Thursday, September 15, 2005

Roamin' Catholic

Hello! Wanted to draw everyone's attention to the recent photo posting from my expedition to France and Germany on my Yahoo photos site, http://photos.yahoo.com/mbinukraine2005 . I'm learning to not post a million pictures at one time, and to actually label them, which might make for a more enjoyable photo-viewing experience :). For those who don't know, I spent a week in France visiting the home of Marie-Aude, my co-UCU-volunteer friend who is from Cannes (home of the Film Festival) and Paris and then met up with some Grad/YP friends from St. Paul's and hopped a train to Cologne, Germany for World Youth Day, the first one with our new holy father, Pope Benedict XVI.

It was great, but strange, to get out of Eastern Europe for that brief interval. I could tell initially how burned out I was when, while relaxing at Marie-Aude's house in Cannes, I became a combination of angry and nauseous when I read work emails asking me to help people with stuff. The first time I realized I was on vacation was in the airport in Vienna on my way to France when I ate at a restaurant and had some lovely pasta and little gnocchi in butter sauce and some exquisite chocolate cake. Marie-Aude's (mother's) house was absolutely gorgeous and peaceful and I could have stayed there quite happily for the entire two weeks. We went around Nice and Cannes and went to an island off the coast of Nice where she and her mother go quite frequently - there's a very old Cistercian monastery there and we went to Mass there. Their chant is quite Byzantine sounding. It was very cool to be in a Cistercian monastery again, it's so plain compared to the Byzantine churches (which are very beautiful in their own way...).

Paris was cool -- some of it reminds me of parts of downtown Madison, some of it like parts of Lviv, some of it like nowhere I'd been. It was cool to see the famous places, but it was such a whirlwind tour and we hardly went to any of the regular tourist places. We did go to the church of the Miraculous Medal and Our Lady of Victories (important to St. Therese), and I got to Sacre Coeur which I really wanted to go to. We stayed for free (amazing) at Marie-Aude's friend's place and got to meet some of her best friends, which was cool. She went back to Cannes and I miraculously ran into the friends I was supposed to meet ahead of when I was supposed to meet them, about a half hour after Marie-Aude left me. Basically it would be a nice city to spend more time in in a far more relaxed way, but I did feel a bit out of my league there, small-town girl that I am ;).

But thankfully all connections went well and we got to Cologne and met all the folks so we had a group of ten at the end. We got to our assigned home stay parish in a suburb of Cologne (called Stommeln) and I ended up with three others at a wonderful family's home and we got pampered and totally taken care of all week, it was so great. Basically, World Youth Day's are amazing and wonderful things -- it's really amazing, even on a totally secular level, as a political or sociological or international relations or whatever thing that they get people from practically every country on the globe together in one place for a whole week. It's an awesome experience of "the Church", the Body of Christ, and it was cool to get to know our new pope a little bit. But man, I'm too old for these things :). There's a time when huge crowds and waiting and being smushed in a tram with a hundred smelly bodies and people singing very loudly in several other languages all around you, etc, is fun, and then there's a point where it's just something to be endured, and that was about the point I was at there. It was interesting though, having been at two others, to compare them, and I would say definitely go with a priest and an organized group. It was nice having a smaller group this time, but it wasn't nearly as spiritual an experience as I had before. Okay, time to go home for the night, more later. Love to you all! :) mb....................

Friday, September 02, 2005

Village People

So I was supposed to teach two sections of an upperlevel English language elective here at UCU this fall, actually next spring, too. I was kind of excited about the prospect when I agreed to it last June. But then ESS happened and France and Germany happened, not to mention Roman happening, and by the time I came back from Germany and had exactly a week and a half to plan a class as well as pack up and move apartments I was probably more susceptible than usual to the thought that hit me: I want to go live in a village this semester.

Village life, you see, has several components: 1) No one speaks English. 2) They don't have running water. 3) They have cows and chickens. 4) It is very muddy. 5) It is very quiet. 6) Everyone speaks Ukrainian. 7) They know how to embroider and paint eggs with interesting patterns. 8) It gets very dark there at night. 9) No one speaks English.

