Saturday, February 22, 2020

China: Peace Like a River in Coronavirus times...

 "Be still like a mountain, and flow like a river." --Lao Tzu Tung

"I choose to listen to the river for a while, thinking river thoughts, before joining the night and the stars."  
                                                             --Edward Abbey

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of these drops are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."
                         --Norman MacLean in A River Runs Through It

We have walked more than a hundred miles in the last few weeks on the Haihe shores.
Since we are living here in China during "coronavirus times," we must occasionally leave our homes to have peace near our river--specifically the Haihe River in Tianjin, China. Parks are closed, and a lake that we fondly call our own is often not permissible to walk around. However,  there are a few people like us in this town of 17 million that gather on this beautiful, historical Haihe River. I have found it is where we can revive our strength and breathe in the beauty to go back and face the virus that surrounds us. 

I have never seen a place where people love to fish more than in Tianjin, China. Often you will see a lone person with their fishing pole, other times it will be a larger, louder gathering. Fishing takes people's minds off the coronavirus for a few happy moments. They are at peace with their river.
There are not many of us who come out of our houses (In Tianjin, it is allowed to leave your homes, but everything is closed and there are no gatherings in homes), but in the last month, we have watched this river give peace in a time of turbulence, offer strength in a time of uncertainty. The Haihe is called "The mother river of Tianjin" leading to the sea--gathering five rivers to its side to become one with it. It has become a new home to me--a place where my "river thoughts" trickle out. 

I have learned rivers are endless, constant givers. When thick ice threatens to block natural ebbs and flows, undercurrents incrementally force the obstructions away. Sometimes we have seen boats come out to crunch and break up the ice so the river can move forward again, rushing onward. Often someone needs to be the one to be in the boat crunching the ice so the water can flow again. Rivers have seasons--even within a day--and each moment can show different lights, ripples, and occasionally a near stillness. I am continually awed by rivers.

Some city workers breaking up the ice of the Haihe River. Within a few moments, the slated ice is broken up into shards and blocks.

Just a few hundred yards from this scene the boats are coming to break the great ice slabs in a puzzle of pieces--allowing the river to flow again.

During this "coronavirus time," I have walked over a  hundred miles along the Haihe River shores--back and forth--taking in the beauty and the lessons "the mother river" offers. We have watched clusters of fishermen, a few skaters, boaters, and even swimmers try its waters. Birds congregate here for their reunions. Families and loved ones hold hands as they watch their river flow, freeze, thaw, and then flow again. Sometimes the waters are swift, other times still. The Haihe River has become our sanctuary where we can forget the worries of this country for some moments. 

The Haihe reminds me to remember that life is meant to be like a rushing river. We are not meant to stay still for too long. The Haihe froze over for about two months, and you could see ice fishermen with their potched holes all over the river. Yet, eventually, the river beckons to break open again--to move from its source to its destination. Just like an unresolved grudge or quarrel left dangling, our own hearts yearn to burst forward and free--carrying all the dross to the sea. Rivers continually move, not allowing the snags to impede their flow. And they don't turn around again; they don't have time. There is too much water to carry to the sea to be concerned with turning backward. 

Being in this cocoon of time with the coronavirus has taught me lessons on how I want to live--to be like a river, being willing to twist and turn with the bend. A river seeks to move, unafraid of the tides or swings--the next chapter. And a river will not only bring you along with its momentum but it will move everyone and everything forward too. You all move onward together--leaving no one behind. Rivers make me realize I don't want to get stuck in any swirling eddies, but to get on the journey to move forward to the sea. 

I have loved winding rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, Hudson, and Snake--far away from China. But now I love the Haihe. More than ever, rivers were meant to keep rollin' along...

The view from our fifth-floor apartment looking down to the frosted shoreline.

A few days later, with all the obstructions cleared away--providing an outlet to "our lake" beyond.

