The world is a seriously messed up place. The longer I live here, the more convinced I am it’s true. This is a world of homicide and genocide (also insecticide, which apparently is killing all our honeybees). Darfur, Baltimore, Ferguson-I have to stop listing things now, it’s going to make me cry in the fetal position. When I sit down to write about the world we live in it’s easy to find issues to analyze and criticize because there isn’t a shortage of bad things happening around us. It’s much harder to find something good to say.
I just came back from a month-long trip to Russia, and believe me, there were plenty of dysfunctional things I experienced (at the customs gate alone). But instead of focusing on the abysmal state of our planet, I’m going to challenge myself-and you-to not only see the homicides and the genocides, but to take a moment to also notice the nice things happening around us. So, I’m going to tell you about three women I met this past month who helped me see what’s right with our world. I’m calling my experience, “Three Beautiful Women.” Come on, it’ll be good for us.
I met the first Beautiful Woman in Saint Petersburg, Russia. There is this famous museum in Saint Petersburg that used to be the Winter Palace of Peter the Great. I had seen pictures prior to my visit, so I knew what to expect: halls of giant paintings featuring members of the Romanoff family and rooms filled with those typical busts of men in wigs from centuries ago. There would be neoclassical columns, ornamental rococo designs, gilded baroque forms.
You can imagine my shock, then, when I walked into the first hall and was met not with oil paintings and marble sculptures, but with an exhibit of scaled-down models of sleek buildings and cars. Neofuturistic lines, shiny metallics, fresh whites … These ultramodern pieces were such a contrast to the historical setting of the palace, the juxtaposition so unexpected, that when I stepped into the room, it took my breath away. Confused, I looked to the plaques captioning the pieces and searched for the artist behind the work. Her name, I learned, is Zaha Hadid.
Hadid is an architect. She was born in Baghdad, fell in love with design, and went on to become one of the most sought-after (not to mention, controversial) architects of our time. She has award-winning buildings all over the world, is responsible for designs in countries from Azerbaijan to Germany to China, and multiple buildings throughout the United States. Oh, and she’s designing the widely anticipated stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
My eyes darted over these biographical facts, printed under photographs of Hadid’s work, as I walked through what the attendant explained to me was a temporary modern exhibit at the Winter Palace. My initial surprise eventually passed, but what stayed was a sense of marvel. What’s so impressive to me is the unlikeliness of this woman’s life. As an Iranian woman, she was born into a socio-political climate that would seem to oppose her being one of the most renowned architects in the world.
Yet here she is, celebrated from Shanghai to Saint Petersburg.
The Winter Palace has seen a lot of death- this place was, after all, home to the Romanoff family, which was infamously slaughtered during the Russian Revolution. And yet the human condition is such that we go on erecting beauty, not only discovering it in the past, but continuing to celebrate it in the present- and building it for the future.
I left Saint Petersburg and took a train to Moscow, where I met with our second Beautiful Woman. Her name is Maria, but her friends affectionately call her Manya. And affectionately is the only way anybody can relate to her: she has this angelic face, the kindest heart and a head of curly platinum blonde hair. But that’s not why I’m writing about her (although those characteristics would be deserving enough, especially the hair). She just turned thirty and works for a major international corporation, speaks a couple of languages, has three kids. But it’s not her stats that make her beautiful to me either.
I’ve known Manya my whole life. Our moms were best friends, so we grew up together. After I moved to the United States, I still loved to visit her in Moscow. She and I would go out on adventures around the city: caf√©s, boat rides, hanging out with her girlfriends in the park … But that was all before she had three kids. I hadn’t really seen her since then, and to be honest with you, I was a little nervous to reunite: with four-year-old twins and a new baby girl, there was just no way we would be able to have fun like we used to. But she called me up excitedly when I arrived in Moscow, so I agreed to go out with Manya and her husband one night. Of course, we had to bring their new baby, Margarita, with us (on a related note: I’m not saying Manya named her baby after me; but look, nobody said she didn’t).
