The Buffalo andthe Earthquake

This seems to be the year of me dealing with a lot of those things that just build up over the course of life, that residue of humanity. Those deeper wounds that came from events earlier in our lives. In addition to those things, as an expat, I am often confronted by my own mortality.

My first brush with the idea that I need to prepare for a contingency in which I die overseas came when my friend’s dad was murdered in a foreign country, two years ago. At that point, I kind started to set up something, register my address with the State Department so they knew where I was if my Mom ever had to call them and to set up emergency contacts both here in Beijing and back home in Omaha. But I still hadn’t really thought about the idea of me dying.
Then right around January 1st, 2018, I started reading two books by Caitlin Doughty (death positivity advocate, mortician, founder of The Order of the Good Death, YouTube personality, author, and speaker), Smoke Gets in Your eyes: and other lessons from the crematory and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. Both of these books forced me to finally start to look at my mortality and the mortality of those I love. This is not an easy thing for Westerners to face, our entire system is built keeping death out our eye line and perpetuating the myth that we will live forever.
Now you would think that all this reading and thinking would have produced some action, but it really didn’t. I had become more death positive and was even having conversations about those topics, but I wasn’t writing anything down or making any concrete plans about what should happen in the event of my demise.
Finally, last Saturday, I bit the bullet and wrote my death plan, basically just something that says what I want to be done with my body when the end comes, so my family. I wrote it, but I didn’t send it. It seemed too morbid and I didn’t want to alarm anyone or make them worry that I might be suicidal (it’s funny that when someone looks to their mortality, in the West, we make them feel like they must be crazy).
And then on February 12th at 6:10pm, Beijing experienced an earthquake. It was only 4.4 on the Richter scale, but it scared the hell out of me. There were a few reasons this rattled me: 1) being from Nebraska, I had never experienced anything like this before. 2) In addition to all the stuff I worry about, living in China, I now have to worry that the earth itself may be out to get me. 3) Apparently, Beijing has experienced earthquakes before, big ones with lots of death and destruction (note: don’t look up a city’s earthquake history while trying to convince yourself that you didn’t just feel an earthquake and trying to comfort yourself that an earthquake can’t happen in Beijing). 4) Beijing construction is shoddy at best, your apartment is a literal death trap. Being buried under rubble isn’t how I want to go out (I am partial to going out like Oscar Wilde, getting loaded drunk and getting into a fight with my wallpaper (unfortunately, Google says he died of syphilis, also not how I want to go out). Needless to say, I wrote an email to my family that night and attached my death plan. It’s not much but it’s the beginning of being prepared for the inevitable, no matter how far off it may be.
I know this isn’t the usual tone of my writing, but I have been thinking about mortality a lot lately, why we’re alive and what we’re supposed to do with the time have? Also, I was a little rattled by the earthquake even though it was small and did no damage.
At the same time, there were some takeaways from this: 1) always make sure your house is in order (i.e. take of death planning, have savings for unseen events, always have a contingency plan). 2) We live in an increasingly dangerous world and we are increasingly more fearful, and that fear paralyzes us. So come to terms with the fact that no matter how much you fear it, death is coming, so write a plan, and then go out and live. The only things we have to fear is regret and the unlived life.

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Terra Incognita

I am deeply indebted to my friend Kevin Shinn, for both a song that he wrote and a recent blog post he wrote that sent my brain down this path of thought.
Terra incognita, the unknown land. As far back as I can remember, I have been an explorer. I grew up reading tales of David Livingston, Marco Polo, and so many other adventurers who walked off the known map and into history. Unfortunately, around age ten, I learned, like Truman Burbank in the Truman Show, that everything had already been discovered and there was nothing left to explore.
I think at times I deeply resent the fact that there is no unexplored territory, especially now as I had the wonderful idea to begin shooting video of the many sights and sounds of Beijing. Every time I go to of one the tourist sites I see three or four other dumbass millennials with their gopros and self-assured idea that somebody somewhere will care about their adventure. I think one of the reasons I haven’t starting shooting yet, is that I’m not entirely convinced that anybody’s going to care about another dumbass millennial making videos about how different China is. But I digress.
This idea that all the worlds there are have already been discovered puts in a precarious place. Our world is stable and nothing new can exist under the sun until it does. See while the physical world has largely been mapped and conquered, the same is not true of the geography of the soul and territory of life. I started college thinking I was going to major in State security and counterterrorism and then join the Army. Through college, I was going to get a degree in psychology, go seminary, and become a pastor. I graduated with a degree in anthropology and a hope of becoming an archaeologist. I am currently an English teacher in China. And next year I am moving to Europe to begin a new chapter in another field I hadn’t even considered fifteen years ago.
Just because our planet is fully mapped, doesn’t mean we won’t find unknown lands. I remember at the beginning of my China journey, eight years ago, when things were looking difficult and possibly even like my passport had been stolen and I had been scammed, I asked my friend Ian why I was even doing it, and he said “because it’s an adventure”. The kind of adventure I have experienced isn’t the kind I saw in movies growing up, there were no car chases or epic gunfights, I have only ever worn a fedora and a couple of occasions and none of my friend shave been crazy enough to allow me near a whip. Instead my adventure, has included immigration law, visa problems, and learning how to teach 10 year-olds who can’t speak English.
The thing about the modern adventure in terra incognita is that it is rarely glamorous . It looks like going to work and paying bills. And every now and then you get thrown a huge curveball, you lose a job, get divorced, move, etc..
The problem is that while we feel uncomfortable with these changes, they are a blessing. They remind us that we have what it takes, that there is still adventure in the world, and that we are more resilient than we realized. So let’s go boldly on into the unknown.

