Let’s Talk About Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!! Before I jump into all things love (because, really, what else could I write about today), I just want to say thank you for the lovely comments and notes I received after my last post about my husband’s cancer diagnosis and our sudden (hopefully temporary) departure from Laos. We’re still in Australia. Mike’s at the oncology unit today, almost half way through his second cycle of chemotherapy. We celebrated our 5th anniversary in style, in our wedding clothes, at the hospital :). We hope to be all done with chemo and able to return to Laos by May 1. We will see.

Now, love.

If you had told me a decade ago while I was working full time as a stress and trauma specialist for humanitarian workers that I’d now be fashioning a new “career” as an authority on long distance relationships, I would have been both bemused and amused. But there you have it. In the last year I’ve published two books for people in romantic relationships with plans for more to come.

So, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’ve pulled something out of each of my recent books that I thought might help you “grow love” in your life.

Whether you’re dating, married, or single, I hope these discussion questions and activities provide you with fodder for thought and conversation with others in your “inner circle”. I hope that in some small way they help you deepen and broaden important relationships in your life. And, wherever you are today and whomever you are with, I hope you feel that you are well loved and that you are loving well.

201_comps_72dpiSome things to talk about from 201 Questions

  1. Think of someone you greatly respect. What are three things you admire about that person?
  2. What are some of the best gifts you’ve received? Why were they so special?
  3. When you feel stressed, how does that show up in how you interact with other people?
  4. What would you like to do more of in life, but don’t? Why not?
  5. How does your job allow you to express or “live out” what you value?
  6. What is something you’ve achieved that you’re really proud of?
  7. Tell me about a time you overcame a fear.
  8. What are two issues or themes around which you most frequently feel as if you struggle to find balance in your life?
  9. How have your beliefs been challenged and/or changed recently?
  10. What are things that refresh you, inspire you, and remind you of what’s most important to you?

kindle_cover_borderSomething to do from Dating Smart

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a psychological assessment measure designed to identify an individual’s profile of character strengths.

The version on the Authentic Happiness website is free. It has 240 multiple-choice questions and takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. After you answer all the questions, you’re presented with a personal profile rank-ordering the 24 character strengths. Your top 5 strengths are considered your “signature strengths”.

This is such an interesting test that I often recommend it to friends as a personal growth exercise. However, it becomes even more fascinating if your partner or a close friend also takes the inventory. Then you can compare your results and discuss the implications.

Want to play? Here’s what I suggest …

1.  Go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.
2.  Register so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center.
3.  Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
4.  Then, think about the following questions and discuss them with your partner, family member, or friend.

Your strengths:

1.  Do you agree with the results, or not?
2.  What does the test suggest are your top five “signature” strengths?
3.  List at least one way each of your top five strengths is evident in your life.
4.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use most frequently?
5.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use the least frequently?

 Your partner, family member, or friend’s strengths:

1.  What are your partner’s signature strengths?
2.  Do you agree that those five strengths are “signature” strengths for your partner or would you have guessed that other strengths would show up more strongly in their profile?
3.  What are ways that you see these signature strengths show up in your partner’s life?
4.  What are ways that you and your partner have different strengths?
5.  How can these differences be complementary?
6.  How might these differences cause friction?

Leave a comment and add to the Valentine’s Day “fun and games” ideas!

Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? How?

What’s a question you’ve recently discussed (or something that you’ve done) that led to growth in a relationship?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

How Will You Know When To Go Home?

Lis and Mike Jan 2014Three weeks ago, just after Christmas, we learned that my husband, Mike, has testicular cancer.

We were in Thailand at the time, on a three-day getaway from our home in Laos. Mike had noticed something different downstairs ten days previously, and we’d scheduled an appointment to get it checked out in Thailand while we were there (Laos medical facilities are, shall we say, sub-par).

Right up until the day of the appointment, I wasn’t worried. The chances of it being anything serious are so slim, I reasoned. And after everything that’s already landed on us in the last two years – a baby’s broken femur, my broken ankle, depression, Mike’s two herniated discs and spinal surgeries – it’s so not our turn for this sort of medical drama anymore, amen.

I was carrying our five-month old and simultaneously trying to prevent our leashed and unhappy two-year-old from climbing into a fishpond, when Mike walked up to me after his appointment and said the words: “I have a tumor. It needs to come out as soon as possible. The doctor said it could be life-threatening.”

Well. So much for not our turn anymore.

As we were driving back to Laos the next day, Mike and I began to do something we’ve gotten rather skilled at doing – planning for how to deal with a medical challenge in Bangkok while we continued living in Laos.

During that drive home, we decided that Mike would leave ASAP to have surgery in Bangkok while I stayed in Laos with the kids. If further treatment was needed after that, we hoped that perhaps Mike could commute to Bangkok for radiation or chemotherapy and then return to Laos and work in between treatments.

It seemed like a good plan to us. It didn’t seem like such a good plan to two of our good Australian friends – both doctors – who are also currently living in Laos.

These two friends came around to our house that day after we arrived home from Thailand. Over the course of the next three hours they lovingly but firmly laid out all the reasons why, given Mike’s test results, we should all catch the first available flight to Australia.

Forty-eight hours later, one minute before midnight on New Years Eve, our flight from Bangkok to Brisbane lifted off. I believe we were being serenaded at the time by our exhausted two year old screaming in rotation, “COOKIE MAMA, RIGHT NOW!!” and “OFF PLANE!!”

Now it’s the 20th of January. We’re living at my parent’s house. Again. Mike had surgery in Brisbane six days after we landed in Australia. His tumor turned out, as expected, to be cancer. What we didn’t really expect was for a Stage 3 diagnosis. Lymph nodes in his groin and his chest have already been affected. I’m writing this article in the oncology unit, sitting beside Mike. The nurses are preparing to hook up the first treatment in what will be at least nine weeks of chemotherapy.

I am so profoundly grateful that we are not in Laos or Bangkok right now, and that our kids are being watched over by their grandparents while I’m here.

I was wondering yesterday what to write about this month that might be relevant to you all when this question popped into my mind: How will you know when it’s right to leave the field?

Our first inclination when Mike was diagnosed was to stay in Asia. We only decided to temporarily relocate to Australia because we invited, and then took, the advice of two friends who knew more than we did about what we might be dealing with.

One of those two doctor friends reassured us as we were still trying to process stepping away from Mike’s job, our house, and “normal” life for an indeterminate amount of time.

“The specifics about your house and everything else will sort themselves out,” she said. “They always do. And within six months this will all most likely be behind you. You’ll be back. You just need to step away for a while.”

What sort of situations or warning flags would make you decide to step away for a while, or even leave the field permanently?

