loaves and fishes

April 28, 2013

This was my first morning in charge of the Preschool Sunday School, so I arrived a bit nervous about how it would all go. But the children filed in easily and were cheery and, for the most part, attentive as I sang some songs with them, then told the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with loaves and fishes. Once we had finished the main portion of the lesson, and each child had their “loaf” [large cracker] or “fish” [small cracker] as a snack, they settled into their coloring project. At this point a flustered mom walked in with a clearly disgruntled little one. He entered no further than two steps into the room and then slumped into the corner. His mother said a few words to him then left. He responded to my questions enough for me to get his name tag on him and then, when I asked if he wanted a snack, he nodded vigorously. He did not, however, budge from his silently scowling position. So I pointed out his place to him and returned my attention to the others. After a few minutes I saw him sliding along the edge of the room in the general direction of his seat. A few minutes later I called the children over to the carpet for another activity. By this point [Scowling] Stephen had made it to his seat and was devouring his cracker. I gave him a few more and began the next activity. The service ended early, so we did not have time to finish the last activity before parents collected their children. When Stephen’s mother came in, I handed her the bag of crackers I had remaining. “This was the only thing that got him out of the corner,” I explained, “so I thought you might want to take the rest of them?”
She thanked me profusely and explained that it had taken them 2 hours to get there, due to an unexpected bus delay. She had promised him they would stop for breakfast on the way, but then had not had time. Thus the scowling arrival ☺
As we biked back home, I was telling K about it. She always has a wise perspective on things, and her response was “You never know what the back story is behind and outside appearance, do you?” I agreed. And I smiled as I remembered how she had gone back to buy food for a homeless man as we had stopped for our own breakfast break earlier that day. It left me grateful for the people like K in my life. It also made me grateful that we were self-sufficient bikers, not subject to vehicle travel issues :-)

life cycles

April 23, 2013


During the students’ morning recess today, my coworker and I walked as the children played. We were in our own little world, strangely so compared to my recent classroom-obsessed mentality, as we talked. So much so that our pace was unnaturally slow. Some of my students ran over at one point to hop along behind us. They said they were chasing us and I teased them that we didn’t make a very exciting object of pursuit with our leisurely stroll.
There was good reason for our transporting conversation. My coworker spoke of her fears as she prepares to bring an unplanned second child into a land that will declare this baby, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. I listened quietly, trying to understand what it must be like to live under such a real, and weighty, restriction. She began to cry. “I love my country,” she explained. “And now I just feel so uncared for by my own government . . .” I wish I could empathize more fully, but all I can do is listen, and know that I may never be able to really grasp the depth of such emotion. The irony occurs to me, as well, that I am pondering my own weighty possibility at the moment . . . wondering if the prospect before me, so wildly impractical from a Western, worldly standpoint, may in fact be a door that has been divinely plopped in front of me. Time, counsel, and prayer shall tell . . .
After recess I come in to give a science lesson. And as so often happens, the reality of life in a Grade 4 classroom proves to be refreshingly amusing, yet thoroughly significant, in the way that life with children uniquely manages to be. We were studying animal life cycles. Specifically, that of the Comet Moth. According to our Science textbook, this particular moth has a 2-week life span. During these two weeks, it has basically two purposes. The first phase, as a larvae, is consumed with finding, and eating, food. The second, as an adult moth, is consumed with finding, and reproducing with, a mate. In fact, it has no mouth as an adult, so cannot eat at all. If it is not fast enough in finding a mate, it dies without fulfilling the goal of reproduction. I was, as you might imagine, have an amusing inner chuckle as I taught the lesson. The students had their own interesting reaction. Gasps as I read the portion about no mouth. And exclamations of “Poor moth!” that it cannot eat. The other part of the equation, for grown up moths, did not even seem to register in their minds . . . just one of the many things I love about teaching this age group ;-)


April 21, 2013

Life has been a bit of a wild ride lately [Ha—as I write these words, it occurs to me that what I intended to be a figurative statement is in fact a literal one as well, what with biking adventures ☺]. And as so often happens, it was not until I stopped for a few moments this evening that I realized just how non-stop the past few weeks has been. Being away last weekend made the two school weeks sort of run together and now, when one would think the weekend would remedy that issue, it turned out to be filled with an all-day event yesterday that the school put on: an “International Fair.” Great fun, but of course an all-hands-on-deck sort of thing.
This morning I had an early ride to fellowship, needing to arrive in time for worship practice. It was not the first solo ride I have had there, so I knew a bit of what to expect; I did not, however, expect it to be as pleasant as it was to be on my own. This time, instead of being afraid to be biking solo, I was relishing it, readying for what I knew was going to be a socially full next several hours. The rest of the day was filled with a visit with neighbors, then some quick lesson planning. Once I had finished planning, I realized I really wanted to just walk a bit. So I headed out the door to walk the neighborhood. Only a few steps out, I walked right back home. I needed my camera. I had a sudden purpose: I needed to put pictures to what I was loving about this place where I live. With so many things happening at once, I have been unable to really document the little things I enjoy. Children playing everywhere, for one.. Random “grown-up playground equipment” scattered all around, for another. People of all ages out enjoying this place, for yet another. This one older gentleman actually lapped me as I was walking the neighborhood loop, doing an impressively paced jog in his well-dressed manner.
After taking these photos, I ran into one of the high school students. She asked if I was as tired as she was after all that’s been going on. I smiled and said that yes, I was, but that I was now breathing. So here I am . . . breathing ☺

