Joy Finds You

Joy Finds You

 

It is the first night of the junior school musical at our kids’ school.
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While the children prepare with their teachers nearby, parents take the chance to catch up and chat amongst each other. Slowly, we find seats in the covered court that has been transformed into an outdoor theatre of sorts. My neighbour points out the kookaburra singing their song as dusk starts to settle.

 

20160318_182615I look down at the baby, sleeping beside us. The musical, incidentally, is about the story of Daniel (in the Lion’s Den). I look up and see the nightly path of the flying foxes over the car park beyond the court’s wall. Dusk has deepened.

 

Our kids parade onto the stage. Along with all the other parents, we snap our photos, beaming.

As the play ends, I am standing several rows back and off to the left rocking the baby, watching the joy on the faces of the kids, parents, and grandparents around us. I am thankful for this perfect evening, when the kids are beaming with pride at their hard work, and we are full of joy. We are all together and healthy, and life is good.

Fast forward to a few days later. It is Orthodox Easter weekend, one of the highlights of our year. This year, we have a newborn who is still nursing and crying often. Getting into the spirit of the services will be hard, a fact we are reconciled to; we know it is just temporary.

We celebrate what parts of the weekend we can with a small and loving congregation in Bundaberg, almost all of us expats, almost all of us far from the family and traditions of home, though those living permanently in Australia are more rooted in a new home and new traditions. A prayer comes to mind from the liturgy: a prayer for the “strangers, travelers, and visitors.” A prayer for us.

My husband and I have a few moments to pray and reflect on the significance of what we are celebrating. That’s something. But it is not the profound experience that comes from the culmination of a whole week of services and reflections. I don’t realize until it doesn’t come that I was still hoping for that penetrating joy.

Absent is the usual gathering of family, and with it, the chatter of my sisters, cousins, and in-laws as we congregate at home after a long Good Friday service. Absent is the pre-dawn awakening on Saturday and the most poignant liturgy of the year. Absent are my mother’s inimitable stuffed grape leaves, and the other delightful dishes that mark this feast. Absent is my father’s invitation to each of us to have a bit of wine with our dinner, telling us a little about the bottle he has selected.

This Easter weekend, our home isn’t pervaded with the smells of roasted, stewed, and breaded meats. I think to try and replicate some of the dishes that might make it feel more like a feast, but I don’t know how to make any but the simplest of them. Besides, even if I did, I lack the energy to prepare such a meal.

We call and FaceTime our family back home, the pace of the weekend out of sync with theirs. We call on Saturday, when they are still celebrating Good Friday. We talk on Monday, when they are still celebrating the feast.

What should have been one of the most joyous points in our year was understated this year, and what might have been a mundane weekday night attending a school event wasn’t. It was perfect.

I am glad I was in the state of mind to see that perfection and to feel such joy. I could easily have been distracted and wishing that Daniel was past this phase, or stressed about how to feed him and keep him quiet while the musical was on. But I wasn’t.

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A cappuccino from Paradise Pie & Pastries, one of my favourite HB spots.

It is perhaps one of my greatest lessons from our time here: allow yourself to experience joy. Be open to it always. Sometimes it will be in the most mundane moments of the day. A pure and joyous smile from one of the kids. An unspoiled landscape. A conversation with my husband over a cup of coffee, perfectly prepared.

Be open to joy, for it won’t always come in the ways you expect.

 

 

 

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Standing on the Edge

Standing on the Edge

Recently, I came across an unfamiliar word: koselig. It is the Norwegian word for coziness, and it resonated with me. I’m not sure why. It’s certainly not because I have any desire to be anywhere near anything wool, fleece, or fuzzy. Indeed not: it’s currently 28C/81F.

But this post isn’t about the weather. It’s about koselig, and the fact that as a couple and as a family, we are currently at this odd juncture of waiting for a pretty significant change to come into our lives (in the form of baby #3) and at the same time anticipating a settling in. A settling in, or a “koselig:” a finality, a completeness that brings a psychological coziness.

This time around, parenthood is surrender. I know there is little we can control about this child: how good a sleeper s/he will be, or how loud a crier. Later, what and who will this little person of ours love? Who will s/he become? (There is, of course, a lot we can and will influence, teach, discipline, etc., but from where I stand now, the unknowns overwhelm that which is within our  control.) How will our older kids adjust to the change in our family dynamics? How, exactly, will our day-to-day lives change? I’m a lot more at peace with not knowing the answer to this last question especially than I would have been even one year ago. That has everything to do with trusting that God will see us through whatever this new chapter brings.

