Saturday, January 24, 2015


Insomnia: a sleep disorder characterised by difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Can result in irritability, fatigue, memory and concentration problems, and other physical factors. 

Like eyes that feel like overcooked marshmallows on a stick. A heart trembling on the edge; sore, clenched jaw; a face that can't remember how to crack a grin.

If I had to choose between a million dollars and eight straight hours of sleep, I’d probably choose the sleep. I’m not kidding.

On a good night, if I take the one and only sleeping pill that is prescribed in Kyrgyzstan, I will get four hours. On a bad night, I will nap for a couple of minutes.

I have experienced every possible emotion over the last seven months. I have laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I have been stoic. I have been very self-pitying. I have been despairing and hopeless. And lately, my prevailing emotion has been anger. I have been really angry at God. Countless prayers; the prayers of older believers than myself. No mountain moved.

A few nights ago, after lying in bed for six hours, I broke down in tears. I wept. I yelled at God. I swore. It was like a movie scene - and not where a pretty French actress with a cute haircut lets a few picturesque tears roll down her cheek; it was really ugly, like in a war or a funeral. Through my tears I argued with God. I said - I yelled - why God? and - please God! And God, I don’t understand. Did you bring me to Kyrgyzstan to live a half-life of exhaustion and be a completely ineffective person to the people around me? I could do that just as well in Australia, you know, with the added bonus of my family to look after me and friends to support me and lots of doctors to prescribe me pills for free. I came here to be part of peoples’ lives. I can’t even do that now.

The neighbours probably thought I was bonkers, or getting beaten up. I didn't mind, because they're more bonkers than me.

And for some reason, through my tears and my ranting, I started to think about a documentary I watched recently. It was about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Basically, a thousand experimental physicists from all over the world got together to build a 17-mile machine in order to test whether a certain particle, called the Higgs Boson, actually exists. Theoretical physicists for a couple of decades have been speculating about the existence of an undetectable particle that holds everything together. Sometimes this is referred to as the God Particle because, depending on how much it weighs, it will suggest that all matter, everything that exists, is either really ordered and predictable, or really disordered and chaotic. Pointing perhaps to a creative force. Anyway, what they’re going to do is get these two beams of light speeding quicker than ever before, and then the beams of light will crash, and that will create data which will point to or away from the Higgs Boson. It’s science on a bigger scale than anything: science bigger than landing on the moon or discovering electricity. It doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God, but if you do believe in God there are ways of seeing beauty and meaning in the results.

Anyway, in this documentary they were talking about the sheer enormity of existing matter. I mean, in our galaxy alone, there are suns a thousand times bigger than our sun, and whole gas clouds that are a thousand times bigger again. They showed one collection of gases and said it would take 6 billion years for an object to fall from one end to the other. That’s in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies, and it is a mere dot in the vastness of everything that exists. I mean, as they were talking about it, my head was exploding. How do you contain the unending, unfinishing, colossal nature of all existing matter? How do you even start to find the right adjectives to begin talking about it?

So there, my head exploded. And now it’s 4 AM and there I am crying and pleading with God because I feel like my body is going to start breaking down and floating around. A brain trapped in a body that can never rest. I am trapped and helpless and the future of my life looks very grim, if this is what it will be like.

And suddenly, I am thinking about the immensity of space and all existing matter and the Higgs Boson particle and I realise this: God is in it, everywhere; if I can’t find adjectives for existing matter, how can I find adjectives for the bigness of God who made it and holds it all together? And even more, how can I imagine all that vastness; those billions of years and burning lights and incomprehensible largeness and endlessness, compressed into a tiny, vulnerable, human baby on our little invisible blip of a planet ? How can I understand why the creator would do that? It has to be love. It has to be love. And what kind of love must God have for a silly idiot like me to do that?

And if a God like that will do such a thing for me - die - he’s not going to stop loving me, or disappear, or give up.

That means he loves me right here, right now, and he absolutely wants the best for me. The best for me, believe it or not, is not physical health or nice books or delicious food or a strong husband.  These things are added extras, bonus parts. The best for me is trusting God for all my needs, like a two-year-old. He knows that, so everything he does is designed to help me love him and trust him and glorify him. 

