As Little As 99 Cents

“Impact a life for as little 99 cents” caught my eyes.  Colorful images of smiling but obviously poor children filled the brochure that had arrived in my mailbox.  Flipping through the pages I was invited to “choose how to transform a life.”  I was urged to donate money that could provide clothing, a cow, a sewing machine, clean water, books– an endless list of possibilities– which would “give a family what it needs to break the cycle of poverty.”  Each potential gift had a corresponding number listed for easy recording on the paper order form or the organization’s website.

 

Giving — made simple, convenient and fast.

To me, it seemed uncomfortably similar to all the advertisements that slick marketing companies were using to boost retail sales during this holiday season.

Anger, a sense of injustice, and sadness settled on my heart.

Why? I’m not sure.

Is it because these days I am being bombarded by pre- and post- Black Friday sales, Cyber-Monday sales, Giving Tuesday opportunities, Christmas sales with so much emphasis on money and materialism?  Is it the assumption that I could help to improve the life of someone in poverty for as little as 99 cents?  Is it because it seems like a great bargain and I should take advantage of this opportunity while the sale lasts?

Something just does not seem right to me.  I do want to encourage giving to great causes but somehow putting a low price on a project that involves a person seems to lessen the value and dignity of that individual.  And I know that to truly help someone in need demands time, love, and sacrifice.

Am I willing to do that?  Sure would be easier to pick out a gift or two and fill out the form.  But I have a hard time imagining Jesus doing that.   In fact, from His life, He did quite the opposite.  Do I dare to think and do differently?

I Lie A Lot

One evening at work I quipped to a co-worker,  “I lie a lot.” He answered, “But they’re white lies.”   I grew up firmly believing that lying was wrong, a sin, a breach of one of the Ten Commandments.  Then, as an adult living and working in an Asian culture for several decades, I learned that what I considered lying in my Judeo-Christian, American sub-culture was quite different from the Chinese perspective of not telling the truth. Lying was not so black and white.

And now I find myself in a new world and culture.  In my present job I spend many hours among those suffering with dementia.

And sometimes I lie. 

As evening approaches,  I try to comfort one who is wondering how he can go home.  Another wonders if we can all fit in one car to leave.   Yet another worries if her family knows she is here.  Another is concerned that our voices and music may disturb those trying to sleep upstairs. Someone starts looking for keys, another wants to go and take care of her elderly mother.

 

And as I enter into their “here and now” perhaps I am not lying.  In their world they are the driver, the care-giver, the one going home, or going to their night job.  And I am affirming what they are living in their mind, their reality.

And so, my internal dialogue continues to analyze and understand as I work and relate and connect with these suffering with dementia.  Perhaps that connection is through a touch, a song, a smell, a picture.

And, yes, sometimes it’s through words that are not truthful today in my world,  but they ring true in their mind and their world that moment.

And so I wonder, am I really lying?

Unplanned Season of Green

The end of August approaches and autumn hints appear: the sound of crickets at night, the slight coolness in the morning, the shortening of daylight, the back-to-school sales, the small flocks of birds hovering about, the lines of mum plants full of buds readying for purchase,  and the beauty of late summer blooms.

One can see that subtle change of color on tree leaves and corn stalks.  Yet, it’s hard to detect this year.  Green is the dominant color.  Green — at the end of the summer. It’s been wet and everything has kept growing.

People’s lawns are green.  Trees and bushes and weeds are thick with large leaves and new growth.  My outdoor hardy hibiscus didn’t flower as much or as long, expending too much energy into leaves and stalks and enjoying too much shade from neighboring trees that grew in feet and density. My coleus have taken off.  Flowers and sweet potato vines in my backyard flower bed have created a dense mosaic of color attracting equally colorful butterflies, bees and even goldfinches and an occasional hummingbird.  I even have to trim back the vines that threaten to suffocate plants underneath.

I could not have known this past spring that I would still be enjoying  springlike green at the end of summer.

This past spring I could not have prepared for the unplanned and painful end of a part-time job that allowed the beginning of a full-time job this fall.

I could not have predicted the sharp and quick decline of my sister’s health and her passing.

I could not have seen how plodding through the Old Testament (sacred scriptures that Jews and Muslims also revere which I find awesome) has given me a deeper love and understanding of who God is and how He really cares for me as individual but also that He cares for the vulnerable.

I could not have planned the surprised discovery of miniature eclipse shadows in  front of my home as I endeavored to experience the partial solar eclipse without traveling or special equipment.

In the spring I had already planned a trip to Canada for this month, but I could have not anticipated all the fun, blessings, surprises, insights, and memories with a variety of people those ten days had provided.

