Monday, December 14, 2020

Home Sweet... Arkansas?!?!

“Sorry. Something is wrong with this card. Please contact your bank and try again later.”

As I read these words on the Airbnb website, panic gripped me.  We never carry a balance, so it was definitely not maxed out, and I had just used it to make my reservation the day before without problems. Here I was, trying to extend my stay, and this message appeared. It had to mean my credit card had been hacked.  

I was in the midst of traveling, trying to figure out where we were going to live next.  Where would I even get a replacement sent? Who had hacked it? I  took a shaky breath and prayed, dialing my bank’s number.

“There’s nothing wrong with the card,” the customer service representative told me a few minutes later. “The transaction should work.  I’ve even put a pre-approval on the charge.”

Feeling relieved, I went back and tried again. And again. And again. I called Airbnb, and when I finally got through to someone there, they insisted it was my bank.  I tried calling my bank again.  I tried my “emergency back-up” card and got the same message. Around and around we went, until finally at about midnight, I was so exhausted, I gave up.  I woke up feeling stressed at six, four hours before we were supposed to check out, and tried again.  Same message.

I suddenly had the thought, Maybe I’m supposed to leave...

I was at a small apartment in San Antonio at the time, after those couple days in Austin, where I had spent the past two days looking at houses all over the city.  My parents were on their way back to California after accompanying us on our drive eastward.  

Texas made a lot of sense.  Matt and I had talked for ages about where we would live post-Navy, and Texas — where they don’t tax military retirement, there’s lots of job opportunities for veterans, housing prices are pretty reasonable, and in San Antonio especially, there are lots of bases for medical care and commissary access — seemed like an excellent fit.  I don’t even know how many houses I’d looked at, trying to get a feel for the area. I’d seen a few I liked okay, but none that I felt compelled to move on. The realtor was supposed to show me houses in Boerne the next day, so I’d made arrangements with the Airbnb owner to extend my stay.  But this apparent glitch was impassable. Finding a decently-rated pet-friendly hotel that didn’t cost a fortune was not going well either, and after our horrible first night of travel I didn’t want to stay somewhere I felt truly unsafe again.

With this thought that maybe God was pointing me elsewhere, I messaged my friend Erica.  She and her husband had been good friends of ours in Busan, and we’d had a long phone conversation a couple months earlier about what it’s like moving back to the States (particularly Texas) from Korea.  She had said to let her know when we got to Texas and come stay with them, and I’d planned to, but had also planned to give her a little more warning!  Instead, I said something like, “Hey, you know how you invited us? Is today okay???”  (Insert face-palm emoji).  As we were scrambling to get out the door that morning by our 10 am checkout, I couldn’t have felt more messy and chaotic.  We were like a traveling circus, complete with dancing dogs.

Fortunately, these are some of the best people in the world.  They welcomed us warmly with hugs and gave us an incredibly comfortable place to stay.  I didn’t realize how tense I’d been at the Airbnb until that night when I fell into the super comfy bed and slept like a rock.  We spent almost two weeks there, and I mean this honestly: it was a taste of heaven.  We had the best talks about life and faith and struggles, we laughed and cried, we sang worship songs, and the kids all played hard together every, from sun-up to sundown.

They live on a 5-acre farm where there are chickens and bunnies, 

and Erica has a huge vegetable garden.  I’ve always wanted to be a good gardener (there’s a difference between wanting to be one and actually being one, but hey, I’m working on it), so I worked beside her and think/ hope I learned a few things.   For one thing, I learned when you’re at a point of not knowing where you’re going next or what you’re going to do, gardening and manual labor is the most therapeutic thing you can do!  The kids loved helping take care of the animals and doing “farm chores,” having good friends to play with, and the whole time was incredibly precious to all of us.

We also looked at several houses in that area (Georgetown, Round Rock, etc), and it was there that Matt finally joined us.  But as wonderful as it all was, we still just felt that we shouldn’t move on anything yet.  Matt’s sister had moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, seven years ago and loved it.  His mom moved there from California  in March of this year after several visits during which time she had fallen in love with the area.  Matt and I wanted to visit her and catch up, so we said, “We have some time and don’t need to rush into a decision.  Let’s go spend some time with Mom.”  

My first morning in Arkansas, I went for a long walk in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood thinking about everything that had happened and what we were doing.  It was my first time really being alone in ages.  The sun shone brightly that day, and there were hills and trees everywhere and such clean air — something I do not take for granted at all after four years in Korea where the air is usually very polluted. I had such a mix of emotions.  I really wanted Texas to work out, I wanted to be able to live near our friends, but I also felt unsettled. It was what made a lot of sense, but for some reason my heart was drawing me to something else. 

Matt had asked me so many times, “Where do you want to live?”  I couldn’t tell him exactly, but I had these images in my mind that I tried to articulate and make sense of.  We both wanted to be somewhere that had a reasonable cost of living. I wanted lots of hiking or biking trails available as those activities, I believe, are some of the things that kept me hanging onto my sanity by however thin a thread during the intense lockdown we went through last spring.  Even though we lived near the ocean for almost all of Matt’s career, being able to walk and get outside was more critical to me than access to the beach.  

Also, I know I’ve complained a lot about winter at times, but living in Korea, where there were four distinct seasons, I knew that was something I wanted.  As much as I may hate being cold, there are good things about it.  After a childhood in the tropics, watching the world around me bed down for winter and then come back to life in the spring is a miracle that blows my mind every year.  

When I pictured our life post-Navy, I thought of somewhere kind of like Nashville and kind of like Austin, a town with a definite culture and individuality to it, not just a bland collection of subdivisions and strip malls, the kind of place that had a charming downtown and an identity of its own.  I definitely wanted plenty of trees around.  I wanted relatively low crime after having lived in places in extremely scary places, as well as super safe Korea. 

I considered all this that first day in Arkansas as I walked and walked, listening to music and praying.  I had no idea how we were going to get to where we wanted, or even where that was, or even that it existed.  I felt pretty lost and uncertain.

