Friday, August 15, 2014

Ukraine

In short:

We left our house at 8AM Sunday and ran into a series of airline delays and cancellations that eventually landed us in Ukraine around midnight late Monday night.  We got checked into the rental apartment and crashed into sleep.



Tuesday: up at 7, picked up at 8:30 for a meeting at 9.  On the way home from the meeting we stopped to exchange some American dollars for Ukrainian hryvnia and picked up some groceries.  We were dropped off at our apartment by 11 and spent the rest of the day walking around.  We were only one block off of the Maidan where the protests and violence took place last fall and through the winter.  The mood was respectful but relaxed.



We circled around several times, came back for a shower and nap, went to dinner at a touristy place on the Maidan square (delicious food, excellent service: Shato), and then back to sleep.  Sleep was the number one most wonderful treat of the trip, followed by time to actually talk to each other.  Sights and food were amazing, but nothing beats rest and together-time.

Wednesday we slept late into the morning and then met with a tour guide to see more of the city.  The whole trip required flexibility as any and all plans were subject to the issuance of papers, availability of transportation, agreements of social workers and directors and agents...so we had to roll with whatever came up.  Wednesday turned out to be pretty relaxed--we toured a campus of churches and a monastery on the south eastern side of the city, doubled back to the social offices to pick up the completed paperwork from Tuesday morning's meeting, and then had dinner with friends that were in town for their adoption of another girl from the same school as M.  As we chatted with them after dinner, around 10PM, we got a call saying we were booked for a 7AM bus ride the next morning and had to be packed up and moved out of the apartment by 6AM; so we cut the night off at that point and headed to the apartment to shower, pack, and try to rest.
friends!
Monastery and Dnipro river
Monastery and the statue of "MotherLand"

Thursday morning we boarded a large tour-type bus and traveled 4 hours south.  We got off at a gas stop and were greeted by our in-country social worker, her translator, another couple also adopting from the same school, their two potential kids from that school, and M.  M was being shy and hanging out by the van, but we gathered her up with hugs and greeted everyone else.  We all climbed into the van and took about 45 minutes of rough hilly roads to the school's village.  Once there we left the kids by the van and went in to an upper floor for a short meeting with some social workers and case directors.  Lots of speaking in a language we didn't understand, some looking at photos, and pleasant smiling and nodding.  Then we headed down and out to the van, drove about two blocks up a hill, and hopped out to go meet with the director of the school.  The kids joined us and signed their letters of consent.  This was a big emotional moment for them--agreeing to put everything they knew and loved up against the promise of our families.  Some anxiety and cold feet and heartache was expected and understood.  Indeed, anything less would have been strange and alarming.  In the end, everyone signed.  Rob and I met with the director privately (as did the other family) to get more information about school history and then we all headed back out to the van.  We drove back to the bus stop, where the other couple said their goodbyes and caught a north-bound bus back to Kiev as they prepared to fly home the next morning.  Meanwhile, Rob and I traveled with the three kids another two hours south to Odessa where we met with a lawyer to sign and notarize more documents.  We said our goodbyes to the kids at the lawyer's curb; the van driver was to return them to camp and we'd find another way home.  We were put on a "mini-bus" (15 passenger van) at 7:30 and set off into the night for a terrifying ride (I think we spent more time in the on-coming traffic's lane than our own; also an angry possibly intoxicated man started yelling at us in Ukrainian at a rest stop) and we arrived in Kiev around 1 AM.  Our translator/agent/friend picked us up and took us to a new apartment where we showered and collapsed back into bed by 2:30.  There had been no food or drink all day (fear of bathrooms and also being stuck in cars and buses) but we were too tired to care about anything except pillows.

Also: at this point we were done with all of the paperwork and free to leave or stay for a vacation.  We'd originally booked our tickets to return Wednesday the 13th in case paperwork was delayed at some point, but we asked our travel agent to move it up to the weekend if he could.  He got us out on a Saturday morning flight, allowing us to save 4 nights of stay and also get home to our work and family responsibilities faster.


Friday: We slept until almost noon.  We'd hoped to get breakfast at our favorite place, but instead had lunch at another "traditional Ukrainian" place (probably as close to "traditional" as Texas Road House or Denny's is to true American food, but delicious).  We did some sight-seeing on our own, including a walk through the Maidan which had a noticeably more tense feel.  The mayor had initiated clean-up measure the day before which had led to protests and burning tires, so the mood was definitely shifted.

