Monday, January 29


Marcel (from this season's "Top Chef"), B, Chandra Wilson (from "Grey's Anatomy") and I were the finalists of a culinary competition. In the middle of war-torn modern-day Moscow, we were given oasis in a posh hotel and ordered to work together to rustle up a three-course birthday dinner for a Muscovite big-wig and a large group of her hotsy-totsy friends. The four of us gathered in the lobby of the posh hotel, and I put forth what I thought was a very mature, very innovative, and very interesting menu. Stuffed appetizers using a very delicate pastry shell that would be hand-made, a succulent protein dish accompanied by fresh vegetables unseen in Moscow at this time of year, an unusual dessert mixing sweet and spicy. I spoke in a friendly voice, making eye contact with everyone on the team, and ended my suggestions with the question, "what do you guys think?" really meaning that I cared what the team thought. Chandra was on my side but she is quiet in character and so did not speak up. B was silent, and I boiled inside, seeing this as a complete lack of the support that he had promised to me. Marcel cocked his head, the cocky bastard, and proceeded to denigrate my suggestions and instead proposed finger sandwiches (amateur!), chicken wings ("because these Russians love anything American!") and a tossed salad ("to have something green on the table"). Because nobody protested and I did not want to fight, Marcel's menu passed the team's muster. I fumed. Such a childish, amateur menu would surely take us out of the rest of the competition.

We left the hotel lobby to go shopping at Whole Foods Market. Two had opened mere storefronts apart from each other on the same street in Moscow, and our hotel's door happened to stand right in the middle, equidistant from each Whole Foods Market. I stepped to my left, thinking the one I had chosen to go to was a tad bit closer. In any event, the check-out lanes were better arranged and the produce was fresher there. But the three other members of the team walked to their right and we all took a few steps before realizing that we weren't a complete group. I had no choice but to go along with the majority, and again I fumed that B, my best friend, seemed not to know my mind and reasons, and seemed voiceless to stand up for me. As we walked along the sidewalk in tense friendliness toward the Whole Foods Market, my handler -- for I was a spy, you see -- brushed by me and passed me a note containing my next instructions. I felt so stressed out. Not only did I have a three-course meal to cook with a bunch of amateur knuckleheads in just an hour and a half, but now I had to complete a spy mission that could have international repercussions. A woman's work ...

The cooking competition had finished, and sure enough, we lost. Our entire team was eliminated from future rounds and we were all sent home. I read the note that had been passed to me by my handler. It instructed me to keep an eye on B and make sure that he did not follow me or interfere with my departure from Moscow that evening. This frightened me -- I had trusted B implicitly and confided in him so many things. And I was supposed to return with him to the home we shared! I struggled, "was B working for the enemy, and would I have to take him out or get killed myself?" I fretted as I got into my SUV and drove down an empty and rainy Moscow main drag. I headed towards the highway and tried to concentrate on the task at hand as I peered through the rainy windshield to read the road signs; I had to make sure I was going in the right direction, and I had to get home before B did. All of a sudden, a toll plaza came upon me, and it hit me that I did not know whether I had my EZ-Pass tag with me. The toll plaza was coming up fast, for I had been driving very speedily and did not want to brake too hard on the slick asphalt. I headed toward a cash-only booth even though I knew I no longer had any Russian rubles in my wallet and would be unable to pay the toll in cash. At the last minute, my right-hand -- rummaging about in the center console of my car -- made contact with the EZ-Pass tag, and I swerved violently to get into the EZ-Pass lane to my right. I barely missed the concrete barrier separating the toll lanes and manged to slow down just enough to have the scanner accurately read my EZ-Pass tag.

I thought I had gotten off scot-free when I saw the spinning lights of a Moscow police car aimed at me, directing me to pull over. I thanked God that I knew enough Russian to butter up the police and rolled my window down, ready for the brow-beating I'd get about my violent and unsafe driving. Instead, the officer strode up to my window, stuck his head in and whispered, "B is not your enemy. Go to him now, he is waiting for you to take you away. You must trust him and take this to him. When you go with him, you will be safe, and your work here will be finished. Don't worry, Marcel is finished." Then he handed me an envelope, straightened up and strode back to his police vehicle. I felt such relief that B was not a traitor after all and that I could go home to him in peace. I tucked the envelope away in my shoulder bag and put my car in gear. I had been pulled over in a rest area, so I had to maneuver around a couple of very small cars -- ah, these Europeans -- before I could get back on the highway. It was nighttime but the rain had stopped; the roads were still wet, but I did not pick up too much speed. I just coasted along on the highway, glad to put the cooking competition and my spywork behind me.

