Killing my timid notions

This post is dedicated to my dad.

In our early immigrant days, my parents seldom had days off from work at once. So, we often hung out individually. Perusing shopping malls was a favorite activity with both parents, and we window shopped, a lot. My dad and I loved music stores. Stunned by the vast selection and availability, in music, we found a great escape from the stress of feeling foreign in 90’s America.

At his core, my dad’s a free spirit. He loves all things novel, adventurous.. marvels at American ingenuity and appreciates rebellion culture. I love that about him. He considers function before form – he’s an engineer after all – and yet, there is an artist side to him that is rarely seen. He has outfitted entire rooms with modern homemade textile wares like drapery, upholstery and pillows. A meticulous craftsman, he brews artisanal beer, adapts culinary recipes and is generally all up in the DIY. Upcycling was common in the Soviet Union, so according to my mom (and she just shared this recently for I would have mentioned it in an earlier blog post titled “Upcycling for Kidswear,” had I asked about it then), his eye for design plus skills made him quite a catch with the ladies. When they dated, he made her a denim pencil skirt out of imported secondhand jeans. For me, there were jumpsuits, outerwear and hats made from random high end fabric scraps with an aesthetic and construction quality comparable to European style du jour. Best of all, our early home life was filled with music. Loud rock, pop and disco. Each time we consumed it, his physiognomy would reveal his soul allowing my mom and me to access him emotionally.

The mid 90’s were a time of the compact disc revolution, so as tapes became obsolete, the products of musical creation were merchandised as CDs, and then sold and consumed as albums. The mass music industry was booming, and distribution middlemen exploited unfair licensing structures to keep the wheels turning. If, by then, you too had turned into a music junkie like my dad and I had, then you’ll remember those music clubs BMG and Columbia House, peddling mail order offers of 11 CDs for a penny, or 12 CDs for the price of one.

My dad and I were great bait, for as enticing as it was, it only took a few weeks of seduction by catalog that this sweet deal had us on the hook. The offer required 1 CD purchase at regular price, which was an album he was already planning to buy, and a selection of 11 other CDs that would arrive separately at the too-good-to-be-true price of a penny. I translated and completed the order form, while he wrote the check. As financier and administrator, we agreed to split the selection down the middle. But who would get the 11th CD—was still a lingering question. Once settled into our choices, the conversation emerged. He walked into my room, his face all stern and lacking affect, and calmly said, “You get the sixth CD, but I will choose it and it’s going to be this one,” pointing to a black album graphic that read Joan Jett & The Heartbreakers. On it was a picture of woman dressed in all black leather, with big black hair, all black make-up, and a face not to be fucked with. I was half puzzled, half curious and intrigued as hell by his pick for me. With great fascination, I stared at it speechlessly and with a starry eyed smile said “Ok!!”

There wasn’t an internet back then as we know it today, so it’s not like you could google a band to learn more about it. So, once the check and catalog selections were mailed out, an outpouring of endless questions about Joan Jett led to what I like to call some of my first key programming of feminist values. He raved about what a badass she was to break through with rock and roll in a man’s world. His celebration of her achievements validated my feminist position in the gender debate; that women should challenge the status quo and pursue total freedom and equality.

As a 10 year old, I had already downloaded gender bending messages from rap and R&B artists like Salt ‘n Pepa and TLC. But Joan Jett’s work, however, was of a completely different flavor, with an emotionally charged sound that packed a punch of new caliber. The raw, all dominating vocal range, hard femme lyrics, unleashed guitar riffs… and endorsed by my own father nonetheless, led me to push some serious boundaries in school attire. I immediately began to emulate the goth look and my dad didn’t just not question it, he pretended not to notice it which in Former Soviet Union fashion was a sign of acceptance. I lucked out with parents who, during a time when their own identities were in question, tried their absolute best to share with me the most passionate parts of themselves and let me express myself through clothes and appearance.

But back to the music order. Once we got the CDs, our sonic honeymoon lasted for weeks. Music was blasted every weeknight and weekend, and lyrics were thoroughly studied and memorized. Then one day, we started getting CDs we didn’t order, which was followed by a bill for several hundred dollars. For weeks we disputed the charges until finally finding what we did wrong, or more specifically didn’t do right: sending back some extra catalog forms to decline new merchandise. I admit that as administrator and translator, I did not act with due diligence to understand and relay all the fine print. I mean, FINE print. But fuck, I was 10. I just wanted the music. And so did my dad, who by the way wasn’t angry with me at all. We were duped together, after all. And the together part felt far more important to us than being duped.

