Monday, September 26, 2016

Weekend Rundown

"Good morning, princess."

So begins a busy Saturday, as I drag myself out of bed, my alarm having failed to wake me up, take a shower, and get ready to walk to Club Next.

"You know the way to the Club, right?" Joe asks. "Yeah..." I say but Joe runs through the route with me. A left turn at the Orthodox church, and then a right.

I make the left at the blue and yellowed tiled church and then take the road that diverts to the right but I soon realize I turned right too soon. Eventually I come upon the steps up to the park and hurry up them, turning back the way I came, passing the home for the elderly, until I come to the zoo, and across from it, Club Next.

Today is the weekly English class. I'm not late at all, but there are kids here already, playing music on their phones, sitting at the table and drawing on the white board. Rachel arrives with her husband Florin and almost three-month-old baby Ellie. Rachel is our teacher, but Ellie has a tummy ache so she must tend to her baby while teaching.


I'm on photo duty. I take pictures once we get far enough into the lesson that the kids look busy and not distracted. I try to get pictures of everyone, something I need to do with conscious effort, otherwise I'd only take pictures of the most flamboyant ones. The kids write sentences on the board, translating Romanian into English. They write in their notebooks. Rachel holds Ellie as she guides the class through the translations. Eventually, small children' books are brought out, and the kids read them in pairs.

After the class, I get a message from my friend Brandusa, asking me if I'd like to take a plimbare, a walk, to the Strand to see the horses again. Of course, I agree. I bring my camera and I was glad I did because autumn is settling over Piatra Neamt and the mountains and trees and apartment buildings were saturated in rich colors because of the cloudy day. I take pictures and we enter the Strand. We see a large dog, a German Shepard, lying in the grass. At first we are afraid, but Brandusa asks a lady if the dog is friendly and she says that it is. The dog follows us on our way to the stable and then three cats come out of the woodwork and apparently are friends with the dog. We go in the stable and greet the horses. My favorite horse is a gray one that liked me last time we were here, and it still likes me, pushing its nose into my chest when I hold its face. I don't know if it's male or female or what its name is. The girl in the stable thinks its name begins with a "b." Some of the horses are friendly, some are too busy eating and some I am afraid to pet because they seem a little aggressive, like they might bite me. One brown horse licks the length of my hand, its big, slobbery tongue leaving my palm all wet and shiny. After a while, we say our goodbyes to the horses and leave. Brandusa picks through the leaves on the ground to recover walnuts that have fallen on the ground. I crack a few open the way that Nadia taught me, with my shoe, and eat some. We talk about photography, and America, and how if Trump becomes president we might as well expect World War III. On our way back to our apartments we pass a small white dog with the fur on its feet dyed pink and a sad, drunk man talking to no one. I bid Brandusa goodbye and thank her for the walk.

The next day I go to the Baptist church, luckily meeting Rachel and Florin in the little room outside of the sanctuary. We go in and the youth sing some songs, and then I am lucky enough to get to listen to a sermon in English because George, a British man, is preaching with a translator. He preaches from Genesis 3, about the way things were turned upside down after the fall.

After church I go with Joe to Kaufland, the largest grocery store in the city, to pick up some food for the dinner with the kids that we will have later in the day. I tell Joe about the time I went to a feminist punk conference. I am wearing handmade button earrings that I had bought from a girl at that grassroots gathering. "Feminists don't make earrings out of buttons," Joe exclaimed, but I insisted that it was so. We talked about the politics of feminists and of punks.

Later, I ride with Kendra and two of the girls to the Club, to get ready for the meal. There are a total of eleven kids once everyone arrives. I take pictures, of course. We have pasta with red sauce and pasta with white sauce. I haven't eaten lunch (or breakfast, for that matter) so I take a large plate of both kinds and eat all of it. I mess around with the kids. Colin suddenly becomes camera shy and I head against me. Some kids leave a pile of red sauce by the steps for the kitten to eat, but of course it doesn't even touch it. Eventually we run out of things to do and after we clean everything up, stack the chairs and sweep, we leave.

