Saturday, November 4, 2017

What Beijing Traffic Taught Me About Mass Shootings


I have had two trains of thought lately, their tracks criss-crossing my mind.

The first is from one of those jagged and confusing videos that people made with their cell phones as they were running from the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.  A young woman is lying on the asphalt, propped up against a metal fence.  She's been shot in the leg and is bleeding badly.  Some people are tending to her as best they can.  They're crouched down around her, using a shirt to soak up the blood. 

Meanwhile, bullets are cutting random and lethal paths all around them.

A police officer wearing a neon vest joins them.  He raises his voice just enough to be heard over the gunfire.  "Do you want me to stay with her?  You can go."

That's what he said. 

So calmly. 

And so kindly. 

It sounded sort of like the way you would offer to help anyone with anything.  As if he were offering to watch their backpacks while they went to ride a roller coaster at an amusement park.

Except he was offering to stay in the line of fire while they ran to safety.

And he was offering to stay with this young woman so that if she died, at least she wouldn't die alone.

There are so many scenes from that night that I've seen in videos or heard about from eyewitnesses.  And somehow that officer in the neon vest has stayed trapped in the net of my subconscious.  I can't let him go.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

This is one train of thought that has careened through my mind all week long.  At some point, it is inevitably joined by another, seemingly unrelated train of thought.  But because these two trains insist on being together, I'm beginning to think they are somehow related.  When one shows up in my mind, it inevitably calls to the other.

The other train of thought is about traffic in Beijing.  When we moved to Beijing in 2005 I was amazed by the traffic.  The streets are overcrowded and the cars jockey with each other and bicycles and motorcycles and buses and pedestrians to make headway across town.  Almost no one in Beijing traffic is going to stop and give you the right of way.  Passage is something you fight for.

So the chaos amazed me in Beijing.  But what also amazed me was how few accidents there are.  Given how many vehicles are on the roads, and given how little regard they give to traffic laws, I would have expected to see at least one or two serious accidents on every drive.  But for the most part, people moved through the chaos unscathed.

I began to wonder if it's all as chaotic as it seems.  Or is there perhaps an order to it all, one that's not immediately apparent?

I spent a lot of time in taxi cabs observing the traffic around me.  And I began to see patterns.  I developed a hypothesis that there are some unspoken understandings between Beijing drivers.  They go something like this.

Rule #1: I will continue at roughly this same speed.  If I slow down or speed up, it will be gradual.  My speed will change no more than 10% in 6-8 seconds.

Rule #2: I will make no sudden turns.  I might swerve into your lane but I will do so at a gentle angle.  You will have time to make room for me.  Perhaps you will move into the lane next to you, or you will slow down just a bit to make room for me in front of you.  But everything will happen at peaceful angles.  My angles will be no sharper than 15%.

With just those two understandings - constant speed and gentle angles - Beijing drivers make their way through the web of highways and byways and almost all of them get home safely to their families in the evening. 

For all I know, there are statistics that say that Beijing roads are deadlier than others.  But still I think the two rules above make them safer than they otherwise would be.

Gentle.  Constant.  Peaceful.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

These two trains of thought have swerved together in my mind all week at gentle angles, steady speed.  

I don't know what all of this means.

I do know that those bullets were moving at sharp angles and sudden bursts of speed.

I do know that kind, brave and selfless people are all around us.

I do know that we have the capacity to co-exist peacefully with each other.  Right?  

Couldn't we be constantly kind with each other for a while?  Couldn't we be peacefully selfless?  What about gently brave?

I think we can do all of those things.

And if we can't, I have another idea.

How about if we all just stop shooting each other?

That would also work.  

 








Thursday, August 24, 2017

What I Learned From a Bag of Fruit and Keys


I was only laid over in Beijing for an hour and a half. It was barely enough time to get my suitcase, take it through customs and re-check it to my final destination of Dalian.

And yet, Buddy came to the airport to say hello. 

He hugged me and said, “I brought you some fruit.” We stuffed the bag of fruit into my suitcase and then re-checked it. As it went through security the inspector called us over. The X-ray was showing a bag of metal hoops and chains and he wanted to know what it was. Buddy, the inspector and I stared at it for a few minutes, and then I finally recognized it as my bag of jewelry. I opened the suitcase, took out my jewelry and showed it to the inspector. Satisfied, he let my bag go through.

As the three of us stared at the X-ray image of my suitcase we were fixated on my bag of jewelry yet we totally missed another metal object in the opposite corner, which was actually much more troubling.

