Sunday, May 10, 2015

Adoption Day 2015

Most adoptive families celebrate what has come to be known as Gotcha Day. For some reason, early on in life, as in most things, Aleksandra had a strong opinion about this. She insisted that she wants it to be called Adoption Day. And we try to make Adoption Day special, while stressing that it's not a big material celebration. No gifts, just usually some special family time. She usually picks dinner, and there is often ice cream involved. Bowling is a popular Adoption Day pastime.

Adoption Day always brings with it a mix of emotions like gratitude and grief. It reminds us of the joy of the day we left a Russian courthouse and headed straight to the orphanage to bathe and dress a precious little baby girl. And it also reminds us that there is a family of origin in Russia who is missing a member. And we're sad for them, but so thankful for us. It always makes me a little more emotional than I expect.

Even though adoption is becoming more accepted in U.S. culture, people are still very curious and ask a lot of questions. Here is the main thing I've learned and want to share about adoption. Having a biological child first, and then unable to have more, my deepest darkest fear was: what if it's not the same? What if the love feels different? I carried that worry around for about about nine months, ironically. But then I held a little girl in my arms and I felt that same love. Our second adoption was further confirmation of this fact. There are three parts of my heart out there walking around in the world. And they are equal parts. I think any parent can attest to the fact that even though you may love and relate to your children differently, there's no more or less love.

Adoption certainly isn't for everyone. It's not something to go into lightly or without being fully committed. But there's so much love to gain. Aleksandra is an amazing young woman. And being adopted is part of her acolescent search for identity. Those are tricky waters for anyone, but we are navigating them together little by little, question by question. So we'll celebrate today the growth of our family 11 years ago on the real, true, legal Adoption Day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The New "Normal"

So there are days when I'm walking or driving along, and I look around and think "hey look at me  living in Central America." And the weird thing is, it's starting to feel- dare I say it- normal!

Yes, the traffic jams and frustrated shopping attempts that used to raise my blood pressure or bring me to tears are things that I can often take in stride now. (Not always...often.) We laughingly say that we never know what the day will bring here, and we like the adventure of that uncertainty most of the time. But some days the routine can almost seem TOO normal. Like maybe we're making this thing seem too easy. Maybe people will  stop sending donations, or forget to pray for us, or forget that we exist altogether! I start to feel guilty. Maybe we need to be suffering a little more? But usually just then, something will happen. Something that seems pretty normal to me, like chasing mice around the kitchen, or trying to figure out what bug has infested my line-dried clothing, or the bank suddenly and without notice changing their whole policy, freezing our money in limbo for two weeks. And I go, nope, this is not always so easy. But over time, with language acquisition, with friends and more of a support network, the difficulties start to lose their power to debilitate me. Coping takes over, and this weird life is now normal.

Our kids recently seemed to make it over a big hump. Transferring to a private school in a completely different culture was huge. And then to go from being A+ star students to struggling in some subjects, was a confidence killer in itself. We tried to give them some grace, offer help, and push them when necessary. Finally they seem to have their groove back, and this semester they are both doing great academically and socially while still participating in some extra-curricular activities. Caleb is currently on a trip with the high school choir. They are touring a more remote region of the country where we've never been before, singing and sharing with people at local schools and churches, as well as performing a work/service project. They even sang on the radio today! We're excited for him to have a new experience and  a little bit of independence. Aleksandra is playing basketball for the first time and loving it. So, in many ways our family life seems more normal than it has in a while.

Being away from extended family is a constant emotional struggle, and the reality is that we can't travel back and forth to the U.S. very often.  Oddly, the longer we're here, the more difficult a part of reality this becomes. You begin to realize the degree of sacrifice when your family is moving through life far away from you and your relationship seems stretched. But we have a more than full schedule here, and a relatively non-existent travel budget, which hopefully will develop over time.  Facetiming and Skypeing have become a regular part of the routine too, as well as sending wish and needs lists to our friends and family or shopping online, and having friends and acquaintances hand deliver the "stuff" that it's hard to do without here. (I ask myself, if I stay here 10 more years, will I really continue to have people bring me ranch dressing packets?) And maybe life without some items will become the norm, but for right now, there are a few must haves. As I've navigated running my household over the last two years, I've discovered where to acquire some necessaries, how to make a lot of things from scratch, and there is even a lot more available in Guatemala than there was when we first moved here: blueberries(!), Reeces Cups, frozen biscuits, Papa Johns, and I could go on. Personally I'm holding out for Cool Whip and Crescent rolls, or at the height of fantasy Chick-Fil-a or Target. Who knows?

