Speaking From and In the Gap

I agreed to lead a seminar on parent-child relationships because for a moment I thought I knew enough about being a parent or a child to have 90-minutes of material. As the parent of a teenager and two tweens and as the child of two living parents I find myself more in the middle than ever before trying to speak to one “audience” and then another. I spend hours talking to students about how Jesus transforms our lives while I long to see that transformation happen faster and clearer in my own life as well as in the lives of my own children. And I’m certain my parents have moments when they are still waiting for some sign of change on my part, too. Forever the stubborn, strong-willed child even when I am now also parent.

Just last week I was teaching out of the book of Esther at the Asian American InterVarsity chapter at Northwestern University (hold your snickering, folks), and a student was asking me about my days as a Wildcat since we were in the building that was home to my area of study. He ended the conversation with a great line: “I was born the year you graduated.”

Thanks, kid.

So I’ve been sitting on this parent-child relationships seminar for about two weeks now and the one thing that keeps coming to my mind and heart is to give words of blessing and love because what keeps coming to me during my prep and prayer time is this overwhelming sense of displacement and missed messages. It’s hard enough as a parent who speaks literally the same language as a child. The biggest gap I often have to bridge with my daughter is a generational one. I don’t particularly like low-rise skinny jeans but I don’t have to wear them to understand them. In my day it was sweatshirts hanging off of one shoulder or really BIG HAIR. For my parents and for the parents of the students I often encounter, the gaps are language, generation, culture and values. I know God’s love always wins, but human love often misses with the best of intentions.

I’m not really sure where, if anywhere, I am going with all of this, but it’s been ringing in my heart for days now. In a culture that nurtures a sense of entitlement in a generation wrestling with delayed adulthood, these young adults aren’t as adult as another generation might have been and unable to find the help in the areas where they really are still young.

What do you wish you knew about your parents that would help inform you about where they are coming from? What do you wish your parents knew about you that you think would help them understand you? I spend a lot of emotional energy trying to figure out ways to connect with each of my kids, to tell them they are loved by me and their dad and by God in ways they can hear and understand it. But as the parent I am deeply moved when my kids figure out ways to connect with me and speak those same words of love into my life.

Children, you are deeply loved by flawed parents and by a perfect God. That’s what I hear when I’m quietly sitting in the middle of the gap.

 

 

Why I Would Never Claim to Be Superior, Especially As a Mother

For the record, I am not Chinese.

If you haven’t read the Wall Street Journal article about Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior please expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. The article’s author Amy Chua is a Yale Law School professor (seriously?!) and my cynical side thinks she might be gunning for a spot during Oprah’s final season.

I’ve read and re-read the opinion piece several times and it’s a messy, mixed bag of emotions and thought for me. I am a not quite 1.5/2nd gen Korean American. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8 months old and just last year became a U.S. citizen. I grew up wishing I was White=American and unsure of how to love and honor my parents and survive adolescence as a bi-cultural kid when so few understood where I was coming from and going home to.

Which is probably why Chua’s commentary is hitting a nerve with me and so many of my Asian American friends. Deep down inside some of what she writes about is true. And we know it. It is why so many of my Asian American friends understood with absolutely no explanation why I had given part of my advance check from More Than Serving Tea to my mother. It is why so many of my Asian American friends and I share a knowing laugh when we reminisce about our childhood memories. It is why my husband, daughter and I laughed at some of the recent “Asian” commentary on Glee. And it is also why so many of my Asian American struggle to fight against the stereotypes of the Model Minority because we are not one big monolithic math team. We are more than the sum of our musical and mathematical abilities but sometimes it’s a no-win game. We want to succeed because so much of the stereotyped American Dream experience is about success.

Which is why Chua’s piece hits a different nerve because there is something about the response from non-Asian Americans that bothers me. Chua’s piece is as much a statement about her specific, culturally-bound and sometimes broken parenting style as it is about a generalized American style of parenting. Defenders of the American/Western way seem to think that “their” style where everyone gets a ribbon for participation, perfect attendance, self-esteem or happiness is the better route to success and more happiness.

