Re-entry

We walked around the busy grocery store, my sister-in-law and I, carefully following our list and eager to escape back to the quiet lake house retreat. She just returned to the US after 2 years uninterrupted overseas. You know why, pandemic.

Grocery stores are among the most overwhelming re-entry experiences. The choices are different, the quantities are measured in different scales, and in America the abundance can be overwhelming. Choices become more difficult. Mentally tallying the dollar signs from the foreign currency taxes the brain. At some point, you just give up and dump it in the cart resolving to care another day.

America is the land of opportunity. The opportunity to have it your way. To customize. To choose. To never see the back of the grocery store shelf. To not have to rework your menu mid shopping trip because multiple things are unavailable. To not experience as many social restrictions or curtailed freedoms.

Except for this past year and a half.

In many ways, 13 years of life overseas prepared me well to encounter a lack of toilet paper, a reworked menu, an acceptance of social restrictions, and jumps through bureaucratic regulations. We signed up for difficulty when we made the decision to live overseas.

We painted a lot of things this last year, including our front door, a portal to a different place…like re-entry!

Life in lock down reminded me of some aspects of life overseas and I relished the time to jump off the treadmill of the busy American lifestyle so many warned us would come when we moved back to America. After 5 years of life on this side of the Pacific, we’d definitely become increasingly busy and committed. And not just us, but our kids had commitments on top of ours.

Jumping off the treadmill was a gift in many ways. I read through the Bible a couple times because I didn’t have to get anyone off to…well…anywhere. We spent a lot of time together as a family, something which I ached for as our kids got older and busier. It felt like a gift.

But we also lost friends, grieved the unfairness of life, felt guilty at times for having enough, wrestled with how to relate to others during a particularly divisive time in a country that we already struggled to fit into after 13 years living away.

Now life is picking up again. We are faced with re-entry in a wholly different form than ever before in our lives. Alongside an entire world, we are all wondering what we are entering.

Because its not really re-entry. Its entry.

I feel this push and pull about what is to come, what we are entering. I don’t want to go back to the insane schedule that challenged us trying to find time together as a family. But it’ back. The school extra curriculars are laying out time intensive schedules.

Everything is starting up and I’m feeling a little like my sister-in-law in the grocery store. Overwhelmed. Stressed. And feeling like I just need to dump some stuff in the cart of life and try to figure it out later.

But this isn’t cereal or potato chips. Its time and energy and cultivating a life in dependence to God in ever changing circumstances.

Re-entry and entry take time…mostly time to think, feel, and align ourselves with what following Jesus looks like in new seasons of life. And besides a world opening up…kind of…I also have a daughter a year away from graduating. That alone is catching my attention and heart.

Another sign that I am entering, not re-entering. My life will change drastically soon.

So maybe you can relate to me on some level with our current times or maybe not. I have a feeling that many of us may need a little more time to do things we once did so effortlessly before a global pandemic.

For those that have not experienced the grocery store scenario of the newly returned expat, let me tell you it’s ok. It’s normal. It will take time. It will make you angry, sad, confused, insecure, and probably many other things to navigate the new world with its new challenges.

But in all that unsettledness, I’ve learned that following Jesus is the surest foothold through rocky life transitions. Something that all that reading the Bible brought into focus this past year.

If you’re looking for a first step, I suggest the Gospel of John and reading about Jesus who pretty much shook up every life He encountered.

As always, thank you for reading my thoughts and musings! I’ve struggled to write this year in the midst of so much…well…just so, so much of everything. I resolved today to write and break the silence and I’m so thankful you got to this point in my ramblings!

Modern Fortitude

The word fortitude popped into my brain this week. Not a word I use much. Sounds rather Puritan and stuffy, not characteristic of the fun and spontaneous image I like to curate.

I love words but sometimes when they come to me, even I don’t know exactly why or by what path I retrieved them. Why fortitude? A word I rarely use. A word most people rarely use these days according to my brief internet search.

I’m not even reading Jane Austen right now. Jane is a likely person to use a word like fortitude, but I’ve been reading twisty, suspenseful thrillers the past month or so.

