Everyone Loses!

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

A Box of Memories

“Memories…May be beautiful and yet…What’s too painful to remember…We simply to choose to forget.”

Bergman/Hamilsch “The Way We Were”

“Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life.”

Author Unknown

It’s nearly time for my annual game of Holiday Decoration Tetris. In the past few years, I’ve downsized considerably, resulting in fewer boxes and bins, so the game has become less exciting, but it’s a challenge nevertheless. Before I can extricate the plastic tubs from the front closet where they have resided… pushed aside, ignored, and buried…for the past eleven months, I have to remove a big box of Easter baskets and artificial flowers that has been unceremoniously stashed on top. Then I need to move the extra, oak, table-leaves that are leaning precariously against the box holding my senior-citizen-living-alone-sized artificial tree. After all the bins have been liberated I will gingerly remove the lids and inspect the contents. To the casual observer, the contents would appear as a collection of inconsequential junk… little plastic sculptures, fragile bits of colored glass, and painted popsicle sticks together with scraps of paper glued and glittered. But, in actuality, they are the tangible manifestation of love and connection held together by memories.

O, ChristmasTree
2020

Most of the holiday trimmings I collected over the years have gone to my children, been sold at the church bazaar, or have simply vanished in the foggy mist of time. The remaining boxes hold only that which is most meaningful. I have a large glass ornament that hung on my mother’s childhood tree.  In its final years, it is nearly naked of paint and gold bits that once adorned it.  I have a few brightly-colored, delicate treasures that have survived from the 1950s.  I remember them from as far back as I can remember.   During the 1970s,  on the day after Christmas, I rushed out, along with many other shoppers in my small town, to purchase Hallmark decorations at half price.  I no longer have most of those bargains, but the few that remain help me recall the love and joy of another place and time.  Art projects from school, church, and crafting days at home hold special memories. I pause momentarily when I take them from the box picturing the tiny fingers that created them and wishing that I could hold those little hands just once more.

More than any other time of year, the holiday season stirs our senses and calls our memories into the present. I hear Silent Night, and I am singing with family and friends outside the Methodist Church on a long-ago Christmas Eve as snow freckles my nose. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and anise transport me to my grandmother’s root cellar with crocks and tins filled with Lebkuchen, Russian Teaballs, and Springerles. Reminders and memory joggers are inescapable. They surround us with connections to people and places we can only visit in our memories. The reliving often brings us comfort, smiles, and joy; but it may also carry feelings of melancholy, loss, and sadness; and an imperative to treasure the present moment and use it to create fresh memories that will give us succor in the future.

I’m not totally sure if it is an age thing or a Covid thing, but I have lived much of this past year…not just this coming holiday season…with a strong reliance on memories and a great deal of longing for the past… for the way things were before coronavirus, rapid-tests, or KN95s…or… at least the way I think they were. So it’s a bit disturbing when I consider the signifant role memories have been playing in my life…especially when I can’t seem to recall what day it is or why I went into the kitchen. I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I choose to remember has been colored by the rosy tint of my glasses. I’m reasonably good at dismissing those memories that don’t tell the story I want to hear.

“In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.” 

Stephanie Coontz

In September, after a two-year absence, I returned to two places that have held great meaning in my life…places where my spirit is most at home…Stratford, Ontario and Star Island off the coast of NH. Before making the trip, I weighed the risks, precautions, and benefits. As I crossed into Canada and as I stepped onto the dock I literally stopped in my tracks to acknowledge just how lucky I was to be returning…stepping out of my memories…out of my imagining…and into a very tangible present. I seemed to slip outside myself a few times and view the situation with some detachment. I was a cinematographer searching for the best angle to capture my present while being aware that there were flashbacks and parallel scenes I’d want to incorporate in the final production. The present always contains shadows of the past.


Swans…Down the Hill from the Theatre
Stratford, ON 2021

In Stratford, I had tickets for live theatre. How amazing was that? After a canceled season, there I was enjoying two plays. A huge canopy had been erected and masks and other accommodations were in place to keep everyone safe, thus allowing the show to go on. I have enjoyed more than 40 seasons at the Stratford Festival, but this time I was there without the Stratford Gang or any family members. Just me. It could have been a heavy-hearted experience, but it wasn’t. Yes, I did miss having companions, but I could hear their voices, feel their laughter, and see them hurrying through the park toward the theatre hoping to arrive before the trumpets sounded. How could I be lonely? They were everywhere.

