What I have found about this year's theme, Exodus, is that it is as personal as it is collective and is almost always painful. Exodus is a departure of people from a place, but also from time. Those two, time and space, are inextricably linked. We can never go back to our childhood homes and say, yes, this is my house, because it is not your house. Your room is now the storage room where the current residents keep their collection of doll houses. So, we keep moving in the present, we leave our rooms behind to find new rooms that we can call our own. We keep changing and adapting to new situations, allowing our brains to grow and not sit there like they are suspended in formaldehyde. Mandala Journal attempts to capture that, the hardships that we face as we venture out of our homes, creating paths that we and others may learn from.
Exodus is an overwhelming term. People have spread all over the Earth for thousands of years in a graceless unraveling, and we will keep doing so. But that's the clinical perspective. That's the perspective that sees people as a bunch of tiny dots on the planet. We are not just tiny dots, we are tiny dots that move around. We get noisy, drunk, and occasionally studious. Some of those dots fire tinier dots into other dots, deactivating them, making them motionless. Many dots, however, just buzz around, being curious. Many dots suffer from bad memories. Others suffer from starvation. Many dots eat popcorn and watch television. Other dots get crammed into a shipping container and die from lack of oxygen. Some dots lift weights. Many more, do not. And so on . . .
The perspective we try to foster here, at Mandala Journal, is the up close and personal kind. Not right up against someone's eyeball, but within reasonable talking distance, or, in this case, a reasonable distance from your computer screen. Within this issue are people expressing their experience, their intimate observations of a tiny dot on this tiny dot hovering in space. Every person has a wealth of experience and a unique means of expressing it, whether its vehicle is art, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or plain old, good old conversation. The struggles, journeys, and confused, but tenacious meanderings captured here in the journal, in Exodus, are those that we can listen and learn from, possibly carry with us after we leave our computers, open our doors, and walk outside into God knows what.
In addition, this year each of the staff was asked to describe their own personal exodus. Here are some brief glimpses into the lives and personalities of the Mandala staff.
-Anderson and Jessica
My family and its members did not always move as a group, but often joined new groups—young mothers, soldiers, or college students—in ways that linked us to new communities, identities, and places. Our familial history now tells a larger story for each journey taken alone or collectively.
My parents are from South Carolina. They were and first-time parents and subsequently married in their teen years. Right around this time, my father joined the United States Army. This is where their exodus stories begin. My mother's teenage pregnancy was out of wedlock and shamed her family. She was sent to New York to stay with relatives. My father's subsequent marriage to my mother, and newfound family, motivated him to enlist. His career in the armed forces took him to various U.S. cities and foreign countries.
My mother eventually traveled with him within the US and would move near relatives when he was deployed to some destination abroad. In the thick of Vietnam and Desert Storm, my father would participate in wars that would change him for a lifetime. Playing the role of a single mother to three sons for months and years at a time would challenge and shape my mother's character as well.
By the time my sister and I were born, my parents were nearly done relocating. My father would go to Germany one more time before retiring when I was around six years old. However, the Johnson family, a family of seven, would live in an electric-green house in Fayetteville, North Carolina for most of my life. Army brats by name but not by action, my sister and I remained in our childhood home for seventeen years. My first exodus, the trip that required me to relocate far from the green house and adjust to a new locale as "home," was my time in New York. Being accepted to college there, I was able to reassess my values and personality against the new landscape of New York City. I would consider these my formative years and think the distant environment is key to my growth. My parents never came to visit me while I was there. They moved me in and reluctantly left me in a city my mother was now afraid of for all the crazy people she imagined dwelled within it. Her final words to me, I'm sure, were something like, "Take care of yourself, baby," or "Be careful up here, baby." My generic reply to her trepidation was most likely: "Yes ma'am." My parents came back four years later to beam with pride as I graduated from Columbia. They enjoyed commencement and packed me up to go home a day or two later. My time in New York had ended, but the lessons I learned while there, completely on my own, are lasting. I'm in my third home now, Georgia, where it appears I'll stay five more years for a doctoral degree program. A shorter visit away, my parents haven't come here since I moved to Athens two years ago. They are older and their traveling is done. It's up to me to move around the country and globe now, tell them how the world's different from how they knew it to be, and of course, to be careful along the way.
