Combatting Guilt . . . and Dirty Windows

It's a beautiful spring day here in Western Ukraine. Nevermind that the temperature is hovering right around freezing–the sky is blue, and the sun is bright. It seems appropriate, as here in the Eastern Orthodox world, we'll be celebrating Easter this coming Sunday, April 15. But as much as I love the celebration of Christ's victory over death, this week always has the capacity to fill me with guilt. That's because this Thursday is Chystyy Chetver, or "Clean Thursday," in English. You see, at some point in the history of the Orthodox Church, someone decided that it was a sin to have a dirty home on the day of Christ's crucifixion, and the tradition of Clean Thursday was born. This week Ukrainian women will labor feverishly to ensure that their homes are spotless by Good Friday, with the majority of this spring cleaning taking place on Thursday. If you took a walk in our neighborhood this Thursday, I guarantee that you'd see many people busy washing their windows. In fact, as I sit here typing, I can see one industrious neighbor already hard at work on hers, and it's only Tuesday. 

To help you understand my guilt, I have to let you in on a secret. I don't do windows. I don't mean that I dislike window washing or that I'm too lazy to do it or even that I'm too busy to make it a priority, although perhaps all those statements have an element of truth. No, what I mean is that at some point after having children, I made a calculated decision to stop washing windows. I still clean up the little fingerprints and wet nose art that appear on the inside of our windows, but I only wash the outsides of windows that open into our apartment or give onto a balcony, and in our current living situation, those surfaces comprise only about 50% of the total area of windowpanes. As for the other 50%? Well, I guess I just count on summer thunderstorms to keep them clean enough that they won't become a complete eyesore.

Why do I do this?

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I Love My Boys

Sometimes I don't think that I can take the rampant testosterone flying about our apartment. On most days it seems like if someone isn't screaming, yelling, growling, or roaring, then something is being broken or hurled through the air.

Rather than being the serene and gentle mother I would like to be, I just feel vexed and grouchy as I scurry from one disaster-waiting-to-happen to the next, all while trying to cook meals, keep house, and manage to maintain a semblance of personal hygiene. I find a bit of consolation in the fact that none of our boys has figured out how to throw things out the window . . . yet. That's a good thing, because much of the time, my patience is about ready to exit by that route. I always considered myself a patient person―until I had kids. It's humbling, which is probably good for me, and it's forcing me to rely moment by moment on Jesus, and as far as I'm concerned, nothing could be better than that.

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Out of the Mouths of Babes and Infants

My husband's grandma died last week. My 4-year-old son overheard us talking about it. "She died?" he asked, furrowing his eyebrows. I held my breath involuntarily, wondering how to explain this to such a young child. "Yes, Great Grandma died," my husband said, "and now she's in heaven with Jesus." My son started to giggle with glee! I was shocked and disturbed, until he exclaimed, "How she got there by she's self??" (Translation: How did she get there by herself?) Then I understood.

Lately he has been preoccupied with heaven, often asking me when we can go there. When I explain that we have to wait until Jesus takes us, he says, "But I want to go now!" So when he heard that someone he knew had made it to that wonderful place, he couldn't contain his excitement, and he wondered, How did she do it?

My first instinct was to dismiss his irreverent laughter as merely the result of a lack of comprehension. He didn't really understand death, so he could be excused for thinking that this was a time to rejoice. But suddenly I realized that he understood the big picture much better than we did. In his mind, the specter of death was nothing in comparison to the joy of heaven. His thoughts were not of losing a great grandma but of her incredible good fortune to get to go where he so desperately wanted to be. I looked at his glowing face and smiled through my sadness. All of us adults with the long faces could learn a thing or two from the glee of my 4-year-old.


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Nightmare Inspiration

Not long ago I had a nightmare. In my dream the Nazis had taken over the country where we lived. Because my husband was Jewish (he isn't, but in the dream he was), we knew that he and our children were in great danger.