I know we “should”  plan and prepare, and I do. But I think is very much part of our western culture and not necessarily the correct way at times.

I remind myself continually that I need to hold my agenda and to-do lists and my “five-year plans” loosely.   I really do not know what tomorrow will bring let alone years ahead.  But I know that I can hold tightly to God who is just and good and perfect even though I really do not know what is going on or understand what He is doing (or not doing).

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll see green this winter.

 

 

Plastic Tubs of Memories

Basements have never been a part of my overseas homes so having one as part of my present rental feels extravagant.  A concrete floor, plastic draped ceiling and cement blocked walls make up the environment for the washer and dryer (another item I never had before), my bike, various gardening items and shovels, and a number of big plastic tubs.  These plain tubs are labeled with dates or words. They consist of memories from my six decades of life.  Other tangible memories can be found in my office’s filing cabinet, perhaps the most significant being letters I wrote by hand from overseas to my mother and are now in my possession.  Digital photos and emails are also floating around in cyberspace somewhere or stored on an external hard drive. But the tubs are the most obvious because they are tangible, labeled and rather organized.

I have downsized considerably over the years, so it amuses me to see the tubs and consider: That’s my life.   Baby Clothes (that looked like they were never used), Photos, Slides, Yearbooks, Journals, Diaries, Artwork, Report Cards, Diplomas,  Sympathy Cards, Birthday Cards, and more.

On-sale-at-Walmart plastic tubs with hand-written labels on equally cheap note paper.  Generally organized by years or categories.

But life isn’t like that.  And so, memories aren’t either. My life and memories don’t fit into organized plastic tubs with labels.

These summery days I hear the locusts screeching as the summer heat of the day cranks up and I’m transported to the hot days in northern China where the cicadas were so loud and shrill that they would practically hurt my ears.

The humid weather and bursts of rain from towering thunderheads remind me of the weather of Hong Kong and life with perspiration and typhoons and wet feet.

My backyard zinnias in the USA here are huge and thriving, and I am reminded of the pathetic zinnias I tried growing in a small plot of dry, poor soil in my one China apartment complex, and then the thrill I and the neighbors had when miniscule  flowers appeared on fragile, spindly stems.

When I go to buy fruit and vegetables at the farm stands nearby here I still struggle paying so much knowing that years ago I would pay a fraction of the cost for the same or similar produce overseas.

About a year ago I had a Chinese friend come for a visit, and in a trip to Canada next week I may be able to see a Chinese friend there.  My worlds merge and separate.

Memories fly from place to place, from year to year, from person to person, intertwining, backtracking, looking ahead, analyzing, comparing, and enjoying.  The memories don’t just stay in a box.  Perhaps it’s a reflection about how my mind work– how our brains are wired! A memory jumps to another, smells, sights and sounds activate a series of memories that race back and forth and trigger other memories and even create new ones.  It’s no wonder that my dreams are filled with a  combination of people and places and situations that could not possibly happen  in real life.

Plastic tubs of memories. 

I visualize how true memories could be stored–  tubs labeled by dates but then strings would link people, events, photos, journals found in the tubs. They could be strings of different colors perhaps symbolizing emotions or importance.  This tangled mess of colored strings emerging and entering plastic tubs would discourage any suggestion of organization, but perhaps then this would be the picture of what memories really are–all so intricately connected in very complicated ways, yet mysteriously beautiful and intriguing.

Three Years Back

Three years ago I was in the midst of packing and repacking bags as I came down to the last days of my China life. Thankfully I was able to leave many household items for the new resident of my apartment — an expatriate teacher who would need everything.  Nevertheless, my cherished house plants needed to find new homes, and I continued the emotional interactions of good-byes and last talks and meals with friends. My checklist shrank and grew as I would tick off a finished task but then add a new one.

Settling into life in the USA after decades overseas would be hard.  I knew it would be and was forewarned.  And I could make a quite a long list why it is so difficult and continues to be so.

But, today I thought, why don’t I reflect on, for lack of a better descriptor, the good things I have encountered these past three years back in the USA?  So, I will do my best to keep my naturally melancholy heart less vocal and my pessimistic thinking less obvious , and will not try to give into the temptation to add a cynical remark.

Family:   Within these last three years,  I have been at the bedside of my mother and now recently my sister when they gave their last breaths.  Many overseas workers don’t have that sacred honor of spending the last days and hours with a loved one on earth.

I also have had that deep joy of holding two  great nephews soon after their birth.  This delight I don’t take lightly as I am reminded that many years ago I had to wait over two years to meet their mother, my niece,  who I never held as a baby.  She didn’t come on time, so I had to board my plane without being able to see her as a newborn.  However, looking back, perhaps God knew it would have been harder for me to see her, hold her and then leave right away.

