1988

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My second trip to Russia was through Canada. We flew on the Soviet airline Aeroflot, a night and day difference from our commercial airlines. Cautious, I felt this would be a good thing, Russia from the perspective of the people. That hope didn’t last long. Beyond the clear evidence of what materially was not available to purchase in their home country, each citizen had bags and bags of stuff they purchased in Canada.

It is clearly evident that I am an American on a Soviet Airline. I feel like I’m on a 1950’s grey hound bus. All around me I hear incomprehensible Russian, full of enthusiasm to share the spoils of their trip with their loved ones at home. People have bags and boxes stacked on their laps and under their seats, unwilling to let go of the proximity needed to put them in the upper bins. Their “stuff” includes electronics, Reeboks, and blue jeans. I forget sometimes how accessible material things are to me (even if I can’t afford them). The air in the plane smells Soviet-a mixture of perspiration, musty air and an ointment like smell. It makes me feel like a prima dona because I’m more concerned about brushing my teeth and taking a shower. I helped a woman squeezed into the seat next to mine who looked at me suddenly panicked and I knew she was going to vomit. I grabbed the barf bag in the pocket of my seat and put it in front of her face just in time. I felt so bad for her because I know how awful it is to get sick in a crowded place (like I did last time I was in Russia). It is so easy to love when one who is so vulnerably helpless is forced to lower their guard and let someone help. I didn’t need to speak the language, only sit and be present with my hand on her back and give her a Kleenex when she needed it. She smiled and tried to communicate for the rest of the trip.

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I have always loved Leningrad, now St Petersburg. The Summer palaces, the Hermitage museum and churches are exquisite. Plagued by citizens trying to swap, poach, buy drugs was unsettling. I did not feel safe as a young woman there and wore my glasses most of the time, like it would make a difference (remember that I was young and a bit naive) I had such high hopes for a newer, fresher Russia. I expected a sense of moving with the times, but what I began to understand is that this was a country that wanted the benefits of a western society, but either didn’t want to do the work, or was ill equipped to handle the transition. And they worked so hard to create a smoke screen to make it appear that they would still be equal to or superior to America. It wasn’t a very good one though.

We’re in Leningrad-and it is the white nights. At 2:30 in the morning it looked like the afternoon. I met Leonard Bernstein in a shop. I was completely star struck. It was phenomenal, and he was surrounded by people here too.We went to tour the Hermitage Museum, such amazing beauty and art A young man came up to me and wanted to trade, which isn’t unusual, but then he wanted to know if I smoked or did coke and stared exclusively at my chest. I said “no” forcefully. It felt good, but I was mad that the only people who speak to me here-want something-money exchange or other stuff.

There were people we met with who really wanted to make a difference, but I never got a sense that they had much power or backing to really do anything about it. We met with a few peace summits, as they were called but there were always less than a dozen people present. You could hardly call them a summit. I give these people credit, though, they were working hard to make a better life for the people.

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I had a wonderful conversation with a man named Demetrius at our peace committee meeting. It was refreshing to talk to someone young who is educated and open. He gave me his address and said they would invite me to visit again. Maybe, someday. I also went to the ballet it was wonderful, of course-I’ve been lucky enough to see the Bolshoi Ballet in the States. We went to the tea room afterwards, simple and relaxing. No one to bother us. One thing I’ve noticed this tour, is that there are no visits to war memorials, last time we were inundated. The talk of war is almost minimal except for a breed of hatred for Stalin.

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Landed in Kiev on another greyhound type plane. It is much more relaxed than last time. I stayed in the same hotel, and this time had no less than three marriage proposals. Must not be a good place to plan a future. The peace meeting here, too, was just like last time-all party line.

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My time in Crimea was wonderful and awful. I had never been, which I now see for what it was, sexually assaulted before. I am thankful that I was surrounded by people and members of my group to support me, and empowered by my own willingness to punch his lights out. The picture it painted for me was that I thought there was a license to treat women in a way that was unacceptable in Russia, and I unfairly blamed them for a long time. When I returned home and the growing awareness of sexual violence that continued to permeate my own culture, and more personal experiences on a much smaller and subtle level, I had to come to grips when the fact that it wasn’t exclusive to a reforming communist country. Yet, I’m glad that I only wrote about the wonderful and kind people I met there in my journal. When I saw the news that Crimea was annexed by Russia, I knew why. It is the crown jewel of the Black Sea, of the Ukraine, and like Russia seems to always do…it takes what it wants.

