Archive for the ‘China Chronicles’ Category

Bizarre or enchanting? Why do I have to choose?

I just came across two well-written and insightful articles.  The first was from  a long time resident of China who describes why he is leaving the country he used to love.  Clearly, the author is speaking from a lot of experience.  I imagine  many non-Chinese feel the same at times.  He cites pollution, corruption and all-consuming materialism as some of the reasons his family is leaving the country.  But his top reason is the quality of the education his children are receiving.  This man came to China with a love for the country many years ago. He has watched the country’s massive changes from the inside (as much as an outsider can, that is).  I have a lot of compassion for his sadness, and even understand his bitterness. The response the article was huge, and surprising to him.  It was also mostly supportive, though obviously there were people who were hurt by his judgements.

In response to this article, another author offered a different perspective on why she chooses to return to China.  She acknowledges that much of what the first author writes is true.  But she wants to stay to watch and be a part of China’s evolution.  It is more hopeful in tone, though the commentary that followed more often then not called her naive.

Now, here I am on the eve of submitting my applications to graduate school in pursuit of an MFA in creative writing.  None of these schools are in China.  But an important reason for me to pursue this degree is to hone my writing skills for China, and to better be able to teach effective English writing to Chinese students.  So though I will have to leave it is so I can return better prepared for a long-term career in China. I want to help give a voice to Chinese writers.  And the fact of the matter is that the world isn’t listening in Chinese.

I have said it many times in this blog.  China has much to offer the world.  But both these articles are examples of foreigners focusing on what China has to learn.  As I writer, I feel like I write best when I am learning.  And if China does anything for me, with its challenges, its blessings, its contradictions and its baffling ways, it teaches me.  When I am frustrated and disheartened and weary of China, I know, without a doubt, it is because I have stopped choosing to learn.

As I ponder leaving the country that is part of the world that I love, I wonder if there is a way to respond to China, or to anything in the world, (elections or football games, nature vs. nurture, science vs. religion, insert your controversy of choice here), without debating?  The authors of both articles have aspects of the truth that have helped me understand China better.  That, to me, is the whole point of differing perspectives.  “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.”


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Capturing the Grand Canyon is impossible, but it sure is fun to try!

A friend came over for dinner this week.  She watched us as we ate. We corrected our children’s behavior at the table — encouraging them to finish the food they had been served, to stop interrupting conversations, to keep the chewed food in their mouths, etc.  She was amazed at the way we train our four-year-old to have manors at the dinner table.

“Chinese parents never do that. If my niece doesn’t want to eat, she gets up from the table to go play.  Her mother chases her with a spoon, and feeds her,” she said.  She had never been to a foreigner’s home, or seen foreign parents interact with their children.  “I really like what you do,” she told us.  “Chinese parents spoil their children.”

But if you ever walk into a classroom of Chinese students, even kindergarten students, as a teacher, you might be astonished with the respect you receive, and with their behavior.  They are obedient, helpful and quiet, for the most part.  (Friends who teach in expensive private schools say their students are not well-behaved at all, so I speak from my experience only.)  Also, children treat their parents with extraordinary respect.  Parents choose majors for college students, have power over the choices young people make about romantic partners, and often determine where and how their children’s children are raised.  Filial piety is extraordinarily powerful here.  How does that work if their young children are not trained with basic obedience at the dinner table?  Well, there lies a contradiction and a mystery.  It is one I want to unravel, because I think the West is missing something important here.  There is great power in humility, respect and obedience, qualities which are  seriously lacking in Western society.  But how do they instill them?

A friend recently sent me something that had been translated from Chinese about filial piety.  It said that a person who truly demonstrated filial piety would be willing to eat his father’s dung.  This is such a great example of missing the deeper meanings that lie hidden in Chinese culture.  Westerners might see something like that and be shocked and appalled.  But that is because we are often not willing to take any crap from our parents.  I think it is an expression, that dung-eating bit.  People take all kinds of crap from their parents in China.  They don’t like it, they wish it wasn’t so, but they still do it, by virtue of the parent-child relationship.  “They are my parents.  Mei banfa,” they say.  There’s nothing to do, they say.

