Moscow? Me? How?
The Last Comfort Zone
I never would have suspected that the last leg of my life’s journey would end up in Moscow, Russia. It was either that or Brighton Beach. Not everyone accepts my explanations But as my brother Tom would day, “That’s Andrew being Andrew.”
If the die was cast on a rainy Sunday afternoon (January 9, 2009), I was not aware of it. I was knocking on the door of a tract house in Durham, NC where I had rented a room for a long stay at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center. Luckily I had stumbled on a room-for-rent notice on line in the Duke University faculty and staff newsletter.
This Russian MD-Ph.D. neuroscientist, Olga Timofeeva, opened the door and was immediately secure in the fact that my morbidly obese body could never negotiate the stairs from my first floor master bedroom suite to her upstairs living quarters. Accustomed to renting to Duke graduate assistants, she had made an exception for this highly visible professor from another university. The room rental contributed to support for her daughter and three grandchildren in Moscow.
It would take a tear stained movie script to depict how I got from there to here. Most who know me would have pictured the “here” as a vibrant market town with a medieval pedigree tucked into an Italian valley lush with vineyards and olive trees
But we came here with the pandemic nipping at our heels to bury Olga’s suddenly deceased daughter. Seems like my journey will dead end in a family cemetery plot on the outskirts of Moscow. For the first time I feel the need for a Wikipedia entry to satisfy the curiosity of anyone following up on that strangely out-of-place Sicilian surname. And maybe they will rise to the challenge of the chiseled Latin aphorism beneath the name: “Maximus in minimis.” It was also the motto assigned to me by my classmates in the 1953 Salesian High School Yearbook (New Rochelle, NY).
All the relatives in my mother’s generation lived well into their 90’s. If I accept that genetic gift, I can face the future expectantly. So I plan to be at the Moscow station a long time before the last train pulls out.
My daily FaceTime chats with my brother and shared photos remind me of my starting points. My steely blue-eyed gaze always seemed to be looking past the camera into a scary void. Looking back on who we were, I can see patterns emerging. Something like Moscow seemed inevitable for me. Already this sojourn has wrought changes. And that is what each new phase in life is about. Growth. I now realize it never stops and is, in fact, accelerated by leaving one comfort zone and heading into the unknown.
The trouble with comfort zones is that eventually they become uncomfortable. Not every one has the courage to leave. And so they stay with the familiar. If all of one’s growth is on a resume, then the highest one can reach will be on the salary ladder. Mel Mencher, one of my colleagues at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, taught me one of life’s lessons: “Always have three months salary stashed away in case you have to quit your job on the spot.”
One’s level of comfort in a life zone can change according to who cohabits the zone, your shifting priorities, and events beyond your control . . . in any combination. We live on a dangerously “helter skelter” planet where so many die unfulfilled and unrealized. I am privileged to be sucking creativity out of the same air that nurtured Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov and Akhmatova. And looking back into those searching blue eyes, I am finally able to “touch the me that isn’t I.”