Families, Children & Marriage, Technology

Beyond selfies: Using Instagram to tell whole-hearted stories

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 11.06.29 PMWe flew down the freeways to the beach for a quick dip and some kite-flying. I almost didn’t go – it’s such a hassle to load everything in the van and deal with the aftermath of the sand covered bodies. But when 4 o’clock arrived and we were starting to bicker and still wearing our pajamas, it seemed like a better idea to escape the sweltering-house-with-the-broken-AC and make the trek to the shore. We picked up Chipotle on the way and schlepped our beach gear to the waterfront. We flew kites, chased the waves, and cuddled close as we watched the sun set.

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It was one of my good-mothering moments, the kind I feel confident documenting with photos and sentimental goobly-gob. I’d pushed through my resistance and come out on the other side in parenting bliss. I’d remembered to pause and savor the sweetness of the moments one-at-a-time.

The day before that, however, was not quite so picture worthy. I’d grumped at the kids for their deficiencies, snapped at the little things, and tried to hide from them/eat chocolate in the bathroom at least three different times throughout the day. You can bet there were no Instagram postings that day!

As a culture that places high value on storytelling, I often wonder how the stories we tell reflect our overarching values. Certainly perfection, glamour, and adventure dominate the vast majority of the motives behind how many present their lives. But what gets lost when we hide mundane moments like when we’re stuck in bed with a cold, mildly depressed, and too worn-out to wash the piling dishes? Where’s the place to remember the late-night conversations about insecurities or worries or dreams? Who do we become when we photoshop blemishes out of our lives?

As a mama who loves writing, photography, and technology, I’ve grown increasingly reflective on how I use these venues for my own growth and reflection. Rather than allowing technology to control me, I’m aiming toward practicing a mindful approach to technology that is both whole-hearted and wise. As I work out how my interaction with technology shapes my soul, one of the most enjoyable practices I’ve developed is using Instagram as means to remind myself of these desires. I love finding ways to weave my faith into all parts of my life, and integrating it with my technology use is just one more way to do this. To clarify, I don’t mean I quote a Bible verse or throw #praiseJesus onto my posts, but I do try to recognize where the meaningful exists as I document days. Here are a few ways I do this:

  1. Document gratefulness. I learned this practice first from Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts in which she keeps a running list of things she’s grateful for. I tried making a list and lost it before I got to #25. At this point, I thought to myself, “I love photography. I have a phone that I don’t lose. Why don’t I just take pictures?” And voila! Instagram became my unspoken “gratefulness list”. I don’t always explicitly state gratefulness for the object of a photo, but documenting small moments of gratitude in my heart sets a tone for the larger moments.
The day that was brightened immensely by the kitten showing up in my classroom
The day that was brightened immensely by the kitten showing up in my classroom
(I admit that many of these such 'gratitude posts' revolve around food!)
(I admit that many of these such ‘gratitude posts’ revolve around food!)
And occasionally comfy shoes :)
And occasionally comfy shoes 🙂

2. Remember the emotion. My days are jam-packed with all sorts of emotions. While it’s prudent to not overshare, sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge that emotions do exist. Finding symbols that evoke my emotion allows me to share the pieces of myself that are trickier to photograph physically.

coffee cup
“This coffee cup holds such sentimentality for me. I was a young mother, slow to the game of parenting, not at all sure of what I had gotten myself into. We were at an aquarium, marveling at one of these amazing leafy Sea dragons, my little one in my arms when my heart first woke to the beauty of motherhood. Her wonder at the sea overwhelmed me, melting a heart held stoic for far too long. It was in that moment that I awoke to the remarkable journey this mama thing would be – the wonder, the sacrifice, the discovery, the confusion, the hope, the fear, the frustration, the beauty – all priceless gifts of guiding precious little lives toward wholeness.”
Playing chess with my son, and he rearranged the pieces like this. "it's more like our family," he says. #interraciallove #proudmama
Playing chess with my son, and he rearranged the pieces like this. “it’s more like our family,” he says. #interraciallove #proudmama

3. Behold the wonder in the mundane. There’s nothing like pausing to consider the wonder in the ordinary days. When I catch glimpses of such moments, I like to capture them to remind myself to remember the value of the small things.

The day hubby picked me flowers from our backyard because he thought they were "happy"
The day hubby picked me flowers from our backyard because he thought they were “happy”
This place. #speaksmylanguage #whimsy #wonder
This place. #speaksmylanguage #whimsy #wonder
"Raspberries don't last too long in our house!!! #almostgone"
“Raspberries don’t last too long in our house!!! #almostgone”
Cheeseballs requested for the par-tay. I haven't tasted these things for almost 3 decades!! Reminds me of my Grandpa Charlie 😊
Cheeseballs requested for the par-tay. I haven’t tasted these things for almost 3 decades!! Reminds me of my Grandpa Charlie 😊
Smells of home...
Smells of my Grandma’s lilac bush from home…

4. Enjoy a little chuckle. There’s nothing like laughing to remind us of life’s joys…capturing the giggles that cross my path help me appreciate them even more!

Relic from my hometown museum #smalltownlife
Relic from my hometown museum #smalltownlife
chicken butt
LA food adventures
Sign from a book sale
Sign from a local book sale
Me, as a My Little Pony, drawn by a student who *should have been* paying attention but clearly wasn't!
Me, as a My Little Pony, drawn by a student who *should have been* paying attention but clearly wasn’t!

5. Savor quiet space. I love to remember the peaceful spaces I find. Wherever it is, when I stop to savor it’s beauty, I remember its peace in my heart years later.

tree
A luscious tree in Pittsburgh where I paused to pray and appreciate the green.
Sabbath
Relishing Sabbath at the beach on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Breathing in a rooftop view in the city at sunset
Breathing in a rooftop view in the city at sunset
Hiking through some woods on the top of a mountain. "It's just like Narnia!" my kids shouted.
Hiking through some woods on the top of a mountain. “It’s just like Narnia!” my kids shouted.

6. Celebrate goodness. The news is full of so many tragedies that I find myself preserving stories and words that inspire. It helps me focus on what is also good in the world.

When your nine-year-old son draws a picture of you and writes this: "My mom's name is Jody Fernando. She is an amazing parent. She likes going on long walks in our neighborhood, she likes to drink coffee, and play board games. But her favorite thing to do is travel to places all over the world! However, she does not like to take care of screaming babies and being very cold! She makes me laugh when she makes up jokes. She is a good mom because she helps me in hard times. Most of all, I love her because she is fun to be around. I am lucky to have such a special mom. She is the BEST."
When your nine-year-old son draws a picture of you and writes this: “My mom’s name is Jody. She is an amazing parent. She likes going on long walks in our neighborhood, she likes to drink coffee, and play board games. But her favorite thing to do is travel to places all over the world! However, she does not like to take care of screaming babies and being very cold! She makes me laugh when she makes up jokes. She is a good mom because she helps me in hard times. Most of all, I love her because she is fun to be around. I am lucky to have such a special mom. She is the BEST.”
#priorities
#priorities
Teared up at this ad from the @pdsoros foundation about new Americans who are recent grads and poised to make significant contributions to society. I couldn't help but think of the many immigrant parents I know who have sacrificed their careers, lives, and comfort for the successes and growth of their children #immigrantstrong
Teared up at this ad from the @pdsoros foundation about new Americans who are recent grads and poised to make significant contributions to society. I couldn’t help but think of the many immigrant parents I know who have sacrificed their careers, lives, and comfort for the successes and growth of their children #immigrantstrong

women

Reminders from museums that things DO change, even they are slow going!
Relics from museums that show that times DO change, even they are slow going at times!

