Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The seven of us spent five days backpacking in Retezat National Park a couple weeks ago as a part of our Experiential Education course. I could try to describe our experience but I wouldn't really be able to portray it as it was. The beauty, the struggle, the journey...

I miss the Retezat.

Life in Lupeni is not the trail, but I kind of wish it was. The lessons I learned in the Retezat are transferrable to everyday life but they have to be interpreted to fit my present reality rather than contain the rawness they had on the trail. Outbursts, tears, and extremes in general don’t seem to fit well into everyday life here. The Retezat demanded energy and engagement. We noticed beauty, we took time to process. The intensity level in the Retezat allowed for breakthroughs, for overcoming.

Each day here in Lupeni I seem to be simply going through the motions, quietly observing. Where is the intentionality? I think of myself as someone who is difficult to love and often times hard to understand. I don’t always fit in with those around me---most of the time feeling uncomfortable. I think that discomfort comes from always feeling like I should hold back. I think intensity is beautiful. I think honesty is worth the frustration it sometimes causes. It is my hope that the seven of us, together in Lupeni, would push the limit of this experience; that we might demand more of one another than we have thus far.

In the Retezat I learned that I have the capacity to love and trust others well. I learned that I am stronger than I once thought. I learned that to serve the kingdom I don't have to be the smartest or the best, I just sometimes need to take a step. I learned that though I trust the Lord, but I don't always trust myself. I learned a lot about fear and it’s power. I learned a lot about our group and how we get in our own way sometimes.

Lord, let the lessons of the Retezat invade our daily life here in Lupeni. Let intensity and intentionality be noticable in how we as a group interact with one another during our time together. Lord, I was aware of your presence when I was out on the trail, but here in Lupeni I struggle to find you. I miss you…the You that I am used to…take away my longing to worship and pray in a place and a community that makes sense to me. Help me to remain engaged as our experience here in Romania continues. Keep us safe.


Moving Beyond Misconceptions

My name is Matt Gray and this is my first blog post. I am currently writing from a small farm in Lupeni. It is Saturday afternoon, and it is harvest.

I am not sure where to start in telling the story of what has happened here for me in Romania, but I can tell you that I am extremely thankful and happy to be here. It feels as though life is put on pause yet is also put on fast forward. I know that in only two short months I will be back in North America and will be faced with the many issues that I do not have to face now. While these issues are real and I do look forward to them there is a wonderful peace that accompanies the reality that I do not need to worry about them or deal with them now. Growing up my mum always teased at a saying that her father used to say: “All in the fullness of time.” In Romania I have accepted this once thought dull saying, and feel extremely free to pursue and embrace the life and circumstances that God has given me now, in the present.

(Top Right: Small Orthodox Church at the Straja mountain community)

(Bottom Right: The NWC group in our second week on top of Mt. Straja)

On now three occasions I have had the privilege of attending a Romanian Orthodox church service. Every time I enter an Orthodox service I feel as though I am entering something sacred, bigger than myself, mysterious and yet familiar. Growing up at a church in the West when I thought of Orthodox churches I thought of something old, where people call themselves Christians and yet live differently on Sundays than they do throughout the rest of the week. I thought that we may have it right and they may have it wrong.Now that I am here I know that neither the West nor the East have it right. This probably is because there is a West and East – there is a separation in the body.

I appreciate the mystical and sacred atmosphere and thought of the Orthodox church. God is known to all and yet is unknown and cannot fully be known. It seems that in Western thought we tend to want to understand everything about God, and conversations on the nature of God turn to arguments. The fact that God is supreme and is beyond our understanding seems to be added as a clause the end of our arguments.From what I have encountered in Orthodox thought, when talking of God, the mystical and unexplainable nature of God is stated first and is crucial to their understanding of faith, worship, church life, daily life, and theological arguments. God is not known and yet has revealed himself on earth through many different means.

I also value how when God is spoken of it is naturally assumed that “God” refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At least in my experience I often forget of the three-fold nature of God.

