The Creature in the Cellar


In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott writes of the little assistant that lives inside a writer’s mind, or dwells deep down in one’s gut:

There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is that little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together.

Her words resonate with me as I use my post-flu recovery downtime to brainstorm my current projects and outline a new set of goals for the coming year. Goals, or dreams? I have projects that seem too ambitious but in setting the bar higher I believe I am giving myself  permission to feed the strange creature in the cellar, the one arranging and stitching things together, the one keeping me up with all sorts of crazy Nyquil-induced ideas until the early hours of the morning.

This will be a brief post. I’m still groggy and tired and my thoughts are all-a-swirl. But this much is clear:  Our dreams, our creations—arranged and stitched together in the dark cellar of our unconscious—are an extension of who we are and who we hope to become.  But commitment—to a goal, to a place, to a person—is what separates a dream from reality.

I’m looking forward to re-committing myself to this blog and to the many projects I initiated last year. I’m committing to working on culturally potent projects with the primary purpose of strengthening a sense of Portuguese-North American identity. I’m committing to writing about cultural identity and psycho-geography while exploring my deep interest in Portuguese literature. I’m committing myself in order to commit you. To your dreams. Honor your creature in the cellar.

Flores, the “enchanted” island

Fazenda at sunrise

I was asked if the photograph that accompanied my previous post had been taken in the Azores.  And yes, it was. The image in question is the tomb of Antonio de Freitas which is located in the idyllic village of Mosteiro.  De Freitas, born in Mosteiro in 1792, left his homeland for Macau and made a fortune in opium trafficking and child slavery before returning to Flores in 1845.  In an effort to relieve his conscience and atone for his sins, de Freitas established a church in Mosterio, the “poorest place of his island,” and set about decorating the Igreja da Santíssima Trindade (Holy Trinity Church) with religious ornaments and cloths brought back from China. He had also brought back with him a beautiful Chinese-Portuguese wife, Ana Pulcreana. Driven by jealousy, de Freitas often locked her in their home. Plagued by loneliness, Ana became ill and eventually died, along with her young daughter, several years after her arrival on Flores.  After his own death in 1864, de Freitas was buried in Mosteiro in the cemetery located behind the Holy Trinity Church.  His tomb is unusual in its sinister details: tiger paws support a coffin adorned with a sculpted skull among two crossed shin-bones.

The small village of Caveira (skull) on the southeastern coast of Flores is home to the Legend of the Luminous Skull and as recently as ten years ago was also home to a young and charismatic witch doctor, Carlos Medeiros. People from all over the island would travel to his residence in Caveira to learn about their future, acquire monetary gains or to have curses cast on their enemies. As it turns out, one of his sons works as a laborer for my husband’s sister in Fazenda. He was amused, or perhaps surprised, to discover I had heard of his father’s reputation by way of a book (Flores, Azores: Walking Through History by Pierluigi Bragaglia) but not as amused when I asked if he had inherited any special psychic powers.

On my last night in Flores, we drove around the island’s southwestern hills before heading back through the town of Lajes to visit the marina one last time. Slowing at a corner, I looked out the window upon an older home tucked behind a stone wall. In the garden, naked dolls with dark eyes and missing limbs were hanging from a clothesline over a garden of kale and fava beans. If this was the Florentines’ version of the North American scarecrow, it was certainly effective on a scaredy-bird like me.  The effect of the moon shining down upon this strangely unsettling vignette only served to cement my belief that the island—or rather, its inhabitants,  are cursed—or blessed?—with a sense of the macabre. Goodbye Flores, my freaky little friend, I thought.  I’ll return one day. Maybe.

Many of the YouTube videos featuring the Azores seem to be accompanied by cheery or tranquil music which I simply can’t relate to as the islands harbor far too many mysteries and complexities to ever  be mistaken as a typical tourist destination.  Clearly, the folks who created these videos have never delved into the dark underbelly of the islands. However, the following video incorporates stunning time-lapse photography with a menacing soundtrack and an increasingly ominous progression of cloud formations that should be a warning to some of you… You will not come away from the islands untouched.

