I FIRST MET THE Rostov region of southern Russia as a missionary at twenty-two. I spent a year and a half wandering the streets, talking to strangers about Jesus: to the woman from Poland, her glasses tied around her head, as she pushed pieces of watermelon into a mason jar; to the woman who thought she remembered me from a dream and touched my face while I sat in her kitchen; to the woman who carried an abdominal tumor the size of a baby in a sling across her body.
My first year back from Russia, I lived with my younger sister, Sarah, and spent an afternoon a week with a counselor—a man who always tipped back in his chair and had ears that reminded me of a mouse. He told me I would need someone around. I only knew that I was sad.
My sister would drive me to the grocery store, waiting as I spent over an hour wandering up and down the aisles before deciding on a few cans of baked beans. She would sit with me on the edge of my bed while I pulled the covers over my head and cried. The sadness lifted, eventually. I don’t think it was because I did anything in particular. It was the kind of heavy sadness that needs to run its own course, needs you to let it scoot you down and down and down until you are dizzy with the weight of your depth.
When we were younger, I would follow Sarah to after-school art clubs and drawing lessons, trying to understand what made something beautiful. She’s always had that knack: that sense that tells you how to wear your hair, where to hang the picture on the wall, and what colors to combine into a fresh and shocking brightness. We would sit together in Mrs. Frye’s art club facing the kilns. I silk-screened a cat and missed the left part of its face. I wrapped the variegated yarn too tightly around my cardboard picture frame and warped the snapshot of myself tucked inside. And I glazed a banana boat, which still glares at me in my mother’s guest bathroom whenever I visit home. It has an unidentifiable shape and thick pools of green in the corners.
Mrs. Frye put her arm around me at the end of fifth grade and told me that I just didn’t have the artist’s eye. That I couldn’t see shapes or colors.
But I kept taking drawing lessons in sixth grade: I wanted to see the world the way my sister saw it—as something you could capture, control, and paint. I spent week after week drawing an apple and its shadow while my sister moved from silk lilies to stuffed rabbits to little towns disappearing into the distance. I thought that if I could draw a road melting into the sunset I would be able to draw anything. I gripped my pencil tighter. But even after an hour, it was still just a two-edged triangle eating its way off the page. Looking at my sister’s success wilted me. I wasn’t sad because I couldn’t draw, I was sad because I couldn’t see. That’s when I tucked my little drawing book into the bottom of my desk drawer and walked away.
I was seventeen and in Russia the first time I saw a painting that I knew was beautiful. I traveled to Moscow with a group from my high school: we were to stay with a Muscovite family for three weeks. A week into our trip, the group decided to take an overnight train to St. Petersburg. We wanted to see the Hermitage—Catherine the Great’s palace-turned art museum, hulking along miles of the Neva River.
After a sleepless night in a tight railcar with three very drunk Swedish men, I spilled off the train with my bag—exhausted, hungry, and disoriented. I should have been enjoying the arched and scalloped buildings along the Neva, but I could only think of how I had vomited my first Moscow breakfast of butter and caviar on toast, the way the small bursts of orange gagged me. And I couldn’t erase the man I saw at the entrance of the metro tied to a skateboard and playing a black violin, legless.
I wandered through the Hermitage, plodding behind our guide, gazing at paintings, sculptures, and gold trinkets housed in acrylic glass, tasting the memory of orange caviar thick on my tongue and listening to the amputee play a serenade in my brain. Everything blurred into the echoes of footsteps across Catherine’s marble floors. The museum is millions of treasures deep, but I was focused on only one thing: to keep walking, to keep walking—to keep walking and not to curl up on the floor of the museum and not to cry, not to sob. Until I turned a corner.
Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son hung on the wall in front of me. The painting is big, but big can’t describe my first look. The canvas is vast—as vast as an ocean or the steppe or my homesickness. From across the room, I could see the father with his hands on the back of his errant son. The father is a small man in a red cloak. And somehow,maybe in his robe or in his face or in his hands or in the light on top of his head, he wears forgiveness. As the son kneels in front of his father, I knew he finally felt safe after being afraid, awkward, lonely, and lost since he left home.
