When You Have to Return from Narnia

About 91% of Jesus’ life was unseen, undocumented. His 3 year ministry is where we tend to focus, on the miracles, the parables, and of course, the greatest thing of all, the giving of His life in exchange for ours, the earth quaking, the temple veil torn, death embarrassed by limp muscles incapable of holding Him a minute longer than he would allow.

“Epic” and “awesome” are watered down words today, but they can both be used in their truest sense to describe the events of those 3 years, snowballing in momentum and culminating in the answer to humanity’s desperate question. It is in the epic and the awesome that we find the exclamation point at the end of the sentence He came to write, but we can’t forget this:  91% of Jesus’ life, the 30 years before the 3, was paced by the rhythms of the mundane, His movements not made holy by their visibility, but by the fact that it was Him acting. 

And for most of us, our lives are and will be much the same. We’ll have moments of visibility, chances to do “big” things, but regardless of the job we hold, the country we live in, or the platform we have, probably at least 91% is spent in the mundane: hitting snooze for the third time before a day filled with spreadsheets, e-mails, grocery shopping and getting ready to do it all over again.

I’ve been told many times that I’m “brave” for traveling alone, for striking out in a country that isn’t my own and diving head first into all the challenges and misadventures that come my way. And I have no doubt that He purposed me there for those times.

But bravery…I don’t think it’s that simple. 

Nearing the end of my senior year of college, I’d been waiting an eternity to hear whether I’d gotten the grant to Russia, 9 long months from application to final answer. 

And when I opened that long-awaited e-mail, a queasy shock shot through me. Alternate. I hadn’t gotten it. I was an alternate. 

In my mind, there was no way I could get bumped up to grantee. After all, who in their right mind would give up a chance to live by themselves for a year in the land of Stalin and Siberia?! [Sarcasm sign ;-)]

How I reacted revealed the state of my heart. I wasn’t just disappointed, I was devastated. I had staked all my hope for the future on getting a ticket to teach abroad, because of calling, yes, but also because life in that country I loved had always been full of adrenaline and newness and emotion.

Heart motives are so often a tangled mess of pure and impure, and one of those tangled threads was that Russia had always been an escape from a life in the U.S. where the mundane depressed me and I never felt like I quite fit in. In Russia, I felt like my truest self: these people, they were just as emotional and romantic as me, this language, it was so beautiful and ordered and intricate that I wanted to bathe in it, and in all the challenges, I was no longer Lucy Pevensie, but Queen Lucy the Valiant in this Narnia I had stepped into. 

Bravery, not so much. 

Later in the week, I got a new e-mail. Someone had declined the grant, and Russia was calling my name. I was saved, or so I thought. 

These people, they were just as emotional and romantic as me, this language, it was so beautiful and ordered and intricate that I wanted to bathe in it, and in these challenges, I was no longer Lucy Pevensie, but Queen Lucy the Valiant in this Narnia I had stepped into. 

This time though, my sixth in Russia, He gave me the reality check I needed. This time, I was there long enough for the adrenaline to actually wear off, and it was then that I began to learn the simple truth: life is life anywhere, and the mundane is not to be feared. I wrote

“Three months ago, I would have told you that freedom is synonymous with wandering, and that roots are synonymous with chains. I would have told you, if I really trusted you, that maybe this running away to Russia wasn’t as brave as it seemed, since I thought that steady was synonymous with stale and lifeless, and boring was synonymous with depression. That life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.”

I thought….that life, real, conscious, colorful life was synonymous with running into an adventure that could swallow me into purpose, where each day could be a story, quantifiably exciting, to be snatched and put in a snow globe, waiting to be shaken up and retold.”

And it was true, I was addicted to the misadventures I often found myself in, and I had the skewed view that my life wouldn’t count for Christ if it was quiet and steady and “average,” if a typical day didn’t include a harrowing act of bravery for Him. But it was here that He began to teach me that the biggest act of bravery for a temperament like mine is to be faithful in the mundane. Because when all I can see is the routine on the horizon, my tendency is to start to daydream, to disengage from the flesh and blood people in my life who need to see Christ in me and hear him through me in the meeting at work, at the checkout line, on a walk through Burnt Hills. 

