Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Creating Unusual Harmonies to Peter Paul and Mary's "All My Trials, Lord"...

... while your host family listens confusedly from below: A complete guide to winning popularity. I know that I already published one post today. I'm terribly sorry for this, but as you may have noticed, most of my writing described the events of Wednesday. It is now Monday--almost a week from then--and besides, you still haven't heard about my beautiful weekend in Listvianka and my ingenious new weight-loss program that involves consuming poorly cooked Siberian fish (I mean honestly, why did no one tell me about the effectiveness of using food poisoning as a way to shed pounds?)
            On Friday night, I stayed up later than usual chatting with my Host Mom, Sarah (I think I called her that last time, right?) again. Every time I have these conversations, they remind me of nights spent in the kitchen of my older sisters' homes whenever I was in town for a few days. I'm sure you realize this, Kathleen, Lisa (Can I add Dan in here too?), and Liz but these are times I really cherish spending with you, and when I conjure up an image of your homes, I usually think, among other things, of these late night chats and the peacefulness that can only exude from a home where little children sleep. (So like...if you don't have kids, your house isn't actually as peaceful as you think it is.) I always think of the dim light above the kitchen sink which reflects your face as you dish out some kind of wisdom about motherhood (/fatherhood) or life whenever I listen to Sarah talk about her youth, about her children, or about soviet times. I'm not being poetic or whatever here. I really mean that. (Also, if you are related to me, you have your own house, and you are not listed above: (Sarah, Bridget, Amy, Mary, and Colleen, it is merely because I haven't spent a lot of time in your kitchen recently...or ever...Mary. So anyway, don't hate.)
         The next morning, I slept in late and eventually headed down to the university to meet with some other Americans and a tour guide (it was part of our study abroad program). From there we left for Listvianka, a town forty miles from Irkustk, that rests on the Lake Baikal. I can't even begin to describe how beautiful this trip was. Everywhere there were mountains covered in trees decked out in their autumn finery. Back in the city, things were mostly still green, but here there was every shade of red, yellow, gold, and orange imaginable. Furthermore, we stayed in a little place right near the Lake Baikal, which is a body of water so clear that one can see forty meters deep into the water at its clearest times (right after the snow melts in the Spring.) Even without its peak clarity, I could see the exact shade of  every stone and every peddle; it was beautiful.
        I don't really feel like describing this trip in detail (although, I will add here, because I have nowhere else to write it, that we hiked up a mountain and rode the ski lift down, the view of the autumn trees, the water beyond, and the frozen mountains even farther beyond that was AMAZING), but I will say that overwhelmingly, I was left with the impression that it is not Irkutsk, but the entire world, that is completely gorgeous. Is that bad to think while traveling? Maybe it is, but I couldn't help thinking it. And I've been thinking it a lot since I've came here.
        I sat on the sand and watched the waves go in and out on this huge beautiful lake, and I just kept thinking, "This water is clearer than the water at home. Its bluer and sweeter, and more impressive, but for some reason, it has the same exact effect on me as the water on the shore a few blocks from my house. The sunset, too. It seated itself behind the mountains, and the sky then took on icy blue with touches of pink in response. There are no Mountains and Wildwood, and nothing but tall sad buildings in Philly to frame my view, and maybe there isn't even this particular shade of icy blue with touches of pink. Still the sunset there makes me feel as quiet and as honest as this one here. And in the end its all kind of equal to me, you know?
          There's this poem I used to like by Samuel Coleridge about a guy who wants to go for this beautiful walk with his friend but sprains his ankle and is obliged to wait in his garden instead. While he sits, bumming about this cruel fate of his, the sun starts to set and he looks at the light playing on the leaves around him, and suddenly, he feels like his old garden is just as pretty as the walk he would've taken with his buddy. I remember this one line in particular, because it really struck my fancy when I was younger, where he says, "No plot so narrow be but nature there," and you know, I think about this line often, especially when I wander around Philly.
