Category Archives: life on the foreign field

Gold

I thought Mae Hong Son province was at its finest in June when the clouds and mist hung low over the greening mountains.

But these days, I think differently. The rainy season is mostly past, and the days are beginning to be cooler now. The vibrant green has faded slightly, only slightly, and other colors are starting to emerge: browns, oranges and yellows. And still the mists come in the morning.

credit: Amy Smucker

Amy and I drove to the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho, in Khun Yuam district yesterday. There are over 500 rai (1 rai is about .4 of an acre) of small sunflowers (similar to what we would call Texas sunflowers at home) that bloom every November and are one of the largest tourist attractions in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. I have heard several rumors of how the sunflowers were planted there, one being that it was a royal project by the queen, and another that they were introduced by missionaries.

We left after right after school yesterday, after a very odd week of teaching online, in which we only taught two full days since the students were getting vaccinated and tested for Covid before the planned onsite date of Nov 22. I was feeling very restless by the suffocating feeling that occurs from this kind of schedule and was very ready to see some different scenery instead of the inside of the office at school.

It took us about 2 hours by bike and by the time we got to Khun Yuam, it was dark and getting cold. Or cold to be on a bike. We were trying to reach our destination before it got pitch dark, so we didn’t stop to watch the full moon rising slowly over the eastern mountains. But it was there on the edge of our sights constantly as we maneuvered the curves and hills in the semi-twilight.

We slept at the empty house of a friend in Khun Yuam and left for the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho early this morning.  There is something intoxicating about being out in the mountains on a motorbike in the early morning. It has to be intoxicating to induce me to set my alarm clock for before 6:00 on a Saturday morning.

I want to write about how the colors glowed, and how the gold of the sunflowers looked from the distance over patchworked fields, and how the sun popped through the clouds and how the sea of fog in the distance looked and it felt to weave along the curving roads in the middle of a November sunrise.

But I don’t know how to write it. I feel lost. I only know to say that there is something excruciatingly beautiful about the way rolling fields of sunflowers look on a backdrop of blue and black mountains that layer their way to the horizon and then touch a deep blue morning sky edged with clouds.

So I will say it with pictures. I believe they will tell the story better than I can.

“There’s gold in them thar hills.”

Walking up to the first lookout
Amy
Me
Our trusty steed that carried us all the way up and balked only once on a steep level. Amy had to get off and walk while I labored on up the hill in 1st gear.
Our breakfast “Yom Gai Saep” or Spicy Chicken Salad.

In Which She Addresses Some Frequently Asked Questions

On my recent visit home, I realized through various conversations how little many people know of what I am doing here. I realize this is a breach in my communication, since I have not done as well in communicating as I did several years ago. Below are some of the questions I am often asked as well as questions I am often asked from Thai people.

Are you in the mountains?

Many people know my dream of living in the mountains. The answer is, right now, no, I am not exactly living in the mountains, but I am surrounded by them. We live in a narrow river valley about 2 miles wide. Just behind our house, the mountains start again. Mae Sariang, the town we live in, is approximately 35 kilometers from the Thai/Burma border, but because of bad roads would probably take close to 2 hours to reach. Mae Sariang is about 4 hours from Chiang Mai and about half of that is through mountains. Many, many surrounding villages come to Mae Sariang for supplies and medical care. Mae Sariang is located in the Mae Hong Son province.

How big is Mae Sariang?

It’s a little hard to say since it is a district that is stretched out pretty widely, with about 7 subdistricts. The total population of the district is about 50,000, as of 2010, according to Wikipedia. The actual town, or municipality, of Mae Sariang, I would venture to make an educated guess of 15-20 thousand people. However, it is very difficult to see where the town starts and stops and where one village starts and stops, at times. Dotted all around the surrounding mountains are also many small villages.

Do you live by yourself?

No. My good friend Amy Smucker arrived in June. We teach together at the same school. Amy had lived in Thailand before this, so she was not a stranger to the language or the culture.

Are you paid or are you a volunteer?

We are both paid teachers, but we teach on half the salary normally paid a foreign teacher. This was due to a prior agreement, in which the school agreed to hire both of us for the price of one, since I did not want to live by myself, and the other schools I had contacted did not have the financial means to hire a teacher.

What subjects do you teach?

English. This is not English as we learned it in school, but English as a foreign language. This would be similar to students in America studying Spanish. English teaching in Asia is in HIGH demand and foreign native English speakers are seen as having magical capabilities to instill language abilities in students without even having to try. (This is a myth).

What age students do you teach?

I teach grades 10, 11, and 12. Amy teaches students from all levels between 7-12.

How many students do you have?

Approximately 600 students. This term I have 17 teaching slots. I meet each class once a week. Do I like this set up? Not necessarily, but they want each student to study with a foreign teacher once a week, because of the above-mentioned myth.

How big is the school?

It is the district high school, and students from other districts also attend. There are about 1700 students in the high school. This is the main school in the area that boasts grades from 10-12 so many students come from other areas. (Most area high schools only go to grade 9).

How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?

Indefinitely. In other words, until God says, Move.

What kind of qualifications do you need to work in Thailand?

