Books, Families, Children & Marriage

Resources for raising a family between worlds

One of my primary reasons I began to write here in this space was for the connections it provides to others in similar life circumstances.  When we lived in the rural Midwest, we felt very culturally isolated and it was my only means of connecting to those who understood.  Having just started out in marriage, family, career, my husband and I often felt alone on the road without any role models of people walking this particular road ahead of us.

I am grateful to live in the age of Amazon.com and the internet, for it allows me to find some ways to integrate more of our family’s multi-cultural identity into our very monocultural context.  Every so often, I get an inquiry about good resources for children and resources for global families.  Since I’m an educator by profession, books are an easy and immediate way to bring the world to my family regardless of where I live.  I thought I’d point you to a few of my favorites.

  • I did a presentation several years ago on incorporating the world into daily family life.  The link is a power point with a lot of recommendations for how incorporated into our children’s lives when they were very young.  It’s a bit old, but my recommendations still stand.
  • I’ve also created a few Amazon widgets to keep on the sidebar which link to my absolute favorite multicultural children’s books and books on intercultural marriage, along with a few reasons why I like them.

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Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

What my grandpa knew

grandpa john

Most days, he sat in a chair staring into space, his brain unable to make the connections of laughter and eye contact and meaning that it once had. His unshaven chin, hollow cheeks, and wild hair echoed dimly of the lively man I’d known as my grandfather. My grandma, a former hair dresser, faithfully brought her comb to try and tame his wild do, but he didn’t like it much.

Actually, he didn’t like anything much those days. The dementia had stolen him from us one-slow-day-at-a-time, and replaced his jolly warmth with violent reactions and confused arguments. It was like having a three-year-old in the family all over again.

But there were moments of clarity. He knew my grandmother most often. His sweetheart since fifth grade, he used to ride his pony down the railroad tracks to visit her, so his memory of her stretched back nearly his entire life. As his disease worsened, it was dodgy if he knew any of the rest of us.

One day, I helped him decorate a pot in which to plant a flower. The nursing home had sticker-letters and decorations to put on the pots, but most of the residents were too busy introducing themselves to each other repeatedly to do anything as focused as this. So I put the letters on the plastic little pot for my grandpa.

“J-O-H-N,” I read to him, trying to have some semblance of conversation. “See grandpa? I made this is for you.”

He looked at me blankly, “John? Who’s John?” then turned to the lady in the wheelchair next to him and asked, “Are you John?”

“I’m Helen,” she took his hand. “So very nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

The dialog then repeated itself like a skipping record for the next 10 minutes while I quietly added some flower stickers to the pot.

This was no longer the J-O-H-N I knew.

swirl

From my childhood, I remember most his endless puttering. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I watched him wander between his house next door and the barn, sometimes on foot, sometimes the lawn mower. I’d hear him bark at the dogs to move out of the way, or stick his head in our house to bellow, “Anybody home?”

He was a paradox of the kind that many from his generation are. When we remember him, we’re just as likely to use the words gnarly and cantankerous as kind and gentle. My ever-sweet grandma would sometimes scold him to not swear in front of the grandchildren, and there were a few times when I remember hiding because I’d made him spittin’ mad. Yet his brief moments of anger never overshadowed the fact that he loved his family. He took us to Disney World more times than I can count just because he loved to see children happy. He bought a big orange motorhome with bunkbeds and drove us all over to camp at state parks.

The child of Swedish immigrants, my Grandpa John grew up on a farm in a hardworking family, and lived out his childhood with a mother who he claimed was the ‘best woman he ever knew’ for loving her children sacrificially and surviving his much-less-than-kind father. He served in the war, worked the family farm, and did a bazillion other odd jobs. Though he had the intellectual ability, he never went to college because the money wasn’t there and the farm was.  

He devoured the daily newspaper and had all sorts of opinions about its stories.  While some of his opinions were a bit hot-headed, others were quite well-informed. I loved picking his brain to hear how a whole lifetime of wisdom processed the modern world. (As his dementia worsened, his opinions didn’t really lessen, they just made less sense and contained quite a few more curse words which, at times, was equally entertaining.)

One of the things I appreciated most about my grandfather was how he’d accepted and loved my husband. Much unlike many from his generation and background, it was not a problem for him that his granddaughter loved a man with brown skin.  One day, I’d asked my grandpa what he thought of my then fiance. “Me?!?” he responded in surprise. “Who cares what I think? You’re the one who’s gotta live with him.”

That was the extent of his opinion. In his typical fashion, he showed my future husband his acceptance with a nickname, an arm around his shoulder, a half-joking reprimand to stand up straighter, and an ever present handshake and hug.

His was far from a perfect life, scarred with so many of the stories common to his generation, but it was a good life, one that, when all was said and done, he told honestly and well to his family.

swirl

In the very last days of his life, my husband and I visited him in the nursing home.  As usual, there was little conversation, no eye contact. The stubborn Swedish farmer who’d fought off dementia for ten long years had nearly quit eating, and the doctors said he would not last much longer. We said everything we could think to say, suspecting it would be our last time together.

When our words ran out, we stood to leave, and my mom asked my husband to pray. If you knew my husband, you’d know how the rich prayer voice of his preacher family lineage leaks out when he speaks to God, capturing ears and blocking out the noise of the world around. He prayed a simple, grateful prayer and the Spirit filled our room. Tears dripped off all of our noses when he closed with a quiet and sweet ‘amen’.  So be it.

At that very moment, my grandfather opened his clear blue eyes, looked my husband straight in his deep brown eyes, and responded with long-ago lost words, “Thank you,” he mumbled plain as day, and then squeezed my husband’s hand tight before his mind slipped away from us again.

It was then that I realized what my grandpa knew. After a life filled to the brim with both the good and the hard, the messy and beautiful, the broken and the healed, his dying days told us this:

When memories fall away, brains slow, muscles wither, the words that remain known to the heart are simply

amen

and

thank you.

