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Writing in Cafe Orwell | Sam White and Misha Volf

When Berkley was a little boy he liked to fly kites with his sister in the old neighborhood, which lived in his imagination and dreams as a yellow place, lit by early dusk, his bedroom low-ceilinged and dark. His parents were each born in foreign countries and had met at the University of California in Berkeley. On holidays they would sit at the kitchen counter writing checks to cousins and aunts in their respective countries of origin.

The next day, Berkley and his sister would stamp the envelopes at the post office and see that they slipped into the correct bin behind the postmaster’s desk. When Berkley was ten, his father’s investments rapidly depreciated, and they moved to a smaller house that didn’t have a swimming pool or much of a backyard.

Berkley thought his childhood moved very quickly. By the time he reached adulthood, he had two main interests. One was the study of Japanese literature, the haiku in particular. The other interest was skiing. He had high standards for each. Haikus made time elongate; downhill skiing made it fly by.

In college, he majored in animal biology and minored in Japanese. After graduating he worked in a laboratory that researched beetles. One of his responsibilities was to supervise a staff of undergraduate students in the lab, and the summer he turned 25, he and one of the female students received a stipend to study beetles in Panama, which happened to be the birthplace of his father and a country he’d never visited.

They worked for 8 weeks collecting samples and labeling them in the facilities of the university in the capital. Berkley finally met his father’s family, who did not live in the capital or in the jungle where they researched, so Berkley and his colleague, Rita, whose parents were Mexican and whose Spanish was better than his,  had only one weekend to spend with his relatives. The highlight was a morning in a canoe with Rita and two cousins. The fast river brought them to the next village which had a flower farm. The cousins let Rita and Berkley row back to the house against the current; there were only two paddles. It was such a beautiful morning that he was reluctant to watch movies for some time in fear that a powerful image would muddy his recollection. He gave his aunts and cousins photographs of his parents and picture books for children. He received a knit scarf, which he kept till the end of his life.

Coincidentally, that fall, he began a romance with Rita’s roommate, which resulted in marriage. Her name was Celia and she worked as a manager at a popular Italian restaurant. An early gift he gave her was a session of watercolor classes.

In his 40s he started to wear glasses, and around then started going to poetry readings. In one year Berkley read poetry three times in front of audiences.

Celia worked weekends for 15 years, so when Berkley went skiing it was usually with his coworker and his wife. He stayed in the coworker’s A-frame cabin. Often it was during exhausted drives back down the mountains when haikus or longer lines of verse formed in his mind. When he got home, he wrote them down. He would eat leftovers from Celia’s restaurant, share a poem, and she would admire him. That ritual helped stave off acerbic or jealous comments about their weekends spent apart.

Some of his Panamanian relatives had moved to Mexico City, and one Christmas, Berkley and Celia stopped there on the way to Cancun. The relatives confused Celia with Rita, and when the older aunts called Celia by the wrong name no one bothered to correct them. While they were in Cancun they watched American late night talk shows and laughed.

He got a sunburn on the beach and in bed his body felt foreign when it rubbed against itself. It was reaching the age his soul was, but then while he lost touch with his wisdom his experiences dwelled in the physical and when he became more cerebral, the age of his body surprised him yet again. Rarely did his body and soul walk through time together.

When he died, Celia mourned him and sought solace in a Basho haiku that hung framed in their entryway in both Japanese calligraphy and typed out English.

Even in Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoos cry –
I long for Kyoto

At his agnostic memorial service no one spoke Spanish, except Rita who had outlived him.


Ann was very particular about her salad greens. Down to the exact quantity of each type of part and leaf. Every day for lunch she would fill her five-inch ceramic bowl with the following ingredients:

7 alfalfa sprouts
10 arugula leaves
1 leaf of bibb lettuce
4 bean sprouts
3 frisee branches
1 coarsely chopped leaf of radichio
6 leaves of spinach

This was serious business for Ann. Every afternoon before combining the carefully calculated ingredients, she would lay them out on the bamboo cutting board. Each of the 7 ingredients in its own distinct pile. Each individual carefully selected from the mass. No member of either sprout pile would ever cross another. The sprouts would always be laid vertically, parallel to each other, perpendicular to Ann. Seeing this salad blueprint really satisfied her, almost more so than the salad itself. She would dress it lightly with sunflower oil, a little bit of salt and 3 turns of cracked pepper. With this daily salad consumed, Ann would be ready to start her day.

This particular morning was no different.  She put on a dark pink cardigan, took an umbrella, and walked to her studio. Upon entering she put the unused umbrella in a canister, checked her mailbox, and turned on an electric kettle for black tea. The tea warmed her vein cabled fingers and filled her stomach. In the middle of the concrete space was a wooden pedestal with a trio of ceramic vases painted to resemble Sumerian urns. The paints were fading and they had a series of cracks around the busts. She watched the vases and walked around them at an even distance as if their shadows marked a foreboding celestial alignment. She put her mug down on a metal stool, then put it in front of the central vase. The mug said, “Virginia is for Lovers” and she laughed.

Misha Volf is a recording engineer at the Manhattan School of Music. Sam White is a Brooklyn-based babysitter and blogger. They share a studio called Beaver Park.
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