family

My Moonstruck

Few movies influenced me as much as Moonstruck growing up.

I must have been 12years old when I first watched it with my parents. My mother had to explain so much. The different kinds of love, the different reasons for marriage, the different ways adults get stuck and stop fully living, the messiness that comes from passion, forgiveness and the struggle to be honest, and the power of art (opera). Set in Little Italy in NYC, I could relate to a lot of the idiosyncrasies that come from being a 2nd generation immigrant. I thought Cher was beautiful, both before and after her makeover in the movie – possibly my first female role model that wasn’t a Disney princess. It is also the first time I truly appreciated comedy. It’s a funny movie.

Some of the key scenes from that movie happen at the Metropolitan Opera. I longed to see the famous Chagall painting that hangs therein, and to feel for myself the power of music in that concert hall. Which I did, in 2011. A broke student, I splurged on $250 tickets to go see Rigotello with one of my girlfriends. In 2014, I returned to the Met, this time alone, to fulfill a bucket list item of seeing Polina Semionova dance the lead in Manon. Both times, I hoped to run into Cher and Nicolas Cage, because obvi they must go to all the performances there, always, right?

This past weekend, I treated myself to a weekend getaway to NYC to visit my cousin & her fiancé. Her sister joined us. They’d been wanting to try out the ABT, and waited till I was available to join them, as I’m the balletomane of the family. I was SO excited to share my passion for ballet with them, specifically at this dream location of my childhood.

I cried as Giselle fell in love with her player-prince, was betrayed, went crazy from the shock of her beloved’s unfaithfulness, and died from the heartache. That was followed by intermission: I sipped a glass of bubbly out on the Met balcony with my cousins under the beautiful NYC night sky. I thought my heart would burst from the beauty of the night.

It occurred to me that I’ve undergone a similar character arc to Cher’s in Moonstruck. I was stuck in a place of depression, trying to live a safe life. I rejected vulnerability for the longest time. I tried to build a life that would avoid hurt and grief. Then the Universe threw Beaut at me, like it threw Nicolas Cage at Cher, and suddenly I was alive.

Ronny: Come upstairs. I don’t care why you come. No, that’s not what I mean. Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people… and die. I mean, the storybooks are bullshit! Now, I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!

Beaut might no longer be in the picture, but he left me with dance. And through dance, my life is changing beyond recognition. The people I’m meeting; the lessons I’m learning; the trips I am taking; performing. Life is messy, thrilling and exhilarating, both on and off the dancefloor. That’s not the same happy ending that Cher’s character experiences in Moonstruck – but I’ll live happily ever after just the same. And what better moment to acknowledge how far I’ve come than at the Met, where Cher learned to feel as deeply as I have?

(Incidentally, that quote from Moonstruck is a very apt description of the story line of Giselle, the ballet we went to see. I love it when the Universe echoes the same message over and over, in different manners. #subtlenotsubtle)


It was a wonderful weekend with my cousins.

We walked through Central Park and the High Line. Little oasis of greens in the bustling city.

We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.

This weekend was perfect.

Too late

I never understood Mother’s Day growing up. I understood Father’s Day even less. Like, why bother? Y’all are my parents every day, so why are we gonna pretend one day is more important than all the others?

I was a brat, can you tell?

I did a half-assed job celebrating Mother’s day, growing up. My mother was always slightly upset by my lack of effort. As I grew older, after I moved out and started appreciating my mother a whole lot more once I realized what a pain adulting could be, I tried to make a bigger effort.

Our last mother’s day. 2012.

2012. Mother’s day. I was swamped with work – putting in regularly 60-65-70 hour weeks, the rest of my life on standstill. Groceries? Don’t know what that is. Laundry? No time, I’ll just keep buying new clothes. I’d cancelled a few of our weekly family dinners, never having time to call and chat, bc I would leave my home at 8am and come back at midnight, 7 days a week. On Mother’s Day weekend, all I had time for was a quick brunch. I felt so guilty, such a shit daughter. My mother’s health was bad – I hated making her come downtown to meet me, instead of me taking the time to go see her.

