A Letter Home to my Wife Patty

Sofia, Bulgaria, 7 September 1997

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Subject: Orthodox Mass
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7 September 1997
Sofia, Bulgaria
Sunday 8PM

Hi Patty,

Just got back from Sunday Mass at the Eastern Orthodox Alexander
Nevsky Church.  An overly long, theatrical & somewhat stultifying
performance that seemed to involve some dumpy older man in a bad
shirt and worse pants (held up by suspenders) engaged in a vocal duel
with a chorus located in the balcony of a magnificently gilded church. 
Not to say everyone was poorly dressed; a man wearing a scarlet cape
embroidered with gold almost hit me with a censor; I made up for it
later by almost walking into him.  But more about that later.

Right now I am siting somewhere where I don't quite want to sit,
doing something that I do very much, doing something that I very
much want to do, viz. sitting in front of the computer in a brightly
lit room writing long and complicated letters, and in this
particular evening, to you.  I have some music blasting, something
of a disaffected nature by the title of "I'm only happy when it
rains" by a band called "garbage", if you know the song. Fun song,
bizarrely meshing with the overall mood in a not-quite-in-its-place
fashion.   But it's rather interfering with the writing, so I think 
it may have to go.

There. Fixed it. So unfortunate, since the music does dress up the
dreary surroundings a bit.  However, I find that when I write, I use
all of my brain, and not some of it, and I can no more write while
listening than I could listen while talking.  I have discovered
today a little bit why I am am drawn so much to this activity; but I
digress too closely to the plot line without a proper setting of the

There is street noise wafting up through the fourth floor windows.
Today is Sunday (I know I already said that, I'm just reminding you), 
and it seemed like a good day to go shopping for presents.  Here I am, 
almost forty years after my birth, finally coming to a conscious 
understanding of the importance of presents (small trinkets, usually) 
as a psychological gesture of acceptance and friendship.  Not to imply 
that I altogether understand this concept; I merely wish to say that 
I have an inkling of it.  Anyway, so here I am, plodding the streets,
sunglasses on, hunting the snark, umm, rather the good deal.
Something suitable, appropriate, not too cheap, not too expensive.
Already had a few disappointments in the gift department today,
starting with the only ATM machine in all of Bulgaria refusing to
dispense cash to me, while merrily spewing it out for the German
behind me.  Grrr. Smug Germans. 

So maybe the sun is getting to me, or maybe I'm tired, or maybe I am
merely going into sticker shock: my fifty dollar gift to you seems
fabulously expensive after weeks of buying things for ten cents
here, twenty-five cents there.  Silly it seems, I know: in the US,
if you can find something for less than fifty bucks, buy it, since
it's probably a good deal.  I bought it; for a few brief instances,
I forced American sensibilities onto my soul.  Something like "What
would so-n-so (an inveterate shopper) do in this situation?  Buy
it!". So I did, only to settle into a dazed feeling of remorse and
panic shortly thereafter. 

It all got me to thinking about what it is that I don't like about
shopping so much.  I didn't actually ever answer *that* question,
but I did discover the answer to why I hate spending money.  I
think. Not sure. Found some kind of answer, possibly to a question.
Here it is: Spending money requires the purchase of goods, and its
not so much the spending of money I don't like (there are times when
I really enjoy it), its the purchase of goods that I hate.  Goods
are so transient, so infirm.  You can loose them, accidently break
them, or have them stolen.  Compare this with money: abstract bits &
bytes on magnetic tape somewhere, some ink on a bank statement: 
permanent, solid, real; "you can bank on it" is the expression that
springs to mind.  OK, I admit, it is subject to some decay by the
forces of inflation, but tolerable in the face of hurricanes, fires
and mud-slides and the disastrous effects that those have on real

