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!

Twisty Paths

A friend called me in the days before we left Asia having dreamt a dream about us. A dark being was in our home, he was dangerous and it was scary. We were on the tarmac at the airport in the crosshairs of an enemy. The overall perception was of impending doom and danger.

I had no idea what to do with my friend’s vision except to rest in the knowledge that the enemy is not greater than my God. I took refuge in the Lord whenever I thought of my friend’s dream, knowing that if this dream was a warning of what was to come, I could do nothing about it except walk closely with the Lord.

When we came back to the United States in 2014, we could name about 5 things that brought us back. There was an order in what we named as our reasons to return. Sometimes we just couldn’t wrap our minds around them and felt so grieved that we chose to leave.

The reasons didn’t seem enough. It was hard, hard, hard to swallow that we left. It still is at times.

That list is still true but the longer we lived in the US, so much more was added. I’m glad I didn’t know what would be added. It echoed themes of the vision my friend shared with me our final week in Asia.

The Lord gave us 10 months to get our feet on the ground, provide mentors, community, and some time to transition. Then, my dad was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Over the past 4 years, we’ve walked through grief–our own and together as a family.

My mom’s had her own cancer diagnosis twice in the last 2 years on top of other sickness that seems to descend on the grieving. Two mastectomies exactly a year apart and now radiation ahead. The outlook is very good but there’s still a hard road to walk.

There’s been other things too–dyslexia interventions, shoulder surgery, rear-enders, and adjustment to our “home” country that doesn’t feel so familiar anymore.

Part of the reason I haven’t written much at times is that it’s been hard to know what to say. I’m often little tongue-tied with all the reality of these things–which is saying a lot since I do like to talk.

Every once in a while I remember my friend’s dream. How gracious to have that small taste of a hint that life might be hard in the next season. As we live through it, I’m thankful that God is more powerful than any scheme formed against us.

There’s also been so much joy as well mixed in by God’s grace.

Those 5 reasons we came back? We now look at those and realize there was so much more God was doing.

He prepared a way for us, a smooth path, for the journey He knew we’d face.

Stories Stir the Soul

We landed back in the U.S. late at night, like always. What was not like always was that my brother and his family, who normally reside in Europe, were also in the U.S. Christmas in the U.S. was the goal. All of us. Together. Our trip was to last a month.

Ha. It lasted about 3 or 4 months. A blur of doctor appointments, eye surgery, and stress.

In the late night hours of collapsing back in to bed after a day of it, whatever it was that day, I cracked the pages of a book with a black cover and a bird on the front. I was transported to another world and lost all track of time. It only took me a few days to finish the Hunger Games.

I was enthralled with the story Suzanne Collins wove, reportedly coming up with the idea as she toggled between reality TV survival shows and war coverage. That made sense to me during our re-entry. Her story captured my mind in a period of my life when it was hard to switch off all the details surrounding a one month trip turned 3 month medical leave.

Our daughter wore glasses from the age of 3 1/2 after she woke up one morning with one eye looking directly at her nose. We went to the ER and then a opthalmologist. We patched, we saw doctors, and it was working.

Until it wasn’t working. I hadn’t really noticed how her eyes drifted during our extended time away from the US and US doctors. Looking at pictures now is painful because it is so obvious. But, I didn’t know then.

In Asia, surgery was not as successful so not suggested as an option by the doctors we visited. When our doctor in the US saw us for a routine check up about a week after we landed, he was blunt. Surgery. In a month or two. We left shocked trying to figure out if our friend would let us extend our stay by, oh say, a few months! He did, because he is incredibly generous.

Then, a routine check up for our son got us a 2 day turn around follow-up with a pulmonologist. That’s usually not a good sign. Didn’t expect that or the cystic fibrosis test he did a little while later. It came back negative. Our nerves were a bit shot and our management of his asthma revealed we needed to learn much more. Again, there was a bit of a difference between Asian (manage symptoms) and American (slam that asthma to the ground!) methods.

