The first of this month was both the birthday and the anniversary of the death of Marcelijus Martinaitis, the acclaimed Lithuanian poet. To commemorate this (slightly late), Deep Baltic is happy to reprint the preface from his memoir The Way We Lived Then, in which Martinaitis reflects about the perception of the passage of time and the many changes he had seen in his long and extraordinary life.
Marcelijus Martinaitis (1936 – 2013) was a Lithuanian poet and essayist, recipient of the Lithuanian National Prize in Literature. He was also an active participant in Lithuania’s independence movement. Martinaitis has published ten collections of poetry and three books of essays in addition to plays and screenplays. Mes gyvenome (The Way We Lived Then) has won several prestigious literary prizes, including the most creative book award issued by the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute (2009), the reader’s choice award from the Book of the Year (2010), and the Žemaitės (2010) and Juozas Paukštelis (2011) awards. This memoir describes the poet’s childhood and adolescence and ends at the time when he is widely recognized as a talented poet. The memoir recreates the environment of a child growing up in a Lithuanian village in the postwar era.
We are accustomed to talking about how short our lives are, and how quickly they pass. The older you get, the faster time passes. You hardly notice where the days have gone, and already it is Christmas, New Year’s, spring, summer, autumn, winter. And so on. When you were young, everything was ahead of you, and now, already, you find yourself in the position from which you look back and try to understand the mess you’ve left behind. The flow of life compresses the days, the months, the years. That is how life feels. You employ all sorts of methods to stop time, yank it back, like a rider reins in a run-away horse. How good it is to be young, when you don’t have a past yet. Once you’ve lived through that past, you carry it around with you, like a hunchback.
Nonetheless, looking back at the history of your life, you realize that it is quite long after all. The beginning of my life is hopelessly far away, so far away, that it no longer feels as though it were mine. My past is ensnared in a completely different time, a time that my imagination struggles to reconstruct through a fog, drawing out of nothingness a few random images, voices, words, faces, colors, as though they had come from some dream from the dawn of time, a dream I’d imagined. All sorts of historical events stretch out a life and make it seem even longer. I’ve experienced more than my share of those types of events, and I can’t say that all those memories are painful. Then your life seems longer than the actual number of years you’ve lived. It is stretched out by books, history, art, and all that renders one’s life longer still.
What can I write about myself that is authentic? Suddenly, I remember something, but I don’t know exactly when it happened, or how, or where? What year was it? What month? What day? A naïve diary with dates from my school days has survived. It’s strange, but the diary contains almost nothing of what was most important, what had meaning, not only to my own future life and creative work, but to all of Lithuania—what I struggle now to remember, recreate, draw out of the dark corners of my memory. After all, at the time I was writing that diary the resistance was being fought in the forests surrounding my home, the cottages of the people who’d been exiled to Siberia were sinking into the ground, the KGB was terrorizing us, and all sorts of rootless people showed up and confiscated our farm animals, tools, buildings, and drove us onto the collective farms.
At that time, it seems, my eyes did not see everything that I saw later, once I already was deeply involved with literature, poetry. Literature seemed to draw out of my memory everything that was insignificant at the time: a certain glance, a tree that grew in our orchard, the way the grass bent down from the wind, the gaze of our farm animals, a stork landing gracefully in its nest.
Not everything I write here will be verifiable. This is how my past looks to me as I write it now, but in a few years it will seem different still. In my essays I’ve revealed a few things about myself. Now, when I read what I wrote then, I’m surprised, because those very same things already seem different when viewed through the lens of more current experiences and events. Today, as I write, I know that a lot of what I write will not be completely accurate. I only write about those events that have settled in my memory—what’s been mulled over, what I see in my imagination. I no longer see the symbolism of my early life because it is nearly gone.
As I organize my past, all the time HE, the one who I once was, but who I no longer am, is at work. After all, a memoir is a means of thinking about yourself, about your life, and its meaning. Memory opens up, calling up certain events, moods, dreams, illnesses, creative work, the desire to tell your story again, to justify your story, and then it disappears. They are witnesses who answer to their own past, or to questions asked by life, or questions asked by your creative work. This is how your life history becomes history.
Many things are hidden by memory, shifted by memory. I’ll never know anymore what it is that I had seen, let’s say, lying in the meadow on the banks of the Šlyna River, or sitting on a wooden bench outside of our cottage on a lovely May evening—what was it that I had been thinking about during those times of doing absolutely nothing? Although, at that time something very important was happening inside of me, something I only began to understand once I’d grown up, when I began writing poetry, writing these words now. Isn’t it the creative act, after all, that helps us to begin to understand all that and lends meaning to things that seem to be long forgotten? Therefore, is creativity nothing special at all? Is it merely the voice of memory, waves of echoes calling us back?
