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Monday, May 31, 2010

Never Too Late

He led me there. I know that now. I had gone back to Illinois, back to my roots, to the remnants of family still there.

I never really knew my father except through my mother’s perceptions.

On this wet, early morning, Dad suggested we visit my mother’s grave.

There was a family tradition of an annual pilgrimage every Memorial Day to our relatives’ graves. We always packed a spade, bucket, and scrub brush and stopped by the open market for flowers for the gravesite.

I watched the annual ritual of my parents filling the bucket from the nearest pump and scrubbing the flat headstones until the inscriptions could be seen.

As the years passed, the graves seemed harder to find, overgrown under unkempt grass with weeds sunken below the mowing level.

Dead people I had never known were conjured from memories. I was linked to these family ghosts by my mother’s stories and recollections. Over the years, I felt as if I came to know them, and they were no longer strangers.

Today my father and I stopped at a small flower stand near the cemetery. Their plant selection was limited to a few shelves of drooping flowers.

Drizzle spattered mud on the leaves. I pruned off the dying petals and soggy leaves to make them more presentable. As always for these occasions, Dad brought a bucket, brush and spade along.

It was eight years since my mother’s funeral, the last time we were all together. At that time I was unable to cry. She had died when my life was coming apart and I was experiencing another death, my divorce.

But today was different. I couldn’t seem to stop my tears. I couldn’t even speak as I watched my father clear away the debris and clean the gravesite the way I remembered it from so long ago.

As I planted, he spoke of coming to my mother’s grave often to talk to her. He told me that no one would ever stand up for him like my mother did.

He never said he loved her. In fact, he said he was happier with his new wife.

I couldn’t reply. Once again I was in the middle between them.

And then he told me something I never knew… he was always lonely with my mother.

In the quiet rain, I heard his pain and regrets. He said there were things he shouldn’t have done and was sorry for.

Could my mother hear him? Did it take this long for there to be peace? He told my mother and me as we completed the gravesite ritual together for the last time.

It was a moment of truth at my mother’s grave and the beginning of forgiveness. It was the day I got to know my father a little better.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Crying Rose photo by Joanna Kopik
Planting photo by Rodrigo Roveri

Friday, May 21, 2010

My Guardian Angel

I didn’t know where to turn. At 33, my world was falling apart. My marriage was ending and I had two small children to raise and support.

Feeling weary from lawyers and therapists’ advice, for the first time, I turned to a psychic, a spiritual reader, who a friend recommended. And that is how I met Gina 34 years ago.

The rooms of Gina's simple home were filled with angels and Native American symbols and figures. They had a calming effect but were strange to me.

I was leery and skeptical of talking to a psychic, but hoping I would be told by this gentle, humble woman, who possessed gifts I did not understand, that my marriage would survive.

But that’s not what she said. I was amazed and surprised by what I heard. The details were quite specific about my life, and I only half believed her predictions at best; but over time, I came to realize, that this generous and wise person was indeed gifted; and it was the beginning of a long, lifetime friendship.

Though I eventually left the Midwest and started a new life in Virginia with my children, I remained in phone contact with Gina over the years. More and more she became like a surrogate mother to me, someone who always listened and soothed me. There was no one else like her in my life.

Over time, our conversations were no longer “readings.” We became friends with a special bond and understanding. Talking to her was comforting, no matter what was going on in my love life or career.

She was always there for me, someone I could count on, a lifeline and a cherished, nurturing confidante, a connection that went beyond a blood relative.

As the older women in my family passed, I could always call Gina, like a favorite aunt, and talk about anything, uncensored and safe.

Never judged, I always felt understood. She filled an empty space in my life as a crone, a tribal elder whose kind wisdom helped me weather life’s storms, and never refused my cries for help when no one else was there.

Even though my life took me to new places, there was always Gina, just a phone call away. She shared her family and history with me as well. We became family to each other and developed a connection that surpassed friendship. Over the years, we would just call each other to talk and be together in our comfortable way. It always made me feel better.

In the last few years, Gina in her 80’s, was faltering and her health deteriorating. She never complained and always had a smile in her voice for me. I had not heard from her recently, and somehow I couldn’t make the call to confirm what I sensed.

I returned one evening to find my answering machine blinking for my attention. The message was from Gina’s daughter, Lonnie, who called me from Chicago to say that Gina, “our” mom, had passed in February.

I leaned over the sink and sobbed. All I could do was cry. As I wipe away my tears even now as I write this, I miss her from the deepest part of myself. The loss is indescribable.

