Thursday, September 30, 2010

{Close to Home} Central Station

I felt like a photographer for Better Homes and Gardens or something, taking pictures of this room today. All I needed was some children in immaculate, matching outfits playing some educational but previously unused game on the floor, and a vase of hydrangeas on the coffee table. How does every single home "happen" to have fresh hydrangeas readily available? Or is there a special hydrangea van that drives along to all the magazine shoots?

I'm not sporting any special flower arrangements or carefully groomed children today, just my living room as we see it most days, and as we live in it during so many hours of those days. Apartment living affords little room for basements or toy rooms, so we end up doing most things together, sprawled all over this space. 

I suppose that's why they are called "living" rooms. You do an awful lot of living there. 

Sometimes it drives me crazy that I can't have company over and send the kids to run wild in the basement, or  hang my laundry (on humid, rainy, or extremely cold days) in a room with that title, but then again we do end up being together more often than we might otherwise. Even when someone is reading, or on the computer, or trying to build a fort, it all ends up being within conversation length away.

And I like the idea that, just as each person is represented here by their well-used and most favored objects... their books or superhero outfit or box of diaper wipes, so too are the places we've been as we've begun to make our way around this world.

My husband's parents are beginning the task of packing up their life of twenty plus years in another land, and moving it halfway across the world. In a move like that, the reality is that most things get left behind, given away to others or sold for pocket change. I've done this once before, with far less than twenty years behind me, and if I ever have to do it again I can imagine that the process of weeding through these things, these memory laden objects or things that simply have passed the years alongside you, like an old but silent friend, will not be a light task.

Sometimes you must say goodbye. Saying it with care and with thanks seems an important thing to do.
They were a part of your life after all. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

{Close to Home} Slowly But Surely

Coffee seems to find its way into so many of my posts, and pictures. It occurs to me that it plays a significant part in my day. Today it was a central figure. I'm not sure why (maybe a late game of cards last night?), but this morning I could not get moving. And when I did it was not with great speed.

The house I grew up in has a fabulous back porch. We spend much of our time back there, eating and lounging, swinging and rocking, talking and sipping, snoozing and dozing, playing and laughing... it is by far the most used room in the house. 

So the narrow, tiled patio hemmed in by wrought iron fencing that overlooks the apartment building behind us has to stand in as a distant second. But stand in it does. I like to sit out there, especially as the air grows cooler, and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood. It's where we hang our clothes to dry, where we indulge in small bits of gardening, where the kids play slip n' slide on a hot summer day, where I inhale strong blends of Uruguayan beans and click away at this project that seems never ending.

So often in those hours before noon, when it's just my little Scout and I bringing the house back to order or running about town doing our shopping, I stop for awhile just to sit and do something calming on the floor. Sometimes it's folding laundry, or knitting a few rows, but whenever I do this I notice the calmness seems to seep its way into little energetic bones too. She rests on my lap, or lays across my legs; she'll squat down and peer through the porch railing and watch the birds or a worker, or point our airplanes in the sky.

 And yet, if I did something equally still, say sit in front of the computer, her reaction is far from calm. Begging to go outside, or crying for a snack, or climbing over my back, she never seems to enjoy my activity on this slick flat screen, and I don't blame her. It's a striking observation to see her making value judgments on my activities. Whether or not she is right is something I'm not sure of, but I doubt she is far from the truth, which is why on mornings like this one, choosing the tiles and wrought iron view seems best.

And then of course we have to get out there and play.

And watch more airplanes fly by.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

{Close to Home} They Lay Their Heads

Most of the time when I walk into a room I see all that needs to be picked up. It's a fairly common phenomenon, experienced by most people who have a place to live in and have people who do just that, live in it. I'm forever wanting to clean things out, weed through the baskets of toys and the closets stuffed with everything from art supplies to linens to hand-me-down-bins to basketballs and football pads. We have pretty limited storage space, you see. But I still think we have too much.

It's when I come across items like this that I have to pause, and more than pause, I have to wonder and think about what makes me buy certain things in the first place and if I am too hasty, and if I care well enough for the things I already have.

It's just a piece of green burlap cloth, with simple drawings etched in permanent marker. But my friend, Andrea, she drew it when we left to make our home in this other land, and she made it for our boys to play with on the plane when the hours grew long, these roads and houses that say things like "Jack's house" or "Uncle Brian's apartment." I sift through these toys again and again and each time this little piece of cloth sits on my lap, but I can't part with it, even though it mostly just sits in the basket these days.

