The Face of Autumn

You were there when I was born in October

I didn’t know you then

Didn’t know you existed until much later

But once I found you I knew, of course

You had always been there

Right where you’ve always been

And where you’ll always be

 

I can’t remember when I first saw you

But I do remember a picture

A drawing, actually

The faded pastels fascinated my childhood imagination

Your facial expression in the picture, as in all children’s books,

Surely must have been exaggerated

 

I remember you always being a part of my childhood

I can’t remember any special bond, though

After all, I’d only known about you for a short time

I didn’t know what you would later mean to me

How could I have?

 

When I grew into my teens

I guess I started developing feelings for you

I didn’t feel then what I feel now

But looking back, I know I felt something

Those nights, the ones when you were out, were more special

Because without you, they wouldn’t have meant as much

There was just something about you

That made the darkness feel better

 

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties

When the veil over my eyes miraculously fell off one autumn night

That’s when I saw your true face

Wasn’t it the same face I had seen as a child in the picture book?

Why had I never been able to see it on you before?

You looked worried

With your circular mouth opened wide

And your big round eyes drawn downward on the sides

Like a scared child

 

Your face  –  my God!

It was a mirror image of what I felt inside

And at that very moment I knew you

A kindred spirit

You’d been around for a long time

Maybe you could help me understand

I wanted to reach out and touch you

To tell you everything about myself

But mostly, I wanted to know the mystery behind that look on your face

 

Every time I saw you after that

I couldn’t help but stare

Hoping to find your face again

Sometimes I would see it, but most of the time I couldn’t

I wanted more than anything to be closer to it

But that was impossible

 

When I was in my forties

A terrible thing happened

My heart was broken

And the world went dark

One night I looked out my window

And there you were

Letting me see your face again

It was autumn and you were full and bright that night

I stared for a long, long time

Until the tears stopped

And my heart filled with hope again

When you reminded me that the world would go on

 

More years have passed now

And autumn has returned, as it always does

Tonight you let me see your face for the first time in awhile

Walking home, I couldn’t stop looking up at you

Until I finally paused on a bridge just to admire you for minute or two

 

What is it that draws me to your face?

Did God position your mouth there

And your eyes, appearing as if they’ve seen something terrible

Or maybe something awe-inspiring?

Or did those holes just happen there

Nothing more than a fluke of nature?

 

I know you can’t hear me, can’t see me

But I see you

Peeking out of the night sky

Always there

Just as you’ve always been

And always will be.

 

 

 

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An Inspiring Journey to the Grand Canyon

This summer I embarked on a journey to the Grand Canyon by car. I was excited at first, as I’d planned this trip the summer before but could never get anyone to come along with me. So this year I decided to go, even if I had to do it on my own. When the time to leave drew closer, I began to feel anxious about the trip, questioning whether it would be smart to set off all alone on such a long journey. What if I got a flat tire in the middle of the desert? Honestly, I really didn’t have a well thought out plan for any kind of disaster like that, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that whenever I feel that kind of fear and anxiety, it means a great sense of victory is going to come afterwards. I started to look at the positives and realized that going alone would be the best way, actually. It would give me some time to reflect on my life, and who doesn’t love a good road trip to give oneself the opportunity to belt out favorite songs while nobody else is listening?

I’ve never been a big fan of desert scenery or dry/hot places. I don’t even like Westerns or county music, for that matter. I’m more of a rivers/lakes/oceans/mountains/snow kinda gal. From looking at pictures, the Grand Canyon has always sort of had that same deserty, country western, too hot to live in feel to me, which is probably why I never took the time to visit it in the past. But somewhere along the line, I made a challenge to myself to visit as many Wonders of the World as possible. I also made up my mind to enjoy every bit of scenery and appreciate it for what it is – it’s history, formation, people – everything! And with that attitude, I’m happy to say I was NOT disappointed!

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The drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from North Idaho through Eastern Montana and Utah is amazing! Other than the congestion driving through Salt Lake City, all other parts of the mostly four-lane highways are quiet and enjoyable. Most of the speed limit signs are set at 80 mph, which is great! The scenery shifted so much I couldn’t help but to be in awe of it, from forests, lakes, mountains and plains, to red rock deserts and lush green meadows. I soaked it all in, falling in love with the beautiful country I’d been born into and appreciating the work of God’s hands.

Upon arriving to the North Rim entrance, I spotted a herd of buffalo grazing in the field. We tourists stopped to take pictures and just appreciate these beautiful creatures with an unspoken understanding of what their ancestors had experienced, and an awareness that they deserved to be left alone to live naturally in their peaceful environment. The solemness of that moment made me realize that National Parks are special places where we can become one with nature while not disturbing it. It was an amazing feeling to be a part of that, and it made me feel that there are still good people in the world who are able to respect and enjoy nature without having to be told to.

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I read that the North Rim is much less “touristy” than the South Rim, and that only 10% of all the people who visit the Grand Canyon go there. Since I’ve never been to the South Rim I can’t compare the two. All I can say is that the North Rim is spectacular! My first venture was to hike a short trail to get to one of the view points. I was the only one on the trail the whole way up, and to be honest, it was a bit scary. I had fears of being confronted by a wild animal or even a weirdo psychopath crazy person. Sure I brought mace with me, but it was still in the car! And how long was this trail, anyway? I felt tired, even though I’d only been walking a short distance. Later I realized it was because of the high elevation. When I reached the top I had my moment with the Canyon. It was just me standing there, mouth gaping open and heart full to the brim. Wow, wow, wow! I’m not a very good writer, so I can’t begin to describe the view in front of me that day. I think I wanted to cry, but that would be silly as it would have blurred my vision and then I wouldn’t be able to see the Canyon at all. My next thought was, there’s nobody here to take a picture to capture me in this moment. But seconds later a couple came up the trail and sat down on the log next to me. How convenient!

