I like going to the park. The sunlight there filters through giant aged trees, and the grass grows and gives a nostalgic smell after it’s been cut, and there’s room to move and swing your arms and breathe in, and in, and further in the scent of nature. I like going on Sunday nights so I can talk with the old missionary who comes every Sunday night to pass out tracts and talk to the people walking in the park.
But most of all, when I go, I like watching people run and walk. Some people walk slowly, swinging their arms while relaxing. Others walk with purpose and a marching stride. Others run. One man raises his fists above his head as he jogs, punching the air as if he were fighting off imaginary barriers. One woman runs lifting her feet high off the ground and her knees jabbing the air, like a Dutch Harness horse cut loose from the shafts. One large man lumbers along like a bulldozer, each step forward a slight victory, while others seem to float along. My favorite person to watch is a slightly built man who looks like he could be an immigrant from neighboring Myanmar. He does not run; he skims above the sidewalk, with his feet merely tapping the earth in a rhythmic tattoo, circling the park uncountable times.
But the man I admire the most is not one who runs effortlessly. This man is tall, rather heavily built, and only walks. His walk is the strangest gait I have ever seen, with his knees twisting back and forth as he goes, almost grotesquely. Each step is almost painful, an effort of concentration. He does not look around to catch the stares of the onlookers, but he looks ahead and focuses on the path before him. I watched him as I walked, and I wondered.
I wondered what his motivation was to walk those laps around the park, when he could have more excuses than anyone else not to walk. I wondered if he ever thought that since he couldn’t run, he shouldn’t even try to walk. I wondered if the stares of the people ever bothered him, or if he ever thought bitterly to himself that no one understood what his life was like. But most of all, I wondered if I could walk like him.
Because I feel like him. My walk, my spiritual life, is not a smooth effortless skimming along, powerful in faith, a woman of prayer and wisdom. My walk is not even a steady moving along, strong and slow, like a bulldozer, or one of courage while fighting the unseen elements. My walk is a slow, crippled one, riddled with doubts and questions, tossed back and forth by waves of a hundred voices shouting in the world and the underlying question: is God’s love really big enough to encompass the whole world?
My walk is not one of resounding victory and hallelujahs. The easy trite answer spurs me to cynicism, and the smallest word can send a knife of doubt through my heart. The questions that come at me I don’t know how to answer, especially those of friends who are hurting or angry.
What if I could walk the way the man does in the park, no matter what happens and no matter what others say and no matter how crippled I am? What if a walk like that could be a testimony of God’s grace? What if there really is beauty in the struggle, even if I am not seeing it right now? What if in the brokenness, in our inability to walk gracefully, God hears a hallelujah even when our mouths cannot utter it?
The lyrics from this song written by Twila Paris keep on coming to me again and again.
“Lately I’ve been winning
Battles left and right
But even winners can get
Wounded in the fight
People say that I’m amazing
Strong beyond my years
But they don’t see inside of me
I’m hiding all the tears
They don’t know that
I go running home when I fall down
They don’t know Who picks me
Up when no one is around
I drop my sword and cry for just a while
‘Cause deep inside this armor
The warrior is a child”
There really is a Father standing there, reaching out for us when we finally let those tears fall.
Paris,Twila, “The Warrior is a Child.” 1984. http://www.lyricsfreak.com/t/twila+paris/the+warrior+is+a+child_20347634.html. Accessed: 5 October 2017
Sometimes life takes the strangest twists and curves.
Five years ago, I would never have dreamed of doing what I am doing now. Even a year ago it seemed impossible.
After spending close to three years as a volunteer teacher here in Thailand, I realized how important it was for me to finally get my degree if I wanted to be here long term.
About 8 weeks ago, I walked up those 4 flights of steps to room 417 for freshman orientation at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Those 4 flights of steps took what felt like ages on legs made of jelly.
Outside I may have looked confident. Inside, far from it. But it’s been a good, good 8 weeks. I’ve been stretched and challenged in more ways than one. I’ve made new friends, learned new things and gone new places. It has made me dig deeper into the foundations of why I believe what I believe. Studying in these classes feels like sinking my teeth into a juicy sub-sandwich after not eating for two days. I know that the time will come when I’ll be sick and tired of homework, but while that enjoyment lasts, I plan to soak it up as much as I can.
It’s not been easy, this college thing. You are challenged. You are usually the strange one out. You are stretched. You meet people who do not always handle situations in a quiet firm manner. For a sensitive, relatively sheltered Kansas girl, this isn’t always easy.
Yet, I have been blessed with learning to know understanding people, helpful professors, and many new friends.