Here is the Place

here is the place where sadness
has the depth of a well
and the face of absence
here where my shoulders
are submerged
coincidental with distance and permanence

let it be a poem where water
is always near
water and music of seaweed against rocks
let it only be an image in the mirrors
growing in silence against the bones

but if I write to you water
water liberates
it spells your name
it drinks your splendor
here on this page
the sea rises up
floods me dissolves me
in its furor

~Madalena Férin
Translation by John M. Kinsella, Voices From the Islands

That Damned Island…

Mosteiro gravesite large pix

Damned island

where a day has months, lasts years
island of waves and disappointments
island of tiredness and misfortunes:
what enchantment do you hold?
what truth is only yours?
that makes me leave
thinking of leaving forever
thinking of leaving alone
but I take with me
as a stigma, a punishment
the certainty of a desired return,
the incapacity of leaving definitely
your company that I didn’t want
and you make me return, now without pain
now, all of me, once again, pleasure and happiness

~Gabriela Silva
Translation by Diniz Borges

Ilha maldita

onde a dia tem meses, dura anos
ilha de marés de desenganos
ilha de cansaços e desditas:
que encanto é o teu?
que verdade é a tua?
que faz com que eu parta
pensando ir de vez
pensando ir sozinha
e leve comigo
como um stigma, um castigo
a certeza de um regress desejado,
a incapacidade de partir de um só vez
a tua companhia que eu não queria
e me faças voltar, já sem dor
já toda eu, outra vez, prazer e alegria

~Gabriela Silva

The Florentine poet Gabriela Silva perfectly captures the enchantment of the small island of Flores and its effect upon both residents and visitors alike. I’ve been reflecting on my six weeks in the Azores this past summer, most notably on the four weeks I spent on Flores. It was my third visit in seven years and I am no closer to resolving the hold this place has on me. In my previous post I confessed to the “stoic breakdown” I experienced upon my return home. I was only half-joking. My sister, upon hearing of my “misadventures”—and we shall call them that in order to protect the innocent—insisted I never return to the island, but she, like my brothers, don’t understand my fascination with the place.

Flores is a damned island. I believe it is home to magic, some old-school thaumaturgy that begins to work its strange powers the moment you set foot upon its earth. It is a magic that permeates its landscape, its people and its history.   The Island (yes, it totally deserves capitalization) began working its dark magic on me within a few days of my arrival. Between bouts of truly gloomy weather, a family feud involving my capricious elderly aunt, graveyard visits, talk of exorcism involving a local teenager and the unrelenting weight of memory, I struggled to set aside a little time each day to write. More often than not, the urge to shave my head or jump off the cliffs into the churning waters interrupted my thoughts.  After two weeks, I gave up. True, I had some internet connectivity issues with my laptop the first week but once that was resolved, I was able to post on my blog. But I didn’t. There was simply too much to process while I was there, on that Damned Island—and I’m still processing. Not to make light of those who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I believe I’ve been suffering from Post-Flores Melancholic Disorder these last few months.

I don’t wish to portray my time on Flores as a completely miserable experience. I did have some wonderful times. There was an unbelievably scenic boat trip around the island. Long hikes on treacherous but breathtaking cliff-side paths.  Watching the breaking waves swirl in among the glinting rocks at Santa Cruz during a midnight dock-side concert.  Strolling through the mist-covered—and strangely empty—village of Mosteiro and experiencing a sudden rush of skin-prickling déjà vu. Exuberant family dinners that began late in the afternoon and went on past the midnight hour.  Getting my very own copy of Roberto de Mesquito’s Almas Cativas & Poemas Dispersos, a book that is all but out of print and impossibly hard to come by.

But I had expected to be swept off my feet in a blur of church festivals and dances, days filled with laughter and sunlight and writing inspiration galore.  I had expected carefree coffee-shop afternoons reconnecting with relatives and friends I hadn’t seen in years and swimming for hours until my skin puckered like a raisin in the warm salty ocean. I had expected The Island to steal my heart again.

