A space for home


This transition process is taking longer than we expected. We still don't have lampshades, we have to borrow my in-laws vacuum almost weekly, and our dining room still doesn't have a working table and chairs - we have to crowed around a small countertop island to eat as a family.

But those are simple things that can easily change in the near future. It's the other stuff that's taking time, the human stuff, the kids crying themselves to sleep because they're thinking and dreaming and missing China stuff. The missing home stuff. And I didn't know what to do. 

We can talk about China and their friends, revisite old photographs and some of our favorite memories, and we can talk about all the blessings we've been able to experience since arriving back in the states. But that doesn't seem to help. Not much anyway. So resort to words like, "It will be okay, I promise. You just need time," or, "by this time next year, you'll be feeling much better, I promise." But they're empty. Because really, I have no idea if it will be okay, if things will get better. If they will ever stop missing home.

My optimism, in the end, amounts to nothing.

But then, this morning, my wife sent me a text that convicted and challenged my heart. She was writing to share the news that she'd been featured on a forum that receives close to a million submissions, and she was one of seven people chosen. "It's not a big deal," she wrote, "but it is just a little encouraging. She continued:

It's funny how I am feeling so sad about loss and constantly worried I'll shrivel, but there are spaces of delight here. Just comparing apples and oranges. But getting this photo featured means more than just that. It means there is hope for a Home again. Even if it's hard to believe now.

I loved the way she said that, "there is hope for a Home again. Even if it's hard to believe now" because it reminded me that hope is active.

It is her taking pictures every day, even when she doesn't feel like it because its her and her passion and the best way she knows how way capture life, because soon enough these times will be gone.

It's her working on a home, daily, even when there isn't any more money left or much to do so she rearranges the few pieces of furniture for a second, third, and forth time because that's how she builds a home, little by little, and over time. 

It's how she moves towards hope.

Hope is active, optimism passive. Optimism believes things will get better and turn out okay while hope gets off the couch and ensures that they do - even when it's hard to believe that it will.

"There are spaces of delight here", and with hope, those spaces will expand and grow and fill up with memories, laughter, and Life. 

Until this space becomes our Home.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Living  :  Josey Miller Photography

Open Thoughts : A Family of Home, not perfection


“The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s easy to make it complex.”


The moving in process has been slow and sometimes painful, but it’s also been beautiful. Not because our house is full or the walls are covered with decorations, but because they aren’t, because it is taking us longer than we thought, and because our house is finally starting to become a home filled with imperfections.

Just as it should be.

Last week, our fake wood-burning stove arrived in the mail, and when we set it up and turned it on, it was just about perfect. Our kids gathered around, touching the glass and awing at flames that flickered and wood that glowed – looking just like a real fire - and when we turned the lights off to the rest of the house and cuddled beneath blankets for the evening reading, it felt fully perfect.

Somehow though, after the kids were in bed and Josey and I were sitting in the quite of the night, we both missed our even more fake fireplace in China.

Then suddenly, strangely, we were homesick. And we couldn’t quite figure out why. Because that fireplace, the one in China that was made from an old chest with one side cut out, with Christmas lights behind embossed glass for fire, and an old pipe for a makeshift chimney, wasn’t nearly as nice as this one. Not even close.

“But it was full of stories,” Josey said. And that was it. That was what we missed. Because that fireplace, the one with the Christmas tree lights for a fire had embossed glass that was found in a nearby trash pile in one of Josey’s favorite back alley streets, and it was just what she’d been looking for, for months. And that chimney, the one that looked like an old industrial pipe was the third old industrial pipe I’d brought home because the other two didn’t work. I found this one discarded beneath our old school, and when I picked it up, three baby kittens scattered across the dusty boxes, bricks, and piles of old carpet. And they scared the shit out of me.

That fireplace took months to build. It required difficult negotiations in a second language, hauling material up seven flights of stairs, and rebuilding, remodeling, and reworking over and over again until we got it right. But, when it all came together, when we finally assembled the last few pieces and hung and stuffed our Christmas stockings, our little monster of a creation became the centerpiece of the living room.

And our kids loved it.

When we sold it, Josey cried.

Our new Amazon fireplace, however, is perfect looking, but it doesn’t come with stories. Just Styrofoam and cardboard boxes.

But then Uncle Trauger comes over and helps us make the shiplap backing from old barn wood Judah and I pulled and denailed from a distant farm on a cold and misty Saturday afternoon. And suddenly, there’s life.

