Romanian Grace

The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon. -- St. Cyril of Jerusalem

22 February, 2007

three poems

As evidenced by the progression and digression of my blogs, I think my creative energy tank is running pretty low. Nevertheless, here are three excellent poems written by my students (used by permission, of course). For each of them it was their first serious attempt at writing poetry. I think they pulled it off nicely.

"Dead Fish" - Daniel Hartman

Slapsound. Body of fish hitting flat water.
Lurch. Churn of water, hook sets in his gill.
Leap for air again, then plummet in the net
Tossed into a cooler, and that was it for him.
Slap! Goes the body of the fish against flat surface of my desk.
Lurch! My stomach churns as the stench reaches my nose,
gasp for clean air,
Then plummet to the floor.
Gasp again and manage to ask, “What is all this for?”
Single slime of scaly creature glued onto my desk.
Bloody features have made him as ugly as he is.
Onion peel fin on top. Razor sharp, and oh so thin.
Bony lips below no nose, force me to squeal
Have you ever seen a fish as ugly as can be,
if not, just wait, and you’ll find out, just please don’t act like me.

"Leaping" - Abigail Hartman

“Run, run leap!”
Land lightly on the blue carpet of the Mary Thorton room,
Tip-toe in worn ballet slippers around the green alligator
That sat in the church on Smythe Street,
To do it again.

Ms. Pelhan commanded again,
“Run!” across that sapphire studded floor.
“Leap!” over Bob, the noble alligator swimming in a lapis lazuli pond.
Float gently to the ground in pearly white slippers, walk around the emerald alligator,
To do it yet again.

"Fingerprints" - Katy Hartman

Hidden wonders
An untold future
Intricate designs
In the palm of my hand
Tumble and splash,
Cascading down
Each finger.
In a web of threads.
Swirling signature
Of fancy filigree
Flaunts its curling
Dance of twirling-
In such splendor displayed.

20 February, 2007

the way things are

Of dire importance to living compassionately and effectively among a people of different culture is finding a way to cram them into the framework of one's own culture in order to properly understand them. I feel that I have made headway in that vein today and thus can accurately categorize these Romanian people. They are a people riddled with peculiarity, like the residents of the American small town South (if that people still actually exists, I know not, but I hear they used to, and I think I understand them through their descendants and a couple of Cohen brothers movies). But they are also a people rather close and cold, hard to get to know, much like the people of the American North (though New Yorkers are certainly an exception to this -- everyone should make a point to get to know at least one New Yorker well in this life or the next [yes, there will be some of "them" there, I believe]). In light of the above, then I have been able to lump Romanians in with Floridians. I feel as though my work here can finally begin.

Lessons learned:

1. Always remember that you, if you are the customer, say, at the meat counter in the grocery store, are greatly imposing on the working staff of said meat counter. If they are not present to give you your meat, ring the bell, then brace yourself. Wait. She will emerge shortly. Or a little longer than shortly. When she arrives, she will demand to know why you rang the bell. You will tell her you want two kilograms of a particular kind of meat and she will say, "Sure, whatever you want, buddy." She might grab meat by the fistsfull and ask, "Well? Which one do you want? Any of these good enough for you?" Give an answer with an affirmative and confident looking nod quickly (remember, it really shouldn't matter to you which one you are the customer, and thereby your opinion doesn't count). As soon as she slaps the meat, all wrapped in paper and plastic, on the counter in front of you, try to say thank-you before she disappears backstage once more.

2. If someone offers to do work for you, agree on payment on the front end. This really happened today. I promise. A lady I know in my apartment block noticed that my windows were pretty dirty (I don't see dirt). Actually, there really were big globs of plaster and paint and other substances spattering a solid film of dust on all my windows, but like I said, I don't see these things. So she came in today to wash my windows, and three and a half hours later she left, having cleaned my trash cans in my bathtub, washed some dishes, swept the balcony...all very good things that, again, I did not know needed to be done. So she is standing in the hallway about to leave and I hand her two-hundred thousand lei (sounds like a lot but it isn't). "Oh, no, no, Nicholas," she tells me. "You don't have to pay me."

"Hmm," I thought, "That's interesting. I guess I just assumed she was offering to work for money. I will pay her some anyway." So I insisted and gave her half of what I had originally thought was right. I said, "My pleasure. I want to give you this. Is it enough?"

She looked at it and her face fell. "I get paid three times this when I work for another lady for four hours."

I still am wondering what I missed.

