In Search of Purpose

Everything that I do, I do in search of some hidden purpose in life. I don’t believe in God, or so I tell myself because I was raised on a diet of science and humanism. But I believe in purpose. That’s why I try to learn as much as I can, that’s why I try new things. To find my purpose.

I have always hated chaos. Even though Eve Ensler, my hero and inspiration, tells everybody to embrace insecurity, I have always feared and even despised it. Because when I don’t know what to expect on a Wednesday night or a Monday morning, I feel shivers running down my spine. I don’t plan everything out and I don’t live according to some crazy schedule, but I like to know that I’m being a productive person doing useful things. Like everybody else, I have days off, when I find myself binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, eating heaps of ice cream, or not getting my eight hours of sleep. But in the end, I always go back to my usual state of mind.

This way of living had worked well for me over the past few years. But these last six months, I noticed that the shivers stopped going away – even when I did know what I was doing on the said Wednesday evening or Monday morning. They disappeared sometimes – when I was with friends, or in sunny weather. But eventually, they always caught up with me.

I know why. It’s because I’m in my senior year. My search for purpose has now extended itself to college, and consequently, a job, or even a career. Although I have some rough idea of what I am going to do, I also have absolutely no clue of how to get there. I’m insecure, and I am not embracing my insecurity at all.

Maybe the shivers would have gone away, had I not hated chaos. But the problem is, there is no way escaping it. We are all chaos, and I had ignored that fact for years. I want to be so many things that I don’t know where to look for answers anymore. And now I’m not only talking about careers.

Sometimes I wonder whether that search of purpose is a good idea. I figured out that I will probably never find it. But habits die hard. So I can’t stop looking.

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My Own Teacher

I have recently started working two jobs. My first job I have had for quite a while – cleaning rooms at a hostel, run only by women. But now I have a second one – doing the dishes at a bistro, run only by men. The difference between the two workplaces is almost enough to make me laugh. And cry.

The women I work with at the hostel have only recently started opening up to me. Even though they’re friendly and never shy away from a conversation, I have never had a heart-to-heart with any of them. To be fair, that’s not unreasonable, seeing how they’re also my superiors. When I make a mistake, they will be the ones to tell me I was wrong. And it’s always a bit awkward to tell friends that they have fucked up. I understand why they want to keep the distance.

On my first day at the bistro, however, keeping the distance was not an option.

 

I came into an almost empty restaurant. It was only five PM, too early for the usual Friday night crowds. I was standing in the middle of the room, looking a bit lost because the staff was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, a guy in his twenties called down to me from the floor up.

“I’m coming!” he shouted.

After I introduced myself, he ushered me to a dressing room and gave me a t-shirt with no further explanation. The t-shirt was white with blue stripes, carrying out the French theme of the bistro. When I started changing, a young man walked in. He quickly started undressing, and although I tried not to look, I couldn’t help but notice his tattoo. While putting on his uniform, he started telling me about himself. Where he lived, what he did, etc. The distance and the order I was so used to at the hostel, was gone. Everything here felt chaotic but familiar.

 

Just as I started getting used to this new place, my male coworkers left me alone in a small, damp room to do the dishes. However much I love privacy, that was a place I would rather not be in by myself. It felt as if I was missing out on all the fun. I heard the French chansons playing at the bar, my new colleagues poking fun at each other in the kitchen, and the conversation of the customers. And there I was, wiping off hot wine glasses on my own.

Each time I carried the clean dishes to the kitchen, I was greeted by Michael Jackson songs and laughter. “Do you only have one CD?” I asked after hearing Heal the World for the third time.

“Don’t you like it?” the guy with the tattoo asked. He was the chef.

“I do, but a bit of change wouldn’t hurt.”

“What music do you listen to?”

“I like indie. And jazz.”

“Well, we wouldn’t be able to stay awake here listening to jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I like jazz too. But Michael Jackson drowns out that French music perfectly.” To me, Jacques Dutronc playing at the bar sounded wonderful, but they were all sick and tired of hearing the same songs all the time.