His life spoke for itself that they are the only words we really need.

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Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

Finding hope in the shadows

After 13 years of marriage, it is a joy to reflect on the growth that has occurred since the experience I share below. I remain deeply grateful for the beauty that such broken times can become; and this reflects one of the most redemptive, restorative and valuable experiences of my life.

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“That counseling ain’t gonna help no one,” the speculation rolled off Marco’s sorrowful lips, no hint of their familiar bitterness. “We’re still gonna think the whole day about how he died. The driver was stoned—ran right into Dennis on the side of the road while the mother of his unborn child watched from their car. It just wasn’t fair, you know. All he ever did was smile.”

My teacher-self paused slightly, there in the hallway, to ponder the meaning his words held. Just a week before, I’d sent Marco, once again, to the vice-principal for lack of respect. I’d never really bought into his tough-guy shell; nonetheless, he’d pushed the limit too far that day.

Yet through his words today, my original suspicions were confirmed—his heart was breaking, life was unfair, and he wanted more than what these days offered. With shrugs of “I don’t care” and “none-a-yo-business,” he liked to pretend he was hopeless. But in the few words he shared, I suspected he was closer to hope than he let on.

As Carl says in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” This simple commentary seems haunting when one of the human stories repeats itself to those who have not yet experienced it.

Grief is always new. Strange how it is not something to which we comment, “Been there, done that, movin’ on.”

Loss paralyzes us. The world appears to stop, as all that was seemingly urgent and important fades away.

A son loses his father and we all stop to weep. A mother loses her hopeful companion and our hearts sink in pain. After all these years here on earth, one would think we might be used to death and pain by now.

No chance.

swirl

All these years here on earth, and I would think I’d be used to some death and pain by now.

No chance for me either.

When one of Willa’s human stories repeated itself, fiercely, in my life for the first time, it sent me reeling. While I knew this story had been told over and over for generations, it still caught me off guard, still snatched my breath away.

We had been married for only a few months, and each month of marriage had grown more difficult than the last. In short, the intimacy of such a relationship had forced us to face the depravity of our true selves. Truly, the heart is deceitful above all things; and it was in marriage that we finally were forced to face our long denied deceit of stubborn habits, selfish expectations, and unrealistic dreams. Disappointment surged as I grappled with the reality of truly knowing and loving everything about another despite his flaws.

Flaws, I chuckle, such an understatement of the tears, the fights, the misunderstandings!  And yet, to overcome this trial, I had to allow our intimacy to become far more ugly, painful, and revolting than I had ever anticipated.

We entered the counselor’s office with some trepidation, fearful that if we acknowledged our struggle aloud, it would destroy us. But in that small room, a gentle, observant soul with a white board and a marker set us off on a journey toward a deep, no-holds-barred intimacy that is taking a lifetime to develop—far from Hollywood’s fluff-of-the-month romance story.

This intimacy became the microscope through which I was examined without relent. It smooshed me flat on its viewing slide, no cell left unseen. I was humiliated to be seen for what I truly was—yet also relieved to finally come out of hiding. In the past, such transparency had appeared quite appealing to me. To know and be known beckoned as the pinnacle of human experience. Yet now that it was actually happening, it felt like it was the inferno. Put simply, I did not want my happily imagined knight-in-shining-armor-husband or Disney-princess-self to be tarnished.

My starry dreams melted to realistic faults as I learned that, in marriage, we live with human beings, not human dreams. My high hopes crashed to humdrum expectations as I faced the reality that even I myself could not measure up to my own standards of perfection. In the pit of my stomach, I had discovered both the deep disappointment and the great hope in life.

Sometimes I was tempted to sugarcoat my disappointments and pretend that life was just plain peachy, that I had no problems or sore emotions. Yet in more sacred moments, I would speak solely from the disappointment in that pit of my stomach, from my own personal tragedy of life, “I so wish this story of pain and disappointment weren’t repeating itself on me,” and silently let my long withheld tears fall.

Through my tears, unexpectedly, I read another’s story of tragedy with an odd hope: “We can use any tragedy as a stumbling block or a stepping stone,” comments Glyn, a Lou Gehrig’s patient very near to death. “I hope [my death] will not cause my family to be bitter. I hope I can be an example that God is wanting us to trust in the good times and the bad. For if we don’t trust when times are tough, we don’t trust at all.” (In Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven, Word Publishing, 1990, 5).

On encountering these words, hope emerged from that same pit of my stomach. While the nature of my current tragedy stemmed from an entirely different experience than Glyn’s, I had caught an oh-so-slight glimpse of those who faced their own failures and disappointments and pain. I caught a glimpse of why it had come to me.

In one fleeting moment, a glimmer of hope shone onto the shadows of my disappointment.

In slow and small moments, the glimmer grew to a beam and illuminated all that I was. It illuminated my fear to trust, to believe that hope may still be there even when all I saw were shadows. It melted away the sugarcoated lies in which I had buried myself and shamelessly exposed my fear of transparency. In one slight flicker, it changed the lens through which I had been viewing hope.

The counselor put her marker down, and grinned subtly at the realizations I was making. Through tears, I looked beyond myself to see my husband for the first time—a broken but redeemed soul encountering the story just as fiercely as I was.

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From pits of despair, the psalmist often proclaims variations on the theme of “My hope is in you, my savior, my Lord” (e.g. Ps. 25, 42, 130). It is difficult to imagine that the psalmist’s picture of hope as a romantic sunset and trouble-free life. He does not allow for this misinterpretation when he speaks of his enemies attacking or his heart anguishing within him or his body wasting away. The hope of the psalmist stems from a view of his savior that outlasts his own tragedy. His hope stretches to a life beyond his own.

