Friday, February 5, 2021

Housewarming Gifts

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies is when Mary and George Bailey present the Martini family with gifts for their new home in It’s a Wonderful Life and give a precious speech: “Bread, that you might never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”  

When we moved into this house, my parents similarly sent gifts, though the ones they chose were a little different. There was an air mattress, which we ended up not needing yet, thanks to my gracious mother-in-law lending us a couple for the long five weeks when we had no furniture.  They also sent an electric kettle, which I also didn’t need because I’d bought one to make my morning tea way back when we were in Texas and had (not kidding) been taking it with me everywhere since. Tea is important. 

One particularly chilly afternoon, Wyatt said, “Mom, can I have some hot chocolate?” I told him sure, and he added, “But I want to make it myself.” I like and encourage independence in my kids, so I had no problem with this. He asked me how to fill the electric kettle, and I showed him the button to press so that the lid lifted, and he put water in. I didn’t assume it was related when I heard the microwave start up shortly after, but suddenly, I heard Lilly’s panic-stricken voice: “Wyatt!  What did you do?! What’s in the microwave?!?!”

Instead of putting the electric kettle back on the stand that heats it up, he had stuck it in the microwave. Sparks were flying in the microwave, and the acrid stench of melted plastic permeated the air. We quickly stopped the microwave and assessed the damage. The microwave had survived, by some kind miracle, but the electric kettle was done. I could see what Wyatt had been thinking, and he wasn’t the first Nicholas kid to misuse a microwave. At least this hadn’t created so much smoke that an entire 42-story apartment building almost needed to be evacuated!   

I called my parents later and told them they must be psychic. How had they known we needed -- maybe not right when they gave it, but soon! -- another electric kettle?! We laughed, and I suggested they start a psychic network. 

In the meantime, I was lamenting my separation from my piano. I have played piano most of my life, and most recently in Korea, I played for the chapel we attended for the last year-and-a-half before we moved. Our new house was lovely, but so empty. Every evening especially, I wished I could sit and play, especially since it was Christmas time.  Whenever my parents called, they asked for an update on my household goods.  “Same ol’, same ol’,” I told them.  “And what really bugs me is that I can’t even play Christmas songs to sing with the kids!” My eyes actually welled with tears when I said this.  I couldn’t help it. 

A few days later, I got a text asking my thoughts about a good digital piano because my mom wanted to play again since she was spending so much time at home now. I told them my recommendations, and a few days after that, the doorbell rang. It was a man in a UPS uniform.

“I just wanted to tell you, I put your piano behind your fence.” 

I looked at him, confused. My piano? “Oh… Okay… Thanks…” I said, trying to make my voice and actions seem like I knew what he was talking about.  After he left and I closed the door, I raced around the house and found the digital piano I’d recommended to my parents leaning against the house behind the gate.  I burst into tears as I called my parents. “Did you send your piano here?” I asked. They said yes. They’re planning to move here in the spring, after they get their vaccination and are hopefully safe to travel. “Stop crying or I’ll take it back,” Dad joked. Then he added gently, “You need to play Christmas music. It wouldn’t be right if you couldn’t.”  

It was “only” ten more days until our household goods were delivered, and with them, my own piano. But those ten days seemed a whole lot less empty than the previous ones had. We sang Christmas songs day and night, as well as many others.  

My parents’ gifts and apparent clairvoyant abilities got me to thinking about what gifts I would give all of you if, similar to Oprah, I had that ability. (“You get an electric kettle! And you get an electric kettle!” etc)  I would say a piano for music because there should always be music, but I know not everyone loves pianos like I do. So I’d give you just some way to play music, lots of it, and as loud as you want. It’s lifted my spirits so much over the past year. I would suggest some good playlists for dinners and barbecues, and I would make sure you had lots of plates and serving bowls and forks and spoons, with the hope that this time of isolation ends quickly and makes us realize just how wonderful it is to gather around food, tell stories, and laugh loud and heartily until late in the night. I would hand out passports and plane tickets, to see the places we didn’t go this year (hello, canceled spring break in Krabi) and many more. I’d fill up your fuel tanks so you could drive around this country -- or whichever one you live in -- and take in the immense beauty of God’s creation.

But since I don’t have that much money, I just hope for these gifts for you: 

A new importance placed on celebrating life -- birthdays, new jobs, retirements, surviving the week -- because we can.

The ability to talk to our neighbors, truly getting to know them and regardless of differences, treat each other with love, respect, and kindness.

A heightened desire for true connection, gathering together and putting away phones and agendas to look at each other and listen.

And I hope we get these gifts soon.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Discomfort Zones

Do you have a word of the year? I know a lot of people who do  -- they create vision boards and journal, pray, and think about the year ahead and what they want to accomplish in it, and then they have a word for the year. Every year I try to do the same (well, except for a vision board -- I've never been able to do that), but I can only think of one time when I had a distinct “word” for the year.

That year was 2016, and my word? It was “discouragement.”

I know, right?! That wasn’t where I was expecting to go with it either! I kept telling myself, “No, Joy, I don’t think you get this. It’s supposed to be an inspiring word -- something empowering.  Way to be a Debbie Downer.”

But then, because I regularly have conversations with myself, I sat back and shrugged, replying, “As they say, Joy, it is what it is.”