I’ve become friends with people I never thought I would be friends with: the friendly Thai girl I met the first day, the quiet introvert who loves to draw cartoons, the middle-aged Japanese lady in my department, the silent loyal IT student, who after I struck up a conversation with once, always greets me, the shy Kachin student from Burma, and many, many others. In the international program at Payap, there are over 30 different nationalities represented. I study with people from Japan, India, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Germany, China and more. We become friends despite cultural and religious differences. I am grateful for their acceptance.
Above: enjoying ice cream together after a school outing one evening. The friend taking the picture does not study at Payap, but was along for the fun.
Sometimes I feel an awe when I see the hand of God moving in my life, bringing me from place to place. Sometimes I feel scared. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed at some of the opportunities and responsibilities He gives me. Sometimes I shy away from facing some of the deep questions that arise in my heart that need to be answered. Sometimes I am unsure about what to do about the desires that pull and stir deep inside.
But this I know. I am glad that God has brought me to this place in my life. Very glad.
Because lists are fun to make, especially when you’re waiting on your wash to finish so you can go to bed.
And they’re random, not neat little lists of ten.
Books I have read lately: (Not an exhaustive list, and not all read all the way through. Just books I’ve read in the recent past)
Go Dogs Go, by Dr. Suess
The Thread That Runs So True, by Jesse Stuart
Growing Up Amish, by Ira Wagler
The Atonement Child, by Francine Rivers
Belles on Their Toes, by Earnestine Gilbreth (this is a sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen. I reread it recently and embarrassed myself by squealing with laughter at a coffee shop. This and anything by James Herriot never fail to make me laugh out loud. Henk, henk, henk)
Intended for Evil, by Les Sillars, a book about a Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi
Rivers to the Sea, by Sara Teasdale
Saving My Assassin, by Virginia Prodan
Nang Ai, a Thai novel
Reclaiming Surrendered Ground, by Jim Logan
The Insanity of Obedience, by Nik Ripken
The Wall, by Gloria Jane Evans
Anne of Avonlea, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Curious George, by H.A and Margret Ray
Things I love:
Mist on mountains and rivers
Airports and the excitement and pain that go with them.
Snowflakes falling down in little whirlwinds, under the glow of our yard light at home.
A young man helping an old lady or a small child.
Familiar faces waiting at the airport after a 36-hour journey
Lisped “I love you’s.”
Hot lattes on rainy days with a good book
Speaking languages other than English
Poetry that says exactly what you were feeling when you didn’t even know that you felt that way.
Kind people at immigrations
Things I dislike
People complaining about foreign food, and worse yet, making faces (woops, just a few weeks ago, I found myself doing this)
Loud karaoke coming from the bars in the backyard at 11:30 at night
Reckless drivers, usually those with Bangkok license plates, careening down the road. (If you kill yourself, that’s one thing. If you kill others, that’s another.)
Seeing young Thai girls with dissipated old rich white men.
Losing my keys, again
Having no milk in the fridge
Racist or ethnocentric attitudes
Pens that don’t write smoothly
Cool people who belittle the less cool as a way of climbing up the social ladder
Things I miss about home:
Fresh chocolate chip cookies and tall glasses of raw milk with windows opened to green lawns and fresh air
Snow, snow, snow
Abundance of cheese
Family (really that goes without saying)
Long solitary horseback rides in the moonlight
Being able to go anywhere or do anything that you want to (like lying out in an open field) without fearing that it is either: improper, dangerous, or weird.
Magically having food in the fridge without having to be the one to buy or make it.
Living off the land, instead of the grocery store, or even the market
One of my favorite parts of traveling is watching people. I love the way that God designed each individual to be his/her own colorful character.
Two colorful characters I know…Photo credit: Barbara Lapp
Like these colorful characters above.
Recently I took a trip to Laos to the Thai embassy located there. I needed to leave the country and request a student visa at an embassy outside of Thailand. (perhaps more on that change later)
I realized again how much I’ve lived in my own little world in Chiang Mai, going back and forth to work each day, attending church at my Thai church and at the local group of Mennonites. Leaving the three- year-old “familiar” of Chiang Mai and traveling into the “unknown” of northeastern Thailand (also known as Isaan) and southern Laos was exciting. And considering it was my first day off of full time kindergarten teaching, it was a bit of a shock.
There were some people I met that I wished sincerely I hadn’t. Like the tuk tuk driver that poked his head around the bus door in Nong Khai even before I had fully descended.
“Tuk Tuk? Where you go? Tuk tuk?”
I perked up.
“I need to go to the Friendship Bridge,” I said in Thai.
