The B Word

In my mind, bureaucracy might as well be a 4 letter word. Almost all of my most anxiety-ridden, ulcer-inducing memories have centered on some kind of government agency. My palms get sweaty, my heart rate quickens and I have the pit-of-the-stomach feeling that things are going to crumble apart and I will end up in some underground cell in some unpronounceable place.

Today I had the joy sitting in the Lithuanian immigration office for the second time, since, well, the first time after a 3 hour wait, my application was summarily rejected by an ill-tempered woman who, though I know she spoke English (because I had heard her in the office) refused to do so with me. She had sent me off that time with a sneer and a list of other documents I needed. This time, I believed I had the documents, but no. Not only did she reject the ones I offered, but she added to the list. Now I have 2 more things I have to track down before my current visa expires in about a month.

I don’t think it is coincidence that I have started re-reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, given to me by a beloved mentor who had been battling cancer at the time. To crudely paraphrase the beautifully poetic and convicting memoir, count your blessings. Literally. (That is for my roommate, K. We roll our eyes at how horribly misused is the word ‘literally,’ but here, I mean it).

To live a grateful, thankful, eucharisteo-filled life is to count each day, and all that comes in it, as a gift from God.

I had a hard time with this one on the bus ride home from immigration. Knowing that I am called to pray for my enemies, I prayed for the ill-tempered woman who has (twice!) rejected my application. My prayer was studded with words like “heathen,” “wrath,” and “smite.” When I caught myself, I rather reluctantly changed my mind, but my heart is harder (I mean that in both senses). Being at immigration and dealing with her and the whole process makes me bitter. It makes me dislike being here. It makes me long for the US where, though not perfect, the ways are familiar.

But today, but immigration, is the gift that God has given me today. I count it, even though I don’t understand it at all.

Today, my landlord and landlady were incredibly kind to drive me to immigration, wait with me, and help me understand what the ill-tempered woman was telling me. Today, though my status is in flux, I have the stability of a wonderful job teaching university students, a comfortable flat. Today, I went to the grocery store at the bottom of the hill and bought good, (somewhat) healthy food which I will prepare tonight and enjoy with my roommate while we binge watch Netflix. I am not a refugee stranded at a foreign border. I am not in fear for my life, or that of family members. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1,000. I am thankful, for this is the day that the Lord has made, and I will absolutely rejoice in it.


Mourning in a foreign land

Today I went to the funeral of a young woman who worked in my university’s office. I have known her for just about a year. When I think of her, the word ‘radiant’ comes to mind. She is statuesque, expressive, quirky. I have never seen her without a smile and a readiness to help. On my first day at the university, she shepherded me through the labyrinthine personnel offices and made sure that I got every signature and stamp. Each morning she greeted me warmly and gave me my classroom key. I knew she had been battling cancer for some time, and that she was undergoing treatment for a recurrence, but except for the scarf she wore to cover her bald head, to look at her was to see–life.

She died on Thursday and her funeral was today, Saturday. Compared to funerals in the U.S., this seems pretty fast, though I know in some practices, where the body is not embalmed, the funeral also takes place within a few short days. She was cremated. I don’t know if this is a typical practice here.

A part of me was the cultural observer: so, this is how Lithuanians conduct funerals. This is the way they mourn their dead.  Another part was broken for her stoic mother, whose hands trembled but sat otherwise still; for her husband who wore aviator sunglasses, behind which tears fell.

I have been told her funeral was typical. Family and friends gathered in a chapel-like room at a funeral home where her urn was placed on a dais for viewing. Flowers, mainly white, surrounded the dais. There was a picture of her, which looked like it might have been taken from her national ID card–black and white with very little expression. Mementos and trinkets were laid next to her urn. Pottery angels, small stones, some candles, and a few stuffed-animal sheep. She must have liked sheep. In the background, U2 songs played. I can only guess that they were her favorite band. We sat in the chapel for about an hour. People came and went; they left more flowers and mementos. I was told that this was a time of reflection. I prayed. Some people around me whispered to one another. After a while, a priest came in and everyone stood. He read from a book of funereal liturgy. I recognized some Hail Marys. Then, all of the flowers and mementos were gathered up and all in attendance drove in caravan to the cemetery where her family’s plot had been prepared. After the priest said a few more words and sprinkled her urn with holy water, a grave digger came and lowered her urn into the hole. The priest took a handful of dirt and dropped it down the hole. Then her mother and her husband did the same. They dropped some bouquets of flowers down the hole too. Then we all watched as the grave digger filled in the hole. He was meticulous in his shoveling and scraping and forming, so that when he was finished, a perfect rectangle of raised dirt, with a cross scraped in it, stood above her. A temporary grave marker was planted in the hole. Then the family arranged the flowers and candles over her grave. A few people spoke, I presume sharing some fond memory of her, or telling her how much she would be missed. My Lithuanian is not good enough to know. Then after a few moments, we all left the grave.

