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Passion for the Climb
Finding meaning in Blagoveshchensk
By Lara Hueth Cilwik ’00
My mother liked the film
and told herself that if she ever had a girl, she would name her Lara. Knowing the story behind my name led to an interest in all things Russian and explains, in part, why I changed around my first-year schedule to include Russian 101. From there it was the 1998 Russian Study Group in Moscow and Vladimir. Then, as a Colgate graduate, I returned to Russia on a research scholarship. Russia fascinated me — Russians seemed like people searching for meaning. I was searching for meaning, too.
Lara Hueth Cilwik and her husband, Thomas
I was living in Vladivostok with a host family, a mother and a daughter, in a small, one-bedroom apartment perched on one of the high hills encircling the city. Maria, the mother, would talk fondly of the days of Communism and, when we had electricity, teach me how to make pirozhki in the kitchen. The daughter, Tanya, and I, being about the same age, became buddies. We played badminton together in the apartment courtyard and taught each other colloquialisms by posting them on the kitchen wall with sticky notes. Life seemed good.
Time went on, and things changed. Maybe we saw one another’s flaws, or maybe we just got sick of each other. Tanya had bought into MTV as American culture, and, as much as I tried to explain to her that the things she saw on television were not the things Americans actually did, she didn’t believe me. Odd, isn’t it, that I was searching for meaning in Russia
while Tanya was searching for meaning in MTV America. In contrast, Maria’s life and ambitions were buried in a Communist past. In the new order, it seemed, she had no purpose and nothing to live for except a good meal and vodka. Maria also was searching for meaning.
Things went from bad to worse. One evening, I came home to find that Maria had locked herself in the bathroom. I didn’t think much of it until later, when I learned the rest of the story. I had given Tanya money for my room and board, and Tanya had given it to Maria. Maria lost the money and Tanya had beaten her.
This was not something I had ever experienced firsthand. People were supposed to love one another; this wasn’t right. I tried to fix things. I talked to Tanya. “Why are you making such a big deal out of it?” she asked me. Tanya was ready to move on — whether to the next thrill or the next drink, it didn’t matter. Maria, I think, was ready for the American to leave so that she could be alone again. Then it hit me. I couldn’t fix their problems. All the feel-goodisms and platitudes I had quoted weren’t cutting it.
One night, I left the apartment and began walking down a steep hill to the center of town. It was cold, and the sky was clear and full of stars. I didn’t know where to go, and I didn’t know what to do. I was not a religious person, but I prayed. I don’t remember my exact words, but it went something like, “God, I can’t help these people. I don’t know what to do. I have nothing to offer them.”
Time passed and, as scheduled, I left Vladivostok for Amur State University in Blagoveshchensk, near the Chinese border. My studies included private Russian lessons, and I soon found out that I would have an American classmate. Another American in Blagoveshchensk? That was unexpected. Her name was Margaret, and she was there helping Baptist missionaries start a church. A missionary? “How quaint,” I thought. As I got to know her, I realized that Margaret had what Tanya and Maria had been seeking. Margaret had purpose. Margaret had peace.
I wanted that purpose, that peace. I began to attend church services and Bible studies. I wanted understanding. I wanted answers. But Margaret and the other missionaries who invited me could no more help me than I could help Tanya and Maria. That, however, was the point. They led me to the person who could help. Suffice it to say that I met a man in Russia, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is the One who gave my life meaning — whether then in Blagoveshchensk, Russia, or today in North Troy, Vt. And, herein is the irony: this life is not about me, or my identity, or my search for meaning — it’s about Him, and doing what He wants, and showing forth His love. Therein, I find peace.
As I write this, my children, ages 4 and 3, are sitting at our dining room table eating apple slices and string cheese. My husband and I are trying to help them understand the great love that we know, a father’s love, the love of God. My life now is nothing like how I would have imagined it on graduation day. It revolves around God and church and family. It revolves around love. I couldn’t ask for a better life.
I may never see Maria or Tanya again, but if I do, I know what I’ll tell them. I still don’t have the answers, but I know the one who does. There is hope, there is meaning, and while they might walk away from that truth, I would point them to where Margaret pointed me.
Perhaps you’ll laugh at this essay and toss it aside. I probably would have in the past. I hope you’ll remember it, though, if you’re ever walking down your dark street in Vladivostok. Your Margaret might be waiting for you right around the corner.
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