Sometimes we’re faced with a pretty clear crisis point, like a cancer diagnosis, that raises the question of whether to go or to stay. Speaking as both a psychologist and someone who has been through a couple of those crisis points, I can tell you that no matter how calm you feel in the immediate aftermath of a crisis point, you may not be thinking logically and rationally. Right when you need to be making 101 important decisions, you will not be at your best.

Make up your mind now not to go it alone during those moments. Who will you trust to help you untangle your options and to give you advice? Think now about who could be a good sounding board for you then.

Beyond that, however, think about what sorts of seasons and reasons should cause you to at least consider leaving the field. In the absence of a specific crisis point, we can slowly acclimatize to all sorts of stresses and strains without realizing the extent of the pressure that we (or our relationships) are under. That proverbial frog in the boiling pot of water might have survived if he’d kept his eye on a thermostat. Along those lines, we should keep some of our own personal and relational thermostats within view when we’re living in potential pressure-cooker situations. When you choose to live overseas, it’s wise to identify some personal warning signs that should prompt you to reconsider whether your life overseas is worth the cost that you and your loved ones are paying.

What signs of marital strain would act as this sort of trigger for you? What about issues with your children, or your (or a loved one’s) faith, job, sense of vocation, or health? Where would you go if you had to leave the field on short notice?

Think about these questions this week. Talk about them with your partner, friends, or family.

I hope you never have to put any “emergency exit” scenarios into place. But if you do, I hope you’ll know when to leave and that you’ll have somewhere soft to land for a season while you sort out your life. On those fronts, at least, Mike and I count ourselves blessed.

Share your wisdom with us all. Have you ever had to make an emergency exit from your home abroad? What helped you during that time?

And, what sorts of reasons or seasons might prompt you to leave the field?

Jan 19, 2014: A family "everyone still has hair" photo shoot.
Jan 19, 2014: A family “everyone still has hair” photo shoot.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Website: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Looking Forward and Looking Back: Planning for 2014

It’s almost the New Year, folks! I’m in Udon Thani, Thailand right now, on a three-day holiday away from Laos. My last life lesson of 2013 might just be that 4 people sharing one hotel room when two of them are under three = ¼ the sleep. My two year old just refused to eat breakfast, lay down on the floor of the hotel dining room and started screaming for his crib at 9am.

Man, days when I’m this tired are the days when I find myself looking at my own child with something close to envy. I wish someone would pick me up, make sure I’m warm and dry, and put me to bed to let me sleep as long as I wanted.

But, since I can’t sleep because the baby will soon need to be fed, let’s talk about 2014.

Have you done any planning for 2014 yet? Have you thought about the important life lessons that 2013 had to offer you? Have you made any New Years Resolutions?

I think some Christians, sometimes, neglect to do things like set goals and make plans because they feel that they need to stay open to God’s will. Sure, I think we always need to be open to changing our plans if we feel led (or prodded) in that direction. However, I also think that not thinking about the future and not setting goals means that you’re probably not being as proactive and intentional as you could be about how you’d like to “grow and use your talents.”

When I talk about goals I’m not just talking about them in the corporate sense of tangible achievements. To borrow language from Mary Oliver, I’m talking about the whole range of our desires and intentions related to this one wild and precious life that we’ve been granted.

Goals, for me, aren’t just about how many books I want to publish this year. They are also about the qualities I would like to develop more (or less) of. They are about personal disciplines I’d like to cultivate, relationships I would love to see grow, and how I want to get ever-better at living fully present. They’re about growing towards the sort of person that I want to become.

Being thoughtful in setting your goals (and taking some time before the New Year really picks up steam to think about how you might actually achieve them) makes it more likely that you’ll follow through and accomplish your goals next year.

So as we all look forward to celebrating the dawn of another year, I’ve got two lists of questions for you to answer this month. One list will help you reflect on 2013. The other will help you plan for 2014.

LOOKING BACK: 2013 IN REVIEW

Before planning for the future it’s always wise to pause and consider the past. If you don’t take time to consider where you’ve been, setting smart goals related to where you want to go becomes much harder. It also becomes harder to identify your progress and celebrate real achievements. The whole exercise can leave you feeling rather empty.

Take some time to answer these questions about the year that’s just ending before you start thinking in detail about the year to come.

  1. Pick three words to describe 2013
  2. What was the best thing that happened this year?
  3. What was the most challenging thing that happened this year?
  4. What were the two biggest areas of stress in your life this year?
  5. What were the two biggest sources of joy and refreshment in your life this year?
  6. If you’re in a relationship, what is one thing you and your partner “did well” in your relationship this year? What is one way you and your partner could have “done better” in your relationship this year?
  7. In what ways were you able to contribute something meaningful to others this year?
  8. What are two things you achieved this year that you’re proud of?
  9. What is one thing you would have liked to achieve this year but didn’t?
  10. What are some ways you disappointed yourself this year?
  11. What books did you read or experiences did you have this year that helped you become a better version of yourself?
  12. What were five of your favorite moments this year?
  13. What are five things from this year that you’re grateful for?
  14. What are two important lessons you learned/relearned this year?
  15. How did you see God at work this year?

LOOKING FORWARD: 2014 TO COME

  1. Pick three words you would like to describe 2014
  2. Given what you experienced and learned in 2013, what are two things you could do (or do differently) to reduce stress and increase your own resilience?
  3. What is the one habit you would most like to stop this year?
  4. What is the one habit you would most like to start this year?
  5. What are two ways “character strengths” you’d like to grow in this year? What specific steps could you take to develop these strengths?
  6. How would you like to “live out your faith” this year?
  7. If you could only ask one thing of God for this upcoming year, what would it be?
  8. If you could only “do” one thing for God this upcoming year, what would that be?
  9. What is one thing you’d like to learn this year?
  10. What is one thing you’d like to do more of (or do better) to take care of your physical health?
  11. What is one thing you’d like to do more of (or do better) to strengthen your relationship with your partner this year?
  12. What is one way you could better support a friend(s) or be of service to your community?
  13. If you could only do one big thing this year, what would it be?
  14. How will you keep yourself accountable and track your progress on these goals and aspirations?

Phew! If you’ve answered all of those questions then you’ve probably crystallized some important experiences and lessons that 2013 had to offer and outlined some hopes and dreams for 2014.

I don’t know where the dawning of the New Year will find you, but I know how I hope it finds you – feeling well-loved and loving well, and excited about the new adventures and wondrous mysteries headed your way in the next 365 days.

Happy New Year!!

Will you join me in reviewing this year and planning for the next?

Leave a comment with your favorite “reviewing and planning” question, or share with us an insight or goal from your own planning.

