Grandma

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I used to spend every Sunday morning in nursing homes. I used to try to imagine what the old and wasted looked like when they were young and full of life. But now I’m not just some stranger on an altruistic visit. I’m family, sitting in hospice, while my grandmother is dying. And I am dying with her. I can feel it, because the part of me that only she brings out is dying too.

The life we had together is coming to an end. Her muscles are shriveled, her skin hangs loose on her bones like Spanish Moss on tree limbs, her words sound like car tires turning on gravel, and her breathing rattles in her throat. But now more than ever I see her as young. The more her body withers, the more her beautiful soul appears.

When asked to describe her to a friend, I said without thought or hesitation, “She is like sunshine. She turns everything into a song. If once she smiles at you, some infectious moment of happiness compels you to smile back. She is simple in a world that makes everything complicated. She spreads love everywhere she goes. And the day she dies, the world will change forever.”

Lifeless and weak as she is, she still has strength to hold me, pat my head, and stroke my cheek. I kiss her hands and face, and lay my head gently on her shoulder. I sing a lullaby in her ear until she sleeps. Her smile hasn’t changed. Sometimes she looks at me in a room full of people, and her pale, thin lips stretch in that same familiar smile she has only for me. I am closer to her now than ever, even though my fellow Wayfaring Stranger is crossing the final border, “only going over Jordan, only going over home”.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said.

“Save a place for me in your house,” I replied.

“I will,” she promised.

The days in hospice drag on. She grows weaker, but she still shakes her finger at me. I’m onery and she knows just how I came by it; she shakes her finger at me because she knows I’m just like her. “Don’t get sunburned,” she says. “I won’t, Grandma,” I promise.

It is not hard to watch her die. She is ready and so am I. I only weep because I am tired, because I know that the time is coming when I will have to carry on without her. I dread the lonely days of wayfaring ahead: the dark clouds that lie out before me, the days when I want to call her, have coffee with her, read her my latest story, share my joys and sorrows, or ask for her prayers, and can’t. But perhaps I will not be as alone as I expect. Souls and the ties between them are not ruled by death. What are the laws of physics to supernatural souls? For the first time I realize that we are fascinating creatures, humans. We are part physical, part mental, and part spiritual. We are capable of ever so much more than we realize. Perhaps when my grandmother’s soul is at last set free, we will be even closer than before.

She sleeps more and more often. One day she’ll wake up in that other world that I only just catch glimpses of in that space between waking and dreaming. I can see heaven behind her eyes.

Hi, Grandma.” I have to shout in her ear now because she can’t hear me anymore.

“Who… who is it?” she asks. She can’t see me anymore either.

“It’s Sarah, Grandma.”

Her hands flutter immediately, reaching for me almost desperately, and words tumble from her too-dry mouth. “I love… you. I …love… you.”

“I love you too, Grandma.” She struggles to form the words. “You’re …shuss… to me.”

She can’t swallow and her tongue and lips no longer communicate her thoughts properly. But I know what she’s saying. You’re precious to me. It’s the same script we say every time.

“I’m not going to tell you goodbye,” I say firmly, “because we will meet again. So I’ll just say, see you soon.”

Something feels familiar about this experience, and I gradually realize as one day presses into another, that I have walked in the shadow of death before. I hear echoes of words spoken ages ago: come let us cross over. I see a forlorn face borne away by the train to places I cannot follow. I see the stars at 3 am twinkling in a dark foreign sky and confide in my best friend, “I don’t want to say good-bye.” “So we won’t,” came the reply. “Because we’ll see each other again. So I’ll just say, ‘See you soon’.”

Okay, then. See you soon!

See you soon…

It seems that all my life I have been learning letting go. Practicing little pictures of death. Perhaps this is so that one day when I too am dying, I will not have to be afraid.

Grandma is still teaching me, even as she sleeps now. And this is her final parting gift: by her faith that I am coming after her, by my faith that we will meet again, by her peace and her desire to be quit of this world, by her love, by her very dying, she is saving me.

I am homesick already.

On her last good day, she asks for her swab to be dipped in coffee. She sits up and plays the electric keyboard they brought just for her. On this day, I make my last confession.

Hey, Grandma.”

“What?” 

“I got sunburned.”

“Uh-oh…”

“I’m sorry, Grandma. I love you. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

She summons the strength to lift a skeletal hand, her thumb reaching for the ceiling. “Okay!”

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go

I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather around me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

I’m going there to my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

With Unveiled Face

The 2014 Olympics are nearly upon us, and the upcoming Winter games have me wandering back into old half-forgotten memories and the lasting impacts they have left on me.

The most memorable of these was Alexei Yagudin.

Despite the love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with dance that I had developed by the age of 15, my long-standing fascination with figure skating never wavered. After 6 years of rigid ballet training, I no longer loved dance. I was too tall, too gangly, too big, and cursed with legs too long to achieve the glorious lines of the other girls in my class. Telling me not to compare myself with other girls was useless. All I had to do was look over at the girl next to me with perfect technique and her foot up by her ear, while I wobbled and struggled to hold my leg up at barely 90 degrees, and I knew that I would never be a ballerina. I would never be the best, so what was the point?

