Thursday, July 29, 2010

Enough with the tortured soul already

Ok, I started feeling like maybe the blog was getting a little too broody. Just to lighten the mood a little ...

There's a whole new genre of Russian jokes based on the New Russians (the newly rich business class, perceived as arrogant, stupid, dishonest, conspicuous consumers with poor taste). For example:
  • Two new russians are at a concert. One says to the other, pointing to the director, "This is, what, Mozart?" The other says, "How am I supposed to know? You can't tell anything looking at him from behind."
  • One new russian says to another, "Look at the awesome tie I got for a thousand dollars!" The other replies, "Idiot! I got the same tie right across the street for two thousand!"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I wish it would rain down, down on me

I want to live; I crave for sadness -

Against my bliss and love, in truth;

They sank my mind in idle gladness

And made my brow very smooth.

It's high time for life's derogation

To blow away the hazy peace;

What’s a poet’s life, void of desolation?

And what are void of tempests seas?

-Mikhail Lermontov, age 18

I watched an entire rainstorm from start to finish, curled up on the ledge of an open window 5 stories above the ground. From the sudden quieting of the birds, to the first big raindrops pinging the tin windowsill, to the people running for cover from the downpour, to the sun coming back out and everyone going back about their business.

There’s something about a rainstorm when there hasn’t been one for a while. It was a relief. It lasted about ten minutes, and I was sad when it was over. It was too quick -- I didn't have time to absorb the quiet that was almost sacred, when life stopped, people and animals disappeared, and it was just the elements, just the wind and the rain – and a couple standing on the path near the pond embracing. I watched them, imagining the double sensation of a kiss and the giant drops of rain on my face. I wanted to run out into the rain, too, to feel it on my hands, my face, my skin, my clothes, to gradually become completely wet.

I want to live! wrote Lermontov. I crave for sadness -

I want to live. Russians love suffering, Alla Vasilievna insists, because it’s part of happiness – indistinguishable from happiness – it’s part of life. I get that. I won’t go so far as to say I crave sadness in Lermontov’s madly romantic way, but I want to live, and to live completely. I want to feel it all, see it all, understand it all.

Now the construction workers are banging away again. Everyone’s out making noise and tinkering with the world again. I want to hold onto the feeling of the storm – the sensation of being alive again after a long hot spell. The presence in the solitude. The relief, peace, contentment, laced with a certain tingliness and excitement about what it all could mean – something new, something different, something dangerous.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Perestroika, physical and spiritual

Perestroika: The literal translation is "rebuilding."
The word you really hear all the time is remont -- it means "repair" or "remodel."
And it's going on everywhere you look in Moscow. Including here:

Hram Hristos Cpasitel (Church of Christ the Savior) is the largest Orthodox church in the world.

It was built in Moscow in the 1800s and destroyed by Stalin in 1931 to make way for an enormous Soviet Palace topped by a colossal statue of Lenin, designed to be the tallest building in the world. But the palace was never built, and the foundation of the cathedral became a huge swimming pool. (Yes, everything is huge, colossal, enormous, mammoth – we’re in Russia, and bigger is always better!)

In 1994, after nearly five years of petitioning, the Russian Orthdox Church was granted permission to rebuild the cathedral on it’s original site, and in 2000 the new building -- an exact replica of the original church -- was consecrated.

From the guidebook I bought there:

A tragedy for Russian Christians, the attempt of the Communists to put up the Palace of Councils in place of the cathedral revealed the struggle between God who had become man to save humanity and man who was trying in vain to become God.
The gigantic “Babylon Tower” … was a symbolic antithesis of the Saviour cathedral, its anti-reflection. … Many elements of the palace were devised as antipodes of the cathedral’s elements -- the huge statue of Lenin instead of the cross crowning the cathedral, the representation of a five-pointed star on the ceiling of the Grand Hall, and articles of the Stalin Constitution carved on the walls of the foyer.

And then this symbolism of resurrection and repentance, which I found especially moving:

Many Muscovites who watched the [groundbreaking] ceremony [for the new building] on TV in 1994 could not believe their eyes: the miracle did occur. The main national sanctuary was being resurrected from its ashes, like a mythological bird Phoenix. ...