I suppose people coming for a week long visit could watch us function and assume that we have it easy here. And compared to many missionaries in the world I'm sure that's true.  But, trust me, some days it's harder than it looks. Even amidst the struggles that do arise, I am feeling very thankful for the level of sanity and "normality" that is developing over time.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Give and Take

Well into year two of life "in the field," I'm realizing the truth of Ecclesiastes. God is truly one who gives and takes away. But the new lesson that I'm learning is that so often what I feel like he's "taking" is His way of leading me somewhere new "giving" me more than I ever dared hope for.

Teaching is a part of who I am. I have known I wanted to teach from a  young age, have always loved it, and feel like it's a gift I have. I am one of those weirdos who function well on school time. I love how teaching is structured, yet intensely relational and creative. But when I left my teaching job in the States, I no longer viewed myself as a teacher; I was a missionary. I resisted teaching in Guatemala. I was being asked to volunteer at a school, and I said to myself things like "I am not moving to another country to just do the same job I did before," and "Why would I teach for FREE and live on missionary support? That's crazy!" And so I said I wouldn't teach. The I said I'd look for a paying teaching job. They exist, but each one drastically conflicted with the other ministries we planned to be involved in. And CAG, our mission director, and my husband were all telling me repeatedly that I was the right person for this job, why didn't I think it over some more and "pray about it?" I didn't really want to pray about it. But eventually, I begrudgingly did. And, although I have never heard audible voices, I was driving down Central Avenue in Middletown one day, when in the most clearly identifiable God voice I have ever heard, he said "Didn't I call you to Guatemala to meet the needs of people there? Isn't this a need I have placed before you? Why isn't this need worthy of your attention? Do you believe I would send you there and not provide for you? Is this about money? Why are you afraid?" Humbled, I went home and told Chad I felt I needed to take the position at CAG.

I had mixed feelings about my first year of teaching at CAG. Our kids were happy there, and my teaching allowed them to attend the school tuition free, which was a huge blessing for our family. My teaching load was only three classes plus a few other duties; much less stressful than my teaching load in the States.Sterling thrived in a bilingual preschool environment. I loved being with all three of my kids on the same campus. The campus is beautiful beyond words. But I held my position at arm's length. This isn't what I came here to do. I also was teaching a middle school English class that was trying for me. Middle school teachers are very special people to love that group and want to work with them. This was not my passion. I felt isolated and frustrated, but mostly this was due to our isolated location and my own reluctance to make new friends. At home, we were involved in ministry at CRI and Journey church was taking off well with God's provision and guidance. But the orphanage we came here to start couldn't seem to get off the ground. Every time we ventured, things looked dimmer, until we got to the point where we felt like it was just not going to happen right now. I was devastated and angry. Why was God taking away the very dream that brought us here?

After several months of rethinking, praying, and re-grouping, we made decisions that would lead us into this new school year in the best position to do ministry. We gave up our property in San Lucas, but were able to move into a house five minutes from our schools and church, and two doors down from CRI who we partner with in team ministry. I felt God bringing me back into community from isolation. And as I said yes to another year teaching at CAG, God began to give back even more of who I am. He is truly the giver of all good gifts. I got an email shortly before school began asking if I would consider "giving up" my middle school English class for an AP Literature class. Yes! I was doing  a happy dance. Then I was asked to be the technical director for the fall theatrical production. Yes! I never thought I would work in the theater again. Let alone in a Creative Arts department that is training up young, talented Christian artists seeking to honor God with their talents. I truly thought I had given that part of my life up when I left the U.S. At the same time, God has given Chad and I numerous occasions to advocate for children in need and provide opportunities for teens and young adults trying to improve their lives. I expected to have a house full of babies, and instead we are housing teaching volunteers. Life looks nothing like what I expected it to look like at this point, but not just in negative ways. And while holding on to some of my essential identity that I thought I had lost, I am also developing new roles in life: pastor's wife, mom of teenagers, mentor to twenty-something teachers, Spanish speaker, just to name a few. Life is always a process of give-and-take. I'm learning not to foolishly hold too tightly to the things I want because God in his infinite wisdom may have better things in store for me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Giving Thanks for Christmas

