The Sophomore Slump

The Sophomore Slump

The sophomore slump.

 

I came up with that term after working for several years with university students. Most of the students I interacted with had a fantastic freshman year, full of intense growth and exciting experiences. Although they began their sophomore year with anticipation, most became discontent, disillusioned, and critical. Of course, there were always exceptions, but the trend was so great and so terrible that it deserved a name.

 

This summer closed the books on our second year of living overseas as a family. In the late winter, I had encountered my first personal sophomore slump. Just as I had never identified exactly what triggered university students to slip into it, I have yet to completely rationalize why and how my despondency came.

 

I have no doubt that this is a common experience among people living abroad, and whether it comes in their first, second, or tenth years makes little difference. Even some of you who don’t live overseas may have experienced or may be experiencing a deep downturn. For that reason, I’ll write a bit about what the slump looked like for me.

 

Crying. Lots of tears. For three months, from January through March, I cried every single time I went on a date with my husband. Once a week for three months. Can you imagine? My poor husband. We would be at a restaurant when I would break down, and because staring is accepted as normal in this culture, people would start looking. And because it’s rude to blow your nose in this culture, I would dab at my nose with dozens of tissues, while all of the people would stare even more at this strange foreign lady who had tears streaming down her face.

 

In addition to the tears, I became withdrawn, critical, negative, and decidedly lacking in joy. Even things that would become the greatest blessings to me in the spring began for me with no emotion. A friend had asked me about the beginning of something new, “Are you excited about this starting this week?” I shot back a quick reply. “No. I’m not excited about anything. But it will be good.”

 

What I can say for certain about those three months is that I felt as if I were drowning in purposelessness. And comparison wasn’t helping me feel any better. I knew coming in that I would have six months of resting and waiting to see what it was that I was supposed to be doing in this place while my husband was working. But after a year and a half of learning humility and patience, I was done. I found it incredibly stretching and difficult to have such a wide background in public speaking, administration and event planning, advising and supervising, leading and facilitating, and to now be known solely as the mother of three children. I wanted to be happy and thankful for the gift of time to work at home with my kids. While I had always viewed being a wife and mother as one of the highest callings, I couldn’t suppress the sense that there was something additional that I was made for and wanted to do. But I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t want to add more activities to my life just to fill the void.

 

At the same time, I felt alone. We were contemplating a change of schools for the kids along with a potential change of homes, the house we lived in had problems that I needed to somehow address with our landlord by using my broken Mandarin, one child developed itchy eyes due to an unknown allergic reaction, and another child began wrestling with questions of what is real. At the time, all of these things were under my jurisdiction. All together, they overwhelmed me.

 

In the midst of that season, I had thoughts about my life that a person doesn’t dare to speak aloud. All I can say is that I am so thankful that I’ve been trained to reject those lies immediately and to replace them with truth.

 

Having come out on the other side of those months, I’m amazed at the grace I received in the midst of it. I learned some things that seem now like no-brainers, such as the fact that I have a husband who is wise and can help me with some things! A group of extraordinary women from several countries unknowingly influenced our decision to keep our kids in the same school, and that decision was confirmed quickly after we made it. I saw clearly some of the darkness in my own soul that affected my marriage, and I kicked it out. My children have grown in relational and emotional development, and I’ve savored the deep conversations that we’ve shared together.

 

I recently read a Psychology Junkie article from August 2, 2015 entitled How Each Myers-Briggs Type Reacts to Stress (And How to Help). While personality and temperament indictors do not dictate how a person lives, they can be helpful in understanding more about yourself and why you respond in the way you do. For me, this article stated what I experienced but would not have been able to put into words.

 

Here are some of the things, according to the article, that stress my personality type.

 

“Having to focus too much on sensory/concrete details” – check. Think laundry, housecleaning, cooking, and all of the tasks that consume a mother’s time.

 

“An overload of sensory stimulation or noise” – check. Think renovations next door that sound like a jackhammer in your living room from 9am to 6pm, and when going out to get some relief from that, there are always the 24 million people who call this city home.

 

“Interruptions” – check. What can I say? I’m a mom.

 

“Not enough alone time. Too much extraverting” – check. People in my house, people outside of my house, people everywhere.