“I’ve heard you’re a singer-songwriter,” another guy said that had just come in. “I am too. Maybe we could write some songs together.” He was short and had a black ponytail. I knew his girlfriend.

“Sure. What kind of music do you write?” I asked.

“Mainly blues, that kind of thing,” he answered.

“Oh, I barely know any blues chords.”

“That’s cool, I can teach you,” he said and then announced, addressing the tattoo/Michael Jackson guy: “Did you hear that? We’re both songwriters!”

 

From now on, every time I came down, the boys would start singing some pop song, just to work on my nerves. It ranged from Let Her Go to A Thousand Miles. Sometimes, they started dancing too. I laughed a lot, though sometimes I just laughed because I didn’t want to seem cold. But then I noticed something.

Whatever I was doing, they would inevitably tell me how to do it. All of them. If I was washing a cup, they’d want to show me how to wash it. If I was squeezing lime juice, they would all tell me how to do it faster. No matter what I was doing, I was doing it wrong. But it was okay because it was my first day and they would help me out.

Until I realized there was nothing to help me out with. I was making mistakes, for sure, but their help was not always needed, let alone wanted. They were just very eager to teach. “Has anyone shown Erika how to clear the tables yet?” “Has anyone told Erika how to switch off the dishwasher?” “Does Erika know where to put the plates?”

In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti said something that now rang true to me. They were a bunch of men trying to teach me something.

I enjoyed my evening, but at the same time, I left feeling drained.

 

The next day, I went to work at the hostel. And for the first time, I knew to appreciate the distance between me and the other women working there. Because it was peaceful, and it was calm. And when I came home from work, nobody had tried to teach me. I was still my own teacher.

My Week of Walking

My Week of Walking

I usually cycle to school, although it’s only 3 km away. It’s the fastest and the cheapest way. But lately, my bike started breaking down a bit too often. Last week, I was forty minutes late because my brakes stopped working. I almost ran over a kid, so I decided to leave my bike and walk the rest of the way.

Unfortunately, going to the bicycle repairman is just like going to the dentist. You know you have to, but you always find better things to do. So, at the beginning of this week, my bike was still out of order.

When I woke up on Monday morning, I found out that I had already missed my bus. Since there was no other way to get to school, I had to go on foot. I left the house way too late, so instead of walking like a normal person, I had to racewalk.

While walking, I was noticing much more than I did when I was cycling. For example, I saw all the cyclists, whose bikes still worked, catching up with me. I saw the time on all the apothecary crosses indicating that I had to walk faster. But I also saw the churches in the center of Ghent, illuminated by the morning glow. And I felt the chilly, January wind pumping the blood to my cheeks. In the evening, I walked back home again.

I know that for some people, changing their routine in this way wouldn’t have been that big a change. But for me, it was. I love trying new things, but these new things must have a purpose. The way I spend my time must be useful. And walking kind of took away the time to do some of these useful things. The half hour I had to sacrifice prevented me from reading the extra 25 pages of a book, or writing those 300 words, or studying German. That’s why I started to doubt. Maybe next evening, I had to take a bus. And then I realized how much we care about productivity, more than about the quality of life, more than about health. I threw my doubts aside and decided that, from this week on, I would walk everywhere. At least until my bike got fixed.

 

The enjoyment didn’t come easily. I tried walking as fast as I could to lose as little time as possible. At the end, I just ended up exhausted. I also felt kind of laughable because I suddenly remembered my dream of hiking to Santiago de Compostela and realized that to get there, I would have to walk much more than I did.

But I was starting to let go. On Tuesday, I didn’t force myself to finish reading a book. To me, reading is not only a way of relaxing. Throughout the years, it had also become an obligation because I firmly believed that it made me smarter. But on Tuesday, I allowed myself to watch Harry Potter instead. On Wednesday, I allowed myself not to write. And on Thursday, I didn’t make my homework. Although maybe that one doesn’t say much. I rarely do.

