Friday, December 25, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
Evgeniy, 12, has lived in the orphanage six years since his mother died. He would love to have a family. His dream is that nobody in the world would be bad, and he would like to make the world a brighter and happier place. He is my favorite child I met on my recent trip to nine orphanages in Russia.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Faith met him in September along with another boy who’d shared his foster home; the two thought erroneously they were brothers. When Nikolai saw a woodpecker, he was overjoyed to show Faith, to whom he wanted to explain everything. He didn’t like television, preferring instead to comb the orphanage library for books he hadn’t read. The fourth grader named math, Russian, and reading his favorite subjects, and The World Around Us his favorite book. A very good student himself, Nikolai preferred smart, helpful friends obedient to their parents. The athletic boy reveled in being soccer goalie, hunted mushrooms, and aspired to be a bodyguard to keep people safe. For all the kids she meets, I had never heard Faith rave about any like she did those two. Calling them “very bright, winners, curious, really great kids, intelligent, and with very great potential,” she tied the package with her belief that both would “achieve great things.”
Nikolai visited Moscow in October with the Lighthouse Project, a ray of light on a trip where the sun itself ventured out only once. While we awaited the host families’ arrival the first day, I shared Pop Rocks with the kids; Nikolai beamed when he felt the candy convulsing in his mouth. When I washed dishes in the hotel, he tried to wrest the scrub pad from me to clean his own dishes; he seemed mortified that someone might think him irresponsible. I lost track of the times he willingly gave up his seat on bus rides. I wondered if it was genuine until, from the back of the bus, I saw him vacate his front bench as an elderly lady boarded. Down a birch-lined boulevard, spotting a squirrel, he gesticulated with such glee no one in our group had heart to mention every American yard has several. Though he oozed charm from every pore and was never without a smile, with several more children than hosts, Nikolai wasn’t chosen for adoption on his first trip.
So with just days to find hosts for kids seeking only a chance, I’m scouring the States for someone Nikolai can call “Mama” forever.
See short video of Nikolai here.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I can find her a soul who will care. With God’s help, I can, and I must.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Mom admonished, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” and Evgeniy embodies the truism of her advice. Confident, not cocky, and considerate, not brash, Evgeniy tilts his head, engrossed in the queries. Furrowing brow, he answers, then punctuates with a smile. In this beguiling way, we learn he wants to build houses, loves reading books of all stripes, enjoys “farm duties,” and has a slew of friends. With his personality, I see why.
When I first saw Evgeniy, he was similarly charming, and I promoted him as my favorite child for the October-November trip. Back then, he said he’d lived at the orphanage the six years since his mother’s death, and he’d love to have a family again. He bakes cookies, and likes gardening and eating carrots. A church neighbors the orphanage, and orphans at times attend; Evgeniy believes God created everything. When asked his dream then, he wished everyone worldwide would be good, and that he could make the world a brighter and happier place. Now, Evgeniy dreams of America; he knows some English, and would like to travel and practice it more.
In his original interview, he was “trying so hard” in school, but found Russian and math most difficult. Now, Faith allows me a question, so I request a description of a teacher he likes. Naming one, he says he chooses her because she is demanding, adding he appreciates how well she prepares her students. Said instructor teaches Russian, one of the classes he listed last year as especially challenging. Now, the Russian teacher is favorite, not because she’s easiest, but because she’s toughest. This maturity garners Evgeniy my most emphatic underlining yet. I’ve been studying Russian myself, and could benefit from a little goading under the tutelage of his teacher. I ask him, in passable Russian, if he speaks English. “I’m Zhenya,” he answers, using his nickname, as the interview concludes. He shakes Elaine’s hand, not mine, since I am still feverishly writing. I am delighted by Evgeniy, and like him even better than last time.
At the end, a worker strides in. I’ve not met her before, and find her a dour, joyless soul. I start to offer a Russian pleasantry, but she adamantly refuses it and I forget my lines. Unprepared for this reception, I improvise as she bids us sit. With her dictatorial demeanor, I comply instantly. Faith explains to her that I have coordinated the Moscow trip, and the newcomer unleashes a tirade with an icy glare my direction. Faith apologetically translates words that sting me, and since I’d reserved my most impassioned promotion for Evgeniy, it hardly seems my doing that he is still hostless. I stumble through a witless excuse, believing with foreign language on my side, anything is preferable to silence. Ostensibly translating my words, Faith leaves me a shaking, and grateful, beneficiary of her speed on her feet. The worker is not amused, though that doesn’t appear unusual, and I’m rescued for now, and waved from her presence. Needing no second invitation, I bolt out with a little shiver.
