Writ in Water

water monster
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Antonia Malchik

This is one of my earliest memories: I am three or four years old, scrabbling for a hold on a fallen tree while a river repeatedly pulls me under. I paw at the bark. The water is cold, moving fast and strong. It churns along with my other memories: the overturned Coleman canoe beating against the tip of the log, my father’s orange cap as he reaches out to pull my mother’s arm. When he has her, she lets herself drift to the sucking water that tries to drag us under the tree. She encircles me with her free arm, holding me above the current. My older sister has been balancing on the log, trying to reach me.

“How old?” I ask my sister Sasha. She is in California, sunny Santa Cruz. I am in dreary, garbage-scented Boston.

“Well, maybe you were two,” she says. Running water and the clink of plates tell me she’s washing dishes. “It was the guy they asked for directions from. They wanted to take us canoeing on the Madison, but he gave them directions to the Jefferson. It was a lot wilder.”

“So the canoe turned over in the rapids and we all caught onto a half-submerged tree, and…”

“Papa got pushed to the bottom several times before he got up. I climbed up the end, but Mama lost her hold of you and both of you were going under.” If I was two at the time, she would have been seven or eight. It surprises me, that this half-figment of half-memory—was my father wearing an orange cap?—is real to someone, that my sister remembers me half-drowning with clarity.

“How awful,” I say, as if the accident had recently happened to someone else.

A few years after that conversation my husband and I are in France for a wedding, in a small town between Nice and Monaco. The small, scruffy beach is next to placid Mediterranean water of such clear, bright blue it feels unreal. No matter where you swim, the water is never murky, and the bottom looks immediate, like a hologram.

My husband wants to dive from the floating dock a little ways off, so we swim towards it, he, the stronger swimmer, in front.

Halfway there I stop swimming. The water is clear. I can see the bottom. The dock isn’t far away. I try to convince myself to keep going, but my heart pounds, terrified of the water, of the depths, of the powerful, gentle-looking mass of a sea that is just longing to pull me under.

I turn around and head back to the beach, crawling onto the sand like I’ve been saved from a wreck, not caring what I look like in my very American one-piece suit and ridiculously pale, freckled skin that’s slathered in sunscreen. I long to be in that beautiful water, but I’m terrified of it. I know it wants to take me back.

•••

It’s not just deep water. I’m afraid of the dark, too, and ghosts, and the monsters under the bed. Frisson-filled, gut-freezing fear that tells me these things are real. It’s their reality that terrifies me—ghosts drifting through my house, creatures beneath my box springs, the dark night as a monolith of unknowable worlds seen through acid trips. Other things that keep me lying in bed, staring into the dark and unable to move: the weeping angels in Doctor Who, ruthless alien races that might someday invade from another star system, a future like that in I, Legend, where most of the surviving human population has mutated into zombie-like beings due to pharmaceuticals gone wrong (I consume a lot of science fiction). And, ever since I read Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story, mirrors.

Fears of pain, nonexistence, and the unknown. Water holds all of them. To die in water can mean one’s body slips out of sight, taken below on bright, sunny days of children’s laughter bouncing into jet skis’ obnoxious roars. Arms overhead, legs kicking, and then fear itself winding around the ankles to pull gently down. Hair floating upward to greenish light as the body is forced to lie among the muck that ancient glaciers left behind. My phobia makes this end feel like fate. A lingering death, a cold one, leaving not even footprints, just the water and sunshine, laughter and jet skis.

In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of the ocean. Her mate, Abzû, is the god of fresh water. Tiamat is the embodiment of primordial chaos. Or she is the embodiment of harmony, uniting salt and fresh water for all of creation. She is a serpent, an early form of dragon, or a goddess who made dragons filled with poison. She was killed by other deities, who created the world and heavens from her body. Her tears formed the mightiest rivers.

I’d love to connect my water phobia to ancient creation stories, to turn my human life into sensical narrative. But I do not believe in mythologies. I do not, in fact, believe in anything I can’t see or feel or sense or prove. I believe in mathematics. I do not believe in ghosts or the monsters that lurk in dark lake bottoms.

Why, then, am I terrified of them?

The word frisson describes a thrill of fear or excitement, a sense of foreboding that defies precision. The word’s very existence is proof of our fears. It acknowledges that we are terrified of things we cannot see or sense or know. Our minds are frightened of what our bodies can’t feel—or is it the other way around? Is it the mind’s fear and the body’s reaction, or the body’s fear and the mind’s reactions? Where does the experience of that wild river, the log, my family’s terror, reside in my body? Why does my mind insist there is something down there, in the non-empty spaces of dark matter between rocks and silt and sightless water?

I can see it now, in this barely-lit room where my children are sleeping. It’s sifting around the pine trees and the rustling aspens outside, a nameless something that awakens very real fear. Can you feel it?

•••

An unfinished book sits in my drawer—or, not in a drawer but in a file on my laptop, our new drawers. It’s only partly written, set aside after a cross-country move and a year of living in someone else’s home while adhering to an exhausting work and parenting schedule. I touch the thought of returning to the book and feel wary. I say I don’t have time, and it’s true, I don’t. Not the kind of long, luxurious hours that extended writing demands to achieve any kind of depth. The lack of time I have is crushing. It’s its own being, monstrous and impenetrable like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A weighty horror.

I fear drowning under the lack of time. It holds books that I will never write. In that space is where I will cease to exist, fade away. And yet, why should I feel that way? Why must our names be etched in more than our immediate lives if we are to feel real and whole? Are we so terrified of being forgotten?

(Yes. We are.)

But caution also keeps me from diving into it again. A book is a long, sustained effort. It requires stamina, willpower, a certain quality of fearlessness to keep going when it feels your words have landed you in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been there before; this is the fifth time I’ve headed into those wide-open, unpredictable waters.

I fear venturing out there this time, kicking off again, not sure when I’ll get to the other side, and the petrifying thought of what’s lurking beneath the surface. Writing a book can lead to dark, unexpected places, once you let the words start to flow. What if I get to the middle and run out of energy, and the monsters snake around me as I try to tread water? What if I disappear?

It’s so much easier to stay in the shallows near the shore, penning smaller things, where I can see others’ faces, hear their laughter and splashes, even jump in deep sometimes and come straight back to shore.

•••

My husband and I went scuba diving once on the Great Barrier Reef, back when we were living in Australia. A tour boat scooted us and a dozen or so others out from Port Douglas and the guide gave a perfunctory ten-minute lesson in dive symbols: up, okay, help, shark. I was the only person who had never even snorkeled.

“You a water baby?” he asked me in that brisk Aussie twang. “You love the water?”

“Yes.” I do, I really do. I grew up in Montana, where my family hiked all the time, preferably up into the mountains, where ice-cold lakes sat in tiny dips of valleys. Any hike where I can’t jump into a lake or at least soak my feet in a river at the end of it felt pointless. I would swim in a lake every day if I could.

When he toppled me in, wet-suited and oxygen-tanked, I took a few moments to get used to the mask, and ended up hyperventilating, heading towards panic, until I figured out how to breathe all the way out as well as all the way in. A thirty-second lesson with more impact than years of yoga.

Then I followed the group down, arms at my sides to keep down oxygen use, and I wasn’t scared. Nearly forty feet below the surface, where the monsters supposedly lived, I had no fear. The colors were just as bright as in photos—blue, orange, yellow corals and fish; big feathery growths of red; strange, enormous clams that closed as our shadows passed over. “Don’t put your hand in one of those,” he’d warned us before we left the boat. “You won’t get it out again.”

The water was cold, even through the wetsuit. I emerged hungry for lunch and eager for the afternoon dive. There was so much beauty there, none of the dark mystery that haunted the lakes of my home state.

•••

I’d like my fear of deep water to be about something else, to turn it into a metaphor—for writing a book, for example, or for life and the risks we do or don’t take. But the near-drowning of my two-year-old self and her family, the sucking, surging power of that swift-moving river, were very real. When I long to swim across a lake, and flinch back because the water has become too dark and the monsters are waiting to get me, it’s not about taking risks in life and venturing into the unknown. It’s because I’m afraid of being pulled under and drowning.

We humans, we’re always seeking meaning. We want our suffering to have purpose, our fears to shape into Jungian explanations, our gods to exist. We are storytellers, symbol-makers. We find it hard to accept that not everything can be about something more.

You almost drowned because of our stupidity, says my father.

I almost lost you, my mother says to my sister and me.

•••

The town I live in is built on a lake, and in the summer we take advantage of that fact several times a week. I swim out to the lake’s floating dock with my kids safely lumpy in life jackets. We climb up the dock and my son jumps off and climbs out again, over and over until he can barely keep his head above water. He’d do this until the stars pricked out overhead and the water became frigid, if I let him.