And every day when we straighten up the beds and we put our clothes away, when I say for the four thousandth time to not leave your underwear on the floor and to put the books back on the shelf please, I have to wonder at why we do it over and over and over again. But it comforts me to know that this act is, in a sense, a God-given way to undo some of the curse-work, some of what has gone wrong in the world. It's our making things right, day and after day after day. And I sense the peace and calmness and restoring power of things put back in their place.

And each morning, when I pull those wiggly legs up on my lap and reach for something to cover them with, I am thankful again for the thrifty generosity of others, who have supplied nearly the entire wardrobe of my fast growing child, for nearly the entire length of her life. It's no shabby wardrobe either. Her charming ensembles rest squarely on the shoulders of the fashionistas who have gone before, and have not forgotten to leave some for the little people coming up behind them.

The lives of the little ones who share these rooms, the life I now live, none of them are of are not lived in isolation. We are surrounded by the gifts, the thoughts, the prayers, the memories of others. The way their dad hauls them off to soccer each Saturday, it is not without some measure of memory from the years of glory he too experienced at 6 and 7 years old, and his picture reminds us that he too was a squirmy, energetic, sport loving boy not so very long ago. And once in awhile, when my eye sits long enough, I see two laughing Chinese boys and remember the people I shared this card with, and how many times it exchanged hands, and how much each of those hands had a part in the shape of my own life. 

Sometimes all I can see is what must be put away. But there is much more here than that. And when I notice, when I take care to be mindful, I can sometimes see that both are important... the daily routines and the lives that are lived around them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

{Close to Home} The Heart of It All

There is a sign in my kitchen, left by a previous owner that says, "The kitchen is the heart of the home."
So much happens here, even in this small four by six foot space that barely fits three kids and two adults at one time. I suppose in some ways, it is like a heart. The beat and pulse of life flows from this place where food is prepared, where coffee is made, where I fold my hands over little ones and teach the rhythm of kneading a lump of dough, or crouch down to look into blue eyes in need of instruction, or affirmation, or sometimes the attentiveness due a long imaginary story. 

But there lurks too, in every corner and surface of my home, the things that make up the work of my days, the fabric of our family's life. This physical space that is my home, and the material articles that fill it, they are bits and pieces of memory... either the things that will fill the memories of my children as they age and leave home, or the things that will fill the memories of my own mind and my husband's, of our shared life and this particular time in it.

You know what I mean don't you? I can think even now of particular curtains that hung in my mother's living room and of how they came to be and who was involved in it. I can remember certain dishes she used and the way we decorated the mantle above our fireplace. 

I have always been the type of person that gets rid of things too readily. My poor mother has spent hours repainting furniture, making tablecloths and pillow covers and countless other things, only to watch me move away and hand them off to friends or strangers with little thought or attachment. It is something I begin to think may not be an admirable quality. There is a sense in which carelessness has crept into my seemingly virtuous shunning of materialism.

There is a curious tendency that arises among followers of the Christian tradition, that looks at the physical world and sees it as separate and unnecessary to the spiritual life. It takes Biblical passages that speak about all the physical and earthly being burned up one day--the only thing truly lasting being our souls-- and tends to look at this world as something to be shunned, detached from, or at least be disassociated with.

But I wonder a little at thinking like that. 

My little line of cookbooks in the kitchen, it is a record of gifts given by my family, my mother-in-law, my sister, an old church cookbook from my mother, another from my sister-in-law. I look at them and think of the giver, I care for them and use them with thanks in a way different than if I had bought them myself. 

And even if I do buy it, it's what we have done with it that has made all the difference. 
That little stool that drives me nuts because it always topples over when you don't stand on it correctly, it has now held little legs and bums for a growing number of precious years of their life and it hold some meaning to me in that alone. My bright red kettle holds no meaning other than the fact that I have heated hundreds of gallons of tea and have filled countless friend's cups and therein lies its importance to me.

I wonder at how detached we ought to be, how much we should tell ourselves our things and our places don't matter, when they do in fact matter so much. They will be burned, they do decay, they fall apart, they get tossed out, but they do make up so much of who we are every day of our lives.

And all I mean to say by this is that perhaps I ought not to be so careless with the way I view these physical things. Perhaps I am not being more spiritual and less materialistic, but instead stoic and unappreciative and even poor in my stewardship.  If I am required to give them up, as we sometimes are with all that we hold in our arms, than perhaps it should be just that... something required of me that I let go of with thoughtful attentiveness, not careless or hurried or detached flippancy.