Buddy and I said goodbye and I made my way to the gate for my final flight. As I waited to board, I got a text from him.

“I think I left my keys in the bag with the fruit.” 

“Oh no! What do you want to do?” I asked. We were scheduled to board in a few minutes and the fruit was in my checked baggage.

“Check when you get to Dalian and if my keys are there just send them back to me,” Buddy said.

“Does someone have an extra set?” I asked.

“My sister,” he replied.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “And it’s not a big deal.”

So Buddy took a half hour cab ride to his sister’s house to get the extra set of keys, then rode back to the airport to retrieve his car and drove back home. By the time he got back to his house I was already in the northeast corner of China.

And sure enough, I had his keys in my suitcase.

This is sort of how we operated when we were married. Life with us was a constant series of surprises, goof-ups, and snafus. We had too little time and tried to do too much. But we always managed to get ourselves untangled somehow.

Some people probably looked at us and shook their heads and thought how irresponsible and careless we were.  But here’s the thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.

It’s not easy to find someone who will drive out at 8:00 at night to meet you in the airport for just a few minutes to give you a hug and a bag of fresh fruit.

And if you and that person can get through a marriage and a divorce and still want to say hello to each other when you’re in the same city, then I think that’s a win.

I think that saying yes to that person on that unseasonably cool day in August of 1997 was the right thing to do.

Things tangle and they untangle. Keys are lost and they are found. We are bound together and then torn apart.

And if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Chariots of Satan

The hum of a mosquito in my ear is like an alarm for my subconscious, and it jerks me awake.  My iPhone says it’s 2:30am.  I grasp into the air above my head until I find the string that turns on the overhead light.  I turn it on to the dimmest setting and try to find the mosquito without waking Audrey and Grant, but when I clap my hands the first time in an unsuccessful attempt to kill it they wake up.

They sit up.  Audrey yawns and rubs her eyes.  Grant scratches the back of his neck and squints at me. 

“I know, they’re driving me crazy too, I couldn’t sleep,” he says. 

“It’s so freaking hot in here, why doesn’t this place have air conditioning or at least a fan?” demands Audrey.

The vacation house their dad has rented for this family reunion sits high atop the mountain and has a stunning view of the Sagami Bay and Oshima Island.  It has three bedrooms and two baths, room for the whole family.  His mom and dad, his sister and brother-in-law, their son, Buddy and our two kids.  And me.  They invited me to join them for their family vacation even though technically, I'm not family anymore.

As fabulous as this house is, it does not have air conditioning or even a fan, and the tatami room the kids and I are sleeping in has heated up as the night wore on.  The air is sticky and heavy.  I haven’t opened the windows because I don’t trust the screens to keep out the bugs but now it feels like we have no choice, and besides, the mosquitoes have found their way into the room even with the window closed.  I slide it open and a mountain breeze drifts into the room like a quiet song.

“We’ve got to find that thing and kill it,” Grant declares.

“I’m going upstairs to get us some water,” Audrey announces.

“Shhhhh!” I remind them both.  Their cousins and grandparents are sleeping one shoji-door away and although my kids and I don’t sleep well under these hot and buggy conditions everyone else in the house seems to be having no trouble at all.

Grant and I inspect the walls of the room, trying to find the mosquito or mosquitoes.  Audrey returns with a 2-liter bottle of water and two tiny porcelain teacups of ice.  “Would you believe these are the only thing I could find in the kitchen that can be used for drinking?  There are no glasses or mugs or anything up there!”

“Well these will do under the circumstances.  Just don’t break them,” I say.

Audrey pours water into the porcelain cups and the three of us sit down on Grant’s futon in the middle the tatami room.  We wait for the mosquito to appear.  “There is nothing on this earth I hate more than mosquitoes,” Grant says.  “They are pure evil.  I call them Chariots of Satan.” 

Audrey and I start laughing and I remind both of us to be quiet and not wake the rest of the family.

“This is the second worst night of sleep I’ve ever had in my life,” whispers Grant.  In a hushed voice he tells us the story of the worst, which was three years ago on a boy scout camping trip in a cave.

Audrey stands up suddenly and points across the room at a Chariot of Satan.  She approaches it with her hands held out in front of her, ready to smack it.  It continues towards the window and then vanishes.  It seems to have passed straight through the window itself.  That’s when we realize how the mosquito must have gotten into the room in the first place.  There is a small crack between the window and the screen. 

I stuff two yukatas into the crack and stand with my hands outstretched for several seconds, ready to catch them if they fall back out.  They don’t. 

