Monday, August 14, 2017

An Unbalanced Force

Sure the trees are nice, but where are all the people??
We are on vacation in the mountains, staying in a beautiful guesthouse for overseas workers. Inside our cabin is comfortable and tasteful; outside the large windows and spacious porch overlook an unobstructed view of green, rolling mountains.

But Juliana was a bit skeptical. “I like our house in China better, don’t you? I like that the kitchen is small, and I like our bathroom because it is small. I like how the laundry porch smells. Don’t you like our China house better?”

I tried to give a diplomatic answer about liking that one because it was our home, but liking this one because it was really nice and pretty. She was not satisfied. In fact, she was offended that we did not come to the defense of our China home. She looked around outside the windows and gave her final complaint.

“There are too many trees. They block the view of all the other people!”

Ah, our social little city-dweller. While we are basking in the natural expanse, she misses knowing there are thousands of people all around. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

In another week we will return to our China home. I return with mixed feelings. I will be happy to get back into our own space, and I look forward to a predictable rhythm of days. But I have recognized that part of my predictable life rhythm follows the law of inertia. “A [Ruth] at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force.”  An unbalanced force...yes, there seem to be a lot of those in my life, propelling me out of rest and back into transition.

While Juliana is always ready for the next adventure, a part of me never wants to leave where I am. Even if I am looking forward to my destination, I inwardly cringe at the prospect of making another transition. It doesn’t help that there is often a long day+ of travel in the way. But I know this about myself: I do not like change and I do not appreciate the unfamiliar.

The first day in a new place is a shock to the system, as I scramble again to find my bearings. I suspect part of this is related to being highly sensitive. My senses are flooded with too much to take in; I cannot appreciate it until I have a chance to settle down and absorb the small things.

The first day back, I recoil from America. Even as I appreciate the aesthetic beauty, I am turned off by the unconscious affluence and the ridiculous choices. Why don’t people walk anywhere? Why do people have so much stuff? How can their possibly be 50 different types of canned tomatoes??

I wrinkle my nose at the California desert. Dry and lifeless. Who wants a dirt yard and scrub brush “trees”? Don’t they know rivers are supposed to have water in them? But I slowly adjust to the desert, to the different colors, to the beauty of these resilient plants. When we leave, I miss the open sky and the view of sunsets.

Those first days in Georgia, the trees seem to close us in. The sky is so small and the light is filtered through layers of humidity. Even at night the air is warm. I am shocked and a little frightened to see confederate flags on jacked up pickup trucks. What is this world we have stepped into?

But the trees win me over. They always do. Myriad shades of green flutter in the breeze. The whole world is effortlessly covered in life. Bright colored birds flit from branch to branch and deer graze peacefully right in my parents' backyard. The southern drawl soothes instead of irritates. Maybe this is my world after all.

I have returned to China often enough to know what it will be like. My heart will cringe as we land in the Beijing smog. The harshness of language will bruise my ears. The first time I step outside, I will be accosted by smells – pollution, stinky tofu – and noise – horns and loudspeakers and stores blasting competing music. I will dismally survey the gray and rust and faded yellow of ten year old buildings already falling apart. Why do we live here again?

But then I will return to those familiar spaces. The wind will blow the mountains clear, and their rugged peaks will orient me again. When we walk to our little vegetable shop, neighbors will beam and hurry to welcome us back (mainly interested in the girls). I will pile some eggs in a bag and choose from the giant, dirt covered carrots while Juliana runs on the playground, thrilled to be back in the land where there are always friends waiting outside. It will feel right.

If I am patient, I will push through the disorientation and rediscover the beauty in the familiar. Juliana will exalt in our stuffy little bathroom because there is her Strawberry Shortcake towel! And the tiny toilet is just the right height! And remember this little bowl for washing our feet?!

I will step out onto the laundry porch, looking beyond the endlessly drying laundry hung above me, and appreciate the warmth of the sun and the pattern of rainbows the prism scatters on the tile floor. I will settle in the chair next to the bank of windows, momentarily hidden from all the surrounding neighbors and students. I will hear the chatter of birds and the wind rushing through the trees. 

We may not have the variety of birds or trees of Georgia. Our mountain view may be obscured by apartment buildings - and often by smog. But I will remember that the sunset is still beautiful even when I can't see the whole sky. A solitary tree still ripples joyfully in the wind.

In the familiar, I will find balance again. In the balance, I will rediscover the beauty that is already all around.
Our unblocked view of all the people

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Shock of Being (Almost) Totally Normal

20 hours down, 10 to go
The first day back in America I think, “The trip was too short.”  Believe me, I this is NOT a thought I have at hour 20 of the trip with 10 more hours to go. But while 30 hours seems like a long trip with three kids in tow, it also seems like such short a time to hop between worlds.

We get on the plane in Beijing and we get off the plane (or another plane) in Los Angeles or Atlanta in a completely different world.  The world seems too big, encompassing too many worlds. Or perhaps it is too small, enabling us to jump from one world to another in a long day’s time.