A couple days later, my mother-in-law suggested that we drive to Fayetteville as there was a college there Skyler might be interested in, and we’d looked at several colleges on our journey eastward. “It’s also a really cute town,” she added.

In the spirit of “why not?”, we all hopped in the car for the hour drive northward.  The drive up through the wooded hills on I-49 was breathtaking.  We wound through valleys with beautiful farms and rocky streams, and small towns dotted the hillsides.  Our directions took us straight into the heart of downtown Fayetteville, and we were immediately enchanted.  It was like the setting of a Hallmark movie.  The wooded hills were just beginning to show fall color, and there was a charming downtown.  The college campus was beautiful too.  

We found we couldn’t stay away.  A few days later, we decided to go back and check it out some more.  

My mother-in-law had a magazine that described the Razorback Greenway, a system of biking and hiking trails that course through the city and up to Bentonville.  We saw how beautiful the trail was, passing along crystal clear creeks and shaded by trees. We actually started looking at houses (again, “Why not?”), and found a fixer-upper that we put in a low-ball offer on (it needed a TON of work).  That offer was rejected, but we were hooked.  This was exactly the kind of place I had been picturing.  To our surprise, we learned that it drew comparisons from people who knew about it to both Nashville and Austin, but it also has its own “funky Fayetteville” vibe.  And when I pointed out things that were “wrong” with Fayetteville — for instance, the lack of military bases and support they would provide — Matt disagreed. He loved it too.

Meanwhile, we were falling more and more in love with all of northwest Arkansas.  Every time we went out for a drive or a hike, we found ourselves ever more enchanted by the forests, the rocky streams, the lakes, and the quaint towns.  How could such a beautiful place exist but not have thousands of people crawling all over it???

It felt a little like we’d stumbled upon buried treasure.  Did others not know? Was there something terrible we just weren’t seeing?  Then, quite by accident, Skyler came across an article that listed Fayetteville as one of the top five places to live in the United States. Maybe we weren’t so crazy!
After a couple more days of intense house hunting, we narrowed it down to two choices.  Since we thought we liked them equally, we decided to put an offer on one, then if it was rejected, offer something on the other.  

Our first offer was accepted, and we were elated.  The only thing was, the sellers had a contingency offer on another house, but they didn’t anticipate it being an issue.  It looked like a done deal.  They’d get back to us the next day.  We went to bed happy. At last we’d have a home.

But after just a few hours of sleep, I woke up absolutely panicked.  My heart was racing, and I lay in bed, wide awake, for hours.  Something was wrong with that house, and even though I could think of many things that seemed great, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we shouldn’t go through with the purchase.  I lay there praying the hours away, begging God that if at all possible, He would get us out of the deal, and if not, He would give me peace about it.  I knew that sometimes when I’m doing something stressful, I get panicky and anxious, but this seemed more than that, especially when I finally dozed off and woke up feeling just as panicked.  Usually the morning light has a way of brightening up anything that seemed particularly awful at 3 am.

I texted my parents in the morning, pouring my heart out, trying to make sense of my anxiety. I had just hit “send” when my phone rang, and it was the realtor.  The house that the sellers were trying to buy had accepted another offer, and they didn’t want to sell without another place secured, so we were no longer held to the deal.  Mind you, I had not said anything to the realtor about my misgivings, this “just happened.”  I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.  

My mom called me a little later and told me that she, too, had been awake for hours, feeling deeply burdened to pray.  I had also texted my “soul sister” in California whom I’d kept informed during the whole journey, and when she wrote back, she said, “That’s so weird, I was awake for hours last night praying for you.  I felt this weird heaviness about that house.”  By this point, I had goosebumps on my arms.  My mother-in-law came in after getting up later than usual, saying she hadn’t slept well.  We filled her in on what had happened and she told me that the reason she hadn’t slept was that she had also been awake for hours praying for us.  

We hit pause for a couple days, and did some research, prayer, and thinking.  Finally, we decided to put in an offer on the other house, a sort of “putting the fleece out” bid.  It was accepted!  Matt and I had actually loved this house more but had initially thought the other house, with its finished basement, would be good for the kids or guests.  This house was almost exactly the same size and had a huge, beautiful yard, plenty of space, and was in a lovely neighborhood. We were all so excited.

Fast forward several weeks, and we signed the papers and walked into our new home in Fayetteville!  The kids ran through it, exploring every corner, exclaiming with excitement, then ran outside to explore the garden.  I was taking a video to send to our family in California when Skyler came in and said that our new neighbors were outside meeting the kids.  I’d been worried about how we’d meet neighbors.  Other times I’ve moved it’s been literally months before I met the neighbors, and that wasn’t even in 2020.  

I went out to say hi, and the very first words they said to me were, “We’re so excited to meet you!  We’ve been praying for whoever would buy this house!”  As we talked more (for at least an hour), I shared a little of what we had been through, and they told me with certainty in their voices, “This is where you belong.  God was saving the house for you.”

I’ll let you guess if I cried!

So we have house (!!!), but there are many questions still.  This has been one of our biggest leaps of faith, truth be told, and as hard as it is some days to trust, I have hope that there is a plan here that I’m getting tiny glimpses of.  As I have taken this time to reflect on all that happened over the past several months and how we got to where we are, I can see God’s hand guiding, protecting, and providing the whole way.  I’ve felt overwhelmed by the kindness of people who were truly acting in love. 

The day we traveled from Korea to California, Skyler said something that really stayed with me.  That day had been the cause of much stress and probably several new gray hairs.  But it blew me away to see how people ended up being so kind, from construction workers in the Seattle airport who helped us with our dogs during our layover, to the Delta employee who waived our pet fees for the second flight, and so much more.  At the end of the day, Sky said, “You know, every stressful moment of today ended up being an opportunity for us to witness someone’s kindness and God’s goodness.”  

May that be the theme of my life, both in what I see and how I act toward others.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Headed East

The summer I turned seven, my family came back from Bangladesh for a year and lived in Berkeley, California (talk about culture shock!!).  That was the summer of my first great American road trip, an institution I’ve grown to love more and more as I get older.

