To Keep the Soul Alive

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

| This is the 168th story of Our Life Logs |

I was born in 1985, in a country that doesn’t exist on the map anymore. But, the land is still here and the land is still the same. It’s called Siberia, a place of stern climate, producing stern people, as it has always done in the time of the Russian Empire, and then in the time of the USSR, and now in the time of Russia. The ultimate virtues of those in Siberia is to be strong, dependable, and to live that out. Being a five-foot-tall girl who loves poetry and definitely cannot drive a locomotive, it took me a very long time to realize that there are many more ways to live other than what people used to tell me.

The Ingoda River near Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Siberia, Russia.

My hometown, Chita, is a perfect example of a town in the Middle of Nowhere. It wouldn’t be a problem, but the infrastructure of such a remote place cannot be compared to the one of a big city. It’s really hard to get a decent job there. Sting, my favorite singer, has a song called “Dead Man’s Boots” that describes the only way a young man could get a place at the shipyard—his father had to die and only then his son would be able to get a job, literally working there in the boots of his father. That was exactly what happened to me—I graduated university in 2007, my grandmother retired from working in insurance for the Railway, I took her place and followed in the footsteps of the dynasty.

My Grandfather’s 80th birthday (the man in black between 2 ladies in red). The medals on his chest are the Order of Friendship of Peoples, Badge of the Honorable Railman and Badge of the Honorable Railman of Mongolia. People around are family and colleagues. I’m the one in a silver dress.

It seemed like a nice safe road; it was all I ever knew. After all, my grandparents worked for the Railway, and so did my mother, my cousin, my cousin’s husband, and his parents. I didn’t realize that it would slowly kill me for the next ten years and destroy all the trust in humankind I ever had.

The point is, that whatever you do, your profession shapes your heart and mind. Medics become cynical; teachers become bossy. I had a degree in Economics and got a job in insurance. It was never exciting, but I was OK with my reputation of being a perfect bore.

But then a new department at work was organized, and I and several other ladies soon found ourselves dealing with personal insurance—that none of us was prepared for. People on the Railway got themselves hurt in myriads of ways. We had documents on several disabilities and one to two deaths every month. Broken bones, burns, the injuries were innumerable.

In theory, we were to help those people. That’s what the insurance is for, right? In reality, we found ourselves sorting unending forgeries. People, who were not injured, faked documents to get some money. People, who were injured, faked documents not to get fired for spoiling the stats. And, of course, the headquarters wanted us to make money—our salary depended on our ability to accomplish the plans they sent us.

In such circumstances, you very soon find yourself stuck in a curious position. You lose the ability to feel pity. You start reading autopsies and drinking tea at the same time. More and more often you hear your colleagues saying—that’s their own fault! Fell down and broke his leg? Shouldn’t have run! Got in an accident? Must have been drunk! Was beaten? Must have arranged the fight to get money! Got lost in a blizzard and frozen to death? Should have stayed at home!

You start feeling yourself a monster. And there is no one around to share your feelings. After all, you still have a nice white-collar job, in a warm cozy office, well, in a basement and in front of a trash heap, but it’s still nothing like being a track serviceman. So, you end up running in a circle of guilt, misanthropy, and self-loathing. And yet, that was still the only job I thought I could do.

Me on a railway, 2014. A typical situation – being on vacation with a friend, going to visit the Circum-Baikal Railway and having to consult colleagues left in the office on a case.

The only thing that helped me to carry on was my obsession with classic poetry, mythology, and the English language. Every morning, I used to write down several English lines for translation and put them in my pocket. Every single moment of my free time I would look at them and start rolling the words in my mind. What would be the best rhyme? What was the author’s intention? Should I add an extra syllable to keep the sound more musical? I translated Chesterton, Kipling, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Tolkien for the sheer pleasure of the process. I could spend years translating an epic poem just for the sake of escaping into the fairy lands of noble heroes and mighty sorceresses, where no suffering was in vain. Finally, I started writing fiction myself—sci-fi, fantasy, and horror—to try to express my feelings.

The years went on. As did the routine.

“Pushkin in Britain” Annual International Festival of Russian Poetry in London, the Poetry Translations Section, 2011. I’m the one with a red scarf.