So many important concrete occurrences are erased from the disk of our memories. And at the same time, much is left that seems completely insignificant, temporary, coincidental. Memory is constantly creating everything anew. I am not always the same person myself compared with the person others see, remember, or who I remember. To write a memoir is more of a philosophical act than to write about real life events in an accurate manner. However, at the same time so much effort in a memoir is put into accomplishing accuracy. No matter what, you are still trying to reach out and grasp and hold onto something real, something that actually happened, something you saw, so that you could keep it in your memory forever.
I’m constantly tormented by the question: What is life? Each one of us attempts to answer this question in our own manner. I write this memoir driven by this question. Sometimes I think about the loved ones I have buried. Their lives have ended, but not a single one of their life’s questions has been answered. No one has been able to answer those questions—not the person who has died, not science, not religion, despite how many attempts there have been.
Any way you look at it, writing a memoir is still a creative act. Writing a memoir forces you to reflect on what you once understood, or what you now understand, about the life that you have lived, about events that have taken place, about people, about yourself. I remember the people in my village, those times when they would sit down to have a serious discussion about the question: “What is life?” What came out of those discussions was the villagers’ philosophy, their insights, their wisdom. All of that has never been written down, unless perhaps accidentally buried somewhere in some classic work of Lithuanian literature. The educated are not the only ones who have the privilege to philosophize. There is so much wisdom that came to me from the simple people in my village.
After all, when you write, you must become that simple uneducated person in order to access those aspects of humanity that spring from the traps hidden deep within the mind. It is those truths that demand accuracy, authenticity, evidence. And then, you begin to judge that child, or to exonerate him, a child who understood nothing then, nothing of what I understand now or want to understand, just a thread of the continuity of life. I was my own child, the child that I will be writing about in this book. That child is still inside of me. That child appears out of the mist of my past when I begin to compose a poem. It would seem that now I want to give that child a present, ask him questions, entice him to come talk to me.
As I write now it occurs to me that this memoir will end with that part of my life when I became well known as a poet, and my life became a public life. A number of publications, colleagues, and archives now “know” more about my own life than I do. It’s very strange, but there is a lot about me that I do not know and probably will never know. Often others unexpectedly tell me something about myself that I cannot even remember, or something that I’d forgotten completely, something that was not significant to me.
After all, I cannot see myself. I don’t know what I look like when I walk. I don’t know what my voice sounds like, or how I look when I sit, or how my facial expressions appear, or how I appear to others in public, at some literary evening, reading my poems or giving a talk. I have another voice, an inner voice, that I hear when I think, when I read, that cannot be replicated in any recordings. When I see myself on film, I look completely different from the way I imagine myself. Photographs tell me nothing. The mirror tells me nothing as well.
The first time I saw myself on film, walking, sitting, talking, I could not believe that this stranger could be me. I imagined my inner self as being more attractive. Perhaps creativity is the attempt to somehow speak out to the world in your inner voice and to show an image of your own self that no one else can see. And, you put a lot of effort into making that person who you see walking and talking somehow closer to the image of yourself that only you see with your inner eyes. Isn’t that the reason why we begin to write poems, play music, paint, sing, dance? Isn’t that when our inner, unseen selves make an appearance?
I often write these words: Do not confuse me with my life. I have this double—who is not always very kind to me—who does things in my name. Perhaps in my creative work impostors also make their appearance?
The public life that I lead now is far less interesting to me than the life I led in the very beginning. It was a time when I was creating myself. An entirely different type of creative work begins when you lay down a sheet of paper before you and take a step away from your life. As I write these words I cannot stop thinking: What should I do? Search for documents that tell me something about my life, but which would tell me nothing about who I am now? Or try to understand why I am, and whether that is important to anyone else besides me?
If I had to commit myself to strict accuracy, there would not be very much that I could tell about my family, about my friends, about their life stories, about the not so distant past. I would have to search for all that in the archives, in church parish records. I wouldn’t get much out of my family members either. Everything that I will write here cannot be documented. It is my interpretation of my life, a life that I know little about, and one that I’ve half-forgotten. Through writing my memoir I will attempt to remember.
During my childhood, at the time when I could have remembered everything, the people around me stopped remembering, stopped talking about where they came from, about what they’d accomplished, because all of that could be used as evidence against them. It was a time when they dug around in our pasts in a terrifying, dangerous way. The occupying Bolshevik regime created a state of non-existence, which remains, even today, in our devastated villages and abandoned farmlands, and in our collective memories, in my memory.
