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Photograph by Liza Head

I wonder how many people live in the very present moment, all the time? Or maybe even half the time? I wonder what the intensity of immediate experience would be if I could really be present in it. As it is, my life is a continuous transitioning from past to present to future to past. I am a time-traveler who’s lost their way.

Yesterday during service there was a picture of a Bible with a red, rustic ornamental design around the edges, and immediately I was taken back to the Cluny museum in Paris, thinking about the tapestries there (with similar ornate designs). When we were in France with a group from school I remember we traveled to a city with a famous cathedral and a huge, 70-meter long tapestry that we walked along with little tour-guide recorders, listening to the sing-song story-telling of a lady in French describe the battles and sieges depicted in the deep blue and red hues of the weave.

I also had the overbearing, yes, overbearing memory of a large, airy hall in the 14th arrondissement where an eucumenical group hosted a large exhibit of old and even ancient Bibles in different languages. There were booths and models of the Temple, educational material on the culture and history of those times. I had volunteered to help set up and organize the event. Maybe it was the city hall or something like that. The face of Claude, a kind, older woman who introduced me to the movement, came to me with impressive impact. For a few moments it was as if I had to catch my breath. This always happens when I recall something I haven’t thought of for a long time.

Now, a day later, I sit enveloped in the feelings not of that memory, but of my dream. My parents had invited several folks to visit, and due to logistical issues we all arrived on the same evening. There was an old friend of mine whom I met as an undergrad at UCSD. She was a graduate student TAing for one of my classes, and we’ve kept in touch, more or less, since. There was an even older friend, let’s call him Jamaal, whom I met in school and who played and continues to play a pivotal role in my life, though I have not spoken to him in many years. Last night before I went to sleep Greg and I had talked about the feel of black people’s hair, and my memories of Jamaal’s hair, its springy, pronounced softness, like thousands of micro-wires glowing with copper-colored energy, penetrated into the dream and through it, to now. As I slept we were trying to figure out the complex issue of who would sleep where. My parents were befuddled and slightly embarrassed, it was deep in the night that everyone arrived. My sister and her husband were there, also a colleague from work, Greg was there…and also a cat.

On my way to work, I listened to Yuri Shevchuk’s solo album that he recorded in Paris, called “L’Echoppe”.  I thought about how neat it would be to learn to play accordion. Also, about a duet song I want to record with a friend of mine who lives in New York and studies opera. I thought about autumn and winter in Russia, about Moscow and about that unsettling, ever-present sadness which trails after me like a pathetic (in the Greek sense of the word), miserable dog. I realized that the only thing that separates people that I consider “deep”, from those that are not so much is that underlying current of sorrow. As many wise men said, the more knowledge, the more grief. This I thought on my way to work.

And I do wonder, how it was that I did the waking and the feeding of progeny, the teeth-brushing and driving, and even the teacher-talking and child-instructing, while so much of me was not “in the present”. Rather, fluttering around it like a moth bobbing up and down on the heat waves of a candle. Maybe there’s nothing special about it…maybe that how everyone is.

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Dear God,

It’s been a while since I wrote.

Thing is, I felt like I couldn’t reach you. Maybe it was the Church that did it. With its zealous campaign to remind us that we are flawed human beings, it overshot its target and made us believe that we were completely hopeless. Some of us, who already had a good sense of our depravity, became convinced that as fallen beings we had no access to you, no place by your side and really, no place even on this Earth. Instead of being empowered we were weakened. At some point we forgot that we were created in your image, and that you created us good.

We began spending many hours of each day in ritual self-flagellation. We beat ourselves up over not being good enough parents, bad church goers, non-tithers, immoral, apathetic, un-praying and uninvolved. Not only could be not talk to you, because, after all, we hadn’t read the Bible in so many days, weeks, months, but we weren’t good enough to go to church either. We had to take action in order to at least somehow justify our existence. So we wrote to-do lists, pushed ourselves to the limit, put ourselves down and promised to do better. This all must have looked ridiculous to you.

Or maybe it was our society. Goodness, what a bunch of health-conscious, environmentally aware confused individuals we are. The world told us to eat better, to drive less, to care for the minorities among us, and instead of joyfully taking it on, we were consumed with guilt – for eating sweets, throwing away plastic cans, driving instead of biking to work, using non-biodegradable materials. There was no joy in anything we did. We were only desperately, without any real hope, trying to make this world a little bit less of a horrible place to live. And us – just a rung higher up on the unending ladder of guilt and social responsibility.

This was your enemy’s work. He took all of the good that might have been intended, and deranged it. The father of lies had prevailed, if only temporarily, at his best craft. We came to believe, I believed, that we had to earn our place; that we had to deserve it. This was impossible, and we floundered around helplessly. This is why I hadn’t written.

But lately I noticed that this idea doesn’t quite jive with what you teach. In fact, it renders the death and resurrection of your Son completely absurd.

So I just wanted to drop you a line, let you know things are getting better. I am allowing myself the joy of not thinking about guilt. You thought of that already. Funny that it took me only 20 years of faith in you to realize this. But that’s OK too. You’re probably smiling right now, maybe even rolling your eyes a bit. But hey, better late than never, and in the grand scheme of things – it’s not late at all.

It’s the perfect time to be finding the child you love.

(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

Like a perfectly preserved skeleton between two sheets of sedimentary rock, the memory stands crisp before me.

It is late November. We are driving across the cold, austere landscape of northern Missouri. The two-lane highway runs straight into the horizon, and a prickly sea of haze extends in all directions.