My daughter doesn’t want to go under. After years of swimming lessons, she’s still afraid of submersion and doesn’t like getting her face wet. It’s okay, I tell her, you don’t have to. I sit on the dock and stretch my legs out. She slides down them, gripping my hands, the life jacket keeping her cork-bobbing in the water.

I never learned to dive, so I stand at the edge and jump straight in. Underwater, the tiny bubbles I’ve made fizz around my ears, and I bob to the surface and swim to my kids, listening to the ripple-rill of water over my shoulders. I love this feeling so much, more than almost anything, the splashes of the lake, the mountains chaining the valley. My son wants to swim out farther together and we take off. He can’t see the constriction in my chest, the fear gnawing my toes. I don’t tell him there are monsters out there.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK has written for Aeon, GOOD magazine, 1966, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and the managing editor of STIR Journal. You can read more of her work through www.antoniamalchik.com.

Read more FGP essays by Antonia Malchik.

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Sips of Air

walk
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Antonia Malchik

Some premature babies, the Neonatal Intensive Care nurses tell me, can’t afford the calories it takes to swallow. The first time they take my skinny, three-point-three-pound son off his IV drip to give him real food, they ask me not to watch. They have to run a tube through his mouth down to his stomach—babies this young also have no gag reflex—so that the calories go directly where they are needed, rather than being wasted in tongue and throat action, a method called gavage feeding, the same way foie gras geese are fattened. The instinct to rescue him from this specific invasion comes as a relief: my days are otherwise filled with fear, helpless and enormous and without direction.

•••

The entrance to our nearest hospital butts against a curved driveway where people pick up and drop off patients or take advantage of the free valet parking. Behind it, before shifting into pure concrete and asphalt, is a landscaped grassy area with benches clustered around a fountain and picnic tables set at angles near the walkway to the parking lot.

It looks innocent enough, inviting, but it’s not. The first time I stepped on that walkway, I was looking down and jumped to the side as if it burned through the soles of my shoes. It was paved with bricks, most of them carved with the dedications of donors, bricks given in honor of someone whose name was usually followed by a date of birth and a date of death. What made them unusual was how close the two dates were—sometimes days or weeks, sometimes the same day. I wondered how long those babies had lived. Hours? A whole day? Minutes? Where were their parents now? Did they wake up on that date every year to face the grayness of loss?

My husband Ian and I called it the Dead Baby Walk and kept to the grass after that. We spent a lot of time at the hospital, sitting in Neonatal Intensive Care next to an incubator holding our premature son. He was so scrawny that he weighed less than our smallest cat; he’d been born seven weeks too early, and his lungs weren’t functioning properly. There was no way that I was going to start the day’s visit to him by being reminded of the fragility captured at the beginning of life and how frequently it can end in the opposite of hope.

•••

“I don’t think I can go in,” I told Ian. We could see the birthing center, on the fifth floor of the hospital, from the parking lot. It was seven days after John’s unexpected, extremely early arrival, and I was leaving emotional shreds of myself all over the county as we made our daily drive up and down the New York State Thruway from our home to the NICU. There, locked away from rooms where real people, with normal babies, bore and laughed and kissed and nursed, my son took sips of air from oxygen tubes while another tube tried to clear an air pocket from around his lungs. He had air in all the wrong places and a hole in his heart and had never yet eaten anything not given by IV. The NICU—short for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the place for undercooked or sick babies (ours was both)—dragged on me like a small planet with its own gravitational pull, a force nonexistent for people whose babies had been born full-term and healthy.

Every day after being buzzed in the locked door and scrubbing my arms and forearms at the NICU sink (premature babies are also extremely susceptible to infection), I paused just outside the bright room, trying to arm myself against tears that were of no use to anyone. The incubators were shrouded with small homemade quilts made by a charity organization. John slept and blinked and cried under a pattern of cats sitting against a green background while Ian and I read to him from a book of traditional English fairy tales that I’d picked up in London. We sang the “Mockingbird” song over and over, and described the room that was waiting for him: the special mobile his grandparents had sent from England, the fairy tale–themed mural a friend had painted on his wall. I choked when telling him about the blue rug and striped curtains we’d bought. The care that we had put into those everyday details sometimes overwhelmed me.

Today I couldn’t get to the blue rug and striped curtains. Today I couldn’t even get as far as the NICU door. I couldn’t even get out of the car. Today the neonatologist had called early in the morning to warn us that John needed another chest tube to clear a second pneumothorax—an air bubble that prevented his lungs from expanding—and I’d curled up between my bed and the loathsome breast pump and sobbed as if tears could dissolve the pain and me at the same time.

In the parking lot, Ian brushed tears back into my hair. Neither of us had any platitudes. “Can you?” Another nod. A deep breath. A final wiping of nose and face. I swung my legs carefully out of the car and hauled myself up using the handle above the door, heading for the longer path around the curved driveway that avoided the Dead Baby Walk. My skirt brushed over the massive numbness in my abdomen, hiding a healing scar I’d never intended to have.

Two weeks before, I’d been grimacing every time I folded myself into a car and thinking that I couldn’t possibly stand the discomfort of pregnancy for the two months I had left. Three weeks before, we’d been hiking on a remote Scottish island, where the hospital was over an hour’s flight away from the island’s cockleshell beach—an hour if the weather was clear, a day’s wait or more when it was overcast. If my body had turned against me earlier, neither John nor I would have made it. The nearness of the timing still makes my breath short and my hands cold.

•••

I had HELLP Syndrome. A vicious, rare illness that’s caused by pregnancy, with no cure except delivery. It hit me fast, progressing from slightly elevated blood pressure to nearly unbearable abdominal pain within twenty-four hours. By the time my obstetrician performed an emergency C-section, my liver was failing. When my son and I came out of the operating room, Ian was on the phone with my older sister. He froze, not knowing whom to follow as they whisked us each into our own intensive care units.

That first day, I sat in shock in the ICU, smiling automatically at the nurses because being nice is such a deeply ingrained habit that it’s almost pathological. I’d jerk awake when the oxygen monitor screamed to tell me I’d stopped breathing again. My fingers shook as they stroked the streaky Polaroid photo taped to the bed rail. John Henry, a thoughtful nurse in the NICU had written, 4 lb 3 oz, 17 in. I didn’t see my son until thirty hours later, when I was transferred from the ICU to the birthing center’s Mother & Baby section, surrounded by women with full-term newborns and visitors armed with balloons and flowers. Ian and I, three thousand miles from our families, navigated phone calls and inedible hospital food alone, no baby by the bedside.

That first time I met John, at some dark hour of the night, a NICU nurse lifted him, tubes and all, out of his incubator and into my arms. Our IVs tangled; Ian held an oxygen sniffer to John’s nose; I murmured happy nonsense, a normal new mother for a few minutes, ignorant of the month to come.

•••

A week later I sat once again on the high stool next to John’s incubator. I hadn’t been allowed to hold him since that first day, due to the chest tubes, oxygen sniffer, and IV lines, so Ian and I took turns resting our index fingers in his little hand, living for the moments when he squeezed. We couldn’t do more than that. Premature babies are also extremely sensitive to touch. Stroking a preemie’s head or skin can drive him crazy.

The nurses—our friends by now—looked at us anxiously when we walked in that day, the day I gave up on hope and struggled to come in the door. They’d seen parents go through this before, and worse. The neonatologist wrapped us in her professional sympathy as she showed us the second pneumothorax on an X-ray and said John might have to be transferred to a tertiary care unit closer to New York City. I envisioned weeks of three-hour commutes to spend scarce minutes with him, and it seemed unbearable.

After seven days, two pneumothorax, a hole in the heart, and an extra bit of heart valve where it wasn’t needed, there was only one thing that hadn’t been tried: John had not yet had food. He’d lost slightly under a pound—a quarter of his body weight—while my pumped milk had been piling up in the freezer, the only offerings I had to give the gods.

The next day they decided to start feeding him. One milliliter of milk went down the tube to his stomach. The next time it was three, no calories lost to pesky swallowing. His breathing became less erratic, and they turned down the whispering oxygen. Within three days, John had recovered so well that it startled even the neonatologist. He was a full month old before his lungs were strong enough and his heart repaired enough for him to be discharged, but two weeks into his life he was tube- and IV-free for the first time and learning to eat on his own.