Actually, that's not it at all.  Its not the exchange of money for
property that disturbs me; its the fashion in which I got that
money.  I have traded a little piece of my soul, a little piece of
my life here on earth, getting that money.  I did something that I
did not quite want to do: work a day job, doing something that I
don't quite want to be doing.  Life is short, and these are the
prime years of my life.  Life doesn't get longer, and every hour
that goes by is one more hour in which something was done, or in
which nothing happened.  If I buy something for me, or if I buy
something for you, (which is almost the same thing, since in either
case, it will end up inside our house) I am trading my hours on
this earth for little objects that I don't really need.  Little
objects that take up space.  That need to be stored. That need to 
be looked after, polished or dusted.  Or worse: contemplated a bit
as to their meaning, stared into and examined, searched for a secret
door behind which lies deep inner meaning; a reflection of a human
soul to be found in the object; and all this to be achieved by
merely looking at it, examining it by hand, feeling its heft and
admiring its shininess.  This is what an object is, this is what an
object does, this is why we have objects.   I sometimes think I have
too many objects (or maybe, I should say, that you have too many
objects; don't you feel a burden in housing and watching over so
many of them?), that too many objects weigh my soul with an anchor
I'd rather not posses.

By now, the weight of my purchase is beginning to hurt.  Literally, 
that is; I've put it in my hand-bag, and I've had the damned bag hanging
on my shoulder all day, and it is now getting rather over-stuffed and
heavy.  My shoulder hurts, and my back hurts.  Damned shopping.  A
park bench materializes a few feet in front of me, and it seems to
offer an appropriate solution to at least some of my problems.
So what is it that is more valuable than objects?  Experience.
I have no problem spending money on other people.  Spending money 
on a self-indulgent ski-trip.  Or a fine meal with fine wine and
fine company and good conversation.  It is true, experience dies
with the owner of the body, and in that sense, has less permanence
than money or objects.  But so what?  You can't take it with you, as
they all say.

So what is it that I, or I might think everyone, craves more than 
objects, more than money, more than time, more than experience?
What would people pay immense sums of money for, just to have a
momentary taste of it?  What would I, the cheapskate, pay for? 
I guess that would have to be some sort of Nirvana.  Drugs might do,
but of course, drugs are liars, and man cannot live on drugs alone.
Achievement is nice.   I guess I would like to say "I achieved the
this and such, I was one of the world's best x-y-z's."  Win some
admiration, some respect.  But I conclude that what draws me to
achievement, what in part causes me to respect achievement is less
the action (which is equally transient: face it, we are on a teensy
planet orbiting a teensy sun, one of a billion in our teensy galaxy,
and the galaxy itself one in a billion in this universe, and God
knows how many other universes there might be.  So achievement is
nice, but lets keep it in proportion.)  As I was saying,  what
draws me to achievement is not so much the achievement in itself, as
the experience, the sensation, the wind-in-your-face feeling, the
rush, the heroin rush, so all the junkies explain, of getting out 
there in front of it all.  Its the rush.  

I want that rush, all of the time.  That is what I would trade for, 
that is why I have no need for objects. The objects are only an 
anchor, a weight.  Yes, they are marginally useful:  a brush 
against some famous object of historical significance, together with
a bit of imagination, is enough to send a tingle up one's spine.
But lets be honest: a well-turned TV narrative is just as effective,
even more so.  Yes, the sense of touch, of presence, of being there
is important, even very important:  there is that indescribable 
wonder of being there, and of touching the thing, of gazing upon
it all, that does provide that rush of Nirvana.  But then, let me 
not diminish the importance of eating, survival, health, youth and a
clear mind.  Without all of these components, you cannot easily have
the ultimate experience. 