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I ventured onto the rest of the trail, eventually finding where all the other people were hiding. There was more awe to be had that day, and I loved every minute of my time there.

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Eventually, I decided to take a drive to the scenic routes. I’m not the best photographer in the world, but I do believe that nobody can capture the Grand Canyon, or any other beautiful scenery, the way our own eyes and senses can capture it by experiencing it for ourselves. If you stand there long enough, you will realize there is so much to the view before you – This ancient land, such a mystery. Who can even grasp its true history?

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The picture below wasn’t my favorite view. In fact, I thought it was ugly and I was about to walk off after taking  pictures of the scenery on the other side of the viewpoint. But as I stopped and stood there and really looked at it, I saw something so amazing in its form and texture. To me, it looks like hardened lava. Was there once a volcano here? I pictured ancient peoples walking across it, maybe dinosaurs. Now, it’s become one of my favorite memories of the Canyon.

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I learned a lot about myself on this trip. I learned that, after driving through the desert, I can appreciate even the most desolate looking places because there is history there, and people who call those places home. I learned that after spending so many years in China, having a car and feeling that freedom is something I miss so much. I wish I could do more of it! I also learned, once again, that fear is not my enemy, it’s simply a voice in my head daring me to come and conquer it.

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Chengdu ~ You’ll never feel lonely

 

Sichuan is famous for its pandas and spicy food, but what impressed me most about this ancient Chinese province was its beautiful scenery, (which was mostly covered by cloudy skies when I visited), and its friendly people. Nobody can stay lonely for long walking through People’s Park in central Chengdu, where folks are more than happy to greet a foreign face with a smile, a ‘hello’, a conversation in English, a photo op or a game of badminton, and where you will find an abundance of music, dancing and people of all ages enjoying a day of fun and games or conversing over a warm cup of tea.

A relaxing and fun evening was spent at an Inner Mongolian style pub that my friend and I stumbled across by accident. Here we found a lively atmosphere of passionate traditional music and a welcoming spirit, and where I also won a little prize to welcome in the ‘Year of the Dog’.

Chengdu is ‘the gateway to Tibet’ and the capital city of Sichuan Province. Just on its outskirts lies another gem, the village of Dujiangyan, with its beautiful mountains, swift flowing river and charming downtown. Dujiangyun is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its ancient irrigation system constructed in 256 B.C.

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Ancient irrigation system in Dujiangyun

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Music and dancing in People’s Park

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Dujiangyun town

Dujiangyun

(Don’t Look Down) Beijing is My Town

 

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So, I’ve been tossing around this song for a couple of years and finally finished it. This is my life and the thoughts that run through my mind on a regular basis – enjoy my pain. 😛 (I think most of you won’t get past the first line because, well, yuk!!)
(To the tune of “Don’t Look Back” by Boston)
BEIJING IS MY TOWN

 

Don’t look down he’s hucked a loogie
You’ll lose your lunch if you look that way
Oh my God! It’s yellow and gooey
Look up to the sky ’cause it’s a sunny day

But I can’t see
The smog and pollution are in my eyes
It’s much to strong now I realize
Don’t know where I am
It’s bringin’ me down
Beijing is my town, oh yes it is

I finally see the dawn arriving
I see a Starbucks on the horizon

There’s so many people wherever we go
You’ll never find your own personal space
The subway’s crowded
The smells are pungent
Just hop in a taxi, it’s the better way

But I can’t find
A driver to stop ’cause I’m a foreigner
I can’t speak the language and I’m not sure
Where I’m goin’
It’s bringin’ me down
Beijing is my town

I finally see the dawn arriving
I see an e-bike on my horizon
Oh, faraway from my own kind…my own kind…

Oh the sun is shinin’
but I’ll never know

Don’t go out
The weather’s freezin’
The winter cold
Will crush your soul
If you go out, wear comfortable shoes now
You’ll have to walk everywhere that you go

But I need food
I need to find a good hair salon
I got cabin fever and it’s my last
Game of Thrones episode
I feel so alone,
Beijing is my town, oh yes it is

I finally see the dawn arriving
My vacation’s on the horizon
Oh, faraway from my own kind…

Don’t look down

Motorcycle Angel

Last night my friend and I were taking a stroll down the streets of Beijing on the way to the park. We do this about every three or four days, and we know the route well. We also know what not to expect – the chance that anyone will speak to us. Why? Because we’re in a big city, we’re not Chinese, and we probably look like we don’t speak Chinese. So we walk in our own little world, not really looking at our surroundings much, not really noticing anybody unless it’s out of the ordinary. And even then, only one of us might notice while the other is oblivious.

We were chatting about the men who made us happy. The guys who were both cute and sweet and wished we could have one just like that. I’m pretty sure my arms were flailing about, as they tend to do when I get into intense conversations while I’m walking. Talking about cute, sweet men makes me very excited these days, and so this was one of the more animated conversations. Just then, I heard a voice.

“Excuse me, ladies…”

Now, my initial thought was, “Wow, isn’t that weird? Just talking about cute, sweet guys makes me hear the voice of a man speaking English.” It took my brain a few seconds to grasp the reality of the situation. There was a man directly in front of us speaking to us in English. When I saw him I could almost swear I heard that sound you might hear if you were to encounter an angelic being. You know the scene – a beam of light surrounds them, shooting out magnificent rays, and a choir of angels sings out in a long, drawn out, “aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh.” It’s a heavenly sound.

My friend and I stopped. We were in shock…..and awe. Standing before us was a young, tall, handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed man with a motorcycle, smiling at us.

