Everyday Extraordinaries

Last year, I was in Iraq. Living and working; hoping and dreaming in a place that challenged me. Inspired me. Scared me. Encouraged me.

Each morning was a chance for new adventures; unknown experiences just waiting to be discovered. Exotic smells, vibrant colors, melodic languages swirling around me, sweeping me along in the excitement. Deciphering cultures; learning relationships. Working with passion; with people yearning to make a difference in this world. Knowing they could make a difference in this world, at least for some.

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New. Different. Anything but ordinary. At least at first.

Today, I’m in Tulsa. Living and working; hoping and dreaming in a place that is familiar. A place that is known. A place that has always felt like home.

A place where life is chaotic and always crazy, but there are no surprises. There are no bazaars to navigate. No need to hope and pray for the best when trying to get to a friend’s home or the store, just not really knowing if this unmarked public bus will take me where I need to go, or if this particular adventure will end in a surprise trip to Baghdad. No need to carefully check the way I’m dressed, artfully arranging scarves and sleeves just so to avoid any shameful skin peeking through. No customs to struggle to remember; no daily embarrassing cultural faux pas to add to the ever-growing list.

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Comfortable. Easy. Absolutely ordinary. At least at first.

It’s easy for me to get lost in the ordinary. It’s even easier for me to put my worth in living the extraordinary. Always daring one step further; always jumping one foot farther. To feel that my “success” is determined by the where’s, the what’s, the who’s of life. That living in the “ordinaries” of day-to-day life is somehow worth less than living in the exciting; the unknown.

But you know, I’m learning as soon as you step into that unknown, after a time, it becomes known. The longer you do those exciting, extraordinary things, the more they become your “normal”. You acclimate. You adjust. You find that life again feels ordinary, even in the most extraordinary of times.

I’m discovering that this so-called “ordinary” is beautiful. The ordinary gives us the chance to search, lean in, establish community, to truly love others well. When our eyes are opened beyond the flashy “extraordinaries”, that wear off almost before they’ve begun, when we find ourselves finally living in this new ordinary, we realize that it’s not really that ordinary after all.

Everyday extraordinaries.

Moments that are far from unusual, yet everything but ordinary.

They’re all around us. I find them in Iraq, sitting cross-legged on the floor of a friends house, sipping sugary sweet tea and sharing stories. Climbing to the rooftops and enjoying the cool that night brings to the desert. A moment. A friendship. A laugh. Ordinary. But oh, so extraordinary.

Photo Credit: Dana Sellers

Photo Credit: Dana Sellers

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I find them in Tulsa, sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing Barbies or puzzles or stories with the littles. Flipping a rental home with lifelong friends. A moment. A sisterhood. A laugh. Ordinary. But oh, so extraordinary.

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Every moment we have has meaning. How we choose to use it determines its worth. Every minute presents with a new opportunity. Will I get lost in the ordinary, or choose instead to find the extraordinary within? We have the chance to take each moment, grasp it tightly with both hands, and dare to make something extraordinary of it. Teachers enlightening; artists creating. Engineers developing; mothers and fathers parenting. You are extraordinary. These moments are extraordinary.

Life doesn’t have to be flashy. It doesn’t have to be in an “extraordinary” place. I want to be present. I want to be invested. I want to be daring, no matter where I am. In Iraq. In China. In Afghanistan. In Rwanda. Or even right here in America. I want to truly realize the everyday extraordinaries that fill our moments and days, instead of wishing them away for the next new adventure.

Photo Credit: Dana Sellers

Photo Credit: Dana Sellers

Because when that adventure day comes, and yes, its coming soon, I want to know to jump right in and quickly find the ordinary; to settle down, to become at home. To invest, to commit, to love. Because then, only then, we can truly live in the extraordinary.

I recently found out that I have the chance to join an incredible team of women on a lifechanging trip to Rwanda with a team of storytellers. Hundreds of incredible women have entered, and somehow I have been chosen as one of the top three. I need your help, however…will you help me find the ordinary within this extraordinary trip? Please vote here, friends, just scroll down until you see my photo and the big blue “Vote” button. It would truly mean so much.

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“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

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“Tell Me My Story Again”

“Tell me the story about ME now.”

“Talk about me, tell me one more thing.”

“Um, now please tell me my story again.”

