I don’t think I knew any Russians while growing up. They were foreign, threatened America and needed to be feared. I remember silly civil defense exercises where we practiced crawling under our school desks in order to avoid “the bomb.” In the 1950s we watched “I Led Three Lives” about Herb Philbrick, who later became a Seacoast resident, and in college I watched the denouement of the Russian Missile Crisis in Cuba.
Later, there were Russians in the Levant. I remember an assignment to photograph Russian advisors in Egypt during President Nasser’s reign. Today, one can occasionally spot an over-painted Arabic sign with faded Cyrillic characters in the background. In the topography that is the Middle East, the memory of no occupier is ever fully erased.
My most recent Russian encounter started a few years ago, when I met Pushkin. Russians were foreign, distant, pale and blond. Pushkin lives in Exeter with friends in an early 1800s Federal-style home. Every time I visited, I sensed tension. I arrive: Pushkin leaves. Not a gesture or word of welcome. Sitting down to have tea I could hear Pushkin moving from room to room. Anxious. Aloof. Pushkin the Russian.
Fear buoys up prejudice.
I would get hot. Flushed. Wheeze. Uncomfortable. Eventually, I would finish my tea, pack my things, and leave. I was sure it was all Pushkin’s fault.
“I want to understand you, I study your obscure language.” — Alexander Pushkin
Wrong. It was my fault.
I have always been allergic to cats. I feared them. They either ignored me, as Pushkin did, feared me or taunted me, brushing against my legs knowing that I didn’t want them near. My eyes water and I get hot and flushed. As an antidote I crave chocolate. For months I thought I was allergic to Pushkin. I have cat allergies. Pushkin is a cat. Ergo, I am allergic to Pushkin, and when I visited her owners (yes, this Pushkin is a she) I had all the usual symptoms.
Except I was wrong.
I wasn’t allergic to Pushkin and her housemate, Dumbledore. They are beautiful Russian Siberian cats, a breed, perhaps a thousand years old, that was virtually unknown in America until the end of the Cold War, when Russia eased the ban on their export. It turns out that the dander they produce has a much lower level of FEL D1 than other cats. They are really smart, like to butt heads, and are virtually hypoallergenic.
But my mind and body were accustomed to believing that all cats caused allergic symptoms. It took months, even after my host explained that these cats were special, for my mind and body to accept that these cats were special. Although I accepted the thesis intellectually, my body continued to have psychosomatic responses for a long time.
I get stuck in my ways. I can’t always get in sync with new ways of looking at things. New concepts are sometimes threatening. I hear but I don’t listen. It’s as though I have to admit to myself that I was wrong about something, and that’s hard.
Many of us are like that. Raised by our parents, attached to our friends, fearful for our lives and livelihoods, we become attached to unfounded prejudices and ignorance. It’s so much easier to think our being tested, our frailties, humanity, weaknesses, trials and tribulations, is someone else’s fault. We struggle to rise to new challenges. Today, I challenge you:
Embrace Pushkin. Set your allergies and nostalgia aside. Embrace new visions.
“There is within human nature an amazing potential for goodness.” — MLK
A year ago, a friend told me that I was too old. She was right. I was. I was much older than I am today. I challenged myself to get beyond my entrenched old ways — to get past my preconceived notions and allergies — get beyond fear. New ideas: I read different authors than before. Exercise my brain: I learned to write with my left hand. Change is hard. There were stumbles and terrible mistakes along the way. Restoring the soul is really hard.
I learned that it is not thinking outside the box that matters. What matters is not acknowledging that boxes exist.
This weekend America commemorates the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. A proponent of Gandhi’s model of nonviolent civil disobedience, King was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist who embraced the poor, fought racial segregation and discrimination, opposed the Vietnam war and spoke out about injustice everywhere.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated in 1968. In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a federal holiday. There was no challenge he would not confront.
Embrace Pushkin and MLK Jr. Challenge yourself.
Resist your allergies. Forgive the Other. Embrace each other. Reject fear by embracing love. Resolve to honor MLK by breaking away from old prejudices. Remember…
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.” — MLK
Finally, Monday is my birthday. Yes, a Capricorn, although I’m not sure what that means. I’m not celebrating the year past; I will celebrate a new beginning. I hope each day to make your life, and mine, a life of beauty by moving back into the light.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” — MLK