Letting Go of Easy

“Do not pray for an easy life.
Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
-Bruce Lee

“The heights by great men reached and kept
were not attained by sudden flight.
But they, while their Companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the Navy Seal Training School, they have a saying, “the only easy day was yesterday”. I like the idea that yesterday was only easy because it’s over now. My 33 years of life have not gone as expected, and by no means were they easy, and yet I am still here. Undoubtedly too, I am where I am because of those years.
And yet, from time to I still long for the easy way. One of the truths of life that science teaches us is that nature, and we are a part of nature, seeks the path of least resistance. All of life looks for the easy way. And yet, the path of least resistance is often our road to ruin.
An easy life is not a good life, and it certainly isn’t an interesting one. I mean, look at celebrities, especially the rise of reality and web celebrities. We like them because they have lot’s of money and their lives look easy. But let’s look for a minute at our relationship with them. I don’t we entirely love them. Honestly, I think we secretly hate them because they have the easy life we want. We hold them up as a model of what we want and revel when they fall. We love it when bad things happen to celebrities, especially the ones who aren’t real celebrities (the ones without any discernable talent) like youtubers or the Kardashians. Remember how gleeful people were when Kim Kardashian got robbed, that’s what I’m talking about.
So we hate others who have it easy, why then do we still want the easy way? Because we’ve bought into this lie that somehow an easy life equals a successful life. In college, I knew this guy, who had never had to have a job before, and he wasn’t going to have any student debts because his parents were footing the bill. I on the other hand, have been working since I was 12 and am still drowning in student debt. Needless to say, I hated this guy. Until I realized he didn’t really have any friends and he had no social skills. Easy hadn’t prepared him for real life. He ended up getting a job way below his education because he didn’t have the real skills he needed for a job in his field.
Now as I said, I haven’t had the easiest life, I grew up poor, I’m a survivor of child abuse, I have student debt. But, I also have confidence, courage, and resiliency. I may not have found a job in anthropology, but that was my choice rather than a lack of skills. I love being a teacher, something I never thought I would until I took a difficult road that led overseas. Now I am not trying to brag, I am merely using my personal experience as an illustration.
Interestingly, many people raising kids today didn’t have easy lives, and yet they are trying to raise their kids the easy way. I read articles all the time about how to raise kids with courage and resilience, but most of these articles are crap. The answer is easy. Teach your kids that the hard road isn’t a bad road. Teach them that nothing good is gained without hard work. And for the love of God, somebody teach them that acting like a moron on YouTube is not a good way to get attention.
I hear many millennials talking about the road less taken, but it’s not an easy road. If you read that wonderful poem by Robert Frost, the road less taken is overgrown and it probably took some time and difficulty to walk it, but as Frost said, “It has made all the difference”.
Let’s shun easy, let’s dream big dreams, dreams bigger than money and fame. Let’s put in the hard work, day in and day out. Let’s lean into that uphill climb. Let’s take the path most resistance. It won’t be easy. It won’t always be fun, but we will come away from it stronger and better because of it.

Beard Rings and Warcries

“Up onto the overturned keel
Clamber, with a heart of steel
Cold is the ocean’s spray
And your death is on its way
With maidens, you have had your way
Each must die someday!”
-Þórir jökull Steinfinnsson

If you’re a fan of Vikings, you’ll recognize this as Rollo’s warcry in episode four of season one. It was actually part of a poem written by Þórir jökull Steinfinnsson, a 13th-century Icelandic warrior, before his execution/revenge killing.