I was ever increasingly resentful of all the people who loved my “church presentations”, oozed over how “anointed” I was, encouraged me always to “glorify God with the dance”, and assumed I would grow up to be a “dancer” because I “had this God-given gift” and if I didn’t use my “talent” of dance, etc. etc…. That alone probably ruined ballet for me. That and the nightmare church-approved dance outfits from hell. This was pre-liturgical dancewear era before “worship dance” was really even a “thing”. Floor length skirts, wrist length sleeves, chokingly high almost-Victorian necklines, generous billows of fabric everywhere. Back then I had to wear three separate layers of heavy modesty clothing under these outfits, and I felt about as graceful as a fluffy pillow. But enough of that because it’s not like I’m bitter or ranting or anything… (insert awkward pause here)

Anyway. Resentful as I might have been, I couldn’t stop moving either. My mind made irresistable demands of my body far beyond my physical abilities. Leaps, pirouettes, attitudes, and arabesques danced before my eyes, while my feet flopped and clomped at the end of my wooden legs pitifully like a marrionette’s. And so I spiraled into a downward cycle of self-judgement and depression. By the time I was 15, I was miserable. I hated dance. And I hated myself for hating it and even more so for being unable to stop.

And then this happened:

Tall, blond, and oh! that Russian accent! I was done for. But height and good-looks were nothing compared to the way he skated. He wasn’t just skating a piece called “Winter”; he was Winter with every gesture, with every breath. I never knew he was about to jump until he was already in the air. Night after night I stayed up long after my parents had gone to bed, replaying the VHS recording of Alexei Yagudin’s programs, searching desperately for words to describe the indescribable. What was it that had me spellbound and made me watch again and again and again? 

In those days, I didn’t feel a thing. I was almost entirely devoid of emotion, never happy or sad, angry or nervous. I never got stage fright. I described myself earlier as miserable, but at the time I didn’t know that I was. I was empty and numb. Alexei Yagudin had something that I lacked, and I didn’t know what it was.

But I wanted it like I had never wanted anything before.

All I could conclude was that he loved what he did. And I didn’t. He had passion. And I didn’t.

I wanted to be like him. I wanted that passion and inner fire with which he skated. I hungered for it from the bottom of my empty, frozen soul. My shell of a heart recognized instinctively what it lacked, and craved it insatiably thereafter. 

It didn’t escape my notice when the commentator said emphatically, “He [Yagudin] changed the way he ate. He changed the way he trained. He changed the way he thinks. He said, ‘I had to be doing something wrong’.” And I wondered just how much Alexei Yagudin had given up to achieve this kind of result. How much pain did a person have to endure to burn with this kind of fire? And was I willing to go through it myself to get there? No way. I had too much pain as it was. What person in their right mind would be such a glutton for punishment? The thought of enduring any at all was unbearable. 

But I wanted that drive, that motivation.

I used to recite to myself over and over:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties…..

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise…..
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”

–exerpts from “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I understood that, all right! It described my existence perfectly. My only defense was to wear a mask, or try my best. Sometimes I think I succeeded too well. Oh, it’s not like I didn’t crack sometimes, but the very few people I confided in or went to for help seemed confused. Why would such a good Christian girl from such a good Christian home have such overdeveloped feeling of guilt and anger? Simple. My parents wore masks too. And I was the only one who knew, because when good Christian people have problems at home, it’s not okay to tell the truth. So we lied and played a holy masquerade.

And yet…

He was the Man in the Iron Mask. He was a prisoner who throws off the mask and overcomes. Could such a thing even be possible? The only thing holding me together was the mask I wore, and I didn’t even realize I had one. But this introduced me to a new idea: the idea of living my life “with unveiled face”.

To this day the gesture of throwing off the mask conjures a sob too thick to be uttered through my throat. It sticks in my chest and makes my eyes water. Perhaps because I understand now that it requires a lot of courage not to hide behind a mask. You become vulnerable, and, beautiful as that might be, vulnerability has never been high on my life’s shopping list.

Alexei was the very last to skate in the final competition. I was wound tight as a drum, every muscle tense as though I could keep him from any wobble, any fall, any mistake through sheer willpower. But there was no need. He was perfect. No one else had artistry like he did. I believed he was a dancer, not an athlete. He took a sport and made it art. When those four 6.0’s came up and it was clear he had won gold, Mom and I shrieked and cheered enthusiastically — much to Dad’s bewilderment — and ate our celebratory 3 Musketeers Bars in an event of completely unplanned solidarity.

