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June 30, 2015

"are you feeling settled yet?"

A friend who is preparing for a big move called me "brave" for making my last big transition, to marriage and to Europe. To be honest, her upcoming move is probably much more drastic than mine, not in number of kilometres, but because in her mid-twenties, she is leaving the only place she has ever lived, and leaving friends she has had since elementary school. This transition really will be a big one for her, but as you probably know, I have gone through a lot more transitions in my life than she has, and moving to Europe didn't feel particularly courageousit was just what needed to happen, if I wanted to get married. (And I did want to get married!)

I realized after this last transition, though, that I am learning about big life changes and how to handle them in a healthy way. I'm finding some common threads in my various stories of adaptation to a new place or situation. Writing back to my friend, I told her two things that I've learned about transition, and I thought I'd share them here, too. I speak mostly of changes in location, but I'm sure some of these thoughts could be helpful in other transitions, like changes in job, stage of life, or relationship.

The first thing I've learned about adjusting after transition is to expect it to take a while. Even if the first days or weeks seem exciting and you feel up for anything, you can expect that the transition will hit you hard at some point. Give yourself some time to settle in! Don't expect too much of yourself in the first weeks or months after a big change. I don't mean this in a selfish, hole-yourself-up-in-your-room-eating-Doritos kind of way, but more in a it's-normal-to-feel-a-bit-unstable-after-big-change kind of way.

I remember standing in the cafeteria at my college, perhaps the day after arriving, and having a staff member kindly inquire: "Are you feeling settled yet?" I realized she probably expected a "yes", but I was frank with her, "No, I'm not." Another person less-than-sensitively inquired of my dad, who was dropping me off and going back to South America, "Are you going to cry when you say goodbye tomorrow?" My father just looked at the inquirer and said, "Yes, I probably will." (Perhaps I get my directness from him). We both wept when we said our goodbyes, and it took a long time for me to settle in. That whole year, I never quite felt at home, but I knew that it was a good place for me to be, and that God was with me, and that made all the difference.

When I moved to Asia, the transition was enormous, and I remember bawling and not even knowing exactly why I was doing so, sometimes. For the first time in my life, I actually cried while on the phone with my parents, which I'm sure made them feel quite helpless, on the other end of the line in South America. I had a lot of difficult moments, but some of them slowly eased as I learned a new routine, became able to do errands by myself, and got to set up my own room and stock my own fridge. Of course, making friends and growing in relationships locally helped a lot, too.

Then I came to Europe, and it was a big transition again, because I was adjusting to married life (FYI, there is now a man who sleeps in my bed!) along with adjusting to a new country (with its ultra-fast store checkout lines, brusque-sounding language and few familiar faces). I wanted to "just be myself" and adjust quickly, but there were some days where I felt especially mopey. I was lonely, and when my husband came home, I literally just wanted him to wrap his arms around me for a while. The poor man was patient with my clingy moments.

I am thankful now that we kept our first month or so after arriving in Europe intentionally low key. There weren't many evening plans or high expectations. My husband went back to his regular job during the daytime, but I didn't start doing freelance work; I spent time writing thank-you notes, organizing cupboards and learning to cook in a new country. During my first month I had a terrible cold, lost my voice for about five days, and had a lot of emotional processing to do. My body was probably confused with the number of time zone shifts it had done in the last two months, and I had crazy dreams and trouble sleeping. For these reasons and others, I was glad we hadn't planned a busy first month. We had our first Christmas together during that first month, and kept it somewhat quiet as well.

My belief in taking transition slowly was reinforced when I spoke to a couple here who dove head-long into a significant commitment in their local fellowship early in their time here. Today they are still struggling with that commitment, but it is difficult to back out of what others have come to expect of them. Seven months into our time here, our schedule is fuller, I am doing quite a bit of freelance work, the requests for our help or time come more frequently, and our "people we'd like to have over" list keeps growing longer. I'm often thankful that I had about three months without as many commitments, so that we could figure out a few basics of marriage and life together, before pledging myself to much outside our home. If you're going through upheaval, and can afford to build in an intentional transition period, I highly recommend it.

What I've realized is that if the greyish transition clouds don't rise after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps your problem is deeper. But in my last move, I felt a definite shift after a few months. The moments of blubbering and confusion lessened. I could see personal growth. When I passed a simple but official language test, and this gave me courage to speak a bit more to strangers while out and about. When my husband was sick and I went to our Sunday group on my own, and I realized that it wasn't just my husband's fellowship was mine, too! When a new place starts to have familiar places, faces, foods....then I realize that I'm settling in.

