Grandma

10390982_10154370570105137_6161998920819897994_n

I used to spend every Sunday morning in nursing homes. I used to try to imagine what the old and wasted looked like when they were young and full of life. But now I’m not just some stranger on an altruistic visit. I’m family, sitting in hospice, while my grandmother is dying. And I am dying with her. I can feel it, because the part of me that only she brings out is dying too.

The life we had together is coming to an end. Her muscles are shriveled, her skin hangs loose on her bones like Spanish Moss on tree limbs, her words sound like car tires turning on gravel, and her breathing rattles in her throat. But now more than ever I see her as young. The more her body withers, the more her beautiful soul appears.

When asked to describe her to a friend, I said without thought or hesitation, “She is like sunshine. She turns everything into a song. If once she smiles at you, some infectious moment of happiness compels you to smile back. She is simple in a world that makes everything complicated. She spreads love everywhere she goes. And the day she dies, the world will change forever.”

Lifeless and weak as she is, she still has strength to hold me, pat my head, and stroke my cheek. I kiss her hands and face, and lay my head gently on her shoulder. I sing a lullaby in her ear until she sleeps. Her smile hasn’t changed. Sometimes she looks at me in a room full of people, and her pale, thin lips stretch in that same familiar smile she has only for me. I am closer to her now than ever, even though my fellow Wayfaring Stranger is crossing the final border, “only going over Jordan, only going over home”.

“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said.

“Save a place for me in your house,” I replied.

“I will,” she promised.

The days in hospice drag on. She grows weaker, but she still shakes her finger at me. I’m onery and she knows just how I came by it; she shakes her finger at me because she knows I’m just like her. “Don’t get sunburned,” she says. “I won’t, Grandma,” I promise.

It is not hard to watch her die. She is ready and so am I. I only weep because I am tired, because I know that the time is coming when I will have to carry on without her. I dread the lonely days of wayfaring ahead: the dark clouds that lie out before me, the days when I want to call her, have coffee with her, read her my latest story, share my joys and sorrows, or ask for her prayers, and can’t. But perhaps I will not be as alone as I expect. Souls and the ties between them are not ruled by death. What are the laws of physics to supernatural souls? For the first time I realize that we are fascinating creatures, humans. We are part physical, part mental, and part spiritual. We are capable of ever so much more than we realize. Perhaps when my grandmother’s soul is at last set free, we will be even closer than before.

She sleeps more and more often. One day she’ll wake up in that other world that I only just catch glimpses of in that space between waking and dreaming. I can see heaven behind her eyes.

Hi, Grandma.” I have to shout in her ear now because she can’t hear me anymore.

“Who… who is it?” she asks. She can’t see me anymore either.

“It’s Sarah, Grandma.”

Her hands flutter immediately, reaching for me almost desperately, and words tumble from her too-dry mouth. “I love… you. I …love… you.”

“I love you too, Grandma.” She struggles to form the words. “You’re …shuss… to me.”

She can’t swallow and her tongue and lips no longer communicate her thoughts properly. But I know what she’s saying. You’re precious to me. It’s the same script we say every time.

“I’m not going to tell you goodbye,” I say firmly, “because we will meet again. So I’ll just say, see you soon.”

Something feels familiar about this experience, and I gradually realize as one day presses into another, that I have walked in the shadow of death before. I hear echoes of words spoken ages ago: come let us cross over. I see a forlorn face borne away by the train to places I cannot follow. I see the stars at 3 am twinkling in a dark foreign sky and confide in my best friend, “I don’t want to say good-bye.” “So we won’t,” came the reply. “Because we’ll see each other again. So I’ll just say, ‘See you soon’.”

Okay, then. See you soon!

See you soon…

It seems that all my life I have been learning letting go. Practicing little pictures of death. Perhaps this is so that one day when I too am dying, I will not have to be afraid.

Grandma is still teaching me, even as she sleeps now. And this is her final parting gift: by her faith that I am coming after her, by my faith that we will meet again, by her peace and her desire to be quit of this world, by her love, by her very dying, she is saving me.

I am homesick already.

On her last good day, she asks for her swab to be dipped in coffee. She sits up and plays the electric keyboard they brought just for her. On this day, I make my last confession.

Hey, Grandma.”

“What?” 

“I got sunburned.”

“Uh-oh…”

“I’m sorry, Grandma. I love you. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

She summons the strength to lift a skeletal hand, her thumb reaching for the ceiling. “Okay!”

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go

I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

I know dark clouds will gather around me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

I’m going there to my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

Advertisements

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. 

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.

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.