As we hightail it back to the car, Faith tells me not to worry, that this worker doesn’t like anyone. Seeing Evgeniy’s cheer, and the curmudgeon who could wrest joy from St. Nicholas, I appreciate him and his irrepressible spirit even more. I want to help him out of here, not to avert her wrath or earn her accolades, but for him: for a good boy, who appreciates those who bring out his best, and who, after six years in this institution, still thinks he can make the world a brighter and happier place.
I LOVE this kid.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
A new series begins Tuesday, featuring stories of kids hoping to travel on our January Moscow trip. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Until next time, “Pah kah” from Russia.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Rock, Paper, Scissors Russian-style
My name is Denis
See accompanying story here.
We hustle to Red Square for one of Moscow’s quirkiest sights: the Lenin Mausoleum, a cubic pyramid safeguarding either the well-preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, or a good wax effigy, depending on whom you believe. Regardless of my distaste for communism and its poster child, I believe this is one of Moscow’s must-see sights; it’s not every day you see the well-preserved body of a long-deceased world leader. The mausoleum’s hours would make a banker blush; the rest of the time, the corpse stews in preservatives, and occasionally, undergoes a change of clothes. In spite of the care, rumors an ear once fell off circulate. Lenin hoped to be buried; eighty-five years posthumously in a post-Communist Russia, his wish may be granted. Communist Party demonstrators armed with bullhorns, placards, and vintage Soviet Union flags are frequent and fervent protestors outside Red Square, taking umbrage with plans floating to bury the mortal remains of their hero. I find the modern-looking pyramid architecturally dissonant in Red Square, though its design provided seating for Soviet officials atop the mausoleum, watching military parades on important Communist holidays. During the height of the Cold War, American foreign policy workers studied annual Revolution Day photos of the pyramid to determine who was on the rise in the Party by their proximity to Josef Stalin.
In my youth, years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I read Lenin’s remains were publicly displayed. A history buff even as a child, I added the Lenin Mausoleum to my sightseeing wish list, never believing I would check it off. Twenty years hence, on my first morning in Russia, I visited the mausoleum, and if the sight itself was underwhelming, the fulfillment of a childhood dream was not.
Waiting in a line I feared interminable, filing through metal detectors, checking bags, and under advisement that absolute silence was enforced, we traipsed through an otherwise closed-off Red Square to the pyramid. It was dark inside; a large hammer and sickle, especially creepy in this context, welcomed us. Descending black marble steps in near-darkness, I wondered who you’d sue if you broke your neck. At the bottom, around a corner, there he laid, Lenin, waxy and encased in glass, wearing red tie and subtle smirk. As I paused to see how well the ears were attached, excusing my macabre interest as historical exercise, a humorless guard snapped his fingers and pointed the way out. Up more lightless steps, out the door, my youthful desire bore fruit, absent fanfare, in under a minute.
Exiting the mausoleum, the obligatory walk along the Kremlin walls passes the graves of many a Communist luminary, including Stalin himself. For a time, Stalin kept Lenin company, though today, he reposes outside the mausoleum under a bust labeled “СТАЛИН.” We marveled at the number of red carnations left there by fawning, and historically ignorant, admirers; usually, the Stalin grave has more flowers than do other premiers. His reputation has undergone a bit of a restoration of late, as those who remember first-hand his purges and gulags pass from the scene.
Today, in Lenin the kids see the face of the darker side of their country’s history. Those who are interested appreciate the spectacle; those who aren’t dislike the same. None connect the man to his deeds, and what he did to their country and countrymen.
We cross the square to eat pizza in GUM, then rush to make our tour time at the Armory, a treasure trove of Russian artifacts in the Kremlin. Fabulously ostentatious carriages, Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne, Catherine the Great’s embroidered gowns, and priceless objets d’art shine in my favorite Moscow museum. It’s an expensive ticket, but worth it. It thrilled me to see my own kids’ pride to be Russian, as they saw the grandeur of the exhibits. Unfortunately, my companions today, both adult and child, are less moved. I am dismayed both by their relief as we depart, and their request to return to the hotel rather than use the Kremlin tickets I already hold in hand. But with seventeen votes for the hotel, one for the Kremlin, I acquiesce. On our way out, we pass a lone violinist in a road underpass, playing Vivaldi’s “Summer,” from the Four Seasons. His gloveless hands red, I shiver vicariously, wondering at the irony of his musical selection. Standing there as long as I do, etiquette demands I drop a few rubles in his open case.
