I’ve been reading Grace Table almost since it started, and love its message about faith and the table. I joined the contributing team a few months ago, and here’s my first offering. Do click over to read the whole piece, and subscribe there as well. You will love the varied perspectives on the hospitable life and the beautiful, thought-provoking writing.
It was a tall wooden house, two levels high, painted yellow with white trim around the windows. It stood on the corner of two streets with a huge backyard that stretched out behind it, an apple tree with branches that stretched up and flopped over on the sides from the weight of the fruit. We called it The Yellow House, and it was our home in Stockholm, Sweden for two years. There were French doors, an open fire place, high ceilings, a huge kitchen, a foyer that opened into a library. Our books stuffed the shelves.
It was my perfect home.
And in it I lived an open life, people I didn’t know piled in when we had been there for only a few weeks. We made pizza and ate it in at a table that was too small, voices echoed in the room because there wasn’t lots of furniture and nothing on the walls. A few weeks later, our backyard was full of more people we hardly knew, enjoying the late autumn light, drinking warm apple cider and connecting with each other. It was easy to live a hospitable life in a home I loved.
And then it was gone on a late August day last year, we handed the keys to our landlord, watched the light filter through the glass one last time and drove away. An Emirates flight carried us across Europe, the Middle East and most of Asia, across Australia to its eastern shore, and we land in Melbourne, Australia on October 22.
We started looking for a new house, and I could feel my loss in every doorway. The tree would have been full of fruit. Applesauce would have bubbled on the stove while a fire burned. It should be dark and cold.
Has it been four weeks since we packed our car to the roof, and drove away while rain soaked the ground and grey hung all over? We were only supposed to live here for two years, it’s what I tell myself when I try to understand why the tears haven’t stopped falling.
Our landlord told us that the Yellow House was originally the neighborhood grocery store, and in my imagination the old men talked politics, women shared recipes and winter survival tips, children filled their bags with candy on Saturdays. It was a meeting place, and within its walls community renewed its connections.
Maybe it is the explanation for the urgency I had to fill it up with people, I had small children, I was exhausted, these were bad times to let others in, but we opened our doors and our hearts, and people came. You taught me this, you know, your bashful people who seem to want space, but really want to be pulled in close. Everyone wants an invitation, to be seen, included, known and valued.
I lived this in you, and every day we had a full house was my favourite. There may have been a handful of days in two years that our home was orderly and clean, but most of the time there were clothes strewn on the basement stairs, jackets hung up on the child gates, pools of dust and hair on the ground. But everyone who came through the doors said the Yellow House was beautiful. Because she is. I feasted on it, the light streaming through white-paned windows, flickering flames of candles in the winter, the curving staircase. I had so many plans for art and a galery wall and a perfect mantle. Nothing worked out. The house was mostly undecorated until we left, but every day, she was beautiful, and we adored her. I know it now, a beautiful home isn’t in the things I put on the walls, it is the attitude of the people in it. A posture of gratitude does more for a place, does more for a person than anything hanging on the outside.
Because a pathway to wholeness opened up, too. You brought me one of the most treasured friendships I have ever known, the kind that pieced me back one inch at a time in truth and rest, and I learn about holding people loosely, that there doesn’t need to be a mountain of expectations. We can give we what we can, and it is enough. It happens with older friends who share their lives with us, they receive our questions and doubts, and they don’t give us answers, only perspective. Our sight renews. This is the work of time, of life, of grace. We drive away from you and we see differently, our life, our pain, our future, our resources, our purpose,
I walked into IKEA a young woman in Melbourne, Australia, this was in 2007, and I said it then and I’ve said it since, Something good is going on in Sweden, I think I am secretly Swedish. It was a joke, I didn’t know anything about Sweden other than my love for the little pencils and lists (among other things) at the entrance of the blue and gold furniture superstore. I guess the joke was on me when six years later in 2013, I am told that we are moving to Stockholm.
I’m a hardened third-culture kid, you know that right? I’ve moved every three to four years on average since I was two. Leaving is what I do best, I have shaken the dust off my feet when I left Lipa, Manila, Fayetteville, Siloam Springs, Melbourne and Geneva, but not for you, Sweden.
I put your rocks into a bottle for my boys, and ran my hand over the white birch. I walked the curve of the rock toward the sea one last time as I watched my boys play on your sand and run in the freezing water, and I knew it in my bones, this is our goodbye, and my heart is broken.
The place that holds the story of our redemption is where we see the Redeemer face to face, in the end maybe that’s why I loved you, too. Maybe I saw Him clearer here, maybe I couldn’t perform at all and received instead love everlasting, perhaps I lived the life I wanted in the middle of imperfect circumstances and maybe, just maybe, this set me free.