There was a lot that I did not hear. Probably, I did not hear what was most important. And now I no longer have anyone to ask. All the people from my past who were closest to me have died. They have moved on to the village cemetery up on the hill. When the adults needed to talk seriously, they would chase us children outdoors. They were afraid of us knowing too much, and in that way they protected us from those who could beat those secrets out of us. Only now can I fully understand what a horrific exile people experienced then, not only from their familiar surroundings, but from their own lives, from their pasts, from their memories, even from their families. The worst part of those times was that parents began to fear their own children. The people have never fully recovered. The greater part of their lives were lived in secret from their children, in destroyed homesteads, in ashes and graves.
I’m always struggling to understand: How much of me is the person I was then? But he is gone now, and no memoir will bring him back. I pore over old photographs, read old texts, among my papers I find poems from long ago that I’ve forgotten I’d ever written—they seem as though they’d been written by someone else. There was another “I” then. All I can say is that once I was “him.” This separation from your self takes place throughout your entire life. And sometimes it is quite painful. You try to hold it all together through your writing, which in the end is nothing more than a reinterpretation of what once was, only viewed through the eyes of your present. Life is an amazing thing. Life constantly forgets itself, only to be reawakened and remembered through certain events, dreams, disappointments, or through the years that run past too quickly, no matter how hard you try to hold them back.
What I’ve said so far does not seem worthy of publication. Especially since there will be no stories in this memoir to take your breath away. This confused, often difficult, life of mine was, after all, a happy life. You see, I was not shot, I was not left to rot in a ditch in some foreign land, I didn’t have my bones broken, and finally, I was not crushed by this life. I do have wounds that have scabbed over, wounds that were left by illnesses, dog or cat bites, rooster claws, or other sharp things. And that is all. For someone who has lived through the second part of the twentieth century that is not a bad record at all. Sometimes I feel guilty when I think of those people from my lifetime who were tortured in underground prisons, who were killed, or crippled by all the inhumane wars of the last century. I feel guilty when I think of those who died in the concentration camps, jails, in exile.
To stay alive, to survive, took the greatest effort. It was the one activity that we all engaged in. When people would ask me back then, “What is your goal in life?” I would answer: To live, to stay alive. Of course, one must live one’s life in such a way that one would not be ashamed not only to live, but to die. On this earth there is nothing more unexplained, more wonderful, more mysterious than life, which, it would seem, someone must be watching, maybe even admiring. If God did create us, then it must be quite nice for him to gaze upon us.
As for life, one does a lot: One writes poems, risking one’s own life. One must sacrifice for life; one trespasses against another, then asks for forgiveness; one works hard, builds a house, reads books, raises children, travels, believes in God, or not. It is not enough to merely live. We all need something more than life itself. And what that something is I still don’t know, even now.
One way or the other, I’ve lived under a few different governments, or even under a few different civilizations. In my lifetime the currency has changed five, maybe six, times. And now, I write this memoir with my eyes embedded in a computer screen. But I learned to write my first letters after the war with bits of coal or ink made from ashes etched on wrapping paper, or on the margins of old books, or on the papered walls of our cabin.
If my grandfather were to see me now sitting at my computer, he would not understand what has happened to the world in just a few decades. He would be shocked that letters appear of their own accord inside some box, and that I talk into a device the size of a matchbox, and that others can hear me, even in America! By the way, when I was child that was how we played “telephone.” We’d connect two matchboxes with a bit of string and hold them to our ears and imagine that we could hear each other much better that way.
For a few years in my early childhood we were forced to live in an old barn from the 19th century. We returned there half-starved and poverty stricken from the war and from occupation. We returned to the life of serfs.
I know what the darkness of a long autumn or winter night is, when nowhere there is a lantern to be found. You hear nothing, and you see nothing, not even the stars. For many years in our home we did not have a radio, or any newspapers, or books, except for one prayer book. Only when I grew up and became interested in literature did books appear in our house, poetry books, novels, classics. In my village when I was growing up there were still people who could not read or write. They would sign their names with three crosses.
In our little house built from alder trees, there was no floor, only hard mud that I crawled on as a baby. In winter the windows, which were stuffed along the edges with cotton, would be covered with a thick impenetrable layer of ice. I would blow on the ice until a little hole appeared. Through that hole I would watch the road, waiting to see my mother or my father coming home. During the coldest time of the year we would bring the chickens indoors and they would peck around behind the stove. A newborn calf or lamb would be taken indoors to live cordoned off in the adjoining room through the depths of the deepest cold of the year. In this manner, humans and animals lived together, in a cozy enclosed space, so that it would be warmer for all of us.