With the window open and the ocean breeze floating through the room it is now cooler and we breathe easier.  The crack is plugged and the only known Chariot of Satan is gone. 

I turn out the light and we lie back down.  In the darkness the kids whisper about what a hard night this is.  They complain about the bugs and the heat and the lack of air conditioning and glasses. 

And they’re right that it is a hard night.  But it's also a night we will always remember.  People sleep through the night all the time and there is nothing at all memorable about that. 

But a night like tonight - not everyone gets a chance like this in their lifetime.

A chance to sit together on tatamis in Japan at 2:30 in the morning,
hot and itchy,
while brainstorming strategies to kill mosquitoes,
and laughing,
and shushing each other,
and drinking ice water out of
tiny
porcelain
teacups 



Monday, June 19, 2017

Golf With My Father Again

"Who wants to play some golf?" my dad asked, a golf club in one hand and an aluminum bucket of golf balls in the other.  The bucket was suspended from his hand by three fingers, the tips of his fingernails yellowed from the tobacco he smoked. 

"Us!  Us!" we yelled as we brushed the sand off our dresses and buckled on our Sun-Sans.

Christi was seven, I was five and Caroline was three, and we all knew how to golf.  Amanda, the baby, had to stay home with my mom.  She would learn to golf in a couple of years when she knew how to walk.  

The golf course was a wide open grass field at the Arboretum.  My dad set up the golf tee and instructed us girls to wait behind him at safe distance.  One by one he knocked 30 golf balls out into the field.  Then at last it was our turn.

"Okay, go find them!"

We scampered out into the grass field and searched for the white golf balls like they were Easter eggs.  We brought them back to my dad and he counted them as we dropped them one by one into the bucket.  I loved the hollow plunk sound each one made.  When my dad's count reached about 25 or 26, he cheered us on to go out and find the last four.  But if we couldn't find them he was never pedantic about it.

"It's okay, we'll find them on the next round," he would say, but we rarely did.  I'm sure we came back home with fewer balls than we had had when we started out but my dad didn't care.  It was not like him to insist on perfection or completion.  He wasn't the kind of dad who demanded that things be exact or precise.  I don't remember him ever pushing us to do something the "right" way.  Instead, my dad valued fun and grace and most of all, he valued the Good Enough.

We could spend a whole afternoon in this cycle.  My dad knocked 30 balls into the field, we retrieved them, he knocked them out over and over and over again. 

He told us this was golfing and we thought it was the most fun sport in the world.  It wasn't until years later that we learned that although we were playing a game involving golf clubs and tees and golf balls, we were not golfing.

When I learned the rules of real golf it occurred to me that it didn't seem very fun at all.

This is the second Father's Day since my dad died.  I wish I could call him.  I wish I could hear him say just one more time, "Well, always good talking with you!" - which meant that he was about ready to end the conversation.  That was often followed by, "Don't let me keep you" - which meant that he was actually about to hang up.

I wish we could go golfing again.  

Most of all, I wish he were here to remind me of that Good Enough really is Good Enough.  It's okay to stop sometimes.  Golf balls are cheap.  You don't have to find all 30 of them all the time.  Sometimes it's okay to deliver about 80% and trust that things are going to be okay anyway.  

I miss you, Dad.  Happy Father's Day.

Here's to the two most important dads in my life.


My dad 




And Audrey and Grant's dad






Thursday, April 27, 2017

3 Ways to Survive a Dangerous Year

Somewhere in my mid-thirties I lost track of my age.  The whole year when I was 36 I thought I was 37.  Then when I actually did turn 37, Buddy and the kids and I had to do several rounds of calculations before I would believe that I actually was just 37.  Again.

Granted, my 36th trip around the sun was a hectic one.  That was the year when we sold all our belongings in California and moved to China and started a new life there.  I was trying to settle into a new culture and learn a new language.  I had done that three times before - once in Germany in 1987, once in France in 1989 and once in Japan in 1992 - so you'd think it would be easy for me.  But this was the first time I'd done it with kids and that was a whole new ballgame.  As a mother now, my first priority was keeping Grant and Audrey's little heads above water and I used whatever energy I had left to take care of myself.  Sometimes, that was very little.

So you see how I lost track of my age.

It didn't cause any problems, really, except for the fact that according to the Chinese Zodiac it was my 本命年, my ben ming nian.  That comes around once every twelve years when it's your animal year.

Chinese astrology says that in their ben ming nian, people have offended Tai Sui, the God of Age.  They have incurred his curse and will have nothing but bad luck during their animal year.  As a result, those who follow Chinese astrology "pay special attention to their conduct every twelfth year of their lives, i.e. in their birth sign years."