I have to pause here for a second and explain something to those who have never lived in Beijing. Foreigners (people who aren’t from here) almost never, ever look at another foreigner passing them in the street, let alone speak to them. I don’t really know why this is, it’s just one of those bizarro things you run into on the streets of Beijing. At first, I tried to make eye contact, to smile, to say “hey!” But there is rarely any reciprocity, so I have also now become one of the non-smiling, non-hello saying, non-look-you-in-the eye people. And another thing is, most foreign men look like they just crawled out of bed, (probably someone else’s), and threw on the same clothes they’d been wearing for the past week without taking a shower, shaving, or bothering to brush their teeth.

“Do either of you ladies know where I can find a shop?” His accent sounded German. Or was it British?

Seconds passed. We didn’t know how to respond. What kind of shop was he referring to? A motorcycle shop? A clothing shop? A shop where gorgeous men go to do whatever gorgeous men do to make themselves more gorgeous?

“A shop?” I said, in a way that came out sounding slightly British, with a twist of snobbery. (I’ve watched way too many Jane Austin flicks!)

“Yes, a shop.”

“What kind of shop?” I asked.

“A shop that sells drinks.”

Now this was not the kind of shop I had envisioned in my mind at all. I had to regroup. And why wasn’t my friend speaking? Why was I having to do this all by myself? I could barely stand, for goodness sake!

“What kind of drink?” I said, smiling, and acting a little flirtatious. Ooh, I was getting more bold.

“Just any kind of drink, like water or juice or something.” He looked like a model. How could anyone who needed a drink so desperately look that good?

My friend still wasn’t talking. She was too busy standing there with her mouth gaping open.

I had to think smart. I couldn’t give him the wrong information or he would end up not being able to get his drink in a timely manner. I had to pull myself together and remember that this was my neighborhood. I come here all the time. If anyone knows where to get a drink around here, it’s me. I stood up straight, and put on my best adult demeanor, directing him to the mall just up the street where he could find a McDonald’s.

He was smiling. Did he want one of us to get on the back of his bike and show him how to get to the shop where he could buy his drink? These were the thoughts going through our heads, but we couldn’t speak them. Of course, only one of us could have gotten on the bike, leaving the other behind. Were we so shallow and desperate for a man that we would actually do something like that? Oh, the dilemma!

He said thank you, and my friend and I stepped back, almost stumbling into each other. After he was out of sight, we began to giggle like high school girls. It was as if we’d just met Brad Pitt or something. For goodness sake, we’re two intelligent adult women, but for some reason the sight of a tall white man with blue eyes speaking English made us go all weak in the knees.

“I think he was an angel. He’s a sign of something coming,” I said.

“You think so?” my friend said.

“Yeah, I do.”

We walked on, giggling about the man on the motorcycle until we reached home, and even a little after that, wondering if he ever found a shop to buy his drink.

Just Your Average Klutz Nextdoor

It’s come to my attention that as a divorcee living abroad, I’m inclined to risk my life in order to accomplish one goal – live as if tomorrow were my last day. Notice I didn’t say “today” was my last? That’s because deep, deep down, I really don’t want to die today, I’d rather die tomorrow. This week has been a plethora of injuries to my not-so-youthful body in order to accomplish my goal. (Seriously, I’m surprised I didn’t break a hip).

I began the week with a rollerskating outing with my much younger friends (none of them are over 30).  I had discovered the place when I was bombing around on my bike one evening – an outdoor skating rink and all-around cool, hip and fun park in the Olympic Village. Apparently, skating is not a thing for the present generation of under 30’s because I was the only one who had ever skated. We rented our skates, which were less than $1.50, and proceeded to do everything within our power not to fall down. Now, I had skated before, but that was oh, 30 years ago, so I was a little wobbly on my rollerskates. And, yes, I rented the old-fashioned rollerskates because that’s what I used in the olden days. My friends, however, were more drawn to the inline variety. My skates were a dull, raggedy brown that looked like they’d been dropped off in the 1950’s via parachute. My friends had skates with cool colors, like lime green and cobalt blue.  I took one look at the rollerblades and decided I could never skate on them, so I put down my pride and wore the ugly ones. We skated for an hour, and to my surprise, I wasn’t falling down. (Don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of close calls). We were just about to wrap up our fun when we stopped to watch a bunch of people dancing. The music had a great beat, so we were trying to be funny “skating” while standing in place, and that’s when it happened. BAM! I fell and landed on my right arm. Two of the guys had to heave me up. It was amusing, since nothing seemed broken, and we proceeded to head on to the next venue – pizza!

I don’t know if it was the feeling of having had skates on, or the wedge shoes I could barely walk in, or the fact that the floor in the subway station was like an ice skating rink, but I suppose all of those things combined were the perfect storm for my next performance. We were walking through the subway station when I suddenly dropped my subway card. I simply bent over to pick it up, and my legs slipped out from under me. But I didn’t just fall – no, it was more like I ran in place, my feet in mid air, and dove to the floor. I laid there for a minute, laughing hysterically, while three of my friends tried to lift me up. (Note: when you fall down at my age, the prospect of getting to lay down for any reason, even if it’s in a subway station, feels better than the prospect of having to get up off the floor. It’s simply too much work). Again, no broken bones, just a bruise on the leg and hip.

The next day I looked like I’d been hit by a car, or at least my elbow did. I wasn’t too sore, though, and other than not wanting to scare my students with the sight of my bruised arm, I felt pretty good. But a couple of nights later I went out on my bike to meet a friend. We were goofing around and he jumped on the back of the bike, and I fell off, landing on my FACE. It wasn’t a hard fall, but it was my FACE! And somehow my leg also got tangled up in the mayhem, but all I could think about was my face on the pavement. Thankfully, it was only a minor bruising on the face (my leg got it much worse), and I don’t think anyone even noticed it.