I am a huge fan of Vikings (less as so the show wears on, and historical accuracy is stretched painfully thin). I am also a modern 21st-century man, I teach grade school English, I believe in talking about how I feel, and I’ve never really been in a fight. But secretly (or maybe not so secretly, if you’ve ever met me), I wish I was a Viking.

Truth be told, I have thought about writing something like this for almost two year, when a woman at an event at a local brewery called my beard ring cute (to be fair Chinese people are always telling me I’m cute (I’m cute because I’m fat, I’m cute because I’m bald, etc.), I don’t think they really know what it means). I was indignant, my beard ring is not cute!

So why am I like this, is it just me, or are there others. If it was just me, why would shows like Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Game of Thrones, Frontier or any of the over the top shows about badasses with weapons be popular?

In his book, Wild at Heart, John Eldredge posits that deep within the heart of every man lies the desire for three things: an adventure to live, something to fight for, and a battle to fight. Now, the book specifically talks about men, and I am a man, but I do know some badass modern-day shieldmaidens I’d fight alongside any day. And also, to be clear, when I talk about battle, I don’t necessarily mean violence or killing, battles come in many shapes.

Now here’s the rub, modern society isn’t exactly conducive to living like this. Hell, I get strange looks just braiding my beard, forget full war gear. Even doing things like living overseas can have some people questioning your sanity. But, I truly believe that the divine design for humanity was more akin to life on the edge that it is to the modern pursuit of comfort. And it is this truth in our design that calls out to us when we hear things like: ““Up onto the overturned keel Clamber, with a heart of steel. Cold is the ocean’s spray, and your death is on its way”, or “we hold thes truths to self evident, that all men are created equal”, or “I have a dream…”

Our battles come in differents some have my friend have found theirs in the courtroom or in activism. In my head, I’m a Viking, but my daily battle in the school system of a country that hasn’t changed it’s teaching model since Confucious was alive , about 2,500 years ago (not an exaggeration, the Confucian model is still the way kids are taught in China). We all have battle to fight
We also all have a battle cry. There are those words or songs that so stir our psyche that we can’t help but move. There is that warrior part of all us (women included) that wants to be let out, and if you have to braid your beard or buy an arm ring or take a medieval combat class to let it out, do it.

To Close, I will leave yous with the words of Walt Whitman from his poem, The Song of Myself I, II, IV, & LII:
“I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp (warcry) over the roofs of the world.”

Death and the New Year

I started the new year in a strange way, maybe not so strange for me. In the first four days of 2018, I read two spectacular and slightly morbid books: Smoke Gets in your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the world in Search of the Good Death. Both books were written by Caitlin Doughty, Mortician, Writer, Youtube star, and death positive advocate.
Both books centered on death, particularly the idea of dying well and how the American funeral system is really making it hard to do that. Now I know that this hardly sounds like a great way to start the year, I found it informative (I learned that you don’t need to be embalmed (it’s not required by any law) and I can be laid out at home rather than at a funeral home (also no laws about it)), empowering ( I can die the way I live, on my own terms and in my own way), and inspirational.
Now, I what you’re thinking, “Jon, how the hell can death be inspirational?” On the surface, it isn’t. But when I started to think about it, I realized life is full of little deaths. Every day skin cells and hair follicles die, our dreams die (that’s not always a bad thing), habits die. We change and grow because of these small deaths. Some of these deaths may not seem small when they happen, they may loom large for a while, but the really beautiful thing that I have found is that the bigger deaths bring bigger changes, and those are usually for the good.
In January of 2015 I experienced two major deaths, not actual people deaths, but deaths of relationships. The first relationship was when a girl who had been stringing along for about six months finally told me she wasn’t interested. The second, and most devastating was when my best friend in Beijing turned on me and ended our two-year long friendship. I was absolutely crushed. I felt like it would never get better. But then it did start to get better, I was even able to get out of Beijing for 10 months and go back home. I eventually came back to Beijing and I made a whole new group of amazing friends that I probably wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t experienced those earlier relationship deaths.
One of the things Caitlin Doughty talks about in both her books is the importance of the grieving process and how in most non-western that involves sitting with the body. I think this idea of grief and sitting the with dead can also apply to these small deaths. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart”. Death happens to everyone both small deaths and the big one. Sitting with these deaths, grieving them, is the best way to process them. When we acknowledge these deaths we give ourselves closure and closure brings healing and renewal.
The other thing that we need to remember is that in many cultures death is not seen as an ending, but merely a transition. Just because you have experienced a small death, doesn’t mean that life doesn’t still go on. As Imhotep, the mummy, said in The Mummy (the good one with Brendan Frasier), “death is only the beginning” (and remember, he came back twice).

