A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.

Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?

Note: This post was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries.

God of Loss and Love

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.

Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?

This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.

While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*

Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.

The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.

In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”

By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Frederick Buechner – Paraphrased

How to Reorient Our Lives: A Lesson From Jesus’ Earthly Father

by Krista Horn

Joseph is my favorite person in the Christmas story.  He doesn’t get as much attention as other people (and, I would argue, not as much attention as he deserves), but Joseph offers something to the narrative that can impact us deeply if we let it.  Joseph offers an example of how to respond when plans suddenly change and the future crumbles before our eyes.  He offers an example of how to faithfully follow God when the way God is inviting us to go is uncomfortable and unfamiliar and downright hard.  Joseph’s story has a lot to teach us at any time, but especially during seasons like we’ve all experienced this year in 2020.

So many expats have been forced to change course when all they wanted to do was stay on course.  So many have had to face abrupt departures and say sudden goodbyes this year.  So many have had to lament the lack of returning colleagues.  So many have had to hold down the fort single-handedly when the fort was meant to be manned by several people.  So many have been stuck in a holding pattern, not knowing when or if they will cross the ocean again.  So many have made decisions they never imagined making, complicated by this life overseas and all its hoops like visas and passport expiration dates and a host of other factors.

So many expats have been blown by the winds of 2020, blown off course one way or another.

Which is why I am drawn back to the story of Joseph at the close of this year.

Joseph was a man completely thrown off course by the news that his fiancée was pregnant (and not by him) and he was forced to consider a way forward in light of such devastating and life-altering news.  Joseph’s plans had suddenly changed and his future had crumbled.  He was blindsided by grief and chose to quietly extricate himself from the situation.  He chose to forego the wedding plans and the dreams of his life together with Mary.

Until…

An angel appeared.  And got right to the point: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).  Joseph had barely wrapped his head around the fact that he wouldn’t have the future with Mary he’d hoped and prayed for, and now an angel basically tells him, “You thought your future just changed?  You have no idea.” 

It remained true that Joseph’s future had taken a drastic turn.  But now he was back to courting the idea of a future with Mary, albeit a future entirely different than either of them could have imagined.  God was offering an invitation to Joseph: he could still share a life with Mary, still love her till the day he died, and still honor God in doing so.  But it would come with incredible hardships, incredible unknowns, and incredible sacrifice.  Would he take the invitation God was offering, knowing only a fraction of what it would cost him?

“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).

Joseph said yes to God.

A devotional I read recently put it this way: “He accepts God’s word and He trusts God’s word and He relies upon God’s word and he reorients his life to conform to that word.”

I take heart in Joseph’s example.  His plans had changed twice over, his future had crumbled and was put back together in a forever-altered way, and Joseph said yes to God’s vision for the future.

And the future was hard.  It meant saying yes to the shunning from society that came with a baby born out of wedlock, saying yes to helping his wife give birth while traveling, saying yes to fleeing for their lives, saying yes to living in a foreign land in order to protect his family.  Of course Joseph didn’t know all of that was coming, but his initial yes led to all the others because, I think, that initial yes was a firm decision to reorient his life to line up with whatever God had in store for him.  He could have said “no thanks” to the angel and continued with the idea of walking away from Mary forever, but Joseph instead chose to reorient his life by saying yes to marrying Mary, yes to God.

Parts of Joseph’s story were thrown at him from this broken world while other parts were sovereignly orchestrated by God.  All of it was seen and known by God, and none of it could thwart His good plan for Joseph and his family.

This broken world has thrown some nasty things at us this year too.  And God has sovereignly orchestrated some very difficult things this year.  But I take heart because all of it has been seen and known by God, and none of it has thwarted His good plan for us.  Some of the failed plans this year have forever altered the future.  Some of our foundations have crumbled around us with no promise of being rebuilt. 

And we are faced with a choice: do we willingly reorient our lives to line up with whatever God is doing, even though we don’t understand it all and certainly don’t know what’s still to come?  Do we willingly reorient our lives even when colleagues leave and don’t come back?  Even when we’re forced to leave our home overseas?  Even when our ministries stall for lack of a way forward?  Even when visas are denied?  Even when you make a hard decision based on the information you have, not knowing what the fallout will be?

