4/18/2018

Under the palm tree
If anyone is wondering why I went so silent after my 'under the palm tree' trip then no, my plane did not crash. I got home safe and sound and have been back to work for some 3,5 weeks now. It's just that it has taken me some time to continue where I left off, to pick up all the balls I dropped, to get back to normal routine, to get days and nights back to the place where they ought to be.

The last weekend was awesome. I had been in touch with Dr L. T. for some two years, inviting him to Estonia. He could never find the time to come so I kept asking again and again, and when I got tired I took a break and then asked him again. In the end he told me our story was looking more and more like the story of poor widow and unjust judge (I laughed out loud when I read that email), so he decided it was time for him to come. My persistence had paid off. I was so very excited, can you believe it - Dr L. T., The Legend himself would come! I knew I could not properly explain to others why it would mean so much to me that he'd come. People would have needed to go to Newbold and would have had to sit at his feet for three years in order to understand. In any case, I was impatiently looking forward to his visit. I counted weeks, and then days. Until the day dawned. April 13. There was a real mess with flights on that day so in the evening, when I was in the airport, waiting for him, learning that the previous flights had been canceled and no-one knew when his plane would land or whether it would land at all that evening, I felt panic rising in me. It can't be happening, it can't, I kept repeating to myself, he has to come, all needs to go well after so much waiting! And indeed he finally landed, some 1,5 hours late but that was a small matter compared to my joy of seeing him again.

What followed was a lot of hard work - getting to bed way too late and waking up way too early - but I didn't mind any of it: I translated the whole weekend until my brain ached, but I didn't want to let anyone else translate him either haha! He preached and then taught a seminar on Genesis, and it all brought back the sweet Newbold feeling - what it was like to learn real theology, the kind that would make your view a littel wider and your world a little bigger. There's so much terrible theology out there, the kind that makes people's vision turn into a tunnel vision, and that makes them suspicious and unkind, and at times I get so terribly tired of it. Then it feels like a breath of fresh air - to do serious exegesis, to dig deep into the text and find a beautiful and broad world in there. Dr T. did his magic and the good ole Genesis text was suddenly all new and thrilling! People sat with their eyes and mouths open in astonishment. Oh, wow, oh, wow.

On Saturday night when it was almost time to go to sleep, Dr. L. T. agreed to come to a cafe for a cup of tea, and again a miracle happened. He asked me how my latest vacation had gone, and I couldn't help but tell him why I had really needed that break. And why stuff keeps me up at night. And what the years after returning from Newbold five years ago have really been like. How much struggle and heart ache I've seen. I felt almost sorry for him because I quite literally poured my heart out, but he turned into a pastor right away and listened to me very kindly. Gave me some pastoral advice which I was so grateful for. Tea and cake also helped. Later, when I walked him back to his hotel through the old town, there was so much gratitude in my heart I didn't quite know what to do with it.

People like Dr. T. give me hope and courage. Restore my faith in humanity.

--

I don't remember what I told you about my newly found interest in music. I never go back to read my old blog posts but I remember saying some things about the concerts and the practising of my violin. Well, there are some rather lovely developments in this area which make me very glad. First, the singing classes which I take from the Music Academy. The Music Academy is like a wonderland to me, I know it wouldn't be like that if I actually had to study there on a daily basis, but just going there once a week and meeting all our famous conductors and pianists in the hallways give it such a mysterious and romantic flavour. I am always thrilled when I get to go there. And I am very glad to be able to study singing. The teacher is quite a character though. I remember the last class before my vacation/sick leave when I was so tired I couldn't get anything right. She would get quite angry and would be like, What's wrong with you today?! C'mon, let's try again! Don't stare at me, don't do this, don't do that! And I remember thinking to myself, heavens, and I pay for this. But yesterday I had the eighth class of this semester and suddenly something happened. I can't quite describe it but something clicked in my brain, a light bulb went on, and I suddenly got it. I get this, I get this, I thought to myself, ecstatically, I can actually sing, and I understand what the teacher pushes me to do! And the teacher was also very glad because she saw clearly that I had had a revelation. And she said, well, your 10 classes which you paid for will be over soon but I'll give you some extra classes just because I can see how much you want to study, and because you are making such rapid progress. I'd advise you to take singing seriously from now on, like, solo singing. I couldn't believe it. I walked away from the Academy, floating on air, grinning from ear to ear, wanting to tell every passer-by about my singing revolution. I mean, extra singing classes! How cool is that? I think if I were ever to take my third uni degree, it would have to be in music. Yup.

