East Meets West

east-westYears ago one of my grandson’s was building a family tree at school. He reported to his class that he was half Chinese. Since he had blonde hair and blue eyes his teacher was somewhat confused about his claim. She hesitated to accuse him of making up a tale, but found it difficult to believe that he had even a smidgen of Asian heritage in his DNA. She emailed my daughter to determine why he might think such a thing. That only seemed to confound the puzzlement, so my daughter went to the source and asked her little boy why he felt that he was half Chinese. He innocently asserted that he had come to that conclusion because half of the people at our family parties were Chinese, and he knew them as relatives, so he had come to the conclusion that he must indeed be of Asian decent as well. The mystery was solved.

One of my brothers married a lovely woman from Taiwan many years ago. He was working for a NASA contractor and so was she when he met her at a meeting. He was immediately taken by her beauty, intellect and personality and in a fashion that was totally uncharacteristic of him, he set out to find her and ask her for a date. He learned that her last name was Liu, and he began calling all of the people in the phone book who shared that same name. Eventually he got lucky and actually reached her when she was visiting a friend who was also named Liu. He was smitten from the beginning and it wasn’t long before they were both in love.

Becky has brought so much wonder to our family. Aside from introducing us to the the history and exquisiteness of her culture, she has shared her family members who melded with us as though we had all been born to be together. It is little wonder that my grandson believed that he was related to her parents and siblings by blood. They have faithfully stood by our sides through celebrations and tragedies. All the while they have taught us extraordinary lessons about generosity and determination.

Becky was born in mainland China before it was taken over by Mao and the communists. Her father had been a professor of physics and an officer in the army. He was from a family of intellectuals that included a newspaper editor who had spoken out against the revolutionaries. When the political takeover of the country came, Becky’s parents knew that they must flee with their children. Her older sisters recall being dressed in many layers of clothing into which their mother had sewn money and valuables to use as barter for their safe passage our of the country. At the time they did not fully understand what was happening, but they sensed that it was something dangerous and frightening as they made the long journey of escape.

Becky grew up in Taiwan with two sisters and two brothers. All of them were studious and worked hard to earn the opportunity to travel to American universities to earn degrees in sciences, engineering, and computers. Eventually they became citizens and brought their parents to live with them. They emphasized hard work and academics with their children who grew up as peers of my own girls. In reality all of the kids thought of themselves as cousins and were as close as they might have been if their bloodlines had been from the same tree.

We found ways to get together as a family on birthdays, for Thanksgiving and at Christmas and Easter. We celebrated births and milestones, like graduations and marriages. They introduced us to the Chinese opera and dim sum. We sat around a hot pot and laughed and told stories while sharing feasts. We marveled at the many successes of the youngsters who grew up to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, business men and women. My grandchildren played with theirs and the extended family grew and grew.

My mother thought of Becky’s mother as her very best friend. The two of them often sat together smiling and holding hands. They accompanied my brother and Becky on trips all over the United States and never exchanged a cross word. Becky honored my mom as is customary in Asian culture, opening her heart and her home to Mama without reservation and with the deepest regard and respect. I often felt humbled by the love that Becky and her siblings gave so unconditionally to our clan, even when my mother’s bipolar disorder made her less than congenial.

We have all been blessed and enriched by our association with Becky. She has given us a great gift that has made us better than we might have been. She has quietly taught us how to embrace differences and the importance of allowing our adventurous spirits to soar freely. I suspect that if we were to be honest we would have to agree with my grandson that through our many interactions we have all become part Chinese. Our eyes have been opened to the wondrous history and contributions of the east where there was a highly advanced culture long before our western civilization began to form. We have learned just how much more beautiful life is when we see the world through the viewpoints of the people of many different nations and races. Becky was the catalyst for our transformation from the ordinary.

