Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hamburg, 14.6.90: Reeperbahn Forays and Sweet Williams

*Hamburg, 14.6.90

It's 3 A.M., I unable to sleep—very bad night. I was awakened about 1:30 by two men singing loudly and eerily in German, in bass voices—perhaps opera . . . . This following a day in which I finally had slept soundly for the first time, only to have Steve come knocking at my door at 5:45, telling me it was 7:45 and time to arise. He had misread the clock. I was unable to return to sleep and got up none too happy to be catapulted suddenly from deep sleep to full waking.

Consequently, a most wretched day, and I have only fragmented impressions:

A man passing as we looked at a butcher shop-lunch place sign and saying, “Sauerkraut? Yes, in Bavaria.”

+ + + + +

A sausage place, Heisse Ecke, on a corner of the Reeperbahnstrasse, at which Steve and I had an Abendbrot of bread, Krakow sausages, and pommes frites. An oom-pah-pah song came on the juke box, loud, and a portly man sang loudly and maudlinly as a little old woman behind the counter chimed in off-key only every three lines or so. She had a perpetual cigarette and wore white socks and white sandals. A man came in with cowboy hat, boots and spurs, and she held animated conversation with him.

+ + + + +

A street off Reeperbahnstrasse with mostly gay kino shops and a Gaylords club: für Herren. Steve and I walked in the street and it was practically deserted. At the end of it a woman, blond, frowsy, hung out a window with voluminous balloons of breasts exposed. We returned and entered the gay kino. It was dark and unwholesome, full of men who continually walked from one dark doorway marked Toiletten to another surmounted by a red neon light. Most of them were horrendously tall. It was my first, and I think shall be my last, visit to such an establishment: dark, dirty, dangerous-feeling.

+ + + + +

A downtown restaurant Steve, Kathleen, and Abner and I happened on after much searching, at which we had what I suppose is a typical German Mittagessen of sausage or pork chops or chopped pork (I chose the latter) with potatoes, kohlrabi, rotkohl. The waiter looked Bavarian, short and stocky and dark but blue-eyed, and was insultingly solicitous and openly so when Steve tipped him. I hated it all—he kept circulating around the serving counter and talking about us with the restaurant owner and looking and smirking. Some patrons participated. Did we step into a Deutschland über alles remember-the-war club?

+ + + + +

Flower shops full of sweet Williams and multi-colored rosebuds for sale.

*I am more than a little embarrassed by this 1990 German travelogue. It was my first trip to Germany. Since then, I have gone back quite a few times, staying on several occasions for a month or so with German-speaking families. My German is vastly improved, though still halting. In light of my more recent travels, I realize how naive my first impressions were in 1990. Still, there they are. I recorded them. And I still own them, no matter how much I'd qualify them if I were recording them today.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hamburg, 13.6.90: Innocents Abroad and Restroom Follies

Some impressions from yesterday: Abendbrot with Dorothee Sölle’s family reminded me of Steve’s family, in a way. They sit quietly at table, as if each is abstracted into his or her own world. And yet they talk and laugh—but the overall impression that of a wall around each head, each heart. Something in me resists and rages against such opacity in people. I could not be German, if this is part of what being German means.

At Dorothee Sölle’s lecture, things began on an almost raucous note. She started speaking even as people milled about here and there, but eventually everything was quiet—again, off in each head. Then in the question section, only three people from the large audience asked questions. The “clapping” what that each bet on his or her desk with knuckles.

Coffee: we ordered cappuccino for coffee yesterday afternoon, and received a cup of cappuccino qwith a good dollop of schlag. This in north Germany . . . . And that following a lunch dessert of strawberries in whipped cream . . . .

+ + + + +

In the morning, we went to the university subway stop to meet Wolfram W. When we located it, she demanded that we stand outside. Then she came running out: “There’s a man in there and he got up when I went in. Then, legs crossed scissors-style: “I have to go.” Back in, then out again: “He wants fifty francs!”

+ + + + +

9 P.M. A long and trying day, but peaceful now, as I listen to a blackbird sing in the shrubs outside my window. It rained and/or was overcast much of the day, but cleared up around 7:30 P.M., and is now gorgeous. Nice to have an evening to rest and recuperate. We’ve been pushing it, and I feel the effects.

After we met Wolfram W. this morning, we went at his recommendation to an Italian (Etruscan) restaurant for lunch. Had tomato soup, salad, and lasagna . . . .

After lunch, shopped along the arteries of streets around the central university campus. Bought things to eat for the evening, a dark bread called (we think) Munsterländer, a German brie, an English cheddar with herbs in it, a Swiss Emmentaler, and a Jahrlsberg. With this, four kinds of cherries, nectarines, cherry juice, and wine. A veritable feast.

Steve bought a pair of Birkenstock sandals, and I had my hair cut. Our attempts at speaking German painful, but we manage, and people are on the whole very gracious and encouraging. I find the people both attractive and off-putting. There is obviously a Northern reserve—I catch people looking as if they want to stare, but won’t let themselves. On the city transit trains, people sit quietly with dispassionate expressions on their faces. No one talks to anyone else . . . .

Taking the train into town gave me a different perspective on the class structure of the city. The neighborhood in which we’re staying is obviously swanky, whereas many we passed on the train consisted of old and ill-kempt high-rises. And the people who got on at these stops were often obviously of a different class from those on which I’ve been basing my impressions. A number of young men had long, scraggly hair and looked washed out as if on drugs.

Why am I writing all these silly things? The frustration, I think, of getting any reliable angle on a city when you’re just passing through and insulated by ignorance of the culture and (relatively) of the language. I don’t want to travel as the typical American tourist, but it’s hard not to. I fantasize that without Kathleen and Abner, it would be easier to melt and blend, to be at home in this setting.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hamburg, 12.6.90: Purple Rhododendrons and Crouching Lions

This is the day arranged for my meeting with Dorothee Sölle. I feel (9:30 A.M.) very washed out, not vibrant for such a meeting.

Had German breakfast here at the academy of bread and jams, cheese, coffee. The day is bright and sunny, only a touch cool. We plan to walk some now . . . .

Writing this at lecture by Dorothee Sölle at the University of Hamburg. The lecture is about the suffering servant of Isaiah. Since it’s in German, I understand only some of it.

We have just come from having Abendbrot at her house: dark and light bread, several cheeses, Schinken, Leberkäse, radishes, cornichons, tomatoes, wine, and peaches. At the small table in the kitchen, a simple plank table with benches and chairs, were Dorothee Sölle, her husband Fulbert Stefensky, and what I assume were two daughters and a son, with some Bolivian grandchildren, Joanna and Carlos.

Prior to Abendbrot, we spent an hour and a half discussing my Singing in a Strange Land manuscript. Dorothee Sölle thought that the ms. does a good job of telling the stories of the marginal, but is weak in the area of social analysis. Using Holland and Henriot’s pastoral circle, she pointed out that in her judgment, the stories move too quickly from telling the tale to theological reflection, bypassing analysis of the factors that create the situation in which the narrators find themselves.

We talked about ways to deal with this problem. Wolfram W. made two excellent suggestions: 1) the characters ought to be presented as gifted, not merely pitiable objects of charity; 2) I should interview some “real people” like those depicted, and incorporate their words in the narratives.