           I'll be walking down this crumbling sidewalk where determined little dandelions poke their way through the cracks, or at some hideous, dilapidated old chain link fence with leaves climbing through the spaces, and in my head I'll hear this line, and I think, he's write. Nature's still here. They've tried to build over it, to snuff it out to make room for the poor and the unwanted, but here it is still, thriving and wonderful. And even if they managed, even if that determined little dandelion were finally bested by the asphalt, still that poor little unwanted person is a part of nature. And as long as their are humans, there is creation, and it is all as equally wonderful here as it is in Zimbabwe as it is in Wildwood, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, PA.
         And that's all I keep thinking here, that I am exceedingly, exceedingly happy here, but this "travel abroad experience" isn't really what people make it out to be in movies and in life. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret coming. I think is really the right move for my life right now. I'm finally learning the language whose grammar and vocabulary I've spent the last few years memorizing. I see goodness in my absence from America, not just for me, but for the people I'm absent from, and most of all, as I lay in bed the other night, chatting for hours with another American girl who came to Listvianka with me, I knew that this was exactly, exactly where I was supposed to be. It just feels very right right now.
        You'd expect my opinion would've changed about that Sunday Night as I sat in my host's bathroom, vomiting out some bad fish for the fifth time that evening, but I didn't. As I was busy defiling the bathroom in all sorts of ways, I still felt grateful and...can I use the word happy? I mean I obviously wanted to die, too. I was certain that it was "the most sick I had ever been in my life," but if you've lived with me, you've heard that one before. Still, somehow, in between heaves I actually found myself thanking God. And in the in between times, I offered up the ugly stuff for the peace and joy of my compadres back home. And by the way, Mom, I was kidding about the weight-loss program. I didn't actually lose any weight.
With Love from the Middle of the World,


"Happy Birthday to Irkukst, and Other Stories," by Rose Boyle, age 10

    I have decided to start approaching this blog as a diary, or more correctly a one-sided correspondence (which by the way, most of my correspondences are.) Previously, I edited a lot and wait to write until I had some kind of complete-thought about the goings on of my life in Irkutsk. Hindsight imposes some sort of structure on our days, and without this structure, its hard for me to write well. My former approach of waiting for the structure to appear culminated in only one blog entry, though, so now I'm going to try another avenue. Hopefully, I can keep up with this thing better now.
          First of all, I would like to make it clear that I did not, in fact, sing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" to a group of strangers in a Moscow Airport. That was a merely a joke-lie told in the hopes of impressing (with my easy wit and charm) the mysteriously gray-haired twenty-something-year-old boy who I sometimes see walking around Temple's campus. I'm sorry if I disappointed you, believers (A.K.A,  Mom.) To make it up to you, I promise a private performance--for you and two loved ones--of "I'm My Own Grandpa," from the 1996 oscar nominated film, The Stupids, starring Tom Arnold. As an added bonus, I will also wear a straw boater and paisley tie to complete the aesthetic.
          Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll fill you in on some of the latest deets on my trip abroad. Wednesday, Irkutsk celebrated its 350th anniversary, and the scene was awesome. The closest thing I could probably compare it to is St. Patrick's Day back home. Everyone was rolling around with beers; the kids had balloons; and the pedestrians (which were many) wished each other "Sprazdnikom" (Happy Holiday) as they passed by. If you know how rarely people in Russia smile at, speak to, acknowledge the existence of, believe in the existence of strangers, you realize what a special occasion this was. 
          The roads were all blocked off for the even. In the day, there were pony rides (minus the plastic bags hanging from the animal's posterior region--why no one thought of this detail is beyond me. On the other hand, if there are no toilet seats in the ladies bathrooms, why should anyone expect people to accommodate the digestive needs of miniature horses?), and at night there was a huge concert. Everyone was packed in pretty tight, and I wish I could explain in this blog how wonderful it felt to be dancing amidst thousands of strangers to the Russian-accented versions of Disney hits ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was actually part of the program) that came from a large, well-lit stage on a beautiful night in September, where everyone could feel the same electricity and warmth that shot around the center city square, but no one tried to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. I really wish I could describe it. I just can't.