This week I want to walk through my home, looking carefully at things, thinking about where they came from and why they are a part of our life here. It may be nothing but an exercise of thoughtfulness and thanksgiving on my own part, but here you are along for the ride and I am glad to have you.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

{My Neighborhood} Neighborly Knits

This theme just ran away with itself this week. I really didn't try very hard... but it seems everything I'm doing, or reading, or even looking at lately has something neighborly neighborhoodish about it. Today is Saturday so we are on to a new week and a new theme tomorrow, but for today we are stickin with the neighborhood business. 

Congratulations to Sam, who won a free copy of Velma Still Cooks In Leeway from my post a couple days ago (send me your address!). I don't know if I'm cut out for giveaways though... I was tempted to buy all six entries a book for themselves. But I think the idea is to spread the book love, and not for me to go bankrupt. So one winner it is.

On to today's business, where I bring you some neighborly knits.

The first is a hat I just finished for this man who is nice enough to live with me and do so many wonderful things for our family. He is also pretty yummy to look at (in my opinion), a bit of eye candy if you will, that I like to keep around the house. He will probably be mortified that I shared that with you. Anyway, he's been asking for a hat for awhile and I'm sure there will be more to come. This was my first "adult sized hat" and we both really loved the yarn... Kathmandu Chunky Tweed. I just feel like I hiked to Everest Base Camp or something simply by buying a yarn with this name.

Secondly, a knit not done by me, but by a neighbor who lives upstairs and does so much more than merely knit for my children. But then again, she knits for my children. That brings neighborliness to a whole new level. And to get even more ridiculous, the name of this pattern is called The Neighborly. I made one last year and it was already too small for my girl, so I had to give it away too... maybe this particular sweater is just destined to fly off your needles into someone else's hands to love.

And the last is a work still in progress, but getting very very close to the end...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

{My Neighborhood} Daily Doings

If you visit this space very much, you may begin to feel I do nothing but walk around all day, dragging you along with me. And to be honest, much of it is true. I think my daughter feels this way as well. But here in China, in the neighborhood I live in, walking is a very big part of my day. We live in a city after all, and much of what we need is quite close, too close to warrant a taxi ride or even a hop on the bus. There are many places that do require transportation, but most of the small things, the daily things-- like the stops at the market, the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the boardwalk, the beach-- are all at a distance even little (nearly) two year old legs can handle. 

So today you can come with me once again. Let me show you some of the doings in my neighborhood.
First stop, the fruit and vegetable market. Our friend Lotus is the same woman I spoke about that so generously supplies little Scout here with grapes each and every time we stop in. She was also cooking up some hot peanut soup on a little stool by the doorway, which she quickly scooped into a little plastic bag and handed us for a treat on the way home.

hard at work...
We walk up and down this brick sidewalk countless times per day it seems. And as monotonous as it may seem to me, I know these water porters must tire of it even more than I, they who have to maneuver their motorbikes rigged in every which way with what seems to me as an unsafe number of bottles, and then scurry them up to whichever apartment is waiting for them. We love these guys; they bring water rain or shine, cold or sweltering heat, from morning until night every day of the week.

Some of the friendliest, and it often appears to me, unmotivated workers in China are the street and sidewalk sweepers. They do their work faithfully, with these straw brooms that you often see leaning against tree posts, old carts, or resting beside a dozing body. 

at play...
Today it was in the central courtyard, but on any given day it might be on a street corner, or outside a row of shops, or gathered around small makeshift tables and stools in a park where men will gather, sometimes dozens, to play a rowdy game of Xiangqi, or Chinese Chess. It is usually accompanied by lots of cigarette smoke, loud slapping of chess pieces, exclamations and grunts, and much advice from fellow bystanders.

coffee stop...
One place we frequent nearly as often as the grocery store is this little hole in the wall coffee roasting shop. 

Most people don't think of coffee when they think of China, and this man worked for years all over the world, watching how other countries drank and savored their coffee before finally opening up his own store right here in our city. Coffee drinking in China is on the rise and I am doing all I can to keep our friend here in business, hoping others are joining the cause as well. We love his cozy little shop with its bean roaster tucked in the back room, burlap bags hanging on the wall and a fresh cup made just for you while you wait.

No matter where you live or what you wish your neighborhood was like, I hope you can look at it afresh today and appreciate the things about it that weave their way into your life, your days, and become in a sense a part of who you (and your neighbors) are.

This post is a part of The View From Here's weekly photo challenge. You can hop on over there and join in every week for a new theme. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

{book}worm wednesday :: Neighborly Giveaway

It is the loveliest of fall days today. Even the gusty wind is welcome, bringing the familiar sound of leaves rustling in the cool breeze, the warm sun sending afternoon shadows, while the rise and fall of children's voices wafts in through windows and doors flung wide.

