Monday, December 2, 2013

Japan's Fabulous Fall, Awesome Autumn Photos

It's time to indulge!  After 8 years in the tropics, we are blessed to live in a land of 4 seasons. I have eagerly looked forward to fall, my favorite season of the year.  We tried to rush it along, but alas...the seasons change about a month later in Japan than the U.S.  so we had to be patient.  We had seen plenty of photos like the first one below, to whet our appetite.

A temple in Kyoto.  Is this color for real?

Mid-October saw us traveling to Nikko, north of Tokyo.  Surely we'd see some fall color in the northern hills.   Well, not exactly peak colors, but we could tell that fall was definitely in the air.  Green Japanese maple leaves were on their way out, giving way to red.

Notice the ever-so-slight color change.

Even into November, Tokyo's colors were slow to materialize.  The search continued.

Fall trees were hidden by manicured cedar and pine.

A park on the grounds of the Edo Imperial Palace.

Ginkgo trees along a Tokyo boulevard.

We were getting closer.  Then, at last, at the urging of our sensei (a former travel guide), Stew and Lissa embarked on an afternoon date to a park west of Tokyo.  This park, the Showa Kinen Park, sits on the former Tachikawa Air Base.  We knew we struck the Mother Lode of Autumn as soon as we entered the park.

A canopy of ginkgo trees released their leaves to form a golden pathway.

Ginkgo trees in their full golden color.

Japanese Maple; Leaves seemingly on fire.
Some of the trees turned
from green, to yellow and ultimately, red.

Stew by the lake which was filled with autumn aficionados seated in paddle boats..

The happy couple on their date.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why Halloween? Why this year?

Why Halloween?  Why “this year?”

Over the years, our family made a point of “not” celebrating Halloween.  Along with many other Christian families, we decided that we would not honor a festival that came out of non-Christian, Pagan origins.  We opted for alternatives like Harvest festivals and Trunk or Treat.  The kids especially enjoyed “Trunk or Treat” because they came home with several pounds of candy apiece! 

 Many know that Halloween is a festival brought to the U.S. from Europe, where it was observed as a festival of the dead.  People donned costumes to disguise themselves in order to go unrecognized by spirits who roamed the earth.  This came out of a belief that at summer’s end, the lines were blurred between the natural world and the underworld, loosing the spirits of the underworld to roam about the earth.   In addition to disguising themselves with costumes, people also put out offerings of food and drink outside their doorways to appease the spirits and distract them from the residents inside the home.

We would be tempted to “ho hum” this Halloween history, but our years in China shook us out of any apathy that we may have entertained.  In late summer, the Chinese observed a “Hungry Ghost” festival in which they protected themselves against the hungry spirits of the underworld who were loosed from the abyss for one short period each year.  The Chinese did several things to placate these spirits.  They set out food and wine as an offering.  They burned candles and incense for their deceased ancestors, and they shut themselves up inside their homes to protect themselves from these “ghosts.”  We were amazed to discover such parallels between the ancient practices of the West and the modern-day practices of the Orient.

This leads me to this year’s Halloween story.  A few weeks ago there was a knock at the door.  Stew answered the door, saw two ladies there, and listened to their "sales pitch."  He then summoned me to the door, telling me "These ladies want to ask us something about Halloween.   Take a listen, maybe there's some way we can reach out to the community."  I don't even recall him saying this; I was too resentful of him passing off the ladies to ME to deal with.  These young gals worked at a nearby preschool, and they wanted to take the children out on a costume parade through the neighborhood.  Could they come by our house for “trick or treat?”  The ladies stated that they would supply the candy ahead of time; all we needed to do was answer the door and hand out the candy.  My instinct was to dismiss this out of hand.  After all, we’re Christians.  We’re missionaries.  We are here to penetrate the darkness with the Light of Truth.
Curiously, as I visited with these ladies and asked more questions about the Halloween activity, I felt a different impression come over me on how I should respond to their invitation.  I found myself answering, “Why, yes, I think we would like to participate.”  Did I really say that?  Not only was I surprised at my answer, but the two ladies were floored as well.  “You will?  Do you really mean it?” Evidently they hadn’t had much luck getting neighboring families to buy in.  I said that yes, I meant it, and I wanted to help them make their children’s activity a success.  They walked away from the foreigners’ house thrilled at the prospect of bringing their students by our house, located right on the street where their parade was taking place.

