Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Last . . . April 25, 2010

The Last . . . April 25, 2010
Weather -- warming, overcast
Temp -- 55 F Wind -- 5-7 mph

We are doing a lot of "Lasts" as we get ready for our exit. Two Sundays ago we spoke in 1st Branch as our last appearance in that branch. I spoke on callings and Sister Cindy spoke on listening to the Spirit. That week the McCauleys (our replacements) came. They stayed in the Mission Home for the first three days and then moved in with us. It is a long-term sleepover and a little complex getting ready in the morning, but they are very compatible and just plain nice people.

(This post was started while at home but from here on it was completed on the airplane and not posted until May 11th after we had been home for a week and gotten totally unpacked.)

Today begins a series of "LASTS", the last metro to Zoloni Kupola, the last YSA fireside, the last choir practice, etc.

At the 1st Branch Sacrament Meeting we also had a first. The young couple, Alexe and Marina, who have been taught in our home at least 5 times, were both in the meeting with their little boy. Alexe had attended several times alone, but this was the first time Marina had come because she didn't want to bring the little one out in the cold. They are very attentive parents. We had intended to escort the McCauleys' via Metro to the 2nd Branch meetings and then spend some time at the office before returning to the building for choir practice and the "last" YSA fireside, but upon hearing that this couple was in the 1st Branch meeting, Sister Cindy insisted that we stay to support them. It was a good choice.

After the second set of meetings, we just stayed for choir practice at 5 and the Fireside at 6:30. I did not conduct, but sang with the choir and let Sister McCauley get her feet wet. We were preparing for an event that was to be the next Saturday, the 1st of May, to celebrate the Church's 180th birthday, but as it turned out, the event was canceled due to lack of interest. She did a great job and will work into the role with time.

The last YSA fireside was a tribute to us. They prepared a "Newly-weds" type game in which I was to answer questions that Cindy had already answered to see if our answers were the same. It was cute, but sort of dated. We all had fun and I got most of them right.

This game was preceded by two talks, Julia (from the office) talked about friends coming and going and how important friends are. Ina spoke about something that I cannot remember, possibly because Elder Petersen had to translate it for us and I just got lost. After the game we both spoke for just a couple of minutes and it closed with "Love One Another" from the hymnal.

Many of the young people came up to get their picture taken with us only after the refreshment table was pretty-much emptied; typical. Here, Yulia from the office held it together for most of the event, then lost it at the final goodbye. We sure love her. She is a very bright light in a dark place and I hope that she can find joy in the things she can do in the Gospel. She seems to be waiting for a missionary who left from our city and should return early next year. I really hope that it all works out for her happiness.

Monday was the last full day at the office where we took the lead. The staff gave us a bon-voyage party and a lacquer-box which was very lovely. They didn't have to do that, but we truly appreciated the sentiment and the gift. We have had a good relationship with all of them over the past 2 years and I am sure we will think of them often as we try to get back to life in America.

Monday night we had the last visit with the Ozherelev's. We played Hand and Foot with the 6 of us and had a very tearful goodbye with them, particularly Lenna who had grown very close to Sister Cindy. She was very sad as she delivered the last of the sewing work she had done for Cindy.  We will miss them every day and I know that as of today I think of them often each day. The separation is as painful and full of feelings as it would be with a family member, After all, they were family for two years and remain so.

Tuesday I got up at 6AM to be ready for President to pick us up with our luggage at 7:30. I looked out our 9th floor window at the scene below on Sacco & Vanzetti Street with its potholes and water still running from the last ice melting along the way. A street sweeper was slowly moving along, picking up the sand in the road from the previous winter ice treatment. I looked up at the blue sky with its summer haze from the power plants on the left bank across the river just laying in. I took the last shower in our cracked tub, started the last load of wash (the sheets from our bed), plugged in the Christmas Tree for the last time in the "shrine", a waist-high shelf in my corner shelf unit. It all seemed very final.