 

“Lack of appreciation or understanding” – check. It’s getting better actually, but there’s not much affirmation by little ones for all the tiny things you accomplish for them each day.

 

“Unfamiliar environments with overwhelming amounts of details” – check. Moving to a new country will do it.

 

“Not having a clear direction” – check. I’m still waiting…

 

“Not being able to use their intuition or envision the future” – check.

 

“Having to focus too much on the present” – check.

 

Having a basic understanding of these stressors will hopefully enable me to take better care of myself in the future. I can find a place of quiet, I have a plan for alone time thanks to my husband, and I can let housework go sometimes so I can have space to dream.

 

The most important thing is that I know Someone who gives hope instead of despair and joy instead of mourning. And that Someone has not abandoned me.

 

I’m quite happy to say good-bye to year two because I’m planning to take into year three the things that I loved: my friends, my good conversations, my stronger marriage, my commitment to raising my children, and my joy.

 

And junior year is always better.

 

So long, sophomore slump.

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Head Wounds and Heart Wholeness: Receiving Love in the Midst of Chaos

Have you ever had a day that is all planned out, and then something crazy happens? Yeah, me neither [dripping sarcasm].

This particular day began in the same way as most, except that my husband left that morning for a two-night business trip. We walked to the subway together, and we took trains heading in opposite directions: he on one train, and the two little ones and I on the other.

We walked through the park where the older folks practiced tai chi and the younger ones lined up to buy some aromatic breakfast fare. We turned around and went back to use the squatty potty in the park because one of the kids announced a need to pee and I told said child that they were getting too old to pee in bushes in the city. We counted all the water fountains we passed in the next two blocks and arrived a bit early to what I call “my moms’ group”.

I belong to this amazing group of moms who meet together as part of the International Church of Shanghai (ICS). I mentioned the group here. On this morning, the time with those ladies was so good and so sweet. Afterward, we decided to have some lunch delivered so we could avoid taking all of our children and babies out into the rain.

I was standing across the room when I heard a piercing scream. I glanced over to see my son kneeling on the floor with his head in his hands, and I immediately thought, “We might be going to the hospital.” He had run across the room and tripped just in time to bash his head on the metal-covered edge of a step.

I ran over, phone in hand, to pry his hands away and see a bloody gash on his forehead. Of course, any kind of head wound, even a tiny one, gushes disproportionate amounts of blood. But this one was dripping on his crocs, running through his fingers into his eyes, and splattering on my phone. The cut was too wide to heal without doctor intervention. I pulled him over to where I could grab some paper towels, and by now, all of the moms had realized the gory situation and were offering wet wipes, bandages, and suggestions on hospitals.

As I kneeled in front of my son, mopping up blood, I kept thinking of all the distinct issues of having this situation in China. In our home country, we would jump into our privately owned car and drive to the emergency room… five minutes away from our house. We don’t have that luxury here. Although I have my license to drive in China, we don’t even rent a car, much less own one. And sure, his older sister had to get staples in her head in China last spring, but at that time, my husband was home and could take her on his scooter while I stayed with the other two children.

As I consciously told myself, “You need to stay calm so that your son can be calm,” I verbally told him, “We will go to the doctor. It’s okay, no problem.” Simultaneously, I filtered through the options. Obviously, we wouldn’t have time to buy a winter coat for him in the afternoon. He might get upset about that. How will we eat lunch? I guess I will figure that out later. What about picking his sister up from school for gymnastics? Maybe I could have her ride home on the bus. And what about right now? Do we go out and get a taxi? It would be difficult to find one in the rain. Do we get an Uber? That’s the best bet, but probably no Uber driver would want blood on the seat of his car. Do we go to the clinic where I usually take the kids? I’m not sure if they have supplies for emergency stitches, but it is near my daughter’s school and we could pick her up right away after our emergency visit. Do we go straight to the larger hospital? Probably, but I don’t know the address or even the Mandarin name of that one.

But within five minutes, it was settled. One of the moms offered her van and driver to take us, another mom insisted that I leave my younger daughter with her, and the consensus was the larger hospital, where (thank God!) the driver knew the location and the exact roads to get take. Also by the end of that five minutes, my son had a bandage applied his forehead and a yogurt in hand to calm him down.

