Sunday, September 25, 2016

Autumn Winds are Blowing

Autumn.  In America.

New season.  New life.  New start.


Not completely new for me, however.

I am back in Milwaukee.  It’s where I’m from.  Where the story started.  Where I was standing when the miasma of wind blew into my life and I floated away to another place, another chapter, another life. 

In some ways everything is familiar here.  I know the streets, where to turn, where to walk, where to shop.  In others it’s all different.  I don’t see many of the same people, but I have made many new friends.  I don’t live in exactly the same neighborhoods, so I have new routes to drive.  I don’t go to the same church, but my new church has already welcomed me with open arms. 

I am doing what I love – teaching.  And where I’m teaching is both familiar and strange. 

The students are, of course, familiar.  Kids are kids no matter what uniform they wear or where they are born.  They all want to be loved and acknowledged and helped.  They both reject and accept their teachers on a minute-by-minute basis.   (One day this week I was told I look like Adele.  The next day, Mrs. Doubtfire.  I’m not sure I resemble either, to be honest.)  Their minds and hearts are open and I thoroughly enjoy them. 

The curriculum is different from what I’ve done before and so I am challenged in finding the right ways, the best ways, the most creative ways to present learning.  It requires a lot of energy from me and I see my days overflowing with the demands of it.  My mind and my heart are open to it and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Once again I am doing something I didn’t expect.  This whole idea of living for God and following His lead has some rather unexpected turns.

I thought at 50 I might be teaching, but never expected to come back to Milwaukee.  I thought at 50 I might own a house, but never expected I would own a house, but rent an apartment in another city.  I thought at 50 I might be writing more, but life drains me and writing sits on a shelf with all the other fun things right now.

I wrote once about autumn as a time when everything dies.  Colors are profuse, but for such a short time until the wind and rain destroy them.  I talked of the cooler air blasting the world with its chill. 

Last night I was at a bonfire with some of my new friends from work.  Much like Moscow, I am, again, somewhat of an outsider to their group.  It’s clear they have shared much of life together.  Their familiarity draws them into a tight bond.  They correct and love each other’s children.  Long standing jokes ripple through their conversation. 

The event was quite similar to those enjoyed with my Russian colleagues. I, also, was somewhat of an outsider there.  They had shared much of life together and enjoyed each other’s company.   Commonalities bound them together.

But this time I understood the language and the customs.  The same, but different. 

I wasn’t lonely on the outside looking in.  I didn’t feel left out.  I didn’t wonder what was happening around me.  It was nice, actually, to see my new colleagues through this lens and the warmth of their friendship.  I felt encompassed, surrounded, peaceful.

In the center of the clearing was a large bonfire fed by wooden pallets.  A ring of merrymakers were singing with a box drum, guitars and heavenly voices.  Beyond that circle were tag-playing children whose location could be seen only by the glow-in-the-dark bands about their neck or wrist.  Like neon lights they circled the space.  Above us, tree branch fringe laced the evening sky.

The wind was cool, but not harsh.  Leaves had begun to change, but had not fallen.  Many things have changed in Milwaukee these ten years I’ve been gone.  Especially me. 

It’s a new season, it’s true.  But I am not afraid of it.  I look forward to it with open arms and a curious mind.  What exactly will we learn here?  Who exactly will we meet?  How exactly will this chapter look at its conclusion?

This time, the writer doesn’t mind autumn. It’s nice.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Kitchen Table

“The end of a matter is better than its beginning and patience is better than pride.”

Ecclesiastes 7:8

That verse has long spoken to me when I’m faced with a difficult new challenge.  It helps me to remember that when things change it means a disruption to the routine, a shift of the normal, a restructuring of paradigms.  Eventually, if you wait it out, things will get better.  Give it time.

However, it also means there is an end to things.  Good things end, too. They shift away in the passing moments.  Nothing gold can stay.

I face these two truths as I sit in my Moscow kitchen.  I can hear the laughter over coffee or dinner.  I feel again the frustrations and sorrow sorted out over this table.  I pray again for the answers to questions raised by expectant friends looking for understanding.  If these walls could talk, the stories they would tell! 

