Saturday, August 27, 2016

Fake Italy in Illinois! What an adventure!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Spring of Hope

Ukraine is a land which history has torn apart. For centuries it was caught in literal tug-of-wars between its surrounding neighbors. In fact, common tradition holds that the source of the name “Ukraine” comes from the Russian word for “borderland,” as it has always been on the outskirts of one nation or another. Its people have been worn down by centuries of being conquered, and they now struggle for identity—identity which has only begun to reappear in the past 20 years of independence. For years their faith and confidence were slapped by the stern hand of communism and almost beat into extinction by famine. Yet they are resilient, though at times they may seem lost.

In 1991 the sickle and hammer of the soviet flag gave way to the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian landscape: blue for the grand sky above and yellow for the vast fields of grain and sunflowers below. When my plane landed in Donetsk in November 2006, however, a grey cloud engulfed the entire city with a drab, monochrome existence. The concrete soviet buildings, the leafless trees and the barren ground all melted into the bleakness. The country felt bare and depressed. 

Any news about Ukraine that makes it to America usually shows the unsuccessful attempts of the country to be taken seriously as it tries to establish its own identity. The former prime minister has become a political prisoner in her own country while the former president’s face bears the scars of an attempted poisoning by his opposing party. Numerous Youtube videos show fistfights breaking out on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament, complete with elected officials throwing eggs at their rivals. (This is ironic in that Ukraine is famous for its beautifully painted and decorated Easter eggs). On top of that, as preparation to host the European soccer championships, Ukraine had to pass a law at long last outlawing bars from force feeding alcohol to captured bears, a tradition passed down from generation to generation of vodka loving Ukrainians. No wonder Ukraine has long lived in the American mind as only a joke from an episode of Seinfeld.

But as our Ukrainian friend on Seinfeld tells us, “The Ukraine is not weak,” and neither are its people. Survival is an instinct for a nation which has persevered through such a tumultuous history, and the individual faces of its people tell that story. Walking out of my apartment on a bitter morning in early spring I passed a man peering into the large dumpsters in between apartment buildings. His wrinkled hands, swollen from years of exposure to the harsh winters, sorted through the discarded trash as his black eyes searched for something of sustenance. His hands emerged from the black plastic bag holding the skeletal remains of a dried fish. Setting the trash bag aside, he began to pick away at the bones, pulling off what little meat he could. He was dressed as most elderly Ukrainian men are: old slacks and a dirty sports jacket over a stained white tank-top. His dark shoes had somehow avoided the muddy grime of the melting snow which puddled across the city streets, their cleanliness attempting to reclaim some remnant of his dignity. 

I walked towards him, pulling a five hrivna bill from my pocket. 

“For grandpa?” he asked, his Russian slurred in the cold air.

“Buy yourself some bread.” I held the money out towards him. He hesitated a moment before reaching for my hand. The creases in his face easily broke into a gold-toothed smile as our hands met.

“Thank you and God bless you with happiness and luck.”

“Thank you” I said and I turned back to the street.

As I walked away, his words echoed in my mind. “Happiness and luck.” Where did those words fit into this man’s life, his past, or his future? His relentless image was pressed into my memory.
But he is not the first thing to come to my mind when I think about Ukraine. Neither is it the country’s painful past, the bleak winters or the devastating poverty that is so prevalent. I remember one day of perfection—perfection in the sense of witnessing potential fulfilled.

When I think of Ukraine, I remember filling a daypack with watermelon, fresh fruit and the rich, hearty black bread Ukrainians favor to our fluffy wonderbread. I remember climbing aboard a bus and driving far past the edge of a village and out to the end of the bus line. There I stepped out into the countryside and with a few companions, began to walk. We walked for hours. We passed small farmhouses and summer cottages. We walked past men fishing and boys swimming in ponds, the warm sun glistening golden on the water. We walked past fields and forests, past sunken homes long since abandoned. We passed over hill after rolling hill until we crested to find in the valley below us a field of sunflowers stretching to the horizon. 

We stepped between the rows of towering flowers as they followed the sun’s westward journey. Finding a patch of ground large enough for us to sit, we took out our food and partook of the fruits of the fertile soil that surrounded us. Beauty was everywhere, and in that beauty was the hope of a nation. I suddenly understood much more about these people, their land and how they are able to keep such bright hope for their country than I had learned living with them for a year and a half. I had driven past fields like this in the winter only to see the dead, grey stalks of the once majestic flowers. But spring brings resurrection of life, and with life comes beauty, and from that beauty springs forth faith and hope. 

 It’s no wonder such a scene inspired the Ukrainian flag. The people of Ukraine understand the beauty of their country and the potential it holds. They can see that from the pain of the past there can sprout a beautiful nation, rich with culture and confidence resurrected from the shadows of the borderland.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Perpetuum Mobile

Perpetuum Mobile—perpetual motion—isn’t that what our lives have become?

Take a moment to listen to this song (it really picks up at :20)

We are in constant search of what’s next. We beg for entertainment, something to occupy our minds and unfortunately, the things we find often in turn fill our souls. There is no substance to that. It’s all just sawdust—filler added to give meaningless weight to our waking lives.

We need to take a moment to break out, to discover the beauty around us, and rediscover the beauty of what is inside us. Sometimes, it requires us to look back. This song was written back the same year I was born, some quarter of a century ago. I find in its rolling melody something hauntingly beautiful. It somehow is able to capture the entire spectrum of human emotion into one succinct moment. Everything we collectively experience is present at once. The music draws me to utter heartbreak, but in the same moment I experience complete joy. I am conflicted by the beauty the notes combine to create. I am, though maybe only for a moment, able to understand that whatever pain I have felt or will feel in life is justified by the beauty of what is able to come afterwards. It may be that the lesson is one we spend our lives learning over and over again: To really be able to break away from our fear of pain, or loss, or inadequacy, we must be willing to lose our fear of quietness and be willing to reflect on what is deep inside us. The irony is that, at least in this case, it takes hearing perpetual motion to break you from the spinning fly-wheel of modern life.

