Pics of Last Year

The World Press Photo exhibition is on display at Canadian War Museum these days. You see such pictures sometimes on the internet, in presentations you skim through. Colourful or toned-down, beautiful or horrific, telling of ordinary or amazing moments. In exquisite captures of life glimpses, death is many times featured as a reminder that we are only given one limited chance to make it right.

I felt just that as I was strolling through the labyrinth of panels. There were fires, and guns, and gangs of South America; Russian university graduates, now prostitutes, exposed through almost Romantic-like nudes; refugees crying for help; the inevitable discourse of pollution and deforestation; abused women of Africa; abused-otherwise North Koreans; terrorism, the new type of war… Whether human red, forest green, water blue, blood was there in the photos, pulsating under live skins or wasted on the ground.

With every picture left behind, my sense of gratitude grew. Clean water, safe home, the end of communism in the Soviet block, my decision – then constant determination – to get over abuse and toxic relationships, civilization (whatever whoever says, that is a Western invention), friendship, love, family, care…

I did not speak much this evening. We ate a rather ready-made dinner, the five of us – I must admit there have been better family portraits. My teenage daughter disappeared shortly afterwards, anger still on her face. It has been a hard year for her, the last few months in particular. But hey, wounded pride keeps her from saying sorry and start anew – for now. I exchanged a few more positive thoughts with my son and marveled quietly at his change of attitude lately; he’s also been a great help around the house. I glanced outside the window at the beautiful garden my husband and I managed to put together this past spring and summer – was it proof that our marriage works? Night slowly settled in. I held my little one as she went to sleep and I cried for forgiveness.

Indeed, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Only love and faith last. Love cures prostitution, hunger, violence, greed, pride, indifference. Love is our humanly attribute which makes us in God’s likeness. Life is love. Even The Beatles were right: all you need is love. And every picture, sad or happy, beautiful or terrifying, darkened or hallowed, one way or another is about love.

As I said my prayers, I looked up at the icons on the wall, straight into the eyes of Jesus and His Mother. Infinite calm, unbound steadfastness. Always there for us. No need to worry. Just believe.

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Enough

What a funny little word, isn’t it? A word that expands into a whole universe of stars and black holes. Especially dark ones.

You’ve had enough to drink. She doesn’t know when enough is enough. There isn’t enough money to do this. Love isn’t enough.

Or in disguise: You can never be too kind. Never say never. You could do this better. Can you stop? (please)

It started with the day I came back from getting the results to a difficult exam. Back in those days, in the country I grew up in, compulsory public education finished with grade 10: that meant kids had to take an exam to prove their worth right in the middle of high-school. Ridiculous, if you asked me then – and I still think so. One had to pass a couple of entry exams to go to high-school anyway, and there would be another series at the end of it to get the “baccalaureat” (very much in the French tradition). That middle-exam series only added extra pressure and, in truth, it was one of the mechanisms which the communist regime used to ensure people didn’t have much time for free thinking (’cause they would start getting ideas that the system was not quite right, right?) There were two such exams scheduled at the end of grade 10, and they were specific to the program of the respective high-school (some schools focused on sciences, other on languages, or arts, or medicine… very regimented to being with). At my school, I had to do a math exam and a physics exam. My grandfather was a well-known tutor of math who gave excellent instruction to countless kids grade 5-12. I was his only (and quite favourite) granddaughter. I owe him every bit of math that I know – and I know a lot! Throughout the year, we’d had our lessons in a group and all of us were doing well.

The exams were difficult, as they usually were at that stage. Only 60 would be able to promote to grade 11 – those who didn’t… well, they’d have to get a job (which was almost impossible without connections) and try again next time, and ONLY for evening classes. I was good at physics though not excelling: still, I got a 7.5 or so (out of 10). The math exam, I had taken extra care with: not only I was confident I did everything well, but I provided a double way of solving some of the exercises, and my writing was organized and truly impeccable. I was not surprised to see I got a full 10. Altogether, my over 8 average mark pushed me into the successful candidates. I was proud of myself and for no small reason.

