19 November, 2019

Borderlands: on the edge

Here's an excellent 15-minute video by a TCK that was originally a TED talk. It fits so well with my blog's theme of "on the edge of ordinary" that I just had to share it with you. Joshua Tan calls this edge "the borderlands" and explores the theme biographically, looking back over his 20-something years as a missionary kid and then as a young adult seeking to find his way.

He's studying a post-grad degree in Art Therapy. From about 13:00 (my paraphrase, not quite an accurate transcription): 
"I like this concept of the mental health continuum....we're not just well or unwell. We're constantly moving throughout the day, sometimes we feel a bit more well, sometimes we feel less well. 
I think this is similar to belonging, to moving through the borderland. We're constantly moving up and down through the course of the day. In each new group, we're going to be at different stages. Maybe we see a friendly smile in a strange place and we move up the scale, or a colleague makes a remark that makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable and we feel as though we don't belong as much in that workplace."

I'm seeing my own TCKs find their way through these borderlands, but at the same time have my own borderlands to negotiate. Living a cross-cultural life has a lot less security, in terms of belonging, than we otherwise would have experienced in our home country. I have to say that I probably "belong" most right where I am at present, being the longest I've stayed in any one place since I left home at 17. We certainly don't belong as much in Australia anymore, though that would grow if we stayed there for a length of time.

I do like the way he ends:
It's important to know that you are not alone...The borderlands aren't a bleak wasteland...they are rich with potential, filled with the colourful vibes of so many other people. You will find your own place in your own time.
This is true for adult TCKs, it's also true for us. The borderlands are a constantly changing landscape, but with keen eyes it is possible to see and appreciate all the beauty of the diversity and change there.

14 November, 2019

Ups and downs of parenting teens

This is a flash back post. I wrote it two years ago but never published it, probably because it was a little too revealing about my guys at the time. With that much distance, though, I think it's okay (and I've edited it to make it even more anonymous, noting that at the time I had three boys under 19 in my house). 

[Written in 2017]
I've been known to grumble about my teenagers. I was known to grumble about my kids when they were younger too. But in August one of my boys had an exceptional day, and I wrote about it at the time. And yes, it was a pretty rare event. Actually on Sunday I was "writing" a blog post in my head about the horrible times I'd had recently, but when I sat down to write it I found it really hard going. Mostly because this is a public forum and, though I'm having a hard time of being his mum at times, I'm not about to take revenge on my boys by spewing their shortcomings out here.

Parenting teenagers can be super hard. I know that that is probably general knowledge, but the reality of it is harder emotionally than I ever imagined.  I hate conflict, and having one or more people in your home who are liable to blow up at you at any moment for something you may or may not have done, is horrible. It makes being at home with them sometimes very difficult to bear. They don't often drive me to tears, but they sometimes make a coffee shop seem even more attractive than usual.

In writing this post I do want to encourage you. Parents tend not to write about the challenges of parenting teens as much as they write about the challenges of younger children, and that can mean that parents who are having a tough time of it feel isolated. So when I tell you about the amazing day one of my teens had, it's not to make you feel horrible because your teenage son has never had a day like that. Read between the lines! I write about it, because it was such unusually congenial behaviour.

I saw the shock on a friend's face when she witnessed one of my sons in our home show his annoyance through his actions (and actually it was a very slight amount of annoyance that he displayed, nothing like we get when he has no witnesses). So I know that though it's known that teenagers can be horrible, most of their horribleness is saved for their parents (at least in this house) and is therefore unseen by most people.

Thinking back over the last couple of weeks, I can tell you that I've experienced things like,  "What, are you deaf!?!" shouted at me, when I asked the "wrong" question.

I wrote this last year:
I can't tell you the details of the bad or even much of the good because I respect the privacy of my boys. It is harder as they get older. Yesterday morning when I was feeling particularly exhausted by parenting, this article called "Help for parents who want to give up" that popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook, especially this:
There’s support groups for moms of preschoolers, but where’s triage for the moms of teenagers? The older our kids become, the greater our isolation can become, because while mothers can instagram and commiserate together over the Terrible Twos — but mothers struggling through a stretch of terrible teens can suffer alone.
Yesterday we saw good come out of the bad with one son whose earlier bad choices led to him making some better decisions that are hopefully a sign of better things to come. 