This isn’t to say that the pull I feel to other parts of the world is not from Him; I believe it is. But at a time like this, when I find in myself a longing for rootedness but a simultaneous fear of it, I need to remember the 91%, the untold life of Jesus in the routine rhythms of a carpenter. I can’t mistake the mundane for wasted time, because a hidden heart submitted to God, waiting for directions from the Holy Spirit is as radical in His sight as jumping on a plane to the middle of nowhere. 

I’m not crazy about flashy proposals. For a number of reasons [I won’t give my 95 theses right now :-)], I can see myself getting angry if a man asked me to marry him at a baseball game or concert. Much more precious to me would be a proposal in the quiet, just between us, with no thought to spectators. Now, I can’t take this metaphor too far, because there are so many times when being audacious in public is exactly what we should do as Christ-followers. But when I think of how precious a private proposal would be to me, I can’t help but think that it reflects the heart of God when we do something for Him that no one else will ever see.

A hidden heart submitted to God, waiting for directions from the Holy Spirit is as radical in His sight as jumping on a plane to the middle of nowhere.

So for those of you in the midst of that 91%, take heart. Take heart that He will use you powerfully right where you are, in the daily rhythms of your job and family and community. Take heart that He sees the heart behind the actions, and that an unseen act done out of love for Him is precious in his sight. And take heart that your effectiveness in His kingdom is not measured by numbers and visibility, but by obedience and faith. 

Reorientation Ramblings

I sit on the sturdy plastic chair across from my doctor, a vibrant yet calming middle-aged woman who has been more of a counselor than a physician to me.

“You look older,” she says.

My weight is the same, my hair still that thick auburn, but I think she’s looking at my eyes.

“If I were to guess your age, I would say about 25.”

She also tells me that maybe, just maybe, I might have developed an ulcer.

~

Strangely, the journey home was tied up as neatly as a Hallmark movie, a stark contrast to the genre I’d gotten used to. While waiting for my flight from Russia to Germany, I checked my phone to find I had been accepted to the Masters in TESOL program I had applied for. At Gordon graduation, I would have thrown a tantrum at the prospect of more school. Now, I see it as a way to do what I’ve learned that I love doing.

In Germany, while waiting to board my plane to Boston, my tired eyes landed, surprised, on an old acquaintance from college. He was my T.A. freshman year, the one who had first told me about the Fulbright program.  I approached him and we talked for two minutes, small talk mostly, but for me, significant. As I boarded the plane, as silly as it sounds, I realized that I was older. I smiled as I  remembered the nervous freshman who had to rally every last bit of courage to say a word to the genius senior who held the answers to the meaning of life. Coming full circle so seamlessly- can it be coincidental?

No, there are no coincidences in His kingdom.

~

Preparing myself for reverse culture shock was unnecessary.  As Mom and Dad drive me home from the airport, I do notice that the roads on the highway are really, really smooth.

But haven’t they always been that way?

The waitress at the steak house we stop at speaks English and has a wide smile that I am supposed to rejoice at.

But aren’t waitresses always that way?

I drive the car for the first time in nine months, and it feels comfortable, natural, freedom to the tune of country music and windows rolled down.  Coffee makers and reliable hot showers and not straining to find the right words are taken for granted, because that’s the way things have always been.

Things have always been this way, yet I feel that I’ve taken a backpack off. A backpack full of rocks, a bag I got used to hauling everywhere until I couldn’t remember life without it. Now, I am surprised at how easy it is to walk. I think I could even run.

Still, it is not automatic to be the person you’ve become in the place where you were a different person, in a place where you hadn’t conquered the fears you faced in a different dimension. It was Narnia, where you fought and grew and were crowned. Now that you’re back, you have to fight to keep that identity.

~

I now stand like Polly and Digory in the Wood between the Worlds, in limbo, in that oscillation between a joyful trust fall and a distrustful cynicism.

There is so much I want to do! I want to write that book, start a Russian school, travel, teach, go to grad school, fall in love, buy a car, pay off my student loans!

My brain is an exclamation point.

My brain is an exclamation point, but maybe I’ve missed the message in caps before that eager piece of punctuation.

SLOW DOWN!

I am not used to slowing down.

The past five years have been to and from and flights and car rides and new semesters and new places and new people and new jobs and since I was, 18 life has been a perpetual run on sentence and I’ve never stopped.