According to the internet, a bastion of truth, the word fortitude has gone from 0.0013% usage in 1840 to 0.00013% usage today. Its darkest days were the 1990’s where it dipped to 0.00006%. I’m not awesome at math but I know another zero after the decimal is a big decline.

It begs the question, was fortitude ever really popular?

Is it popular now? I’m not sure fortitude will ever rise to the best lunch table at the local high school, but current circumstances guarantee a rise in usage. Just this blog post should raise the graph line a speck!

So, what does it mean? I actually had to look it up. Even though I am using this word to describe what I need right now, I’d been going on intuition more than precise definitions.

For-ti-tude: courage in pain or adversity.

And, there it is folks. What we need for these times. This is what I am asking God for these days…courage in pain and adversity. Fortitude.

Because we are all in some degree of adversity having experienced radical changes in our daily life and behavior from how we greet people to challenges figuring out how to live and work the way we were used to living and working.

I think of the British with their reputation of the stiff upper lip. Is that what it means to have fortitude? Many times that is what is expected of those that display fortitude. Literally, they’re lip doesn’t tremble because tears are imminent.

They don’t cry.

Well, I’ve failed then. I’m not courageous in pain or adversity.

Ha. You must know me well enough, I hope, to know that I reject this flat, emotionless view of fortitude.

Fortitude, I believe, is equally displayed in the tearful, plodding act of living out the life God gave us for this day. This day, this year, it is a pandemic, political strife, relational divisions based on ideologies, and all the collateral damage that lies in the wake.

Its not doing just what your emotions tell you to do, but walking forward in life by faith that God through His Spirit can give you just what you need for what His path for you entails.

Notice, I say His path for me. Not my path for me though the sweetest days are when my path for me and His path for me are one and the same. Those moments, because lets be honest, they’re usually not days, are full of meaning and purpose and joy even as they can also be filled with pain and adversity.

So, yes, I am in need of fortitude, not the stiff emotionless upper lip variety but the continuity of courage that life always requires, no matter the season.

But when times are universally difficult, hopefully words like fortitude can give us a sweet reminder to rely on Jesus to provide the courage and hope we need to walk, often tearfully, through pain and adversity.

We don’t know what to do but…

I encounter more people now as our community stumbles forward and we try to feel each other out. How close is it ok to approach a person on a neighborhood walk? What criteria do I use to decide if I go back to church in-person or watch online? What level of risk is appropriate to be with people and for what purpose?

Figuring out this new world, learning how to live in it as we hold in tension so many competing realities is a weight we are all learning to carry.

The other times in my life that I remember talking this much about how to interact with people on a daily basis was when we first moved overseas. My husband and I experienced an onslaught of new our first few years overseas that left us speechless, staring at our McDonald’s cheeseburgers.

We are now back in the country we grew up in. But, with the sudden shift of culture caused by this pandemic, it again feels like we are learning a new world. We are in the same place physically as last year but doing so many things so differently adding to the strangeness of it all.

It’s like the world tilted and I’m left again grasping for firmer ground.

A passage of the Bible that captured my attention this past week was the story of Jehoshaphat (yes, like in Great Jehoshaphat!). He was one of the good kings in the Bible. He went around to the whole kingdom to talk to the judges and tell them, look guys, you’re working for God and He’s not a God of injustice, bribery or partiality so let the fear of God guide you.

Wow! I really appreciate that kind of leadership.

A lot of times you read these stories about the good kings and generally things go better for them, but not Jehoshophat. He soon learns a huge army is coming for them and they’re pretty powerless to stop it. He prays this great long prayer but at the end he says, We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You. 

So then, another guy stands up and says he’s got something to say from God. He basically says, don’t be afraid or discouraged. Go out to the battle but you will not need to fight in this one. Stand firm and hold your position. God ends up routing the enemy before they even get to Israel’s army.

There is something beatiful and right in determining you’re up against something bigger than you can deal with and saying I don’t know what to do. And, then, still showing up to the battle even when it’s not clear how it will all play out, just that God will be there.

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In all this upheaval, I’m realizing the importance of showing up to see what God will do. When I say show up, I mean open up opportunities, be available and trust that God can do something no matter how meager and anemic the method feels.

Somehow, he’s not limited by our physicality. I can tell you, God shows up on video calls, phone calls (they’re back in again–just give younger folks a pre-call text), and conference calls.