China has so many apparent contradictions.  Last night, as my husband and I walked after dinner, we passed a square where couples were ball-room dancing to techno music.  We stopped to watch them spin and waltz and glide across the pavement.  Several women pairs danced together, absent a male partner.  Normal enough.  Then we saw two men doing the same thing.  The two groups could not swap male for female partners probably because they didn’t know each other, and that wouldn’t be appropriate.  And I am absolutely certain that none of the same-sex couples were homosexual (at least openly) because there is almost nothing more unacceptable in Chinese society.  It is a very morally conservative culture.  Young people would never admit to their parents that they have a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school, and rarely are willing to share such information, even in college. Sex before marriage is not even considered a topic of conversation between same-sex friends, much less between boyfriend and girlfriend.  But does that mean it’s not happening?  Of course not.  Not only that, prostitution is expected at hair salons and karaoke joints as much as it is at massage parlors.

These contradictions are everywhere. The rampant corruption contrasted with the pure-hearted curiosity of most people; the lack of courtesy (pushing, spitting, ignoring) contrasted with the extraordinary courtesy and helpfulness students show to their teachers.  Friends are willing to stay at the hospital, even sleep on the floor,  to help nurse a friend back to health.  But people will ignore a child that has been hit by a car lying on the road. (My students tell me most people ignore other people’s troubles out of fear of blame.)  I think the largest lessons we can learn are in these apparent contradictions.  We judge with our Western eyes, but only because we don’t see the whole story.

I am reminded of the Grand Canyon.  When I was there this summer, the overwhelming sensation was that there was no way to even begin to capture the place.  If you want to learn anything from the place, you simply have to take time to sit at its edge, hike into its depths, and be there for more than an afternoon.  And even after all the time you spend there, you can’t say a word or paint a picture that gets it.

China is like that.  It is achingly beautiful and maddening and…I start to try to describe it and I am overwhelmed by that same sensation.  There are so many layers, each one shaped by such a distinct history.  To even begin to approach understanding, one has to appreciate the forces that created it.  And though I may never be able to describe it completely, or even understand it, I am learning so much from the attempt.

What creates in you that sensation of awe?  What have you learned from it?

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Going Home Revisited

My “city by the bay”

I have returned to China.

There is a weight to that statement that has never been there before.  Perhaps it’s that this last month has been the first vacation I have had in adulthood, and returning to China represents returning to normal life.  But there is more to it than that.  Normal life has come to mean something that isn’t entirely comfortable.  I live in place where I don’t understand most of what people say to me, where I am almost completely illiterate, and where much of the time I feel useless.

During my holiday, I helped unload a delivery to a food bank.  I planned and executed a four-day camping trip to the Grand Canyon with my mother.  I managed to use cheap public transportation in a rural area of the US.  (That’s not as easy as one would imagine.) And the week before the big day, I helped my step-daughter pull off two weddings and a reception, one in Saints Peter and Paul Church near downtown San Francisco, and the other in Alamo, an hour away.  I was a competent and useful person.  I had conversations with interesting people, and enjoyed getting to know our new British in-laws.  I was in my element.

I am not now.

I see  now that it was much easier to write about going home when I was actually in my natal home.  Back here in China, I am struggling to breath.  Life wears me out by 8pm.  I dread leaving the house to do something as simple as mailing a letter, because really, it’s not that simple.

But we must be patient and gentle with ourselves. I am jet-lagged.  I haven’t been running or doing yoga for two weeks.  I have had a cold with a nasty cough for more than a month.  And if I let myself feel the discomfort of returning, I remember that I was not so comfortable my first week back in American either.

I turn my sights forward now, and realize that part of the cure is learning. I have been tied to my classroom and a desk for these 5 long years.  I now have the opportunity to go and explore my “city by the bay.”  It’s not as gorgeous as San Francisco, but there are plenty of stories to learn, and in doing so I will be learning more Chinese, and hopefully increasing my sense of home as I settle into my skin again.  So look forward to more China Chronicles, dear readers.  Who knows what I’ll dig up as I learn more about Dalian and China?

How do you feel when you return home after a vacation?  Refreshed and revitalized?  Lethargic?  How do you use your new energy or overcome the lethargy?

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Time to breathe, time to paint

The spider creeping across its web, its big brown and yellow shiny abdomen and legs reflecting the yellow porch light, should not have freaked me out.  It was catching plenty of mosquitoes.  It only made me shriek because it perched directly above the chamber pot I was supposed to use.  I could imagine myself squatting over the bucket (a paint bucket I think), and the spider, seeing me, and knowing it had such power over me, would drop down on a single silk web and dangle directly above me, just waiting for the proper moment to drop on to my neck.

