Monday, March 17, 2014

Lego Loving

We returned from our homeschool conference on Friday afternoon.  Ryan had also been out of the country and he returned just before bedtime.  I had promised my birthday boy some sort of party.  One with guests besides his siblings.  He hadn't had one of those since his 9th birthday.  The complication was that the friends we'd traveled with were his first choice of guests and they were leaving on Sunday AM to return to their home city.  That gave me a 24 hour window to pull together a party plan.

Never in my pre-Africa days would this have happened.  I would have ordered my themed items from Birthday Party Express at least a month in advance.  But you know what?  I live in Africa now, and well, it happened.  But, guess what?   We pulled off a party...without Michael's, Party City, or Dollar Tree.    Though, I did use Pinterest.  Thank you Jesus for Pinterest ( I mean that with all sincerity.)

The kids and I had lost a night of sleep going to the conference and most of a night of sleep coming back.  So, on Friday while we dumped our luggage in the middle of the floor, I had Naomi fix us some Ramen noodles (known as Indomie where we live).  Over that gourmet meal, I broached the birthday party subject with Isaac.  I was secretly chanting something like, "Please say you just want friends and ice cream sundaes, please say you don't care."  But, I created some crazy birthday party expectations in my other life and they came back to bite my butt once again.

He wanted Legos.  And no he didn't want a giant cookie.  He wanted a real decorated cake, like I used to make.  That's what he said.  "Mom, remember how you used to make us those cool, fancy cakes?"  Seriously?  Don't even get me started on why elaborate buttercream and the equator don't go together.

Anyway, after realizing he was serious, I decided the best next step was to sleep.  So, I left the suitcases in the floor,  made sure my kids were all accounted for, and I found a bed.   That was the best thing I could have done.  Then, after adding a couple of hours to my sleep total, I was ready to go Lego crazy.   I can tell you that one of the great things about having older kids is that they can make significant contributions to things like 24 hour birthday party preparations.  We worked together and when we hit the sack on Saturday night, we were exhausted, but Isaac had been celebrated and he was satisfied.

Some of the fun included...
 A Lego Memory game.  How many could you remember?

 Lego Bingo and a Lego Car Race.  The winning car is pictured above and below.
 Isaac and Lily custom-made our fork holder.

 The kids enjoyed turning two of the dads into Ninjagos

 We gave all of the food a Lego movie themed name.  For example, we had Emmet's Empanadas and Unikitties Colorful Kabobs.  We also made homemade potato chips, corndogs, punch, and lego pizzas.  You don't even wanna know how much we had to pay for those grapes.  But, oh, they were yummy!

 Here's the birthday boy with his Lego man cake.
Ryan and Abby threw in a little Lego style decor with this fun banner.  I am so thankful for a husband who is willing to help out with these kind of details!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

One Year Ago Today

That's when it happened.  St. Patrick's Day 2013.  That's a day that I will forever remember as a game changer...not just for me, but for my whole family.  My children have asked me to skip St. Patrick's Day this year.  They specifically ordered me not to make green pancakes or eggs and ESPECIALLY no doughnuts.

Doughnuts.  That's what we had for breakfast that morning.  It was the first and only time I have made doughnuts in Africa.  They were a special St. Patrick's Day treat.  We enjoyed them.  Until the phone rang and the confusion began.  I didn't get to clean up the mess.  The counters were covered with flour. The pan of oil sat on the stove.  It didn't matter.  All that mattered in those moments was getting out, getting to safety.  I don't think I'll ever forget that 90 minutes between the time I took the last bite of my doughnut and the time that our van exited that compound.  How can you forget the sensation of handing your child a suitcase and telling them to fill it up with whatever they think they'll need, being unable to assure them that they can come back and get their special things another time?  How do you forget their frenzied hugs to their dogs and their new kitten.  You don't forget.  And neither do they.

