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Excuse My Blush

This is a real can of worms.  And it doesn’t matter who opens it, he (or more likely she) will end up with mud on his (her, obviously) face.  That fascinating little topic of modesty…

Recently reading a blog on the issue, I disagreed with both the author and the readers’ comments.  Yes, I do believe that it is good to be modest.  Yes, I agree that certain quantities of skin may be a problem.  Yes, I agree that we certainly can cause a weaker brother stumble with some modes of dress.

But I’m afraid it’s a much wider subject that any of us wants to admit.  And the “rules” aren’t necessarily what we think they are- because there aren’t any. 

We do so love our rules!  They give us such feelings of satisfaction as we check off our good deeds for the day.  And how nice, we never have to use our brains- just follow the guidelines and be godly.

Of course, they do tend to differ widely; jeans are inappropriate in certain institutions, though jean jumpers are not only acceptable, but even laudable.  (Must be the ugly factor, a sort of modern self-flagellation.)  One person commented that their religious organization required that shorts be no shorter than a the width of a dollar bill above the knee; presumably, this is the holy measurement- God-ordained.  Many people would agree that long hair is holy, though whether one wears it down (so everyone can see it’s long) or pinned up (so only your husband can see your split ends) is a matter of debate.

Yes, I know I’m being flippant.  And I don’t really belittle a woman’s sincere desire to dress in a way pleasing to God.  But I thoroughly deplore our human insistance on making rules.  These rules so often become a matter of self-righteousness, of judgement, of dissention, of organization social classes, and of turning off our minds and hearts.

Rules are one of those ways we attempt to control our surroundings.  Fearful of the sheer freedom of hundreds and thousands of people- different people, different from us, we create rules that will protect our fragile sense of self and dignity.  We try to control the sheer chaos we imagine resulting from the freedom that God so unthinkingly gave us- well, maybe not us, but those others, the ones who are different.

It’s wrong.  Not modesty, no.  God did speak to us about modesty, though I don’t recall any commandments referring to dollar bills- or even shorts, Bermuda or otherwise. We are wrong when we try to take control.  That is precisely what Adam and Eve were doing; instead of being content to live on faith and trust, they wanted to be like gods and control their own destiny.  (Incidentally, I wonder what length robe God made for Eve in the garden, one does hope it covered her knees…)  Of course, living on faith and trust requires a tremendous amount of effort, and even thought, and some sensitivity- and we do know that while Adam and Eve, who obviously were not up to the challenge, may have used 100% of their brain capacity, we descendants use only 7-10%.  Perhaps we have an excuse.  Then again, we descendants do have that advantage of being born again, and Spirit-filled; we can’t cry too loudly.

It may be that we too often play the culture card, but it is still true.  What is good for the goose may not be good for the gander if the gander happens to live several thousand miles away.  Something as fundamental as climate can change realistic expectations of dress;  I really desperately would have loved to be able to wear slacks to church when I was travelling 15 km by bus before sunrise in -40 weather, if only they weren’t a sin.  (Which is really funny, because as I’ve pointed out to my mother-in-law in my more persnickety moments, Jesus wore a dress, and there weren’t any slacks in Biblical times anyway.)  Similarly, while hot pants and halter tops may be stretching the point, a hot climate is not the place to be worrying about open shoulders.  On the other hand, the uniform that many of the more conservative Christians consider appropriate in America would look downright lewd on the streets of Saudi Arabia.  And has anyone considered how difficult it might be for tribal women in the jungles of Africa to grow their hair long?

I am no better than anyone else, and there have certainly been people I have criticized in my heart for their appearance (though in my case, it’s been the jean jumper with sneakers type as often as the midriff-bearing, skinny jeans with stilletoes type.)  But the more I’ve been judged unfairly- not only for my appearance, which is rarely hair-raising- the more I realize how frightening it is to make easy judgements.  Especially about something so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted as appearance.  Americans may think that many of my Russian students look like street-walkers, but my students think Americans look like slobs.  (Um, I’ll just take this opportunity to mention that the reason I pass as Russian if I don’t open my mouth is because I dress like my colleagues- NOT my students.)

Another case is a girl who goes to our church and sings in the choir.  Apparently, she is concerned that her ankle-length white dress with lace trim may be too transparent, so she wears another white skirt underneath, and a white blouse partially buttoned over the dress.  Considering the current temperatures and humidity, I think this a very laudable effort.  The fact that she looks half-undressed, like one of the girls dancing around in petticoats in an MGM musical, or several less savoury comparisons I can think of, has probably never occurred to her.  And it may not have occurred to anyone else but me, because I doubt there are many people here who watch MGM musicals or have a tendency to think in terms of gypsies and Dumas adventures.  (She’s a very nice girl, and I really have no issue with her dress, especially knowing that she does not have much money to work with; I just thought it was interesting that covering as much skin as she could actually had the opposite effect to what she intended.)

