I was uniquely inspired reading the novel Quarry by M. A. Fuller. Not only did its psychological character portraits pull deeply, but there were wonderful Finno-Ugric connections here — hers: having Finnish/Sami history and identity central to the plot; mine: being tied to Estonian culture, who are kinfolk to Finns. I was moved to read along with my copy of the ancient Finnish verses known as Kalevala (similar to the Estonian Kalevipoeg)! And all of her story unfolds, path by path, with its impact upon those in North America which made it personally even more relevant. It is a magnificent book, as you can read below and on reviews by Kirkus and others online.
Here is my brief review as it appeared on Amazon on July 15, 2017.
QUARRY: Mystical yet Deeply Grounded — Beautiful and Brilliant
QUARRY is is a truly captivating novel by Meredith Ann Fuller that has as its main character a girl/young woman who is psychologically haunted and creatively invested by immigrant legacies. Fuller draws vividly from the tumultuous history of North American Finns, their ancient cultural roots, the nightmarish lure of return of some to Karelia and subsequent betrayal by Stalin in the early twentieth century. All of this, with an added splash of Irish-American history, spills over into the life of Rose, who we meet as a traumatically-blinded child. With the help of a therapist, she recovers her sight, only to struggle mightily with what she must face internally.
Rose’s search for self and cohesion forces her to reach not only inward but back into inter-generational history. Fuller’s writing really shines here as she weaves in the spirits, spells, animals and magic that abound deep in Finnish, especially Sami, roots. As a reader familiar with the ancient Finnish epic, Kalevala, I found these connections authentic and mesmerizing. (The reviewer’s attached photo shows Fuller’s novel resting on an edition of Kalevala verses.)
As only a talented writer can do, Fuller leads us from Rose and her family’s journey to ones that hold broader truths, including the well of strength that can come from our roots even as we struggle with their impact. Furthermore, copious artistic illustrations throughout the book are so stunning they inspire like visual-poetic gems.
The author, illustrator (primarily Joan Anderson with others), and Mountain Water Press are to be commended for this sensitive, beautiful and brilliant book.
Sounds with the Young(Upton Street, NW, circa 2001) arose from my time at the Levine School in Music in Washington, DC., a large community music school that serves infants through adults.
The poem opens with the building’s architectural beauty, something that likely deserves a work of its own. An elegant Spanish style revival, it was built in 1906-07 to house the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. Specific requirements – high, dry, apart from magnetic disturbances – helped launch its site on a steep hill upon a rocky foundation.
The low, Mission-style tile roof became a “hat” for the “Lady on the Hill” in the poem. The idea of a welcoming lady must have subconsciously resonated from the idea of a universal Mother Goose as I thought of the children in my poem.
My colleagues brought music to life for young children in infinitely imaginative ways. One was Mara Bershad, who taught in the Washington area for decades before her too early demise. A musician, harpsichordist, and dancer she spun experiences for children from classical music, traditional songs, movement and artful collaboration that left us speechless with delight.
Sounds with the Young by Kaja Weeks was first published in District Lines: An Anthology of Original Local Work, V. 4 (Politics and Prose) in 2017.
Sounds with the Young (Upton Street, NW, circa 2001)
The music school sits like a lady on a hill,
with a red tile roof for a hat and
light stucco dress,
Spanish revival style, por favor. Carved limestone surrounds her entry.
Splayed stairs, up this way or that,
invite the affair of the day.
Singing four-year olds peal inside,
festive as nothing else you could imagine.
Today she has chosen Respighi and
Mara, curved-back like a cat,
pulls scarves along the floor and
suddenly twirls them high in the air.
Max stares and then lifts his arm
with his blue chiffon rising before Agnes,
light-footed as Mara, swipes it away.
Her giggles pounce – staccato as celesta
in The Pines of Rome.
Corinne, born in Gabon and raised on drums,
rolls her fingers and slaps her hands. Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! Reese and Chloé sound thunder from their hides, Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! But no tremors could disturb this building,
reborn from the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory, 1907!
Solid as the rock she stands on. Roll on sounds!
Close by, Ming leads babies to sway.
Cries and gurgles in soft laps,
lullaby waltzes hummed and sung — Buy some Coulter’s candy. Next door a glossy petite gamelan jingles
and Indonesian shadow puppets dance while
Monica’s kids cluster in the hallway –
they can’t wait to sing like rain, jump puddles,
freeze mid-air to her piano sounds
that seem to spin them and stop them
like magical notes –
Zeke, Liam and resting-tone Lee.
Upstairs the serious folks have begun
to practice and play.
The old Russian pianist with a black pipe
demands perfection from her charges,
and Charles’ deep baritone voice
falls from windows and floats down
the wide green lawn toward Rock Creek.
At noon Sally, reciting summer camp to-do,
and Vera and I walk the shaded path
to Howard Law School cafeteria
where round tables with bud vases,
warm southern cooking and cool lemonade await.
The ceiling is high, murmurs alive.
