It began Monday morning, when I lazily rolled out of bed, not a care in the world.
My phone was beeping. I saw I had a message from Sveta, the friend who has been housesitting my Moscow apartment while I was in Kiev. The message read:
Michele, call me please. Urgent
I took a deep breath and called. Sveta answered on the first ring. She sounded frightened, and her words spilled out in a rush. At first I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I asked her if she was all right.
“Yes, I’m all right, but you should prepare yourself. It’s all gone. Everything - the apartment - I’m sorry, but it’s all gone, all your beautiful things.”
My first thought was that someone had burgled the apartment, common enough in Moscow. I felt very calm. The thought came that if everything in the apartment was indeed gone, that was fine. Moscow being Moscow, there was no telling if insurance would compensate me for the loss. This also felt just fine.
After this moment of clarity, it turned out that the apartment had not been robbed. Instead, the issue was water. The radiators in the apartment upstairs had burst, and boiling water had poured out of the 6-inch pipes which feed the radiators and onto the floor. The neighbors were away on business, so the flood in their apartment went unnoticed until enough water built up to come down through their floor and into my apartment.
Sveta, waking before dawn to the sound of lightbulbs bursting, had watched in horror as boiling water first trickled from the light fixtures then began to fall in a steady rain from every ceiling in the apartment. She called for help, put buckets and pots under the leaks until she ran out of pots, and finally fled the apartment, just as a six-inch spout of water split through the ceiling to fall in a steaming waterfall directly onto the living room couch.
I heard all this standing in the tranquil kitchen of my apartment in Kiev. Somehow, I wasn’t upset. Instead, I felt a sense of freedom, almost exaltation. I imagined the boiling water falling, improbable and lovely, onto my treasured belongings - the piano, the antique persian rug, the breakfront, my cosy bed, my books. I imagined the warm and ironic smile of the stone buddha in his alcove, contemplating a fall of indoor rain. A fragment of a prayer began to speak itself in my head:
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. All hail!
But I couldn’t stand there smiling indefinitely. I too had a role to play. I called my landlady, who was already at the apartment, to say I would be there as soon as I could. I booked a ticket, drove to the airport, and took the familiar route up into the clouds, over cold steppe and forest, northwards to Moscow. I found a driver to take me into the city, and arrived just as the brief winter daylight was failing.
The apartment was unrecognizable: dark, warm and damp, windows steamed over, furniture moved about, ceilings dripping. My little nest, cozily furnished with objects I’d known since childhood, had become a swamp, a tropical forest, an outside space.
My initial feeling was simply gratitude. My landlady and two men from our security detail had dropped their own concerns and spent the day generously offering me their help. They had chased down the building superintendent to shut off the water and electricity and worked for hours to get the water off the floor, saving what they could. While I had been sitting peacefully on the plane reading a book (Studs Terkel’s Giants of Jazz) they had been bailing and mopping, working their hearts out.
Very quickly, the real nature of this event became clear to me. The flood was not a problem: it was a gift. Because through it I was reminded how generous and kind people can be.
Everyone agrees that Sveta, by keeping her wits about her and calling for help, saved most of my possessions from being ruined. My landlady spent the next few days accompanying me through various offices and agencies to get the paperwork I needed to make my insurance claim (she even taught me a new phrase: Potop - tolchok. Meaning, a flood gives you a push). The security guys took turns staying in my apartment to make sure nothing was stolen while the electricity was off. My friend Nick, out of town on business, readily offered to let me stay in his apartment. Friends, colleagues at work, people I’d never met before, all pitched in to help.
As my friends carried me on their hands through the tasks of the next few days, I began to sense a mischievous benevolence, almost a sleight of hand, in the events around the flood.
When I first moved to this apartment, I had a bout of stomach flu. I spent over a week at home, too weak to go outside. With nothing to occupy me, I was terribly bored. I spent hours sitting on the couch, staring at the stone buddhaand thinking, What do I really care about? What do I have, besides work, to occupy me? In fact, why I am I even here, on this planet? What do I want to do with my life?
I can see myself, sitting on the couch with a big long face, thinking these thoughts, which seemed so serious, so difficult. What happened next was a flurry of answers to my questions, like a stop-motion film unfolding around me.
First I bought a piano. There it is against the wall, a lovely Steinway upright. Next I bought a violin. With it came a violinist like a rumbustious wind, sweeping away dust and boredom, bringing with him warmth and laughter, music and drama. Friends would come over. We would play music late into the night. All of this deliciousness happened of its own accord, like a wind-up toy springing out of the box.
Next, a pause. The apartment is quiet. I am in Kiev.
Then - boom! The sky opens. Water pours down, a boiling extravagant fount, right onto that spot on the couch where I sat and dared to think that life was boring. Dust rises, steam rises, the floor becomes a lake, the windows steam over, the lights sputter and go out.
Everything is gone, says Sveta. Picture the apartment empty. But now some things are reappearing. The rug, the breakfront, the gold and red chinese cabinets are fine. The books are fine. The pictures on the wall are fine. In fact, almost everything is fine. The water dries, the steam clears. The lights come back on.
Some things are untouched; some can be fixed; others can be given away. Only one object of value was lost to the flood: my piano. The piano which I bought impulsively, extravagantly, because I felt I could no longer live without one. Certainly it was a gift, but it had also become a burden: I had no idea how to move it. It’s quite possible I kept that apartment in Moscow because my piano was there.
But now it’s gone. Crash! The water pours onto the piano, drenching it, going into in its deepest heart where only sound should live. Now the insurance company hears it’s cue, and money slips into my bank account, like a runaway returning home. Here - gone. Beloved - lost. Spent - returned. Sleight of hand.
Spiritual teachers speak of the deep benevolence of the universe, the love and humor with which reality shows us - gently or firmly, through love and sadness - where we need to go. There have been times when I was obstinately blind, unable to see the lesson until I’m whacked over the head with it. But this time the message was clear, delivered with such gentleness, such care and compassion, that I felt I had been singled out for special treatment.
Each “chore” turned into an opportunity for someone to help me. Each “loss” helped me lay down a possession too heavy to carry. By the end, my little household was just the right size to be packed up and shipped home. The apartment was damp, mostly clean, just waiting for me to leave so that it could be repaired and painted. A time in my life was over, neatly wrapped with drama and a ribbon, to be pored over in memory on quiet evenings.
Potop - tolchok. Time to move on.