30 May, 2020

It's still stormy

On Wednesday I rode to my favourite large park and enjoyed some time on my own. I read a book, but then words of my own started breaking into my concentration. So I stopped and put the book down and started to put my own words down. I "wrote" on my little phone screen, so poetry seemed easier than prose. Or maybe it's just lazy prose...
This was part of my view on Wednesday while
I wrote.

What's below is an edited version of what came out in the park.

It's still stormy
Same storm different boat
It's a phrase people are using
About these strange pandemic months.

It makes sense.
Most of us have been stuck at home
Doing things differently to usual
Spending more time with some
And less time with others

But each one has a different household
A different set of griefs, of longings.

I've lost solitude.
I've gained more time with some of my family.
I've lost time with friends.
I've gained space in my schedule to rest.
I've lost a summer visit from a loved one.
I've lost precious farewells with friends.
I've lost more than I've gained.

Every morning I cast myself
In the arms of the God who bears our daily burdens
Lately that’s felt more important than usual
Maybe that will be what I've gained when the storm is over.

Life is usually full of ups and downs
This year they’ve been more intense 
More unpredictable 
More universal 

It’s been odd to go through a global disaster
To experience the same storm here as everyone else
Yet our boats are all different

My boat has two teenage boys and husband
My boat has a tiny backyard, but a beautiful tree
My boat affords little solitude, but it's safe

My emotions have crashed around
From gratitude to grief
From relief to fear
From joy to lethargy

I’ve bounced between 
Action and resignation
Energy and boredom
Feeling free and struggling against confinement

I’ve been disappointed
By myself
And by others

But I’ve also been surprised
By unexpected blessings

I long for things that will never be regained:
time, goodbyes, opportunities.

And some that will be regained, but will take time:
freedom to travel, to go outside without my face covered.
For a life free from the fear of other people's germs.

Same storm. Different boat.
I long to be through the storm.
To be reflecting on this from a distance.
But the clouds haven't cleared yet.

So I'll continue to daily
Cast my burdens on the Lord
The one who promised rest for our souls.

19 May, 2020

God at work through community

I don't always (or often?) hear about how my words or this blog have helped someone, but did last week. Let's trace some ripples in a pond and, hopefully, show how God's been at work.

When I was in Australia I spent a little time with a psychologist. She is the same psychologist who did assessment back in 1998 when we started on this missions journey. Each time we go back we're required to do a debrief with her and her husband, it's been great to have a long-term relationship with them, even if we rarely meet.

This time I went back a couple more times. I've written here about how that resulted in me being more intentional about cultivating certain friendships in Australia. 

It turns out that the two friends I stay in contact with daily have spent time with the same psychologist. It's been an interesting element to our friendship, because we occasionally reference this common professional and her words. One thing that keeps coming up, and originated with this lady is the concept of "lily pads". I can't even remember if the psychologist mentioned them to me, but my friend hasn't let me forget this very useful concept.

And so I mentioned lily pads briefly last week in my blog post. Each time I write here I share the link to my blog post on my Facebook page, so often people comment there, rather than here.

On this post last week, a missionary friend commented that she found the concept useful in general too, but that it is a hard part of the current situation. I replied saying that planning smaller things like baking on the weekend, a TV series to work through, or a book to read are helpful, or even necessary to staying healthy. She commented that she'd been trying crochet as something of a lily pad, but hadn't been having much success.

A few days later my missionary friend and I received a message from one of my expat FB friends in Japan who'd been struggling with the lack of plans, especially not being able to see family. She found the lily pad idea amazing and very helpful. That it had been so helpful to her blew me and my missionary friend away. It had been such a small interaction, but one that happened in a place that my expat friend saw and was inspired by. She went on from that and shared her revelation with friends of hers who had similar reactions.

What a fascinating, rippling trail of God's grace.

I think at the moment thoughtful Christians are considering what Christian community is all about. In recent weeks/months many of us have been unable to physically meet together like we are used to. What has community looked like in that time?