Monday, February 3, 2020

China and the Coronavirus

This is a family a few days ago in the park--all four generations. They are fortunate to spend time with family this year, as many families were not able to travel. Linking the generations is very important to Chinese people--including them in their lives. One of the reasons I really enjoy Tianjin is that it is a very family-oriented place. People are always talking about and visiting their families. Many young people prefer to stay in Tianjin, near their family, in favor of going to Beijing or Shanghai. 
It snowed yesterday here in Tianjin, China yesterday with the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen come floating down past the skyscraper where we live. It was like someone shook a down pillow of feathers and sprinkled them around our city. The morning was one of awe and wonder for all of us. I loved watching some kids play outside, knowing they have been in their homes for almost two weeks. People came out to take photographs. They were smiling and chatting as they walked around the lake where we live, marveling at the beauty of the birds gliding on the ice. A little change of scenery did us all good, as people bounded out, with smiling faces, to see the snow--not many people, just a few of us who needed a break from our four walls. Everyone was looking as cheerful and optimistic as possible.

Tianjin, a city of close to 17 million, is essentially closed to contain the coronavirus. The malls, factories, streets, schools, restaurants, and businesses are all shut down--waiting for the coronavirus to subside. Tianjin is a beautiful city with wide tree-lined boulevards and rivers running through it. But few people are outside to enjoy the snow or clean air this week. I can't bear to stay in all day so it has been interesting to be outsiders looking in--walking the streets of this historic city. We are not being repatriated to the US, as many friends; my husband directs a hospital here. He delivered a baby girl today. Life goes on...

As we walk around the city, there is evidence of incredible efficiency and management--something the Chinese are very good at. No one can manage a crowd of a few thousand people like a couple of Chinese policemen. There is structure and organization wherever you look. When we walk around the lake near our home, you can hear messages to wear masks and take care of your health and safety. Every hour the elevator is cleaned in our building, with a chart to have it signed off. A box of tissues was glued up to the wall of the elevator that was not there yesterday. My friend's elevator has toothpicks for people to push the elevator button. Luckily, the markets are open for a few hours daily, and I was able to get some bottled water today. So far everything in this city is working, humming along. I have to marvel at the commitment to essentially stop almost everything in order to obliterate the coronavirus.

One thing to remember is that these last few weeks are the most important time of the year for the Chinese--to celebrate the new year together with family. The day after the first day of the New Year's it is the tradition to go and visit your great uncle and second cousins. It is like taking away the equivalent of American Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's for them. Everyone's lives are being upended or modified in some way. But the most important thing is that it is being done with lots of grace and acceptance. The hospitals are busy, and the commitment to overcome the current health crisis is strong. As the Chinese say when things get tough, "Pour the oil," which means you need to provide the fuel and energy to solve a problem.

Everyone is doing their part in this big society in a time of crisis for their country. I have to say I am impressed. But I will be excited to see everyone's faces again without their masks. It is harder for me to understand their Chinese with their mask on...

The most popular park in Tianjin called, "The Water Park" is closed to anyone coming in. The man in the mask is a guard.

We like walking along the Haihe River, with its many bridges and famous Ferris wheel. 

If you plan on going anywhere--to a mall, store, anywhere, plan on getting your temperature taken. This is at the entrance of a hospital.
Some older people helping to clean the walks in the park when it snowed. There were lots of volunteers to help clean the sidewalks everywhere. China is a very efficient place. They know how to galvanize people to get things done!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

"How will you measure your life?"

It's actually really important that you succeed at what you're succeeding at, but that isn't going to be the measure of your life."--Clayton Christianson

"I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride." --William James 

My people...
Last week one of the foremost business thinkers of our time, Clayton Christianson, died in Boston after many years of some health problems. A few years ago my daughter worked at Harvard Business School, where he taught, and she would see him passing in the halls and say hello. At that time I read his book by the same title of this blog, How Will You Measure Your Life? With a new calendar year, I had been thinking about his insights recently. Then, I heard of his passing and realized that I needed some solo soul time.