To this very day Becky is extraordinary. She looks like a gorgeous movie or rock star in her Facebook profile photo. She spent decades doing incredible things at NASA, contributing to the betterment of science and space exploration. She excels at virtually everything that she attempts. Most recently she has taken up painting and quilting with the most incredible results. I have to say that I have been somewhat in awe of her for most of my adult life, but now the two of us are able to just sit together quietly like her mother and my mother once did. We are bound by our roles as wives, mothers, grandmothers and sisters. Family has become our most important pursuit and we find ourselves quite happy that we are in the same one. I hope that just maybe Becky has enjoyed learning about us as much we have been about getting to know her. It has been remarkable experiencing our moments of east meeting west.

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Electronic Amusement Park

electronic_devicesWe clutch our phones tightly, ready to snap a photo if something interesting comes along, waiting to hear the pings that alert us to reminders, messages, news. We carry a library in our pockets, a world of information which may or may not be entirely accurate. At home our DVRs faithfully record the programs that we will watch at our leisure, after we have culled through our email and deleted all of the recordings from solicitors on our answering machines. It is quite a task keeping up with the demands of living in an electronic amusement park. We want to insist that the children join us in conversation after dinner but allowing them to be entertained with the latest computer games provides us with just a bit more time to carry out our own duties. Keeping them mesmerized by millions of pixels flashing on a screen surely can’t be as bad as we imagine. We shrug and tell ourselves that such pursuits are quite harmless, an opportunity to develop hand/eye coordination. Surely the electric world that surrounds us is a good thing, a sign of mankind’s inventiveness, a form of major progress in the grand scheme of human history. 

Still there is a little itch in the far reaches of our brains that worries us. We wonder if all of our modern inventions have filled our world with unintended consequences. We know how wonderful it is to have a smartphone that guides us as we drive to places that we have never been. We feel so much more secure knowing that in an emergency we have a means of summoning help. The reminders and alarms keep us on task. Our dinner slowly cooks at home while we go about our work far away from our kitchens. The Roomba cleans the floor whether we are present or not. The Echo Dot turns on lights and monitors cameras that send images to our phones assuring us that all is well back in our little castles. The irrigation pipes care for our plants, the many different security systems warn us if there is trouble. Our lives are more carefree, less subject to worries…and yet…

We have a president who reacts to incidents without much forethought, tweeting comments that might better have been left unsaid. If we are honest we have to admit that many of us are not much better. We become embroiled in Facebook rants, Twitter trolls, email disagreements. We find ourselves wanting to take back comments that linger forever in the universe of the great social network. We cringe at the ugliness of the words that are so blithely typed in a moment of indiscretion. Our actions put us into camps of “them versus us.” It unnerves us and yet like our president we find ourselves taking argumentative bait as we tell ourselves that such habits must surely stop. Even when we attempt to serve as peacemakers we are often misunderstood. We know better and yet we try again and again to set things right in an electronic world that appears to have gone mad.

There are so many posers who want us to believe that they are keepers of the truth, fonts of wisdom. We have to be careful of the sources that we use to make decisions. Facts are twisted into opinions quite cleverly. Comments are taken out of context. Information is contorted to support ideologies. Finding out what is real is a confounding proposition, and we worry lest we become a world of lemmings blindly following clever power brokers who prey on our emotions and fears. We must look beyond the sound bites and edited images to know what is really happening. Ironically it is far more difficult to ferret out the truth in the present state of proliferated information that it has ever been before.

We see our children languishing in almost zombie like states as they spend hours upon hours in front of screens filled with games that appear to lead nowhere. They play long distance matches with people that we do not know. It all appears harmless until we realize that so many of them have lost the art of conversation and creative play. We know that there are youngsters in our neighborhoods but we rarely see them. The days of impromptu ballgames or fort building or gazing at the world from the branches of trees appear to be of a bygone era, replaced by playdates and organized outings. It is eerily quiet in the great outdoors.

I have a good friend who has rebelled. She owns the least expensive phone that Walmart provides. She eschews cable television in favor of a seven dollars and change subscription to Netflix. She doesn’t have a gaming system in her home, nor any kind of alarm other than one to warn of fire. She recycles and finds ways to make do. She enjoys the freedom that comes from turning off the madness. It gives her time to take walks or just sit outside waving at her neighbors. She reads from books that she finds at thrift stores and then passes them on to friends. She has rid herself of excesses of any kind. She only keeps what she needs and her wants are minimal. She has found a kind of peace and happiness that is all too often absent for so many of us even with all of our devices that were supposed to make our lives better.

