Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beneath the streets of Moscow

I’m in that strange transition time between leaving one planet and landing back on my home planet. We left Moscow six days ago and have been in meetings in Miami. Due to a glitch in our ticket, we have one more day here in Florida before heading on to Oregon.
I woke up this morning, as I have woken up every morning for the last week, submerged in the subways beneath the streets of Moscow. In some of the dreams I’ve become separated from my friends and find myself lost, unable to read the signs, surrounded by hundreds of people all in purposeful motion. The roar of the frequently arriving trains on both sides of the platform, the possibility of numerous levels of platforms connected by long escalators, and the ominous presence of the abrupt unguarded drops down to the tracks—these all weave through my dreams and send me groping for the light of day.
Variations on this dream have been recurring several times a night, and this tells me I need to pay attention.
My actual experience of the subways of Moscow was positive, in part due to Johan and Judy’s excellent guidance. The subway experience is just one aspect of normal life to them. Yes, we had to keep alert, eyes on the guide, stick together and move quickly. And our jaunts from one place in the city to another often involved transfers from one subway line to others, usually on different levels. But it was all part of the adventure.
I found the Moscow subway system amazing. An immense but logically organized labyrinth of tunnels, tracks, platforms, levels and escalators links the city and offers a highly efficient transportation service. Not only well lighted and with ample signs and maps, the different subway stations are works of art. It seems that Stalin, the instigator of all this, decided he wanted the subway system to be as splendid as the theaters of the day. We didn’t get a chance to explore a theater, but “splendid” is a word I might use to describe several of the subway stations. Chandeliers, frescos, sculpture, paintings, floor mosaics—if it weren’t for the swiftly moving crowds, I’d have been tempted to slow down and take it all in.
Speaking of the crowds, they also amazed me. In all the rush and crowding, a certain orderliness reigned. People did not push, even as we funneled into the narrow openings of the escalators or rushed to get on a train before the doors closed. Even though people avoided making eye-contact, courtesy prevailed. This may have more to do with Russian culture than with the subways, but I was impressed.
Did I mention that the subways were clean?
So why these dark dreams? Why the fear? I’ve learned that my dreams, especially the dreams I remember, are about me, not the external reality they’re drawn from. In other words, this is not a critique of the subways of Moscow. It’s a call to attention.
To what? I’m not clear on that yet. Our Miami meetings have concluded, but I still feel the impact of the intense emotions as we worked through the complexities of a growing organization. At times the “roar” of the trains almost overwhelmed my senses. Is this the meaning? Or is it the specter of having to work our way through the maze of the social security system in a few years? That could certainly spark fear. Does it have to do with my reactions to difficulties in the extended family circle? Or is this about growing older?
I need to wait and listen. In the meantime, thank you, Moscow, for a fine adventure. And thank you for giving me a splendid metaphor as I explore the subterranean places in my own life.

(Written May 24, 2012)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Russia remembers

On stage in the public square, black clad
ballerinas, swaying, flesh out the moans
of Russia, mourn the loss of her sons
and daughters all those years ago. Bowing
to grief they push up against the brokenness,
move toward an uncertain mending,
as the old men and women look on,
knowing what they know. The crowd
around me, at once solemn and festive,
moves slightly with the dance. Above
us a grey sky hints of sun, but makes
no promises.

(Elektrastol, Victory Day, May 9, 2012)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Morning watch

William Stafford, that kind poet,
once told me how he got up
at 4:00 every morning
to sit in the quiet and wait for a poem.
It always came. Stafford filled notebooks
with the fruit of his attention and freely
shared it with the world. I'm grateful
to have been included in that world.
So here am I, sitting in my own
quiet spot by a window. The morning
grows light before me. Trees emerge
and the far hills. Like Stafford,
I’m waiting. Waiting.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Getting ready for Russia

How does one “get ready for Russia”? A country so vast, so extreme; a culture so different from ours, so mysterious; a history so tortured. Going as a tourist—the identity my passport assigns me—seems casually inappropriate. Russia demands to be taken seriously, even if the visit is only for 11 days.
Let me backtrack. The Board of Global Outreach of Northwest Yearly Meeting has invited Hal and me to go to Russia to visit Johan and Judy Maurer. They are not only “Friends Serving Abroad” (the board’s new term), they are our good friends. We look forward to spending time with them and getting to know their fascinating context. Russia.
I’ve been fascinated by Russia ever since I discovered Tolstoy’s War and Peace in high school. It’s probably my all-time favorite novel, one I still come back to every few years. To Tolstoy I’ve added Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and others. With all their differences, similar threads—usually in the darker colors—run through their works, weaving a tapestry that portrays a vast panorama, as well as an array of the details of human life, suffering, joys and dreams.
My vision of Russia may be overly romantic, so I’m trying to get ready by reading some books recommended by Johan.
A Long Walk to Church: A Contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy (Nathaniel Davis) focuses on the years following World War II, detailing the persecution and survival of the church. Adding to that perspective, last night Hal and I watched the Russian film, “Repentance,” that also portrays the persecution of the church (among other dark themes). The ending scene is classic. An old woman walking through a town stops and asks another woman if the road she’s on leads to a church. On learning that it doesn’t, she scowls and replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?” The old woman then turns and continues walking down the road alone. The film ends.
How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices that Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Alena V. Ledeneva) has given me the sense that my many years living in Latin America provide part of my preparation for Russia. The author argues that “informal practices constitute generic responses to structural pressures in all societies,” and then goes on to flesh this out in contemporary Russia. When I read that the trust in personalized networks weakens “forms of generalized trust and trust in impersonal institutions, necessary for effective workings of politics, business, and civil society,” I see more similarities. One of my favorite lines is the author’s translation of a popular Russian saying: “the rigidity of our laws is compensated for by their nonobservance.”
Finally, Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village (Serge Schmemann) chronicles how the traumatic upheavals in Russia’s history have affected one village and the individual lives of her people. That’s a lot of reading, and I admit that I skimmed many of the details, trying to get a feel for the writers’ main points.
I’m also re-reading two old favorites. It’s been so long since I read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that, while the characters are familiar, much of the plot seems new. I’m also in the middle of one of my favorite books in Christian spirituality, Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I’m re-reading this book because our trip plans include a day in The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg where Rembrandt’s painting rests. Because of Nouwen’s reflections, this painting has already impacted me greatly. I’m hoping to be able to spend time with the Real Thing. While not Russian, it seems fitting that Rembrandt’s works, and this one in particular, find a home in this land. I sense similarities in depth and spiritual texture.
Or is my romantic imagination running amok again?
No, I don’t think it’s possible to get ready for Russia. I’m doing what I can. And I’m open for surprise.