Unexpected Parenting Advice

There’s something I’ve been steeping on for a while now and it came up again while we were in Germany (thanks Luci). Luci and I took the kids shoe shopping and pretty much any kind of shopping that involves all three can get pretty wild (shoot, even just one can get a bit wild, right?). The shoe store we go to has a slide in the kids’ section so they can release some fizz (so smart!). Well, they did great which means that we left the store with a sturdy pair of shoes for each kid, no injuries and nothing destroyed. That definitely does not mean that they were quiet, attentive and agreeable. Later on, Luci remarked at how well everyone did, including complementing us on not seeming embarrassed by anything that the kids do/did, even if we may feel that way inside. Rees and I both said, “they give us ample opportunity to practice!”

There’s a bit of parenting advice I will start to give anyone who asks (so I may be possibly keeping it to myself – which is why it’s fun to have a blog at least to post it to!). I would tell any parent to try to make peace with being humiliated and embarrassed. I’m guessing it’s about a 100% incidence that kids, at some point, embarrass their parents. We already know that parents embarrass their kids. I started the whole parenting thing knowing that I would rock it. It would be difficult, for sure, but I was pretty certain that I had what it takes (patience, determination, consistency, intentionality) to parent fantastic children who the world would thank me for producing. Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but not too far off. Ha! So pretty much, though I didn’t realize it and probably would have denied it, raising children was a lot about me. They were and would be the report card to how well I did at raising them. There’s a whole lot of ‘me’ and ‘I’ in there. Well, God was truly merciful to all of us and gave me a first-born that brought me pretty swiftly to my knees – absolutely shocked that none of the well-thought-out and researched techniques I was employing worked. In my darkest moments I truly thought that parenting would be what killed me. Seriously. I wish it weren’t true but Rees can tell you how often he came home to me crying my eyes out, saying, “I can’t do it! I’m not even going to make it to see them become teenagers because this is seriously killing me.” I felt the despair in my body, hence the belief that it would physically kill me. My first two were only 3 and 1 at that point. They were not the kind of kids that make you, the parent, look good. I don’t want to give the wrong impression because they are wonderful kids and, frankly, my favorite people to be around (now) and have been insanely fun right from the start. But they struggled (and still struggle a bit) with some sensory-seeking behavior and auditory processing difficulties which means that they were the ones running into and over the other kids at the playground, not even noticing that they’d flattened them. They were happy to give people the hairy eyeball instead of return a greeting and even happier (it seemed) to scream “NO!” and bolt away from me when I called them. I remember Emmett actually throwing himself on his tummy on the ground, beating it with his fists and kicking with his feet and screaming – a textbook tantrum – when he was 15 months-ish because I would not allow him to climb up a steep stairway made of metal bars that was seriously falling apart (in Central Asia) independently. I watched him, people buzzing around all around me particularly curious about the foreigners, and thought, “Is this for real? He has this perfected and he’s only 1!” I became aware of a reaction I was having that wasn’t good for any of us. When they would do these things, my gut-reaction was to try to stop the humiliation. I wasn’t parenting out of a place of connection with my kids and a big-picture view of what we wanted to nurture in them. I just wanted them to stop embarrassing me. Yikes. That’s pretty ugly.

At some point, I can’t even remember when it was, I realized that I just wasn’t enjoying parenting and I realized that I was the one in the way of that. I realized that I cared too much what I thought other people think of my parenting and I thought I had more control than I actually do or did. I don’t even know if other people thought much about my parenting but I had projected that everyone who encountered us was judging me and thinking to themselves, “If she would just…” I began to realize that anyone who would make an observation of me or my family and think one of our quirks could be solved with an if she/they would just…” – they had never encountered a kid like my kids. So I thought and prayed about what my big hope and goal was for my kids and our family and realized that I just want them to know God’s great love for them, to overflow with that love so that it reached others, and to understand their unique and special purpose in God’s big story. I didn’t want them to grow up to be cookie-cutter people, who’s behavior was predictable and non-wave-making if it meant that the essence of who they were made to be was being strangled out. I started to notice more when my initial reaction was embarrassment and an impulse to parent out of that (I had lots of opportunities for this every day). I still have to practice that noticing too. So though I still get embarrassed, I’ve experienced that grace to just accept that no one may want to ask me for parenting advice and that my kids are their own people – not a report card of how their parents are doing raising them. There’s so much freedom in that. I’m free to focus on whatever kid needs some help or coaching and really try to understand what’s going on with that child, instead of what others might think of me because of whatever that kid did or didn’t do.

So there it is. The parenting advice I never expected. Make peace with humiliation and embarrassment so you can get to the real meat of why and how you are raising your kids.

 

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They are more gracious than we think

I’m not sure what caused it or when it started, but I have felt a bit embarrassed about being an American long before I ever moved overseas. I somehow received the message that we are loud, entitled, ignorant, rude and generally clueless about the world. After all, we aren’t pushed to learn a second or third language in school – just a customary 2+ years of a foreign language (more if you want to look good applying for colleges). I was aware of two conflicting messages from as early as my teens (and just a disclaimer: neither message was pushed by my parents). I got the impression that we are the best country in the world with the best healthcare, education and opportunities – the maps in our classrooms primarily had North America front and center with Asia hacked in half. I also got the impression that people in other countries generally don’t like us and that they think we’re obnoxious – we are the people who shout what we’re saying louder and slower if you don’t know English, thinking that somehow helps you understand. Though there is a caution in this stereotype (ie: let’s be conscientious to not be loud, entitled, ignorant and rude and let’s try to make a habit of learning about the rest of the world), it truly is just a stereotype. Yes, you will find that person in lots of places on the face of the earth (and probably feel embarrassed when you spot them), but what has really struck me about this is how ego/ethnocentric it is. It’s all about what we are like and how we appear to others.

My sister-in-law was studying in Spain in 2003 and my mother-in-law and I went to visit her. I was extra careful to try to not draw attention to myself and generally felt that I hoped to appear culturally ambiguous – certainly not like a clueless, rude American. I used all the Spanish I could, because that’s the right thing to do when you are in another culture, even adopting the Spanish lisp, or should I say lithp. We had a great time and people were kind and helpful to us, even happy that we had come from America to see the country. I don’t know if we offended anyone but that’s exactly what I feared – being so ignorant that I don’t even know if I offended anyone.

Fast-forward many years later and Rees and I had each been to some other countries and decided to full-on move to another country. I didn’t realize when we moved to Tajikistan that we would actually end up visiting lots of other countries too. It’s kind of funny because when we made our budget for living in Tajikistan, ‘travel’ wasn’t even a line-item except for tickets years later to return to the U.S. We didn’t consider the wear and tear of living in a completely different culture, a developing country to boot, and our need to remove ourselves occasionally and get rest, perspective and decent healthcare at times or to go to a conference of training of other people doing what we are doing. Within our first year of living overseas, we faced lots of trials and sickness and Rees’ parents got divorced. We really wanted to see his mom face-to-face to process this and comfort one another (Skype is fantastic but just not thorough enough and hugs don’t pass all the way through the computer) and decided to go to a regional conference in Thailand with our company and have her meet us there. I didn’t realize how much I needed that til we’d been there a few days and my tummy trouble stopped and the tension in my shoulders left and they were no longer hitched up to my ears. Wow. As we did some sight-seeing and shopping I felt a bit embarrassed that I didn’t know Thai. I was the American tourist – horrors! But I had an internal conversation that went something like,

“It’s just terrible that I don’t speak the language! What do people think?”

“It would be nice to know the language, but really, when and why would I have learned Thai if I wasn’t living here?”

“That’s a good point. But it makes people feel honored if you speak their language.”

“It also makes people feel honored if you are kind and respectful. They don’t expect you to know their language. They can see that you aren’t from here.”

“True. But I’m an overachiever so I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to go above-and-beyond because they would really feel good if this white girl spoke their language with them.”

“And you would do this how? If your goal here is to be respectful, why don’t you just find out some “what-to-do’s” and “what-not-to-do’s” and maybe how to say ‘thank you’?

“Ok. That’s doable. I guess I don’t need to try to be so awesome.”

That’s what we did and it worked out just fine. Thai people are so polite and helpful, regardless of you knowing their language or not.

This started a process of my discovering that most people – in Dubai, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Germany, Switzerland, even Tajikistan, are pretty gracious to visitors. Once they know that you are just visiting, they don’t assume you know the language. They generally try to help you and try to understand your charades and the couple of words you may throw out. They don’t look at you and assume you are from America and therefore a rude, ignorant person. They are generally surprised you are from America and happy that you came to see their country. There are always the one-offs, but on the whole people give you the benefit-of-the-doubt – not assuming that you are, for instance, a committed current-president supporter who wants to wall out the whole rest of the world. Even the other day, when we were in Frankfurt checking into a flight to Istanbul, the Turkish man who was checking us in was chatting with us about places to see in his country and asking about where we’re from. We told him to come visit America and he smiled and said, “I would really like to someday, but I’m not sure that works with today’s president.” A moment that we could have just shrunk and been embarrassed, but we smiled and told him, “Yeah, it has become difficult, hasn’t it? I hope that changes, though.”