Looking back, I'm not sure we would have done it the same way.  But then, I think we would have.  We had one option and that was to call our security contact.  He told us to go and to go quickly.  We did.  I really think it was as calm and as orderly and as faith-relying as a moment like that can be.  But it was still terrifying.

Were we really in any imminent danger?  I don't know.  How can we know?  We had reason to believe we were.  We were counseled to respond as if we were.  And we did.   Could we still be living safely in that same compound today, further invested in the work and the relationships that we'd planted?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It's not for me to know.

Those days that followed, those long, painful days were some of the most relieving and exhausting and confusing days I've known.  The decision to move wasn't a given for us.  Of the four families that chose not to return, I think we probably held out the longest in letting it go.  Not because we loved the people more, not because we're tougher, not because we love God or want to serve him any more than they do.  I don't know why, but it was a painful and difficult decision.  As much as I had sensed the Spirit stirring my heart with the reality that this insecure place may not work for us, even in the weeks before the evacuation, it was still a great and painful loss.  The decision to leave and start over did not come lightly.  Honestly, we still wrestle with it.

And I'm not gonna lie, this year, it's been a tough one.  Not everyone has been supportive.  Not everyone understands.  Don't get me wrong, our parents and other folks who read BBC Africa and love us, they exhaled in a major way.  Our leadership has been very supportive.  But people who love that place...not so much.  I guess I can understand.  We're the wimps.  We're the ones who couldn't cut it.  We're the ones that don't have enough faith.  We're the quitters.  At least, those are the voices that we're sometimes tempted to listen to.  And sickeningly enough, there are human beings who love Jesus who have told us those very things.

When I look back on what I've learned as I've lived out this year, I think there are two major takeaways for me.  The first, I think, has been the understanding that I need to extend grace.  Loads of it.  Because I understand, now more than ever, that every person, every family has to walk their own unique journey with God.  No one can do it for them.  No one can put their face to the ground and cry out to God for my family like I can.  No one can tune their heart to sense God's call for my family like I can.  At the end of the day, I am the person best equipped to advocate for my family.  Just as you are the best person to advocate for yours.  I realize that God is so, so unconventional.  He will do what He does in the way He wants to do it according to His perfect plans.  His plan for my family will likely look nothing like His plan for your family.  And shame on me if I think it ought to.

So, I think that I am equipped with a compassion and a grace that I didn't have a year ago.  I understand that there are still standards and best practices by which we should live out our faith.  We have God's word to guide us as we go and no decision we make should contradict that.  But beyond that, there is so much freedom.  There are so many opportunities to serve well and love well and to do it in a way that is healthy for you and the people God has entrusted to you.

My second major takeaway has been an understanding of grief.  The loss of our country was hard.  I don't think anyone who has not been through an evacuation can understand how unsettling it is.  It was so much more than a move.  Our home, our relationships, our sense of security, our work...they were taken from us.  So many people just assumed that because we were going to a place with shinier stores, better electricity, and a more secure environment, that we must be thrilled.  But the grief and the loss were great.  We were simply reeling and our children were too... especially in those early months.  I pray that God will redeem that pain and that I will be able to empathize and encourage others in a way that I couldn't have before the heavy losses of the past year came my way.

Today we still feel the loss, and honestly, Ryan and I dream that someday we will have the privilege of serving in Nigeria again.  Yet, we are confident that we are in the right place for our family for this season.  Our kids have begun to blossom again, in ways that were lost to us for a time.  They no longer tremble when a truck on the road hits a speed bump and makes a loud boom.  We can stay out after dark and we no longer have panic.  They are talking less and less about their fears and more about their dreams.  We know that this is a good place for us to be. We are thankful that God clearly led us to a place where we can be both effective and healthy.

