(Don’t Look Down) Beijing is My Town

 

Beijing market
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
They’ll crush your rib cage
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

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Summer English Camp in Shenyang

As I think about my life and the events leading up to now, I’m beginning to remember one of the key reasons why I wanted to become a teacher. It started in 1999 after a trip to Nigeria with my (then) husband. While there, I found myself without a purpose other than to be an observer and supporter. I was given  the name ‘Awashima’ by my Tiv (tribe) friends because I was told that it means ‘to be a comforter’. This basically meant that my job was to help my husband, or comfort him, as he did his work in a foreign land.

To give an example of my lack of purpose, there was one instance when I was asked to teach some children a Sunday school lesson. At that time, I had no idea how to teach. They even asked me to speak in a women’s group, but again, what did I know? I wasn’t equipped in any way to speak in front of people, and I felt like a complete flop afterwards. I didn’t feel I had any calling, authority, or ability to speak or lead in any capacity.

However, aside from that, I had the experience of wearing some really awesome African clothes and making even more awesome friends, but that’s another story. This story is about that something that was missing in my life – a purpose rather than just being there to support another person’s dream, and the fact that it’s taken, well, sixteen years to get this far.

After the Nigeria trip, I got it into my mind that my ‘calling’ was to be a teacher. After all, one really does need a calling, so I chose that one. However, I had no desire to actually be a teacher. Due to my introverted and shy nature, along with the fact that I was incredibly insecure, I felt that I simply wasn’t born with the right tools to stand in front of people and tell them things they needed to know. But the call was there, nonetheless, and somewhere deep down inside I felt that those tools could be had if only I could find a way to tap into them. In 2007, I finally solidified my decision, enrolled in college and got my teaching degree. Fast forward to 2015, and here I am in China, one master’s degree later, thinking my dream of reaching less fortunate children had come to an end due to circumstances beyond my control. But this past week changed all that.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A couple of months ago I began searching for something to do for the summer in order to:

A) keep from being lonely and depressed

B) keep myself out of trouble

C) possibly make a little money

So, I began to search online and I found a couple of interesting things that matched my criteria. One of them was to be a volunteer in another city north of Beijing teaching some children English at a summer camp. Although there was no pay involved, the train ticket and all accommodations were paid for, so I thought it would be a good way to check off points A and B from my summer ‘to do’ list and meet some new people. I met with the organizer when he was in Beijing and found he was genuinely kind and spoke amazing English. He told me he would like me to the be lead teacher and that I would be helping to design lessons and so forth. I felt very honored, but undeniably scared at the same time, as I had never led a camp like that before.

As the weeks went on, I began to feel very stressed about the camp. I was busy with my full-time job and, due to my search for ‘things to do’, I had managed to add another day of activities to my agenda with Chinese classes and tutoring. I didn’t have enough time to fully plan for the camp, but I couldn’t back out. The ticket had already been paid for and I couldn’t let these people down at the last minute.

I was nervous getting on the train for a variety of reasons. I had never been to that particular train station in Beijing before, never traveled that far away on a train in China by myself before, and didn’t know exactly what I was getting into once I got to my destination. But all my fears were alleviated once I got there. The accommodations were very nice and I was made to feel like family. After meeting with the team, which was only me, my hosts and a guy from Swaziland who would be doing the games and outdoor activities, I felt very sure that everything was going to be okay. And then there were the children! They were so polite and humble. They ranged in ages from 7 – 15 and most of them spoke very little English. I had the honor of giving a few of them their English names. I was also told that most, if not all, of them had never met anyone from a Western country. This was so contrary to the students I had been teaching in Beijing for the past 2 1/2 years who came from rich families and had everything handed to them. They had grown so accustomed to having native English teachers that they had little respect for us because we were all about playing games and entertainment, and if we didn’t deliver, we were deemed ‘boring’. The children in Shenyang were eager to learn anything they could about the English language, and it made teaching them so enjoyable. Camp wasn’t just about me teaching English, but the students experiencing English in real situations. I would teach them the vocabulary and then the other team leaders would allow them to practice in practical ways, such as baking sugar cookies and playing with a parachute. We even visited a military base and danced in the park to the music of ‘Waka, Waka (This Time for Africa)’. During lunch time, some of the kids would practice their English with me and I would practice my Chinese with them. They weren’t just eager to learn, they were also eager to teach. It was all so fun, full of joy and laughter and freedom.