On the whole, people are very gracious to us when we are passing through their country and the general sentiment we hear is that they think Americans are friendly and they’d like to visit some day. That’s it. All that ego/ethnocentrism for nothing. I was reminded of this again today when I popped over to the neighborhood bazaar here in Bishkek with Annabel in tow. I don’t know Russian and I don’t know Kyrgyz but felt the freedom to just use a combo of the couple of Russian words I do know, some English, some Tajik, some charades and calculators and to make sure to say ‘thank you’ in the end.

Now my husband doesn’t relate to any of this at all. He doesn’t like not knowing the language, but that’s entirely because it’s simply inconvenient to not be able to freely communicate. But if anyone out there is more like me, be free to be your American self, appreciate the graciousness of others, and learn how to say ‘thank you’ wherever you are.

All the bases covered kind of provision

When I was a young adult, trying to stretch my college savings and work paydays to cover college costs and day-to-day basics, I thought of “provision” as being primarily monetary. As I adjusted to being a “real” adult with a career and a husband and home of our own, my understanding of God’s provision grew to include surprises that helped cover our needs, but still connected to money – like some checks in the mail that we hadn’t anticipated, a better-than-expected tax return or assessment, or a shift in car insurance that saved some money. When we moved overseas, my experience of God’s provision was still connected to money – after all, we left during the big economic crisis of 2008/2009, with all our support needs met – but I also began to experience provision in terms of a safe and nurturing Tajik host family, a great team, a fantastic language helper and an apartment. As I grew in my understanding of God’s grace and how every good gift truly comes from him, I began to view the strength to get through each day while sick, learning language, and raising two little ones as an incredible provision from God. I started to realize that I simply don’t have what it takes to be kind and patient with my kids, hubs and all the neighbors when my body was so exhausted and my mind was so over-stimulated. I began to see God’s provision in the moments of grace where I wanted to scream at one of my kids or grab them too roughly and was able to give myself a time-out. That’s not to say that I didn’t scream or grab them, it’s just that when I wanted to and didn’t I became more likely to see that as God’s empowering help and mercy to me (and us) and not my own excellent self-control. Any more, my experience of God’s provision covers a lot of bases but I’ve been thinking of one particularly sweet provision that we have repeatedly experienced this last year and a half: relationships.

I am writing this from Bishkek, where we have applied for a new visa and it’s the kind that we had been denied for some time but our teammates just got it this summer. It’s the one that can be extended in-country and would allow us to STOP ALL THE TRAVELING for a while. We were just in Germany for two and a half weeks – one week of that being a conference. We slept in five different places while in Germany and now we’re here in Bishkek, on our six place to lay our heads. Needless to say, after a year and a half of traveling every six weeks and here, on our sixth place to sleep, I am soooo ready to be done traveling for a while. But as I reflect on this season of travel, I am really amazed at God’s generous provision of relationships wherever we’ve been. First of all, there is our family in Germany, Luci & Uli, who allowed us to stay with them for seven weeks from Feb.-March 2016 and then welcomed us back with open arms again this summer (thankfully, for more like seven days, not seven weeks). I really don’t have words to describe the incredible blessing of having a peaceful place to crash and safe and loving people to crash with when you have had a long red-eye travel and have jet-lag with little kids. They are like an extra set of grandparents to our kids and take such great care of all of us – including arranging doctors and dentists and such since we tend to arrive with some kind of health mess happening with someone (this time it was me – I broke a molar while at our conference!). Emmett even told me this time around that he likes Germany and the U.S. equally – this is largely because Luci & Uli have made Germany such an enjoyable place to visit for him. Thank you, Luci & Uli!

Last year, when we were told that we had to leave Tajikistan again, after only having been in-country for 30 days and Emmett having had an appendectomy, we were beside ourselves. It was the last thing we wanted to do after having been in Germany for seven weeks just trying to return to Tajikistan. Where would we go? We looked into lots of options and ended up pursuing a place called Rivendell in Turkey, which turned out to be the guesthouse of the parents of a friend of ours from Portland. It turned out to be the perfect place to park for a little while and once again, we were touched by the love of people there. Shari and Kerry were helping run Rivendell and took us right in, making food, taking us to the market, loving on the kids and listening. When Hannah and Emmett wanted to get baptized in the Mediterranean, it was Shari and Kerry who helped make it happen and were witnesses. Annabel refers to them as “ShariKerry” which we all get a kick out of. They made us feel like family. There was also a pastoral coach, Sonja, who visited with us and helped us process what we were dealing with, how we were feeling about it and where was Jesus in it all. Our kids still have the collages she had us do to process as a family how we were doing with all the uncertainty. Kip & Wendy are the ones who own the place and made us feel so welcome and took time to chat and share their story and took us on some outings so that we wouldn’t get too bored in our waiting. We brought lice to Turkey with us and Shari and Wendy were so nonchalant about that, offering all the stuff we needed to deal with it – like we had asked for a rag to clean up a spill or something. No big deal. Thank you Shari & Kerry, Sonja, Kip & Wendy!

We had no idea that was just the beginning of our uncertainty and travels. After a couple of fly-to-Almaty-and-back-in-one-day outings with visas-upon-arrival, we began a long stint of visa trips to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It was no long possible to get more than a 14 day visa on arrival in Dushanbe and the whole system was moved to online. We knew no one in Bishkek and asked around our company to see who might be here. We were connected with Dave & Debbie, who have four adult children and twenty grandchildren in the U.S. From the first time we met them, they have bent over backward to make us feel welcome and help us find what we need in Bishkek. Debbie (who is an I.T. person with our company) even doctored our computer for us. They treat our kids like their grandkids and introduced us to some of what have now become our local favorites here: the park, the Burger House and the indoor children’s play place. I called Debbie last September when our plane had an engine malfunction and we ended up back at the Bishkek airport for 10 hours. Once we decided to just leave and not wait for the plane to be “fixed” I called Debbie (at 10pm) before going back through passport control to see if she could look up hotels for us. When I called her back she said, “You guys just come to our house and stay with us and we’ll help figure everything out in the morning.” We ended up staying with them for a couple of nights. We have had multiple home-cooked family meals at their home on our trips to Bishkek. Just yesterday we crashed at their house. I looked at our itinerary – arriving at 7:30am in Bishkek after having left Germany at 2:30pm the previous day, not being able to check into our AirBnB til 3pm and needing to run to the embassy first thing on arrival – and I texted Debbie saying, “could we come crash at your house from 11-3?). In typical Debbie fashion, she had food and pillows ready for us and then helped Rees with some technical stuff while the kids and I slept. Then there is the provision of friends for our kids here. We arrived at our apartment at 3pm and the owner told us that kids had already come by to play with our kids. There is an American family who lives in the apartment building across the play-yard from the place we stay with two kids – Hannah’s and Emmett’s ages. The kids played with Shelby & Waylen all afternoon and their parents fed our kids dinner while Rees and I, in zombie-like manner, unpacked and made ourselves coffee. Anyone who has personally had a friend-less season or whose children don’t have friends close by can understand what an extra-generous provision this is. Our kids have friends in Tajikistan, so it’s not like they just can’t survive some days in Bishkek without buddies, but what an extra generous gift it is for them to have friends here – and friends who understand the whole third-culture-kid existence. Any parent knows that when your kids are happy and fulfilled, the whole family is happier. Thanks Debbie & Dave and Shelby & Waylen and Brian & Kathy!

All of these relationships have begun when we ourselves were rumpled, tired and clueless as to what would come next. We were not at our best and didn’t have much to offer, but all of these people welcomed us, made us feel like family and helped us with our random needs. It is humbling when you are in the “being provided for” place, not the “providing for” position. But we have had plenty of opportunity for humbling and have discovered how holistic God’s provision is and how little we have done to make it happen. Once again, a beautiful example of grace in our lives. The only thing we can do in response is keep saying, “thank you!”

 

 

Ever-present help in travel

We had some encouraging news about our visas recently. At least some hope. Our teammates just got a year extension for their visa. It is through the same means that we have been trying (but have recently take a bit of a break from) but some things have changed and it looks like it is now a possibility to get an extendable visa. We’ll try that in August, on our way back from a conference. We can hardly believe it, and frankly won’t – until we have those stamps in our passports ourselves.