Now, it’s bad enough to fall down in front of your own friends, or in the subway station, but I think the most embarrassing fall was when I went to test drive a new bike at the Giant Bicycle Shop. You know, one of those stores where only cool, athletic people go to shop. I took the bike around for a spin (the salesman gave me permission to do this), and as I tried to turn a corner I fell into a shoe display. But horror of horrors, the display was located near a row of bikes, and I couldn’t keep from falling into those, too. In my mind, I pictured the whole row falling down like dominoes, causing a huge crash and all eyes to be forced upon me! But thankfully, I only managed to slightly knock over two of them, and only one salesman came over to see what was going on.

I don’t know, I guess I’m living my youth all over again. Is this normal behavior, or am I the only woman pushing 50 who goes out rollerskating or bike riding in the middle of the night? I sometimes feel like I did when I was in high school when there were no consequences to being crazy and stupid. Come to think of it, I never pictured myself doing this kind of stuff at my age. I thought those days were long gone and that I was destined to be sitting in front of the TV crocheting doilies. But here I am, living and working in a foreign land, having a great time and wondering what I must look like to the people around me.  Do they admire me? Do they find my behavior foolish? I guess at the end of the day I really don’t care because I’m living, at least for today.

The Road to Takum

We were told there would be guards standing ready with guns at the airport.  By the time the plane landed my heart was already hammering in my chest.  I felt dizzy.  I managed to find all of my documents despite my shaking hands – ticket, passport and the little card they requested us to fill out requiring the address of where we’d be staying.  That was a good question – we would have to make something up.

“Just put the name of this hotel there,” said a man with an Irish accent, handing us a small piece of paper scribbled with a hotel name and address.  Apparently he had been listening in on our conversation and felt it his duty as a seasoned traveler to rescue us from our dilemma.

“I use this address whenever I come here.  Nobody will check it.  They just need it for their records,” he said.

I guessed it would have to do.

As my husband, Will, and I shuffled through the aisle and out the door of the airplane, down the stairs and onto the tarmac, the sweltering heat of Africa hit us like a freight train.  Hot, sticky and humid, we were drenched with sweat before we arrived to the check-in point inside the airport in Lagos, Nigeria. I was still dizzy, my heart still pounding.  I thought I might pass out.  It all seemed so surreal. Being a pessimist, I knew something was going to go wrong.  Perhaps they would know that we weren’t actually staying at the address we had written down and it would peg us as liars.  That would surely cause suspicion and then they would be forced to rummage through all of our baggage, interrogate us and throw us into prison.

My mind was getting the best of me.

The line seemed to move too slow, but too fast at the same time.  Finally, it was our turn at the counter, but Will had to go ahead of me. My fears took control. I can’t do this. I can’t be left alone. What if they take me away and not Will?  Or what if they take him and not me?  What if they take my passport and don’t give it back?  My heart was pounding . . .  pounding . . . pounding!

“Next please.”

It was my turn. I stepped up to the counter.

“Your papers, please,” said the serious dark-skinned customs official behind the glass.

I reluctantly but obediently handed over my identity.  After what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely two minutes, he stamped my passport and asked for the next person in line to step forward.  Confused that he didn’t want to question me, I walked over to where Will was waiting.

“Follow me, please,” said another dark skinned man.

This was it, the moment I had feared. Time to take us into the interrogation room, strip us of all our clothing, and burn us with cigarettes.

“Your party is waiting for you over there,” he said.

“Uh, thank you,” we replied, nervously surprised that we were being released so soon.

We made our way through the crowd of Nigerians and travelers, having been directed to a man and a woman standing by the doors in the front of the building. They were holding up a sign that read: “Willy Staford.”

As we approached the two we heard the man exclaim, “Brotha Willy and sista Catty!  Welcome!  You are welcome!”

Paul and Deborah Soloman, the two people we would be spending the next month with, had traveled by bus for eighteen hours to meet us at the airport.  Paul was a happy man and his bright smile could light up a room.  He had an incredible amount of love bubbling out of his short frame.  His hair was gray, but he confessed to using some sort of shoe polish to make it look black, all except for the temples.  He wanted those to remain gray so people would honor him as an elder.  Paul was dressed all in black, too, other than the white collar around his neck which gave him the appearance of a priest. He told us later that he dressed that way when he traveled so the highway police wouldn’t harass him.

Deborah was slightly overweight, but she carried herself well, like a queen.  Her skin was the color of dark chocolate mocha.  She was covered from head to toe in a beautiful bright blue and yellow cotton African dress consisting of a wrap around skirt, matching puffy-sleeved shirt, and head-wrap.  She had an air of quiet wisdom, giving off a smile, but not so much as to seem immature or overly excited.  She took my hand and led me to the taxi that was waiting at the curb outside.

From the moment we stepped onto Nigerian soil our lives were no longer our own.  We were at the mercy of people, culture and weather.  There would be no couch to lounge on, no television, no shower, no phone and no air-conditioning; not even a fan.

“So you traveled on Lufthansa Airlines, Brotha Willy?  This is a good airline!” exclaimed Paul.

“All except for the landing!”  I said, in my usual sarcastic tone.

“Yeah, when the plane hit the ground it bounced back in the air and then down again.  It was pretty intense,” Will explained.

This brought on a hint of laughter from our hosts.

“The airport experience sure was different than we expected,” Will said. “We were told there’d be guards with guns and we were honestly expecting some hassle. We didn’t see anything like that. In fact, we heard some Christian music playing over the speakers.”

