Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What DO I do all day?

It is that age old question. So you are a stay at home mom - what do you do all day? People don't usually ask it outright because of the wrath it may incur, but they still think it. I still ask it of myself.  How is it that a whole day passes and I accomplish so little?

Some days being at home all day with the kids is pretty easy and enjoyable. Some days it is an extreme exercise in patience. I do not believe that being a SAHM is the hardest job ever or even a job in the traditional sense. There is much more flexibility, less time off, more fun, and of course no salary. But perhaps the biggest difference is how little we accomplish. Most jobs involve making measurable headway in some area. At home, you do the same things again and again each day, with small people coming along behind to undo them.
Some days either you hold the baby, or the baby cries. All. Day. Long.
How is it we stay busy all day and yet get so little done?  Here is an example hour in a normal day of my life.

[Note: this story only involves one child at home. The actual amount of accomplishment may vary based on the number and ages of children present, who is sick or in a terrible mood, etc. If there is a pregnancy or baby in the mix and everyone is still alive and somewhat sane at the end of the day - Bravo! Great accomplishment!]

Scene opens (Juliana has just been scuttled out the door to school).

8:01 - Reheat coffee and plan morning: do laundry, wash dishes. Then I should have plenty of extra time to organize the entire rest of the house!

8:02 - First things first: get Adalyn dressed. Where is Adalyn anyway? A quick search reveals her in her bedroom, dumping out the buckets of socks and underwear, happily wearing a pair of Elsa underwear on her head. Put away socks and underwear. This whole cabinet is an overflowing mess. I really need to get around to organizing it.
Adalyn gets a head-start on reorganizing.

8:05 - Adalyn has run off again, this time hiding in the pantry. Catch her eating raisins and uncooked rice of the floor.  Carry her into the bedroom. Change diaper and put on clothes, pausing for some belly tickles. Those baby giggles are so irresistible, we'd better do a few more.

8:10 - Clean off diaper in the toilet, wondering when the toilet was last cleaned. Balance diaper on top of full diaper pail. Maybe I'd better start by washing the diapers. Except I need to make up more diaper detergent. I'd better go on and clean the toilet while I'm thinking about it. And the diaper sprayer and the shower handles and mirror and - what are you doing Adalyn? Don't pull out all the toilet paper!

8:15 - Rewind roll of toilet paper while Adalyn plays in the trash can. Empty trash and wash Adalyn's hands. Catch glimpse of self in the mirror. Wow, I look really tired. Maybe I should put on some make-up. At least some under eye concealer. And one day I should do something with my hair. Maybe next year. Make silly faces with Adalyn in mirror. Notice Adalyn's face is still coated with oatmeal. Wash off face, a finely developed form of torture.

8:20 - Make diaper detergent and prepare to put diapers in the washer. What? There are still clothes in the washer! Oh no, I forgot I put some in last night. Smell test. Yep, they're still okay. Take wet clothes out to the laundry porch and remember there are still clothes hanging up.

8:25 - Adalyn helps pull down dry laundry. She is very good at pulling down laundry. Pile laundry on bed to sort through. Adalyn is starting to understand directions, so I tell her, "Adalyn, can you put the socks in daddy's drawer?" She grabs the socks - and heads off for the kitchen. Catch Adalyn and show her the drawer again. She puts in the socks. And takes out 5 other pairs. She puts her socks, Juliana's socks, and the dishtowels into daddy's sock drawer. She is very pleased with herself.
"I'm pretty sure I can reach that."
8:30 - Okay, maybe I'll fold the laundry later. I'll hang up the wet laundry first. No, I'd better get the diapers started washing. Seperate diapers and fill washer. Return to laundry porch to find wet laundry scattered on the floor.  Adalyn is looking through the books and notebooks by my bed, calmly dispensing of papers she feels are unnecessary.

8:35 - Hang up wet laundry. Rehang wet laundry Adalyn enthusiastically helps pull down. Pause to chase prism rainbows across the floor. Chase dust bunnies across the floor, complements of yesterday's dust storm. Perhaps I should sweep.

8:40 - Go into the kitchen to wash dishes. Discover coffee still sitting in the microwave. Re-reheat. Drink two swallows. Remember the drying rack is still full of clean dishes. Put away clean dishes while Adalyn pulls a stool over to the kitchen sink to play. Check for any dangerous objects and let her play. She is so happily occupied and has already poured water all down her front, so any chance of staying dry is lost.
No dish pile too large
8:45 - Put last dishes into the cabinet and hear a crash. Adalyn looks perplexedly at the pieces of broken bowl all over the ground. Move Adalyn out of the kitchen to clean up broken glass. She wants to help too and does not like being kept out. Sweep up glass while removing a wailing Adalyn 5 more times.

8:50 - Haul still wailing Adalyn into the other room to change her wet clothes. Put on new pants. Discover the shirt is size 9 months. I really need to go through the girl's clothes. Find a new shirt. Discover Adalyn's pants but no Adalyn. Find Adalyn sitting on top of the coffee table with a book, naked and giggling. Read book together and do some belly pats.

