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.