminishing appetite for life after some kind of setback. It is that awesome moment of awakening, arriving on time, as Jüssi said, in your mid-thirties when you learn what people are really capable of, that leaves only emotional devastation and confusion in its tsunami wake. With all great hopes dashed, life’s beautiful chaos floods in, sinking once reliable philosophies and belief systems. There is no faith anymore, there is only heavy water. It rushes in and commands you to swim in it.

This is the real breaking point, the breaking of the waves on the shore, that moment of clarity when you understand you absolutely must swim. You must. The only alternative is drowning, and we have seen too many people do just that. So you leave behind your old self, you suffer a tiny death, you must use muscles you never even knew existed only to propel yourself forward. There is a kind of majesty to these kinds of life changes and Jüssi’s words ring out true. Everything that once was was, and everything that will be will be. What else is there to do but swim on, happily.

an uncomfortable question

saunaTHERE CAME A POINT during this year’s European Sauna Marathon, which was held in and around Otepää and had about 900 participants, that I had to turn to my teammate Allan and ask him an uncomfortable question.

We were standing outside the maasaun overlooking a frozen pond that, fortunately, did not have a welcoming ice hole awaiting one of our team members. I was the first team member to go into the ice hole at the Kekkonen Sauna at the start of the day in Kääriku. We weren’t permitted entry into the sauna until one of us went in. Down I went, down the ladder, thrusting myself into the chill water until it covered my shoulders. I came out blinking and cursing, feeling like I had just been baptized. But baptized by what I wondered? Tradition? Stupidity?

At the maasaun, we stood about with the other teams. Four grown men from Germany dressed in matching lederhosen and sauna hats. We saw their truck — which had a German flag painted on the side — at most of the saunas. There was a Mexican team, too, with sombreros, and a Danish team with Viking helmets and the red and white Danish flag, supposedly gifted to their countrymen during a siege of Tallinn in the 13th century. Yet it was the Estonian teams that were by far, the most varied and bizarre.

Some came in Spider-Man pajamas, others wore what looked to be their grandmothers’ bath robes. One team wore matching silver helmets, another wore fluorescent wigs and little else. There was a man in a full-body pig costume. I think I saw a man dressed up like a sheep at the indiaanlastesaun — a sauna located in a giant tee pee in the hills outside Otepää — but I am not sure. It was really smoky in there. There were the female teams dressed in bikinis with glittery tassels, like exotic dancers from space. They gathered around a karaoke machine at one point to sing along to the Estonian classic, “Viska Leili.”

Viska leili! Küll on mõnus, soe, ja hea! Viska leili! Viska leili!

This song was originally called “In the Navy,” and recorded by The Village People, a (mostly) gay disco group in 1978. Yet somehow the Estonians took a song about gay sailors and turned it into an anthem for tossing water onto the hot stones of the sauna. That’s not all they tossed on the rocks. At one sauna, marathon participants apparently ran out of water. Someone had peed on the rocks instead. We called this one the pissisaun.

Outside, dudes named Juss and and Janar were skating around on a frozen tiik in nothing but their swim suits and drinking beer. “Hey, Juss, would you throw me another can?”   

That’s why I had to ask my uncomfortable question at the maasaun.

“Allan,” I said. “Did you ever think that the Estonians are a little, you know …” I put a finger to my temple and twisted it back and forth.

“What?” he asked. Allan’s Estonian himself, tall, big, and blonde with decades of sauna experience, especially at his country house’s sauna, which he insists is the very best.

“You know, when a man marries his sister and they have a kid. What do you call it?”

“What? Hmm. I don’t think we have a word for that in Estonian,” Allan replied.

“Oh well,” I pushed my freezing hands deeper into my wet pockets and thought of another way to present my question. “Have you ever thought that you Estonians are a bit crazy?”

Allan just laughed. “Not so much up in North Estonia,” he said. “But down here in South Estonia,” he cast an eye at some of the other, strangely dressed sauna goers and sighed. “The people down here are a little cuckoo, yeah.”