Thoughts in the air

 

IMG_3366.JPG
Photo: Andrei.

I have flown many times. However, whenever I board a plane, I still have the thought that this flight may be the last. This happens today as well, but, just in all similar occasions, I am somehow okay with this idea, and this is because of the situation I am in. I am together with all these different people, the gentleman who has already fallen asleep, even before the take-off, the young lady who looks dreamingly on the window, perhaps thinking at a boyfriend who was left behind, or the lady in front of me, who holds a smart phone in her very manicured hands, texting furiously to one, two, or many people at the same time. And I am especially together with the old African lady who sits next to me–I find out she is from Ghana–who holds her hand in prayer, chanting something in her language. She is somewhat in a different reality. She has spoken loudly on the phone, and now chants in a peaceful, calming tone, perhaps placing her life in the hands of the Almighty. So many different people with so many different problems, but at this moment, all together in a box that is ready to fly. It feels as if we are all one.

I open my book and read the first line from Aristotle’s Physics 1.3. “We shall see that it is impossible for ‘all things to be one.'” Aristotle argues with Parmenides and Melissus, but in my context the sentence surprises me and sounds differently. For indeed it is impossible for all things to be one, regardless of how much I feel one with the old lady from Ghana who sits next to me, who calls the flight attendant out of nowhere, even if he is speaking at the same time with someone else, two rows in front of us. Or who moves her legs in “my space,” and not because she does not have space, but rather because there seems to be no personal space for her. There is a certain genuineness in all of her gestures. The social requirements of the West have not yet taken hold of her, and her chant is really beautiful, tempting. But my world is not her world, and her world is not mine.

There are so many worlds in this world, just as there are so many families in one family. I remember how, when I was studying communication in Romania, a long time ago, our professor Mihai Dinu pointed to the fact that brothers and sisters do not grow up in the same family. Of course, parents change through time, and the second child does not get the same parenting experience as the first. But there is one more aspect to it. My brothers live in a family in which I am one of the children. I do not live in that family. I do not need to deal with me as a brother. I deal with them, but not with me.

The world is similar: in my world, I do not need to deal with Tavi. I do not perceive his movements, and I do not need to avoid him when he is in my way. There is no moment in which I serve myself at a restaurant, no moment in which I am my own teacher in class, no moment in which I am my own husband or my own father. All the others, though, have worlds in which Tavi is a component. I am responsible for their worlds–they live life dealing with the noise that I have created in their worlds.

*

Still in flight, so back to my readings. De Anima now. I am going to a conference on Greek philosophy, and I am writing a paper on psyche in Aristotle. “Soul is the being-fully-itself of a natural body that has life potentially.” The lady next to me, the African from Ghana, is being-fully-human. She lives her human life in her particular way. She chants, pushes me with her elbows, moves her legs under the seat in front of me, and I have difficulties writing. I have to move my body so that my elbow does not hit her when I write, but this brings me too close to my other neighbor, too westerner to suffer physical proximity. I am slightly bothered by the situation, and I almost desire to push her back with my elbow, so that I can create some space for my writing. How terrible I must have become if I am bothered by the particular expression of being what I also am, a human! I, one manifestation in the world of being-fully-human, am bothered by another manifestation in the world of being fully human. I am bothered by me!

You may remember Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the one who has “the old unpleasant feeling of exasperated dislike of any person who violated, or even seemed desirous of disturbing his privacy.” I am bothered by the old African lady’s life. Am I not a potential Raskolnikov? Where are you, Sonya, to seize me by the shoulders, to yell at me, “Go at once, this instant, stand at the cross-roads, first bow down and kiss the earth you have desecrated, then bow to the whole world, to the four corners of the earth, and say aloud to all the world: ‘I have done murder.'”

*

I am coming back from the conference. Different plane, different people, different worlds. I have a whole row for myself! Two empty seats next to me! It really makes me happy. No other person: I can write, sleep, I can do whatever I want to do! But then I remember the old African lady, with her flowery dress, her chanting, and her old, wrinkled hands. They remind me of the hands of my mama-mare (grandmother). If she were next to me, I would kiss them, and I would thus kiss the earth that I have desecrated.