What is so vivid in my mind from that summer was that I absolutely fell in love with America.  I’d been here a handful of times prior, but I was at the age when I noticed things more.  Everywhere seemed amazing — not just your standard tourist destinations like the Empire State Building or Mt. Rushmore, but all of it.  I loved the rolling green hills in Wisconsin and the ranch where we spent a few days in South Dakota.  I was enchanted by the desert towns of the southwest and loved the time we spent with my aunt in Houston, Texas. 

But with this love came a heartbreak every time we had to leave a place to go somewhere new.  I had fallen completely for wherever it was that we were, and I didn’t want to move on.  My parents had to practically drag me away, literally in tears, then sulking, until we arrived at the next destination where I found a new adventure and fell in love all over again.  

Thirty something years later, I realized how little had changed, at least in some ways.

During our twenty years in the Navy  we were told where we were going and when.  Sometimes it was exactly where we wanted to go (like his junior officer tour when we lived three years in Spain), and sometimes it was a total surprise (oh hello, Korea!).  Most of the time, we didn’t have much warning at all. When we moved to Hawaii  we had less than three weeks between when he found out for sure he was going to be working there and when he had to arrive. 

But now, the decision is ours to make, and come to find out, it’s quite disorienting.  

Over the years as we bounced the idea of retirement around, we came up with certain criteria for where we wanted to live.  Unfortunately, though California is where much of our family currently resides, this criteria scratched it from the list.  We felt that Texas or east of it would be good.

But when I arrived in California from Korea and spent the month of August soaking in time with family (and “framily”) and spending time on the coast by Monterey which is a favorite place for us, it was crushingly hard to think about leaving.  Even as so much of the state caught on fire and ash fell from the sky and smoke choked our throats, I was just loving the familiarity and comfort of all the people I loved around me.  

Finally, after Matt had left Korea and was in Washington state doing his final checkout work, it was time to go.  I would leave the day after Labor Day so I could be with my sister’s family for my niece’s birthday.  My parents very graciously volunteered to come with us (though they would leave a day later due to appointments and catch up with us in Phoenix).  

The smoke had made the sky look orange all that weekend, and it was stiflingly hot (111 Fahrenheit) with threats of blackouts as California often does in the summer.  I mean, California could hardly have looked worse, but it was still heartbreaking to leave my sweet sister and her family.  

Okay, I’m trying to think of a graceful way to say this, but... “Staying home” was not an option for us since we had no home. However safety was a very high priority to us.  While planning the trip with my dad  who is in a high risk category if he catches Covid due to a few health issues  we firmly stated what we would do to stay safe and keep others safe as well.  I told him several times I could go alone if necessary, but he is used to traveling extensively every year, so he actually really wanted the adventure.  Our standards were much like what we were doing our final months in Korea — lots of hand washing and sanitizing, masks always at the ready and worn whenever we went inside or close to people , very limited inside time (for instance, just what needed to be done at rest areas, grocery stores, and gas stations — no dine-in restaurants), only activities such as hikes that lent themselves easily to social distancing, and because I’m a germaphobe since before Covid-times, I wiped down every surface of the hotel rooms we stayed in with disinfecting wipes.  Bottom line: we did the very best we could to keep ourselves and others safe.

Anyway. Now back to the story.

Our first night we spent at a hotel in Bakersfield.  I was most stressed about this night, one of two nights when I’d be traveling without my parents.  If you don’t know, Bakersfield is pretty high crime, and as I made the reservation, I read reviews that weren’t good.  It’s already stressful when you’re a woman traveling alone with kids, but my anxiety was high knowing I had to stay there.  I just couldn’t figure out another pet-friendly place to stay further down the road as options were extremely limited since I was traveling with my dogs and needed a pet-friendly hotel and many hotels were full of evacuees from all the fires.  

My fears were not unfounded.  I’m not going to say the name of where we stayed, because I don’t want my blog to be about that, but even though it was a 3-star hotel, it was absolutely terrible — literally drug deals happening beside my car in the parking lot as I loaded my car in the morning.  The whole day had a weird, eerie feel to it, like la dystopian movie, as I drove into the Tehachapi Pass through the smoke and south toward L.A. 

And as I’ve mentioned, not only was I traveling with four of my five kids (Jayna was starting college again) and most of the luggage we have (I did leave some at my sister’s), I also had my two dachshunds, Mabel and Milo.  Every stop we made was a choreography of logistics: who would go to the bathroom first, who would stay with the dogs, how we would get food.  We had unexpected delays and detours and couldn’t stop to eat anywhere due to the smoke, COVID laws, and dogs.  Every meal was eaten in the car and was a battle with gluttonous Milo who will fight you for your food and shamelessly steal from even the youngest member of your family.  There was so much screaming, yelling, and chaos.

Don’t judge, but dinner that night was hummus and carrot sticks and chocolate Frosties from Wendy’s.  I mean, sometimes you’ve just got to survive.  After the longest day of driving ever, we finally staggered into our hotel in Phoenix after 9 pm (this Red Lion Inn and Suites that I cannot recommend enough!) and upon learning that the pool was open till ten, we put on our bathing suits and headed out for a swim.  It was just us out there, and it was exactly what everyone needed after a long day in the car.

I finally got the kids settled down, and we were soon all fast asleep in our much more comfortable and safe hotel room.  In the morning, I was the first one awake.  I lay in bed for a while, thinking how hard it was to be heading to a place completely unknown.  Yes, I knew where I’d be going with my parents and what days we’d be there, but when they headed back to California, it was just us with an unknown destination and unknown date to meet up with Matt, probably in Austin.  For a few minutes, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed, then got up with a shaky breath to work out and get started on the day.  

But breakfast was served safely and everything cleaned frequently and meticulously by the very kind hotel staff. I went out to load the car and there were no drug deals happening in the parking lot there, just a beautiful blue sky overhead with wispy clouds.  We met up with my parents with Thai takeout in a park, and everything felt exponentially better and better.  