We headed toward a different part of the city for some sightseeing of old cathedrals and souvenirs.  We stopped by the apartment to freshen up and had dinner at an outdoor cafe near our first apartment.  Then home and packing (our suitcase broke at this point, but we managed to MacGyver it back together) and attempts to be tired considering we had a 3AM pick-up for our drive to the airport.  No luck.  The stress of the Maidan only a block away and anxiety about oversleeping combined with being fairly rested from our late morning meant we didn't sleep at all.



Saturday: Picked up at 3AM, airport by 3:30, through security and departure customs and at our gate by 4, plane at 5:45 to Frankfurt.  On our ride we were seated next to a young woman who seemed scared or at least new to flying.  I attempted to help her figure out the vent and flagged down a blanket for her.  As we approached Frankfurt we got to chatting and, long story short, she was a former host kid from a similar program and was graduated out and heading back to the US on the oh-so-rarely-given short-term visa.  She was going to stay with her former host family in Pennsylvania.  She was very sweet and anxious about her connection process.  We were flying out of the same terminal, so we walked with her through the customs and security processes and got her most of the way to her gate.  What a blessing to have the chance to help her!  We then caught the long flight to DC and--after a moderate connection that turned into a long delayed connection--we got home around 9PM (almost 24 hours after we'd left our apartment).  We slept.

Sunday we hoped to make a small date-day out of it but were so exhausted we slept most of the day and then ran some short errands.  Monday we were back to reality and then my parents arrived with the 3 little kids around dinner time.  They left Tuesday and we're back at full-speed chaos.

Dearest August, on turning four.

My precious peach, my Boo.

You are pure sunshine.  Peach juice and teddy bears and all things sweet and cuddly.


You are endlessly happy, greeting each morning with a stretch and a grin where you bite your lower lip and only expose your top two teeth.

You are Olaf.  Happy and optimistic and always rolling with the punches.  You find simple things amusing and amazing and are always delighted in life.  You ask the questions that grownups forget to ask, like "do chickens smile?"

Your arms are built for hugging.  You give and take kisses as a currency and always have a fair supply to share but also just enough room to accept a few more.  Tight squeezes, 10-hugs, kisses on the bridge of the nose...these are yours.

You are funny.  You amuse no one as much as yourself, but your observations and attempts at jokes are hilarious in their sweetness.

You are brave.  You are actually terrified of so many things -- loud noises, sharks, most dinosaurs, dozens of fictional characters, splashing water, and an endless supply of anxiety inducing scenarios -- but your brave little heart won't shy away.  It tackles these things over and over and over as you tell and re-tell yourself stories about how much you actually like these things.  How they are funny or interesting or secretly actually quite nice.  How you think they're cool.  But at night, you'll quietly tuck them away and out of sight so that they won't show up in your dreams.  You still have nightmares almost every night.  My sweet puppy.

You love to sing and quote things and say "Who said that?".  You love to dance and count.  Last night you were counting, just for fun.  Just because you like to make noise and counting is a steady drumbeat of noises.  You counted to 96 and then got distracted by something--true Olaf fashion--and started asking about the weather.  My brain couldn't take it.  "say 97.  97.  Buddy.  Focus.  97."

You never. ever.  ever. stop talking.  You talked 9 hours straight on our way to Ohio.  You talked 12 hours on the way back.  You have a million thoughts and ideas.  Most of them gallop out at a frantic start but then stop for a nibble and meander off into the middle of nowhere.  "I think that we should go to the...to the.... to... I think that...I think that we should... I think that we should go to the...the...the... I think that we should go to the park what we went to one time what had the....the....  I think that we should go to the park what had the slides.  Remember?  Wasn't that nice?  We should go to there."

Yes, my peach.

You love Frozen.  Elsa is your favorite, but you also love Kristoff and Sven.  You love Olaf.  You think Anna is wonderful.  Even Hans makes your list of nice guys--betrayal and sword play are apparently not villainous offenses to you yet-- and you sing every song despite only having seen the movie twice.  Naturally it was your first choice as a birthday cake.  You spent the day wishing for snow.

You lost me on that one, I have to say.

But who are we kidding?  You, my Auggie-doggie, my Snuggle-up-a-Gus, my AugusTony... you can have all the snow you want.   I'll be right inside singing "Summer" and preparing your cocoa.