The sad thing is, in all the kafuffle over rules and rulers, the heart issue is lost.  I have told my mother-in-law so many times (in my imagination, that is) that the whole point of the verse about gold and silver and broiding of the hair isn’t in the gold and silver (or my lipstick, which was not mentioned once in the Bible).  The point is that our emphasis is supposed to be on our hearts, not our appearance.  And when we’re in the midst of finding dollar bills to measure our hemlines, and debating whether or not open-toed shoes are more provocative than sandals, we are putting the emphasis precisely on our appearance.  We would seem to be more concerned with looking Christian, than being Christian. 

I truly believe that if we worried more about our hearts, our dress would take care of itself.  The closer we are walking with God, the purer our motives will be, the less easily influenced we will be, and the less time we will have to primp and preen.  Okay, so I acknowledge that none of us are that far advanced- and nor will be, if we continue to spend all of our time in figuring out the rules for polite Christian conduct.  I love etiquette, I was a rabid fan of Amy Vanderbilt’s book in my teens, but I do not think that we should be spending our time as Christians competing with Emily Post.  One of the reasons the Catholic church has been slow to canonize Mother Teresa is because of an incident when she was young when she stripped naked (more or less) to jump into a river to save someone’s life.  Not modest, no, nor even polite- but most definitely a Christian act.

Quite honestly, I think our fascination with rules of Christian conduct is one of the trickiest tools the devil has come up with.  Because while we’re worrying about filling in all our checkboxes to be holy, the real life of faith is passing us by.  Now, I should be quick to add here that I am certainly as bad as anybody else- there are things I “just won’t do” and moments when I preen, but I desperately want to break out of this bondage to this world.  If not for myself, then most definitely for my children.  Why do so many “Christian” children grow up to be black sheep?  Because from childhood they are taught that Christians dress this way, listen to this music, don’t drink, smoke, dance, and read three chapters of the Bible a day.  But most children are not taught that while these are good rules, they really have nothing to do with living, breathing faith in God- faith that knows that all things are in God’s hands, not mine; that I need to accept God’s will, not insist on my own manipulations; that my first “task” is to sit before God and wait.  And that no, it is not easy, and it is not something that will ever be checked off the list, because there is no list- but it is the only vital thing in our lives.

The Briar Patch

Do you ever feel as if when the Bible says “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision” that it’s talking about you?   And not as the one sitting in the heavens either.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re missing the joke; I thought about this as I dragged myself home from work.  “Home” being a relative term here, intended to signify the dwelling in which I live- otherwise known as my in-laws’ home.  Located on the other side of the tracks, over a bridge of 67 steps- one way.  I was dragging because I had spent Sunday mousily playing while my mother-in-law took her feline tendencies elsewhere- and playing in this instance means cleaning the house, getting rid of clutter and using the kitchen, so that I have spent the last two days recovering.

Which is ridiculous.  When you cannot even clean your house without having to recuperate, and you are only 32, something is rotten, and it’s not in Denmark.  And when this infirmity is joined by joint and muscle pain, hormonal imbalances, thyroid wierdness and insulin resistance- you haven’t got a thorn in the flesh, you’ve jumped into the briar patch.  And the really pitiful thing is that minor chronic illnesses don’t even have the dignity to be respected, so in addition to being a mild basketcase, you appear to be a sluggard.

And they keep multiplying… and you wonder who’s getting a belly laugh out of this, and what’s so funny?  And are the details of living with your in-laws, in a half-convenienced house, on the other side of the tracks, on a rapidly shrinking paycheck really necessary to the punchline?

Misery loves company.  And I am not miserable, because I am not dying of cancer and leaving 5 children behind; I am not sitting in an Islamic prison for touching the Koran with unwashed hands, while my children fend for themselves outside; I do not live in a famine zone, watching my children die one after another; I am not awaiting the next bomb on the East Bank; I am not waiting for someone to pull my husband’s body from a collapsed mine shaft.  And forgive me, but I do not want to be a part of that company; oh, I’m sure it’s commendable, and character-building, and ultimately rewarding to eke out your pain-wracked days in a prison cell, but- in that lovely Southern phrase, I have enough to say grace over.

Not that I’m saying it.  I’m sitting hunched over, kicking at the pricks, and wondering how I got here and how to get out.  But was it really ol’ Brer Fox who threw me in here?  Yes, I’ve gotten my hands tarred often enough in this life; but was I tossed into the briar patch, or was this where I was born? 

Why do I keep thinking that I’m supposed to have a happy (read “easy”) life?  What makes me any different than any other rabbit?  Why should my corner of the briar patch be the hybrid, thornless corner?  And why was Brer Rabbit so happy to come back to this vale of sorrows?