At the end of the camp, on the last day, there was something kind of special that happened. Some friends of my hosts who live in America had experienced a tragic event the week before when their 15-year-old son got hit by a truck while crossing the street on his bike wearing headphones. He wasn’t expected to live, but he was still alive when camp was ending. So, on the last day, we talked about traffic safety, made cards for the boy and said prayers for him.

Later that day, at the camp picnic, I spoke with my new friend from Swaziland and we talked about the orphans I had visited in Africa and how I had wanted to become a teacher so I would always have a purpose when I traveled overseas. Later, he asked me about my vision for the orphans and how it came about. I had to dive really deep to find the answer, and I didn’t really know if I had one anymore. All I knew was that I still had a heart for less fortunate children, and any kind of joy and hope I could bring to them would be extremely satisfying for me. Of course, things had changed in so many crazy ways since 1999, but I found myself doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing back then. I was in a foreign country, with simple and sincere people, teaching children about another culture. But this time, nobody had told me I had to go. It was my decision and it was my experience as a teacher that caused me to be positioned for this role. It filled my heart with so many mixed emotions that I didn’t truly feel them until two days after I returned home.

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The children I taught in Shenyang weren’t orphans, but through them I’m regaining a vision for the disadvantaged children of the world once again. It may come slowly, but that’s okay, because as long as there’s still a flickering flame burning in my heart I know that I have not become completely self-absorbed.

I would like to add the link for my friend, David Wang, who organized the summer camp and works with families to adopt orphans. If you are interested in working for a summer or winter camp, please contact him. He speaks great English and has a heart of gold.

http://www.chinamissiontrip.com/

I Blamed it on Beijing

One thing you have to understand is that not only am I recently divorced and now living abroad, I’m also starting a new career and going through “the change”. But I blamed it on Beijing. Beijing will bring out the worst in you. Whether it be your attitude, your health, your mind, or your spirit, it WILL bring out the worst.  I’ve seen it happen to my friends and I’ve seen it happen to me. I’ve read about it in blogs and I’ve heard people’s stories. Beijing is a hard place to live. Why? Because people here are rude. They’re greedy. They’re godless. Even the sweetest people will stab you in the back if it gets them one step closer to “the top.” As a Westerner, this mindset is maddening. (Of course, I have friends who do not fit into this category, I’m speaking of the culture as a whole).On top of that, the Chinese language fits nothing even remotely close to the words we know and the sound of it grates on you (well, me anyway). There’s also that element of being far away from people of your own kind. I’m not saying this to be prejudice, it’s just the facts. Plus, you’re in a different time zone which is the opposite to those back home, and you even need special illegal means to keep in contact with them. So living in Beijing can be a frustrating and frightening experience once you realize where you’ve landed. For many expats, the best option to battle the oppression is to drink. Alcohol has a way of calming a person. It makes us feel better in our minds and bodies, doesn’t it? But not so much our spirits.

So this is how Beijing brought out the worst in me. I became one of the statistics; a foreigner who drinks. I spent 20 years of my adult life without touching a drop of alcohol, but the divorce and Beijing drove me to it. I’m not saying I became an alcoholic, but I think it could be a possibility in the not-so-distant future. Either way, the drinking isn’t really the problem, is it? It’s what you get yourself into when you drink. God knows this, and I’m pretty sure he has my back, and that’s what this blog is really about. If you don’t agree with it or if it offends you, I’m not sorry. Just stop reading it. Nobody’s making you. This is my story so I get to write it the way I see it.

