Enter the Romanians

Recently, I mentioned to a friend an experience from long, long ago that I hadn’t really thought about in years. Imagine my surprise, then, when while sifting through old family photos I stumbled across this:

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If you’re wondering, I’m the little guy at the bottom right wearing the giant Smurf…

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toybox. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

I don’t say all this to toot my own horn. I was eight years old in 1985, just a kid, and I did what came naturally. The older I get, the harder it seems to be to make such sacrifices, even ones as small as giving up a favorite toy. (If there is, by the way, a moral to this story, perhaps that is it: as we grow out of our childish openness and generosity, it becomes more and more important to rediscover those qualities on a regular basis. We spend so much time teaching children to share, a lesson quickly forgotten by the jaded adults we’re all on our way to becoming.)

As I said, this story is not about boasting, but about making connections between myself and my past. None of what I’m about to say was at all clear to me at the time. Little of great significance to our lives and identities ever really is. There’s a reason they say what they say about hindsight. As I think back over all those unobtrusive, apparently inconsequential moments in my history; as I’m reminded of fleeting memories through sharing them with others; as I begin to exegete my own experiences–only then does an image come into focus and begin to solidify before me. Things begin to make a sense I didn’t ever realize they had.

“The world is full of so many lonely souls.” That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Those are feelings I’m trying desperately to cling to as I travel farther and farther away from that eight-year-old’s perspective, a perspective both limited and startlingly limitless. I struggle to remind myself that the line between myself and “the other guy” is so tenuous as to be nonexistent. I seek to feel and understand the pain that might so easily be mine, as one hopeful that others care about the pain that so often is. Mine. And yours. Ours.

Because in that understanding resides my humanity. Without it, I exist, but alone, not as part of anything. And I feel a burning need to be part of something, something that matters, something that changes…something.

The world is full of problems to which I want to help find solutions. That Christmas I began to figure that out. Here was a family who couldn’t have a holiday because they’d had to run away from home. That’s probably about as far as my comprehension took me, back then. But it was enough. I knew what running away from home meant; I knew that I didn’t want to do it; and I knew that I didn’t want anyone else to have do it, either. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, my little plastic toy represented my best effort to help normalize their world, to allow them to feel at home again. To give them a home again.

And while they didn’t know it, as I reached out to them, they reached out to me and taught me one of the most important lessons I think we can ever learn: not that giving is better than receiving, but that in a very real sense, giving is receiving. And what did I receive from them? The greatest gift of all:

The first glimmers of an awareness of love–what it is and how to do it. True, love can be expressed through grand gestures, but more often it inhabits the little things. Love is in the approach. Love is forged in the fires of similarity and given form by the iciness of difference: I love you because you are like me, and because I could so easily be in your shoes.

They taught me to begin to love you. And I do. All of you. Even you crazy spammers filling up my inbox everyday with odd phrases that are rarely in good English and therefore always amusing. I love each and every one of you. If I could, I’d give you all a giant hug and invite you in for a cup of coffee or a beer or iced tea or whatever–pick your poison.

The Borzas taught me to begin caring. And I still do…

Ending at the Beginning

A gentle rain fell against my window, catching the leaves of the níspero tree outside like so many tiny acrobats falling into their safety nets, bearing them down ever so slightly and then releasing them with a faint thwap! Inside, I lay awake in my bed staring at the ceiling. Walls once overcrowded with postings—favorite quotes, pictures snipped from the pages of various children’s magazines, maps eagerly stolen from newly arrived issues of National Geographic—now featured an oppressive emptiness. My life stood around the room, reduced to stacks of cardboard boxes, ready to be shipped (myself along with them) back to the United States, my birthplace but not my home. Not anymore. Not for many years now.

I lay contemplating the injustices inherent in a minor’s life. How could people I had never met, and who had never met me, know what the best next step in my life might be? It was bad enough that they had pried me from my world once already and sent me off to a corner of someone else’s, but now, once I had managed to take that new world and make a corner of it my own, they insisted on doing it all over again. Back to the home country (their home, not mine). Wouldn’t want the young lad unknowingly to forsake his birthright. Well, they should have thought of that ten years ago, before I became self-aware enough to choose my own.

Raindrops traced a crazy pattern on the windowpane, and the neighbor’s porch light threw it into relief on the wall beside my pillow. A heaviness in my chest suggested that the rain might not be the only drops to fall this night. But I did not cry. In my life, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have broken down and cried from pure grief. Irritation, childishness, temper, often, but rarely out of grief. That I keep inside, precious and private, even when the public view might be only my own, even when the heaviness becomes such that I feel some dam must eventually break, and torrents must come. Even when I can hardly breathe from it. On the night my mother’s father died—my grandpa, the man from whose lap I surveyed a kingdom of pastureland and cattle stretching far as the eye could see, the man who concealed candy around his home like a pirate buries treasure but then, poor pirate that he was, always told me where to find it—even then, a continent away, I could not cry. I merely left my paintbrush and the wall I was painting—this very wall, now reflecting raindrops in the night—perched myself on a stand of bricks in the yard and communed with whatever other lonely spirits happened to be looking down from the darkened sky. Years later, when I stood in those pastures and thought of that person, then I cried. But not at first. At first, as always, I just felt. And thought.

