Wednesday, October 16, 2019

An Afternoon at Grandma's (Photo Essay)

She is lying down and resting when I get there. The house is quiet. As soon as I step in I am assaulted by so many memories that my breath gets caught up in my throat. This is the house in which I spent my preschool years. The house in which I spent so many days and afternoons, the house that smelled slightly of coal and my grandfather's cigarettes. A feeling of well being and security, bound up in a flood of nostalgia, fills me to the brim.

I walk to the back room, the one that has a little balcony opening onto a small empty yard between the different buildings. The minaret is visible over the top of one of the buildings. This is the balcony of my childhood. This is where I listened to the seagulls' cries and the sound of the call to prayer, was fed by my grandma and would then go inside to take my afternoon nap on fresh linens smelling like white soap. My grandma would make pillow forts around me to prevent me from falling from the bed while sleeping. It was what being surrounded by love felt like. For long afternoons I would sit by her side as she prepared lunch or dinner, as she sewed clothes on her sewing machine. I played with spare buttons collected in an old cookie tin, and my grandpa's tailor's tools such as white soap to mark fabric, or thimbles. 

I go to her room. I hold her hand. She looks at me as if she does not believe I am really there. "Hello grandma", I say. Your Esra is here. Having crossed oceans, I am really by her side and holding her hand. It feels surreal. She immediately perks up and wants to go to the living room with me. Her live-in aide brings the walker. I help her up. As always, when I hug her she smells so nice, like clean muslin and pure white soap, combined. 

She comes with me, slowly but surely, to the living room, and sits in the armchair that belongs only to her. The place across from her, where my grandpa used to sit and smoke, is empty. She looks at me with her soft brown eyes, lovingly. So few people look at me with that much love in their eyes, that I want to capture this moment and remember it even when I go back across the ocean to that strange new land I call home now.

I hold her hand. She says to mom, "How great it is to be holding Esra's hand." My heart swells with love and fills the whole house, the town, the city of Istanbul, the continent. I look at her eyes and we talk for many hours. She taps the side of my head and says with a mischievous smile, "How much knowledge there is in that head of yours!" She has always been so proud of me during my education. She always advised me to wait as long as I could before getting married, and even after I did, to stand on my own two feet always.

I want to tell her everything yet our time is so limited. The traffic back home will get worse as evening goes on. We will eventually have to leave. Hours, days, weeks or months would not be enough time to catch up. I want to be holding her hand, to be staying on with her in this quiet house as she faces hours, days, evenings and the remaining life she has in either an armchair or a bed. This tiny but strong little woman who birthed 4 children and worked all of her life inside the house she built, and devoted her life to her family fully. Who used to roam these rooms freely but now not able to move on her own from one room to the other without the help of the aide and the walker.

This is what her life looks like now. Some serum bottles on the dresser, along with doilies. A hospital bed carried into the room to make her getting in and out easier. A mostly quiet house, except when her children and grandchildren come to visit. Silence reigns now, in this house that so many people grew up in, and where my grandfather's voice used to boom in the hallways.

I hold her hand and look in her eyes. This is most of what I can do now, and knowing that I will eventually have to let go of her hand and go back home tears my heart apart. I hug her, kiss her and breathe in that unique, amazing smell of her skin, the one I was lucky enough to get passed on to me through my mom. I hug her tiny little body with all my might and squeeze. I do not want to let go.

I carry her in my heart and soul all the way back home, then all the way across the ocean to the New World. I am bound to her through so many invisible strings that they keep tugging at my heart.

They tug until I start hurting because I miss her so much. Then I write, and write, and write.


October 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019

By the Sea - Cyprus, 2019

June 2019 - Catalkoy, Kyrenia, Cyprus:

It’s always morning when I swim out.

I start walking slowly, approaching the turquoise waters sparkling in the sun. The sea is always much calmer in the morning, stretching out to the horizon and bringing its salty algae smell to me with a soft breeze. I walk and walk, but the water is still just up to my knees. It feels like entering a shimmering, blue-green diamond. I walk for a while, then my feet leave the sea floor. The feeling is very much like flying: I have always felt so exhilarated by it that for a few seconds, I feel giddy like a child again. 

