The Land of Seven Fridays

Yesterday, my Russian teacher taught me that you can describe a person who is constantly changing his mind and plans as someone who “has seven Fridays in a week.” As she explained the phrase in detail, I (perhaps smugly) smiled at how this simple little phrase so precisely encapsulates Russian culture. If I have learned one thing about staying sane in this country in my three month stay, it is to hold plans loosely, because they probably will change at the very last minute. I can’t say that this check-list making, syllabus-loving girl has become comfortable with knowing that her Monday could turn into a Tuesday and then possibly a Friday, but I will say that living in a culture of ambiguity and uncertainty is  helping me to grow past my fear of not being in control. The last few weeks have highlighted this lack of control, as last minute events and assignments have been shoveled on me, heavy and thick like the snow that now blankets Elabuga. I am doing my best to observe how Russians approach this aspect of their culture and have been trying to follow suit, bundling up in alternating layers of preparation and flexibility, then stepping out to face the cold, windy, but sometimes glittery elements.

The last few weeks have been filled with events and experiences that all have this common thread of expectations being shattered and last minute decisions directing the show. Here’s a bit of an update for you all on life in the land of seven Fridays.

I’m a Director?

As a girl who grew up with a magician for a father, theater is in my blood, and I was excited to have the chance to put on a short play with my fourth year students. The dean has been asking me to be active with students outside my classes, so I thought that a little, low-key event would be a great way to start out. In my last post, I mentioned my embarrassing likeness to Chekhov’s Chervyakov in his story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” but what I didn’t tell you was that this story resonated with me so much that, three years ago, I adapted it into a play for a theater group I was in. I took an English translation of the story, put the lines to rhyme, and voila, had a ten minute comedy about a man who worries himself to death. I decided that this would be a fun play for my students to try out.

The day of the play, I walked in to the classroom where my students were to perform to find a bright-eyed journalist interviewing my students alongside a cameraman outfitted with all the clunky equipment any good paparazzi should own. The journalist quickly grabbed me and started a list of rapid fire questions in Russian. “Why did you choose this play?” “Why did you start studying Russian?” “How do Russian students differ from American students?” I answered as well as I could under the circumstances, but with a microphone in my face and a camera greedily surveying my every move, I definitely reverted to a bit of Russian 101, making mistakes that I thought I had left in the previous decade.

But there was little time to think about my Russian; before I knew it I had switched to English, standing on a stage before forty Russian students, extemporaneously speaking about Chekhov’s influence on American literature. Those of you who know me will understand just how big a step this was, since any sort of public presentation, let alone off the cuff speeches, have been in both my “afraid of” and “not good at” boxes. But in these past three months, I have found myself doing things I swore I would never do.  I think that when one’s daily reality changes dramatically, in some senses it is easier to put oneself in a role that had been mentally off-limits in the home culture. Back in America, as I said, I had created boxes for myself that dictated what I could and couldn’t do. Here, my identity is more fluid, without those comfortable boxes holding me in place, and though sometimes I feel less anchored, the change in reality has created space for me to do things I never thought I was capable of.

Anyway, my speech went relatively well and my students did great, although I missed most of the performance because the journalist wouldn’t stop asking me questions… After the program ended I was given a bouquet of flowers and people started congratulating me as if I had directed the latest production of Phantom of the Opera. I took the congratulations numbly, confused and amused by the fanfare.

The next day, a woman at the local English Club excitedly told me that I had been on TV and sent me the link. And sure enough, there was a five minute story about this new teacher-director-author, showcasing an interview with my students and me, framing the play as a masterpiece.

My students and I after the play. Here is the link to the news story.  Start at 7:50.

I’m a Teacher?

Although I am almost three months into it, it still feels strange, and almost wrong, for me to be in the role of teacher rather than student, especially since my students are almost my age. In America, I would never be considered qualified to autonomously teach 3 college classes. The responsibility is truly overwhelming, and most days I feel like an 8 year old girl “playing” teacher.

I really do enjoy what I’m doing, but so often, even though I plan and put thought into lessons, I feel disorganized and chaotic, fearing that I’m not actually being helpful to the students. Also, concerning curriculum, I thought I had understood what I was supposed to teach, but last week the head of the department informed me that students were supposed to read 500 pages a semester, and that I was supposed to have assigned them an individual reading book. I had heard of “individual reading,” but no one had told me about the minimum page requirement, so I had assigned them A Christmas Carol (100 pages :D). So the next period, I had to assign them all a 250 page book to read by the end of the semester. I thought my students would be upset, but they seemed nonplussed and accepted it in stride. I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, they have 20 years more experience than I do in this culture.

Thankfully, I was able to talk to a very helpful teacher who eased my fears a bit by giving me some details on exams and curriculum, but then came the next “Friday.”

“And by the way,” she said, “today is the last day of your course in creative writing.”

“Oh, really?” I answered calmly, but the phrase that has become my constant companion threatened to surface:

“Why did no one tell me about this!?”

If she had not casually mentioned it, I would have had no idea that my creative writing class was not indeed a full semester course. Sigh.