This kitchen has been mine for less than a year and yet it became home to many.  “Something smells good in here!”  “Thanks for cooking, again!”  “Is that banana bread?  MMmmmmmm!”
We shared a slice of life here, my Moscow family and I.  Sheri and I prayed and talked and sought ideas over breakfast here.  Jeanie explained to me her project across this table and recited her speech before class, just one more time.  Skype even brought Kellie to this table.  We laughed and commiserated thanks to modern technology.  Shalom and I sorted out students and parents, looking for the best ways to help them move forward.  Mari and I talked about food and families and Ave Leigh and relationships and life.  And Stas.  With Stas there were lessons in language and culture and literature and politics and dreams growing from ideas.  Ava took some of her first steps here, her first bites of real food, her first teeth were bragged about here.  Kolya and I made pizza and banana bread sorting out daily life while Zhenya arrived in time for tea and conversation. 
Birthdays and Christmas and Easter and every day life were celebrated here.  Sunday School planning and student summaries written.  In this room.  In this space we shared.  We lived.  Beneath its African curtain, beside its orange rag rug, next to the coffee cart, hands resting on the glass table top.  We lived together here.

There is the other room, too, where we taught Bible studies, watched movies, talked about life and love.  But, like any good Polish home, life centered around the kitchen table.  Words and thoughts swirl around the air, hovering above the table. 

I can’t help but compare it to the first kitchen, the first year, when everything was new and much more difficult.   The table was too big, the chairs were only stools with no back.  The food was strange and difficult to prepare on a stove that I hadn’t yet figured out.  There were some memories there, too, but it wasn’t home.  The second year brought new things in the same cramped space.  An improvement, for sure, but still it was shared space that felt borrowed.  Somehow it was intrusive to the other roommate when guests were invited in.  It was nicer, but it wasn’t home.

This kitchen considering reflects on the whole experience of Moscow for me.  I see the same comparisons in time.  Getting used to the harshness of this country was like walking through winter’s slush.  It must be done to get out of the cold, but the act of it was so tiresome.  Everything was new and so different.  How things are done here is in stark contrast to American expectations. 

And now?  Three years later?  I feel at last like I am home here.  I understand most of the things happening around me.  The language is not a strange sound, but a song to me.  The expat family has grown in my heart until I can hardly bear to leave them. 

Why change then?  Why leave?  Why not just stay and do the things I have learned to do well?

Life has taught me that it is constantly changing for me.  I am not one of those people who will be at a job for 30 years and living in the same home for 40 years and buying my groceries at the same store for 20 years.  It just simply isn’t me.  I’m not sure why.  Where did I find this wanderlust?  It’s not that I think the grass is always greener somewhere else.  It’s not that I crossly desire to leave something behind.

I feel like life is meant to be lived.  I need to live while I’m alive.  I don’t know how many days I get to spend here on this planet, but I want to spend them well.  I want to exercise my super power of loving deeply and seeing the best in people.  I want to see who else there is to know and love and what else there is to do and learn in the next place.  I want to follow the leading of God to do whatever He gives me to do.

That’s the real crux of it.  I know that I owe my life to God.  I ought to be dead.  I ought to be bogged down beneath the consequences of bad choices.  I ought to be struggling with the generational problems of my family. 

But, comma – conjunction, God.  Change of perspective.  Change of life.  Change of view.

But, God, saw some good in me that He could use to bring something good to one place or another.  Because of that I will continue to go where He leads.  I will do my best to share His grace with whoever He sets at my kitchen table, wherever that table is.

I am really not leaving anyone behind.  I take them each with me, buried deeply in my heart.  Their smiles and hopes and genuine love I take with me.  I leave behind my admiration of them, my prayers for them, my trust in God to guide them. 

Today I will fly to London.  Tomorrow to Chicago.  The next chapter will begin. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dancing with Spring

Sometimes words follow me around.  I can’t seem to get away from them.  They crawl out of my heart before my hands are ready. 
I’m walking around or working or hanging out with a friend and the words start to push out.  “HEY!  Stop a minute and get a pen!  You can’t even believe what we just saw!  Didn’t you see that?  Didn’t you hear it?  The smell of those colors!!  Write this down quick before the words run away.”