That afternoon we ended up at Saguaro National Park and did a little hike before dinner in the picnic area at sunset.  We drove into the beautiful night and stayed in Sierra Vista.  The next day, we went to Tombstone for a little while, then drove to El Paso, where we stayed at this hotel which again impressed me with its cleanliness and safety standards. 

My dad, who loves to plan travel, had laid out our route days before, and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We turned off of I-10 at Van Horn and drove south through Marfa and Alpine.  

We spent that night in Del Rio, and then in the afternoon of the next day, drove into the Texas Hill Country toward Austin.  Dad and Mom took us on little driving detours through Bandera and Comfort, where we fell in love with the enchanting rivers and things like cowboy boots on fence posts and the charming downtowns.  That night we got to our hotel in Austin.  I didn’t have answers to all my questions about the future, and I still don’t have them all almost three months later.  But we’d had tons of fun.  We saw incredible beauty and blue skies, listened to good podcasts and The Secret Garden as we drove. My heart had craved the wide open vistas during all that time in very densely populated Korea.  I actually loved our roadside dinners in the picnic areas that Texas has along its roads.  It was so much better with the kids, letting them run around instead of asking them to sit quietly in a restaurant like we normally do on road trips.  I’m happy to report that my parents made it home safe and healthy.  I will always be grateful to them for coming along and for showing me, yet again, that wherever we go, adventure is waiting.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Our Big Life Update

My older sister and I pulled out of the church parking lot that night.  I’d just spent a couple amazing hours standing there on the asphalt talking to this amazing guy who made me laugh until I cried, made me feel normal, like I belonged, like I was home.  I had this strange ache in my chest, like I was leaving somewhere wonderful.  I took a deep breath and told my sister, “If I don’t marry that guy Matt, I want to marry someone just like him.” 

I didn’t think much about how crazy that might have sounded because I was young and you say crazy things when you’re young.  But a little more than three years later, that dream actually came true.  Matt and I married and started our adventure.  We lived in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment, and being in college and grad school still, we had almost no money.  Sometimes, on paydays, we’d drive to an hour and a half west to San Francisco, and we always ended up at the airport, sitting in a little parking lot at the end of the runway, watching jets soar over our heads and into the sky as we dreamed about where we’d go someday.

Eight weeks ago, I landed on the runway we used to sit by.  I’ve landed there several times, of course, over the years, and every time, I feel a rush of emotion and gratitude. Those poor college/ grad students sure got to go a lot of places and see some huge dreams come true.  But this was different.  I was coming back from Korea for the last time.

Early this year, pre-lockdown and everything, Matt and I made the decision together to retire from the Navy at the twenty-year mark.  We’ve been talking for years about when would be the right time, and after a lot of prayer and consideration, we decided this was the year. So in August, I left Korea with our kids and two dogs.  Matt left four weeks later, and after outprocessing (and two weeks’ quarantine) in Washington, he joined us about a week ago.  

I get messages pretty frequently asking where we are and what the plan is.  We don’t really have a plan.  Any plan we may have had when we first decided this has been pretty well tossed out the window along with the plans of most other people in 2020, right? Friends who retired in 2019 took fun vacations, and that would have been great, but... here we are.  Matt’s last official day in the Navy isn’t till the end of the year, so we have a bit of time.  We are thinking, praying, looking, waiting.  

We took these pictures literally two minutes before I hopped in the car to go to the airport back in August.  Looking back on our years together, these words have proven so true.  I couldn’t have imagined the story that would be written about our relationship this far.  It’s been more fun and happiness than I could have dreamed up.  But I also think what Jon Acuff wrote: “The words ‘easy’ and ‘adventure’ very rarely travel together.”  We’ve definitely had a fair share of tears and craziness, wondering, “How will this turn out?”  

The same has been true for the past two months.  If I tried to tell you everything is perfectly peachy and wonderful and I’m handling everything like a total champ right now, there are at least ten people that could — and arguably should —call me a liar and remind me of the times I’ve cried on their shoulders in the past two months because I. Like. Plans.  I like knowing where I’m going. It’s hard for me to move when I don’t know which way to go.  Uncertainty can feel terrifying.  

I’ve looked at towns and cities and houses and wondered, Is this where we are going to live?  Could I be happy here?  And in most places, I’ve imagined us being happy, because one thing I’ve learned in twenty years as a Navy wife is how to make a life for yourself wherever you are.  But the only answer we have so far is to wait — which for me, it is a teeth-gnashing exercise of patience, faith, and prayer.

But I will tell you this: when I was having a mini-breakdown and crying in my friends’ driveway the day Matt was going to rejoin us (side note: thank God for great friends — more on this later!), they both told me, “It’s going to get so much better, though, once Matt gets here.”  And they were right.  Just knowing that wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we’re together, has made it so much more fun and tolerable.

Anyway, when it comes to talking about what’s going on in my life, I tend to spill everything heavily on a few people’s shoulders but otherwise clam up until I have clear picture to show it all tied up neatly with a bow.  But the older I get, the more I realize life rarely gives you that moment of perfect clarity.  

To be fair, I’ve been crazy busy with the minutiae of setting up life on this side of the Pacific (hello, new phones, new car, etc), soaking up precious time with loved ones, and doing some necessary travel.  But since this is such a weird year for everyone, I thought I’d share a little more of the story before I know how it turns out.

Here’s what I know. 

~ Right now, we are at Matt’s mom’s place in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  It’s incredibly beautiful here, more so than I remembered from driving through in times before.  We’re having a great time especially since Matt didn’t get to see her much these past few years.  

~ I’ve had some really precious family time.  Besides this time now, getting to spend my birthday with parents and sister, spending an afternoon doing nothing but watching my kids play on a beach in California, having time to just be still and watch my kids pass an afternoon being kids — it’s been so special. 