We are in Yalta, the vacation paradise of Russia. The hotel is magnificent, the beach crowded with people, families unconcerned about body image, just happy to be on the beach, work first, though. We went to a pioneer village, a youth camp and we only met one official, which was quite disappointing.One distinction beyond the same universal educational curriculum for the last 10 years, rock music is no longer suppressed, and some pictorial art.

Back relaxing in the pool, a very attractive man swam up and tried to sell me lacquer boxes. I splashed him off and then felt bad. I saw him that night in the disco and danced with him and nearly punched his lights out when he started to mall me. Whatever decorum was present last time is not present this time. It is very disturbing.

me and Diana    1988 gala dinner

Back in Moscow at the Hotel Rus (*which is now an office building…original built in 1894) and there were cockroaches. Someone stole a pair of my shoes from my room. I am ready to go home.The city tour was OK, it is dirty now.

That was all I wrote about Moscow the second time, except for one funny ditty I wrote in my journal “Hotel Rus, 6000 rooms with 6000 unused bidets”. We did have gala dinner to conclude our trip and I remember it as lovely, but full of other tourists. I couldn’t wait to go home. The only memory of my return trip was that I had to convince so many on the plane when we stopped over in Ireland not to spend all their money in the duty free shop there. It was hard to convince them that Canada would have everything they needed. Going through customs took forever, one of our party got in trouble for trying to smuggle in caviar. I missed my connecting flight and stayed in Montreal at a new friends family home. My sadness returning home would have been oppressive, but I was ready to start my new teaching job. I didn’t journal for months, so I can hardly recall what my feelings were. I did pack up all my Russia books and materials and put them into storage…which speaks volumes.

Both trips to Russia were an instrumental gift in my life. How it presented and continues to present itself in my life may seem blurred at times. I do know that my devotion to truth and cutting through political subterfuge is a result of those journeys, and is the number one reason I am so pained by what is happening in the world right now. I have paid a price for it, but one that I accept readily. Jesus says the truth will set you free…I walk in that belief and understanding every day.

Taking Umbrage…for and at Women

um·brage

noun \ˈəm-brij\

: a feeling of being offended by what someone has said or done

I started this post several times, wanting to be positive, a bit less controversal, and with propriety.  I couldn’t do it because I did promise a sense of wild abandon, so here goes.  I seem to take umbrage with almost every angle of the state of women in our world today.  I am sickened by movements to censure, mutilate, deny education, control and retract any advances made through history.  And yet, I take as much umbrage with a culture that objectifies, sexualizes, and at the opposite end values a woman based on some prudish matronly definition of goodness.  Seriously people, what in the sam hill is going on?

Jesus set the standard so clearly in his ministry.  Women were of great value to him; especially women who chose his instruction over what culture restricted them to, check out the Mary and Martha story…( I blogged about it here, maryfrancesflood.com/2012/06/18/im-a-mary-and-not-a-martha/.  I think women owe Jesus a great deal for the place that he brought us to…and with that comes responsibility.  We, as women, must take a stand against those who would force us to lose the sacred ground that many fought so hard to attain.  So where the hell do I stand?

While I am plagued with fear when I hear most men speak of rape, whether on a college campus, foreign soil, a military base or from the mouth of a politician, I have to admit that I am plagued with as much fear at the cavalier attitude and sexually charged culture in this country.  While I think we should celebrate our physical bodies, I am tired of how sex inundates our culture.  I don’t want to see young women run around in their underwear, or clothing designed to cradle a man’s package.  While I am not a prude…I say EEEWWWWW!  The pervasiveness of sex in just about everything is a problem for me. Being a good lover by today’s standards is understood by sexual prowess and not in the way the gospel intended.  Getting better at sex will never help us get better at love…PERIOD.  And it won’t help us reclaim our power either.

