You Are Not Your Picture

I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.

Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.

We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures.  Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.

On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”

My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.

As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.

Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.

But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.

A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.

A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.

A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.

As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.

Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.

In the Land of Anne

The sand here is like cinnamon, and the quiet is vast and freeing.

The view from the beach by our cabin. Photo Credit: Blake Johnson. Check out his blog here.

The family has just settled in for the week at a little oceanside cabin in Prince Edward Island, the home of one of my favorite fictional characters, Anne of Green Gables.

I have always felt a special connection to the overly dramatic, hopelessly romantic, prone to misadventures redhead, and as I have grown up, my story has mirrored hers in many ways.

My family and closest friends will tell you that I share Anne’s penchant for dramatic, melancholy musings; I long ago adopted her phrases “the depths of despair,” “kindred spirit,” and “bosom friend” into my vocabulary. Sometimes when I feel that no one else understands, I comfort myself with the thought that Anne would. I am blessed to have a “bosom friend,” and our relationship reminds me a lot of Anne and Diana’s. Like Anne, I dream of becoming a published author and I am leaving home to become a teacher in a new place. If you haven’t seen the film, this short trailer will give you an idea of Anne’s character:

One of my favorite Anne moments is when she shatters her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.

I have never smashed a slate over a boy’s head, but I did do something similar. In seventh grade, I had quite the crush on my pastor’s son, and at youth group, he would not let me get a word in edgewise while I tried to tell a story. He kept guffawing, his husky twelve year-old voice drowning out my own. In a desperate attempt to both shut him up and get his attention, I smashed my Styrofoam bowl full of nacho cheesier Doritos hard on top of the boy’s head. From his reaction, I think it hurt. Unlike with Anne and Gilbert, that relationship never did work out…

I have also gotten injured because of my pride. After being dared, Anne tries to walk the ridge of a roof and sprains her ankle. In order to prove to a friend that I was “adventurous,” I tried to land an ice skating move that I had no business attempting. I spent that night with a scary Russian dentist name Konstantine who sewed up my chin. You can read about it here.

It is wonderful to finally experience the enchanting island that has captured me again and again every time I have popped in one of our old Anne VHSs. I am looking forward to seeing life as Anne saw it. Let’s just hope that this doesn’t happen:

A Drunken Perspective

A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…

From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.

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View from the upper section of Nizhniy Novgorod

So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety.  Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.

Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.

“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.

“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.

“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.

“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.

“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”

He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.

“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled.  No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.

“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.

“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes.  But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.

And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.

I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.

I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.

And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.

I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.

Your Tongue Will Get You All the Way to Kiev

Язык до Киева доведет. Your tongue will get you all the way to Kiev. My RD in Vladimir last summer shared this proverb with us to remind us of the power of using our voice. For many people, this little epigram is simple to carry out, but no matter how badly I desire boldness, assertiveness eludes me like the Roadrunner outruns Wile E. Coyote. It is embarrassing to admit, but despite my many times abroad, I cringe at the thought of approaching ticket counters. In reality, no one cares other than me if I make a fool of myself, but I still carry around the inflated image of scowling matrons and customs officers disgusted by the incompetence of stupid American girls. This image has stopped me many times from using my voice. On top of this my reticence to approach the ominous “other,” I rarely travel alone, so I have gotten into the bad habit of defaulting to the eagle-eyed directional skills of my friends.

When it comes to travel, I am a follower.

When it comes to travel, I am too timid.

Not wanting to impose upon the very people whose job it is to be imposed upon, I walk around terminals and train stations with unsure steps, hoping and praying that I actually board the right plane or train.

You’d think I would have learned by now that timidity in traveling is a vice that needs to be vigorously fought; after all, it was not asking questions that once landed me in the wrong airport without money or a phone. But still, no matter how badly I want to be assertive, no matter how many times I try to reframe the situation with psychological tricks, it still takes everything inside me to confidently state my question or concern to an unsmiling stranger. Add to this a language barrier, and the fear level spikes. I will never forget the adrenaline-filled trepidation that overwhelmed me as I approached the ticket counter to buy my first train ticket in Russia. Of course, it wasn’t as scary as I had imagined, but still, when I successfully bought the ticket to where I needed to go, I felt as victorious as if I had won a marathon, and almost as exhausted.