If I parent like a Tiger Mother (I prefer Dragon, wink, wink) I am abusive. If I parent like a stereotypical American parent my child loves her/himself but really too few will look at me and think “American”. As one who forever lives in the tension, we are all very broken people and parents. Whether it’s through the pursuit of academic excellence or self-esteem, extremes lead to idolatry. My children and their success or happiness is not the end goal, but I see that value played out regardless of race, ethnicity and class.

I was given/made to take piano lessons, but I started dreadfully late – fourth grade, I think. Which, by the way, is when the public school system here starts band and orchestra. I remember my mother saying at least once that she wanted to give me and my sister a chance to learn the piano because she never had the opportunity to do the same as a child. So I often reluctantly learned to read music, play the piano and then the flute. As an adult I revisited music and realized my mother was right. I did regret quitting. My piano and flute skills aren’t where they could have been and where I would like them to be, but I am grateful for the chance to decide that now even though it was forced on me then. So there. It’s too late to call DCFS on my parents.

Academics were stressed because when you are the child of immigrants you don’t have the luxury of understanding the system, networking, interview skills, legacies and missed opportunities. Getting top grades, arming your college application with the very best of the very best, proving that being a hyphenated American/immigrant with parents who don’t speak flawless English doesn’t mean you are stupid or abused. When your family has given up everything to come to America mediocrity is not the preferred end result.

I was on poms, edited my school newspaper, served on the state board of education student advisory board, sang and danced in the high school musical, managed to get better than good grades and, despite the concerns of “Western parenting” advocates I’ve read in the comments sections of various blogs, have friends. I tell my daughter that had we been in school together I would have been her nightmare.

My parents didn’t forbid extracurricular activities, but they didn’t always understand them. Heck, my daughter is on the poms squad now and I don’t always understand it. But my parents emphasized grades, and with each fluctuation in my GPA came a wave of self-doubt. Do my parents still love me? Am I smart enough? Will my parents ever be proud of me?

Which is where the pendulum swings back. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, depression is the second leading cause of death for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women between 15 and 24, who consistently have the highest suicide rates among women in that age group. AAPI women over 65 have the highest rates of suicide among all races in that age group. Those are the type of top rankings we Americans don’t often talk about when evaluating the success of self-esteem programs at school. After Chua’s book it’s too easy to blame the Tiger Mothers who emphasized achievement but fell short on communicating love, support and respect but when are we also going to take a look at how public health services are failing a generation of Americans of Asian descent or how school programs that are meant to build up a student’s sense of achievement isn’t translating cross-culturally? My depression is as much nature as it is nurture. Chemical imbalances are real. And so cultural forces – American cultural forces that pushed me as much as Korean cultural forces. Solely blaming Asians parents for those statistics is irresponsible and short-sighted.

And to those of you who have thought, “Just wait until Chua’s daughters are older. Let’s see how it all pans out” in a judgmental sort of way do what I did and ask for forgiveness and extend some grace. God knows parenting is hard enough without having someone wait for us to fail.

In the end the article and flurry of comments and commentary makes me angsty because our definitions of success, superiority, achievement and happiness are so completely messed up and complex. I would be lying if I said that I don’t want my children to succeed, to live full and rich lives, to enjoy the very best of what God has to offer in life in all of the physical, emotional and spiritual ways but I know that it won’t always come in the ways I want to. I am angsty because I can’t help but think of the story of the prodigal son. I’ve heard so many sermons about the son who squanders everything to pursue a version of happiness but goes back to his father’s home because in the end home is where he thinks of. I wonder how the other son missed or misunderstood his father’s love and lavish provision as only belonging to the “less successful” son. The party and celebration and love and sense of belonging was always there for both of them but they both misunderstood success and love.