To get a work visa, you need a bachelor’s degree in any field. To get a temporary teaching license, you need that degree. To get a permanent teaching license, you need a bachelor’s degree in education, or a Master’s in education, or another certification in education that is approved by the Teacher’s Council of Thailand.

Do you see James or Amanda often? (friends who are both from my home church and are both currently living in Chiang Mai.)

No, not very often. Under normal circumstances, Amy and I would be travelling to Chiang Mai once a month to attend INVEST meetings and church at IGo Christian Fellowship. Because of Covid restrictions that discourage travel, and due to the fact that we both work at a large high school that could be shut down were we to bring Covid to Mae Sariang, we have not been traveling to Chiang Mai for these meetings.

What are Covid 19 restrictions like there?

We are required to wear masks whenever in public. In Mae Hong Son, there is a 20,000 baht fine for not wearing a mask, which is over 600 USD. (Most Thai people do not complain about wearing masks since wearing a mask is something very cultural. If you are sick, or around someone else who is sick, or if you are driving in smog or dust, many Thai people will immediately don a mask.) In many restaurants or shops, there are thermometers to check temperatures, as well as alcohol gel that you are required to use before entering. Travel to high risk areas is discouraged, and quarantine upon return from those areas is not unusual. In some tourist places that are re-opening, negative antigen tests are required for entering for unvaccinated tourists. Students and teachers are required to wear masks when in the classroom. In public schools, all teachers are required to be vaccinated, as well as all high school students and vocational school students before Nov 15. Currently we are teaching online but plan to move back onsite after Nov 19.

What organization do you work under?

We are working under the English for Life team (EFL) which is a part of the larger INVEST team (IGo Network of Volunteer Educators Serving Thailand). INVEST consists of EFL and Wisdom Tree, as well as teachers working at the skills center. INVEST, in turn, is a ministry under IGO, Institute of Global Opportunities.

Are you allowed to share about God openly?

In our school, which is a government school, if someone asks me about what I believe I answer directly, but I do not openly evangelize or present the gospel, unless someone asks. Outside of school, I am more free to do so. Our desire is, however, to be a bridge for the local church to evangelize. Through relationships we build in school with people who are interested in learning about God, our desire is to be the bridge to bring them in contact with the local church and support them in discipling and teaching.

What kind of church do you go to?

We go to a small Karen and Thai church not too far from our house. It is a small house church, and the preaching is done in Thai and translated into Karen for older members of the congregation. A few of our students also attend. We are very blessed by the servant attitude of the pastor and his wife, something that is not always found in Thai churches where position and power are coveted.

Is this your final landing place?

I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. I love Mae Sariang and its melting pot of people from the surrounding villages but my desire is to move deeper out of town into the mountains and work in a place similar to Saohin, where I had done my internship. However, I feel like Mae Sariang is the place where I can build connections and research other opportunities, as well as work until I have won my permanent teaching license.

What is the weather like?

There are 3 seasons: hot, rainy, and cool. In the hot season, temperatures go over 100 F, with usually no rain for 4 months. This is often when burning is done in Northern Thailand and Myanmar, which culminates in smog that hangs chokingly over the mountains. The rainy season in Mae Sariang is heavier than in Chiang Mai, with lots of flooding on the mountain roads that lead up to villages. The cool season I would imagine is similar to Chiang Mai (where the coldest is in the lower 50s upper 40s) but that depends a lot on the elevation of where you are in the district.

How fluent are you in Thai?

This is an awkward question for me to answer, but I answer it honestly. I am fluent. Not on a native speaker level for sure, but I can trick people on the phone. I also do some translation, although not nearly as much as I did as a student and living in Chiang Mai where there was an abundance of foreigners.

Are there many foreigners where you live?

Before Covid19 hit, there were tourists who would pass through town on the Mae Hong loop route. Few would stay for more than a day, but they were in existence. These days, though, if Amy or I see one in town, it is news that we share over the supper table, “Oh, I saw a foreigner today at the 7-11.” Or, “I saw a farang driving past Tesco.” Fluent English speakers are rare to find. Of course, Amy and I talk English to each other, but sometimes we throw in Thai, as well as the occasional Dutch word. When we find Thai friends who speak English fluently, it’s refreshing to be able to converse in English, not that we don’t enjoy speaking Thai, but to be able to converse in one’s own language is a treat.

Frequently asked questions from Thai people:

How long have you been in Thailand?

About 7 years.

Are you half Thai?

Nope

How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?

Until God leads me somewhere else.

Why on earth do you live here when you could live in America?

Well…..I…  where do I start?

Can you eat ________________? Fill in the blank with any kind of very spicy food.  

Probably.

Can you speak Northern Thai?

Some. Not much.

Can you speak Karen?

Very little

How much do you pay for rent?

3000 baht a month (100 dollars)

Do you send money home to your parents?

No.

Do you miss your family?

Yup.

Do you have a boyfriend?

Nope

Why don’t you have a boyfriend?

Cause, ummmmm…..

Do you want a boyfriend?

Well, I mean, I ……

Do you want me to introduce you to my uncle?