can't take any pictures of him. He grabs me and picks me up from behind even though he is smaller than me. I manage to get a picture of the elusive Vasile. He actually lets me take the picture, and smiles. Some kids and Kendra are playing Uno. Kids pile on the air mattress that they moved onto the floor from where it was inexplicably located in the bathroom. I supervise the horseplay, and try to keep Colin from popping the mattress. Girls pick up a kitten that has been meandering around outside and squeeze it despite its struggle to be free. I crouch by it and it climbs onto my lap, rubbing its little

At home, I try and fail to upload all of the photos from English class to Facebook. It's driving me crazy but thankfully I wash dishes for a while and think about how I don't know how to write about all the things we do in a way that evokes the feelings of it or is laced with meaning. I can't make a tidy entry, an entry that concludes with one solid point or concrete moral. So I wrote this.

Romania update: I am planning to return next summer, in July, hopefully. I will let you all know when I start fundraising. Thanks for reading!

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities

In the old days, learned men used to collect various medical curiosities and display them in cabinets, you know, curio cabinets, like how people today show off souvenir spoons from their vacations, or trinkets like swans made of blown glass. I know this because I read A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities by Jan Bondeson back when I was a teenager, because that's exactly the kind of book everyone my age was pining after back in the Twilight heyday. All sarcasm aside, that was a fascinating book, and if you can't get enough of it, don't worry, there's a sequel: The Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels. Great stuff. Seriously, if you ever watched all those semi-trashy medical shows on TLC or even Little People, Big World, well, then these informative, extensively researched volumes may just satiate your curiosity the way only dense nonfiction can. They're actually very readable, and you can be like me and skip over everything you don't want to read without losing out on much.

Where in the name of all that is holy is this blog post going? I suppose you may be thinking. This could turn into additional book recommendations, but if I started on that topic I'd be writing all night long and you would be reading all evening (assuming you're in the US of A). So what I am on about right now is my own medical history. I'll spare you the gory details but I have recognized over the years that I have the absolute worst luck medically. Okay, not the worst luck. But my variety of maladies is sort of astounding, and since I already relayed a lot of it to some friends today (and since I am in the mood to write and hopefully amuse you) I figured it was worth penning a rundown of my more memorable incidents, conditions, disorders, and syndromes. So here we go.

I clearly remember being two years old. Okay, I clearly remember five minutes during which I was two years old. I recall standing on the floor, as one does, and wanting to see a Halloween card my dad was looking at while he sat at the dining room table. For some reason he refused to hand it to me, or show it to me down below where I was standing. So I did what any self-respecting toddler would do. I climbed onto the table. Standing on the table, I now had a much better view of the card. I even remember what it looked like: it had a bunch of children on it, trick or treating, and when you pushed the doorbell on the card, it made a delightful ding-dong sound. Marvelous! Did I mention I was standing on the table? I must have been because my very next memory is of me falling off the table headfirst and my mom's sewing machine on the floor coming closer and closer to my blonde head. Yeah. I fell headfirst onto my mom's sewing machine, although my dad claims I "jumped." Whatever I did, I ended up a bloody mess and required being rushed to the hospital (through the Omaha snow) where I received a few stitches. No concussion, no brain damage (as far as I can tell...). My health record was off to a great start. Oh yeah, it was also discovered that I had an allergy to penicillin around this time, after coming down with a rash after taking it. Penicillin allergy. Remember that, there will be a test later...

Next: flash-forward to when I am about nine or ten years old. I ask my mom if everyone sees static everywhere all the time, like I do. Obviously, if your child asked you that, what would you think? Oh my Lord, what is wrong with my child??  But no, my mom didn't overreact, but she was concerned. And so began a wild goose chase in which we drove from ophthalmologist to eye doctor to eye specialist, including a memorable trip (or two) to a place in San Diego that I recall being mainly populated by elderly people seeking help for their cataracts. I was by far the youngest patient. And the thing was, NO ONE knew what the heck was up with my eyes. For all they knew, I could even just be making it up, because none of their tests could find anything. I had 20/20 vision when my nearsightedness was corrected. This "static" problem, as I called it, was then not really a problem because I could see just fine with it. I had a scan done of my eye and got to see the inside of my eyeball, all the veins and everything, and I was told I was lucky because not many people got to see the inside of their eyeball. But they couldn't tell me what was wrong. "Some people can just see things others can't," the kindest doctor told me, so then I wondered if maybe I was seeing atoms or maybe the fabric of the universe itself. The last thing the very last doctor told us on our last visit to an eye doctor's was that, maybe, I had a form of night blindness, since my symptoms were worse at night. And that was all she felt she needed to say. Night blindness is incurable, after all.

