Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Winter's a-coming

There is a frost in the air that's been absent until now. The trees are as yellow as can be. I had to wear gloves this morning, and I've dug out my best winter coat and hung it by the front door. Snow is predicted for Monday, and that is really the beginning of a new season that doesn't end till the start of April. 

Happily, the heating has been turned on; somewhere in the recesses of Tetz, the ancient factory near Vostok Pyat, cogs and wheels are spluttering fuel into the heating pipes of an entire city. The sadly ironic consequence is that I have to open all my windows, to let the frosty air mingle with the stifling heat and create a temperate environment. Awful waste, but one over which I have no control.

Today, my 11/12 English class wrote exam essays about dystopias; my 10 English class dissected an IGCSE poem by Elizabeth Brewster; in ESL support, we worked on new vocabulary; I advertised upcoming auditions for the school production; I ran English club; I met with my landlady because she wanted to give me potplants (not realising that she was effectively committing them to death); and I met with some friends at a Japanese restaurant. 

That's an example of a nicely balanced day. I'm learning how to look after myself in this regard - how to fine-tune my time. After last year's burn-out, I am determined not to push myself. I go home before 6 PM. I do not take grading with me. I eat all the vegetables I can find. I take time to cook real food. I walk more, go to the gym more. I listen to music and sermons and thereby feed my soul. I reply to emails promptly. I say 'no' to many opportunities. I commit all these things to God, and thank him for caring enough to teach me about rest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Putin, the Immortal

So, in Tzum today (Tzum is the Soviet equivalent of a mall), this wall hanging was advertised, on sale. Fancy your very own larger-than-life Russian President?

You can't see it so well here, but it's a rug woven with the face of a much younger, immensely glamourous Putin. He appears to be wearing lipstick and contemplating the future with dreamy eyes.

You could also order Lenin, and have a face-off across the living room.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday Poem: Lift Up Your Hearts

Recently, I was lent a copy of Christina Rossetti's reading diary. Some of her best poems are in this collection - the poems I like best, anyway. I skipped ahead tonight (she was getting her 'Anglo-Catholic' on in the latter parts of October and early November, which I found tiresome) and alighted upon this little piece. She often lifts her spiritual dryness to the Lord and has nicely metered conversations with Him about it; I recognise my own constant prayer in hers - do for me, Lord, what I cannot manage - be both object and enabler of my faith! And so, she begins with that oft-repeated phrase:

'Lift up your hearts!' - 'We lift them up' - Ah me!
I cannot, Lord, lift up my heart to Thee:
Stoop, lift it up, that where Thou art I too may be.

'Give me thy heart.' - I would not say Thee nay,
But have no power to keep or give away
My heart: stoop, Lord, and take it to Thyself today.

Stoop, Lord, as once before now once anew
Stoop, Lord, and hearken, hearken, Lord, and do,
And take my will and take my heart and take me too.

Christina Rossetti
Time Flies: A Reading Diary, November 12

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Saturday Song: Rivers & Robots

Rivers & Robots have recently become one of my favourite bands, and it's not just because there's an ampersand in the name. It's because of songs like this one. I love the lyrics. This whole album is gorgeous! Do yourself a favour and fork out a couple of quid on it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Regal Touch

I have an addiction. It's been going on for years. Just when I think I've cast it off, it comes back with a vengeance.

My addiction is The West Wing.

I've watched so much lately that I've had several dreams related to it. Last night's was the most peculiar of a very peculiar lot.

I dreamed that I was Josh, and that POTUS was coming to visit. I was wearing pyjama shorts, which felt indecent; so, I did what any normal person would do - I stripped my bed. I wrapped my doona cover around me like a skirt (taking the doona out first) and then I put my pillowcase around my shoulders. You know, for a regal touch. Then, I walked out to the living room. Then, I woke up.

That is all.

(I still haven't made my bed).

Thursday, October 31, 2013


This is Erkindik Boulevard, something the Soviets did well. I walk this way most days. Erkindik means 'Freedom.' In winter, I imagine it will be beautiful in a different way.

I Saw Three More Things (of a Mildly Humorous Nature)

1. A hot water pipe outside a hospital, insulated with cooking foil and old shirts. Yep, we sho' be ready for winter 'round these here parts.

2. A crew of men trying to adjust electricity wires above a busy street, and a tallish concrete truck driving by at an inopportune time. I had an (internal) chuckle and kept my distance, since there was no evidence to suggest that the wires were not live wires, or that the men were electricians by trade.

3. A little girl on her way to school with traditional white puffy decorations in her hair. They were easily as large as her head, one on either side, and the result was Star Wars/1970s wedding/cartoon.

