Tag Archives: family

Family moments across the miles

7:40 this morning, just after I get out the shower, skype rings on my laptop. It’s my grandparents, playing with their brand new iPad.

When I answer, my grandparent’s living room pops up and I can see my mother and grandfather peering, puzzled, straight into the camera.

Me: “Hello?”

Pa: “Now how do you…”

Me: “Hello?”

Mum: “Don’t press that one!”

Me: “Hello? Can you hear me?”

Pa: “Well, where’s the other little thing?”

Me: “Hello? Did you call me?”

Mum: “It’s somewhere down the bottom there.”

Me: “You called me accidentally, didn’t you. And you can’t hear me.”

Pa: “I can’t find it.”

Me: “OK then, I’m just going to hang out around here until you figure things out.”

Mum: “No, not that one!”

Pa: “Bugger.”

Mum: “Oh, look. There’s Lisa. She’s, uh, got her bra on.”

Pa (laughing): “She’s getting dressed.”

Me: “Oops, I didn’t think the camera showed that far.”

Pa: “Why can’t we hear her?”

Mum: “I’m sure the volume switch is around here somewhere.”

Four minutes later, they finally find the volume switch and I find the rest of my clothes. Pa tells me all about the chook shed he is building for my cousin, and Nanna tells me about all the delicious baking she did for family Christmas. Then Mum takes control of the iPad.

Mum: “I’m going to show you something that will make you homesick.”

Me: “Great, thanks, that’s just what I need.”

Mum turns the iPad around so that I can see one of my favourite views in the world – the river out my grandparent’s window. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day. The tide is in and the water and sky are both a clear, shiny blue.

Mum: “Can you see the guy waterskiing?”

Me: “Yes, I can see him.”

Mum: “And the dog?”

Me: “There’s a dog waterskiing?”

Mum: “No, not waterskiing, on the footpath.”

Me: “Oh, OK. Yup, I can see that dog.”

Mum: “So do you feel homesick?”

Me: “Yes, yes I do actually. Thanks for that.”

It seems that you no longer need to be on the same continent as your family to experience classic family moments during the holidays.

And that?

Priceless.

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Writing Wednesday: Making hard choices about priorities

Wow, this week is so turning out to be zero steps forward and five steps backwards. What happened to my relatively content child who, when sleepy, was usually happy to be placed in his crib with his stuffed rabbit? Who is this little being who refuses to be put down, who wants to be walked and sung to sleep instead? Who wakes up jumpy ten minutes into a nap? Who stays awake long past his bedtime and seems perpetually hungry? And why did his father decide that this was the perfect week to take a two-day trip up to remote villages in the north??

It’s Wednesday though, so here goes with a few thoughts about the process of writing my other baby – the book – while baby number one squeaks, mumbles, and sighs his way through what will hopefully be at least a 45 minute nap.

When I started writing the memoir more than three years ago, I had a choice to make. I could continue as I had been – working full time as Director of Training for the Headington Institute and writing only on planes, in the evenings, and on the weekend – or I could make a change that would allow me to more evenly balance my passion for my job, my passion for writing, and my burgeoning relationship with Mike.

In the end I decided to take the leap and drop down to working only four days a week at the Institute.

I took a 20% pay cut to be able to claim Fridays as my own every week, but it turned out to be worth every penny that I didn’t earn. Being able to invest at least one full day a week in my writing meant that I made progress on the book without stealing too much time from Mike. It also meant that I was happier to show up at the office, 100% focused, Monday through Thursday.

I have never regretted this decision, despite the fact that I haven’t yet made a cent on this book and possibly never will. I was an all-around happier person during the two years this system was in place, and how do you put a price tag on that?

Now, of course, things have changed. We live in Laos. I’m not juggling a full time day job and a life-job (for I suspect that’s what writing is for me, a good old-fashioned vocation). I am, however, juggling that vocation, a baby, and consulting work. Not to mention a marriage. Oh, and friends. I am coming to suspect that finding time to devote to writing will always be an exercise in making some tough choices about what to prioritize.

One tough choice I face daily at the moment is usually whether I should sacrifice some extra sleep to spend these quiet windows of baby-nap-time with my laptop. Another one is whether I should say yes to consulting work that would mean that even those nap times would need to be invested elsewhere.

What about you? How do you prioritize your writing? How do you make and guard the time to create? How do you defend that to yourself even if it doesn’t seem to make financial sense?  

