January 30th – Day of Saudade

The other day while working through the material for my online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course, I ran across some examples of words that are difficult to translate. Completely unaware that my world was about to be rocked, I clicked one of the words, and this is what I read from Wikipedia:

Saudade describes a deep emotional state onostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.”

You mean…that nameless melancholy that’s been hanging over my head since I was 15 years old is a real thing? Oh my God, there’s a name for that? I thought. Relief poured over me.

We seek a country”, I used to call it, a phrase I borrowed from Hebrews 11:14, because I felt strange and out of place.

It feels like homesickness, only worse because you’re homesick for somewhere you’ve never been. Not just nostalgia, but great, heavy, soul-crushing melancholy. Some deep, deep ache so intense it’s almost physical, as if you know that something’s missing, but are powerless to fill it. Not just sadness, but The Sadness. The one that extracts your heart out through your toes.

I was 15, overwhelmed with complex emotional confusion that I couldn’t put words to. I had never heard about anything like it before. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was being silly and stupid and that I just needed to pull myself together and keep my life moving. But it haunted me, that shadow. Everywhere I went, everything I did, that grieving/longing followed me. I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t kick it, so I hid it. No one else ever talked about anything like this. And I never spoke of it because I didn’t think anyone would understand. I thought I was crazy. And I was ashamed.

But this is good news! Similar ideas are recognized in many other languages! Says the great Wiki:

In Mongolian, betgerekh (бэтгэрэх) is closest to saudade. A feeling where a person misses something or someone very deeply, such as a soldier missing their homeland. It can be categorised as a mental illness.

Great. In Mongolia, not only am I woefully, mournfully, more-or-less always in the throes of saudade, I’m crazy too. Yes, that makes me feel MUCH better.

So, of course, this song by Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors immediately came to mind:

“Some days I wake up with the sadness,

Other days it feels like madness.

Oh, what would I do without you?”

Wikipedia elaborates further:

“It can be described as an emptiness, like someone … or something … that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.”

Again according to Wiki: “In Brazil, the day of saudade is officially celebrated on 30 January.”

So all that being said let me address this message directly to the source on the Day of Saudade:

Saudade, what would I do without you? I’m not sure I quite know… Perhaps I would be always airy, bright, and care-free. Always happy and never sad. What a lovely life that would be! But there’s a fragile beauty to this tragi-comedy of mine that I think I would miss, and there you would be at the end, Saudade, waiting for me and we would begin our spiraling dance all over again.

Do you remember when we first met? It was the day I said good-bye to Kabardinka, and I felt everything all at once: love, joy, pain, gratitude, regret, angst, fear, resignation, faith. Everything I had refused to feel until that moment came pouring out of me. And you were there, Saudade, and you never left me.

You see, you were the First. You were the First Great Emotion that I ever felt. You were the first to make my heart beat when I was numb and cold and devoid of feeling. You will always be with me, always be part of me, because I remember so clearly what it felt like to feel something for the first time. Like a piece of my heart I didn’t even know I was missing had suddenly been found. And then ripped away again. Is it any wonder that I have fought and struggled against you so hard? You are happiness and pain and anguish, always two bitters for every sweetNever a day goes by that you don’t greet me, because there has never been a day that I haven’t thought of them. You and Kabardinka are all tied up together in my heart and I can never recall the two of you separately.

All this time I have spent carrying you around, all those prayers for deliverance from you, all those exercises for letting go of you that I have triedBut now I know you, Saudade, and now that we’ve met face-to-face as it were… I’m not sure I would ever give you up.

You are not some formless shadow haunting me as I once believed. All our ghosts have fled. I know your name, Saudade. You are mine. It is not you who holds on to me anymore; it is I who holds on to you.

You are the push that sets my feet to moving, when everything that stays the same becomes unbearable. You are the lines I draw in my doodles. You are the myths I write in my folk-tales.You are the thing chasing me that I can not escape from, until I decide to turn around and chase you. You are the thing that drove me back to Ukraine after 7 years.

And you are the thing I feel when I’m looking through my TEFL course’s school listings – all the places where people have successfully gone to teach English – and I see the very city I have dreamed of for 12 years, Nalchik, is listed. Right there. Staring unblinkingly in my face, blinding me with unassuming pixels on my computer screenYou are with me in that moment when my past and my future collide to form my present, and I realize that the most impossible of all my dreams is not only possible. It is HERE. And my heart lurches and turns over in my chest, because the destiny I have been working toward my entire life I am standing right on the edge of it, teetering like a baby bird about to jump from the edge of the nest to whatever fate awaits.

And there are no words, not even Saudade, to describe what this feels like. Saudade, yes, but something more: Hope and Terror.

I don’t know if this makes me brave or desperate or just plain crazy, but I am tired of being ashamed of feeling this way.

And I don’t want to feel it alone.

