By Ondrej Franek
Russian soldiers made it first. They came to Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I came in August, too. I was born in Czechoslovakia in August, 1970.
Society Normalization – the government’s Newspeak for Russian occupation – was in full swing by that time and life was not much fun for anybody. Everyone’s career had been planned already by the Communist party planners who lacked any sense of adventure, let alone fun.
Almost blind children were no exception to that rule. The official name of the first school I attended was: “Nine-Year Special Boarding Elementary School for Almost Blind Children.” There was no room for sweet understatements while catching up with American imperialists in the nuclear arms race – as they used to tell us every day.
I escaped this world whenever I could. I would sit down, put on some music, and start wobbling back and forth from my waist up as if the upper part of my body was a plank swaying on a big pelvic hinge. Soon I was in a different world.
In this world, the sun shed light on my great deeds that everyone admired. I travelled around the world. I sacrificed my life for the common good in deep space many times. Big, merry famous women and boarding school teachers were fondling me, giving me long loving hugs for all the good I’d done.
I lived on those daydream love stories many good years before I became aware of sex per se. Those dreams felt so refreshing, so real. More real than my real life. There were so many things in the real life I resented.
Boarding-school dining room air stayed unvaried throughout the years. The whiff of plastic table cloths freshly wiped up with a wet rag never so fresh, mixed with kitchen vapors and seventy more kids’ morning breaths worked like a chemical drum dividing our school days into four segments: classes, supervised leisure time, homework, and bed-time. I was eight years old when I completed the second year of this life, pondering, between the beats of the monotonous dining-room-chemical-drum, how I would survive nine years of this. Nine years was a time span I could not grasp having only lived eight.
Weekend stays at home with my family used to complete the rhythm. Each such weekend ended in a Sunday of Betrayal when I could not continue watching TV with my brother because of late-afternoon back-to-boarding-school “deportation proceedings.” No bag of home grown apples, which my mother never forgot to pack with my clothes for the week, was big enough to rectify the injustice.
This organized world possessed a sorcerer, who could turn whatever fun existed into an ugly farce for her own amusement. I remember my first masquerade ball being turned into a full-blown nightmare when my teacher evaluated my purchased costume as sloppy homework, and dressed me up as a girl making me listen to her comments on my parents’ negligence while she was working on me.
The same nasty spell was cast on painting classes at school. They were humiliating and wet. I never achieved good command of my watercolors set. They never formed the shape required on my drawing paper to represent my mom or whatever my teachers had asked for. Brushes were forbidden so that we could not poke our almost blind eyes by mistake. The only paint-distribution instrument allowed was our own fingers dipped in water.
It was in May when a painting teacher told me that my artistic expression matched that of a five-year-old. I did not respond well to this sort of encouragement. I gave up. I could hide from painting whenever it threatened. So I did Lack of artistic expression seemed utterly irrelevant to the small uptight grey-dressed creature with thick glasses I became at 12. I felt handicapped even among my handicapped peers. That was all that mattered – especially in May. It was this high-spring air of May, which smelled like a heavy perfume carrying the scents of impending summer that blended with my hopes for something better that I could not name.
But eventually my nine-year boarding school term ended. Russian soldiers, too, left long ago. There is no Czechoslovakia any more as we split peacefully in 1993, and American imperialists must have pulled their missiles back in a garage, for we did not hear any more about them. I kept dreaming. I still travelled around the world using the escape trick I’d found during my childhood. My dream deeds changed though my reward for doing them stayed the same. That’s how I first came across a Tantra-Yoga Meditation Center. I fell in love indeed with all that bodywork and mental challenge. Never mind that those guys often made us use painting as an emotional outlet to chill out after an intimacy-challenging experience. This was the first time in twenty years that I could not get out of painting. I still did not like it, yet I accepted it as a reasonable price for the inner peace I was able to achieve bit by bit.
Another ten years went by. I worked hard, travelled enough and tried to love as gently as I could. As I gradually acquired some financial freedom as an IT specialist, my bachelor-life’s defense grew stronger, more reliable. I kept dreaming. I kept avoiding painting whenever possible.
One day, though, I goofed badly by signing up for a retreat with an American mystic who visited my Tantra-Yoga Center. This mystic was a painter. I’m not sure how I missed that. His meditations were painting meditations.
Tantra rule #1: “Do you feel that something is not for you at all? Can you sense the resentment you feel in your stomach? Then you need it most of all.”
I discovered my error too late. Tantra rule #1 combined with an unfriendly cancellation fee to force me to attend.
I set off in an outfit of a professional painter with a portable easel hung over my shoulder, determined to make a good joke of myself. I was also engaged in a theatre group at that time. All theatre directors encourage embarrassment exercises.
It worked wonderfully. I felt really bad among all those serious artists who made long journeys to meet this famous painter. He liked the joke of a blind guy who spends most of his time setting up his equipment and then makes two smears of school-kid watercolors in his 12×20 inch sketchbook on an easel. I liked it, too, after all. We hit it off.
He revisited our eccentric yoga center one year later. That time, I truly wished to participate despite all the painting stuff required. I almost started liking it. His unconventional painting freestyle, in which you meet your canvas as a friend to talk to, or a lover, or a mirror. So different from the painting classes of my school years when I was never capable of painting my mummy.
This time he did not come alone, this famous American painter-mystic. He brought a group of artists with him, most of them from L.A.
The first painting I made I liked, or at least I did not consider it boring fatigue. This took me by surprise as did a woman who came up to comment on it. Though she was from the American group, and an ocean spread between our lives, it did not prevent her from seeing the trees, lights and dancing fairies right where I saw them, too, on my still-wet canvas.
The early symptoms of falling in love entered my heart without any applause the next day. Everyone faces the danger of misconstruction when it comes to saying “I love you” for the first time. Partial blindness does not make it easier. Nor did the bad reputation that American women have in Europe for sexual-harassment lawsuits. I had no intention of becoming a defendant in such a suit.
How likely would you consider the chances of an American independent entrepreneur woman falling in love with an almost blind Czech guy on a painting retreat? I hardly had enough time to contemplate this challenge when another came.
“If I had two hundred of such paintings you were making here at the retreat, I would organize an exhibition for you in L.A.,” the famous American painter-mystic said.
“Yikes, how the hell am I gonna do that? It was not a joke? And what about the girl? The girl from the group of visiting American artists?” A nagging voice in my head would not stop.
“Why not simply show how happy and grateful I am whenever she is around?”
My inner nag seemed to be happy with this and ceased. I liked the idea. Simple enough, lawful enough.
I did much better at showing her my happiness and gratitude than at painting two hundred canvasses. On the magic carpet of the Internet, tied together with a rope of trust when five thousand nine hundred and forty-one miles distance, an eighteen-year age difference, and U.S. immigration laws mustered to scare us, we enjoyed the ride.
It was by sheer fluke that we ended up swimming naked in an open air pool in one of the hot springs resorts scattered along the Slovakia-Hungary border right after the painting retreat had ended and as most of Europe was shivering cold under the flood waters of late spring 2013. Thank heavens we could both work from anywhere in the world, so she could come back to live with me for six weeks in the fall 2013 and see that Prague in autumn is the most seductive of all seasons. After a year and a half of taking turns crossing the Atlantic, writing a book’s worth of e-mails, my shirt almost caught fire from a ceremonial candle at Hollywood SRF Temple while we were exchanging the kiss that made us a married couple on Saturday, September 13, 2014. All this happened easier than sixteen canvasses could be painted. There are still one hundred eighty-four to go.