“Koselig” is also reminiscent, for me, of rest, and comfort, and a sense of being sheltered. These are sensations that are too often lacking in the do-something, be-somewhere nature of our lives. We–and I’m not sure whether by “we” I mean Americans, most humans, or simply people like me–seem to always be seeking the extraordinary and exciting. But I would posit that the richest moments of our lives, and the ones which we look back on when we need comfort or the memory of happiness, are moments that are ordinary, homey even.

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Cooking a turkey at Thanksgiving. Note the stylish cereal necklace, compliments of a certain 4-year-old.

Simple pleasures: swimsuits drying on a clothes line after a day at the beach, a mighty hug and good night kiss from a child, the smell of a home-cooked meal when you walk in the door.

What if we learned to savour these things, instead of always seeking the next sensational thrill? That thrill, depending on one’s personality and preferences, can be the latest purchase from a favourite store, or that newest, rancor-filled political article, or the next meal or vacation on a recent “best-of” list, or any number of other thrills. At some point, I think excitement and novelty became overrated, and small, ordinary joys became under-rated.

As we stand at the edge of this new chapter in our lives, my hope is that we–I–will learn to right that balance and embrace the koselig that is waiting right in front of us.

 

 

Kia Ora

Kia Ora

 

New Zealand, where we’ve just spent a two-week holiday, is also known by its Maori name, Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud.”

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Lake Manapouri, which we crossed to reach the even more stunning Doubtful Sound.

More than one person mentioned this mythical cloud before our visit. I’ll leave it to those of you interested in learning more to look up how the islands got this name. We had clear days and cloudy days, but somehow, even the gray skies looked lovely against the deep green and grey of the mountains in the landscape. I’ve always been an ocean lover—I’d choose the beach over mountains pretty much any day, but my admiration of New Zealand’s beaches will have to wait until our next visit. It was the mountains I fell in love with this time around.

 

We were also advised, repeatedly, to pack for all weather. Again, I’m glad we listened. We saw temperatures that, even in summer, ranged from 3C (or about 38F) all the way to 25C (about 77F).

We were fortunate to be able to spend a whole two weeks in New Zealand, but it was only two weeks. I won’t pretend to have a deep or thorough understanding of the country or the dynamics of its white New Zealander-Maori relations, but I will say that, on first impression, I’m struck by the degree to which Maori language and culture have been integrated with modern New Zealand. Examples: road and other public signs are bilingual, there are a couple public Maori TV stations, and plenty of merchandise, etc. lists the Maori name along with or instead of the English name.

We spent several nights in the southwestern area of the South Island: the Southern Alps. In addition to the breath-taking beauty of the mountains, the area includes one of about ten dark sky reserves in the world: areas where artificial light sources are so strictly controlled that the stars can still be seen with unreal clarity. Orion, which has become a familiar constellation to us in Australia, was actually a little harder to spot because we could, for the first time, see so many other stars crowded in and around it. It’s rather astonishing that lit nights, which we regard as generally beneficial, actually diminish something so beautiful.

This natural beauty was on the South Island. Before that, though, we began our trip with a few days on the North Island. For all you Lord of the Rings fans out there, you might enjoy these pictures from Hobbiton, where all the [outdoor] scenes of the Shire were filmed.

We would drive a hired car around to the various destinations, as New Zealand is small enough to be quite drive-able (especially compared to Australia or the United States). On the advice of our Kiwi neighbours, we decided to stay in holiday homes, or “bachs,” along the way. This was advice that we heeded and are so happy we did. I mean, what hotel would give you a view like this?

 

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All this beauty came at a price: internet access was very hard to come by. It was a revealing insight for me on a personal level to realize how much I relied on having my friends Google, email, WhatsApp, etc. at the tip of my fingers. I didn’t like how uncomfortable–initially, anyway–their absence made me, and it has given me something to think about.

Deep thoughts aside, here are some more moments from the trip:

Anyway, in the end, it was a special and memorable trip, ending with some quality time in Christchurch with old friends from Columbus.

People have asked and will ask about it. As we have done since photos were invented, I will show pictures, like this,

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Lupins along the side of the roads we drove.

and this.

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The milky blue colour of this water is the sun’s reflection of the glacial flour that floats near the top of the lake.