We could hope that Brer Rabbit was glad to escape the tar baby and sin and temptation, but I suspect it was more likely the safety in the thorns- because when the thorns are so thick, the enemy can’t reach you- unless you take off running into his claws.  And the size of the thorn- prison, leprosy or aches and pains- makes the difference in how well one is protected.  You’ll excuse me if I’m not so eager for protection as to claim longest, sharpest thorns… but if hiding within the thorns is what keeps me near to our thorn-crowned King, maybe I need to see things a little differently.  And maybe I need to be saying grace a little more fervently…

Thanks and Giving

I downloaded a pdf file with two trees (“Thanks” and “Giving”) and a collection of leaves for us to keep track of our thanks for the month of November.  Okay, so today is already the 6th… time and organization are not among the items on my gratitude list.  We managed to find 5 things to be thankful for today- with a little prompting, Sofia was thankful for her preschool class, and playing with the neighbor girls, and having cake with her tea, and I was thankful for coffee (after a week without) and getting in touch with old friends on facebook.   But neither of us could think of anything kind we had done to hang on the “Giving” tree.

Being thankful is certainly a start, and a good thing- but if we only hang leaves on our Thanks tree what does that say about us?  I know that after months of criticism from my mother-in-law, and then losing our daughter, and finally, having some serious health issues, I have pulled back into my shell; I know that I am not open with people, and I tend to choose the side of caution; but do I actually go an entire day without doing one kind thing I could hang on a Giving tree? 

I suppose it’s a natural reaction; people seem to react to trials as ostriches, ignoring them, or turtles,disappearing for protection, porcupines, sending out stay-back messages, or the good old skunk, who proactivelys sends everyone scurrying.  But it’s wrong .  That isn’t why God sends trials.  We’re supposed to stay open and trusting through them- sometimes even that’s why He sends them, to open our hearts to those around us. 

Humanly speaking, that’s unnatural.    It just doesn’t seem normal to open yourself up to possible hurt and pain.  Not when you have enough already. 

I’m not even sure how you go about it- being open to those around you.  Not being afraid, or still more, knowing you could face a rebuff, or just totally flunk- and volunteering yourself anyway.   

I do know that just having “feelings” does nothing at all; oh, I have certainly developed a heightened sense of understanding and empathy, but if I’m keeping it to myself, is there any point?  It’s sort of like the old women praying at church in tears, and then walking out the door and turning them off.  I’m sure they feel that they have prayed with zeal and sincerity, but if it’s only a momentary emotion I don’t think it has much value.  (I’m not going to say it hasn’t any, because I’m not God, I don’t know, and I’m sure that even a momentary softening does something good in our hearts.)

And I really don’t know how you start; there are millions of people in incredible pain in our world, but I can’t help all of them- and even those I “can” help, I may not actually be able to help.  I remember the two little boys last spring who were starving, literally, with their alcoholic parents.  We bought them groceries,we kept an eye on them, called their aunt, planned to call Child Services but somebody beat us to it.  I know they are far from the only children starving in Birobidzhan- but what’s the next step?

Remembering the Good Samaritan, I suppose we just take in stride the next person in trouble we meet.  The sad thing is, I know that we can’t always help people.  That the woman who begs on Gorkova St. and whom I buy bread for is actually mentally disturbed; that the gypsy children have more money than I do; that the man we got into the rehab center is taking advantage of an easy life, and will go back to drinking when he leaves.

On the other hand, the charity that begins at home is harder; it’s harder to take the time and patience to talk to my mother-in-law- and yes, that does make me ashamed.  That’s why I couldn’t put my lame efforts at a few conversational phrases on the Giving tree.  Keeping my mouth shut about the mess and clutter also seems to fall more under an obligation than a kindness.

So how am I going to fill my Giving tree?  And how am I going to teach my daughter to fill the Giving tree? Do I want her to grow up to be as cold as I am?  I don’t even want me to grow up as cold as I am.  Today I read a phrase, “loving God has to be more than hating evil- because love is a verb” on Ann Voskamp’s blog.  I don’t suppose I am the only person for whom love is not a verb, but I did feel that among sinners, I am chief.

So back to what seems to be only solution available to any question- praying.  Praying to be open, to be brave, to be foolish, tobe less cautious, to be kinder, to live my life in verbs- and active verbs at that.  And not forgetting to give while I’m thanking.

Recently I was re-reading “The Secret Garden”- something I’ve done fairly frequently since I was eight.  To be honest, I can’t explain why I love this book so much- there are a lot of wonderful children’s books, but this is the one I’ve read the most.  I like the reality of the characters, the romance of the garden, the “coming of age”, “voyage of discovery” theme- and the descriptions of the food, second only to Laura Ingalls Wilder in flavour.

