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]