Friday, November 19, 2010


“What a day”, I thought as I was remembering an inspiring event I just attended. Passion and purpose was the theme. The energy in the room was palpable. Hours seemed like seconds as I was absorbing the wisdom from the incredible women in the room. Nearly no stone was left unturned in discussing vital, yet often overlooked topics. I was holding on to the railing of the subway car, happily thinking of the fun fact that this wonderful event happened on my “college day”. A day of the week when I can truly exercise the God-given right of being happy and pursuing my passion. I was anxious because I was running slightly late for class. Being the sign of Virgo requires me to be prompt and gives me a major heartburn when circumstances interfere. Yet, I was also excited to once again rejoin my fellow art history classmates and immerse myself in my passion.
But what about my purpose? Is it connected somehow to my passion? Does anyone care? Should I? My train of thought was interrupted by a guy with a bold shiny head who made loud sighing sounds every time the train slowed down. It was nearly my stop and I had to pay close attention. I've been known to miss it a few times and had to come back, which made me even more late and agitated. Mainly because time “wasted” on the commute was eating into my time of educational art history bliss.
Unable to ignore my buzzing impatient blackberry, I took it out of my pocket. I could actually feel my blood pressure rising with every "reply to all" email I read! Who invented these things again and why isn't he (or she) getting two consecutive life sentences for it? I know it’s not good to respond to emails while standing, walking, and chewing or doing any other activity that requires your brain, eyes and mouth coordination. One day I actually swallowed a chewing gum, hit "send" on the message I didn’t mean to send out yet, missed my stop and got a bruise from the subway car doors hitting me painfully in the arms. And it all happened at the same time! This is the mode I was in as I was racing downstairs, multi-tasking on my blackberry, making hissing sounds and not paying any attention to my surroundings.

As I got to the bottom of the stairs I almost tripped over someone (or someones) crouching on the ground. Two men were trying to help an elderly woman get up and I immediately "sprang into action". Pulling out my phone I asked the woman if she was OK. “I am dialing 911 right now" I said. With her blue piercing eyes she looked up at me and in a barely audible shaky voice said "please don't". I immediately felt something detach from me, lifted gently in the air and began to float towards her. It was something you could call empathy or compassion. I often feel it as something tangible. Like a light cashmere blanket that you take off your shoulders and put on someone else, who needs it more.
The bravado, the fearlessness, the "I am the queen of the world moment" feeling totally dissipated. I was completely consumed by this tiny, slightly hunched over, lady with a cane and a red coat. In just seconds, I felt totally responsible for her well-being. She represented my ill mom, my recently deceased grandmother and every little old lady I’ve ever encountered and yet to encounter.

It was dark. The two men were still at her side, but no longer supporting her. She seemed so scared and alone, so I said "Please take my hand. May I help you walk home?" At first she was momentarily cautious, kind of assessing my danger level, but then she kind of lit up, nodded, and still hesitating said "I don't want to impose on you". “It’ll be my honor. What’s your name? I am Rina. I am a student in Brooklyn College” I said.

And so we walked. It was just a few blocks, but we were taking small careful steps. She kept repeating her thanks. I kept asking her ridiculous questions and intermittently making empty statements, which at the moment seemed encouraging and even necessary. Something to the tune of “does your face hurt? It doesn’t look bad at all. What about your wrist? Aha, great, you can move your fingers. It means they are not broken.” We’d take a few steps and then stop for a moment. Finally, after struggling with the stairs in the foyer of her building, we entered her apartment. It was large and had a peculiar smell. It smelled of loneliness and dust.
Her name was Cynthia, I finally learned.
“And who is this?” I said as a beautiful black cat jumped on my lap.
“This is my cat.” said Cynthia smiling.
“What’s her name?”
I brought Cynthia a glass of water and put her cane near an armoire. Wow, I thought to myself, if you live with a black cat named Angel, NOTHING bad should ever happen to you.
“Is there anyone I can call to let them know what happened?”
“No. There is no one”. It sounded like she’s answered this question many times before.

After a few minutes of examining her seemingly minor injuries, Cynthia agreed that it might be a good idea to call 911 just in case, which is what we did. Then we waited for them to arrive. She apologized for the mess and we laughed about how if she hadn’t fallen we wouldn’t have met.

When the AMT arrived, I opened the door for them, explained who I was (and wasn’t). “Cynthia, I’ll be calling you tomorrow to check on you. Ok? And you call me too. Here is my cell phone. I always pick it up! Don’t hesitate for a moment. Who knows, you might just have gotten yourself a regular (usually hungry) visitor on her way to school!”

As I started walking towards the college campus again, I thought what a day, but now for a completely different reason… What if my purpose is not some idealized vision and what if it’s not static? I read somewhere recently "If you are breathing, you have a purpose.” What if my purpose changes moment to moment as life teaches me another important lesson? What if my purpose that day was to be on a slow moving train, to be late for school, to be yanked out of my cloud of self importance, so that I could help Cynthia walk home and hold her hand? Time suspended, I entered her reality as she entered mine, and we wrapped each other up in a warm cashmere blanket called compassion. That’s one great purpose for the day, if you ask me…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Green hat

Almost every morning, near my subway station I see the same homeless woman (or, I just assume she is homeless). We always say hello to each other. She never asks for anything and I never offer anything aside from a friendly nod in her direction. She wears an oversize green hat with feathers. Her face is dirty, but pleasant. She reminds me of a painting called "Peasant woman against a background of wheat" by Van Gogh. Sitting right at the entrance of the subway station (her office), she is usually holding a small calculator, engrossed in what seems to be a long mathematical calculation. Her fingers moving really fast all over the number keys, she pauses for a second (waiting for the results?) Sometimes she seems visibly distressed by what she sees on the display and sometimes she laughs out loud.
I used to catch myself feeling sorry for her. I’d get a little pang in my chest, "Poor thing, she must be thinking it’s a Smartphone". Until one day, recently, I had an "aha" moment. It went something like this: How different am I really from this woman who is starring at an inanimate object and seems to be having a conversation with it, expecting it to respond in some way? Not by a wide margin, I am guessing. When our gazes meet, I am usually holding THREE inanimate objects - a blackberry, a phone and a radio (or an iPod). How crazy must I look to someone who prefers to have enough hands to hold, say, a cup of coffee, or someone else’s hand? Do people feel sorry for me in passing? Yes, I realize that a calculator isn't the same as a blackberry in terms of a two-way communication, but how different is it really? It’s made of plastic, mostly, from what I can tell. Ok, it displays letters AND numbers. Big whoop. But I'll be damned, if any one of us at one point or another (or every day!!) didn't look at our Smartphone in bewilderment, feeling lonely, isolated, misunderstood, outsmarted by the darn thing. How different am I from this woman, because I’ve been known to slam the phone down, as if it’s going to care, mumble something under my breath while shooting off an angry response to an "idiot" on the other end of the cyberspace, not realizing that the joke is on me because my inbox is too full and no emails can be sent out, or to be woken out of my trance of singing along with Madonna by the hissing “shhhhh” from my neighbors on the subway. Basically, I started looking at this woman and myself in a new way, wondering all along, if a blackberry isn't buzzing, does the silence mean we no longer belong, disconnected in a bigger sense of the word or are we just plain crazy? And if we’ve truly lost touch with our true selves, with our identities, and handed our souls, lives even, over to the inanimate objects, can we ever find a way back, find a way home and are we just as poor and homeless as my friend in front of the subway entrance? Or maybe it’s just me...Now when I approach the urban “peasant” woman, we nod in each others direction in total comradery, as if to say, "Yep, I hear you. The fuking numbers just don't add up". All I am missing, really, is an oversize green hat.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life Lessons after 25 (ish) – Part 2

Turning yet another page in the calendar of my life, I can’t help but create another set of “lessons learned” (granted, I would  NOT say that I am done learning these lessons and truly live by them. But I really want to):

1. Don’t reserve saying I love you for special occasions. Just do it. Your tongue isn’t going to fall off. I promise.

2. Try not to try too hard. Shit is going to hit the fan anyway. You might as well not rush the process.

3. People don't change; they become more and more themselves. Mary Karr, the author of many cool books, wrote: "Every woman signs up thinking that her husband will change...every husband signs up believing his wife won't: both dead wrong."