•••

Those of us who have faced the potential loss of a child will never bear the pain of those for whom the potential became a fact. We may have stepped on the Dead Baby Walk, but we haven’t bought a commemorative brick. All I can say is that the fear has come close enough to unshroud itself, to touch the heart. Every parent fears losing his or her children. The physical hazards and accidents—cars, drug addiction, sudden peanut allergies, a million unthinkable possibilities—haunt us. It is something else, though, to have that fear cupped in your hand, to acknowledge it by name. To be warned: “Prepare yourself.” Because once prepared, once you know, the Dead Baby Walk’s existence stalks your footsteps. Like all traumas, it becomes embedded in our physical bodies as well as our psyches.

Before his third birthday, John was hospitalized twice for asthma. The second time was the same day we brought home his new baby sister. I held her while Ian drove away with John strapped in the back, his chest caving to expose ribs and diaphragm while he fought to inhale oxygen. His lungs had been too weakened by their early struggles; a simple summer cold caught his alveoli in a tight grip and laid him flat.

He’s seven years old now, and, if all goes well, on his way to being diagnosed asthma-free, despite the incessant coughing that exhausts him every time he catches a cold. I yell at him on a regular basis—brush your teeth! turn off the TV! please stop whining!—something I couldn’t have envisioned doing either during the NICU-month-of-hell or his later asthmatic episodes. He plays Minecraft, rides his bike, does his math lessons, throws a fit when I ask him to pick up his Legos. He’s a normal kid.

But I don’t feel normal anymore. Or maybe it’s that I have been normalized. Maybe avoiding loss, pretending death doesn’t exist, is the abnormal state. I’d hate to believe humanity’s fate is to walk shadowed with grief, sorrow slipping into us painlessly like milk down a gavage tube to a premature baby’s stomach. But on our hospital visits for John’s chest X-rays and to his pulmonologist, and when I returned there for monthly visits to the high-risk perinatologist during my second pregnancy (being at a 25% risk of developing HELLP or various other complications again), the Dead Baby Walk still made me jump like an animal that’s seen violence. Its existence reeks of trauma and fear. It’s a reminder of how linked we are: We clutch at the good moments, the small joys, while the greater sorrows, the losses that eat us alive, lie waiting beneath our feet.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and are forthcoming from The Washington Post, Orion, STIR Journal, and The Atlantic. You can read more of her work at antoniamalchik.com, and about her experience with HELLP Syndrome on BuzzFeed Ideas. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Reclaimed Ambition

aspen
By k rupp/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

You’d think, given Russia’s tumultuous history, the country would have a more dramatic landscape than the one it inherited. Its revolutions and massacres cry out for powerful mountains, like the Rockies that defined my childhood. Instead, its few sprawling cities trickle out into miles of taiga—boreal forests, the first obvious shift being groves of aspen trees quivering in that silvery way they have, flashing light from leaves in high summer. Watercolor paintings with a ubiquitous gray-pink winter sky and lone Russian Orthodox Church domes seem incomplete without the aspens. They are rooted in the allure of the country and its history, a culture in which poetry is pre-eminent and the past wrought hard with stoic endurance.

Aspens are communal. A grove of aspens is actually one organism, connected via an underground root system that sprouts from an individual seedling. These underground systems withstand the most devastating forest fires and regenerate with young seedlings—all genetic clones—that can grow up to three feet a year. While each tree itself might only live for a few decades, the entire root system can survive hundreds or even thousands of years—stands have been found in the American West that are tens of thousands of years old.

The analogy to Russia is hard to miss if you know something of the country’s history. Russian communities had traditionally worked as a collective, or mir, bound by a concept translated as “joint responsibility.” A community as a whole, not individuals or families, was responsible for things like tax payments and military conscription. Land was redistributed every now and then as families grew and shrank. The system had been in place for hundreds of years, long before America was formed, and functioned right up until it ran into the Bolshevik revolution. Mir wasn’t an idea formed by utopia-seeking philosophers; Russia’s “geographical vulnerability and agricultural marginality,” as one historian puts it, made joint responsibility a requirement for survival.

Like the mir, aspen trees thrive by virtue of their collective strength and resources.

•••

My Russian-born father told me (incorrectly, it turns out) that aspen wood was useless. He was visiting a few months after I had taken my first woodworking class, and I’d been getting a little obsessive about wood. More often found mixing bread dough in the kitchen or with head bent over a notebook, pen in hand, I’d recently begun using a drill and a sander and filling the back of my station wagon with abandoned stumps and branches dragged out of the woods. I’d been making three-legged tables and driftwood chairs, the sound of the orbital sander whining in my unprotected ears. I’d abandoned my usual flowing skirts in favor of jeans and tried applying a screeching, vibrating axle grinder to the innards of a cedar knot. (I had no idea making a rustic wooden bowl would be so violent.) I spent months making a table out of a solid block of maple, even now marveling at the beauty that emerged from the deep scars left by an indifferent sawmill, how its ripples and honey colors make me feel alive.

I’d lost myself sometime in the previous year. I’d grown numb, then tired, then depressed. My children’s demands crashed onto my head, crushing me into exhaustion as if I’d been sandbagged, and daily I stared out the windows, contemplating what their future would be in the face of climate change and epidemics of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and planetary chaos, wondering what the point was of trying to teach them to read, or forcing them to always say “please,” or denying them as much chocolate as they wanted.

I knew these thoughts weren’t healthy, much less helpful. I needed a distraction that would take me out of the house and require me to do something besides think too much. My head had taken over my life. Every day was split among my job as a freelance copy editor, the thousand fractured moments that came with caring for small children, and writing. Even my leisure time was taken up with books. Mothers like me often say that they’re drowning, but I wasn’t drowning; I was turning into some gaseous substance that moved through the ether, that existed but couldn’t feel. So I signed up for a rustic woodworking class hosted by the local nature museum at random because it sounded more enticing than lectures on birds. In that first class, I spent a day learning to make a chair using driftwood branches and a drill, and I got hooked. Over the next few months, woodworking started to drag me back down to the ground I’d always loved.

•••

My father and I had just dropped my son off at a part-time kindergarten surrounded by birch and aspen trees, and we were taking my daughter, Alex—or she was taking us—for a walk around the property before getting back in the car.

“It’s horrible now, looking at all this wood,” I told him. “I can’t just appreciate it anymore. I want to take it all home and make things with it.”

“Not with aspen.” He picked up one of the hundreds of limbs lying around and showed me: where it had broken off the tree, the branch’s guts were exposed. They looked like bundled fiber optic cable or a bag of spaghetti, except thicker. If you tried to cut it, it would crumble to pieces. Bound together, several branches would barely be strong enough to hold something up.

“It’s no good,” my father said. We walked up and down the driveway of the school’s property, Alex stopping to poke decaying leaves and swing her dinosaur umbrella around, narrating every step we took because she never, ever stopped talking.

“I wish we could do this more often,” I said. My father knew that I had never been a lonely sort of person. But I did get lonely for this: his company, walks and conversations, my family, my home, mountains and trees that nurtured and spoke to me and people who understood me, who laughed at my stupid, snarky jokes. He lived in Russia, back in his homeland, and I in New York, and we saw each other once a year at best, often only once every two years.

“You need more help,” he said, returning to our earlier conversation. I’d told him about feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t mentioned that I was feeling numb and depressed and non-existent.

I’d told my older sister, though. She lived off in California with her three kids. My family was so widely scattered that it wasn’t even deserving of the word. My younger sister lived in Oregon, my mother in Montana, my in-laws in England, and, of course, my father in Russia. I had a few friends where we lived, but not a single one that I could call on for regular help in any but the most dire of emergencies.

“I know. What can I do, though?” We’d talked about my husband and me moving back to Montana. I didn’t know how much help it would give me in the mothering, the living, the feeling of non-existence, but I craved my home like drink, like the coldest, purest spring water that runs off the peaks no tourists ever venture to. I wanted to be there, closer—if not to every single family member then at least to the place we were mutually attached to.

•••

Aspen, I found out later, is actually widely used for random things you never think about—wooden matches and shredded paper packing material, for example, because it doesn’t burn as easily as other wood. It can be used in furniture but is hard to work because it’s soft and tends to shred or “fuzz” (to use a fancy woodworking term), can gum up equipment, and often refuses to take a finish or stain, although its softness makes it easy to shape. While it’s still used in areas of Russia for roofs, the wood has to be absolutely sound or it ends up rotting quickly.

The wood that my father and I picked up had been lying on the wet ground for a long time. It was decaying; we could pull it apart with our fingers. But its community would continue to thrive. Even when aspen trees are cut down, the root system keeps going, sending up multiple clones for every felled tree. Killing the roots requires girdling, a process of carving out a band of the bark, cambium, and phloem in a circle around the trunk. Girdling prevents nutrients from reaching the root system, which will eventually die.