My prayer as we continue celebrating this Christmas season and complete this difficult year is that we will say yes to reorienting our lives to whatever future God has in store for us, even though it may not be the future we had hoped and prayed for.  My prayer is that we will trust God’s word, remember that He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), and faithfully follow Him like Joseph did, even when the world has turned upside down.

~~~~~~~~~~

Krista Horn met and married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. Now they live and work at a mission hospital in Kenya. While her husband is busy on the wards, she stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field.  When she’s not making meals from scratch or singing lullabies or chasing skinks out of the house, Krista loves to curl up with a book, bake chocolate chip cookies, and go to bed early.  Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

 

A Global Pandemic and Lives Interrupted

In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.

Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.

A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.

And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”

And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.

The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.

As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.

Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?

I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me”
*

What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.

Living Effectively in the Here & Now (aka We’re Not Living in South Asia Anymore)

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June is the month of transition for overseas workers and their families. It’s the month where many make the decision to stay – or to leave. 

Decisions to leave are not made lightly – I know this. They are made with butterfly filled stomachs, hurting hearts, and a lot of soul-searching tears. The decision to leave a place where you have invested your heart also comes with many fears and questions.

What will it be like for us on the other side? 

I’ve learned how to live well here – and it’s taken time. How will those invisible skills be used in my passport country? 

How will we live effectively? 

My friend Robynn Bliss went through this a few years ago. In a talk she and her husband gave at their church, she speaks to these questions. For all of us who have asked, or are asking, these questions, this post offers wisdom and grace for living well in the here and now.


I recently was asked to talk to our church about how I live out my faith. It got me thinking. In 2007 we were “redeployed”. It’s a long story but we knew God was moving us from South Asia to Manhattan, Kansas. As I processed that move it struck me that Jesus must have Kingdom of Heaven Purposes in mind and yet, I had no idea how to minister to people here. I remember asking someone how to talk about Jesus here, how to do good works in His name here in Manhattan, Kansas. Her response was, “I don’t know! You’re the overseas worker!” She seemed like such an intentional person. I was so shocked by her response. I asked a few others. No one had anything very tangible or helpful to tell me.

So….I consciously decided to pretend that everyone here was from South Asia! I would do what I knew to do! I would do what I’d been sent out by my church to do….but I’d do it here!

Here’s a little bit of what I mean: 

*I recognize I’m here for the Kingdom’s sake! My life has significance. I firmly believe Jesus asks us to live somewhere for a reason. We were brought here on purpose!

Intentional Involvement:Lowell and I intentionally think how we can get involved in our community. I joined the PTO. I volunteered in the lunch room at Bluemont Elementary and then TR. Lowell joined the Friends of Sunset Zoo board. He’s now a court appointed special advocate for kids in the legal system. Those were all strategic decisions. How can we hang out more with people who need hope? Those seemed like good ways to start.

Creative Communication: In South Asia we learned to think creatively and energetically about how we might present the message of Jesus in ways that people could actually hear it. In those days we had long conversations about how to boil down the Good News to its sweet and redeeming essence. There were so many misunderstandings and misperceptions about faith and Jesus and church and what it means to relate to God. I think it’s true here too.

Honest and Open Faith Journey: When I was 21 I worked for a summer in Banff—a mountain resort town in the Canadian Rockies. I found myself intimidated about sharing my faith. It seemed strange and awkward to suddenly bring up Jesus into a conversation with a coworker. During that time I had an epiphany of sorts. We were all created by God himself to relate to God himself! That’s how we were made! To believe is actually more normal than not to believe. That truth transformed the way I live.  Since then I’ve learned to talk openly about my relationship with Jesus with anybody and everybody: my joys, my frustrations, the prayers He’s answered, the prayers he hasn’t. I offer to pray for people. I follow up later with questions. Did Jesus answer prayer? If He didn’t I express my annoyance. “Shoot! I was really hoping he’d answer that one!”. If He does, I offer up sincere praise! “Yay! Thanks God!” There’s no need for me to be apologetic about believing.