The Chapel at Sunrise in September
Midweek 2021

The following week found me on the Thomas Leighton, on my way out to Star Island. In June, when I would have normally been on Star, I was still hesitant about traveling. However, once I understood all the safety precautions being taken, I decided that I had to go. I knew that being on that rock in the Atlantic would feed my soul. A few other Shoalers also felt the island’s pull, but most of my friends would not be there. So much of Star Island is constant: the rocks, the wind, the gulls, and the waves, but the people give it life. I felt the absence of old friends even as the memory of their laughter, kindness, and sense of fun echoed in my heart, encouraging me to create new memories and giving me permission to make new connections.

Our memories, the way we tend to experience them, are sort of fuzzy around the edges, like a watercolor that has bled into the past and is not totally clear.

Lisa Joy

I wonder. When we spend meaningful time in a place do you suppose we leave bits of ourselves…our molecules…in the bricks, boards, and stones? Do you think the memories we create in a place are like a form of our DNA? I have visited many sacred sites where the presence of ancestors has been almost palpable. It’s difficult for me to stand in a very old cathedral without being moved. The architecture is designed to elicit a sense of awe and wonder, but I believe it is the lingering memory of the human activity…weddings, baptisms, funerals, innumerable pleas for help, and prayers of thanksgiving…that inspires me…creating the sacred and making it holy.

People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.

Eckhart Tolle

I saw a rather sad meme on Facebook recently: When the glue of the family passes away, the holidays are never the same. My first response was to sadly agree, but almost immediately, I had to admit that in reality, the holidays are never the same…they are constantly changing…we never get the same one twice. Wee ones grow up and elders pass away, and eventually, it is our turn to become the glue. It is up to us to create the magic and the memories. As I juggle the tubs, boxes, and bins, I realize that memories come out of those containers, but they also go in as well. Whether we are able to gather in person or if we once again connect over Zoom…we’ll be making memories. We won’t keep them all, but our favorites will be placed safely in the boxes and bins, waiting for another year when they too will be taken out, caressed, and treasured.

“When you are gone, the only truly important thing you will leave behind are the memories you’ve created.”

Michael Hyatt; Daniel Harkavy, Living Forward

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

I have seen the Promised Land, but contrary to the milk and honey advertised in the brochure, I found a land of maple syrup, early fall foliage, and lots of mask-wearing people, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

For months…after following all the guidelines, wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and having very minimal contact with others…I still debated whether I could or should make the trip from Michigan to Vermont during this pandemic. I missed my family and the anticipated isolation of winter was looming on the horizon but was it sensible, wise, or even safe to do?

“Sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you get to the Promised Land.”

John Bytheway

One Sunday in late August, during a sermon on courage, my minister, Rev. Andrew Franz, shared the analogy of meeting a bear in the woods. “Fearing the bear in front of you compels you to choose action. Fearing a bear that might or might not be there in the bushes is not a useful emotion, ” he said. ” Fear of the abstract is not useful. It is debilitating”.

In September 2016, Dave and I visited Glacier National Park. Before the trip, my sister, Penny, gave me lots of instructions and admonitions about meeting bears on the trail. Since Dave wasn’t able to hike much farther than the parking lot, any hiking I was going to do I’d have to do alone, so I paid close attention.

One afternoon, I began a short hike to a waterfall. In less than fifty yards, I came to a sign reporting bears in the area. A little farther on, I came to a second posted alert. Perhaps, I thought, the prudent course would be to heed these warnings. I hesitated momentarily and then turned around. As I retraced my steps, I got a glimpse through the trees and down the mountain at the trail I would have taken. Hiking together in pairs and trios were several other people. Certainly, they were making enough noise to intimidate any bear. I could have done the hike and seen the falls if I hadn’t been worried about the bear that might have been in the bushes.

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

On the other hand…if there had been a bear…I’m pretty sure I’d have been the tasty morsel who couldn’t outrun the other hikers. Realizing how temptingly delicious I’d have been…maybe I made the right decision. Then again? Bottom line…I missed the view.

Was I letting the may-be-bear get in the way of my Vermont decision?

“Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Ben Horowitz

“You do seem to perseverate on things, you know”, my sister said. “No kidding, I thought, but it was clear that it was time for me to get out the map or put the suitcase back in the closet.

