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Archive for August, 2010

I waited a long time to find the right person to marry.  Or rather, to be found by the right person to marry.  I wasn’t terribly active in the business myself.  I developed a concrete image of the man I would agree to marry when I was in my late teens (mostly a list not-s), and decided if that sort never appeared, I’d just skip the whole business.

I suppose I may have overdone it slightly.  I didn’t intend to accept the first (or the only) person who might show some interest, or the person who might make my head spin, and bring up images of sunsets and moonrises, or the person who would fit everyone’s opinion of the proper sort.  Which probably made me a rather hard mark.  Not to mention I had a pathological fear of flirting or pretending to flirt- I’ve always thought flirting was dishonest and unfair, and only led to problems when you gave false hope.  I was one of the coldest fish around- practically arctic.

And the closer I got to 30, the more I realized the longer you wait, the thinner the fields, and the more formidable you become.  And while I may have started my 20s with an indifferent attitude- “To marry or not to marry, is hardly the question”- I was finishing them understanding that we really were created to be in fellowship with someone– and a cat doesn’t cut it.  In order to have a worthwhile life, you have to be able to give up your life to someone.

However, this did not shake my resolve to forget the whole thing if nobody worthy ever came around.  Not that I think myself such a prize, only a knight in armour would do; but if one is going to be married, and spend the rest of one’s life with someone else, it had better be someone one can put up with for 50 years.

I refused Maksim right off the bat; and changed my mind just as quickly.  And by the merest happenstance and tremendous serendipity, ended up with the ideal husband.

No, he’s not rich.  Or titled.  Or significant in the world in any way.  He’s not the professional man I had always expected to marry.  He doesn’t share my tastes in reading, or even enjoy reading as a pasttime.  He’s not an antiquarian, and he’s not very fond of cats.

But he has a sense of humour, and life would be impossible with someone who didn’t.   And not only that, but he can laugh at himself.  And he doesn’t take life too seriously.  He’s humble, and that’s about as rare as anyone can get.

He’s patient.  Well, as patient as a man can be anyway; patience isn’t really a masculine trait.  He may lose his patience with creeping trains and crawling traffic, but he’s patient with my flaws and foibles and multiple disfunctions, and the dishes being left in the sink in the last months of my pregnancy.

He doesn’t hold a grudge.  Forgiving.  Doesn’t bring up the whole list of my failures from the beginning of our marriage to date every time I slip up. 

He’s giving; even when we’re in the midst of economizing he can suggest giving money to someone who needs it.  And he’s ready to help the minute a friend asks; sometimes this isn’t always the most convenient characteristic for me, but I value his generosity of spirit more than eating supper while it’s hot (most of the time).

He’s easy to get along with- except when we’re both being easy to get along with, and can’t decide who’s going to compromise for whom.  Generally he wins, and I eat the bigger slice of cake, unless I can think of a way around when he pulls rank.

He loves his children.  Which I guess most men do, but not all of them are capable of showing it.  I don’t think Maksim’s children will ever have a reason to doubt it!  And he enjoys them, which also isn’t often as easy for men as women…

He takes care of me.  This might sound rather lame when I’ve crossed half the world by myself, and managed perfectly well- but I’m tired.  And I’m very glad to have someone to support me, to stand behind me when the ramrod in my back is warping, to speak for me when that stiff upper lip is wobbling.  Or just to share the concern.

And he loves me.  Very much.  Which I really never expected.  As I said, I did have a rather amphibious nature; and I’ve always known I didn’t have the kind of character that really attracts many men.  I had always expected to have a civilized, polite, quiet marriage- a British marriage.  We are civilized and polite, but Maksim loves me in spite of it- to my unending surprise and delight.

I am constantly amazed by Maksim, and by how happy we are.  I never expected this much.  I wanted to be married to be able give- but I get so much more.  I dread the day when I will forget to be grateful, when I become too lazy to appreciate everything that Maksim is to me.  I hope that if I work and pray hard it will never come; but in the meantime I enjoy every serendipitous day and thank God for the man who hooked the fish out of the stream.

