balance and burdens

As of today I've been in minsk for a month. It usually seems like much longer than that. It's been unusually warm the last few days, so the city has turned into a big slushy puddle. I can hear the melted snow dripping from the roof to our 'balcony,' as if every drop is telling a different story. Time moves slowly here and I'm thankful for that.

In this slow month, the light at least has been changing quickly: when we got here, the sun would rise at about 8:15am and set at about 4:15pm. We would walk to the metro in the dark, and would arrive at school as the sun approached the top of a nearby factory's tall smokestack. It was beautiful, in an ugly sort of way. Now the sun rises at 7am and sets at 5:30pm, and I remember that light itself is simply beautiful, whatever it's shining on. Today it's so bright that there are actually sunbeams. I can understand why everyone is nicer to each other in the summer.

In this slow month, I think I've been changing quickly too. I'm learning to see everything (everything) with spiritual eyes rather than just fleshly ones, and I'm in constant conversation with the Lord... while I'm handwashing my clothes in the bathtub, while I'm trying not to lose my balance on the metro, while I'm banging on my doumbek, while I'm being fed by a Belarusian mama or babushka so much that I think I'll burst, while I'm on the cold buses staring at smokestacks (they are all over the place). I must be somehow more Belarusian now; though I wear the same getup I always did, people don't stare at me anymore. At the same time I have thrown off some of my self-consciousness about being an American: eg., maybe it does seem a little extravagant by local standards that I'll spend a whole dollar on a big bag of oranges for someone in the hospital, but I am a rich American after all and I want to bless this person with oranges, so there. Of course, it's always an exercise in balance.

But I am rich. Especially in friends, so, so many new friends... some I can have conversations with and some I can't, some are far younger than me and some are far older, some I see all the time and some don't live in Minsk so I hardly see them at all. Again, I'm learning balance, of my time and energy and care between and among so many amazing people.

So there is a lot of joy. There are also a lot of difficulties, though; on some days I feel almost surrounded by heaviness and suffering. I can always see that God is working, and I know there is always a shaft of light through the walls, but I'm beginning to see some very old and thick and dark walls.

In the Eastern European sphere, Belarusians have a reputation for being a particularly passive people. Belarus is located in the geographical center of Europe. "Geographical center of Europe" can be read as: "land that was trounced upon by armies from every part of the continent for thousands of years as they went back and forth attempting to gain mastery over one another." (Don't feel bad if you chuckle at that, it is funny in a sad sort of way.) I imagine a rural, unpaved crossroads: some fields are planted, some fences are built up and the roads get some good, straight ruts from local farmers' carts... and then a horde comes through and churns the crossroads (and everything else for a mile in each direction) into mud. And beats and robs farmers in the process.

Before the fields and fences and road are fully mended, here comes another horde...

The result of all this was that some people simply stopped resisting when they saw another army approaching. Or when they saw something unjust happening. And maybe it started to be considered normal for people to get crushed along with everything else. The most difficult thing to see has been the devaluation of human life.

I haven't gotten to the orphanages yet, but Miriam has been working in them for a long time now. This is what I've been told about orphanages: kids who are mentally or physically disabled, or whose parents are drug addicts and alcoholics, wandering around in a big building and not allowed to leave unless someone comes to take them out for an afternoon. The orphanage provides food and a place to sleep and that's it; the little children do their own laundry, they don't have toys... and if someone wants to give them material aid of some sort, chances are the administration takes it and sells it on the side. If a child gets sick, he or she is quarantined, which means they get stuck in a room with a bunch of other sick kids who may or may not have the same viruses. When they reach 16 the children are released from the orphanage, but most of them end up in homes for the disabled, or if they are physically normal they go into the army. Adoption is surrounded by regulations and usually takes years, if it's successful at all. The spot of joy in all this is that when Miriam comes on her weekly visits, they all jump on her and hug her. She can take them out and give them so much for so little, and maybe they can sneak McD's happy meals in to some kids in quarantine. So it's not always easy to see, but God is moving in the situation.

Many of the "orphans" end up living for years in hospitals. In america people sometimes have to leave hospitals maybe a little too quickly. Here it is the opposite: when you go to a hospital, you often go to live there for an extended period of time. I recently met a young girl who lived in hospitals for six years. She's healthy now, but thinking of that bright little girl, in those hospitals (four to a room, badly lit, not smelling so good, nothing much to do), is a little difficult.

I wrote before about a baby who was in the hospital for two weeks before the doctors looked at her. Last week I visited her again, in a different hospital. The ear infection had spread to the other ear, and to her nose. Mother and child have been in the hospital for over a month, and actually might finally be released tomorrow. Apparently the baby has remained joyful and sweet throughout all of this, but it's hard for the mother who has had to wait patiently for her child's improvement, and who has to see her daughter's legs and hips covered in bruises from regular injections.

But again, it's clear that God is moving in the situation. This is a single mom, who became a believer while she was on her way to abort her baby. She is younger than me. And she has faced all this without becoming bitter or turning to addiction (a more frequent solution here than in the US), because of her faith.

I've always tried to look on the bright side of things, balancing the serious with the light. but now I'm learning a different and harder kind of balance, in which I have to look just for the bright spot in something and pray that it will grow into a larger and larger bright spot. And then become a bright side. And then even more than a side. And then just be light, and not a burden anymore.

- 11 February 2001

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