“Oh, I will take you there. But do you have your Laos visa yet?”
“No, I will get it at immigrations in Laos. I just want to go to the bridge.”
“Listen, listen. I will take you to get your papers for the Laos visa first. Then I will take you to the bridge.”
“No,” I said. “All I want to do is go to the bridge.” I had heard about these people. They take you and they do stuff for you that you are perfectly capable of doing yourself and charge exorbitant prices.
“But listen to me. I will explain it all to you.”
I have never been able to say no to these people, usually because I myself don’t know enough about what I am doing. But I used to think that once I knew Thai fluently, I would be able to say no, and to harden my heart. But I can’t even haggle at the market. I just give in to the price they ask, even if it’s ridiculous.
In the end, I gave in. It was my first time crossing this border, I was by myself, and I was unsure. It was stupid of me, and I was mad at myself all through the next hour until I left the Laos entrance. I was mad at him too, for persuading me.
“You see,” the man said as we sputtered off in his tuk tuk, “They will cheat you at the Laos border if you don’t do it beforehand.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought bitterly to myself. “Like you are doing now.” I ended up losing 600 baht. (close to 20 dollars)
The next interesting character I met was a red-haired Norwegian who reeked of perpetual smoke. We were sitting in a van going to the Thai embassy in Vientiane. He leaned forward from behind and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Are you a nurse?” he asked, pointing to my veiling.
“No,” I said, and explained.
“Oh,” he said, and proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about Amish people. I nodded and smiled to myself. As if you knew.
The girl beside me was from Palestine, and worked in Pattaya in Central Thailand. Then I chatted with the aged cab driver, who spoke Thai well, and told me tidbits of Laos history and language and how the police lock up his wheels when he parks beside the road for even a few seconds. I felt like his granddaughter.
One of my favorite parts of the trip came on the way back the next day, headed back to the Thai-Laos border to cross over into Thailand again. The cab driver was gruff and honest. He talked mostly Laos with a spattering of Thai, and I talked Thai to him with a spattering of Northern Thai. (Thai, Northern Thai, Isaan Thai and Laos are languages that are very closely related. Usually one can understand the other quite well) I wanted to share with him, but felt at loss on how to begin. Finally I told my Father that I would at least ask one question and then if the man wanted to listen I would share with him.
I asked him if there were any C’s in his country. I knew very well there were.
“Yes,” he said, and gave some other facts. Then he leaned over, turned down his radio and said, “Tell me what you believe.”
So, in the best Thai I could muster, I gave the story of the Father in a nutshell. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but at the end, I asked him if he understood.
“Yes,” he said, but didn’t say much else.
The rest of the ride we chit-chatted, and at the end I gave him a J film. He was very excited for it.
The next person I met was a French lady who traveled the world. She was at least 60. I was sitting under an outdoor shelter that had a beautiful view of the Mekong River, the river that divides Laos from Thailand, at my guesthouse in Nong Khai.
“Do you have Skype? Can I use your Skype?”
“Sure, you can,” I said. As I was getting signed in, she told me all about herself.
It turned out that she travels the world as lightly as possible. She told me the amount of underwear she carries with her, (5 pieces, I think and sometimes she washes them out twice a day. Sorry.) how many changes of clothes she takes with her, (two, and she rarely uses the second one), a blanket or a scarf, and a good pair of shoes, and several other small items that I forget (not as memorable as underwear, obviously). So, that was why she was using my Skype, since she packs only enough to get by on.
When I had successfully signed into my Skype, she called her home in France, only to have her mother answer.
She switched from French to Dutch, “Alles is goot!” Her mother was very hard of hearing, so the rest of the guests at the hotel got in on the conversation as well.
After a short conversation, she hung up and turned to me. “Will you be here in the morning? Can I use your Skype again?”
“Sure,” I said again. She offered to pay, but I didn’t let her, wondering to myself what was the best method for cleaning spit off a screen.
The next morning I hauled out my books and laptop and was going to enjoy the river view when the chain smoker lounging at the end of the table spoke up, “Are you Mennonite?”
“Similar to Mennonite, yes,” I said, looking longingly at my breakfast omelet that had just been delivered. We chatted as I ate. It turned out that he was from Chiang Mai, from the same neighborhood as a few of my Mennonite friends. So he knew about Mennonites in Chiang Mai.
“What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?” he asked.
As I was explaining, a face appeared beside me.
“You are still here!” It was the French lady.
She used my Skype, while the chain smoker looked on with a bemused expression (in light of our recent conversation on Mennonites and Amish.)
