Monday, April 26, 2010

Russia's Real Treasures

Years ago there was a master puppeteer from Russia who would perform in Harvard Square. Every time he set up his marionettes on the corner of Brattle Street, near the flower shop, crowds of expectant children would gather and sit at his feet, with their parents - just as eager and delighted - standing behind them. Even watching the set-up was intriguing. Each wooden marionette had been hand-carved by this master artist, and the cast of
characters included a witch who would approach children inquisitively and sweep their shoes, a devil, a saber-wielding warrior, a violinist, a curious little bird, acrobats, skeletons, clowns, and perhaps best-loved by all, a little character named Doo-Doo who resembled a small elephant whose trunk was in the form of a recorder. Doo-Doo wore trousers, shoes, and a shirt and would walk on two feet, do a little dance, sit on children's laps, lean his head on them, and gaze at them longingly with his adorable, big eyes.

Or rather, these marionettes would seem to do all these things as if magically alive, but in truth it was the puppet master, Igor Fokin, whose expertise and dexterity brought them to life and gave them each a story to tell. It seemed that hundreds of years of the art of puppetry, with its links to theater, childsplay, magic, ritual, story-telling, and fine art, breathed through this man, electrified his muscles and movements and animated the very strings and wood of his creations, giving them each a soul, at least for a few moments. Each character was an individual with a distinct "personality," but Igor's spirit came through all of them in the way they approached the audience - his gentleness, humor, and capacity for delight.

Writes filmmaker Yelena Demikovsky on her website about Igor, "Igor used to say that his first puppets were rather difficult to make. He carved them of wood, injuring his hands frequently. But with time, he became so skillful that he was able to carve wood like soap. Most often, Igor could just glance at a piece of wood to imagine its future character. He'd say, 'I just cut away what's not needed.' " Many artists with real genius describe a similar process: Michelangelo, who would liberate his statues from their marble blocks; writers who describe scenes or characters appearing in their minds almost with a will of their own; composers who hear the music internally and become like conduits for its notation.

Before we had our kids my husband and I would stop and watch Igor's performances whenever we were in the Square. Like the children sitting in the first row we secretly hoped the marionettes would come to us, sit on our laps, play with us, but of course that was reserved for audience members who were children in body as well as at heart. We would watch as the tiniest movement of his hands on the wooden mechanisms he had designed and built for the marionettes, or sometimes just a subtle adjustment of a little finger on one string, would transform a puppet's movements and create magic that would make a child laugh or a grown man smile. Sometimes he seemed to dance with his characters. He would smile at them, with them, and through them. "When we have kids, we've got to bring them here to see him," my husband and I agreed. "They can't miss this." We couldn't wait.

But alas, it was not to be. In 1996, two weeks after his youngest child was born, Igor came home from a show in Harvard Square and died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 36. Our community was heartbroken at the loss of such a wonderful artist and person. I wrote a letter to his wife expressing my condolences and offering whatever help I could - at the time I was newly married, not in school, with no job, and unsure of what the future held, and I thought I could at least offer to run errands for her and help out in small ways. Somehow we became friends - sometimes you just connect with people, and conversations and confidences flow naturally as if they were meant to be. When she and her kids had to move back to St. Petersburg months later, there was definitely an ache in my heart at their absence.

Igor's wife and I kept in touch off and on over the years - letters, Christmas cards, photos of growing kids. When my family and I arrived in St. Petersburg on this last trip she and I hadn't seen each other in thirteen years. As soon as I saw her and her eldest son on the platform at the train station, though, it was as if all those years had dissolved. We hugged like long-lost sisters and talked non-stop on the way to our bed-and-breakfast. She and her son took us around the city the following day, then invited us to her place for the afternoon, where he offered our kids what we had always dreamed they could experience: a performance by Igor's marionettes. It was magical. Igor's spirit was with us again for a few moments, and all the wonder of his skill and art came alive again through his very talented son. We hung out for hours that day. It was like old times, easy and comfortable. I was so sad to say goodbye.

This is why when people ask me, "What did you like best about Russia?" I cannot say St. Basil's, or Red Square, or the gorgeous cathedrals of the Kremlin, or the Hermitage, or even the most glorious sights of St. Petersburg. I left my heart in Russia because of my cousins in Moscow and my dear, dear friend in St. Petersburg, her children, and the time we spent reconnecting in their homes.

There's a little memorial to Igor in Brattle Square now - a small sculpture of Doo-Doo with a plaque among the cobblestones. At least now when my children walk by it they will understand what a treasure we lost, and they'll know too that friendship, even across vast expanses of space and time, is a gift whose worth can never be measured.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Russia: the last few days of our trip

Photo exhibit we stumbled upon in a park along Tverskaya,
just in front of the Pushkin Café.

