ImageThese nights warm quickly from the fevered breathing of neighborhood kids catching up to each other.  Straight-backed Ukrainian diasporans sweep away winter from their patch of sidewalk in short, precise passes.  Around them ride grandkids on scooters and bikes, their voices high and excited about this good stretch.  I can hear some lonely kid’s cry from across the street. Two dogs greet each other loosey-goosey on the corner. The skyline glows a la lite-brite from my back porch. It’s midnight and  I am waking up to this place.  Slowly counting and arranging for the safe passage of my memories.


I’m at work.  (That wayward home for all misconstructed fantasies and the moribund afternoon.)  I am bent forward over a thick pile of single-page letters, folding in threes and then pushing them aside to be stamped.  My chair is rolled away into the corner of my office. I am standing in the sun, which beats slow and warm on my forehead. An ache begins at the edge of my shoulders. I step my feet apart and recalibrate.  I pull the next letter from the pile and exhale.  I feel the ache again and suddenly I am doing laundry on a Saturday afternoon in my Ukrainian bathtub.

Strange the things that knock a memory into the room, I think. 

The washing began with soaking, sometimes a stir with the bottom end of a shampoo bottle and always an undue amount of patience. How much time I spent just waiting for water to be warm enough, for the washing powder to first thoroughly cover and then rinse free from what seemed an endless pile of wet, sniffling cotton.  And what a hapless task: trying to clean cotton by swooshing and wringing it in a tepid basin of quickly cooling water.

And I think – who am I to whine about paper cuts and a thumb sore from folding? How raw my hands would be after a morning of washing!

I loved the end best: hanging the wet, heavy articles onto a drying line in the backyard, avoiding the clumps of purple and overripe mulberries that had fallen from the tree above and scaring away the chickens.  Yes, this final stage was an aria before intermission. What joy and relief to be reminded that I was still succeeding there, that I wouldn’t walk dirty to the market and I might sleep on clean sheets once more.  A small and simple triumph.

In the midst of my memory, I imagine my tall closet full of laundry in need of cleaning and I feel a profound sense of relief.  Relief that I am not going to have to wash until my hands are raw and pickled from discount detergent.  This is a feeling I expected to experience so much more often than I do.  How quickly gratitude slips between the cracks – losing its influence as quickly as gum’s taste goes.

As I fold – once, then twice – these letters to our guests – I find gratitude a difficult egg to swallow. Not everything is as easy as the washing machine.

And now a return to that relief – that great cup of gratitude I drank down during my first few weeks back home in America.  I doused everything in thanks– the dishwasher, the bus, the hot shower and the ‘to go’ cups at Starbucks.  I thanked the world for the existence of soy milk and quinoa, late night supermarkets and mangoes in January.  And yet mixed in among all of that gratitude were bitter notes on how the American world consumes itself.  A ring of arsenic around the rim of my cup.  I balked at the complete misappropriation of resources, all the while on my knees in praise of EZPass and pizza delivery.

“I hate this!”

“Ugh, but it’s wonderful!”

These are the dueling cries in the jeremiad of my return.

Some weeks, they are quieter. Nothing more than a soft hum under my ear.  Like a printer expressing paper without ink.  I work behind my desk and walk from the subway – neither grateful nor indignant; the turnkey of returning having found its lock.

But even then, there is the shaking of the doorknob. The things that I haven’t let in, expectant.  Anticipation hot on my tail. What else is waiting to come in?

Some months ago, a first morning in our new home.

Somehow,  I’ve rejoined the class of working Americans who suffer only from paper cuts, hangovers and the constant feeling of being late for something more important than this.   If there is a more dismal fate out there, I’m want to uncover it.  Free from all those gritty existential questions and global disaster, I’m puttering around this American landscape and waiting for a free moment to take a good look around.  And I don’t just mean a good look at the tulips on Michigan Avenue, beautiful though they may be.  No, what I’m impatient for is a deep understanding of just how I got here and what comes next.  A scathing look, isn’t that what they’re calling it these days? 

It’s taken much longer than expected for me to assess the scars and wounds of my return.  After all, so much of it has been blissfully glazed over with the joys of reunion, domesticity and microwave popcorn.  While any phrase involving ‘dream’ is a painfully over-used aphorism for these first nascent years of adult life, I am hard-pressed to find more appropriate terminology.  Blame it on the helicoptering parents or the  inflated egos of elementary school, but my generation is all about living the dream, whatever it may be.  And living the dream, I have found, is one perilous undertaking. 

How I feel back in a world where even the bathrooms smell like brown sugar is uncertain.

So much of it feels like a farce. A funny thing happening on the way to…. Where are we going again?  Where are all of these seemingly arbitrary decisions really leading me? A scatter plot, a pivot table – I’d grab onto anything that gave me an inkling of what things might be like a year from now.

But, then again, it’s easy to be reminded that everything here (paychecks, rotting food in the fridge and parking garages) is real. That what we have here is plenty.

Discount coupons strewn all over the front stoop.

Solicitous posters slipped under the door inviting us to the circus.