With the beginning of a new year, a new decade, (and I have come back to China to live again). I was thinking what I would use to measure a wonderful life--one that will bring not only happiness but deep peace and satisfaction. How does that happen? What constitutes a meaningful life? And what are the metrics that measure that? My Blog on how ancient Egypt measured their life in "Egypt: Time and Immortality"

Most recently I have been thinking about becoming and how to get to the place we want to be. How we get to a destination is almost as important as finally arriving. Taking the time to reflect on how all those minutes we have each day are actually spent is important. I am convinced the decisions in those hours and days as the years accumulate shape us in profound ways. I believe as we ultimately measure our life, our path must be intentional if we want it to be successful. There are no short cuts, no royal road--just continuing to paint all the strokes on the painting. And then viola, there is a gorgeous masterpiece we created.

When I was 23, I listed my goals for the next five years in a ragged book. Once and a while (not nearly as often as I should have) I reviewed these written goals.  Since they were written, they were also subconsciously etched in the back of my mind. I was a little shocked when I came upon that book many years later and realized I had achieved every one. They were not unsurmountable, but each took some planning, adjusting, and work. I honestly believe it is very unlikely I would have been successful if I had not written them down or at least reflected upon those goals. These kinds of aspirations are the "checklist" variety. What about the goals that are the very most important that lack a simple qualitative measure--like developing loving relationships or fostering a personality that can nourish those who depend on you. Empathy and compassion are vital and exceptionally difficult. So again, how do we measure these critical capacities?

Since I am a religious person, my relationship with God is very important to me. (I liked what Christianson said, "I don't only want to believe in God. I want to believe God). Furthermore, I determined I wanted people, relationships, and family to be a high barometer (the metrics of focus) on my scale of happiness. Also, I hoped to make the world a little better--all three things most everyone in this world wants from the allotment of time we are given to breathe on this earth. Essentially, we are given time, and we must measure our days and years to make make sure they eventually matter.

Years ago I had the chance to learn this seminal lesson from my sister-in-law, Joan Shumway Erickson, who was battling cancer, a struggle that would take her life. She was a young mom, age 34, with four children. I had two little girls and was expecting a son. We had both just moved to Los Angeles, and knew very few people. She spent the last six out of the nine months of her life in a hospital--trying to do anything to save her life. Since it was not far from where we were living at the time, I went to see her almost daily. Consequently, it was in the sanctuary of a hospital room I spent some of the most important and shaping conversations of my life.

We were both young, but she was traveling a portal--where I was far behind on the path. So I listened as she spoke about her dreams. Gradually, she knew and accepted many desires that would not happen in this life. In those conversations, the curtain of what really mattered began to open for me. All of a sudden I got it. I understood with clarity, from what she was telling me, as she laid in her bed every day, that it was her relationships--her family and individual interactions--that would be the barometer of success. Although she had been the commencement speaker at her university and achieved many honors of life, that was not her yardstick of an accomplished life.

While she was a person of very little conflict, a few times I was in her hospital room as she called someone to make sure there was a feeling of peace between them in their relationship. She repeatedly called people to let them know of her love for them. Sometimes she even called and said goodbye to them-- knowing that her remaining time was short. I heard her speak of hallowed memories, as she gave them sincere compliments and praise. She said a few words to me that have always brought me a sense of great belonging and love, "You are not my sister-in-law anymore. You are my sister. I love you so much." That is the way the last few months of her life were lived. Those were holy days for me, and all these years later, I still remember watching a life that was immeasurably successful--one that I wanted to emulate.

There was not any more time for the superfluous or inconsequential as Joan began to accept that she would not recover. We laughed a lot because she had a fine-tuned sense of humor. Sometimes there would be six or seven hospital volunteers in her room so they could laugh and hear her insights from her brilliant and well-read mind. Being with her in those months was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me. When she said, "I would do anything to go home and change a diaper and wipe my child's nose," it really changed my life. It sounds simple, but it is true. I began to hear the world's sirens that were blaring in my life--telling me what made up a successful life. Instead, I heard Joan's voice, and I knew how to measure more what really mattered.

