Everyone Loses!

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This is a different kind of post for me. I debated with myself whether or not to post it. 
 In the end, I decided I would. 
My heart is breaking with overwhelming sadness for the people of Ukraine, but I also have compassion for the ordinary Russian people who are also going to suffer because of 
Putin's Senseless War. 
There is only pain and anguish for all those involved. Everyone loses! 
I am greatly inspired by the dedication, valor, and resolve of the Ukrainians, but I am also encouraged by the Russians who are marching...at significant personal risk... in the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cities across their country. 
To be clear....this post is about the ordinary Russians I met two decades ago...not Putin's Government and as always just thoughts that are swirling around in my head.
Ukrainian National Flower
Photo credit: Pixabay

 If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he’s just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It’s one world, pal. We’re all neighbors.”

—Frank Sinatra

In the summer of 2002…twenty years ago…Dave and I took a two-week river cruise from Moscow to St.Petersburg. Growing up in rural Michigan, this was an unusual step for us. We were Cold War kids who grew up with the Russian threat an ever-present part of our lives. We hid under our desks during air-raid drills…as if that would have protected us. We watched Khruschev on the evening news banging his shoe and vowing to ‘bury us’, and we held our breath during the Cuban missile conflict. But…after the fall of communism, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the Soviet Union, traveling to what Ronald Reagan once described as ‘The Evil Empire’ seemed both improbable and yet…very possible. So…why not? We bought our tickets, packed our bags, and left on a very long flight toward the east.

Stepping off the plane in Moscow, we were immediately struck by the size and condition of the airport. In the intervening years since our visit, the airport has been enlarged and expanded, but twenty years ago, it was about the size of the airport in Burlington, VT. Also, surprisingly, there was no orderly plan for how passengers would be processed through immigration. Instead, it was an exercise in ‘survival of the fittest’ with lots of jockeying for position. Raised with midwest politeness, we couldn’t return push for push or shove for shove, so we were the last two people from our group to eventually exit into the waiting area to meet our guides.

Our ship, the Tolstoy, had once been the pride of the Communist Party reserved for high-ranking members of the Politburo. The decore and amenities were classic 1970s. Luxurious, it was not…but it was comfortable enough and would be our home for the next two weeks. Our hosts were paid to take care of us, of course, but soon we became aware of the many times the crew went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and comfortable…always with a smile.

Outside St. Basil’s Near Red Square
Moscow, June 2002
Dave and I got totally lost inside St. Basil’s.
There were plenty of twists and turns, and all the signs were Russian.

On our second night, we were taken to the Russian circus. “Don’t worry. We will have a bus to take you back to the ship at intermission if you don’t wish to stay.” Dave, who was always just a big kid, absolutely loved the circus. So we stayed until the end. Yes, the circus was amazing, but I was much more interested in watching the faces and reactions of the children who were sitting behind us. Wonder, delight, and oohs and ahhs needed no translation. It was such a joyous experience.

As we traveled, it was interesting to speak with Russians about the changes taking place. Of course, lacking Russian language skills, we could only talk to educated people who spoke English. The older Russians who had good jobs and status due to their skills with English missed the security of employment under communism. Now they had to find work in the private sector, as guides for visiting Americans, for example. On the other hand, the younger Russians welcomed the changes and were hopeful for a future under their new leader, Vladimir Putin.

Leaving Moscow, we traveled north toward St. Petersburg via the Volga River stopping at towns and villages along the way. At each port, we were met by friendly people who were proud, enthusiastic, and excited to share their country with us. After living for so many years under communism, they were happy to be reclaiming churches and religious sites and couldn’t wait to show us. There was scaffolding and signs of progress everywhere as well as the unavoidable and ubiquitous signs of decay, neglect, and poverty. One of the Russians Dave met told him that the Russians knew that we were afraid of them during the Cold War but that they were never afraid of us. “What do we have that you would want? Nothing. We have nothing.”

Taking a Break
Outside St. Sergius Monastery

In preparation for our trip, I dabbled with the Russian language using a primitive program on my computer. In the end, although I never actually learned the language, I learned how to say five simples phrases…good morning, good evening, please, thank you, and I’m sorry. All of these phrases came in handy, but I could recognize other random nouns, even though I couldn’t really employ them, which turned out to be very serendipitous.