Luckily I slipped by Tai Sui that year when I was 36 even though I paid no special attention to my conduct at all.

This year I'm turning 48 and it's my animal year, the Year of the Rooster, again.


Worried that Tai Sui might be holding a grudge from twelve years ago, I'm paying special attention this year.  There are three things I can do to get myself through this dangerous year:
  1. Wear something red against my skin all year along.  It can't be something I bought for myself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives me.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from Tai Sui.
The kids were in China with Buddy and his family for Chinese New Year this year and I asked them to bring me back a red thread to tie around my waist.  They brought me one that has little pieces of Jade woven into it - how efficient is that?!


I've been wearing it for four weeks now and it's making me absolutely crazy.  I keep getting my thumb caught on it when I'm getting dressed, and it takes a long time for it to dry out after I shower so for the first few hours of the morning it feels like I have a long earthworm around my waist.  

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to stand this for a whole year," I told Audrey the other day.

"Yeah, we didn't think you would last very long," she replied, nonchalantly.

Well!  That changes everything.  I'm posting this on my blog as a sign of my commitment - I will keep this red thread around my waist all year long even if it kills me.

Which would be ironic. 

I will keep you posted on how this goes.

If you find me especially frustrated this year, please know that it's not you and it's not even me.

It's Tai Sui and this damn red thread around my waist.





Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Alabama and Icebergs and Grace

"Children, you have homework tonight.  I want you to go home and ask your parents if they can donate a Christmas tree.  It would be so nice to have our own tree here in the classroom.  So ask them tonight - don't forget!"

My second grade teacher Mrs. Hellums was one of my favorite teachers ever.  She had brown curly hair and said I looked like the girl who played Laura Ingalls on TV.

















On heavy hot days when our un-airconditioned classroom felt like a clay oven, Ms. Hellums would call us to the front of the room to sit in a semi-circle at her feet for story time.  We worked our way through the entire Little House on the Prairie Series, hour by hour after lunch.  When the heat became so heavy that even she couldn't stand to read anymore she would ask us all to close our eyes and imagine that we were floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.  She would ask us what it felt like ("cold!") and what we heard ("water splashing against our iceberg") and what we saw ("a polar bear swimming by").  The most important lesson we learned in her classroom was that we had the ability to imagine our way out of difficult circumstances and into a better reality.

Years later I would learn that polar bears are only found at the other end of the globe, in the Arctic Circle.  I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because it was a lot more fun with the polar bears there with our class floating on an iceberg on the South Pole.

After school I met my older sister Christi in front of the school for our 30-minute walk home.  The very best part of the walk came first and the very worst part came right after that.

The best part was the catwalk.  It was a rusty cement and steel platform encaged by chain link walls that spanned over Skyland Boulevard.  We loved to pause on the catwalk above the four lanes of traffic, cars whizzing by below us and making the catwalk tremble beneath our feet.  It was thrilling to be so close to speed and danger and yet to escape unscathed every time.  Sometimes an 18-wheeler came by and we would pump our arms into the air, and on rare occasions the driver would honk their horn just as they passed beneath us.  That was a story worth telling at the dinner table that night.

Years later I would learn that a catwalk was also a platform that models walk on at fashion shows.  I'm glad I didn't know that because I prefer to think of it as a platform that school children walk on and get 18-wheelers to honk at them.

The worst part of the walk came right after the catwalk.  The hill towered before us, daring us to try to scale its steep sidewalk.  We had to though because there was no other way home.  The only way over the hill was one exhausted breath at a time.

Two years prior, Mrs. Hellums had been Christi's second grade teacher as well so she too knew the imagination trick.

"I'm going to invent a car for us to get up this hill," Christi told me.  She didn't look at me, both of us were facing forward and keeping our eye on the sidewalk in front of us.  "It's going to fold up so I can keep it in my desk during the day at school and then when we get to the bottom of the hill we can unfold it and sit in it and ride it up the hill."

"What else ... is it going ... to have?" I asked.  Christi had a vivid way of describing things and her enthusiasm was stoked by an eager audience.  One day she would make her living off of this talent of hers and it would take her as far as the White House. 

But for now we were just two tired and sweaty little schoolgirls trying to get up a monster hill.  "And when ... can you have this thing ... ready?"

