Tuesday, 10 May 2016

into the ether ... :-)

As I wrote the last post, the lines of a poem kept echoing through my mind. Back on Christmas Eve 1993 I sat in on a jamming session with a good friend - but for some reason that night the music just didn't come together well.

When I came home I wrote this poem for my friend Mo. Since then I've lost contact with her and haven't been able to track her down the times I've been home - but I did manage to track this poem down in some old computer files tonight! So I'm sending it out into the ether for her, 23 years later, with a prayer that she's okay and a wish that someday our paths will cross again.

my song   25.12.93 

My child, you came to find a song
Searching with hand and heart
For a melody
Sweet to the ear
Sweet to the soul.

My child
I am the song beyond words
The harmony beyond music
The Giver beyond the gift.

Come through the veil 
Your heart pierced and your hands
  scarred by the nails
There you will find my song.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

How you walk down to Egypt matters

Again, apologies for the silence around here lately. We’re dealing with something so deep and unexpected it’s taken our breath away. And in the middle of this pain I’m trying to see the bigger picture of what these events mean for the future.

I believe all of us are born with the potential to give something good and beautiful to the world.

But sometimes this potential is aborted or derailed by an opposite force we call evil. The unique gifts that could have changed lives and brought healing are walled in behind pain or despair and never come to fruition.

For others, the gift is hidden for years and only revealed by ‘chance’ - cue those amazing X Factor episodes where a garage mechanic opens his mouth and sings with the voice of an angel.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a guy named Joseph. He was born with the seed of potential to do something great - a potential made clear to him in dreams and visions as a teenager. But the path to that destiny was far from smooth.

In fact Joe was so full of himself that his brothers couldn’t find a good word to say about him.

One day, when Joe was about 17, his dad sent him off into the fields to “see to the wellbeing” of his brothers - fully aware of their hatred, knowing he was provoking a confrontation and perhaps hoping for a beginning of whatever it was that Joe was called to do.

When they saw him coming, Joe’s brothers seized the chance to get rid of him, throwing him in a pit and later selling him off to slave merchants. So Joe ends up trudging through the desert in ropes behind a camel train for a month or so, but arrives in Egypt with a different enough ‘air’ about him that he’s picked as a slave for the household of Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt.

I can’t imagine Joe lying in the dust of the desert at night and cursing, or spitting at slave traders in the marketplace. I imagine him with back straight and head held high, holding on with all his might to the assurance of destiny despite the circumstances shouting otherwise.

Slowly but surely, because of this certain something (called ‘mareh’ in the original language of the story), Joe gets promoted until he’s the second-most powerful man in the kingdom. We’d be forgiven for thinking he’s made it. But no.

Before he really makes it to his destiny, God needs to make sure Joe can properly handle the responsibility he’s about to be given. So he allows Pharaoh's wife to falsely accuse him of rape and Joe is sent down to the dungeons. Spared from death perhaps, but written off all the same.

And there in the darkness Joe learns that there’s nothing about him that’s gonna make ‘it’ happen. It’s all God, all of it. The gift. The timing. His part is simply the attitude, the realisation that he is only a tool in the hands of God. So he begins to use that gift in the dungeon of the everyday, explaining dreams to his fellow prisoners, expecting no glory, just doing what he was made to do.

When the attitude comes right, God moves. Pharaoh too has dreams and no-one can interpret them until someone remembers Joe. He gets a shower, a shave and a new set of clothes, but now he remembers who he really is, and who God is. All the credit for the dream interpretation goes to God now, and because of that Joe finally gets to see his true destiny realised.

Now he’s returned to a position of greater power and responsibility than ever before. And God opens a door for him to initiate a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that turns his broken family into a bunch of tribes, and then a nation. A nation chosen to demonstrate what it means to walk in faith, humility and community.

So what I take from Joe’s story is this: what feels like a step backwards is often a step towards refining my character so I’m ready for potential to be released.

I must be humble enough to acknowledge that I don't have all the answers. Humble enough to offer my gift to the world in a way that heals and builds, and humble enough to concede that true power comes from the Giver, not the gift.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Stories from the frontline - pool parties, headlice & friends on the street :-)

Somewhere in the summer of 2015 we were at a pool party for a 3-year-old boy in the central business district of Bangkok. As a present for the birthday boy we'd bought a lurid green dinosaur cake from the supermarket. We were also armed with water balloons and buckets to help entertain a mix of kids from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Halfway through the party we were making small talk with new and old friends. People were asking about Ireland - so we hit google maps and found an old photo of our house. Everyone crowded around to peer at the tiny image on the screen.