To be clear, I don’t ever actually state that this is what I’m doing on my actual Instagram account. I just do it. However, when I have moments to pause and reflect, I find myself scrolling back through my posts, grinning and grateful for the richness of the stories they tell.

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Have you found effective ways to integrate your faith with your technology use? I’d love to hear more in the comments below!

  • For an outstanding podcast on cultivating a more thoughtful use of technology, check out the Note to Self podcast.
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Education, Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

A new season

Every so often in life, I run across these lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot

Since I’ve lived through a lot of ‘new’, the sentiment always catches me off guard when it proves itself true and I find myself in a familiar place that I’m rediscovering all over again. Such is this next season of life for me.

I started my career teaching in an urban middle school, then a suburban high school and finally a rural elementary school before settling in higher education as a teacher trainer. After a decade of working in higher education, however, I’ve recently rejoined the K-12 system. Working in the academic world was delightful for its intellectual stimulation and scheduling flexibility, but when I was ready to pursue full time work again, its limitations exasperated me and I realized it might be time for a change.

So this week, I found myself once again standing before well over 150 adolescents, donning both my intimidating-but-warm-teacher-face and the-comfiest-shoes-I-own, watching them bumble over themselves as they explore who they are for the first time. While it was nowhere near the quiet-office and peaceful-space the contemplative in me hoped for, it was not at all unknown to me. In fact, it was a little like coming home.

It will most-certainly be a shift for me. I will be teaching Spanish at an arts-based charter school in a town known more for its rough edges than its shiny ones. Yet after only a few days with these students, I am reminded afresh than even in broken places, there is often softness hiding between the cracks. I see it in the passion of teachers serving as role models for growing minds. I see it in the quiet boy in the corner, both unsure and eager at the same time. I see it in the eager chatterbox-of-a-girl, testing limits, exploring options, expressing curiosities. I hope for it when I glimpse hardness in the eyes of a young man whose softness seems to have been buried long ago. I see it in the presence of parents as they wait alongside their nervous new students.

As I watched the events of Ferguson unfold this past week, I realized with great sorrow that once again, these stories will reflect ‘my kids’ – faces so often portrayed and perceived inaccurately in the public sphere. Tears brimmed over the realities that young black men face as I remembered the faces of so many former students who broke the stereotypes society created, and it made me grateful for the opportunity to relearn these lessons all over again.

While I know parts of me will long for the quieter corner of the academic world (and an occasional place to sit down!), I am exceedingly grateful that this job allows me to live out my life-purposes of caring for the tenderhearted, welcoming the stranger, and listening to the unheard through this next season. I also see a theme arising in my life of smoothing rough places that I’m looking forward to exploring more.

As a result, I’ve also determined my season of speaking is shifting to one of listening which will likely mean that this blog will fall largely silent. While I love the time I’ve had to write here this year, my time and energy will more likely be spent focused more intensely on leaning into new realities. It has indeed been a pleasure to interact with so many of you in this virtual sphere, but for now I’ll be spending most of my time in the place where my career first began that taught me so much about living between worlds in the first place.

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If you’re new here and would like to read more, feel free to explore some of my more popular posts on race relations, culture, faith, and family.

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Helpful resources for raising biracial children

When I first became a mother, I knew I’d need a lot of help so I consulted a wide variety of resources from friends to family to professionals.  They were all immensely helpful in helping me understand and prepare for raising children.  With regards to raising biracial children, however, I felt distinctly alone.  No one I knew had done this before, and I was blazing a completely new trail.

So, I turned to my trusty friends The Books.  They gave me access to a world I didn’t know, and taught me about things that those from my world could not.  The internet and I became quite friendly too, for I was living in quite an isolated world where the internet became my only access to families like ours.  These were life-changing gifts, ones that offered me deep insight into how my children’s childhoods might be different than my own, and what I could do to help them develop a healthy identity and view of themselves.

The resources below include some of my favorite resources, as well as some new ones I’ve found.  Feel free to add resources that you’ve found helpful in the comments below!  books for parents header

raising biracial children

Raising biracial children
by Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey A. Laszloffy (2005)
 

I'm chocolate

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-concious World
by Marguerite Wright.

While this book focuses on black children, I found a lot that is quite applicable to biracial children from any background.  It’s by far the best book I’ve read on the topic.

Black Books Galore: Guide to Great African American Children’s Books
by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker

My sister-in-law just recommended this series to me and loves it.  Be sure to check out all the other titles in the series.

Check all that apply: Finding wholeness as a multiracial person
by Sundee Frazier
 

A great resource for biracial children and their parents that reflects on how to develop wholeness in biracial identities.

books for teachers

Since teachers spend so much time with our kids, I’ve often longed for teachers who are more aware of how to encourage and affirm my biracial children.  These are some great books that help teachers begin to acquire this knowledge.

we can't teach

We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, Multiracial Schools
by Gary Howard

A seminal book in the field, the title pretty much says it all (though the book is worth reading too!).

why_are_all_the_black_kids_sitting_together_in_the_cafeteria1

 
Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? and other conversations about race
by Beverly Daniel Tatum

I’ve quoted this book a lot recently – it’s another classic that is a great introduction to an understanding of race and psychology.  Definitely a must-read for teachers and parents alike.

books for children

The book market for books including biracial children is expanding slowly, and these are a few of my favorite ones for younger kids.  You can preview all the books on Amazon.

whoever you are

Whoever you are by Mem Fox

skin you live in

The skin you live in by Michael Tyler

how my parents

How my parents learned to eat by Ina R. Friendman

two mrs gibsons

Two Mrs. Gibsons by Toyomi Igus

amy hodgepodge

Amy Hodgepodge Series by Kim Wayans and Kevin Knotts

Here are a few great lists of multicultural children’s books as well:

organizations

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 9.24.50 PMInterracialFamily.org

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 9.25.46 PMMultilingual Living Magazine

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 9.26.57 PMMultiracial Americans of Southern California

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Project RACE: Reclassify All Children Equally

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Swirl Magazineblogs header

A life with subtitles by Sarah Quezada.

Bicultural Mom by Chantilly Patiño.

Biracial Families Blog by Amber

Multiracial Sky by Natasha Sky

Musing Momma by Ellie

SpanglishBaby: Raising Bilingual and Bicultural Kids

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What other resources for biracial families do you know about and love? If you have your own blog on raising biracial kids, please leave a link to your blog in the comments! 

Related Posts

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Speaking with children about race and some tips on how to start

Being biracial in a predominately white environment, my children began noticing race as soon as they could form thoughts more complicated than, “I want my sippy cup” and “I watch a movie?”  Having worked with plenty of biracial college students who were just beginning to discover their dual identity, we’ve intentionally spoken openly with our kids about their biracial identity from the beginning.  Like their bicultural identity, we wanted it to be something that had always been a part of who they are, not something that they suddenly discovered one day.

In an effort to help them embrace all sides of themselves, we’ve had some great chats with our kids about their identity over the years.  A Latina girl in my daughter’s first pre-school class named Rachel did cause some confusion for a bit when our daughter began telling people that she was “bi-rachel.”  We also faced quite the drama attempting to explain to her that Jesus wasn’t actually white.  Yet even in the midst of confusion and drama, we’ve found it essential to talk with our kids about this aspect of themselves and their world regularly.  