Both of these programs still take my breath away. It’s hard to describe how I feel watching them now. I still have that same awe, that same wonder, that same thought of “I want what he’s got” as I did at 15. But I’m no longer an emotionally vacant troubled teen, desperate to feel anything, but as someone who has decided that there is no ecstasy without agony, no gain without loss, and that we would never be victorious if there were nothing to overcome. If hardship or sacrifice is the price of passion, I have come to believe it is worth it.  I am learning not to hide behind a mask.

It’s been 12 years and Alexei Yagudin is still my biggest inspiration.  For years I have traced The Beginning back to this point in February 2002. The year Alexei Yagudin won gold. The year I met Kabardinka. The year I started learning Russian. The year I first went to Ukraine and discovered my roots. The year my life began.

But I am no longer sure.

As a young child I would put on the slickest socks I could find and attempt to slide across our yellowed kitchen floor. My parents worried whenever they caught me, especially Mom. I think she was afraid I would fall and hit my head. But she needn’t have worried. It was just after my first Olympics, 1994. And in my mind I wasn’t sliding perilously across old, buckled linoleum. I was gliding beautifully across ice. Just  me, the movement, and the whistle of wind in my ears. I was lighter than air, graceful as a swan on a lake.

Oksana Bayul became a legend in our house, and the fact that she was Ukrainian was always mentioned. Not that we knew anything about Ukraine at that time. It was just so unusual that it had to be noted, a coincidence that we would later look back on with much more admiration and devotion. For unbeknownst to Mom and I in 1994, three generations of our ancestors had lived, labored, and loved on rich, black Ukrainian soil before their exodus to the New World in search of peace and farmland. Oksana Bayul from Ukraine — I was raised to revere her ethereal grace and beauty, so like a ballerina’s, and though the white swan is my mother’s favorite, this pink outfit is the one I remember best.

It is really strange to look back and realize that it has been 20 years since Oxana Bayul’s 1994 Olympic victory, that at the time Ukraine had only been independent for 3 years. That I was 7 and in my mind Ukraine existed only in connection with the young figure skater who I imitated every time I stepped onto my imaginary ice. (Even into my teenage years, it wasn’t just a kitchen floor; it was an ice rink, and I was lost in the movement.) I slipped and skidded across that bumpy kitchen floor, like a fledgling bird dreaming of great blue heavens. There was no good or bad, no concept of a right way, a wrong way, or technique. I was a little bird who flew.

Perhaps that was the true Beginning of my life.

For two years this fascination with movement continued, until at 9 years of age Mom finally enrolled me, not in ice skating classes, but in ballet. Thank God. I was not cut out to be a figure skater. Swollen, busted knees and ice packs were not worth skimming over ice. Give me a kitchen floor any day.

I have finally come to the conclusion that it was never specifically “dance” that I loved, but being in motion. I love to move. Play music and I am physically unable to sit still. And looking back, I can see that I never really stopped moving; I just stopped thinking of it as “dance”. And every new experience has helped me unlearn my bad associations with dance and made me a little less broken.

It has been a long and difficult road since I used to search for answers in Alexei’s Olympic programs. I have wandered from discouraging attempts at ballet (because it was the only language of movement I knew), to folk dance, to Taekwondo, to yoga, and finally to a “real Ukrainian wedding” (where I learned the true secret of the willowy Ukrainian physique — strong vodka and non-stop dancing).

From folk dance I learned that dance depends upon your perception of the steps. Taekwondo taught me focus and that “there’s a dragon in me somewhere”. Yoga taught me patience and persistence and showed me that not all movement is dance, giving me the space to rediscover the love on movement I had lost. And the real Ukrainian wedding taught me that the important thing is not how you move, but that you just do it. (Because apparently if you’re not dancing, you’re not having enough fun!)

And now here I am, back at the basics in a friend’s adult beginner ballet class. Only this time something has changed. Suddenly I realize my feet are moving of their own accord, neglecting to inform my mind before it can start judging every little imagined flaw. Yoga taught me the importance of a calm and quiet mind. And though sometimes my mind still wants more than my body can do, I just smile to myself and say, “Later.” This would never be possible if I had not spent time in yoga.

I bend my knees, I point my feet, I fight for every millimeter of height in a developpe because I choose to. Because I know I have a choice. Tomorrow I may do yoga or taekwondo or attempt a new style or go to folk dance, but today I do ballet. Today it is enough to be lost in the movement like I am once again 7 years old and the kitchen linoleum is my ice.

I feel like a bird who is relearning how to fly. 

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 2:18

Things I like:

Read a recent interview with Alexei Yagudin!

Watch gorgeous prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova.

Listen to one of my favorite songs “God is a Dancer” by Benjamin del Shreve.

For a list of some figure skaters to watch in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, go here!

Of God, Geeks, and Doctor Who…

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There's one more? I don't remember. What's a Silence?

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There’s one more? I don’t remember. What’s a Silence?

Warning! The following may contain Doctor Who references, fandom spirit with distinct overtones of a Christian and spiritual nature. 

