Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I Love Living In China :: A Book. A New Year

I just finished reading The City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. It’s a novel about an American couple serving as missionaries in inland China during the early 20th century. It’s a somewhat prosaic story about their love, longevity, loss, and the lessons they learned as well as the difficult things that still remained a mystery for them at the end of their lives. In many ways the story is far removed from the China of today and the way we experience life here. But there was a spirit about it that was compelling, or at least had hints of a camaraderie in it to me… like that red silk thread that adoption families talk about, an invisible connection that ties them to their son or daughter in an inexplicable but very real way.

It made me think about the powerful influence of Time in our lives. How it can bind you in a slow, rhythmic way over days and months and years to a place, or a people. To many people, there may be very little on the face of living in China that is attractive. To the naked eye, comparing it to other places in the world, this city is dirty, polluted, frustrating and difficult. In many ways the stories and lives around us are maddening, sometimes horrifying, or just plain depressing. For all appearances, it's not a great place to raise kids. And I read all of this in The City of Tranquil Light too, though to a much greater degree. Life was so different back then, far harder, far more isolating and much more physically demanding. The sacrifices were incredible and seemed never to let up.  Yet in time, as the years swept over them like the dust storms that covered the land, this ordinary couple was molded by those long stretches of time, and the shape of those years gave form to love. The hardships and people, the relationships and experiences shaped their growing love like a baby that forms slowly in the womb and one day you look upon it’s face, seeing with your eyes what has all these months been blossoming by it’s taking from your own flesh and blood.

Time gives birth to love it seems. As does hardship. And weaving in and out of these two is every relationship, great and small that you make along the way. Relationships on every level are the ribbon of light that brings a wonder of luminescence to the fabric of time and hardship. It’s the part of life that keeps you keeping on, and that sometimes makes you feel as though all the world is breaking apart. In the book, it’s the relationships that make it hardest to leave China in the end. And though my family is not leaving, as I read it I felt the pull that is always there for us, the tension that rides under the surface of emotions almost all the time: the people we love and “lose” every day in a sense because we are not a part of their lives anymore, living way over on the other side of the world, but at the same time growing ever more grateful and attached to the people we have the gift of knowing here.

Sometimes I wonder if it makes any sense that we give up knowing cousins and aunties and uncles and grandparents, so that we can instead share life with the young woman, the student, the couple. These are things I can’t weigh in the balance. I can’t see what the worth of anything really is. And I have to put it all in the hands of my Lord who feels the weight of things correctly, and simply asks me to keep seeing with eyes of faith.

It is the start of another Lunar New Year today, chu yi the first day of the first month, and the most important holiday of the year. Everywhere are fireworks and families gathering. Red chinese lanterns are strung along the streets and in windows. The doors are covered with traditional banners declaring good fortune and well wishes over the household for the coming year. It is another mysterious sort of gift to me, this sharing in a tradition that is not ours by birth or rite. We are foreign to it and at most take part in a surface sort of way. But this too was something that struck me as I read, how joining in these festivities ties you to a place as well.  And without making too much of it, I think in some small but perhaps important ways, our family has been graced with good things that we otherwise may have missed were we not able to every year celebrate the Chinese New Year.

As is the tradition, on the Eve of the New Year, we made jiaozi, meat filled dumplings representing abundance and good fortune. As I sat with all four of my children and husband at our table, the plate heaped full with steaming, crunchy jiaozi that we all love with an almost improper ferocity, I did indeed feel fortunate. I knew and know that we are blessed.

It is perhaps easiest to look around and see the physical blessings, but as I have been pondering lately from the words of Jesus, as we work not for food that spoils but for food that endures to eternal life, our eyes are ever opened more and more to the unseen realities that our ours in Christ. He who gives the food and the rain and the house and the clothes also gives the joy and faith and love. You can have joy and faith and love without house or clothes. But to have house or clothes without joy and faith and love is no life at all. This is the life that is worth living… and it is a life that is learned over time, through hardship, in the midst of relationship. This is the essence of the good life that the couple in The City of Tranquil Light knew. And in this, and their love for China,  and the slow years that grew them, I feel I too one day may, in some distant way know a part of their story.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lavish Birthday Love

Today is my birthday. 34 years old, I am. That sounds rather middle aged to me, which I will probably be thinking and feeling for another good fifteen years or so until I hit 50, at which point it seems you turn "old." Birthdays in this house are rather understated, but special. We don't do a lot of flashy parties or huge surprises, but the groove we seem to have settled into is to pour on a whole lot of "you're special" and even more "we love you." I woke up today to both of those things.

Yesterday was the last day of school for 2 weeks and the start of our Chun Jie vacation (which is the Chinese New Year, or more literally, the Spring Festival holiday and the number one holiday of the year for this nation). The day felt appropriately filled with little ways to share in the celebrating that is starting to happen all over the city and country.