The noise of the world's clamoring for success began to not be as important to me. And sometimes,  in quiet moments, sparks and a few lighting bolts have retaught and reiterated what Joan taught me long ago. The accolades of the world are fun but fleeting. For me, one of the ways to appraise my life is to feel, "This is the most wonderful moment in the world right now."

I remember one time, about fifteen years ago, I went on a walk alone at dusk. At that time, there were six children living with us, and my blind father-in-law. Sometimes I was exhausted, I admit. It was a busy time. As I came around the corner, I peered into our house windows from the street (our house was always a fishbowl on the bottom floor). It was Christmastime, and the tree was perched brightly in the corner. Inside I could see one child playing the piano, someone else preparing something in the kitchen, another child stretched out on the floor playing chess with my husband by the fire. Another child sat on their grandpa's chair next to him. I stood there for a while and marveled. Yes, this scene before me required everything out of me sometimes. But it was worth it, and there was nowhere else I would rather be.

I was grateful and glad I could walk in--knowing it was home, and they all belonged to me. It was a "metric moment." So that is how I measure my life, ordinary as that might be--the feeling I know that the people I love are there, and with me. They forgive me, and we watch each other grow.

The night when I had my "metric moment" looking into my house when we lived in St. Louis

Capturing a "metric moment" when I knew that having a family was swelling my heart, bursting it right open. I loved seeing my husband become a new father. So many "metric moments"... A new #GirlDad
When I found out Elias, our son with autism could ski...
When I knew my love of other cultures would always take me around the world...
When my dad and one of his namesakes, our son, having a big hug a few years before Dad died...
I love my big family and our reunions.

My husband taking me to see YoYo Ma when I first started to play the cello.

Remembering the love I always had for my mother and father in law....

Surprising my husband on his 29th birthday in New York City...

Sunday, January 26, 2020

China: Chinese New Year of the Rat and Coronavirus

There is a dichotomy going on in China right now--exhilaration for a new year, a new beginning, achieving new dreams, but also a resolve to try and not to be afraid about a virus where the epicenter is in Wuhan, China. I guess, on a macro-level, that is the way we all feel--joy and excitement for dreams of a new year, but trying to be prepared--to not fear the future. And we all need each other to achieve the conflicting feelings that sometimes collide. The Chinese people are doing that right now: trying to be brave, joyous, and peaceful because they know it is a holiday they have been anticipating. It was supposed to be happy and festive. However, they are also nervous about a virus that has come to their country. So we celebrate here in China for a new year, but are conscious others are suffering... We celebrate a new year, knowing that every moment with loved ones is precious. 

Gathering as families is the main reason for the Chinese New Year. People work hard all year so they can travel to see their loved ones. Linking the generations together is very much a part of Chinese culture and philosophy. 

Here in Tianjin, China, everyone has been happily preparing for the year of the rat for about a month. You can read China: Preparing for the Year of the Rat (before the virus hit). Yet, when I left the hospital last night on New Year's Eve where my husband works, there was a pensive sadness in the air. A few days ago there was jubilation and cheer in everyone's faces--people chattering about the dishes they were preparing and spending time with their families. I was always being stopped again and again outside in the streets to exchange New Year's wishes. One old Chinese woman with just a few teeth wanted to practice her English on me as we crossed a busy intersection together. Now, there is not nearly the excitement.

Last night for New Year's Eve there was a noticeable, palpable fear--and we are far from the epicenter of the coronavirus. I smiled at everyone on the street and wished them a wonderful new year. But everyone was wearing a mask to protect them from the coronavirus. They wished me a great year ahead too, but I could not see smiles underneath the masks or hear the usual easy conversing. The day everyone had been preparing and waiting for felt different because we knew many people were scared and suffering.