We release our sighs into them,
trade quips and tales and sometimes
laugh so hard our bellies hurt –
before we head back for more blooming music
with the lady on the hill.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna is a creative non-fiction essay about my musical work related to children with autism and their parents. It illustrates the delicate nature of the opening phase. As well, it shows how much a parent’s personal history, including culture and so-called “ghosts in the nursery,” must be taken into account.
The Voyage of Mariel and Luna was first published by The New Directions Journal in 2015.
“Mama was seven months pregnant when they made that crazy trip, squeezed onto one of those shrimp boats – her, Papi and my grandmother and twenty others. They almost didn’t make it. Huge dark waves, like they’d never seen, rolled over the boat. I was born in Key West, the U. S. of A., two months later.”
“Huh,” I manage. I realize I’m squinting at her, trying to figure out what this has to do with her daughter, as in my question, “Your daughter’s name is Luna?”
“I’m named after the Mariel Boatlift. Well, for the original port they left from, but you probably know it from the Boatlift,” Mariel adds. “And for the good part, freedom, before they knew Marielitos would be like a scarlet letter M,” she huffs.
“Huh,” I say again, wondering if the mom has attention deficit issues and is going to ramble around a family history. We now have 30 minutes left for this important meeting about background and of her daughter, the reason for our meeting. I only know that she is four, “hardly talks, but loves music.”
Mariel is very pretty, and I am mesmerized watching her face as she talks. A long-haired brunette, with olive eyes, she sways rhythmically from the shoulders up when she articulates. But a sadness. Mariel … boatlift … she must be Cuban.
At that moment she says, “I’m Cuban-American.” She stops and I’m about to move the discussion, interesting as it is, back to her daughter, when Mariel, drops her eyelids and says with a low voice, “A child of,” and here she heavily taps her palms on the table, accentuating the words, “Cuban exiles.” When she opens her eyelids, her eyes are moist and her glossed lips are pressed shut.
Wow. This woman has a history, and it’s really effected her. I didn’t know from the files. Her last name is Ryan, and this isn’t Little Havana, it’s a huge house in horsey-set Potomac, Maryland. She probably doesn’t think I have a clue to what her emotional voice and her sudden tears are alluding. But I do. I’m also the child of exiles, ones who fled a communist regime. Ok, I’m a lot older – her Boatlift was in the 1980’s I think, while my parents fled after WWII from a place where there were no palm trees, more like northern spruce, and the waves crashing over the fishing boats were in the Baltic Sea. But if her married name is “Ryan,” and she is the child of Cuban exiles, I know the kind of fierce roots entangled therein.
I inhale deeply and look into her eyes. “Mariel, of the Cuban port and Boatlift, you have a complicated background.”
There is a lengthy, white-noise silence. The fridge hums, the espresso maker hisses. Then Mariel smiles weakly, tears roll and she shakes her head. “Yeah … I’m sorry. You must think I’m crazy going off like this.”
“No,” I start to say I actually understand something specifically about this, but decide it would just blur things for her. “I can see, it’s complicated … and emotional. I think maybe we should schedule some extra time to do this.”
“You think?” she bursts into real laughter. “Luna will be home from school soon, too.”
This isn’t how I planned to meet Luna. As practitioner using a developmental frame of music, I like to first process the family and child’s background and then return to use it in a natural play setting assessment that, unlike many other rigid evaluations, strives to help the child to her best functioning while we’re “playing music together.” But we’ve barely gotten to her name!
“It all started because you asked me about Luna. And, see, I chose her name so that it would be connected to my Cuba-ness, and she was born on the night of a beautiful new moon. Even Ronald, my husband, agreed it would be nice for her to have something from her heritage, as he puts it, seeing as I have no connection any more – I left the fold, left the fight.”
Mariel revs up again. I let her go. There is no time to salvage my envisioned meeting, and, fundamentally, this is in sync with the way I had been trained by Drs. Greenspan and Wieder – the centrality of family in working with the children – all these details will meld and shape how we work. As well, they emphasized sensitivity to mental health issues and clearly, Mariel, wound so tight, will need her own supportive measures.
“After my son died,” she starts and my head flings up from the notebook in which I was jotting. She had a son who died? My mouth drops but no sound emerges, and Mariel keeps going.
“Jorges died in a car crash when he was sixteen,” she speaks now in monotone. My thoughts immediately go to the god-awful spring season of proms when so many young people, full of life to the brim, risk their lives. “It was prom week,” she confirms.
“Now Jorges, he was Cuban. Gorgeous kid,” she weeps. “Spoke Spanish at home with Gustavo and me, with his Abuela. An amazing Latin percussionist, my boy – soulful and so alive. We lived in Miami. We had a whole community. We ate, drank, the kids played, families politicked together.”
I am about to ask what kinds of games they played as kids because it’s one way to connect adults to their child selves and I can adapt just about anything with singing. But Mariel goes on, “ He loved plantanos maduros and Abuela’s arroz con pollo. Luna – this never passes her lips. Potomac Pizza for the Ryans,” she chokes.
“I left,” she shrugs. “I was heartbroken. I didn’t know how I could live. I got divorced, came to Washington, got a job.”
This was not going to a good place, I knew. She left “the community” and now she was married to a Dr. Ronald Ryan — no naming of a child “Luna” would be enough to sustain those deep connections.
