About Svetlana Grobman

I am a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was born in Moscow in 1951 and who moved to the United States in 1990. While living in Russia, I was an engineer and an editor for the Soviet Encyclopedia. Now, I am a librarian and freelance writer living in Missouri.

The Trump Effect


1-IMG_1657-002At our last Staff Day, I received a certificate marking my 25 years with the same library. My first reaction was, “OMG, I’ve worked here longer than I did in Russia!” My second thought was, “How old does that make me?!” (A silly reaction: it’s not as if I hadn’t noticed how much I have aged!). And my third thought was, “Things have definitely changed since I came to this country…”

I won’t lie and tell you that I became a librarian because of my humanitarian nature. You’d be hard pressed to find many Russians who give a hoot about humanity. That’s how we were brought up. We come from a country where everything was about “us” versus “them,” where “us” was our never-wrong-Russia and “them” was the rest of the world, hated and envied at the same time.

I didn’t become a librarian because of my love for books either. This is not to say that I don’t like reading. I do, but that wasn’t my motivation. Librarianship just happened to me.

When I arrived in the USA, I was 39 years old and spoke no English, so my first job here was as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. I worked the night shift. This was good, because very few residents felt talkative at night. But it was also bad, because I couldn’t sleep during the day. After four months of chronic sleep deprivation, I felt like a zombie. When a friend told me that our local public library was looking for a shelver, I applied immediately. (Had he told me that someone was looking for a non-English-speaking-woman to send to Mars,  I’d have applied for that, too, so miserable was I.)  That’s how my library career began.

In the beginning, I was terrified of everything: library patrons who tried to talk to me and my colleagues who mostly pitied me. I was especially afraid of getting fired — because the little money I earned was my only source of income. Yet, gradually, I learned English, went back to school, got a Master’s degree in Library Science, and, eventually, became a full-fledged librarian – all while working at the same library.

I never regretted my choices._MG_6354 While librarians are not seen as glamorous creatures but rather as homely women of an uncertain age who wear square glasses, working at the library gave me a chance to learn about my new country. It also gave me a chance to work with like-minded people in an environment where camaraderie is valued above competition and where knowledge is more important than showing off.

Every day, I met lots of people – men and women, old and young. Most of them were patient with me, even when I made mistakes – and I made many mistakes when I first started. I confused whales with Wales, deer with dear, awful with awefull, sweet with suite, corps (as in Corps of engineers) with corpse, etc. And then there were idiomatic expressions and sports metaphors that made no sense to me.

Of course, it wasn’t just at work that I met people. There were people who, seeing me walk in 95-degree weather, stopped their cars and asked if I needed a ride (at the beginning, I had no car). There were sales clerks at grocery stores who – after realizing that I was a foreigner – said, smiling, “Welcome to this country!” And there were neighbors who, when a tornado hit our town, came to our door to take me and my daughter to the basement. (We never had tornadoes in Moscow, so during my first tornado, I actually went shopping!)

I remember writing a letter to my parents describing Midwesterners as friendly and nice, although somewhat reserved. (The latter I experienced first-hand when I married a Midwesterner whose natural inclination is to suffer in silence, while mine is to complain openly :)).

It’s all behind me now.  Having lived here for 25 years, I know not to look for animals falling from the sky when I hear, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” I don’t consider putting stamps on someone’s clothes when they say, “Keep me posted,” and I don’t worry about people’s limbs when they buy things that cost “an arm and a leg.” My ignorance and my Russian suspicion were cured long ago by experience and by the incorrigible Midwestern niceness.

Yet lately things have changed. These days, America seems to be catching up with Russia in racism and animosity toward the rest of the world. It’s as though Pandora ’s Box has suddenly opened, and ugly thoughts and behavior, usually hidden, have came out in the open. Vulgarity, misogyny and xenophobia have become a new norm, propagated not just by neo-Nazis but even by the man who hopes to become our next president.

It hurts me to watch this new America, since my many years spent among nice people stripped me of the protective shield I had developed in Russia, where open anti-Semitism was the norm, and where total strangers insulted me – and others like me — by calling us “kikes” and telling us to “get out” of the country of our birth.

Of course, most of this does not happen to me personally. After all, I work at a library, and I live in a college town. So I was unprepared for the day when an older, respectable-looking man approached our reference desk with a question, and, on hearing my accent, said, “Where did you come from?”14-IMG_5572

I looked up from my computer – I was already working on his request – and said, “I’m from Russia.”

“I see,” He said, accentuating each word. “When I lived in Chicago, I dealt with your kind a lot!”

My heart began racing. “What kind is that?” I wanted to say. But I did not. I knew exactly what he meant. In his eyes, I, as an immigrant, did not deserve to be treated as an individual but as a part of some dirty mass. A pest to be rid of.

“Are you worried about me taking someone’s job?” I said, blood rushing to my face. “Don’t be. There wasn’t much competition for my position 25 years ago.”

There were lots of other things I wanted to tell him. But, my professional ethics kicked in, and I took a deep breath and continued helping him.

When the man left, I felt deflated. Nothing was new about the way he addressed me. Degrading human beings was a tactic used by Joseph Goebbels to dehumanize German Jews. At first they were called rats and vermin, and then, when everyone got used to that, they were sent to concentration camps and gassed.

When I came home, my husband, whose American roots go back more than 200 years and to whom I’ve been married for 18 years, said, “I apologize to you for that man, honey.”

That episode happened two weeks ago, but still, I cannot forget it. In the larger scheme of things, it may not seem important. But it is. Because every horror starts small. And if we let it go, if we tell ourselves that, after all, it’s not directed at uswe are not immigrants or Mexicans; we are not disabled or Muslims– a little story told by Martin Niemöller may easily repeat itself:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

P.S. If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to my interview with our local PBS station, where I talk about my book, “The Education of Traitor:” 

Interview with KMOS-TV

Interview with KMOS-TV

In Memory of Elie Wiesel


“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” ~ Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

 When, in 1990, at the age of 39, I emigrated from the USSR to the United States, I did not know about Ellie Wiesel, Anne Frank and other victims — or survivors — of the Holocaust. In fact, I didn’t even know the term “Holocaust.” And not because I was a bad student who failed to learn it in school, but because the anti-Semitic politics of the Third Reich were not covered in our school curriculum and our mass media — not before nor during WWII, nor afterwards. As a result, the atrocities that were well known in the West were hardly mentioned in the East. There, coverage of WWII was dedicated to the bravery and suffering of Soviet troops, and, until 1956, to Stalin’s military genius. So the mass killings of Jews – in Europe and Ukraine — did not qualify.

(Reproduction of the photo depicting Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, the place where 100,000 people, overwhelmingly Jews, were murdered in September 1941.)

This is not to say that the Russian population had it easy. The war was devastating for the USSR. Overall, more than 26 million Russian citizens died during the war, not to mention those who came back as invalids and hopeless alcoholics. Still, the fact that the Jews were systematically exterminated was not revealed in Russia (where casual anti-Semitism was the norm) for a very long time. Well, we knew about concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Buchenwald. In fact, there was a popular song written about the latter, which went like this:

“People of the world stand up a moment

Listen, listen. It buzzes from all sides

It can be heard in Buchenwald ringing off the bells

It’s innocent blood reborn and strengthened in a brazen roar.

Victims are resurrected from the ashes …”

Yet again, we were never told that the main goal of a camp like Auschwitz was the implementation of “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz there were at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the countries of occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.

When I found myself in Columbia, MO, and I had learned enough English to start reading, books about the Holocaust were not high on my list. First, I needed to learn about my adoptive country, its history, culture and customs. So, when one day (I was already working at the Reference Desk of the Columbia Public Library) a teenage girl came to me and asked about “The Diary of a Young Girl,” I had no idea what that book was about. I just looked it up in the library catalog.  And later, when another patron was looking for “Night” by Ellie Wiesel, I didn’t know anything about that book either.  In fact, I had trouble spelling “Wiesel.”

Time went by and I learned about the Holocaust, about Anne Frank and Ellie Wiesel and others. I saw a collection of victims shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (the Nazis confiscated their victims’ belongings and sent valuables back to Germany; the shoes were to be repaired by the camps’ prisoners and reused).