Nature:  Clean air and blue skies with the changing panorama of clouds, multitudes of flowers with every hue and shape, green woods full of trees and wildlife, streams that wind and water, and the rolling fields of corn, wheat and/or soybeans will always touch my soul in a deep way.   I now nurture my own flower garden outside, experimenting with species and colors, cursing the beetles and worms, and pleading for rain, and am awed how plants grow and flourish, bloom and die.  Houseplants sustain the green within my home and during the winter months,  they hint of hope for life ’til springtime.

Convenience:  I can drive around most of the time without much care of the weather.  My car is conveniently steps away from my apartment’s front door.  I have room in my car, trunk, and can fill it without thinking how I’m going to get it on my bike.  Shopping carts are available, and I can push the cart right to my car and unload.  When driving, I can expect most people to follow the laws.

I can make an appointment by phone call for the doctor, dentist, beautician, and am expected to be there.  I can get service at a bank or the post office or grocery store after lining up, and many places will even up another line/cash register/window to keep people from waiting.

I blend in quite well around here, so I actually seem quite invisible.

I am expected to pay the price of the item or produce at the farm market as labeled.

Different Worldview:  I have a different outlook on life that has been shaped from living as a foreigner in a different culture.   I know what it’s like to be a minority.  I have a belief system that has been become more sensitive and attuned to what real truth is based on what God’s Word –the Bible– says and not only what my upbringing and culture has taught me.

And as I writing this, I’m realizing, the list may not end.   These past three years have been HARD but there has been a lot of GOOD, a lot of GOOD.  And I smile.

 

 

Writing Again

A writer’s block: “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing” appears on my phone’s screen when Googling its definition.   I have done some writing these past few months: a few draft posts sit on this website and homework assignments were done for an online course.  But writing here is of a different genre and  how to proceed stumps me.  So, perhaps I need to start somewhere, and thus, I begin with a list.

Things that happened these past few months I could write I about if I choose to do so:

  • a cool gorgeous spring that has produced lush, green plants, trees, and flowers and even blooms from plants that didn’t do much last year
  • a third-time experiment on my flower beds –moving perennials around and picking different colors for annuals  (and finally knowing the difference)
  • an unexpected and unplanned end of a part-time job which taught me much in many areas
  • a continual understanding of Gerontology (“the scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular problems of old people”) and dementia with the desire to get a job in this field
  • the soon completion of 3 years back in the USA and still wondering what my place and role is here
  • the realization that my life will always have to be one of trust and faith in the One who says He loves me and who knows what will happen even though I can’t seem to figure things out
  • the insights, life lessons and questions I have as I take my time pondering verses in the Pentateuch and other parts of the Bible
  • the amazement of new birth and life with the arrival of my second great-nephew and the fun of a 2 1/2 year old exploring life and language
  • the finality and sadness of death with the departure to heaven of my sister, Janice, whose burial was yesterday

So, I desire to begin writing again, and just maybe this will get me going.

 

Sitting Among Pots of Meat

“There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted . . .”

What?? You have to be kidding.  But that’s what they said.  The whole community of Israelites had just left Egypt where they were slaves.  God sent Moses to lead His people out of captivity and eventually to Canaan– “The Promised Land.”  He used ten supernatural plagues to show His power and to convince, or rather force,  Pharaoh to let His people go.  God also miraculously parted a huge body of water to allow His people to flee from Pharaoh’s army, and then destroyed that army with the same water.  Anyone familiar with the Bible know of these stories.  The people then sang, danced and praised God for his power and deliverance from their enemies.

But 2 1/2 months after these events the people are complaining that they have nothing to eat in the desert and they wished they had died in Egypt.  And they actually recalled that they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted in that land.

Did they forget they were slaves?

They actually sat around? What slaves would have the time or freedom to sit around?  In fact, the Pharaoh thought they were lazy when they talked of worshipping their God and then increased their workload.

They had pots of meat? I may be wrong but I’m guessing in ancient times, only the wealthy could afford large portions of meat.   Poor people may be able to afford a little meat and maybe only for special occasions.  But slaves?  The ones on the bottom of the social ladder?  I can’t imagine they tasted much meat at all.

And they ate all the food they wanted?  I doubt that. I just don’t think they had a lot of food.  Or owned much of anything. They were slaves!

So why did they say this? I’ve been thinking about it and wondering. . .  is it because their former life seemed so much easier than what they were facing now?  Perhaps they forgot that they did not have meat and unlimited food.  But they did have stability, security, predictability in many ways.

