Layers

The mystery of layers: it has haunted in that awkward place between thought and words since I became older than I ever imagined I could be, marinating in a mixture of memories and color.

The layers are becoming too thick to bear, scratchy as an old wool sweater. Year by year, the stories pile, nestle themselves on top of each other, enveloping me with heat.

Sometimes the layers make a kind of macrocosmic sense; the camera pans out, and my cord in the tapestry of God’s faithfulness is illuminated by a sunset cast in the right light or by a moment of starry clarity in a vivid, lonely contentment.

But lately, the layers climb higher and higher until I feel trapped in my own story and the stories that have built it; I grasp at photographs and memories of vivid, lonely contentment on a road that I loved and hated for 10 years, then 9 months.

Is there a limit to the stories we can bear? Is it possible for the memories to usurp the joy of the mundane, and if so, can they somehow still be held as dear without anchoring us to the past?

To repeat the same stories again and again shows how tightly I hold the experiences as markers of identity: getting stitched up by Konstantine the Dentist, escaping the kiss from the Russian soldier on the train, discovering Eden, falling in love with a place and people in a Narnia-like journey 12 years ago…I play these stories on repeat, identifying with the past, bathing in the past until I prune up, because maybe the future scares me a little more than I know.

Alyosha Karamazov once told a group of boys emerging into manhood that one of the most vital things they could do was to remember one good memory from childhood. I’ve always found this ending to The Brothers Karamazov to be anticlimactic, disappointing. But as the years write layers thicker and thicker and the road winds more unexpected than my child self could envision, I nod at Alyosha in understanding. When the future stands over you with a smirk, the past can be a warm hand to hold.

But with the looking back comes the human tendency to dis-member then re-member the past into one where He was not faithful. And if He was then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of the layers that I certainly did not choose.

Bluntness: when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

Question set number two: how can I re-member the memories that I so often dis-member? How can I love Him more than I love my own little story? How can I skydive trustfully into the future instead of pacing within the confines of a stale old temper tantrum?

The questions remain.

The answers are there, age old and simple, yet as hard to submit to as they were for Abraham, Sarah, Naomi, Job, David and the whole cloud of witnesses.

The answers are there, the Answer is there, waiting with open arms to be the constant I have sought in the files of my own identity. So in a conclusion of the heart, I say that I submit, but that I also know I will have to re-submit by hour, by minute. To unclench my fists and breathe in the next unexpected, beautiful layer.

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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.

~

I was reintroduced to English on the plane when a middle-aged southern “gentleman” shouted out as I walked by “you’re lovely!” Though the timing was right, in my two-day old clothes with hair slicked back in a braid and my nerd glasses on, I doubted he was referring to me. My doubts evaporated when he followed me down to the basement floor where the bathrooms were and exclaimed “you’re positively lovely!”

I didn’t go to the bathroom the rest of the plane ride.

~

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, she looked at me matter-of-factly and said,

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

All I could do was laugh.

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

Russia: the Best Boot Camp for People Pleasers

“And who’s going to close the door, ah!?” I cringed at the bus driver’s sharp yell as I realized it was directed at yours truly. Although logically I knew his sarcastic barb had nothing to do with me as a person, my emotional reaction outshouted any sense of logic, and tears of shame came to my eyes. Being a sensitive person has often served me well; I am the thermometer of the mood in the room, intuitively sensing how people are feeling and easily empathizing with those who are struggling. But this trait also has a negative side that is manifested in the familiar paralysis of people pleasing. Because I am so in tune with people’s moods, especially bad ones, for much of my life I have lived in fear, carefully meting out my words and actions all in a preemptive measure against “people being mad at me,” especially authority figures. This fear has been so great it has been a slave driver directing my steps; so many of the “good” things I have done have been products of this prison of fear.  I have avoided people’s anger or disdain by being the student who always does her homework, by going above and beyond at work, by not voicing my opinions or needs in order to maintain a sense of harmony.

There is a precious little cat who sits on the steps outside of my dorm, the kind I would love to sit down with and pet and speak baby talk to. But whenever he sees me coming, he recoils in fear and darts away, anticipating that I will hit or kick him. Every time he dashes away in fear, I feel sad, wishing that he knew that his fear of me had no roots in reality, but were a construction of his imagination. In the same way, although I have managed to create a semblance of safety through carefully manipulating my actions, I too am constantly bracing myself for an attack that likely only exists in the realm of my imagination.