Instead of criticizing the style of parenting maybe we should take a closer look and critique the end goals we are hoping our children will achieve because the beginning and end for me as a parent doesn’t start, shouldn’t start with academics or achievements and end with worldly success and gain.

So how do we learn? I hope I learn from others. What have you learned from your parents and what are learning as a parent?

 

Superwoman Doesn’t Spend Her Morning In PJs

My superwoman outfit has been at the cleaners for a few years now, but every now and then I really, really want to see if it still fits. There is something particularly draining and yet sadistically energizing about taking on the world with a “I’m going to bake that cake from scratch and eat it with some organic milk and fair trade coffee while calendaring my family’s life on-line with a smile and a load of laundry in the dryer” attitude. Maybe it’s just me.

But I am not superwoman, though many of us try out of love for our children and family and friends and out of our personal brokenness. Deep down I want to exceed expectations because I want to be successful because failure can suck, especially when I see it on the faces of those I love most dearly.

So I was encouraged to read a friend and former colleague’s blog post on failure and success and how that plays out in real life as a wife/mom/grad student/campus minister. She has a full life, and she, like many of us, is wrestling with the fact that there are just some things she will never be good at or succeed at, let alone enjoy doing. She is sending her superwoman outfit to the cleaners, but, like so many of us, is trying to reconcile expectations (self-imposed and those of others on us), needs, wants, personalities, etc.

I’ve grown up with a bi-cultural understanding of success. The American Dream is a pull yourself up from your bootstraps narrative, but the American Dream for children of immigrants and particularly Asian immigrants involves extended family and ancestors. We pull not for ourselves but for those we left behind and will never see again, for those who are with us and for those who are yet to come. When we pull we drag with us ancient stories and family history. I pull the history of the Korean War and stories of families being separated and precious rice spilled into the dirt and a love/hate relationship to the West into the present filled with American and Korean values clashing still into the future where my children, nephews and nieces are just realizing they have dreams.

Success is not what I alone achieve for myself. It involves the entire family.

And failure is the same way. My screw up is not just mine but a mark against my entire family. When I screw up my living relatives and dead ancestors cringe and they don’t know why. When I fail it is not just because I didn’t study hard enough or practice long enough but also because somewhere someone failed to teach me the value of studying and practicing and perfecting. My failure is carried by my family as well.

So being superwoman is impossible. Who can fly with that kind of weight on her shoulders? Instead of fretting over the loss of superwoman, I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out Mary and Martha and their friend Jesus.

One particular incident I’ve written about before is their interaction in the Gospel of Luke. Martha is doing what a good woman does – preparing for her guests, but her sister Mary has taken it upon herself to act like a disciple and sit at Jesus’ feet. I know a lot of us Bible teaching folk have used that passage to talk and teach about discipleship, but what if Jesus’ conversation with Martha about Mary isn’t just about the one big thing – the being a disciple of Jesus is the better thing?

What if it’s also about all the other things we have to choose? Jesus doesn’t tell Martha she gets to stop being the hostess with the most-est. He doesn’t tell her that he refuses to eat the food she is preparing. He tells her that Mary happened to make the better choice and that will not be taken away from her. What if we make that one big choice – the being a disciple of Jesus thing – as we make lots of little, significant and seemingly insignificant choices. What would it look like if I considered which was the better choice each time I had a choice? One choice at a time.

I could beat myself over the head for the list of things I have already failed at this morning. Truth be told I’m sitting here in my pjs with a cold cup of coffee and a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, a laundry room that has immaculately conceived several loads of laundry. I don’t remember what my kids were wearing this morning so if they were late coming home I couldn’t tell the police officers what the kids were wearing for identification. I’m not sure one of the kids finished his homework. I know one of the kids did not have me sign a practice card. I have a ministry support letter that I needed to write a month ago, and two expense reports I need to file. I have a major training conference decision that had to be made last week. And it’s just TUESDAY!

