Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Ella Reznikova

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.

 

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Ella Reznikova

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 and her dad in 2014, two years before he died.

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 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?  

28 Responses

  1. Isabelle Winkler
    | Reply

    “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.”

    ME TOO!

    Thank you for sharing Ella! I loved your dad’s list and your description of that drive. Non-events are often the biggest internal journeys. I connected strongly to your sense of discovery interwoven with this deep insecurity about the rules of this new place. Looking at this foreign world from the passenger seat of your dad’s car is pretty much how I am discovering Russia currently. I am experiencing so much of what you are describing from the opposite site. (OMG, WHY do people ask me these impertinent questions when I don’t even know them yet??? Why does nobody know how to whistle?)
    I also totally get the importance of that one specific smell. I have the same thing with the smell in the metro here. It reminds me of the hall we had PE in when I was a child in Germany. Every time I enter, it’s like coming home but in a weird mixture of positive recognition and negative PE memories.

    Also, I don’t know how a dusty desert smells like. I can’t wait to find out!

    • Ella
      | Reply

      Dear Isabelle,

      Thank you so much for your kind words!

      You made me laugh when you wrote:
      “OMG, WHY do people ask me these impertinent questions when I don’t even know them yet???”

      People used to tell their most intimate secrets on the trains between Ukraine and Russia, but now there is no connections since both countries are at war.

      I can feel that you are enjoying your stay in Russia with an open mind and sense of humor.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Isabelle,

      Thanks so much for starting us off this morning. I knew you’d resonate with Ella’s story today. I love too how you compare her visit here in the US with yours now in Russia. I enjoyed that reminder of just how much is universal. Thanks again.

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Ella, this was simply a delight to read. I hear it in my head with the words spoken with a Ukrainian accent. (The “Russian-isms,” as Janet says, sprinkled throughout, adding to the flavor of the whole.) All of my grandparents came from Ukraine and what is now Belarus, pre-Soviet. They were escaping persecution as Jews. I think they were all very non-nonsense people, but I hope they felt some of the wonder and thankfulness that you and your family felt.

    I particularly liked the memory you share of kissing the poet, the wonder you feel at people saying hi to you on the street (my daughter in Boston says people do not do that there–even people in the same apartment building), the car that smells like a dusty desert, and your dad’s list.

    Thanks for sharing Ella and Janet!

    • Ella
      | Reply

      Thank you Merril!

      Your words mean a lot to me.

      So our ancestors were neighbors!

      I am sure your grandparents felt grateful to this country. I talk with many elder refugees and they usually say that they cannot adopt but they are happy for their children; such a beautiful selfless love.

      The beautiful poet of my youth died, and it is true that people say Hi less often here, and this dear country is not quite the same anymore. But I am still not loosing my heart and feel grateful.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I love discoveries of serendipity, so thanks for sharing about your grandparents, Merril. And I’m so glad you enjoyed Ella’s story; there is a rhythm to it that I imagine you, as a poet, tuned in to. I too loved her dad’s list. So many of them made me smile.

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Ella — You have captured the essence of Buddhism in this beautiful sentence:

    “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.”

    Simple. Ordinary. Unobtrusive. I love the way you write. Thank you for sharing it here.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, yes. I resonated with that same paragraph, Laurie. I’m glad you picked up on it. “Well, it was nothing like that.” Made me smile. Thanks for being here.

    • Ella
      | Reply

      Dear Laurie,

      Thank you for your kind and direct comments.

  4. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Ella, thanks so much for joining our series. I wanted to add a little story, piggybacking on this one:

    how he brought a swim suit when somebody invited him to play pool,

    When I was doing my internship at Bellevue Hospital, my supervisor was a lovely man from India, Khanu Chandanani. He told the story of his early weeks in America and how he took the subway into Manhattan from one of the boroughs, going through the Times Square station where there are many stores in the subway system. One day, the weather forecast called for “showers” and in one of those many stores he saw a sign advertising a sale on “shower caps.” …. And so he arrived at work with said shower cap on his head. He loved telling that story as I have loved, ever since, repeating it. In retrospect, one of those shower caps would indeed be so very practical and much more convenient than a heavy umbrella. 🙂

  5. Ella
    | Reply

    It takes a lot of courage to be so groundless for a while and yet laugh at yourself.