I’ll confess, the events of my failed marriage threw me into a place of utter resentment and anger, not only towards my ex-husband, but towards God, too. I felt like God let me down. I thought he was with me, but in the end it didn’t feel like it at all. So I became rebellious. I told God this, so it’s no secret to him. And to be honest, I didn’t think he was the least bit shocked.

So I’ve come to a place where I’m realizing some new things about myself and the lessons I’ve learned on this recent journey. It’s been over a year since my husband left, but the pain is still there. Not the same pain. Not the same thoughts. Not the same level of anger. But it’s still there, because now I’ve managed to add to the pain by accumulating a number of failed relationships since the breakup, particularly in the past 7 months, and they’ve gotten to the point where they’re overlapping so while I’m still grieving over one, I find another to replace him.

You see, ever since my husband left I’ve been on this quest to find someone to love and someone to love me back. For the first two months, I was mostly happy being single. It was kind of refreshing to be free from having somebody to answer to and compromise my thoughts and opinions and wants for.  But then I met Isaac. He was the sweetest, shyest Chinese guy with a heart of gold and the most amazing smile. Until I met him I wasn’t even remotely attracted to Chinese men. But there he was pursuing me. A gorgeous, athletic man 20 years my junior who wanted to be with me. He even wanted to marry me. After being rejected and feeling like I’d never be attractive to another man, Isaac was like an angel sent from God. But I knew from the beginning it was wrong on so many levels, and I tried to break up with him time and time again, to no avail. Isaac was a part of me. Someone I needed and who needed me, a best friend who would listen to me and calm me with his peaceful spirit and simple advice, “Don’t think more.” But the cultural demons caught up to us, and the relationship, as it was, had to end.

There are other men in the story, too. And somehow, for reasons beyond my understanding, I become so intensely attached to them that when it ends two weeks later I go through severe agony and depression and feelings of worthlessness and conversations with myself that I’m not good enough for any man to love me. On top of that, my guilty conscience won’t give me a moment’s peace. And all the while, I hear the Lord telling me, “I love you. I’m still here for you. Remember me?” But I didn’t want to go back. I was still angry. I truly thought, or at least I was trying to convince myself, that I was mature enough to handle what I was doing to myself. But all the while the guilt and shame kept piling up and up and up until they reached such an epic proportion that I thought I would go insane.

Then I got an epiphany. God still loves me. He’s not mad at me. He’s not surprised at what I’ve done. He doesn’t blame me for any of it. He’s not up there crying over my lost soul. He’s simply trying to get this one message across to me: What I’m doing is not hurting him, it’s hurting ME! I can keep at it as long as I want, but guess what? The results are going to be exactly the same – heartbreak and depression. Or, I can simply trust HIM with my life and stop striving to find someone to fill the void. I can start concentrating on becoming the best person I can be and stop trying to find someone to tell me what they want me to be. This seems very obvious to the outsider looking in, but to me, it took some hard knocks and some deep conversations to get it from my head to my heart. And to be completely honest, I find it difficult to discover the best of me while living in Beijing. So, once again, it’s all Beijing’s fault.

So, I was sitting at a local bar last night at midnight eating pizza and drinking alone (something I swore I’d never do, but there I was), and I started to converse with the Man sitting next to me, the Man who’s not left my side since all this crazy mess happened, and I made a bargain with him. I told him I’d go to church tomorrow. I figured the worst thing that could happen is I’d end up not connecting with anyone and go home and cry about it. But this whole going-to-church thing is another story that I need to explain.

Church in Beijing – there aren’t many to choose from, and they’re only open on Sunday. Up until this past month I’ve been working every Sunday. When I first moved here I did try to find one just because I was drowning in a sea of godlessness and I knew eventually it would suck me under, which it did. But I had no options. Absolutely none. Sure, there were some home groups scattered about the city, but they were so far away I couldn’t possibly make it to one after getting off work at 7. I’m not a church person anymore, and I actually had come to despise them, but when you’re drowning you need help, and that’s one thing I think a church is good for. But what could I do? So, one of the reasons I chose to take this new job was because I knew I’d have weekends off and maybe that would give me some different options on how to spend my spare time. Maybe I could go to church once in a while and start getting out of this trap I was in. Incidentally, since I now have weekends off, I’ve been told by three different random people about a church nearby my house, and this is without me asking. (You have to understand, there are VERY FEW churches in Beijing, it’s a huge city, and this one is a 20 minute bike ride from my house!) I thought it would be nice to try it out, but last weekend I was too busy meeting up with a new guy. That’s why I had to make the deal last night. No more procrastinating.

