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