It suddenly occurred to me that this is what I have been searching
for for quite a long time, without ever quite putting my finger on
it.  Just the week before, I had wished for a monk who could talk
English, who could drink, and who would be willing to discuss 
philosophy and religion.  I did not get my wish;  maybe I failed to
try to make my wish come true, but I did not believe that the monks
of Rila Monastery could speak English, or, if they could, were
allowed to drink.  And even if they could and they were, I admit
that I had some unholy and maybe unjust doubts about their ability 
to debate the meaning of life in a fashion that would be
simultaneously engaging to them and to me.  I do have formal
training in mathematics, and that does hinder certain types of
philosophical conversations with the mathematically untrained.
I suspect that I often do not try hard enough to make my wishes come

All this I had wished for while sitting on a bench of the Rila
Monastery on a damp, cold, drizzly day.  John had organized a
company outing to the monastery, up in the mountains south of Sofia. 
Quite a beautiful setting, and a rather impressive place.  There is a
central tower, thirteen centuries old,  a strong, square, defensible
fort of a tower, quintessentially medieval, with pictures of
shivering cold, wet, dirty peasants and proud armor clad horsemen 
swirling around my head.  Over the centuries,  the monks built a
rather large compound around it; again, square and simple on the
outside, and a good bit more ornate on the inside.  There is a jewel
of an Eastern-Orthodox church on the inside.   All this is nestled
in the crux of steep, narrow a mountain valley.  It's hard to
describe, but I've got some postcards that  I can show you.  

Very pretty, and quite the tourist spot.  And the monks are quite
accommodating.  Well, not very accommodating, but sufficiently so.
The compound has hundreds of what could be termed "hotel rooms", and
the monks rent them out by the night to willing tourists.  Well,
here we are at the company outing, I don't know, ten or twelve or
fifteen of us. And all of the Bulgarians turn up their noses at the
thought of staying at the monastery. They want to stay at the hotel
next door.  Maybe they know something that we don't, but what am I
going to say to my friends: "Well, we came thousands of miles to
get here, and then we missed by a few hundred yards??"  I don't
think so, and neither does John.  He does have certain redeeming
qualities.  So although I do not get my wish of getting drunk with a
monk, I do get to stay at the monastery.  

The rooms, are, well, "roughing it" is a term that comes to mind.
There are, in fact, two types of rooms, those for Westerners, and
those for Bulgarians.  First, we look at one of the rooms for
Westerners.  It's small.  It has two beds a few feet apart, and a 
dresser.  It has that, that smell.  I am sure there must be someone
who can correct my misunderstanding, but engraved permanently in my
head is that smell, the smell of Communism.  I can recognize that smell
anywhere. I learned it well when I was a kid.   I encountered it
again as an adult.  You only get it in the Eastern countries,  it's
not something you'd run across in Spain or France or Italy or
Germany.  Nothing you'd smell in a western store or restaurant or
European wagon-lit or hotel room.  But everything in the Soviet
Union smells that way.  Its not exactly pleasant, but it is
tolerable, or rather, one can get used to it.   I'd almost forgotten
it, but suddenly the memories came flooding back.  Of course, the
Soviet Union is now gone, but by a queer, yet fitting twist of fate,
the monastery has carefully preserved the color, the texture, the
lighting (the cheap blonde-colored wood veneer dresser, the blonde 
woolen blankets, the cheap chrome fittings and fixtures in the lamp,
in the legs of the bed, in the chair, in the ceiling lamp.), and,
last and foremost, they have preserved the very smell of Central
Planning.  I started to gush to John about the Communistic 
authenticity of it all, when he went to examine the bathroom.  
White tile, more chrome fixtures, a bare bright lightbulb, and, 
my God, the bathroom reeked of urine, nauseatingly.  I shut up, lest
John get the idea that when I say "the Smell of Communism", I meant
"the smell of urine".  They are not the same, no, not at all; one
should never think that they are, no matter how much that would seem
suitable or fitting; for they are quite definitely distinct, 
different things.

We pass on the Western rooms, and opt for a room meant for
Bulgarians.  Much, much better, or, at least, no smell.  The room
has six cots and a table.  There are murals on the wall, and
bas-relief on the ceiling.  Much better.  There is a smaller alcove,
with one cot, a non-functional, shuttered fireplace, and a
cold-water spigot roughly centered over a wash basin.  Someone had
muttered something earlier about "well, the monk is probably snippy
because your room is better than the one he has", and I start
wondering whether that was in reference to the cold-water spigot.
I don't notice until the next morning that there is no shower or
bathroom, but by then, I already knew that I was roughing it: 
I had slept at first fitfully, and then soundly, under many woolen
blankets next to a drafty window on a broken bed.