8:55 - Redress Adalyn. Put dirty clothes in the laundry and remember the laundry basket is still full. And the sink is still full of dishes. Add to list:
Clean bathroom
Go through girl's clothes
Reorganize cabinet
Sweep floor
Sweep? Did someone say sweep?
9:00 - My list is now longer than it was an hour ago. What have I accomplished? I dressed Adalyn, twice. Take another swallow of coffee, which is cold again. And where is Adalyn? Oh, she's in the kitchen making a tower with the cups I just put away.

Monday, March 23, 2015

18 Things to Know About Adalyn at 18 Months

I would be sad about Adalyn outgrowing babyhood, but this phase is so cute I really wouldn't want to go back.  At 18 months Addie...

1. Is just as sweet as always.  She loves to burrow her face against mine and runs to greet mama and daddy with a big hug.

2. Has developed quite a temper! Especially when overtired, she will throw herself on the ground and scoot backwards across the floor wailing. One day in a fit of rage, she picked up her little toddler chair and threw it on the ground! I know this will get old, but at the moment it's hard not to laugh.
3. Is just below "average" for both height and weight. She's pretty small but has a big old belly that she loves to pear at under her shirt.  She will pat it and say, "Belly belly belly!" Actually she likes to do the same thing to my belly too. It's hard to feel too self-conscious about not having a flat tummy when she takes such delight in it!

4. Sleeps from about 7:30/8pm-6am and naps for about 1.5 hours.  At least at the moment.

5. Has a pretty impressive vocabulary.  She seems to hear a word and then immediately start using it in proper context. She doesn't talk as constantly (or with as much volume) as Juliana did, but I think she knows more words.  I guess that's the advantage of an older sister who talks all the time! She also uses a lot of phrases like "I want book" and "xi shou" (wash hands). She definitely knows more English, but she's picking up Chinese pretty well. Her tones are great.
6. Is a total troublemaker. She can frequently be found emptying out the pantry, climbing on tables, checking out the trash, emptying drawers or trying to snag a cookie.  She complements her actions with a very mischevious smile.

7. Plays more and more with her sister. They hide under the table, push each other around on the train, and build towers together. Not without conflict, but it's fun to see them enjoying each other's company.
8. Loves to read, although sometimes after two pages she closes the book with a decided "all-done!" Her favorites are books with flaps.

9. Favorite song is "If You're Happy and You Know It." It's my favorite too, when she lifts up her hands and yells, "Hooray!"

10. Participates in at least the beginning of our home school. She sings songs and repeats the day of the week, the month, and the Chinese phrases we learn.

11. Is happiest with mama around, but gets really excited when daddy comes home. She also does well with ayi after the moment of actual leaving.
12. Is always ready to go outside. Every morning when Juliana gets ready for school, Adalyn tries to put on her shoes and hat too, in hopes that this time she'll get to go too.

13. Eats almost anything. Except the last few times she has refused to eat pizza! She is especially fond of other peoples' food and generally ends up sharing second breakfast with whoever eats last.

14. Gets LOTS of comments about her big eyes, both from Chinese and foreigners. Mostly people have stopped assuming she is a boy.
15. Enjoys helping mama and daddy sweep, wash dishes, pull down clothes from the line, and clean up spills (sometimes intentionally created for this purpose).

16. Adores her "sissy" (who she also calls "Julna") and tries to do everything she does.

17. Nurses before naptime and bedtime and sometimes in the morning. This is useful
since she still has very little interest in cow milk. 

18. Adalyn is in love with waterbottles. Despite her extensive vocabulary, about 1/3 of her conversations are about waterbottles. She is naturally quite attached to her waterbottle, and if anyone should become seperated from their waterbottles, she is rather concerned. Of course, she also uses "waterbottle" to refer to any kind of water.  The ocean, the potty, the lake: "Waterbottle!"

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What I'm Not and What I Am

The other day a delivery woman asked me, "Are you a teacher here?" I almost answered yes, but then I realized it isn't true anymore. So I said, "No, my husband is."

It was a very simple exchange, but as I discussed in a previous post, small interactions like this remind me that part of what I have lost is a simple explanation for who I am and why I am here. I know I'm not here just for my husband's job, that I have legitimate roles here, but it all takes a lot more explaining now.

When I tell students and neighbors I am not teaching this term they look confused. I explain why - that I need to spend more time caring for the kids, that I am teaching Juliana some kindergarten - and they understand a little more. Everyone says being a mother is hard work. They don’t know how we handle two children and no grandparents nearby. But "stay at home mom" is not a familiar concept. To be an adult and not working is just...not normal.

In daily life, though, I am enjoying having one less role. Even though I was only teaching 4 hours a week, I had to figure out how to fit in planning and grading. I never felt like I had the time I really needed to prepare and teach as well as I wanted. It was good for me to have something separate and outside the house for this past year, but right now I feel like it is good for me to narrow my focus. While I enjoyed teaching, I didn't have enough time to actually get to know students well outside of class.

Not teaching means one less area to think about, so I can focus more on my other roles. I can slow down and have more patience with the kids. I can let Adalyn help wash the dishes (and herself and the floor) and put up (pull down) the laundry. I can sit and read books with her without fretting too much about everything else that needs to be done. 

I can spend more time doing school with Juliana. I found a fun curriculum (Five in a Row) that bases each unit on a children's book. Each week, we read one book together every day and learn about social studies, science, music, art, etc. using the book as a basis. Juliana is loving it, and maybe in the future I'll write another post about what our current home school looks like.

