We Are Small

Sometimes I want to quit. Pack it in. Go home.

Sometimes I feel like all our work, all my efforts, are just a drop in a bucket or worse, completely futile.

A class I had organized is on hold because the participants are afraid to be seen gathering in public due to the Thai military junta's crackdown on immigration issues.

The work we planned for a community that we invested in, brought education to, and were creating a customized program to help them gain financial independence has stalled because one of the landowners already "helping them" prefers to keep them dependent. He gets more in foreign donations that way. We aren't just giving money away, so now we're getting the cold shoulder.

A teenage boy we tried to protect drowned because his friends talked him into doing something stupid and it turned out to be a fatal mistake.

People we work with are all on edge, waiting to see what will happen to them with the changing politics and meeting between the leaders of Myanmar and Thailand. They are people caught in the middle of shifting tides with little to no say as to their eventual fate.

Other foreigners in country "helping" often seem to be more of an obstacle than a help, undermining any real change by continuing with old and outdated ideas and traditions that have been proven to do more damage than good.

An expat family living here was killed in a car crash last month. Their daughter was a friend of my children and we've had to walk through the grief of losing someone they loved so suddenly.

We miss you sweet friends.
 Then there is the international news this week. War is everywhere.

These constant and persistent frustrations and very real sadnesses start to pile up in my heart in ways I find hard to express. I heard this week from someone very close to me back in North America that she is in the middle of a miscarriage. Right now, as I type, she is dealing with that grief and ultrasounds and tests and all I can do is pray and fb chat when my heart wants to drive to the hospital and sit with her all night because that's what you need in that kind of situation, someone who will sit, and hold your hand, and try to make the whole thing a little less shitty.

I just learned that a friend and mentor from the years we were first married, who founded an organization that we gave serious thought to joining, is in an appalling prison in Liberia on false accusations and has been held for 6 months without a fair trial. He's so ill he may not make it. (Please click that link and sign the petition to have him released.)

Aaron is out of town for a few nights, so I told him all these things over facebook while the kids got ready for bed.

His answer is typical of him, and unusual for everyone else. Also exactly what I needed to hear just then. Thankfully, this was a text conversation, so I have it on record for posterity to share with you.

Here's what he said.

"You are a very minor drop in the bucket, just as I am, just as we all are. We have no ability to predict the outcome of our actions, positive or negative.

We do what we do, because it is who we are, not because we are changing the world."

Then I cried. But it was the release sort of crying, rather than the hurt sort. My heart was allowed to feel all the sadness, but let go of the weight and sense of responsibility I carry around for these sorts of things.

Does this make sense to anyone else? Aaron and I share a sort of conversation shorthand, as all couples do, so I'll try and unpack this a little.

Here's what happens when I make changing the world my reason for doing things. (Or something smaller like just trying to make things better for a handful of families who live in poverty less than a mile from my house.) When I make that my reason for doing what I do, I will quickly get to the place I was in tonight. It's not easy, there are many obstacles. I will probably face many setbacks and will likely not see much success. With changing things as my reason, discouragement is ever close by, as is the desire to just give up and quit.

But that's not the real reason why I'm here in Thailand, pushing my rock up the hill. I do what I do because its who I am. I can not sit idly by without trying to do something to help, to show care, to bring some relief. I do what I do because I am the kind of person who would drive to the hospital in the middle of the night to sit and hold your hand when you're going through something hard all by yourself.

Of course, that's not one hundred percent accurate all by itself. I'm just as capable of being selfish as the next person. So even in those times when I don't feel like that person I've described above, I do these things because that's the person I want to be. I choose to behave as that person would, even when it's hard.

In the same way I strive to be gentle and consistent with my children, not because I can predict a positive outcome for their lives if I am, but because I would rather be the kind of person who is gentle and consistent. When I look back on their childhoods later, this version will give me more joy than the crazy woman who screams her head off all the time. I could be her too. But I don't want to be. 

This framework has guided my choices for some time now. I ask myself who I want to be, and then I act the way that person would act.

In the same way, I try to do something about the suffering that I can see because who I am compels me to do so.

This is my true reason. My efforts may fail, but I will still have succeeded at being the kind of person who loved enough to try.

So I shake off tonight the weight, the worry, the disappointment with how hard it is to change things, and return to the one thing I do have any say over in this life. Myself.

I'm broken, and tired a lot, and far from perfect. I fail even at keeping my good intentions.

But I keep choosing to do what the person I want to be would do, at least half of the time.

I am compelled, by the spirit that is in me, to keep moving forward, to keep extending love, to keep hoping in the face of hopelessness.

I step forward once again asking the one I want most to look like to continue to shape me into His likeness, that who I am will be a true image of God in this world and what I do will flow from the wholeness of who I am, regardless of the hoped for outcome. That, I have to trust to someone else.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people,"


Please, No Photos

I probably shouldn't have tried to go to the mall after art class yesterday. (Hooray, homeschool co-op has an art teacher now!) Dek was doing that early stages of fussy thing he does when he needs a nap, and I was already feeling that rising internal pressure that happens when I'm tired and just want to be by myself for a while. But it had been weeks since I took the kids to the store. Aaron keeps using the car for things like work, and meetings and stuff. I keep using the car, when I have it, to get to the office, and meetings, and stuff. The kids get a little restless sometimes when their entire existence is simply the circuit between our house, home school co op classes, and the little village up the hill. So restless that they beg to come when I go grocery shopping. Also, this particular store/mall/movie theater has a Dairy Queen. Sometimes a 25 cent ice cream cone is exactly what you want, even if you know that it's probably devoid of milk or cream altogether and is mostly flavored palm oil.

