Sunday, June 22, 2014

A {Perfectly Difficult} Day in the Mountains

{the start}

The morning sky was just beginning to show itself when we headed out yesterday. We were up at five-o'clock, filling a daypack full of food meant to feed six people for the day, hauling the children out of bed, and heading out with the hope of a day in the mountains; a day breathing air that was fresh and clean from the pollution of the city, a day with a dirt path under our feet and the smell of pine and thick underbrush in the air.

If there is one small thing I have learned living in a country that is not your own, it is that things often don't go according to plan. Here is a good rule: The plan will be different than you anticipated, and who knows what may happen. Inevitably, I have found that heading out to do anything, anything at all (with or without my family trailing along) is usually a harder, longer task than I expected. This may sound frustrating, and it can be. But this simple reality has taught me quite a lot and it has changed me. It has shown me that I am not naturally the flexible, easy-going girl I imagine myself to be in my head. And it has taught me that if I knew all the facts ahead of time, I would likely choose to opt out of most experiences that have actually ended up being far more rewarding and important than the "difficulties" they were made up of.


Yesterday was no exception.
Our plan on paper was to head out with a group of local friends to an undeveloped area in the mountains outside the city. To get there was an hour ride on the subway, then a two hour bus ride. We were expecting to hike on a moderate trail with no stone steps, no crowds, and no trailside vendors selling trinkets and food along the way. We were expecting to stop for lunch somewhere on this moderate path, and then hike down in the afternoon, boarding the bus around three-o'clock and being home somewhere around time for dinner.

Instead, we found ourselves tagging along on an ambitious effort to ascend a steep, slick, endlessly upward trail with the goal of reaching the summit in four hours (or however long it took) and then heading back down to "hopefully" board the buses by seven or eight-o'clock. Maybe we would get home by ten.

As our team leader shared this plan ten minutes into our hike, I looked around at the two-year old strapped to my Man's back, the boys plunging ambitiously ahead of the pack, and my five-year old bringing up the rear of the group and wondered if we were going to fit into the day's agenda very well.

It's true, on paper I would not be up for this. A mountain outing all day with a two-year old who can't keep from hurling himself over the rock ledge and into the creek? No thank you. An all day mountain outing with a five year old dragging herself up miles of steep, slippery rock trails, falling and scraping her leg with no choice but to keep going? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where five unexpected hours are spent at a little bee infested creekside clearing, waiting on the rest of the group to summit and return? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where it takes four different legs of travel by taxi, subway, bus and walking just to reach the trailhead? No thank you. An all day mountain outing where I have four little people to keep watered, fed, safe from falls and scrapes and pricks, not to mention psychologically strong enough to keep going and not give up? No thank you. Yes, on paper it sounds like a nightmare and everything opposite of refreshing.

{rock lover}

But this is where so many of these circumstances happening over and over again in these recent years have taught me a most valuable lesson. It is valuable to me at least, because I can see that without it, I would continue to see myself as "flexible and easygoing," all the while being unwilling and unable to push through hard circumstances to experience the reward that comes with them.

Sometimes these rewards seem small on paper too. But they are not small, and I find time and time again that they are far more than enough. This is something that keeps pounding itself into my head as I learn this lesson over and over again: even after a trying day, there are intangible pieces of goodness that come in greater measure than the long list of difficulties. Yesterday for instance was filled with not a little discomfort, but in equal measure there was joy in watching my children romp through the outdoors, and find real happiness in it. Not a trumped up, I'm-making-this-sound-better-than-it-was for the sake of my story kind of happiness. Just the kind that comes from humans being in the beauty of God's natural world and finding it fun. And they didn't seem to know they should be tired and whiney and complaining this was far too much for them too handle. They pushed through and worked hard and kept going. I was so proud of their strength and tenacity and so thankful for the fun and freshness of the day in spite of it all.

It's going to seem small as I list them, the snapshots of goodness that were were given, but they were reward enough for me.

There was silliness on the bus as we shared embarrassed introductions in broken English and halting Chinese. There was my my girl catching butterflies and my boys building dams in the creek. There was the rushing of water over rocks and wild ferns at my feet. There was the vista and the view and the sky wide and blue overhead. There was the evening light stealing over the mountainside and the smell of twilight in the air, something that always does my camp-loving heart a great deal of good. There were our friends, hearty and generous and ambitious, and if for a moment I felt that at times they were not thinking of our predicament, they also taught me that at times I am too uptight and there is real truth in their little phrase meiwenti, it's not a problem.

There was more and it is all wrapped up in my memory of the day, and in the memory each of us will have of it. I am reminded that it is God's mercy that I don't know everything ahead of time and that I am not given the facts of the day before it is played out. I wouldn't choose it, but having gone through it, I know that I would not choose otherwise. Isn't this the way of our lives, the days that make up the years that make up the whole of what we will one day look back on? I'm certain that what I am learning is nothing less than faith and trust, played out in tales of days in the mountains which impress upon me like parables, and in the day to day life I am called to that often feels nothing like an adventure, but will one day be see in all it's wildness and wonder.