Ummmm, don’t worry about it.

Any more questions? I would be glad to hear them, whether awkward or non-awkward.

Mommi

My grandma is old.

She has always been old, to me.

I remember going to her house one day when I was 4. My mom was going to Hutch. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to go to my grandma’s house, or Mommi’s house, and play with the Berenstein bears in the log cabin that Doddi built.

She was old already, back then.

She was already old when Doddi died from complications from open heart surgery when I was 9.

She was old when I went to Thailand the first time over 8 years ago. And she has been getting older every time I come home again.

And each time I leave, I say goodbye for the last time.

Every time I see her, she is a little bit smaller, a little bit whiter, and a little bit thinner. But she is always, always as sweet and kind as ever. This last time is like that, when I go home for my visit.

My grandma is old. She has always been old, but now she is older than ever. She is 100 years old. She sleeps on a hospital bed and eats her meals from her chair. My mom and my aunts take turns staying with her every night and day.

One time I stay with her so that Mom can go to her cousin’s garage sale. I read from the Budget at the top of my lungs until Mommi has pity on me and tells me I can stop. Then I read through some of the 200 cards she received on her 100th birthday until Mom comes back to stay with her for the night.

She is starting to forget things, which is painful to watch, not so much because she is becoming forgetful, as would be expected for a woman of 100, but because she realizes that her sharp mind is not quite as sharp anymore and it bothers her. So, I try not to ask her too many questions about something that she might not remember well.

I give her a small handbag made by a team of ladies in Thailand. She is delighted with it, and keeps on commenting about it and saying thank you. “It’s so pretty that I won’t want to take it anywhere for fear something will happen to it,” she says. A minute later, she remembers and says almost apologetically, “Well, I don’t go anywhere anyway anymore.”

On my last day at home, I go over in the rainy evening to say goodbye. She is sitting on her brown chair with the colorful orange and brown afghan, eating her supper. Dorothy is there with her for the night. I sit down and we chat for a while before I say goodbye.

She is smaller than ever. I give her a hug and hold her hand for a bit, and then leave before the tears can burst from the floodgates.

The last I see her is as I drive past. Dorothy is waving, and so is Mommi, a thin white hand from the window.

I am glad for the rain streaming down the windshield.

Tua Lek Goes to the Doctor

A bit over 6 weeks ago my cat, Tua Lek (meaning Little One), who had defied her name and blossomed to extraordinary proportions, gave birth to 4 little kittens who looked almost exactly like her. One of the four died on the first day, but the others lived on to be happy, healthy and adorable kittens. (Ok, I know the word adorable is overused with kittens, but it is necessary in this case.)

However much I enjoy kittens, having 3 litters a year populating my house is not something I really want to deal with, and neither did my housemate, Amy. Especially when my cat’s temperament drastically changes every time a new litter appears and she becomes whiny and “awhang-gish.”  Now, perhaps if I lived on a farm, and did not work away from home every day, and did not take month long furloughs once a year to visit family and did not need to find someone to take care of my 30 cats while I was gone, I might consider it.

So, since Tua Lek’s behavior was again becoming suspicious even after giving birth only 6 weeks ago, and the neighboring male tomcat was starting to hang around again, we decided the time had come. I made an appointment at the Mae Sariang animal clinic at 8:30 this morning.

Living in Thailand and having a motorbike as your main mode of transportation is a Wonderful, Free, Joyous Experience. Most of the time. Except when it’s raining heavily (I will refrain from the pun), or you have to take your cat to the veterinarian. Then, if you don’t have a pet carrier, your only recourse is a cardboard box strapped on the back of your bike with bungee cords.

When the time came to take Tua Lek, I grabbed the closest box that looked like it would work. It ended up being the box that my youth group had used to send goodies for my birthday. It was a little bit battered, but with a little tape, I thought it might work.

It did at first. I wrestled the confused cat into box, while her little gray kittens sat on a pile on the porch chair and looked at me with big, round, innocent eyes. Sweating profusely, I grabbed the Gorilla tape from Joel and Malinda that had come in the same box and proceeded to tape the box shut. I punched some holes into the box, got the box to my bike, and had just strapped it down with cords, when Tua Lek found a small hole in the side of the box. Before I knew it, the hole was much bigger and the cat was out of the — er, box. I grabbed her before she could flee, though, and ran for another box. Amy came out and helped me with this one, giving me some advice on how to tape it shut better. Once we had Tua Lek in again, I strapped it on once more. This box was wider, giving me less room on the seat, with my knees hitting the front part of the bike. This is a drivable position for short distances, although decidedly more awkward and less modest than the normal position.

The first box
I happened to be taking a picture of my handiwork right at the moment the cat escaped.

When Tua Lek is hungry, she meows. When she is wanting attention, she meows. When she is scared, she meows. At times when she is not any of those, she still meows. So, it was not a surprise that as I drove along, mournful, betrayed cat wails came from the box at regular intervals. Each time, I cringed, thinking of the attention we were drawing, and embarrassed at my lack of pet transportation equipment. At the same time, I also drew comfort from the fact that we live in Mae Sariang, which is quite “baan-nawk”. This word, literally translated means “outside village” but is usually used when talking about country people or hill people and has the connotation of being not quite as modern, educated and up to par as people in the cities.

