Do You Have Time for Me?

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

At the end of January 2018, I returned from five months of living and teaching in the country of Belarus where I was a Fulbright Scholar. For those months, I left my family in the United States and went by myself on a grand adventure.

Belarus is a country about the size of the state of Kansas, with a population of roughly nine-and-a-half million people. The president has held office since 1994, and that is the reason why Belarus, more closely aligned with Russia than any other former Soviet republic, is also known as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Although I had sought this opportunity and was ready to say “yes” to everything, the truth was: for me to go on this Fulbright, to relocate to the city of Polotsk near the Russian border – for me to rent an apartment and throw myself into untested professional waters – this was something much more than a grand adventure.

It was a chance to see who I was when untethered from all I’d carefully cultivated over decades.

***

In my new city, I taught at several locations, and I taught different groups of students, but one of my main duties every week was to teach at Polotsk State University. At the university, every Tuesday, I was scheduled for two 80-minute classes back-to-back. The first class was fifth-year students (the undergraduate degree path in Belarus is a five-year course, so the fifth-year students were in their final year); these students were charming, dedicated, delightful.

After their 80-minute class, the next class was fourth-year students. There was some confusion with the enrollment for this class, and it ended up that I taught two different groups of fourth-year students who alternated every other week, setting up a rotation where I would see each group of students once every two weeks.

The fourth-year students were messier than the fifth-year students. Perhaps it was because their schedule was somewhat irregular, or perhaps it was because I was teaching to them a class that had never been heard of or seen in their curriculum before. With the fifth-year students, I was teaching a customary class, Extensive Reading, in which we read and discussed American short stories.

But for the fourth-year students, I had proposed to teach a class I had developed in the United States called Writing for Social Media. We thought the students would love this. The students thought they would love this. Maybe the students loved it.

It was hard to tell.

The fourth-year students excelled at absenteeism, attended infrequently, and often didn’t turn in work. It felt like I was teaching at my home college, in some ways.

But when those fourth-year students did attend class, they were a joy. When they were in the classroom, they were attentive, fun, and energetic. When those faces were in front of me, I forgot how ineffective I felt in their absence.

It’s important to note: when it comes to any kind of teaching, I’m high-strung and anxious. I don’t sleep well when I know I will be heading into a classroom. Most definitely, I don’t cruise into the place tossing candy out of a top hat. Rather, I spend significant agitated time in the bathroom as the minutes to the class period tick down.

When put into a new situation, such as teaching in a country like closed-off Belarus, my nerves were even more heightened.

As a result, every Tuesday, when my two back-to-back classes were finished, I felt a rush of endorphins, a glorious and sweet relief that exhaled, “Whew, I did it!” As celebration, once the students had departed, I would run to the bathroom down the hall for another kind of exhale.

Most Belarusian universities and public places are equipped solely with squat toilets. No toilet paper is provided, nor is soap, towels, hand dryers, or hot water. This spartan approach is at odds with the effort that goes into personal appearance. In Belarus, everybody is turned out – as a rule, Belarusians look chic, they look crisp, and they own irons. I was trying to keep up, so when I taught, I wore fancy shoes. Thus, even though I was flooded with relief that I’d made it through my classes – YES! – I still had to navigate the pedestal squat toilet – two steps up — in high heels for the after-class exhalation.

***

One particular day, I’d had my trip to the toilet and returned to the classroom to wait for the next teacher to arrive so I could hand off the key. Sometimes she showed up ten minutes, even twenty minutes, into her class period – she had tea to drink in the faculty office, gossip to catch up on, or questions from the “professor of the professors” to answer regarding her dissertation. Her students didn’t mind; they were perhaps happier to see me than her – because, again, Belarus had been so closed off from Westerners that in this city of Polotsk, with a population of 90,000, and in the neighboring city of Novopolotsk, with a population of over 100,000, I was the only native speaker of English. For those who’d spend years studying the language, my presence was a chance to experience authenticity.

On this particular Tuesday after I’d been to the toilet, I was hanging out in the hallway, waiting for Vera, the teacher of the next class. I loved to hang out in the hall and watch the university students in their native habitat, but I also loved to linger there because into the wall outside my classroom was embedded a cannonball from 1812, from one of the times Napoleon’s troops had invaded Polotsk. I liked to stand there by the door outside my classroom, leaning, resting my hand on the cannonball, rubbing it and thinking, “When else in life will I be able to casually stroke a cannonball?”

On this day, as the cannonball and I were hanging out, I heard a voice come at me from over my right shoulder. “Excuse me. I have a problem.”

It was one of my fourth-year students; I wasn’t quite sure what her name was yet. When it comes to names in Belarus, as in Russia, there are a lot of Nastyas, a lot of Dashas, a lot of Elenas, Irynas, Alionas, with occasional Sonyas for variety. But with this student, I couldn’t think of her name even though she was standing in front of me, telling me “I have a problem.”

Then, in a flash, I remembered: Yana. Her name is Yana. This is the Russian diminutive of Johanna. Yana.

Relief flooding me, I said, “Oh, Yana, yes. What is your problem?”

Inside myself, I was braced and nervous. When a student comes up to a teacher and announces “I have a problem,” the words send a gong of doom ringing through the teacher’s skull.

In very broken English, she communicated, “I need help. My English no good. I need help. You have time for me?”

At this point of my experience in Belarus, I was constantly overwhelmed. As the only native English speaker in the area, I was a kind of celebrity. I was teaching my classes at the university; another day each week I was teaching at the language center in a nearby city; another day of the week I was volunteering at a gymnasium with high school students who were training for a Language Olympiad. When I would leave my apartment or walk home from campus, I would be chased by Belarusian English teachers who would breathlessly ask, “Next Wednesday, could you come to two of my classes, 80-minutes each, with second-year students, and talk on the topic of Travel? A slideshow would be very interesting.” Or another time, “Could you come do two 80-minute classes with my first-year students? We’ll try out a round table discussion on the subject of The Intersection of Culture and Colors.”

Even more, I went to fitness and yoga classes, and every time I left the studio, there would be two or three women wanting to walk me home – to practice their English. The ten-minute walk could take thirty. Sometimes it ended in someone’s home, with tea and cake and photographs.

Absolutely, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attention that alternated with days of drifty loneliness. Whereas my life in the U.S. has a steady, predictable pace to it, Belarus was a study in extremes. Indeed, when Yana said, “Do you have time for me?” I felt an internal panic, a scream rising. What I wanted to say was, “NOOOOOOOOO, PUBLIC INTERACTIONS EXHAUST ME; MY COUCH AND I NEED MORE MOPING TIME!”

But still. She was a student. And I was her teacher.

Of course, the answer was “Yes, I have time for you.”

***

We arranged to meet the next week in the square in the middle of the city where there’s a big fountain. It was October, and the water was piping. Kids after school were playing in the fountain as their parents and grandparents hovered nearby.

Yana and I had decided we would sit on a bench and just talk to each other so she could practice her conversational English. On that gorgeous October day – that kind of October day when the sunlight is slanting sideways, and the whole world seems like it’s glowing, the leaves skittering across cobblestones – on that kind of October day, Yana and I sat for two hours on a bench, chatting and watching kids play.

I knew for this to be helpful time for Yana, I shouldn’t be the one talking. Rather, I needed to get her talking. I went for the easiest possible opener: “Tell me your life story.”

Yana began with the fact that she was from a small village about an hour outside of Polotsk, and her coming to the university was an achievement for her family and her village. She loved her parents, her sister, her older brother, their spouses, her nieces, her nephew. She was devoted to the kids and would help them every day with their homework and play games with them. Her family was her life.

Jumping to important life events, she rewound three years, disclosing, “My head start hurting. Bad head hurt. I no okay.” She went to a doctor, then a lot of doctors, and after many exams they discovered that Yana, at the age of 21, had a brain tumor.

It was difficult for me to find out all the small details of Yana’s medical journey because her English vocabulary was limited. When I asked her, “Did you have surgery?” she looked at me blankly. I tried “Operation?”

She got that one. “Yes, yes.”

I followed up with “Cancer?”

She knew that word. “No, no, no. It okay. I was okay.”

“It was benign?” I clarified.

“It was okay.”

Then she made it clear she had many treatments after her surgery, the aftereffects of which were that she had debilitating headaches still, but she also fell into a kind of depression, suffering from cognitive challenges that made her flat, grey, nonfunctional.

During this time, she dropped out from the university; stuck in darkness, she couldn’t handle being a student. For the next three years, Yana stayed in her bedroom in her parents’ house in the village. The only person she would speak to, the only person she would allow into her bedroom, was her mother.

Every day, her mother would bring in food and try to cajole her. She’d bring in the little nieces and the nephew. Desperately, she tried anything, everything, her every effort asking, “Can we bring Yana back to life?”

Always, Yana refused every overture. Every day was NO.

It got so bad that Yana was hospitalized. There under the October sun, kids splashing nearby, she haltingly explained, “They take me…asylum. Asylum. One month. Bad place. I believe asylum…horrors. Asylum worst place in the world.”

I decided not to press for details on those horrors, but my takeaway from those two hours on the bench was that Yana was different. In Belarus, you don’t see a whole lot of different.

After Yana was released from the asylum, something inside her flipped. She decided, “I’m going to rejoin the world. I’m going to re-engage.”

Bravely, tipping towards the light, she walked out of her bedroom and out of her house. She returned to the university.

When I saw her that fall in my classroom as a fourth-year student, I hadn’t realized it was the first time she’d set foot on the university campus in over three years. I hadn’t realized that when she was sitting in my Writing for Social Media class, she was returning to the world of the living.

As we talked on the bench that October day, she said to me, glowing like the autumn sun, “Now, I fine. No stresses, no pressures, no problems. I look my classmates, these girls, hair, make-up, boots, boyfriends, all look same. Me? I not same. I fine. Nothing bother me.”

***

After that day on the bench, Yana and I agreed to meet again two weeks later. By that point, the weather had changed; stark and windy, November helped us decide to meet at a coffee shop.

Again, we spent two hours together. Contemplating how to fill the time, I had been intimidated, thinking, “She pretty much gave me everything that first day. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.” Punting, I packed some games into a bag.

As we sat down at a table with our lattes, I asked her if she knew the phrase “to be a guinea pig.” No, she did not. I explained the idiom and told her she was my guinea pig with these games because I wanted to know if they would work for non-native English speakers.