And I heard a reading of names of the Jewish children murdered during the Holocaust (1.5 million names in all) in the Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem, which is housed in an underground cave and lit by candles that, reflected in a system of mirrors, create the impression of millions of little stars. (The complex was built with donations from a family whose two-and-a-half old son was killed in Auschwitz.) And when I was read “Night,” I could hardly keep from screaming; for the way I felt, it all could have happened to me, my parents and my daughter.

(Yad Vashem Children’s Memorial, Jerusalem, Israel)

There are some events so cruel and traumatic that people don’t want to talk about them, even less read about them. In fact, when Wiesel’s “Night” first appeared in print (in Yiddish) in 1954, its publication was hardly noticed. In America, when the book was published in 1960, it wasn’t an overnight success either. Gradually, though, it began attracting more attention, and when, in 2006, Oprah Winfrey presented “Night” to her book club, it became a New York Times bestseller.

Wiesel went on to write many more books and to become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Above all, he remained a voice for Holocaust victims and survivors – the mission he considered the most important in his life.

“If I survived,” Wiesel said in 1981, “It must be for some reason. I must do something with my life… because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

 

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©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

Volunteers: A Study in Contrasts


April 10-16 is observed in the United States and Canada as National Volunteer Week.

 

“Volunteer: a person who willingly does work without getting paid to do it”

IMG_1657-003Where I came from (Moscow, Russia), we never volunteered — at least not in the American way.  The thing was that we didn’t have to — authorities “volunteered” us when and where they desired. The “without getting paid” part (see definition above) worked the same way as it does in America. As for the willingness, nobody ever cared to ask.

The most common cases of Russian “volunteering” during my time there included sending citizens to express their (fake) enthusiasm at state parades, and sending city dwellers to collective farms to help with harvesting.

I still remember spending long weeks (even months) picking cabbages and potatoes, hours away from my home in Moscow — living in military-style barracks, wearing oversized black rain boots and ugly telogreikas (black, shapeless quilted jackets), and drinking vodka — the only entertainment available in the provinces.

I also remember “voluntarily” greeting foreign dignitaries, including Gerald Ford, who visited Russia (then The Soviet Union) in November 1974. My whole college was positioned along Moscow’s wide Leninsky Prospect (Lenin’s Avenue) for about 2 hours, bored and cold, waiting for the black limousines and leather-clad motorcyclists to drive quickly past us, while we waved at them and smiled forced smiles under the command of our superiors.

This is not to say that nobody in Russia would take to the streets voluntarily. There were a few — some protesting against the injustice of the regime and some trying to force the authorities to allow them to leave the country. Yet they were called “dissidents,” and the country had appropriate places for them — mostly the state prisons. All in all, “altruism” was not a common word in our vocabulary – “mandate” was.

Of course, I haven’t been in the country of my birth for a very long time, and things are different there now.  These days Russia, too, has volunteers.  One example is Russian soldiers — sorry, I meant to say “volunteers” — who fought against the Ukranian Army in 2014-15 (in Ukrainian territory, mind you).  Unlike my days of digging in the mud in Russian potato/cabbage/carrots/ etc. fields, those guys weren’t wearing telograikas and rain boots, but military style clothing. They were better equipped, too.  Instead of sacks for gathering veggies, they carried automatic rifles, drove tanks, and used Russian-made rockets. Yet small differences aside, it’s clear that volunteering has finally made its way to Russia. In fact, some Russian volunteers are fighting in Syria right now.

Coming to America in 1990 was disorienting for me in a number of ways — mentally, linguistically and culturally; and one of things that amazed me was this American “volunteering streak.” I remember asking people, “Do you mean that nobody forces (or pays) volunteers to travel to different states to help victims of natural disasters or to support a cause?! That some people would spend their time and money to feed the poor or organize and attend fundraisers?” And when I heard, “yes,” I just shook my head in disbelief.

I’m not saying everybody in this country is an altruist. Of course not. I am saying, though, that I know many people here who have done – and will do again – all of the above and more. And let me tell you, volunteering is contagious.  These days, I volunteer, too.  I’ve participated in a number of fundraisers, and I’ve donated things to my congregation and my library.  It’s not much, but it’s a beginning. For I finally understood that John Donne’s famous quote is not just poetic.  It is a truth of the human condition:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

If not Now, When?


 

UntitledAs you know, I’ve been “Freshly Pressed” recently. This has been my closest brush with fame so far :), and the result of it surprised and amazed me. The surprise lasted for about a day. (Longer than Isaac Bashevis Singer’s when he received the announcement that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1978

His phone rang off the hook and everybody asked, “Are you surprised?” At first, Singer said, “Yes!” But soon, his response changed: “How long does surprise last? I heard the news 15 minutes ago!).

Yet I am still experiencing the amazement. Some 2000 people read my post Dreams (BTW, those who liked that post, may also like A Wrinkle in Time and Of Soil and Feathers), the number of my followers tripled (!), I received almost 150 comments, and 10 people bought my book. ( FYI, until October 4, a digital copy of my book is available from smashwords.com for $0.99 with a coupon CB32K.)

I am very grateful to everybody who took the time to read my humble ramblings.  As for your comments, if I haven’t answered them yet, I definitely will. (Well, someone asked if I like Windows 10; that I won’t answer – it’s between me and Microsoft :)).  One thing, though — with many people “following” me now, I feel the pressure of being worthy of so much attention, and I fear that I won’t be. For one thing, my posts are all different – sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous, and sometimes reflective. So forgive me if I disappoint you. I am who I am, and I write about my feelings and experiences — which, this time, concern my recent vacation in Oregon.

If not Now, When?

The first thing my husband and I noticed while landing in Portland was how smoggy the city was. With the hottest summer on record and wild fires raging in Oregon, Washington, and California, that was hardly surprising. Yet we had no time to dwell on it. We rented a car and drove to Multnomah Falls, located about 30 miles away from Portland.

1-_MG_0920We humans are hardwired to be drawn to water, but waterfalls seem especially magical. Is it the sheer force of falling water? The cool glimmering beads that gently spray your face? The fresh smells and the haunting monotony of the sound? Who knows? All I know is that no picture can do justice to Multnomah Falls (at least not my picture:)). The falls are immense –the drop from the upper falls is 542 feet and from the lower 69 feet – and they attracts two million people visitors every year.

We spent hours admiring the scenery, had lunch at the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, and headed to our next destination — Mt. Hood.

To my disappointment, the Historic Columbia River Highway appeared hazy — the smoke of nearby fires washed out the dark greenery of Douglas firs and the rocky cliffs on the other side of the river. Even a bigger disappointment awaited us at Mt. Hood. The mountain, so photogenic on a clear day, was obscured by smoke. I gave up my idea of taking pictures, and we headed to Timberline Lodge, set at the tree line of the mountain.

If Mt. Hood is a monument to nature, then the lodge (built in the 1930s as a WPA project),with its carved railings, wrought iron fireplace, and an enormous chimney, is a monument to the past times.

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The only thing that reminds visitors about the 21st century is an overpriced restaurant where every dish is made of multiple ingredients and sorbet is served between courses to “clear your palette.” (Tip: if you ever visit there, eat at the bar, where you can have a great view of the mountains, good food, and reasonable prices:)).

Next day, though, the wind changed, and, as if in a theater, the smoke receded, the sky turned velvety blue, and the mountain appeared in all its glory. Well, in as much glory as the diminished amount of snow on its top allowed. To give you an idea, the first time we visited Mt. Hood together was April, 2010. Deep snow lay on the ground when we arrived, and when we woke up next morning, 33” (!) of fresh snow puffed up the already wintry scene, deep snowdrifts reached the windows of the third floor, and the chairlift (we came to ski) was hardly visible in the whiteout of falling snow.

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This time, we spent our days admiring distant views of Mt. Jefferson and Three Sisters, hiking on Mt. Hood, and walking in the deep Northern woods, where stately Douglas firs stand guard over cool mountain lakes that provide fun for kayakers, fishermen and sunbathers. Then we continued to Bagby Hot Springs, recommended to me by a library friend.

After an hour of driving, we stopped at a Forest Service office and asked for directions. A female staff member gave us a funny look and said, “Who told you about Bagby?”

“A colleague of mine,” I answered. “He said it’s a great place to visit.”