How does one stop?

~

Since I’ve been back, I’ve dreamed twice about juggling. It is a failure dream, of Dad and me passing clubs like we have a thousand times, but this time, I drop every pass. The shiny blue pins are foreign in my hands. We try again and again, and Dad assures the audience that we’ll get it. I go through the familiar, confident motions, but the clubs slip through my hands like butter.

~

Four days after I returned, I coached at a basketball camp, the camp that I went to as a sixth grader, the camp that I came home from crying the first day then went back and faced my fears. I hadn’t played basketball in a while, but it came back to me as easily as hot showers and coffeemakers. The familiar drills were therapy for a mind that was dying for distraction from the implications of uprooting and replanting. I was the coach question of the day, and the little girls soon found out that it was me who spent the last nine months in Russia. One asked why, and when I gave her a bite size answer that didn’t begin to tell the half of it, something about going to teach people English, she looked at me matter-of-factly and said,

“That’s no reason to go down to Russia.”

All I could do was laugh.

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.

Return to Vladimir

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly because I’ve been sick the whole month of May 😦 Allergies in Elabuga hit me hard, and what started out at seasonal sneezing and itchy eyes turned into a full-blown bronchitis-y sickness that drove me to antibiotics and laying in bed for four days straight. Thanks to Hanna’s z-pack and the help of a doctor back home, I was able to avoid going to the hospital here and recreating my experience with Konstantine the dentist.

Now that I’m feeling better, the end of my time in Tatarstan seems closer than ever. Today marks the first day of June, which means I can say that I will be going home this month. This is both exciting and bittersweet. Although I am ready to go home, this semester has been a time of deepening the relationships that I made when I first got here, and I know there are so many people that I am going to miss. I want to continue this train of thought, but first, I can’t forget to recount Hanna’s and my adventures in Vladimir at the beginning of May right before I got sick.

Vladimir has held a very special place in my heart since I studied there through the Critical Language Scholarship in 2012. Through some “coincidental” acquaintances (nothing is ever coincidental in His kingdom), I was able to get involved in a local church, and some really special friendships developed. I remember my summer there as a time of hope and adventure and growth, and I will take every opportunity I can to go back and visit the special people that made my summer so meaningful.

As most things happen in Russia, our plans to Vladimir were made fairly last minute. With some hastily bought e-tickets and backpacks stuffed with clothes and chak-chak, Hanna and I flew to Moscow from Tatarstan at 6:00 am, where we would meet our крутая program officer Marina and catch a train to Vladimir. We ate Georgian cheese bread and гуляли without a care and thought we had plenty of time to make our train at Kurskiy Voksal.

Marina, me, and Hanna outside of Kievskiy Vokzal in Moscow.

Hanna and I made it to Kurskiy Vokzal (the train station) with at least 30 minutes to find our train. Moscow train stations are usually easy to navigate, but Kurskiy was a different story. We walked into the buzzing atrium of chaos to find no information about our train’s platform on any of the many screens. What began as leisurely scanning the screens quickly grew into a panicked search as the minutes ticked by. With less than fifteen minutes to find our train, we were running up and down platforms, frantically begging passersby for this seemingly nonexistent information. The first man we asked looked at me and said “Eto tupik!” Assuming that this word shared the same root as the word “tupoy,” which means dullwitted, I thought he was calling me stupid for not being able to find the train, which didn’t help my mood. More running. Allergies and humidity and a heavy backpack made me feel like I was running through marshmallow fluff. Ten minutes was now all we had. We ran up to the main platform and addressed a policeman with a bull-dog face, who addressed Colonel Sanders’ younger brother (Hanna’s observation 🙂 ). Colonel Sanders’ younger brother was surprisingly smiley for a Russian man, and joyfully pointed toward a distant platform. “This is tupik, girls. You still have five minutes!” With a heavily breathed bolshoye spasiba, we were off, sprinting through that marshmallow fluff toward a distant yellow train. We made it to a turnstile where the women on duty kindly let us through without a problem when they saw our red-faced distress. “Just say your last name, girls, and go!” With a “Miller!” and a “Johnson!” we were sprinting toward wagon number 6. We made it. We actually made it. At 3:15, 3 minutes before the train was to leave, we stepped onto a peaceful, almost domestic scene of children eating ice cream and mothers chatting and a guy playing his guitar. The train began to move, and we were headed toward Vladimir. Victory. Adrenaline. We both agreed we hadn’t had that much fun in a long, long time. Thus began our adventures.