In May, we celebrate family days for both Erica and Brooke. May 6th marked two years for Brooke Cai Wei. May 23rd marked eight years for our Erica Xin Leigh. Two years a family. Eight years a family. These days are special to us; they have become special to the girls. A day to remember, a day to reflect. A day to recognize the invaluable gift we were given the day they became our own. A day to grieve the unknown events. The unknown families. The unknown circumstances that would necessitate this day. A day to rejoice over this thing called “family”. A day to look back and measure just how far we’ve come, how far He has brought us in this journey of restoration. This journey of mending hearts, binding hope, weaving the bond between a family formed not by blood, but by love.

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“Tell me the story. Tell me the story again”

“Was I funny? I was chubby, right Mei? The China nannies always called me “chubby girl”, didn’t they Mei?”

“I only said ‘Bu Yao’, because I was scared. Why was I scared?”

“I loved to play with those toys. Remember those toys in that picture? From when I was in China? I think I really loved those toys.”

“What did I like to do when I was a baby like Lizzie’s new baby sister? Was I a cute baby?”

“Tell me more about me. Tell me the story again.”

These past weeks, more than any other, have been filled to the brim with questions. Peppering. Bouncing. Endless. Wanting more and more, and never satisfied. One brings it up; the other quickly follows suit.

“Now me…now say something about me!”

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Asking questions. Jumping in and filling in the answers, because they’ve heard the stories told over and over again. Recounting “memories” from photos seen; photos displayed around the house. Telling new stories of their early selves that may be true; but may be not. Searching for details. Breaking into smiles when we say “Yep, you were!” “Oh my goodness, I remember that too…” “Really? Tell me more about that story! I don’t remember that one!”

My heart breaks, however, when they inevitably ask questions for which I have no answer.

“What did I look like?” “Was I bald?” “When did I learn to walk?”

In my head, all I can think is “We don’t know.” “It doesn’t say.” “We weren’t told.” “We weren’t there.”

We weren’t there.” There’s a certain twinge to “Gotcha Day”…”Family Day”…that I can never fully shake. Yes, eight years. Yes, two years. Yes, years now spent together as a family. I’m immensely thankful for those years; I wouldn’t trade them for the world. But I know that those years can never give back time. Those years will never provide me with the answers to their questions. They will never make doctors appointments easier, when a cardiologist asks for Brooke’s family medical history. They will never answer Erica when she asks if her first mama had glasses like she does now.

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It can be overwhelming. It can dishearten. Discourage. It can be painful. But just as adoption is borne from loss…creating beauty from brokenness; growing hope from pain…something incredibly beautiful can come from these unknowns.

Each year together is filled with opportunities. Countless opportunities to discover these precious souls. For every “unknown”, there are a hundred “knowns”. For every unanswered question, there are a million that can be answered. For every memory apart, there are countless more together. These years can’t replace – by any means – but these years can build. They strengthen. They create and they nurture the relationship formed, so that when the questions come, when the unknowns arise, you are there to see them together.

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So yes, sweet girls, yes…I’ll tell you your stories again, all about every moment I can. I’ll tell you all about how you became ours. Show you each picture, every tear, each grin. We’ll remember together, every detail we can, and wander together throughout the unknowns. Let’s look through the memories, yet another time. I’ll recount what I know; you do the same. I’ll remind you again how deeply you are loved, what a miracle you are to our family. You’ll scurry off again, ready to play, but know that whenever you need…

I’ll always be here, I’ll always be near, to tell you your stories again.

She Danced.

You need to know, I am not a “frilly-froo-froo-girly-girl” person. I never have been, and I daresay, I will never become one.

So when my mother decided to head on out of town for a night, a night that conveniently happened to be the same night of Brooke’s dress rehearsal for her much anticipated big dance recital, she ran through the schedule of the evening with me…and then dropped the bomb. “So, you’ll be the ‘Stage Mom’. You know, make sure she’s dressed, has her makeup on, hang out backstage with all the little girls and make sure they get on stage when they’re supposed to. No big deal.”

Stage Mom. Right. Me, a dressing room full of half-naked, tutu-ed, twirling children, and more hairspray and tulle than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Lord help us all.

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She was obviously more thrilled about this dance mom thing than I was. High hopes, low expectations, people.

Thanks to Erica and a Barbie makeup kit she found shoved under a seat in the car, we successfully navigated our first crisis, and arrived three minutes late for her call time. (I missed the “Full Hair And Makeup Required Upon Arrival” memo, obviously.)