“If you’re into that kind of things, yes.” The woman said. “Where are you from?”

“Missouri,” I said, feeling somewhat uneasy.

“Missouri?!” The woman said. Then she hollered to someone in the other side of the office,

“Look, Mary, people from Missouri are asking about Bagby!”

Another woman got up and looked us up and down.

“Nudity is limited these days,” She finally said and sat down.58574c088c98b55b-_MG_20782

“Nudity!? He didn’t say anything about nudity!” I started, but the first woman interrupted me.

“And you’ll have to bring several buckets of water from the creek to cool off the spring water.”

“We’re renting a car,” I said. “It didn’t come with a bucket!”

“Exactly,” the second woman said. “And the baths aren’t in good shape. They’re made of wood. Deteriorated.”

At that point, I pulled my husband to the exit, and we headed to Silver Falls State Park instead. The park, a nine-mile-loop that begins with the 177-foot-high South Falls and snakes through a densely wooded landscape connecting 10 waterfalls, is an example of park-design-ingenuity. Of course, the unusually dry summer affected it, too, turning several waterfalls into trickles. Yet we enjoyed the park anyway, especially since two waterfalls allowed visitors to walk behind the cascading water and see the other side of the fluid curtain.

_MG_1772-001Next day we drove to the Oregon coast. The famous Pacific Northwest coastline was smoggy, and, once again, I put away my camera and waited for a food stop. The small town of Tillamook proved to be just that. A busy restaurant /gift shop offered local cheeses and wine/dips/spices-and-you-name-it tasting, while a next-door art gallery provided food for the visual sense.

Having fulfilled our tourist duties, we continued to the town of Seaside. A fancier place to stay would’ve been Canon Beach, but a librarian (me) and a retired professor (my husband) cannot afford to be fancy:). We had no regrets, though. Seaside is a cute town with a grand, 1.5 mile-long promenade, wide sandy beaches, an aquarium, and the best pancake restaurant I’ve encountered — Pig ‘N Pancake (Tip: sourdough pancakes are to die for!).

Unfortunately, the town was veiled in smoke, too, but our luck held — the wind soon changed and the Pacific Ocean appeared before our eyes, mighty and austere. _MG_2437We spent our time walking along the promenade, hiking in the woods, and watching windsurfers at Ecola State Park (surfing there is not for the faint of heart — the peak temperature is 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit).

Even if you don’t stay in Canon Beach, you owe it to yourself to see its shoreline. The 235-foot-high Haystack Rock rises from the bottom of the ocean as a reminder of prehistoric times. (At low tide, visitors can walk up to it and see starfish and other tide-pool creatures.) Several other large monoliths next to Haystack courageously defy the crashing of ocean waves. And wide beaches offer enough space for sunbathers (swimmers are rare, but they can be easily pinpointed by their loud screams when they splash in the cold water), sandcastle builders, windsurfers, tricyclists, dog walkers, and kite runners. (Tip: bring some warm clothes, preferably a hoodie — the wind there is strong and cool)._MG_2605

Time flew, and soon we were driving back to Portland to take a plane home. The return, always anticlimactic, was also marked by low visibility, and I began to pay more attention to the scenery close to the highway: small, rundown houses and glaring spots in the forests covered the nearby rocky landscape – a result of merciless logging. On the radio, the announcers were talking about the alarming air quality in Portland.

In the airport, while waiting for our flight, I scrolled through my photos – a barely-covered-with-snow Mt. Hood, hazy landscapes along the Columbia River, diminished waterfalls, and my thoughts turned to the environment. We, the older generation, are lucky to have seen amazing landscapes and jungle-like forests, to have skied in deep snow and enjoyed clear horizons. But what about our grandchildren? Will they ski on Mt. Hood, walk in the deep woods or swim in the lakes and rivers? Will they inhale clean air and observe clear views?

It’s about time we understood that we cannot afford to be careless and oblivious to the changes that are happening in our time. Otherwise, we’ll go the way of Easter Islanders who deforested their island, ruined its ecosystem, and, eventually, caused their civilization to collapse. Let’s do something to prevent this, and do it soon — despite the inertia and political squabbles that poison our souls and our environment.

If not now, when?_MG_2569

©Svetlana Grobman.  All Rights Reserved

I’ve been Freshly Pressed!


I just 1-IMG_1657-002received very exciting news: I’ve been “Freshly Pressed!” If you’re not a wordpress.com blogger yourself, you may think that I’ve gone mad, so let me explain. Being “freshly pressed” has nothing to do with any industrial process or making juice (at my age, I may not have much juice left in me anyway :)). _MG_5287All it means is that the WordPress.com editors chose one of my posts to be featured in their daily collection of most interesting posts.  This is an honor, and it also means that many more people will “discover” me and my blog.

When I first began blogging, I really wanted this to happen – and fast, too. I talked to other bloggers and I looked at the wordpress.com recommendations, which were all like this: write often, preferably every day. Yet I quickly realized that I’m just not cut out for that. For one thing, what would I write about every day? My life is not that exciting, and I don’t have any special skills the world is waiting for me to reveal.  Besides, the Internet is already filled with posts (including pictures) about dirty dishes sitting in a sink waiting to be washed, cups of coffee waiting to be drunk, and other mundane objects and events from bloggers’ everyday lives.IMG_5045 3

Things like that may be inspirational for certain people, and some of these posts are actually very good. But for me to get inspired, something unusual has to happen, like birds crashing into our windows, strange dreams invading my subconsciousnessa letter from Michelle Obama (are you intrigued? — a post about that is coming, stay tuned :)), traveling — that kind of thing. So, early on, I realized that blogging fame is not achievable for me, and therefore, I proceeded at my own pace – writing mostly once a month and mostly about things that give me pleasure or cause me distress.

And what do you know–two years later, it came! Which I found very surprising.  Do not take me wrong.  I am happy to be recognized (who wouldn’t be?), but I did not do – or write — anything differently. So, why now? Why at all?

When I was very young, I believed that life must be fair. Well, that didn’t last long, as life taught its lessons. Later I believed that one can control the future merely by planning for it.  That, of course, had to be corrected, too.  Now, I believe that life is unpredictable, and if you stick it out, you may actually get rewarded. Or not. You never know. The safest bet is to do what brings you joy — or solace. And that is a reward in itself._MG_6613

©Svetlana Grobman.                           All Rights Reserved

“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Interview with Paul Pepper, KBIA

Dear friends,

Before you read my new post, take a look at this YouTube video — my interview with Paul Pepper (a KBIA show “Radio Friends with Paul Pepper“).

Also,

A digital-only version of  my memoir, The Education of a Traitor, will be also released at smashwords.com (it’s already at Amazon) on July 19 — for Apple iBooks, iTunes, Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Sony, and PDF.  It is available to pre-order at Barnes and Noble, and it will be free at smashwords.com July 19-25th with a coupon PZ85H.

And now,

“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw”

“It’s raining cats and dogs,” my husband said.

“It sure is,” I said, still – after all my 25 years in America — trying to envision what raining animals would look like.

Pouring rain is common in Missouri, and some years, mowing a lawn once a week no longer cuts it (excuse my pun :)). Yet this summer the grass hasn’t seemed to grow like crazy, while the rest of our plants have.

One day, after work, I walked around the house and realized that our property has turned into a jungle: the trees have spread their branches as if trying to swallow our house, the plants beside our walk have oozed onto it for about a foot, and our deck appears much shadier than I ever remembered it.

The result looks spooky, reminding me of a book I read some time ago–The World Without Us–which postulates that plants could cover all traces of human existence within about a hundred years or so. Continue reading

Caroline Leavitt featured me on her blog!


I am honored that Caroline Leavitt, an American novelist and the New York Times bestselling author, interviewed me for her blog. Here is her entry:

THURSDAY, JUNE 25, 2015

Svetlana Grobman talks about growing up in Cold War Russia, writing, and so much more

I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo.  Kirkus Reviews calls this “an intimate look at a young woman’s struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society.” Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, “Hard-hitting and involving.” I’pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.

I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?

It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English — mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.

My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him — not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime.

Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny. Continue reading

A Wrinkle in Time


1-IMG_1657-002“You don’t look like Mama,” my granddaughter, Amelia, said.