Speaking of familiar things, other than affording time to settle in, my other "settling in" tip is that finding things in my new place that remind me of my old place helps me feel settled. Of course, you can do this by bringing with pictures or mementos from your old home, and I always do bring some of those along. Or if you're transitioning into marriage, keeping a hobby that you really enjoyed in your single years might help you as you change life stages. But you can also find new things or activities in the new place or stage, that remind you of what you had before.

For example, in Asia I occasionally let myself splurge on little things or activities that gave me some culture or transition stress escape. I even made a list in the back of my daytimer of these things. One of the nicest activities for me (which I only did a couple of times) was going to one of the five star hotels in our city by myself, ordering the $10 Western breakfast buffet, and sitting with my laptop and notebook, writing, reading the Word, or praying. It was cathartic for me; I wrote this post from there. On my dusty walk home from work, sometimes I would buy a bag of gummi bears, salted California almonds or a UK-brand popsicle from the import shop, because they added a little stability to my very different world. I read an article by a lady who always missed her piano when living abroad, but as she noted, "Pianos don't fit well with a nomadic lifestyle." But after about ten years of that, she finally bought a piano, because it brought a lot of pleasure and familiarity to her to be able to play the piano to relax, even if it seemed like an expensive "extra". In Europe, I noticed that once I started finding freelance work again, it busied my mind and also gave me a sense of familiarity in a new world. It helped me to feel stable, employing my skills in an area where I had years of experience, while I was facing a steep learning curve in so many others (new marriage, new language, new house, new country, new friends).

At the moment, I am feeling as settled as I can be expected, I think! When we discuss the possibility of moving yet again, and the future is so unknown, I feel less settled. But for the time being, the transition anxiety has plateaued, and
(1) giving myself some time/cutting myself some slack during transition, and 
(2) finding some familiar foods, activities or items amidst all the newness 
helps me to adjust to change in a healthy way.

Of course, the best transition tool I know is to:
dwell in the secret place of the Most High,
abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 
say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.'
Surely He shall deliver you...
He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.
Because you have made the Lord...
your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
All these earthly transitions are temporary ones, and our lasting roots must be dug down deep in our omnipresent, omnipotent God. He is our dwelling place, no matter where we abide geographically. Sometimes listening to Psalm 91 on repeat is just what I need to focus my mind on my unchanging One, especially in times of change. There is no settledness on earth without the peace that things are settled between my God and myself.

But assuming that you are dwelling in Him, it can also help to speak in practical terms during times of upheaval. I hope this bit of earthly transition advice might help someone who has just gone through change to remember that when asked, "Are you feeling settled yet?" (or "Hast du dich gut eingelebt?") it's OK to be honest and answer, "No, I'm not!" or "No, I haven't." It's normal to need some time to settle in, and some familiar earthly comforts can help ease the jolting on this earthly journey toward our eternal Home. Gute Reise!

June 23, 2015

when I didn't need new friends

A few years ago I took a trip around North America to visit friends. After spending time with my transplanted friends in their far-flung locations, I wrote a post about how I realized that good friends can be hard to find after moving. This wasn't a startling revelation to me, but just a reminder of something I've been learning ever since I left home: many people are in need of new friends. Once I heard that one in three people are lonely. It has become my default to assume that people would appreciate a new friend, unless I am informed otherwise. My trip around North America only confirmed that.

Making new friends and parting with old ones has always been a part of my life. In my growing up years at our expat school in South America, due to the nature of the expat community and our parents' work, there were always comings and goings. There were new teachers coming, former teachers leaving, new classmates coming, and former classmates leaving. If they weren't coming or going, I was, so my friend circle was always changing. I suppose I had a lot of friends, but many shifted in and out throughout my childhood.

Other than the moves I made as a child, I have moved to a new continent three times, and I've been thinking about the friend-making process that always has to happen after each major move.

When I left South America for North America to attend college, I was only seventeen, and while it was sad, I had always expected that I would leave someday. The future was scary, but it also seemed interesting, and many of my friends were moving away too, so it was the thing to do.