We have only begun our Eastern Orthodoxy class and I am eager to learn more. In the readings for our second class we read about the life of the Orthodox Church in Russia during the 80 ish year militant atheist communist rule. I was amazed at how oppressed the church was – even more so than any persecution during the Roman Empire – and yet in that time the Russian church survived and thrived despite opposition within and outside of the church. Church properties and buildings were stolen, monks, nuns, priests, bishops and patriarchs were arrested, imprisoned and in many cases killed. The church had the right to meet occasionally, yet they could not publish any church writings, could not meet outside of Sunday morning, could not talk of God, and were constantly persecuted via mental terror. I read that in these 80 years of extreme persecution the West had almost no idea of what was going on in the East. When interviewed by western magazines Orthodox priests could not report of the Russian situation because of either a switch of allegiance from their faith to communism, or because they were told that the communists would grant more freedom if they kept quiet.

When Communism fell in Russia and there now was the much wanted religious freedom, the Russian Orthodox church was overwhelmed. There was an extreme shortage of clergy, every church property was in dire shape, and there was a huge shortage of money. To add further complications, now that the doorways to the east were opened western churches came to the East in full force with more money and a louder voice than the East. The West had little regard for the life and persecutions that the Orthodox Church underwent let alone their triumph of keeping a Christian foothold in a broken nation.

It seems that the West responds the same in similar situations in today’s world. We enter with our money and banners raised thinking that what we have is what everyone else needs. I have heard people that have come to the West from the East say that westerners are ignorant. I think that this ignorance could better be named as insensitivity. I hope that the root of “Western Expansion” or “Globalization” is that we want to help. In future times I think that we would be better to listen to the stories rather than to come in and change the story to how we see fit. By listening, seeking to understand, engaging and then partnering with the people we want to help the West could both do good and reveal the dignity of others. If the West were to do this to the East, many of the hurts and divisions in God’s one Catholic Church could be healed, and it could grow and flourish as originally intended.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Adventures of a Picky Eater

Last night for supper, as a plate was placed in front of me, I could only think, “What is this abomination...?” They’d taken one of my favorite things—meat—and put it into a position of submission to that which is most vile and wretched: red peppers. Not wanting to appear displeased or unappreciative, I put on a surprised smile and said “Oh! Mulțumesc!” (Thank you), knowing that I would soon be in misery.

So far, this semester has been one surprise after another. Especially with food. I’ve never considered myself a “picky” eater, especially since I love backpacking and other outdoors experiences, many of which include eating random items from the “natural” world. But several of the foods that I had previously deemed “inedible to any sane person,” –namely mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, and, yes, red peppers—appear to be some of the most common delicacies. Brilliant.

It began on our backpacking trip through Retezat National Park. After our first day of hiking, our Romanian guides had found, cut up, and had begun preparing the largest mushrooms I had ever seen. Preparing them, apparently, for human consumption. I had never been more disgusted in my life. But, mustering up an adventurous spirit, I took some. And ate it. And it…was delicious! Absolutely, positively, without a doubt delicious! I’d never been more shocked! I took some more, and it was even better! The crack in my wall had begun.

It continued when my host-mother made, what she called, “pizza.” It was essentially toasted bread covered in a cheese-like substance, sprinkled with a few shreds of mystery meat, and decked out to the max with mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, and red peppers. All that is vile in the world was concentrated on this pizza. But, remembering my experience with the mushrooms, I took a bite with a smile. And it was great! Once again, I couldn’t believe my taste buds! I must’ve eaten about half a pan of that pizza…

Since then, I’ve been willing to go a little further, try other things that I had never liked, even taking the time to slice a tomato just to put it on my own sandwich. Realization of how much transformation I’d gone through occurred to me when I walked into our classroom building lunchroom and asked the other students, “Are there anymore tomatoes?” I never imagined that I would say something like that… Truly, I had come very far.

But then, last night, my host mother went too far. Even with all the memories of being surprised by Romanian cooking, stuffed peppers were one step over the edge. Just the smell of those horrid monstrosities brought my nose hairs to a boil. Nothing could make me enjoy these obscenities, these anathemas.

But, once again mustering all my adventurous spirit, I cut a piece, stuck it with a fork, brought it to my mouth, and tasted.

I cleaned my plate within a matter of minutes.

Moral of the story: Never judge a book by its cover. Don’t be afraid to try new things. And above all, always trust your mother, biological or otherwise.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


"Think like Malcolm."

That was the thought that came to me quite unexpectedly on Monday morning during my walk to class. It didn't really have anything to do with what I was doing at the moment. I had just left my host family's house after finishing a rather large breakfast of ham and eggs and bread with jam. I had the start of a cold, which was making the cold morning air a bit of a nuisance. And I was excited for our first class on Eastern Orthodoxy. None of this bore any real resemblance to being on an island full of dinosaurs, watching everything fall into chaos. Still, the thought made me smile.

