Parenting

Chickens for Christmas

It’s a funny thing when you watch four men you have never met before slowly pack up everything you own, crate it, and drive it away for placement on an ocean barge. You watch as they pack your picture frames, your clothing, your furniture. You watch as they file paperwork for your TV, your Xbox, your computers. You watch as they individually wrap your family ornaments, your infant’s baby book and footprints, and your album of wedding photos. And then just like that, you sign your name on the dotted line, and wave goodbye to everything you have ever collected.

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Forever thankful for moving companies who come in and box up everything for you. The first time we moved, we moved ourselves. I will pay any amount of money to avoid ever doing that again. Ha.

It has been 40-some days since we have sat on any of our own furniture, or have seen any of our personal belongings. It is a little crazy what you can live without for several months, and makes you wonder what you can live without indefinitely to be honest. It especially makes you reevaluate your feelings about your possessions when you are moving overseas, literally meaning your items are going over the seas. 6,000 miles of travel, 6,000 miles of possibly having your items just… disappear. Sink, capsize, be rained on, get stolen. Those items change hands so many times from your moving company to the ship owner, to the moving company in the city you arrive in. So many opportunities for your precious things to just vanish, never to be seen again. I’m pretty confident you’d be lying if you said you didn’t think about your personal belongings possibly just not coming back when you sent them away with a moving truck. As for me, I nearly cried when the truck drove away. Living without all that stuff for going on two months now has made me realize how incredibly shallow and materialistic I am, and how little those items actually matter. When our shipment shows up safe, I’m sure I will breathe a sigh of relief, but I hope that when we move back to the states someday, I don’t ache at the thought of having to release the tight grip I have on all that I own.

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Everything we own, sitting in the back of a trailer, taken away by men we do not know. Moving is a weird thing, let me tell ya’.

We have a 1.5 year old little boy named Henry, whose favorite things include his daddy, his pet turtle, any pair of shoes he can place on his feet, and the movie Zootopia. His first Christmas was last year, but this will be the first year that he will be really interested in the traditions of Christmas, or in opening gifts at all.

We happened to move at the perfect time of year, and are quietly settling into our new home very shortly before Christmas. We barely had time to breathe before Black Friday and Cyber Monday were upon us. We ordered a few fleece blankets to survive the cold of the new northern climate we are in, but- similar to last year- failed to order our usual Black Friday haul. Last year, Drew and I stuck to the two gift rule, and spent less than $150 total on our family Christmas between the three of us, mostly because we are both pretty awful at gift-giving for each other. But there was one gift that we gave Henry that I had ordered almost two months before Christmas came. We will give him this same gift again this year, and every year until he leaves our home. I was reminded today of why I need to sit down and order it.
Confused?
Read on.

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6 month old Henry at Christmas last year. (Dying inside at how much bigger he is now…)

Today I stumbled upon an article written about orphanages in Japan. My heart ached deeply as I read the statistics on adoption, and how many children are still waiting for their forever homes. This article is from six years ago, though articles I read on the current statistics still echo these numbers.

“There were 36,450 children in the orphanage system in Japan in March, 2011. Only 12% or 4,373 were adopted or placed in foster care during the preceding 12 months.” – Japan Daily Press, “Japan’s Forgotten Children.”

Unfortunately, upon further reading, it seems much of the reason for the children remaining in understaffed or underfunded orphanages lies in the legal issues surrounding parents that are unwilling to sign over their parental rights. Because of this, many of these children remain in the orphanage until they are 18 years of age. Immediately, I was enraged at this. Why don’t they just sign over the rights so these poor kids can find a loving home? But the answer was almost as immediately whispered to me when I looked at Henry, who raised an eyebrow at me from the couch. Big brown eyes and a gap-toothed, ornery grin peered back at me, making me realize just how much I adore that little stinker. In that moment, and in every moment following, I could not imagine being unable to provide for my little boy in such a way that I was forced to make the decision: give him up for care at an orphanage, or watch him fail to thrive daily because of my inability to let go. I completely understand these parents’ desperation. If I had to give my little boy away, I would want to still cling to any legal ties I had to him. I would want to still call him my little boy; my son.

Nevertheless, these orphanages are overrun, understaffed, and often desperate from help from the communities they reside in. We see so many toy drives, coat collections, and food bins this time of year in order for these institutions to provide what they can for the kids they house. So many still come up short. And this problem is not unique to Japan. Countries around the world, including the states, have kids waiting in the foster care system, orphanages, and shelters for help and a home.

For me, this type of realization brings about a new view of the holiday season, as well as a new perspective on how I raise my sweet Henry to look at his world and the world around him.

This brings us back to last Christmas.