{boulder climbing is the best}

{ferns are my favorite}

{riverside painting}

{lovely path}

{hold him or he swims}

{who needs boyscouts}


{inevitable end}

Monday, June 16, 2014

Sowing and Reaping and all that Rubbish

I have been pulling lettuce from the garden almost daily for our salads this week. Big, beautiful mounds of crunchy Red Romaine and Mantila Butter Leaf. It's hard to believe they were seeds just a few weeks ago. The same goes for the tomato plants, which are climbing out of control and the basil that must think it's in some sort of Plant of the Year competition. Watching the process of growth from preparing the soil, to planting the seed, to waiting patiently, and then seeing this precarious seedling grow into something bountiful and edible and beautiful to behold, is astounding in a way. And yet, it's pretty scientific, pretty down to earth when you follow the "rules." The right conditions, the right procedure, and you are guaranteed a pretty sure outcome. Soil. Water. Sunlight. Temperate Climate. Oila-- harvest.

The boys traipsed off to their piano lesson this morning. It can feel a bit like the seed planting, this piano thing. Put in the hard work now and one day you'll sow a prodigy. That's not really it of course. I want them to enjoy and appreciate music, to give develop and flight to that possibility in them that may have an affinity for it, and to be able to give of that pleasure to others too. But these "building years" can play with your mind too. You can begin to believe that put in, put out... if you do it right and have all your worthwhile ducks in a row, you will grow a nice human. Lessons. Practice. Committment. Don't give up. And oila-- well rounded little musicians.

I picked up a book a few days ago that is fast turning into my obsessive summer-read. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of New China by John Pomfret. I am a sucker for these memoirs and biographies about life in China. I especially love when the stories run deep, revealing the complex frailty and abiding strength of our humanness, both at once hard to understand in the worst moments of any nations history. How can we do these things to one another? How can we believe and live in these circumstances? How can we survive? How can there be any hope... for change? For recovery? One of the men in the book, Zhou, after recounting his horrific experiences which included maligning and renouncing his own father, asks the question: "How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?" The seeds were planted, the harm done. Can there be any stopping the harvest it brings?

One of our memory pieces for the summer is Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream." Dwelling on his beautiful, poetic lines day after day don't take away the stringent truth that is starkly evident with each sentence. A nation reaping the woes of sorrow and atrocity they had been sowing for far too many years.

And then there is me. Being a parent. Who can be a parent and not either feel the burden of all their mistakes and failures on a regular basis, or else a false sense of pride that having done much of the sowing as per the manual, they are sure to reap the child that turns out Just Right. This is me, worrying that as the Sowing and Reaping principle goes with children, I am surely failing in creating the right conditions.

And China, oh China. My life is lived in you, given over to you. And what do you do when you sow and sow and wonder when the reaping happens? The principle of it starts to play on my heart strings, to play with my mind. Perhaps you sowed all wrong. In vain. Something is wrong with your sowing. It's all sticks and stones. It's all for the burning. Maybe there won't ever be any good fruit to show for it all.

Sowing and Reaping is scientific. It's matter of fact. It's get what you deserve. And this for much of life, is the way it works. Jesus himself preaches that.

But there are miracles. Jesus, the miracle worker showed us that. And in this world of Sowing and Reaping there is the wonder and unexpected gift of something we don't deserve. Time and time again we get it. We get the kindness of God. We get his smile on us. We get his patience toward us. We get his work on our behalf when we have stopped working, or when we do it all wrong.

The lettuce bounty is evidence that you do reap what you sow. But people are evidence of the fact that God is at work in souls in ways that go beyond the fixed laws of nature... just as he bent those laws in his miracle working ways so many years ago, to still raging seas, to change water to wine, to heal blind and lame men, to bring a girl back to life and a man out of the tomb.

I cling to the fact that there is more to my tasks of sowing than getting the conditions right. God is there, with his miracle of daily, amazing, not-according-to-my-rules, grace.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Summer in China

It's Summer.

The students have gone away, the staff have mostly left for various home countries, the neighborhood is even a little quieter with families away on summer leave or furlough. It is quiet and peaceful and there is nothing more I want in the world than this right now.

It has been another long year and even though the sky is grey outside with a soft blanket of mist falling from it, I am not disappointed by the rain. I think we are all in need of the comfort that it brings. We need rest. We need to be together. We need to soak up the goodness and provision of Heaven.

For us, Summer in America means reuniting with family, traveling, blue skies, camping, eating our favorite foods and seeing old friends, shopping and stocking up for the coming term. Summer in America means go and revel and spend.

Summer in China means rest, routine, memorizing and reading, family time and few friends, rainy days and baffling heat. Summer in China means rest and reflect and restore.

So we are here in rainy China land with our Summer Schedule up on the fridge and I am thankful.

Everybody got a Super Summer Bucket with reading plans and journals, books and games, soccer jerseys (because it's a World Cup Craze going on in this house right now) and swimming gear in the hope that the rain won't be here forever.

I am also happily and gratefully heading out each morning for a couple hours of Chinese class, another of my top reasons for enjoying our summers in China... intense and profitable Chinese lessons. Though I did get a little teary eyed this morning at one point when I felt so overwhelmed at the vast amount of this language I still don't understand. Still, I love my morning walk by myself and the way it  reminds me of those quiet, simple mornings when I took summer courses in college. The routine that develops with grabbing a coffee and your breakfast on the way to class, the focus you can give to a single subject. My life is so far from the freedom and study of those university days, but this little morning bit with my walk and my language lesson brings me back and makes me smile inside.

So does getting kids excited over new books and watching them chip away at memory work, like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I am not sure who gets the greater benefit-- the ones memorizing, or the one helping them. I know all the words I have floating around in my head and on the tip of my tongue from Romans and Proverbs and Martin Luther King are a little like those rain drops outside, sent from above, settling into places in me that need a drink of something higher and better and wiser than myself. 

Who would have thought, a summer in China, a little piece of heaven.