Tuesday, July 22, 2008

If You're Wondering Why

Sixty days from today, I'll be hopping a plane (several, actually) for the Ukraine. It is going to be here before I know it!!
In the fall of 1994, I was starting my senior year of high school. My church and our local association of churches had (and still has) a sister church and a sister association in the Kherson region of the Ukraine and I found out through our youth minister that the following summer, the association would be sending a group of youth and young adults to the area to do some missions work. They were going to be interviewing youth from throughout the association and putting together a team of 10 young people and 3 adult chaperones. I knew as soon as I heard about it that I wanted to go so I put together all of the application and did the interview and in the end, as you may have guessed, I made the cut and spent the months leading up to the summer of 1995 preparing for the trip.

That was a very difficult spring – including getting head lice while volunteering at the homeless mission – but somehow all of that only reinforced the rightness of going. There have been few things in my life that I have been as certain of as I was about going on that trip. I never doubted for even an instant that this was something I was called to do. You know how when you are making a decision about something major, how you weigh the pros and cons and consider the sacrifices versus the benefits and you contemplate if it is what you really want/need? I am usually big for making a list and thinking things through like that but this decision was nothing like that. As soon as I knew I had been accepted to the team, I knew it was the right thing.

I had always wondered what people meant when they said that God had called them to do this or that. I wondered how they knew. Different people had told me different things...one man I knew said that when he was called to be a pastor, it was as if a voice had spoken to him, like a loud whisper directly into his ear. Another person told me that it was like a warmth in her heart, like a rush. I guess for me, it was just a sense of peace, of right-ness and pure joy. I can’t explain it better than that; just that I knew and I never doubted it was where I should be and what I should be doing.

When at last the time came to go, we flew from San Francisco to Odessa, via New York and Vienna. It was a long trip (if I remember correctly, it was about 50 hours from leaving SF until arriving in Odessa.) We were tired and a little anxious, uncertain about what lay ahead. When we landed in Odessa, our plane stopped in the middle of the runway for no apparent reason. Ray, who was our associational director of missions and had been to the area several times, explained to us that the land amidst the runways and on the airport property was used by airport employees for growing fruits and vegetables and for raising livestock. We were stopped in the middle of the runway because someone was herding sheep from one grassy patch in the middle of the runways to another across the way. It was the first of many odd little things none of us had ever experience in the US.
The Ukraine had become an independent nation in December 1991: from communist state to independent republic literally overnight. All of the sudden, people were free to come and go in ways most of them had never experienced. People were able to worship in new ways and talk openly about politics and religion and whatever else they saw fit. In the summer of 1995, politically, things were still largely unsettled and the people of the Ukraine were still finding their national identity (still are to a degree, today, from what I understand. I can’t even imagine what it is like to wake up one day and be a brand new country.) In the midst of all sorts of uncertainty, the people I met there were some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. If you were to press me for one single reason I want to go back to the Ukraine it would be the people.
At that time the economy was really unstable – for instance, a hand embroidered table runner I bought for my mother in Kherson cost more than 1,000,000 Ukrainian coupons…about $11US – and there was a pretty good chance that if you were exchanging money on the streets, you were probably dealing with the mob. The international airport we flew into had chickens and dogs wandering around loose in the terminals and pay toilets consisting of a large tiled room with a series of holes cut in the floor lined up along the wall. (As you might imagine, your thigh muscles get strong fast when you have to literally squat every time you have to go.) Each place we visited, we stayed in the homes of church members in that particular town. Most of the places we stayed didn’t have any electricity or indoor plumbing but the people were wonderful and kind and generous.

We spend one Sunday afternoon with a church group in a small town where, after worship service, we all walked down to the waterfront and watched some people being baptized in the Black Sea. In another village, we met a man who’d spent 30 years in Siberia because he had been caught conducting a Christian worship service in his living room in the early sixties. When I met him in August of 1995, he had been back in his hometown for about a year and had only just met his grown daughter, who was 3 when he was arrested and had lived her whole life thinking her father was dead. A few days later in a different town, we visited a Russian Orthodox church that had been built by Catherine the Great but during Soviet years had been used as a meeting place for visiting KGB officers.

