Thursday, March 22, 2018

3 Great Books for Hard Days

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There are these signs just a few hundred yards from my apartment.  A stick figure is falling with an exclamation mark above it and what I think/ hope are rocks suspended in the air below its posterior end.  It could be something else, I'm not sure, and while that would be understandable, let's not go there.  My favorite feature has to be the jazz hands.

Every time I pass these signs, though, I kind of nod knowingly, wanting to give this stick person a fist bump and say, "I know how you feel.  I've been there."  This winter has been long.  I was in a sort of funk for all of January at least.  It started when my eldest daughter Jayna went back to college in California almost 6,000 miles away, and I realized that our family would always be different now, that “normal” from here out means she is gone.

Throw in my, er, challenging property manager, my son the house horse living upstairs from a grumpy old man, and other various frustrations, and I was just not feeling myself.  It’s not the worst emotional slump I’ve ever been in, but peace and contentment have been hard to come by.

Last year, I found myself in a similar place — actually, much worse.  After our move here and four months of almost constant sickness, as well as the spinning plates of seven people and all their feelings moving to a new and vastly different country, I was feeling almost completely depleted.  

Thankfully, three books came into my life just when I needed them. And since I know I’m not the only one who’s had hard days, I want to share these books with you, in hopes that they help you as well.

 This is the story of Martin’s undoing — or maybe, rather, redoing.  She and her husband both experienced huge shifts in their careers, finances, family, and living situation, but these changes shook up their understanding of the gospel as well as their places in the world. I’d heard many great things about this book, and I’m usually disappointed by hype, but not this time.  Martin’s writing is clear, honest, and beautiful.  In the first chapter entitled “Get Risky”, she writes about how this sort of life earthquake led to her family “laying down our pet safety nets, redefining success, and welcoming pain and uncertainty with wide-stretched arms.  It meant trading more for less and leaping off the ladder of upward mobility only to hit the dirt and discover we’d had a taste for it all along.”  In the wake of our big move, these words resounded with me.  

Her no-nonsense chapter titles alone — “Redefine Family”, “Have Less”, “Unplan” (which I think was actually written just for me), and “Live Small” — indicate she’s not going to sugarcoat things.  But hers are words I believe, and have for a long time even if I couldn’t say so as eloquently.  I found myself nodding hard, highlighting, and scribbling notes as I read: 

“I want to be captivated. Awestruck. Gobsmacked.  Filled with the wonder of the living God.  I want to hold so loosely to my life, my plans, and my long-held beliefs that they can all be boxed up in minutes, freeing me to follow wherever Jesus leads.”

I knew when I saw this title that it was a book I needed in my life.  First off, “It’s not fair!” was one of my favorite battlecries as I was growing up.  Unfortunately, it was usually met with a retort of, “Yeah, well, life’s not fair.”  And I, always wanting to have the last word, would say, “But you should try to make it fair!”

Secondly, most of my life hasn't been of my own choosing.  I moved a lot more than I wanted to growing up, literally all over the world.  I swore to myself I would never do that to my kids, and then I ended up married to a guy whose job required… moving all over the world.  Oh, the irony.  

Enter It’s Not Fair.  Melanie Dale proves to be the friend you need when you fall hard, when you’re weeping about how unfair it all is.  She welcomes you in with her words, sits you down on her comfiest chair with her coziest blanket — even offers you some food.  She pats your back and says, “I know.  That’s hard.  That hurt bad, didn’t it?”  Once you’ve had your ugly cry — which, somehow, she’s made you laugh through as well — she quietly and kindly says, “Life’s not fair.”  She shares her own heartaches such as her struggle for infertility, and tells stories of others that had me thinking, You know, what I’m going through isn’t so bad after all.

And then, she asks, “But what are you going to do about it?”  I think I highlighted every page toward the end.  I cried (and yeah, still laughed), and most importantly, I was ready to turn off the lights on my pity party (however well-deserved it may or may not have been) and do something.  My favorite line (if I have to pick a favorite), “The life I have now is so unexpected... Within the mystery of this newfound life, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes, I’ve found the one thing I never thought to look for. Joy.”

