Sunday, August 25, 2013

Telling Stories is Life

When I was a preschooler, Mom told me many stories of her life before marriage and America.

In the early 1950's phone calls were prohibitively expensive, which eliminated casual chats by phone. You can imagine what a tribulation the inability to engage in the kind of casual conversation that teenagers and young adults enjoy would have been for my not yet 25-year old highly extroverted mother. Mom has never met a store clerk or restaurant worker with whom she couldn't immediately build rapport and share a life story.

Letters posted internationally took months to traverse the oceans, sometimes reaching their destinations, but often getting delayed permanently. Mom said, "I cried when I received a letter from home," and "I cried when there was no letter from home." Loneliness and depression received no attention, although some people were acknowledged to have suffered "nervous breakdowns." Mom, whose grandfather was a Christian in their Chinese village, eventually asked Dad to introduce her to a Christian church so that she would have a place to go to talk to God.

Women who married and left their homelands like my mother had no one else to talk to except their children. Mom talked to me, because I was the eldest, a precocious girl child, and someone who had an interest in stories "from my mother's mouth (a phrase my own daughter articulated almost four decades later)." I learned the stories of the Monkey God, the White Snake Goddess, and the Moon Goddess. I also learned the stories of my mother's family.

Mom grew up in an affluent, land and business owning family, the eldest child of eight children who survived. The family had servants in the house and workers in the fields and shops. They even had bonded servants, what we in America would call indentured servants, and what Mom sometimes refers to as slaves.

When queried by me for clarification, Mom adamantly declared, "We owned them." But they also loved and cared for them. Mom's own personal body servant was a child of 7 or 8 when Mom was a teenager. Mom recounts taking care of and washing the dirty feet of her child-servant, because she was personally responsible for that child-servant's care and training to grow up to become a servant to the family.

The relationship between owners and servants was complicated, intertwined with generations of familial bonds and some flux in marriages up and down the social ladder. In the final analysis, my father's mother's family were servants in the household of my mother's father's family. In reality, my mother married "down" by marrying my father. But in times of impending war following the communist takeover, who was counting?

My father's mother made my mother's life very difficult here in America, not only because a daughter-in-law is valued less than dirt, but also because of the inverted familial and owner-servant relationships. Years later, I would intervene with the "old ladies" of my mother's generation to speak up for my own sister-in-law, my youngest brother's widow, who was being victimized by the older generation of female relations, who were simply and maliciously living into the meme of daughters-in-law being valued less than dirt.

When the communists took over China, my mother's family lost everything. The social strata were overturned. The men fled the country first in fear for their lives. The women and children last. My mother's mother and infant brother were held by the communists for a year before being allowed to flee to Hong Kong to join the rest of the family. Our family has no family heirlooms or photographs from the earlier days. Everything from that time is gone, except for the stories.

Meanwhile, my father and mother sent a portion of Dad's earnings as a Chinese restaurant cook and Mom's earnings as a janitor for a Chinatown tenement house to Hong Kong to support Mom's parents and seven younger siblings. We as a family know from firsthand experience that wealth and social position are chimera, here for a moment and then gone forever.

We know the value of family ties and the strength that sticking together as a family gives every individual family member. Refugees and immigrants are actually strengthened by our lack of ties to superficial types of connectors such as heirlooms and photographs. The most important connectors are the relationships, which cannot be severed by distance or time.

Today, Mom, her relations several times removed, and her childhood friends who have not been in each other's presence for over sixty years chat on the phone regularly. Mom talks to friends in Australia, Hong Kong, Europe, Canada, Mexico, South America, and the United States. They exchange phone numbers and gladly spend their meager Social Security monies and savings on international calling cards. Because telling and retelling the stories keep us alive.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Loneliness in Abundance

When we got into the car this evening to drive to dinner with son Corin and his family, Mom surprised Herb and me by announcing matter-of-factly that she is grateful to us for "taking her in" and "generously keeping the refrigerator filled with food" - her words.

I am Mom's only daughter and the eldest child. Herb and I began our relationship in Honolulu and lived there in an Asian-Pacific culture for over fifteen years. Of course, my mother, our only living elder, would come to live with us. Where else would she live?

Even when Mom makes me crazy, I fully honor the fact that we invited her to make our home her home. The values of fairness and respect for Mom's right to live under our roof trump my selfish thoughts and selfish feelings.

Mom has thanked us before for inviting her to live with us, but this particular pronouncement arises out of her recent California visit. While there, Mom spent hours in "girl talk" with Aunt Lily and Aunt Sally, reminiscing about earlier years spent raising children and gossiping about friends and relations from their common past. Their stories put into stark relief for her the loneliness that many elders they have known experience on a daily basis.