Three days left of fall break. Alas and alack.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Saw Three Things in Three Days

1. A woman with her arms wrapped around her ten-year-old daughter, in the middle of Erkindik Boulevard. The daughter was clearly disabled, gazing at the trees and groaning and dribbling a bit. The mother was soothing her by humming. They swayed together in this public place, and I couldn't get the image out of my head, because the woman was an Uzbek, and this is a country where the disabled put away; dumped in whitewashed institutions on the outskirts of the city and rarely mentioned in polite company thereafter. I have never seen such a sight in Bishkek - such openness and such an obvious bond between parent and child. The mother obviously couldn't have cared less about the openly curious passers-by, and that was deeply beautiful to me. I still picture them clearly, framed by autumn colours and caressed by the breeze.

2. Every morning on my way to school, at the same time, I pass a Russian woman in her mid-fifties. She is surrounded by plastic bags and swarming cats, under a tree in a crumbling apartment block. She is pouring milk into bowls and feeding scraps, and talking to herself/the cats all the while. Again, this is a rare sight - someone paying attention to and caring for the stray animals that roam Bishkek. (I also passed a stray ginger cat with a broken leg, mewling in the gutter, and trying to defend its territory from dogs. I cried for a long time afterwards because there was nothing I could do - not unless I change vocations and start looking after the needy animals everywhere, which is a job for a hundred people who are not otherwise occupied. So, I pray the prayer for the thousandth time - Lord, let their suffering be mild and their lives short).

3. An old woman, bent double, dressed in ancient and innumerable layers of wool, a walking stick in one hand and a crumpled plastic bag in the other, crossing the street. That's all. Not unusual. But most likely, she lives on a pension that doesn't extend to, you know, food. She might beg. She might go through trash for food. She might not have family. She's probably Orthodox, so maybe the church helps her. I don't know. But every atom in my body cries out to - what? Do something! - and the realisation that I cannot is crippling - not so that you'd notice, since my back isn't bent like hers. But something is bent.

When I first arrived in Kyrgyzstan nearly three years ago, seeing orphans and cripples and elderly and stray animals and homeless people every day was an impossible sadness. I would give money to old women to stop them going through my trash. I would buy cheap sausage meat to give to gutter dogs. I would buy samsi from street sellers and give them to gypsy beggar boys. I still do. But it is never enough. I cried from guilt and shame and then went from my well-heated flat to my vibrant workplace and ate all the food I wanted, plus more besides, and laid down in a safe, comfortable bed. I could choose to forget when I wanted to, which was often.

Like most people, my gut reaction is emotional - visceral - burdened. It should be, I think. It would be evil not to care. James wrote that to look at your brother and sister in need, and do nothing, is a lifeless faith - dead faith. Tim Keller's excellent book, Generous Justice, has been helpful in shaping how I think/feel in response to these things. It affirms that God's constant call is for social justice; that He cares for the orphans and the widows and oh, how He cares, and how He will restore them, and how He gives us hearts like his, to sorrow and weep with Him. I want a heart like His, and so I will continue to let it break. I will also continue to trust in His promises of restoration and justice, and rejoice that He is good. It is possible to weep and rejoice together, you know. It isn't comfortable, but it's all there is.

Disproportionate Globe-Trotting

By the end of 2013, I will have been in ten countries. Several more than last year. Let me explain. No, there is no time. Let me sum up.

 To begin with, I was in Thailand with my sister and parents for the new year, before coming back to Kyrgyzstan for the second semester of school. In March, I was privileged to travel to Germany for a conference, stopping in Switzerland on the way to visit an old friend, and swinging by France, too. By the end of June, I was very happy to return to Australia for some TLC, but not without a two-week stopover in Korea to visit past and present students.

Once returning to Kyrgyzstan, I led a wonderful group of students to Hungary for a conference. This adventure was quickly followed by a weekend in Kazakhstan, where I met a drama teacher to discuss a new production. And now, as Christmas approaches, I am planning to be in England with family, and quite possibly stopping by Scotland as well.

I think I have some kind of disease, where I must travel at least every three months, or risk keeling over. I am reluctant to be cured, though. As a single person living on a volunteer's income, I am whole-heartedly thankful and aware of my blessings in this regard - a workplace that pays for me to attend conferences, family members who contribute to plane tickets, an organisation that puts my health and wellbeing first. God knows my love of travel and is giving it to me in abundance. I don't know how long this patterned lifestyle will last, but I embrace it and acknowledge the wonder of it, right now.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Seddon Revisited

I used to live here among the Yarraville aesthetes, until I moved here among the post-Soviet nomads. (Am I the first person to make the transition? I like to think so.)

