After a long train ride, I have arrived at a guest house in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It is late. I am happy to be where I am. Located near the Trans-Ile-Alatau Mountains, Almaty is in a beautiful space. Tomorrow, I will hike in the Ile-Alatau National Park. I hear that there are snow leopards living in this park that features waterfalls and glaciers.
Now I have a different task. It seems that people back at home have heard of my adventure. So they asked the Rev. Kris Bjerke-Ulliman, the pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Grand Island, to interview me. During this pandemic shut down, Pastor Kris has offered daily reflections on Facebook Live. She talks about such things as the gifts of the spirit, an abundant life, and a contemplative prayer practice, known as lectio divina. She speaks for about half an hour and, sometimes, her puppet friend joins her.
Today, Pastor Kris has questions for me to answer! Below is our interview:
Would you tell me about your early life? For example, how many lived in your house, what did you experience your home life?
I grew up with two parents and three sisters. I am the third of four girls. My dad wanted a son, but he never got one. When I was born, the first thing that he said was, “Another girl?!” He probably hit himself on the head while he was saying that.
I grew up as a kid with an overactive imagination. From the time that I was four until I was almost twelve, we lived in a big house in Syracuse, New York. The house held a lot of secrets. It was full of this amazing woodwork. There was an incredible ceiling in the dining room. I’ve never seen a house with a ceiling like that since we moved out of the house in Syracuse.
Between the first floor and the second floor, there was a landing. I liked to hold little shows on the railing. The landing was almost like a little stage. There was a closet with a full length mirror on the landing, and the closet door was locked. So it became very mysterious for me because I never saw the inside of the closet. The mirror became a portal to an alternative world for me. I used to talk to my mirror image and to my little sister’s mirror image regularly. My poor little sister! She probably thought that I had gone quite mad.
My mirror image and my sister’s mirror image had names. I don’t remember those names anymore. What I do remember is that the mirror images lived in a world of brightness and happiness. They never struggled in school and they had loads of friends. I was never jealous of these imaginary friends. I just wanted to be them.
The house had a wild, untended back yard, where we played games with the neighbor kids, none of whom went to school with me. There was a crawl space underneath the house, where I used to hide during games of hide and seek or, sometimes, just because hiding seemed right.
We had our meals in the big dining room with the beautiful wooden ceiling. My older sisters were called upon to guard the little glasses of orange juice from the cat. That was because the cat was determined to test the law of gravity repeatedly by tipping glasses of orange juice and watching them spill. My mother cooked a wide variety of foods. My dad said that she was the “best cook in the world.” I wondered if he had traveled the entire world and tasted all of the food.
The only things that my dad knew how to cook were French toast and pancakes. He made breakfast during the weekend and we were treated to French toast and pancakes. For a long time, we had a syrup that wasn’t quite real, but, eventually, my dad discovered the deliciousness of pure maple syrup so that’s what we ate.
Growing up, what did you want to do, experience or learn? What caught your interest as a child and has remained and what has dropped off over the years?
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the stars. I wanted to know what was out there, in the far beyond, where the stars twinkled and my imagination danced. I was a kid of the age of space exploration. Astronauts in their space suits were exciting for me. I wanted to be one of those astronauts. I wanted to get into a rocket ship and take off, at top speed, heading to the moon. Then I could find out the truth. Was the moon really made of green cheese? If you were to jump on the moon, would you fly up ten feet?
My dad and I read books together about astronomy. We read about the stars and about the planets and the asteroids. My desire to go there became stronger and stronger. I saw the moon landing on television at summer camp and it was so exciting.
My interest in becoming an astronaut suffered a very abrupt demise, however, when I learned that aspiring astronauts had to take a very special test. You get put into something that resembles a centrifuge and you get spun at top speeds. If you can handle that without vomiting, you pass the test. If you vomit, you fail.
Who would ever think that I would say “vomit” during an interview but there, you have it. Vomit. I have experienced motion sickness for much of my life, so I knew that the chances that I would pass the test were exceptionally small. I decided to change focus and become an astronomer instead. Unfortunately, that required me to be good at my worst subject, math, so that wasn’t happening. I went through all sorts of career dreams, including actress, cartoonist, and writer of poison pen letters. I even practiced the poison pen letters. Unfortunately, they turned out to be funny and not mean enough. Or fortunately. Who knows.
I wanted to be a playwright. And I wrote a few plays. One was actually produced. In fourth grade, I tried being a cartoonist. I named the comic strip “Brim,” and the main character was a nine-year-old boy named Brim.
Much of this stuff is gone. I never tried creating another comic strip. I do, however, draw and paint so I have found other ways to create visual arts. I now have no desire to be an astronaut and prefer to stay on the Earth and just watch the sky. I haven’t written any plays for a long time, but I still write in other genres.