I was sorting through catalogues last year, trying to decide the best gifts to get a 6 month old. I thumbed through the Kohl’s catalogue for several minutes, flipped through the Target ad I had snagged earlier, and then proceeded to glance at the rest of the stack, hoping to find any other deals that fit our budget. I stumbled upon a gift catalogue from World Vision, and read about the lifesaving vaccines, emergency medicine, gifts of livestock, or clean water wells that I could purchase for a child, family, or community in need. I could even give these gifts in the name of someone else.

It wasn’t until a week later when I walked out of the pediatrician’s office after 4 month old Henry received his vaccines, free of charge through our insurance, that I realized what a blessing it is to have a baby who is protected from life-threatening illnesses. While I am pro-vaccine to the core of my being, it really doesn’t matter what my stance on this is, nor does it matter what yours is. The simple fact is that we have vaccines, and they are readily available and almost always affordable. So many in the world do not have this luxury of the choice to vaccinate- a concept that we so often bicker and fight about.

Later that day, I sat down and researched organizations that provide help to those in need, including World Vision and Compassion International. We settled on using Compassion, after reading that Compassion uses a much higher percentage of donations for the individual(s) in need, compared to other similar charities. I will re-check this research this year, ultimately making the decision of where to donate based off of which program uses funds responsibly, and which program does good in the entire community- providing individuals with both a life-saving kind of support, but also a sense of independence. That being said, there are thousands of charities that seek to help the impoverished, tons of which specifically target children who are in desperate need. If you choose to donate, pick which one fits best for which issue you are trying to help with, as well as your financial situation.

After our appointment, I returned home, and purchased vaccines and medicines for kiddos in countries that have no access to these medicines otherwise. I hit the order button, and cried long and hard as I watched my sweet, healthy boy rolling around on the floor, bandaid on his chunky little legs from the vaccines that will help protect him from some scary stuff. Vaccines or not, I cried quietly watching my sweet boy sit up, roll over, and smack toys on the rug. What a blessing it is to have a healthy child. I made the donation in Henry’s name, and used the funds we had placed into our Christmas account for him.

I tell you this not to talk about our donation, but to talk about the values I hope this instills in Henry as he grows. Every Christmas we will provide him with a card like this one, which we received last Christmas after we purchased the items from the catalogue.

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I will say to him,

“Baby boy. It’s Christmas time, which means we will spend lots of time with family. We will eat together, and we will give each other gifts. We are so blessed to be able to sit in a warm home with those that we love, and we celebrate that fact as we ultimately celebrate the birth of Jesus. But there are lots of other little boys and girls in this world who don’t have what we do. Some of them don’t have any toys, and some of them don’t even have mommies and daddies to spend Christmas with. Some of those kids are really sad, and really lonely. So we took some of the Christmas money that we set aside for gifts this year, and we bought them (fill in the blank) to show them the love of Jesus, and to show them that they are dearly cared about. All people in this world are chosen, and dearly loved by Jesus. We want you to know that other people matter, and we want you to always want to think of others, not just at Christmas time.”

It’s never too late to instill a heart of giving into your children, it’s never too late to instill in them the idea that stuff doesn’t matter nearly as much as we act like it does at times. Little ones watch what we do, so I know how it is a constant daily struggle to put forth the actions that prove that this is our thinking.

By his fifth or sixth Christmas, I pray that Henry will bring me a Compassion or World Vision gift catalogue, and excitedly ask me to help him pick out what he wants to spend his Christmas money on. I pray that Henry goes through his adolescent and teen years always aware of his classmates and friends’ needs. I pray that he recognizes those that have less than him, and that he doesn’t hesitate or even think twice about giving them something of his.

I hope that my Henry asks hard questions without hesitation, and seeks to be the answer to the injustices that he can change. And I hope that because of my son, an orphaned little boy his age in Zambia, or Japan, or the United State, opens his eyes one morning to a beautiful world where someone noticed him and cared about him.

 

I hope that someday, my baby packs up his household to move, and waves goodbye to the truck. I hope that he doesn’t fret about his stuff like I do, and that he thinks of others far more often than I do.

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I desperately want Henry to be better than me, and I desperately want Henry to know that he is loved by the same God who loves the poor, the orphans, and the hurting. In his world, if that means I give him money so he can gift chickens to a village for Christmas, then I will buy him all the chickens in the world.

 

 

Japan Life · Our Life in Japan

Both Hands

I grew up in the textbook definition of a small farm town. For eighteen years of my life, I lived where you could catch index finger waves every time you met another car on the single lane highway. The one fast food drive thru in town would recognize my voice or vehicle, and ask “the usual?” always around 3:17pm on my drive home from school. The river was a 15 minute drive away, but driving to a mall was an all-day ordeal.

