I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid, more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
I arrived in the ancient city of Praha, Czechia, or Prague, homelands of my great-grandmother Sophia Strolk, whose line stretches far back across time and these Bohemian lands. As we rolled into the Praha central station, I could feel its enchantment capturing my heart, as I gaped at the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture of castles, palaces and spires silhouetting the city landscape. This historical, political, cultural, and economic hub of Central Europe, where Celts and Germans and Jews and Slavs, the Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the royal Přemyslid and Habsburg dynasties, kings and queens, a half-century of Nazi and then Communist occupiers, alchemists, artists, poets and dissidents all mixed and migrated and traded ideas and exchanged goods, services, fairytales, culture, art, inspiration, music, love, brutality and war. Each cobblestone is steeped in history. Bohemia is at the heartland of ancient culture in Europe. It is both a center and a crossroads.
The place where I am staying is near the Charles Bridge, a medieval stone arch bridge that connects the wide banks of the long and winding Vltava River. Its construction started in 1357 and as the only means of crossing the river Vltava until 1841, Charles Bridge was the connecting point that allowed for trade routes between Eastern and Western Europe to flourish. It is lined with statues of patron saints and filled with legends of told and untold histories, a city rooted in prophecy.
In Prague’s tale of origin, the ruler of a migrating tribe, named Krok, had no male heirs, but rather three daughters, who nature had granted the treasures of wisdom and endowed with gifts of healing. His youngest daughter, Libussa, was a prophetess. After a night of prayers in her sacred grove, she stood on a cliff above the Vltava River and was seized by the spirit and uttered her prophecy: “I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!” She guided her people to build a castle, to be called Praha, or threshold, right on the spot. The Prague castle is utterly magnificent, built and rebuilt over centuries of fire, renaissance and war, by human labor, imagination and our capacity to start over and reinvent ourselves, again and again. Over a hundred spires stretch up across the city, perhaps still trying to reach for those celestial bodies.
The clouds were darkening as I began to wander through the beauty of Old Town, adding to its mysterious contours. It is a place absolutely teeming with tourists, yet still steeped in magic. I was curious about what this lineage would reveal – what seeds have been passed down and what needs to be transformed.
I immediately bought a ticket for an evening concert of the Royal Czech Orchestra, playing Vivaldi and Bach at the St. Salvator church – my grandmother loved church and classical music so I thought it would be a good place to start the homage. I bought the ticket for 7:30pm, still a few hours away. 10 minutes later, thunder began to rumble and flashes of lightning shot bolts across the sky. Uh-oh. I quickened my steps toward my rental apartment, but the skies opened quicker than my feet and torrential rain poured down with thunderous roars, like the belly laugh of the gods or the ancestors. Not having brought my umbrella or raincoat along, I tucked my chin and started to run, trying to get out of the storm as soon as possible. Then, I suddenly realized that I was already as wet as I could possibly get. Tensing my body or keeping my face down to the ground would not protect me from the rain. So I stopped resisting the moment and opened to the deluge. I turned my face up and felt the cool rain pour down. I shared a big laugh with the gods of thunder. Welcome to Prague!
After a hot shower and a change into dry clothes, the rain subsided and I made my way back across the bridge to the church at dusk. As I entered, I lit two candles, one for my great-grandmother Sophia Strolk, and one from my grandmother, Sophie Shell. I said a little prayer of gratitude and invited them to join me. I made my way to the pew and took my seat, thinking that I had the whole pew to myself. Ha! As soon as the silky sounds of the symphony echoed through the church, I felt Sophia join me to my left and Sophie come to sit at my right. Tears streamed down my face, feeling my grandmothers on either side, enjoying the exquisite beauty of the music along with me.
Since I have not been able to find the exact town they were from, I decided for this Bohemian lineage, I would connect with them by soaking in the culture of the place, past and present. I spent three days exploring museums of history and art, contemporary galleries, churches, castles, music concerts and jazz clubs, and of course, the city’s stunning architecture.
One seed that this lineage may have been passed down is my love for art and cultural activism. I have given my life and work to using art for community organizing and popular education, to bring about the Great Turning, to deepen our embodiment and the creation of a justice-filled, life-affirming world. I can see and feel the rooted histories of that seed > blossom > fruit all around me.
In 1989, there was a peaceful rebellion of students and older dissidents, in which a half-million Czechs and Slovaks filled Prague’s streets and took over Wenceslas Square, overthrowing forty years of Communist rule.
In the spirit of the Velvet Revolution and of the Czech Republic reinventing itself yet again, I explored the immersive exhibition of Banksy, the Museum of Franz Kaftka, and multi-media galleries of contemporary Czech artists, critiquing authoritarianism, war, consumerism and patriarchy, and pointing a new way forward.
I wandered through galleries of Czech glassmakers, a tradition which dates back to the Middle Ages. The remains of the oldest known glass works, dating back to 1250, is located in Kamenický Šenov in Northern Bohemia. Glassmaking is about transformation. Molten, liquid sand is heated, melted, colored by the minerals, metallic ores and reshaped entirely. While glass is being blown, molded or pulled into its finished shape, it requires constant heat. Glass may seem fragile, but it has great inherent mechanical strength and can withstand extremely high compressive stresses. It is actually harder than most grades of unhardened steel! It is also transparent and allows light to pass through it. I wondered how we, too, might learn from this ancient tradition to shape the elements, to withstand and forge ourselves through the fire of these times into clear, strong translucent beings that allow the light to shine through.
Czech culinary traditions are still making a revival after 40 years of Communist rule, and I went on a foodie tour, to experience the meat and potatoes of my people. Of course, that included some rounds of beers (the Czech Republic consumes more beer per capita than any other country in the world, drinking on average about 161 liters of beer per person each year!), and Moravian wine, along with fried cheese, rye bread, duck confit, pickled herring, ham with creamed horseradish, a selection of sausages, roasted pulled pork, pork schnitzels, pickled vegetables, beef goulash, ash-cooked potatoes lavished with chives and creamy foam, along with espresso, vetrnik and apricot sorbet for dessert. Yum.
The Czech literary tradition stretches back to the late 13th century, from romances and ghost stories, fables and legends, translations of the Bible and religious prose – the Czechs love to read and write. During the first half of the 20th century, Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke shaped generations with their diaries, letters, poems and prose. Since 1989, Czech writers have continued to have a major political influence, perhaps exemplified by the fact that Czechs elected a prominent dissident poet and playwright, Václav Havel, as their first post-communist president.
Both of my grandmothers loved literature and were voracious readers. Sophia, my great-grandmother, was a fan of Agatha Christie, and my grandmother, Sophie, always had her nose in a book. I too, have a love for the crafting of words and a voracious appetite for novels, spiritual texts and poetry. Perhaps this is where it all trickled down from.
On my last night here in Prague, I needed to do some laundry before heading off early tomorrow morning on my next adventure into rural Bohemia and Poland. The washing machine broke before the spin cycle, and my clothes were soaking wet. My time in Prague was coming around in a full circle of wetness. My Airbnb host directed me to a local laundry a few blocks away, and grumbling a bit, I started walking, carrying my heavy bags of sopping clothes. And then, along the way, I stumbled upon an entire block lined with poems upon poems, expressing solidarity with Ukraine. I felt what initially seemed like a burden turn into a blessing, along with a little bit of Prague magic that guided me here to this street, to take in the word warriors of my people, Czech and Ukrainian together, spreading seeds of sunflowers and peace.