We discussed all this on an upstairs patio in the late afternoon sun. It was very pleasant, even (when dark clouds didn’t cover the sun) hot. Around the patio were various plants—the geraniums that are omnipresent in Hamburg, what looked like pots of not-yet-blooming oleanders, grape vines. There was also a stone lion on a board across a corner of the railing.

One of the things that strikes me so much as we walk around Hamburg is how artistic Germans are. Even ordinary objects are imbued with grace, or have their hidden grace brought out, by the simple but effective ways in which they’re arranged. Old wooden wheelbarrows filled with pots of geraniums, begonias, etc. Wooden barrels are half cut off and filled with flowers. Shop windows are artfully arranged.

At a house and garden shop we stopped at this morning, for example, lentils were strewn around pottery, kitchenware, china—all arranged to catch the eye and bring out the color and form. And all is spotlessly clean; the stereotypes about German industry and cleanliness seem to have much truth. A cleaning woman cleans our rooms thoroughly each morning, and I saw another woman out sweeping the walkway in front of the Akademie early. Every toilet in the Akademie has a bottle of cleanser and a brush next to it.

Another striking thing is the lace curtains one sees in many of the spotless windows. These often have a windowbox of geraniums beneath them, a vase of flowers, a candle, or a wreath of some sort inside the window.

In the morning, after breakfast, we shopped at a market street nearby the Akademie. There were fruit shops, delicatessens, two bakeries, shoe shops, the house and garden shop, etc. All were so inviting we wanted to stop in each. The fruit in the fruit shop is so beautiful one wants to buy it all—flats of large but not plastic-looking strawberries, cherries, raspberries, luscious apricots. And the house and garden shop was full of well-made kitchen items, tools, china, etc.

We visited one of the bakeries and bought almond crescents and almond-topped pastry and brown bread. At a deli we bought cherries, orange juice, and mineral water.

After dinner, Steve and I walked to Blankenese. We went up one of the little streets, in reality a set of stairs forming a narrow alleyway between houses. The town is so beautiful—tile-and-straw-roofed houses painted white, lace curtains, interesting brass ornaments on the houses. A Wäscherei, for instance, shows a washerwoman and a pot of wash on a pole outside the house.

And the gardens: roses of every color, blooming lushly. Delphiniums, daisies—all “arranged” to look natural; nothing marching in rows. One house was framed by purple rhododendrons and other pink and purple flowers, with a red climbing rose and daisies.

N.B. Must remember to send a copy of my social gospel and feminism articles to Wolfram W. and Dorothee S.

In our discussion, Dorothee Sölle pointed out that many of the prayers I have chosen foster a spirituality of God over-against or above us. I need to survey these prayers and weed out those that foster such a view.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hamburg, 10.6.1990: Labskaus and Fassbinder Characters

Arrived in Hamburg at 9 A.M. It’s now 4 P.M. Wolfram W. met us and brought us to the Missionsakademie where we’re staying. When we got there, the director, Herr K., served us coffee, and we sat around for an hour or so talking with him and Wolfram. Then we slept till now—still very exhausted.

What we’ve seen of Hamburg: green in a lush cool way reminiscent of Newfoundland the June I was there—the sort of windswept grasses one associated with a Northern coastal area.

The area of the city we’re in is posh, once the estates of the church, with fine houses surrounded by beautiful gardens, overlooking an ugly and far too industrialized Elbe.

6 P.M. Steve and I walked on the Wandernweg across the Elbchausee along the Elbe. It’s a fine, warm afternoon, sunny. Lots of rhododendron blooming, and non-hybrid roses, with elder and what looks like caraway or Queen Anne’s lace, but I don’t think is either.

The Wandernweg has benches, a sandy foot-and-bike path, and (in the area we walked) a few cafés. None looked particularly interesting. All were full of people sitting and drinking. More interesting to me were the many shops and Konditorei we passed as we drove to the Missionsakademie.

My room overlooks a little yard bordered by shrubs, among them mock orange. I’m sitting looking out the window and listening to birdsong. It’s very pleasant.

10:15 P.M. Just returned from dinner and a drive around Hamburg. Wolfram took us to the Fischerhaus, a fish restaurant on the waterfront, in the St. Pauli district. I have labskaus, a Hamburg dish of corned beef hash mixed with potatoes and fish and beet salad juice. It’s served with pickled beets and cucumbers. Very tasty. Steve had matjes in dill sauce, and Kathleen, Abner, and Wolfram fish in bierteig—a huge platter of fried fish and potato salad.

Afterwards we walked for a bit on the waterfront across from the restaurant. The restaurant was packed, with people who looked as if they stepped out of a Fassbinder film: two short stocky dark men, each with a squint eye and hair cut so it stood straight up on their heads; young men in black leather jackets; hefty matrons who had puffy uncombed white hair and sucked hungrily on cigarettes before supper and put their glasses on to eye their plates hungrily, eyes wide, when they were served. All these in a glass-enclosed restaurant with a black waiter and a German one who looked as if he had been shot in the forehead at some point in his life.

Then to town: I’m so tired, and the beer I drank at supper exacerbated this, that I benefited little from the drive. We drove through the Reeperbahnstrasse, then into the old section of town, the one medieval street not destroyed by fire in the two wars. Then to the university, where a street is named for Salvador Allende, and where a synagogue destroyed in Krystallnacht has been partly reconstructed as a memorial. Then along the other river, the Alster, where very posh houses with beautiful gardens front onto a parkway along the river. We ended with a driving tour of Blankenese, a former fishing village of steep winding streets with houses and shops fronting directly onto them. And now bed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Helsinki, 16.10.92: Angels Watching Over

9:40 A.M., New York time: writing this aboard flight from Helsinki to New York . . . .

After dinner, simply paced the airport, waiting for the board to show my flight. I went to the information window to see if I needed to do anything about the customs declaration form, which I had lost. The young girl there spoke French, and kindly went and got me a new form, which I filled out and realized I’d done wrong, so I went to tell her that and she got another for me. As we walked, we conversed in French.

When my flight was called, I went to customs and there met a Finn who was extraordinarily kind and nice—another of those angels that have been with me on my journey. I have his card—his name was Kyösti S. I told him I was worried re: the fact I didn’t have my original customs form, and asked if it would be a problem. He smiled and said nothing, but a Finn ahead said, “Yes, it is a problem,” and then something in Finnish re: Russkies. Another man offered the same—“Yes, it’s a problem.”

Then I asked if the customs people might detain me and cause me to lose my flight, and a man behind, also Finnish, said, “That’s not their concern.”

But when I went through, the young blond woman, rather pretty, said after I explained, “Go on, it’s okay.” Kyösti had waited for me, beckoned, and said, “Come on, let’s go.” He had a kind face—youngish looking, brown hair, blue eyes, a nice smile—though in his 50s and a grandfather.

After customs we went to duty free, then he stood with me, helped me on the plane, told me of a store in Helsinki called Stockmann’s. He drew a map. He helped me board the plane, always beckoning me ahead of him, as a guardian.

On the plane, I was next to a large blond Finnish woman who works in Moscow, rather taciturn. During the flight, Kyösti came back to find me and give me the in-flight magazine with a map of Helsinki.

Got to hotel okay, and in comparison with Moscow, it was like paradise—clean, quiet, functional, efficient, circumspectly beautiful, as things Scandinavian are. I showered, called to tell Steve I was in Helsinki, and had a glass of vodka . . . .