I guess that’s where I am today, I don’t know what to do often. I feel overwhelmed some days. But I want my eyes to be on Him.

Sometimes its more that I don’t know how to do it this way, but I am trying to take the step and trust Him to be there in the middle of it with me.

Each time, as I look back I can see that He’s never deserted me.

 

Enraged

I had just sat down when she started banging on my stall door…yes, my bathroom stall door. What transpired is family legend—that time mom lost it in the bathroom in Asia.

Finding a decent bathroom is a challenge when traveling, especially overseas, maybe especially for the westerner in eastern lands. There’s this kind of toilet called the squatty potty. When mastered, it frees one from a consuming fear of being forced to learn under duress.

But beyond that, just finding a relatively clean bathroom with stall doors (yes, doors!) is notable. This bathroom on that day was not only clean, it had stall doors and it was not a squatty.

I don’t really take pictures of bathrooms much…butt here are some cool doors.

Toilet paper, you might ask? No bathroom really ever had toilet paper. BYOTP was the name of the game.

On this day, I made a point to stop at this particular bathroom to make a pit stop in loo (punny, right?) of the unknown I might face the rest of that day. It felt like the sun was shining on me because there was no line when previous times I’d waited in a long line for the privilege of this clean bathroom.

So, I commenced to commence behind a nice locked stall door. And a woman came in the bathroom and immediately started rattling my door telling me to hurry up because she needed the stall. She shook it so hard, testing the lock, that I feared she was going to break the door open!

And I immediately lost it. My language was good enough to say things I am ashamed of now. Looking back on it, there is an element of comedy. Here is a little of what I remember:

Hurry up! I need to use the bathroom! [rattled door]

I can’t go faster. Go find another bathroom.

I don’t know where one is.

Well! Go ask someone! I’d show you if I could, but, well…I can’t help you right now…I’m busy!

You are taking too long, let me in. I have to go! [more rattling]

I can’t let you in and I have to go too!! I’m using the stall! Stop shaking the door or it will take longer.

Hurry up!

I would if I could. If you’d like to teach me, go ahead!

And it went on and on like this. I was trembling angry when I finally finished, walked out, slammed the door and kept talking very loudly to her…ok, shouting in anger at her.

The look on this woman’s face when out walked a white girl was kinda priceless, really.

At this point, my dear friend was coming into the bathroom. I should mention that my daughter was in the stall next to me during this whole encounter, totally perplexed about why I was so angry.

To give you an idea of the level of my outrage, my friend thought someone was assaulting my daughter—that’s how mad I was.

The event passed and I’ve told the story a few times and thought many times about why, why, why I lost it so quickly and so completely that day.

People who have known me a long time know that I get angry but this was something different, it was rage.

The only conclusion I came to was that someone was threatening a basic human right of mine, to a space, to time, to perform a basic bodily function. It was like she was trying to shove me off the toilet mid-stream, and it was downright offensive.

And it enraged me to the point of a fluent, loud, trembling argument in my 2nd best language. There is a double edged-ness to fluency. Being able to really argue in a second language can get one into a lot of trouble.

What if it wasn’t a toilet stall though? What if it was a different, much more important space like a good school, a safe home for my family, healthcare, to life?

And I understand just a little more the rage one can feel when pressed and challenged for places way more important than a toilet stall.

Rage feels terrible and so it often gets labeled a negative emotion and we are often encouraged to get out from under it at any cost…mostly by suppressing it.

But anger is an emotion, a powerful one, but only an emotion. The wrong comes when we act on it in ways contrary to God’s truth—like when I berated this woman rattling my stall.

This might be why trying to pacify justly enraged people rings a false note in their soul. Asking others’ to bury rage because we may feel uncomfortable with the emotion is not coming alongside someone in pain.

This is where lament comes in—lament is agreeing about the wrong done that brings the rage felt. It honors the emotion while bringing the injustice together to God, the only one who can ultimately judge justly.

But in no way does falling on God’s ultimate justice excuse us from our God-given role to pursue justice on earth while we live here as His ambassadors.

What injustice we see more commonly is way more subtle than a rattled stall door…its more crafty and more insidious and more unseen…and, so, harder to understand.