I was a bystander today. Most of this is because of culture and language, and the fact that though I knew her, and I will miss her, I am not family or a close friend. So much of today I felt like an outsider, a stranger whose presence was either tolerated, or barely noticed as those more touched by grief struggled in that grief.

Grief makes me awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t like it, not just here in Lithuania where I am clearly an outsider, but even in the U.S. I never know how to comfort or how to be comforted. At my father’s funeral, I wanted nothing more than to find a place away from everyone and just sit in silence. I didn’t want to hear stories about him. I didn’t want to talk about him. I almost took my mom’s car keys and drove off, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon her. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be alone with my grief, and so when I meet someone else in theirs, my instinct is to leave them be. To run from the awkwardness and discomfort. This is selfish, because I don’t want to be there, but I also think it is natural.

Death is wrong. It shouldn’t be here. I disagree with those who say death is a part of life. It’s not. It was never designed to be. And so when I am confronted with the unnaturalness of death, I want to flee from it. I look forward to the day when death is no more, but until then, I have to muddle through the awkwardness and discomfort. I don’t know what her beliefs were, and I don’t know what would bring comfort to her family. Right now, probably very little. But I know One who is the source of all peace, and so to Him I turn in times like these. I pray, in all of my awkwardness and discomfort, for the peace that passes all understanding to fill those who mourn. I pray for the day when there will be no more mourning.

International runner

It was only a 5K race, but it was the first race I’d run since moving here. I can say that Lithuanian runners are pretty much the same as runners in the U.S., and for a people who do not usually smile at strangers as they walk down the street (or anywhere, really) I was surprised by the enthusiastic cheerers who lined the route. I even got a couple of hand-slaps! I did notice, though, that along with handing out water after the race, there were beers being passed around as well. Here is a before and after (before and after the race, not beer. I didn’t drink any!). 10422186_10102058922599958_8978618208804858391_n11031031_10102058947684688_6144957233469391477_n

A Visit from Mom

Okay, I know I am super late in getting these out, but it’s now the end of the school year (another post for that!) and I’ve been busy. But, I wanted to post a few pictures from April when my mom was able to visit and get a glimpse of what life is like here in the LT. Unfortunately for Mom, or rather, so she could have an authentic Vilnius experience, the weather was cold and rainy and unpredictable. I think we got one sunny day the entire two weeks. And of course, we’ve had beautiful weather since she left.

Around Vilnius

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Klaipeda and Nida

 IMG_4744IMG_4822IMG_4806IMG_4761IMG_4767  The beach sign: I have to point out that the top figures are all wearing bathing suits. The ones on the lower left are not.  Looks like clothing optional! Too bad it was a little too cold for beach-going. Maybe in the summer!


Kaziuko Muge: St. Casimir fair


This weekend, most of the streets in Old Town Vilnius shut down and became one massive art and craft fair. Kaziuko Muge, or St. Casimir’s Fair, is the annual celebration of the patron saint of Lithuania. And how do you celebrate your patron saint? With kibinai (the best little pastry and meat pockets ever) and meat on skewers, of course!

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There was also an array of folk art, like these dried flower arrangements, which I have been told are taken to church on Easter to be blessed by priests, and local ceramics.


A highlight of the fair is a procession down Gedimino Avenue, one of the main streets, headed by an effigy of St. Casimir himself, and complete with stilt-walkers, folks in traditional dress, a band accompaniment, and people in wagons tossing candy into the crowds.

St Casimir The press of people was a little hard to bear sometimes, especially on Saturday, when mainly families came out with their children and strollers and dogs. If you don’t appreciate being whacked in the legs by children wielding wooden swords and battle axes, perhaps Friday or Sunday is best, when the whacking is at a minimum. I went all three days, so I got a feel for it all.

