Walking Home, Significant Details

There are less than two weeks to go, and the lack of time concentrates significance into every step. The sounds, colors, smells of this little city, unknown at this time last year, are now dear, родной.

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The familiarity that nine months creates can lull me into not noticing, but the knowledge that 14 blocks of 24 hours is all that separates me from another world wakes me up to savor, to store up memories of the small and significant.

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The call to prayer can be heard from the mosque, deep, throaty Arabic, unintelligible except for the haunting, guttural, drawn-out cry of “Allah, Allah.”

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The dust sneaks inside my shoes with each step, and I remember a friend’s advice: don’t take pictures only of what is considered conventionally beautiful, because then you objectify the place, the experience, rob it of its grit and character.

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I know I won’t see windows like this when I get home,

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and I will see cats, but not on every corner, wild and afraid.

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The white marshrutka, the ubiquitous, sometimes scary, but mostly dependable transport will be something I miss.

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I’ll also miss the colors, where I come from we usually prefer the not-so-bright.

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I will, however, be glad to be able to sit on a bench in the winter without being told that I have just ruined any chance of having children.

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I’ll miss being surprised by where the sidewalk ends.

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And I’ve come to enjoy my dusty walks to the store to buy 5 liter jugs of water and bread, cucumbers and tomatoes.

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And then there is the red fire tower, my landmark, telling me that I’m almost home.

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And my favorite bus stop, where a 4 or 5 bus will drop me off right in front of my dorm, my arms full of bags of milk and pelmeni and candied ginger.

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House 24Б, my home for nine months.

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The metal door that is always unlocked,

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the windowsill where I get my mail,

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the sign that warns non-dorm dwellers to stay out, which is mostly for show.

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And I am home.

I am almost, almost home.

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Spring’s Not Green Here, But…

Spring’s not green here, but for now, the melting will do.

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And though some might consider the in-between a muddy mess, littered, mushy,

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I’ll compare it to Oreo pie, confettied, since it means that green exists,
just
not
yet.

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I’ve walked
and walked
in steps of fear
joy
uncertainty
prayer
shaking
strong,

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and today is the 3 month mark,

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June is closer than I ever thought possible,
haven’t I always lived here?

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Haven’t I always lived here, or is time just not as linear as I thought?

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They Call it Culture Shock

It comes most noticeably at first in the assault of your senses: in the din of new sounds flooding your ears, in the thick scent of lead paint that varnishes university walls, in the bright colors of houses that contrast with the crumbling roads and mud-splattered Ladas. It comes secondly in trying to navigate the unwritten rules, those elusive laws you clumsily grasp for when you sit squished by babushkas in a marshrutka, hoping that this time you won’t give the driver a reason to yell at you.

But finally and most deeply, it comes in the subtle strains, in the interaction with a teacher where you both spoke the same language but could not find an общий язык. Despite the fact that the syllables coming out of your mouths code for meaning, by the time the message gets through the filters of culture and intonation and dialect it is sterilized, lifeless. And despite the fact that you stand face to face with each other and her voice is crisp and clear, the meaning is as garbled as words underwater.

In this proverbial game of telephone, you become acquainted with the isolation that comes from a lack of true connection. Every other time you have come to this place, you have had the ability of precise, implicit communication with those from your culture. You took for granted the взаимопонимание, the mutual understanding, because you didn’t realize how similar you actually were. You thought you were wildly different from each other, so different that you would have never become friends had you lived alongside one another in your own country.

And now that there you are the only one, you realize that you are more American than you thought. You had always thought that you didn’t fit into your own culture, with its bustle and extroversion and entrepreneurial spirit. You thought all this when you straddled the chasm between Russia and America, holding tight to the hands of the Americans who came with you to this land while trying to grasp just as tightly the hands of these mystery people who had fascinated you for half your life. And you thought that if you kept letting yourself be pulled in both directions you would split, so you let go of the American hands.

As soon as you let go, you found yourself being dragged over hills, scraping across rocky paths, now using your free hand to wave for help, frantically looking back at the place you left. You now realize that the hands you let go of were hands like yours, and as you are pulled across new terrain, you are lonely. You note the irony, for your eyes were always on the Russians even as the Americans were holding your hand, and now you look at the horizon of nine months and sigh.

But the Russians like to say that hope dies last, and you agree, so you grasp even tighter to these foreign hands, no longer using your free hand to wave for help but to hold on to new hands tighter, knowing that you will be cut and bruised by this rocky terrain but having faith that this road will bring you somewhere breathtaking.

Living Adverbially: The Eureka Moment of Two Nerds

This post is dedicated to my friend Kelly, who gave an age-old truth new life by (beautifully), (intelligently), and (thoughtfully) finding the right words.

We sat on a slab of wood along the bank of the Erie Canal, eating frozen custard and swatting at the mosquitos that peppered the August air. Though two years had passed since we had last seen each other, Kelly is one of those rare friends with whom I share a common language not marred by time or distance, so it was no surprise that we were now engrossed in a conversation somewhere under the broad category of “the meaning of life.”

In our conversation, Kelly discovered a simple yet profound phrase that made life seem to retreat from the distortion of fun-house mirrors into the light of clear day.

“I want to live adverbially,” she said.

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adverb n.

“An adverb is a part of speech that normally serves to modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, clauses, and sentences. Adverbs answer such questions as how?, when?, where?, in what way?, or how often?”