Mae Sariang has three stoplights. Going to the clinic, I had to drive through 2 of them. As we approached the first one, I willed the car ahead of me to go faster, but it didn’t and couldn’t. The light became red. As I waited at both stoplights, I forced myself to look straight ahead each time an agonized wail came from behind me, thankful for my mask. I do not know where that sound is coming from, I told myself silently, and the others on motorbikes beside and behind me. What could it possibly be?

Finally, I reached the clinic. As I waited and held a terrified Tua Lek, I talked with a couple who had brought in their neighbor’s cat to be spayed. I found this very humorous. I had to sign a release for them to do surgery. Finally, they took her away and I went home.

Going to the vet in this fashion is traumatic, both for the cat and her human. I felt like a betrayer, like someone who was senselessly inflicting confusion and pain on an innocent life. I think both of us will be happier because of this, and Tua Lek’s life will be much easier. But, how do you tell that to a cat? I mean, I did tell her several times, and I also triumphantly announced it to the visiting tomcat, but I know neither of them understood. I almost cried several times in the whole ordeal. Doing something like this would be so much easier if I could explain to Tua Lek what was going on.

Amy had some good words to say, something I hadn’t thought of before. “Well, maybe that is the way God feels. When God lets you go through something difficult and there is no way that we can understand why we have to go through it, God probably feels the same way.”

And now I really cry when I think of God holding me like I held Tua Lek when I am asking Him what He means when He lets Covid disrupt my life, or doesn’t iron out the tangles of my visa situation, or why he doesn’t just take certain struggles away from my life.

Tua Lek will never know that the undignified, terrifying ride to the vet, the pain and the anesthesia were all reasons that she will never have kittens again, and instead will grow fat and happy all the days of her life.

And maybe in the same way, I will never know exactly why God lets some of these things happen my life either. But I can know, better than my cat can ever understand, that He means the best for me, no matter how terrifying or undignified the ride.

Because I did not stop for Gas

Because I did not stop for Gas

My Motorbike stopped for me

And it was just the two of Us

And Irresponsibility.

I pushed Him slowly, we knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too

To preserve my Sanity.

We passed the Market where people stared

Quite unreservedly

We passed the Mobs of Gazing Tourists

We passed the Tuk-tuks waiting.

Or rather, they passed us–

Their exhaust suffocating and still—

For I had only a helmet, not a mask

And only a sweater, nary a scarf.

We paused before a Place that seemed

An Oasis in a Desert

With Pumps that were quite visible

And PTT was on the sign

Since then, ‘tis Years and yet

Seems shorter than the Day

I first learned the Consequences

Of Irresponsibility.

In memory of the time several years ago that I really did run out of gas in the middle of the touristy Old Chiang Mai city center. This poem is a parody of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.”https://poets.org/poem/because-i-could-not-stop-death-479

God’s World

Sometimes life is like an unnamed, strange, delicious fruit that you are trying to eat but there are funny little corners to the fruit and try as you may, you find yourself unable to squeeze each precious drop of juice from it.

Other times, I feel like life is something on the other side of that glass, the glass that’s always there in front of the vibrancy of unfolding scenes, and I am always on this side of the glass, with my hand always smudging the glass, but always unable to reach the other side.

Then there are other times when the pulse of the earth’s heartbeat is loud enough that I can hear it and faintly feel like I understand a little of the rhythm that God sent in motion when He called the stars out by their names and set the sun and the moon on high in the heavens.

I think I felt all three of these today. Words find it hard to explain.

I have seldom experienced a month like the past month. It has rained nearly every day, and not just every day, but almost all day long. Some days the sun comes out for about 15 minutes in the morning and the evening, but for the most part the skies maintain their sodden gray. I love rain, but the body and mind need sunshine as well. In addition to this, mold has started to creep into our house. I find myself wiping it off of my dresser and wardrobe almost every other day. (We finally have a dehumidifier, which will hopefully help some. ) The more the mold came into my room, the more it crept into my heart.

Covid19 restrictions continue to limit our abilities to live life normally and naturally and do things that would otherwise bring relief to the humdrum of the rain. The restrictions lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which I find difficult. It also makes our job very unpredictable and leaves us with a need to stay flexible, even more flexible than what Thai culture usually requires of us.

But today the sun came out. Both literally and figuratively.

This morning we went to a nearby church for the first time since a student had invited us to join the service there. We usually attend another church. Both Amy, (Amy Smucker, my friend who moved to Mae Sariang from the states in June and teaches at Boripat as well) and I were charmed by the atmosphere that we experienced. It is a very small, simple church in a village about a kilometer from here, and mostly (from what we could see) consists of students from Boripat school where we teach, and some older people from the village. The pastor preached in Thai, while a translator translated into Karen language. The service was simple and unpretentious and felt refreshing and life-giving.

A Karen song sung in the service today.

In the afternoon, we went on a motorbike drive down through Sob Moei, which is south of Mae Sariang. The road runs along the edge of the mountains above the Mae Yuam River Valley.