The year had started with a very discouraging conversation on New Year’s Day about my writing, and I had already been struggling with doubts about my abilities in other areas of my life, like motherhood. I prayed about it, I wrote in my journal, I tried to put a positive spin on it, like saying my word was “encourage.” But the more I wrote/ thought/ prayed/ conversed with myself, the more I became convinced that my word was “discouragement.” (I even wrote a blog post about it here.) God wanted me to face discouragement head on and learn some hard -- but ultimately empowering -- lessons.

That year, there was a lot of discouragement all around me. The Navy sent my family from our beloved Hawaii home to Korea. I watched every one of my kids except Annalee, since she was a baby, say good-bye to someone or something they loved dearly.  Every night for four months straight after our arrival in Korea, Wyatt sobbed himself to sleep, begging to “go back to the green house!!!” the only house he’d really known as home.  I’m sure there are stronger women out there who could have dealt with it better, but I remember holding him, choking back my own sadness as I tried to remind him of all the good things about our new home while feeling completely gutted.

And while I grew to love Korea, those first months were hard. I mean, when I think about our first weeks there, (finding out that international house-hunting is actually not nearly as fun as  the TV show made it look, for instance, or going through two strong earthquakes) I just want to go back in time and give myself a hug. We were dealing with surprising health issues, constantly sick with respiratory infections that required medical intervention when there wasn’t always a doctor who spoke English well enough to tell me what was wrong or how to administer the kids’ medicine. I remember two separate occasions where I was on the phone with my saintly parents, weeping truly as if someone had died because I just didn’t know if or how I could go on.

But I did.  

Somehow, somewhere along the way, I learned to laugh a little more, mostly at myself and the strange situations I found myself in. God gave me good friends, friends who would stay in my life even after my time in Busan.  Our family bonds tightened, I believe, through our time squeezed in as a family of seven in a high-rise apartment.  We may have been fish out of water much of the time, but we were a school of fish, flopping around on the ground together.

Anyway, I’ve been reflecting on all this because I keep thinking/ writing/ praying/ discussing with myself to see if I have a word of the year.  But I also keep thinking about last year.  Usually my first blog post of the year is assessing what I did and didn’t do well and what I’m hoping for the new year.  I don’t know if any of us can do that about 2020. We survived, and that is winning.   

But in retrospect, I would give 2020 another dis-word: discomfort.  I know some people who would give it harsher words, but there are also a few who would be kinder.  So this seems fair.  2020 was an incredibly uncomfortable year, and I can say that with the luxury of not having lost any close family member as so many did, or losing a job or a business I’d spent years building.  It was a year of loneliness and isolation, of fear and uncertainty, of loss and doing without so many things.  Our lockdown in Korea started on Mardi Gras, and I still laugh when I think of one of my Catholic friends who said, “This is much more than I planned to give up for Lent!” 

For me personally, there was also what felt -- feels? -- like the never-ending transition of Matt's retirement and all the surprising discomfort that has brought.  We were essentially homeless for over three months.  We found ourselves relying on the hospitality and deep kindness of family and precious friends, when we usually take pride in independence and self-sufficiency.  Then, when we moved into our house in mid-November, we were told that our household goods (furniture, warm clothing, etc) would not be delivered until after December 21st.  Not because it wasn’t in America -- au contraire, it had been since October -- but you know, because Covid. (***I do believe that has made many things harder than they should be; however, in this particular case, without giving all the details, it was more a matter of people not caring to do their jobs.  It was intensely frustrating!)  We mostly just had summer clothes, though due to the time I knew we’d spend on the chilly California coast and my suspicion that our move may take a while, I did have the forethought to pack a few light sweaters and jackets.  But it actually snowed here before we were reunited with our cozy, Korean-winter-proof clothes. (In the picture at the top of this post, I'm wearing one of my summer dresses with fleece-lined tights I'd thrown in my suitcase at the last minute "just in case" and a jacket procured from a thrift store.) It was, without a doubt, uncomfortable.

I don’t see any quick end to the discomfort.  

The pandemic continues, for one thing. If it wasn’t hard enough being new in a place under normal circumstances, it’s that much harder with masks and social distancing. There’s a new identity to figure out for both me and Matt after twenty years of being a military spouse and a Navy officer. We’ve transitioned back to traditional school for our kids -- okay, semi-traditional.  They’re doing hybrid, going in on certain days and working at home others. There’s more I could list, but my point is this: it’s just a little more comfortable than sitting in a patch of cactus.

But the other day, I was looking for a good quote for my letterboard, which hangs in our kitchen.  It still bore the A.A. Milne quote it had since we announced Matt’s retirement publicly. Here’s what I chose:  Great things never came from comfort zones.  

I chose it because I truly believe it.  I’ve seen it proven true time and again in my own life, and in the lives of many close to me. I’m pretty sure you could argue its veracity looking through history too. Comfort zones, like a favorite blanket, keep us safely swaddled and immobile. See exhibit Mabel:

But the thing about discomfort is that it pushes us to seek improvement and change. It opens our eyes to search harder for beauty and goodness in the unexpected.

So, yeah, while 2020 was not comfortable or particularly fun for most of us, and while 2021 has started out… well, not exactly better in a bowl-you-over kind of way… I have hope. I believe the words of Psalm 126:5-6, “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.  Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!”