Since I obviously still want to invest in students and focus on deepening the relationships I have, this term I decided to start a book club. I love reading, so I'm not sure why I didn't think of this before! The club is made up of nine students (seven girls and two guys). Most of them are ones I taught or have gotten to know over the past year. I mostly decided who to invite, so I got to ask students I enjoy and want to spend more time with!

We will be reading The Little Prince, and I'm excited for the discussion opportunities it presents. The students are all eager for it as well. They like reading and want to improve their English reading and speaking. Plus, a club is much more fun than a class!

I already feel tempted to fill up my time with other useful roles, but I'm trying to resist that. I feel like I have a lot to learn right now, in my "year of Grace," about not doing. Not living in laziness, of course, but not rushing around in frantic busyness either. I want to live well and really invest in what I feel led focus on. I want to love well, even if I don't accomplish much (and incidentally I've realized may of the days I accomplish the most, it has been at the expense of loving well). 

My role is not so easily defined anymore, but that's okay. I want to move away from being defined by and seeking value in what I do anyway. Maybe I’ll write more about that in the future too!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dancing on the Edge of Burnout

It’s generally a bad sign when a professor who barely knows you stops you at the local coffee shop to say, "You look like you are heading straight toward burnout."

I tend to look back on my first two years in China rather idealistically.  In fact, I find myself holding them as a guideline for my expectations of what my life should be like in China.  I did so many useful things and spent so much time with my students. Not as much as I should have done, naturally, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.  Especially compared with the practically nothing I accomplish now, right?

Of course, there are a few key differences between life then and now.
1. I was not just young, I was incredibly young, and just out of that "crash and burn for what you believe" college culture.
2. I was single, and more importantly, I had no children.  I washed dishes every few days and did laundry about once a week.  I'm not even kidding.
3. I was incredibly unhealthy and heading straight for burnout.

By the end of my first semester, the gloom of culture shock was darkening into a heavy weight of oppression and depression. As my first year came to an end and I felt a slight increase in my will to live, I thought I must be coming out of the fog.  

So that summer when a professor I barely knew basically told me I looked terrible, I was a little surprised. Sure, I was still crying every day, but that’s normal, right? When a counselor questioned whether or not I should return to China, I had to realize that maybe I wasn't in such great shape after all.

With the help of some medication and support from great teammates (who I finally decided to let in on my struggles), my second year in China got off to a much better start. I got to know this guy, and we started talking every day, and before you know it we were engaged.

As I prepared for our wedding and a year in the States, I was insanely happy and insanely stressed.  Also, just plain insane. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I also decided that in the midst of this crazy huge transition would be a great time to stop taking my depression/anxiety medicine. I'm sure it seemed logical at the time, but seriously, what was I thinking??

That summer I was blissfully reunited with Kevin as we studied intensively at Wheaton.  I still wasn't sleeping.  I would go to the cafeteria and choke down a fourth of a sandwich because apparently I was supposed to eat. I was so ready to be married and start a new life, but I also felt completely adrift in the world. Everything was changing - again.

When my mother came to visit me (and also to check out my fiancĂ©!), she said, "You know, I'm really concerned about you. You don't look good at all." Which is the sort of thing mothers say.

But then my roommates immediately chimed in, "Yeah! That's what we've been thinking! We're really concerned about you too!"  Okay, maybe I wasn't doing as well as I thought.  With some coercion, I made the choice to drop the second class I was planning to take and go on vacation with my family.  It felt like quitting, but I wasn't sure I could make it through without a complete nervous breakdown.  Kevin, concerned for me and also unwilling to be separated again, lovingly dropped out with me.

After a year of incredible highs -a beautiful wedding, a restful honeymoon, and the blissful newlywed stage- and crazy lows -panic attacks, semi-constant sickness, and overshadowing anxiety- we prepared to return to China. I was overwhelmed by dread. I knew it was where we were supposed to be, but I didn't know if I could handle returning.  I knew the life I had lived there was not sustainable.

That was seven years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. I no longer dread China; in fact, when I imagine my future, it is here. I spend much less time with students and much more with my children (and my laundry porch). I am a lot less productive than I used to be. I am much healthier. I mean, I still get sick all the time thanks to little germ sharers, but I enjoy incomparably greater mental stability.

Part of this is just a blessed lifting of the depression and anxiety.  Part of it is the result of decisions I have made: decisions to slow down, prioritize health, and to live sustainably.  I often think of something our Wheaton professor told us:

"You are running a marathon, not a sprint.  If you don't pace yourself you will not be able to finish."

I'm not a runner, but this still makes perfect sense. To the best of our knowledge, we are in this for the long haul.  Our lives and our work should be lived at a very different pace than a two weeker or even a two-yearer (that’s a word). If we don't live sustainably, we will not last. It's really as simple as that.

Simple, but not easy. It means letting go of expectations, both others and my own. 

It means saying no to really good things so we can focus on what we are actually called to in each season. 

It means being intentional in establishing practices that keep us healthy - spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  

It means making time for those practices.  

It means being a lot less Productive and Useful than I would like.  

It means not dancing on the edge of burnout, hoping if we can step just right we'll avoid the fall.

It means we stop trying to be God and focus instead on being with Him.

And as we do, we discover, well...Grace.

