Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

Dead Poets Society, Russian Style

Before the semester started, I was told that I could teach one course on anything I wanted to. Although the possibility to teach “anything” seems nice at first glance, the vagueness really wasn’t helpful in narrowing down ideas, and I was glad to get advice from other teachers during our Moscow conference on what topic might be a winner. My fellow Fulbrighter Stephen gave me the great idea of modeling my class after The Dead Poets Society, a thought-provoking film in which a teacher played by Robin Williams inspires his students to push past rigid analysis to find the heartbeat of literature while encouraging them to question convention and think for themselves. The film gets its name from an old school tradition that the students resurrect in which they sneak off to a cave in the woods to read poetry.

The class has been both exciting and challenging for me as a teacher. Each week, we read either a short story or poem that is connected to a broad theme, such as “Suffering” with W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” then discuss the piece of literature, its themes, and its implications for our lives. I have really been impressed by this group of students’ desire to discuss these big issues and their ability to express complex thought in a second, or for many who speak Tatar, a third language. My fifth year students are about my age and for the most part have read more American literature than I have, which was intimidating at first, but I have to remind myself that a good teacher should have the attitude of a learner, and I really have learned so much from my students 🙂

The second Americano cameo in this post goes to my beloved neighbor in Naberezhniye Chelny, Hanna, who gave me the idea of hosting a poetry reading at my dorm, which totally fits into this Dead Poets Society frame. I haven’t had students over before, because I don’t have a kitchen or really very many chairs, but, excuses, excuses…how could I not do this? It was the best idea ever.

So, I invited my students over for banana-chocolate chip pancakes fried on my hot plate (which were devoured in minutes) and asked them to each bring a poem, in Russian, English, or Tatar, that they would like to share with the group.

First, a few girls shared some spoken word poetry by Neil Hilborn from the Button Poetry Project, which I had never heard of. It made me want to try my hand at some spoken word.

Most people drank tea out of glasses or used jam jars because I only own 3 mugs.

Next, students shared their favorite Russian poetry, both classic and modern. Some were familiar to me, like Pasternak, Yesenin and Brodsky, but I learned of some new poets such as Severyanin and Poloskova. Although my conversational Russian is pretty good, it was really hard to catch the meaning of most of the Russian poems that were read. One of my students shared some poetry that she had written, and I also shared a few of my poems.

My favorite one of the night was a piece by Boris Pasternak called “February,” which makes an appearance in a few lines of one of my favorite Regina Spektor songs “Apres Moi.” The first verse of the poem has been the perfect soundtrack to the slushy, wet introduction to the Russian spring.

Here is the first verse with a translation:

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! 
Писать о феврале навзрыд, 
Пока грохочащая слякоть 
Весною черною горит. 

February. Get ink, shed tears. 
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing, 
While torrential slush that roars 
Burns in the blackness of the spring. (http://www.kulichki.com/poems/Poets/bp/Rus/bp_3.html)

Sveta and her jam-jar mug.

Прекрасный вечер с прекрасными людьми 🙂

 

 

No, You Can’t Kiss Me!

“Never talk with strangers.” Никогда не разговаривайте с неизвестными.* This simple advice would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had been conscious enough to heed it.

When I stepped on the train to visit my friends in Vladimir, I had no idea that I would soon be unwillingly locked in a Russian soldier’s embrace, his determined gaze meeting my horror-filled eyes as he got ready to plant an unwanted kiss on bewildered lips. Этого не может быть. Но это было. Here I was, stuck in an agonizingly long second, his homely face with pathetic brown eyes looking at me like I was a piece of grade A American beef…

THE STUPID GIRL WHO JUST WOKE UP

Now I won’t lie, the Russian platzkart has always exuded a bit of romance to me, the possibility for late night conversations with a handsome and charming traveler while speeding through the taiga has always seemed more epic than than a stale stroll on the beach. But just to get things straight, “Lieutenant B.”, as we’ll call him, was neither handsome nor charming. It all happened when I woke up on my platzkart bed to see a soldier in full uniform sitting on the bed across from me. He was homely and a bit stocky, with greasy brown hair and brown eyes. I must have looked startled at his presence, because he quickly said, “don’t worry, I’m just here to charge my phone, the only outlet is at the front of the train.”

File:Platz-Karte passenger car.svg

The layout of a Russian platzkart. Photo Credit: Glucke, Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I yawned, shooting him that reflexive, wide smile that my sleepiness had prevented me from censoring. That was my first mistake. In America, when a girl smiles, it’s polite. In Russia, when a girl smiles, it’s an invitation. Whether he heard my accent or not, I don’t know, but while my guard was still down, he asked me, “where are you from?”