It also made me smile later that day, on my way back home. Even though I had just heard from my mom that there has still been no news about my grandma, who was in and out of the hospital during our backpacking trip with what they think - but aren't certain - might have been a stroke. Even after learning that my other grandma's dog had been put to sleep because of some sort of tumor. And even after learning that my sister and her boyfriend of more than a year and a half had just broken up, quite suddenly and unexpectedly.

The thought also brought a smile to my face while I was journaling that night. Even after I had completely broken down in front of my host family. Even after struggling to eat even half of a dinner that I suddenly had little appetite for. Even after forcing myself to read most of the homework that was due the next day, even though I couldn't have cared less at the moment about community development or agency or solidarity or which group of people conquered Romania way, way, way back when.

"Think like Malcolm."

For those of you who haven't seen Jurassic Park - and for those of you who saw the movie, stared in awe at the special effects, and then went on with the rest of your lives without reading the book an excessive number of times - this probably deserves a little explanation.

Here's Jurassic Park in a nutshell: John Hammond has cloned dinosaurs from blood he found in mosquitoes and is keeping the dinosaurs on an island in the hope of opening up an amusement park. He invited paleontologist Alan Grant, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler, and chaotician Ian Malcolm to come check it out. Malcolm knows what Hammond has done and has already predicted that the park will fail . . . but agrees to come, anyway. The other two haven't got a clue what's going on until they get there.

So they arrive at the park, ooh and ahh for a while, and discuss how lethal velociraptors are. Malcolm insists that things will all go wrong, that "life cannot be contained. It breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers - painfully, maybe even dangerously. But life, uh, finds a way."

Hammond ignores him and sends them on a tour of the park - along with his lawyer and his two grandkids. And things do go wrong. The fences fail. The T-rex gets loose, nearly eats Malcolm, then ends up tossing him aside, deciding he wasn't too tasty, after all. In the movie, the lawyer gets eaten. In the book, two juvenile velociraptors are spotted on a boat headed for the mainland. And Dr. Grant and the kids end up lost in the park.

After this, if you ask me, is where the movie falls short of the book. Malcolm spends the rest of the book lying in bed with a badly broken leg, slowly becoming more and more delirious from the pain and the morphine. And, while it may not be great movie material, his conversations with Dr. Sattler and arguments with Hammond are fascinating, and reveal a depth to Malcolm's character that the movie could have used. These conversations are what I was referring to when I told myself to "think like Malcolm."

First of all, Malcolm realizes just how small, how insignificant, their little problem is. When Hammond expresses concern that the dinosaurs might have "gotten loose and destroyed the world," Malcolm is quick to put things in perspective, insisting that Hammond is an "egomaniacal idiot." "Do you have any idea what you're talking about?" he asks. "You think you can destroy the planet? My, what intoxicating power you must have. You can't destroy this planet. You can't even come close."

So that's the first thing. No matter how bad my problems seem, no matter how much chaos there seems to be in my life, no matter how helpless I feel, it is not the end of the world. It's not even close.

Second, Malcolm has enough humility to recognize when there is nothing he can do about a problem. He doesn't resent his helplessness, his inability to fix the situation. Instead, he accepts it with calmness, and even with a smile and a joke. He alone acknowledges that the situation has spiraled out of anyone's control - or, more accurately, that they never had control in the first place.

This is hard for me. But it's something I have to accept. Whether I like it or not, the simple fact is that I can't do a thing about what's going on back in Minnesota or Illinois or Virginia. Yes, I can pray, but, when I do, I've found myself ending with the phrase, "Thy will be done," acknowledging that the situation is out of my hands - just as it should be.

Lastly, and perhaps most relevantly, Malcolm never loses his sense of humor. Because he can see the big picture, because he realizes that he has no control, he is able to see the humor in the situation. He jokes that he was "trying to get a leg up on the situation." When the velociraptors get loose and almost get into the control room, he simply comments on how ugly they are. And the last we hear of Ian Malcolm in the book is this short sentence: "And he smiled."

So I'm trying to smile. To laugh. To see the humor - or at least the irony. The irony that this has forced me to trust and confide in my host family more than any trust fall or ropes course or even climbing a mountain could ever hope to.

Maybe the biggest irony of Jurassic Park is that Malcolm was even on the island to begin with. He knew what could happen better than anyone else there - even (or especially) Hammond. He knew he probably wouldn't get off the island alive. But he was there, anyway.