I was reading the book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains," the story of Doctor Paul Farmer, "The man who would cure the world," by Tracy...shoot, Tracy Fedder? Dedder? Something. It's about this American doctor who goes to Haiti and falls in love with the place and has this huge huge passion to eradicate disease and fix the inequalities in health care access. He meets a doctor who has been working in Haiti for a year, while Farmer is still young and still in med school at Harvard, and the older doctor says he can't wait to go back to the States and Farmer asks him if it won't be difficult for him to ever really let go of Haiti, if it won't stick in his craw, but the doctor says heck no, "There's no electricity here. It's brutal here. I'm an American and I'm going home." (Pause for dramatic effect.) Hummm. What would happen if I left Ukraine? Would I be able to say that, "I'm an American and I'm going home."? Why did I come here? I don't think I came here to help people. I had been "helping people" at home, and was actually kind of fed up with it (I mean, I had moved on to trying to actually pay attention to myself and my own life for awhile instead of just worrying about other people's). I knew I had to come here, but did I come here to "save the world"? Jeffrey has been trying to help me understand my role here in Ukraine, to gain a sense of "missiology" -- being in another culture to do the works of God and he's given me all these mission magazines to read and the doctor book, too. When I told him I wanted to go live in a village he started trying to think of projects I could help with -- orphanages and libraries and health projects. But all I really meant was I wanted to go experience the culture, live the way "real" Ukrainians live. Now isn't that just too idealistic and romanticized for words? But I think there's something to it. Certainly a large part of it was to get myself over the hump of being afraid to speak Ukrainian. (I really have a very weak will, you see, so I tend to solve problems in my life by putting myself in situations where I am forced to do what I don't want to do and I don't have to actually make myself do it entirely on my own.) I looked ahead to another whole academic year of living in Lviv, clinging to a semblance of westernness. I had yet to decide on a new flat for the fall, and was talking to another American about finding something together so that we could pay more and get something "really nice" (aka, 24/7 water). But, really, what would the point of that be? I think, either I jump in with both feet and there's no going back (at least for three months:) or I might as well go home. Because I didn't have a desire to help people -- I mean I can work and work and work and do whatever projects you throw at me, but I wasn't about the work (and what's the point of working when you don't care about what you are doing?). I was about the "being" here. Maybe that's lazy. Maybe that's apathy. Say what you will. But now having met Roman, he's the first thing since being here that has made me feel like I might have a reason to go somewhere else (that somewhere else being England, where he's returning in a couple weeks – no, I’m not planning to hop the plane with him then). He has a strong sense of justice in him, a strong sense of wanting to do what is right, wanting to fix problems he sees in the world. It bothers him when he sees something wrong – he hasn’t trained himself to ignore it like I have. He said one thing that attracted me to him was that I was doing something significant for God with my life. He even said I seem more Ukrainian to him than actual Ukrainians, because of my sense of values and spirituality and how I live my life. I told him I hope he isn't dissapointed when he realizes I'm not actually Ukrainian :).

So now they are scrambling to try to find a replacement teacher for me and I am trying to not feel like a jackass for abandoning them so close to the school year starting (I could never do this at home and I know it and it's terrible that I would think I could do it here because things are so much more "flexible" here...) Basically I would go live with Maria's sister's family beginning in early October until I come home for Christmas. She talked to them last night. They said I am welcome but they don't think I will make it more than a few weeks. Hmm. But of course that's the thing, I can always come back if I really can't stand it. Too bad I didn’t bring my cheesehead hat…

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Back in the saddle again

Well, well, well, here I am, back in Lviv after my summer of wandering. Wasn't so much wandering, I guess, just spent a month organizing an English summer school in semi-mountainy, rural Ukraine, came back for a week, then flew off to France (first time there!) to visit Marie-Aude's home in Cannes (very peaceful and lovely and Mediterranean-y), to be An American in Paris (not quite like in the movies, but still nice :), and finally to trek to Cologne, Germany for the 20th World Youth Day, the first one with our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