Since the age of the atomic bomb, every decade has been one of great change? Which decade has had the most impact on your life?
Probably the 1980s. In the 1980s, I went to journalism school. My career goal then was to become a film critic. I had seen exciting movies, such as Star Wars. I wanted to write about big, exciting movies. Then I discovered other types of movies. Historical movies, such as “J’Accuse” by Abel Gance and “The Battleship Potemkin,” by Sergei Eistenstein. I discovered surrealistic and art films during a very hot summer in Columbia, Missouri. The movies were shown in an air conditioned room.
After I graduated from journalism school, I discovered that the job market and my career dreams did not match. I had to work part time and do freelance work and volunteer work. I have reviewed many things since I graduated from journalism school, including books, live theater, music, and the visual arts. But I have never reviewed movies.
So I kept trying to figure out who I wanted to be because my career was not doing it for me. I ended up by doing all sorts of clerical jobs, all of which I did badly, but didn’t know why. I attended a playwriting workshop. And I went to a class where we read books by Latin American authors.
Before that class, I never really thought much about Latin America. Wait. That’s not quite accurate. As a senior in college, I wrote a paper about the Panama Canal Treaties, which were renegotiated in 1978. It was a dramatic story of intrigue and strong arming. But, once I had finished the paper, I reverted to not thinking much about Latin America.
But it was the 1980s, and there were refugees from Central America in the United States. They needed help and support to get to Canada safely. I was still intent on being a Real Reporter so I went to the southern border to learn more about the conditions there. The place that I went to was Brownsville, Texas, which is on the border with Mexico. Across the Rio Grande is Matamoros, Mexico. I wrote an article about the trip and about what I had learned there, but I could not get it published.
A year later, in 1987, I went to Guatemala to learn Spanish. That was a very transformative experience for me. I had never before or since been in a place that was so beautiful and so troubled. I felt that I found everything that I ever dreamed of or wanted in Guatemala. I went to language classes every day. One student per teacher. During my breaks, I could pick oranges from a tree in a courtyard at the school. On weekends, we visited places like Lake Atitlan. We took a boat and visited a village called Santiago Atitlan. It is a famous place for weaving and weavers. We went to a famous outdoor market in Chichicastenango. We saw a religious procession there, and we saw all of the goods that were sold at the market.
For me, Guatemala was the most beautiful place in the world. But so much violence. I did not see the violence when I was there. I came when there was a truce during the civil war. But that didn’t last.
Two years later, I had the chance to go to Europe with a choir tour. We went to Poland, East Germany, and West Germany. That was a few months before Germany reunited. I have to say that I liked Poland the best. It was a beautiful country, with kind people, but with a lot of sadness. We had a tour of Auschwitz, and that was very painful. We saw the piles of shoes and the piles of suitcases and the barracks. You could almost sense the cries and the fear that, more than forty years later, were still there. Like an echo of the past.
East Germany was kind of bizarre. It was very clean and the people walked around seemed to be in some sort of trance. Almost as if they were hypnotized. Our tour guide was quite enamored of the East German government, but without any sort emotion. She seemed to be kind of robotic. But there were interesting, historical places in East Germany that we visited, which included Leipzig. The churches were very old structures and were really something to look at.
West Germany was good, especially the horse farm that we stayed at for our first night there.
A few months after I returned home, the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany was no more. It was just Germany. The Germans, who had been divided by a wall, could hug each other and see their long lost relatives. I cried with joy. And I have never liked walls that divided people, ever since the Berlin wall was knocked over.
What advice would you give to others who want to experience and follow their authentic self?
Follow your heart. Explore what makes you happiest and most fulfilled. And above all, don’t try to be someone else, even a family member. They are not you. I tried to be other people in my family for a long time. I saw them as smart and I thought that, if I imitated them, I could become them. It took me a long time to realize that I had my own path to follow. It took me an even longer time to understand that different did not imply a lack of intelligence; it was just another type of intelligence.
Also, I would suggest trying lots of new things. Explore and be open to the possibilities. There might be something for you, that resonates with you, but it may be just out of reach. Stretch to it. It could be for you. And don’t be afraid of change. We all want to be in our familiar comfort zone. But, unless you leave that comfort zone, you won’t know the sort of person that you could be. I never had an interest in photography but now, I can’t go anywhere without my camera!
And, above all, have fun. When I was in high school, I was in a play called “Auntie Mame.” The role that I played was of a shy, very naive secretary named Agnes Gooch. Auntie Mame told her, “Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.” Don’t starve in a banquet. Look for something there to eat, something that looks more delicious than you ever thought possible, and go for it. Reach out for your happiness. Even now, during this pandemic, it is there.
Note: Thank you, Pastor Kris, for asking these insightful questions. They are much appreciated.