Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Sunshine

Who doesn’t love a wedding? It was fun watching Prince William marry Kate Middleton, who looked beautiful in an elegant dress that was both traditional and modern. London looked great too, pictures from every imaginable angle, on a sunny Spring day. It took me back to the time when I took my grandchildren, first Julia and a few years later her brother Tony, for a visit. We were there! At Buckingham Palace, at Hyde Park, at Westminster Abbey, along the parade route. Wonderful memories. Julia loved Covent Gardens and Tony loved the theatre, and the new Tate Gallery. We stayed in Bloomsbury. They both loved the British Museum. Julia bought some crystals and Tony bought one of those great blue floppy top hats with the flag of Great Britain on it. And who doesn’t love pageantry, tradition and ceremony? Maybe I'm just a romantic, but I thought it was great. Some sunshine on our sometimes gloomy political and economic landscape.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Missing My PCV Angel

My brother Loren took me to the airport on 31 March 2009 to begin my Peace Corps Adventure in Ukraine, exactly 6 years after our mom’s death. We spoke with mom, told her what was happening. We hugged, long and lovingly, and he said, “See you in two years, sis. We’ll have lots to talk about.”

It was especially hard saying goodbye to Loren, my dearest friend and soulmate. I saw him once more, briefly, when I came home for my 70th birthday in 2009. And then we lost him.

I had one huge expectation that didn’t happen: I expected to have a reunion with Loren when I returned from Ukraine. I couldn't wait! It was not meant to be.. Loren was one of my biggest boosters. He was so glad I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and he followed my adventure with loving faithfulness. He had no doubts about what I was doing. When others doubted, he affirmed. He understood. I loved his comments on my blogs and our email exchanges.

But there is no reunion. And I find myself grieving again, like I did after the news of his sudden death almost one year ago. I cry for my brother. More than anyone, he embodied the Peace Corps spirit. Now I'm hoping he's a PCV in heaven. It’s something he wanted to do. For sure he’s my PCV angel, united once again, together again.

My Pysansky Apartment

Pysansky Easter eggs. Collage: Living room, bedroom, kitchen and funky enclosed porch with leftover colors.

The painting is done. My apartment looks bright and cheerful, a house of many colors, like Ukrainian pysansky. The furnishings are lovingly borrowed from my daughters, who set me up and got me going.

Now all I have to do is get my furniture and stuff up here from St. Petersburg, Florida, decide what to keep and what to unload, and then I’ll be a true Sylvanian. A citizen of Sylvania, Ohio.

Not Transylvania, the mysterious land of Dracula in

Romania’s Carpathian mountains, a region whose history, culture and boundaries are still contested. I had hoped I might be a PCV there.

Not Spotsylvania, a county in Virginia that was the scene of many Civil War battles, where Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was shot to death by his own troops, who mistook him for a Federal patrol in that dark forest.

Sylvania literally means "forest land" in Latin, but it is no longer a forest, and no longer a farm land. It is, however, a green and pleasant land, with many trees and parks, a good place for an RPCV to begin again. And over the weekend I had the pleasure of taking Josh and Kyle to a park in walking distance.

My mind roams, but my body is re-anchored in another place on planet earth. I am surrounded not by Russian speakers in a Ukrainian town near the Russian border, but by family and friends and an apartment of many colors situated just North of Toledo, Ohio, near the Michigan border.

Borderlands seem like good places to be. But then, we are always on a borderland, all of us, no matter where we live: we are on the borderline of life and death, life and rebirth.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Easter Wish

A Ukrainian Orthodox Easter: христос воскрес (Christ is Risen) and symbols of the holiday embroidered on a traditional basket covering, with an icon of Christ and colored eggs in a basket.

I prepared little Easter baskets for my grandchildren. I put in some candy and sweets, stuffed animals for the little ones, small presents for the older kids. We celebrate Easter, but for me it is more a secular than a religious holiday. A celebration of rebirth and hope. For my daughters Elissa, who is Catholic, and Michelle, a protestant, it is a sacred holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, was reborn, and promised heaven to all those who believed in him.

Last year at this time I was helping Luba with her Easter preparations, along with her son Sergei, watching her bake Paska, the cylander-shaped Easter bread decorated with white frosting, dying eggs bright red, and a filling a straw basket to take to the monastery to be blessed by the priest.