For me it has looked like all the below:

  • worshipping virtually with others, while sitting in my lounge room,
  • long and short conversations—planned and unplanned; text, video, or phone call; or even the occasional in-person physically-distanced chat
  • generosity—both giving and receiving
  • being a part of a loosely-formed book club around a book by a missionary that has helped us to reflect on God at this time
  • the giving of grace—in my work, with my family, and with others
  • seeking how to creatively bless other people near and far.
You can probably come up with different ways it's looked for you. I will probably think of more after I publish this!

Before I go I want to share another way that friends and colleagues have blessed me in the last little while.

Encouragement folder

Last week God knew I needed a bit of extra encouragement and I received a few other encouraging emails. After I shared some of the encouragement with my two "daily" friends, one of them encouraged me to set up an encouragement folder on my computer. 

I always pass encouragements related to the magazine I work on to my magazine team when I receive them, but I haven't really collected them. I also haven't routinely collected encouragements non-magazine related for my own benefit. 

I'm so excited to be collecting them now, even a couple of sentences in an email can be something to lift my day, and now they can last longer than a day. And that's important. Not only do I work at the pointy end of publishing at times (having to work with authors who aren't happy or don't understand why we've changed what we've changed), I also live with teenagers who sometimes seem to think it's important that they critique my every move and every word. We're spending more time together in 2020 than usual, so a bit of extra encouragement is not to be discounted!

How have you seen community in your life in recent weeks?

13 May, 2020

It's hard to reflect when you're in the middle of it

A fellow writer said to me recently that she wants to write about the current situation, but is reluctant for a few reasons.

There is a sense that we're living through history that needs to be recorded, but also that in some ways we need to live through it before we can write reflectively about it. There are also a lot of sensitive toes that are easy to step on at the moment, probably a lot more than usual. Additionally there are so many threads running through this current season that it's hard to know even where to start to write much (though much is being written). Hence I didn't get to writing here last week, though I have been adding to a list of ideas to write about.

Despite the strangeness and difficulties, though, our weeks are running past relatively quickly and I've been busy enough to find that I'm tired each evening and certainly by the weekend. Indeed, I don't think I'm alone in finding these weeks and months tiring. There's been so much to adjust to and much to ponder. Just like when we first moved to Japan. Culture shock. New rules. Worries. Grief. It's not always easy to find ways to look after myself. Sharing so much of my day with two teenage boys isn't always fun. I'm glad I've got books to retreat to (I'm soooo thankful for the Kindle Fire I got for Christmas—who knew that would be so timely—and the library in Australia I get to borrow ebooks from).
This was one of the batches of biscuits that I made
for my friends. Australian and Lego biscuit cutters
made it extra fun to give them away to a
non-Australian family.

Over the weekend I indulged in baking, which is probably why I didn't find time to write on my blog, as I'd hoped to. As I wrote in this post late last year, baking is one of my loves. It's something that rejuvenates my soul. I've been doing a lot lately, as many people have. This weekend past I was blessed to have the time and resources to bake for others. I rarely have the time to do that in May, so this was indeed an opportunity. I was able to provide some home-cooked goodies to two families we are friends with. I'm please to say I've got enough flour to continue baking this coming weekend (are Japanese people baking more?). There's a Chocolate Zucchini cake I'm dying to try out again, as well as the ongoing search for the best brownie recipe.

Our weekends have been quiet these last couple of months. Actually quite pleasant, until you realise we've got very few events to look forward to. It's easier if I just focus on today, or even, this week, than try to think too far ahead. One way I make it through difficult seasons is to have what a certain psychologist calls "Lily Pads"—things to look forward to. Part of the challenge of this time is that so many of our lily pads have been shot out of the water. And the related challenge is that we don't know when we can start making plans again. It was fun this morning over breakfast to talk about hopes we have for 2024 (during our next home assignment)! Only God knows if they will come to fruition, but it was fun (and probably quite healthy) to dream about it.

On Saturday I actually hit a wobbly spot in the middle of baking when I realised that we were heading into "Farewell" season (here's one of my posts about this season in 2016). It is a difficult season any year, but this year it's going to be worse because much of it will not be done in person. One of my closer friends is leaving Japan next month and not coming back in the near future.

I've been writing this blog post for a few days now and it's time to wrap it up while I'm feeling able to. Last night I only got about 5 ½ hrs broken sleep and I suspect that might hit hard later today or tomorrow. 