"Well, it's going to have a Coke machine in it too.  Like at McDonald's but it will be our very own Coke machine.  I mean, we can share Cokes with other kids if we want but it's going to be ours.  The Coke machine is going to be right there above the steering wheel and we can have as much Coke as we want.  And there will be a place where you can get Sprite out of it too.  And in the glove compartment there will be snacks.  Different ones every day, but always Ho Hos every day."

It was almost too much to dream about.  Although the car was never built, the possibility of it nudged Christi and me up that monster hill every day inch by steady inch until at last we crested it, right at the corner where Mrs. Hellums lived.  She let the kids chain their bicycles to the stop sign at the corner of her yard in the mornings because no one dared to ride their bike down the monster hill.  Even with brakes, that ride would kill you.

Years later I would learn that the stop sign was city property and it was against city ordinances to chain our bikes to it but I'm glad I didn't know that at the time.  It was so much nicer to think that our bikes were safe and legal in Mrs. Hellums' yard all day.

Christi never told me when the fold-up car would be ready because dreaming about something is one thing but committing to something that you know you can't deliver is quite another.  We grew up in a family where story-telling was encouraged, but once you promised something you were expected to deliver.  Besides, we didn't need the car.  We needed the dream of the car to get us up that hill every afternoon.

We were almost home when we passed Mr. Smith's house on Crestline Drive.  He was having the pine trees cut down in his yard, which was a practical and smart thing to do in Alabama in the 1970s because the pine trees were home to millions of cockroaches, who migrated from the trees to the nearby houses and back.

I burst into tears.

"Why are you crying, Mel?" Christi asked.

"Don't you think that's sad?  All those trees?  Just dying?"

We stood on the street looking at each other, each confused about why the other didn't understand.

My mother was always in the same place when we got home - standing at the formica countertop in the kitchen, in the corner next to the stove.  I told her about the trees and how sad I felt about them.  She reminded me about the cockroaches and said that was probably why Mr. Smith was having them cut down  Also, his wife had recently died and perhaps he was getting his house ready to sell.

"Maybe," I said.  "Oh, and Mrs. Hellums wants people to ask their parents if they can donate a tree for our classroom," I said.  I knew it was a stretch for my parents to have a tree for our own house, and that donating one for a classroom was impossible.  Besides, my mother was relentlessly fair so if she was going to buy a tree for my classroom, she would have to buy one for three other classrooms as well.  The math in our house was always in multiples of four, and when you multiply by four even a cheeseburger becomes too expensive.

I don't remember if it was my mother or me who put together the tragedy of Mr. Smith's pines and my classroom's need for a Christmas tree but soon my mother was on the phone with him.  The curly white phone cord stretched from the base of the phone to the pantry, where my mother was talking to Mr. Smith.  It wasn't that the conversation was private - she was just trying to hear him and let him hear her.  Although the house was fairly quiet right at that moment, you never knew when our house was going to get noisy.  Maybe a sister would sit down and start practicing the piano. Maybe a door would slam.  Maybe someone would start fighting.  Noise was like cockroaches in our house - it appeared suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.  And so when we talked on the phone we went into the pantry.

"Mr. Smith says he'll deliver a tree to your school tomorrow," my mother said as she hung the receiver back up.

"Really?" I asked, grinning.

"That's what he said," she said as she hugged me.  "But let's wait and see what happens tomorrow."

Alabama pines did not make great Christmas trees.  They were scraggly and their needles were a dry and pale green.  If a plump Douglas fir says "all is merry and bright", a recycled Alabama pine in your living room says "this will have to do for this year."  As a young child I learned the value of tinsel, which does great things to distract from the skeletal appearance of an Alabama pine.  We knew the value of something shiny long before it was a thing.

The next morning when I got to my classroom our Christmas tree was already there.  An admiring throng of students was gathered around it.  Mrs. Hellums clapped her hands in delight when I joined them.  "Look how beautiful it is!" she said.  "Your neighbor delivered it early this morning."

It really was beautiful.  The needles were a lush, dark green.  The tree was plump and full and it chuckled "all is merry and bright."

It was not an Alabama pine from Mr. Smith's yard.  It was a Douglas fir, which he had purchased at the grocery store and delivered to our classroom.

In the second grade my teacher Mrs. Hellums taught me the power of my imagination. 

My mother taught me that tragedy and need can sometimes come together to produce something wonderful.

And Mr. Smith taught me the true meaning of grace. 







Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Japan and Generosity and Jewelry

When I went to Japan to teach English at a middle school in 1992 I thought Japanese kids were going to love me.  Mostly because kids in the US always did.  I was a Sunday School teacher and a babysitter and a Girl Scout and a big sister, and where ever I went I found little kids and they found me.  

