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.
Sometimes I have those moments of lying awake in bed at night and wishing I could take the next plane home, get out of the city, spend time with my family, visit my favorite haunts again, listen to the laughter of old friends, and tear down the road in a madcap gallop on a sorrel horse.
I do have those moments. In no small measure. But on the other hand, I also have moments of pure joy as I experience life in Southeast Asia.
It helps to count those moments. To look at pictures of them and savor the beauty and the joy. And the laughter. I face a thousand decisions a day and one of the decisions that come up the most is whether to laugh or to cry. Or lose my patience. And when I do make the right decision to laugh, it’s always a relief. Like the time I walked into the bathrooms after naptime and caught three of my three year old male students sleepily peeing into the toilet all at the same time. Sadly, the funniest moments are usually the most difficult to snap a picture of because they come at unpredictable moments.
Below are several snapshots of what life has been like in the last month. Beauty, laughter, and just plain cuteness.
This is what life looks like for me most of the time. Minus the green and yellow. We only wear these uniforms Wednesdays and smile with relief when the day is past. This photo was taken at Wisdom Tree Home during the exercise part of the day. The rest of the day is spent teaching, playing, eating, napping, and prepping for more teaching. In my room alone, we have 20 students, age 3.
This is Peem, one of my more solemn students. And sleepiest.
We get lots of giggles, as shown in the picture above.
Sometimes its really hard to wake up from naps, even when our blanket gets pulled out from underneath us.
We do art projects, we just simply look cute with our curls, we find worms and we fall asleep at the table. A lot.
Sometimes this happens!
Going to the market on Monday night is bound to bring me some sort of joy, whether its talking to the vendors, seeing people I know, or a tasty bite of fried chicken strips.
One thing that keeps me sane is horseback riding, usually done on Saturdays.
We got to go to a Karen wedding one Saturday.
These two, a coworker and her daughter, keep me in laughter.
And these two make me smile.
We went to Maun Jam, a local mountain lookout one Saturday.
At a local village, we spent some time with the children and later watched them play this game similar to volleyball.
Sometimes just looking at the sky brings me all kinds of joy.
One Saturday we spent time with a Thai friend at a 3D Art Museum.
And when you combine rivers and coffee, life just becomes too much to handle. 🙂
If I were to write a book about last week, I think I would title it, Crazy.
Crazy in a good way. Mostly. Now that I’m looking back at it.
In order to tell you about my week, I should introduce you to the 3 girls I live with. I live with Brittany (or Brit) and Barbara (or Barbs) and Judi, (who just came several weeks ago.) We fit into our little house quite nicely and snugly.
Monday is a normal day, as far as Mondays go. Go to work at 7:30, chase, teach, hug and spank wish you could spank kids. After work, run over to the church to teach English for another hour and 15 minutes, like usual on Mondays and Fridays.
Tuesday. I feel the end of the month requirements piling up on me. Write monthly student progress reports for the parents who can understand English well enough, and hand the others over for my Thai teacher to process. Write my monthly newsletter. Finish my monthly report for our team meeting. Plan ahead. So Judi and I go to a coffee shop to catch up on some work. I don’t know what is wrong with the coffee, or if my metabolism is just going berserk (are metabolisms affected by coffee?) but an hour after I finish my cup, my head is swimming and I am not sure if I can drive home. (And yes, it was only coffee! A hot latte!)
Just as we walk out to go home, I get a panicked call from Brit. Barbara, in an attempt to do some exercises to liven up her time while waiting in the kitchen for her laundry to finish, was jumping up and down, and managed to catch her hand in the metal ceiling fan that was going on high.
“Should we take her to the clinic or to McCormick Hospital?” Brit asks frantically.
We race home, but not before they leave for the hospital with some neighbors. The kitchen looks like a murder scene with a trail of blood dripping over to the sink, a bowl of murky, bloody water stands in the middle of the floor, and music still plays eerily in the darkened house. Forcing my dizziness to the background, I manage to clean up the blood without throwing up. Afterwards we run to the hospital to see what’s going. Barbara needs stitches, and comes home after midnight.