Yana’s eyes got big when I pulled out Bananagrams.

For two hours, we sat there, starting off easy and slow – “We don’t have to play by the rules,” I told her, spreading out the tiles. “Just take some tiles and try to put together words in English. I’ll help you. Can you see some words there?”

Oh, yeah, she nodded. Uh-huh. She could see some words there.

Upping the difficulty, I pressed, “Can you link some words together, like in a crossword?”

Sure. Okay. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yana nodded and moved tiles.

Then she got quiet. Her head was down. As she slid more tiles in front of her, I realized she was improvising her own variation of the game.

She had spelled the word deep.

To its end, she had attached the word horizon.

She’d seen the movie.

Her eyes continuously scanning the tiles, she told me, “I want put more after horizon. What I do?”

“Well,” I mused, “horizon could become the word horizontal if we add some letters on the end…”

Yana’s eyes brightened, and before I quite knew what was happening, we were launched into a version of Bananagrams that involved the creation of compound words and portmanteaus and strings of overlapping text.

Having run out of space with deephorizoosafari, Yana started a new line with balloon, asking, “Hmm, what I do? I want add more.”

Looking at the word, I suggested, “Well, if you add a -y, you’ll have the word loony growing out of balloon. We have this cartoon in the United States, Loony Tunes, that’s really famous; do you know it?”

No.

I explained Bugs Bunny and Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Then we added letters to make: balloonytunes. Excitedly, we kept the growing word evolving – adding, re-spelling, shifting – “Ah, how about tuna? Tuna is a kind of fish!”

Placing the letters on the end of the growing word, Yana read aloud, “Balloonytunafish…what I add?”

“What’s the word for a person who takes a rod and a line and stands in the river trying to catch fish?” I challenged her, miming my description.

“Fisherman!” Yana yelped. “Balloonytunafisherman!”

Starting a new word, her brain churning as she tried to figure out the spelling, Yana came up with squeal. Immediately, mind-bogglingly, she saw a word to attach: algebra.

Her hands restless on the table, picking up letters, considering, discarding, she kept going. I helped her with vocabulary and spelling, but she was a firecracker. For an hour and a half, we strung together words.

Before we finished, I realized something important.

I was watching this young woman, so excited, so involved, this same woman who had spent three years in her bedroom, refusing to speak to anyone but her mother – and this young woman was lighting up the space around her in a coffee shop, stringing together letters, enjoying the burble of her brain. She was happy. She was excited. She was pipping.

Clocking the wonder of transformation, I marveled: “Her English is not limited. She does not have ‘a problem.’ Yana’s English is amazing.”

***

After Yana and I met those two times, she tried to schedule more meetings.

Each time, she had to cancel. She had to go to the doctor. Another time, her class schedule changed for the day, so I got messages from her, begging off. “I can’t come. I’m sorry. I can’t come.”

In terms of our class together, her group met with me seven times. Of those seven classes, Yana attended three. Her group was to submit to me five written assignments. At the end, Yana had turned in two.

In terms of the classroom, Yana was terrible. And I felt like a terrible teacher.

So.

This is the story of a student, and this is the story of a teacher.

You will want something heartwarming, uplifting, and transformative.

Perhaps this is not that.

***

But.

***

At the end of our conversation that first day under the October sunlight when we sat on the bench and watched the kids play in the fountain, I said to Yana, “I am so happy we had this time together. I am so happy we had one-on-one time, and now I know more about you. As soon as I get home, I’m going to message my husband back in the United States, and I’m going to tell him all about you.”

In return, Yana beamed. “As soon as I leave, I send messages and do phone calls. My family in village, they wait. They know I am meet you. My family know this first time my life I speak with foreigner. They wait hear me. When I call, I tell them – “

her words cracked me open, made me need a kleenexboyfriendshiplollypop, bestowed a benediction upon five months of lonely, exhausting, untethered, gratifying, glorious, unimaginable adventure –

“When I call, I tell them, ‘The English teacher from America, she make me most happy I can be.’”

Damn. I grabbed her for a squeeze.

And then we turned our faces in opposite directions to begin the trek to our respective homes.

Slowly, deliberately, contentedly, we walked away from each other, two changed people, forever connected.

***

This story was first told at the Gag Me with a Spoon community storyshare. If you’d like to hear it spoken: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/gag-me-with-a-spoon/perhaps-this-is-not-that-HKjLDkc76TO/#edit

Yana gave me permission to write about her, in case you feel your panties getting bundled.

________________________________

If you care to share, click a square:

10 Things That Scare Me

I just discovered a podcast in which both notable personages and lay-listeners inventory–hey, get this–10 things that scare them. Episodes are short, but their cumulative effect is powerful: everyone has fears and anxieties, and it’s hearteningly equalizing to hear the downloads of others.

Today, as I listened and nodded and laughed and squinted, I started to compile my own list. I suspect, upon reading this or tuning into the podcast, you’ll do the same.

We can’t help it. Fear unites us.

So, here. 10 things that scare me:

  1. All rodents, but especially this: when I’m reading on the deck, and the cheeky chipmunk who is the boss of our yard skitters onto my plateau and tosses me an unblinking look of, “Yeah, hi. This is my deck now” before dropping the seed it was carrying and rearing onto its back legs.
  2. Forced and enforced conviviality. Also known as “holidays.”
  3. Someone touching my children without their consent.
  4. Receiving a message that says, “We need you to come in for a meeting as soon as possible.”
  5. The way the neighbor boy treats their chickens when he thinks no one’s looking.
  6. Three hot hours on the tarmac, plane motionless, with the cabin door sealed.
  7. And no food or water in my bag.
  8. And a talkative Trumper in the seat next to me.
  9. My husband dying before we’re both 97.
  10. When the fitness trainer for the TRX class tells us to drop to the floor and put our feet in the straps.

Now. What you got?


If you care to share, click a square:

Finally Full

“You sure eat a lot of fast food.”

Those eight words killed my appetite – punctured my excitement about dashing into the gas station to grab a couple of sliders at the attached White Castle.

Certainly, I knew how he felt. In the many letters and messages we’d exchanged during our courtship, he’d made it clear.

Yet. Those eight words, a casual observation made by the man I had been dating and was beginning to love, shrank me, a 31-year-old woman, into someone jittery, defensive, diminished.

Those eight words sniffed prissily at my history.

***

In 1982, for my 15th birthday, my dad gave me a 12-pack of Mello Yello. It was a thoughtful gift, one that indicated he understood the teenager lurking in the basement. To be presented with my own, private 12-pack of pop – something I never had to share with my siblings, something I could hoard in my bedroom closet – was a kind of power.

Dad didn’t use words much, but our shared meals, as recorded in my diary – pages of artless divulgences stashed in the same closet as the Mello-Yello – constituted warm communication.

Sometimes, to cap off a lethargic day, we’d drive in silence to Bonanza, the low-end, Old West-themed chain “steakhouse” where we’d order a prime rib dinner, maybe top sirloin, not for a special occasion but because it was Wednesday, no one wanted to cook, and we had coupons.

After ladling Ranch dressing onto iceberg lettuce at the salad bar and peeling the aluminum foil from baked potatoes, we’d return to our booth and sit in vinyl communion, relishing the paucity of demands on our energy and the fullness of our plates.  

***

She spent her youth plucking, pitting, and canning, but my mother never liked to cook. As a woman born in 1935, graduating college in the 1950s, marrying in the early 1960s, her lack of interest in the kitchen smelled of “radical feminist statement.”

She certainly didn’t intend it that way: she just didn’t like to cook.

Dutifully, she would make chicken noodle soup, a Sunday roast, “poor man’s” beef stroganoff, chocolate chip cookies. She loved more adventurous foods, but none of us understood the appeal of her mushrooms and asparagus. “More for me!” she’d puff, fishing around the can, trying to spear another limp spear or soppy button.

For my mom, the day-in-day-out call of the kitchen always chafed. Planning a nightly meal became even more thorny when she escaped into full-time work.

***

A crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper in hand, I opened the cabinet below the kitchen sink and dropped it into the trash. Rustling faintly, the wrapper unfurled inside an empty Campbell’s can. So that was the tantalizing smell permeating the house: pork chops slow cooking in Cream of Mushroom soup.

In the ‘80s, although my dad tried to catch up with the times, mastering a few crock pot meals and the occasional batch of chili, willingly scrubbing the pots and pans, his contributions were voluntary. Failure to plan a meal did not tarnish him.

It was my mother who was on the hook for getting food into her kids’ mouths – even when those kids were old enough to pitch in and figure out food for themselves. Yet, like our parents, we couldn’t be bothered to conceive of a plan that would cover the family. My sister and I might share a box of mac ‘n cheese; my brother would fry himself a couple hamburger patties. But tending to the common interest? Flattening ourselves, we refused the challenge.

***

In the early years, our family would head to McDonald’s after church on Sunday – a righteous reward. In our best clothes, we perched on plastic seats, the paper around our hamburgers crackling as we unfolded it. Carefully, I would scrape the rehydrated onions off the patty and offer them to my dad. After tipping our trays into the swinging mouths of the garbage bins, we’d take a minute to embrace the flame-haired Ronald McDonald on a bench outside.

A decade later, a teen trying to separate herself, already disenchanted with the ritual and community of church, I bypassed the worship and went straight to the reward.

***

Desperate to be liked, always desperate to be liked, I spent hours with my face pressed to mirrors – pursuing pimples, applying eye shadow, sucking in my stomach, admiring the star embroidered onto the pocket of my HASH jeans, angling the curling iron. Fancying that effort could result in popularity, I hit the halls of the school hoping that the height of my bangs would distract from the tenderness of my heart.

Too many days, I lay face down on my waterbed, smudging mascara tears into the pillowcase.

Tests saved me. Essays redeemed me. And when the report card came home – evidence that someone liked me – my mom and I celebrated the results by eating out. A musician, my dad had evening rehearsals. My sister found her place in the world through babysitting most nights. My brother refused to join in, noting that we didn’t have enough money to be eating out.

Saluting my achievement worked for a couple of us. As I plowed my way through a mountain of nachos, my mom sighed about her job as a church secretary. Dabbing at crumbs, she alternated bites of turkey sandwich with tidbits of despair about the pastor’s cruelty. To counterbalance her misery, we ordered the cheesecake.