Innumerable phone books rotting outside in the rain.

I am unaccustomed to the onslaught of activities that don’t actually require interaction.   Commuting, webinars, and self-check out at the grocery store.  I can go hours sitting in my office without talking to a single soul.  I get up to fill a water bottle or pour another cup of coffee just to confirm that I’m not the only one.   A real change from last fall when I slipped into any empty classroom I could find to escape my eager students and the eternal lamp that shone on me wherever I went.

How does one chronicle this transition – from a village in Ukraine to Ukrainian Village? I am not sure.  But I think, if you’ll oblige, I’ll make a stab at it.   I sit here in the kitchen, heating up grains as balm for an aching back just like Luba taught me and I think, after these six months of blind movement forward, I’m ready to start the telling again.

There’s a lot to be said for the practical skills and experiences that I’ve gained here in Ukraine.  My resume’s proof enough of that; as are the resumes of my fellow volunteers, those extraordinary, brave, hopeful souls who have formed the very bones of my service here.  In these last days, though, I assure you, it’s not those nebulous skills (grant implementation, project management, communicative teaching) that are pulling at the very synapses of my brain to be drawn out.  I think, perhaps it’s those other skills, the ones that inevitably come with their own stories.   Living with a septuagenarian, harvesting walnuts, planting potatoes, toasting to communism, walking on ice, riding a bus standing, taking a bath squatting, sleeping on the kitchen floor, buying the right spice, sectioning a just-killed chicken.  Each of us have whole sacks of such stories that we use to hold ourselves up when we’re woozy and tired on our feet.  And when home feels just so far away.   Yet, even those don’t quite seem to get at just what it is Ukraine has been whispering about to me these past two years as I doze off.   What’s aching to be told is something stranger, with less of a beginning, less of an end. 

Would you believe that Ukraine taught me how to be sad? How to honor sadness, how to carry sadness and sit with it on your shoulder, how to sleep with it in your bed?   I heard her whisper it only in those few moments between wakefulness and sleep.  And oh, how I hated her for it.  Months went by and, because sadness was no kind bedfellow, I ached.  I dreamed of America and I could manage little more than a languishing sigh.  Then, something changed.  And like finally learning the proof to the Pythagorean theorem,  the squared a’s and b’s made sense and the picture became whole. 

I swear, it was just moments ago that Ukraine whispered to me again.  But this time, taking a moment to listen the whole way through, I learned of how – in the very molecules of sadness – I would find joy too. 

I came to Ukraine to understand sadness.

It might have been another country but then, of course, there would have been another thing to understand.

(I know, I know… It sounds like the beginning of some bad historical romance but, what’s a girl to do when the truth slaps her upside the head like a cold fish? So sue me, my departure is impending.)

Admittedly, I am a foreigner to sadness. Or at least, I was.  Sometimes it seems like the only reason I came to Ukraine was to cry a thousand tears and all the while to be in love.   Like I took up post here solely so that I could feel helpless as I watched people learn from me, not learn from me, so that I could learn from them, not learn from them.  It was all a wicked game, like picking paper-thin petals from a wild, red poppy.

In every other place I’ve known, I could run away from sadness – literally put on my sneakers and push open the stuck screen door, freeing myself of the morbid inefficiency of being unhappy.  Or better still, I could plan a trip away to a tall mountain or a far off lighthouse.  My best friend was adventure  incarnate and we were forever in search of the perfect recipe for fiddleheads and the right way to enjoy up all the moments there were to enjoy.  I abandoned my best friend because I needed to go and learn about sadness – a thing I just couldn’t do in Boston, or NY, or any place where I might be sure of myself.

In taking on the small pit of sadness, I found myself holding a different thing in each season.  It wasn’t immediate but eventually I started to see shades turning into a full, plump fruit.  And it wasn’t even loss, per se, that rattled me most days.  What I saw, what frightened me most, was how easily such melancholy could sit at your table when not a thing or human had been lost at all.

How simple it was to engage this melancholia, this veritable drug cocktail of desire and uncertainty.  How new and exciting it was to me.  If only for a moment, I was able to understand the way another person might see it – the coin’s backside, if you will.  I found things that I had expected to be simple were terribly obtuse and strange.  This notion ate at the corners of my day, crunching the minutes in on top of each other – the hours of real work hardly work at all.

The thing was, never having known sadness before left me with a backlog of unexpressed moments.  And I sat, face closed in on the just-emerging apple buds,  knowing that my education was far from complete.  And I languished in it. I learned that  sadness is not homogeneous and that it has as many sides as do the chirping larks ways to use my lost strands of hair.  And, in bits, I became less afraid.

I did really once believe that a person could live completely happily.  A quarter century cleared and hardly an incident besides those few betrayals of young love seemed proof enough.   But when you realize that your models are aging and that they will soon leave off this earth – it is inevitable that your confidence in happiness as answer and sadness as obsolete is shaken.

So, shaken, I knew right away that I couldn’t leave this place – no matter how much in love – until I figured out what to do about my mess of cards and confidences. Happiness was my least resistant path. Yet when there exists no resistance outside of yourself, the body creates its own.