So. For anyone out there who knows how saudade feels, January 30th is our day. 

With Unveiled Face

The 2014 Olympics are nearly upon us, and the upcoming Winter games have me wandering back into old half-forgotten memories and the lasting impacts they have left on me.

The most memorable of these was Alexei Yagudin.

Despite the love-hate-mostly-hate relationship with dance that I had developed by the age of 15, my long-standing fascination with figure skating never wavered. After 6 years of rigid ballet training, I no longer loved dance. I was too tall, too gangly, too big, and cursed with legs too long to achieve the glorious lines of the other girls in my class. Telling me not to compare myself with other girls was useless. All I had to do was look over at the girl next to me with perfect technique and her foot up by her ear, while I wobbled and struggled to hold my leg up at barely 90 degrees, and I knew that I would never be a ballerina. I would never be the best, so what was the point?

I was ever increasingly resentful of all the people who loved my “church presentations”, oozed over how “anointed” I was, encouraged me always to “glorify God with the dance”, and assumed I would grow up to be a “dancer” because I “had this God-given gift” and if I didn’t use my “talent” of dance, etc. etc…. That alone probably ruined ballet for me. That and the nightmare church-approved dance outfits from hell. This was pre-liturgical dancewear era before “worship dance” was really even a “thing”. Floor length skirts, wrist length sleeves, chokingly high almost-Victorian necklines, generous billows of fabric everywhere. Back then I had to wear three separate layers of heavy modesty clothing under these outfits, and I felt about as graceful as a fluffy pillow. But enough of that because it’s not like I’m bitter or ranting or anything… (insert awkward pause here)

Anyway. Resentful as I might have been, I couldn’t stop moving either. My mind made irresistable demands of my body far beyond my physical abilities. Leaps, pirouettes, attitudes, and arabesques danced before my eyes, while my feet flopped and clomped at the end of my wooden legs pitifully like a marrionette’s. And so I spiraled into a downward cycle of self-judgement and depression. By the time I was 15, I was miserable. I hated dance. And I hated myself for hating it and even more so for being unable to stop.

And then this happened:

Tall, blond, and oh! that Russian accent! I was done for. But height and good-looks were nothing compared to the way he skated. He wasn’t just skating a piece called “Winter”; he was Winter with every gesture, with every breath. I never knew he was about to jump until he was already in the air. Night after night I stayed up long after my parents had gone to bed, replaying the VHS recording of Alexei Yagudin’s programs, searching desperately for words to describe the indescribable. What was it that had me spellbound and made me watch again and again and again? 

In those days, I didn’t feel a thing. I was almost entirely devoid of emotion, never happy or sad, angry or nervous. I never got stage fright. I described myself earlier as miserable, but at the time I didn’t know that I was. I was empty and numb. Alexei Yagudin had something that I lacked, and I didn’t know what it was.

But I wanted it like I had never wanted anything before.

All I could conclude was that he loved what he did. And I didn’t. He had passion. And I didn’t.

I wanted to be like him. I wanted that passion and inner fire with which he skated. I hungered for it from the bottom of my empty, frozen soul. My shell of a heart recognized instinctively what it lacked, and craved it insatiably thereafter. 

It didn’t escape my notice when the commentator said emphatically, “He [Yagudin] changed the way he ate. He changed the way he trained. He changed the way he thinks. He said, ‘I had to be doing something wrong’.” And I wondered just how much Alexei Yagudin had given up to achieve this kind of result. How much pain did a person have to endure to burn with this kind of fire? And was I willing to go through it myself to get there? No way. I had too much pain as it was. What person in their right mind would be such a glutton for punishment? The thought of enduring any at all was unbearable. 

But I wanted that drive, that motivation.

I used to recite to myself over and over:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties…..

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise…..
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”

–exerpts from “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I understood that, all right! It described my existence perfectly. My only defense was to wear a mask, or try my best. Sometimes I think I succeeded too well. Oh, it’s not like I didn’t crack sometimes, but the very few people I confided in or went to for help seemed confused. Why would such a good Christian girl from such a good Christian home have such overdeveloped feeling of guilt and anger? Simple. My parents wore masks too. And I was the only one who knew, because when good Christian people have problems at home, it’s not okay to tell the truth. So we lied and played a holy masquerade.

And yet…

He was the Man in the Iron Mask. He was a prisoner who throws off the mask and overcomes. Could such a thing even be possible? The only thing holding me together was the mask I wore, and I didn’t even realize I had one. But this introduced me to a new idea: the idea of living my life “with unveiled face”.

To this day the gesture of throwing off the mask conjures a sob too thick to be uttered through my throat. It sticks in my chest and makes my eyes water. Perhaps because I understand now that it requires a lot of courage not to hide behind a mask. You become vulnerable, and, beautiful as that might be, vulnerability has never been high on my life’s shopping list.

