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Early memories of grandpa. Walking through the forest, dusk, sunlight filtering through the pines, setting ablaze the dust particles and gnats, golden hour bliss. We stop at a pull-up bar installed high between two trunks, grandpa hops up, I stand watching and dreaming. Legs at a 90 degree angle, he huffs out with each pull, “20, 21, 22…” Down on the ground again, arms up, shaking lose the wrists, and down to the ground with a satisfied exhale. Grins at me and we continue walking home.

Phone ringing at the grandparents’ place on Obvodnyi Canal, the dimly lit hallway with the linoleum squares and those slippers, sitting leg over leg in sweats, intently squeezing the receiver to his ear and speaking loudly in a lecturer’s booming, authoritative voice to his invisible interlocutor. The radio on during news hour, grandpa relaxed on the couch, listening to the latest. Or watching the news each night at 9pm sharp.

After bath time, me all cuddled up and steamy and pink, grandma toweling me down and calling grandpa for the special assignment of carrying me to bed.

Another memory. Us in our new apartment, talking about maps. “Can you draw the map of Africa from memory?” Of course not…”But I think I can. Let’s see now…” and he begins. Humming an unidentifiable war song under his breath, he traces the lines carefully, his pens, his somewhat wrinkly hands and those bulging veins we loved to press down and see fill up again. He is done and triumphant, his carefully drawn out map of Africa, including all of the land-locked countries, with names of all the capitals, just for kicks. “Geography was always my favorite subject in school.” He says, beaming. I am blinking, astounded. “Let’s talk more about maps,” he proposes.

Grandpa holding me under the belly and letting me float gently on the ebbs and flows of the Gulf of Finland. Explaining about breathing and holding your breath, me mastering underwater swimming first, excited. Him hoisting me up into the gnarly fir by the edge of the beach, sun setting, me climbing higher and higher, him below asking me if I see Finland across the water.

Playing chess on the smooth formal dining table in the Big Room. Him patiently guiding me, “Now are you sure that’s how you want to move? Because if you do this…I will do this. You see?” Now I can see. “And then you have to wonder – what are you going to do next? You have to think several moves ahead, and always think about the other player – why did they go here? What is their secret plan?”

Much later – sitting in their make-shift guest room in the basement of our first apartment in America. Teaching him English, enthused by the opportunity to be the one leading. Him – a great and dedicated student. Many smiles and laughs shared. A thousand and one charades acted out, many poems listened to and recited, war stories shared (his), and piano music played (mine). In the end, the conversations, trying to understand, all grown up and talking about the more important things. Grandpa still my grandpa, but also an individual, a human being with foibles, fears, hopes, aspirations.

Thirty three years of memories will surely not fit onto this page. But if this is a tribute to our friendship, our alliance and mutual respect, then this is not a tribute to something that has ended. Though it breaks my heart to know that thirty three years is all the memory-making I get with my one and only grandfather, I know the relationship will continue. For love is a gift that keeps on giving. And giving into the deep dark of evening.

In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 


The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.


Palace Square 2

Palace Square, St.Petersburg

When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last month, I saw more people in a span of a week than I did in a span of a year here in the States. While most folks who live in large cities groan at the thought of navigating through throngs of human bodies on the way to and from work and accept as a necessary evil the crowded living conditions in Russia’s two largest cities, I was relishing the experience of being there among them.

In Moscow I stayed with family friends who lived in an apartment on the 18th floor of a giant 25-story cement block, hundreds of which proliferate on the outskirts of the capital. My friend bemoaned his living situation, comparing the residents of the building to ants living in an anthill: small, cramped, impersonal, insignificant. But I was warmed by the thought of being surrounded by other people, hearing them living out their lives all around us, above us – clanking of the pipes (someone fixing his faucet), next to us – doors opening and shutting (a mother bringing in groceries and her baby). In the morning if the shower water suddenly ran cold, I knew I was battling over it with the gal across the hall whose bathroom was just on the other side of the wall. It was heartwarming and silly to think, “Ah, bet you’re just waking up too, getting ready to go to work…or maybe to school…” After a few more spurts of HOT!! and COLD!!, I’d turn off the shower, thinking happily, “Well, I’m on vacation and I don’t need to shower that badly anyway. You can have the hot water…”