Want to read more about making tough choices around priorities and creating the life you want to lead? Head on over to Alexis Grant’s excellent blog. And, finally, here’s the quote of the week:

One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, and that habit has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating.
(Niyi Osundare)

Looking Like Love: A Letter To My Parents

It’s been five months since I stepped off the plane from Asia, roundly pregnant at 28 weeks, and saw you both there waiting for me and smiling. The hills here were green, the cool air smelled of wet eucalyptus and the pancakes that we stopped for on the way home were heaped with berries, tiny crimson waterfalls falling from the stack. As I unpacked in this bedroom later that morning I thought that five months seemed like an eternity. So many milestones in life had to come and go before I would depart – Mike’s arrival after ten weeks apart, the baby’s arrival, then Mike’s departure, then Mike’s return. As I hung up my shirts, I found it impossible to fathom that I would ever leave here again. But next week, now, I will.

Just before his last departure, Mike asked me over dinner what I wanted to remember about this time. The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to remember how special it has been to come home at 35, half a lifetime after I first left, and experience so many of the good aspects of being parented again while I was in the process of becoming a parent myself. I wanted to remember the precious mundane of this time we’ve had together as well as the epic. I wanted to remember moments like these…

I’ve been home four days and I’m still nervous about driving on this side of the road again. Mum takes me to my first appointment with the obstetrician, then shopping. I try to protest that I don’t need any clothes, that the ones I salvaged from the communal stockpile of maternity clothes that get passed around among expatriates in Laos will be just fine for the next three months before the baby comes. I am overruled. As Mum is marching me into changing rooms she says I will thank her later. I am far less ruffled by this particular maternal prophecy now than I was at 14, and when I wear that grey tracksuit jacket every day for two weeks straight, when I am fifteen pounds heavier and needing clothes suitable for leaving the house, I do.

I am 31 weeks pregnant and Dad suggests a walk. I don’t really want to drag my baby bulk off the couch or circumnavigate my belly to get sneakers on, but Dad reminds me that I’ll feel better if I make the effort. Now we’re outside in that magical hour of almost evening. The golden light is skimming over the grassy fields, filtering through the gum trees, dancing on the dirt road ahead of us. We talk of work and family, and frustrations and joys – occasionally breaking new ground in this familiar conversational territory. Halfway up a hill we spy wallabies feeding in the glade below. I watch them bound away, envying their speed and grace, not to mention their birthing process.

I am 35 weeks pregnant and Dad is working in South Sudan for a month. Mum’s presence in the house prevents the quiet from feeling empty, and I am amazed at how busy life still feels even now. I am wrapping up consulting work. I am talking to Mike on skype. I am driving to doctor appointments. I am napping. I am melting dark chocolate to make elaborate biscuits with malted coconut icing. Mum says she is glad I’m around, even if I make an astounding mess in the kitchen each time I bake and by the way how do I generate that much washing up? I point out that I clean up after myself (in this area, anyway). We smile. We spend easy evenings watching crime dramas and reruns of Friends. It is the middle of winter but life has the peaceful feel of a still lake on a summer day.

I am 38 weeks pregnant and it’s the night before Mike’s arrival. The thick blue and grey wrap that I commandeered from Mum’s closet two days after I arrived keeps the cold at bay as Dad and I eat Thai food under the stars. After dinner we walk next door, into one of the happiest places on earth, and Dad spends too much money on gourmet ice cream to take home because he knows it will make me smile. Later that night I wake up at 3am to pee for the third time that night, come downstairs in the dark, and help myself to seconds. As a teenager I would have covered my tracks. Now, I leave the bowl in the sink.    

It’s 5am. I’m two days overdue and finally in labour. You’ve heard Mike stirring and come out to find out if all is well and kiss me goodbye. Already in the car, half gone on this journey into pain, I say I don’t want to be kissed, I don’t want to be touched. I know you won’t mind. Later that evening, after my life has changed forever, I will ask over the phone if you could please stop and pick up a pizza on the way to the hospital. When you arrive Dad also presents sorbet, Mum gives me prunes. “Now is not the time to get constipated,” Mum says knowingly. The idea is inconceivable – I am propped up in bed, sitting awkwardly on an hour’s worth of stitching and with the miraculous trauma of the day on replay in my mind. I tell you not to worry, that I have decided to deal with that issue by just never pooing again. No one argues with me. You beam and say that you’re so proud and that Dominic is beautiful. I look at that little bundle in your arms and wonder how on earth he happened.