Well, I knew, coming here, that life wouldn't simply stop at home when I left. I knew communication would be hard. I knew I wouldn't be able to hug my sister or call my parents whenever I wanted to. I didn't know exactly what would happen, but I knew something could. And I knew that, if it did, I wouldn't be able to do a thing about it. But I am here, anyway.

"Think like Malcolm." I think God gave me those words as a gift that morning. He knew I would need them. He knew that my fondness for a fictional character could give me the will to face chaos and helplessness with a smile, rather than turning tail and retreating to the nearest sanctuary I could find. The advice isn't going to magically make everything better. But it's helping. And it still makes me smile.

So, if anyone has bothered to read this far, I would like to ask you to pray for my family. For all of us. Those of us who willingly stepped onto this island full of dinosaurs, and others who had no idea what they were walking into. Thank you for your prayers, and for putting up with my slightly obsessive metaphors that may or may not have made any sense.

Godspeed, or, as my Romanian friends would say, Pace si Doamne ajuta,


Friday, September 18, 2009

Zacusca! (the second post . . .)

To piggy-back off of Michele's post - I also wanted to say how much of a blessing it was to be a part of the Zacusca making processes. Dana and Brandi,
(The women are hard at work peeling peppers, while the men overlook with refined approval)
being the extremely gracious people that they are, offered their home and available garden veggies to the Szabo family for a day of Zacusca making. So, naturally, Dana and Brandi
thoughtfully herded all of us NW students over to their house to help with the ancient Zacusca creation process.

It was awesome to be a part of the Szabo family for a day - making a veggie spread that is a small piece of Romanian culture. Andre, Marianna, and Dani Szabo were very hospitable in their efforts to include us in the process, even though we understood them mainly through hand gestures and translation. Yet, work seems to be something that is universal - and it was a joy to work along-side and learn from this family.

(Above: Matt Grey gleaning recipe wisdom from the greats)
(Below: Taylor and Matt getting learned in grinding skilz)

Apparently, Zacusca is made and canned in the fall primarily so that it may be eaten in the winter, when fresh vegetables are scarce. It was truly an honor to be an active part in the Zacusca making processes, because it gives us a window into the greater Romanian tradition and heritage that has made and eaten Zacusca for centuries.
(The Zacusca crew)

Matt Grey was kind enough to prepare a recipe/instructions for anyone willing and/or brave enough to create the infamous Zacusca. Here it is (e-mail me if you would like a word document):

Zacusca Recipe

**For 1 Portion – 15 to 18 400 gram jars of Zacusca**

(1 Kg = 1 liter)


5 Kg Eggplant

3 Kg Red Pepper (Kapia [long red pepper])

2 Kg Onion (white)

1 Kg Tomato Juice -OR- 200 g Tomato Paste

1.5 Kg Vegetable Oil (sunflower oil)

2-3 Bay Leaves

1 Packet of conservant

Salt and Pepper to taste (rock salt is preferred)


  1. Peel and slice all onions on wooden cutting board.
    • Peel, place in water, then slice on wooden board and place in large pot.
    • Note: Since cooking peppers takes longer, begin step 2 before step 1 (order of steps is flexible depending on number of participants and group circumstances).
  2. Blacken/burn all red peppers over wood fire and place in basin covered by damp cloth, until ready for step 3.
  3. Using a large basin of water, remove stem, seeds, and blackened skin from burnt red peppers, revealing cooked red skin. Place cleaned red skin in a large pot/basin.
  4. Once all red peppers are cooked, start to cook eggplant over wood fire. Rotate once a side is brown and the skin peels to reveal brown underneath. Each side takes approximately a half hour – cook time depends on fire. Eggplant skin will turn from Black/purple to brown. Skin will crack, and each eggplant will turn from hard to soft.
  5. Cook all onions in 1 Kg vegetable oil in large pot on stove. Cook time is 30 min to 1 hour. Onions are done once they are very soft. Stir with wooden spoon. Once cooked, strain (but do not dispose) vegetable oil out of onions, and let onions cool.
  6. Once eggplants have cooked and cooled, proceed to remove blackened skin and dispose of skin in a bucket. Place all remaining mushy inner eggplant (non skin/stem) in a large basin.
    • Note: remove stem after all the skin has been peeled off in order to keep inner eggplant integrity.
    • Have a basin of water nearby to continually rinse black skin off hands.
  7. Using a hand-turned meat grinder/mill/food processor, grind all cleaned red peppers, cooled (cooked) onions, and eggplant and combine in a very large basin. Do not stir until all onions, peppers and eggplant has been ground.
  8. Add tomato paste -OR- tomato juice to ground vegetables
  9. Add strained vegetable oil (from onions) back into ground vegetables and tomato paste.
  10. Mix using a large wooden spoon
  11. Mix in ground black pepper and rock salt to taste (quite a bit for 1 portion)
    • Continually check taste through remaining mixing
  12. Mix in remaining .5 Kg of unused vegetable oil
  13. Mix in 1 packet of conservant
  14. Put mix in large cooking pot
  15. Put 3 bay leaves on top of the pot contents. Leave pot uncovered.
  16. Cook at a hot temperature for 2 hours. Stir every 30 minutes. Be sure to check Zacusca – cooking may not take 2 hours
  17. When cooking is finished, place Zacusca in glass jars.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Zacusca Day!