This is a book I just finished, and I didn’t realize how badly I needed cheering on until I heard myself whispering, “Thank you!” time and again.  (Okay, and also, laughing out loud.)  Whatever you’re going through, she gets it — and probably writes about it.  I felt like I could tell her about the heartaches in my life and she would not only get it but have me cracking up in a few minutes.  I also thought a time or two, Here’s someone at least as crazy as me!

I’m trying to think of a subject Hatmaker doesn’t touch in this book — periods and poop and potty-training, faith and food and fitness are all there — with her signature hilarity and honesty.  Her words about parenting teens hit home just as much as her “How To” guide to potty-training your toddler.  Let me assure you, there aren’t many books that cover parenting for the age-range of my kids! 

She also writes, “People may hate us because of Jesus, but they should never hate Jesus because of us.  The way we treat others should lead them only to one conclusion: ‘If this is how Jesus loves, then I’m in.’”  The temptation — at least for me — when times get hard and forward steps are uncertain, is to sink into bitterness, to crawl into a hole and stare at the world through angry eyes.  I was reminded of my purpose and to step forward in faith and love.  

Friends, if you haven’t already read these books, please do yourself a favor and get your hands on them ASAP.  You might not stop having hard days, but at least you'll have jazz hands. 

I’ll close with this one last quote from Jen Hatmaker’s Of Mess and Moxie just in case you’re in the middle of one of those falling-down days: “We are never defeated, not even when all the evidence appears to the contrary.  If you are still breathing, there is always tomorrow, and it can always be new.”  

Friday, March 16, 2018

Smiling at the Border

“It feels weird to smile here,” said the pretty blonde woman, with hair cropped close around her face and bright blue eyes.  I nodded and said I knew what she meant. 

We had just agreed to a picture swap — I’d take pictures for her, and then she’d snap some for me.  She and her companions were in front of me and about thirty yards behind them was a concrete slab on the ground that signified the border between North and South Korea. As I counted, “One... two... three...” everyone in the four-person group smiled, just as I did with my daughters a minute later. I found myself wondering why.  Was it reflex — that’s what you do in pictures?  Was it just because we were on the free side, with plenty of food in our bellies and the promise of more in just a few hours?

Our day had started early.  As our tour guide outlined the agenda for the day and gave a short history lesson, our bus cruised out of Seoul into a chilly morning where the golden sun was just starting to penetrate the fog.  We approached the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and I was struck again by the beauty of this country we have lived in for the past nineteen months, even in the barrenness of winter.  Gray and white cranes lifted gracefully out of empty rice paddies, and brightly-crested pheasants pecked the ground.  

After a couple of security checkpoints, we were allowed off the bus in Camp Bonifas where we were taken into a meeting room.  The US soldiers handed out forms to sign, stating that we understood we were about to enter “a hostile area, and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”  I’ve signed many permission slips for my kids over the years, but none quite like this.  We were then given a brief presentation on the history and geography of the DMZ and JSA and instructed to use the bathroom if we had any inclination, however faint, as there would be no opportunities till we returned.  Then we were loaded onto another bus and driven to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

At this point, an American soldier took over as guide, answering questions and giving us more information.  When we got to the JSA, we went into a large gray cement building, where our guide told us to form two single file lines.  He then told us that under no circumstances were we to stop until he said so. “Eyes forward at all times.  Do not make any gestures toward the North, nor any sudden movements.  Do not bend over.  If your shoes come untied, figure out how not to trip on the laces.  If you drop something, it’s just gone.”  

This was a little stressful since I frequently drop things, but I felt grateful for my boots because if I did have lace-up shoes on, I’m sure that I would have become a cautionary tale.  My daughters, who I had positioned in front of me so I could see them the whole time, glanced back at me nervously.  I raised my eyebrows and shrugged.  No turning back now.  We walked across through the doors and down the steps toward the low blue buildings I’d seen in so many pictures.  Right in front of us was North Korea.  

Soon we were in the famous room where meetings between the two countries have taken place.  Once again we were given a speech about what was permitted and what wasn’t — for instance, taking a picture with the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldier standing on the North Korea side of the room was allowed, as long as we didn’t touch him and maintained at least six inches distance from him.

