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.

New Every Morning

Saturday, September 28

I stare at the blank white screen, not knowing where to begin. My thoughts are jumbled and constantly moving, as easy to grasp as a handful of water. I don’t know if I should start with the airport that was little more than a hangar: a cement floor surrounded by walls of peeling lead paint. Or if I should tell you about the people I met, from strange characters who could have come straight out of a Dostoevsky novel to the kind women who helped me find my way when I got lost in the city. Maybe I should try to describe the emotions brought on by fatigue and new people, by a foreign culture and a lack of access to constant communication with those I love. But perhaps the best place to start would be with the One whose strength gives me hope in the midst of chaos, whose hand has been abundantly evident in this period of the foggy unknown.

My thoughts are jumbled and I am overwhelmed, but in the midst of overwhelming weakness, He has been faithful and has enveloped me in His love.

My introduction to the university was a whirlwind, after which I felt like I knew even less about what I would be doing than before I arrived. The people I met ranged from silent and detached to exuberant and energetic, but no matter the personality type, each new person seemed overwhelming and scary. While trying to settle into my new home that afternoon, a teacher’s dorm not far from the school, the emotion-charged thought kept attacking me: “What on earth are you doing here! Why did you decide to do this?” The fact that I was going to be here for 9 months started to sink in, and all I could think about was how alone I felt. As I was taking cold medicine, the morbid thought went through my head that if I choked on the pills, no one would find me for at least three days.

I felt desperate for contact with a loved one, and for that I needed Wi-Fi, so I set out into the rainy city, knowing only a vague idea of where I was going. Of course, I got lost. Marshrutkas (minibuses) and I have always had a rocky relationship, so I certainly wasn’t surprised when I jumped on and got in a position on the crammed bus where I couldn’t see out the window. After about 3 stops, I exited the bus and had no idea where I was. I asked a teenage girl for directions to the café I was looking for, and she seemed helpful. Apparently though, I couldn’t follow directions, because I wandered around for another hour, eventually asking someone else. I eventually found Café Shishka (Café Pinecone-great name, right?) and felt like a starving man who had just found a Thanksgiving feast. I went in, ordered smetanik, a distant cousin of cheesecake, and to my relief, was able to get through to my mom on Skype.

After talking with her, I had the task of finding my way back to my dorm. I stopped at a store for a few groceries, and the young woman working there named Irina started a conversation with me. After finding out I was new to the city, she offered me her phone number in case I needed help. Through grateful tears, I accepted, and began the search for my dorm with a bit more hope in my heart. I did finally find it, and I slept 15 hours before venturing out again into the city. This time I avoided public transportation and decided to walk, and after about an hour, I was able to find a telephone store, get internet working on my phone, and find the internet café I had been to the day before. It was here that I was able to connect with a good friend who is also living abroad, and our conversation filled me with encouragement and perspective.

After I hung up the phone, I walked out of the café with the first genuine smile I have shown in the past two days, even giggling a little in joy at the vastness and love and care of God, at his constant holding of my hand in the midst of change, of his abundant gifts in the forms of Irina’s kindness and an internet café and the encouragement of a friend. I have no idea what this week will bring, but I am convinced that God is good and that God is working. I am weak, I am tired, and I am overwhelmed, but I have hope because I believe, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” To Him be the glory in this crazy adventure.

Lamentations 3:22-23

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Sunday, September 29

I walked out into the rain this morning, intent on finding the church I had looked up online. I left a good fifty minutes before the service to give myself time, but lo and behold, the church turned out to be less than a five minute walk from my dorm! I opened the heavy wooden gate with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness, but as soon as I walked in, I was welcomed by the pastor and was soon in a flurry of conversations with women from the church. I was glad I had dressed conservatively: no jewelry and a longish skirt, but I didn’t anticipate that all women were expected to wear head coverings. From my experience in Bryansk, Russia, only married women wore headscarves. I explained my plight and told them I hoped I didn’t offend them, and a stout and exuberant middle-aged woman named Ekaterina told me not to worry about it and gave me an extra scarf.

The pastor asked me to speak a few words to the church about who I was and why I was here, so after the sermon, I walked up to the front of the church and told them about myself and how my family and I had prayed that I would find a church. Echoes of “slava bogu” (praise God!) rang throughout the small building, and Ekaterina even shed a tear. After the service I met a younger woman named Luba who offered to show me around the city next week, and an older woman named Olga invited me to eat with them. They took me to the basement with a few other families from the church, where we ate boiled buckwheat with carrots and chicken, followed by tea with cookies and candy. They asked me lots of questions about America, and they told me a little bit about the history of their church. It is definitely not what I am used to; it is clearly much more conservative than any church I have been to in America, but despite the differences, I felt truly welcomed. As I left, one of the women, Olga, gave me her phone number and told me to call her if I need anything. As I trekked back to the dorm through mud decorated with yellow fall leaves, I thanked God for his provision, for answering my prayers in a way that was abundantly more than I asked or imagined.

I start work tomorrow, and I have no idea what to expect, but I am not as scared as I was before. The last few days, where I have gone from weakness and almost despair to strength and joy have vividly illustrated God’s intimate care for my life.

Destination: Unknown

Ten years ago, I sat huddled inside a bus with dingy drapes, the steady beat of potholes jarring my head as I tried in vain to rest against the cold window. As I shivered and peered out the glass into the darkness of a Russian night, two questions circled, “where on earth am I going, and what have I gotten myself into?” I sat scared and vulnerable, my mind’s projections of my destination making me wish I could turn the bus around. Fettered by the unknown, I had no idea that I would be swept up into an adventure that would radically change the direction of my life, that I would meet people who would leave indelible marks on my heart, and that I would experience God’s faithfulness with a beauty and depth I had never known. No, all I could see that night was darkness.

In the same way, these last four months have felt similar to that dark night as a twelve year old on my way to Russia for the first time. Anxiety loves to feed off the unknown, and these past four months have been a constant tug-of-war between feeding the indefinite to my anxiety or to my God.

In the waiting, the voice of fear has been a constant attacker, tainting the joy that should be bubbling over. Fear loves to make me turn inward and focus on me and my abilities: “What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are? What do you know about teaching? You are inarticulate and will fall flat on your face.” Fear loves to fill my mind with the soundtrack of human approval:  “What if you don’t live up to the university’s expectations? What if everything you do is met with frustration and misunderstanding? What if your students don’t like you?” In short, fear loves to get my mind off God and onto the idols of self and others.

Fear wants to make this adventure smaller; it wants to tame it into something manageable and shaped like me. Fear wants me to lose sight of the vastness of God’s plan and have me settle for something comfortable and controllable. I serve the God who not only created the universe, but redeemed me from my sin, and I don’t want to spit on the sacrifice he made for my freedom by acting as if I were still a slave.

But right now, I feel just as blinded to the vastness of God’s plan as I did when I was on that bus ten years ago. I have two choices in this blindness: fear or faith. When I submit to fear because of my lack of sight, I begin to feel like a shell of myself. Instead of adventurous, I feel apprehensive. Instead of full of life and enthusiasm, I feel bottled, restrained and cold. Instead of joyful, I feel depressed; instead of active, I feel passive. But when I choose confidence in the unseen because of the God whose hand I do see, my anxiety is exchanged for joy, freedom, and perspective.

So in this period of the “night bus,” while my vision is foggy and my mind tempted to fear, I want to walk confidently into the future as Abraham did, who, “by faith…when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)

A Psalm of Life

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.