These are those first days home from the hospital – a bewildering blur of baby, broken sleep, and breastfeeding woes. Dad is helping Mike dig a hole so that we can plant a tree to commemorate Dominic’s birth. Mum is making lunch, and dinner, and lunch, and dinner. Dad is building a fire to keep the living room warm and we eat in there – watching the flames fashion coals, watching Dominic asleep on a blanket on the floor. Mum witnesses our first fumbling attempts to burp our child, to bath him. She thinks we aren’t dressing him warmly enough. Demonstrating unusual delicacy she bites her tongue, wondering how much advice she should venture to dish out, but I discover an advantage to having a child so many years safely distant from my own childhood. Advice is generally welcomed rather than merely tolerated, or ignored.

Dominic is five weeks old. Mike has left again, bequeathing me the baby and a score of love notes hidden in such unlikely places that I will still be finding them three weeks after his departure. Slowly, slowly, I start to find my feet in this mothering role. I venture to think that just maybe I’ll be able to join good friends for five days at a reunion. I don’t know how many times I’ve circumnavigated the world alone now, so I am amused and mildly exasperated when Mum reminds me to start packing no fewer than four times in the days leaving up to departure. It gives me the warm fuzzies, though, on the morning that we do leave to hear her telling Dominic how she’ll miss him and to find that Dad has gathered me a pile of useful miscellaneous to take – the phone charger, sunscreen, a hiking headlamp in case I need to get up in the dark and can’t find a light, two bottles of wine to share. The car is full of petrol. “It shouldn’t need to be refilled,” Dad says, “but if it does, don’t forget that it’s diesel.”

It’s 5am and Dominic is seven weeks old. I’m getting up, fumbling for the dimmed lights, stooping to pick him up for the third time tonight. I’m too tired to sit to feed so I take him to bed and lie there beside him, satisfying his demanding little mouth with my body. He kneads my breasts with small fists and makes little mewling sighs of relief as he eats. I feel like echoing them. For I know that Mum will probably turn the handle to my bedroom sometime between 5:30 and 6am, as she’s done most mornings for the past month, carry him away, and leave me a cup of tea and the chance of some more much-needed sleep in his place.

I came alone almost five months ago, and a week from today I will leave as part of a family of three. I return to all the adventures and frustrations of Laos with new responsibilities. I return determined to think through qualities like love, joy, and peace during the year ahead. I return hopeful that I will, increasingly, embody these qualities. It is perhaps harder to define what love means than to describe what it looks like, but as I work to understand and live out love in this new family that Mike and I are creating I remain unfailingly grateful for my first family and the example that you set as parents – then and now. Thank you for, so much of the time, looking like love.

Lisa

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love. Where have you seen love this week? What did it look like?

Breaking news

No. The baby hasn’t come yet.

Yes, I’m grumpy about that (though not yet quite as grumpy as I still am about the fact that apparently he won’t be arriving via the international terminal at Gold Coast airport but via a significantly smaller and much less efficient terminal located closer to home – like just south of my bellybutton).

No, he’s not even technically due for another twelve days and he stayed inside as commanded until Mike arrived, so I know I have no real right to be unimpressed with his lack of interest in relocating but I am anyway. So anyone who’s tempted to leave me reasonable reminder below about how he’ll come out when he’s ready and not before… don’t.

And, yes, Mum and Dad are so thrilled to be watching this waiting game unfold up close and personal and Mike is over the moon to be sharing a continent (and a bed) with me once again. I’m sure Mum’s and Dad’s recently made plans to go up to Brisbane for a couple of nights next week and Mike’s refusal to go out on a hot date with me to Byron Bay last night in favour of sticking closer to home have nothing to do with any tropical storms of moodiness swirling around here.

This morning as we were tidying up Mike picked up a postcard announcing the arrival of a friend’s baby.

“What do you think about printed baby announcements?” Mike asked.

“No way,” I said.

“Why?” Mike asked.

“Money, for one,” I said, flopping onto the bed. “It would cost a ridiculous amount of postage to get these out to everyone who might care that we’ve just had a baby. Even more importantly, it would take a ridiculous amount of time to track down everyone’s addresses and get them in the mail. If you want to do them you are on your own, buddy.”

For an instant Mike looked at me as if being on his own was sounding quite appealing and I felt a little bad. Enough bad to make me ask him what he thought. The problem was, my question came out sounding less like a genuine query than a grudging acknowledgement that a conversation should involve the reciprocal exchange of ideas even though I had absolutely no intention of changing my mind on this issue.

Luckily for both of us, Mike doesn’t seem too attached to the notion of printed baby announcements.

This discussion/diatribe has, however, made me think again about how we’re going to get the news out about little baby McWolfe’s arrival – you know, when that actually happens in 2043.