[linking up with Velvet Ashes on the topic of Burnout]

Monday, March 2, 2015

Liturgy, Prayer Beads, and other things that are obviously for Catholics

I grew up with an acquired a skepticism for anything ritualistic. Ritual = dry and dead. Liturgy = no room for the Spirit. Prayer beads = Catholics praying to Mary. Everyone knows that rosaries are for Catholics.

One of my best friends growing up was Catholic, so through our discussions (all 10 year olds stay up at slumber parties discussing theology, right?) and my occasional visits to Mass, I was exposed to some High Church.  But since we disagreed on theology, we obviously couldn't practice our faith in the same way, right?

It wasn't until last year when we briefly attended an Anglican church on home leave, that I experienced the beauty of liturgy.  It was a time of many transitions - moving out of our apartment, finishing language school, living in different places in the US for 8 months, having a new baby, preparing to return to China in a new apartment and new teaching position.  In all this transition, my spirit felt as tumultuous as our ever shifting environment.

We weren't able to attend the Anglican church very often, but when we did, I marveled at the consistency and connection - we joined with brothers and sisters near and far reading the same passages and saying the same prayers.  The repeated words and actions had more meaning each week and allowed my mind to focus.  I loved kneeling to pray, taking time to confess sins and acknowledge forgiveness, and kneeling at the alter to receive communion.  I loved participating in communion every week.

When we returned to China, I found myself craving liturgy.  So much transition left me feeling tense and adrift.  My attempts at "Quiet Time" were often vague and unfocused. I began searching for consistency and connection.

I started reading the daily lectionary. I briefly looked into prayer beads but wasn't sure how they really worked. I found the basic liturgy for the Anglican service online and read the words to myself throughout the day.
I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth...Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth...Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against You and against our neighbors...Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you...
It wasn't quite the same as gathering with others, but it was soothing to my soul.  

Over the past year, we have become much more settled, but I have not lost my love of liturgy.  A few months ago, after reading a friend's post about her discovery of prayer beads, I decided this was something I really wanted to try out.  I ordered a beautiful set of prayer beads from a studio called Prayerworks (actually in Oxford, Ga!), plus a chaplet for Juliana.

As I have started using prayer beads, here is what I have discovered: They aren't mystical, and they are really helpful!  Protestant/Anglican prayer beads are different from a Catholic rosary in that there are not specific prayers.  You have quite a bit of freedom in what prayers you want to say and how you want to use them.  They are a guide, a tool, helping you to focus through kinesthetic involvement.  Honestly, who doesn't have trouble concentrating during prayer?

The prayer beads form the same basic shape as the rosary.  They start with the cross, then an "Invitatory Bead," an invitation into prayer.  This particular studio added a "Resurrection Bead," as a reminder of the life of Christ.  Four "Cruciform Beads" form the shape of the cross and in between are 7 "Week Beads."  The structure and number of beads are all symbolic.

Most often when I use my beads, I follow a slight variation of a simple prayer form outlined in the brochure that came with the beads.

Cross: Loving God
Invitatory Bead: Thank you for calling me into your presence
Resurrection Bead: By the blood of your Son, Jesus, who tore the veil of separation

1st Cruciform Bead: Lord, I praise you for...
(use the first Week Beads to praise different attributes of God)

2nd Cruciform Bead: Lord, I ask forgiveness for...
(Use the second Week Beads to confess your sins.  I am actually rather out of practice with daily confession of sins, but it is such a good chance to step out of the vague guilt of failure, acknowledge my sin, and then embrace forgiveness.  I use the 7th bead to acknowledge the forgiveness I have received).

3rd Cruciform Bead: Lord, I pray for...
(Use the third set of Week Beads to lift up prayer concerns.  Usually for me, each bead represents a different person who is on my heart that day.)

4th Cruciform Bead: Lord, I thank you for...
(Use the fourth set of Week Beads to practice gratitude, thanking God for his mercies throughout the day).

Resurrection Bead: Christ is risen, Alleluia!
Invitatory Bead: The doxology
Cross: In the name of Jesus, Amen.

I also like to use the beads to help with meditating on Scripture verses.  When I do this, I generally repeat the entire verse at each Cruciform and focus on certain words as I go through each bead.  In a longer verse, I will focus on one section in each set of Weeks.  For Example:

1st Cruciform: God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.
First Week: God is love...GOD is love...God...God IS love...Is...God is LOVE...Love.
Second Week: He who abides in love...ABIDES in love...I abide in love...Abide...Abides IN love...Abides in LOVE...Love.

When I do this, I return to the first cruciform bead at the end and repeat the whole verse once more.
Juliana also loves using her chaplet each night for a simple nightly prayer.

Cross: Dear God
Invitatory Bead: Thank you for inviting me to pray
Resurrection Bead: By the blood of Jesus
1st Cruciform: Thank you God for...
(Use each week bead to thank God for something)
2nd Cruciform: Please bless...
(Use each week bead to remember a certain person)
Resurrection Bead: Jesus is alive! 
Invitatory Bead: Thank you for loving me
Cross: In Jesus' name, Amen

So simple, right? It's just like...praying.  But with focus.  I find that holding the beads and rolling them over in my fingers grounds me.  When my thoughts drift off, it is easy to draw them back and pick up exactly where I was. The beads remind me of the reverence and beauty of prayer.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Wonderful Terrible Adventure

Travel with children is wonderful.  They are so eager for adventure, and unofficial research has shown that 98.37%* of all good adventures are found on the journey itself. (*This statistic applies only to children and solo adults carrying very large backpacks).