Then the father of the 3-year-old, a Thai who had grown up in Bangkok, said, "Wow! I've always wondered what it feels like to open your front door and walk out onto green grass!"

And I thought, "We KNOW what that feels like. So what the heck are we doing here?"

I think from that moment whatever was left of my resolve to "do" Thailand with kids broke down.  There were already pressures but this was the nail in the coffin! Why live here in this polluted concrete jungle when our kids could be growing up on Paddy's green?

In the 90's I was single, unattached, and could be fully involved in team work, reporting, writing project proposals and traveling at a minute's notice. I didn't have to worry about my kids' homesickness, reactions to foreign bugs or education. Thailand with kids changed everything. Not that I never want to go back! But I never want to go back to the way it was last year!

One major unexpected challenge was headlice. Our kids had them for the entire year!

We hung out in McDonalds during our first 2 weeks in Thailand since they had food our kids could recognise and free wi-fi so we could search for apartment rentals online.

Thea enjoying McDonalds, Thai style. No chilli sauce thank you!

Some local kids made friends with ours and then followed us up the elevator to Tesco (yes Tesco, but not as you know it!), where they decided to do Kayla's hair. Out came their hairbrushes and combs, and on jumped the headlice that would plague us for the rest of the year. No joke - we suffered through hundreds of hours of combing, shampooing and lice-hunting, all to no avail. One month back in Ireland and the problem was sorted!

The kind act that led to our first encounter with headlice :-(

Thailand with kids also meant food was harder. Our initial plan was to eat on the street - cheaper, faster, easier and everyone could choose what they wanted.

Buying Chinese donuts on the way to the office

But Thea was soon hit by a bout of vomiting and high temperatures that lasted around 10 days. We worried about dehydration and heatstroke, turning up the air-con in her/our room until we realised that the cold air was only making things worse. She recovered only to go down with a second bout, and a third, each lasting around 10 to 14 days.

Sick girl! Wrapped to protect against cold air from the air-con

Another bout hit in late November just as we were packing to spend Christmas with my family in New Zealand. We'd gotten such a good deal on the ticket that we couldn't pass up the chance, but now it seemed we might miss out. Finally on the day before our flight we called a taxi and headed off to a hospital just a few streets away.

Turns out Thailand's medical care is amazing. Thea was seen within 20 minutes without an appointment - but we had to give a down-payment of 1,500 euro before they would treat her! I was whizzed down hallways in a wheelchair with Thea cuddled on my lap and within an hour she was hooked up to IV fluids while I waited on a stretcher bed next to her cot. Charles took the other kids home and we spent an anxious few hours communicating over the internet, tracking down our insurance company in Ireland, then in England, hoping this expense would be covered, and hoping we wouldn't have to cancel the Christmas trip home.

The doctor knew we needed to fly at 4pm the next day. By morning Thea was still pasty white but much improved, and even managed to sit up and eat a little toast. By 11a.m. I was beginning to worry since there was no sign we'd be left out that day. Finally I rang the call button and things sped up. Thea was discharged at 12 noon, a friend from the office raced us home to finish packing our bags and we were off to the airport at 1p.m., arriving just in time for check-in. Thankfully our stay in NZ kicked the tummy bug and Thea was more-or-less okay health-wise for the rest of the year.

Special delivery - books & schedules for homeschool

The focus then shifted from health to homeschool. My long-abandoned major in education got a dusting off. We gave ourselves a month to settle in after arriving and then dived into the huge boxes of books and planning schedules we had ordered from the U.S. At first we loved it! The office gave us space so we could be part of the hum every day, and the office staff spoiled the girls with ice cream, donuts and trips out via motorbike to the post office.

But as the year wore on, Thea grew tired of the activity books and packs I put together for her. She just wanted time with me. As I struggled to walk Kayla through the process of learning to read, Thea would tug at my shirt, wanting to sit on my lap.

Thea at a farewell pool party for friends moving to Dubai. Water always seemed to calm her.

By May she was grumpy and whiny; by August she was having full-blown meltdowns at least twice a day. As we packed up the buggy for the morning ride to the office she'd begin crying, "I don't like this place! I don't like this place!" Nothing would console her. Sometimes we'd have to carry her to the lift still kicking and screaming. Sometimes she'd lose it again in the taxi and Charles would have to take her out until she calmed down. Then she'd cry for a full hour after we reached the office.

The same thing happened on the way home. She'd scream and struggle on our walk towards the sky trains, through the check-in counters, on elevators, on stairs and on the trains as we stood shoulder to shoulder with other passengers. Amber would cover her ears and begin to cry and my own eyes were wet as I lugged buggy and screaming toddler down several flights of stairs to street level so we could complete the walk home. Seeing her misery broke my heart.