I didn’t tell my father everything: that it wasn’t just parenthood and the lack of help. That my unmooring had a lot to do with how my writing ambitions had shipwrecked a couple of times, leaving me despairing for several months; how I then let the kids’ learning and nurturing slide into too much television and a reliance on packets of organic hot dogs. How useless I felt as a human being. I couldn’t tell him these things. Not when his parents had survived Stalin’s purges, when his father had made his way out of the Siege of Leningrad in the middle of the starvation winter, stumbling in the last stages of dysentery, when his mother had worked night shifts as a metallurgical engineer up in the Ural Mountains and then gone home to hoe potatoes and hunt for mushrooms and chop wood to keep her children alive. They’ve left so much to live up to.

I didn’t tell him how I’d started shying away from a particular shelf in our bookcases, where The Artist’s Way is kept, among other creativity/inspiration volumes of its kind. Memories of all those morning pages—three free-association pages handwritten immediately on waking, as sternly instructed in The Artist Way’s introduction—the weekly artist dates required, supposedly, to nurture my inner artist self, the facing of fears and claiming of goals, of throwing the doors of the inner self wide open to serendipity—they form a tender spot, a sore point, a wound.

My writing ambitions weren’t a secret from my father. I was one of those children who would write short story collections, in crayon on yellow legal pads, and bind them together with yarn and cardboard. In my twenties, I went off to an MFA program after two unproductive years as a journalist. And I worked really, really hard because hard work is the thing I’m best at. The harder I worked, the higher my ambitions became. I formed big dreams. Huge dreams. Dreams of many published books and attendance at notable conferences and magazine editors tapping out emails to me.

Dreams all out of proportion with what I wanted the rhythm of my life to feel like. The continued refusal of those dreams to come true infected my parenting, my friendships; they sucked the life out of all the little things I used to take pleasure in: cooking, making jam, weeding the herb garden, watching the heron fish at the pond next door, teaching my son math. I let those dreams define who I was, forgot what it meant to be a complete human being.

When I started woodworking, I hoped to find myself in the wood, or at least find a sense of groundedness in the physical labor. I started volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill and became ravenous for information: why elm is so hard to mill and work (it twists and warps and its grain runs every which way), what black locust is used for (anything from artsy coasters to decking because it’s as hard as cement), what created that thin, black lacing—like a spare Picasso pencil drawing—in the sliced trunk of maple lying around (spalting, caused by fungus, which makes for beautiful furniture or bowls if caught early and dried thoroughly but makes the wood too weak to use if left to spread). I wanted to learn how to work with different woods, but I also wanted a metaphor for who I was. Secretly, I hankered to relate to maple, like the table I made after the scars were sanded down and the exposed beauty glossed with beeswax and almond oil.

Instead, the more I saw of the whole, beautiful hardwoods laid out under my sander or sliced open in eight-foot lengths on a Wood-Mizer mill, the more I felt crumbly inside, full of barely connected shreds. Like aspen. Prone to rot.

•••

“Leap, and the net will appear,” claims one of the paragraphs in The Artist’s Way, which has been a kind of writer’s bible for almost three decades now. “Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,” which I realize now simply translates to “Work really hard and hope for some luck.” Because the bus driver might be a jerk and refuse to stop, or you might trip and fall on the sidewalk, or someone will suddenly block your way.

Where is the space between acceptance and giving up? Between loving who you are and turning your back on hope?

Walking with my dad, I pondered these questions but didn’t speak them aloud. I loathed my own first-world myopia because I was in fact wallowing in the pain of unattained ambition, not fleeing chlorine gas attacks in Syria, or throwing myself around my child’s body while American drones dropped bombs over my Pakistani village. I had never even suffered the self-dissolving pain of miscarriage or infertility, as many of my friends had.

I should be grateful for what I have, do something actually useful with my life, like my father’s parents had managed to do even when faced with hardships that I can barely imagine.

I want to be better, I wished I could tell him. To be less ambitious, less desirous of recognition. To know throughout myself, not just intellectually, that the potentials I once dreamed of and haven’t reached do not mean I’ve failed. I have done many hard things in my life, but this feels like the hardest: To accept that my existence might never be like a shining block of silver maple carved into a work of art, or an oak tree that will last untold generations.

Separated from my family, from the very few friends I have and treasure, from the mountains and pine forests that formed me, my art, my creativity, feels all-consuming, the one thing that defines my structure and growth. Working with wood helped bring me back to earth. I felt made of flesh again, rather than of the ether. But the depression only started to lift when I redefined my ideas of success in terms of fulfillment because when I looked back over the previous few years, the memories that brought me pleasure had nothing to do with writing accomplishments. The memories that glowed for me were nearly all related to my family, to time spent with my far-flung community, and to hiking and walking, relating in earth-bound ways to the Earth I love so deeply: walking the high cliffs plunging into the ocean on Scotland’s Isle of Islay with my husband and in-laws, taking ten days off to help my overworked younger sister with her new baby, meals and conversations lasting well past midnight with my Russian relatives, trekking through the islands of St. Petersburg with my uncle, picking Montana huckleberries with my husband, laughing for hours in our giddy way with my sisters. My daughter retrieving her rain boots and umbrella and telling me firmly that she’s going out to “play with the rain.” My son reading a Little Bear story, stumbling but persistent, to his grandparents over Skype. My mother playing the guitar and singing one of her folk songs to my kids after we spent the night at her husband’s backcountry cabin, where the sheer weight of the unfiltered Milky Way made me realize how long I’ve lived under light pollution. That I’d forgotten how arresting the unshrouded night sky is.

The thrill of a magazine’s “yes” for an essay or an agent’s interest in one of my books burns out quickly and leaves no glow like these memories do. Only the act of writing itself comes close, reflects that slow crunch of my hiking boots over dry pine needles fallen on the mountains that are part of me.

In the same way I can work with wood slowly and honor its inner structure, I want to take my writing and transmute both the excitement inherent in success and the sting that comes with every failure. I want the whole process to take a more human scale, to become as creativity should be—not majestic or overwhelming or stunning, but nurturing to everything and everyone that surrounds it, part of the earthbound root system that keeps us alive.

Relating myself and my writing to aspen’s weakness and lack of inner beauty is not accepting a lower state of being. It’s part of a whole. And, when I am gone, my existence can still be worthy as shredded pulp to shelter my community or a matchstick to light a stranger’s way.

Like the members of a mir, like aspen groves, I need community. We all do, just as we need clean water and air, as we need to work and to laugh. To feel that we belong and that we have something worthwhile to contribute is necessary to human survival, a fact I had to lose myself to figure out.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK lives in upstate New York, where she sometimes blogs about wood and writing and parenting and philosophy on Pooplosophy. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and can be reached through her website antoniamalchik.com.

Crunchy Floors

room
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Antonia Malchik

“Thank you for a lovely dinner, Mummy. May I please leave the table?” John, who’s six, is going through a cute super-polite phase that I know probably won’t last but enjoy anyway. The “Mummy” is a bonus I get for having an English husband and kids who are into watching Peppa Pig.

“Thank you for asking so nicely, sweetheart. Yes, you may.” John stands up. Before he runs off, he carefully brushes down his shirt, pants, and, briskly, the bottoms of his feet.

I wish I could say that this regular post-meal action is the result of sensory issues left over from his early years. John spent his first month in neonatal intensive care as a premature baby. We were warned of preemies’ extreme sensitivity to touch of any kind, and the likelihood that it could become a lifelong trait. Pretending that it’s his choice would shield me from admitting to people that I’ve trained him to be hyper-conscious of tracking crumbs or sticky bits of rice from the table to anywhere else in the house.

His sister Alex, who’s three, copies him a few minutes later but neglects both the “thank you” and a few pieces of brown rice stuck to the hem of her pants. While I take their plates to the dishwasher and begin wiping off the table, I keep track of where she’s jumping and rolling, so I’ll know where to run the vacuum cleaner later. A pointless exercise, as I know perfectly well I’ll run it everywhere.

When my children go away to college or vocational school or just away, they will have two mantras drilled into them: “Clean up after yourself” and “Food stays, always, on the table or counter.” They are in serious danger of thinking their mother vacuums for a living, and of developing nervous tics related to dropping crumbs and eating over their plates.

I try my best not to imprint them with neurotic hyper-awareness of bits of grit and cat fur on the floors, or the tiny sticky spots of a squeezed lemon sprayed onto the counter, but I’ve given up trying to change myself. When I am eighty and cranky, nobody will be allowed to eat in my house. They might not be allowed inside at all.