          Afterward everyone in the city center walked over to the waterfront, where there was a fireworks display. I sat with some friends in the Veterans Memorial Park, which is a place that feels eerie and sweet and sacred to me for more than one reason. On the one hand, in the center of it burns an eternal flame commemorating the fallen of World War Two ("Our Great Patriotic War," as the Russians call it). This alone is moving in its own way, but in addition to this, the park is nearby to the site of what was formerly one of the largest cathedrals in Irkutsk. In 1932, the "Cultural Preservation Society"  (or some similarly absurd name) decided it would be best to explode the building. The church was so large that even after the debris was leveled, the ground where it stood was still a meter higher than the surrounding area. Its debris is still lies beneath the Administrative building that has replaced it, and also the Veteran's Park behind. (Its things like this that make me realize I have absolutely no clue what these people have been through. Imagine seeing a church exploded to prove a point.)
          At any rate, I sat in this park and prayed for the soldiers of WWII commemorated here. I prayed for their families, their loved ones. I prayed for the church, for its congregation, for anyone who was left heartbroken while watching it explode, and soon the display began.
           I love fireworks. I love crowded nights, full of warm bodies huddled together under the heavy hood of darkness. I love the cold, and I love the hint of early autumn. All of these things leave me with a sense of bittersweetness, regardless of how good the display, how sweet the air, and how pleasant the company. So just try to imagine the aggregate effect of all of these causes at once. Now imagine it was the most beautiful firework display I've ever seen in my life. You can't, can you? I knew you couldn't. 
          When I got in, my host mother was still awake doing work. She made me hot tea and we chatted for about an hour. I forget about what, but I remember that the conversation only contributed to the sentimentality I was already indulging in.(If you know me and what a sentimental old fool I am, then by now you can probably imagine that I was swimming in a pool of my own tears, showering flower petals on the floor on the way leading up to my bedroom, and somehow, simultaneously blaring some song about a woman coping with her mother's death from nowhere in particular because it seemed like the appropriate soundtrack for my life at the moment.) After spending some time cleaning up the mess of rose petals and water caused by your imagination, I drifted easily off to sleep, trying to save in my memories the smell, the colors, the texture of this time in my life because when I am eighty-three, I will be the only one who knew it ever existed, no matter how many times I will try to describe it to my snarky grandkids.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Greetings from Half-way Around the World!

      (Unless of course you are not half way around the world from me right now, in which case, consider yourself ungreeted.) So as I said in my last post, I am so over writing about the female reproductive system and I'm now ready to tackle the hefty topic of the old USSR. On Thursday morning, I arrived in Irkutsk and was met by my host here, Sarah. The plane itself was kind of a funny experience. In the airport in Paris all of the Russian speakers were eavesdropping on one another's conversations and making comments to eachother in voices dripping with sarcasm. (I imagine it was sarcasm; it may have just been their accents. I didn't catch much of it anyways.) An old lady would say something to her daughter, and then some nearby forty-something-year-old man in a jean jacket and matching jean pants (for whatever reason, this is a really popular outfit for middle aged men here) would comment and everybody would laugh. It was kind of cozy, and it almost seemed like we were all at some big family party where the uncles were drinking too much and cracking jokes. So, in the spirit of things, I of course joined in with my trademark performance for everyone of "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" as I would do at just such a function back home. I'm pretty sure they loved it, because they paid me by throwing vodka in my direction.
