When there’s almost nothing going on in your life, little moments magnify in proportion to everything else. Back home I remember hearing many times how so and so wanted to begin to appreciate the little things in life, or do something so that they stopped being so busy. I see two options right off the bat, get old or join the Peace Corps. I guess the first isn’t really an option, and the second depends on site placement, but if all else fails, you could pull a Thoreau and find your own Walden Pond if you still can.
There’s nobody in the world who has the ability to slow me down and bring me to that present second where the past is gone and the future is unimportant, like my adopted grandmother Agnes. She’s 98, more than fulfilling one of my options, but it’s more than that with Agnes. When I visited her in college, it always struck me how, just holding her hand brought more joy to her eyes than I saw in the eyes of any of my classmates during the most event filled nights. Although my contemplative abilities were/are too underdeveloped for this to translate into me living a more mindful existence, she impressed and inspired me. Agnes is one of those special people who can find immense joy in a conversation, a meal, or seeing the first crop of dandelions. Let alone when you do something “crazy,” like picking up a boulder out of a carefully arranged rock garden and moving it under her so that her legs could be elevated and we could sit outside in the spring sunshine. She made it seem like I disrupted the very fabric of society just for her, and the thing is, it made me want to.
I’m using Agnes as an example of one way to appreciate the little moments, but maybe she’s a bad example. I have the feeling that her attitude might have more to do with Agnes than with age, and that it might not be the case for all people of her youthful disposition. So onto my second questionable example, joining the Peace Corps. I will preempt this by explaining why this example is again of iffy value. There are three Macalester College 2010 grads doing Peace Corps Kazakhstan; myself, my friend Katie, and my good friend and former roommate Sarah. Out of our three situations, Katie and I represent the range of circumstance available in Kazakhstan, let along the Peace Corps. She lives in Shymkent, separating us by a forty-hour, north-south train ride. Shymkent is a huge city filled with volunteers, it rarely snows, even in the dead of winter, and cultural relics where I live are norms where she lives. I’m painting this picture in order to illustrate how inaccurate my example about the Peace Corps could prove. I would assume that Katie has better things to do than wait until the pechka reaches that perfect moment of crackling consumption of fuel before sitting down on the bathroom floor to read the Iliad.
I don’t want to pass judgement on either way of life, simple or complicated, but merely relate a few simple moments that I’ve recently had. I’m sure I’ve got you hooked now, what does a 23 year-old do in his spare and ample time in the southern section of the Western Siberian Plain?! Anyways, on to the meat of my ramblings.
Butter. I eat an unhealthy amount of butter. I didn’t realize this until my host-father looked at me fearfully the other night at dinner. I had finished putting away my tenth or twelfth piece of baursaki (deep fried dough), and was sitting listening to conversation and drinking tea. What I didn’t realize was that I was unconsciously dipping my tea-spoon into the butter, then dipping it into the jam, and putting the combo in my mouth. It is customary here to eat jam from the bowl, but I don’t think the butter thing is normal. It’s also customary to make huge generalizations about what it means to be Kazakh by how you eat your food (namely talking about how much meat and butter they eat). They don’t talk about how much butter they eat anymore. I think they’ve realized that this American can put down as much butter in one sitting as an entire Kazakh family. And frankly, I think they might be worried about me.
Carbohydrates, fat, meat, and more butter. This is what I eat here. My only garnish is jam, and ketchup when my family buys the kind of ketchup that isn’t trying to pretend it’s salsa. Before I came to Kazakhstan, I thought I was being a man if I didn’t cut the fat off my meat, now I just eat that shit straight. I go weeks without touching vegetables, and when I do, it’s cabbage, usually in borshe (cabbage soup), a batch of which can unfortunately last for many days. I’m not complaining though, I feel relatively healthy, and in the face of a village-wide flu epidemic, I’m the only volunteer I’ve talked to who hasn’t gotten sick since coming to site. This is unusual for me, especially in the wintertime, but I’m happy. There was only one instance where I’ve had any real problems with food; it was when I had butter with some bread for breakfast, and I found myself alone in the house during the afternoon with no food. Well, there was a little more bread and a lot more butter. I made a lunch out of it, but refused to eat it again for dinner. I was just about to jog to the nearest corner store to buy something (maybe cookies) when the family came home with groceries, resulting in my being fed an enormous amount of food. This is one of my little moments, eating that meal (fried meat with noodles) was such a highlight that nothing else mattered that day.
Another little moment was a bit less pleasant, and much more internal. I was having one of those epic bad days where everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and I was sending frantic text messages stateside in which my entire fate seemed to rest. I was tripping. Obviously, shit was not that bad, but I’m not blowing up my emotions at the time. I found myself typing one of said messages in my English room when I was accosted by a fellow faculty member. For discretion’s sake, I will try to leave out revealing details while painting the picture that was my trial. I stopped texting and looked down at the tiny older woman who was screaming at me in Russian, in doing so, caught a whiff of something that words cannot describe. As the stench assaulted my senses, I tried to make out what was being said through my haze of emotions and lack of Russian. I soon realized that I was being reprimanded for supporting vegetarianism in my tenth-grade class. Even though I’m an avid runner, decent skier, and an above average drunk wrassler, I was informed I don’t know my pooper from a hole in the ground when it comes to being healthy. I’m proud to say that I just listened, sitting on a desk, for fifteen or so minutes, to the merits of being a carnivore, being a communist, and eating soup every day. It was good practice in mindful breathing and meditation.
A slightly more pleasant little moment occurred at home the next day, where most of these moments occur, because I spend an ungodly amount of time here. I came in from my run emotionally and physically exhausted, and was sprawled on the couch trying to decide whether to read Huckleberry Finn or the Iliad, not succeeding at either, so napping and thinking, when my host-sister came in and placed a chocolate bar on my chest. It wasn’t just any chocolate bar, it was Kazakhstan-brand dark chocolate… the best chocolate in the world, and very hard to find in Sergeyevka. I asked her why she bought it, and she said that it looked like I had a bad day yesterday.
It’s moments like that moment which are worth all the bad ones; a simple act of selflessness and kindness kindled my spirits and prompted me to drop both books and again read Thoreau next to the toilet, thus completing my happiness.
My final unexpected moment happened at 9:30 on Saturday morning when I was teaching two sections of fifth grade instead of sleeping in my bed where I belonged. I agreed to fill in for a teacher who was ill, and although I love teaching fifth grade, my recent bout of insomnia made it less than optimal. So I decided to open the lesson on “What time is it?” with a pregame chant we used to do in traveling basketball. I know that my teaching methods are questionable, but so are a lot of things in life, and at least they make my students laugh and have fun, which is really all I care about. The highlight of my day was when I found myself in a huddle with eight fifth graders chanting:
What time is it?
What time is it?
What time is it?
Game time whoa!
We climbed from a whisper to a guttural roar, and when it was tiny Vova’s chance to lead, he did it in a way that would have made Herb Brooks proud. The cool thing about my life is that these kinds of moments with my students are not rare, in fact they often happen many times a day, many times a lesson. So maybe the moral of my story is that if you want to appreciate those little moments, hang out with fifth graders.