Adverbs (seemingly) exist as second-class citizens in the hierarchy of the English lexicon. In English classes, we are told that adverbs are the least necessary part of speech, that you can (easily) delete them without changing the meaning of the sentence. In fact, using (too) many adverbs is a stylistic weakness. Instead of (lazily) inserting an adverb to describe the word “went,” you should (violently) discard the adverb like a smelly banana peel, and instead, (confidently) choose a precise little verb like “scooted” or “slunk.” It is my theory that if the parts of speech were on Survivor, the adverb would be voted out at the first tribal council, being (wrongly) typecast as the bikini clad model who is nice to look at, but (unfortunately) is (basically) useless.

Noun n.

“The part of speech that names a person, place, thing, or idea. The following words are nouns: child , town , granite , kindness , government , elephant , and Taiwan . In sentences, nouns generally function as subjects or as objects.”

It is nouns who sit (pompously) on their concrete or abstract thrones of security, knowing that they are under no threat of being (inhumanely) struck through by an editor’s inky sword. They have no fear of being ignored or discarded, because sentences (simply) can’t exist without them. They are the subjects and the objects, the alphas and omegas of the kingdom of words, the undeniable focus of our sentences.

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The hierarchy of the parts of speech is amoral when describing grammar, but nouns do not only boast kingship in the realm of abstract language, but in the concrete living of our lives. Just as they do in our sentences, the nouns of our lives tend to function as the subjects or objects of our focus. We are told by our culture that nouns define us. Nouns like success, money, achievement, and security become our reasons for existence.

We seek after these nouns, continually unhappy because we mistake them as the end goal. A sentence cannot be formed without a noun, and likewise, we believe that life is not worthwhile without the needed nouns. We push the adverbs of our lives to the wayside, those words that describe how we live, and in doing so, the verbs with which we strive for the nouns are tinted with exhaustion and hopelessness. We work (anxiously), we save money (fearfully), we achieve (greedily). The nouns lose their luster when negative adverbs define a life; the thrill of an achievement or a paycheck is dull and quick in comparison to the lengthy angst that pacing our lives with negative adverbs creates.

When Kelly said, “I want to live adverbially,” she proposed a complete paradigm shift in the way we view our lives. That we focus less on our physical circumstances, and more on our reactions to them. That we focus less on the end result of our work, and more on fulfilling the process gracefully. We don’t always have control over our nouns, but we do have control over our adverbs. I am always amazed when I hear stories of those much less fortunate than me who live their lives with immense joy. Whether pained by sickness or poverty, these special people live out the adverbial life, and their joy is untouchable.

I, on the other, hand, often find that true joy eludes me because I do not fight against the default adverbs that I have allowed to direct my thoughts and actions. The adverbs “fearfully,” and “anxiously” have constantly modified my verbs and tainted my nouns, and it is my hope that as I grow, I can learn to own the adverbs, “confidently,” and “trustingly.”

Living adverbially is not a new idea; Paul describes the peace of living adverbially through the strength of God in Philippians 4:12-13: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

No, living adverbially is not a new idea, but the power of being content whatever the circumstances has become so mired in clichés that its beauty couldn’t strike me until Kelly found the words that would resonate in a word nerd’s heart. I cannot control the nouns in my life, but with my eyes on the Loving One who is in control, I can live my life trustingly, hopefully, joyfully.

 

 

To Be Too Conscious

 “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.” –The Underground Man, Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man; over-consciousness can drive us to despair, to depression, to step heavily through each day to the beat of Ecclesiastes’ moans of meaninglessness and futility.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man, but they stop short of acknowledging that this “sickness” has the power to shake us from a zombie-like going through the motions, to push us to fix our eyes on God and eternity.

There are days that I am tempted to give in to the negative side of this “sickness,” when thoughts of life’s futility beckon me to despair. These are the days when I am content with blindness, choosing to scorn hope, not having faith that my immortal inclination in the face of death, death, death is the most human of states because it points to the truest truth.

I bite my lip as I examine the broad order of things, people scurrying to and fro like ants, building houses and advancing careers and endlessly consuming, unconscious that one misplaced step, one turn of the steering wheel could propel them into eternity. I see them distracting themselves from over-consciousness,

knowing that it will pierce them,

knowing it will kill them,

not realizing that the death of the meaningless will birth a life of meaning.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness- a real thorough-going illness.

I am told that I think too much, that life must be lived, that the order of things is the order of things. I am over-conscious, morbid, in constant awareness of my own mortality, of the mortality of others, of the insignificance of striving and ambition and trying to make one’s mark.

I long for meaning in a place where people seem set on ignoring meaning, where people seem content in pretending, in trying to force meaning into promotions and white picket fences.

I almost give into despair, then real meaning calls: his name is Christ, and I reach out in feeble faith.  Real meaning calls, and for now, no one on earth can squeeze my hand in understanding.  But the time that we hoard and coerce and try to stop is insignificant; I will blink and be seventy and blink again; the dream will have lived its life and I will wake up, rub my eyes, and finally see.

If over-consciousness is a sickness, then I wish this disease upon everyone, confident that its ache might direct them to the deeper cancer that needs to be purged to save their lives. Death and history chug along, and the unconscious walk off cliffs into hell with smiles on their faces. I know intimately that over-consciousness can lead to depression when it turns inward, when it narrows itself into the claustrophobia of self-consciousness.

But I know that an over-consciousness that looks outward to the infinite Creator is a vivid gift, filled with joy. Its sharpness tells me that mortality is a distortion of the original plan. Its depth tells me that we are not a mistake, but crafted in the image of God, each of us one of his poems. And its constant pulse tells me that there is purpose, and that purpose is to pursue a life that joyfully sings “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”