It’s strange, but today it is very pleasant for me to remember, to feel even, the strange coziness of those times, the scents that came from the herds, their warmth, the coolness of the clay floor. It was not poverty, not in the way that we would define poverty today. It was how we lived then. And that life gave us the greatest joy, the joy that we were alive, even though during those years we often heard shooting coming from the forests, and fires would blaze up from nowhere, and uninvited guests would tap on our windows in the middle of the night.
If reading these words, you were to ask me what happiness is, I would tell you about an image that suddenly comes to mind, though from a slightly later time, when I was already a student in Kaunas. On December 24th, on a bitter cold evening, in the back of an open truck, covered with a piece of burlap, in the twilight, I was going home. I walked, no, practically ran home in the dark, through the snow, eight kilometers from Raseiniai to my village, until I saw the light in our cottage window from the distance. I stepped inside our warm cottage. Behind the table, covered with a white table cloth, my parents sat waiting for me, dressed in their best clothing.
We did not say anything important to each other. We simply sat together at the same table. And it was not significant at all that I did not sleep that night, because early in the morning, when the rooster crowed, my father had me lay down in the sleigh and covered me over with furs. I had to make it to the early morning class at the technical college. On Christmas morning they wrote down the names of all those who were not present in the lecture hall, and they would punish you for that. They’d take away your stipend or make a decision about you in some meeting. They’d interfere with your closest friends, pressuring them to betray you.
I lay in that sleigh, gazing up at the star-filled sky, which I see in my mind’s eye even now, and I thought to myself: “There is something worth living for, after all.” Maybe I understood then, or maybe I only understand now, that nowhere else will you find that, and that you could not buy it for any money, and that you would not experience it by controlling vast wealth or countries, or by having a lot of power. Back there, in our lives, in the way we lived then, we had everything that was worth living for, as long as we were not tempted by luxury, betrayal, crime, hatred, lies, distrust.
I wonder if I would want to repeat that life? Yes, I would. I would repeat it if I could have that opportunity to once again grow up, survive, learn how to read and write; stay warm during the bitterest cold; wait for spring to come; blow hot breath onto a window covered in hoarfrost; wait for someone; and feel joy at seeing the first half-dead fly groping about, awakening after the ravishes of winter; one day suddenly seeing that the girls in my class have become beautiful; write poems; live to see Lithuania become independent; participate in the fight for Lithuania’s independence; be in the Kremlin itself, the place from where, during my childhood, false, cold, murderous words emanated, killing any hopes of joy. I cannot give up that life because it was my life; it was our life.
We learned to stay alive. And I learned that during very trying times. After all, are there many people out there who know how delicious a frozen carrot can taste? A carrot that my father brought home at the height of the starvation after the war. Or how relished a half-rotten seed potato that my uncle brought over could be? Or the taste of home baked bread that was half chaff? Those are the joys that I would like to talk about in my memoir. I don’t want to remember only the horrors of those times. For some reason, because of those horrors, we have grown accustomed to hating life. After all, even poverty can be beautiful, especially if it doesn’t kill you or destroy your spirit; if it isn’t the poverty that our people experienced in the worst of Russia’s concentration camps or in exile in Siberia. The poverty that we experienced at home was a poverty that was free. Even a beggar knows how to rejoice in his freedom. Even I, who have lived through many losses, sometimes learned how to be free only because I saw, heard, went, understood, remembered, spoke. That is what life has given me.
People are in the habit these days of rejecting their own lives from the position of tribunals, newspapers, books, memoirs. They want to hide their lives. They are terrified of secret documents coming out in the open. They consider those years that were associated with political repressions worthless; they want to forget those times when a person was undermined, harassed, intimidated, forced to betray others. I remember a friend of mine, who had been born in Siberia, telling me that he often dreamt of the tundra, of the nature of Siberia—he dreamt of it in exactly the same way that we dream of our home villages, although his memories were of Siberia, the very symbol of suffering for our nation.
However, while in exile the most important thing happened—an infant came into the world. After all, Christ is depicted as being born in a wretched place, and we worship that birth every year. The image of the manger is supposed to bring to shame those who imagine that their time on this earth is meant to be spent as though they were on vacation at a luxury resort. Doesn’t the story of how Christ came to this earth tell us something about the value of life? Even wild animals, wolves, as documented by researchers, spend their entire lives not far from the places where they were born. They do not wander far, even though they could find richer hunting grounds elsewhere.