Recently while on vacation in Alabama, I attended Con Kasterborous, basically a Doctor Who convention. I unabashedly love Doctor Who; I won’t deny it. And Con Kasterborous was probably the best first con experience I could have had.

People of all kinds from all walks of life came together to celebrate, discuss, and totally go crazy over one thing: Doctor Who. People postulated, hypothesized, and referenced the classic and spin-off series more than I had ever imagined anyone would. They debated whether the next doctor would be male or female, blonde or ginger, who was the best companion, and how Moffat will get around the 12th regeneration problem.

We have found our people, we joked. Now, I’m not used to random strangers understanding my quips. But part of the magic of the con was being in a room packed with people, where you could make the slightest Doctor Who reference and everyone in the room would get it.

It was one of those things that seems like it should be just a fun weekend event. But it may yet prove to be more life-changing than even I suspected. I was happy. I was grateful. I was overwhelmed with dreams of great purpose, etc. It was very much inspiring. That deep heart-string at the seat of my being resonated all the way to heaven and back. I believed God was showing me glimpses, not of the whole picture, but of a greater, more complete direction for my future. I was reassured that it was okay for me to like the things I like, to dream the things I dream, and write the stories I write, because everyone else at that con was either an artist, a writer, a fan, or all three. I began to think that maybe I didn’t have to be quite so shy about wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi or whatever genre my scribbles may be. It is always my hope that whatever I write will speak to someone, whether it is fantasy or fanfic or a post on a blog. To quote one of the speakers, Lady Soliloque: “Make your art whether it’s writing, drawing, or fanvideos. Some one will appreciate it. So put it out there. Go. Create!” We had found our people indeed! I saw through a glass darkly, but after that con, I saw a shade more clearly.

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

One of the things that impressed me the most was that, no matter if we sometimes disagreed, or didn’t see eye to eye, or if our favorite doctors weren’t the same, in the end we were united by our common love of Doctor Who. It resonates with us in some deep way that we can only guess at and it bound us all together. It was a beautiful thing.

All my life, Sunday School and Youth Group leaders have endeavored to teach me that if you are not going to church to have a spiritual encounter with God, then you are going for the wrong reasons. Okay. I am a sincere, spiritual, and devout person. But rarely have I ever encountered God in a church. He doesn’t change my life in sermons, prayers, or worship songs. Generally, when He wants to redirect my life profoundly, He will whisper to me in the wind, at a Ukrainian bus stop, in a yoga class, or at a Doctor Who convention.

A good number of my generation and I are losing patience with the modern church. We seem to be looking for community, peace, and a safe place. And let’s face it: there are very few churches where one can truly find those things. These days it seems like Christians will have one disagreement and split! Ta-da! A new denomination is born. Church history shows this pattern from the Protestants and Martin Luther all the way back to the very first split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.

Me, Vita, and our new ride!

I asked my friend, Vita, who went to Con Kasterborous with me made a similar observation. So I asked her to share some of her thoughts as well:

“[Recently], I went to my very first ‘con’. Con Kasterborous was one of the craziest and fun events I have ever been to. I was surrounded by a thousand other humans who all shared my love of the BBC show Doctor Who. It was fabulous. There were so many different unique and amazing people there! I was inspired and challenged. I felt like God was saying, “Hey, your pen has been silent for far too long. It is time to let your words out on to paper.” My good friend, Sarah Marie, was the one who finally hit the nail on the head. She said, “Why is it that this weekend, at a con, I felt closer to God than I do when I go to my church?” I was blown away, because I felt it, too. At a non-Christian event, God was making His presence known to us. This got me to thinking. Why is it that I feel closer to God everywhere but in a traditional church setting?

“I love Jesus Christ. I love having Christian friends (I love my non-Christian friends, also!). I love going to church. But I am so tired of being around other Christians that are “play-acting” church. We pick songs to get an emotional response. We show videos that I swear the sole-purpose of is to make people cry. Why do we go to that much trouble to get an emotional response? Where have all the genuine Christians gone? I am absolutely exhausted with modern religion. Why do we feel like a church setting is a good place to pick apart our faith? There are certain areas that I consider to be gray areas of Christianity. Subjects that in the Bible God isn’t exactly black and white about whether they are wrong or not. And that’s okay. These are the subjects that each Christian has to approach from where God leads them. What is good for one may not be good for all! (Just check out Acts 10!) In the modern church setting, these are the subjects we as Christians pour so much time and effort and passion into. Stuff that doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. We allow them to split churches and divide families. We allow them to get in the way of God’s vision and plan for our future. We focus on them more than we focus on God. We forget that God told us to love Him first, and love others next, nothing more, nothing less.

“We are a society that is obsessed with being right. And that’s wrong. We are so busy judging everyone else’s sin that we forget about being remorseful about our own sin. There aren’t multi-levels of sin; there is just sin. And Jesus died for all sin. Equally.

