A Wonderful Nightmare

I‘m living in a dream.

I say this to myself many times, probably every day. I live in a non-descript eastern Polish town, just east of Warsaw. I walk to school every day and down the street are bakeries and ice cream kiosks and used clothing stores. Our apartment has hot water and wifi. My English students are charming and vivacious and intelligent and beautiful. There are friends in town whom I can always call or visit and who give me way more than I deserve or could return to them. All around me is tangible, rich culture and history.

Sounds rosy.

It is!

And it isn’t.

The hardest thing in this place is the language. It’s the primary reason I’m leaving at the end of this school year. By then it will have been 5 years of speaking fractured, childish Polish and constantly doubting my understanding anyone. Like last week when I asked the landlord if he remembers about the broken oven part, and he said Lavern will take care of it. But I’d misunderstood him 10 days earlier to say that he’d take care of it himself and we’d been waiting all this time for him. I get things screwed up even in English, and don’t hear what people say,  and it’s 200 times worse in Polish.

It puts me in a cage, and I can function, but not fly. It is a bitter thing.

I keep thinking about the bitter water turning sweet in the old prophet’s day and how the miracle is still true.

How what is rosy and sweet isn’t only that.

And what is bitter isn’t only that.

I’m usually an all-or-nothing person, but I’m learning that most of life is not about either/or, but more both/and.

So this monster of a language has shown me grace like nothing else in my life. It has been both brutal and gentle, like when I croaked out my requests at the village store and  the sweet shop keeper said I say ‘butter’ very nicely. The Polish word for butter is one of the easiest words ever and I chuckled all the way home at how eager he’d been to compliment me.

This bitter cage is sweet because it lets me look deeply into my students eyes and say I know exactly how they feel. I know how scary it is to expose how little I know. I know how it is to understand way more words than I can produce. I know how it is to know a word but not be able to access it in all the folds of my brain. (Who was it who said the greatest sermon is “Me too”?) So I can give them understanding on several levels, and it is sweet, the way they like me and keep coming back.

My anguish becomes something good? It’s hard to admit it–indeed, the admission comes through clenched teeth–but I have to believe it because it’s so obvious. The bitter does become sweet.

This bitterness repeatedly hands me sweetness. In four years, I have never had someone shout or get angry at me for not being able to say what I want in their language. They just wait, or suggest another word, or show by gestures. hmmm, I take that back. There were several women at train ticket desks who obviously think the whole world should be able to speak Polish.

This bitter cage shows me that saying “I don’t know” when asked for a word, or to say a completely wrong word doesn’t stop the universe in its orbit . Nothing–especially failure–is usually as bad as it feels at the moment. But it’s painful. Especially to someone who has been called a walking thesaurus. It’s living with clipped wings instead of soaring.

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I took this photo on the train from Warsaw to Berlin, Germany. The hysterical English translation is not unlike some of my mangled Polish sentences.

But this isn’t wasted time, I know. I can’t express myself with words above a child’s level, but I today bumped into an acquaintance on the street and listened to her telling me that she finished her masters degree and is going on Monday for an interview for her doctorate. I congratulated her and said simple, positive, affirmative words and smiled and nodded a lot. She feels heard and cared for, and that’s something sweet, and what most everyone wants most of the time anyhow.

Communication and presence and soul transcend words. This is what helps me survive and even thrive in this town where the average adult can’t speak English. This is what sustains relationships in which I can’t talk above a 6 year old’s level but do experience an ocean of love and the silent language of kinship.

I will always be grateful for living in this place of dreams and nightmares–unutterably grateful. Which proves that sometimes there aren’t adequate words.

Even in an English thesaurus.

What Shape is Love?

 

My personality loves spontaneity and diversity. I like to live large and expansively (not to be confused with expensively!) and strict, sterile routine suffocates me. I need plenty of air to  breathe deeply, and feel stifled in tightly-fitting squares.

However.

Part of living a whole life includes some structure.

There are parts of my day that don’t change. The days are free-form and unpredictable but the beginnings and endings of the days have fixed points that give me stability and rest and predictability.

Coffee is one of those things.

But there’s more. Much more.