So this is what I have understood in my bones, after that night: God is really good. He’s really, really good. He wants me to trust him because there’s nothing else in life that will make me happy. Like a good parent wants the best for a child - he has taken away everything that makes it possible to trust in anything but his presence. He's the sweetest thing.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Terrible Thing

Tonight, I was craving red meat, so I walked thirty minutes to the new burrito stand (!) in Bishkek. It's opposite a big overgrown park with a Soviet hero in the middle of it, and I fancied the idea of sitting there for my dinner.

The burrito stand is great. The meat is tender, the beans are good, the sauce is hot. Bizarrely, it's the real thing. Bishkek is full of surprises.

I was listening to songs from The Verses Project as I walked. I love these songs - verses sung simply and in different styles. I anticipated my meal with pleasure.

But here's the terrible thing I did: an elderly woman approached me on the footpath. She was bent over, wearing old socks with old sandals, and walking very slowly. She asked for 20 som (about 40 cents).

And I said I didn't have any.

But I had 200 som in my pocket, to pay for my burrito.

When I looked behind me, she was faltering up the street in the still-hot sun. I felt sick with sorrow. I walked up behind her very quickly, with the words of Romans 10:12 singing in my ears, excused myself, and handed her my yellow 200 som note. She was so, so grateful. I guess maybe she needed to eat.

My soul dissolved into a soft pool of shame.

It turned out I had enough money for a burrito.

I have been crying ever since.

(Do you know what the next song on my playlist was? Ephesians 2:8-10. Praise God.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Experiment in Pills

I have just taken a sleeping pill of Russian origins, so the next obvious step is to turn to a public writing forum to see the results. They do say not to operate heavy machinery in such a state, but I don't think my Mac Air qualifies as heavy machinery, since it about the size and shape of, I don't know, a fancy lady's purse. And I am in a semi-recumbent posture, thus are health and safety measures accounted for.

I took the pill because my sleeping is poor. It's poor because I read a book recently about spiritual warfare, by a stalwart old-school missionary in India, containing stories about devilish oppression and terrifying spiritual warfare. Whenever I turn off the light, I find it hard to stop thinking about the stories she told. I try to focus on the victory of Christ over evil and death, and on the power that is given to me by his saving blood. But I'd quite like a good long sleep without the light on. This pill was given to me in nonchalant fashion, over the counter, without a prescription - a heavy-duty affair. I did my research and decided it was safe and have guzzled it with some hope.

My hands are heavily mistyping most words, the sentences appear to be at angles, an the screen looks buckled. This is promising for my sleep prospects, but not the lucidity of anything to follow.

I have a housemate again - good old E is back! Just for a short time. She arrived this morning, with a lost luggage, and we went to Sierra cafe to indulge in a big breakfast and coffee. They were doing good coffee today. My flat white was pleasing. She'll be staying for the next ten days, so that means all the introverted patterns I've been establishing are over. Definitely a good thing.

Tomorrow, I must: pay bills at the post office; book a flight to Batken next week; write college recommendation letters. If I can accomplish these things, I'll consider it a success.

I don't spot many mistakes here, and it appears readable, so I will post with the likelihood that I'll delete it in the morning. I have double vision and heavy fingers. Sleep is imminent. Praises for heavy-duty Soviet style medicine, which doesn't require a prescription and has a pleasing efficacy.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Summer Food Safari

This blog went to pot. Did you notice?

There are two reasons:
1. apathy
2. fear and loathing of my own sentences.

Apathy, fear, and loathing are strong words, and I want you to know that in my other pursuits (those not related to sentence-making) I have been experiencing quite a lot of joy and growth.