When we got engaged, Mike was surprised and a bit appalled to discover that I felt there was an important pecking order that needed to be followed in terms of breaking the news. We should, I told him, make every effort to let our parents know first, followed by our siblings, followed by very close friends, etc. We followed a similar process with the news that I was pregnant (with the exception of the fact that the entire country of Laos knew before some of our closest friends due to the fact that near strangers on the street there were completely uninhibited about asking me if I was pregnant yet).

I don’t think we’ll be shooting for a similar, carefully-managed process with the news of the baby’s arrival.

During the last two weeks I’ve had friends ask how I’ll let them know when I go into labour, assume that I’ll share when we’re off to the hospital via facebook, and take for granted that we’ll be calling or texting people shortly after the birth with the big news. And until I started to think through the mechanics of it, I thought some of that might be happening as well.

But when I pause to project forward I suspect that when I do go into labour, as much as I adore my close friends, I won’t want to be thinking about sending emails or updating facebook. And without Australian mobile phones of our own, Mike and I also lack most of our friend’s phone numbers. Those that we do know are scattered here and there – tucked away in emails and on slips of paper.

So, upon reflection, I’ve decided on a very complicated “breaking the news of the birth” plan that goes something like this:

  1. We will call our parents after the baby is born and give them the green light to tell whomever they want whatever they want.
  2. We will send out a mass email, update facebook, and write a blog post when we can – which may not be for several days after the event.

That’s it.

If you object to this plan, feel free to ring and take it up with me. Mike would warn you to tread carefully, very carefully, should you decide to lodge a protest, but I don’t know what he’s on about really – it’s not like I’m grumpy or anything. No, I’m not even going to snap at him one little bit when he reads this and points out I have drafted a plan for breaking the news before I’ve drafted a birth plan or finished packing the bag for the hospital.

Family talk about the memoir

It started shortly after I arrived here four weeks ago. Mum was asking me where I was up to with my next book, and I told her that my agent, Chip, had it and was getting ready to send it to interested publishers next month.

“And how many of those are there?” She asked.

“I don’t exactly know,” I said. “But he said there are at least half a dozen people who’d like to see the full manuscript when we’re ready.”

Mum looked… well, “doubtful” is too strong a word. More like “slightly confused.”

“But… why?” She asked.

“What do you mean, why?” I repeated.

“Well they haven’t seen anything yet, so how do they know they want to see something?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them read my last book. Some of them have been browsing the blog. Maybe some of them owe Chip a big favour. I don’t completely understand how it all works, to be honest.”

“Me either,” Mum said. Then she went a step further. “Also, I just don’t see how this book is going to appeal to as wide an audience as your last book.”

“I think you’re wrong there,” I said. “If it sells, and that’s still a big if, then I think this book has the potential to appeal to a far larger audience than Hands did.”

Mum did not look at all convinced.

This was not the end of the conversation – this topic has come up several times during the last month. Just the other day we were talking about Francine Rivers’ new book and I casually mentioned that I thought her first book, A Voice In The Wind, was the best she’d ever written.

“I think that of a lot of authors,” Mum said.

“Yeah,” I said, “Like Bryce Courtney and The Power of One…

I was going to go on to list others but Mum got there first… with my name.

“Maybe like Lisa McKay,” she said.

“Mother!” I said, laughing but amazed. “What a thing to say!”

“Yes,” she said, only slightly abashed. “I guess it is.”

So, yesterday as we were driving into town, I brought it up again.

“Do you really think this book isn’t going to do well?” I asked. “I mean, for starters, you shouldn’t be comparing it to Hands because they’re totally different genres. One’s a suspense novel and the other is a reflective memoir woven around a romance story.”

“I guess that’s true,” Mum said. “And I haven’t read the whole thing yet so I don’t really know.”

“What??” This time I was honestly shocked. “You haven’t read the whole thing? Quite apart from the fact that that could deeply wound me if I were more fragile, how do you know I didn’t say something about you that you’ll hate?”

“Oh,” Mum said. “I trust your filters.”

This was getting truly bizarre given that exactly a month earlier I had been sitting across the breakfast table from my parents, having just disembarked the plane from Laos, while they asked me not to put anything on the blog about them without their prior approval while I was living at home.

“Well if you haven’t read the whole thing,” I said, “and you admit you don’t know all that much about the publishing industry, what would possess you to say things like ‘I don’t think this book will do as well as your first’?”

Mum squirmed just a little, unusual for her.

“I never meant to say that,” she said. “I guess I just meant to say that you had such an amazing experience the first time around being picked up by the first publisher you queried, and getting almost universally positive reviews, and having everyone tell you that you were wonderful… and it might not be like that this time around. I guess I just don’t want you getting your hopes up too high.”