Love always,
Mom


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Interrupted

So, cool thing: I recently was selected to get an Advance-Reader-Copy of Jen Hatmaker's new-ish book "Interrupted".  It's a revised and expanded take on her 2009 book which I, admittedly, have not read so I can't speak to how much in this is new or revised.  However, I CAN speak to how much of this book is wonderfully engaging and convicting, and that would be all of it.

I got this book in mid-July and decided I would save it for our (then upcoming) adoption travels.  What better way to spend 24 hours of flight time heading into a war-torn country for the love of a teenager than to read how this kind of radical love is exactly what Jesus calls us to do?  But after that week's gospel reading at church I felt compelled to just give it a peek.  I hadn't really gotten much out of our church's sermon and wanted something spiritually motivating to chew on.

Coincidence?  Jen's primary reflection in the first few chapters includes the exact same Gospel reading that had intrigued me--but then led to a homily that failed to move me--that morning.  Roughly 150 different Gospel readings rotate through the Catholic schedule and I happen to have heard that same one that day.  Nudge nudge.

The reading?  The parable of the weeds from Matthew 13: 24-30
The Parable of the Weeds
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
Jen's take (starting around page 62) ties this passage to the general idea of human judgement and our common tendency to resist helping others whom we judge to be making poor choices or not acting as we imagine we would act in a similar circumstance.  She says (and I resist quoting the whole book, truly):

This is what God taught me through Judas at Jesus' table, eating the broken bread that was His body: We don't get to opt out of living on mission because we might not be appreciated.  We're not allowed to neglect the oppressed because we have reservations about their discernment.  We cannot deny love because it might be despised or misunderstood.  We can't withhold social relief because we're not convinced it will be perfectly managed.  We can't project our advantaged perspective onto struggling people and expect results available only to the privileged.  Must we be wise?  Absolutely.  But doing nothing is a blatant sin of omission.
Turning a blind eye to the bottom on the grounds of "unworthiness" is the antithesis to Jesus' entire mission.  How dare we?  Most of us know nothing, nothing of the struggles of the poor.  We erroneously think ourselves superior, and it is a wonder God would use us at all to minister to his beloved.
Jesus came to the foulest, filthiest place possible (earth), a place full of ungrateful, self-destructive people who would betray Him far more than they'd love Him (a whole planet of Judases).  He broke His body for rich people who would curse Him the second their prosperity was endangered.  He poured His blood out for those who would take His Word and use it as a bludgeoning tool.  He became the offering for people who would slander His name with ferocity, yet His grace was theirs for the asking until they drew their last breaths, even if all they could offer Him was a lifetime of hatred and one moment of repentance. 
When Jesus' followers asked what to do about the weeds in the harvest field, He said to treat them the same as the wheat...  There was one Judas, but eleven disciples who were forever transformed by Jesus' broken body.  The risk of encountering a few weeds is not sufficient reason to avoid the whole field of human suffering, because I assure you, identifying with the wheat but not the weeds is a gross overestimation of our own station.  The correct character to identify with here is the weed shown mercy, not the Savior capable of discerning the human heart.  Our holy Savior advised us well: humans must treat the wheat and weeds the same.  We are only qualified to administer mercy, not judgement, because we will pull up many a beautiful stalk of wheat, imagining him a weed.

Yes.  Yes!


There are a 240 pages to this book and approximately 240 pages worth quoting.  It's compelling, convicting, and powerful.  The church as a physical location is a pit stop--a refueling point--but the real church is the day-to-day work of serving our communities and families and neighborhoods in a way that models love and sacrifice and all of those pesky details that are so tempting to imagine do not apply to our comfortable lives.  We are children of the Heavenly King, yes, but on Earth we are children of the ultimate servant.  We serve.

And, honestly, I'm not that big of a churchy person.  I like our Catholic faith for its rich history and traditions and can't imagine us in any other faith, but I am often left somewhat flat by the actual church experience.  We show up in our pretty clothes, do our rituals, hear an interpretation or lesson based sometimes closely and sometimes quite loosely on the day's collection of readings, and then we go home.  And do what?  Our usual lives.  We often tend to treat religion as a very personal experience between an individual and her faith, with no convictions or obligations other than personal self-control and a "do no harm" attitude.  It's not enough.  It has always felt incomplete to me.  This book lays out the rest of the story that has been a quiet drum beat in my heart: "do no harm and do good."  It's proactive, not just self-controlling.