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18 year old Em, providing the Valedictory address to our class of sixty-or-seventy-some.

My boyfriend was from a rival high school about 28 miles away, and our houses were only about 5 miles apart. We dated through college, and I will forever be proud to say that I married my high school sweetheart. Businesses in town were small, people were kind, and the nights were quiet. There were some generally awful people mixed in, as will be in any place you live, but for the most part, it was a beautiful thing to live in a population of just a little over 2,000.

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An oldie, but goodie for your viewing. We had been dating for around 2 years at this point. Our first official school dance.

 

A lot of this small-town awareness and kindness left my memory when my husband and I moved around 3 hours away to a town of around 50,000- maybe close to 100,000 when you include the suburbs. To some, this is still a small town, but for me, it was the biggest move of my life. Finally, I lived in a town with a Target, and it was only 7 minutes from our apartment.

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Our last photo outside of our first home together in Joplin, Missouri.

We loved the new town, the new found freedoms that retail convenience brought, and the new friends we found in this town. Don’t get me wrong, Joplin will forever hold a very dear place in my heart, and the friends that we left behind there are some of the best people I have met in my twenty-three years of life, but Joplin also provided me my first real taste of how unkind human beings can be. It was my college town, my first years on my own, and my first chance to see exactly how corporate, big America functions on a daily basis.

I so thankfully graduated with enough scholarships to cover all 4 years of my post-secondary education. So before Drew and I were engaged, I was just a college kid lucky enough to only want a job for a little extra gas money to make it home on the weekends. In October of our first year in Joplin, I applied at probably 40 different places in town, and immediately received a call back from Kohl’s, looking for holiday hires. I accepted a position as a temporary entry-level floor associate, was kept on permanently after the holiday season, and got my first experiences in retail.

Over the first two years I worked at Kohl’s, I was promoted a handful of times until I finally accepted a position in management. Still to this day, I have nothing but good things to say about the company, my co-workers, and the management at the store. Seriously, the people that work there and the company itself FAR outweigh the cons I’ll talk about shortly. But it was in this position that I realized just how awful people can be to a complete stranger.

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My coworkers from Kohl’s hosted my baby shower, we attended each other’s weddings, birthday parties, and showers, and I cried big ugly tears when our family moved. These are my people, and I love them dearly.

I managed the customer service department for a while, which meant I got a LOT of phone calls, a LOT of “can I speak to the manager”s, and a LOT of threats to call corporate with my full name on their tongues. Sometimes it was hard for me to separate the angry yelling of a 40-something year old woman from my own self-worth. The lack of a $4 savings that some individuals would get absolutely irate about made me question if people were inherently just really, really crappy humans. I was often called stupid if I counted back change wrong. I was often called a liar if I told a customer a price wasn’t what they thought they saw. I was once even called a bitch when I asked a woman to leave the store after she THREW a pile of clothes at me for telling her we had sold out of her size. Daily, I had men and women come through my line, and not once say a single word to me due to the fact that they were talking on their phones or buried in a post on social media. I had days that I desperately needed a warm hello from a customer, and didn’t even get so much as eye contact. Let me tell you guys, if you work retail, customer service, or food service anywhere in the states, from all I can see and tell- you are a saint.

After getting married, we moved to a suburb of the city in hopes for a little quieter atmosphere. Unfortunately we often found flashing headlights on our street corner, loud banging/kicking at our door in the middle of the night, and possessions missing from our car or truck in the mornings. In the four years we lived there, we only met one set of our eight neighbors. I feared taking my baby out of our SUV if it was dark already, and I called 911 and the police station more times during our stay there than I have in the rest of my twenty-two years combined. My friends houses were broken into, my wallet was stolen twice, and we had to lock our cars even if we were just running quickly into a gas station. We trusted very few people, and we spoke regularly to even fewer.
(Please don’t get me wrong, Joplin is a beautiful and wonderful place to live… this is just the worst of the things we experienced in our part of town, and is just sometimes the nature of a bigger city.) But after around 5 years there, I cried myself to sleep most nights. It was a hard place for me to be after so many years in a town where your neighbors were your family, and you left your purse in your car overnight to find it unscathed the next morning. I wanted something different; I wanted a new existence. I wanted people that knew my name again, or at the very least made eye contact with me before they walked away from my register at work. I was convinced that the only place for us was back in our hometown of 2,000 people- where we could raise our son to graduate high school in a class of around sixty-five other students. But, when my husband and I moved the next time, it would be overseas.

At 18, I thought I would live in my hometown for the rest of my 80+ years of life. Never in a million years would I expect to be 23 and sitting in my new apartment in Japan. It’s funny how God takes us to the last place in the world we would ever think we would want to be, and shows us just how wrong our assumptions are most of the time.