“We have a Christian president now, brotha Willy,” Paul said, bubbling over in all the excitement of being with his missionaries from America. “It’s O-kay!”

Paul proceeded to fill us in on the first order of business.

“We arrived here yesterday and have a long drive ahead of us back to our village,” Paul said, “but tonight we will stay in a hotel to rest.”

The hotel was approximately six stories high and looked nice enough from the exterior, especially in the dark. But inside it was obvious we weren’t in North America anymore. It was considered a nice hotel by Nigerian standards, and the suite we were staying in came equipped with all the amenities one would hope for in a decent hotel, such as a full-sized refrigerator, an air conditioner, a large bathroom, two queen-sized beds, a couch and an eating table. Unfortunately, air conditioning tends to work only when the electricity is running, and in Lagos the power supply is hit or miss. That night it was a miss. Apparently the refrigerator was just there to brag on past days of glory when the hotel was new because it didn’t work at all, not even when the electricity came on in the morning. The toilet had no seat, and although there was a bathtub, there was no shower. I had to ask Will what he thought we were expected to do with the bucket and cup that were sitting in the bathtub.

“I’m pretty sure that’s the shower facilities, hon,” he said, slightly annoyed that he had to explain these types of things to me.

In the two days prior to our arrival in Lagos we had traveled from snow-covered Idaho to rainy San Francisco to snow-covered Germany before finally landing in hot, humid Nigeria. It had been an exhausting 37-hour journey, but that night’s sleep was far from restful. My fear of giant cockroaches and the excessive humidity kept my eyelids from closing for most of the night.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

It was November of 1998 and I was discussing mission trips with a friend of mine who had recently returned from India.

“The one place I would NEVER want to go to is Africa,” I said.

“I’m not sure I’d like to go there, either,” she replied, “although India is probably just as bad.”

“The heat and the bugs would be too much for me!” I said. “And besides that, I never ever want to go on an airplane. I did that once and I swear I don’t think I exhaled for the entire four hour flight,” I exaggerated.

Two weeks later, while eating pizza at Little Caesar’s after church, the pastor looked up from across the table and nonchalantly asked, “Hey, would you guys consider going to Africa? My wife and I can’t go this time but we’d like someone to go in our place.”

Even though we didn’t have an extra dime to our name, right there, on the spot, we both said, “Yes!”

The five months following consisted of monetary miracles and a barrage of instructions from the pastor on what to expect on our trip to Nigeria.

“When you get to the airport there will be very intimidating guards in uniforms with rifles. They don’t like Christians, so you have to play it cool. When you fill out your visa, for goodness sake, don’t write down that you’re a missionary. Cathy, you’re a teacher. Will, you’re a builder. Cathy, you can’t wear pants or they’ll think you’re a prostitute, and you have to keep your head covered in church. Will, you have to wear some nicer pants than those, uhm . . . well . . . you can’t wear jeans with holes in ‘em.”

To ensure Will wouldn’t wear jeans with holes in them, the pastor and his wife purchased two pairs of chino pants for Will to wear on the trip.

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I met Will in the East wing of the Coeur d’ Alene Convalescent Center on February 4, 1991. Recently separated and going through a divorce, I had just landed a job as a nurse’s aide working the graveyard shift. I had no experience as a nurse’s aide, but I needed to pay my own way now. Up to that point I’d been mostly a stay-at-home mom, raising four kids while my husband worked sixty hours a week at a local building supply company. I had been married since I was eighteen, but somehow, at the age of twenty-six, my insecurities took control and I started doing things that had, in my earlier years of marriage, been against my moral convictions.  The wild oats I never had a chance to sew as a young adult caught up to me with a vengeance. That’s what led to the divorce.

Will had only just turned twenty when we met, but he had something that I needed. He had Jesus. The first time I met him I saw something in him that was different. He was happy all the time, and he treated the residents in the convalescent center with respect and genuine love. He was an optimist to the extreme! Having come from a family of pessimists, I admired his outlook. He was tall and blond, with beautiful blue eyes, and looked exceptionally good in the tight white jeans that made up the bottom half of his work uniform.  He was also from New Jersey. For some reason Jersey boys were a fascination to me, a girl who’d grown up in Idaho and never had a chance to travel past the Midwest.  But Will wasn’t just any Jersey boy. He had grown up in places called Palisades Park and Brooklyn. I had never met anyone who had even been to those places, let alone lived in them. Although he was born twenty years too late to be a true hippie, he acted like one. On his days off he wore flannel shirts and jeans with holes in the knees that were so exaggerated I wondered why he bothered wearing pants at all. He also played guitar and wrote songs about Jesus and listened to records from the Jesus Movement of the ’70’s he had found in thrift stores. I told him I thought he would be famous one day. Although I loved him and couldn’t live without him, the first time he asked me to marry him I refused. I didn’t want to give up my selfish ways to serve God, and he didn’t want to give up God to serve my selfish ways. But by August, having come to the end of, well, me, I found myself sitting in a church pew telling God I was ready to give my whole life to Him. All of it! I married Will in September. My ex-husband moved on with his life, marrying another woman eight months later.

Although we  had joint custody of the four children, my ex-husband was the custodial parent, meaning the kids lived with him. I have never been able to understand why, but he and his new wife felt it their duty as good, upstanding citizens to protect the four children from their wretched mother and new step-father. Although I knew I had been forgiven of my sins, my ex-husband could never get past the hurt I caused him during our marriage, so he proceeded to pour his bitterness out onto our children. By the time 1999 rolled around, we had already been divorced for eight years, but the battle had never ended. He still hated me. His wife hated me. And now my own children, who were approaching their teens, were beginning to hate me, too. Will and I didn’t have the kind of money it would take to spend months, or years, in court, so in August of 1998 I made the most painful decision of my life – I let my children go.