But then the magazine Music which I have started to read regularily and whose head editor I have spoken to. Well, the thing has developed as far as this - my first concert review will be published in Music in May. They sent me the concert ticket, the word count and off I went. The whole process went suspiciously smoothly, like, it took me some 1,5 hours to get the review on paper after the concert. The concert itself was lovely - gotta love Bach! - and the words sort of put themselves on paper, without me having to sweat at all. Then followed a month of silence and I had almost forgotten about the thing but just two days ago I got another email from the head editor with another concert/review offer. I am thrilled! I could do this for a living. :)

But it's not only classical music. Right now I am listening to Laura Mvula, every day, every day. She will give a concert in Tallinn in two weeks time (it's not my review concert though haha) and I need to get into shape by that time. My current favourites are Sing to the Moon and She. She's the Nina Simone of our days. Whoah.

3/10/2018

I arrived on Wednesday and I’ve already succumbed to the easy life of a lazy tourist as if it was all I had ever done. It is a bit unnerving how quickly one gets used to having one’s room cleaned by someone else every morning, having one’s meals cooked and dishes washed, and how easy it is to get used to doing nothing. But, I tell myself, this is exactly why I came or rather why I needed to come.

My doing nothing routine mostly consists of long walks on the seaside, (reasonable) sunbathing, an occasional swim, and some reading although the last one I have somewhat neglected. It might have to do with strict instructions I received both from I. and A. not to take any books with me on the vacation. So I only took two Hemingways which seemed like a decent compromise to me, especially given that the first book was already half read when I came and the second one was on the slim side.

Weather wise I’ve got much more than I bargained for. I expected a spring, I got a full-blown summer. It gets up to +30’C in the afternoon which is as lovely as it is hot.

The best thing about the whole trip is the fact that I have been able to sleep more or less normally again. That’s something I haven’t been able to do for more than a month now and it feels wonderful to wake up in the morning and realise that I can actually function like a normal human being. I visited my doctor before flying out and I sort of expected her to prescribe me sleeping pills but she didn’t and I almost felt offended. But she knew what she was doing. She said, go on that trip, and you know, try to feel the stuff you avoid feeling. Because if you keep avoiding certain things during the day, they will keep haunting you during the night, keeping you awake. I am not exactly sure what she meant or what I ought to do but I’ve tried to allow myself to think about the stuff I usually don't like thinking about. And it seems to be helping me, even if only a little. There are a couple of important friendships which I have lost or am in the process of losing, and I much rather skipped the grieving part because it’s dull and painful. But I guess I can’t. I need to feel it. Sigh.

I seem to be the only person around here who’s traveling alone. I know it can’t possibly be true but I only see couples – very cute ones, elderly Scandinavians and Brits, walking hand in hand – and young families. It feels slightly awkward to go to the restaurant and have breakfast all by myself. People notice it. But it is what it is and there’s no escaping it. Just the other day, while sunbathing, I was going through a women’s magazine they gave me in the airport, and there was this 'tips for summer' section where women were encouraged to go on a vacation alone. So I guess I’m living someone else’s summer dream. Traveling alone and all. Being my own boss. Not being responsible for anyone else. How lovely.

What gets on my nerves here is that there is no history in this place. On my walks – some 5-6 km to one direction or another – I have only seen hotels and restaurants. It seems to be a world created solely for tourists. Which is something I could not possibly enjoy longer than for a week. I already miss my evening walks in Tallinn’s Old Town, and oh, how I miss Estonia Concert Hall. I wonder how my favourite musicians are holding on – with me missing their concerts and all!