Last Christmas, I was still in the throes of my major life transition, so I don't know that I gained a lot new perspective on the holiday. I enjoyed the cultural aspects of celebrating in another country (remember how many times I said I LOVE fireworks?), but reflecting on our own family traditions, past and present just didn't occur to me. We survived. We got a tree. I didn't cry from homesickness on Christmas Day. Our kids had presents. But this year, feeling more settled and at home here, looking ahead toward being here while most of our missionary friends head north for the holidays, I'm struck by many reasons I am truly thankful as we celebrate here in Guatemala this year.

First, let me say, that trying to maintain an American-style big budget Christmas is obviously not happening. But as we're trying to put together a Christmas that is somewhat traditional for our kids, I'm so thankful for the things I do have. My mom carried down so many nice gifts for our kids. She and my sister-in-law spent a lot of  time shopping and choosing things our kids will love and be very excited to receive. I've also been able to bargain shop online for one nice gift for each of the three, and some very kind folks have been willing to receive the shipments and carry them down for us as they come on visits this month. And my dad and stepmother have loaded us up with Amazon store credit, which is great, because almost anything we need from the U.S. we buy from Amazon and then have someone carry down for us. Whether it's seminary books for Chad, electronic parts, books, music, shoes, games or toys for the kids, birthday presents, you name it. If we can't find it here, or pay the exorbitant import cost, we get it from Amazon. As I'm wrapping gifts, I get weepy thinking that our kids will have surprises on Christmas morning that wouldn't be possible without the contribution  of many people who love us and are willing to pitch in.

The other thing that stands out to me is that in the U.S., we had a couple of traditions that were my favorites. Evey year we bought gifts and worked at the Reach Out Lakota Christmas shop which helped struggling families in our area, and then we packed three boxes for Operation Christmas Child. We loved choosing these gifts and feeling even a small connection to those strangers who would receive them. Here in Guatemala, we don't have to make an effort to connect with those in need around us. They are friends and fellow laborers who are hard working but still often still lack the means to provide for their families. Buying gifts or providing food for the families of Guatemalan workers that we know personally is a meaningful reminder of our work here. Knowing that CRI is building a house for one of our dearly loved crew members who has never had a home for his family is a powerful, beautiful knowledge. As Americans we consider ourselves "poor" on our meager missionary budget. And our family does survive on a small fraction of our previous two-earner income, but here even that small fraction makes us comparably "rich" to most Central Americans. Living and working among the poor truly redefines economic terms.

So we have a few decorations, more gifts than I could've hoped for, and I was able to find an honest-to-goodness American ham at the grocery store for Christmas dinner. We will watch fireworks and eat tamales with friends, then wake up Christmas  morning to cinnamon rolls and gifts. Our work here has meant a pared down version of Christmas as we used to know, but Sterling knows more about baby Jesus than Santa, and our kids don't have the ugly Christmas greed that they once had. We have been able to focus on the spiritual significance of the season and on the beauty of the people and culture around us. Someday, I hope that we will be able to enjoy the Holidays with our family in Ohio. But for now, I will enjoy the balmy sunshine of the tropics, and continue to count our many blessings as we celebrate this year.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, May 9, 2014

