1. Tanya’s pencils
May 1994. Paris. I am at a little shop, say, on Rue Mouffetard, with Marina, Shura, Seryozhka, Tanya. I am 16, awkward and self-conscious. Tanya is 12. Tanya accidentally drops a box of little pencils she was contemplating. I freeze in terror, because who knows what awful things can happen when one drops little pencils in a shop in Paris. I just stand there watching Tanya pick up the pencils. When she’s done, she looks at me and says: “You could have helped, you know.”
2. The schools
December 2000. I’m sitting in the graduate computer lab, lonely, bored. Most students drifted away for the holidays.
In the past year and a half, I haven’t made any close friends. The old connections have deteriorated. I miss being around brilliant people whom I can relate to. The graduate classes are occasionally challenging but mostly dull. The undergraduate students I get to teach are by large average and American, even though, mercifully, I am assigned to teach engineers. My research is uninspiring and not going anywhere.
As I was getting ready to leave St. Petersburg 2 years prior, it didn’t occur to me to research graduate schools in the US. At all. Everything seemed forbiddingly distant and impenetrably foreign. I didn’t know. Nobody told me. I didn’t ask enough questions, just followed the only lead I got blindly. This one. And here I am. Could have at this point, in theory, gotten off my butt and transferred elsewhere. Have not. Too much change, too much fear.
A few weeks later, I’ll start taking Karen’s ballroom classes. That will blossom into all sorts of abundance. Here is a picture of Shiva Nataraja. Because dancing and burning the old to let the new blossom.3. India
In 2010, my company asked for volunteers to go to Mumbai for about a year to serve as mentors for an outsourcing partner. I was tempted, qualified, relatively free of obligations. I declined, because I was convinced that should I go, David wouldn’t be there when I return. The only reason.
Jane went for full 18 months. Rob went for 6 months that turned into either 12 or 18. Jane made tons of friends, and went exploring all over the place (here are her photos from that); Adam managed to join her toward for the last part of the term. David wasn’t here by then.
Rob came back and gave a department presentation about the trip. The mentoring was interesting, if not hugely rewarding: after a couple of years of disaster, the business partnership was recognized as such and dissolved. But what a glorious opportunity to live within a different culture for a year! Matter-of-factly, Rob told about several Indian colleagues he became friendly with, traffic, idiosyncrasies of daily life. To the lattermost point, he showed a picture of the outdoor pool by their apartment building.
Imagine a rather large blue clean pool on a bright sunny day. It’s peaceful. The pool and the poolside are devoid of people. There are a few empty chaise-lounges by the poolside and tall lush trees in the background. The next picture is a blow up of one of those background trees. A leopard is resting on a branch.
In 2012, I decided to move to San Francisco. Jane and Adam live some 20 miles South from here now. Not quite India, but still. Here is to living in new places.
4. The Kid
The Kid has to go through a small gathering of homeless people every time he approaches his apartment building door. They seem harmless, but they approach passers by, and they are occasionally noisy.
One day the Kid tells me how one of the homeless junkies offered him to buy an iPhone for $5. Stolen, obviously. “That’s sad,” I think. “That’s so sad,” the Kid says. And, to my horror, goes on about how much human thought and ingenuity went into creation of that phone, and then some junkie steals it and sells it on the street corner just to get high. Hmm. I think that’s sad, because there was a complex human being, a result of millions of years of evolution, with potential unimaginable by definition and all that, reduced by so much internal pain and external entanglement to stealing expensive toys and trying to sell them to clueless pretty boys, all that just to dull the pain for a few minutes.
I don’t say anything, because the Kid is gorgeous. He is a good boy and he says smart things sometimes. Chances are, he’ll grow up into a good man who knows better than to say stupid shit. Compassion takes time to flourish, and for now, I’ll leave that up to the Kid to tend. I dismiss the blatant callousness, so as not to lose him. Later, I lose him anyway. He is a good boy throughout that, but far from a good man, so good riddance. A few months later, we’ll be back to being friends, all well and settled in the village.
Father wasn’t a good person. He carried a lot of suffering within and as that hurt him, he would hurt others. He knew how to hurt with words. He wouldn’t hit me that much, because Mom would shield me and Brother from fights, but he was pretty mean to her.
In my late teens, when I felt already somewhat adult and responsible, I tried reaching out and have a conversation with him, in vain, no connection, more abuse.
Once, when I was 19, I got angry as he was yelling at Mom and yelled at him, “Stop yelling at Mom!” He hit me across the face, my eyeglasses fell on the floor, he stepped on them and they broke. The eyeglasses of a half blind person. Never apologized, never offered to fix them. I gave up on him then. When he got diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis in 2011, 1 year expiration date, I considered reconciling and decided against. I figured, there were a lot of people out there, some of them good for us, others not so much. No point dealing with the toxic ones, family or not. Father was already dead to me, now he would be really dead – no difference, no regrets.
After he died, Mom told me a couple of things. First, Father continued acting like a jerk through the end, saying mean things to her even as he was taken to the ICU where he died the following day. Second, 3 or 4 days before he died, he asked Mom to help him make peace with me. She allegedly told him: “Look, N is an adult now, she’s not angry with you.” Mom didn’t reach out to me for peace-making; I had written him off.
6. No regrets?
I don’t regret my choice of schools, of destinations, of lovers, or how long to stay with all of the above. Those were the best decisions given the circumstances, given my courage at the time. Something good came out of all of that. There were times of happiness and connection. There were lessons: if I am afraid to lose someone, I probably lost them already. To that, this, of course:
I half regret not taking the opportunities when they were at an arm’s reach. Even that not so much, because I’ve learned about the balance between holding on and jumping off, about the value of saying yes louder, rocking the boat, burning stuff, dancing, doing something new, whether obviously useful or not.
There is something I regret consistently and wholeheartedly though: and that’s not being brave enough to offer kindness, to make this a slightly better place. Not stroking the friendly white dog that ran up to me on the street. Not picking up the little pencils for Tanya. Not allowing Father to reconcile with me. Not for me, for them.