We still needed to get a new 45-day visa at the end of June so we decided to do things a bit differently. Hurry-up-and-wait gets really tiring, especially with three active kids. Going by plane feels like a whole lot of hurry-up-and-wait. We traded hurry-up-and-wait for “how much longer til we get there?” and took a road trip.

I’m more of a planner and try to foresee problems and be prepared for them. I’ve heard this referred to as “crisis-oriented” – oriented toward preventing and preparing for crisis as opposed to just taking things as they come. Central Asian living has really beaten this down in me. You know Murphy – of Murphy’s Law? Well, I’m pretty sure he lives here somewhere. You do your best to plan for things but you actually assume that things will turn out different than you planned. It’s more like you are aiming in a certain direction, hoping that in the end, you indeed end up in that general vicinity. We were planning our trip, which would include three nights up in the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan, one night in Batken, Kyrgyzstan and a night in the largest northern city, Khujand. We borrowed a tent and sleeping bags and packed food and some warm clothes (which is hard to imagine needing when it’s 115 degrees in our city). We also at least looked up hotels and AirBnBs in Batken – of course, none of them had a website or contact information, but we at least wrote down their names. The thing we were able to do was book an AirBnB in Khujand – but that was the only thing we were able to truly confirm and reserve. We decided to drive our own car but knew we would end up needing a place to leave our car at a couple junctures, as well as a couple taxis along the way. We attempted to get some phone numbers of people and asked around about how much we should expect to pay for different legs of the trip so we’d have an idea. But that’s as far as we got. Something that has been difficult to adjust to here has been the fact that if you line something up – say a taxi – with someone specific for a specific time, you often end up waiting longer (because that person is inevitably late and will tell you, “I’m on my way” even if they have no intention of coming – because that somehow preserves their honor more than just flat out telling you that they can’t come). It is frequently more efficient to just show up at the taxi place at the time you want to go somewhere, negotiate a price on the spot, hop in and go. We experienced grace in being able to set off on a six day road trip, with very little of it “ironed out,” and just trust that we’d figure things out on the way. There was extra grace in this as it crossed our minds to bring our kids into the process. I found that my gut-reaction was to keep everything secure for them, not tell them that we don’t know where we’re staying and the like. But, the thought crossed our minds that we should share our needs with the kids and together ask God to provide for them and then see what happened. Sometimes I want to protect my kids from potentially being disappointed by God. Heck, I want to protect myself from that too! But God has been allowing us to experience his help and thoughtful provision in so many areas, we are slowly growing to trust that even when we’re disappointed in this life – there is a future hope that he’ll make all things new, without sorrow or brokenness and that we’ll see redemption in places and ways we never expected. By the grace of God, we wanted our kids’ faith to grow and this seemed like a good opportunity for it.

We told our kids that we were going to head to the old Soviet camp at Iskandarkul (Lake Alexander) and we asked the Lord to provide a place to sleep and dinner to eat that night (it was Ramadan, so we weren’t sure how it would go on the food front). We had been to that place three years previous and planned to spend one night there and ask some locals if they knew anywhere we could leave our car for two nights and anyone with a jeep who could drive us up to our next destination. The man who runs the camp immediately recognized us! After three years! He hooked us up with a place to sleep that night, killed a goat for dinner that night and put a watermelon in the lake to chill. The kids and Rees went for a polar bear dip in the glacier fed lake and we went for a hike to a nearby waterfall. When we got back to the camp, dinner was all ready – at the exact time this man said it would be! That in and of itself was miraculous. He even got us in contact with a man who would meet us at the main road in the morning and take us somewhere we could leave our car for two days and then bring us up to the next place. We had a rough night sleep (due to some hooligan boys who showed up at the camp in the middle of the night – I’ll spare the details on that) but woke up to perfect weather, the smell of alpine wilderness (my favorite smell!) and more adventure ahead of us. At least the kids slept.

The jeep driver was waiting for us at the main road, just as he said (yay!), and brought us to where we could lock up our car. Then we set out on a 32km drive (20ish miles) that took 2 hours due to the primitive nature of the road. Annabel went from laughing and saying it was like a roller coaster, to crying that she just wanted to get out and walk the rest of the way. We got higher and higher, with tall jagged peaks still covered in snow peaking out and passed meadow after meadow of wildflowers and tiny villages – even crossing over rivers and streams. We arrived at the next old soviet alpine camp and were amazed. The family who looks after that camp had been asked by the previous camp guy to just let us pitch our tent there for free. It was glorious. Alpine paradise. We had two really fun days of exploring the Alauddin Lakes area on foot. The second day, one of the daughters of the man looking out for the camp and her 6-year-old nephew went for a hike with us. We hiked to the four lakes that compose Alauddin Lakes. Each was so beautiful and since we had kids with us, we couldn’t be very destination focused. That was a gift. If it had just been Rees and I, we would have covered a lot more kilometers but I don’t think we would have paused very long at any one place and just taken it in. But with Annabel only being four and with us wanting our kids to have a positive association with hiking in the mountains (so we can do it for our whole lives together), we had to go slowly, stop and drink from every spring, throw rocks in each lake, pick flowers and pat little cow calves that got to call the area home for the summer. It was such an amazing feeling to not be rushed at all. To not have anything we had to get anywhere for. I’m not naturally very present-minded and I felt so much grace to just ‘be.’ At the fourth lake, Guitar Lake, there was not another soul around. Rees, Hannah and Emmett jumped off a rock into the freezing water and Emmett made up the “hit the volcano” game where everyone tried to throw rocks into a little rock crater-looking thing that popped up from under the surface of the water. We played that game for a few hours. We stopped at the third lake, Alauddin, on the way back down to our tent, for a cup of tea and some nuts and then slowly made our way back. We noticed some black clouds hanging heavy over the mountains, dragging themselves toward our camp and picked up our pace to make sure the tent was rainproof enough.

After giving an extra pound to the tent stakes that were holding our tarp in place, we huddled inside the tent, enjoying the cold breeze preceding the rain. In the city we live in, in the southwestern part of Tajikistan, summer temperatures are routinely between 105-120+, so we savor any chills we experience in the summer, knowing they are short-lived. At first, we were all thrilled that it was raining. After an hour or so, however, we noticed little rivers of water starting to make tracks for our sleeping bags. Uh-oh. We pushed all our sleeping bags, pads and warm clothes into the middle of the tent and dammed up the edges with our beach towels and dirty clothes. The rain kept driving down. Rees and I looked at each other and he said, “Well, I think we can withstand another hour of this, but I do not think we can withstand two more hours.” We looked at the kids and said, “Let’s pray.” Now, it wasn’t really an emergency situation. There were three old cabins at this alpine camp and we knew that if we needed to, we could sleep in there, but we’d probably get wet along the way and our kids wanted to sleep in the tent. Well, twenty minutes later we heard a loud whistle – the kind that somehow says, “come out and see this!” We put on our rain jackets and boots and came tumbling out of the tent into the drizzly evening light and there was a bright double rainbow in the sky. As we beheld that handiwork, the rain stopped completely, the clouds continued on their way and we got a little dose of the sun before it set. The kids were all smiles, enjoying God’s answer to our prayer.

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There was a big boulder behind our tent that even Annabel could climb up from the back and Rees and I would sit up there in the early morning, coffee in hand, drinking in the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of that alpine wilderness. I love that kind of morning. So our last morning there, I soaked up some time on that boulder and then we packed up, the kids getting some last bits of playing time in the meadows and creeks, and we headed back down to our car with the jeep guy. At one point we stopped for him to allow one of the park rangers to catch a ride on the back of the car. So that’s what that little ladder back there was for! When the jeep guy stopped to let the park ranger off, the park ranger asked him if we were tourists who had come to visit the mountains. He told them, “No, they’re Tajik! They’re part of us.” That made me feel really good. We don’t look like part of the group, but they counted us as part of the group and I guess it always feels good to be included.

Our car was right where we left it, safe and sound, thank God. We ran to the closest pit-toilet (right on the edge of a cliff hanging over the raging river – egad!) and were on our way. Again, we were reminded to invite our kids into our needs. This was going to be the day with the most unknowns. Where would we leave our car? Who would take us over the border? Where would we spend the night? Where would we even eat dinner? We asked God to lead us and help us find all the resources we needed and thanked him for the ways that he’d already helped us. It was another high drive going over an 11,000’ elevation pass – again feeling like tiny sugar ants compared to the scale of the great mountains around us. It was a good six-ish hours to Isfara and amazingly, Google maps got us there without a hitch – even with not-so-great cell service the whole way. Rees found a guy who knew where we could keep our car and who would not only take us to our hotel (still uncertain of which one that would be) but would pick us up the next day and bring us back to our car – heck of a deal!