Growing up white in a mostly white community, I never talked about race, so it was a steep learning curve for me.  Because I hadn’t spoken or thought about race as a child, I was initially skeptical about the value of the conversation itself. “Aren’t we brainwashing them?” I’d asked my husband. “Why don’t we just let them notice what they notice without bringing it up?”

He’d assure me that it was quite a normal – even healthy – reality to talk about race as a family and I’d acquiesce, acknowledging that my culture’s silence on the matter hadn’t helped race relations much.  We also couldn’t really skirt the conversation easily since even our extended family is made up of a variety of races.  The kids were going to see it, and we needed to give them words to help frame their understanding.

Because of the reality of living in a racialized society (make sure to watch the video above to understand the full impact of this on children), it’s imperative for all families to speak openly about raceespecially white families. As a teacher, I learned that it was helpful to have a few ‘speeches’ prepared for a wide variety of situations, and parenting doesn’t feel that different.  Knowing how to talk about hushed-up topics with our kids like sex and race and disappointment and doubt is important. In that vane, here are a few suggestions for speaking about race to stick in a back-pocket for the day that conversation does arise.

Engage, don’t shush.

Psychological studies show that children notice racial differences as young as 3.  Sometimes, they might say embarrassing things that make parents nervous like “Why is that guy’s skin dirty?” or “You don’t match your mom.”  Psychologist Beverly Tatum suggests that if white parents are uncomfortable talking about race and respond by silencing them that the children learn race is not to be talked about at all, even if they do notice it.  The better way is to engage children on the topic and help them understand.

Speak factually.

Teach your kids the word melanin and explain how it works in human bodies.  It’s a great science lesson!  Just like sex, if we don’t explain the basic facts about how race works, young children are likely to develop their own theories like thinking others turn brown from things like eating too much chocolate or simply being ‘dirty’.

Speak figuratively.

To help our kids understand their biracial identity as young children, we would pour a glass of milk into a clear glass and then add chocolate syrup.  “Mama’s the milk.  Thaatha’s the chocolate,” we’d explain.  Then we’d stir it together.  “And you’re what happens when we mix it all together!”

Beverly Tatum (1997) would explain race to kids by cracking white and brown eggs, talking about how they’re different colors on the outside, but the exact same on the inside.

When our kids were younger, we also talked openly about the inaccuracies of racial classifications.  “Mama’s not really white, I’m more peach, right?”  Then we’d brainstorm what colors we could use for their skin: caramel, butterscotch, tan.  We’d adjust song lyrics and sing together:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Brown and caramel and peach,
Chocolate and  coffee,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Define race without deficiency

When we speak about differences between people, it’s important to be careful to speak without making someone else seem less than.  Statements like “her skin has too much melanin” suggest that something is wrong rather than just different.  Instead, it’s far more affirming to everyone to say things like, “We all have different colors of skin.  Isn’t it pretty like a rainbow?”

Pay attention to the surroundings you create

In simple things like choosing library books or decorations, be aware of creating a space in the home that represents a wide variety of people.  If children don’t see diversity in their immediate communities, they can at least see it in books they read and movies they watch.  This is especially important for families who live in areas that don’t have a lot of diversity where children are more naturally exposed to people of other races.  See this post for more ideas on how to incorporate diversity more deeply into family life.

Discuss discrepancies

When people of color are portrayed stereotypically or negatively in the media, bring it up. When a nativity scene or Bible shows all white people, talk with children about how this isn’t actually accurate.   We don’t always prevent our kids from seeing such inaccuracies because they’re great conversation starters when we do see them.  We also then make attempts to find other resources that balance out the inaccurate stereotype they’ve been exposed to.  For example, our kids love old sitcoms like I love Lucy and the Brady Bunch.  Many of these shows carry subliminal messages or microagressions about race that were common to their time.  We’ve made sure to also introduce shows (like the Cosby Show) that portray people of color with positive and empowering messages and talk about the how each show portrays the people in it.

When it comes to race, we must remember that our children learn from both what we say and what we don’t say.  Silence doesn’t always mean approval or acceptance.  Sometimes it creates a whole-lot-of-ignorance and breeds significant misunderstanding.  If we ourselves don’t know how to talk about race in productive, healthy, non-stereotyping and respectful ways, we won’t be able to teach them how to talk about it either.

Related Posts

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Books, Families, Children & Marriage

The gift of seeing themselves: Strengthening children’s identities through multicultural literature

It’s quite likely that I can attribute roughly 30-50% of my faith to writers, and I must also credit the same to the growth of my understanding of culture. As a result, I have a special love for the beautifully told stories in children’s picture books, so multicultural literature has naturally played a huge role in our family’s life.  (Check out some of our favorites here.)  It’s been my way of helping our children to see both stories of themselves and others reflected in their lives.

One of my very-favorite essays on the value of children reading stories in which they see themselves reflected in the stories is written by Mitali Perkins, an author of quite a few young adult fiction books on children living between worlds.  I used to read it to classes of teachers-in-training that I taught and would swallow my tears every-single-time I read it as I felt the intense emotion in her words.  It’s one of those pieces that just never leaves you, and I’m quite pleased that she’s given me permission to share it here.

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The Magic Carpet

by Mitali Perkins

I had a magic carpet once.  It used to soar to a world of monsoon storms, princesses with black braids, ferocious dragons, and talking birds.

“Ek deen chilo akta choto rajkumar,” my father would begin, and the rich, round sounds of the Bangla language took me from our cramped New York City apartment to a marble palace in ancient India.

Americans made fun of my father’s lilting accent and the strange grammatical twists his sentences took in English.  What do they know? I thought, perching happily beside him.

In Bangla, he added his own creative flourishes to classic tales by Rabindranath Tagore or Sukumar Roy. He embellished folktales told by generations of ancestors, making me chuckle or catch my breath.  “Tell another story, Dad,” I’d beg.

But then I learned to read.  Greedy for stories, I devoured books in the children’s section of the library. In those days, it was easy to conclude that any tale worth publishing originated in the so-called West, was written in English, and featured North American or European characters.

Slowly, insidiously, I began to judge my heritage by colonial eyes.  I asked my mother not to wear a sari, her traditional dress, when she visited me at school.

I avoided the sun so that the chocolate hue of my skin wouldn’t darken.  The nuances and the cadences of my father’s Bangla began to grate on my ears.  “Not THAT story again, Dad,” I’d say.  “I’m reading right now.”

My father didn’t give up easily.  He tried teaching me to read Bangla, but I wasn’t interested. Soon, I no longer came to sit beside him, and he stopped telling stories all together.

As an adult, I’ve learned to read Bangla.  I repudiate any definition of beauty linked to a certain skin color. I’ve even lived in Bangladesh to immerse myself in the culture.

These efforts help, but they can’t restore what I’ve lost. Once a child relinquishes her magic carpet, she and her descendants lose it forever.

My children, for example, speak only a word or two in Bangla.  Their grandfather half-heartedly attempts to spin a tale for them in English, and they listen politely.

“Is it ok to go play?” they ask, as soon as he’s done. I sigh and nod, and they escape, their American accents sounding foreign inside my father’s house.

“Tell another story, Dad,” I ask, pen in hand, and he obliges. My father’s tales still have the power to carry me to a faraway world. The Bangla words weave the same colorful patterns in my imagination.

My pen, however, like his own halting translation, is unable to soar with them. It scavenges in English for as evocative a phrase, as apt a metaphor, and falls short. I can understand enough Bangla to travel with my father but am not fluent enough to take English-speakers on the journey.