“I am not supposed to look like your mama.  It’s your mama who is supposed to look like me …” I started but realized that my joke would be lost on a seven-year old, so I quickly corrected myself, “What do you mean, darling?”

“Mama doesn’t have so many wrinkles,” Amelia said with the cruel sincerity of a child.

I think I look pretty good for my age! — I wanted to say, feeling suddenly defensive — the subject of my ever increasing (and deepening) wrinkles has been on my mind for some time now even without my granddaughter’s reminder. In fact, just before we left our Missouri home, I looked at my passport picture — the one I considered to be my worst picture in the last nine years — and I realized that I’d love to look like that today. Yet I didn’t want to discuss the subject of aging with my granddaughter, so I said, “Your mother’s face is less wrinkly because she’s my daughter. Daughters look younger than their mothers.  You look younger than yours, and I looked younger than mine. The longer we live the more wrinkles we have.”

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“Your mama died,” Amelia said with the superiority of an insider.

“Yes, she did.” I said, momentarily choking from the acute pain that these three little words caused me. “Do you remember her, darling?”

“Yes. She had lo-o-o-ts of wrinkles.” Amelia said, not willing to change the subject.

Amelia is funny that way. Every time my husband and I come to London for our yearly visits, Amelia and I have long conversations about things. They started when she turned three and she began to learn about her family relations, which are more confusing than I’d would like them to be for her sake. Continue reading

Shameless Self-Promotion:)


Unfortunately, I haven’t written much for a while:(.  The only things I’ve done are several book talks and interviews.  If you’re interested in any of that, take a look:)

If you’re not interested, wait till my life becomes somewhat normal:)

For Vox magazine article — click here

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Book talk at the Columbia Public Library

 

Radio Interviews


 Here’s my first  radio interview!

See (or hear, rather:)) for yourself :).

1-interviewINTERVIEW WITH DAVID LILE (KFRU)                                  

Download this episode (right click and save)“>PART I

Download this episode (right click and save)“>PART II

Download this episode (right click and save)“>PART III

Download this episode (right click and save)“>PART IV

svetlanagrobman.podbean.com

Dreams


UntitledSince my book came out, everybody I know says, “How exciting!”

This, of course, is a very typical American reaction. You tell somebody that you’re going for a bike ride on the weekend, and they say, “How exciting!”  Or you ask someone how they feel about starting a new job, and they tell you, “I’m excited!”

When I first came to this country, I thought that Americans must be the most excitable people on earth. Even now, after having lived in the country for twenty-four years, this inexplicable American enthusiasm never ceases to amaze me. You see, I’m from Russia. We never got excited. We got drunk. Or, when we felt something “exciting” come over us, we got into fights. That was it.

Of course, I personally don’t drink much, and I don’t fight either (well, only rarely, usually with my husband:)). But every time I hear “How exciting!” I feel like saying: “Exciting? What are you talking about? I’m stressed out and anxious!”

And the publication of my book is no exception. In fact, it has made me even more anxious than I usually am. Why? Because there are so many things that first-time-authors have to do when their books come out – publicity, marketing (when you spend five years of your life writing a book, you do want people to read it!), begging friends and colleagues to “please, if you like my book, submit a short review of it to Amazon.com!,” asking established authors to read your book (those, of course, never respond), and waking up at night because there was something you should’ve done but you haven’t, or because you’re obsessing about something that you have done.

This last one really got me last night. The thing is that even without my book project, I rarely have restful nights. One reason for that is insomnia, which, as I age, bothers me more and more, another — intense dreams that fill my nights when I finally fall asleep. Sometimes these dreams are continuation of the daily events — so realistic that I have a hard time in the morning discerning what was and what wasn’t a dream. Sometimes they are nightmares, and often, they are reminders of the things I could’ve done better. And that was what my dream was about last night.

In it, I was reading reviews of my book at Amazon.com (I’mreview told that I should have at least twenty of them, but I have only nine so far), trying to figure out whom else I could to ask for one, when I noticed a new review that I hadn’t seen before:

“It’s a good book, daughter. Thank you for writing it. Mom.”

This is strange. Mom doesn’t write — or read! — in English, — was my first dreamy thought.

She must’ve asked somebody for help — was my second.

No, wait! This must be a mistake! Mom is dead!

This last thought woke me up and I mentally went over the calendar. Mom died exactly two years ago. Two years before my book was published. Two years before anybody could write a review of it. And yet, the message seemed real; seemed like something Mom could say. Something I’d love to hear from her but never will.

I couldn’t go back to sleep after that, and I couldn’t get up either. In this twilight state, in my mind’s eye, I began turning pages of my book, one by one. She was there – if not on every page then in every story. She was a young doctor carrying a bag with a stethoscope, injection bottles, and other shiny medical things. She was there exclaiming “Look how blew the sky is! And the air, it’s so fresh!” She was the one wh1-IMG_1315_1o, when I tried to skip school on account of being sick, told me that “only dead people have no ailments.” And she was the woman crying over the burial of her own mother, my grandmother, the way I cried over hers.

I tossed and turned, and tried to go back to sleep, but finally, I got up, grabbed my book, and opened it. Under the title and other required information, it read: “To Alex and Amelia.”

Even before I finished my book, I knew that I would dedicate it to my grandchildren. To my wonderful grandchildren whom I love so much but see so rarely. It just seemed logical to do that, to pass a so-called “torch” to the next generation. But, was that the right thing to do?

Alex and Amelia, who are now 10 and 6 respectively, may never read my book. Hopefully, they will take a look at the pictures of their forebears, but being so young, they’re unlikely to be interested. Of course, there is a chance of them finding my book later in their lives and, if I’m very lucky, reading it. But will they even notice the dedication? Should I have dedicated my book to my mother instead? Or does it even matter?

She’s gone, and nothing I do will ever reverse that.  Of course, I have my memories of her, some of which I put in this very book. Many of those memories are good, some funny, but some are regrettable. For, as Mom aged, it was easy to get upset with her for saying things that were not “politically correct,” for being not as sharp in her 80s as we, her middle-aged daughters were in our fifties, for her extreme candor — undoubtedly a result of life spent in the country where everything was black and white, with no half-tones allowed.  It was easy and it was understandable. And yet, for two years now, I have been ashamed of those memories.15-svet_17

Well, too late now. Mom will never know about my regrets,as she’ll never know about my book. All I can do is to open a page with her picture and say, “Forgive me, Mom. The way you always did. As for this book, even though it’s not dedicated to you, it is as much about you as it is about me.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

MY BOOK IS OUT!


UntitledDear Friends,
My dream of publishing my first book — my memoir — has come true!  This book covers the first fifteen years of my life, but I spent five years writing it. Why so long? For one thing, I had to learn to write in English, for I came to this country knowing only Russian (and a little German:)). For another, my childhood was not happy. In fact, some of the things that happened to me then haunt me even now, and it hasn’t been easy to relive them. Yet that’s all in the past. My book, The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia, is, finally,  available from Amazon.com. I hope readers will like it:)
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As Good as It Gets or Happy Valentine’s Day!


1-IMG_1657-002We got married on Valentine’s Day.  My husband thought that it was romantic. (Well, he also figured that it would help him remember our future anniversaries). I thought it was cute and also special, since there was no Valentine’s in my home country, Russia. Yet whatever our ideas about the joys and responsibilities of marriage were, our Valentine’s wedding turned out to be a true commitment.

I’m not talking about the everyday challenges of married life: suppressing your true feelings about endless football, basketball, and what-ever-ball games, picking up things lying around the house (like his size-large gloves on our dining table), suffering through Chinese meals he loves so much, and patiently repeating questions that he cannot hear because he’s watching some bloody thriller on TV. You expect these things after you say, “I do.”  I’m talking about difficulties that are outside our control, like every year we want to celebrate our anniversary, we have to beat a whole slew of people who go out on Valentine’s Day just for fun. Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: New


Henry Clay,      1777-1852

There are several things about Missouri that are quite predictable: for one, politics — almost always conservative — for another, brilliant fall colors. As for the weather around here, it is as unpredictable as life itself. Take me, for example. Who would predict that a timid girl from Moscow would land in the American Midwest? Or that I — a person whose ancestry goes back to the Diaspora Jews and, more recently, to the Ukrainian small farmers who were sent to exile by the Stalin regime and died of hunger — would marry an American man whose great-great-great uncle was Henry Clay, a US senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State who ran for president four times? (No, my husband is not in politics, he’s in linguistics; no family can withstand the tide of time :). Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Cover Art


Jona1-IMG_1657-002than Swift is credited with saying (among many other things:)) that “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” If that is true, I surely have it! – vision, that is. I started my last post with a cover page for my forthcoming book. And this week’s theme for the WordPress Photo Challenge is — what do you know! — “Cover Art.” (Those of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I sometimes participate in photo challenges.) Since I’ve already posted my cover art, this time, I’ll post some of the pictures that will appear in my book.

