What is Narrative?

Narrative plays at the forefront of my life as a writer.  I googled the definition of narrative yesterday because the extent of my definition was “story”.

nar·ra·tive
ˈnerədiv/
  1. 1.
    a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
    “the hero of his modest narrative”
    1. the narrated part or parts of a literary work, as distinct from dialogue.
    2. the practice or art of telling stories.
  2. a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.

I noticed a handy graph below the definition. It told me the use of the word “narrative” doubled in the past 60 years. My skills of deduction aren’t awesome, but I know this means narrative is an important word today.

Dan Allender writes in his book To Be Told, “We grow up in a sea of stories told in a way that fits what we want others to know about us.” Whether we know it or not, I believe we often fashion our lives to “reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.” To build a narrative.

Maybe our narrative is the religion we practice, the philosophy of life we hold, or even the nickname given to us in childhood. Whatever it is, it is a system of beliefs and we live accordingly.

Narrative, like this cross-stitch piece, is one story with all elements serving the theme.
Narrative, like this cross-stitch piece, is one story with all elements serving the theme.

YOLO. The bucket list. Original sin. Science. Angst. Goth. Fame.

In my life I’ve discover my narrative acutely when I’m disappointed, angry, or sad. When things don’t turn out they way they should, I’m left with puzzle pieces. Sometimes it seems like I have pieces from different puzzles jumbled together.

I think I believe one thing, but I act according to a different assumption. Crisis, pain, transition, betrayal. They open my eyes.

Sometimes the crisis is minor like speeding around to get my errands done. Why do I feel anxious about time? Does time run out? Obviously, I think it does. My actions portray it.

Perhaps its a little deeper. I like Keurig machines for convenience but the sheer square footage of shelf space bugs me. Then, I read that none of those little cups are recyclable. Yikes. Why do we save the environment? Do we only live once? Is earth and all it holds all that ever will be?

We parent our kids. It’s easy to want to avoid pain in their lives, to shield them from heartache. Yet, I also think that pain builds muscle. Are the highest goals in life safety, happiness, well-adjusted kids, kindness, generosity, or productivity.

Often evil leads me to the deepest questions. War rages and I despair about the state of the world. Are people basically good? What do I do when people who share the same faith die for their beliefs? Does my narrative answer the questions that arise from the atrocities and apparent blessings visible in the state of the world today? Are the other narratives out there as benign as the news seems to want me to believe? Or is there something at their core that leads them down a violent path?

I’m still thinking about this concept of narrative and how “story” plays out in our lives. It’s a popular word these days. Just listen to the latest Presidential address. It’s what drove me to look up the definition. I’ve heard it too many times to not know what it means.

What’s your story? Do you live by a certain narrative? How does it affect your life? Do you see inconsistencies? What do you do with them?

Here is a link to the usage graph for narrative:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=7&case_insensitive=on&content=narrative&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cnarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bnarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNarrative%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BNARRATIVE%3B%2Cc0

Soul Food

No basil. After circling through the super store gradually acquiring all the ingredients necessary for the nostalgia of Thai curry, I looked up at the herbs. No basil. Deflated, I just gave up and walked out with most, but not all, of the ingredients I needed.

This time of year for the past many, many years we traveled to Thailand. Conferences, rest, and warmth drew us or required our presence. Thailand holds a special place in our hearts. Many of our family memories include Thailand.

Like this one of a favorite restaurant on a beach. What better fun than climbing a tree while waiting for your food? I wonder what that couple thought of a small person hanging out above them while they ate.

But my kids never really loved Thai food.IMG_0529 They ate all the western selections on the menu, countless smoothies, and chicken satay. My husband and I ate curry and lots of it.

I finally cooked my Thai curry last night sans basil. I opened the fish sauce and played jokes on the boys. “Smell this!” I’d tell them. Being the trusting sort, they did. They gagged. It smells awful. Just like its name. Fish sauce. Yuck. Yet, somehow, it is the ingredient that makes Thai food.

All the kids sat in front of bowls of chili while my husband and I sat in front of Thai curry.