At the office we took pictures with everyone. Here are our office elders, Elder Barwick on the left and Elder Byers in the center, whom we love very much and will miss deeply. Elder Byers was the one who wrote the verse to the Mission song that I put together. He is a talented musician and I hope to keep up with his career post mission. Elder Barwick is also a talented singer and the two of them make great music. I feel very close to both of these elders.

 We had the my last Mission Presidency Meeting where I had Elder McCauley take over completely (He did marvelously well). Here we are reviewing items on the agenda that he will prepare weekly.

We participated in the last Office Coordination Meeting where the old issues remain and the McCauleys pick up the baton. They are diplomatic and careful to keep everyone engaged. I expect them to be very effective in that regard.

Here Sister McCauley is receiving the keys and cell phone from Sister Cindy. These are the symbols and the actual tools of the job she will have to pick up. Sister Cindy leaves big shoes to fill, but I think she and Elder McCauley will make their own mark on the mission.

Finally, we had our last interview with the President.  He said some very kind things about us and how he would miss us. He has a great burden to carry with the Millers gone, our leaving, and the Holmes going in May. We love him and Sister Trejo very much and pray for them nightly even now.

That night, we went to the Mission Home with the other departing missionaries for the last time. We had the final meal of Taco Salad, the traditional tie cutting-off for the marriage predictions, got our Green Berets, Cindy and I sang two songs. Then we had the final Testimony meeting before heading to bed and the 3:30 AM wake-up call.

Sister Zhernova got the bunk-bed room, the Elders got the great room, and Cindy and I had the General Authority room, same room where we slept that first morning 23 months ago when we sat and cried together, asking the Lord and each other how we were ever going to do this.

Now, for all practical purposes, it is finished and with the Lord's help we served with our might. We hope it was enough.

What a mission. What a country

Friday, April 23, 2010

ZLC Sleepover March 23rd

ZLC Sleepover March 23rd
Weather was COLD
Temp -- minus 10 F Wind 7-15 mph

Zone Leader Conference runs from 5pm one night to 3pm the next day. Zone leaders come from all of the cities in the mission to get instructions and discuss challenges they face in their cities. We often house some of them overnight between sessions of the conference.

After the first night of this ZLC we were to house 6 elders and so we all went down to the garage at the mission home together in the elevator to get the offered ride from President Trejo. The first challenge of this event was getting stuck in the elevator for 40 minutes. 

 After the building manager called someone to rescue us, they had to jack up the elevator car to the proper level so the door could open. Finally we got our ride as promised.

We have only two actual beds in the extra bedroom of our apartment so the other four elders had to be creative. It has become a bit of a status symbol to get your name on the "Simmons Wall of Fame" and so those who have not slept here are anxious to do so before we are released and leave for home.

We started this wall shortly after we arrived when we needed to house a sick sister so that her companion could continue to work with a member as her companion. We got her to put her name on the wall and it grew from there. We have several notables, a couple of semi-notables, and three almosts. The notables include some people from the Moscow service center, the Masons who did audit training and the Kirbishly's who headed a program for returned missionaries. We also had several long-termers like the Bowdens who stayed more than twenty nights and our friend Lelia from South Dakota who was the only one of our friends to actually come and visit us in Siberia. We also had several sisters stay over. Sister Tymochko stayed a week for some reason that I forget and several transient sisters stayed one night.

And then there were the "almosts" like Elder McBride who never stayed overnight but DID take a nap in the room one day and Elder Hinkson who never actually laid down in the guest room, but napped on our couch after three different ZLC events while waiting for his bus.

This particular night we had three in the bedroom, two on beds and one on a foam pad. In the living room we had the other three on the couch, the pull-out bed and another foam pad. Here they are trying to decide who will sleep where. We suspended the rules and gave all of them room on the wall so that was eliminated from the discussion.

Our office elders just don't get a chance to get their names on the wall because they live just a few blocks from us. It is a status they will not achieve, but they are high on our list of great elders. They help us, protect us, support us, carry our groceries up the stairs, and call our taxis. We could not ask for more from them, but if we did they would perform. We love our office elders.