Walking through the airport, suddenly we are normal. There are so many different kinds of people that we could be almost anyone and still blend in. No one is staring at us, our white family with three little girls. Why would they stare, when there are lots of people who look like us, are the same size and shape as us, even wear the same kind of clothes as us? Three children is absolutely unremarkable.

We can understand what other people say.  It is easier to tune out Chinese speakers (unless they are yelling into a cell phone) because I have to consciously pay attention to understand.  Now I overhear dozens of conversations, and my brain tunes in because it hears English. I have to think more carefully about what I say because everyone can understand me.

Everyone gets into their own cars and drive down the road.  Of course everyone has a car. How could you survive in a spread out city like Atlanta or LA without a car?  Everyone has a car with car seats, and no one seems to have wooden-runged seat covers.

We drive past so many western restaurants.  In fact, they don’t even call them western restaurants, just “restaurants.” You can eat pizza or hamburgers or burritos and everybody thinks that’s a totally normal thing to do. You can go right through the drive through, since nobody wants to get out of their cars.

You can stop in the bathroom and there is toilet paper right there on the wall! The sink is equipped with soap and even free paper towels for drying your hands. “Don’t worry - we just give away toilet paper and paper towels. No biggie.” Want to buy a ginormous Coke the size of your small child?  No problem! So is everyone else!

The houses are huge. Even the normal sized houses.  I feel strange showing students pictures of our family houses sometimes, because they must think we are incredibly rich.  Most are single family homes, separated from everyone else. Even if you live in a neighborhood, you may only see a dozen homes from your window.  As opposed to say, hundreds right across from you.

The houses are filled with things like closets. Not just closets, but entire room-sized closets.  Bedroom closets and hall closets and entry way closets. Sometimes I’m going to have to tell our Chinese friends about the closets. They wouldn’t believe it. Not only closets, but also basements and attics.  No wonder why we have so much stuff - we have to fill up all that storage space!

Most houses have multiple bathrooms.  Most people wouldn’t dream of sharing one small bathroom with their entire family plus guests. People have whole upstairs portions of their house not even seen by guests. I realize I have seen the entirety of almost everyone’s China house, generally visible from the living room. Our students know what we eat, what shampoo we use, and how clean our bedroom is. There are no secrets.

Kitchens are huge (huge) and filled with all manner of convenience. Pots and pans and bowls of all sizes. (But no rice cooker or electric water boiler - I can’t get over that). Pantries are filled with cereal and full loaves of bread, refrigerators are filled with cheese and shoot ice right out of the door!  Ice, people!  This would be so mystifying in China.

Most houses have backyards. At this point in life, my sin of covetousness pretty much revolves around backyards. And maybe dishwashers, avacados, and boundless energy. But mostly backyards.  You literally just walk right out your door and you are outside. Boom. You don’t even have to put shoes on.

“Hey kids, run play outside. You don’t have to worry about cars, and you are close enough I can hear if you are screaming. You can scatter your toys around because you aren’t taking up anyone else’s space. Run through those puddles - get all wet and muddy - nobody will look askance. Ride your bike around - there is no one to run you over.”

You hop on an airplane and 30 hours later the things you do make sense. Nobody thinks you are weird for having three children, eating cereal, drinking cold water, letting your kids get all dirty, wearing flip-flops, using a car seat… In fact, people kind of freak out if you don’t use a car seat. Do you know how weird it is to be normal?

Of course, we still soap up our vegetables and shed shoes the moment we enter a house and speak Chinese to the guy on our flight and wander aimlessly around the grocery store. Our children still confuse the US and China flags and look suspiciously upon ice water and throw toilet paper in the trash and get a little too excited about drinking fountains and mailboxes. So maybe we aren’t quite normal.

Feeling too normal? Just hop on an airplane and thirty hours later everything you do will be weird. That’s good to know isn’t it?  There is a crazy different world waiting just thirty hours away.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Minivans, 三轮车's, and Being Totally Normal

Back when we first got our 三轮车
This past week I have been playing at being an American mom. I do feel a bit like a kid playing house. “Hey everyone!  Look at me, driving along in my air conditioned minivan, sipping my coffee, rocking along to annoying kid songs and 80’s and 90’s music. Don’t I look normal? I’m so normal you’re not even looking.”

When I was first adjusting to China, I always felt most in tune with the culture when winding through chaotic traffic on a bicycle. This was back in the day when almost everyone was on bicycles and motorbikes and cars were the definite minority.  
This is what foreigner parking looks like in China!
Even now, bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), driving down the road makes me feel connected.  Our city is full of these carts. Tiny, super slow ones that look like an oversized tricycle with an “old person” seat in the back, pick-up truck sized ones packed high with deliveries, and sometimes ones like ours filled with a family.  Whatever the size, they bounce and jolt and rattle and clank along, bridging the gap between bicycle and car.

Our 三轮车 has been a lifesaver with three kids.  I occasionally did two kids on a bike, but once they get big enough that isn’t too easy - or safe.  I think of our 三轮车 as the equivalent to a van.  We can pile all the kids in the back or fill it up with groceries on my bi-monthly supermarket trips.