Then, my daughter pipes up. That smell, its Thailand. Yes, I said. It is. And the girl who I never remember eating Thai curry dug into a bowl of rice with curry sauce. IMG_0201

My heart ached with nostalgia. Smells and tastes remind me more than anything else that part of my heart absorbed another place, and I’m not there anymore. I have words for this, my kids do not.

After observing my daughter’s reaction and how they consumed a huge Chinese meal on Friday night, I realize I must draw our hearts together over the dinner table.

The tendency in a move is to unknowingly leave things behind that matter. We left food behind and it’s just not working to leave it there.

It’s a good thing a new Asian grocery store opened not too far from us. Visits there are the piece we’re missing in our American life.

Our family needs more soul food and it’s not chicken fried steak.

What is your soul food? The tastes and smells that take you back to another place?

Wilderness Nurtures the Soul

We woke up in succession, five of us in one hotel room. Everyone slept on a real mattress for once. Motels in the US seem to understand families with more than one child.

Our motel perched on the edge of the Everglades and the Keys in South Florida. I was ready to go see, my kids wanted to watch Discovery channel. They grumped and groused as we forced them out of the hotel and stuffed them in the car. We meandered down to Everglades National Park and took in the strange beauty of the marshes. With so many signs pointing out the various wildlife in the area, I stumbled across this one./home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/330/30512586/files/2015/01/img_0835.jpg

Wilderness nurtures the human soul. It was listed as one of the reasons to preserve wildlife. My heart and soul resonates with this statement. Wilderness nurtures my soul. Wilderness is quiet and I hear rustling and chirping that normally fades into the background of hustle and bustle. Wilderness leads me to contemplate my size. I am small yet unique and significant. Wilderness opens my eyes to new creatures and the wonder of the expansive creativity of a creative God. Made in His image, I also long to create. Wilderness feeds my soul.

I noticed it fed my children’s’ souls too. Discovering animals and plants delighted them. Alligators hiding in marshes. Birds floating in from far away. Manatees bubbling up to the surface with their speckled skin and mysterious shape. Fish rushing after food. Birds dipping down deep for a meal. Delighted they took it all in to their soul.IMG_0812

We are still searching for our way in America. At times it feels like a wilderness. At times it feels like a familiar home. We are always learning, always adjusting.

This was our first solo family foray into vacations in America. We’re learning that too. I think we learned we are a national park kind of family.

We won some, we lost some on this vacation. It wasn’t all smooth but I’m thankful for the reminder that wilderness nurtures my soul.

Raising a TCK

“You can’t wear that shirt to school today.”  I said as I walked into my daughter’s room while in America.  The problem?  She wore the exact same shirt to school the previous day.

“Why can’t I wear it?  I love this shirt!”  she replied.  I struggled to for a satisfying answer.

“You wore it yesterday.  Is it clean?”  I asked hoping for a stain somewhere!  Anywhere!  I knew where this conversation led.

“Yes, it is clean.” she replied.

Having grown up in America I know the unspoken American rule that wearing the same thing twice in a week or even two weeks seems somehow shameful.  I remember one elementary teacher who, to my knowledge, never wore the same thing twice our whole school year!  On one visit to America I received the advice not to wear the same thing to church within the same month!  Pressure!

“Well…people in America just don’t wear the same thing often.  They take a break from it and wait awhile before they wear it again.”  I explained uncertainly.  It seemed so shallow to say it.  If the shirt is clean, looks nice, and she likes it, why not?

“Why?” she asks me.

“People don’t wear the same thing a lot because they tend to have a lot of clothes.  If you wear the same thing over and over, people might think its weird.”  Right here I started abandoning my line of argument.  Why can’t she wear a shirt she likes two days in a row?  What does it say about my home culture that I can’t wear a clean shirt two days in a row even when I know I will see the same people?  Or even once a week for a month?  I chafe at the norms.

She looks back at me confused.  “Why do they think it’s weird?” she asks.  I hate to open up to her the vanity that wealth creates.  I want her to stay untouched by such concerns as scheduling her outfits around others’ opinions.  I fight a losing battle.

“I just want you to know that you might get made fun of at school today because you wore that shirt yesterday.  It’s not right but it might happen.  No one cares in Asia but they might here.”  I explain.