4. The more you worry about the others, the more the Universe is going to extend its helping hand to you. Try it! It really works.

5. It’s not going to seem like the right choice every day, but still do try to marry someone you can’t live without (as oppose to someone you can live with).

6. It’s tough enough that children don’t come with an instructions manual or returns and exchanges policies; on top of that they’ve got you in the palm of their tiny little hands waaaaaay before they are even born. Basically, you are screwed before you know it, and you LOVE it anyway.

7. Time doesn’t really heal. Just covers up the symptoms. Like Tylenol. Hey, better than nothing.

8. Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world” (and I would add “stop whining that nothing good ever happens. Make it happen.”)

9. A recipe for a tasty therapy: 2 cups of flour (give or take), 1 egg, milk (enough to make a gooey mixture). Mix it all up, add some oil on the pan and start making blintzes. Listen to your heart through out the process.

10. Martha Beck taught me this one: The best way to be endlessly fascinating and attractive to others, is by creating an amazing, fascinating life for yourself, focusing on all the things you love do and be. So, get busy!

Friday, September 10, 2010

I am Sam

This morning started not unlike any other: shut off the alarm at 4:45 am, got out of bed, turned TV on. The news channel reported ugly news and pretty weather. I never stray from the news, almost religiously absorbing the onslaught of information, yet this morning something was pushing me to change up my normal routine. I started flipping the channels. I stumbled on the movie called "I am Sam", which is about a mentally retarded father (Sam) who fights for custody of his daughter. I've never seen the movie in its entirety (and it’s been out for almost 10 years!) Probably for the same reason I've never watched the “Schindler's List” in its entirety. Reason: I am a chicken. I am afraid that I might see that something which will tip the scale of my sanity and I won't be able to go on...But this morning, I couldn't help it. Through the thick blanket of tears I watched the tender and heart-wrenching moments including the scene when, after a court hearing, Sam’s daughter is being ripped out of his arms to be sent to a foster home.
I cried like a baby. Or should say like a grown woman. I have found that if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of the time we cry NOT just purely because we feel someone else's pain. No. We cry because this pain, or at least its seeds, resides within us, repressed or expressed. Listen, I am no dummy. I know I am impressionable and I know that it’s a romanticized version, "based on a true story”. A Hollywood fiction of sorts. I get it. But the movie tells an important story and illustrates a universal truth (at least it seems to me as such). This movie is about how to be a good human being. It’s about unconditional love, which is THE most important ingredient in the often messy, sometimes inedible, sometimes earth-shuttering soup called parenthood. I cried because I didn't recognize myself in Sam as much as I wanted to. I want to be THAT kind of a parent. Always. Every day. No breaks and no exceptions! A saying goes: "be the person your dog thinks you are". Kids are closer to the natural world because they can intuitively spot a fake. I want to be the person my son thinks I am.
There is an old story about three men, who are allowed to ask for one wish to be fulfilled by the Almighty. The first man asks for more wisdom, the second one asks for more patience and the third asks for a cup of coffee. The first two men look at him, puzzled. The third man just shrugs his shoulders and says, "everyone asks for what they don't have enough of”. I wouldn’t mind more patience and wisdom, but if I could ask the Almighty for one thing it would be to help me be a better parent, with an unshakable ability to love unconditionally, no expectations, no judgment, no baggage, in a pure uncomplicated way, every day. It’s the hardest and the most important quality to attain. But I guess everyone does ask for what they don’t have enough of. Perhaps it’s pedestrian and not unique, but I don’t care. You could say that from now on, I am a Sam wannabe.
"Will you not be mad at me for one second? Because I want to tell you one thing, OK? Because last night, I was writing you a letter...and then the words, they got too big. Gesundheit, Floppy. Floppy has a cold.

And then I said...

Dear Lucy, I'm sorry I maybe hurt your feelings…and I was thinking about you all the time.

Lucy on a hammock…

and Lucy at school...

and Lucy in the sky and kisses and hugs, Daddy.

And P.S. I love you, like the song."

I am Sam, 2001

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Independent back float

Since I came to the US, what seems like a lifetime ago, I’ve had a recurring dream or, rather, a nightmare. I am hearing that it’s a phenomenon, afflicting many of us, immigrant folks. It’s the nightmare of being “sent back” against your will. In this awful vision, I am being forced on an Airflot plane. Walking backwards through the dark tunnel, I am watching John’s tearful, terrified face. He is being held by the armed policeman. It sounds like he is trying to say something, but I am too far. I can’t hear what he is saying. Helpless to do anything else, in my tired mind, I am sorting all the documents that have been lost, disappeared, got mixed up in some crazy bureaucratic process. As I get closer to the airplane, I strain to create an image of what my life is going to be like back in Ukraine. I wonder how I’ll manage to speak Ukrainian since it’s been so long since I’ve spoken in this language. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do? How will I ever be able to come back? Granted, since I’ve become an American citizen, back in the 1990’s, the nightmare isn’t as frequent, but in the past five years, the component of leaving my only child behind makes me wake up in sweat, tears, and totally breathless.

I remember all this now because it seems to be happening in reality with my dear friend, her husband and their little baby (who is an American citizen!).  After losing their jobs, they are unable to renew their work visas and, therefore, can not legally stay in the US. So, next Tuesday, early morning, they are going to be on the plane en route to Shanghai…For months and months, they’ve struggle to do everything in theire power to stay – looked for jobs, engaged countless people to help them, applied and reapplied, petitioned…My friends and I tried in earnest to find ways to help them stay in the US. Nothing worked. Every glimmer of hope turned to nothing. Every lead, led to another disappointment. And now, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, I am watching this awful nightmare unfold in reality, helpless to do a thing to stop it.
And then I hear a voice. It’s coming from somewhere deep inside of my soul. It’s the eternal wisdom that resides within all of us. I feel its gentle nudge: “Hey, what happened to your motto?”

“What are you talking about?” I say, almost angrily.

The voice: “Don’t you always say that things happen for a reason?”

Me: “I guess I do. There must be some darn good reason for all this”.

The voice: “Concepts such as good and bad are manmade and therefore aren’t real. But there is always a bigger picture that you are unable to see”.

Me: “But how will they manage?”

The voice: “They will manage.”

Me: “How can you be so certain?”

The voice: “Somebody has to be”.

And then I realize, it’s like learning how to do an independent back float. My son takes swimming lessons and he recently got a sticker for learning to stay afloat in the water, on his back. It took many, many tries and I heard his instructor repeat to him over and over again: “Don’t fight the water. Relax. Just let go and count to 10”. Maybe this is the same thing? When everything is going seemingly wrong and you find yourself totally out of breathe, swimming against the current, struggling, maybe the only prudent thing you can do is an independent back float? Maybe when nothing works, as Martha Beck teaches, you’ve got to just do “nothing"? Put your head in the water. Let go. Trust that it will hold you up. Don’t try to find the reason things are the way they are, don’t decide if something is good or bad, and just let the water of life take you to your next stop in your journey. And maybe then, you’ll hear an approving voice of the Instructor: “You’ve done well kiddo. Here is a sticker. You are an accomplished independent back floater. Now, let’s move onto something more challenging”.