We were all taken to some sort of compound and left in a room with bunk beds. We slept, but in the middle of the night, a seemingly friendly official awoke us to tell us of the regime's plans to create pristine factories to be staffed by the expatriate Americans still left in the country. He seemed to be seeking our advice or approval for this plan, and we nodded our heads as he described how good the conditions would be and showed us pictures of a prototype. It looked wonderful. Everything was clean; even the floors were a gleaming white, and the workers were dressed neatly in starched white uniforms. But in our hearts we knew that it was all a ploy to gain our compliance; our captors did not intend any good for us.

Our fears were confirmed when this same official returned to our room to inform us that my husband and I would be taken immediately, and we were to leave our children behind. "This will be the last time you see them," he said, "so make it good." My two older boys, ages 4 and 2, were standing there, sleepy and a bit confused, and as I looked at them, my heart was in agony. I wanted to cling desperately to them and sob out my heartbreak, but I knew I needed to keep my emotions in check, because I didn't want to frighten them, and I wanted their last memory of me to be positive. Above all, in our final moments together, I wanted to impress on their young minds the importance of clinging to Jesus. He would now be the only one caring for them and our only hope of one day being reunited.

How do you communicate to such young children all that is necessary in such a short amount of time? I stood still, trying desperately to form my swirling thoughts into words that their little minds would understand and remember long after I was gone. The tension of the moment was too great, and I woke up.

Sometimes when you wake in the middle of a nightmare, your heart is pounding and your mind is racing. It takes a few moments for you to realize that it was all just a dream, but when you do, profound relief and sometimes even elation immediately flood in. This waking was not like that. My body and mind were calm, and as soon as I opened my eyes, I understood that I had been dreaming. But though I was relieved, the terror of the dream remained with me, and I lay in bed praying earnestly that, no matter what happened, my precious children would follow Jesus.

Hours later, the effect of this dream was still with me and was subtly affecting my interactions with my children. What if this were the last time I would see them? Had I taught them everything I could about the things that really mattered? Resolving their fights now centered more around teaching them that they were brothers and best friends who needed to take care of each other rather than finding out who was at fault. And I found myself frequently stopping what I was doing just to hug them and tell them that I loved them and that Jesus loves them even more.

This was a little over a week ago, and my eldest son already seems to be developing a different, more caring attitude towards his younger brother. And I think that perhaps I'm learning to enjoy my children more intentionally, even in the midst of the confusion and chaos that they generate. Though I would never want to revisit it, one day I may look back on this nightmare as one of the best things that ever happened to my parenting strategy.

—– —– —– —– —–

What about you? Has something extremely unwelcome ever turned out to be a blessing in disguise?


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I’m Writing Again

All three of my children are currently asleep.

At the same time.

During daylight hours.

Do you have any idea how rare this is?

I don't think it would have happened at all except for the fact that one of them is ill, another seems like he might be catching it, and the third is only 5 months old, so he sleeps most of the time anyway.

Reading the blogs of others has inspired me to start writing again, but that's tough to do these days with three children ages 4 and under. It's possible to read while trying to keep the eldest child from bullying the middle child, while encouraging the middle child to finish his lunch, all while keeping the nursing infant latched on at the breast. It's possible to read like that, but not to write! So now that they're all sleeping, I'm going to start writing a new post.

Well, that was short-lived. The baby just woke up and is having a little snack as I type, which I am able to do while nursing a baby thanks to the amazing wrap-around nursing pillow that my parents sent me for my birthday.

I feel like I've finally got my act together after the birth of our most recent baby. It always seems to take me about a month to get back into a good rhythm with cooking, housework, parenting, personal hygiene, etc. So now that the apartment is not always a complete wreck, and I'm washing my hair twice a week, and I can find time to read to the boys in addition to their nighttime Bible story, I decided to take on a new project. Last week I hung pictures up in our living room. This might not sound like much, but for me it was a huge step. You see, before moving to our current city about three and a half years ago, we lived in Kyiv for four and a half years.