scouting stars

April 14, 2013

I think I’ve known, for most of my life, that I’m a bit on the dorky side. For a brief period, in later elementary and middle school, I remember being concerned with popularity, preoccupied with whether the cool kids knew I existed, or cared. But that quickly subsided as I discovered that, in fact, I was much more interested in the company and activities of the kids who didn’t really care so much what others thought of them, but who pursued their own [potentially quirky] interests, and enjoyed them. Once I had come to this realization, I enjoyed a very active and fulfilling high school experience.
Now that my own school experience is very long past, I find that most of the time I don’t even think about the nature of my own work, surrounded by youth. Well, I guess I think about my work; what I don’t so much think about is how these young people are going through all the angst that I am so very grateful to have left behind.
But occasionally, like this weekend, there are opportunities to really get involved in their lives, and spend time musing more on the relational aspect than just on the work/schoolwork portion that normally consumes me:
I am currently on the road, with a busload of youth, on the way back to school from a weekend outing. The logistics of it were 9 middle and high school girls heading to another village to get their international service award for Girl Scouts. I was actually never a scout myself, but willingness to lead, plus experience as a camp counselor, made it easy for me to settle into the role for this trip. And I loved it. I laughed at myself several times over the course of the weekend, for my stereotypical dorky-ness as a chaperone. Last night, for instance, as we sat down for dinner, I announced that I wanted to hear everyone’s “two stars and a wish.” Explaining this exercise I picked up from the workplace, I asked them each to share 2 highlights from the trip this far, plus a wish for the remainder of it. Then I shared my own.
One of my “stars” came from the activity we had done with a local school there that day. 75 young students had come to participate in what we had planned as a culturally educational, plus just fun, day together. For the games, we had them rotate between 5 different stations, each of us manning one activity. Mine was the piñata. We had prepared 2 for each group and we explained to each of them how the game worked, letting them share the candy once the piñata had burst. My star, though, came from watching how the girls with me collaborated as we went, improvising so as to best mesh with the actuality of the day. So we ended up alternating between traditional bat-swinging and punching-bag methods. We also added in some racing for the candy, then offered the broken piñata as a price to the person who had successfully demolished it. And we were quite pleased afterwards to hear many of the children announcing that piñata was their favorite activity of the day. A funny twist came the next day, when we took an outing to the town square to play a photo scavenger hunt. One team discovered, hanging from a tree in the square, one of these same piñata portions, proudly waving in the wind! That “star,” then, was an affirmation of the girls’ ability to collaborate and improvise well.
My second “star” stemmed from the morning hike we had taken the girls on, before the afternoon event had begun. I simply explained that I love the sorts of conversation and bonding that comes from outdoor excursions together, and that morning had been no exception. Another aspect of it that I had particularly enjoyed was realizing how many random tidbits of information there are to learn when. Nearing the top of the hill, I asked why there were so many graves up here. Turns out it is tradition to bury one’s ancestors in the hills, up where they will not be disturbed.
At another point in the hike, I saw more to ask about: the incense placed at the foot of some trees. One had a sign next to it, that my coworker told me read, roughly translated “Incense deposit for the Mountain Gods.” All in all, informational and relational aspects combined, a definite star-worthy hike in the hills!
Then came my “wish.” It was less of a wish, really, and more of a “hopeful expectation.” Every time there is this sort of intensive time together as a group, my favorite part of it is at the end, as everyone begins to share jokes and memories, realizing how close they have grown. Yes, my wish came true ☺
Most are now asleep. Some are reading. All are quiet—remarkably so considering the generally boisterous nature of this particular group. And some of us are mentally preparing ourselves for the next busy week of school that will arrive in a few short hours’ time.
As the bus arrives back at school, a few of us wait for straggling parents to arrive. Two girls sit on the sidewalk, perched on their backpacks as they share the headphones to one’s music. Looking at them, I ask, Are you tired? One looks up at me. “No. Just sad.” Sad it’s over? I ask. “Yeah.” I know, me too, I tell her. Me too.