And so, in spite of my very heart’s physiological refusal, I stayed.

I sat with myself a while and married all sorts of strange ideas and fantasies in my head.  I started a novel.  And I decided that I had arrived to Ukraine carrying two great burdens.  The first was a fear that the world might not live up to my own expectations of it. Over-hopeful, they call this.  Also, perhaps, unrefined.  And the second, an incessant need to live ahead of myself.  “After,” “next,” and “then,” whitewashing my world clean of any real color.

After I finish college, after traveling, after my first raise, after self-introspection, after… the ball is over.

In Ukraine,traveling through what seemed like the very depths of the earth and quite unbeknownst to me, after finally arrived.

And let me tell you, coming to the age of after is earth-shatteringly strange.

It is strange to realize that the age of  after is nothing more than this exact moment.  Stranger still, not to have known it before.   And it is strange to feel oneself without fear.  Indeed, I expected a stone heavy of burden and regret around my neck but here I am, instead, free.

And I know there is unknown – certainly.  But never until now did I think that after might actually be the good part.  That making a decision would not so much close doors as open them. That in living through something completely – a feeling, a moment, a year – I might find peace.

In late April,  I remember my desires to return home as, oftentimes, too much burden to take on.  But now, I see that what sadness I felt was joy.  What if, in returning from this place, I would find exactly what I wanted?  What if I were happy? What, then?

It’s a strange and frightening thing  – the happiness that moans out from the ashes of grief.  It can keep us perfectly still and staring at the currant bushes all afternoon long.  It can keep our thoughts buried among the burrs and walnut shells decomposing at the edge of a garden.

And is it a wrong thing that in my story it’s been such a slow, lumbering journey toward love? Is it wrong that I accept, in equal parts, my joy over the promise of closet space and my sadness to leave these few, small shelves?

I wouldn’t say that it is.

All’s so much quieter now. And I do want to leave it this way.  What is good and simple, untarnished.  Love for the pure, raw, incessant tug.

Luba and "dimok"

The recent Occupy Wallstreet protests have really struck a nerve here on October Revolution Street.  And, let me tell you, defending yourself against a couple of women who lived through one famine and two wars is no easy task.  When I left for school this morning (in my down jacket with detachable faux fur hood) they implored me to add more layers because snow had fallen in New York overnight.  New York’s location over 4,000 miles from our backyard seemed of little importance.  Yes, so entwined have I become with Luba and Anya’s idea of America that I must dress for New York’s weather even here in Ukraine.

I just had to apologize to my friend, Peter, for not calling back because, yet again, I was set the daunting task of defending capitalism and democracy (which have, by the bye, become synonyms in our house of late) on a Tuesday afternoon. The lively debate pretty much ended after this sixty-four thousand dollar gem,

“Of course you live well, you’re middle class!”

Which is what Luba said to me when I sheepishly tried to defend America’s relative successes throughout the last century to her accusation that we (a.k.a me, America) have caused all the problems in the world.  She was sitting outside in the yard sorting seed potatoes for next Spring and I’d just walked through the gate from school. “Welcome home to you, too!,” I thought.

She next told me that tomorrow she’d have to go to the nearest small city to get her two bottom teeth fixed, adding that if I wanted that pumpkin we’d have to chop it up tonight.

Were it a few weeks ago, I’d have been curious about how these two statements found themselves in the same conversation; the pumpkin mutilation alongside the demise of the American ideal.  But something about my impending departure has brought out the boxing gloves and, most recently, it’s been capitalism squirming up against the ropes.

Usually I just sit and listen to her side. Which lately, really has been a valid one.

Next year is a parliamentary election and the candidates are already mobilizing the masses by giving free dental care to pensioners. That is, as long as it costs no more than 500 griven.  Which is less than a hundred dollars.  And, let’s be honest, when was the last time you paid less than that for dental care? Even  with insurance.  It all feels a little “swindly” to me, especially when you consider the serious dangers affiliated with dentistry in Ukraine.  (Have I mentioned that I know more than one Ukrainian who’s gotten Hepatitis from substandard dental care?)  Our house’s general belief seems to be this:

“I’ll take the new teeth but like Hell they’re getting my vote!”

Which is just one of the things that makes Luba so cool.

And the woman’s got style, too.

Earlier this Fall, when I was leaving site to attend my friend’s wedding, Luba helped me carry my things to the bus station down in the center of town.  As we walked out the gate, she fished her sunglasses out of the bottom of her purse.  They are of the variety that all grandmas are likely to fish out of their well-used pocketbooks:  big with grayish lenses and light purple frames.  They match the pink lipstick magnificently.

She wears a black, flower print skirt and carries my mandolin on her back. We walk down the central street in town and her hair, newly trimmed, bounces as we go.  And walking down the hill, discussing the bandits in government and their choice to raise gas prices for elderly, veterans and persons with disabilities, I can’t help but think one thing. This woman who has been my roommate for the past two years is so cool.