By the way, I’m still trying to decide if I should release it in December, a month known for its festivities and impulsive buying:), or in January, which is symbolic of everything new. What do you think? In any case, here’s my new entry.

New cover smallIf you would like read the synopsis of my book, you may click here Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure!


IMG_1657-003What can be more adventurous than venturing into the world of magic? My first introduction to this world took place when my parents gave me a book “Starik Hottabych” (Old Man Hottabych). This book (also made into a movie) featured a twelve-year old Soviet Pioneer Volka who accidentally found an ancient bottle at the bottom of a river. Being an energetic and curious boy, Volka opened the bottle, and a genie named Hassan Abdul-rahman ibn Khattab emerged, loudly proclaiming that he was ready to fulfill Volka’s every wish.

It was a great and funny story, since the Young Pioneer, who suddenly found himself empowered by the old genie, kept getting into all kinds of trouble — mostly because of differences between the life style and the morals of the ancient world and those of Soviet Russia. It was also a variation on the tale of Aladdin and his magical lamp (a fact I discovered much later, when I got my hands on a copy of The Arabian Nights). Not only did the story entertain me, but it also motivated me to learn how to swim — for I, too, wanted to find an ancient vessel on the bottom of a river.  (Regrettably, that never happened, although not for lack of trying:).) Continue reading

Two Birthdays and a Funeral


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Both birthdays took place on Saturday: one in the afternoon and one at night. Both were birthdays of our friends: one Russian and one American. The former was celebrated in a park, in an outdoor shelter. The temperature was about 85 degrees, and when my husband and I joined the party, the guests, red-faced from the heat, were already enjoying themselves, eating home-made food, drinking wine, and talking and joking in Russian. This, of course, is the way it should be. Russian is their native language, so why would they speak anything else? Yet we were here — my American husband and I–and people began switching to English.

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It always makes me feel uncomfortable that our arrival forces people to abandon their comfort zone. Some do it willingly, because they want to talk to my husband, and some begrudgingly–or that is how I perceive it, anyway. And there are always some who don’t care for “foreigners,” unless they are at work, in grocery or department stores, etc., so they ignore my husband altogether. Which also makes me feel uncomfortable. Continue reading

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treshold


Our photo challenge this week is “threshold,” a concept that, according to the dictionary, can have several meanings:

1. the sill of a doorway.
2. the entrance to a house or building.
3. any place or point of entering or beginning

We all encounter thresholds in our lives, and we all have stories about how we passed (or didn’t pass) them. Here’s mine:

Library –Threshold of Learning

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“Two books per visit per week,” said the unsmiling librarian as she handed me a library card. Neither the limits nor her demeanor surprised me, a 9-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Moscow in the 1950s – a city where everything was strictly regulated and rationed. I read the two books in two days and impatiently waited for the next visit. Continue reading

Living on the Edge: Musings On Life and Gardening


IMG_1657-003I am not an adventurous person. I have never been on safari or even to Alaska. Despite the fact that I immigrated to America from Russia, I do not like changes. Yet, moving beyond the city limits was my idea.

Our new house sat on the edge of a woody bluff, and a creek ran below our property, dividing us from the city where we had lived before. As soon as we finished arranging furniture, I turned my energy to the yard. I started by reading gardening books, then I attended a short landscape design course, and soon after that a strange metamorphosis took place in my life. The only subject that interested me now was gardening, and I spent most of my free time in the yard – digging, mulching, and watering.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes or Life is Like a Box of Chocolates


IMG_1657-003A new photo challenge read: “Threes” — a photo story in three pictures:  a broad photo of a subject, several elements from it interacting with one another, and a close-up.”

I went through my pictures.  Some of them could work, but, I recently used them, so I needed something new. Mentally, I assessed my options: the day was a typical Missouri winter day – gray, cool, and windy, with no recreational (or photo) values of any kind. There was nothing special going on in town, either. Where would I go?

“Let’s drive to Eagle Bluffs, I said to my husband while we were eating our Sunday breakfast – I my usual cereal and he the leftovers from a dinner party we held the night before.

“Sure,” he said and reached for his binoculars.

Those who’ve been reading my posts know that my husband is a wildlife lover, and since Eagle Bluffs is a state conservation area about 10 miles away from us, it is one of the places he’s always ready to go. Over the years, I came to like that area, too, although the first time my husband took me there, I was disappointed.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure


IMG_1657-003Those who’ve been following me for a while may have noticed that I have another blog, too – Svetlana’s Photography. (Don’t take me wrong. I have no illusion about my ability as a photographer. I just enjoy taking pictures:). Here’s how it works. Every week, WordPress announces a theme, and people like me (as well as some professional photographers) post their photos to illustrate it. The theme for this week is “Treasure,” and the example we’re given is a heart-shaped stone, a keepsake that the photographer has kept in her possession for 25 years and three house moves. This, of course, made me think about my keepsakes, but I quickly realized that I no longer have them in my life, and I want to tell you to why.Mom

Mom and I, 1957

Mom and I, 1957

When I left my former “Motherland,” I was allowed to take anything I wanted – as long as I could pack it into two suitcases per person (actually, diamonds were not allowed, but I never had them; as for gold, the limit was one item per person, so my wedding ring qualified).  For a family of three, this translated into six suitcases of bare necessities, and I cried packing 39 years of my life into them. I kept putting things in and taking them out, rearranging, pushing and pressing, but, in the end, all the treasures (or keepsakes) that made it into my suitcases were pictures: my parents’ and grandparents’, my sister’s and me, and my daughter’s as a baby and a toddler – one small album in all.  The rest I gave out to friends and family who stayed behind. (Many of them left later, too, leaving their treasures to somebody else or throwing them away.) Continue reading

Valentine’s Day


ValentineWhen we got married, I was already 45 and my husband was 53. Between us, we had two houses (mine tiny and his much larger but dark and cold), three children, and one grandchild. Behind us, we had two divorces (one for each of us), two different backgrounds (mine Russian and his Oregonian by way of Wisconsin), two advanced degrees (mine Masters and his Ph.D.), and plenty of experiences – mine mostly unhappy and his both happy and not so much.

Contrary to what you may think, I wasn’t sure that matrimony was a good idea for me. I had already had one bad experience and that with a person from a similar background. How could tying the knot with someone completely different be any better? Besides, I had no external motivations: I was already a U.S. citizen, I had a decent job, and I was used to being alone. In fact, because of this line of thinking, I didn’t finalize the dissolution of my first marriage for more than three years after my ex and I split up. This led to an embarrassing admission at the courthouse, where I had to declare that I got divorced in September (the scene took place in October), IMG_1879and I was already planning on getting married again. But, statistically speaking, people who were married before are likely to marry again, and so we did – “For better or worse for richer or poorer.”

Well, so far, it hasn’t been either rich or poor, although it has been turbulent at times. But whose marriage hasn’t had turbulent moments? The way I see it, turbulence is just part of the deal, like when you are on an airplane and they suddenly tell you to fasten your seat belt, because “We’re going through turbulence!” You aren’t surprised by that, just a little scared, right? Also, even under the best circumstances, life can be stressful, and it’s hard not to bring your negative emotions into your relationship. That said, there has been one long-lasting relationship that I came to admire – the relationship between my new husband’s parents. Continue reading

Just Wondering


IMG_1657-003“Slow down!” I screamed at my husband when a gust of wind threw another clump of snow at our front window, obscuring the world outside our car. We were driving through a blizzard, 6072 hdrand my rhetorical question “Are we there, yet?” no longer reflected boredom but acquired a true urgency. Yet – finally! – our Subaru, loaded with ski clothes and equipment, and electronic gadgets (just the number of chargers is unbelievable!) reached Rabbit Ears Pass and began descending to Yampa Valley — the town of Steamboat Springs within it.  