        (Important: Did I steal this joke about having things thrown at you and thinking its a good thing from somebody, maybe Sarah Walsh? Perhaps not the same thing but something similar? It feels maybe a little too familiar. If so, I apologize. As a sign of my repentence, I give you this as a peace offering. That way, I can make amends at the cost of an innocent person totally unrelated to my transgression, in this case, George Bush.)
        The Russians seemed really cool in Paris so I was excited about what the next few months had in store for me, but once the plane landed in Moscow, the whole vibe changed. It was as if once they got back on native soil, they no longer owed each other anything. And because they were all now just Russians in Russia, as opposed to Russians in Paris, they could finally go about their business, being as rude to one another as they were able, and perhaps make some sort of sport of it, which may one day be acceptable to the olympic commission. Such is the way of Moscow, I suppose.
        Irkutsk was another matter, as I soon found out on my flight further east. On the way over, I sat beside an expat from Russia who was returning to her home in Irkutsk for a visit with her parents. She talked to me the whole time--except for the periods when, after a mere yawn, I would immediately become comatose. I could've imagined it, but I had the distinct feeling that she was trying to help me. I actually thought she might have been talking to me with the mere purpose of giving me a chance to improve my Russian before landing. We had little to say to eachother. Still, in between conversations she'd have this look on her face as if she were fishing for something. Within the minute, she'd have picked a new topic replete with its own set of specialized vocabulary. We'd begin talking about this new thing, and the whole time she would provide me with better ways to say whatever I had just said, which for the most part, would have been something like, "Fooding. We stand, stand? Giving the hand, under the--Good Morning. Who. Fooding, Spatulaing," in English. Some how, she still understood, and managed to help me get out whatever I was trying to communicate.
       Occasionally, if I got a little teary--which by the way, I did several times, especially when talking about home, she would grab my arm and say "Ne Grusti, Rosa. Vsyo budet horosho." (Don't be sad, Rose. Everything will be fine.) I didn't get to thank her for making my transition to Siberia that much easier, but I was soon to find out that her behavior is pretty typical of the area. She was merely like so many other Irkutsk people, and the first of several kind women I would meet in this city that is so cold, and yet somehow, so full of warm people.
          When we landed, I was met at the airport by my host, I'll call her Sarah, who is an amazing woman. She is a gynecologist and endocrinologist and also a wonderful mother to her thirteen-year-old daughter Lily (another made up name. I feel bad using their names without them knowing I'm writing about them), who is also incredibly sweet and affectionate. Sarah is extremely bright and full of interesting things to say about the Soviet Times and life in general. My only regret is that I can't communicate better with her, because I have questions about some of the things she says, but can't really ask them because, as of now, I can speak about as well as those cardboard sheets that come inside shoes to keep their shape before they are worn.
         In addition to being bright and interesting, she is also loyal and kind. On my first day in the country, when she took me to the University to get everything situated, it turned out that I had accidentally thrown out my migration card at the airport. This is a small piece of paper which the person entering the country has to fill out. It doesn't seem like a big deal, especially because you write it yourself, but it gets stamped when you land in Moscow, and that is the important part. Its just as necessary to have on you as a passport; you really gotta have this thing to be in the country. I was on the verge of tears at the discovery that I had lost it, but Sarah kept telling me it was fine. When we were in the office of the University, as the woman behind the desk was finally able to fix this for me, Sarah said, "See, Rose? Its fine."
           "Its not fine," the woman replied. "This is very bad." She looked at me, and not Sarah, as she said this last part.
           "No, everything is fine."
           "No, its very bad."
           "It turned out alright, right? Everything was solved. Its fine," Sarah responded with finality. That was the end of the conversation.
          On the ride home, I looked around at the city, and--I can admit this now that my opinion has changed--I was a little disappointed. The city, although a sort of historical center, looked run-down to me. So many crumbling steps led over so many muddy hills, stained brick buildings, well built, but unkempt, with random piles of wood or stone in their back yard. (I have no idea where they even get that stuff from, but its there in a surprising majority of the Irkutsk yards), and circling all of this, massive apartment buildings erected during the Soviet Era, now in a period of decay, the gloom of which, no amount of joy could ever usurp. (or so it seemed to me at the time.)
