07 April 2011


Sberbank branch at Tevosyan Sq., where I read Pasternak.
The day before yesterday I went to the bank for a routine transaction, arriving about forty minutes before my appointment at the nearby hair cutting place.

I brought a book with me, knowing there might be a wait. As I entered, I took a number and glanced at the electronic signboard showing which number was being served. Number 37 was at window 6; I was number 83. Well, there was a chance, I thought.

Half an hour later, they were still twenty places away from serving me, and I knew I had to face reality. Off to the haircutter without finishing my banking. I took another number (117) on my way out, although I figured that, with my luck, they'd get to that number long before I was able to get back to the bank.

Well, no, they hadn't. They'd simply gone a little past my first number. So, no longer having a close deadline, I settled in for a wait. All the seats along the wall facing the bank tellers were taken; I folded myself into a child's seat next to the ATM. 

"It's a good thing to bring a book," said a woman a little older than me, sitting on the other side of the children's table and looking at my thick paperback of Pasternak's family correspondence. "Yes," I agreed, "and it's a good thing that this seat will hold 83 kilograms." A little further away, I heard a typical exchange among the elderly pensioners who make up the majority of the bank's midday customers. "What kind of transaction could be taking 45 minutes over at window 7?" "I have no idea. But that teller has been sitting at window 2 for most of the morning without taking any customers."

Meanwhile, an elderly man was trying to figure out the number system--another customer was patiently explaining that he had to push the machine's button for a number and then watch the signboard to know which window would be serving that number when it came up. Not every arriving person even bothered to find out the system--occasionally someone would walk into the branch and assertively step up to a window, standing just to the right of the customer being served. They were almost always noticed and reprimanded by other customers: "Wait a minute. You have to wait in line just like the rest of us."

On the other hand, those same customers, as I've seen more than once, might rise to the defense of an elderly man who's already been sitting a while, and who shuffles over unsteadily to a window and quietly asks whether the wait would be much longer. The crowd knows when to bend the rules and demand that someone be allowed to slip in.

I was interested that, while I waited for the signboard to creep from number 88 to number 117,  I came across this passage in the Pasternak book, in a letter to Boris Pasternak's parents and sister Lydia:
The house doesn't terrorize me, and I'm not scared of work or bother, although I have enough and to spare of all that. The reason I have no time is something entirely different.  As with money, and with objects I don't know how to value and am always glad to give away, I would probably be glad to share the most precious treasure that I know, which is: free time (perhaps that's the very thing that all religions have deified under the name of God). I mean the pure interval in which one can see the boundless fullness of real life, as real as the life of trees and animals. And incredible as it may seem, I would be able to find enough free time to share with anyone you like, because everyone always manages to get hold of and store up the thing he values most highly. But, more than anything else in the world, this is something reserved for the connoisseur. An understanding of art, however rare it may be, is much more widely distributed than a feeling for and understanding of free time. I'm talking about something that's far greater than mere 'leisure'. I'm talking about living time, in freedom.

This is something that I would be willing to share (as I have done on occasion), but only with someone who knew the meaning of the word 'an instant'. Why is there so much beauty in a thunderstorm?--Because it piles space upon space, making them flash, in other words it shows how fathomless the instant is, and what immense distances it can absorb and give forth again. But since there aren't many who know how inexhaustible and capacious an instant is, there's almost no-one to share it with--yet an instant is all that free time is. It's in this sense that I never have time--I don't have time for those who don't know what time is. [pp. 113-114]
There is beauty in a thunderstorm, and immense beauty in the moment people stick up for an elderly client, even though they will be "delayed" as a result.

On the one hand, I've never been bored at the bank.

On the other hand, I see on the bank's Web site that--contrary to what I was told when I opened my account--debit cards, usable at ATMs, are available to foreigners. I think I'll check into it again.

Having just observed another birthday, I was caught short by this passage to Pasternak's sister Josephine, written in 1927, more than thirty years before his death:
I haven't aged, and yet I've more than aged. I don't think I'm going to live as long as I should like. But there are other reasons too--I'll explain them below--why I've started behaving and feeling--in my consciousness, in my spiritual being, without reference to my biological self--as if I were in the final stage of my life. The main reason is this: that it's the only way to live in Russia at the present time without being a hypocrite, or wasting effort to no purpose,--or worse, provoking horrible catastrophes while achieving nothing whatsoever--wasting the explosively personal creative fire of mature middle age, these years so utterly and deservedly devoted to the love of freedom. I don't want to let myself go on this subject. I'll leave it at that. [p. 82]

Jerry Butler--doesn't the name sound familiar?

Twenty years of Linux, no longer defined as not Microsoft.

Two Menno Simons books for free.

First Orbit: On April 12, celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's adventure here.

Grigory Pasco on Russia's brain drain.

Should Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter be the next big Christian film?

Studebaker John and the Hawks:


Anonymous said...

Lovely post! That's a truly revelatory quotation from Pasternak. I'll never see free time the same way again.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Rosemary!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, Johan!!! I enjoyed this post, too. I can't imagine spending so much time waiting, but I guess if you bring a good book, it's kinda like a free read-time.