Wednesday. I get a message from my Thai boss, asking us to come in early since both of the Thai staff have sick children and can’t come. Barbara goes to work, but is hampered considerably. Then suddenly in the evening, we find another child with hand, foot and mouth disease, and therefore….. to reduce the risk of more infections….. we suddenly close the school for two days!! An unexpected holiday! Teachers are supposed to be able to handle sudden days off maturely and without inner “hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords!” I know that, but I have yet to reach that mature stage.
Thursday. We go to school to clean and disinfect everything in sight. Toys, crayons, beads, legos, mats, tables, chairs, books. Everything. In the afternoon, I run to do get some supplies for school, and although I feel tired, get lured into exploring a hitherto unknown part of the city for an hour or so. In the evening we relax at home.
Friday. I ride my motorbike the almost 30 minutes to Doi Kham Horseback Riding for one of the best rides of my life. Four of us—my friend who owns the horses, one of his workers, an expat from Germany, and I, ride into the woods for 3 hours, galloping pell mell down little footpaths, riding higher up the mountain than I have ever ridden before, crossing streams, letting our horses graze, leading our horses down paths too steep and full of loose rocks to ride (and slipping and sliding down ourselves) and riding behind Night Safari, the exotic animal reserve, and hearing the growling of the tigers as they are fed. Kru Kom, the Thai employee that works for my friend, provides the entertainment for the day as he rides like a mad cowboy, letting his reins fall over his saddle horn while racing down the path, all the while waving a stick in the air and whooping and hollering. Or, better yet, turning around in his saddle taking pictures and videos of the riders while his horse picks its way up a mountain path and suddenly veers off into the bushes, taking him by surprise. I laugh.
In the evening, we teach English at the church and then run to look at a secondhand fridge for sale, about 20 minutes away. We decide to buy it, and plan to come the next morning to help the guy load it up and show him the way to our house.
Saturday. In the morning we go get the fridge. We get it situated in our house and then run to help a missionary couple clean the new house they plan to move into. After cleaning for several hours, we pack up our stuff with plans to head up the mountain. An extra two days off of work is not complete without a trip up the mountain. Journals, drawing supplies, books, Bibles, water and snacks. We’re ready. We drive for about half an hour, Brit and Barbara riding double since Barbara can’t drive yet with her injured hand. Just about 15 minutes from our destination, I notice Brit’s tire looking suspiciously sad. We pull over at a tourist spot and after asking half a dozen people, find a place to air up her tire, only to be told that it has an irreparable hole. So the poor bike and its passengers get loaded up on a truck and sent aaaalllll the way back to the city. Joy surprises us at a stoplight with a brilliant double rainbow spanning the sky. We find another place to hang out and do our work in the city and in the evening, we come back home and spend several hours cleaning out the old fridge, getting the new one situated and rearranging furniture in the kitchen.
Sunday. Thai church services in the morning. After singing “These Are the Days of Elijah” in Thai and listening to a sermon about Naaman and Elisha, we try the mountain again. Brit needs to get gas before going up the mountain so we decide to meet at the zoo, which is close to the foot of the mountain. Judi doesn’t hear the plan about the zoo. We reach the zoo and there is no Judi in sight. Her phone doesn’t work, she’s lived in the city for a total of 2 and a half weeks and she is not the kind of person to simply stay in one place if she gets lost. Barbara stays at the zoo to see if she’ll show up, and Brit and I start the hopeless task of trying to find one person in the midst of a million or so others. Twenty minutes later I get a call. Barbara saw Judi driving past the zoo, headed up the mountain, assuming we went without her. She doesn’t know the way, but is going anyway. We hop on our bikes and drive after her, stopping at the tourist spot we stopped at yesterday, hoping to find her. No luck. Finally, close to our destination, we spot her bike at a rest area and spread out in hopes of finding her. Brit finds her, and Judi, unperturbedly says with simple innocence not unlike Winnie the Pooh, “Oh, you found me!”