3. I used to fancy that I would make a pretty good farmer. After all, I have read a lot of Wendell Berry. I even worked on an organic farm in college for a semester. I have since rethought all this. I was pretty excited about getting real cow's milk here, straight from the cow. It comes in rinsed out sprite bottles and the like. So I got some and was told that I must boil it down and skim off the fat before drinking (this probably also makes it safe for drinking, too). This seemed to be a fairly simple process: milk in the pot, turn on the stove, stir occasionally. It even worked once, I am convinced, by fluke. The last two times I have tried it has resulted in greenish water and something like ricotta cheese. I don't know what I am doing wrong, but next time I think I will try stuff manicotti.

4. As my eleventh grade math teacher would often say, "Keep it simple, stupid" (he would also quote B.A. Baracus from the A-Team, saying, "You better check yoself before you wreck yoself, fool"). Sometimes I have to succumb to things that bother me rather than try to get my preference (see number 1, above). Like in McDonalds, where I NEVER used to go in the States, where I was getting coffee with Darin one night. She was filling up our cups over my the coffee machine, and I told her we would not be needing a bag. She said O.K., took the coffees off the machine, put them in a bag, and handed the bag over to us. I decided to play it cool and not say anything. Then I asked her for sugar. "So you DO want sugar? Make up your mind!"

"Oh." I guess I did say that, somehow. So, forget saving our forests one paper bag at a time. Just take what they give you, Nicholas, at least until you learn the word for bag, or sugar.

I guess what I am really learning is that I am a stranger in a strange land. I used to be able to put a lot of confidence in my ability to be pretty smooth, to move through life with a certain degree of competence and confidence. Now I think most people wonder if I am really as dumb as I seem. Sigh. What a trip!

Carlos says: How can I say this in a way you can understand?

14 February, 2007


I think in my last blog I promised to follow up with another. I may have even written the word, "tomorrow." Sorry. I know internet never crashes in the US of A, but here it does not always work when I want it to. So it goes.

A friend of mine describes her daughter as a ping pong ball. I would describe myself the last couple of weeks as a dry-rotted basketball. At my house growing up, we never had an inflated basketball. I would toss it up, and it might sit on the rim in a sag or dully thud off the backboard and splat on the asphalt (that claimed pounds of skin off my knees and elbows during the course of my childhood). You get the idea. So I had hit a flat spell and stayed in it for a while. The problem with those is, I know the remedy, but part of the disease is a strong distaste for the remedy. The longer, then, one goes sans cure, the less appealing the cure seems day by day.

Of course, what I am talking about is what I have learned from frequent experience: One day I find myself depressed or of a sudden overtaken by some spiritual malaise (which, fear not, is NOT a sandwich spread), and I know for a fact that God, in Hs word, has something quite good to say to me. Something that will surely cheer me up. And I don't mean in some bubbly Valentine's e-greeting way, either. God gives us real promises in His word; who cannot smile, even in the midst of gloom, when he hears from his Father, "Looking at you right now makes me happy." As near as I can tell, though, that's basically what God thinks about me every day.

I was in a choir when I was a kid, yes, a boys' choir, and we sang this song that has somehow stayed in my head for the last seventeen years or so. It is taken, I think, from an array of similar scriptures:

"And the Father will dance over you in song! He will take delight in whom he loves. Put on the garment of praise as on a festival day and let the Lord God himself rejoice over you in song."

Now, when I'm a dry-rotted slump of faded LA Lakers deflated rubber ball, I would really like to believe that song (and those scriptures). But I don't. I will hear nothing of it. It is a strange phenomenon I can't explain, but perhaps someone can sometime. I just identify its existence. What happens, though, is that one I reject one of God's beautiful promises once, preferring deflation and self-defeat to the beautiful truth of sonhood, I start to feel like a real schmuck, which makes me even less excited about thinking I am worth God's time on the dance floor.

All of this is, of course, just context. What I really want to talk about is yesterday. The day I said I was going to write again. I would like to say that yesterday was good because something miraculous happened (I mean more than my approximately 86,400 does it do that?), but it wasn't. It was just a good day. But the point is that I don't think it would have seemed such a good day, such a gift, if I had not had a fair run of blah-bad days before it. If anything I knew I didn't deserve the good one, but there it was. Without gorging myself and boring my readers with a lot of details, I spoke lots of Romanian, understood more than usual, got into a fairly deep conversation about saving, budgeting, loud music, discotec, and beer with a fifteen year old Romanian kid who keeps showing up at the most inconvenient times; I got to teach irregular past tense verb forms to some fourth graders...and they got it (yeah, yeah, it doesn't sound that big, but hey...we take what we can get); I ran into some kids I know from Paishpe, the very poor block next to mine, and they asked when we are going to go on a hike I think we might be doing that, which I think means those relationships are starting to build; I carried on a conversation with a Romanian woman whose son I teach once a week (one of the irregular verb kids)...stuff like that. You can tell that I get pretty discouraged bout language over here, so it is nice to have a day when I don't feel like I have an IQ of 6.