Good luck my dear friends! You’ll manage! I am certain of it, because somebody has to be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

About Marriage

"It is the prerogative of all humans to make ludicrous choices, to fall in love with the most unlikely of partners, and to set themselves up for the most predictable of calamities." - Liz Gilbert, Committed

Just the other day I was having lunch with someone who is getting married on Friday. She asked if I have any marriage advice and I told her I didn't. I know, what was I thinking! For me not to have advice?? And ever since, naturally, I can't stop thinking about all the advice "I don't have".

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her wonderful sequel to “Eat, Pray, Love”, called "Committed" (which is her book about marriage), reveals concepts which are both profound and poignant. One of her main conclusions that a successful and happy marriage has as many meanings and interpretations as there are married people in the world. I agree.

Over the years I have accumulated a mental and emotional collections of conclusions about marriage. Most of these conclusions I kind of believe in now, sort of, depending on the day. A kind of “non-advice” on marriage. 

Warning: these are guaranteed to only make sense to me and me alone (and even this claim is a bit shaky). So, read at your own risk of disillusionment, disagreement and general indigestion. But since this a blog about life as I know, what the heck, I’ll indulge in sharing them.

My top 10 “non-advice” / thoughts about marriage:

1. It’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you get lucky and you end up having a fantastic marriage (according to your own definition of what it means). And don't kid yourself, it ain't gonna feel that way every day. But in my book of marriage, good enough is the new perfect.
2. Love shouldn't hurt. Trying to sit with one bottom on too many chairs (if you catch my drift) will. So, don't.
3. I've read this one somewhere and I've grown to agree: don't marry someone you can live with; marry someone you can't live without. And this one is not about neediness. More about passion and intimacy.
4. Butterflies in your stomach (the good kind, those with blue fluffy wings) are very, VERY important to be present. Being deeply, passionately, head-over-heels in love is a good baseline for a marriage. It’s a not a guarantee for having a good marriage, and, in fact, it will make you more vulnerable and prone to getting your heart broken, but who cares cause it feels so good!
5. People don't change; they become more and more themselves. Mary Karr, the author of many cool books, wrote: "Every woman signs up thinking that her husband will change...every husband signs up believing his wife won't: both dead wrong."
6. There are no rules when it comes to intimate relationships (including marriage). You make the shit up as you go.
7. When it comes to marriage, never say never. Seriously!
8. It’s OK to elope. In fact, it could be really liberating. People will be pissed off. But if it floats your boat...
9. Speaking of people, nothing will ever be enough for them. When you get engaged, they'll hound you to death for a wedding date. As soon as you are done with that (or not!), they'll want to know when you are planning to "start your family" (some may politely inquire right at the wedding) and they'll keep asking about "having another one" until you have at least nine kids (after that – this is not from a personal experience, but I’ve seen this happen – they’ll kind of smirk that you have a “few too many”). So, if you are new to this marriage thing, brace yourselves! And, most importantly, kids or not, don’t try to please anyone but each other!
10. And speaking of pleasing each other: really loving someone is just amazing luck. Having a life partner who loves you back, the best way they know how, is like winning the lottery…every day! Gilbert, towards the end of her book on marriage, says: "There is hardly a more gracious gift that we can offer somebody than to accept them fully, to love them almost despite themselves."

I have a feeling I will keep tweaking these on ongoing basis. In fact, I think I want to change a couple of them already! What was I saying about it being a crapshoot?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Thoughts while on a walk" by Alexander Rosenbaum (my best attempt at translation from Russian)

It's been about thirty years since childhood,
It's getting harder to undress your soul.
And these days, more often than not it’s better to celebrate
Not sitting around the table, but rather in the old quiet park,
Where it's not too hot in September,
And the leaves don't whisper the promise of youth.

Now little old ladies seem like close relatives,
And young girls are more like pretty wound-up dolls,
And Mozart’s laughter is ever louder.
Now the neighbors leave after midnight,
The wine hasn't been drunk and cake is left uneaten,
And I go to take out the trash wearing a wool cardigan.

A dark cloud once wandered into our home
And then it dripped off the window glass.
We will come through our rains,
You and I, both of us.

It’s been about twenty years since school,
And my friends' worlds are not youthful anymore.
Misfortunes didn't pass us by.
But the night is still dark,
And the day is still light.
Our kids are growing up.
Let our autumn become their spring.

It’s been about ten years since the weddings.
These days we don't run to a party late at night.
We visit our grandmothers only
Once on their birthday and once at their deathbed;
And also when the desire to feel like grandchildren again clenches our hearts.

It’s now been half a lifetime after the weddings.
Dear friends, don't part ways, for God's sake.
We've passed the stage for making changes in our families.
Even though sometimes it’s really tough,
We've gotten used to each other.
Let’s leave the bitterness of the scene to the Muse of Tragedy,
Let’s not be ashamed of the old walls.

A dark cloud once wandered into our home,
And then it dripped off the window glass.
We will come through our rains.
You and I, both of us.

Размышление на прогулке by Alexander Rosenbaum

Уже прошло лет тридцать после детства,
Уже душою всё трудней раздеться,
Уже всё чаще хочется гулять
Не за столом, а старым тихим парком,
В котором в сентябре уже не жарко,
Где молодости листья не сулят.

Уже старушки кажутся родными,
А девочки - как куклы заводные,
И Моцарта усмешка всё слышней.
Уже уходят за полночь соседи,
Не выпито вино, и торт не съеден,
И мусор выносить иду в кашне.

В дом наш как-то туча забрела
И стекла со стекла.
Мы свои дожди переживём,
Я да ты, вдвоём.

Уже прошло лет двадцать после школы,
И мир моих друзей уже не молод,
Не обошли нас беды стороной.
Но ночь темна, а день, как прежде, светел,
Растут у нас и вырастают дети,
Пусть наша осень станет их весной.

Уже прошло лет десять после свадеб,
Уже не мчимся в гости на ночь глядя
И бабушек приходим навестить
На день рожденья раз и раз в день смерти,
А в третий раз, когда сжимает сердце
Желание внучатами побыть.

Уже прошло полжизни после свадеб,
Друзья, не расходитесь, Бога ради,
Уже нам в семьях не до перемен.
И пусть порой бывает очень туго,
Но всё же попривыкли мы друг к другу,
Оставим Мельпомене горечь сцен,
Давайте не стесняться старых стен.

В дом наш как-то туча забрела
И стекла со стекла.
Мы свои дожди переживём,
Я да ты, вдвоём.

Taken from here

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hair color for the soul

It was a sunny Friday afternoon just a few weeks ago. The smell of beauty products hit my nose as soon as I opened the door to the salon and the promised land of a long awaited and much needed pedicure was right in front of me. As soon as my feet touched the bubbly warm water, I felt an enormous relief; the kind that I haven't felt in months...or maybe even longer. “Ahhhh, I can sit and do nothing for the next 45 minutes”. One minute, two minutes, three minutes....I decided to throw in some useless information into my brain, as if there wasn’t enough of it in there already. I opened a Cosmopolitan magazine. I was in for a treat: mindless, silly, uncomplicated indulgence. Or so I thought…

Angela, my manicurist started doing my toes. It felt great. “Steals for under $25”, said the cover story in the “shopping section” of the magazine. I looked around. The salon was pretty full. Three women sat down just a few feet away from where I was. All of them had their hair colored. All were wearing the special dark robes they give you at the salon to make sure you don’t mess up your clothes. The women kind of resembled nuns. All three looked fairly young, yet all somehow looked tired (puffy eyes, irritated by the hair colorant?) Unexpectedly, like it often happens in life, in the midst of my mindless indulgence, their conversation (in which I became accidental participant) shook me to the core and I can’t stop thinking about it ever since.

