Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

CONTEXT

May 26, 2021 - Irina Shkoda

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I am about three years old, sitting in my great-grandmother’s room. We have evangelical guests. They all make noise in the kitchen. There are many of them, and I miss my mom desperately. Once again, I try to find her in the kitchen. I make my way through a forest of unfamiliar feet. Here is mom. She is agitated; her eyes are sparkling, she is smiling at something up there. Then she leans over to me, asks me to wait a little longer, and again merges into the hum of voices high above my head. I am heading through the forest of feet back. I feel lonely. I don’t like these people.
 
 
***
 
I am six years old. Dad has not been home for a long time. I know that he is studying at a Greek Catholic seminary in another city and that he will be arriving in a few months. I miss him a lot. In the evenings, my mother and I walk and talk about him. I know that dad wants to be a priest. Mom is sad; I often hear the word “celibacy”.
 
 
***
 
Sister Danuta and Sister Jeremiah. I like their unusual names, black dresses, black headwears with white piping on the forehead. Sister Danuta plays the organ, she is thin and strict, I am a little afraid of her. Sister Jeremiah is kind, round-faced, she is very affectionate with me.
 
I feel good in the light space of the church, and before crossing myself I like to dip my hand in the holy water, which is in the bowl at the entrance. I like to kneel on a wooden bench and open the breviarium with a dozen multi-coloured silk ribbons with which I bookmarked my favourite prayers… I love Christ very much and often think about him. I want to suffer somehow to console him (for some reason I feel that only suffering myself can help).
 
Sister Jeremiah comes up to me after the service and every time we talk about something wonderful.
– Do you know that every person is like a flower? For example, you look like a lily of the valley.
I am amazed at the beauty of this thought and the comparison itself. I would like to thank her, but I do not know the name of the wildflower that she reminds me of.
 
 
***
 
My dad converted to Orthodoxy. I’m upset. Everything that I managed to fall in love with suddenly began to be considered somehow not entirely correct, forbidden. I was taken away from the choir, where I was making progress and had already performed as a soloist. I can feel how quickly things are changing, but there is nothing I can do about it.
 
 
***
 
My father is ordained deacon now. He will now serve in a large female convent, and I must go there, although I do not want to.
 
The first evening is especially scary. We all come to the monastery together – dad, mom and me, but dad leaves us right there – it’s time for him to dress up and get ready for the service. Mom introduces me to some sisters. Here they are often called ‘mothers’, there are many of them, they smile at me, but I am languishing.
 
It immediately turns out that I could sing, and they take me to the monastery choir.
 
It’s nice here. I am pleased that I do not stand in the crowd, that they are busy around me, they give me a chair to sit on when I get tired. I look at faces in strict black frames and find some beautiful. I especially like the choir director – a young mother Ksenia with severely frowned sable eyebrows and beautiful eyes, under which shadows lie. Her hands move smoothly and with restraint. With a gentle voice, she sets the tone, and I suddenly want to please her, singing well, but I don’t know the words, how to read the sheet music, where should I stand. While my place is at the very lectern in the group of the first sopranos. I am almost all the time silent, the only litany I am allowed to sing along with everyone. I’m good at it, everyone praises me, and Mother Minodora, the best voice of the monastery, takes me under her patronage. I am surprised at how strange and good it all turned out, that I already have friends here and an occupation that is working out. In the meantime, they are singing “Hail Gladdening Light”. This simple and sad melody sinks into the soul and touches me to tears. I also want to sing like that!
 
 
***
 
I’m being taken to school. I am in a long skirt and a woman’s big coat on me. I know that they will laugh at me. All girls wear short skirts and trousers. But this is how I learn humility.
 
 
***
 
I am forbidden to read secular books. Most of our huge home library is in jeopardy. I learn to read at night under the cover with a lantern, and in the closet. I am not allowed to be alone for a long time so that I “do not indulge in dreams.” I set up caches for books that they find periodically. In this case, both I and the book suffer. At best, it is taken away and hidden. At worst, they can tear it up.
 
I am prescribed penance. Usually, this is a certain amount of earth-low bows that I have to put down before bed. My penance happens almost every day – because of the careless reading of prayers, disrespectful conversation, “daring” glance. In the process, the penance is lengthened: for each careless bow I have plus ten more. And I want to do them badly on purpose. So far I have enough strength.
 