But right now I am going to choose the better thing, and it is neither success nor failure.

“The Talk” – Part 2

Several years ago it was time to have part 1 of “The Talk” with my daughter. Since then she and I have regrouped to talk a little more about sex and sexuality, as well as God’s gift of sexuality and intention for sex, love and marriage and Hollywood’s version. It’s an open conversation that we started in 5th grade, before the school health presentation, because I have control issues and wanted her to hear the information from me first.

This year was Peter’s turn to start the conversation with Corban. I was hoping the conversation would take place first thing this year, but I was reminded that before we began to talk honestly and openly about sex we would have to undo some of our harmless lies.

Kathy: Honey, when are you going to have “The Talk” with Corban?

Peter: Well, I was thinking we should start out with the Tooth Fairy.

Kathy: Oh. Shoot.

…at least a month later…

Kathy: Honey, how about “The Talk”?

Peter: Well, what about Santa?

Kathy: You couldn’t just take care of Santa when you took care of the Tooth Fairy?

Peter: Honey, that’s a lot in one talk. Too traumatic.

…another month or so…

Kathy: Well, how did it go?

Peter: Well, Corban’s response was, “Dad, why do we have to talk about grown-up stuff?”

The “grown-up stuff” he hears today at school will be no surprise. Corban mentioned last night that today’s half-day schedule involved a talk on puberty – imagine a 10-year-old boy speaking with a touch of disdain and rolling his eyes. Honestly, there is tiny, tiny part of my Mommy heart that is relieved that Corban isn’t in a rush to grow up. I saw (and continue to see) more of that in Bethany and her female friends, especially as it relates to their bodies – how they dress and look.

But it’s time. It’s time to start talking openly and honestly as best as we can, as appropriately as we can. Peter and Corban, just like Bethany and I did years ago, have begun what we hope and pray will be a lifelong conversation that starts with “grown-up stuff” and never ends.

Adventures in Parenting and Life 101 Because I’m Always Learning: Scheduling

This morning was set aside to calendar.  Yes, calendar as in the verb in relationship to the noun form. Me, my latte and my calendars cozied up now that my iCal and iPhone is synced with a Google calendar (we are a cross-computer platform family where PC and Mac must lovingly and painstakingly co-exist in forced harmony) for a morning of new events, mapping out future childcare needs and plans for cloning when two parents and three children are supposed to be at different places at the same time.

I’m certain that my parents had some method to their madness, but it really wasn’t quite as full and weighty as what we/I make life out to be now. My parents didn’t have the money to afford all of the activities – tae kwon do, magic class, owl pellets class, ballet class, pointe class, modern dance class – that fill up my evenings and weekends. The priorities were school and church and anything beyond that was gravy. We took Korean language classes, which I think were free through the church and then priceless when we stopped going to a class and my mother would simply buy the books, make photocopies and make us do the worksheets during the summer months, and piano lessons, which for me gave way to a few years of flute lessons. There was little space, money or felt need for summer camp, swimming lessons or sports camp because for many years we were latch-key kids who learned to float well after I had mastered my multiplications tables and long division and yet learned early on that competitive sports were not in our future.

My parents didn’t know they needed to carry around their digital calendars. I remember my mom having a small paper organizer and the house always had free calendars from the bank, back when banks gave customers toasters, calendars and lollipops, and the Korean grocery store, which still give out free calendars. But they also didn’t know what we weren’t getting to do because they were too busy trying fairly successfully to provide for us more than they had had.

These days in my affluent suburban existence I can parent through my issues – swimming lessons because dammit my kids will be stronger swimmers than I am and tae kwon do or dance classes and the occasional tennis or golf lesson because life is too short to not have a brief introduction to a “life long sport” they can carry into their retirement years.

