25 October 2007


I know it's a bit early for Thanksgiving (at least the USA version). In fact, we still have to survive Halloween. (The announcement for the New Humanitarian Institute's Halloween party invites us all to "dress and decorate ourselves in the spirit of Halloween and frighten all the students and instructors we meet ... It will be horribly fun!!!") The day before yesterday, I was in Moscow to visit the Fulbright office, and on the way back to the train station, I stopped at the "Children's World" department store and bought my own frightening preparations. At the party itself, I plan to read Luke's prize-winning Halloween story from Richmond, Indiana's Palladium-Item story contest of twelve years ago. Has it been that long?? Being the resident American here at the Institute, I've been pressed into service as a Halloween expert, despite my efforts most of my adult life to avoid the holiday!

But, back to the thanksgiving theme: As I walked to work today, I was suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. I'm amazed by the many factors that had to come together to make it possible for me to be here, to build relationships, to teach, to influence, to be taught, to be influenced, to learn in so many ways that I'm not in control even as I reap unanticipated blessings.

One of my circuit breakers tripped the other day, and my neighbors didn't know what to do. I had no key for the breaker box. The owner of the apartment lives four hours away. After trying everything I could think of to get into the breakers, I thought I remembered some numbers stenciled onto the wall downstairs near the elevator. The stencils were inked onto a stucco-like surface and were almost unreadable, but if I looked at one of the words just the right way, it looked like it might say "Elect ..." Dubiously, I called the number, was given another number. I called that number and was given yet another. When I called that third number, success!! -- the dispatcher promised an electrician would visit me shortly. And so he did--he fixed the ceiling fixture that had shorted, he reset the circuit breaker, and, after giving me a friendly lecture about not buying cheap fixtures, he charged me all of $4!

What if I'd succeeded in resetting the circuit breaker on my own? I probably would not have found out what caused the short in the first place.

In looking back over my many visits to Russia since 1975, giving up certainty and giving up control have been constant themes. For every loss of familiar procedures, familiar guarantees, there's been a gain: techniques and procedures are replaced by relationships and kindness. Both the exchange and the lesson have been invaluable. I'm sure that, before Thanksgiving rolls around, I'll have a fresh crop of examples.

I'm grateful for my students, who often deepen the class discussions in unexpected ways. In one class, we were reading Stephen Keeler's reminiscences about his late wife and their "not conventionally romantic" marriage, from the BBC English-learning Web site. When we got to the part about their wedding -- "There was not even a 'big day' when we got married" -- I asked the students whether, when and if they imagine getting married, what their "big day" would consist of. At first they confined themselves to daydreams about ceremonies, parties, and honeymoons, but then several of the students began going deeper.

In one group, two of the students said that they didn't expect to get married, because they didn't believe the spouse of their dreams actually existed on this earth. Two others said that they were believers but didn't want to get married in church because that would be too serious a step--if they ever got divorced it would be like breaking a promise to God. (One said that she was not a believer; thus getting married in a church would be hypocrisy. And a couple of students said that they would get married at the registry office, and have a big party, and then have a marriage ceremony in the church much later--five or ten years later, when they were sure the marriage would "take."

In response to a student question, I described Judy's and my traditional Quaker wedding, with some brief comments about the theology and spirituality behind it. By far the majority of my students are young women, and in one class we talked about the nearly-universal expectation among them that they would have careers until they got married, and then their family would become their career. One student asked me about the age of marriage of American women, given this "reality." To engage in linguistically useful, humane, non-judgmental, and empowering dialogue in the context of such receptiveness is an awesome privilege.

In yet another class, a student asked me whether it was true that a man could get into legal trouble simply for holding a door open for a woman. Last year I did a lecture here on Harvey Mansfield's book Manliness and Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary?; it turned out to be a far more popular lecture than the ones I've put together so diligently on "the history of the welfare state" and "the future of the American family" and other serious subjects, and I was asked to repeat it twice. I may have to try and dig up that lecture again.

An article I distributed by Lynn Visson on American women who marry Russian men provided another important area for discussion: whether or not we should always tell the truth. There are times when the American cultural ideal says to tell the truth, whereas Russian experience advises knowing when to keep your big mouth shut. (Of course, as one student wisely pointed out, the real difference is not Russian/American but is far more dependent on the individual.) I talked about the experiences of Friends who confronted this issue when they helped "fugitive" ex-slaves to reach safety.

If you are one of those who's helped me get into this amazing zone of vulnerability and blessing, I don't have adequate words to thank you.

Righteous links: An inquiry from a George Fox University student concerning Russian children's literature led me to this fascinating article on the Russia Profile site, "Horton Hears Privyet: Dr. Seuss to appear in Russian translations." The site may ask you to register; it's worth it. ~~~ I have just seen a Russian remake of the film Twelve Angry Men by the director of the Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun, Nikita Mikhalkov. This new film is simply called 12. Please see it if you can. Reviews: Washington Post; International Herald Tribune. Photos. Trailer. If anyone wants to know why Russia intrigues me so deeply, this film will be part of my reply. ~~~ This edition of Russian Religion News has an intriguing article about Russian Baptists: "Baptists seek identity." Here's the line that caught my eye: "We have always needed to be against somebody."  ~~~ Congratulations to my friend and former colleague Ginger Pyron on the publication of her book When Law and Religion Meet, which has been getting good advance notices. ~~~ David Augsberger is coming to Portland, Oregon. He'll speak on "Forgiveness as a Peacemaking Practice" on a couple of different occasions at Portland Mennonite Church. Friday evening at 7:30 pm: "How far should forgiveness go? Should we forgive Osama bin Laden?" A reception and book signing will follow. On Saturday, 9:30 am to 12:30 pm: a workshop, "Thou shalt not nail thy neighbor to his/her past." On Sunday, 10:30 am, sermon: "Not without my Neighbor: A Three-dimensional Anabaptist Spirituality." ~~~ Fashion corner: I'm probably not in the target market for this product, but I know people for whom it fits perfectly! ~~~ Reality check on Iran: "The [Iran] war rollout keeps rolling along." Also, Juan Cole writes in Salon on expedient anti-Iranian jingoism on the campaign trail. My urgent question to all of us is the same as Fareed Zakaria's question, quoted in the "rollout" article: What planet are we on? My version: On what specific planet does it work to obtain any kind of desired political result by directing a constant stream of abuse and threats at the actor you wish to influence? Given the crowd in charge of U.S. foreign policy, perhaps we should not be surprised that, as Zakaria says, they have lost all touch with reality. It's great that these illustrious commentators have started seeing the light (years after everyone reading this blog did); when will ordinary voters also begin to say, "The U.S. is behaving like a bellicose empire, but the emperor has no clothes"? I actually dare to hope that caucuses and primaries and voter surveys will show voters not rewarding candidates with the meanest snarls, but those who make actual sense--even in a season when actual sense is condemned as weakness.

Dessert! Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks:


Anonymous said...

I'm expecting Halloween pictures on next week's post, Johan!

Horribly fun!

Johan Maurer said...

I'm frightfully eager to please.

smith said...

omggggggg! why would anyone want to avoid the BEST holiday of the year??? halloween ROX!

i think it's kinda funny how going somewhere different or putting yourself into a different "space" can bring into focus that we are powerless. i mean, mostly, we always are it's just that we don't see that so clearly when we're chugging along in our comfortable little lives.

$4 for an electrician?? do you think he could do plumbing, too? i need a plumber; i'd be willing to pay twice that.

i miss you, johan. are you coming home soon?