Written by Jessie Kanzer
“Zhhhhhhh, zhhh,” my baby brother is playing with his toy car, running it over my feet rather painfully, “Ya samol’et”—“I airplane”—the car thankfully takes off into the air. He will turn three in New York two weeks from now. We will celebrate on a bare floor amidst our mattresses. I pat his shaggy, dirty-blonde head.
My babushka (grandma) is sitting next to me, stuffing her bag with single-portion orange juice containers.
“Phoo,” I tell her, “it’s yucky.” I’d only just tried this sok (juice) for the first time and think it tastes like urine. Not that I’ve ever drank urine but that’s what I think urine would taste like.
“It’s good for you,” Babushka tells me. She has no clue about artificial colors and flavors and additives and never will. She’ll be clipping Hi-C and Tropicana coupons for years to come.
I turn around trying to find my parents amidst the swarm of faces. This plane—a Boeing 757—seems giant. How many people are on here? I wonder, a thousand? It’s more like three hundred. I don’t recognize anyone except the members of my family, nor do I really care about anyone else. Sure, they’re all Soviet Jews on board who speak Russian like I do; they’re all coming from Italy where they were awaiting asylum status like us. We are one and the same, right?
For one, many of them smell, and I don’t. At least, I don’t think I do. Also, the Soviet Union is a huge, random bucket of cultures—Ukrainian Jews are different from Latvian Jews who are different from Moscow Jews, who barely identify as Jews at all. And, anyway, I’m a lone wolf. I live in my own head. There are so many kids around me but I don’t even bother looking at them; I miss my actual friends, my home, my school. I miss everything, but not as much as I did in the beginning. After four months abroad as a refugee, I don’t really know who I am or where I belong…which isn’t necessarily bad. It just is.
In the U.S.S.R, the little red star with the face of a boyish Lenin on my lapel told me I was a Young Pioneer. I was born and lived in a quaint old city called Riga, in Latvia, so I knew I was a Riganka. Now I have no star to wear, no city to call my own. I am as untethered as the clouds I watch outside my oval window on this seemingly never-ending flight to Amerika.
Finally, I spot my parents a few rows behind us sharing a cigarette. Are they stressed? Excited? I’m only eight, I cannot distinguish one emotion from another; Instead, I lump them into a nebulous bucket—adult—they look very “adult.”
I hobble over amidst the turbulence and sit on my mom’s lap.
“Papa, where are we going to live when we get there?” I ask him.
“Don’t worry about that, Asyushka (that’s my pet name in Russian) we’ll figure it out.”
“But, am I gonna go to school there?” I’m still very Soviet, very neurotic—it bothers me that my old school reopened its doors three weeks prior and my new education is nowhere to be found.
“Of course you will,” he says, “it will be great.” And I believe him.
In a week’s time I’ll be holding back tears in a forty-person classroom in Brooklyn, unable to understand a single word. Russian girls who immigrated before me will offer to translate for the price of toys I do not own. “Stickers, then?” they’ll ask. But what stickers?
No grownup will have the time or the wherewithal to inquire how I’m doing emotionally, so no one will even know that I am struggling. For years to come, no one will know.
For now, though, I feel safe inside this Soviet-Jewish refugee time capsule that was chartered from Italy. The future is just a wide expanse of foreign sky—I gaze at it until my eyes begin to close and fall asleep to visions of my friends, Oksana and Zlata, who I may never see again, playing with our skakalka (jump rope) back in Riga.
I wake up to the exuberant clapping of six hundred refugee hands. We have landed in America.
Inspired To Write Self-Help
The above scene is anchored in my mind, along with many other scenes that have been shaped and polished with the passing of time and the distortion of memory. I can close my eyes and be there now, and I do on occasion. I have so many cherished memories—some good, some not so good, most of them somewhere in-between—and in the process of writing my memoiristic self-help book, I’ve realized both their importance and their utter insignificance. Because once you remember your story, once you accept it, once you mine it for its lessons, you set yourself free.
That is what I have done in Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING: Healing, Chilling, and Living with the Tao Te Ching, and that is what I hope my readers will do as well. And I hope the ancient Taoist philosophy which holds my book (and my life) together will help them shift towards the inner peace that’s been there all along.
Tao Te Ching
I discovered the Tao Te Ching when I felt anything but peaceful. I was deeply depressed, struggling with an eating disorder, and I had just graduated business school Summa Cum Laude with absolutely zero interest in business. I found a tiny pocket-sized copy of the Tao, which hails back to 6th century B.C. and I guess the rest is history—soon to be available wherever books are sold!
I’d purchased the Tao during my frantic search for help and discovered and rediscovered it time and time again, often in my toughest moments. Now, in Don’t Just Sit There, DO NOTHING, I share all the stories and humiliations that got me from my little refugee past to my rather successful present and I demonstrate how the lessons of the Tao are clear as day in hindsight. I believe my readers will recognize the magic current that pulses through their life as well, and that they will ride it more easefully, relaxing into its infinite unfolding.
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