Sunday, January 28


I am seriously good at completing the last-minute task.



I'm still fighting for my joy.

Some things that are helping me:

We had to wait for three hours in Kiev's Borispol Airport because of a communication mix-up. I count those as some of the most surreal hours of my life.

I sometimes enjoy graffiti (looking at it, not creating it).
But I always enjoy misspelled graffiti.

This is just happiness.

This is just silliness.

Fresh air, a brisk walk and good conversation every day.
My endorphins were popping like mad.

Thursday, January 25


I had a full day of meetings with my students and their parents, one set after another. My role as truth-teller isn't easy. I have to sit each student down and basically tell them all the things that are wrong with them, in front of their parents who may or may not take deep umbrage at my honest words. This afternoon, I was meeting with a rebellious queen-bee middle school girl and her combative mother. I sat with the two of them in a claustrophobic meeting room and lit into the girl with "You are a bitch and you think you're popular now, but if you don't change, you're going to end up with no real friends" and "You can be a queen bee here in middle school, but in the real world, they don't put up with awful human beings like you." Then I turned to the mother with "If you don't control your daughter, you are going to regret giving birth to her in the first place" and "Stop being such a wimp and start being a parent, damn it!" I left the meeting with the mother's protests ringing in my ears to submit my report to the school principal. As I left the principal's office, I heard the girl and her mother enter behind me and start screaming at the principal to have me fired for rudeness. "I'm just being honest," I thought to myself as I exited the school building.

When I stepped outside, my prim suit was gone and I wore a tie-dyed t-shirt and plaid shorts. I started skipping down the sidewalk in a lightly-falling rain, and as the rain fell harder and harder, I raised my hands up to the sky and started laughing in freedom, so glad to be out of that school building filled with wretched little adolescent brats. And in a blink of an eye, the winds picked up and the rain was so heavy on my head and in my eyes and nose that I could barely take a breath. I could not keep my eyes open against the lashing rain, and I struggled to find my car and open the door to get inside. I was sopping wet as I lurched into my SUV, but before I could lock the door behind me, a student tried to open the door and get inside too, away from the driving hurricane-force wind and rain, but I pushed him away with both hands and slammed the door shut. Wiping my plastered hair out of my face, I started the engine and tried to drive out of the school parking lot, but pavement construction had closed various lanes and exit routes, so I wound around and around in the parking lot looking for the correct way out.

And as I tried to wend my way through the confusion of orange construction cones and re-drawn lane markings, I developed a violent craving for coffee-flavored soft-serve ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery. And not just the ice cream, but I wanted it in a bowl mixed with fresh strawberries and hot chocolate syrup. But I knew that would be too sweet, so I decided that I would order a child-size bowl instead of the regular small bowl which really isn't all that small and is actually sort of obscenely large. I tried to figure out how to work in a stop to Cold Stone Creamery, because I also had to head to Borders for the rest of the afternoon to work on an essay I'm writing for my church newsletter, so I thought that perhaps I could buy the ice cream first, then speed the ten minutes north to the bookstore and the folks at Borders would not complain about me bringing in outside food.

And then I woke from my two-hour nap.

Friday, January 19


It's crisp and cold tonight. Wouldn't want to be out there too long ... except to gaze longer at the perfect night sky. There are fewer and fewer these days who would appreciate this night's heavens with me. I hope one of them is safe and sound, and resting a much-needed rest.



Girlfriends are for lots of things. But girlfriends are especially for being really good at sympathizing completely with you about an ache; threatening to beat up the one who caused the ache; reiterating that no matter what, they are on your side first before being on anyone else's side; rolling their eyes at appropriate moments when you're telling your story; nodding vigorously when you need them to affirm a course of action; and finally, knocking some good old sense into you after all the griping is finished.



We have become a community that finds delicious joy in:
    - drinking coffee or tea
    - talking about aches, pains and sales at the grocery store
    - playing intense rounds of Scrabble
    - playing noisy rounds of mah-jong
    - making dinner for each other because ordering in is just too expensive

We would be utterly happy and content in a nursing home.