It's the kind of day that makes you cook down a pot of apples for sauce making, or reach for a light sweater, the kind of day that makes the thought of a new novel or a knit hat, even a mid week holiday from school a welcome idea. Today has held all of those things and more, at least for those of us who are here, in this corner of the world.

Today is also Zhong Qiu Jie, or the Mid Autumn Festival, one of the most important holidays in China, when the moon is at its fullest and the Chinese celebrate the bounty of harvest, of togetherness, of family unity and wholeness. On this fittingly crisp day the kids are running about happily, enjoying the freedom and companionship of this neighborhood, while the country all around us does so on a grander scale, with families coming together to celebrate the blessings of both the earth and generations.

It is with these thoughts and scenes in my mind that I happily bring you today's event for this week's {My Neighborhood} theme: a book giveaway... the novel, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway by Vinita Hampton Wright.

Velma Still Cooks in Leeway: A Novel

Several weeks ago I listed this novel as a new read in {book}worm wednesday, and said I would let you know how it went. It turns out I absolutely loved it, and immediately decided I wanted to give one away for free (how neighborly of me). Aside from simply wanting to put good books into the hands of willing readers, this particular book and author is slightly less well known (than say, Cry the Beloved Country or Grapes of Wrath) and yet its themes are just as timeless and important.

Velma is a middle aged woman, living in a small, mid-western town where knowing your neighbor and the streets that they live and die on is a way of life, and essential to it. It's complicated though, and Velma begins to feel that the weight of the town's griefs and burdens are becoming to heavy for her to bear. She wrestles with the hurts and disappointments she experiences with and through her neighbors, and with God. There are no cookie cutter answers or easy formulas here, just Velma and her story, within which we are made to grapple with our own questions and struggles with suffering, forgiveness, the hope of redemption, and the way life holds all of these but is not crushed under the weight of them, bearing mercy and grace in spite of it all.

Among other themes, some that struck me were the importance of place, physical place-- the memories they hold and they way they tie and unite, comfort or even instruct life in a way. I felt like I had a deeper appreciation or understanding for people in my own life who are deeply attached to places, to memorabilia that holds significance because of its connection to people. Forgiveness is without question a theme... even more so it seemed to me was the power of healing that human forgiveness brings to another soul. It is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about in Life Together, the way we minister God's forgiveness to others by the way we ourselves forgive. It made me ponder the transforming acts of human forgiveness that I have seen, as well as the the ramifications of when it is withheld. 

Last week I handed this book off to a friend, an English Lit teacher, to see if my zeal over it as a piece of honest and transformational work was off or not, and she wrote me the next day to say she couldn't get it off her mind-- the story had already gripped her, and the the themes seemed to be resonating with those in her own life.

Of course, we each have books that hit us, and sometimes especially so at particular times in our lives. Yet, even with that in mind, I think this story has enough merit to stand on its own. And now, I'd love for one of you to have it in your hands-- but hopefully you will ALL read it!

To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment below telling me what book you are currently reading or would like to read. For an additional entry, post a link to this blog on your facebook page or twitter and then say you did so in a separate comment below.

Comments will be closed on
USA time: Friday, Sept. 24th 12:00 am
China time: Friday, Sept. 24th 12:00 noon

Congratulations Sam! You are the (randomly selected) winner of a new copy of Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. Although the odds were in everyone's favor:)
Please email me your address so I can get it sent to you right away. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The View From Here {My Neighborhood}

[neighborhood friends on International Day at school]

I read somewhere that your neighborhood really extends no further than a one or two mile radius. In my experience, I think it may be even smaller than that. 

I've lived in a variety of places, some with tree lined streets and cookie cutter houses and some with fields of cow piles that stretched behind the dirt road driveway, but of all the places I've lived it has been the small and compact apartment complexes that have bred the most vibrant and close knit communities. This phenomenon is something I accept and appreciate while at the same time wrinkle my nose at the fact that it seems to happen in a place where I also hear every footstep, argument, and choice of music my neighbors let loose. And of course, they experience the same inconvenience with  me.

Inconvenience and frustrations of close living quarters aside, there is much good that comes with repeatedly crossing the same paths and thresholds as your neighbors. In the age of suburbia  (which is something I have yet to experience or even be exposed to in China and am not sure if it even exists anywhere... it is city, or it is countryside), it is difficult if not impossible to have random, unplanned encounters with your friends. But this, I think, is one essential part of true community life. To be able to run up and borrow sugar or eggs, to ask for last minute help with a sick child or a need for a babysitter, to have the conversations about life and what is happening within our lives without being limited to a few planned hours a week or a month is the stuff that makes up much of our knowledge of each other.