It is with this view that my own disappointment began to mingle with hope. No longer are the recurring tragedies I encounter – both big stories and little ones – characterized solely by their shadows.

The light has shown itself, and I am stepping, albeit slowly, toward it. It may be that many remaining steps will hold great sorrow, struggle, and pain; I have no way to know. Yet when I face the light, the shadow is now cast behind me rather than leading the way.

What I do know is that Marco was right: hearts break, life is unfair, and we deserve more than what these days give us. It is only when I allow my disappointment in this life to surface, when I actually hold it in my hands and look it in the eye that I catch a glimpse of how “hope does not disappoint us.”

When God comes to us at our most powerless moments, who among us is able to stand (Rom. 5:4-6)?

Who among us even wants to?

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Recommended Reading

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

“We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God.  And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom.  The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Intercultural Marriage: a Model of Reconciliation

Given the high interest to my last post, I thought it relevant to  repost a slightly updated version of an oldie-but-goodie that I published years ago on Burnside Writers Collective (they *still* have the wrong byline on the post after repeated requests for a correction, grr…) as well as here on my blog.  It explains more specifics of the many things I’ve learned along my path toward cultural humility.  

“Many waters cannot quench love,” I pondered Solomon’s words sitting on a dusty porch in West Africa, the afternoon downpour pounding on the tin roof over my head. “But they certainly do a good job trying to drown it.”

My boyfriend was spending the summer at his parent’s home in Sri Lanka while I was teaching English in Burkina Faso. At that time, there was little access to phone lines or email, so our only form of communication was the relentlessly slow exchange of letters. From the beginning, we had both sensed a unique kinship between us in spite of our cultural backgrounds.  However, we also realized that such a relationship carried many complexities, and that our cross-continental lives would not combine easily. When our respective summers ended, we reunited for the fall semester, somewhat unsure of our future together.

“You remind me of a Sri Lankan girl,” he told me one day, raising his deep eyes to meet mine. I had no idea what a Sri Lankan girl was like, but I was thrilled. Obviously, he connected deeply to something in me, regardless of my cornfield upbringing and blond hair. From the first day we met, I sensed an eerily similar reflection of myself in him. There were moments, of course, when we weren’t sure how to connect – meeting our families, interacting with hometown friends, navigating the chasms between third-world realities and first-world luxuries. While these cultural differences were a significant part of our relationship, our similarities ultimately prevailed. Nearly four years later, we married in a joyful ceremony, surrounded by family and friends from around the world.

Guide me, oh thou great Jehovah. These words sung at our wedding reflect our desire to follow God’s guidance in the steep task of uniting contrasting worlds.  We entered the world of intercultural marriage as pilgrims in a barren land, knowing few role-models who had attained such unity across cultural boundaries. Together over 13 years now, we’ve moved from coast to coast, have two children and love journeying together through life.

While comparatively few are called to such an intimate cross-cultural partnership, all Christians have a responsibility to seek reconciliation across barriers. In an increasingly diverse society, our ability to establish unity across cultural boundaries is rapidly becoming a key factor in the strength of the church.  Because we practice these skills daily, I have found lessons I’ve learned from our relationship to be a microcosm for cross-cultural relations at large.

Here are some skills we find useful in seeking unity across our own cultural differences:

Pay attention, be intentional

Sri Lanka is half way around the world from the U.S.  At times, it feels very far away.  Being so far removed from our lives, it is easy to fall into an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality with this part of my husband’s life.  This has, at times, caused division between us because an essential part of his personhood lies neglected.  Therefore, it is essential to pay close attention to the Sri Lankan part of him, and to seek to incorporate it in our daily lives.  We both read the news and follow current events on a regular basis. Our home is filled with reminders of Sri Lanka, from batik wall hangings to photos of sari-clad relatives.  We visit Sri Lanka as often as we can afford, prioritizing this over other vacation options, even when inconvenient or complicated.  We try to maintain regular contact with my husband’s family through phone calls, email, and pictures.

In the same way, many live in isolated communities and interact little with other cultures. People in these communities can make intentional efforts to consider differing perspectives by reading books or watching films, as well as by traveling to places where they interact across cultures.  Just as I must intentionally seek to pay attention to my husband’s culture, so can people pay attention to cultures outside their own as an effort toward unity.  As current events, dialogue, and perspectives from other cultures are encountered, a broader way of thinking and interacting with others naturally develops.

Share honestly, listen carefully

Romance, while breath-taking, is not particularly characterized by honesty. As the passionate romance of our relationship has settled into a committed, deeper love, we have shared many moments of intense honesty. At times, it is simpler to avoid such conversations, for we each have our own interpretation of “normal” and fear looking ignorant or prejudiced. However, this kind of honesty brings about true compromise, and ultimately, inner change.

Having grown up in a wealthy, stable, and efficient country, I have struggled with certain aspects of Sri Lanka’s developing and conflict-filled environment.  My husband has experienced these aspects as “normal” for much of his life.  Because these perspectives form an integral part of our core-beings, we feel strongly vulnerable when sharing our fears. This fear creates a reluctance to relinquish my expectations of order, cleanliness, and safety, causing me to shut out a cherished part of my husband’s life.

In a similar vain, he has experienced certain “looks”, discomfort, and ignorance when interacting with people from my home. While I hold deep affinity for my home, it is helpful to separate from my personal attachments in order to hear his emotions. In doing this, I listen without defense, letting him process his feelings honestly.

Ultimately, honesty between cultures is not about being right or wrong. It’s about listening and considering another’s experience without defense or justification. In order to create a safe place for trustworthy relationships, people need to feel they will be heard when sharing honestly.

Be salad, not soup

The idea of a “melting pot” denies the individual characteristics that exist within cultures. A mixed salad is a more accurate comparison, as it contains various ingredients that compose one dish, yet retains unique qualities rather than dissolving everything into the majority flavor. Likewise, in our marriage, we attempt to value the individuality of each other’s cultures.