I take slow, comfortable laps towards the open sea. The sand below me turns into rocks, and shimmering fish dart to and fro. Every four or five strokes, I turn my face up to breathe. My nose and mouth fill with the salt of the Mediterranean sea. It is on my skin, in my hair, on my tongue, I am surrounded by it and filled with it. For a moment I just am, I exist in the midst of all this beauty, with the sea a living being, churning around me, under me, carrying me and my body to my destination. I feel propelled by my arms and legs in the salty water, and I feel no different than the fish that are swimming with me. It is a moment of oneness, of pure being. I am a fish, a pebble in the shore, a wave, the sky, the Mediterranean, all at the same time. 

I swim up to the buoys in the distance, my heart beating much faster in my chest, my goggles foggy with my efforts. I hold on to the rope, and rest my body on it for a few minutes. Below me the sea has gotten much deeper, and a darker shade of blue. Giving me a feeling of being so tiny that I could be swallowed by it any minute. It humbles me, and reminds me of my place in the universe, no more than a speck in this vast plains of blue. I turn my back to the horizon and turn and look at the shore. Behind the shore, the Kyrenia Mountains rise in the distance like sleeping giants. The two sides of the cove stretch out to the sea towards me, like a mother reaching out to her child. 

I float with the buoys there, lost in this dreamlike moment. My happiness is not complete or pure: I live the moment already with the nostalgia of knowing how much I will miss it once it’s gone. While in the moment, I am already looking at myself from the future, feeling the ephemeral, fleeting beauty of it. 

Salt in my eyes, nose and mouth, the mountains and the shore in front of me, the sea behind, under and around me, I float there for many minutes. I remember the words of a poet who, while looking at the same sea, the Mediterranean, wrote such verses of passion and beauty that when I think of them, I feel my heart soaring and crashing, like the waves themselves:    

“The waters call me,
The oceans call me,
The faraway calls me with a bodily voice,
And it’s every seafaring age there ever was, calling….

Ah, to depart! By whatever means and to whatever place!
To set out across the waves, across unkown perils, across the sea!
To go Far, to go Wide, toward Abstract Distance,
Indefinitely through deep and mysterious nights,
Carried like dust by the winds, by the gales!
To go, go, go once and for all!
All of my blood lusts for wings!
All of my body lurches forward!
I rush through my imagination in torrents!
I trample myself underfoot, I growl, I hurtle!
My yearnings burst into foam
And my flesh is a wave crashing into cliffs!

Fernando Pessoa, “Maritime Ode”

Monday, May 13, 2019

Yeniden merhaba

Bir zamanlar bir blog'um vardı ve ona yazardım diye düşündüm bugün. Bu blog'u açalı en az 13 sene oldu. Sanki yüzyıllar geçmiş gibi geliyor aradan. Anadilimde yazmayı özledim, arada İngilizce yaşam hikayemi yazsam da kendi dilime, sesime, ses bayrağım olan Türkçe'ye dönme isteğim arttı. Bugünlerde yine yazasım var. Burayı hala okuyan birileri var mı bilmem, ama belki bunca seneden sonra tekrar canlanabilir bu blog. Hiç bir şey için olmasa bile kendim için, sular seller gibi geçen günlerden bir tortu, bir iz, bir anı kalsın diye.

Yaşlandım gibi hissediyorum bugünlerde. Öğleden sonra uykularına dalarken çocukluğum geliveriyor aklıma, anneannemin evinde geçirdiğim uzun, mutlu, huzurlu günler. Eski evlerimiz, doğup içinde büyüdüğüm ama artık bana çok uzak gelen, kokusunu bile sanki unuttuğum şehrim, İstanbul'um.

Bugünlerde kendimi, Nazım'ın dizelerinde çok güzel anlattığı duygular içinde buluyorum anavatanımı düşününce:

Memleketim, memleketim, memleketim, Ne kasketim kaldı senin ora işi Ne yollarını taşımış ayakkabım, Son mintanın da sırtımda paralandı çoktan, şile bezindendi. Sen şimdi yalnız saçımın akında, enfarktında yüreğimin, Alnımın çizgilerindesin memleketim, Memleketim.