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To be clear, Erica was put in charge of applying Brooke’s hair and makeup as we screamed down the highway. Dinner was a bag of Lays. Mothers everywhere, I respect you.

The evening was everything I imagined it would be, and more. It was full of lights, sequins, over-dramatic children and even more dramatic mothers. I put Brooke’s tights on backwards and her hair just.wouldn’t.stay in the nice neat little bun I tried to create. I dropped her hair bow in the toilet of the way-too-small restroom stall while finagling costumes with 800 layers of who-knows-what, and then PUT THE DANG HAIRBOW BACK ON HER HEAD because what else am I supposed to do, okay?

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Sorry mom, your daughter went on stage with a still dripping, toilet water soaked hairbow for her first dance recital. It is what it is, people.

Everything I expected. But the more? Everything I expected and more? The “more” is what floored me. I expected the crisis. I expected drama.

I did not expect to be standing on the side of that stage, holding back tears. I didn’t expect to be taught a lesson about how to live my life as I watched Brooke click-clack-tap onto that stage.

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Brooke didn’t know the dance step for step. None of the girls did. Their dance wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t full of impressive steps, beautiful choreography, or perfect synchronization. But as I watched Brooke dance, I saw strength in her sassy sa-shay walk with her “click-clack” shoes and still dripping hairbow as she strutted onto the stage with her hand on her hip. I saw joy in the mega-watt smile she couldn’t keep off her face. I saw hope in the way she was able to jump, tap, and kick with her classmates; her brave heart scar peeking out of her leotard to tell of the journey she’s been on to make it to this point.

She danced with confidence. She messed up. A lot. She made wrong steps, turned around when the other kids were facing forward. She jumped up when they sat down. And yes, she even tripped over her own two feet and landed smack on her booty. Twice. But she didn’t care. She danced on, oblivious to the “imperfections”, unaware of any hesitation. All in. 100%. No turning back.

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How often do we dance like this? In our dance of life, the fear of imperfection, of a misstep, a “jump up” when others “jump down”, dreading a moment when we might fall. How often do these fears hold us back from taking that leap, that first step into uncharted waters? How often do they prevent us from even trying at all, willing to stay in the comfort of the known and safe of our lives?

I hope I choose courage.

I hope I live each day learning to risk; willing to fall. Because without risking, without falling, without ever learning to pick ourselves back up again to try yet another time, we can’t grow. We can’t change. We can’t reach what might be just in front of us if we had been willing to risk that one scary step, when you just can’t remember if the next step is supposed to be “right foot tap or left foot tap”.

Brooke chose to dance. And as I stood there watching her flit around that stage, I realized that in the waltz of my life, I hope I choose to dance too.

The Magic in a Book

When I was a little girl, I had a tendency to get lost. To daydream, hoping that someday my Hogwarts letter would come and I could finally enroll in that Transfiguration class. To adventure through far-off lands, truly believing that I was carrying the Ring with Frodo and had to make it to Mount Doom to destroy it in time. To be caring and courageous, loving with Mother Teresa and Amy Carmichael as they cared for precious soul after precious soul. To go back in history to different exotic places, dancing in the Russian ballroom with little Anastasia, journeying into Narnia and meeting Aslan.

Not in real life, of course, but I believed it to be. No, I would get lost in my books; I lived hundreds of lives through the stories of others. Stories of courage, of great hope, of sadness, of mystery.

My nose was constantly stuck in a book, soaking up stories that moved me; taught me. Stories that struck me right in the heart. Stories that still, to this day, I pick up over and over again and open that cover, to get lost for yet another time in the magic of the words covering each page.

 My parents joked that my best friends were my books, and it’s true. It would seem that “I was born with a reading list I will never finish”. It’s still true. Books take me where I cannot go. Books open doors to our future. Books inspire me to be greater than I am. Books show me that there is so much about the world that is more important than myself. And the ability to read? Seeing squiggles and scratches on a page of paper transform themselves into strings of words and sentences right before my eyes is something more magical than anything I’ve ever experienced in my vicarious adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

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Reading is empowering. Education is empowering. We take that for granted every day. Each time we are handed an informational flyer, we glance at it and toss it aside. Every day we read street signs, menus, notes home from the teacher. We read. We process. We write. Over and over again.