They probably had a roof over their heads, and every day was a long work day with maybe a few breaks for rest and nourishment if they were fortunate.  They knew the routine.  They knew the people around them.  They knew it would be like this for the rest of their lives.  It was the life of a slave. It was predictable.

But now they were no longer slaves.  They were free!  And they had a new life. But they weren’t so sure it was a better life.

It was an unknown life.  With an unknown future.

They saw incredible miracles and yet they didn’t really know this God who sent all kinds of plagues on their enemies, killed babies and soldiers, and provided a dry path in the middle of the sea and deliverance from slavery.

He was leading them by a pillar of fire at night and a cloud by day. And the human leaders, actually two brothers,  that this God had picked out, seemed very unsuitable and had questionable backgrounds. Moses was not eloquent, was easily angered and as a youth he was a prince, then an exiled murderer, and finally  ended up for decades as a shepherd among foreigners.

And now here they were all in the middle of desert with no water, food and an unknown destination.

All at once, the life they knew of a slave morphed into an imaginary pampered life they had never experienced.  It seemed so much better than the present.

And it seemed so much easier than this life of unknown they were now facing.

And it seemed simpler than trying to have faith in a God they didn’t really know and were afraid to know.

I shake my head in amazement and puzzlement.  Yet I stop and think.  Wait, a minute,  I, too, do the same.  I would rather stay in a place or situation I know, or long for the past or the life I once knew, then to move on in faith.  It’s human to feel that way. But the fact is, my past life is gone. And it is not as perfect or painless as I may remember.  And so I must realize that God wishes for me to move ahead in faith, a step at a time, and to know and experience Him in deeper and different ways than before.  And not to complain or dwell in the past that never really happened. I can’t say it’s easy, but then who said life would be easy?

 

Plastic Eggs and Horse Baskets

About an hour given to shop at the superstore.  Who knows when the last time she was in a store with so many choices.  At 90+ you don’t go running around much, especially if you’re in a wheelchair.  With a gift card in hand and a glance to my watch, I figured that we had about 60 minutes to look around, buy some items, get checked out and then meet the others .  I was not a shopper but thankfully I was familiar with the store and knew generally where things were.

However, I realized quickly that I would not be following my normal procedure:  I would not be zooming the aisles with my cart in an attempt to get my stuff and get out as soon as possible and onto more important things on my to-do list.  This time was different. I was working and my responsibility was meeting the needs of the lady in my care.

We hardly got a few feet when before us was a whole section of Easter items.  Yes, a few St. Patrick things were there too since March had not quite arrived yet. But Easter had arrived in the marketing world, two months in advance.

I have looked at decorations before when picking out a few things to brighten up my sister’s room at her nursing home.  But I generally avoided the section. I preferred more natural decorations or none for the holidays.

But this time was different.  I stopped and looked and discovered new joys.   With her awes and smiles I also had to chuckle and marvel at the variety of things I did not know as a kid. I’m not sure who was more amused, my elderly friend or myself.  I saw plastic eggs of every shape and color. And we both laughed at the football and baseball shaped ones.  The artificial grass I thought only existed in pastel colors surprised me with rainbow and psychedelic colors.   Marshmallow chicks I thought were only found in pink or yellow could be a punch flavored red.  And the baskets!  I was thrilled to pick up a horse one that I would have loved as a kid.  We were both tickled by the insanely cute stuffed animals and we both loved the rocking lamb.  Memories of Easter past came flooding in.  For the elderly lady with me, she thought of candy baskets for her children and grandchildren and spring wreathes for her front door. I thought of Easter baskets full of candy hid in our home and hard-boiled eggs we would paint for egg hunts.

It was only for a short time and only among three aisles.  But I was reminded how I need to stop and cherish and share memories with others, to take the time to connect in a deep way and to enjoy simple pleasures.  To stop and “smell the roses,” they say.  To take the time to look, laugh, smell, feel, taste, and remember.  Plastic eggs and stuffed horse baskets are seasonable and perishable.  They will some day be discarded or broken.  But the imperishable items — friendships, people, memories — are the most treasured and priceless and timeless.

Reflections at 60


I turned 60 today.  So after 6 decades of life,  I think I’ve learned a few things  But I’m still learning. One of my favorite Chinese sayings (now that I’m “older”) is “one is never too old to learn” 老到学, 老到活.  So here are a few things I have learned or am learning…

I am not the center of the world.  It’s easy to think that way since I am single and live alone.  But it’s simply not true.

The most precious gifts cannot be bought.  These include people, nature, laughter, music, fun, creativity, health, community, peace and more.  Not possessions, power, entertainment, assets, etc.

People will live forever and are always more important than things.