Today it is primarily a place of repentance, a personification of the country’s conversion from atheistic theories to the Law of God, to Christian doctrines of eternity and the City of God, to the traditional roots of the Russian Orthodox civilization. The cathedral, regarded as a martyr for Christ, has been resurrected on the site to show gratitude to God for saving Russia and overthrowing the utopian theory of the earthly paradise. It is a sort of memorial to Russia’s history, heroism and sufferings. It is the national Orthodox idea embodied in stone.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's. So. #@&%. Hot.

It's been around 100 degrees every day for about two weeks now. Oh, and did I mention there is NO air conditioning? I kind of want to die. I'm looking at a pile of seven empty 5-liter bottles of water and calculating that I'm going through about 2.5 liters of water a day right now. I think that's roughly double the recommended 6-8 glasses, no?

Some folks here are drinking more than water:

AND (yes I'm on a weather rant) it hasn't rained, except for few brief rainstorms, which I'm convinced the Russian government is artificially creating by doing that thing where they put chemicals into the clouds and force it to rain. (I mean, why shouldn't the government control everything, including the weather?) The rainstorms last for about five minutes -- really big drops, but not quite enough of them -- and all they do is make the ground sizzle, then they stop.

And that's not all. In addition to all the crops dying from the drought, there are also shortages of electric fans (my friend saw a woman selling an old fan at a metro stop for 4000 rubles, which is about $130) and ice cream. Yes, they're running out of ice cream. Luckily I haven't been affected by this … yet …

So, I'd love to stay and chat but there's a cold shower calling my name. Or maybe a hot shower. It would still cool me down. You think I'm kidding, don't you …

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The doorway

On Monday morning I meditated for the first time. Not like deep thinking (which I have actually done before, thank you very much), but like a guided meditation. Here.

This meditation used the sound of a bell to focus the mind and open the spirit. It sounded three times, with the idea being to feel the reverberations and welcome the sound physically into the body, followed by a period of remembering the sound and feel of the bell, the echo or memory of the bell. And then a mental letting go of the bell sound and opening to other sounds, followed by another focus on the memory of the bell.

It was during one of these repetitions, one of these moments of allowing the bell sound to come into you, that I felt it. It was fleeting, but it was as though a feeling of openness penetrated into the protective shell I’ve built to protect myself from life’s disappointments – especially from spiritual experiences that I may or may not be able to trust. At the beginning of the meditation, the guide said, “Cultivate the mood of wonder, of humility. Let this be the doorway to the practice.” That resonated deeply with me, and I think that inviting those particular emotions allowed that brief feeling of pure openness and centeredness.

In some ways, it was like an old familiar friend. In other ways, it was a little terrifying. I mean, can’t it be possible to have both my protective shell and that openness at the same time? I mean, what’s so wrong about being careful with your heart, not just in a romantic sense but in a life sense? I want to be cautious and yet impulsive, protected and yet vulnerable, distant and yet intimate. Paradox? Maybe.

“Cultivate the mood of wonder, of humility. Let this be the doorway to the practice.”

And not just to the practice, but to life. A further explanation of the meditation:

“Do you have the patience to wait ‘til your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving ‘til the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things."

[Here’s the point where this blog post should end, both because of length and because of overshare. But I can’t resist wanting to sort out this other idea … and yes, if you read it and it makes you feel the need to share the name of a good therapist with me, please go ahead and leave it in the comments ... ]

I have deep angst about this trip (ok, about my life) that stems from wanting to do something, to be something, to make an impact, to please have some meaning for someone somewhere. And I am realizing that this desperation – born of loneliness, of cultural conditioning, of the pure desire to give to someone – is paralyzing. It makes me choke. And this seeking, this expectation, this need is intense – I am desperately in search of fulfillment, I admit it. And yet “The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. She is present and can welcome all things.”

It sounds so beautiful. Simply to be present and welcome all things, all people, all experiences. To be open with the mood of wonder, of humility, like a child. Not to find or accomplish something specific or to return with something grand or impressive. But to be alive, and to find meaning and connection in being open to the world.

But this is a difficult state of mind to sustain. Already in the 35 seconds since I typed that last line, my mind has started off down the road of justifying my desire to achieve something visible, something tangible, by tying it to the lofty desire to love and be loved, to give, to impact. But is it really for others I want this, or for myself? I feel afraid that by letting go of trying to do something impactful, I will sink into oblivion, into meaninglessness and loneliness. It’s like a struggle between the will to power and nirvana. The desire and ambition grip me, paralyze me. The letting go, the mediation is lighter, more open and yet now in it’s aftermath I seem to fear it more. I fear losing control, losing everything. Abandoning myself to the higher power and then simply disappearing. Alone.

