Being ‘Miss Rumphius’

Glacier National Park and environs Gardens in front of East Glacier Lodge.
lupine flowers in full bloom

I’m not a parent, so I can’t say much about what makes “good parenting,” but I can tell you this: we read so many books as kids, and those books, with their poetry and pictures, still stick like stamps firmly in my mind.

The picture books especially remain close to my heart. Perhaps this is why I am a visual learner. Or, maybe I remember these books because I was too young to stay up late listening to my dad read The Hobbit to my older siblings. I still listened through the wall between my bedroom and the living room, but again, only pictures of scenes remain in my mind from that time.

There were many whose watercolors captivated me. My mother would read these books to me at bedtime, and I would half-listen as I lost myself in a sea of soft pastels. The books of Barbara Berger: Grandfather Twilight, When the Sun Rose, and The Donkey’s Dream were three of my regular favorites.  I loved falling asleep, dreaming of beautiful twilights and sunrises and friendships and visits. Thanks, Mrs. Berger, for giving me sweet dreams 🙂

A page from Grandfather Twilight, by Barbara Berger. (Philomel Books, NY, 1984).

But perhaps one of my very favorite childhood books, one that, as an adult, I find myself going back to in my mind again and again, is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius.

Miss Rumphius has a more involved plot than Berger’s books, and the main character’s journey along with the pictures, still captivates my heart.

The story is about a little girl who grows up and travels the world.

As a child, travelling far from home was never something I thought I could do; not because I was not capable, but I just didn’t think it was real. The places I read about in Miss Rumphius seemed like wonderful fantasies to me, like The Shire in Tolkein’s The Hobbit.

When I first moved to Israel, I felt this same captivation with every step I took. Every rock, every tree, every bus stop and plant and bowl of hummus was unique, precious, and undeniably extraordinary. Israel felt like a present God had given me to step outside of my own skin and into the pages of my favorite adventure story.

Of course, the unpleasant realities of politics and social clashes brought me out of that dream bubble, and I struggled with this clashing of my dreams and my reality the whole five and a half months I was there. But that’s a different story…

I always admired Miss Rumphius, not because she traveled, but because travel was not her ultimate goal. Miss Rumphius, in my opinion, was the first real backpacker. In the story, she hikes the Himalayas with a guide, rides camels in Egypt to the pyramids, and meets a local village elder on some tropical beach, somewhere in the world. She didn’t just lie on a beach getting seriously suntanned for two weeks and then go home (guilty as charged).

A page from Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982. The house on stilts in the background resembles traditional homes in many parts of the world today.

Don’t get me wrong–every once and a while, relaxing on a beach for a week in the sun can be a glorious thing. But my point is that all these places she visited, people she met, and adventures she had were real. They were not fantasies. They were very real experiences that await many travelers today. But there’s something about her poise and grace that always fascinated me. Maybe it had to with the fact that she rode that camel side saddle and wearing a girdle. (Did I forget to mention that the book is set a century ago?) Or maybe, as a woman in 1915, it would have been nearly impossible for her to do what she did. But in the book, she did it. And she did by her own fortitude.

Yet, she also had the wisdom to come back to her own corner of the world after her travels were finished. In the story, Miss Rumphius becomes a librarian (probably yet another reason why I love this book).

And then she grows old.  And she lives in a house by the sea.

But before she passes away, she has something left to do. In the story, her grandfather told Miss Rumphius these words as a little girl:

You must do something to make the world more beautiful.

So she does. She rides her bike through her little seaside town and scatters lupine seeds everywhere, so that, come next spring, fields of lupine flowers suddenly spring up all over town.

Have you ever seen lupine flowers?

I love them, because they are wild and free and vibrant. Just like Miss Rumphius.

 Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney. Viking Books, 1982.

Home

It’s that time of year again.

Yes, it’s spring time, and somewhere outside of Bangkok there are flowers blooming. But the time I’m referring to is decision time. Transition time.

I have always associated the months of March, April and May with stress, stress, stress. As a student, this is crunch time: exams, final projects, papers, recitals, formals, etc. etc. etc.

But on top of that, at the end of spring comes the highly anticipated yet simultaneously dreaded summer break, which we are taught must be for furthering our still kind of amorphous career aspirations. Get an internship! Volunteer! Go abroad! Then come with just enough time to kiss your family and head back to school.

Man, I’m glad that’s over…

Except, here it is again, nearing the end of March, and it’s my decision time again.

Do I stay in Bangkok?

Do I stay in Thailand?

Do I go home?

I admit that, as thoughts of summer time pools and hugging my dogs fill my mind, I get so overwhelmed that I want to pack my bags right now and hop on the first plane to Tennessee.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I’m not exactly homesick, or even nostalgic. I’m just trying to find my place. Sometimes, I think home is my only place.

I thought about home, and what it means to different people. A line from the Hobbit [movie, unfortunately] popped into my head as a young Bilbo Baggins admits to his courageous friends “I do miss home. I miss my books. And my armchair.”