And the more I sit here and think about it, the more examples I find to support the fact that I’m probably the luckiest Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. Who else has gotten to sit and drink plum wine on a Sunday night to memorialize the beheading of John the Baptist? Or chill out in the garden on tree stump stools discussing the presence of a higher power?

It’s not a bad deal, that’s for sure.

But just because she’s got style and moxie, doesn’t mean we don’t go at it sometimes.

Especially when it comes to the nostalgic  patriotism we both seem to have embraced of late – mine for the hyperbolic American homeland to which I’ll soon be returning and hers for the glory of the Soviet Union that’s past and gone.   In a phrase, we are both drunk on the idea of our countries as we imagine them to be.  I think, too, that we are worried we may never live in the world into which we had always thought ourselves born.

Luba believes strongly that living in present-day Ukraine wouldn’t be such a struggle if people hadn’t experienced better conditions during Soviet times.  But democratization, she believes, loused all that up royally.  And, of course, whether I should or shouldn’t,  this afternoon I decide to counter in defense of the only political system I’ve ever known.

“Of course,” she laughed back, clearly feeling sorry for my ineptitude on this matter, “capitalism served you well because you’re middle class!”

Which was quite a blow to my belief that all these years it had been my hard work affording me what I’d earned.  And as I watched her store the bad potatoes for  Spring, draped in a coat that’s she’s worn for longer than I’ve lived, I began to understand a bit how it might be that middle class Americans could fit neatly into a bourgeois box in her eyes.   And how someone outside the silver living might just take issue with that.

It gave me pause.  How much of America (and how many Americans) have I gone without noticing for the better part of my 26 years? How much have I benefited from the institutionalized policy of inclusion bestowed on white kids from Long Island? Why isn’t there poverty in Nassau County?  And if it is there, why can’t I see it? We surely can’t keep blaming Robert Moses and his low bridges for keeping this kind of socio-economic stratification going.  Bridges, after all, can be rebuilt.

And though I’ve spent the past two years volunteering, “helping” and spreading the wealth, it feels like a fraudulent, half-cocked attempt when you look at the numbers. I mean, the dollars and cents.

Sure, on the creative, intellectual and emotional levels, there’s good getting done and I’m proud when I catch glimpses of it.  I see it when my most troublesome third former leans heavy against my hip, desperate for a sort of human support that doesn’t exist at home.  I see it, too, when I learn that the Kharkiv city government has committed to helping fund ABC Camp in 2012.  In those small moments, I know that I am creating hope and belief in a better world.

But on a fiscal level, I’ve got to admit that I’m failing a bit at keeping my privilege in perspective.  Despite two years here, I still don’t talk about money the way Ukrainians can.  I’m not even home yet and already a realtor sends me emails about apartments that cost more per month than my yearly Peace Corps stipend.

Yup, here I go – running right back to the capitalist middle class from which I came.

It all gets rather frantic in my brain for a few hours until evening.  Luba calls me into the kitchen to clean the pumpkin.  I have a good, long chat with my Mom over Skype.  And I resolve to see more of America. Like, the real America, so that I can write and tell Luba about it.

Next day, we sit down with two thick, gooey slices of pumpkin cake and herb tea.  Luba turns down the national radio and says she’s sick of talking about the bandits, “yours and mine.” I feel guilty and grateful.

Because at dusk, when the sun buries itself deep among the corn fields, the meat of the matter is this:

We’re both just getting ready to be parted.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***   ***   ***

Different flesh, same sweetness.

Sometimes I feel so effective, I swear I could make a watched pot boil; with sheer will and tenacity alone, I might compel pasta to cook in a flash or beets to soften at a fork’s first spear.  And then there are the other days. The many, many other days when that iron will just skulks back into oblivion, leaving me with hardly enough wherewithal to reach the stove when the kettle whistles to pour my cup of tea.  Now,  after two years of employing a survivor’s need to self-motivate, I’ve begun to long for the protective confines of an office cubicle once again. It seems near treason to admit it, but I could really go for a 401k and some dental these days.

Return to America and right away you realize how closely we hold some things.  Like cars, for example, and knowing the best route home.  We left the farm as in a caravan of old: Cal in his claw-clad farm vehicle, Eric in his pick-up (Ma in her kerchief, Pa in his cap…) and me in my Mom’s silver Honda Civic.  Three humans setting out for the same place – same coffee machine at the same filling station – separate but as one.

Ever since leaving for Ukraine two years ago, I’ve been sliding around in a car-free existence. Walking and timing my travel by the height and comfort of my shoes.  And I’ve gotten a little high and mighty about the whole American love affair with automobiles.  Public transportation – having kept me mobile, having afforded me what small bursts of independent travel I’ve been allowed – has become an inspiration.  So grateful am I for the existence of buses and trains that I had trouble understanding why a person might want for their own automobile at all.  Mom kept reminding me that American culture is deeply rooted in our ability (and desire and demand) to just pick up and go someplace new at the drop of a hat. I accepted her reasoning but continued rallying for high speed light rails and more frequent bus services.

