Remember what we have

I appreciate opportunities to participate in government. Most of us are glad to act as good citizens. This willingness to be a constructive part of the system has nothing to do with party choice: It's active gratitude for democracy. I serve as an election officer as a way of expressing thanks for democracy at a grass-roots level.

The genesis of my commitment wasn't just the evolution of a political philosophy. It started with Boris.

A couple of decades ago, my husband and his film partners optioned the film rights for a book by Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn didn't relish dealing with film people, so he sent his personal representative, Boris, to work through the preproduction phase. Fellow dissidents Boris and Alexander had survived cruel years in the gulag together. In all matters regarding the potential film, Boris was Alexander's conscience and mouthpiece.

Dealing with Boris wasn't easy. We screened film after film for him, only to hear his angry declarations that this director and that screenwriter were part of a conspiracy to undermine American culture and destroy the moral values of the people. Everyone on the list was unacceptable. All were suspect.

Complicating negotiations further, Boris was subject to fits of emotionalism. As weeks dragged on, the picture behind the picture gradually emerged:

Boris had been a brilliant young Russian intellectual chosen as useful by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But when it became clear he wasn't willing to cooperate beyond his own scruples, that he dared to maintain his own principles, he was labeled a dissident and offered the "opportunity" to be reeducated. Blurry years of "reeducation" (remember the euphemism?) in mental hospitals and hard labor in the frozen gulag ate away his youth and idealism.

Fast forward to the late 1970s. Boris had escaped the Soviet Union. Now he found himself, unbelievably, living in the free world, working as Solzhenitsyn's personal representative on a film project that could bring his comrade's vision to the American cinema. The contrast with his old life seemed almost more than Boris could bear. He was distressed by the surreality of Hollywood. Too many choices. Too little seriousness, too much posing. Far too much naiveté about the human condition.

Boris seemed haunted by suspicions. He kept looking over his shoulder (literally) to try to catch a glimpse of KGB agents stepping back into the shadows. He was convinced they followed him everywhere. The line between suspicion and paranoia was indistinguishable, and his edgy nervousness was contagious.

It fell to me, the dutiful young film exec's wife, to take Boris shopping. Yes, shopping. He'd decided to rent an apartment in Los Angeles for the duration, and he needed help setting up house. I palpably recall the flush of embarrassment I felt as we stood in the check-out line in a household appliance store. Please hear this memory spoken in a theatrically thick Russian accent, "Look, you lucky Americans!" Boris said. "This is ME, Boris, buying my first vacuum cleaner, which I shall OWN, in my very own apartment, a FREE man in America! I, Boris, have my OWN vacuum cleaner to clean the carpets in my OWN apartment! And I can clean them WHENEVER I like!"

The salesclerk was speechless. Shoppers feigned indifference or stared. Who was this crazy? Why was he shouting? I smiled apologetically and dragged Boris and his vacuum back to my car as quickly as I could.

Repeat performance in the discount store where we bought Boris's VERY OWN sheets and towels. Bed linens didn't bring him to shouting the way the vacuum cleaner had, thankfully, but he was nearly as dramatic. Being young and concerned with being cool, I quickly completed my assignment and deposited Boris back at the office with dispatch.

A few days later, Boris disappeared. The movie was never made. The KGB was stalking him. His life was in danger. At least, that's what we heard.

In the ensuing years, I've seen much of the world, including hot spots where anarchy boiled just beneath the surface of a fledgling democracy. My children have lived and studied abroad, served in the military, bought their own vacuum cleaners. Our family has enjoyed the luxury of home in our thriving democracy. Still, there are moments when Boris rushes into my thoughts and I'm startled out of my complacency.

My encounter with this brilliant, tortured, freedom-loving Russian irreversibly altered my view of political freedom. I thank God for the privileges of enjoying a free press and participating in the elective process. Meeting Boris impelled me to look for ways to magnify what is good in public life, and to service or reject what is destructive, hateful, partisan, apathetic, or intolerant - not just in theory but in practice.

My work as an election officer allows me to bring a sense of kindness, order, helpfulness, and patriotic joy to the poling place. Embracing these qualities during the long day (from 6:15 a.m. to 9:15 p.m.) opens my eyes to seeing others express them, too, often just when the raw opposites try to assert themselves. I've seen extraordinary acts of patience, tenderness, open-mindedness, thankfulness, tolerance between people in my community even when they do not agree on political specifics!

Sometimes, in the middle of a hectic election day, I think of Boris and the gift of perspective he gave - and I feel immeasurably rich.

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