We drove through areas where the trees hung over the road and shadows cooled the air as we passed, and then suddenly we would hit shafts of sunlight flashing out through the trees and see the silver of the river winding like a ribbon far down in the valley below. We found several places to stop and rest and get something to eat. By the time we were heading home, the sun was falling in the west.

It felt like we drove and drove and drove and time stood still, like we were in some faded dream of glory, first moving through wide open fields of rice, then climbing up a knoll, now twisting and turning, now plunging down into a shadowed tunnel of trees, now bursting out again to catch glimpses of the mountains toward the north robed in the fading light of the setting sun. And all the while the wind brushed against our faces as we drove.

We were home about 15 minutes when the rain began to strum the roof with its fingers again. But the sunlight from the day still remained.

And in each part of today, I found myself straining to drink the juice from the fruit, and failing.

When I fail to fully taste the juice, and in those times when words fail me to describe what I feel, it makes me achingly sad.

It makes me think of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem, “God’s World.” She says what I would want to say.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
         But never knew I this;
         Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51862/gods-world

Loneliness

So long now have I walked with loneliness

That I remember not when he first walked with me:

A silent someone along the avenues of all the arching years,

On roads straight through sunlit fields and rows of maples,

And crooked and dark among mountain heights that draw us on, together.

Who is he? Is he mortal? I know not.

I cannot fathom my companion of the decades;

I only know:

A grim solace not all unwelcome,

A song unsung, a word unspoken,

The echo of memories we have not lived.

And we have walked many miles together, loneliness and I.

picture RealAKP from Pixabay 

The Funny Thing About Dreams

The funny thing about dreams is that some of them actually come true.

I was about 10 when I told my mom randomly one evening that I wanted to be a missionary, a photographer, and a mountain climber. That was a pretty tall order for a little Amish girl, but my mom just smiled and nodded.

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, our school entered into a Campbell Label’s drawing contest. We were supposed to draw a picture of what we dreamed of doing in the future. Our dream job, I guess.

I didn’t win a prize, but I do remember my drawing which is now stuck away somewhere in the dusty cardboard box archives of Meadowlark School. It was a picture of a woman sitting at a desk, writing, with a cat on her shoulder, a cat on the desk and cat under the desk… basically cats everywhere.

It was labeled “Old Maid Writer.” (At that point in my life, I was quite “anti-marriage.”)

After I moved to Thailand, I had the privilege of living with my friends, Brit and Barbara. Five years ago, in 2016,  we took a small getaway into the mountains at a “homestay” that was owned by parents of a student. While there, we started talking about what we wanted to do “when we grew up.”

Here’s what we said,

Like I mentioned earlier, the funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they actually come true. Some of them you wonder at times if they had to be Quite So True, like the one about the “old maid writer.” (Forgive the terminology of a 12 year-old. I can just imagine some people reading this and telling me I shouldn’t think of myself as an old maid. I don’t. But I do have cats, and I do write some. And I am single, and doing things I couldn’t do as a married woman, which was the reason for my “anti-marriage” perspective at 12.)

The missionary, photographer, and mountain climber dream sort of came true as well, but in different shades of the original dream. I don’t really call myself a missionary. I am a Christian who loves God and lives in a different culture. I like taking pictures, but I don’t consider myself a photographer. And I don’t really climb mountains on a regular basis, but I live in them and I love exploring them and hiking in them as possible.

The last one makes me smile the most. While Barbara is not going to live in Pittsburgh with a friend, she is going to live in a city with her husband (which is what she wanted to do. Live in a city, I mean. Maybe not necessarily with a husband.) It also makes me wonder if her husband will play hide and go seek with her in the house too, as she once said she would like to do.

Brit is currently in the states studying at a university for a degree that will let her teach in a public school, or perhaps a private school.

I have finished my degree at Payap University and done a stint of real mountain village teaching.

The odd thing is that at the time when we wrote down our dreams, the idea of studying for my bachelor’s at Payap was barely on my radar. I had scarcely thought of it, given my conservative background. But it seemed like the next practical step and somehow when I voiced those words and they were recorded, it gave possibility to my dream, and then possibility became reality. I know that not all dreams come true (I still have dreams that haven’t) and often dreams come true in slightly different ways than we imagined. But I also think that perhaps by speaking our dreams, we give them shape and life.

What made me think of the topic of dreams again and our conversation under a thatched roof, was when I headed into the mountains last Saturday to teach 3 hours in a remote Karen village. A university had adopted the sub-district and was implementing different programs in the area to help the villagers make a living. They asked Boripat High School (the new school I work at) for a teacher to go in one afternoon alongside their team to help teach basic English vocabulary. I was selected for the job. It turned out that my students averaged about 50 years and over. It was one of the best teaching experiences I had ever had. Even though their ability didn’t rate very high (some of them could not read or write in Thai either), they were very sweet and fun to work with.

Another high school located fairly deep in the mountains of Kong Koi is short on teachers and asked Boripat for help. In the end it was decided to send 2 of the foreign teachers once a month. Still another school also asked for teachers to help at an English camp.