Today after church, I revisited with some friends. We went to a lovely Japanese eatery (no plain-spoken restaurants here, thank you!) called Ajitoya. We sampled a little sake, ate plentifully of the gyoza and the karaage ( marinated deep fried chicken, "outside crunchy, inside squishy"), and enjoyed the funky design of the place. We then migrated to a cafe with even funkier design and great coffee. Naturally, I was extremely happy.

This time in Australia is a gift. Time with family and friends who love me, amazing food, beautiful things, as much sleep as I want, time to read books and reconnect with old pleasures. I want to savour it. I want to be purposeful and intent about replenishing and healing. I want to spend more time with God than I ever have. I'm deep-down thankful!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Teatray Full of Welcome

Anna Karenina (astonishing film, usefully addressed my longstanding loathing of Kiera Knightley), a jolly teapot, cake, and a dear friend. This is what I call therapeutic.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tim Keller on The Song of Creation.

picture from here.

I listened to a smashing sermon today. Tim Keller on The Song of Creation, which you can listen to here for free. He takes Genesis 1 as the poem that it is and makes a beautiful case for enjoying the world. Along the way, he quotes C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, Augustine, and George Whitfield, who are all reasons in themselves to listen. 

Oh, and if you've ever wondered how to make sense of the creation narrative in Genesis - that's another reason to listen. Keller provides a masterful framework for understanding Chapter 1.

I often listen to sermons while I walk. On this occasion, I was walking to The Plaza (in Wezza, full of Shazzas and Bazzas). There is a nice, typically Australian stretch of parkland along the way, with lots of classical gumtrees, some tennis courts, and a woodchipped playground. Apparently, this morning was the coldest morning in Melbourne for ten years, but the sun was bright and the skies blue by the time I was out, and not a bogan to be seen.

Anyway, it was pleasant. The pleasantest things of all were the birds. Lovely native honeyeaters, warbling magpies, friendly galahs. At one point I stopped, paused the sermon, stood blissfully in the sun, listened to the magpies (trying to avoid their beady eyes and sharp beaks - a childhood fear of magpie aggression has never quite left me!), and watched the galahs as they waddled and feasted on the ground. 

I paused because I had just listened to these words, which I will now transcribe for you: 

"'Haven't you ever noticed that when you come near the animals they growl at us, they bark at us, the birds screech at us and fly away? Do you know why? They know that we have a quarrel with their master.' (Whitfield) Nature is praising God and being what God made it to be, by and large, but we're not: it's inviting us into a song that we can't sing. The reason nature is singing a song of praise is because it's under the benediction of God; it's singing that 'Our Maker loves us; our Maker says that we're good; He enjoys us, delights in us.'" 

"…Deep in your soul, you need to know that your Maker looks at you and says, 'You are good, you are right, I love you, you have no flaws, I see no blemish on you.' You need to know that your Maker sings to you of your beauty. You need that. But you know that you're not good, that you're not right with him, you know that you've rebelled…we can't sing the song…so what are we going to do?"

Keller has a lyrical way, at times. He goes on to point to the Word made flesh: "The very opposite of Creation happened to Jesus on the cross. He was decreated, deconstructed. Why? Our Maker had to be unmade so that we could be remade. Our Creator had to be decreated so we could be recreated...until you know that, you can't join the song."

So I stood there in God's sun, watching God's birds and breathing his air, and longing to join the choir. As far from beautiful as could be. Sleep-deprived, unwashed hair, filthy hiking boots (for want of better shoes), and a wallowing misery derived from deep culture shock and burn-out. 

And I took the sun as a gift, and the birds as a benediction, and my misery as wisdom in the making, and I thought: one day. One day my song will be flawless, too. One day I will understand the heights and depths and breadths of God's impossible love for me, and then I will join the choir. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Homecoming June 2013

You never get used to this. The cold-water wrenching shock of sudden farewells, the transit from one family-like community into another one, less familiar now. Once more, the students I consider my children - even brothers and sisters sometimes - are scattered to the wind and will never reform as family. It's the annual grieving. You never get used to this. 

Frankly, I'm scared about coming home to Australia. I'm scared because people will have changed, as I have changed. I'm not sure who I am in that place anymore. I'm not sure I have interesting or important things to do and say there. I'm not sure I have a place - I'll have to dig out a temporary one. And my arms are pretty tired.

I am thankful, though. This will be blessed rest in the care of people who love me. This will be a chance to get people excited about Kyrgyzstan. This is an opportunity to make new connections and find spiritual refreshment. This is God's gift of replenishment.

Now, to gird my loins and luggage and wait out an extremely tedious series of flights and passenger lounges.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Today's Poem

J, an enterprising eighth grader, composed this haiku on my board in his spare time today, largely inspired by Romeo and Juliet:

Miss K-pat has thumbs -
Do you bite your thumb at me?
Yeah, uh, I guess so.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


I'm getting quite a lot of search hits for "mastercard atm bishkek" so I thought I would post something useful about this topic.