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Everyone likes to talk about finding beauty in everyday things.  Generally this means some kind of epiphany while watching the sun stream through the window, or lounging artistically in a wicker chair drinking french roast while reading Thoreau or Dickinson.  These are events that require no planning or expense (other than the french roast and a book or two), but they aren’t really everyday things.  Because while the sun streams through the window two-thirds the days of the year, epiphanies are as rare as white elephants in Siam.  And if you can afford french roast coffee, you most definitely cannot afford to spend too much time drinking it over a transcendental poet or two. 

There is a beauty in the everyday, but it is not a high artistic yearning, nor does it blossom ephemerally in romantically inclined minds.  The too-ambitious rarely find it because they are looking too high and moving too fast.  The aimless rarely find it because it takes too much attention and care.  And that’s really too bad, because this is a blessing God heaps on us everyday, and all around us.

There are three keys to finding beauty in those famed “simple things of life”.  The first is to be thankful.  Not specifically to anyone, although technically I suppose one might say grateful to God.  There are people who simply have a grateful spirit, and this is a gift.  It makes your life happier, and more beautiful, because instead of taking things as they come you accept them with thanks, that is, you don’t take them for granted, but you appreciate each instance of favor.  Gratitude and appreciation can give an aura to many an ordinary, run-of-the-mill day.

However, in order to be a grateful person, in order to appreciate anything, you have to be attentive.  The green grass, the dandelions, the ladybugs are always there, but we only notice them when we’re paying attention.  If we’re distracted with unrelated thoughts and high-flown fancies we’re unlikely to notice the scent of wet autumn leaves and the fun of walking with an umbrella- unless we’re in that rare epiphanic mood.  But the leaves are there every day, if we would only pay attention. 

Unfortunately, often we’re too busy to pay attention.  There’s so much we want, so much we’re striving for, and so much that seems necessary we haven’t the time to pay attention to the multitude of little things that make up our day to day lives.  If we’re going to do the acceptable thing, we really have to get to it, and that means a to-do list, and a schedule, and goals; no time, no attention to spare, and no gratitude left lying about to be wasted on insignificance.

Which bring us to the biggest obstacle to the beauty of the everyday.  We want too much.We want everything.  We want to have our cake and eat it too.  “Content” is so rarely used in the modern world, people will soon have to look it up in the dictionary to find out what it means.  In those few instances where the word survives, it’s often used improperly by people who are less content than just plain to lazy to get what they actually need.

When people talk about going back to the simple life, they’re forgetting the Industrial Revolution which erased content from our vocabulary, stole our time and with it our attention and all but the faintest wisps of gratitude.  The simple life doesn’t require a cabin on Walden’s Pond, homespun linen and throwing out the television.  It just requires a grateful attitude, and taking the time to pay attention- and taking the apple that hangs before you instead of yearning for the one just out of reach.  And the vistas will open out before you…

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Second Time Around

After taking several paragraphs to explain why  I didn’t name my first daughter Elizabeth, as I had always planned, it seems a bit odd to go ahead and name my second daughter Elizabeth- or at least its Russian equivalent.  I have never considered myself inconsistent (though I seem to notice more and more “inconsistencies” as life presents more and more varied experiences.)  

To be honest, I can’t seem to accustom myself to the name.  I keep calling her Sofya; in my first pregnancy, I was certain the baby was a girl, and I called her by name from the 3rd month on.  This time around, we weren’t sure until the baby was born that it was really a girl, or which of three names we would choose- so our in-utero conversations were more of the “hey,you!” type.