Basically, summer was nice, but I haven't been able to catch my breath long enough to realize the beauty of it. Decided instead of staying in Lviv and teaching and doing other odd bits around UCU this semester (which promised to look much the same as last semester), I would seek an opportunity to fully immerse myself in Ukrainian culture and language, and move to a village. We're still working out the details, but hopefully I will be spending October thru the first half of December in Maria's sister's village, living with her family, throwing myself into learning the language, milking cows, learning how to make verenicke and embroidered shirts, and probably helping in some capacity at the local school. We'll see what actually happens, but that is what I think I would like to happen :). Difficult, yes, but time to stop sitting on the fence, half hanging on to western culture and trying to live like a westerner as much as possible, which, I think, basically means I've missed a lot of "real" Ukrainian-ness. Might be a romantic ideal, but who knows -- I am dating someone from the Ukrainian diaspora, and they're supposed to be more Ukrainian than the actual Ukrainians, so maybe I can get away with living in a slightly idealized version of Ukraine.

Right, dating someone. Yup, wonderful Ukrainian-British bloke (British is important, though he would rather forget that part of himself, because without it we doubtfully would have gotten together since we wouldn't have been able to communicate!), been in Lviv just about as long as I have, been on sabbatical from his IT job at a university near London, teaching English and doing IT stuff here. Funny how life gets you going, thinking you've got things under control, and then WHAM throws a curveball in there and laughs as you fumble with it for awhile....

On the home front, I'm a great aunt at 27. My brother's stepson's wife had a beautiful baby boy. Congratulations, Vito and Christine!

So, it's fall in Lviv, tourists are leaving and students are returning. Not such a different feeling than late August in Madison (minus the Polish and Russian tourists). Been good to see so many of my friends again who were gone so much this summer. But strange, too, because I'm realizing that last semester was last semester, and no matter what this one will be different. Funny how it seems like I just got here....

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Yes, I am still alive over here!

Hi there! Long time, no write, I know! Life started happening, or something, and I got swept off with it for awhile there. Always wanting to catch up with you guys on here, but the more there was to catch up on, the more daunting the task, therefore the further procrastinated it became. Eventually, just gotta cut your losses and jump in where you're at, though, I guess! So here's the synopsis: Prague conference was a river in the desert, felt confirmed and clarified in mission, and realized speaking English isn't actually a handicap; Easter was wonderful, included all-night Vigil (well, they just started at midnight and finished at 4:30, so that's not really much longer than St. Paul's...!) and a visit to Maria's very peaceful village; "American sojourn" trip home was a whirlwind but came back with new courage to be a pioneer here, training Ukrainians to get used to having foreigners around! okay with being an American (his Roman citizenship came in quite handy for St. Paul, you know!) and feeling much more like learning Ukrainian. Last week was the inaugural conference for UCU's Institute of Ecumenical Studies, which Marie-Aude has been slaving over for several months, with especially severe intensity these last few weeks, so I'm glad to say the conference was a smashing success, including for me many schmoozing opportunities, free meals, and opportunities to speak English :). It also included a visit from Marie-Aude's mother (God bless her! I don't remember having ever seen that much energy wrapped up in that small a body!). It was really great having her here -- it's good to have a Mom around! The other significant visitor for the conference was Father Daniel Ange, founder of the School of Evangelization called Youth and Light in Toulouse, France. Marie-Aude kind of knew him and Maria had met him last fall at a conference in Paris, and he was invited to speak at the ESI conference and then he agreed to preach a retreat for our Discipleship program. So last Thursday we left for that to a Basilian monastery an hour outside of Lviv (interestingly enuf I had been to this monastery last summer - what are the odds!). It was a magnificent retreat, Pentecost weekend here, and we had about 50 people come for it, so that was cool, too. And God provided many things at the last minute (in the plan all along, or the Holy Spirit covering for our lack of preparation??:) including a translator so Father could preach in French, and a very awesome lover of God to help me lead worship. [I haven't seen the Holy Spirit beaming so brightly in someone in awhile. It was so beautifully fun to talk "Catholic geek" talk with someone again, giggling over how cool we thought certain saints were! :)] You can view some pictures from this retreat on my Yahoo Photos site http://photos.yahoo.com/mbinukraine2005. Okay, ESS starts in two weeks, time to go home and get some rest. Love to you all..............mb:)