Everyone in the seventh grade at my middle school got checked by a nurse for scoliosis, de rigur, every year. I was checked and had to take a note back to my mom that said that I had a slight curvature in my spine that might be mild scoliosis, so I should see my pediatrician. So I did. And she said that, yes, it seemed to be a mild problem, but I should see a specialist, just in case. But I was probably fine. Okay. Alright. My mom and I drive to Loma Linda to see the specialist, I take some x-rays with my shirt and bra off, and we wait in the little examination room. The doctor walks in, and it's the first time I've ever seen him, and he is accompanied by two med students. After a brief introduction, he dives right in: I will need surgery. Invasive, major surgery on my spinal column, because I have Scheuermann's kyphosis. I burst out crying. The doctor, along with the two med students, awkwardly files out of the tiny room while my mom tries to console me and we try to figure out where to go from here. So I had the surgery. When I was fourteen, after I came back from my first visit to Romania, I spent five days in the hospital after having two titanium (or maybe stainless steel) pencil-thin rods attached to either side of my spinal column, to straighten it out from the hunched-over shape it formerly had. We had gotten a second opinion from a doctor in Los Angeles who had actually said that I could live a happy life with my back bent over the way it was, but I didn't want the possible resulting health problems, like respiratory or cardiovascular issues, so I decided to go big. And at the time of the surgery, my back had a balmy 80 degrees curvature. So it really was necessary. The worst part of the surgery, actually, wasn't the complete overhaul of the shape of most of my body but my adverse reaction to morphine. I had been told, preop, that I would either be a) weepy or b) irritable, but after I came to and was put on said narcotic I was both EXTREMELY weepy and INCREDIBLY irritable. So they took me off that and put me on Percocet. I remember, while still on morphine, that the doctor came in to see me and figure out exactly why I was doing so poorly, and how I had no words to explain to him why I felt so bad. I didn't know why. Wasn't he the doctor? But they put me right on Percocet and from there I could resume recovery, relearn how to walk, and all that.

 Next stop: psychological problems! I've told my story enough times that putting it here only gives me slight pause, but I am leaving out the meat, as it were, you know, the really juicy secrets, so don't for one second think that I am actually spilling all of my guts. Just some of them. All through high school, I subconsciously struggled with a low-grade depression, the way some people fight a low-grade fever for a day. But this was about three, maybe four years of not really being myself, and only my mom could really tell. I didn't have much perception of it, although I knew I didn't really feel fulfilled in any area of my life. And there was the end of junior year, when I cried during not one, not two, but three class presentations (the fourth one I rocked, though). So all was not right in my life, and then I started college. This college was only an hour away from home, so going to live in the dorms was not a huge deal. Except a tropical storm of circumstances conspired to leave me deeply, morbidly depressed, so lost in my depression I was have physical symptoms (leaden paralysis, psychomotor retardation. tl;dr, you can google it) and, as you can imagine, I was suicidal at times. I am rightfully proud to say that I never hurt myself, although I did have a very specific plan for how I could kill myself. I didn't want to kill myself, though, so every time I had that feeling I would call my mom. But I had that feeling that only those who have been deeply, uncontrollably depressed can understand: I thought I was evil. Bible-thumping professors know humanity is wicked in one way, but I believed I was akin to Satan in a completely different way. I was in too deep. It was like I was no longer me, even less myself than I was in high school. My only escape came with Christmas, and I got a few blessed, restful months at home. Before spring semester began...