These requests made me think of what Barbara, Brit and I had written down that day long ago under a thatched roof. Going from village to village, teaching.

While I do wish I were located deeper in the mountains, I also realize that I am positioned in a very strategic place. From where I am right now, there are hundreds of villages in the 100 mile radius around me. Even though I miss my little school in Saohin nestled among the rolling mountains on the edge of Burma, I feel like right now I am where I should be with opportunities to meet many new villages ahead. Maybe I will be able to go teach from village to village someday.

Now, for a horse.

A Bit of the Journey

A friend of my mom’s who used to live in Kansas recently reached out to me after coming across my blog. One of the questions she asked was about my journey in coming to Thailand, as well as my journey in writing poetry. I had already been tossing ideas about in my mind in relation to writing about the latter topic, and her suggestion got my mind rolling. What exactIy got me started writing poetry, or writing in general? It’s hard to say. Books, events, people, words of encouragement, God… all these things. Perhaps explaining in depth about all the details of what poetry means to me and how I began writing poetry would sort of be like taking all the beauty and mystery out of the story, like Carl Sandburg said. He said, “Roses, sunsets, faces have mystery. If we could explain them, then after having delivered our explanations we could say, ‘Take it from me, that’s all there is to it, and there’s no use your going any further for I’ve told you all there is and there isn’t any more.’ If poems could be explained, then poets would have to leave out roses, sunset, and faces…” Perhaps if every detail of our journey could be explained then it would lose its mystery. All that to say, here are a few bits and pieces of the journey.

In the first grade, I published my first essay. Miss Denise told me to write about our hobbies as a contribution to the school newspaper. Not only were we supposed to write about our hobbies, but we were to write why we liked to do them.

Mine went like this:

I like to bike.

I like to eat.

I like to sleep.

I like to bike because I like to.

 I like to eat because I get hungry very fast.

I like to sleep because then I don’t have to work.

Brutally honest and to the point. (Some of my editors probably wish I would practice some of that “to the pointness” again.)

In the second grade, I got in trouble with my teacher, who happened to be my cousin as well. I didn’t hear my class of 3 called to the table for our lesson, because I happened to be happily lost in a book, probably something like Dan Frontier or the Mr. T.W. Anthony Woo, or (shudder) the Hardy Boys.

I had to stay in at recess and put my head on my desk as a punishment.

In the third grade, I wrote a story. It was read aloud to the class and published in the school newspaper. It was of slightly better quality than my first-grade venture and was something about a boy who went on a hunt with his uncle.

In the fourth grade I got a new teacher. To the embarrassment of my older siblings, I again had hearing problems when I was lost in a book. Mr. Wes was slightly more understanding than the other teacher. Instead of punishing me, he came to my desk and got my attention. That was the year we had the new history books with the colorful, fascinating pictures of the American History. The history books were the frame for the historical fiction and the autobiographies that were donated to the school and devoured by my classmates and I.

In the 5th grade, my teacher set aside a class period each week for Creative Writing. During this time, we did all sorts of writing exercises, including one about a dinosaur wearing pink pajamas. We wrote descriptive paragraphs and stories and got feedback on our writing. The word counts of our stories rose along with the lists of ideas in our stories. Where at first 500 words had seemed insurmountable, we now found that it wasn’t enough to say what we wanted to say. The most popular topics were stories of the Underground Railroad and runaway slaves. My brother’s stories usually included either cattle rustlers or American Indians or cops and robbers or detectives or all of the above.

In the 6th grade, I started to care about my grades and began to pour myself into school. I especially looked forward to the Creative Writing each week. Close to the end of the year, we entered some of our stories into the local library’s writing contest and I was dumbfounded when the librarian called and said that I had won second prize for my age group.

7th grade brought Rainbow Writing. Finally, I was away from Climbing to Good English and diagramming long, dry sentences and labeling adjectives and adverbs, and instead, let loose on creative assignments. We formed groups with the 8th graders and had Peer Editing Conferences. I struggled emotionally that year and found that writing could help me release and process. I think that was the year that we started being penpals with students from Sterling College. My pen pal was Rachel Wise, and I adored her. I found an outlet in writing to her, and to this day wish I could see those letters again. I started writing some poetry and was introduced to the names and work of some of the great American poets like Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe when I wrote a research paper on American Literature. Emily of New Moon and the Chronicles of Narnia became favorites of mine and influenced these early years of writing. That year I penned a poem called “Echo Dreams,” which was published anonymously in the school newspaper.

8th grade brought the Lively Art of Writing by Lucille Payne. I loved everything about that book. October also found my class of three sitting in John Mast’s living room. The first day I found out that we were going to write a book compiling his stories, I lay down on my mattress and tried to soak it in. It seemed unbelievable to a 13 year old. That year we read through the A Beka Themes in Literature book, and the poetry in that book came alive for me like never before. Poems like, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Longfellow’s The Day is Done are some of my favorites.

 Life in the 8th grade was less tumultuous than 7th grade. It was full of promise and hope and I was incredibly sad when it ended. 8th grade marked the last of my school career (at that point) but I wasn’t ready for it to stop. I seriously imagined refusing to take my diploma on graduation day. (But then again, I imagined a wide variety of things).