On October 1, I’ll be starting a new series called Falling Forward: 31 Days of Thoughts & Tips on Transition. I will be writing daily in October as part of Crystal Stine’sWrite for 31 Days. I am so excited to share this series with you, and hopefully it will be a chance for us to dialogue and grow together on the subject of transitions. Please do add your email to the subscriber list (scroll down to sign up) if you want to get posts daily in your email box, or just check in here every day.
Long blogging breaks are never planned. I stop writing one week, and the days start blurring, time gets away from me and before I realize it’s been two months since I last wrote anything. Yes, there are some lines in a journal, but mostly I’ve been writing grocery lists, Facebook messages and emails.
When I went away for three days in July to write, to pray and to think (and to sleep), I was ready to give up writing on a blog or writing for public consumption. Too little time. Too much work. And I could not see or understand the why. There are so many blogs out there – outstanding ones, I should say – why another one? The world is noisy enough, full of opinions about how we live or how to live, and I shudder at the thought of contributing more to the noise in your head and mine. I haven’t doubted that I write or want to write, only doubted the means through which I do that. But I’m still here, there is the seed of writing in this space, I have a home here, one that calls me back time and time again.
So this post is a bit of a free-for-all update, just stopping in to say hello, I am here and missing this space.
I tend to go quiet in November. Two out of the last four years it’s because I was in the first trimester of a pregnancy, and the other two years were for sleep deprivation from a not-sleeping-five-month-old. I am happy to report that this November involved neither of those two things. I played with the boys, I cooked good food and put frozen pizzas in the oven on other days, I worked up a sweat on an elliptical machine, I woke up early and sometimes woke up late.
For the first time in a long time, I can say these few words: I am starting to feel like myself again.
Marriage and motherhood changes us, and when it happens so quickly, the changes swirl around, there is no time to take it in, and for a reflector like me, no time to process and understand. But I know that I didn’t laugh the same way. The spark of life and passion that had always burned somewhere inside, it was gone.
We head toward the darkest days of the year now. Light breaks between 8 and 8:30am, and it is dark like the night around 3:30pm with the sun setting (if it is there) around 2:30pm. Trees shed their leaves, the ground begins to freeze, there is death, death and more death. My soul flows with these seasons, last year when November and December rolled around, I wanted to hide somewhere and sleep.
But not this winter. I wish I could tell of some miracle transformation, but in reality it has been slow, steady, hard work. Counseling appointments, going to a small group to discuss and deal with habits, hurts and hangups, steady time alone, sharing my life with a few trusted people, and going to the gym.
I am now a gym person, by the way. I would say I have no idea how that happened except I do. It has free childcare. Every time I walk into this place, I want to cry and thank them because I have energy again, I haven’t noticed the weather, I am enjoying my life in Sweden. The other day a woman at the gym asked me what I thought about Swedish weather, and I said, Oh it’s been such a beautiful autumn. I think this November was so much better than last years, the way the light shined and the way the trees looked, everything has just been so beautiful and gentle.
She looked at me like I had absolutely lost my mind. Later I found out that we’ve had our darkest November in over a 100 years here in Sweden. I haven’t noticed.
My body was longing to work hard at something again, so much energy stored up inside, it needed release, and my spirit follows suit, working hard on some new projects, creating when I can, fighting to enjoy my children, fighting to choose kindness instead of anger. I can feel myself releasing as I put my hand to these things.
So Christmas is here again. We’ve put up the lights, candles flicker in our windows, we are on day 12, and so far still not losing our minds (and tempers) over Advent activities. Last week a dear friend came over with her two kids. They watched a movie twice and ate popcorn and chocolate for dinner while she and I caught up. She hung a tree branch up in our living room. I think it took her less than 20 minutes. It’s even better than I ever thought it could look.
We had a branch over a couch in our apartment in Geneva. It was one of my most favourite things, and it’s taken a long time to do it here, but there it hangs, more beautiful, rugged and raw than the last one. Rigged from the ceiling by a friend who knew what she was doing, while our four children danced around the room singing Jingle Bells and Angels We Have Heard on High. It was basically a perfect evening. The relationships I longed for are here.
It’s been four years of conception and birth, fruitfulness that seemed effortless to my body, yet the same body held a barren soul, a space that increasingly became a wasteland of ideas and longing. But the season changes. I suppose it always does. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in a land of deep darkness, a light has shined. In Jesus was life, and that life was the light of all men.