And all of this -- all of it -- exists only inside of me, only in my mind, yet it affects everything. That's sort of weird, right?

“Cultivate the mood of wonder, of humility. Let this be the doorway.”

(June 2010, Peterhoff, Russia)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Meet Rosa

Rosa is my suitemate. We share a bathroom, a fridge and a door. We really can't communicate at all, but I've grown to sort of adore her.

Rosa is from Palermo, Italy. She's in Moscow for four months learning Russian. She has two daughters in their 30s, and her husband either died or divorced her -- I'm not sure which -- 20 years ago. Like I said, we can't really communicate. Rosa speaks an unintelligible mix of Russian, Italian, English and Crazy. She gesticulates wildly in a quintessentially Italian fashion and is passionate about, well, I'm not sure what she's saying, but about everything, it seems. She has a portable CD player, and I can often hear her in the next room either repeating Russian words or singing along as she putters about her room.

One day not long after I arrived, I answered a knock on our door, and there was a young, ripped Egyptian guy standing there. "Is Rosa here?" She wasn't. "Tell her I stopped by to say hello?" Um, sure. "Rosa is such a cool lady." Really? Huh. I mean, I don't really know her. Sometimes she invites me into her room to drink juice and "talk," which basically consists of me speaking Russian and her not understanding, her speaking Italian or her special mix of languages and me not understanding, and a few times we've actually used two dictionaries to translate words from Italian to Russian and then Russian to English. Usually they're words like "birch." I mean, I had already guessed "tree," but apparently she really wanted me to understand that she was talking about a birch tree. So you can see why conversation might take a while.

After the Egyptian guy stopped by, I started paying more attention to Rosa -- not just her quirks, but her essence, you could say. And I have to agree that she's such a cool lady. I love that she gets really big eyes, smiles, nods 50 times and says "ciao" when she sees me. I love that she sings along with her CD player everywhere she goes, that she talks to the TV in the cafeteria while she's watching auto racing, that she sketches the pigeons that land on her windowsill and shows me the drawings multiple times. I hope that when I'm Rosa's age, I'm still as passionate, as adventurous, as excited to travel the world, to try to learn new things and to connect with people as Rosa is. She's kind of awesome.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

So You Think You Can Dance ... Moscow?

I took a stroll down Arbat Street this weekend and discovered why the SYTYCD franchise has yet to branch out into Russia ...

(Highlight is at about 2:00 when one pretends to shoot the other, who is then miraculously resuscitated)
And yes, you heard right, they did mention Michael Jackson's name ... more than once. And yes, the music piping out of their tiny little speakers is directly from Super Mario Brothers.

You gotta give it to these guys for getting out there, though. Living the dream. I respect that.
Also, I feel kind of like the tall guy when I dance. Sort of all over the place.

Monday, July 5, 2010

(almost) White nights

The view from my window, 11:00pm.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sister Pond

There’s something about speaking a language you don’t know well that makes life seem simpler, more straightforward, less complex. Suddenly, talking about everyday things like where you live and how many people are in your family is SO interesting. A simple conversation becomes a cultural exchange, a linguistic challenge. And as the Russian language slowly comes back to me, I feel so satisfied with myself for my little victories in small-talk, of all things.

I wonder if, for me, part of it is that speaking Russian takes me back to a previous time in my life when things really were more simple and life really did seem black and white.

Last night I went to the English club that the missionaries hold each week. I chatted with people in Russian afterwards for a long time, and found myself falling back into patterns of conversation and even of thinking from my missionary days. All my complex questions about life and God and the universe seemed so far away, and for a moment, the world was black and white again. It was so easy to invite people I just met to come to church and to sincerely hope they would. And the whole experience felt like a relief, like a return to childhood of some kind.

But that’s just it – it’s a part of my spiritual childhood, a part of my history, not of my present. My mission was a foundation, a jumping-off point for my adult life, and just like my childhood, it inculcated many good things that I’m grateful for, but it also sowed the seeds of misconceptions that have caused me pain as I’ve tried to sort them all out. There will always be fond memories, nostalgia, and the longing for lost innocence, but I don’t know if you can ever truly go back. And I'm making peace with that.

Not to completely switch tone, but since we’re talking about nostalgia, here’s a video I stumbled across of a Russian singer singing “Where does childhood go?” It’s truly horrible. I should probably be embarrassed for posting it. But it's fully on topic -- and fully Russian.