One way we love each other is by knowing about each other’s homes. For example, my husband knows things about my small hometown that only “insiders” know. He knows where the locals eat a hot breakfast, and the names of high school basketball players. Because he pays attention to my cultural background, I sense a deep love for who I am and where I come from. In the same way, I don a shalwar kameez (a traditional Sri Lankan dress) every so often, can cook a mean curry, and enjoy building relationships with his family and friends. Each trip to his home – no matter how many mosquitos involved – increases my understanding of who my husband is.

When the majority culture blindly expects others to follow their lead without knowledge of other perspectives, they subtly send the message, “You are not important to me. Your importance is to make me comfortable.” Loving across cultures means that both sides release their grip on familiarity in order to experience deeper flavors of diversity.

While many waters could not quench our love, their rough waves have certainly smoothed our rough edges. In all of these ways, we embrace our own culture while keeping our arms open to the other. Guided by our great Jehovah each step of the way, we find deep richness in loving across cultural boundaries. Our hope remains that the church will deepen in its ability to love across such boundaries as well.

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Belief, Books, Families, Children & Marriage

10 reasons I’m reading Harry Potter to my children

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, 

let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

– C.S. Lewis

hp books

I live between two constant tensions.

Tension # 1:  Our family currently lives in the US suburbs, in an environment of prosperity (materialism?) and peace (apathy?).  We come home, eat pizza for dinner and watch a movie on a comfy couch in an air-conditioned home together.   We go to movies and eat ice cream and spend an occasional day at the beach.  We have access to safe homes and good schools, healthy food and clean water.  While we know about the challenges much of the world faces, we don’t live them.  

Tension # 2:  My husband works in social work and I teach English as a Second language to adult immigrants and refugees.  We care deeply for the world in all of its chaos, in all of its wars and poverty and injustices, in part because we see daily how such tragedies impact people around us and in part because we know such brokenness is close to the heart of God.

Over the years, I’ve struggled to know how to introduce my children to such realities.  I don’t think it’s fair to shelter them completely, for even at a young age, they need to understand the realities of living in a fallen world.  But I also don’t want to overwhelm them with things they can’t understand.

While they can’t yet fully grasp the evil raging in the world around them, they do have an easier time processing the good they see. The fact that hope still makes more sense than despair may be one of the greatest gifts children give adults. For their sake and mine, I want to instill in them a thirst for goodness, hope, and friendship for the future moments in their lives when all might appear lost.

Enter: Harry Potter

I started reading the first Harry Potter book aloud to my nine-year-old daughter about a year ago.  Her seven-year-old brother was banned from listening because he was too young.  As little brothers do, he snuck outside her bedroom door and hung on every word.  By the time mama caught onto his scheme, he was captivated.

As a book-loving mama, I didn’t have the heart to turn him away, so I decided we would only read through book 3 because the darkness really starts to get thick when Lord Voldemort returns in book 4. But we finished book 3 and they begged to keep going like their lives would end if they had to wait years to learn what came of their beloved Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  So cautiously, we read on.

At first, I was a bit hesitant, wondering if the evil, the battle, the fear that rages in the story of good vs. evil would be too much for them.  But as we read, I grew more convinced that this was more than an entertaining story, it was food for their souls.

Here was a way we could dialog over issues of evil, of injustice, of fear.  Here we could explore the complex realities of relationships, emotional scars, power structures, and even political systems in ways that they could actually understand.  Mention the United Nation’s peace efforts and their eyes cross, but bring up Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and they’re suddenly rabid activists for peace and justice.

Every so often, I run across voices decrying the ‘dangers’ of the Harry Potter series and they mystify me, for I have found its themes offer a great deal of biblical, moral and spiritual training.  To counter some of these voices, I thought I’d offer my own reasons on why I’ve invested hundreds of hours enthusiastically reading Harry Potter to my kids:

1. It clearly distinguishes good and evil.  

One of the downsides of suburban America is that the lines between good and evil blur easily.  In urban contexts, darkness is much more difficult to hide.  The suburban distractions of materialism and entertainment speak much more loudly than the vices more common in urban contexts simply because evil is not as visibly present.  (Kathy Keller does a great job of exploring why darkness is easier to discern in the city in her article, “Why you should raise your kids in the city.”)  One of the basic truths I want my children to understand is the reality of good and evil that is present both in the world and in themselves.  If they don’t know how to recognize and respond to it, they are more likley to be caught unaware of the impact of their decisions.

2. It tells the (whole) truth.  

In a story primarily about the attempt of evil to overthrow the good, it’s difficult to sugarcoat much – life can be hard, scary, and disappointing.  People stumble over themselves, make mistakes, and sometimes don’t know what to do next.  Sometimes they have scars they are unable to overcome, even if they are ultimately good (Snape).  One of the disservices the modern Sunday School program indirectly teaches our children is that stories end perfectly, tied in neat little bows.  Mind you, the Bible doesn’t do this, just the Sunday Schools.  If you don’t believe me, read Genesis 9 about a naked and drunken Noah.  To my knowledge, no Sunday School teacher has ever included that part of the story in Noah’s ark.  For their faith to be lasting, children need to know that they may mess up, fall short, or have unanswered questions.  They need to see examples all around them of people failing – both real and fictional – who continue to pursue God, not perfect ones who never mess up and know all the answers.

3. It inspires wonder.

Let’s face it, flying on broomsticks playing quidditch outside a magical castle is pretty awe-inspiring to modern kids who ride around in mini-vans and play soccer all day.  I don’t want my children limited to the confines of suburban cookie-cutter worlds – I want them to forge creativity, to imagine possibilities beyond their wildest hopes and dreams, to believe in something bigger than what they can actually see.  This is how we grow better societies, and in the end, how we also find God.