I come from a family of nurses. My mom and dad are both RNs and my older sister is in nursing school — that's three out of four people in my nuclear family, and the fourth is still in high school, so I guess there's hope for her yet. My maternal grandmother is a nurse too, and my grandfather is a doctor, but after that the medical field legacy breaks down pretty spectacularly, for his father, my great-grandfather, was a Latvian composer. Wikipedia says that he"was a vital force in musical life during the short-lived first independent Latvian republic (1918-1940)". I didn't know what this means until I sat down to write this piece, how important it is that he was very specifically a Latvian composer in an endlessly occupied Latvia, as part of a generation unable to even receive instruction in their own native language in school. All of which is to say this: he was more or less the Latvian composer of the first part of the 20th century. That is a high bar he's set, my great-grandpa.
His name is Janis Medins. He may be a couple generations and a continent removed from me, but recently I've begun acquiring all of these trappings of adulthood, like a car to drive around and a house lease in my name, and now whatever children I may have one day seem less hypothetical to me. It strikes me now that their great-grandparents would be the same people whom I know now so intimately as my own grandma and grandpa, who are so accessible to me by phone or by popping over next door; and suddenly Janis Medins doesn't seem very far removed from me at all.
It does help to have a copy of his memoir - I can access his own words and sort of hear the sound of his voice, if only in translation. The memoir, called Tones and Halftones, was published in Stockholm in 1964, two years before his death. My grandfather translated it from Latvian to English, dictating to my aunt while she typed it up using a typewriter (which is kind of a marvel to me — I will never take you for granted, word processing software!). Anyway, here are a few bits of that memoir. Here he is streamlined, reduced, pressed down into juice concentrate and 1,500-words-or-less, a painting of broad strokes. I hope he would understand why I picked out one or two of the more sensational bits; I swear there are more I could have chosen, as full as his life was of tragedy and history, and sheer movement. But these will have to do.
"I think, like my brothers and my sister, I inherited my musicality from my father. Having been a musician himself and loving music, he wished, that his children become musicians as well. In Riga on Sundays my father took me to the Vermane's public park, where a military band gave concert... At home they had a grand piano of sorts, a harmonica and also some string instruments. Already at an early age, around four or five, I started to fool around with the piano. My sister Marija taught me to read the music... Generally on Sundays there was lots of playing and dancing in our place."
He learned to play piano, violin, and cello at Riga's first music school, the Music Institute. His siblings studied there also, and his brother Jazeps married the founder's step-daughter, inheriting the school upon the founder's death."Our whole family lived there now. My father did not work as a shoemaker anymore, but lived as a gentleman. My mother kept the house and, together with the maid, Saturdays went to the market shopping. The doorman brought wood for the kitchen and for about ten fireplaces to heat the Institute in the winter time. Everything had to be warm and in good order by nine o'clock for the lessons.
"During one of my first years at the Institute, age of 11, in 1901, I wrote my first composition 'Sudmalinas', a piano piece... After having written quite a few compositions, I bound them in a book — it was quite a bible. I am sorry, I do not have it anymore, I should like to look at it now. It got lost because my mother, when going to the Saturday market, was always looking for some firm paper to wrap the herring in. The note-paper was quite sturdy, and my mother did not pay any attention to a kid's scribbles... I never had any formal education concerning composition. My school of composition has been only the reading of music, such as orchestral scores, where-from I started to glimpse, how it is done... I can confide a peculiarity of my character — up to today I cannot tolerate an empty sheet of music, when it confronts me. I have to write something. It has been like that all my life."