I am not alone in my angst. The bar is higher and more competitive for college, and at Bethany’s high school orientation I began to hyperventilate (maybe it was those crazy strobe lights and lasers during the slideshow) at all that the “average” kid has to do – academics and extra-curricular – to be college-worthy. No study hall so she can get in an extra elective, but how will she manage the course load with her classes if she keeps up with dance or takes on other extra-curriculars? Or keep the study hall so she has extra time during the day to get the extra work done, but will her overall academic course load be enough? The calendar feels heavier just thinking about it.

At least she’s never heard the “Why don’t you have all A’s? Why isn’t this B+ or A- an A” talk.

And it’s not even just the parenting part of scheduling. Have you ever watched a group of adult friends try to schedule a night out or an extended family try to plan a trip together? My girlfriends and I have been talking about celebrating our 40th birthdays at some spa, but the first round of e-mails were rather amusing. We are very, very busy (but so help me if it means celebrating after we all turn 40 we are going to do this!).

I’m grateful to be alive, deeply grateful for the opportunities, access, ability to have and do so much but sometimes it feels a little out of control.

For awhile we had a rule: each kid was limited to one activity. But then we started fudging our way around that one with band because technically it was at the school, during and after school so it didn’t feel completely like an extra activity. And then Bethany made the poms squad, which was related to her dance classes. And then youth group/confirmation/Wednesday night Kids’ Club was extra but also important so we made room. And so on, and so on, and so on. I was hoping my youngest would try baseball, mainly so I could hang out with the other moms during practices and games, but he wanted no part in another activity no matter how much he could learn from being on a team sport. Sometimes, our kids are so incredibly wise.

Everyone has a system. Mine has evolved over the years as DINKs became parents of one, two and then three. My trusty Franklin Planner gave way to copying everything onto a wipe board. Now I am completely electronic with five color coordinated calendars that Peter and I can now sync online relatively seamlessly. A printed copy goes on the fridge so the kids can check to see if a sleepover will conflict with a family event.

So how do you get through it? How do you manage and schedule your time and, if you have a family, your family’s and family time so that everyone doesn’t need a clone and resent you?

If You Only Had Four Years Left With Her

My daughter and I went shopping last night for her 8th grade graduation/confirmation dress. She was looking for fun, colorful and sparkly, and I was looking for my little girl.

I felt a bit scatter-brained, trying to focus on dress-shopping. Instead my mind kept racing ahead to high school and high school graduation, and then I found myself thinking about the next four years differently. Yes, academics and extracurriculars came to mind. And friends, boyfriends, and all the drama that comes along with high school came to mind. And college prep, exams, essays and application fees came to mind.

But what I kept going back to was that I might only have four years left.

When I left home for my freshman year at Northwestern, I had no idea that I would never really live at home again. I guess I thought that coming home for a few weeks in the summer meant living at home, but I didn’t factor in the internships, summer jobs and college friends who lived all over the country would change my time at home. And then I suppose I always kept the option of moving back home if there was a job change, etc. I never thought I would go from my first apartment and job to marriage and my first home. I always thought I’d go back home, I guess.

When I graduated I essentially moved from my apartment on campus to an apartment in Green Bay, WI. Some of my things stayed at my parents’ home for years, but eventually all of my personal belongings made their way in boxes and bags and large vehicles to wherever I was living. All three kids have read or been read to from my copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My daughter’s jewelry and makeup sit atop my childhood dresser. Her books and magazines are on my old desk.

As far as I’m concerned, the job of parenting won’t end. In Asian culture, your parents continue to play a strong, active role in your adult life until you or your parents die. In America, you’re an adult and on your own at 18. At least, that’s how I remember the difference. In my Asian American existence, the influence of parents and ultimately of culture is somewhere in the tension of the two sometimes polar opposite views.

Which is why I keep thinking about the next four years, wanting to be a combination of guide/cheerleader/coach/drill sergeant having had a driver’s seat view of the transition from high school to college with parents who did their very best but didn’t know the systems or even what to expect. We picked colleges based on reputation. I did one college visit alone – my interview at NU. We talked about the future, but I guess we never talked about home.