Riding on the metro was quite an adventure as well. During post-work evening hours we’d pile into the train cars so tightly that when the car would take off with a jerk, we wouldn’t even need to steady ourselves by holding on. There was literally no place to sway, much less to fall. I thought that it was nice that people here were getting a lot of human contact – the whole thing contrasted sharply to life in America, where you can easily go a whole day without touching anyone, without seeing them or smelling them. And yet, even through my giddiness I understood that physical proximity did not warrant emotional closeness. In fact, as I’d try to read the many blank expressions of faces inches away from my own on that train, quite the opposite seemed true.

In St. Petersburg another friend took me and my grandma for a ride through town. As they chatted in the front seat, I mostly listened and soaked in the sights. Looking out, I felt a tug of curiosity and a sense of kinship luring me outside to explore the streets, to paint them, to stroll along them and discover half-abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated squares, warm, inviting cafes and lots and lots of people. There was that tug, but there was also a feeling strangeness, foreignness, hostility, almost. Or at least of an oppressive sort of indifference. People bustled down the streets, in cars and trams, crammed in those same metro cars where they stood like jellied sardines packed into one big mass, but totally isolated from each other.

It turned out that because people were forced into physical proximity, they made a deliberate effort to not connect, to ignore each other, to not meet another person’s eye, certainly not to smile. Maybe it was for their own protection, after all, engaging with hundreds of people every day is fatiguing. Maybe it was because they had grown so accustomed to the crowds, that they perceived them not as individual people in a group, but as part of the city-scape, as integral and inanimate as an obelisk, a lamppost, a bridge.

Whatever the reason, each person weaving in and out of the crowded street was moving through his own, personal space where no one else existed. If their destination was a meeting with another person (date with a girlfriend in a coffee shop, father picking up his kids from school), they still moved through that personal space and there was no chance that this route, this parallel universe, would intersect with any other. There was no chance for serendipitous encounters, unexpected conversations with strangers, random acts of kindness. As such, the city I beheld from inside the car seemed a lonely place.

Perhaps this is characteristic of all large cities. But I felt it particularly strongly in Russia.

SunSay concert

(Photo from the balcony)

I am sitting in the small balcony of a photo studio in central Moscow. The room is packed with teen, twenty- and thirty-somethings sitting cross-legged on the floor, all surrounding a small circle in the middle with three chairs awaiting the musicians. This is the extent of the setup. The room is humming with a warm, radiant excitement contrasting sharply the cold, harsh environment outside. I am giddily thrilled, an emotion that, by 30, I should have grown out of or at least be embarrassed about. But I am neither because this is a SunSay concert and I AM HERE.

It was a long time in coming.

A few years ago a Russian friend gave my family a CD with this new band he was really into. At that time we lived in San Diego and didn’t really follow Russian music, having moved to the States in the early 1990’s. But our friend told us to give it a shot, and we did, and soon we were listening to it on our long car trips up and down the West Coast, humming along to it on our way to school and university, chanting bits of it a capella in the shower and during family get-togethers. The miracle of that album was that it was simply two guys with an acoustic guitar. But when you the songs, you could immediately sense the energy, the versatility, the talent. It was the first official album put out by the group 5’nizza, whose lead vocal Andrey Zaporozhets would go on to form the band SunSay.

Listening to that first album, and later to the second, I always felt uplifted because I could sense the creative process through the music. It was as if I could hear them sitting around, humming and strumming the guitar, being like, “Hey, let’s try this” and “this would sound really awesome”… Just throwing ideas around and putting them into the songs. To a creative person it is so inspiring when someone comes up with an idea and then realizes it. It’s an intoxicating miracle every time – when you do it, or when you witness someone else do it. I often painted to their songs, playing the CD not as a pleasant background, but to interact and engage with the musicians, to be side by side doing our thing and building off each other.