2014-happy-new-year

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

When Cross Cultural Differences Are Shocking

I was busy working yesterday morning during my daily precious kid-free hour, when I heard my three-month-old baby give a great shriek of panicked distress from outside. It was the sort of scream that makes a mother drop everything and bolt for the source.

When I located the source he was naked, sucking frantically on his fist, and still kicking his fat legs in protest. Our housekeeper was carrying him inside. She looked at me and grinned, then pointed to the garden tap and my child’s bare, wet bottom.

“Alex poo poo,” she said.

I leaned over and patted Alex on the head.

“Welcome to the world of cross cultural differences, little one,” I said. “They’re not always going to feel comfortable.”

After spending the best part of my life so far hop-scotching around the globe (not to mention some time working in a maximum security men’s prison and some more time working with the police) I like to think that I’m fairly unshockable. But then something happens …

I meet someone at a Mardi Gras party in New Orleans, for example, who tells me they’re on a health kick that involves drinking their own urine every morning.

nydailynewscom
Source: nydailynews.com

I visit my parents in the Philippines and learn that some penitents there mark Easter by beating themselves bloody and then recreating the crucifixion.

I go to childbirth classes in an area of Australia that some might refer to as being “well populated by hippies, tree-huggers, and granola-types.” There, one of my classmates proclaims that she’ll be having a lotus birth. Later, I learn that a lotus birth means you don’t cut the umbilical cord after the baby is born, but wrap up the entire placenta and carry it around with the baby until the cord stump rots out and falls off, “naturally” detaching the placenta.

Three weeks after we moved to Laos, I accompany my husband, Mike, on my first trip to the villages. Right in front of me – just after I’ve been introduced as Mike’s wife –the village chief turns to Mike and inquires whether he will also be taking a Lao wife during his time in Laos. He even asks this in English. It was awesome.

The other night I asked Mike about these sorts of things.

“You’ve lived and worked in 15 countries now,” I said. “What cross cultural difference has shocked you lately?”

Mike paused. I wondered if he was remembering that this article was going to end up on the internet and calculating the risks of saying anything too disparaging about the Powers That Be in our current host country.

Then he smiled.

“Once in Tajikistan, a local co-worker I didn’t know well informed me just 30 minutes before his wedding that I was going to be the best man,” he said. “That came as a bit of a shock. It also came with a lot of sheep-fat-eating and vodka-drinking responsibilities that I really didn’t want. There was also the time in a village in Uganda when the women were so happy we’d installed two borehole wells that they sang and danced for two hours without stopping.

Uganda-1 (2005)

Occaisionally these cross-cultural shocks are wonderful – moments of surprising collision with a different sort of beauty or love or kindness, and you’re moved and humbled and enriched all at once.

Sometimes these sorts of moments are shocking simply because they fall outside the boundaries of anything we have considered before. Voluntarily drinking your own urine, for example, is just not something I’d ever thought of before that moment in New Orleans. It’s not something that I’d say is necessarily wrong. It’s just, well, icky. And I have trouble understanding how it could be a good idea to drink something your body has already disposed of as a waste product once already.

However, sometimes the shock we can feel in these cross-cultural moments goes beyond surprise. Sometimes I can’t just shrug my shoulders and think “not for me, but to each their own.” Sometimes there is a healthy dose of serious judgment mixed in there. These are the cross-cultural encounters that I find more enduringly troubling, because they force me to grapple with my fundamental ideas about right and wrong.

I think, for example, that certain widely-practiced initiation ceremonies (e.g., Female Genital Mutilation) are not just different. They’re wrong. I’m probably on pretty firm ground with FGM, but what about when it comes to other cultural sexual practices that differ markedly from the Westernized norms? What about mutilating yourself physically in the name of religious devotion? What about practices or customs that disregard or objectify women?

Sometimes it’s hard to know when a cross-cultural shock is simply a serendipitous invitation to broaden my worldview and when it’s OK to draw a line in the sand and dare to label a particular practice or custom as “wrong”.

Many of you, I know, have lived among worlds for some time now. You might have become quite practiced at waking up one morning in Arusha and then, just 48 hours later, greeting the sunrise in Los Angeles. You might feel equally comfortable shopping for vegetables at farmers markets in Bangkok or Sydney. You might even be able to switch languages (and adopt an attendant, different cultural persona) with a casual and admirable facility.

But I’d wager that cross-cultural differences still sometimes catch you completely unawares. Do share your own stories below …

Have you been shocked by a cross cultural difference lately?

And when do you think it’s ever OK to point to a different cultural practice that you find shocking and label it “wrong”?

8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas

If you have a toddler or young child and you’ve moved overseas, you might have learned (as I am learning) that the adage that kids are resilient doesn’t mean that change doesn’t cost them. Most children might be generally adaptable, but many are firmly attached to valued routines and known, safe spaces. Moving comes at an energy and emotional cost to young children, just as it does to adults.

It’s been a week today since I arrived back in Laos after spending six months in Australia delivering our second child within easy reach of good hospitals. The maternal mortality rate in Laos still hovers in the shocking range of 1/49 (around 1/30 for women out in the villages without even access to basic health centers). Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can easily afford to go to Thailand.

In April I left from Luang Prabang almost six months pregnant with a non-verbal 20-month old toddler in tow. I’ve returned to a new house in a new city (Vientiane) with a child who talks almost constantly, and who calls his grandparents house in Australia “home”. After six months of living with his Nana and Papa while his “Dada” came and went a couple of times on the “pane”, Dominic is understandably confused at the total upending of his world. He keeps asking for his grandparents, the green lawnmower, and to “go home.”

The first time this happened we were five hours into our flight to Bangkok. My husband, Mike, and I reminded him that we were going to Laos.

“To our new home,” Mike said brightly.

“We have two homes,” I said, equally brightly, secretly wishing I could comply with his demand to turn the plane around. “One in Australia and one in Laos.”

“No. One home,” Dominic said, staring us both down.

“Oh my child,” I said. “You are about to get very, very confused when it comes to home, for which I am truly sorry. But don’t worry. If you’re anything like me, around the time you turn 30 you’ll spend three years writing a memoir about this problem of home and it’ll all make a bit more sense.”

All flippancy aside, it’s been really hard to see Dominic struggle to figure out what’s happening and how much he misses his grandparents (and that damn green lawnmower). I have decades of practice at adjusting to these sorts of transitions myself, but watching my child missing his “home” is forcing me to acknowledge how much I, too, miss that home.

It’s also making me realize that I need to refresh my own knowledge related to helping young children deal with change. So, today, I offer you some thoughts on helping toddlers and young kiddos cope better with a massive change like an overseas move.

