Monday, July 28, 2014

Confessions of a wuss

It has long been a fatal flaw of mine how easily downtrodden I am by failure, or the simple disappointments of living. I don't have a lot of what the psychologists call resilience. I think maybe neuroticism runs in the genes. And lately, more than ever, I can't shake (transcend?) this self-assessment. That teenaged angst is back. And today especially, I feel like a basket case. For whatever reason, today I am overcome by dread, by fear, by defeatism. When I came home I crawled into bed and let the tears I've been holding back all day just sneak out of the corners of my eyes. Today I'm longing for wholeness but feeling so decidedly crooked. I feel as though I can see the tunnel looming ahead. I feel the warning, to hunker down, to take cover, to anchor myself, like a rheumatism lending those first aches before the rain comes. (And, I mean, that's the kind of thinking I keep freaking myself out with.) 

But the dull defeat of today unwittingly gave me a wish list, or maybe more appropriately, two fervent requests, things that I want so very much, with new realness and sincerity. 

The first? Gimme grace. Though I feel like a pansy for being overwhelmed in a life that is just so great right now, the reality is that I am overwhelmed. I'm going through a lot of change, and change is stressful, and there's grace for experiencing that. I'm back from a year in a new culture that changed something inside me. I'm starting a new job and a new school in a beloved but still mostly new city. I'm carving out a new routine and looking for new housing. Is it all great? Yes, I cannot suffer you with a complaint, it is all such a huge privilege. It's not that I'm justified in feeling stressed and overwhelmed. But I do feel that way. Does that make me a wuss, okay, maybe, totally. But so what? I'm a wuss. I am. It's okay. There's grace for that.

Which brings me to the more significant point: gimme Jesus. Though my pride howls, my regenerated heart rejoices in the steady revealing of my weakness. Because I am reminded, oh precious and painful reminder, that I need Jesus. I need Him. I want Him. I want Him so much more than when I feel whole and capable and together. In my wussiness I frantically root around for someone to bail me out, and who is there but Jesus? And oh fickle heart, what joy I have to know that wanting, that panicked and desperate desire for the only One who loves me so unwaveringly. The storm that rumbled around me today crept into every moment, and so in every moment there also was my life-line: Jesus, You are near, thank You for being near.

Lying in bed with the tears leaking out sucks, honestly. I don't like being a wuss, I don't like being neurotic, I don't being so easily buffeted but things that are so insignificant compared to real suffering. I don't like this frailty. I don't like this grim anticipation of a stormy season. But as real as this angst and stress is, so is the trust that it cannot overcome me. I need not fear. For when I am my own worst enemy, His faithfulness will not cease. 

Trouble is always on the horizon, if we're not already in the thick of it. Maybe I'm cynical, or maybe it's true. But, dare I bless the trouble? Dare I thank Him for the angst that has me clinging to Him? As Keith Green sings, "Up comes the strongest wind that He sends to blow me back into his arms again." And so there is peace in the calm before the storm, not that the angst won't ache and not that the darkness won't be difficult, but in the promise that my weakness doesn't change the fact that He loves me and He fights for me and He will never ever leave me.

Gimme more of that Jesus. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Poetry and blogging are totally different though

Hello blog. Why am I still here? For years I've blogged with consistency about nothing in particular, and for what? I don't think of this blog as a creative outlet; I think of it more like therapy, catharsis, my way of pursuing humility in community, as weird as that sounds. But this still reveals the reality that much of what I post here, in a public forum, is deeply personal. And in this respect it is similar to art: personal expression shared with the masses.

I've been thinking about this because of brief snatches of a conversation I overheard between my sister and my friend. She was talking about her fears of sharing her music with me, familiar as she is with my excellent taste (WINK).

"Oh, don't worry," my friend encouraged her, and offered by way of comparison, "Hayley's writing is just mediocre."

And I think what he meant was not so much that I don't say much that's worth saying, but I think he described the biggest pitfall of my blogging, namely, that it's not for anyone else. My writing is self-indulgent; I am decadent in the way I gratify myself through my writing. In more blunt terms, it's selfish. I write for me. My writing is mediocre because its goal is not constructive, I just write, and for what? If I felt any pressure or motivation to write for anyone else, I probably wouldn't write. 

Sure, I hope others are edified by the clumsy way I process reality, and I hope that my struggles to understand faith are an encouragement to others, but I would be dishonest if I claimed this was the reason I blog here. 

But maybe it should be? 

I've been considering this after being spectator to an unexpected conversation inside Grolier Poetry Book Shop between my friend and the artist manning the shop. They compared notes on who they liked, who they didn't like (they disagreed on Billy Collins), and who their "gateway" poets were. During the course of the conversation Elizabeth remarked, "I like poetry that whacks me, that shows me what it is I don't see." And speaking of some poet guy (so many names, guys, I was so out of my depth) Michael said, "I find he really thinks about the reader, like his work is really user-friendly." 

And as a novice when it comes to consuming poetry, I appreciate poets who are conscious of how their art will be experienced, who don't rest on intentions but make their work accessible to the pedestrian reader, who make it clear what they want their work to do for you. And I also like art that lends me awareness, that transfers experience from the artist to the observer, one showing another what each was previously unaware of. It's edifying, and I'm such a junkie for stuff that has that kind of purpose to it.