Nazım'ın ne kadar büyük bir şair olduğunu düşünüyorum sonra. Ben kendi isteğim ve seçimimle başka bir ülkede yaşarken, onun bunca sevdiği memleketinden uzak, ona hasret, ona aşık olarak ölmesi, yapılmış en büyük haksızlıklardan biri gibi geliyor. Bunca sene ötesinden Nazım'ın şiiri uzanıp yüreğime dokunuyor. İnsanız diyor bana, duygularımız, hislerimiz, memleket ve anavatan hasretimiz aynı: zamanı yok, yeri yok, ırkı, dini, milleti yok.

Ne güzel şey şiire sığınabilmek işte böyle zamanlarda. Kalbimin ucu 'cız' ettiğinde, acıdığında yüreğim, içime akşam hüznü ve ıssızlığı çöktüğünde, açabilmek bir şiir antolojisini.. Elimi tutması sevdiğim bir şairin, sayfalardan uzanıp, zamanları, okyanusları, kıtaları aşarak. Okuyabilmek dizeleri, insan olmanın evrenselliğini hissetmek ta derinden. Hangi acıdan ve dertten muzdaripsek, yeryüzünde en az bir kişinin daha aynı acıyı çekmiş ya da çekiyor olduğunu bilmek. Asla yalnız olmadığımızı.

İyi ki edebiyat var. İyi ki şiir var. Nasıl yaşar, nasıl nefes alırdık yoksa?

Söz, bu sene daha çok yazmaya çalışacağım buraya. Çünkü kelimelerden başka ne var elimizde?


Mayıs 2019
Naperville, Illinois

Monday, March 11, 2019


We are settling into our seats and buckling in when I hear that voice behind me. A woman and a man, first engaging in small talk, in the seats right behind mine.

"What are you going to Chicago for? Do you work there?"
"Yeah, I live in ........ but I grew up in ........." "D.C. Weather was good today..."

Then all of a sudden, I hear without wanting to, their voices aggressively drilling into my head:

"What a grumpy flight attendant!" she says.
"Hmm, yeah.." He agrees. "In Europe and other parts of the world, being a flight attendant is, like, a really big deal, but here anyone can become one I guess?" Sneering and laughter. I can almost see it, without seeing his face.
"Or maybe it's because it's United" she adds, "With the other airlines they train them really well, but with this one.." (As if talking about a dog, or a circus animal. I wince.)

The conversation trails off. I have a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if it ever occurs to these people that the person who is serving them is a human being, might have emotions, might be having a bad day, might have had a death in the family for all I know...

I just cannot understand this mindset, this disgusting sense of entitlement, i.e. just because you have paid a few hundred bucks for a plane seat, you are owed a smile from the person who happens to be serving you. I want to turn around and ask them: "Don't you have bad days, ever? When you don't want to get out of bed? When you don't want to face people even, let alone serve them? Don't you ever feel miserable? How would you feel if I belittled your occupation? If I judged you based on a 15 seconds long interaction?"

But of course I don't turn around. I sit quietly in my seat and seethe. It is moments like this that sometimes pushes me into waves of pessimism about humans, and really damages my general love and trust in all humanity. I say to myself: "If I can teach my children to be nice and kind to the people who serve them, I will have parented well."

All of a sudden, the cabin lights go off, preparing for takeoff. I feel a dark panic take over me, as if all humanity is closing in on me. Complete darkness as we wait for the plane to accelerate, then take off.

But wait, no. It's not completely dark. Some people have turned on their reading lights overhead, and I see a few lights scattered around, and people with intent faces reading under them. I breathe a sigh of relief. As if their existence is something to hold on to in this artificially cold darkness. Their quiet focus reassuring, the rustle of the pages they turn like a lullaby.

I close my eyes, and think to myself:

As long as there are people reading in warm pools of light in this complete darkness of existence, we will be ok.

Esra Tasdelen, March 2019

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Summer of Despair and Hope

Now that enough time has passed, I am able to process the Summer of 2015 (Or the Summer of Despair, and the worst summer of my life) a bit better, and hopefully write about it in a meaningful way.

You see, despair was not an emotion I was familiar with, anytime in my life. I had been blissfully sheltered from it. Despite having encountering some difficulties in life, having gone through a traffic accident, having a major spinal condition and having to wear a brace for it through my teenage years, I had always had some kind of support throughout it all, I had not yet been tested with the major anxiety that comes with being a parent.