At the beginning of 2016, the news came that our company was bought out, and that our branch was to be closed and all the people were to be fired. To say that I was horrified is to say nothing. I was brought up thinking that there was only one working place I would ever be able to get. And now it collapsed! I was terrified, and, being terrified, I started acting chaotically. I tried to get one more diploma to advance my chances. I tried to look brave. I tried to calm the ever-panicking relatives.

Suddenly an old friend contacted me. “I want to learn writing,” she said. “Why don’t you give me a few lessons?”  I used to give lots of free advice and never considered teaching as a career. But my situation was critical now, so I decided to give it a try.

Surfing the ads, I found out that a newly opened school was looking for an English-speaking manager. I went to the interview and learned that my level was enough to become a teacher. It was a part-time job, poorly paid, and with no official contract, but it encouraged me. I might not starve and die, after all! And maybe, I could even earn my living doing something I really like!

The trickiest part, I guess, was to believe in myself. I still remember vividly that movie-like moment in early autumn—coming back home in the dark under a heavy rain, at about 10 pm, after I finished my part-time teaching job in the English school. I found my entire family waiting for me to tell that I was wrong. My dear old grandpa looked at me with a great pity and sighed. “Oh, darling! You know, without a pull no one will take you even as a janitor!”

Sure, they wanted their best for me, and not that I dreamed of becoming a janitor, anyway (I would make a very poor one), but that was really discouraging. I was still under the pressure of “getting a real job” while there were no open positions at the Railway and the government agency could offer nothing for my qualifications.

Strangely, it gave me hope. Burying myself in another basement didn’t seem an acceptable option anymore. I had to carry on.

One day I found myself with three part-time jobs, working from 9 am to midnight with no days off. I was exhausted to the level where I began looking forward to my own funeral, where I could finally get some good sleep. Not now, sure, but in 20 years, maybe. Or, maybe, even earlier if I got lucky and had a nice heavy brick fall on me from the roof! I had to stop and face the question—not how to survive, but why survive at all? Is there anything else I can do? Anything worth living for?

And the only answer I could get was telling my stories, taking care of those invisible creatures and their lands, so dear to me. I knew how to keep that inner candle burning, sheltering it from the wind. I knew how to build a secret world, how to cherish it, how to make it a shield and a home. I knew how to keep alive the soft, vulnerable, ever-changing part of my soul, and how to put it in words.

And that’s how I started teaching creative writing to those who were as avid for exploring their inner myths as I was when I started my first novel. As I still am. I’ve got an international qualification and created my own course on Creative Writing.

Today, I work online and have students in different countries, men and women who trust me to help them in telling their tales full of beauty and magic, strange civilizations, love, and heroism. No tale is like another one, and none of them are like mine. But one thing is the same–the light that can be seen in people’s eyes when they talk about their secret realms. And that is, I guess, the best part of my new job–finally having a way to marvel at people, not to fear them.

The secret of strength that I had to discover is that there is no wrong way to keep your soul alive, however strange it may seem to the world around. It has nothing to do with your physical strength or your place of birth. We are so much more than just suffering flesh. We are alive. We are strong. We are humans—we are heroes, and sages, madmen, magicians, and warriors. The trick is to remember it.

This is the story of Marina Anitskaya

Marina grew up in Siberia, thinking she was destined to continue in the footsteps of her family, working in insurance for the Railway. This future maybe wasn’t her dream, but it was honest work. But after the company was bought out and the branch she worked for got closed, Marina was thrown into a sea of uncertainty, working multiple jobs to keep afloat. Eventually, she took the risk and pursued her passion of creative writing, which finally helped her to find hope and reconnect with humanity. Marina is now a poet, a writer, a translator and a teacher of creative writing. She is a die-hard fan of Star Trek: TOS, Tolkien, and Geoffrey of Monmouth and spends her days writing sci-fi and fantasy novels and teaching people to write about zombie apocalypses, domestic bliss, and alien psychology.

This story first touched our hearts on September 14, 2018.

| Writer: Marina Anitskaya | Editor: Colleen Walker |

#Siberia #writing #family #uncertainty #career #risk #pursueyourpassion #creativewriting

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