Ella Reznikova and I share the same monthly writer’s group here in Vermont. I am very glad for this for two reasons.
Her history and knowledge of Soviet times was of great value to me during the final edits of my memoir; when Ella related enthusiastically to my Soviet-centered scenes, I knew I had captured them.
But beyond my own book, I have come to love Ella’s readings. She writes with elegance, emotion, and grace, making it always a pleasure to listen to her. Besides which, her accent is delightful. And those idiosyncratic “Russian-isms” that color her writing just add to the pleasure.
Now settled here in Vermont, Ella is active in one of our two nearby Buddhist retreat centers, Karmê Chöling. Ella writes here of her first experience in the US, a visit to her family in Chicago, which she piggybacked onto a visit to a Buddhist center where she hoped to learn more to take back with her to her native Ukraine. For more on her bio, see the introductory post from last May. Welcome, Ella.
My First Appointment With Dharma
How to recollect something that changed your life? The day was kind of gray, and nothing was showing any signs of importance. Ordinariness never lifted its veil. You know when people are telling stories about an unusually bright morning when something happened in your life? Well, it was nothing like that. But there was a plan that involved a map, my friendship with my father, and the main changes in my entire life.
I was already one week in Chicago coming from the Soviet Ukraine for a month visit, surrounded by my big family, and getting used to the American landscape. I was thrilled that I was in a different land, meeting people who would smile effortlessly, who would take unknown-for-me-freedom for granted. I was already owing them my quickly learned cheerfulness because of their unfamiliar-to-me cultural politeness.
Life in my country, Ukraine, back then was legally bad and almost everybody was law obedient. Cheerful people were considered crazy or drunk. Living with a background of unquestionable moodiness, it was delightfully strange to hear people saying “Hi” to me on the streets. It took me a while though, to stop answering in detail when asked “How are you doing?” And of course shopping didn’t exist in my country — we’d grab a bag from our house and buy one thing if it was our lucky day. For somebody who had ten years in a row the same black sweater and jeans, shopping in the US was like going to а museum and buying pieces of art.
But no matter how long you are waiting to arrive in the Promised Land carrying your brilliant mind that is delightfully restless and greedy for the new excitement, the same mind amazes you with irrational boredom and numbness. It is always surprising to me when tourists who describe with unending enthusiasm their new adventures would hardly mention their tired body and irritated mind.
This was what I was looking for then, in the USA: How to learn more of what your mind really wants. I was not there just to see my family and to enjoy all the materialistic pleasures of, as they’d say in my country, “rotten imperialism.”
I had come to reconnect with the path that appealed to me: Tibetan Buddhism. There were no spiritual teachers in my country under the Soviets. Spiritual teaching was almost illegal. My husband and my friends back in Ukraine were meditating without a teacher’s guidance and were expecting from me some useful information. So I found a place that sounded right in the Yellow Pages (nobody could explain to me the meaning of yellow color).
Finally, my family’s emotional hugs behind us, I was ready for my spiritual adventure. And my father would drive me.
This trip changed my life, but it was uneventful and it is not easy to describe an important uneventful event.
Since I am not a very visual person, I will try to feel and smell my memories. Let’s see.
We are driving with open window, my dad and I. It is seriously hot. My dad doesn’t have unfamiliar-to-me air conditioner and I feel unfamiliar humidity as if we are in constant Russian sauna. There is a paper with directions in my hand that my Dad drew from the map. This is also new. We use map in Ukraine only if we go to some real wildness. In my roundish cozy 13th-century city, no maps are needed. All the roads lead to the Armenian coffee shop, the one when I, as a young girl, kissed a poet after he cried to me his unexpectedly talented poem. I was going to kiss him anyway, but it was a really pleasant surprise.
Anyway, I am getting distracted. So back there in my daddy’s car I am having doubts that my dad’s simple drawing chart would bring us anywhere. City is so big and my daddy is still new to it. He explains to me that Chicago roads are like a chessboard, they are very straightforward. But I am not convinced since we have already gotten lost a few times. We are stopping at the gas station just to be sure we are on the right track. I am intoxicated from speaking English that gets better every hour. And we are driving some more.
My dad’s car is a used car and it smells like a dusty desert. But he never had a car in Ukraine, so this car feels like a luxury. Instead of resting after a week of work in a foreign country with a foreign Turkish boss that doesn’t understand not only American but also Ukrainian mentality, my dad is driving me to some strange place. He is full of respect. He never wanted me to be materialistic. He likes that I am in a spiritual search.
While we are driving he tells me different stories about his confusion in his new life:
- how he brought a swim suit when somebody invited him to play pool,
- how he ordered an orange jew instead of orange juice,
- how he was shocked when, while complementing a beautiful woman, he instead offended her,
- how he was told that it is not polite to ask about people’s salaries,
- how all his ex-Soviet relatives have changed and there is less warmth and more competition,
- how children are respected here and parents can’t punish them,
- how people are patriotic and police don’t take bribes.
His voice is still full of amazement, and he loves to share and inform me about his new life. I know that despite his cultural challenges he is already deeply devoted and grateful to this country that gave him back his authenticity.
It is very helpful to use the smell of the old car ( “I buy only American cars,” my dad says) to awake my memories. I also smell pizza (that I saw only in movies before) that invokes an appetite even though I just had a full Jewish mother’s breakfast with calories enough for a week — but nobody talks about calories in my family and in my country. There is also teasing and the perky smell of coffee, and something else that is so human and busy and dreamy — not definable.
I am sure even that talented poet of my youth wouldn’t be able to describe it. Maybe that’s how freedom smells when it is available and open to touch?
Now we are almost there.
The street we are driving on–Famous Clark Street– is sleepy and as if slightly embarrassed for having crazy party at night. I feel like a gourmand that never tasted diversity before. Small, lazy, and half-awake ethnic restaurants, Mexican spices like an ever-hungry fog, elegant but uptight Japanese store, buildings with timid offices. It’s a cool street, but it is not her best hour.
I want to feel if this is the right place, if this is a place that will open some door for me? But still no important signs when we are parking next to the the building we are looking for. In Ukraine everything is full of signs — black cat, empty water basket, some numbers…there are also witches. I am expecting at least some exotic statues or maybe a few Tibetan flags. Nothing like that.
Our destination is on the third floor. Chicago Dharmadhatu. I don’t know exactly what does it mean, but dharma means teachings of Buddha. I am quite sure I need exactly this place, but a veil of ordinariness is still there. Plus the building looks so official. But maybe they are in hiding like in my country — I cannot help thinking.
Nothing dramatic in the signs at the door — something like Real Estate, Insurance, Flowers, Dharmadhatu. So ordinary but I am stubbornly full of high spiritual expectations. Ordinary is not what I am looking for.
We climb to the third floor. The door is locked, nobody is there. I don’t expect this. Churches in my country are always open.
I cannot just leave — I write and leave a note at the door, with my brief biography, my longing, and my phone number. We ask a polite woman on the second floor office why it is closed, and she uses a new word for me — appointment. You have to make an appointment, she says.
I don’t know what to do next, but I am not giving up. I know that I will come back. Somehow this is good just as it is — my first appointment with dharma.
Ella, thank you so much for sharing this poignant story with us. I loved your list of the things your dad had found, as well as learning a bit more about what stood out for you during this your first visit to America. Signs, appointments, maps,
How about you? What stood out for you in Ella’s story?