And I suppose that this is true. His entire life reads as an attempt to make music, against all odds. He finished his opera Fire and Night on a long slog across Siberia in the aftermath of World War I; he was making his way home to Latvia again by any means necessary, by train, foot, and sleigh, and then by ship from Russia to Japan, and from Japan across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and up to continental Europe again, a voyage of about 14,500 miles. At one point crossing Siberia he lived and travelled in an old railway car, fitted with narrow boards for sleeping on instead of beds."On the bare boards we placed a thin soldier's blanket. We slept in a reverse fashion, where one's head, there the other's feet. I had a laundry bag for a pillow, my wife something similar... In this compartment we, three married couples and one single man, lived for 8 months... during the day we had to crouch on our upstairs sleeping board. There was no other place to sit down. When mornings, we, taking turns, got up, there was no place to step down, because the floor was full with our long boots. When the train had stopped in the station, during the winter months we did not want to leave it, because of the deep snow and because of the great cold. Even so, compressed and extremely uncomfortable, we were happy." He carried his opera with him all the way, a massive bundle of paper and tarpaulin wrapped up with rope.
The period following World War I was his finest, professionally speaking, very full of conducting and composing and touring. But his life in Latvia ended abruptly with World War II and Latvia's ultimate absorption into the Soviet Union, and he fled to a refugee camp in Blomberg, West Germany, bringing with him his music.
"The entire English Zone, the entire West Germany was studded with refugee camps with Latvians living in them. They wanted to hear our artists and we needed the satisfaction of giving our art to our people. We started our trips to the camps, and it is difficult to remember all the places, where we had concerts. The poor quality of the 'concert halls' and of the pianos in some places was simply amazing. At times I had to do piano repairs right in front of the audience, to be able to play.
"In June of '48 came the currency reform, which initiated the so-called German economic miracle. It also caused severe losses to many people. The old currency could be exchanged only in very limited amounts. At first every inhabitant of Germany could obtain only forty new marks. Everyone was then equal. Who had larger amounts of the old money, could deposit it in the bank and wait an undetermined period of time, hoping to get more money exchanged for a very low exchange value. This was especially hard on the refugees, who anticipated emigration and therefore could not wait for the delayed bank exchange. I also lost a rather large amount of the old currency, earned with honest work... On a larger scale, after the currency reform the cultural life of the refugees went dead because of lack of finances. [T]his was the beginning of the end of the"Little Latvia" in Western Germany. A few years after my departure from Blomberg, the town freed itself from all the refugees. The ones, who remained in Germany, transferred elsewhere. A few remained there permanently, though. These are the thirty Latvians, who are buried in the local cemetery's Latvian section... The graves all had simple stone markers, like in the Veterans' Cemetery in Riga. At the end of the section is a common stone monument... It contains simple words, which mean so much — God save Latvia! There is nothing else, that we could pray for in our last prayer...
"Off and on, coming from Sweden to Germany for a summer vacation, I have visited Blomberg. Many things have changed there. The hotel 'Deutsches Haus' is still standing as before. I entered and rented the same room I had stayed for two and a half years in... My memory lane includes also the cemetery. I like to spend some time there, to look at the white birches, at the simple headstones and at the common monument with the words: 'God save Latvia!'. It is good, that nothing has changed there. Mrs. Tomass takes care of it. She was a Latvian refugee in Blomberg. Her youngest daughter died there. She is buried there between the white birches. Now Mrs. Tomass lives elsewhere in Germany, but has not forgotten the cemetery. I do not know, whether other relatives of the buried ones contribute anything financially. They have scattered all over the world. I certainly hope they do. Mrs. Tomass is only mortal. What will happen to this Latvian section after her, who knows. That can be easily imagined. At the present these well-cared for graves remind one of many things. When I slowly walked in the cemetery and looked at the graves of my countrymen, the guard had noticed me. He asked, whether I am a Latvian. Yes, yes, I am one, and these lying here, expelled, escaped into foreign parts are also Latvians. Their last prayer has been: God save Latvia..."
In 1995, the Latvian National Opera House re-opened again for the first time since the beginning of Soviet occupation. They performed his opera Fire and Night. My grandparents flew over to Riga for the occasion, sitting next to the president's box. But my great-grandfather never did live to see another Latvian opera, or an independent Latvia; he died in 1966, an exile in Stockholm.