Parenting is such a long-term event. So much persistence, patience, and resilience is required. Oftentimes I feel like we take two steps forward and three backward. But periodically we are rewarded with gold. I got some rare compliments on my parenting yesterday from one of my boys. GOLD!
I wrote this in August of the year before (2015):
In recent months our family has seen more emotional ups and downs in a day (or hour), than we've ever had before. Some of it is the transition, but not all. There are hormones at work. It's hard! And that's saying it nicely. . . . 
Back to teens. I've seen other difficult teens grow up and become well balanced adults (just not experienced it as a parent). So I'm clinging to the hope that this present pain is but a passing stage.
Trying not to embarrass him, but I want to mention some unusual things that one of my boys has done today.

He looked bored this morning (happens when you are woken early and don't have plans for the day), but he didn't default to electronics. I suggested a bike ride . . . he went for a bike ride.

Then he defaulted to playing Minecraft for a couple of hours. After lunch he took the initiative to go out and buy school supplies, all on his own and without any prompting. He didn't default to watching videos online, as he so often has in the past.

I've had conversations with him!

Tonight he's cooked dinner for us (it's in the oven as I type, but I'm sure it's going to be superb), as we'd planned that he would. His attitude was positive, even when things looked a bit grim.

I wish every day were like this, but I know that realistically they won't be, at least not yet. Days like this give me hope, however. Hope that the boy I'm raising will one day be a useful member of society and will be able to interact with people and look after himself.


I can say in hindsight now that things have improved. Our eldest son has moved out and is, indeed, living a fairly independent life as a respectable university student (doing his last university exam for this academic year tonight). His brothers are still teens and we still have bad days, but I'm not sure that they are as frequent as they used to be. The truth is, teenagers do get through this stage. It is a stage, just like the "terrible twos" and "horrible threes" were. It takes a lot of patience and perseverance, just like the rest of the parenting years do. There is very little instant gratification in this job. But delayed gratification is much more satisfying. The joy I get in seeing these boys maturing is something that can easily bring tears to my eyes.

My advice to mums at this stage is to find someone safe who you can talk to about your parenting struggles. I sat with someone at CAJ's bazaar a few weeks ago and we shared our pain from recent years. We were safe people for one another at that moment and it was a very special connection. 
It's important to have people with whom you can say, "My teen said this to me the other day and it cut deep." 
And have them say back, "That happened to me the other week too, I really hate it when they treat me like that."

I also want to note that mental health is something we've struggled with on top of teenage behaviour and it can be difficult to discern whether some behaviour is just "horrible teen" behaviour, or whether it is something more. If you have concerns, I recommend that you talk to a professional about them.

06 November, 2019

Friendship goal—12 months later

One of the things OMF missionaries in Australia are required to do on home assignment is debrief with a psychologist (possibly other places too, I can't generalise, though, because I don't know). We did that as a family last July, but OMF encouraged us to go back again if there were things we'd like to go deeper on. I sat on that encouragement for a couple of months and then decided to give it a go.

You see, I'd been finding myself hit harder and harder with the losses of life. The missionary life has more losses than most people encounter (see this post I wrote about the colander of expat life), and I was finding that even small losses were hitting hard. If you've been reading here a while you'll have probably noticed that I've talked about that over the years. Anyway, we've also seen people knocked off the mission field by burnout and knew that if I could avoid that I wanted to try.

So I went to a psychologist and talked to her. This is what I wrote not long after that:
She asked a lot of questions about my friendships and realised that though we have worked in the same organisation for 18 years and in the same location for the last 12, my friendships have had a lot of change over the years, even people who seemed that they would be there for the long-haul have had to leave for various reasons.
Even the other day I realised that many of the people I interact with now don't know the people I was interacting with, even two years ago! Between being in cross-cultural ministry and involved at an international school, we've got a lot of people continually moving in and out of our lives.

The psychologist made several suggestions, but the one that stuck out for me was to gather four friends around me who were less likely to move out of my life and make them the base of a pyramid. I realised that I'd been avoiding investing deeply in relationships in Australia because of the distance, however the truth is that my friends in Australia are generally more stable than the ones I'd been making in Japan. The friends I have in Australia are long-term ones that I keep seeing when I go back there.