Then, our youngest kept getting ear infection after ear infection until he got a series of three high-powered and very painful antibiotic shots. He would glow when he was done, our pediatrician told us. He didn’t really glow, but it was a very long time before he got sick again. His persistent baby acne disappeared.

The Hunger Games books were my series in all this, an escape and also an explanation for a rough bout of cross cultural living problems.  I identified with Katniss, feeling disoriented in a world where everyone seemed tatted, colored, or highly styled. Asia was a grey district. America felt like the Capitol.

I’ve read the series through another time or too and still refer to it when I talk about re-entry issues.

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Our shelves contain a dozen or so books on crossing cultures, raising third culture kids, and re-entry. They directly address great things and I refer to them and learn from them. We own many stellar books on spiritual growth and parenting kids too. I read them and recommend them.

But, my secret, which is now not so secret, is a good story. Good fiction, allegory, or memoir makes me feel and discover truth in a way a direct dealing just can’t. Stories let us discover ourselves through others. A good allegory like Hinds Feet on Hind Places can pull together half a dozen spiritual truths lurking in the sidelines of my conscious mind and connect my emotions too.

I just finished a weird selection even for me, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. It’s cool. I feel cooler because I read it. My vocabulary now holds the option of some surf jargon if I want to look like a complete idiot. I still don’t understand surfing.

img_6782But the book was about surfing as much as it was about life, writing, and facing ourselves. The waves he described and his experience with them transcend surfing. It was a fascinatingly well written memoir and got me motivated to keep living my life and keep writing.

Not bad for a story. Now I need to find another one. My bedside table is never empty, but it doesn’t always have a truly good book to turn to when the sun goes down and that’s a pity.

 

 

The Mercy of Not Knowing

Occasionally I go through my blog drafts and pull from them. I found this one today and edited a few words. It was originally drafted in late May 2015 after my dad’s funeral, while we were packing to move to Texas, and in the fresh stages of grief.

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Death is the ultimate disruption. A friend warned me early on in this brain tumor journey with my dad that death is evil. It takes away life and it is shocking. It is disruptive.

The three month marker came and went 2 days ago. Three months since doctors diagnosed my father with an aggressive brain tumor. Three months they gave him to live. He enjoyed 2 months and a half. My father passed away, went to be with Jesus, breathed his last, died, May 9th.

It was the longest two and a half months of my life. Every day a constant checking, wondering, anxious watching for signs of the end, wanting to know the times. When? How long?

But, I didn’t really want to know. I know now and I can tilt my head in acknowledgement that God was…is…merciful. When I count what I saw as merciful, I ache for all the seemingly merciless deaths. It is not fair the father who loses his whole family. The parents that discover their teenage son without a breath left in him. The long, slow decline of Alzheimers or old age.

What do you do with all the grief?

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I chose this picture, taken in an urgent care office while waiting for a doctor, because it captures the soul of this post–relating to loss.

Mourning, for me, increases the emotional nerve endings to all the losses of life, all the griefs not ending with death alone. The marriages that struggle, the kids that hurt, the strife in relationships are all brought right up to the surface.

When will the suffering end?

Yet, when I think about my father and what knowing would bring to my life, I realize it was merciful to not know.

Now I’m left taking the next step, eating the next bite sized portion of life, packing just the next box for our move and it is right.

The Final Semester

My best friend and I shared a hotel sized dorm for 3 years and had known each other for 4, but the time came to part ways. Nothing changed about our friendship or desire to be friends.

We didn’t have a falling out. We were graduating.

The stink of it was, I was her Resident Advisor so I had to ask her to sign the check out line through my tears. It was awful! We would never again be roommates but we knew each other like sisters.

All spring, I had these weird feelings. I knew graduation was coming. I was also engaged to be married. My life was changing and would change radically in the months to come even though I didn’t leave my college town after graduation. That spring, graduation was always out there. It loomed and my emotions rode this weird roller coaster that I can name now as transition.

Looking back at myself, I know how unprepared I was for this change. All the boxes of life were checked. Grades. Check. Apartment. Check. Job. Check. Health Insurance Rider. Check.img_5704-1

I was even one of those annoying senior girls that was actually engaged! The dream, right?!