While the adult is busy thinking about the full day of travel to reach the destination, the child is busy taking in the size and echo of the giant new playground/airport full of shiny reflections, endless corridors, escalators, and of course, "Airplane! And another airplane! And an airplane going up in the air! And that airplane looks like a bird!!"  While the recently mobile child thinks, "Run! Climb! Elude! Freeeeeedoooooom!"

The adult settles into the airplane seat and rearranges 52 items from 7 bags - snacks, toys, water bottles, distracting mobile devices - check.  The child has already found new toys: the windowshade, the tray table, the buttons that don't seem to do anything, and especially the safety card - "Look, those people are on an airplane too!  What are they doing?  What's that sign?  What's that light?  What's that slide?  I want to go on the slide!"  And the baby child thinks, "Ooh, yummy table.  Ooh, tasty armrest.  Ooh, must grab another safety card to eat!"

Repeat the airport and airplane scene a few more times, and the adult has never been happier to see the hotel room.  Must. lie. down.  The child is overjoyed by her very own tiny home to explore.  "Look at that bathtub!! It's so big!!  What's this little room? (A closet - we don't have those. Or bathtubs.) It's like a little house!  Oh look there is my own bed!"  Meanwhile the less verbal child thinks, "Ooh, someone left me a crumb!  A PHONE!  I wonder if I can fit my fingers in those tiny holes in the wall?  Look at the big bed!  Must. climb."

And when the adult travels with child, the adult starts to see things in a new light.  All those airplanes taking off in the air are pretty amazing and the airport (some parts) are great places to run, even when you aren't about to miss a flight.  Thank goodness for a giant free playground and a large admiring audience (We mainly travel in Asia where children, especially foreign ones, are almost universally beloved.) And yes, the emergency slide does look fun, even if you never want to try it.  The child causes the adult to remember that travel is supposed to be an adventure.

Travel with children is terrible.  Unofficial research has shown that 98.37%* of sleep, reasonable behavior, and general sanity are left behind at the starting location.  (*This statistic applies to both children and adults).

The adult arrives on vacation (we'll say the beach) needing vacation.  The trials of travel are over and now it is time to relax.  The child suddenly can.not.handle.life and is freaking out about the sink handles in the bathroom.  The baby child (who has spent the entire day running away) suddenly must touch the adult at every moment, even/especially in sleep.

The adult, despite years of contrary experience, still believes that vacation = sleeping in.  The child believes that sleeping in = "It's 5:20 am!! It's still dark, but let's go out and play!!  The less verbal child believes that vacation = doing away with those silly notions of "sleep" and "nighttime" altogether.  Loudly.

The adult, despite years of contrary experience, brings a book down to sit on the beach.  The child thinks that the beach is too sandy and the water is *moving* and the pool looks much better except that the playground is even more fun.  No, let's go back to the pool.  The beach!  The pool!  Nevermind, let's just watch Frozen.

The adult gazes out at the ocean and thinks 3.2 seconds worth of deep, contemplative thoughts.  Meanwhile the recently mobile child tries to dive headfirst into the pool, eats some sand, and then takes off straight for a cuddly-looking jellyfish.

The adult looks forward to sampling the local foods.  The child would like a peanut butter sandwich.  Daily.  For every meal.  The baby child would like to sample all the local foods.  Preferably from the floor.

Despite the Germ-x baths, nobody is too surprised when the baby gets sick.  And drinks from the child's water, making the child sick.  Who coughs all over the adult, making the adult sick.  The baby gets better and is ready to play.  The child gets better and is ready to play.  The adult stays sick.

Travel with children is wonderful.  Particularly if you are the child.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Land of All Good Things

My first trip to Chiang Mai was in college; it was the first foreign country I ever visited.  That first time, everything was strange and exotic.  I rode on the back of a motorbike through crazy (tame) traffic and thought I might die.  I ate new foods and bought an iconic Thai Coke t-shirt (which I still own).  I had my first encounters with squattie-potties and European showers.  I afraid to venture anywhere on my own, sure I would get hopelessly lost.

I returned to Thailand after my first six months living in China.  Chiang Mai was like a fabulous oasis.  I almost cried over how friendly everyone was, greeting me with smiles instead of suspicion or shock.  And mostly, I breathed in the beauty - deep, gulping breaths of one who hasn't tasted air in too long.  And speaking of air, I actually felt healthy breathing it.  I could see blue skies and mountains, flowers and lush greenery, and if the sky turned red it was from sunset, not an unnatural smog.  Even the restaurants were beautiful, and I enjoyed the decorative plates nearly as much as the burritos, pad thai, and milkshakes.  Ten years ago, I'd say that asthetics were still quite low on China's priority list, and I was starved for beauty.

It was sometime during my first years in China that another China-dweller and I started referring to Thailand as "the land of all good things."  It sums up our feelings pretty well.

This is my ninth trip to Thailand.  After so many years, everywhere I go is filled with memories.  I walk through the stalls of the night market remembering the lamps and pillow covers I bought to beautify my first China home (the wares have hardly changed).  I still expect to run across friends who have long since moved on.