Dom and green lawnmower Sept 2013

1. Start talking about the transition in advance: Give them some warning that change is coming. I talked to Dominic for at least two weeks about how Daddy had gone on the “pane” back to Laos after Alex was born, and he’d come back to get us and then we’d all go on the plane. Reading them books like The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day can also help prepare them.

2. Create keepsakes: If you’re leaving people who’ve been really special in the lives of your child, create something special that’s linked to those people. Get them to give your child a keepsake (Dominic is now sleeping with the koala that his grandparents bought him in the airport). Create a small photo album, or do something else creative to help the child feel connected.

3. The phrase “new home” might help: Dominic was used to calling his grandparent’s house “home” so we started calling our place in Laos our “new home”. Now that we’re here, it’s seemed to help him to refer to “new home” “new highchair” “new bed” etc. Hopefully the “new” moniker will fade out of it’s own accord over time.

4. Expect your child to become more clingy and fearful: To a young child, the world is a big place filled with things that are hard to understand. They rely on things they recognize to make sense of everything else. After a move they may become clingy and fearful and act younger again. You might want to let them carry around their “love” objects more (e.g., if they love pacifiers but usually only have them in the crib, you might want to let them carry one around the house for a while). You should also …

5. Stick to familiar daily rituals (and create some if you don’t have many): Simple daily rituals like saying grace at mealtimes, reading stories before bed, picking out your clothes together, and watching familiar TV programs, can ground and calm your child and help them process change.

6. Give your child extra attention: I know this is challenging when you’ve just moved and there are 1001 things that need doing, but remind yourself to slow down and give your child lots of attention during the early days following a move. Put it on your to-do list (above sorting out boxes of clothes, etc.) if that helps.

7. Talk to those you’ve left behind on Skype and use photos strategically: We’ve found it helpful to have brief daily check ins via Skype with Nana and Papa during this initial week and showing him a familiar photo or two of him with his grandparents helped. We’ve also found it helpful to show him pictures of the green lawnmower on request. We haven’t found it helpful to flick through a lot of photos in quick succession from his time there. That only seems to upset him. Experiment and see what works.

8. If your child is going to be attending a new daycare or school, go and visit before the first day: Take your child to visit a new school at least once before their first day. Meet their teacher and let them see the classroom. Explain that they’ll be coming back to have fun there soon.

There’s more I could say but I’ll stop there for now. I’d love to hear from you on this. I know that many of you have done this before.

What have you found helpful or unhelpful when moving with toddlers or young children?

Dominic smiling October 2013

  Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

 

Helping your children stay in touch with family and friends when living abroad

Welcome back to Part III in our series on long distance relationships. If you missed them, here are links to Part I (Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas) and Part II (Long distance relationships: Part and parcel of international living

If you are raising children in a country other than the one you grew up in, you’ve probably wrestled with this question of how to best help your children stay in touch with your family and friends back in your home country.

I know my own parents grappled with this as they country-hopped around the world for 21 years while my siblings and I were growing up. And now that I’m the parent of (soon to be two) “third culture kids” myself, it’s something my husband and I are increasingly puzzling over. In our case the picture gets even more complicated than it was for my own parents. Mike and I currently live in Laos, but because he is American and I am Australian our children are dual citizens and we have two sets of grandparents located on opposite sides of the world. Our children are still very young, but I’m already worried that they’ll struggle even more than I did to define where home is and what it means to them.

Much more so than adults who were raised in one place and then choose to move abroad later in life, children raised outside their passport culture tend to feel split between two worlds, or more. During adolescence and early adulthood (and sometimes later) these third culture kids can struggle mightily to figure out who they really are and where they belong.

If children raised abroad are going to struggle with identity issues at some point (and in my experience, most do) you will not be able to forestall that completely no matter what actions you take to help them stay connected with family and friends “back home”. However, helping children build these important relationships and stay connected to their home culture in other ways can help make such identity struggles less acute and prolonged. If you’re parenting children raised abroad, helping them stay connected to a passport country “home base” is an important thing to spend time and money doing.

I’m going to leave aside the broader issue of connecting with a home culture for now and just focus on some tips for helping children stay connected with important people back home. I’ll be talking mostly about grandparents and immediate family here, but this also applies to key friendship figures in your life and in the life of your children.

Again, I don’t present these tips as a “how to” manual. I also recognize that some of them could prove financially prohibitive for some families. Instead, I’m sharing a list of ideas that I hope will prove to be food for thought and will spark discussion in your own family. As you read through them, be thinking about which of these you’re already doing, what else might work for you, and what you could add to this list.

2b1.     Visit when you can: This goes both ways. It’s nearly as important for grandparents etc to visit the field as it is for grandchildren to visit relatives “at home”. This helps grandkids feel that their grandparents have seen and understand “their” world. It also allows you to spend time together while the children are relaxed and at home, rather than when they are out of their element and busy meeting the myriad demands that come with holidays or home leave. Of course, it’s important for children to visit their “home” country and everyone there as well. We visited Australia either annually or every two years while I was growing up, and that did a lot to help us feel connected to places and people there.

 2.     Help contribute to the cost of travel: My parents have a policy that’s still in effect that they’ll pay half of a return air-ticket to Australia for all of us (children, spouses, grandchildren) every year.  This has helped us travel to spend time in Australia at times when we would have decided against it for financial reasons. This could go the other way, too. If you have parents or relatives that would love to visit but can’t afford to, consider whether you could contribute to the cost of their travel. Encourage other friends and family members to help subsidize travel instead of buying other birthday or Christmas presents.

 2h3.     Blog: If you live far away from friends and family, think about keeping a family blog on which you post pictures of yourself and the children and share little stories about your lives. If you’re worried about privacy you can easily set it up so that only approved people can log in and view it. This allows grandparents and extended family to easily keep up with photos and the like.

 4.     Send paper copies of photographs in both directions: If you have grandchildren overseas, send their parents photographs of yourself (especially photos of you with your grandchild). Ask the parents to show these photos to the children, or even display them where children can see them. When your grandchildren visit (or you visit them) think about making a scrapbook or photo-book full of pictures of things you’ve done together during the visit. This will help the children remember all the fun you’ve had. If you’re the one raising children overseas send photos and videos home as you can, especially if you don’t blog. There are few things that mean more to grandparents and siblings than photos of their grandchildren or nieces/nephews.

 5.     Send letter, postcards, cards, or packages: Children love to get mail of their own – send your grandkids letters, cards, photos, or packages addressed to them by post occasionally. Packages are especially exciting, and several small items usually go over better than packages containing one big item. Also consider sending some of your favorite children’s books. If you have a copy of the same book on your end, you might even be able to read it to them via Skype at some point. You can also take a photo (of yourself or something they love) and have it made into a puzzle. Send them the puzzle to put together. Finally, if they’re old enough to have their own email account, you can email them as well. From the other side, if you’re the parent of children living overseas, help your kids draw pictures or write short letters or post-cards to send to their grandparents.