So I’m thinking about home, and how my daughter will always be welcome here in this house, my home, but sooner than either of us may think or know or want this may not be her home. I’m thinking about how to love my daughter, to delight in her and her drama, and to simultaneously trust God and steward the gift of parenting well because we may only have four years left to fold laundry together while watching some guilty pleasure on tv, harvest tomatoes and lettuce, wash cars and paint walls, raid my closet when I’m out of town and be home together in this way.

She tried on a nice pink dress that looked better on her than it did on the hanger, but it wasn’t the dress. I half-jokingly suggested she wear one of the flower girl/junior bridesmaid dresses she wore a few years ago, and she looked at me with that look. She’s not a little girl anymore, but we have four years together at home and at all the places we will be together and apart to discover the young woman she is becoming.

Move Over Santa. The Bunny Has Arrived.

As if Christmas in December and Christmas in July isn’t enough (though I don’t really know anyone who celebrates Christmas in July) we now have Christmas in the spring. Apparently it’s called Easter. Watch out Santa. There’s a target on your back and a bunny armed with eggs. You better hope they’re of the chocolate kind.

I’ve been reading my share of Lenten devotionals and posts from friends and favorite bloggers about the observation of Lent, fasting and feasting, but it was Sunday’s article and the increasingly larger Easter/”Spring” display at various stores that caught my eye.

Apparently the Easter Bunny is gaining popularity in the malls. It isn’t enough to take your kids dressed up in their holiday best to the mall to sit on some strange man’s lap, sorry, I mean Santa’s lap. Now you can do it with a different color palette and a big, giant bunny rabbit. Do you think they cry less for the bunny?

As a parent, this whole Easter basket turned bigger first hit my radar before my youngest was even born. A very kind neighbor dropped of a huge Easter basket for my two kids. It was taller than my son was at the time, and maybe I’m exaggerating, but it was big and full of candy and little toys.

On some level we deserve this. Peter and I lied to our kids and played along with Santa. For the record Santa gives one little gift and Mom & Dad give the other gifts and fill the stockings. And we told them about the Tooth Fairy. Apparently some Tooth Fairies give out $5s and $10s. Not here. $1 even if they pull the tooth out on their own. That actually happens quite a bit here.

Now my parents over time adopted what we knew as “American” traditions, including the tooth fairy, celebrating our Sweet 16th and “golden” birthdays, and the gift of a small treat of Easter chocolate and jelly beans in a small basket with plastic grass that disappeared and then reappeared most years. The point is that the basket of chocolate eggs and the Sweet 16 party were the same for me and my parents – American traditions not Christian traditions.

Anyway, about two years ago one of the kids came home to ask if the Easter bunny was going to leave them a gift just like their some of his friends’ Easter bunny does. The boys’ playmates would talk about what they were hoping to get on Easter, and each year what I see in the stores sets the pace – bigger displays and advertisements in the Sunday paper about Easter baskets and toys for Easter.

So I suppose it was only time before the bunny came a hopping for a piece of our consumer pie. Right? But is it right? Does it matter? How many more holidays – religious, pagan, religious made pagan and vice versa and simply made up become all about creating memories and buying stuff for our kids or for one another? How have you or where have you drawn the line in terms of Santa and the Easter Bunny?

I’ll write more later on why the Easter Bunny and the Christmas tree are important in our understanding of culture and a Western/American Christianity…I know you’re at the edge of your seats…

Rooting for Gold, and Waving Taegukki and Old Glory

The Olympics are fun. We see great sportsmanship and whiny losers. We see patriotism is not unique to America, and apparently neither is the practice of covering your face/balding head/body in your country’s/team’s colors with face paint. We test the kids on their limited knowledge of national flags. We dream, even for a moment, that our kids will be inspired to try something new but not something as crazy as the skeleton. And we pick our favorites and cheer for, root for, celebrate with or shake our heads in defeat for our team.