The only bank in Bishkek from which you can withdraw cash on a Mastercard is KazKom (Казкоммерцбанк), the Kazakh bank here. There are several ATMs in the following locations:

1. Tzum, on the outside of the building facing Chui. There's also one inside, on the first floor, at the very back.

2. The main KazKom branch is on the corner of Sovietskaya and Bokonbaeva. There are several ATMs there, and some of the staff speak English.

3. Dordoi Plaza. First floor, central aisle, there are a couple of ATMs. One is KazKom.

4. Along Chui, headed west, just past Ala-Too Square, there is a very small machine in a wall. You have to look closely to see that it's KazKom. It's before all the travel agencies.

There may be other locations, but I've never found them. It took several months for me to accumulate all that knowledge, and I hope that it may prove useful to someone, somewhere! Generally, I wouldn't advise travelling in Central Asia with a Mastercard. Visa is much more widespread here.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Enjoyment in His Toil

Our staff meeting this afternoon was conducted to a chorus of birds and accompanied by a pleasant breeze. These verses were read to open proceedings:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
- Ecclesiastes 2:24-25

The meeting was about looking to next year (since there is less than a month left of this one, and the new one starts in August) and asking some good questions about 'wellness;' what we can do better to ensure our health and energy and joy - to find enjoyment in our toil - since the last six months have sapped a little from all of us. It was reviving to be in that room, full of sunlight and a lot of fascinating, intent people, weaving together a vision of the year to come and thinking about the joy there will be and considering the hand of God in everything.

Every contemplation of a new working year should start with these verses, I believe.

Smoke - George MacDonald

Today, I'm sharing this poem by the old master, George MacDonald. I found it on Ali's blog (which sometimes seems like a collection of good things curated especially for me - thanks Ali). This is a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit moving in a cold heart - God's grace and giving is limitless. The imagery of spluttering smoke and lightning has stayed with me.


Lord, I have laid my heart upon thy altar
But cannot get the wood to burn;
It hardly flares ere it begins to falter
And to the dark return.

Old sap, or night-fallen dew, makes damp the fuel;
In vain my breath would flame provoke;
Yet see—at every poor attempt's renewal
To thee ascends the smoke!

'Tis all I have—smoke, failure, foiled endeavour,
Coldness and doubt and palsied lack:
Such as I have I send thee!—perfect Giver,
Send thou thy lightning back.

- George MacDonald

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rooibos Tea

I recently and publicly bemoaned the lack of rooibos tea in Bishkek. Since then, friends have bought me rooibos from the States and the UK respectively, and I've been sent some from Australia. At least a six-month-worth of tea sits on my desk. This is comforting in several ways: firstly, I will not lack for delicious hot caffeine-free beverages any time soon; and secondly, I am ridiculously blessed by friends and family, who rise to meet me when I lack something, even the smallest of somethings. God is good to me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Old Shoes & TB

Rudely awakened!

There are two possible explanations for this. Either the downstairs neighbours have enacted a rousing polka with broomsticks, or there was a minor earthquake just now. 

A quick glance at Facebook tells me that it was the latter. As always, I can only trust (blindly) in the foresight of Soviet architects, since the alternative is paralysing fear/planning a third-storey leap.

Here in Bishkek, ice is melting into veritable rivers. A half-hearted rainy mist has descended on the city. Walking is a half-skating, half-trudging locomotion, and my shoes are nearly ruined. Luckily, they're only imitation Ugg-boots from Dordoi Bazaar. The soles of them have been replaced twice and I don't think they warrant a third, so I'll be throwing them out shortly, having exercised my money's worth. 

Got my yearly tuberculosis test today. It involved a needle, which I had forgotten since last time, and was therefore psychologically unprepared. I did what I usually do when threatened with needles, which is screw my eyes shut and pinch my thighs in such a manner that welts appear later. It works, though. The greater pain cancels out the other, and the fact of not seeing the needle also helps.

The other notable thing that happened today was a visit to a music store. I discovered a little Yamaha shop here, hidden away; quite the find, because it means we don't have to ship equipment from the States at an exorbitant price. I say this because of an extraordinary episode of fundraising has just occurred; the school drums and keyboard and microphone cables recently decided to cark it all at once, after a long decline. After a flurry of letter-writing and responses from truly the most generous friends in the world, enough money was raised to purchase new equipment. This is why we're able to pick up a new keyboard tomorrow, and place an electronic drum kit on order. It all sounds very prosaic, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that raising this money was a profound, humbling, and educational experience. More anon.