Finding friends at a different level
So I set myself the difficult task of deciding which of my friends I'd ask for this deeper commitment of and then steeling myself to ask them. It was not easy. I felt like I was back in Primary School vulnerably asking someone to be my best friend! But I'm here to tell you, one year later, that it is making a difference.

Two of the ladies I asked happened to be good friends with each other and I texted them, almost impulsively, one afternoon in October last year. Asking if we might not join forces and become a support group for each other. That was the start of something I could never have imagined. They both messaged me back within a couple of hours, almost jumping out of the phone screen with enthusiasm. I was blown away—it truly was God's timing. We continue to remark on that very thing and give praise to God.

But that was just the start. I had imagined period Skype calls, but it's turned into almost daily contact between at least two of the three of us. Twice in the last week I've been at a coffee shop messaging with one or both of them (unplanned in both cases). It's almost like they're here with me! I've never experienced anything like it, outside of the friendship that goes with marriage, but even different to that, because they're women and they understand a woman's heart in a different way to a husband.

I also couldn't have imagined the sorts of things that the three of us were to go through in the months following that initial text. It's truly been an incredible, sometimes heartwrenching journey, and being able to do it together has enriched and strengthened each of us.

I have two other good friends who are committed to staying in touch, though we don't chat as often. But I know that I can go to either of them with honesty and bare my heart, or ask them to pray about something very private. And I'm pretty sure they know the same about me.

Having these four friends helped me through the vulnerable time in June at the end of the school year, when so many goodbyes are "I don't know if I'll ever see you again" goodbyes. They've also given me the courage to not hold back from making friends here. It's a temptation you need to fight after a few years of saying goodbye to friends you've invested your heart in.

What might I have done differently?
I'm not a fan of those "write to your 16 y.o. self" letters. However, pondering this journey I've been on now for 19 years makes me wonder what advice I'd give myself on friendship when I left Australia to become a long-term missionary in November 2000? (And no, I wasn't 16 at the time!)

I don't think I'd advise "daily friends" in Australia. I think it is important for new missionaries to leave their home country and friends and do their best to cleave to their new country and the people they find there. But in 2000, we didn't have the advantage of free messaging or Skype calls. However, maybe I'd advise writing/emailing more regularly to a couple of good friends?

I might advise me as a new missionary to be aware of grief and what it looks like, and not to downplay small griefs. You don't need to lose a parent or a spouse to experience grief. To be aware of how many goodbyes I'd already made and how to process that a little better. To have more realistic expectations about the relationships I'd make in Japan with expats. To make sure I had a few more things in place to help me be more resilient?

Our home assignment last year was really hard in so many ways, yet there were things that were good about it, and this is one of them. I'm so thankful for the psychologist who advised me and for these four women who have taken the risk of being friends with someone who isn't even in the country most of the time!

04 November, 2019

Much to be thankful for

Sometimes on a Monday it sometimes seems easier to write here than it is to do other things. . . I've got much to be thankful for today. David's been away at a conference in Malaysia since Wednesday and I've coped fine. That may seem a strange thing to say, but it's not always been true when he's been away from us. He's back with us today, but still recovering from the overnight flight and the usual over-full head that a conference will induce!

Field of cosmos.
In the meantime I've had a rather lighter schedule than usual. There has been a welcome lull in the magazine production process, so I've been able to spend more time away from my computer than is usually possible (or advisable). 

On Thursday I took most of the day off and rode to a favourite coffee shop via my favourite park. It had been a long time since I'd taken a long ride, and it was most refreshing. I didn't even take work to do at the cafe.

Not many flowers in the park at this time of year. I can't remember
what this is, but it was one of the last standing.
Lunch enjoyed in cozy spot in the "loft" of this coffee shop.
It's not that long ago that lasagne wasn't on many menus
in Japan, let alone a non-Italian coffee shop's. I had
to learn how to make it myself so that I could enjoy
it periodically.

A rare public telephone in a rare telephone box,
donated by Rotary. This I found on the edge of
a small, but leafy park that I'd never seen before.

On Friday my day was filled with a school prayer meeting, going to the gym, grocery shopping, and a much needed time of language exchange (two of the three of us have been so busy we haven't gotten together for two months), followed by an enjoyable evening watching rugby union.