Sometimes they do, run away, that is.  Like a rainbow dancing on a rain puddle, they dry up, float away, and are gone in the mist of the morning. 

Sometimes they don’t. They stay.  They walk along my veins waiting for me to sit still long enough to let them fall onto the paper. 

I see words everywhere and hear them calling to me.

I see them on the branches of a spring birch dappled with sunlight and raindrops. 

“Isn’t that beautiful?” she said.

“What?”  he answered.

“The tree.  The light.  The branches.  The Springiness of it.  All the new hope and promise of Spring is dancing in that tree.”

“Yeah.  Sure.” 

I know that my eyes are different, but I didn’t make them that way.  I know that my ideas are odd.  But life just grabs me.  I see the moment in a snatch of time and I do my best to live it.  Sometimes the moments are golden and take my breath away.  Sometimes they are deeply sad and I have to fight the tears to just carry on. 

The words of these experiences pile up in my veins until I let them breathe.  I’m not sure why I was made this way, but I was.  I can’t anymore stop the words from living than I can stop myself from breathing.  It’s how I see things.  How I feel.

If there is ever someone who will understand the words and be drawn to my side, he will understand. 

Until then, I will do my best to help others to stop, smell the roses, and see Spring dancing in the trees. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Watching Russian Sunsets

I enjoyed a slice of time in St. Petersburg, Russia over the New Year holidays.  On the train home, I was caught in the middle of others’ journeys.  Here is what I saw.

There were three particular Russian couples around me.  All three silver-haired men with much younger looking wives.  Not trophy wives, but younger.

One couple was actively engaged in each other.  Talking.  Smiling.  She was watching everything out the window like she had never been on a train before.  He was talking softly with her.  Precious sunset love.

Another seated in front of me did not even look at each other more than once except when she got up to use the restroom.  And then only because she had to get past him.  Otherwise she slept or looked out the window.  She simply dismissed him out of her path.  The end of the day brought a welcome dark for them.

The final couple shared movies together for the entire four hours.  He was in charge of the sound and the iPad, but they are clearly sharing.  Every once in awhile one or the other would forget their earbuds and comment very loudly about what they are watching.  They would say a few words or laugh together.  Co-conspirators oblivious to the sun or season.

The differences and similarities were interesting to me.  Each gentleman was wearing a suit coat and trousers.  No casual jeans or golf shirts for them.  All three women were wearing nice outfits.  Traveling clothes, my Grandma would call them.  “If you’re traveling, you should look like you’re going somewhere.” These people clearly followed that adage. 

I know this sense of style and carriage is very Russian, especially for the older generation.  Still, it catches me by surprise all of the time.  It takes me back to a more formal day when relationships seemed to carry more weight.  I want to respect the longevity of their love based on their appearance, but history is exposed in their movements.

I would guess the women to be in their 50s or 60s, maybe.  It’s hard to tell with the dyed hair, but their skin and style make me guess older than younger.  The men all look to be 70 something, again judging by hair and style.  I could be wrong, but that is my guess.

Their body language and physical connections tell the story of their relationships.  Regardless of life season, their love, or lack of, is evident.

The happiest man was probably the oldest.  He was the one sitting across the aisle from me.  He was clearly the kindest, the most engaged in the world around him.  I’m not saying this because he went out of his way to help me when no one else would at the start of our trip, but because of something I saw in his eyes.  It was a sense of wonder, of reaching out, of living that emanated from him.  His face was kind, his eyes smiled, he owned a gentle voice.  The woman with him was similar.  The sense of wonder in her constant tourist picture taking.  The pleasant tap of her fingers along his arm.  Peacefully the sun is setting on their journey together. 

I see the three relationships as three potential outcomes, three degrees of potential.  Those who invested in each other, those who shared laughter and those who lived separate lives beside each other.  I want to make some grand comparison between Russia and America here.  I would like to share some deep Bible revelation from this epiphany moment.  Rather, I’ll let you do that on your own. 

