Fall journal excerpts – Activity, passivity, and becoming dry bones

I’m always hesitant about writing these journal-entry-posts.  Since these words were scribbled quickly in a notebook with a pen (no eraser/backspace), it’s not my most polished writing.  But it is my most honest.  And if I want to show a movement into the home space, I have to start with where I was.

Different times in our lives require different speeds of movement, but I have noticed something about my own tendencies.  I have a lot of steps I need to move through.  It takes a while for me to adjust to a new routine or a new space.  How I get there varies, but in the end I always have to come to this conclusion before I start moving upward again: I will never get where I want to go until I let myself go where I need to go.  Sometimes I need grieve and mourn.  Sometimes I need to rest and slow down.  Sometimes I need to find myself stripped of my own strength so that I stop relying on it.  

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

 I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!  This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.  I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

 September 4 

It was easier to fight back melancholy and malaise in Ukraine.  I had a purpose and a goal.  Teach English.  Get through the year.  Here, back home, whatever that means, everything is much more nebulous and slippery.  I haven’t arrived here with a missionary mentality, I have no sense of what will be short term and what long term, the well of strength I pulled from has been all used up.

I start my new job in two days, and I am excited to have a regular schedule again.  I’ve felt I should take advantage of all this free time I’ve had, but I’ve not been very good at it.  All the things I’ve had down on my running “possibility list” would perhaps tempt me under different circumstances – crocheting a rug, making a collage booklet, reading, working on the dollhouse, writing letters.  The problem is that after spending most of the day alone, it’s hard to look at that list and get excited about doing one more thing alone.  This was an issue in Ukraine but expected there.  I’m supposed to be home now.  And I think I might have, by the end, had more friends in Transcarpathia than I do in Bloomington.

I don’t know why, but going to bed here always seems so terribly anti-climactic.

September 19

In Péterfalva, I had an evening snack of bread as often as I could, plucked from the bread-scrap bag left out by the cooks after dinner.  Sometimes the students had picked over and hoarded everything (I often saw them the with foot-tall piles of bread as they walked toward the dormitory), and I was lucky to get a few heels. But, oh! the bliss of a few chewy slices of bread as I sat down to watch my latest BBC infatuation.

Tonight we actually had good bread in the house – Mama purchased it especially for me – and I ate two small slices with banana in between.  That was a combination I ate in Péterfalva a few times, usually as part of a on-my-own meal, bread being the cheapest available food and bananas, surprisingly enough, being the most readily available fruit.  I remember how lonely and, yes, bored, I was sometimes in Ukraine.  But I can’t help feeling homesick for the simple, pleasurable routines I created there.  For how small and big I felt all at once.  I really wish I could have one big debriefing session so that the whole thing would stop feeling like a dream.

September 27

I still can’t get used to strangers talking to me.  The woman tonight at the roller rink – in the U.S., being in the same place as another person creates a bond.  People who smile at me in the street – I can’t react fast enough.

October 24

[In reading my diaries from 10 years ago that I found in the basement, I’ve found another thing] I need to be careful about: over-committing myself.  My 14-year-old self was spread too thin. Soccer and violin and youth group and Conference Board of Youth Ministries, and ballet and musical theatre, and playing music with Dad, and sign language, and writing, and leading worship.  Oh, yeah, and I was a freshman high school student.  And a daughter and a sister and a friend.  No wonder I was feeling overwhelmed.  In the pages of my diary, I constantly bemoaned why.  I think I believed that I couldn’t be over-committed if I liked everything I was doing.  I put all the blame on loathsome math, convinced that this one thing I didn’t like to do was causing most or all of my stress.  Hogswhallop.

So much of my mental energy, too, was poured out in other ways: feeling out of place, the tension of being at an in between age, loneliness, heartbreak at my new discovery of how senselessly evil our world could be, questions of identity.  How could I expect myself to move gracefully through those growing pains if my schedule was jam-packed?

I have a lot of growing to do right now, too, and at 24 I think I’m more resistant to growth than I was at 14.  I’ll need more energy to do it.  So in my clamor to find meaning and purpose and a life outside this house, I need to be mindful and respectful of my limits.

November 1

As I neared the end of the final Emily of New Moon book, I felt all my internal organs tying themselves up.  I knew I would cry if she did not marry Teddy … and that I would cry if she did.

It had a happy ending.  Teddy and Emily came together in the end.  It was all very rushed, as if L. M. Montgomery didn’t know how else to fulfill the dream than with something dream-like itself.

I read my life and passion on Emily’s pages – until the end.  The end that I so ached for but also ached over.  Because my story doesn’t hold that ending (not yet), and I was left trying to convince myself of what should be a self-evident truth: I don’t need a romantic attachment to make me feel fulfilled, I won’t dissolve into the same loneliness Emily had without Teddy.

