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 . . . .

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