In the past week the adventures have continued. We have gone ice skating, climbed to the peaks of mountains with dear friends, gone bowling, spent time with our beloved Babushka Olga, started our Women’s group, started an art club, made it through 5 hours straight of Russian lessons, gone sledding down ski slopes, and learned how to snowboard, cross-country ski and ride a horse. It has been an incredibly full and amazing week with many friends and a few lessons.
One particular event and lesson that will stay with us forever is learning how to ride a horse. Our friend Alexander has been trying to get us to ride a horse since he met us this past summer. MJ and I finally agreed on Saturday on our way back from the ski slopes with our friends. Little did we know what was in store for us the next day.
We got back to our apartment after Sunday mass to see a very large horse tied to the dumpsters behind our apartment building. We quickly changed our clothes, and ran out to Alexander who came up to our building entrance so majestically on horseback.
We walked through the city block, at the amazement of many small children and city dwellers, trying to find an appropriate place to ride. We finally found a place and I made my way on top of the horse, who was just a bit too high for me. It was the scariest and most thrilling feeling. Alexander literally taught me the ropes to riding a horse. After 20 minutes, I was finally a bit more comfortable in this new situation and felt comradery with my man, Theodore Roosevelt. If he could ‘ride a moose,’ I could ride a horse. At one point the horse began to take off, and I was terrified that she would take out some small children on her way, as well as lose me. I managed to get her to stop and rode around a bit more before MJ embarked on the new adventure.
She was a natural, she rode well and picked riding up quickly. While she was riding, Alexander pulled the ‘you need to practice your russian card,’ and got me to ask two little girls in russian if I could borrow their plastic shovels to clean horse poop from the street. Naturally, they said no and at first I thought I had said it wrong but Alexander assured me saying ‘they understood you they just didn’t want to do that.’ After that we had to head back to the apartment before meeting up to go cross-country skiing with our friend, Vera; so MJ and the horse made their way back to the apartment with Alexander and I following behind. We were talking when all of a sudden we saw the horse taking off, with MJ in stow. Alexander began sprinting towards them in hopes of catching up, all while screaming ‘MJJJJJJJJJJJJJJ, TELL HER TO STOP, MJJJJJJJJJJ!!!!!!!’
The horse had decided to run home, and bring MJ with her. MJ unaware of this as the horse crossed the street on to a new, unknown street. Afraid of what might happen, or where the horse would go, she slipped off of the horse and landed on the ground. The horse walked into her stable, and MJ got up in shock at what had happened. Alexander caught up to them and made sure she was okay. Praise the Lord, she was okay, in shock, but okay. She had hit her hip and her head on the ground when she fell, but her guardian angel and soft winter hat cushioned the blow. Alexander walked her home and that is where I found her after searching up and down that road for 20 minutes for the rampant horse and my roommate.
A personal play-by-play from MJ:
You know that moment, when you feel fear and panic deep down in the pit of your stomach. It’s that moment when there are two very different paths before you and you have to choose which to take. One is known, safe and you have a feeling of (false) control over what will happen to you. The other is unknown and fills you with butterflies of fear and excitement and you can just FEEL ‘fight or flight’ mode kicking in. Well that was me right before deciding to climb onto a big beautiful and absolutely terrifying creature-namely a horse. I gave myself a quick pep talk, reminding myself that fear should not stop me from trying new things, and hey! If I could try snowboarding down a mountain yesterday then I can try riding a majestic death-machine today..
The next 20 minutes were incredible and thrilling as Alexander taught me the do’s and don'ts of horse riding. Then Zarina (the name of said horse) and I took a few strolls around the buildings and side roads. We were soon almost out of time so I lead Zarina back to the entrance of our apartment building. Alexander and Jess were following a ways behind us-and that’s when things got really interesting.