Land-border crossing seem so much easier than airport passport control. We take a little longer than most people just because there are five passports to check but it was very uneventful and relatively quick. Our taxi driver took us to the middle of Batken, Kyrgyzstan (referred to as “Bopkin” by Annabel) and asked what the address of our hotel was. Uh, we don’t know. But we know the name! No problem. He started asking people where this particular place was and after a few turn-arounds, we found it and, praise the Lord, they had room for us. Not only that, but they cooked food right on sight. No need to find a restaurant (which, if you’ve ever traveled in the developing world you know that isn’t a straight-forward thing to do). We were dirty, hungry and tired so this place was like a little oasis for us. We ate, showered and went to sleep – with a little drama thrown in on my part when I realized I hadn’t packed our toiletries, but had left them in our other bag in our car. There were tears involved and they weren’t the kids’. My gracious husband, ever worried about his wife having a nervous breakdown, told me, “No worries! I’ll run back out to the store. It is not a problem at all!” It’s so nice to have a husband who is a run-right-out-and-find-what-we-need type of guy. SO nice. So grace came in the form of Rees – as it often does.

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After a great breakfast, we were headed off back to the border – again, uneventful – and to our car. Our plan at this point was to go to the big reservoir, Kairakoum (or “the Tajik Sea”) and swim for the afternoon before heading to our Airbnb in Khujand. We were getting a little concerned because we had not received a single response from our host, but we figure he was maybe operating in Central Asian fashion and would get back to us last minute. Hopefully. We rented a cot (Like a platform with a fence going around it and cushions to sit on) and swam, swam, swam. For four hours we could hardly get the kids out of the water – comparable in temperature to Lake Washington. We even ordered shashlik (shish-kebabs), watermelon and RC Cola (which, I swear, tastes way different here than in America. I’m not even a soda drinker but it suddenly tastes sooooo good in the July & August heat here). I love to swim too and what a gift to have all three of our kids like it so much! After a while, still having heard nothing from our Airbnb host, we figured we should head into town and try to track down our place. The complete address wasn’t even listed on our confirmation email, so we figured we might be searching for a while. We searched for a good hour or so, eventually finding the right building, but no one knew our host or had an idea of which unit might be his. The internet is just so helpful for this kind of thing, isn’t it! So happy Al Gore invented it. We discovered that what Trip Advisor said was a good hotel was only 5 minutes away. You can imagine the situation – once again, hot, tired, hungry people in a hot car in the hot summer. Once more, we asked God to help us find a good place to spend the night again and he did! The Armon Apart Hotel – complete with a real lawn in the front. The kids ran to it and flopped themselves down on it yelling, “Real grass! Real grass!” It’s the simple things, isn’t it? They had a beautiful room (more like a mini apartment) for the same price as the Airbnb we had booked. Ironic how the ONE thing we had planned, had reserved, was the thing that fell through.

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We drove home without any trouble the following day – six+ hours – once more enjoying the chilly air at the tops of the passes, before descending to our steamy-hot town. We were even in time for Emmett and Hannah to go to sleepovers with their friends.

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We put somewhere in the realm of 1200km under our belts and grew as a family in our capacity to remember that God cares for us and ask him for help in everything.

 

 

 

The same place, a year later

A year ago we were finally heading back to T-stan, after a seven week wait in Germany (thanks again, Luci & Uli!). We finally had the visa we needed to return, Rees to get a work permit and to extend for a year – phew! As most of you know, that didn’t happen and we’ve spent the last year having to leave the country every 30-45 days. I wish I had something new to report a year later, but it seems that our visa situation is the same. We are hoping for a three-month extension that we’ll apply for next week, but there’s again no guarantee that will happen. All we can do is pray, try, and wait and see. I usually pack away all our suitcases in the basement, but this year they’ve stayed stashed in my closet – ready for action.

Our visa-situation hasn’t changed this last year but our attitudes about it are pretty different now, a year later. The first few times we got jerked around – being told that it will be no problem to get our visas or “just wait a couple of weeks til after …” we got really discouraged when it didn’t work out. You know – the moping around kind of discouraged where you alternate between feeling absolutely powerless and clawing at any opportunity to “control” the situation. It really felt like a roller-coaster. After four or five months, however, we came to accept that this is our “normal” for the time being (thanks to the example and encouragement of some friends). We stopped spending tons of time discussing and re-discussing what we perceived our options to be. We also stopped entertaining possibilities that connected-but-kind-of-shady people were offering. We reached out for help and support and received it (thank you!!!) and said, “Lord, you have done bigger things than this. We’re going to persevere through the spring and then re-evaluate. Lead us, guide us and give us the strength to hang in there and not give up joy in the process. We trust you can open doors if they need opening.”

Life has returned to a Central Asian rhythm. Homeschooling continues. Housework continues. Rees is teaching and continues with his livestock small-business hobby. There are weddings, funerals, festivals and visits but we just happen to go somewhere every 6 weeks for 4-5 days. We usually take our travel day off school but just bring our stuff with us wherever we go and do school there (thank God there are benefits to homeschooling). We also find ourselves entertaining more possibilities than we have since we moved here. We talk about where else we would live, what would we do and all that kind of stuff. Then we rein it in and say, “Let’s just try to be here, now.” We aren’t a very pretty picture of perfect peacefulness (especially when we’re at the airport going through passport control – we get ugly every time – it’s embarrassing), but we have experienced repeatedly the grace to get back to focusing on what’s in front of us, laying aside our need to know, for sure what’s next (since who can really know for sure?) and to try to act like we are on a fun adventure with our kids (ok, maybe that only happens a maximum of half the time). I’ve also experienced a lot of grace to stay focused in on the home-front. I would have normally been more inclined to “make it count”- the time we have here, not knowing if it is coming to a close or just a little bump in the road of a long tenure here. We go out and about, but I’m not trying to force my kids to visit lots of people and see lots of things and then be frustrated with their squirreling around and eventually saying, “can’t we just go home?” I feel grace to continue to return to being a safe person and having a safe home. Maybe I’m just worn down enough and I’m raising the white flag of surrender – given up on some of my control techniques. But it seems like surrender and grace are pretty closely connected.

Have you ever ended up with an outdated map or directions? You end up at a dead end but the map shows a road or the navigation voice tells you to continue going straight? Sometimes I get mad at the actual road – what right does it have to defy the map? I insist that the road can’t end there. It’s ridiculous because it doesn’t change the fact that the road doesn’t continue straight. Our status here is no different from a year ago but we are living in more peace about it for the time being, not trying to predict (or prevent) every turn in the road. Just driving and seeing where this road goes.

The one with the open arms

Sometimes I wonder about and wonder over the whole idea of adoption. It is really amazing to me how people can receive someone (or multiple someones) as their own. That’s profound to me.  I grew up knowing something about being adopted as my dad adopted my brother and me  when he married my mom. No step-dad stuff there, he went all in. I’ve always thought I was extra fortunate because I’ve known both being wanted but my (biological) dad not knowing who he was going to get, and also being chosen – as my dad who raised me (my biological dad died when I was two) knew me before choosing to be my dad.

When we moved to Central Asia, our friends set us up with a host family. There is a school of thought (and apparently some research to back up) called, “bonding.” The idea is more or less that people who are “newborn” to a culture will bond with those who care for them, similar to how a newborn bonds with those who primarily care for him/her. So if you are wanting to form strong, close relationships with locals it’s best to have your earliest experiences and “lessons” be with locals.

There was a local family about 15-20 minutes outside the city, in a village, who were open to hosting us for our first month or so in country. They had no idea who we were or what we would be like or what in the world we believed about anything or anyone. They only knew we were a husband, wife, daughter and son from America who knew none of the local language or customs. Once we had learned enough language to talk about it (a year or two after the fact) we found out that they thought that maybe they were about to see and meet the first “black” people of their lives. They were kind of surprised when we got out of the car and looked like “Russians.” I can appreciate now how difficult this must have been for them. They were taking responsibility for being our first teachers and, in a sense, care providers. But they didn’t have a common language to communicate with us and we seemed so incredibly odd to them. I wrapped up my baby (Emmett was four months) and put him in a crib and then left him to drift off to sleep, all alone. They would never do that. They wrap their babies in a type of cradle and rock them to sleep and are careful not to let them cry and rarely leave them alone (so as not to allow them to get scared). I looked like a negligent parent at first. They still marvel at how nicely Emmett would go to sleep as a little baby (I do too!). They have a certain bucket bath system that they’ve all grow up using and I was all thumbs trying to wash my baby, squatting by a fire, on a dirt floor (that was turning to mud), with a bucket of water (I wasn’t supposed to put him all the way in the water). Eventually one of my sisters-in-law grabbed him from me, worried I was going to allow him to get cold and thus sick. Truthfully, I was humbled and humiliated by that but also thankful because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Our local “dad”, who the whole village affectionately refers to as “Teacher,” knew from the start that it would take lots of time and patience to teach us language and culture. Not everyone knew that. A lot of people were surprised that, after a month of living here, we weren’t fluent yet. They would actually chastise us for that. But not our dad. He would daily say the same greetings to us, having us repeat what we were supposed to respond with. Every meal, he would point to things on the dasterkhon (tablecloth on the floor) and say their names over and over and then have us repeat them. Then he started quizzing us on the names of certain items, enthusiastically affirming our correct answers and correcting our incorrect ones with gentleness. We didn’t know then that this amount of patience and encouragement was actually going to be rare.