But in this particular re-reading, I paid attention to the whole “Magic” theme- which of course has nothing to do with magic, or even meditation as so many panicked Christian homeschoolers wrote about 15 years or so ago.  It’s really more along the lines of the power of positive thinking; very forward-looking of Francis Hodgson Burnett, since the power of positive thinking hadn’t even been invented yet!

This is her comment on thoughts and words:  “To let a sad thought or a bad thought get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.  If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never over it as long as you live.  So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored, and wretched child… So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness and his detestation of people who looked at him and reflected hourly on humps and early death, he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing about sunshine and the spring and who did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it…There was a man wandering about… beautiful places…a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking.  He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in place of the dark ones…”

Of course, “circumstances” interfered in all three cases- and “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time, and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one.”

I read this coming up to my birthday- a birthday I had already refused to celebrate because, officially, we didn’t have the time or money, and I’m not a child any more, and unofficially, because I was, quite frankly, sulking.  Why celebrate my birthday if I’m not happy, if I’m dissatisfied with certain key aspects of my life?  (If I’m living 1. with my in-laws, 2. in a house I hate, 3. on the other side of the tracks and I could continue my complaining.)

I read this simple little story about the rebirth of these three miserable people, and I felt very foolish and childish.  I don’t actually have much to complain about- no, my life does not fall in with the way I might have planned it.  But does anybody’s?  People live lives a hundred times worse than mine- and I have a thousand reasons to be grateful.  And a great part of my problem is an overindulged imagination, a heightened sense of importance, and a bad case of self-pity.  Too many bad thoughts; too many internal discussions; too little courage in refusing to sulk.

I have developed over the last few years a tendency toward negative thoughts; something that has definitely influenced a tendency to depression; and it’s not only foolish and self-destructive- it’s a sin.  F.H. Burnett  says “Two things cannot be in one place: ‘If you plant a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.'”  The Bible puts it more revealingly-“The eye is the lamp of the whole body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23) and ” If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it will be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.” (Luke 11:36)

Life is not perfect, and it would be foolish to insist that it is.  Happy endings are not a given.  Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  But indulging in dismal Eeyore thoughts and self-pity do not relieve the situation.  They only intensify it.  I see no reason to pretend everything is wonderful- that is silly, too, and I think the American tendency to pretend  (does anyone ever answer “how are you?” honestly?) explains the explosion of analysts, therapists, and psychologists.    But we do have a choice: we can choose to dwell on our ills- or to be grateful for the good that we can find even in the worst situation.

A colleague recently said that pessimism and optimism are almost the same thing- the pessimist says, “Well, it’s about time.”  The optimist says, “It’s about  time!”  I think both pessimism and optimism can be self-indulgent and self-deceptive.  I think the main thing I want to focus on is being grateful for what I have instead of mourning what I haven’t.  I suppose some negative emotion is inevitable, and someone has said that suppressed emotion leads to cancer- but I intend to allow myself a strict amount of time to journal my frustrations (10 minutes? 5? )  and to discipline myself to follow that with a list of what I’m thankful for.  Words have power… words are- magic.  (Don’t tell any Christian homeschoolers I used the m-word.)

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

 

Magic doesn’t appeal to everyone; some children love fairies and fairytales and some are disinterested or even annoyed. And fantasy only emphasizes that divide. Of course, within our Christian circle the situation is intensified by those who consider anything magic-like to be sin.

The pertinent point is that there is no such thing as magic; oh, I know, there are witch doctors, and shamen- or is it shamans?- and as many variations on that theme as there are peoples, but they aren’t , strictly speaking, using magic. Magic is some kind of mumbo-jumbo power that allows you to do things other people cannot do, which I think we can all agree is nonexistant. Witch doctors and shamans might do some weird things, but in the rare instances that their tomfoolery pays off it’s more a case of demonism than magic.

Of course the problem with magic is that its pursuit can lead to demonism, and that’s where its opponents have their best point. And within our world, there is no doubt that magic is not Christian; that is, not literally, and not philosophically. Philosophically, magic is an attempt to control one’s environment (not my thought, I read it in Trevethan’s Beauty of God’s Holiness), and “inevitable when divine reality is immanent but not transcendant”. To believe in magic, you can’t believe in God- or at least not in God as He is. And you have to step out of our created order as creatures under a Creator, and control your own destiny.

And that’s where the temptation comes in, for those of us magic-minded. Because the struggle since Adam and Eve has been whether we would will or submit to God’s higher will. There is an inborn desire for control in each of us- we want to be the captains of our fate, whether for good or ill. I think the difference in whether one is drawn to fantasy is merely in the level of drive for control in our outer lives, and the self-confidence to achieve it.