The talk among the three of them and Angela was about a funeral. They were discussing the price of the flowers, transportation from the morgue to the burial place, how the prices for everything went up since the years past, how to choose the best rabbi, etc. I wasn't paying too close attention, trying to concentrate on being in my thoughtless, happy, empty-minded state, until I heard one of the women say, "He could die today or in a few's unknown. His only luck is that he is on enough morphine to sedate a horse". Then I stopped reading and looked up because I realized that the funeral is being planned for someone who hasn’t died yet.

“I hope she is talking about a great-grandma who is 120”, I thought. And my pedicurist, Angela interrupted that wishful thinking, looked at me and said, “Can you image, her husband isn’t even 40…just awful.”

“Your customer here is a bit confused, Angela.” Laughed the woman whose husband was dying. With her hair covered in dark colorant, she looked like a bird covered in oil during an oil spill.  She turned her gaze to me, “You are probably wondering, what on earth are these crazies doing in a hair salon at a time like this.” And before I could protest, she continued. “Well, I’ll tell you. The last year of my life has been sheer joy and sheer hell. Yes, it happens. There are always blimps of joy even in the sheerest of hell. I’ve done enough praying, crying and begging God to intervene. Now I surrendered. But, I haven’t lost my sense of dignity and womanhood.” Then she stopped, unable to continue and her friend picked up her train of thought. “This is a funeral party of sorts.” I just stared. The future widow interrupted her and said, looking directly into my eyes, “When they ascend…you know, when the soul ascends…I heard that they kind of hover around for a bit. Certainly, for the funeral. So, I figured, if he looks down on me from above, he is going to notice my ugly gray hair roots! And just won’t stand for it!” They started laughing. It was a heavy, sad, sarcastic, hopeless laughter, but laughter nevertheless…and I joined in.

Then the woman pulled something out of her bag. “My son is 7. He has been writing letters to his dad…some of them are prayers.” She took a deep breath. “This one, for example, says ‘Daddy, all of my friends want you to get better. If we all wish really, really hard, you are going to be okay. I just know it. Love, Simon”. We all passed the letter to each other. It smelled like crayons. “I’ve been preparing him for the possibility that his dad might not be okay. But how do you prepare a 7-year-old for something like this?” She looked at each one of us, slowly moving her gaze from face to face, clearly in search of an answer, which of course, none of us had.

The hair-dresser came over “Time for your wash sweetie.” He held the woman’s hand, "like a good understanding doctor”, I thought.

“Here”, she said “while I am getting washed, you can read more of his letters…” She handed them to me. What was to be my moment to indulgence, became a significant moment for introspection, empathy and profound sadness. The letters were truly heartbreaking, innocent, and hopeful. I was thinking that she must share them with someone, with many people, if possible, because holding on to them on her own must be unbearable. To be the sole witness to the trauma the cruel fate is inflicting on her child must be too much of a burden.

“All done” said Angela. I stared at her unable to comprehend what she was talking about. Then I noticed the magazine still on my lap, on the same page where I left it. The pedicure was over.

I was searching for words. Is there nothing at all that could be said? I didn’t want to leave just like that. What could I do? What could I say? Things were popping into my head, as I was putting on my shoes. “I am so sorry for what you are going through”, “May I come to the funeral?”, “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “Your hair looks great!”….and an on and on like that.

Her hair now dry and eyes less puffy, I noticed that the future widow was incredibly beautiful. Her face reminded me of the medieval representations of Madonna – dark hair, deeply set eyes, defined eye brows, and fair skin. As I was walking out, I handed her back the letters. We looked at each other and I just shook my head. And she nodded, as if to say “Yes, I know, what can you say”. Then she smiled and said, “This is like the hair color for the soul – for his soul and mine”. And I smiled back, with the heavy sad smile, but a smile nevertheless.

A few days later I called Angela. She said that the woman’s husband died a few days before. All I could think about, after I hung up the phone, was the fact that there is a little 7 year old boy starting on a journey into the unknown world, a world where even if you wish really, really hard, some things are just impossible to fix. And there is a young Madonna, who somehow needs to pull herself together and make it all okay for her 7 year old boy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Till next Tuesday

"Is Spritzer making a comeback?" read the headline. The image that came to my mind was of his wife's face on that awful day when she stood by him, while he was apologizing to the world for betraying her. I thought at the time that if hell exists, this is what a woman's hell must look like.

The newspaper belonged to a middle aged man. The woman next to him was reading Nicolas Sparks' novel (too cheesy and predictable for my taste, but, one might argue, is a good subway read). From time to time, she would peak into his newspaper to see what he was reading. At times he looked up to check the station the train was at.
Not a word was said between them. At a first glance they looked like two people who don't even know each other. But the nervous body language gave off a strange vibe. An occasional touch of the knees, the close proximity of their arms, her tendency to lean into his space as if to make a claim, to mark a spot...I've been riding subways long enough to know that if two strangers get this close, a fist fight is not out of the question. Yet, these two didn't seem to mind. I found myself feeling like an intruder into some private moment...
"The next stop is 42nd Street, Bryant Park", said the conductor.
His stop.
They looked at each other.
He got up and picked up his overnight bag.
Something unspoken emerged and hung in the air (or was it something unspeakable?)
He kissed her on the forehead.
In one, speedy gesture he slipped a wedding band on his finger and said "Till next Tuesday".

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I really like him

I was an unusual mother-to-be. This is probably an understatement. I was plain weirdo. Hadn't been exposed to small babies, well, ever, let alone to the wonders of pregnancy, I was simply in a perpetual state of denial.

Let me be more specific... My colleagues at work found out that I was expecting a baby only in my third trimester (one “insightful” colleague was shocked at the news, saying that she thought I was fat and depressed). To the standard questions such as “is it your first” and “aren't you excited," I answered dryly, but honestly “Yes, to your first question, and no, to your second, more like terrified, ”. I was not bitten by “oh, it is such a cute baby outfit” shopping bug. I only bought the book “what to expect when you are expecting” and gave it to my husband John to read. I even remember writing him a note “they say babies don't come with an owner's manual, but I found one. Enjoy it!” I looked at the baby sonogram pictures with an unmasked bewilderment - is this baby actually living in my body?? All of my insanity wrapped itself nicely with my complete and utter ignorance of the basics of baby care. I mean basics, like changing a diaper. But one of my biggest worries having a baby was the idea of not liking this new person in my life.

Don't get me wrong. I realized that there is no exchange and return policy accompanying newborns. It’s just up to that point in my life (with exception of very close family members) I got to CHOOSE whom I “hung out” with. And now the nature...the universe was going to choose for me and hand me this person to live with and to love, “satisfaction NOT guaranteed” mind you! I freaked out.

So, when I anxiously blurted out to my best friend Anna “what if I don’t like him?”, she wasn't surprised, she was saddened. “What do you mean “like him”? You are going to LOVE him. We are talking about your child!” exclaimed my dearest friend, a mother of two beautiful boys by then. “Well, I know I'll love him. But what if our personalities are incompatible? Like, he could be shy while I am loud, he could be an owl while I am an early bird, he could like country music and hate museums, things too horrible to even mention...the list is too long!! How will we ever get along? Do you understand?”. “Yes, I do” said Anna after a pause “you are hormonal. It’s just that in your case the hormones have the opposite effect.”

Then, ten days overdue, we went to the hospital to be induced. All I can say about my labor and delivery - everything occurred exactly as it should have. Not as planned or hoped for, but exactly as it should have. A lot of it was a blur; my favorite memory is of Adam sleeping comfortably on John's fatherly shoulders.

It’s now been almost 5 years since Adam was born. I know it’s a cliché, but during this time I've learned more from my child than I had in all of my life. When Adam was born, I told John, “He is perfect. Lets do our darnest not to screw him up.” Little did I know what a “challenge” (as we say in the corporate world) this will be. “Challenge” being the code word for – it’s frigging impossible and you are crazy for even suggesting it.