4. It stirs up hope.

As the series grew more tense, my kids started getting a bit nervous about the outcome of all this evil-fighting-good business. They peeked ahead, glimpsed at next chapters and last pages, and breathed sighs of relief to find out that Harry would make it, if only for that particular book.  They’ve cheered and hoped for him – booing those who stood in his way and loving those who supported him.  In the process, I’m watching them experience what it means to hope, to long deeply for goodness to triumph when you’re not entirely sure what the outcome will be.  I want my children to be so familiar with this feeling that they are able to recognize it and act on it as their understanding of ‘real life’ increases.

5. It demonstrates courage.  

When Voldemort returned to power, my children cowered and cuddled close, concern burrowed in their little brows. My son’s had nightmares about death eaters and sometimes sleeps with the hall light on, ‘just in case’.  But when they play, they are never Voldemort or death eaters.  They are, of course, Harry, Ron, Ginny, Hermione, or Neville.  These are characters who, though terribly under-qualified and ill-equipped, demonstrate courage beyond their years to fight evil because 1) it needs to be fought and 2) they are friends who have each others’ backs.  Seeing this courage-in-action is formative to my own children’s future characters.  I don’t know what they’ll face in their lifetimes, but I want them to have a frame of reference rooted in courage to do the right thing, even in the face of great cost to themselves.

6. It values relationships.

In our modern, technological world, honest and committed relationships are struggling.  Our environment shouts for instant everything, and provides increasingly fewer models of genuine trust, endurance and perseverance.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron model an enduring, committed friendship – one in which they are each themselves and appreciated for who they are, not who they wish each other to be.  When Harry tells Ron and Hermione information that has the potential to threaten their very lives, they look at each other and gulp, but barely hesitate to declare their allegiance to him.  While there are times that Harry clearly wants to go his own way and fight the battle himself, his friends respond in no uncertain terms, “We will not let you go it alone, it’s too dangerous. We’re coming with you,” and refuse to back down.  How I long for my children to seek out these qualities in their own friends and to be this kind of friend in return.

7. It portrays strong male and female role models.  

The rigid gender stereo-typed models of warriors and princesses fall far short of what I hope for my children.  In Harry Potter, none of the girls are stereotypically frilly or ditzy and none of the boys are stereotypically macho or womanizing.  Hermione is a brilliant, hard-working rule-follower.  While Neville begins as a nervous and insecure boy, he matures into a spectacular symbol of courage.  Ron’s occasionally thick-headed but endearingly genuine. Fred and George are rebellious pranksters who end up both saving the day and sacrificing tremendously.  The characters are simply who they have been created to be.  They live their imperfect stories fiercely and well, refusing to fit the box their environment tries to put them in.

8. It teaches symbolism.

Perhaps the biggest critique the series has received is from those with concerns about the focus on witches and wizards.  Like many great stories, the witches and wizards are merely symbols to help children see truth (Narnia and Lord of the Rings also have strong magical themes and haven’t received near the kind of criticism on this front as Harry Potter). While witches and wizards can have other connotations, they don’t inherently represent the same thing.  Throughout history, symbols have been a powerful influence in the life of faith, and it’s helpful for children to learn that sometimes there are multiple meanings and layers to what they actually see – people and objects included.

9. It promotes the value of a keen mind.

Much of the conflict in the series is a battle of minds, of learning that often the most difficult battles rage within our own heads.  As a result, the primary content at Hogwarts isn’t braun, but brain. In many ways, the spells are symbols for the knowledge that the students acquire which prepares for adulthood.  However, knowledge isn’t entirely enough.  The students must also exercise discipline to develop their skills in useful ways, and discernment in knowing how and when to use these skills appropriately.

10. It’s awesome cuddle time.

In the later books, each chapter takes roughly an hour to read aloud, so we have lots of time for extended cuddles.  I’m quite aware that the remaining years of this sweet delight are dwindling quickly, and I’m savoring every snuggle while they last.

In spite of the naysayers, I believe Harry Potter is a story for the ages – particularly for Christians – and a symbol of how I want my children to live – authentic lives full of wonder, courage, hope, and commitment,  lives that overflow with goodness and stand against evil, lives that sacrifice to know and protect truth, lives that see and care for others well.

Of course, my kids don’t see any of this.  All they know is a compelling story that they can’t wait to read with me.  I’m ok with that too.  Some things they don’t need to understand completely.

Other books I love

Families, Children & Marriage

In between the mommy wars

Junia Project Branding

While writing has been a bit slow, it is happening occasionally.  Visit me today at a new site on gender and equality, The Junia Project, where I explore what in-the-office and at-home mamas might have in common.

“Being on neither side of the mommy wars, I find myself wishing that working and stay-at-home moms could engage in a dialog that would allow each of us space to grow into our new identities…”

Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

The quiet joy of healing

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the creator calls a butterfly.”

-Judy Squier

When wounds begin to heal instead of just hurt, it’s sweet, tender process.  There are moments – like when the sun shines, the palms blow, and the mountains stand – that I breathe it all in with a deep thank you – one that I could not have even begin to muster even a year ago.

When I left the Midwest, I gave up a lot of me – a thriving career, proximity to my family, cultural mobility. Yet I also saw clearly that the loss of my own personal benefits meant an entirely new reality for my family: an environment that would value my husband for his skill more than his skin, that would offer my children the opportunity to grow up in a more diverse environment, that would challenge me to see beyond the familiar.  While I knew it was the right thing to do on so many levels, it still wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow with regards to my own personal gain. And yet, the path became so clear that I just kept walking (or perhaps more precisely, limping) all the way to California.