When I got up to clean the bathroom, I felt myself itching all over.  I wanted to tear at my skin, itch every cell away until that large, fleshy organ was gone and I was left only with bones and muscle.  Not raw.  But de-layered.

Life Cereal is giving out a few $50,000 prizes.  I thought about what I would do if I won.  Pay off my loans.  Donate to the family shelter in town.  Pay taxes.  Buy a ticket to Ukraine in time for graduation.  Work with the Roma preschool until November.  Go to Taizé.  Stay for 9 months.  Then?

I like that plan.

I told [the Bird] today, as she was looking at me in the rear-view mirror with exhausted eyes, that since our bodies get tired when we are having a physical growth spurt, maybe we also get tired when we are growing mentally and spiritually.

But what about when you itch?  Not growing pains, but an unbearable itch?  Is that when your body wants to shed some growth?

What if I became dry bones?

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be ever thankful (3)

I was on a holiday – a full holiday from work and a partial holiday from electronic devices. And now I have returned – with a celebration of all things advent-y and Christmas-y.  I am thankful for:

– Advent candles; even in the middle of summer, the smell of a freshly-extinguished candle reminds me of an Advent wreath.  The end of the Advent season got a little busy for my family, and for the first time I remember, we didn’t finish lighting all the candles.  But we started out admirably and with a new (for us) concept.  Instead of reading an Advent liturgy, we simply discussed the meaning of the words associated with each candle: hope, peace, joy, love.  We often stayed late around the kitchen table on a Sunday night talking about our own experiences, understandings, and questions.

– an email from my Hungarian-Ukrainian friend Ildiko with an update from her family.  The email itself came as a great surprise – Ildiko’s family does not have email nor access to the internet; I had not expect to hear much from them and despaired of a letter ever getting past the crazy Ukrainian post offices.  However, Ildiko was able to borrow both the computer and email address from a neighbor.   Her short Hungarian phrases were easy for me to read and full of love and care;  I read that email several times and imagined the people and places it came from.  I didn’t realize how disconnected I had felt from my life in Transcarpathia until I got that email and felt the rush of warmth (and tears) that accompanied it.

– the Advent season’s defiance of one definitive emotional space.  We celebrate hope and peace and joy and love as we light each candle, but we are not required to feel those things, just to acknowledge them.  In Advent we do not pretend to have arrived anywhere, or even to be sure that we are going somewhere.  Of course we know that, liturgically, Christmas comes next, but Advent gives us plenty of space to wait and lament and fume and marvel.  Christmas may be a season we associate with coming home and settling in with family, but Advent shares the same root as adventure, adventitious, venture, avenue, invent … it is a word of movement, of restlessness, of not-yet-arriving. Advent is the only season I know that takes discontent and holds it until it finally grows into something else.

– Christmas music, even the cheesy kind like Manheim Steamroller – as Mama and I always say, the Christmas season is perfectly adapted to cheese.

– Game nights with the fami-lami-ly; my favorites include long, late nights trying to memorize the capitals of all the Asian countries and the pictionary-telephone game that started with a minister serving communion and ended with a dancing goul perparing breakfast.

– Car rides + books on cd, especially Harry Potter.  My sister the Bird and I, having listened to said cd during said car ride, have effectively addicted Mama to Harry Potter.

– sand castles and leaf flags; my brother Mr. Gershwin, the Bird, and I had grand sand castle dreams and labored long to bring them into fruition.  The contrast between that golden leaf and that vibrant aqua sea kept calling me back again and again into wonder and praise.

Two days after a homecoming

It seems to me that there is a lot of information out there about culture shock and a traveller adjusting to foreign cultures, but I haven’t heard a lot of stories about people when they come home.  Perhaps that’s because all the stories are comparatively less exciting and, well, less foreign, but I think ending the sojourner’s story with the flight home is akin to ending a meal before all the silverware has been used: there’s something missing.  It’s not a truthful account of experience.  The return from the adventure is often seen as the last few moments before the credits roll, but of course real life doesn’t work like that.  You can’t edit the rest of a return out of your life.  And I think the confusing return to a homeland has a lot to say about who we are as Christians, as an in-between people.  I don’t pretend to offer any deep insight here; I will just recount experience.  I start off rather bleakly.  Bear with me.  From my journal, after my return to Grand Rapids, Michigan:

June 30, 2011

I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, I am acutely aware of how anyone in Sparrows [coffee house] could read my writing.  Theoretically, at least.  We speak the same language, even if my handwriting is atrocious.  Not that I think anyone is going to be peering over my shoulder, but it makes me feel very exposed.

For some reason, I am terrible at writing when things are actually happening.  I also don’t know why I can’t shake my desire to catch up, which is never really possible anyway sine the feelings and reactions aren’t fresh.  And what do I hope to accomplish by writing everything down?  Who is my audience?  One thing I do know, however.  There have been entire episodes of my life that had slipped my mind before I read a journal entry about them.  But again, to what purpose am I remembering?