Alexei was the very last to skate in the final competition. I was wound tight as a drum, every muscle tense as though I could keep him from any wobble, any fall, any mistake through sheer willpower. But there was no need. He was perfect. No one else had artistry like he did. I believed he was a dancer, not an athlete. He took a sport and made it art. When those four 6.0’s came up and it was clear he had won gold, Mom and I shrieked and cheered enthusiastically — much to Dad’s bewilderment — and ate our celebratory 3 Musketeers Bars in an event of completely unplanned solidarity.

Both of these programs still take my breath away. It’s hard to describe how I feel watching them now. I still have that same awe, that same wonder, that same thought of “I want what he’s got” as I did at 15. But I’m no longer an emotionally vacant troubled teen, desperate to feel anything, but as someone who has decided that there is no ecstasy without agony, no gain without loss, and that we would never be victorious if there were nothing to overcome. If hardship or sacrifice is the price of passion, I have come to believe it is worth it.  I am learning not to hide behind a mask.

It’s been 12 years and Alexei Yagudin is still my biggest inspiration.  For years I have traced The Beginning back to this point in February 2002. The year Alexei Yagudin won gold. The year I met Kabardinka. The year I started learning Russian. The year I first went to Ukraine and discovered my roots. The year my life began.

But I am no longer sure.

As a young child I would put on the slickest socks I could find and attempt to slide across our yellowed kitchen floor. My parents worried whenever they caught me, especially Mom. I think she was afraid I would fall and hit my head. But she needn’t have worried. It was just after my first Olympics, 1994. And in my mind I wasn’t sliding perilously across old, buckled linoleum. I was gliding beautifully across ice. Just  me, the movement, and the whistle of wind in my ears. I was lighter than air, graceful as a swan on a lake.

Oksana Bayul became a legend in our house, and the fact that she was Ukrainian was always mentioned. Not that we knew anything about Ukraine at that time. It was just so unusual that it had to be noted, a coincidence that we would later look back on with much more admiration and devotion. For unbeknownst to Mom and I in 1994, three generations of our ancestors had lived, labored, and loved on rich, black Ukrainian soil before their exodus to the New World in search of peace and farmland. Oksana Bayul from Ukraine — I was raised to revere her ethereal grace and beauty, so like a ballerina’s, and though the white swan is my mother’s favorite, this pink outfit is the one I remember best.

It is really strange to look back and realize that it has been 20 years since Oxana Bayul’s 1994 Olympic victory, that at the time Ukraine had only been independent for 3 years. That I was 7 and in my mind Ukraine existed only in connection with the young figure skater who I imitated every time I stepped onto my imaginary ice. (Even into my teenage years, it wasn’t just a kitchen floor; it was an ice rink, and I was lost in the movement.) I slipped and skidded across that bumpy kitchen floor, like a fledgling bird dreaming of great blue heavens. There was no good or bad, no concept of a right way, a wrong way, or technique. I was a little bird who flew.

Perhaps that was the true Beginning of my life.

For two years this fascination with movement continued, until at 9 years of age Mom finally enrolled me, not in ice skating classes, but in ballet. Thank God. I was not cut out to be a figure skater. Swollen, busted knees and ice packs were not worth skimming over ice. Give me a kitchen floor any day.

I have finally come to the conclusion that it was never specifically “dance” that I loved, but being in motion. I love to move. Play music and I am physically unable to sit still. And looking back, I can see that I never really stopped moving; I just stopped thinking of it as “dance”. And every new experience has helped me unlearn my bad associations with dance and made me a little less broken.

It has been a long and difficult road since I used to search for answers in Alexei’s Olympic programs. I have wandered from discouraging attempts at ballet (because it was the only language of movement I knew), to folk dance, to Taekwondo, to yoga, and finally to a “real Ukrainian wedding” (where I learned the true secret of the willowy Ukrainian physique — strong vodka and non-stop dancing).

From folk dance I learned that dance depends upon your perception of the steps. Taekwondo taught me focus and that “there’s a dragon in me somewhere”. Yoga taught me patience and persistence and showed me that not all movement is dance, giving me the space to rediscover the love on movement I had lost. And the real Ukrainian wedding taught me that the important thing is not how you move, but that you just do it. (Because apparently if you’re not dancing, you’re not having enough fun!)

And now here I am, back at the basics in a friend’s adult beginner ballet class. Only this time something has changed. Suddenly I realize my feet are moving of their own accord, neglecting to inform my mind before it can start judging every little imagined flaw. Yoga taught me the importance of a calm and quiet mind. And though sometimes my mind still wants more than my body can do, I just smile to myself and say, “Later.” This would never be possible if I had not spent time in yoga.