As for me, I’m just watching from the outside through a writer’s eyes.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Getting through the 10/40 Window

Several years ago the American Christians were very concerned about the 10/40 window.  It was a calculated view of where on the planet the fewest Christians lived and where the greatest need to share the gospel could be found.  We thought if we all just pooled our resources and really jumped into the fray we could make the biggest impact.  It’s not that we wanted to forget the rest of the world and their need to know about Jesus, but it seemed to suddenly occur to us that there was a part of the world we had forgotten. 

The 10/40 window is the part of the globe between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator.  It stretches from Africa to Asia.  When it became a topic for discussion, it was said that 97% of the world’s unevangelized population lived in that space. 
I remember very vividly hearing a preacher preach about the need for missionaries and prayer warriors and dollars to reach into this part of the world.  I remember vividly talking to God about it.  I told Him I didn’t really want to go to those places, but couldn’t I somehow be connected?  Could my prayers matter?  Could I help someone else who was brave enough to go?  I can see my younger self looking at the map of the 10/40 window hung before me and feeling a great sense of responsibility, but having no idea how I could meet this need.  I’m just a German/Polish girl from the south side of Milwaukee, what could I do?

Many, many times after that I had deep prayer times talking with God about the children in those nations.  I didn’t know any of them, but I could see their faces.  I had no ideas what their names might be.  I couldn’t imagine their living conditions – were they comfortable like my children?  Did they have safe playgrounds in their neighborhoods? 

You must understand that I have very strong convictions about the things I believe about the Bible, but I came to those conclusions on my own from reading the Bible,
from discussing the Bible, from learning about God through strong teachers who had read and learned from the Bible.  Because of all that God has done for me, I want everyone to have the option to know God.  Whether they chose to follow Him or not is not my responsibility.  I feel that very strongly.   I am only responsible to share His Word and his goodness.  He will do the rest.  And they will make their choice.  That is my simple view of personal evangelism. 

I think that’s why I was so burdened for the people of the 10/40 Window.  It’s that I felt as if they didn’t have a choice.  They couldn’t learn about the Bible perspectives about God because the Bible wasn’t available to them.  At all.  They are Communist or Muslim countries where the Bible simply isn’t an option.  I have no idea how God will judge them. And I’m not trying to stir an argument.  In my heart of hearts I was very sad to know there were people living day-to-day without a way to know God like I do.  Maybe that sounds simplistic to you, but my views are really quite simple when it comes to religion.

It bothered me and I talked with God about it a lot.  I asked Him to help them.  I asked Him to send people to them.  I asked Him to protect those brave enough to go there.  Every time I heard of a missionary going into that field, I followed their work very closely. 

And then life happened.  A lot of it.  I got distracted from the rest of the world’s problems as I dealt with my own.  Months and years were taken off the calendar and then one day I was offered an opportunity to teach in Moscow.  I jumped at it!  All of a sudden I found myself living like a missionary with the official title of Associate in Missions and classroom teacher at an international school.

I’ve been in Moscow for two solid years now.  I’ve just begun my third school year.  The students here are from around the world.  I think the latest total is 35 countries.  In my classroom there are 25 students from 10 countries.  The classroom staff represents 3 more so in total we are 28 people from 13 parts of the world.  It’s a wonderful mix.  It’s an English language immersion program so we communicate fully in English.  For which I’m very thankful.

We use a Bible-based curriculum and talk a lot about the goodness of God.  It’s my favorite thing about being here.  I am required to teach from the Book which changed my life and talk about how it impacts my every day.  I love it. 

Many of my students are Christians, but not all.  Their parents have them at our school because of the English language.  They overlook or explain away or ignore the Bible and hope their children are not affected by it.  But they are, of course, affected by it.  It’s the Bible.  It’s the Word of God.  It will give them the tools to make their own choices about God. 

Yesterday as I was looking around the room I was reminded of the 10/40 window.  Of my 25 students, 12 of them are from eight different 10/40 countries.   If I were to include the countries of previous students, I would add four more countries to the list.  That means I have “traveled” and shared the Bible in 12 of the 10/40 countries. 

