Ritual Confessions

January 14, 2008

Portrait of the political science professor as a middle-aged man

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 9:48 pm

Boris, whom we met in David Rochester’s post of today, is a friend of my husband who visited us from the midwest over this past weekend. He is an earnest and exceedingly well-meaning fellow who, in my view, is unappealing and endearing in equal parts. He is definitely more than a little awkward, pedantic, overbearing and overblown… and yet, he may also be the single most important factor in my husband’s success in achieving political asylum in the United States (which hundreds of thousands of immigrants routinely fail to achieve — it’s incredibly rare to pull that off). Not only did he refer Nick to the very fine attorney who accomplished this feat, and loan him the money to pay for it, but he provided very compelling and credentialed expert testimony about the atrocities the Russian army was perpetrating in Chechnya, about my husband’s moral imperative to resist particpating in it, and the certainty of the prison sentence (a minimum of three years) that awaited him (for evading the draft) in the motherland were he to be deported. Boris offered this testimony voluntarily and for free. All this happened before I met Nick, but I can’t help believing it’s possible that I owe my very marriage and child to this man. For this reason alone, I have always accorded him the utmost graciousness and respect, even under the most trying of circumstances. And the circumstances could hardly have been more trying than on the evening that Boris and I met.

Flashback to mid-2005: Nick is a lapsed member of the church to which Boris belongs. He has lost his faith in the Christian doctrine which dictates Boris’s every waking action. He’s no longer on board with many of the church’s practices and beliefs. He has fallen in love with a Jewish woman (me), whose acceptance of his marriage proposal is contingent upon his conversion to Judaism. When he agrees to convert, Boris — his friend and ally and advocate, a man to whom Nick believes he owes his safety and his chosen home — informs him that their friendship is over. My fiance has renounced Christ, and nothing short of total excommunication is appropriate. He will no longer speak to Nick, attend the same social gatherings, or sit at the same table with him. Needless to say, he will not be attending our wedding. The only action on Nick’s part that could restore the friendship, he says, would be if Nick wrote me a letter breaking off the engagement and ending our relationship. This was nothing personal, as he had never even met me. It was what he believed his religion demanded.

Nick was devastated by this turn of events. In one of his many attempts to rescue their friendship, and at my urging, he left a message for Boris, inviting him to dinner at our home. He told Boris that I was very upset by what seemed like patent anti-Semitism on his part, and that I wanted very much to understand how this man who was so important to my fiance could be behaving in such a way. Sensitive to the accusation of anti-Semitism, Boris said he would be happy to meet with me alone and explain his position — that he had nothing against Jews; some of his most esteemed colleagues were Jewish; Jews were fine. What he had a problem with were Christians who had turned their back on Christ.

So in this strange twist of fate, I found myself in an upper west side cafe, having dinner with Boris. It was easily among the most maddening interludes of my life. He was undeniably brilliant, incredibly well-educated, fluent in Russian with a working knowledge of half a dozen other languages, about to receive a doctorate in political science from Columbia University, nearly as well-travelled and worldly as they come. All the more disconcerting, then, to realize he had as fundamentalist and literal a belief in the Bible as it was possible to have, that he believed the world had begun in the week of creation that included Adam and Eve, and that he was certain that all those who failed to accept Christ as their personal savior — including all good people, and even children, of other faiths — would be damned to hell for all eternity. Moreover, he believed he had an iron-clad obligaton to renounce his friendship with Nick under the present circumstances.

But a person’s relationship with God is very personal, I protested. Sometimes the spiritual path isn’t a straight line. Everyone has to find their own way. To illustrate my point with an example I thought would please him, I’d brought along a memoir by Lauren Winner, a woman raised in a secular household who converted to Orthodox Judaism before ultimately embracing born-again Christianity. (In fact, I’d brought a whole stack of books I thought he might enjoy, many of them new hardcovers, which I gave him at the end of our conversation.) But Boris would have none of this idea of everyone finding his or her own way. There was, after all, only one way — and that was the Way, the Truth, and the Light.

Moreover, Boris knew just what it meant to make sacrifices for one’s faith. For instance, he confided — and he wasn’t sure why he was trusting me with this information — that he himself had a powerful sexual desire for men. In fact, he had a powerful sexual desire for Nick. But he would sooner die a virgin (which often seemed a likelihood) than to act upon these desires, since homosexuality was an abomination in the eyes of Christ.