And we lived in seven different apartments during that time.

Seven apartments in four and a half years averages out to fewer than eight months per apartment. That's a lot of moving, and all of that moving was prefaced by the biggest move of all, my move from the U.S. to Ukraine. By the time we moved to our new city and our current apartment, circumstances had trained me to approach home decoration in light of our next move.

Our Ghetto Storage Solution

 

That's why instead of getting cupboards to store our things, we bought plastic bins and stacked them six feet high on shelves in our bedroom.When it's time to move again, I won't even have to pack these things; we'll just load up our storage bins and go. (Several months ago I finally had the brilliant idea of hiding the storage bins behind a fuzzy green blanket that coordinates with our bedroom curtains.)

That's why we don't own a television set; we ditched it before the last move because we found it too big and cumbersome to drag along yet again. (Somehow we felt differently about our hundreds of books, but that's a topic for another post.)

The problem with this approach is that we've been living in the same apartment for three and a half years, and I'm still acting like we're going to move out next month. Over the last two years, I've been given several pieces of original artwork, but since I was always thinking in terms of our next move, I was unwilling to drill holes in our concrete walls to hang them. Instead, they were propped awkwardly on bookshelves and windowsills. The beautiful oil painting that my husband gave me for my birthday was sitting on top of our wardrobe so that the kids couldn't maul it! But last week I finally took the plunge and decorated our living room walls. (Thanks to a care package from a friend in the States, however, I was able to do it with 3M Command picture-hanging strips instead of my husband's heavy-duty drill for concrete.) It looks wonderful–homey and inviting–and the oil painting of the Carpathian Mountains soothes my spirit every time I gaze at it:

Carpathian Mountains, oil on canvas

Why didn't I do this sooner? 

On the other hand, while constantly living in terms of the next move may be an awful way to approach home decorating, I've realized that it's exactly the way I should approach life as a whole. My next move is just around the corner. Am I storing my things in such a way that they will make the move with me? (Matthew 6:19-21) Am I getting rid of everything that is heavy or cumbersome? (Hebrews 12:1-2) Most importantly, am I living with the daily conviction that this life with all its trappings (good and bad) is just a temporary arrangement until Jesus takes me to my true home?


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Good Friday Meditation

Today was one of those days when minor annoyances accumulated until my outlook was as bleak as if there had been a death in the family, rather than what had actually happened—a cranky, feverish baby, a sweet but exasperating toddler, and a special meal that didn't turn out right and took so long to prepare that we were ready to eat it raw by the time it was served. (In fact, we weren't sure it was fully cooked, but we were so hungry that we couldn't think straight, and we ate it anyway. I'm still praying that we don't get food poisoning.)
 
It's Good Friday here in Ukraine, but I've been so preoccupied trying to cope with this day's woes that I have yet to contemplate the suffering of my Savior. That puts my suffering into perspective. It's not that bad, after all.
 
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
 
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

                                   ~Isaac Watts


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“You Can’t!” — Culture Shock, Ukrainian Style

It seems to me that "culture shock" is an expression that many people use far too casually without understanding what it actually means. I used to be one of them.
 
Earlier this evening I was a dramatic and alarming picture of culture shock. When my husband found me, I was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor beside a voltage transformer (our big one that I never bother to lift onto the counter when I need to use it because it weighs about forty pounds). I had my American-made electric beater plugged into it; the cord is too short to reach up onto the counter without coming unplugged from the transformer on the floor, which was why I was sitting on the floor. My left hand held the electric beater, on high, in the middle of a pot of fudge that I had just finished cooking that was sitting on the floor in front of me. My right my hand covered my eyes, supporting the full weight of my head as my elbow rested on my knee. The steady whir of the electric beater nearly drowned out the sobs that shook my body. I say "nearly drowned out" because George must have heard something to make him come to the kitchen at just that moment.
 