I have thought long and hard about whether or not my attitude is based on my aging form and diminishing beauty…and then that very thought even pissed me off!  Who defined aging and beauty anyway?  Well, I include myself when I say we all had a hand in that too.  With age, I’ve gained great experience and education and was for a moment ready to hold those accomplishments at a lesser value than my aging appearance…and yet, in all truthfulness I understand why. We live in a culture that worships youth and marginalizes maturity.  Look at the amount of money that goes into physical beauty; the money women spend on achieving some skewed idea of youthful perfection is tragic.  We could save all the starving children in the world many times over, if we allowed ourselves to age naturally and dump our obsession with beauty regimens.

I’m not saying as women, we can’t try to be beautiful and celebrate our sexuality.  But if we aren’t working as hard for the standard the Jesus set, i.e. we are as valuable as any man, and are offered the same gift of grace, with the same expectations for our behavior…then we’ve failed on a massive level.  Let’s be better at loving, starting with ourselves.

I’m a Mary and not a Martha

The story of Mary and Martha is one of my favorites in scripture. When, in response to Martha’s rebuke against her sister for not helping her with her chores, Jesus tells her to stop worrying and affirms Mary for choosing  the better course,  it gave the direction of my soul an authentication and authority straight from the mouth of God. Sure, it may be easy to say that most everyone would choose to listen to the Son of God over doing housework, but for me it was so much more than that. The affinity that I have for education and learning parallels another’s for sports, or music. It is when I’m in the pursuit of new information to broaden my ever-expanding world that I feel the happiest, hopeful and most successful. Had I been Martha’s sister, I wouldn’t have sat smugly listening to Jesus retort to my sister, I would have quickly stuck out my tongue at my nagging sister in an infantile vindication of my chosen path…and sadly, today it  would literally be hanging out all the time. It is sad that in today’s culture I almost feel the need to apologize for all the sheepskin trailing behind me. I readily acknowledge the talents of the men in my house, that their affinity for sports, health or acuity in computers largely remains uncontested. But whenever intelligence or education comes up, I’m just being arrogant or a know-it-all. And that is just unfair. I attended the classes, I did the work, I wrote every paper, attended every class, finished every internship, and I finished and paid for every degree. And like some are just really adept at sports or a host of other talents…my brain may be more adept for knowledge than a lot of other people…it is neither good or bad, it just is.

The greatest irony, though, lies in the fact that once done listening to Jesus…I’m sure Mary was up half the night doing chores because I’m pretty sure not one of the disciples pitched in to cover the slack. Sadly, that is the tenure of the workings of my house as well. Am I suited to the domestic arts because I am a woman? Compared to the men at my house, that would be a yes…but only because they all miss the common sense gene that is necessary to maintain a household. Otherwise, I would never choose the task…but I suck it up and do it anyway because I don’t want to suffer bodily harm because “someone” thought the wood floors would look pretty if they sprayed a whole can of pledge on them making them dangerous to walk on with socks, or being so excited to eat the soup they cooked, they forget to turn off the burner. In my family, support for the men in my house falls to me, because it seems that most obvious and best way we can all be successful and stay alive. Even though the men in my house don’t always appreciate the synergy that my role has created..my big brain does. Most importantly it was and is my choice to do so and not because of some predilection to some inherent role women are supposed to play.  Most days I do feel that I made the right choice pursuing so many different academic roads, even though it may be more difficult to show the success of those degrees financially or when my arms are knee-deep in a toilet or answering phones at our clinic. I do think it makes be better at everything I do. Which brings me to the most important point.

I remember those brave women who have fought for us so that we are availed equal opportunities to utilize our God-given gifts and follow our dreams, whatever they may be. So I fear a  back slide into a past that held us to a propriety that was more a mask of control than anything else. It does make me angry at those men in the world who claim superiority as their God-given right, especially under the auspices of scripture. Why does one line from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians hold greater weight than the words and actions of Jesus? In the Gospels, the conversations he has with women make clear the regard he has for them as people. Mary, learning at Jesus knee was credited for making the greater choice…the operative word being “choice…” something women didn’t have much of in Jesus time, yet  I am continuously befuddled at those who would judge women for making the same choice today. My choice to play a supportive role in my family is a result balancing talents and what works best for us…not because of some preordained role dictated by God. Submitting to any man has never been within my realm of experience…just ask my father, brothers, husband and sons. But I have chosen to stand in support of many men in my life, which I can do while still sharing the vast stores of knowledge in my big brain.  Whether they listen is another story….