Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re not blank. Tell me you’re not nervous, you’re not sly, you’re not chill.
Move away, cross your arms, falter, lean in, touch my knee, roll your eyes.
You hide that much, too.
Your laugh is lilting, your tone is bleak.
Baritone your bark, then throw that stone – watch the other shake her head.
It’s high alert when you struggle with language – or not. You’re still learning, and the more it comes, the less you know. Survival analyzes, curiosity checks in with others and the hope is to interpret. Take a breath, and dive deep! You’re not always as close as you think you are – or not.
My favorite moments in Moldova have been about communication and connection.
There was one day at the museum – a birthday trip with a loved one. We toured the complex, late as it was, lights off when we arrived. But the guide was eager – eyebrows raised – to show his work and take our praise. We landed on superstitions, a revered Guidance across Moldova. I told our guide my tales, and he swore on his – a woman had predicted, correctly, a change (a challenge) at 40. And he gave us his card, inviting us back. But we never went back.
There was one day when I sat with a friend and talked writing. After banter (there always is), cigarettes and wine, we discussed dreams – and those tears that welled, light. He said he seeks one word with an emotive force: universal, unifying. I said it was an impossible, but beautiful, idea. I remembered, apologized later, and met with his laugh and nonchalance.
There was one day when I realized how much the boy understood. We work with these kids but they don’t tell us much – how their conditions affect them. But we were tossing a hat, and he knew the game – hiding it from my other friend, struggling a bit to turn where he needed, don’t tell his secret. And he sings English and French (you think all is clean?), too – years of volunteers, crystallized in one young man. Eventually, we learned how much (so much) he understands.
There was one day when I called a friend immoral. My values, obviously, are only the finest. But what followed – the discomfort, the question – spurred insight. An exploration of judgement, at least: its utility? Survival? And then: no satisfying conclusion. Days passed – what we agree on is the importance of choice, freedom and growth. I’m lucky she didn’t put my toothbrush in the toilet (at least, I hope she didn’t).
And then, the prayer:
December 27, 2016
“Last night, I sat down with Nick, Cosma and Anna Nikolaevna for dinner. My brother, ever-curious, asked me to ask Anna about how the Orthodox people say grace. I turned to her and in less than a second, she agreed and shot up out of her chair – I could only describe it as a specific kind of glee, an enthusiastic embrace of this opportunity to share thanks with her visitors. And so we rose with her with the intention of respecting her culture and giving thanks to God.
A part of me wants to describe the experience as a trial – 20 minutes of wavering, conflicting thoughts and trial-and-error. We began by crossing ourselves in the Orthodox manner (three fingertips of the right hand to cross, forehead to diaphragm to right shoulder to left. Cosma and I once stopped at a Monastery outside of Balţi, and we met a nun who showed us around her church. I asked why Orthodox Christians cross themselves in a different direction than Catholics, and she explained: the devil resides on your left shoulder and your guardian angel resides on your right. If you cross ending on your left shoulder, you flick the devil, and his influence, away from you).
We stood while Anna muttered under her breath. These were nearly the exact sounds I heard her make, or chant, as she sat in her room weaving round rainbow rugs from second-hand clothing for friends, family: gifts saturated with prayer. We once had a conversation about superstitions and witches, and she told me of local beliefs about good energy, and women with the power to heal, and to pray. I asked her, at the dinner table once, whether her chants were prayers to bless her handiwork…
She became silent, and still. We waited. I rested the tips of my fingers on the table, and there – a surge of energy flicking up my arms. Was this her blessing? a Christmas prayer, or a medium in disguise?
She has told me how we can influence our world. We cleanse ourselves through fasting in homage to God, like we cleanse our rooms for the New Year, like we spend our New Year’s Eve like we want to spend the following year, like we sit in our own chairs at the dinner table and drink from our own teacups to guarantee our energy is our own…
I began to get annoyed as the time split sideways. A quick flash of anger, and then irritation – I remembered those forced Sunday mornings, coercion to pray. But then I caught myself. We’re here to be grateful. Is this a test? Look at Anna Nikolaevna – stoic, standing still like she does at church services, 4 hours of a special kind of worship.
Think of the monks, practicing their self-control. This is your chance. What are you thankful for?
I’m grateful that I’m at the table with my brother, my dear French friend and my host mother. I’m thankful I have the opportunity, and the privilege, to be in the Peace Corps in Moldova and to have the wild adventures, beautiful moments and cultural experiences my heart craves. I’m grateful for…
And as I remember the time (it splits, again, to present), I run out of things to think. What’s going on? What’s taking so long? Is Anna pulling our legs? It’s been at least 10 minutes… I look at Anna. Silent, head bowed. I look at Cosma. Eyes closed, head bowed, but some humor in his face? I look at Nick, who’s looking at me, his thought-bubble almost audible: “What’s going on?” He wiggles his eyebrows at me, and the laughter I’ve been trying to suppress (that idea, Anna’s just screwing with us!) rips up my throat and chokes at my lips, quick staccato and half-guffaw. I blush and turn my head away from Anna, violently biting the inside of my cheeks. Did I offend her? Oh God (a habit, I wasn’t talking to Him, though appropriate in this circumstance), did I offend her? This woman, with beliefs so serious?
I begin counting. I make it to 63 before I peer at my brother again, seeking help. This time, he speaks.
‘Maybe we should do something?’
‘I don’t know…’
I turn to Anna and ask in my awkward Russian, ‘Anna – do we pray? What do we do?’
No response from the stoic.
I look at my brother. Anna crosses herself… And my brother follows suit, and Cosma and I join – 3 times. Then nothing. 3 times again… nothing.
It’s awkward, this silence.
We wait, another few minutes.
And, thanks Nick (again with gratitude, but here it’s no reflection), he looks and says:
‘Maybe we should say a prayer?’
And he launches back to our Catholic upbringing. I follow, layering thanks. And then…
‘Cosma! Say something…’ He mutters something, and I want to throw something, to laugh.
It doesn’t work. Again, it doesn’t work.
She’s so still! The discomfort of a tiny woman in her 70’s, standing, barely breathing, at the head of the table! It’s dreadful, confusing, hysterical, that force of the silence that possesses us.
As a last resort, I grab a piece of bread from the center of the table and begin to break and pass it: first, to Anna, then my brother, then Cosma – and I pop mine in my mouth, watch Anna do the same, and I cross myself, and I sit down (trembling, I hope I won’t offend), hoping it will end.
Time broke, and the boys followed, and Anna sat and they sat, and the judge cracked his gavel to signal closure.
I turned to Anna and asked, ‘Does it usually take that long?’ And she responded, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know how long we should pray.’
The food was delicious.
I talked to my partner about it later, and she told us that Orthodox Christians (at least in Comrat, Moldova) don’t usually pray before a meal.”