Went down for breakfast, which was like the most delicious meal I’ve ever seen: bowls of plain and raspberry yogurt, granola, oat bran, other cereals, a bowl of large raspberries in juice, bowls of apples and oranges, sliced honeydew melon, 4 or 4 types of bread, including slice-your-own dark flat bread rolls, eggs marked 6 and 8 minutes, platters of sliced meats and cheeses, bowls of jam, butter, coffee, tea, milk, and cream. All was extraordinarily neat and incredibly good.

After breakfast, I checked out . . . walked more, checked in, and got onto the plane. We’re now en route: I feel absolutely awful. The only bright spot has been meeting another Finn who was very nice—a broad, sympathetic face. He, too, gave me his card. He’s en route to L.A.

My resolves for all to be radically different waver, come and go—mostly because where I’ve been for so long is simply unimaginable. I don’t lack resolve, if that word means determination: it will be different, because I can simply not continue to live as I do now . . . .

But imagination’s the problem. How? How to proceed? Where to go with the resolve? Where I can’t go is either back to miserable self-reproach and hopeless mere hanging on. Nor can I continue in a frivolous holding pattern in which I fritter time and energy while I avoid bringing together the two very disparate aspects of my life that have so long been held in soul-splitting tension. Only connect, E.M. Forster says—and now is time.

What I desperately need is the ability to live one moment, one step at a time. If this horrible trip has taught me anything, it’s that. And surely that was what yesterday was all about. Would I even be here now, if I hadn’t gone step by step?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Moscow, 15.10.92: The Dark Heart of the Story*

*In all previous installments in each travelogue on this blog, I have transcribed my travel journals verbatim. The only exception is the prefatory comments appended to the first installment of this Moscow travelogue. As those notes indicate, this was a truncated trip, one undertaken at a time of extraordinary stress in my job situation, combined with unanticipated stress on the trip, in the person of a fellow traveler.

From this point forward in the travelogue, I have either to gloss the journal entry, or to choose sections to transcribe. I have to do so because much of the text for the 15th and 16th is very personal commentary that reflects on my interaction with several members of this group tour of scholars of religion. The journal entries capture my reflections with great immediacy.

Now, more than a decade after these experiences, I do not want to make uncharitable judgments about some of the people with whom I was traveling. I do not want to publish reflections that may cause pain.

On the other hand, I do feel compelled to hew true to the narrative line of my journal in these two days. I feel so compelled because the journal captures some of the anguish—this is not too strong to describe my experiences on this group tour—that people tagged as eccentric or disordered can experience, when thrown together in close quarters with others who are unreflectively certain of their righteousness and salubriousness, even as they practice cruelty towards the despised outsider.

As I have noted, the difficulties I was working my way through on the job front at this time had everything to do with my being gay, in a long-standing committed relationship, yet teaching at a Catholic college at which I could not ever speak publicly about this relationship. I had gone to the college determined not to dissimulate, but also aware that a ground rule for existing in most church-affiliated colleges at this time was to be silent about one’s identity and long-standing relationship.

All of this was complicated by the fact that the school hired my partner at the time it hired me. Our lives were an open secret.

When one lives that way, one is susceptible to constant sotto voce slurs that one cannot answer. To go on the tour of religious educators and to find that there were several members of the tour who mirrored to me the torments I was already experiencing at work was a psychically and spiritually daunting experience.

As this entry of the 15th notes, I met my Waterloo the last evening in Moscow, and decided to leave the tour and return home early. The entry describes in great detail what happened. Since I do not want to inflict pain on those I perceived to be tormenting me, I will radically truncate the transcript of the journal entry I transcribe below.

I would also be less than honest if I did not note that I find it downright embarrassing to re-read this narrative. I have just been through another job debacle, one that, once again, had everything to do with “lifestyle” issues. I feel, frankly, like quite a failure as my “career” winds up, and as I near the age of 60.

I feel that in transcribing the material below, I will give aid and comfort to those who choose to see me as flawed, psychologically aberrant—to all those who choose to view gay human beings through such a lens, and in doing so, to legitimate the torments they inflict that produce the very psychic pain they then use to justify their abuse!

What follows are verbatim excerpts. Where I add a gloss, the gloss is signaled by an asterix pointing to the explanatory text. And so, as Mary Oliver says, the dark heart of the story, which is all the reason for its telling:

Now at the airport. I’ve decided to return home. The last two days have been sheer hell for me. Last night, I felt relatively well enough to go to the “gala dinner,” as Gallia, our tour guide, kept calling it.

But on the bus, I began to hurt terribly in the back of my head, my hand sweated profusely, and my insides turned to water. The more I tried to work with it, to chat and carry on, the worse it was, so I could barely walk by the time I got to the restaurant.

I asked to sit down outside the banquet hall with R., a woman on the tour with whom I felt able to converse. She was helpful, clear about what options I had, and finally I decided with her help to see if the tour guide could find a doctor. . . .

R. went in to dinner, and out came Vasily, our interpreter—or another interpreter who had apparently done the interpreting for that day, which I did not attend (as I’ve said previously).

Vasily said he had studied medicine for six years and interned for another. He’s youngish—mid-20s—thin, with a face like an ascetic Baryshnikov. At first his eyes seemed coldly appraising. He looked at me and said, “You’re all right.” Then he began to talk and turned out to be fabulously kind and comforting. We spoke of Dostoevsky and Bakhtim, how Moscow is becoming more cosmopolitan and has more books and cultural events than in the past, more heading towards New York. He told me of growing crime in the city, of how the Georgians (he called them by an ethnic name, people who live in south Georgia and surrounding areas) are becoming a crime problem in Moscow, how they form crime syndicates and are resented.

It was a real conversation, and though I know he did it mostly to take my mind off myself, he also seemed to enjoy it. He even said he’d rather be talking with me than be in there.

He had apparently called medics, who arrived after we had talked. Three Russian women, all large and bedraggled, came in with a medical kit. All were in splattered white frocks. One was blond, the oldest—maybe 45?—hair pulled into a kind of bun, but straggling out all over. She seemed the head of the group, and had blue eyes that are hard to describe—not frightened, not cold, not rabbitty, but somehow both unfocused and competent, and even caring.

The other was a large woman with graying black hair, but young, and a rather merry expression—not pretty, but attractive in her “I’ve-seen-it-all” frankness, and frank, even bawdy, interest. In the top pocket of her apron were a pack of cigarettes and medical accoutrements. She spoke a little English, and made occasional comments, often mocking, but not cutting.

The other was the least attractive—broad, Slavic face, hair pulled back and dirty, brown-red; she was tall, big-boned, bulky. She seemed most frank and reactive of all.

The blond took my blood pressure and listened to my heart. Then she ordered an injection, an antispasmodic. She took the pressure again in a minute, and through Vasily suggested I return to the hotel and rest. The pressure was high, not too much, but they never told me the exact figure . . . .**

This makes me—the whole experience, the me the experience shows me to be—want to live a more radical, feet-on-the-ground truth than I have done ever before. . . . No more dissimulating about being gay. I am, I live it, and it’s on that ground people must relate to me. If they then reject me, well, I’ll just have to relate to them as the circumstances allow. At least we won’t relating via a smokescreen . . . .***

I awoke later when W. came in, and he and R.O. [the group member who accompanied me back to the hotel] went to the hall and talk. W. was the person I was put to room with, a Baptist from Kentucky.