As we neared the apartment, Zarina, out of nowhere, decided that she wasn’t satisfied with a simple walk anymore and promptly picked up her pace. I used the techniques Alexander had taught me to slow and stop Zarina but she wasn’t having any of it. She was giving me the silent treatment and as that realization sunk in so did the fear. Zarina’s trot turned into a gallop and she zoomed past our apartment building. Not only was it my first time riding a horse but I was on a sprinting horse, in the middle of the city of Magadan, with zero control of where we were going. I was absolutely terrified. I felt my feet slip out of the stirrups and I grasped the reigns tighter as I mumbled a prayer filled with panic, ‘Oh God, oh God, please just keep me on the horse, please just keep me on the horse..please let there be no kids and no cars.. Oh please no kids, no cars..Oh Mary please please.” It was during this haphazard panicked request that Zarina took off toward a main road and promptly ran across it-thank God the nearest cars were far off- and continued down an empty road.
Once we were away from the majority of civilization I heaved a sigh of relief. Zarina then turned and quickly sped off in another direction. I had heard stories of people who had gotten bones or limbs crushed by the powerful hind legs of horses. I also knew that I had no idea where Zarina was taking me or what other potential dangers could occur while riding her. So as Zarina slowed her pace, I whispered an urgent prayer, closed my eyes, and half jumped-half slid of the horse into a fresh pile of snow. A few seconds later, I got up, assessed myself and my surroundings, found my fallen hat and mittens and turned to see Zarina, who had FINALLY stopped, looking at me from a few yards away as if she was asking why I had cut our little adventure short.
This weekend Jess and I realized that one of the biggest factors that keep us from trying new things, going outside our comfort zones or doing bold things for the Lord is fear. Fear is paralyzing and keeps you from acting. Fear is not of God. With Christ we have nothing to fear, not even death. My biggest fear that day when I got on that horse was that I would lose control and fall off. When my fears became realized the only option I had was to rely on God to help and protect me. God never says that our worst fears won't become reality, but what He does say is “Do not be afraid, I am with you”.
Though tired from all the excitement and running around, I (Jess) rushed to meet up with Vera for our cross-country skiing adventure. I explained everything that had happened and we went on our merry way. On our trip out, the wind was whipping and blowing, and Vera turned to me and said ‘It’s like we’re going to Antarctica!’ We made it out to the course, and I learned how to cross-country ski, which was not as similar to slope skiing as I had imagined. We climbed up hills in skis and skied down the proceeding hill at a surprisingly slow speed that I had not expected from skis. After climbing several hills and tripping down a few of them, I was exhausted. Vera began to embark up another hill, when I swallowed my pride, and I asked her if I could go home soon because I was tired. I don’t like disappointing people and usually end up sucking it up and continuing, but this time I couldn’t do it, I was too exhausted.
Being in Russia has taught me so much humility, and I am constantly having my pride shot, whether it be through not being able to communicate, through trying new things and failing, or just simple moments in everyday life.
We headed home and I proceeded to fall two more times, but the last time I fell I landed in a snow pit on a patch of ice. I got back up again to find that I could not ski forward. The ski boot sole had broken from the boot. I tried frantically, like an animal gnawing at its limb, to get the boot off so I could catch up with my friends. I learned that day that cross country skis are not like normal skis. Two men on a snowmobile who were riding by stopped and asked if I needed help. I told them that my Russian was bad and I couldn't explain how I needed help. They asked again if I needed help and I swallowed my pride again and said ‘da’. Admitting to needing help is something I usually don’t do either. As the man helped me get the skis off I was humbled but so grateful.
As we walked back my friends continued to talk to me in Russian, and I was having a hard time understanding. They would turn to me and ask me, do you understand? ’Tee ponimaesh?’ And again, swallowing my pride I would shake my head and say ‘nyet’. Walking home from this adventure I had time to reflect on all of this and realize the beauty of it all. The beauty of our friendships, the beauty of conquering your fears, the beauty of courage, the beauty of trusting God, the beauty of the help others so willingly give, the beauty of being weak and accepting help and not giving into pride.