Finally, all together now, we keep on going. The road becomes smaller and narrower and bumpier. We turn off on another one. This one is hardly wide enough for two and has signs telling us to honk while going around curves. We gladly comply.
We turn off on another road. This one is moss covered and green, a bit slippery. Finally Brit stops and says, “This is it!” She’s been here before and knows the way to the lookout we want to be at. We unload our stuff— all our stuff—- and follow her down the mountain trail. In flipflops. Flimsy ones. That should be recorded under the column “Stupid Things Tourists Do.” We follow her. Down and down and down and down. And all the while I am thinking, “One day in the near future, I will have to climb this trail up and up and up and up. In flipflops.”
Brit is no longer so sure she knows the way. The trail is more overgrown than it was when she was here. And she doesn’t remember going this far. But still we walk. And walk. And walk.
Finally I hear her calling up ahead, “I found it!” We arrive, ooh and aah at the beautiful view, and lay out our blankets, pull out our Bibles and journals and books and snacks and drawing supplies and prepare to have a jolly time.
We have a jolly time for less than 45 minutes. Then the rain comes. We see it sneaking up the backside of the mountain, hoping it can surprise us, but we are ready for it. We pull on our raincoats, and decide to give up and go back.
Have you ever hiked up a steep mountain path carrying a heavy backpack, while wearing flipflops in the rain? It is not for the faint of heart. My flipflops are very slippery when they are wet, and I keep on slipping and sliding all over the path. Finally I take them off and go barefoot which is rather painful, but takes much less energy. My lungs are unused to mountain air and the first 15 minutes are torture. After that I pretend that I am a Free Burma Ranger carrying supplies to IDP’s (internally displaced people) in the jungles of Burma while keeping an eye out for the enemy and land mines. Then suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad at all.
After about 45 minutes of hiking we reach the road again. We are a bedraggled, sorry looking lot, but really quite happy. We drive down the mountain, shivering and blue from the rain.
On the way home, I am surprised by light shafting through storm clouds and by the second rainbow I have seen in two days. From a lookout on the mountain I see it, suspended over the city, so bright and bold and close you can almost reach out and touch it. Even though I am disturbed that my camera battery is dead, there is profound meaning and hope in this rainbow. The Thai song running through my head takes on new meaning and turns into a prayer, “Bless the land of Thailand, that they may find hope. Open their eyes and hearts to see the light…” (English translation of โปรดทรงอวยประเทศไทย ).
Green is the color of life and today is full of it.
This Saturday morning I ride my motorbike up Doi Kham mountain, through some of the greenest foliage I have ever seen in my life to one of my favorite spots in Chiang Mai, Doi Kham Horseback Riding.
We ride through the thick green landscape, rich, rich, rich in all its greenness where two months ago it was a dry dusty brown. The green feeds my soul, my dry dusty soul.
Afterwards we sip coffee in a little cafe surrounded by rice fields in a small valley. Mountains rise on the side and light glints off the top of a temple spire built on the tip of the mountain. My coffee is perfect, not too strong with lots of milk. The sky has cleared from its early morning storminess, and color like I have not seen in a long time splashes the world with its life-giving vibrance. I savor the gift of friendship, the gift of coffee, the gift of being able to speak a language that 2 years ago was foreign, the gift of resting my mind from the daily challenges of work.
The day passes and the gifts keep coming. Sunflowers- yellow, brown and green- from a friend, cookies, summer sounds, tall, tall thunderheads towering in a brilliantly blue sky. Green grass in the shadow of palm trees with light shafting and glinting and dancing. I long for a camera since words cannot do justice. It seems like every waking moment is full of color. Why? Was it not there before? Or has God simply allowed my soul to see again? All through these sights and all through the day, two words keep on running through my mind.
