What’s Bringing Joy

Life at the moment feels especially full. I’d love to take the time to be reflective and self-aware, but I just don’t have it in me. Life is just happening and I don’t have the time to think much about the deeper things. But, what I can think about is what is bringing me joy!

Pinky Malinky. A couple of weeks ago our sweet Wendell dog died. We don’t know why. We don’t know what happened to him. He was neutered on a Tuesday and all seemed well and good, but then on Friday he was found in the trees behind our house and he had died. Oh, our poor Seth. He was so devastated. Wendell was his dog and Seth had found him as a small puppy on the streets of our village. He was a naughty, but sweet dog. Seth’s little heart was broken.

Enter…Pinky Malinky! Seth had a puppy-shaped hole in his heart, and it needed filling. We found a local ad about a puppy who had been found in a dumpster on New Year’s Eve and needed a home. So, we brought that little pup home and Seth named her Pinky Malinky. 🙂 She is so sweet and the perfect addition to our family. She’ll be more of an inside dog than Bluebell. Bluebell is a worker, but Pinky is happy to cuddle. She’s good for us.

Survivor Night. Friday night at the Homestead is “Survivor Night”. We all look forward to it in eager anticipation. 🙂 Around 8pm Max and Morgan make their way over from the duplex and we cozy on in for our weekly dose of Jeff Probst and island drama. There’s usually some sort of treat included (of course). I think we started watching Survivor when we were trying to survive jet lag, and then it became a tradition. Seeing as how there’s like 40 seasons of Survivor out there, it’s a tradition that should carry us for a good while. You can read Morgan’s thoughts on Survivor Night here.

Garden Dreaming and House Plants. The snow has melted (for now) and we’ve got the garden on our minds. During the long, snowy wait I decided to try my hand at house plants (everyone who knows me in real life is shaking their head and laughing at me right now). In the past I’ve been pretty vehemently opposed to house plants, simply because I was so overwhelmed with keeping the humans and animals in my life fed and watered, I couldn’t imagine trying to add needy plants to the mix. I have one house plant that has survived for like 3 years here in this house and I honestly have no idea how that is even possible. I don’t even remember where that plant came from, but it is one determined plant! This year, as the snow lasted on and on and refused to melt, I started thinking I had the mental capacity to try out some plants. Annnnnd so far so good! Our friend, Christiana, who is here visiting, has helped me a ton, and I’m finding joy in seeing my plants not die. Haha. Jed and I are beginning garden talks and scheming how we want to switch things up this year. So exciting! Bring on the sun and the dirt. We’re ready.

The Fence. What a glamorous life I lead. When things like a finished fence bring you immense joy you know you’re deeeeeeep in country livin’. Oleg finished our fence and we now have a fully enclosed back yard. The reason this makes me unreasonably happy is because we have approximately 226 stray dogs in our village and they were all making our back yard their personal playground. Poor Bluebell was working from sunup till way past sundown, chasing them out of our yard. I was throwing shoes at them. It was super annoying and super loud. But now, thanks to a finished fence, they are no longer making a party pad out of our back yard. Thank the Lord!

What’s been bringing you joy lately? Do tell!

Inside a Moment

Watch this 26 second video:

Our team sent us that video this past week and my heart melted. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Then I showed it to Jed and he kinda bawled his eyes out. I haven’t seen him like that for quite some time. It was a moment.

That video means so much to us because of the people in it, their stories, how our lives have become entwined and all that has led up to that beautiful moment in time. I’d love to break it down for you so you can see some of what we see when we watch.

The first boy I see is our friend Maxim. He is 34 years old and loves to tell that fact to everyone he meets by holding his fingers up in their faces. He knows how to count and is proud of himself when he counts correctly.

We met Maxim and his mama 6 years ago and have loved them ever since. Maxim is tall, quick to bear hug, only speaks a few words, but is as smart as a whip when it comes to math. He has always lived with his parents, but they are quite elderly, and after his older brother passed away they had no plan for who would care for Maxim after they are unable to do so themselves. A couple of years ago his mama approached us and asked if we would be willing to take Maxim into our Wide Awake family when they pass. “You don’t have to do much for him. Just help him with his clothes and make sure to cook him food.” Of course our answer was YES! And we’ll do more than just help him with his clothes and feed him. We will love him and care for him always. He will never be alone. He will never be placed in an institution. NEVER.