  • Josh and the kids performed Chinese songs at school for the Chun Jie concert. They rocked it, and I was so proud of them. Listening to them practice the tongue twisting Chinese lyrics over the past several weeks has kept me awake too many nights with the tune playing like a broken record in my head. 
  • We put up Chinese decorations, just a few of our regulars, the paper cuttings in the windows and the banners over the door. 
  • The kids went out in the afternoon and ended up playing some version of a basketball game with some neighborhood Chinese boys. They came in celebrating that they were able to understand and communicate with their new friends. My boy was particularly pleased, saying that one of the boys was someone who earlier this fall had been part of a small run-in that had occurred between all the boys playing outside. It was one of those miscommunication battles that can happen when you don't understand them and they don't understand you, someone reads a gesture wrong that you made or the way you waved your stick, and suddenly a war is on. But today, they played together and he felt like a bridge had formed and the 9 year old bad blood had been wiped away.
  • We went out for dinner with friends at a local Chinese restaurant, something we don't brave too often no matter what country we live in, mostly because of the age and amount of children underfoot. But the food was good and the place festively hong ran, loud and noisy, just the way the Chinese like it. Afterwards we set off a few fireworks in the concrete park next to our apartment, dodging the dancing grandmas and men practicing their top-spinning with giant whips.
As we often do during times like this, on certain days that mark our time here, we reflected a little on our years here, our strangely blessed lives that can at one and the same time feel hard and less than what you would "dream of" for your life, but at the same time abundantly good and beyond what you deserve. The facts don't always add up if you tally the positives and negatives in neat little columns. It's like the weight of an intangible goodness that we sense like a giant blanket over all the pieces of our life here.

Then today was my birthday. Another day that inevitably brings on a little reflection. I sat alone with a cup of coffee and my Book of books, and read about what a gift my life is. What a gift my life in Christ is. I read Ephesians 2 and it read like a Giant Heavenly Birthday card, pouring out all the measure of God's great love for us, the extensive lavishness of his gifts, and the kindness that he showed and shows towards me each and every day, lifting me up out of who I was and who I am and setting me on the Rock. So that I can't help but think on the fact that I don't have enough goodness in me, and that is usually quite depressing, but He makes me good because He gives his goodness to me. And I can't make my life worth living, which can be less than inspiring, but He makes my life worthwhile because He says that the life I live by faith in the Son of God is a life of eternal value, with its weight and worth reaching down even to the dirt of this earth. It was by far the sweetest thing I read all day, and I felt all loved and special all over again.

Those sweet notes and cards and extra hugs and "I love you, you're the greatest mom" from my kids were pretty wonderful too. And the depth of devotion and love and committed thoughtfulness that exudes from My Man is something I feel moved by so many moments and so many days it is hardly fair to think that a birthday should need any extra effort. But he makes it. And I blunder through my appreciation,  all the time I like the girl who sits under the Ephesians 2 chapter, being lavished with love and barely knowing how to understand the greatness of it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Few Good Books for the New Year

The beginning again. Here we are. 

Even though the rush to lament over how we fail at our yearly resolve to better ourselves begins just as soon as the new year dawns,  I am still grateful for the freshness of it. The cycle of being given the opportunity to begin again, or to at least look out on the vista of days before you and hope. For transformation, for change, for growth.

My current state of resolutions is a bit hodgepodge. I relish the idea of self-reflection, but I also get pretty gun-shy and worry that I don't see myself clearly enough to know what needs working on and what doesn't. So I go about this tender-footed dance between what I have been thinking, feeling, sensing in my spirit, and an all out begging/searching/throw-myself at the the feet of Jesus session where I hope for a divine encounter with This is What We'll Work on This Year My Dear.

Aside from that, I do believe we are what we read (or quite a bit of it) and that what you soak in is what you exude in word and deed and thought, which means I have eagerly started on my current fare of book fodder and am hoping as it goes in, the coming out will bring with it a humbler, more aware, more gracious me than I was in 2013.

It is pretty obvious that there is a similar theme running through these books. I am okay with that, though it means the content is not as varied as I sometimes like my reading to be. Themes can be good for percolating and meditation, for a time. There are some things that need thinking on, and it strikes me how at times a book pile will gather that I did not purposely arrange, but seems suited to the current need of my soul. I love how a few good books can feed your spirit like that.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English professor's journey into the Christian Faith
by Rosaria Butterfield.

Home: a Novel
by Marilynne Robinson

When I Was a Child I Read Books
by Marilynne Robinson

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott

City of Tranquil Light: a novel
by Bo Caldwell

The Shaping of a Christian Family
by Elisabeth Elliot