Of course, I couldn’t go away empty handed, though I did manage also to buy next year’s Christmas gifts, so it wasn’t entirely selfish. The weather was pleasant the entire weekend, though Friday evening was rather cold. I started to lose feeling in my fingers trying to eat my gulash, but it wasn’t anything that a few cups of karstas vynas (mulled hot wine) couldn’t cure!


It has been a terribly long time since I’ve written, and it has not been out of avoidance of posting about Christmas or New Years.

December was pretty busy: I presented a paper at a conference in Poland. I had a great time writing and researching–I mean, how can you not with a topic like masculinity and trauma in The Hunger Games?!? The conference was not well attended, but my paper was well received, and I was able to see a friend in Krakow that I haven’t seen in about 3 years. I am glad that I went; however, it seems that I picked up a crazy computer bug, because as soon as I got back, my computer started misbehaving, telling me it needed to ‘configure’. But once the update was finished, I would get an error message and it would have to revert to its original format. Then I would get a message that the computer needed to ‘configure’ and then I would get an error message and it would revert to its original. And then…*sigh*

I have not solved the issue, but my computer is at least back to functional.

But I have been thinking about the idea of configuring–of being set into a new arrangement or order. Part of it is the annual ‘to resolve or not to resolve’ come New Years–I don’t. I rarely follow through with resolutions, and I don’t want to start the year with a list of failures. Part of it is that my birthday is in January, and I grow a year older. Not sayin’ how old.

So, the germ of configuring, and failing to configure, has been in my mind for a while. It strikes me that any real, lasting change in my life has been initiated, and indeed fueled, but something outside myself. That is not to say that I am not a disciplined person. Though the occasional chocolate bar tempt me, I still would say that if I set a goal, I tend to complete it. After all, I have run a marathon; I spent the last 6 years earning my Ph.D.; I have written 3 full-length novels (still working on getting them published). But when I say lasting change, I don’t mean accomplishments. I am not the sum of my accomplishments–in fact, my accomplishments do not define me or my value. They are neat things to say that I have done, and I am proud of them, but when I say lasting change, I don’t mean one more check off of a list of things I want to do or see or get.

I mean: I once thought my worth was based on what I did; I once thought that if I tried hard enough, I could fix myself; I once was dead, but now I am alive. I couldn’t do that on my own. When I tried, I kept getting a ‘failure to configure’ message. The grace of God in Jesus Christ had to configure me.

It has been over 20 years since He ran His configuring ‘update’ and opened my eyes, yet I feel sometimes as if it were only yesterday and my eyes are opened fresh and clear again. Leaving the computer metaphor for a moment (thankfully), I sometimes wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He said there would be springs of living water flowing from deep within the one who believes in Him. It is life-giving, this water. It configures you (sorry, had to return). Imagine having thought that dial-up was all there was, and suddenly you discover high speed wi-fi. Yah, it’s like that.


Terry Pratchett wrote, “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” (from Going Postal). The past several days here in Lithuania have been filled with remembering, with moments where, perhaps, the dead are not dead because they are not forgotten.

On November 1, Lithuanian families gathered at the grave sites of family members, decorated them with candles and flowers, and solemnly commemorated loved ones gone. In Lithuanian, this day is called Velines, better known on the Catholic calendar as All Saints Day. I was able to go to one of the larger cemeteries  in Vilnius and witness this somber celebration of life and memory. As the sun went down, candles lit the landscape. There was something very beautiful, and peaceful, about this practice.

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On Sunday, my church (which is an international, English-speaking church) hosted a Remembrance Day memorial, attended by dignitaries from all over Europe and North America. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Psalms and poems and tributes were read, hymns were sung, prayers were said, wreathes were laid. When a Lithuanian military honor guard marched up the aisle to lay their wreath, I cried, as it reminded me of my father’s funeral. Though much of the business was diplomatic, I thought it was a fitting service to honor veterans of the past.

I’ve heard it said (and try as I might, I couldn’t find the quote anywhere) that memorials are for the living. In an earthly sense, yes, I would agree with this. We the living remember and commemorate for our own sense of peace, for the sake of honor, for the continuance of healing. But I also believe that those who are no long here, still live. There is profound hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. I have a feeling that there is much celebration before our Lord, and remembrance of His faithfulness.