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The morning after our arrival in Nigeria, Paul secured a car from one of his acquaintances in Lagos. After several hours of getting it ready for driving purposes, we were on our way to *Gboko; a twelve hour road trip that I would never forget. Driving through the immense city of Lagos during the day, I saw a place that was so foreign, so fascinating. There were people everywhere. People walking and sitting. People selling fruit, bread, fish, clothes and appliances. That particular day was a Sunday, and I was astonished to see the beautiful clothes the women wore for church. They walked in their high heels on dirt roads and over sewer ditches, through garbage and refuse in 90 degree weather that made you sweat just by sitting still. There were others carrying large baskets on their heads, or firewood, or buckets full of water.

As we drove on past the city and into the interior of Nigeria, Deborah began to speak. “We must tell you why we are so grateful that you have come.”

Her deep, soft tone demanded quiet attention.

“We had to flee our village of Takum where we lived and built our church for the past twenty years.  We fled for our lives with only the clothes on our backs.  There was a civil war one-and-a-half years ago amongst the two tribes.  People were bringing reports of young boys carrying heads of other people, and then they would eat the bodies.  They destroyed the homes and businesses of whoever was not a part of their tribe.  When we got news they were going to kill us, I took the three children and some others and we ran away.   Paul did not have time to escape so he hid in our house and thank God, they did not see him.  Paul caught up to us in the next village two days later and we made our way across the mountains into Cameroon.  In the mountains, my nephew developed appendicitis and we had to give him the snake fat. This healed him and we moved forward.  We were without a home for seven months total.  We came back into Nigeria, to the town of Gboko, where we were able to start a church. We thank God that He has sent you to help us.  We will arrive in Gboko early in the morning to rest, but then we must go on to Takum for a few days. The people there are waiting for encouragement.”

Jet lag had stifled our bodies and minds, but Deborah’s story was intriguing enough to keep us alert.  We had been invited to Africa to encourage these people who had lost everything, yet there was a strength and joy in Paul and Deborah that I had never witnessed in any living soul. My own personal battles back home seemed so trivial now compared to what these people had been through.

There would be little sleep on the journey to Gboko.  Aside from Deborah’s story, Paul’s high speed driving was enough to keep our adrenaline rushing.  I personally had to stay awake just in case we died so I would be the first to know about it.  Apparently, 80 mph was a good, decent speed in Nigeria, except when driving through a village.  Then, the common courtesy would be to slow down to 60 or 70 mph, honk the horn so the pedestrians wouldn’t make a sudden wrong move, and continue through town. Since we had left Lagos sometime in the afternoon, we were forced to drive in the dark for the last stretch of the long road trip. Suddenly, something in the road caught our eyes.

“What was that?” someone said.

“Oh God,” said another.

We all noticed it.  It passed so quickly, yet burned a forever memory in our minds. It was flattened and bloody, intertwined with different colored material. We could barely make out that it was a human body, but it was, and we all knew it.  The poor soul must not have seen the car coming.  Like a deer running out into the road, the person, male or female, didn’t stand a chance of outrunning the speeding vehicle.  Whoever hit the individual probably didn’t even realize they had struck a human, otherwise they would have surely stopped to help.

I wondered why we didn’t stop. But what could we have done? It was finished.

We sped on in shock, unable to speak.

Keeping up to form, Paul zigzagged his way around potholes and over bumps in the road that seemed to appear out of nowhere.  At one point we hit a bump that caused the car to take flight, causing our bodies to float upward, suspending us in midair.  It seemed as if it was all in slow motion.  The thoughts of dying came sudden, but there was no time to scream or cry or pray.  We landed back on our seats with a small bounce, still alive, still going 80 mph.  Paul hadn’t even flinched at the wheel.  Will and I looked at each other, as if we knew each other’s thoughts, remembering the turbulent landing back at the Lagos airport.

“Lufthansa!”  We both said simultaneously, causing a roar of laughter to break through the tense silence.

We sped on.

We arrived in Gboko at 3:00 in the morning, met by an eight-year-old girl who was there to open the gate of the compound. Others were there, too, but it was too dark and we were too tired to exchange formal greetings. The girl led us to a small room where a full-sized mattress had been placed on the linoleum floor. Apparently, our room was the master suite because it contained a small closet with a few hangers dangling from a rod, and the only mattress in the entire compound. That room would later become our main sleeping quarters for the next month, but for now it was only a stopping place to spend the night. The next morning we would be traveling further north to Takum.

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I had always been one to get car sick, especially sitting in the back seat on bumpy, windy roads with the sun beating down on my head through the back window. But for some reason, perhaps because of the adrenaline rush I was experiencing visiting a foreign country for the first time, I never encountered any signs of queasiness. I felt more relaxed on the drive to Takum than I had the previous day, and I allowed my mind to wander off into thoughts of my world back in the States, a world that was now so distant it seemed like another life altogether. I thought of the people who once loved me but now despised me – bitterness, arrogance, pride, court battles – my ex-husband had won in the end. I finally had to move on, surrendering my will to God in hopes He would allow my four children to come back to me when they reached the age of maturity. I thought of the irony of coming to Nigeria to bring encouragement to people whose lives had been ripped apart by civil war, while my own flesh and blood back home wanted nothing to do with me. My own personal civil war, I suppose.