All is well now among our 6 elders and the night passed peacefully. We enjoy having them and make every effort to make them comfortable and happy. Life for a missionary in Siberia is tough enough and we can only soften the edges. We pray for them all each morning and night for their safety and success.

What a great bunch of young men. What a country.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Packing Monster

The Packing Monster
Weather -- High overcast warming
Temp -- +60F Wind 15-25 mph

Packing to go home is a monster. It haunts you for weeks and then you finally have to face it. How can I defeat this monster? Is it possible? Can I actually get my clothes, shoes, coats, books, music, nesting dolls, wooden shot glass, paintings, love gifts from members, cosmetics, bathing suit (which I never wore), white shirts that are now two sized too big, two year old suits that I love but hang like a gunnysack on me, two years worth of YSA Fireside lessons and Sacrament Meeting talks, DVD's, alfalfa seeds I didn't sprout, sprouting trays, Porterhouse Seasoning Sister Cindy didn't consume, Levies and three casual shirts I never wore, six backup name tags I never wore, twenty pair of shoes sister Cindy never wore, etc.

How do you plan your needs for two years in a place you have never even heard of let alone have been to? And now, what do you take home of what you never used because "It's still good and we might need it, some day"? It was a daunting challenge to guess and then pack, ship, or ask from home things you imagine you will need, or thought you still needed? The truth is, and I hope that we have learned to some degree, that we don't need ALL THIS STUFF!!!! However, you DO need a stain-stick once in a while and a band-aide or two, but come on, we are leaving several suitcases of stuff to the locals because we just can't take it home.

Whether here in Novosibirsk or in Sacramento, we really don't need most of the stuff we have. We have lived for 18 of the 23 months with the knowledge that you just don't need much stuff. A couple pair of shoes, warm-weather clothes, cold weather clothes, and your scriptures; that's it. Well, maybe a bit of an overstatement, but truly, we didn't need most of what we brought, shipped, or had shipped to us here. For those of you planning a mission, leave most of your stuff at home. You won't need or have time to use most of what you bring. You need your sweats and apron for watching General Conference two week late on the DVD, you need
 a warm coat so you can make the trip out to the dumpster on the street without suffering frostbite, but mostly you need to bring with you your life-long skills, a little of what you learned in Primary and Sunday School, and a genuine love for people. I brought my love for music, in spite of my lack of technical skills, and was appreciated for what I DID have.

People are the best part of every mission. Well, I haven't been on every mission, I haven't even been on any mission away from home but this one, but I have a deep sense of love and loss at leaving the people here and I suspect that the people (missionaries and members) are the core of every missionary service experience. Our replacements, the McCauleys from Eagle Idaho are already learning this. Sure, there are cultural clashes and outright disappointments, but as a whole, it is a great experience.

If you want to be really loved, serve a mission. If you want to really love, deeply love, serve a mission.  If you are lonely, serve a mission. If you think that no one knows you exist and you could suffer spontaneous combustion at your local mall in total anonymity, serve a mission. If you think no one needs what you know or have, serve a mission.

It is the most enveloping, consuming, loving thing that I have ever done and after I say hi to my children and grand-kids, tell some stories to my friends, and we decide what to do with our house, I am ready to go again. OK, I will enjoy one season of really ripe tomatoes and peas picked fresh, but trust me, you don't need all that stuff and the place to put your stuff, and the locks to protect your stuff, and the dog to guard your stuff, and the insurance to replace your stuff. Dump it all and come serve missions.

Most of the people you know will miss you only when they get your emails. Once you are gone, they will go on with their lives and do whatever is in front of them; even your family. You are a nice memory and they are happy to see you again when you return, but not like the people that you left in the mission. Of course, it is very cool to have your grandparents on a mission somewhere, but the people in the mission, THEY ACTUALLY NEED YOU. They actually benefit from your being there. They don't have 26 other things they could and should be doing while they are with you; they NEED you.