My contribution was simple. I bought some pysanky, those colorful and elaborately decorated eggs that are an ancient Ukrainian tradition, passed on from mothers to daughters over the generations. I dutifully added a few pysansky eggs to Luba’s Easter basket. Most women today are too busy to decorate the eggs this way, but they are available at the bazaars. I also bought a bunch of (plastic) pure white lilies to decorate my room, then gifted them to Luba. Sergei drove us to the monastery in his ancient but still going white BMW. We marched in with a procession of people, at 5:00 am. The priest dipped a branch of pussy willow into a bucket of water and, walking slowly, wordlessly, along the procession of believers, sprayed us thoroughly with it. We chanted “Христос Воскрес.” That was it. No service, sermons, prayers, Bible readings, choirs. I could see Luba felt satisfied, purified. We later had a gala meal with Luba’s whole family and some friends, with abundant food, grand toasts, and singing. A joyous Easter. It was the last time Sergei would be present for an Easter meal.

Most of all, for Luba, Easter marks the time when she can return to her garden (огород), start digging up the earth, preparing it for planting. She spends hours in her лгород, in the early mornings, after work, all weekends. “You are working too hard,” I would tease her. She'd give me a big smile and say "Я люблю его.” Working in her garden breathed life into her. Last year, at this time, was the last time she would find joy in her garden.

Luba was in her garden on a Saturday, in the strawberry patch, a week after Easter, happy as a lark, fully engaged, when she got the call that changed her life forever.

I heard a blood-curdling scream, a scream of terror and disbelief, as if she had been stabbed with a knife through her heart. I ran out to her. She was frantic, running hither and thither, like a scared rabbit caught in a lair, screaming into the phone, falling to the ground, getting up, falling, in shock. I ran to a neighbor for help, and a few minutes later, thank god, her son Vitaly came and got her up and into a chair. From time to time he sprayed cold water into her face, got her pills to calm her, called friends to come over. It was a horrible day, the day Luba’s painful crying began, and it has not stopped. I didn’t understand what it could be, everything in Russian. A car accident, a death? I couldn’t understand, and didn’t for a long time. But that’s the day Luba learned that her beloved son Sergei had committed a terrible crime and was in jail. That’s when the nightmare of a son in jail began, and the prospects for his freedom grew dimmer and dimmer. That’s when the life and the light went out of Luba. It is still gone.

Now, for Luba, Easter and the return to her garden marks the time Sergei’s life in freedom ended, and tragedy befell the family. Darkness descended. Will some joy return for Luba with the passage of time? Will it be better after a few Easters have gone by? Will there be acceptance, forgiveness, redemption?

I hope so. It is my Easter wish. I pray that on some Easter in the future, Luba will find peace again, and that she will rejoice in her garden and in the blessings of springtime’s rebrith and promise.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My New Hometown

Sylvania Main Street Scenes: My apartment is on the 2nd floor of this old house, with the bay windows. Below: With daughter Elissa and with neighbor Robin in front of my apartment home; painted bench in front of a restaurant ("Tree City"); history museum; Elissa in front of her apartment building, on the 2nd floor of a clothing store; street scenes at night with sparkling white lights on budding trees, some shops.

Sylvania is a pretty little town of lovely houses, some small, some medium, some, the newer ones, very large and elegant. It was once a farming community; it's now a suburb of Toledo. It's grown up and out a lot in the last 20 years or so. The town is noted for its good schools and civic vitality, a place where people care about their neighbor-hoods and civic services. It has beautiful parks and recreation areas for kids of all ages.

I live in downtown Sylvania, right on Main Street, which has a mixture of older homes, 19th century and Victorian, some, like mine, made into apartments, and a variety of shops, stores, cafes, a historical museum, several antique stores and art galleries. It reminds me of a small New England town, where everything is in walking distance, or of a lively neighborhood in a big city, like Woodley Park or Cleveland Park in Washington, DC. This is what I am loving about being in the heart of Sylvania. There's a street life!

Actually, in some ways it is like Starobelsk (старобедьски), Ukraine. Same size, same flavor. Both have about 18,000 people; a small town feeling; lots of little shops; a long winter. Spring is just starting to emerge in northern Ohio, as in eastern Ukraine. People are kind and friendly. Lots of spontaneous meetings take place on the street. How about a cup of tea? Sure!

So what is the difference? That's hard to describe. More paved roads and streetlights here than there. More cars and traffic: everyone has a car, to go to the city, the large shopping malls, to work, to sports and cultural centers. Not so in Starobelsk. Sylvania has a suburban look and feel, a suburban-urban dynamic, less rural. The nearest town to Starobelsk is an even smaller rural village, and the biggest city, like Lugansk, is 2 hours away by bus, marshruka or train.

Also in Starobelsk just about every house, mostly little white brick houses with green or blue shutters, like Luba's, has a large garden, filled with vegetables, flowers and herbs. Produce is brought right to the table, or preserved for winter. Any surplus might be sold in the bazaar or on the streets, or shared with those in need. Many people have chickens and pigs. The pace of life is different, an almost pre-industrial sense of time, determined by seasonal tasks: planting, tending, harvesting, preserving. Life's more task-oriented in general in Ukraine. Life takes on the pace and style of farm life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of course the big cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa are more like big American cities, bustling centers of commerce, trade, retail, and industry.

