Ok, I’m going to lighten up my blog a bit. A friend checked it out on a whim from my email signature and was a little overwhelmed with the density. And… it leads into something more dense anyway, hurray!
We just got back from a trip to St Petersburg, Russia. We have a sister-in-law from there and when she said we could come with her on a visit back, we jumped at the chance. Being in Russia didn’t quite live up to the mystique of having grown up believing it was the other side of the Iron Curtain. St Petersburg seemed very much like a European city, a bit of a cross between Berlin and Munich in fact…with the exception that the signs are much harder to read. I had some fun getting the hang of Cyrillic – I would struggle to sound out a word character-by-character: ssss-T -er (not p) -uy -d -e -l and then say it all together and suddenly realize “strudel! I know that word!”. It was kind of a fun treasure hunt for familiar words but my brain would turn off after about two hours of it a day. Not to mention that St Petersburg is 12 hours offset from my hometown of Seattle.
We saw amazing art, incredible palaces and more incredible palaces. Gilt, mosaic tile, gilt mosaic tile, silk wall coverings. When we went to the Peterhof summer palace which has a small field of more fountains than I’ve ever seen in my life, all gilded, which they can only actually run like 4 or 5 months a year because everything is frozen the rest of the time, I couldn’t restrain myself from commenting to Larissa “My God, Such concentration of wealth! No wonder the Bolsheviks revolted! I would have too!” I’m not sure she appreciated that comment. Also interesting is the fact that between the revolution and WW2 occupation by Nazis, many of these incredible palaces and churches were damaged or totally destroyed and they’ve all since been completely renewed. I found myself wondering if the effort of restoration could be measured as a percentage of Russia’s GDP over the last couple decades, and what all those artisans and crafts-persons are doing now. (Oligarch estates?) A key difference from Europe was the shortage of bathrooms and high-quality cafe dining in the museums. We had an unfortunate tendency to find an English language tour starting right at lunchtime. I finally started packing nuts after a near-meltdown at the Hermitage when we found ourselves at the end of a tour in a remote corner of the museum, 2 hours past lunch, with a terrible map and a maze-like return to the one location with food and bathrooms. I was tempted to go screaming out an emergency exit and finally asked a staff person for directions.
We went to the Russian Art Museum where all the paintings are by Russian artists. That was good for Cyrillic practice because the English transliterations of names were printed as well. I haven’t tried to look up an official art world opinion, but I did spend several months touring art museums in Europe in 2004, and what really caught my attention in this museum was how expressive the faces were in paintings – even portraits. Somehow it strikes me that much of what I’ve seen before has faces with an artificial serenity. In one of the portraits of children, it was apparent that one child was being a complete brat about posing and had been crying. It seemed so emotionally real. Another one I vividly remember (I had to do a bit of websurfing to figure out who painted it) was “St Nicholas saves three innocents from Death” by Ilya Repin. The Saint himself has a bit of a faraway gaze, but the rest of them have such vivid expressions – I could just hear the judge-like figure behind him saying “What the hell are you doing?!” as the Saint stays the execution sword.
There was another painting, of Jesus sitting outside an old temple with some disciples, looking not unlike a group of hippies shooting the bull around a fire. Approaching from the right is a group of people pushing their accused adulteress towards him, about to get the now-classic advice about “let he who is without sin…”. They’re vividly angry, the two old men at the front of the group are shaking stones at Jesus and pointing at the girl. She’s very much a girl in the painting, and painted an ashen grey. She’s resisting with her feet, her hands are clenched and her face is terrified. Darrin commented that his dislike of Christianity today is that it’s too much worn as a badge of “I’m more holy than you” and not enough about the real teachings – such as this one, that none of us are perfect and we all should be working on ourselves instead of condemning each other.
That comment caused an almost audible click in my brain. Here in the States, author George Lakoff has been getting much attention for characterizing our fundamental political divisions as being “strict father” vs what he diplomatically (or politically correctly) refers to as “nurturant parent” – instead of nurturant mother, which would be the obvious yin to the aforementioned yang. It suddenly struck me that our current conflicts aren’t such a mystery that we need to develop models for – they’re as old as the Bible itself: old testament vs new testament. Do we live in a world of firm rules which we deserve to be condemned for breaking? Homeless man an alcoholic- well guess you deserve the streets, dude. Minority school kid tried drugs or went for a joyride- juvvy for you. OR do we live in world in which we are all frail, in which we all deserve second chances and we all need regular support in reaching for our own divine sparks? On this topic- I’m with Jesus.
And that doesn’t deserve the scornful label of “soft-hearted liberal”. I went back to ponder the correctness of using a yin-yang metaphor. Yin and Yang are opposing forces that you need both of. I am not as familiar with the Zen versions so much as the Buddhist ones via Stephen Cope: Clear Seeing and Calm Abiding. In his book “Yoga and the Quest for True Self” he talks about how you’ll develop one, and then the other, but you need both – too much development on one side w/o parallel development on the other leads to being off balance. I have come to think of it as a toy I had as a child with a wood person and two strings running through their hands and feet. You could “walk” the wood person up the strings by pulling first on one side and then the other. As I’ve become more of an athlete over time I see this replicated in the tension between Strength and Flexibility. Too much flexibility and you’ll have no power. Too much strength and you’ll be tied up in painful knots. The athletic experience is particularly enlightening because I’ve discovered through experience that I can’t do a ton of strengthening and then go “catch up” my flexibility with focus on yoga – it will cost me strength. If I slack off on yoga while I’m running I’ll lose flexibility. If I want both I have to develop them together, each a little bit at a time. Just like walking that wood person up the rope.
I think I pull to the understanding side because I feel right now in the States we’ve swung too far to the strict rules, but truthfully we need both.