We sped on, but we were not to reach Takum that day. The car Paul had borrowed looked deceptively drivable from the outside, but there were internal problems and we would find the need to stop several times during the drive to Takum. The car would get fixed and then it would break down again. This went on and on, but what could we do? We had given Paul all the money we brought and we had to rely on him to do the right thing regarding our transportation. Besides, seeing the condition of the Nigerian public bus system left us desperate to find a mechanic to fix the transportation we already had. We had passed by dozens of buses overloaded with people hanging from windows and sitting on roofs. I honestly couldn’t picture myself in that situation. No, the car simply had to run. Besides, Paul and Deborah were most gracious to our American sensibilities and they would have begged or borrowed before they would have allowed their missionaries to succumb to the torture of a bus ride in Nigeria. The trip might have taken longer than expected, but it would prove to be worth the fight.

As daylight approached, the village of Takum came with it. It was a sunny day, but there was a sense of darkness overhead. Knowing what had taken place just 18 months before, I wondered if the people were still restless? Would there be some kind of trouble for us or our hosts? Would there be any kind of joy there? Any laughter?

We were driven to a house on a red dirt road just a few miles from Takum. The house had no electricity or water, and the bathroom was outside in a doorless hut facing the road. I thought I had already been through the worst of my culture shock, but having to squat down over a fly infested hole in broad daylight for all passers-by to see was the moment I knew I had been stripped of all dignity.

We were shown to our room, a dark, empty space where a mattress waited for us on a concrete floor. Some women had placed wraps, which they had previously been wearing around their waists, onto the mattress so we could have a sheet and blanket. We found out later that this was the only mattress to be found in the entire village and people had taken great lengths to get it to us by the time of our arrival. We were told to rest before nightfall because that’s when the villagers would come to hear my husband, the evangelist, preach. We awoke later to the sound of a voice singing into a megaphone.

“Sorry, sorry, for those who don’t know God! Capital sorry for those who don’t know Jesus!” He then began to shout the announcement that there was an evangelist from America, come to preach hope to the people, and that they should prepare to come to the church later in the evening.

When evening approached, the village grew black. The only light came from candles and perhaps a flashlight or two. People trickled in to the small concrete church building with the wooden benches. When the building got too full, the people gathered around the barred open windows to peak inside. There was no way of telling just how many people had gathered outside the building, but the inside was crammed packed, and extremely hot. These people were quiet and reserved, seemingly tired and without joy. Paul opened the meeting with singing, and the people sang, but it was not exciting or exhilarating. I felt nervous, thinking they didn’t care about us being there. But as Will and Paul began to preach, simultaneously in English and the language of Takum, something began to stir. Afterwards, the singing started again, only this time it was alive! People were dancing and shouting and smiling! They had regained their faith and hope, ready to go on with life and with God. No more were they willing to allow fear to grip them. They had made the decision to forgive, to allow love to rule their hearts once again. Their spirits had been lifted to a higher place!

Two days later we were to return to Gboko, but before leaving there would be one more stop to make. We would visit the neighborhood where Paul and Deborah had once lived.  We drove slowly up the quiet, shaded, dusty street until we came to what was once a beautiful home.  We stepped out of the car and looked around at the pile of concrete rubble.  This was the first time Paul and Deborah had been back since they were forced to flee.  The roof was gone and there were five-foot tall trees already growing where a kitchen and living room had once been.  Colorful tile covering half of the bathroom wall and the remains of a burnt chair were the only reminders of a once thriving home.  Paul pointed out the little corner where he had hidden from the murderers.

Deborah took hold of my hand as if to protect me from the horrible sight, but I felt it was I who needed to comfort her.  After all, this had been her beloved home, a home to be proud of in a country full of poverty. I expected her to break down crying, and I wouldn’t have blamed her. I would have cried along with her. I would have listened to her scream and curse and I would have screamed and cursed with her. But there were no tears. There were no curses. As I struggled to find something to say that might encourage this precious woman, it was she who spoke in that deep, soft tone.

“It is well,” she said.  “It is well.”

Her faith in God was more inspiring to me than any encouragement I could possibly have brought to the people of Takum.  Although I had been through my battles, I hadn’t gone without kicking and screaming. I didn’t have a strong enough faith to keep from cursing my ex-husband and his wife for ripping my children from me, or worrying about crash landings or guards carrying guns in airports.

As we stood among the shell of a home, my mind, once again, wandered back to the things I had recently lost. I knew, then, standing in the midst of that rubble, that it would be well, just like Deborah said.  Whatever roadblocks lie ahead, whether in Africa or America or anywhere else I might find myself, I would be able to face them with a greater strength.

Drifting away in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the two men watching us from the other side of the street, one of them holding a gun. He could have killed us, but he didn’t.  And what if he did?  We had already won the victory, already lost so much, yet had gained so much more.  No, we would not die, not yet. We would continue marching through life facing each  trial, pain and fear. For today, that battle would simply consist of getting into a car on an African road with Paul Solomon behind the wheel.

*Gboko – pronounced bo-ko

Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed.

Learning to be Alone

I’ve heard Beijing described as a “transient” city. It’s because people come here to make money, and then go on their merry way, back to where they came from, back to the place where they REALLY want to be. And for the most part, transient people are young people, typically in their early to mid 20’s, going on a grand adventure to explore the world before they settle down while they earn a living any way they can. In China, one of the best ways to earn money if you’re a foreigner is to teach English, which just so happens to be my chosen profession, but most of the teachers I meet only do it to make money and nothing more. So the people keep coming and going, not really wanting to make the world’s (now second to New Delhi) most polluted city their home. I can’t really blame them, because I don’t want to make the world’s second most polluted city my home, either. However, if it weren’t for the pollution, Beijing would almost be an ideal place to live, so I’m trying to make the best of it. After all, not every day is gray and gloomy.