I bend my knees, I point my feet, I fight for every millimeter of height in a developpe because I choose to. Because I know I have a choice. Tomorrow I may do yoga or taekwondo or attempt a new style or go to folk dance, but today I do ballet. Today it is enough to be lost in the movement like I am once again 7 years old and the kitchen linoleum is my ice.

I feel like a bird who is relearning how to fly. 

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 2:18

Things I like:

Read a recent interview with Alexei Yagudin!

Watch gorgeous prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova.

Listen to one of my favorite songs “God is a Dancer” by Benjamin del Shreve.

For a list of some figure skaters to watch in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, go here!

The Edge of the World

Written for Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea

Some while ago, I saw the Ocean for the first time. I intended to run up to the Edge and put my hand in it. But when I crested the embankment, I stopped still. And suddenly my concept of the Ocean as a big pool of water was as damaged as the line of beach houses behind me. Because there was no Edge; it was always moving, ever changing, too wide to see from one end to the other without turning completely around. So I went by turns. Stop and stare, then jog a few steps. Stop again in awe. Take a picture. Rather like one might approach a wild animal who would just as soon have you for lunch as pose for National Geographic.

The Wind breathed around me, sharp and crisp. The Beach was strewn with undersea relics and treasures that the Depths had given up in the recent Hurricane Sandy. The Houses behind me sagged forlornly, battered victims of a different realm — one where man is not welcome — that crashes ceaselessly on our doorstep. It roared. It writhed against its ancient boundary lines until it was not the Ocean anymore, but a living, dangerous Thing. I was in the presence of Power. And I loved it, even as I feared it.

The waves beat the shore over and over until I imagined I was not standing feet planted on Earth at all, but on the hands of a Great Clock marking the cosmic passing of Time, with the Ocean as its pendulum. Perhaps mythology had gotten it wrong, and Neptune was not the lord of the deeps, but Father Time. I could almost believe that I peered all the way back to the shore from whence my great-great-grandmother, Anna, had long ago embarked for a new life in the New World. My ancestors came over that ocean, I thought, and here I am 136 years later, looking back from the other side through some uncanny watery connection to the Old World. As if in this moment our lives touch and our eyes meet.

That fearsome Ocean swept up to me and gently poured foam over my feet. I put my hand in the water and it flowed between my fingers. To touch a thing so old, so ancient and full of life and force… The heartbeat of the Earth. I suddenly felt my existence to be very small and puny, such a minute piece in all the ages those waves have marked. They have washed and changed that sandy borderline since Time first started to pass away, and they will continue to wash, change, and litter that beach with undersea relics long after I am dead and gone until the day the Earth dies.

So much as my linear human mind can comprehend, I stood on the Edge of the World and gazed into Eternity.

wpid-IMAG0907.jpg

Of God, Geeks, and Doctor Who…

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There's one more? I don't remember. What's a Silence?

With friends. Well, friends and a Dalek and a Weeping Angel. There’s one more? I don’t remember. What’s a Silence?

Warning! The following may contain Doctor Who references, fandom spirit with distinct overtones of a Christian and spiritual nature. 

Recently while on vacation in Alabama, I attended Con Kasterborous, basically a Doctor Who convention. I unabashedly love Doctor Who; I won’t deny it. And Con Kasterborous was probably the best first con experience I could have had.

People of all kinds from all walks of life came together to celebrate, discuss, and totally go crazy over one thing: Doctor Who. People postulated, hypothesized, and referenced the classic and spin-off series more than I had ever imagined anyone would. They debated whether the next doctor would be male or female, blonde or ginger, who was the best companion, and how Moffat will get around the 12th regeneration problem.

We have found our people, we joked. Now, I’m not used to random strangers understanding my quips. But part of the magic of the con was being in a room packed with people, where you could make the slightest Doctor Who reference and everyone in the room would get it.

It was one of those things that seems like it should be just a fun weekend event. But it may yet prove to be more life-changing than even I suspected. I was happy. I was grateful. I was overwhelmed with dreams of great purpose, etc. It was very much inspiring. That deep heart-string at the seat of my being resonated all the way to heaven and back. I believed God was showing me glimpses, not of the whole picture, but of a greater, more complete direction for my future. I was reassured that it was okay for me to like the things I like, to dream the things I dream, and write the stories I write, because everyone else at that con was either an artist, a writer, a fan, or all three. I began to think that maybe I didn’t have to be quite so shy about wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi or whatever genre my scribbles may be. It is always my hope that whatever I write will speak to someone, whether it is fantasy or fanfic or a post on a blog. To quote one of the speakers, Lady Soliloque: “Make your art whether it’s writing, drawing, or fanvideos. Some one will appreciate it. So put it out there. Go. Create!” We had found our people indeed! I saw through a glass darkly, but after that con, I saw a shade more clearly.