Don't get me wrong, please. I love my friends and my family. They are a great treasure. I love the time I have, and will again, spend with them. The point is, they don't need me. In the mission field, the new friends, the missionaries, the members, the investigators, the mission leadership, even the people you can't talk to; they need me (us) and I feel that love that comes from a met need.

Yes, even those that cannot talk to us, nor we to them, have come up at church with tears in their eyes and thanked us for being here and expressed their love. Babushkas with a long history in the Church here try to thank us for just being here. They have seen missionary couples come and go, but they actually value us. They need our example, our experience, and our support. We have not had many of them in our home and can only say a brief hello at church to most of them, but they value our being here. Families like the Drachyov family give us all they have and we feel filled. When we think that our apartment is a little (well a lot) shabby, we visit a family like this and appreciate what we have, even here. What they have they value and what they value they share.

So, now what? Well, we will try to vanquish the packing monster and get each of our two 50 lb checked bags to actually weigh 50 lbs, well, maybe 70 lbs for one of them. We will get the matryoshka dolls and the scarves, and the pictures, and the unused alfalfa seeds into the luggage and we will go home for a while; but not for ever. Maybe I will get soft and comfortable at home and forget these feelings. Maybe I will lose these memories of those we have learned to love and forget how it felt, maybe, but right now I don't think so. I intend to print these two years of blogs into a book and keep it out to remind me. I guess we will just have to see.

What an experience. What a country.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Remonting the Office 4/12/10

Remonting the Office
Weather -- Heavy cloud cover, snow
Temp -- 31F at 11:15 AM Wind -- 2-3 MPH

Two weeks ago they started to remodel (remount) the Mission office Library room into an office for the employees, Olga and Pyotr, and making a conference room for meetings. This will create a larger entry/waiting area for visiting missionaries and guests to give them space and keep them from wandering around the office and impeding the work.

This project started a year ago when two of the employees' supervisors came for a visit and said that all employees, including the accountant, needed to be together in a single area. That idea was rejected by President Mickelsen and seemed to die, but here the wishes of a superior do not die easily.

The idea surfaced several times during the ensuing year until a couple of months ago when Sasha Ozherelev announced that the library was going to be converted to offices and only a small supply of the materials from it would be stored in my old work area and the space formerly occupied by the copier, fax, and supply cabinet while the majority of the supplies would be stored in shelves newly constructed at the Left-Bank chapel where Sasha has his office. This is several miles away, would require longer-range planning/control, would mean Sister Gushchina would have to work in both places, and would take most of her stuff out of her control.

Sacha made the drawings, he and President Trejo agreed on the plan and Sister Gushchina was surprised when instructed to move her supplies out of the library in a hurry for the construction to begin in a couple of days. Sister Cindy and I did not know that she had such a short time to act on those instructions or that she needed help, and we missed an opportunity to support our friend; not good. No one offered to help her and only the office elders came to her rescue quite by accident because they happened to be working late and saw she was in trouble. It was very unfortunate.

After the rush to move out, Julia was finally brought into the discussion and pointed out some flaws in the plan which caused plan B to emerge. Olga and Pyotr didn't like that one and plan C was born. Sister Gushchina didn't like any of the plans, but that didn't have much impact on anybody. Each successive plan was rejected by one of the parties and finally President said, enough! Get it done and get my office back in operation.

The construction is a week underway and will take at least another week. The limited supplies are being stored along the hallway, sorted and reorganized; some staying and some going. The branch supplies are under Sister Gushchina's care in the old paper supply area and the mission and office supplies will be under Sister McCauley's care in my old work space; and it is a bit of a shambles. Pyotr has a "ton" of public affairs stuff that he hasn't used in years that will have to go somewhere else; maybe under his desk.

Several lessons can come out of this. One of the big ones is how you merge two cultures within the Church. You need to either make your best decision and ignore the discontent as has characterized Russia for centuries or involve all the players from the start and negotiate the best plan you can manage. Either way, someone will not like it, but in the latter case it will not be a surprise and no one can say they were not consulted.