On Mother’s Day, I received another call from Gina’s daughter, Lonnie, who is learning to walk again. Her mother’s house in central Illinois is being readied for new owners. She had kept some of her mother’s ashes. The rest were sprinkled over the loveliest spot above the river in Gina’s hometown. That pleased me.

Lonnie, as if being prompted by her mother, my dearest friend, Gina, said she had relocated her mother’s phonebook. Lonnie wanted to stay in touch and offered to talk anytime.

Thank you, Gina, for “contacting” me on Mother’s Day. You will always be my guardian angel. I love you and I miss you.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Guardian Angel photo by Robert Aichinger
Life Preserver photo by Paul Smith

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Art of Chianti

Sharing the Beauty of Travel in Italy and Beyond  by Guest blogger Gina Ruggiero, Villa Vita Blog

During the week of August 17 – 24, 2008, while many Italians were still on holiday for Ferragosto –
a few artists from Phoenix took in the Chianti Countryside with their eyes, with their paints, pastels and with their hearts.

We spent a wonderful week once again at Il Borgo Villa di Bossi Pucci located just south of Florence near the town of Montespertoli. Pastel artist Liz Kenyon created this trip to allow fellow artists to join her while she worked on her own series.

On the day we arrived, we all checked into our simple but elegant apartments just prior to a huge downpour which drenched the land and, as quickly as it came, the skies opened back up to bright sunshine and puffy white clouds.

We all enjoyed a wonderful welcome antipasti – which is typically appetizers but always turns into a full blown meal at Il Borgo.

We enjoyed fresh tomatoes picked from the garden, Il Borgo’s own wine and olive oil from their nearby castle estate, hand-made pasta and bread made by Alessandro’s 8 year old son Francesco and much more.  Liz helps set the tone for the joyful week ahead.

Ahhhh Chianti!

After a much needed siesta and time to unpack and get settled – we hopped into the van to take a good look at the surrounding beauty which would make it’s way onto the canvas over the next few days, such as Barb’s wonderful interpretation of Il Borgo’s grand front yard shown here.

That evening we all walked over to the community park where we enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner. Our reservations were drawn clearly on the butcher paper which lined the table!

Even our guests who arrived from the U.S. that day were such troopers ignoring the time change and long flight to stay and enjoy this typical local summer dinner – the typical dinner which starts long after what we consider dinnertime to be! There were great cheers when the three-wheeled vehicles showed up with the giant pots of linguini and clam sauce and delicious fish stew!

The next day, the artists found their places around Il Borgo to begin their “field sketches” and record their interpretations of the Chianti countryside.

The artists would create several paintings over the next few days of various sites in and around Il Borgo and the surrounding towns.

The property itself lent many opportunities for artists with its fiascos and courtyards, cypress lined drive, charming chapel and sprawling valley views.

With Florence only 20 minutes away, we always make sure to include a full day visit during our stays at Il Borgo. Our artists opted to visit the Uffizi Gallery and Academia to view some of Florence’s most treasured works of art including Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

We strolled along the River Arno and spent some time on the infamous Ponte Vecchio. Piazza Signori is always a focus of attention while in Florence with its grand statues and fountains. We also made some time to view the amazing Duomo and Baptistry as well as enjoy some gelato, of course!

Another wonderful field trip was to the small town of Volpaia just north of Radda in Chianti.

This little gem of a town has a small cafe in the central piazza and a wonderful restaurant called La Bottega both owned by two sisters who have lived in Volpaia for over 70 years.

We had incredible views of the valley from our table and enjoyed a variety of wonderful dishes from the country kitchen such as handmade ravioli and tagliatelle with mushrooms.

In Volpaia, there are no gift shops, markets or tobacco stores and best of all, there is no traffic!

Streets and doorways are lined with flower pots bursting with colorful plants and herbs. Here the artists set up their easels in town to capture some of the beauty this town offers.

A small tour group of American students came through on foot admiring Liz’s work and the aspiring artists among them longed to join us!

Poppiano was another very special place just minutes from Il Borgo and her grand castle was always in view from our rooms.

The sunflowers in the foreground had since passed with the exception of a few late bloomers, however, the scene was no less magnificent.

We set up along the cypress line road in front of vineyards, peach, pear, and olive trees with the castle in the distance and Puccini playing in the background courtesy of our laptop. The sun was hot and bright – the colors brilliant.

The clouds moved in giving the artists a bit of shade and offered new hues and puffy clouds for their skies. The interpretation of the scene was varied and interesting. It was another lovely day in the Chianti countryside.