I am sorry to say that due to the realities of life and adoption travel and hosting, I took too long to get this posted and the 20% discounted deal on the book ends today (August 10; available here).  However, I do have a copy of the print edition of the book and will be giving it away to one reader.  And I'd love to host a discussion of the book in a few weeks.

Comment here or on the Facebook post and one person will be chosen at 5 PM Friday August 15th to win the book.  As Jen would say, "Bless."

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

love and commitment (edited and expanded now that I have a real keyboard)

 

Fourteen years ago, with the support of friends and family, we stood in a church and vowed to love each other as our own family.  Some may have thought we weren't ready (and maybe we weren't), but we went in with honest and open hearts, and we have chosen every day since then to work as a team and build this life we love together.  Some days have been hard.  Some days we need to reach out to those same family and friends for that support that we all pledged to share.  But every day I am more convinced that this choice to tie my life to his and turn ourselves into family was the smartest thing I've ever done.


Today, fourteen years later, we sat in a small office at the base of this cathedral and signed our commitment  to our girl.  Maybe we're not ready.  Almost surely there will be hard days.  Our network of friends and family has extended and grown and we will surely rely on them to help us through the hard parts and to celebrate together in the good parts.  But, just as before, we tie our lives together and become family and step out in faith that the rest will come, day by day.  Family is love; and love is commitment.  We are committed.  We are family.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

5AM wakeup

Sleep isn't working.  The stress levels are so high--so very very high--that I wake up with nightly panic attacks, or fail to fall asleep at bedtime, or wake up too early.  Today, it was 5 AM.  A child went to the bathroom, and, despite a 12:30 AM start to my night, I knew the night was over.  I came downstairs, made a cup of coffee, and buried myself in the mundane tasks of bill paying, emails, and clutter-shuffling.

By 7 I was on Facebook.  A friend posted the link to another friend's blog.  My heart was written out:

"In my heart I know that she will forever and ever say yes to us; we are her people.

But I know that she can say yes to us and still simultaneously say no to adoption. Because saying yes to us isn’t just saying yes to us. It’s saying yes to a new culture. It’s saying yes to a new language. It’s saying yes to a new school. And it’s saying goodbye to some very precious people who have cared for her in the midst of her own gigantic waves. And goodbye to friends and school and language and a culture she very much loves.

When I think about her saying yes to us but no to adoption, I get scared. That fear, it paralyzes me momentarily, and it knocks the wind out of me. It makes me turn inward and silences me. It makes me rethink pouring out more and more and more of myself."  

I live in daily, hourly, constant fear of both the yes and the no.  She is suddenly clearly aware of the many sides of the "yes".  She's scared of the language change.  Yesterday she suggested that she could finish school at home and then be adopted, which I had to say wasn't allowed. She loves us, but that's not the whole question she's being asked.  We love her, but that's not the whole question we're being asked, either.

This week, another friend in this process had her potential adoptive girls (yes, two) both state quite certainly that they would not say yes if asked, and not to invest any more time into their adoption.  While heartbreaking, it was an honest conversation that allowed them to re-prioritize their resources to better support the girls into the future in a way that honors their choices. I see this.  I wonder.

Other friends have completed their adoptions of teenagers.  Some are going (at least to my eye) smoothly.  The kids are adjusting and are as reasonably happy as your average teenager tends to be.  Others are struggling mightily with the many challenges that come with such a huge change.  I see this.  I wonder.

I have considered asking her (with the help of a skilled translator with social work training) what her thoughts are, but honestly I don't know what it would change.  If she says yes, then of course we continue.  It may provide more peace for our hearts, refocus us all, but not change the steps.  And I worry it will make her feel obligated to something she may be questioning and later regret. I want this to be a free choice for her, without guilt or pressure or implied debt.  And a no?  What would a "no" right now mean?  Does a "no" right now--when she's the most scared, when she's most homesick for her friends and ability to communicate freely, most frustrated with her lack of language progress during a long stay--really represent a long-term choice?  If she said "no" this week, I don't think I could accept it.  I think we'd still have to go in August and let her choose "no" again, after a week back in her reality.  And even if that's a no, after only one week back in that reality when she's in the honeymoon of easy conversation and beloved friends, I think we'd have to continue.  We have to keep that door open for her until the last chance for a "yes" has been given.  Because a "no" for her is a "no" forever.  US immigration laws will not allow her to say "yes" to us or anyone else later.