The YMCA hotel seems like it should be filled with our lively group of young singles, staying up late studying and talking like we were in college again.  I think of sitting around in the small classroom for our weeklong classes, discussing holistic development and finding out we had a giant research paper due in a few days.  I think of the night Kevin and I paraded among our classmates announcing our engagment to squeals and shock ("What? I thought you just started dating?!" Yes, yes we did.)  I remember card games and ice cream and even some of the content I studied.

Across the street is the tiny "mom and pop's" restaurant with the dirt floors and the tasty $1 dishes.  It was there I was first pooped on by a baby (my teammate's).  It was there I had a mini-breakdown from stress and exhaustion - all-out bawling in the middle of the restaurant to a distraught Kevin (who must not have been too freaked out as he proposed to me later that day).

Down the road is the internet bar where I sat and worked on many a paper and sent many an email in the days before free wireless everywhere.  There Kevin talked to my dad for the first time - to ask if he could marry me.  There we called our family and friends to share news of our engagement.  It was there I received the call that my grandfather had died.

There is the hospital where I saw both of my babies for the first time - tiny little blobs with beautiful heartbeats.  When I look up to the mountains I remember riding a motorbike up to a waterfall and coming back with a ring on my finger.  I walk on past the secondhand bookshops, now that I have my kindle and limited luggage space, but I think of the excitement of so many English books just waiting to be read.

I know where to find the cheap iced coffee cart which never seems to be open when you really need it.  I have eaten years of banana rotis and coconut smoothies.  I have marveled at Burger King and Subway, just because they were there.  We know where to find the Mexican food, the Mediteranean, the Amazing Sandwiches, the burgers, and the pie.  And every year we discover new favorite restaurants, until there is barely time to hit them all.

The other day when we returned to our favorite falafel restaurant, I was touched to realize the Israeli owner remembered us.  "Oh yes, these two come back every year.  I remember before they had children, when he was still chasing after her.  And then they come back with a child, and now with these two little ones.  It is beautiful!"

I know the streets of Paris and London and Rome are far more cultured and presumably cleaner, but I can't imagine I would ever feel as at home as I do here, with the smelly canals and cheap street food and the beautiful memories.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

On Losing My Title and Finding My Niche

When I had a job, it was easier to define my role in life.  Teacher - The focus of my life seemed to fit well into that description. I spent time preparing lessons, teaching, grading, meeting with students, planning extracurricular activities.  Language Student - my expectations were pretty clear: Learn Chinese.  Go to class, study on my own, meet with a tutor.  My purpose and actions were directly defined by my role.

For the past year I have been a part-time teacher.  That has been a little harder to define, because while I was doing something definite, it was only about 10% of my life.  And since it wasn't my main role, it never felt quite as "real."  It seemed more like a side thing I was doing for fun, so I just needed to make it fit in where I could.  Nevertheless, there was a contract and a salary, and nothing says "this is a legitimate job" like actually getting paid for doing something.

But now I am venturing into a new role, one that doesn't seem to define anything.  Next semester my official title will be "supporting spouse."  Honestly all the terms that have attempted to describe this role make me cringe: Accompanying spouse, non-teaching spouse, trailing spouse, "I'm just along for the ride" spouse (okay, I made up that last one).

Maybe this is egocentric, but any of these titles make me feel like a supporting actress in the story of my own life.  I definitely think I should support Kevin in his work; I also think he should support me in my work.  After years of having the same role - teacher and then student - our roles are different now and mostly very traditional.  But I don't think either of us is supposed to be the "main player" in this life we are sharing.

I want to support Kevin, but I didn't come here for him.  (I didn't even know him when I came!)  I came because I was called, and we stayed because we are called - both of us.   I believe God brought us together and when he calls us to a place, he has a purpose there for both of us.

But I struggle sometimes, now that I have lost my titles, or at least the titles that make any sense.  Sometimes when you stop being The Teacher, people forget your years of teaching experience and assume you don't know what you're talking about.  Sometimes when you stop being The Student, people forget you still remember (some) of the things you learned.  Sometimes when you are The Spouse, people ask your husband questions about culture and ask you questions about laundry.  

Sometimes I feel that when I lost my title, I also lost my voice.

And I feel the loss.  Kevin and I have lived in China for the same length of time, we have held the same jobs, we have studied almost the same amount of Chinese, and we even have exactly the same masters degree.  But since he is Teacher and Leader, and since I am Spouse, others seem less interested in what I have to offer - or maybe I truly do have less to offer.  I feel I have lost some of who I am and who I have been.

I try to sift through the pride that is certainly there - the desire to be significant and recognized.  I admit the selfishness inherent in every human regardless of their title - the desire to become greater instead of less.  

But I also recognize the longing to acknowledge that I have gifts and talents far beyond the scope of laundry, and I want to use them for the benefit of others and the work we do.  I want to be faithful to my calling - and motherhood and spouse-hood, while incredibly significant and highly time consuming, are not my full calling.

So how do I find my niche?  How do I find my true role within this this ambiguous title of "Supporting Spouse"?  I don't know.  This is a questions post, not an answers post.  All I know is that in my questions I hear a quiet voice saying, “Remember the fearless woman leader, the left-handed judge, the shepherd king, the persecutor turned preacher, the baby Savior?  I have been redefining roles and titles since the beginning of time.  You are bigger than any box because I am bigger.”

