Going places! 

My life as an adult was just beginning. I had moved to a town where the need for Kingdom preachers was great. It was a step in the right direction toward reaching my biggest goal, to become a missionary. My roommate and I discovered we shared that goal in common! At the convention that summer we met a family who had moved to Ecuador. The enthusiasm and joy literally sparked from their eyes as they told us about it, and we hung on every word. Ecuador was the perfect place for us to go. The government is relatively stable and welcoming to foreigners. The cost of living is low. The branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses there has a practice of welcoming need greaters (as we call people who move to away from their home area to preach).

I’ve been reading in my journals from that time in my life:

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“I can’t believe it! We’re going to Ecuador. Life is so crazy. You work so hard for something for so long and it just seems like it’s not happening. Then all of a sudden, boom! Jehovah blesses you. It’s hard to even imagine what it will be like.”

And then I read the exact same thought in a thank you note from a dear friend of mine who moved to Ecuador a couple of years later. Here’s what she wrote: 

“I am just excited that I am finally getting to go to Ecuador. It still doesn’t seem totally real. You plan something so long you just think it will always be a plan. ”

Me with my luggage and my jet lag and homesickness on the first day.

So you adventure seeking intrepid young pioneers out there, DON’T STOP PLANNING! Jehovah will get you there. We had our fears of course. Before we went, we spent many sleepless nights agonizing over the unknowns. We heard countless warnings and doubts expressed. 
These fears are also reflected in my journal entries. To do lists. Letters to the branch office. Notes to organise our thoughts for phone calls requesting more information. 

In the one above, my friend has a bullet point; “find out if Cara’s hair needs to be dyed”. I mean really!?! Apparently someone had suggested that as a safety measure, so I wouldn’t stand out as much.  

On another page were worries about living arrangements. We didn’t have an apartment or even a specific town chosen when we went. And honestly, I think that was a good way. 

After experiencing firsthand Jehovah’s guidance and the love of our worldwide brotherhood, I will never let fear of the unknown stop me! And I’m beyond glad that I didn’t let it stop me then! 

Mount Chimborazo was literally at our doorstep.

I ended up spending 2 months in Ecuador. My roommate stayed for 8 months. My friend who wrote the card I quoted stayed 10 years! (I think?) 
By going there I met friends who truly influenced my life for the better. The family who took us in and helped us get settled. The father of that family presided over lunch at siesta time and made the daily text an event you didn’t want to miss. The mother treated us like her own daughters. Their sons and daughters treated us like siblings.  The American boys of a need greater family who truly understood what we were feeling because they had been there. The brothers at the branch office who welcomed us personally despite the busy schedule they already have. The Irish family in the jungle who’s five year old blonde braided daughter spoke Spanish with an Ecuadorian accent and peppered her English with Spanish words. 

Riding on top of the bus.

I had adventures like being herded off a bus and crossing a raging river on a log. On the other side another bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way. We climbed mountains, swam in caves, held snakes, white water rafted on a tributary to the Amazon, danced all night (with the required hip movements that were considered taboo in our northern Minnesota home), preached all day. The humble people loved to learn about the Bible. It was easy to start conversations. 

Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be so much more than just a religion, a Sunday ritual. Jehovah knows what we need. He pushes even the shyest to break out by requesting that we preach the good news. He knows that it’s good for us. This satisfaction is not to be had from any other job or career. I knew that before I went, but I felt it in my heart afterwards.

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Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

Endings 

So it’s the end of the school year. Another year done. Finished, complete. That means my baby is getting older!(sobbing voice, sniffle). But I’m so proud of her for all she has accomplished this year.

I’m such a rookie mom, but I hope I’m starting to get a few things figured out. Having my oldest start school was like entering a whole new world. I have had little to zero contact with the world of formal education since my own graduation from high school. Not only has it been a long time, but times have changed, and the style of education has changed too. I’ve changed. Now I’m approaching it from the perspective of a mom not a student. School years seem to go by quickly and slowly all at once. One school year ends. The next one will start up before 2017 gives way to 2018. My newfound mom perspective makes the time seem to fly.

I’ve been thinking about how deeply children feel the changes involved in their school career. They say goodbye to a beloved teacher, they move on to a new classroom, often with a new group of students. Some switch to a new school. Everything starts again. It’s true, they have the experience of past years, but essentially it’s a new start. It’s almost like changing your entire family every year. There’s a new mother or father figure, new siblings. If the child is moving into upper grades, there could be a complete structure change, from one classroom most of the day to different ones per subject.

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I can see the positives of these changes. If there’s a bad mix of personalities in a class, well next year there will be a new group. Also, the teaching style has to change with the development of the children. But the emotional aspect of it all took me by surprise. Imagine the emotions you would feel if you literally had to change parents and siblings. The time it takes to build trust again. To understand your new family and your place in it. To mourn the absence of your old family. That all seems to happen on a mini scale. The summer break softens it a little. It gives an emotional respite, some breathing room to regroup.

As for myself, I look forward to the summer, to having my girl with me all day every day. To being the main adult in her life again. To not having to share her with perfect strangers most of the day. On the other hand, when the new school year starts, we all enjoy having the added structure to our days, accomplishing something that is measurable in lesson plans and report cards.

My conclusion so far has been that the benefits of change have outweighed the drawbacks. Sure it can be tough in the moment. But we also want our little ones to learn how to be resilient, adaptable. And each teacher leaves his or her stamp on the children’s little minds. You never know which one will be the one to unlock your child’s hidden potential or help them spark a lifelong passion.

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I overheard the sweetest goodbye speech by our K-3 gradeschool’s art teacher to her third graders. She reminded them that everyone’s an artist. She said even if they don’t know it yet, each one of them has a talent they can enjoy and share with the world.

Each school year is a milestone. Maybe it seems more so to me now than it did when I was in school. In my mom perspective it marks the calendar with a date that symbolizes the physical and mental growth my child experiences with each passing year. A stamp that marks off the passage of time.

That one day, The Last Day of School, embodies all the achievements and growth, all the challenges met and overcome, all of the inches and shoe sizes gained, all the baby teeth lost.

Another school year gone, never to return. Did she learn what she needed? Did she enjoy the process? Did she make friends? Was she a good friend? Did she stand up for herself and for what she believes in? I hope and pray the answer is yes. Because what comes to pass in these formative years will leave it’s indelible mark on her mind and personality.