When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning.  A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away.  As a tall Westerner, I stood out.  I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.  

Instead, they ran away screaming.  

I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances.  As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.  

That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.  

As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me.  Of course I was there for their English lessons.



I also spent time with them outside of class.  At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids.  When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids.  (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.)  At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.



















Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time.  They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America.  And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.  

To be clear, I never met any of those people.  

One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace.  Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me.  It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain.  There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties.  As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."  

I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world.  I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.  

It felt like the purest sense of generosity.  I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.

Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry.  Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them.  But that coral star has somehow stayed with me.  From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996.  From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999.  From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005.  From Beijing to Nashville in 2011.  Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.  

Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors.  Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color  came into my wardrobe via that first little star.  The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement.  During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram.  I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.


I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.

And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity. 

And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.



Monday, February 6, 2017

The Post Where I Thank Donald Trump

"I need to know there are still rational people in this world!  I need to be surrounded by them - thousands of them!" she said though her tears, a flame in her dark eyes.  "I just need to know I'm not the only person left in this world who sees how crazy he is!"

Of course there are rational people who voted for Trump.  One day Audrey will learn to say, "I don't agree with your views but I can appreciate why you feel that way."  But this was not the time for that.  One day she will develop empathy and understanding for others' viewpoints, but for now she needs to fully express her own. 

It was late Thursday evening, the night before Trump's inauguration and the mood in my house was somber.  I had just flown in from a business trip to Ft. Lauderdale, a trip that had been physically and emotionally taxing for me.  I was looking forward to a slow, quiet weekend at home that looked something like this:

sleep
coffee with my bestie
walk on the greenway
soccer with Grant
sleep 
church
make something in the crockpot
bubble bath
hot almond milk with ginger
sleep

But my roadmap for a peaceful weekend started to crackle and burn at the thought of making a trip to Washington D.C. for the Women's March.

Would we drive?  That would mean at least 20 hours of driving in one weekend, all to be at the march for a few hours.

Would we fly?  At this point tickets were at least $1,000 per person and I wasn't sending Audrey into that chaos alone.  I would need to buy two tickets. 

I felt tired just thinking about the trip so I tried to make the case that there  was going to be a march in Nashville and that according to the latest estimates there should be 2,000-5,000 people there.  That was thousands.

And frankly, I felt a little scared at the thought of making the trip.  A drive through the night to D.C. would be dangerous in and of itself, and a protest like this one might attract violence.  I didn't feel ready to handle any of that.  

But my daughter was sitting on the sofa next to me with tears in her eyes, asking me to take her to a place where she could see that she was not alone.

And so we made our plans to drive to D.C. as soon as I got off work on Friday.

Then at work on Friday I found out that my coworker Shai was also planning to go for the march.  Weeks ago she had joined the team that was organizing the Nashville March and at the same time had bought a bus ticket to D.C. for the weekend on a crowd source bus.  Across a crowded conference room I yelled to Shai, "Audrey and I are driving!  Go with us!!!

And then there were three.  



So in the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, Shai and Audrey and I started our drive through a long and foggy night and as the sun rose on Jan. 21 we pulled up at my sister Christi's house in Maryland, where we slept for two hours and then got up and took the metro into town.

With each metro stop the train turned a deeper shade of pink as we picked up more and more pussy hats and protest signs and mothers and daughter and sisters.  We cheered and clapped for each other, and I thought, "There are so many of us!  Even this far away from the Capitol, there are so many of us!"




That feeling of 'so many of us' - that intensified as we exited the subway onto the street level.  Metro stations around the city were dumping buckets of pink pussy hats into a swollen river of marching men and women.


There were several police officers and as we passed we thanked them each for their service.  They smiled back and said it was their pleasure.  Statistically speaking, at least half of those officers probably did not agree with our views - but there they were, fighting for our right to express them.

That made me love my country and our Constitution more than ever before.  

As we got closer to the Capitol the river of pussy hats broke the riverbanks and started to flood the entire valley of the Mall.  There were so many of us that we couldn't even march - we stood and soaked in all of the energy and beauty of it all.



"Yep, it isn't just us.  There are lots of people who feel the way we do.  And our democracy is still strong enough for us to come out in throngs like this and protest," I thought.  Tears streamed down my face and I didn't even try to wipe them away.  Surrounded by my sisters - and many brothers - crying felt like a totally normal thing to do.

(This was my favorite sign.  "They tried to bury us.  They didn't realize we were seeds.")




