Domes on Russian churt

I imagined Moscow as a bleak city, wounded by repression. Although the Kremlin left me wondering about intrigue within its massive complex, and some buildings reminded me of Stalin’s reign, I was in awe of the old architecture, the cathedrals, the Hall of Remembrance, and a subway that is an art museum in itself.

Subway in Moscow

The bigger-than-life expression continued in Novodevichy cemetery, where the dead are honored with spectacular tombs.

tomb monument: hands holding ruby-colored gem

So many unique monuments exist: the circus entertainer and his dog, the inventor, the dancer, Raisa Gorbachov, and the six crew members that died in the 1973 Paris Air Show.

Monument to the Russian pilots who died in the 1973 Paris Air Show

And Moscow at night brought a new dimension. We stood on Sparrow Hill, the highest point, and the city spread out below us. We walked Red Square at midnight. We strolled through a park whose pond stretched across to the Novodevichy Convent, the pond, some say, that was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration for Swan Lake. In the dark, near rippling waters, a group of young Russian men insisted upon reciting Pushkin’s Eastern Song:

Novodevichy Convent
Photo: Anton Zelenov

I think that you were born for this.
To set the poet’s vision burning
To hold him in a trance of bliss
And by sweet words to wake his yearning

Tonight, earlier Russian memories come to mind: Paul Robeson’s new home, Van Cliburn at the piano, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  unending white in Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, sables running free in Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and the book that hooks me now, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.

icon of saint with a bird on his shoulder

Russia, more than a headline. Land of the enigmatic story, I think that you were born for this.


Oak dresser drawer cracked openOn an Ash Wednesday—long before we knew sugar could hijack our bodies—I kneel with my classmates at the marble altar railing, feel the priest’s thumb mark the sooty cross on my forehead, and hear him murmur in Latin, “Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” For six weeks I sacrifice what is dearest—Heath bars, Hershey bars, Milk Duds, and Black Crows. Candy. For forty days we four Kennedy kids do not eat it, but we do stash it. In the hallway, in the scarred top drawer, we line up our candy. Abstemious child that I am, daily I sacrifice, and daily I count my treasures.

cup of coffeeToday’s theology says that sacrificing sweets may not be the best preparation for death and resurrection, but I hold to old ways. Candy, for the most part, holds little appeal, but doing without peppermint chocolate in my coffee? Now, that is denial of the highest form. Once more, for six weeks, I drink my coffee straight, counting the days when I can scoop a rounded teaspoon of Stephen’s Candycane Cocoa into my caffeine.

purple clothLent’s color is purple, the hue of triumph and defeat, death and resurrection. Six weeks set aside annually to let bruise and dignity, darkness and elegance share a common table. In the delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones, Mary O’Neill writes of purple’s conundrums: jam and a pout, air without light and violets in spring.

Years ago, my wise mentor, Sister Theona, read aloud T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: The desert in the garden the garden in the desert.  She would look up, as if to say. “Do you hear this delicious wisdom?” Wanting to please, I nodded, the rhythmic words resonating, the meaning far beyond me—except for the poet’s repeated prayer, like a cup brimming with contradiction:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

For the next forty days or so, I will hang out with Old Testament passages, aware of my purple shirts and the purple crocuses, hoping to face the truth of my falsehoods, trying not to care too much, even about the foaming chocolate coffee to come someday soon.