“So, why can’t we as Christians come together in the same way as other groups of people? We have even more of a reason to come together. We are united under more than just a mutual love of something nerdy. We are united under the God who created the world. We are united under the Son of God who died for our sins, so our imperfection could be perfection.

“Imagine, at a con, that some of the different fans got into a fight over whether Superman was Caucasian or African American? The mud starts slinging and all of a sudden the one group splits into two. Then the groups split again over whether he has brown eyes or blue eyes or green eyes. What was once a fun topic would no longer be enjoyable. Eventually the fandom would be so split to the point of breaking. The comic books would no longer exist because there would be too many versions of Superman to get enough support to survive. We wouldn’t let this happen to our fandoms, so why do we let it happen in our churches? Why can’t the different fandoms (church bodies) of Christ put aside their petty disagreements and come back together in the common unity of love for God and love for others? Why do we continue to allow the fighting, misunderstandings, and disagreements to destroy the reason why the church exists? Why do we continue to stress over pointless things? What good does it do if we decide that dunking or sprinkling is the proper form of baptism, if people are still dying and going to hell?

“Maybe we feel closer to God outside a traditional church setting because we are too busy in the church to remember that we are there to worship Him. We are too busy trying to get a response out of other people to remember to approach God on our own and show others by our example. If we want to be near to God, we need to quit focusing on others and start focusing on being right with Him ourselves. If we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. (James 4:8 – Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.) We need to rejoice in His love, and let the miniscule things go. We need to love others, because we were put on earth to show God’s love to the world. We need to unite in Jesus Christ.

“Be encouraged, be challenged, be loved.

V”

In the end, it all comes down to people. Christianity is a religion of love, redemption, and forgiveness. Why then are there so many Christians who seem to be just the opposite? Shouldn’t we be united by our common love and adoration of Christ? Shouldn’t we be able to share our faith and enjoy fellowship without undergoing a “great divide”? It’s like telling a child to believe in the power of true love while their parents repeatedly remarry and divorce.

That’s not to say conflict will never happen. Conflict will always be with us. We’re people – unique and opinionated people – and at one point or another, we’re gonna disagree. But can you imagine if Doctor Who fans split every time they disagreed over whether the Doctor should be male or female or ginger? What if they split over their favorite Doctor? If Whovians split over every little thing, “Whovian” would not be in the dictionary and we wouldn’t be sending a TARDIS into space. (True story! Check it out here!)

My desire is that Christians would come together because of their mutual love of God, and not just because church is the thing to do on Sundays, or to be a good Christian, or so all the other Christians won’t judge us. (Besides, wouldn’t it be awesome to cosplay your favorite Bible characters or saints on Sunday and not only at the yearly Harvest Festival on October 30th?)

But the truth is, God is powerful and loving enough to give his children places of rest, healing, and peace. God once made me a promise, when I was rebuilding my faith from the ashes up. In the middle of my messy life, when I wanted to change but I didn’t know how, he promised me, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.” (It’s Jeremiah 29:14, but I didn’t know that then.) In all the subsequent years of feeling like I might well be playing hide-and-seek with the God of my universe, He has never failed to be found in precisely the moment I needed Him. He has never failed to lead me exactly where I needed to go.

If we seek to find God, He will be found. Even if He chooses to be found at a Doctor Who convention. And I find that infinitely reassuring.

Kabardinka

I have waited a very long time to tell this story. It is the memory I hold closest to my heart. But recently I went back to Worldfest and one of the employees, upon hearing me mention how Worldfest had changed my life, encouraged me to write. So here is my story.

It was World Fest, 2002, 11 years ago. I was 15. Wildfire was the hot new coaster, Red Gold Heritage Hall had just opened, and the Fresco Barn served the best Cornish hens I have ever tasted in my life. It seemed like a place where magic could happen. And it did.

But first, you must understand my situation at the time. I had a miserable home life. My parents fought and argued constantly: my mom cried and screamed, my dad broke stuff and cursed everything. It was not a happy place. I was empty and numb, a huge void of emotions, because to feel happiness or joy was to open up to pain and anguish. And no one ever noticed that I was collateral damage of parents at war.

But once in a lifetime something happens that forever splits your life in two: the time before and the time after. For me that something was Kabardinka.

Worldfest brought musicians and dancers from all over the world to share their culture. Who could have known what was about to happen? I was entirely unsuspecting.

When I saw the show by Kabardinka, I had not a clue what Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Elbrus were. I only knew that I had never seen dancing like this before. The women were more gentle than doves, more graceful than ballerinas, drifting as softly as feathers borne on the wind, with movements so effortless that they seemed to float just above the floor, the very picture of feminine beauty and mystery. And as much as the women were soft and beautiful, the men were as wild and fierce, creatures of the mountains straight out of legend. Together they were absolutely the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Every movement, every step, every glance of the eye was timed to perfection. They caught my attention and never let it go, from the moment the first dancing booted foot touched the stage until the last beautiful dancer had disappeared behind the curtain.