And it did, but not in the way I had expected.

After the Storm…

The east coast of Flores

Yes, I know. I have tragically neglected my little blog and feel the worst for it. Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been busy with work, with life, with the myriad of responsibilities that come with being a citizen of the 21st century? No? Fine, I confess. I had a stoic breakdown following my trip to the Azores this past summer and it’s taken a lot of reading of sad poems by dead poets to revive my interest in Portuguese literature. That, and the realization that today, November 1, is a national holiday in Portugal: O Dia de Todos os Santos.

All Saints Day is celebrated throughout Portugal and the Azores with special masses and processions.  In many small towns and cities, young Portuguese children go door to door collecting “bread for God” in recognition of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 which coincidentally took place on the morning of November 1, O Dia de Todos os Santos.  Thousands of people were attending church when the earthquake struck. Every church in Lisbon was destroyed. Those who escaped crumbling buildings fled to the port for safety only to drown in one of three tsunamis that swept through the region. Fires ravished the city and those who survived were left to starve among the rubble and ashes. Upwards of 40,000 people died in Portugal, Spain and Morocco with many of the deaths attributed to drowning. The earthquake was felt as far away as northern Europe and along the western coastline of Africa. In the Azores, every island port suffered serious damage from tsunamis.

That one of the largest natural disasters in history occurred on All Saints Day in a notably Roman Catholic country, and where so many perished in collapsed churches, had a strong influence on the theologians of the day. It had many Christians questioning the benevolence of God.

Communities sinking into the abyss of a roiling sea, miles of darkened and abandoned buildings, homes razed to the ground by fire, and most heartbreaking, a rising number of dead.  I’m referring not to the Lisbon of 1755, but to the eastern seaboard of the United States today. I imagine there are many Americans questioning that same God as they mourn loved ones who perished as a result of Hurricane Sandy. But that’s the thing about natural calamities. Bombarded with all the beauty and tragedy that the world has to offer, we are ultimately faced with the knowledge that we control so little in life. We can only control our response to tragedy. It is heartening to see Americans of all national origins, classes, creeds and colors work together to restore and rebuild their lives following such a large-scale disaster.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected, and especially to the many Portuguese-Americans residing in Newark, Providence, Cape Cod, New York and Rhode Island.

Romantic Burial 

There where the sea breaks in a roaring
And monotonous boil and where winds
Rear their lamentations along the beach,
There it will be that they bury my heart.

~Antero de Quental


The Island Within Me

Flores 2012 020

Seven, eight, nine. The tolling of the church bell here in Fazenda das Lajes on the island of Flores heralds my arrival as I enter my parents’ summer house. The plaster walls are mildewed and the wooden floor is buckling here and there but otherwise the place is as I had left it five years ago. From the back porch I can see the hilltop village of Lomba at my far left, and to the right, a narrow road leading up to the cliff-top cemetery. Behind the grove of cedars past the neighbouring cow pasture one can walk up the hillside to the vigia da baleia, a long-abandoned whale lookout. Beyond the tended pastures and lush woods, the hills fall steeply to the coastline but it is the v-shaped view of the sea from the back of the house that I have looked forward to seeing the most since arriving here. At this hour in the morning, the waters appear pearlescent and it’s difficult to gauge where the sea ends and the horizon begins; the wide swath of palest blue fades into the clouds.

Although I have already begun to question my presence here, I have yet to abandon my emotional connection to the enigmatic, beautiful and moody homeland of my ancestors. Flores has once again cast its spell upon me.

… Olhai, ei-la que surge esplendorosa
A minha linda terra,
A filha predilecta do Oceano:
Além, no horizonte
Do sol, a chama ardent e luminosa
lhe beija a leda fronte.

Remai, remai marinheiros,
Ai vamos, tocar a remar,
Que além já veio na encosta
Dúm monte o meu doce lar!

… Look, there it rises in splendour
My beautiful homeland
The ocean’s favourite daughter:
Beyond, on the horizon,
The Sun, the luminous and fiery flame,
kisses her joyful forehead.