•••

Domesticity has been called a trap, a cage for women, a tool of the patriarchy. This can be true when imposed from outside, but if it’s a trap for me, it’s one I’ve made myself, and I don’t look at it that way. I wish I didn’t have to do all the work. I wish dust would just cease to exist, and that some invisible little machine would suck up all the crunchy bits of cereal from the floor before I ever had a chance to haul out a vacuum cleaner, that all my houseguests ate over their plates like I nag my children to. (How hard is that? Seriously?) Whatever way it gets done, though, I want the place clean.

This obsession—and let’s be honest here—stops, thankfully, at my doors. I don’t care what the lawn looks like, as long as we keep chemicals off of it, and I don’t give a crap what condition your house is in. As far as germs go—let’s just say sterility isn’t my top priority. I try to make sure nobody gets salmonella or toxoplasmosis, but my adherence to baking soda and vinegar as cleaning substances will only go so far.

This limit makes up for the fact that, when we have houseguests, I daydream about exactly what my cleaning routine will be when they leave—how I’ll strip the bed and do every bit of laundry as one enormous mass and mop up the basement and vacuum under and behind all the decrepit furniture and purge the kids’ toys while I’m at it. It relieves my allergy to knickknacks. It alleviates somewhat, I hope, the need to see No Crumb Leave the Table. But it probably doesn’t make my husband any less exasperated when I go around wiping the kitchen countertops after he’s already done so.

•••

At the end of the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman and his family, and all the Jews of the region, are being evicted from the country. They are given three days to pack up their belongings and trudge out to new worlds, foreign lands: Jerusalem, Germany, America. I always feel a strong connection to this story because my father’s parents came from similar Jewish ghettoes in the Ukraine, although they were never evicted. They ended up in Soviet Leningrad, leaving my father to emigrate decades later.

As far as the religion and traditions held so tightly by Tevye’s world, I can sympathize with but not relate to them. What I do relate to is the behavior of his wife Golde. Just before they and their remaining daughters leave the village forever, Golde tells Tevye she has to “clean up, sweep the floor.”

“Sweep the floor!” says Tevye, incredulous.

“I don’t want to leave a dirty house!” she snaps.

That’s me. When the apocalypse comes, whether it’s zombie or post-oil or religious, the barbarians will be at the gate and I’ll be telling my family to go on ahead while I finish up the dishes and sweep the floor one last time.

•••

I read a tremendous number of mystery novels. Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, Nevada Barr—they and their cohorts have gotten me through some very hard times and very long international flights. A few years back, I noticed a common theme slipping through them, as if it were a requirement of the genre aside from a murder, a sleuth, and adequate red herrings: a fixation on a comfortable home. Starting with Lord Peter Wimsey’s leather-bound collections of rare volumes surrounding the perfectly harmonious and elegant upper-class London bachelor pad, on through Nero Wolfe’s made-to-measure enormous desk chair and favorite globe in his Manhattan brownstone, and into the modern shared household of Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, with its scrubbed pine table and grand piano and dining room furniture with “an air of Provençal,” mystery authors linger, sometimes without seeming to be aware of it, over descriptions of welcoming homes and perfect rooms. Sometimes it belongs to a side character or a main suspect—a bistro in a Quebec village (Still Life, Louise Penny), an artist’s isolated house up a mountainside (A Grave Talent, Laurie King)—but still the hallmarks of comfort work their way into outsize place in the narrative. Gleaming wood, beeswax, squashy armchairs, bookcase-lined walls, the smell of good cooking coming from the kitchen, order and routine balanced with cozy softness.

It’s as if these mystery novelists are actually writing in search of the ideal home, as if their pursuit of mystery writing is itself a controlled flailing toward safety in a world where evil things happen and control is, in the end, an illusion—writing their way through the chaos to a place that’s nurturing, comfortable, welcoming, warm, intellectually and creatively stimulating. In the ideal homes of mystery novels, there are many, many books, a proclivity for crackling fires and candlelight (but no dust). The inhabitants always know how to value quality and beauty over show or cost.

I wonder sometimes how many of these authors are in command of their own homes. How many of them have solid wood tables of heart-warming beauty, smelling of beeswax, and soft leather armchairs where they read hardbound literature; and how many long for such things while looking around at their IKEA dressers, mildewed trade paperbacks, and broken hand-me-down sofas that the cat’s peed on way too many times?

Dig back into the reading history of many modern mystery authors, and you’ll find common loves: Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, Dorothy Sayers’s novels. Books in which a home is something alive, something that holds its inhabitants, builds a symbiotic relationship with them. A place that nurtures, to be nurtured in return. The Secret Garden, where the house is dark and unwelcoming, only drives home the point: this is not what a home should be.

These houses of waxed floors and cherry-wood furniture, the smells of stews and the warmth of candles, promise a slower, more rhythmic life, a world where love is gentle and the pains are universal but where there is always a place for everything and everything is in its place.

•••

The house I grew up in had the love but not a place for everything. My mother was strict about the housework performed by her three daughters. We had age-dependent chores every Saturday: vacuuming, dusting, laundry, waxing the dining room floor, watering the plants, ironing, mowing, raking leaves, weeding the garden. As training, it was a good foundation. As cleaning it was ineffective.

For one thing, cleaning out the cats’ box (or finding where else they might have designated “toilet”) seemed to be nobody’s job at all. For another, that house was full full full of things—so many things and in such varieties that it still makes my throat clog to think of it. I dusted around stacks of New Yorker and Harper’s magazines collected over many years, scrubbed the bathtub around shampoo bottles that had gone past vintage and were into antique, made my bed with sheets covered in cat fur, polished the thousand scrolled crevices of the silver tea set that everyone loved and nobody ever used. The kitchen, in which piles of opened and unopened mail teetered next to old telephone books and days-old glasses of water, didn’t seem complete without over half the counter space being taken up by empty crock pots inherited from the wheat ranch my mother had grown up on, decorative bowls of sugar caked with coffee drips, antique tobacco tins, and a rack holding old, still pungent, spices (when someone tells you that you have to replace your cinnamon every year, don’t believe them). It’s impossible to truly clean a place with three kids and rambling cats and several families’ worth of stacked and scattered possessions.

We visited my mother last summer, and had an embarrassing couple of days where John would wander around her house saying things like, “You know Grandma, if you put some of these things away people might not trip over them,” or “Grandma, if we organized all of this, you would have more places to relax.” He tried to be as polite as possible, while I kept hissing at him to zip it. I took away treats and his Angry Birds playtime but still he couldn’t stop himself. Finally he looked at me, all wide-eyed and determined, and said, “But, Mummy, it’s good to tell the truth.” I tried to explain to him that everyone likes their home kept in different ways and that it wasn’t polite to criticize it and could even hurt someone’s feelings, but clearly this was one case where actions triumphed over words. My cleaning and de-cluttering routine had come a long way from my childhood, sometimes neared extreme (I do know that some of my vacuuming habits could qualify as a problem), and had obviously worn a deep track for at least one of my children. I was relieved that a habit of tidiness was becoming second nature for him, but I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed of that relief.

My mother says that the reason I don’t like all the stuff in her house, what I call clutter and she calls life, is because I don’t know the stories behind it. That’s not always true. I recognize scrap paper where someone wrote down a phone number twenty-three years ago, and the torn shrink-wrap, which has been torn as long as I can remember, surrounding a vinyl album of loon calls, which I know she values because it was a gift from her father. I know the enameled tin mugs from Finland, the jam-making equipment from the Eastern Montana homestead, the wicker armchair where I used to rock my baby sister. I know the stories of a thousand things. And I do understand what she means. It’s just that I prefer my stories, instead of collecting dust as physical manifestations, typed up and filed away where they belong.

•••

There’s a passage in Natalie Goldberg’s classic book on writing, Writing Down the Bones, where she takes a swing at writers with tidy studios. Disorder, she says, shows a fertile mind, “an indication of … someone that is actively creating.” Essentially, in a clean desk, she knows she’s looking at a writer who’s not working.

That passage is the reason I don’t have a copy of Writing Down the Bones in my house.

I have tried to “let things go,” “relax,” and “don’t worry about it,” as so many well-meaning people have advised. Most of them seem to think that I keep my house tidy because I want to impress them. (These are the people, along with those who walk around crunching chips without a plate, who don’t get invited over for dinner again.)

I’ve set up personal boundaries for my cleaning habits (I never clean windows, for example, and as a result never think about how dirty they might be) because otherwise I truly would get nothing else done. But aside from that, I don’t seem to have an in-between toggle. I’ve tried just keeping the dishes washed and the floor basically swept. But I’m aware, nevertheless, of the coffee grounds that migrated to the back of the counter, of the cats’ additions after rolling in a spot of sunshine on a rug, of the bits of salt left on the stove after my husband did the post-dinner clean-up, of the rice my daughter has tracked into the TV room, where she’s sitting on the floor playing “picnic” with her stuffed dogs. I’m conscious of all of it, and if I don’t take care of it I literally cannot work. A “why bother” washes over everything I’m supposed to do—pack in the laundry, brush the kids’ teeth, sit at my desk and earn a living as a copy editor, send a check to the preschool, order heating oil, call my mother, much less work on my novel or memoir or tackle a new essay. I either escape to a coffee shop, where it’s someone else’s job to clean up and therefore I don’t care, or huddle in a few maintained outposts in my home—the bed, my desk, the ironing board—and binge-watch The Big Bang Theory.