A Week Away

The first week in March, the kids and I traveled to East Africa for a homeschool conference.  I was a bit nervous flying with all of the kids and no husband.  However, there was another mom who lives in my country traveling too and we decided that if we stuck together, we would likely be okay.  As is typical with African travel, there were a few snags along the way.  The first one came when we arrived at our local airport.  Immediately, my friend was told that our plane had been downsized and we were being bumped off until the next day's flight.  Refusing to take her word for it, I decided to be hard headed and I marched up to the counter determined to plead our case.  I didn't get very far.  I was told, "In the month when you bought your ticket, we were flying a bigger plane."  Say what?  I basically said something like, "Well, in the four months since we bought our tickets, someone should have contacted us with that information."    

Anyway, we called our husbands and they came to pick us up.  We all agreed that we weren't going to leave the airport until we had something in our hands that assured us a seat on the next night's flight.  However, we got nowhere with getting that imaginary document.  We waited and we waited and we waited.  With 7 children, 2 husbands, and about 10 suitcases, we waited.  Ryan followed one of the employees around like a puppy, certain that he had the power to do something for us.  We were determined that we were getting to our conference ASAP.  Finally, after about 2 hours of waiting, after we'd watched lots of people be accepted and lots of people go home with the promise of a seat the next night, Ryan called me up to the counter.  Amazingly, they had decided to let us board the plane.  

That's when the real fun began!  With less than 30 minutes until take-off, we had boarding passes in hand.  The problem was, we still had immigration and security to clear.  Let's just say we pulled out our best African manners and went for it.  The mom I was traveling with grew up in West Africa and she is so, so much better at pushing the rules than I am.  She actually understands that rules here are very flexible.  So, I stepped back and followed her lead.  We marched past a gazillion people waiting in immigration and she began pleading our case to one of the immigration officers.  I'm not sure if it would have worked  if we hadn't had 2 six year old boys jumping up and down and saying, "Please, please sir, we really need to get on that plane."  He tried hard to keep his stern face, but he finally couldn't resist and with a big laugh, he led us directly to an immigration window. 

That dumped us into the longest security line we've ever seen at our airport.  Again, my friend wiggled to the front and begged for mercy.  Again we were waved through, this time with some really grumpy faces.  We didn't care.  We just put our shoes back on and took off running.  We made it to the gate, but not a single passenger was left.  We weren't sure they were going to let us on, but miraculously, they called a bus and drove us out to the plane.  I think I literally heard the door shut behind us.  You should have seen the smiles of some of the folks on the plane who were cheering us on and hoping we'd make it.  

Our week away was good.  I was exhausted when it was over.  Keeping up with 5 kids at a conference center all week long is a bit tiresome.  But, it was time well spent.  I learned some things, I was reminded of some things, and I was challenged too.  I'm glad we went.

Most of the kids did Iowa testing each morning and then they spent the afternoons with a variety of volunteers who taught them all sorts of enrichment type things.  They did things like quilt square math and creative writing and insect investigations and such.  

The week had a super hero theme and in preparation for our time there, the students were asked to choose a hero and do a project on them.  They all had to have a costume and a prop to represent their hero.  In addition, the four oldest wrote an essay about their person.  Each night, kids of a certain age group shared about their hero to all of the other children and parents.  The kids did a great job and it was nice that they had the challenge of preparing something to share.  It's a healthy sort of stress that I am not able to provide them with very often in our current environment.  I definitely have some who love the stage and others who would rather just write an essay.   

Here are some pictures of our week.

Abe and his good friend, the two who won the hearts of the immigration officer.  Abe chose to be Orville Wright. 
Here we have Lottie Moon and Eric Liddel.

Here's Eric's medal 

Lottie's sugar cookies (and no, they definitely were not edible!)

The two oldest chose Molly Pitcher and Irena Sendler

 Here's a representation of Irena's jar of names, where she hid the names of all of the children she rescued out of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII.

 Finally, here's Molly's cannon.  Made out of Sculpey clay that one of you likely mailed to us!