What I would really like to see happen, the miracle I would like to see, is for it not to take a "good day" to get me out of a funk. What if God's word were enough? And, what if I didn't have to make such a big deal about the "good days" because every day seems good since I have a loving Father who has promised, among many other things, not to leave or forsake me, but to be with me always, even to the end of all my bad days.

12 February, 2007

What's on my desk

Some of you may think that I only keep this up out of boredom. I confess that I have lost some steam since before Christmas, but that can easily be attributed to a number of things, the least of which is, I assure you, not my debilitating heel injury. I have a new desk. No, it is not in a glassed in office and I did not get a raise. I sort of got a raise, in a teacher sort of way, in that we have had a new student coming to school lately. Something I had not anticipated but that is good, as it turns out. So. I performed a little furniture shuffle to make room for a new desk, and here I sit. It is a good, sturdy desk in a particle board sort of way, but it has more drawer space than my old one. I guess that kind of thing is important when you spend a lot of time at your desk. And I think I do.

Here's what's on my desk currently: A sermon I have been meaning to read for years. I can't tell you how many pastors have recommended this sermon from the pulpit and in normal conversation. It is called "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection," and the basic premise, as I understand it (I have not gotten very far in it yet), is that the only we way we can ever be moral people is to be so enamored with God, so desirous of Him, that that affection drives every other desire out of our hearts. I think he will make a practical application at the end that says an increased affection for God will also increase our ability to pour ourselves out into the things and people we love in this world. I hope so. Also on my desk is a stapler. It is red and made of steel. I am particularly fond of it since it is the first working stapler I have had here. I have been using lots of paper clips until now. One of my students, who will remain nameless (DLH), broke the first one we bought for the school before school ever started. I have found the power to forgive him, though it has been difficult. I feel so much freer to do so that I have a new and working stapler. I will include a picture of it once I find the charger for my camera's battery.

My laptop, of course, is on my desk, not that it has to be (since it is a laptop) but it is. I am listening to T. Rex right now. I don't know if any of you remember him, but he played some boogie in England back in the late seventies. anyway, I am sort of a late bloomer when it comes to music. I discovered Benny Goodman when I was a junior in high school. Anyway, I would highly recommend this guy if you can find an album of his. It might also be under the name, Mark Bolan. I have been listening to Buddy Holly more intently than in the past lately, and I am amazed at how he was doing a pretty good T. Rex about twenty years before Mark Bolan. I wish I could post music on this blog site. I would grace you all with "Early in the Morning," which contains some black gospel in the background that sounds like a Hammond B3.

Moving on, I have a book on my desk that I have just started called The Promises of Grace, by Brian Chapell. It is an exposition on Romans 8 and is an area in which I am sure I need to grow. Fact is, God promises a lot, and he always makes good on his promises. I wish this book would tell me that God promised I would be really handsome forever and have lots of money and an impressive wife, but I think it will say something more along the lines of his promises to give me peace and joy and never to leave me or forsake me, never to condemn me. I guess that's pretty good too. What I can't escape from is that God probably wouldn't feel the need to remind us of those promises if he did not know we were bound to find ourselves in places where we will most likely forget them or doubt them or question them. That's where I've been camping out lately.

What else...? Ah, yes. I can't wait to read this. I just went to the Chronicles Magazine site and printed off a seven page article called "The Lincoln Fable." I always figured that guy wasn't all he was cracked up to be but never wanted to read a whole book about it. If I had wanted to read a whole book I would have gotten one that came out about four years ago called The Real Lincoln. But I didn't read that, so I have this seven pager that I can probably finish before I go to bed tonight.

Finally, I have my ever-present copy of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, my most beloved book in the world, or at least the one I enjoy reading the most. I am reading back through it to find passages to share with my students next week as we take a look at writing creative non-fiction. That might be my favorite genre in which to write, which is probably because fiction and poetry require far too much thought and creativity As I tell my students, poetry's not for pansies. That's why I steer clear of it.

My desk is not as clean as you might think; I'm just cutting out on you early. I should write tomorrow about the real reason I am still up at 12:38 writing a blog about what's on my desk.