My husband asked me once why I felt such a need to wipe down the kitchen counters and sweep the floor before clocking out for the night. I told him about the coffee grounds, the sticky spots, the grains of salt. “Knowing those things are there is like having another person tramping around in my head,” I said. They’re making noise and disrupting thoughts and generally being a nuisance. It’s incredibly uncomfortable.

I can take an obscene amount of messiness in my own psyche, in my relationships, in my work. But only if the floors are clean, the toys are put away, the kitchen has been wiped down and, preferably, the cats are outside.

•••

A number of pictures are tacked on the wall above my desk: a watercolor of a bare tree in a cold Russian forest, a postcard of a painting of Judi Dench, a photo of moonrise over Glacier National Park, which keeps my homesickness at bay.

One is a belated birthday card that my mom sent me almost twenty years ago. The painting on the front, Deborah DeWit Marchant’s The Artisans’ Cafe, depicts a girl looking somewhat as I might have then, down to a long brown French braid and sloppy afterthought clothing, with an empty pie plate in front of her, a full cup of coffee, and an open hardback book lying flat on the table. Her cheek is propped in her hand and she is clearly engrossed in whatever she is reading.

Articulating my feelings about this picture is difficult. I look at it and I see a moment when all the chores have been done, when nobody needs my attention, when all the crumbs are only specks of potential energy in a bag of bread. When the only part of the world that I have real influence over is at rest, if only for a few hours.

I know perfectly well that this kind of peace is unattainable through control over my physical surroundings. My food-free floors will not save the planet or hedge against my children’s future health and safety, or even negate the need for ongoing chores and errands.

But this is the only place I have, my only home. Critics can go on all they want about the new domesticity and how women still need to be freed from the hearth. But there is so much in the world I have no control over. I do not know if my son will still be asking politely to leave the table in a year’s time, or if my daughter will get over her obsession with dogs before she gets old enough that I feel obligated to get her a puppy. I do not know if my car will survive another six months, if another Sandy-like hurricane will trap us in a powerless house this fall, if the cats will ever, ever, stop peeing on the furniture.

I don’t know if the planet will survive climate change, if women’s rights will have to be fought for all over again, if my father’s homeland will use its foothold in Crimea to drag Ukraine and the wider world into full-scale war, if wildfires will make the air of my Montana hometown unbreathable this summer, if a friend will die of cancer next year.

I spend an enormous amount of time in my home. The only thing I can do, at this moment, is ensure that it feels like a place I want to be.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s writing has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Jabberwock Review, and ParentMap. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She recently finished My Russian Condition, a book about her lifelong relationship with Russia, and is working on Against the Grain, a memoir about motherhood, woodworking, and striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors. She can be reached through www.antoniamalchik.com.

Acts of Faith

russia
Courtesy Antonia Malchik

by Antonia Malchik

St. Petersburg, which my relatives still sometimes call Leningrad, is a city of water—canals, islands, the massive Neva River. Neva, sweeping to the Gulf of Finland, is an illusory barrier, giving the impression that the city is water-locked. In reality, the metro clicks out easily to a network of islands that comprise the rushing circulatory system of a huge city. These islands are hardly remote, but just far enough by metro that most tourists pass them over.

A few years ago, during a two-week trip attending a writing seminar and visiting my relatives, I took the metro out of St. Petersburg’s tourist-choked center to one of the islands. I was looking for a church. Any church, as long as tour groups hadn’t discovered it, and its Orthodox services fed the sense of mystery that an atheist like me requires from religion.

I can’t always explain this need. A fascination with faith doesn’t seem to mark most other atheists I know. And the older I get, the more grounded I feel in the lack of it. Yet something still draws me—a yearning that is both wordless and slightly annoying, probably as old as human consciousness. I don’t know whether I want to simply comprehend faith or, a more daunting thought, to find it. A place of safety, to shed my burdens.

Russia is my lodestar in this search, the country of my father and his honest, humanist parents, who had themselves chosen atheism over their severe ultra-religious existences in Orthodox Jewish villages. They left the ghettoes for Leningrad to build the new communist dream, where all that mattered were your hands and your brain. As they faced repeated defeats in their attempts to qualify as engineers—thrown back for their Jewish blood or bourgeois history rather than lack of skill—they realized Lenin’s dream was another illusion. By the time they’d survived Stalin’s purges, their noble-hearted humanism was all that was left for them.

Those grandparents would be both amused by and sympathetic to my attraction to the haughty self-righteousness of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the streets of the city they made home seemed to have given them a self-assurance I lack, and it is there, in the adopted home of my atheist grandparents, that I seek a religious conversion.

•••

During the midsummer White Nights celebrations, when the midnight sun left a rosy light on the streets, I walked through the islands seeking a native’s church, where babushkas spent afternoons murmuring to their saints and inappropriately dressed tourists were scowled at.

On the island of Vasilievsky, I found one. A courtyard with battered grass hid an old Byzantine church from the noisy main thoroughfare.

My aching feet and struggling lungs drove me from the hot, humid street and polluted air through an entrance in the stone fencing. Prepared for Orthodox churches (and those barb-tongued babushkas), I was wearing a long skirt and had a scarf tucked into my purse. Before touching the entrance steps, I tied the scarf over my hair and assembled an expression of humility and languid determination—the Russian expression.

Inside, scaffolding for restoration work covered half of the dome over the comparatively small main floor of the nave. The public part of a Russian cathedral, no matter how decorated, always feels like a waiting room. There are no pews. Even the most gnarled grandmother must greet her God standing. Icons of saints hover about the room on stands or the walls, waiting for their tribute of thin prayer candles. The real work of the church goes on constantly, unseen behind elaborately constructed doors, surrounded with icons of Jesus and Mary and all the saints—the iconostasis. Together, the sanctuary and the icons maintain the mystery of the divine.

It is the nature of Russian Orthodox churches to be unwelcoming. The practice is founded on a sacred belief in its own superiority. The country club of religions. Its very stony-faced exclusivity is what draws me to Russian Orthodoxy. Wildly private, I always found the Presbyterian churches of my upbringing intrusive. I shrank from talking about God or Jesus, or about being saved. The Orthodox Church is its opposite, intensely private itself. Nobody here cares about my personal salvation. In this church, I must find my own way. Russians already believe themselves to be, after the Jews, the second of God’s chosen people. They don’t need my faith.

•••

Chanting hummed behind the doors in the sanctuary. Hidden behind the iconostasis, unaccompanied by piano or organ, the choir’s reverberations hit my shoes through the stone floor in waves. I had forgotten, until this moment, that Russian churches never have any other music than this lyrical, unseen choir. The incomprehensible Old Church Slavonic—to my ears, Slavonic’s only similarity to Russian is its musical quality—orchestrates the priests’ black-swathed activities throughout the day as if helping them weave spells. Which, in a sense, they are.

The spells always work on me. There is something about an Orthodox service that creeps into the locked, lonely places of my heart, the ones that cry for understanding, for protection and salvation—or maybe for enlightenment and guidance. The service is so impersonal it seems to promise answers that other religions struggle with on a too-human level. Its remoteness breeds awe, even in an unbeliever.

Far from St. Petersburg’s tourist routes, this cathedral was nearly empty. Four middle-aged men and one old woman stood scattered around the room, as if their prayers would fill an abundance of personal space. As I adjusted myself against the back wall, barely out of the entryway, a young man in jeans hurried from the entrance straight to one of the icons in the center of the room. He bowed, kissed it, crossed himself. And stood. And waited.

The priests finally came out of their divine seclusion. Wrapped completely in floor-length black, with long beards, they walked in a group of three—one leading, the other two assisting—to swing a long, egg-shaped incense burner at each of the several icons propped on stands around the room. I’d seen churches in this country where the very murals on the walls were covered in icons from floor to domed ceiling.

The priests’ robes brushed the floor in time with their resonant singing. Realizing they were approaching the icon to my left, I back-stepped into the entryway, fearful of being found out even as a tourist, if not as a nonbeliever.

As the chanted service rang through the nave, the five worshippers crossed themselves continuously; they knelt to touch their foreheads to the floor. The old woman, her knees swollen under a plain dress and thick tights, made the “little reverence,” as it’s translated from Church Slavonic, dipping from the waist. It’s a pattern I couldn’t comprehend and couldn’t possibly imitate. So I bowed my head reverently.