        I doubted the correctness of my choice in coming to Irkutsk. I was kicking myself for it even, but then I would comfort myself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, I was getting an immersion course in Russian, and no less, in the comfort of a loving home full of wonderful people. On top of that, I was sleeping in a bedroom from which I could see the beautiful Lake Baikal, the oldest (what does that mean though? Seriously,) and deepest fresh water lake in the world. Even as I write, this wonderful slice of moon is rising over the lake and the sky is inky blue like the water below. Sarah's apartment, like all Irkutsk apartments I have seen, is in an enclosure of several other huge apartment buildings that sort of wrap around one other. In between the buildings sandboxes, mud parking lots, and sad playgrounds on whose benches sit only old men, pensive and hopeless, the whole day long. Here in these enclosures, there is a coziness that cannot be felt in America because all of the apartments leave their doors and windows unlocked and open, even on a night like this when the air is crisp and it feels like Thanksgiving outside.
        The benefit of this (and some other factors) openess is, that you can experience the best of both the warmer seasons and the colder seasons simultaneously: the sounds of other people's lives (i.e. babies crying, people chatting amongst themselves after dinner, etc.) and the smell of fireplaces. The combination is heavenly. Also, I can't really get a good idea of school hours here, but I know that a lot of the kids, including Lily, don't go in to school until about noon, and then get home at about eight. The effect of this is that there are a lot of kids out playing in the evening when most American kids are inside watching TV. Around nine o' clock the apartment complex is suddenly brimming with children, and its so nice to hear them all. It is really sweet here right now. There is so much else about the city I'd like to say, but I'm tired for now. I'll try to write more when I can. Goodnight from Siberia,

Friday, September 2, 2011

Some More on Menstruation and Its Affects on Climate Change

        It has been some time since I've written. This is chiefly owing to the fact that after writing two posts back-to-back, the public (although always delighted with me) may have begun to think that I had nothing better to do with my time than writing about my ovaries. This would have given them the wrong impression of me. I do have other things to do with my time. I am infinitely cool, have several friends, and I never once spent a week practicing (and recording) introductions of myself to others so that I could understand what it was that I was doing wrong at the beginnings of so many failed friendships. This never happened because I already have several friends. I have no failed friendships. For this reason, I didn't want to write too much, lest you got the wrong idea.
      In addition to not writing, I haven't really been tracking my cycle, either, which of course, was the reason I began writing this blog in the first place. To me, its kind of unfortunate that all young women are not taught how to do this in their "tweens" (a really cool word that was invented after small plastic containers of roll-on glitter, faux diamond studded bellbottom jeans with built-in belts, and Ashley Olsen came together in a secret conclave, and after three days of much debate, finally decided the English Language was lacking. Their solution, which came after another three days of even more debate, was the word "tweens.") Really though, to get back on track, women should know how to tell when their fertile! Growing up--and even recently, I had heard at least a dozen ways (mostly in contradiction with eachother) to tell when ovulation was occurring. These ranged from "feeling a slight pain in the lower abdomen" to "slaughtering and eating a horse from a nearby farm." How was I to know when I was fertile if I didn't live near a farm? I would wonder, as I sat looking at maps, considering a move to a more rural area. Thus began my quest to track my menstrual cycle and share my findings with the world.
       My intentions were good in this respect, but my resolve was lacking. You see, yesterday I moved to Russia--Siberia--to be specific, and after a day here, I have found the trip to be infinitely more interesting to read and write about than the many different facets of a good discharge on a Sunday afternoon. So here's the deal: I'll write a few things about tracking the menstrual cycle in this blog (most of it is so do-it-yourself that there's really nothing to write about regularly anyways) and then from here on out, my blogs will be about Russia. If I figure out how to upload pictures and add some aesthetics to this thing, then we'll really have a reason to take off our headgear and party. (There's a link there but it won't let me put it in red).