But in the end, pictures don’t capture what it’s like to be here. To feel the magnificence of this place, you’ll just have to visit New Zealand yourself.

Kia ora, everyone.

Cold Noses/ Shiny Brows

Cold Noses/ Shiny Brows

Fall in Ohio (or in Michigan, where I lived before) is a time of chilling weather and shortening days. I don’t appreciate these changes, because they herald even colder and darker days in the months ahead.

But fall is also traditionally a season of rituals and captured moments of time passing: attending football games, apple picking,

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Apple-picking with friends, Fall 2014

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and preparing for Thanksgiving.

My sisters and I at the Chicago Turkey Trot (Thanksgiving, 2014)

And these are things I deeply cherish.

But this year, it is neither fall, nor are there the usual rituals. The weather is not getting cooler; it’s getting warmer. The days are not getting shorter; they’re getting longer. Buckeye football is literally a world away (but not totally, thanks to the wonders of modern technology). I had to make a special request to the butcher to order a turkey for Thanksgiving.

It is spring in Queensland, you see, and the months ahead will bring heat and beach time and all things summer (n.b: I love summer).DSC_0192

Oh, and Christmas. Christmas will be in summer, a fact I have a hard time wrapping my snow-conditioned brain around.

Time is passing without the familiar markers. Every time I’m asked, I have to think twice about what month we are in, and where we are. It’s doing strange things to my sense of place.

Time is a strange construct indeed, friends. Never has that been as clear to me as it is right now. So if you see me pulling out the ear muffs and lighting a fire, please, someone, remind me that it’s almost summer in Queensland. And yes, that it’s November too.

Midway Points

In my 10th grade English class, there hung a poster that said you could always go to that still place inside yourself. Something like that, anyway; 10th grade was a very long time ago.

One thing I’ve learned since those days is that sometimes it’s harder to find that still place than it is other times. The days when that stillness radiates out into my actions and words, those days when I am assured of who I am and what I am meant to be doing, those are the best days. (Incidentally, they’re also my best writing days.) But there are the other days, the days when my thoughts are so crowded with plans to be made and inquiries to respond to that I forget that there is even a still space to which I can go. Those are also the days, ironically, that I feel my voice go quietest. No, not my physical voice: it’s the voice I think we all hear–or is it just me?–narrating our inner lives.

In any case, I’ve had a lot of these later types of days lately: the chatter in my head about things to do has concealed the fact that the stillness, the purpose I crave have been absent. This might seem strange, given our current life in sunny Queensland, but the truth that’s been dawning on me the past couple of months is that mindset matters. When I can stay focused on what’s most important in life–how I dislike that cliche–and what I most need to prioritize, viola! I’m at peace, and my days are more fruitful. But, let my mind or my hands get distracted, as they too easily do?  That inner voice goes silent, and at the end of the day, I feel like a hamster that’s spun a wheel all day but not actually gotten anywhere.

And the thing is, it matters less than I would have guessed what the external circumstances are. There are many things that compete for our attention/effort/time as adults living in 2015. We can be anywhere on the spectrum between juggling multiple responsibilities/roles and living with high stress and a high-speed daily pace, to having the good fortune and time to pursue interests that are not, strictly speaking, necessary. In the past year, I’ve been at multiple points along this spectrum. I feel myself pulled in different directions no matter how “stressed” or “busy” I am or am not. The substance of the distractions may be different, but their effect is the same: loss of focus. Now, whether it’s cosmic forces that conspire to crowd our minds, or whether our tendency to even allow these distracters into our minds is a failing of humankind, I’ll let you decide.

We are now just past the midpoint of our soujourn in Australia. The other day, we were driving past a place in town when Emile and I started reminiscing about something that had happened the first time we were there: it had been in perhaps our first month in Hervey Bay. I think about what has changed since then and can only wonder what this second half of our stay will bring. This is a time of being settled, I’m finding. Our community here no longer treat us like the newcomers to be welcomed with an effortful hospitality, but rather as friends. Likewise, we don’t feel the need to crowd every free moment with tourist-like photo opportunities. Just every other moment.

This midpoint, as all the stages thus far have been, is a priceless stage, filled with its own unique gifts and enlightenment. We can look back at what has happened and changed over the past months, but we don’t yet have to make decisions about what is to come after this time is over. So I can only hope that, while we are here and I can put some dedicated effort into such things, practicing increased focus can be one of them. The idealistic 10th grader in me is counting on it.