In Western Christian churches, the visitor hides herself in the pews—a welcome trespasser who can usually follow the pray-stand-sit routine. But she is also prey to the curious and the missionary, a guest who has to make conversation after the service. Here, I was in an open space, with no hard bench to guard me, but also no inquisitiveness to guard myself from.

My ignorance was obvious: I didn’t belong here, but I bent my neck in solidarity and hoped that, for once, the service would lift me away from myself, as promised. I worked at it, remembering the words of one Anthony, Bishop of Smolensk: “Stand in church silently, peacefully, quietly, as for example, the candles lit by you stand before the icons … So should you also stand, striving with hearts aflame with love and prayer toward God.” My flame flickered as I shifted my feet and tried not to be seen. The music coming from behind the iconostasis plucked at locks in my soul, swelled a lonely “why?” (or maybe it’s a “please” or a “help”) that I am always aware of but rarely acknowledge.

•••

Sometimes I tell myself this is simply the human condition; this “why” or “please” or “help” is examining nothing more than the meaning of life. Other times I think I’m fudging, that what I really want is comfort, for some acknowledgement that the invisible wounds of my childhood and the pains of the world have some meaning. But defining my yearning for faith is like trying to bottle the sense of the unanswerable that makes faith so effective for millions. What is this thing I’m looking for? The lonely places of my heart are a mystery to me; they engender too many questions. I give them these church services in hopes that answers will unfold.

This time, I didn’t have a chance. Just as my eyes began to prick with tears, a priest hurried up to me, speaking so rapidly that my mediocre Russian failed to comprehend. He waved a hand around the entryway, and I realized that it, too, was covered in icons and needed to be blessed with incense. My unorthodox person was not welcome during the sacred ceremony. I opened my eyes wide, face red and apologetic from embarrassment. Wait! I wanted to tell him. I was just about to feel something!

But he hustled me to the dusty gift shop behind the entrance, where I could stare at religious books and icon reproductions for sale until those of faith were safe from my presence. Under a wash of shame, the groping for belief slipped away. When the service ended, my heavy feet turned to the hot streets.

•••

From childhood on, I have always been told that atheism is a willful choice to reject God—a choice to say there is no god, no deity—and agnosticism is simply the empiricist’s way of saying that there could be a god but we don’t know one way or the other. I never questioned the assertion that atheism was an act of will rather than a type of faith in its own right. But I could accept neither atheism nor faith without analysis of my motives. I dug around in feelings, memories, and reactions and found … nothing. Except myself. It surprised me.

It never occurred to me to choose not to believe. Who would choose such a thing? Only the most self-confident and satisfied person would choose to live like this—knowing that every decision and action, every mistake, is on your own shoulders only. It is a crushing responsibility: I walk bent under the weight of my own life, the weight of my choices, but worse, the weight of my accountability to humankind. If I want to change the world, the smallness and impotence I feel is terrifying next to those who believe God, or a god, is on their side.

Atheism was never a choice for me. It is knowledge. I know not that there is no God—my training in mathematics assures me that you cannot prove a negative—but that I assuredly do not believe in a god. This is a different kind of knowledge. I know I love the wilderness. I know I do not like eggplant. I know I do not believe in God. I cannot be agnostic, hedging my bets.

In seeking to discover why I have no faith, I found it was just as inexplicable as its opposite. I have no faith because it is not there.

•••

There is an incident I’ve never spoken of to anyone: the time when atheism scurried away, and I thought faith in something had finally come to bring relief, to lift that weight off my shoulders.

When my son was born, he was very weak. Taken out seven weeks early because I had come down with a rare, nearly fatal pregnancy-related condition, he was breathing through lungs as underdeveloped and fragile as soap bubbles. Over a two-week period, the doctors had to insert tubes into his tiny, scrawny chest to drain pockets of air that threatened the viability of those delicate lungs.

The day they called my husband and me at home to tell us that John needed a second air tube, and that he was ill enough they might need to move him to a tertiary care center, my reality ground itself into little pieces. I could do nothing for an hour but huddle on the floor and sob as I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I was so scared.

That same morning, I had woken up suddenly, just after seven, certain I’d heard John’s voice calling to me. Crying for me. I felt that he was in pain and needed me. It was only later I found out that I’d heard him, a forty-five-minute drive away, at the same minute they’d cut his chest and inserted the tube. I knew because, of course, they wrote down the times of all procedures, and I had checked the clock when I’d woken up (to see if it was time to drag out the breast pump), two hours before they called us at home. That is the part I’ve never told anyone, except my husband, who forgot it in the days that followed.

A friend asked me, about three months later, if John being so ill had given me some faith in God. She’s a religious person. She can’t imagine living without God, or, especially, without prayer. I told her the truth: I’d looked for faith during that time, and afterwards, and still found nothing. I think I searched deeply. I tried. But the experience didn’t send me away with faith; it sent me away with doubt. There are things in this world that I could not explain.

Was it a religious experience? A spiritual one? A trick of the imagination? A tidbit of Jung’s collective unconscious willing hope into my dreams? An aspect of physics and quantum particles we have yet to discover? I have no idea. All I could tell myself, and my friend, is that I still didn’t believe in God. Maybe atheism has become my own personal god, because it returned, after fear and glowing, new-motherhood happiness had faded, and life shifted back to its normal rhythms. When I fidgeted impatiently while attending church for a friend’s baptism, I knew my chance for faith was lost.

•••

The philosopher Bertrand Russell postulated that belief in God echoed Christians’ desire for safety, “a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” Ever since I became a mother, I have wondered if it’s more like a desire to get back to the mythical safety of our mothers’ arms, where we believed the world was a good place, and it loved us.

C.S. Lewis is said to have been a famous atheist, always engaged in debates about faith with devout Christian J.R.R. Tolkien. Then one day he went for a walk to the zoo. “When I left,” he said, “I did not believe that Christ was the Son of God. And when I got back, I did.” So simple. Maybe faith has a eureka moment like the greatest discoveries of science and mathematics. I do not believe. If one day faith should come to me, then I would believe.

I don’t find atheism fun. It’s a pest. It daily reminds me that I am alone in this yawning universe. Scrabbling for answers in the rich incense and enveloping music of Russian Orthodox churches gives hope that someday I can attain the eureka moment. Until then, I ride the coattails of others’ convictions, hitch my prayers onto those of people who believe they work.

•••

The next day I left Vasilievsky Island and returned to the center of St. Petersburg. I walked to the Kazan Cathedral. Closed for decades during Soviet times, Kazan now sweeps its arms around Nevsky Prospect and attracts thousands of tourists. The crowds move you up the main steps, past youths swilling liter-bottles of cheap Baikal beer as you keep a tight hand on your purse.

I crept from the entrance to a blackened wall. Close up, the wall was revealed as the icon of the Holy Spirit, so faded that the only intimation of its subject was a man’s faint outline, arm outreached, and a glimmer, above, of a white dove. The dove presumably represented the Spirit entering the soul of the sinner. A candelabra in front of the icon held the skinny, toothbrush-length candles sold in Orthodox churches all over Russia. One was burnt out. I lifted it, appropriating the prayer of another, and touched its tip to a neighboring flame. Like feeling for a tooth that wasn’t there, I probed my thoughts for pricks of hope and faith. Why couldn’t they enter my own heart as simply as the icon brought light to the aching sinner?

Today, in my morning hurry, I had forgotten to bring a headscarf and was not wearing a skirt. The oversight denied me even the simplest form of acceptance. It set me in a blank world with the other tourists, ignored and despised by the faithful, the Russian women with their covered hair, humming their love for and obedience to God.

The Kazan Cathedral was built, I am told, to house the icon of Mary, Mother of God, which was set above a raised floor to the right of the nave. She represented mercy and the preservation and unity of Russia. Hard silver encased her face, and she looked down upon the line of repentants who waited for a chance to pour out their prayers, kiss her frame, and come away renewed, hopeful, humble.

Watching them, I wished I had the courage to approach, to ask for faith. I played with the idea that I had simply walked away from God for a while, that maybe He—She, it—would welcome me back to safety if I only proclaimed my desire. I hovered near Mary’s line of the devout, wondering. Here, I told myself, is my central problem. The courage to ask for faith requires an act of faith in itself.

A man stepped forward to the silver clad Mary, crossed himself, kissed her frame, and touched his forehead to her, shivering in his reverence. How I envied him.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and journals, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. Her essay “Competence Lost,” forthcoming in February from The Jabberwock Review, addresses these themes. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.