 6.     Involve children in some Skype calls: Make sure you involve your children in some (but not all) of your Skype or phone calls home. Schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry. Resist any temptation to make the calls extra long to make up for preceding weeks of no contact (you don’t want to turn these calls into infrequent extended chores that children learn to dread). Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth allows. Even if your computer doesn’t have one build in, external webcams are cheap, easy to set up, and add enormously to the quality of the contact (if grandparents don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit). Consider making these calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning).

2jFor those on the home front, recognize that children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer. Help them by asking a couple (not dozens) of open-ended questions that require the children to give more than a simple yes or no answer. Give children time to come up with those answers after you ask a question – don’t rush in too fast to fill pauses or silence, children may just be struggling to find some words. And try not to take it personally if your grandchild doesn’t seem interested in talking to you on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly call with you or not.

Again, I know we’re just scratching the surface of this topic. But, again, this post is already plenty long enough.

Help us out by leaving a comment and adding to this list.
We’d love to hear more ideas about what works for you and your family!

That’s the end of our series on long distance relationships (for now, anyway). Thanks for reading along! If you’re in a dating or marriage long distance relationship, don’t forget to hop on over to Modern Love Long Distance and check us out.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Long distance relationships: Part and parcel of an international life

At some point in their careers, most development workers and missionaries find themselves living far away from friends and family. Some even find themselves enduring long stints apart from those they’re dating or married to. Learning how to live with some of your loved ones half a country (or a world) away is an essential skill for coping well with international living.

This is something I’ve learned a lot about the good old-fashioned way – through personal experience. I was seven when my parents moved our family from Australia to Bangladesh. I spent my childhood largely separated from my grandparents and extended family in Australia, and didn’t return to Australia to live until university years (at which point I left my immediate family half a world away in Washington DC). With the exception of two five-month stints surrounding the birth of each of my children, I haven’t actually lived on the same continent as my parents since I was eighteen.

In the years since I completed a masters degree in forensic psychology and left Australia for the second time, I’ve traveled the world as a psychologist who specializes in working with humanitarian workers around issues related to stress, trauma, and resilience.

Mike and LisaI was thirty-one years old and living in Los Angeles when I met the man who would become my husband. Did he happen to live nearby? Well, not exactly. At the time he lived in a remote town in Papua New Guinea. We got engaged after seven months of getting to know each other across distance, and before we’d ever lived in the same city. (That is an interesting but rather long story that you can read more about here if you wish).

Mike and I have been married for four and a half years now, and we’ve spent about a quarter of that time in different countries. As I write this, I’m 36 weeks pregnant and I haven’t seen Mike in three months. I’m in Australia, safely within reach of a good hospital. He’s still working where we live in Laos. He’ll arrive here in two weeks, hopefully before his second son does.

This week, I’m putting all these hard-learned long distance lessons to good use in two ways.

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First, I’m very excited to announce the launch today of a new website focusing on long distance relationships. Modern Love Long Distance will share stories and provide quality long distance resources and tools to help people thrive in long distance relationships.

Come on over and check us out! The blog is already up and running. One post most of you might be interested in reading is How do you and your partner deal with stress? 10 important questions to answer. And if you’re dating someone long distance, don’t miss Five lessons I learned the hard way about long distance relationships.

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The website launch also coincides with the launch this week of my latest book, 201 Great Discussion Questions For Couples In Long Distance Relationships. This fun resource will help you learn about your partner’s childhood, family, work, passions, life now, the future, what if, and much more. Whether you’re dating or already married, this book will spark hours of fresh conversation and help you get to know each other better.

 I’m super excited about the launch of Modern Love Long Distance. The number of people dating long distance or spending significant chunks of their married lives apart is increasing exponentially (and if you have friends or family in this situation please send them our way). There is a huge need for good resources to help these people understand the dynamics of long distance relationships and learn new ways to communicate and bond across the miles. That’s the role I’m hoping Modern Love Long Distance will fulfill.

Here on A Life Overseas, however, I wanted to go beyond just focusing on romantic and partnership long distance relationships. As such, this post is part of a three-part series on long distance relationships that is running here on A Life Overseas. Friday’s post focused on staying connected with your friends and family while living overseas. On Wednesday we’ll discuss helping children stay connected with family and friends back home while living abroad. See you back here then, to continue the conversation.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you…

What long distance relationships have you been in?
What are one or two things you’ve learned along the way?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this post are in a long distance relationship of some sort or another. At some point in their careers, most development workers and missionaries find themselves living far away from friends and family. Some even find themselves enduring long stints apart from those they’re dating or married to. Learning how to live with some of your loved ones half a country (or a world) away is an essential skill for coping well with international living.

This post kicks off a three-part series on long distance relationships that will run in the next week on A Life Overseas.

Today we’ll look at staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas. In my experience, this is usually foundational to thriving while living abroad. Especially early in their careers, missionaries and humanitarian workers can be much more intentional and energetic about forging new relationships with people in their host countries than they are about maintaining good relationships with those back home. I know some may disagree with me on this point, but I believe that doing this is a mistake. For many, allowing important relational networks back home to significantly degrade will, over time, compromise their health, happiness, and effectiveness in their work.

Monday’s post will focus on long distance romantic relationships, and I’ll tell you about a new website I’m launching that day called Modern Love Long Distance. This site will provide quality resources and tools for those in long distance relationships. I’ve been working on this behind the scenes for a year and I’m really excited to see this project go live!

Next Wednesday we’ll discuss helping children stay connected with family and friends back home while living abroad.

So without further ado, let’s get to it …

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Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

When you live in a country other than the one you would have considered home throughout your childhood, chances are that part of you will always feel divided. No matter how eagerly you embrace learning about your new culture and forging new relationships, those new friends will probably never completely replace the friends and family you’ve left behind.

Nor should they. I don’t use the word should very often, but I’m about to now. As uncomfortable as it can be to straddle two worlds, missionaries and development workers should work to maintain important relationships “back home” even as they’re working to integrate into a “new home”.

This is perhaps easier said than done. It can be tough to stay meaningfully connected to family and friends back home when you’re living half a world away. There’s no doubt that Skype and other technological wonders have made things easier in recent years, but myriad tricky questions remain surrounding the issue of how to stay in touch with parents and siblings, and how to help children (if you have any) grow up feeling meaningfully connected to their relatives.

Questions like: What are my parents/relatives expectations and hopes about the frequency, type, and duration of contact we’ll have? What are mine? How can I help my children feel connected to my home culture and their overseas relatives? What friends am I hoping to stay in contact with? How? How can we share parts of our life on the field with those back home in ways that they’ll understand and appreciate? How can we demonstrate sincere interest in their lives when our daily realities often differ dramatically?