When we were at the sea in the fall our team felt like we needed to start incorporating Maxim into the life of our team, so every week, twice a week, he joins our boys for lessons and special time together. Because Maxim has always been loved and cared for, he doesn’t carry trauma like our other boys. His joy is like a little child. He adds something special to our family and is God’s gift to us all.

Next I see Ruslan, and then a glimpse of Anton: my precious boys. They wasted away for years- for decades- living like animals. Now they are celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people who love them and have given their lives so that they could live. They are known. They are happy. They are growing and thriving. In the good and in the bad, they are loved and accepted for who they are. BELOVE[d]

Then Kostya, sitting next to Masha, pops into the scene. Oh, my heart was so happy to see him there! Kostya lives with his courageous mama and is a great addition to our little group. Kostya has Down Syndrome and is also autistic. His autism makes it very difficult to engage with him. He is nonverbal and can get easily overwhelmed by new situations. But, oh man, he is perfect for us. He is just the kind of boy we love to love. He can be easily passed over in social situations, and it’s hard to know what’s happening in his mind, but our little company is great for him and his mom. Our teacher, Tanya, has worked really hard to keep connection with them and to help insure they are not isolated. They belong with us.

Oh, and then there’s Sergei! Look at that sweet smiling face. He’s showing us the ornament he’s made and he’s so proud of his work. Man, he looks so good, so healthy.

We met Sergei and his mama a few months ago when they were referred to us by the director of the institution. Sergei’s mama has been raising him all on her own and had reached the point of overwhelm many months earlier. Their situation seemed impossible, and his mama felt the only situation was handing him over to the institution. She couldn’t see any other way to move forward. Since then our team has worked so very hard to help keep Sergei in the home. They have encouraged mom, included Sergei in our classes and activities and brought him into the life of our team. We are praying and acting, doing whatever we can to keep this family together. We don’t know what the end of the story will be, but for now Sergei has new friends and he and his mama are a part of something bigger than themselves. Oh, my heart leaped when I saw his smiling face- happy and loved by friends. Please pray for his mama. She has been brave for so long. Pray that she will open up to our help and that she would know the Father’s love.

I see our team and Kostya’s mom, looking on with love and care. I know them and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to make a little gathering like that come together. Oleg must have traveled all over town, picking everyone up and transporting them from their homes. Masha arranged the work schedule so there would be enough helping hands. Tanya planned the craft and made sure it was ready and developmentally appropriate. Max was there next to Anton, helping him to regulate his emotions within the bigger group. The candle was lit. I know music was playing- the atmosphere of love and warmth thought out and intentional. A gathering like that, with a group like that doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully created. But it is worth it that our boys would know they are loved and valued, and that they would feel Christmas cheer. 🙂

When I watch that video I remember the stories of how God brought so many different people together, people that 7 years ago we had no idea even existed, but are now our family.

Now go watch those 26 seconds again. Look into those faces and see what I see. I see beautiful, precious friends who were overlooked for too long, but are now celebrated. I see lives changed and I see love in action. Annnnd I’m thankful.

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My McDonalds Alter Ego

Yesterday I had McDonalds for lunch, and it was delicious. Big Mac Meal with Coke, thank you very much! Don’t mind if I do. 😋

Something interesting has happened to me over the past (almost) seven years of living in Ukraine. I have developed an alter ego when it comes to McDonalds. This change came upon me almost immediately upon moving to Ukraine, and while for some years I was embarrassed to admit it, I now fully embrace the McKrainain version of myself. No shame. No hiding. This is me- with ketchup.

Let me explain.

I feel like the US has this thing going on where everyone publicly denies their love for McDonalds, and yet McDonalds thrives and thrives. Last year they reported a revenue of more than 7 BILLION dollars…in the US alone! Soooo…as much as we might hate to admit it, someone’s gotta be eating all that McD’s…

I get it, I get it. It’s not necessarily the cool place to be seen at. I mean, if I was at McDonalds in the US and someone I know walked in, I’d feel like I kinda owed them an excuse. “Ummm Jed just really loves McDonalds. Of course I think it’s gross, but he’s just gotta have his McRib! I much prefer Chipotle, but you know…anywaysss…” (It’s so much easier to throw Jed under the bus, since he’s literally impossible to embarrass. Not that I take advantage of that. Ahem…) 🤷‍♀️

I have a friend who lives just up the hill from McDonalds in our home town in Oregon and I feel like I would do just about anything to make sure she never saw me in the drive-thru. Is it just me? Why all the McShaming? You gotta admit their fries are the besssssst. Come on, don’t be shy!