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Even if nothing else made me love this country, the Pacific coastline 100% would.

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When I boarded our plane at the coastline, and said goodbye to America, I expected another Joplin experience. I expected to cry often because our families are 6,000 miles away, and I expected to ache for the states- especially for my hometown. I expected to find more people who were too caught up in their own lives to care in the slightest about mine. And again, don’t get me wrong- I miss my hometown and my sweet family terribly, and I miss those dirt roads and the quietness of Southern Missouri. But what I have found in Japan so far has left me absolutely astounded.

The Japanese people have a way of existing that makes me yearn to be like them.

From the first time I was bowed to, to the first time an elderly Japanese couple stopped in the middle of the mall to give my cranky toddler son a cookie they had just bought for themselves, I find myself never letting the corners of my mouth drop in this country. I could go on and on all day about how incredible this experience has been so far, but I will tell you the one thing that catches me off guard still- almost a full month after we have arrived.

Upon my first trip to a grocery store, I brought our items to the front for checkout while my toddler swatted at everything possible on the counter. The sweet cashier tried her best to make conversation with me, and I half-heartedly tried my best to reply while doing a million other things- though the extent of my Japanese so far includes “hi”, “thank you”, and “how much is this?” I struggled to pull the correct amount of money out of my wallet, while trying to text my husband who was on the other side of the store waiting for me. At the end of the transaction, I experienced a gesture that I never had before in the states. When she handed me my change, the bags, and the receipt, she fully extended both of her hands to do so.

My thoughts at first were probably similar to any other American’s. “Ah. That’s kind of cool. But so what? It’s a customary thing, right? Just a difference from America? A cultural thing? It isn’t even THAT big of a deal.”

Yes. And those thoughts are precisely what make my heart hurt. The attention and care that she showed me were out of the ordinary for me, though they are a daily occurrence here. I realized in that moment, that I could not accept what she handed to me with both of my hands, simply because my hands were full already. I gripped my phone, illuminated from the conversation I was attempting to have while speaking to her. My keys were intertwined between my fingers in an effort to have my car key separated and ready before we walked into the cold. I had held the receipt, immediately and instinctively trying to check the amount I was charged. I could barely carry the bags she handed me, because I was already so engrossed in everything else that I was trying to do in that checkout line. During the drive home, I reflected on the fact that I was culturally so unprepared for the full attention that cashier gave me.

In this city, the public transportation is quiet. The people on the trains always use headphones to avoid disturbing others. The only people sitting are the elderly, the pregnant, or those with children. Others only sit when there is room, and they often stand up for others when they board the bus or train. People rarely walk and talk on their phones. You see very few phones on sit-down restaurant tables. The service at every restaurant, every store, and every gas station is impeccable. The hosts try to help you understand signs, menus, directions. They attempt to explain what your food is. They tell you the secrets on how to eat it. People notice your baby/toddler and accommodate you when you are struggling. They give your toddler a cookie they themselves just paid several dollars for. Nobody in this town locks their doors. Merchants leave items on the streets overnight. The people here are so kind, but more importantly- the people here are so present.

Since arriving, I have noticed myself putting down my phone more (aside from snapping photos of everything and attempting to translate words and signs with Google translate, of course) and have found myself trying to be present in my attempted conversations with the Japanese locals. Even in my hometown, while the pace is much slower, I can’t say that the people are as present as they are here. It is an incredible feeling to have a human- who is wholly uninvested in you personally- hand you something with both hands, make eye contact, smile, and even bow to you as you leave.

It is so funny how God can take a die-hard hometown-forever kind of girl like me, and thoroughly convince her in just a month that everyone in America needs to leave the United States for a little while just to get some perspective, but I fully believe this now. I wish that every person could spend a week in Japan, just to realize what a shallow person you can be at times when it comes to your attention and who and what you give it to.

Regardless of political view, regardless of gender, regardless of race- these humans we do life with and around deserve our attention. They never deserve a half-hearted conversation, and they never deserve to be spoken down to for something that is completely out of their control. I wish we all could remember that every single person we encounter is a child of the King. They are made in His image, and they deserve our respect. These beautiful people in Japan very rarely even know the name of Jesus, and they get it so much more than I- a hometown bible-belt Christian- ever did.

I never realized what a difference it makes to have someone hand you something with both hands, and to have someone fully invest in your presence before them, even if only for a mere 2 minutes. But this is the attitude of Christ- the One who understands, the One who listens, and the One who is always fully invested in us. Attention and investment like this is somewhat startling, but it is remarkably wonderful. Make conversation, sincerely care about another person’s existence, make eye contact.

Offer your attention. Offer both hands.

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