I told him honestly that I could hardly imagine the devotion and self-restraint required to sustain lifelong abstinence from one’s fiercest cravings. That I had tremendous respect for that kind of discipline and resolve. But at the same time, I told him, it made me terribly sad that he would deny himself in this way, since I believe that love between any two consenting adults is a holy proposition. That if I could, I would dissolve his guilt and shame regarding these desires and free him to fulfill them with the right man (who, by the way, was not Nick).

By the end of our dinner, though, he hadn’t budged an inch. He reiterated that his friendship with Nick was over forever. I reiterated that Nick loved him very much, would miss him without question, that we would both remain eternally grateful for his part in securing Nick’s asylum, and that our door would always be open to him were he ever to change his mind. We parted on the street outside the cafe and I walked home to the apartment that Nick and I shared. I told my husband-to-be that I’d demonstrated nearly other-worldly restraint during our meeting, that I’d been fastidiously warm and respectful and gracious, and that the guy was a raving nut job.

We were married in October and we sent Boris a Christmas card in December (to which he did not reply). He held his stony silence throughout the end of that year and well into the next.

And then, without explanation and for no reason that we could fathom, he contacted Nick in the spring. He stayed in our home as we were packing to re-locate to Portland, and he even helped us with the move. He was in Oregon for work-related purposes this past weekend (somehow he always seems to descend on us while we’re in the process of moving) and he visited us on two consecutive days. Yesterday, while we were sitting at a table in our local coffeehouse, he told me (during a moment when Nick was at the counter for a coffee refill) that we seem to have a healthy and loving marriage, and he hopes that it will last as long as we both shall live. He has never volunteered any information about what accounted for his change of heart, and we have never asked. But all things considered, I’m glad he’s back.

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12 Comments »

  1. All things considered, it sounds like he is too. 🙂

    Comment by thelittlefluffycat — January 14, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  2. You can’t imagine how much I laughed at this, because before I read it I was on the verge of emailing you to ask whether Boris had a crush on Nick, and if his obsession with high-cachet ultra-feminine sexually objectified women was his way of trying to completely deny the fact that he is, at the very least, bisexual.

    I would agree with your observation that he is endearing and maddening in equal measure. His love for Nick (desire aside) is incredibly sweet, and radiates out of him like a … well, like a halo? 😉

    Comment by davidrochester — January 14, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  3. Oh, and as an aside … I’m really really grateful now thatI listened to the gut-level intuition telling me that I shouldn’t air my views about how Christianity is exactly as oppressive and evil-doing as Islam. *wipes brow at close call*

    Comment by davidrochester — January 14, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  4. Great post. I’ve never been to this site before, but I will be back. Thank you.

    Comment by Anti-Racist Blog — January 14, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

  5. Yes, now I’m grateful too. It doesn’t change the fact that your reasoning as to why was wrong, though. 😀

    Comment by thelittlefluffycat — January 15, 2008 @ 3:24 am

  6. Mmmmmm … I’m not sure that the wrong reason really was my reason. I don’t always get clear messages from my gut. The message I got was simply “it would be very very very unwise of you to bring this up.” I interpreted it with the corollary “because this person is educated and you’re not.” I don’t think that rationale had anything to do with the actual reason for the message, but I didn’t have enough information to interpret it any other way.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 15, 2008 @ 5:08 am

  7. Reading this with fascination.

    When she was about 13, my youngest sister decided she was “born again” and has remained a zealous and obsessive Christian for all her life since. She is also probably the most irritating person I’ve ever spent time with. I can hardly stand to be in the same room with her for ten minutes. She is totally unable to carry on normal conversation with another human being. When she tries to carry on a conversation, it is a non-stop monologue. Every so often she stops long enough to catch a breath and allow the other person to say, “Uh-huh” or “Yes,” and then she is off and flowing. It’s a very strange way of controlling people and avoiding any human intimacy.

    At the same time, she is not a bad person. My mother lived with P (youngest sister) for a number of years and then moved to D (other sister). When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, sister D (who is eccentric but normal within that description) decided she could no longer care for Mom. She went to some trouble to pick out a good care facility in which to place Mom.

    Sister P decided this was completely unacceptable. She literally stole some money out of Sister D’s purse, got on a plane (in Chicago) and flew Mom back to California. She enrolled Mom in a program in California where the state would pay her (Sister P) to care for Mom.

    This is very strange and ambiguous. California is sensible–paying a relative not very much to take care of a failing person saves the state money over more expensive care. My mother got loving care from Sister P through the last years of her life. Sister D agrees, saying something to me later along the lines of “I don’t care about the money she stole; Mom got better care.”