It was a feeling I understood. I had been chased through the streets of Moscow by high school boys hurling English expletives. I had sat through physics lectures at the local high school, straining to understand a language that I couldn’t use to express even the simplest emotions. I had spent nights blockading my bedroom door against my host family’s eighteen-year-old son, after waking to see him standing near my bed. I had smelled a poverty thicker and stronger than had ever penetrated my tiny American suburb. After all this, I looked at The Return of the Prodigal Son and cried.
I would be lying if I said that the painting gave some sort of cosmic meaning to the terror and frustration I had felt over the past week. I was young and I just wanted to go home. But the painting did open for me, if only momentarily,the colossal beauty of suffering made endurable by the promise of redemption. Not only my own suffering as an American lost in Russia, but also the suffering of the legless man playing the violin. And at seventeen, I don’t think I really knew the difference between the two.
Years later, I took a trip to Peterson’s Art Supply with my sister. I stopped in front of the brushes while she went to the back to leaf through the handmade paper. She was dreaming of making a box covered in rice paper and filled with hundreds of white paper cranes. When she announced the project, I grinned and told her it was brilliant, but I was jealous. I wanted to be the one creasing creamy white squares into birds.
I was feeling sorry for myself when I saw the oil pastels. Boxes of them were laid out on a low table near the brushes, behind a wall of tiny knives. I knelt down next to the pastels, closer and closer, until I was sitting on the floor. I pulled the largest box onto my lap and unhinged the clasp, spreading out 184 pastels across my knees. I ran my hand along the pastels, touching the sky and the street and the sun with my fingertips. There were enough shades of color that I could imagine pressing them across a piece of paper, rendering the Virgin Mary holding Jesus or my mother sitting on the edge of her rocking chair folding clothes or my father pointing out the strata of a Wyoming road cut.
I slid my hands along the edges of the case and felt something small imprinted in the wood. Turning the edge of the box toward me, I could see the word yarka burned into the side. I wondered if it meant what I thought and stood up to ask a nearby salesclerk.
“Are these pastels made in Russia?” I asked, pointing back to the stack of boxes still on the table.
The salesclerk nodded. “From St. Petersburg,” she said.“They’re the best.”
“Their name means ‘brightness,’” I told her. She shrugged.
Her indifference didn’t matter. For me, anything from Russia is intriguing, but that box of Yarka Pastels caught me in a way that I can hardly explain. Such brilliant colors, colors named brightness, coming from a country most envision perpetually dark as winter.
One night, sprawled across my plank bed in the basement of our missionary apartment in Rostov, I dreamed of a red-winged blackbird. Its call is a throaty trill of notes that always makes me feel like I’m home. In my dream, I was back in the foothills of Colorado running across the dead stalks of weeds, smelling autumn. The bird was gripping a cattail in the bottom of a marsh along an outcropping of red rock.He was so black, except for the bright spots of red where his wings met his back. I ran toward the bird, feeling freer than I had in months—running toward something familiar, something that reminded me of the way it felt to be home, to not be afraid, to be myself. As I got closer, the bird opened its beak and fluttered its wings, but I didn’t hear a sound. I waited, expecting any moment to hear its call. But as the bird held its beak open, I heard only silence.
When I woke up, I lay in bed trying to remember the last time I heard a blackbird’s song. I couldn’t. In my memory, there was only the silent bird of my dream, open-mouthed. I knew then that some part of home was disappearing.
For eight months of my year-and-a-half mission, I lived in inner-city Rostov, across from the prison, the bar. I lived halfway empty, sometimes longing for home, sometimes feeling as though Rostov was the only place I had ever known. My area covered four streets—a rectangular block with a perimeter I could walk in forty-five minutes. The dust was so thick it often obscured the sun. Sewage was dumped into the streets. In late summer and 120-degree heat, the asphalt and feces would trickle down toward the Don River. Late in January, sewage, water, and snow would freeze together into complicated sculptures. We picked our way across the putrid ice formations, yellow and green, covering the entire street. I never saw a blue sky, never smelled clean air, never caught a glimpse of the horizon.