I am not sure if any ghosts came to visit that night, although
everybody joked about it.  I just remember falling asleep thinking
about ghosts, and thinking about how bad an idea that was, since
that would almost certainly raise them.  And thus, for half the
night, I was afraid of closing my eyes because I knew that if I did,
while thinking of ghosts, that I would be visited by one.  Of
course, I knew that this was all psychology, and that 
controlling the psychology of it all was key, all to be done simply
by not thinking about ghosts, this was, of course, easier said then
done, when in a half-waking state, the ethereal seems to be quite
real.  It did not help that I was drunk.

We had, of course, a wild dinner the night before.  Come two in the
morning, a rather reasonable hour to be leaving a disco, as we
approach the monastery, it suddenly occurs, at least to me, that
wild partying might not be something that the monks approve of.
Better be quiet on the way up to the room; could be tough given the
layout of the compound.  But my worries were in vain; a more
immediate problem arises.  The monks have closed and locked the
gates. Or doors.  Or whatever. Solid wood, you know.  Thick.  If 
there had been a drawbridge, they would have raised it.  For a 
few minutes, I think of alternate routes or forcing entry, but then 
the reality of a medieval fortress defensible from attack by mauruding 
armies settles in.  Climbing the wall;  I think they already thought
of that one.  We are up a shit without a paddle.  We are drunk, 
we don't speak the language, and we don't have passports.  Oh shit.  
And the anger of the monks is probably growing by the minute, since 
John is pounding on the gate with his fists, generating a deep, 
resonating echo.  I am peering through a crack when a policeman, 
a drab-green military policeman, walks by on the other side of the 
gate.  He is here to let us in.  In the gate, he opens one of those 
little doors: you know, the kind that is three feet high, two feet 
wide, and about a foot off the ground.  John and I hop in.  We sort-of 
tip-toe to our room, but are rather overwhelmed by the lighting.
The open-plan court is lit with hundreds of small lights, giving
the sense of Christmas. In the center of the court, the cathedral,
copper-roofed, with almost-arabesque arches and almost-Islamic 
black-and-white stripes dancing in a sea of red and blue.  The air
is still, and not a soul is stirring. The view is absolutely
majestic.  John and I lean on the railing, prepared to stand there
all night admiring.  I only cut it off for fear that his blubbering
really will wake someone, and then we'll really be in trouble.
Crazy Bulgarians staying in the hotel next-door. Ah, they're young.
What do they know.

Anyway, that was a long aside to the main plot, which was to explain
how it could be that I would be sitting on a park bench on a warm
day in Sofia, contemplating material possessions, the need to talk to
a monk, and the very focus of how one spends one's time alive.  I am
alive, and trading money for hours hardly seems a fair exchange; I
am being ripped off. To trade that money again for an object is
another crime, a second crime, bringing a final, irrevocable closure
to the first extortion.  This is not why I am alive.  This is not
what I want to do with my life.   I struggle momentarily to resolve
the issue; I resolve only to write it down (and so I sit here, and
do this).  It does make it clear to me that the reason that I spend
so much time in front of the computer is that it brings me that much
closer to that pure essence of being:  the digital communications
medium brings to this Earth one of the purest, most solid, most
real, most fertile, most concrete spaces for the expression of pure
thought and pure being.  One gets the sense (and maybe its false,
like that of drugs, but I think not), that one can extrude one's very
own soul into bits and bytes.  All we know of Homer are verses set
to writing by others.  All we know of da Vinci is drawings and
backwards writing preserved in the Vatican library.  But what is
left from these two beings, and what proved to be more living and
alive than their physical bodies were the ideas that inhabited their
minds while their bodies were alive, and that now inhabit the books
that they wrote, and the brains, the minds of others, in memory,
such as myself.  Computers, the net, seems to offer the purest sense
of that life.  The miracle of modern technology can allow common
mortals to extend their life in the way that Leonardo and Homer did,
without having the damned good luck and skill of being the shining
star of their era.  This little presumption is one of many that
draws me to the computer.  It is one of the zillion little rushes
that I can get, that rush of being, of life, of awareness, of
here-and-now, of creation, of touching, that makes the possession of
mere physical objects so irrelevant.