Time and prayer

img_2887

I do not have time to pray. I do not have time to listen  to another, to hear another–I do not have time to take care of the other. But here is an answer (which I once heard from Fr. John Konkle): when you think you do not have enough of something, give it to Christ and He will ask His Father to bless it and multiply it. So give your time…

Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray says something similar. What prevents us from praying is allowing ourselves to be taken by the storm (p. 89); we offer ourselves to the storm, and we make our being its dwelling: we invite it in. But one cannot be the servant of two masters, of the storm and God at the same time.

Heraclitus, B85: It is difficult to fight passion, for whatever it wishes, it gets at the expense of soul. Stormy passion comes in, divine soul departs.

So perhaps prayer is inviting God in—allowing Him to dwell in me. And, all of a sudden, time expands, is transformed—for I would already be with God in prayer.

And this is how I am reminded once again: “theory, theory… But have you looked at yourself lately?”

But perhaps it is this “me” that I have to bring forward to God in prayer, this “me,” the one incapable to pray. I need to bring forward this reality, and not the phantasy that I may have of myself. The two ways of prayer, as Bloom may say, the inward and the outward. I need to go inward first, so that I know what I bring forward.

And man am I afraid to go inward…

Tales of beauty and love from the darkness of the Siberian Gulag

coperta-basarabia-2

A couple of years ago I began the translation of Do Not Avenge Us. The book has just been published, and I thought I would share just a few words about it.

Six people narrate their experiences during the Soviet oppression. This can already tell you that it is not an easy book–I also confess that there were moments when I stopped translating it because I could no longer bear these people’s suffering. However, if someone were to ask me what this book is about and I had only one word to use, I would say, “beauty.”

I know it is odd to associate beauty with the Gulag, but the beauty that I am talking about has nothing to do with any aspect of persecution, but rather with the souls of human beings who find it within themselves in the midst of suffering. The Bolshevik regime sought to separate people, to cut them from the source of life: love, as it is experienced in the connection that one has with others. If these people survived as human beings, it is because they were able to love.

So here it is: tales of love and beauty from the darkness of the Siberian Gulag, tales written by people whose voices are crying to be heard.

If you are interested in reading passages from the book, click on the links below.

The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The apple with scent from home

Food for wolves

A love story

A poem from Siberia

The Nazis and the Bolsheviks

The day before deportation

Human dignity and a kiss

 

The Apple with scent from home

I published this post a while ago. It is about the experience of one child in Siberia, after she was deported from Bessarabia at the end of WWII. I’m reposting it because the book that contains this story is about to come out.

 

The Apple with Scent From Home

by Margareta Cemârtan-Spânu

One evening of a late autumn, as we were staying in the house, we heard someone knocking at the door. We opened, and a man around 50-60 years old came in, carrying a heavy suitcase with him.  We recognized that he was one of our people, from Bessarabia, because he had a sheepskin hat.[1]He said “good evening,” and then looked at us and said:
“There you go: I got to the wrong place again! If I do not know Russian, I cannot find my people. Do you know where Mândâcanu lives?”

 

His father had died there, in Siberia, and he came to see him. When we found out that he was from Mihăileni, we, of course, did not want to let him leave so soon, especially bunica. We all began to ask him to stay to tell us at least something about what was going on there. I remember he told us:

“The communists took everything for the kolkhoz! They took our horses, oxen, cows, plough, and earth… They go around carrying a gun at all times, menacing people, and they took everything from us…”

Bunica asked him:

“Are my girls alive, healthy?”

“Alive, but they work for masters. Russians from Chişinău, from the party, come to the village, and the women must feed them and take them to the hotel. If they refuse, when they no longer have turkeys or geese to feed them, then the Russians menace them, ‘You’ll go after your mother to Siberia!’ They have no option; they must accept them. In short, the communists brought only disgust to the village, and no joy.”

Bunica was content that at least they were healthy and had not died; they had not been imprisoned or taken some place.

