alternate titles to this post:
– „i just want to post something i wrote at some point, so there!”
– „it’s not a personal blog until it gets embarrassing”
– „if it’s embarassing, you could’ve at least made it interesting”
– „the most non-feminist thing i wrote this year”
proceed with patience.
He asked, where did you get this from? On a bench in the Botanical Garden, full summer, my head in his lap, him playing with my necklace. The containment of his voice told me it wasn’t the first time he’d noticed it, just the moment he’d chosen to bring it up. There’s Cyrillic on the back of your cross, he said, tracing it with a fingertip, and so I jerked upright to look at the cross, as if for the first time.
I didn’t remember when I’d gotten it or started wearing it on the silver chain along with other good luck omens. It must have come from my grandma, I said. No, she’d never been to Russia – but maybe it’s normal for Orthodox crosses to have Cyrillic on them? No, I didn’t know: I’d never thought of it before. Should I have?
I’d carried these tiny signs against my skin for years, my fingers flying up to touch, my eyes at times obviously registering the letters – спасиисохрани – and my mind still not wondering what or why. He said it was a traditional religious phrase: Sauve moi, garde moi, and I retranslated into English instantly. We scramble all the time between English and French with detours into Romanian or Russian. Sometimes this still strikes me as strange, sometimes it’s just what we do.
We were in love, and that was supposed to conquer all. I hadn’t believed that for years, and I had to start believing it again. Save me, keep me safe. I liked how the words were related, yet the concepts diverged: there’s nothing safe about salvation – the leap of faith, the break with old routines. This love of mine, although changing me deeply, was also bringing back things I’d thought forgotten.
When we’d met he’d asked, and by that time I already knew I liked him, so where are you from? Nothing special, everybody asks that. Of course he was Russian (his tone spelled “of course”, and I approved), with his accent and his Slavic face. And me? I think there are no typical Romanian features, except in retrospect, I said, and to that he smiled even larger: oh, you’re Orthodox!
As a child I went to church with Grandma every Sunday, kneeled in the women’s pew, sang along, examined the aged ladies’ faces and memorized details on the icons, the old bronze and fading colors. I read the Bible like a story book, painted Easter eggs, tidied family graves in the cemetery, sang carols at Christmas. Then it was over just like that, a thing that only makes sense in context. I’d been a social Orthodox the way people are social smokers or drinkers. My grandma’s village was far away and was dying.
After I met him I had the impulse to try that again, be a believer all the way. Not having stepped into a church in years, there I was looking them up on the map of Montreal. I turned up a Romanian church a few blocks away from me and went one early summer morning. It felt like back home, all the indescribable reasons why I’d gone away – so half an hour in I turned back and left – fume of candles, sweat coated in perfume, bent silhouettes in their Sunday best and fragments of my language trailing behind. I didn’t tell him this. What I told him was: religion is just the golden aura surrounding its culture; my Orthodoxy is not exactly your Orthodoxy. We have different Christmases, different New Years. Romanians abandoned Slavonic in church service, we abandoned Cyrillic a century and a half ago. We are a small nation, bending with the times. And me, I’m neither this or that, neither here nor there. It broke my heart a little every time he said he understood.
Save me, keep me safe. I used to say my prayers every evening before bedtime. To consider missing that would be as disturbing as saying I miss home. I wrote to Grandma to say I’d gone to church, and to ask about my little silver cross. She wrote back to say she remembered. The village priest had brought her the cross from a pilgrimage to a Moldavian monastery forty-something years ago, and she sewed it in the lining of my father’s overcoat. She found it years later, while mending his broken pockets, and put it aside for her grandchild, me, not yet born.
People here in Canada say wow, that’s a nice chain. Some touch it on impulse, sifting the metallic cluster through their fingers. I’ve had some remarking I was a Christian, with satisfaction as if this reinforced their own faith, which I don’t mind. But the moment he pointed out the Cyrillic, a current of recognition and panic crossed me.
Spasi i sahrani. I saw myself standing in the pew at the Russian church in Nowhere, Ontario, and someday in Some Other Place, Russia. I would have Russian Orthodox children, I who had run away would be anchored again in a family and tradition, and this felt like something I wasn’t equipped to fight. Salvation and safety was in starting from the words.
Language has always been my territory. I moved in the world dancing among phrases and grammar structures, not expertly but in awe. I’d gotten English and French and been enamoured with each in turn. It made sense that my new love would manifest through a language so particular and akin to religion.
A new language probably happens less than a new city, less than a new love in the average person’s life. That day I went online to learn the Cyrillic. These days I’m taking Russian classes and learning extra with textbooks and CDs. He’s in Toronto now, his voice in French over the phone barely real. I don’t know what will happen with us. But built inside the Russian I’m acquiring there are permanent undertones of love, yes, and prayer, yes, and housekeeping.