Here's Isaac on his 12th birthday, which happened while we were away.  He made me promise not to tell everyone it was his birthday.  However, the organizers had ordered a giant cake for all of those who had a birthday that week to share.  The cake was brought out on Isaac's actual birthday, which was mid-week.  At first, he thought I was behind it, but I pled innocence and he got cake, it worked out perfectly!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Backing Off

My educational philosophy tends to lean a little toward the "better late than early" approach.  A little bit.  I don't think rushing kids to learn academic skills at a certain pace or before they're ready is a good thing.  I also think that learning to love learning is one of the most important objectives of the elementary years.  But sometimes, I forget that's what I really believe is best and I find myself doing things to make sure that they are "keeping up" and when that happens, school is usually burdensome... both for me and for my children.

That's the boat I found us in a few weeks ago.  My youngest daughter has been a bit short-changed during her elementary years.  We've called 4 countries home during her 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade school years.  Those years we've cut back on some of the fun parts of school and I've focused a bit more on basic skills, just trying to survive.  I've had her tag along with her older sibling in order to simplify things in my day so that I've had time to learn culture and language and figure out where to buy groceries and how to turn powdered milk into cottage cheese and such.  I haven't been as diligent to cultivate a love for learning in her little heart.  As the year has progressed and things have settled down I've been more able to focus on our schooling again.  I came to the realization that she really doesn't like school.  She could read, but she doesn't enjoy it.  She can finish her math lessons, but hasn't grasped some of the concepts as well as she should because she hasn't been challenged to play addition war and dice games the way some of the others did.  I realized that there were lots of tears of frustration and she was feeling overwhelmed way too much of the time.  So, I decided to make a change.

I decided for the rest of the year, I was going to pull her out of the Ancient History study that her older siblings were doing.  Instead of reading history based literature like they've been doing, she was going to go back to the fun classics like Beverly Cleary and Astrid Lindgren and I was going to work on helping her to learn to enjoy books and to delight in what she's reading by helping her understand how to make connections.

With that decision, I also decided to lighten her load a little bit, taking away her written Science and History work and instead, letting her join Abe and I for our 5 in a Row time.  There will be plenty of time for her to learn the Scientific Method, but I was running out of time to help her realize the wonder in it all.  And, it was a great decision.  I've had her do a few things and do them well, rather than worrying about racing through and getting that curriculum done.  The tears are less and the joy is more.

Since I made that call, we've had a great time "rowing" several books together.  The first two weeks, our books focused on snow, which was ironic because most of the people we love back in the US were getting pummeled with the white stuff.  We had a great time studying about snowflakes, painting our own snow scenes, making a special snowflake snack to share, and Lily was very proud as she recited Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" at dinner one night.

 Then, we read a great book that was new to me, called Night of the Moonjellies.  We learned a bit about marine life, personal narratives, and how to run a small business.  In the book, the author tells the tale of the summer he was 7 and how he helped at his grandmother's seaside hot dog stand.  We loved the story and the kids had a fabulous time opening a hot dog stand for the rest of the family.
 Here's Abe's sign
 Lily was ready to take orders from our customers and make change from their payment.
 Abe got in the action, flipping burgers and hot dogs.
 "It would be our pleasure to serve you."
 A few of our menu items.
 Lily, the french fry cook.
  Here's a completed order, ready for Abe, the waiter, to deliver it to the guest.

By the time it was over, I was exhausted and didn't want to make another milkshake anytime soon.  They just wanted to know if we could do it again next weekend.  I guess that's what you'd call a success!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Birthday at the Beach

We were supposed to go to the beach for my 40th birthday, WAY back in November.  But somebody got a stomach virus and we partied with a bucket all night long instead. Since then, life has been crazy busy and we simply haven't made a trip to the beach a priority.
So, when some friends of ours asked us if we wanted to take a day trip to the beach to celebrate their daughter's 2nd birthday, we were thrilled to do it.  It was fun to spend time with friends, celebrate one of our favorite 2 year olds, and decompress with the sand and the surf all day long.  As we were lugging our bags back to the car, we all asked each other why we don't do this more often.  Of course, we were reminded of the answer during our 3 hour trip home (the one that Google maps considers a 1 hour and 22 minute drive.)  Alas, Accra traffic or not, we've promised ourselves we won't wait so long until the next time.