But, emotionally, I did not expect to feel such turmoil.

So, you seniors in college, you are in a pivotal semester.

You are waiting to hear from potential employers. Wondering about a current co-ed relationship. Trying to figure out where to live. Needing to pass classes. Planning celebrations. Its a lot to take!

So, how can you leave college more ready for the next phase of life?

Reconcile relationships. 18-22 are volatile years of change. One big step to graduation should involve thinking back on your time in school. Are there any friendships that went south? Any lingering, nagging feelings of resentment towards old roommates, boyfriends or girlfriends, organizations, leaders, or professors that are creeping up in your soul? Pay attention! When classes end in May, it will be much harder practically to reconcile these relationships.

Forgiveness, hopefully, is a choice you’re making. Reconciliation is the next step. Think through your time in college. Is there anyone you need to talk to? Consider talking to anyone you’ve hurt or who has hurt you and expressing forgiveness or a desire to forgive. It may not fix things the way you might want, but it goes a long way.

I had to do that my senior year and it was one of the harder conversations of my life to ask for forgiveness. As an adult, I’ve had to have many more of those conversations. Get started now and enter adulthood on a track of freedom from your past.

Affirm. Many people, most likely, came into your life during college and provided the encouragement, teaching, friendship, and support you needed to finish. Let them know. Think through these people and contact them personally or write a note. Not only will it grow your gratitude, it will also remind you that you were not alone in a season where loneliness can creep in.

Farewell. Say your farewells. Don’t avoid them. It doesn’t have to be a huge graduation shindig. In fact, that may be a really difficult way to say a meaningful farewell. Farewells happen best for me when they are personal and specific to my relationships. Did you always work out on Fridays with a friend? Mark a last workout, get a treat afterwards,  and tell them you’ll miss them and that tradition.

Why say farewells? Graduation marks that a change is taking place in your friendships. You are entering the work world in different cities. You will make new friends. Trying to hold onto all of your friendships the same way is impossible. They need to change and saying farewell to the college student phase of your friendship is a good idea. Some college friendships will continue, but they will be different. They will take more effort and not all of them will last.

And, friends aren’t the only farewells to say. What about professors? Favorite study haunts on campus? A place where you had an epiphany about yourself, your life, or your future? One of my favorite things to do when we are moving away from a place is to walk around and remember my favorite places and what happened there.

Think Destination.This is the practical of moving. How and when are you going to pack? Where is that nasty couch going to go when you move out? Where will you stay in the in between? What will your job be and when do you start? What will your budget be? Where will you go to church or find friends?

It could be as simple as answering some of these questions. Zoom out and also consider, what do you want your adult life to be like in your new location? How will you get there? What can you do now to smooth the path?

Are you looking for a church? Ask friends about churches in the new town, go to one the first Sunday, visit a few, and make a decision.

Then, serve in some capacity. You will meet far more people and probably have a better attitude if you are in the game rather than bench-warming.

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So, I must give credit where credit is due. These four points aren’t my own. They come from David Pollock who helped many, many adults and children make international moves with this model of transition called RAFT. I’ve used it many times myself for moves.

It became so internalized for me that I also went to it when my dad received a death sentence from the neurosurgeon in 2015. You can read more of that here.

This process doesn’t eliminate the hard things of moving, but it will help you move through them a little more smoothly. It’s a RAFT to get you across some bumpy waters of life change from graduation, moving, marrying, or saying the ultimate farewell.

I hope it helps anchor your soul and give some direction in a very tumultuous semester.

Packing Up the Dreams

The man retold the story of his family’s escape from Saigon now 40 years before. He was 6 and his father told him to listen for the helicopter and, when he heard it, to come with his mother and 2 younger siblings. It was their escape plan.

As I watched the story unfold on public television 2 nights ago, my mouth was agape. The father flew the huge Chinook copter with his family out to the Pacific not knowing where to land. They spotted a US ship and approached. After his family jumped, yes, jumped to the ship and to safety, the pilot hovered for 10 minutes off to the side to prepare for his escape.