When summer comes to Bishkek, you can predict the arrival of certain fruits on the street, almost to the day. First come the cherries, mountains of them, crimson-black. They last the longest. Then come the raspberries, sold by the banka (a glass jar that holds about a litre). The strawberries are intermittent. I have gotten in the habit of mixing them with a little balsamic vinegar (from the European Shop) and sugar, marinating them for a bit, then smashing them into some little meringues (from the Turkish Shop) and ice-cream. It's quite something. (What the British call a Fool, I think?) Anyway, the stone fruits come - lovely nectarines and peaches - followed by watermelons and long yellow melons. I avoid those, because I was told they're coaxed into early ripeness with chemicals, and I definitely got sick the last time I ate some.

A kilo of strawberries is about $1.30, by the way.

In the middle of summer, I missed about two weeks of fruity pursuit, because I was in Malaysia for conference purposes. Seven days in Kuala Lumpur, then four nights in George Town, Penang. The first at a semi-swanky hotel, the second in a beautiful guesthouse. The first with forty like-minded workers from all over the world, the second by myself. The first with three buffet meals a day, the second with authentic local food about which I could write a thousand words. Both experiences were life-giving, and I have come back to Bishkek revitalised and rested.

I'm looking forward to having my community back. They're mostly out of the country right now, but trickling back in slowly. For an introvert, this is a dangerous situation: unless I make a huge effort, I could easily go three or four days without having a conversation. I know myself well enough, now, to know that this is very bad for me, so I've been making the aforementioned huge effort to spend time with people. And of course, I'm always glad when I do.

Tomorrow is Saturday. I will go to home church, which I love. Then I have a two-hour dentist appointment, which will hopefully be the last in a long line of appointments to fix a tiresome root canal gone wrong (there's a whole story here about local dentistry that I won't bore you with - you can just imagine the horrors that have been). After that, some of my students are playing soccer at a local field, so I thought I might go watch. I haven't seen them for weeks, and a couple of them are leaving for college in America and Korea soon.

I love these kids. Which is just as well, since getting them into colleges is the reason I've lived in a developing country for 3.5 years, and will do so for at least one year more.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Can't Stop Listening to This.

Child 31 - The Story of Mary's Meals

Watch this. Get angry. Cry a lot. Then get a little hopeful, and maybe donate a little money. The money you spend on coffees in the course of a week? Yeah. That money.

And once you've done all that, you might like to check out this beautiful Lenten post on the Apostles' Creed.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Clay Jars

In recent days, I've been feeling extremely fragile. Liable to break.

Physically, with fever and sickness and tiredness. The slightest overexertion and I collapse onto the nearest soft person-sized surface. Teaching is possibly the worst profession in which to get sick, since you are negotiating dozens of relationships a day, constantly dialoguing, planning, articulating. You need health and bountiful joy, or you will find yourself in hellish hell of introverted misery.

Emotionally, with massive events in my family back home and with the ever-changing web of relationships right here. Babies being born, weddings like confetti, the sudden departures of people I love with big love. The future prospect of being torn from the lives of my students. How is this to be endured?

Spiritually, liable to weep at any moment with the near knowledge of my daily failures and the impossible, incomprehensible, unfailing love of a Brother who is a King, whose love for me doesn't depend on my righteousness. It is beyond my ability to comprehend; it is too high, I cannot understand it. So I panic and weep.

'We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.'

Whatever text I teach, I love to linger over imagery - whole lessons on a Shakespearean metaphor - unpeeling the delicate petals of allegory in a poem - the inexpressible beauty of sounds - if they learn nothing else, my students will learn to appreciate good imagery when they find it.

A jar of clay. Hard pressed, perplexed, struck down. The ugliest thing you ever saw. But not destroyed. Because oh, there's something indestructibly beautiful in the jar. It was put there some time ago. It is a story, all glory, all grace.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Little Perspective

Kyrgyzstan is very traveller-friendly right now. It offers free tourist visas, and you should definitely take advantage of that. This is useful for expat workers in other Central Asian countries, since they can come here cheaply to renew their visas, and do.

As a consequence, I've have a European friend staying with me for a week. She's a doctor in a neighbouring country, and has to leave to renew her visa every couple of months. Bishkek is the best place for her to do that. It's been an interesting experience for me. Firstly, because I've been living on my own since September, without any overnight guests, and have gotten used to my own grotty ways without worrying about anyone else. The adjustment has been unsettling, but good for me, since I have had to clean up and cook actual meals and be sociable.