...and I came down with the literal opposite problem. Mania. Bipolar disorder is made up of two "poles," depression, or extreme sadness, and mania, extreme happiness. This is the compact way of describing the disorder, because I want to spare you the 500-page volume I could also write on the subject of just what is this complicated psychological condition. I am fortunate enough to have gotten the complete, deluxe, everything-included version of this illness, known as bipolar 1 (there is also a bipolar 2 and some people are also claiming there is a bipolar 3, why not). Basically, this means I get to have all-consuming delusions while manic. I believed the world was ending, I was seeing symbolic meaning in the most insignificant places, I was having hallucinations. What fun! Really, if you ever have a chance to go bipolar 1 manic, by all means, it will change your life. It definitely changed mine. My world came crashing down mostly because of the dozen or more friends I lost. And some of them were good friends. But they weren't good enough to give me the benefit of the doubt. I didn't get mercy or grace from some of the strongest proponents of these qualities, didn't receive actual, genuine, Christ-like love from these people. I do understand, though. I really should add that I rode almost the same exact manic roller coaster exactly one year later. My bipolar is very seasonal (winter: depression, spring: mania). I went through the same relational distress that second year, and I can empathize that whoever else was still "on my side" no longer was after that second episode. What really matters? The ones who didn't give up on me. Even though we've all carried on, those ones that did give me the benefit of the doubt will always have my loyalty, whatever it matters. Meanwhile, thanks to the miracle that is modern medicine I am basically symptom-free. Medication works, people, and there is no shame in finding wellness, so take courage and we can fight stigma together.

So I claimed I wouldn't be "writing all night long" here and I want to keep my promise, since I really do value sincerity, so let me try to wrap this up. It was about two years ago that I returned from India. This requires riding on a plane, believe it or not. Duh. So I get on the plane that will take me from London Heathrow to the US and some time after sitting down I realize it hurts a little to swallow. Okay, it begins to hurt a lot to swallow. Oh my word, I can barely swallow because my throat is in so much pain, what is happening?? Worse plane ride ever (it still beats that time I puked as I landed in Raleigh...). Thus begins a sore throat that I will need to see my trusty doctor about, so that she can prescribe me an antibiotic. I take the antibiotic. The sore throat goes away, but then it returns. Great. I see her again, she prescribes me something else, so I take that for about a week before I even read the label. And when I read it, I read: amoxicillin. Yeah. Penicillin. I took penicillin, which I was purportedly allergic to, for a week and nothing happened. What is more, my trusty doctor prescribed it to me. A few months later I go to see her, and she more or less congratulates me on testing myself for a penicillin allergy that I don't have. I walk away happy with this information, though a little curious as to why she offered no explanation nor an apology. Regardless, that is one less thing wrong with me.

Last anecdote, I promise: February of this year. As I sit on my bed in Raleigh, maybe after a long day at one or both of my jobs, the weather pretty cold, I idly google the phrase static vision. That is what I had taken to calling my eye condition, which, yes, I still had and which had not changed. I wasn't sure I realized what I would find, but when I saw the two words on the google page, I knew I had an answer at last: visual snow. It had a name. It has a name. It's an actual thing, it has a diagnosis. All those trips to San Diego, all those doctors who didn't know a thing. Now we know. Now I know, and there are estimated thousands of other people who have it, too. There is no cure. They believe it is caused by some malfunction in a certain part of the brain. It is a syndrome. It explains why I have floaters, after-images, and tinnitus besides the static, or "snow." There is a fund to do research into curing it. I almost offered to contribute information to the research but it was so involved and took so much time I backed out. I don't really mind my visual snow, since I've had it all my life. I don't know what it is like to see without it. What does a smooth wall really look like? The clear sky? The palm of my hand? Maybe someday, there will be a pill I can take and someone will film me seeing the world static-free for the first time. Maybe I will break down in tears. But for now, visual snow is really the least of my problems.

Kudos to you if you've read this whole thing. Don't be afraid to leave a comment!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Special Concert

"The stars sing all through the night..."

The teenagers on the stage wear different colored tee shirts, some blue, some white, many red and purple, burgundy and plum. But they all have the same logo: YOUNG Continentals! They must have all been allowed to provide their own shirt, I think. I shift my attention back to the screen in the center of the wall facing the audience. The words are almost too small to read, but it wouldn't matter even if I could see them clearly. I don't understand most Romanian, anyway.