On the train writing about our just-making the train with a feather pen that lasted for about 5 lines.

When we got to Vladimir, we took a bus to the hostel I had booked. The only problem was that the hostel didn’t actually exist. Although the website had looked a little fishy, (the last review had been written in 2012, and there was a notice about not ordering online because they were moving locations), I received e-mail confirmation of our reservation. The address of the hostel turned out to be a very regular apartment, and every other hostel I called was booked due to the busy holiday weekend. This is where my friend Masha came to the rescue. Masha is one of the wonderful people I met through the church in 2012, and I was already planning on visiting with her the next day. She works at a hostel that is located inside the church building, and although the hostel was already full, she spoke to the director for us and they let us spend two nights in the church library!

The next day, Masha and her brother Daniel came with us on a picnic to my favorite place in all of Russia, the Church Pokrova Na Nerli. This church was built in the 12th century and stands on a small hill in the middle of a field that has a small path that leads to it. Some have described the walk as a pilgrimage, and I would agree 🙂

 

In the early spring, the field is flooded and you have to take a boat to get to the church. It is at once simple and picturesque, earthy and magical. Here is a picture that Hanna took that will do much more justice that my words could:

I was also able to buy my mom a beautiful shawl for Mother’s Day at the beginning of the field:

The next day, Hanna, Amanda (another Fulbrighter) and I met up with Bethany, the girl who had originally connected me with the church. She and her fiance, Oleg, who I had gotten to know during CLS, invited us to a shashlik in the countryside in honor of their friend Zhenya’s birthday. On the way to Mordysh, which sounds so much like Mordor, Bethany and Oleg stopped the car to show us a very out-of-place sign:

“Welcome of Detroit.”  I would have thought we were in America if it weren’t for the grammatical mistake.

While the guys prepared shashlik, the girls chopped cheese, kielbasa, and veggies:

After eating enough to last us for a week, we were invited to use the banya, which is a true Russian experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Russian banya, it is basically like a sauna, except much more humid and almost hot enough to make a Maine girl faint. You go in with your comrades, where you chat, beat each other with aromatic branches, and sweat. If you stay hydrated and take frequent breaks, it is a very refreshing experience.

After the girls got done in the banya, the guys wanted to make more shashkik, so we roasted meat and laughed while the sun set.

Vladimir, I will return. I love you too much not to.

 

 

Surprises and Karaoke and Lead Paint

The last month has been one of the fullest and most fun of my life. The two groups of fourth year students I taught last semester came back from student teaching at the end of March, and since then, I’ve been teaching 11 classes a week, which is the heaviest load I’ve had yet. Instead of feeling burdened though by the number of classes though, I’ve felt energized. I’m inspired daily by interactions with my (wonderful! bright! замечательные!) students, I’m gaining confidence as a teacher, and it’s becoming more and more clear that teaching ESL is the path that I want to pursue when I get back to the States. Anyway, here’s a bit of an update on the first month of spring in Tatarstan:

Birthday Surprise

I usually get really sad around my birthday. My mom says that even when I was a kid, like clockwork I would have a mini-existential crisis right around March 31, nostalgically reminiscing on the past year, knowing that once I added a new candle to the cake, I could never go back.This year was no different, in fact, it seemed a little worse, since for some reason, 23 seemed so much older and more concretely adult than 22. No more singing about breakfast at midnight and dressing up like a hipster, I would now be relegated to the ranks of the grown-up who was supposed to have just a little less fun than her 22 year old counterpart and was just that much closer to being an old maid. And dying. You get the idea. I expected to spend by birthday quietly, reflectively, writing about the weight and significance of the new role I would be walking into and analyzing the milestones of the year before, but thankfully for me, my students didn’t allow that.