The only curious, 'non-touristy' sight I have come across is the sight of some locals – they must be locals – who sit on the street corners, watch passers-by and eat oranges and seem to do absolutely nothing (at least not anything I could categorise as 'something') for the whole day. And although I’ve gotten used to the sight, they still surprise me every time I see them. Because they seem to be suggesting that a different kind of life is entirely possible. I’m still suspicious – a neurotic Westerner as I am who thinks everything ought to be done now, things need to be achieved now, the world needs to be changed now for my time is running out (because, you know, cancer). These people seem to come from a different planet and I watch them curiously from behind my sunglasses and wonder if they might really be true or whether they’re just an illusion. Go figure.

But Hemingway then. I had never read him in English before and I’m deeply impressed. It’s almost as if he’s fooling you with his simple words and simple sentences. But before you know it, he’s got you under his spell and you believe everything and anything he says. Truly impressive. Here are two short paragraphs on spring which I re-read for a couple of times because they were amazingly beautiful. By the way, the book’s called A Movable Feast and talks about his life in Paris in the early 1920s. I know 1920s are long gone but I it still feels like that old Paris is a personal friend of mine now.

„Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat the spring back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.“

„When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.“

2/27/2018

There's a pattern to my blog posts. I am more likely to write when things go well and exciting things happen, and I tend to keep quiet when things get rough.

It's been a long while since my last post.

I don't want any of it to sound too dramatic. But my health started to get worse and it had a clear connection to the state of my spritual/mental health. The sleeping problems returned, as did the anxiety. It was a couple of weeks ago - when I got an average of 3 hours of sleep a night - when I had to chair a meeting in our office, and everyone saw I was more or less brain dead so I. talked to me rather sternly that evening and told me to take a sick leave. It wasn't possible for me to do so right away, there were still too many things to get done, but since yesterday I've been on the sick leave and have taken a considerable amount of time off.

So, yeah. I'm sick.

I'm at my cousin's in Tartu again. He's family is out of town for a week and they needed someone to take care of their cat. I needed a place to stay and wind down. So it's a win-win situation although I find it very amusing that I've turned into a cat lady already. I thought it would take me another 30 years or so. But you know, there's no escaping your fate. What makes the whole deal better is a) my cousin's massive two-storey apartment and b) the fact that their cat is the most beautiful cat I've ever seen. Plus we get along well, most of the time anyway.

It's not nice to have canceled preaching appointments and plans and stuff but it does look like I need some time to recover. If only the sleeping problems went away... And it is funny how my brain has not yet adapted to the change. Yesterday morning I got up and thought - alright, these are the things I want to get done today, if I go to the gym at this time, I'll make it to the movies at that time. Then I'm free to meet up with E. in the evening. I was scheduling things I wanted to get done. It will probably take me a couple of days before the realisation that I don't have to follow a plan or schedule things sinks in. It will take longer for me to get well enough to get my sleep back.

I try to stay away from my computer, and I even leave my phone home when I go out. It's not nice outside, weather wise I mean (it's so cold that my lungs start freezing), so I'm mostly staying indoors and reading. Or playing with the cat. I finished reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's acclaimed book The Refugees earlier today. Two Hemingway books are waiting.

Next week I'll go to a place a bit warmer. Tenerife should be nice and sunny this time of the year.

After that I hope I can think about getting back to work.

Things will get better.


 

2/02/2018

It’s been a strange couple of weeks.

It started three weeks ago. No, it actually started a long time ago but it was three weeks ago when I finally noticed something was wrong. I came home from the office on Friday afternoon without having been able to finish my sermon for the next day. People who know me well know that I take preaching very seriously. I think about them for weeks in advance and then I usually write them down on Mondays or Tuesdays. But that week I couldn’t do it. I knew I had to peach, I knew my sermon was only half-written but I could not make myself click on the right folder and the right document to get it finished. I printed it out as it was on Friday, without an ending. It was only on Saturday morning that I scribbled some concluding thoughts on the manuscript while eating breakfast. Needless to say that I wasn’t happy with my sermon that day.

There were other things - small things - which left a nagging feeling inside me, telling that something was wrong. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. I went to work every day, trying my best but not getting much done.