Without thinking, I shot back “from America. I’m a teacher here.” Second mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl. At the word “America,” something changed in this nonchalant Russian soldier, and before I knew it, he was sitting at the table across from me, ready to talk. Again, I stupidly took him at face value, thinking, “what’s the harm in some small talk? I only have an hour left on the train.” I asked him if he had a family, and his calculated response warned me of his real intentions.

“No.” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten acquainted with you if I were.” With eager, puppy dog eyes, he told me “you’re very beautiful. It’s me who’s the ugly one.” Although I tended to agree, in reflexive “politeness,” I said “nyet,” and smiled.

When he offered tea, my first reaction was to hesitate; after all, the age old trick is the drug in the drink, but he seemed to read my mind, and said “relax,” and showed me a sealed tea bag to prove that his intentions were less than criminal.  He excitedly got two mugs from the conductor and poured us tea. Not wanting to be rude (stupid, stupid, stupid girl!), I sipped the tea very, very slowly, convincing myself that if the drink was drugged, then I wouldn’t get enough of it in my system to do any damage.

I joke about my “stupidity,” but in reality, by the time he had brought the tea out, I had realized that letting my guard down in those first few moments of consciousness had invited me to play this game of cross-gender interaction by his rules, rules that were very different from American girl-guy flirtation. There is a much more pronounced power differential between the sexes in Russia, and it became clear that this soldier felt a certain power over me. At this point, I did not want to make him angry. I had no idea how reactive his temper was, nor did I think anyone on the train would help me if something did happen, so I resorted to trying to play his game as best as I could, hoping that I could bide my time with fawning pleasantries until I could escape into the fresh Vladimir air. As the conversation went on, my nervousness took center stage, and the very words I didn’t want to say kept coming out of my mouth. Long story short, he found out I was single, and then he really turned on what he thought was the charm that might get him a green card.

RUSSIAN PICK-UP LINES

I don’t remember the sequence of Lieutenant B.’s wooing session, but the cheesiness and systematicity of his whole routine was hard to forget. In less than twenty minutes, this Russian soldier played me terrible Russian pop music to set a romantic mood, then sang me his own song, after which he said confidently. “You love it when I surprise you, don’t you?” (Ты любишь, когда я тебя удивляю.) He showed me pictures of himself as a child, and he asked me if it was hard for me to be without a man in my life. He could be my boyfriend just for the train ride. He could come to America with me.  He even bluntly asked, “so, do you like me?” But it was his Martin Luther King Jr. style speech that made me want to flee the train more than ever.

“What are your dreams?”he asked. After I answered, he began.

“I had a dream, to buy a car. I bought a car. I had a dream, to become a soldier. And I have a dream,” he looked at me suggestively, “to kiss a foreign girl.”

Oh no he didn’t.

“My friend dated an American, and he says they are so much more interesting to go out with. He says they’re different. And Russian girls have no soul. If you have money, they’ll be by your side, but if you lose it, they’ll leave you without a second thought.”

EATING PIG FAT

Yes, it got even weirder.

“Have you ever tried sala?” he asked. Now sala is a Russian food I had done a good job at avoiding on previous trips, but I had actually put it on my Fulbright Bucket list as something I wanted to try. From what I had heard, sala was gelled meat fat that you put on bread. Apparently, also the food of love. Lieutenant B. ran to his seat and brought me back a slice of brown bread with two chunks of congealed fat. I took a bite into the chewy, bacony fat and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t make me throw up. “So, do you like it?” he said.

“It’s not bad,” I said honestly, at which he decided to gift me with an entire bag of cut up fat and brown bread!

PHOTOSESSION

About this time, his soldier friend appeared in my section of the train, and Lieutenant B. asked him to take a picture of us. He wrapped his arms around me hard while his friend snapped a picture, and then, this was that fatal moment when he looked at me as if he was about to go for that foreign-girl kiss.

“Nyet,” I said firmly.

“On the cheek?” I made a face, and before I knew it, his mouth was planted on my cheek while another picture was snapped. Oy. His friend left, then he came over to me, combing his hair, (which apparently was supposed to be attractive?) and asked me, “Can I please just kiss you before you get off the train? I just want to feel the difference.”

What!?

Well, he would feel a difference for sure if he actually dared, my lips were so chapped they were cracked, and***ahem***, never having kissed anyone before, he’d probably leave with the impression that American girls were the worst kissers on earth. But more importantly, never having kissed anyone before, there was no way that I was going to let my first kiss be with some random soldier who saw me as nothing more than a check off a bucket list.