Recently it occurred to me that I could probably find his work online. I googled his name, and lo — Janis Medins, too, has an Internet presence. A Youtube search brings up a couple odd pages of videos, mostly old recordings of his shorter piano songs by performers whose names I can't pronounce. Under the second video I found this comment:
A brilliant performance of my father's Daina #14. Thank you for giving me a wonderful and emotional experience. Gunars Medins, M.D.
Nothing tastes quite as much like modern times (or at least their flavor of the month, social media) as finding a Youtube comment from your grandfather on a Youtube video of content from your great-grandfather.
That comment from my grandfather, last I checked, has received three thumbs up.
When I was in high school, I was cleaning out my mother's old golf bag before a garage sale, and I found a strange postcard. It showed a suited old man with too-white teeth waving across green fields. There was Korean writing on the sides but I couldn't yet sound out the basic sounds of the letters.
It was a propaganda card that had been flown across the DMZ from North Korea to the South. They would do that sometimes, she said.
I held the thin card in awe. It felt so fragile — and it was there, in my hands. I pressed my fingers together, squeezing the card, and I imagined its origin. It was printed somewhere in North Korea, a place I had only heard my mom speak of in disgust. I'd ventured there on my computer when I logged onto Google maps. Google markers for cities and roads lit up the page on South Korea. Just a few miles north, the screen was completely dark.
My friends only spoke of it with a detached fearfulness. That's where the bombs come from, right?
That's where my grandfather was born. He escaped on foot to the South when he was a small boy, meeting his family in a city they had agreed upon before they left. Some made it. Some didn't. And he found a life there. He married a woman and had a daughter and then a son. The daughter married a man from far away and then she moved far away too. She didn't teach her daughter Korean; instead, the daughter corrected her English.
It was such a small card. How could it have made such a long journey from the Pyongyang presses to my hands in Georgia? It was the same card that had been printed so far away, but now it was so different.
The North Korean in my family has been diluted with each generation, and now that we're in the U.S., the dilution will likely continue. My eyes are rounder than my mom's, and my hair is lighter and finer than her thick black hair. I'm taller than she is, and my limbs are thicker too. I couldn't use chopsticks until I was 13. I didn't acquire a taste for kimchi until I was in high school.
I kept the card, even though my mom wanted to throw it away. I take it out sometimes and try to imagine a small part of myself coming from the same place it had been created. It's really hard, but sometimes I get there.
I don't know where my ancestors came from before they landed in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but I can tell you one thing for certain: they did land. And after they poured out of their ship, they meandered into the city of Baltimore with the slow shuffle of the completely lost, and never really left.
Both my mother and father's sides of the family originate in Baltimore, or at least close enough to Baltimore to be snagged into the city's orbit. Each of them lived in the same small town—Ellicott City, about an hour's drive out of Baltimore itself—for their entire lives. My mother grew up living with her mother, next to her grandmother, and just a few houses away from her great-aunt and uncle. My father's side of the family is more scattered, but only in the vaguest sense; the vast majority of each of their families lived within fifteen miles of them. The umbilical trend continued and still persists; over 90% of my family lives within an hour's radius of Howard County.
My mother, father, brother, and I moved to Georgia when I was eight years old. It wasn't our first move, surely. We'd moved four times before, twice out-of-state, prior to our first relocation below the Mason-Dixon line.
But I was sure we would return, like we always did. We had to. My whole family lived in Maryland; my mother's mother, my father's parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. Where would we go for Christmas dinner, or Easter Mass? We'd return in a year or so. We'd return.
We visited for funerals, weddings, First Communions, and, yes, Christmases and Easters. We visited for graduations and baby showers, high school reunions, adoption ceremonies. But we were just that—visitors. Another family lived in the house that my grandmother, and my mother, and my uncles, and my step-grandfather, and me, and my brother, and my father all lived in. The tire swing had been taken down from the dead oak tree in the backyard. They'd cut down the Japanese maple on the side of the house. Why'd they have to do that? What gave them the right?
Probably the deed to the house and the mortgage payment in their name, almost twelve years in the running.