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

Lady Soliloque and me at Con Kasterborous

One of the things that impressed me the most was that, no matter if we sometimes disagreed, or didn’t see eye to eye, or if our favorite doctors weren’t the same, in the end we were united by our common love of Doctor Who. It resonates with us in some deep way that we can only guess at and it bound us all together. It was a beautiful thing.

All my life, Sunday School and Youth Group leaders have endeavored to teach me that if you are not going to church to have a spiritual encounter with God, then you are going for the wrong reasons. Okay. I am a sincere, spiritual, and devout person. But rarely have I ever encountered God in a church. He doesn’t change my life in sermons, prayers, or worship songs. Generally, when He wants to redirect my life profoundly, He will whisper to me in the wind, at a Ukrainian bus stop, in a yoga class, or at a Doctor Who convention.

A good number of my generation and I are losing patience with the modern church. We seem to be looking for community, peace, and a safe place. And let’s face it: there are very few churches where one can truly find those things. These days it seems like Christians will have one disagreement and split! Ta-da! A new denomination is born. Church history shows this pattern from the Protestants and Martin Luther all the way back to the very first split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.

Me, Vita, and our new ride!

I asked my friend, Vita, who went to Con Kasterborous with me made a similar observation. So I asked her to share some of her thoughts as well:

“[Recently], I went to my very first ‘con’. Con Kasterborous was one of the craziest and fun events I have ever been to. I was surrounded by a thousand other humans who all shared my love of the BBC show Doctor Who. It was fabulous. There were so many different unique and amazing people there! I was inspired and challenged. I felt like God was saying, “Hey, your pen has been silent for far too long. It is time to let your words out on to paper.” My good friend, Sarah Marie, was the one who finally hit the nail on the head. She said, “Why is it that this weekend, at a con, I felt closer to God than I do when I go to my church?” I was blown away, because I felt it, too. At a non-Christian event, God was making His presence known to us. This got me to thinking. Why is it that I feel closer to God everywhere but in a traditional church setting?

“I love Jesus Christ. I love having Christian friends (I love my non-Christian friends, also!). I love going to church. But I am so tired of being around other Christians that are “play-acting” church. We pick songs to get an emotional response. We show videos that I swear the sole-purpose of is to make people cry. Why do we go to that much trouble to get an emotional response? Where have all the genuine Christians gone? I am absolutely exhausted with modern religion. Why do we feel like a church setting is a good place to pick apart our faith? There are certain areas that I consider to be gray areas of Christianity. Subjects that in the Bible God isn’t exactly black and white about whether they are wrong or not. And that’s okay. These are the subjects that each Christian has to approach from where God leads them. What is good for one may not be good for all! (Just check out Acts 10!) In the modern church setting, these are the subjects we as Christians pour so much time and effort and passion into. Stuff that doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. We allow them to split churches and divide families. We allow them to get in the way of God’s vision and plan for our future. We focus on them more than we focus on God. We forget that God told us to love Him first, and love others next, nothing more, nothing less.

“We are a society that is obsessed with being right. And that’s wrong. We are so busy judging everyone else’s sin that we forget about being remorseful about our own sin. There aren’t multi-levels of sin; there is just sin. And Jesus died for all sin. Equally.

“So, why can’t we as Christians come together in the same way as other groups of people? We have even more of a reason to come together. We are united under more than just a mutual love of something nerdy. We are united under the God who created the world. We are united under the Son of God who died for our sins, so our imperfection could be perfection.

“Imagine, at a con, that some of the different fans got into a fight over whether Superman was Caucasian or African American? The mud starts slinging and all of a sudden the one group splits into two. Then the groups split again over whether he has brown eyes or blue eyes or green eyes. What was once a fun topic would no longer be enjoyable. Eventually the fandom would be so split to the point of breaking. The comic books would no longer exist because there would be too many versions of Superman to get enough support to survive. We wouldn’t let this happen to our fandoms, so why do we let it happen in our churches? Why can’t the different fandoms (church bodies) of Christ put aside their petty disagreements and come back together in the common unity of love for God and love for others? Why do we continue to allow the fighting, misunderstandings, and disagreements to destroy the reason why the church exists? Why do we continue to stress over pointless things? What good does it do if we decide that dunking or sprinkling is the proper form of baptism, if people are still dying and going to hell?

“Maybe we feel closer to God outside a traditional church setting because we are too busy in the church to remember that we are there to worship Him. We are too busy trying to get a response out of other people to remember to approach God on our own and show others by our example. If we want to be near to God, we need to quit focusing on others and start focusing on being right with Him ourselves. If we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us. (James 4:8 – Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.) We need to rejoice in His love, and let the miniscule things go. We need to love others, because we were put on earth to show God’s love to the world. We need to unite in Jesus Christ.

“Be encouraged, be challenged, be loved.