As we hailed probably one of the last taxis that would pass by that street in hours, we felt lucky to chat with the taxi driver all the way to our New Year's Eve dinner. We decided to still attend since we knew many people had canceled their invitations. The roads were mostly empty. Restaurants that are usually kept open for people who don't want to cook were mostly closed. All the public events had been canceled in the parks.

I knew that many people who have been working hard all year long to see their family--especially the migrant workers in the city--will likely not make it home to their province or village. Most everyone is just staying in. At times like this, it is important to not panic but to listen to official news and enjoy the time to be together in our homes.

I was planning on a more jovial blog, but I did want to show some of the artistry and happiness of what was going on just before the virus came to China. I invite you to pray for China and all those who are affected by the coronavirus. Hopefully, smiles will soon return to everyone's faces soon, and we can all take off our masks.

Making dumplings is what most people eat at this time of year with their families in northern China. In fact, many families in the north make dumplings together a couple of times a month. They make the dough, filling, and then "bau" (or fold them together). The old and the young continue this tradition together--taking time to make them together, instead of boiling a bag of frozen dumplings. "Reunion" nights are very important in China. 

Some young girls at a pre-Chinese New Year show with traditional instruments. This night was about a week before Chinese New Year began and the virus started spreading.

A night of Chinese culture just before the Chinese New Year when everyone was more exuberant. This is a ten-year-old girl who is performing Chinese opera. 
Another picture of her. She was just adorable...

Shopping in a nearby market before the outbreak. The Chinese celebrate the vegetable, unlike any other place I have ever seen.

More shopping outside our apartment building. I bought enough for a couple of weeks since I knew many stores would be close. Now, I am glad I did because no one is going out now. 

At a well-known restaurant in Tianjin, where workers were getting ready for customers to buy packages or gifts for families from the restaurant. Gifts are very important to take to family gatherings and dinners.

One of my favorite traditions--people make their own banners for friends and family to hang on their windows and doors, instead of buying them. All the Chinese sayings wish blessings on families--to bring peace, joy, abundance, health, and longevity to them. I love these young boys a few days before New Year's making banners of us foreigners to view. 

A Chinese friend came to help me decorate my door a few days ago before everyone stopped going out. Two days before Chinese New Year's Day, the Chinese put up their banners welcoming in the New Year, and wishing everyone prosperity, blessings, health, and family joy

Rats are everywhere--stuffed rats, statues, cartoons, performers who are rats, little children dressed up like rats. It is hilarious, very playful, and fun.

At a park where all the 12 Zodiac animals have statues. This year, the rat rules. 
Interesting tidbit: The rat is the first of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. According to myth, the Jade Emperor organized a race for a group of animals on his birthday. He said whoever won the race could start out the Chinese zodiac sign. Legend goes that the rat climbed on the back of the ox, jumping off at the finish line to win first place. That is the reason the rat starts the Zodiac cycle. People who are born in 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1996, and 2008 are the sign of the rat.

On a frozen outlet of a pond near our home. Everyone was so happy to spend time together outside with loved ones. Again, just a few days before Chinese New Year's. There was such exuberance in the air. We were all so excited...

I love the way this older gentleman leads everyone out on the ice every day to play hockey near my home. 

A grandfather and son out just before everyone went inside. I love the way grandparents are such an integral part of Chinese children's lives. 

A little girl eating a favorite Chinese festive candy apple.

Going into a store to buy candy for Chinese friends, and to take them to gatherings. Red paper-cuts and banners adorn most of the windows.

We all laughed when a little robot came to try and serve us some candy.

The entire city is ablaze with red color to show the Chinese people's favorite color--a sign of luck and blessings. 
Excited to take off our masks soon....

Monday, January 20, 2020

China: Getting Ready for the Year of the Rat (Part 1)

If you are born in the year of the rat, Chinese tradition says you will be quick-witted, smart, and frugal. 