Look how happy she was to see me – just to spend time with me. My father insisted on taking pictures of us, something he never did because my mother HATED being photographed. But this time, for some reason, she let him. It was a lovely meal – she told me not to feel guilty about my disastrous schedule and poor time management skills: she knew, without a doubt, that I was doing my best, that I loved her, and I would learn eventually to do better. I had enough going on, I should focus on the tasks at hand, instead of taking on unnecessary guilt.

What a mama.

Easter 1988 or 1989. I was almost-4 or almost-5.

I get the importance of Mother’s Day now.


My Ma:

My Arab & Muslim family

When I told BossMan and IronSweetie (Dynamo‘s brother & sis-in-law) I was coming to Dubai, they insisted I stay with them.

“Vanilla, of COURSE you will stay with us, you are family. Don’t insult us by staying anywhere else.”

You are family. Strong words. I wondered if perhaps the phrasing was slightly hyperbolic and dramatic, as is sometimes the case when dealing with Arabs, and especially with BossMan (#dramaqueen).


Dynamo’s wedding last year.

IronSweetie took me under her wing: teaching me how to dance & introducing me to her family. Showering me with love, despite us only having met twice, briefly. I was Dynamo’s friend, I had been a friend of BossMan prior to his move to Dubai; that was all she needed to know, to befriend me.

Dynamo insisted I participate in the wedding pictures, adjusting his bowtie. After the first dance, when the dance floor opened up to family and close friends, I hung back, until BossMan yelled at me to join them, because I belonged.


I cannot dissociate my mother’s sudden death with Dynamo’s incredible care of me. Which is perfect, really: my mother was Love. It is fitting that her death triggered one of the most perfect demonstrations of Love I’ve experienced.

Dynamo had to leave for a month-long business trip; he almost missed his flight, taking care of me in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. He was distraught that he’d miss her funeral. I tried to explain that he had misunderstood: his presence at her funeral, while lovely, was irrelevant. In the Russian Orthodox faith, a person’s soul stays on Earth for 3 days after their death – on the third day, it departs to (hopefully) heaven. Therefore, my mother had seen his kindness and help towards me and my father. She knew we were loved, and that would free her soul to continue on its journey. He had done more good than he could know – he had helped my mother.

2 days later, at the wake at the funeral parlour, I was surprised to see Dynamo’s sister arrive, alone. I’d met her a handful of times, over the years, but we were not particularly close. She bore a beautiful bouquet of flowers, with a card. She met my family, paid her respects, and stayed 30-45 minutes making perfect small talk and giving her support.

“Our thoughts & prayers are with your family. May God help you within hard and good times. God bless her.”

I assumed Dynamo had sent his sister to represent his family, since he was out-of-town and BossMan had moved to Dubai. I was wrong. She volunteered. Those beautiful – perfect – words were her own. I carry that card with me always, to this day.  (Yes, it is water-stained from my tears.)

Dynamo’s family is devoutly Muslim. My family, especially my parents, is devoutly Russian Orthodox. Dynamo’s sister found the perfect words to bridge the (irrelevant?) gap in our faiths. In the Russian Orthodox faith, we believe that praying for the forgiveness of sins of the departed matters, and contributes to their salvation – our human understanding of time is inevitably too narrow when compared to the Eternal. Similarly, I believe that the prayers of my Muslim darlings for my mother’s soul have contributed to her salvation. That they would care about her salvation, and pray for her, fills me with endless gratitude and love.


BossMan and IronSweetie hosted me in Dubai, treating me always, showering me with generosity and time, despite it being a busy work week for them. We traded stories, shared moments of vulnerability. They showed me their world. I spent time with each one individually and together and met some of their friends. They were the best possible ambassadors for Dubai – answering all my questions and explaining cultural differences.