As I’ll share in more detail on Monday, I have a lot of experience trying to answer these questions. However, if you were hoping for a definitive how-to manual on this topic, I’m sorry. One thing that all that experience has taught me is that there is no one-size fits all on this topic. There is no one “right” set of answers. And what might work well for you in one phase of life may not work at all well five years later.

Figuring out how you want to (and can) stay connected with your family and friends long distance is a continual process of reflection, dialogue, and adjustment. It’s also, often, learning to live with the feeling that nothing you’re doing on this front is working perfectly.

With that disclaimer, here are some thoughts on ways to stay connected with family and friends.

1.     Realize and accept that many of your friends (and even your family) back home will not be proactive about staying in touch with you when you move overseas. Many people, especially those who haven’t lived overseas themselves, are not good at reaching out to distant friends. Some of your closest friends won’t email or call you regularly, read your blog, or keep up with all of your newsletters. Try not to take this too personally or get too hurt. Just accept that if you want to stay in contact with key family and friends you will have to initiate most of the contact and make the lion’s share of the effort to keep these relationships going.

2.     Help those back home “see” your life: When your friends and family back home talk about their lives, you’ll largely be able to imagine what they’re discussing. When you move overseas, your friends and family won’t have that luxury. Try to help them “see” your life by through photos, stories, and short videos. Consider starting a blog. This will allow people to dip into your story when they have time and energy and will save you from sending lots of individual “update” emails. If you’re worried about privacy you can always program your blog so that only approved viewers can log in. If you’re not a blogger, think about sending out a monthly newsletter to a mailing list of friends and family. (Hint, keep these newsletters to 1000 words or less and include one or two stories and some photos.)

3.     Talk: Emails, blogs, newsletters and the like are great, but actually talking to someone is important too. When it comes to family or others you want to stay closely connected to, you might find that it works to catch up via Skype or phone “when you have time”. If, however, you find that you never “have time” and months are slipping past between calls, think about how often you would ideally like to talk to various family members or important friends. Then try to work out a rough schedule. For example, you may want to plan to talk to your parents weekly or twice a month. As a side benefit, setting up a routine like this can also help manage your family’s expectations about how often and when you’ll get to talk. Finally, don’t forget to give close friends the occasional call. You might only talk once every four to six months, but those infrequent chats can go a long way towards maintaining your relationship in between visits.

4.     Visit: Nothing beats face-to-face time for building relationships. Travelling back and forth from many places in this world is still a time-consuming and expensive prospect. However, if you live overseas and relationships back home are important to you, budgeting time and money to go home regularly is a must (and frankly, I don’t think that “once every four years”, although regular, is often enough). Also, encourage family and friends to visit you if they can. You’ll be able to spend more relaxed quality time with them when you’re “at home” and in your own routine without all the distractions that come with vacations or home leave. They’ll also leave feeling much more connected to your life overseas.

I know I’ve just scratched the surface with this topic, but I don’t want to drown you with a 50-page post. Instead, I’d love to hear from you about this.

What do you do to stay connected with family and friends?
Get specific – we’d all love to learn from your tips, tricks, and stories.

Join us back here on Monday to learn more about Modern Love Long Distance and how it’ll serve the ever-growing number of us who spend significant time apart from their significant “other”.

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Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

You Owe Me Grace

Friends,

I am 30 weeks and a gazillion eons pregnant. My belly is the size of Canada and my brain is the size of a mustard seed (and, trust me, this mustard seed isn’t up to moving any mountains). Pregnancy and childbirth – it’s a Serious Design Flaw, if you ask me. And it’s not like there aren’t better systems out there on the market. Kangaroos, for example, have a perfectly reasonable reproductive system in place.

(Please note, if you’re tempted to mention Eve, original sin, or anything to do with apples in the comments, don’t. I’m in no mood.)

So I’m currently hanging out with our toddler in the land of ice cream and honey (also known as Australia) awaiting the birth of our second child. Meanwhile my husband, Mike, is starting a new job in Laos, overseeing an in-country move, finding a house, buying a car, etc. He won’t be here for another two months.

I was going to write something about pregnancy and cross-cultural living but, well, mustard seed. Instead, I’m going to share an unpublished piece I wrote shortly after we moved to Laos called You Owe Me Grace. This piece still makes me laugh and think. I hope you enjoy it.

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You Owe Me Grace

Ever since my husband, Mike, and I moved to Laos three months ago, perhaps the single word that has best described life is, “eventful”. Few weekends, however, have been as eventful as this last one. This weekend was the first time we bought a puppy home, the first time we cooked dinner in our new place, the first day we took possession of a golf cart as our household vehicle, and the first time we crashed it.

The town where we live, Luang Prabang, is small enough to navigate without a car. We’re still debating whether we’ll get a motorcycle or make do with our feet and bicycles, but while we figure it out we’ve decided to take our landlord up on her offer to use the golf cart that was parked on the property when we first arrived.

I’d like to be able to explain how this afternoon’s accident happened, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve seen Mike safely navigate four wheel drive trucks backwards down dirt tracks barely wide enough to fit a bicycle (though, come to think of it, how we got stuck down that track in the first place could be the subject of a whole other article, and I’ll tell you right now it certainly wasn’t my fault). I’ve been Mike’s passenger on the back of motorcycles and in cars that he has capably piloted on three continents. I’d say without hesitating that he is a better driver than I am.

Except, apparently, when it comes to golf carts.

The golf cart’s not hard. I mean, sure, it doesn’t have lights, or turn signals, or power steering, or brakes that work well. You can’t see out the plastic windshield at the front very well because it’s all scratched up. And you do have to come in the house on an angle or you’ll bottom out. But, still, the thing is significantly smaller than the width of our driveway, which is why I remain puzzled as to how exactly Mike managed to ramp the curb while turning into the house and then drive full speed into our gate.

As “full speed” here was approximately the velocity of a decrepit ride-on lawnmower, no one was hurt – unless you count the abdominal strain undoubtedly experienced by the three neighborhood men standing nearby during their subsequent laughing fit. These men didn’t even try to pretend that it wasn’t the funniest thing they’d seen all month, and I can’t say I blame them. How often do you get to see two foreigners, carrying three kilos of tomatoes and drinking iced coffee out of a plastic bag, pilot a golf cart into a stationary object?

“I think it’s OK,” I said to Mike after we came to a standstill, laughing a little myself and having no clue whether what I’d just said was in any way true.

I hopped out and stared at the front of the golf cart. It was leaking a black, oily-looking, fluid.

Mike was considerably less amused than the rest of us.