To listen to what he said was painful. What choice did I have? Had I gotten up to tell them I was awake, I would have confronted terrible embarrassment, nor did I know what would be said in any case, and that it would be of a nature that would make me appear to be an eavesdropper.

W. was obviously angry. I say “obviously,” but who knows: I keep trying to learn not to judge quickly. But what I heard him say in an excited voice was that I had tried to call home two nights before, and “I don’t even know what home means for him.” And he seemed angry that I had upset people, that another group member had even wondered if she ought to return home with me.

All’s fuzzy, but I now realize this conversation occurred after W. had first come in and told R.O. that people upstairs were concerned, and had gone to report to them. So the tone of what he said made me feel very uneasy, that they had speculated about my “home life,” and W. had painted a picture of me as a true neurotic who had made his life unpleasant.

All this was reinforced when he came in, and I told him I had heard him talking, and he said, “I think you need to think about getting professional help.”  When we awoke this morning, I told him I was sorry for all the disturbance, would not go to breakfast because I did not want to face people, and that I do have a family—and family to me is family. I had in fact told him last night, I now recall, in my stupor at bedtime, about Steve living with me.

He seemed not happy to hear all this, but what had I to lose in being honest? And I’ve resolved to be honest. I also now see that much of our interchange was guarded and monosyllabic all along, and I may be to blame, too, because I hadn’t told him much about me. But how does a gay man tell a straight Southern Baptist one something that’ll almost certainly blow up in the confider’s face? And weren’t the monosyllabic replies for the two days indications that he was already irritated by my “differences,” and at heart aware of the sexual difference? Why else say, “I don’t know what home means to him”—as if I were a specimen in a jar? If he wondered, why not simply ask me? . . .****

Gallia had taken me to have my ticket changed, and in the taxi we talked about my house, my life in the U.S., and I told her about Jean M. She said I ought not to let people such as her bother me, and that in all societies people who have more money are treated as if they are worth more, and this is just not true. She made arrangements for a taxi to take me to the airport. When I tried to pay the driver for the trip to Finnair, he said he trused me and I could pay him all the money—that and the airport amount—at the airport.

And here I am, 5 P.M., some chest pains, incredibly tired, wondering about the next leg of the trip . . . .*****

** The material omitted describes how a member of the group volunteered to go back to the hotel with me. We talked as the antispasmodic took effect, at which point, I fell asleep.

*** Details of the conversation between the other group member and me following our return to the hotel, and then a note that I had fallen asleep.

**** To make sense of all this, I have to note W.’s connection to the person I have identified as a constant torment to me on the trip—Jean M. As I have noted, Steve had taught Jean M., and she had made his life miserable when he taught her. When she learned, as the trip began, that I was connected to him, she seemed to focus her discontent with S. on me. In those curious jockeying dynamics that go on when any small collective of human beings are thrown together out of the blue for several days, Jean M. quickly sought to become the alpha female of the group, and to bolster her position, made beelines for two other alpha males of the group. One of these was W., my roommate. So there definitely was information flow from Jean M., who knew of our living arrangements, and W., to help explain his ongoing animosity towards me.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Moscow, 14.10.92: Purgatorial Pilgrims and Contemporary Saints

3 A.M. Something that struck me at the Danilov monastery: how the Russians we’ve met recount stories of the founders of the monasteries as if they’re contemporaneous. Don’t know quite how to put the point, except that the guides spoke of St. Sergius and St. Danil in a living way. These weren’t just hagiographical tales of historical accounts: they were stories of one simple person who still lives on for those who live in and come to the monastery.

Much fruit for thought here. Inter alia, I think of how resurrection means at least in part that one who lived in a memorable holy way is remembered in a living way, as a living and continuously effective presence. At Danilov monastery, they told us the monks all gather to pray before the tomb of St. Danil for two hours daily. Very early Christian.

But also I think of how the life of one committed person can change history forever. If we went back beyond the gloss of centuries of hagiography and piety, what would we find? A person, one who dared live with courageous faith. In a sense, oddly, that’s what Russian Orthodoxy seems to recognize—even in its most lavish accounts of miracles by the saint, there’s nonetheless almost a colloquial, endearingly familiar, way in which the faithful speak of the monastic founders as if they’re beloved contemporaries.

This makes me wonder about how Christianity may grow via saints in the future. We assume the age that welcomed a Sergius or a Danil was somehow a simpler age, one in which it was easier to be a saint, to be acclaimed by the simple faithful. And in one sense it was.

But maybe it actually was no less complex and challenging than our time. Saints for every age: this seems to be a promise of Christianity, and if monasticism is now integral to the life of the church as a school of saints, then one may also say, new founders of monasteries for every age.

Where Russian Orthodoxy seems to have the advantage over Catholicism is in its relative lack of organization. By the fact that it encourages a kind of do-it-yourself spirituality and liturgy, it also encourages non-standardized forms of monastic life—or at least, seems to have done so up to the revolution. In this respect the Russian church is like the pre-Whitby Celtic church—organized far more around the monastery than the bishop, or that is to say, conjoining monastic life to church office. And I imagine in the Irish church, the saints, the monastic founders and hermits, were also long spoken of with the same familiarity and ease as in Russian Orthodoxy.

There’s a great hopefulness in all this, for a church able continually to revitalize itself, even for me as one who can live (as Rilke says) more for the coming God and the future with which the present is now pregnant, than for the past or present. One of the things I wanted to see spiritually in Russia is how to live more decisively that way.

What I lack is clear direction: live for the future how? As a theologian, college teacher of theology? If so, at Belmont Abbey College? If not, where? Or live as a monk, writer, hermit? How, where? This Russian trip is a pilgrimage of sorts in which I’m praying, praying, to see more clearly and have the courage to act. I invoke my contemporary great saint, Oscar Romero, and pray he’ll protect and guide me in a special way here, and I also entrust myself to the patroness of Belmont Abbey, Mary Help of Christians. Pray for me: I am a miserable sinner, much in need of mercy and tender consolation.

4 A.M. Terrible stomach upset. Can’t sleep. Can’t even begin to rest . . . .

10 A.M. Did not go on tour. Hope I can rest, but, Lord—alone, in Russia, full of fear and dread?

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet: “Being an artist means not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree.”

4 P.M. Have rested some today, till noon, then the adventure of ordering a meal in the restaurant. Because I stayed her alone, the meals not provided. The waiter mercifully spoke a little English, and I managed to get borscht, chicken tabac (fried in the abominable grease everything here is fried in), and a few dabs of red and green cole slaw with raw sliced onion.

The food is so horrible I stay perpetually nauseous. Practically everything is fried heavily and inexpertly in tired grease, and I’m not sure if it’s animal or vegetable. The salads (i.e., cole slaw and occasionally tomatoes) are dressed with an oil that is absolutely revolting—may be walnut, but tastes like some ring-worm medicine we used as children smelled when it was applied, a medicinal tea made from green black walnuts boiled.

Smell is the word. Often when I get onto elevators, I almost gag with it. Even at the opera the nicely dressed woman next to me was intolerable: months and months of stale sweat mixed with the smell of fried food, onion and garlic, and heavy tobacco smoke. I dread the Aeroflot flight to Tashkent tomorrow—six hours!—for that reason alone.