I am sure there are other things as well, but it is getting late,
and I am getting tired. Maybe it would be better to continue this in
installments, like what happens after I get up from the park bench,
how the Church bells launch into a crazy quilt of chiming for the
next twenty minutes, powered, undoubtedly, by some modern composer,
or maybe some erratic students who snuck into the bell tower on a
Sunday, or by a monkey of a priest who cannot seem to ring his bells in
any sort of sensible, structured order. Or what happens when I enter
that very Church on a whim, riding on the coat-tails of some
tourists, only to be stunned and shocked by the impressive magnitude
of the interior, and while sitting to take it all in, still trying
to resolve the meaning of life, and now wondering what role, if any,
God may play in it (I am reminded of the song by Joan Osbourne (?)
whose lyrics are, "Yeah, Yeah, God is Good, Yeah, Yeah, God is
Great, But what if God was one of us, Just a slob like one of us,
Just a stranger on the bus, Trying to make his way home?", a
suggestion that would certainly explain (if not taken literally),
our imperfect creation:  we feel pain and desire, and our entire
world is broken, unjust, and wanting, maybe not because God is mean
and vindictive, or because the Devil somehow screwed it up, but
because God did indeed strive to create a better creation, but,
proved to be unable, as just another imperfect being himself, unable
to create a perfect world.) Anyway, here I am trying to figure this all
out, feeling sad, and frustrated, and weighed down by money, and by
objects, and by the vanishing hours of my life,  stunned into
silence by a majestic cathedral, when suddenly a chorus, seemingly
of angels, starts at my back.  At my front a little curtain opens on
the alter within the alter to reveal ... another alter ... and the
Mass has begun, with robes and staffs and bearded men and black
rectangular caps and capes and the kissing of rings on fingers and the
incense burners being heaved from side to side and the pungent smell
of the incense itself and I am suddenly brought almost to tears by
the thought that God has not left me alone, has not ignored me, that
he appreciated my conundrum and arranged that I should be at the right
place and time to witness a spectacle, just when I needed a certain 
reaffirmation of life.   I am very happy that I do not have to trundle 
off to my room and kill three hours in boredom or loneliness until
the night falls and I can finally go to sleep.  The mass is  quite
long, and I do think a little about those who built the church,
about the funny spellings (Sv. Petr is Saint Peter, with Sv. an
abbreviation for Sventas or something like that.), and about trading
one's hours on the Earth for a remnant carved stone, lion, column,
arch, painted saint with a funny halo.  Would you trade your hours
on the earth in order to carve a piece of marble that will become a
part of a church?  Why?  Do you have any choice?  Anyway, the answer
to this question, and the continuation to this story will have to
be left for another day, including the part where I almost get
whacked by the incense burner, and where I get back at this affront
by stepping in front of the abbot as he makes his way about the
floor of the church during the Mass just so that I could pretend to
be one of the devoted and admire and genuflect twice and finally
kiss a small, poorly painted and indistinct picture of what seems to
be a hospital nurse dressed in hospital whites holding some indistinct 
figure with some other indistinct figures on each side, the very
iconic painting in front of which the man in suspenders dueled with
the choir, the very painting which is at the very center of the
church underneath the most massive and massively impressive
chandelier I have ever seen, and the very painting towards which the
scarlet-gowned and be-jeweled abbot seemed to be heading as a part of
his ceremonial Mass just as I attempted to step in front of him.  
I thought he might try to whack me with the censor a second time.
Anyway, that part of the story will have to wait.

Until then, yours truly,
Love and Kisses, 

-- Linas