On Living in Tents and Longing for Home

I had become tired of the constant movement, of the unsettledness that was paired with joy and adventure and trust, but at the same time, had been slowly wearing down body and soul. It struck acutely the night I drove through the eerie dark of a lonely road headed into the heart of Florida. Irma was coming, and after the evacuation order, I was the only one naïve enough to be heading south. An hour away from my parents, I cringed when the radio reported that the eye of the storm had shifted to my destination. There was denial and fear and a realization that I couldn’t go back. Gas everywhere had run dry, and I would have to keep heading toward the storm.

I think I saw the sign for Palatka then, but I didn’t give it much thought.

~

In a whirlwind summer, I had graduated and gone to abroad, moved out of my parents’ just-sold house, and set up camp with friends while the future was a blank page. When I was just about to run out of money, Georgia called. After a few idyllic days in upstate New York eating raspberry chocolate ice cream and exploring trails and laughing my heart out with a best friend, I was sucked into the deep South. My body was in Savannah. My belongings were in Maine. My heart was in another country.

Like so many times in my life, I was in many places at once. And it ached.

~

On the drive back to Savannah after the storm, I noticed sign after sign for Palatka. In Florida, it was the name of a town, but in Russia, it was the word for tent. And with each sign, I was reminded of the theme that God had been writing into my life since I was 12 years old. Just a few months before, with ecstatic joy, I stood in front of the people who spoke the language I loved and read to them from Hebrews 11. I read that Abraham left to follow the Lord, how he didn’t know where he was going, and that that was how my journey had started too, a journey that had led me to them. Those words had so often shot me with strength as a foreigner. But I was beginning to long for an end to the wandering, an end to the loneliness.

I longed for a place that would feel like home. And as the year went on, this feeling grew, and simultaneously, so did the taunts of guilt.

~

Being in this new place, this new culture, brought me again to the mountains I had climbed in Russia: loneliness that I struggled through daily and a job that drew on every last reserve. The difference here though was that this was permanent. I imagined year after year stretching out before me in this unsettled, exhausted state, fulfilling my calling, but wilting by the day.

~

The idea first came in February. My best friend and I were talking on the phone for the thousandth time about how things would be so much better if we were just in the same place. To encourage each other, to support each other in this often perplexing stage of life. And for the first time in years, it struck me as a real possibility.

But as soon as the hope took shape, the guilt that has subtly prodded me for years voiced its thoughts. One of my greatest fears as a Christ-follower is complacency, of becoming so comfortable that I turn inward, cozily ignoring those who need Him while enjoying a life of ease. And my black and white mind reasoned that since the reality I was currently living was anything but comfortable, that staying where I was must be the only way to fulfill my calling. In a mind that is so often uncomfortable with nuance, I had leaned into an almost ascetic viewpoint, the binary being that either I was miserable, lonely, and serving God, or complacent, superficially happy, and ignoring Him.

I longed for a place that felt like home, but I feared that having a home would blur my global vision.

I longed for a family of my own, but the words of Paul haunted me, making me fear that receiving this desire would numb my devotion to Christ.

On one of many nights processing all these thoughts with my Dad, something he said challenged my narrow perspective. “Hope,” he said, “I think you have more freedom in Christ than you realize.”

~

He was right. Absolutely right.

Following Jesus is so much bigger and freer than the way I was living.

As I prayed, discernment came as to what was self-imposed legalism and what was actually His calling on me in this season. And although I firmly believe that God often calls us to specific places at certain times (#russia!), I sensed from Him a beautiful freedom to take a step toward a place I never thought I’d be.

~

I recently was reading Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jerusalem, and I noticed something early in chapter 29 that I never had before. Although the Israelites were in exile, God commanded them to settle down where they were and to live life in the midst of the imperfection: to plant gardens,  to seek the peace and prosperity of the place they were exiled, to get married and to have children. Far from telling them to live in sackcloth for 70 years while they awaited their freedom, God showed care for His people’s physical needs and compassion for their humanness.

Even in tents, even in a body and soul that groan for more, the Lord gives rest and friendship and the Holy Spirit within us. And I am convinced that as I look forward in joy toward this big move, that this joy is from God. This is the first time in longer than I can remember that I have been so full of hope and passion for the unknown callings ahead of me. So in less than a month, I’ll be packing up my tent in Savannah and pitching it in upstate New York. I suspect that this won’t be my last move. Knowing me, I’ll continue to end up in places I never imagined I would be 🙂 But for now, Burnt Hills sounds a lot like home.

 

Waiting, Meaning, Kingdom

“I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.