So, big smile on my lips, I went to my grandfather and I announced my victory. He looked at me and said: Daniela did better. (Daniela was another student from our math lesson group) I said: what? What do you mean? He said: Daniela got over 9 average. I said: that’s irrelevant. Daniela is not in the same high-school; and by the way, how much did Daniela got in math? 9.4, he said. Well, I got a 10 in math AND I made it to grade 11 – shouldn’t this be enough for you?

He never answered that question. The smile faded from my lips gradually, my self-confidence stood fighting. In two years time, I would flunk the very difficult entry exam for the Architecture School: not the preliminary drawing exams (in spite of my Dad telling me I can’t draw well enough), but the geometry exam – my best subject. Both Dad and Granddad told me openly they were ashamed with me. I waited another year, tried again: guess what, I flunked the drawing. And then I did something they thought was crazy. I registered for the entry exam of the Math course at the University. Those were the hardest math exams ever. Dad and Granddad felt funnily proud I’d choose that, but they didn’t get me at all. I couldn’t care less if I made it into that program, I didn’t want to be a math teacher, just wanted to see if I could get a passing mark: and I did. I got over 5 average for math international Olympics questions. Right that moment, I knew I would pass the entry exam for the architecture school the following year.

Long story short, I finished architecture school and went on to Cambridge for my Masters degree. My grandfather had died in the meanwhile, but my father was secretly delighted. After immigrating to Canada later on, I spent another seven years over a doctorate only to see my academic teaching dream dripping like sand through my fingers as I sat down to write my thesis: at 40, I had become pregnant with my third child. I gave birth to the child and raised her along with my other two teenagers, while crying my head off and writing the doctorate. I was made to feel a not good-enough mother for crying over such a pathetic career meltdown. PhD under my belt, I accepted to teach drawing and geometry to college students who wouldn’t come to class and who wouldn’t do their homework, despite my best efforts to engage them. I was sacked when I refused to pass those students.

Nothing I’ve done was considered enough. They planted this idea in my head at a time when I was young, happy and confident. They did not celebrate my successes. They made me feel little and insignificant. They told me it’s my fault for this and this and this. I had to take the blame, whether it was my owning or theirs. They trapped me in this funny game and, ever so slowly, I became “they”. My self-confidence was nowhere in sight. I started to tell myself my dreams don’t matter; what use is to try this, I don’t know enough to make it work; I started to feel guilty when thinking of celebrating me simply because some of them thought that’s selfish. When I came to the full realization of this, I was (might I dare say, rightfully) angry. My love turned to hate. I wanted them gone, out of my life, but some just wouldn’t disappear. It was as if invisible murky threads made them cling to me, and I was trying in vain to clip and cut and push aside. Nightmarish, really.

Eventually, I took on a minimum wage job as an assistant in a Kumon centre where the enthusiastic and actually lovely owner would gently prevent me to teach – I was there only to welcome students and to grade their papers, not to instruct them: that was her job. I felt not good enough. Everything was pointing to giving up, so I willingly gave up that job too. “The kids will miss you…”

Days came and went, as I tried to fight my returning depression. Something very deep inside, in the dark hole of my guts, said you’re not a total quitter. Luckily, I had learned to notice the colours around me, the light, the music, and every now and then a ding of a text from good friends asking how I am. “You’re the best mom in the entire world, I can’t stop loving you!!!” And those diplomas on the wall in our home-office… tacky, I know. I have a more than patient editor at a famous university press waiting for me to finish the manuscript of a book from my thesis. Why would I do it when there’s no academic career at the end of it? Or is it… could it be? Does it matter.

And one day… I understood. Out of the blue. That happy, confident girl is still alive in me – maybe not kicking much, as she’s felt down lately… well, for about 30 years, on and off. She is not that young, but man, does she have some other good stuff up her sleeve. She’s used her time well. She has accomplished many things just by forging on. She’s raised three great kids, she’s taught some others, she’s cooked a few good meals, she’s been a friend. She has a good group of “they” who love her truly. When she wants to, she’s fantastic! It really isn’t all the work of her dear magic wand…

OK, enough with this! Did you get the message?

