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happy birthday, vasko popa


happy 93rd birthday, vasko popa.  you would be 93 today, but you never made it to 70.
i must confess i had never heard of you until i found you on a list of today's historical birthdays, but i liked the sound of your name as it made me imagine some exotic eastern european soda in a glass bottle, drunk in small glasses over ice on hot slavic days.  so i looked you up, and found you were a yugoslavian, like my ancestors, even though you came from what is now serbia, so maybe our ancestors might not have gotten along real well.  still, i'd like to think we could have overcome those differences over a glass of cold cola, which i would raise in your honor for your birthday.  i would tell you that i just read some of your poems this morning, and the one called "in the village of my ancestors" really spoke to me.  it reminded me of a good methodist hymn i have sung many times whose title is really a question, "and are we yet alive?"  and of course this is an unsettling irony in that question for you, as you have been undeniably dead for these last 24 years, but your poem raises a rather different question:  are we alive during our living years?  or, as the hymn says, "and are we yet alive?"  i know we are breathing and moving and brushing our teeth and paying our bills, but are we yet alive?  as a traditional funeral liturgy puts it: "in the midst of life, we are in death," and i think that is supposed to mean that there is death all around us, and we are constantly dealing with death, whether it be the loss of a loved one, the dead squirrel we've just run over, or our own lingering sense of mortality.  but maybe it could mean something else, too.  maybe it could mean that in the midst of our living, we are sometimes too busy dying to really be living.  does that make any sense?

(i pause here to take a sip of soda as you ponder these questions).

i think, vasko, may i call you vasko?  i think, mr. popa, that it makes a great deal of sense to you.  you get it, don't you?  that life isn't just having a pulse.  and that part of being alive means being connected to those who went before, even if those who went before didn't always make the best choices or stand for the right causes.  we are, nonetheless, constantly living (or dying) in their legacy, trying to honor it and reshape it and fill it all the more with love.  i think of these things as my world right now seems to be marked by conversations about flags and rights and symbols and marriage and so much more.  i, too, approach my forebears, both those connected to me by blood and those by faith, and i find myself asking them, too, "and are we yet alive?"

so, happy birthday, mr. popa.  thanks for the inspiration this morning. see you soon, you soda-sounding serb.  peace.

V. IN THE VILLAGE OF MY ANCESTORS
One hugs me
One looks at me with wolf-eyes
One takes off his hat
So I can see him better
Each one of them asks me
Do you know who I am 
Unknown men and women
Take on the names
Of boys and girls buried in my memory
And I ask one of them
Tell me venerable sir
Is George Wol still alive
That's me he answers
In a voice from the Otherworld
I stroke his cheek with my hand
And beg him with my eyes to tell me
If I am still alive too

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