So, why did I say yes?  Why did I break the (mostly Evangelical) Halloween taboo when we’re here as missionaries?  What do you think?  Was this the right thing to do?
On one hand, we could have stood our evangelical ground…declined the invitation by stating that it violated our Christian principles.  This declaration would have been acceptable in the U.S., where the general public understands and accepts people’s different points of view.
But what message would this send to the Japanese, who have no Christian background?  Would they go away from their encounter with us, thinking “Oh, those Christians uphold such high principles…I wonder how I can become one?”   Or would they think, “Gosh, Christians are peculiar.  They don’t want to participate in the community.  They don’t want to get to know us because their beliefs get in the way.”

In the end, I think it was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to change my mind.  I agreed to participate because…because this isn’t about me.  It isn’t about me proving my spirituality through a Halloween boycott.  It’s about making relationships in a cautious, closed society that is difficult to penetrate.   We have struggled to meet Japanese locals in general, and our neighbors in particular.  They seem to keep themselves perpetually busy, and they remain isolated behind fortress walls – for example, shut in their homes, or tuned out while dozing on the train, or shut out from the rest of the world with the help of ear buds and an I-phone.

The trick-or-treating children came by our house this afternoon.  Little girls and their teachers came dressed in Disney princess costumes.  The boys came dressed as Spiderman, Captain America, and Japanese anime characters.   I gladly handed out candy to each of the children and complimented them on their costumes.  We all posed for photos outside of the house.  As they prepared to leave, a lady came up to hand me her business card.  She was the CEO and principal of the children’s preschool and she thanked me for caring about the children enough to participate in a day of fun for them.

I pray that this represents a small, but solid beginning in establishing relationships between us and the community where God has planted us.  I’m already thinking ahead to a Christmas party at our house, showing the children our Christmas tree and our Nativity set, giving their bilingual teachers an opportunity to hear and share the true story of Christmas.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Game-Changer:  Meet Lissa’s new friend, Epilepsy

It started a number of months ago – I began “checking out” for 30 seconds at a time, give or take.  While in my away state, I’d mumble things while staring off into space…and then I’d recover, knowing nothing of the episode that had just taken place.  The most recent episode occurred this summer while eating lunch. I stopped eating and began staring at my plate.  My family tried to get my attention; Jenna even reached across the table with her fork to steal food from my plate.  I did nothing except mumble in slurred speech.  Stew declared, “That’s it – we’re calling the doctor.”  And, thanks to Japan’s first-rate health care system, I got diagnosed through an EEG followed by an MRI…all in under a month’s time.  The conclusion:  epileptic complex partial seizures.


I must make a personal confession.  Those who know me well know that “helpless” has never entered my personal vocabulary.  I am one ambitious, resourceful, motivated, energetic, determined woman.  But alas, I’ve been diagnosed with an illness that plunges me smack in the middle of “helpless” territory.  In fact, the first consequence I learned of is that I am now forbidden from driving in Japan for a minimum of 3 years.  Ouch.  This historically independent woman is going to learn to depend on her husband more for daily things like trips to the store, shuttle service for kids to the train station on rainy days, and a host of other small tasks that I typically took care of. 

Stew has both loved and hated my independent nature.  He loves that I am a low-maintenance wife who doesn’t use helplessness to manipulate him.  At the same time, he hates the times when I push him away, determined to do things “my way” without a need for his involvement.  Despite the occasional struggle over the years, Stew and I have learned how to operate together as a “team,” collaborating on nearly everything related to family life and ministry.  Thankfully, this will greatly help us adjust to my “dependent” status without plunging our marriage into culture shock.

One significant finding is the doctor determined that my epilepsy stems from a congenital “anomaly” in my brain.  The rumor is true – I am certifiably brain-damaged!  Seems that the temporal lobes of my cortex are not quite symmetrical, and he suspects that my seizures are originating from the slightly misshapen left lobe.  What this means is that my life until now has taken place on a neuro-psychomotor precipice that has finally given way.  The thought floors me.  If epilepsy had manifested itself during my younger years, I would never have passed the military physical.  No air-refueling or navigating around East Asia.  No husband named Stew, seeing as I met him while I was in flight training.  If this had happened during my 30s, I would not have received medical clearance for full-time Christian service on mainland China.