So yeah, when we lived in the US I was totally on the bash-McDonalds-bandwagon. But then, something about moving 6,000 miles away from everything familiar made me shift my perspective. Can’t imagine why.

In our city, McDonalds is the only American chain restaurant to be found. It’s also the only drive-thru, so there’s that. A couple hours away in Kyiv you can find KFC (but no biscuits or coleslaw, so yeah, not the same), Dominos, and maybe a small Baskin Robbins? But I think that’s it. And in our town, McDonalds is all we’ve got.

Upon our arrival in Ukraine with 4 littles and zero language skills, those Golden Arches spelled “HOME”. Once the jet-lag wore off and we kinda began to realize we were here for good, we couldn’t get there fast enough. Anytime we felt homesick or sad or helpless or stupid, a double cheeseburger and fries was what the doctor ordered. The food tasted the same. The menu was super similar. We could order basically in English and they could “mostly” understand us. In those early days, McDonalds not only filled our bellies, but it reminded us that we were not just the dumb Americans who couldn’t even grocery shop without feeling stupid. We were smart people with friends and family who loved us and a whole history of not-stupidness behind us. Seriously, Guys, nothing brings on humility stronger and faster than moving to a foreign country where English is not the official language. It’ll bring you down about 50 notches in the first 10 days. Ouch.

Evie and Daddy on a McDonalds Date

Over the years we’ve come to rely less on McDonalds to ease our pains, and it’s become more of a special treat. We take our kids there on dates. On the rare occasion when Jed and I are in town together without kids, we go there and it feels like our special secret. It tastes like home, even though we rarely ate it till we moved away from home. Oh the irony.

Another thing to note is that McDonalds is a totally legit place to eat in Ukraine. You would never be embarrassed to find one of your friends at McDonalds in our town. McDonalds is always a good idea here. It’s something special and it’s different than any other restaurant in our city. I feel zero McShame while in Ukraine. Bring on the burgers!

But, the minute the airplane touches down in the US, all that changes. I instantly become a person who wouldn’t even consider McDonalds. I am so high above McDonalds I can’t even be bothered to watch their commercials. All that grease! Why I never!

Is it because I don’t want to waste my time eating food in the States that is readily available in Ukraine? Is it because I’m surrounded by so many much tastier restaurants in the US and McDonalds isn’t special there? Or does the high schooler in me so readily succumb to peer pressure that I slide back in to my old prejudices as soon as I return to my old stomping grounds?

I could dive deeper into how all the parts of my personality shift from one continent to the other, but I’m not in the mood for introspection today. Let’s just say, that my McEgos are just one facet of the confusion that comes with living cross-culturally. What is widely acceptable to me in one place, does not always make the cut in the other. We’ve all become part chameleon over the past 7 years, I guess.

What about you? Have you ever traveled overseas? Did you have a hankering to eat at places that were familiar to you? Did the Golden Arches beckon? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on food as “home” and on McDonalds in generally. Because, why not? 😆

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My Joy

I remember the first time Jed and I ever visited Romaniv. It was in the spring of 2012 and we were in Ukraine just checking out what God had for us here. We thought we wanted to work with institutionalized people here, but we had never even been here! We knew zero language, pretty much zero about the culture and had never stepped foot in an institution. We were clueless, but we just wanted to follow Jesus and we knew He had something for us in Ukraine.

I remember we walked into Romaniv and were instantly surrounded by men. They were grabbing my hair, stroking our arms, taking our hands. The smells and sounds were completely overwhelming. But I distinctly remember catching Jed’s eye though the mob and both of us having this sense like “Yep, this is it. This is where we’re supposed to be.” We didn’t necessarily know that Romaniv was the place for us to be, but we definitely knew that we were supposed to be in close proximity and close relationship with the vulnerable and the broken.