Monday, April 18, 2005

Retreat II

So we had our second retreat this past weekend, back at that Basilian convent that we were at a few weeks ago, the one I thought was like heaven :). We went with a different group of people, younger, mostly, and a couple add-ins that aren't part of the mission program. It was a very different feel. Still about the Jesus Prayer, still led by the same guy. Still the same wonderful building, with good water, and an even more beautiful outside b/c spring has been progressing rapidly and the forest floor, which had been muddy and bland a few weeks ago, was now covered with a blanket of little white flowers. It looked like grass with flakes of a spring snow covering it - it was magical, like Lothlorien or something.

This time Roman had some comments for me - about making sure I"m not giving too much weight to my feelings in prayer. He read a part from the Way of the Pilgrim book that says don't worry about what you are thinking dont worry about what you are doing just do the prayer and the prayer will do the work for you. I think I got a little into the whole "is anything happening to me?" retreat pitfall, but by late morning on Sunday I was happy and happy to just see things more realistically.

Krakow!

Guess what, I'm in Krakow!!! Maria and I had an eight-hour layover on our way to Prague and we got to spend it in Krakow! It's SUCH a beautiful city! (Actually we've only seen about ten blocks of it, but still!) We went to the church with the icon of Our Lady of Czezstochova (however you spell that!) and they were having adoration in that chapel, too. It's the first time I've been to adoration in forever. (It's weird, you know, now my first reaction entering a church is to bow and cross myself three times like the easterns do and to pull out my Jesus Prayer beads instead of my rosary!) There's just so much COLOR in this city and SO many people (Lviv has that too, and ever more so as it gets nicer outside) and really cool stuff for sale on the street - paintings and handmade shoes and bags and stuff - more than just a million fruit/veggie stands like there are in Lviv - I don't want to sound harsh to Lviv, but this is the closest to the West I've been in four months and I can tell I've been missing it! I was just googly over the really cool shoes they have out (anybody heard of Diesel brand shoes? really funky) and there's this big square in front of the church we went to adoration in, reminded me of the square in Milan with all the pigeons. There was this little girl with down syndrome wearing a cute pink jacket, holding a plastic cup full of birdseed and surrounded by pigeons. Maria went over and played with her, shared her seeds, and I took a lot of pictures of it. Then I finally found an ATM that was working so I got some Polish money (zloti?) and we went to McDonald's cuz we were really thirsty and wanted a bathroom - you don't have to pay if you can flash a receipt. Now we're in the internet cafe. We don't have to be back to the train until close to 11:00 tonight. We're due in to Prague around 7:00 am. We have a three-bed room this time, closer quarters than my trip to Kiev, and we have a nice older man on a business trip with us.

But I don't feel so concerned with trying not to look like a tourist here, and a lot of people in the stores actually know English. Makes me wonder how long I'm going to be able to hang out in Ukraine once I remember what else is out there in the world!

Monday, April 11, 2005

There's nothing quite like it...

...being invisible, that is. I hadn't thought to put it quite like that, but a friend named Serhiy who was visiting Saturday from Odessa gave me the idea. He said it was like that for him when he was in Switzerland, like he was invisible. It's amazing that you can stand in a small group of people and have them talk over, around, through you and, since you can't understand what they're saying, you might as well not even be there. I feel like a little kid who starts dancing and singing and tugging on his mother's sleeve and making an obnoxious scene to get her attention. "Mommy's talking to Mrs. Snodgrass right now, Tommy. You need to wait. Why don't you go play over there?" That's when Tommy sulks off to the side and starts ripping out grass and chucking it at the neighbor's dog until he gets mad and barks so loudly that Mommy grabs Tommy by the hand none too gently and drags him off -- but really Tommy won, he got Mom's attention back away from Mrs. Snodgrass.