I feel ya, Bilbo.

Everyone around me is soaring off on grand adventures and making wild summer plans, and I just want to go home. Not because I’m lonely, or unhappy, or disappointed. I just love home.

Yet the word “home” also stirs up something else in my mind: a popular song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, bearing the same name. When I studied abroad in Israel a few years ago, this song became our anthem; not only because we were young students half way around the world, but because home, in Israel, is a contested thing, not always permanent, and often transitory.

I struggled with homesickness a lot in Israel, and my close friend and counselor reminded me of the lyrics of this song:

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

He doesn’t say “home is a two story brick house in Mississippi with a front porch swing and a lot of dust bunnies.”

Anyone who’s moved a lot can tell you that a home is much, much more than the infrastructure; it’s the people.

And though my biological family isn’t in Bangkok, God has given me many satellite families. He has a way of bringing everything together in ways that are impossible by ourselves.

With men, this is impossible.
But with God, all things are possible.
Matthew 19:26

I’ve been blessed with many friends and new family members who, like me, have uprooted themselves and replanted in a crazy new country. A very wise friend  reminded me recently that “lemongrass and celery plants” can regrow in a new pot one they are uprooted and replanted.

Maybe this is us, she thinks. Uproot, replant, grow. This is the transition time, which comes from the decisions we make that we may never be completely confident in. But somehow, God keeps giving us soil, water, and sunlight. We just have to have faith.

Living Inside the Outside

What happens when you move into the outside of your comfort zone??

Having passed the six month bench mark of living in Thailand (actually, I’m going on month EIGHT already…amazing..), I recently found myself in a self-prescribed “funk.” After the country-hopping adventures of Christmas break, I was back into teaching, finding myself caught up in a routine of “get up, go to class, come home, eat, sleep, repeat.” I was reminded of the late David Foster Wallace’s college graduation speech given at Kenyon back in 2005 on the importance of remembering to look up from the steering wheel every once and a while to appreciate where you are.

Even though I am in a different country, I still fell victim to that nasty habit of taking everything for granted and becoming weary of the everyday, the “mundane;” the repetitiveness of work and the pressures of life got to me. I was “in a funk.”

So what do you do when you suddenly move into the outside of your comfort zone? What do you do when everything that was new and strange becomes normal, routine, and slightly predictable?

I struggled to answer this question. For a few weekends I hibernated, shut the world out, watched Youtube videos and ate bowls of noodles. And sometimes, a girl just needs a curry-noodle-Boy-Meets-World kind of weekend. I’m okay with that.

Me on a Friday afternoon.

But eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok, because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I’m noticing after many years, I tend to do.

Fortunately, life has a way of meeting you where you are, grabbing your hand and pulling you along when you least expect it and most need it. And, by the Grace of God, I found amazing ways to cope. I reached out to friends who, it turned out, were experiencing similar feelings. Together we vowed to make the most of our time here, and a few weeks later, I can honestly say that things are picking up with amazing speed!

It was not an easy transition–but I wonder if any transition is easy. But, when you pick up your head long enough to realize “this is water,” you will be amazed at what you can discover. So, in my case, I decided to take a walk down a street I had never been down before, and guess what I discovered?

WATER!

Yes. I had been staying with a friend in a local area of the city, and last Friday night I found myself alone and on the cusp of another “funk.” So I left the apartment to go to 7-11 for some milk, but instead, I turned right instead of left and set out on a nice, long, solo walk.

I began to notice things I had never noticed before, like coffee shops and karaoke bars (no surprise there), apartment buildings and even a university–who knew?  Then, I came to a bustling, unpaved intersection with no hope of crossing it. So I watched the cars and semi-trucks whiz past me at break neck speed, and I thought to myself “this is so different from home.” And I was happy. I was happy to be looking at a traffic scene, witnessing a cross-section of local lives before which point I had never come into contact. And I felt different…calmer…more accepting of my current reality.

Finally, when the traffic ceased, I raced across the road and continued my journey. It did not last very long, because I came to a dead end. How strange, I thought, that this seemingly busy road suddenly dead-ends. Why would it do that? I could have just turned back and accepted this peculiarity, but I was not ready to go home. So I kept walking, and that’s when I discovered the pier.

There’s a PIER at the end of my street. A pier, where boats and water taxis come and go, where people get on and off and are swept away down the Chao Praya into other pockets of Bangkok, unbeknownst to little ole ignorant me. Of course none of these occurrences depended on me seeing them; they, like everything else God made, existed before and without me. Yet to me, this pier is  special, because I learned something very valuable that night.

I never have to accept things just as they are, or resign myself to the fact that “this is all there is,” because “this” is never all there is. Somewhere down the street, there is a boat dock waiting to float me down another river I never even knew existed.

The Truth About Teaching ESL Overseas

Celebrating the End of the Semester with Fire and Sand.