But there were positives. We wanted our kids to see the effects of poverty first-hand and grow compassion. This happened! Soon after we moved into our apartment on Asoke Road, Amber adopted a homeless man at the bus stop. She christened him 'Bryan' since we didn't speak a common language and didn't know his name. When she asked what we could do for him, we challenged her to find her own ways to reach out. Some days that meant buying him food from the noodle sellers, or giving him soap and a toothbrush. But every day, it meant looking him in the eye, acknowledging him as a fellow human being, and saying hello.

'Bryan', our adopted family member, resting outside a 7/11 store.

As time went by Amber asked if we could bring Bryan home to the apartment. We explained why that couldn't happen, and why it wasn't wise to give him money.

Then last August as we prepared for our 'visit' home to Ireland, she asked if we could bring Bryan with us. Hmm, try explaining to a child now full of compassion why THAT wasn't possible!

Shortly after that question, Bryan disappeared. One day he just wasn't there - and the next, and the next. We had hoped Amber wouldn't notice, but she did. We had to be real with her - yes, maybe he HAD died, or maybe he was very sick and someone had taken him away to get treatment. Then we found out that authorities had made a city-wide sweep of Bangkok, rounding up homeless people and sending them back to families in distant provinces, or, for those who could work, to some kind of vocational training - cleaning up the streets for the benefit of Thailand's many tourists.

We'll never know what happened to Bryan. But he'll always be a shadowy sixth member of our family, and a reminder that while we have opportunity to bless someone, we need to seize it!
So, yay for the positives. But the negatives really made me wonder - is Thailand right for us? What if it's not? What do I really want out of life??

More on that next time!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

1001 frustrations - good for the soul

The scene: me, sitting at a child's play table in our sunroom with two of my kids. The sun streams in through tall (dusty) windows as we sip tea from tiny cups. Then Kayla, 6, leans over towards me and intently studies something under my chin.

"Mum, do you know on TV there's a thing you can buy and put on your face and neck that makes wrinkles go away?"

Well gee, thanks. I'm speechless. I smile and say lightly, "I know, but it can't make ALL my wrinkles go away." And underneath there's a quiet internal conversation - yeah, even my kids can see it. I'm getting old!

Ok. I'm not quite halfway through a century yet, but I do feel I've aged years in the past 6 months. Or maybe the past 18 months.

And one thing I've learned in those 18 months is this: living the dream isn’t always what you expect it to be!

In September 2014 we moved to Thailand and I pretty much abandoned this blog. Getting our dream off the ground was all-consuming! Filling out visa paperwork, researching foreign school options and tracking down cheap flights all took time … but packing up 14 years’ worth of married life and kids was the hardest of all. We packed for what seemed like months - until the final night, when we crashed for a few hours of sleep in beds bare of sheets or pillows and woke at 4a.m. for the ride to the airport.

It was so surreal after 14 years of dreaming and questioning to finally ride the elevator up to the security gate with our kids and set out on that great adventure.

Settling in for the flight to Bangkok

And it was a great adventure. Don’t get me wrong. But it was so different to what I’d expected!

I first moved to Thailand back in 1998 to volunteer with a charity there. I came to love the people I rubbed shoulders with every day. Many had spent time in prison or suffered torture for their beliefs. I felt humble to be there alongside spiritual giants who took all this in their stride and refused to compromise.

One year in,  I met my now-husband Charles, who had volunteered on and off with the same organisation for a long time. He figured out on a team trip to Cambodia that I was the One. With my determination to be single for life, it took me a little longer! But in April 2000, I left Thailand to spend the summer with Charles' family in Ireland, and we headed back to New Zealand in late August for our September wedding. Then it was back to Ireland and a long stretch of wondering will we, won’t we, move back to Bangkok?

So arriving in the hot, steamy melee of Suvannabhum airport in Sept 2015 was beyond amazing. Amazing to walk out into the hub-bub of taxi drivers and vans and know there were friendly faces waiting there. Amazing to watch our kids gazing out the windows and remember our own awe the first time we drove through mile upon mile of high-rise buildings, signs in hieroglyphic Thai, flashing billboards and Dr Seuss-like concrete highways streaming over and under each other.

An hour or so later we reached our temporary accommodation - the far-from-luxury but totally adequate Rompo Mansion, just off Rama IV Road. And the next day we walked to the office and celebrated!