***

My mother marched to the television and twisted the knob until the screen went dark. “It’s after 9 p.m., it’s a school night, and I don’t think that’s a good show for kids to be watching.”

Lazily, my brother unfolded his height from the plaid couch and skirted our mom’s form, still clad in the belted trench coat she wore to work. Leaning around her, he snapped the television back to life, explaining, “We watch this show every week. It’s called Charlie’s Angels. So what if they’re wearing bikinis. Don’t worry about it.”

Two, three, four, five nights a week, my parents weren’t home. Sometimes they’d swing by the house between work and the choir and handbell rehearsals that were their avocation. Providing music for several churches in town, they would often attend more than one rehearsal in a single evening. My father conducted, and my mother sang. When it came to bells, my mom would conduct, and my dad would ring. Creating music for communities of faith united them.

At the same time, we kids would be home, rattling around the kitchen looking for food, often hopping in the car to grab a single, no pickles, no tomato.

I thought I liked the independence.

***

My first car was a Pontiac, a boat of a thing that felt 40-feet long as it swayed across the asphalt. From the day I earned my license – passing the test even though the man scoring it stormed out of the passenger seat after my sixth attempt to parallel park, huffing “I can tell you’re never going to fit into that space!” – I packed the car with friends who, like me, were in search of an invisible something; we called it “fun.” Cruising The Point, hanging out the windows, whipping U-turns, grabbing Whoppers, trying to buy beer, our collective mobility assured us We Had Lives. And if we had lives, We Mattered.

I careened through my teen years, a lack of structure my sole purpose. Attending school, watching soap operas, winging around with friends, trying to fill the belly – the days were a spin of “Go here, go there, go back, go home, go get, find food.”

Direction came only when I turned a slow left towards the pick-up window after yelling at a stranger through an intercom.

***

Home alone on a Sunday morning, planted two feet from the television screen, sitting on the steamer trunk my grandmother had once taken to Europe, I watched State Fair. During the commercials, I raced to the vanity mirror in the bedroom and pulled my nightgown tightly around my hips, measuring my girth, assuring myself the reflection qualified as “hourglass.” Mostly, I was waiting for my mom to get home from the morning’s services. I was hungry.

Much of my parents’ identities was tied up in church. For years, we all attended the Presbyterian church together. Later, our family switched to a Lutheran congregation. A few years after that, my dad moved, seemingly on his own, to a different Lutheran church. Eventually, my mom followed. Collecting churches, they expanded the places where they made music, my mom driving one direction in her car, my dad the other way in his. Occasionally, they’d rendezvous in front of an altar.

By the time I hit fourteen, I knew: when I was sitting in a pew, leafing through the hymnal, sketching out a game of tic-tac-toe on the offering envelope, I floated in a grey limbo, feeding my spirit with something that felt artificial.

Preferring late nights and late mornings, I asserted myself. Outside of holidays, I didn’t want to go to church. This sent a tremor through my parents. Then, shrugging, they focused more hours on ringing and singing.

***

Uneasily, saliva pooling in my mouth, I stood at the Taco Bell counter next to my dad. If I ordered too much, he might comment on my weight. Hoping it made me smaller, I ordered one crunchy taco and a glass of water.

Perched on a hard, plastic seat, I bit through the shell, my teeth sliding easily through the sloppy fillings. The waxy cheese offered no resistance; the meat plopped onto the paper lining my tray. Deliberately, I pinched it, grasping at every possible bite.

Wadding the empty paper into a ball, I admitted, “That was so good. I could eat more of those.”

Dad’s eyebrows lifted; he was pleased by my appreciation of the food he’d provided. Expansively, he offered, “Well, then, let’s get you another one.”

The food waiting for us under warming lamps lubricated our squeaks, spared us from thinking, sidestepped the trick of a family meal. Unquestionably, going out to eat was a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection.

At the same time, without question, all that was going on inside our bodies – compromised nutrition, stuffing the holes with fries, never having a coordinated plan, lacking energy to make the effort, finding ways to never look each other in the eyes – reflected a festering dysfunction.

I thought we were okay. We were not okay.

***

“Bleeeech!” I spit the sour milk into the sink. I’d covered the Cheerios until they floated, priding myself on eating something before a hot fudge sundae at lunchtime, only to discover as spoon hit mouth that the milk had gone off.

When I was 15, my nose for rot was still developing. I’d given the carton a cursory sniff before tipping it into a full-on pour. It wasn’t until the cereal was fully saturated that I realized I was shoveling spoilage into my face.

It would take decades before I could perceive decay with any accuracy; decades before I could realize, with a quick whiff, that the milk in the fridge had expired; decades before I stopped trusting my well-being to artificial preservation; decades before chemical-laden food prepared by indifferent minimum-wage workers stopped being the safe choice.

***

Upstairs, the walls of my sister’s room were painted a sunny yellow; her curtains danced with flowers. The bright décor was deceptive. A more accurate reflection of our collective teenage mood was the basement, where my brother and I lounged in dark wood paneling, tucking our dirty dishes under the plaid couch, occasionally breaking dried clumps of sauce out of the industrial orange carpet.

It was good that my siblings’ bedrooms occupied separate floors, good that we rarely all sat down to a dinner, good to have distance between them. They didn’t much like each other.

Often, my mom ached for distance, too.

In the midst of the unhappiness, I locked the bathroom door and peeled lengths of toilet paper off the roll, mopping at my face. When I was done, I’d hold my hands under the faucet and splash cold water over my blotchy skin, mesmerized by the bubbles sliding down the drain.

***

Just before 5 p.m., my dormmates and I would line up outside the locked doors to the cafeteria. Uneasy with each other, strangers still, we’d stick to talk of movies, professors, friends back home. When, at last, the cafeteria doors swung open, our pack would move en masse into the huge, light-filled room, the group splintering as each of us hunted down the answer to a specific hunger.

At eighteen, echoing my mother’s yearnings, I left Montana and headed to Minnesota for college. I got away from it all. I got away from the crap. I was mean and spiteful and bitter, full of tears and a desire to be nicer. To everyone.

A boy named Tim always filled multiple glasses with milk and slathered a raft of peanut butter onto his plate. My roommate could be counted on to reach for the spaghetti while a girl from Wisconsin with an asymmetrical haircut reliably went for blueberry yogurt mixed with Grape Nuts. Most nights, Jeff from Michigan would finish most meals by dunking a tea bag into a mug of hot water. Accustomed to the challenge of figuring out my meals, I appreciated both the predictability and the choice – even though many of the entrees baffled me, stumping my beef-geared tastes. Eventually, I became a devotee of the salad bar, often topping off my meal with a bowl or two of Captain Crunch.

After a few minutes of individual wandering, seeking the security of other bodies, we’d converge at one of the long tables. No one had to spend time cooking chili cheese casserole for the group. None of us had to plan the menu. Unencumbered, we sparked with each other for hours, taking breaks to scoop cones of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, to toast a bagel, to refill a bowl with Lucky Charms, to watch Tim drink three more glasses of milk.

Leaving home offered me a novel experience: a nightly family meal.

***

“We’ll split a bread bowl salad,” my dad told the waitress at Perkins. A whole salad for each of them would have been too much. Plus, one was cheaper than two. When the bowl arrived, my mom scooted closer; her arms could only reach so far.

Alone in the house, the nest empty, my parents attended rehearsals, cast about for dinner, moved to a bigger place. My dad watched Jeopardy in his recliner; my mom crowed about the new bathroom that belonged to her, only her. One time, she put my father through a test without telling him: she refused to speak to him unless he initiated the conversation. They didn’t talk for three months. I doubt he noticed.

***

Traveling through Eastern Europe with my sister, flying to Iceland to camp with a friend, I lived for his letters. He’d written them before I left the country, handed over a well-kissed bundle of them, told me to open one each day while I was gone. Every evening, after riding a bus into Romania, marveling at the hard-boiled egg in my Polish borscht, swimming in a warm pool in Akureyri, I capped off the day’s novelty by slitting an envelope and easing his familiar voice out of the folds.

Infatuated, he contemplated the shape of our future. What would our days look like when we were together all the time? How could he be there for me? What would we eat? How would we celebrate life’s joys?

The morning after I returned from my trip, he proposed. A few months later, I married the man who wounded me when he noted that I ate too much fast food. Our years together propelled me into a slow-motion trust fall away from the shaky habits of my youth, urged a blind release into a solid landing. In falling, I discovered asparagus doesn’t come from a can, mushrooms can be transcendent, a wok heaped with bok choy is sizzling beauty.

***

After the birth of our first baby, we left her for a night with my parents. Having smiled at her and tickled her feet, Dad left. Later, without having told us she was already booked, Mom headed to a rehearsal, leaving the toddler with my brother. The next day, not interested in smashing a banana or spreading a handful of cereal onto her high chair tray, my mom and brother took her to McDonald’s, where they were amazed at the enthusiasm the diaper-clad towhead brought to dragging French fries through ketchup. It was amazing: our girl had never eaten processed sugar or deep-fried food before that familial initiation.

***

On the day my father opened the front door, not knowing he was being served, unaware his marriage was ending as it neared the 40-year mark, his eyes filled with an expansive view of the Pryor Mountains, 90 miles away. All he’d ever wanted, outside of a cheap sirloin at Bonanza, was the comfort of a yawning vista.

In the five months between their divorce and my father’s death, Dad spent a short period at an independent living home, a place where men were rare and valued. Surrounded by attentive women, no longer slipping around the edges of unexpressed anger, never having to plan ahead, he looked forward to mealtimes.

For my mom, craving demonstrated affection, the divorce freed her to seek out a new dynamic. Dating around, she moved in with a diabetic who loved Nut Goodies; later, she based a relationship with an unpleasant man on their mutual love of Diet Pepsi, no ice, slice of lemon.

Altogether, she stopped attending church. She was ready to buy her own cookies.

Eventually, Mom remarried. Her new husband, first unwilling and then unable to make himself a sandwich, sits in his chair, baptized by the glow of the television. Together, they watch Jeopardy. Eating out for them is not only a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection. It’s also that no one wants to be in charge of food; again, the responsibility falls to my mother. Fast food is the thing they do together, the reason for him to shower and get dressed. As his memory fades, there are two restaurants he still likes; her messages to us are peppered with the words “In-N-Out” and “Subway.” In this new marriage, life is completely different, yet nothing’s changed.