My decision to leave mother tongue and culture behind might have been inevitable during the adolescent passage of rebellion and self-discovery. But I wonder if things could have turned out differently.

What if I stumbled across a translation of Tagore or Roy in the library, for example? “Here’s a story my dad told me!” I imagined myself thinking, leafing through the pages. “It doesn’t sound the same in English. Maybe I should try reading it in Bangla.”

Or, what if a teacher handed me a book about a girl who ate curry with her fingers, like me? Except that this girl was in a hurry to grow up so she could wrap and tuck six yards of silk around herself, just like her mother did.

“Wear the blue sari to the parent-teacher meeting, Ma,” I might have urged.

Chocolate-colored children today have access to more stories than I did. A few tales originating in their languages have been translated, illustrated, and published.

Characters who look and dress and eat like them fill the pages of some award-winning books. But it’s not enough. Many continue to give up proficiency in their mother tongues and cultures.

“Here’s a story from YOUR world,” I want to tell them. “See how valuable you are?”

“Here’s a book in your language. See how precious it is?”

If we are convincing enough, a few of them might transport us someday to amazing destinations through the power of a well-woven tale.

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This essay was originally published here.

Read more by Mitali Perkins

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Why toys need to reflect racial diversity (Here’s lookin’ at you, Lego!)

Image credit: Chinian

Our change.org petition to ask Lego to make their minifigures more diverse is beginning to make the rounds on Twitter (Way to go to those who are sharing it – keep it going, especially on Facebook!), so naturally I’ve received some push back.  It made me think that my mama-bear reaction to fight for what benefits my biracial kids would also benefit from a more thorough reflection of the issue.

I distinctly remember the first time, nearly 15 years ago now, that I saw an ad on the wall in a Springfield, Virginia Wal-mart containing people who weren’t white.  It’s hard to believe now, but back then I did a double take because it caught me so off guard. As a white person, I was so accustomed to seeing only people who looked like me in advertisements that I hadn’t ever considered the fact that they only represented one portion of our country’s population.

A lot has changed in advertising in those fifteen years, and the change had to start from somewhere.  I appreciate the variety of voices who have spoken up for better, non-stereotyped representation of all sorts of people in mainstream media (no surprise that my new BFF is Cheerios!). While there are certainly issues far more serious and pressing than the color of Lego minifigures, in the process of pursuing justice, there are a lot of little stories that matter right alongside the really big ones.  I believe this is one of those little stories.

As we’ve raised biracial children, we’ve searched long and hard for toys and books that reflect a wide variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives.  It hasn’t always been an easy or successful effort, but it’s been an important way we affirm this piece of our children’s identity. As a result, while a few may view such a petition as ‘silly’, I view it as yet another small step toward leveling the playing field in our broken racial history, and an opportunity to tell a new story to our children.  Here are a few reasons why:

THE-OBVIOUS

1. Duplo already did it.  When my son was little, his aunt bought him a whole set of multiracial Duplo figures.  We loved them and are still waiting for the Lego minifigure versions.  Strawberry Shortcake, Dora, Diego, Backyardigans, Little Einsteins, Sesame Street, My Little Pony, Wild Kratts, The Electric Company and so many other brands incorporate characters representing a range of physical appearances. Why not Lego?

2.  People aren’t all one color.  Even if I could buy the rationale that yellow is a neutral color, there’s still the problem of Legos minifigures only reflecting one color. If Lego wants to keep with the ‘neutrality’ theme, then at least they could create a variety of skin tones – green, purple, blue, pink, etc. – if yellow is really neutral, then so are these colors.  Creating more hues would at least acknowledge that skin color varies among people.

3.  Children see yellow as a color for light-skinned people.  When you give children crayons to draw a picture, they reach first for peach to draw light-complected people.  If it’s not there, they pick yellow.  By creating only yellow-skinned figures, Lego leaves brown children wondering why they were left out and doesn’t allow white children to encounter anything but themselves.

THE-PHILOSOPHICAL

1. Children believe what they see.  There is a long history of studies tracking children’s views of race, a recent one being CNN’s doll study on Anderson Cooper that clearly shows both white and black children picking white children as “better, smarter, nicer, more behaved.” This study and many others highlight the need to positively reframe how all children understand and view race (not to mention other characteristics like gender and ability and economic status), and one way we can shift this from a young age is through the subliminal story their toys tell them.  

We need to ask ourselves if all children encounter representations of themselves in what they play with or read, and if they ever encounter representations of children who aren’t like them? When one color is dominant, it sends clear messages to both the privileged and the oppressed that the story isn’t changing for anyone. This story hurts us all.

2. Children internalize what they see. It’s no secret that light colors are symbolically good and dark colors are symbolically bad, but we need to pause to consider the deeper story this persistent symbolism teaches our children, particularly in regards to race. By making broad and intentional efforts to redefine the subtle stigma attached to the colors used to represent skin color, toy companies have the opportunity to tell children of all racial backgrounds a story of value for everyone, not just the light-skinned hands that have traditionally held the power.

3. We live in a broken racial story.  Probably the most concerning piece to me about the yellow Lego minifigures (and the predominance of white dolls in general) is the underlying story it tells our kids:  Valuable people are one color only – the lighter the better. This isn’t only damaging to all the brown children out there, but also to the white ones because it never disrupts their perception of the world as just-like-them.  

When people suggest that Lego mini-figures don’t have a race, they say it in the context of a world that has struggled under the hand of white racial domination for centuries.  This argument may have been valid in the Middle Ages when skin hue didn’t carry the historical baggage it does today, but this is not our story and we must live within the reality we have, not the one we wish we had. In a world that is rapidly globalizing, we are closer to one another than ever, but the decreasing distance doesn’t automatically produce increased understanding.  To dismantle this broken racial piece of the story we’ve told ourselves, we need to create a new one, one that does a better job sharing and representing power.

So in the end, while yes, making Lego minifigures in brown and peach and tan and butterscotch and caramel and chocolate and beige (or in purple and green and blue and pink and orange for that matter) might be a Little-Story, it’s the good Little-Stories that ultimately make up the good Big-Stories.  

The first time I saw someone who looked different than me represented in an advertisement, it made me pause and think, “Oh, yeah. There are more people than just me. Maybe I should consider them, too.” It was only a little story in a blip of my life, but combined with so many other little stories, it’s shaped my Big Story into a more beautiful one than I could have ever imagined.

All the little stories. They matter.  

Let’s tell them well – especially to our children – so that we can all tell a better Big Story someday.

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Don’t forget!

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Dear Lego: Yellow is not a ‘neutral’ skin color

When my biracial son wrote this letter to the Lego company about the need for more racial diversity among Lego figures, I started thinking more deeply about the issue.  A friend of mine commented on Facebook that her son (now in his 20s) had written the company complaining that there weren’t any dark-skinned figures because he thought his dark-skinned cousin would feel left out.  At that time, Lego responded that they didn’t make different color mini-figures because “yellow was a ‘neutral’ skin color.”

I gasped.

Really, Lego?  

Have you ever given children a crayon and asked them to draw themselves?  White children use peach – OR YELLOW – for their skin and brown children DON’T.  Not ever. (Unless, perhaps, they wish the were a yellow Lego figure.)  Consider this picture my son drew of our beautiful family (I’m the peach one with the yellow hair.  He and his father are the brown ones):

family

I set aside my son’s offense temporarily until I went to the Lego website to submit his letter detailing his desire to organize his school into a strike against Lego because of the aforementioned ‘neutral’ yellow heads and, much to my great surprise, found this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.51.14 AMYes, folks, in 2014.  The centuries old narrative of one color dominating the world’s story needs to change.  Its hurting us all.