~ God has been so good.  I have a whole ‘nuther post, maybe even a book eventually, to write about this time — and also my twenty years as a Navy wife — but I’ve had several moments of being moved to tears, or blown away, just because I see that even now, God is showing His goodness and grace through the precious gift of people around me.  When I get to feeling overwhelmed, I have my big cry, and then I remember all the little things that point to this: He is good.

~ There is no one I’d rather be on this adventure with than Matt.  He makes me laugh, he keeps us going, he sees clearly and quickly what needs to be done and does it.  

The parking lot where we used to sit and dream closed after 9/11.  But in a lot of ways, I think we are still there, looking up at the sky and talking about all the craziest ideas, waiting to take off.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Our Epic Night in Vegas

You’ve probably seen that survey going around Facebook recently where you list ten things you don’t like that other people seem crazy about.  Here are a few that would be on my list.

  1. Beer. Gross.
  2. Chickens.  I just do not understand the whole keeping chickens thing at all.  Their creepy, scaly feet and wobbly combs give me the heebie jeebies.  When I was growing up in Bangladesh, I was around chickens frequently (though we never had any), and I was permanently scarred by how disgusting and stupid they are.  I mean, one chicken poops, and another comes along and pecks at its poop looking for, I don’t know, food?  No thank you!  As an adult, I’ve had many friends who keep them, and even the biggest fans have told me chicken dramas that assure me that I don’t need them in my life.  My favorite story is of a chick that was supposed to be a hen turning out to be a rooster.  The best part is, they’d named him “Princess,” and Princess had a murderous nature, chasing the family out of their own beautiful yard, and raining terror on the UPS guy.  Other friends have told me about broody hens who ate their own eggs, and then they had to do intervention and some sort of chicken therapy.  Who has time for this?!?!  NO.  Just no.
  3. Las Vegas.

Oooh, I know at least half of you reading are already mad at me, yelling at your screens, “HOW DARE YOU?!”  Some are probably rolling your eyes, maybe calling me Debbie Downer or the fun police. But I’m begging you to just hear (er, read?) me out for a second.

I’ve disliked Vegas since my first memory of it.  We stopped for lunch at some big casino there on a cross-country road trip when I was ten, and it was so gaudy and depressing, it seemed to color the actual air.  I kept trying to give it another chance at intervals through the years, but I’ve never been able shake the initial impression that everything is a cheap copy of a much better original.  All is for sale but worth nothing.

Despite my severe dislike for the place, we ended up there for one, unforgettable night.  It was the summer we moved to Korea, when I put 6,000 miles on our rental car.  We had promised our kids a day at a water park as part of the trip, and to be fair, Vegas had a pretty cool one.  It was sort of our final hurrah before I dropped off Matt in Los Angeles, so that he could fly to the East Coast for his training while the kids and I continued our adventures.  

If I recall correctly, it was 112 degrees Fahrenheit that day.  I opted out of the water park with Annalee because I wasn’t sure what they had for little ones, and I sure didn’t want to spend the day baking in the sun.  Instead, she and I shopped a little and had lunch, then picked the others up in the afternoon.  I wanted to keep driving, but Matt and the others were tired, so I gave in and we got a hotel for the night.  I don’t remember if it was Hotwire or Priceline, but we used one of the websites where you don’t know quite what you’re getting until you have it and booked two rooms.  

It was a hotel we hadn’t heard of, so we followed the GPS directions into the city.  We could see the famous hotels and off sort of away from them was this hotel standing tall into the sky, adorned with an enormous — and I mean, truly, several stories high and several rooms wide — picture of a woman’s bare legs lifted skyward, playfully kicking off a pair of red high heels.  

“Classy,” I remarked, and Matt half-joked, “Watch, I bet that’s our hotel.”  He was right.

Oh, but it kept getting better.  

The parking garage was one of the most stressful we had parked in prior to Korea.  We finally got inside the hotel and checked in by a row slot machines, thereupon discovering that our rooms were several floors apart.  Slightly annoyed already, we piled all seven of us into an elevator with a few other people, and punched in the numbers for the floors.  What followed was an elevator ride so terrifying it could have been an amusement park attraction.  It slowly shimmied its way up the building, shaking so violently at intervals and — I’m not exaggerating — bouncing till we gasped and clutched the hand rails, and one woman in the elevator even screamed a little.  We decided to all get out at the floor with the first room, and somehow we lost the gumption to split up and go further on the Elevator of Doom to the second room.  Exhausted, everyone fell asleep early watching some stupid show on one of the two channels we had, either on the floor (I know, gross) or piled into one of the two full-size beds.  That’s right, seven of us.

Around midnight, our room began to literally throb with the music of some Bon Jovi cover band that was apparently doing a concert right outside the hotel.  The overpriced bottles of water we hadn’t touched that stood on the dresser with a couple of glasses were actually shaking, and the frames of the pictures on the walls bounced merrily to the beat.  I heard Matt sigh in annoyance, and I knew I didn’t have to tell him how thoroughly unhappy I was.

After a few minutes of this, one of our kids sat up with a gasp.

“Guys! Do you hear that?”

“No, what?” Matt asked dryly.

“That music!”

“What music?” He deadpanned.  

“You seriously don’t hear it?” She sounded panicked.

I snorted and burst out laughing.  “Honey,” I said when I could finally breathe again.  “How could we not hear it?  It’s shaking our beds.”  

“Oh,” she lay back down.  “I thought maybe Jesus was coming, and you were going to be left behind.”  

Okay.  Sometimes people in our family have been known to say or do crazy things while waking up from an especially deep sleep.  But this one kind of took the cake.  Left behind?!  Why???  Maybe because we were with our five kids in a hotel in Vegas with a giant pair of bare legs on the outside??!!

Also worth mentioning, I’m still trying to decide if I should be concerned that she thought Jesus would return rocking to a Bon Jovi soundtrack instead of the trumpets they talk about in the Bible.  Let’s just be honest here, Bon Jovi is pretty good music.

Anyway, the concert lasted till about 2 am, and we finally got back to sleep for a while.  Before leaving, we warned the kids to make sure they had everything in their suitcases because there was no way we were braving the elevators to come back to the room.  They obeyed, and we made it out alive — and grateful.