Our 11th grade son had a calculus exam in our dining room at 3 am! It's another flow-on effect from COVID-19. Many American and American-flavoured international schools offer college-level subjects called AP. These subjects cost extra and have a single external exam. Doing well on them gives you college credit at American institutions and, I presume, bragging rights on their applications; but merely helps with increasing your tertiary admission rank (and also can function as prerequisite subjects for some courses) for Australian students. Usually these exams take place in very controlled environments, but they have been modified this year and take place in student's homes at a single time across the world. Of course in an American-centric way, so that all students in this part of the world are faced with doing it in the early hours of the morning. No idea how they stop kids cheating, but that's not my problem. Anyway, though I wasn't downstairs with my son, I couldn't sleep (something about a mother's heart).

I generally don't do well with sleep deprivation, but I think that I've been getting more sleep than usual lately (no long Saturdays at Track meets and getting up a little later because my husband doesn't have to be at school by 8am). So I'm not feeling too bad so far. We've got one more exam on Friday, but it's 5 am, not 3 am. And I write "We" deliberately, because this is bigger than just something our son is doing, with ¾ of the household losing sleep last night!

But back to the idea that reflecting on what's going on right now is hard, not the least because there is a lot of fluctuation intermingled with a lot of same-ness. But I'm reminded of a book I re-read recently: My Seventh Monsoon by Naomi Reed. She writes about different seasons in her life up till that point, but then when she got to where she was when she was writing she said, "It can indeed be a joy to look back and see the way God works through seasons . . . The much harder task is to live within the season 'right now.'" 

A couple of pages later she wrote:
"The stories from this new season are worming their way out, wanting to be told . . . waiting to be told. But it's me. I'm not ready to tell them yet. . . I can't tell the stories until the season is done. Why can't I? I think it's because I don't know how it will end up. I don't know how long it will go on for. I do't know what I will make of it at the end. Or what I will have learnt. Or how I will have emerged. Without the perspective of time, it's very difficult to know. it's very difficult to live in the season right now. . .  
Right in the middle of a season, we just don't know. We can't neatly define, we can't neatly wrap up, and we can't neatly expound. All we can do is live. And in the living, we grow and we learn, we enjoy and we cry, we struggle and we rejoice. We do it right now, without knowing what's around the corner . . .without knowing what will come out of it." (Chapter 16).
I think that summarizes how I feel. All I can do is live right now, and in the living will grow and cry, and struggle, and rejoice.

30 April, 2020

How are you going/doing?

I've got some spare minutes and want to write here, but don't have any strong topic in mind. That's not good!

I had a writing friend ask me in an email if I'd been doing lots of writing. And I really haven't, although I have been writing, although much of it has been editing other people's writing. In recent days I've:
  • written a prayer letter
  • rewritten some elements of the Japan Prayer booklet (which is deep editing, basically)
  • researched and written some Facebook and Instagram posts for OMF Japan
  • written an email calling for articles for our Autumn issue of Japan Harvest.
  • edited various short articles, from blog posts to magazine articles
So it really does feel like I've been writing, but nothing much longer than a few hundred words. 

At times it's been hard to stay focused and motivated. I know I'm not the only one,  that many people are struggling with staying motivated. I'm one that thrives on the next big thing. I like having things to look forward to on the calendar and whatever is there has steadily been scrubbed out. My emotions have been unusually turbulant, and that's been unsettling.

During a Zoom training meeting this week I unexpectedly found
my way back to this beautiful wallpaper (a photo I took during a
camping trip in Australia a few years ago). It was really lovely to
gaze at this image while listening to the speaker.

This week the school leadership decided that school wouldn't return to on-campus learning this school year. That means it's 17 more weeks until school begins again, Lord willing. I think the day they announced that I'd been feeling particularly frustrated with my "housemates." I was in trouble for walking too loudly, for saying the wrong things at the wrong times, for breathing while I eat. I tried to start conversations around the table and got shot down by teens. I couldn't find things to talk about that other people were interested in. And then school not starting again was like a nail in the coffin of my confinement. 

It's time to name losses and also lift my eyes heavenward. It's time to find some creative solutions.