We now have a black president, 15% of marriages are interracial, over 20% of our country isn’t white, and that this figure is quickly increasing at a rapid rate.  Perhaps Lego missed the headlines that this is the world’s most typical – or in Lego’s words ‘neutral’ – person:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.46.39 PM

Not this:

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.51.11 PM

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Lego.  I love their creativity and quality and imagination. That’s why it shocks me so greatly that such a genius company dismisses such a significant reality of its consumer market.  Consider with me a few facts about Lego:

  • There are about 62 LEGO bricks for every one of the world’s 6 billion inhabitants.
  • More than 400 million people around the world have played with LEGO bricks.
  • 7 LEGO sets are sold by retailers every second around the world. (Neatorama)

Here’s part of a fascinating infographic by visual.ly that gives specific stats about mini figures themselves:

lego

Let’s think about these stats for a minute:

  • If 400 million people around the world have played with Legos, it’s likely safe to assume that quite a few of these people weren’t yellow – or male for that matter.
  • Lego has corporate Lego offices in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan – none countries which have a sizable ‘yellow’ population (unless, that is, Lego cares to recreate the demeaning slurs of yesteryear).
  • If this many Legos and mini figures are being created and sold around the world at such a rapid rate, surely there’s enough market interest for Lego to create characters of varying skin hues, genders and ethnicities.
  • If one of Lego’s 4 most frequently asked questions posted on their own website is about the color of the mini figures’ skin, I’m clearly not the first person to ask this question. This mama-bear wants to know why the problem is being dismissed and not fixed asap. My son is growing up quickly and there’s no time to waste.

Step up to the plate, Lego.  Surely your unparalleled creativity can come up with a better solution that allows all children to see themselves in your toys given the remarkable history of innovation you have always shown.  Stop the excuses about yellow heads being ‘neutral’ – #werenotbuyingit  even the kids see straight through that one.  

swirl

Sign our petition to ask Lego to make their minifigures more diverse at Change.org.  Be sure to forward it along to your friends on Facebook or Twitter as well.  

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Dear Lego: Get your Butts to Work on Equality

Apparently, I’m raising a couple of activists.  My daughter was just complaining yesterday that Lego makes cool toys for boys and boring ones for girls, so there was much rejoicing in our house upon reading this letter that recently went viral:

Immediately after I showed this to my kids, my Lego-loving son son went straight to work on his own letter to the company.  When his older sister suggested that Mama might not approve of the ‘butt’ part, he responded, “Well, Mama says what she thinks, so I’m going to say what I think,” and proceeded to include his own vocabulary choice in his letter even though he knew it meant risking the loss of his precious screen time.  (Upon reading the letter, I thought it captured many children’s frustration with the company’s lack of attention to diversity well, so in this case we applauded his accurate choice of vocabulary and had a good little chuckle ourselves!).

He’s not one for beating around the bush, this kid.  His teacher recently told me that when his class was discussing the history of Native Americans, she made a comment along the lines of, “The Europeans did a few bad things to the Native Americans.” to which my son promptly responded, “Really?!?  Just a few???”

His keen mind sees straight to the core of so many things, and he captured another aspect of Lego’s bias so perfectly in his letter below that I couldn’t resist asking him if he would mind guest-posting on my blog.  He graciously agreed.  So without further adieu, I introduce to you my slightly sassy, ever truth-telling and fabulous 8 year old son, Jehan:

lego letterFor those of you not proficient in reading 8-year-old-handwriting, here’s a transcription:

Dear Lego,

I know you have to make white people in Lego, but I am biracial and I would like (and probably a lot of other people too) for you [to] make more dark skinned and Chinese legos.  I have never seen a Chinese Lego minifigure.  Now, if you don’t make these, I will ask me and my friends to go on a strike on Lego! So I mean now and maybe even my whole class!

So I suggest you get your Lego butts working or I will ask the whole school to do a strike on Lego.  Now my sister thinks I should NOT post this on Facebook, but a girl named [Charolotte] did, so I am!

Now I mostly play with girls.  I think girls aren’t all pink princesses because my friend Arie plays spies with me.  She has bows, guns, you name it.  Now, my other good friend Emma, she would like to have Lego girls too.  Maybe you could have a new form of Legos – Lego Adventure – Lego sales would go haywire.

From, Jehan

Families, Children & Marriage, Travel

The value of traveling with young children

trainI watched my children peer out of the bouncing train’s window, absorbing the views and smells and sights of Sri Lanka. In a sense, it was not at all a ‘new’ place to them – we have traveled here to visit grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins every few years since their infancy.  But in another sense, it is a brand new experience every time we come because with each trip, they know more, understand more, process more.

The sites from the train whizzed past us, poverty violently contradicting beauty, and I watched my children’s reactions to this just as carefully as I watched the scenery passing by.

DSC_2069 DSC_2050 DSC_2066 DSC_2081These were not views we saw regularly in our lives at home.  On the train, their strongest reaction was quietness (which is significant if you know my chatty son), and they didn’t say much about it at all until we came back to the States.

Two days after our return, my son climbed in the car after school and commented, “Mama, I think I’m just really into the world,” he declared matter-of-factly.

“What do you mean by that?” I’ve learned it’s best to always ask him for further clarification.  He has a bit of a history of mind-stretching conversations.

“Well, you know.  All the kids at school, they’re really into video games and stuff.  It’s all they talk about.  Me, I think about other things, like poverty and stuff.”

The views from the train entered my mind, and I waited for more.

“I mean, can’t someone do something about it, Mama?” he asked the very question I asked every single time I see injustice.  “Why do people have to live like that?  Can’t Barack Obama help them?”

I rejoiced for the awareness he showed and smiled at innocence.  Those train-views were sinking in, and he was starting to sort them out.

My intuitive daughter made a different kind of observation, “The people seem happier there, mama.”  Already she senses the emptiness of accumulation and busyness, noticing the up-side of living without.  My father-in-law used to say that it takes a long time to see the good in a place like Sri Lanka, but she sees it without delay.

Over the years, I’ve had my moments of wondering if we’ve been crazy to repeatedly take our children to a developing country plagued by war, dengue fever, and flying cockroaches.  When they were babies and toddlers, I was nearly convinced we were crazy.  Nine hour jet lag didn’t look too great on any of us except my energizer-bunny-of-a-husband in those years, and it would be a bit of an understatement to say we had some rough moments on those trips.  So why do we embrace the difficulty, the seeming risk of it all?  

One of the strongest lessons I learned when my husband and I were dating was to make decisions out of conviction and not fear. I’ve carried this concept with me into parenting, and it has helped clarify many decisions – especially the idea of traveling with our kids.  Though we don’t always live close by, we value our families deeply, and want our children to have the opportunity to know and learn from them.  This value of family connectedness held more conviction than my fear of bombs or dengue or flying cockroaches.  While the conviction didn’t erase the fears, it certainly put them in perspective.

In the earliest years of parenting, our decision to travel with our children was merely a hunch that it would be good for them in the long run.  “Start as you mean to go on” became our motto, for we wanted the world to be something that was as much a part of them as their hometown, and we knew that to do this, it should be something they had always known.