Sometimes God is almost sneaky with the way He works His plan in our lives.  I guess He is showing me now how He will use me to reach into the 10/40 Window.  Twenty years is nothing in God’s timing.  If you’re one of my prayer and financial supporters, He is using you, too.  Together we are sharing the Book that changes lives.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

No Strangers

I had a quick writer moment recently at a coffee shop.  They strike me at the oddest times: these words that grow from sentence to paragraph to story.

My colleague and I had ducked in for a quick purchase when we ran into mutual friends.  A very pleasant exchange set a friendly mood which carried over to the coffee order.  The clerk picked up on it, and our English language, and cordially joined the chatter.  In the minute it took to order, I learned he had just been promoted to Manager of the store. 

To me, the conversation was normal.  People sharing the path of life for a short moment.

To my young colleague, however, it was something new.  People divulging personal information in an odd setting.  She assumed for the clerk to tell me his news we must be familiar.

“I see they know you here, as well.”   

“No, not at all.”  I answered.

The phrase turned in my mind the rest of the day.  “I see they know you here.” 

It’s not the first time I have heard something similar, especially here in Moscow.  To me it’s natural to make a friend wherever I go.  If not a friend, at least an accomplice in hilarity or a co-conspirator in joy or, sometimes, just a fellow traveler to share the weariness of the path. 

These bridges are constructed in the simplest of forms.  A smile, a hand gesture, a soft word, a reaching across from my side of the human experience into theirs. 

I didn’t know everyone didn’t do this and I don’t know where I learned it.  I think it was my dad, actually, and my Grandma.  Yes, definitely those two.

My dad wasn’t always a nice man and not often a good man, actually.  But he had friends wherever he went.  Every financial transaction he made began as business and ended with friendship. 

I can hear his voice at the corner store.  “Can I get a pack of Big Red gum, too?” 

A tired clerk would reach for it, throw it on the counter, say the amount, wait for cash.

My dad would respond with, “Need to make sure I’m ready in case I meet a beautiful blonde.” 

The clerk (male or female) would smile in complicity.  A friend was made.

My Grandma had a different approach.  “Just bring them with you.”  She was often heard saying.   And if they would come (whoever they were), she would set out the best of the day for them.  It wasn’t always society’s best, but it was her best of whatever with a main ingredient of love. 

“Do you want some soup?  I made it today.  Oh, it’s so good!  Here let me get you some.  And here’s coffee, too.  Did you want some coffee?  Sit down.  Here.  I’m glad you’re here.  Now.  Tell me about you.”

She would sit in her corner rocking chair and listen.  Sometimes throwing out a word or a question, but always listening. 

And the people came from everywhere to talk to her.  I watched it my whole life. 

Every day it seemed someone’s cousin or uncle or co-worker would have been at the table while I was at school.  If I was out and my friends stopped by, they would leave before I got home because they hadn’t come to see me, but to see her!  Tough teen-age, knife carrying punks would stop in for coffee and soup and to talk. 

It wasn’t only for a day, sometimes also for a night.  More than once concerned parents were on the phone or at our door and I would hear Grandma say, “Come in.  Yes, he was here.  I made sure he was safe last night and I gave him a good breakfast before school, but then I don’t know where he went.” 

Then a counseling session would begin with Grandma trying to help another frustrated parent figure out how to parent a strong-willed child. 

So to me, it’s natural to make family-friends and casual-friends and clerk-friends and to not meet a stranger.  I guess it’s my super power.

My siblings are the same.  It’s most fun when we are together meeting strangers. 

One of my favorite memories is of walking in New York City with my sister.  It was autumn and the world was aglow with yellow and orange leaves.  We had spent the day roaming Manhattan and were almost finished with that chapter when we came upon street vendors selling hats, sweatshirts and trinkets.  I knew I wanted a sweat shirt for my son and she knew she wanted a hat so we kind of took over the two tables before us. 

The vendors tried to begin with their usual sales pitch, but quickly realized it wasn’t necessary.  We didn’t need to be convinced.   Banter replaced pitch and before they knew it they were giving us discounts and free items.   We left laughter and genuine memories behind as we bustled to the ferry.

