My 9th grade language learners started reading Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and The Sea” for one simple reason: I found a free downloadable bilingual copy online, thanks to China not really caring about America’s copyright rule.
Actually, I’m intrigued by Hemingway as many Michiganders are, as he hung out where I do in the summers, near Charlevoix. Plus, Hemingway has a writing style that, according to Faulkner, “Has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” AKA: easy for language learners.
And finally– as if writing this blog post was in the style of a three point essay–I wanted to read the short story because of my personal affinity with the long snouted fish: I was bequeathed a seven foot marlin caught by my aunt who was barely five feet tall.
If you haven’t read the classic, let me condense it into a tweet: an old man is obsessed with catching a huge marlin after going 84 days without getting a nibble.
If you haven’t read about my marlin, click here.
When I told my students that I had a marlin, they put down their cell phones.
“Did you bring it to China?”
“No. It didn’t have a Visa.”
“Did you eat it?”
“Where is it?”
“Hanging on the wall of a Mexican restaurant in Northern Wisconsin.” I didn’t go into the details on how it migrated north of Chicago because of a divorce that’s getting as ridiculous as the final season of LOST. Their questions continued:
“Is there meat in it?”
“No. the meat is gone.”
“Did you catch it?”
“No,” I paused, savoring the teaching moment, “It was caught by a woman about the size of a fourth grader but almost my age.”
After I stopped blubbering, I asked my students about what was their marlin, in other words, what was the big fish or problem they were trying to overcome. Students wrote:
“Biology is the fish I am trying to tackle.”
“Speech class isn’t a marlin, it’s a whale!”
“Pressure from my parents.”
As we started talking about dreams and perseverance, I realized the story wasn’t just for my students, it was for me.
As I’ve been forced to reinvent myself at midlife with not much more than a wok and Chinese translator, I wonder if some of my dreams have past their expiration date. Publish that manuscript? Go back to school? Find the “other fish in the sea” that my dad promised was out there in the part of the world where Westerners flock for young Asian wives?
Yeah, right. And while you’re at it Ginger, reel in world peace and clean Chinese public johns.
Then I thought of the seven foot marlin that my four foot aunt reeled in.
Or the old ladies carrying washers on their backs.
Nothing is impossible unless of course, you don’t try.
A fellow teacher knows a lady in a village outside of Kunming with breast cancer, The cancer spread throughout her body. This poor woman couldn’t afford a doctor and hospitals don’t have palliative care. After her brittle arm turned sour with gangrene, the woman amputated her own arm.
OK. I understand if this brave woman just wants to go for a boat ride for the rest of her days. But the rest of us? We should give it our all just because we can.
Keep on casting out that line.
Guandu Old Town is just a few miles away from where I live in Kunming, but it’s also a million light years back in time. If you go on a Sunday, you’ll witness China’s version of American Idol.
Traditional Chinese ballads are sung.
Women dress in their Sunday best and listen.
Bored husbands smoke bongs.
Young ladies stitch shoes.
Cute Baby of the Day.
They brought their own seats.
These guys got a table with a two drink minimum.
It was standing room only.
She reminded me of my mom, right down to how she could use her belly as an arm rest. Her name, Bergitta, a retired librarian from Sweden who happened to be staying at my home-stay in Luang Prabang. She wasted no time.
“Would you like to teach monks how to speak English?”
“Excuse me?” I came to this city to see elephants.
“Teach monks English. You can come with me tomorrow. Join me. I’ll have a tuk-tuk waiting at nine.”
So, I had a new itinerary.
Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos, literally means “Royal Buddha Image”. So I guess when in Royal Buddha, do as the Royal Buddhas do. Or, as a retired librarian orders:
You end up giving back to yourself.
The tuk tuk bumped over the lumpy pavement to the Big Mouse Language School, a nook and cranny of a building that teaches both English and Laos. Children book titles cover the cracked walls. There are no desks, just plastic chairs and lots of students.
Bergitta waves her cane,“If you want to give a novice a pen, you must place it on a table. As a woman, you can’t touch them, you know.”
Well, I didn’t know but I did now.
“What do I teach them?”
“Just get a conversation going.”
So I sit in a plastic chair and within moments, I’m surrounded by three monks. Actually, novices or monkettes–j boys living in the Monastery. Their saffron robes dwarf their bodies, their heads clean shaven, a smile plastered on each face.
One joined monastery to dedicate his life to Buddhism, the other two for intense schooling. One pulls a crumpled list of words out of his monk satchel: hazardous, carpet, operation, wonder
I wonder what questions I’m going to ask.
Novices aren’t supposed to have passion for material things from basketball to riding bikes, which made asking questions challenging. I couldn’t ask what their favorite breakfast cereal was, as these partook in Sai Bat at dawn every morning, walking in silence on the street and receiving globs of sticky rice from regular people.
That was after their morning hour of chanting. They end up giving me a quick lesson in mediation.
Another Shade of Orange
My mind rewinds to a month earlier. I’m in Bangkok, Christmas Eve and I can’t sleep. Why? Laughter and the smell of grilled chicken are seeping through my window.
I go down stairs to see what’s going on.
It’s the workers at massage parlor next to my hotel. Yes, that kind of massage. They are also dressed in orange, but not modest robes. Spandex dresses. Things popping out of both ends. Chang beer bottles are littered between a pile of platform heels.
“Merry Christmas!” I announce instead of, “SHUT UP!!!!”
One passes me her plastic cup and splashes in some red wine.
“Merry Christmas,” she smiles.
Everyone else puts down their glass.