I met people there who had suffered heartache and persecution and need that I cannot even fathom. People who had never even experienced electricity much less had it in their homes. People who used outhouses and didn’t have refrigeration and grew most of their own food and drank their morning milk just minutes out of the cow. Women who made all of their family’s clothes – and not as a hobby, but as a necessity. People who generously opened their homes to us, because they believed in the work we were doing, even when they were barely able to make ends meet without extra American mouths to feed.

I have been a Christian since I was 8 years old but I have never lost a friend because of my faith. I have never witnessed anyone being persecuted for their faith. I have never had to lie about my faith in God in order to save my life or the life of someone I loved. I have never had to memorize scripture for fear that I would be imprisoned if caught with a bible. I’m not sure that, faced with such situations, I could boldly profession my love for Christ. It was humbling and inspiring and truly life changing.
The purpose of this trip was for us to help with building and improvement projects these churches had going and to share our faith and knowledge of God with the people we encountered there. And we did do those things; but more than that, we were the ones who were blessed. My life was changed by the quiet faith and love I witnessed in these peoples lives. By the sincere joy people took in their families and their churches and the little freedoms and blessings we so often take for granted. I was moved by the people who came to the revival services we participated in and shared their stories. It was humbling to see men who walked miles to work in the morning, worked 10 hour days in a factory and then walked home, happily exhausted, to play with their children and carry water up from the river so the family could cook and bathe.
So the short answer, and maybe the cop-out answer in some people’s minds, is that I believe in my heart that this is work that the Lord is calling me to do. I believe that maybe, just maybe, this kind of work in this place, are the reason I was put on this earth. Never for even one moment in the last 13 years have I doubted that I would go back to the Ukraine. Ask anyone who has known me for more than just a little while and they will tell you that I have always talked about returning. I believe that by going there I am serving the God I love and – I hope – making some small difference in the lives of his people. I don’t know what exactly this trip holds in store for me but I hope that by going, the lives of the orphan children or some of the people in the village or some of the people I meet while I am there will be better for my having been there. I do know that whatever happens, I won’t regret going.

A lot of people have asked me why I am making this trip to the Ukraine. And every time anyone asks, I think the answer has probably been a little different. Not because I don’t know why or that the reasons have changed…just that I have found it nearly impossible to articulate. I hope maybe now I have been able to.

Today's Quote

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning

(All of these pictures are from my last visit, with the exception of the Lenin statue. I couldn’t find a picture of my own – though I know I took a million of them – so I found that one on Google Images. Everywhere we went, there were statues of Lenin and on little hillsides and grassy knolls, you would see wooden or metal letters: “Ленин с нами” …. “Lenin is With Us”. Echoes of the Soviet era. That particular statue above is in the main square in Kherson.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

How Many Mashed Potatoes Do You Have?

The other night I dreamed that I was on a plane flying to the Ukraine. And (in my dream) I had that unsettled feeling. The one when you are two blocks from work and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you left the curling iron on at home, right next to a box of kleenex. That feeling that you forgot to do something but can’t quite put your finger on it….unsettled. And so I was flying and looking out the window and it went from day to night several times (after all, that’s how dreams are) and we finally landed and we were getting off the plane at the airport (though it was the Houston airport, but we were in the Ukraine – again, dreams). We were standing there at the baggage claim when I realized – in one of those horrifying moments of clarity – that I had forgot to pack the hats. And I sat down in the floor of the airport and cried like a baby. And I kept telling some stranger standing next to me, “What am I going to tell all the knitters? How am I going to explain this?”

Then I woke up with a start, in a cold sweat, feeling sick to my stomach. I got out of bed and went in the spare room and opened up the box of hats, made sure they were all there. Reassuring myself, I guess. I sorted through some of the new hats that I haven’t put in the box yet because I haven’t photographed them for ya’ll yet. (I’m working on it.)

Apparently I don’t have my neuroses quite as tightly controlled as I’d like to think. I mean really, as if after all these many months of planning and preparation, I might actually forget the hats! Of course, it is more deeply rooted than that.