Last summer, I was clearing out an old suitcase we’d used on that trip but not since then and found the “Do Not Disturb” door hanger above tucked away in it, as pictured above.  Yep, that’s the actual hanger.  Of the hotel that we took our kids to.  The party sure was epic.  Oh yes, it was.  

Anyway, I can’t claim this story has an important point to it, except for maybe this.  Maybe today you’re feeling drained as a parent, like you’re screwing up left and right.  But take heart: if you didn’t take your kids to a hotel with some lady’s legs emblazoned all over them, how bad can you be? 

And also, maybe being at home isn’t so bad.  At least if you’re not in Vegas. ;-)


Further reading, if you’re interested:

— More armchair travel, from my childhood, when my dad took us to an almost-warzone: Shangri-La

— More about my fear and dislike of birds in general (it’s not just chickens): For the Birds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

5 Good Books for Bad News Days

It goes without saying that there’s to be an awful lot of bad news right now.  A sort of rule about blogs is that each post should have an accompanying picture, which has always been an interesting challenge for me (causing me to come up with the “silly selfie” theme as seen in posts like the story about the bear or my challenges with my property manager in Busan).  I was thinking hard about what picture should accompany today’s post, when I came across this headline from the San Diego Union-Tribune  “No toilet paper was just the beginning.”  I just... I mean... I have no words.

A horrible tornado struck a city I love and have family in two weeks ago, there’s a virus spreading around the world that has affected the way I’m living right now and probably you as well, politics are dividing people and breeding anger and hatred, and stores are selling out of toilet paper.(?!?!)  And that’s not even talking about “every day” sorts of bad news and stressors we might be facing on a personal level, like losing a job, facing a big move, or having a scary health diagnosis.  

Here, though, are five good books that are sort of literary antidotes for the bad news days.  I won’t pretend these books can fix all the problems for you.  But what they will do is provide you with some good insight, helpful tips, and humorous perspectives for whatever comes next.  While I preface each one with a specific scary scenario, I also think they’re just plain great reads any ol’ time.  

{Note: These are affiliate links, and if you purchase through these links, I may receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you.  See my full disclosure here.}

When you face a scary diagnosis: 

Little Victories: A Sportswriter’s Notes on Winning at Life by Jason Gay

From the Wall Street Journal’s popular sports columnist comes this collection of inspiring narratives that tell of his own battle with cancer, as well as his father’s.  He also shares openly the infertility struggle in his own marriage.  All this might sound oppressive, and definitely could be in the hands of another author.  But Gay manages a healthy degree of levity and optimism that keeps you laughing more than you’d expect while still being honest enough to bring you to tears at times.  

Even if you’re not reading this after some bad health news, Little Victories has truly excellent stories, plus some fantastic words of encouragement about losing your job.  And I strongly feel that every. single. parent. out. there should read his letter to his imaginary Little League team.  My goodness.  It’s so good. I was driving while listening to it, and I wanted to stand up in my seat and cheer.

When you’re chosen to give a big speech (or you realize you’re just not communicating well):

Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo

Okay, I’m just going to be completely honest here and tell you that giving a big speech doesn’t scare me at all.  In fact, I’d be perfectly happy to.  But I know many people find the thought of giving a speech to be utterly terrifying.  So let’s say you find out you have to give a huge presentation at work, or a speech on something, and you’re waking up in cold sweats at the mere thought of it…

Or like me, you picked this book because you’ve had too many of those moments where you wonder how the other person could have possibly gotten what you thought you were saying so completely wrong…

In my opinion, this is a book everyone should read.  I was telling Jayna (my college student daughter, in case you’re new here) about this book, and she said, “Oh yeah, that was one of my texts for my general ed communications class.”  I was so happy to hear this because I knew for sure that she would be leaving college with at least some very practical knowledge applicable to so many different situations — definitely not just giving a speech!

There’s so much good stuff in this book, but one fascinating takeaway for me was that the perfect length of time for an effective speech is 18 minutes.  This is something I have long believed, being a girl who grew up going to church — actually, many different churches all over the place — and thinking, “This could be said better in a lot less time.”  My granddad was a Navy chaplain and then a chaplain for the California Youth Authority, and both are places where chapel is allotted a very strict amount of time.  You can’t just pontificate endlessly.  He always said that if you can’t say what you need to say in 25 minutes, you’re saying it wrong.  Turns out he was mostly right! (Just seven minutes off.)  There is, in fact, an entire science to it!  Less truly is more.

When the world just looks entirely too divided and angry:

Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff by Chip Gaines

Okay, another moment of honesty here: I really did not have high expectations for this book.  I checked it out because the book I was waiting for had not come in, but I have since purchased it because I was very happily surprised by how good it was.  Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always liked Chip Gaines.  Who doesn’t, right?!  He’s funny, silly, down-to-earth.  I just thought it would kind of be a lot of goofiness and not so much substance.  Chip Gaines, if you ever happen to read this, I’m sorry!  

What I found though was so much real heart in his writing, and a man driven not by net profits and quarterly earnings but a deep and genuine care for community.  His vision that started in his hometown of Waco — which, as he mentions, was mostly known for the Branch Davidian craziness in the early 90’s, though he also mentions that wasn’t actually in Waco — is his vision for everyone, coming to the table, talking, learning about and loving each other despite our differences.  I realized through reading this book that his business is really more of a mission, and when I finished it, I felt hopeful and optimistic.  (Ummm… Chip Gaines for president?  Yes?)

Fun bonus: the true stories from people who have worked for him.  

When you’re facing a big move (or not loving where you live):

This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are by Melody Warnick

I would put this on my list of top ten books for every military spouse, but everyone could benefit from reading it.  Melody Warnick describes a life very similar to mine, where she moved frequently for her husband’s job.  With every move, she believed she’d found the magic place that would finally make her happy.  But it wouldn’t take long for her to feel jaded and/ or bored and start looking for the next place.  