My Bag of M&Ms

When we started the adoption process several years ago, (11? yowza!) we had to take many hours of classes on how to be good adoptive parents. I remember distinctly that we had this game where for each culturally diverse activity in our lives, we got a different color M&M. Let's say blue represented very white, WASPy culture. Aside from maybe a red one thrown in because we like Chinese food, we had a whole cup of blue M&Ms. The social workers would frown and ask us how we planned to provide a culturally diverse environment for our future adopted child. I look back now and laugh and wish we could go back and explain our current life to those skeptical social workers! Although our first adopted child ended up being white anyway, so the blue M&Ms probably didn't harm her, now our life is radically different. We have best friends at home in the States who are Korean. We went on to cross racial lines with our second adoption, and have our little "Asian sunrise" as I like to call her (she's beautiful, she's Asian, and she wakes us up at the crack of dawn). Except for the days when she decides she's not being Chinese, she's Guatemalan. She actually says "I bein' Guatemalan, Mama." Cracks me up, that one. Among my kids' best friends are kids adopted from the Ukraine and South Africa, and of course, Guatemala. I have students from the US, Canada, Korea, Germany, and Guatemala. And needless to say, since moving to Central America we have made so many Guatemalan friends who we love dearly and will be friends for life.

Aside from all the racial diversity in our current lifestyle, we live in a unique part of Guatemala that is a kind of crossroads between a very impoverished, malnourished, largely illiterate rural culture and a rapidly developing major city with a growing middle class. So, living at this juncture makes life very unique. On the same short stretch of road to school every day, we see the following sites juxtaposed unbelievably against each other: a goatherd with a flock of goats which he grazes in vacant lots, some very fit and stylish Guatemalans from a Cross Fit gym running in the street with their medicine balls over their heads, propane delivery guys with large tanks on the back of their motos (no helmets), and teenage girls (maybe traditionally dressed, maybe in jeans) carrying huge tortilla baskets on their heads while texting furiously with both hands.

I say all the time, "Our life is so weird!" Maybe more accurately it's beautiful yet strange. It is one very colorful bags of M&Ms. And it is most certainly never boring. You should come and check it out.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Hitting the Proverbial "Wall"

Everybody who trains, equips, and educates missionaries to go in the field warns you about certain things that are going to happen. When you're Stateside fundraising, reading books, and are super fired up about getting in the field, you can be tempted to think "that won't happen to me." Surely you are the missionary that won't experience all the burn out, doubt, exhaustion, homesickness that all of these people who know way more than  you do keep telling you about. Because you are all in. Ask any member of the Shepherd family and I think you would get the same answer, we are here as long as God wants us here, doing what he wants us to do. We are on mission.

While we were preparing to go into the field, we noticed a trend that disturbed us a bit: several people/families we knew went into the field and came back before we even left. Often they would leave or make a decision to leave around this critical nine month mark.We thought to ourselves, what is going on? Is it really that hard? Is something not right with these ministries the people are going to work for? Was is a lack of planning and preparation? Did they not realize what they were getting into? It was difficult to understand from where we were sitting.

Now, here we are, almost nine months in, and we look at each other and say "Oh, now I totally get it." This is a difficult point to push through. At nine months, you're tired, realize your inadequacies, are confused about why the ministry you are doing is not at all what you thought you'd be doing, and you realize that God doesn't need YOU specifically on the mission field. He can get stuff done however he wants, and you just happen to be here and willing, but if you weren't, somebody else would be. And at this point, things can start to dry up financially as people lose touch and lose interest with what you're doing or don't see magnificent "results." So the grandparents start to worry about just how crazy you are, and if the grandkids are starving (they're not!). And we have legitimately seen that God sometimes uses your willingness to do this crazy missionary thing as preparation for something else he has for you to do. And it may not even be in another country. So it's easy to  wonder, what is God up to?

Lest you think I am in a worse frame of mind than I really am, there are two really important things you need to know:

1) I love Guatemala. Living in another country certainly is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult legally, financially, logistically, emotionally, and linguistically. But this country and the people in it absolutely have my heart. Most days I wake up thankful to be here, drink in the beauty of my surroundings, and am completely overwhelmed by my love for this specific place. God is doing amazing work here, and I'm thankful to be any small part in that. Whether we are here for one year or twenty, I am so glad that God brought us here.