But actually I realize, it’s not quite the same thing as a van.  For one thing, it is about half the size of a compact car.  If Kevin is driving, the girls and I can all squeeze onto the benches in the back with our knees touching. We always drive it at full speed, which varies from somewhat faster than a bike to somewhat faster than walking, depending on how many people it is carrying.  And it is bumpy, very bumpy.

While we have pretty successfully winterized our vehicle with a canvas cover for the back and a blanket type drape in the front, it is far from climate controlled.  Long about December, we pile on all our winter gear, reluctant to leave any skin exposed to the 13* wind.  
...but still pretty cold!
As summer heats up in Georgia, I am really appreciating the ability to hop in the car and turn up the A/C.  Driving around in my parent’s super cool minivan, I am not only protected from weather but also from noise and other people.  Granted, there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many people staring at me here (because I am doing such a good job at being normal), but even if they wanted to stare, they’d only get glimpses through the window as we sped past.  Did you know that you can’t even see inside tinted windows?  Crazy, right?  It’s like driving along in your own little private world all the time.

I can settle back in the cushioned seat, listening to music or to the quiet (or more likely to an endless stream of chatter), practically gliding over the road.  I can sip from my coffee conveniently placed in my cup holder right beside me.  This is a big disadvantage of a 三轮车 - not being able to drink coffee while driving.

As a person with a ravenous appetite for quiet, I really appreciate the relative isolation the car can provide.  You could pick up coffee, food, medicine, money, and groceries without even leaving the comfort of your isolation.  Some days I would love not having to interact with the world.

And yet, as we bounce slowly along in our 三轮车, we memorize the little details of our drives.  We wave at our fruit lady at her roadside stall. We pull off to grab a baked sweet potato from the cart.  We swerve in and out of traffic and around holes and sometimes down the wrong side of the road (if that’s a thing), because we aren’t yet confined to the more ordered rules of cars.  

We enter into the fullness of the seasons - like it or not - the bite of winter, the autum crispness.  We smell the air - coal in the winter, flowers in the spring.  Our transportation doesn’t isolate us from our world but connects us to it.  While every day, more and more cars enter the road, the road rhythm of China still follows the tradition of bicycles and motorbikes and 三轮车.

In the dead of winter, covered by hats and scarves and masks, with only a tiny bit of eye showing, we bounce down the road in our 三轮车.  And for a moment, we are almost normal.
Totally normal, right?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Staying Alive

Each semester we fill out a self-reflection form on how different areas of life are going - daily responsibilities, family, interactions with the culture.  The end of the form asks you to complete the sentence, “What I feel best about this semester is…” I said, “…that we are all still alive.”

Honestly, in years like this one staying alive has really felt like a success.

I tend to have high expectations of myself. When I met with some counselors in Beijing last month, they asked me to write a list of my self-expectations as a mom, wife, person living in China. It was an easy homework assignment for me. I quickly typed up a list of very specific things I “should do” as a mom. I stopped when I reached 50 and realized this could go on or a while.

In general, if someone else is doing something healthful, useful, or admirable, I feel like I should be doing it as well. All The Things. Even contradictory things, like eating more meat and less meat. Being more organized and more go-with-the-flow. Having a spotless house and not being bothered by mess. It was helpful to think through these expectations - many of them were good ideas but completely unrealistic.

You know a pretty effective means for lowering your self-expectations? Being really sick and not able to do anything. Even as I have slowly recovered, I’ve had to focus much more on top priorities. Make sure everyone eats something. Make sure everyone has bathed in the memorable past and is wearing some manner of clothing. Dispense medicine.

The main goal has been to keep everyone alive and manage the current sicknesses. Will another day of peanut butter sandwiches and mismatched clothes reach that goal? Yes, it will.

This is what is called “survival mode,” and we have been living here so long I have almost lost sight of normal life. The kind of life where it doesn’t take a month to finally get around to taking out weather appropriate clothing. The kind of life where you don’t have to rest between each activity. The kind of life where your friends don’t greet you with cries of, “You’re alive!”

When I am healthy I can convince myself that maybe my ridiculous expectations are really possible. At least I could do better than I’m doing now. Fix more meals with the right vegetables. Do more creative activities in home school. Make an effort to interact more in Chinese.

When I am sick, when we are all constantly sick, these expectations are not even in sight line. We ate something commonly believed to be food? Excellent. We finally managed a math lesson. Good job. I went outside for a few minutes. Progress!

Of course I don’t want to stay in this sick place. It has been exhausting and relentless and ridiculous. I hardly recognize Nadia when she is healthy because her personality is so different. She runs around giggling instead of clinging to me crying all the time. Last week I looked at a picture of myself from a few years ago and my first thought was, “Wow, I looked so healthy.”

The other day when I was driving down the road I had this strange feeling of being in a foreign country. Apparently there is more to China than the view from my bedroom window. I sat in the heat under the full green trees and wondered what happened to spring. Weren’t the first buds just coming out? I think we were wearing jackets before I got sick, and now we are sweating in front of fans.

It seems like we were just getting into the rhythm of the semester. We had that one great month of health! Now suddenly we are leaving in two weeks and the whole semester seems lost. (But then, it wasn’t that great a semester anyway.)