This time around, everything is different.  Our first child seemed automatic; this baby was a surprise.  My first pregnancy was as easy as falling off a log- and a good deal less painful.  This pregnancy required patience, fortitude, medical interference, and a high pain threshold.  I had active communication throughout Sofya’s pregnancy.  With Yelizaveta, try as I might, I felt like the line was bad, and she couldn’t hear me.  Sofya was born early, Yelizaveta had to be induced two weeks late.  Sofya’s birth was untraumatic; Yelizaveta’s birth was so painful I completely lost control of myself.  And Sofya was healthy.

Maybe there was a danger of our resting on our laurels… being insensitive… becoming dull… whatever the reason, we’ve been shaken up and down and sideways.  Because Yelizaveta isn’t and may not be healthy.  There was a point when we were just glad she was alive.  Now we’re reaching the stage where we learn how to live with serious health problems.

Sofya was never sick, and now I realize how calloused I may have seemed if I met anyone who had sick children.  Not that I would ever have been unsympathetic, just blythely and blatantly  healthy and inattentive to the unending concerns that hover in the mind of a mother with a sick child.  And I’m sure I would have been somewhat impatient with her fixation on the subject.  But I’m suddenly looking at children and health and my own life differently.

I wondered what it would be like, having a second child.  Sofya seemed so automatic and natural, but when I tried to imagine a second child, I wasn’t sure how to fit her in.    Because if with our one toddler, we were still basically newly-weds, with two, we are suddenly a family.  It’s taken me months to get to know Sofya, to create the rhythms and routines of our life- and now I have another child who may require a different approach. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy to have another child.  I was just dubious as to my own abilities to be a good mother to them both.

But all of that fell by the wayside.  When Yelizaveta lay beside me on the birthing bed, as we waited for my IV to run through, she did seem somewhat like a stranger.  By the time that evening the doctor told us she had had seizures, and stopped breathing, and that we should be prepared for any possibility, that feeling had completely faded; the famed instinct that drives wolves, etc, to fight for their cubs kicked in, and Jacob’s tenacity with the Lord, “I will not let You go till You bless me”, was running through my head like a broken record.  Because however awkward and distant the pregnancy may have seemed, that baby was mine and I didn’t intend to give her up.

I cried and I prayed, prayed and cried.  I reminded God how many children He had healed in the Bible, and the children whom He had even raised from the dead- and I asked God to give me one sign of hope.    When Yelizaveta gripped my finger, and opened her eyes and tried to find me, I knew He had answered and everything would be all right.

I spent hours with her in the intensive care unit, bent over so as not to strain my stitches, massaging the parts of her that were visible,  reading her the Psalms, telling her fairytales, reciting nursery rhymes and “The Owl and the Pussycat”, singing her songs, and praying with her.  I stayed until the heat from the incubator made my head spin and my heart race, and went back to my room to express milk… so I could come and talk to her again.

And now I know her much better.  I may only have been allowed to hold her three or four times in her life, but she’s not my second daughter anymore, she’s Yelizaveta, Liza.  She’s calmer than Sofya, but very talkative- at least whenever the doctors allow me to talk to her.  She isn’t as independent and determined as Sofya.  And she’s patient.

And it turns out we were right to resurrect the name “Yelizaveta”.  It no longer has the mystique it had as my long-planned first child’s name, and the original reason I chose it has come back to the fore.  The name is ancient Hebrew in origin, and it means variously “My Father is God” and “God-fearing”.  God took a direct hand in Liza’s life, and as she grows up she will know and remember His love and mercy.  As time goes on, in a year, or two, maybe three, all of her health problems may be solved,  and we’ll be going on with life as usual.  But Liza’s name will be a testimony to God’s grace and mercy, a reminder to be grateful to Him for both our children, to treasure them,  and to be faithful in their upbringing before Him.

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Mother insists, to the loud applause of cronies and cohorts, that Americans are an exceptional people.  I laud her patriotism and faith, but I take exception. 

“Exceptional” means something outside the rule; that is, to claim the Americans are exceptional is to claim that they are different than all other peoples.  I can’t very well argue with that, the American people have their own characteristics, culture and stereotypes.  But this makes them the same sort of exception as every other people: all nations differ from all other nations, that’s part of being a nation.  Thus, semantically, this statement is both true and untrue.  The Americans differ from other people- an exception- just as all other people differ from each other- a rule.