As we grew in our language ability, we began to understand more of his story. He had been in the Soviet army in Siberia and when he returned, he worked as a teacher and chose one of his students to marry (not scandalous here). They built a little house on some land that the government gave him and lived there together, not with his mother (which is the more typical thing to do). His wife, our “mom,” would tell me about how he would help her with the housework, caring for the children and keeping the fire going in the winter. She told me about how he never once hit her (also very atypical) and how he would ask her advice about any decision he had to make. He told us horrific stories of the civil war during the 90’s. Their home was in the midst of brutal fighting and he sent his wife and younger children to their extended family in a more peaceful city a few hours away. He stayed, looking after their home and helping people in need, eventually taking on the task of teaching children. He shared traumatic stories of being held at gun-point repeatedly, told to hand over all his earthly possessions because he would no longer be needing them. He told us about the time he got snatched and brought to an interrogation center, walls spattered with blood, his oldest son in another room, also being interrogated. The soldiers were looking for any reason to kill them, trying to find any way in which they were aligned with the wrong side. They told our dad that they already shot his son and they were going to kill him too. After a whole day spent this way, apparently someone who knew him and knew he was completely innocent on all sides, convinced the interrogators to let him go. He was driven back to his home, so traumatized that he didn’t even recognize it, saying to his captors, “where have you brought me?” He and our “mom” were unable to communicate during that time. Neither one knowing if the other was still alive. When the war was over and UNESCO came to the village to build a school, he helped the process along and was chosen to be the director of the school. He was still working when we moved here and finally retired a couple of years ago. The news station came to do a program on his life and service to the school. He was highly regarded throughout the village and surrounding villages.

Our “dad” was a great homesteader too. Hannah spent lots of time squatting next to him in the garden as a little girl, harvesting potatoes and pulling weeds. When we’d come to visit during apricot season, he’d climb 20 meters up into an apricot tree with a bucket and fill it up. I remember one day, being in the outdoor kitchen, and one of the chickens kept coming in and causing trouble. He warned that chicken that if she came in one more time, we would be eating her for lunch. We had chicken for lunch that day. He and our “mom” would give us advice, sometimes holding back judgemental language about someone, just telling us something to the effect of, “that’s just someone who is not going to be good to associate with.” They also repeatedly encouraged us to be gentle and grace-filled toward our spirited two and a half year old, as she was in a new place and needed time to get adjusted. We were concerned that if we let up on discipline, we’d have a real problem in the future. But in retrospect, they were right. Our local “parents” brought us to weddings and funerals and taught us how to be hospitable to guests according to local customs.

I really can’t overemphasize the incredible gift it is to have a local “home” when you live so far away from what you’ve always called home and everything is so different. We are still quite different from each other, and there are things we will never fully understand about each other, but it is a wonderful thing to be accepted into a family and not just tolerated but received. There was a rumor going around in those first few years that years ago, our dad had gone to America and had an American wife and a son with that wife. Now that son (Rees) had come to find his father. Our “parents” just laughed at that story, but let the village busy-bodies think it was true. Our dad called Rees his son and if too much time had passed since seeing us or hearing from us, he’d tell our mom, “Let’s call my boy and make sure he’s ok.”

About four weeks ago, I called our mom to see how our dad was doing. He had been looking fragile when we last saw him and I knew he had been weakened by that terrible flu that went around this year. I could tell by her voice that he wasn’t well and we decided that we’d get out to see him the next day. We were surprised and worried when we arrived, to see men milling about outside and a stream of visitors going inside. This frequently indicates that someone recently died. We rushed in and found our dad laying on a bed on the floor, our mom by his side and our brothers and sisters gathered around him. He was still alive, looking around, turning himself from side to side, but not talking and clearly not well. Apparently he had just had a stroke when I called the day before. The kids kneeled next to him, hugged him and Emmett prayed for him. We kissed his cheeks and sat with them, telling him how thankful we are that he called us his children and loved us so well, thinking these may be our last moments with him. We stayed most of the day and then came back the next day and, wonder of wonders, he was eating a bit, trying to sit up, still not able to talk, but doing a bit better. Rees went back a few days later and he was still improving. We were calling our brothers every day to check on him but had to go to Bishkek for new visas. Those visa trips usually result in the kids getting sick when we return so we returned and kept the phone calls going, our brothers came to our house, but we didn’t get back out to the village for fear that the kids would pass on their flu to their “Bobo” (grandpa) and he was already so weak. I have unfortunately witnessed people with lowered immune systems dying of such things as colds and flus when I worked in oncology and I was really concerned that might happen with our dad. On Sunday, I told Rees that if Hannah (the last one to have a high fever) was still fever-free on Monday, we should get out to see our dad. On Monday, Feb. 13th, we got the call that he had passed away. We’ve spent a lot of time in our village this week, grieving with our family there and employing the ministry of tears and hugs. Our local dad was truly a cream-of-the-crop kind of guy. We haven’t met many men like him here. He was honorable and wise, kind and faithful and will be truly missed. Our mom told us that last Friday he told one of the granddaughters, “I’m tired of life” and proceeded to refuse food for the next two days. He had always said that he didn’t want to die during the winter, not for his sake “it won’t matter to me!” he’d say, but for his family’s sake. He wanted to die on a warm, sunny day. It has been a cold, wet, foggy winter here but we had the warmest, sunniest day of the winter the day that he died.

We received a grace we never imagined when we first set out to live here: being received with open arms by a humble, village family and getting to be called “children” by one of the best men in the country.

 

 

Mostly unashamed of the mess

After many months of saying to each other, “We should have _______ & _______ over” Rees and I finally made it happen. His male co-workers pop by and hang out with our family fairly regularly but there were a couple of his female coworkers we wanted to have over too and now one of them is moving away. So we did to others what we don’t tend to want them to do to us – we asked them over during her last couple of days here. She was gracious enough to come.

There have been so many evidences of God’s gracious transformation of my soul these days. They aren’t profound on the outside, in fact, they are pretty mundane and you would never know that they evidence huge helpings of His grace. But I see them and, and even seeing them is a grace-gift. Yesterday, when these two young ladies came over, I was not stressed at all. Don’t get me wrong, I still wished that my house was spotless and that I was more efficient at cooking, but I didn’t run around making more work for myself (a little more cleaning up, maybe I should make another salad, should I run out and get bread that was just-made?…). I ended up just adding more chicken and some rice to the big pot of soup I had made the day before and ran across the street to get some yogurt from a neighbor to eat with our soup. There are so many other things I could have made and done that would have made me look great, but the problem is that those things tend to take too much of my energy away from actually enjoying the people sitting at my table. Don’t get me wrong – I really love food and I really enjoy cooking food and eating yummy food with people. But we just got back from Bishkek and my priority was home-school and staying connected enough to my kids’ hearts that we could look forward to having guests over together (instead of feeling like they were just in the way of my hosting properly). So that left about an hour and a half in the afternoon to do everything else and I chose to augment the soup and bake a cake because women here tend to really enjoy a “different” kind of cake more than they enjoy “different” food. And when I could have made a complex salad, I instead said “yes” to playing Junior Monopoly with Hannah & Emmett.  When these dear girls came, I toured them through our messy house without apologizing for how messy it is (grace!), made a pot of tea and sat with them while peeling and cutting veggies that we just ate raw, no fancy dip or dressing. We ate dinner and played Clue and all too soon, it was time to take them home. And instead of feeling like, “Whew, glad I got through that one. Time to recover.” I felt genuinely happy that we got to enjoy these girls in a more personal setting. That’s God’s grace and a big transformation.

Being great has never been an all-encompassing thought for me, but my actions and drive sure give proof that it is exactly what I’ve been aiming for. There is such a good article on Desiring God that articulates this: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lay-aside-the-weight-of-pride. My limitations (and there are just soooo many!) bother me so much because of this drive to be great, do great things and the like. In that article the author, Jon Bloom, says:

“My shame comes from an exaggeratedly high self-image that feels exposed by my limitations, weaknesses, and sins, making living with or fighting them much more burdensome than necessary.”