The man was getting ready to leave to his relatives, and dad told him that he would accompany him to show him where they lived. Of course, the man did not feel right to leave like this, and he opened his suitcase. He unlocked it, loosened the belts, and took out a ruddy-yellow apple, and he gave it to me, since I was the smallest. He said that it was for the soul of his father. I was confused, and I did not know what to do. I looked at bunica, I looked at dad, at the apple… But Emil jumped, grabbed it, and said “thank you.”

Then dad put on some clothes and left with the man. We sat at the table and began passing around that ruddy-yellow apple among ourselves. Bunica was sitting, and her hands seemed to tremble because she wanted to hold it as well. Emil took it from me and put it under his nose, by his eyes…

No, I have no words; I cannot render what we felt because of that apple. For three days, we kept it as if it were God, as if it were gold. Gold was nothing compared to it. It was so dear to us because that apple, with its fragrance, took us back home. We saw again absolutely everything: the garden, the flowers, the fruit, the sheep, the horses, the cow… everything was contained in it… We were home; it took us home completely, and we wanted to feel our home as much as possible. It did not even cross our minds to say, let’s cut it, let’s eat it, because I can no longer bear it. No word from anyone. Even during the night, when we went to sleep, we saw that apple in our dreams.

The third day was a Sunday. Bunica woke us up in the morning, washed us, and lined us before that small icon brought from home. Before that day, from time to time, dad refused to pray, for, if there were a God, why would He allow something like that. But that time even he prayed before that icon and said “Our Father.” Then, bunica took the apple from the middle of the table and cut it exactly in four pieces; she gave it to each one of us as if it were communion… Even now I can see her old, dry hand, how she gave so beautifully that piece to each one of us. She made a cross over it before she cut it, just like she used to do with the bread back at home; that’s what she did to that apple. She cut it and she gave each one of us a piece… But we did not eat it even then; we took it and licked it, smelled it and stared at it, as if we saw a miracle in it. I think it took an hour before we ate everything.

Today, when I walk on the street and see a bitten apple thrown someplace, I see immediately that apple from Siberia…

 


[1] This is a traditional hat worn especially in the fall and winter.

The Prodigal Son: A Poem by Fr. Dumitru Ichim

This is a translation of a poem by Fr. Dumitru Ichim.

I would like to thank Gretchen (see her website here) for a suggestion in line 5 below. My first translation said, “All bridges are broken unstoppable…” The meaning was confusing, though, and Gretchen suggested to replace “unstoppable” with “impossible,” and I think this is much better.

The Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

“The fog slowly is rising around here:

Father, it’s dark, I’m taken by fear!”

“Why? Can you no longer see the road home?”

“My light and my heart are worn; I just roam;

All bridges are broken, impossible,

Because I love myself… the prodigal.

The fog slowly descends from the mountain

Cunningly, to the mill, to the fountain…

Do I just seem to hear the cranes singing?”

“The clouds deceive you: fog they are bringing…”

“Where are you Father? You are a rock beyond choice

And closer to me than my very own voice.

The silence is painful, but I still shout to you!

I am hungry of you, and I’m very cold, too!

Here is the poem in Romanian:

 FIUL RISIPITOR

– Ceața prin văi se ridică:

Tată, mi-e noapte,Tată mi-e frică!

Nu se mai vede drumul acasă?

– Lumina-i ruptă, inima roasă.

Punțile toate s-au frânt sub dorul

de mine însumi , risipitorul.

Ceața din munte viclean coboară

pe lângă moară, pe lângă moară…

Nu în părere se-aud cocorii?

– Ba da, cu ceață te-nșală norii…

– Unde ești, Tată – nerisipit rămas

cu mult mai aproape ca propriul meu glas?