In fact, almost every day, I worry….whether I am good enough. In her revealing, honest and funny book called “Just let me lie down”, Kristin van Ogtrop, says that she fears that one day, on her deathbed, her children will lean over and whisper “Mother, I forgive you” [for being a bad mother]. And what if they don’t forgive at all?

Questions swirl in my mind…. Will I be able to navigate through the maze of all the “right things to do for your child”? Will I feed him enough fruits and vegetables? Will I be able to pick the right school? Help him be in the right place, at the right time? Not be judgmental of his choices in life as he gets older? Allow him to be himself? Be honest enough with him so that he is not disappointed in me when he “sees my true colors” and alternately, not scared of them? Will I ever be able to earn his trust so that he can confide in me without a fear of punishment? Will I nurture his spirit enough so that he can “pay it forward” to the world? Will I be able to buy the right furniture for his room, the kind that doesn’t break on the first day of use…but I digress. Basically, HOW CAN I NOT SCREW HIM UP AND STILL BE ME?

And guess what? Yep, you got it, since the day I met him, I really like him. The irony, of course, is that he isn't like me in many ways and I’d be really sad if we were as “compatible” as I wanted us to be before he was born. What a bore that would be? BUT, oh joy, this is the grandest gift of all. Now I have a new worry – I hope he likes me!

And so, with all my heart, I say to him, “I love you kiddo. As you’ve notice thus far, I am far from perfect. I make mistakes (sorry about buying the wrong Mack truck), but I’ll always try to fix things and will do my very best to earn the honor of being your mother…every day”.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Irreconcilable differences

My fate and I have irreconcilable differences...I believe that it’s not just people who are allowed to declare that they no longer choose their mate due to “irreconcilable differences”. I would like to respectfully disagree with a certain discourse of events, for instance, with the fact that my mom should have an advance form of an incurable illness, and thereby demand a complete redo!

The thing is that I am not crazy. I know it’s futile. But something in me so desperately wants to believe…in miracles.

So, with tears on my face and with an almost childish determination and stubbornness, I sheepishly, yet defiantly look up and say: “Dear Fate, have some heart, would you…please? Isn’t there some way, maybe, possible for you to just turn the wheel around and move along a less rocky path? Could you please show your gentler side? I know you’ve got it in you. I’ve seen it, damn it! Have you ever heard of compassion? How about empathy?”


But then the practical side of me takes over and I feel my inner, wiser, more grown-up self rise to the occasion. And that’s when I hear a stern and poignant: “Shove your irreconcilable differences up your @#$#%! You’ve got to deal with what’s handed to you. Now stop whining, take a deep breath, let go of your ego, find beauty in the ugly and keep moving”.

What’s left for the weary-hearted to do but to follow along? And so, I take the prescription, mix it with a doze of resolute “it is what it is”, and take it all in one big gulp, like a shot of tequila.


“Yes, hello. This is Dr X’s answering service. May I help you?”
“Yes, I need help”
“What can I assist you with?
“Could you please have the doctor call me back right away?”
“Is it an emergency?”
“Yes, I urgently require divine intervention. I need a miracle”.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Smile by popular demand

I was waiting to pick up my son at the day care. It was pouring rain (it’s still raining outside). I was checking my blackberry and my phone from time to time, not paying much attention to my surroundings. “Why don’t you smile?”, someone next to me said. I looked up. It was an elderly man, probably a grandfather, also waiting for one of the kids. I said, “Excuse me?” He repeated, “Why don’t you smile?” and added, “you look waaaaaay too serious”.

“I don’t know what you are talking about and there isn’t much to smile about anyway”, I blurted out, kicking myself for even acknowledging his remark with a response. He continued, “Well, that’s too bad. Such young lady with not much to smile about. You’ve got to wake up each morning and just put a smile on”. I was speechless. I just stared and to my horror realized that it is quite possible that I might cry! Why such reaction to a potentially well-meaning comment?

But then I began thinking. This isn’t the first time someone said it to me… If I had a penny every time I heard “Why don’t you just smile”… When I used to work as a waitress, I heard over and over again, “Smile, you’ll make more tips”. Whenever, someone takes my picture, ever since I remember myself, there is the inevitable re-take “Oh common, say cheese!”. When I deliver presentations, I often get “you are a good presenter, but you should really smile more”. So, I want to set the record straight.

I smile, but at appropriate times and under the right circumstances. For instance, on the subway, I smiled at a total stranger today, because this young man, totally voluntarily, gave up his seat for a pregnant woman. Our eyes met. I nodded, smiled, as if to say “Nice! Very proud of you” and he smiled back, as if to say, “Thank you. I am feeling kind of good about myself”. I also smiled today when I heard my mom’s voice. She said she felt okay today. And it was great to hear. The comforting warmth of knowing that she is okay ran through me like chamomile tea. I smiled through the phone, savoring, hanging on her every word.

At the risk of sounding cranky, I’d like to say here and now that I won’t smile just due to the popular demand. I wear my heart to my face (why bother with the sleeves, right?). The fake kind of smiling, through tears and pain, along with baseball and small talk, hasn’t rubbed off on me in all the years I’ve lived in America. Instead, what I offer the world is a reflection of my soul, in all its volatile, moody, complicated glory. And while, I assure you, there is deep appreciation and pure joy at the core of my being, there is also great thoughtfulness and even sadness. And it apparently shows.

And you know what, that’s okay. I’ve spent so much of my life being unpopular, why start now? That’s not what it’s all about. In this blog I attempt to explore MY life as know it (did you notice, that’s what this blog is called “Rina’s Blog – My life as I know it”?) I am a work in progress. I am, still, to a large extent, an undiscovered or at least unexplored continent even to myself. And perhaps, as I learn how to live my best life, I’ll stumble upon a large supply of smiles that I will never run out of. And until then, I’d be honored and blessed, at least from time to time, to be a source of smiles around me.

Friday, March 19, 2010

America! America!

Ask any immigrant “do you remember the day you came to America?” and chances are they’ll not only tell you the exact date, and maybe even the exact time, but also the “story” of their immigration. This is a part of my story.

The day before we left Ukraine, my grandparents held a sort of a “yard sale”. Except, of course, without the "sale" part. Plus, we lived on the 4th floor of a nine-story building, with no yard. The invitation was given to the neighbors to come over and take whatever they saw. All the things that we couldn’t physically carry on our backs were at their disposal. And there were a lot of valuable things, at least from the perspective of a typical girl from the former Soviet Union (me) who saved every gum wrapper she could get her hands on. Back then in the USSR, there was nothing to buy at the stores and very little money to buy things on the black market. So, most people were desperate for anything reusable. You can only image the type of hype our "yard sale" created. Suddenly, hoards of people were storming our apartment knowing that there will be STUFF they can take FOR FREE.

This is one of the clearest memories of the days preceding our departure to the U.S.A., the “days of awe”, as I named them. I remember standing in the corner of our living room, a.k.a. my grandparents’ bedroom (those poor souls never had any kind of privacy), watching our neighbors and strangers rummaging through our last belongings – choosing, picking, and throwing stuff into their bags and boxes. It was like watching a homemade video, except everything in it was both eerily familiar and yet already beyond your reach… there goes my little blue cup that I’ve been drinking from all my childhood; there goes the wooden coo-coo clock that my grandma used to teach me to read the time; there goes the big Czech crystal vase that I my grandpa would let me play with just to stop my whining for a minute; there goes my old doll Fatma, the veil from her wedding dress missing in the turmoil… I was raised in that apartment. This was my home, the place where I always lived, all the years of my life up until that time. To see it all “naked” was one of the strangest feelings.