But in some families like my extended family, it’s complicated and fun because of who we are – Americans, Korean-Americans, Koreans. My parents and I had an interesting and momentarily tense conversation over Apolo Ohno, and we probably sounded a bit like a version of the Korean and American press. And then we settled down to a barbecue feast for dinner. My dad said grace in Korean (which my husband and children cannot understand, but I told the kids their grandfather asked God to remind the kids to obey their parents) and then we passed around the baked beans, brisket and ribs, and then turned on the television to watch more speed skating.

What has been so interesting to me has been my older son’s reaction to the Olympics. During one of the speed skating events, he was quick to notice that there was a Korean skater competing against an American skater. His reaction? “Hey, look! There’s a Korean and an American! Cool! Who do we root for?”

I swear I  have never whispered in his ears, “You are Korean first.” (I remember hearing those well-intentioned words and walking away deeply confused and conflicted because wasn’t I both Korean and American equally, at the same time?)

We’ve explained to him and our other two children they are Americans whose cultural and ethnic roots are originally from Korea. We’ve explained in different ways as each of them mature and experience life what the term Asian-American or Korean-American can mean and why I identify myself that way. We’ve explained to them why we bow to our elders on New Year’s Day and the significance of the rice cake soup, and they simply lord over their non-culturally Korean friends that they get gifts for Christmas and cash for New Year’s.

It bothered me a bit that he would feel like he had to choose, but then I had to stop. It’s a wonderful and amazing thing that he proudly and delightfully identifies with both even though none of our children have stepped foot in South Korea and could one day become the President of the United States.

His pride in his Korean ethnic and cultural roots are not a result of being rejected by Americans (which was the case for me), and his pride in his birthright as an American isn’t born out of a jingoistic arrogance about America’s superiority (which I have often been on the receiving end). My journey, thankfully, is not his, and I am learning so much from his.

He asked this morning how the Americans and Koreans finished after last night’s events.

Corban, we all did well.

Passing Up A Chance of a Lifetime For A Chance of a Lifetime

I am an expert in kicking myself in the butt. For those of you who live life without regrets, this is not the blog post for you, friend. My life has been messy and beautiful and full of poor choices and better choices shaded by the inability to make decisions. I am grateful for the moments of perfect clarity and timing, but those are few and far between.

Some of those decisions rank low in the “change my life” category, like the beautiful red coat I spotted on the rack, tried on, considered buying and then decided against it hoping it would go on sale. The coat went on sale but out of stock in my size. That was more than 20 years ago, and every now and then I’ll kick myself in the butt for being practical to a fault (how many coats does a girl need?).

Other decisions are weightier . Will I stay home and put my career on hold when we start having children? How will we care for aging parents? How will we choose a church?

So when two opportunities of a lifetime vied for prime real estate on my calendar this fall I found myself in a familiar place – full of gratitude and momentarily full of whining.

Opportunity #1: to be home to see our children (and myself) through a major transition. This fall our oldest child is headed to high school. (Yes, I know. I don’t look old enough to have a child in high school. Yes, time has gone by quickly. Yes, she is nervous and Peter and I are too.)  This fall our second child is headed to middle school. (Yes, we’re a little nervous. We’re not sure if he’s nervous, but neither is he.) And, our youngest, will be in 3rd grade and not have an older sibling at school. (Yes, he is excited and nervous, and so are we.)

Opportunity #2: to be one of 4,000 leaders from around the world to attend the Third Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010.

I know. Poor me.

I was honored & humbled to be invited to participate, and amazed at the opportunity to be a part of an international discussion on the critical issues we are facing and how they relate to the future of the Church. This was never in the career plans.