2) I totally trust God with my future. I've seen enough in my life to know that his plan is always better, and his timing is always perfect, no mater how frustrating it seems to me because I don't know the whole story. So I am not worried. I just don't know the whole story yet. Will things turn  around financially allowing us to continue pursuing the original dreams that propelled us here? Will we have to downsize and refocus our ministry? Can we do both? Is there something else not on my radar that God is up to? Willingness and obedience have gotten us this far. God always shows up, always provides, and usually in some exciting unexpected way in our family's life. I figure nine months in our North American brains is kind of a cycle. A school year, a pregnancy, a gestational period of almost a year. And so, it's no wonder that people re-evaluate at this point. So pray for us as we hurdle this milestone and prink (pray and think) about where the future is taking us.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Compras (shopping)

How much time a week do you spend shopping? Food shopping, a pharmacy or convenience store run? A trip to Target? I probably used to go to Target at least once a week, Kroger two or three times a week, and maybe a trip to a mall-like place on the weekends. Raising a family, it seems like shopping is a constant activity, aside from being kind of a recreational sport. I knew what I was getting into. We all kind of know that shopping in other cultures is different. I even prepared by shopping ahead for a lot of necessities like toiletries and clothes in the next sizes for the kids. But reality is tough here when it comes to shopping. People are always asking what I miss from the States. And to be honest, as far as commerce goes I really only miss Target. One store where you can get anything you need in one place? Amazing. If only Target would expand to Central America.

It's not that we can't get American products here, or that we even want all American products: it's the price and inconsistency of retail stock that are the barriers. For instance, my $3 shampoo in the States is $8 a bottle here. (Thankfully my mom has stocked us up with months worth of Suave!) Peanut butter is about $7 for a small jar of Peter Pan. Things add up. Guatemalan brands of some products are perfectly fine, but sometimes the Guatemalan equivalent is a little weird or even non existent. And to the woe of  ex-pat shoppers, what you find one place one week may not be there again the next week, or ever again. In the States, meal planning is its own industry! Here, you can make a list, but good luck finding everything you want. In a culture where many folks don't really know where their next meal is coming from, and most meals consist of vegetables, rice, and beans, maybe chicken or eggs, which are pretty affordable, meal planning as we know it is basically non existent.

We fortunately live very close to two grocery stores. It often takes a trip to both stores to find things I want or need during the week.  The family usually decides what they would most like for the week, but everybody knows there's a good chance I'll come home with none of it. For two weeks, our local Paiz had cinnamon raisin bagels. Caleb was elated! Then there was a two month lapse before we ever saw them again. If you know me well at all, you know I love to cook. Cooking and adapting recipes is getting easier. Friends and family can bring us peanut butter, brown sugar, and chocolate chips, providing us some items we took for granted in our former life. And now I know weird things like that I find baking soda in the cleaning aisle. Thankfully,  we really like Guatemalan food, and so I am learning to cook some things that are more local/traditional. (And local food is plentiful and inexpensive.) We also greatly enjoy the amazing fresh produce here. Avocados are the equivalent of  5or 6 for $1. The most delicious pineapples I've ever tasted I can get for less than 50 cents a piece. I can get a pound of cute little potatoes for about 30 cents. We can spend $10 or less and load up on delicious fruits and veggies.

We do have Walmart and Pricesmart (Costco). These help. We plan a trip about once a month to drive into the city and get things we need there. We're finding places where we can get clothes and shoes if we really need them, but for now, it's still a lot cheaper for me to shop online and wait until our next visitor can deliver our purchases. At least this forces me to plan ahead, so my Christmas shopping was finished in September! I've learned through much trial and error that there's no such thing as a quick shopping trip. I never plan more than one necessary errand or purchase per day. It's a trip to the hardware store, or the housewares store, or the craft store, or the bakery, or the pharmacy, or the soccer supply store, or Office Depot. You get the idea. This week, I would have been happy to find a pack of pencils at the grocery store. But no. Had to go to a little libreria to find pencils because I didn't have time to fight the traffic to get to the office store.

So, while I would love to park in one parking lot and walk around one store to several departments, buy everything I need and leave, I'm learning to navigate  shopping here. And there is some really fun shopping here as well. Local markets, the Artisans market, specialty shops of  all varieties make up some of the recreational shopping I was so used to. I spent 200q of my Christmas money (about $24) and enjoyed major retail therapy in Antigua. I bought some new pottery, a new scarf, and some pretty market baskets.  I'm trying to let go of my American desire for efficiency and convenience above all else and embrace the Guatemalan lifestyle. And if all else fails, you'd be amazed what you can find at a neighborhood tienda! (There's gotta be a whole other post about that...)