I realize that many people live in this place. It feels disorienting to me because I don’t usually spend all my time going to hospitals and practicing breathing and trying to stay alive. Despite the constant sickness, we aren’t worried about piles of medical bills or if we will lose insurance. I don’t know how to get out of this sickness cycle, but I am pretty sure that at some point we will get better. We will get back to my vision of “normal life.” This is the privilege of the healthy.

The other day a friend was talking about the sticker charts she was using for her kids. It sounded like a great idea. I want to be organized! I want to do at least a few creative or clever things worthy of Pinterest. Heck, even worthy of a Pinterest fail. I want practically everything in life to work better than it does right now. I want sticker charts!!

But right now sticker charts are completely out of reach. There is no way I will remember to put stickers on charts. I am just trying to remember to brush teeth and get everyone to take their medicines.

The good thing was, as I contemplated sticker charts I wasn’t thinking, “I should do sticker charts. I am such a disorganized mom and my kids are out of control because I don’t do sticker charts,” Instead I was thinking, “I should not even attempt to do sticker charts right now. Sticker charts are not part of the survival plan.” Yay for lowered expectations! Long live mediocrity!

But honestly, I think it is less about mediocrity and more about realizing what success looks like in this season of life. Right now success does not look like lots of from-scratch meals and a spotless house and sticker charts. I want those things, but they just don’t fit with my priorities right now. Right now success looks like everyone eating something, taking probiotics, and staying alive.

Today we all ate, we all wore clothes, and we all stayed alive!  I guess it was a great day after all.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Good Gifts in Strange Packaging

When I texted a friend to let her know I was at the hospital, she asked “Did you bring someone to run up and down or you?” Clearly she has some experience with Chinese hospitals. I managed to avoid the hospital through one week in bed with flu, but when I started getting worse and having more trouble breathing, I knew I needed to break down and get a chest x-ray.

Fortunately, Kevin and a student were with me to help with the running up and down as well as translation. The process went like this:
1. Wait in long line to register
2. Be examined by doctor
3. Wait in line to pay for bloodwork and x-ray
4. Get blood drawn
5. Wait for x-ray
6. Get bloodwork results
7. Wait for x-ray results
8. Consult with doctor
9. Wait in line to pay for CT
10. Wait for CT
11. Wait for CT results
12. Consult with doctor
13. Wait to pay for medicine
14. Get medicine

These were actually all on the first floor, but there was a lot of back and forth and waiting in line. Fortunately the hospital wasn’t too crowded so we were in and out in three hours. The doctor seemed thorough and even told the others to wait outside the exam room. (When I saw another doctor a few days later, the small exam room was crowded with 17 people waiting to jump in and grab their turn. This is more normal.) She was willing to give me oral antibiotics to take home, instead of spending hours getting IVs or worse, having to stay in the hospital.

I was very happy to go home, but I wasn’t so happy about the diagnosis: pneumonia in both lungs. I was really hoping to avoid that. I had already been sick in bed with the flu for more than a week. I thought I was finally getting better.

The week in bed with the flu wasn’t so bad. I felt terrible, but being in bed wasn’t so bad.  Toward the end of the week, I opened my devotional book and read, “Consider what great things He has done for you.” Strangely enough, I immediately knew He was talking about the flu.

The day before I started feeling sick, I hosted a small group of women gathered here for a retreat put together by Velvet Ashes for women serving all over the world.  The main passage for this retreat was 1 Kings 19, when God provided for Elijah in the wilderness and then spoke to him through a gentle whisper.

As I read through the passage, I could relate Elijah’s feeling. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said as he laid down in exhaustion, “Take my life.” I haven’t been at the point of wanting to die, but many times this year I have felt Done. It has been such a long season of sickness, terrible sleep, more sickness, depression, anxiety, burnout. Sometimes I have just had enough.

But what I especially noticed was how God responded to Elijah.  He didn’t say, “Stop being dramatic. Get over yourself. Get on with being useful - you’re a big time prophet after all.” God just fed him. He provided food and water right where he was lying. Then he let him rest again and fed him again. He never showed impatience. He said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”

Isn’t it reassuring? God didn’t say, “I will never give you more than you can handle, so if you can’t handle this you are obviously need more faith.” He said, this is more than you can handle, so let me give you strength. After Elijah rested and ate - and rested and ate again - he had the strength to travel for 40 days to a place where God spoke to him.

As we contemplated this passage through the retreat, I knew that God was telling me it was okay to rest and allow him to care for me. It was okay that the journey is too much for me. I wasn’t quite sure what this would look like in practical life, but I certainly wasn’t picturing more sickness, after this year of relentless sickness.

Nevertheless, at the end of the first week in bed, when I read “Consider what great things He has done for you,” I knew God was saying the sickness was a great thing he had done for me. “In faithfulness he has afflicted you.” What a strange idea. But when else would I have the chance to stay in bed and stare at the wall, to disengage from life? I wasn’t able to take care of others; I had to allow them to take care of me. God was going to great lengths to give me rest!

The time was not easy on my family. Kevin was exhausted from taking care of the girls and doing what I normally do - on top of all he normally does. The girls were hardly showing their best sides. Okay actually they were being jerks. The house was a wreck. I was itching to get things back under control, under my control. I have some control issues.