In America, I know how to work the system; I know how to keep myself “safe.” But here, I am expected to play by a list of unwritten rules that I learn along the way. I am destined to make cultural faux pas in public and in the workplace, and there is no way I can even create the guise of pleasing everyone. At first, this knowledge was unnerving, my carefully constructed armor of “doing what is expected of me” useless in a place where expectations are high, yet fluid and vague. At first, the scolding on the street and the rudeness of store workers produced shame in me, taking their words as an attack on my character. But now I am beginning to see that perhaps Russia is the best boot camp for a people pleaser; I have to face my fear of being misunderstood and disliked, challenged to get to the root of the problem instead of throwing a Band-Aid on the wound and letting it fester.

So why has it been so important to me to please people? I am learning that one of the main reasons is because I define myself by others’ opinions of me. If a boss expresses that I’m lazy or disorganized, it means that I am. If a boss thinks I am a hard-working team member, it is gospel truth. This thinking gives an inordinate amount of power to the opinion of someone who only sees my superficial output, and in reality, probably doesn’t care as much as I think he does. Like the saying goes, “when you worry about what people think about you, relax: they are not thinking of you at all.”

My favorite short story by Anton Chekhov tells the tale of a man named Chervyakov who accidentally sneezes on one of his superiors at the opera. After apologizing to the general once, because of the gruff dismissal of his apology, Chervyakov tortures himself, convinced that the  man is angry with him, and throughout the rest of the story repeatedly apologizes. Eventually, the general, sick of the obsequious pestering, does explode in anger. At the general’s outburst, Chervyakov is promptly overcome by stomach pain, goes home, and dies. This is my go-to story whenever I realize that I am taking people’s opinions of me to seriously. While I am creating an elaborate drama in my mind, in reality, it is likely nothing more than a sneeze.

And in mother Russia, I realized something had to change in my thinking, or I would end just like Chervyakov, worrying myself to death because others were not validating my sense of worth. And the lovely process of renewing my visa would be a perfect way to fight my fear head on. Three weeks ago, I traveled to Kazan early in the morning with the head of my department to pass in documents for visa renewal. After a sleepless night and a three hour ride, in an anticlimactic flop, a thin middle-aged woman with short hair and an unsmiling face said that it was too early and that we needed to come back in two weeks. Oh, and there was something wrong written in my contract (which had taken 3 days to put together, with signature after signature!). The head of my department accepted her answer and I followed his lead, thinking that this was just a part of the process, not knowing I had the right to fight.

A few weeks later, I was nervously preparing my paperwork for Kazan attempt #2 when one of the teachers in the department noticed my furrowed brow. “You look sad today. What’s wrong?” I told her what had happened last time, and she quickly and confidently replied, “You should have stayed and told her you wouldn’t leave until she helped you.”

“Really?” I said.

“I think you need to be pushy anywhere if you want to get things done. No one else is going to care about it unless you care about it. You should have explained that you had driven for three hours and you can’t constantly be making these trips. I read your blog and I felt bad because I thought, ‘this poor girl doesn’t know how to stand up for herself.’”

In our conversation, something clicked; I realized that standing up for myself and ruffling others’ feathers was not synonymous with being a terrible person. Being impolite is not a crime, and here, directness is synonymous with strength.  I knew it would not come naturally to me to be pushy or to stand up to this woman, after years of conditioning my speech and actions to elicit the best response from others. What if she yelled at me? What if she scolded me? What if? And then the truth started to poke its way through the prison bars I had lived in for years. Simple, true words. If she thinks I am a stupid American, it doesn’t mean I am stupid. If she acts like I am imposing on her, I don’t need to leave. It’s her job. This time, I went to the office in Kazan by myself. Early Monday morning I marched up steep steps and entered the office of the same disgruntled woman. She looked at me as if I were a fly she wanted to swat away, but I continued as best as I could, introducing myself and saying I was here to renew my visa.

“Documents,” she said languidly. I gave them to her, she scanned them, then said in a suffering, condescending tone, “Of course you did it wrong.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Sit down please,” she growl-sighed, the “please” not fitting her tone. By her demeanor, you would think I had just given her ten hours of work.

“I have a flash drive with me. We can change it right here.” I insisted.

I heard a spark of something closer to humanity when she replied, “Alright, we’ll do that.” She changed the paperwork; I signed it again, and in ten minutes, I was done. As I had expected, she had indeed treated me like a “stupid American” who had stolen hours of her day. But this was a victory for me, because I advocated for myself despite her rudeness, not letting her reaction shape the way I felt about myself. I was a confident young American ready to do what she needed to do to stay in this country. I did not yell, I did not make a scene, but was quietly insistent and did not apologize for my being there.

I have had some hard days here, but experiences like these push me to grow in a way I don’t think I would if I were in America. Here, I am forced out of my comfort zone, forced to examine my fears at their roots and battle them instead of avoiding them. This Russian boot camp is exhausting and stretching and perplexing, but I am convinced that in the end, it will all be worth it.

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.

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