This is just pettiness on the part of a English teacher.  However, what I truly take exception to is not the literal meaning of Mother’s banner, but its implications.  In the vernacular, to say something is exceptional is to say that it is better than other things.  To claim Americans are exceptional in this sense is to step into the imperialism of the Roman and British Empires.

The Romans, and later the British assumed that because they were “exceptional” they were better than other peoples.  Both civilizations had some very real contributions to offer the world: Roman aqueducts, roads, and democracy provided a bridge from antiquity to the modern world, British etiquette, order, and civility, not to mention the English language, provided a bridge of diplomacy between modern peoples.  However, both nations  made the mistake of thinking that because they were “unique”- as is every nation- and because they had certain improvements on the way things had always been done, they were better.  Their language was more civilized, their customs less barbarous, their goals wiser.  In some instances they may have been right, in others, they were definitely wrong, but as the Empire grew, the impression that if it was Roman (British) it was right became stronger and stronger.  Until the day the Empire failed. 

Why do empires fail?  There are many reasons, but the one that affects our topic is the laziness and blindness that comes from assuming one is “exceptional” – both as a definite exception to the rule of all  nations, and as something higher, better than other nations.  The Roman army was supposed to be the best in the world- “different”, “unique”- exceptional.  Until the day a raggle-taggle band of half-civilized Britons drove them off a small insignificant island into the sea.  Britain was Queen of the Sea- until a few insignificant, half-civilized colonies not only claimed their independence , but surpassed her in strength, wealth, and industrial development.

I have no idea who might surpass the American Empire, or if that will take place.  If it does, it will be in part due to the complacency of being excellent.  However, my strongest objection to concept of American excellence is on moral grounds. 

I agree, as a matter of fact, I teach that America has some truly wonderful characteristics.  And yes, they are unique- exceptional.  There are many benefits to living in America, there is much to learn from her history, much to respect in her construction, much to thank God for in her development.  But she is not better than other countries.  She is certainly no worse, and there are many, many virtues that may make her seem better.  And oddly, Christians are some of the most persistent in claiming that she is better- due to her early history as a bastion of Christianity: which is an early history shared by Rome, Germany, and Britain, incidentally- also Armenia which was the first nation to call itself Christian, and Ethiopia which was only a few moments behind.  Not to mention Israel, which is the only true Promised Land- though no one seems to think she’s the best nation in the world.

It’s admirable to love one’s country, but blind love isn’t a very valuable gift.  I love my husband; I daresay he’s exceptional, since I have no problem telling him apart from the other men around.  I do not claim he is the best man in the world.  He is the best man for me; but there are many, many other good men in the world.  At least I hope so, or I’d have to feel really sorry for the rest of the female population.  I freely admit that he isn’t perfect, that he isn’t a paragon of all the male virtues; but I love him because he is the best man for me.

America is a wonderful country, especially for Americans.  Britain is also a wonderful country.  So is Italy.  So is South Korea.  So is Peru, if you like rain forests and massive snakes.  I draw the line at Iraq.  But each country is wonderful, unique, exceptional even- for its own people.  And the best way to appreciate the uniqueness of one’s own country is to accept and respect the uniqueness of other countries.

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When I called to tell Maksim that Liza had had another seizure, and the doctor wanted permission to do a spinal tap to check for meningitus and bleeding of the brain, he said “I don’t understand why God is putting us through so many trials.”  I told him we’d understand later; not that I really think so, but I wanted to comfort him. 

I don’t think that people necessarily find answers to the trials of life.  I’m not sure we need them.  That’s life.  The modern version is “Into each life some rain must fall”; the ancient version is “God sends rain on the heads of the just and the unjust.”  Incidentally, the ancient style is rather ambiguous: rain is relative, it can be a blessing or a curse; and the imagery invoked by the phrase “on the heads” repeats the dual notion of blessing or punishment.