He took off his flight suit while flying the helicopter. Then, he tilted the helicopter one way while he jumped out the other way. He made it and they escaped to America against all odds. They came with nothing but the clothes on their back and a whole lot of courage to start a new life.

Read CNN’s version of Nguyen’s story here.

I reviewed the basics of a very familiar transition tool called R.A.F.T. developed by David Pollock for Third Culture Kids (TCK’s). I can tick off the acronym fluently, Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think destination. It’s a part of me now having taught or learned or lived it more than 20 times in my adult life. It’s second nature.

When I watched the story of this family’s escape from Vietnam, I grieved for them, knowing they left everything with no hope of going back. There was no time to reconcile, affirm, say goodbye, or think about what was next. They just left and picked up the pieces along the way.

I felt some of that, albeit on a much, much smaller scale when we moved in 2015. A hasty move for us filled with grief, but we got to pack.11265229_10152990918247746_2789346580044480652_n

It is harder to glue the pieces of life back together after a hasty move. It’s easier to unwrap life neatly like carefully packed dishes–that’s what I thought RAFT would do for us. Wrap up our life so nothing got broken in moves.

Problem is, there’s always something broken in a move. It’s unavoidable whether you pack neatly or not. Of course, less gets broken with better packing and that takes more time.

But we don’t always get the time to pack neatly. It’s a gift when we have time to move through transition as best we can manage. But life doesn’t always allow that luxury.

Spring of 2015 brought such a move for us. All the books and models said it was all wrong but there was not much I could do about it.

We lived through my father’s terminal illness that spring then turned around and moved 3 weeks later. Its the kind of move people tell you not to do. We didn’t seem to have a choice, though. We had to move out of our apartment and we already bought a home in our new location before my dad’s diagnosis. It was one of those moves where you just get things in boxes and hope they survive.

We managed a couple get togethers before we headed out, but all I could think about was getting to our new home where I could unpack and throw, no, burn the boxes in an intense bonfire while sipping Dr. Pepper in my one glass I hoped survived the move.

So what do you do with such moves? I lived in that reality. I have no big answers or cures. It’s not just time that makes it better, but steps in the direction of life is always worth the work. My steps in that direction that year involved:

slowing down when I felt overwhelmed

abiding by some consistent routines like waking up early

reading the Psalms

gaining perspective by being part of something bigger than myself and my situation

relaxing and trusting the Lord to bring up what needed grieving in its own time

reaching towards community

Not all moves are pleasant and well planned. Not all are awful either. But they are all change. I learned through the “wrong” move of 2015 that it’s impossible to hold everything together through the tumult of a move…even in the good moves. The right moves where we had the goodbye parties and RAFTed like a boss.

What I can expect with every move is to know more of the God who walks by our side in the midst of it.

I have no idea what happened to the family who escaped Vietnam in such spectacular fashion. I know the child lived to tell his story… in English. Reading between the lines I can see that he lived and his family managed to make a life in the U.S.

Though they lost most every earthly possession, they kept going. They lived. Severe mercy, yes, yet mercy nonetheless.

 

 

Being a Friend to the Mourning

Most people don’t know what to say to the grieving. Most grieving don’t know how to talk about their grief. Mourning that comes out of time, during college-the days supposed to be the best of your life, can lead to profound loneliness.

And, I’m not just talking about the death of a family member or friend, maybe its the family relationship that was unspeakable, or the experience that stole what can never be physically restored, or a home lost due to an international move.

Not many know how to mourn among the old, so where does that leave the college student? Usually speechless. And angry. And searching for something to dull the pain. Surrounded by friends who do care, but may not have logged enough life to know quite how to come alongside their friend. It can be hard to know how to be a friend when you’re needed most. DSC_0062

I’m no grief expert, but I can share what I’ve learned along the road from a college student with few recognized losses in life to now, mid way through life having logged a few. I’ve experienced losses related to life lived overseas. A year and a half ago, my dad passed away of a brain tumor.

