So in this last day of my mini-sabbatical I find myself sacked out on my little love seat (it’s times like this that my long legs wish I opted for a cramped apartment in exchange for a couch I can stretch out on) trying to recover enough from my nasty cold to make it through my first day back at work tomorrow. Culture shock finally hits in the form of the appallingly shallow conversation happening on tv between Ellen DeGeneres and Jesse Tyler Ferguson about his one-testicled dog. Coming up after the break: new teen musical group sensation Mindless Behavior, and Justin Bieber visits an elementary school somewhere and makes teachers cry. Yay. So here I am, still in awkward cultural limbo, feeling a little sick, empty, and lonely. I find myself whiling away the hours on my phone . . . not playing games, but trolling Facebook, Skype, and WordPress looking for specific people, comments, likes, any sort of connection that requires minimal work on my part.
Which leads me back to my inner contemplation of one of the many subtle and misunderstood MK/TCK (Missionary Kid / Third Culture Kid – here’s a good summary if you’re not sure what I’m talking about) dynamics that set us apart from the general population. Relationships. I’ve known and befriended and mentored enough of us to know that we are all extremely different and very much alike. None of us have the same culture, but we are our own group who have an awful lot in common. One thing we have in common is this odd mixture of “Goodbye Avoidance” and “Goodbye Expertise.” You heard me right. We HATE goodbyes, but that’s because we’ve become experts at it. Some TCKs say most of their goodbyes because their families are global nomads; others (like me) have said most of their goodbyes to people who flit in and out of their lives. Regardless, you ultimately meet, love, and release more people than you can possibly maintain relationships with. Life goes on for everyone, with or without you, and you just can’t keep up. Facebook helps a lot, if only in stalker mode, but it’s not the same. How are we experts? There is a certain skill to the “Out of sight Out of mind” technique. We never stop caring, but we allow life to go on. People who don’t understand this often think that we’re shallow and don’t care; that’s furthest from the truth, and the next time we see you you will truly be the only person in the room for us. But the emotional and mental toll of keeping everyone we know forefront in our mind is simply more than anyone can tolerate.
But, as we all know, there are some relationships you just can’t escape whether you want to or not. The genetic bond of family permanently ties you to certain other humans for the length of your lives . . . or does it? Well, sure it does. Family’s an incredible thing, and I just got to spend 3 weeks basking in it. Then I got in an airplane and my nearest family is again a little over 2,000 miles away. As I wrote the other day . . . I love them, I miss their presence, but I don’t miss them. This separation is part of the rhythm of my life. I know that after I spend a day at work tomorrow I’ll be ready to come home to this quiet apartment and I’ll be grateful for the solitude. Still . . . I’m dwelling a lot on the idea of family.
Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). This basically means that if you want to be an effective Christian, you have to be willing to leave everyone and everything behind you as you follow the call of God. This is especially evident in the missionary life I’m describing. But God made us to be social beings, to help one another, to depend on each other. He didn’t forget that. “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). (I note the promise of problems, but that’s for a different day.) I’ve been pondering these verses a lot this week and considering all the Family that God has put in my life to fill the holes left by those who were distant because of my parents’ ministry. I wanted to share them with you today.
The Official Genetic Links
Always start with the “real” family. They’ve earned it by their mere existence, even if I’m not fortunate to know them as well as I’d like. I have a small “blood” family: one aunt, 2 uncles, and 9 cousins . . . both sides of the family combined. My uncles come with aunts and 3 cousins are married now, so we’re slowly growing. I’ve realized that grandmothers hold families together. I was 11 when my Grandma Wiedling passed; my mom’s brother’s kids were born after that, and I’ve never really been able to know them for a number of reasons. I’m thankful to be able to connect with them, if only a little, though Facebook. My Grandma Rupe died when I was 6. My grandfather made a genius decision a few years later and married Dorinda (who brought us another uncle as well). The Rupes are simply not gifted in family connections, but Dorinda’s family is exceptionally focused on recording history and maintaining relationships. She has always honored my grandmother’s memory, and a few years ago even hosted a Veach reunion (my grandmother’s family). It was at this reunion that I first felt glimpsed what I’d missed out on. I’ve always loved my eyes, which are just like my dad’s; I knew that his eyes were like his mother’s. I vividly remember looking around the living room full of Veaches and realizing in shock that we ALL had the same eyes. Prominent brow bone, hooded lid, almond shaped. They were all the same. It was the first time that I felt the power of a genetic connection. An entire room full of people, 98% of whom had the same eyes. I had to leave that room to cry them out, because it was such a powerful realization. It was a sense of belonging that I’d never known.