Fast-forward 7 years and here we are, livin’ the dream in our Ukrainian village. 🙂

For the past couple of years my focus has had to be less and less on Romaniv, and the boys in the institution, and more and more here, at the Homestead with the boys in our home. I went to Romaniv at least once a week from the time we moved here until the fall of 2017 when I was more advanced in my (surprise!) pregnancy with Evie and it just didn’t feel safe to be there with a big belly. Plus, the terrible roads made my uterus very unhappy. 😉 I have visited some, over the past two years, but it has been infrequent and the visits have been too short for my liking.

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Then after Evie was born I still really couldn’t be at Romaniv because she was nursing and I couldn’t leave her for long enough periods of time to get there and back and to be able to have any time with the boys. We had Boris with us too, and I was simply needed at home. Then enter Ruslan and Anton and our lives were turned completely on their heads. Suffice to say, We’ve been rather busy. Oy.

During that time while I’ve been absent our awesome interns and our wonderful Vika have been serving as faithfully as ever, loving and serving the boys. Of course Jed has gone too, as time has allowed.

We always knew that the more boys we brought here, to the Homestead, the more our attention would need to shift toward home. There is just no way to be in both places at once. But man, we have missed our boys. We knew they were being well-loved by our team, but we have missed our friends.

That’s why I’m so so happy to say that I’ve recently been freed up to go regularly with our interns Romaniv! Vika has been overseeing the interns for the past three years and has been a wonderful leader and mentor for them. But over the past several months she has taken more and more of the lead on caring for Preston and at this point it is better for her and for him if she is able to focus solely on caring for him until his adoptive parents arrive. We want her to be able to give her best to Preston and not feel pulled in too many directions. So, for the time being, I get the privilege of working with our interns!

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Every other week I will go with them and spend the whole day with them as they work with the boys in the Isolation Hall. My role is basically to support them in any way I can. I’ll make sure they have everything they need, help liaison between them and administration, and mostly just be a supportive presence so that they know they are not alone in this difficult work. I’ve already gone twice with them and I’m JUST SO HAPPY!!!!

I’m so THANKFUL to get to spend time with the boys I love.

I’m so THANKFUL that Jed is behind this and is supporting me in this time away.

I’m so THANKFUL that Evie is a trooper and loves her brothers and sisters and daddy so much that she is okay without Mommy for a day.

A part of me that has had to lie dormant for a while is being brought back to life and it feels good and right to be there. Of course Romaniv is never going to be a comfy place or a ” nice” place to be, but it is one of the few places here in Ukraine where I feel completely myself. If you really think about it, the friendships we have there with our boys, some of the nannies, and administration are some of our oldest relationships here in Ukraine! We knew our boys before we knew our team! Sitting with them and just being with them, without distraction, without laundry to tend to or phone calls to make or meals to cook is a gift and I am not taking it for granted.

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Another gift that comes with going regularly to Romaniv is that the visits renew my empathy and compassion for the guys living in our home. When I am reminded, face to face, of where our guys came from I can see with fresh eyes just how far they’ve come. When I come home from a day at Romaniv I’m so full of gratitude that Vladik, Boris, Ruslan and Anton are safe at home and not back in that place. It also renews my purpose and passion to get the others out as soon as possible.

So, expect to see more of our Romaniv boys in this space in the coming months. I bet you’ve missed them too!

What’s Making Me Smile

I have about 3,462 things I could write about today, but I’m a bit overwhelmed by that thought. I could write about the plans for this summer (it’s gonna be a doozy), or the progress on the Homestead (also a doozy), or about Sara our wonderful massage therapist friend who is visiting (I won’t call her a doozy ’cause that just seems weird…), or about the fact that school is almost out (now that has been a doozy). But instead I decided to write about what is making me smile right now. Because I want to. The doozies can wait.

(“Doozy” is a really strange word when you really think about it)

THINGS THAT ARE MAKING ME SMILE:

Podcasts.  Everyone who has talked to me in the past several months has probably discovered my love/addiction to podcasts. I feel like I’m constantly trying to share my podcast recommendations with friends because I so want them to learn to love podcasts like I do. I love a good podcast! I download them and listen while I walk the dog, while I’m on the bus, while I’m walking to wherever I’m walking (if I’m kidless), while I wash the dishes, while I clean the house. I felt kinda burned out on the music I’d been listening to so I started podcasting. Now I can’t stop! Here are a few of my favorites if you want to join me in the podcast love.