On this night, the last of many, I thought of Them, and the tightness grew. I thought of the people who had passed in and out of my life, some friends, others indifferent, and some downright enemies (as far as a child can have such). Of stunts pulled and wars waged, the good, the bad, and the overwhelmingly inane. Some things to be proud of, and some to carry in shamefaced silence to the grave. I thought of my dog and the walks we used to take together, all over town, after which we both had just enough strength remaining to collapse on the patio and let our tongues loll. Of my progression from mute foreigner to voluble pseudo-native, from stranger to acquaintance to friend. Of learning to fight and, more importantly, learning to duck. I thought of becoming a man in a place where being a man is all that counts and, often, all a man has. Of learning that a dirty cup offered in friendship is better than a silver chalice grudgingly bestowed, and that life must (and can) be appreciated because of what it is, not because of what it contains. Most of all, I thought of the strange land toward which I was headed and the familiar sights I left behind, and of the topsy-turvy nature of life, wherein the naturally foreign feels so very familiar, and the supposedly familiar seems so terribly alien. The tightness grew, but still I did not cry.

Then I thought of Her, and my unschooled heart nearly broke. First love, confusing yet exhilarating; first kiss, so business-like and logical, so fumbling and afraid—“What if I kiss you?” “Well, what if you do?” Concealed by the shadows of night, sheltered by the protective branches of a stooping willow tree, friends and family only a stone’s throw away, that first experience of contact with the opposite sex, so illicit and at the same time so liberating. A dawning awareness that somewhere outside of yourself there is a whole to your half, if only you can catch it and hold onto it. However much we may look back on the amorousness of youth with the disdainful eye of emotional maturity, recognizing supposed love for what it surely really was—a nothing, a mere crush—the jaded passage of years must not be allowed to blind us to the truth our younger selves knew all too well. The definition of love may change as we grow old, but the reality of it does not. Its content may alter with alterations in circumstance (contrary to the Bard’s assurances), but our ability to know it when we feel it remains the same. Love is a first-person, not a third-person, affair, and in my heart, love was as real at fifteen as it will be at sixty-five. Thinking of Her, my heart swelled almost to the point of explosion, as I began to understand what I could not yet accept: distance may make the heart grow fonder, but it will more likely cause it to forget. My heart swelled, and still, the tears did not come.

I lay in my bed that night, back again where I had started, thinking of the country everyone insisted was not my home. I thought of Argentina, in all its idiosyncratic glory. ¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!, and the rest of the world be damned! Of the day in the winter of 1990 when a man named Goycochea took up his place on Mount Olympus and a city erupted from the sidewalks to celebrate their side’s victory over Italy in the semifinals of the World Cup, and I realized what national pride means to a nation that has too little of which to be proud. Five days later, that same city crept back into its hole, and I with it, clutching pieces of hope shattered by a devastating loss against the West Germans. Something fundamental in me shifted that day. Game clock down to the wire, referee’s whistle blows, foul called (unjustified?), penalty awarded. A nation’s breath collectively held. Everything rests on the head of a very small needle. The run. The kick. Goycochea, hero un-rivalled, dives, stretches…MISSES! In that instant, as the ball connected with the back of the net and nationwide cheers were swallowed up in a terrific, univocal groan of despair, I ceased to think of myself as an outsider and became Argentine to the core. My anger mingled with theirs, our blood boiled as one, I was one of them and there was no going back. Welcomed home in defeat, as I never have been in triumph.

Now history prepared to repeat itself: I was to be excised once again from my home without so much as a by-your-leave. My mind’s eye strained mightily, attempting to see into the life that lay ahead, searching for some sign that not all would be lost, that some part of my self might retain the stamp of originality placed upon it by years of exposure to the heterodoxy of extra-cultural experience. While my parents had come to Argentina on a quest to save others’ souls, I apparently had come to discover my own, and as I lay tossing and turning on that night of such poignant finality, the most pressing question in my mind was: Had it all been for nothing? Had I given myself so completely to this world of mine only to have some faceless bureaucrat rip it away? Would I simply take up my rightful place, lock-step, in the ranks of the uninitiated, the people seemingly obssessed with non-existent Argentine koala bears and water buffalo, who couldn’t locate Argentina on a map if you put a gun to their heads? What, if anything, of Me would remain?