Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Neighbor Across the Hall

She leaned her stocky body against the door frame, blue eyes cold and fierce, cursing me in Russian for being a bad neighbor, a terrible American. She told me I should go home, that I don’t belong in Ukraine. She didn’t tell me her name. 

It wasn’t the first time my neighbors showed me just how much they didn’t want me in their building. I had misbehaved that weekend; a poker night with the guys had gotten a little rowdy too late in the evening. So, in retribution a few days later, my upstairs neighbor, Victor, had changed the code on the front door of my building so that I couldn’t get in. He wanted $100 as a “fine” before he would allow me back into my own apartment building. He wore his thinning, gray hair in the military style and had the stance of a boxer, always in perfect balance. After a brief argument that evening which began with me apologizing for being too loud that night and ended in him shoving me out of the doorway and slamming the heavy metal door in my face, I met him again in the morning, this time with a lawyer, interpreter, and a couple of friends. And he brought the neighbor across the hall from me. She was in her 60s, had short, frosted blonde hair, a nasty scowl, and had that authoritative babushka voice that demanded your attention. 

After several more apologies, I eventually made it back into my apartment that day, but ever since I have had the distinct feeling of not being wanted in my building. I’m still not quiet enough for them, or maybe just not Ukrainian or Russian enough. It’s hard to say exactly. Every night when I push the buttons to unlock the door outside my hallway, I get a little nervous that I might not be able to open the door. I shut the doors as quietly as possible, don’t play music or watch much TV, and I rarely have anyone over. 

Today, I returned from teaching to see something strange in the hall, a flower bouquet on a stand in the stairwell between my flat and my neighbor’s. I couldn’t quite make out the writing, but it sure looked to me like a funeral wreath. Was my evil bitch of a neighbor dead? I couldn’t say I minded the idea. 

I went to my balcony for some fresh air this afternoon and noticed some chairs and people gathering together in the alley behind my building. It was sunny but cool, and there were maybe 20 people out there, unusual in both their number and their appearance. I had no idea how the possible funeral could be associated with this, but I looked up the local traditions online and discovered that there are often one or two panachydy, or memorial services, held prior to the funeral. Maybe this was one? 

I haven’t seen a dead body in a long time. I don’t like funerals, and prefer to remember people who have died as they exist in my memory, alive and talking and moving around. But I looked out the window today and saw him on a platform covered in flowers in the middle of the alley, surrounded by fifty or sixty people. The man had the thin, gaunt look that every corpse has. His skin was yellow, his mouth frowning, and a white strip of cloth covered his forehead. And the fierce, mean neighbor woman, in a black dress and shawl, stood over him, crying. She stood there for fifteen minutes. Friends came up and put an arm around her shoulder. A large man in a pinstriped suit placed another bouquet of red roses at his feet. A young man, crying, kissed the deceased man’s cheek. Finally, my neighbor bent over the body, kissed him, and stepped back. The body was whisked into a waiting van, the top of the coffin was set over him, and the flowers were gently set on top of the coffin. 

I stopped by a Ukrainian cemetery recently on a break between teaching. It doesn’t look much like an American graveyard. Each family plot is fenced off, and the plots usually have not just the grave makers (with an etching or photo of the person buried beneath) but also a bench, or chairs, and a table. It was warm, the newly budding trees swayed in the breeze, and old women kneeled in the grass, planting flowers around the graves. I like cemeteries, somehow. They feel peaceful. They are usually quiet, solitary places where I can clear my head. It feels like history, thinking of all the people who have come before me, about how they lived and died in pretty much the same way I do--struggling with bills and relationships and careers and family--and they are all peacefully at rest now. But this cemetery felt different, more alive. I asked a Ukrainian friend about the benches and chairs and tables one day, and he explained that family members routinely visit the graves of their relatives, not just on holidays, not just on the anniversaries of their passing (which they do every year), but also the wives of these deceased men will come by any old afternoon just to sit.

“And on anniversaries, you can find his drinking buddies draining a few bottles of vodka with him,” my friend said. “It’s kind of a party.”

Within a few minutes of the funeral van driving off, the alley was empty again, except for a worker at the pizza place next door out on a cigarette break and a stray dog searching for food. I don’t know my neighbor, saw her husband only once, but I want to tell her something: I am sorry for your loss. As awful stares at me and spoke to me, I feel bad about disrupting her life by moving into this building. In forty days, she will visit the grave because this is the amount of time in Ukrainian folklore it takes for a person to truly pass on. I can imagine her planting flowers, pulling weeds, and wiping the granite tombstone on some sunny spring day, and I know she feels loss. I saw her face today, exhausted, pale, frowning, and I am ashamed of myself. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

The World of Ideas

I've been reading a collection of essays this week by the great New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called "What the Dog Saw." What I love about these essays is how they spark my thinking. There are essays about the poetry of human motion, a profile of Ron Popeil, the phenomenon of late bloomers and the trouble of catastrophe thinking.

What it gives me is a renewed love of ideas and how they can be sparked through writing. I've already come up with a new idea for an essay and it has helped me work through some ideas on my still-unfinished novel.

It also makes me remember that even though I live abroad, I can't quit the habits that I love back home and I shouldn't use the confusion and difficulty of living in Unkraine as an excuse to quit trying. This essay about late bloomers--how some artists become successful late in life because of the way they approach their art rather than because of their lack of talent--gives me some faith that I shouldn't quit, either. Thanks, Malcolm.