“It’s a homey spider,” my husband tells me when I ask him to move the pot. “It’s not a dangley spider.”

“Yeah.  Remind him of that,” I say.  I don’t think it would have comforted me more if he had used the creature’s scientific designation.

We slept that night in utter peace, after I emptied my bladder far from our mosquito-munching friend.  After the children cuddled down together, their voices finally drowsy and sweet.  After the watermelon and corn-on-the cob fresh from the garden outside our window had cooled us, and satisfied our travel weary bellies. The five-hour bus-ride was long forgotten.
The sounds of the city had vanished, and only the whir of the fan stirred the sultry night.

My daughter was the first to stir this morning.

“Mommy, it’s time to wake up,” she says, kissing my cheek.  “The chicken says it’s time to wake up.”

She doesn’t know the English word for the male of the species.  That makes me smile.  I am happy that she knows more Chinese than English.  I am happy that she has anticipated this visit to our friends’ home in the countryside for days.  There is an outhouse here, and a solar-heated outdoor shower.  Two large black rubber skins hold the water on the roof of the shack.  A tube runs down from each to a small shower-head/stopper.  Pull the shower-head out of the tube slightly, and the water flows. That is the only running water.  We wash in basins scooped full of water from barrels nearby. This is not the city she is used to.  But she doesn’t even have to think about being open to the experience, because she is also used to going with the flow.  It is all she has ever known.  She is a Chinese child.

I help her get dressed.  She runs downstairs to play with aiyi and shushu.  This “aunt” and “uncle” are more well-known to her than my sister and her husband. She sees her Lao-lao and Lao-ye more often than her real grandmas and grandpas back in America.  I had never met these people before last night.  They are the parents of a friend of ours.  We haven’t really spoken more than twenty words to each other.  But I trust them far more than strangers back home with her.  They haven’t even said to me, “Oh, go ahead.  Leave her with us.  You go and relax.”   It is more than implied.  It is expected.  We are really here so they can play with her.  I sit in the upper tea room and paint what I see across the road.  A pond.  A willow.  Acres and acres of corn crisscrossed with electric lines.  A whole picture without interruption.  She falls asleep after noon.  Someone else made sure of that.  I am breathing.

Later, I am swinging in a hammock strung between two plum trees, eating a plum from another tree.  It is ripe and sweet and juicy.  The smoke from the barbecue floats by.  It is small metal box resting on two bricks.  Sticks and hay were lit, then coal bricks were added to the fire.  A wire mesh grill will be placed on it later to cook the chuar…stuff on sticks.  We eat lamb and beef skewers, a cold dish with clams and cilantro, a hot dish with octopus, peppers and spices, and rice.  Then there is the grilled dofu. I politely accept one, and choke it down, a smile on my face.  But then, there is more watermelon and more plums and I am stuffed beyond belief.

This is China.  I realize people only eat like this when special guest are around.  Foreigners always count as VIPs.  But this time, the notoriety allows me to relax in a way I can’t in the city.  We are a curiosity, my husband and I, as we walk down the farm road past rice fields and garbage.  But the curious eyes only glance and then they move on, busy with their work.  Our children are safely ensconced in a country home down the lane, playing with their new aunt and uncle.  My husband, the best friend I know,  and I talk about the future.  We look down the lane and wonder where it will lead us next.  Then we turn back, and wander in to the courtyard, where our daughter blows bubbles with a new friend.


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Forgiveness, like the buds of springtime, bring a new breath to the world

We went into the countryside with some colleagues of my husband’s today.  Four cars wound their way between the rocky and green-covered hills.  My daughter made instant friends with one of the school’s administrators.  Throughout the day she called her “The Pink Lady”, though I reminded her of LinLin’s name constantly.  She was given this moniker because she wore a pink t-shirt, the same shade of fuchsia  as our little goose’s Dora t-shirt.