As for me, just one of the transients among thousands (maybe millions?), I’m finding myself in a state of depression more often these days. I’m not sure what triggers it, but one moment I will be just fine, and then I burst into tears. People here will say, “Don’t think more.” (I guess I think too much, and I shouldn’t do that.) Others will tell me to go out and find something fun to do. This sounds like great advice, until I realize I’m alone, which triggers another bout of tears and often a slight bit of panic.

One of the biggest problems I have living in Beijing is the lack of people I meet who are my own age. Having been recently divorced after a 21 year marriage, I’ve come to the conclusion that I live in fear of traveling outside of my house alone. I’ve talked to my friends who are single and ask them how they do it. They reply with a smile and a twinkle in their eye, reminiscing of the lovely time they had in Thailand, or Hong Kong, or Tokyo experiencing the food, the culture, the people. But for me, the the thought of going to Thailand, or Hong Kong or Tokyo by myself is terrifying because I’m afraid I’ll get lost and frustrated and won’t be able to communicate with somebody to help me out of my predicament. Why? Because it’s happened before, right here in Beijing! Just finding the right train (or the door to enter the train station, for that matter!) can be grounds for a meltdown. I’m also afraid of getting yelled at by a Chinese person. This has also happened before, and it’s only slightly less painful than not being able to find my way around. Chinese people have a way of making you feel like an idiot just for being human. There’s just something in the tone that says, “Why are you so stupid? Don’t you know anything?!!” Maybe that’s not what they’re saying, or even thinking, but that’s how it comes across.

So I finally worked up the nerve to set off and find things to do in Beijing. Perhaps join a group of other expats for activities and outings where I don’t have to be alone or do all the planning or make all the decisions myself. But what I find is that almost every activity takes place on a weekend. The problem with this is that I work on the weekends and get Monday and Tuesday off. At first, I thought having these two days off was great. You avoid the crowds, right?! You and all your new expat friends have the whole city to yourself! Yes, indeed, until the months pass and you find your fellow transient friends trickling back to their own beloved corners of the world, while you are left on Monday and Tuesday to find things to do…..alone.

So I put a classified ad on the local expat website, looking for a date. I’ve had hundreds of views, and less than ten responses. Half of the responses are from men wanting to have sex, and not having any problem telling me this right up front, sometimes in great detail, even though my ad states that I’m not looking for sex, so please don’t respond to my ad if that’s what you’re after.  The others who say they’re not looking for sex either, still are, they just don’t want to come right out and say it because they actually read my ad and had enough respect to play it cool, at least for first ten minutes of our initial (and last) encounter.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have some really great friends here in Beijing, almost all under the age of 30. (When I say “almost”, I mean I have one friend over the age of 30). Some of them refer to me as “mom”, which I know should give me a warm, fuzzy sort of feeling, but deep down just makes me feel old. Maybe I should learn to embrace the fact that I have new “kids” who  take care of me. But right now I just feel like a scared little girl, and sometimes very alone, in this city of over 21 million people.

One Year Down

It was the autumn of 2012 when I left my husband. After spending the summer in counseling because of his unfaithfulness, and just two days after our 21st anniversary, I discovered he was still trying to contact “her”. I confronted him, and he said he didn’t want to try to save our marriage anymore. He was done with me. I got angry, threw a coffee pot (full of hot coffee), had a restraining order put on me, and got in my car and drove across the country in tears of anger. It was during this time, once I had settled into staying with an old girlfriend from high school, that I saw the ad on Craigslist for a teaching job in China. I applied, had a Skype interview, and was hired on the spot.

So I called my husband. We were still talking regularly and I still wanted him back. I believed that he would snap out of his ridiculous obsession with the woman, especially since she had rejected him just days after I had left because she didn’t want the drama. (good girl!) After he found out I was moving to China, I think something in him couldn’t bear it, not being a part of my life in a place he knew nothing about. Not long after, he told me he wanted me back, but in my heart of hearts I knew that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to China. He would either have to come with me or wait for me to come home in a year. In the end, we sold everything we owned and both moved to China.

For me, life was perfect. It was as though everything I’d worked for had finally come to fruition. Five grueling years of college and I was “living the dream” as a teacher in China!  I thought my husband, who loved to travel and experience foreign lands and people, would love the experience, too. He made his own plans to pursue his music and other things he wanted to work on while I made the money. Sure, living in Beijing was a little difficult, but we were doing it together! We had made it through the storm and we were going to be okay. But within three months, just after he was offered a full-time job in my company, he couldn’t do it anymore. He didn’t want to be a teacher and he didn’t want me. One night something came up from the past about the woman, a stupid and petty thing that came out of my mouth that wasn’t even a word -just a noise, and the next day he was on a plane home. The divorce was final within two months. One week after he left, my back went out. Totally out! I couldn’t sit up or stand without excruciating pain. It lasted for three days until a Chinese friend got me the right doctor. After that, I wasn’t allowed to go back to work for a month. It gave me a lot of time to think about my life, my health, and to make some important decisions.

It’s been a year since he left. A lot of people thought I would cave and go back, too, but I stuck it out. I even signed on for another year. It’s not to say I love it here in Beijing, because there are many days that I hate it. I hate the fact that I can’t communicate with people. I hate the air pollution. I hate the pushing and shoving and overall lack of common courtesy that Beijingers are notorious for. In fact, I would consider Beijingers to be some of the rudest people on the planet!

But there are times when I love it here. I love the fact that I can ride my bike all over the city. I love the lack of crime and that I always feel safe, no matter what time of day or night. I love not having to cook because eating out is so cheap. I love being able to live right across the street from my work. I love my friends, and the fact that I have SO many friends who are genuine and real, both expats and Chinese. As expats, we become instant family because we’re all in this crazy mess together. We need each other! If it weren’t for my friends, I would not have made it this long in China.

Let’s see what the next year brings . . .