She chose a different shirt and I grieve a little inside as this worldly knowledge sinks in to her heart.  I tell her she can wear her favorite shirt when she gets home from school.  She can wear it everyday in Asia if she wants…as long as it’s clean!  I tell her I don’t like it either.

Raising a Third Culture Kid means sailing in uncharted waters for me.  I grew up entrenched in American culture.  Coming to terms with my American self through the eyes of another culture means my mental dialogue abounds.  Sometimes my thoughts exhaust me.  I feel I must deconstruct my guidance to my children and hold it up to the Light.  It abounds with flaws and occlusions that remained shrouded…until I crossed cultures.

I cling to the hope that the things that sift out in all this sifting and shaking that happens in culture crossing will be the things that remain for eternity.  Things that shine brilliantly in the world.

We are in Asia now, so she gets to wear what she wants… for the most part…except to church…when I get a teeny tiny little opinion.

DSC_0277

Watching…

DSC_0012At any moment I can look up and be sure a camera is looking back.  Big brother is always watching…always.  Sometimes I look up and count cameras just to see if I can top my biggest number pictured here.

It wears on me from time to time.  I grow weary of being watched even if it is benign watching and I am not the target.  Then sometimes I forget until I look up and see a camera in a startling place like in church…watching me.

They watch on the internet, on the street, in the malls, in subway stations, in train cars, in airports.

This summer the watching helped us put together how a passport disappeared in the airport.  But something about seeing a passport stolen while four or five people watched passively is a lot to get over.  I now need to forgive faces and not just vague incidents.

I don’t want to see some things.  I don’t want to see the children that get run over by careless drivers and the people who stand by and watch but do not help.  Constant surveillance means video of such incidents condemns but doesn’t seem to change anything.  I become a watcher myself standing by outraged but nothing changes.

Knowing that most will stand by and do nothing for me, I face the question, will I still do something for others?  Will my desire for privacy, so defended in my passport culture, win out and I sink into resentment unable to forgive the sin of a sinful world?

Or will I count this as yet one more way to share in the path that Christ took?  A path with scant privacy?

Plain Old Pain and Sore Pain

At 20 bucks an hour, medicinal back massages are a steal.  Last furlough I vowed to indulge in this overseas luxury more often.  Cross cultural life stresses the body and the mind.  Massage works wonders…if you can stand the pain.

Massage in America surrounds you in an experience of soothing luxury.  Relaxing smells and soft music with a fountain trickling in the background usher one into an experience of stressless comfort.  Not so in Asia.  A successful massage in Asia uses one hour to hit every pressure point and problem area with torturous force.  No music or fountains…just hard work.  It is not for the faint of heart.  If I scream, which I do, I only communicate a job well done, not a request to stop!

Two words describe pain in this language and we learned them from the masseuse.  There are more, but these two strike me with meaning.  Pain and sore pain.  Pain is just what it means…pain.  No purpose.  Negative.  Undesirable.  Bad.

Sore pain…now sore pain is good.   The masseuse explained that sore pain means new blood flowing to the knotted muscle and washing out the toxins.  Sore pain eventually allows the muscle to release the poison and relax resulting in more freedom of motion without limiting pain.

Sore pain is why I get a massage.  Sore pain serves a purpose.  Sore pain yields.  Sore pain is not futile.  Sore pain leads to loose muscles that enable me to enjoy daily life without as much plain old pain.

As in my spiritual life there is pain that leads to more pain and serves no purpose.  That kind of pain makes me act funny as I protect myself.  And, then, there is sore pain.  The word a friend speaks that brings to light a sin issue I need to face.  Or, maybe it is doing the thing I fear will incur disapproval from others.  Pressing these areas brings sore pain.  But, sore pain is worth it.  Sore pain brings new life.  Sore pain gets out the poisons.  Sore pain eventually brings peace and freedom.

Sore pain still hurts.  I scream when the masseuse hits certain pressure points.  I cry and can get angry when someone pushes on a stiff spot.   But the promise of cleaning out the toxins and moving unencumbered by a stiff soul makes me crave it even as I want to scream.