Change is difficult and in this mixture of Russian and American attitudes towards authority, planning, and change, it is doubly difficult. I missed several opportunities to help Sasha in this process by not interfering in his job. If I had it to do again I would learn from that mistake. Regardless, the project should be finished by month's end and everyone will move forward.

What a country.

Some good ideas for living life.

Some good ideas for living life.

I got this yesterday as an email. It is supposed to have been written By Regina Brett, 90 years old, of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland,Ohio. Even if it is from some spam writer in Borneo. It has some good ideas for living life.

1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good.
2. When in doubt, just take the next small step,
3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
4. Your job won't take care of you when you are sick. Your friends and family will.
Stay in touch.
5. Pay off your credit cards every month.
6. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.
7. Cry with someone. It's more healing than crying alone.
8. It's OK to get angry with God. He can take it.
9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.
10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.
11. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present.
12. It's OK to let your children see you cry.
13. Don't compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn't be in it.
15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don't worry; God never blinks.
16. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.
17. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful.
18. Whatever doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.
19. It's never too late to have a happy childhood, b
ut the second one is up to you and no one else.
20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don't take no for an answer.
21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie.
22. Over prepare, then go with the flow.
23. Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple.
24. The most important sex organ is the brain.
25. No one is in charge of your happiness but you.
26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words 'In five years, will this matter?'
27. Always choose life.
28. Forgive everyone everything.
29. What other people think of you is none of your business.
30. Time heals almost everything. Give time, time.
31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
32. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
33. Believe in miracles.
34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn't do.
35. Don't audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.
36. Growing old beats the alternative -- dying young.
37. Your children get only one childhood.
38. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.
39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.
40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we'd grab ours back.
41. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.
42. The best is yet to come.
43. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
44. Yield.
45. Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift."

Yes, life is a gift and every day is ours to use or waste. Here in the mission, it is hard to waste a day because there is so much to do. Use yours the same way.

What a life.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Let's Speak Russian Correctly

Let's Speak Russian Correctly
Weather -- Clear, warming, high occasional clouds
Temp -- 43F at 11:30 pm Wind -- Calm

I would not recognize the signs, but the missionaries tell me that there are signs in the Metro cars encouraging people to speak Russian properly. The signs read, "Let's speak Russian correctly", and give the reader some examples of words often mispronounced or misused. The sign then gives the proper pronunciation or usage and encourages the reader to be more respectful of the mother tongue and take the time to speak properly.

This is an example of the pride Russians take in their language and an indication of how seriously they take it. On the other hand, I have found that my friends here are very tolerant with the missionaries and myself when we try to speak Russian. I think there is a strong pride in being able to speak Russian at all and particularly to speak it properly.

Today we took the McCauleys on a shopping tour to several markets and a mall. Yulia, the 20-something accountant came with us along with President Yuri Gushchin, our driver. Yulia is a terrific young lady, beautiful in appearance and spirit. We love her and will miss her a lot.

While waiting in the checkout line we were all saying "привет" (previet) and "здравствуйте" (zdrasfitya) which are all forms of "hello". Yulia turned to me and quite seriously said, " The baby does not speak Russian yet". You and I would say, "The baby does not speak yet", but for her it was important that the baby did not speak Russian yet.

I love this genuine interest and pride in speaking their language and doing so properly. As I tell Sister Cindy all of the time, "Words have meaning" and we need to use them properly. I am so sick of "thingey" and "stuff" and "way" (as in way cool). I even heard an elder at English Club teaching the conjugation of the word "way" as in "It is way cold", "Yesterday it was wayer cold" and "Tomorrow will be the wayest cold ever". Things have names, words have proper uses, meaning comes from agreed usage, and they all contribute to communication.

