When Your Hope is Wavering: A Story of His Faithfulness

I am not okay.

I haven’t been okay for quite some time.

The past few months have been defined by a new, sharp unearthing¹ of an old struggle, one that seeped in so deep and so long ago that it is a daily voice in my life’s narrative. I truly believe that the Lord is author of this unearthing; He has been revealing lie after lie that I believe about Him and myself. But sometimes it feels like too much at once.

Sometimes it seems that, yes, the lies have been revealed, that they have been defeated by my mind, but they will always stay lodged in my heart. Many times over the past few months I have felt that I was on the cusp of a long-awaited victory, a standing up into a strength that could not be toppled. And He has been kindling a calling in my heart, one that has been gestating for years and feels ready to be born.

But each time I stand up in seeming steadiness, each time I take a step toward this calling, my feet are swept from underneath me, my head cracks loud on ice, and the wind is knocked out of me. And at the lowest moments, I fear that there will not be a good ending to this all.

But right now, in this moment, I am thinking clearly, I am seeing through the eyes of the truth and not my fears. I am confident, that, as Susie Larson says, “There comes a point when God knows we’re strong enough to win the battle. He allows an overplayed enemy attack to position us for freedom. When we finally grasp the lie, we’ll recognize our path to freedom. The storms reveal the lies we believe and the truths we need.” ( Fully Alive, p. 79).

In this moment of steadiness, I need to remember what He carried me through, so that in a day, in a week, in a month, when the wind is knocked out of me again, I can dismember the lies. Right now, I need to proclaim in vivid detail the account of His faithfulness in similar times, when my heart failed me, but He proved greater than my heart.

So I’ll go back 5 years, to a dark place, a place where death hovered close, but my Father God shielded me, to a place where, though I couldn’t feel His presence, He fiercely protected His daughter.

                                                                           ~

On November 17, 2013, a rickety white leopard* careened through the airspace that blanketed Kazan and thudded, face first into hungry pavement. The plane had been flying for 23 years, its safety features long since neglected, the Russians’ philosophy being that if they shut their eyes and hoped for the best, if there ever was a problem, it would fix itself. But the Tatarstani president’s son had died and so had 49 others and the city would go on as usual because as their idiom goes, you can’t outrun fate.

At the time the plane came into being, I did as well, gestating somewhere between the fourth and fifth month in my mother’s womb.

23 years is a long time to go without a safety check.

What a metaphor this plane was for my own shaky frame. I was about to collide with the ground, fast and deadly, and after running for almost 23 years with no respite, it was bound to happen sometime. But I had to go on; there was no other option.

The day after the tragedy, death hung grainy in the air as I hurtled toward Kazan, that city of death, in the 5:00 am darkness. If all went as planned, (a phrase which, here, made me laugh with a cynical bite), this trip would secure me a visa for six more months.  Where did my determination come from? Why was I gritting my teeth, doing everything I could to stay in this haunted republic that had lodged a perpetual pang in my chest? It wasn’t a question of whether I trusted the two men that took me to the capital, the potato-faced driver and the handsome, self-important VIP from the university. Trust was irrelevant, because this trip was the only way, so I couldn’t allow myself to think of the possibilities of traveling along deserted roads with two strange men. In Russian, the phrase would be другого выхода нет, “there is no other exit.” The phrase struck me as particularly Russian, looking for an exit, a way out, a work-around, instead of barreling through the problem like a stubborn American. Perhaps it was that Americanness that convinced me that exit was never an option.

As we were spit through the precarious roads, we swung past a car, open and gutted, and was that blood? Was that actually the casual opening of a person into lifeless flesh? The narrow highway continued to suck me forward no matter how hard I clenched my muscles.

When we arrived, the sun was up and the university VIP gave me his number, saying that he would call me when he finished his important business. I wafted through the university like wind, not remembering that it was the one where Tolstoy had dropped out and Lenin had been expelled, such a proud institution, yet so creaky and irritable.

I reached the visa office where the woman with the gaunt wrinkles had turned me away a month ago with a yawn. And again, she looked at me like the stupid American I knew that I was and that I wasn’t.

“Of course you did it incorrectly,” she said. Subtle satisfaction flickered in her eyes at first, but I had a flash drive, and in an assertiveness born of desperation, I said we could fix it right there. Afterwards, I took to the city to wander while I waited for the VIP’s call.

Darkness snaked inside of me as I traipsed for hours, each second stinging like a venomous bite. This was the definition of alone, plodding through a city of 1 million, silent and waiting. It’s not easy to be alone when your nerves are so sunburned that a touch could set off sobbing. It’s not easy to be alone when the city is so suffocating, that you fear if you breathe too deeply, you might use up all the air.

When death and darkness have dogged you for months, the faintest light gives hope. Three weeks after the plane crash, I went back to Kazan to meet up with the Tatarstan Americans, us bewildered ones still in shock from the past three months, most in shock that we had remained whole, unharmed, and sane. Nick, the luckiest of us, lived in a new university for athletes and was able to secure us three nights in his dormitory. Unlike my Soviet-era dorm with its broken ovens, persistent dirt and peeling paint, the rooms we stayed in had a new-car smell, beds and sinks and furniture popped out of an Ikea magazine like puzzle pieces.