A Pilgrim Born

Last night, as part of my New Year’s celebration, I watched one of my favorite movies, The Way. It is an amazing story of a man coming to terms with his relationship with his estranged son and his son’s death while undertaking a pilgrimage on the Camino De Santiago in Spain.
I have always wanted to hike the Camino. I love the idea of pilgrimage, whereby travel, specifically walking, becomes a spiritual act. The strange thing about all this is that I grew up, and still am, a Protestant. Ritual and pilgrimage aren’t exactly things we do. But still, someday I will go on pilgrimage.
As trite as this may sound, I had a thought, yesterday, that all of life is essentially a pilgrimage. We’re born and instantly, we set out on road of struggle and suffering that ultimately brings sanctification. Not sanctification In a religious sense, but rather a vindication of purpose, all the suffering, struggling, and striving comes to point when it’s meaning and purpose is revealed. It all finally makes sense.
I know this isn’t how everyone’s life turns out, or even ho it turns out for the vast majority. But, like medieval pilgrims setting out on the Camino and hoping for absolution or a miracle, we begin this journey hoping for resolution.
I wish I had some advice or six easy steps to to completing the pilgrimage that is life, but I don’t. Maybe the most important thing to remember is that there is a purpose in every step, whether we see it or not, and hopefully, when we reach the end we will find what we were looking for.

The Scapegoat

I have been thinking about the nature of writing and what it means to me and what it does when I practice it. I promise I will make the title make sense.
The Vikings (that is to say, the Danes, Norse, and Sver, Viking was a term that applied only to raiders and not the three similar tribes they came from) believed that writing was a form of magic, it was words without voices and voices without sound. To them the written word had power. To me the written word has power as well.
The Hebrew of ancient Israel had a ritual of atonement, in which, after the prerequisite sacrifices were made, the High Priest would lay his hands on the head of a live goat and confess all the transgressions of the people, then the goat was sent off into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people. This is where we get the term scapegoat.
Writing for me is my scapegoat. When I pick a pen (or open a word document), I grab my goat by the horns and transfer to him all my sins, frustrations and fears, and then I turn him loose out into the desert bearing my demons far from me.
The simplest way that I have found to practice this is to embrace journaling daily. I didn’t realize what this practice did for me until I stopped doing it for a while and then picked it back up. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a professional counselor and he told me that one of the best treatments for anxiety and depression is therapeutic writing (i.e. journaling).
So if you’re feeling like you could use some sort of daily practice, I’d recommend journaling. It is one of the best ways to organize your thoughts and find some breathing room.

We Know the Way

I was sitting in my office the other day, and the song We Know the Way, from the Moana soundtrack came on. This presented a problem because the song always brings tears to my eyes.
This song speaks to me on a soul level, because it is about me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ancient Polynesian seafarer, I’m not even from a place near the sea, but I am a Voyager. I grew up on tales of Shackleton, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingston, the Voortrekkers, and the French Voyageurs. I am the spiritual descendant of anyone who ever looked at the horizon and said, “why can’t I go there”.
Sadly, I live in an era when nomads are boxed in by borders and voyagers are thought of as unstable people who “just need to settle down”. Some were created to stay where they were born to sow and reap and multiply, but some are called to be wanderers.
I think many people in my generation feel the need to wander, and we get written off as “damn millennials”, or “dreamers” or “selfish idealists who won’t conform”. I have had a few well-meaning people tell me that they essentially think I’m crazy because I’m 33 and I haven’t settled down to a career (I have career, contrary to popular belief (I’m an English teacher)), and a house (and a mortgage), and a wife and kids. I have tried twice to please people and move back to the U.S. and begin the process of settling down and both times it nearly killed me. There is a quote that says: “There is a point in life where you either need to travel or commit suicide”.
So what is a boy to do? Follow his heart, that’s what. There are a couple of lines in We Know the Way, that says: “We read the wind the and sky when the sun is high. We sail the length of the seas, on the ocean breeze. At night we name every star, we know where we are. We know who we are, who we are”(that’s the bit that always makes me cry).
The great patriarch Abraham was a settled man living in his father’s household with his wife when God showed up and told him to go wandering. Never once did God tell Abraham to settle down, build a house, or find a job with great security and a 401k. In fact, God promised to give Abraham territory, which to a nomad means space to wander. I figure that if God is good with the father of his people wandering around, then he probably doesn’t mind if I do too.
We have the tendency to get stuck inside borders imposed on us by other people. These borders have very little to do with our own beliefs and desires, and everything to do with other people’s hang-ups. Thor Heyerdahl, the leader of the Contiki Expedition and one of the great modern voyagers, once said: “Borders? I have never seen one, but I have heard they exist in the minds of some people”. Sometimes we must trust that we know the way and set out to be who we want to be, who we have to be. Borders be damned, we know the way.

