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Wigilia at Łazy (III)

So here’s how the tradition works.

Christmas begins with Wigilia. Vigil. Christmas Eve.

In many ways it’s the most important day.

Traditionally, you fast all day – and the Wigilia dinner doesn’t begin until you see the first star come out.

There must be twelve courses.

And you must set out an extra place for the stranger who could show up at your door.

Obviously, this requires much loving preparation in advance…

…a virtue of which Irena is the patron saint…

…though others pitched in as well…

…and were proud of their own handiwork…

…like with these pierogi.

The men retired to Łazy earlier in the afternoon. After all, there was much work to do there, too…

…like building and stoking the fire in the hearth – since it was going to be -10 celsius that night, or 14 degrees fahrenheit.

But soon the hearth was glowing, and the old farmhouse began to warm.

Actually, it had begun to warm even earlier because those of you with monastic practices like our own well understand that fasting does not necessarily preclude…

…celebratory libations.

When the first star does come out, first we pray together, and then each person takes honey on an unblessed host…

…and exchanges that with everyone else at the table, praying over one another and expressing one’s own wishes for each person for the coming year.

We forget what the exact wishes were when it came to this pair. But the punchline went something like this:
We’re going to be traveling together for how much longer?

Of course, not everything takes place indoors.

There was a walk down into the same woods…

…where Chris' father used to look for mushrooms as a boy…

…the family from two continents re-connected once again.

And two days later there was even a sleigh-ride up into the Carpathian mountains…

…with all the expected tomfoolery…

…and joy and appreciation for one another…

…that keeps on growing.

But for Wigilia there were courses yet to come.

And Nate had begun working on the translation of a poem …

…that had been written and dedicated to this old farmhouse in Łazy.

Yet even with his able assistant…

…he’s probably still working on that translation even now.

And even when our Wigilia meal had been concluded, there was still another ritual yet to come – and an intricate one at that…

…because to become a native Łazan is not an idle matter.

There are prescriptions and requirements and bylaws that all must be fulfilled.

This is just one translated page from the local Łazan book.

And as you can see, the totem of Łazy is the owl.

Chris served as English-speaking adjucator for the first Undersealed Pretender of Łazy…

…who performed the ritual…

…and initiated the novices with aplomb…

…all those who had undergone the weighty regimen.

But lest you think that becoming a native Łazan is something anyone took lightly…

…watch how each initiate…

…signs the book.


Łazy – and Rocky Creek (II)

The plan from the beginning was that Matt, Nate, Caitlin, and Ali would join us for Christmas.

And here are the four of them – with my cousin Staszek.

So you can see that the discussion about where we might meet for Christmas had been very brief...

…since Staszek and his wife Irena had invited us to spend a traditional Polish Christmas in Łazy with the two of them…

and with their sons Jakub…

…and Szczepan -- and Szczepan’s wife Patrycja.

They had written that they hoped it would be a Christmas we would remember all our lives.

You'll be able to tell us for yourselves if that's come true.

For awhile now, we’ve been thinking about the relationship between Łazy and the backcountry place we've found at Rocky Creek in Big Sur…

…and the ways of being there we’ve learned…

…with our kids…

…and friends.

In fact, our friends are continuing to create ways of being there even as we travel.

Sometimes you feel to us like a gravitational center…

…while we’re some wayward compass arm tracing an arc around a point that you hold firm.

Sometimes someone visits a place like Rocky Creek and politely admires its beauty…

…while someone else seems to have had it running through his veins all his life.

You make one brief call…

…and before you can turn around, your friends are there to help.

Staszek, Irena, Jakub, Szczepan and Patrycja have visited Rocky Creek themselves.

I speak no Polish. Just now, Staszek is beginning to study English.

But I can’t think of a time when we haven’t understood each other...

…ever since that suburb kid from California showed up in Łazy years and years ago.

When Staszek visited Rocky Creek, he took one look at what we had done, one look at me, and immediately wrapped me in a bear hug. Then he said just one thing.

OK. He said a lot of things. But I only understood one of them.

" Łazy."

But I knew exactly what he meant. "This place is like Łazy for you," he was saying.

And that’s exactly right.

When Staszek, Irena and Jakub returned from that trip to visit us in California, the renovation in Łazy not only picked up pace…

…but perhaps its focus sharpened, too.

There was foundation work to be done…

…and a new well to be dug.

The center of any home is really its fire-hearth…

…so that had to be restored as well.

And lest we give the impression that an act of reinhabitation only requires physical work…

…here’s Staszek poring over his gathered collection of family documents – an act of backwoods scholarship our Big Sur friends understand themselves.

