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.