Learning to be Brave

I have a confession to make, even though many people think I am super brave because I can move overseas to strange countries at the drop of hat, and I have work hard to create an Indian Jones-esque persona, I am not very brave.
I walk with a lot of fear and uncertainty, and that is probably natural considering I grew up with an abusive, mentally ill father. Uncertainty was a constant companion and yet it’s one that I can’t get used to. Living in China doesn’t help much, with the fact that time is very fluid here and things generally don’t get done, or you don’t get told about them, until the last minute, add to it that the system of government here seeks to control people, uncertainty is a stunningly good tool to utilize in the pursuit of that goal. I don’t think that the uncertainty bothers the Chinese as much as it does the expats, mainly because we’re not used to the idea of random raids on bars for no reason or door to door drug testing (I have heard, though can’t confirm, that the police have lately shown up on the doorsteps of certain foreigners demanding urine samples for drug testing), or the random and sudden demolition of a favorite hangout or place of business. While none of these things directly affected me, hearing about them from the various expat news outlets only served to make me feel like the sky was falling ( all these things, I think were part of the run up to the One Belt, One Road Summit, so things should be cooling down later this week (don’t worry Mom)). Needless to say, I haven’t felt very brave lately, instead I have felt very much like a scared child trying to escape the latest outburst of anger from his unstable father.
Then it hit me, maybe bravery isn’t not being scared, angry, frustrated, what have you, by the circumstances. Maybe bravery is continuing to put one foot in front of the other despite not knowing where that foot is going to land. Maybe the point of bravery is action rather than lack of fear. I think Winston Churchill may have said it best when he said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.
The world is a scary place lately and our own woundedness only seems to amplify its effect on us, but the beautiful thing is that regardless of how we feel if we keep going, we are brave. Most of us are super brave and we just don’t realize it. It is the ability to keep walking even when your figurative guts are hanging out and you’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp by life. Bravery is not about how you look or feel while going through something, it is about going through something and continuing to keep going. We are braver than we know.

The Story of a Tree

This is the story of a tree, it does have quite the same ring as “This is the story of girl, who cried a river and drowned the whole world…”, but none the less, this is the story of a tree, and it can obscure the forest.
This title and idea is a ghetto-rigging (a term we used in JROTC to describe modifying a weapon with paperclips and rubber bands) of something Donald Miller talked about in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand years, I’m not going to get deep on the specifics (you should read the book) but there was an incident in his life which caused him to look inward for a while and he realized that he was just one tree in a story of a forest (the forest being God’s overall plan for humanity).
In my analogy, the forest is my life and the tree is an aspect of my life, in this case, being “just a teacher in China”. Now I am not saying anything against teachers, they’re awesome, but I think that there is largely a stigma about being an overseas teacher, that you are just trying to find yourself, or you’re running away from something, or you’re some form of deviant who can’t function in the society of home. I have heard all the stereotypes and I’ve met a few people who justify them. However, I think sometimes I can take this stigma, and what other people think of my chosen profession of overseas ESL Instructor to heart.
This happened to me recently, I turned 33 on Feb. 22, and I had a lot of existential questions (who am I? What am I doing with my life, why am I still just a teacher in China? Etc.) in the days leading up to my birthday. I talked to a counselor about these questions, and He looked at me and said basically, “you talk about being “just a teacher”, but then you tell me stories about how you’re a leader in your small group, you’re on the men’s ministry leadership team, you have a vibrant community, it would seem to me that being a teacher is just a small part of your story”.
On the taxi ride home I began to think about this and I realized that I had been looking at the life of a small tree and ignoring the forest, which was thriving. As I thought more about this my drifted to one of my favorite kung fu movies, Shaolin (2011, starring Jackie Chan and Andy lau), there is a scene in that movie in which they are training and the lead monk is exhorting his brothers in their practice, and he says something like “wrists and ankles are one, elbows and knees are one, hips and shoulders are one, body and mind are one, mind and heart are one, heart and strength are one. Feels it’s rhythm, dance in its flow”. I think this is a cool picture of life, all parts of our life are connected and we need to feel that rhythm and dance with it.
Stop thinking about the tree, start thinking about the forest and dance.