So yes, navigating the unwritten rules of Russian academic culture and expectations has been trying, but if I approach teaching with the right perspective, these are really peripheral issues that should not steal my energy and joy. It is the students that I am here for, and it is the students that encourage me not to become disillusioned in these transitions from student to teacher, college life to work world. Here are a few pictures of some of the fun things we’ve been doing in class:

So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we're working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we’re working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.

I’m in America?

Navigating the land with seven Fridays can really run you down, and I’ve found that the best medicine for culture-fatigue is interaction with those from one’s home culture. This is why I was so thankful to celebrate Thanksgiving with four other Fulbrighters. Nick, who works at a sports institute in Kazan, hosted us at his luxurious dormitory. And no, “luxurious” is not a sarcastic barb; Nick’s living space is truly like a hotel. The complex he lives in was built in 2010 and houses Russian student athletes. It has very tight security, and not only did Nick have to go through round after round of bureaucracy to secure us rooms, but we had to go through two checkpoints to get in.

Our two days in Kazan almost created the illusion that we had gone back to America. We savored each day slowly, exploring the city, laughing into the early hours of the morning, eating good food. Because of the limited cooking equipment we had, we actually started cooking our Thanksgiving meal (complete with a chicken that we lovingly dubbed “turkey”) at 7:30 in the evening and ate our dessert of apple pie and ice cream around 2:00 in the morning.

Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex :)
Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex 🙂

Feeling refreshed and ready to take on December, we parted ways, but of course, right outside the comfort of our American bubble lurked another “Friday.”The day before we left Kazan, I mustered up my courage and ordered a taxi for me and Hanna. Three months ago I never would have attempted it, but I’m at the point now where successfully talking on the phone in Russian gives me something akin to a runner’s high. The woman on the other line understood me and said a driver would come get us at 3:00…And yes, you guessed the punch line: 3:00 came and went, and no taxi was to be found. I called the taxi company, and the woman seemed surprised that the driver was not there, saying that she would call him “to find out what’s up.” She sounded like she was going to kick butt, but when I called her back twenty minutes later she said, “it turns out that… he left without you.”

Of course.

I forgot.

This is Russia.

Thankfully, she called another cab, and an hour and a half later, we got into our ride home. But our trip would not be complete without an authentic exemplar of Russian masculinity. A guy our age climbed into the front seat with three bottles of beer, presumably having already drunk one, and started talking to us. At first, his questions were normal, acceptable, but after his second bottle of beer, he asked us, no, demanded of us over and over that we go to the club or café with him. These invitations alternated with his telling us “enough speaking in English! I can’t understand what you’re saying.” After our third refusal, he grumbled that we were too serious and finally passed out in the front seat…

Now that I’ve been back in Elabuga for about a week, I am beginning to think that of all the cities I’ve been in Russia, Elabuga embodies this concept of seven Fridays the best, both in its outer world and in my inner life. I am constantly changing my mind about this town. Some days I feel sharply homesick and beaten down by trying to function in a culture so different from my own. Elabuga itself can be an intimidating place; it is small, close-knit, and hard to break into.  But some days, when I feel just about ready to give up, Elabuga changes my mind and hints of the romance that once drew me to Russia, enchanting me with glittery snow in the wind, life-size gingerbread houses and snow laden pines, with the smile of a jolly old man feeding hungry kitties, with the laughter of students and with the gift of homemade honey from a Russian teacher. You definitely have to look for the magic more, but it’s there.

A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.
A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.

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.

~~~~

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.

~~~~

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.

 

 

Letters to a Striving Daughter

Romans 7:23

But I see another law at work in me, waging war

against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner

 of the law of sin at work within me.

Dear daughter, it wasn’t long ago that I watched you in the kitchen, raspberry mop top framing your distressed face as you strained to sound out the word on the page. You stopped and started a few times, flustered at your shameful failure. “Dad, can you please tape over this!” you pleaded to your earthly father. At four years old, the seeds of sin were already taking root inside you; fear was sprouting in your heart, the fear that you were not, and would never be “good enough.” You, my darling, have been a perfectionist for almost your whole life. This is your signature sin. This is the prominent filthy rag of all your supposed righteousness. It is the vice that makes me weep with compassion when I see your contorted face and hopeless sobs, for your mind is diseased, blind to the truth when the weeds choke your thoughts to death.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength.

    

You are miserable because your eyes are on yourself. I was with when you spoke the lies, “I am worthless. I have nothing to offer.” These words snaked into your vulnerable mind as you read the frank comments that the program assistant had typed onto your essays for the Fulbright competition.

“A lot of work needs to be done! Lacks enthusiasm. Too dry. Work on style.” You took each of those comments as a harsh attack when they were merely meant as a push in the right direction. You were so easily wounded because your eyes were not on me; your ambitions and self-concept and self-esteem and every self-ish word in the English language was usurping the throne in your heart. You had quite the puppet government going, when you said with your lips that I was your King but muted my commands and affections for those of a crass, snorting dictator. My darling, you are miserable because this is not the purpose for which I made you. It does not matter if you are inarticulate or unintelligent in comparison to other human beings; such adjectives are not the measure of a man or a woman. In fact, I don’t measure you like you believe I do. You try so hard to tiptoe around failure, fearing that if you fail by the standards of “perfection,” I will be ashamed of you, embarrassed to have a daughter with such lazy tendencies. You expect with each “mistake” that I will angrily disown you.