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

I began the preparations needed to comply with the requirements for travelers to Vermont. If I drove my own vehicle…stopping only for gas, food, to use the restroom, and short rest breaks… I could quarantine for two weeks in my own home as opposed to two weeks in isolation after arrival by plane. I rearranged appointments and reluctantly canceled all opportunities involving possible human contact and began to psych myself up for the drive.

The route through Canada is very familiar having done it innumerable times …easy peasy…but due to the high number of infections in the US, the Canadians aren’t allowing Americans in…not even to simply transit through. I know. I called. I wanted to say that I’m Justin Trudeau’s cousin…10th cousin, twice removed…but I doubted the no-nonsense woman at the other end would have been impressed. I’d just have to go south to go north.

With These Green Hills, the Vermont State Song, playing on a loop in my head, I left my house at 2:30 a.m. to avoid major construction near Toledo and to miss morning traffic around Cleveland and Buffalo, besides I like driving on the highway in the dark, and frankly, once I made the decision to go, I was like a horse heading for the barn. I couldn’t wait.

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

Crossing the Crown Point Bridge into Vermont I felt a surge of emotions that I cannot adequately describe or define. After just fifteen hours I had arrived once again in my spirit’s home. These green hills and silver waters will always be my home wherever I live, but it was the people of this ‘brave little state’ that were pulling me back. My children, grandchildren, and so many dear friends live within her borders. It made me sad to think that COVID would keep me from most of my friends and my proximity to their unsharable hugs was painful, but I would cherish the memories of the ‘before time’ and look forward to when we would be together again in the ‘after time’.

Vermont is a glorious place, but…along with moose, woodchuck, and beaver…Vermont has bears.

Along the Path

Many years ago, Dave and I were in Alaska where we hiked in Denali National Park. Granted we only did laps in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, but…hey…I’m counting it. During our laps, we became aware of for-real-hikers who were checking-in at the ranger station to document that they were setting off on an adventure or to report that they were safely returning. It was easy to recognize these people by the bear bells around their ankles and cans of bear spray hanging from their belts or backpacks. Whether the bells actually work is disputed, but those hikers were doing all they could to be ready to discourage any bears that they might encounter. The bells, the spray, and the bear-sighting board at the registration counter provided the hikers the information they needed to weigh the risks and prepared them for the hike.

The level of risk regarding COVID in Vermont is very low. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that Vermont could serve a model for the country, but reminded Vermonters to keep vigilant. Vermonters listened.

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

During my brief stay, everyone I saw was wearing a mask or social distancing outside. Small children, old men, high school soccer players…everyone, without exception…was masked-up. On hiking trails, people wore masks or signaled to those approaching that they would move a reasonable distance off the trails to keep each other safe. The few stores I entered had sanitation stations set up just inside their doors. The number of shoppers was limited and enforced. I’m sure there are maskless Vermonters, but I didn’t see any. It appeared to be…as I expected…a matter of course that we’d all wear masks; we’d all take care of each other. I was warmed by the deep sense of connection I had with all those…strangers…who were wearing masks to help keep me safe. Vermont isn’t actually Utopia. It has its faults, but I certainly felt as if I’d seen The Promised Land. A glimpse of life as it once was…the possibility of what it could be.

The compassionate mask-wearing and rule-following nameless Vermonters allowed me to be with my family and others I loved after being isolated for months. I knew, that I’d have to preserve the blessings of the simple pleasures I was enjoying, remembering and holding them in my heart, keeping them ready to sustain me through the coming months ahead so I paid close attention to the way my grandson’s tiny hand fit into mine and the weight of my granddaughter’s head on my shoulder and the smell of her hair. I memorized the way it felt to share a smile and a laugh with my daughter and the warmth of my son’s skin through his shirt as we shared a single quick hug. I delighted in the opportunity to ride in my little car…masks on and windows slightly open…as my teenaged granddaughter learned to drive. I recorded upon my heart the voices of my family and the few friends within my small COVID restricted circle. I bottled the joy, contentment, and renewal of this adventure keeping it ready to add to my cocoa…or…wine…and sip slowly on a cold winter night.

I know that somewhere a bear still lumbers among the trees and bushes…but…maybe he’s simply munching berries or settling in for a long winter nap.