Personally, my self-confidence fluctuates, as does my self-image, and I am not particularly extrovert- so I tend to enjoy a vicarious or voyeuristic “control”; whereas those who are more forceful physically may not need to prove themselves in this way. Then again, those who may be more physical probably just tend to read books about physically forceful people. And if magic were an option, I doubt I would use it; it raises too many philosophical questions about free will, self-determination and equality.

Mother has noticed that people with higher IQs in general seem to be more fantasy-minded, and she equates it with those people having more grey tones in their moral code. (Black and white people almost never like fairytales.) I agree, but I do think it’s odd, because in fact, most fairytales and even fantasy have a strong moral code. Of course, at the same time, they raise new questions about morality that may just be beyond the imagination of moral zebras.

But as an aficionado of fantasy (though one does have to be careful with a lot of modern fantasy, which isn’t so much fantasy as harlequin romance with a dragon or two) I’ve noticed that there are certain themes that repeat themselves. Interesting, because I remember what C.S. Lewis said about certain ideas in mythology repeating themselves so often that you had to recognise they were twistings of a truth.

One of the most commonly repeated themes is the power of words.  This isn’t original to fantasy, of course.  Classic Cabala literature speaks of words as the origin and definer of reality; but before Cabala, the Bible tells that the Word was with God, and the Word was God- all things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made which was made (quoting from memory, I might have the order wrong.) 

So there’s biblical authority on the subject.   But what is the significance?  I am not a philosopher, and only a bit of a philologist, but I know that words are very significant.  Speaking two languages, it’s very frustrating when you can’t express something in one, because there is no word.  And there is a great comfort in finding a word- I treasure them up, when I find them, like the Russian word for “neat” which I finally found in a children’s story book, after searching the dictionary in vain.

Speaking something tends to make it true; to define something we feel, but may not understand; to bring catharsis or sometimes to create something that wasn’t.  One of the best books on essay writing I’ve read stressed that you have to think BEFORE you write (something not many people actually do, apparently); I’ve found that writing is thinking for me- when I speak the words, I understand them, or keep speaking till I do.

I suppose, in a way, words are magic- the one magic available to us.  In words we do create our destiny; we change things; perform illusions and transformations- curse and bless.

It’s a scary power.  And one we rarely respect.  If Harry Potter used his wand as carelessly as we use our words he’d be worse than Lord Voldemort ever thought of being.  We quote “the pen is mightier than the sword” but do we ever really think about it? 

If we consider our words to be a magic wand, and their power equivalent- what will we say, what won’t we say?  Our one chance to play with fate- which fairytale character do we wear?

Eve’s temptation

 I think one of the biggest obstacles I face in trying to be a good mother is the whole concept of control.   And I think I’ve talked about this before- I had to relinquish some control at the very beginning, when Sofya didn’t fall in line with certain long-held opinions of mine; but that was far from the end of the story. I have certain standards for myself, and in order to achieve them I need Sofya to fall in line. Unfortunately, she’s a person and an individual and our goals don’t always correspond. It’s very difficult for a perfectionist and an activist not to be able to control a project. Well, no, a child isn’t a project… I knew that. It’s a habit of thought- this is what we have, and this is what we want and here’s how to get there. Then I scare myself and do an about face and contemplate dropping all the reins. And that wouldn’t be right either- a toddler doesn’t raise herself. And the really frightening thing is that no matter the level of control I manage, the end results are beyond me. So we go back to problem solving- what exactly am I trying to achieve, anyway? I want my daughter to be kind, to be gentle, to be polite; to be healthy, to be educated, to be clean and neat; to have a living, breathing relationship with God; to be happy and to have a certain amount of life wisdom. And I want people not to look down on me as a mother, and to admit I did my best. So maybe the second point isn’t worthy, but it’s actual- and I’ll bet I share it with every other parent.

Well, I can’t make her kind- that’s from the heart. And I can’t make her gentle, even if I can make her follow certain rules  of polite conduct.  I certainly can’t make her healthy, despite my best efforts, and to my continuing frustration.  I can put her through the school program- but to be educated is a state of mind, not a list of information.  She’s still small enough that I can wash her hair even when she cries, and insist that she pick up her toys, though what that may lead to in the future, I’ve no idea.  I cannot make her have a relationship with God; I cannot give her my relationship with God; I cannot insist that she believe, as my mother-in-law’s father did, turning his son away from Christianity forever.  I cannot tell her to be happy,  or make her think. 