It took some time to find "my people" in Canada, but eventually I did. God gave me good friends, who would cry with me or laugh with me, talk theology or tolerate my weird (I do not use that term lightly) humour, scrub my stove for me when I moved yet again, or invite my parents over when they came to visit. I moved a few times within Canada, but mostly the moves were within the same province, and some friendships spanned that eight-year stint entirely. I found good friends, and I didn't really want or need new ones.

So, when I left North America for Asia, the goodbyes were difficult, but the vision I had for living in Asia propelled me forward. While in Asia, I missed my far-away friends terribly, and annoyed everyone within five metres of me with constant showings of pictures of my baby niece. Even with all those forced niece viewings, I managed to make new friends in Asia. We came from vastly different cultures, but their warm hospitality to me, a bumbling foreigner who didn't know their customs, blessed me over and over.

The most treasured portions of my Asia journey were not what you might expect. I enjoyed riding an elephant, but the friends who got up at 5am to arrange the ride, or to ride along with me (especially the one who later admitted to being petrified of elephants) were the ones who made the ride special. The elaborate meals my friends treated me to at nice restaurants were delicious, but better were the honest conversations in my friends' bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, when we talked about the things that matter most in life. These were the best moments in Asia, and though it was hard to leave Canada, I was so glad I made friends in Asia.

But last year, when I left Asia and moved to Europe, the friend-maker in me felt exhausted. I felt like a haphazard, unfaithful friend, abandoning my Asian friends who so kindly threw me pre-wedding parties (though they couldn't attend our wedding), and flying through North America just long enough to recruit friends help to pull off a wedding, not long enough to deeply reconnect to community there. Then I tumbled into Europe, into my husband's fellowship here, into a new language and culture, and into new relationships, again. I thought, I don't need new friends. I don't want new friends. I have all the friends I want, and all the friends I can handle. My heart wanted to put up a big "NO VACANCY" sign and burrow into long distance relationships. Logistically, the obvious choice was for me to move to my husband's country, not him to mine, but part of me asked: "Why do I have to make friends...again?"

But seven months later, here I am, making friends...again.

It's dangerous, this friend-making thing.
You love, and then you leave.
Wouldn't leaving be easier, if you didn't love?

One of our new friends here is the Syrian man I mentioned in a previous post. We just met him last month,  and have had him over a couple of times. He's already talking about moving to another country in the fall. I am not sure why we dare make friends with him: it is hard to love people who aren't settled, especially when you aren't settled either. Besides, he's not the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party type that so often attracts friends. He carries a heavy burden, as a man fleeing war-torn country would. His accented English and German blend all together; you have to have patience and a rudimentary knowledge of both languages to understand him.

We should know better than to make friends with him,
but we almost can't help it, I guess. Last week, he showed up at our table with fresh apricots. (Single Eastern male guests are better at bringing hostess gifts than single Western male guests, I have learned. I have even received a Pakistani scarf in exchange for supper one night!) He told us that in Syria they drink apricot juice at Ramadan, which was beginning the next day. He ate a meal and read a Story with us and four others.

A girl at the table asked him a question about his background, and his history started leaking out. We munched our apricots quietly, piling the pits in a dish. He spoke of dreams that gave him direction to come to Europe. His words pooled and sloshed between us, around the apricot pit bowls and Haribo gummies and supper's remains. When the deluge finished, we didn't have much to say, but perhaps the most important part was that we let the story flow, and didn't rush to wipe it up. Indeed, we agreed, God brought him here.

I remembered that day when I first told him that he should give his number to my husband, so that we could keep in touch. He grinned, raised his hands, and said four poignant words, "Finally, I have friends!" That serious, too-old-for-his-years face was brighter than usual, and I couldn't help but wonder if the tide that left him on a European shore did so that he might come to know everlasting Love. He described the bits and pieces of what he has learned of this Faith as, "...something deeper than I have seen before."

At this moment, I'm waiting for the doorbell to ring, expecting another friend, who needs someone to talk to about life right now. Actually, I don't know if I am her friend yet, because this is not warm-blooded, make-friends-in-the-elevator Asiayou must pay your dues as a Bekannter (acquaintance) before being brought into the Freund category. But I think the rules are not so stark in the family of God. Although she must know 100 people in this town better than she knows me, and although she has to struggle to find English words to express herself to me, she asked to come talk. This must mean that she needs a friend, at least today, though she might not toss up her arms with joy, like a Syrian would.

