My Trip to Russia: A Reflection on Darkness and Memory

Ever since I traveled solo to Russia this past summer, I have struggled to assign language to the experience. When people would ask about my trip, I tried to relate to them my dichotomous experience. There was an incredible ebb and flow of extreme emotion during those 10 days – at times, a spiraling down into the depths of darkness and at other times, a soaring to elevated heights of joy.  

But, if I am completely honest, the sense of grief disseminated from the darkness was so overwhelming I tended to fixate on the negative power of loneliness to all who asked about the trip. Maybe, just maybe, depending on if I still had their attention after I clothed them in my melancholy, I would share the beauty I encountered in the art, people, and culture. Maybe.

Even now, seven months later, I am still focusing on the darkness. Since I am not much of a story teller, I’m going to boil down the root of the darkness as such: loneliness predicated from the fact almost everyone one I crossed paths with spoke little to no English.

I was alone for ten days surrounded by millions of people. I was isolated in an unfamiliar crowd.

The darkness oppressed me in Russia. What darkness doesn’t oppress? But as I become farther and farther removed from the Russian darkness, my memory of the trip has evolved. In my sleep, I dream of the beauty of Russia; I speak to my students about the people I met and the effect they had on my soul; I changed my desktop photo on my school computer to Maurice de Vlaminck’s “View of the Seine” from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Every reflection, seven months from the trip, does not explicitly point to the darkness of the actual moment.

Why is that? Why, even though there is a remnant of darkness remaining in my heart, a remnant which will probably remain forever, does a light seem to expose something which wasn’t even experienced in the actual moment?

Ruthie, in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, speaks of memory and its power as such:

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it…There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair what dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

Memory of an event, an experience, a person, recreates those moments/people into the hope, the expectation, of who or what you wished them to actually be. While you lose the particular moment or person in actuality, you pick up the pieces and recreate it into something else, always hoping, rationally or irrationally, this recreation will return in its new, beautified form. Yet, the very hope or expectation of this construction, is a very real thing in your consciousness. Its nature resides in your very real imagination.

I hopped on the plane to Russia with the expectation, with the hope, I would tangibly experience the culture which has shaped my view of God and man. I expected for, I hoped for, a mystical experience where the Holy Spirit provided the peace of Christ to a parched soul, further validating the life I feel called to and the faith I embody. There were moments in which it occurred, but the light faded quickly and eventually yielded to the asphyxiating darkness.

Now, it’s as if my memory has given me that experience I expected but seven months later. It’s as if the darkness wasn’t even with me in Moscow and St. Petersburg; that it actually didn’t throw me into the deepest despair of my life. It’s as if I predominately experienced the light.

Maybe, just maybe, then, darkness is actually the catalyst for the light of memory. Maybe my conception of darkness and its role in my life is too narrow…

This life if full of darkness. The darkness seems to overwhelm the light. But, it’s not as if the light isn’t there; and it’s not as if the light takes precedent over the darkness, or the darkness takes precedent over the light, for one does not exist without the other.

Yet, the darkness. It saturates. It envelops. I tend to set it up against the light in opposition to one another. Rightfully so. Christ is the light of man; sin, the flesh, evil is the seed of darkness. Nothing good happens after midnight they say…

In the dark, man and woman become one. In the dark, man is shaped and molded into the physical imago dei. In the dark, man finds rest for his weary soul.

Darkness, then, is a purification of sorts, allowing us to be who we were intended to be. Purifying to a point in which the light becomes essential and a natural consequent.

The film, sitting, stewing, stirring, waiting, wishing, wondering when the light will expose the glimpses. Solitary glimpses, seemingly isolated from its past and future. A moment in time only revealed by the light. What is seen represents what once was, yet flickers the imagination to know that its present intimate participation in the glossiness is a light in and of itself – its white and blacks contrasting, not clashing, working together to reveal what the darkness intended to purify.

Darkness does not necessarily equate to sin, as light does not necessarily equate to Christ. For the Word experienced darkness so that the world could be the light. His terrifying darkness consistently and unceasingly purifying, provides momentary glimpses to be remembered, dwelled upon, and praised.

These moments of darkness memory reveals to be moments of light; stories of darkness that expose the Light of man. The darkness of Russia veiling the light of the purpose of unveiling it in the reconstructed memory of the transfiguring soul.

Maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t have reflected on the trip with grief, but an opportunity for memory and darkness to purify.

“When one looks inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among tree and sky – the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same. When one looks from the darkness into the light, however, one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that.” – Ruthie, Housekeeping

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