***

Disoriented by how foreign Turkey felt, our young family clung together. At seven and ten, the kids were still young enough to uproot for the wild hair of a sabbatical year abroad. So there we were: in Cappadocia, pacing our days with the Call to Prayer, wondering how headscarves related to politics. A trip to the hardware store required not only a dictionary but also a deep inhale. Even minor transactions were exhausting.

Then, one evening, at a party of expatriates teeming with wine and shouted introductions, I latched onto a Turkish woman named Eren, a woman who ran her own hotel in the next town, a woman willing to answer my myriad questions about the culture and history of the dusty region we’d decided to call home.

Several days later, Eren sent a car to our 400-year-old stone home. With typical Turkish hospitality, she had offered to give our family a cooking lesson at her hotel. Unused to the idea that a man would be a kitchen devotee, Eren spoke mostly to me, but it was my husband who tracked her instructions closely. I took notes. He asked questions, watched her hands. At the end of three hours, we sat down at a table outside to share the lesson’s yield: dolmas, leeks with carrots, bulgur, kofte, a dip of roasted eggplant.

The meal that afternoon lasted an hour, but the information stuck. Years later, six thousand miles from that hotel kitchen, I come home from a muddy trail run and find him smiling with anticipation as he rotates an eggplant over an open flame.  

***

“The closest thing I have to ‘faith’ is the way I feel about yeast.” An agnostic, my husband explores belief in the invisible each Sunday as he punches dough on the counter. His wedding ring rests on the windowsill, a witness, while his capable hands turn and thump the softness, the movements a conjuring. A calibration of heat, time, temperature, his loaves are hope made tangible.

On the radiator, covered by a towel, the dough rises. The kitchen is a mess, a visual cacophony of sticky bowls and wooden spoons. He wipes the counter, but when the moisture dries, chalky streaks smirk. His back-up crew, I wipe the green laminate again, this time with a paper towel; mournfully, I note that even the sides of the counters are coated with floury dust, that a third rubdown is in order. Worriedly, I remark that a drop-in visitor would flinch at the sty that is our kitchen.

“Mess is part of living life. All this flour everywhere means we’re doing it right,” the baker reminds me.

Later that night, when the house is dark and quiet, I stand in the kitchen, slicing a piece – then another – slathering butter, biting into the remnant warmth, feeling the crumbs dissolve on my tongue.

***

Slowly, the boy’s hand reaches towards the tv tray next to his bed. He is searching for relief, for painkillers, gum, something to swallow that will make him feel better.

Our thirteen-year-old just had his tonsils out. Limp, muffled-voiced, he winces with every swallow. Within a day of surgery, he refuses popsicles. They taste “too fake.” Although his stomach is hungry, little sounds appealing.

Except maybe homemade mac ‘n cheese, and if there’s some leftover pho broth in the freezer, he could sip a mug of that. Also, as long as I’m running downstairs, maybe he could tolerate a glass of the hibiscus Agua de Jamaica that Dad brews.

While the boy recovers, our girl is on a high school trip in Europe. In the days before her departure, she stacked clothes in her room, poured shampoo into tiny bottles, practiced using her ATM card. Feeling nostalgic in the fashion of a teenager leaving home for ten days, she requested a special pre-trip treat: Dad’s cinnamon rolls.

It’s beyond the sixteen-year-old’s scope, but sticky rolls are an integral part of her father’s history, something he made for himself when he lived alone, for roommates when he shared spaces, for friends when they helped him move, for his new girlfriend when she drove five hours north to visit. Setting out heaping platters is an extravagant statement of affection from an otherwise quiet man.

***

My stomach growls, and I heft ceramic plates out of the cupboard. A mountain of dirty dishes rests next to the sink. Next to the stove, a chopping knife lies atop a cutting board, still littered with stems. The mess can wait.

With the grace of passing years, I have arrived at an essential realization: happiness is authentic when someone’s hands have touched it, pressed a knife blade into the sinew, peeled back the surface, diced, tossed, grated the whole, exposing the hidden facets, baring the delicate subtleties.

Minutes later, I lift the fork to mouth, wrapping my lips around a complex bite. I am eating my husband’s questions about that week’s menu. I am eating the shopping list he made. I am eating his hours at the grocery store. I am eating the chopping he did before work, the frying he did after. I am eating the heat of the oven, our day’s debriefing, the intimate conversation we had while he stirred wooden spoon in skillet. I am eating my husband’s cells, sloughed off from his skin as he worked over our food.

With each rich, thought-filled bite, I am eating clean, healthy love.

If you care to share, click a square:

Newcomers

It’s been so mean lately.

Oh, I know it’s always been mean. “Off with their heads!”; machetes removing limbs; “We will kill you for dancing”; waterboarding a workaday torture; “Tell us what you heard your father say about our glorious leader”; pogroms; labor camps; piles of bodies.

It’s always been mean.

The current mean is insidious as much as shocking, though, during this era when well-off people wrap themselves in privilege and self-righteousness to deflect from the tight bitterness of their begrudging. The current mean erodes my belief in foundations, makes it impossible to feel easy, causes me to yell at phantoms in my head when I’m out for a run. 

I don’t know how to write when the only thing I have to express is an extended scream down an open neck as I nestle a bloody head into the crook of my arm. I don’t know how to write because boundaries and tone become impossible to manage, drowned in a deluge of anger and disappointment.

So I try, very deliberately, to focus on the flashes of pure and good — a fine encounter with a stranger, a happy wave across the yoga studio, a student excited that she gets to take a trip to Greece. I try to open a channel and let the good stuff flow in. 

I started this essay one year ago, a month after my dear friend Virginia died; the opening sentence about “It’s been so mean lately” popped out of my fingertips then, as did the subsequent paragraphs. Even then, I was struggling to stay right as people got meaner. 

Then life reared up, and the essay draft languished. There was too much else to do, not enough time to sit and focus on one of the pure, good things that had saved me from complete disillusionment. 

But now I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe with Virginia’s widow, Kirsten, an ashes-scattering jaunt during which we not only left bits of bones in places that had been special to Gin but also took her to some new venues, whisking that intrepid traveler on one last journey. Along the way, as the bitter and self-righteous sloshed in their own sourness, we were reminded again, through Virginia’s lasting impact on a crew of devoted friends in Germany, that mean frets itself into unyielding little knots, but goodness turns its face to the sun. 

I’m being cliche and mixing metaphors here, of course, but the sentiment is true: people have been making me sad, yet the person Virginia chose to be in the world gives a powerful lift.

When I started this essay a year ago, I wanted to share the contents of a small red volume found after Virginia’s memorial service in a desk drawer in her basement — in the “museum” of Ginnie’s Stuff. 

Feeling tired and sad these past few days, I suddenly remembered that tiny journal she’d kept and realized I do have something to say that isn’t an extended scream down an open neck, dismembered head stuffed into my elbow — “Oh, I should scan those pages and write a blog post!”

Today, when I sat at the computer, I found a folder containing images I’d forgotten I scanned after her death. Today, when I came to the Dashboard of this blog to begin a new essay, I found a post I started in June of 2018. 

In looking at the scanned images and re-reading the notes Virginia jotted in 1984 about a Cambodian family she was sponsoring during their relocation from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields to a small Minnesota town with a kill line, I fell in love with my friend all over again. 

And I fell in love with Hieng and Sakun and Sokong and Soksan. (In particular, I really, really, really fell in love with Soksan on March 31, 1984.)

Looking at the notes Virginia dashed into a little book during the months when she poured time and money and love into a traumatized family, I remembered not everyone sits in their houses where they have too much and complains about brown people showing up where they don’t belong. I remembered that some people live according to the Law of Abundance, some people start and end with the principle that all human beings deserve an equal chance, some people don’t complain publicly about things they don’t acknowledge privately, some people check and challenge themselves: “Am I embodying graciousness? Am I truly living with grace?”

Virginia’s notebook, as it tracks purchases and errands with not only the Hao family but also other refugees being absorbed into her beloved town, provides a snapshot of genuine grace in a mean, mean world.

Virginia was not a saint. After these initial months of language learning, household establishment, health worries, and friendship joys, she left the Hao family more and more in the hands of others. Like me with this blog post, she had other priorities.

When I met her in 1996, however, Virginia was fully in the swing of sponsoring a Bosnian refugee family — helping them find work, enrolling the kids in school, spending hours and dollars to soften their landing. 

It’s been so mean lately.

But once there was a Virginia. And all of us now, if we try to live with similar grace, have it in ourselves to earn the title of “Mom,” to feel our hearts fill, to listen to our doorbells ring repeatedly, to eat watermelon together.

We have it in ourselves to believe that if we buy two bikes for $70 for people who need them, they’ll be as good as their word.

If we can just stop being so tight and mean, we can trust:

They’ll pay us back.


 

 

 

 

If you care to share, click a square:

The Best Laddie

I want to remember 16 because it’s as good as everything else has been.

He staggers through the front door, having just walked home from robotics practice after school, and in addition to the fully loaded pack on his back, he’s carrying a big box. It’s the new compost bin, delivered onto the front porch earlier in the day. When it arrived, after giving the huge parcel a test tug, I decided to leave it; the thing is ultimately headed out of doors, anyhow.

But he brings it in with him, the kid does, because he saw it there, and we always bring boxes in. He’s helping. When I call out a greeting and ask how his day was, he answers “Fine, especially walking home in the sunshine. You know what’s extra good today? The smell of sap coming from that tree across the street that blew down in the storm. The sap smell is –” He does a chef kiss towards the ceiling.

Before he came in, I’d been upstairs putting in eye drops, so as he speaks I’m wiping my eyes and, thanks to a raging runny nose, snuffling into a tissue. Following him into the kitchen, I complain, “Oh my god, bubs, but my nose is making me crazy today. I am blowing it every two minutes, and it won’t stop. I took the Sudafed thing we have, but it’s not helping at all.”

Pack still on his back, he turns and looks me over. “Could it maybe be allergies? Your eyes do look a bit red around the rims, and they are definitely watery.”