“I don’t think it’s OK,” he said, grim, as he got out to survey the damage. “If that’s oil, then it’s definitely not OK.”

The neighborhood men had wandered over to take a closer look.

Bo di,” I said to them, shrugging.

No, they agreed with my rudimentary Lao, “cannot do”. The men went on to say many other things, too, but goodness knows what they were. The options are endless, really. They could have been offering to help us push the cart into the driveway, or they could have been inquiring as to whether we had the brains God gave a water buffalo. Even if I could speak Lao fluently, however, I’m still not sure I would have been able to understand them given that they were still laughing hysterically during the entire one-way exchange.

As Mike and the neighborhood men maneuvered the cart into the driveway I totted the tomatoes, destined for that night’s adventure in “make your own pasta sauce”, into the house. I was chopping away by the time Mike came in.

“I can’t believe I did that,” he said.

“Honey, it’s really OK,” I said. “No one was hurt. It can be fixed. It’s not a big deal.”

“I know,” Mike said, sighing. “But I feel stupid.”

“Yeah,” I said supportively. “I can see why.”

This didn’t quite make him laugh, but it came close.

“You’re taking this much better than I am,” he said. “That’s really good.”

I thought this last statement over while I did the rest of the chopping, and 36 tomatoes later I’d realized something that I’m not at all proud of.

By far the largest part of me genuinely isn’t that fussed about the golf cart. Accidents happen. The money and hassle that will be involved in getting it fixed are annoying, sure, but they are completely overshadowed by the much more important fact that no one was hurt.

But I also realized that there is a small and grubby part of me that can be secretly glad when things like this happen to Mike – a part of me that claps its hands and makes a notation on a mental list of, “silly things that Mike has done in the year and a half since we’ve gotten married”. This list has things on it like: parking ticket in LA (two), leaving a bank card in an ATM, and… driving the golf cart into the gate.

I’m not sure whether it makes it better or worse that I’m not cataloging these incidents because I’m secretly more frustrated than I act when they happen. No, what is happening is much more self-centered than mere repression. The small part of me that rubs its hands in glee at moments like these is happy because I know, I just know, that one of these days I’m going to do something dumb on a scale so epic that Mike cannot yet fathom it. I’m going to book non-refundable international airtickets for the wrong day, or write off a vehicle considerably more expensive than the golf cart, or give the wrong bank account number when I’m trying to transfer money internationally.

Oh, wait, I’ve already done that last one.

The point is, part of me is glad to tell Mike that a dented golf cart is no big deal because I’m hoping – no, expecting – that when I do this next silly thing Mike will smile serenely and tell me everything is fine. Because he will, after all, owe me grace.

Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly the spirit of what Jesus had in mind in Mark 12:31 when he instructed us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, even if my actions in being unruffled by golf cart mishaps seem to check the box.

Oh well, I’m sure Mike will give me more opportunities in the months and years to come to get my attitude and my actions in a decent place at the same time. And who knows, I may even give him some. After all, there’s a first time for everything.

How do you handle these sorts of mishaps (which can happen a lot when you’re living overseas)?

Have you ever caught yourself feeling “owed” grace? How do you combat that?

Lisa and Mike overlooking Luang Prabang Laos

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Participating in the religious ceremonies of other faith traditions: To do, not to do, or how to do?

When I first moved to Laos with my husband Mike, I tagged along on one of his work trips out to a rural village where Mike’s organization had recently helped set up a gravity-fed water system. During this trip, Mike and the staff (and, by extension, me) were the guests of honor in the village we were visiting. This meant enduring some long speeches and eating a lot of food I didn’t particularly want to eat. It also meant that we had the privilege of peering briefly into lives very different from our own, and that the humbling mantle of the village’s blessing was bestowed upon us. For in between breakfast and lunch, the village held a bai si.

The bai si (or su kwan) is a blessing ceremony indigenous to Southeast Asia, and it is performed on many special occasions – marriages, births, housewarmings, when someone becomes a monk, recovers from illness, or at the beginning or end of big journeys. As far as rituals go, it’s pretty versatile.

Su kwan means “calling of the soul”, and the purpose of the ceremony is to bind the personal spirits, the kwan, to the person. Many people in Laos believe that the human being is a union of 32 organs, and that each organ has their own kwan to watch over and protect them. Collectively, these spirits are believed to constitute a person’s spiritual essence or “vital breath”.

The problem with the kwan? Well they tend to wander, you see. Sometimes they stray quite a way from your body, and this is not at all what you want. It throws things out of balance. It makes you sick. You don’t want your kwan out roaming the world, you want as many of them as possible at home where they belong, watching over you.

So, periodically, it’s a good idea to call your kwan back. This is what the bai si ceremony does – it calls your spirits to return home, secures them in place, and re-establishes equilibrium. The ceremony, a communal event, is a way of expressing goodwill, good luck, and good health to those being honored. This was how the village was choosing to commemorate the official handover of this new water system.

Bai si tableWe sat on the floor in a circle around a low table that was decorated with flowers and candles and laden with plates of meat and offal, packets of chips, and the Chinese version of Twinkies. Long, white, cotton strings were draped over the stalks of flowers.

After everyone was gathered, the Mor Pone (the soul caller, the most senior elder in the community) began to chant, calling the lost souls of those gathered to come back to their bodies and asking them nicely to bring health and happiness with them while they were at it. As he finished chanting, we, the honored guests, were presented first with the plates of meat.

Under pressure I made a very, very bad choice and picked up a piece of offal. I’m pretty sure I heard some of my kwan snicker. Just between us, I’m not sure that all of my kwan always have my best interests at heart, no matter what Laotians would have me believe.

After we’d snacked on offal and Twinkies, the soul caller approached Mike and me. Kneeling in front of us, murmuring blessings, he tied strings to our wrists to bind our spirits to our bodies. Other community members followed suit. By the time the ceremony was finished I had so many strings around my wrists that my kwan had resigned themselves to not going anywhere for quite a while.

Bai si blessing 4

Now, a word about the ceremonies and rituals of different faith traditions.

I feel a little as if I’m in a minefield here. I’m well aware that some of my friends and acquaintances may be troubled that I participated in what they would call an animist ritual. Others will be troubled that anyone would be troubled.

More than a decade ago, during a trip to Thailand, a younger me was troubled by a similar ceremony that I participated in there. The world was more black and white to me then, and in that world a good Christian didn’t allow people to chant over them in a language they didn’t understand and tie strings to their wrists. After all, who knew what footholds that could give the devil in my life? And what on earth would Jesus say?

I’m not mocking my younger self (though it’s awfully tempting sometimes). She was sincere in her beliefs and her concerns, and she may have had some valid points. But I am not her anymore and the world looks different to me now.