Later rain torrents down from the thunderheads that now pour out their fury on the world. I am on my bike heading to the airport to meet a friend when it comes, and it is the worst rain I have ever driven in on a motorbike. But it brings a glory of its own— the challenge of driving in the rain with wind lashing and water coming up to mid tire at times. I feel at one with the rain at times like this. It seems to embody the human spirit— a lashing out at the sadness and evil of the world.
But the one most precious gift of the day keeps on coming back to me as I drive home late at night from a friend’s house. It is words that I keep on puzzling on, over and over again. This morning as we sat on the balcony of the cafe after our ride, drinking coffee, my Thai Buddhist friend says of his 14 year old son, “Chawin ok gab Pra Jao laao.” Literally translated he says, “Chawin is ok with God.”
I keep on mulling over these words, wishing I knew exactly what he meant. Chawin goes to a Christian school, and as I look back at memories of conversations about religion when he was present, I remember the look of understanding and empathy in his bright eyes as we talked about Jesus and Christianity. But does he mean that he believes in God? Does he mean that he has found peace with God?
I wish I knew. I wish I had asked.
But for now I am grateful at least this. Chawin is ok with God, whatever it means. And perhaps one day his father will be too.
How can I tell? Because the poetry is alive in my brain again. There’s more color in the sky, in the grass, in the mountains. And not just because of the rain.
After the brain fog and brutal heat of March, April and May and the ridiculous intensity of our work schedule, there was no longer any poetry bubbling in my brain. There was only dragging myself out of bed in the morning, forcing myself to eat something so I would have energy for the day, and then at the end of an exhausting day weighing myself and discovering I had lost yet another 2 pounds. If there had been poetry, it would have gone like this:
It’s so so hot/ I feel like meat/ Left out of the fridge/ In all this heat/ Like boiled cabbage/ And leftover peas/ That’s what I feel like/ (groaaaannn…. more water, please)
And that’s actually not poetry. It rhymes. But its not real poetry.
But now there’s poetry bubbling again and not just my own. One of these days I would love to sit down and trace back through all the poems that have shaped my life. Poetry that opened doors and windows to a new way of seeing the world through the beauty of words that capture life in crystal clear images. Poetry that thrilled me and inspired me. Poetry that made me laugh. Poetry that captured that feeling inside of you that you yourself didn’t even know existed until that aha moment when it was put into words. And then you think to yourself, “That’s exactly how I feel about it, but I never knew I felt that way.”
Late last night as I defrosted our poor neglected fridge, threw away rotten fried rice and tomatoes and eggs, and debated whether to keep last year’s chocolate or throw it away, I thought poetry and listened to it. And tried to ignore the smell that reeked from the fridge. I listened to Robert Frost and dreamed of someday stopping by woods again on a snowy evening. Oh the pure delight of doing that again! I listened about his road diverging into a wood and said, “I know exactly how you felt.” I listened to Rudyard Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet.” I was curious and felt a little disturbed. Then I listened to Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” and remembered a dear little first grader with honey -blonde hair in front of an audience reciting “Fog” on the last day of school. And I felt pangs of homesickness and pastsickness.( pastsickness: a longing for the past, to relive memories that are sweet after time has washed away all the pain.)
But the poem I like the most of all the evening was this one. After washing out of the fridge thoroughly of all its putrid odors and feeling like it was on its way back to recovery like I was, it was raining once again and I listened to Longfellow’s “The Day is Done.” However much poetry might be bubbling in my brain, my soul is still tinged with tiredness, and this poem echoed the thoughts of my spirit. Sometimes we long for the simple words of some normal human being to soothe our restless spirits, instead of weighty words of theology and religion.
The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.
And now, because it is almost midnight, I must fold up my tent and steal away on the road less traveled that leads to bed since I have gone many miles since I have slept and my bed is oh so lovely and dark, yet, I fear not very deep, because East has not yet met West in the making of mattresses. And we will pray that the neighbor’s cats do not come on their little cat feet and fight on my roof.