As they grow up, periodic responses like my son’s are confirming our hunch.  Trip after trip, I watch them connect with bits of themselves that they can’t find here in the US.  I rejoice quietly when I hear them use mulli and akka (the Sinhala words for little brother and big sister) for each other, when they call their father Thaathi with a Sri Lankan accent instead of an American one, when my daughter asks me to put her hair in a really low ponytail because “that’s how a lot of people wear it here”, or when they critique each other on proper finger-eating techniques.  While these are small and simple details, to me they speak loudly that our children are embracing all sides of themselves, proud to be shaped by both sides of the world.

They are by no means walking this path between worlds perfectly – their penchant for pizza and entertainment rivals most kids – but they’re doing it well, leaning in with whole hearts and open eyes.  It’s the sort of thing that brings a mama to her knees, grateful for the chance to walk alongside the unfolding of wonder and compassion.

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Books, Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

9 ways to help children develop global awareness

Before our kids were even born, my husband and I knew we wanted to raise our children with an awareness of global reality.  Once they actually arrived, however, we found this easier said than done – especially when living in either isolated or wealthy communities.

When our kids were old enough to process more than Cheerios and Elmo, we wanted to help them develop an understanding of concepts less prominent in American mainstream culture like community, respect for elders, simplicity and generosity that was shaped by something other than the Disney Channel and their peers. Since my husband spent half of his childhood in a developing country at war and the majority of his family still lives there, we were especially keen to help our children growing up amidst privilege understand these realities more deeply. We’ve made attempts at this in a variety of ways, hoping that a few of them will stick:

books header

Beatrice's GoatAn early favorite was reading Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier, a true story about a girl in a village whose life changes all because of the gift of a single goat.  There is a developing genre of children’s books telling stories of empowerment instead of pity that includes other titles like One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Difference and The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough.  These books are all part of Citizen Kid, a book series designed to help children become better global citizens.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.24.12 AMProviding a glimpse into a positive view of diversity, Norah Dooley and Peter Thornton have written an absolutely fabulous series about a child who explores the world in her neighborhood by sampling the variations of foods they each enjoy.  Titles include Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Brings Noodles and Everybody Serves Soup.  My other all-time favorite storybooks that showcase the world are How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World and Abuela.

A life like mine

Another genre of children’s books we’ve loved are illustrated non-fiction books about actual children around the world.  Our favorites include A life like mine: How children live around the worldChildren just like me: A unique celebration of how children live around the world, If the World were a Village, and The Usborne Book of People of the World.

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 2.50.40 PM

Having grown weary of too many depictions of a white Jesus loving on only white children, I’ve also been in search of children’s bibles that reflect the whole world God created.  My favorite is The Jesus Storybook Bible, and World Vision also recently published God’s Love for You Bible Storybook.

videos header

Videos can provide a more tangible reflection of global realities than books, and watching has helped our children get a better sense of how other children live around the world.  Citizen Kid and World Vision both feature child-appropriate videos that explain concepts like the need for clean water, microenterprise and education.  MamaHope also has an excellent series of short videos called “Stop the Pity” which portray those living in poverty with dignity and respect.  Compassion International has a great site (that includes a downloadable study guide!) for kids to learn about poverty called Quest for Compassion.  I’m also a fan of fun videos like Where the Hell is Matt which show the joy and humanity that span the globe.

service header

My son chasing a chicken in Ecuador
My son chasing a chicken in Ecuador

While much more challenging when our kids were younger, we’re now in a stage where we can actively participate as a family in service projects.  We’ve helped serve meals for the homeless, visited nursing homes and participated in a service learning trip to Ecuador together.  (While taking toddlers to another continent was certainly a challenge, it has been helpful to embed a personal connection to other realities in their minds.)  I know other families who help at food pantries or tutoring programs.  Serving helps children see beyond themselves, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much my kids genuinely enjoy it.  I’m also a thrift store fan and enjoy talking with my kids about how this kind of shopping serves more than just our own purposes.

food header

We eat at ethnic restaurants as frequently as possible, and have worked hard to help our kids learn about other cuisines.  When we lived in an area where the closest thing to ethnic food was a Chinese/pizza buffet, I buckled down and learned a whole variety of Asian recipes to cook at home.  As a result, we eat Sri Lankan food (check out my curry recipe here) at least twice a month and Asian food about half the time at home.  While they still prefer pizza and chicken nuggets, they don’t scoff at Chinese food anymore and are willing to try a wide variety of foods.  This wasn’t a simple process (there have been a lot of ‘eeewwws’), but our insistence to always try new food is starting to pay off.  Here are some ethnic recipes to try with kids and some tips for introducing your kids to ethnic food.
travel header

jehan horn
Entertaining aunties and uncles

We’ve also made intentional efforts to help our kids experience a bigger world, whether it be exploring the town down the highway or crossing the globe to see family.  Being an intercultural family, we wanted the world to be something that had always been a part of our children, not something new to which they would be suddenly introduced.  While they don’t remember trips they made as babies, the family we visit remembers, and it has helped our kids develop a comfort with and attachment to another side of their background.  They’ve wrestled with uncles, played cricket with cousins, and kissed aunties.

We also make it a point to visit lots of museums to help the kids can see worlds beyond their own.  My favorite find is the Association of Science and Technology Centers Passport Program which allows free entrance to over 350 museums worldwide.  We recently visited a science center in Kuala Lumpur on a layover for FREE!  For those who travel around the US at all, it’s a quite economical way to visit a lot of different museums while only paying for membership to one.
hospitality headerWhile hosting guests was less possible during the PhD and toddler years, we’ve recently been enjoying welcoming others into our home.  Whether it’s our neighbors who recently moved from China or international students I teach, hosting guests from a variety of places and backgrounds in our home helps our children put a face to the world.  Whenever the news media about a particular country (particularly the Middle East) doesn’t match with the reality of the people they know, our kids notice the discrepancies and often make comments like, “But so-and-so wasn’t like that.”

My introduction to the world began in part because my mom’s family hosted an exchange student from Thailand when she was in high school. We hosted another student from Finland when I was a teenager, and building a sisterhood across cultures proved to be one of the most cherished and foundational experiences of my life.

generosity headerWe openly talk about giving with our kids, and two of the primary means we give are World Vision and Kiva.  Both fund the empowerment of people living in poverty.  I’ll often sit down with the kids and let them pick the microloans or projects we support.  The World Vision site is great because it often includes videos that we can watch with the kids to help them understand just what it means to lack clean water or education.  Watching these videos and then donating money to the projects have opened some great conversations.

imagination headerBecause children naturally love to play and imagine, stories of other worlds  like Narnia and Harry Potter have been helpful allegories in our house.  Such stories help children begin to understand how other lands may have differing customs and realities than their own.  The power dynamics between good and evil also help us explain the comple dynamics of world politics in more kid friendly ways.

simplicity headerI am not naturally a simple person.  I love shoes, ice cream, and soft beds.  I like to shop and window browse and decorate.  However, being married to a spouse from the developing world, I’ve had many occasions to grapple with what is necessity and what is luxury.  Hence, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years sorting out my materialism, and looking for ways to simplify my life in light of how much of the world lives.

It has in now way been a perfect journey (I still have a weak spot for shoes), but as it turns out, pretty much most things are luxury past food and shelter.  As a result, we do the best we can to live within our means – no credit card debt, used furniture (my favorite chair has a big hole in the arm), simple schedules and intentional budgets.  While we live in a small house and drive old cars, we often discuss with our kids how wealthy we are because we have these things at all, regardless of whether or not they are new.  In turn, our imperfect efforts toward simplicity remind us to be grateful for the abundance we do possess, and enable us to give generously as well.