So big news: I’ve decided to raise the hat goal to 400. (If you’ve been over by the Ravelry group, this isn’t actually big news to you.) We are making great progress and I am beside myself excited about this. Every time new hats arrive in my mail or someone drops one off to me, I am inspired all over again. We have “declared” knitters/crocheters from 23 U.S. States (including the absolute myriad of super cool ladies down at the LYS) and 15 other countries. I’ve received hats from 37 different crafters. We are 72 days into the project with 70 days to go until I leave.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my coworker Mary had gotten her mother on the hat knitting bandwagon. A couple of weeks ago her mom, Maxine, game up from Arizona for a visit and brought with her twenty hats that’d she been working on over the last couple of months. And during her brief visit, she has continued knitting hats but I’ve yet to convince Mary to bring her to work so I can thank her. Wednesday Mary brought me two more lovely lids (for a total of 30 from Maxine!) and she told me that her mom needed to take a break because her arm was tired! Well, I would think so. I gave my whole-heartedly blessing to Maxine’s well deserved break. (as if my blessing mattered!!) Thank you Maxine!

This week I’ve received hats from all sorts of fabulous people and places.

Erin in Sunnyvale sent a package which was fabulous – I made my coworkers try on her hats when they arrived but I didn’t have my camera with me.

I received a package from the always wonderful Trixie in Alaska…10 fabulous hats (brims lined with cashmere!!) and two beautiful, perfect, heavy glass jars of blueberry jam, handmade by Trixie and her children, from blueberries handpicked in their very own backyard. Thank you Trixie, so much. You are just lovely. If I show up on your doorstep one day, will you let me sleep on your couch for a few days and take pictures of your beautiful surroundings?

Hats came from Lynn in Florida. Richly-colored, thick lovely hats. She made mostly rolled brim hats and when she packaged them in the box, she rolled them up and stacked them. When I took them out, they looked like delicious, wooly candy! (Lynn, did you mail these quite a while back? If the postmark is right, it took them nearly three weeks to get here. Crazy!) My co-worker, Judy, also brought me more hats. They are crocheted and just as cute as can be. I missed Wednesday night knitting this week because I went to San Francisco to pick up my SIL at the airport so I’m guessing Kaylee probably has a hat or two over there for me. (Every time I’m there, she seems to have something lovely that one of the “day time knitters” has dropped off. Have I mentioned a flippin’ awesome it is to have an LYS?)

Kim, whom I “met” so many moons ago through a scarf exchange, sent me four soft and lovely hats. Reds and greys.

If you’ve sent hats and I haven’t mentioned them or emailed you, please please drop me a line so a) we can make sure I got them and 2) so I can thank you publicly. If I’ve neglected to email my thanks, I pray that you will forgive me. People email or message me asking for the address to mail the hats to and yet, when the packages arrive (at the very address I so recently provided) I am surprised and excited. I get them out of their various packages and I ohh and ahh and admire them as a group and then I look at each one individually and admire the craftsmanship – because the artistry in each of these hats is endlessly varied and inevitably stellar – and then I hold each one and admire the smooshy softness and touch them too my face (ya’ll know…) and I almost always find someone standing nearby to try them on so I can admire them from afar. And then for the next several hours, I show them to anyone and everyone who will stop to look. I’m like a child on Christmas.

If ya’ll will humor me for a moment, and forgive me a little philosophizing, I’ll tell you something. Here’s the thing: If you were to ask me, I would tell you that I am a pretty cynical person. That I don’t have a lot of confidence in the goodness or decency of people in general. I would tell you that I have a very strong faith in God but very little faith in humankind. I would tell you that I can be mean-spirited and I am sort of a hard-ass. But the reality is, if I told you all of that, I’d mostly be lying. People who know me best would likely tell a very different story. I can be realistic about people’s nature when I need to be (professionally, for example) but as a general rule, I am about as soft-hearted as they come. I’m probably not cynical enough, really, and I am too willing to expect the best of people. Some might even call me a bit of a goody-two-shoes. I am generally a rule follower and a peacemaker, and usually expect people to do the right thing and be good and decent, even when they’ve made it clear they can’t be trusted. In fact, I have so much faith in human decency that I am (not shockingly but still shockingly) disappointed on a regular basis. I know this about myself and I try to tell myself to hope for the best but expect the worst but it never works out for me. It is just my nature. I take things personally even when I shouldn’t