More than that, though, is seeing Bishkek through her eyes. We spent a day together recently. I took her to a modern, affordable Turkish clothes shop; to the place that makes real, good coffee; to the new Japanese restaurant; to the vegetable market, where you can buy broccoli; to the European Store, where you can buy peanut butter. We even noticed a tiny new shop, its yellow varnished wood gleaming in the snow, proclaiming its name on a nicely designed board as the 'Good Food Company.' It makes and packages fresh salads and sandwiches. They might not have passed muster in a western context, but in a Central Asian context, it was like finding gold.

Anyway, after all these adventures (in -18 degrees), she said - there is so much nice stuff in Bishkek. And I said - yes, I suppose.

Thinking about it now, though, I would go further and say that I'm living in one of the best places in Central Asia; it isn't nearly as urbane and expensive as Almaty, and it has good markets and (as long as you're not too fussy) you can find nearly anything you might want. I bought a handheld mixer the other day, for making cakes. My apartment is pleasant, warm, and only has occasional electrical problems. I never have to wait longer than five minutes for public transport, which is incredibly cheap and quick.

Since my friend lives with a family whose diet consists mainly of different varieties of bread, oil, and rice, with occasional mutton, she has been enjoying this experience immensely.

I won't be complaining about my lifestyle any time soon (the cold! the packed marshrutkas! the dogs! the dirt! the spitting! the men! the pollution! the absence of good muesli!) - context is everything. I have it pretty good, and I'm really thankful for this chance to be hospitable and to remember that things could be far, far worse.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Australia Day in Ashu (Bless You)!

The morning view - 
-while deadly icicles threaten our breakfast.

They posed with huge grins while their mother yelled for them across the field.

Toddler traveling in style.

A well-aerated barn.

Last year's mud house.

Everything stretches for miles - mountains, skies, and avenues of birch trees.

The Russians knew what they were about.

Happy Australia Day!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

God the All

Back at Christmas, there was an amusing moment when I unwrapped the brown paper parcels that my mum had sent to London with my aunt. First, I opened one with bright pink underwear (very appropriate to my needs); then, I opened a book of Puritan prayers and devotions, The Valley of Visions. The two items side by side caused some hilarity. Both have proven useful.

Here in Ashu, on a short retreat in a snowbound village, I've been captivated by some of the prayers, including this one: complete and perfect.

'God the All'

O God whose will conquers all,
There is no comfort in anything
    apart from enjoying thee
    and being engaged in thy service;
Thou art all in all, and all enjoyments are what to me
    thou makest them, and no more.
I am well pleased with thy will, whatever it is,
    or should be in all respects,
And if thou bidst me decide for myself in any affair,
    I would choose to refer all to thee,
    for thou art infinitely wise and cannot do amiss
    as I am in danger of doing.
I rejoice to think that all things are at thy disposal,
    and it delights me to leave them there.
Then prayer turns wholly into praise,
    and all I can do is adore and bless thee.
What shall I give thee for all thy benefits?
I am in a strait betwixt two, knowing not what to do;
I long to make some return, but have nothing to offer,
    and can only rejoice that thou doest all,
    that none on heaven or on earth shares thy honour;
    I can of myself do nothing to glorify thy blessed name,
    but I can through grace cheerfully surrender soul and body to thee,
I know that thou art the author and finisher of faith,
    that the whole work of redemption is thine alone,
    that every good work or thought found in me 
        is the effect of thy power and grace,
    that thy sole motive in working in me is to will and to do
        is for thy good pleasure.
O God, it is amazing that men can talk so much
    about man's creaturely power and goodness,
    when, if thou didst not hold us back every moment,
    we should be devils incarnate.
This, by bitter experience, thou hast taught me concerning myself.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Getting to Know the Neighbours

Since moving into my new apartment in September, I've barely seen my neighbours. The are four doors clustered at the top of the stairwell. The one next to me, I'm fairly sure, is empty, because the bills (which are stuck between the door and the jamb) are never collected. Across the way is a young couple who always look a bit cross (although they're Russian, so that doesn't mean anything). The fourth flat must surely be occupied, but I have never seen anyone coming or going. I am on the third floor out of four floors.