Life does not disappear anywhere. Even if it is blindly forgotten or rejected. Isn’t it true that back in those dark years it took a lot of effort, a lot of will, merely to survive? Aren’t those efforts bigger and more beautiful than when you are free? Are they not worthy of life? Life ends only with death.
I cannot look at photographs of the families who were exiled to Siberia, standing in the tundra beside their log cabins, without experiencing great emotion and distress. Those photographs tell the stories of the incredible effort it took to survive, and of those people’s ability to not lose hold of life, even in the most inhospitable place on earth, a place where they were sent precisely so that life would be taken away from them, destroyed, forgotten. In the end, you must forgive a lot in life, so that you would not begin to hate yourself, especially because you are then liable to transfer that self-hatred onto anyone who crosses your path.
As I write these words I think that life itself is a creative work, and that I am its author, and at the same time its protagonist, a protagonist who has been shaped by me myself, by circumstances, creating me, working me over. Furthermore, that protagonist of life is not completely accurate and cannot be so. I recreated myself, having been born a second time from books, where accurate referenced memories disappear.
Come what may, I lived. That is a riddle that I cannot find the answer to. Everything goes very far and very deep, deeper than words reach. So many autobiographies begin with the words “I was born,” although the person who speaks those words cannot remember his own birth, and therefore cannot tell us about it.
That is the question of a child who is only just learning to recognize himself. I have not yet been able to answer this question. I have not yet been able to answer the following questions: Why do I see, watch, listen, write, see? Why do I exist? Is it coincidence? Am I a play thing of God? Was there nothing until I came into existence?
I remember how when I was a small child I would anxiously ask my parents: Where was I when I was not here? I could not come to terms with the fact then, as now, that a person does not exist, and then suddenly, for no good reason at all, he appears among his parents, speaks with them, sees himself in the mirror, walks, listens. My mother, I would guess, not knowing how to answer my puzzling questions, would tell me that I had been an angel in heaven, and that God chose me and sent me to her and my father. In order to answer such questions, one must be able to imagine God, or to imagine something that you believe in. What has placed that sense of the everlasting in a human?
Once I began to grow up, I realized that I might not have existed at all, especially when I began to understand that a body comes from another body, that the chance of my existence was one in a million, if not a billion. Your existence is up to chance, and at the same time, not—because the history of how you have come into being moves back into the annals of time and geographic space.
You are born from all of history, no matter who you are. Your existence might have been dependent on some detail from ages ago—from a successful hunt in Neolithic times or from your ancestors’ journey along the steppes of Eurasia, or from a dwelling place built within a burnt-out forest clearing, or from the Battle of Grunwald, or even from events that took place in Egypt or ancient Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, or events that took place during the many foreign occupations of our land, or finally, to the fact that your grandfather survived the first world war, and came home at precisely the time he did, and no other time, so that your mother would be born, and also that your father would grow up at the opposite end of the village.
Here I would have to write down everything, so that I could trace how throughout all of history, through all the breadth of geography and time and space, that one random gene traveled, which, once having seen the light of day, in our local church, where today a tree grows in the place where the altar once stood, I was given the name: Marcelijus Teodoras.
My second name—Teodoras—was a secret in my life. In Greek my Christian name means: Given by God. It represents my hidden origins because it does not exist in any documentation from Soviet times. Even today, when many have “legalized” their second, Christian, names, I do not dare write it beside my surname. It’s as though it were given to me as some sort of responsibility. Once I’d grown up, and sometimes now, I have the strange thought that someone had given me something that I must treasure, that I should not allow to be destroyed.
This is what a life’s history is, moving backwards into the far-away mist of time. I am here by coincidence, and at the same time, I’m not. History flows through you, passes through you, forging a path towards those people who you will never meet and never see. You will never even know who they are. There is not one life, not even the most lowly insignificant life, that does not answer yours like an echo, that does not move backwards through the distance of time, becoming a new chain of births.
And so I was born on April 1st, 1936, in the village of Paserbentis in a small cottage made of clay. I only found out about the fact that I’d arrived a few years later, when I began to understand words, and what time is, and how it is measured in years, months, weeks, days, hours, seconds.
And so, I took it upon myself to live. I was given a certain limit of time, which I am still using now, to live my life.
From the memoir The Way We Lived Then by Marcelijus Martinaitis, Lithuanian Writers Union Publishers: Vilnius, 2009, 2014
Translated by Laima Vincė
Published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishers, 2009, 2014
Recipient of the Book of the Year Award, 2009
Header image – Kaunas, Lithuania, 1930 [Image: skyscrapercity.com]