V”

In the end, it all comes down to people. Christianity is a religion of love, redemption, and forgiveness. Why then are there so many Christians who seem to be just the opposite? Shouldn’t we be united by our common love and adoration of Christ? Shouldn’t we be able to share our faith and enjoy fellowship without undergoing a “great divide”? It’s like telling a child to believe in the power of true love while their parents repeatedly remarry and divorce.

That’s not to say conflict will never happen. Conflict will always be with us. We’re people – unique and opinionated people – and at one point or another, we’re gonna disagree. But can you imagine if Doctor Who fans split every time they disagreed over whether the Doctor should be male or female or ginger? What if they split over their favorite Doctor? If Whovians split over every little thing, “Whovian” would not be in the dictionary and we wouldn’t be sending a TARDIS into space. (True story! Check it out here!)

My desire is that Christians would come together because of their mutual love of God, and not just because church is the thing to do on Sundays, or to be a good Christian, or so all the other Christians won’t judge us. (Besides, wouldn’t it be awesome to cosplay your favorite Bible characters or saints on Sunday and not only at the yearly Harvest Festival on October 30th?)

But the truth is, God is powerful and loving enough to give his children places of rest, healing, and peace. God once made me a promise, when I was rebuilding my faith from the ashes up. In the middle of my messy life, when I wanted to change but I didn’t know how, he promised me, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.” (It’s Jeremiah 29:14, but I didn’t know that then.) In all the subsequent years of feeling like I might well be playing hide-and-seek with the God of my universe, He has never failed to be found in precisely the moment I needed Him. He has never failed to lead me exactly where I needed to go.

If we seek to find God, He will be found. Even if He chooses to be found at a Doctor Who convention. And I find that infinitely reassuring.

Kabardinka

I have waited a very long time to tell this story. It is the memory I hold closest to my heart. But recently I went back to Worldfest and one of the employees, upon hearing me mention how Worldfest had changed my life, encouraged me to write. So here is my story.

It was World Fest, 2002, 11 years ago. I was 15. Wildfire was the hot new coaster, Red Gold Heritage Hall had just opened, and the Fresco Barn served the best Cornish hens I have ever tasted in my life. It seemed like a place where magic could happen. And it did.

But first, you must understand my situation at the time. I had a miserable home life. My parents fought and argued constantly: my mom cried and screamed, my dad broke stuff and cursed everything. It was not a happy place. I was empty and numb, a huge void of emotions, because to feel happiness or joy was to open up to pain and anguish. And no one ever noticed that I was collateral damage of parents at war.

But once in a lifetime something happens that forever splits your life in two: the time before and the time after. For me that something was Kabardinka.

Worldfest brought musicians and dancers from all over the world to share their culture. Who could have known what was about to happen? I was entirely unsuspecting.

When I saw the show by Kabardinka, I had not a clue what Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Elbrus were. I only knew that I had never seen dancing like this before. The women were more gentle than doves, more graceful than ballerinas, drifting as softly as feathers borne on the wind, with movements so effortless that they seemed to float just above the floor, the very picture of feminine beauty and mystery. And as much as the women were soft and beautiful, the men were as wild and fierce, creatures of the mountains straight out of legend. Together they were absolutely the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Every movement, every step, every glance of the eye was timed to perfection. They caught my attention and never let it go, from the moment the first dancing booted foot touched the stage until the last beautiful dancer had disappeared behind the curtain.

I went around in a daze, visions of highlanders and dark-eyed beauties dancing through my head. Dreams of the kind of women wars were fought for and men who would die defending a woman’s honor.Longing for everything my life lacked: integrity, protection, respect, and honor.

Back then there were Closing Ceremonies. All the performers and guests would gather in a big circle and dance around the gazebo as we sang “What a Wonderful World.” To this day I cannot hear that song with a dry eye. “What a Wonderful World” is springtime at Worldfest, the fragrance of flowers after rain, faces I once knew, the first time my heartfelt anything at all. It marks such a sweet memory of such a precious time. After the Closing Ceremonies, I asked to snap a picture with some of the dancers from Kabardinka. Upon learning that I was a dancer too, they oohed and ahhed and asked to see some ballet. As it happened, I was wearing dance sneakers. I did a pretty little curu on my toes and a curtsey. They seemed quite impressed and even applauded. Nothing fancy, nothing special. But that was all it took. From that moment on, despite their very few words of English and my complete lack of Russian, they were my friends and I was their biggest fan.

And by “biggest fan”, I mean, if they had a show, I would be there. 20 times, at least (probably more),over 6 days, 4 different weekends. And by “friends” I mean, whenever they saw me outside of the Hall, they would always break out with huge smiles, wave vigorously, and cry, “Hello, Sarah!” in those thick accents, whether I was in a crowd full of people or just walking in to watch the show. And I would wave back and call, “Privet!” just like they had taught me. When it was time to leave, they would ask, “When are you coming back?” or the broken English equivalent. I can still see it all vividly when I close my eyes, like a video I can turn on at will. And I can clearly recall their faces without the aid of pictures. The memories are so firmly fixed in my mind. Considering I lived in a different state, I really don’t know how I talked my parents into bringing me so often. I asked my mom about it the other day, and her reply was, “Well, at least I always knew where you were.”

