You Are Not Your Picture

I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.

Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.

We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures.  Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.

On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”

My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.

As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.

Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.

But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.

A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.

A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.

A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.

As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.

Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.

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War and Peace, What’s it Good For?

Disclaimer: I’m going to get a little Andy Rooney on you (but I feel entitled after all the time I’ve put into reading this book). I am definitely not a qualified literary critic, so just take my words for what they are, a rant of a girl who doesn’t feel she’s gotten a good return on her investment.

A few nights ago, my family shared a hotel room on our way to Prince Edward Island, and my brother was concerned he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“Mom, do you have any sleeping medicine?” he asked.

I looked over at him, lifted up my two-hundred pound tome and said, “You can have my copy of War and Peace.”

“Why are you reading that book? Seriously?” I have fielded this question many times in the last three weeks, and the answer, “because I want to read all of Tolstoy’s great works” now convinces myself even less than it convinces my friends and family.

In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry tricks Elaine that Tolstoy originally wanted to name his magnum opus War, What’s it Good For, instead of War and Peace. After reading almost 900 pages and being none too impressed, I am inclined to meld the two titles. This may sound like blasphemy to loyal Tolstoyans (not the cult, just his faithful readers), but if War and Peace were submitted to a publisher today, I suspect it might be trashed.

With no real sense of plot, long, drawn out descriptions of the exact set-up for every single battle, and random philosophical musings that border on dreamlike stream of consciousness makes War and Peace one of the novels that I am sure I will not endeavor to read in the original. Tolstoy himself did say that War and Peace wasn’t supposed to be a novel, but to me, that seems like a bit of a cop out, a loophole that allows him to do whatever the heck he wanted and string readers along for an agonizing 1220 pages. But I am not one to give up, so I will keep pushing through the last 300 pages.

Reading War and Peace is like fishing: you sit there for a long time hoping to latch on to something good. Sometimes it happens, but

Front page of Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, f...
Front page of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, first edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

often it doesn’t. The book does have its redeeming moments, and these are so great that they make you almost forget how boring the last 100 pages have been. I imagine it’s somewhat like how a new mother forgets the pain of childbirth while holding her newborn for the first time. And I actually do love the characters; they are so well-developed that you feel you may have actually met them, and Tolstoy has the gift of giving each of his hundreds of creations a defining nuance. It is just that so much of the book doesn’t focus on the individual characters, but on the details of (not surprisingly) the war.

If War and Peace was the first piece of Russian lit I had picked up, I probably would have given up. I love Anna Karenina. I really like The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And I wanted to be able to say that I like War and Peace. So far, not so good. But who knows, I still have 300 pages left; maybe the ending will redeem the many hours spent with the soporific volume, wishing that Napoleon Bonaparte would just give up already…

In the Land of Anne

The sand here is like cinnamon, and the quiet is vast and freeing.

The view from the beach by our cabin. Photo Credit: Blake Johnson. Check out his blog here.

The family has just settled in for the week at a little oceanside cabin in Prince Edward Island, the home of one of my favorite fictional characters, Anne of Green Gables.

I have always felt a special connection to the overly dramatic, hopelessly romantic, prone to misadventures redhead, and as I have grown up, my story has mirrored hers in many ways.

My family and closest friends will tell you that I share Anne’s penchant for dramatic, melancholy musings; I long ago adopted her phrases “the depths of despair,” “kindred spirit,” and “bosom friend” into my vocabulary. Sometimes when I feel that no one else understands, I comfort myself with the thought that Anne would. I am blessed to have a “bosom friend,” and our relationship reminds me a lot of Anne and Diana’s. Like Anne, I dream of becoming a published author and I am leaving home to become a teacher in a new place. If you haven’t seen the film, this short trailer will give you an idea of Anne’s character:

One of my favorite Anne moments is when she shatters her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.

I have never smashed a slate over a boy’s head, but I did do something similar. In seventh grade, I had quite the crush on my pastor’s son, and at youth group, he would not let me get a word in edgewise while I tried to tell a story. He kept guffawing, his husky twelve year-old voice drowning out my own. In a desperate attempt to both shut him up and get his attention, I smashed my Styrofoam bowl full of nacho cheesier Doritos hard on top of the boy’s head. From his reaction, I think it hurt. Unlike with Anne and Gilbert, that relationship never did work out…

I have also gotten injured because of my pride. After being dared, Anne tries to walk the ridge of a roof and sprains her ankle. In order to prove to a friend that I was “adventurous,” I tried to land an ice skating move that I had no business attempting. I spent that night with a scary Russian dentist name Konstantine who sewed up my chin. You can read about it here.

It is wonderful to finally experience the enchanting island that has captured me again and again every time I have popped in one of our old Anne VHSs. I am looking forward to seeing life as Anne saw it. Let’s just hope that this doesn’t happen:

Obsessed with LingQ!

Now that I finally have time on my hands, I have excitedly begun to dive into my Russian study for the summer. I don’t have a tutor, don’t have a class in my area, but I already am making huge improvements. How so, you ask? A few years ago, I stumbled across LingQ.com, a language learning website that features podcasts with accompanying texts ranging from interviews with Russian journalists to Chekhov’s short stories to newspaper articles on “How to Look Fresh After a Sleepless Night.” The site is addictive for anyone with a competitive streak and/or likes to obsessively track his or her progress.

Each article is customized to your progress: unknown words are highlighted in blue, and you can “LingQ” them by clicking on them. The word becomes highlighted in yellow, a definition pops up, and the system automatically makes your new vocabulary word that can be reviewed either in context of the sentence or on a simple flashcard.

I am obsessed, addicted, in love, and I have already found myself unable to pull myself away from the computer after listening to articles and  LingQing words for hours…

This is the special badge they gave me to show that I know “more than 5,000 Russian words.” (I guess I was always one motivated by gold stars).

I have no idea the accuracy of this count- the site counts each different verb conjugation and declined noun as a separate word, but I love seeing the count steadily go up. So, if you are looking for a fun and cheap way to learn a language this summer, I would highly recommend this gem of a program. Now, off to continue my obsession…

A Drunken Perspective

A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…

From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.

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View from the upper section of Nizhniy Novgorod

So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety.  Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.

Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.

“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.

“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.

“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.

“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.

“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”

He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.

“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled.  No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.

“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.

“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes.  But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.

And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.

I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.

I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.

And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.

I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.

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