6347 hdr 2 Continue reading

Christmas Letters and Other Matters


IMG_1657-003The last year of her life, my American mother-in-law wrote 153 Christmas cards. I don’t know how many she received, but I do know that after my in-laws died ten years ago (they lived with us for 4.5 years at the end of their lives), we continued to receive cards, letters, and even boxes (!) with fruit that were addressed to them for at least two years. Most of their correspondence was conducted by my husband’s mother. (She was also interested in genealogy, and she compiled her family genealogical tree, although I’ve never checked whether I, a relatively recent addition to the family, am included there.)

My father-in-law, an emeritus professor of physiology, who was less sociable than his spouse, also received cards and letters, mostly from his former students, for, sadly, he outlived all of his colleagues. Yet the thing that added significantly to the volume of my in-laws’ mail was requests for donations. They donated to a variety of causes – he Republican Party being one of them (nobody is perfect!). So, during an election after their death, a Republican campaigner photocalled us and gave my husband a speech about how horrible it would be if Nancy Pelosi became the House majority leader. The caller went on and on with his scripted spiel, until my husband shouted into the receiver: “I think Nancy Pelosi would make a great majority leader!” and hung up.

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Let’s Talk Turkey


IMG_1657-003My first Thanksgiving in this country wasn’t a great experience (click here to see my story about it). Formerly an engineer, I worked nights at a retirement home making the minimum wage. I rented a small apartment and drove a rusty car. I had no friends, and my daughter was my only family. I couldn’t even speak English, so I thought I had little to celebrate.

Since then, I’ve had all kinds of Thanksgivings: most of them good and tasty. Yet there was one — during my divorced state – when I almost set my house on fire while making my first Thanksgiving dinner for myself; and also one after which my whole family got violently sick (this is after I remarried).

On the whole, though, I like Thanksgiving. I like its food, I like the fact that it is a family holiday, I like that afterwards we always have leftovers. In fact, I don’t understand people who complain about eating leftover turkey for too long. I don’t mind that. To me, turkey meat is tasty, lean, and healthy (vegetarians, skip this). Also, did you know that that great pragmatist, Benjamin Franklin, wanted a turkey to be the symbol of America and not a bald eagle? Continue reading

The City of Love


IMG_1657-003There is a picture on my desk – my husband, in white shirt and dark suit, stands next to August Rodin’s statue depicting young lovers locked in a passionate embrace. That picture was taken in Paris seventeen years ago. Just recently, I put another one next to it, a picture of my grandchildren looking out from the Eiffel Tower.

The first time my husband and I went out, he wore a bright blue raincoat and Russian-Army-style high boots.  He offered no excuse for the flashy raincoat, but the boots, I soon found out, were supposed to show me how much he admired my culture, and so, I decided to give him another chance.

Things did work out between us, and half a year later, I found myself planning our honeymoon in Paris.  The first thing on my agenda was letting him know that the boots were not going with us, nor would they be welcomed in our house afterwards.  As for the raincoat, there was no time to find a substitute for it, and since the weather forecast for Paris was rainy, I had to put up with it.

I know what you think — a honeymoon in Paris sounds both indulgent and clichéd.  Well, the only excuse I can offer is that I was already forty-five, and that trip to France was going to be my second overseas adventure – the first being my immigration from Moscow, Russia, to Columbia, MO.

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Happy Halloween


IMG_1657-003Did you notice that the older you get the more appropriate clichés seem to be? For example, “Time flies.” And it really does! Seems like we just celebrated the new year (I’m not talking about the Jewish New Year 5774, which we did celebrate recently, September 4-6),  but the stores are already decorated for Christmas and people are thinking about Christmas presents. I am not in a hurry, though. I wish I could stop this feverish pace.

“It’s not even Halloween, yet!” I say – only to hear, “Halloween is for children.”

True, but I have a weak spot for it. I even wrote about my first Halloween in America in this very blog. Yet, since I have more “followers” now, I’d like to post that story again.

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A Sweet Welcome to America

I cautiously opened the door and there they were – a smiling blue-eyed woman in worn-out jeans and a bulky sweat shirt, and a little girl dressed in a long red gown and a black star-speckled cloak. A tall peaked hat crowned her curly blond hair.

“Hi,” the woman said amicably, and her smile widened until it couldn’t get any bigger or more sincere. Her eyes seemed to fix on me conspiratorially.

“Hi,” I echoed apprehensively.

Suddenly, the girl stepped forward and blurted out something short and rhythmical. I stepped backward. She spoke English, but I had no way of deciphering her words. My only translator, my teenage daughter, was not at home.

“Do you need help?” I asked, carefully pronouncing one of the few phrases I, a former Russian engineer, had learned in the Midwestern retirement home where I currently worked as a nurse’s aide.

The shape of the woman’s mouth changed from a crescent to a straight line. The girl turned to her mother and then again to me. She gave me a demanding look and forcefully repeated her mysterious chant.

A knot of panic formed in my stomach. The visitors did not look like criminals, although you never know.

There were beggars in Moscow who went from house to IMG_4022house asking for money, carrying their crying children dressed in rags.  Also, Gypsies occasionally came and offered palm reading. In fact, when I was a teenager, a friend of mine had her palm read by a Gypsy who told her that she would embark on a long trip overseas in about 20 years. Of course, the last I heard of that friend, she was still in Moscow. It was I who found herself overseas anxiously gawking at two strangers.

Well, everything here in my new home was strange. The temperature fluctuated between 85 and 105 degrees F. for the first two months after we arrived in July. Accustomed to Moscow’s mild summers, we found the heat unbearable.  Then, in September, we experienced our first tornado.

1-IMG_6871-001Tornadoes were unheard-of back in Moscow, and, at the time, I never listened to the radio (What would be the point for me? It’s all in English). So, despite the screaming of sirens, I headed for a grocery store. It was about 1 p.m., but as soon as I got into my beat-up Buick, the sky darkened as though it was night, and the wind started wailing so ominously that only a clueless foreigner such as I would venture outside.

Fortunately, the traffic lights saved me. Blinking yellow in all directions, they confused me – a driver with only two weeks’ experience – so I turned back home. There a good-hearted neighbor dragged me into our apartment building’s basement while I tried to persuade her in my broken English that I had better things to do.

Two weeks later, the town started preparing for an earthquake, and I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my decision to emigrate to the United States. We had plenty of problems back in Russia, but we never had earthquakes!  The disaster was expected to strike in 10 days, so people and businesses prepared for the worst – storing canned food, bottled water, and other imperishable necessities. Because we lived in a small apartment, I stocked things under the kitchen table – where they stayed for a month after the anticipated date had passed and, to my relief, no earthquake struck.  And now this unexpected visit.

Slowly, I tried to close the door, but the girl’s lips started to twist and the mother burst into a long tirade in which I recognized “give” and “candy.”

1-candyDid they want candy? I eyed the visitors and noticed a small basket in the girl’s hand – half full of candy.  If this was a robbery, it was a “sweet” kind, although this might have been just the beginning.  Suddenly, a warning penetrated my brain: “If you’re being robbed, never argue, just give them what they want.”

Nervously, I rushed to the pantry, snatched two bags of Hershey’s Kisses and a bag of peanut clusters, and handed everything to the robbers.  This time, the girl stepped back, and the mother fanned the air with her hand in a rejecting motion.

“Candy, no?” I asked warily.

The woman gave me a look overflowing with pity and grabbed one of the bags. She tore it open, and then turned to her daughter and whispered something encouraging.  Immediately, the girl’s fingers dived into the open bag and came out with three pieces of chocolate. The mother shoved the rest of the bag into my hands, smiled brightly, and said, “Welcome to this country!”

Several minutes after they left, I was still in the doorway, vacantly watching chocolates spilling from the open bag.1-DSC00833small-001

That was my first American Halloween – as new to me as garbage disposals, garage-door openers, and all the other American conveniences.  Since then, Halloween has become a mark of my immigrant’s progress. On my fourth Halloween, I moved into my first house; on my seventh Halloween I got engaged to an American man; and on my 14th my grown-up daughter had her first child – my first grandson.