My mom had a point. I was always hanging around the dancers, so much so that sometimes other patrons of Worldfest would ask me questions about the group and their culture. And sometimes I could answer. I even ended up playing interpreter a couple of times for those that didn’t speak charades. Communication without words is a skill that has stayed with me to this day.

My friends and I would often go to watch the other shows, wander all over Silver Dollar City, or ride the roller coasters. We loved Wildfire and Thunderation. They taught me their dances and my very first words in Russian. I adored them no end.

Later, when I realized that Kabardinka had toured all over other countries and that some of those dancers who knew me by name and always greeted me with a smile were THE principle dancers of the ensemble, I just couldn’t believe it. Who was I? I was nobody. And yet, while all my world and my parents’ marriage was burning to ashes around me, they were my lifesavers in an ocean of despair.

It was the first time in my life I had ever felt safe. They were the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met. They showed me glimpses of a world beyond the one I was trapped in, the first ray of dawn in my endless dark night. The dancers of Kabardinka saved my life.

I know I will probably never meet any of those dancers again. But that’s okay. They will hold a special place in my heart. Always. Because of them, I have seen the names of my ancestors carved in stone in a Ukrainian cellar, I have drunk pure water from one of the last clean wells on earth, I have international friends all over the world, I can smile without sadness, and dance freely. I have found things worth living for. I speak Russian and a little Ukrainian, I am proud of my Ukrainian Mennonite heritage, and I learned of my great-uncle who was born in Pyatigorsk, about 55 miles from Nalchik, where Kabardinka was from. I have learned to never let language get in the way of kindness, because I know first-hand the value of a smile. I know who I am because of one chance encounter 11 years ago at Worldfest, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri when a handful of dancers from a city in Russia that no one in Arkansas had ever heard of, were kind to a broken 15-year-old girl. To this day their kindness allows me to heal.

If I could ever see them again, I would try to tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart, for saving me from my life, for giving me hope when everything looked hopeless, for showing me goodness when all the other “good” people were passing me by. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of them with overwhelming gratitude, that I don’t wish all the best things for them, that I don’t wonder if they would even remember me at all. Because I will never ever forget them. I learned Russian for this very reason, so I could tell them. Just in case I have the chance someday.

Of all the things I hope to do before I die, at the top is to see Kabardinka perform one more time.

American Toilets, Ukrainian Style

There are three essential items one should always carry in Ukraine: hand sanitizer, wipes, and toilet paper.

Public restrooms in Ukraine are my worst nightmare. Okay, maybe not my worst, but they are pretty close.

Now I’m pretty tough. I’ve been to Ukraine enough to know the ropes of public restrooms. I’m not bothered at all by the ones in the floor where you have to squat. Or the ones that stink to high heaven as if the sewers have been backed up for twenty years. Or the ones that are pretty much just a hole in a concrete slab in the middle of the countryside. Those are all fine. The really scary toilets are the ones just like ours in America. I quickly learned that people do not understand how to use these toilets. My best guess is that some Ukrainians think it is unsanitary to actually sit on the toilet seat. So what do they do? Apparently they hop up and squat.

Walking into a bathroom stall in a super fancy McDonald’s after holding on desperately for hours, only to find shoe prints on the bowl is approximately horrific.

But when you have to go… What can you do? Obviously, everyone else is doing it, and my bum is definitely not going anywhere near that nasty toilet seat. (May I reiterate at this point: wipes, paper, sanitizer!)

But once, after doing as they do in Ukraine and thinking myself very Ukrainian for it, I got caught. The next lady in line, an older Ukrainian woman, saw the seat after I exited the stall and bawled me out right there in the restroom. My Russian was not that great at the time, but I understood enough to know she was yelling something to the effect of “don’t you people know you’re supposed to put your bottom on the seat and not your feet?” The repeated smacking of her bum and thigh might have been a clue also. I’m thankful she was smacking her own, and not mine.

She was very not happy.

And the lady cleaning the sink kept right on scrubbing like it happened all the time.

Well, it would have been pointless to try to explain that at least five other people had squatted on that seat before me. (This is why you always carry wipes with you. And sanitizer. And toilet paper.)

So when an angry Ukrainian zhenschina shoves a wad of paper towels at you, what do you do? Why, you take the wad of towels and you clean the seat for her. And then you write about it.

Because you have not fully experienced Kyiv, Ukraine until you have been yelled at by a Ukrainian woman and cleaned a Ukrainian toilet.