Fast forward to 2012. I hadn’t been in Russia for nine years, and resigned myself to listening to Sunsay remotely. Though they had recently recorded a full-length English album, it was unclear if  and when they were going to tour in the States. I had downloaded their previous album Легко (Easy) and again was inspired by the concoctions that it showcased. Though the sound was decidedly different from 5’nizza’s minimalist artistry, the talent and fluid inspiration of the now many musicians was evident. At times I could imagine one of the guys saying, “Hey, let’s put in a keyboard solo with that cool 60’s vibe that sounds like Ray Manzarek from the Doors” or “Wouldn’t a Jimi Hendrix vocal work well here?” And of course there were Andrey’s emblematic melodic tunes and sing-alongable lyrics.  The most notable thing about this album was that it, as its title might have suggested, was easy. Its creation did not seem a laborious, forced process with songs penned to meet deadlines. Rather, it flowed naturally, spontaneously, almost.

In January 2013, by a combination of chance, circumstance, and great generosity, I got the chance to go to Russia and made sure that one of the two days I was in Moscow would fall on the band’s concert evening. The day after I bought plane tickets I emailed the lady in charge of selling tickets for the show, only to find out that it had been sold out before New Years. Now I’m not one to beg, but this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I wrote her back, asking her to please let me know if anyone cancels their ticket, and saying that maybe I could just fit in the corner somewhere – it’s okay if I stand, and I don’t take up much room…Within a few hours she wrote back and said she could squeeze me up on the balcony. Would I be alright with that? A resounding “Absolutely!” followed.

And so here I am. Sitting on that very balcony – having trudged through sleet and snow, having gotten lost and almost late, thoroughly sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and elated. I flatter myself to think that nobody in this room traveled this far to see SunSay perform.

Suddenly people in the main room start clapping and out comes Andrey, flanked by guitarist Roman Kucherenko and winds virtuoso Sergey Klevensky. The show gets quickly underway. They perform songs from the SunSay albums, new songs from the English-language album, a few songs folks have not heard before, some “oldies” from the days of 5’nizza. We’ve all clearly done our homework – people can’t help but sing along to almost every tune, and even when gently invited to let the singer do his thing alone, some hum under their breath. There are laughs and dreadlocks and i-phones and good vibrations. Halfway through the show the host hands Andrey a cup of tea, and as the band takes a quick break I realize I have been smiling for the past 40 minutes.

The lasting impression is, as I expected, a very good one. They’re just like on youtube! Only better. The cohesion of the group and the individual attributes of each member are more perceptible live. Also, without sound engineering or even microphones, you realize that the strength of this group lies in the talent of each: in the voice, in the presence, in the flexibility and openness and joy. How can you  not enjoy a concert when it is clear that the musicians are enjoying themselves? You can’t. Perhaps that’s the point.


(Photo not mine)

The first time we went there the air conditioning in our car didn’t work, and the driver’s window was broken. It wouldn’t hold in place, and so we had it propped shut with a piece of a wooden railroad which fit perfectly into the seam between the glass and the door-frame. But every now and then, at a speed of roughly 68 mph, the glass would start to sneakily slide down into the door and the trick was to catch it in time, before it slipped fully into oblivion. I didn’t have a GPS that first time either, so I had to make do with quickly scribbled directions on a shred of paper. It was already dark when we took off, just me and my two children, heading into the great unknown which is the Texan rural landscape.

It was okay on the highways, but eventually the wide thoroughfare was whittled down to a narrow, two-way road winding through the dark forest which extended in all directions. The kids had fallen asleep and as I drove, I lectured myself silently on my irresponsible adventure-seeking ways. The window slowly slumped into the door without my noticing it, the moist, hot October air filled the car with cicada cries and fermenting foliage smells, and at the speed of 68 miles per hour I’d peak now and then at the torn sheet, trying to decipher what Park Road I was to take next. Ten, twenty minutes passed, the darkness continued. At this rate, I thought, I can easily miss my turn and not even know it. And if I turn around and go back looking for it, I won’t know whether I’ve missed it for sure or whether I just didn’t drive far enough. And I have no reception on my phone and even if I did and I called someone they’d ask me where I was and then yell at me for being so and so…And so, I just drove on, hoping I hadn’t missed my turn yet.