I explain the eye drops but concede it could be allergies although I’ve never had any before; I’ve been sneezing myself hoarse all day. What I’ve ascribed to a cold could, in fact, be spring popping. He squints at me and asks, “Have you used the Flonase that you shoot up your nostrils? That really helped me the other week. It really dried things up.”

Well, no. I didn’t know we had anything like that in the house.

His backpack hits the chair heavily as he eyes the still-frozen iceberg of soup in a saucepan on the stove. It’s been there since morning, gradually thawing, but still: it’s a ball of ice bigger than my skull. “Would it be okay if we start warming that up now? I’ll be ready for it soon.”

100% doable, pup. I turn on the burner under the soup at the same time he says, “Let me go find that Flonase stuff for you.”

In under a minute, he’s back, bottle in hand, peering at the tiny text on the label. “Now, I don’t remember how many squirts you’re supposed to do or how frequently you should take it, and we don’t have the box any more. I’ll look it up.”

He taps his phone a few times before announcing, “Two squirts, once a day. It might take up to 12 hours to start working. Shake the bottle first.”

While he’s been aiding me, I’ve been whittling the edges of the soup iceberg, trying to make it smaller. “Here,” he says, “I’m taller, so I can get a better angle on that thing.” He takes the wooden spoon from my hand and leans over the pot, stabbing at the mass. “Let me Excalibur this thing!”

I snort some stuff and then put on water for the broccoli. “How much broccoli are you going to want tonight? Just a bare covering of the plate, or a mountain?”

“I want one-third of what you make,” he assures me. “I love broccoli.” I ask if he wants parmesan grated over the top. “Oh, yes, I do. I do. Parmesan is delicioso!”

He’s over there, across the counter from me, head over his phone, when I remember. “Oh, hey! I need your skills. So my photo app has crashed and crashed and crashed all day, and I cannot figure out what to do. I restarted my phone, tried googling solutions, and I am flummoxed. I can’t even figure out how to uninstall and reinstall it. Help a mother out?”

The phone is already in his hands, getting triaged. He goes quiet as he assesses the patient, more focused still when he starts reading comments in help forums. “Oh, and also…” I remember something else. “Once you’re done with thinking over there, I have one more thing to tell you.”

Thirty seconds later, his curls tip up, and he says, “Okay, I’m loading something. So you can tell me the other thing.”

Quickly, I run down how I tried using yet another phone we have to access my photos earlier, and as I tried to delete files to free up memory, I ended up deleting them from his account, not mine, because we’d been using the same phone, and he’d re-directed the back-up to his account.

“That’s no biggie,” he says. “I was done with those videos anyhow.”

It’s a wonder, to be in the same room with this young man, a 6′ 2″ linguini noodle who refuses to have a problem even though, for another nine years, his thinking will be amygdala based, the prefrontal cortex a far-off dream.

Two minutes later, he announces, “There. Your app’s all good. Your photos are accessible.”

“Holy crap, Paco, but it’s going to be weird when you go to college, and I move to whatever city you’re in, just so I can show up outside your dorm and hand you my phone periodically. That’ll be weird, right?”

He smiles, just a smidge off kilter, meeting my eyes as he grins. “It would be incredibly fun; that’s what it would be. So fun.”

And in that moment, my eyes still a little wet from the drops, my nose dripping because that’s what it does today, blessings rain down upon my soul.

“It would be crazy fun, poppet. Think about it: Dad would show up at your place with a few freezer bags of soup he’d just made, and I’d always be stopping by with warm cookies…”

His smile grows. “I like soup. And cookies. I am on board with this plan.”

The iceberg has melted. The broccoli has softened. Hoisting his backpack once again, he loads his hands with bowl and plate — off to his room to eat while doing homework.

As he teeters out of the kitchen, he says one more thing — true to form even while awkward and balancing: “Thank you so much for helping with dinner. I’m so excited to eat!”

Somewhere deep inside our phones, people are shouting at each other. Two miles down the road, someone is getting bruised. In the next state over, a family has just lost its apartment. Across the ocean, people are unthinkingly selfish. A plane ride beyond, people cry for water.

But right now, right here, my heart thumping in concert with his footfalls on the stairs, I am witnessing a good thing.

If you care to share, click a square:

Stir Stick

Every few minutes, I wiggle toes inside boots and slap hands against thighs.

It’s cold — the kind of cold that makes hard work out passivity. I’ve been standing outside for an hour reading signs, and I’m frozen to the marrow.

January in Ukraine is serious business, the grey skies flattening landscape and mood, the sidewalks icy and treacherous. Before stepping out the door of my well-appointed hotel room, I’d had a bracing talk with the chandelier hanging over the queen-sized bed, looking to the ornate crystals for assurance that fleece tights under my pants would protect against the wind; that it was okay to step over the snoring homeless man who had set up a cardboard pallet on the landing between my room and reception; that my new map app would guide me to my goal; that the hungover smokers, empty beer bottles, and rotting garbage in the courtyard were welcome set decoration for a travel tale entitled “New Year’s Day in Kiev.”

Emotionally fortified, I had added a pair of socks over the tights, wrapped a scarf from chest to lips, snapped my new wool coat over a thick sweater, and crammed my beloved fur hat – the only thing to keep me warm in the steppelands of Eastern Europe – onto my head. The walk to Independence Square would only take twenty minutes, but since January 1st is a major holiday in former Soviet countries, I presumed businesses would be closed and planned to spend the entire day outside, exploring the parts of the city without walls.

An hour later, as I stand reading signs and tucking my hands into my armpits, I realize I was wrong: even on New Year’s Day, Kiev thrums. Certainly, some storefronts are shuttered, but the streets teem with people, and beneath the open air museum of Independence Square is, ironically, a shopping mall, every shop open for business on this first day of 2019.

Despite the cold, I am riveted by what I’m reading, warmed by outrage, annoyance, righteousness, the courage of the human spirit.

Initially, I am angry at news organizations in the United States for willfully failing the citizenry by neglecting coverage of major events around the world. Even the well-informed in America were largely unaware of the Euromaidan protests happening in this very square over the course of three months during the winter of 2013-14. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we hear about tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooding this public space – constructing a tent city; starting an Open University, a grassroots library, a whimsical post office; demanding the resignation of the president; battling against government riot troops known as the Berkut? Why had we in the U.S. ignored this inspiring example of cooperative public opposition? Had there even been a quick moment on CNN’s scrolling ticker announcing 130 deaths in Kiev?

I’m disappointed at my ignorance. How dare I think I have a right to any opinion about my own country when I know so little about the larger context of our shared world?

Moving from placard to placard in the square, I read details about the Maidan protest, learning of President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal, at the last minute, to sign an agreement with the European Union agreeing to progressive reforms; instead, counter to the hopes and values of millions of Ukrainians, Yanukovych put his pen to a treaty with Russia, in the process accepting a massive loan and aligning his country with Vladimir Putin’s version of nation-building. While many in the eastern part of the country favored Yanukovych’s decision, the overwhelming reaction from the rest of Ukraine was a sustained “NOOOOOOO.” On the evening of November 21st, 2013, the word went out over social media: We are gathering. We are organizing. We have had enough of this government. Together, we will say no.

That night, 2,000 citizens gathered in the square where I stand shivering five years later, setting into motion a revolution that changed the country. Over the course of three months, the number of protesters swelled, and as community infrastructures emerged within the tent city, so did creative liberalizing movements. A piano was brought in. Lectures were given. Music and poetry events were scheduled. Paintings captured moments.

At the same time, the serious business of anarchy was also at work. Molotov cocktails were prepared, eventually hurled. Security forces were formed, their members later becoming part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces when Russia invaded. The guns, tear gas, tractors, tires, chunks of concrete that would allow the protestors to push back against government troops were stockpiled.

As I move around the signs in the square, absorbing the story of the Maidan and trying to stay warm, my respect for the protestors grows with every toe wiggle and thigh slap. The protest grew, and eventually nearly 100,000 fed-up Ukrainians filled this square, claiming the public space as ground to fight for, even during the most brutal months of the year. Their anger, their principles, their passionate insistence that they were through with oligarchies rendered inane talk like “Gee, it’s cold today.” Their sustained, ferocious, life-risking commitment to their cause highlights, in contrast, the Lululemonization of recent U.S. protests in which white women forget not all pussies are pink — although they remember to set down their lattes long enough to snap a photo to post later that afternoon.

Such thoughts are unkind and unfair to American protestors, of course, as all activism is innately performative, and I snort as I accept that I’m an asshole on every continent. But still. Coming from a country that expresses its dissent through #resist and rage-tweeting in response to a rage-tweeter, I am profoundly moved by the Maidan, in awe of how authentic – beautiful, even – the occupation of this square was, extracting sweat, blood, flesh from its participants. The power of the place is upon me. I snuffle as I read firsthand accounts that were shared online after violent clashes erupted in February of 2014, affecting snippets that countered the government’s “official” narrative of bad seeds gone rogue.

It feels wrong to be standing by myself in this place, the site of powerful collective action. While solo travel gives me the liberty to experience things on my own clock, in my own rhythm, the Maidan makes me wish for a partner, someone with whom to lock eyes in shock and amazement. I know I’m blown away, but I wish my reactions were layered with those of others — that I had someone to exclaim to, a companion in awe.


My phone is in my hand; I’ve been taking pictures of the signs, knowing I will want to review them later. Almost without thinking, I open the family chat that has accompanied me throughout my months away from home and start typing to my husband and children – “The people of Ukraine wanted the democracy and benefits of being European, not a return to authoritarian oligarchy, as seen in Russia. So they protested. The president bolted to Russia. Official word was that there had been a lawless coup d’etat. Truth was that the people of a country used their bodies and power of protest to insist on democracy. It’s all very moving.”

I don’t have international data. These messages will dwell in the limbo of “Unsent. Retry?” until I find wi-fi.

It doesn’t matter. I just need to feel like I’m telling someone about this place.


In February of 2014, the Euromaidan occupation of Independence Square reached its peak when government forces killed at least 130 protestors, igniting deeper, more widespread outrage amongst Ukrainians. As clashes intensified and the community established in the square literally went up in flames, the balance of power tipped in favor of the protestors: President Yanukovych was “extricated” from Ukraine with the help of Vladimir Putin and installed into a new life in Moscow; charged with treason and violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, he failed to attend his trial in Kyiv in the fall of 2018 due to knee and spinal injuries sustained while playing tennis.