I went around in a daze, visions of highlanders and dark-eyed beauties dancing through my head. Dreams of the kind of women wars were fought for and men who would die defending a woman’s honor.Longing for everything my life lacked: integrity, protection, respect, and honor.

Back then there were Closing Ceremonies. All the performers and guests would gather in a big circle and dance around the gazebo as we sang “What a Wonderful World.” To this day I cannot hear that song with a dry eye. “What a Wonderful World” is springtime at Worldfest, the fragrance of flowers after rain, faces I once knew, the first time my heartfelt anything at all. It marks such a sweet memory of such a precious time. After the Closing Ceremonies, I asked to snap a picture with some of the dancers from Kabardinka. Upon learning that I was a dancer too, they oohed and ahhed and asked to see some ballet. As it happened, I was wearing dance sneakers. I did a pretty little curu on my toes and a curtsey. They seemed quite impressed and even applauded. Nothing fancy, nothing special. But that was all it took. From that moment on, despite their very few words of English and my complete lack of Russian, they were my friends and I was their biggest fan.

And by “biggest fan”, I mean, if they had a show, I would be there. 20 times, at least (probably more),over 6 days, 4 different weekends. And by “friends” I mean, whenever they saw me outside of the Hall, they would always break out with huge smiles, wave vigorously, and cry, “Hello, Sarah!” in those thick accents, whether I was in a crowd full of people or just walking in to watch the show. And I would wave back and call, “Privet!” just like they had taught me. When it was time to leave, they would ask, “When are you coming back?” or the broken English equivalent. I can still see it all vividly when I close my eyes, like a video I can turn on at will. And I can clearly recall their faces without the aid of pictures. The memories are so firmly fixed in my mind. Considering I lived in a different state, I really don’t know how I talked my parents into bringing me so often. I asked my mom about it the other day, and her reply was, “Well, at least I always knew where you were.”

My mom had a point. I was always hanging around the dancers, so much so that sometimes other patrons of Worldfest would ask me questions about the group and their culture. And sometimes I could answer. I even ended up playing interpreter a couple of times for those that didn’t speak charades. Communication without words is a skill that has stayed with me to this day.

My friends and I would often go to watch the other shows, wander all over Silver Dollar City, or ride the roller coasters. We loved Wildfire and Thunderation. They taught me their dances and my very first words in Russian. I adored them no end.

Later, when I realized that Kabardinka had toured all over other countries and that some of those dancers who knew me by name and always greeted me with a smile were THE principle dancers of the ensemble, I just couldn’t believe it. Who was I? I was nobody. And yet, while all my world and my parents’ marriage was burning to ashes around me, they were my lifesavers in an ocean of despair.

It was the first time in my life I had ever felt safe. They were the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met. They showed me glimpses of a world beyond the one I was trapped in, the first ray of dawn in my endless dark night. The dancers of Kabardinka saved my life.

I know I will probably never meet any of those dancers again. But that’s okay. They will hold a special place in my heart. Always. Because of them, I have seen the names of my ancestors carved in stone in a Ukrainian cellar, I have drunk pure water from one of the last clean wells on earth, I have international friends all over the world, I can smile without sadness, and dance freely. I have found things worth living for. I speak Russian and a little Ukrainian, I am proud of my Ukrainian Mennonite heritage, and I learned of my great-uncle who was born in Pyatigorsk, about 55 miles from Nalchik, where Kabardinka was from. I have learned to never let language get in the way of kindness, because I know first-hand the value of a smile. I know who I am because of one chance encounter 11 years ago at Worldfest, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri when a handful of dancers from a city in Russia that no one in Arkansas had ever heard of, were kind to a broken 15year-old girl. To this day their kindness allows me to heal.

If I could ever see them again, I would try to tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart, for saving me from my life, for giving me hope when everything looked hopeless, for showing me goodness when all the other “good” people were passing me by. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of them with overwhelming gratitude, that I don’t wish all the best things for them, that I don’t wonder if they would even remember me at all. Because I will never ever forget them. I learned Russian for this very reason, so I could tell them. Just in case I have the chance someday.

Of all the things I hope to do before I die, at the top is to see Kabardinka perform one more time.

Unfinished Business

My mother asked me to look up an old friend of hers before I left for Ukraine in September 2012. We met Kitty on that fateful first trip in November 2002, and lost touch with her not long after. Fortunately, this is an age of technology, information, and connection. One quick search and I found her in less than 5 minutes. Years had fallen prey to those bittersweet words “lost touch”, years during which I had simply never thought to look.

I sent a message to Kitty. You know the kind: Hello. Remember me? Mom sends love. I’m coming to Kyiv. Can we meet?

She was thrilled. Of course, she wanted to meet.

Yaroslav the Wise

Me with Kitty and Yaroslav the Wise, Golden Gates

One morning in Kyiv, Kitty called me, waking me out of a deep slumber. Communication was always an adventure of its own. And this time was no different. Between my broken Russian, my morning stupor, and her few words of English, we were able to arrange a meeting time and place. She took a bus down from Chernihiv and met me by the Golden Gates.