And then the end tables Josey bought at a local thrift store are painted by my daughters which means they’re full of paint blobs, running lines, and imperfections. And they aren’t even hard to miss. But whenever I see them, whenever I set my coffee down in the predawn morning, I hear Zion’s giddy voice telling me how she painted all day with Mom and how, “Mom broke two paint brushes, and I didn’t break any.” I see Eden, with paint in her hair and dotted along her arms and legs and toes, trying to fix her imperfections with entirely too much paint on the brush, only exacerbating the problem.

And I fall in love with those tables and their stories and the home they begin to build.

Because that’s the outdoor fire pit Aunt Lu bought us when she came to visit in October and those are the shutters we had a friend carry from China and drop of with my brother in Montana and have waited over three months to unwrap and that’s the chair we bought for $12.50 at a Thrift store in Laramie when visiting our little sister at university and stayed in a cabin and bought our first pumpkins at a beautiful farm where Eden and Zion rode horses and Judah finished a maze in 48.3 seconds. 

I love stories. And I love that I think of them almost every single day.

And the thing is, even if we wanted to fill our house quickly we couldn’t because we’ve chosen a single income teacher salary lifestyle and even though there are several days that it’s hard and frustrating because I just wish we could get a little bit further ahead and not have to work so hard, most other days, I love it. Because it forces us to wait, to learn and to be reminded that we can do without, and it allows – unwillingly at times – for us to find and capture beautiful stories.

Stories of creating rather than buying.

Stories of building rather than pulling from shelves.

Stories of human imperfections rather industrialized perfection.

Stories of thrift stores and garage sales and sometimes even trash piles. Of making things work out of imagination and re and re and redecoration.

The kind of stories that make a home, not a house.

And the kind of stories that carry with us long after the furniture is sold or tossed or lost over the years.

And those are exactly the kind of stories I want to tell and retell and hear my children share to their friends and family and future children. Because those are stories of the family.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Open Thoughts  :  On Living



Poems my wife sent me

IMG_1055 2.jpg

The other night, I asked my wife if she thought I was beginning to pigeonhole myself - if I was always writing about the hardships of relationships and beginning to lose sight of the good and beautiful.

She shrugged. "Maybe," she said, "But if that's where you're at, maybe it's okay."

"Maybe," I said, still uncertain.  

This morning, she sent me these three poems. And they boosted my spirits.

All we can control

in this silly

and wildly perfect


is the love

that we

choose to give out

without any regard

to ever

getting it back

in return.

-Tyler Knott Gregson- 

Perfect and yes and fully agree. I don't even want to say anything about it, for fear of ruining it.


Goodbye is a shaping word,

a lathe to the wood around us,

skilled hands to the marble

we once were.

I am carved, and I

am smoothed

by the losses, by the sound

of walking away.

I heard them say it, all of them,

and all the while,

I thought of home,

I thought of home,

I thought of


-Tyler Knott Gregson-

I don't know what all the goodbyes have carved in me, and I'm pretty sure some have left me splintered, not smooth, but they have brought me home. To my front porch after a long day's work, eager to hug the giggles inside. They've brought me up the stairs, to cuddle and tickle and read with my kids at night, and they've brought me to my wife. My sweet and patient wife who shapes and sands and loves my rough and splintered edges. 

Because of home, we can choose to love without any regard to ever getting back in return. Because of home.


Run. For your life, for your joy, for your calm and peace of mind. Run. because your legs are strong and our lungs are aching for the taste of air. Run. Because what's the point of life spent walking in the middle?

-Tyler Knott Gregson-

More then ever, I sense the race set before me, and it is time to run - for my life, for my joy, and for the calm and peace of mind that comes with running toward a good and perfect prize. 


Away from the guilt and shame and burdens I can no longer carry or do anything about.


For purpose and excitement and love, with home in my heart, and life in my mind.




Because my legs are strong and the road is long and there is much to do and little I can control.

It's time I get started.


Thank you, my good wife, for the poems you sent.

Thank you.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Poetry  :  Inspiration






A Forever Foreigner


This post was started in the final days of living in China, but in the midst of all the leaving and packing and thinking on other things, I forgot all about it. And I’m glad I did.

Reading it now, in my very American classroom on a dark and chilly Tuesday morning, has challenged my head and heart and daily life, because, months later, the words seem forced and empty. Fake even. I know they’re not, but since being back, what I’m discovering is that, several months ago, they were much easier to write than they are to live.


: Original Post :


“Have a good day!”


    “Zài jiàn!”

    The coffee is passed between us and I rush out the door and back to work.

    My “teaching” day is over. Now all that is left is a few hours of quiet lesson planning and a hot cup of mediocre coffee.  

But I can’t get that small interaction out of my head.