Some people call it ‘having devotions.’ I don’t, usually, because it sounds too sterile to me, but for all practical purposes, that’s what it is. It’s my quiet time, the time especially reserved for talking with God. It’s the still point around which everything else whirls. It’s the bread that keeps me alive, the exercise that keeps me healthy, the words that keep me sane.

It’s not all about me, but it’s my initiative, my decision, my deliberately moving into a position to focus and take part in something way, way bigger than me.

I’ve heard many people say they have trouble ‘having their devotions regularly.’ I say this quietly and humbly because I have a lot of trouble with a lot of things, but this particular issue not one of them. I DIE without those fixed points in my days. I get weak and whimpery and grouchy if I don’t keep that structure.

I’m talking about this here, not because I want to talk about me, but to encourage and nudge and facilitate you to find the same kind of sustenance if it’s been alluding you.

There are a ridiculous amount of devotional books out there with laughable titles that could make you cringe. (Don’t get me started!) None of them work for me, but if one does inspire you, or helps you focus, help yourself. What I love, love, love, is this monthly printable of adoration from Sara Hagarty. Every day has a different word to describe and adore God, and the rich words can set the tone for my whole day.

A little  chocolate icing on the cake is Grace Notes, daily readings compiled of Philips Yancey’s books and magazine articles. He’s my favorite contemporary Christian author, and there’s nothing cheesy or schmaltzy about his writing, so reading a page of his words gives me something substantial and dynamic to think about.

I’m not a Bible scholar. Should I be? I read the Bible to live. It’s bread and milk and meat to me. For several years, I’ve read the One Year Bible in the New Living Translation. I love the freshness and variety of daily pieces from both Old and New Testaments, Psalms, and Proverbs. The daily portions aren’t long, and are usually not enough food to feed me completely, but it’s a place to start.

In the evening, before I let myself pick up a book or turn off the light, I pick up my Thanks Journal and write at least one gift in the day.  I’ve blogged about this before here and here but I’ll say it again. Deliberately writing down gifts and reasons to be thankful is the simplest and  most effective way to keep a positive outlook and maintain a life-posture of worship. It’s not magic. It doesn’t help everything. But it helps a great deal.

Relationship with God has similarities to any friendship with a person. Healthy relationship includes seasons of  excitement,  silence, wonder, anger, questions–but always communication in some form. I don’t blog about all the details of my relationship with God because it’s way too intimate to share with many people, but to those who have trouble maintaining communication with the Creator of the Universe, I want to say: do what it takes to fill your part of the friendship.

Your part is to show up.

For my own sake and because I love him, I show up routinely.

He does His part.

A Simple Saturday

Once upon a time, a little while ago, about last Saturday, a very tired, happy girl sat on her tiny balcony to drink her coffee. She was tired because she’d been on a glorious, intense, bountiful choir tour all over Poland for the last 3 weeks, and she was happy because she’d made new friends she’d never dreamed existed, she could putter around her little flat again and water her brave, parched houseplants and drink coffee–plus she still had her voice that hadn’t succumbed to vocal fatigue as it had in other tours.

At noon, the happy, tired girl took herself to the school to clean the place and get it ready for church the next day. But she ended up not cleaning very much because of all the lovely help that also showed up, so she went out to buy cleaning supplies that had run low over the summer. Then, because she had time/money/energy and because she always wants a reason to buy flowers, she trotted off again to buy flowers for some friends. The florist lady, speaking English, helped her expertly and asked when English classes will start again because of course she’s coming for lessons.

Back home again, the girl had every intention to sweep and mop the floor, but was too tired, and laid on the couch for a long time. She read a borrowed copy of Fahrenheit 451 and wished for her own copy to write in and then she had a nap.

The tired, happy girl was invited to a friend’s bonfire for dinner. They were six friends around the fire, with lemonade, glorified ramen noodles over the fire, kielbasa, and apple crisp and tea. All of this was spread out over hours while the sun dipped low and golden and the stars came out. At one point during the laughs and stories of family lore, the girl tipped her head way back and saw the stars sparkling between the tall trees over her. It looked like glitter and diamonds and all the tired went out of her.

It had been a Very Good Day.