I wasn’t sure I would recognize her after 10 years. But every so often life brings you those rare, beautiful, and perfect moments. Because when I saw her, I knew it was her. I knew it was her and I was certain. She said I looked exactly the same. We talked and hugged and walked arm in arm down the street. I swore to myself the next time I saw her I would be fluent so that we could talk about everything. 

She had been my mother’s friend, true, but as my mom’s emissary and bearer of gifts, Kitty and I discovered that we shared something that gave us a common bond: love for my mother. In a way, that sort of made us sisters.

Mom had sent her a picture before they lost touch. Kitty had kept it framed so she would remember always, that awful picture where her eyes were closed. The memory of that time and place was so dear to her; it kept her going. She never thought she would hear from me or my mother again. She thought that we were lost forever.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

And yet here we sat in an Italian/Sushi place in Kyiv, Ukraine, reunited and sending good thoughts to Mom, who was far away and probably sleeping soundly in America. Kitty said that when she received my message she cried buckets, tears just running down her face.

Kitty and Me

Kitty, 27, and me, 25. I never realized until I posted this, how much I look like my mom. Spooky!

But as often as life gives you little moments of bliss, it will also contrive to be cruel.

We rode the metro together, both headed for home. I was off to my flat, Kitty to her bus. I was promising to come back soon and bring my mother; she was begging me to do so with tears in her eyes.

Then it was my stop. Levoberezhna.

A fierce hug. A swift good-bye. And I was out of the train car. I could see her through the window. We waved as the doors closed, a sad farewell through the smudged glass.

I’ve noticed that Ukrainians generally don’t do prolonged good-byes. None of this: “No, you hang up. No, YOU hang up! No, you…” Just “see you” and gone. Sometimes it’s better to simply walk away. But I waited. And then I understood a little better the value of a swift good-bye.

When you say good-bye to someone through a train window, you can see them, you can smile, you can wave, you can cry, but it doesn’t change anything. You can’t reach them, speak to them, or hold them. You can only wait for the inevitable. And then suddenly, with a rush of wind snatching at your hair and clothes, they are gone. You blink and your loved one is vanished. And you all you can do is just stand there on the empty platform.

So I stood there, left behind, alone in a sea of people, who didn’t know and didn’t care who I was, who Kitty was, or about our story. And that’s the thing about Ukraine: no one pays you any mind, whether you’re waving a sad farewell through a train window, or crying alone on a street corner.

Goodbyes on a train are the worst.

For all I know, when the subway train took Kitty away, it might well have taken her away forever. Phone numbers change. Profiles deactivate. And long-lost loved ones are swept back into the oblivion they emerged from, as unreachable as ever before.

Sometimes I feel like I am always losing people, even as soon as I find them.

It makes me wonder, what’s the point? People come and go. They waltz in from the wings onto the stage of life, and then they dance right on through and off the other. Would it be any better, if they never danced through my life at all? Friendships that seem strong can shatter into pieces. Grudges can start with only one little misunderstanding. This flood of time can sweep someone out of arms reach in an instant, and you’ll find yourself like I did: alone at a station, knowing you’ll never see them again, but hoping. Always hoping.

What else can I do, but hope? Maybe there will come a day when I won’t be the only one looking, and I’ll be the one found.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe finding and losing people is just a part of life I need to accept. But suppose for a moment that every person who passes through our lives does so for a reason, to teach us something. What if we are given heartbreak in order to make us wise? What if we lose people in order to teach us to appreciate what we have while we have it, and then let go? What if we endure pain so that we will learn compassion? What if without these things, we would have no capacity for happiness or joy? Think of a sunny day, how much more precious that warm sunlight is after a week of cold, grey rain.

Kitty once wrote to my mother, and I feel she said it best: “Unbearable things happen in life, but you keep living — to see, to hear, to understand — and one day, life turns around and greets you again with a smile.”

At the end of the day, lost or found, I am one heartbreak closer to that smile.

This is the Fun Part

“How do you tell if a Ukrainian boy likes you? I don’t understand the boys here at all,” I whined to one of my roommates, Anna.

I was about three weeks into my trip, and stressing about relationships, obviously, or the lack of them. America has labored unceasingly to teach me that if you are over 25, single, and childless, there is something wrong with you. Hence I was begging Anna to explain how these things work in Ukraine, as they seemed incomprehensible and I was convinced that Ukrainian guys were not interested in me at all.

Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted brain power on the thought. I didn’t really want a boyfriend, maybe only to feel popular.

Anna gave me a piece of advice that has proved to be one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me.

“Just relax,” she said sagely. “Besides, maybe it was just the magic of the night, a foreign language, being in a different country. You don’t know. Time will tell. If something is going to happen, it will happen. So you don’t need to worry. Just relax and enjoy it. If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.”