Scorched to the root

My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.”-Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

It haunts acutely when she travels alone. A girl, eyes fixated out and beyond, knifed by meaning and meaninglessness. The rhythmic lull of a Soviet era train hums her to thought as she looks through the window-frame to emptiness and beauty. Snowy fields tinted in orange and pink by the sunset, forest that stretches out in monotony, sights gulped by a wait-er, suffering the contraction of time and eternity. A guttural whisper is the only expression of this bursting, bursting, bursting.  2014-02-05 17.03.05

There is more, there is more, there is more.

There is more, you know. It is your life to breathe the truth that there is more. There is meaning in the orange and pink tinted fields, in the rhythmic lull of the train, in the expanse that knifes you. There is more, so why, then, the tears? Why then, the grasping at a mirage of the flawed finite when the infinite is what is more…you know that it is your life to breathe the infinite and make Him known. Yet in the Russian train, in the long car rides, in long walks crunching through fallen leaves, you curse the waiting.

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You curse the waiting because all of this meaning is meaningless without that unknown someone you’ve dreamed of, storied, objectified and distorted into something like a god. Because the waiting is a curse, and unfair, and you are wilting and frantic. Because you have done all the things right and all the right things, all the years added up should be enough, and so your eyes rove in the waiting, pitying the self because she is not adored by someone whom she would make her god.

It is in the now, the waiting, that your life must be stale. It is in the now, in the waiting He is cursing you with, that you wonder why it haunts more and more in the mundane. The thing is, you thought there was a time limit, because the waiting is worthless, and you have an expiration date. And Plath again gives you words: “I am inhabited by a cry.   Nightly it flaps out Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing/That sleeps in me; All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” The girl is greedy, and if she continues, she will suck the life out of another or spill her blood on the altar of self, spinning the story to sustain herself while she waits, unfaithfully.

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But somehow, she is shaken from the ravenousness by simple truth. The truth comes in the soft, yet sudden way that it came to Alyosha, the novice shaken out of his idealization through a suffering that led to hopeful reality: “Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind- now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in the moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn the world.’” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

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The monastery was, for Alyosha, a comfortable place, a place of safety, a place to view the world the way it had always made sense to view it. And through trial and disillusionment, when the mystical didn’t translate into everyday life, when Zosima was un-deified by the stench of death and humanity, only then could he truly understand the meaning of hope. And only then could he leave the place of comfortable ignorance filled with fantasies and embark on his true mission, which lay outside the monastery walls. The monastery was filled with truth, but its stagnancy also reinforced the lies that blinded Alyosha. The truth for the waiting girl: The waiting isn’t worthless. The waiting has meaning. The waiting points to the greater story, the greatest story.

Ann Voskamp’s words bathe the mind that has become soiled with cynicism: “Every tulip only blossoms after cold months of winter wait. Every human ever unfurled into existence through nine long months of the womb waiting. And the only kingdom that will last for eternity still waits, this millennia-long, unwavering-hope for return of its King. Instead of chafing, we accept that waiting is a strand in the DNA of the Body of Christ. That this waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.”

Every act of waiting can point to the most important waiting we will ever do, waiting for Christ’s return. And if marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, then the waiting for the fulfillment of good desires is a picture of our hope and expectation for the King to return and restore and herald in a joyful eternity. When I long, my natural inclination is to find a quick fix to douse the ache. To write my own story, to live in my imagination while cursing the reality that I’m living. What if I leaned into the longing and looked to Christ in hope, remembering that the hunger is indicative of the eternity I am waiting for? The longing can’t be filled by a person; it is a hunger pang for Christ that can only be fulfilled in him. This longing will not be fulfilled completely in this life. So may these pangs direct the waiting girl to the hope of the Truth. To be unsatisfied, to wait, to long, is not a curse, but a blessing, because in her little story, the girl can let her longings point to the greater story He has swept her into. A story that may be filled with suffering, but ends in joy. A story that on the hard days, doubt may tarnish, but ends, indisputably, in confident faith.

Hebrews 11:13. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  

Breaking the Silence

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a word. I haven’t felt able to write, the depth and heaviness of all that has been going on in my heart has not easily translated to words; the tools of sounds and letters that usually make meaning have run like sand through my clenched fists as I have grasped for a way to make sense of guttural, overwhelming consciousness. For a month, all I have been able to do is to open my mouth and utter an unintelligible, emotional groan, words seeming irrelevant when the waves I thought should have subsided by now keep slapping me, and I am only able to form the words, “help me Lord, I need you.”