And so we keep looking at our bank accounts and trying to figure out how to hold doors open.  We write out longer grocery lists to set the house up for my parents who will be watching the three ring circus.  We pray and pray and pray and pray.  We ask you to keep her and us in your thoughts and prayers as we all wrestle with what it means to be saying "yes."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Borsht

A few weeks ago, we had a bunch of red beets from our farm share.  I asked M if she'd like to make borscht and she agreed.  Only when we finished did she tell me "I come all the way to America to learn to make Ukrainian Borscht."  Ha!

Borscht is basically a beef-vegetable soup.  The really unique part is the addition of shredded red beets which adds a bright purple-red color and a sweetness similar to roasted carrot.  If you aren't accustomed to using shredded cabbage in a vegetable soup, you'll probably love this addition, too.  Cut it very thin and it simmers in.  It adds a mild flavor but provides an almost noodle-like texture to the otherwise fairly soft soup.

Here's the basics: (video link)


We skipped a few steps by starting with a watered down beef broth rather than making that from scratch; and we added peppers to the vegetable mix:

Ingredients:
1 qt beef broth + 4 cups water
1 pound roast beef cubes (uncooked)
3 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 bay leaves

1 onion - diced
1 carrot - shredded
1 small red pepper - diced
1 small tomato, chopped
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1-2 Tbsp oil

2 medium or 3 small red beets -- boiled and peeled then shredded*
1/2 a head of cabbage, shredded
1 tsp sugar
2 cloves garlic - crushed
3 tbsp parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

sour cream for serving

Directions:
1. Add to a large soup pot: broth and water, beef, potatoes, bay leaves.   Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or so.
2. Meanwhile, saute carrots, pepper, and onions in oil until browned.  Add tomato and tomato paste and simmer until thick.  Add beets.
3. Stir the vegetable mixture into the soup.  Add cabbage and stir.  Simmer 10 minutes (until cabbage is wilted).
4. Add sugar, crushed garlic, and salt-and-pepper to taste.  Serve with sour cream.  We actually added about 1.5 cups of sour cream directly to the soup and served it that way.


* To prepare beets: cut the greens off about 1 inch above the beet.  Gently scrub off loose dirt.  Put beets in saucepan and cover with water.  Boil for 15-20 minutes or more depending on the size of the beet.  "M" insisted that you had to pour off the water 1/2 way through and finish with fresh water.  If you plan to do that, consider having a tea kettle or second pot of water boiling before you drain to save 15 minutes.  Our beets were about baseball sized and took 35 minutes.  Then drain and cool (can drop into an ice water bath).  Once cool enough to handle, the skins should slide off.  They will dye your hands red, so wear gloves if you prefer non-red hands.  Shred.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More photos

After three days of rain and busy-busy house stuff, we took Thursday and Friday for family fun.

Thursday: horse-back riding at a farm about 45 minutes south of us.  They also had egg-laying hens, piglets, puppies, kittens, and sheep so there was much animal cuddling.




Friday: Niagara Falls.  We'd gone during the winter hosting but it was unbearably cold standing in the freezing heavy mist.  And the snow and ice had built us so heavily that orange cones had barricaded us away from the falls about 300 yards before the usual railings.  We promised we'd go back for a summer visit, which was (as expected) way way better.  We arrived early afternoon and had a picnic near where we'd been fenced at Christmas.  We walked from Goat Island to Luna Island to the mainland and then went went out to the Maid of the Mist and accompanying observation deck.  By then it was nearly 6 so we headed to the restaurant over the falls for dinner.  Unfortunately I had something with wheat and was sick for about an hour after that, but we eventually rallied and walked along the river to the upstream edge of Goat Island and then across to the Three Sisters islands.  By the time we got back to the falls, the night illumination was about to start.  We headed back to the Bridal Veil falls edge of Goat Island and admired the glow, watched the fireworks, and then headed back to see the Horseshoe Falls in their glow.  All told, it was about 9 hours at the park, plus a 2.5 hour drive each way, meaning a long energetic day.  Today has been a lot of sleeping in and lolling about.