Their voices carry well through the large, four-story sanctuary. All hard surfaces and smooth walls. The girl leading the song, standing in front of her peers, has a resonant voice, the best I've heard so far, at least in my estimation. This pleases me, because when they'd each said their names and where they were from, this girl, in a black shirt, had noticeably stuttered. And the thing was, it was all too familiar to me, the way she did it. She came after about half of the group, each person quickly and precisely following the other. "Eu sunt..." "Ma numesc..." "Sunt..." "Ma numesc..." like clockwork. Until it was her turn. She stuttered for a few seconds, maybe milliseconds, but that kind of mistake feels much bigger than the space it actually takes up. But the way she reacted...a resigned smile, like she was used to this, like it happened all the time, like she shouldn't really have expected it to happen any other way. It was a sheepish look I had often expressed, but now here I was seeing it on someone else's face, for the same sort of reason. Stuttering. At least it doesn't affect singing.

And it doesn't affect her singing, as she belts out the lines confidently and with strength. She is the best singer here, in my opinion. I am proud of her, though I don't know her or even recall her name. Her voice isn't the only one I'm listening to, though.

"'Your praise will always be on my lips,'" Rachel translates. "The word for always, mereu."

The sun is setting outside. A woman in our row is holding Ellie, Rachel's baby. I can't see the woman's face but I can see how she holds Ellie's hands in hers as Ellie lies on her lap. She is a quiet baby, but Rachel is attentive to her coos and slight fussiness, and soon she tells me she needs to feed Ellie again and she bids me to enjoy the rest of the concert as she takes the tiny thing with her out of the sonorous sanctuary.

I content myself with listening to the music, to the piano and the vocals, and I try to cherry-pick words that I know out of the tiny print on the screen.

Fiecare. Every.
Minunat. Wonderful.
Inima. Rachel just taught that to me: heart.
Bucur. Glad.

And, Isus. Jesus.
Dumnezeu. God.
Hristos. Christ.

I wonder, with a somewhat quiet sort of distress, what the point was of going to a church service when I could understand so little. I had had Rachel to translate for me today, but ordinarily I had no translation for most of the three hour church service I usually attended. Today, I had gone with Rachel and her husband to their church, for a change of pace. Rachel is an American, who has somehow managed to become fluent in Romanian over the years she has spent in Romania, though the years haven't been many. I really appreciated her translation, marveling that she could express even complex ideas. I noticed that she knew how to translate the word for "incomparable." Indeed, her skills were incomparable.

So I try to pay attention to the tiny words on the screen. I guess this is how learning is. Trying to absorb fire hoses of information. Like nailing jello to a wall.

My pessimism is lifted only by the change in song, and by watching the way the light is dimming in this immense room, women swirling the stagnant air with fans. There is a certain smell of soap in the air that is the exact smell of soap that I associate with my time in the hospital. I am reminded, again and again, each time a waft of it comes to me, riding on the oriental fans. For some reason this smell carries with it pleasant notions. I always wonder why my memory of that place is so positive.

It is dark now. The lights over the left side of the room, where I am seated, turn on suddenly. A man gets up to speak, and I am only able to cherry-pick his words, which of course do not appear on the screen.  

Isus. Jesus. Salvat. Saved. Pacat. Sin. And, inima. Heart.

Thanks for reading a digest of my evening. I hope you enjoy yours.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Light in Your Eyes

This past week, I had the privilege of spending four days in Vama Veche, a beach town in Romania on the Black Sea, near the border of Bulgaria, along with a bunch of the Next Generation Capital teens and a few adults. To say we had fun would be an understatement. We swam in the warm sea every day, and hit the town in the evenings. We jumped on trampolines and walked to Bulgaria. I got to have shawarma and moussaka for the first time (both were great). We all got very tan being in the sun all day and tried not to freeze in our tents at night. I found a fistful of sea glass that I collected piece by piece, digging my hands into the sand and pebbles and bringing up handfuls of the stuff which I would search for a glint of green, white, brown or blue. I sat on the beach when not braving the waves and wrote poetry, or listened to music. I dozed off and on but came away without any sunburns. I took photographs of every outing so now I have a lot of photos to go through. I could be doing that now, I guess, but an idea for a blog post was put on my mind as I tried to sleep on the all-night train ride home, last night. I hope you will be content with words for now, rather than pictures.

