In late March of 1988 I travelled to the Soviet Union with a group of high school girls from the private school where I was teaching outside of Washington, D.C. I vividly remember landing in Moscow, only to see the signage (in English) in the airport dimly lit by the few ceiling lights that actually had bulbs. Restrooms had torn up newspaper for toilet paper. Our four star hotel was a rundown relic of another era.
Meals were served to us in the formal dining room by black clad waiters, but the fare was always the same: some kind of mystery meat, bland white cheese, cabbage and the occasional cucumber. We quickly understood that we were receiving the best comestibles in town; lines snaked around the block every morning as shoppers waited to enter grocery stores with barren shelves, hoping to find a jar of something or a potato or two, never mind meat or cheese.
After a few days of sightseeing in Moscow and Leningrad, we proceeded to Tallinn, the beautiful medieval capital of Estonia, where we had home stays arranged with students and teachers. Our second week in the Soviet Union was taken up by a bilateral U.S./U.S.S.R teen conference on environmental sustainability. What I learned there had as much to do with sustaining personal sanity and optimism as it did with solving the larger world’s ecological problems.
Every home, every schoolroom, no matter how threadbare, overcrowded, or stark — Soviet stye architecture was not known for its aesthetics — was brightened immeasurably by bouquets of colorful fresh flowers. Our plucky Estonian hosts had so little, were so isolated from the outside world that they longed to join. It was an act of resistance to prioritize these floral symbols in defiance of the drudgery, the lack of freedom, the dampening of the human spirit that Soviet occupation had brought.
When I asked my host why she spent precious rubles on fresh flowers from the south rather than buying the things she needed on the black market, she answered, “Seeing beauty with the eyes keeps hope alive in the heart.”
I’ve never forgotten this bit of wisdom. Now my grocery shelves are empty, now I am quarantined, cut off, as are all of my fellow New Yorkers. I need hope that my corner of the world will someday allow me to once again hug my grandchild, dine with friends, go to the gym. I need to believe that in time I will have freedom of movement, that tomorrow or next week or next month will bring renewed prosperity and health to my city, my state, my country.
And so, to keep my hope alive, I continue on my rare walks to the corner bodega to buy flowers, to see beauty in the midst of so much anxiety, fear and sadness, to remember that there is a season to everything, and that this season of plague will pass.