Friday, December 30, 2016
A whirl. A spinning, twirling, flitting whirl. That’s what my year has been.
Facebook reminded me this morning that one year ago I was on a train going to St. Petersburg, Russia. One would think by then it would seem common for me to travel alone in a foreign country. I should not feel a thrill of victory at my independence and ability at all. Yet, there I sat thanking God for making me somehow have the skills to manage it all.
The image of my face in the train window came to me again yesterday on my way to Chicago. I was meeting a friend to have breakfast and then head to the Art institute. I had been told the impressionist works there would make my mouth water.
The comparison to the year before was continually walking through my memory. I had gone to St. Petersburg, in part, to meet a friend. We would visit The Hermitage, filled with breathtaking works. I was reading Natasha’s Dance, a cultural history of Russia, at that time. Internalizing the history of Russia while walking among its remnants was especially poignant for me.
The conductor’s voice brought me back to present. I am still sometimes surprised to hear the English language in unfamiliar public places.
The train in America is not a common form of transportation and so it wasn’t very crowded. Mostly holiday travelers who, like me, didn’t want to drive to Chicago and pay exorbitant parking and tolls. I spent much of the trip listening to two women behind me talk loudly about personal business – theirs and other’s. A sharp contrast to the near silence and hushed movement of the Russian Rail.
Chicago’s Union Station rivals the greeting station in St. Petersburg. Its marble stairs dressed up for Christmas were festive and welcoming. The crowd was friendlier to a stranger, but that could be due to language and my own comfort level. Perhaps if I spoke Russian I would not have felt distanced from the crowd of St. Petersburg. Or perhaps it was the warm greeting of my friend waiting for me in the center of the grandeur of Union Station.
We walked briskly from the station catching up on each other’s lives. I always enjoy the company of my brilliant young friends. I am sure they make me smarter just by osmosis.
I was flooded with memories as we sat in the European café, Le Pain Quitodien, on Michigan Avenue. The chain was a favorite in Moscow. An easy meeting place. “how about Le Paine at Park Kultury?’ “We could meet at Le Pain at Red Square and walk from there.” “There’s a Le Pain near the Metro. Let’s stop there.” You could expect a good bowl of coffee, fresh bread and pastries and quick service. It was not fast food, but always fast and fresh.
Like any good franchise, it was much the same in Chicago as Moscow or St. Petersburg. The same coffee bowl, the same chocolate chip cookie stack at the pastry counter, the same salt and pepper shakers even. It was good, comfortable, like finding an old friend in an unexpected place.
The Art Institute felt somehow familiar, too. Similar to The Hermitage, I was greeted by a long queue waiting for tickets. However, the American version moved much more quickly, happily, loudly. Within five minutes we were at the doorway to the collections.
“Impressionists first?” My friend asked.
“Yes, of course.”
Monet, Degas, Renoir, Seurat beckoned us. Swirls of color, light, dancers, flowers, absolute spring time embraced us. I reveled in the joy of their brilliance. At times breathing deeply as if I could inhale a moment of their greatness.
Van Gogh looked slyly from the corner as if to question our questions of his use of colors and shapes. “You don’t like it? What? You think blue instead of yellow for her face? To me yellow was pretty, summery, light. You can see it in all of my favorite pieces. And why are you standing so long before the piles of grass? I made those as a study. Just a study! They don’t mean anything. Leave them behind. Go, now, get out!”
I was very surprised to find that I could recognize some of the artists simply by their works. When had this happened? This knowledge of art? Where had I acquired this kindred-ness to the masters? Was it at The Hermitage? Tretyakov Gallery? MMOMA? The Garage? The exposure to greatness had infiltrated and changed me.
Phrases from Natasha’s Dance came to me as I noted Russian artists spattered in the Institute’s collections. Especially true as I stood entranced before the Marc Chagall America Windows. The blues, the lights, the peace, the breadth, the depth of the entire work pulled me in. I was sorry he had lived through so much political unrest and discrimination. I was selfishly glad the broad living had expanded his talents so I might enjoy them.
A boy of about 10 sat on the bench before the windows similarly captured.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Yes.” He answered seriously. He stood as though to leave and let me sit.
I continued. “What do you like about it?”
He sat again and turned his head to take it all in again. “The blue. I like the blue the most. And the small pictures.”
I nodded in complicity. “Yes, I do, too.”
“And the instruments. I like the instruments.”
“Ah. I see them, too.”
We continued comparing the big and small of the windows before us. I could sense something special about this child. An artist’s eye, a creative genius beginning. He looked deeper into the art than most boys of 10 would bother. He was patient to see the whole story.
A young girl came to sit beside him. At first I think she was checking the conversation, making sure I wasn’t bringing some kind of harm to him. Then, realizing I was tapping into the young artist’s creativity, she smiled and quietly listened. I wished later I had gotten his name. I think I will see it written on a canvas someday.
There were other such moments of awe as we flowed through the galleries. Cubism, minimalism, impressionism, realism and a host of other -isms swirled around us. My companion of the day is a brilliant musician who uses her talent as a teacher. Her insight of the intertwining of art and music was fascinating. We discussed the closeness of genres in Europe and America how music and art and literature reflect upon each other.
After my friend left to catch her train, I roamed around alone for a bit basking in the city lights. Much like I had done in St. Petersburg the year before, I sat at a Starbucks watching the locals. Rushing home from work. Stopping for a quick warm up. Chatting together before going to some other event.
Last year it was a mall Starbucks which became my writing spot. Amidst the glitz and glamor of holiday shoppers, I tucked into a booth while words fell from my hands. Immersed in strangeness, it was still comfortably familiar. I couldn’t understand their words, but their faces told the same story. Love of family. Joy of friendship. Excitement of travel. Weariness of work.
As I considered my visage in the window of the night train I was glad for all of the living, stretching, breathing, learning. I am thankful for a God who helps me to seize the day and allows me many opportunities. I hope I am living as someone worth His investment.
You may have seen a quick day trip to Chicago. Now you know what was felt through this writer’s eyes.
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Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! Let's unwrap 2017 together!
Sunday, September 25, 2016
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 end of a matter is better than its beginning and patience is better than pride.”
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
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.”
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
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.