Quarterly Report #3

In my first quarterly report, I wrote about learning how to be kind to myself and what a challenge the first three months of my Watson were. If I had known what was coming, I never would have complained. I couldn’t have imagined how hard coming back to Russia would be after going home. I went from knowing where everything was, how everything worked and being clearly understood to being lost and unknown in a massive city, without my mom to cheer me on. But as Russian people occasionally remind me, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And as trite as that sounds, it accurately describes the last two months of my Watson year.

When I got back to St. Petersburg, I went easy on myself. I met up with the Colby students studying abroad and made sure to speak some English every day so that I could articulate my feelings. But it didn’t seem to help. And when the visa registration process started to drag on and I was unhappy with my new host family, staying in Russia seemed impossible. But staying out on my Watson through those couple of weeks gave me some interesting insights about the kind of person I am and what I’m capable of.

Waiting for my visa to be registered in St. Petersburg was a worthy lesson in learning to deal with red tape. And later, when the Russian Government extended its fist into my business, I was ready. I’d gone to the library in Moscow to work in the archive with my dictionary and notebook. After I finished my work, I gathered up my things, got my control paper stamped (which you hand to the police upon exiting the library) and went downstairs to get my coat. I gave my paper to the policeman and he saw my dictionary and asked, “What’s that?” I explained that I brought my dictionary to work in the archive and he said that was not allowed and I should take my control paper to the third floor to the head of my reading room. I got there (after looking for it for fifteen minutes or so) and the woman there explained that it’s forbidden to bring printed material into the library. She took away my dictionary and explained that it was being confiscated, they’d keep it in the guard’s office for a couple of days and then I could come back and get it. She stamped my control sheet again and I left the library, without my dictionary. I had trouble not laughing right at her as she explained to me that the dictionary would be confiscated as if it were a controlled substance. Two days later, I got my dictionary back along with another lecture about how you can’t bring printed material into the library. Being able to laugh (afterwards) was such a gift. In September I might have broken down in tears. Now, I just know that out of control bureaucracy is part of life here and by laughing it off; I can keep it from having all the power it wants.

In the face of the weirdness of Russia, I realized that I like to be comfortable. I like being warm, I don’t like being hungry and I like to know where I’m going to sleep tomorrow night. Although I like hiking and the wilderness, when I’m very emotionally or spiritually uncomfortable, I need these physical basics to keep me grounded. I worry that this makes me less of a Watson Fellow, that I’m not taking advantage of the opportunity because I’m not hitch-hiking through the desert or camping in the middle of nowhere like the fellow on the publicity poster. I try reminding myself that Watsons are individual and because of the person I am, my year was bound to be filled with new, close friendships, a more urban lifestyle, more thoughts and less “good-cocktail-party-story” adventures. Still, I worry that I’ve missed out on something.

These feelings are compounded by a simple revelation that I should have had a long time ago: the Watson in an incredible blessing. As a nine year-old Dutch boy I met told me (in beautiful English), “You have a good job.” And it’s true. I’m especially grateful for the time I have to think. Several people have told me that they don’t have time to learn about God or think about spirituality—“I’ll do that when I’m a pensioner,” they say. And that’s exactly why the Watson is such an gift—I have the time to think and important thoughts don’t have to wait.

Although I’d learned this back at the beginning, I re-learned how to give myself a break now and then. I’ve always wanted to see Tolstoy’s estate outside Moscow. So I went. I like zoos. So I went to the zoo. I took advantage of Moscow’s restaurant variety and took a break from Russian food. I felt like I needed to go to church in English, to pray in my first language. So I went to Catholic Mass with Moscow’s ex-pat English Catholic community and made fast and helpful friends. All the while I was renting a room from a Russian woman and working on my project. I found a balance between not losing myself, absorbing the culture and city I was in and Watson work.

I realized that I like doing my project work. I’m happiest, not when I’m hanging out with my old St. Petersburg friends, but when I’m talking to people about faith. I thought that I just had what my college friends called my “overdeveloped sense of responsibility,” but more than that, I just enjoy what I’m doing. I feel happy and comfortable doing my Watson work and I feel a sense of joy and accomplishment after I finish an interview.

And I’ve had interviews. The pace of Moscow life seemed to make my work easier. Friends understood that I had a deadline and they were willing to help me talk to people right away. The best conversations were with members of a Soviet-times ecumenical society (which happened shortly after being verbally attacked by nuns for not being Orthodox). While both women were Orthodox, they felt a connection to the Catholic Church and weren’t bothered by my Protestantism. Because the government persecuted everyone, some members of the churches banded together. They met in an underground nun’s apartment, discussed theology and prayed.

I also interviewed a sixteen year old girl named Larissa who offered me an impression of where the Orthodox Church is headed in the next twenty years. She believes that because God is one that all of the churches will eventually unite. She is involved with a group called “Young Life,” an American Protestant organization that helps kids welcome Jesus Christ into their lives. In the United States, it might be exclusive and threatening, but in Russia, it finds what it can get. Charismatic Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox all meet together to sing, dance, laugh, play games and discuss God. Through Larissa and YL Moscow, I saw a more youthful, changing Orthodoxy that is welcoming, fresh and has a future.

Larissa’s Orthodox Church is modern and active. Unlike most churches, the parishioners and priests do group community service. The Church runs an active Sunday School and a two-week summer program at a camp outside of Moscow. I went to the Easter service with her (which was my inspiration for this project) and the church was packed. I was expecting lots of little babushki but the average age of the parishioners was between thirty and forty. I saw teenagers, families and people my own age. Right before we were to go outside and walk around the church, the priest made an announcement. “Dear Brothers and Sisters! I have a small technical announcement. We are going to begin the Easter Procession in three minutes. There are so many of you that we will probably not all make it out the door. Some of you will have to wait inside the church. If you miss the Easter Procession, it is not a sin. God will not be angry. So, please, be Christian as we move toward the door.” It was conversational and bright, not stiff and boring like the Orthodoxy I’d been used to. Easter reminded me that the Orthodox Church is growing and changing, even if the changes are small and hard to notice.

Along with “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” a Russian woman told me once, “The Lord only gives us the cross that we are able to carry.” My experience over the last two months is a testament to the truth of these proverbs. And, for the first time in my life, I am really, really proud of something that I’ve accomplished, with no sidebars or ‘yes, but’s. And most importantly, I know I can handle three more months and whatever they toss my way.