So, who says that God is absent from our daily lives?  If anything, my “new” illness has proven to me that God is indeed, involved in the day-to-day affairs of human existence.  I will move forward, anti-seizure medication in hand, riding along in the passenger seat, steadfast in the knowledge that He has good plans for me, and He isn’t done with me quite yet.

Which makes me happy.  I want to stick around this planet long enough to exit this Japanese urban jungle and retreat to our wooded hillside in middle Tennessee!

Friday, August 16, 2013

A New Family Member!

We have a new son in-law!

Josiah and Leslie

We are officially announcing the marriage of our daughter, Leslie Anne Roberson, to Josiah Scott Talbert Truax, on August 8th, 2013.   They were married at Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, VA.

This wasn’t your ordinary wedding.  For one thing, neither set of parents (bride’s or groom’s) were present at the ceremony.  We, of course, just relocated to Tokyo in January.  Josiah’s family meanwhile, lives on Okinawa where his dad serves as a Colonel in the United States Marine Corps.

Leslie and Josiah, desperately in love, announced that they intended to marry by summer’s end.  They used the “E” word -- they were going to elope!   Well, they nearly eloped to Japan, because Josiah’s parents wanted very badly for our two families to witness the kids’ vows, sending them into marital bliss with a blessing from each side of the family.  Between the Truax family’s pocketbook and the Roberson family’s planning skills on the ground, we nearly had this elopement set for Tokyo, Japan.

Except for one thing.  The kids didn’t want it.

I can’t blame them.  After all, they each had only 5 days off from work.  They would  have spent 2.5 of those 5 days traveling half-way around the world and back.  The time spent in between may have been lost in a hopeless fog of jet lag.  Even if we succeeded in pulling off the elopement of the ages, chances are, our bridal couple would not have even remembered it.

Ben walks Leslie down the aisle
In the end, Leslie and Josiah begged for us to let them remain in the States and get married their way.  We relented.  The result was a lovely, simple wedding attended by around 20 people.  Our son in-law Ben Presson stood in for Stew and walked Leslie down the aisle.  Along with Ben and our daughter Stephanie, Lissa’s mother, Carolyn, and sister, Kristin, attended the ceremony to represent the Roberson side of the family.  Josiah’s grandparents drove from Florida and Ohio, respectively, to attend the wedding and represent the Truax side of the family.  

Our view of the ceremony.  Yay, Skype!

Where did that leave us Japan parents?  Well, we watched the ceremony live via Skype.  Josiah’s granddad, Papa Truax, used his I-phone to “video” the ceremony out to the parents of the groom in Okinawa.   The parents of the bride meanwhile, video-skyped into the Truax home onto the sister-of-the-groom’s laptop.  Sister of the groom trained her webcam onto the parents of the groom’s laptop, which was connected via video-skype to Papa Truax’s I-phone inside the church.

Did I mention that the ceremony took place at 2:00 in the afternoon in Virginia that day?  That translated to 3:00 in the morning in Japan.  This means that we, the bride’s family, attended the ceremony in our pajamas!  At 3:39 a.m. Japan time, Leslie and Josiah were presented to the guests as Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Truax.

Exchanging wedding vows

We love our new son in-law.  He is bright and articulate, a lover of literature like our daughter Leslie is.  Josiah has aspirations to become a pastor-writer down the road.  He is a purposeful individual, to the degree that their wedding plans are partly to enable Leslie to resume her college studies at James Madison University.  Leslie sadly withdrew from JMU a year ago because the school insisted on charging her a third year of out-of-state tuition.  This wedding serves as a game-changer:  armed with a Virginia marriage license, Leslie is now miraculously an in-state Virginia resident!  We pray that these newlyweds succeed in eventually switching “burgs” from Lynchburg to Harrisonburg, so that Leslie can complete her teaching degree.

Papa Truax generously covered an apres-wedding meal at Olive Garden that afternoon.  

Please join us in celebrating Leslie and Josiah's recent marriage!  Praying friends, please ask God's blessing for the two-become-one as they seek His best for their lives together.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What Do We Do All Day, Anyway?

What do we do on an average day in Japan?

Good question! 

Our first few years here are "re-tooling" years, spent in full-time language study.  Stew and Lissa go to class five days per week, typically 3 hours per day.  They spend another 2-3 hours per day doing homework, reviewing a lesson, or pre-viewing the next day's lesson.  It's an arduous schedule for middle-aged brains.  The mental fatigue hits us around mid-day Thursday, but we press on through Thursday and Friday class. 