It seems as if all of the colors of winter lie hidden under a dusty gray. Grayish green firs, grayish blue sky. Grayish brown earth and grayish opaque water frozen in the gullies. On the background of gray the rusted red hues of tree trunks, train cars and abandoned factories emerge. The drive is fast and yet we are moving nowhere, because that is how things are in the Midwest. There is no rush. There is nowhere to be.

I look out the window and see the telephone lines dip down, and move up with every pole that we pass. Down…up, down…up. The simple and steady rhythm of existence slowed for the winter months. Somewhere smoke pours lazily from a chimney. Somewhere from a smoke stack. Here there is no glitz, no glamour, no promise.

Here the landscape has incorporated human structures, which may stay unperturbed for decades, centuries.

Affected by the surroundings, thoughts slow down as well. You begin to see sap flowing slowly down tree trunks. You hear the crows. Your heart contracts with forgotten emotion. You want to weep peacefully, and think amorphous thoughts.

Poem by Vladimir Strochkov

(Translation: Anya Ezhevskaya)

I say that I’m tired, I’m tired, can’t do it, can’t
I’m tired, I tell him, let go me, let go
He doesn’t let go, won’t listen, again in his palm
He lifts me, he laughs, but you haven’t yet flown.
He says, as he laughs and he lifts me up over his head
Opens his fingers, tosses me into the sky
Fly! He says, I’m flying, I say, spitting grass
Let me go now, you saw – I was flying, I know how to fly.
I am tired, I say, let me go, but he just goes on
Picks me up again, tosses over his head
He laughs, you just fly to the bushes, he says.
And throws me, I’m tired, but he can’t understand
But I’m tired, I’m flapping as hard as I can
Tear up my face, but I reach the branch closest to me
okay, fine, but just this last time, I say, and he –
You’re crazy, you flew just there, I know, I say, let it be.
So how ’bout one more time? No, he says, that’s enough
I’m tired, get lost, he laughs, you’re annoying me too
But just once, I say, can’t, he says, go fly yourself
Well screw you oh Lord, my goodness, I’m tired of you.
And I laugh, he stares at me, I can’t help it, – it’s fun
Alright, he says, let’s do it – running start, and I run.

Original text:

Я говорю, устал, устал, отпусти,
не могу, говорю, устал, отпусти, устал,
не отпускает, не слушает, снова сжал в горсти,
поднимает, смеется, да ты еще не летал,
говорит, смеется, снова над головой
разжимает пальцы, подкидывает, лети,
так я же, вроде, лечу, говорю, плюясь травой,
я же, вроде, летел, говорю, летел, отпусти,
устал, говорю, отпусти, я устал, а он опять
поднимает над головой, а я устал,
подкидывает, я устал, а он понять
не может, смеется, лети, говорит, к кустам,
а я устал, машу из последних сил,
ободрал всю морду, уцепился за крайний куст,
ладно, говорю, но в последний раз, а он говорит, псих,
ты же летал сейчас, ладно, говорю, пусть,
давай еще разок, нет, говорит, прости,
я устал, отпусти, смеется, не могу, ты меня достал,
разок, говорю, не могу, говорит, теперь сам лети,
ну и черт с тобой, говорю, Господи, как я с тобой устал,
и смеюсь, он глядит на меня, а я смеюсь, не могу,
ладно, говорит, давай, с разбега, и я бегу.

A late October’s day I was out in a pine forest. The autumn feel was in the air, and the warm breeze sent whiffs of sweetly decaying foliage and dried grass swirling between the trunks. That night we had camped in the forest, and in the early morning it had rained. There was a lake, and now, later in the day, the water was still and cool from the rain and from the chill night. It was the perfect day for the last swim of the season.

For a while I stood ankle-deep in the silty water. The brown leaves and pine needles mingled with seashells under my toes. The breeze ran over the surface of the water and I smiled at the thought that I had, and started moving forward. Chills ran along my arms, my hairs stood on end because the water was cold. I wanted and did not want to swim. I knew it was good for me, knew I would not regret it as soon as I was in the water and swimming, but at the moment I was warm, and dry. The thought tickled me: within a couple of seconds, or minutes, my state will be completely different. I will not be warm and dry, but cold, wet, alive, moving, breathing, feeling my heart beat, blowing bubbles in the water and feeling it slip between my outstretched fingers. I blocked the capricious part of me, and coaxed the rest to continue moving forward – knee deep, waist deep. I took a deep breath. This was it: no turning back now. I grinned and pushed off.

Of course I did not regret it. I swam and looked at the world around me through the vantage point of a turtle. How enchanting it looked. Water rippling outwards in all directions, cattails swaying in the wind, pines looming onshore. An old wooden platform extending out into the water. Green hills rolling on the other shore. Behind them – the forest. And I realized that at times like this life becomes cyclical, not linear.

I remembered my childhood. As a child, I perceived life extending back behind me and forward ahead of me in two dimensions. Events were looked forward to, happened, and drifted into the past while new events appeared on the horizon. For several years my family went to vacation in rural Lithuania, and in the lazy summertime Lithuania had the stuff my dreams were made of: pines, sandy hills with bronze and rust-colored earth, mushrooms, lakes, berries, squirrels. And there was silt between fingers, and turtles peeked out between the lily pads. The conifers stood tall and warm, the sun shimmered between the leave and if you squinted just so, you could look straight into it. And the lake of many years ago flowed seamlessly into the lake that engulfed me now, and the child and the adult melded into one living, breathing organism, into one joyful soul.

I came out of the water reborn, fresh, young. What a wonderful swim I had, one day in late October.

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