But what is Staszek pointing towards?

...the signatures of two of our relatives.

Signatures in a wide sense. Yes, someone has written their names for them. But the two crosses to the left indicate their own marks since they couldn’t write themselves.

My grandparents and aunts and uncles, of course, all could write. But I’ve seen more intelligence in my grandmother’s peasant hands, and in my aunt Jadwiga’s, than in other forms of erudition I have known – including my own.

Here's Łazy 9 with its restoration work done…

…dated from its inception until the year of our family reunion there.

And here’s the main architect behind these dreams.

He has the precision of an engineer, but also the curiosity of an historian, and the sharp eye of an artist.

So as you can see, everything was waiting for us…

…to experience a Christmas at Łazy that we would remember all our lives.


Łazy (I)

My father was born in the farming hamlet of Łazy in Galicia (in southeastern Poland). He was the oldest of six children.

On his first day of school, his mother Julia had packed his lunch and sent him off on his two and a half mile walk to the town of Rymanów.

But he had only gone part way when suddenly he turned around and ran back home in tears.

It sounds like an early metaphor for his whole life.
When my dad was 13, he was one of the few young people able to go on to high school. But that meant boarding 25 miles away at Sanok, and though he could not foresee it then, it meant essentially leaving his family home for good -- since when he graduated, the Nazi blitzkrieg struck.

On September 9, 1939 a special mountain battalion of German forces entered Rymanów. And the Soviets and Nazis had signed the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov Agreement, dividing Poland between themselves. The dividing line was at the San River, right by Sanok where my father had gone to school.

The Jewish community in Rymanów was ordered to cross the San River into Soviet-held territory. Those who did were subsequently driven into Siberia and beyond. Many died in the ordeal or disappeared.

My father was in the Polish army then, and he was scattered, too -- fighting later at Tobruk and then training as an RAF pilot in Britain.

Those in the Jewish community who had chosen to remain in Rymanów were forced into a ghetto without a fence.

On August 13, 1942, the Nazis exterminated the Jewish ghetto in Rymanów.

My father wasn’t able to return to Łazy for 25 years. When he finally could go back, he took me with him. I was 13 – the same age he was when he left. In this photo from that trip, I'm standing between my dad's father Jan and his brother Vladek.

My uncles Vladek and Gienek took me out on the farm like I was a farmboy myself.

My grandfather Jan was struggling with cancer. In fact, he was hanging on so that he could see his oldest son one last time. He died a month after we left.

At the beginning of the first world war, he had been captured by the Russians and taken to a camp in Siberia, from which he later escaped.

He walked all the way home to Łazy from Siberia, hiding by day and walking by night, finding or stealing another pair of boots when the ones he was wearing had worn out.

Some years after my father’s return to Łazy, his mother Julia also died, and the small family farm in Łazy was sold – though my brothers and I pleaded with our father to buy it himself. But perhaps that was too difficult for him.

In 1994, my brothers Mike and Victor and I returned to Poland with our dad. He is in the center of this photo from that trip. Our aunts Marissa and Jadwiga are in the upper right of the photograph, and Jadwiga’s husband, our uncle Kuba, is to my father’s right.

Now my father and all of his siblings, except for Jadwiga, are gone as well.

That trip back to Łazy in 1994 was bittersweet. The person who now owned our family’s home had renovated it and made it comfortable again.

So afterwards, I turned to my cousins Romek…

…and Staszek and asked them,“What would it cost to buy back the family home again?"

But Staszek was one step ahead of me. “I’ve got a better idea," he said. "Let's buy the small farm next door instead."

So my brothers and I sent a modest sum to help make that possible, and Łazy 9, next door to my grandparents' home, began to be restored.

Staszek and his father Kuba stand before Łazy 9, a traditional Galician farmhouse built in 1894.

By 2005, enough renovation had been done that our first family reunion was held in Łazy.

It began with Mass in the church in Rymanów.

And the festivities at Łazy were full of local music and lore, which my cousin Zbyszek knows as well as anyone.

Uncle Kuba beamed and wept through it all…

...and Jadwiga shone with the same compassion and understanding she always has.


Happy New Year -- from Krakow

Or as it is called here...Sylwester's Day.

Our daughters had flown home in the morning...

...which left Matt and Nate and the two of us to celebrate.

That is, the four of us and 100,000 other souls squeezed into Rynek Główny -- the medieval market square -- in Krakow.

The thermometer said that it was -10 Celsius outside. That's 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the crowded bodies, and their internal fuel, raised the temperature in the square considerably.

Hopefully, your celebration was safe and festive as well.

And may your New Year be blessed.