“That is a very fair point,” I said. “But here is my point. With something that’s as deeply personal and important as this sort of project, maybe if you can’t honestly say, ‘Wow, I think this book is going to do just great’, maybe you should reconsider whether you say anything at all at this stage of the process. And, if you do, maybe you should work harder to phrase it more softly. You could, for example, say something like, ‘I’ll be interested to see if this book turns out to be as universally well-received as Hands.’

“That is also a fair point,” Mum said, as she pulled into the parking lot.

There was a brief silence.

“So, are you finished?” Mum asked, looking commendably grave given that she was clearly also battling the strong temptation to laugh.

“For now,” I said, getting out of the car.

“OK then,” Mum said, swinging into task mode. “Could you please stop and pick up the bread and then I’ll meet you at the grocery store in five or so minutes?”

“Sure,” I said.

Five minutes later I was standing just outside the grocery store having been waylaid by tempting tables full of bargain books, when Mum approached.

“I thought I’d find you here when I saw the books laid out,” Mum said. “And have I told you lately what a smashing success I think your next book is going to be?”

As I laughed she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.

Writing about loved ones – to do or not to do, that is the question

So I’m in Australia, after a long journey from Laos that had its ups and downs. We’ll get to those later this week, but first let me stop and say how lovely it is to be here at McKay’s Pregnancy Resort and Spa. It’s sunny but cool, the dawn light is gilding the bank of clouds out to sea, and there are no roosters. Oh, and the shower is kick ass.

My parents, despite some teasing, seem quite happy for me to base myself here for the next five months. They have, however, tried to impose one condition upon my stay.

“We’ll raise your rent,” my Dad said over ricotta pancakes and lattes after we stopped at a café on the way home from the airport yesterday morning, “if you don’t agree to one thing.”

As my rent is currently zero this was quite some threat.

“Oh,” I said, spearing a strawberry, “what’s that?”

“That nothing that is said by us in this house goes on your blog without prior permission,” Dad said.

“I know you think I reveal too much of my own life sometimes,” I said, “but have you seen me cross the line with Mike or someone else in ways that makes you particularly blog-shy? Do you really think my filters are that poor?”

Well… no, they admitted reluctantly. They couldn’t think of any particular examples right then, but they remained wary nonetheless.

In the end, as Dad went to pay for breakfast, I said I’d consider it. But between you and me I just don’t know if my artistic integrity can accept such fetters. Nor do I understand exactly what are they so afraid of.

Well, actually, now that I pause to think about it, perhaps they’re worried that I’ll reproduce conversations like this one.

8:30pm last night. Mum, Dad, and I are sitting around sipping Milo and watching television.

“How long is your visa valid for for this trip?” My mum asked while fast-forwarding through commercials.

I took a sip and tried to make some sense of this. I failed.

Then Mum laughed.

“Oh,” she said. “I forgot. You have an Australian passport, don’t you.”

And some people wonder why I set out several years ago to write a memoir with the initial aim of untangling my deep-seated issues around the concept of “home”.

Speaking of the memoir, it should be ready to go to my agent within the next week (wheeee!). Speaking of home, I miss Mike and Zulu terribly already, but I am lucky indeed to have another home on this side of the equator. And speaking of crossing the equator, more on that later this week.

Writers and bloggers, how do you deal with this issue of writing about the living (particularly those you’re living with)? The rest of you, do you think I should agree to Mum and Dad’s request?

Speaking of families…

Last week I wrote about the extended iterative dialogue that it takes to co-ordinate a McKay family holiday (or a trip to town to get bread for lunch). When Mike read the post that night he laughed.

“That’s ten conversations and four emails you put out before I emailed my parents about this,” he said.

There were at least two reasons for this. The first of those is that Mike is considerably busier than I am at present. The second is something I’ve learned since getting married…

[Drum roll, please]

Not all family systems operate the same way.

I know, it’s a total revelation, isn’t it?

Mike and I met for the first time, after three months of letter writing, in Australia. He flew over from PNG while I was home for holidays and came to stay at my parents place with me for ten days so that we could figure out whether or not we were going to date.

On his first morning there, my Dad marched out onto the porch and handed him the phone.

Mike looked at him blankly.

“You can give your parents a call and let them know you’re here safely,” Dad said.

“Uh,” Mike looked confused. “I emailed them. They know where I am.”

“But don’t you think you should give them a call?” Dad asked, while I tried not to giggle.

“If I call them from here, they’re going to think something’s wrong,” Mike said.

“But they might be worried about you,” Dad said.