One short week in America, though, and my affection for the automobile increased exponentially.  Without it, how could I have celebrated the most beautiful Autumn wedding, picked up the most excellent wedding date from the airport, visited with my most excellent brother, two grandmothers, a grandfather and a whole host of childhood friends? Time may not be money but some days it really does seem priceless. The gift of presence, in an age when emails are epistolary and gift cards good enough, has become an ever appreciating currency of value.

*   *    *   *

Lately, I’ve had this recurring dream where I slip into a borrowed car and purchase the following things:

Yoga mat, book light (itty bitty, or otherwise), Finances for Dummies, temperpedic pillow, terrycloth robe, Le Creuset omelette pan.

Seamlessly, I drive from one store to another picking out these long sought-after items and listening to WFUV. I am America, I am the automobile!

But it’s another month yet until I make it to the mall.

(Oh lord, did I really just admit that I might be planning a trip to the mall?)

I guess that’s just one of the ways I know it’s time to go home.

This morning’s chatter was indeed another.

I’ve been struggling this past week to get used to the time difference, staying up till 4 a.m. sometimes even convincing myself that I could live in this warped American timezone for the rest of my service without much trouble.  I wonder whether, when standing in the American Cemetery at Normandy, you are standing in an Eastern Standard existence. Might I create such an EST outpost here in Eastern Ukraine? I mean, it really hasn’t been so bad! I’m up for evening phone calls and I have plenty of time to watch bad television.  Rationally, in the (late) morning when I wake, I know that this is not possible but in the wee hours of morning, I take it into serious consideration.

This morning was an improvement. I woke up around 9 a.m. and watched (sadly, did not help) my two octogenarian roommates pluck chickens at the dinner table on the verandah.  Determined to socialize, speak Russian and remind myself that I’ve still go another month to go, I put the kettle on and stood around for an hour as they plucked. I drank my coffee and listened to the range of conversation, adding a few non-inflammatory comments every now and again.

An acoustic version of «Tears from Heaven» played on the national radio station but we might as well have been plucking chickens in 1963, so clearly were Luba and Anya describing to me the Soviet version of history.

First, we discussed the bandits in the Ukrainian government.

Next, the Bulgarian seer who, blind and blessed with the power of foresight, correctly identified the location of American submarines during the Cold War.

Then, how Hitler gave all the gold that fell out of Jewish mouths to the capitalists in West Berlin. (A frightful but accurate translation, I assure you.)

The Bay of Pigs came next, Luba’s eldest sister laughing about how the fear of detonation had Kennedy up all night.  When she started in proudly on Krushchev’s epic shoe-banging, I had to walk into the other room.

The only thing that shocked me back into the present was their support of the Occupy Wall Street protests. They were glad to see Americans communing to combat capitalism which, they reminded me, was the root of all Ukraine’s problems. That and the fact that Hitler didn’t give the Jewish gold to East Berlin.

Now, I’m the first to admit that America has made and continues to make some mistakes.  But just now, so homesick am I for those stars and stripes that it’s hard to remember all of the American missteps that I’ve railed on in history papers. What I remember most in these moments is how free I feel in America to be and support anything I choose. I am, more than ever, grateful for the freedom of speech and expression and purpose that supports my actions (most of the time).  I am proud of the people who fight and protest every day to ensure a better country, a more perfect union.

Feeling all of these things, as well as the sting of insult, I know it’s time to go home.  I realize that my willingness to accept the propogandized history of America all in the name of supporting my motherland means it’s been too long since I’ve been home, really home.  America has become my dreamscape where the Bay of Pigs is nothing more than Kennedy’s first presidential challenge and success.  And where I believe, with every nerve and sinew, that if he did stay up all night it was because he was ambitious, committed and compelled by a greater good to help keep America safe.

I mean, this is Kennedy we’re talking about – the father of Peace Corps and a Catholic!

Sure, there are plenty who suppose that going home in such an idealized state of mind is dangerous. That it’s ripe with the potential for grave disappointment.  That I may not make it in the cold, harsh winter of American discontent.  Indeed, they’re likely to think that I’ve lost all bearings on the realities (and struggles and inequalities) of American life.   They’re out there fretting and tsking and saying, yet again, «Well, if that’s what you think, then, at your peril, Miss Peace….»

As perilous as it was to leave, so will it be to return.

But fear not for the lass who has been sometimes known to make the watched pot boil!

 It’s early on Tuesday morning and I’ve just finished packing my suitcase.  Among the kaleidoscope of books and clothes, I’ve tucked in some other things, too: guilt, uncertainty, exhaustion, joy, trepidation and excitement.  This evening, I’ll get on a train and start my journey home (with a fair number of stops along the way – including a gig umpiring for orphans in Western Ukraine!) Maybe it’s because I had coffee this morning for the first time in a month but my feet are dancing and my fingers are shaking and I am mad with expectation.  I get this sense of  urgency when it comes to recording these last few months and weeks in Ukraine. I get this sinking sense that if I don’t remember it then I might forget.

This morning is all too familiar.

Except now, two years later, it’s not the early-morning Acela and it’ll take far longer to get there.