So this blog is written to declare that I have just today given my life back to the One who deserved to have it all along. I don’t know whether to cry over my sins or laugh over how super cool God is. Though I don’t know what lies ahead, I do feel like the future is looking brighter for a healthier spiritual life here in Beijing. In the end, I know deep down it wouldn’t have mattered whether I lived in Beijing or in the U.S., I would have gone through the same moral dilemma and emotional wreckage because there are things in me that needed to be fixed, and still do, and life is really about the process, isn’t it?

As a side note, yesterday would have been my wedding anniversary. What better way to spend my anniversary weekend than with the One who I committed my life to 23 years ago!

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

The Box

When I first received the box I didn’t think much of its appearance. It was kind of plain, but it was a graduation present, and I had always been taught to be grateful for gifts I received, so I decided to make the best of the box. So I chose to place things in the box that meant something special to me, and at the age of eighteen, most of things that were special could actually fit into a box like this.

The first thing I placed in the box was my graduation tassel, right after I removed it from my car’s rear view mirror after I had gotten married two months later. Graduating from high school is cool and all, but once you’re married I believe the proper thing to do is remove your tassel from the car mirror. I’m not sure why I think this way, it just seems right for some reason. Is there a manual on the proper etiquette of what to do with a graduation tassel? If so, I never got one. They just gave the tassel to me and expected me to figure it out. I managed to figure out that the graduation box was the best place to put the graduation tassel for the duration of its existence.

As a gift for my first marriage, my maternal grandmother, Margaret, gave me a pearl necklace. I suppose the necklace covered the “something old” and “something new” part of the bridal dress – something old because it was my grandmother’s and she was old – something new because it was new to me.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if the necklace was purchased new just for me or if it was something Grandma had received a long time before. I always assumed it was old because of the clasp. Also, it was an off-white color, not something that anyone of my generation would have worn at that time. I can’t remember the story Grandma told me about it, or if I just made one up in my head. It seems like I had some romantic notion that an old beau, perhaps my maternal grandfather, gave it to her on their wedding day. They had been divorced for well over thirty years by the time I got married, but I had it in my mind that Grandma had saved that pearl wedding necklace just for me. Now that I think of it, I suppose I must have made that story up in my head. Grandpa had cheated on Grandma with Grandma’s best friend, so I’m fairly certain she wouldn’t have kept anything he’d given her. Needless to say, the pearl necklace went into the box. It’s been there ever since, other than the time I wore it for a drama performance recently when I played a ninety-six-year-old woman.

There are things I obtained from other grandparents in the box, too, like the old broken watch that says “Bolova” I inherited from my maternal great-grandma Whiteley and some gold cuff-links I inherited from Great-grandpa Whiteley. I wonder if Grandpa Whiteley gave Grandma Whiteley the watch, and I wonder if Grandma Whiteley gave Grandpa Whiteley the cuff links. I wonder how old those things are and where they were worn. Did they wear them to glamorous parties where they danced the night away doing the Charleston? Although I have no idea if the watch and cuff links are worth anything, I believe the Whiteley’s were fairly well-off. I have this opinion for three reasons: they owned a grocery store, they owned a video camera in the early 1940’s that took colored pictures, and my mother said she and her older sister’s teeth were all rotted out because of the candy Grandpa Whiteley used to spoil them with as children.

“Forty-two cavities,” she told me.

“Cavities on top of cavities,” she said.