Originally uploaded by chaesq.
Human Bob put it this way: if you stretch the analogy, our life these days is sort of like "The Manchurian Candidate," where brainwashed former soldiers start having flashbacks and similar dreams and can't identify the source at first. He and I (and probably others) are feeling an unknown longing, a strong feeling that is difficult to describe, for Kremenchuk and the friends we left there. It's not a feeling that can be easily chalked up to good memories of good times, and then shelved. Mabel asked me today who received the most from our trip, and I couldn't give her one name because I could see ways in which each person received the maximum that they could have from the pool of the grace of God. And as I catalogued my observances and intuitions, I realized that I had received the understanding of how important my new friends are to me, and how I might have to obey God's call to go and be with them someday, here on earth. Massive. What a fulfillment of longing that would be.

We had a huge round of introductions the evening of our first full day with NHC, Wednesday, January 3rd. Then we herded ourselves over into the main hall of the Palace of Culture (essentially the local community center) to take this group photograph. It is as if my family tree exploded.

Thursday, January 18

Originally uploaded by chaesq.
It's snowing outside right now. Watching the flakes drop down through the grey, seeing people rush by in bundled up huddles, together with reading an email from dear Luda (one of our interpreters who quickly became a beloved sister and friend) makes me really, really ... miss Kremenchuk.

I'm starting to parse through my days there. It will be a long and laborious process, and some important words of encouragement given last night give me the joy needed to wade through it.

Tuesday, January 16


When the one doing the resting is a Christian, the peace part comes naturally -- we shouldn't worry or fret over that, or even wish it for him. It's a given. It's the ones left behind who need the wish, to rest in peace, to hope for peaceful rest.

Our extended family has sent two home over the last week. They started their most peaceful rest the minute they took their last breaths; it is our restlessness that begins now. Ironic, really.

Watching the families grieve, mourn, then celebrate the lives of their beloveds creates in me new hopes. Hope that one awful (but ironically peaceful) day, I too, will be able to accurately portray the beauty and faith and wonder that was my father, my mother. Hope that I will know the love of family and friends as deeply, as evidenced by those standing five rows deep at the back of the hall. Hope that I, too, will be able to confidently profess that God is sovereign and that He is good and that He is with me always. Hope that when it's time for me to go home, I, too, will leave a legacy of faith that gives hope to those I leave restless.



I have had difficulty adjusting to being back in the States. I knew to expect some of it -- there is a "high" after short-term mission trips that is similar to the high that one experiences during weekend retreats, or weeklong conferences, or even a really fantastic Sunday service. I knew to ward off the high for its falseness, and to embrace it for what is true within it.

So no, I don't think it's the high, and thus the ensuing low. I miss Kremenchuk. I miss the people at New Hope Church. I miss the muddy streets and the crowded buses and the mystery of how cars move about on unmarked lanes without crashing into each other. I miss the written Cyrillic alphabet and the lilt of spoken Russian. I miss the way people embrace each other and sit close to each other without awareness of anything other than being close to a loved one. I miss the feeling of being completely enclosed in love. I miss the smells, the tastes, oh, the tastes!, the sights, the sounds. I miss ... gasp, I even miss the feeling of having to muster up the courage to pee (or poo) in the Eastern-style toilets (a/k/a, ceramic holes in the ground over which one must squat). I miss knowing that I had to rely on no one but God Himself, and I miss having that reliance be rewarded.

I am aimless here. I feel like I have no purpose here. It's not even like our team did so much over there; no, we just pitched in and helped out where we could, and darn it if we didn't have a complete and utter blast in the process. I guess ... I guess I just saw a glimpse of heaven, and I really, really liked it.

It's hard to talk of these things. It has been hard for me to talk about those ten days in Kremenchuk at all. People ask, and I'm sure they ask because they honestly want to know. But they don't have the attention span or the patience to hear all that would pour forth from me, and I don't think I have the stamina for that either. So I catch myself between a hard place and another hard place. And I beg God to not let the memories in my mind fade, for I cling to them for meaning and purpose and guidance. Come to think of it, my difficulty lies not just in my missing Kremenchuk so much, but feeling like if I talk about my days there, that will mean that I'm really not there anymore, that the experience really is over, and that I can only speak of it in the past tense. My word, that breaks my heart and makes my stomach sink.