I kept forgetting that she was a few years younger than me. I can still hear her voice like an echo:

If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.

I didn’t want to spend my time in Ukraine worrying over boys and relationships. I wanted to be happy, fancy-free, to see and do everything, speak Russian, and generally be on holiday and enjoy myself.

She was right after all. I had been beguiled by the night, a pair of pretty eyes, and the music of a beautiful language. Somewhere along the way, without even knowing, I fell in love.

I realized it walking down Tychyny street one day. I was so excited about discovering new words and understanding, and how incredible it was to be in a foreign country with all the language skills of a two-year-old. I almost missed it. I was pondering the process of breaking through the language barrier, chipping away at it little by little, word by word, when suddenly, I knew that I would have no do-overs. I would never pass this way again. Once I broke through the language barrier, I couldn’t go back and do it over again. So right there on a little sidewalk in the left bank in the big city of Kyiv, Ukraine, I made up my mind to enjoy the process as much as I possibly could, while I tried to conquer the city and the Ukrainian/Russian language. Anna’s words came back to me with a crash and the equivalent force of a falling grand piano: “This is the fun part.”

It stopped me dead in my tracks, stunned.

Then I knew. I was in love! I was in love the way you love someone you can’t stand. You fight. You argue. You quarrel. They make you angry. They make you crazy. They make you mad. Until one day you wake up and you realize how angry crazy madly you love them, no matter how bad it gets. And the rest is history, or so they say.

Of course, Anna and I had been talking about a boy. And she had been absolutely right. Only, it wasn’t a boy I fell in love with. It was Ukraine, Kyiv, that place and time. I fell in love with life and the unhindered living of it.

I didn’t have to worry about how to make that “special someone” like me, or if that “special someone” was the “right special someone”. Suddenly, it just didn’t matter. I saw everything clearly. For once, it was simple.

Love is not a real-life game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, though a lot of people treat it that way. To pin all of my hopes for happiness on someone else, or hang my dreams on their fragile wings, and then try to make them feel the same, is an unfair exercise in futility and a dangerous one.

It seems to me that people generally believe they must have a significant other in their lives to be happy. But I protest. Hearts are far too precious treasures to leave at just anyone’s mercy. Why had I ever thought I would find happiness by doing just that?

I don’t mean that I stopped wanting someone special in my life; I just stopped thinking that I had to have someone.

I wrote a besotted love letter in my journal, one stormy night not long after that conversation with Anna:

“I got off my bus early and walked home. I like to do this sometimes, because it helps me collect my thoughts. Or if I’m not quite ready to see a flat full of people. But this time, I got off because it was raining gently, I thought, and as I walked it got more and more, until I was laughing up at the Kyiv night sky, for sheer joy, because I realized that now I’ve seen Kyiv in so many moods, not all maybe, but I love her in all of them.

“Kyiv to me is like a woman or a person. You know, the ones you meet [with whom] at first you don’t get along. You fight, you humph, you disagree, you torment. And then one day you wake up and realize how crazy madly you are in love with them and how boring your life would be without them. Kyiv is maybe not the woman you would marry and raise kids with, but she’s the one you judge all other women by, the one you never forget. Kyiv is that affair to remember, the one you never quite get over. I laughed at the rain, because I’ve seen Kyiv sleepy, quiet and still, drunk, hungover, chilly, and warm, depressed, and wild, hurried, and bored, angry, and tender. I laughed because if by some chance this is the only time I ever spend with Kyiv again, I wanted to let her know that I enjoy every minute. That I love Kyiv in all her moods.

“Kyiv is that rare person you meet once in lifetime that you love so much that it doesn’t matter if they love you back. It’s as though after 3 weeks in Kyiv, breathing her air, eating her food, meeting her people, and drinking her beer, has spread Ukraine throughout my system, my cells, my blood. She’s under my skin and in my heart. It’s as though we finally stopped fighting. Maybe we can at least be friends. I can not tell you in any language how alive I felt on this night, sharing Ukraine with people, and walking, feeling her flow all around and through me.

“I can’t imagine, when I write such things with such emotion, admiration, and tenderness, what it will be [like] to go back [to America].

“Ukraine is not for the faint of heart, but she’s worth it. We are alike, she and I.

“Someday I hope someone loves me the way I love Kyiv, Ukraine.”

Unmasked

We recognized each other by our masks
In our mutual assessments as if for war
And we perceived the common traits
And shared respect, for now, no less, no more

Years, thoughts, motives, fears
Blank pages, photographs, ribbons left undone
Memories forgotten, hopes that never were…

But the silence stretches ever long
I ask a word spoken
No matter what kind
So long as the silence is broken

On that day when the masks are fallen
Twin faces false
And underneath we are not the same

Slipping from our hands, they will shatter like glass
In dismay
And so we walk our separate ways

My true face I will show unasked
I will stand

Unmasked

Sarah_006_by_JB_Photo

Photo by JB Freelance Photography