I wonder if that was true. She did have an awful lot of fillings in her mouth, but is it really possible to have cavities on top of your fillings? I wonder if a lot of things I was told as a child are true. I think we tend to repeat things our parents told us as children because we believe them, but when I think about all the little “white lies” I probably told my own kids, I have to wonder if mom wasn’t making some of that stuff up. I wonder if she would even know if it were true; maybe her mother just told her that and she believed it ever since.

From watching the old family videos, it does seem the Whiteley’s were once a middle-class family who lived in a decent looking house before Grandpa Whiteley died. I don’t know exactly when Grandpa died because I never met him. All I know is Grandma Whiteley lived to be ninety-two and for as long as I was alive she lived in a single-wide mobile home in a well-taken-care-of mobile home park. She never seemed very well-off to me. She didn’t even own a car.  But her house was clean and she was a sweet lady whose hair never turned gray. I imagine when her husband died she bought the mobile home and settled there to live out the rest of her days without a mortgage hanging over her head. Ever since I can remember, she was going to die soon.

“I’m not going to make it another year,” she would say every time we saw her.

From what I can remember, she never even got sick, even though she had been smoking since she was sixteen-years-old. I had listened to her talk about dying for almost thirty years. It was a family joke and we all got a kick out of it because she was such a sweet woman who had no other faults. All that’s left of Grandma now is that old mysterious watch I know nothing about. But it sparks memories of her, so I keep it in the box.

Some other things I keep in the box are all the library and student ID cards I collected in my childhood. I guess I keep them because they represent the various places I’ve lived, such as Post Falls, Idaho, Lawrence, Kansas, and Campbell County, Kentucky. I grew up in Idaho but I moved to Kansas to live with my dad when I was fourteen, and shortly after that he transferred to Kentucky to work at Northern Kentucky University as a professor of psychology. I stayed with him for two years, but those are not good memories. The last year-and-a-half I spent with him he had managed to connect with a woman who had five children under the age of ten, which left me as the official babysitter of the brood while Dad and his new girlfriend fell in love and got to know each other better. She even got pregnant and they eventually got married in some private ceremony I knew nothing about until after the fact. It was a dark, depressing time in my life, separated from my other sisters by thousands of miles, and feeling all alone.

Dad and I moved in with his new girlfriend and her kids a few months after she and Dad met. Since there were only three bedrooms in the house, I was left to sleep on the couch in the living room. As a teenager, I had no privacy, and only a small cardboard “dresser” to call my own while the woman’s children enjoyed their own bedrooms to play in. I resented my dad for doing that to me. I resented his girlfriend for leaving her children with me all the time. I resented being held in a place of responsibility for five children who were not my responsibility. It was during that time when I realized the role of a mother should be to take care of her own children. The epiphany came right after her three-year-old daughter called me “mom.” I formed an opinion of career women that would stay with me for years. I made up my mind that whenever I had children I would be the one to stay home with them and take care of them. However, with such a strong resentment for something, it’s sure to backfire on you eventually. I realize now that my harsh judgment pushed me into a mindset that caused me to rebel against doing anything aside from having a bunch of kids just so I could prove my point of what a proper mother should be. Ironically, I now have no relationship with my four older children at all, but that’s perhaps a story for another day. But I still keep a silver dollar for each of my children in the box.

The only good memories from the time I lived with my dad are the ones of my freshmen year at Our Lady of Providence Academy, an all-girl’s school just across the river from Cincinnati. I loved that school. I loved the nuns and the uniforms and the academic rigor. I especially loved the fact that it was an all-girl’s school and nobody cared about wearing make-up or trying to impress boys because there weren’t any boys to impress. I liked that because I was a bit of a tomboy in my younger years and excruciatingly shy and quite frankly, no boy was interested in me. I don’t remember when I stopped being a tomboy, but I’m sure I must have stopped somewhere along the way. Maybe it was after I got my first boyfriend when I was eighteen. That school no longer exists as it once was. It closed its doors years ago and there seems to be little or no record of it ever existing. I can never call or write to request transcripts. It’s all just a memory. When I open the box, I find a link to those memories through my Campbell County, Kentucky library card. It takes me back to those days of my youth, to the birthplace of trying to discover who I was and what I wanted to become.