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, I took a train from NY to Philadelphia for Peace Corps staging because, in those days, I walked around with the notion that there was no transit more romantic than the train.  I indulged in any opportunity to sit in the wide, plush seats of the Newport News or The Vermonter; and even though the Amtrak automated phone service had sent me reeling into quasi-psychopathy more than once, I was still in love.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that train ride as I pack for a late-service trip home for my dear friend Laura’s wedding.  It was a bizarre journey, I’m sure, for everyone involved.  After all, I boarded the NY-DC commuter train with two rolling suitcases, a hiker’s backpack and a mandolin.  High odds for deathly glares from the briefcase brigade.

“You know, New Yorkers usually don’t tolerate this kind of thing,” said another passenger as he helped me pick up one of my suitcases that had fallen.

Well, New Yorkers don’t usually pick up and join the Peace Corps either.

Except I knew just what he meant. I was scared out of my mind that this was only the beginning of the inconvenience I’d cause and the discomfort I’d feel during the next two years.  My suitcases and I were getting in the way of progress and achievement.  And I hated being an obstacle in the path of forward momentum.  I did not go slowly. I slolemed down sidewalks and dodged pedestrians of leisure with relish.

In that moment,  I wished I could commiserate with everyone who humphed and shook the pages of their WSJs as I labored by with my bags.  I wanted to iron out the pages of my reading material in anger, too.  A physical reaction to my discontent with this clueless young woman blocking the path of progress.

But I couldn’t, certainly not with the mandolin hung around my neck and a suitcase handle in each hand.  I would have to go slowly and brave the stares of those who knew better.

In retrospect, that trip was the most difficult of all my service.

The process of boarding that train to Philadelphia felt longer than the  27 hours I spent traveling back to Ukraine from Prague.  I spent the whole trip masked in my bravest face of nonchalance.  I read The Economist, tried to restore my tarnished image in the eyes of the madding, commuting crowd.  It was more trying than traveling from Kyiv with two enormous balkan bags of baseball equipment.  More exhausting than my first Ukrainian Summer when I carried a Turkish rug around with me in a black, canvas bag for a month. Is this what I had to look forward to??

Luckily, never again did I have to board a train alone with such a heavy burden.  Even today, though I’m one suitcase down from my original load,  Luba is walking down to the bus station with me and carrying my mandolin.

It is hard to think of leaving.  Especially when we had such a nice time last evening in our  neighbor’s summer kitchen celebrating yet another little-known Orthodox holiday.  What’s more, I can’t imagine an easy way to go about saying goodbye to an entire town. (I can imagine every pattern on every dish and each cornice in the apartment we’ll find in Chicago, but I can’t pin down an image of this goodbye.)

The hope is that I move more slowly now.  You know, less forest, more trees.  But the jury’s still out on that one.  Because, well, old habits die hard and I’m a sucker for the kind of crammed and crowded forward motion that only the LIE can provide.

Yet, there’s got to be something said for the fact that, this time, going home takes two trips.


Old friends, can you feel the days ticking down the way that I do? It’s been just over two years since I first signed on for this adventure and a mixed bag of emotions are raging as I close down the chapter.  I intended to write more than I did, sincerely. Who knew that living would intrude so on my want for creating written resolution? That said, I do think I’ll try to make a bit more of an effort these last couple of months to write down (and post) my parting thoughts.  No day like today, official Day of Health at my school, to start with a few strange, involuntary snaps of my nighttime synapses.

When I woke up for the second time this morning, here’s what I found written in pencil beside my bed:

In my Soviet dream I had to pay 8,000 rubles and 4 American dollars to use the bathroom. Under great secret, I was asked to take a toddler in a red and while striped onesie to use the toilet. But the restroom I found was run by a con artist looking for nothing but money. The floor to the bathroom was not just cracked tile but tile that moved and sank under the weight of your feet. I was sure it’d be the last bathroom I saw but we made it through and I dropped the little girl off and went home.

At home, I dropped an egg on the ground that cracked open to reveal a light yellow and mucous liquid. Within seconds, this hairless beige hamster who had miraculously appeared sucked it down like a hoover. I never knew rodents could consume so fast. 

Next, the toddler’s mother showed up with a full car to thank me for saving her daughter who, she had decided, she would call her son for the duration of his life. Though the small child was clearly a girl, she said not to fret because his initials had always been LEV. Russian for lion.

Then, I got up because I really had to pee.

And that’s everything. Unedited. Word for word.

What do you dream when you dream, my friend?

Today is not the day for doing laundry; though a small part of your pragmatic brain may try to convince you otherwise, who could possibly let the socks soak long enough on a day like this?

Today is not the day for tossing off the importance of a good cup of tea in the morning either.  And it is not the day for deciding whether or not business school is a wise career move.

Also, today is definitely not the day for an ab workout.

Today might be the day for accepting that it’s harder to run when the wind blows at you. But it’s not the day for beating your best time.  It’s most certainly not the day for beating your best time.

Today might be OK for staring at the rusted up farm equipment in your neighbor’s backyard. It may even be worth counting the chickens shaking up dust storms underneath it.  Today is a day for small tasks, like learning the difference between a chick and a hen.