“Thanks God,” I thought. “I’m glad I learned that lesson and am getting better.”

But I didn’t get better. Instead I got pneumonia. That wasn’t what I had pictured either.  “I’m grateful for the rest,” I said in my little talk with God, “But don’t you think this is a little overkill?? Also p.s. this is just making me weaker and more tired.”

Another week in bed, wondering if I was actually getting better. Wondering how we were going to get through this. Worrying the antibiotics wouldn’t really help. Worrying about Adalyn’s stomach problems and Nadia’s fever. Worrying about the horrible air as a huge dust storm blew through.  Getting up with Nadia every few hours of the night, as babies are no respecters of sickness or sleep. Almost forgetting what normal life felt like, the kind of normal that allows me to be out of bed for more than ten minutes.

I finished re-watching Downton Abbey. I read some recommendations from my book club. I stared at the wall. I spent too much time mindlessly scrolling Facebook. And God continued to speak to me.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…
In the day when I cried out, You answered me, and made me bold with strength in my soul…
Did I not say that if you believed you would see the glory of God?...
Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows…
For he knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust…

I want to bring this lesson to a close. I want to be strong again. I want to stop being the needy one. Not just these two weeks, but these two years. Can it be my turn to have it all together now, to be the bold and daring and super-awesome-wish-I-was-her one instead of the one always going on about needing grace?

I want this season of sickness to be over. I truly do. But I have realized I don’t have to wait for things to get better to say, “Yay, he finally healed us. See I knew God was good.”

At the end of this long year of sickness, I realize God is not waiting to show his goodness through finally making us well. He is already showing his goodness through the sickness. He shows me that he cares for me even when I can’t do anything useful. He shows me I don’t have to be in control. He shows me that other people love me and want to help. He shows me he is faithful and strong and present. 

I am still sick in bed. He is still good.

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say...

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Friday, April 21, 2017

Springing from the Ground

In some years past, spring has crept up on me unawares. I looked out the window surprised to find the ground covered in fresh green grass.  This year the transformation seemed to come more slowly, probably because I was watching so intently. From the start of spring, I have looked out the window every day examining the ground five floors below. Dead yellow grass and bare brown earth. One day after a rain, I noticed the first hints of green. The next day the fresh grass had spread a little further, mixing with the dry remnants of the last year. Each day the green spread a little more until one day I discovered the whole ground covered in beautiful vibrant new life.
Spring often comes in slow, stumbling steps. One day the trees are covered with pink and yellow and white blossoms. The sky is blue and spacious. The air is warm and gentle, the world is friendly and accepting, bursting with life. The next day the clouds turn dark without the promise of rain. The wind picks up, cold and menacing. Even the flowers seem muted, disappointed. Perhaps spring was just a dream. Winter will not so easily give up the fight.
Healing also comes slowly when you are paying attention. Is today better than the last? Is anything really changing? Some days the world seems full of hope. Life is not so hard. I feel something like energy. Without great effort, my thoughts naturally turn positive. I find myself noticing the shine in Adalyn’s eyes and the softness of Nadia’s cheeks and the vivacious aura that radiates from Juliana.
Other days the world seems hostile again, irreparably broken, and I am broken in it. My thoughts swirl into darkness.  I find myself noticing the road that is torn and broken, the person in dark glasses watching me with a blank face, or a fluorescent light flickering in an empty window and think, “That is weird. Ominous. Something is not right.” I must remind myself that there is nothing inherently strange about sunglasses or road construction or dying light bulbs. But there is truth in my thoughts - the world is broken and waiting for healing.

The brokenness is real and so is the healing. Even Jesus, who saw the whole picture and knew the end of things, experienced grief and exhaustion because he was human. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t just tell the sisters, “Stop crying guys, I’m about to raise him from the dead!” He also entered into their suffering and wept with them. He was grieved by the brokenness he saw in the world. He groaned with the weight of burden placed upon him. He was “a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief.” He understands us in all our humanness.

There was a moment all those years ago, a few days, when it seemed that death and brokenness and despair had the last word. The sky darkened and the earth shook. The people cried out in fear. The earth was torn apart, and his followers hid in despair. But it was not the end.

In fact, it was just the beginning. The day of greatest darkness birthed the dawn of greatest light. Cruel wounds brought healing, death brought life, despair brought hope, condemnation brought grace.
We look around and some days all we see is the brokenness, but we can look into it without despair. And we can also look for evidences of life - in the shimmering evening sky, in the sound of baby giggles, in a counter wiped clean, in the blessing of mercies and coffee new every morning. Each spring the new flowers and grass remind us that death does not win. Brokenness is being restored.  When we open our eyes, we see glimpses all around.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Home Sweet China Home