I have been thinking a lot lately about this one girl that I worked with when I had the autism job last year. Let's call her Simone. When I first started working with Simone, my sessions were one-on-one with here, but then they got more therapists for her team and it was decided that it would be better for her if we had two people working with her at a time, particularly because she needed to work on sharing and taking turns and stuff. Simone would get really mad when the other therapist and I would talk and not include her in the conversation, even if we were both walking with her, holding her hands, but for two minutes we talked about college or something she couldn't follow. She would stomp her feet or start interrupting or, my favorite, just sit down and make this great frustrated noise, like a big "Humph!" or sometimes it was more of a "Grrr!" combined with a little scream. Sometimes she would start to cry then. She didn't cry very often, but some days she was really tired, you could see it in her eyes. She hated school and her teacher didn't help matters much. How had she learned to cope with spending seven hours a day being yelled at, told to be quiet, to sit still, to do work that maybe she didn't understand, or maybe she did, but without the meaningful human interactions that make our days worth living. During training for that job, they gave us a handout about what it was like to have autism. It was a series of statements beginning with "Imagine what it would be like to..." Autism has a lot to do with communication difficulties - someone with autism may have difficulty translating in their brain what comes out of someone's mouth into comprehendable speech. "Imagine what it would be like to never understand what people are saying around you." Body language is also often completely lost on them - things like learning what facial expressions convey is a skill that has to be taught instead of inately learned. "Imagine what it would be like to have people getting mad at you and you don't know why or what you did wrong."

I've criticized myself here for seeking to be the center of attention - but really I can identify very much with Simone in her frustration to make people understand her, and to understand them. It's hard to be invisible.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Retreat weekend

Last weekend Maria and I led a retreat for the people involved in our "We Want to See Jesus" discipleship/evangelization program that's been meeting Wednesday nights in preparation for mission trips this summer to Eastern Ukraine. We didn't really have to do very much for it because we had someone to be the main facilitator. It was an absolutely wonderful weekend.

We went to this Basilian convent (Sisters of St. Basil the Great) about a halfhour outside of Lviv. They have a brand new building and it's just gorgeous. All nice wood floors and lots of light and fresh water all the time. Honestly, I hadn't been in that modern and nicely done a place yet in Ukraine. It felt like a monastery or retreat center at home. And the weather was SO nice and there were fields and woods to go walking in (but everything was super muddy). It was so good to be out in the country for a few days! It was on a high area and you could see quite far across the landscape. The land really resembled southwestern Wisconsin there, rolling hills, farms, distant houses.

We had this fellow named Roman talk about the Jesus Prayer. He's Ukrainian, but he spent 7 years in a Trappist monastery in Norway after recovering from alcohol and drug addiction and now he is back in Ukraine doing rehab work with drug and alcohol addicts, including some prison work. He has a fascinating life. He struck me as definitely unique among the people I've met here. For one thing, he talked much more about western psychology than any other Ukrainian I've met. On the way to the monastery he and I talked a little. (He has pretty good English -- he told me that my English is very good since he can understand me :). After he had told me about his life a little, he asked me what I thought about my vocation. I had told him about my experience with the Trappistines in Iowa and how I liked the Cistercian spirituality. I said I had come here to grow and to learn who I really am and that I was still open to either marriage or consecrated life with a religious community. He said that I had another option. He said that since he had returned from Norway he had wanted to start a group of people (he didn't specify more than that) who would live monastic values and monastic spirituality but in the world. He said he'd been trying to do it for years now and it was so hard to do it alone. For awhile after this I kept thinking of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day and I was wondering if somehow he would end up being a Peter Maurin to me and somehow I would end up starting this community with him.
But that kind of freaked me out, so I let it be.