Landscape seen from the high-speed "Sapsan" train
from Moscow to St. Petersburg. All the little villages on the way looked like they could have been Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. Not a paved road to be found in the rural areas between the two cities. How do the grocery trucks make it in the winter?

Freedom of expression in a little train station somewhere between Moscow and St. Petersburg. ("Putin is an a__h____.")

Bank Bridge, St. Petersburg, just outside our bed and breakfast. I love it because it reminds of the end of the film White Nights, and because it's just a beautiful little pedestrian bridge.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ (Собор Воскресения Христова), or Church [of the Savior] on Spilled Blood (Храм Спаса на Крови) as it is more commonly known, on the Canal Griboedova.

Ballroom at the Hermitage

Stroll along Canal Moyka, St. Petersburg

Canal Moyka, St. Petersburg

The Mariinsky Theatre

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anesthesioboist in Russia: Days 2 and 3

Cathedral of the Assumption, South Portal

Izmaylovo Market

Old Arbat

Tsar Bell in the Kremlin: 200 tons of regret
(minus the 11.5 tons that broke off...)

Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin

Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral

View of Red Square from near the river

Saturday, April 17, 2010

To Russia (with love)

One of my dreams has been to travel to Russia...and I did it! I'm in Moscow visiting my cousins!

We almost didn't make it here. First, bureaucracy: the Russian consulate sent our applications BACK to us saying we hadn't calculated the fee appropriately (grrrr...we followed the instructions on their website to the LETTER), then they took their sweet time to process the "corrected" application, and our passports arrived at our house THE DAY OUR FLIGHT WAS SCHEDULED to take off! So we packed in a frenzy, only to find that because of the volcano in Iceland our flight had been CANCELLED. More frenzy as we re-booked ourselves on a flight out of New York the following day and got a rental car to drive to the airport there. Whew. (I just learned that the equivalent flight the next day ended up being cancelled too, so we really just made it to Russia! Hope we can get back without too much trouble...)

Our flight took a longer flight path than usual, cutting aross Northern Italy. We made up a little time getting blown across the Adriatic by a mighty tail wind, but it was pretty long all the same. I was SO relieved when we finally touched down. The passport control guy was a dead ringer for Val Kilmer (but cuter!). I've been having fun practicing my cyrillic reading.

We had a very relaxed, delicious lunch at my cousins' place before heading out to evening Mass (the closest experience we're probably going to get to a clandestine Mass - the Catholic Church's position here in Russia's somewhat unclear to us but seems little tenuous). The priest's apartment was in a building with a very Soviet feel (and aroma!) to it; it even had the diminished-visibility screens on the windows. Mass was intimate and lovely, bilingual in French and English (so my husband was invited to do the second reading in French), with the priest singing the prayers in a deep plainchant that transported us back a few hundred years.

Afterward we took my cousin's son shopping for suit pants at Gum, which has to be the most gorgeous shopping mall, inside and out, that I've ever seen. Red Square is right outside Gum, so I peeked into the soul-stirring interior of little Kazan Cathedral and was thrilled to walk across the vast expanse of Red Square, toward colorful and iconic St. Basil's. Then home again to a home-cooked dinner, showers, staying up till midnight talking, and a deep, restful sleep. A really great first day in Russia!

Monday, April 12, 2010

When Your Life ALMOST Flashes Before Your Eyes

One day, recently, there was a disturbing hissing sound in the O.R. from one of the gas tanks. A huddle of O.R. personnel got on it right away and tried to trouble-shoot for several minutes.

All of a sudden there was a loud popping sound, like a pistol going off, and the hissing crescendoed so that we could barely hear each other above it.

The surgeons and I exchanged looks, eyes wide. They stopped what they were doing. We all turned to the culprit tank and tried to see, tried to understand, what was happening. Meanwhile, the people on the team whose task was to make sure the equipment was functioning properly were still hard at work doing their job. The rest of us were ready to offer our teammates help but were also limited by our obligation to stay physically close to our areas of responsibility - for me, the patient's airway, and for the surgeons, the patient's surgical site. A technician was called from outside to assist.

I started to feel nauseated. I put an oxygen mask on myself as a precaution - the last person who needed to feel queasy was the person in the O.R. directly responsible for the patient's safety - and set about making sure my patient was still okay under the drapes. Breathing tube: check. Monitors: check. Eye covers: check. IV access: running. Warming blanket: on. Vital signs: stable.

My thoughts went whizzing around in my head like ricocheting bullets. What's going on? What can I do to fix it? What if we have an explosion - do I throw myself over the patient or on the ground? Boy, it would really be a bummer if we all went up in flames in here...I have so many things I wanted to enjoy with my husband and kids...

Thankfully whatever valve needed turning or tweaking got tweaked, and the deafening hiss stopped. As it turned out there wasn't any major or prolonged danger. But the incident reminded me that all those things we are trained to be vigilant for in addition to patients needing resuscitation - fires in the O.R., falling objects or projectiles, unexpected chemical hazards, aggressive patients, falls, and the like - are real possibilities, and that we really can't take our training or teamwork for granted.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Reflections During the High Holy Days, Part Two: Belief and Ritual

[Photo: Dazu Wheel of Reincarnation by Calton.]