My high school letter is in the box, along with the felt patches, “Cathy” and “83.” I once wore them proudly on my letter jacket, but the jacket got ruined by moths a few years after graduation. It probably wouldn’t fit me now, anyway, and even if it did would it be proper for a woman of my age to wear it? I earned the letter for my participation in band. It’s orange and black and shaped like a music harp and has the letters “PFHS” on it due to the fact that I went to Post Falls High School. Band was my life in high school. I was the tuba player. I participated in every band event that one person was allowed to participate in. I was in pep band, stage band, symphonic band, marching band, and even the jug, fife, and bottle band. (I didn’t actually play the tuba in jug band, I played a beer bottle in the note of G.) I marched in parades, played at the University of Idaho homecoming game’s half-time events, and traveled to Pacific University in Oregon on two separate occasions to participate in the Music in May Festival. (I still have the record albums we recorded there, but they don’t fit in the box.) I got to travel to Pocatello with the pep band when the girls’ basketball team went to state, and took a trip to Portland for a conference where the jug, fife, and bottle band played a few ditties. I was recognized by the National Achievement Academy, Who’s Who in Music, and the All-American Hall of Fame for my dedication to music.  It now occurs to me that having given so much of one’s life to something should have constituted more of a reward than a letter that can’t even be worn without the expense of a special jacket which eventually gets eaten up by moths. I wonder why the scouts weren’t knocking on my door begging me to come to their colleges. They probably should have given me a four-year scholarship to the University of Idaho when they had the chance. If they had I probably wouldn’t have gotten married at such a young age and my whole life would have been different. Perhaps I would have enjoyed a career as a band teacher in some junior high or high school in North Idaho. My children would be in their early teens instead of early twenties. I would have learned how to be more confident in myself, because college teaches you that. But nobody gave me any scholarship and I never went to college. That is, not until I was in my forties.

I guess I like doing things the easy way, which eventually turns out to be the hard way. You see, it’s easy to get married and have babies and stay home all day long. It’s not so easy, not for me at least, to go out into the world and make something of yourself, exposing yourself to the elements of the unknown harshness of humankind. I chose to hide. It was comfortable to disappear from the world into my cave with the little ones. My little ones. They were all I needed. I didn’t realize, though, that I was not all they needed. Sometimes love is not enough, especially coming from someone who didn’t truly know how to love, someone who was never taught how to love properly. I learned later, after the kids were no longer in my possession that true love comes only from one Source. You might say I found Him too late to redeem what was lost of my dream of being a good mother. However, I tend to believe God rescued me just in time. He knows what He’s doing, and despite my mistakes He has everything under control. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be able to go on. The pain would be too much to bear.

There are special notes I keep in the box, like the one from a neighbor who I talked in to marrying the man she was living with. I had no idea of the impact I’d made on her life until I received the note she sent after the wedding.

“Thanks to you and your example we got the ball rolling . . .  you have touched the hearts of me and my family more than you’ll ever know and we love you!”

There’s more to the note, but that’s the gist of what it says. That was so many years ago. Deanne and Bob moved shortly after the wedding and I only saw them one time after that. I suppose I keep the note because at that time there had been few times in my life when I’d received positive affirmation like that. I guess I cling to those words with a feeling that I might have actually helped to change someone’s life for the better, but there are times when I can’t help wondering if those two are still married.

There’s also a note from my second husband. He would give me notes sometimes, but they can’t all fit in the box. He writes exceptionally poetic notes that can be extremely mushy and sometimes humorous. This note is one of the more humorous ones, which is probably why it ended up in the box:

          “Darling, I am using this card to express how ultimately ignorant I was in calling you at work so irresponsibly. How you can ever forgive me, I’ll never know! But this I DO know, I will prove my repentant state and my selfless love for you by not calling without a valid reason!!! I assure you with all that is within me, it won’t happen again!!!! I humbly submit to your wisdom and um . . . wisdom!!!! May you receive these tokens as a form of apology (see candy). Please note the colorful quality of each of the treats. It represents the variety of emotions our relationship can produce. . .” Willy

          I can’t remember if I did forgive him that day, but I probably did since there was colorful candy involved. He still called me at work, though, even though I was not allowed to get personal calls unless they were emergencies. Will’s idea of an emergency was to tell me he loved me and missed me.