“They said I stopped being Cuban – my mother, my sister, my relatives, even friends. Even now, my sister criticizes me for not teaching Luna Spanish. Does she care,” Mariel’s eyes were livid, “that I can’t teach Luna to speak in any language?!”
The big hallway clock strikes on the quarter hour and a little girl with a long dark brown ponytail bursts through the front door. A uniformed woman waves through the crack and slips away anonymously. The girl runs into the kitchen where we are seated.
“Hi sweetheart,” Mariel gets up, seeming to want to hug her, but the girl zooms past and runs circles around the big table in the adjoining dining room. “Luna! Come say hello to our visitor,” her mother directs.
I know this isn’t going to happen and I ache for both of them. Next time, I will encourage mom to playfully block Luna’s way, not corral her but with her arms wide open so Luna will have a reason to interact. Luna likes to run – that’s good – we can chase, we can block, we can dodge, we can join her by singing to her pace. Mariel is rhythmic — I know that from her flowing shoulder and head movements. She appreciates vibrant sound and beat, I know from Jorges’ dazzling Latin percussion.
I know that as much as her life in the present is with Dr. Ryan in Potomac outside of Washington, DC, her broken roots are Cuban-American. I’ll find some songs she may have known and put them to her own remembered games to share with her child.
Señora Santana comes to mind … Señora Santana por qué llora el niño?
Señora Santana, why does the child cry? For an apple that has been lost. I will give you one, I will give you two One for the child, one for you. I don’t want one, don’t want two I want the one I lost.
I know she is heartbroken over two children – one she lost at sixteen, and one who she cannot reach at four. But with her love and yearning, her child’s desires, and my knowledge from today, crammed as full as that Cuban shrimp boat, this will be the start of another new voyage – of Mariel, Luna and me.
TheCoastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia), was published by Bluestem Literary Magazine. In it I write about the mysterious effect of “knowing” a place in which one steps foot for the first time — in this instance, the reedy, flowering coastal meadows of Pärnu, my mother’s hometown by the sea. The place settles on me, “like linen upon an infant sung and rocked to sleep,” and I wonder, “Who slipped this place in me? Was it my choosing, or has it crept unknown?” These, I ponder, are markings of being “a refugee’s child — daughter of a true daughter of southwestern Estonia — who grew with her mother’s hollow in her heart.”
Click on the link above to read the full poem and to hear my reading of it.
A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice is a lyrical essay with themes of autism in the young and stroke in the elderly. It tells a story of how each was able to use singing when wordlessness compounded their lives and reveals my journey with them.
A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice by Kaja Weeks was first published by The Potomac Review, A Literary Arts Quarterly in 2015. I am very pleased and proud that the journal nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize.
The Wedding of Salme was first published by Fickle Muses: Journal of Mythic Poetry and Fiction
About the Poem …
The Wedding of Salme is derived from one of the most ancient surviving Estonian myths, Starbride (Tähemõrsja) and recreated with my personal twist of longing by entering the imagined space –“I did whisper, hidden in time.” A characteristic of my writing often is that the past, even very distant past, fluidly interlaces the present or future.
There are many versions of this beautiful myth to be found in Estonian sources. While they all tell the same basic story, the verse expressions of the runic verses (regilaul) show rich regional variety and it was a thrill to research beyond my own basic knowledge when I began creating an interpretation in my own words. I loved knowing how ancient the origins were — over a thousand years or more — reciting the beautiful sounds aloud, and cherishing the early oral preservation that spoke of people’s hopes, wishes, and understanding of their world.
Estonian runic verses are highly stylized in meter and other literary qualities. Although it wasn’t possible to re-create all of that, I wanted to pay homage to some of the rhetorical characteristics, such as alliteration (the same sound at the beginning of words, e.g. “So Salme in silk and Star a-shimmering”); assonance (repeated vowel sounds, e.g. “moist with morning fog”); and parallelism (repeating ideas in a symmetrical way, e.g. “the tiny treasure, a chilly shell.”) all framed within a rhythmic, prosodic style.
The silver swan, who living had no note, when death approached unlocked her silent throat; Leaning her breast against the reedy shore, thus sung her first and last, and sung no more. Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes; More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.
I am so pleased that this essay was published by Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts, and Humanities, Winter 2017. Ars Medica is the only medical literary journal in Canada, and one of a handful of such journals in the world. Click here to read the full piece at Ars Medica or The Silver Swan and Her Stroke_Kaja Weeks_Ars Medica_2017 to read in PDF format.
The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs
By Kaja Weeks
This is a view of a massive stroke followed by rare communications through singing and vocalization between an elegant lady born by the Baltic Sea almost 100 years ago and her daughter (the author). A reflective true account with story-like narration, it conveys the intersection of a musically rhythmic but “pitch deaf” mother and classically-trained singer daughter at their final crossroads. The stunning scene of hearing her mother, unable to speak, but singing “with full power and nuance, like a glorious Wagnerian soprano,” has the author first considering the extraordinary plasticity of the brain, and then, as a daughter, the poignant meaning of her mother’s sounds, who like the “Silver Swan,” sung her first and last, and sung no more.”