Grace-drenched Truth: When our kids were little it didn’t seem like I had time to have conversations with others about the hope I had. Initially that frustrated me! But then I started asking Jesus to help me insert a little truth into every conversation I have –even the short ones with strangers and store clerks. The chances for longer forays into more of the message make me down right giddy…but who knows what God might do with sprinklings of grace drenched truth!?

Make your work your calling: When we lived in South Asia Lowell worked full-time as a curriculum designer. We also ran a guest house and a retreat center. Our work was in many ways our calling. It’s the same thing for all of us here! Your job is the holy arena God has placed you in for divine Kingdom purposes. You don’t have to be a full time religious worker to have a significant ministry. You have a chance to show people what life in the Kingdom of God looks like! You get to interact with people and real life and live out for them authentic up and down faith and hope and joy. It’s like he gave you your job…so you can quietly do your “real job”—!

Relax and Be Yourself: I try to be myself. Usually I’m relaxed. Jesus is in charge. We don’t have to defend him or his reputation. He just asks us to bear His image to the world. To be ministers of reconciliation. To extend grace and acceptance to people. To introduce them to the One who created them who is crazy about them and who longs for a relationship with them. For that matter I’m not trying to impress Jesus either when I share my faith, or when I love on my neighbor. There is no sticker chart, no points, for having spiritual conversations. Jesus is already crazy about me too. I can’t impress him. He loves me fully as I am—a normal middle-aged, hormonally challenged, emotionally stir fried woman…and He can’t get enough of me! It’s all true for you too!

Never Forget Your Primary Motivation and Mission: Our primary mission is love. We are called to love. It’s as simple (and as horrendously difficult) as that! Love our neighbour, love our post man, love our barista, love the noisy kids on our street—, love the person we meet who is so incredibly different than I am, love our spouses, love. Love becomes the goal but it’s also the means to the goal.

My husband and I try to be the same people we were in South Asia. We still love the Holy Mysterious Message of Grace. We still try to live it out…we just live in a different town now!

About Robynn:  Robynn is holder of a Canadian passport and a US Green Card. Raised in Pakistan, she went on to live in India for 15 years as an adult. Robynn is honoured to be married to Lowell and to be mother of three intense thinkers who articulate constantly their agonies and joys. She lives and learns between worlds and processes that and more every Friday You can find her blogging here.

Little Lives In Big Transitions: 14 Ways to Help Children Cope Better With Change

It’s been five weeks since we said farewell to the house in Laos that we were still calling “new home” and boarded a plane to “Nana Papa home” in Australia. It’s less than a week now until we get on another plane that will take us to “ocean home” in Vanuatu—a place the kids and I have never even visited.

Confused?

Yeah, so are my kids.

Our little family has navigated a lot of transitions in the last four years. We moved houses while we were living in northern Laos. Then we moved down to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. And let’s not forget the two five-month sojourns I had to Australia to deliver our little boys, or the five months we spent here last year while my husband was receiving treatment for cancer.

Now we’re moving again, to Port Vila in Vanuatu.

I’m convinced this move is a good one for our family. That belief has helped ground me during this time of turmoil, but it hasn’t done much to buffer our children. I found it surprisingly painful this time around to uproot our three year old, Dominic, from a nurturing preschool in Laos, staff who adored him, and friendships that were just beginning to mean something. It hasn’t been easy for him, either. After all, we are not talking about a child who bobs along blithely on the choppy seas of change, but a child who had an epic meltdown yesterday because I parked a car somewhere different.

I know I’m not the only one out there struggling to figure out how to help my kids cope better with the huge changes that come along with living overseas. So, this month, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve done with our kids recently.

1.  Read them stories about moving

A couple of months before leaving Laos, I started to introduce stories about moving into the bedtime routine. Boomer’s Big Day has been the clear favorite for my three year old, but Big Dan’s Moving Van, The Berenstain Bear’s Moving Day, A Kiss Goodbye and Augustine have also been good.

2.  Talked about moving

About three weeks before the move I started to talk about the process with the kids—the movers, the boxes, how we’d go on a plane to visit their grandparents, and then how we’d go to “ocean home”.

3.  Gave the new place a name

I was a bit stuck on this one, since we’d started calling our house in Laos “new home” when we’d arrived back there eight months earlier, and Dominic was still calling it that. We settled on “ocean home”.

4.  Let them pick something to pack

I let Dominic pick out one or two special things to take on the plane with us rather than shipping.