Here are a few pictures of our day at the beach:
This is Abe.  Two hours into our "1 hour and 22 minute trip."  At this point he has resorted to wearing his sisters floppy beach hat and making googly eyes at whomever will notice him.

 This was early in the day, before Lizzy lost her sunglasses to the Atlantic.

 We picked up two clearance boogie boards last fall when we were in the States and brought them back with us. They wear a big, big hit!

Here's Lily was ready to eat her yummy birthday cupcake.
I'm pretty sure the birthday girl enjoyed hers as much as any of us!

Sometimes I really, really miss the preschool years with my kids (other times I thank the Lord he gave me those in my 20s and 30s!)  Today was one of those days when I was reminded of how sweet they are.  Our birthday girl was quite frightened by the water initially.  I was holding her as I stood with my feet near the water and every time I tried to put her down, she'd curl her legs up instead of putting her feet in the water.  After a while, Abby sat on the sand with her and let her have closer and closer encounters with the water, which she decided she liked.

   After a while, she decided she loved the water.  I love this picture of her with her daddy, waiting anxiously for the next wave.

Then, she got brave enough to do it on her own.  How precious!

Tonight I'm thankful for sweet friends, God's beautiful creation, SPF 50 sunscreen which was applied 3 times, and the Solarcaine that I'm still having to use tonight!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Embassy Errand

Earlier this week, my two youngest children and I went to the US Embassy to get passport pages added.  First of all, can I say that $82 for someone to add a half dozen pages to my passport with packaging tape seems a bit steep to me?  Multiply that by 7, and well, it's ridiculous.  But, that's enough about that, I'm just thankful to have it.

Since I've moved overseas, I have this mental list of "things every American ought to experience."  One of them is definitely visiting the American embassy while living in another land.  I'm not sure why I find it so cool.  Maybe it's because I am a patriot at heart?  I don't know.  I just think there is something so special about seeing the Stars and Stripes flying in the wind, right smack dab in this foreign place.  It's also incredibly humbling to walk past rows and rows of African nationals who are dressed in their best clothes, waiting for a turn at the window, and praying that their visa will be granted.  Literally, every time I have been, they all stare at me and my blue and gold passport with almost an awe as I waltz right up to the American Citizens Service window.  They wait in these long rows while I am in and out in 10 minutes.  It always reminds me that I am blessed in ways that I don't even realize.

Anyway, after our visit this week, Ryan, Lily, and I had this conversation:

Ryan:  How was the embassy?
Me:  It was fine.  Oh Lily, tell daddy what we saw!
Lily:  Um, an American flag?
Me:  Yeah, that was pretty cool, but that wasn't what I was thinking of.
Lily:  Um, oh, I know, a big lawnmower that a man was riding on!
Me:  Well, that was neat too, but I was thinking of something that you don't usually see.
Lily:  Ohhh.  I know, American TV was playing on the wall!
Me:  Really, Lily?
Lily:  A lot of white people working there?
Me:  (with a slight tone of frustration)  Okay, but what did we see that was really, really cool and our friends in America will probably never see it?
Lily:  (Thinks for a minute)  Hmmm.  Oh, well, we saw a chief in kente cloth with a crown on his head and another man walking behind him with a big gold rod and there were about 5 other people who stood up every time that he stood up and they were all dressed in fancy clothes.  Is that what you're talking about?
Me:  Yes Lily, that's what I was thinking of, didn't you think that was cool?
Lily:  (shrugs shoulders)  Yeah, I guess so.

So, all of you John Deere lawn tractor owners out there, apparently your mowers are more exciting than an African tribal chief in full regalia, complete with his entourage!  Crazy kids!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Holding the Ropes

"I will venture to go down, but remember that you must hold the ropes." William Carey, missionary to India

Recently, I read this quote on a friend's blog and though I had heard it before, it has really been resonating in my heart.  Our family is so very blessed to have some really faithful "rope holders" in our lives.  I can't imagine doing what we are doing without the amazing support we have had.  I know that the Lord uses lots of resources to sustain people through difficulties.   For us, one of those things has been the body of Christ and some really faithful churches.  