older school boys at DQ
 Quick aside: This little mall that we go to to buy western things, like flour, and really expensive milk that we try to use sparingly, and oats, is the biggest shopping center this side of the mountains that separate this city from the rest of Thailand, and maybe all the way to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar. By California standards it's barely a mall, one large department store, a food court downstairs, the various little shops that you find in malls, a tiny arcade, and a movie theater. You can walk the circuit of it in 7 minutes. So, not a very big mall. But on Saturday morning there are tour vans with Myanmar license plates filling the parking lot, and people who have just crossed the border 3km away, just to see it. Aaron took our store manager there for lunch one day, he came from Burma, to a refugee camp, to working for us, and he was overwhelmed. "Please sir, I think you should lead. If I tell my wife about this place she will not even believe it." This was just in the food court. He still hadn't seen the rest of it yet. Every so often I will find myself waiting to get on the escalator behind someone who has never ridden on a escalator before. They will stand there, watching the steps as they keep moving away, trying to figure out when to step on. Sometimes people don't know that you have to step off at the top and they fall down. It's fascinating, really, the contrasts between what I take for granted and what other people are amazed by.

food court
Anyway, on this particular day I decide to go to the mall and get things I need to stock up on, flour, salt, the good kind of fish sauce, etc. I start by buying the kids ice cream cones.

While we sit eating the girl who works at the print shop I usually go to comes over to say hi. She wants to know if we have English classes at our office because since she finished college she has forgotten her English. Her English is actually very good, which is why I go to her print shop to get work done. It's less of a gamble to order work from her because she at least understands most of what I'm saying, some of the time. My Thai is still woefully inadequate to the task of saying, "No, this image is too pixelated, please change the resolution." Over time we have had more in depth conversations about what we're doing here and that I home school the kids, etc.

She tries to make friendly conversation while Dek fusses, the kids interrupt, and everyone eats their ice cream. She wants to come over to our house on her holiday to practice her English. She says she'll and help me with all the kids too. This is Asia, people you barely know just might invite themselves to your house for English lessons. I might do it. It could be fun. Except, of course, for the fact that conversations with a language barrier are exhausting. You have to put all your energy into the listening and the speaking, trying to understand the strange pronunciations of your mother tongue, and make yourself understood. I'm already feeling drained from that short conversation in a crowded busy place.

Finally the ice cream is almost done and we can head upstairs to get groceries.

This is quite the contrast to the outdoor markets with dirt on the ground, and mud puddles when it rains.
Dek has taken to screaming by this point because I bought myself an iced milk tea with boba pearls in it and he thinks that I should let him have the cup, the straw, and the entire contents of my drink so he can dump it on the floor. (Here I thought grabbing a caffeine infusion would make the rest of this little adventure easier for me.) He keeps reaching for the straw, and screaming as loud as his little voice will allow in the middle of the store. I start gulping the contents so as to be able to give him the empty cup to play with. Then BamBam shows me his hand, with the the broken remains of an ice cream cone in it and ice cream leaking out all over his hand and starting to drip on the floor. He's been nursing that last little bit way too long.

I leave Little and the big kids standing with the cart while I grab Dek and Bam Bam and run around the corner in search of a tissue. I get back a minute later and Little is hanging her head behind her arms in order to avoid a Burmese father with his phone out, trying to take a picture of his two little girls next to the farang girl. She's having none of it today, and keeps hiding her face and stepping out of the frame. Those two little girls, with perma smiles plastered to their faces, keep following her around as their father coaches them, trying to get this picture. Little keeps playing her avoidance game. I smile at the little girls, trying to be at least a little bit friendly, and make this whole moment just a little bit less ridiculous.

I tell her they will go away if she will just stand still for a moment. She is adamant that she will not consent to this so we start making our way through the store, she with her head down, hair covering it, hanging off the side of the shopping cart, Dek screaming and reaching for my drink still, and these two little girls, smiling as though their lives depend on it, tailing as close to Little as they can manage, while their dad walks ahead trying to take the shot. I'm starting to feel a bit like that guy in the story of the Golden Goose who ends up leading a crowd of people stuck to him down the road.

I tell the dad she's feeling shy today. I learned that Thai word as soon as I could, just for these sorts of situation. I ask the Girl if she will just do us all a favor and pose for a photo with the little girls in Little's place. I'm sure she'll be an acceptable substitute. She refuses.

Eventually they give up and move on and I calm Dek by giving him my empty cup and straw and we work on our shopping. I take deep breaths to try to get my self calm after the standard screaming baby induced cortisol response, amidst the normal chaos of 5 kids in a grocery store all asking me to buy things that are way too expensive and not on my list.

They ask to hold the baby, they take a selfie with the baby, they give the baby back. He's much more agreeable than the older kids. (This is not at the store, I just had it in my phone.)
The produce lady with the garish makeup comes out to greet Dek and and talk to him for a minute, as she always does. He's obliging and smiles at her. Two aisles over I spy my boys, and someone has given Bam Bam a big red balloon that he's chasing all over the place, laughing and yelling while everyone watches him. I see people with their phones out taking pictures.

I try to get a few more things, sending the girls to get the vegetables weighed and labelled. Dek is melting down now, and Bam Bam and his balloon are in danger of knocking things over and my kids are SO. LOUD. It's time to leave, because I don't have the energy left to deal with this in the middle of the store anymore, and they are just done. We race to the cashier as fast as possible, avoid everyone we can, which means we still have to smile and say hello at least 30 more times to people near us in the check out line, and head out into the rain with our bags. It's such a relief to shut the door of the car and be by ourselves again as the rain pours down.

It's not until we get home that I realize I've forgotten to buy half the things on my list. Which means that sometime very soon, like tomorrow, I will have to go back there and do this all over again.
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