Now I can come to the bai si with more peace, as a guest and as a learner. I am still not entirely comfortable with people chanting over me in a language I do not understand during a ceremony that is not of my own faith tradition. However, I am far less worried about the possibility that, simply by being present, I may be delivering myself irrevocably unto the dark side.

Bai si blessing 2For I looked into the eyes of those who approached me with strings in hand that day and I was profoundly humbled by the warmth and gentle goodwill I saw. I live a life more privileged than many of them could imagine, yet they were delighted at this chance to bless me. The elders of this community – those who have earned their years and their wisdom the hard way – knotted the strings with reverence and tenderness. Their sincerity in wishing us well was unmistakable.

I’m still not entirely sure what Jesus would say about this. The stories of the gospels suggest that he wasn’t too keen on things like commerce in the temple courts, meat sacrificed to idols, spirit-worship, superstition based in fear, and religious rituals undertaken for show. But they also suggest that he had a knack for discerning attitude and intention, and that these two things counted for an awful lot in his sight.

I suppose it’s possible that Jesus might tell me, “Lisa, it’s not super wise to make a habit of participating in ceremonies that you do not really understand. There are powerful spiritual forces for good and for bad out there, and you should not lightly trespass upon these realms.”

But I think it’s also possible that Jesus might smile a little and say something along the lines of, “I know and love your kwan, and they could do with a good calling now and again for they are a wilful and unruly lot. And, look, try your best to eat the offal that has been presented to you today in the spirit of happy gratitude, because that is the loving thing to do.”

Someday, I hope I have the chance to ask him.

How do you navigate invitations to participate in the religious ceremonies of other faith traditions?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Saying Goodbye: Does Practice Really Make Perfect?

Change is in the air. After three years here in Luang Prabang, we’re leaving. My husband, Mike, is taking up a new job in Vientiane (the capital of Laos), so we’re packing up our life here and moving. We’re also having another baby in just over four months.

Because of the lack of quality medical care in Laos, it would be less than wise for me to give birth in this country. Because I have a chronic health condition called lymphedema that makes enduring hot weather heat difficult and damaging, it would also be less than wise to stay here, heavily pregnant, through the worst of the hot season and then make a late-date dash to Thailand to deliver. So the plan for months had been for me to leave Laos with our toddler in mid-May when I hit the third trimester, and go home to live with my parents for five months around the delivery of baby number two.

Given that I am now 37, I am sure that my poor parents thought they were at least a dozen years past any chance that I would turn up pregnant and alone on their doorstep needing sanctuary, much less do this twice within three years. Just goes to show you never know in life. It also goes to show that when you raise third culture kids who choose to continue on as global nomads, you run a serious risk of being permanently pegged as their home base. Parents, take heed.

So Mike and I had it all planned, you see. But in the past two weeks all our carefully stitched-together plans have come unraveled. Mike has re-herniated a disc in his back that was operated on only six months ago. An MRI indicates that the injury requires another surgery, after which he won’t be able to lift anything heavier than ten pounds (including our toddler) for at least ten weeks.

I won’t bore you by relaying all the reasons we settled on our new plan of action, I’ll just jump straight to the details. We’ve scheduled Mike’s surgery for April 12th, and Dominic and I will leave for Australia on about the 18th, right after Mike comes out of hospital.

This new plan moves my planned departure from Luang Prabang up by a month, to just one week from today. It also means that Mike and I will be apart for a full 14 weeks before he arrives in Australia just before (hopefully) the birth of our second child. Mike will have to oversee the pack up of our house, move to a new city, and start a new job by himself while he’s still recovering from surgery. In short, it all sort of sucks.

In the wake of this latest medical drama, I haven’t thought a great deal about leaving here as a move. The fact that I won’t be coming back to this beautiful little town that’s been home for three years hasn’t really sunk in.

They say that practice makes perfect, but when it comes to leaving places and people I think it might be the opposite – on one level, anyway.

You do get better at coping with the logistical demands with practice. I can now tackle a multi-stage pack up of our lives, logically parse a dozen complicated flight itineraries, and shift from place to place without breaking too much of a sweat. Over time, however, the emotional demands of serial itinerancy are becoming more difficult for me to acknowledge and address, not less.

Given the sudden rush and how the pressure has accelerated all the deadlines on an already daunting to-do list, it’s perhaps understandable that this departure still feels unreal to me. I’m not exactly flush with time to sit around and think about things I’ve loved here, things I’ll miss, and all the joys and grief that this town has born witness to. There won’t be a farewell party, or many leisurely dinners with friends that would provide opportunities to tell them how we love and appreciate them, and thank them for how they’ve enriched our lives. I’m thinking more about how to survive this change than how it feels or what it means.

To be honest, though, I don’t know how much deep processing of this departure I’d be doing even if our plans hadn’t been up-ended. So far I’ve moved countries about a dozen times and houses at least twenty. I’m continually getting better at the logistics of relocation, but I’m starting to worry that I’m getting worse at saying and feeling meaningful goodbyes. The last time I deeply grieved a move I was sixteen. Now I tend to disconnect easily, perhaps too easily. And I wonder if this is linked in important ways to another trend I’ve noticed – my growing tendency to settle somewhere new lightly, perhaps too lightly.

Right now, I don’t know. All I know right now is that a week from now we’ll be on a plane, heading for a hospital in Bangkok that I’m way too familiar with. A week after that I’ll be preparing to board another plane. Then the kaleidoscope of life will be given another sudden twist and I’ll be “home” in Australia with winter coming on, minus one husband and plus two parents. I’ll be looking for a new normal for our toddler and for me for the following six months.

And then, we’ll be leaving.

And arriving.

Again.

What have your experiences been with moving?
How do you mark departures and say goodbye?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Website: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Searching for home after a global upbringing

It’s book month on A Life Overseas!! I love books and I’m especially excited to be able to share a little about my latest book, Love At The Speed Of Email, with you today. I’ve got three electronic copies to give away (PDF, MOBI, or EPUB versions available). Find out how to enter below.

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though, it’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question “where’s home” after being raised five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section that I’ve chosen to share with you comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home …

***

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. … What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the states when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington D.C. had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the states was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used-book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.

***

Thanks for reading! You can enter to win a copy of Love At The Speed Of Email by leaving a comment below and addressing at least one of the following questions.

  • Where’s home for you?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word home?
  • If you’re raising third culture kids, how are you addressing this issue with them?
  • Any favorite Bible verses, quotes, or stories to share on this topic?

I’ll pick three winners randomly from the comment list on Saturday the 9th of March and send out an email to the winners. If you don’t win an e-copy and you’d like to read more, or you prefer a paperback copyLove At The Speed Of Email is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red