Many language learners go through a “silent period” in the early stages of immersion. It is a time when the learner is so inundated with new sounds and tones and meaning that he acts like a sponge, not producing any language himself. This doesn’t mean he isn’t learning; speech will eventually emerge, but he simply needs to absorb for a while. This month has been its own silent period for me, as I have struggled just to keep my head above water, simply absorbing what God is doing in and through me without being able to make sense of it like I want to.

Although I can’t begin to plumb the depths of the changes taking place inside me, I am beginning to see how God has used this difficult time in my life to make me more like Christ, to mature my perspective, to bring me to a more daring, vulnerable trust in Him. I feel older, and part of me doesn’t like that. I feel that I have aged 5 years in the past three months, having lost the romance and twinkle in my eye that Russia used to light in me. I feel older, and part of me knows that this is good, that I am stepping out of a transient fantasy into concrete, messy, but colorful reality. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that I believed that He wanted me here and I still believe that He does. But every morning that I get up, bundle up and plod the wintery way, I realize more and more that I am a different person than I was in September.

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.

And maybe it is not that I am growing up and out of something actually, but that layers are being scraped off, eyes are being cleansed of perspectives that I thought were central to who I thought I was, revealing themselves to be superficial ideals that actually distract me from my calling. My favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when Eustace, who has turned into a dragon by his own fault, has to have Aslan peel off his scales in order for him to become human again. When Edmund asks him what it was like when Aslan changed him back, Eustace replies (in the movie version),

“No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do it myself. Then he came towards me. It sort of hurt, but… it was a good pain. You know, like when you pull a thorn from your foot.”

What God is working in me hurts, but it is a good pain. I see Him scraping off layer after layer of frivolous Hope and frivolous hope(yes, I just did that) and replacing it with a gaze closer to Christ’s.

Before I left, I was a girl with her eyes always on the country that she fell in love with, using it as a tool of escapism, believing that it was her mission to be there, that life in the States would mean depression, thinking that in order for life to have meaning, it had to be an exciting novel. And then I lived in a foreign country, really lived in it, not in a bubbled, protective study abroad program. I found out that I don’t like living alone. That what I truly desire more than a career is a family. That I still want to write, write, write! And for the first time, I realized that America is home, that maybe roots are a good thing, and that hectic and adventure and unpredictable are still fun, but that stability is not synonymous with stale.

I’m not afraid of boring anymore. I no longer see roots as synonymous with chains. I’ve become more practical in a good way. Like my hero Anne of Green Gables realized the year she went away, “I went looking for my ideals outside of myself.”  I’ve learned that living a life worthy of the Gospel doesn’t necessarily entail drama, but blossoms in the quiet moments, being willing and open to the Holy Spirit and watching Him in awe as he works miracles in the mundane.

I still long for that romance that first drew me to Russia, that summer camp, twelve year old candy-like joy of running through a mile-high forest with new friends, to feel smoky, crisp summer air blow my hair as we tear through the night with a crazy driver, obnoxious pop music igniting our veins.  To have late-night conversations in platzkarts and to find magical swimming holes that are as close to Narnia as we’ll ever be, feeling that we’ve conquered time somehow. And although I am growing up into reality, I know that this romance is as needed and as real as ever, that growing up doesn’t mean losing the song that He put in my heart ten years ago. And in the New Year, He gifted me with a glimpse of what drew me here in the first place, at a time when I thought it was lost forever. As I walked through St. Petersburg at night with a friend I thought I’d never see again, bright lights against the dark blue sky and darker Neva, I felt the years I had gained come off. As we retraced footsteps from a far-away summer and reminisced about where we had been and shared where He had brought us, I walked into light and joy and peace,  given perspective in this time of painful refinement, and hope to press on.

Some treasures from 2 Corinthians that have encouraged me in the past few months:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”

2 Corinthians 1: 8-10

 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

2 Corinthians 4: 7-12

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:16-18

On Loneliness

I had a catastrophe in my dorm room today. No, nothing caught on fire, I didn’t find bedbugs (don’t worry Mom ), and no drunk Russian man broke in and stole that cursed 5,000 ruble bill that I can’t spend.* No, the catastrophe was, drumroll please…my internet went out. Two weeks ago, after a month of living in cafes where people stared at me like a zoo animal while I spoke English, I was finally able to get internet installed in my room. Of course, this was wonderful for lesson planning, but the main reason I was so elated was that internet +Skype=connection to family and friends. Now, I have been told by many well-meaning people throughout the years that while studying or working abroad, it is best to keep communication with those from your “other life” to a minimum. The general underpinning of this view is “be here now” philosophy, the assumption that spending too much time interacting with those back home will inhibit you from inhabiting your new space to the deepest and fullest. This may be true for some people, but throughout my many times studying in Russia, I have found that it is actually communication with those back home that enables me to experience life abroad to the fullest: while I am clumsily stumbling through the stages of adjustment to a foreign culture, encouraging words from those who know me best have a stabilizing effect. And as a person who battles depression and anxiety, these connections to home are truly lifelines.