Happy Year of the Rat! Red envelopes on this tree called "hungbau." They are delivered by family and friends for their loved ones. 
Over here in Mainland China, everyone is preparing for the next two weeks of Chinese New Year or Spring Festival as it is called in China (not sure why because there is ice floating down the rivers).  Chinese New Year officially begins on January 25 this year and lasts until February 8, which is the day of the Lantern Festival. For one week, none of the stores are open so crowds are bustling everywhere to buy their friends and family gifts. Many people are carrying home big bags of food for their New Year feasts. New clothes are bought. People clean their houses to sweep away ill-fortune and make way for coming luck. (I invited a Chinese friend to come today and she offered to "house-clean." I guess she wants to let the luck flow this year for me with a cleaner house. I did think it was quite tidy the last time she came. Ha!). Everyone is preparing their homes for the new year.

Red lights and lanterns adorn many shops, apartment buildings, schools, and businesses. Schools are closed for two-four weeks for this auspicious holiday that enters in the new year of the Zodiac sign of the Rat. The streets have flowing banners, and the doors and windows in houses have red paper-cut signs that say Blessings, Health, Longevity. There is an exhilarating excitement in the air wherever you go.

Many people travel to their province or village to be with families at this time. One friend with a few tears said to me, "Everyone works hard all year long so they can be with their family at this time. On the night before New Year's, this year on January 24, will be"the reunion night" when families come together all over China. I have been told not to travel around China at this time to avoid the crowds. Planes, trains, and coaches were booked long ago. Ancestors are remembered, and red envelopes containing money are given to family members--especially children. There will be fireworks, gatherings, activities and all kinds of food to eat and gifts to give. But here are some suggestions or even warnings before you choose your gifts to give your host for Chinese New Year:

1) Don't give knives or other sharp objects like scissors because that would mean you want "to cut" off the relationship with them.
2) Don't give anything with a number four, even four apples because the Chinese will do anything to avoid the number four. The sounds of the words death and the number four are similar. Everything associated with the number four is unlucky. (There is often not a number four on elevators, and no one wants to live on the fourth floor in apartment buildings).
3) Don't give someone a new Apple watch or a clock because that would mean their time on earth is coming to a close and death is imminent. It means you are running out of time.
4) Don't give cut flowers because that is for funerals, especially white flowers since the color white is associated with death.
5) Don't give shoes because the word's shoes and bad luck sound the same. Shoes are something you step on so definitely avoid giving shoes!
6) Don't give pears (another fruit is fine). It is taboo since the word pear and the word "leaving" sound the same.
7) Don't give a mirror because it could attract terrible ghosts to your life, and besides it could possibly break!

Yesterday we went to a huge convention center in Tianjin where people from all over China were there to sell delicacies for the Chinese New Year tables. Honestly, I have never seen the abundance of samplings that were available yesterday. If you fancy eating jellyfish in your salad or expensive sea cucumbers or sheep's head, it was there for you. Here is a smorgasbord of pictures that shows how people are preparing over here:

Everyone decorates their windows, and especially doors with red banners and paper-cuts.

A darling little girl choosing a lantern for her home.

Picking some for our door
In front of an international school here in Tianjin

Dried shrimp anyone?

Dried dates are popular here.

Sheep's head for a soup?

Dried mushroom for soups. I bought some and made a delicious soup today.

Joseph just found the best oranges of his life he said. 

Making music with metal drums

Salmon from the seafood section

These are wonderful big crackers, sprinkled with sesame seeds. 

Candy made with different kids of camel and sheep milk. 

I love the way fruit and vegetable vendors take such great pride in their produce.

Joseph trying some tofu noodles.
The Chinese love nuts and seeds in every variety.
Fresh dates--sometimes people like them dried, fried, and fresh. They are a snack you see everywhere.
A honey vendor