  1. The Daily Audio Bible. We’re still going strong on our daily Bible reading with good ol’ Brian. We listen to the Old Testament during breakfast, and the New Testament in the evening after dinner. I love the rhythm it brings to our life right now in all the crazy.
  2. This American Life. They have interesting stories every week that grab my attention. Sometimes I learn new stuff and sometimes I’m just entertained.
  3. God Centered Mom Podcast. This one is encouraging and informative. It helps me be a more intentional mom.
  4. Two Fat Expats. LOVE IT. Two Australian women host this podcast about the expat life. They talk about all sorts of things from boarding school to keeping long distance friendships alive to social media and the expat child…tons of interesting and applicable info for expats of any sort. Plus they make me laugh. 🙂
  5. The Podcast With Knox and Jamie. This one is just purely for the laughs. I laugh out loud every single episode, which can make things kind of awkward if I’m listening on the bus! Knox and Jamie talk about random pop culture stuff and it’s just stinking’ funny. Their episode about misheard song lyrics is the ultimate. I think I love this podcast because it’s just a little taste of America when I’m so far away. FUNNY.

There are many more I listen to that I could add to that list, but those are the ones that are making me smile right now.

Sara. Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to write about Sara, but I just have to. Sara makes our whole family smile countless times every day. She is just full of joy and life and spirit and God did an amazing thing when he joined our hearts together.

If you don’t remember Sara you can read about her in this post. She came here two years ago, never having met us before, and spent a few weeks teaching massage at Romaniv. The work she did was beautiful and incredibly meaningful to the boys and they had been consistently asking for her since she left. We are so happy she’s back for the whole month of May! She is working at Romaniv Monday through Friday, and when she’s not at the institution she is loving our family and making us laugh non-stop.

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In the mornings at Romaniv Sara is teaching the interns specific massage techniques for the individual boys on each of their caseloads, and then she is spending the afternoons massaging the older boys. It’s not just a physical work that she does, although that is important and super healthy for the boys, it’s also a spiritual work. Before the massage and during the massage Sara is praying over the boys. There is peaceful music playing and lovely essential oils. The Sensory Room becomes an oasis of peace for each boy who enters. During their massage they get attention and love and dignity. They are told in that time that they are special, that they are beautiful, that they matter. It’s an important work that I believe is truly life-changing for the boys.

Thank you dear Sara. We love you!

The New Floors at the Homestead. I LOVE how the house is turning out! The downstairs floors were finished last week and they are bringing me loads of joy. They are beautiful and they brighten up the room. I absolutely adore how the house is coming along. Yay! We might be able to move in at that beginning of June. Now that’s something to smile about!

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Dance Class. Oh my word. Romaniv Dance Class makes me smile from ear to ear. I wish with all of my heart that you could each come visit our class. You would leave changed forever.

A couple of months ago one of our team members, Olya, Addy and I started doing a Friday afternoon dance class with the higher functioning boys at the institution. They love and it and we love it equally as much- maybe even a little more! We gather in the sports room with our music and water bottles and white t-shirts and socks and dance our hearts out. There’s this one part of the class when we all sit down and each boy takes a turn dancing solo in front of all of us. You guys, it is the best thing EVER. I seriously want to bottle up those moments and treasure them for the rest of my life because they are just so darn precious!  To see the boys so free and alive, it’s just incredible. We conga line till we’re exhausted and it’s the highlight of my week.

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Honestly, there is a lot that is hard about our lives and work here in Ukraine right now. Sometimes Jed and I look at each other and we wonder out loud if we are going to spend the rest of our lives fighting, or if there will ever be a time when we can just rest. We get weary of fighting for the boys, fighting injustice, fighting broken systems that are designed to beat people down, fighting corruption, fighting heaviness in the culture, fighting to do things that have never been done before. Fighting and fighting and fighting. It’s wearisome, folks. But then we have to choose to lift our eyes up and see all the joy.  There is also a ton that is going right. There is evidence all over the place that God has his mighty hand on this work and that He is going before us. And of course there’s no question that the boys are worth fighting for! But we have to choose to see those things that are right and good. Today I choose joy. I choose to look around me at all the things- big and small- that God has given that make me smile. So.many.things.

So, Happy Wednesday!  What is making you smile today?