And every time I turn around, God is bringing me back to one place.   There is nothing I can insist on; there is one thing I can do.  I can only pray.  Yes, I know, “only” pray isn’t a very spiritual way to put it.  But it is very difficult, as a human, as woman, as a mother, for heaven’s sake, even as an American, to admit that I can’t achieve something with the Puritan work ethic.  And yet this is what God brings me to, over and over again.   No, you cannot and you are not going to fix this; you’re going to pray, and trust Me- or you’re going to fuss and whine and sulk, but it won’t make any difference

So here I am again.  And I can admit that I’m a human, and pray; or I can pretend that I’m god, and run circles around myself like a hamster.  And the sad thing is that it’s actually a hard decision…

 I have 8 cloth roses to sew today to finish the curtains in my bedroom. This is a big deal. I’ve been waiting for these curtains for two months, aggravated by windows that face the street, and temperatures that soared to 120 in the sun. And I admit, I stressed over their design and function- something that could be closed against the sun and for privacy, but would be light and bright enough not to irritate my mother-in-law or awake old teachings in her son. Something that would fit our lilac-washed walls (a compromise between my dislike for stark white, and my mother-in-law’s for wallpaper), but not be too girly for my husband. Something that wouldn’t be too avant garde (something I’m occasionally drawn to) but wouldn’t look like those Chinese drapes that hang in 9 out of 10 houses. I flatter myself that I’ve achieved my goals- and even managed to work my mother-in-law’s beloved lace panels into the design.

I like to read women’s magazines, especially the ones that have ideas for decorating, holidays, etc.- for one thing, they’re inspirational, and for another, they’re light, relaxing reading. As a matter of fact, I have to admit to an addiction to Martha Stewart- I enjoy her mix of practicality-class-craftyness.   Every woman wants to build her house (even those who later tear it down with their hands), and especially now, trying to fit myself into my in-laws’ house again, I have an interest in what can be done with a house. I agree that it is important to create a place for rest and emotional recharging.

But I must say I am amazed at the emphasis and tremendous meaning people put on home décor! Don’t misunderstand- I am not of my mother-in-law’s school, with white walls sans pictures or photos, minimal window coverings, and bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. And yet it honestly shocks me to see people put so much thought, time and money into creating a stage set that follows a particular “style” or theme. One letter to the editor of “Romantic Homes” magazine mentioned how the publication had helped them to find furnishings in shops around the world to decorate their Victorian house. I quite understand that a Santa Fe mirror might not be appropriate in this Victorian mansion, but sending off to Timbucktoo for one that is seems a bit over the top.

It all strikes me as very artificial- and not the way to find a place for rest and emotional recharging. Do people live their lives on those stage sets, or do they play their roles- and find their refuge in the back room that “we haven’t had time to redecorate”? Beautiful things can be an inspiration, but in such a manicured environment, I would think they have little more meaning than plastic.

Lest you think that I have a case of sour grapes- since “my” house is old, full of my mother-in-law’s clutter (“things” would be a misnomer here, it really is just clutter), and I’m in no position to be sending to Timbucktoo just now- I have to explain that I’m contrasting this micromanaging of home decoration with the stories of starvation and famine that are coming out of Africa.  Stories of mothers who are leaving dying children by the road, in a desperate bid to get the children who aren’t yet quite dying to food.  Stories of people who have no home, and don’t aspire to one- people who would be happy to put something in their stomachs, or failing that, in their children’s stomachs.  Stories that aren’t just stories, but lives.

My children have never starved, but I know the desperation that prays that God will just let this child live another day; it is at the center of Home- of Love, and Family, and Unity, and everything that makes up being a Wife and Mother-  and it has nothing to do with choosing which of three shades of Terra Cotta would most fit “the look”.

There is a difference between “house” and “home”- something that is absent in Russian, as there is only one word, “dom”.  A home implies something emotional, something soulful, something intangible.   And this is what we’re really trying to achieve.  This is the reason I recognize for “home decor”- making your family more comfortable, and bringing more peace and harmony into your home.

There is nothing wrong with wanting a beautiful house for your family… if God blesses us with the means to create a lovely setting, I’m sure there are many ways that we can bless our family in that setting.  And don’t think I’m too holy to spend a fair amount of time bewailing that I live with the Russian Ma Kettle.  But decoration is decoration; it’s something we put on what’s already there- and it should only serve to enhance. 

Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree notwithstanding, if there’s not much there to begin with, all the decorations in the world aren’t going to create a home.  And on the other hand, if the home is there, the house seems to be a secondary question to me.

I probably haven’t made myself very clear, but what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s more than sad, it’s tragic to mistake your house with your home; that beautiful things are lovely as an expression of your family, but not as a creator of your family’s image; and that while Scrooge insists that the poor are always with us, that doesn’t mean that we can ignore them while we choose between contemporary and retro for the living room.

