My husband, our two-year-old daughter and I are moving to Nicaragua in a week, to serve a three-year term as missionaries with Global Ministries (the UCC/ Disciples overseas presence). The past few weeks have been overloaded, stuffed with the events, tasks, and emotions of packing up our material possessions, leaving our home, loading a truck with the bulk of those material possessions to be shipped across the country for storage…and many, many goodbyes to friends and family. I’ve noticed that I ask two things in almost every parting conversation. First, “When are you coming to visit?” And second, “Do you Skype?”
My husband and I often have occasion to comment to one another that “we live in the future.” More often than not, it’s because we’ve just finished a face-to-face conversation, through the magic of the Internet, with his parents who live on the opposite coast. We started video-chatting shortly after our daughter was born, as a way of allowing those physically distant grandparents to gaze at her fondly, observe her growing, and listen to her little gurgles, and now, her chatter. Having talked to “Nana” and “Grandpapa” on the computer regularly for her whole life, our daughter has at times been convinced that they live in there somehow, and has been known to pitch a fit because we were not able to produce them in the computer on demand. Once, when we first saw them at the beginning of a visit, she announced, “It’s Nana from the computer!”
Apparently, we are not alone in this habit; about a year after we started, The New York Times ran an article about the phenomenon of grandparents video-chatting with their toddler grandchildren. Our kid was still a baby, and I remember reading the article and looking forward to the day when she would be able to have a tea party via the Internet.
We have been living about 2,300 miles away from my husband’s family for most of the past four years, simply by being on the East Coast. During that time, my immediate family (dad, sister, brothers, their wives, and children) has lived within a 30-mile radius of us.
In a week, we will begin living 2,685 miles away from those paternal grandparents (and 935 miles away from my family), in Managua, Nicaragua. In other words, far away from everyone. And while we have friends in most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. (and many not-so-major areas), friends-of-friends and trusted contacts are the closest we’ve got in Managua.
So Skype-ing, which has so far connected us mainly to our kid’s paternal grandparents, now seems poised to take on an even more important role in our lives. Because it will allow us to see and to hear our family and friends (the ones who have Skype, anyway), and them to see and hear us. It’s not the same as spending time in the same room as people we love, of course, but it’s tangible in a way that blog posts (yes, we do have a blog!), comments, and e-mails are not.
Maintaining important relationships over long distance is not new to me. I left home and traveled that 2,300 miles or so to go to college in California (which is where I met the man who is now my husband). I did e-mail my parents (they embraced this method of communication whole-heartedly), but I often needed to hear my mother’s voice, to just pick up the phone and talk to her. I imagine that if Skype had existed then, I would also have wanted to see her face (even a little blurry) and hear her voice (if slightly delayed at times). My husband and I endured two long years of living in different cities before we managed to be in graduate school at the same place. E-mail, letters, phone calls, and visits as often as we could afford the time and money made it almost bearable. Again, if we had had video-chatting capabilities, I’m sure we would have used them.
Every new technology suffers from the occasional “technical difficulties.” I know I have spent more hours in ministry trying to get printers to work than I ever could have imagined. We actually switched to Skype from a different video-chat program because the picture would freeze, and there were often voice delays. Skype also has its issues, from time to time. Sometimes the picture disappears, other times the sound doesn’t work, and sometimes the voices cut out and come back choppily, just like a bad phone connection. Currently, I am unable to figure out how to successfully Skype with my sister (who is in Central America already). We both have laptops with built-in cameras, microphones, and speakers, and the appropriate software installed. It sort of works; we can see one another, and I can hear her, but for some reason she can’t hear me. So, she talks to me, we make faces at each other, and I respond with text in a chat window.
Part of me suspects that this is and will continue to be a metaphor for our communication with everyone “back home.” That somehow they won’t be able to hear us, understand what we’re saying. It’s certainly a challenge to explain why we’re going off to be missionaries, when so many ties of kinship, friendship, and church community bind us to the United States. It’s also hard to explain that we are not going to convert people, but we will be serving with and learning from a church that is very interested in converting people. (Usually one half of that sentence comes through, but not the other, depending on the listener.) I also expect that we will grow and change as a result of our experiences abroad, perhaps not quite as rapidly as our infant daughter was growing and changing in her first year of life. Whether this will come through clearly, I do not know.
What I do know is that when I think about the next three years, I imagine my trusty laptop in the home we will have, bringing me the faces and voices of beloved friends, family, and church-folk, bringing our faces and voices to them. I hope it will make missing them more bearable, and the mission we are undertaking more intelligible. I am glad that with all the changes we’re putting her through, our kid will still be able to talk to Nana and Grandpapa in the computer. I also imagine that at the end of our three years, there will be new faces and voices that we will want very much to be able to see and hear. Maybe we’ll install a webcam before we leave.
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