There are times since we arrived that I’ve felt like a popped balloon – blown into pieces from eight years of living in a place in which my most developed spiritual disciplines became speaking courageously, persevering, and hoping.  To say the least, it was not an easy place to live even though it was my home. Most of those years were spent begging God to either deliver us or change our hearts about living there.

swirl

When my daughter was one, she had a severe staph infection which resulted in a two week hospital stay and surgery in children’s hospital.  There were moments before her diagnosis when we didn’t know if she would live, or if she would have to fight a disease like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.  Thankfully, the whole thing was resolved with no long term ramifications, but the day we finally left the hospital, we felt numb and weary, as though we’d been through a war.  Even in the midst of her illness, it hadn’t been hard to see the blessings in the whole situation. We had access to medical care. We had competent doctors. We had insurance. We had kind nurses whose shoulders I cried on. We had family to help. We had friends who prayed and brought food.  Our daughter had been healed. We acknowledged all of those things, and were so deeply grateful for them.

But even though there was so much goodness, we were still exhausted.  The hard parts had been just as real to us as the good ones.

Some experiences are difficult to share because the battered parts of our lives can sound so depressing.  We look better when we share our triumphs rather than our defeats.  Lest I sound like there was no goodness to our Midwestern years, let me share a bit. We loved our jobs and pouring into the lives of our students. There is nothing like watching young adults become flourishing, thoughtful people who care deeply about the world, themselves and other people. The strong spirits of the friends who loved and supported us through those years will long linger with me.  My children know and dearly love their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  They have roots in my home and know what it is to trek across an empty cornfield and make angels in freshly fallen snow.

But, like having had a seriously ill child, the hard parts were just as real as the good ones. And, as I heal, sometimes those hard parts feel so very real that it’s difficult to imagine that I’ll ever fully understand God’s purpose to land us there for such a long time.

What I do grasp is the unexpected joy that sneaks up on me as I make a home here, in this place where God pulled us to.  It comes when I stand in front of my students and quietly observe how we understand each others’ experiences of relocating, recovering, healing, and making a new home.  Sometimes a tear sneaks into my eye as I watch them fight to learn English – a crazy-hard language – at age 60, and then brokenly explain to me how they pray to God to stop the war in their home.  It comes when we go to a park and relax because there are no confederate flags threatening our existence as an interracial family.  It comes when my children hear me speak Spanish and beg me to teach it to them, and when my daughter tells me how her best friend shared homemade sushi with her at lunch. It comes when my brother calls with plans to visit, and clearly shares my love for adventure as he plots his family’s trip West. It comes when we’re flying down the eight-lane freeway into a sunlit valley and I feel a freedom that I could not have ever created for myself*.

“It’s ok to be lonely as long as you’re free,” wrote the late Rich Mullins.  I learned this first in the Midwest, and I’m learning it again here in the California foothills.  We’re still new.  We’re still learning and establishing (which brings plenty of awkward and lonely moments), but the wounds of the past are slowly healing, and God is providing for us in ways I would have never dared to dream. While I know not what tomorrow brings, I’m so very grateful for this quiet joy that today holds.

swirl

When I began this blog seven (!) years ago, it was my effort to connect with others in similar situations at a time when I felt very culturally isolated in my life.  Given my new life change, life doesn’t feel nearly so isolating anymore, so I’m currently having an internal debate about the whole point putting of my words here.  Consequently, I might not be around much here until I figure this out, but I did want to at least write an ‘end’ to the story that began here, both to give credit where it is due and to provide some closure on this part of my life.  

*These moments occur nearly exclusively when my husband is driving.  I am still slightly petrified behind the wheel on the freeways here and find it difficult to feel anything but fear when it’s my responsibility to keep us alive on the road…

 

Related Posts

 

Families, Children & Marriage

Dealing with isolation in intercultural marriage

I somehow missed this topic in my introductory post on A Long(er) View of Interracial Marriage, perhaps because it inherently carries less hope than the other topics I’ve covered.  I’ve been sitting on it for awhile because it’s more weary-and-burdened than come-to-Jesus, but it’s still a part of the story that needs to be told – harsh, but true.  

It’s been just over four months now since we’ve been the only interracial couple in town and I think I’m just beginning to thaw.  I had a dream last night that we were in Indiana and ran across two other interracial couples at a local restaurant.  When they saw us, they first looked shocked, then pleased.  I exchanged an awkward I-don’t-know-you-but-I-understand-why-you-look-so-excited-to-see-me glance with one woman as I walked out the door of a restaurant where we’d typically received what-are-you-doing-here stares.  Then, I went outside to sit on a blanket with my husband where we were going to have a quiet little picnic together.  My first inclination was to tell him, “There was another interracial couple inside!” which really translated to: “We’re not alone!  We really are ok!” but I couldn’t say a word.  Instead, I looked for food and realized we didn’t have enough, so I let my husband eat it and I went hungry, resting on the blanket in the warm sun, feeling quiet and sad.

When I woke up, I was confused why I’d felt sad.  Shouldn’t I have been happy that I’d seen another interracial couple?  It was then I realized what my emotions were settling into: we’re not the only ones anymore.  I haven’t felt that feeling of racial objectification in well over four months, and it feels soooo healing to be seen for ourselves and not our skin.  I realized that in my dream, I hadn’t really even wanted to tell my husband about who I’d seen. I was tired of talking about race and our inability to ever blend in.  We’d lived eight years scrounging for nourishment to sustain the interracial/intercultural part of our identity, and it simply wasn’t there.

My dream highlighted one of the hardest parts of interracial marriage we’ve encountered: isolation.  Not all marriages like ours face this, but when they do, it’s certainly not a cakewalk.  I don’t claim to suggest that we’ve always handled the isolation well – it many ways I still feel like a failure for not being able to withstand it.  In my head, I hear people whispering things like, “Why do they always have to make such a big deal about those things?” or “Can’t they just get over it?” or, perhaps the hardest of all, “If Jesus is what unites us, why does race matter?”  Ultimately, a significant piece of me feels guilty that escape was our only resolve.