We took our pictures and were outside again within minutes where we were given about the same amount of time to take more pictures.  This is when the blonde woman made the comment about smiling.

We never saw a KPA soldier or anyone from the North Korean side, though as we looked at the building, we saw one of the doors move slightly.  It was strange to think about the people working there, so close to freedom, yet finding it so intangible.

Then, we reformed our single-file lines and hurried back to the bus for the drive back to Camp Bonifas.  Someone asked a question about how often our soldier guide had seen KPA soldiers, and he said he’d only seen about twenty, ever.  “What you don’t realize, though, is that they’re there and they are watching you with machine guns trained on you.  Just now, while you were standing outside, you probably had at least a dozen machine guns pointed right at you.”

Words like those stay with you a while. 

We returned to Camp Bonifas and visited the museum 

as well a small temple. 

From there, we went to Tunnel 3 (pictures prohibited), one of four discovered tunnels built with the purpose of being able to invade South Korea. More are rumored to exist, but their location is unknown.  The lower we went, the lower the ceiling was, so that at one point, I was bent over to keep from bumping my head.  Every dozen or so feet, there was a box filled with gas masks.  At the top, there was a shop full of snacks and souvenirs.  

Next, we visited Dora Observatory, 

where we could see across the border again, as propaganda messages from both sides and music blared on loudspeakers.  In the distance was Peace Village on the North Korean side which is believed to be empty buildings, with its enormous (525 ft) flagpole and flag (dry weight almost 600 lbs!). 


That was the word that kept repeating in my mind as I took in the sights.  We boarded the bus again to go to Imjingak, site of the Bridge of Freedom where 13,000 POWs returned to their countries as well as the Peace Bell, which we were told we could ring seven times for about $10.  (Our tour guide informed us she found this price a little steep.) There was also an old locomotive completely riddled with bullet holes, and into the chain link fence topped with concertina wire, there were tied ribbons with wishes and prayers of reunification.

 Here we would have lunch before returning to Seoul. 

As we approached Imjingak, I noticed kites flying high, dancing on the wind. The bus rounded a curve, I realized there was not just a park here, but an amusement park. 

The tour guide told us this was called Peace Land.  Of course, I found myself thinking.  Of course.  

On the way back into Seoul, I scrolled through the pictures I’d taken and came across the ones from the JSA, remembering the words “It feels weird to smile here.” On the one hand, yes it did.  There are times when I have to just stop reading a news article or story about North Korea, because I feel sick to my stomach. And I was there at the border to that country; I had stepped into it.  

But it would seem weirder, I think, if I hadn’t been living here for the past year-and-a-half.  Because I’ve come to realize this is what South Koreans do every day.  

Every so often, I’ll wake up to messages from friends and family stateside asking, “How are you?”  First I think how sweet that they’d ask.  I start composing replies — well, the kids are fighting colds right now, and I have a bunch of meetings plus that craft day for an upcoming fundraiser — then think, Hm, maybe I’ll check the news.  And according to the reports I read, we are on the brink of catastrophe.  I ask my husband something along the lines of, “Um, should I be packing?”

Then I see my Korean friends and neighbors, living their lives just as they did the day before.  In spite of families being torn apart for decades now, in spite of the threat of a war that could kill millions, they’re still smiling.   They’re creating, celebrating, living, loving.

Back in the summer of 1986, when I was just shy of eight, my family went to Berlin and we visited the Berlin Wall.  I will never forget the sight of it, how tall and imposing it seemed with the guards carrying machine guns posted along it.  Then, three years later, I couldn’t believe when the newspapers and tv showed pictures of the wall coming down, hands reaching to each other from both sides, people embracing as they wept happy tears.  I hope that someday soon this happens here, too.

And so I smile.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Playing Favorites: Ulsan Grand Park

If you’ve ever thought about getting a dog and read about what breeds would be most compatible for your lifestyle, you’ve probably come across words like, “Very active, need space, not suitable for apartment living.”  They’re usually used for large dogs like labs... but honestly, could also be used on to describe my son.  He's the child equivalent of a ninety-five pound labrador retriever.  (And similarly lovable.)