When I visit the masseuse I always try to go with a friend.  We bond as we listen to the masseurs grump about our physical problems and as we hear each other yelp.  Taking a friend along on the journey of sore pain of the soul helps me endure.

Between the screams, and sometimes through them, we laugh a great deal.

What stiff places in your soul need to experience sore pain these days?

Slop

photo (1)Some men occupy their days and fill their pocketbooks carting slop.  Bicycles carry huge, blue, open vats of slop to unknown places where the pigs live.  It sloshes around, a thick, chunky mixture of food scraped from plates or expelled from woks.  The muck on the containers repels a pedestrian before the smell ever reaches the nose.  No one washes the containers between loads.  I do not ask to know this…I see it clearly.

I never pictured slop in my mind until I encountered it overseas.  America is clean.  Slop travels mysteriously through some opaque tube into a closed truck with some words about sanitation written in green or white on the outside.  Only a few come face to face with this ugly reality of life.

My children, however, grow up smelling smells and seeing things I never set my eyes on as a child.  Slop is one of them.  I say slop and they know…their minds pull up a picture of a nasty blue container crusted with who knows what.  Slop is real to them.  Their faces contort when I talk about slop.

So, last week when I read the story of the Prodigal Son and they listened again…I added some detail and brought it home to them.  I told them that pig food he ate?  He ate slop.  Their faces dropped.  Unimaginable.  How desperate.  How disgusting…eating slop.  Anything is better for dinner than slop…even slavery in your own home.  Going back as slave became a totally reasonable and necessary choice to avoid slop.

photo (2)We walked along puce green for a few minutes as we imagined eating slop.  I hope they remember slop for the rest of their lives.  The smell, the look, the grime…because maybe the grace of the Father offered to them will astound them.  Instead of slop…or slavery…a beef barbecue as a treasured son?

I hope and pray they choose the barbecue because they know a life apart from God resembles eating slop.  I pray they know the grace of the feast that the Lord offers when the best they dare expect hope for is slavery.

And, for myself, I hope I receive the gift daily to enjoy the barbecue instead of trying to earn a meager meal…the best I fear I deserve…as a slave.

Escape to Ikea

ikeaI go to Ikea for a cultural break.  The blue and yellow bastion of  order speaks my language in the midst of a chaotic culture.  At Ikea I know how life works.  I understand the products that sit on the shelves.  The model apartments reflect the dream I dream of one day achieving order in my own home.  The prices allow me to take home a little piece of Swedish brilliance.  And, they take care of some of my kids for an hour so I can browse in self-centered silence!  What’s not to love?

Ikea surrounds me in western-conceived orderliness.  I understand the world for the time I walk their halls.  I relish the way I know how things work for once and it’s not just a knowledge gained over time but a deep-seated knowing rooted in the basics of my identity and western upbringing.  For an hour or two I retreat from Eastern thought and indulge the part of myself that will never quite be put to rest overseas.  I vacate in the walls of a store where I need no passport or expensive ticket to feel more at home.

Now that my daughter exceeds the play area age limit, Ikea means mother daughter time.  She finally appreciates shopping and she understands that our family mostly looks.  We laugh at the 5 aunties chatting it up on a model king-sized bed while the baby in the middle sleeps.  We exchange ideas about style–good style, not-our-style, bad style.  We notice some furniture is very, very inexpensive and some quite expensive.  We define quality.

We pick up the few things we came to buy and try our hardest to resist the intriguing but unnecessary items.  We fail…often.  The arrows on the floor herd us along.  We note the items we might purchase next time if they receive approval when discussed at home.  We never miss the “as is” section.  I still wonder who buys the mattresses no one wanted after their 90 day trial period!  We purchase and pick up the boys and follow the path to get hot dogs and an ice cream cones that are too cheap to refuse.  Everyone wins at Ikea.

At Ikea I embrace a part of myself that I can never put aside completely no matter how long I live in a foreign land.  I speak the language, grasp some of the mindsets, eat the food, survive, and often thrive but I am foreign and always will be a foreigner.  Escaping to Ikea for a few hours a month used to feel like a personal weakness.  Now I just enjoy Ikea for what it is…a break and an acknowledgement of my identity.

What escapes exist within your host culture?  Do you take advantage of them?  Why or why not?