Last Saturday we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make Zacusca, which is very traditional to Romanian culture. This is like a vegetable spread that one would most likely eat on bread, and it is canned so it will last a very long time. Some of the ingredients include red peppers, eggplant, onion, tomato paste, salt and pepper, and vegetable oil. It was a very long process that took much time and patience. However, it tastes wonderful and we had so much fun doing it! Here are some pictures to capture the day, and hopefully we can get the recipe posted soon so you will all know how to make it!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Buna Ziua!

Most people who know me know that I like quotes. I like to quote books, movies, and television shows. After all, "Nobody tosses a Dwarf!" is the perfect thing to shout before jumping from platform to platform on a ropes course. And who doesn't appreciate a quiet "My precioussss!" during a lesson about possessive pronouns? If I don't know the exact wording of a quote, chances are I'll look it up - either in a book or online.

There's one quote in particular that has been on my mind recently, a rather lengthy one from a television show called Babylon 5. It first occurred to me last Tuesday as we were hiking up to the ropes course, and I haven't been able to dislodge it since. Its relevance surprised me, given the fact that the show takes place on a space station 150 years in the future and under circumstances not at all similar to the ones I've found myself in recently. But I suppose that only proves the speaker's point. So here's the quote (yes, I had to go look it up) along with a few of my own thoughts.

"The Universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. The language is not Narn or human or Centauri or Gaim or Minbari." The language is not English or Spanish or German or Chinese or Romanian.

"It speaks in the language of hope." It's easy to look around here and see only problems. Trash everywhere. Polluted water. Stray dogs. But there is also beauty. The guys and I have nicknamed a large part of Straja "Rohan" because it looks just like the horse-country from the books we all love. There have been times when I've looked at a hill and thought "That belongs in the Shire" or at a river and seen not the trash on the banks, but the beauty of the water. There is beauty. Hope. Especially at Viata camp, the atmosphere is one of hope. Of what could be rather than what is at the moment.

"It speaks in the language of trust." As far as trust goes, it was fairly easy for me to trust the kids at camp. After all, I had nothing to lose. No one they could tell would care about the time when I . . . [insert embarrassing story here] . . . or that when I was eleven, I . . . [insert personal, emotional story here]. And what's the worst that could happen if they dropped me during a trust fall? That log was maybe four feet off the ground.

No, I was much more impressed by how much they learned to trust each other. As the week progressed, they became more and more of a group. The night before camp ended, most of them stayed up until five in the morning, just talking. Sharing. The next morning, when asked to give the group a "trust rating," I said that, because of language differences, I hadn't gotten to know all of them very well individually. "But, as a group," I added, "I trust you." We spoke the same language that day - the language of trust.

"It speaks in the language of compassion." While we were at the ropes course, there were several times when a member of our group would wait for a good five or ten minutes before jumping from a platform or continuing along a rope. It didn't matter how long it took. There was encouragement, but not pressure. Nobody rushed them beyond their ability. Time wasn't the issue. Compassion was.

I would add that we all speak in the language of smiles and the language of laughter. I don't tend to talk a lot, but I smile often and laugh easily, and that does wonders for communication. We speak in the language of joy and the language of song. I joined in every camp song I could, and even learned from Dragos, one of our leaders, that one particular song called "Hey, Angelo" didn't mean anything in Romanian, either. Almost all of it was absolute gibberish. It was a language all its own - a language we all spoke.