Mom's weekly outings to the Longmont Senior Center over the past thirteen years have also put her face-to-face with the way that other elders live. Each time another elder gets shipped off by adult children who live in another state to a nursing or assisted living facility elsewhere in Colorado, Mom tells me about it.

I can recall each of those stories, and they make me very sad. In many cases, the elder died soon after moving into a facility and losing contact with her friends at the Senior Center.

Sometimes, Mom and her friends attempt to visit the elders in their new living situations, but often, the distance is just too far along 75-mile per hour highways for them to make the trip safely. Forty miles to an unfamiliar town may as well be an all day drive for elders who drive regularly only to the supermarket, the Senior Center, and the doctor's office.

I often forget that I was enculturated Chinese, which emphasizes collective values over individualistic values. I am lucky that Herb has incorporated the collective values of the Asian-Pacific culture of Hawaii and is genuinely at ease in our family system that is largely based on my Chinese enculturation.

I frequently ponder how it is that this entire first world nation has arrived at the notion that we all should desire to live alone with multiple bedrooms and personal automobiles, and that we all should value most highly the right to make decisions alone without consulting those we love and who love us. I think it's known as independence, but I just wonder . . .

The Seductive Illusion of Control

The past week has been spent in preparing for and then enduring the replacement of the original tiled kitchen countertops with granite slabs. We started this project in 2010, and I promptly fell into a massive procrastination mindset that lasted until this summer. The instigation for action was my brother's road trip with Mom to visit family in Southern California.

I began to write a recitation of all the steps to get ready for the new granite and got depressed. Suffice it to say that nothing about home improvement projects is easy, everything takes more time than planned, and I now know my way around four hardware stores in three towns. Oh, and the workmen broke the glass rangetop. I get that these are first world problems.

I have illusions of being in control of things like my house and my kitchen. Although I get my illusions dashed regularly, I am too stubborn to let go of them. They're my illusions, and I like them.

We invited my mother to live with us when we moved here in 2000, and we invited my brother to live with us two years ago. We have a friend with brain damage who has spent almost every weekday with us for years and helps with handyman jobs. Besides Herb and me, they all have free rein in the kitchen, and their imprints show up everywhere, from the food that's in the refrigerator to what's on the kitchen counters. Most of the time, I am okay with sharing "my" kitchen, but I get cranky sometimes. 

What I've discovered about my behavior and my attitudes, more than once because I'm a slow learner, is that when I get cranky, my body acts out. It's called biofeedback. So, right now, my carpal tunnel is talking to me, and I am communing with the time-release B-6.

I learned that control is illusory years ago as a young supervisor with equally young employees who were still learning how to be working adults. I learned that lesson raising two children who told me in myriad ways that "you're not the boss of me." 

I continue to learn that lesson as I try to finish up this kitchen project and negotiate with everyone else about when and how things will get done. Mostly, they all want to move faster than me, because they aren't hampered by the crippling control illusions that I harbor that prevent me from moving as fast as they want to go. 

I suspect the universe will continue to give me these lessons until I finally learn the lesson. I sure hope it's soon.

Breathe. Breathe. Live.

The intensity of real life as a Christian church volunteer leader has stolen my "free time." I have relinquished my time, bit by bit, willingly, because it feels irresponsible not to.

I do not feel important. I feel alone.

The concepts of "stepping up" and "representing" are a burden that falls upon leaders of color for a host of reasons. Making the decision to step up and represent are ultimately about a profound, deeply rooted, sense of responsibility and an embrace of sacrifice.

In this fiftieth year anniversary of important events from the American Civil Rights Movement, we are reminded of the ultimate sacrifices of martyrs who gave their lives for equal rights that we still haven't gained for everyone in this country.

My eyes are wide open, and flecked with occasional tears . . . if I allow myself the luxury of sadness. I believe that the business of Christian leaders is to give hope and to encourage new generations to engage the hope-giving business. Hope is the fuel of movements.

I have a strong work ethic, probably an understatement, and often work without ceasing, or at least, it feels that way. I also confess to taking substantial amounts of time to vege, to fall into a stupor of inactivity, because my 64-year old body just can't take the amount of work that I want to pursue everyday. Sleep does come, even when I strive to chase it away.

The time that I have sacrificed is writing time, and I am ready to write again.

I have engaged in considerable reflection while "doing" these past months. The direction of my reflection has been on issues of identity and the intersectionalities that differentiate people's senses of identity in geographically bounded communities.

I've been thinking about effective ways to break into comfortable cadres of privileged Christian leaders so that "the other" has an equal place at the table. I've been focused on the cultural differences in conversation styles in collective versus individualistic societies and how to help leaders bridge those differences in practical ways.

And I am reminding myself and you to make and enjoy many cups of tea . . .

Namaste. I greet you in the beauty that is life. Breathe. Breathe. Live.