Now that I’m going to be doing extensive independent travel in my year abroad, I realize that putting so much emotional energy into such an everyday task will be exhausting. I’m going to need a lot more смелость (boldness) if I’m going to thrive in the rigors of the Russian travel system. So as a “warm-up,” I decided to take a trip down to Boston this week. It was my roommate from Gordon’s 22nd birthday, and I thought it would be fun to surprise her. All that stood between me and our reunion was a bus, a few subway rides, and a commuter rail. And I feel a little funny saying it, but I was scared. I was scared, but I couldn’t let that fear cripple me. I had to exercise my tongue. And as is often the case, things went much more smoothly than I had imagined in my worst-case scenario addicted brain. I almost got lost a few times, but I used my tongue when I needed to. And today, as I strode through the bustle of the Boston South Station, my steps were imbued with a purposeful bounce. The familiar traveling smells of coffee and cigarette smoke and city air brought back broad memories of trekking through Moscow and St. Petersburg, and at once I was confident, able, смелая. Язык до киева доведет; my tongue will get me all the way to Kiev, but first I had to let it get me as far as Boston.

The Irony of Fate

When I found out I was being placed in Elabuga for my teaching assistantship in the fall, the name was nothing more to me than than a humorous string of syllables (think boogie-man, the Ooga-Booga man from Crash Bandicoot). But upon doing some research into the city, I discovered that one of its claims to fame is that it was the death place of the renowned poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

List of Russian language poets
List of Russian language poets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happening upon this information was one of those satisfying full-circle moments for me, since the first poem I ever read in Russian (and attempted to translate), was by Marina Tsvetaeva. Age 13 was the year that my passion for the Russian language was ignited, and  I still remember vividly the lessons I took, held inside the home of a tall Muscovite named Natasha. For homework one night, Natasha gave me to translate what is perhaps Tsvetaeva’s most famous poem. It was far beyond my level at the time, but that didn’t stop me from eagerly flipping through my massive Russo-English dictionary in search of the keys that would unlock the meaning of the mysterious text. Below is the poem in both Russian and English translation:

Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной –
Распущенной – и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

Мне нравится еще, что вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я вас не целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем, ни ночью – всуе…
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!

Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня – не зная сами! –
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце, не у нас над головами, –
За то, что вы больны – увы! – не мной,
За то, что я больна – увы! – не вами!

3 Мая 1915

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Translated by Ilya Shambat

One of the reasons that this poem is so well known is that it makes a musical cameo in the classic Russian New Year’s movie, Ироны Судьбы (The Irony of Fate). The film begins with  a group of Russian men enjoying an New Year’s Eve at a Moscow баня (bath house) and getting drunk. This would hardly be noteworthy, except for that the men get so drunk that the conscious ones can’t remember which one of their passed-out friends was supposed to board a plane to Leningrad. And being good friends, they do their best, but they still put the wrong friend on the plane.

When the hungover Zhenya arrives in Leningrad, he is still not sober enough to realize that he’s not in Moscow. So he flags down a taxi and gives him his “home address.” The driver brings him to his “home,” and Zhenya passes out on a bed as soon as he arrives. (Note: such a mistake was possible because Soviet-era city planning was big on uniformity; i.e., Moscow and Leningrad had many of the same street names and identical housing complexes). Zhenya is surprised to awake to a beautiful woman screaming at him to get out of her apartment…and so it begins. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but here is the clip in which Nadia (the woman who lives in the apartment), sings lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem. Hint: it’s a happy ending.

This movie is near and dear to my heart because of the ironic role it once played in my travels, what I like to call “The Irony of Gate.” At the end of my study abroad in 2010, I sat sick with strep throat in my hotel room while the rest of the group went to stare at Vladimir Lenin’s waxy corpse. To keep myself occupied, I watched The Irony of Fate, unaware that I would soon become Zhenya. On the way back to America, I managed to get on the wrong plane, giving my parents and group mates the fright of their lives. While on a layover in Frankfurt, I got separated from my group and approached what I thought was the correct gate. Esteeming German efficiency and attention to detail as infallible, when the gate attendant let me on, I boarded with complete confidence. And then I waited. And waited. And no one in my group came. The loudspeaker confirmed my growing doubts, “Service to Newark, New Jersey.” I was supposed to be going to JFK. I’ll never forget the flight attendant’s reaction when I told her my plight; she looked over her shoulder and said to a male attendant in a grave tone, “we have a situation.” A situation indeed, but thankfully one that I can now laugh about. Eight hours later, I arrived in America fatigued, but unscathed, and feeling a little guilty for giving everyone close to me such a scare.

I can laugh at it now, but I definitely hope my travels to Elabuga go much more smoothly than my little misadventure three years ago…