We have now lived in the same apartment for over three years – a record! It has also been 5.5 years since we moved to Yinchuan! In honor of this unprecedented stability, I want to share my favorite aspects of our current home.
I wrote a while ago about our past apartment. I liked that apartment – despite the roaches and mold – but it would be hard to go back because this one is so much better. It may not be quite up to American dream home standards (one bathroom, no hot water in the sinks, a few spots where the wall or ceiling is falling apart), but it is a great China apartment.
 My favorite place in our apartment is the laundry porch. It's not because I love hanging up laundry. The “porch” is actually an enclosed area just off our bedroom which has windows on every side. It is the place that gets the most direct sunlight, making it very warm in the winter. I moved our ikea chair out there so I can sit in the sun. It is the furthest I can get from the general noise in the house (except for maybe the kitchen pantry, which is much less comfortable), and it takes the girls longer to notice I am there, giving me an extra 3.5 seconds of quiet. Even though the windows look into our neighbors' laundry porches, several classroom buildings, and a relatively busy campus thoroughfare, when I sit in my chair I mostly just see sky. And wet clothes hanging above me.
The girl's bedroom is warm and colorful, and it also gets lots of sunlight.  Natural light has always been important to me. I dislike artificial lights, and we get enough sunshine here I rarely have to turn on the lights during the day.
I had just cleaned their doesn't always look like this!
 A three-bedroom apartment leaves space to have an office/guest room/storage space/mud room. It is always a mess, therefore I try to avoid it. But Kevin is able to close the door and work on lessons with minimal disruption (he doesn't seem to mind mess). We have room for our big shoe rack (because of course we don't wear shoes indoors!), our big coat rack, and our bike helmet rack. Whenever we do actually have guests, we can clean up the bed/clutter gatherer.
Yeah, it usually looks like this.
The kitchen is another highlight, featuring a large window, bright blue cabinets, decent cabinet space, a two burner stove, and an actual pantry! It is a huge step up from our last kitchen. The attached eating area also houses the fridge, oven, and water machine. I like this area a little less because of the lack of noise absorption. Our mealtimes are very loud!
Some other nice features:
*Our recent paint job makes the walls look much cleaner and homier.
*The white tiles only look good when they are really clean, but they are nicer than gray tiles that never look clean.
*The large living room has enough room for running in circles, dance performances, slide tricks, and fort building. We also have a small home-school corner and enough seating for large groups.
*Our bedroom is small enough there really isn't room for it to get messy.
*The bathroom has space for a curtained off shower area. The whole floor still gets wet, but the rest of the room can stay dry. The bathroom also rarely smells like sewer gas.
Chinese bathrooms are never a thing of beauty, but I do appreciate having a shower area!
*Our laundry poles crank down to load and up to the ceiling so the clothes can be out of the way (thus allowing me to sit underneath them).
*We have no upstairs neighbors, so no sound coming through the ceiling. I cannot say the same for our poor downstairs neighbors...
*We have space to park our san lun che (3 wheeled vehicle) just below our apartment so we can run a super long extension cord from the 5th floor to charge it!
*Almost all of our furniture is school provided, but it is mostly decent and includes several nice bookshelves.
*On clear days, we can see the mountains from the windows.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Still Pretty Foreign

I am sitting in a tiny chair, listening to Juliana's kindergarten teacher rattle off a bunch of instructions to parents, thinking, “I don't know Chinese. At all.” The other parents are looking glassy-eyed after two hours of sitting around, but at least they can understand what the teacher is saying. These are all the specific things your child should have in their backpack. Don't just pack all their favorite snacks (I'm looking at you grandparents). This is the new procedure for picking up your kids. And fifteen minutes of other stuff I have no clue about.

I have the idea that after this many years, living in a foreign country should be easy. It should, right? We have lived here for the most part of twelve years. I have spent nearly a third of my life – pretty much all of my adult life – in China. It feels like home. Sort of.

It also never ceases to feel like a foreign country. The habits and customs of our childhood culture run deep. I am fascinated by culture because it influences us so profoundly in ways we don't even realize. After all these years, a lot of the things that bother me are not necessarily bad, they are just still so different.

I grew up in the suburbs and then in the country, where my family were the only inhabitants of 6.5 acres of peaceful nature, 30 miles from the city. Now I live in a country with 1.3 billion people, in a city, on a small campus with 20,000 students packed 6 to a dorm room.

The walls of our fifth floor apartment seem thin. In reality, I hear little from our neighbors, but I am aware of their nearness. I am particularly aware of the ones below us, who undoubtedly hear plenty of jumping and stomping and screaming. They kind of scowl when they see us outside. We hear the laughter of students, the rattling of carts, and the roar of trucks bumping along the road just below us. Over a hundred windows look into our own.

Outside, we are watched. Not in a creepy way, but there are always people around, and they are always curious about the foreigners. Random strangers turn to watch us every day, every where we go. Students gasp as they catch sight of the girls, taking their pictures or summoning the courage to say hi. The girls are used to this attention but they do not always receive it benevolently.

Even Juliana, attention lover that she is, gets tired of people touching her. After stopping a random stranger on the street who is trying to pick up Adalyn, I explain to her, “You don't have to let people touch you and hold you. If you don't like that it's okay to say so. But you do need to be kind.” I watch Nadia closely to see how she responds – is she comfortable with the attention or do I need to intervene? Will this person be gentle or pushy? Why do people love playing the “I'm going to steal you away from your parents” game? What kid thinks that is funny?