I think that perhaps my folly lies in wanting to tell everything at once. Or worse, to go chronologically, as if that would make more sense to my own ears and the ears of those willing to listen. No, I think I'll just ... tell stories. I'm not particularly good at telling stories; I'm better at punctuating others' tales with short witticisms (I try) of my own. Sprinkles of freshly ground black pepper on verbal pasta, let's say. But I'll try to tell stories, as they come, as they reformulate in my memory. There are such good stories, I dare say they'll tell themselves.

My only request ... please listen, read, receive with grace. Those ten days in Ukraine meant -- mean -- so much to me. Their blood is my blood and their lives are my life. Telling stories from those ten days is like taking pages from my own autobiography. I tell them with great faith in the listener.



Part of the restlessness is tied to things that were here before I left and still show themselves upon my return. I replay two particular days in Ukraine over and over again in my head ... and wish so hard, pray so hard, beg so hard that they would somehow be repeated here in New York.

It was just like old times, but better, because something about being there just added extra spice, that some kind of specialness, as if Disney sparkles exploded everywhere, dotting every chuckle, glancing off every wink, floating off the end of every sentence, sparking off of every touch. Walking on ice turned into running firmly with glee, and it was free and easy, eventually.

Not so here. Ukraine was real, but unfortunately, so is New York. Boy, do I ever wish I was back there right now, and boy, do I ever wish I could have a second chance.



I developed my first wart while I was in Kremenchuk. A teeny-tiny thing, the size of two pin-pricks, perhaps, on the right side of my right middle finger. I do love showing it off, if only because I get to jauntily waggle my middle finger at people. I'm not even entirely certain that it's a wart; I don't think that I have had one before, so I have no frame of reference. But it looks like what I think a wart would look like, and the idea of having a wart sort of cracks me up, makes me giggle, makes me want to waggle my middle finger at people to show it off. It's gotten hard and is beginning to fall off; even now, it's just hanging on by a thread of dry skin. Strange, but I think I'll miss it when it's gone.

Thursday, January 11

(I'M A NERD) . . .

(Psst. The iPhone is amazing.)
HOME . . .

The concept of home is suddenly fluid to me. It used to mean my parents' house: the place where I go to let everything hang out, walk around in my shabbiest clothes, stuff my face, sleep in, pee with the door open. Then I got my own home, and now I find myself doing those things in TWO places. Then all these other types of homes started cropping up all about me. Homes shaped like churches, people's living rooms, the embraces of my closest friends, the email exchanges lasting throughout the night, in the arms of special people, and long car rides.

I have just returned home from another home. Kremenchuk, Ukraine, dropped smack in the middle of the country on the banks of the Dnieper River. Not much to speak of it. It's a small industrial city. Poor. Dirty. Politically disillusioned. Heavily Orthodox with no clear vision of who Christ is. Mostly highly educated but rife with corruption and an inability to get ahead on one's own brains and merits. But to me, it was gorgeous and it felt like home, and more than once, the thought occurred to me that I could set up a house there. Alright, so it would be more like a tiny, cramped apartment with no working elevator, but homes have been built of much less.

For all the things that I forget -- appointments, people's names, the fact that the friend standing in front of me with the bulging belly is pregnant -- I did not forget a sizeable fraction of my Russian. There's nothing like whipping out a language that has lain dormant in the back of my skull for the last 14 years. But there it came, more and more each day, until I found myself on the last day, in the hotel in Kiev, actually translating for our translator. Stick a fork in me, my work here is done!

I, and the rest of our team, felt adopted, and it was the warmest, cuddliest feeling of all. But then beyond that, I feel like I found a long-lost sibling. Meeting the New Hope Church (tell me you love God's sense of humour and that you too can imagine Him clapping His hands in thunderous glee at having New Hope meet New Hope) was like a large, long-overdue family reunion. If it weren't for the physical presence of our interpreters, smoothly interjecting here and there, I wonder if at some point, we might have thought that we were all actually speaking the same language after all. I saw in each face of the New Hope members mirrored faces of our New Hope members. And when I was invited to come back and live with some of the older women whose own daughters had long since left home, the idea wasn't so impossible to me. People go and live with their relatives all the time, don't they?