I suspect that we are still attempting to understand how to find balance in the wondrous electronic playground that surrounds us. We have not yet learned how to keep the best aspects of our inventiveness while avoiding the unexpected pitfalls of our modern ways. We allow our machines to become more important than our humanity. We are sometimes so addicted to our devices that they become the focus of our daily routines. They make demands on our time, our talents and our personalities and sometimes imprison us in a vacuous wasteland if we are not careful. We have to learn how to take back control and impose limits on how much we allow ourselves to be negatively affected by the very devices that should be making us happier and more free to experience the delights of the world around us. We must begin to wean ourselves away from our dependence on machines rather than people, easy answers rather than careful thoughts.

Our world is wondrous and I would never suggest that we go back in time. There is still so much that we have yet to discover. The possibilities and dreams are exciting, and the tools that we have will surely move us closer and closer to better lifestyles for everyone. We simply have to pause long enough now and again to assess the ways in which we interact with people around us and to consider whether or not we are using our tools for betterment or out of boredom. Our phones, computers, televisions, and other machines need to know who is in charge. It’s time that we begin the process of reflecting on how we might use them more wisely.   

Remembering

griefDeath is inevitable, or so the saying goes. We all know that there is no such thing as immortality. Sooner or later everyone of us will die. I tend to believe that it is more difficult for the living to accept death than the person whose life has ended. Whether one believes as I do that eternal life waits on the other side, or that the whole adventure simply ends, doesn’t make the pain of losing someone much better. Laying a loved one to rest is one of the most horrific aspects of living. The process rents our hearts in two, and often to our surprise the feelings of utter sadness remain firmly lodged inside our souls just waiting to be tickled back to life when we least expect them.

Death is a cruel mistress who sometimes strikes with discordant surprise. It hits us especially hard when the person taken from us is young, in the prime of life. There is an unfinished feeling about such tragedies. We are left thinking of all of the potential that will never be realized, the life events that will not be experienced. There is an unfairness about untimely deaths that especially angers us. They shock and frighten us. We wonder what we might have done to prevent them, even as we understand that they are simply the way things are.

March reminds me of a particular year when I seemed to encounter death everywhere I turned. It was a month of unimaginable horror. A beautiful and lively young woman who was in the process of planning her wedding was laughing with friends one moment and lying dead in her car the next, a victim of a drunk driver. As I attended her memorials and wrote of her spirit I thought that I had surely experienced the depths of grief but I was in for a gigantic shock.

Only days later a beautiful young mother that I knew was murdered, found by a passing stranger who heard the cries of her tiny baby. Those of us who had loved her life were stunned. Her life had been coming together so beautifully. She had been so happy. We wondered how it was possible that someone had been monstrous enough to kill her while her tiny child sat nearby. She had so loved her little girl and had already planned out the child’s life just as mothers often do. Her death was unfathomable.

In the very same month of the same year yet another young friend of mine died in a car crash. He had been studying at college and looking forward to a glorious future. He was a likable fellow with so many friends, known for his engaging smile and optimistic nature. Those who cared about him filled a huge auditorium. All of us were in shock. It hardly seemed possible that someone so full of life could be gone.

There is great pain associated with death. It eventually eases but always leaves scars on those left behind. Somehow we move through the days, the months, the years, growing ever older and farther and farther away from the grief but always conscious that we have lost a part of ourselves. My father will have been gone for sixty years come this May. I have moved forward without him but I never really forget him. I wonder what he might have thought of the adults that my brothers and I have become. I wish that our children and grandchildren had an opportunity to meet him. Just talking about him doesn’t seem to be enough to share his incredible essence.