Entering back into U.S. college ministry, my heart weighs heavy for the many, many students I meet who are grieving and struggling to find a way through the grief.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind when walking alongside a friend through loss…

  • Begin understanding your own losses. Maybe you haven’t lost someone to death, but have you lost a friend or family member to a severed relationship? to a different direction in life? to addiction? Those are losses to grieve and mourning brings compassion for other losses.
  • Log time with your friend. Call them. Text them. Even when you don’t know what to say. Just say “I don’t know what to say”. It’s honest and it may be enough for the moment. Keep calling and texting even when it seems they don’t want to be your friend because they don’t call back. They’re grieving and it can be hard to take simple steps to maintain friendships during grief. Don’t take it personally and keep offering your friendship.
  • Allow space for a range of emotions. Grieving isn’t just crying. It can be laughing over a memory or just doing something normal to remind yourself that life isn’t all about your loss. It’s not all sad. It feels like a roller coaster sometimes. Being a friend who is there means you are along for the ride, with all its ups and downs.
  • Avoid explanations. Most of the time, we really don’t know what God’s purposes are in the timing of loss. When a friend of mine died right after graduation, a nurse rattled off a long list of false statements as we sat stunned out of words from the shocking news. The dead do not become angels. God probably did not take them because they were the prettiest. He does not need more angels in heaven because God does not need. As we sat bereaved in the hospital, my anger grew to overflowing. The best thing she could have given was silence. Statements and explanations make the speaker feel better, they have something to say. If you don’t know what to say, say that, and sit. You may feel inept and weak but that is ok. It’s a demonstration of selfless love. Presence is a profoundly comforting comfort.
  • Educate yourself. Watch movies like P.S. I Love You, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, or Band of Brothers. Read memoirs written by the grieving. Do a word study in your Bible on mourning. Read slowly and repeatedly through Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died but before he was raised. Listen to Mary and Martha’s responses as though you were there. Notice Jesus’ responses.
  • Pray for your friend and yourself. Most of the time when I pray for my grieving friends now, I pray that they will experience comfort from the Lord.
  • Get help when its needed. If your friend is coping with grief in self-destructive ways, don’t just stand by. If they’re binge drinking, coping oddly well but not willing to talk much with anyone, displaying poor hygiene that is beyond normal, taking drugs, hooking up with others to avoid pain, missing an abnormal number of classes, or unable to sleep well consistently, they need more help walking through their grief. Approach them about talking with a counselor and help them set up and keep the appointment.

Sometimes I’ve felt there should be a class where I can learn how to be compassionate. Alas, I believe God grows a heart of compassion in us as we experience pain and come close to those in pain.

 

 

 

A Day for Remembering

I lay on the couch in the morning sun flipping through my photo feed. Memories wash through with each swipe. Sunshine to snowfall. Normal to hectic. One life then another. Change after change after change.

Some photos remind me of things forgotten in the crash of my father’s sickness. The dark chocolate bar the writers gave me upon the publication of my first piece. A monumental event, an event eclipsed by news delivered 2 days later.

Two swipes later clouds and snow from the seat of a flight booked last minute. Then, my parents on face time with family figuring out how to process a terminal diagnosis. Hospital photos, prayer meetings, more clouds from more flights all mixed in with children at school events, moving trucks, beach sunrises and meals at favorite restaurants, hospital room views.img_1404-1

All jumbled together in an impossible array of the unbelievable.
I wonder how we made it, and I remember how we made it. It was life in the moment of what had to be done, constantly shoving aside what must wait until later. Daily listening to my gut when it said weird things like go shopping, buy a nice outfit for each kid for the funeral. Or listening to my friends, buy the tickets, don’t worry about the money.

Coming to accept more deeply that life isn’t as neat and clean as we want, and we can’t make things as neat and clean as we want no matter how hard we try.

Somehow we made it. Somehow we cherished the moments given to us and came through. Scarred, yes. Hurting, definitely. Intact, physically, yes.

And missing.

Always missing what was taken from us in this world. Hopeful and waiting for the day of reckoning. The day of returning what we are promised in Jesus Christ. Life, joy, peace, and fellowship with the ones we love.

A day without tears and without missing.

A sunrise from on high.