Unfinished Business

My mother asked me to look up an old friend of hers before I left for Ukraine in September 2012. We met Kitty on that fateful first trip in November 2002, and lost touch with her not long after. Fortunately, this is an age of technology, information, and connection. One quick search and I found her in less than 5 minutes. Years had fallen prey to those bittersweet words “lost touch”, years during which I had simply never thought to look.

I sent a message to Kitty. You know the kind: Hello. Remember me? Mom sends love. I’m coming to Kyiv. Can we meet?

She was thrilled. Of course, she wanted to meet.

Yaroslav the Wise

Me with Kitty and Yaroslav the Wise, Golden Gates

One morning in Kyiv, Kitty called me, waking me out of a deep slumber. Communication was always an adventure of its own. And this time was no different. Between my broken Russian, my morning stupor, and her few words of English, we were able to arrange a meeting time and place. She took a bus down from Chernihiv and met me by the Golden Gates.

I wasn’t sure I would recognize her after 10 years. But every so often life brings you those rare, beautiful, and perfect moments. Because when I saw her, I knew it was her. I knew it was her and I was certain. She said I looked exactly the same. We talked and hugged and walked arm in arm down the street. I swore to myself the next time I saw her I would be fluent so that we could talk about everything. 

She had been my mother’s friend, true, but as my mom’s emissary and bearer of gifts, Kitty and I discovered that we shared something that gave us a common bond: love for my mother. In a way, that sort of made us sisters.

Mom had sent her a picture before they lost touch. Kitty had kept it framed so she would remember always, that awful picture where her eyes were closed. The memory of that time and place was so dear to her; it kept her going. She never thought she would hear from me or my mother again. She thought that we were lost forever.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

And yet here we sat in an Italian/Sushi place in Kyiv, Ukraine, reunited and sending good thoughts to Mom, who was far away and probably sleeping soundly in America. Kitty said that when she received my message she cried buckets, tears just running down her face.

Kitty and Me

Kitty, 27, and me, 25. I never realized until I posted this, how much I look like my mom. Spooky!

But as often as life gives you little moments of bliss, it will also contrive to be cruel.

We rode the metro together, both headed for home. I was off to my flat, Kitty to her bus. I was promising to come back soon and bring my mother; she was begging me to do so with tears in her eyes.

Then it was my stop. Levoberezhna.

A fierce hug. A swift good-bye. And I was out of the train car. I could see her through the window. We waved as the doors closed, a sad farewell through the smudged glass.

I’ve noticed that Ukrainians generally don’t do prolonged good-byes. None of this: “No, you hang up. No, YOU hang up! No, you…” Just “see you” and gone. Sometimes it’s better to simply walk away. But I waited. And then I understood a little better the value of a swift good-bye.

When you say good-bye to someone through a train window, you can see them, you can smile, you can wave, you can cry, but it doesn’t change anything. You can’t reach them, speak to them, or hold them. You can only wait for the inevitable. And then suddenly, with a rush of wind snatching at your hair and clothes, they are gone. You blink and your loved one is vanished. And you all you can do is just stand there on the empty platform.

So I stood there, left behind, alone in a sea of people, who didn’t know and didn’t care who I was, who Kitty was, or about our story. And that’s the thing about Ukraine: no one pays you any mind, whether you’re waving a sad farewell through a train window, or crying alone on a street corner.

Goodbyes on a train are the worst.

For all I know, when the subway train took Kitty away, it might well have taken her away forever. Phone numbers change. Profiles deactivate. And long-lost loved ones are swept back into the oblivion they emerged from, as unreachable as ever before.

Sometimes I feel like I am always losing people, even as soon as I find them.

It makes me wonder, what’s the point? People come and go. They waltz in from the wings onto the stage of life, and then they dance right on through and off the other. Would it be any better, if they never danced through my life at all? Friendships that seem strong can shatter into pieces. Grudges can start with only one little misunderstanding. This flood of time can sweep someone out of arms reach in an instant, and you’ll find yourself like I did: alone at a station, knowing you’ll never see them again, but hoping. Always hoping.

What else can I do, but hope? Maybe there will come a day when I won’t be the only one looking, and I’ll be the one found.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe finding and losing people is just a part of life I need to accept. But suppose for a moment that every person who passes through our lives does so for a reason, to teach us something. What if we are given heartbreak in order to make us wise? What if we lose people in order to teach us to appreciate what we have while we have it, and then let go? What if we endure pain so that we will learn compassion? What if without these things, we would have no capacity for happiness or joy? Think of a sunny day, how much more precious that warm sunlight is after a week of cold, grey rain.

Kitty once wrote to my mother, and I feel she said it best: “Unbearable things happen in life, but you keep living — to see, to hear, to understand — and one day, life turns around and greets you again with a smile.”

At the end of the day, lost or found, I am one heartbreak closer to that smile.