Someone Stole Home

whitefish
By Loco Steve/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, Montana, had once been a real local hangout until it got into all the guidebooks described as “a real local hangout.” Now, the round, garrulous bartender serves too-clean tourists alongside locals with greasy baseball caps and drooping, walrus-sized mustaches.

Over pints of Moose Drool we’ve been chewing over local development, which has been moving at an accelerated rate since the Aspen Corporation bought Big Mountain, the ski hill under which Whitefish is clumped.

The brown ale’s malty flavor makes me wonder what took me so long to come back home. When I left my hometown first for college and then to live overseas, I didn’t know if I would permanently return. As a travel writer, I lived happily in Europe, Russia, and Australia, keeping the static image of my perfect home with its clear mountain air as an assuring beacon. Montana, I assured myself during my twenties, was my last best place. It would always be there.

That was until I took my English-born husband Ian to Whitefish and reality socked me. We’re looking to move back here, Ian and I told the bartender, but the property prices are staggering. “Where are all the young families goin’?”

“Eh, C-Falls, Kal’spell,” he figures, wiping down the counter. Columbia Falls and Kalispell, Whitefish’s neighbors, have always been more blue-collar than my hometown, where former hippies nurtured a nature-loving tourist industry.

“You don’t sound like you’re from here.”

“I’m from Tennessee.”

“Beautiful country.”

“Yup.” A slosh of the rag sends my empty glass skittering and he gets me a refill. “This is a better place though. Or useda be. I bin here twenty-five years. It’s not the same.”

“You think the town’s dying?” He puts cash in the register and shouts at a white-haired tourist who’s brought his loafers and khaki shorts too far behind the bar.

“It’s already dead.”

•••

At our bed-and-breakfast’s rustic log tables, Ian and I fall into chatting over huckleberry waffles with a couple from Texas. Our first morning, we got talking real estate, where I voiced shock at the rise in property prices (more than double since my mother sold her house five years before) and our worry that we wouldn’t be able to afford moving back. Now, in some sort of self-flagellation, I can’t stop talking with them about their plans to buy a vacation home here.

The man has a slightly chagrined look as, with defensive smugness softened by a Texas drawl, he says, “I guess we’re part of the problem.” This friendly, tidy, golf-playing guy and his wife then relate their previous day’s real estate search, touring the premises of an Iron Horse golf club.

“They’ve got them all over the country,” says his wife, “and you have to own property on it to play the course.” My next question feels stupid, but then, I figure, so is their need to play golf on an exclusive course up a mountainside.

“Couldn’t you just play on the public course downtown? I mean, if you’re only going to be here a couple months a year …” And that’s where my charitable view of this couple hits a pothole. Because there I am, wanting to move back to a home I love fiercely, yet facing the incomprehensible prospect of not being able to afford Montana. And there they are, willing to drop over half a million dollars to buy an empty quarter-acre lot so they can golf a particular eighteen holes once a year. How can my meager income compete with that? How can anyone’s?

I am reminded of this couple when having lunch with one of my former high school teachers the next day. “I don’t understand these people,” his wife says. “There’s this woman I know having trouble selling her 4300-square-foot house. She’s got a driveway almost a mile long. Who in their right mind would want to plow that in winter?” The acquaintance, like many snowbirds, only lives in Whitefish in the summer. “What did she come here for in the first place?”

What do people come for? Some Montana mystique? The last best place? The lure of Western individualism? You might as well ask why people go anywhere at all.

The question is, what do I come for? What is this place I am hoping to return to, after years of living abroad and then on the East Coast with my English husband and our kids? How is my dream of Montana any different from theirs? The frontier is gone. The wilderness is sometimes preserved, sometimes not. The town is like towns all over the world—people pushing and pulling and rubbing along together, trying to build good lives for themselves and their children. Do I deserve the Big Sky more because they love it less? What do I think I’ll find here, if I move back? What sort of magic could keep Montana secure from the rapacious spread of humanity?

•••

“I need to get out of here,” I say to Ian after three days. We’ve hiked up Big Mountain once, stuffing ourselves with this year’s bumper wild huckleberry crop along the way. The rest of the time we drove around the countryside, as all the other tourists do, “looking at real estate,” and I can’t take anymore. The sight of log McMansion developments carving their way up once-empty mountainsides and gargantuan, hotel-sized homes on what were once the sites of human-sized farmhouses left me reeling. A speck of land on the lake, a place once perfect for communal high school bonfires, costs over a million dollars. I try to imagine my kids growing up here, whether they would have the slightest chance of absorbing the wilderness in their blood, something that I took for granted until coming back, and I feel as if I’ve been shot in the gut.

We drive out toward East Glacier, where my mother and I used to escape Whitefish’s abnormally gray winters. The road winds along the bottom of Glacier National Park’s big-shouldered mountains and shoots out onto the prairie like it’s been loaded with gunpowder.

Here, on the Blackfeet reservation, little has changed. For how long, I wonder? The clouds brushstroke across the sky and the prairie warps into the mangled toes of the Rocky Mountains. Behind us, unfarmed hills hold yellowbell, pasqueflower, bitterroot: indigenous prairie flowers that were rare even before the specters of housing developments and oil drilling encroached on their remaining landscape. Just to the north is the Two Medicine formation, where I first fell in love with geology and dinosaurs, history learned from stone rather than books. To the east rolls the land where generations of my grandfathers scraped out boundaries of their wheat ranches.

It brings no relief to acknowledge that my great-great-grandparents inflicted a similar kind of harm on the Native American tribes and their landscape that I wail about in Whitefish: carving up grasslands and enclosing the prairie to plow it under for wheat and cattle. I might feel some tenuous connection to the people whose teepee rings still mark my second cousin’s cattle fields, but I wouldn’t know this landscape, wouldn’t love it, if those whose home it was for centuries hadn’t been pushed out to make room for people like my ancestors. In the end, the losers always seem to be those who love the land and their relationship with it the most, those who have little desire for more.

We drive along the craze-lined hills where few tourists penetrate and the wind talks only to cattle and horses and trees. We pass a sign for neglected road repairs. “Rough Break,” it says in orange. No kidding.

•••

In a life driven by a craving for culture shock, I never thought that the most difficult integration would be back into my own hometown. Years of living abroad, plus several more feeling like an alien on the U.S.’s East Coast, and now I don’t know if I have the courage to return. I love Montana more than I ever have another person, and its alteration has hit me harder than the betrayal of any person could. It seems easier, now, to escape overseas, to learn a new language and culture anywhere else, than it does to come back and face the reality of fighting for a home whose spirit is dying.

Seeing the effects of wealthy influxes on my community, where prices are driving young people out, I am torn between a desire to move back right now, immediately, to throw myself into the yanking between hyper-development and preservation; and running away, somewhere overseas where I can just be an observer and chronicler in the trials of some other community. It’s easier to be the invader than the mourner, to take on the role of the couple from Texas somewhere else, with less money, perhaps, but not with any more right to belong. It’s easier to move to a place that can’t hurt me.

But to renounce Montana entirely is unthinkable—I wish it could remain protected, so that I can wander, knowing home will always be there. For those of the pioneer spirit, there is nowhere left to run.

•••

The day before we leave, Ian and I get up early, intent on one last hike and handfuls of huckleberries.

Partway up Big Mountain’s hairpin turns (which are being widened and softened) is a lookout maintained by the forest service. Its loop road is almost unnoticeable and leads only to one picnic table set near a rock ledge. I used to come to this place in high school, early in the morning, latte in hand, to watch the sun lighten the valley and sip coffee in the near-silence of pine whispers.

The lookout is still there. But I stop, stunned, at the evidence of a new development being cut in right above it. The little loop is ripped up, the road mashed out for access to what will be more multi-million dollar homes, more evidence that even Big Sky country’s open views are only for the wealthy.

I turn my back to it, gulping back sobs, craving this one small piece of my life to be left alone. My heart scrabbles to voice a cry of injustice: Shouldn’t this beauty belong to everyone? We sit on the picnic table and Ian puts his arm around me. Lodgepole pines stand sentry over a plunging view that I wish desperately had no monetary value. Do I fight or run?

I think of other places I’ve lived in and fallen for, of Scotland’s Outer Hebridean islands, of Moscow and Vienna, and the Australian Outback. Maybe I’ve carried my Montana dream to all of them, infused them with a love of my home that runs so deep it’s almost like DNA. I’m scared to return, scared of the changes, scared of the pain. But home, for me, doesn’t actually exist anywhere else.

On that cool August morning, the refrain of a song my mother once wrote comes back to me. In all the wide world, none of those other places have the pull of her simple words: “I’d rather give up heaven than Montana.”

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and literary journals, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.