I measured that life in birds: in pigeons and sparrows, in the occasional gull off the Black Sea. I measured it in the footsteps of rats running along the kitchen floor above my head, their large thumps careening from wall to wall. I measured it in the ants that filled the bathtub in the spring, spilling over each other from the crack in the wall, climbing on each other’s backs. I measured it in the buckets of water we filled and hoarded— who knew when the city would turn the pipes on again.
Measured again in companions: Sister Axmerova, who flirted with drunks along the street; Anya, who made chocolate chip cookies in the middle of the night; Big Yulya, who wore thick tights even in the dead of summer; Little Yulya,who sang Celine Dion with me into our hairbrushes; Zhenia,who threw up our first day in the heat; the mission nurses, Sister Baumann and Sister Polander, who made me scrambled eggs with fried onions and let me listen to Ella Fitzgerald on their radio; Sister Ignatyeva, who wore waist-length hair and designed all her own clothes and stitched them by hand.
Measured in half weeks from a small calendar I kept in my pocket, a two-year calendar that held every day of my mission and a few beyond. On the bus in the heat of summer, holding a bottle of ice to my forehead, I would pull out the calendar and count the days. So many days in Rostov, so many days until I could go home.
I measured my own life in the number of lives that passed before my eyes, filling grave after grave. Seda, who held out her arms to me in the dusk of an evening and pointed to the bruises. “The nurse was drunk,” she said, exposing the racetrack of needle marks up her arm. Her family laid her cancerous body in the middle of the room and cursed God, the government, and the hospital that dealt the chemotherapy. Natasha, whose tumor pressed so heavily against her brain that she couldn’t look up, spent night after night in a closet of a hospital room, barely able to walk to the restroom down the hall. She died clutching her bathrobe. Vera, who carried her abdominal tumor like a baby, was deaf. She couldn’t call her daughter in St. Petersburg on the phone to tell her the doctors’ diagnosis.
One night, after so much counting, I called the mission nurses at their home. “I think I’m going crazy,” I said. And they laughed, because we were all crazy. They told me to take some ibuprofen and relax.
Later, when I was attacked with my own health problems—a set of ascaris worms, a pinched nerve in my leg, an achy, hollow depression—I would have conversations with a doctor in Moscow. “I don’t really know what’s wrong,”he would say, over and over. “You probably just need to go back home.” But when he asked me if that’s what I wanted,I said no.
I knew the ridiculousness of my own answer. I could barely walk. I spent many afternoons counting the cracks in the ceiling above my bed. I looked at the moon and prayed for God to take me home if I wasn’t going to be any use to anyone.
But God sees the truth, and waits.
I don’t measure Rostov in rats or ants or garbage birds or impossibly long days anymore. I admit, part of my new perspective is because I’m back in my own country, a place whose rules and conventions are a part of me. But nothing returns void: away from the ugliness, everything beautiful blooms in memory.
I close my eyes and count the people in Rostov who made me more than a missionary—who made me their friend. Of course I count Sophia, in pink. And Ludmila, who clapped her hands in delight when we would hand her a bag full of grapes. Vera and Natasha and Misha, sitting around their kitchen table singing, “Row, row, row your boat” and handing me piece after piece of rich Napoleon cake. Zhenia,who was leaning against an umbrella longer than her legs when we first met. Natasha, who pulled me into the room she and her mother shared in a communal dormitory, describing her first answered prayer. Tatyana, who was deaf but used her fingers and palms and wrists to sing so vibrantly that even in the silence, every hymn was loud with joy.
And Igor. I will always be able to close my eyes and see him standing at his front window, pressing his cat, Mittens, against the window to wave good-bye as I push my way home against the winter wind.