I truly believe that God gives contentment and purpose within the roles he has for us.  I also truly believe that God gives incredible freedom beyond titles - freedom to listen and seek and discover what he has for us.  I am still learning how to be content and discontent, how to accept and reject the titles given and taken away, how to work within and beyond.  I am still looking for my niche.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Year of Grace

Three days into the New Year and I am sick again.  Or perhaps truthfully, I never quite got over that cold that arrived with December.  I feel guilty about being sick.  It is just a stupid cold - anyone can get over a cold.  And since I can't, I must be doing something wrong.

Maybe if I just thought positively enough (Haven't you ever heard someone say, "I don't have time for a cold so I'm just not going to give into it!"), if I ate more spinach and apples, if I took the right medicine, or if I used the right herbs and oils, if I did or didn't exercise - if I figured out just the right combination, I could get better.  If I did everything right, surely I wouldn't be sick.

And then I realized, this is how I think about everything.  Oh, not rationally.  Rationally I know that nobody is perfect, that certain illness is inevitable, that I cannot wield control over the whole world through my sheer goodness.  But just below the surface of rational, I believe that pretty much everything that happens in my life is somehow a result of my perfection or imperfection.

If I did everything right, Adalyn would sleep well every night and take long naps every day.  If I did everything right, Juliana would meekly obey instead of fighting approximately everything she is asked to do.  If I did everything right, Kevin and I would have meaningful conversations every evening as we gazed lovingly into each others' eyes.  If I did everything right, students would flock to me to explore the mysteries of life.  If I did everything right, maybe I would finally feel satisfied with myself.

And so, in the midst of this delusion, I realize the word that has come to me, my word for 2015, hasn't come a moment too soon.

I spent the first part of last year striving and striving and almost collapsing every night with soul-deep exhaustion.  Over the weeks and months of struggle, I felt an idea reiterated in what I read (like 1000 Gifts), the songs I heard (like Gungor and All Sons and Daughters), and in my own thoughts: beauty.  I didn't choose that word for last year, but in the end it chose me.  As I began searching for the beauty in the everyday, I saw beauty.  Instead of chaffing at my limitations and longing to get away from it all, I started to recognize and appreciate the beauty that was already all around.  At least, most of the time.

I think my perspective on life has changed a lot, but my inward struggle remains.  The drive to be good enough.  The need to prove myself.  The pressure to get it all right.  Once again in this struggle, my word came to me:


This year I am declaring a year of grace.  I will not make resolutions.  We might not eat healthier.  I will not figure out the perfect discipline strategy to finally cure a selfish nature.  My hair may permanently mold itself into a ponytail.  Some days my to-do list will get longer instead of shorter.

I am not reveling in or exalting my imperfections.  Believe me, I want to figure it all out!  I am just declaring (mostly to myself) that I am human.  Striving comes naturally: accepting grace does not.  And when I cannot accept grace for myself, I cannot give it to others.

How am I going to live in grace?  I don't really know.  How do you practice being over doing?  How do you practice being accepted?  How do you dig out the deep rooted deception that I am only as worthy as my usefulness?  That my purpose in life is to attain perfection.

Right now, I am starting with breathing.  Like a mantra for yoga or meditation or birth: Breathing in grace, breathing out grace.  Letting it fill my lungs and soak into my bones and bring life to my heart.  Not just reading words of grace and saying, "I should believe that," but setting the words in my mind and letting them rest there.  Making grace a habit, until it becomes a part of my daily rhythm, until it is as consistent as a heartbeat and necessary as a breath.

Recognizing and rejecting the lies of perfection and striving and not-good-enough.  And when I fail, when I become entangled in them all over again, stopping to breathe.  Setting it down - along with the guilt and frustration and discouragement that I can't even get grace right! - and choosing grace once again.

It won't happen this year or really ever.  I will never reach grace-perfection, not in this imperfect self in this broken world.  But this year if I learn to take more grace into myself and breathe it out onto those around me, if that is all I learn, if that is (tiny shudder) all I accomplish in 365 days, the whole year will be worthwhile.

[linking up with Velvet Ashes: One Word]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

O Holy, Noisy, Messy Night

This Christmas season I was prepared.  I had all kinds of Christmas activities planned out to do with the girls and our students.  I had an advent wreath (of sorts) and prayers for each week.  I had materials to make a Jesse tree and our own advent calender with a Christmas activity to do each day (yeah, I had a feeling that was going to be a bad idea before I even started).

Then the first of December arrived and I got sick.  And the girls got sick.  The girls improved, but 3 weeks later I'm still coughing my way through the night and croaking my way through the day.  It could be much worse, but I haven’t had a nasty cold drag out this long since I was pregnant (which I’m not, btw).  We should have read a Bible story and made an ornament each day for the Jesse tree.  It currently has 5 ornaments.  The advent calendar is in slightly better shape only because on day 3 I scraped the whole "do an activity each day," and one day we put up 9 pieces.

This Advent hasn't gone quite how I planned.  I feel exhausted and stressed, kind of like most people probably feel right about now.  Much as I want to slow down and relish the wonder of the season, if we’re honest, this feeling might be closer to how everyone felt at the first Christmas.