While Yanukovych has been honing his backhand, Putin has been asserting Russia’s desire to keep a grip on Ukraine. On the heels of Yanukovych fleeing, tanks rolled into the Crimean region of Ukraine and annexed it as part of Russia. At the same time, Russia began pushing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, a war which, according to the Brookings Institution, has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past five years.

As my brain processes what I’m reading, I step gingerly across icy patches, trying not to wrench an ankle as I mull over the profound and continuing costs of the Maidan protestors achieving their goals. The Russian-leaning president was ousted. A reform-minded president was appointed by parliament. The people had risen up, banded together, and given their lives for their nation.

Standing in front of the last sign, rubbing the tip of my nose to restore sensation, I am possessed by emotion, by a single blunt reaction to all I have just learned: what those angry Ukrainians did in the bitterly cold months of 2013-14 was so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

I will learn later from articles online that the impact of the Maidan went beyond ousting a corrupt president and rousing patriotism. For those who participated in the protests, the tip from passivity into action has had lasting consequences. One protestor, a woman who cooked for the demonstrators, Halyna Trofanyuk, reported to The Guardian that she was changed by the three months she spent living in the square.

“I used to be timid,” she says. “But you’d better not mess with me now. If necessary, I can get people behind me and convince them that you have to fight for what you need and not wait to see what others give you.”

People like Trofanyuk, people like the 130 who were killed by government troops, people like the man in a black ski mask who sat at an upright piano and banged out an incongruous song, people like the thousands of Ukrainians who heard something was going down in Independence Square – shit was getting real – and instead of watching to see what happened put on their hats and coats and added their bodies to the number –

Those people were so badass it’s threatening to make me believe in something.

But it’s cold. My teeth are clacking. It’s the first day of 2019, not 2014. There’s a heated shopping center below my numb feet, a bright, shiny place full of coffee shops and bathrooms.

So.

I pull out my phone, readying it to connect to wi-fi and send those messages. I walk through the sliding glass doors of the brand-new mall. And I turn my back on the frigid power of Independence Square to step into the familiar warmth of capitalism and public isolation from others.

Upstairs near a jewelry shop with hundreds of diamond rings glinting from their perches on black velvet, I sit on a tall stool, stir a packet of sugar into my too-hot cappuccino, and consider

fury,

violence,

sacrifice,

revolution and riots as agents of change.

Gnawing on my stir stick, I consider all the many things the Maidan might make me believe in.

If you care to share, click a square:

Biblioteka

It all started with 23-year-old Lilya, a charming and ebullient worker in the Language Center at the university. One night, as she was sending me voice messages to practice her English, she went on excitedly about a recent purchase of some used books. In short order, she was telling me it was her dream to one day read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other classics in English — but that books in English are difficult to find in Belarus, and when they are found, they are unaffordable.
“Sweeheart,” I messaged her in response. “I brought a stack of novels to read while I am here. The decision is made: I am leaving them with you when I go.”

In her next message, Lilya was crying.
When I wrote about this interaction — and how I hadn’t realized how strong the desire is in Belarus to get hands on books in English — my friends and family, dedicated book readers who understand this passion, sprang into action.

From a variety of corners, there were offers: “I will send that sweet girl some books. What should I send?”

Within an hour, a box of books was on its way through Amazon Global. Within a few days, an envelope of books was in transit.
When I went into the Language Center to hang up my coat before teaching my weekly lesson, I slipped the first shipment of books next to Lilya’s laptop.

The moment she spotted them there, it was as though the sun had been hung in the sky for the first time. Lilya cried again. Her colleagues in the office gathered around appreciatively to admire and fondle each volume, slowly turning the pages, in awe at the sight of the words.
It was in that moment I started to realize something: it wasn’t only Lilya who was craving the opportunity to read books in English.
Then Olga, the director of the Language Center, said matter-of-factly, “It is my dream to one day start a lending library through the Center. We have so many students coming in and asking, ‘Do you have any books in English I can borrow?’ And I always tell them no, but that I hope one day we will have such a thing.”
CRIKEY.

You don’t have to tell me twice.
You love English? You love books? You have a visitor who loves English and books and who believes in very few things, but she absolutely believes in the civic good done by and the transformational power of libraries?
Oh, WE WILL GET YOU A LENDING LIBRARY, MY FRIENDS. There will be a lending library.
At first, I thought the library would be small, consisting of the 14 novels I brought with me for personal reading.
But then. Those generous-hearted friends and family in the States kicked into action. Some of those who were gathering books for Lilya realized they could make contributions that could have an even larger impact.
Over the next couple months, as boxes and envelopes of books kept arriving, I learned to negotiate the lines, bureaucracy, and language barriers at the post office.
And when the first stack of books was set onto the big white table in the Center, and Olga realized her far-off dream was actually happening, she cried.
The books kept coming — from a fierce former student who always gets the job done; from a purple-haired slayer in England (shipped twice because they were returned the first time); from one of my high school speech coaches who, in her retirement, breathes libraries; in the suitcase of a go-getter pal who came to visit; from a friend in Oregon whose compassion is built into her marrow; from a fellow blogger who said, after her first shipment arrived, “Now I’m going to send the John Lewis graphic novel trilogy”; from my neighbor across the street and a book group that has been meeting for more than 45 years; from my husband who collected and humped more than 50 books in his suitcase at Christmas time.
So the stacks grew. A plan was made for building a shelving area in a new, dedicated Language Center room across the hall from the main office.
As a few of us gathered the other day to celebrate and document the stacks of books — to appreciate the glory of this burgeoning library before I depart — we laughed, we chatted, we talked about books we have loved, we recommended books from the stacks, we peered over each other’s shoulders.

In a disheartening world of oligarchs, standoffs, violence, and petulant one upmanship, there was, during a half hour my heart will never forget, a small corner of the world where a group of readers rejoiced in the generosity and kindness of strangers.
So thank you, Deanna, Mia, Michelle, Sue, Jan, Shari, Mary Beth, and Byron.
And, of course: thank you, Lilya.

Because it all started with you.

If you care to share, click a square:

Tweaks

Alivaria Brewery

I was tired, but not so tired that my only aim was sleep.

Rather, I wanted a beer.

It was my first night in Belarus, and after having a wander through the neighborhood, I was ready to relax in my hotel room. Fortunately, there was a bar in the reception area, and the young woman working the counter spoke English.

“I’d like a beer. Could you recommend something?”

“You want something local?” she asked, well knowing the tourist’s answer would be yes. I nodded. “Light or dark?”

Um.

Either? Both? Yes? I do like light beers, so long as we’re not talking low-calorie — were we talking about low calorie? — and I do like dark beers. But for my first foray into this new country’s beers, how about…light? So long as “light” meant something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen. By “light,” did she mean something like lager, pilsner, hefeweizen?

Shrugging, I committed. “Light.”

The server nodded. Then she complicated things: “Filtered or unfiltered?”

Um. Either? Both? Yes? What even did she mean? Immediately, I felt as though I should understand her question — I have toured a lot of breweries and listened to eleventy explanations of the beer-making process — but the truth was: she was saying words in English to me, and she obviously expected I would know what she was talking about, yet I was baffled. A veteran of beer ordering, a native speaker of the language we were using, I was completely lost in this conversation.

Seeking clarification, I asked: “I don’t know. What’s the difference?”

Responding to my question exceeded the limits of the server’s English; she looked panicked as she gestured roughly in the direction of the refrigerator and sputtered, “One is filtered, and one is not.”

Punting, I decided an unfiltered beer might have, uh, “stuff” floating in it while filtered beer would be more clear, so I veered towards a potential visual display: “Unfiltered, please.”

Later, I would order a filtered beer and neither see nor taste a difference. Even now, five months into my stay in Belarus, I am randomly following impulse when I answer this question that has been so firmly trained into service staff around the country.

Filtered? Unfiltered? Uh, sure. Whatever. This isn’t how we order beers in the United States, where decisions are based on type rather than color or filterage. It’s not that the English words used in Belarus are wrong; it’s just that their application isn’t what I’m used to.


So much about my time in Belarus has been surprising and overwhelming, in particular the way I have been made to feel not only welcome but “special.” The “special” comes from being a native speaker of English, a prized commodity in a country that has been largely closed off from the West. Because they are professionals who are invested in accuracy and quality, English teachers in Belarus crave interaction with native English speakers and seek out every opportunity to have even a short conversation. Even more, students are urged to pursue the opportunity to practice with native speakers whenever possible. At first, all this attention threatened to knock me over. But eventually, I realized: those who study English in Belarus are aware that the information in textbooks doesn’t necessarily align with actual usage. It’s only through contact with native speakers that they can weigh “textbook” against “real life” and tune their fluency.

As the resident native speaker in my city, I have fielded daily questions about English, and more of than not, the questions take me by surprise. I’ve had fellow teachers open the English textbooks they use in class, point to page 39, and ask me why the first example sentence demonstrating a grammatical rule I’ve never heard of is constructed one way while the next example sentence follows an entirely different pattern. I’ve had fellow teachers text me error-riddled sentences from the EU Educational Committee, sentences they are tasked with translating from English into Russian, to ask, “Are these correct sentences in English?” No, they are not. Before you translate those nonsense sentences into Russian, we’re going to need to clean up that English. I am asked about slang, verb tenses, idioms — and invariably, the questions make me consider things about my own language that have never registered with me before.

At one point, I fell down a rabbit hole after filming a video of various phrases for the language center when I felt compelled to research the verb “catch” and subsequently realized it is rarely intransitive; probably 90% of the time, it’s transitive — as in, it’s followed by a direct object (something receiving the action of the verb). It was only when I was asked to read aloud “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch?” from a prepared script that this interesting quirk of “catch” became obvious to me. As a native speaker, I knew the sentence wasn’t right; I knew I needed to add something like “that” or “what you said” after the verb. But before that moment, I had never caught this nuance of my own language.

Naturally, many of the usage issues that my brain flags are easily explained: Belarusians study British English, so it’s common to hear lift instead of elevator, lorry instead of truck, flat instead of apartment, marks instead of grades. However, over the past few months, I have realized there are some consistent uses of English in Belarus that are neither British nor American. They are uniquely Belarusian English — Belarenglish. The hallmark of these Belarenglish constructions is this: they are real English words, and technically they fit the context of the sentence, so the listener understands the intent. Yet, at the same time, the native English speaker’s mind hitches in a quick glitch — filtered or unfiltered? — before relaxing into comprehension.