Our own neighbors are familiar with us. They watch us kindly as if we are unusual but relatively normal people. At the park or the supermarket or on the street, however, we are more of a spectacle. In their excitement or curiosity, strangers sometimes forget we are real people, not just a fascinating display for their viewing, touching, picture taking pleasure.

Our weirdness comes out in the most normal of circumstances. I think about it whenever I drink cold water or eat bread instead of rice or put on a bike helmet or home-school my daughter or write with my left hand or step outside the door with my white face. I am foreign. I will always be foreign.

There are other stresses in China that I am realizing will never go away. Language has always been a stress. Even after all these years, it is still a big challenge. Chinese is no joke! Kevin teaching English and me spending so much time at home with kids does not place us in optimal language positions. We can do all the basics and carry on conversation, but there are always things I don't understand.

Almost every Chinese conversation involves stress. Even if I do understand everything, or enough to get the general idea, there is always the fear that I won't understand and will look like an idiot. Or I will understand but won't be able to think of all the right words to respond. When I interact with Juliana's teachers I want to say, “Really, I'm smart! I know I sound like your kindergarteners, but I actually have a masters degree!”

I feel stress whenever the children are sick – will they need to go to the hospital, where I don't fully understand the doctor and don't necessarily trust what he says anyway? Will people blame me for not putting enough clothes on them or feeding them the right food or letting them sit on the tile floor?

There is the stress of travel – the ridiculous 30+ hour trips to see our family and the jetlag and the suitcases and the children shuffled from one place to the next with too little routine and too little sleep.

I feel the stress of uncertainty – What if something happens and we have to leave China? What if the school decided they didn't want us to live here anymore? Will Juliana be able to go to primary school part time next year and how will we figure out the system? Will Adalyn's kindergarten teachers know what to do with a foreign kid, and how will she handle being the only foreign kid in an all-Chinese environment?

There is the stress of responsibility – Am I using my time well? Is it worth us being here? Are we spending enough time with students? Why don't we know our colleagues better? Are we friendly enough with our neighbors? At the end of the day how do you ever do enough?

Many things about life are easier than the used to be. We understand the culture much better, but with children we are constantly venturing into new aspects of life. Just like everyone, we worry about their schooling and their social life – and we also worry about how they are handling always being the weird ones.

So what do we do with these stresses? That is what we are trying to work out. I think the first step is recognizing these areas are still challenging so we can give ourselves grace.  Beyond that...well, I'll let you know when we figure it out.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

So Weak and Strong

The first pill was surprisingly hard to take.

It wasn't the first time I had been on an anti-depressant, and I was not opposed to starting again. I could understand the doctor's belief that this was more than just situational. “If you had high blood pressure or heart problems you might need to take medicine. This is no different. Your brain needs some help getting regulated again.” It was explained this way both now and in the past, and it made sense.

Still, starting medication seemed like an admission: This is bad, and I can't fix it myself. I suppose I already knew it was bad. I already went through the “ignore it and maybe it will go away” phase, and it only got worse. Eventually that word, that force I had dodged for so long was again staring me unavoidably in the face. Depression.

I tried to take care of it myself. Reduce stress, get sleep, exercise, eat well, think positive, get out of the house. But sleep has been a joke, and sickness has piled on sickness. My efforts at life change were thwarted by circumstances I could not control. Mama needs a break, but baby is crying with a fever. Mama may be throwing up, but baby needs nursing. The “self-care” I did manage was a brief pause in a downhill plunge.

I used to think depression looked like sadness and crying all the time. And sometimes it does. But actually I rarely cry. I don't feel sad as much as heavy. Hazy. Anxious. Deathly tired. It is like carrying around a giant weight everywhere you go. It is like too many programs open on your computer and nothing is operating as it should. It is like walking through thick smog – you know there is a road ahead but you can't see it. The weight of the future grips so tightly you can't get a full breath.

“You know that point in a book,” I told a friend, “When you see the person heading in a bad direction and you just want to say, 'Stop! Don't go there!' That's how I feel about my life right now. I know I am walking down a bad path and I just can't get off.”

I felt sick at the thought of heading back into the same situation with the same futile hope of fixing myself. The weight of responsibility was too heavy: I have to figure this out. I have to do something to fix this. And I am just so tired. I already have so many people to take care of – I don't want to have to take care of myself too. What if I can't make myself better and we have to go home?

So the medicine represented relief. This is something that will help me even when I can't do all the right things, even if we stay sick all the time, even if we can't get this baby to sleep. I cannot reasonably expect myself to change my brain chemistry. I can let the medicine do that, and that's okay.

And yet the medicine represented my weakness. Oh, I don't mentally believe that, but of course it feels that way. Whatever you tell yourself and others tell you, depression feels like weakness, like a character flaw. We have all heard that if you just think positively enough you can heal yourself. If you just have enough faith. If you just ate the right food or used the right oils or had the right genes you wouldn't have this problem. Even in this modern day we hear whispers of shame, shame. This is your fault.

I took the first pill. And the second and third and a couple of weeks down the line I already feel a difference, a change in my brain. Breath comes a little easier. Moments look a little sharper. I feel hope that I could climb out of this hole and enjoy life again.