I am familiar with the stories of so many others who died far too young. I think of the brave college student who lost his life defending a woman who was being beaten by her irate boyfriend. He was such a good soul, exceedingly kind and oh so loved. I watch his family continue to grieve and I understand their pain.

There is the mother who left this earth just as her daughter was about to graduate from college, fulfilling a dream that they both had shared. I have watched as her child has struggled to deal with the emotions that such a tragic loss engenders. I have carried thoughts of her in my heart as I saw those who miss her experiencing sadness, anger and the first stirrings of resignation.

I know of a man who died on his vacation, a woman whose cancer could not be controlled. I remember a friend who went to war and never came back, another who lost hope and pulled the plug on his own life. All of them had family and friends who have yet to come completely to grips with their losses. They certainly seem to have carried on, but those of us who know them well realize that life is never quite the same after such horrific surprises.

We struggle to know how to deal with such tragedies. We want to find a correct way of doing so but our humanity doesn’t provide easy answers. We find it hard to determine what to say or do, sometimes falling back on platitudes to explain our feelings. We are uncomfortable with comforting those who are in such despair. Sometimes we wrongly stay away, afraid that our humble efforts will not be worthy of the occasion.

I often pray for the wisdom of Solomon. I want to be a font of tranquility for the suffering and the broken hearted. I don’t feel that I always help as much as I should but I believe that I understand their agony for I too have been where they are. I have walked through the valley of death and felt the despair that comes from realizing the brutal finality that comes with loss.

We tell ourselves again and again that we should express our feelings for the people that we love while we have the opportunity, and yet we get busy and miss those all important chances. We consider making that phone call but never quite get around to it. We neglect to reach out to those closest to the deceased. We send sympathy cards and flowers in the beginning but allow time to get away from us after the memorials and funerals are over. Just when the lonely most need us we have all too often turned our attention to other things. In truth it is when time has passed that they may need our condolences the most.

Death can be a lonely experience but it shouldn’t be. Think of someone who has lost someone special and let them know how much you care. Even the smallest gesture has the power to go a long, long way.

Shoes

Isa-Tapia-featuredConfederate troops were looking for a shoe factory when they became engaged in a bloody battle at Gettysburg. It seems that they were in dire need of footwear for their soldiers. The fact that they were searching for something so basic often gets lost in the historical record that focuses instead on the brilliant oratory of President Abraham Lincoln in the address that he delivered in the aftermath of that terrible loss of lives. Those of us living in the United States in the modern era often take the shoes that line our closets for granted, but it hasn’t always been so.

My grandfather loved to tell of the time that he finally received a beautiful pair of high top lace up boots to wear to school. It was the finest pair of shoes that he had ever worn and the leather felt like butter next to his feet. It never occurred to him that he was a still boy who was likely to become taller, or that he might outgrow his beloved shoes, but the day came when he did indeed. His toes pressed so painfully against the end of the boots that he could barely walk. When he told his grandmother that he needed a new pair she explained that she would not have the funds for such a purchase for many months. Since the weather was already warm and they lived in the country, she thought it would be best if grandpa just roamed freely in his bare feet rather than distorting his toes in the cramped enclosure of the shoes.

Grandpa said that he was so proud of those shoes that he couldn’t bear the idea of walking through burrs and stepping on rocks without their protective sole. Still he worried that his feet would become deformed if he continued to torture himself by curling his toes just enough to keep them from pushing hard on the edges of the ill fitting boots. He devised a plan that he thought was brilliant. He went to the barn and found an axe which he used to carefully chop off the leather on the toes without harming the sole beneath. When he tried on his new creation he was happy to note that his feet now fit perfectly in the makeshift open toe style. His grandmother praised his inventiveness and laughed at the sight that he must have been. The strange looking shoes kept him going for many more months. 

My mother always spoke of how shoes were passed down from one child to another in her family of eight children. Since she was the youngest her footwear was often on its last leg. The leather on the sole of the shoes sometimes had a tendency to sprout holes which meant that she was often walking directly on wet pavement when it rained. Her inventive mother would save cardboard for instant repairs. She traced around the bottom of the shoe and then fit the protective paper inside to keep the elements off of Mama’s feet. Not too surprisingly my mother developed a thing for insisting that my brothers and I always had the best shoes for daily wear that her money could buy. She would scrimp on almost everything, but never on shoes.