Our visit to Chianti through artist’s eyes has opened my eyes even more to the marvelous beauty, the brilliant colors, patterns, and patchwork this land beholds all which has been created by the fine hands of the agricultural artists of Tuscany and dutifully and respectfully preserved by the creative and talented hands of our artists Liz, Barb, Alicia and Barbara from Phoenix, Arizona.

To view more of Liz Kenyon’s Art, please visit

 for more information on this workshop.

Also see "Postcards from Italy" Creative Writing Workshop, Sept. 4 -11, 2010 taught by Erana Leiken

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Guest Blog: The Seven Faces of Dr. Leiken

"The Seven Faces of Dr. Leiken" by Brian Leiken

There is an old Japanese proverb:

Every man has three faces...

One he shows the world.
One he shows his family.
And one only he himself knows.

As a teacher, I have many different faces, personas I adopt to cajole and persuade, educate and sway, discipline or embarrass. Personas are my instruments, my tools, mechanisms of behavioral engineering. Each persona is tailor made for a specific job, a character invented to create a desired reaction.

Sometimes I am the Joker, the comedian, part stand up humorist, part clown. The Joker is used to bring levity, to make light of a bad situation or to deflect potential embarrassment.

"Mr. Leiken," one of the girls flirts, eyes fluttering, "have I told you I love you?"

The class leans in, tongues lapping.
Out pops the Joker.

"I know," I respond cooly, checking my nails. "No need to state the obvious." The class laughs, the situation is defused. I love the Joker.

Other times I'm the Performer. Unlike the Joker, he's mostly flash, eager to make an impact and put on a show. I pull out a banana, peeling off strips as I eat it. I explain that in the old days hogs traditionally cleaned the streets, eating all the refuse dropped by people.

I toss bits of banana peel down the central aisle of the classroom. The class gasps. A second later they start giggling.

I ask rhetorically would would happen if no one picked the bananas up?

"The hogs won't eat them!" someone shouts. "People would slip on them!"

"So how would you solve the problem?" I ask.
The class debates this; finally one brave soul calls out, "Have people throw them in trash cans?"

I nod, picking up a wastebasket as I toss in the banana peels. "Correct. The banana was the reason we have laws against littering and public trash cans." The class applauds. Ta da! The Performer takes a bow.

Other times I am the Fixer, solving the unsolvable with workable solutions. He is a faciliator, a negotiater, resolving conflicts through the art of diplomacy and mediation. The Fixer is calm, cool, and manipulative, the proverbial velvet glove surrounding a fist of steel.

Failing a class? Being bullied? Need to change an elective?

The Fixer takes care of it. He doesn't take "no"; he just finds a new solution.

Occassionally I am the Tyrant. The Tyrant can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has removed or disciplined his target.

The Tyrant is a robot dictator, a cold emotionless being with chilly eyes and an icy demeanor. I don't like him much. The Tyrant is a bit of a prick.

At least once a day, I'm the Coach. The Coach is part counselor, part motivational speaker, all cheerleader. The coach never gives up, he constantly encourages and pushes his students to succeed. The Coach is optimistic, upbeat, and relentlessly positive. It's not a role I'm used to playing.

"Mister Leiken, I failed English and Math last semester!"

"But you passed Health and P.E! That's a 50% improvement!"

"But I'm not going to graduate on time!"

"That's what summer school is for!"

"But I don't know how to do my multiplication tables."

I pause. I got nothing. I duck the complaint. When you can't massage the truth, you ignore it completely.

"Try harder!" I grin. "You can do it!"

Rarely, I'm the Critic. The Critic is the fault finder, the muck racker, the smug narrator that writes the blogs you are reading now. He used to appear often, but he gets in so much trouble that in recent years his cries have been largely silenced.

The Critic speaks only in truth, and there is nothing more poisonous than truth in the LAUSD school system. The Critic is a mean SOB. He's the one that makes kids cry.

Truth tends to do that.

Finally, I am the Father. He crosses the line between teacher and parent, possesses unshakable integrity, is eternally patient and just. The Father promotes all that is good in others, he protects his charges and provides the emotional safety net the students desperately crave.

I have never adopted the personality of the Father. It's a persona that's been projected upon me.

It doesn't matter. Because the Father is the Joker, the Performer, the Fixer, the Tyrant, the Coach and the Critic. The Father encompasses them all.

Sometimes you choose your faces, but sometimes the faces are chosen for you.

So it goes.

Copyright 2010 by Brian Leiken

LA Teacher
Crossed Out by Brian Leiken at

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, special ed teacher and author of Crossed Out, a book about and for his students. Oh yes, he's also my son:)