Around that time, and a little before my Grandpa Rupe’s death, my cousin Jachin and I realized that if we didn’t start building relationships our kids would never know each other. My Uncle Brian is a YMCA camp director, so Jachin and his 5 siblings grew up in remote places, and didn’t get to know the rest of us very well, either. Three years ago Eliot got married, and I was fortunate to spend about 4 days in Albuquerque with my Uncle Brian’s family
for the wedding. Turns out, they’re REALLY cool! Cousins are an amazing invention!! I don’t have many, but I love them all so dearly and I’m proud of all of them. And the additions to our family are equally as special. Dorinda IS my grandmother. Jim IS my uncle. Grace, Kristine, and Elijah ARE my cousins. I love them, and I’m so excited to see who’s added next! (Yes, we all know who it will be, but I don’t think I should start any cyber-rumors just yet . . .)
And, of course, there are my parents and brother, who are who they are and have made me who I am. To discuss them and their value to me would take a lot more space and words than is prudent to use in a blog.
For a long time it was really difficult for me to distinguish the difference between friends and acquaintances. I wrote last week about growing up “special” in Mexico . . . it was rare that I ran into anyone who didn’t want to be my friend. When I moved to America it was the complete opposite. There were a lot of people who were nice to me and let me stand by them so I didn’t look alone, but I was rarely admitted to an “inner circle.” I became so desperate for connections that I leeched on to anyone who made any move toward friendship, which freaked everyone out, and I ended up feeling betrayed, foolish, and confused. Eventually I worked out that relationships progress, and that relationships have varying purposes. I’ve also come to appreciate that most of my relationships are dynamic in their intensity, meaning that their activity in my life may vacillate, wane, and even stop altogether for no reason other than that God’s purpose for the relationship has been achieved.
I’m not sure if it’s “normal” for people to have mostly short-term relationships. I live in a small town, and it seems like everyone here has known everyone for most of their lives. I don’t think it’s normal that the longest “continually active” relationship in my life (besides my parents and brother) has lasted 8 years and is with a coworker. But over the years I’ve come to really appreciate the people that God has brought into my life.
Some of these relationships are peripheral and short-lived, but they leave a lasting impression:
- Erica was my penpal from Mexico City when I was about 12. I don’t remember how we connected, or even if we ever met face-to-face. She once wrote me a letter citing Joshua 1:9 (“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”). I think of this verse surprisingly often, always connected in my mind to her picture, and her words continue to encourage me.
- Julia came to Apizaco on a short-term mission trip. We sang a song together at a campaign. I was so nervous. I was about 13, but I’ll never forget blowing our noses on notebook paper when we said goodbye. She wrote to me several times
- Kostya was a Bosnian foreign exchange student during my junior year in high school. He was the first Muslim I ever met, and told me how grateful he was to have gotten the visa and escape the turmoil that was going on there. He was so worried about his family. He was my first window into the Middle East.
Some are intense, deep, and temporary. These people have radically affected my life, and letting them go was excruciatingly painful. Sometimes I can still brush ways on Facebook or through Christmas cards. I am ever grateful for how they touched my life.
- Slava was an exchange student my sophomore year in college. He understood the power of God. He challenged me. He made me focus on eternity. He laughed in the face of pain, and prayed without ceasing. He knew death and loss and suffering . . . and he chose joy.
- I met Amy at the National Young Leader’s Conference in Washington DC during our senior year in high school. We were best friends for a week, good long-distance friends for a year, and now I secretly stalk her missionary work on Facebook. We made ripples in each others’ lives.
- I met Ben at Urbana 96. He was someone that I leeched onto, but he was an amazing friend through my freshman year in college. He challenged my faith deeply and was a close confidant. He visited me at Christmas, took me to Olive Garden, and I beat him at Scrabble; the score sheet is still in my box of special things.
- Hank started my emotional education and helped me to be honest and fearless in self-examination. His energy and enthusiasm helped me to begin defining some direction for my life. I still dream of developing the vision we started painting in the cafeteria at JUC.
Some people are a one-time life-changing moment. Maybe I know them for a week, or a day, or a year, but it is one moment that matters. These are non-reciprocated interactions . . . I am just intensely blessed or challenged. These moments are burned into my mind and stay with me always.
- Shinji asked me what was the prayer that God still hadn’t answered.
- Ioan told me to relax around love.
- When I had to beg for a position in the sociology department because nursing didn’t want me, Dr. Young said, “I know exactly how you feel, I think you’d be great for our program, and I’d love to have you.”
There are the people that God sticks you with. I tried picking roommates one year, and it didn’t work out well. We didn’t hate each other, but I think we were glad when the year was over. But God tends to stick you with the people you’d never choose for yourself, the people that stretch and grow you like you never thought possible. Sometimes it’s the people you wish you could get away from but can’t. . . until suddenly you don’t want to. These are the people that might come in and out of your life, but when you come together it’s like there was never any distance and you still trust each other completely. These turn out to be the Familiar Friends who know your heart the best, the ones you don’t need to explain things to. They are Home.
- I met Kelly in 6th grade. She was the smartest girl in high school, and told me she threw Valedictorian on purpose so she didn’t have to give the speech. We weren’t all that close in high school. She’s pretty much the only person from high school I can still call a friend.
- Theresa was one of my freshman roommates in college. There were days I was pretty sure one of us would be dead by the end of the year, and we were both so happy to be free of each other at the end of the year. The next year we got together and, through tears, laughed about it and became close friends. She’s a Super Mom in Michigan.
