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to be an expat

How can I even begin to explain the experiences of an expat?  The great assumption is that East and West are terribly different. One is vilified, the other painted as a land of patriots and heroes. One is crude and filthy the other has streets paved with gold. Look up and you will see miracles of architecture. Beyond the windows there are supposed to be good people, open smiles and warm hearts. How can I tell you that none of this is true? How can I untie my shoes, and somehow put them on your feet three thousand miles away? You would never believe what secrets they have to tell.

Every time I go back to the states I become more embarrassed to be an American. I overhear conversations in the street, the whines of privileged and moneyed voices. Coddled, dumbed-down and mislead they are drunk on a calculated fairly tale. And then back in Moscow, the same ignorance - the same questions from curious taxi drivers about how good it must be in America, where everything is possible and life mu…

Let's see (a photo by E)

There is a little voice that surfaced a few years ago. I am a born headbanger. Wall, head, grindstone, nose. Rinse, repeat. I don't know the origin of this voice, or the exact moment it appeared, just that I listened. It told me to let go. Instead of wrestling, take a step back and marvel at the way things can work out all by themselves. Sometimes the right action is to do nothing. It was a tough lesson to learn, as I am used to conflict being resolved with sweat and tears and sleepless nights. 

In E's bedroom, a guitar stands. I remember buying it together, her perched on a little stool trying one after another until this Spanish one felt best. It was expensive, but she was studying in a great program. That ended some time ago, and the guitar remains, like those props in 80's films. Every teenager with an unused guitar in the corner 

She still does not play it, but she teaches herself piano almost every day. She plays for hours, with a blanket curled around her feet, face locked in concentration. I tell her dinner is ready 15 times before she hears me. I did nothing but let her borrow one of my keyboards, and showed her how to work it. I did not take her to lessons, just told her she could use it any time and if I needed it back, I would tell her. I find it fascinating, how she chose it, how she takes such pleasure from it. She never said "can I play this for you on guitar". It was always practicing and memorizing, and preparing for the next recital, nothing more. 


She borrowed one of my old cameras in the same way, until we bought her a new one for her birthday a year ago. E keeps it on a little tripod, ready for a certain blue sky, or snow falling, or rain. She loves to photograph rain. But this also lingers for weeks and months, unused. Sometimes she goes out with me, when I am shooting and then she does sling the camera around her neck, stopping to look, mouth twisted in thought. But most of the time, she ignores the camera.

Last week, she told me she had started to make self-portraits with it. She was looking for my reaction, quite possibly my approval. I looked at it, and had the combined joy of a parent and of an artist, sometimes a teacher. I told her to do more like this, more, more, more. I told her what was working with the composition, what was working with the colors, and most of all, the undertone, the story. Then, I told her to forget everything I said because all that matters is what she thinks of it.

I asked her permission to show it, to write about it. A little smile, a shrug of the shoulders.

"Let's see."




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