When I look at my move to Europe with the Father's eyes, I realize that maybe the Father moved me not because needed or wanted new friends, but because others did. In the last seven months in Europe we have opened our small apartment and smaller fridge to people of every assortment. We ordered a larger table. We salvaged some extra chairs. We put me to work doing something I can do without strong language skills: making food. My husband said one of the highlights of our first six months together here was his birthday party, when our home filled with faces from ten different nations, people whom we have allowed to become dangerously dear to us. And maybe the Father knew that I needed these new friends more than I thought I did.

Courage looks different in different lives. For our Syrian friend, his courage was demonstrated when he risked death to escape Syria for Europe. For my German friend, speaking a difficult truth to her friend who is walking away from the faith takes a brave heart, as does naming her sin to me and asking for prayer.

But perhaps for me, brave looks more ordinary. Brave is making green tea with ginger and honey for our Syrian friend, and inviting him back again. Brave is letting my heart mingle with my German friend's heart, as she shares her struggle across the table and we pray together. Brave is perfecting my bran muffin and chai latte recipes for another new-to-me person, or befriending internationals who are always going and coming. Brave is loving here, loving now, even when another international move could be in our near future, too (and dwelling on this makes me feel like I might tear into little pieces).

We have such a good friend in our Father. 
Even when I didn't want new friends, 
He knew that they need me, 
and that I need them.

"Do not forsake your friend
or a friend of your family, 
and do not go to your relative's house
when disaster strikes you
better a neighbor nearby 
than a relative far away.

"Now that you have purified yourselves 
by obeying the truth 
so that you have sincere love for each other, 
love one another deeply, from the heart.

"Love never gives up, never loses faith, 
is always hopeful, 
and endures through every circumstance." 

June 07, 2015

a name and a tower

It's 23:11 on the Paris metro. After a long day of seeing nearly every classic Paris postcard shot (and about 10,000 mini Tour d'Eiffel keychains) we're running our index fingers along colourful maps to figure our way back to our hotel.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lanky black lady fit herself into the seat next to me. She's busy on her phone, playing a game where she feeds and washes a poorly-rendered cartoon potato. (You read that correctly.) I look at her more directly and realize that her arms are scarred, and her fingernails have worn, chipped maroon polish, like the hands of a lady who works hard.

A few seats away a man carrying a large toolbox perches on a small seat all by himself. He looks a bit dusty, like he could be a labourer at a construction site. I wonder about the time, Is he just coming home from work now, so late? He's in another world, talking to someone named Mahmod on his phone.

In the metro car ahead of us, loud music starts and teenagers are dancing and yelping. The commotion goes on for 5 or 10 minutes, and when the crowd of teenagers begins to clear, the instigator surfaces. She's a chunky girl travelling with a portable boom box on wheels, jovial as all get out. I wonder at her obvious courage and charisma, to start a dance party with strangers in a public place, and then pester metro travellers for coins.

The Paris metro feeds my curiosity about people and life, with its never-ending procession of people coming and going through its doors. I wonder about their histories, heartaches, hopes....

It's my second time in Paris, and this time I'm less concerned with getting the perfect picture of the Louvre or the city skyline. I have more time to sit on metro seats and park benches and take in the swarms of people. Under the Eiffel Tower it looks and sounds like a gathering from all nations. As does all of Paris: here the Jamaican and African street dancers, there the Lebanese kebab or crepe shops manned by tired-looking immigrants. Here the dolled-up Americans and Brazilians living the dream on the Champs d'Elyses, there an Eastern-looking lady with her hair under wraps, begging for coins. Local school children carry wreaths alongside veterans near the Arc de Triomphe, and I can't help but notice than only a minimal percentage of them "look French" (read: are Caucasian).

Big cities make promises, of fun, of glamour, of riches, of famemillions have gathered in Paris to make good on those promises. No matter how many years we are from Babel, the human heart moves in the same direction:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city,
and a tower whose top is in the heavens;
let us make a name for ourselves,
lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

I see a city pulsating with souls. Small images of God:
...locking padlocks on chain-link bridges to somehow immortalize their mortal love.
...longing to remember and be remembered, and taking pictures of themselves with world-renowned monuments like their lives depend on it.
...pushing their way to the front of the line, or the top of the tower.