So go ahead, fall off your high horse. Be humbled. Do something that you are afraid of doing. In the Bible, God tells us, “Be Not Afraid,” 365 times!!! That covers everyday of the year, folks! For MJ, her biggest fear was falling from the horse, that happened and she survived. We learned that if fear is the only thing stopping us from taking that risk, from trying something new, from stepping out of our comfort zone, we should just go for it. Place your trust in him and go against your fears. As my friend, Kathleen Dougherty, now Sr. Kathleen, told me countless times in college, “FEAR IS NOT OF GOD!!!!” Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, I have more times than I can count since being here, but I am so grateful for it. Be not afraid, fear is not of God, and neither is pride.
In this episode of life in Magadan, I cannot even begin to express the joy that has taken over. Here are some snapshots from the past few weeks:
MJ commented that it was warm outside (the temperature was -12, folks). We got 5s on our Grammar Exams, which is the American Equivalent of an A, finishing our first semester of Russian, woo-woo!
Later, we went on adventure with Father to ‘rescue Jesus’ (retrieve the blessed sacrament) from his dacha*; he gave me a stick to fend off any stray dogs. I initially thought he was joking, but soon realized he was being serious. We walked around in -35 degree weather. I baked over 170 Christmas cookies for our neighbors and friends. We have also successfully cooked chicken and rice in over 50 different ways (Stay tuned: we'll be publishing a cookbook in 2019 full of at least 1,000 recipes involving Chicken and rice)
The day before Christmas Eve we had a Christmas Party with our friends and tried to play White Elephant/ Yankee Swap, but they were all too nice and refused to steal anyone else's gift. The kids put on a Christmas play, and over 100 kids from the city came to watch. We had the quietest, chillest Christmas Day; it involved one roommate going to school, watching elf, lounging around the apartment, giving cookies to our neighbors, attending Mass and going out for Japanese food for dinner with Father, MJ, Katya, and Sveta.
Best Christmas Gift? Having three friends who are not Catholic come to Christmas mass and participate with you.
We got to ring in the New Years’ like no other year. We spent the night at the Sisters’ apartment. We had time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, watched the fireworks light up the city for over an hour from their balcony, and prayed a Divine Mercy Chaplet for the New Year. After everyone went to bed at 1:30am, I met up with some friends and walked all around the city until 3am, serenaded by fireworks and the sounds of a New Year. We finished the walk by drinking tea at a friend’s apartment. Eventually I was handed a traditional Russian dish that was essentially meat jello ( I don’t know the real name, but this title says all you need to know).
The second day of the year we went on an adventure with the Sisters, Sveta, and Kristina to the bay, to go sledding and eat ice cream in -27 weather like true ‘Magadanskis’.
(Pictured below MJ enjoying a frosty treat in even frostier weather, is a great photo of Sister Sabina sledding).
We just finished 3 days of Kids Vacation Bible School, which was an incredible experience with equally incredible kids who made the church their home, and who were filled with an authentic joy and energy that was SO contagious. The Vacation Bible School ran for three days, from the Fourth until the Sixth. It was a lot of fun, and the kids had the opportunity to sing songs with Nadia, Catechesis classes with Sveta, English with MJ, and games and crafts with me. It was all organized by Katya. The kids were all very cooperative, and partook in all the games, songs, and classes. One of our new visitors, Roma, a young boy of 8, commented how much he loved being at the church and how it felt just like home. A puppet show about the birth of Christ was put on for the kids at the end of the Fifth and Sixth, which they enjoyed very much as they sat before the set drinking homemade hot chocolate that I made for them. Each day was closed in a Divine Mercy Chaplet before the image of Divine Mercy.
*Dacha- a simple Russian cottage that is typically used in the summer by families, but Father’s is used as a place of prayer for Poustinia (a time of prayer away from any distractions).