It was only last week when I picked up my courage and told I. I needed to have a chat with him. I suspected I might be having a burnout. Our conference office has become known as a place where people work hard. And this is how it ought to be. I like to be in the middle of all that action, and I usually enjoy working in the conference leadership team – departmental leaders meetings, AdCom, ExCom, the Churches Council, lectures, seminars this, that. The leadership team is young and energetic, things get done and energy flows. It’s a wonderful place to be. But the coin also has a darker side – that of overworking, of burnout, of anxiety, of pressure, of expectations. There are times when it is not easy to balance between the good and the bad. Then the ugly might happen – as it did last spring. I won’t tell you when I finally got off sleeping pills last year...

So I talked to I. about my symptoms. I didn’t know what to expect from him – he as the conference president works harder than any of us and I wasn’t sure how he’d take it. But what he said and what he drew my attention to was like a revelation. It was as if the truth was spoken into my life and the light bulb went on. You need to look at your tasks and choose which are the most important ones, he said, and let the other ones go. You need to take a critical look at your preaching schedule, you can’t be expected to accept all the preaching invites. You also need a church – a home church, a place where you could go every now and then without any obligations, where you can just receive (I must have looked like a huge question mark - I've lost the concept of a home church). And you need to be a part of a small group where you don’t need to teach not lead anything. Because, in the end of the day, you’re not just a theologian or a pastor, you’re a simple Christian and you need to take care of your own spiritual life.

And then it hit me. This is a spiritual burnout I’m experiencing.

Things started to make a lot of sense after I realised it. Everything that had happened suddenly had a context. Weird „I simply can’t do this” moments became logical. I’ve given out so much I’ve burnt out spiritually. I’ve drawn from the well until there’s only a couple of drops left in the bottom of my bucket.

I don’t quite know how to recover. I had another meeting with I. today where we went over my preaching schedule. Most of the preaching appointments I can’t cancel so some tough months are yet to come. But I’ve decided to reduce the workload and to cut some responsibilities that have been draining me over the past months. But on a deeper level I don’t know what I ought to do. There’s no medicine, no-one can prescribe me anti-spiritual-burnout pills. I guess it will be a difficult road ahead of me. A road where I have to say no to kind invites and initiatives, where I’m not always understood, where I need to fight my own spiritual fight. And I need to find a way how to receive more and give less, even if just for the time being.

I usually have a Bible study with two teenage girls every second Friday evening. I can’t do it tonight, I can’t pull it off. There would be some readily shaking their heads. Well, that’s how it is. Instead, I am reading a little bit from Anne Lamott’s Help. Thanks. Wow, then reading one Bible story and going out to the Old Town for a long evening walk. This is what I’m capable of. Tomorrow scares me, even though I do not have any ’platform duties’. I’m thinking about skipping the church’s business meeting in the afternoon and having a long walk instead although it might not be easy to sneak out after the service. We’ll see.

These days I try to convince Jesus He ought to come back right now. I’m tired and I’m tired and I wish all this was over.

Do say a prayer for me.

1/09/2018


When I started the concert challenge with Dr A. N. in September I thought it would turn out to be a little sweet addition to my life. Like an extra motivation to check the concert programs and keep an eye on my favourite musicians.

Wrong answer.

Where this challenge has led me and how it has impacted my life, I could have never anticipated. It has turned out to affect my life in much deeper and wider ways than I thought. Here's how.

First, it has soothed my mind in a way I didn't expect. Often when I'm in a concert hall, Great Peace descens, and sometimes also Great Joy. There is something that makes me so joyful and I sit there, grinning from ear to ear, not even quite sure what I'm happy about or why. And on some very rare occasions it also has a reverse effect. Like this past Sunday. On Sunday night I was in Estonian Concert Hall, listening to the Nordic Symphony Orchestra's 20th anniversary gala concert. The orchestra was superb, the soloists (with whom they had worked together over these two decades) absolutely amazing. The trumpetist Sergei Nakariakov did with his trumpet what I thought was humanly impossible. Mihkel Poll to whose concerts I've been to quite often lately (and whose name, Dr A. N. is sure, will be tattooed on my neck before the concert challenge is over hahaha!) played Rachmaninov in a way that took my breath away. And the young Russian, Sergei Dogadin, created magic when playing Tchaikovsky's violin concert. And in the very end there were two encores which, obviously, were not on the program. So there was no way I could have put myself ready for Edward Elgar's Nimrod. For some reason I have always thought that this is how things will sound like when Jesus returns. A very naive thought, I know. But they played Nimrod and suddenly something broke inside me and I wept like a child. I had had a rather tough weekend, with some conversations I wish I didn't have. I can't say much about them but if there are two things I absolutely hate then it's hearing my friend's name and the word 'cancer' in the same sentence, and hurting someone I deeply care about. Well, both happened last weekend and I was rather shaken by it. So the music just made the emotion come out with such a force I didn't think was possible. But it was. After I had got back home, I was still crying, crying for my friends and for myself, and for the terrible longing for Jesus, and for the music.