on the trail again

April 4, 2013

P1070607I didn’t expect to find myself backpacking along a mountain’s edge in China. But then again, nor did I expect to be living in this country—and loving it, to boot. But here I am, and here we are, a now sun-soaked and smelly bunch, on the road back from the peak we summitted, overlooking the Gorge. This was the activity for one [small] group of us as we enjoy a week off from school. A short trip, really, with 2 overnight train rides and 3 days of the trip itself; but well worth the time and work of preparation. And definitely worth the hike!
Backpacking is an activity that is sort of reminiscence inspiring, transporting me to my high school years, when I did the most of it. I always loved the challenge of it, and the unique sort of bonding it promotes. I still do. But I think one other reason I decided to join this trip was that I needed, at this point in my life here, some sort of grounding activity—something that would give me hope of doing this thing, of living this life, here, now. So I did it, initially simply saying “Sure,” with a shrug, at the invitation. Then, as the venture neared, I let the thought of it settle in, and I grew more intentional about it. Nervous, albeit, about the unknown, as well as about the fact that I was [hopefully] fighting off a cold that my students had kindly shared with me the week before break began.
On the van ride up to the trailhead, we had a pit stop at a prayer lookout station on the mountain. There were blank slabs and markers available for visitors to write on. Though wondering if it were slightly sacrilegious, we decided to go ahead and add ours into the mix, wrongly religiously-inclined for the setting though they might be. “Hope for the future” is what I wrote, feeling those words epitomized my feelings about life right now.
The first day was the hardest one, so far as hiking intensity goes. In the guidebook we were warned about one section called the “28 Bends.” Since we had gone significantly faster than most of the estimates thus far, I had initially waved away the warned to “take it easy.” But as it turned out, it was in fact a very grueling stretch of steep bends. Musing at the name of it, once we had lost count of the actual number of bends we had passed, K commented that the Chinese word for “28” is actually a curse word in Korean. I wondered out loud if that was maybe the reason for the name: rather than indicating the actual number of bends, perhaps it is simply intended to be curse-word-provoking as you go? At one point in the stretch a roadside vendor offered snacks, drinks, and little bags of “mary jane.” The woman clearly indicated that we were not supposed to use our cameras here—we should simply buy. We turned her down, I’m afraid, and then laughed at the logic of the selling point, unanimous in our suspicion that reefer would not enhance one’s ability to conquer the peak.
At another section of this challenging stretch, as we encouraged each other along, one in our party suggested that we needed a team name. “Team VALECK?” I suggested, using the letters of each of our first names. Not a terribly inventive one, but it gets the point across. Later in the day, we had paused for a snack and drink break. As rain began to sprinkle on us and we wondered how long we had until reaching the stop for the night, “E” decided it was time to go. He gave a 30-second leaving warning. I was halfway through my rice-crispy-ish snack, enjoying how surprisingly tasty this street-shop find had turned out to be, so I was rather unwilling to rush on just then. “Can I request a 1-minute extension?” I asked. Begrudgingly, it was granted. Once we had started out again, I joked that I was going to be kicked off the team for delaying us. “E” considered this, and then decided that I should remain. “We need your vowel for our team name,” he explained. Whether or not this was a good reason to be kept on, I figured I should accept it.
Later on in the hike, we were to discover more important reasons for sticking together as a team. At some point during the night, one in our group got quite sick. Not wanting to disturb any of us, or the traveling companions sharing our backpackers’ hostel of 10 beds, she spent the night quietly getting up and going outside to the squatty. By morning she was weak, and still unable to keep anything down. We started out that morning but before long she just laid down by the side of the path and closed her eyes. During a quick pow pow, I mentioned that I had seen a road that looked like it came all the way to the place we had stayed the previous night; the reason it had stuck out to me, in fact, was that it was the first time I had seen anything other than just mountain paths. I thought maybe if we went back to the hostel, we might be able to get someone who could drive her out. Another in our party and I headed back to see, while the rest stayed there and waited. Sure enough, I was able to get a driver there within the half hour, before we even managed to get her back from where we had stopped. She was able to rest at the next stop until we hiked on to meet her, and by the end of the trip the bug had almost passed.
It’s funny the sorts of moments that stick out to you as memorable during excursions like this. The bulk of the time is actually spent, oftentimes, pushing oneself physically, for various reasons, be it the nature of the activity itself, the elements, or the cross-cultural challenges. But that parts that I tend to remember most vividly are the silly moments. Singing Disney songs together as we walk, for instance.
Or having a baby goat latch onto my fingers in suckling intensity—so much so that I was musing on the practicality of smuggling it home with me. Surely my cat wouldn’t mind too much having a household companion . . .
Or laughing with childlike glee at the sight of our thrown rocks cascading down the cliff, gaining speed as they bounce off each promontory.
Whatever one’s own variety of memorable moments may be, it is, I think, the moments that make a life. You spend the great portion of your moments, days, years, in mundane activity. But you cannot afford to pass up on special activities or events, no matter how impractical they may be. It is in the extraordinary that we find the meaning, and the relational community, that makes it all worthwhile.