Thanks to whoever put up the signs and to the effort it promotes. That was way cool.
What a country.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Problem with Dunkin' Cookies

The Problem with Dunkin' Cookies
Weather --Light snow and overcast
Temp -- plus 39F Wind --light 3-5 mph

The mission office is a mixture of solemn seriousness interspersed with goofy laughter. We need the laughter to break the tension caused by some pretty serious issues we deal with every day, all day, like when Elder So-and-so came back from his visa renewal trip and threw away his airline ticket before surrendering his passport to Olga to get registered in Novosibirsk. That ticket is necessary to prove that he actually CAME into the country and without it, he could be deported, fined, or jailed for being here illegally, or, when Sister What's-her-name didn't notice that the passport check officer in the Moscow airport port-of-entry didn't stamp her passport and she is now in the country without proof of legal entry, or, when the elders in Barnaul on their way home after English Club got beat-up by a gang of young thugs, or, the time the two Elders who went to Astana, Kazakhstan for a visa renewal couldn't get their Russian visas from the embassy because of a series of unfortunate events and were stranded there for over two weeks in the care of a Humanitarian Couple. Well, you get the idea.

To break the tension, we have to laugh from time to time. Above, one of the elders got a package from home and among the other emergency essentials the family sent there was a set of Ninja Turtle masks. I came around the corner into the "computer room" to find them sporting the masks and quoting Ninjaturtleisms to one another from the TV show that they thought quite funny.

In between emergencies, Sister Cindy laughs a lot in the office with the staff, especially with the elders, (she really enjoys them) but I rarely catch her in a real guffaw. However, twice I happened to be on scene when she really lost it and I caught it on camera.

Sometime in late November of 2008 she and her Travel Secretary Elder Watson were talking about something and his cell phone rang. For some reason she had to answer a question regarding the call and took his phone. (Not so funny yet, right?)

Above, as I sat around the corner with my camera, he is trying to explain what happened in a somewhat calm, collected manner while Sister Cindy is convulsing with laughter across the aisle.

It seems that when she finished the call, they were laughing about something and they both got distracted while she was handing back the phone. He didn't get a good grip on it and it fell between them. Watching it fall, she adroitly extended her foot to keep it from falling on the floor and timed it just right to actually give it a good soccer kick and sent it flying in five pieces.

 For some reason that struck both of them funny and they lost it. I was busy working my stubby fingers to the bone, with my camera in hand, and came around the corner into the foyer to see what was so funny. As they tried to explain it they both lost it again. While Elder Watson reassembled the phone she continued to laugh.
Incident number two, Sister Cindy likes to dunk her cookie in milk. One Family Night when we had the elders and their investigator over for dinner, FHE,  and the requisite game, she served some homemade chocolate chip cookies and provided herself, and all who wished to dunk, a cup of  milk. She likes the wide opening of the cup because she can get a good dunk and not get her hand stuck in the glass.

 Above she is demonstrating the manual dexterity she inherited from her baseball-playing father by dunking while managing her Phase 10 cards. All of a sudden, disaster strikes; she lost her cookie. Amid some little embarrassment and an apology for having to fish her cookie out of the cup, she begins to laugh.

After fishing her cookie out of the cup and downing it quickly, she pauses momentarily to gain her composure and play a card. Taking a new cookie, she makes another attempt at a dunk. You guessed it; dropped the second cookie. If you click on the picture you can see the floating cookie number two.

By this time, everyone at the table played another card while breathlessly awaiting a successful dunk.  After fishing cookie number two out of the cup, and eating it, she takes a moment to compose herself before making the final assault on the cup.

Well, as fate would have it, I missed the final and successful dunk and had to be content with this final picture below of Sister Cindy confidently relaxed and fully composed at the opposite end of the table after finally achieving a perfect dunk. I, on the other hand had to be satisfied with simply drinking my milk with my non-chocolate chip cookie, especially made by Sister Cindy because I don't like chocolate chips.

This is the last of the list of blogs that I intended to write over the months and never got to it. The writing may taper off now as I finish the projects I have on my list. The things left on the list are to finish creating the game I have started to introduce to our friends and to sort, cleanup, and categorize the pictures so that we are prepared to use them if we are ever asked to talk to a group about our mission.

Thank you for following this blog and I hope you will check in from time to time to see if anything else has popped from my fertile mind.

What a companion. What a country