When little Alex is old enough, I hope we’ll go out together on Halloween night. He’ll say “trick or treat!” while I stand behind him, smiling.  And if someone answers the door who knows nothing about Halloween, we, too, can say, “Welcome to this country!”

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Happy Halloween!

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Nature Has No Bad Weather


IMG_1657-003At the beginning was the word. Or, rather, a paragraph I read in a blog — about Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk.  For those who don’t know about Scott Kelby, he is a photographer and an author, whom I discovered when I was still a library selector. Don’t know what that means? Well, it used to be that librarians ordered books for their libraries — each for her selection area. Mine was the arts, and photography was included there.

I said “used to be” because I no longer do that. These days, selecting materials in my library is done by just four people, and I am not one of them. So, I now do de-selecting or “weeding.” Not a garden variety, mind you, but important nevertheless.  I discard books that have been chewed by dogs or torn by toddlers, history that nobody wants to remember, classics that are no longer revered, that kind of stuff.

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Scott Kelby

Anyway, in the golden days of selecting, I came across Kelby’s works, and they literally changed my life. The thing is I’m obsessive. Every time I develop a new passion, I throw all my time and energy into it — until I find something else to obsess about. Anyway, the first thing I did when I entered my Scott-Kelby-inspired photography stage was to buy a camera. For most of my life, I knew little about cameras, lenses, flashes, and things like that. But when I opened Kelby’s books, I began craving expensive equipment as if my life depended on it. Of course, being a librarian married to an academic, I couldn’t really afford it. I had to settle for reading. So, today, if you let me, I’ll tell you everything I know about full-frame and cropped sensor cameras,  good glass (that’s how photographers refer to good – and very expensive — lenses), flashes, task-sharp images (something I am still working on), and other things like that.

Unfortunately, none of my loved ones understands the importance of photography in my life. When I ask my husband to pose for me (I like taking pictures with a “human” element), he immediately assumes an expression described by a Russian proverb as,IMG_0358-001 “Virazhaet to lizo chem sadyatsa on krilzo” or “He wears an expression that makes his face look like his butt.” As for my grandchildren, one of them begins rubbing his eyes with his fists and the other rolls her eyes or sticks out her tongue.

I persevere anyway, and the reason that I am still unknown to the world of photography is that I don’t have a high-end camera/lenses/etc. Another thing that holds me back is that I’m self-taught. I’ve never taken any photography classes, and, in fact, I don’t have anybody in my life with whom I could discuss f-stops, shutter speed, HDR photography, and other fascinating subjects like that. This is why I got excited about the Scott Kelby Photography Walk. It was going to be a turning point in my photographic career.

The walk was set for October 6, which was great, since October is the best time of the year in our area. Yet when I woke up that morning, monotonous streaks of rain were hitting our bedroom windows, and the outside world appeared depressingly gray. For fifteen minutes or so, I debated with myself whether I should go. Who takes pictures in the rain? IMG_4124-001My camera will get wet. Of course, I can carry an umbrella, but how am I going to hold my camera steady with one hand? Then it occurred to me that somebody else may want to take my place but I couldn’t think of anybody. Finally, I got myself together and drove along damp and empty streets to the gathering place.

A crowd of 15 or so people huddling underneath their umbrellas2013-group-s-150x150 in the middle of a small park looked somewhat misplaced. Several of them were young, several had gray hair, and all carried bulky cameras. The leader gave us his last instructions and a map of our photo walk, and let us loose on the town. In two-and-a-half hours we would meet for lunch.

The park and its surroundings appeared dull and lifeless. The only bright spots were umbrellas of my fellow photographers, many of whom had already sprung into action – some snapping pictures of a nearby creek and the bridge over it, and some bending over wet bushes.

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What’s the point? – I thought to myself. — On a day like this, nothing is going to look pretty. Then I lowered my gaze and, as things came into focus, I suddenly spotted little red berries on the bushes growing along the creek, drops of rain glistening on the leaves, and the freshly green blades of grass. I was wrong. Even in the rain, the world was full of colors. In fact, they became as vivid as ever, and even simple objects, like benches, bikes chained to a rack, and the railing of a bridge looked interesting. And the air! It was fresh and energizing. I wasn’t wasting my time by coming here. I was encountering a different world. And I turned my camera on and began taking pictures.

True, operating a camera in the rain was … let’s say, challenging. But I welcomed the challenge, for it made me look, really look, and notice things I usually miss: patterns of puddles on the street, sidewalk paintings, reflections in shops’ windows, and, of course, people, some of whom hurried along hidden under their umbrellas, and some paid no attention to the rain. I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter, as if I could see better through the small opening of my lens than I could with my eyes.

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Time speeded up, and soon, I found myself at the end of our route. Now I needed to hook up with the rest of the group.

“I’m not going to lunch with them. I don’t feel comfortable with strangers.” I had said to my husband before I left home. But there I was, at the table with people talking passionately about resolution (without referring to the American government shutdownJ), lenses (What’s the sweet spot for this one?), and flashes (“You need one master and, at least, two slaves”). I was participating, too—if not by talking then by listening. I was learning about the art of photography, but, most importantly, I was learning about how differently we see the world. For we all walked the same streets, squares, and alleys. We saw the same people and buildings. Yet what we documented with our cameras was different. None of us caught everything, but together, we could compile a picture of our town – things that were beautiful about it but also things that were mundane and ugly.

As I was driving back home, I kept going over my morning. Did it improve my technical proficiency?  Not by much. That would require more time and effort. But, it improved my understanding of how we – if we want to — can fit our individual pieces into a larger whole. As for the rain, as one Russian song goes, “There is no bad weather in nature. Whatever happens has its time and purpose. And we should be grateful for all of it.”

©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

In Search of Paradise


IMG_1657-003“Where would you like to go this summer?” I asked my husband while we were finishing our weekend breakfast.

“To Paradise,” He answered without hesitation. “Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier!”

I put down my cup of hot tea (being from Russia, I always drink hot tea, and on a plane, I ask for juice with no ice) and looked at my American husband holding his mug of iced tea.

“Why don’t we go, then? A few years from now we might not be able to enjoy it. We’ll be too old.”

And so, the plan was born. To be honest, I like making plans. In fact, I get much more pleasure from planning things than from living them. For one thing, making plans gives me a chance to learn about new places. For another, as long as I am at it, I have full control over everything: drives and flights, hotels and motels, as well as things to do and to see. In the real world, we all know, cars break down, flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, and people (including those I travel with) have different tastes and opinions — which they usually share with me. Still, every time I start anew, my heart pounds, my eyes peer into the unknown with a new luster, and my mood improves. In short, I live from one plan to another, with a few disappointments in between.

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That said, three months, two flights, a desperate run through Dallas Airport, and a two-hour drive later, we spotted a snow-covered mountain rising ghost-like above the dark greenery of Mt. Rainier National Park’s Douglas fir trees, and forty-five minutes later, we pulled our rental car into a Paradise Inn parking lot.IMG_3060

The lodge, withered by many decades of heavy snow, strong winds, and Northwestern mist, didn’t look like the grand old palace I had previously imagined but more like an elderly housekeeper weary of her years and a constant stream of guests. Yet the lobby, furnished with old-fashioned wooden chairs and benches and softened by the orange light of table lamps and light fixtures, felt warm and welcoming – until we announced our arrival, that is. ne zhTwo young receptionists looked at us with the expression that is best conveyed in a classic Russian painting of the 19th century “The Unexpected Visitors” — “Ne Zhdali” (by famous Russian artist Ilya Repin, if anybody cares to know) — which shows a political prisoner unexpectedly returning to his family home from a forced settlement in Siberia.

Despite having a reservation (from three month ago!) we were not expected either — at least not before another couple, who was put in our room because they felt claustrophobic in theirs, returned from their day hike.

IMG_2993“And what if they come back tomorrow?!” I said, since from my Russian experience things usually go from bad to worse. Yet the receptionists just gave me a blank look.

Nothing of the sort happened, though. While we were having dinner, the claustrophobic hikers, apparently, came back — or another unlucky couple got shuffled around — and we finally moved into the room, the size of which gave me pause, for if this was a bigger room, what size was the room our invaders escaped from? Before I fell asleep, I made a mental note for myself – never trust my husband’s affinity for historic lodges.