For a volunteer, a big difference, of course, is the language: I was surrounded by Russian for two years. I took the Peace Corp's language classes, which are fantastic, studied, tried, but I never became proficient. I learned survival Russian and how to survive in a Ukrainian context, and I grew to understand the language more and more. My pantomime became more effective, more dramatic, and I could throw in a Russian word now and then. Not that I could engage in a real conversation. It was hardest after my brother died. No one with whom to share my grief, to talk about Loren, to remember. It was hard after Luba's family tragedy involving her son Sergei, too, because it took me forever to piece together the information that shattered her life. But it was part of being a PCV, and overall, I got used to it.

Now, it's just the opposite. At first it was strange to hear English. But how easy to communicate, to have long conversations, to talk religion and politics and poetry, to talk about daily life and little things, and to read signs, like the one I'm looking out my living room window, "Harmony in Life." It's the sign for a yoga center and shop next door.

It makes life so easy, almost too easy. I think I'm going to need another challenge.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Yellow Moon, Snow on Forsythia

Oh my goodness. I looked out the bay windows in the front of my apartment at 10:30 pm last night and to my delight and surprise saw a full yellow moon in a velvet black sky. It was very close, just a few feet outside my window. It hung in the sky like a giant yellow ball hit out of the ballpark. I had seen a moon like this before, in Ukraine; it had drawn me like a magnet to my window. Is it Loren, signaling us to take a look? Is he watching too? The pale yellow moon was surrounded by a yellow halo, like a blessed person. An Easter moon? A moon angel, perhaps? It floated into my dream world as I fell asleep.

Little did I know that this moon angel presaged an April snowfall. Monday morning started out grey and rainy and chilly. I snuggled under the electric blanket my daughter Elissa let me borrow, a Christmas present I had given her a few years ago, “the best Christmas present I ever got,” she calls it.

The painter came early, at 8:00 am, and an hour later, I looked out my window, and it was snowing. Snowing in April. Coming down fast and furiously in large, very large, flakes, falling on forsythia and daffodils.

“You’re not in Florida anymore,” Dave the painter shouted from the living room, sounding like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. Not in Ukraine, either. It’s an altogether new place, psychically, spiritually, factually. A new NOW. A full yellow moon and snow on forsythia. A landscape of rebirth and light. A new beginning.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Life After Peace Corps

A favorite photo taken in Kyiv, when I first arrived in Ukraine a little over two years ago. Life's still good!

This is my post-Peace Corps blog, Life After Peace Corps. I'm settling into a new life; I'm onto another journey. I'd call it "Odyssey Dawn," but that name has already been taken (for the war in Libya). Actually, I'll think of the musings in this blog more like "new horizons."

It's an adjustment, but it's okay. That's what my Peace Corps adventure in Ukraine was all about. That's what life's about. Adjusting to the new and the different, the familiar and the unknown, one step at a time, every day. It's easier, I must say, in your own language! "I look forward to a day when I'll understand what's going on around me again," my PCV friend Suz said to me once. We laughed. That time has come.

I understand, but I'm still adjusting! I'm back in the Toledo, Ohio, area where I raised my family before leaving in 1985 for Washington, DC, then some 17 years later for St. Petersburg Florida. It 's a return in a way, but it feels more like a new chapter. I'm in a lovely little apartment in an old house on Main Street in downtown Sylvania, a city of trees, a suburb of Toledo. I'm starting with a new coat of paint, different colors, bright and fresh, in every room. It's starting to look like Pysansky, those beautifully and elaborately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs!

I am spending time with my family and my grandchildren. I joined Michelle's family for "Fiddler on the Roof" at Alli's high school, a great production and a touch of Ukrainian culture to boot! We've had meals here in my apartment. Last night I took Josh to dinner.

I'm also on the lookout for activities that will engage my mind and energy, keep me involved in the life we have, the life we are given, the life we make. I'll take my time. I still have to make a trip to Florida to get all my things, oversee a move, bring my brother Loren's car, his little red Kia that served him so well, up North.

It's amazing where life takes you if you take life as it comes, I wrote while in Ukraine. Then, the context was Starobelsk, near the Russian border, a place I never thought I would be. Now, it is Sylvania, Ohio, near the Michigan border, another place that once seemed unimaginable. Now, everything seems possible. It makes me think we are always living on a border somewhere, real and virtual.

No matter the borders of our lives, the journey continues, the road goes on; we forge our paths into the unknown, into the future. It's what my brother Loren always told me. He's moving on, and I'm right behind him.

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