Finally, the author realized it was time to quit this kind of thinking and figure out what it takes to be happy in a place.  She began to research what was supposed to increase satisfaction with place and implement what she found in her own life.  To that end, there are chapters on buying locally, walking more, taking an active role in local politics, getting to actually know your neighbors, and so much more.  As Warnick did this, she began to feel a growing connection to where she lived instead of an eagerness to leave it.  

I’ve definitely been trying to apply this book to my own life, and reflecting on my many (many!) moves, I could see how times I’d implemented certain strategies helped.  While I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here, I know beyond a shadow of doubt that there’s a lot I will miss when we move. 

When you’re fired from your job (or contemplating a big career change):

Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck by Jon Acuff

Okay, it might sound a little funny that I read this book since I don’t have a career in the sense of trying to get promoted or climb any kind of ladder.  Sure, there are times when I’m sure my kids would like to fire me or have a few thoughts about my job performance!  But I read it thinking mostly of this blog, and things I could do better.  

The information in this book, though, was applicable to so many different areas of life.  The pages are peppered with humorous and interesting anecdotes and illustrations.  And, while I personally am not facing a job change, I think Acuff’s entertaining writing would be extremely welcome to anyone in a stressful situation of that sort.  Also… this might sound weird… but I could think of specific people who truly need to read this book.  As in, I might even go so far as to say, “I think God wants you to read this book,” even though I usually stay far away from statements like that.  


Most of us have some extra time to read right now, so why not pick up all these books?!

Interested in more book recommendations?  Try:

3 Great Books for Hard Days

It’s Okay to Cry: 10 Kids’ Books to Make You Weep (don’t worry, it’ll be a cathartic, “good cry”!)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Our “New Normal”: Life in Korea During the Coronavirus Outbreak

When I was ten years old, there was a huge flood.  We lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the time and though it was the country of my birth, I had never seen anything quite like it.  Sure, Bangladesh flooded pretty much every year.  It’s a very flat land, with rivers cutting through it that are fed by snowmelt from the Himalayas.  The annual monsoons coincide with that melting snow, so the rivers flood and cover much of the country.

But this flood was very different.  Almost no rain accompanied it.  There was just this gigantic mass of water growing every day, creeping ever closer.  It was at the airport, then it was coming down the main highway into town, then it was into our neighborhood, at the crossroad to our street, then inching down the street, then at our neighbors’ house.  

And then it was at our driveway.  Like a strange, living creature, we watched it under a clear night sky, the moon’s reflection on its surface gleaming like mercury as it seeped under the gate.  We stood for several minutes with wide eyes, wondering how far it would come.  Mom told us it was time for bed, but it was hard to fall asleep not knowing what we would wake up to.  

I keep thinking of that flood, as strange as it may sound, as I read the news about the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.  We first heard about it around New Year as it started to affect Wuhan, China, and it’s been inching closer.  Last week, messages started coming in from friends and family: “Are you guys okay?”  We were fine, we told them truthfully, and Daegu is about three hours from where we live near Camp Humphreys.  

My friends in Busan started experiencing shutdowns from the virus after cases were discovered there.  One reported her neighborhood grocery store being cleared out of produce, eggs, and meat.  The school my kids attended when we lived there went on “early spring break.”  I started feeling like that ten-year-old girl again, watching as the floodwater got closer with nothing to hold it back.

It’s not that I’m overly scared of the virus, not for the lives of my direct family — at least, not any more than I fear the flu or even the stomach flu which has sent us to the hospital a couple times.  I hesitate to say anything because there’s a lot of unknown, and I completely understand fearing the unknown.  But based on what I see in statistics, I don’t see a reason to panic.  We aren’t smokers and don’t really have underlying health issues.  I am concerned for those who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, or live in places with poor medical care.

If I end up wrong and my family does get really sick, please don’t send hate mail or “I told you so” ’s.  My perspective may be skewed by the fact that I grew up with the occasional cobra in my house.  

But also bear in mind, I’ve been through some pretty crazy stuff during my time here in Korea — like two strong earthquakes and a trip to the ER with my very sick son all within 48 hours my first month here, or the shenanigans of our neighbors to the north.  Plus, my family has teased me for years about my hand washing and sanitizing habits that are probably borderline OCD, and now my anxious habit is supposed to be the best method for prevention.

What I do find genuinely alarming is the fear pandemic, the rage and ugly comments on Facebook (especially if someone suggests remaining calm), and the barrage of panic-inducing headlines that  all but scream, “HOW DARE YOU NOT FREAK OUT?!?” 

On Sunday, we went to church, joking about how brave we were for going, but things were still mostly normal.  We skipped the hand-shaking part, where we are supposed to greet those around us, but to be honest, I don’t think most people missed it.  One of my friends told me that some services on post were canceled already, so we were lucky to be there.  We sang songs like “Eye of the Storm,” “It Is Well,” and “Good, Good Father.”  The worship leader picked them weeks ago, but they were perfect given what was on all our minds.   

After finishing the last song of the second service, I said to the rest of the music team, “I hope we’re all here again next week.”  I called Matt (who goes home with the kids after the first service) to say that I’d stop by the commissary to pick up groceries.  “I’m low-key apocalypse shopping,” I joked, but before I left post, I also made sure the car had a full tank of gas.  

All through Monday, I saw angry comments on local Facebook pages from family members, all but demanding that schools be shut down.  That afternoon, I picked up Skyler for an orthodontist appointment.  “They’re saying school will be cancelled by the end of the week,” she said as we drove away from the high school.  I wasn’t surprised, but had that same feeling as I did watching the water. 

Matt came home a few minutes before six, telling me that the garrison commander (GC) was about to do a townhall meeting on Facebook, and I should probably watch.  

What followed was an outline of the “new normal” for everyone here.  I don’t know exactly what to call it — a sort of lockdown/ quarantine/ health curfew kind of thing?  Soldiers can’t go off-post to any of the restaurants or bars in the area, and families are discouraged from it as well besides getting takeout.  No social gatherings of more than 20 people.  Schools are closed base wide with virtual classes starting, and all kids’ activities canceled. 