When I walked into the kafedra(teacher’s office) that morning, I was greeted by enthusiastic congratulations from my colleagues, and was quickly asked, “have you seen the posters? They’re everywhere! Go look, there’s one on the door!” I left the kafedra and turned the corner to see this:

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And that was only the beginning. I walked into my classroom to see all my students wearing birthday hats and to hear music playing. They told me that today I was their queen and they had a special ceremony for me. After I sat down on my throne (a chair covered in a pink tablecloth), and had donned a tiara, they began an intricately planned out surprise for me. One of the boys pretended to be a Spanish guitarist and brought me a bouquet of eleven light pink roses (not 12, because even-numbered flowers are considered bad luck), one girl dressed up like a gypsy and read my palm, telling me I would have seven children, one girl presented me a cake in traditional Tatar dress with another girl to interpret her Tatar speech, and finally, they took a student’s oath (to always prepare for class, to be kind to me), and I took a queen’s oath (to always be in a good mood and to not give too much homework). And as if that weren’t enough, they then gave me this mug with a picture of us on it:

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It says “Пей сладкий чай, и про нас не забывай!”, or “Drink sweet tea, and don’t forget about us!” (It rhymes in Russian.)

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And here they are!

One of the teachers who befriended me from the start, Lenara, also organized a surprise party for me in the kafedra, so right after class I walked into another birthday surprise. Along with tea, chocolate, and piroshki, she served goubadia, which is a Tatar pie filled with rice, raisins, eggs, sweet tvorog (curds), and butter. To an American, it sounds like a strange mixture, but its really growing on me.

Губадия

Gubadia, Photo Credit: bahetle.com

Karaoke With the Americans

Singing karaoke has been on my bucket list for a while, and what better place to achieve this dream than in a bar on the outskirts of Elabuga with a handful of Americans scattered across the region? Hanna, the organizer, the planner, coordinated my American birthday party, inviting Steve from Samara and Nick from Kazan for the weekend.Image

A stealth shot of the crew coming up to Hanna’s apartment.

 

The first night, we stayed in Chelny and ate Hanna’s homemade banana bread and plombir, a Russian version of ice cream that is super delicious.

The next day we headed to Elabuga, where we made a pilgrimage to the Devil’s Tower and ate at a surprisingly scrumptious vegetarian cafe. Then we headed to Manhattan, Elabuga’s bowling alley/cafe/entertainment complex, where we had reserved a table in the karaoke bar.

It was awesome.

I think I’m addicted.

I sang “Такого как Путин” with Hanna, translated in English as “A Man Like Putin,” in which a girl lauds Putin’s manly qualities and insists that she needs a man just like him. How’s that for international diplomacy? Steve and I sang Taylor Swift’s “Trouble,” and Nick showed his rapping skills with some Jeezy and 50 Cent.

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From left to right: Steve’s arm, Nick, me

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Lead Paint 

My birthday was amazing, and in a few short weeks, spring has finally sprung. There is little snow to be seen, and the temperature averages about 55 degrees. But it is Russia, so in the midst of this idyllic blooming, there has to be some kind of health threat to make things interesting, right? On Monday, I walked into the university to be assaulted by the sharp, headache-inducing odor of the whole building being ripped apart. At least that’s what it looked like.

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The fumes from the renovations made almost everyone in the university feel sick to varying degrees. I only got a headache, but some students felt so bad they didn’t attend class. Late in the morning all the students were allowed to go home. The next day, however, class resumed as normal with only a slight lessening of the fumes that I am 90% sure are filling our lungs with particles of toxic lead paint. The stairs are powdered with paint, and teachers and students have continued to feel sick.

 

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On day three of the renovations, I began to become seriously concerned about the effects of long-term exposure to the fumes, so I decided to hold my classes outside. None of my students had ever had class outside before, so at first I think it seemed strange to them, but it seemed to catch on alright.Image

Fourth year students from the Department of Foreign Languages

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Fourth year students from the Department of Tatar Language and Literature

This week I found out the the Russian word for gazebo is беседка, which has the same root as беседа, the Russian for conversation. A loose translate would be “little place to talk.” And it’s true, conversation classes work really well in this little circle where we can all see each other and easily interact. In many ways, I actually like having class in the gazebo more than in a traditional classroom, and I hope my students feel the same way. It doesn’t look like the noxious renovations will be over anytime soon, and since I want to avoid damaging both my students’ and my health, until further notice, the gazebo, the беседка, will be our classroom!