A World in a Grain of Sand

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In a disorientated week sandwiched between a summer of crazy weeks, yesterday was blocked off for free time. It was a to be a girls’ day out–seven of us with a friend who is leaving soon.  You don’t celebrate these things; you just acknowledge them and squeeze the goodness out of each minute.

On the train to Warsaw, we talked logistics and plans for the next weeks on Hope Singers. We found a restaurant in the city center and I had my favorite Polish soup, chłodnik: cold sour cream purple with beet juice and thick with grated beets and fresh dill. Fantastic! The pink color is enough to charm me well before the lush flavor hits.

We rented bikes in Powiśle and followed the bike path for nearly ten kms toward Wilanów. It was easy cycling, mostly flat, through shaded parks and past apartment blocks. We took our time. The sun was hot and I was thirsty so I stopped at a roadside fruit stand and bought a treat: fat sweet cherries and blueberries. It was better than water or chocolate, which is saying a lot.

I was last in the string of seven, not being as speedy as some of them, but enjoying every minute.  Suddenly, turning a corner, I recognized where I was.

Just down the road behind that building is the hospital where I was last December.  Maybe I will always be fragile regarding hospitals and operations and waiting rooms because it all washed over me again and I couldn’t stop whimpering. Hysterectomy, that nasty word, and how it shook up the surgeon because it was so much worse than she was expecting it to be, the units of blood and brick of ice on my stomach for hours and me out of my mind in pain.

It was just down around the corner, eight months ago, and now I was biking past, eating fat sweet cherries from my bike basket, wearing sunglasses, the breeze drying my tears.

I don’t know how the heart expands to hold so much sadness and gladness in one day, and even in one moment. But it does.

Wine of the World

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I wrote this free verse some years ago. Usuallycommunion tells me about the past, but during one communion when I was empty of wine and life, I caught a glimpse of the future–the wedding feast when Jesus said He would drink the wine again.

In the day of Jesus’ first public miracle, it was a disgrace for the host to run out of wine. On that last great day, He, the gracious Host, will have enough for everyone. I share/repost this for anyone who may be empty, in disgrace, and in need of hope for refilling.

“I have no more wine,”
I say to Him at the edge of the crowd.
Palms up, shoulders hunched.

Conversation dwindling, smiles fading,
The crowd thins.
No sparkle,
No celebration.
We have no more wine.

“Woman, what have I to do with you?”
But His eyes belie the cold words.

“What do You have to do with me?
My Lord! My Maker!
The True Vine from which True Wine comes!
Leave me not alone.
Forsake me not in this disgrace.
Do not deny me dancing feet and songs.
I cannot bear to leave this place of light.
Without You, I will go out into darkness and die.
But You are here, and You are my life,
And I will do whatever You say.”

He commands the water pots to be filled.
Clear, splashing rivers that cleanse and refresh.
Full and sloshing over earthen rims.

The harried, frazzled MC takes a sip in a deserted alcove.
His eyes beam over the edge of the chalice.
Then he shouts.
THIS IS THE BEST WINE IN THE WORLD!
COME, PEOPLE, TASTE AND SEE!
START THE MUSIC AGAIN!

I find Him at the crowd’s edge again.
He says nothing, but
Smiles at me.
The silence between us fills
With music.
Rolling, trilling, glorious music.
It sings of sweetness and life,
Of vibrance and light,
And the guests raise their cups high
To the health of the bride and groom.

The music swirls again, and
Everyone’s feet wear wings.
He is still in the alcove with me,
Watching.
Is He thinking of a grander wedding feast
In another place,
Without time?

Bread of the world in mercy broken,
Wine of the world in mercy shed,
*
I pledge my life to You.
You fill the hungry with good things.
I come to You in emptiness and desperation
And You always–always–
Fill, refresh, give reasons to dance.

And on that last great feast day,
I will see You smile again,
And it will be as we said back then:
You saved the best for last!

*These are opening lines from a hymn by Reginald Heber who also wrote “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics/4850731034/”>jenny downing</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

I Don’t Like Scary Stories

A couple days ago I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring and was coming up to the saddest part of the story. (No spoiler here!) It’s the nth time I’ve read the book, so I knew what was coming. I found myself wanting to stop reading because I didn’t want the sad part to happen.