I usually had two pairs of shoes at any given time. One was the set that I wore to school each day and the other was for church. Mama bought high quality brands like Life Stride and Buster Brown. A family from our church had a mom and pop shoe store where Mama always took us. Mr. and Mrs. Lippie took great care in fitting our shoes and literally refused to sell us a pair that didn’t hug our feet as though it had been made by magical cobblers for our unique specifications. Sometimes a visit to their store took well over an hour but Mama felt secure in the knowledge that our shoes would do no harm to our feet. My shoes were ever so practical which didn’t much matter when I was wearing a school uniform but as I grew into my teenage years I found myself drawn to the flashy numbers enticing me from the show windows of shoe emporiums at the mall. My mother often reminded me to be wary of their pointed toes and high heels, insisting that they would do irreparable damage to my pampered feet. Of course her warnings went in one ear and out the other.

As soon as I had the independence that comes from having a decent job and living away from one’s childhood home I became addicted to shoes. Given the choice between a lovely pair of pumps and a new frock I would invariably prefer to purchase yet another fashion for my feet. Because my mother had made certain that my feet were so well cared for I was able to stuff them into virtually any style known to man. As long as the price was right, I did, even as my mother complained and predicted that I was dooming my precious feet to a painful future.

My collection of shoes grew and grew in my adult years until I had enough to rival Imelda Marcos. I rarely met a shoe that I didn’t like and in spite of my mom’s predictions, I had no difficulty wearing the highest heels or the most confining styles. Shoes were like a drug to me. Nothing made me smile more than finding a new pair that was unlike any I had owned before. Sadly my joyful hobby of acquiring shoes for any occasion eventually came to a very sad end.

Just as my mother had prophesied I found myself developing more and more problems with my feet. I had to give all of my stiletto heels away because I could only wear them for a few minutes before my feet and my knees were screaming in pain. Those with the lovely pointed toes were the next to go when my feet rebelled against being so grotesquely constricted. More and more often I found myself purchasing “Granny Gump” styles from Clarks. I preferred the idea of actually being able to walk over the practice of enveloping my feet in portable torture chambers.

I have always loved the summer because I am able to achieve a bit more stylishness with sandals even as I age. People have commented that I have pretty feet and I try to keep them looking good for the warmer months when I can allow them to be free in flip flops and cute gladiator styles that show off my slim ankles. Now even that little slice of vanity is no longer available to me. Just a few weeks ago someone dropped a heavy can on my foot while I stood in line at the grocery store. My big toe throbbed in pain for days and turned completely black. Eventually the entire nail came off leaving me in a very unattractive state. Google tells me that it will take from six months to one year for things to return to normal. For now I will be wearing closed toes in public, which is particularly irksome because I am traveling to Cancun in June. I laugh because it somehow seems to be karma, a mild scolding for my prideful behavior and lack of true appreciation for the gift of good feet that my mother sacrificed to give me.

I keep thinking of the old saying, “I complained because I had no shoes, and then I saw a man who had no feet.” Maybe it’s time for me to lay my shoe fetish to rest and return to the days of practicality. My damaged toe is a sign that I need to get my priorities straight. I’ve been so vain and now it’s time to focus on something that is actually important. The fact that I can still walk freely around my neighborhood is a gift that I won’t take for granted. My own good health and fortune are all the blessings I need, but I must admit that I did drool over those gorgeous sandals that would be oh so cute for Easter. I guess it will take some time before I completely change my shoe loving stripes.    