  6. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    How lovely to have someone in your life like Ella. We visited Ukraine for a mere three weeks, but it was long enough for me to appreciate the gentle ways of Olga, a physician/researcher and of Roman, a lover of children and dad himself. I have to laugh at the way Facebook “translates” their postings into English. I am not sure I’d call them Russian-isms, but they communicate nonetheless.

    Great post, Ella and Janet!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…3 Women and a DumpsterMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian,
      I’m glad to see you back among us. You’ve been missed.

      I believe your trip to post-Soviet Ukraine was one of the reasons we connected, early on. Does that sound right?

      I’m always transported when I hear Ella’s stories. And I’m pleased to be able to share one of them here. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Ella ReznikovaMy Profile

  7. Ella
    | Reply

    Dear Marian,

    Thank you for your comments!

    How lovely to have Janet in my life! Without her kindness, generosity and empowerment I wouldn’t dare to show my writing in public.

  8. Gulzhahan
    | Reply

    Very interesting stories. I felt ilke I was there. I enjoyed reading your stories as I share your opinions about our countries. We didn’t know what diversity is, when we were in the Soviet Union. We all were wearing the same clothes, we all had the same furniture at our places, ate the same food in all families.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Gulzhahan, Thanks so much for stopping by. Your voice here is of great value.

  9. Ella
    | Reply

    So true dear Gulzhahan!

    Can’t wait to read your story!

  10. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    “This was what I was looking for then, in the USA: How to learn more of what your mind really wants.”

    “I know that despite his cultural challenges he is already deeply devoted and grateful to this country that gave him back his authenticity.”

    Thanks Ella (also my daughter’s name) for a lovely post. While much stood out to me, I was particularly drawn to these two sentences, which in a way seem connected to me. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a region of the U.S. with a prevailing sort of culture and mindset that never felt true or “authentic” to me. And yet, at the time, it was my only frame of reference, meaning, I didn’t know what was “out there.” The “beyond,” to me, merely existed as some kind of invisible “sense” or “pull.” Perhaps we can’t fully know ourselves until we’ve exposed ourselves to more than what is known and familiar. I’m glad that both you and your father were able to accomplish this. Best regards!
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…A Pirate Looks at FiftyMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “… the country that gave him back his authenticity” stayed with me too, Tim. There’s so very much packed into so few words. Thanks for adding your thoughts.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Ella ReznikovaMy Profile

    • Ella
      | Reply

      Thank you dear Tim,

      I was very touched by your responce.

      There is no end of “exposing ourselves to more than what is known and familiar.”

  11. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    To all my commenters. You may have noticed I’ve reinstalled the CommentLuv option on my site. This is a plugin that pulls from an RSS feed to announce the last blog post, if any, of the Commenter. I must remember to uncheck it when I reply (you all know my latest blog post), but I hope you’ll check out any that are new to you. We have some great bloggers following this site and I’m happy to give them an extra nod.
    Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Ella ReznikovaMy Profile

  12. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Dear Ella, it’s so nice to meet you. (thank you, Janet!) Your writing is detailed and engaging. I love how you describe your responses to a new culture. My favorite part is the special bond you had with your father who was so loving and supportive of your quest. You brought him alive to me.

  13. Ella
    | Reply

    Dear Kathleen,

    Thank you so much for your insight.

    When I was writing this piece, my father was already gravely ill. After he died I lost not only my daddy but a good and empowering friend. Hearing your response made me feel so sad and so grateful.

  14. Pamela
    | Reply

    The smell of freedom. Oh my, this post touched my heart. From darkness to light. From a prison-like country to one that is open on so many levels. And then your dad, Ella. What a handsome lovely man. Your post made me think of my dad, so like me in many ways (well, I supposed I am so like HIM). He died over a decade ago, but I still ‘talk’ to him and see his face as if he’s still here in the flesh.
    Pamela recently posted…THE SWITCHMy Profile

  15. Ella
    | Reply

    Dear Pamela,

    Your post touched my heart too!

    My daddy’s warmth is everywhere…

  16. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Ella, I wanted to thank you officially for sharing your story with us. I know it touched many hearts. And, I hope you’ll continue to check in with us as we continue our series, Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes.
    Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Ella ReznikovaMy Profile

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