When families reunite, when long-lost siblings come back into the fold, it can happen that resentments, bitternesses, conflicts arise. "Where were you when this happened?" "Why didn't you try to find us?" "You are too different from us to be a real part of our family now." But no, not with New Hope and New Hope. Instead, I heard and saw echoes of "I'm so glad we finally found each other." "I'm so happy to have a second home here with you." "I can't wait until you come and visit my home." "When will we see each other again?" "How can I know more about your life and who you are, and how can I possibly love you more than I do now?" "How did I ever live without you?" No sibling rivalry, no jealousy, no competition. Just gladness for a separated family brought together in one place.

That's just scratching the surface. Even for one as wordy as myself ... words utterly fail me. I can't make my mind move slowly enough to conjure up the correct words, the accurate emotions, the clearest pictures. I can't type fast enough, I can't speak fast enough. My heart is too full, I wonder if I can tell even one story without weeping for pure joy, such joy as I have not experienced in what seems like months.

So there is so much more to say, but for now, I'll end with this: there is something remarkable about seeing how big the world actually is. It takes a long time to get to Kremenchuk, Ukraine, and it takes a long time to get back. The world is bigger than just the United States, and I dare say, as much as I love this country and would defend it to the death, the rest of the world has some phenomenal things and people of its own. Would that we would absorb as much as we would impose. But there's another side to that coin: it's also remarkable how small the world is. When I looked out the airplane window upon our descent into Kiev's airport, and I stretched my eyeballs out over what I could see of the rest of the country, it was amazing to me to think that God created and loves not just my town, in my state, in my country, on my continent. He also created and loves Kiev, in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, in Europe, across the pond from my wee little home. God is that big; we are that small. And yet, He would make us great alongside Him, He loves us that much. To then arrive at New Hope Church and hear their praise team -- a bit of a mirror of our own worship team, I dare say, and I CAN'T WAIT UNTIL THE TWAIN SHALL MEET! -- singing familiar songs in Russian ... how can I tell you how full my heart was? How can I tell you how stirring it is to not understand a single word that is being sung, but at the same time to understand EVERY word that is being sung? How can I tell you how beautiful the Russian language is when it is being spoken in faithful prayer and lifted up in joyous song? How can I tell you how humbling it is to hear a song we sing at least once a month being sung in Russian and recognizing that it means just as much to them as it does to us, that we don't have a monopoly on praise songs and how to sing them "correctly?" This is not a lecture about the cross-cultural experience and the awareness that English is not the master language. No, this is bigger than that. This is an acknowledgement that God knows all languages and He accepts our praises in whatever words we would lift them up to Him, that He is great and we are small, but that when we arrive in Heaven, we can speak whatever language we want and we'll be able to understand each other and sing together, and we will be in glory too.


FRENZY . . .

There are many kinds of frenzy. There's the frenzy I was in prior to leaving for Kremenchuk, having to make sure everything for the team and our travels and our upcoming week was in place, and then having to turn attention to myself to make sure I had held my mail, unplugged my appliances, packed enough underwear. There's the frenzy of keeping together at the airport, not losing someone at customs, waiting for those who got held up at passport control, and getting us all to the destination in one mostly-sane piece. This frenzy is joy, for what is coming, for what has been kept safe, and in anticipation of greatness.

Then there's another kind of frenzy. There's the frenzy of making phone calls to pass along bad news, that three of our own are suffering great losses, and that we have to rally around them. There's the frenzy of making sure the families are ok, that they are eating and sleeping and functioning properly. There's the frenzy of offering help, assistance, money, food, friendship, sympathy. There's the frenzy of keeping your energy up so that you have enough not just for yourself to live a day, but to give some away to the ones who are being drained of their own. In this frenzy, it's hard to find the joy and to look forward, not that anyone would demand such things.

We each day expend both kinds of frenzy. And in moments like this, we gladly expend as much as we can of the latter frenzy for beloved Kenny, Mabel and Kwonno. And I'm reminded of some wise words that were spoken to me this past week: fight for your joy. It's there for the getting, and grief and pain may cover it for a time, but the joy that is worth fighting for always, always surfaces.

Father, receive them with love and gladness,
because two more of your beloved sons are home.