Fishing trips have always been a major event in our lives. We visited the lake outside Moscow every year without fail. It was the same lake I went to with Ivan when I was pregnant with Michael, and the tradition has never been broken since. The pleasures of these trips certainly outbalanced the woes. I was always very conscious of wanting my children to be outdoors as much as possible. At home in Moscow, I would take them out twice a day whenever possible, either to the local playgrounds or to the woods. At the lake though, it was heaven, since I did not have to make any special effort to get everyone dressed to go out. My children could run around in the fresh air all day long. They soon learned to swim and row the boat. They were able to keep themselves amused, there were woods to explore, trees to climb, berries to pick, fish to catch, wood to gather, fires to make, earth to dig. Nature embraced us all with its generosity and kindness. We all turned as brown as berries, hair, eyes, and skin aglow.
Soon the lake became like a well-read book. Ivan knew where to fish and how to fish, and there was always an abundance. And I found myself wishing we could travel further afield, find new camp sites, explore different fishing waters, venture to other places in the vast and boundless expanses of Mother Russia. There was so much wild and beautiful nature out there to discover and behold. But it was not until private contractors stepped in and rudely took this treasure from our hands that I really began to appreciate it. Both Ivan and I realized that no other place would be the same, and now we had lost it, we mourned and spent time sighing in pity, recalling the times of plenty, the idyll we had had right in our hands but failed to fully appreciate. The familiar words of Joni Mitchell’s popular song come to mind and are extremely appropriate in the circumstances, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone….they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
When we were not fishing, there was mushroom picking to look forward to. We would go on day trips out into the forests around Moscow. It took me a while to learn which mushrooms were edible, which ones to pick and which ones to pass by. My boys became experts long before I did. And I found it hard to stay oriented in the forest. It was many years though before I learned to use a compass and find my bearings. But these trips continued to inspire me. I loved being out in the quiet and deep of the forest.
Back home, Ivan would clean, cook, and seal all the mushrooms in sterilized jars. He was an expert. If it was a good year, we would have enough mushrooms for sumptuous soups and salads to last until the next season.
In later years, we would go on our mushroom-picking trips together, just the two of us. These trips were a source of pure joy and harmony for us. I loved travelling out of Moscow while it was still dark and arriving in the forest at the first light. We would pack sandwiches and a thermos of tea to keep us nourished during the day, enjoying the time to snack between forays when we would come back to the car with our baskets full. By this time, I was an expert, I could tell a good mushroom from a bad one at a glance, and even at a distance, and I had learned to use the compass and no longer lose my way. And I rarely strayed too far away from Ivan, or he from me, we were always within shouting distance, I able to keep pace with him and always be within comfortable range.
However, I also hit another bottom while we were there. I came face to face with the stark realization that I had unwittingly stepped over the line that separates an alcoholic from a non-alcoholic. I could no longer say that I drank when I wanted to and did not drink when I did not want to. I had reached the point when I was no longer in control, I drank whether I wanted to or not. If I let it go on I would lose face altogether.
Claire had been upset and in tears before we left, eventually drawing from me a promise that I would not drink with Ivan on her birthday, which also happened to be Ivan’s birthday. I thought it was a promise I could keep. Indeed I did keep it on that specific day, we were able to celebrate the double birthday as a family with no drinking. But before and after, I drank, and I drank and I drank worse than before. I could feel myself losing it, I could not stop. I would sneak to the store during the day and drink on the way back so that no one knew (or so I hoped). Sometimes I would drink with Ivan and keep on going the next day. Once we went to visit one of the neighbors and I got so drunk I could not stand and came home with my face all scraped from embracing the pavement. Ursula talked to me when I had been drinking for the second day in a row. I was coherent, but drunk. I told Ursula that I knew I had crossed the line, that I had a problem, and that I would take care of it. I still remember to this day how I felt at that point. I admitted I was alcoholic, but I knew I would lick it. I remember how lucid that thought was. I would change my ways, I would not let this beast defeat me. There just had to be a way out.
So this was a turning point in my consciousness. I had long felt the lure of Baikal’s crystal-clear water without understanding why. Now it seemed to be a sign. The water was like a mirror reflecting back to me some hidden part of my soul, allowing me to see it and recognize it for what it was. I had descended to the dark side of my soul and now it was time to turn around and begin the ascent back up to the light.