The Doma and Kiosk in Goritsy

Walking down the road into the village of Goritsy, we passed rustic kiosks set up in front of several houses. Most offered linen socks, dried fish, and flowers. As I lingered at a stand that also displayed small carvings and little wooden toys, the Russian owner began to speak to me…in Russian. As she spoke, gesturing toward her house and husband, I recognized one of the random words…doma…house.

One of the reasons Dave and I were such good traveling companions was that while we were pretty timid individually, together, we were brave enough to take risks and even break the rules if necessary. So, when the woman’s husband beckoned me, I followed him into the house. Dave followed along as well, all the while muttering, “We shouldn’t be doing this. We shouldn’t be doing this.”

I don’t know why I was singled out to be invited in. I’m not even totally sure why I followed, but I’m so glad that I did. The first things we noticed as we entered the house were the intricate carvings…all swirls and ripples…that adorned the door frame. Communicating with gestures and charades, our host showed us into his workshop, where he had created a primitive jig-saw by connecting a metal wire to electricity. With the wire glowing red hot, he cut through thin boards to fashion his decorations and some of the small toys we had seen at the kiosk. Next, he led us farther inside his home, inviting us to look around and take pictures if we chose. The house was primarily one big room with a thick wall a few feet shy of the ceiling dividing it into areas. Colorful images cut from newspapers, magazines, and calendars adorned the walls throughout. The kitchen was dwarfed by a vast stone oven behind which the children slept…probably the warmest place in the house. He was obviously proud of his humble home, especially his color television resting on a brightly colored tablecloth. As we were leaving the house and ending this incredible encounter, we noticed several items hanging on the wall, like those at the booth. Indicating that we’d like to buy the double-headed eagle…a symbol of Russia…our friend said the only words we all understood…”Dollars? Rubles?” He removed the artwork from his wall, wrapped it in a newspaper, accepted our dollars, and posed for a photo. We never learned his name, but we felt very blessed by our encounter. We simply referred to him as our Russian Friend.

Hanging on our Wall for Twenty Years

“If you doubt that we are all one, tell me, what language is laughter, what color is love?”

minnavanna

A dozen years before we went to Russia, Billy Joel…another Cold War kid, visited what was then The Soviet Union. In many ways, his experience mirrored ours prompting him to write the very moving song Leningrad.

Today the memory of our Russian adventure leaves me filled with a strange emotional soup of conflicting feelings. When I think about our time in Russia, I think about the people we met. Do they know what’s happening across the border? Are they marching in the streets, or are their sons driving tanks?

Dave and I often spoke of this trip as one of our favorites. Traveling and meeting people lowers the veil, and we see one another as the siblings that we are. We can’t help but notice how much alike we are…how much we share. In another place and time, we might have been good friends. Instead of what might have been, we are all locked in a horror story with only losers.

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”

Jimmy Carter

Driving in the Rain with Patsy

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Unknown
Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
August 2021

There had been a brief shower earlier in the day, but as we entered The Great Smoky Mountain National Park we were greeted with glorious blue skies filled with brilliant, white, fluffy clouds. Scheduling conflicts, limited time, and mobility challenges kept us on the Newfound Gap Road through the park, but we enjoyed what we could see from the car and stopped briefly at the occasional scenic overlook to grab a snap or two. All in all…it was a splendid afternoon.

As we exited the park onto the streets of Gatlinburg, Tennesee, the mood of those happy clouds suddenly began to shift. A smattering of raindrops eventually became an unexpected torrent. In an instant, buckets of water were thrown against my windshield. I was forced to slow down while the wipers worked furiously to keep my field of vision open. I compensated for limited visibility by following the truck in front of me and keeping my eyes on the white line at the edge of the highway. A few drivers pulled over to the shoulder to wait for the storm to pass, but most slowly and cautiously continued. I was among those who chose to simply press on.