So, here are some losses, in no particular order:
  • face-to-face time with friends
  • freedom to go out without concern about my health
  • a haircut
  • watching my boys run and throw at track and field meets
  • the house to myself during the day, and the freedom that comes with that
  • boys who are well-exercised, socialised, and are motivated by the usual rhythms of a class schedule
  • a trip to Singapore for professional development and training with our mission
  • a visit by our eldest this summer
  • the opportunity to go to the Olympics and Paralympics this year
  • mail that hasn't arrived from my family
Here are just some things that have comforted me:
  • friends checking in that I'm doing okay
  • randomly running into people (at appropriate distances)
  • a small opportunity to serve other staff families
  • opportunities to use my social media skills to encourage
  • remembering that God is a solid rock that I can rely on
  • the hymn "Great is Thy Faithfulness"
  • opportunities to exercise in safe places
  • books to read (loving my Kindle and the opportunity to borrow ebooks from the library, something I couldn't even do last year)
  • remembering that many of those great writers of history were isolated or imprisoned at the time of writing (think Paul, John writing Revelation, 
OMF sent us a self-care assessment this week. It's taken me a while to look at it and I wondered if the topic headings might be good for you to see also:

Physical: food and drink, exercise, time out. I think I rate okay on most of these. Lacking on the "time out" front. I'm getting a lot less time on my own these days and that it tiring. 
Spiritual: personal devotional life and Christian fellowship. The first is about the same as usual. Second lacking a bit.
Emotional: this has been a bit of a struggle. It identified three different areas: healthy thought/feeling life, stress management, and leisure & fun. Probably it's healthy thought/feelings that I slip most on, not quite sure what to do with that. Mostly I've been trying to name what's going on inside and then reminding myself that that's okay, then try to apply scripture to that. Reminding myself that God is unchanging and nothing can separate me from him. Also trying to not pressure myself to be busy all the time. To understand that now, more than ever, I need to be content to be a little less busy and less focused on what I achieve.
Relationships/social: well I've already admitted this has been a bit of challenge. I've had some joy on that front this week and am planning more interaction with others this weekend online. A friend suggested that reading some girly books might not be a bad idea. Escaping into some female dialogue and stories might just be helpful. I love this creative idea and I'm giving it a go!
Ministry: appropriate use of time, and relationship with colleagues. This hasn't changed much for me. Much of my ministry was already done online and from home, so in that sense I'm very fortunate as I've had years to set up boundaries that allow me to stay healthy and balanced. This season has even allowed us more opportunities to connect with supporters in Australia. We've had one Zoom meeting with a prayer group and made two videos for supporting churches this month.
Areas of temptation/struggle: Hmm. Have I avoided difficult tasks? Probably. But perhaps not more than usual. 

Overall I'm probably not doing too badly. How are you? Is there anything you can change? Is there anything I can help you with? And if there's something you'd like me to write about, please let me know and I'll see what I can do!

21 April, 2020

Rabbit holes, land tax reform, and the angel Gabriel

Last Wednesday my work took me down a rabbit hole that started with the question "Why does Japan's school, church, and financial year start in April?" My journey took me to land tax reform in the 1800s in Japan, to international financial years, and then to British history, all the way to the angel Gabriel! When I got there I realised I'd probably gone too far and needed some help.
I'm very thankful for the internet. Without which I'd be much more
limited in my ability to research.

Early on in my journey into editing I heard someone say, "Editors need to be jacks of all trades". That is, they need to know a little about a lot of things. Our specialty is written communication and helping that to be the best it can be for whatever audience and medium we're working with. But the content we work on is often quite varied. I find I have to research all sorts of things, some fascinating, some very complex, others just plain confusing.

The result is that I often learn lots of interesting things, but also that I can feel out of my depth pretty easily. Take last week for example, I love history, so that was fine, but land tax reform is not exactly my area of expertise! Then part of the trail was in Japanese, which is definitely not my area of expertise. I'm thankful that very early on as a young professional in a rural hospital I learned to network and to ask for help.