But this is only one side of it. Something else has happened - which, honestly, I had no way of knowing could happen. It was the day after I came back from Christmas at my dad's that I cut my long and pretty fingernails, took out my violin from under my bed, and started practising again. I had thought I was so done with this. But something has inspired me to take it up again. The beginning, let's be honest, has been painful, in every sense of this word. First, it has hurt in a very direct physical sense. My fingers are not used to the strings any more and after first two days I had a blister on my finger tip and I could not practise for more than half an hour because of the pain. I've grown really weak. And secondly, I found in my old music folder two pieces that I can manage to play. Vivaldi's concerto in A minor and Telemann's Fantasy for solo violin. They're decent pieces, it's just that the first one I played in the second grade and the other one in the fourth grade. I know it is very unusual for a nine year old or an eleven year old child to play them but I did. And now, twenty years later, I'm back to them because I can't play anything more complicated, and it kind of hurts one's pride, let's be honest. But it's alright, it's good to eat some humble pie and to start from the second grade again. I just need to keep on going.

And even that is not all there is. Now I've taken to my head I need to study singing too. I took classical singing classes for a year before I went to Newbold and it was an amazing experience. Now I want to do it again. So I've written to the Music Academy and of course you can just take pretty much any classes from there. The price, goodness, is eye-watering but fortunately or unfortunately I don't have anyone at home who would shake their head and tell me - oh, come on, we're not going to spend money on that, are we?! So. I'm spending my money on it. I'm planning to take 10 classes to begin with, and am just waiting for the final confirmation from the Academy. Oh, how very exciting!

Who on earth could have believed something like this could happen? It's all quite amazing. And it reminds me that all the stuff I want to do, I need to do now. Because one day my name could be in the same sentence with the word 'cancer' (given my family history, it's more than probable) and even if it doesn't, sooner or later I will run out of time anyway. And that's why I want to do as much as I can now.

Sorry for the morbid ending. I didn't mean it. :)

Here's Tchaikovsky's violin concert. I mean, just listen to it!

I have the most photogenic violin!

1/01/2018

I finished last year’s 40th book yesterday at 8.30 p.m. Phew, that was close!

I really like this New Year’s Eve reading thing. Last night was wonderful, I took a long walk in the Old Town, I had a lovely dinner, finished my book, sent a number of messages, talked to my dad, had a long conversation with God, went to bed before 11 p.m., missed all the gatherings and parties and invitations, missed the new year and fireworks, and felt wonderfully old and cosy. I just might be the nerdiest person in the world.

Now, books. When I try to come up with my Top 5, the implication is that I want to bring out the most surprising ones. Because there are some authors who are so much a part of my life that I don’t feel like putting them on that Top 5 pedestal, not because they are poor authors but because their goodness is nothing new & surprising to me. EGW and Frederick Buechner are the ones I have in mind in particular. So, bearing that in mind, here is my list:

1. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes. I’m more used to read about crippling poverty than enormous wealth. This book offers a unique glimpse into the world and lives of one of the richest family of the 19th century Europe, the Ephrussi family. It is a surreal feeling to read about palaces in Paris and Vienna, about numerous paintings by French impressionists on your walls, about yearly vacations in different European resorts, and yes, also about the cruelty of fate as the Nazis took over Austria and Ephrussis, like many other wealthy Jews, lost absolutely everything. The author describes his trip to Vienna and to the palace where his grandmother was born but which is now owned by the state. And I was waiting for him to start complaining any moment about their lost fortune, but he never did and I’m eternally grateful to him because that would have certainly ruined the book. He talks about this injustice with a bit of melancholy and it’s very touching. It’s a beautiful book from cover to cover, made of grand history and personal tragedies, lost fortunes but also of life and hope that springs up even from the worst of circumstances. If there’s one book I’d recommend, that’s the one.

2. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Family Moskat. They say it’s one of the best descriptions of Jewish life, and I believe them. It’s a sweeping family history of Warsaw Jews from the beginning of the 20th century until 1939. I knew it was fiction, but the description of their last Yom Kippur celebrations with Hitler already behind the borders was still heartbreaking. I couldn’t put that book down.

3. Nuha al-Radi, Baghdad Diaries 1991-2002. It is a different thing to read something from a war correspondent (like Asne Seierstad who’s book on Iraqi war I also read last year) compared to a native who perceives war and its injustice in a completely different way. Seierstad’s book got on my nerves because she was always hunting for stories – which, of course, is what a journalist in such a situation is ought to do. But to read a local’s diary... it’s different. It hits you in a different way. Al-Radi was a member of a wealthy family of Iraqi intellectuals and the little details about the war she mentions are as surprising as they are touching. She tells about how the power plants would be the first things to be hit in the air raids and how they organised big dinner orgies because all the food in their freezers started melting as soon as the electricity was gone. She tells about birds who lost their mind when the bombing hit Baghdad and who started to fly upside down (I had never heard this before). And she tells about the powerlessness and anger when you see life being bombed out of your country because there are great evils fighting in this world and you, an ordinary citizen, happen to get caught in the middle of this fight. It’s a tough book. But it’s honest. If I could, I would make every American read it.

4. Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was an acclaimed brain surgeon who was used to see death and tragedy, human resilience and hope from a doctor’s perspective. And then one day he didn't feel very good. And then a fourth stage cancer was discovered, and in one day he went from a brilliant doc to a dying patient. He recorded his story, and writing that book was the last thing he did. His wife wrote the end of the book after he had passed away in 2015. It’s a strange reading, so many things rang the bell because I too have seen someone die of cancer. I did a fair share of crying when I read this book, and it was therapeutic. I’m not sure I would recommend this book to anyone but it was important for me to read it.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. It’s embarrassing how ignorant I am when it comes to African and Asian history. I mean, whole wars and genocides have taken place without me knowing anything about them, also inventions and progress and achievements which I am not familiar with. So that book was one of my attempts to educate myself (last year I also read Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jung Chang, Shusaku Endo etc). It’s a story of a family who got caught up in the civil war in 1960s Nigeria. A gripping read.

Of course, I didn’t read only about death and destruction. There were many lighter books as well - history, theology, travel books, fiction etc. But those five touched me in a unique way.

So here’s to 2018 and to all the books whch will find their way to me this year. Happy new reading year!

12/23/2017

It was the 4th anniversary of my mum’s passing yesterday.

I’ve been thinking about the whole thing a lot recently. And the main conclusion is that time is relative, it is relative to the point of losing some of its meaning. What do these four years mean? I don’t know. There are some memories from her last days that are so deeply engraved in my memory that I remember these moments better and clearer than anything I did last week. Time doesn’t mean much. Yet, it means something – I have dutifully tried to do the hard work of grieving, and four years is quite a time in that sense. What is hard about grief is that it doesn’t come with a manual. So many times over these past years I’ve been lost, not knowing what to do exactly. Visiting her grave would be a good idea, a friend tells me. Write about it, the other one says. Try not to think about it. Cry. It’s good advice, offered out of love and care, but it hasn’t made the working through the grief considerably easier. Most of the time it still feels like I’m inventing a wheel as I go. I would like to think I’ve come a long way since it all happened but occasionally I am not sure. Life goes on, but death also goes on. Four years, or even ten, could not possibly take away my motherlessness, my longing for our family to be whole and happy again, my longing for intimate conversations with her. All these things stay, and time cannot take them away.