I sourced my gender non-conforming influences equally from my family and from the art world. But it was my dad who instilled in me an bold sense of self, ready to face adversity, setback or woe. Our joint venture, despite the imperfect outcome, was the pulling of the trigger that killed those timid notions that came with being a resident alien.

Five letter name that starts with ‘M’

All my life I’ve struggled with my Self-Concept.

At six, a Soviet hospitalization left me thinking I was an orphan—a term, by the early 1990’s, well known among kids of late-USSR. At eight, a rejection into a Hillel revealed that I was Jewish, but not quite enough to attend the school. By the time I was nine years old, I knew that I had moved to a “rich” America from a highly controversial place.

I was a refugee immigrant kid, taught to feel embarrassed about my birthplace, and about my non-Americanness. I’d often ask my mom, “Why are people smiling in public?” to which she’d say, “because in America, people are free, they can act however they want.” Automatically, I took this response as a license to smile my face off which quickly earned me friend-making super powers. Nonetheless, all my kid worries remained. Was I going to get sick again? What is Jewish? What is being “free” mean? Everyday there were as many questions swirling around as there were daily options of what to look at and fascinate on, what to wear and eat, and what to play with and music to listen to. Distractions abounded, and tidal waves of sensory overload came in and out regularly.

During the first few months, arguments between my grandparents and parents about how to behave in public often involved criticisms over how I was being parented. I felt sad about these disagreements, though obviously I didn’t comprehend the purpose and intentions of such conditioning. I just knew one thing: I needed to be as American as possible if I wanted to be a horoshaya devochka— “a good girl.”

From then on, to prevent the shame that came with being “seen,” I campaigned to hide my origins by erasing one reality and reconstructing a totally new one. I leaned into rap and R&B music and immersed myself in fashion and visual culture through magazines at the local library. I made friends quickly and almost as a sport, practiced surrounding myself with non-family influence.

My dad chose my universally common name, Maria, which was and still is commonly expressed as its diminutive form “Masha.” One day, while translating for my parents at a school meeting—despite my limited capacity to articulate institutional formalities or interpersonal nuances—a teacher asked if I preferred to be called by what my parents called me. Like, I didn’t even know how to think about my preferences, but her convincing bit about how “very American” my name was, led me to think she was referring to “Masha.” It became quickly apparent that her pronunciation included an “r” in the name, effectively changing it to “Marsha.” That night, while complaining to my parents about it, I felt their voicelessness and defeat. I sensed that they wanted to make the correction, but were fearful of overstepping boundaries and didn’t know how to approach the issue. As with many other challenging circumstances at that time, the problem was treated with consumption—some candy, or a tiny toy from the quarter slot machine. So, with a few days of ‘treatment,’ I accepted this new name as my own.

In my first year as Marsha, during lunch or recess I often heard hailed into my direction, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha,” followed by uproars of laughter. Unaware of the cultural references that sparked such mockery led to feelings of isolation and a bewildering sense of freakdom, the latter of which later served as a strong foundation of a long term self-resilience. Was it the teachers or the students in whom I could seek solace? The answer grew more and more unclear.

By twelve, a very scrawny and lanky Masha aggressively grew into a very curvy Marsha. Suddenly, I drew unwanted attention, again. Bullied for having full breasts, I bullied right back, but within my own friendships in an effort to regain power, autonomy and control. I grew emotionally distant from my family and addicted to praises from my American teachers and friends. Navigating these dynamics left me turning to the darker corners of the self – self-exploitation and self-destruction.

At sixteen, I legally changed my first name to Marie. My parents’ decision to Americanize their first and last names signaled to me that I, too, had earned this right. After all, I couldn’t stand being called Marsha, because by then the name had earned me a terrible reputation. Hell, I never felt like a Marsha from the get go, so denouncing it was also an act of self-liberation.

For the past 19 years, I’ve introduced myself as Marie, sometimes telling fables about who and what inspired it. The truthful backstory was too painful to get into; only until recently, I lacked the tools or emotional maturity to discuss such matters. Now in my eighth year of self-help and inner-child work, I’ve come to terms with the role of Marie—a survival tactic, an invention, a conceptual sculpture of the Self that quelled the angry Marsha, and healed the wounded Masha inside.

I am now going on to 36 and re-introducing myself to the world as Masha. It feels more authentic to me; and “Marie” as more of a shell of that “good girl” label and identity I so badly craved. I’ll continue to use Marie in professional contexts, but plan to very gradually phase it out.

I’m OK with taking things slowly and won’t force the change onto others who know me as Marsha or Marie. I’ll just keep putting it out there and eventually, they’ll adapt with time.

Lice and viral aerosols

This month, I was to make a first-ever return to my birthplace.