After I left school at the age of 13, life was no longer marked in grades, but in years. 14 and 15 found me at home, mostly milking cows and memorizing lists of cow genealogies and sire attributes and the names, birthdates, and histories of every single cow. Without school, my brain had a lot of thinking space and needed something to stay busy. Thankfully, cows were interesting to me or I cringe to think of what else I would have swallowed up had I access to other things. I started to read through our set of encyclopedias but only made it to page 76 of the A book. I dreamed of writing a book and wrote out some plots but I rarely made it past the hatching stage of the story. Poetry was easier since you could do it in small amounts and then come back and rework it. Also, I am bad at grammar, and poetry gave me more poetic license than prose.

Around the age of 14 and 15, I began reading my Bible daily, especially books like Job and Isaiah and the Psalms in the KJV. The Word slowly began to influence my life more and more, and I would read it for the beauty of the words. Who wouldn’t fall in love with words like this? “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.” (Isaiah 49:2 KJV)

16 was the year I could finally join the youth group at church and have a social life. It brought a lot of growing pains and secret crushes and joy and heartache. I began reading and writing more poetry as a way of expression. Shortly after my 16th birthday I discovered Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low” and would recite parts of that and the “Charge of the Light Brigade” to my horse as I rode down miles of outback roads that summer. Like the verses in the Bible that I had discovered, I fell in love with the simple uncluttered rhythm and beauty of “Sweet and Low.”

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
         Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
         Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
         Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

While outsiders view Kansas as one of the most boring states in the USA, many Kansans are proud and appreciative of the unique beauty of their state. Whether it’s the seas of golden wheat, or the burnt orange and browns of the CRP, or the barren beauty of winter or the wind that Kansas was named after, I found my surroundings a goldmine for inspiration for poetry. Capturing the spirit of the prairie almost became an obsession at times. At 16 I penned “Dust and Wind.”

Wind, wind, endless wind

Fleeting o’er the fields

Dancing in, flying in,

One long roaring wave.

Roaring wave of dust and wind,

Of dust and wind,

Of dust and wind.

Whirlwind of the land

In one unceasing blow

Sweeping lanes and in each hand

One unending broom

Unending broom of dust and wind

Of dust and wind

Of dust and wind

Wind, wind, blowing wild

And talking to me now

Talking to its lonely child

Daughter of the wind

Daughter of the dust and wind,

Of dust and wind

Of dust and wind

I felt deeply, and still do, about death. The death of relatives, people from our church, and the parents of friends hit me hard. In 2011, I wrote this poem after a friend’s father was killed in a tractor accident, and another friend’s mom passed away after being attacked by a bull.

No Words

She’s gone

Like a fragment from a weaving torn

Leaving you who have felt the sorrow born

Through ripping, tearing pain

And we grasp for words that are old and worn

And suddenly seem vain

I have no words.

They fail me when I see the sorrow

The endless aching of tomorrow

Stretched out over the years

I have no words that I can borrow

Only tears.

When I started teaching part time at the age of 20, I felt like I had found my happy space. My only disappointment was when my students weren’t always as excited as I was about the writing projects I assigned. As I taught English, I also began to get much better at it myself. That Christmas I read Jesse Stuarts The Thread that Runs so True for the first time. At 21, I had the opportunity to go to Faith Builders for summer term. As I had written about in this post here, I sat in on Jonas Sauder’s Poetry Appreciation class, which was the first time I really had a lot of interaction with other people who knew and loved and wrote poetry more than I did. It was there that while homesick, I wrote the poem, “Harvest Song.”

Harvest Song

And I must go down to the fields again

Through the shimmer of summer heat,

And walk through the waves of deepening gold

The oceans of ripening wheat;

Then I’ll stand on the edge where the grass still grows

Green by the amber shore,

And feast my eyes with a fierce wild joy

For the harvest is once more.

And I must go to where the sky is pinned

To the earth like an up-turned bowl

Where the hot wind sighs its searing breath

Against my face, and I’ll feed my soul

By the wide expanse of dying wheat

That moves and ripples and flies

And sings the song of my native blood

Harvest beneath the Kansas skies.

The next year at school, I did a poetry week with my students. At the end, I let the students choose a poem to recite at our program on the last day of school. It was interesting to see how each student chose a poem that seemed to fit their personality. Davy chose “The Turkey Shot Out of the Oven” (Jack Prelutsky), humorous and well-written. Micah stood at the front of the audience and recited innocently and soberly while his stick-out ears and wayward hair belied his innocence,

I did not eat your ice cream

I did not swipe your socks.

I did not stuff your lunch box

With rubber bands and rocks

I did not hide your sweater

I did not dent your bike

It must have been my sister

We look a lot alike

(I Did not Eat Your Ice Cream, Jack Prelutsky)

Javin read “Little Brown Pony” with a bridle in hand. And Jessamy in first grade recited,

The fog comes

on little cat feet

It sits looking over harbor and city

on silent haunches

And then moves on.

(Fog, by Carl Sandburg).