5.  Helped them say goodbye to important places and people

Every Friday, Dominic’s preschool staged little ceremonies to mark birthdays and farewells. So, on his last day at school, Dominic got to wear the “goodbye crown” and sit in the special chair at circle time. The teachers led the children in a farewell song, and the school had made and framed a big collage of photos featuring Dominic during his time there. After he was presented with this collage, Dominic was led around the circle of children and encouraged to give goodbye “high fives.”

Whenever we farewelled people or animals who had been important to us during our last week in country, I reminded Dominic that we were leaving and that we wouldn’t see them again for a long time. I wish I could say that Dominic entered into leave taking with great aplomb rather than covering his face with his hands and refusing to say goodbye to anyone (or our dog) with any degree of grace. Alas. But we did try.

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6.  Brought along familiar stories

I brought along some of both children’s favorite books. Having familiar stories to read before bed is one of the easiest (although not necessarily the lightest) ways to help create a sense of continuity and stability.

7.  Packed an “entertainment” kit

I packed a favorite toy or two, as well as some other small and light options for helping entertain kids. I’ve found all of the following to be very helpful: a small blow-up beach ball, balloons, crayons, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, matchbox cars, stickers, plastic laundry pegs, snacks like cheerios and raisons that they can pick up one by one, and (last, but certainly not least) an iPad and headphones for children.

8.  Went somewhere familiar in between old and new

We’ve spent several weeks here at my parent’s house in Australia in between leaving Laos and going to Vanuatu. My kids know and love this place, and I think that landing somewhere familiar after all the upheaval of the departure (and before all the “new” that’s coming) has been very stabilizing for them.

P_MG_61309.  Postponed other changes in existing routines

Dominic is three and a half years old and still sleeps with a pacifier. In fact, he prefers to sleep with at least four of them. I’d prefer he didn’t, but also know that right now is not the time to try to wean him off these little objects that he uses to self-soothe. The middle of a major life transition is not the time to try to toilet-train your child or make changes in other habits and routines.

10.  Made a map together

When we returned to Laos last year, I took a giant piece of cardboard from one of our packing boxes and started to make a map with the kids. Every time we went to a new place or house—the markets, the doctors, school, Katrina’s house, etc—we would come home and draw it on our map. We added to this map over the eight months we were there, and Dominic often asked to pull it out and talk about it. I’ll be making a new one in Vanuatu.

11. Assembled photo collages

I’m taking about 50 photos with us when we leave next week—pictures of family and extended family, some friends, and some of the adventures we had together in Laos. Soon after we get to Vanuatu, I’ll assemble a collage to put in the kid’s play space. I want them to have physical photos, down on their level, they can touch and talk about.

P108064112.  Made friends with families with kids

Trying to make friends (and help the kids meet other children) is a priority after ever move. If you can make friends with some families who have kids, you’ll be on your way to building a strong network of relationships in your new home.

13. Hired someone to help in our home

Living overseas often brings with it some unusual stressors and some unusual luxuries. Having help with the cleaning and laundry has allowed me to spend relatively more time focused on our children. It has also widened the circle of adults that our children know and love. I’ve tried it both ways now (during the first year of Dominic’s life I barely left his side). I’m much happier and I think it’s better for the kids when I involve other trusted adults in their care. It really does take a village to raise a child (at least, it seems to take a village to raise my children). When you live overseas most of your village is inaccessible on a practical level. The staff you hire to help in your house will become important figures in your new village.

P152005414.  Periodically left the kids in the care of other people

It’s tempting to try to buffer your kids from the stresses of change by keeping them close by all the time. It’s not ideal to land in-country and leave your kids in the care of people you don’t know on the second day there. On the other hand, it is good for your kids to learn, relatively quickly, that you can go away for an hour or two in this new place and come back again. Ironically, if you don’t leave your kids with anyone else for six months, you might be setting the stage for major separation anxiety issues when you do want to start spending time apart.

And, on that note, it’s time for me to go pick up the kids from their playtime.

I’d love to hear about your experiences and strategies, too.
Help us all learn from each other, and leave your thoughts or stories below!

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

 

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