Hi everyone! Well, I made it. I began teaching at my university outside of Bangkok, Thailand on August 18 (incidentally, that was the same day I became an aunt for the first time). Except for that one glorious week in Chiang Mai, I’ve been going straight through since August–21 hours of college teaching plus office work, planning, grading, and a few major minor meltdowns. But finally, the grades are turned in, the exams are done, and I’ve spent the last two days making good use of nap times. I think I’ve even managed to learn a thing or two in the process. I say these things not to complain, but to give you a little insight into what teaching abroad actually is, and what it is not.

First, teaching is harder than it looks. It’s exhausting. Most weekdays, I’m up early, shoving books in my bag and coffee down my throat as I rush out the door and pray I didn’t forget anything. Usually I do. It took me a few months to actually understand what I was supposed to be doing, and a lot of times I felt like I was naked on a big stage: thirty pairs of eyes were staring at me, often accompanied by raised or furrowed brows. Often I got the sense that they had no idea what I was saying. This really is true, and it’s one of the most difficult parts of this job, I think. At its core, when you’re teaching EFL in a setting where students have had limited exposure to listening and speaking, and they’re being taught by someone like, oh, me who can’t speak their language, there is so much confusion. I often had to repeat my directions three or four or five times, explain it individually to some students during class and again after class, and still they didn’t always understand. Of course, part of this could just be because some students simply didn’t care to learn. That’s a whole other frustration in and of itself. But I’ve learned that–and I recall this when I was living with Hebrew and Arabic speakers in Israel–what is often said in English from someone who is studying the language is not what is meant. The underlying meaning gets misconstrued, lost in translation, and you’re left often with apathy, hurt feelings or worse. It’s a very confusing thing.

At the same time, this job has taught me so much about the nature of human communication. I use my own language for many different things. When I’m teaching, I am communicating rudimentary English for the purpose of learning a skill, yet when I talk to other English speaking friends, I find myself casually slipping into relaxed, comfortable conversation with silly metaphors and idioms and all sorts of convoluted talk. I’ve really come to value that time, because it requires less thinking and more feeling.

One thing I have definitely learned is that teaching abroad is not a vacation, not by a long shot. It’s a real job with commitments and superiors and evaluations and meetings and clocking in and out (still not sure why I have to do that for a salaried position, but when in Rome…). It means getting up early and wearing pleated skirts and holding my tongue. I’m starting to realize that this is part of life, and no matter where I might be in the world, there will always be meetings, forms to fill out and boxes to check off. I will somehow always be an employee of someone or something (God willing!). This is something I struggled with, not necessarily because I was in Thailand, but because I was coming from a world of getting-away-with-so-many-ridiculous-things-because-I-was-in-college-and-anything-goes.

Still, words cannot express how happy and equally frustrated my students and this job made me this semester, in the best possible way. I feel a bit more like a working adult; I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But I’m looking forward to another long semester with new faces, names, personalities, games, laughs, failures, tears and hopefully some A’s and smiles along the way…

One of my awesome English II classes. The peace sign fingers are standard practice in pictures over here 🙂

To celebrate the end of classes, I FINALLY went to the beach. I drove a few hours south with some friends to the island of Koh Samet. Now, it wasn’t as picturesque and isolated as I had hoped…at least, not at first. We arrived by speedboat to a very cramped and crowded stretch of sand, tourists and seafood restaurants. I was overwhelmed at first, but thanks to some clever navigating by the lovely Mild, one of our group, we managed to find some really picturesque pieces of sand and sun..

Ok, so maybe I enhanced the colors, but I didn’t enhance the scenery. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was standing in the middle of a postcard. We spent two glorious nights in Samet, playing in the waves during the day and eating seafood by night. The beach at nighttime is quite surreal. As soon as the sun begins to set and the tide goes out, workers come and lay straw mats, pillows and cushions and tables on the sand and open up their evening restaurants. All the tourists (and some Thai families on vacation) flock to them, order drinks and food and watch the waves crash upon the sand. At least, they do until these guys show up:
Cambodian/Thai fire dancers on the beach.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but these are young men swinging flaming batons around their bodies. They come out in brigades of ten or twelve once the sun sets and the darkness can offset their flames. They light up their batons and twirl them, throwing them hundreds of feet in the air and catching them–sometimes on the flaming end. I recall running my own fingers through flames in church as a child and marveling at how they didn’t burn. Sometimes, they stand on each other’s shoulders as they twirl. One of the nights, I saw a flame-lit jump rope. It’s astounding and scary.

Samet, like many things about Thailand, possesses so much natural beauty and so much commercial tourism in one nice, neat little package. And yet somehow, you can’t help but get sucked into the relaxation it poses to your tired body, especially when the moon is out.

Koh Samet’s restaurants and waves under the full moon.

Maybe I’m a sucker for beautiful things. But if so, I think I’m in the right place. Merry Christmas everyone.

Love,
Mel