    “Have a good day!”

    “Zài jiàn!”

    They’re so simple, so basic, and absolutely so common, but in that simple moment, they broke through barriers, travelled over thousands of miles of differences, and connected two strangers, a short petite Chinese woman and a six-foot four American.

    “Have a good day!”

    “Zài jiàn!”

    Spoken kindly, that small interaction brought a strange welcoming to my heart.  

In a land where very little reminds me of “home,” where ordering large bottles of water requires assistance from someone who knows how to speak numbers one, six, and nine in mandarin, this small interaction allowed me to feel a small notion of acceptance, of not feeling so much like an outsider, and that I just might make it.

“Have a nice day!’ the lady behind the counter said with an accent that runs all the words together, putting the wrong emphAses on the wrong syllAble.

“Zài jiàn!” I responded without confidence and probably using all the wrong tones, but she smiled anyway and went back to work. So did I.

“Have a good day!”

    “Zài jiàn!”

    I crossed the street with my coffee in hand and a new spark of hope in my heart.  No matter how many miles we are away from home, no matter how different life, the food, the language is, one thing will remain the same.  People surround us, and if nothing else, that is enough to make anyone feel at least a small sense of Home.


I wrote that story within my first few months of living in China, and in a few short days, I’ll be on a plane back to America, with friends and memories of a land I may never see again, and I can only wonder what now? What does my time in China mean for the future? What truths can I hold fast to, in the coming days and months and years?

Because, what I loved most about the above short story is the excitement of a new adventure, the wonder of a new land. It’s something I want tuck deep into my suitcase and carry across the deep and endless ocean. I want to be a Forever Foreigner.


:  A Forever Foreigner :

A Forever Foreigner is someone who, no matter where they live, is endlessly curious, even when the land and the people are no longer knew. Even when they begin to call the place they live, “home.”

After living and working  in China for two years, we were ready for the mountains of Montana, big blue skies, American beef, and family. We were ready for our six-week summer break. What we got though, was a bit different. When we arrived, when we talked with friends and drove through towns, we realized we were suddenly visitors, outsiders, and no longer locals – life had moved on without us, and we had grown and changed without them. Suddenly, we didn’t understand, fully, our home, and home didn’t understand us, and it was the strangest of feelings.

Then our six weeks ended and we came back to China. On one of our first outings to restock the fridge and cupboards, Josey (my wife) said, “It feels good to be back. It feels like home.”

And it was.

The guards to our complex waved us in with smiles, the local shop lady laughed and ran their fingers through our girls’ blonde curls, and we walked the streets with confidence and familiarity. We were no longer in awe of the carts full of vegetables and piles of cardboard boxes. The street dancers were normal and the street food familiar– they were part of our daily routine. We navigated the busy and crowded streets with ease, on our way to our favorite market. We engaged in simple conversations with strangers. China was no longer a foreign land. It was home – at least it felt like it was.

Then, a little girl with straight black hair and big beautiful eyes pointed and yelled, “Weiguaren!” Foreigner. Because we were.. Even though it felt like home, we were foreigners, we are guests.

At first, this yelled proclamation was frustrating, because I wanted that little girl to know I wasn’t a tourist, I lived there – China was my home!  Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if being labeled a foreigner is okay, great even, because a foreigner lives with excitement, with anticipation, and with the passion to explore new lands, new people, and new ideas.

In order to survive, foreigners must ask a lot of questions because they own very few answers. And I like that, because it’s humbling, and because often, the answers received are not what we expected. And so we learn.

Forever Foreigners want to be curious. Always. No matter where they live. They love simple stories, battle the mundane, and they love displaying their collected knick-knacks on shelves and walls for others to see and ask, “What’s the story behind that?”


: Knick Knacks, not Ikea :

Our first few weeks in China were hard because, like many new foreigners have experienced, our house was empty, and loud. The only furniture we had were the basics provided by our company– beds, dressers, a dining table, and a couch and loveseat complete with a few tables, but the walls were bare. So were the shelves and tables. So were the cabinets and cupboards. And so, like many foreigners before us, we went to Ikea, and for good reason. In one location, over the span of a few months, we were able to acquire pots and pans, rugs, a stand for our TV, lamps, towels, drill bits and screws, picture frames, a few plants, silverware, towels, school supplies, and several pillows of various sizes. Then suddenly, our house was full. And it was great.

But by the end of our first two-year contract, hardly any of that Ikea furniture (minus the plates and picture frames) existed. The personal had, overtimes, replaced the commercial.