"It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul." I think G'kar's words speak for themselves here.

"It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us..." At the beginning of the week, we went to an Orthodox church. On the way, there was a tunnel painted on the inside with pictures of various saints. A calendar filled an entire side, each day with a saint. These pictures were a silent reminder on the way to church that our voices were joined not only with whoever else happened to be in that building on that particular Sunday, but with so many of our ancestors in faith, all speaking together as one.

"...and the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born." A reminder that we will not be the last to inhabit this world. That there will be more. That life will go on, whether thanks to or in spite of us.

"It is the small, still voice that says, 'We are One.'"

"No matter the blood, no matter the skin, no matter the world, no matter the star, we are One."
No matter the country. No matter the language. No matter the age. We are One.

"No matter the pain, no matter the darkness, no matter the loss, no matter the fear, we are One." There has been - and still is - pain here. Loss. Fear. And sometimes I feel so naive coming in and trying to understand that. But then I remember that I've had my own pain, darkness, loss, and fear. And, though it's not the same and doesn't span nearly the same scale, it's there.

"Here, gathered together in common cause, we agree to recognize this single truth and this single rule: that we must be kind to each other." I would add that we must trust each other. That we must respect each other. That we must help each other and be willing to accept help in return. I know the latter is harder for me. It's harder for me to accept kindness as genuine than to help someone else. But it's just as important. Just as necessary.

"Because each voice enriches and ennobles us, and each voice lost diminishes us." Even the voices we disagree with. Even the voices we just can't stand. Even the voices that seem so hopelessly tone-deaf that we can't bear to be anywhere near them. Each voice enriches us in some way. Each voice has its own strength.

"We are the voice of the Universe. The soul of creation. The fire that will light the way to a better future." The last line about fire couldn't describe the IMPACT program here any better if it was intended to in the first place. These kids are the future of Romania. Everyone involved in the program can see it. They are changing this country for the better. Lighting the way to a future that will be better.

"We are One. We are One." This last line is repeated by two different characters - one of whom wrote the speech for the other.

When I looked up this quote and saw that the word "one" was continuously capitalized, a thousand different images came to my mind. In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays that we will all be one, as He and the Father are one. In the book of Corinthians, Paul describes the Church as many parts, but one body. Knowing the two characters who say this line in the show, I don't think I'm pulling the parallels out of nowhere. And I don't think the comparison is unwarranted.

Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Sheridan nor G'kar was suggesting that we are all one huge, shapeless mass of unison, all the same, blending into one huge clump of something. We are "one" in the sense that we are united, not in some sort of one-size-fits-all concept. I am not the same person as anyone else, whether in Romania or back in the United States. We are not identical, and no one is suggesting that we should be.

There's a song that I've known since I was little - a church song based on Paul's words. I think it says what I'm trying to much better than I ever could:

We are many parts.
We are all one body.
And the gifts we have,
We are given to share.
May the spirit of love
Make us one indeed.
One the love that we share.
One our hope in despair.
One the cross that we bear.

We are One in a way that can never be fully expressed in words - by me or by anyone else. We are One. We need each other. We are connected in ways that we never imagined.

We are One. In pain. In despair. In hope. In joy. We are One.

We are One.


Redefining Success

When I was in fifth grade, our class took a trip to a camp and stayed overnight. My only real, concrete memory of the experience is of the ropes course. Not because of anything I did, but because of what I didn't do.

Namely, I didn't do a single thing on the ropes course. I put on the harness because we were required to, but I didn't take a single step on a single ladder or set foot in any sort of line that was forming. I was the only one. Another girl stayed with me on the bench for a while, but she was pressured into trying, and, halfway up, she began to bawl and had to be helped down by the very people who had pushed her into something she had never wanted to do.

One of the things people running ropes courses always tell you - and I even heard this here at Viata camp - is that if you don't try, you're going to regret it. I disagree. And I think that's among the lousiest reasons to accept a challenge. I don't regret not going up in fifth grade. In fact, I consider my experience a success. I stood up to peer pressure and stayed away from something that I knew - even though I wasn't familiar with the terminology at the time - would push me into my "panic zone," which Michelle explained in her last post.

Because, in fifth grade, I had the courage to refuse a challenge, I don't have fear-filled memories of ropes courses. My memories of that day are of, as Pippin would say, "strength of a different kind." I don't regret my decision not to participate then. Because of that choice, I was able, this past week, to accept the same challenge.