 
***
 
I noticed that it is necessary to hide the fact that I am a girl, that I am growing up. Then dad will like me. I must be vague, off-gender, a little awkward and funny. Then peace and tranquillity will reign in the family.
I must not be beautiful. It is a sin. I gradually learn to slouch, clubfoot; clothes from someone else’s shoulder help to hide a developing body, an early chest, which secretly pleases me. I want to grow up so much.
 
At school, I was told that sex is when a man and a woman undress and hug each other. My friend also told me that you can please yourself with a jet from the shower. I tried and the effect stunned me. I was carried away by experiments in this direction, but there is a weak lock in the bathroom, and my mother, without reaching me, easily breaks it off. I have to be vigilant.
 
 
***
 
Friends come to visit dad. They usually sit in the kitchen, drink tea and talk about God all night long. There is a lot of truth and poetry in these conversations. I have been listening to them since infancy, all my life. I understand that in these conversations the essence is, it takes my breath away from the extreme depth and sincerity that I hear… But I’ll never tell my dad about it. Because I’m a bad girl. I am not worthy of participating in it. If I were an adult man, my father’s friend, then it would be another matter. But I am a teenage girl with growing breasts, I am sinful with every glance, my job is to humble myself and be silent. And not think about the Filioque and other serious matters. The Greeks viewed the Trinity from Persons to nature, and the Latins from nature to Persons, and it is proper for a young woman to walk with her eyes downcast and a blush of bashfulness on her cheeks.
 
***
 
I have girl mates in the monastery. Photinia is four years older than me. She is thirteen. And Nastya is only a year older than me. Both came to the monastery of their own free will. For a long time parents did not want to let Fotinia go, she first came to visit her two older sisters, who had already pursued asceticism in the monastery, but after a few years the parents gave up.
 
I learned to sing from notes, and I have perfect pitch. I am no longer standing on the quire by the lectern, but on a higher bench, next to Mother Minodora. I was trained to behave correctly. In the beginning, I did not even sign myself with a cross like that. I crossed myself and just slightly bowed my head (Catholic habit). Here I was told that I was shaking my head like a wretched nag, instead of humbly bending my corps down. Practising nightly earth-low bowing quickly helped with this.
 
Amusing incidents, little intrigues constantly took place on the quire, we had fun even at tiresome evening services. At Morning Watches we all waited for the prosphora (sacred bread) in wine to be brought to us. The nuns got the pieces, generously moistened with wine, the novices – what was left. But Mother Minodora pampered me and gave me her pieces – there was plenty of wine.
 
***
 
I am having difficulty with the evening prayer rule. I read it with my parents, one by one. When the fiftieth psalm falls to me, I understand that the matter will not do without penance. I hate this psalm. From the very beginning: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions” I do not want any mercy, I do not feel that I have serious transgressions, and deep in my soul, this God who needs prays like this to receive mercy seems to be unpleasant. Further in this self-deprecating text there was the phrase that in the Russian version sounds like “rid us of the blood”, which was understood by me literally. Together with “Will this coffin be a bed for me?” from another prayer, a picture of terrible death and bloodlessness was portrayed. At that moment I was thinking about the people in the church, about their yellow faces, as if they had already given all their blood. It seemed to me as if this God extends his power only to Orthodox people, whom he gradually deprives of blood, deprives of life. In the church, I felt physical decay, slow death – it was in faces, in the smell of stale bodies mixed with incense smoke, in the dull sheen of lurid gold. Christ – alive and free – remained somewhere there, with Sister Jeremiah and her flowers, and here some cruel old man reigned. Everything spoke of death. “the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice,” “then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar”. ” I felt pity for bullocks. I have been a vegetarian since I was three, against my parents’ will.
 
 
***
 
People in the monastery often ask: “Do you want to become the bride of Christ?” This question plunges me into a panic. I like to sing in the choir, people here consider me a mate – only here, perhaps. I don’t want to lose it. Here, and only here, parental control weakens, and I can belong to myself at least for a little while. If my parents are near, they usually respond instead of me: “Yes, she is a bride of Christ.”
 
The same response got our neighbour, having met us on our way from the monastery after the liturgy. He looked at me smiling: “Your girl is already a little bride!» – I internally shrink, realizing that it is my sinfulness that provokes such a reaction and that dad is now full of contempt for me, for my puffy mamelons on my chest, for everything that provoked this frivolous phrase from my neighbour. I’m scared. The neighbour shrugs his shoulders and leaves smiling. We move on in heavy silence. Deep in my heart, I am running after a smiling neighbor to a place where human love is not considered a sin …