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.