Their love was so strong. I resisted at first: I felt unworthy of such generosity and kindness. But Love, when untainted by other human failings, is too strong to resist. With every day I spent with them, I grew to understand and accept that I am family. They are family.

This may have always been the case. But this trip finally made me understand.

I love them so.

May God bless the Dynamite family.


Recap of this trip so far:

Neighborly love in the suburbs

Yesterday afternoon, after back-to-back meetings, I checked my voicemail; I had a message from a family lawyer, who lives on the same street as my parents, asking me to call her at my earliest convenience.


I attended a French immersion school in a poor immigrant-centric area for my first 4 years of elementary, by the end of which I couldn’t string together a basic French sentence. So, in grade 5, my mom transferred me to the local school a few blocks from my house, in our very francophone suburb of Montreal. Super Québécois – we were only 4 Anglophone kids out of the 50 “graduating” students. I had a lot of catching up to do. It was also a bit of a culture shock, and my first exposure to prejudice: a homogenous population where my maternal tongue made me an outsider.

Because my mama was my mama, she encouraged/volontold me to sign up for a regional public speaking competition in the fall of Grade 5. In French. Why? Because it was important that I develop the self-assurance and confidence to speak my mind eloquently and convincingly, as a woman in a man’s world. Yes, she would talk to me like that at 11 (thirteen-minus-two) years old. I wrote a text called “Oui, c’est beau la vie“. It brought a tear to my mama’s eye – so mature, so wise, her little Bingi was so wonderful. However, her little Bingi had a brutally thick English accent –  the sounds coming out of my mouth didn’t qualify as French words. My mama reached out to a woman living at the end of the street: Mme R, a lawyer specializing in family law, who spoke beautiful French. Mme. R firmly agreed with my mother that the ability to speak my mind persuasively was a critical survival skill-set, and so she agreed to spend 2-4 hours weekly, for two months, giving me free elocution and public speaking lessons.

I quickly grew to love and admire Mme. R. I’d not been exposed to many career women: most of my friends’ moms were either housewives like my mama, or else had simple 9-5 jobs. But Mme. R was the mother of 3 little munchkins and their home radiated comforting love and happiness, just like ours did, except she had a Very Important Job and Didn’t Hide Her Intelligence, my mama said. My embarrassment about my terrible French decreased. I had something to say, and clearly Mme. R thought it was something worth saying and worth listening to (over and over and over…). Her munchkins would sit quietly during my practices and sweetly encouraged their new friend, who was doing something Worthwhile, so their mama told them.

I didn’t rank well at that public speaking contest, despite delivering my best performance. I was the only non-Francophone participating. That was my first time learning that having something worthwhile to say does not mean people will listen.


Mme. R apologized for calling me at work: that was the only contact info she could find via Google. We hadn’t spoken, other than occasionally bumping into each other on the street/grocery store, since I started high school: life happens, that way. She was pleased to see that I’d grown into a belle jeune femme, épanouie et heureuse and hoped that her internet searches were an accurate reflection of my real life.

Her reason for contacting me: she’d noticed that despite last week’s snow storm, my father’s driveway was uncleared, and the flyers were piling up on his front porch. And while she and Mr. R had tried to convince themselves that everything was ok, it had been many days since she’d seen my father around in the neighborhood.

Touched, I explained that my father had left to travel Russia exactly two weeks ago, and obviously had forgotten to consider the weather/mailman in his plans – completely like him. Her relief was profound. She offered to clamber over the snowbank, clear the flyers and reminded me that he could always count on her and Mr. R to perform such neighborly favors. I asked after her family; my mind boggled when she told me the 3 lil’ munchkins were all grown up, and she was now a grandmother! She carefully asked after my mother. 4.5 years doesn’t make the communication of Ma’s death any easier, y’all. Mme. R was dismayed – she’d assumed/hoped that my mother’s absence from the neighborhood was due to her failing health keeping her house-bound.

We didn’t say much else – the memories were too strong.

Our phone call was done in fluent French.


I’d forgotten about that brief period in my life, those hours spent in that safe bubble of comforting love and happiness. I’d forgotten about Mme. R.