Our sensei grades Stew's first essay.
Lissa's first Japanese essay!
We meet three days a week with a sensei (teacher) as we work our way through elementary Japanese, vocabulary, and grammar.  We meet another day with a native speaker to focus on conversational Japanese and listening comprehension.  On the fifth day, we study religious language with a group of our missionary co-workers.  This class meets on the opposite side of Tokyo, which means a two-hour commute, one way.  The 3-hour class nets a full 8-hour day when it's all said and done -- exhausting.  The material is essential to our work here, though, so we don't want to miss out.  Just this month we negotiated a new arrangement, and we no longer have to make that commute.  We are so grateful!  We didn't want to whine too loudly about the travel because the teacher lives near our train stop and he makes that same trip twice per week!

Standing room only during morning rush hour. 

Downtown Tokyo from the Japan Rail train. 

Our sensei is very happy with our progress so far.  It's hard to know how well you are doing learning a new language.  We find ourselves battling against speaking Chinese when we're in the classroom...and when we're out on the street, well, it isn't pretty.  Let's just say that it takes a whole different level of proficiency to "think on your feet" in a new language!  Instead of focusing only on spoken Japanese, though, we are going the extra mile to become literate.  It will be slow progress for sure, but worthwhile.  For one thing, I will figure out how to operate my oven, with its numerous oven/microwave functions and FORTY-EIGHT separate programs for daily use!

Our oven, displaying some patriotic spirit during July.

In gold:  some of the 48 programs.  In white:  oven, microwave, steam, and heretofore "unknown" functions.

The girls are out of school now until late-August.   During their first week off, they attended volleyball camp.  During their second week, they hopped a train with two of their friends to visit an amusement park -- by themselves!  Jenna and Heather spend time each day reviewing Japanese, and Heather is working on some Math review as well.  They spend a lot of time reading.  In fact, just this week we made one final trip to CAJ's library before the school shut down for summer.  Each of them came away with a tidy stack of books for summer reading!


We surprised Heather and Jenna with new bicycles during their last week of school.  They have enjoyed going out to explore our neighborhood on their bikes.  We have discovered several bike trails that go through a local park, plus hilly streets for (careful) biking fun.  One evening we happened upon a baseball game, so we sat there to take in a few innings before moving along.

Jenna in our local park 
It's not the Yankees, but it's baseball!

 Summer came gradually, after a six-week long "rainy season."  Now that summer's here, it's gotten pretty hot!  Room a/c units keep the smaller spaces cooled off, but stairwells and other lesser-used areas get mighty warm.  Though we're hot, Tokyo heat, we've discovered, is more bearable than the heat and humidity combo of southern China!

37.5 Celsius = 99.5 degrees F.!!

In our stairwell...

Our beat-the-heat strategy so far involves making friends with the heat -- as in, Stew grilling outdoors as often as possible!  We also discovered a neighborhood pool, so we plan to make regular trips there to cool off.

Steak Strips for Dinner -- YUM.

Bobbing Heads -- Heather and Jenna

All in all, not a bad life.  We are slowly making friends as our Japanese grows by baby steps.  We enjoy friendships with other Japan missionaries, and gather once a month for an English Sunday service since we all attend Japanese churches for weekly worship.  We enjoy hosting other missionaries, particularly the single guys, at our house for Western food and gaming.  We also serve as foster parents for Hassle, a missionary family's kitty.  We affectionately refer to him as "The Old Man" because of his clockwork routine of sleeping and eating!

Hassle, "The Old Man"

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mighty Resilient Girls

I've decided that it's time to brag on Jenna and Heather, our two younger daughters.  These girls have seen more change in the last 12 months than many kids experience during their entire childhood.

Moving Day, Hendersonville, TN

In one short year, these kids have lived on 3 different land masses:  China, the U.S. and Japan.  They attended 3 separate schools, each one distinctively different.  They went from school at home to a public middle school in Tennessee, and now they attend a private international school populated by high-achieving Asian students in the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan.

Had I mentioned that during this inaugural semester in Japan, the girls spent the initial four months living in near-Spartan conditions, sleeping and studying on the floor?  Evenings were spent time-sharing on Mom and Dad's laptops, as so much of the day-to-day activity and communication came by way of digital technology.  They entered the school at a time when most students' friendships were already cemented from the previous semester.  They had to hustle to catch up with their fellow students who'd already gotten a six-week head start on Science Fair projects.  To Jenna and Heather's credit, they got theirs done in 3 weeks' time with a minimum of supplies at home!