At that I did giggle. Mike had spent much of the last two months on remote islands in the South Pacific, and I had been in Ghana and Kenya. Neither of us had rung home during any of these trips.

I knew what Dad was doing. He wasn’t just trying to assuage any worry Mike’s parents may have been feeling about his safety. By handing Mike the phone and inviting him to use it to make a long distance call he was less trying to send the message, you should call home, than the message, our house is your house, make yourself totally comfortable.

The problem was, Mike was only picking up on the first of those messages, and he was starting to look a little hunted.

“But if I call them they will be worried about me,” Mike said.

As I recall this ended in a stalemate. Every couple of days for the first week Mike was there Dad would wave the phone in his general direction and Mike would look confused and a bit uneasy.

Now the following is offered with the disclaimer that I still have a lot to learn about Mike’s family. I may not exactly be on target with this, but here’s one thing I think I’ve learned so far: Mike’s family tends to be more direct than mine.

If Mike’s family wants to make you feel at home they say, “make yourself at home.” When his Dad wants to make me feel part of the family he gives me a hug and says, “welcome to the family.” His Mom says, “I hope my son is treating you right and, by the way, if you have any arguments I’m on your side.”

When Mike and I decided to get married I expected (in theory, anyway) to learn things about Mike’s family – ways of doing things, styles of interacting – that were different than what I’d grown up with. What I didn’t expect was that I’d learn almost as much about my family.

They warned us in marriage counseling that, when in doubt, we should rely on the spouse whose family it is to interpret what’s actually going on and what the appropriate course of action might be.

“You should each act as mediators and translators for your own family of origin,” they said. “It can take five or ten years, maybe more, to really understand the family culture your spouse comes from.”

At the time I thought that was a little extreme. Ten years? Seriously?

But now, watching my own family through two sets of eyes, I’ve seen enough operating system collisions involving them and Mike that I’m not so sure anymore.

Don’t get me wrong – these have not exactly been “two oil tankers meeting at high speed on a freeway” moments. They are usually more “two rowboats drifting past each other in the night” moments. But one thing they have taught me is that while my family can be direct, we are also, often, very indirect.

A couple of months ago Mike and I were with my parents on a ferry in Canada. It was crowded and busy, so Mike stood in line and got us both all some food while Dad went to find a table. Mum and I wandered over when they’d gotten everything sorted.

Bacon cheeseburger, as requested, and French fries. (Yes, there were many valid reasons for finding – when I weighed myself on a baggage scale in Vancouver airport the night we left for Laos – that I was five pounds heavier than I had been one month earlier).

Anyway, back to my burger. My burger that had mayonnaise on it.

When I opened it up and saw this I said, “Oh yuck,” and proceeded to scrape off the mayonnaise.

About ten seconds later, my mother leaned across the table and said to Mike, “When Lisa says ‘yuck’ she doesn’t mean, ‘you screwed up’, she just means that she doesn’t like mayonnaise.”

“But I did screw up,” Mike said, “because I knew that, and I could have asked for no mayonnaise. But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t take it personally when Lisa’s not happy?”

“Yes,” Mum said, not even glancing in my direction.

“Oh Mike,” I said, leaning across the table beside Mum, and grinning. “That’s one of the things Mum is saying, but it’s not even the most important one. The primary message in what she just said wasn’t for you at all, it was for me, and that message was: When Mike has stood in line for twenty minutes to get you lunch don’t you open up your burger and say “yuck” you little ingrate.

Mum laughed.

“You’re very good,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying.”

“No!” Mike was dumbfounded. “How could you possibly get that out of what she just said???”

“How could you not get that???” I asked.

Mike took a bite of his own burger and sighed. “I don’t understand how you – an Australian – managed to grow up mainly in Africa and the US yet turn out to be so Asian in your preferred communication style. On the bright side, I guess you’re going to fit in well in Laos.”

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Family Planning

This week Mike and I have been trying to lock down an itinerary for December. We hadn’t planned on going anywhere this December – we decided we’d had quite enough travel in the last eight months, and we’d already been in Australia and Washington DC several times during the last couple of years. No, we were going to enjoy having our feet on the ground and the coolish weather in Luang Prabang (they promise me that it is coming). This Christmas we were absolutely, definitely, staying put.

Unfortunately, though, we have good friends. Regrettably, a couple of them (yes, you, Tristan and Amber) chose this year to fall in love and get engaged in Fiji in a sunset-drenched blaze of romantic glory. And, alas, they invited us to their wedding – in December, in Australia.

