Swimming in the Daylight, A Personal and Historical Memoir by Lisa Paul
If there is anyone out there, that wonders deep in their heart, whether one person can really truly make a difference, I offer them this historical memoir entitled Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, A Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope, by author, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin based attorney Lisa C. Paul.
While Swimming in the Daylight is referred to as a personal memoir, it is so much more than that. On one level, it marks the end of one political era and the beginning of another. This story is an important part of that change. It is, and will continue to be, looked upon as a valuable resource.
On another level, and to me the most substantial, is that Swimming in the Daylight demonstrates clearly what can be achieved when we act from that place that can only be fueled by the courage, hopes, faith, and truths of those we care about in deeper ways than we can imagine.
A Bit of Background:
If you were around in the mid 1980s, you may remember the story of Inna Kitrosskaya Meiman. She was a woman in her 50s who was born and raised in Moscow, Russia who simply wanted to go to the West for the type of cancer treatment she could not receive in her homeland. Despite the fact that her situation was a matter of life and death, her government would not allow her to do so because of her political ties.
A successful, eloquent, and quite frankly brilliant woman, Inna fell ill with cancer in 1983. In the above photo, with her soft skin, rosy cheeks, and sparkling eyes, you'd never know, that while sitting at that table in her apartment study, she had already suffered through almost three years of cancer, and operations that never fully cured her. Lisa met Inna in August of 1984 to study Russian with her and, through the course of their Monday afternoon lessons, an extraordinary friendship develops.
Inna did finally make it to America. She died living free.
Her story made headlines because of one American student, Lisa Paul. But, Swimming in the Daylight tells this story in a way that the news never could.
This is because the story is not about the outcome, or even the plight, although yes, those are certainly important parts of it. The strength and truth of this story flowers from the experiences, people, and places that led to this significant personal and political event.
"Everything I experienced in Moscow prepared and inspired me to do what I did for Inna when I returned to the States--to take action simply because, as an American, I was free to speak out and only risked not being heard. It was the totality of the entire Moscow experience that was the foundation of my hunger strike. It was in the totality of the entire Moscow experience that my friendship with Inna grew and became so important to me." -- Lisa Paul
At the Heart of Swimming in the Daylight
While we know how the story ends, it is the getting there that matters. That's one of Lisa Paul's messages to us. Lisa's writing speaks through each moment, between every line and on many different levels in a brilliant way. Her writing has an eclectic mix of traditional, analytical and poetical qualities that submerge to form an unforgettable and inspiring memoir.
If you are a history buff or an historical sponge, you will read this memoir with ease. You will remember every name, location, political situation and reference. You may, perhaps, even nod in affirmation of what you supposed or knew to be true.
I, however, am far from any sort of history expert, and what I knew of Russia going into my reading of Swimming in the Daylight was limited and stereotypical to say the least. And yet, for readers like me, knowingly or not, Lisa did quite a few unexpected things right with her writing that most authors don't think of doing.
This stems from the fact that, while writing Swimming in the Daylight, Lisa embraced the fact (to our benefit) that she knew only a tad bit more than I did about Russia and its people when she arrived there (taking a two-year leave from college to work as a nanny for an American family). As she said to me:
"I hope you know, having read my book, that I was just this ordinary American college kid, who met an extraordinary Russian woman . . .I was simply lucky that I even knew Inna Meiman." --Lisa Paul
A year after Inna's death, Lisa began to write Swimming in the Daylight from beginning to end, through those same "college kid" eyes, with the same naiveté, the same culture shock that any of us would have had. The splendid part is that while doing so, she slowly dips us into the language, the customs, the everyday life, the people, and the nuances. Lisa writes, of the world in which she found herself, in the same manner as it unfolded before her all those years ago.
Lisa also knew what her story was truly about. She knew what, as the author of this memoir, she had to do to achieve the portrayal of that truth. And she never lost sight of that.