Before going to the ropes course, we talked about the concept of "redefining success." What is easy for one person might be a challenge for another. We can't measure our own success in relation to what other people have done before us, or what they do later.

There were several times during my experience at the ropes course that I experienced true success. The first was when Matt Gray gave me a little "nudge out of the door" and I got in line for an element that involved jumping from one platform to another. By know, I know peer pressure when I see it, and that wasn't it. He could tell that I'd already committed. He simply gave me the extra bit of encouragement I needed.

So, yes, it felt good when I actually got up there, called "Nobody tosses a Dwarf!" and jumped from the platform. But the moment of success actually came when I told myself that, yes, I was going to do this. When I committed beyond any hope of backing out.

The next element was a "High Mohawk," which involves two people walking across a rather thin wire from one tree to another with the help of a few ropes of various lengths suspended from another rope above. The kind of thing that, in fifth grade, would have scared me out of my wits.

But, because of the choice I made then, I didn't re-experience the terror I'm sure I would have felt if I had attempted the element before. Instead, after a few pairs had gone, Cata, one of our leaders, held out a harness expectantly towards our group of Romanian teenagers. No one wanted to go up. Knowing the answer to my question before I even asked it, I asked, "Are you looking for a volunteer?"

Another success. Not because I climbed the ladder or crossed the wire. Not even because I did it with a girl who didn't speak a word of English. But because I decided to. Without any pressure. Without a nudge. Without anyone even asking if I wanted to. Simply because I volunteered.

I consider both of these elements a success. I also consider the last one, the Flying Squirrel, a success, even though, by that point, it wasn't much of a challenge. All I had to do was run in one direction while the rest of the group, pulling on a rope, ran in the other direction, pulling me up into the air. Before you're let down, you're supposed to sing a song. I sang what has become my personal anthem for this trip:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can.

That's as far as I got before my feet touched the ground, so I'd like to share the rest:

Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Yes, I consider those successes. And many other people probably would, as well. But, to be brutally honest, it took more courage for me to say "No" in fifth grade than it did for me to say "Yes" last week. It took more strength - strength of a different kind. And, even though I'm proud of what I accomplished last week, I'm even prouder of what I did back then. Proud that, as a fifth grader, I was comfortable enough with myself to define my own success when everyone else considered what I did a failure. I set my own limits then - reasonable ones - then, so that, later, I would be able to break them.

So, as the Klingon's say, Q'apla. I wish you success, however you define it.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Staying in the Yellow Zone

Here in Romania, I have been introduced to a concept of three different zones that a person can experience. One can be in what's called "the green zone" or the comfort zone where things are very comfortable and natural. For me, this would be like eating chocolate ice cream on a warm summer day. Then there is "the yellow zone", which is like the challenge zone. I might experience this when I do a three hour hike in the mountains. It is a challenge, yet I still feel fairly safe doing it. The last zone is "the red zone", or the panic zone. This is a place that I would rather not be! I would panic if I were alone and came across a bear or if I were being served only tomatoes and cheese all semester long! These three zones somewhat put into perspective a person's limits, and they help me to better understand my own feelings and limits as well. Since being here in Romania, I have definitely experienced the yellow zone. I have really begun to understand what my "comforts" are. I have missed clean clothes, normal showers with shower curtains, soft toilet paper, and a comfy bed. I miss my comfortable foods such as cereal, orange juice, sandwiches, salads with lettuce, desserts, and peanut butter. I do miss the English language. I am out of my comfort zone and in the yellow zone not because of the fact that I am in a different country, but because of the little things....the little comforts that I so take for granted that make life a little better. Being here is a challenge, but I knew it would be. Now I am ready to find ways to overcome these issues. I want to learn from these challenges and really appreciate everything I have. Romanians are very hospitable people, and they love to serve. I feel very welcome will just take some getting used to, as it is with any new place. And, there is ice cream here in Romania so that definitely puts me in the green zone at times!

Daniel and Janelle, our program administrators, would like to keep us in the "yellow zone" as much as possible. This is where we will be stretched, challenged, and find growth in a healthy and safe way. I fully agree with their statement of "staying in the yellow zone", and I know that there will be many more challenges ahead, but God will never give us more than we can handle. It is a pretty awesome feeling to wake up every morning and think, "Yes, I am in Romania. I wonder what I will experience today?"