Last week I also started writing a social media update myself about why it's hard for Japanese companies to transition to working at home. That also took me down intriguing trails, including statistics about the sizes of houses around the world (I was surprised to find that Japanese don't live in some of the tiniest places, and that Australians live in some of the largest places, on average). I'm waiting on more information from a colleague to finish writing that piece, it was harder to write than I'd imagined.

Sometimes we're fact checking when we editors (and writers) do this, or just checking terminology, at other times we're just trying to get a more complete understanding of the situation so that we can ensure clear, simple communication (usually I find out a lot more than needs to be communicated).

And so, you're wondering what Gabriel has to do with Japan's school year starting in April? Well it turns out that the tax reforms in the 1870s in Japan was partly influenced by Britain, a major global power at the time, starting their financial year in April. According to legend England and Ireland used to start their year on March 25, in commemoration of the angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus (read about it here), and it gets more confusing as their financial year now starts on April 6! A bunch of fascinating facts, but much more than I needed to know to do my job last Wednesday.

14 April, 2020

It's hard to settle

I'm finding it hard to settle down to work today. Something that seems to be plaguing my days more often than usual. And I suspect I'm not the only person. 

This morning I had a message from a long-ago friend from the US saying she remembered something I'd written on here many years ago about how I'm both an extrovert and introvert (aka ambivert), in that I get both energised and exhausted by time with people. She's finding that, as an extrovert, she's struggling without non-family people contact at the moment, that it's leaving her drained and without the energy to do what she has to do.

As an ambivert who usually works from home, I'm doing fairly well. But probably I'm neither getting enough contact with different people (the men in my house cannot cope with the number of words I have) nor enough alone time (I miss having my house during school hours).

The "hard to settle" feeling may partly come from the above, but also probably a delayed stress and grief reaction to this ongoing season. Everyone feels it: this is dragging on much longer than we want it to. It stresses me that there is no definitive end in sight. 

Trying to stay healthy and engaged is hard. Unlike some people, my work has not changed much, which is both good and bad. It's good because I've not had big changes to adapt to. I've already got a well-organised, permanent work station with an ergonomic chair at home. I'm not grieving the loss of daily contact with workmates or the loss of the familiar routine of commuting. But it's bad because I've still got approximately the same amount of work to do regardless of how I feel or who is in my workspace (although I have, thankfully, struck a slightly slower patch in my work flow).
My work station, right next to the dining room table and a large
glass behind me out to our tiny backyard.

I'm very thankful that we have such a plethora of ways to easily and rather cheaply stay in contact with people; that is helping us a lot. That would have been very different if this had happened 20 years ago!

I'm also thankful for a bit more wriggle room to do some things that I ordinarily would have had to say no to. For example: joining a book club. I'm participating in a Facebook bookclub for a book that I had on my shelf, My Seventh Monsoon by Naomi Reed. It's not a fancy set up, so we're probably not getting as much out of it as we would if there were more connection and interaction between those involved. But it has been an interesting time of short reflection in my days. It's something to look forward to and has been a point of interaction with two other friends who are doing it also. And having something to look forward to each day is something that is definitely worthwhile building into your schedule if you can. Even if it is something silly or sounds rather simple, it can help.

And then there's the spontaneous connections with various people, like the friend I haven't seen for 12 years who contacted me this morning. Some of these connections wouldn't have happened in the pre-COVID-19 world when we were busier and more locally focused.

As I wrote in this blog post a couple of weeks ago, now is a time to get creative. How can we creatively help ourselves? And even more importantly, help one another? 

This is the snail mail I received with a gorgeous card and two recipes.
My postcards are very different, but I'd love to send you one.
A couple of weeks ago also I shared on Facebook that two creative colleagues in the US (they're on my magazine editing team) decided at this time to send snail mail to people who asked for it. They volunteered to send things such as a book recommendation, a recipe or two, a story, a poem, creative writing prompts, music playlist etc. I got a lovely letter in the mail with a couple of recipes to try. So I decided to do my own: send a postcard from Japan to anyone who wanted one. So far I've sent four. Would you like one? Let me know (email: wendy.marshall04 at gmail.com).

How are you? Is there something I can do for you? Maybe you've got a topic you'd like me to write about on this blog? Shoot it on over.