“Writing is a lonely, uncertain, and unpredictable path. However, I learned that if you stay true to the voice in your head and heart, that has guided you all along, you end up exactly at your destination.” --Lisa Paul
The Reading Experience
Aside from the fact that the sociopolitical premise of Swimming in the Daylight alone demands to be noted as one of great importance and historical significance, in the beginning, you may find that you feel as though you're not sure what you should be committing to memory as you are reading. As readers, we are thrown into another country, its customs, its people, its secrets, in the same manner that Lisa found herself.
The advice I gave myself: take a deep breath. Swim in the daylight (pun intended). Know that important parts of this memoir stay firm in your mind. That is the beauty of Lisa's writing. Each scene builds upon itself. Each subsequent scene builds upon the one before it, in a way that sheds light, so long as what has come before is somewhere in the back of your mind. And rest assured it will be there. Just as Lisa found herself looking back on moments when she saw a connection or made yet another realization, so will you.
The footnotes are helpful, should you choose to read them, though they by no means make or break your reading experience. And Lisa did a wonderful job of incorporating definitions and background information to terms that would otherwise mean nothing to people like me.
And don't worry if you can't remember names or specifics. Lisa does a fabulous job of capturing the core of each person and place, and therefore, each time they come up, you know exactly who is speaking, or being spoken of (as you might remember a face), without having to remember a name. In fact in the scheme of things, the name isn't what matters, it's who the person is. The truth is, and Lisa makes this very apparent, that at their core, people are the same all over the world, so it is easy to find yourself understanding a person and knowing them from the little things that make us all human.
Some moments encapsulated such a poetic quality and intense narrative in the way she describes them, that I found myself savoring those moments.
"I gave her a box of tea from a Beriozka store, as it was my custom to bring a small gift when I went to a Russian apartment for the first time. She was pleased to receive it and stood up, clamping her cigarette between her lips as she did, then gathered an eclectic group of chipped cups from cupboard and set them on the table... She scooped a spoonful of dark red jam from a saucer on the table, stirred it into her cup, and then exhaled smoke across the table while pushing the jam toward me, past a saucer full of her cigarette ashes." (Paul 82-83)
While some scenes can be viewed as backdrops, there is always something important that comes from them. Some lesson learned, or a piece of the puzzle shown. These moments are not always comfortable. They are a mixture, at times, of serenity and discomfort. A beautiful thing that I much appreciate about her writing is that Lisa is not afraid to show the intensity of these types of moments. One of my favorite examples come from Chapter 9 "The Dirty Dog" and is a part of the Patriarch's Pond scene (a flashback moment for Lisa).
"I stood with her, attentively, tears swelling in my eyes. I did not distance myself from her nose. She stared into my eyes a few more seconds -- long enough that I started to feel uncomfortable. Then she snapped out of her trance, and in the moment after she saw me, kissed my cheek. Her lips were smooth and warm, and no more of an intrusion upon me than if a butterfly had landed on my skin, and no less beautiful." (Paul 75)
Yes, Lisa Paul has succeeded in so many ways. Through this memoir of her journey, we can understand and come away with a message that is so very important: That feeling sorry for, and taking action for, one person alone, is never enough to make a real and truthful change in this world. A full and varied understanding must be made and had of every aspect involved in what one is fighting for—the “big picture.”
"Inna would never have wanted this story to just be about her as she knew she had become the symbol of a struggle that was so much bigger than one person. She also knew many people whose sufferings she considered so much greater than hers--as she said, she had never been arrested or sent to prison. I knew that during my activism for her, and I was intentional about making it more than just about her. One of the first statements she made at the press conference when she arrived is, "I'm happy to be here, on behalf of all of those I left behind." So, it was natural for me to approach the task of writing the book with the knowledge that telling just her story was not enough." --Lisa Paul
One also has to go beyond the complexities of emotion, while at the same time embracing emotion, in order for hope, courage, faith, and love to blossom. Once they have, anything is possible.
Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope, by Lisa C. Paul can be purchased online in Hardcover and is now available for kindle.