The whole hotel reeks, and nothing is clean. I see flies on all the food.

What else today? Walked up the street after lunch. Amazing variety of faces in Russia: broad blond-red Slavic ones, narrow dark ones, I suppose from Georgia, an Asian-Slav look that Chuck’s friend Peter has. And one sees out and out Asians, and a few black folks.

Just before I finished lunch, the hostess seated a young Russian across from me who looked, in fact, a lot like Peter. His English was poor, and I could tell he didn’t understand me. I asked about leaving a tip, and he launched into a monologue re: how everywhere—U.S., Russia—all is theater. Or that’s what I understood. He told me he was a veteran of the Afghan war.

Other than that, I feel truly awful. Have been thinking how traveling with a small group of people is the parable of life’s journey people like Chaucer and Katherine Anne Porter have made of it. One feels the misery of others, one suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous daily intercourse with others as imperfect as oneself, and yet one must cling to the group because all outside is threatening, in that one does not speak the language of the land.

Jean M. proves impossible to bear. Everyone else I can tolerate, even enjoy, but she attacks me at every turn, and irritates the life out of me. I don’t even want to write about it, am so upset with her from something she said last night.

Moscow, 13.10.92: Descent into Hell and Bowing Babushkas

5 P.M. Some of what I wrote earlier written on the bus today. Last night, I had very serious anxiety attack, and couldn’t write. So my impressions are very disconnected. I just don’t feel good. Went to the nurse, who took my blood pressure, said it was high, and gave me some medicine for it.

Resuming the Danilov story: after the visit to the monastery, we toured Moscow by bus, ending at the university, where there’s a high overlook. It was getting extremely cold, but I enjoyed the view a minute or so. Striking: the scudding gray clouds, iron-cold wind, and the smokestacks high above the city pouring gray smoke across the sky.

Lots of tables of people selling souvenirs and gewgaws here—Matruska dolls of every sort, political figures, religious figures, soldiers, traditional babushkas; books re: Moscow; fur hats; papier maché boxes. I bought nothing.

Then, late in the day, after 6, we went to a former convent, a noted one—Novodevichy—where several Romanov women were nuns. It was too dark to see much of the grounds, but seemed pretty—more European “convent-like” than the monasteries, as would befit the social status (and ethnic origin) of the Romanov women. Other aristocratic women were also nuns here. The inside of the cloister walls was an actual garden with walkways—something the monasteries we’ve seen did not have.

And the church was also Eurpoean—Romantic-era paintings of Jesus healing a sick woman and other such scenes on the ceilings in pastel colors—all for women of taste.

Once again, a service going on—a choir of one or two peasant women singing responses, and doing so very well. All was dark, mysterious, and moving: an old babushka, very small and in black skirt, bending over completely from the waist to pray in the middle of the church; a young blond woman whose profile I could see, praying before an icon of the Virgin and child, crossing herself and bowing and peering intently at the icon.

I bought an icon of Mary and a triptych of Jesus and angels at a gift shop attached to the church—all for 250 rubles, which I reckon as about 60¢.

Forgot to mention Red Square, which we visited in the afternoon. Climbed up inside St. Basil’s Cathedral, which is in sad disrepair. In some ways, going up the stairs to the little chapel is like entering a strange Asian-Christian fairytale. All have faded icons on the ceilings, and old iconostases. One iconostasis had the original of the Trinity-3 angels icon sitting around a table. A thrill to see it.

In Red Square, we also saw the changing of the guards at Lenin’s tomb. Nearby, I bought a crayon drawing of a church in old Riga, being sold by a sad young woman leaning against the wall.

Earlier, at Danilov, I saw an icon of St. Stephen to the left (facing the iconostasis) at the holy gates. Funny, because I had been thinking of and praying for Steve in the church. I later saw this at several churches.

Today, the morning at a Baptist church, whose pastor gave a nice talk to us, speaking of the “three springs” of Baptists in Russia—Mennonites from Germany, Plymouth Brethren in Petersburg, and I forget the third! He was a very warm and engaging speaker, but I felt he was very influenced by American (and probably Southern) Baptists. At one point, he criticized the Orthodox for lighting more candles to Mary than Jesus!

The church interior was interesting—square and plain, with light green panels and white walls. The only ornamentation seemed to be a window behind the pulpit (which was prominent, raised, in the middle of the church) that I thought said in Russian, “I am Jehovah.”

After the church, lunch in a restaurant, and then to the Kremlin, where we did a quick nightmarish tour in an icy cold wind with snow (the ground was covered by morning). We went inside St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Assumption of Mary Cathedral. I’m “churched out,” and don’t have much to say re: either, except that in St. Michael’s there was an interesting icon of the καθοδος, the descent of Jesus into hell. This was in a series above the holy gate, in the second tier of icons, which depicted (left to right) the passion (various scenes) and then to the right of the gate, the resurrection, descent to hell, and ascension. The καθοδος was a pretty pastel salmon—i.e., Jesus was in an oval nimbus of this color, drawing out all the dead to salvation.

And so, dear diary, ends another day. Will go to the Bolshoi ballet tonight, so must rest now a bit.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moscow, 12.10.92: Ethereal Monks and Circus Capers

10 A.M. Our bus touring Moscow. Re: the circus—not much to report, really—trapeze artists, performing bears and dogs, a magic show, horseback riders, all to the accompaniment of incessant jumped-up music and strobe lights, with the cumulative effect of so wiring me that I was in a state of high angst by bedtime, and had the devil of a time going to sleep.

Yet I shouldn’t grumble. Many impressions at the circus: again, the Asianness of the nation, the delight in color, sound, romance, boy meets girl, girl transforms boy to dog or somebody else. We forget how many of our fairytales originated in Asia, and the courtly love idea. What that means is that we forget how stylized and symbolic is the courtly love tradition—how much a social construction, and not a reading of “nature.” This tradition informs the deepest mythology of most of our cultures, and in Hollywood’s rendition, is now so firmly implanted in people’s minds that I imagine it’s more taken for granted than reflected on.

What else struck me at the circus (and this is somehow related to what I’ve just said, but in a way that’s hard to express) is how much delight the audience took in what was essentially a rather pedestrian, if astonishingly expert, array of performances. Pedestrian in the sense that the same tricks took place over and over, and no one seemed bored by the lack of variety.

All this might be due to communism, but I suspect it was already there in folk culture before modernity. That’s the thing about the circus: it’s a folk performance. To enjoy it, you have to suspend the Enlightenment critical sensitivities, especially with regard to cruelty to animals.

What folk culture delights in is the uniformity, predictability, boy meets girl, boy saves girl, girl transforms boy—for the 1900th time. Even carnivalesque subversions of the theme are fairly predictable.

All this sounds snide and condescending. I don’t mean it that way. What I mean is that I stand on the post-Enlightenment side of the divide and cannot help seeing all this from the side on which I stand. Even my frissons of horror at folk culture are interspersed with nostalgia for the lost home, Heimweh.

9:30 P.M. Just too much to record—I can’t keep up. Today, a bus tour of Moscow, ending at Danilov Monastery. We toured the grounds, the church, the residence of the Patriarch (or portions thereof), with a very sweet Russian tour guide who specializes, among other things, in the history of Russian church bells.