I think, to find a narrative.

This morning when I woke up, the insulation along the roof seemed oppressive, everything felt close and inescapable, and I wondered again why I hadn’t run away to Kazakhstan.

I decided to call my mom.  How glad I was to to be able to pick up a phone, whenever I took a fancy, and explain my thoughts to someone.

I saved up all my emotional disturbance for returning rather than leaving.  There’s no one great thing – other than finding myself in my homeland.  Which is, of course, not my home, just as I knew it wouldn’t be.  Prior to leaving, I wouldn’t let anything hit me because I knew I needed all my stewing energy for traveling.  Any time I did realize the import of every ticking second, I sprung for a book and drowned myself in other people’s strange lives.

Last night I finally felt the crushing weight of things moving faster than I know how to process them.  And even if everything did slow down, I still don’t think I’d know how to process them.  Every step out of Kathleen and Sarah’s house is overwhelming, sometimes to the point where I can’t catch my breath. (Though I’m not sure if that’s the result of overwhelming life or overwhelming comparative pollution.)  When the cashier at Sami’s Gyros complimented me on my bag, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to respond.  [People don’t do that in Eastern Europe.]  I’m afraid of people smiling at me because then I’ll have to expend the energy to smile back, so I put on my best disengaged European face and hope people don’t think I’m too rude.  The fact that I can understand every word people say is jarring and distracting; there’s still a catch in my chest at recognizing a fellow English speaker.  And I have the upmost difficulty not paying attention to what they are saying.

A poem I wrote at various times and places

Sojourn

Movement 1

I stand
barefoot
in the center of the church
sandstone slab worn smooth
all the cold of winter
(and death)
stored up
comes up from the stones that mark the final resting place of who’s and that’s
I state my case clearly:
God, I am homeless.
And God laughs.
Because He thinks I’m lying.

Movement 3

Eating bread and chocolate
If only what we ate took us back to where we last ate it.

I am the kind of person who is never happy to be somewhere until it’s time to leave.
But what I like most
is coming back
A reunion needs a leave taking.
I’ve taken leave of
everything
but my senses
which persist in lying to me
In telling me
when I taste
the bread
and chocolate
that I am home.
What is the lie?
That I am home?
Or that I have one?
But I think the real falsehood is that the place of bread and chocolate is home.
I didn’t feel at home until the day I left.

Movement 2

I’ve always associated snow with the cosmos.
Maybe it’s the snowflake’s unmistakable star shape
Though
admittedly
I’ve only seen that shape once
In a cluster on my lilac scarf
daring me
in the face of such extravagant detail
to curse the cold wetness they were causing my feet.

At this moment
by the light of a streetlamp
I’m watching an ever-expanding universe of violent action
move in fast-
then slow-motion
as the foreign sky pours a blizzard
on our corrugated tin roofs
and heads.

Or

I can imagine that I am spinning around with the distant stars blurring and whirling

to look like snow fall.

When I was 17
and dark as only 17 can be
I stood under a confetti fall
of snowflakes bigger than a penny.
The snow held its breath
and floated too slowly to be real
But of course it was real
and of course the snowfall was the cosmos
and each snowflake a star
a nebula
a galaxy
I had been called into the universe
Into the hugeness of God
(which is sometimes a snowflake)
And now that I knew it
there was no going back.

And to find myself here
flung out to the other side of the snowfall
I am ready for the snow to just be
weather
And for the universe to shrink back to size
To fit in a cluster on my lilac scarf
And made no grand claims
about where I am going

Movement 4

The best thing
about the golden hour
is that it never lasts for exactly an hour.
In May
It reaches out on both ends
Until there is enough time to bike to the island
and stretch to the length
of the golden hour itself.
Nettle burrs and dandelion ballerinas:
Plants are in-credible
Because their only purpose is to try for immortality
Maybe
That seed will take
And then everything will have been worth it.
The dandelions are fallen moon and stars
But the buttercups
It gets to where
I cannot tell the difference between buttercups
and sunshine.

The nearness of the cowbell
rings the hour.
And I am hidden under a white tree with clapping leaves and dancing bark
A tree with no other desire
than to be immortal.
If that were my only desire
the cool slab of headstone
would not turn my feet homeward
the bread and the chocolate
no sacrament of memory
the universe written
in a snowflake
would be a call only
no fear
of infinity
And when I blew off every seed of a dandelion flower
I would not wish
for anything.

Prelude

Simplified itinerary,
from the homeland outwards:
Taizé, France
middle of nowhere, Ukraine
Abiding time:
As long as it takes.
And if when the time is up
I run away east
of nowhere
(To Kazakhstan, maybe)
It is not because I don’t want to go home
It’s because home became plural
(or more?)
and I wanted to
simplify.