Over the years, I’ve suspected many share our feelings of isolation for a variety of reasons – differing faith convictions, disabled children, addiction, divorce, dysfunctional childhoods – really anything that causes them to stand out from the perceived norm. I find myself drawn to people willing to be honest about the path they’re walking without over-spiritualizing their response to it.  At the same time, I acknowledge that any peace won in the midst of such struggles ultimately comes from a place of deep spiritual grounding.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus promised. Clearly he knew we’d all feel lonely at some point. The reality that I’ve observed is that while we’re quick to advertise our “come-to-Jesus” responses to our struggles, it’s not nearly as safe to share the “weary-and-burdened” ones.  I wish I could offer more direction on this, but it’s a very unresolved struggle for me.

So, I’m curious…  How do you live in your unresolved and isolating struggles?  What characteristics do you see in people who do this ‘well’?

Other articles in this series:

A longer view of intercultural marriage

Practicing grace in intercultural marriage

Practicing patience in intercultural marriage

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

9/11, Jesus, and patriotism: My kids’ take on it all

When I picked my kids up from school yesterday, they were a bit amiss about the 9/11 ceremony at their school.  Apparently, everyone had cheered when the leader referenced killing ‘bad guys’ in Afghanistan.  I listened quietly to their conversation with each other, processing what had happened.

“I didn’t clap,” my daughter protested.  “I mean, it’s not like Americans are good all the time. We do bad things too.”

“Yeah,” my son added. “And children there affected by all this and they didn’t even do anything to deserve it. How would we feel if we were them?”

“I don’t understand why everyone cheered about killing someone else,” the chatter continued as they attempted to understand the perspectives they’d seen.

“I just kept thinking about Priyan Baapa,” my daughter commented, referring to her great uncle whose office had been in the World Trade Center, but who had left the building early that fateful day to pick up Starbucks on the way to a meeting.

They mutually agreed that the whole state of the world is unfortunate, that America isn’t above or below any of them, and that while we fix some problems in the world, we also create an equal number of them.

Out of a seeming nowhere, they determined a solution.  “It’s the church,” my daughter mused. “They’re the ones who can help fix all this.”

Now, if we talked about the church like this on a regular basis, I’d have seen this one having been coming.  But sadly, conversations in our house reflect deep disappointment with and brokenness over the church as much as they do over the hope its potential holds.  But even at 9, her little heart intuitively senses that, for as much as the governments try, they have it all messed up, and that more answers lie at the feet of Jesus than at the foot of the flag.

She gets it, that kid.  Perhaps more than her skeptic-of-a-mama.  One comment at a time, she’s building my faith that kingdom of God might actually be a part of the plan to bring peace on earth.

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Practicing grace in intercultural relationships

But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. – Barack Obama

Grace is a tricky subject…a whole lot more elusive than patience.  It’s a gift, something undeserved that gives us freedom to be as we are, while still pushing us beyond the wallowing of the current moment. Continuing the series from A Longer View of Intercultural Marriage, today I’ll reflect more deeply on ways to practice grace in intercultural relationships:  

With those who don’t understand

It still makes me shudder to remember the day years a sweet, kind woman I enjoyed chatting with at work referred to my children as ‘half-breeds’.  I swallowed hard in that moment, wondering if I’d heard her correctly.  As she continued talking, she clearly had no idea how offensive her terminology had been to me.  She was speaking so effusively of them – how beautiful she finds biracial children, how she’s always found mixed race children stunning.  Clearly, her words weren’t meant to offend.  Being a single mom who’d spent her whole life in rural Indiana, she’d had no opportunity to interact with an outside world to understand how offensive her words were to me (frankly, I think it would have horrified her to know how offended I was).  By filtering her words through grace, I was more able to accept them for what they were: affirming words from a kind person.

Perhaps closer to home are family or friends who give well-intentioned advice about how we should approach our choices about relationships or child-rearing across cultures.  When this happens in my life, I must remind myself that while my loved ones do mean well, they simply don’t understand.  (And for that matter, may not be able to.  There are many scenarios I don’t currently have the ability understand like raising a disabled child or being a single parent.)

With those who *think* they understand

For me, this skill is harder than any of the rest combined.  It’s one thing when people admit ignorance, and a wholly different impact when they assume expertise without having it.  I’m sure most people have at least one person like this somewhere in their  corner of the world, so I’ll just leave the specific examples to the imagination.  One helpful skill I learned from author Jan Johnson when dealing with difficult people like this is to pray that God would show me a person’s heart. This helps me to remember that they are fallible and broken just like me, and that perhaps they, too, make a mistake or two every once in a while. Continue reading “Practicing grace in intercultural relationships”

Families, Children & Marriage

Practicing patience in intercultural relationships

great-white-egret-58421_640

In reflecting more deeply on some of the themes I introduced in the post A Longer View of Intercultural Marriage, I’ve been pondering the role of patience in an intercultural marriage.  While undeniable that patience is a virtue in all marriages, I want to spend some time unpacking what it looks like in an intercultural marriage.

In the familiarity of marriage, cultural differences quickly lose their fascinating qualities and grow exasperating.  Conflicts over gender roles, authority figures, or child-rearing require a lot of time and honesty to sort through.  To expect clear-cut understanding immediately when culture plays a role in your relationship usually results in frustration and conflict.  Some couples will fight it out.  Others might simply crumble under the pressure.

Enter: patience – the ability to step back, take a breath, and assess the situation before responding.  What actually is may not be what it seems.  Take some time to make sure you understand before jumping to conclusions.  I’ll be the first to admit I don’t always practice it, but when I do, things often go much differently than when I go with my knee jerk reaction.