It wasn’t easy to gain entrance, which made it feel that much more surreal. The campus was outlined in a tall fence with wires, and we entered a metal box with security officers and a turnstile. We were smugglers, our bags full of champagne and wine, which was строго запрещено, strictly forbidden in the dormitory. But they waved us through, too bored to notice any guilty expressions, and I felt the first spark of giddiness in months. After two more checkpoints, we were in, we were safe, we were warm.

Our Thanksgiving meal was drawn out over hours. The small oven only let us cook one course at a time, so we began first with lentil soup, then the chicken that we pretended was turkey, then to hiding like a bunch of high school students when we popped the cork off the champagne. The cork had whizzed against the window, and we feared the wrath of the uniformed woman who prowled the dorm, looking for those whom she could destroy. She especially like to use the intercom to assert her reign, sending us into ripples of laughter when we heard her nasally voice whining “внимание!”

One of our days in Kazan, we found a doll resting atop the snowy street, curly blonde hair framing an expressionless face. We left it there, believing that someone would notice it, would pick it up and discard it. There was no way that she would last through the winter.

Months later, I was being ferried around the stagnant town of Yelabuga in an off-balance, bloated van on the outskirts of the city, when I saw a nineteen-year-old motorcyclist splayed out, extinguished unexpectedly. The onlookers fanned out around him and stared, but I knew they would soon disperse.

At least he would be cleaned up, unlike the muscular golden mutt that emerged, slowly, through the cakey blanket of snow that I walked atop daily, not knowing that it housed a beautiful, frozen death. The dog’s tawny hairs sprouted through the snow like grass, then with the snow scraping itself off to reveal a perfectly formed head, untouched by rot, and finally, the perfectly preserved mummy of the creature that was alive at the time when the rickety white leopard careened into the pavement. The dead dogs popped up everywhere through the snow, so much that we made it a game between our two cities, my American friend Hanna and I, counting them. Once again, Tatarstan proved itself to be a showcase of death. Death happens everywhere, but here, it was on freakish, frozen display.

Nick stayed in Kazan throughout the winter, and when the snow began to recede, walking along those same old streets, he saw that something had surfaced through the snow. He laughed when he saw the blonde curls and expressionless face and took a photo of the doll. She had been submerged and suffocated, trampled and forgotten, but somehow, she had emerged whole. The snow had covered her, but instead of dismembering and destroying her, it had preserved her.

The doll was a more accurate metaphor for me more than the plane, I realize. I would not be dismembered, but would emerge whole. I would not end violently, but begin anew. During those nine dark months, I was covered in snow that seemed to be soil on my grave, but what if that snow was really a blanket of protection?

And what if right now, the snow blanketing me is actually His protection from the elements that are poised to flay my skin and seep into my bones? I don’t know when I will emerge, but I know that I will. I don’t know the future, but His protection in the past gives me hope to grip in the present. So may I curl into His covering as a child into the crook of her father’s arm, may I rest and wait and trust that “I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).

References

*The airline was Ak Bars, Tatar for “white leopard.”

¹In her book Fully Alive, Susie Larson uses this phrase to describe God’s process of revealing lies and hurts in our soul to lead us to healing and freedom. I highly recommend the book!

Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same bookthat had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

Jaazaniah, 2003

Jaazaniah, 2003

Holding a picture and a “never, never” you were a gritter of teeth and a ram, but because you heard Him you answered yes. You stepped into a heavyset bus with orange curtains in the land of Rus, where you fell and jammed the knee to a bruise, ripening under pale skin. A bumpy endless night follows, with a skipping refrain from a silver Walkman:

And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.

Open the shutters and see the first summer that you were awake, drink the sparkling stars and tall, skinny pines like a shot of vodka, with shivers and burn and clarity.

Earth, rain, mud, sense and a cry, the original cry that was answered with the unexpected, longed for yes.

Through flooded showers, communal and freezing, through mosquitos feasting on flesh layered in sweat and dirt, through a shared mascara and a new friend who shared your name there was that yes,

the yes that answered the question, the original question.

You sat there, twelve and ancient, infinite and tired, tasked with tasking the children with crafts you didn’t understand, and some tasks just don’t make sense in the entropy, and the prayer pours out in all its young, eternal specificity:

“Let it rain God, a rain with drops big like I’ve never seen, but let it be for only five minutes.”

And when the sky immediately rumbles and cries your tears of relief, it is all naturalness to you, but

joy, joy, joy!

Joy in an oversized grey hoodie, running through the forest path in the giddy hope that defines you. Slick with the answer dripping off your face, through your clothes, breathless and known.

I have now seen the One who sees me.

He was in this place and I did not know it.

*Jaazaniah is one of my middle names. It means “the Lord hears.”

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.