Until today, I'd had maybe three conversations in total with people in this building. That all changed when the old codger downstairs started doing repairs: he (inadvertently or otherwise) managed to cut the power to the whole building last night. There was a terrific thump around midnight and everything went dark and quiet. It was still off this morning, which effectively ruined everything in my freezer. I could have gone and dumped it all in the snow outside, but it didn't occur to me and if it had, I probably wouldn't have risked my already dubious reputation as a foreigner.

Anyway, as the morning wore on, I got a bit worried and investigated. My neighbours did the same, and suddenly we were bound together in our concern. It's the dusty, rusty Soviet wiring, you see. Difficult to fix, not to mention dangerous. I learned the names of several neighbours as we congregated on the stairwell and discussed options. My language abilities are pretty rubbish, but I followed along because the conversation stuck to fairly basic vocabulary. In time, some electricians turned up and went to the roof and everyone returned to their flats. After several hours and many false starts (which I fear may have killed my fridge) power was finally restored.

Nothing will change probably, except that perhaps we will make more eye contact than normal and more meaningful nods of heads when we pass each other. I got excited for a moment and envisioned myself making cookies for everyone, until I remembered the last time I tried that, in a different block of flats - many suspicious looks and some flat-out refusals. I guess I'll stick to nods.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Three Degrees!

The temperature reached three degrees today, and the snow was radiant in the sun. I squinted a bit and wore my lightest jacket. The slick ice was entering that slushy crunchy stage, so it was much easier to walk (if messier).

I don't know what has happened to this, the most cold-bloodedest of Australians, that she should find this to be mild and delightful weather.

On the marshrutka today:

As usual, I bumped my head while paying the driver. It was standing room only, so I found a space between a seat and the window and ignored the usual armpits in my face. Shortly after, the very, very old woman in the seat near me tried to get up, and plumped down when the bus veered unexpectedly. In that moment, I noticed her feet were at strange angles: there was obviously some kind of deformity, and her steps were tentative. She had a face like an apple in storage and smelled of damp mothballs. I offered my green-gloved hand, which she took and heaved herself up. There were three large men between her and the door, so with her hand in mine I steadied her, while the other hand guided her through the bodies. The marshrutka shrieked to a halt on the corner and she picked her way down the steps, her feet in first position like a ballerina's. Maybe she'd been a Soviet ballerina. I immediately created a whole life story for her. Since I was standing, I couldn't see through the window how she fared, and the whole thing probably took about five seconds. But how my heart swelled with love and pity and regret: love for her gentle, aged face; pity for her wretched physical condition and probable poverty; regret that I had not descended the steps with her and ensured her wellbeing.

Though it is painful, I am glad God aligns my heart with his. It awakens me to pray with yearning. It also confirms my desire to study community development this year, because more and more, I long for the skills and aptitude to help women like the one on my marshrutka today. I cry out for that ability. I think God is prompting me in this direction. I guess we'll know more shortly.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Last Day at the Gym

Well, here is a hideous truth. The owners of my Russian gym (named 'Monroe' and replete with a Marilyn clock, her face in the tiles, and bright pink weight machines) have just installed a bunch of seedy hotel rooms above it, rented 'by the hour.' Many of the girls who come to the gym work in those rooms. Mostly they're teenagers.

I need to find a new gym. I will not give one ounce of profit more to the owners. And once again, with a furious heart, I grieve for the women here; so exploited, and somehow so resilient.

I met one young woman at this gym. Her name was Aibeka. Aibeka had pretty good English, and I learned that she'd recently returned from working in Dubai airport, in customer service. It seemed like a pretty decent job for a local girl. But no. It's no good, she said. No good. They take your passport away. They make you pay for every glass of water, every bus trip from the accommodation to the airport, so that in the end, you don't make much money at all. The only way to make money (for your family back home, which is why you came in the first place) is to give in to the prostitution racket. Most girls do.

Lord, Lord.