There are many surreal moments from the summer of 2015 that, like bubbles, come floating up to the surface and burst, vividly immersing me in the memory, making me wince, making my eyes water.

I remember waking up every single morning with my heart beating in my throat, my breath shallow and fast, not knowing what was wrong with me at first, not recognizing the signs of a panic attack, all the while thinking: "There is something seriously wrong with my child, but I don't know what it is, and I don't know what to do about it". This loop going on in my head for countless mornings.

I remember walking aimlessly on the streets, walking to the Loyola campus in Rogers Park, sitting on the grass and looking out at the lake, and listening to Mary Oliver read her own poem, "Wild Geese", and shedding silent, hot tears full of despair, feeling true despair for the first time in my life while she calmly spoke into my ear through the headphones:

"Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine."

I remember driving north to a Community College where I was teaching as an adjunct that summer, and parking there, and after getting a call from our neurologist at Lurie Children's, hearing the words "mitochondrial disease" for the first time ever, and after our call, googling it on my phone, then promptly opening the car door, leaning over and throwing up onto the black cement that was burning under the hot sun.

I remember my daughter crying "No, Mommy, don't go!" and throwing tantrums when I was about to leave for the hospital where my son was staying, and leave her with her grandmother, feeling my heart tearing into two pieces, completely torn inside, with one of my children on one side and the other one on the other.

I remember sitting at Starbucks with my daughter and having her color a coloring book to try to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives, and seeing someone I know from the neighborhood. After she asked me how I was doing, completely breaking down and starting to cry in front of the whole cafe. It was like having the thinnest of membranes hold my being together and with a single poke, everything came gushing out like a flood.

I remember lying on a makeshift hospital bed in Lurie Children’s Hospital, looking out the window and, through the haze of my dried up contact lenses, watching the Navy Pier fireworks as they exploded into colorful bursts of light in the darkness of the night, with my son burning with fever beside me, on my husband’s lap…

I remember sitting in the cafeteria of the hospital and trying to eat something, when all of a sudden my husband of seven years, a 6 feet tall man who never shows his emotions, started sobbing uncontrollably. There were sick kids all around us, and many dancers and clowns from the Circus of Puerto Rico trying to cheer everyone up all the while, dancing and bouncing and smiling in contrast to the somber atmosphere of the place. Is there anything sadder than clowns in a children’s hospital?

I remember going to the playground with my 4 year old daughter with the same dread in my heart. Looking at healthy, happy children running around with sunshine on their faces. Looking at a running kid and trying to estimate his age in months. Then, deliberately, as if determined to stab myself in the heart over and over again, every single time, approaching his mom, asking: “How old is he?” Upon learning that he was much younger than my son (who could barely sit up anymore), feeling like my heart was shattering into pieces. Every single time.

I remember descending into dark places within myself, places that I never knew existed. I remember coming back from those places as a different person.

I remember asking myself “Am I doing something wrong? Could I be doing something better? Can I stop this from happening?”

I remember blaming myself, constantly second-guessing myself.

After getting the phone call that changed our lives forever, getting the official diagnosis from the whole exome sequencing results, I remember lying facedown on the carpet. I remember crying into a pillow on the floor. I remember crying myself to sleep, secretly hoping that this was a nightmare, that I would wake up and everything would be "normal" again.

But I also remember finding strengths in me that I never knew existed. Taking my daughter to playdates, movies, birthday parties, with my heart bleeding inside me and a fake smile on my face. Trying to keep a routine, a sense of normalcy for her. Trying to keep standing, functioning, breathing and loving, for her and her brother.

I remember finding a whole community of special needs moms who are the most amazing of all, and who constantly reminded me, online and in real life, that I was not alone, would never be alone, would never ever walk alone.
I remember singing “Here comes the sun” by the Beatles to my son, basking in the glowing sunlight of his smile, his beautiful brown eyes. Even when everything seemed at its darkest.

I remember burying my nose in his blond hair, breathing in his amazing, unique smell. Telling him that I love him, without using any words, just the most infinitesimal caress, the touch. The primal communication.