So, listen carefully and listen well and listen long…observe…and I bet you’ll hear the rattle of a stall door. Something intruding on a space that should be respected and guarded and safe.

Oblivious

For 13 years, a third of my life by the time we left, I lived in a country where I stuck out. I was taller than most every other woman. My eyes were lighter and rounder than every other person. My hair was a different color and texture. I had the coveted crease in my eyelids. My nose was bigger. My feet were bigger. My clothes size larger, even when I was at an ideal weight. I have hips.

I stuck out in a crowd and drew attention most places I went. Everywhere I looked eyes were looking back at me…and did not look away when I made contact.

In the marketplace I was asked repeatedly where I was from, how much I made, how long I’d been around. Privacy was not a thing. These questions were not off limits culturally though they felt incredibly intrusive.

Most of the attention was positive when seen from a certain light. The advice given about how to dress my kids or myself was a form of care even if it was based on an assumption that I didn’t know anything. I learned to take it for what it was most of the time.

But there were those times when I just couldn’t wrap my head around the cultural differences. I spoke sharp words many times when I’d just had enough of being tsk’d at for what felt like the thousandth time.

Some of my friends embraced an effort to blend in by dyeing hair or wearing the shawl that hooked around the middle finger to protect from sun damage. I learned that an umbrella is not just for the rain. I became expert at transporting home a dozen eggs loose in a plastic bag hung from my handlebars, losing one only on occasion.

I adapted. But I never fit in. Ever. I was always a minority and never blended in. But I didn’t fully appreciate my status as a privileged minority until many years in my sojourn in Asia.

Intellectually I understood that my Asian-American friends had a much different experience than I did. At a large round dinner table at a restaurant, my Asian friend would be expected to order even when my language was better. They were assumed to be a tour guide and were questioned about their foreign friends as though we were celebrities.

I could identify remotely with the shame they experienced in the surprised reprimands when their grasp on the language wasn’t up to snuff. But even in recognizing it, I didn’t feel it personally. I felt it for them but could easily put it aside after a conversation and move on. It wasn’t my experience and it didn’t touch my lifetime of shame experience like it did theirs.

My empathy was something but I couldn’t ever really understand.

I felt confident taking trains and traveling alone, jumping in cabs and advocating for myself. My experience was that people listened to me, things happened when I acted. I got what I wanted more often than not. Doors opened for me, literally and figuratively.

But my Asian friends did not. When my friend once explained her fear in a travel situation when she was by herself, I finally grasped a little more of her world.

What if I blended in? What if I were one of the oppressed? What if I feared kidnapping, assault, and violence because that was how people like me got treated? Even if my nationality offered real protection, if my face appeared to be “local”, that protection would not help in the moment.

I’d be stuck and unprotected.

Her experience really impacted me because there was one time when the gravity of the big world and my helplessness in it hit me.

I was traveling, foolishly, alone for the day with my 6 month old baby stowed in the baby carrier to get immunizations a town away. My many other trips left me feeling confident that I could do this trip and it was easier than making a day trip with a 2.5 year old and a baby and my husband.

It all went well until I got out of the cab to catch the train back and someone was watching me put my wallet back. On the large bridge, I felt my bag move and looked down.

The zipper was gaping and my heart beat faster. A major rule of travel is always zip your bags up and I followed it. My wallet was gone, my train ticket was gone, I had no money and no ticket to get home. No ATM card to get money either.

I panicked but I had my phone and called my husband and others noticed my distress. A kind man bought me a return ticket and my husband met me at the station at home so I could pay the man back. He refused repayment.

We made it home and, besides a little panic and lessons learned, it didn’t change my life dramatically.

But when I heard my friends story years later, I wondered what my experience would’ve been if I blended in. If I was part of the class that was not minority privileged. What if I was an Asian woman? Or African?

I could finally see how someone could become the poor soul on the streets near the stations with sad chalk stories written about how they ended up far from home and just needed a ticket…a little mercy.

And I read the stories today and I know why we have such a hard time acknowledging the privileges of having a certain skin color or background.

It’s like living in a world of automatic motion-sensing doors, don’t they always open for everyone else?

They don’t but it can be very, very hard to notice when they always open for you.