Walking on my hands

Reading Thomas Trevethan’s “The Beauty of the Holiness of God” I came upon a statement that seems to be meeting me everywhere, and resounding more and more strongly: “Under God, every adversity becomes a mercy, a good generously pressed on us in God’s steadfast love.” Most often, when we quote “All things work together for good for them that love God, for them that are called according to His purpose,” we mean something along the lines of “Everything will work out,” “Everything will be fine,” or, as one of my friends insists, “It just means there’s something better for you, than this seemed.” We’re cheerful; we’re optimistic; we’re sure we have faith; and our understanding is filtered through worldly, power-of-positive-thinking, rose-colored glasses. And the sad thing is, we’re actually cheating ourselves with this glib, blithe catchphrase of comfort. The reality is much richer and much more intimate with God.

Is it true that an adversity is a good, even a generous good? Not something that God will presto-chango, flip inside out and turn into sunshine and rainbows, but a good in itself? No way do we want to believe that! Our entire human, devoted to daily minutiae, stubbornly pursuing that human-defined happiness of hearts and flowers, inextricably inter-twined with this world nature revolts at the thought. Bad things are in the world because of sin, and Jesus conquered sin, so now we can avoid bad things.

Maybe I’m dumb, but I always thought that God took pity on Joseph after his brothers’ wickedness, and turned the lemons into lemonade. At least I did until I reread the story this morning, and realized that nobody said that. Joseph told his brothers that while they meant their act for evil, God meant it for good- no, not made a good of it, but meant it for good. With kindness aforethought.

Well, that’s cheerful. Encouraging. So not only are we in a fallen world, beset with divers temptations et al, but God does bad things to us too. Okay, so maybe they’re good things, but they certainly feel bad. I wish I could remember where C. S. Lewis wrote that we aren’t so much afraid that God won’t give us good things, as we are that His good things might not be what we call good. Something like getting coal in your stocking because you actually need it, so as not to freeze, when what you really wanted was a doll that said “Mama”.

But then we have to wonder about the whole concept of bad and good things. Sometimes saying “God’s thoughts are not ours” is a subtle criticism on our part- when it should be a call to get our thoughts in order. What are bad things? Inconvenience? Discomfort? Illness? Death? Hell and damnation? We can’t really say everything is relative, because not everything is… but many, many things are less than definite in their natures. Health problems are bad today, but tomorrow they help me to be aware of Sofya’s health, and to be understanding of other people- knowing my own limitations. Living with my in-laws last year was bad, but gave me the patience-experience-hope that was a start in dealing with the loss of Yelizaveta. Liza’s death was almost the worst thing that could be (and I hope I never experience a worser), but it finally cut through that blind, ingrown concentration on humanity.

The lack of Liza is always with me- and so is the reminder that this world is not the be-all and end-all, and that reality is really quite different. That there are myriads of ” insignificance” that we should appreciate, and at the same time none of which we should idolize. I don’t think the glass is quite as dark as it was. And I daresay this is a mercy, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

There haven’t been so many bad things in my life, even if I enjoy complaining as much as anyone else; but those things that have been do not have silver linings- on the contrary they are silver, shadowed underneath. At least that is what I’m choosing to believe, and what I’m hoping to feel. If it takes turning your world upside down to understand God, doesn’t that make it worthwhile to learn to walk on your hands?

The White Rabbit

I never thought I had any resemblance to a rabbit- rabbits are delicate, fluffy little things, not to mention their eyes are pink.  Granted,  Maksim sometimes calls “grey hare” when I’m easily startled, but I’m just not that rhodent-y, and I avoid carrots because they raise your blood sugar.

But it turns out everyone has their unexpected sides- and there are different kinds of rabbits.  I’m the white, waistcoat-wearing, pocketwatch-carrying, hurrying to see the Queen kind.  And I was almost late.

Whatever the benefits of the Puritan work ethic, it does tend to over-emphasize production; and it has infected Western society with an unhealthy worship of work in and of itself. 

We were not put on this earth to accomplish a number of tasks; there’s no checklist that we can mark off.  God created us to live in fellowship  with Him.  All other tasks are valuable insofar as they make that possible.   And in serving other people, we serve God, so we can count that as a legitimate excuse for hustle and bustle as well. 

But those of us who, Marthas by nature, are hustle and bustle oriented, tend to get distracted.  And I found myself rushing around, trying to get things organized and prepared for Sofya to go to kindergarten in six months’ time- and forgetting to enjoy her now.

This has been a sore point with me, because in the first few months after Sofya was born, I felt too ill and fed her too often to have the energy to really enjoy her; then we moved to my in-laws’ and I was too stressed and too much under observation to really enjoy her freely; then I was pregnant, and sick, and finally in the hospital; then I was grieving; and now in less than half a year she’ll go to kindergarten, and I’ll go to work and I almost missed it.