The only real language of this life is love.

It was the summer of despair. It was also the season of hope.

Love got me through. It will always get us through.

Esra Tasdelen

February 2019

Naperville, IL

Monday, November 26, 2018

What do Dachau and Gallipoli have in common?

Something I have been thinking about recently is how places have their own energies.

I have been to places where thousands of people died tragically in a very short time. Like the gray, gloomy, dark former concentration camp, Dachau, in Germany. Death and destruction lingered in the air, as if something you could touch.

I could feel the same palpable sadness in the air of Gallipoli, a region in modern day Turkey where the First World War took lots of young lives, and hundreds of thousands perished in a very short time. The air is heavier there somehow, despite the tourists at the beaches, the sun shining on the blue beautiful sea, the beauty of my favorite beach in the whole world (Teke bay), where the pebbles rounded and polished by time and waves sit silently together.

I have felt different energies in different buildings and spaces all throughout my life. In some peoples' houses, there is a coziness, a great positive energy that I can pick up immediately and makes me feel at home. In other peoples' houses, I feel like I am an outsider and a very temporary guest.

Bookstores, especially those that sell used books that have touched many lives have an immense, powerful positive energy that is deeply therapeutic for me. In the summer of 2015, the most difficult summer of my life, I would go into Armadillo's Pillow in Rogers Park and just breathe and exist in between the stacks of books. I felt like nothing bad could happen to me there, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore.

In our campus where I work, my building, Kiekhofer Hall, has an amazing positive energy. It has a chapel attached to it, and the quiet peacefulness of the worship space expands to fill the whole building. It has dark wood interiors which I love, and it houses the Modern and Classical Languages and English departments, so it is a building devoted to language, literature and the power of words. The front facade has huge glass windows that let in sunlight on cold but bright winter mornings. It also has a beautiful inner courtyard that transforms into a space of quiet solitude when it snows. Nowhere else on campus can I get this cozy feeling when I enter Kiekhofer. Some other buildings like Goldspohn feel too white, too sterile or bright, almost like hospital buildings. I am so happy that my office is in this building I love, somewhere I can feel at home, at peace.

I also feel a lot of positive energy in the forest of course, at the Morton Arboretum, a place that has become as sacred as a shrine for me in the past couple of years. It is a refuge from the rest of the world, and under the trees I feel like my soul is washed, renewed, rejuvenated. Like bookstores, it is another safe space for me, somewhere where nothing bad could ever happen, anxieties and the real world temporarily put on hold.

The quiet peacefulness, the sense of a goodness emanating from the earth and soil, is why I escape to nature in times of distress and anxiety, and it never fails to soothe me. I am so grateful for this brief respite from the hectic nature of daily life.

As I near the end of my 36th trip around the sun, this is my only wish: To be able to spend more time in places and with people who I feel at home with.

Love and gratitude as always, for this breath, for these spaces, for this life.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Privilege of Missing Someone

Out of all the complex array of human emotions, missing someone has to be one of the most complicated, deeply intense ones. We miss someone who for various reasons left our lives: Be it moving to a different city, not being our friend anymore, moving on from this world, or moving away from us internally, even while standing right next to us.

It is such a sweet and bitter ache in my heart when I miss someone. Missing him/her means that I had the privilege of getting to know that person in the first place. The one I miss has left deep impressions on my life, my soul, my days. It is those impressions that I crave, because they are no longer there. Yet, having had the luxury of living with someone who had the ability to leave those impressions leaves a warm feeling in me. Like a soft glow of warm light that is enough for me even when the person is not there. Something is finished, has gone by, moved on, yet what it leaves in me is enough for a sweet nostalgia that does not necessarily give extreme pain, just a light chafing at the heart.

I walk around in the places I once was with that person, with that soft glow still burning inside me like a candle, warming me and burning me from the inside out at the same time. I obsessively retrace the paths I took with that person, like a ritual that is full of melancholy and a sweet sadness.

The candle keeps burning. It might never extinguish. My heart is full of such eternal fires, each one for a different person who touched my life in a different kind of way.

Maybe this is what life is. Burning from the inside out constantly, without reprieve, days on end, until we are consumed by the ultimate darkness.