There are millions around the world who have never been taught. To millions, those squiggles and scratches don’t magically transform themselves into words and sentences. To millions, those incomprehensible symbols represent the impenetrable barrier to education that they cannot even dream to overcome. Girls who believe that, because of social stigmas, they are not worth the time and resources an education requires.

But the time has come. The world is shaking, crying out for change. Hope is rising from all corners to tell them “You are worth it. Your education is important to me. Your future is important to me.”

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My dear friend Caroline has been working for the last couple years with an organization in Pakistan, an organization that works to empower young women with an education. In places where gender inequalities and minority prejudices threaten to destroy the hope of education, Primary Education Project works to provide opportunity. They work to empower. They work to provide this hope.

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Education should matter to you. Everyone deserves this chance. Everyone deserves this hope. But what can you do? Fight for awareness. Educate yourself. Watch films like Girl Rising. Read books like Half the Sky. Understand why education, and the empowerment it brings, especially for girls, is so important.

Follow organizations like Primary Education Project. Support them in their work and share their story. It matters.

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Today is May 7. The time is now. There is an incredible opportunity today to have any gift to the organization increased by 30%, thanks to a matching gift. Share their story today. Join in the fight for equality, education, and empowerment around the world. It’s an uphill battle, but it is a hopeful battle. Join us. Join them. And hope. Hope for day when everyone can get lost in the magic of a book. 

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”- Mother Teresa

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To Have Someone

To have someone. To know that you will not be alone. To clench tightly to another’s hand, because sometimes we can’t stand on our own. We all need a “someone”.

Today I was given an amazing opportunity. An incredible gift. Something that I would have never expected just a few years ago.

But now? After how my story has been written and shaped over the last several years, this was the chance of a lifetime…a gift of a day I had been waiting for. Hoping for. Without even knowing how deeply I desired it.

Today I sat in the waiting room of a Chinese hospital; in the pediatric surgical ward. I was waiting for a little baby girl, an orphan with no family to call her own. Waiting as she underwent her first major open-heart surgery, earning her beautiful brave scar of courage.

Today, I was her someone. Praying for her surgeons, her nurses, and her strength through the long hours of the operation. Today I sat. Hoping. Waiting. Jumping at the sight of any doctor or nurse, expectant for the news I so desperately wanted to hear. “It’s done. Finished. She’ll be moved to recovery soon. It went as well as we could have hoped.”

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Today, she is still an orphan. But today, she was not alone.

Today, she was mine. And I was hers. And the gift of being the “someone” to stand, with her and for her, is one I will treasure for the rest of my days.

Because, you see, just a short time ago, my little Brooke’s story mirrored this one. A precious little girl. Newly orphaned, with severe heart disease. Going into her first open-heart surgery in a Chinese hospital. An event and circumstance where by all intents and purposes, she could have been alone. She should have been alone.

Except she wasn’t.

She also had a “someone”. Someone who loved her, waited expectantly for her, and prayed her through those long hours and days. And that someone has given me a gift that can never be repaid. Because though I wish desperately that I HAD been there…to be the one to love her through, snuggle her tight, obsessively check every monitor alarm, oxygen sat, and medication dosage…there was someone there who loved her for me. Someone who took my place, prayed for her for the long hours of surgery, and was there by her side when it was done. And that is a gift more priceless than breath itself. She was loved. She was hoped for. And she was never alone.

I hadn’t truly grasped the magnitude of this until I found myself blinking back tears, sitting there in that metal chair next to a couple of other staff from her orphanage, amidst other parents and children in that crowded, sterile waiting room. Hearts racing with theirs as we waited for news about “our” children. Because at that moment, it didn’t matter that I had no biological claim to this child. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand exactly what was being said in the chatter of the Chinese parents filling the room around me.

All that mattered was that when it was her turn to be wheeled out through the operating room doors, someone was there to jump up for her. To exclaim over her newly pink fingernails, whisper that she was loved, and follow the team of doctors as far as my eyes could see as she was wheeled into recovery.

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She had someone. My Brooke had someone. And today, I had someone as well. Today, I had her. And the gift of being her “someone” in return, if only for today, is one that will never, ever be forgotten. Be thankful for the someones in your life. Don’t ever take them for granted. They are a gift more precious than gold.

Grow well, little one. Be strong and courageous. Wear your brave scar with pride. You are hoped for, waited for, and not forgotten. You are loved.