Merry Christmas, my friends. I so appreciate those of you who have read this blog over the years. This will be my last post for 2014. I’m going to be doing some thinking and hopefully writing between now and the new year, there will be a bit of travel, too. You can follow along on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. I’ll be back in 2015 but until then, I hope your Christmas season is full of the light of Jesus – may he hold all of your things and all of your life together in his tender hands.
Swedish summer is a bit like the bashful Swedes themselves. Cool at first, it takes a while to get to know them, and I think for a long time that there must be a secret code I’m missing to get through the door. But once in, it’s only warmth and light and kindness and helpfulness and everything good that any culture could hope for.
For a while there in June I thought I was going to be wearing winter pajamas to bed and jackets out during the day, but July came and it’s been all bathing suits all the time, flip flops, hair in a ponytail, and I would be lying if I told you that the words, I’m way too warm right now, haven’t left my lips. We are all allowed moments of total irrationality. Even in the summertime.
Swedish summer 2014 is everything anyone has written about summer and then some.
Dipping my toe into the Baltic Sea for the past year sent freezing shivers into my fingertips, each cold wave washing on the sand beach claiming no happy visitors. In the past few weeks though, we’ve spent almost every afternoon splashing in its warm waters, watching Little Boy overcome his fear of the water and walking out deeper and deeper until even I have to stop him from going any further. Baby sits on the shore splashing in the waves and digging sand with a shovel.
Swedes are consumate egalitarians, which means that men take paternity leave, wash the dishes and supposedly do most thing Swedish mothers do, likewise Swedish women do all the things Swedish men do. The beaches hold their own form of egalitarianism – almost every woman I can see is wearing some form of a bikini. It doesn’t matter how old or young she is, the sag or tightness of her body parts, the drooping, thick hula hoop of skin around her middle, her colour, the number of or lack of children. She’s in a bikini, and she is not looking around wondering what everyone else is thinking of what she looks like (at least, I don’t think she is – I could be wrong about this).
I’m still Asian in some of my clothing sensibilities, but I have never felt more free to run around in a bathing suit in all my life than I have been this summer. Mommy, come to the water!!! Little Boy has screamed afternoon after afternoon, thank God I listened. We play, we dance, we splash, water running down our faces, cooling down our skin, bathing us and making us new one risk at a time.
We eat strawberries and watermelon for afternoon snacks, red juice dribbling down chins, red skin pushed under too-long toddler fingernails, who has time to cut fingernails in the summer? Baby’s belly is permanently stained with sticky watermelon residue, he could sink his teething gums into the rind all afternoon long.
There were the date nights – often two per week – Husband and I feasting on time together after a year of almost none. I felt like a giddy teenager every evening we went out: Getting ready, sketching on eye liner and spraying the perfume, the heels came out, and every fun summer dress I could find in the closet. Mommy, why is there purple on your eye? Little Boy wanted to know one evening. He still thinks spit up is a normal part of a woman’s hair. I will have to re-educate him in the weeks to come.
I couldn’t hold Husband’s hand enough, we kissed for what felt like an eternity on the bridges of Stockholm, explored Gamla Stan (the old town), ate good food, walked arm in arm and watched too many sunsets except there’s no such thing as too many sunsets.
I’ll never forget the pink summer light shining on the palace when we drove up to it on one of the bridges, water and canals on either side, legion of boats in their docks, majestic buildings on every side, clear blue skies streaked with feathery, yellow clouds. It’s 7:30pm in Stockholm. The sun is hours away from setting.
WE LIVE HERE??!?!?!? I squeal to Husband. You’ll have to allow me some cliches and platitudes, I spent most of the last year changing diapers and not sleeping.
One evening we went out without knowing where we would end up for dinner. I dressed up because when you normally wear food-and-liquid-encrusted clothes all day long, you dress up because you can can can can can. We ended up at a well-known vegetarian joint, Hermans, and quickly realized we were overdressed by…a lot. In my youth this would have caused endless minutes of insecurity and self-consciousness, but not tonight. No hippie bohemian liberal is getting in the way of my date night face.
We roll with the daily routines of one child getting up between 4:30am and 5:30am and the other up by 6:30. This is my second time around with the Swedish sun; I know they’ll be sleeping until 8am when November rolls around, and if not, I want my money back (or at least, my sanity back). For now we try to keep breakfast simple and manageable. And thank God when nap time rolls around at 11am.
I cook some special things, but mostly we do a lot of simple food with Husband regularly pulling out the charcoal barbecue. We tag team, him cooking some days and me some others. He took almost all of his annual leave in July, it was not part of our plans, but we knew our family needed some space to breathe. Ok, that’s not true. I needed some space to breathe.
