Keeping in Touch Long Distance

by Rachel Pieh Jones on March 4, 2015

Like pretty much all Life Overseas readers, my kids are growing up 12,290 miles from both sets of grandparents. Their aunts, uncles, and cousins are equally far away. Sometimes my youngest spends a month away from me in order to visit her grandparents. My oldest two attend boarding school. And yet, I think my kids have a pretty close relationship with their immediate and extended family. We’ve worked at it and with a lot of help from innovative and loving grandparents, have discovered creative ways to stay in touch beyond Skype and emails.

Photo Books

My mom and my mother-in-law are masters at designing gorgeous photo books and calendars that depict the times we do spend together. My kids spend hours pouring over these photo book and remembering. Those are the memories that stick, the ones they can continually revisit.

Daily Journals

When my youngest went to Minnesota for a month and I stayed in Djibouti, her grandmother had her keep a daily journal. Nothing fancy, but each night before going to bed, Lucy jotted down brief notes about what they did that day. Went to McDonald’s, caught three fish and threw them back, wrestled with Grandpa. When she came home, Lucy read through the entire journal with me so I wouldn’t miss a day.


Making Silly Bets

One grandpa sends out a group email to all the cousins and aunts and uncles and says, “What color shirt will Grandma wear on Friday? $2.00 to the person with the right answer.” Or, “Who will win the Vikings game and by how much? $3.00 for the closest guess.” “When will the Nerf dart finally fall off the window?” (answer: six years later) Emails flurry back and forth with bets, smack talk, and eventually, congratulations.

Intentional Visits

When we are in physical proximity, we make every attempt to see our family and to enjoy being together. My brother-in-law was recently in Nairobi and caught lunch with my son. In Minnesota, simple things like sleepovers and lazy afternoons at the lake. Fancier things like a marathon/half-marathon/5k race weekend together or paint ball battles. As possible, when significant life events occur like marriages and deaths and births, we make every attempt to be there or to send a family representative.

Interactive Experiences

One year my father instituted a Family Olympics, which was featured in Family Fun magazine. Each family had to walk a mile in their neighborhood and take note of everything they saw. We had watermelon seed spitting contests and timed how long we could collectively balance spoons on our noses. We emailed the larger group our results and kept score. Another year we had a Lego-building competition in which photos flew around the globe via email of creations using certain numbers of Legos. We spent months ahead of a scheduled in-person visit planning a talent show, videotaped it, and still watch our oh-so-talented family perform.

talent show

The most significant way our kids have kept in touch is experientially. All of the above suggestions move beyond talking over Skype into the realm of shared experience and that is where memories are built and treasured. That is where the family tie holds strong and, I hope, will continue to hold strong over the miles and the years.

How do you keep in touch with people far away? Especially kids?


Connecting the Head and the Heart

by Marilyn on March 2, 2015


Photo Credit: Stefanie Sevim Gardner


I heard difficult news last night, and suddenly all the world is blanketed in loss. I can barely breathe from the heaviness. This loss — it suffocates so it is all I can see, all I can think about.

There is so much loss in a life of movement. There are the tangible, concrete things like packing up and leaving material things and houses behind. That favorite stuffed animal that just couldn’t fit…because your child had so many other favorites that you packed instead. That doll house, now sitting on your friend’s shelf, ready to be presented to her daughter on the next birthday. The books that, in the absence of close friends, were your best friends for a while. The family pet, unable to go because the next place you will call home has strict quarantine laws.

Then there are the intangible losses. Loss of place. Someone else will live in your beloved home. Someone will have your bedroom, look out your window, wander in your rose garden. Someone else will take your place in a small group. You will hear about new people coming and your friends will tell you “You would love them!” You laugh and say “That’s great!” but inside you think how can I be replaced so quickly, so finally.

All of this piles on me as I drive, looking out on a dark world of winter. What is it about winter that accentuates the losses? All the world feels loss in winter. Wasn’t that the horror of Narnia under the spell of the white witch? “Always winter and never Christmas.”

I know in my head that God is the answer. I know in my head that God, personified in Christ, knows the pain of loss. That Jesus came willingly, gave up all that was rightfully his, “emptying” himself our scriptures say. But connecting the head and the heart? That’s my struggle.

For a long time, my husband worked with scientists in translational genomics. A well-known saying in genomic research is “From bench to bedside.” Researchers know that if their findings are confined to the laboratory alone, the research will never affect patients and change their lives. People are often desperate for a treatment that will save a life or offer a better quality of life. If the research just sits on slides and under microscopes, its use is severely limited. Thus the phrase “bench to bedside” – from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside.

The phrase is a reminder of the need to link theory to practice.

I realize as I feel the suffocation of loss that I am having a bench to bedside moment. There is a massive disconnect between laboratory science (my head) and the patient (my heart). My head knows truth. I know by head some great theological truths that can comfort someone in loss. Somewhere in the memory part of my brain are the words:*

  • “For I know the plans I have for you”, says the Lord. “Plans to prosper you, not to harm you. To give you hope and a future.”
  • “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of my God, my fortress and my strength. My God in whom I trust.”
  • “For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”

I know by head all these truths, but because of pain that’s where it stops. My memory bank is full, but my heart is empty and surrounded by ice. The words mean nothing and have no way of giving comfort. They are just words. The head and the heart seem to be in different bodies. The verses I know feel like “Job’s comforters,” spouting theology and accusations void of wisdom.

There are a couple of things I have noticed about a heart surrounded by ice.

First - I can’t parent properly. Whether it is a scraped knee from a biking accident or a scraped heart from a prom date, the emotional energy is frozen and can’t be applied where most needed.

Secondice takes a long time to melt. Outside my front door is a seven-foot mound of evidence. Frozen ponds and tree branches, icicles hanging from tall buildings and slick sidewalks are all evidence of the danger of ice and the time it takes to melt.

Third - a heart that is frozen assumes that it has a market on loss and pain. No other loss could be so terrible, no other pain so unbearable. Mine is the worstor so my frozen heart tells me.

So what’s the solution to the great head/heart divide?

In the past I have found the only way to melt the ice surrounding my heart is the gentle warmth of the spirit of God. For me to be able to live out the truth that my head knows, my heart has to be melted and rejoined to my head, a grueling and terrible process filled with tears and “whys” but essential for me to move on. It’s sometimes like surgery with no anesthesia and I want to scream through it. But the warmth arrives in surprising ways and places — daffodils in a jar, a phone call from a friend who knows me, words written by a stranger that bring extraordinary comfort, a meeting with a wise counselor.

God’s spirit is gentle and persistent, coming like a warm wind after a terrible winter, warming everything in its path so that the world can breathe. The warmth melts the ice and my heart can gradually beat again, seeing life through the lens of hope and faith.

“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.’ – Ravi Zacharias

How have you struggled with a head/heart connection? What ways have you found to connect your head and heart? 

*Verses from Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 91:1 & 2; Romans 8:28

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