What about you?  What are ways you help your children learn about the world?

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Families, Children & Marriage

Dancing between career and family

Join me at The Junia Project today where I reflect on the dance of submitting to one another in marriage.  I recently left a career I loved for my husband to advance in his, but the reasons behind our choice are different than they may appear.  Here’s a little glimpse…

One of the guiding principles my husband and I have operated on throughout our marriage is that we make our decisions for the good of the whole.  Given my type-A personality, I used to function as though our marriage was “The Me Show”.  As my husband and I matured in our relationship, however, I began to see that it wasn’t true equality if I ran the show – it was just reverse patriarchy.  The equality in our relationship was beneficial only so much as it sacrificially considered the other, and understanding this equality was what taught me how to submit not as a subordinate, but as an equal.  This dance of giving way to one another was about to take a new turn, and we both knew we’d need to learn some new steps.

Click here to read the rest on The Junia Project.

Families, Children & Marriage, Travel

Living far away

We rolled our bags down the entrance ramp with the other familes, backpacks heavy, batteries fully charged. Yet another trip back through the skies, the growing reality of our global lives. Friends come to us from an airplane this week, and more family the week after that. In a few short weeks, we will fly around the world to cover our fingers in curry and slap away pesky mosquitos and sweat ourselves silly with the cricket-playing-cousins.

The trips jam-pack themselves full of old joys and new discoveries. While there is no luxury of next-door life anymore, we are grateful for the squished-full-but-still-too-short days that the airplanes allow us together.

“What’s pot roast?” my daughter inquires of her meat-and-potatoes grandpa. He’s shocked she doesn’t know, but I affirm sheepishly that this childhood staple hasn’t ever made it into our family diet. I don’t even know how to buy a pot roast at the grocery store, let alone cook one, and food traditions at our house are more likely to include practicing proper techniques of finger-eating rice or chopstick-handling noodles.

I see words on a window at the airport, and am captured by their truth.

indy airport poem

This is how it feels, sometimes, life above the swirling earth. Always places we’re going to, places we’ve left behind spinning themselves around our lives between cornfields and curry, airplanes and freeways, water-buffalos-in-the-street and cows-in-the-barn. Always translating manners or looks or words for each other, occasionally missing something in the mix. Always navigating the risky waters of rural racism or third-world traffic patterns or airport security gates.

I sit on the airplane and think of my life between worlds, of the places I’m going and the ones I’ve come from. I think of how I can’t ever really go back to who I was and how I’m always becoming something new. I think of my students from the corners of the world and of my grandma from the corner of a cornfield. I think of the tractor induced traffic jams on back country roads and the breakneck speed and overflowing freeways of the city.

And I try to think them together – these worlds – for so many try to think them apart. I think of the grandma-from-the-West-African-bush with a giant smile and not a word of English making her way to the big city to see her first born grandchild. She smiled broad as she recounted how tall the buildings were. I think of a shivering young wife in a thin sweater slipping on ice for the first time in a bitter winter on her way to a new home. She shivers as she remembers, “It was sooo cold.” I think of a nervous young woman, in love across worlds, trying to impress her new family with her finger-eating skills only to fling half her plate of rice onto the ground.

Who are we becoming as we flit around the globe on these metal birds? I wonder.

It’s tempting to think I am the first to forge this path, but I am not. While some have tied themselves to the land, nomads have roamed for eons. They didn’t have airplanes or Skype, but the story tells itself the same.

Leave home.

Wander.

Make a new home in a strange land.

I think all the way back to Abraham, who did this very thing. Sometimes I wonder if he ever longed for the simplicity of just one home, if he struggled to make sense of the clash of the old and the new.  The Story says he did it by Faith, even though he didn’t know where he was going.  He probably made some mistakes in his new land – used the wrong words or touched the wrong thing or wore the wrong tunic. We don’t know about any of those details. What The Story determined we needed to see was Abraham’s faith to walk forward without knowing the destination.

Perhaps this is one little piece of thinking the world together: to trust that the beauty and strength and hope of the world far away runs just as deep and rich and true as the home that lingers in our memories. When we cross these caverns, our lives speak silently, echoing that we are better together than apart, that we must see more than just the broken ways of wounded people.

It used to bother me that all these worlds didn’t fit neatly in the box I thought they should.  Anymore, it usually just leaves me grinning for I’m growing to love the overflowing, shape-shifting nature of living on the bridge between bland pot roasts and spicy curries, flat cornfields and tiered rice paddies, slow tractors and speedy freeways.  While there is undeniable loss in living far away from all of our loved ones, it marches hand-in-hand with an unspeakable richness that comes from living between worlds.

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Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Recovering from graduate school atrophy

PhD.  

Piled high and Deep.

Pure hell and Destruction.

Penniless, helpless and Determined.

Permanent head Damage.

Prepared for a happy Death.

Whatever those darn little letters mean, they sure take a whole lot out of a body.  Don’t get me wrong, when less than one percent of the world gets a college education,  I am keenly aware of – and amazingly grateful for – the incredible opportunity it is to even enter this realm of education.  My hubby spent four years in a full-time PhD program on top of working full time and helping raise our spirited toddlers.  He’s a pretty remarkable guy with an intense work ethic, and I’m still impressed he managed to finish alive and in tact.

But it took a heckuva lot out of us.

By the time he finished, his mind had grown large, but the rest of his body could barely keep itself upright.  We drug ourselves to the finish line and when it was over, just sat there staring at each other for awhile.  We didn’t even have the energy to cheer we were so tired.  It was, in all senses, a paradox of atrophy and growth. While we grew strong in some areas, we weakened in others.  Most days were push-through-and-make-it-out-alive instead of breathe-deep-and-relish-the-moment.  

We’re now a good year and a half post-PhD, and finally feel like we’re coming out of the fog.  I thought it would feel better as soon as he finished, and in a way, it did, but we still spent nearly a year just taking deep breaths.  We visited the beach, climbed the mountains, even went to Disneyland.  We went on walks, took the kids to parks, watched movies.  The oxygen felt good; a body needs oxygen.

But the second year out, we’re learning we not only need oxygen, but muscles.  With the level of intensity the program required of us both (him on the work front and me on the home front), we’ve discovered that the muscles we need for real life have atrophied a little. This year, we’re building muscles.  We’re sitting together more, drinking coffee slowly, chatting about what makes us tick, watching a TV show together, attempting to resolve the pesky disagreements and unite on the big deals.  We’re learning to look each other in the eye again, not just pass by on our way to do something, and to slow down and rest, laugh, and see each other.

In a way, it’s a gift to the middle-years-rat-race of raising a family and making a life together.  What marriage doesn’t face atrophy at some point?  In a lifetime together, muscles are bound to get tired, even if a PhD program isn’t involved.  I have friends raising sick children, battling addictions, navigating crazy families, holding intense jobs, nursing childhood wounds.  With the occasional taste of these realities I’ve known myself, I can attest that they’re not for the weak, and a body needs some pretty strong muscles to hold up.  But sometimes, the muscles, strong that they are, still get tired and give way.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, I read, and I wonder what it means in today’s realities of noise and technology and traffic jams.  And then I remember what it meant to me as we plodded through those hard years…

Come to me, you who just lost your temper with your wild little ones, turn on Sesame Street for the crazies and sit yourself on the couch for take a deep, long breath.  You need oxygen.  