I could not be more thankful for the man I married than I am right now. We celebrated our fourth anniversary in July, and I will forever remember this past year as the hardest of my life, the one I survived, just barely, the one where I broke many of my marriage vows yet was loved graciously in return. We saw our real selves this year, and it was rarely what we hoped it would be, but we made it. We’re here. Still standing, or sitting as it were because if I have to choose between sitting my ground and standing my ground, I choose sitting. Every time.
We have play dates with new cherished friends, conversations that make my heart sing, people with whom there are real relationships, and we talk as the wind blows by, and slowly, slowly the dream of community starts to take shape. It’s not what I thought it would be, there is no plan or formality about it, but these surprises are so much better, the connections deeper and sweeter. After the long drought, it is cold, refreshing, pure water to the soul.
The blueberry bushes cover the underbrush of Swedish forrests. I have no idea that it’s there until a Swedish friend took us to her family farm out in the country. We go on a walk to forage for wild raspberries and blueberries. The berries are smaller than the store variety, it’s been a dry summer, so they are also a bit sour. You won’t see them unless someone guides you, but once you know how to spot a bush, it’s easy to wade into the middle, bend down and begin uncovering each deep blue jewel. No one in my family cares how sweet, sour, big or small each berry is. We are berry fanatics each one of us, and within minutes Little Boy’s fingers are black, his lips and mouth blue, his eyes bright.
Brushing through each bush, pushing back the leaves to find our little berries, we bend over and silently, methodically work through each one, picking and eating, picking and eating. The berries never seem to run out, there is plenty for everyone, for everyone who can find them, for everyone who can see.
When I don’t meal plan, I end up with two situations. Scenario one: The empty refrigerator save eggs and some veggies and some time of carb staple in the pantry like pasta, bulgur wheat or quinoa. Scenario two: Going to the grocery store mid-week with my toddler and baby. You would think both scenarios would keep me meal planning, and well, you would be wrong.
Two days ago after I was down to the last three eggs and had nothing in the veggie basket except for kale, beets and sweet potatoes, I realized I was going to have to resort to scenario two. (We had eggs for breakfast and roasted beets and sweet potatoes for lunch, which the toddler refused.)
Grocery stores with children are not easy in any universe – unless it is for you, in which case let me know immediately where your galaxy is located – but navigating a grocery store in a new country where everything is labeled in a language you don’t know and organized in a different way while you have small children in tow feels like a first-world kind of torture moment.
Enter the Coop at Enebyberg. It’s the largest supermarket close to our house, and we go weekly. Our toddler knows when it’s coming up, and loves riding in the cart inside the store. We have yet to have a mega meltdown experience, which I attribute to two things: fervent prayer and the outstanding customer service of – so far – every single Coop employee I’ve encountered.
It started with the young woman who walked through the aisles after 9pm trying to first understand what I was looking for (chicken stock cubes) and second to look for it. Then there was the butcher who had a friendly chat with me about why I was buying 3.7kg of beef and how I was going to cook it, the fish monger last week who told me about sea bass and how it should be cooked and the ladies at the checkout counters who regularly tell me to get a Coop card. Almost every interaction ends with a, Have a nice day. You would never imagine that you are in northern Europe. (In case anyone is interested, this is not a paid ad, I don’t write sponsored posts, it is a pleasure as a writer to be able to lavish praise on people and companies that make my life a bit easier.)
A few weeks ago as I made my way through the vegetable section, a bunch of thick, green leaves caught my eye: Kale. After years of reading about its super powers but never being able to find it, let’s just say we’ve been eating a lot of kale. As in almost daily for a week or two. It goes into smoothies, salads and even breakfast. We’ve been loving our kale.
Every time I’ve cooked kale for us, I’ve defaulted to this method. It is basic, simple, and as long as you like garlic, all will be well. I found that putting the garlic and rock salt (make sure it’s the chunky kind and not table salt) on the leaves while it’s cooking gives the kale a flavour crunch, which I loved.
8 kale leaves, stems removed and chopped
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1. Put a bit of olive oil into a good frying pan on high heat, and when it’s warm, toss in your chopped kale. Sautee for a few minutes until it looks like the kale is cooking down a tiny bit. (I splashed a bit of water into the pan if it looked like it was starting to stick.)
2. Crush the garlic, and put the sea salt on the kale and keep stirring until it’s to your preferred level of doneness.
3. We’ve eaten kale cooked this way for breakfast with eggs and mushrooms, as a side dish to meat for dinner, as a salad mixed with roasted butternut squash, bulgur wheat and sauteed mushrooms and some chili flakes.