A woman walked up next to me and smiled.  "It's amazing, isn't it?"  She nodded at the crowd all around us.  I smiled and nodded and cried some more.  An unspoken understanding passed between us. "I don't love crowds and I'm a little afraid right now but I know you are too and yet this is more important than all of that.  Thank you for helping me be strong."  I have never felt as threatened and as safe all at the same time.




(This was my second favorite sign.  "Barack, you rest.  We got this.")

Audrey hugged me.  "Thank you so much Mommy for doing this for me."
 ("Let's try to get a better picture of you," Audrey said.  
"Honey I think we can give up on the thought of there being any good pictures of me this weekend.  I've been awake for two days now.")

"Is it what you hoped it would be?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking out at the flooded pink landscape, punctuated by colorful protest signs.  "This is exactly what I needed.  Thank you so much."


Messages of goodwill were streaming in through social media.  Friends who agree with our views cheered us on and thanked us for representing them.  Even those who don't agree wished us a safe journey.  And the early reports said that the crowd in Nashville had already far exceeded initial expectations - instead of 2,000-5,000, the streets were packed with 10,000 protesters. 

After several hours of floating in the lake of pink protest, we were ready to drift back to our homes.  While the trip to D.C. had been dark and foggy, the trip back home was dark and rainy.  It would have been a hard drive under any circumstances but Shai and I had been awake for almost two days now.  We fueled ourselves with Dr. Pepper and Mt. Dew and happy conversation until finally, at 1:00 in the morning we arrived back in Middle America.  We dropped Shai back with her husband and baby, and then Audrey and I went home and went straight to bed.

When we woke up the next morning we were both starving, so we made a breakfast of English muffins and eggs and smoothies and coffee.  We sat together at the kitchen table and convinced each other that the whole thing had actually happened.  Audrey thanked me again and again for taking her, and I thanked her for getting me to go.  I wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been for her, but now that it was over I was so grateful that we took this chance to raise our voices.  

The amazing thing about that weekend is that so many forces came together to make it possible.

Without me, Audrey would not have been able to go to the march.  And without her, I would not have dared to make the trip.  

Without Shai, I would have been the only responsible adult on that perilous journey.  And without us, Shai would have been sleeping on a bus for two nights. 

Without Donald Trump, I would not have found my First Amendment Voice, and I wouldn't have had this amazing weekend adventure with Audrey and Shai.  

And so with a grateful heart, I say thank you and amen to all of those things.  





Sunday, November 6, 2016

Breathing ...



It was every new mother’s nightmare.  The nurses were holding my newborn baby girl just outside of my field of vision. 

I was lying on the operating table with a large blue drape separating me from all of the baby delivering activities.  On my side of the drape it was just me and the anesthesiologist in a quiet pool of fentanyl, chatting to pass the time.

“Just in case you were worried about it, let me reassure you that you are breathing.  Sometimes people feel like they’re not breathing because they can’t feel their chest rising and falling, and they start to panic.  But as long as you can talk you’re breathing.  And you’re talking, so obviously you’re breathing.  Just in case you were worried about that.”

The odd thing is, I never doubted that I was breathing.  I guess because I wasn’t passing out.  But once the anesthesiologist told me that other people tend to panic, I felt weird for not panicking

Which, as fate would have it, was just the moment when the nurse approached me - holding Audrey just so I couldn’t see her - and said, “Before we let you look at your baby I should tell you that…”

It probably took a half second before she finished her sentence, but in that instant my mind flashed through several worst-case scenarios.

“Your baby was born dead.”

“Your baby doesn’t have eyes.”

“Your baby is a fish.”

So when the nurse actually finally completed her sentence, I was completely relieved.

“I should tell you that your baby has a little cut on her lip.  It must have happened when the doctor pulled her out.”

“Oh!  Can it be fixed?” I asked.

“Yes, she’ll probably just need a stitch.  We’ll have a plastic surgeon look at it later this afternoon.”

And then they brought her to my face and I saw my baby girl for the first time.  She was beautiful.  Even with the tiny cut on her lower lip.

Later that afternoon the phone rang in my room.  “Ms. Gao, this is Nurse Carrie from the nursery.  The plastic surgeon is here and we need to know if you want your baby to have anesthesia before he stitches up her lip.”

“Of course I want her to have anesthesia!” I said.  My poor baby.  Why were we even talking about this?  We can’t ask her to have her lip stitched up without anesthesia!

“Well, think about it,” said the nurse.  “She needs one stitch, so that’s one poke with a needle.  If we give her anesthesia that will also be one poke with a needle.”