Rain on the Windshield
photo credit: Pixabay

In June, with COVID infections declining and vaccination rates climbing we greeted friends in person, basked in the sunshine of possibilities, and were illuminated by the light at the end of the tunnel. We were once again busy making plans and looking toward the future with joy and optimism. The sudden storm of the Delta variant coupled with vaccine hesitancy abruptly changed everything. Overnight, masks were once again being required, social distancing and limiting contacts were returning even for those fully vaccinated. Plans that we’d thought possible in the spring were being reevaluated. Would we pull over onto the shoulder and wait it out, cancel everything, and prepare for another winter of isolation, or would we…could we…move forward slowly following the safety guidelines, weighing the risk-benefit of our choices…but moving forward nevertheless

“Pandora’s box had been opened and monsters had come out. But there had been something hidden at the bottom of Pandora’s box. Something wonderful…Hope.”

Lisa Marie Rice, “Breaking Danger”

When I met Patsy, in the spring of 2020, I had no idea of just how interconnected our lives would become. One of my few outings that spring was to visit a local nursery. By the time I was brave enough to venture out, most of the plants had been picked over. “Here’s a hanging basket you might like,” suggested the proprietor. He was right. She was a beauty. At first, I thought Patsy might have been called…Bea…you know…for Begonia…but she insisted that she was Patsy.

Throughout the spring, summer, and into the fall, I admired her cheerful nature and delighted in the fact that another living thing depended on me. She gave me purpose. I’m not a gardener, but I kept her watered, fed, and deadheaded until I heard it…that dreaded word…frost! Perhaps Patsy knew that she was an ‘annual’ doomed to die at the end of the season, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t allow my companion to be killed by frost, so I welcomed her inside.

She dropped leaves, became very spindly, and seldom blossomed. I kept her safe inside and she brought me hope. We were both merely trying to hang on, and together we did. As long as Patsy kept turning her leaves to the light, I could too.

The Deck…A Very Happy Place
August 2021

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: something to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”

Tom Bodett…and others

Patsy made it through the winter and the chilly days of early spring to rein this summer as the queen and wise woman of my deck. Instead of her life ending last fall, we both hung on to the hope that life would get better, full of color and blossoms once again. I smile at her every day and I’m relatively sure she smiles back.

I have begun, as a matter of self-care, to limit the amount of time I spend watching the news. It doesn’t seem to be the usual pattern of ups and downs. Lately, it’s just all downs. There is fear, sadness, and loss on many fronts, but there are still reasons to be hopeful. When I have doubts…Patsy is there to remind me.

My Friend, Patsy
August 2021

“This fourth wave is really devastating,” my daughter said. “You need to prepare for the possibility of another winter of isolation. Do you have a plan?”

“I’ve thought about it,” I replied. “I’ve decided that my plan is to be…as much as possible…positive and hopeful. No matter what lies ahead I must approach it with hope. Not hope for anything specific…just expectation and anticipation of a better future.”

“Hope reduces feelings of helplessness, increases happiness, reduces stress, and improves our quality of life.

Extern.org

“Yes,” she continued. But you should still think about what worked for you before and what didn’t and prioritize what you want or need to do before the snow flies. Remember, just because you hope for something that doesn’t make it happen.”

“I am open and I am willing. To be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us, so lift me up to the light of change.”

Holly Near, ” I Am Willing”

Faith can move mountains, but only if you get out there with a shovel and what Jennifer said was true. I need to at least consider the possibility of another winter of isolation. Maybe even make a plan…but perhaps that’s what hope is all about…anticipating, expecting, and visualizing a favorable outcome… and then moving in that direction.

I could pull off the road, grab some ditch-munchies from the backseat and wait for the storm to pass…a perfectly acceptable choice…cognizant that along with the possibility of sun, there is also the potential for wind and hail..or…to keep my tires on the road, hands firmly on the wheel, and imagine driving slowly out of the storm. Of course, I may be forced onto the verge at some point…the road may flood, the bridge washout, or I might simply run out of gas. I’ll deal with that if I have to, but for now, I will continue cautiously…mask at the ready…in the direction of my dreams, encouraged by Patsy and her steadfast hope for another summer in the sun.

I may not be as positive, optimistic, or brave in the coming days…but I’ll still cling steadfastly to hope until I feel those things again.

Never Pray for Courage

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

L Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

A friend once told me that there are just some things you should never, ever pray for. “Think about it,” she said. “If you ask God to teach you patience or courage or empathy how do you think those lessons are going to be delivered? God is going to place something in your path that is going to require those skills. It’s going to be hands-on learning, take-home exam, and definitely pass/fail.” That was enough to convince me; I sure wasn’t looking forward to any of the lab work. As it turns out you don’t even need to pray for those skills; sometimes the course work just arrives at your doorstep unbidden.