So Mike and I have been talking tickets this past couple of weeks, and budgets, and leave from work. We’ve been talking weddings and family gatherings, the power of positive presence at key moments, and how much it meant to us that people came from near and far to witness our wedding vows last year. This December, we decided, we absolutely, definitely, wanted to try to make it to Australia.

I think Mike thought that once we’d decided this, it would be as simple as seeing if he could get leave, setting our dates, and booking our tickets. But he hadn’t reckoned on family planning.

No, people, not that sort of family planning. McKay family planning.

I don’t know how our particular family planning dynamic evolved. I suspect it’s the product of decades spent trying to co-ordinate five schedules across nearly as many countries. Throughout the years everyone in my family has had to learn to think ahead, and in many different directions at once, when it comes to travel.

If, for example, we can forecast that Dad will be returning from Africa around the same time that I will need to go to Australia to sit University entrance exams, we can plan for me (one week after I return from ten weeks in the Philippines) to fly over from Washington DC, meet him in Heathrow, and travel on with him to Australia.

If we can spot that I’ll be in Africa for work on a particular date far enough in advance, this allows Mum and Dad to plan work to overlap with me in Kenya, and then me to plan a three-day stop-over in Washington on the way back from Ghana to spend Thanksgiving with Michelle and Jed.

In my family it seems that we are all well-trained from years of practice to be scanning these puzzle pieces – the four other moving targets that are our immediate family members – and to be trying to fit those pieces together.

Particularly in the case of my beloved mother case, it is also not just international travel schedules that are the focus of this sort of scanning. Over the course of thirty minutes and approximately the same number of plan-iterations, my mother can (and regularly does) transform a simple plan along the lines of “someone needs to go to town to pick up bread for lunch” into:

  • Matt and Lou take one car and go to Riverside for a coffee date.
  • Michelle and I drop off Mum at the bakery to get the bread for tomorrow’s lunch (since we’ve changed the plan to have lunch at home today). Mum will then walk from there to the drycleaners.
  • Michelle and I drop off Dad at to the hardware store to buy a replacement washer for the kitchen sink tap. He will then walk from there to the Coles to buy milk and bananas.
  • Michelle and I go to the butcher to buy a kilo of sausages, run a container full of fresh cherries four streets away to my grandparents, and circle back around to my pick up first Dad, then Mum.
  • We go to Riverside to meet Matt and Lou and all have lunch together there before going from the cafe straight to the beach (“so don’t forget to pack sunscreen, and swimmers, and hats,” Mum will say, “Oh, we’re almost out of sunscreen, I better go to the pharmacy after the drycleaners and before the café, or maybe Matt and Lou can do it…”)

This sort of constant “scope-creep” of the plan can drive Michelle, Matt, and I unreasonably crazy.

Sometimes one of us will put their foot down.

“That’s it, no more. Mum, we’re sticking with this plan. No more changes. No pharmacy. This is the plan.”

“But why?” she will ask, genuinely mystified as to why we have lost patience with this endless dialogue in search of the most efficient plan ever concocted.

“Because,” we will answer, secretly enjoying this parent-child role reversal that we are now occasionally entitled to, “that’s just the way it is. And until you get your own field hospital during a civil war to manage (which you would excel at, by the way) you’re stuck with us. And we’re done with this planning process.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot about family planning this week as Mike and I have been trying to plan for this possible trip to Australia. For Mike, it’s meant several hours of chatting with me and researching tickets online. For me, it’s also meant six separate skype chats with my parents, two calls with my sister, one with my brother, one with a friend in Sydney, three all-family emails, and one children-and-spouses-only email. We are all trying to make sure everyone stays on the same page – and to feel our way forward and fit pieces together in ways that make sense for everyone. We are trying to answer these questions all at once:

Are Mike and I going to fly over together or separately? Are Michelle, Tahlia, and Jed going to come over this December from Washington DC, and/or are Matt and Lou going to go to them? Can Mike and I also link up with Matt and Lou (who are in Canberra), while the wedding is in Melbourne, and Mum and Dad are up near Brisbane? Is there any way I can co-ordinate with friends in Sydney too, or is that just too crazy/expensive? Are Mum and Dad – who had been floating the idea of a family holiday in New Zealand in February – going to be discouraged by this shifting timeline? Should we/can we shoot for a family gathering in this December between the wedding and Christmas, or try for next year instead?

Sometimes, I will admit, when I’ve just spent two hours on airline websites researching possibilities it’s enough to make me sigh deeply and wish briefly for a smaller world – not just a world where we’re all closer together, but a world with fewer variables in it.