This is a strange historical building, also found at this small newly-discovered park.
 My Japanese is not good enough to read the sign, but I'll put it
below for anyone who could enlighten us. Google Translate tells
 me it was built in 1781 and was a storage warehouse for ? firewood.
It is quite small, so I can't imagine that it stored much at all.

We are between sports seasons so the weekend was blessedly quiet. On Saturday afternoon the two boys and I went and got our flu injections. A point of praise that I managed to both schedule and complete this with almost no assistance from my husband and his superior language ability—"almost" being the important word because he did help with filling out the forms via a video call.

On Sunday I woke up with a Wry Neck (aka stiff neck) that turned ugly after church—I was gasping with pain at small adjustments in my posture for several hours. Thankfully I managed to see a physical therapist before they shut for 1½ days (today's a public holiday). Thankful too that I had few responsibilities for the rest of the day and the boys helped me out a little. My third point of thanks is for the prayer of friends and family. It's so helpful at times when you feel desperate and alone to have people you know you can call on to pray or help. There were other local friends I could have called on for both, but it didn't get that bad.

The other huge point of thanks really is a whole blog post or article all on its own. Twelve months ago I wrote this post about a friendship goal that a psychologist had given me. I will write a separate post about how this has been, suffice to say that yesterday I had a timely (pre-organised) video conversation with two of the friends who were part of that goal last year that not only fed my soul, but helped me through a rough afternoon of pain. 

I've woken up this morning after a good sleep and with just a stiff neck, not debilitating pain, so I am thankful for a timely answer to prayer.

So you see how much I have to be thankful for! It's been a quiet few days and I'm feeling a bit more rested than I usually am after David's been away. Indeed recently I've found myself flagging before 9pm at night, which is a bit unusual, but a good thing to take notice of.

30 October, 2019

November Marshall Musings

Here's something I've been working on in the last couple of days. This is a blog-version of our prayer letter. If you'd like the full two-page version that includes more family news, please let me know.

29 October, 2019

Baking—one of my loves

I've been thinking about baking recently. It's something I do regularly, as you probably know. I've shared quite a number of recipes here as well as wrote about my kitchen just the other week.

Cooking and baking is something I really enjoy. I find it is a soul-refreshing thing to do. I've always loved creating. My mum would tell you about the Childcraft Encyclopedias we had when I was young. The volume themed "Make and Do" was the most worn out. I was always pulling it out and making (or thinking about making) something. As I've gotten older I'm less likely to make things that are not of some practical use. I've had to move too many times and throw too many things out. Not to mention that I have less leisure time to fill these days.

However, baking is very practical and doesn't clutter up the house. And with teenage boys in my house, I have plenty of need to cook. However, what I do goes beyond what is needed. I love to make food that the guys love to eat. I enjoy planning meals that we will all delight in. It's so fun to tell them in the morning what that evening's meal is and having them exclaim positively (doesn't happen every day, mind you). I look forward to having time on the weekends to make snacks that will help keep them satisfied between meals in the week to come. 

I also love making food for others, when the need arises and I have time to do so. I even love helping others with their baking. In the summer I tried to help a friend learn to make a cake. Just recently I gave advice to another expat about the challenges of Japanese flour and biscuit/cookie baking.

I know that I'm starting to be settled after a move when I can begin baking again. I know that I've been too busy or too stressed if I haven't done much baking recently. It's like a litmus test.

There's been lots written about the benefits of baking for others. This article calls it a stress-reliever, a mindfulness activity, altruism, and meditative. Of course, if you don't enjoy it or never had the chance to develop some skill in baking/cooking, it isn't those things. For example, knitting and sewing are not stress-relieving for me. I can do the latter (simple stuff), but more often than not it's more stressful that I'm bargaining for. And don't get me started on knitting!