So this project…it really does my tender little heart good. I’m not really sure I can impress upon you very how much this hat project means to me. I think it is maybe one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a witness to. Maybe that is silly, but hear me out. I know that these hats are not for me (heck, I don’t even like hats – for me, I mean) but there is something so heartwarming and uplifting about watching this come together. To have a simple idea (These orphans are cold. I know how to knit. The orphans need hats) and to see other people – friends, strangers, coworkers, neighbors, friends-I-haven’t-met-yet – join in to help warm the heads of these children – children I haven’t even met yet…children most of these knitters will never meet this side of heaven – it is probably one of the best things I’ve personally ever known. There is something so purely decent and kind and selfless about it all. I feel vindicated. I feel like all the times that people have ever disappointment me are washed clean and that maybe I was right about people after all. It makes me think that in the midst of all of the screwed up goings-on on this earth, there is hope for us all. No one objects to making handknit (excuse me: handcrafted) hats for children who, by no fault of their own, have had a tough go of things in life. People who are usually hard-nosed and uninterested find a smile and a kind word for this hats-for-orphans project. I cannot tell you how many people from all corners of my life have, upon hearing of this project, told me “Oh my aunt (mother, brother, cousin, sister) knits. I’ll ask her to make a hat.” Or “I don’t knit but can I give you money to buy yarn to make something from me?” Or (maybe best of all) “I don’t knit but I’ll makes hats if you’ll teach me how.” It is humbling and wonderful to be a part of this. After the rather trying time I’ve had of things in the last couple of years, it is wildly comforting and refreshing to see so many people so willing – and enthusiastic! – to make hats for these kids. So thank you – all of you – for every stitch and every email and every kind word and every contribution. Long before these hats ever make that long trip to the Rivne orphanages, goodness has come from this undertaking.

When I first started this project, someone said to me, “That’s a lot of hats. Do you really think people will want to do that? I mean, that’s gonna be expensive.” I told her my thoughts: most knitters I know are generous people and most knitters I know are willing to dip a little into their yarn budget to do something good for the world. And every single day, someone out there proves me right. Thank you for that, too. I came across this quote and I think it is apropos.

“Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.” -Norman Vincent Peale

In more fun news, the ever fabulous, ever generous Susie has volunteered to dye up a couple of skeins of prize yarn especially for this project. I won’t tell you what they’ll look like but I will tell you they will be in colors related to the project.

Also, I have been working on this for a while but wasn’t ready to tell anyone. I’m going to have a “Participation Prize” for every knitter who has sent hats by the time I leave. (Not per hat, just per person.) See, for the last several weeks. I’ve been making sets of stitch markers for each of you. My ever lovely (still sockless) SIL Lori is helping me and they are going to be so cute. (If I do say so myself….) Anyway, I tell you this because it wasn’t until after the hats started arriving that I decided on this plan so, while I have kept note of every person who’s sent me a hat or hats so far in order to put their names in the prize drawing at the end, I hadn’t been keeping up with mailing addresses. If you’ve already sent in hats to me, please email me at crickitleighhotmailcom with your snail mail address so that I can make sure you get your stitch markers in October. Also, FYI, as you probably know, RC is handling the logistics of the prize part of this project and she and I have been trying to decide if we should draw for and mail prizes while I am gone (which would be sometime between September 20 and October 8) or if we should wait until I come back (which would mean prizes would go out sometime during the last two weeks of October). Obviously, the advantage of doing it while I am gone is that everyone gets their stuff sooner but if we wait there is the dual advantage of me being here (which is really only an advantage for me) and secondarily, that we could include a picture from the trip with all of the prizes and stitch markers. I’d like some participant input on this.

Side note: There has been some discussion over at Ravelry about fiber content. The plan was to have hats from natural fibers or natural fiber blends. This is not a matter of yarn-snobbery but simple a matter of function. These hats, while intended as gifts to brighten these children’s lives, are primarily gifts of necessity. It is very cold there and the goal is warmth. I’ve received several hats that are acrylic or other synthetic fibers. One Raveler mentioned that acrylic hats are largely decorative outside and provide little warmth; this is very true but I know that they can be used so I’ve made the decision to take these hats along anyway. I’m keeping them separate so they will know that these hats should probably be mainly for indoors or layering but please know they will go to a good home. If someone brings you a synthetic fiber hat or mentions that they have made them, please go ahead and send them to me. While wool and animal fibers are still best all hats will be lovingly received.

So, anybody interested in knowing how many hats we have now?

Including the 120 shown in the previous post, 12 hats at RC’s house and these

91 additional hats, we’ve reach (drumroll please)


Only 176 to go!

Disclaimer: It has been approximately 150F degrees here for the last couple of weeks so my brain is cooked and I've been running a fever, too, so please forgive me if any portion of this post is incoherent.

*ETA correct number

Today’s Quote

"Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success." -Henry Ford