There’s a seventy-five dollar savings bond in the box that I received for winning “Employee of the Month” when I worked at the Naval Hospital at Camp LeJeune in 2005. I’m not sure what a savings bond is, exactly, so I put it in the box. It reads, “Interest ceases 30 years from issue date.” Should I cash it? Can it be cashed? Will it be worth more than seventy-five dollars in thirty years when I’m dead? If not, wouldn’t it be best to cash it now when seventy-five dollars is worth more than it will be in thirty years? These are some of the questions I would like answered one day. But for now the savings bond just sits in the box, forgotten.

The most recent items that have been placed in the box are my pins from Phi Theta Kappa and Kappa Delta Pi Honor Societies. Phi Theta Kappa is the honor society for community colleges, and Kappa Delta Pi is the international honor society in education. The pins are merely symbols of my academic achievements and seem to serve no purpose other than to be placed in a box such as mine. But they carry memories, all the same. They carry the memories of my fear of failure when I first entered college, and the memories of hard work and perseverance to make good grades.

“I just want to get ‘C’s’,” I would say. “But wouldn’t it be cool to get a ‘B’ once or twice?”

Needless to say, people who get “B’s” and “C’s” don’t get invited into honor societies. I’m very proud of those pins so they deserve a place in the box. I think they will forever remind me that I’m smarter than I think I am.

There are other items in the box, too, like old driver’s licenses, a two-dollar bill, an ankle bracelet my husband brought me from India, name tags from jobs I’ve had, and other miscellaneous stuff. I can barely close the box now. The band letter and the pearl necklace seem to take up the most space, but those two things can never be removed. If they were, I’d never find them again because they’ve always been kept in the box. I’m sure I can find another special box to put the notes and the jewelry items, but I think I’ll keep the things I’ve inherited from my grandparents in this box. It’s all I have left of them and they deserve to be in the box.

It’s funny when you think about the articles that can fit into a small box that represent the things you’ve done or people you’ve known, those pieces of your life that you can never get back but you keep them because they remind you of what used to be. When I peak into the box, I see accomplishments, and those accomplishments tell me something about myself that I sometimes forget. They remind me that I’ve stepped out of my inbred shyness and done things that are not comfortable for a shy person to do. With that in mind, I find myself able to keep going through the next chapter of my life where I’m sure to face more obstacles.

I also see my grandparents. They’re the people I wish I’d known better and wish I could speak to now to find out answers that are missing from my life. However, the answers are not as important as the journey. After all, can we really ever have all the answers? I’m content with knowing the One who has freed me from the mistakes of my past and is walking with me now, showing me the way through my life’s journey.

Another thing I see is pain. That pain is carried with me everywhere I go and not even a box can contain it for me. I wish that when I closed the box the pain would stay in there with those silver coins. If I could, I would take the key and lock the box and throw it into the ocean, never to be seen again, sacrifice all the accomplishments, all the lovely notes, and even the things I inherited to be free of the pain. But life was not meant to be that easy. Would I be human if I had no failures to look back on, no guilt or shame or void to remind me I need something, or Someone, greater than myself?

I wonder if any of those items in the box will mean anything to anybody but me. I’m the only one who carries the memories and when I’m gone they will simply be material objects of an existence that’s passed. I would hope one of my children will find the box and keep it, but it’s okay if they don’t. I’ll be too busy making memories in my new home to care about anything that’s in the box. I’m fairly certain my deceased grandparents aren’t worried about the things they left behind. I do know one thing for sure, though, somebody is going to figure out what to do with that savings bond.

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 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 . . .