There is something in me (pride) that feels strongly like I ought to be able to do it all and then condemns me for being so limited. When we first moved to Central Asia, I was ready (I thought) to set aside my “rights” and take on aspects of the culture that would make me accessible and respectable to my new host-country. I wanted to honor the people around me. But slowly, subtly, some kind of wrong-thinking seeped in that put emphasis on glorifying God by making sure that everything looked fantastic, the way that locals do things. Even how my kids behaved was somehow going to bring God glory and point to His absolute and unconditional love. Local ladies here clean their homes to the point that it looks like no one lives there EVERY DAY. We wake up to the sound of sweeping every day. I’ve had local ladies scold me for the imperfections in my home (coming from the Pac NW, that kind of feedback took some major adjustment!) I had a big problem, however – we actually DO live in our home and it looks like it! I felt stressed all the time by every mess, thinking “What will they think if they see this mess? What if they think we are dirty people and that translates into their perceptions of our spiritual life and the whole community just keeps us at arms’ length because they don’t want to be defiled by us?” Sounds totally irrational coming from the west but I’m telling you, it is not irrational coming from the east. When someone would stop by (which is common here) I would be stressed by my kids’ needing attention and misbehaving all the while I’m making food and putting out nuts and fruits and chocolates and whatnot so that my guest feels honored and well-received – all to God’s glory (I hoped). My performance-oriented wiring is conducive to these pressures. But I wasn’t enjoying my guests and I wasn’t enjoying my kids and I was just. so. tired.

There are so many things that can lead to the ol’ raising the white flag. By the grace of God, I started to become aware that I was not living very differently than my neighbors and local friends. Appearance is everything here and you get merit with God (at least you hope) for how clean your house is and how well you hosted your guests and all that. I was trying to do the whole appearance thing all the while insisting that God loves us right where we are at and gives us freedom to live motivated by His great love, not fear of shame or His wrath. I found myself saying, “I can’t do it” and “I just don’t have the capacity for this” and really, truly, resigning myself to the fact that I am terribly limited. I also felt like I was missing out on being present with my family and local friends and guests. The story of Mary & Martha became inescapable for me and with some cultural context now, became even more poignant. Every local woman I’ve read the story to (in Luke 10:38-42) is agreeing with Martha (whom the Bible says in vs. 40 was ‘distracted with much serving’) that, of course Mary ought to be helping her and serving and doing the whole hospitality thing. They are absolutely shocked when Jesus says to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.” I just never realized what a leap of faith choosing the “good portion” actually is. As with so many things, grace has met me with each step of faith. It shows up in deciding to sit and drink a cup of tea when I’m done with home school for the day before moving on to the home-front stuff. It also shows up when I have the kids help me clean up and I call it good enough, instead of doing it all over again myself. I think it’s really interesting how quickly I extend grace to others and encourage them to receive grace themselves and yet it is such a journey for me. I don’t remember other people’s messy houses at all but I do remember times when people opened their home and heart to me, making me feel like they were glad to visit with me. I raised the white flag, saying, “Jesus, I can’t keep up with any of this so I need you to make up with your abundance what I lack.”

I’ve come to believe that maybe those who are put off by any of my outer appearances: a rug that hasn’t been vacuumed yet that day, a pile of laundry still sitting in the bathroom, a sink full of dishes, kids walking around pouting or fighting with each other, my scarf tied all village-y or not village-y enough, are not necessarily the ones I’m here for. The ones who are drawn to being known and are craving a peaceful place (notice I didn’t say ‘quiet’) will come even if things don’t look perfect around here – even if it looks like our messy life is being lived here.

 

The grace spots at the end of the year

We got some decent snow fall at the end of November and early December and life slowed into “winter pace” where we aren’t going out for visits as much and are spending more time keeping the water running, getting clothes washed (and dried – that’s the tricky part) and keeping a room or two heated. We spend a bit more time with other ex-pats as we weekly celebrate Advent together, lighting the candles, singing Christmas carols and engaging our hearts with God becoming flesh. The week that we were scheduled to celebrate Thanksgiving together (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) our electricity wasn’t very good and we wondered, as we often do this time of the year, how we were going to keep everyone warm and get all the food cooked (being the only American family in town, we were hosting). We have lived here long enough that though we get stressed about these things at some random moments, we generally expect that we’ll figure out what plan will work when the time comes. That’s a whole lot of grace right there for this plan-ahead-and-be-ready-for-anything girl. Living in Central Asia has really beat a lot of those tendencies out of me (I still try to fight back sometimes, but I’ve learned how to wave the white flag a lot sooner – again, evidence of God’s grace in my life). We ended up with electricity almost the whole day during our Thanksgiving celebration and, as usual, were overwhelmed again by the sweetness of our “family” here – to whole-heartedly join in our holiday, making lots of good food and hanging out together. The kids dressed up in their costumes – Hannah was an “artist/veterinarian,” Emmett was Jake the Neverland Pirate (a costume we brought from the U.S. three or four years ago that finally fits properly) and Annabel was a fairy princess. In lieu of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pinata, Rees sent the kids on a treasure hunt to find bags of candy. That’s another place where I see how grace has changed me. I would have put more pressure on myself to make Thanksgiving just like it usually is when our dear team mates, the Wilburs, are here (because it’s super duper fun). But I’m very slowly accepting some of my limitations and decided we would just do what we could do to make it enjoyable for everyone, even if it meant we wouldn’t do all the fun things we normally would. And guess what – we all had a great time. We also kicked off our first Advent celebration and lit the first candle together. We go youngest to oldest with the candle-lighting so the youngest Bucher twin, Elea, lit the first candle (with her mom’s help, of course). I wish I was one of those people who could say, “I love having people over! I love hosting!” but that wouldn’t be exactly true. I do love the effects of opening my doors and focusing on people and making a safe place for people to relax and enjoy each other. But I’m not a super efficient person and definitely not a multi-tasker, so it takes me a lot of time to get ready and then recover. We’ve made our margins bigger this year (I’ll talk about that later – another grace gift) and these last three months or so have been the first time in my parenthood life where I am actually genuinely excited to have people “stop by” and where I don’t feel great stress over hosting a big group. I was really thankful for that this year.

We followed up our Thanksgiving celebration with heading up into the hills for some sledding. The most amazing thing was that we were able to all go as a family, no one needing to stay home to nap, no one sick, no one too little to enjoy it, we didn’t need to bring diapers or anything. It was one of those milestone moments for us, where we felt that we have entered a new era of family life. I am thankful for three kids who all like the snow and enjoy sledding. Especially with some funny sensory issues in our family, we could have ended up with someone who can’t tolerate the snow or cold or something, but somehow we ended up with three who are happy with the snow. Thank you, Lord.

The rest of December we did “normal” Christmas-y things like making cookies, decorating, and we even took a couple weeks off school. That has been a HUGE gift to us. We have not just taken a regular break from school that wasn’t due to travel or getting ready to travel (and get our house ready for someone to stay in it). It was my favorite “week before Christmas” I’ve ever had. I relaxed a bit on the home-front too. I am usually kind of up-tight when it comes to tidiness – not only because I feel more relaxed when my surroundings aren’t chaotic, but also because (and I’m embarrassed to admit it) I don’t want my neighbors to think I’m a slob. Tajik ladies are ridiculously clean – sweeping, dusting, washing floors every single day. They like for the rooms in their homes to look like no one lives there. My home always looks like someone lives there. Five someones. I have wrestled a lot with this living here – especially since I’m outnumbered in my family. Let’s just say that there are plenty of people I live with who are not at all bothered by chaos, they don’t even notice it. The long and the short of it is that I didn’t want Jesus to look bad because the neighbors thought I was a slob (because the cleanliness of the home is 100% the job of the woman who lives there). I didn’t want them to disqualify the message of my life just because they thought I was “dirty.” Back to the work of accepting limitations – I just can’t make my home be as consistently scrubbed as my neighbors do. I am not superwoman (I still hate that fact some days, but am resigned to it). I value far more highly the discipleship of my children and that love and peace abound in my home than I do a reputation of being a stellar housekeeper (which these ladies do ascribe to people – or don’t, as it were). That is grace right there too – choosing the mission of our life and family, to give and receive the love of God, over trying to help out Jesus’ reputation by being exceptionally clean. He gets to make himself look great in my limitations and inability to fit in completely. He has no end of opportunities 🙂