On our trips to the surrounding villages, we brought back baskets and small stools. The small markets that sporadically tucked themselves throughout the city offered wall hangings, accent pieces, and kitchenware. The knick-knacks from travels filled our shelves and walls and decorated our kitchen. Some of our most treasured pieces came from nearby trash piles and antique markets where my wife had to engage in long negotiations for the product and its delivery. Suddenly, when anyone asked us where we got this or acquired that, the answer was no longer simple. It required a story.

And stories, meaningful stories, require time.

When meeting a Tibetan, for example, the differences of dress, food, lifestyle, and religion are easily noticed and can just as quickly be collected and stored in a box. They’re what tourist foreigners collect – stories of differences. Finding similarities, though, is much more difficult. It takes time to find and effort to collect because they demand patience; they take intentionality and a conscious effort to see another as equal – not different. It’s being relational, not stereotypical. It’s the difference between Ikea furniture and small market, handmade furniture.

Ikea can help fill a house quickly, but the knick-knacks of the people and the land that hold experiences and journeys and stories make the house a home, a blended home, and a home full of memories and humanity and laughter.

Forever Foreigners seek knick-knack stories, not Ikea stories, no matter where they live. And when they bring them home, they cherish them, protect and display them with care, and allow them to blend in with and compliment their cluttered home that is full of stories worth telling, over and over again.


: Be Laughed at :

No one likes to be the brunt of a joke, especially when we don’t know why. Anyone who’s ever lived in a foreign country knows this better than most, because they know how embarrassing  and intimidating it can be to try and speak with a national in their native tongue. If they’re kind, they’ll smirk ever so slightly and probably correct pronunciation or choice of words; if they’re not so kind, they’ll outright laugh and maybe even tell a few nearby friends. But confortable with these early and continual failures is crucial to discovering a new land, learning a new language, and living beyond survival.

It’s also essential to the mind of a Forever Foreigner.

Forever Foreigners are not nearly as concerned about ego as they are about learning and discovery. Open and continual failure reminds Forever Foreigners that failure isn’t as scary as it seems, and it reminds us to get over ourselves and explore because there are worse things than being laughed at. Like staying safe.

When we’re willing to be laughed at, we’re willing to be wrong. And when we’re willing to be wrong, suddenly, the landscape of discovery opens and stretches out beyond what our limited eyes of understanding can see. If we’re willing to be wrong, we ask questions, seek help, and open ourselves to strangers and hidden blessings. Instead of being stuck in the rain, huddled beneath trees and waiting for the clouds to break, we find ourselves sitting with monks, drinking green tea, and communicating through smiles, puffs of smoke, and silly hand gestures. And we laugh, because sometimes there’s no better way to say it.

Forever Foreigners laugh because of differences, not at them. And it makes all the difference in the world.

: Then the Plane Lands :

In just four short months, the optimism and idealism of these words have been challenged and even ignored. Suddenly, being a Forever Foreigner seems like a foreign idea, and right now, I don’t really feel like I have the time for it.

“In truth,” Tim Cope writes in his memoir, “Ruslan’s news that he could guide me for just two more day was a mutually convenient way of parting with our rapport in-tact. I was already tired of trying to understand the world as it was filtered through his eyes, and I was looking forward to a new chapter” (pg 110).

Coming back to America, in many ways, was like returning to an old and difficult chapter that I’ve never really understood and have always kinda been excited to leave.

Because in America, there are Ugly Plates, racist assholes, and thousands of people who look just like me. Adventure seems lost; living as a Forever Foreigner impossible.

So what now?

One of the deepest memories I have of China was a day, about midway through our first year, when Josey and I both were desperately missing America. It was an early December weekend and we were aching for Pumpkin Spice Lattes, family stockings hung by chimneys, and the laughter of old friends. We even looked online and considered flying home. When that failed, we invited over two single girls who had moved to China just a few months prior. Like us, they were young foreigners and were missing home.

That night, we ordered “Burning Logs” from Netflix, sat around space heaters, and developed some of the sweetest friendships China could offer. Over the next several years, Aunty Beck and Aunt Sarah would watch our kids blow out candles, travel with us through several countries, and share Chinafied Thanksgiving meals. We would fight, walk out on movies, and spend Christmas morning sipping coffee, eating tea-rings, and opening simple gifts.

We would stay up way too late (or at least Josey would) and share stories of struggle, victory, and life. We would turn a foreign land into a sweet home. Because that’s what Forever Foreigners do. Even when they don't feel like, they pop popcorn, make a phone call, and patiently collect new knick-knacks. 

Then suddenly, several Christmases later, they sing carols with some of their favorite people in the world. 

And it is beautiful.


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Living  :  Open Thoughts