At first I accepted my internet modem’s caprice gracefully. I cooked some pasta and made my own mushroom, garlic, and tomato sauce (I’ve been inspired to actually cook since I visited the wonderful Hanna in Naberezhniye Chelny), and opened my Bible to Philippians, which I had been encouraged to read after watching, yes, a sermon on loneliness on YouTube yesterday. After eating and praying a little, I began to languidly review Russian proverbs and a Marina Tsvetaeva poem for my lesson tomorrow, the familiar gnawing of knowing I was alone starting to get to me. I decided to try the internet again, but desperately clicking the icon over and over just made me more and more frustrated.

The now familiar frantic tears started to sting my eyes, and my next action showed how great my desperation was: I found the number for customer service and I actually called it. Now, those of you who know me well know that I absolutely hate making phone calls…in English. Unless it is a close friend or family member, I get very nervous, even writing down notes of what I want to say beforehand. So calling a customer service line in Russian was a true mark of desperation. It was actually in the midst of all this emotional grabbing for connection that I had a linguistic victory. I explained my situation to the woman on the other line, and she actually understood me. And what’s more, as she explained the steps of what I needed to do, I actually understood most of what she was saying! I got off the phone with the issue still unresolved, but my mood had been lightened by the whole experience.

The past few weeks, I have felt like my Russian has actually been getting worse, but from experience, I know that this is a natural dip in the process. Two summers ago when I participated in CLS, it was right about this far into the program that I felt that my linguistic performance was decreasing. It was encouraging to have an objective, real-life situation confirm that I haven’t reverted to po-toddler-ski. So with my mood a bit lifted, I finished my Russian homework, wrote a lesson plan, and decided to try the internet just one more time. And this time, it worked…and this, my friends, is how life works in a country called Russia.

It is true, losing the internet for half a day can hardly be considered a catastrophe, and if I’m honest with myself, I am probably far too dependent on it, but experiences like this highlight just how scared I am to be alone. Living in Russia has forced me to grapple daily with this fear, and although I have struggled with loneliness at other times in my life, it cuts sharper here in Russia, because as humans, we tend to define ourselves in relation to others. When there is a natural, deep connection between humans, whether through family or friendship or nationality, it is easier to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, your perception of the world reinforced by those around you, your hopes that you are a kind or giving or witty person reflected by those who affirm those qualities in you. But in a foreign country, communication which in your homeland is as easy as breathing becomes full of schisms and misunderstandings and awkward clashes of perception. You are the other, and you feel that if there was at least one other, you would be okay. This is why it was so refreshing to see Hanna(see my previous post), who, although I hadn’t known for a very long time, understood me on a level that I hadn’t felt understood for quite a while.

George Bernard Shaw said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I believe that this illusion of communication often occurs not only in the cross-cultural realm, but within one’s own culture. Although it is manifested much more subtly in one’s native culture, I believe that there is always something lost in translation, and this inability to be understood is one of the reasons that humans struggle with loneliness. One of our greatest desires is to be understood to the core, yet this is virtually impossible, since we interpret others’ words and trials through the filter of our own frameworks.

I know that my struggle with loneliness is not unique here and that going home will not cure it; it is something I have struggled with even when surrounded by those who love me. I am starting to think that perhaps facing loneliness in such in intense way right now is actually a blessing in disguise. I have been forced to come face to face with my fear and to find that it has not destroyed me. I have run to God and found comfort in His word and encouragement to be strong and courageous, confident that He loves me and will be with me in all circumstances. I have begun to realize that so often, I expect too much from human connection, expecting conversation and empathy to fulfill a deep spiritual need that no person should be expected to fill. I have come face to face with one of my greatest fears, and as I continue to fight with the Lord at my side, the terror of being unknown by another human is starting to slowly lessen. Human connection is a beautiful thing, a facet of humanity that reflects the image of God, but I realize that I cannot turn human connection into an idol that pushes Him to the side. So no, I am not happy that I feel lonely, but I am beginning to be thankful for the loneliness, because I am confident that, as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8, God uses these trials for good in my life, to bring growth and freedom and to make me more like Christ.

*Russian cashiers HATE breaking 5,000 ruble bills (or they actually don’t have the change). Most of the time they’ll just glare at you and tell you they won’t do it.

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.