He told us that the bells of the Danilov Church were removed by the communists and thrown onto the bank of the Moscow River. An American businessman a few years ago saw them and bought them for a few rubles for scrap metal, and then resold them in the U.S. at an enormous profit. Somehow they ended up at Harvard, where they chime the time.

Meanwhile, the monastery took some bells from a non-functioning village church, and the church now wants them back. But Harvard wants 2 million dollars, and won’t sell the monastery bells back for less.*

After the Danilov tour, a visit with Sunday School staff at a Sunday School across the street, staffed by monks and a lay teacher. We listened to one of the monks speak about the problems of the school, then had a question-and-answer session with him and a deacon and another monk—all in full garb—beside him.

The second monk was interesting: young (20s?), exceptionally thin, with wan color, steel-rimmed glasses, eyes seemingly focused elsewhere than on this world. When we came in, he had a rosary (the Orthodox kind) in one hand, and prayed as people spoke. At one point, as the priest spoke, the young monk both read from a book before him, and prayed his chaplet. But he clearly was also listening, because he would often look up, and then return to his book.

All this made me feel strange. First, it was as if were seeing Russian Orthodox monasticism before the communist period—as if it had never been interrupted (or changed) by that period. The monk could easily have been living in 1892 rather than 1992.

Second, the otherworldliness of the monk’s eyes and actions troubled me. Was it real or specious? It seemed so mannered, so self-conscious. But, then, such practices must be mannered and self-conscious before they become routine.

But above and beyond all that, what troubled me most was the implication that this fraternal meeting with colleagues from a foreign land seemed less important than praying. Where were the warm greeting, the brotherly kiss of peace? Maybe I felt this way most of all because the ethereal quality of the monk’s eyes seemed coldly ethereal, as if he were looking down at all of us from some sublime height that made us look slightly ridiculous.

I’ve encountered this “otherworldliness,” with its implied judgment that non-Orthodox people are mere barbarians, several times. At the Sergei monastery, our guide had us cross a place where the procession was shortly to occur. As I did so, a huge burly priest came along and shouted at me in Russian. Then when the guide brought us up to another church (this time in the Danilov monastery) as a service was going on, a woman tried to intervene and stop us.

She was a typical church-going Russian woman, scarved, in drab clothes, long black skirt, boots. She was also rather funny looking, with beady, suspicious eyes—almost malicious looking, but comic nonetheless. All the while we were at the church, she eyed us as if we might invade and desecrate the sanctuary.

I chalk all this up to a certain xenophobia on the part of some Russian Christians—a sense that they alone represent the holy church. The years of isolation before and after the revolution have fed this, and it was there before particularly in the Holy Russia motif, with its sense that Russia was the last, best hope for Christianity as it faced the Eastern hordes.

Other impressions of Danilov: the beauty of the various rooflines, the low cloister wall with its green tin roof, and the gold onion spires of various heights above. The mix of old and new—the patriarch’s house is all new, of white marble, built in the late 1980s of donations from the faithful. In fact, the whole place has been virtually restored in recent years.

We ate in a brand new pilgrim hotel at the monastery. The dining room overlooked the whole thing—long floor-length windows that showed cloister and churches in a rare bit of sunshine.

The room had an elaborate 19th-century ceiling with designs, swag curtains, Mozart, and the meal far and away the best we’ve had thus far: for zakuskies, a stuffed mushroom, black caviar on a small roll, smoked fish with a soubise sauce, and I don’t know what else. This followed by a mushroom dish in a small pot, then borscht, then veal on skewers, with peas and fried potatoes. All this followed by ice cream with raspberry sauce, a cranberry, and a mint leaf. All this with vodka, white wine, cranberry juice, and water.

The 19th-century thing: it’s striking how all the places we’ve been that aspire to the old word elegance before the revolution, Russia’s moment of faded glory.

*And, in one of those strange coincidences that keep us always on our toes, I happened to read only yesterday a 13 June article about the bells in Christian Science Monitor. In her "Russian Monastery Anticipates the Toll of Ancient Bells," Amy Farnsworth reports that Harvard is sending the bells back to Danilov.

Moscow, 11.10.92: Tired Zakuskies and Lavra Bells

7 A.M. This hotel: I believe they told us it dates from the Stalin era, and yet the rooms look late 19th century. The ceilings must be 20 feet high—or at least 16, with molding around the edges in 2 layers, an inner and outer, and around the chandeliers. And there are chandeliers—not elegant, but chandeliers nonetheless.

The floor’s a type of inlaid wood (not sure if the term parquet applies, as it’s more in herringbone than squares) that hasn’t been cared for in years, if ever. There’s not a suspicion of wax on it, and it’s cracked and splintered and stained from what look like years of rough mopping. Along the alls and in each room, runners of a red carpet with Orientalish design, it, too, shabby and with cigarette butts ground into it. At the hotel desk, I noticed the desk had been built adjacent the wood floor, but on concrete, and not attempt made for the concrete to meet the wood smoothly. There was just a fissure full of rubble.

That’s how so much is here—a mix of past splendor, faded glory, and horrible syzygistic modernity. And I don’t know how to feel about it. I recall Sr. Grace S. saying she spoke to a Polish sister in Paris in Russian, and the nun drew herself up and replied stiffly, Je ne parle pas cette langue des barbares. But isn’t that the conventional charge of the “civilized” about the “uncivilized”—and in this case, of those from the geographic heart of Europe to the outliers, those with Asian taint?

Or is it all due quite simply to the fact that a nation of serfs suddenly come to power cannot help being a nation that lurches awkwardly towards “taste “and comfort, those exclusive birthrights of the bourgeoisie? We Americans are so embarrassed by the fact of class that we don’t want to think this way—we fear the charge of elitism. And yet could this account for much of it, a kind of post-bellum South horror story: Why, I saw Miss Sophronia’s fine china vase in old black Annie’s house and you know what she uses it for? A spittoon! Did you ever in your life? Is the horrid food, the grim functional architecture, the bad service and the just-don’t-quite-work mentality all due to the still-yet-to-be-born grand experiment in government by the people?

Or, to say it otherwise, is this what to us seems playing-at grandeur, sham grandeur, actually a vast improvement on the lives of the serfs of pre-revolutionary times? Ought they to be justifiably proud of their accomplishments?

And we, by contrast, did we ever have government of, for, and by the people? And have things worked for us to the extent that we tacitly privilege a governing elite—originally, white male property owners—and tacitly subjugate all the “inferior” classes, even as we madly trumpet our egalitarianism? In the final analysis, isn’t that what Madisonian federalism was all about—a parasitic implantation into the living body of Jeffersonian democracy of a fictive system of popular government that is in reality a justification for the rule of the many by the few, in the name of “balance”?

5:15 P.M. Just back from a trip to the Lavra of St. Sergei outside Moscow, the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy, where the relics of St. Sergei are preserved in the monastery he founded.

The day cold, dark, with intermittent snow—typical weather for the time of year, our guide tells us. We drove through interesting countryside, much of it hideously scarred by urbanization and industrialization, the Scylla and Charybdis of modernity. But interspersed between the gouged-out land and concrete-block buildings were little villages and/or dachas clustered together. I’m not sure I can tell one from the other.

I loved them—dark-painted (greens and browns) houses with white gingerbread trim, utterly surrounded by little gardens that seem to be intensively cultivated. They seem just right for this harsh cold landscape—places where humans huddle together and help one another through the winter, and raise as much food as they can in summer.