“This is ironic,” he said. I laughed. The French lady finished her phone call. She addressed the chain smoker, “You should stop smoking. It is very bad!” And proceeded to give him a piece of her mind.
We chatted some more. He was your typical “farang” living in Thailand. There for the cheap, easy life, with a Thai daughter and a Thai ex-wife. Bored with Chiang Mai. Smoking away his life. He pumped me for information on Amish and Mennonites. He had a live one on his hands and wasn’t letting the opportunity pass.
“I hope you don’t mind these questions,” he said. “It’s not every day I can ask someone these questions.”
I actually didn’t mind. Much. I only wished he would stop smoking.
We discussed separation from the world.
“I guess you and I are separated from the world,” he said, with a nod at the other hotel guests. “We’re sitting in the smoking section.” I almost choked. Not because of smoke.
“So have you ever thought of like,” he stumbled over his words as if unsure how to ask. “Like you’re over here. You could dress like you wanted to and no one would ever know. Like if it were me, I would hate to get noticed like that. You could just dress like everybody else. Like, sort of like, undercover Amish?”
I laughed. Undercover Amish. Like, what is the world coming to?
Looking back, I feel like there would have been better ways to answer some of his questions. But I always do that—think of those things I should have said.
I left Nong Khai for Udon that evening and in Udon, caught the bus back to Chiang Mai.
“Excuse me,” I said to the girl in the aisle seat as I went to slide into the window seat in the front row of the top story of the bus.
She looked up. Beautiful dark eyes, pale skin, cultured face.
At first, she had her earphones in. Then she took them out and we started talking.
I’ve never experienced such a quick bond of friendship before. We clicked. Almost instantly. She was 19 and her name was Mint. We discussed family and friends and dreams, usually looking straight ahead at the road in front of us because we both got sick easily.
She was studying to be a doctor in Phayao. She wanted to go to the poor mountain regions of Thailand and be a doctor there. I told her of my dream to be a teacher there.
Her eyes lit up. “Let’s go together!”
I grinned, “Sure!”
We both liked the color green. We both love eating gummi bears. I tested her English a bit and taught her some words. She asked if I had Facebook.
“No, I don’t. But I do have Line.” (a popular messaging app used a lot in Asia.)
She was getting off in Lamphun where her boyfriend was working, and I was getting off in Chiang Mai. Before we reached there, I told myself, I would get her Line ID or number. This was a friendship for life.
The night drew on and we both fell asleep. Her head would come bouncing over onto my part of the seat as we hit bumps and I would stick my feet over on her part. We were both awakened in the middle of the night by a group of tourists that came on the bus, babbling in some European language. For some reason, both of us thought the sound was hilarious. We giggled hysterically.
“It sounds like when we were children and would just talk nonsense,” she whispered to me. I agreed, and we tried to smother our giggles in vain.
We fell asleep again and suddenly we woke up and the sign said Lamphun. It was only a short roadside stop, so she had to hurry and was gone before I could sleepily scribble out my number on a piece of paper.
I felt a loss that I couldn’t describe. Like I had met a little sister for a brief 12 hours and then suddenly, she was gone. Only an act of God could let us ever meet again.
But I am glad I got to meet her. And the others, too. No matter how short the time that I got to know them, in some small way, each person impacted me, whether it was my pocketbook or my heart.
Which reminds me, I still haven’t cleaned that spit off my laptop screen.
A few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, I tapped the brakes slightly on my motorbike, and as a result, went sliding down a rain-washed mountain curve, leaving a 15 foot long scar on the pavement and a barely noticeable bruise on my leg. Shaken, but not hurt, I righted my bike and continued down the mountain in a proper fashion.
A few days before that, I finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital waiting for a health certificate in order to renew my driver’s license. Finishing the book at the hospital seemed fitting, even when I had no reason to be there other than to get a piece of paper.
Kalanithi writes poignantly of his battle with cancer and even more poignantly of his search to find purpose and meaning in life. Somehow when you read a book in which you know the author dies in the end, you read it with an expectancy of being on the brink of learning a great secret of life. It’s like leaning breathlessly over a death bed trying to catch the last words of someone who is ready to cross over to the other side of that blurred glass. You feel that someone that close to death must have a key to the purpose of life.
Perhaps that is because death and life really are not that much different.
The gist of Kalanithi’s story kept echoing in my soul several days after I put the book down. Kalanithi’s words, the fact that I slid down the mountain, the fact that I am close to adding another full year onto my life, and various other factors turned my mind to take a deeper look into my own life. One afternoon as I was patting one of my K1 students to sleep, a thought exploded in my brain.