    After my mother died, Sister P called me and went into a monologue for a couple of hours about what a spiritual and enobling experience it had been for her to take care of our mother.

    At the same time, she herself has gotten so wierd, I am not sure she can hold a normal job. So part of the deal with the whole arrangement was that she got a job when she might not have been able to otherwise. After my mother died, she called my brother and I to pay for the cremation, which we gratefully and appreciatively did.

    When we had the phone conversation about the time she spent taking care of my mother, it seemed clear to me that my sister P relished the arrangement where she was the “mother” to failing and child-like birth mother.

    Was this noble and Christian on the part of my sister? Was there something cynical and manipulative about it? The moral ambiguity of the whole situation is almost beyond my ability to make sense of it. I think my other brother and sister and I are similarly confused about it. We all feel somewhat guilty that we left the care of our mother to this sister, appreciative that she provided it, and all unable to stand her in person or deal with her.

    This was the simple, uncomplicated version of the story. For example, there’s another brother…well, never mind.

    Comment by modestypress — January 15, 2008 @ 5:56 am

  8. David — I had no idea that Boris’s feelings for Nick were that obvious! Wow, I guess I don’t notice it anymore. But you’re right, his love for my husband is poignant to behold.

    Mr. Random — what a remarkable story. There’s so much in it. Would you consider using the material in a fictional piece? I think it would work beautifully. It brought at least two works of fiction to my mind, both of which you might like:

    The first is a novel by Mary Gordon called Final Payments, dealing with exactly this subject matter. The narrator has taken care of her infirm father for many years; the novel opens upon his death. The book is quite honest about all the different facets of the narrator’s motivation for having done this: genuine adoration of her father, which perhaps even borders on an Electra Complex; the glory of martyrdom (the narrator is also prone to religious fanaticism at times); the attention and admiration this caretaking has garnered from those around her; the chance to avoid adulthood and autonomy and real life for a protracted period of time.

    The second is a story by Alice Munro called “Forgiveness in Families,” told by a cynical and somewhat angry woman about her ailing mother, the caretaking efforts of her brother (who is a cult member), and her reaction to what unfolds.

    Anyway, your story gave me a lot to think about; thank you.

    Comment by elissakaren — January 15, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  9. It might not have been obvious to anyone other than me; you know how I am about somehow knowing things I shouldn’t know about people shortly after meeting them. 🙂

    I am so impressed that you got a Mr. Random story. They’re things of wonder, often mythical in their thematic depth. His blog often hits that note too, though I suspect he thinks I’m joking when I say so.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 15, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

  10. Elissakaren and David:

    Thank you for our positive comments.

    My blog is called “Vanity Press.” It is appropriately named. Thank you for feeding the vanity weasel.

    The web site (by accident, but appropriate) is called “Modesty Press.” This morning my wife and I had a fight. A small one, we just yelled at each other other for a minute or two, but the modesty weasel (who has a small appetite) was fed his little bit of necessary trace element.

    I thank you for the two reading recommendations. I will read them. They sound as if they will be meaningful to me.

    My writing is a little better than it was a couple of years ago, but I detect little talent for fiction in myself. However, I am detecting (or imagining) that David is starting to grow up. Some people are late bloomers. Perhaps I am a late bloomer at 63 and if I work on it for twenty years, and don’t succumb to Alzheimers (which my mother died from and my father’s oldest sister has–two gene streams combining here–not good news–perhaps by the age of 83 or so I will be able to produce a decent short story or two, though I suspect what talent I have is more along the lines of satire.

    I will close this overlong comment with a reading recommendation in return. Shirley Jackson wrote at least two great short stories. The (deservedly) famous one is “The Lottery.” The not quite as well known one, but perhaps as great in a subtler mode is, “One Ordinary Day with Peanuts.”

    Good writers “compete” not with each other, but with the best (starting with Willy the Shake). If I could write a story 1/100th as good as either of those two by Shirley J, I would die fairly happy and satisfied with myself.

    Comment by modestypress — January 15, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  11. Thanks so much for the recommendations… I’ve read The Lottery, but not the other one. I’ll try to find it as soon as possible!

    Comment by elissakaren — January 16, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  12. I used to have a Shirley Jackson anthology … I’ll see if I can track it down.

    Comment by davidrochester — January 16, 2008 @ 9:52 pm


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