I imagine I’m far from the first to say it, but what’s striking (and charming) about Russia is how pre-modern and modern life live uneasily side by side. The little villages, and the lives of people in them, cannot have changed fundamentally in centuries.

This gives one the overall impression that the revolution catapulted people into the twentieth century when they were long centuries outside modernity ,that it was bound to struggle to succeed when the vast majority of people were nowhere near modernity at the time of the revolution. Again, far from a profound insight, but it does strike one forcefully that this is the case.

The lavra—what an experience! All I can say to get near the heart of it is that it was as Asian as European. We happened to come on the 6th day of the feast of St. Sergius, so there were crowds galore, processions, bells ringing in a church tower every half hour in an excited tinging way. The opulence of the processions, with green-garbed and bejeweled patriarchs and other clerics; the icons carried about; the press of people smelling as Russians do of stale winter sweat, stinky, heavy tobacco, and garlic sausage—and, not uncommonly, of alcohol: all was absolutely fascinating.

I should back up and say the cluster of church buildings was picture-perfect in the new-fallen snow—blue and gold spires, trees, all with traces of snow. I never got straight what church is which. All are clustered in one monastic setting, and the monks must service them all. There’s also an academy and a seminary, and I did learn one church is for summer use and the other winter. But there’s another just for the bones of St. Sergius (is bones correct? we were told they exhumed him intact) which was jam-packed with faithful, some singing, many talking, all moving this way and that, though there was a line for the reliquary, the main attraction, and our guide took us to the head of it.

When we arrived at the lavra, a professor of German at the academy showed us the museu, which has a wonderful collection of icons, some European Catholic church artifacts, and a room Alexis I, the former patriarch, occupied as a monk, with mementoes of him. It was this same guide who showed us the grounds and churches. We had been supposed to meet with officials of the seminary and hold a discussion with them, but none came—the feast the ostensible reason, though we wondered if another reason was at least partly the explanation, after a curious incident happened.

It was this: Kathy T., a parish religious educator, offered the guide pencils her class had sent, along with greeting letters each pupil had written. He was extremely reluctant to take them, asking if she were Protestant. When she said Catholic, he took them. We wondered if the monks did not want to see us because we have several Protestants among us.

After the monastery, lunch at a restaurant in town—Sergei Rasov or Pasov. The lunch was zakuskies of boiled egg with caviar on top, sliced cold fish, followed by a little salver of chopped mushrooms, and then a potato and chopped beef mixture. There was a roulade for dessert.

I grow weary of the food—tonight here we had sliced garlic sausage as zakusky, with the same egg-and-daviar, then beefsteak again and a few fried potatoes and shreds of red cabbage. The beef if fried, the potatoes are fried, the hash at lunch was fried—all in rather old-tasting grease. The other say they like the food, but this either attests to horrible mid-American taste, or they’re being polite. And it’s invariably served lukewarm.

Breakfast was interesting—a porridge of grits-like stuff, blini filled with something like applesauce, fried cheescakes (tiri? tvori?), eggs, smoked fish, and bowls of coleslaw, beet salad, and tomatoes and peppers. There were also not very good croissants, iced. This is the only time I’ve seen milk served for the coffee and tea. At most meals, it’s served last, plain, and the drink is invariably something like Kool Aid.

Tonight the National Circus, but I’m too tired to write more now.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Moscow, 9.10-11.1992: Firebirds and Psychic Fragility

*7:40 A.M. Today I fly to Moscow. Sitting now at Joe Moore’s, having just talked to Steve. Steve says he talked to Betsy S. last evening, who told him Simon D. says he resists (with all the old boys) the values statement at Belmont Abbey College because it will mean accepting pro-choice people, gays, and women in the church.

I take all this with me to Russia. I can take only myself, and it’s all inside me. But in another sense—as if I’m on the edge of a cliff where I just begin to glimpse a vast plain below—this trip seems somehow to be a trip in which the battle at Belmont Abbey College, my own inner battle to find a place for myself and renewed spirituality, will find something new and revelatory in Russia.

Very badly put. Maybe I just sense that excitement of the blank page which one feels at the beginning of any trip. And the struggle at Belmont Abbey College is so intense that I just want it to be different, and so seize at the opportunity to fantasize on a trip. More later . . . . Joe just got up.

5 P.M. Sitting in JFK waiting for the flight to Helsinki. An arduous orientation session-cum-lunch since 11 A.M. I now feel gray inside, and the weather’s gray and drippy outside. Airports are limbo—a place neither here nor there, and like St. Teresa’s night in an inn, uncomfortable. But what else? That lassitude of spirit, I suppose, that T.S. Eliot saw all us hollow men having. Where else could we be but limbo?

My fellow passengers? A few seem nice, others already flagellate my nerves. Among the latter, an Episcopalian chaplain from New Orleans who I now realize was Steve’s bête noire at Notre Dame Seminary, and intensely Republican. She’s loud, crass, and sin above all sins, looks around as I talk to her as if there’s someone much more imposing to speak to. Among the former, a woman named S. and something Polish . . . who seems gentle, sensitive, is from southwest Georgia, and has curiously washed-out blue eyes—more faded than one expects in a woman her age, which must be only late 30s . . . .

And so on, dear travelogue, but I just recall I’ve not called Steve.

6:40 P.M., 12:40 A.M., Helsinki time. Just took off from JFK. Listening to some classical piece on the headphone set, partly to block out two incessant talkers. My bad luck to get a seat immediately behind the bête noire, Jean M. That last good nerve badly frayed as I listen to her babble endlessly. She’s just explained why she is still Mrs. M., though divorced from her doctor husband. And behind is a Greek Orthodox priest who also talks non-stop. He introduced himself to us today at length—15 minutes—and then his poor wife, who’s not coming along, sat mousily and said nothing, until he told us her name was S.

But I don’t want to write this nonsense. What I want to write about is what I know not at all, what Isaiah called dark and perverse above all things, and of which and of whose struggles Faulkner said all great literature comes.

If I could draw a picture, though, of my heart now, it would be a plain, arid, featureless, desiccated, the sand long ago having covered antique glories, the sun having consumed all verdure.

My heart, my heart. All that sings in my head on this journey now is my heart. So curiously full on the one hand that I’m often close to tears, but so depleted of love and significance, on the other, that I feel a stranger to myself.

What will this trip bring me? Can I be a wandering starets for these two weeks? O intolerably fancy! What I want is plain, not embroidered at all: just to be me, plain me, and let my heart pour out whatever has been so long dammed up inside it. I await a sign, I suppose, a portent, a message or messenger, a direction from on high.

Why here, now? I don’t know. But why else go on this trip, on any trip? That poem I wanted to write several years ago about the firebird, and couldn’t. Maybe now’s the time to write it—and before writing it, to let it rise up within me. That’s what I hope and pray this trip’s about, the firebird in the black night, flaming and scattering its brilliant feathers all around.

6 A.M., 10.10, Helsinki time. Nearing Helsinki, breakfast being served, but that surreality one always has when one has not slept, on a plane, and meal follows meal in quick succession. Some animal instinct says, Eat! Eat! What is it? Something that wants to dull the tooth that gnaws within, in E. Dickinson’s fine phrase.

A wonderful line in an Osip Mandestam poem: “Speech is the drowned woman rising without words.”

