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.
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.
Only one small little thought for all of us today.
I don’t think I’ve spent as much time outdoors in my life as I have since moving to Stockholm. Swedes are out all the time in any kind of weather, sporting the best outdoor wear you can imagine. We’ve begun the process of outfitting ourselves for the fall and winter or “finter” as I like to call it because fall here feels like winter to me. We all have our waterproof and windproof jackets and shoes, and oh it really does make a difference. For the first time in my life, I feel like going outside in the cold. It’s 11C/32 F for us today, and I was out in a t-shirt, jeans and these rain boots of mine. I love wearing them and running around with Little Boy in the yard. Nothing gets wet except for the boots – amazing.
Getting outside has been a sanity-saving, health-improving, mood-boosting part of the last few months. When I think of the months and months I spent cooped up in our apartment in Geneva with my newborn and toddler, I now wonder, why?
Go outside today, friends. It’s a beautiful world.
This post is Day 11 of 31 Days of blogging in October. I am writing this month about my first season of motherhood, sharing stories and lessons that stayed with me from that time.
(New to this series? Start here and follow the links to each day’s post.)
Little Boy has tasted transition in some big ways in the past two months – a baby brother born, two sets of grandparents coming to visit and leaving, his Papa going on longer-than-normal business trips, moving out of his only home to a temporary apartment, and then leaving Geneva for a new home in Sweden.
We did our best to prepare him for it with books about a new baby, talking about everything, letting him see rooms getting packed up, skyping with grandparents before they arrived and after they left, giving him his own suitcase that got filled up with toys (a brilliant idea suggested by a friend), and showing him pictures of our new house – the “lellow” house (yellow house).
There was no way to be certain about what he did and did not understand, but I know that ever since Baby came home there has been a new pain etched on his small, expressive face, a look that says, I am lost here, I don’t know my place anymore.
It manifests itself often in behaviors, most of which are unpleasant for us – extra defiance, screaming, waking up at night, wanting to drink milk all the time. But it’s also made him more fearful and unwilling to try new things. We watch him every day trying to process what has happened since we moved to Stockholm.
Daily he tells us he is getting on an airplane to go away.
Daily he says to me, Papa coming back?,
When we are out and coming home, he will say several times,
Lellow house. Here now. Lellow house. Here now.
And it’s like he is telling himself, I live here now, this is my home.
Walking to the Baltic Sea is part of our daily life here. The first part of it is a little open area where boats can just drive up, and I see moms and dads bringing their kids in the morning by boat so they can go to the little school that is two doors away from our house. A gravel path begins there and circles on the south end of our island. We walk this path daily, saying hello to the boats, the ducks and the occasional piece of construction equipment.
On our way home the other day he wanted to get out of the stroller at the opening part; I said yes, and he got off and started taking handfuls of rocks from the path and throwing them into the sea.
Plash! Plash! he says (splash, splash).
He’s inching closer and closer to the water, which doesn’t look terribly clean and clear if I’m being honest, and he’s got shoes that will get wet and soak his feet through, but I’m making choices to let go, let go, let go. Let him go and get his feet wet in water that looks a bit suspicious, everything will be fine.
He starts eyeing bigger rocks that are right where the water laps up to the path, squats down, reaches in for the big rock, gets it, stands up and throws it back in.
Big plash! he says, delighted.
Big splash for the big rock! I say back, enjoying his joy.
But there are only two of those rocks, and of course he wants the big plash again. So he squats back down and reaches forward to get one of the rocks he threw in.
The rock is just out of his reach, and I can see the frustration on his little face.
Can’t do it, can’t do it, he mutters, and yes he’s only talking about a rock, but I’m hearing something else.
I’m hearing my mantras for the past few years, I can’t drive in Europe, I can’t be alone for a week with two kids, I can’t be outside in cold weather and rain, I can’t handle tantrums, I can’t figure out Swedish cell phone plans, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
A parent’s words quickly become a child’s mantra, and a parent’s insecurities easily become a child’s fears.
So I’m looking at my little boy who is so gown up in his dark green cords and blue and coral striped rugby shirt and little Adiddas runners saying Can’t do it, can’t do it, and something in me rises up, and I say to him, Yes, you can do it. You can do it, kiddo, lean forward, you can reach it. You can do it.
I keep encouraging him, willing him to believe that this is possibly even though I am secretly afraid it will not all work out in the end. He leans forward, strains forward, reaches one hand back – he needs me to hold it keeping him steady, and I do – his hand hits the water, his feet are still planted, shoes and pant hem soaking wet, just a bit more, his fingers find the rock, grab it and pull it out.
DID IT! he says, the jubilation in his face, the pride in his eyes, it’s all I can do to keep myself from crying.
We have a little party on this street corner in front of the reeds and the boats and the water, I proclaim to the world Josiah did it! You did it! I am so proud of you!
Yes,he says, Did it,and looks down at the piece of black rock in his hand, pride keeps shining in his eyes, and I am thinking about all the ways this transition has been hard on him, on all of us, I’m thinking about all the ways we have not said Can’t do it, but have lived, Can’t do it, this is too hard.
I look at the rock, his eyes, and I know this is a golden moment. This rock is a memorial stone – for him, for our family – and I turn to him and say, Kiddo, this is the rock that says, ‘You did it, YOU DID IT.’
He is delighted of course, reveling in his newfound success, and yes, he walked a little bit taller, his face a little bit happier. And me? The rock is crying out to me, too and is telling me what my new story could be: Did it.
We keep the rock, we bring it home, it sits in the kitchen, and for the whole day when he struggled to walk up the stairs alone, I told him, What did the rock say? And he replies, DID IT! and tentatively takes one step at a time, when he feels afraid in the sandbox because he is alone, I ask him, What did the rock say? And I see the flicker of memory cross his face and he says, Did it!.
Yes, it says ‘did it!’I tell him because you can do it, you can do more than what you think you can do. You can do it.
The Rock That Says ‘You Did It’ has a new, permanent place in a square of the bookshelf that divides the kid play area from the dining room, and it will not be going anywhere. It’s at Little Boy’s level, but we can easily see it. All of us need this reminder that the challenges that are daily in front of us need not overwhelm us – lean forward a bit more, keep feet planted on the ground, hold on to whomever may be around, and when you think you can’t give anymore, keep on giving.
We all need a rock that says, ‘You did it!”
That which is out of reach will be in your hand soon.