On this trip, I began to see a few things more clearly. One, that these kids that are part of NGC are special. Yes, all kids are special. But these kids really have become a family, just as much as they are friends. No, they don't all get along all the time. Yes, there can be drama. But there was no fighting, no screaming, no ostracizing.

This is remarkable because of another thing I began to see: some of these kids are broken. Painfully shy, crying easily, desperate for attention but unsure of how to get it. Some of these kids seem lost in orbit. They all have one thing in common, though: they need love. They are lost without it, drifting along, a few of them. It's that awkward teenage phase but it is also something more, something more difficult to "fix," even over time. It's the weight of being an orphan.

"When all we needed was love
We got caught up and burned
But there's a light in your eyes
And it tells me that God is on our side."

We have seen it multiple times: kids at the center are happy, connecting with the others, living life and talking easily. Then they go back home. Whatever their situation at home is like, I am not sure. But they come back different. Silent, reserved, muted. Not as affectionate or outgoing, afraid, subdued. What happens to them when they go back to their parents, or whoever is their guardian when they are not at the center? Girls come back afraid of men, with a stuttering problem, isolated. Dear God, what kind of world is this where our kids lose all headway in life when they go back to their families?

Somehow, there remains a light in their eyes. I try to give hugs away easily, a hand on someone's hair, using their names. I look them directly in the eyes. I try to understand. And somehow, I do. Maybe because, in my own way, I've been where they are.

I remember going to summer camp one year, maybe when I was in the fifth grade. It was with some members of my youth group, and it lasted for a week. I really enjoyed it. But for some reason, I cried just about every day, sometimes multiple times in a day. I was incredibly introverted, away from the people I was most comfortable with, and trying to deal with the popularity battles and drama that came with living in a large tent with girls my age who seemed to be much more in control of their lives than I was. For years, if you asked someone who "knew" me what I was like, the very first word that would come to their mind would be "quiet." I had a difficult time relying on anyone to understand why I was the way I was. Even my girls' small group leader didn't really know how to console me when my parents were purportedly going to get a divorce. I was alone and adrift. The only person I had, the only one who knew what went on in my mind, was God.

"All we need now is love
We've been through enough
Can't run just 'cause we're scared
We've come this far
We're not giving up."

Joe had a message for the kids each evening of our Vama Veche trip, on the subject of how Jesus reigns differently than a human would. I really got a lot out of his last talk. He mentioned a phrase that Nadia likes, "The power belongs to those who use it." In our world, we often seem to be at the mercy of the "big people." The politicians and presidents and warmongers and people who control who on this earth is next to die. The people with weapons and agendas and who argue over the right to life. But what about a different sort of people? The creators and inventors and artists and scholars, the ones who bring life into the world instead of taking it out? What if the power resides with those who create rather than destroy?

Maybe we don't need to worry so much about what the "big people" are doing. Maybe we can be content with our own contributions to the world, contributions that bring light into the world instead of darkness. We can be content with waiting, rather than in bringing things to pass that are out of our control. And we can rely on God to bring the really important things into fruition. After all, we know the end of the story.

This is what I hope for our kids. That they would learn not to worry about their lives, or the world, or anything, really. That they would be able to relax around others, without fear and without trying to control anything. I pray that they find the joy in creating, and in waiting.

I've discovered that I have a heart for these damaged kids. The girl I sponsor in India is similar. She hardly ever spoke a word to me. But somehow, with her, and with a new girl I have met in Romania, communication goes beyond words, beyond language. Love has a way of triumphing even in the face of tragedy. Love takes weakness and makes it an avenue. The quiet ones, the wild ones, the disobedient ones, the lost ones, they all deserve the love we so readily give to the ones we consider whole. May Jesus show you, and me, even more clearly how to see the light in the eyes of all children.

All song lyrics from "Light in Your Eyes" by Flyleaf