The Jesus Prayer is simply this: "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It's the fruit of the desert fathers - monks who chose to seek God in the caves and reaches of the desert in the early Church. They soon found that though they had left the world, sin, darkness, and temptation remained a struggle for them, stemming from thoughts and inclinations from within. I learned about this prayer a year ago and prayed it a lot for awhile then and it was very helpful to me, especially in dealing with anxiety. But then I kind of stopped it. It's supposed to be that you pray it so much that it sinks into your subconscious and you're really praying it all the time. (There's this book called The Way of the Pilgrim about this Russian guy who sets out to find someone to tell him how to "pray without ceasing," as St. Paul instructs us (Thessalonians?) and his answer is the Jesus Prayer.

Roman asked whether we thought we are stronger than evil. It was a really provocative discussion (especially b/c I guess a lot of the retreatants were accustomed to just listening and not having to talk on a retreat - it was also a little avant garde even that Roman wasn't a priest). Later that day he talked about how experiences we have as children (traumas, or lack of love, etc.) can lead to behaviors in us as adults, but that praying the Jesus Prayer can bring healing. And the basic thing was that, like when you're dealing with substance abuse, the first thing you have to do is realize that you are powerless against it, that we need Christ to help us, to save us, we can't accomplish it ourselves. The Prayer is first of all calling on the power of the Holy Name of Jesus. Secondly, it's a proclamation of the Gospel ("son of God..."), and last is the basic idea contained in all prayers: have mercy on me, a sinner. Christ never denied mercy to a humble heart. It's a hard thing to really say, with your whole heart, that you need God, that you need need need Him, that you can't do this yourself. It doesn't mean you're bad, it doesn't mean you should be ashamed. It's honesty. Humility is honesty. And it opens you to receive so much more of God.

I'd been praying that God would help me to give to him the parts of me that I kept in hiding, the parts that maybe weren't so holy or pretty, and I felt like this retreat was an answer to that prayer, that now I have a plan, something to do - pray the Jesus Prayer again - and it makes me feel hopeful. I've been praying it a lot since returning and I think I'm already noticing a difference. I'm really thankful for this prayer.

We're actually going to have another retreat in a few weeks, because so many people weren't' able to come on this one (but it was good, really, because 15 people was a good size). It will be cool to get to go out there again, and maybe talk to Roman again. It'll be the weekend of the 16th-17th of April, or whatever that weekend is. On Monday the 18th, Maria and I are supposed to travel to Prague in the Czech Republic, for a conference hosted by this group that is working on the re-evangelization of Europe. (see the conference website: http://www.relay-network.org/) We'll be gone for about a week. It should be really cool. I was in Prague briefly in high school, but I don't remember much about it. The conference will be in English, and it's primarily a Roman Catholic thing so hopefully I'll get to go to Mass in English again :).

Swan Lake

We went to see the ballet Swan Lake at the Opera House here in Lviv (this was actually a couple weeks ago). It was the first time I'd actually been inside the Opera House, though I'd walked past it a million times. It's very pretty and ornate inside, including a room with walls covered with mirrors. We had one of those semi-private side balcony things to sit in (like what President Lincoln was shot in), so that was cool. The show was nice - I don't know anything about ballet so I don't have anything to say about the dancing, really. We played parts of the score in orchestra in high school, so I was more interested in the music. Unfortunately there was no orchestra that night, they used canned music. We weren't quite sure why this was, Maria said something about the conductor being in failing health. My favorite part, though, was the set. They had really cool/beautiful drapey multi-colored cloth for the background, with distant castles and viney forests painted on it for context. And they had these cool sculptures as part of the castle interior - they were like some kind of wire wound around into spherical-like shapes, with other pieces of metal and cloth and things stuck in them. Some were stuck on spear-like things as castle decor, and others were hung from the ceiling as candelabras.

So before the last act we were looking at the program and discussing the story. I was telling a Ukrainian girl with us that the swan dies at the end, that it's this famous scene. She insisted the swan didn't die. Then we watched the show and the swan didn't die! She got to become human again and marry the prince! The other Americans and I were a little surprised. Someone suggested that perhaps this country had had enough suffering, so it was alright for them to change a tragedy into a happy ending.