I also experienced an interesting and subtle grace  during the wedding time of a family we’ve known since we moved here. Their oldest daughter was being married off. This young lady used to come to my apartment on Friday afternoons the second year that we lived in Central Asia. She would help me get some food prepped for the weekend, wash dishes and watch the kids while I did a language lesson. Emmett was always sneaking up and snatching bites of the bread dough she would prepare. He called her “Haho” (her name is Rafo, rah-FO). Well, Haho was getting married and I was so happy to see that she was actually happy about who she was marrying. That is not often the case so it was refreshing to see. Weddings last multiple days so we went on the day that their neighbor ladies came to celebrate with them and while we were there, got the news that another neighbor lady’s husband, 37 years old, had collapsed at the bazaar and was barely alive, not expected to live. His sweet wife and four children were only two doors down, beside themselves with grief. I don’t know this family very well at all, had never set foot in their home actually, but was asked to join the other ladies who were going to check on her and cry with her. These are the kinds of situations that any westerner cringes inside about. We highly value privacy during emotionally charged situations, but Central Asians are “gather-together” people, so by the grace of God I joined them, though it did not feel natural to me. I was with my Finnish friend, Henna-Maria, who knew her, as well as some local ladies I know and just cried and hugged and was there. Henna-Maria eventually figured out that all this woman’s own family was in a neighboring country and she didn’t have enough money on her phone to call them. So Henna-Maria called her husband to put money on this lady’s phone. We also slowly figured out that this woman’s husband was not actually dead yet, but on some kind of machine at the hospital. God gave us the grace to encourage her to go to her husband and because we had a car, we took her with her oldest son, to the hospital. That is an awkward situation – I hardly know this family and here I am driving them to the hospital, probably to say goodbye to their unconscious loved one. We encouraged her that her husband may still be able to hear her and prayed with them as we drove. It was heart-breaking to say the least. She was crying, “Oh God, if I can only get to him and speak some kind words to him. That the last words he hears can be good ones.”This is the kind of situation that our instincts are to move away from, especially if we’ve already done our “part.” It’s uncomfortable and we don’t know what to do. Well, I felt the grace of God again the next day, when we returned as a family to see our friend, the bride, get taken to her new husband’s home. I felt the little bit of courage in a slower moment to don the white funeral scarf (as I had found out the lady’s husband died  later in the night the previous night) and go back into that home where women were gathered to mourn with the bereaved family and hold that precious woman, cry with her and give her a bit of cash to contribute to all the expenses (the whole community helps in different ways like this). Sometimes God’s grace comes in the form of courage to step into a difficult and awkward situation where you don’t want to do the wrong thing, but you put aside your discomfort for long enough to show up. That’s what I experienced those wedding/funeral days.

Well, thank God, there is always sweet mixed in with bitter and we had a really sweet Christmas party with our ex-pat friends. Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the most precious celebrations we have and they are actually extra sweet when shared with those we affectionately refer to as God’s Team. They have become our “family” here and in the absence of all the consumerism and pressure surrounding the holidays, they make the celebration of our holidays extra sweet. Our kids love Advent as much as Christmas and it’s because of these folks being here to celebrate it with. We were missing some people this year – some had moved to their passport country, some were out of the country, but we enjoy it with whoever is around. The years that we haven’t been here for the holidays, we have missed spending them here – that’s grace right there. I never imagined how much we could enjoy the holidays being so far away from our families and our friends and being in a country where our holidays are not celebrated. Of course, we love spending the holidays in the U.S. too, but the holidays in Central Asia will remain a warm, sweet spot in my heart no matter where we are for the rest of our lives.

Christmas day was spent at home, just our family. Hannah told me, “This was my favorite Christmas ever!” That’s grace too. We didn’t have huge piles of presents (don’t worry – they got plenty of presents, just not the big piles they get when we are in the U.S.) and we just played at home. Rees and I watched the Seahawks game since it had been played the day before (they lost – boo for that) and we played games, read books and just relaxed together.  I loved it.

For New Years we went with two other families two hours north to the capital for the weekend and stayed at a nice hotel who offers a significant discount to residents. We checked out a new pizza place – which was AMAZING and did lots of swimming, went in the sauna, took walks, ate really good food, the kids played and played and watched a couple of movies together and it freed up the adults to actually have lots of good adult conversations and play some games together. From our rooms we watched fireworks go off all around us when 2017 started. We all appreciated the constant electricity and endless supply of hot water. Ten years ago I would have felt guilty for doing something that feels so extravagant compared to our daily life here, but it was grace that allowed all of us to look at each other one day in December and say, “Let’s invest in a great family memory!” and then we enjoyed it as a gift given by a good Father.

The return of an old friend, part 2

If I thought that work/career had shaken up my quiet, connect-with-God mornings then having my first baby, five years into that career, was like being thrown into a blender. Of course, I was elated. As anyone who has loved a child more than they ever knew possible knows – the world looks different in light of that child’s existence. I understood in new ways how much God loves me and delights in me, no matter what, as I loved and delighted in Hannah. I went back to work on-call when she was three months old and even work looked different to me. I started taking time to rub patients’ feet, sit down and hear more of their story, and work on the “little” things that could help them or my coworkers out. It’s not that I didn’t want to do those things before, it’s just that they got edged out by other things that needed to happen. I only worked 1-2 days a week and had a baby girl to come home to and was learning a little bit about how to be more present-minded. I was mostly sleep-deprived and had no quiet, Bible reading morning routine, but somehow in the love I had for my little one, I was certain God loved me too – even with messy hair, bags under my eyes and a cup of coffee that was being heated up in the microwave for the third time (I know, gross. But that’s what survival mode does to a person, you know?). When Hannah was two, Emmett was born and that really did Rees and I in as far as love goes. The miracle of life to us was equivalent to the miracle of suddenly loving another little person every bit as much as the first little person. That gave me a teeny, tiny glimpse into the enormity of God’s love. There’s more than enough to go around and it’s always there.

We super-sized that blender to commercial-grade, high volume when Emmett was two months. We sold the majority of our worldly goods and moved to Seattle to be with our families for a couple of months before moving to Central Asia. I’m not going to get into too many of the details of that BIG transition in this post, but you can imagine what moving to a developing country, where we needed to learn pretty much everything, with a two year old and a four month old does to your morning routine. I was sick, often up most of the night, nursing a baby, trying to parent a spirited two year old while learning a new language and how to live in a completely different country. A country where electricity and water would shut off and apartments don’t have elevators. I was exhausted all the time. I applaud my husband for continuing to ask me how I was doing when he knew I would always say, “I’m exhausted.” Boy were there some exhausted years in there. It seemed we were just starting to get hopeful that we were becoming a bit more energetic when I got pregnant with Annabel. We had lived here for three years at that point. My weakness and exhaustion combined with my wiring toward being productive had already catapulted me into a big mound of grace (I’m embarrassed to say that I kicked and screamed as I flew through the air and even continue to). I got some practice dragging myself out of bed in the morning after an interrupted night of sleep – usually to a child demanding to be fed or someone pounding on my door (it’s totally acceptable here to pound and pound on someone’s door at 6am). The morning person in me was actually torturing me because even when Rees tried to let me sleep longer, I just couldn’t. I get all antsy if I feel like the world around me is up and at ‘em and I’m not. So we had a really pleasant morning situation in our home – an exhausted mom and wife who needs to sleep more and can’t and begrudges everyone else for preventing it. I had thrown out the idea of the quiet hour of prayer at some point in the early throws of motherhood and tried to just grab a few minutes of just plain quiet here and there and settled on locking myself in a room one morning during the weekend when Rees could keep the kids occupied (though they always had their radar tuned to this and would plaster themselves on the other side of the door, crying, “Mommy! Mommy!” As if they hadn’t spent every waking moment with me already). I had to accept the reality that I could connect with God and be close to Him in the midst of mess, action, need, and lots of loud. It started to dawn on me that if there wasn’t grace and worship in my everyday tasks and reality, then how could I pass on that grace to any local woman in my stage of life who has far less freedom in what her day-to-day looks like? If changing diapers, washing clothes, cooking food, parenting children, chatting with neighbors and cooking things for their celebrations and gatherings (because that’s what the community does) and connecting with my husband couldn’t be worship and honoring to God and even a joy for me – then what hope do I have to offer to anyone here? I really started to reach for the Bible and pray out of a deep need for His help and perspective and as I did, I began to rejoice all over again over how paradoxical God is. He uses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. He chooses the one who isn’t super to show how super He is. I started to even occasionally laugh at the fact that He could use someone like me, someone who hardly got a minute of quiet prayer time, who takes a month to memorize a single verse due to exhaustion and who commits all kinds of faux pas all day long and often doesn’t even realize it. I didn’t even think about quiet mornings or hours of prayer any more. I figured that if I get to live to be an empty-nester, maybe that’s when I’d rediscover mornings.