He was persistent though, and before I got off, he asked again, and in frustrated Russian, I said “I can’t!”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I don’t kiss people that I’ve just met,” I told him. He deflated, finally accepting my “no,” and I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the train. But I walked along the platform to the train station, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see Lieutenant B behind me, shooting me a creepy grin. I quickened my pace, thankful that he didn’t decide to follow me. Soon, I was safe with my friends in Vladimir, memories of the soldier taking a more humorous than scary tone, but I will say that this experience opened my eyes to the need to be on my guard at all times while traveling alone, especially in a culture where what I consider to be simple politeness can be taken as an invitation to kiss me, then marry me and then finally, get that visa to America…

*The title of a chapter from one of my favorite pieces of Russian lit, The Master and Margarita. 

Ready or Not, Here I Come Dostoevsky!

When I tell Russians that I love Fyodor Dostoevsky and that my favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov, they usually ask me, “Have you read it in Russian?” Until now, my answer has always been, “Нет, я не готова читать Достоевского.” (I’m not ready to read Dostoevsky). I can’t count the number of times that I have said those three words, “I’m not ready” when referring to reading Russian literature, Dostoevsky in particular. I usually smile and say that I can read some Chekhov (who is known at being the easiest for a second language learner to understand), but I always have balked at the thought of reading my favorite author in the original, always putting it in the “someday” category.

But I recently decided that I am never going to be “ready” to read Dostoevsky. No matter how long I wait, I’m still going to open The Brothers Karamazov and find quite a few new words and tricky philosophical ramblings. So I’ve decided that the only way to become “ready” to read Dostoevsky is to do it.

Now, I knew that to jump right in after not having any formal instruction since last summer might be a bit overwhelming, so I decided to warm up by reading a few детективы, or Russian detective novels that I picked up in Kazan a few years ago.

Photo Credit: e5.ru

The above book was called “Piercing for an Angel.” It had absolutely nothing to do with piercings or angels (other than the love interest was described as “an angel in the flesh,” go figure…), but it was a good read.

Photo Credit: lib.aldebaran.ru

The above book I finished this morning and I liked it even more than the first one. The premise is that a female secretary at a previously male-only private detective agency begins to help them solve murders using her “женская интуиция” (woman’s intuition) as her primary tool. A little cheesy, and not PC by from an American point of view, but a great language-learning tool!

Some of the favorite words I learned from this book were

Сюсюкать (Syu-syu-kat’)- to lisp (how’s that for onomatopoeia!)

Подсознание (Podsoznaniye)- subconscious (n.)

and Предательство (predatel’stva)- treachery

The detective novels were a perfect way to build confidence in reading something of substantial length in Russian. There were plenty of words I didn’t understand, but I found that I could usually figure out what was going on.

So tonight, although I am not “ready,” I am going to begin reading The Brothers Karamazov in the original. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Photo Credit: livelib.ru

‘Tis Time, My Friend, ‘Tis Time

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching-

The first line of my favorite Pushkin poem has faithfully rhythmed in my mind day after day with increasing intensity as graduation has drawn near. I have savored these words like a piece of butterscotch candy through every brain-aching, burnt-out final paper. I have heard their hopeful serenade urging me forward to repeat and re-repeat the trekking down a familiar hill then across the geese-laden quad. Far into the woods, running in lonely, free New England beauty, they have ignited my veins with hopeful endurance.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Four years of deeper and wider and knowing more and knowing less, to knowing that it is finally time. Time to frame the pictures and pack the suitcases and let restful release and the ache of goodbye intermingle.

Days follow days in flight…

Time is not a big enough concept to hold the soul, the nuances of reality past, present, and future. Yet time is a sort of accelerator, propelling us to movement when change is the thing needed to keep us alive and purposefully being. These college days were and still are and will be, but with our human constraints we find it comforting to find closure in squishing them in a box labeled “past.”

Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking

Fragments of being, while together you and I

Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Time would take fragments of being if we were mortal, which we are so often inclined to believe. But we are not subjects to the tyrant of time. Four years and questions of “what’s next” and “where are you going” are actually the least relevant of utterances to a people not slaves to the rigid ticking of the clock. We make plans to live, plans to live, always planning, gathering, yearning for the next thing beyond and better, but all green grass turns to dust so it is better to fix our eyes on the stars than on the ground. It is better to not move forward into the future but into the Creator.

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time. Tomorrow, we graduate. We are confident and full of fear, joying in newness while feeling the acute pinch of a backward look. We are elaborately equipped and nakedly unprepared. We are messy paradoxes made in the image of a paradoxical, faithful, untamed God, who beckons us to life with him and through him. Let us press this “now” hard into open palms. ‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time.”

Excerpt from “Tis Time,” by Alexander Pushkin

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time! For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоем
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз умрем.