Choice is a concept that is scary and liberating all at the same time. I find, as I sit to write another manuscript, I am sometimes frozen by having choices. The choice to use whatever word I want, to depict whatever emotion I wish, to whatever characters I create. But choice also gives way to fear: what if I use the wrong word, the wrong description, the wrong simile? This conundrum of choice reminded me of my decision to pursue another Masters degree, this time in something other than finance or economics. This was my essay that helped garner an admission and I find it more relevant than ever, now that I have forced myself to sit down at yet another book.
I knew if I focused my gaze on the greasy Kalashnikov slung across his back, I could disassociate myself from the rough hands that were fumbling my threadbare coat. The solider who was rifling through my pockets was looking for money, gold, diamonds or whatever other treasures he was instructed to unearth. Unable to find anything of value, he grunted and pushed me away from him and toward the turnstiles. Using as much force as my seven-year-old body contained, I shoved past the metal gates and ran as fast as I could toward my parents. With a sigh of relief, they grabbed my hands and we quickly headed toward the waiting staircase. As we sat on the tarmac, I knew what my parents were thinking. Finally, we had done it. We had crossed the Iron Curtain.
The first seven years of my life were spent living in a “A Room and a Half.” My room, my parents’ room, the living room and the dining room were all the same room. It’s no irony that the words “privacy” and “fun” have no direct Russian translation. My memories of life in Communist Russia are an intricate patchwork of fear, nostalgia, paranoia, oppressiveness, entrapment and constant longing. The longing was like a grumbling stomach that quietly but incessantly begs for food. Technically, we had almost enough to survive: enough potatoes, enough cabbage. But somehow, it was never enough. The first word I learned in English was orange. Not the color, but the fruit. That’s because I had only read about the sticky nectar of that forbidden delicacy in books and longed to try it. It was only when we came to American, that for the first time, at the ripe old age of eight, I was lucky enough to taste a slice of heaven.
These days, few can imagine there was a point in my life, when I was bewildered by things such as Crayons, peanut butter, fitted sheets, shampoo, shorts, bananas, pizza and bowling. On the surface, other than somewhat Slavic looking features and a misspelled name, I’m as American as any of my colleagues. But my veneer of Americanism is very thin. Beneath the surface, I am still a myriad of fear and longing, so similar to the seven-year-old child I supposedly left behind. Like a mewling kitten trying in desperation to push through a closed door on a cold winter night, I am in constant longing to accomplish the next thing in life. It’s the combination of that longing and fear that contributed to my incessant hunger for accomplishment. Writing had always been a part of my life. I can’t live without it. But it was always done in secret. A furtive undertaking used as a tool to express all my pent up anguish that is in such contradiction to the serenity I portray on the surface.
So now what? Now, I am done. Literally. Although literally, I hope I am just beginning. The advanced degree has been earned, the “real” job is taking off and the children have been birthed. Now it is my turn. I spent many years trying to stifle my longing for writing. But like rising dough escaping from a bowl, the longing to write has once again begun a drumbeat in my ear. And now, it’s hard to ignore. Fear was always the cold water that suffused my longing to write. You’re not a writer. Your missives are a joke, are thoughts that would permeate my existence. After all, I am a product of my environment; Russia’s brilliant method of encouragement through belittling and degradation in order to inspire a fighting spirit. But maybe finally it has worked. I operate in an environment where it’s either or. I’m either talented or I am a worthless nobody. I am either as good as some of my favorite writers or I am a useless statistician, relegated to live in the underbelly of financial analysis. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so black and white. As I remember the greasy Kalashnikov on the back of that solider, I’m also struck with an inspirational thought. If I was lucky enough to escape from behind the Iron Curtain, maybe I am strong enough to break down whatever self-imposed curtains I created in my mind. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? At least I am still free.