I think of the moments at the bus stop when I happen to find out the morning burden of a friend, something she may never have shared had I not seen her until the following week, or the snippets of conversation that inform me of the happenings of extended family, of a child's struggles at school, of what is being made for dinner. I pass children, daily, playing outside and I hear their conversations. I come to know their personalities and the joys and difficulties in the way they relate to one another. 

It is in fact, my neighborhood. It happens in many places, all over the world, but my sense is that in some places it is happening less and less. There are limitations and drawbacks to this space in which we live as well. Not everything is as it should be, or even as I would want it to be. But there is much that is good. 

This week, as a part of a photography project called The View From Here, I am focusing on this week's theme, {My Neighborhood}. The challenge itself only requires one photo, but I am choosing to work through it for an entire week. Tomorrow, as a part of {book}worm wednesday, I will be doing a book giveaway, and it has a neighborly theme as well. Weather and energy permitting, there will be more to come on the people and places that make up this place I call {My Neighborhood}. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Getting Away

The last time we went away overnight, without any children, was when Curls was still in in utero and the eldest was barely walking. Being the brilliant romantic weekend planners that we were, we not only scheduled this wonderful get away when I was busting out at eight months pregnant, but also decided to start off the festivities with a viewing of an independent film at the local Doylestown theatre (how I love Doylestown!). 

This film however, was one of the most physically and emotionally depressing movies I have ever viewed, being about child widows in India and the awful plight that is theirs even as young as 8 or 9 years old. It ruined our entire weekend, as we struggled to rise out of the slump that viewing this tragedy sent us into.

More than four years later the memories of that film still haunted me, but so did the way it had affected a much needed weekend away with my husband. So when dear friends saints agreed to watch our three early risers for a night, we decided to start it off with a sunset walk by the sea and a cup of coffee... and to skip the movies. It was a good choice. Now I only hope we don't have to wait four more years to do it again.

Friday, September 17, 2010

[month of mornings] 30 :: the last one

[look and see]
7:54 am

When I started this little project one month ago, I had hoped it would help me simply take a photo and maybe add a few words every day. Sort of like a discipline, something that forces you to practice, to go over and over the same thing, but inevitably to have moments where you break through to a place where it doesn't feel like practice but like joy and delight. There was joy in it nearly every day, but there were definitely mornings when it felt like a discipline and not much more.

Here we are now, at the end of this 30 day journey and I love the things we found along the way. It's a bit sad to come to this point... I enjoyed treasuring those early hours and seeing things I don't always take the time to notice or think about. Thank you for sharing it with me and for all your comments and encouragements, or additional thoughts and insights. 

And now on to the announcements. 
I've decided to collect some of these photos into a little project. One is a calendar entitled [month of mornings] and can be found here at an online shop. You can also purchase post cards or note cards of many of the photos. I figured out that if I sell about 7,000 cards or 700 calendars, I can fly my family home for Christmas someday! That seems pretty feasible, right?
You can also view the entire collection of [month of morning] photos over on flickr.

Also, today I am guest posting over at {in}courage. 

Third, I am going to be doing a book giveaway here next week on {book}worm wednesday, so stay tuned for more details on that.

I hope you are having a lovely morning, wherever you are, and that you are seeing more of the beauty and Presence in each and every dirty dish pile, early cup of coffee, morning light streaming through your window, or whatever is before your particular eyes!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

[month of mornings] 29 :: the squints

[sun bath]
9:12 am

A friend came over with her baby this morning. He was so sweet, so small, so calm. 

It almost made me think,  hmm... I could do this again.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

[month of mornings] 28 :: to market to market

7:36 am

There are a couple different fruit and vegetable markets we stop by every day. Sometimes it's one, or the other, and sometimes it's all of them depending on who has what and what time of day I remember what I need. They each have different faces, and often it feels like just when you are getting to know a new story or family, they disappear and a new one takes their place. Such is China, and the constantly changing dynamics of job availability, urban migration, and a million personal details of individual lives and struggles that I will never fully realize.

So today, as we made our way to one of our favorite stops, we found it empty and abandoned.

 On down the street we went to the front gate of our apartment complex and the eager couple who mans the small green shack there. They dote on my daughter and her endless chomping of the large, juicy pu tao, or grapes. They are the fourth set of faces I have known since the place was erected a little over a year ago.

7:55 am

[one more]

[eat grapes n' glow]
7:56 am