But in many better moments I know that this is what Elizabeth Gilbert would term a “champagne problem.” It is the problem of someone rich in loved ones and in possession of enough disposable income to get on the plane in the first place. It is the problem of someone who is wealthy indeed.

As of yesterday the tickets are booked – well, those from Laos to Australia and back again, anyway. Still to sort out are the in-country movements, dates, and flights. Michelle, Matt, Mum, and Dad… I’ll be in and on skype tomorrow afternoon. Let’s chat.

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Search for common ground

On Monday I wrote about my first Lao banquet. I gave you a word picnic complete with spicy fried fish, karaoke, dancing, and many Beerlao toasts to everyone’s good health and happy families.

What I did not give you was the full inside scoop.

It can be hard to know where to draw the line, you see. My parents have mentioned more than once their concern that I not share too much, too widely. My ultra-private grandmother recently gave me back something I had written saying she could not finish reading it, that it felt too invasive to her, too much like reading my private diaries.

I find this both puzzling and amusing. I find it amusing because my private diaries – my random dumping ground for current events and mood – lack any polish or censoring (and, often, coherence). They are mostly a litany of the prosaic. The boring prosaic.

I find it puzzling because I think I’ve generally demonstrated decent boundaries around what I put out there for public consumption. Yes, I share. But I do not share everything – not even close. I pay particular attention to anything I write about others. And while I often write about things that make me feel vulnerable, I rarely send it out into the world while I still feel acutely vulnerable. Whether it’s a day or a month later, by the time I put something out there I am ready for it to be known and discussed. Even, usually, to be teased about it. Writing about something often frees me from it. Well, from any shame about it, anyway.

Here in Laos I am not worried so much for myself – although I am wondering how I will end up navigating the immediacy blogging demands. But I am not the only one I must consider in relation to these stories. There is Mike, for starters. Then there are national staff he is working with whose names I will change. An organization he is working for that I will try to remember not to name. And a communist government – one I have not even begun to figure out how to avoid unnecessarily offending.

So as I wrote about the banquet I stopped short in some ways. I didn’t tell you in as many words that I took a deep breath as we arrived – battling a sudden and fierce wish to be spending my Friday night at a move theatre in LA. Or that I spent much of the night feeling like a lost puppy as I trailed after Mike, moving from group to group.

Mingling with the staff, I watched Mike as much as I watched them. He seemed so at ease; comfortable in ways I was not with the obvious truth that we were both on hopelessly foreign ground.

There is a lot of ground in this big wide world that is not foreign to me. I can do Nairobi, Jakarta, and London. I can do Australian citizen, American resident, and adult third culture kid. I can do psychologist, I can do author, and I can do a wine bar as easily as I do church – sometimes more easily, truth be told.

But I am out of my depth here.

Friday night, by the Khan River with a glass of beer in hand, I found most of my familiar avenues into small talk firmly closed to me.

It wasn’t just the language barrier, although that certainly didn’t help things. Despite the fact that most of the staff speak passable English, I can only catch 50% of what some of them say. I’m sure that some of what I say is even more incomprehensible to them.

“Perhaps don’t say ‘excited to be here’,” Mike suggested, when I ran a summary of my thank you speech past him on the sly right before Kampono handed me the microphone to address the group. “Use ‘happy’.”

But the communication challenges go far beyond mere words. I am used to seeking out common ground around international experiences, shared passions, people’s search for meaning and satisfaction in their work, and sometimes – in the Western World – on the topic of that peculiar fretful paralysis that can accompany having too many options open to us in career, in relationship, and in destination.

Here, I cannot presume common ground in any of these areas except, perhaps, a longing for meaning and satisfaction in work. And, even in the midst of my cross cultural floundering on Friday night, I did manage to remember that this would maybe not be the best topic to tackle after I had just been introduced as the bosses wife, by the boss.

So after Mike had repeated names for me again, after we’d established that I did indeed like Luang Prabang and was happy to be here, we were down to the basics.

Smiling. Drinking beer together. Looking at the river. And chatting in hesitant fits and starts about that most fundamental of topics: Family.

It was one of the older men, Keoki, who ventured the first real question asked of me by any of the staff. How long Mike and I had been married, he wanted to know?

“A year and a half,” I said. “But we spent much time apart. So, with this move, there are still many changes for us to get used to.”

“Yes,” Keoki said, totally at ease now on that universal topic of family. “And, soon, next change you have get used to be pregnant, yes? You have babies soon? You have babies in Laos?”

“Maybe,” I stammered, so far off script I took a gulp of beer before I remembered I don’t actually like the stuff.

“We will see,” I said, after I’d swallowed.

Everyone smiled. Then we looked at the river some more.

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