On our way back to the hotel, we pick up our pictures. The quality is sub-optimal, but the order is correct, and far less costly than I thought we’d agreed to. In the hotel common area, we serve cake to the kids and sing “Happy Birthday” in Russian. It’s nobody’s birthday, but we want them to know we love them, and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
As I clean up the dishes, an Egyptian man staying in the hotel approaches us. “You Americans are fathers of the world,” he praises. “You even care for children of other countries.”
We’re a long way from home, but apparently exuding compassion. I appreciate the affirmation, but hope more than anything that his words are prophetic.
Friday, November 13, 2009
In Missouri, their hosting experience was more emotional than expected, but by week’s end, another piece of their hearts had been shared with ten-year-old Daniil and thirteen-year-old Luba, and the family decided to adopt both children. Faith and Alex have unselfishly rearranged their bedrooms to accommodate their new siblings, bought their Christmas presents, and willingly given up anything for themselves with cost attached. Recently, Alex needed new pants, but insisted he would do without to save money for the adoption. Faith imagines she will cook with Luba, and both kids, anxious to share everything with their two new siblings, dream about their future as a larger family. Faith and Alex’s tireless efforts to bring their new siblings home have epitomized their understanding of the “blessed to be a blessing” concept.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Another day, Ian was a Humvee passenger. When the driver was reluctant to drive, Ian volunteered. Their vehicle hit a buried anti-tank bomb, whereby Ian’s passenger and erstwhile driver lost both legs. During the rescue, Ian was shrapnel wounded. For extraordinary bravery and resultant wounds, Corporal Zook was awarded a Purple Heart.
October 12, 2004, Ian’s Humvee hit three bombs buried together in Iraq; when they detonated, he sustained injuries leading to his death, for which he was awarded a second Purple Heart. When his platoon returned from Iraq in 2005, the Zooks were invited to Twentynine Palms, California, where the men were stationed. Ian’s sergeant, the man who gave them the details of his last moments, met them there. In a meeting both excruciating and cathartic, Mark and Karen learned this sergeant was a committed Christian. Desperate to know if anyone had held Ian’s hand as the Lord called him, they marveled at God’s provision of a believer to comfort their son in his final moments when the sergeant answered, “I did.” About 40 other platoon members shared memories and anecdotes; the resounding refrain was Ian was a Marine and friend of unusual valor. In his too-short life, Ian touched others around the world.
In their time home, both children have immensely blessed their family. Faith and Alex know the tragedy that encouraged their adoption and express love for Ian as if they’d known him. Both keep photos of him in their rooms, because they want them. Ian is buried close to home, and his grave never lacks fresh flowers, lovingly tended by Alex. On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, a committal service for another serviceman was underway, and Alex instinctively removed his hat, covering his heart. Mark and Karen find inspiring the appreciation both kids have for their new homeland, the country their Ian loved enough to die for.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Moscow State University
We Love Lighthouse!
Yulya and Larisa skipping with Amy
Faith the Coat Lady
Riding the trolleybus
Larry, the American star of the Moscow State Circus
See accompanying story here.
Monday morning, we take the trolleybus. Their wires are ubiquitous overhead in Moscow, but I’ve never ridden one before. Faith is looking out windows, identifying landmarks, and offering her own brand of insight. Off the trolley, we stroll a birch tree-lined boulevard. Young Nikolai spots a squirrel with such enthusiasm we haven’t the heart to mention how common they are in the States. On Sparrow Hill, Moscow’s highest point, we overlook the city’s sprawl. The Kremlin’s golden domes are easily visible, and on this unusually clear day, good eyes can just pick out a dome or two of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Trinity Church is close. This Russian Orthodox church was shuttered during Communist times, as were all churches the government knew existed. Used for storage until Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, today the church again fulfills its sacred purpose. In Moscow, we’ve found enough English speakers that travel has been a snap. But at Trinity Church, the door bears signs in only Russian and German. Faith says this church is strict on appropriate attire; men are forbidden to enter with hats, or women to enter without. Women tourists are excused with winter hats and hoods, but a devout Russian Orthodox woman would never enter sans scarf covering her head. Dark inside, candles flicker, illuminating the gold leaf on the omnipresent icons of saints and apostles. Aromas of wax and incense join forces as smoke wafts in the domes, made visible by light of the small windows high in the church. Russian Orthodoxy is ritual- and tradition-bound, based on sensory appeal to create a religious experience for the worshipper. Our kids, exuberant outside, are reverent and quiet inside. Yulya studies the icons, then confides in her diary. She’s faithfully taking notes everywhere describing her week; I’ve seen her writing at the hotel, on the trolleybus and metro, and now in church. I yearn to read her words, as I admire her pursuit of the more cerebral. Leaving the church, the kids face the sanctuary and cross themselves three times, in Orthodox fashion.