I was aware of his presence but was too distraught to respond. He knelt awkwardly on the other side of the pot of fudge and took the beater from me. I just cried harder. I needed to scream, but as a rational adult, I kept telling myself that was out of the question. But my mind felt as if it was about to shatter if I didn't do something quickly, so I shrieked. George jumped, but he managed to hold the beater, still on high, steady in the pot of fudge. I continued to cry, now with the pathetic, gasping breaths that afflict small children when they can't get control of themselves. I felt the need to vomit from the force of my sobs, and the rational part of my mind interrupted again to suggest that if I didn't get a hold of myself quickly, I would start to hyperventilate. That did the trick, and I gradually forced myself to regain control. Within a few minutes, I was frosting a tray of freshly baked brownies with the fudge frosting I had just made.
 
An outburst of this nature could only have been provoked by something earth shattering like the sudden death of a young child, a rape, or a murdered husband. Right? Not if you're a woman suffering from chronic culture shock and something jarring happens to you at the wrong time of the month.
 
What happened to me? Not much.
 
Earlier today I went grocery shopping. I started to enter the store, but then I realized that I needed a shopping cart, which I could only get outside of the store. So I turned on my heel to walk out and grab a cart from the row sitting conveniently about three feet from the entrance. Before I could get out, however, a security guard, who had been standing there watching me, blocked my path and said, "Nilzya!" a Russian obscenity that literally means you can't. (It's not actually an obscenity, but I've come to perceive it as such, because 85% of the time, the tone and spirit in which it is used makes you feel as if you're being cussed out.)
 
Baffled by his incomprehension, I pointed at the row of shopping carts and stuttered in Ukrainian, "But I need … I need …" Since shopping cart doesn't frequently come up in conversational speech, I didn't actually know the Ukrainian word for it, so I stumbled to a halt, frustrated and helpless.
 
"Go around through the cash register line," he told me, still in Russian.
 
I know what going through the cash register line is like, because once I had the misfortune to enter this same store looking for one item only. When I failed to find it, I had to choose between waiting ten minutes in line behind customers who were checking out or forcing my way past them. I chose the latter. The cash register aisles are very narrow, and if I carried a few more inches on my hips, it would have been physically impossible for me to squeeze past a loaded shopping cart. Other customers were paranoid that I might be trying to cut in front of them, because cutting in line is as natural as breathing for about 25% of the population. On top of all this, the cashier was suspicious that I might be trying to sneak out with stolen goods. All this flashed through my mind as I faced off with the surly security guard. But what could I do? I briefly contemplated either speaking a mixture of Ukrainian and French, trying to reason with him in English, or shoving him as hard as I could so I could get to one of the carts that were within arm's reach.
 
In the end, I simply growled at him, an inarticulate, animal noise, and spun around to find the closest cash register line . . . and then I came home and shrieked while making fudge frosting.
 
This sort of drama is not an everyday part of life in Ukraine for me. In fact, in nearly three years of living here, this is only the fourth such incident. The other three were prompted by minor slights like the one that set me off today. But culture shock is like a succession of time bombs. The steady ticking that colors all the seconds and minutes of your days sounds innocuous enough, but it's propelled forward by an unending series of small shocks until the inevitable, but unexpected, explosion occurs. And then the process begins all over again.
 
Today was the worst explosion yet. Hours later, my mind still feels brittle. I shan't go mad, at least not tonight. I'm sure of that. In fact, I'm reasonably sure that I will survive the interminable culture shock stage with my sanity intact. But at what cost? In order to survive, must I become an insensitive, unfeeling brute like the people who keep pushing me over the edge? I refuse.
 
As George gently pointed out after my second explosion after moving here, the reason we've chosen to live in this country is to make a positive difference. We want to see the love of Jesus transform lives and change the society. And one of the ways to pursue our goal is to display this love in all our actions. How should I have responded to the security guard today? I honestly don't know, but I'm sure that growling at him was not the best thing I could have done. So I take a deep breath, say a prayer of repentance, and ask God to help me do better next time.


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