Today is not the day for sitting in the dark of your small, rented room – even if you’re kind of into the funerary tones.

Today is not the day for walking barefoot on the dirty kitchen floor. Put on your house shoes, let the kettle boil and worry about the stained linoleum another day.

Let today be the day for walking two miles to snap up a bar of chocolate for the evening. Wouldn’t you agree?

Today is the day for surveying the end of the harvest in the back garden and staging an autumnal photo shoot with the cat. And if your camera runs out of batteries, today is the day to buy more. Just go out and do it, you can get the bar of chocolate on the way.

Today is the day to say yes when a neighbor offers a ride to town in a puce green Lada but it is not the day for catching a ride on the way back because today is the day to beat a thoroughfare for freedom, trust me it just is.

Today is the day for marveling at the overabundance of fruit trees on Karl Marx Avenue, but not the day for missing kombucha and take-out chinese.

I don’t know if today is a day for thinking about you and all the want ads waiting to be read. I wish that it were but perhaps better that today I retreat to that distant patch of harvested earth where no one stood and watched anything.  Today may or may not have been the day for crying among the dying corn stalks but it was.

I don’t know if I aught to admit it but anyway I forgot about my tea in the morning and I mulled over business school. I used chopsticks to eat a sad bowl of pasta and tomato paste and I watched bad T.V.

Like, really bad T.V.

But I got my damn chocolate bar and we lit a candle in the corner by the icons and we are remembering.  And maybe my tea was a few hours late and my run was lackluster at best. But I will think of you and I will read the job postings whether today is the day for it or not.

And aside from those few things all I can promise is this:

today is most definitely not a day for  laundry.

It’s nearly 1:30am and I’m the only one up in our ABC Staff apartment. I’m on my way to bed but I’ve just got to share this little moment of joy with all of you who helped make ABC Camp 2011 a reality this year.

Yesterday, a news crew from Kharkiv city joined us for a few hours at camp. Here is the segment that they put together about our creative, POSITIVE, innovative ABC Campers:


Yeri and me, awestruck by the chaos at the Polish border.

School ended yesterday and it’s a good thing, though not for the reasons you might expect.  A collection of adventures over the past week has led to the complete (and thankfully temporary) deconstruction of my vocal chords.  Totally kaput. When I try to raise my voice to talk, all that comes out are buzzing, rough-edged spouts of air. I cannot speak above a whisper. It’s a wonder to behold. 

You know, I really wish someone had asked me what I’d have liked my last words to be because for the past three days I’ve been stuck with these:

“We’re with you, coal miners of Donetsk!”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  In no way do I regret attending the football game and cheering on a team to a 2-0 victory but the ensuing silence was unexpected and a decided inconvenience.  Sure, sure, I should have known that running to the stadium in a downpour and then sitting wet and shivery in the open bleachers for 2.5 hours would have some enduring repercussions.  But who ever acted sensibly among throngs of beered-up men? I think they call it mob mentality. My cheering companion, Olga, and I were grateful for our spots among the mad, boozy fans who’d come hours by bus just to secure a win for their team.  The warmth of their drunk, unwavering cheers were a welcome balm against the damp chill that caught at our collar bones when things quieted on the pitch below.  Punching the air with my fist, beating my feet to the sound of their drum and crying out for victory were minuscule offerings in return for the great entertainment they were providing on this Wednesday night. Only later on did I consider the damage done to my already-weakened-from-singing-too-often-and-too-loudly-with-small-children state of my larynx. Mob mentality, indeed.

So, it’s two days in and I’ve been mulling over my last words – thinking a lot about what it is that draws us to silence and to noise.  I  picked up an anthology of short stories and start reading a piece by Kevin Brockmeier called “A Year of Silence.” Sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh at the coincidences thrown your way. In his story, a whole city cooperates to create an artificially silent world and then marvels at their subsequent desire to return from it back into the complicated radiance of sound.

“In the abundant silence we proceeded into ourselves,” Brockmeier writes at the apex of this city’s love affair with silence. And don’t I know it.  Over the past few days, I’ve simultaneously felt great relief and great frustration over the state of my malfunctioning vocal cords.  The funny thing about this silence (oh, how punishing it seems!) is that my ears seem to be hearing more than ever.  Sitting in the armchair in our garden, the animals behind me sound like the bird house at the Bronx Zoo projected over a loud speaker.  It’s magnificent and it is irritating.  As many times as I’ve been happy for an excuse to let the phone ring on to voicemail, I have also just want to talk to someone about my day.

The great thing about voluntary silence and solitude is just that – you’ve always got the chance to break in with a laugh or a response.  It feels strange to have that option taken off the table.  I’ve had to change the things I do to entertain myself – no more solo Mandolin jam bands or Baudelaire readings for an audience of one when I can’t sleep. It’s far more unpleasant when you’re silenced and no one is giving you the chance to speak up.

And then, as quickly as it left, my voice was back again in all of its inquisitive glory. As if it had never left at all.