Apparently, according to this conversation I witnessed, there is a lot of poetry like this! Isn't it wonderful that there are poets like that out there? And not all art ought to be like that; art's variety is its impetus. But I marvel at the thoughtfulness of it, perhaps because my "work" is entirely the opposite of thoughtful, and it seems to me to be a very noble way of creating art, particularly poetry, a medium so well-suited to explaining unexplainable things.

When it comes to art, I instinctively know what I like. And like I said, this blog isn't art and it isn't meant to be anything close. I'm not on that level. It would be silly to aspire to it. But cannot the same spirit be applied here? The servanthood latent in that thoughtfulness and intentionality that artists bring to their crafts, can't I apply that to my self-indulgent bit o' blog? Can I consciously curate my little place on the internet that serves and edifies others even in my own self-expression? (And shouldn't that be the goal of all my words anyway?) 

Jesus shows me new way to follow Him all the time. And He is desirous for every part of me to be devoted to Him.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

FAQ on Teaching in Karaganda

How was it?

The only word that works to describe it is privilege. In the sense that, it was entirely a blessing and it was entirely undeserved. Extended exposure to a different culture gave me an appreciation of the culture that shaped me; it grew in me a patriotism I didn't know I had. The hospitality and warmth we received was baffling; with openness people welcomed us into their lives. I went to this frozen land to serve others, but abundantly I was served. It's funny how these things get turned around. 

Do you speak the language?

Usually I respond, "Я не могу говорить по-русски, потому что я была плохо учился." We took Russian lessons once a week, and . . . yeah. Everyone did their part to help us practice, from strangers at the bus stop to students outside of class, but at the end of the day it was my job to speak English, so, that's what I spoke. So I'm still a beginning in Russian, but I can say a reasonable number of things. And I know some basic phrases in Kazakh. I'm planning to continue studying Russian in the fall.

What was the food like?

Kazakh food is all about the meat. Russian food has a lot of dill and mayonnaise. The Russian definition of salad is very different from the American one: green leafy vegetables are almost entirely absent and brings to mind 1960's cold potluck dishes. GMOs are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, and I think that explains the cabbages bigger than my head and carrots as thick as my arm. It was also great to live in a place where very little of the food was industrialized and for the most part was farm-to-table. I came to really love the cuisine, and now I definitely eat sausage more than I ever did before. I learned how to make lipioshka, plov, and borcht, all really tasty. I'm also an even bigger fan of some more atypical proteins like duck, rabbit, mutton, horse, and dog.

What was the culture like?

The wonderfully reassuring thing about crossing cultures is that people are people, anywhere you go. You will always have basic humanity in common with others. And because I lived in a city and worked with people who had a lot of exposure to foreigners, the cultural divide did not loom as wide as it could have. I noticed mostly little things: the habit of greeting others when entering and leaving a room, the social acceptance of snot rockets, the phenomenon of Russian lines, the scapegoating of exposure to cold temperatures for illness, Kazakh courtesy and hospitality, and grocery store etiquette. Most of all I loved the emphasis and priority placed on community and relationships, on knowing people deeply and growing together through time.

Do you miss it?

At first, no. Not at all. Sure, my heart flip-flopped when I thought of the dear souls I might never see again, and I sighed a little when I watched my students' lives on social media, but I was too contented with being home to possibly want to go back. Now that I've settled back into life in the USA, and am confronting scary things like law school and moving out and The Future, I want to be back in Karaganda so bad. I miss being able to take public transportation everywhere, or grab a cheap taxi where the buses didn't go. I miss discovering new cafes and marveling at a developing country exerting its economy. I miss eavesdropping on conversations around me and rejoicing when I understood snatched phrases. And I miss teaching, a lot, the preparing of lessons and watching my students relish their linguistic acrobatics.

How have you changed?

This is the hardest question for me to answer. I ask it shyly of my family and they don't know how to answer it either. The shift is subtle, and difficult to describe. I was shown in new depths many of my weaknesses over the year, and in cowardice I avoided confronting them. That has changed my soul somehow, but in ways that have yet to finish playing out. I gained some bad habits, sure, and picked up some new recipes, but more substantially, I think I've become more comfortable with uncomfortable social situations. This is the result of exposure therapy: when you're a foreigner your life is one long uncomfortable social situation, and so I've acclimated to it.

What did you learn?

Reflecting on the past year always leaves me wanting to impress upon anyone who will listen this exhortation: just go. I am the opposite of an extraordinary person. I am not brave. I am not wise. I was not the ideal person for this job. I am completely and entirely average. And yet . . . I had an amazing year. I had the opportunity to be a cultural ambassador, to teach eager students a useful skill, to speak the truth about Jesus to people who had never known a follower of His. Just go. These privileges did not come to me because I deserved them, but because in His grace He freely gave them to me. If I learned anything this past year is that His grace never runs out. He gives it so abundantly you can never reach the end of it. And you can't encounter that grace and walk away unchanged.