Last Spring, as I recovered from a broken ankle, I had plenty of ‘thinking time’. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m a senior citizen, but surely, I concluded, I’m much too young for my days of travel and adventure to be over. There’s still so much I want to see, taste, and do, but without my travel buddy, if I am going to see the world, I’ll probably need to be brave and learn to do it on my own.

After pondering how I could return to Scotland alone…Dave always did the driving and I never learned to drive on the left…I decided that if I stayed in a city I could easily travel using shank’s pony and public transport, so last Spring I booked a place in Edinburgh. I would spend the month of April in a two-bedroom flat just off the Royal Mile.

St. Giles Cathedral,
One of my favorite places. The bagpipe-playing angels live here.
  • December 25th: Christmas Eve, While we were singing carols and lighting candles the first publicly reported collection of virus samples was taken from a patient in China suffering from pneumonia of unknown cause.
  • January 8th: I was excited that the installation of my new flooring was underway while scientists in Wuhan announced the discovery of a new coronavirus. That same day South Korea identified a possible incidence of the virus coming from China.
  • January 21st: The first case of what is now called COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States.
  • January 31st:, Travel to the US from China was restricted.
  • February 26th:, My granddaughter arrived on her first solo trip from Burlington to Detroit. During her week-long visit deciding whether or not to roll the dice again and risk wiping out our score in a game of Farkle was our biggest concern other than wondering whether or not a snowstorm was going to keep us from getting to and from the airport safely.
  • March 8th: The first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was found in Vermont. Two days later, the first confirmed case was diagnosed in Michigan.

I canceled the flat on March 11th. There were 1,267 cases of COVID-19 in 43 states. Later that day, the first case was recorded in Scotland.

Edinburgh Castles
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Making the decision to cancel my long-awaited and much-anticipated return to Scotland was heart-breaking. At the time we were getting such mixed messages. It was like trying to find your way across an unknown room in the dark. Possible, but really difficult. At the time, making a prudent choice seemed unnecessary and overly cautious. After all, the planes were still flying, the numbers of cases were proportionally, relatively low and the CDC was advising travelers not to cancel their flights or travel plans to the UK. I agonized about making the right choice. I really, really wanted to be in Edinburgh. Was I overreacting? Shouldn’t I just go ahead with the trip? Couldn’t I tempt fate in Scotland as well as in The States? What was the brave reaction to these facts? What was the courageous thing to do and doesn’t courage demand action?

“Perhaps there were worse things than being afraid of the dark.” 

Holly Webb, Return To The Secret Garden.

President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear“. The fear remains, but he suggests, you can conquer it with action. It’s true, bravery and courage often require us “to do something”, but I am learning…we…are all learning that it also requires a great deal of daring, guts, and, strength “to not do something”.

Young Girls on a Field Trip to Edinburgh Castle

COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the world with great rapidity. Had I waited, my choice would have been made for me. Across the globe, millions and millions of people are making similar choices. We desperately want to have the party, see the play, take the trip, hug the grandchildren, and do a myriad of other things. We have canceled, postponed, or found creative ways to be together…while apart. We are staying hunkered down and not doing those things which only a month ago we took for granted.

“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right”

JK Rowling, Dumbledore, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Finding myself in a high-risk group for the coronavirus, I have chosen to isolate myself. It is strange, but when I go out for a walk I change my route if another person approaches. I haven’t spoken to another living being face to face in over a week. I miss those squirrels that plagued me so much last winter and long for birds to light on my porch rail. It is a lonely existence that almost makes me wish I had a cat, but then there’s that whole litterbox thing. No, I guess, not.

From my window, I watch as birds build nests in the large pine tree in the back yard. Around the world people, too, are creating nests, dens, even blanket forts in the living room; places of comfort, peace, and refuge; settling down, retreating, and sheltering where they are. In this crisis, we must protect each other, the vulnerable and those on the frontline. Remember, it is what we choose not to do that will test our courage, demonstrate our bravery and demand our strength.

Please, Stay home! Flatten the Curve!

