Yesterday, my neighbor Joe and his wife Pat were out hanging Christmas lights on the bushes surrounding their house across the street. They do it every year and, the older they get, the harder the task becomes. But still they do it. They are hip-deep Christians, so that may be part of it, but since they have never run a clawing, cloying Christian number on me, I take the warm colors they offer to the neighborhood as a bit of honest Christmas.
With the grim intensities of Christmas in the air, I remember again a trip to Russia in 1968, the 50th anniversary of the glorious Soviet revolution.
A week or more of the three-week visit were spent on a boat traveling down the Volga River. The boat would stop at one place or another and the tourists would be free to amble or go on guided tours.
One such stop seemed to be in no place in particular. The boat simply tied up to a large, floating dock set on a the river. There was no visible town or even any dwelling. All around us were green hills. But there was a dirt road that led off into a not-too-distant valley. Naturally, it had to be explored.
Before the tour group lifted off from New York, there were a couple of lectures that were meant to inform us about the customs of the place we were to visit. And one such bit of information was this: Russians did not give gifts lightly; they gave with an open heart that honestly wanted to give a gift. There was no quid-pro-quo in it, no bartering mentality. So we were advised to give gifts with care and to set aside the inattentive and lazy ways of our homeland.
A fellow tourist and I set off down the dirt road that led into the green hills. After a mile or less, we came to a community whose houses were constructed like log cabins ... not poorly made, but made of logs that had notched intersections at the corners. The road on which we had come led into two earthen streets that set the houses apart. There was no one to be seen on these streets.
My friend and I sat down on some grass while I changed the film in my camera. And as we sat there, a young girl of perhaps 10-12 approached shyly. She wore a clean but shapeless dress that showed her knees. She approached like a wary cat -- uncertain, but unable to still her curiosity. When she stood with us, we were all at a bit of a loss. None of us spoke enough of the other's language ... so we all smiled. And then, on a whim, I took the tour pin -- a pin everyone had been given -- from my chest and gently pinned it on hers. She allowed this to happen, but then her apprehension got the better of her and she bolted away up one of the town streets. The pin said "peace and freedom" in English and Russian.
My friend and I walked up one of the town streets. At the far end, like a church steeple in some New England setting, stood the sole stone house in town -- a dairy collective made of cinder blocks.
And still there were no people and no noise to indicate they might be elsewhere. It was a little strange.
As we walked down the other dirt road on our way out of the village, suddenly, at a distance of perhaps 50 yards, a man appeared and walked up the road towards us. He seemed to be singing. He had his head down, so he did not immediately see us. And when he was within 50 feet, I realized he was drunk as a skunk. I could feel my stomach clench in preparation for saying "no" to some panhandler on a New York street. But just about the moment that thought hit me, he looked up, saw us and stopped singing. He stared for one very brief moment at us and then, as if acknowledging the alcoholism problem rife in Russia and the simultaneous recognition of the social stigma that accompanied the problem, he hung his head ... and passed us by like a whipped dog.
Out of the village and about halfway back to the boat, there came a shouting from behind us. My friend and I stopped and turned around. There, behind us, racing like a colt that has not yet mastered the art of running, came the little girl to whom I had given the pin. She was at top speed, clearly serious, so we waited. She arrived out of breath. In her hands was a crumpled bit of newspaper wrapped around something. This she extended to me with grave eyes and slow solemnity. I received it and said without looking within the "thank you" I could manage in Russian. The words seemed to release her, and, without further communication, she took off running in the other direction.
Inside the newsprint were ten or twelve crab apples whose uses I could not guess and yet, as a gift, it felt as if I had received the crown jewels. I was left, literally, speechless and yet indelibly warmed. Crab apples ... what the hell did people do with crab apples ... I didn't know and I didn't care. But I felt a whisper of shame that perhaps I had deprived someone who knew what the hell to do with crab apples. A wondrous gift and yet I lacked the generosity to receive it.
Later, on that same day, I climbed a small hill and found four or five boys playing. They seemed to be in the 10-12 range and, as with the young girl earlier, we were curious about each other but lacked the language to express that curiosity. After a while, we all sat down on the grass, and I pulled some coins out of my pocket -- American and Russian coins. The boys recognized the Russian coins. One by one, I put an American coin of approximately similar value next to a Russian coin. The boys were attentive. They got the drift. And when I finished, I gave each boy one of the American coins. Then I got up to return to the boat.
But about halfway down the hill, the leader of the boys came running after me. I stopped and waited and when he stood before me, he extended one boy-grubby hand. On its palm was a length of black and white braided string with tassels at either end. It was perhaps a foot long. More important, it was clearly something the boy valued. The boy looked at the string and then looked into my eyes. This was clearly a gift and clearly important. But how could I take it ... and simultaneously, how could I not? This was a piece of his heart and who was I to receive such an offering? On the other hand, how could I disrespect his open heart? I took the string with thanks. He looked very happy.
I kept that string for years and years until, like other things in my life, it got lost. The crab apples could not be preserved, so shortly afterwards, I returned them to the earth -- threw them away, in one sense, but more cogently, returned them to the earth. No one in their right mind throws away the crown jewels; no one who has been blessed can be un-blessed.
And now, as the grim intensities of Christmas fill the air, I am pleased to have spent a small Christmas so long ago on a day that was not Christmas.
A bit of string, a few crab apples ... a life fully lived.