Deep breaths are helpful, but they don’t really resolve anything if all they do is give you more oomph to scream at your partner.  Here are a few ways I’ve practiced patience over the years:

  • Read.  If I’m stuck, it always helps me to sort through fact and feeling.  Reading about culture, marriage, relationships, or any combo of the above helps me understand and process our own relationship in a more productive way.  It also lets me sit quietly and calm down if I’m angry. Here are some of my favorite books on intercultural marriage. I also like the Culture Shock series as a starting point for understanding culture from an American perspective.
  • Call a friend.  I don’t call friends to bitch and moan, but to process, to sort through what is my responsibility and how I can take care of my side of the street.  My friends in intercultural relationships can be more helpful at times because they have experienced being in a relationship similar to mine.
  • Write.  Being a writer, I gain a lot of clarity sorting things out on paper.  But anyone can benefit from this practice.  Writing forces me to think through what I want to say rather than just throwing it out there.  It also gives me some space to collect my thoughts in an understandable way, and to determine what’s helpful to say out loud and what isn’t.
  • Set a time to talk when emotion is less intense.  I know the old adage says to never go to sleep on your anger, but we’ve found that sometimes our best choice is to just go to sleep.  A rested mind can give me a whole new perspective on things.  It also helps me to bring up issues I don’t understand at a neutral time, rather than right in the midst of conflict.  While I lean toward conflict avoidance, this approach hasn’t been a useful tool to help us build a strong relationship.  Differences must be sorted out and understood or one of us starts to feel like we’re getting trampled on.
  • Identify the emotional load.  The deeper the cultural notion, the higher the emotional stress load.  The Iceberg Concept of Culture is a really helpful tool to identify where I’m feeling the stress and often provides a helpful starting point with my husband.
  • Ask for help.  One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to seek counseling when we hit problems we couldn’t resolve ourselves.  Counseling isn’t just for people with “big problems”, and friends can lack the depth of understanding they need to help in certain situations.  An objective viewpoint helps to sort through where the issues are and how to find middle ground in them.


Now…your turn!  When has your intercultural relationship required intense patience?  What actions help you practice patience?  

Families, Children & Marriage, Spiritual Formation

Where is the good in good-bye?

Just a few more days, and a whole new life begins for us. The boxes are piled high. The goodbyes are pouring in.  It’s bittersweet – change always is.  Bitter for the loss of the daily sharing of lives with people who have become cherished friends, for family who will now be far beyond a car ride away, for cornfield sunsets and quiet roads.  Sweet for the adventure that is to come, for the new experiences that will shape our hearts and stretch our souls, for the miracles of our needs being met, for the little house nestled snugly between the mountains and the sea.

At a good-bye party the other night, a friend gave me some great words on goodbyes.  Quoting the Music Man – where is the good in goodbye? – she reflected that even though goodbyes can be sad and hard, there is still good within them.  It was so touching, I wanted to share it with others who face their own good-byes.

So where is the good in goodbye?

The good is in claiming new territory, moving beyond either of your homelands to stake claim on the left coast where diversity is normalcy (hallelujah) and where you may be the conservative ones!

The good is in the not knowing and the uncertainty. In losing control of all the details for awhile, you’ll have to lean more fully on God.  That’s always good.

The good is in your new locale.  God proclaimed everything good at creation, and no doubt he was especially proud of his work on sunny, southern California. Continue reading “Where is the good in good-bye?”

Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

A long(er) view of intercultural marriage

Hiding from the rain under a tiny umbrella, my boyfriend of barely a month and I were making our way to class. We couldn’t see anything but the inside of the umbrella and our own two feet.  In the midst of a conversation about the future of our relationship, I reflected how this was what much of our relationship felt like – all we could see was the very next step. It was a simple statement, but a lesson that we have been learning ever since that day.

I’ve been reading some blogs of others in South Asian intercultural marriages here and there, and one particular post took me back to that time when my husband and I were working out the ifs of what it would look like to spend our lives together.  The question of loving each other wasn’t the problem – it was more the question of being able to commit to working out life together permanently. There was a lot of angst, questioning, talking, praying, reading.  After a long four years, we decided to take the plunge.

We’re now well over ten years in – past the questions of if to be together and well into the actual hows.  As we worked through the initial surface differences (i.e. food, race, dialect), we found ourselves in uncharted territory regarding where to go after the books we’d read stopped.  Living in a non-diverse area of the country, we found ourselves feeling isolated because of choices we made in relation to our bicultural-ness and unsure of how to connect to others without our experience.  Our hearts ached from the lack of frequency with which our children would interact with both families because of distance.  We grow weary of always being different, of still feeling like we’re navigating this boat alone.  In spite of these realities, we also know deeper levels of commitment and love than we could have even imagined when before we married.  Our friendship has grown and stretched us into more compassionate and humble people.  We wouldn’t dream of trading what we have for a simpler, more straightforward life, but we readily admit it hasn’t been an easy road. Continue reading “A long(er) view of intercultural marriage”

Families, Children & Marriage

On venn diagrams and biracial identity

My six-year-old son made a brilliant analogy this week…  We were discussing biracial familes – his aunt and uncle are Sri Lankan and African-American, and his cousin is African American – and he had asked if they would adopt a white baby.

When we answered that they’d probably adopt a biracial or black baby, he breathed a huge sigh of relief, “That’s good,” he commented enthusiastically.  “It would be a little strange for there to be three brown people and one white person in a family.”

“Hey!” I protested, “What about me?!?”  (I’m the one white person in a family of three brownish people).

“Well,” he thought for a second, “We’re [his sister and himself] aren’t really brown…  We’re light brown, in-between, a mixture.”

It was quiet for a minute.  I could nearly hear the processing in his little brain, and out it came, “I’m like a Venn Diagram!”


This is a Venn Diagram, often used in schools to help children compare/contrast what’s the same/different about specific objects