Robin Seen in Chip-a-Waters Park, First Day of Spring 2020

One Foot in Front of the Other

“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

Several years ago, my granddaughter and I took a short hike toward a promised overlook. It was obvious that she was really not enjoying this adventure. Her foot hurt, she was tired, and she wanted to turn around. The ‘beware of bears’ sign didn’t help either. We stepped off the wooded trail to rest on a large boulder while we considered what we would do. In this small clearing, the sun’s rays shone down upon us, no longer filtered through the leafy overhang. We could hear the rush of a small stream as it played amongst the pebbles on its way to the sea and wildflowers were peeking through the scrub in their dresses of white and blue and yellow and orange. It was just a brief moment of light in the forest. After this short respite, we stepped back onto the path, into the shadows, and beneath the umbrella of leaves.

Glacier National Park

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

C.S. Lewis

Grief is like that too. As I hike the trail through this valley, the trees open up more frequently to moments of light and flowers and joy, but without warning, I look around and find myself once again in the gloom of thick underbrush and beneath branches that block the sun. Even so, if I keep myself open, grief continues to teach me her lessons. Fear, courage, and bravery are on the first page of her syllabus. It takes a certain amount of daring to face the disorientation and uncertainty of life after a loss. Nothing is as it once was and it’s difficult to find your bearings. To live without equilibrium takes strength, faith, and fortitude.

Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once – a way to orient our life.

Samantha Smithstien

“You’re so strong and brave,” people told my friend at the death of her second husband. “I’m not brave or strong,” she replied. ” I just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other.”

Each day we make the choice whether to pull up our big-kid pants, put our feet on the ground, and take those steps forward…or not. Often, we’re doing well to sit on the edge of the bed and just think about moving and there are days when even that is a stretch. But, with courage, hope, and a great deal of bravery eventually, we shuffle our feet and move to the music of life.

One Foot In Front of the Other and Lead with Love

I decided that this year one of my goals is to consciously work on being brave. “Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, ” I chant to myself throughout the day hoping that at some point it will become internalized and I can change this admonition into an affirmation. “You are brave! You are brave! You are brave!”

For me, being brave means moving forward not necessarily with confidence, but with faith. It is the belief that scrambling over the obstacles life puts in our path will make the next hill a little easier to climb. Being brave acknowledges that we’re all going to stumble, fall, and skin our knees. It also gives us the resilience not to let those set-backs put a halt to our progress. Being brave allows us to laugh at ourselves when we trip and land spread eagle on the ground, our glasses askew, and those big-kid pants on display for the world to see. Bravery reminds us we just need to get back up.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

On my December trip to Vermont as darkness fell and after hours of driving, I accidentally turned off the road I knew, the road I meant to be on, and started down an unplanned route. In that instant with a single right turn, I was facing my top three fears…being alone, being somewhere unfamiliar, and making an error in judgment. The disembodied voice from my GPS assured me that I could indeed go forward on the new road and that it would lead me to my destination. Since I had never approached my destination from this direction I thought perhaps the GPS knew a better way. She didn’t. Following her instructions, I found myself in upstate New York, on the wrong side of Lake Champlain. She’s taking me to a bridge, I thought. She wasn’t. At 10:30 on a Wednesday night, I found myself at the ferry dock which had been closed for hours. I was on the wrong side of the lake, I didn’t know where exactly I was, I had no idea how to find the bridge, I was tired, and it was beginning to snow. In all honesty, it was scary.

Seyon State Park, Vermont
New Year’s Eve, 2019

Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

With help, via cellphone from my son; after figuring out how to override the GPS that kept trying to take me back to the ferry; and with a great deal of positive self-talk as I drove twisty, snow-covered and deserted back roads I eventually found my way to the bridge and familiar roads in Vermont. I was disgusted with myself for not simply returning to my regular route after making the wrong turn and yet, facing my fears and solving the challenge of the situation was exhilarating and empowering. Half of being brave is just breathing and taking that next step.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.” Yes, this is my mission for the year. I was never courageous enough to climb the huge pine tree with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. I missed seeing the world from that lofty vantage point. What else will I miss if I don’t dare to live my life as it is, even if it is still a little out of sync? I’m learning to be brave, so I’m pullin’ ’em up and I’m steppin’ out.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Rainer Maria Rilke with