At six, Wyatt's wearing size 7/8 clothes and his personality seems even bigger than his size.  He loves to move, whether it’s running, jumping, tumbling, or dancing.  So these days, when it’s been so cold, I feel like we’re constantly telling him to stop doing all those things — basically to stop being him.  And when I think about the things that have been hard about moving to Korea, moving him into an apartment remains one of the most challenging.  

I remember making dinner one night at our house in Hawaii, and he was playing outside by the lanai, digging a hole with our dog.  When I went to call him inside, he was dirty from head to toe.  “Wyatt!” I remember saying with a tone of despair.  He just looked me square in the eye and said, “I like dirt, Mom.”  As he should, I guess! 

We had a huge open area in front of our home with a playground I could see from our living room and a drainage ditch that had toads (*shudder*) and minnows in it.  There were trees to climb and loads of space to just run without bothering anyone.  And then we moved into an apartment in a big, busy city.

There’s a small playground on the property we go to sometimes, but to get to the playgrounds where our friends are (and where there’s more room), we have to walk across two parking lot driveways that have cars zipping in and out of them and two busy streets with drivers that sometimes respect the crossing signals, dodging the motos that drive down the sidewalks as we go.  (Related: this article about South Korean pedestrian death rates). Add to all that the fact that we have a downstairs neighbor who actually growls when we say hello in the elevator.  We’ve made it this far with a whole lot of prayer, a few unholy words, and my well-practiced Death Glare at certain drivers, but I can’t lie: it’s not easy.

Fortunately, since most people in Korea live in apartments, the playgrounds, children’s cafes, outdoor spaces, and parks here are pretty amazing.  And my favorite semi-local excursion has to be Ulsan Grand Park.  We discovered it for the first time early in the fall, and I wish we’d known about it sooner!  It takes almost an hour all told to get there, but on the weekends, that’s just far enough to feel like we really went somewhere, and it’s just about the best place I can think of to go. 

It’s huge, for starters, with lovely wide paved pathways.  We quickly learned that we needed to take the kids’ scooters or skates,
 but you can also rent bikes there for a reasonable fee.  After carrying Annalee back to the car asleep once from just about the furthest point in the park, we also take the stroller! 

 The landscaping is beautiful,
 and there are a few hills with hiking trails that we haven’t even investigated yet because... there is SO MUCH else to do! Now that it’s warming up a little, we’ve been visiting it regularly.  We playground hop, which gives Matt and I a chance to talk while the kids run wild.  One playground has ramps for biking or scootering, a rock wall, 
and lots of sand to dig in.  I asked Wyatt what he was doing here, 
and he said, “Just... making something beautiful.”  (Be still my heart!). A little further down the path, there’s another playground with a huge roller slide.  
The kids get such a kick out of this!

There’s also an enormous spray park (only in summer, though), and another “traffic park” which sounds awful because of the “t” word but is really cool.
  It’s set up like roads with real — though slightly smaller — traffic signs, a “train” crossing

 and overhead walkway,

 a roundabout, and even a tunnel.  
Lilly, Wyatt, and Annalee can — and do — spend ages there with every visit. 
Just a little further down the path, there’s an amazing ropes playground 
and another with those giant bouncy “pillows” on the ground. 
 The kids can jump 

— and jump and jump and jump —

 and I don’t have to tell him to stop. 

 And then... there’s yet another giant playground with a little of everything — rock walls and climbing structures and more.  

There are several convenience stores scattered through the park (because Korea) where you can pick up snacks, and picnic tables — both Western style and “traditional” where you’d spread out a mat and sit in the ground — to eat at.
 All this is free, except for a nominal parking fee (less than three bucks), but if you cough up a little money (a couple more dollars), you get access to a stunning rose garden and even a small zoo. 

When I took this picture, Wyatt reassured me: “Don’t worry, Mom, it’s not real.” Whew! ;-)

Bonus: entertaining signage.

At the end of our trips to Ulsan Grand Park, I come home feeling like maybe I’m not such a bad mom after all.   Instead of having a day full of “No! Stop!”, we’ve had a day of “Yes!” and “Why not?”  My kids are happy and tired, and they have spent the day running, jumping, dancing, yelling — in other words, the kinds of things kids absolutely should do, wherever they live.