Yielding in an Unyielding Culture

100-0031_IMGI’m astounded by the risks pedestrians and bikers take on their road back home or to work.  The shortest distance between two points consists of a straight line.  Conservation of energy reigns supreme to most foot and bicycle traffic so hoe-bearing old farmers tramp across eight-lane highways looking neither right nor left.  On a rainy night people invisibly weave in and out of cars on dark, soot covered bikes cloaked in black jackets.  Have I explained why I dislike driving in the rain?

From the comfort of my car, I remind myself of the days I rode bikes in driving rain.  The days I arrived home with mud spattered up my back into my hair and my hands turned to ice on the bars.  The early days when I achieved my personal challenge of keeping my feet on the pedals all the way to school to avoid sinking into piles of  mud.  So, now, stopping to allow a horde of pedestrians cross a busy street on a rainy day brings a wide smile to my face.

Yielding defies all local logic.  Most become paralyzed in disbelief when I give way.  I see the confusion on their face as they struggle to decode the situation and then discover the unbelievable.  Someone stopped….for me.  Often they spring forward when the idea dawns that the coast is clear, a new surge in their energy.  I especially like stopping for one person in this country who believe to the core of their beings they rank only one of “too many.”

Giving way.  Yielding.  Such a small thing to give way yet what a difference it makes to give away a few seconds, to not be first that time, to not claim my right according to the law, to surprise someone with a small kindness, to recognize an individual soul.

I do not always yield, believe me, but I like the state of my heart when I do.

What uncommon courtesy puts a spring in your step?  What uncommon courtesy do you like to gift others?

When Boundaries Get Crossed

Picture me standing in line for the lady’s room at a coffee shop with my daughter mentally pondering my spiritual growth.  Just a year before at the same shop I’d struggled with impatience.  Women in our host culture seem to take eons in the restroom. Eons.

Maybe its just that personal spaces are few and when privacy comes, it must be enjoyed…for awhile.  Now, look at me waiting patiently! I felt thankful to be in such a place and be able to recognize this growth. I mentally patted myself on the back.

A few minutes later, after stepping in to have our moment, an older women enters the restroom and waits about 2 seconds before she starts pounding on our doors.  Literally, pounding.  The locks rattled, the door shook.  It was a shocker!  She loudly complained of how long we are taking and asks us to get out so she can have her moment.  She continued to grumble and berate us loudly and did not cease to pound.

I know enough language to be sassy.  I can express things I wish I could not.  What proceeded to transpire still fills me with a mixture of pride and shame.  Pride at the fluency and shame at my use of my fluency.  We conversed…ok…spoke loudly…ok…argued.  I suggested she find other places to have her moment.  She asked me to show her one.  I replied I could not do that at this moment.  She continued to loudly complain and urge me to hurry up.  I offered to learn from her vast experience about how best to do that.  And it went on. It was a charged conversation.

Ten minutes later when the adrenaline dissipated in my veins, I doubled over in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of what transpired in that restroom. To have someone literally try their level best to evict you from a bathroom stall, well, it just crosses a boundary.  Apparently, it’s a boundary I did not want crossed.  Isn’t that how it is with boundaries?  We realize their importance to us when they are crossed.

I’ve heard it called “Hulking Out”, what I did.  It’s not pleasant, attractive, or in the slightest bit useful.  I had to explain and apologize to my daughter.  Actual repentance in my heart occurred later that day.  I realized just how short my fuse can be…so very short…which humbled me.  All that pride of how I learned so much patience?  Gone. Back to square one, I stood there with a truer picture of who I was and it was not who I wanted to be!  I hulked out, tried to force my right and win by argument…by power. It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve hulked out.

A crossed boundary often kicks in my survival instincts. I try on being dangerous. But that’s not the dangerous God wants for me.  His power came in His laying aside His life and rights for others…not claiming them for Himself.  He gave everything.  Am I willing to forgo survival?  To pass on using my strength which is no strength at all?  To be truly dangerous God’s way is to be the right kind of dangerous.

I think being dangerous for God’s kingdom that day would have been using my 10 minutes of language ability on my captive audience toward a much different end than protecting my right to a bathroom stall!