If I live till fifty, I am over half finished with my life. If I live to 75, I am a third finished with my life.
I hated that thought and wished it away. It scared me. It made me panic.
You see, I’ve been living life in the same manner that I’ve been using crayons at work. In a classroom of 21 children, crayons are expendable. Once one of them becomes a little stub, it ends up in the trashcan without much thought and is easily replaced.
Life is not like that. But I’ve been living it like that. And suddenly with the realization that I’ve been alive for 27 years and at best have 60 more years left, comes the realization that I can’t afford to live life carelessly. I could die tomorrow. I could die in two weeks. I could die in 20 years. And the brutal fact remains– I’m not getting any younger.
My young students remind me of this daily. One day while playing “doctor” (I was the patient; they were the doctors) one of them discovered the white hairs in my head, exclaimed over them and made it her self-appointed duty to pick them out immediately. Just a few days ago, I leaned over a table, talking to a three year old, while raising my eyebrows. At the end of whatever I was saying, he didn’t respond, only wonderingly lifted his finger up and traced the wrinkles on my forehead. No, I’m not getting younger.
What does it mean to really, truly be alive in this world? This is the question that comes back to me over and over again.
There are lots of good quotes and words out there about what it means to really live, what a life well lived looks like. Cliché. Well meant. Good stuff. But somehow I’ve reached a point in my life where I myself need to come to a conclusion about what it really means to live.
As I was trying to form a conclusion for this post, I only was able to come up with a hundred more, disjointed random questions and thoughts.
Does truly living mean pouring yourself out trying to meet the needs and demands of the people around you until you are totally exhausted in the evening and lack the energy to even make your own supper?
Or is it the opposite, saying no to the needs around you so you can live your private life, follow the desires of your heart and stop and smell the roses and drink all the coffee you want?
I don’t think it means either of them. For the last few years, the former has been the story of my life. On some days I drag myself home at the end of the day, thinking, “Is this really what a fulfilling life looks like?”
But the fight within me continues. I have a hundred things that I would love to do before I die. I want to gallop across the Sahara desert on an Arabian horse with my hair down. I want explore Southeast Asia and visit the deserts of Mongolia and find my way into North Korea. I want to live in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. I want to write another book, a really really good one. I want to read books. I want to live at home and appreciate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of my own culture. I want to live in a Karen or Akha village in the mountains of Thailand. I want to learn another language. I want to live in Tibet. I want to get married and have children of my own.
But I only have one life. And it’s not my own.
Can I justify doing things to satisfy my own wanderlust and desires?
What do the words mean, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart?” Am I not in tune enough with the Father’s heart to have my desires be his yet?
What does it mean to enjoy the gift of life that God has given us to the fullest, and yet being in tune to the needs of millions in this world who lack the privileges of money and freedom I have been given? Can I justify using my time and money in following my own desires while others are struggling to simply live?
What does it mean to be a Mary who serves?
Is it wrong to spend time reading literature just for the fact that it is well written, even if its spiritual benefit is low?
When is it right to spend money on your own comforts when it is something you could live without?
How do you decide where to pour out your life when there are so many things you love to do and would love to learn?
Paul was an apostle who poured out his life so others could hear the gospel. But did he ever stop on a mountain peak and drink in the glory of the natural world? Did he rejoice inwardly in the beauty of each culture he visited and delight in the different stripes and colors of each country?
This life is beautiful. The people and the world around me are beautiful and deserve to be noticed and gloried in. There are hundreds of amazing accomplishments of humanity that should be celebrated, not because of the human ability behind it, but because of the gift of talented brains and gifted hands that God has given us. There are hundreds of beautiful cultures and customs that express the image of God.
To sum it up, the question that remains is, “How do I live and taste this beautiful life to the fullest, without getting wrapped up in things that take away from the purpose God has given me?”
Suddenly I plunged into it. Up and upward I climbed, deeper into the heart of the mist. The echo of the Chinese tourists’ jabber faded and nothing remained but the winding road, the forest and the fog. I was alone in the world. Curve after curve we went, the fickle fog wisping in the hollows and around the mossy tree trunks, now fleeing in fear, now advancing recklessly, reaching around my hands, my neck, my arms, chilling me with welcome numbness. We climbed up and then bounced down, my motorbike and I, through rutted tracks and mud, deeper and deeper into this alien world. When I stopped at the lookout to pull my camera from my backpack and turned off my bike, the silence hit me with a shout. Only the wind spoke its emptiness in the treetops, like a December breeze in a muffled midnight snow. Beneath me the fog rolled out in an fathomless ocean. I thrilled. I was alone in a world of fog. Alone.