Sort of, I guess, like a baby who doesn’t have object permanence.  If I close my eyes, it doesn’t exist. If I don’t see it, it’s not happening.

But I pushed through the Mines of Moria, and now they’re in Lothlórian. The fellowship still has great sadness, but their grief didn’t destroy them, and they found rest.

The same kind of reaction happens when I read the Gospels and I know when the sad part of the story is coming. I read the tender, last words, and I want to stop reading because what happens next is too terrible to think about.

Maybe if I don’t read it, it didn’t happen.

This evening we had communion, so I couldn’t avoid the sad part of the story. I’m not supposed to forget it, Jesus said. I should not try to forget that part of His life because all of history hinges on it. It’s good to push through the terrible parts and come out on the other side, knowing the tragedy wasn’t actually the end of the world even though it felt like it.

There’s a lot to take home from that. Trust. Hope. Confidence. Defeat for the enemy. Redemption.

I think maybe the biggest thing to take from that awful story–apart from gratitude for Jesus saving my soul–is that the dark, terrible parts of the story make the light brighter at the other end. Joy is fuller after the grief. Healing is more wondrous after the brokenness.

For the fellowship, the story doesn’t end in Lothlórian. Most of the journey is still ahead of them, and it will be hard.

I have walked in darkness and brokenness, and this current place of light and healing is more precious for it. But my story isn’t finished yet, and the road will be hard and yucky and scary.

Knowing other stories lets me know that difficulty and blood and tears doesn’t end the story. It’s part of the story. Adds to it, in fact.

And some day, we will lose our object permanence. We won’t see sorrow and it won’t exist anymore. Like good old Sam wondered in bewilderment after the great shadow had passed, everything sad will become untrue.

This is how I have courage to keep reading. And living.

Sitting with Masters

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I’m blown away this week with my students who are masters at what they do. To tap into their interests and abilities gives a lesson wings to take off and fly high.

One is a checkers player, so I asked him to tell me how to play the game. I didn’t have a real playing board, so I printed a board and cut out little black and white checkers. Of course I’ve played checkers a looooong time ago, but forgot most of it, and I’d never played with someone who routinely plays in tournaments. It was a great exercise for him to explain everything in English, and as we played, of course he creamed me, but the exciting thing was that he talked non-stop.

A teenager? Talking freely and not putting his head down on the table? He was in the moment, explaining positions and fields and defense moves. I was agog. He explained that in the past weekend, he’d been at a competition and his team won 2nd place in Poland in his age division. Plus, the team they were coaching won 2nd place. He said each player has 90 minutes to play a game, and sometimes it take 30-40 minutes to plan one move.

“Is it hard to concentrate for so long?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I love it!”

I’ve been teaching him for two years now, and never knew he had it in him to talk so long and excitedly. Or that any teen is happy to sit and think in silence for 30  minutes. I wanted to cheer!

Another lesson was a listening exercise for a student who’s a musician. We watched one of my favorite TED talks, and it connected with him since he’s a conductor and music teacher.  We talked about poetic words like waft, and of the connection between musician and listener, and of Zander’s definition of success: how many shining eyes are around us. At first, my student wasn’t sure this definition of success applied to businessmen and shop keepers, but as we discussed it, I saw the light dawn on his face. Because he understood what it is to empower others and enlarge their capacity to learn and perform, he acknowledged that commerce also needs shining eyes.

During another lesson, my student talked about how she makes baskets from willows. Her English level was low. I think none of my students has ever used the word “willow.” She did, because it is her interest and ability. She loves to work with her hands, knows folk art and hand crafts, and can respect others’ work.

These days, I am absolutely drained by evening, and try hard to stay strong and not melt into a puddle of  exhaustion. What helps is that most of my work does itself if I just tap the right buttons and pick up on what  my students care about.  And it’s wonderful to sit and listen to someone talk about what they do well. I see the light in their eyes and the passion in their gestures, all unconscious, and I’m so happy that I get to sit with masters.

Related post: Tigers’ Shining Eyes