I started talking with friends about the possibility of publishing a book of poems. I had seen some compilations that sparked the idea, and after a few years of thinking about it, self-published a book of poems called Echoes of Eternity. Beulah Nisly, my mom’s cousin, agreed to donate her photography to the book. I have sweet memories of the fall of 2012, selecting the photos and discussing poetry. Her photos were exquisite and evocative. She captured Kansas in such a way that sometimes it felt like it would be better to leave the poem out.

The book came out in the spring of 2013, just a week or so before I traveled to Thailand the first time. Bad timing. Could I do it over again, I would do many things differently. One of those things would be finding someone to edit it more critically, but I had few of those kinds of mentors to turn to.

After moving to Thailand in 2014, I kept on writing, but perhaps more sporadically. During my college years I struggled with writing academically because I felt encased in rules and regulations. I hated it. College and living in another culture took a lot of brain energy, so there were times when I wrote little poetry. In December of 2019, however, I compiled a “tradebook” of poems, which was much less ambitious than my first venture, (I had more sense and less money) but with better quality poetry. This I titled, Through a Glass Darkly.

There you are, a taste of where and why and how I came to write poetry. I think I used to write poetry as a young girl because I loved the cadence and the imagery and the thrill of being able to take an event or a feeling and express it in words that touched my own heart. As I grew older, I wrote it more prayerfully. These days in addition to that, I find myself writing poetry as a way of reaching out to God in the empty and lonely spaces of my life. It’s a way that I can pray without really even knowing what I am praying for. Sometimes after I have written it out, I can finally understand what I really was feeling. And often only then feel relief.

Even after writing this, I find myself hesitating to publish it because it feels like when people write something like this, they write from the viewpoint of someone who has already arrived. I don’t think a poet ever quite arrives. And even as I write that, I realize I also hesitate to call myself a poet. But now, after throwing all political correctness and sensitive conscience to the wind, I will publish it. This is simply the story of an ordinary person who loves words.

photo credit pixabay

At last June Arrives

Tomorrow, June 1, I finally get to go to work.

In December, after finishing up 3 1/2 years of course work at Payap University, I began my internship in Saohin village, where I lived for about 3 months. I am at the point now where I can talk about my experience there without crying, but I still miss that place like crazy. Many people, especially Thai people, don’t understand why I would miss a remote place where there is only electricty run by solar panels, and the wifi is exceedingly temperamental, and dust and smoke cloak the world in the hot season, and there are no coffee shops and malls, and the room I lived in had no wardrobe or clothes rack or mirror or fan. One of my friends thinks that there must be a guy living up there that I have fallen in love with or something.

There isn’t.

They don’t know that there is something addicting about waking up at 5:45 AM to build the fire with wood and boil water for the coffee, and make the day’s portion of rice over an open fire. They don’t know that funny bleat of a buffalo and the cry of the tukay at night are much more calming music to listen to at night than the roaring of traffic in the middle of the city. They don’t know that people in a village like that go to each others’ homes when they need to talk because there is no phone to call instead. They don’t know the charm of baking cookies on a fire late at night while crickets chirp. But most of all, they don’t know the charm or the love of about 80 Karen and Tai Yai students from the ages of 3 to 15, and how much that love can pull you on and on.

Actually, I wasn’t really planning to write all that. A good writer would go back and cut it out because it doesn’t have anything to do with today’s post. What I was going to write about was the start of my new job tomorrow and some of the things that I did in my spare time. But I never said I was a good writer.

So after my internship finished in late March, I went back to Chiang Mai for a few weeks, and then moved back to Mae Sariang in the middle of April. Of my time here in Mae Sariang, much of it has been in either quarantine, semi-quarantine, or semi-lockdown. I am now out of quarantine and things are opening up more and more here in the town. Tomorrow I begin my new job teaching at Boripat High School, the local district school of Mae Sariang. I was originally planning to start work on the 10th of May, but because of COVID19, the school’s opening was pushed off until later.

It’s better for me NOT to have a lot of time off just before I start something new. Otherwise, I tend to sit and think a little too much about it. The past 5 or 6 weeks have been difficult in terms of getting very little social interaction, especially face to face with live humans. It wasn’t until last week that I began to realize that it was slowly wearing down my emotional health. I have never before known how much relationships with others are necessary for emotional wellbeing. I do know now, and hope I will never take it for granted again. Normally, I am not much of a social butterfly. I love time alone and crave it. It’s just that 5 weeks of near aloneness is too much.

But I did enjoy doing a few projects here at home. I had fun ordering some things on Lazada for the house and for my room. I also had fun doing some furniture building of my own.

My favorite project was the bamboo table. I spent three evenings making it. The making of the table itself was somehow an incredibly special time for me. Sitting on the east porch with my cat after the heat of the day had ebbed away, cutting the bamboo, hand-drilling in holes to insert each shoot, and listening to the night sounds around me was relaxing and life-giving. With a hammer, a saw, a measuring tape from a small sewing kit, a flat screwdriver and a bottle of white spray paint, and string from a kite my cousin gave me, the little bamboo table was born. Oh, and bamboo from the bamboo that grows in the edge of the property.

Below are some pictures.