*                *                    *                 *

After the match, it was a while before the armed guards would let us out of the stadium.  Football rivalries here are fierce and a recent game in a neighboring town left cars smashed and a fair number of spectators in pretty bad shape.  We’d bought our tickets – in the rain outside the stadium and under an umbrella – from the Donetsk fans in orange and black.  Once the final ceremony had ended, and in order to minimize the damage and danger for all, we were being detained.  Literally, the last 300 bodies out of a crowd of 28,000.  Standing in rush hour proximity to each other, inching our way closer to the stairwell exit, was frustrating at best.  The elation from watching ‘our team’ win the trophy had subsided and we were feeling the damp chill come on by late night after rain.  The guards, gun-clad in maroon berets, were probably younger than I but they had all the power to keep us in that stadium for as long as they wanted; a fact I found as reprehensible as the loss of my voice later on that night.

Not being a die-hard fan and having no interest in starting a rumble with the Dynamo fans from Kyiv, I thought that Olga and I should be exempt from the waiting.  I considered how I could explain to the guards that I was special and should be considered outside the jurisdiction of their laws. Which is just so American, right? Feeling above the law and relying on rights to get one’s way. Olga shook her head when I suggested telling the guards we were late for a train.  It was the surest sign I’d seen all night that we had grown up in different worlds and under the thumbs of strikingly different governments.  Though I accepted her refusal to take up my suggestion, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to weasel our way around this inconvenience.   I grew up in New York, after all. I had watched my Yiayia convince the operator of the Roosevelt Island tram I was 5 when I was really 8 just so I could ride for free.  We don’t wait in lines without knowing why or who’s in charge.  As I stood there, stewing in my sense of confidence and self-entitlement, I was reminded of a similar experience I had had a few months ago on the Polish border.

In retrospect, I was sad about my own willingness (in this, albeit stressful situation) to give up all elements of civility and reason.  Waiting behind this automated turn-style for hours in a busy, chaotic crowd of mostly Ukrainians and few tourists was a frighteningly short vignette of what it must feel like on the other side (the outside) of a locked gate.  The claustrophobic feeling of having no agency at all – no power to get yourself out of this ruthless waiting game. No one was available to take questions, let alone ask for last words.

The facilities at the Polish border are modern, a precursor to the country itself which spread out clean and open in front of us as soon as we walked out of the train station.  This means there is glass and steel and concrete adorning the customs building in equal parts.  This turn-style, the single point of entry into Poland from the Ukrainian border, is tall and thin like the ones in New York City;  and like its sister gate across the Atlantic, it only moves in one direction, prevented from clockwise entry by a wall of parallel, horizontal bars. The uniqueness of this turn-style comes from the people who control its movement.  They allow the gate to spin only in short bursts – never letting more than 10 or 12 people into the checkpoint at one time.  It was not the waiting that so distressed me but the simple lack of order. No one followed the rules – no one respected age or physical capacity for waiting outside in the late March chill.  It was a simple case of determining who could push and persevere – who could manage to get themselves through these sideways steel jaws into the room on the other side.

And this room is perhaps the strangest part of the experience.  Because there – once inside – all is quiet, calm, jovial.  Music hums and not entirely friendly but perfectly civil border guards check through luggage and stamp our passports, welcoming us into the European Union. Everyone chews gum and leans, elbows heavy, on clean, white counter tops. The room seems uniquely constructed, with this automatic turn-style and a tinted sliding door, to encourage border-crossers to forget about all the hours they spent waiting outside.

Outside and behind the bars, the three of us stood for a long time, shifting our bright American backpacks as we waited with a crowd whose sole aim for the day was the sale of a single bottle of vodka, a few packs of cigarettes.  Outside was where my sense of entitlement reared its ugly head.

Let me through, I demand, Can’t you see my intentions are entirely transparent! I am not bringing in liquor for your drunks and cigarettes for your youth. I am here as a good American – to spend my dollars and to sight-see! Surely, I shouldn’t have to wait in such a line, rife as it is with disorder and petty arguments! Let me through.

And, then, I begin to realize that this is the moment I have feared: my birth of equal standing in the democratic world means nothing at all.  I stare at my reflection in the locked and tinted glass door.  No one will listen to a word I say and a tall, strong man is boxing me out so I can’t get through the gate. He stares disapprovingly down at me and my transparent intentions. My two travel partners have made it through and I’m standing here – gripping a gray metal pole in preparation for the moment when the gates turn again and I can push and shove my way into the turn-style.  The horizontal bars cut off my reflection in the sliding glass door – showing just my eyes staring back at me between darkness.  And for a few moments, I see myself: nothing but eyes, locked to a faith and a cloth in which I do not believe.  How could the world be so unreasonable?

These are my last thoughts before snaking under the tall man’s arm and pushing an elderly woman, with frightening zeal, out of my quarter of the turn-style.  I was ruthless and no one was there to tell me I was wrong.

The whole experience remains surreal – especially the speed with which, having gained access to the other side, it all fled from my mind.  Struck from the record books as quickly as it came. No last words. No questions asked.