I became less productive. But I also noticed that I felt calmer and not on the verge of hysterics, as I usually do. When I did get to reading, or writing, or studying, I was more concentrated and enthusiastic. Instead of counting the hours, I started appreciating them. Meanwhile, I kept walking.

 

Today is Sunday, which means it’s been precisely one week of walking everywhere. My dad fixed my bike, so I didn’t have to go to the bicycle repairman. But I think I will keep walking to school anyway. And in the summer, I might hike to Santiago de Compostela.

House Call

I had spent the whole of the previous night sweating, shuddering, and throwing up. The stomach flu had stricken again. On one hand, I felt like crap. On the other, I remembered Emily Blunt remarking in The Devil Wears Prada: “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” And upon thinking this, I immediately felt guilty. Sorry, confident women all over the world, for this moment of weakness.

In the morning, I tried getting out of bed. But my legs wouldn’t even take me to the bathroom across the hall to brush my teeth. I fainted before I got to the door. Unsurprisingly, my mother panicked and called the doctor.

 

My GP is a strange man. I remember my first visit and how he was being friendly and stern at the same time. His handshake was not just firm, it was relentless. Somehow, it made trusting him easier.

Upon every visit, he would have a long conversation with me about school, friends, my life decisions. Not as an impartial bystander because he would not just offer advice. He would make his advice sound as an order.

If I would come in only to get a note for school, he would get mad because I wasn’t ill enough to stay at home. He could be sympathetic, but he could also be disciplinary and tough. Sometimes I liked him, and sometimes he scared me.

 

At two PM I woke up because I heard his footsteps on the stairs. I wondered whether he’d get mad because I didn’t look sick enough for a house call, although I couldn’t even stand up. I tried making myself look more pathetic and wondered where that fear of not living up to someone’s expectations had come from. Especially a doctor’s.

“Hello! How are you?” he asked upon coming in. He wasn’t asking it in a patient-doctor way. It was as if he was just paying me a casual visit. He sat down next to me on my bed.

“Well…” I faltered, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t exactly fine, was I?

“Your mom told me you had the stomach flu. Tell me more.” I tried to explain what had happened the night before, how many times I had thrown up etc. and noticed that he had already stopped listening. “Is that your guitar?” he asked, pointing at the acoustic guitar in the corner of my room. I nodded. He didn’t even comment on the symptoms I had described. “That’s a Martin!” he exclaimed. It was an expensive guitar that my dad had bought me, saying that he would rather buy his daughter an expensive guitar than an iPad. I had never asked for an iPad and he was kind of proud of that.

“It is,” I agreed, not really in the mood. I was wishing he would leave because I wanted to go back to sleep.

He jumped up and made his way across the room to the instrument. He reached out to take it but halted. “May I?” I nodded, tired but astonished.

He sat down on my bed again, this time holding the Martin guitar. At that moment, my mom walked in, looking just as shocked as I was. The GP didn’t even look up. He just started playing the chords of what I recognized to be Blackbird by The Beatles. “You have to work this guitar. Your plectrum is too thin for these strings.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I’m in a band,” he said. “What about you?”

“I’m a singer-songwriter,” I replied, to which my mom said: “Play something, Erika!”, as if I was bursting with energy, and not being nauseated and feverish. Nonetheless, when the GP handed me the guitar, I took it.

He liked the song, said that I had a strong voice. I was at the end of my abilities, hoping the visit would come to its end as soon as possible. Then the doctor finally remembered what he had come for in the first place and said: “About the flu: you should just fast for a couple of days. It will figure itself out,” and then stood up. “I really enjoyed this visit.”

I was left there with the guitar in my bed, while my mother accompanied the GP to the door. That’s when I realized that he was even stranger than I had initially thought him to be.