I will take nothing with me when I die.  I was with both my father and then my mother when they breathed their last breath.  I’ll never forget the sacredness of the moment but also the stark reality that they were gone. Even the shells of their bodies were left behind as their souls left.  They took nothing with them.   So when I get possession focused, I remind myself of this.

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful supernatural avenues for peace. Yet it is sadly under-used.  It’s not about the denial of wrongs but it’s about confronting the wrongs, confessing, reconciling, healing and moving on.

Hope is one of the most driving forces in humans’ hearts. When one believes that some day wrongs will be righted, life will be easier, joy will come, fulfillment will come, the game will be won,  there is a reason for all the hard things of life, then one can face anything.  But if there is no hope, one dies.  Maybe not outwardly, but inwardly.

Good health– mental, physical, emotional and spiritual –needs to be a serious goal in my life.  Modern science cannot fix everything.  Sleep and relaxation needs to be a part of that– hard for those of us who like to keep busy.

Fun and relaxation are part of life.  They should never be my goal in life but they are a healthy component of life. And I need not to feel guilty sitting down with a good book or pencil and sketchpad or walking through the woods or sitting down with a friend and chatting over a cup of coffee.

Life is about being not doing. This is hard!  I realize that I’m so performance driven.   How well I do something should not shape my identity. And what I do outwardly needs to be coming from who I am.

As a follower of Jesus and a child of God I want to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.”  I want a heart that is like His heart which cares for those who are unreconciled to Him and for those who are marginalized in society.   I want to know Him and make Him known.

I wonder in ten years what changes I will make to this list… if I’m still around.

 

Almost a Tree-Hugger

My childhood home sat near the dead-end of a street at the edge of town.  Trees surrounded the house and blended into a small wooded lot which led to a tiny creek and swamp.  Remnants of a fence on the edge of our backyard hinted of the division of town and country and legalized the boundaries of two different school districts.  But for us neighborhood kids, the sloped field beyond the fence became a fun hill to sled in winter and during other seasons an interesting place to explore with stretches of grass and weeds and even a man-made dirt bank that kept town drain water from eroding the land .

The trees became my friends. I played among them and in them.  I created little homes within the bark crevices and among their roots and allowed my imagination to make up stories of horses and other creatures which lived there and had exciting adventures.   Massive oaks with tons of acorns seemed to be in abundance but my parents had also planted young maples and locusts.  There were was also a scattering of dogwoods and even wild cherry trees.   The trees made me feel secure and cozy and the seasons provided endless variety and pleasures.  Spring spoke of life and beauty when buds swelled and burst into flowers and  leaves.  Muggy summer nights allowed sleeping outdoors and often we laid on our backs seeking imaginary creatures and people found in the outlines and shapes of the darkened trees.   But summers also brought scary thunderstorms that tore down limbs and leaves and forever implanted within me a fear and awe of wind power. Autumn brought acorn battle fun and endless heaps of leaves to play in. Winter stripped the trees bare, yet with white snow clinging to the dark branches a peaceful pure beauty appeared unlike any of the other seasons.

Trees also were the homes of birds and squirrels — creatures that even now I enjoy watching.

Somehow I felt trees had feelings.  As kids we would get live Christmas trees and decorate them. But then  I would feel a sadness when the needles began to drop and it was time to take down the decorations.  My mom would then drag it to the woods with our help as we got older (our dad worked a lot and wasn’t home much).  It looked sad and forlorn and no longer useful.

Then came one Christmas season when the town authorities decided it was time to make our dead-end street into a proper cul-de-sac.  More houses were being built and a proper circle had to be made.  Trees were cut down and I can still remember standing at the kitchen window and crying as I watched.  I felt  the trees were hurting and dying and I was mourning for them.

Being now older and wiser, I realize trees do not have feelings as humans. Yet my adult heart still smiles as I read (or watched the movies) about the Ents in  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and about the Wood Nymphs in  C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories in which the trees were like people.  Of course trees are still living. And I confess that we humans  have really made a mess of the world God has given us to take care of.    I agree that “all creation groans for redemption.”

I’m not going to argue about global warming or if we all must use clean energy , but what I do feel convicted of is that I have not been serious about taking care of the world.  I have spent most of my adult life in one of the most polluted countries in the world.  Now I am living in a much cleaner environment here in the USA.  But am I doing my part in keeping it clean?  What about all the plastic I use? The fertilizer and weed-killers for my flowers? Do I recycle? Could I use less paper? And the list goes on…

This world is not going to last forever, but God has given me a responsibility to take care of it.  And I want to do my part.

And maybe some day I’ll hug a tree, just because I do like them.