Apart from reconnecting with relatives, I wanted to finally bring closure to a traumatic event that tormented me for years. It was there that I had my first experience under quarantine. That’s what’s so ironic about then and now. It wasn’t an action taken by informed guardianship or social responsibility. Instead, the isolation was the result of a primitive and inhumane standard of care.

It was October of 1990 and tension filled the air in the streets of Ukraine. We had just lived through the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl, so the ubiquity of gas masks was a part of many of my memories. The current personal protective equipment deficit reminds me of those days.

Then we ‘hid’ from radiation. Now, we hide from viral aerosols.

Life was confusing, the USSR was collapsing and escapism ruled the world.  Like other new parents amidst a crisis, mine meandered away from answers when met with my endless questioning. As a precocious only child, I talked to strangers whenever possible and accepted our grim reality on condition that I could only ‘go on’ living through fantasy. I created imaginary worlds to find solace in and draw from to entertain myself and the adults around me.

One day as she was brushing my hair, my mother noticed a strange patch on my scalp. My grandma was a doctor, so through her connections I got to see a specialist the following day. They explained that it was an infection caused by the widespread lice/ human flea infestation common among kids at the time. They also confirmed that it was contagious, and ordered a hairless treatment under a strict quarantine. In true Soviet fashion, they didn’t explain the details to me. I knew something was wrong but had no idea what it would take to fix it.

My mother did not react well to the order. She cried and I felt responsible for her pain. As my father shaved off my hair that night, I sat firmly in the chair pleading with her to not be sad. Unprepared for a hospitalization, I thought we’d spend a few hours at a clinic and return home—a dose of medicine I was willing to endure.

The week flew by and next thing I knew we were there. Through minimal conversation, a nurse waiting outside proceeded to escort me in. When I realized my parents weren’t joining, something feral in me awoke. It felt like I was being abandoned; that my health problem deemed me unworthy of a family. What felt like an injustice, my grandma’s right to join [as a medical professional] over my parents angered and frightened me. As I got pulled inside, I watched my father quell my mother standing there in a puddle of her own tears.

This is where I’m going to live, I thought.

First, nurses showed me the shared dormitory. Then, they introduced me to my roommates. Each minute felt like an eternity as white walls caved in under the high ceilings. The most subtle of sounds traveled from corner to corner and private thoughts had the potential to be heard. As my legs moved, my mind floated.

Eye blink, heart beat, step forward. Repeat.

The mood was restless and desperate. Echoing cries were the soundscape of daily life. The energy was dark, unforgiving and cold to the bone. Every few days, a flaming torch was used to burn the infection off my scalp while I laid atop a sterile steel table. It hurt so bad that in the beginning I cried. Once I sensed that this frustrated the doctor and delayed the process, I bucked up. By week two I was slightly cringing at the pain, and by week three I’d slip into a dream state and feel no pain at all.

How quickly kids adapt to torture.

The hospital doubled as an orphanage for children with chronic conditions, and some of my roomies were victims of the AIDS epidemic whose heroin-addicted parents passed away shortly prior. Determining who had living parents and who did not was of primary import to these residents. Those claiming at least one parent enjoyed a higher rank among the group, so right away, I knew I was dealt a fine hand of cards. Bed-making disobedience never ended well so we helped one another avoid disciplinary action. I bonded with a girl who’d, through our cafeteria window, often point to a shanty in the distance. She said her mother lived there ‘eating her own snot,’ and that soon enough she would return for her. Something told me she would not, so I promised to take care of her.

Much like life in prison, we were shut off from the outside world and visits were rare and tightly controlled. Two weeks into my stay, a shocking visit from my parents thawed some of my cold inner hardness. After interacting through an indoor glass window for an hour, we separated and again I found myself torn between hope and despair.

No one could say if and when this would come to an end.

This treatment took three weeks during which I developed survival tendencies that evolved into both personal strengths and deep flaws in character. Some of these were abusive behavior patterns that are taking years to unlearn while honoring the uniquely special set of skills I also gained. Despite how traumatizing it was, this quarantine pales by comparison with the unfolding tragedy we face today.

I don’t feel imprisoned or abandoned the way I did then, as this experience is packed with opportunities. In rediscovering the loving inner voice that gets muffled by constant processing of social interactions, I’ve resumed creative projects and embarked on small wellness journeys — both of which I failed to make time for pre-pandemic. I also postponed my return to Ukraine to next year and I am so glad it worked out this way.

Through a new frame of reference to capture the experience in words, closure will be that much more meaningful. Had I not had this chance for reflection, perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready to physically face and make peace with the memory.

Alas, even through crisis, the universe shows us connections we were too preoccupied to see.