I wish I could’ve found the words to thank her. Those French lessons allowed me to be admitted into the prestigious French high school which shaped my personality and taught me the problem-solving skills that make me a good accountant. My ability to speak my mind persuasively & fluently in French has influenced my career: it dictated which Big 4 I was admitted to, the client portfolio I was awarded, the mandates I worked on, the opportunities to travel to France for work, and getting hired here, at my dream job. It is what allows me to pursue my Big Dream to move to Paris within 24 months. Who I am, and what I’ve become, is welded to this language.

Thank you, Mme. R. Thank you for the gift of your time, your language and your love, twenty years ago. And thank you for the gift of your care for my father, now.

Memory box

Growing up, my mother encouraged me to keep a memory box of all cards and letters I received from friends and family, because she told me I would cherish the memories one day. Because she was my Ma, and I took her word as Law, I religiously kept all such items as a child.

I became slacker in adolescence, and to my eternal regret, I stopped when I moved out at 19. There are some cards she gave me in my twenties that I would give anything to find again, but I lost them during all my moves, and my carelessness.

Tuesday, after my bad day, when I was desperately searching for something to comfort and anchor me, I opened up the Memory Box for the first time since she died. I found so many treasures there, including her letter to me, aged thirteen-minus-two and this one:

Jan 19, 1995

Good Morning Miss Bingi,

Shake yourself awake little girl!!!

It’s a new day and how hard you work now will make all the difference in your tests today. Wake me as soon as you need quizzing. Say “Ma, I need you! It’s important, my old mom.”

Yours truly,

Sosipatra Hoggstub

P.S. Nightmares Mimi is having tonight:

  • Oh no! MacDonald’s Mimiburger
  • Oh no! MacDonald’s Mimihotdog
  • What’s next? Mimi Pizza?

(For a full introduction to Mimi, my childhood bestfriend and teddybear, read When you are having a bad day… and Where I rediscover that Mimi is fidèle.)

I have countless such handwritten notes that she’d leave on the kitchen table for me to find when I’d wake up. Some are whimsical (Sosipatra Hoggstub?! Straight outta Harry Potter, before Harry Potter even existed), some are irritated, some are forgiving, all are written with so much love. Due to her terrible health and pain conditions, she often had trouble falling asleep, sometimes only dozing off at 5am, after my father had woken to go to work. Yet, she always wanted me to wake her in case I needed extra help prepping for school.

What a mama.


Today is my father’s 67th birthday. My old man is off gallivanting in Moscow and St-Petersburg with some friends. He is enjoying his retirement, which given how hard he worked his whole life… is a very good thing.

A tribute to my old man

Happy birthday, Pops!

Letter from my Mama – Tuesday August 8, 1995

Good morning, my darling Miss Bingi, Thirteen-minus-two!

Eleven is a fine age to be, I think. Did I ever tell you, my dear little Poozik, how very proud I am of you? Sometimes in the big flood of talk about problems, difficulties, things that need improving, I forget to tell you that you are a beautiful, wonderful, miraculous Choozik. And that everything will work out wonderfully well! Sometimes I lose perspective and forget to have enough trust in God – in life – in me and in you. But I’m learning – and I love you with all my heart – which makes me learn a little faster than I might have.

So my dear delight, let’s take pleasure in each other’s company for soon the summer will be over and it’ll be a busy winter and then, guess what, the year of thirteen-minus-two will be over and the time of twelve will come to you. So let’s make some happy memories of our time together during the summer of eleven.

With all my love always,

Your mama

P.s. I’m ready for a couple of games of “dourak” and gin rummy today.

Fun facts: I broke my legs and began 5 years in and out of hospitals as a cripple in Fall 1995, and my mother got diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer in Fall 1996.


I had an absolute garbage day today, culminating in me bursting into tears at my desk at 7:30pm, sobbing so hard with mascara tears down my cheeks that the cleaning team respectfully turned off their vacuum cleaners to give me space and silence. I needed comfort bad. This letter is the closest thing I could get to a hug from my mother.