Canceled?”  Lilly repeated when she heard, a look of panic on her face.  She loves her rock climbing, parkour, and gymnastics classes so much. I nodded.  “For how long?!”  

“Well, this week for sure…” I didn’t know what else to say.  I didn’t want to tell her that this could go on for a while.

Tuesday, I was dreaming about snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef when Matt’s alarm went off.  My eyes opened, and I heard rain falling.  The warm, turquoise water of my dreams was replaced by blankets and a dreary February day.  

“I was having such a nice dream…” I said, closing my eyes again, wishing it back.  I felt a certain sadness, thinking of the contrast between my dream and reality, and our spring break in Thailand that we’ve already bought plane tickets for, wondering if that would even happen now.  

Matt leaned over and kissed me, saying, “Well, I guess you don’t have to get up.  Nothing to rush off to.”  So I lay there for a while, thinking about the contrast to my usual Tuesday which is such an extremely busy day for me, I often have to grab Taco Bell from the food court on base to feed my kids dinner as we dash from one activity to the next. 

The day felt a little odd, like one of those times you’re in a place where you know you don’t belong.  Since Lilly, Wyatt, and Annalee homeschool, it wasn’t that different than normal, other than the pleasant addition of Skyler, but I kept feeling like I needed to go somewhere.  Instead when our work was finished, we made popcorn and watched an old black-and-white movie.  It wasn’t a bad day, but not one I wanted to repeat over and over without knowing when it would end, like a weird Groundhog Day.

We had more news by the end of the day: the garrison commander cancelled church — but we were expecting that.  Then a friend who lives in Hong Kong and has been dealing with this version of living for a few weeks already announced on Facebook that her kids’ school informed them they would continue virtual schooling until April 20th.  April 20th?!?!

Again, the floodwaters.  It was hard not to feel anxiety about the rapid changes and how long they might last.  

As I put the kids to bed, I read them their Bible story for the night.  It was about Jonah and the plant.  Most people who ever went to Sunday school know about Jonah and the big fish (or whale) that swallowed him whole.  But Sunday school never spent a lot of time on the plant.  Basically, Jonah’s all mad because God doesn’t bring hellfire and brimstone to Nineveh, and he goes out to the desert to sulk.  God causes a plant to grow quickly and provide shade from the extreme heat, which of course makes Jonah pretty happy, and then the next day sends a worm to eat it.  Jonah gets all angry at God and says he might as well just die, but God reminds Jonah that he’s not the one who grew the plant; in fact he had nothing to do with it.  Our chaplain preached on this last summer, and I’ve thought about it often — how I never hesitate to claim and enjoy God’s good gifts in my life, but when things get hard I get rant and rage and panic.  

I stared down at the page in front of me, thinking of the tight feeling in my chest, thinking it was funny that this would be the story we would read this particular night.  Most Tuesdays, I’m exhausted by bedtime from a day of mad rushing around.  Instead of panicking about what I felt like I was losing, I could be grateful for quiet day of family time.  I realized I needed to change my heart a little — or a lot.

Here’s what I know: I have an awful lot to be thankful for right now.  

  1. We are healthy — maybe the healthiest we’ve been all winter.  That’s a gift I don’t want to take for granted even though it’s ironic that at our healthiest we can go almost nowhere.
  2. We are together, and together is my favorite.  Jayna is at college, and all this does make me wonder more when we will see her again.  But six of us are here, with our very entertaining dogs.
  3. We are being taken care of.  The GC and other administrative staff here in Korea have an unenviable job right now, trying to keep panic at a minimum and sanity at a maximum while also mitigating risk to a huge group of people.  But they’re actually doing it pretty well, I think. 
  4. There’s a whole lot more — like a cozy home out in the country so that we can go outside without close contact with crowds (since that’s a concern) and a commissary nearby that is staying well-stocked despite the fears.

Here’s what’s hard:

  1. The unknown — mainly, What else is going to happen?  How long will our lives be like this?  I’ve read several articles including this from The Atlantic that suggest this will just be a part of our global health picture from now on.  There are no solid answers.
  2. The huge adjustment to our lives.  Even the library is closed now, a beloved destination for my kids, especially when the air pollution is bad as it frequently is here in Korea. (And I’m talking so bad it could affect our health).  Our world right now is basically our house and the outdoors around it, and the outdoors depends on the air quality.  
  3. Maintaining sanity.  Because of what I’ve listed above, I don’t think I’m alone in saying I have moments where it all gets a bit overwhelming.  I’m not sure exactly how many people are stationed just at Camp Humphreys, but there are also contractors, civilian employees, teachers for the base schools, etc.  It is basically a medium-size town.  And there are more in Daegu and Busan.  We are all trying hard to figure out this “new normal” while keeping our stuff together for those around us.  As I have said, it feels like there is an assault on staying calm.  Not only are there alarming headlines, our phones go off around the clock with emergency alerts from the Korean Emergency Alert System.I ask for prayer:
  1. For health of those in this country that has been my home for over three years and that the precautions would end the spread of the virus.
  2. For the leadership here, that they would know the best ways to deal with all of this.
  3. For the businesses in the area to not suffer too much.
  4. For good air quality days as we wait through this so we can at least enjoy the outdoors.
  5. For patience and sanity for all of us.

What I’m trying to do:

  1. Keep a sense of humor.  It’s not a matter of ignoring the serious nature of what’s going on, but what I think will help us get through this.  Any recommendations for good and funny books or movies is VERY welcome right now.
  2. Keep my family happy and entertained for however long it takes, even on the days we have to stay inside.  Again, ideas welcome, and bonus points for high-energy releases indoors.  At least no one is downstairs from us any more for rowdy dance parties!

So for all those wondering, that’s where we are.  Wyatt climbed into my bed this morning to snuggle as I wrote in my prayer journal and started singing songs from our church service last Sunday.

“Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on You, and it is well with me.”  May it be so.