We had a peaceful, but seemingly forever long, ride to the hospital. When we arrived, I saw two different buildings that had emergency signs on them. I thought they belonged to the same hospital, and the writing was in English for both, so I chose the building with the big red sign and a smaller “pediatrics” sign as well.

I walked in and told the triage nurses that he needed stitches. One immediately said, “You can take him to the children’s hospital.” She named two crossroads that I had never heard of, and I thought, “I don’t even know how long it will take to get there.” She finally wrote the address for me in Chinese characters and began to say that I could take a taxi or bus number… I interrupted her and left, so frustrated. I messaged my friend to ask her driver to pick us up and take us to the other place, when she said, “Wait. Did you go to the local hospital?” Oh. Probably.

We walked into the second building, and from then on, it was pretty standard. My son got tape and some super glue, was super brave, and only cried when the glue stung his wound. The doctor and nurse kept asking me if he had passed out or vomited and then went on to explain that I should watch for whether he had a concussion.

And here’s the free advice interlude for those of you living in a situation similar to mine. Either carry your passport or a copy of your passport and visa at all times. I was asked for my son’s passport at the hospital and was so grateful that I had tucked a copy into my purse. You just never know when you will need it and won’t have time to go home to get it. Also, keep the hospital business card in your wallet with your insurance cards so that you can show it to a taxi driver and don’t have to take time to look up on the address on your phone.

We took my friend’s van back to where we had started, picked up my little one who had already been given lunch, got a ride home in the same van, called the school to have my daughter go home on the bus, and postponed gymnastics. I made my grandma’s homemade pudding and ordered burgers and fries for supper. It seemed like the right kind of day for comfort food.

When we arrived home, I had time and space to reflect on the previous three hours. And I wept. Sometimes there is so much stress that comes with living in a culture that is not completely familiar, and sometimes there is so much opportunity to receive love that comes with being in a culture that is not completely familiar. I cried from stress and I cried from thankfulness.

I’m thankful for three gifts that made my heart whole in the midst of the chaos. Maybe you can relate to these if you know life overseas or if you’ve found yourself an uncontrollable situation.

I’m thankful for the ways that my childhood prepared me for living here. We often lived or traveled in places that would require a lengthy drive time to a hospital. I also had the experiences of caring for one of my siblings when her tooth got kicked out by a horse and for another sibling when he cut his finger and fainted. My childhood enabled me to be calm in the moment.

I’m thankful for a community of foreigners who love each other so well. When you don’t have the option to be completely self-sufficient, it creates room to accept the strength of others. This group of friends stepped in to help and hand me tissues even when they seemed overwhelmed by the amount of flowing blood. A friend gave me a van and driver even though she didn’t know when I would return with them! Another friend bought lunch for my daughter and took care of her while I was gone, for an indefinite amount of time when she already had her own two kids plus a foster baby with her. A good friend and neighbor sympathized as I cried to her while waiting for the bus to come. A friend from another part of town sent a message asking how I was doing after she heard about what had happened. So many friends sent WeChat messages with prayers and notes of encouragement.

I’m thankful to know a God who loves me and my family. That same morning, I read this passage as a blessing for a friend’s 3-week-old baby: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in Him, for He shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between His shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). I know that I am also the Lord’s beloved (after all, that’s what my name means!), and I could see glimpses of that love again even in the midst of the stress of that day. The Lord has surrounded me with friends who rally together, who grieve together, who pray together, and who rejoice together, who serve together. Basically, they are what the church is meant to be, and they were Jesus’ hands and feet to me. There were smaller gifts from Him as well. Many moms stayed for lunch instead of leaving right away as usual, and they were present to help me. One friend tossed one yogurt into her bag this morning, thinking that it was an unusual thing to pack, but left it in the bag anyway; that yogurt gave my son enough distraction and nourishment to fill him with peace. My son didn’t show signs of a concussion or any issue other than a wide cut. And plans that I could have had that night had fallen through, giving me time to rest at home with my on-the-mend boy.

What are you thankful for? My dear friend, even as you read this, may you have the grace to recognize and accept the gifts that you’ve been given.

Happy early Thanksgiving from the other side of the world!