Meanwhile, I've got to get back to editing some articles about "men in Japan" and "ministry through education", oh, and there's that article I'm writing for OMF's social media about the current "work at home" difficulties that Japan is experiencing (if you have a personal story about the latter, I'd love to hear from you). So, plenty to do . . . must get back to work . . . but perhaps a coffee first!

08 April, 2020

Reflecting on rocks

I'm trying to settle my heart and mind down to do some writing and editing work this morning. As I sit at my desk I'm thinking back to our camping trip (already two weeks ago). It was so relaxing to sit by the fast flowing river. Not a deep river, but flowing, in places, over and around some very hefty rocks. 

The fun of that part of the river was all the rocks, actually. So many possibilities for frivolously passing the time: clambering over them, piling them, arranging them, throwing them into the river, or just sitting on them. A couple of times I went down there just for some time on my own, for space.

One thing that impressed me as I looked at the water was the rocks that just stayed put as the water rushed over and around them. 

Here in Japan COVID-19 has been on our imminent radar longer than in the West. We had the first large cluster of infections outside of China, with the docking of the Diamond Princess in Yokohama in early February. Ever since late February we've been waiting for an announcement of serious lock-down here. It wasn't until yesterday, April 7, that something approaching that (but not nearly so strict) has been announced. 

But winding back to our camping trip (March 23-25), we'd already been living with news of this disaster and wondering how it would affect our lives for several weeks. We'd done three weeks of distance learning for school and almost all of our upcoming planned meetings and events had been cancelled. We watched from our lounge chairs in Tokyo as our home country shut down and people went wild over toilet paper. We wondered what more there was to come and how that would touch our own lives.

In addition to that, was walking alongside (virtually) my friend as her son's body gradually shut down, and, the day we went camping, he died. It was a lot to process.

I felt like a lot of fast flowing water was passing over me. Sometimes struggling to gasp for breath in the onslaught. Sometimes struggling to keep my foothold on the riverbed. Sometimes tumbling downriver with the water. So, while it was soothing to watch the water flow in that river, I also felt quite a connection with the rocks.

All through this period I've tried to continue to draw my eyes back to Jesus. It's not something that happens naturally, especially in the midst of stress and busyness. It's requires constant reminding amidst the fray.

So I just want to take a few moments now to dwell on the theme of rocks. It's actually not uncommon in the Bible to see God described as a Rock. For example, 1 Sam. 2:2 "There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God."

Which of course is a different metaphor to my thoughts, but along the similar lines.

Psalm 18 has a lot of rocks in it. The word appears in vs 2, 31, and 46.

God is described as the psalmist's (David's) rock (as well as his fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, and stronghold, support, rescuer).
God, our rescuer who: "reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep watersHe rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me" (vs 16-17).
And in Psalm 40:2 God's actions are described as "lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."

Rocks again. Not so much the flowing, overwhelming water, but along similar lines.

So, thinking about the rocks that don't go anywhere while the hefty pressure of water flow over them, I went looking for more on the theme of being rooted, anchored in God.
Colossians 2:6-7 "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness."
Proverbs 18:10 "The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe."
Hebrews 6:19 "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure."
Ephesians 4 and James 1 give us the image of being tossed back and forth by wind and waves, they exhort us not to be like that.
Ephesians goes on to say that instead we should be joined with Christ in the body of Christ. A different image, but one no less confronting: that we can't just weather this on our own, not only do we need a strong connection with God, we need connections with the Christians he has put around us.

The context of the wind and waves phrases in James is about persevering through trials and temptations. What we're going through right now might not seem like a temptation, but it actually is. It's tempting to withdraw from the church, from others. It's tempting to be anxious, to squirt our anxiety all over others. It is tempting to embolden ourselves by putting down others as they deal with their own challenges. And it's tempting most of all, to forget God. To forget that all we have comes from his hand, even our very days. To forget that our ultimate meaning is to live for his glory.

So, I think my head is in a better place to deal with the next thing on my To Do list (in the midst of all the rushing water, my job has barely changed, in some ways that has been helpful as I've not had to negotiate too many changes in daily life).

How about you? What about the thoughts above strike you as particularly helpful images? How are you anchoring these days? Are you able to find ways to stand firm?