When we opened the curtains next morning, the sun was already up, the sky was silky blue, and people with cameras, water bottles, and backpacks were hurrying toward Mt. Rainier, towering formidably in front of the lodge. We quickly finished our breakfast, grabbed our cameras and water bottles, and joined the steady stream of mountain pilgrims.IMG_2210

At first, we walked on a blacktop trail, then the trail turned into a gravel path, later yet, the gravel was replaced by stones, which gradually became bigger and the incline steeper, and, in about two hours, we found ourselves well above the timberline, jumping from one rock to another, crossing mountain streams, and sliding in the snow.

Back in Russia, we had an expression, “A smart person wouldn’t go to the mountain – he would go around it.” Yet there I was, panting and puffing, on my way to … Where exactly? We had no intention to climb Mt. Rainier. That would take much more vigor and adventurousness then we, two late-middle-aged people possess. Besides, the ascent is dangerous. It starts at the Paradise trail head and leads to Camp Muir, where mountaineers spend the night in tents and huts before continuing their journey through fields of ice and snow — 9000 excruciating vertical feet in all. IMG_2764And if this isn’t difficult enough, heavy snow storms blanket the slopes without warning, blinding white outs make people disoriented and vertiginous, and plunging temperatures hit them with hypothermia.

Still, a sudden thought flashed through my mind — Wouldn’t it be cool to say, “I have climbed Mt. Rainier”? Oh, well, we were long past the age when looking cool is more important than being safe. We came here in search of paradise – a place where existence is positive, harmonious and eternal – according to a dictionary definition that is.

In real life, though, the only eternal thing is death. As for “positive existence,” high altitudes are not suitable for human life. Mere walking requires a lot of effort, not to mention carrying backpacks or suffering from slashing rain or burning sunlight. Hikers get tired, sweaty (or cold!), and dehydrated. They slip on wet rocks and fall in the snow. And yet, people of all ages, including children, keep moving up — maybe not to the peak, like those with heavy mountain packs and mountaineer boots, but as high as they can go.IMG_2961

Why? Because there is so much heart-stopping beauty there: the glimmering glaciers, the rugged silhouettes of the Tatoosh Range, and the dream-like shapes of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood floating far away. Also, all around, impatient waterfalls hurry noisily to the mountain base, blooming meadows set off snow-covered fields and exposed rocks, and meandering streams whisper melodically into hikers ears. Even the thundering boom of an avalanche doesn’t break the spell of the scenery but added an ominous mystery to its allure.

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As we kept moving up, something new was appearing in our view: stretches of forest interrupted by patches of snow, whimsical peaks across the valley, a marmot playing in the snow, and hues of wildflowers, fragile and hardy at the same time. And if that wasn’t heavenly enough, there were “scenic outlooks” there, too: Pinnacle Point, Panorama Point, and others. There, some sat quietly soaking the view, while others talked, took pictures, and exchanged tips with complete strangers — for the mountain brings out the best in people, even as it tires them out.

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We spent three days in Paradise Inn – hiking during the day, watching the pastel colors of a dying day during the night, or taking pictures of Mt. Rainier reflected in a lake. We didn’t do anything special and didn’t set any records – 1-3105cour longest hike was only five miles long (don’t sneer at this, half of it was uphill :)). Yet, as we drove back to the airport, it occurred to me — The old Russian proverb is wrong. Really smart people don’t go around the mountain, they go up – to test their abilities or to look at the desolate world about them and the familiar one beneath their feet and put things in perspective, or to contemplate their lives and losses.

And although I’ll never be able to say that I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, I can say that I’ve been to paradise. Not the one with large and luxurious rooms, however perfect they can be, and not the realm of the blessed some hope to enter after death, but a place where natural beauty, harmony, and good spirits combine to calm, console, and uplift us while we are alive.

P.S. Paradise Inn is a historic hotel built in 1916 at 5,400 feet (1,645 m) on the south slope of Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier National Park in WashingtonUnited States.

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©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved

Imagine


IMG_1657-003I’m not imaginative. Never have been. So when I learn that the library where I work as a librarian would host a workshop “Unleash Your Imagination,” I decided that this was exactly what I needed.

On the appointed day, I joined twenty some women of different ages who crowded around a large table with a workshop leader at its head. The first thing the leader, a well-into-middle-age woman, told us to do was to relax. This made a lot of sense to me, for how can you unleash anything if you are tense? Except, I have never managed to relax successfully. As soon as I hear somebody telling me to close my eyes, I immediately feel as if something got into them, so I open my eyes wide and wink energetically. Then, something else gets into my nose and I begin sneezing. IMG_3116-001Then, usually by the time I am supposed to relax my lower body, my back starts itching between my shoulder blades and…  You get the idea.

This time was no different, so I soon gave up my attempt at relaxation and began looking around. Everybody else sat with their eyes closed and their bodies limp, and two women even had their mouths open–kind of like people who had died without anyone around to push their chins up.

Then, the workshop leader said,“Imagine yourself in a place where you feel peaceful and free. Smell the smells, enjoy the taste, admire colors, and caress the surfaces.”

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Here, everybody’s expression turned even more serene and the two women with their mouths open began making little chewing movements.

Being tense myself, I had a hard time finding a beautiful place to imagine myself in, so instead, I recalled the village of Williams Bay on Geneva Lake, which my daughter, my two grandchildren, my husband and I visited a month earlier. On account of having allergies, I couldn’t really smell anything, and the only sound I remembered was the annoying cry of seagulls. As for colors, it was already dusk when we got there, so everything looked kind of gray and yellowish. Still, the grandchildren liked the beach, so it was nice any  anyway.

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By the time I got really comfortable with my memories, our leader commanded, “Now, open your eyes and draw the scene you just imagined.” Immediately, everybody sprang to action and began drawing rather complex scenes with trees, waterfalls, and butterflies, while all I could manage was two lines: IMG_9372-001one, wavy, for the lake, and another one, straight, for the beach. Behind the straight line, I put several small blots for seagulls and several bigger blots–with sticks indicating arms and legs–for my family. I was about to start coloring my granddaughter’s hair, when the workshop leader stopped our artistic endeavors and asked the participants to tell the group about their drawings and what they represented.

To my humiliation, everybody began sharing a paradise-like vision of herself sitting, lying, or walking in a garden with singing fountains, in mountains covered with light puffy clouds, IMG_1742or on a boat lit by the setting sun. There was only one lady there whose imagination took her to a twisted Dali-esque landscape she had once hallucinated in a morphine-induced state while recovering from surgery.

After all the other participants had spoken, the leader’s gaze turned to me, prompting me to begin. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, but … no sound came out, for instead of a warm and fuzzy, dream-like vision, I pictured my grandchildren running by the water’s edge, shouting, scaring seagulls, and spattering us with wet sand. Then I heard myself telling them a joke I heard earlier that day, “Do you know why seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay, they’d be called bagels!”

Then I saw my seven-year-old grandson turn to his younger sister, point to the seagulls flying over Williams Bay, and say, “Look at those bagels, Mary!” IMG_3209And my four-year-old granddaughter, who must have decided that “bagels” was the proper thing to call these birds, ran in the direction of their flight shouting, “Bagels, bagels!”

Here, my daughter said, “She can’t understand that joke. You shouldn’t have told it,” and I said, “Well, it’s about time for her to learn about humor,” and my husband said, “I don’t think so. She’s too young,” and I said, “Not really. I told her about Winnie the Pooh and she laughed,” and the three of us began arguing about stages in child development …

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“Would you like to share your vision with us?”  The leader said, smiling encouragingly.

I looked at her through the cloud of my memories and, to my surprise, a sudden pain pierced through my chest, halted my breathing, and lodged somewhere between my shoulder blades. And as if I were reading the story of my life, I suddenly knew that that casual evening when everybody was healthy and good-natured, although it lacked beautiful colors, enticing sounds, or profound words, that evening was better than anything I could ever imagine. It was simple and it was precious, and it will never be repeated again…

“Sorry,” I said, shrinking under the gazes directed at me from all sides. “I have no vision to share. I couldn’t unleash my imagination. I only unleashed my memories.”

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 ©Svetlana Grobman (and Dale Chihuly — kind of :)). All Rights Reserved