I can face those whispers of weakness and say, No, that is a lie. No one chooses their genes, no one controls the makeup of their brain. I am weak, not because I am depressed but because I am human. None of us were meant to be so strong we have no need for others, no need for grace.

I am weak, but I am also strong. I am strong because I cared for my family. I am strong because I cared for myself. I am strong because I got the help I needed. I could not see the path ahead but still I kept walking.

I still cannot picture the months ahead or wrap my mind around the future. My brain becomes overwhelmed and turns away. I accept this gift of fog that allows me to focus instead on today. I look out the window at the bare trees and the cold brown earth. But I remember the springtimes of the past, I remember that one day I will be startled to find leaves in bud. The bare ground will sprout fresh green grass. Breathe in, breathe out, and watch the colors come back.

I write about my depression, even though it is very personal, because maybe you understand what I am talking about and you need to know you are not alone. I write about it because maybe you have never experienced depression, but I am almost certain that someone you know is dealing with it, whether you realize or not.  Maybe this will help you to understand them a little better.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Nadia Charlotte - 1 Year Old!!

I usually say, “I can't believe this child is getting so old! Where did the time go?” For the first few months of Nadia's life I did feel this way, but overall this year has seemed long, and actually it's hard to believe it was only a year ago that I held Nadia for the first time. Surely she has been part of our family for more than a year.
Isn't it amazing how you first look into that tiny baby's scrunchy red face and have no idea yet what they will become? Of course at one year, Nadia has quite a ways to go in her “becoming.” I still have a hard time figuring out her personality, partly because Juliana has always been so strongly extroverted and Adalyn has been so much calmer/quieter in comparison. Nadia is somewhere in the middle. Despite her overwhelming mama preference at the moment, I think she tends toward extroversion. She is easily bored on her own and quite happy in a crowded room full of older kids. She likes smiling and waving at others from the comfort of mama's arms.
It has also been harder to figure Nadia out because she has been sick so much. Twelve times in her first twelve months. Whenever she is sick she is understandably fussy, and by the time she is well I am often sick, which makes her fussy too. So it's hard to figure out how much is her temperament and how much is related to sickness. Either way, I am hoping toddlerhood will be easier and healthier.

When she is happy she is very, very happy, and when she is mad she screams very, very loudly. She can go from content to distraught in two seconds (generally when mama hands her off) and back again (when she gets mama back). She doesn't talk as much as the other girls, but she makes herself known.
All the girls have gone through a glued-to-mama phase around this age, but Nadia wishes she could get her hands on some super glue. She generally does okay with Kevin if I'm not there, but if I am in sight she wants me. She is so excited when I come home. Heck, she is so excited when I come out of the bathroom, if she wasn't already in there with me to begin with. She can be with Kevin six inches away from me and still wail because she is not WITH me. She needs to be able to smush her little body into mine.  When I hold her she clings to me and pats my back.  It is sweet and exhausting.
Undeniably one of my favorite things about Nadia is her chubby, chubby cheeks. And her chubby, chubby thighs. And chin. Pretty much all of her roly-poly self begs for kisses. Many people comment on her bright blue eyes, even westerners. A lot of people we see say she looks like me, but I'm not sure how much of that is because they see us together.
It's funny to think that she was so small when she was born. She dropped down to 5lb 11oz in the week after birth and the doctor was concerned she wasn't gaining enough. Apparently she took his concerns to heart because she shot right up the growth chart afterwards. She is currently 23 pounds or 90th percentile. She does love to nurse, all day and all night, although lately it resembles more of an acrobatic check-in. She also loves to eat. She eats pretty much what we do now and will try almost anything offered. Her favorite is probably crackers - although after today cake might a close runner up!

Speaking of her sisters, Nadia sure loves to be one of the pack. She likes to sit with them as they play Little People or My Little Ponies, quietly sneaking away their toys to chew on. Mostly she loves her sisters, although sometimes she loses patience when they love her a little too aggressively. When they come home she is always excited to see them, and she gets big smiles when it's time for night-night hugs. “Ni-ni” seems to be her first specific word, that's how much she enjoys the ritual.
For a while Nadia was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because she couldn't get a word in edgewise. Now she is babbling a good deal and will imitate some words, though she only seems to specifically say night-night and mama right now.

And you know about the sleep struggles. I guess it's improved some since the summer. She is not always waking up every 1-2 hours; sometimes she sleeps for several hours at a time. Sometimes she doesn't. Usually she sleeps from 7:30/8pm to 6:30/7am with 3-4 breaks in the middle. She naps twice a day, usually for 45 minutes, sometimes longer. Any progress has been slow and inevitably stopped by her getting sick, so what are you going to do? I'm holding out hope that we can make something stick in the second year.
Nadia can take a few steps on her own but isn't too interested in walking further right now. She has perfected the wave and lights delighting passersby by waving frantically at them. She claps and bangs and yells with the best of them. She just had her first try at a baby swing, which is a big hit. She has learned to climb up the little slide at our house and loves sliding down.

We'll see what the second year holds. Hopefully a lot less sickness, a lot more sleep, and all the same chubby smiles!