Or perhaps the lesson is that somewhere within all the calamity that surrounds us, we can find some sense of peace. Up close, the rapid, successive beats of our lives seem to be only random noise. But when we are able to step back, to take in the our life as a whole, we find a magnificent flowing rhythm. We find that within the noise all around, us there is something beautiful to behold. We learn to uncover the beautiful parts of our world, which often turn out to be the people who surround us. Our Perpetuum Mobile becomes more than perpetual motion, but perpetual meaning as we embrace life to its fullest.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Proposal

So as promised, here are the details of my proposal of marriage to the future Mrs. Melissa Jane Engstrom Livingston, not to be confused with Melissa Madeline Weilenmann Livingston, heretofore referred to with the self-given title of “Mama Melissa.”

Anyways, the following is a tale of masterful trickery and near perfect planning. I hope you enjoy:

I am a gentleman of high propriety; I am old fashioned and believe in tradition. I could not think of asking for my sweetheart’s hand in marriage without first consulting her parent and receiving their permission. I also wanted to follow Melissa’s desire to fully and completely surprised by the proposal of marriage and not tip her off by letting her know of my meeting with her parents. This past Thursday, Bert and Eileen, her father and mother, came into town to see his sister’s play being performed at the University of Utah. Under the guise of church meetings, I was able to sneak over to their hotel and over the course of conversation, ascertained permission to marry their daughter. So now with the third-base coach waving home, it was time to put a plan in action.

I had been suffering from the dreaded disease mononucleosis for the past month or so, requiring me to take lots of naps. These “naps” (not all were real) gave me more than the usual amount of time to gather the necessary items to propose marriage to someone. I bought an absolutely lovely engagement ring during one such nap, and proceeded to ask Melissa several weeks later to remind me what styles of rings she likes so I could find the perfect one. This threw her off my scent. One weekend Melissa went down to Cedar City for burton’s (her nephew) birthday party. I really would have liked to go, but being sick, I stayed home and instead bought an old table, sanded it, painted it, and then antiqued it. It turned out beautiful. I hid it under a tarp in my basement.

The finished Table

So Saturday, the twelfth of March came along, and I had to take another nap. This time I was at the floral shop and hobby lobby buying some last minute decorations. Then I got ready to accompany Melissa and her family to the play.

Now a little caveat: I would like to just say how great this play was. I was seriously impressed by the characters and the way I, as a member of the audience, became invested in the plight of one Ignaz Semmelweis. This man was a medical pioneer, whose discoveries could have saved thousands of lives if the established minds of the day would have just listened to what he had to say. Instead, he was laughed to scorn and ended up dying in an insane asylum It was very compelling.

After the play and our congratulations to Melissa’s aunt Fae for the terrific job on the play, we started driving back to Provo. The time was approximately ten p.m. As we drove, Melissa began to doze off, and I began to sweat profusely. My prescription strength antiperspirant was no match for my nerves. As I took the Orem center street exit she awoke and wondered where we were. I told her that we were just in Orem and asked if she wanted to go on a little adventure. That piqued her attention and gave her a shot of energy. We began to dance to ke$ha as we drove towards the mountains overlooking Utah Valley.
At this point, Melissa had no idea what was going to come. She thought that we were just on a search to find the best view in Provo. She did not know that I had bought a ring or talked to her parents about the prospect of marriage. We continued to climb the foothills of Provo until we reached a huge house near the dead-end of a street. I parked the car and asked “Are you ready for the dangerous part of our adventure?”

“What are we doing?” there was a tinge of nervousness in her voice. “Are we breaking and entering.”

I got out of the car and started to cross the street towards the large iron gate in front of the house. She followed a few steps behind me. I turned around, “Get out of the light, don’t let anyone see you!”

I walked up to the gate and typed in the access code, and it slowly swung open.
“Whose house is this?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

The gate fully opened and we walked into the front yard.

“Okay, run! There are dogs and they’ll get us!” I grabbed her hand and she screamed as we started running across the front lawn to escape the imaginary dogs.

We went through a small chain-link fence into the back yard, and there was a gazebo overlooking the entire valley. A sign hung across read “Greg & Melissa.”

The Decorated Gazebo

“Looks like it was made just for us,” I commented.

“Yeah, it has our name on it!” she said.

(Parenthetically I will add that this is the moment when she realized what was going on.)

We walked into the gazebo and saw the table I had made a few weeks back decorated with flowers, rose petals, love poems, and a book. She began to read some of the poems and asked if I had written them.

The Decorated Table

“No, “ I said, “but I did write this.” I handed her the small book and she began to read it.
“A love story. By Gregory Scott Livingston. Dedicated to Melissa Jane Engstrom.”
She proceeded to read all about how we had fallen in love and now never want to be apart from one another. In the last pages, she found a cut-out in which her ring was tied-in with ribbon. I dropped to one knee and asked for her to be mine forever. And then she said “YES!”

The Book (hand bound by Mama Melissa) with the Ring

I put the ring on her finger and we proceeded to spend the next hour jumping around in the gazebo, too happy to know what to do next. After it had begun to settle in, we drove back to her apartment where our friends and family were waiting to congratulate us.

It's so shiny!

It really could not have been more perfect. I have to thank one more time my roommates Kendrick and Preston, along with my former roommate Jared and his new roommate Mindy, and my little sister Megan for their help in decorating the gazebo and Melissa’s sister Camille for help in coordinating all of the events. It really was perfect.