Last night the obstetric doctor on-call and I stayed up late in the call room waiting for the dreaded beepers to go off and playing with the Belief-O-matic quiz on, according to which I am only 65% Roman Catholic. Deep down, it diagnoses, I am 100% mainline-to-liberal Christian Protestant, and my colleague is either a Unitarian Universalist or a neopagan.

As I've written before, my beliefs are a jumble and at times inconsistent. Sometimes I suspect there may be a personal God at work in the world and other times I suspect there may not be one at all. Yet I pray/talk to the dead, and sometimes even think I perceive some very concrete help from them in the "happy coincidences" that arise in my life every so often.

Inspired by the Belief-O-matic game, my friend and I started to talk about belief and realized most religions give their members a framework in which to fit in some answers to the following:
  • Do you believe in God? What kind of God?
  • Do you believe in the existence of the soul / consciousness without form / an energy that lives on after death?
  • What is the basis of your moral convictions (i.e. what makes something right or wrong)?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Where are we going?
  • Why are we here?
  • Does free will exist?
  • Does evil exist?
  • Does fate or destiny exist?
  • Why do we suffer?
  • What are your views on gender identity, gender roles, sexual relationships, abortion, euthanasia?
My answers to many questions like this are along the lines of "possibly" / "yes and no" / "I have no idea." The only thing I know for sure is that the basis for my faith - whether it includes belief in God or not - is the idea that every human being is precious (a conviction with, admittedly, deep roots in my study of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament). I may be unable to articulate a concept of God, but I keep searching - and if theological musings don't make you fall asleep right in your chair, you're welcome to a glimpse (below) of what goes on faith-wise in my head - and why, despite my doubts and struggles, I still try to participate in the rituals and practices of my home religion.


[Photo source here.]

There are two moments in Catholic liturgical life that I await and savor each year.

The first is the singing of the Exultet at the beginning of Easter Vigil, when the darkened church gradually fills with the light of hundreds of candles and the story of the Church as a people from its ancient (even prehistoric) origins to the Resurrection unfolds ritually through the songs, readings, and prayers of the most special Mass of the year.

The second is also during the Triduum, at the very beginning of the Good Friday liturgy. The priest and deacon enter the church in silence, then lie prostrate before the bare altar for several minutes. It's shocking and arresting, and somehow deeply moving too. Incarnate in their bodies is grief, profound humility, and the striking image of the person who has been struck down, by death or suffering or personal failing or all the above. The presiders of the liturgy express for the assembled people what no words can express. They look like they're weeping silently, motionlessly.

All my life I have struggled with the death of Jesus. I struggle with its cruelty, which shows so starkly our darkest side, what we human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, as much today as back then. I struggle with the meanings others have read into it. For so many people it was more than just a political inevitability; it holds mystical meaning.

I cannot say that I can easily accept concepts of atonement so readily when I believe that Jesus life was about our worthiness, not our unworthiness. I believe his gospel, his "good news," was that far from being a fallen, intrinsically unworthy people, we are instead so love-able and so gifted with love that we are precious beyond estimation, and if we could embrace that truth about ourselves, we'd have no need for the paltry comforts that come from arrogance, prestige, material success, praise, etc. Our true nature makes our betrayals of each other all the more tragic.

By reading his ministry and life this way, I find it impossible to read Scripture apart from this over-arching theme of intrinsic worth. Because I read his ministry and life this way, I see many more consistencies than inconsistencies in his teachings - love one another, don't ostracize the lepers and outcasts, respect women and children, take care of the sick and the poor, see the divine presence in each person.

I've been reading lately the letters and journals of women who chose to live out this very gospel every day (and, by the way, also ended up getting killed for those choices). From them I've learned that we are called to ever-deeper commitments to compassion that we may not be able to reach. Concern for others is manageable for most people; empathy that impels action is also relatively within-reach; but solidarity, true solidarity with those who need help - that, I think, is tough and rare. In the end if there's any mystical meaning in the death of Jesus that I can grasp, it's that ultimate commitment - that solidarity that he entered into with the suffering, broken, sinful world. I actually think the existence of a just God would almost make such solidarity a moral imperative for a God who calls all people to it. But what do I know...

Which brings me back to that shocking moment when the priest prostrates himself before the cross. If I'm right about Jesus' "take" on his own life, he threw himself right into our experience to the bitter end because he was willing to make the leap of ultimate compassion, and that's what that prostration expresses. I find the real saving grace lies not some magic blood ransom to right wrongs we can never undo or make up for, but rather in the possibility or truth of a God whose compassion is so infinite that it carries him into a life of solidarity with us.