Taking Flight

Taking Flight

Even youths grow tired and weary,

And young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

Will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

They will run and not grow weary,

They will walk and not be faint.

            – Isaiah 40:30-31

We all face times in our lives when we need to step into the unknown, when a rejection of taking this risk would result in self-protection based in fear. Some of these situations happily force themselves upon us, such as marriage or graduation from high school or from the university and the necessity to set the course for the next stage of our lives. Others slam us hard, like a job loss or an unforeseen change in relationship. And still other opportunities are created from a calling, an unrest, a longing.

Whatever the situation, the question all Christians must answer in transition is this: Do I have enough trust – enough confidence – in my God to move forward?

One year ago, Josh and I boarded a plane bound for China. There is something eerie and terrifying about leaving your children on the other side of planet Earth.

Flight Map

That May flight, the first of five 24-hour flights that we would make in the course of three months, began our look-see trip, the one in which we visited the prospective city to make sure we wanted to go ahead with applying for the job opportunity.

But in those three summer months, and in the five months before that, what impacted me most was not the physical flight, but the spiritual and emotional flight that accompanied the transition.

I think that the Lord knows I need recurring themes in my life so that I can finally learn the main point of whatever He is trying to teach me. Those themes don’t usually come in the form of mental pictures, but I am grateful that one did, which I will tell you about now.

Twelve years ago this summer, I stepped into my first season of work and career. I sat at a round table with five other new staff, in a room of 200 more just like us. In the midst of a highly intense 10-day training, and at this table, God placed an image in my mind. I was visibly shaking and sobbing as I emotionally processed what this might mean.

My group leader asked me what was going on, and I explained the picture to him. In this image, I saw myself standing at the edge of a high cliff. Everything beyond the cliff was enshrouded in darkness. I sensed the Spirit of God beckoning me to jump off of the edge, into the abyss.

It was obvious to me that this referenced the new work I was stepping into, since I had little clear idea of what lay before me for the next five plus years. All I knew was that I did not want to fall off of that cliff.

I no longer remember my group leader’s exact response (and I’m pretty sure there’s a meme around now with this same idea), but the essence was this: What if, instead of falling, God gives you wings to fly?

And He did.

A few moments over the next eleven years of work felt like I got banged up on the side of the cliff, but even with that, my trust and confidence in God built as I saw Him come through for me over the long haul. He developed in me strength, endurance, vision, and faith that I didn’t have before responding to His invitation into the unknown.

10 ½ years later, I again sat in a room full of staff, this time 2,000 of them. I had grown restless, feeling trapped and looking for a new passion.

I shared with a colleague that my husband, just that week, began pursuing a potential job in China. I asked my colleague to pray for discernment in the situation, and he wisely asked me how I was feeling and thinking about all of this. He listened intently as I explained my desire for a new adventure and opportunity for myself and for my family.

When I had finished, my colleague described to me the image God placed in his mind as I was speaking. He had envisioned wings on my back, spreading out more and more as I spoke. I was ready to fly.

Of course, taking flight did not come easily. I grieved the loss, albeit temporary, of people and places that I loved. And once again, I found myself launching off into the darkness, this time unsure of my purpose, my passion, and my calling.

I don’t know what risk God is asking you to take. Obviously, assessing God’s call needs to be done with wisdom and with the counsel of wise people. But after discerning clearly, going for it is the best thing you can do for your spiritual life. Maybe your risk of faith looks like serving your spouse, or giving up your summer plans, or giving your life to Christ, or moving overseas. The size of the risk is not important – after all, Jesus tells parables about servants who are faithful in small matters being put in charge of larger matters.

When you take a risk, you might not get the outcome that you expect. This is why the Bible says that those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength, as opposed to those who hope in a certain outcome. When you answer God’s invitation to take a step of faith, you are saying, “Yes”, to the God who knows and loves you.

Taking a risk of faith, even a small one like tangibly loving someone or speaking truth, is… risky. But it’s exhilarating and freeing. It places us in the position where we HAVE to depend on God to come through for us. Trust deepens when we experience that the God who asks us to jump will teach us to fly.

I will leave you with the song that has been my anthem of trust for a year and a half now. To borrow the words of the song, may your faith be made stronger in the presence of the Savior.