We still go back for all the festivities and occasions that require our attendance, but it never feels like returning. The only place where I can do that is in my memory, which drips with the idealism of nostalgia and the ignorance of childhood, but never the realism of knowing that the place that my family lives, and the place where I grew up, no longer exists. And perhaps with this knowledge, I can finally board a ship and find another harbor to land in, shuffling along in a foreign city to never leave, however far away it may be.
I sit down with my nana, pencil and paper in hand, with an anxious feeling creeping up through my bones. She is the mother of my mother, my rock, and her beautiful white hair assures me that she holds special keys to the past. Complete silence engulfs the room as I ask her to tell me her story—the story of her family and my papa's family. She begins with the day she met my papa. He was with a friend and they were looking for another girl in town. They just so happened to stop by my nana's childhood home to ask for directions. After that day, he continued to come back to visit her, and they quickly fell in love. That love never faded, never failed, never doubted.
I begin to ask her about her family, and she gives me a list of names as far back as she can remember. We repeat the same process for my papa. The trail ends after their great grandparents and some mumbled sounds about Native Americans, red hair, and fried chicken. I leave her house with a scribbled list and a lot of frustration. This has been the question of my life, a constant thorn in my side, who am I?
One weekend at home, I stood looking at my daddy sitting in his truck. I had walked outside to tell him I loved him... just in case. The smell of alcohol billowed from the window as he looked at me with tears dripping down his cheeks. This was right before my parents decided to get a divorce, and we were all on shaky ground. He felt the need to excuse his behavior, to excuse the person he had morphed into over the past 12 years.
He begins to speak. Never looking me in the eyes.
"When I was 16...I found out my father...was not my real father," he said.
"What are you talking about?" I can see the color fading from my hands.
"My father... he did not want me. I went to him; he told me crap happens."
I ask again, "What are you talking about? Tell me right now!"
"I'm sorry, Jessica. I am so sorry," as he puts the truck in drive and glides away.
It is not easy to accept a reality contrary to the one you have always known at the age of 20. A few hours passed before my mama finally told me the truth. I could hear her on the phone in the bathroom calling my dad's family. They knew they could not continue to hide the truth. It was too late; the secret was out.
My mind immediately flashed to the fact that my last name was not an accurate representation of my bloodline. A Burkhalter might have raised my dad but my genes were not connected to that name. When my mama finally told me the truth, my eyes filled with tears. I cried for days. My heart had always longed for some amazing family history, for a great exodus across the seas.
I insisted on meeting my biological grandfather, and my mom took me to his house before I headed back to college. As I looked into his eyes, I could see my dad. I could see the pain, the hurt, the years of addiction weighing heavy on his eyes.
For years, my hometown remained a place of intense pain and hurt. I would cringe every time I crossed over the county line. It was a constant reminder of the simple beginnings of my life. I could never raise my hand in class and brag about the origins of my family. I was so embarrassed of my life and especially my accent.
I used to feel like I had nothing to stand on. Now, I remember my nana and papa. I remember my mama and my beautiful sisters. I remember the 500 people who flooded the church at my papa's funeral. I remember that I am strong, and I never have to be defined by the man with my father's eyes.
Regardless of the blood flowing through my veins, I am ultimately defined by the love of a giant family living in a small, South Georgia town. We love to eat watermelon and boiled peanuts picked from our fields. We like to sit outside, and we celebrate every holiday in the most extravagant way possible. We love Jesus and baseball.
Even though I have spent years running from that place, today I know that is who I am. My family history does not have to go back to some distant country for me to feel whole. I have learned that Exodus does not always involve a great migration. Sometimes Exodus occurs within; sometimes an Exodus is a band of love 200 miles away.
