Saturday, September 8, 2012

From a Suitcase to a Semi

     Moving from place to place in America taught me many things. The picture of me, coming to America in June of 1995 with one suitcase and no money is placed against another picture of me next to a moving truck full of furniture and boxes with clothes eight years later, was way too embarrassing. I couldn’t believe it: I was becoming an American. I protested, I was ashamed, I was denying the fact that it was I, who collected all that stuff. But I had to admit the fact that the movers' semi-trailer was full of my stuff!
     I felt like I betrayed myself: I remembered my grandfather’s words, who knew the secret of simplicity, “No one can sit on two chairs at once – it is uncomfortable in the first place.”
     But, on another hand, I remember how the life of a stoic was robbing my grandfather from enjoyment of new flavors and colors (in Russia back then we were mostly exposed to five major colors: black, brown, navy, red and white).  I am not wired that way. I want to experience life in all colors.
     Spirituality does not have to be surrounded with poverty. Mother Teresa intentionally chose to have nothing, but her diary revealed that she stopped experiencing God's closeness till she passed. Poverty is not a path toward God.
     As an immigrant, I refused to be poor. It was too painful to see my father, an author, a professor, and a world traveller, walking around the neighborhood looking for good stuff that Americans give away, placing it at the curb.
     Every time he found a shelf or a lamp he came home glowing and reciting, "America!!!!! New furniture for free..."
     I couldn't handle it: our parents raised us in relative luxury. I've learned the first hand that spirituality doesn't benefit from hunger. Can you think of holy things when your tummy is rumbling and your walls are barren?
     It reminded me about my grandfather’s fasting and his reverence to God and God’s creation. Who I am in America is affected by who I was 20 years ago; I was born Russian, and grew up on the border of Europe and Asia, absorbing Slavic and Oriental views on the world.
     It was our family tradition to preserve berries for winter; we dried them or ground them with sugar, but we never stored more berries than necessary. But when it came to other goods, my parents had a different consumption attitude: we had all closets in the house filled with soap, shampoo, and toothpaste in case the market collapsed again. Our freezer always had extra chicken and meat – whatever they could find. Needless to say I have refused to eat meat since I was a teenager, protesting that if it was not available, then I should not eat it. Besides, the meat was always frost-bitten, looking blue and unattractive.
     Even now, in America, my mother gets panicky if she doesn’t have an extra supply of toothpaste or food out of fear that something might disappear from the shelves one day. 

     My granddad never cared for material things, but always shared with his neighbors his last shirt and even bread. Literally. He left this life in quiet poverty, never collecting anything for himself, but his memories which were robbed from him later by his illness. Luckily, he wrote a book that we treasure. These handwritten books are our best inheritance. My Grandfather spent his last five years in the same room, on the same sofa, staring at the rough, whitewashed wall... I wish he allowed himself a little more luxury in his life that he could have memories of on his death bed.
     As much as I didn’t like my parents’ overindulgence, I’ve learned to appreciate good quality food, clothes, newest technology, and a nice house, and enjoy it. I do not want to finish my days like my grandfather, as much as I respect his solitude and ascetic life style. With the right ethic code, a Christian can be wealthy without falling into sin, and therewith to be able to do more good and to share out of her abundance.

     As a memory of our first years in America I still keep an old brass lamp that my father found on the street. It's heavy and tall. I got a new shade for it, and it looks antique. It still works. The frugality of my grandfather and my Dad is not gone. 
     I am destined to wrestle with this question  of a SUITCASE vs. SEMI until I die. May be one day I will find the answer swinging in my purple hammock...

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