       So here are the basics:
The first day of bleeding is day one of a cycle, and as you know, cycles differ in duration for every woman. The first few months of tracking may just let you know whether or not you have the same length every time. Ovulation occurs 12 to 16 days before the next cycle. (so you could be ovulating while you're perioding if you have really long periods and really short cycles). An egg can be fertilized in a 12-24 hour period of time. (In other words, you ovulate 24 hours at most.) Because sperm can live in the body for up to five days, the window of time when a woman can conceive is a little bit longer. Here are some signs of ovulation:

   • Change in cervical fluid
   • Change in cervical position and cervical firmness (Yes, I just wrote cervical firmness.)
   • Brief twinge of pain or dull ache that is felt on one side of the abdomen (I think it switches sides every month, but I'm not sure. You can look it up if you want. I don't feel like it right now.)
   • Increase in sex drive
   • Body temperature chart that shows a consistent change
   • Breast tenderness (Again, yes I did say breast tenderness, if you have any other questions, you know how to reach me.)   
   • Heightened sense of vision, smell or taste. (Totally cool, and I actually notice this one, especially with smells, but sometimes with tastes too)
     And those are the facts. As you can see they're pretty vague which is why its kind of important to know you're body and understand the signs its giving you. I keep a health journal. In it I write how I feel when I wake up (emotionally and physically), how much I have slept, what I have eaten during the day, how much I ran, and how much water I'm drinking. This is all for the purpose of being aware of my general well being. I also write my weight, where I am in my cycle (what day), and anything I notice occurring in my body, especially things that relate to the above list. (The fun part is noticing what sort of people I find attractive at different times in my cycle. Maybe you'll enjoy paying attention to that when you track as well, right boooyyyssss?) I don't keep track of my temperature, for the simple reason that I couldn't find a thermometer until like a week before I left home, and I didn't want to buy one because I knew we had one in the house. Although I've heard the temperature is the dead giveaway for most people who are trying to determine when they are fertile. This was of less importance to me because ovulation isn't really the main thing I'm "looking for" by doing this. I'm not tracking my cycle to prevent pregnancies (unless, of course, you can become pregnant by writing in your diary, wearing too much headgear (the orthodontic kind) for recreational purposes, or listening to Ani DeFranco while crying, in which case, I really will need to start taking more preventative measures). Seriously though, I track my cycle for a better understanding of my body, and actually, I think all women should. (This part is funny for those who remember from the top of the page that I'm not even doing it now. Oops.)
         Our mood, and consequently our behavior, are always under the influence of a thousand different forces at a given time. The music we listen to, the people around us, the places we live, and many other things are constantly affecting who we are and how we treat those around us. Some of these forces we can choose, but some (like the menstrual cycle) are simply something we are kind of just subject to. For this reason, I think its important to be aware of what is taking place within your body, so that you at least have a sense of what you're working with.
       I say "working with" rather than "up against" because I truly believe this is a quality of the female experience that we should work with, and not against. Perhaps a week before your period you feel a little bit surly, and you want to be alone a lot. (In addition to that, you consider eating anything that even closely resembles chocolate, including the really tan pastor of your church.) Well, the surliness you can do without, but there's no reason why you can't turn the desire for alone time into something really positive. I think that there is a great opportunity within the menstrual cycle to embrace every aspect of one's personality. No woman is only rambunctious, only solitary, or only ravenously in need of ice cream and cheesy romcom adaptations of Jane Austen novels starring Hugh Grant. We are each so much more than these qualities, which, for whatever reason, we get in the habit of associating with ourselves. By tracking your cycle, maybe you can give vent to sides of you that you are not in the habit of embracing. In this way, you can make something that has previously held you back, extremely productive. That's all for now folks.