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

It was five in the morning and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. I already regretted everything. Not just my decision to be an extra in a movie about Emily Dickinson – oh no – at five in the morning I regretted life. Because that’s how existential I get when I don’t get my eight hours of sleep.

With my eyes still shut, I turned on the shower. The hot water streamed down my face and I nearly choked when I forgot to hold my breath and thus inhaled all the water.

When I got out of the shower, I quickly put together an outfit – sweater and jeans – not paying much attention to how I looked. Once I would get to the set, I would have to change anyway. Emily Dickinson lived in the nineteenth century, so without a corset and a dress, I would look a bit out of place.

I had a cup of coffee and hopped in the car. Well, I wasn’t driving. My dad was. And he was as much of a morning person as me. We were both in for one hell of a drive. And then there was my mother, who also decided to come along. God knows why. (After reading this story, she told me that it had been her birthday.)

 

After an hour and a half, we arrived at a castle near Brussels. It looked huge and kind of reminded me of the castle from Jane Eyre. I was half expecting to see Michael Fassbender walking through the gate. But the illusion was shattered when I noticed all the trailers, all the staff with their walkie-talkies and the tired extras standing in the garden in front of the building.

One of the staff members showed me the way, a woman in her twenties, obviously still not used to early mornings. “You have to get dressed and get your makeup done, but afterward, you can grab something to eat here,” she said, entering what looked like a GP’s waiting room. The girls that were already dressed, were sitting in unfolded, plastic chairs, not saying a word. They were all wearing bathrobes over their dresses, what added to my impression of them as patients. Hunger was an emotion that prevailed in everybody’s eyes. Yes, it is an emotion, when it’s six AM and you have only apples and stale chocolate cookies to choose from.

I dropped my bag under one of the chairs and followed the woman out. She led me to another room packed with tired girls and handed me over to another twentysomething. “Here’s your outfit,” the other woman said. “Go undress and then call me. I’ll help you with the corset.”

I nodded, dreading that fearful moment. I remembered the corset from the fitting day. It was so tight I could barely breathe. Wearing it was torture and I could not, for the love of God, figure out why women had ever bothered.

After half an hour of desperate clumsiness, I was dressed. Watching Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley running around in Jane Austen movies had not prepared me for this. I didn’t look like a gorgeous, fragile heroine. There was nothing dramatic about me. I was dressed as decorum, not meant to be noticed by the future audience. Although even decorum had to suffer the asphyxiation caused by the tight, Victorian clothes.

Another woman applied some makeup to try to conceal an enormous zit on my forehead. She failed. My hair got done too, put up with rubber bands and so much hair spray that it made my eyes tear. There I was, ready to step into the nineteenth century.

 

The same woman that had talked to me earlier, sent me back to the waiting room, while the rest of the girls got their breasts crushed by their bodices.

I walked in, expecting nothing but the deadly silence from minutes before. But now, the place was filled with laughter. The cause was the girl in the middle of the room. She was talking about Downton Abbey, laughing with the characters and making others laugh with her impressions. Her sarcasm was the cure for our sleep deprivation.

 

After two hours, maybe more, another woman came to get us. This was our moment. Unfortunately, the set looked even more unremarkable than the dresses we were wearing. The room we were standing in was empty. As I had mentioned earlier, we were the decorum. I just hadn’t expected that there would be nothing else.

I was the only one experiencing this disappointment. The other extras were too taken by Terence Davies sitting in the corner of the room. They were all whispering and pointing at him, not realizing how they were being everything but subtle. But he was just as excited to see us as we were to see him. He jumped up and started exclaiming things like ‘You look wonderful!’ and ‘I’m so glad I get to work with all of you!’ as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was probably just bullshit, but it made me like the guy anyway. He was old and short, and full of energy. He made me want to be good.

Emma Bell was there too, being all ginger and lovely. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Cynthia Nixon or Jennifer Ehle, but I guess it was foolish to have hoped that I would anyway.