A Fevered Illness

seagull-flying-aroundI woke up one recent morning with an illness that has overtaken my body just a bit more with each passing day. There is no medication for what I have nor is there a reliable treatment. I can’t be immunized to prevent the recurrence of the symptoms because nobody has yet thought of a reliable way of preventing an epidemic. My only hope is that it will pass without inflicting too much damage. I’ve had bouts with the same disease now and again since I was a child. It always occurs at about the same time of year right alongside the allergies that cause me to sneeze incessantly and otherwise fill my eyes and ears with fluid draining from my sinuses. It is a debilitating sickness that has caused me at times to take off days from work while I wander lethargically around my home. I suspect, but am not certain, that it may be infectious because the people around me sometimes show symptoms similar to mine whenever I am down with a full blown fever. This year in particular I appear to have a real doozie of a case.

The signs that I have been infected are always the same. I’m an industrious person, someone who never really sits still. I can’t even hold a conversation without moving my hands or wiggling in my chair. I’m always on the go and measure the accomplishments of each day with precision, reflecting on how well I have done by calibrating the merits of each of my actions. When the sickness comes my productiveness slows down to a crawl. My home fills with dust bunnies while I sit quietly outdoors listening for the sounds of the birds and watching the antics of the squirrels that scamper in my garden. I lean back and gaze at the brilliant blue sky enjoying the cool breezes that brush across my face. I think back to the games that I might have played as a child and how wonderful the new grown grass felt on my bare feet when the days became warm enough for me to toss my shoes into the far recesses of my closet.

I imagine myself flying to the beach with the seagulls that squawk as they pass overhead. I suddenly long for the life of a gypsy, one in which I have no responsibilities and I go wherever my heart leads me. I pass my time without being aware of the hour. I toss dishes into the sink and look away from the pile of dirty clothes that grows ever larger. I have better things to do. I take long walks without saying a word or drive to lovely places that seem to be calling me to tarry for just a bit. I sleep longer in the morning and stay awake deep into the night. I eschew my usual habits and become quite lazy, a person so unlike myself that I might worry if I were in a normal state of mind and body. But I am not, and so I just let the illness run its course for I have learned that if I simply go with its flow it will soon enough pass.

There is indeed a name for my affliction. It goes by the seasonal label of spring fever. it has been stalking me for as long as I am able to remember. In some years it passes over me with hardly a notice but in others it attacks me with a vengeance and I become a hopeless victim of its control. This seems to be an especially toxic year for me. The start of it came without warning and thinking that it would soon be gone I did little to steel myself against its effects. Unfortunately my symptoms have grown almost out of control as my usual routines have been neglected to the point of absurdity. While the fact that I am retired makes the impact of my idleness matter less, there are still things that must occur to keep my little world running smoothly but I can’t yet get myself fully back into the groove. I use any excuse to dally and to dream.

If I were able I would begin a long journey on foot and just keep going like Forrest Gump until I finally felt as though I was done. I would soak in the world and its creatures like a gigantic sponge. I’d bypass our manufactured creations in search of the ones that nature has made. I would quietly watch the passing parade of people and try to imagine what they were all thinking and doing without ever uttering a word. I would be little more than a fly on the wall, an observer whose only job was to watch and learn.

I suppose that it will not be much longer until I am myself again. I’ll chide myself for letting things go so badly when I finally take the time to look around. I’ll make new lists of things to do and become an industrious cyclone. I won’t notice the doves in my backyard so much when I’m busy dusting the baseboards. I’ll set up appointments and keep them. I’ll join the mad race that is always swirling around me.  I will be in a normal state of health again and firmly in control of my Type A personality. The fever will be gone, replaced by a sound determination to keep my eye on the challenges of life. Nobody will accuse me of sloth or shiftless behaviors. I will be fully engaged in the routine swing of things.

For now though I plan to feed the fever that has overtaken me and actually enjoy its impact on my attitude. It is ironically a disease that I secretly appreciate. It slows me down enough to show me the side of life that I miss when I am one of society’s most productive contributors. It adds zest to my personality and a lilt to my steps. It is the one illness that actually makes me feel good. Since I am retired I am now able to surrender to the siren song that is calling me to embrace the beauty and the joy that comes to such glorious life each March. There will be time enough for labor when I have become myself again. Today I am going to let my spring fever run its course.