I wanted to take a minute to share some of the ways that we have been encouraged by folks around the world and challenge you to consider if there is someone serving overseas that the Lord might have you to minister to in some way.  There's nothing fancy here, just ways that we have been blessed

  1. Pray.  Seriously, pray.  I know it doesn't seem like much but it is EvErYtHiNg.  The really, really tough days aren't fixed by chocolate chips or Dr. Pepper.  It is the prayers of God's people that sustain us.  I can't tell you how many times we've been at wit's end, so we've decided to ask people to pray and almost immediately we have seen issues resolved and obstacles removed.  It's not magic, but it is powerful.
  2. Remember them.  And let them know that you remember them.  Just a 15 second facebook post or a quick e-mail to let them know that, while they may not be in your zip code, they're still in your heart.  Sometimes we feel as if we don't really "belong" anywhere.  Knowing that we're not forgotten can mean so much.
  3. Remember their children.  We have been very blessed that we've had some moms who have really "gotten" what it must be like for our kids to have made this move.  They've made an effort to keep our children alive in their children's mind.  Doing things like having their kids make cards or short videos to send to our kids have made our children feel like they have two homes.  They are so blessed to have friends on both sides of the world.  Just yesterday, Lily got a package from a discipleship class at the church we attended in the States.  These girls sent her a birthday gift, but the thing that was so meaningful was that they sent a picture of each of the girls, taken with birthday props.  They each wrote Lily a note and we all enjoyed looking at the pictures and seeing how her peers had grown.  She is excited about going for our stateside because she knows that she has friends who still care.
  4. Consider sending mail.  I have one friend who writes occasionally.  Like a real, genuine letter.  We actually both have FB and sometimes exchange e-mails, but I really love it when she sends a letter.  And what I love the most is that in it, she shares all kinds of daily details.  Not just the big bullet points that make social media or an annual Christmas letter, but the little things.  The kind of things we might have chatted about during a homeschool co-op lunch.  Her letters make me smile because I know it took her time to write them and it's such a gesture of love, but also because she assumes that I still want to be a part of her world.  And I do.   
  5. Extend grace.  Understand that this is a really stressful life that we're learning to live here.  There are all of the stresses that you would juggle in the States (parenting, marriage, finances, work, tight schedules, etc.) but then there are also many, many challenges that come from trying to do all of that cross-culturally.  It is exhausting.  And sometimes we want to quit and we may be grumpy and we may take a lot more from relationships than we are able to give.  There are times when our internet won't work or we're just so fried that we can't stand the thought of connecting to the first world.  Don't take it personally.  We're sorry, please love us anyway.  
  6. Ask questions about their lives.  Then listen to their answers.  We know you don't want to hear all about our life in West Africa. We promise not to pull out more than one carousel of slides at any given social event.  But do remember, that this is our life.  We're not on a trip.  We're investing our lives here.  Take the time to ask even a few questions about what we're doing.  What we enjoy, what we're looking forward to, that sort of thing.  This can be a very isolated life, having a few people who care about the details of it can go a long way.
  7. Welcome them when they are back in the States.  We were overwhelmed with love during our two month visit last fall.  People were kind in so many ways.  I would encourage you to follow the Holy Spirit in how to serve, but we were blessed with everything from hand-me-down clothes to dinner invitations to playdates for our kids.  We were thankful for so many things like gift of manufacturers coupons, giftcards to restaurants, Groupon tutorials, free vehicle maintenance, used suitcases, groceries waiting for us, and so much more.  If you can think of it and you can execute it, chances are they will find it an encouragement.

To all of our rope holders, I say a big thank you!  We are so blessed by all of you.  

Here's Lily with her birthday cards!