I visited Lithuania for the first time this summer after my friend found $18 round trip plane tickets from Malmö, Sweden to Vilnius. I highly recommend it to all: cheap food and drink, beautiful buildings, kind people, substantial history, and a much different vibe than the more tourist-heavy cities of Western Europe. As you walk the streets, you can feel the heaviness of a past yet lingering era of hardship, a heaviness made visible in the eyes of the people that pass, in the weathered faces of market vendors, in the cafes serving vodka and potato pancakes at nine in the morning, in the shops that feel stuck in 1972. More than anything else though, the buildings of Vilnius tell the story of this struggle.
The facades of the buildings in Vilnius are entirely captivating with peeling paint and doors covered in colorful bursts of blue, pink, green, and golden yellow and bricks crumbling where the building and sidewalk meet and graffiti scattered all throughout the ancient architecture. I kept saying to my friend, “Everything looks fake!” because it looked like a movie set, like Hollywood’s impression of what an old Eastern European and former USSR city should look like. This reminds me of the story Ken Jennings tells in the book, Maphead, about John Glenn, when looking at the Earth from space exclaimed, “I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like a map.” Jennings goes on to give credit to the fidelity of maps, that seeing the real thing for the first time reminds you of its map representation, not the other way around. Vilnius should just remind me of Vilnius, not an image I’ve been programmed to think of or a narrative that has been worked into my subconscious self. Upon seeing a new city for the first time, especially one I know very little about, I’d like to think it looks just like itself. (See more photos of Vilnius below.)
My friend, Hilda, and I were staying at an Airbnb on a busy street in the north part of town. Our apartment, complete with high ceilings, tall doors, and antique remnants of days gone by, was perfectly comfortable. We enjoyed a nice breakfast in the kitchen every morning, drank coffee on the balcony, listened to the radio, scattered our purchases of old stationery and antique leather items about the room to examine them, and slept comfortably after walking miles and miles each day. Our apartment door, which was old and blue with peeling paint, was right off a bus and trolley line and across from a small market where we purchased our breakfast groceries (loaves of bread were $0.58). Each day we returned from our adventures and opened that old, blue door, peeling paint and all, and entered the dark graffiti-plastered entryway of our apartment building.
We had to walk into this darkness every day, every night – each time we came back to our apartment. Walking into the blue door, up an invisible slant in the floor and through the thick darkness, the seconds spent waving our hands in the dark for the light to turn on felt like minutes, hours even. This brief moment of doubt – doubt that maybe this time the light won’t work, that maybe this time there’s someone hiding in the darkness, that maybe we will never exit this moment of despair – is an accurate description of this season we find ourselves in.
The nation is vastly divided and there is great sorrow all around us: the sorrow of loss in the midst of natural disaster, the sorrow of hate towards those marginalized, the sorrow of war ravaging the Middle East, the sorrow of political turmoil, the sorrow of sickness and death and failure. In many ways, no days have felt darker than these. So here we find ourselves, in the middle of the Advent season, this season of waiting for the light to come.
The poems and writings are plentiful on this topic of darkness but one is at the top of my mind this season, from the beloved Rainer Maria Rilke:
You, darkness, of whom I am born–
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illuminates
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations–just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
[Rainer Maria Rilke]
The idea of embracing the darkness is such a common theme in Advent, this idea of “taking a fearless inventory of the darkness,” as Fleming Rutledge puts it so well in her sermon, Advent Begins in the Dark, that was shared on the first Sunday of Advent in 1996. We know this idea in theory, but what does it really mean? What does it mean to embrace the darkness, to live in the darkness, to take an inventory of the darkness? Now, I used to be an professional inventory director (see more about how that ended here), so if anyone could do this, surely I could. But the truth is, it’s hard. It’s hard to talk about the darkness. It’s hard to be vulnerable to the darkest parts of you, the things you’d rather not mention, the things you’d prefer to ignore. We all have them – every single one of us. Only by truly accounting for these shadowed pieces of us can we begin to understand this darkness we must journey through together.
So as I walk through the blue door and feel the thick darkness around me, rather than pushing right through in fear and urgency I will take a little more time to dwell in it, to feel it in the deepest parts of me, and by doing so will I experience more fully the great anticipation of the light that is coming.
Jennings, Ken. Maphead. New York: Scribner, 2011. Print.
Rilke, Rainer M. Rilke’s Book of Hours, Love Poems to God. (J. Macy, A. Barrows Trans.) New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. Print.
Rutledge, Fleming. “Advent Begins in the Dark.” First Sunday in Advent. St. John’s Church, Salisbury. 1996. Sermon.