Kayla in the bus queue for IKEA

Within two weeks we found our new home - a clean and sunny two-bedroom apartment not far from the office with easy access to public transport. But - oops - sunny in Bangkok was a BAD idea. After moving in we found the lovely big plate of glass facing out onto the main road was a sun trap for most of the day, meaning temperatures hovered around 34C in the apartment even with the air-conditioning on at full blast.

Also, the narrow balcony outside our bedroom had an open metal railing - meaning Thea could easily slip through and sail down 28 floors to the ground below. And it almost happened - once! I went to get laundry from the bathroom and came out to find her halfway up the rails, leaning over to take in the view :-(.

View from our balcony, 28 floors up

We quickly realised homeschool in the apartment wasn’t an option - too isolating and waaaaay too hot. So the office kindly cleared a space for us so we could be part of the everyday goings-on and still get the schoolwork done. That was a huge improvement, but it meant hailing a taxi every morning - tricky as not every cab driver wants 2 adults, 3 kids and a collapsible buggy plus various bags and sacks containing schoolbooks, toys and the makings of dinner! Then in the afternoon we had a hot 20-minute walk, 20-minute public transport, 15-minute hike back home with Thea in the buggy, through swirling crowds of people in rush hour traffic.

Hubby and I love Thai food. Traveling alone, we’d always opted for street food. We thought we’d never have to cook in Bangkok - and in fact most Thai apartments don’t have kitchens! But when Thea got sick from bugs in the street food we had to revert to plan B. The girls in the office bought us a counter-top oven and I headed off to the wet market once a week with 2 enormous shopping bags.

Thea - sick for most of the first 3 months of our stay

Buying at the wet market - named after ice melting through wooden slats throughout the market - did have one advantage - you knew everything was as fresh as it gets! The bits and pieces of animals available had all been alive earlier that morning. In fact most of the fish, chickens, ducks and frogs were still leaping and clucking. Just take your pick, baby! Fruit and vegetables were freshly harvested and so much cheaper than the supermarkets. All good, bar the hassle of lugging those heavy bags out to the front entrance and hailing yet another taxi.

Frogs for lunch, anyone?

Cooking Thai-style also proved to be a challenge. In 1998 I lived above the office and ate on the street every day. I had never cooked in Thailand before! Sure, I’d cooked 'Thai' food in our well equipped kitchen back in Ireland. But in Thailand we relied on a handful of kitchen bits gathered on a day-long family trek to IKEA, involving multiple bus and taxi rides and the piling of purchases on top of our baby buggy, raising a few eyebrows on the way home! In this way we acquired pots, a wok, cutlery, plates, a bathroom stool, folding chair, clothes hangers, two clothes-airers, a rubbish bin, clothes hamper and bathmat. Applause accepted :-).

After IKEA - ready for the bus home!

Looking back, I can see how the excitement of those early days kept us sane through the initial challenges. We were just so glad to finally BE there, living the dream, that nothing else mattered.

Things did get harder after that - leading to the title of this blog post!! - and harder still since coming home last September. More to come in the next few posts. And I don't mean to imply that there weren't GOOD aspects to our year in Bangkok - there were plenty! For now, my point is that the hard work of dreaming doesn't finish once you 'get there'!

Both the frustrations of waiting AND of working out our dreams once we 'get there' are painful but good for the soul - because they clarify what we really want at heart, and why we need to continue the pursuit.

Hubby and I are working through some of these issues right now. We left Bangkok in Sept 2015 thinking we’d be here in Ireland for just a month or two before returning. But due to a completely unexpected (and painful) event soon after we arrived home, we’ve decided it’s best to stay in Ireland for now. We don’t know what the future holds, but the immediate priority is to rest, recover and wait for clarity.

It’s been an interesting ride, and it’s not over yet!

In the meantime, I’ve been feeling the need for symbols to keep my hope alive. I'm craving LIFE - big, crazy life - direction and purpose - and beauty around me to drown out the sadness of these last 6 months.

With all the uncertainty since coming home, the house has felt a bit like a way station. At first we unpacked just the bare essentials. As time went by, more and more things came out of the attic. Yet even now that we're here 'for a while', I still feel unsettled.

I’ve been admiring some beautiful hand-painted rice bowls appearing here and there on the internet. Something about them just makes me happy.

So I did something a little crazy - crazy because these things aren't life-essential and we're a little short on money right now! I ordered a few and put them in a kitchen cupboard, just above our drinking glasses, so that every time I reach up they put a smile on my face. These bowls are a reminder of Asia, and a reminder that life is filled with endless possibilities for creativity, beauty, joy, meaning and purpose. Right now they are oxygen for my soul!

Symbols of hope

Next post: Stories from the frontline :-)