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!

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American Toilets, Ukrainian Style

There are three essential items one should always carry in Ukraine: hand sanitizer, wipes, and toilet paper.

Public restrooms in Ukraine are my worst nightmare. Okay, maybe not my worst, but they are pretty close.

Now I’m pretty tough. I’ve been to Ukraine enough to know the ropes of public restrooms. I’m not bothered at all by the ones in the floor where you have to squat. Or the ones that stink to high heaven as if the sewers have been backed up for twenty years. Or the ones that are pretty much just a hole in a concrete slab in the middle of the countryside. Those are all fine. The really scary toilets are the ones just like ours in America. I quickly learned that people do not understand how to use these toilets. My best guess is that some Ukrainians think it is unsanitary to actually sit on the toilet seat. So what do they do? Apparently they hop up and squat.

Walking into a bathroom stall in a super fancy McDonald’s after holding on desperately for hours, only to find shoe prints on the bowl is approximately horrific.

But when you have to go… What can you do? Obviously, everyone else is doing it, and my bum is definitely not going anywhere near that nasty toilet seat. (May I reiterate at this point: wipes, paper, sanitizer!)

But once, after doing as they do in Ukraine and thinking myself very Ukrainian for it, I got caught. The next lady in line, an older Ukrainian woman, saw the seat after I exited the stall and bawled me out right there in the restroom. My Russian was not that great at the time, but I understood enough to know she was yelling something to the effect of “don’t you people know you’re supposed to put your bottom on the seat and not your feet?” The repeated smacking of her bum and thigh might have been a clue also. I’m thankful she was smacking her own, and not mine.

She was very not happy.

And the lady cleaning the sink kept right on scrubbing like it happened all the time.

Well, it would have been pointless to try to explain that at least five other people had squatted on that seat before me. (This is why you always carry wipes with you. And sanitizer. And toilet paper.)

So when an angry Ukrainian zhenschina shoves a wad of paper towels at you, what do you do? Why, you take the wad of towels and you clean the seat for her. And then you write about it.

Because you have not fully experienced Kyiv, Ukraine until you have been yelled at by a Ukrainian woman and cleaned a Ukrainian toilet.

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.

Kyiv Moods

Kyiv has many faces and many moods, always changing. Not all of them are pleasant, but all of them are unforgettable.

A few of my favorite moods of Kyiv:

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.”

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.

Hedgehog in the Fog – Memories of a Lost Childhood

Hedgehog in the Fog is a short animated film from the 70s, written by Sergei Kozlov. There is also a book by the same name.

From what I gather, the hedgehog and the bear cub drink tea, count stars, watch sunsets, and generally muse over autumn and the beauty of life. Even though they are very different, they are the best of friends whether they understand each other or not. I want to say it is the most adorable thing I have ever seen, but that would not be quite accurate. “Entrancing” is more like it.

When I first saw the film, I felt as if I had found a missing piece of my childhood. It was fascinating, with an uncanny hint of the familiar. Perhaps I was struggling to recover memories from a parallel me in a parallel universe. Or maybe I enjoy my Sci-Fi a little too much.

At any rate, I found myself trying to imagine that other world in my mind, 5,000 miles away and 8 hours ahead, a world where little Eastern European kids grew up on these stories while I was reared on Gumbi and Bambi. I tried to picture how my life might have been if I had been born “over there”, instead of “over here”. It was a curious and generally futile exercise, but I still tried.

Then I tackled the book. It was right up my alley, all fog,  mountains, sunsets, and twilight. About sitting in the gloaming and watching night fall. I love all these things. But autumn has always made me sad for some reason I can’t explain. In these stories, it always seems to be autumn.

Sometimes, it leaves me wishing for friendships like that. Maybe I have them, but at times my friends all seem so far away. We all live in different states or different countries. Maybe in fact it is the distance that brings us close, all the possibilities of the times we could have spent together, if situations were not as they are. Maybe I already have a friend like that, but I’m sitting too close and I can’t see it. Perhaps I won’t really appreciate it until it’s gone.

What makes for sweet and charming tales on paper (or e-book) might not be so in practical everyday life. I have to remind myself of this.

All that being said, I connect to this story in a way that my adult mind does not understand. But the little girl inside me, the one that treasured her stuffed teddy-bear and stuffed hedgehog, remembers. And she is devouring these stories and animated short films with child-like voraciousness.

Personal musings aside, Hedgehog in the Fog (Yozhik v Tumane) is really cute. It’s short, only about 10 minutes long. The above video even has English subtitles. Oh, I don’t expect anyone to have the same emotional reaction to it as I do. But it really is a gem of a movie. It even won awards! No excuses now. Go. Watch. Enjoy!

I saw lots of little hedgehogs in Kyiv, but I was never fast enough to snap a good picture.

I saw lots of little hedgehogs in Kyiv, but I was never fast enough to snap a good picture.