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.

No More Lies – Weekly Writing Challenge: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

wpid-IMAG0661_BURST002.jpgI remember this day. I was sicker than a dog, some Ukrainian sinus infection that I refused to succumb to. I should have stayed in bed, but I wouldn’t. I continued to act healthy until I just couldn’t fake it anymore. Fever. Cough. Sinus pressure. I felt terrible. I was miserable.

But this was the day my neighbor’s daughter, Anya, brought out her books to show me how she could read English while I was waiting on my laundry. This was the day we played with clay putty, something I used to do with my grandma, something to me incredibly nostalgic. See that bracelet on my hand? She wanted to give me that, a prize she had won in class. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I wore it for the rest of the trip, never stopping to think that it might look silly. I counted it precious. It was a comfort, a reminder of the day I learned the truth.

And all it took to rattle my nice little American world was a little girl in a cramped Ukrainian apartment who wanted to show me her English.

This was the day I finally understood that I wanted to make a difference, that I could make a difference, even if it was just teaching a little girl one word of English in a far-away country.

I suddenly remembered a day ten long years ago, standing outside my house at fifteen, breathing deeply of the wind and wondering where it had been, where it was going, and was that some kind of Eastern spice I smelled in the air? I was dying to go and find out. That girl was all fear and trepidation, unsure, and insecure. That fifteen-year-old girl had no idea of where she would be ten years later, that one day she would just up and go away for a month all on her own. Sometimes I remember the girl I was and smile, because I owe it to who I used to be to be who I am now.

I owe it to myself to live my dreams.

We owe it to the young versions of ourselves to fulfill their dreams — those dreams we used to cherish.

People have continually picked this one picture out of my hundreds and commented on how I’m “glowing” or “look really happy”. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe it was just because I was sick. Maybe it’s sweat. But the one comment I can’t argue with, the one that gets me every time, is: “You don’t look like that over here.”

Deep down inside, I know they are right.

There’s only been a handful of times in my life that I can remember being really truly as happy as I was in that picture, when I was relaxed, didn’t care about how I looked, or if I was pretty, or if my tummy pudge was showing. Only six brief moments when I was convinced that life was going to be good and worth living. This was one of those moments, illness notwithstanding.

Because this was the day I realized that my life was a joke. I hadn’t been doing anything worthwhile or helping anyone or making anything better. I was treading water, just taking up space and wasting time playing games on people and computers. I hadn’t really been living the life I dreamed of in the secret attic of my mind, and I had spent a great amount of time and effort trying to convince myself otherwise. I claimed to want a career, a house, and a family. But did I? Had I only been pretending after all?

The truth?

I was living a lie.

This was the day I stopped lying.

Impressions from Babi Yar

Babi Yar

Babi Yar

“What shall we do today, Karina?”

“Sarah, today, I will show you Babi Yar!”

Me and Karina, normal girls at Babi Yar

Me and Karina, normal girls at Babi Yar

I didn’t have conversations like this in America. Of course, we didn’t have anything of Babi Yar’s magnitude in my little American town either, just a couple of museums and Trail of Tears plaques that no one knows about.

Karina and I sat on the steps of Babi Yar, ate our lunch, and shared our secrets, just a couple of “regular girls” with regular girl problems. But no hardship of our lives could compare to the tragedies that occurred here. By comparison, I felt we were very small and not as important as we liked to think. I rather liked feeling unimportant and being reminded that after all my life is not so bad.

Babi Yar, front view

Babi Yar, front view

This was one of the times in Kyiv that never left me, one of the small things that subtly and quietly crept under my skin. I found myself there twice, once with Karina and again to arrange transportation to the wedding (more on that later). Both times I got the feeling that by celebrating life, we honored the dead. By living our normal lives and everyday triumphs and woes, we were showing the departed that life does indeed go on, that dark nights do not always last, that we who remain still carry on.

Perhaps it’s a silly notion, that they find peace when we live the lives they could not, that it helps complete some kind of cosmic unfinished business. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

But it stayed with me, the conviction that I owe it to them to remember and then live a full and happy life. As much as is within my power.

Read more history here.

See more pictures here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

Babi Yar

Babi Yar

The quiet of the park belies it’s past. It seems impossible that anything awful could ever happen here. But this is Babi Yar. This is a place out of a nightmare, a site of mass murder, horror, and hate.

But on this day, it was peaceful and calm. People covered the steps of the monument in flowers — things of fragile, fleeting beauty — wishes and memories.

This is how we honor the departed. We remember. We pray to God it never happens to us or to our children. And for as long as we live, we keep moving forward.

In response to The Daily Post‘s Weekly Photo Challenge

Maybe It’s the Little Things

This morning was grey and icky. I was awake half the night with a cough. I took one look out the window this morning and thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have changed my ticket after all…” Originally, I was to have left yesterday, but for one reason or another, I pushed my return date back 5 days. Now much more stressed and several hundred dollars poorer, I wondered, “Why exactly did I think that was a good idea?” I finally managed to drag myself out of bed, wrap up in my Ukrainian coat, and brave another moody day in Kiev. I told myself, “I need Wi-Fi. I need Wi-Fi. I need… Oh! Pizza!” Yes, the bakery had pizza again.

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Let Us Cross Over

In about 10 hours, I am leaving for Ukraine. I should probably sleep sometime between now and then. And finish packing. (No, I’m still not done.)

A few days ago, I looked up this phrase online, “now let us cross over”, thinking it was part of an old hymn or Scripture or something. I thought it might be a nice mantra to keep in mind for my trip, since I’m crossing over the ocean. What I found was not what I expected. What I found were the last words of Stonewall Jackson. After he realized the war was over, he spoke these words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Those words seemed to me when I read them, a welcome into a place of peace, a safe haven, that state of mind when all the tension is gone from your body…like after a really good massage when you are so relaxed and loopy you almost seem drunk.

It made me think of summer, cool breezes, bird song, and wind through leaves. Lazy afternoons, sweet tea, and teenage dreams.

It gave me visions of paradise. A place without war. A place of rest. As if a whiff of memory still lingers on those words and I could smell it.

And then I read that Stonewall Jackson was shot and eventually killed by friendly fire just after speaking those words. Cheery thought, that… “Let us cross over” indeed.

As the time for my departure charges toward me like a raging bull, I feel strangely calm. Except for that time I thought I didn’t have proof of insurance. Then I felt like I was in a red outfit trapped with an angry bull. Other than that I’ve been fine. And I did find my insurance card, in case anyone was wondering.

I feel like I am going home.

But I also feel this is only the beginning, like walking through a doorway.

As though this is only a shadow of what is to come.

Tunnel of Love, Ukraine

Dedicated to my dad, Robert Sherman.