“Only he who feels responsibility can be both servant and ruler.”
by Zinta Aistars
Raised by Latvian parents who were World War II immigrants from Soviet-occupied Latvia, I was born in the United States, but thought of myself first and foremost as Latvian. Latvian, after all, was my first language, the only language spoken in my childhood home. But how to learn an entire culture, the essence of what it means to be Latvian, living in what my parents termed as exile?
Books. By age three, I read Latvian with ease. A phonetic language, learning the sound associated with any letter in the Latvian alphabet was a one-time lesson. Learn the rules of the language and it is your tool of communication, your lens on the Latvian culture. As I grew older, books were my key to understanding life and finding my own reflection and identity in it.
I don’t recall how the works of Anna Brigadere first came into my hands. Did someone give them to me? I think probably not. I remember creeping around the bookshelves in our home—the rooms were lined with them. Books were a part of the family and deserved a room of their own, although there were too many to contain in one room. The living room had bookshelves; the family room downstairs was filled with books, too. I would spend hours poking through the shelves, and if I pulled books loose and took them down, I often found more books tucked in back, like secret treasure. And, apparently, I found Annele among the books. Another little Latvian girl, much like me …
Annele is a diminutive form of Anna, and what I found was one of Anna Brigadere’s best known works, Trilogija, or the trilogy of three autobiographical novels about the growing up years of Annele. And I was mesmerized. Here was my key to the Latvian culture, indeed, the entire life sense of this tiny Baltic nation was compacted neatly right into the title of the first of three novels: Dievs, daba, darbs, or, God, Nature, Work. The second novel was titled, Skarbos vejos, or, In the Biting Wind, and the third, Akmenu sprosta, or, Trapped in Stone. The three novels took me on a journey through Annele’s life, beginning as a small girl on up into adulthood. Although the books were published in 1927, I nonetheless found them relevant.
Never mind that little Annele lived in the Latvian countryside, half a planet away from me. Never mind that she lived in a world half a century before mine. I found in this little girl an echo of myself, and through her, I discovered what it meant to be Latvian.
Anna Brigadere, through her alter ego child self, provided me my value system. A young girl—and later a woman—must live with integrity and honor, with respect toward a higher power, greater than self; with a deep respect for nature; and with an understanding that one’s chosen work is not just a means toward a paycheck, but one’s expression of honoring both self and others by being a productive member of society. Work should be a labor of love.
Brigadere’s books taught lessons without being didactic. These were timeless lessons, as I found out yet again when asked to teach a Latvian literature seminar just one summer ago. It was time to rediscover my childhood friend. In rereading her books, I found them as vital as ever, untouched by the passage of time, or changing of fashion, or shifting of world politics. In fact, I found her message even more relevant today. When asked at the seminar why one should read such “old books” in a contemporary world, I could only point out—here were the lessons we were calling “new age.” Truth does not change with time; it only solidifies. We live in a society where honor has too often been forgotten, while chasing shallow and temporary pleasures; where too many consider the self more important than community; and where work has become a means to compete with the Joneses, a daily grind that one does with utmost reluctance. Brigadere wrote about self-realization, however, and for her, work was the more contemporary Joseph Campbell’s “following one’s bliss.” She was an environmentalist long before most understood that nature is a living thing that sustains us, and when treated with disregard, She will rebel and spit us out. Brigadere wrote with an instinctive understanding of human psychology, one that modern day child-rearing manuals are now rediscovering, a kind of Super Nanny of her day (Brigadere worked many years as a governess). A child wants to be acknowledged, to feel useful, with a hunger for knowledge that must be fed, and a need for structure.
Brigadere was known for many other works besides her trilogy, although the value system she held dear found its way into all, in whatever genre. She became well known for her plays, many written for children, with the play, Spriditis, first performed in 1903 and later translated into English, German, Russian, Finnish and Estonian, her best known. It is a story about a little boy who longs to go off into the big, wide world and find a better life … only to grow up and realize all he ever needed and wanted was right at home. Brigadere was also a prolific poet, publishing several books of poetry. Her collections of short stories often addressed women’s issues.
Brigadere was much loved among her readers, but she remained a somewhat solitary figure throughout her life. She had a longstanding close friendship with her publisher, but never married. A nature museum has been established in the village of Tervete in southern Latvia, where she was born and spent the last decade of her life, writing. Carved wooden figures of her best known characters line paths through woods and fields that inspired her work. To wander there is to go back in time, yet find oneself solidly rooted in a sustainable future.