I see a city pulsating with souls who choose either their own glory, name or tower, or His glory, His name, His tower. I don't have to look too far to see it; I have seen my own heart, desiring my own glory in the form a me-centered conversation, schedule,

The big city with the big tower can't keep all it has pledged, and there is more disappointment here than there is joy, as always happens when humans set out to seek their own glory.

A few weekends ago we were in a quieter place, hiking in the forest, and a friend of a friend came along. I had never met him before, but we covered a kilometre or two of the hike side-by-side and he told me bits of his story. He is 31, but feels old, because his story is already too long and too complicated.The hike tired him, but this was only because life tired him first: he knows firsthand about being scattered because of others who try to make a name for themselves.

He escaped Syria about two years ago, and couldn't tell his family or friends which day he was leaving. He miraculously made it through an extraordinary number of checkpoints, and has been bouncing around Europe for 18 months now, trying to learn a new language, and starting a new Master's degree. I say a new Master's degree because he already had one such degree and his own business in Damascus. He had no desire to start over in Europe. But neither did he wish to live in a city where death descended too often, where daily goodbyes had to be said like final farewells, because they might be. So he lives somewhat unwillingly here, with a dream of returning to a peaceful Syria.

My companion told me that he is wearied of moving, tired of changing places and stories and languages. He blamed the ongoing war in Syria on bad politics. I told him that deeper than the politics, the problem is the corrupt heart of every man, wanting to build his own tower or kingdom at the expense of others, to make a name for himself, to seek his own glory. I wish I had told him, too, how I abuse my power and dominion in smaller ways, how the sinners are not just the ones killing 130,000+ Syrians, but the two of us, too, wandering on that path under a peaceful canopy of trees.

Until we recognize our personal part in the problem that afflicts all mankind, we will find no solution.

In Europe it's not hard to travel, and while my sister-in-law was here, other than visiting Paris and going hiking, we also visited Strasbourg, France. We took in the gently-flowing canals, bridges with flower boxes, traditional houses and stone streets. I thought: for most of the world, to live in a place like this would be a dream. It is quiet, clean, organized, and gorgeous. It is probably almost as safe as you can get on earth.

But I was not satisfied, even with this city. I wondered to myself, "Why do I stand in the kingdoms  that man has built, unsatisfied? Why, the more sights I see and the more places I visit, do I long more for the strong tower of God? Why am I not satisfied with the hustle, history and heights of Paris, the organized feel of our home city, or the quiet rest of Strasbourg, as so many appear to be?"

Perhaps because in Paris, in a metro station with state-of-the-art scheduling and a brand new train, there is a woman who is wearing a shirt but no pants, spreading a bag of garbage open on the ledge, as a dog would do. On the river promenade in our city, there's a man yelling at his girlfriend, waving his arms violently. In the homes with the lovely flower boxes and traditional wooden trim in Strasbourg, I'm sure there are still divorces, rebellious children, and broken hearts. Indeed, what spoils the beautiful kingdoms of men is the very men who build them, the very men who seek to enjoy them for their own glory. I stand where many come to make a name for themselves, unsatisfied, because I long for these crowds to enter the city with His name, forever.

On a personal note, what can spoil the fineries of Europe for me is that my heart is still plagued with sin. The biggest threat to these beautiful places is in me, I cannot fully enjoy them because I am still in this self-glorifying body of deathI stand under the tower I have built for myself, unsatisfied, because I long to be brought into His strong tower, forever.

As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, "...we were made for another world." Maranathaour Lord, come!

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; 
the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

To Calvary, Lord, in spirit now,
Our weary souls repair,
To dwell upon Thy dying love,
And taste its sweetness there.

Sweet resting place of every heart,
That feels the plague of sin,
Yet knows that deep mysterious joy,
The peace with God, within.

There, through Thine hour of deepest woe,
Thy suffering spirit passed;
Grace there its wondrous victory gained,
And love endured its last.

Dear suffering Lamb! Thy bleeding wounds,
With cords of love divine,
Have drawn our willing hearts to Thee,
And linked our life with Thine.

Thy sympathies and hopes are ours:
Dear Lord! we wait to see
Creation, all below, above,
Redeemed and blest by Thee.

Our longing eyes would fain behold
That bright and bless├Ęd brow,
Once wrung with bitterest anguish, wear
Its crown of glory now.

Why linger then? Come, Savior, come,
Responsive to our call;
Come, claim Thine ancient power, and reign 
The Heir and Lord of all.