Eventually, after quietly schooling a few visitors from the States whose eyes crossed as they tried to connect the words they were hearing with what the speaker was trying to communicate, I started making a list of these words and phrases. It wasn’t difficult. After all, I’d reached the point of speaking Belarenglish; by Month Four, I’d become so accustomed to the following usages that I’d adopted them myself.

  • Territory instead of land (For a native English speaker, territory implies a massive amount of land rather than, say, an acre.)
    • Belarenglish: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this territory for hundreds of years.
    • Native English: The collegium was established in 1581. These buildings have occupied this land for hundreds of years.
  • Hostel instead of dormitory (When I first arrived in Belarus and heard that many students live in hostels, I imagined a bunch of privately owned youth hostels, like cheap hotel accommodations; it was only after questioning that I realized these are university-owned and -run buildings: dormitories.)
    • Belarenglish: I lived in the hostel nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
    • Native English: I lived in the dormitory nicknamed The Bastille my first year at university.
  • Excursion instead of tour (For native English speaker, excursion implies a trip to a place, probably involving a vehicle and at least a few hours whereas a tour is a guided walk through or around a sight.)
    • Belarenglish: Can we arrange an excursion at the museum this afternoon?
    • Native English: Can we arrange a tour of the museum this afternoon?
  • Exposition instead of exhibition or exhibit (Does anyone else remember when there was a thing called a “World Fair” that was also tagged as an exposition? I feel pretty sure my family attended the 1974 World’s Fair — also known as Expo ’74 — in Spokane, Washington, but I’m also pretty sure that’s the last time I saw or heard expo or exposition used. Technically, according to Google, an exposition is a large public exhibition of art or trade goods. But when it comes to smaller displays within museums, English goes with exhibit rather than exposition)
    • Belarenglish: This exposition shows the artifacts found by archeologists on the territory of the university.
    • Native English: This exhibit shows the the artifacts found by archeologists on university land.
  • Faculty instead of department (Okay, this one is British English, I believe, but I want to highlight it as confusing for American English speakers; faculty for Americans means the individuals who teach while department means all the faculty who teach in a common discipline.)
    • Belarenglish: There are three faculties located at the campus in Polotsk.
    • Native English: There are three departments located at the campus in Polotsk.
  • Canteen instead of cafeteria (To an American English speaker like me, canteen harkens back to WWII as a place of dining and entertainment for soldiers; when it comes to the place where college or university students eat meals, native speakers use cafeteria or even dining hall.)
    • Belarenglish: I had some soup in the canteen between classes today.
    • Native English: I had some soup in the cafeteria between classes today.
  • Tormented to death instead of tortured to death (We saw this one on a sign in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk. It’s not a usage I have seen or heard elsewhere, but since it’s permanently placed in the biggest city’s most-famous museum, it seems worth noting that torment can result from torture, but torture is what kills. Either way, it’s awful.)
    • Belarenglish: The prisoners of war were tormented to death.
    • Native English: The prisoners of war were tortured to death.
  • Sanitarium (British spelling: sanitorium) instead of health spa or resort (To the native English speaker, the word sanitarium means a place for recovery from a medical problem, such as tuberculosis or mental illness, rather than a place one retreats to for rest and relaxation.)
    • Belarenglish: Our family goes to a lovely sanitarium at the lake for New Year’s.
    • Native English: When her test came back positive, Charlotte was sent to a sanitarium to recover and to keep her illness from spreading.
  • Marinated instead of pickled (When Granny preserves food from her garden in jars for the winter, these foods are then described in Belarusian English as marinated. A native English speaker would use the word pickled for the process these vegetables have undergone.)
    • Belarenglish: My mother makes too many jars of marinated squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
    • Native English: My mother makes too many jars of pickled squash every year; we can’t eat them all!
  • Write a test instead of take a test (This usage is another one where we Americans in Belarus initially thought it might be British English; for me, write a test is definitely something I have heard in my lifetime, but it seems old-fashioned. After checking with British friends, though, we discovered that write a test is not a phrase in common usage there, either.)
    • Belarenglish: I’m nervous today: I have to write a test in my math class.
    • Native English: I’m nervous today: I have to take a test in my math class.
  • Variant instead of option or choice (I hear variant used frequently here, in any situation where there is a choice to be made. For a native English speaker, variant implies there are at least two things that are different from each other, such as sanitorium versus sanitarium, where one is the American variant and the other is the British variant. In Belarus, though, variant is used for any of the options when there is a choice.)
    • Belarenglish: We will look at flats to rent today. I have lined up five variants for you to consider.
    • Native English: We will look at flats to rend today. I have lined up five options for you to consider.
  • Hometasks instead of homework (I’ve talked about this usage with other Americans who have lived and taught in Eastern Europe, and here is what my friend Sidney explains: “. . . hometask is a word originating as a direct translation from Russian and therefore linguistically specific to the Russian-speaking community.” Some of us here thought perhaps hometasks was a British usage, but Brit friends assure us it’s not. It’s very specifically a term used by native Russian speakers who learn English. Native English speakers use homework!)
    • Belarenglish: Your hometask for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.
    • Native English: Your homework for tonight is to read the next chapter and answer the discussion questions.

The thing about Belarenglish is that it’s not exactly wrong. It’s just not completely natural. And it’s the space in between those points that a native speaker can help.


My second night in Belarus, I had a companion: another American Fulbrighter had arrived. Liz and I had dinner together that evening, and when we got back to the hotel, I offered to buy her a beer.

As we perched on tall stools, the server launched in to her script. When she asked “Filtered or unfiltered?” I was deeply gratified to see confusion flit across Liz’s face. Turning to me, she whispered, “What does that mean? What is a ‘filtered’ beer? What the hell is ‘unfiltered’?”

Speaking a language: it’s about more than using the words.


If you care to share, click a square:

From a Kindred Spirit

Below are responses to Allegra’s latest survey questions written by a woman who has become a great friend to me in recent months. She’s supportive, she’s attentive, she’s crackerjack smart, and we just GET each other. Will I ever forget that she drew me vowel charts to help me improve my Russian pronunciation? No, I will not.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

The teacher who has made the biggest impact on me is my sixth grade English teacher, Sarah. I have been privileged to have a multitude of amazing, impactful teachers, but in terms of sheer magnitude of impact there’s virtually no contest. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but over the course of my sixth grade year, Sarah invested in me and helped me find my voice in my writing. I must have been like a sponge at the time—with that attention and encouragement I just took off. Not only did her impact on me shape me academically, as I realized that I cared about school as a way to explore various passions and interests of mine, but it also shaped me personally. From there I started a practice of journaling that I’ve kept with me to this day, and I wrote constantly, from poems to nonfiction, from that point on. I got published for the first (and, thus far, only) time in eighth grade by winning a writing contest on the topic of treasured objects, in which I wrote about the journal Sarah gave me when I finished sixth grade and moved away. I even ended up going to the university I did because of this teacher. Having worked in education, we talk about how you never know what interaction you have with a student is going to be the one that sticks, so we try to be intentional about as many as possible. I clearly proved this to the extreme, because the reason I initially became interested in my university was not from a conversation Sarah had with me but from a conversation she had with another former student nearby where I was sitting. At this point I was about thirteen and still absolutely idolized Sarah. I still very much look up to her, but at the time it was far more utter idolization. Anyways, we were all working at the same summer camp, and she was talking with another former student who was on her way to Brown in the fall. From the conversation I gathered that Sarah thought rather highly of the university (which I had never heard of prior), and I ended up looking into it, liking it, and deciding I’d include it in the schools I applied to when the time came. And then I was accepted and chose to go there! Of course back in middle school I thought I was going to be an English teacher, as in the subject in school for native speakers. That evolved over time, and I ended up studying International Relations and Slavic Studies. But still somehow I’ve circled back to teaching English, just this time as a foreign language. So when I look back at the last thirteen years of my life, massive chunks of who I am and what I am doing are tied to this one teacher. And those are a lot of the best parts of me. There have been periods of months and years where Sarah and I haven’t been in much contact, but it always picks back up. I went through a hell of a summer this past year, and sure enough, there she was, reminding me I have a couch to crash on if I needed to get away from it all and spending hours on the phone with me, listening to the craziness, giving me challenging but important advice, and reminding me I’m stronger than I know. This answer is a no-brainer. As I count through the core tenets, experiences, and identity markers of who I am, I realize many would be radically different were it not for this one teacher. Perhaps some of that is simply a matter of timing—a bump in trajectory early on has the biggest impact much further down the line—but boy does it make a difference. And now nearly every week I sit down at the computer to a digital whiteboard/video conferencing system where I check in with Sarah’s daughter, nine time zones away, to tackle her schoolwork because life is funny and circular that way.


What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

I don’t feel like I have too many years under my belt as an adult with a solid sense of what I like and dislike in terms of music, so I can’t say this will earn the “lifetime favorite” title down the road when I have more data points, but I love “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The entire album is a favorite, but I find this song epitomizes the hauntingly beautiful narrative quality of the album as a whole. It’s also dear to me in that it’s the song that catalyzed my guitar playing. I had learned a few chords at various points in my life, but it’s when I thought, “hey, here’s a song with a strumming pattern I have internalized well enough to probably not screw it up entirely,” that I picked up my roommate’s guitar and tried to make it work. It was an achingly slow and painful first attempt, but I love that I can pinpoint this hobby back to that moment and this song in particular.


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

In a lighthearted or decidedly “speed-datey” conversation I am always a fan of the question: “Would you rather have muffins for hands or muffins for feet?” It’s one of those fallbacks that has no moral or logical basis, but I like to see the way people think through this. Do you say feet because you hope the muffin stumps will become stale and be somewhat easy to balance on in the long run? Do you value dexterity in your fingers or do you start imagining that this question exists within a universe where the muffins regenerate and you have a lifetime snacking supply?