My father once told me that he read an interesting fact in a textbook that he had in college. He read that, in 16th century England, a man by the name of Holderness attempted to lead a rebellion against Henry XIII. For the time, this was not a novel idea, leading rebellions against Henry XIII was quite fashionable. This man, Holderness, or, of Holderness (a small coastal shire in eastern England) drummed up quite a rumpus in a local tavern. Whatever plan hatched there, it was probably not sophisticated. In the 16th century, water was not safe to drink, so everyone drank beer to hydrate themselves. Anyway, the word spread that this Holderness person was a wise and great man and that he was going to put his boot so far up Henry XIII's arse that his foot would be crowned the new king of England. Henry XIII caught wind of this and put in an order for his execution and execution for all those that supported Holderness. As the story goes, Holderness promptly got the hell out of there and stowed away on a slave ship bound for the new world. That is how my family arrived in America. Or at least that's how one of the stories goes.
Another story is that three brothers, all from England with the name of Holderness, landed on the east coast of the U.S. One went north, one went west, and the other, south. The story ends there. Today, years after I first heard that story, I'm still not sure what to think about it. But for some reason, it's comforting to know that I'm descended from one of those brothers. It's comforting to be able to stand in the present, looking back on the past, and see, in the miles and miles of emptiness, someone vaguely familiar. At these times, I feel like I can wave to him, my ancestor, and, in the distance, he waves back in a who-the-hell-are-you kind of way. Then again, it's not very comforting to know that that brother was an actual person. There's some messed up people out there. And out of all the lines of people that have lived and died to funnel all their genes into me, there has to be some crazy people in the mix. I don't think anyone has escaped that. What if that brother, my ancestor, was some 16th century guy that skinned raccoons, wove them up into a giant raccoon suit, and shuffled around scaring the bejezus out of native americans? What does that mean? What does that mean to me? That is when I close my history book.
And then there's my mother's side. I'm not going to bother with names any more because they don't mean much after a few generations. Anyway, hundreds of years ago, some of my mother's ancestors were on a boat. They shipwrecked somewhere for an extended period of time with no food. Then, once hunger dried them out, they started eating their dead. I feel like I need to be more clear on that last point: my ancestors ate dead people. Then they were rescued. My father liked to point this out from time to time, that my mother descended from cannibals, but then my sister got really into genealogy and found out my mother and father had a common ancestor, making them, effectively, cousins. He doesn't point out the cannibal story much anymore. I don't usually tell people my parents are distant cousins and my ancestors were cannibals. When meeting someone, it's not the best to lead with.
Another story is that, during the Revolutionary War, one of my ancestors rode with a guy named the "Swamp Fox," who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern guerilla warfare.
Another is that during WWII my grandfather saw a drunk guy board onto the deck of a destroyer. They must have just come back from shore leave in Hawaii. This guy tripped and drop his two bottles of liquor that he was carrying, sending glass and liquid sprawling across the deck. The man lied down on the deck, in the glass and spirit, and wailed and wept like his body had broken into pieces. This was the same deck that my grandfather would come up to, weeks later, up out of the engine room, through the weave of tunnels and oval doorways, to find, on the deck, pools of blood being mopped into a bucket by a wide-eyed man with an expression of a blank piece of paper. My grandfather told me those stories a few weeks before he died.
I'm not sure any of these stories are true, but they are the stories that have been given to me and what I recall of them. I don't think that whether they are true, as in "historically accurate," or not matters. What I find most important are the paths that the stories take, the way they move and shift just as people underneath the covers or knee deep in the ocean, breathing in and out. I see each personal history, each personal exodus through time, as something that helps us configure our own identity, to connect with our past, but also, to remind us that the past is gone and soon we will be too.
But we are not gone yet. We go on, experiencing our own confused meanderings, forgetting most, remembering very little, and holding onto those small, shiny fragments of memory. Or rather, those small, shiny fragments hold onto us, tattooing our brains with the inky substance of dreams. Ink that we can not only see, but feel.
Jessica Burkhalter is a senior English major from Douglas, Georgia. She has focused on Multicultural and Native American Literature while at UGA. In her spare time, she enjoys going to the movies, traveling, and tutoring students at the Athens Latino Center. Check out her blog, Diaries of Lorraine.
Anderson Holderness lives in Athens, Georgia, attempts to be brutally considerate, and devotes a small portion of his life to making smoothies and eating them out of a blender. Visit him at his blog, Salttooth.blogspot.com.