An incredible gift has been given to me the last few months. We generally all sleep through the night these days (with the exception of sickness). I got up early one morning, not exhausted, and no one else woke up. I couldn’t believe it. Until now, whenever I get up early (in an attempt to find that quiet prayer time), it only serves to be an alarm clock to at least one, if not two kids. But there I was, up early, cup of coffee in hand, Bible in lap, quiet, in disbelief. A whole hour passed before a child woke up. I couldn’t believe it. I tried it again the next day and same thing – an hour, hour and a half of quiet. This has been going on for a few months and it is grace. So much grace. Such a gift and such a gift to be able to be thankful for it, to just appreciate each morning that I get – knowing that seasons change, such a gift of grace to not wake up early some mornings and not feel guilty about it but thank Him for a little extra sleep. What a gift to be able to greet little ones with a smile when they wake up (instead of grumpy-momma with “why do you always need something?” tone of voice). Suddenly those years of the slow disintegration of the morning prayer time seem like a good rebooting of my prayer life. It felt like getting out of touch with a good friend and then finding them on Facebook years later and getting back in touch again, discovering that you appreciate that friend more than ever. So for now, I’m really enjoying getting to know my old friend, early morning again, and by God’s grace, that old rascal guilt is being left out in the cold.

 

 

The return of an old friend, part 1

Something really precious returned to me a few months ago and I am treasuring it and appreciating it more than ever. It is the gift of the early morning. Treasured as only a morning person could. It has been a good 10+ years or so (possibly even 15 or 16) since I’ve been able to savor the early morning and I think I’m savoring it more than ever and that right there is a gift of grace. Fifteen or so years ago, I would have been able to give some tips to anyone about how to get up early and why that’s such a great idea. Now I realize that I’m just more of a morning person so it will just come naturally to me to be alert and productive in the morning and that’s not something I could give tips on. Years ago, two friends of mine were both piano teachers (Jamie Jam and Dana Little – talking about you!). Jamie was more gifted at flowing with the piano and just had a nack for it where Dana had to work hard at it but was also quite accomplished. They both agreed that Dana was the better teacher because she knew what it felt like to have to work at each step so she can break things down for her students. Whereas Jamie* can try to do that and inspire her students but just doesn’t know what it’s like to have to break everything down into small, simple steps and then struggle with them. I’ve thought about that explanation so many times. It highlights for me the reality that even being a morning person and naturally treasuring the early morning is a grace. Something I actually did nothing to accomplish, it is just a gift. And when we have teenagers who finally get around to talking to us at night, when their mom turns into a pumpkin, their dad’s night-owl wiring will be a great gift.

In college, I loved waking up with the rising sun and spending time in prayer and reading my Bible. I went to Western Washington University for a few years and there is an arboretum on campus and I’d get up early, grab my Bible and hike up through the arboretum to the look-out on top of the hill and spend the morning connecting with God while looking out on Bellingham Bay, the green trees and the beautiful mountains. It was dreamy. When I moved back to Seattle to do an internship at my church and then go on to nursing school, I was already in the habit of the early wake-up and my days got busier so I really treasured that quiet, alone time in the morning. It didn’t hurt that one of my dear roommates worked at Starbucks and got us free coffee to help out those gloomy winter Seattle mornings. Also didn’t hurt that we were just a half mile up the street from Magnuson Park and across the street from the Burke-Gilman trail so when the mornings got lighter, I could pop out for a jog, walk or bike-ride and once again be on the water or in a lush green space. I would have attributed more to my discipline in those days but let’s be honest – those are pretty easy places and contexts to wake up and connect with God in. Surrounded by natural beauty, no full-time job, no kids, no major obligations except studying and making enough money to feed, clothe and shelter your own self. That was before the major tech boom too so my roommates (and dear friends, Molly and Taj) and I had our desktop computers, a land line and a TV with antenna. We didn’t have any tech we needed to afford or constantly upgrade. I resonate so well with what Rachel Jancovich says in “Loving the Little Years”:

“The truth is my Christian life then was like a rock being refined by a slow river in a quiet place. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t growing spiritually, but my word! So easily! And so little! But God took me out of that life and threw me into the rock tumbler. Here, it is not so easy to feel godly, because we spend our days crashing into each other and actually getting our problems addressed. Here there is very little time for quiet reflection.”

Of course, it didn’t feel like that as I started to get tossed around and lose “my mornings.” Nursing school started to shake it up a bit as we had clinicals thrown into a full load of classes and labs. Sometimes we had multiple evening shifts during the week and had to wake up early for class the next day in addition to whatever we did to actually make some money to live. My mornings became shorter as I needed to add in some more schoolwork. I felt guilty about that. But I figured I’d “catch up” once I was actually working and not actually going to school any more. Toward the end of nursing school I got married which ended up being a great decision and I don’t regret the timing in the least. However, trying to figure out how my God-time was supposed to mix with Rees’ God-time left me feeling uneasy. Did I have to give up my separate time now that we were “one”? Hmmm. And I felt some more guilt because I didn’t want to share my bit of quiet time with my new husband who I was supposed to want to share everything with and we couldn’t figure out how to do that regularly anyway. I started to feel a bit distant from God. It felt to me like I had a container of quiet, connecting with God time and it could only stay full if I was putting an hour or so into it every day. Every day I didn’t contribute to it, it would drain and any subsequent time I put into it was only trying to make up a deficit but certainly not moving me into any surplus. But as long as I didn’t empty out completely, I felt like one day I’d be able to move back into the surplus.

Rees and I moved down to Portland once I was done with nursing school and I took my nursing boards down there and pretty quickly found my ideal job: a full-time day shift position in oncology. I remember when I was offered the position and immediately said, “yes!” and my manager, Lee, told me that I didn’t have to answer right away but could take a week to think it over and just get back to her. I tried to insist that I didn’t need a week, but she wanted me to take the time to consider it. Well, I was offered the position on a Friday and called her Monday morning to accept. I spent the next two years with my head spinning, trying to get the hang of being an oncology nurse and getting my oncology certification (which was more difficult than my nursing boards). As anyone can imagine, it was really intense working in oncology. I had the amazing privilege of working in a hospital that had a cancer research center and a really remarkable team of doctors and nurses. But, as we used to say, “we put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!” Between the physiology of what was going on or could happen with our patients, the endless treatments and keeping up on what gets treated with what and what can mix with what, the emergencies and the psychological impact of cancer on a person and their family (or the impact of not having a family or supportive community when you have cancer) – I was wrung out at the end of the day. Brain fried. I had to be at work early and my Bible reading and praying turned into more of a “help me, Lord, today!” and glancing at a verse, trying to get it to somehow sink in. What really horrified me was at the end of my shift, as I’d trudge out to my car, I’d realize that I hadn’t even thought about God that day. I’d only been trying to wrap my brain around what to do next. I felt so unspiritual, and guilty and would again apologize to God for not talking to him during my workday. But one day, after apologizing, a verse filtered up into my thinking:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).

The “with all your mind” part lodged into my heart and I thought, “Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m using my mind to do what you’ve allowed me to do right now – serve people with cancer.” Not being one to try to dodge a self-scolding, but rather wallow in it, I was worried maybe I was letting myself off too easy. Certainly God couldn’t be incredibly pleased with me not even talking to him at work. It seems silly, but to a more works-orientation-wired person, it felt like a big step of faith, like taking a step off a cliff – to trust that He was pleased with me and had grace for me in that season of learning a new, intense career. It felt safer for me to just feel guilty and let that motivate me to “do better.” But that wasn’t working and I certainly didn’t feel any closer to God. A thought started to niggle my mind, that maybe my feeling distant from God was largely or wholly on my side of the relationship. So, I started to fight that guilt at the end of the day by just saying, “I know you were with me today at work. Thank you for helping me.” instead of apologizing. That slowly gave way to more thanksgiving (I dare you to try not to be thankful if you’ve spent all day with cancer patients – you can’t do it). Then I started to ask Him to help me see Him and recognize him at work. A slow work of grace was steeping in me. To focus on Him more and less on my short-comings. To discipline my thoughts when they tried to hang out in the “I’m-a-lousy-believer-and-friend” place and instead say, “thank you for being with me and loving me, even when I didn’t recognize you today and thank you for grace that gives me a fresh chance to see you tomorrow.” Even when I didn’t feel it, I said it and that was grace. I can’t say that my mornings returned to an hour of peaceful communion, but I was more able to thank Him for a single verse and worship Him in the car on my drive to work.

Eventually, I settled into a bit of a rhythm with work. I learned how to delegate better, I learned how to anticipate emergencies and how to prioritize and then keep re-prioritizing as needs changed. My brain didn’t feel as terribly wrung out as it did those first couple years. We moved closer to the hospital and I began to chisel out 20 minutes or so to just be quiet and pray while I drank my coffee before going to work. There were still days that I was too tired to get up earlier than absolutely necessary and I felt guilty about that (surprise, surprise) but overall I felt okay with my routine and was at least 98% convinced that God wasn’t disappointed with me for my lapses.