Doare tăcerea, dar eu tot te strig:

De Tine mi-e foame și, tare mi- frig

The longing for Bessarabia


Today my heart was filled with desire: I was overwhelmed by my longing for Chisinau, a beautiful city in Eastern Europe, the capital of present day Moldova, and the place where I felt truly alive. It is a strange thing to say that a place can make one feel alive, but Chisinau did this for me. Perhaps it is even stranger to say that this feeling sprang out of tears. But this is what Chisinau (and the entire Bessarabia) is for me: a tear that calls upon its sons and daughters to hear its story.

I am Romanian and, regardless of where this life will take me, I will die Romanian. This is not because of any citizenship–I do not believe that any government can sanction who you are–but rather because of the words of prayer that I heard from my mama-mare (grandmother), because of the fragrance of the kitchen when she was making placinta cu mere (apple pie), and because I cannot think of any other food that is better than bulz cu branza (polenta with cheese). Even so, it was not within the borders of current day Romania that my heart beat “Romanian,” but rather in a place in which one feels the longing for home. Chisinau, or rather Bessarabia, is a “prodigal” son by force. Stolen from the father’s house, it was forced to eat the pods given to pigs, and nobody gave Bessarabia anything. Now, when it slowly comes out of bondage, it looks to the house of the father, but, unlike in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father is old and in sickness, and the house is often run by the brother who remained home, who measures all things according to cold calculations, and not according to the love of an all-encompassing heart.

I think that I long for Bessarabia precisely because I, a real prodigal son, found Bessarabia, a prodigal son by force, to be my forgotten home. It is in Bessarabia where I was revealed a meaning of love. One day, I went to a book signing. The author had written about the controversies surrounding the deaths of Mihai Eminescu, who is considered the Romanian national poet, Alexei Mateevici, and Grigore Vieru. I won’t discuss the controversies here, but rather one position expressed during the presentation of one of the invitees, Ion Ungureanu. He said that Eminescu is loved in Bessarabia with the love that a mother has for her child, a love that cannot understand when someone says that the child is evil or that the child is dead because the connection between her and her child goes beyond any characteristics that may be attributed to him. It is not that these things are true or false; rather, this love does not work with such notions. Love itself is the truth, and the only thing the mother can understand is that the child is hers and that her life is essentially connected with his. She cannot be without him. Bessarabians love Eminescu with the same love a mother has, Ungureanu said. Bessarabians cannot consider whether Eminescu died of a sexual disease or whether he lost his mind during the late years of his life. Eminescu is one due to whom we have remained who we are, and we would not be ourselves without him.

I long for Bessarabia. I long for her because I cannot be me without her. I long for Love, which is the true Home of those who have the same heart.

======
P.S. For those who speak Romanian (and even for those who do not), a video with a song about the tearing apart of this love.

The miracle of forgiveness

 

Photo by Andrei.


One often wonders whether there are miracles taking place in one’s life. I do not know about you, but I pray for miracles every day: I pray for forgiveness, and doing so I ask God to interfere in the laws of logic. I ask God to somehow cancel the consequences of my errors, to bring a miracle in my life, even if I do not deserve it.

If you consider forgiveness in transactional terms — forgiveness is offered by the harmed party when the perpetrator offers something in exchange (changes his heart, asks for forgiveness, goes through penance, etc.) — then what I said above may not make sense (by the way, I am currently reading a very interesting book, Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness; you’ll find an interesting discussion about transactional forgiveness, which seems to be the norm in the Western world). But if we depart from the realm of morality for a moment, we may consider that trespasses are manifestations of a disease, my own disease. When I sin, I bring upon me sores and pus, and the bridal chamber disappears in a foggy distance–I am no longer fit to be there. In the sickness of my sores, I do not have the power to redeem myself, and so I ask for a doctor, a doctor to “forgive” my illness, to cure it. I ask for a miracle. It is the longing for what I have lost that moves me toward the request. It is my desire to be clean again, to be healthy again, to find my wedding garment. I ask the Doctor to enlighten the vesture of my soul, so that I can be fit again for the Wedding that is being celebrated and to which I was invited. There is no thing I can offer in exchange–just supplication.

It is not a small thing to transform darkness into light; to make a god out of mud; to bring Heaven into my body. It is for such a miracle that we pray when we ask for forgiveness.