Miraculously, I didn’t, and we got there. “There” being the Alabama-Couchatta Tribal lands where the Russian KSP South bards camp-out was taking place that weekend. I almost teared up in relief as I pulled up at the entrance to get my map and entry passes. A dark-haired, shaggy-bearded soulful looking middle-aged man came up and in the typical ennui-fatigued way mused in Russian, “How many?”

“Three.” I replied. He looked at the empty passenger seat and raised an eyebrow. “Me and my two kids, they’re sleep in the back..” I explained.

“What grounp are you with?”

“We’re just by ourselves…”

“Who are you staying with?” he repeated.

“Nobody – I thought maybe you could just stick us somewhere…” His ever-widening eyes were incredulous.

“How are you gonna put up your tent?” He blurted, sort of amazed and sort of pitying me.

“I can put up a tent. It’s not hard. My daughter will help…”

“These women. They don’t freeze in the cold, and they don’t burn in the fire…” He chanted in singsong a bit of a poem. When I stared at him blankly he broke into a smile, handed me the map, passes and campsite number, and added, “You need to read more Nikrasov, lady. He’s a classic…”
I grinned back and, with a “Working on it…” pulled off towards camp.

*                          *                         *                         *

Yesterday we returned from our fifth KSP South camp-out. Heading out, the car was in better shape and I had a GPS, but I hardly needed it anymore. The main players were the same: Mama, daughter and son. The latter two fell promptly asleep in the car, I drove peacefully through the impenetrable forest, and once on location, Vierra and I painlessly set up camp. I have set up the tent so many times in the dark now that I joke that if there was light, I wouldn’t know what to do with it…But with a full day at work/school, plus packing, soccer practice, and a two hour drive, there was no way we could have gotten there before nightfall.

In Russia there is a long tradition of singing songs accompanied by guitars while sitting around campfires in the wilderness. The melodies are typically not complex, but the lyrics are true poetry reflecting the lives and experiences of people of a certain generation. People of this generation (folks in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s now) love and play these songs. The tradition has been preserved, and people today, immigrants from Russia living in the States, continue writing and playing. These people are called “bards”. The places where they meet to share, sing around campfires and perform their latest work are called camp-outs, such as the KSP South one we went on last weekend. (KSP is the name of the bards organization, while “South” refers to its chapter in the South of the country.)

The camp-out takes place in a pine forest by a lovely lake about 100 miles north of Houston. Everyone camps, speakers and recorded music is forbidden (only live music, please), and children under 16 come free. A small stage is improvised among the conifers, and right at 6pm (usually more like 6:20) the singing begins. The magic happens then.

What draws me to these events is the singing – the bare, naked honest performance. Just a voice, a guitar, a melody, a poem. When professional performers sing on stage, you inevitably feel isolated from them. They have the stage presence, the back-up vocals; they are putting on a show. They are the star, and you are a fan, a face in a crowd of thousands of faces. Their personality, their being can hide behind so much up there on stage, and though you may be entertained, thrilled or even enchanted, there is no closeness, no interconnection. Here, the person on stage is the one whose kid you just helped climb off a tree. The woman singing next lent you her toothpaste this morning in the bathroom. With their unpolished, natural sound, you can trace out the inspiration, the idea, the creativity, the personality. You can tell that these people, with their voice pouring over the imperfect sound system and their weathered fingers strumming familiar chords, got up to tell you something; they want to share something with you. Mostly, they want to share themselves.

In our lives today it is so easy to hide behind our avatars and facebook updates. We can spend many days and weeks not telling anyone anything important about ourselves, about themselves. The easier it becomes not connecting with others, the more challenging the process of reaching out. And so, given a chance, would I come and see folks opening up? Sharing, giving, for free, of the things that are most important to them? The things that are really essential to us all? (Life, joy, struggle, despair, humor.) Heck yes. And that’s why I go. That’s why we come. That’s why you’ll probably catch me half a year from now, speeding at roughly 68 miles per hour down a dark, forested road towards the next KSP South camp-out.

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