Row, row seamen,
Let’s go and row,
Because I already see in the hills
My home sweet home!

~ João dos Santos Silveira, 20th century Florentine poet

The Power of a Poem

“Give me your tired, your poor/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . ” is one of the most famous lines in American poetry and is from the poem ‘The New Colossus.’ What many Americans may be surprised to learn is that the poem was written by a Jewish-American of Portuguese ethnicity: Emma Lazarus.

Lazarus wrote the poem to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. It was the only poem read at the exhibit’s opening but was quickly forgotten by the time of the statue’s opening in 1886. In 1903, a bronze plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century made Lazarus’ prophetic words a reality for the millions of new Americans who passed beneath the statue.

American novelist Paul Auster wrote that the statue “was originally intended as a monument to the principles of international republicanism, but ‘The New Colossus’ reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world”.  Sadly, Emma Lazarus died soon after the statue was erected never knowing the impact and immortality of her poem.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

~Emma Lazarus, 1883

When Home Becomes a Foreign Country

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.

― Beryl Markham, West with the Night


In little more than a week, we leave for the Azores. I should be notifying the utility companies, researching a new camera and making a list of the items we still need to purchase but I’m distracted by the manuscript I have yet to finish editing and the small tower of new books on my desk.  Distracted, too, by the aquarium my husband has moved into my office. Another goldfish has died. His companion nudges the body over and over again but I can’t bring myself to remove the dead fish from its home. And I’m tired, having woken numerous times throughout the night by the sound of heavy rain and fleeting dark memories of my last visit to Flores. It didn’t rain last night, my husband tells me, you were dreaming.

I first visited the Azores thirty-three years ago and fell truly, madly, deeply, in love with Flores.  My inexplicable passion for the place was like one of those crazy infatuations that end up with somebody dead. I’ve visited several times since then—each time more disturbing than the time before—with the most recent visit taking place in 2007.  The weather had been unseasonably gloomy and jellyfish warnings had kept us away from the beach. Ignored by my cousins and still grieving the death of my father, my daughter and I spent most of our time playing cards, visiting elderly relatives and hanging out in the internet café in a nearby town.

One afternoon, hypnotized by the stunning view of the beach below the winding road from Lajes to Fazenda and walking far too quickly, I slammed into a metal lamppost, chipping a tooth and splitting my temple. The doctor in Santa Cruz (“an inch to the left and you would have bled out in an hour and died!”) shaved off half my eyebrow and carefully put in eight stitches. If you’re lucky, your eyebrow will grow back over the scar, he said. I spent the next few days with a large gauze bandage over part of my blackened eye pretending not to be bothered by the teasing of the locals. I’m reconnecting with my pirate roots, I quipped to my daughter, but in all honesty, my time on Flores that summer was tinged with sadness, and a realization that perhaps I did not belong there after all.  The island was too small and my father’s ghost followed me everywhere.  The romance was over. We left Flores two weeks early and spent the remainder of our vacation on Terceira.

And yet, I can’t stop myself from returning to Flores again, to give it one more chance. One more chance at what? I have to ask myself.

In July 1979 my parents returned to the island of their birth twenty years after they had immigrated to Canada. I was a teenager and excited to travel outside the country for the first time. For my parents, it was an opportunity to share their roots with their four children and to reconnect with family and friends they hadn’t seen in over twenty years. It was a magical summer filled with outdoor barbeques, soccer games, trips to the lagoons, golden afternoons, swimming on rocky beaches, cliff-side drives on hairpin roads, church festivals, teenage romance and dancing to Abba. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. It was truly the best summer of my life.