But after the thrill came the realities of the opportunity, the largest hurdle was time. Saying “yes” to #1 meant seeing my family through a once-in-a-lifetime transition, with the possibilities ranging from full of drama to smooth as butter. Saying “yes” to #2 meant being a part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a learn from international leaders and be a part of conversations that have a global impact. Raising money to attend and travel was one thing, but no one was going to be able to give me my time back.

All parents have to make choices weighing the pros and cons, comparing time and money against opportunities gained and lost. I have never been able to separate my statuses as Asian American Christian working mom and wife from one another, and this decision pulled on me in all directions and pushed all the right buttons.

When you say “no” to something, you are leaving open space to say “yes” to other things. That is what I tell other ministry colleagues, friends and even my family. In a culture and society that often screams “more is better”, saying “yes” to every good opportunity makes sense. Seize the moment. Carpe diem. No regrets. The phrases sound good and are wonderfully inspiring, perfect for a bumper sticker or status update.

But reality, at least the whole, big picture of reality, doesn’t fit neatly on a bumper sticker. Saying “no” can feel foolish. Saying “yes” can feel selfish. It’s all so messy, isn’t it?

So, I thought I knew within a week which opportunity to say “yes” to because I saw once-in-a-lifetime one way. It wasn’t wrong, but a month later it didn’t feel right. I needed to let go of some angst, deal with ambition and self-image issues, figure out what space I was going to leave in my life and how to draw the margins.

This fall 4,000 leaders from around the world will gather in Cape Town, South Africa and I will watch Bethany become a high schooler, Corban become a middle schooler, and Elias become a third grader. I will not be discussing issues facing the Church, but I will be discussing scheduling challenges facing a family headed in five different directions. I will not be with thousands of international leaders, but I will be with three future leaders who will probably be running a little late or needing a little help and teaching me a few things about life in the process.

It is a once in a lifetime opportunity I could not pass up.

Do You or Don’t You: Valentine’s Day?

This will be the 18th Valentine’s Day sort-of-but-not-really-celebrated. Early in our marriage we were giddy-in-love and wrote notes and kept the local florist busy. One could fairly say we’ve become less romantic and increasingly practical. We are less giddy, more in love, write notes about getting the car’s oil changed and remember that cut flowers die but nothing says, “I love you” like getting one step closer to being debt free.

But if you must do cut flowers the $20 bunch at the grocery store placed in one of the many vases we received 17 years ago from our wedding will suffice. 😉

I grew up knowing my parents loved each other, but it wasn’t until college or so when I noticed my father making more of an effort to show my mother his love and affection. One year I remember he hung a little box containing a piece of jewelry on the gear shift of her car, and another year I remember he bought her a new watch and left it near her bathroom sink. The point is, I remember.

So every now and then Peter and I remember. We remember that our children are watching us and learning about marriage, commitment, honor, respect, faith, fighting fair and not so fair and…about love. We hug and kiss in front of the children. We argue with and apologize to one another in front of the children. We exchange gifts in front of the children.

But as a mother  I find myself looking far more critically at the messages around Valentine’s Day, and I get a bit weirded out. Commercials about men frantically trying to find the perfect sparkly something, floral arrangement, chocolates, lingerie, fragrance, etc. and print ads showing women wearing sparkly somethings or lingerie all for that special someone who isn’t necessarily their spouse until death is commercialized romance on drugs. I’m not sure it’s all that romantic let alone about love. Maybe it’s about “luv” – a generic imposter that looks like the real thing but falls terribly short?

I’m really not that cynical, but it’s a little crazy out there. Be careful. Seriously.

So this Valentine’s Day Peter and I will do what we’ve been trying to do for 17 years and lowering the pressure to compete with the commercials and celebrate our love. We will try to love our children and be kind and patient with them (and leave a little note and some chocolates for each of them), and we will try to love one another and be kind and patient with one another. We are hoping to have dinner with a young couple on the staring line of what will hopefully be a long running, long loving marriage. We can’t think of a more perfect Valentine’s Day.

What are your plans?