With closer friends, I like to ask what’s bringing joy in their lives and what is weighing on them. I do a lot of catching up with friends since I have moved so much in recent years, and I like to ask this directly because people don’t always feel the floor is open to either brag or lay out what’s difficult. But in the end that’s what I’m interested in when it comes to knowing someone and making sure they know I care about more than the cursory details of their life.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I have a really hard time identifying a turning point in my life. My life has been a lot of turns, and a lot of beginnings. That sounds dramatic and overly poetic, but when there’s so much movement and so much left up in the air I am not sure which point to turn to. I’ve moved every year for the past thirteen years, and so maybe the turning point is ahead of me when I decide it’s time to take a break and settle in for a while. But I also wonder if it may be honest to say a big turning point for me was this summer, and I just haven’t walked far enough down this road to feel confident calling it a true turning point. However, if it turns out this summer was a turning point for me, it’s for this reason. I finally decided I was going to make choices for my life that would prioritize me and how I want to move forward. I dug deep and, backed by friends who spoke scary and important truths to me, found the strength to do what I wanted to do simply because I wanted to do it. So I’m not sure if this particular venture into teaching abroad will pan out, either short-term or long-term, but if this is a turning point it is one in finding the confidence and trust in myself to set and follow my own goals in life. 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

The word refunfuñar in Spanish is a favorite in terms of just being a fun word to say. Also it means “to grumble,” which is a good word to know when pushing beyond the basics of a language.

I also love the Russian word Tocka, that particular Russian melancholy, loneliness, or grief that’s just not quite translatable into other languages. I can be a pretty nostalgic person in general, but I like to think that the nostalgic pains I feel for my times in Russia and Belarus are separate from that General Nostalgia and are a little part of my heart that maybe approximates Tocka. I think of it when I remember walking the quiet, cool streets of St. Petersburg at 2am with the dawn already breaking, or when I recall riding a deep-Soviet-era bus puttering through the wintery forest of Belovezhkaya Pushcha, wiping the condensation from the windows to glimpse a bison out in the wild and wondering how my life ever led me to that moment.

I also love the German word Heimat. It’s another one of those words that doesn’t have a direct translation, at least in English. It means home, but in a way that is a specific to where one feels at home, not just where one comes from or how a social system might define someone’s concept of home for them. This has been particularly meaningful for me as I have quietly accepted that, at least for now, I feel at home in Germany in ways that I don’t in my home country. It affirms that feeling in me, in a way, to be in a country with a word that lets me know it’s okay to feel at home simply because it’s where I feel at home.

Also German has a word for “awaysickness,” in the same way that we (and they) have a word for “homesickness.” And the word for skunk translates to “stinkanimal.” And the word for sloth translates to “lazyanimal”! You can tell German likes to mush words together. I wanted to preserve that in how I noted them here. Okay, I’m done now. I love words.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

Two friends and I were working 55-hour weeks, and with only a day or so of preparation we decided to go to Yosemite. It meant a long drive for less than 24 hours and only one night there, but it was exactly what we needed. We got out of the city, got drenched by waterfalls, used what we knew from leading children in STEAM projects to cook our foil-packed meals, and sat by a rushing river for a while because it’s what we needed to recharge in the moment. I’m a planner by nature, which you can probably tell by the fact that this really isn’t that wild of a spontaneous story, but I’m glad I said yes to that last-minute trip.


What is your favorite sound?

I’m a sucker for the sound of powerful water, whether it be the aforementioned river, rain, or the ocean of my California roots. I love the sound of unencumbered laughter. And I love the sound of light conversation going on around me. I’ve fallen asleep on multiple occasions just hanging out with friends in a cozy room as a gathering extends late into the night, happily listening to them chat while not feeling any pressure to contribute in a certain way (or, clearly, even to be awake). By now you are probably well aware that I am generally incapable of picking a single favorite anything. This will likely not change. Favorite for me is a category, rather than a single unit. I’ve constructed my own meaning for the word—that’s how reticent I am to choose a favorite anything.


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

My dream vacation would miss the big cities. I’d have my boyfriend and/or a good friend or two at my side, and we’d hit the “in-betweens.” We’d hike greenways or cliff walks, because the nature in new places gives you a feel for the land from the bottom up. We’d get a lot of little bites to eat to maximize the reach of our culinary intake, and we’d also eat at someone’s grandparents’ place. Because if we’re talking dream vacation, we’d be connected with people from the places we’re going to. There would be slow mornings, and there would be the calm quiet of breathing in a place late at night when everything has settled from the day that’s passed. Of course there would be some museums and historical sites, but I also love just walking the streets of a new place. This past year I traveled with my boyfriend for the first time, and I was so happy to find that the two of us could just set out for the day with a couple destinations in mind and spend the rest of the time enjoying wherever else the streets took us. Perhaps our travels will become more organized or pointed in the future, but a dream vacation of mine includes a lot of time for unscripted discovery. I’ve also always said that my two tips for visiting a new place are to go to whatever place is the tallest, to get a view of everything, and to go on some sort of bike tour or excursion. You cover more ground than by foot, but it’s more up close and personal than a hop on/hop off bus tour.  


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

9. I think I’d become an expert in something artisanal, like baking or pottery. Both are hobbies I love, and there’s something to having a physical product as the result of expertise that I find so satisfying. But I would also be totally excited about being an expert in 20th century Soviet poetry. I’ve absolutely loved the times I’ve dived into that world, and I think I would love being an expert on that corner of the world’s writings.


If you care to share, click a square:

A Slice of Leslie

I met Leslie in July in Washington D.C. at Fulbright orientation, but in the flurry of those quick days, I didn’t get to know much about her beyond my observations that she is intelligent, poised, organized, and professional. It was clear why she’d been selected as an English Teaching Assistant (now living in the city of Grodno). In the months since the orientation, though, as we’ve shared so much of this experience in Belarus, I’ve developed a deep admiration for this fine young woman — whom we call “Good Mom” (contrasting with my highly appropriate tag of “Bad Mom”). She’s rad, Leslie is, and not just because she was the first to return a completed survey to Allegra.

Here. Meet Leslie.


What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?

My favorite teacher in the world is Mrs. Bell from high school. I had her for 9th grade English and critical thinking skills, when I was desperately trying to be a “cool” kid. I remember vividly her pulling me aside telling me she was disappointed in my B for the first quarter because she knew I was being lazy and could do better. Her tough love was… tough in 9th grade, but I had her for 10th and 11th, and English soon became my favorite class. She taught me to write, analyze, think critically, public speaking, grammar, and so much more. She also helped me study for the SATs on her own time and was IB thesis advisor my senior year. I truly think that without her lessons and love I would not be the learner, worker, and thinker I am now. I’m still in touch with her on Facebook and meet up sometimes when I’m home in Tampa. 

What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?

“Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root. I went to a summer camp in Colorado from age 10-17 and then became a counselor. Every Thursday was the all-camp dance at a big partially-covered area called the pavilion (pav for short). It was very PG but the perfect opportunity to dance with your camp crush. I was definitely in it for the butterflies from age 12-14, but then I did leadership programs with a small group of people who became my best friends overnight. Then, the dance was just an excuse to be crazy, to dance like you could never dance at homecoming or prom back home. As a counselor it was incredible to be with so many free spirits and amazing people, but also to see camp through your campers eyes. Anyways, “Send Me On My Way” was the last song that played at the dance before the closing campfire and it always played at sunset. They would blast Rusted Root and everyone would run down from the pav into a valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. There was no routine or special dance, we would all just run around dancing and hugging. This is probably the closest thing I have ever felt to magic. 


Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?

LOL I feel like living abroad + being in a sorority + being a smiley American has forced me to come equipped with an arsenal of questions. Honestly, I usually bring up food and my love for pizza to break the ice and get people talking. Everyone – no matter their level of English, background, age, or job – adores food.


Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?

I can pinpoint a few turning points in my life but I think the one that impacted my the most was going to Poland for my gap year. Not necessarily the “sexy” living abroad part, but I had the hardest few months of my life there. I was unhappy at my local school, gaining weight from only eating pierogi and potatoes, missing my family since I didn’t go home for Christmas, and it was the longest winter Poland could remember for a few decades. In retrospect, it was probably seasonal affective disorder, but I definitely was depressed but couldn’t identify it. Getting through those few months was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But I didn’t give up, I didn’t go home and I didn’t turn to any destructive habits. Now my mom and I joke that I can literally do anything after a “winter in Lodz.” Nothing seems as difficult as those months did. And I think that attitude has shaped the way I approach challenges. I’m not afraid and I don’t let the potential of discomfort or obstacles stop me (i.e. Belarus). 


What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?

This is lame but I love the word przedsi?biorczo?? in Polish because it looks like gibberish to English speakers and has too many consonants next to each other. It’s not a cool weird, it means “enterprise.” I also love ???? in Russian. It basically means “crap” or “dang” but it literally means pancake. I just think that’s so cute.


What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

This is a cliche but skydiving. I was in Estonia and I was dating this U.S. army paratrooper (the guys who jump out of helicopters and planes). One morning we were talking and I was talking about how much I wanted to try his job, so he said “let’s do it.” So we called a place and he drove us to the middle of nowhere in central Estonia. It turned out there were no other newbies jumping, just a group of people with over 40 jumps each training to be instructors. They also spoke zero English, only Russian. The army guy bailed on the actual skydiving because he didn’t want to be attached to someone else (fragile masculinity, lolz). The plane was from like 1945 so I got in and was thinking “well, the only way I’m getting back is to jump because I don’t trust this thing to land.” The pilot let me sit in the cockpit and put my hand out the window. After the jump I felt high for the next two hours. It was amazing.


What is your favorite sound?

My favorite sound is the sound of wind rustling aspen tree leaves. You know, I had never thought about it until doing this survey but it came to me so quickly. 


What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?

Hmm dream vacation. I think backpacking in Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park to be specific. I want to go with a group of friends or my dad. With my friends we can disconnect, bond, and sleep under the stars. My dad and I would play word games on the trail and cards at night. Some of my greatest memories are camping in Colorado with friends and family and I miss it. 


If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?

So I kind of hate the word “expert” because I think the more you study something, you should learn that you really can never know enough. I did my master’s in Baltic Sea Region Studies and after two years, I realized how little I know. I would love to become a go-to for the Baltic Sea region and American public diplomacy in the region. This region has my heart – despite it being cold, dark, full of impossible languages, and having a largely meat-based diet. Doing public diplomacy is my dream professional goal so to combine the two would be ideal. 



If you care to share, click a square:
Translate »