kisses and lights

It's 2002. It's a palindrome. And I'm looking at a new year, thinking my 2001 Belarusian odyssey is over.

New Year is the biggest holiday in this part of the world. A year ago, I saw what looked like a Christmas tree in someone's flat... and found out that it was in fact not a Christmas tree at all but a new year's tree. Christmas was outlawed by the Soviet Union, and so New Year rose up to co-opt all the Christmas traditions of gift-giving and tree-decorating.

This year while the snow deepened, the city lit up with signs and lights and flags. The change was almost instantaneous; one day I went into an office, and when I came out an hour a later there was a huge new year's tree in the nearby square, fully lit in the 5:00pm dark. "Happy New Year" (rough translation) signs were strung up over ever intersection.

The champagne factory's (everything is factories here) sign had the New Year tree on the left, "2002" in the centre, and a champagne glass on the right. It basically summed up New Year in Belarus, although the champagne quickly gives way to vodka. Almost everyone and everything quickly gives way to vodka during the new year here. It's no secret that there are problems with alcohol in this part of the world, and New Year is the time at which drinking reaches its height. People who aren't alcoholics, and even some who don't ordinarily drink at all, started drinking around the afternoon of the 29th and kept going, through the change from 2001 to 2002. On Friday evening we tried to extract some humanitarian aid materials from our storage space, and were met only with extremely drunk workers at the warehouse.

The fireworks are still going off outside as I write. They too started somewhere around Thursday or Friday. Little fireworks, set off mostly by drunken teenagers. There's a trick that's supposed to be really funny, in which you put a firework in a glass bottle on the street and watch the glass fly. A few of my friends had a firecracker thrown at them from a moving car a few evenings ago.

The fireworks that are directed upward, though, are beautiful, and are truly a celebration, instead of just an excuse to go wild. When people celebrate here, they mean it, and they'll spend all their money on cakes (if they're not spending it all on vodka) and celebrate closely with their family.

And the same goodwill that always showed up in my Northeastern US cities around Christmas seemed a little outclassed by what I saw here in Minsk for New Year. The goodwill here is full of prayers and hopes for the future, even when many of the past years have been so dark. My first experiences with Russian culture made me marvel at human perseverance. Life hasn't improved much in hundreds of years for most people here, and to me that the basic conditions of life have hardly even changed, aside from some cosmetic alterations. And yet everyone here joyfully greets each new year, and pour sincere and hearty wishes for prosperity, blessing, health, etc., on one another when it comes.

Maybe it sounds like I'm contradicting myself here, but one of the things I've learned in the last year is that it is totally possible for two mutually exclusive things to both be true in a very practical sense.

When people told me that they prayed that 2002 would be the most blessed and full year of my life, my thoughts were always "how can it possibly beat this past year in Minsk?" (which was, admittedly, quite difficult at times, but still wonderful and I wouldn't trade a minute of it).

But it can, and does, get better. Even though I'm saying goodbye to folks now and am finding it difficult to imagine life without them. But, then, I felt exactly like that a year ago.

i found a notebook entry from near the beginning of my year in minsk, in which I wrote that perhaps my time here would be "a crash course in being who I am." I think it was a good call. If you've been getting these updates from the beginning or have checked the website, you've read from me of the various challenges and strangenesses that I encountered: from a frozen van in the middle of nowhere to an elusive Ukranian visa to the necessity of the special Minsk Winter Walk.

But definitely the biggest challenge and, uh, strangest strangeness that I encountered was myself. Maybe this is just what happens when you see yourself in God's light. Sometimes it's harsh and reveals all your faults until you can hardly stand to look anymore. Sometimes it's gentle and warm, and reveals gifts and abilities you didn't even know he'd given you.

I'm used to God's light modified through the coloured gels and lenses of East Coast America, and I came here to God's light showing in very different circumstances. Minsk has a few of its own lenses and gels, but gels are lenses are expensive. And folks here are a lot more poor and needy than I'm used to being. And so I've seen myself differently, and sometimes very plainly.

But all of this was not meant to strip me of myself, but rather to show me a good glimpse of who I was made to be, and help me along as I strive to become that person. Some things I noticed: I became more of a writer. Writing became more like prayer for me. Prayer became more of a desperate need for me. Need became easier to admit, to others and to God. Admission and openness became more of the mode in which I interacted with my community. My community became more like a family for me. Family (both literal and figurative) became more important to me.

Each of these levels of change sprang from, and contributed to, one basic understanding of who I am: a dependent daughter of God. Who writes, who prays, who needs, who speaks, who interacts, who is a sister of other daughters and sons.

Having such an understanding may seem obvious to some of you. But I gave myself (and probably others) a lot of headaches when I tried to pretend not to need, or when I shielded myself from others, or when I treated my friends as something other than family. I know I'll continue to give myself headaches. But I'm learning.

When our leaders discussed the best way to spend New Year, someone said it was good to spend it with your family. And I felt a twinge, wanting to go back to Philadelphia and spend that time with my family whom I miss. Instead I spent it with our youth group, another kind of family, at an all-night party. Around 8:00am we headed out from there, and in our office and on the street and in the trolleybus all of us girls exchanged our usual greeting kisses when we said goodbye.

- 1 January 2002

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