Method of conveyance has evolved from place to place as well.  In China, the girls merely walked down the hall to the living room (occasionally in their pajamas!)  In Tennessee, they walked down the street to catch a neighborhood school bus.  Now in Japan, they commute 45 minutes one way: walking 15 minutes to the train station, then taking a 15-minute train, then walking a final 10 minutes to get to school.  They perform the reverse commute at the end of every day.  Needless to say, with heavy backpacks, these girls get a workout 5 days a week.

They have weathered several bouts of illness, mostly upper respiratory, since arriving in their new host country.  This is pretty typical for families that move overseas and must get acclimated to a new environment replete with unfamiliar pollens, allergens and germs.  Since we had not yet found a family doctor, they had to blaze a new trail into the world of medical treatment.  At Jenna's clinic, the doctor merely performed a visual ear/nose/throat exam followed by an x-ray, and he promptly dispensed antibiotics.  Heather wasn't so lucky; her doctor came from the "old school" (even wore the headpiece with the reflector disk on top!) and he was very fond of poking, probing and aspirating out of Heather's ears, nose and throat!  Eeewwww!

School has presented unique challenges at each location.  In China, school was a challenge because Mom was their primary teacher.  The independent daughter resisted Mom's every attempt to teach and explain new content.  The more dependent of the two relished Mom's involvement so much that she paid scant attention to her online instruction, knowing that Mom would explain things much more clearly when the lesson was over and it was homework time.

School was a challenge in Tennessee because the middle school operated on what seemed to me, ungodly hours.  The girls had to catch a bus at 6:30 a.m., which meant they had to wake up at 5:45!  They adapted well to this ugly schedule by making their lunches the night before, and pre-positioning their backpacks.  That way, all that was needed in the drowsy early-morning hours was to prepare breakfast and get themselves out the door.

At the Christian Academy in Japan, school is a challenge because of the rigor of their coursework.  Heather is writing reports in MLA format -- in the sixth grade!  Jenna has written numerous reports, created several powerpoints, and given multiple oral presentations in one semester.  Jenna also struggled with math because they placed her in Algebra I (second semester) with only a semester of Pre-Algebra under her belt.  She spent much of the semester just trying to stay afloat in math.

Jenna's Middle School "Encapsulation"

The hardship has actually proven beneficial to each of the girls.  In the case of the independent one, she realized that it's probably okay, maybe even desirable, to ask Mom for help on her work.  In the case of the dependent daughter, she gradually took more and more ownership of her learning.  She stayed for an hour after school each day at the school's Learning Resource Center in order to get organized and obtain assistance on her homework.  We expect both girls to get excellent grades when it's all said and done on June 11th.  

Good grades are great, but that’s not all that matters.  We received a very complimentary remark from a teacher who had been observing the girls over the course of the semester.  In this teacher's words, "Jenna and Heather are such a blessing to CAJ.  First of all, they don’t give in to peer pressure.  Secondly, they were able to make friends in the middle of the school year, and their friends were actually the ones that were in need of friends themselves."  What a gift!

Sarah's Mom prayed for 3 yrs. for a friend like Jenna
Heather and Aiah

Another intangible that doesn't show up on the report card is CAJ's Wall of Honor.  Students are singled out during the year for displaying godly character in ways that benefit their fellow students.  The hallways at CAJ are covered with painted handprints, each one bearing a student's name, the year, and the character trait that the student was recognized for.  Heather received recognition midway through the semester for displaying the attribute of Encouragement, and very recently, Jenna was recognized for displaying Courage.

Jenna just graduated from 8th grade this past weekend, which means high school is upon us once again.  It's hard to believe that it’s here so soon, but she's ready.  Heather will begin 7th grade with more confidence in her self-management skills, plus greater familiarity with a routine that involves multiple teachers, multiple classrooms, and increasingly complex schoolwork.

At Jenna's Graduation

We give thanks to God for taking our girls' experiences, challenges and hardships and using them to create resilient, intrepid young ladies.  We know this will serve them well in later years as they're stretched by circumstances, tried by trials, and occasionally ambushed by the unexpected.  Bravo, Jenna and Heather!

Heather in Choir at Jenna's Graduation