Maksim is disturbed when the rain falls heavier than usual because for one thing he’s sanguine and optimistic- and for another, he’s been raised to equate good things with God’s blessing and bad things with God’s punishment.  I don’t agree with that view.  God is sovereign, yes; God blesses, and God chastens, I agree; God knows when the sparrow falls to the ground, I know; BUT sometimes we turn God into a puppet master, and forget the point of free will.

C. S. Lewis points this out very clearly in his “The Problem of Pain”; lying on my side to protect my stitches in the hospital, with Liza several doors down with an IV in her head, and artificial sunlight treating her jaundice, I don’t have access to his thoughts word for word- but I can paraphrase them.  Some people think that a loving God would smooth the way for us on all sides.  But in order for us to have a free will God HAD to create a world that worked according to rules: in this case, the rules of nature.  If the world did not work as an absolute, but was individual to us each and our needs, we would no longer have a free will- we could no longer be autonomous.  We would be in the same position as Liza is now.  Fed when we were hungry, put to sleep when we were tired, medicated when we were sick, by no choice of our own.  And further, in order for this world of natural law and our freedom of choice to be uncompromised, God can’t interfere or adjust rules of nature too often.  Miracles can and do happen- oftener than we think- but if God interfered in the laws of natural phenomenon every time, there would be no point in having the law.

Sometimes we’re more spiritual than God is.  We want to turn everything into a spiritual issue.  And while it’s true that there is a constant spiritual battle going on… that part of our making is spirit, in the image of God… that we are to worship in spirit and in truth, keeping our eyes on the mark… we shouldn’t forget that God created the physiological laws and natural phenomenon.  They aren’t vindictive or evil; they work in a logical, rational way according to plans God set down at creation.  If Adam and Eve had used their free will wisely, this wouldn’t cramp our style at all.  It was the sin that let pain and death into our world that turned these laws and phenomenon into something frightening and threatening.

But the point is that God doesn’t change.  When He made the world, He saw that it was good; the evil was let in by man- granted, through the agency of a fallen angel.  And now, we cannot demand that God make continual exceptions to the laws He created in the first place for our good.

Do I believe that Liza’s illness is governed by physiological rules of nature? Yes.  Does that mean God couldn’t have interfered? No.  So in that sense, God allowed Liza to be sick…  But God was allowing His own laws to work as they were created to; He did not strike Liza down with a plague as a punishment for some vague sin that we need to ferret out and repent of.  Of course, sometimes He allows illness in order to bring someone to repentance, but not always.  Paul was not called to repent of some deep, dark, hidden sin; nor was he “given” his thorn in the flesh.  God forebore to heal him- to interfere in the course of nature- while promising to support him through it.

Bad things happen.  They happen to good people.  They happen to bad people.  They just happen, because we live in a fallen world.  Sometimes we see that God has allowed something to show us our mistakes… sometimes we see that He wants to learn something… sometimes we don’t see anything until years later, or not at all.  But always He wants us to turn to Him, and depend on Him.

God doesn’t always tell us why we’re experiencing testing; because sometimes we don’t need to know, sometimes we wouldn’t understand.  His ways are not our ways, though we keep trying to pull them down to our understandable level.  The important thing is that He wants us to trust Him; because even as He allows nature to run its course, protecting our free will, His will is to love us and it is perfect.  And so we can be certain that His will is right, and when we pray that His will be done, it will be better than our understanding.

Overspiritualizing, and turning a hang nail into a reason to repent of watching television on Sunday is a mistake.  Assuming that if we are within God’s will everything should be stars and flowers is also a mistake.  The infamous “right to the pursuit of happiness” is from the American Constitution, not the New Testament- and at that, often wrongly interpreted as the right to happiness, which is quite different.  Happiness does not have to mean cloudless skies; but trusting in God and His ultimate wisdom, whatever the rain, that is happiness.

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