- Lori, Kristi, and Emanuel loved me during the times that I was probably most unlovable. I probably would have found them on my own, but it was God that stuck them with me. They carried me through a period when I couldn’t carry myself, and I’m probably alive today because of them.
- Michelle and I were destined to meet: we missed each other at Urbana 99 and she decided to go to England instead of Israel during the fall of 2001, but we finally connected at Advent. We don’t talk often, but she is my BFF . . . my beloved forever friend.
- Shelly is someone I definitely would never have sought out, but God brought us together. She is currently my closest friend, San Jose crash site, faithful ride to the airport, ever patient with my unpredictable bursts of cultural ineptitude.
- Then there is Ricky. If there was ever a story of God sticking two people together. Our story is one of divine intervention in nearly every aspect imaginable. What God has done in my life through him is beyond what I can say. I am honored to call him my friend.
- Patrick hired me at Chamberlain’s 8 years ago. We’ve had our moments, but he is a combination of coworker, brother, and friend. He knows my secrets, holds my passwords, gives wise advice, and often keeps me centered.
- Cheryl has been a supervisor, mentor, teacher, and friend. She knew how to tease a professional out of me, saw potential where I sure didn’t, and made my success her personal project. She gives me a home away from home, makes sure I don’t spend holidays alone . . . and introduced me to Harry Potter.
And then there is . . . family. Because God does not neglect the needs of his children. He calls us to leave siblings, parents, and grandparents; but He promises to replenish hundredfold. Yes, these people are friends . . . but they’re not. These are the people who know all your secrets and love you anyway. They make you eat when you’re sick and don’t worry about the germs. They get really irritated with you but still don’t turn you away. They assume responsibility for you without question and have no problem telling you to grow up and take care of yourself. You know that if you’re hungry they’ll feed you and if you really need something they’ll give you whatever they have. They treat you like you’re genetic. Because you practically are, and you’d do the same for them.
- Chavela has known my family since I was about 3. We gave her an ironing job when I was really young, and she became our housekeeper when I was 6. She doesn’t work for my parents anymore because she’s not as strong as she once was, but she still lives next door. She was my grandmother, aunt, babysitter . . . you name it. She taught me to cook, knit, and wash clothes by hand. It was she who first made me realize how my behavior affected others . . . the day she first called me “hija.” During this last trip she set aside a plate of sopes for me because she knew I was craving them, made me chiles rellenos because I talked about them, and sent me a pitcher of ponche. When I went to thank her, her response was, “What else could I do?” She has something like 17 grandkids and several great grand-kids . . . but there were about 10 pictures of me plastered all over her tiny two-room house (no kidding – all my awkward year photos are staring at her all day, and she still cooked for me!). She expects nothing from me in return, which is good because I could never repay her love.
- Chavela’s sons, Angel and Jorge, and another guy named Efren, became my brothers. They took such good care of me, and we were inseparable when we had the choice. We’ve all moved on, but we still call each other brothers and sister.
- The Gorhams were the greatest family gift of all. I met them shortly after they moved to South Bend from Arizona. Heather was a baby, Desiree was about 4 and liked me, and they needed a babysitter. I became their regular sitter while I was in high school. I well remember the night I sat on the couch eating ice cream with Diane after they got home and Shawn had gone to bed. She asked me where I’d be staying during the summer after my freshman year at Bethel, since my mom went back to Mexico. When I told her I didn’t know yet she said, “Well, then you’re staying here.” I was so flabbergasted I asked her if maybe she should ask Shawn first. She told me he’d be fine with it. That started a beautiful relationship that I never expected. The girls were my special friends, and I loved playing with them and watching them grow up. I was able to observe Shawn and Diane’s marriage, and realized that families could operate in different ways than my own. I spent 3 summers living with them, and several times came home during a weekend or just to cry my eyes out. They loved me as a daughter, prayed over me, spoke truth into my life, and mentored me in a very special way. Diane taught me to ask questions. Once Shawn took the day off work so we could go to the beach for my birthday. We rarely communicate now, but I’m sure we all stalk each other properly on Facebook. I miss them often, and need to drive down to Phoenix to visit them so I can bring back my Yanomamo spears (I hope they still have them . . . )
- Misa is my newest acquired brother. I wrote about him yesterday. I’m so grateful for him.
And that’s my unlikely family. Just a few of the people God has blessed me with. I’m not sure what the “purpose” of this post is. Perhaps to remind myself that God has never left me people-less and never will. Perhaps to encourage you to look at your relationships in a new light. Perhaps to simply honor in black-and-white the people that have touched my life. There are so many more; I have been so blessed to know so many hundreds of God’s awesome people. Tomorrow I get to go to work and see my kiddos. To this point God has not given me my own genetic children, but He blesses my life with children who need my love. I am so grateful for each of them, and honored to be part of their unlikely family.
(P.S. Skip the Mindless Behavior group; the story about Justin at the school was actually pretty heartwarming.)