Davies told us to form a group around Emma, and we did. At first, I was standing in the front, but some actress-to-be pushed me away. I had overheard her talking about bleaching her teeth and doing commercials for H&M. She was ambitious about her career. However, her plan hadn’t worked. An assistant director came over and placed her at the back. Justice had been done. I was in the front again.

It took forty minutes to explain us in what way we had to walk back and forth during the scene. Somehow, it hadn’t been long enough because most figurants still walked in the wrong direction.

Suddenly, we heard a girl in the back gasp for breath. When I looked backward, she was already sitting down. The assistant director walked up to her and tried to get her to tell him what was wrong. All she could manage was one single word: “Corset.”

But all in all, we had done a fine job. If you ever see the movie, I’m in the scene where Emma Bell is being rebellious at school.

 

When the work was done, we could finally eat. In our bathrobes, we stalked off to the tables placed in front of one of the trailers in the garden. Big containers with rice and chicken curry were beckoning from afar. All the girls took huge heaps of food, all of them hungry because nobody had had a proper breakfast. All the girls had forgotten that they were still wearing corsets, not having been allowed to change yet.

The food was delicious, but we could not bring ourselves to eat the whole plate. Every bite got stuck somewhere between the gullet and the stomach and the more we ate, the more we realized that we shouldn’t. Somebody came to take the food away.

 

Finally, the woman that had welcomed us in the morning, came into the room to tell us we could get our makeup and our dresses off, followed by a sigh of relief from everybody. Nonetheless, we took a group picture first.

My parents picked me up, after having spent the day walking around the neighboring town. I fell asleep in the car, hungry, but too exhausted to pay attention to the sandwiches my mom had brought along. When I got home, I went straight to bed.

 

After more than a year, my mom went to the premiere of A Quiet Passion at our local movie theater. I was in school at the time of the screening, so I couldn’t join her. She said I looked pretty during the thirty seconds on screen. I’m sure I just looked tired.

Christmas

“How are you?” I asked my Polish coworker. It was the day after Christmas, so for some reason, I expected everyone to be happy and nice.

“I’m tired and sick of working here,” she answered annoyed.

“How come?” That was probably the stupidest question to ask ever, considering how she had worked in the hostel for fourteen years, doing the exact same thing. Who wouldn’t get sick of that?

“I had to work on Christmas Day, can you believe it?” she asked.

“That’s terrible!” Although I wasn’t religious and the birth of Christ wasn’t really that big a cause for celebration to me, I understood where she was coming from. After all, Christmas is the day you should spend with your family, and, most importantly, not have to go to work.

“Times have changed,” she continued. “People used to go to church on Christmas instead of going abroad. People got a day off work.” I nodded. I didn’t agree that going to church was much better than going to work. At least you got paid to go to work.

I’m not the kind of atheist who hates church. I’m not. But after having suffered through going to Orthodox masses with my mother, I had decided that I just lacked the commitment and most importantly, the faith to go through with it. But Izolda didn’t have to know that fact. It was difficult to get her to like you as it is and now that I had finally succeeded, I wasn’t going to lose that privilege because of a religious argument.

“Nobody has faith anymore.” She was right about that. Although Islam is still going strong, I don’t really know that many Christians. “That’s why people just go around killing each other. There’s no compassion anymore. We forget that we are all just the same.” I don’t know whether religion is the cause, but the world has indeed become pretty fucked up. But maybe it has always been twisted, only in a different way.

“That’s true.”

“And all these abortions! How can people kill their own children?” she asked me, hopefully not expecting an actual answer. She took me by surprise with that remark, so I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen our conversation – though I wasn’t really saying anything, so I guess it was more of a monologue – going that way.

“Well, euhm…”

“If abortion was prohibited, I wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Day!” I laughed. “I’m not joking,” she said.