Some days, I miss her awful.

2017: coping with the terror of joy 

I’m sitting in my Qc uncle’s family room, slightly tipsy, sipping some port, listening to Leonard Cohen.

I feel like weeping.

This was a good holiday season. Unlike last year, I didn’t have a blow out fight with my father. True to the past 7 years, I did all my Xmas shopping on the 24th, in a state of panic, guilt and elation. 25th at my godmother’s, as I’ve done for as long as I can possibly remember: a day of food babies, mundane chit chat, terrible jokes and SO MUCH love. My father and I left Montreal early on the 26th, and made it to Quebec city by lunch time, and have been spending our time with my darlings ever since.

I want one. #socute #corgipuppy #justlikethequeen #auntiejune #xmas #familytime #selfienation

A post shared by June Svetlovsky (@junesvet) on

WE MATCH!! #socute #familytime #matchingpajamas #jellybeans #cousins #cousinlove #xmas #bestpresentever

A post shared by June Svetlovsky (@junesvet) on

Domestic bliss. La belle cousine, les beaux chiens. #xmas #familytime #dogstagram #cuties

A post shared by June Svetlovsky (@junesvet) on

It makes me SO happy to see my darlings grow into mature adults. They might be younger than me, but they impress me with their wisdom and courage in their quests to become the truest and best versions of their selves that they can be. Nothing is better for my soul than time with my cousins.

I spent the day remotely working from Qc city; tomorrow I will do the same. Friday is shaping up to be a full day at the office as I lead the year-end close like a big girl. Back at it, Jan 2nd – I’ll hit the ground running. Not gonna lie, work is stressing me out. But even as I feel pukey when I look at my impossible to-do list, I feel joy at having found my dream-job, dream-team and dream-company. Joy at being healthy enough to struggle with this challenge, and the opportunity at manifesting an important side to my personality (smart, assertive, ambitious, possibly bitchy, mentoring leader).

I have a long list of people I am supposed to try squeeze in my few hours of free time after work tomorrow and the 30th. My NYE plans are yet undetermined, but my friend Superwoman has determined that wtv happens, we will see each other. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I’m blessed with the best friends ever.

So why, if everything seems to be falling into place, do I feel like weeping?

True to my cerebral self, I tried various theories: shame at the insane amount of weight I’ve piled on these holidays, and fatigue at always having body-hatred issues. Stress from work, knowing I am likely to miss some deadlines on important projects. Adolescent insecurity at not having firm NYE plans: nobody loves me, I must be lame. Dismay at not having a particular boy to flirt with at the moment. But those are all superficial discomforts, and do not justify this deep malaise. Part of it is finding myself with the headspace to hear my own thoughts; the let-down after a particularly intense December, and the anxiety/fear of a big January. My paranoid brain, resentful at having been given the backseat for so many months, is trying to get itself heard.

And there we have it. I feel like weeping, because I am too happy. Too bone-deep happy. This is the closest I’ve ever been to being fully myself, unshackled by fears and insecurities. When I wrote the post Aiming for Happiness, back in August, who would have thought I was so close to finding this level of joy? Having found it, I’m petrified. Petrified that it is too good to be true, that I don’t deserve it, that the Universe will deem that I am a fraud, and true to its habit of bringing people to their knees for the fun of it, the Universe will strip me of my joy and send me back down the dark path of depression. Its been 2.5 years since my last depression, 18-20 months since my symptoms lapsed and 7 months since I stopped therapy. I’m due. Fundamentally, I do not believe I deserve this level of well-being/contentment/peace. Or so my paranoid brain whispers to me. Like Judd Apatow explains so well:

 

I feel like weeping, because I am tired of constantly battling my paranoid brain. On the eve of 2017, I wish myself the freedom to feel joy without the terror.

#mentalhealthstruggles

P.s. Interesting article in the newyorker on happiness.