All eyes are on me.
I didn’t want to know what her lips had touched before that plastic glass. It would be insulting not accept it. So I prayed to God that only Holiday Greetings would be passed as I poured it down my hatch.
Fifteen years earlier. Another shade of Orange.
I’m watching the nightly news when I hear Tom Brokaw stumble over the name of a kid I knew. I turn up the volume. On the screen appears Nikko in an orange jump suit and handcuffs. Nikko, a teen from my old youth group. The teen too tall to fit in my car. The teen who taught me about Tupak. The teen who used, “please and thank you”. He was facing prison charges for having unprotected sex with a girl, knowing he had HIV. I thought about other kids I knew who ended up in orange peels. I added Nikko to that prayer list.
A saffron robe. A spandex dress. Orange peels.
Three shades of orange put on my path like three safety cones on the highway, forcing me to detour my plans. To accept those who are different. To help and remember others. And along the way, help ourselves.
We’re not on this road alone.
I thanked Bergitta a gazillion times for making me miss my elephant tour then went to the Mouse every day to tutor more kids, some novices, some college students, all orange cones on my path.
“ “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” – Albert Pine
If you want to teach English at Big Brother Mouse while in Luang Prabang, Laos, click here.
I didn’t go to Vientiane to snap selfies by a old temple but to visit COPE. It’s an organization dedicated to help those who have lost legs due to landmines.
Back Story: The landmine problem is still real. During the Vietnam War, American planes dropped their unused payload of bombs in Loas as it was too dangerous to land with them. Millions of tennis ball sized landmines. It reminds me of my home town’s annual 4th of July celebration when a small airplane would drop ping pong balls for kids to gather, a name of a local merchant scribbled on one. But instead of scoring a Hershey bar from Midway Bait and Tackle Shop, kids in Laos could lose a leg. Millions of landmines still litter the beautiful countryside, which interferes with building schools, road construction or planting an extra row of corn.
Tourist sites throughout Loas have red and green flags to alert visitors what areas have been swept for landmines.
MAG, Mines Authority Group, goes around Loas to detonate the landmines hoping to find them before children do. Each year, MAG loses a few volunteers.
The COPE Visitor Center is a mixture of sobering facts and innovative artwork, including mobiles made from old prosthetic legs.
Comments in the guest book were sobering.
I left the center knowing that there are a lot of good people in the world and a lot of things worse than a middle seat on a flight.
I also took the road less taken for eating in Vientiane. This sleepy town has some serious cuisine as it was part of French Indochina. There are awesome coffee shops with bread that actually tastes like bread so pack some Nutella. But the best part? Not one Starbucks.
For dinner, I passed up the chocolate fodant and Burgundian poached duck egg to dine at a photocopy shop and restaurant combo.
Then I passed on the pig organ soup and went for the Pad Thai and “copy of my passport” special.
I wonder what Robert Frost would’ve ate.
If you make it to Laos, get your temple ya-yas in Luang Prabang. Visit the Cope Center in Vientiane. COPE runs on donations. Just giving up a latte a month could make a big difference in someone’s life.
So at church yesterday, a young couple asked for prayer. For a few years, they’ve been trying to adopt a Chinese baby –a process riddled with as much red tape as the Great Wall is long. As they told their tear jerking story, the couple shared how another family is considering adopting the same child.
“Everyone, will you please pray for this family!” the pastor requested.
A lot of folks got up and prayed, others stretched out their hands and prayed from their seats.
Meanwhile, at a small church on the other side of the world, another family was asking for prayer. They too were standing in front of their congregation sharing a story about a Chinese baby they want to adopt, the process riddled with red tape, the child being the same baby girl.
I scratched my head and pondered,
So, who do I pray for, the couple at my church or the other family who wants the child?
Will God answer prayers for couple A or couple B? Will the couple with the most prayers get the baby, like votes on American Idol?
I don’t think so.
Now I’m not a theologian. My Bible training consists of a few summers of Vacation Bible School so take that in mind when you read this post. But I do know God is not Amazon Prime where you can put in a prayer request and get what you want with free delivery.
Prayer is not about getting what you want, but getting the strength to deal with whatever life throws you. Which, usually ain’t the things in your prayer shopping cart.
There are lots of verses in the Bible about prayer, many contradict each other. Some imply God is a celestial vending machine: if you ask for something in prayer and believe you receive it. It could be a job, romance or even a parking spot near Wrigley Field.
But other verses, like the Lord’s Prayer, teach us to pray for God’s will, not our own. You have to have faith God will take care of you when your month lasts longer than your pay check and when you have to find your own parking spot. God will be with you even when the best doctors don’t have the best news. This is the tougher prayer. The why-do-I-even-believe-in-God-if-I-can’t-get-what-I-want-prayer.
Divorce taught me that there’s a difference between praying and wishful Amazon.god thinking. The wish was that my marriage would have a Julia Roberts movie ending where Richard Geer shows up with a dozen roses in a limo. Well, it didn’t. But prayer taught me that God will walk through the rubble.
The tragedies of my life are probably peanuts to yours. Maybe you’re in urban ministry dealing with kids killed every day. Or you’re working in a clinic in Africa where three-year-olds care for their younger siblings. Or you have of a loved one diagnosed with a condition you cannot pronounce. Or maybe you’re praying for a child to adopt.
So what do you pray for after you give thanks for your food? Do you pray God removes your burdens or that He walks with you, helping you carry that load?
I don’t know. Amazon’s Alexa doesn’t, either. I’m hoping some of you do.