I do not measure you like this. I know that you are dust. I know that you cannot exist without me. I accept you not because of an A on the paper or good reviews at work or your unfailing promptness; I accept you because my son was tortured and died in your place, and for me to ignore his passion in order to focus on your failings would be to spit on his sacrifice. I don’t call you to be “the best” at what you do. I don’t call you to please others. No, I call you to rest and to repent of trying to be me.

Isaiah 55:2

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

 Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

 

 I know that for the past four years, you have lived in a place where you feel like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar. I know that the evaluative nature of your culture’s concept of school feels like iron chains to someone with your tendencies. When you have to write a paper, depression paralyzes you, because you are convinced that you have to prove yourself again. To your professors. To your peers. To yourself. It is from those around you that you draw your strength; I ache, for you are trying to breathe through a straw when to look to me would allow you to gulp full, fresh breaths. Sometimes their words are enough to sustain you, but like a ration in wartime, it is never enough; the scratchy lump of bread only whets your appetite. If you receive an A on the paper and a contemplative nod from the professor, then you go to bed superficially happy. If, though, you received the dreaded B or blank stare, you question that anything you have ever done is worthwhile. And this, daughter, is the wrong question to ask. Nothing that you do will ever be worthwhile unless it is done in me and through me and for me.

Psalm 127:1a

Unless the Lord builds the house,

the builders labor in vain.

 

On a sleepless night a few months ago, a disturbing caricature formed in your mind. You imagined that you were attending a woman’s funeral, a P.h.D who had achieved immense success. One by one, her boss, colleagues, and son came up to speak about her. Her boss was first. He looked mournfully out into the sea of onlookers.

“She had such a beautiful resume.” He choked up, but continued. “I-I just will never forget the article she wrote on hierarchical binary opposition in Freudian linguistics.” He began to sob and quickly took his seat. Her coworker was next.

“She never missed a day of work in her life.” The coworker sniffled.  “She was prompt, gregarious, and exceeded all our expectations as a member of the organization.” She blew her nose into a white handkerchief and left the podium. Finally, the deceased woman’s son, a young man in his twenties, walked to the microphone.

“My mother was…” his voice trailed off and he bit his lip, a hint of fire in his dark eyes. “My mother was responsible.” His voice held a bitter bite. “My mother was an enthusiastic member of her firm and did everything in her power to contribute to the success of the company. She graduated with honors in her Ph.D. program, received a prestigious research grant to India, and she is venerated as one of the top researchers in America. That, my friends, was my mother.” The son violently shoved the microphone back in its place and stormed out the back door of the funeral home.

This twisted vignette disturbed you, disgusted you, chilled you, all because it revealed how utterly selfish and evil you could become if you give in to the anxious itch to control your destiny and be your own god.

Genesis 11: 4a, 6-7

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,

with a tower that reaches to the heavens,

so that we may make a name for ourselves…

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same

 language they have begun to do this,

 then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language

 so they will not understand each other.”

 

When you begin to feel your eyes being darkened by the deadlines and responsibilities and self-interest, remember my revelation to you last summer, when I showed you the view from outside the prison of perfectionism. I put your nothingness in perspective in the same way I humbled the proud builders of the tower of Babel, those who strove to make their name known through proud words and relentless work ethic.

I freed you from the fate of idolaters through confusing your language. When you arrived in Russia last summer for your language program, I placed you in the advanced class, where I knew you would be the poorest speaker in your group of six. You stuttered your way through every conversation lesson, feeling like a kindergartener trying to converse with astrophysicists. To your surprise, though, this failure did not shatter your life. In fact, your “failure” freed you to speak boldly and to laugh at your mistakes and to admit that you were human. This was no real failure though; it was a victory, the shattering of your pride by the inability to even feign this slave-driving life-sucker that you call “perfection.” No, my daughter, this messy summer where you failed and leaned on me and laughed and admitted you were human, this was much closer to my standard of perfection than your small and stingy one.

Deuteronomy 33:12

Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,

for he shields him all day long,

and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.

 

My child, this is ultimately the crux of the matter: you will not stop grabbing at control like a starving prisoner grabs for bread until you believe in my unconditional love. My definition of the word “beloved” is foreign to you, for you have always thought that to receive love, you had to earn it. You accept the love you think you deserve, which is why you tense up and refuse my embrace. You are right in one thing: you don’t deserve my love. Yet in spite of this, I love you. Without condition. You don’t yet see the beauty in this, because you want to be worthy of love. You hate the idea of someone loving you because he has to; you picture a disgruntled husband wishing he could escape the ties that bind but begrudgingly sticking with the wife because of a piece of paper he signed. I am not like that husband. I do not love you for your utilitarian value. So rest in my, my daughter, and do nothing for a while. Do not achieve. Do not strive. Do not write. You are not beloved because of these things. You are simply beloved.