Later that day we shared our news with a native New Yorker friend.

“I bought these two sweatshirts for $20.  I made such a mess of his table searching for this XXL.  Poor guy.  I was trying to fix things as I found them and he gave me a free key chain.  Can you believe it?  Wasn’t that nice?’ I said.

Tina added, “My guy was hilarious!  You should have heard me when he asked if I wanted a princess hat!  Princess?  Oh my word!  I think this hat was $15, but I think I paid $10.  I’m not even sure.  He said I got the blonde discount!  Isn’t that hilarious?” 

My New Yorker friend just shook his head.  “I don’t know what it is about you two, but that doesn’t happen in New York.  If anyone else told me that story, I wouldn’t believe them.  Prices get raised for tourists, not lowered.  But you?  I don’t doubt it at all.

It happens to me all the time.  I think it’s not me that feels familiar.  It’s the presence of God in my life.  Me, I’m so far from good enough.  But with Him working in my life, there is an extra ingredient that makes people comfortable, casual, friendly.

I’m glad for it.  It means that God is answering my prayers.

I pray for an open home and an open heart.  I pray that God will take away the caustic, jagged side of my words and attitude daily.  I pray for eyes to see the world like He does.  I pray for hands to reach with gentleness and grace.  

“May all who enter as guests leave as friends” is the motto for my home and my heart.
“I see they know You here, as well.”  It’s a compliment. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Here we go again!

Sitting here at the kitchen table in my son’s house.  Listening to the quiet hum of suburbia USA.  Gentle, clean air rifles the curtains and the leaves.  The stillness punctured with the staccato rhythm of my typing.

Last day in America for awhile.  Last day of jump in the car and go trips.  Last day of aisles and aisles of convenience. 

Last day of family a quick call or drive away.

That’s really the trick of it.  Managing the last day of family. 

You try not to think about it and push more important tasks to the front of your mind.  Swallow the distance with some menial job. 

It doesn’t change the fact, but makes it more bearable. 

You constantly weigh the balance of your own self-importance here and there.  “But what if something happens while I’m gone?”  You argue with God.  “What if this calamity or that difficulty or that challenge rises?  Who will help them?”

I’m sure God smiles in response.  “Yeah, I’ll be sure to call you if I can’t handle it.”

You definitely don’t think about the good things you will be missing.  You won’t hear about the mundane daily blessings and accomplishments.  Those things don’t seem important enough to mention on a scheduled Skype call.  Backyard baseball heroics don’t come up when there is only one hour to say everything. 

Children of all ages will grow while you’re gone.  Your sons will become taller and stronger men.  
Your daughter-in-law will become an even better woman.  Your mother will deteriorate a little bit more.  Time holds still for none of us. 

All the while they think you are leaving for a grand adventure.  They see you packing bags and smiling and laughing on the outside. 

But inside?  You are tearing yourself away from smothering them with love.

Why would someone do such an awful thing as leaving on purpose?

I can’t answer for other grandmas or mothers or sisters out there, but this one has a simple, complicated answer:  The Will of God.  The call from One who asks me to do something that will have a lasting impact on the world.  The One who has set a legacy in place for me.

My family knows there is only one person I love more than them: God. 

I owe my life, and theirs, to Him.  The many times I should have died, been in jail, been destitute, but God had other plans. 

I believe this, truly.  God has some purpose in keeping me alive and I aim to do whatever He sets in my hands to do to fulfill that purpose.  Right now that means teaching academics and Bible on the other side of the planet.

I don’t believe this only for me, by the way, but for whoever is reading this.  I think the real answer to the question “Why am I here?” is found in following Jesus. 

But I digress.  See?  It’s so much easier to argue theology than to think about the last American morning. 

I am looking forward to the many blessings Moscow holds for me.  I have made friends there, good friends, life long friends.  I look forward to the bustle of the city.  It keeps me from being lazy.  I am excited to see what this school year holds.  I love watching my students advance. 

All that remains to be done is the flying.  One lifestyle trades for another.

Now you know how leaving looks through a writer's eyes.