I was finishing Vasily Grossman’s A Writer at War a week ago. The closer I got to the end, the tougher the book got. The closer the Red Army got to Berlin, the more raping and looting took place. Not to mention the concentration camps - I had never read such detailed descriptions of gas chambers and furnaces. It was terrible. And then suddenly in the middle of all this destruction, there are two letters which Grossman wrote to his mother. He found out only in the end of the war that his mother was one of those numerous Ukrainian Jews who had been shot as soon as the Nazis arrived in their village. And now this tough guy who has seen war and despair, concentration camps and Hitler’s bunkers, writes a letter to his deceased mother. And he writes: „I can feel you today, as alive to me as you were on the day when I saw you last, and as alive as when you read to me when I was a little boy. And my pain is still the same as it was on that day when your neighbour in Uchilishchnaya Street told me you were dead. There was no hope of finding you among the living. And I think my love for you and this terrible sorrow will not change until the day I die. /.../ My darling, twenty years have passed since the day of your death. I love you, I remember you every day of my life, and my sorrow has never left me in these twenty years. /.../ I’ve been rereading today, as I have for many years, the few letters to me which have survived out of the hundreds that you had written. /.../ I cried over your letters because you are in them: with your kindness, your purity, your bitter, bitter life, your fairness, your generosity, your love for me, your care for people, your wonderful mind. I fear nothing because your love is with me and because my love is with you always.” And this letter was so unexpected that it shocked me. And it made me cry. And it also comforted me – there are many people who have lived with grief that never left them. There are many people who have loved someone more than their own life. There are people who every day have to balance between the life and the death that are always present for them. It is such a comfort to know I am not the only one but belong to a tribe of tough and gentle people who live with their losses and their love, and not only live, but live meaningful and rich lives.

Just in case, I made sure I would be busy the whole day yesterday. I was not going to sit alone and drown in my grief.

I preached my Christmas sermon in the morning and was very happy with how it turned out. Then I had a long lunch at my auntie’s which I was so looking forward to because my cousin had come home for Christmas after two years. He’s doing his doctorate in Harvard Medical School. I understood very little of what he told me about his research but I listened nevertheless, with my eyes (and probably occasionally also my mouth) wide open. And I came to the conclusion again which I have come to many times before – hard work and serious self-discipline does something to people, there’s a certain moral character to people who give their very best in whatever it is that they do. I am a great admirer of talent and intelligence – they’re one of these few things that really knock me off my feet - and I can honestly say I admire my cousin. And on top of all his brains and incredible career, he’s so modest and down to earth and polite. Let me take your coat, can I get you something, may I pour some more tea... I just kept staring at this young man – who, honestly, used to be one of the most annoying kids in the world some 15 years ago – and marveling. My cousin! Such a wonderful man! Oh my.

And then the evening I had saved for a real treat – the last concert of this year. Bach’s magnificient Mass. It is such a monumental piece, it is difficult to take it all in at once. My favourite bit, no doubt, was a choral piece with the lyrics Et expecto resurrectionem morturorum. Et vivam venturi saeculi – "And I await the resurrection of the dead. And the life of the world to come." There will be a resurrection.

I’m not sure whether I should mention it or not but the general elation of the concert and its atmosphere was almost shattered to pieces by one of the soloists, who, for the better part of the Mass, just sat on the stage. The bass singer, a very handsome Latvian guy, sat on the stage and, I kid you not, winked at me and kept looking at me throughout the concert. I sat right in front of the stage. First I was greatly surprised and mightily disturbed – I thought there was a law forbidding any kind of contact between the musicians and the audience. How unprofessional! You're supposed to look only heavenward, sir, and sing Bach with your angelic voice! But then I found it absolutely hilarious. I have to cover my head with ashes and admit that Mr Bass made me divide what I thought would be my undivided attention to Bach’s heavenly music. Very unexpected and yet, so human. Once I had landed at home around midnight (because I ran into some friends at the concert and we decided to have some tea afterwards) I had one last laugh about it.

So the day turned out to be a good and a funny one. Which, I believe, is the grace of the Almighty.

Merry Christmas, dear friends! Appreciate the loved ones who are still with us, take time to be grateful and don’t eat too much. And maybe winking at random strangers isn't such a great idea either lol.