I was so busy making sure we did everything we were supposed to, and I was supposed to, and preparing to meet the Queen, that I almost missed doing what we really needed to.  And if I hadn’t read Ann Voskamp’s book about being thankful, I would have lost it all- watching Sofya sing as she lays her things out all over the floor, watching her pucker her lips to imitate a wolf, seeing her mouth stretch incredibly wide to fit an entire candy,  admiring her hair slicked back after a bath, and mumbling something over folded hands before she sets paper food out on a coloring book table.

What was I thinking?!  There is so little we know about the future, why put the present in debt to it?  God didn’t promise us tomorrow; all we really have is today and now.  I am not late for a very important date; and I will not be late for now.  I will be here, and I will be grateful for what I have- because it isn’t forever.

Sometimes fate is a much more tempting prospect than God.  Fate is impersonal, inevitable, and chaotic.  We know that God is personal, that He has given us a free will, and that He is a God of order- but it doesn’t always look it.

Sometimes it seems life is bolting like a wild horse, and our feet are caught in the reins and there is nothing to do but hang on.  What is to be will be.

Again, sometimes it seems that nothing happens the way we would really have chosen for it to happen.  Nothing is as it is, and everything is as it isn’t.

And there’s the twisted justice that seems to plague us.  Or rather injustice.  And it seems not only unjust, but illogical.  No rhyme or reason…

And yet we know that God really is there.  And He really is in charge.  I have never felt that as strongly as in the first days after Liza’s death, at the same time as I was feeling swept in the whirlpool of fate: His hands holding us up were palpable.

I remember the frustration of childhood, when adults make the “right” decisions, and you’re swept along in the tide of those decisions that are right for them, but don’t feel right for you.  And you think that when you are an adult, the winds will be clear, and you will turn the rudder in the direction you choose.  But you never actually arrive at that adult moment.  Because when you become an adult, there are other currents muddying up the waters, and your best efforts lie in tacking sail to follow the winds.

I thought that I was beginning to direct my own destiny up until that moment I just happened to go to Russia. I had plans, I had organization- and I had figured out a way to serve God. Going to Russia was something I wanted to do as a salute to my childhood obsession, and it was my decision, and I thought God would bless it.
How do you reconcile man’s free will with God’s? When is He allowing us to make the decisions He’s already made for us, and when is He directing the events beyond our control?
While I felt a sense of inevitabilty in all of “my” decisions from that point on, it didn’t really bother me. It has only been in the last few months that I have felt myself at the mercy of circumstances beyond my control.
Having been an obedient child, and traditional and conservative by nature (disregarding some eccentricities), I have always had a conviction that if you do the right thing, then the right things will happen to you. I suppose I’m of the ilk of Job’s friends. I didn’t really think God punished us with bad things, but I thought you could more or less control your life by making the right (for various reasons) decisions.
I either misjudged my decisions, or I was drastically wrong to begin with.
I am not complaining about my life. I am just saying that nothing has gone as I expected it would, or imagined it could. Which is what makes me wonder what I had to do with anything?
When I first had serious health problems, it was a major struggle for me. It was the first time I ever doubted God. It didn’t make any sense to me; I wanted to open an orphanage – to serve Him- and I was finally almost there, and now there was no way I could possibly do it. I asked every question it was possible to ask, and prayed every prayer I could think of, and finally came to rest with the fact that God really wanted me to be dependent on Him, and not so very capable and self-sufficient. Okay. That required an every-day attitude adjustment, but we were managing.
However, losing Liza, in this day and age, after we had moved, followed diets, taken pills, had hundreds of people praying for us, and even come home from the hospital already felt like wanton violence.  I felt God holding us up, but I also felt abused.  It didn’t make sense-and it hurt.  And it hurt even more every time I recited the course of events, and tried to think how I might have fixed it. 

And if I couldn’t have fixed it, that meant my free will really had nothing to do with it, and why would God do that?  Why would He expect me to sit there and watch Him kill my daughter? 

I am a reader, and have always found my consolation in books.  I’m grateful that God sent me the right books, because I begin to understand a little.  I understand that our free will is not in our decisions, but in our responses.  That our plans, intentions, and ideas are good, but not significant; that our moment by moment relationship with God is more important than anything we do or don’t do.  That being grateful for we have and have had is more important than grieving what we have lost.  That we really don’t know the future, the present, or even the past as well as we think we do, we can’t follow all the ripples to the shore- but God can.  That God is neither a kind grandfather nor a harsh taskmaster- He is God.

And that sometimes we think too much, and always we trust too little.  There is no fate- but neither are we the masters of our destiny.  There is very little that we really understand, but God knows it all; our primary purpose is to draw close to Him and wait.

And heaven is a much more tempting place than I ever thought.