One poke with a needle either way.  And if she has anesthesia that will be chemicals in her tiny little body…  If we stitch her up without anesthesia then we can spare her the chemicals…  Buddy wasn’t there and they needed a decision right away. 

Suddenly motherhood seemed so hard.  So many hard decisions to be made.  And no crystal balls anywhere to be found. 

“Alright then, please go ahead and do it without the anesthesia.”  I cried and hoped my baby would forgive me.  Partly for letting her experience so much pain on her first day on earth, and partly for bringing a baby into the world without having first secured a crystal ball.

Today, sixteen years later, Audrey is quite proud of her lip scar.  It’s her only scar – whereas her brother is held together by more stitches than we can count.  On our last trip to the ER in August we tried to count, but lost track somewhere around 15 and the time a friend pushed Grant into a chair that had a screw protruding out of it. 

Audrey’s scar is the way I know she’s mine.  She was most definitely not switched at birth because I saw her in the first few seconds, in the delivery room, and she had that cut.  And now I can see the scar from where that cut was stitched up.  She is mine.  Her scar tells me so.

I got my first stitches on Audrey’s  birthday too.  Mine go across my abdomen, along the C-section incision.  The scar curves upward at the ends like a soft smile, as if my abdomen is forever sighing and smiling and saying, “Yeah, I did that…” 



That eventful day in the fall of 2000 was more than just the day Audrey was born.

It was the day I learned that motherhood is really really hard.

And it was the day I learned that 
even if everyone else panics about something, 
it's okay if I don't.

It was the day I learned to yearn for a crystal ball, 
and the day I realized that even when you need it the most 
it will not materialize.

It was the day I discovered the power of anesthesia.  
And the day I learned that sometimes it’s better to face your pain without it.

It day was the day I learned that Audrey is mine.
And that I am hers.
We have the matching scars to prove it.

But most importantly, it’s the day I learned that 
if you’re talking, you’re breathing.  
If you ever doubt it, just say a few words, 
to yourself if you must, 
and know that you are breathing.  

And that you are okay.

 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Scars mean we survived


“A scar means, I survived.”
-                    - Quote from Little Bee, from the book Little Bee by Chris Cleave
 
 

A round dot on my upper lip.  I got that when I had the chicken pox when I was about five.

One on my knee.  I was running in a field day race at the middle school in Japan and I fell and skidded into the gravel just after I crossed the finish line.

One that traverses my left forearm.  That was a suspicious mole that my dermatologist biopsied. 

One that crosses my abdomen.  I’m probably most proud of it.  I got it on October 10, 2000, the day I became a mother.  On that day Audrey also got a scar.  When the doctor cut into my abdomen the blade went through my skin and uterus and placenta and penetrated all the way to her sweet little face.  He nicked her right on the edge of her lip and she was born bleeding.  The doctors stitched her up and now the scar is just barely visible but when I look closely I can see it, and I remember the day she and I got our matching scars.    

My scars would fall into a category I have come to think of as “surface scars”.  They’re surface-level scars that were caused by accident or injury or illness, and as soon as the skin healed I was fine again.  The damage healed completely.

 
This summer while the kids were with Buddy in China I took a class that was held at the Tennessee Prison for Women.  Each Wednesday evening I spent a couple of hours in the prison with my inside classmates and we studied how to affect change through civic engagement. 

But really, I studied them.

I was fascinated by their scars.  I realized that their scars were different from mine. 

These women do not have surface scars.  Their scars run deep because they aren’t the result of an injury or an illness or an accident.  They got these scars because someone intentionally and maliciously hurt them.

I call these “deep scars”.  They penetrate far beyond the skin and stab their silvery veins into the heart and soul of the victim.  With time the skin might heal but the injury to the heart remains much longer.  It takes months or years to heal … in fact I’m wondering if it ever does. 

Although I’m sure my professor Christin would give me a passing grade for the class, I would give myself an F.  Because the point of the class was to learn how to achieve change through civic engagement.  Yet at the end of the class, I feel less able to change my environment than I did when I started.

I wish I could change the fact that mothers leave and fathers die, but I can’t.

I wish I could change our broken foster care system, but I can’t.

I wish I could change the fact that some women choose really shitty boyfriends, but I can’t. 

I wish I could change the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, but I can’t.

 
I feel so helpless about all of that.  And so I sit here and run my finger back and forth, back and forth across the smooth silver scar on my left forearm. 
 
And it occurs to me that Little Bee was right, scars do mean we survived. 
 
But that doesn’t mean that we’re okay. 
 
Or that we ever will be again.