Looking around then, I somehow sensed that I’ll remember this moment forever…I knew then that this is going to become part of my story. This was the moment my proverbial train of immigration was leaving the station and taking me into the new life.

My family came to the United States of America on March 20th, 1991. It’s the first day of Spring. Is that a cool coincidence or what? We moved into an empty apartment on the 5th floor of a five-story building in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. Depression (not the economic kind) set in pretty quickly. Like a cat, I remember sitting on a window sill and starring into the distance. The view was stunning, but Manhattan (or as I knew it back then “the real America”) was too far in the distance and the unattractive little houses with weird-looking fences (at least that’s how they seemed at that time) were all around. From our living room window, doubled as my bedroom, I could catch a glimpse of the Verrazano Bridge, but even that sight didn’t cheer me up. I remember waking up in the morning after we arrived and cringing at how bright the sun was. “Even the sun here is different. Things will never be the same again”, I thought.

While we were all thrilled to be reunited with rest of our family, including my cousins, aunts and an uncle, we all felt a little (or maybe not a little) let down. American just DID NOT look or feel anything like what we imagined it to be. My grandfather in particular, as the head of the family, was seriously disappointed. We didn’t come to America without proper preparation and research. In fact, my grandfather has NEVER done anything without proper amount of sleepless nights and stress-induced ulcers. So, naturally, seeing that America was sorely misrepresented (please keep in mind that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies or "Tom and Jerry" cartoons were our key points of reference), he was worried about how we’ll adjust. Well, by “we” he really meant me, since I was “THE hope” of the family.

We also “researched” and got the latest scoop on the new digs through our relatives who’ve lived in New York for several years by that time, writing to them, asking things. They told us that life is hard but not to worry, at least the furniture can be found right on the street. “How?” I was just stunned. “What do you mean right on the street?” “Very simply,” my aunt would say on the phone, “you just pick it up from the garbage.” “Garbage? Is that some kind of a thrift store?” “Yes. Something like that”.

So, in the weeks following our arrival my parents, my grandparents and I went “shopping” at our new favorite store – the garbage areas and bins in front of the buildings and houses of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. And what do you know? It was all there – old but still usable tables, chairs, mattresses, paintings, plates, cups….It was just right there waiting to be reused by the new immigrant family. We just couldn’t believe our luck. I suspect this might have been the moment the seeds of profound gratitude to this country have been planted in my soul.

For some, the day of their arrival to America is the day when their long struggle began and the sense of mourning for the life they “had” before and a longing for the “way things were” set in. For others, it’s a day when a new, perhaps even more difficult, but better life or at least a hope for a better life has begun. And then, there is a third camp to which I happily belong. It’s those who celebrate the date of their immigration to the United States of America with pride, joy and unequivocal gratitude. March 20th is that kind of a day for me; my own special holiday. Every year on this anniversary, I celebrate in my own way: I take off my hat for all the amazing gifts this country allowed me to have (yes, including the furniture from the garbage!); I give my grandfather a special hug and thank him for almost single-handily organizing an enormously difficult process of changing countries; and then I look ahead with optimism for the future, in the most natural American way!
…and then, even though I can’t really sing, I begin to hum America the Beautiful:

"O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!"

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Top 10 things I learned about being a woman

In celebration of March 8, International Women’s Day.

Top 10 things I learned about being a woman

1.Contrary to the popular belief, a woman CAN have her cake and eat it too.
2.Believing rule #1 AND acting on it is damn hard, but it sure is worth giving it a shot.
3.Crying is not a sign of weakness. NOT allowing yourself to be in touch with your inner world is.
4.A woman MUST celebrate HERSELF without reservation, rejoice in her own accomplishments and do it as often as possible.
5.When push comes to shove, deep inside a woman always knows where she stands. The trick is to trust what she knows for sure.
6.Like cats, women have a unique talent to somehow land on their feet.
7.Being a mother is a not simply a biological process, but rather an emotional journey and an honorary title one must earn minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
8.A woman’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder, THE WOMAN being the beholder.
9.The right response to a compliment is “thank you”.
10.Loving unconditionally is a woman’s prerogative. Laughing until she is out breath is her God-given right.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love lessons

When I think of love, I think of my grandmother.

Ever since I remember myself, my grandma, my Babka, had always been the most important, critically vital, person in my life. And she continues to be even after her death two years ago. Why? Because she loved in a very particular and special way.

Each day, as long as I remember myself, wouldn’t officially begin until I heard her warm gentle voice. Especially in the past 15 years, speaking with her on the phone every morning was almost a religious experience for me, a form of meditation. She would pick up the phone and the warmth and kindness would start spilling right into my soul. Grandma would say: “Hello my little sunshine (solnishko), how are you today?”

It requires a lot more than a blog entry to describe the amazing woman my grandmother was. But if I must, I would say that she was a Power House, she was legendary and stoic; she was a doctor, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a grandmother. She worked two or three shifts, cooked three meals a day (sometimes more, if my grandfather made a face at her blintzes, she would drop everything and start making new ones or at least would start frying onions, which, as is well known, makes EVERYTHING taste better). My grandmother also kept a journal of our daily spending, religiously entering every “kopeika” spent to make sure we don't run out money at the end of the month (which happened on occasion). She also cleaned, did the laundry (we had an old washer but no dryer), ironed the clothes, did grocery shopping (which was a “unique” experience every time involving hours of waiting in line)...basically she was the embodiment of every woman of the Soviet era. She, a professional, a respected doctor, worked equally hard as any man during the working hours (or harder!) and then did everything a woman was expected to do at home during the rest of the hours. In Russian there is a saying (loosely translated) as “A real woman can stop a galloping horse in its tracks and can fearlessly walk into a burning house”. That's pretty descriptive of my grandmother's life force and capabilities. She was also stunningly beautiful, turning heads (literally) until the last days of her life.

Grandmother taught me many things: how to understand time, how to brush my teeth, how to turn the stove on, how to cook, how check blood pressure, how to defend myself, how to sew on a button... But the biggest lesson I learned from my Babka she hadn’t really “taught” me. She simply exemplified it, she lived it. Love (with an intentional big L) was her form of creativity, her gift to the world, to everyone around her and, especially, to me.

What I learned from her by example was that there are two kinds of loves. The first kind is when you love someone for YOURSELF. It’s a self-centered love, it asks questions like “what have you done for me lately?" It’s often possessive, demanding, and internally focused. This kind of love would include such words as “me,” “for me,” and “what about meeeeeeeeeeeeee” (not always in that order).

The second kind of love is when you love someone for HIM/HERSELF. It’s very simple. You just love – no ifs, no ends, no buts, no reasons. Just love. Pure, uncomplicated and without expectations. It’s kind and gentle, and at its core there is a clear mission statement “I love you. No strings attached.” It says things like “what have you done for yourself lately?” “I am happy when you are happy.” And it includes words like “you,” “for you” and “what about you?”

My grandmother loved me like that, for ME. It shaped my life. Experiencing this Love helped me recognize it and appreciate it in my spouse (who from the first day loved me for me). Being the object of such amazing phenomenon is really hard to explain. It needs to be felt. It has to be seen. What I know for sure though, is that a lot of it, if not everything, is in the eyes.

A few years ago, I was watching Oprah. Toni Morrison was a guest on her show, talking about literature and family matters. I’ll never forget when Toni Morrison said: “No words can express to the children how much an adult loves them…No. It’s all in the eyes.” “How so?” said Oprah, intrigued. Morrison continued: “When children look at an adult’s face, they are looking with an internal question mark. They are asking ‘are your eyes smiling at me with joy?’ If your eyes don’t smile, don’t light up when they walk into the room, no matter what is said, it won’t make a difference. Love is in the eyes…”

Well, my grandmother’s eyes lit up the whole Universe EVERY SINGLE TIME “I walked into the room.” Her eyes always answered my internal question with a wonderfully cheerful resounding “YES, I LOVE YOU.”