Gazing over Moscow on Sparrow Hill, Russia’s most prestigious institution of higher learning towers behind us. Moscow State University, whose graduates are welcome anywhere, is housed in one of Stalin’s seven neoclassical skyscrapers, built in the 40s and 50s. Considered eyesores by some, the gargantuan “seven sisters” are scattered in Moscow, housing hotels, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, apartments, the university, and other entities. Until 1990, the university was Europe’s tallest building. The building’s shell is replete with communist symbolism and propaganda; statues glorifying the deeds of farmers and workers, hammers and sickles, and a twelve-ton red star adorn it. It was formerly very difficult to get into the university, Faith says. Admission was granted only by passing demanding entrance examinations, or string-pulling with officials in high places. In Communist times, students attended tuition-free. Faith laments that today, the education is pricey, and entrance reserved more for the moneyed than the qualified. As the kids pose in front their country’s Harvard, Faith says about 10% of today’s students are orphans with sufficient promise that the country cannot afford to let them slip into the abyss awaiting most aged-out orphans. Seeing ten-year-old Nikolai, Dima, and Yulya here, I try to imagine them toting backpacks on campus, striving to better themselves if this trip doesn’t end as I hope for them. Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I derive solace knowing there is a glimmer of hope, however small, for a few of the 700,000 + orphans of Russia.
We’re on to the circus. While in Russia with our own kids, we were goaded to attend, though our efforts at economy precluded it. I make up for it today by accompanying ten giddy orphans who dance up the steps toward the round pavilion housing the spectacle. We’re running late, and the coat ladies here are no faster than elsewhere. In her most brazen act yet, Faith vaults the counter and collects our coats, hanging 19 up in the time the coat ladies do one or two. I am taken aback by her chutzpah, but she is fast, and we sit down in our nosebleed seats with a minute to spare. The circus begins with a triumphant fanfare and laser show, and continues with clowns, acrobats, and a smattering of animals. The costumes and props are extravagant, though even from a distance, the scandalous skimpiness of some of the women’s costumes appalls me. Underdressed and suggestively posed, one rides out on a camel to Faith’s chiding, “This is Playboy!” Despite the first-rate quality of the acts, I am embarrassed at having scheduled this, and groveling thankful my husband and son aren’t along. At the intermission, Faith leads us to vacant seats ringside, and we down a brown bag lunch. When the circus resumes, we see everything better.
Toward the performance’s end, after an especially revealing act, Larry, our most reserved traveler, sits blushing, thankful a cloak of darkness covers him. In a flabbergasting display of multi-lingual clairvoyance, a bumbling and miscreantic clown bursts from the ring, dashes up a few rows with spotlight shadowing, and grabs our Larry! As she drags him from his seat, I am incredulous he goes with her. Our group roars, releasing an incongruous amalgam of emotion: mortification, concern, and hilarity. In the center of the ring, she hangs a cloth over poor, chagrined Larry, with only a cutout for his head. In the blinding spotlight, he is unaware he wears a drawing of a muscle-bound man, complete with strategically-placed fig leaf. Another clown-accomplice draws a life-sized caricature, shakes Larry’s hand, never realizes he’s an English-speaking monoglot, and directs him still blushing, drawing in hand, to his seat. Our group applauds Larry, his good sportsmanship, and his expeditious return. When the circus is over, Larry is a Lighthouse Project celebrity, posing for pictures with his drawing, accepting congratulations, and vowing never again to gloat that the spotlight isn’t on him.
Faith reenacts her cloakroom attendant imitation, then we head into the chill. Back on the trolleybus, we travel one-half mile before it breaks down. We switch to another trolley, ribbing, smiling, and reminiscing over the most fantastic events of our day. Maybe trolleys don’t break down daily, and maybe clowns don’t accost every American circus-goer, but as we settle into our return home to the hotel, we laugh that we have now had every experience Moscow offers.
This is our best day, and I, for one, am glad to share it.
See photos and video here.