As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I spent a summer teaching ESL in Kharkov, Ukraine. It was a really difficult and the most rewarding time for me. Difficult because I had an on-going long distance relationship with a man I met in England right before leaving (of course!) for Ukraine. Also, I was living on a regular Ukrainian salary (i.e. $250 USD per month – not even the amount of monthly credit card payments I had back home). Needless to say, I got in a bit of financial trouble during this period but the existential rewards of learning about life far outweighed that.
It was rewarding because no one knows how to appreciate life quite like Eastern Europeans who’ve dealt with wars and famines and just general mayhem nearly constantly throughout history. Who else is better equipped to teach you about sucking the marrow out of every moment than people who literally worry about their safety on a daily basis?
Please note: I’m not trying to diminish the dire situations over half of the world’s population face daily. I’m just saying, when you come from a relatively stable and safe environment and experience the kind of hardship you’ve only ever read about in newspaper or see on tv, it makes quite an impression.
One of my favorite memories from my time there, is a seemingly innocent moment, but to my mind is very poignant and shows the contrast of life lived moment to moment. Here’s my story from that time:
Sitting alone on a park bench outside the usual internet café in Shevchenko Park drinking a beer, eating a hot sandwich and enjoying the dusk, I contemplate life in Ukraine, England and in general. Old ladies and men hover around the young and cheerful loiterers, such as myself, in expectation of something. Perhaps money, perhaps a chance to dole out wisdom gathered through a tough life of stable Soviet times and the transition to an unstable ‘democracy’ to this new generation of materialists.
I finish the now cold ham and cheese sandwich and down the last drop of Obolon Sobornaya. Suddenly I see an old woman rushing towards me, and I understand what it is she wants, after months of observation of this unique and intriguing culture. The beer bottle. She wants neither money, nor pity, nor to give advice. She simply wants the nice green glass that could mean an added few copecks to her measly pension. As I hand over the bottle she says in a weak and hoarse voice, “Дай Бог Здорова!” “God give you health!” I smile and head into the café to check what’s new in the cyber world of electronic mail, pondering whether it is ironic or not that she asked God to give me health after I effectively killed dozens of brain cells and put my liver to hard work with the 5.4% brew. Ironic I decide, but interesting.
Each moment is precious. Whether that is a moment of cultural clarity or a moment of peaceful contemplation, as I was having before the old woman took the beer bottle. We humans are constantly thinking about the next thing, the next project or next vacation, but we rarely take time to examine this thing, this project, or this vacation. And that’s where the juiciness of life is to be found. In the NOW.
So take a moment, breathe in deep of your surroundings and be Present. By coming back to presence, we truly inhabit our bodies and our world. Try this at least once a day and see if you learn to appreciate life a little more.
How do you stay present? What was a perception altering experience for you? Let me know in the comments below!
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