And the truth is that it’s not just the children who need this kind of Love (with the big L). We ALL do. Don’t we? We all crave it. We want to be seen, we want to be understood, we want to be cherished, we want to find the joy of love in the eyes of the people important to us. We want to hear the resounding, unquestionable “Yes, I love you, no strings attached.”

Sad to report, but I often fail to light up in the presence of others. Shame on me for often defaulting to be in the first camp of the selfish, self-centered and un-kind love. I often catch myself NOT following what I know is the right, if not the only way, to love. Shame on all of us who are hoarding the good stuff in the depth of our souls.

Being far from perfect and not a big believer in quick transformations, I am going to commit that at least for today, with the image of my grandmothers beautiful smiling eyes watching over me, I am going to “let it all hang out.” At least for today, I am going to imitate the woman who taught me the meaning of love and pour the LOVE out into the Universe, selflessly and with joy! I am going to open up a tent in the camp “Love” (with the intentionally big L) and put up a flag (it will probably be the color of lavender).

And when my eyes meet yours today and I read your internal question mark, I am going to answer it with wonderfully joyful “YES, I LOVE YOU”.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Моим Бабушке и Дедушке, 1999 (Russian translation of the poem dedicated to my grandparents)

Я продолжение ваших вод,
Я луч из вашего сияния,
Я есть звезда - мой небосвод
Ваша любовь и понимание.

Я символ вашей высоты,
Победа над судьбой каварной.
Я как весение цветы
На почве вашей благотворной.

Я песни вашей складный слог,
Припев из нот простых и чистых.
Я в поле жизни стебелёк,
А вы мой летний дождь душистый.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Sometimes, albeit rarely, I get these distinct, magical moments of clarity. Some of them are so brief and fleeting that I make a conscious effort to pause, pay attention and experience them to the fullest degree. I try to savor the sweet taste of knowledge, the joy of figuring out a little piece of the puzzle, and an internal inaudible, but very real giggle of my essential self…Today’s moment was like a clear stream, which washed away everything unnecessary and left just one polished, pretty pebble.

This is how it happens...

Everything (everything earthly that is) suddenly disappears. Silence. I imagine myself kneeling down to a stream. I taste its water, thankful to quench my thirst. And then I see the pebble meant just for me. There is a short message on the pebble. It’s written in some long forgotten ancient tongue, but somehow I am confident I can read the letters. I am curious, what does it say? I take it in my hands – it feels nice. I’ve always loved everything shiny and polished. I look closely at the pebble – it’s small, smooth, dark gray with little speckles of white. I give it a little squeeze. It’s nested nicely in my hand. I close my eyes. Would have been so easy to miss it in the stream, so easy to never even find it. But here it is, now in my hand. All I need to do is decipher the message inscribed.

I unclench my fist. My palm is wet. I take a deep breath.. I smell the freshness of the air. The pebble catches the sun’s ray and throws me a flirty sparkle, inviting me to read it. I bring it closer to my face. I read. It says, “Go on”. That’s all. Clarity and wisdom are not chatty sisters.

I smile. “Go on”. I feel light. I can manage that. I go on.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Pizza or chicken", a Subway Story

Life, it happens all around us, all around me, I should say, since mine is the only perception I am usually referring to.

On the New York City subway, life happens in a more dramatic fashion. Episode after episode, frame after frame, it's condensed into a fast moving reel: faces, strollers, canes, pains, disappointments, smiles, smells, iPods, books, eyes, newspapers, hair, coughs, beggars, souls....Everything and everyone blends into one generous serving of the soup of life with all its ingredients.

I am part of this soup. I find myself completely merged with all the people surrounding me and sometimes, if I allow myself to pay close attention, I get to “hear” their stories. Their stories are little bright tapestries made out of the spoken words and, more often, the unspoken ones. So, I read and hear between the lines…

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------The subway car was already full. A young man and his son found their seats right next to mine. It wasn’t hard to tell how they were related since the kid, who was about eight, was a spitting image of his father – freckles and all. As soon as they sat down, the father said, “Sit up straight”. Son,” Why I am tired”, slouching back into the seat. Father, sternly, but quietly, “I said sit up straight”. Son, begrudgingly, but obediently, “Okay, okay”

For some time, they rode in silence, but what I had noticed happening between them glued my attention to them for the rest of the ride. They wouldn’t openly look at each other. Meaning, when they kid lifted his eyes and glanced at his dad, he made sure that his dad was looking away at that moment. And visa versa. They were stealing glances, not wanting to be discovered. How odd, I thought.

This went on for a while. The son started playing handheld video games (for someone less technologically challenged them me, its identity would have been easy to guess, but that’s not the point). And then breaking their silent glances, I heard the kid saying, in a kind of pleading, child-like voice: “Agggh, I always mess up on this part. When the yellow ones bump into the red ones, they disappear and I can’t get them back”.

Father, taking the game in his hands, authoritatively, “That’s cause you are not doing it right. You have to turn the shields on. See?” And they both looked at the game attentively. The kid said “Wow, I get it. That’s cool”. Something in the way he said that made me believe that he already knew how to turn the shields on, even before this lesson.

The next few stops, the son continued his attempts to get his dad to speak with him. He asked all kinds of questions: How many more stops left? Why does it get dark so early? Will it rain tomorrow? In return, he got very brief answers, which clearly didn’t get the conversation flowing.

They weren’t sitting next to each other, but rather kind of diagonally from each other. The kid constantly stretched out his arm, touching one or the other part of his dad’s winter jacket. That didn’t really gain his dad’s attention either; except from time to time he’d warn his son to sit up straight.

With every stop, more and more people got off. Finally, there were two available seats next to each other.
Son: “Dad, dad, come sit next to me”
Dad: “Why, I am totally fine here”
Son, again in that child-like pleading voice: “Pleeeeeaaasee”
Dad: “Fine”

As soon as the two of them were next to each other, the kid said, “Now give me a hug”.
Dad: “What’s going on?”
Son: “Nothin’. Just give me a hug”.

Finally the kid negotiated to have his father’s arm around him. Then, with a barely noticeable smile of a child at peace (the kind that could only be gained by a physical closeness with a parent you love) he closed his eyes.

With his son’s eyes closed, the father turned his full attention to this kid, who was either pretending to or really sleeping next to him. This was a look of tenderness, the look of a father who doesn’t get to hug his son very often, I thought (catching myself immediately jumping to conclusions). There was some kind of longing in his look. A longing for something which is perhaps unattainable.

Suddenly, the kid picked up his head, looked around and said, “we didn’t miss the stop to your house, Daddy, did we?”

If this were a movie, I thought, there would have been some kind of melodramatic music playing now. Just two words “your house” began to identify for me what these two souls must be going through.

Dad: “Do you want pizza?”
Kid: “No, we had it last time”
Dad: “Well, how about KFC chicken?”
Kid: “Okay.” But not very enthusiastically.
Dad: “Look, my fridge is empty…so, you’ll just have to settle for whatever. Got it”
Kid: “Okay, okay. Chicken is good.”

Then, the father and son, settled back into the hug. In a barely noticeable gesture of tenderness, the father placed his hand on his son’s head, for just a moment. He looked tired. And of course, I may have been jumping to conclusions, but what I read in his eyes was an apology, “I am sorry, kid, that your mom and I screwed it up for you.”

I thought that every weekend, or however often the visitation days are, they have to literally re-learn how to be with each other. Hence the stolen glances and the difficulty with open hugs. There must be so many children and parents going through exactly the same thing, right this moment, I thought, but this pair was right here in front of me. And so, I couldn’t help but wonder, what this must be like for them.