That Christmas didn't go how Mary planned either.  It was lonely and confusing and inconvenient, and if you've ever been 9 months pregnant, you know she probably felt like crap. 

I've been thinking a lot about Mary this year.  Much as I love Christmas carols, I can't imagine they do much justice to the real story.  There's all this talk of silent nights and a baby who doesn't cry, but have you ever actually been at a birth?  I think birth is an incredible, wonderful process, but even in the most peaceful birth setting (i.e. not a stable), it's generally noisy.  And messy.  And there were no Christmas carols.

Here is Mary, a young girl, having her first baby.  She is far from home and has spent the last days of her pregnancy traveling on a donkey.  I was too uncomfortable to ride in a car for long by the end of pregnancy - but a donkey!  I don't think it's a giant leap to assume she's sore and tired and perhaps silently cursing the emperor for his stupid decrees.

Mary and Joseph finally arrive in Bethlehem only to be greeted by closed doors.  In a culture that so valued hospitality, it must have seemed like a slap in the face.  Were the people of Bethlehem already maxed-out with census travelers?  Did they somehow get wind of the baby's presumably scandalous conception?  Among all Joseph's relatives in his hometown, there was really no-one willing to take in their own family member?  Did they not want to risk bringing condemnation upon themselves, accepting this not-yet-married couple about to have a child?

Shunned by their relatives, Mary and Joseph are left to give birth in a stable.  I think of the comfortable, sterile birth environments we try to create, and then I think of a smelly, dirty stable.  No candles or aromatherapy or even hospital cleaner smell; instead, animal poop. No bed that sits up on its own with the press of a button.  I know they didn't have those in that day anyway, but I imagine no bed was a step down from whatever Mary was used to.

And perhaps worst of all, Mary is alone.  With her new not-quite husband who she probably doesn't know real well. Perhaps a compassionate relative or the local midwife is willing to help out and just isn't mentioned. For Mary's sake, I sure hope so.  Even so, here is a young girl without even the support of her mother.  Pacing the stable in pain.  Moaning and swaying and wondering if she can actually do this. 

The time has come, and it probably doesn't feel holy.  I'm not sure there was a beam of light coming through the conveniently placed hole in the ceiling.  And even if there were, I doubt anyone would notice.  Mary, in that "other world," her entire body and mind carried away in the incredible work of pushing a baby into the world.  I doubt she's thinking about the angel or this amazing Christmas miracle.  This baby may have been the Messiah, but that didn't make transition any less intense.  

Joseph...I mean, what is Joseph thinking?  He's probably scared out of his mind.  This isn't the day of husband-as-labor-coach.  There were no birth classes or books or videos to prepare him for what to expect.  He had probably been kept far away from the birthing process in the past, and suddenly he is thrown into the center of it.  He's never even slept with Mary, and here he is getting really intimate with her in a way he would have preferred to avoid.  Kevin said he was a little traumatized by watching the pain and difficulty of my first birth, and that was after the classes.  Poor Joseph.

I think there was probably some screaming.  The little halos magically floating over everyone's heads are doubtful, but there was definitely sweat.  And blood.  Baby Jesus had a placenta.  Let's just pause to think about this aspect of Jesus' humanity, which also had to be birthed. When Mary saw that baby Savior for the first time, he was red and wrinkly and covered in just-born gunkiness.  He might have pooped all over Mary.

I imagine Mary lying back in the straw, shaking from exhaustion.  She looks into the face of her messy, wailing baby and marvels at his birth.  She feels relief and terror and a rush of  crazy postpartum hormones.  Joseph looks on in amazement, overwhelmed by a flood of protectiveness for this baby that's not even his own.  And still kinda scared out of his mind.

And let me tell you, there was crying.  That whole "Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - what, was he sick or something? (Or is crying supposed to be sinful for a baby? I've got big problems with that!)  This is a newborn we're talking about.  And since those stupid lowing cattle just woke up the baby, Mary is probably crying too.

Then the shepherds show up.  I know this is amazing and the angel told them to come, but I don't remember an angel notifying Mary of these unexpected visitors.  She's just had a baby.  She is exhausted and overwhelmed.  She is dirty.  She is bleeding.  Who knows when she slept last. She's pretty much a mess. 

She is trying to figure out how to nurse this tiny baby. The culture was probably not quite so freaked out about breastfeeding as ours, but I still doubt she is excited to practice with an audience of strange men.  Breastfeeding a newborn takes a lot of concentration, and it's practically impossible to do discreetly.

But here come these shepherds.  Dirty, smelly shepherds and they're wanting a look at her just-born baby.  Maybe they even want to touch him.  I imagine they're a little bit awkward.  Visiting a newborn baby, much less a stranger's baby, was probably way out of protocol.  I'm glad they told Mary and Joseph about the awesome angel display and all the "Glory to God"s.  They probably could have used a reminder of holiness.

The shepherds leave and Mary settles back to ponder what has just happened.  She thinks of the pain and the pushing.  She thinks of the wonder of that first cry.  And now, she remembers the angel who came to her a lifetime ago.  Thinks of the angels and the shepherds, and can these events get any more bizarre?  She holds her baby and tries to comprehend how the world has just changed.  She gazes into the eyes of the helpless baby Messiah, and she catches a glimmer of messy glory.