Friday, September 18, 2015

the cherries

The other day, from the corner of my left eye, I saw a woman lift a glass jar from a shelf. I turned and walked away, so I would not see her place the object nonchalantly in her basket. Instead, I shuffled to the counter and ordered a pound of sunflower seed halvah.

Not a big deal. Except that, during that split second, while that jar hovered harmlessly in the air across the room from me, a Proustian revelation on the relativity of desire and need bloomed bizarrely in my brain. Why? Because it just happened to be a jar of Bulgarian pie-cherries.

Imagine, if you will, that, in an alternate version of the story, Don Quixote had quit fighting, and laid down his armor and sword in favor of a tamer profession. In the meantime, Dulcinea, not being content with this state of affairs, had donned his armor, and, elbows akimbo, began tilting alone at windmills, willy nilly.

During one long, rainy Autumn in Moscow, I spent a part of each day for weeks facing off against two pallets of cardboard boxes in a neighborhood store. The labels on the the boxes declared that they were filled with tart-sweet Bulgarian cherries, and they seemed to have popped up like toadstools at random in the center of the gray stone floor. I walked up to the register and inquired about them. The cherries, I was told, were not yet for sale. When would they be ready to sell? Later, I was told. 

I determined that, no matter what, I would get my hands on those cherries. It was only a matter of when. 

To understand the reasoning behind my obsession, one would need to know that this occurred during perestroika, after the effects of the food deficits had begun to be quite palpable. There was not much available on the shelves of stores. A few dusty potatoes and carrots. Large, grand icy-green heads of cabbage, if one were lucky. A few tins of canned peas.

At that time, I had entered into the embrace of a life in which my Choices had narrowed themselves into a very small peephole. I had the honor of sharing this circumstance with millions of other human beings. We had launched ourselves headfirst into this venture, lugging the baggage of a country-ful of pain. For the sake of this, we stood patiently in long lines to buy staples. We craved cheese, in vain. We yearned for anything but drab. We (mostly) survived. We changed. 

Day after day, I  strode out of the apartment, stringing a purple purse over my skinny left shoulder, and marched a few blocks to the store where I stopped and stared at the cherries. And day after day, I was told that they were not ready to sell them, yet. My craving grew, but I encouraged myself: it won't be long now. I became a cherry-stalker.

Between my hunting trips, I would return home to stare at the antique icon of St. Nikolai, partially covered by a silver riza, who had been shoved behind the glass of a bookshelf not far from titles such as Red Star Above Kabul, which I puzzled over.

It was pouring cats-and-dogs on the day I walked into the store, and saw that only a few cases of cherries remained on the old wooden pallet. They had been released! I rushed up to the register breathlessly, handed the sacred slip of paper to someone wearing a dingy white robe, and obtained the legal right to a case of cherries.

My subsequent mood of triumphant euphoria was only slightly dampened by the fact that I found it difficult to keep hold of the wet box, and that it grew heavy enough that I had to stop a few times and set it down on the sidewalk to rest. 

Thump, bump, thump up four flights of stairs, and then - what? I realized that the cherries would take their place somewhere under a cot, near the case of baking soda which Tatyana Mikhailovna had wisely stashed, or in front of the five kilos of sugar I had scored near the embassies downtown. 

I remember the flavor of those cherries. They tasted like sweetness and tartness, like sunshine and rain, memory and forgetfulness. Although they were a bit soggy, they tasted like kindness, like the contrast of a subdued splash of color against burlap. Like hope.

Those cherries were what I was able to bring to the table. They made it possible for me to exchange quiet, joy-filled glances with the birch tree that stood outside my window. They were -- my offering.

alpine blueberry

Listening to Alyona Sviridova's Pink Flamingo (Розовый Фламинго), which dates me rather concretely.

"Dumai o khoroshem..."

Думай о хорошем.....


Harlequin said...

Here our understanding of Gorbachev's great restructuring was from a safe distance. You paint a sobering picture of the realities and a test for G. Bernard Shaw's presumption that, there is no love sincerer than the love of food.

Iulia Flame said...

Give us bread, but give us roses, too.

Iulia Flame said...

PS - as for the restructuring, one could talk for hours on the subject and not hash it out thoroughly... ;)

Harlequin said...

What an interesting video, quite a presentation, this poem with legacy and aspirations of a song, I had not heard before. Extremely well matched by the video content. I well remember the shock waves of Lech Walesa, Solidarity and Gdansk. Thank you for the link.

Iulia Flame said...

It is so kind of you, Arlecchino, to listen to the cries of so many hearts:

"'Bread for all, and Roses, too'—a slogan of the women in the West."

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

--James Oppenheim, 1911

erin said...

the elusiveness of having...

i don't know what to say.

earlier today i was trying to organize my thoughts on beauty.

then, looking for Zagajewski's poem "Late Beethoven" i found my way here.

and now the taste of cherries floods my mouth...

thank you.

Iulia Flame said...

Thank you kindly for stopping by, erin. xx

the song of a shell sapphire melting inside jade a color unnamed Ofra Haza's version of this song defies categoriz...

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