My heart ached for them. I am not sure why this interaction touched me so deeply, I am not “a product of divorce”. Although, I suppose on some level it reminded me of my early childhood interactions with my father, always on the hunt for affirmation of his love for me, but that’s for another post.

I wanted to embrace both of them that moment. There was such innocence to their conversation, to their attempts to find their way back to each other. Love was definitely present, but she was a shy kind of love that only shows her face when no one is looking. But isn’t that the most important thing? As long as love is there, they will figure it out? Or will they? Could their circumstances allow them to build a real bond? What awaits them in the future? If even the “chicken or pizza” question wasn’t settled amicably, how will they manage?

Dad, getting up: “That’s our stop. Listen, maybe we’ll go to Burger King. I know you’d like that”.
Son, with an ear-to-ear smile: “Yes, YES!!!”.

Well, there you go, I thought. Burger King is the right answer. Of course. These two are going to be just fine…at least I sure wish them to be.

Friday, January 15, 2010

To my grandparents

It's my grandfather's birthday. I love celebrating his birthdays, for every year (every day) with him is a gift. Aside from buying him a new wool sweater (he insisted that it HAD to be 100% wool and said, by the way, not to worry about that bottle of cognac I promised him for the New Year's, he already bought it himself), I wanted to post a poem I wrote 11 years ago. Since the time I wrote it, I hadn't been able to find a better expression for how I feel about my grandparents. Of course, this is a translation from the original Russian version.

I am the continuation of your river,
I am a sunbeam from your sunlight,
I am a star, and my sky
Is your love and understanding.

I am the symbol of your depth and height,
The symbol of your victory over the cruel fate,
I am like the spring flower growing
Upon your welcoming soil.

I am the rhyme in your song,
A melody made up of simple and clear tones.
In the fields of life, I am a little straw,
And you are my summer rain, my sustenance.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

what are the odds

This happened a few moons ago. But I remembered this story today after being stuck on a train for some time…

It was a crisp and chilly Thursday morning. I was on my way to a financial securities exam center to take a test, one of those with a poetic name that begins with a word “Series” followed by a number. After running up the steps to the subway, I realized that I just missed it. With a slightly audible “sh—t”, I sent off an express B train to Manhattan.

The mood I was in can be described as “mainly cloudy with a chance of a heart attack”. The thing is, I am not as smart as I look (I can say quite confidently that I look pretty smart). It’s one of those inconvenient truths, like the global warming, that I've learned to live with. My friends and family are convinced that
I am brilliant (thank God, right?) but I know that I am not. It’s a miracle that I graduated from college. Few know that I failed ESL so many times that I broke all the school and, probably, all the thresholds for lethal embarrassment records. I was so terrible in math from the early days of my academic career that my elementary school teacher used me as her "last resort teaching" tool. When the class wasn't getting the new formula (something scary like 2X=6) she'd ask me to stand in front of the class while she annunciated, pointing her finger at me, "Look, idiots! How can you not be getting it! Even RINA already understands". While I often use this story as an effective compassion-gathering ploy, deep inside I know that she was right. I was (am) amazingly dense when it comes to logic, math, multiple choice exams and a few other things that I camouflage fairly well.

After studying long enough (or however long I could take it), I scheduled an exam date and with a very uneasy feeling of the inevitable failure, set out on the trip to the testing center.

Finally, the train arrived, and I situated myself comfortably next to a window, expecting a smooth ride. After all, what could go wrong? I knew the odds of me passing the test were slim, but the odds of the train bringing me to the exam site quickly and on time were high enough.

Just as I was about to review the first chapter, horrified by the surprising first sentence (no, it wasn't the new content that I was shocked about, it was the fact that it still looked new after months of studying), the train stopped abruptly. From the windows, it looked like half the subway cars were at the station while the other half was not, but that was a later-on discovery. At the moment of the abrupt stop we, the other passengers and I, knew that we were at the station, but the doors were tightly shut and nobody could leave the train.

A minute, three minutes, five minutes gone by….The longer this strange pause lasted, the more annoyed the passengers became "What the f---! Why can't they at least let us out! What's the deal?!!!" I was getting pretty agitated myself. I didn't want to miss the stupid test. As uncertain as I was of the positive outcome, I wanted to at least finish what I started (did I mention that I volunteered to take the exam even though it wasn't a job requirement? Why? To remind myself of the good old elementary school
days...Another oddity of my personality).

Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes had passed. Silence mixed with some incomprehensible screeching sounds was all we heard on the intercom. Now the cursing was wide spread and expressions of dismay at the fact that we were "being held hostage", were loud as well as supported by nearly all the passengers. "Do they realize time is money? If I am late to this client meeting, I am totally screwed!", said a young heavy gentleman to no one in particular, wiping off beads sweat off his forehead. "No kiddin'", said an older lady, adding "and with this kind of service they want to increase the fare?!!!" As time went by, we've got several announcements from the conductor that the train was out of service and an apology that they couldn’t let us off yet due to a police investigation.

Now, the situation in our subway car resembled a riot with a heavy use of portable devices: blackberries were clicking, phones were ringing, people were seriously annoyed and frustrated…and were not afraid to show it.
As you can imagine, I stopped studying the second the train stopped. I am one of those people who can't combine such tasks as being afraid, worried or trapped with something productive like washing the dishes or studying. When I wait, I don't do anything else. I just wait.....So, this is exactly what did.

The ordeal was reaching its one hour mark, when the conductor said that the passengers have to use one available open door to evacuate from the train. By this point the police and emergency activities were visible and audible even from inside of the car. With continuing sense of disappointment at how "screwed up" this day is turning out, the passengers lined up to be evacuated.

As people finally reached the single open door, the police officers were directing everyone to the opposite side of the tracks and away from the epicenter of the emergency. I was lost in my own angry thoughts about wasted time, possibility of being late to the exam, and just pure dismay at how miserably this day had begun. Just as I stepped off the train, the woman in front of me screamed and pointed to something under the train...

…At first I saw something gray, a coat? How….then I saw a leg and an arm…a body….then I saw blood. I realize that I probably saw all of the above at the same time…but I often think that a human mind (or maybe just mine) is only capable of absorbing one horrific detail at a time. Yes, the emergency that conductor could not speak about was the fact that the train ran over a person. The mere disruption to our day, was actually the end of someone's life.

While the firemen were trying to retrieve the body, I overheard eyewitnesses being questioned by the police, "Yeah. One minute he was just standing there and the next thing I knew he jumped on the tracks". These were the kinds of chilling remarks from the ordinary bystanders who unwittingly watched a person take his own life.

As the crowd continued crossing over to the other side of tracks to go back to the beginning of the train
line and restart their journeys, everyone was eerily quiet. And I thought, moments like these put things, put life in perspective. Don’t they?

An unspoken sentiment of "man, things are bad for me, but not as bad as they are for this guy” hung over the slowly moving crowd. In a few minutes the train came and many got onboard, others were left to wait for the next one. But no one seemed agitated anymore.

...I couldn't help but wonder, what happened to this poor soul? How will his family find out? Did he regret his decision in that split second when he saw the approaching train? Couldn’t anyone have helped him? Wasn’t there any other way? Couldn’t anyone have given him hope? Nothing else seemed to matter.

Who cares about missing the test? Who cares about failing it? Who cares about being late? What are the odds he was also worried about something as trivial and unimportant and THAT just pushed him over the edge? Perhaps, no one will ever know.

But I knew something in that moment, as part of me grieved for that man’s life, another part of me was making a silent promise that if life is like box of chocolates or a bowl of cherries or one damn thing after another, I am going to eat it all up, let it all drip down my chin, get all messy…and be grateful.