But I remember my father expressing disappointment at some of the changes that had taken place in Flores while he had been away. My parents had regaled us with stories of their youth, of walking miles to milk the cows and hours spent washing laundry at the creek. We only wore shoes to church, said my father, who at the age of 12 had completed his schooling and was working 18 hours a day tending the family farm. But now, people did not appear to work as hard as they had twenty years earlier and the village teenagers seemed to enjoy a disturbing amount of freedom along with a highly-honed sense of fashion.  Their jeans were far cooler than my own. My mother’s childhood friends did not make their own bread any more—meu deus, no. Instead, there was a baker who arrived in the village every morning to sell fresh loaves from his horse-drawn cart.  My mother had warned us to expect chamber pots and rustic cooking but our relatives showed off fresh tile-lined bathrooms and new-found skills in American-style cooking.

In Tales from the Tenth Island, a collection of short stories, author Onésimo Almeida takes a humorous and sometimes bittersweet look at the Portuguese-American community of Rhode Island.  In “Brief Trilogy” the narrator Chico Avila returns to Sao Jorge time and time again with the intention of one day retiring ‘back home’ only to realize there is no going back to the life left behind—and that “his Portugal was no longer back there. He was living it all over here”:

“Things have changed a lot there. No one needs anything, even when they’re down on their uppers. No wants to be humbled. Everyone dresses well and no one goes around barefoot. They don’t even let a fellow buy his friends a glass of wine, because folk there have also got money now! An Americano turns up there now, and now one takes a blind bit of notice. Only a few of their nearest neighbours visited them at home and the local priest didn’t’ even invite him to sponsor the sermon on feast day. The gifts he took… But never again! In the old days, folk there would take anything we gave them. Now, second-hand stuff’s no good. It’s got to be new and not any old thing because American clothes are made of good cloth, but their cut and colours are too out-of-date!…To hell with them!

That’s final! He doesn’t need the islands! There are festas here, and in a few years they’ll be better than the ones there. Take the Santo Cristo festivities in Fall River!… The Espírito Santo, the Senhor da Pedra, the Senhora dos Anjos. There’s one every Sunday, just like in the islands. And massa sovada isn’t just eaten once a year on the day of the parish festival. You just go and get it at the baker’s. And malassadas too. As if Carnival was whenever we felt like it… My Portugal is here, for I’ll tell you this too, that place isn’t the same now as when I was growing up!…”

I think my own parents had assumed that their island would remain frozen in time, exactly as they had left it as young newlyweds awaiting a new life in Canada. They had gone back home with the idea of recapturing that life left behind, but the island had gone on without them. And I know now that my father’s melancholy–along with his brief bursts of temper–that summer may have had something to do with a realization that he had changed and that his home was on another island, an island on the west coast of Canada, where he had built a successful farm but still worked 18 hours a day.

In ‘Existential Migration’ (2006), psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Greg Madison states that “returning home can be a complex geo-psychological process of healing as well as relocation, while also an opportunity to assess the transformations that have occurred in one’s self while away.” The following passage illustrates the conflicted feelings of an immigrant relunctant to return home but aching for a sense of connection with his homeland:

“I think about returning home almost every day. Sometimes I am clear that I would never return, sometimes I fantasize about it, yet other times I feel a dull homesickness, a kind of pull to the only place that could have been home but never really was. I think this signifies a desire for a kind of spiritual and psychological reconnection, a healing of the self in some way, a reconciliation where originally there was mutual rejection. Return would be a complex process necessitating a melancholic recognition of time: home did not freeze the day I went through the departure gate. Home has changed, though deeply familiar it is also different, and I would return as a stranger in a strangely familiar land. But again, how could I stay and not succumb to the suffocation that led me to leave in the first place? How could I protect my fluid self, elaborated by all my experiences in the world, and withstand the sustained demand to cement into sameness? How can I balance my desire for home with my need for self-direction? Any feeling of being at-home is now forever tinged with feeling not-at-home; the two come inextricably intertwined. Homesickness is a given, not a demand to return home, where the feeling paradoxically continues unabated.”

I suppose the question for me remains whether it is valuable or even possible to re-create the summer of 1979 where for a few brief weeks I found my sense of home–only to lose it over and over again with each subsequent visit.  Beryl Markham points out, “never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead.” Perhaps it’s time to put one more ghost to rest.