And: “O indigence at the root of our lives, how poor is the language of happiness!”

7:30 A.M. We touched down in Helsinki. Clear outside, 2 degrees C—the air, what one feels of it in passing through the deplaning ramp, crisp, cold, clean—invigorating after the stifling closeness of the plane.

In the airport, Finns drinking ½-liter glasses of beer, toasting. There seemed no ventilation at all, and tout le monde smokes, apparently, so I felt more stifled in the wearisome hour we all stood on our feet, tired and subdued, waiting for the Moscow plane.

The airport looks Scandinavian—modern, all glass and clean wood, mock-parquet tiled floors. Little kiosks selling candies, gifts, and Finnish delicacies, most of which looked like cheeses. This shop also had carved wooden spoons and egg-cups, rather plain and unprepossessing.

Now 8:30 exactly, and we’re aboard our plane. Should take off soon. I am tired, indeed, though carrying on. Life is indeed that unpleasant night in a bad inn of which Teresa of Avila spoke, though a bad airplane’s a far more apt modern symbol.

11:05 A.M. Touched down in Moscow. A beautiful (but dead?) lake as we came into the city, lots of trees (birch? poplar?) turning yellow, dark firs, and rich-looking dark earth, damp, flat, clothed with little farms and dachas. Surprisingly un-urban at first glance.

3:15 P.M. At the hotel. A fellow traveler, R.Z., filled out his customs claim form in pencil (!), and so the customs folk would not stamp his claim, and we had to wait and wait. A sweet man, but as a result not of this world.

Then to the hotel on a very hot and stuffy bus. Along the way, gray, wet, various signs in English—Sony, Garden Supermarket. Interesting young Russian men, masculine without being swaggery. Soldiers who are mere boys.

The hotel, Hotel Ukraine, is shabby, a bit dirty, and the food unspeakably bad—zakuskies of a tough, fat smoked fish, a very fat and bad-tasting sausage, tired tomatoes and peppers, followed by a thin soup with a few vegetables and curds of sour cream floating in it, and a few pieces of fat, gristly pork. Then cold fried potatoes—4 slices, about 6 cold peas, and a piece of beefsteak fried in rancid fat. The ice cream was not bad, I’ll grant, but the rest horrible. And we were offered beer, for which we later learned that we must pay $2.00.

Now to rest before our 5 P.M. visit to an Orthodox church.

8 P.M. Back from the church, the Epiphany Church, which was glorious. We went to vespers, part of it at least. From the minute I walked in, I began to weep—the wonderful choir and wonderful chant, the candles and icons, and above all, the people, from babushkas to sincere and angelic looking young teens.

I wish I could describe the scenes one sees from the bus en route to the church. The day is gray, wet, and cold, and that adds to the dreariness. But all’s dingy and half-way developed, as if some master plan to build the brave new world simply ran out of steam halfway. Shop windows all look drab, not a hint of color, and the windows are grimy. To the extent one sees inside (for it was darkening as we drove by them), the lights are often bare fluorescent bulbs, and the contents of shops are meager.

But people, people everywhere, milling on the streets talking, in stopped cars and outside stopped cars, talking in squares and on sidewalks, talking. I asked Jim W., our group leader, if this had been the case when he was here in the 60s, and he said not at all—then, people never congregated, just scurried to their destination.

All this gives the impression of a vast disorderly and suffering nation, but one also in process of seizing its destiny in an exciting new way.

The young especially attract me, because they don’t yet seem blasé and hostile. I don’t mean to idealize them, and these are very much surface impressions, but I do sense that they’re more integrated into society—and thus into its vision for the future—than is the case with us.

All the more, then, how struck I was by the young I saw at the church, engrossed in the liturgy, bowing and crossing themselves. People who seek heaven’s doors open in icons and who hear its choirs sing in the liturgy cannot build a totally bad society.

And back, and supper: more zakuskies—slices of ham almost all fat, slices of some cold forcemeat balls, tomato slices. The entrée was fried forcemeat balls—koftes, do they call them? And some greasy shoestring potatoes and sliced raw cabbage. This followed by ice cream again, and éclairs. Naught to die for.

And so to bed.

*The travel journal that begins with this entry demands a brief gloss. As the opening paragraph suggests, I embarked on this trip amidst intense stress at my job. At the time, I was teaching at (and heading the theology department of) Belmont Abbey College. The president who had hired me had mandated that the college create a statement of its core values, and had placed me in the unenviable position of leading the committee to craft that values statement.

Because I was new to the school (in my second year there), because it was tightly controlled by an old boys’ network who considered me an intrusive outsider, because the monks who own the college are a troubled community with a turbulent history and close ties to some of the nastiest right-wing Catholic organizations around, I was in a very hot seat leading the values-statement committee.

Above all, I was in the hot seat because the college had hired my life partner Steve at the same time it hired me. We were in the position in which any gay couple found themselves in Catholic institutions at the time (and still often find themselves)—walking a very thin don’t ask, don’t tell line. A recipe for intense psychic suffering . . . .

Anyone in such a position is subject to sub rosa taunts and outright attacks, which one can’t answer publicly without doing what is impossible (or was then) in Catholic institutions: outing oneself.

All of this laid the ground for psychic fragility, as I traveled. The purpose of this trip was to meet with representatives of faith communities in Russia, now that the iron curtain had fallen. An aunt of mine had just died, leaving money to a cousin who generously shared her inheritance with all of her cousins. The amount I had gotten out of the blue was precisely the amount asked by the group sponsoring this trip, and which had invited me to participate.

So I went, knowing I was being pulled apart by the struggles at my workplace and not in a psychic space to travel with ease, and yet feeling that this opportunity was somehow a calling—to what, to be what, to do what, I wasn’t sure: just a calling.

The trip proved disastrous in some ways. Unbeknownst to me when I signed up for the trip, a woman whom Steve had taught at his previous job at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans was to be on the trip. She had tried to make Steve’s life miserable (again, as a closeted gay man living in a long-term relationship with another gay man) when he taught there.

And she had succeeded. After having taught at the seminary for some 7 years as its first lay theologian, Steve had come up for tenure two years prior to this. The faculty and students voted for him to receive tenure. The rector, who was subsequently made a bishop and is now a rising star of the American hierarchy, unilaterally denied Steve the tenure for which he had been approved, giving as his sole reason that the seminary could not afford to pay Steve’s salary any longer. The salary had been, from the start of his working there, $15,000—no raises. After Steve was booted from the place, the seminary hired two priests to replace him, and a year after that, another married lay theologian, who was given housing within the seminary with his wife and child.

It was clear, in other words, that the refusal to tenure Steve had everything to do with his being gay.

Perhaps because of her animosity towards Steve, the former student appeared to have regarded my presence on the trip to Russia as a singular opportunity to transfer her nasty hounding of Steve to me. She made the trip miserable for me, unutterably miserable, constantly throwing ugly barbs my way, for all the group to hear, barbs that had everything to do with the fact that I was gay and unable or unwilling to talk about that.

And what could I do about what she chose to do? On these guided tours, one is stuck. If I had opened my mouth and engaged in back-barbs, I would probably have been targeted. I chose to shut my mouth and endure, and I frayed, and finally fell apart, leaving the group early.

But I did capture some impressions before leaving, and such as they are, I offer them here, in this travel narrative . . . .