Healing

I come from a deeply affected country. Started off as a healthy happy easygoing child. Grew up surrounded by love and doubt, in the same measure. My mother was the living image of the Theotokos, not only her name was Maria. The kind of person who would go to bed crying and wake up with a smile on her face. My father was a talented man who had been deeply wounded at four years old when his mother abandoned him and by the constant belief that he was not good enough at anything he did. He made me feel I was never good enough, tough legacy to pass on to a dear strong child. She made me feel like I could conquer the world just by having faith. Little wonder they fought often, my mom and dad. They could not reconcile the pain inside. Like everybody around, they did not fully get why they had to lie and pretend life is good when there wasn’t any food, any freedom, any understanding. They were not stupid, of course. Just that the rules didn’t make sense. Because there is nothing to understand in the mindful destruction of the spirit.

There was massive schizophrenia in my country, still is. The Party said one thing and you had to follow its lines everywhere. By conservation instinct, people had chosen to tell themselves and their children differently inside their homes. To keep sane, apparently. Little did they know that “sanity” was also crooked. Truth was twisted, lie was queen. Doubt was in every corner, just like danger. You’d always have to pretend, or have your shield up – that wasn’t much different from all history of defense against attackers coming from all directions, literally. No big deal – just that it makes a people tired.

And tired they grew, by the days, by the years. Battles, struggles, tiredness got embedded in bones, can’t shake them off. Personal success was not celebrated outside the Party’s victory. The Church was suffering along. There were few people who’d heard about God. I remember I’d always wanted to see a Bible – it would have been a bonus to actually read it. After communism fell, I got one from an evangelic Christian in England. She genuinely thought she was bringing “the good news”. She didn’t get the people had stood by mere grace of God, that they had been Christian to the core, before apostles walked on Saxon fields. God has amazing ways, indeed.

It is hard to write about this. I have been battling the shadows in my life for too long. My optimism still erupts through the cracks now and then, and people wonder at my beautifully carved mask. Many don’t know it is a mask. Sometimes, I even think it is not a mask. I forget. I don’t know any more. The pain is eating me inside, literally. It made its bed and I do not know how to kick it out. I do not trust. I’m married to a beautiful man from the same country, tough luck. No matter how much I try to heal, he won’t. So firm is his mask, it has become his face. He does not understand where the problem is. “There is no problem.” When the problem is evident, he detaches himself from it, he leaves the room. How does one heal when the Party tells you there’s no need, you are already in heaven? How does one heal when you change countries to find the same lie blossoming all around, and your dear one, the one you’ve trusted, tells you this is it, you must comply and be joyful, what more do you want? How do you live with fear, with doubt, with failure and WHERE in God’s name can you find comfort?

How can I make the tears stop?

They talk about balance in books and self-help shows and blogs. Balance yourself. Better yet: balance yourself while being kicked.

BUT. I. DON’T. WANT. TO. BE. KICKED. ANY. MORE.

Then stop kicking. Empty your mind of your thoughts and let God in. Not as easy to do as it sounds. Then focus. You can’t. OK. Look here: YOU CAN. Discipline.

Repeat after me: I CAN. Walk on fire. Not because you want to, but because you have to.

I. DON’T. WANT. TO. WALK. ON. FIRE.

Walk with Me a little more, He says. One day the pain will cease.

That is His promise. There is no doubt in this. Whatever the damned party told you.

Change the pattern. Break it. Take pleasure in distorting it. Love your laugh! Get your paints out and draw long lines and curves and flowers and bees and streets and houses and smiling people with big, huge mouths. Paint the rain and the snow and cry a little more. BREAK. PATTERN. Yes, it’s schizophrenic. Yes, the pattern is there. Yes, the breakthrough is there too. Yes, you’re mad but you’re not mad. Yes, you won’t see God in flesh. Yes, He’s there. Yes, here’s a smile and a kiss and a long loving unconditional hug from your little one. Yes, it’s possible. Yes, your heart beats and belly doesn’t hurt as much today. Yes, you can’t breathe. Yes, you can!

Yes, you are free.

FREE. FREE. FREEEEEEEEEEE……….

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