Come to me, you who haven’t seen your husband for a week, who just bit his head off when you did because you’re tired and lonely and worn thin.  Let the tears fall on the pages of my Words.  I hear them.  

Come to me, you who white knuckle your way through to stay strong.  It’s ok – you don’t need to be.  Take a nap along with the wild ones; I will give you rest.

Come to me, you who don’t know how to survive the masses who just don’t get what it means for your multi-colored family to be different in a sea of sameness.  You may feel alone, but you are not.  I am with you.

Come to me, you who were scheming to move east.  In spite of your great protests, I will send you west, and there, I will breathe life back into your souls, rebuild your muscles, make you strong again.  It may feel far and foreign  but you will find me there amidst the palms and the foothills. Lean into the home I’m creating for you.

Come to me, you who feel torn apart and tired and distant from each other.  I will rejoin you, restore you, rebuild you.  Though your mountains be shaken and your hills be removed, my love for you is not shaken, nor my covenant to walk with you removed.

One of the most beautiful paths we have walked, recovery sings its calming melody, reminding me that we aren’t the ones who held ourselves together through hard years. It regrows in us one-moment-at-a-time a quiet strength that always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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Surviving your spouse’s graduate program

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Staying occupied with my camera

A pit sank in my stomach as we leaned our heads together to pray there in the laundry room before he left to catch his flight.  It was my husband’s first trip to the partially residential PhD program he was starting, and we were half-terrified / half-thrilled over his new pursuits.  We’d decided that he’d travel to complete his PhD while continuing to work full time.  Our reasons were sound: we didn’t want to be buried under debt, I could continue pursuing a career that I loved, and we had family in state to help with our young children.

But all the rational thinking in the world didn’t remove the tears that poured that morning.  The change on which we were embarking was an overwhelming prospect to consider, and in that moment, we let the fear slide down our cheeks.  Then we took a deep breath and dove in.

It was an intense four years with raising toddlers and juggling careers and hubby both working and doing his PhD full time, a scenario that more and more couples are facing due to the rising costs of education.  Quitting work to pursue education is mostly a choice for the elite or the single, and many graduate schools are adapting program models to survive in light of this reality.

When pursuing further education becomes a reality for a married couple, a variety of emotions are bound to set in:

  • Excitement over pursuing dreams.
  • Apprehension about how it will all play out.
  • Gratefulness for the opportunity.
  • Fear of failure.

Regardless of the emotions, the only way out is through, and because pouting isn’t productive on *most* days, I quickly looked for ways to develop some coping mechanisms.  Here are a few that helped me get through:

Develop a hobby.  I quickly realized that if I was happy and enjoying myself while hubby was off studying, we’d all be happier campers.  I took advantage of the ‘extra time’ I had access to and taught myself photography.  I took up writing again and read the whole Harry Potter series for the first time.

Take on a challenge.  Doing a PhD is hard, and doing one on top of full time work even harder, so I decided it might help me to also take on my own challenge to better empathize with hubby.  I’m either crazy or stupid, because I signed up for a half-marathon having never run a mile let alone a race.  It was hard, but the focus, discipline and intensity of it helped me burn off energy that I may have otherwise used to resent my husband’s absence.  (I might note, however, that I did NOT view cleaning my house in the same light.  I hate cleaning, so we hired a student to clean so as to keep that resentment in check.)

Find healthy ways to cope.  While it’s easier to mope about life’s less-than-ideal circumstances, on my better days I was able to use my alone time to embrace life-giving choices like reaching out to invite a friend over for coffee, spending time with a good book, or working on a hobby.  When I felt whole and content, I was much more likely to support hubby’s hard work rather than resent it.

Look for silver linings.  While we’d all have preferred to have hubby around, one of the silver linings in his absence was having one less will to navigate.  We all have opinions in my house, and sometimes this fact makes planning a challenge.  With one less opinion to consider, the kiddos and I could stop the park on a whim or explore a new place to our heart’s content.

Embrace the moment.  Hubby was way more fond of the toddler years than me, and also had a few more pounds of parental patience than me, so he often cushioned a lot of parental trauma for me.  With him not around as much, I was forced to face my lack.  Toddlers can’t be left alone, and learning to respond to them patiently really matured me as a mother.

The good news is that we made it through, and are happily recovering!

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Between the chaos and the calm

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We nearly lost it when we realized we’d forgotten our hammer and couldn’t find the tent corners, but we both took a deep breath and pushed through.  It was our first time camping together as a family and my husband and I were both determined not to ruin the experience.  The kids were bouncing off the bushes with excitement to sleep in a tent, but we were both still somewhat apprehensive about the whole tent-set-up thing.

I grew up camping, but in an RV with a microwave and mattress. My grandpa John would take us to state parks in a bright orange motorhome, and before the weekend was over, the friendly farmer was best buddies with the whole circle. My husband, a tried-and-true city boy, had only camped once as a 10 year old, and didn’t share my fond memories as his tent had leaked and he slept in water all night. For obvious reasons, he was less eager than I to reattempt the endeavor.

Between sleepless toddlers and rural Midwestern campground dynamics, we never felt particularly drawn to the experience, but the mountains and the sea tempted us, and we bought a tent last Christmas.  We’ve since been determined to take our feels-God-in-the-mountains son and comes-alive-in-the-ocean daughter camping by the beach.  We decided a short, 24 hour trip would be best for our debut adventure in case things went really bad.  It’s one of the things we’re learning from transition – to dive into new situations head first, but to not stay under for too long.  

So, we dove.

I put on my friendly-Grandpa-John hat and borrowed a makeshift hammer from our neighbor.  The tent got set up without a fight, and it even stayed up for the whole night.  Hubby and I were so darn proud of ourselves that we snuck in the tent to cuddle but the kids came in and squealed, “Eeeewwwww!” and then jumped on top of us to join the love.

We walked down to the Pacific waves with the idea of a “just a short walk before dinner” and the fully clothed kids ended up drenched head-to-toe while we dug our toes in the sand, watching the surfers and the sunset.  We roasted hot dogs and ate too many marshmallows and toasted ourselves by the fire once the sun went down.  We stared at the glowing embers and marveled at the stars we hadn’t seen for so long. Then we snuggled into our proudly-constructed tent, and visited Harry and Hermione by flashlight.

My daughter woke up in the middle of night with a stomachache from too many hot dogs and marshmallows. My dear husband braved leaving his sleeping bag to help her and ended up giving her his spot on the soft-for-us-old-folks bed to sleep on the camping pad meant-for-much-younger-bodies.   I hunkered low in my sleeping bag, hoping I wouldn’t need to give up my soft spot too…he’s always been a better parent in the middle of the night than me.  Thankfully, we all fell back asleep, and I awoke with my son’s elbow in one ear and my daughter’s body plastered to my other side.  It was like heaven as we lay there snuggling our cold noses close, listening to singing birds and crashing waves and early rising toddlers.

From just one night under the stars, I am reminded anew at all the little gifts that catch us be surprise when we pause the chaos long enough to listen to the calm.  After more than 15 years together, hubby and I have *almost* learned how to put something together peaceably and finish with a high-five and a long, grateful hug.  The waves slowed our souls and in the midst of the breakneck speed of a semester, we remembered each other. The fire burned long, and I found myself grateful for both embers and flames in the fires of life.  Between some rough years of early marriage, babies, toddlers, careers, PhD programs, and lonely days we’d nursed the embers on for quite a few years.  The fire had never gone out completely, but it was good to remember that keeping embers warm allows for flames to rise again.

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