As I baked on Sunday, I was thinking about lots of things (as usual). Three rose to the surface:

  • Baking is an act of creation, I'm made in the image of a Creator (See Genesis 1:26-27), so of course it is satisfying to create using well-honed skills. Much more satisfying that just going to the shop and buying a packet of biscuits.
  • Baking always connects me back to my roots. My mum taught me to bake and quite a number of the biscuit/cake recipes I have are hers. I've also collected a number of recipes from other people over the years. So, on Sunday I made "Honey Biscuits" (also known as "Stamp Biscuits" by my boys, and pictured on the right), a recipe my mum made for me as a child, and used an old cotton reel that she gave me many years ago to make the patter on the top. I also made a newer recipe given to me by a missionary colleague. Making these recipes is an act in remembering those relationships.
  • Baking gives me time and space to reflect (that is noted in the article above). It's a structured activity that I'm relatively competent at, so while it keeps my hands doing something practical, my head it often partly somewhere else, processing a conversation, or thinking about a verse I've read, or considering a plan for a future event.
It is very common in Japan to talk about your hobbies. For most of my like I have not considered baking a hobby (it's too practical, isn't it?), but I think that is worth revising.

21 October, 2019

Feeling a little off-kilter

While I didn't particularly stop and ponder long here,
on Thursday—knowing that my To Do list was a little
lighter than usual—I took a detour of a couple of hours
to visit this old garden in the middle of Tokyo.
Today I'm feeling the usual Monday blues: not keen to get started on work. But it's bigger than that. 

When I feel out of sorts, I try to think things through a little to figure out if there is a good reason (and often there is, though I know that people who struggle with mental illness don't necessarily have that privilege). So I'm writing here today, thinking about this.

I've discovered a few things that are contributing to this current season of feeling a bit low and unmotivated:

  • These last 20 months have been quite frantic in many ways: 
    • our eldest son moved to Australia, 
    • we've done two international moves (which of course involved changing houses and schools and churches and pretty much everything else), 
    • the craziness as we tried to achieve our goals for home assignment in just six months, 
    • plus some personal crises in our family that I haven't been able to share publically.
  • My work schedule is such that June to September is a bit crazier than usual, due to an effort to keep our magazine production away from the busy month of December, plus extra family demands during the 10 or so weeks of school holidays. 
Both these "adrenaline-inducing" periods are over and it's the "come down" emotion I'm experiencing when things aren't quite so urgent.
It was drizzling, so not inviting to sit (wet
surfaces everywhere), but lovely for wandering.
  • I've been doing this magazine editing for nine years now, that's the longest I've worked in any job, so I wonder if it's just an itchy-feet thing? I'm not really looking for something different to do, but still, emotions don't necessarily follow logic (interestingly I wrote about a similar restless feeling about this job in Feb 2013!)
  • My social media job I've now been doing for two years and it is by no means dull (neither is the magazine), but it is relentless and that can get tiring.
  • And then there was the news we received on Thursday that David will spend 10 days in hospital in November to get a skin graft to replace the skin he lost to surgery in September. Thankfully no cancer was found in all that was taken, but it is a long stay in hospital that will mean, along with two work trips earlier in the month, he will be away about 50% of November. I don't cope well with him being away and I'm sure the anticipation of that is affecting me.
Then yesterday we had almost a whole day without any children at home. They both left before 8am to go to an international cross country competition on the other side of the city and stayed overnight there. It was delightful, but also just plain weird, to have the day to ourselves. We had a great day. But it's going to take some adjusting to move from the busyness of intense parenting over the last couple of decades to couplehood living again. Thankfully the change will not happen overnight!

So, I've probably got good reasons to feel a little off-kilter.

I was challenged and encouraged yesterday during church by this passage:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18 ESV).
I've taken a bit of a look back this morning at some of the blog posts I've written in the last few years about the challenges of slowing down and not being totally consumed with the need to be needed or frantically busy. I found this one from March two years ago, it includes a quote from our Field Director, who passed away about six weeks after he wrote this. It talks about the importance of slowing down:
Many of us these days seem to live life simply moving from one thing to the next with little time in between to catch our breath, far less having time to reflect, meditate or even spend some unrushed time with God. And that can creep into family life, church life, corporate life, organisational life. . . But while we might desire to be ‘about the Lord’s work’ to use an older phrase, that does not seem to me to mean that we should simply be dashing around in a constant blur of activity.
Busyness can certainly help us avoid unpleasant emotions and rescue us from having to think too hard. But I don't think that's how God intends us to live. Live life with a passion and not slothfully, for sure, but not so busily that we can't keep our eyes fixed on him and lose any ability to hear what he's calling us to do. All that being said, I need to get better at living it.

But as for now: I need to get back to the less urgent (and potentially less exciting) bits and pieces of my job.