That night we went from place to place as they showed me around the Moscow I hadn’t seen in four years. And each time we stopped at a park or a caf√©, I watched them take little Margarita out of her car seat, set up her stroller, expertly strap her into it, keep her engaged as the adults did what we wanted, and then skillfully reload her back into the car-all in the rain. The baby didn’t cry once. I was so impressed at the effortlessness of it all, that I finally turned to Manya, unable to hide my bewilderment, and asked her how, as a young working family of five, the whole lot of them weren’t going absolutely bonkers. She just smiled and said, “When the parents are calm, the kids are calm.”
And that just floored me. Here is a woman with every reason to freak out-but she’s simply choosing not to. Convention tells her she’s entitled to it, too: the circumstances of juggling a job with a large family and a personal life give Manya permission to be as upset as she wants to be about it all; nobody would even fault her for it. But she calmly brings her new baby with her to an event if she needs to, devotes weekends to spending time with her family in the Russian countryside, and takes an opportunity to go out with an old friend on a rainy night if that’s what she wants to do. I know she would never call herself the perfect mother; but the bottom line is that she patiently does what she needs to do to keep what she can in balance.
She pulled out a photo of herself from when the twins were babies. I looked at the picture of Manya, a twin strapped to either hip, her platinum hair blowing in the wind. “You look so hot!” I cried out. She just laughed. Manya maintains her individuality in her motherhood and doesn’t let her circumstances dictate her existence. I had more fun with Manya, her husband and her baby that night than I had a long time. And to me, that’s beautiful.
The next day, I took the metro to the other side of town to visit my great aunt Jenya. The scene at her house is familiar to me: you cannot make it through her front door without Aunt Jenya offering you three courses of the best Russian-Armenian food you’ve ever had-plus dessert. This trip was no different. As she bustled around in her kitchen, putting the kettle on to make me tea, I studied this woman in front of me.
I know she’s in her sixties, but she doesn’t look older than 45. Aunt Jenya is always elegant and fashionable: her hair is flipped just the right way at the ends, her little frame draped in a tasteful dress, her eyes sparkling with passion over the latest project she’s working on. She is one of the most positive, powerful women I’ve ever met. You would never know that she once lost everything in the Armenian Genocide.
When her family was forced to flee Azerbaijan, Jenya was a young mom. She lost her house and had to leave everything she owned behind, but she escaped with her children to the mountains in Armenia. There, she and the other refugees struggled to find food and fresh water as news of the brutal slaughters back home reached their ranks. Aunt Jenya describes how she used to go down to the water pump to wash her family’s clothing, her hands red and raw in the freezing water; how she would steal spare parts from junk piles to sell at the market so that she could buy food for her two sons. When they finally came to Russia, she had to start all over again with nothing in the city, facing racism that she continues to experience even today.
And you know what? Aunt Jenya is now the head of her division in one of the most successful real estate offices in Moscow-and her staff adores her. Her husband left, but she still put her two boys through college, paid off a mortgage on a spacious condo in the city, regularly wins awards for her work, travels all over the world and somehow manages to look at least ten years younger than she is.
When I hear the stories about the things she’s been through, it makes me angry at the struggle, sad at the loss, confused at the senselessness. And, of course, I see those emotions in her too. But stronger than any anger or pain, I see her determination to take what life has given her and make it into something gorgeous for herself and her two sons. And as she happily handed me a cup of hot black tea in her wonderful kitchen somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow, I saw that she’s succeeded. Aunt Jenya is our third Beautiful Woman.
Okay, I know I promised I wouldn’t talk about genocide. I said we would look at the nice things. But I think that’s what makes these women’s stories-and all our stories-beautiful. It’s not that there is an absence of pain or struggle; but that from pain and struggle something beautiful can still be born. And perhaps this is what makes these women’s beauty more potent. It may be a world of homicide and genocide, poverty and pain; but it is also a world of Zahas and Manyas and Jenyas. And I see how beautiful it can be.
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