Godmother

“Will you call me every day?” she asked, tugging at my sleeve.
“Of course, I will,” I said. Saying goodbye proved to be harder than I had thought. On my next visit to Russia, she might already be a teenager.
“Do you promise?” My 5-year-old cousin looked at me with more expectation in her eyes than I could ever live up to.
“I do.”
“Are you just saying this to make me feel better or do you mean it?” I was baffled. At such a young age, she could already detect the lies in my promises.
“Of course I do.” I made a mental note to myself to call her as much as I could. But I had broken so many promises before that I knew it would be difficult.

It was my mom who was supposed to be her godmother. Her parents asked her the day before the actual christening. I think she was very honored because she adores children.
But when we stepped into the church, she turned to me, and said: “You should be her godmother.”
I was taken aback by my mom’s suggestion. I wasn’t caring, or attentive, or very kind. She, of all people, should know that I’m not suited for this part. I swear and forget people’s birthdays. I’m not a good example for a young girl to follow.
“I’m not religious,” was the first argument that came to mind. And I thought it was a good one too since ‘god’ was in the word ‘godmother’. It kind of implied that you had to go to church and stuff.
“Who cares? We aren’t either,” the parents of my cousin replied. They seemed to think that my mother’s idea was absolutely genius. I was surprised by their statement since I thought that living in Russia instantly made you an Orthodox Christian.
“Well… Are you sure?” I asked. I looked calm on the outside, but there was this voice in my head shouting “What the hell are you doing? Stop this!” since my mom had first brought up the subject. Not that I didn’t want to be this girl’s godmother. I loved her. She was clever, kind, and witty. She was still jungle wild. Kids grow out of it eventually, but she hadn’t yet. So I wanted to be her godmother. I just knew that I shouldn’t. But her parents looked at me with hope in their eyes and I yielded. “Alright then,” I said, faking enthusiasm, and felt a heavy weight settle down in my stomach. I picked up the girl and carried her through the door, to the room where she would be baptized.

Now she was crying, knowing that it would probably be years until I came back to Russia. It wasn’t my favorite place to visit. I always felt out of place, despite my family still living there. I willed myself to smile and kissed her goodbye. My mom and I picked up our suitcases and got on the train.

My cousin picked us up in Moscow. He drove a black, expensive car and had a bourgeois accent. He had this way of knowing everything best and that’s why we didn’t get along. I also know everything best, so we never agree on anything. When he heard that I was somebody’s godmother, let alone a godmother of his cousin, he was appalled.
“You do realize it’s a great responsibility, right?” he asked. “Not only are you responsible for her general education, you are also responsible for her religious education. Although maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you’ll start going to church now.”
“I sure will,” I answered and wondered whether he’d hear the sarcasm. He didn’t.
“When my sister had asked me to be the godfather of her daughter, I really took my time considering the offer. Because it’s a commitment that you make for the rest of your life!” I gravely nodded. I couldn’t wait for the car ride to be over. “When Judgement Day comes, you’ll have her soul to answer for. Don’t forget that.”

When we finally got to the apartment where he lived with his wife and children, it was already midnight. I liked his daughter. She wouldn’t let her demanding parents get her down. Despite their strict rules, she still had the eyes of a dreamer. I thought of how lucky I was, with parents who let me get away with nearly everything. Not that there was that much to get away with.
But sleep was wasted on me. I lay awake thinking of how the hell I was supposed to fulfill my responsibilities towards my goddaughter. Not when it came to her religious education. I would probably do more bad than good if I tried to help her with that. But when it came to advice and friendship. Because I would be miles away. And what advice could I even offer her? And would she want it? I was feeling a bit lost and very underqualified.

Months later, I am still her godmother. I am doing a very shitty job, just as expected. I don’t have time to call, and when I do, I plainly forget to. Sometimes I send her a picture of my dog or ask her how she’s doing. She texted me once to tell me she loves me and I forgot to reply. I think this makes me a horrible human being.
But I’m working on it. Because she’s still five and maybe she won’t remember these first years of me fucking it up. How does a child’s memory even work? Hopefully, she will only remember the good years that are to come. When I’ll be a good godmother.