As we drove along, I was astonished at the change in the landscape.  Five years ago, this was my commute, through green hills with orchards and the occasional countryside village with ancient dwellings (probably more than 20-years old, ancient here).  Now this area has developed into the software corridor.  Villages have been razed, and quaint condominium style developments are tucked into to the folds of the rising hills.  A small river has been dammed to create a little lake.  We stopped for a “scenic view”.  The foliage was lovely: recently planted bushes with light green leaves that went pink at the tips of branches, wild flowers, young trees.  A board walk led us down nearer to the lake, which was not accessible, and then led us back up to the road.  Across from the lake were the unmistakable signs of “progress”.  More condos being built.

When we arrived at our destination, we played, as the Chinese say.  Playing is something everyone does.  It’s not just for children.  We hiked up the mountain a bit.  Half the party turned back for lack of proper shoes.  They returned to the “restaurant” at which we were to have lunch.  It was a court-yard building.  A vegetable garden filled the courtyard.  The dining rooms and a pillared porch surround it. One of the side-rooms held a pool table and several ping-pong tables.  Card tables were set up in another room.  While some hiked, others knocked balls around. When lunch was ready, we all descended upon it like ravenous wolves.  Lamb on spits were laid out before us, supported by notches carved into the table, and reinforced with marble.  It had been roasted for hours with spices and apples and pears.  I have never had such glorious lamb.  We were all given plastic gloves with which we ripped the meat from the bones.  While we gorged, separate tables were set for the “second” course.  I couldn’t imagine how we would fit anything else in.  But the lamb made an excellent broth for a vegetable hot-pot.  A fire was lit below the pot of broth, and we were all served small bowls with green onions and another herb, fresh from the garden.  In fact, all the vegetables that went into the broth were from the garden outside our door.  In deed, we were able to pack more in to our bellies.

I go into such detail because there was a quality to the day that I haven’t experience in a long time.  The colors were brilliant.  My little girl chanted the colors of the flowers that lined the road: “Orange flowers!  Pink flowers!  Red Flowers!  Look, Mommy! I see purple flowers!”  And I felt her same excitement. The rain that brought the hikers in was a deliciously cool mist.  The smells of the herbs and vegetables growing in the courtyard, the roasting of the lamb, and then the flavors of those same delicacies bursting in my mouth at the dining table.  It was a lack of grief that enlivened my senses.  It is not a complete lack.  I still have work to do.  But at least now I know the nature of the work.

It is forgiveness.

I have learned something about the process of grief and loss.  The “final” part of the process is acceptance.  I qualify it as “final” because it is not necessarily finished.  It can be a cyclical process, and one can experience a range of emotions related to grief and loss, not necessarily in any order, or even singularly.  Yes, they can pounce on you more than one at a time.  But this acceptance thing has been holding me back because my loss has not been of a definite nature, as death is.  When children alienate themselves from a parent, there is a toxic mix of shame, bitterness, resentment, guilt and anger thrown into the pot, and the ever-present reminders on Facebook of those who have rejected you.  There is the hope, the dreams, the longing.

So I’ve had some forgiving to do.  Over the years, I thought I had “done” that. I had asked my ex-husband for forgiveness for my wrongs in our marriage.  I had been able to see those who have done things to hurt me have been hurt themselves, and had done some forgiving.  But that forgiveness had all been an intellectual exercise.  My head got it, but my heart kept shouting, silently, “But, but, but!” Every time I went through that exercise I asked myself, “Why do I have to keep doing this?”  It hurt.  It wasn’t fun.  It didn’t bring me any peace.

I let myself get angry this weekend.  I let myself feel hatred and the rage. I’ve never done that before.  It wasn’t “nice.”  But this time,  I let myself speak the unspeakable wishes to one of my wrong-doers.  I cursed her.  I pictured myself doing, and spoke out loud, the things I would do to hurt her, so she would know the pain she has caused.  I went deeper and deeper into this until I could do no more, until all I could do was see my children, and remember that this woman is their loved one.  And then, slowly, I began to forgive myself for all of it, for the hatred and the anger towards this fragile human being.  I began to feel how much I had broken her with my own thoughts, bitter and resentful.  I began to see her as bandaged from head to toe.  And I began to forgive her.  I won’t forget what she has done, and I haven’t excused it.  But that’s not what forgiveness is.  “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.”  I let go of her.  She doesn’t take up space rent-free in my heart any more, blocking my love with what I imagined her to be.  I have to thank Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant for that quote.  I admit it.  I did an internet search on how to forgive, and found Oprah’s Lifeclass on the Power of Forgiveness.  With lessons taught by powerhouses like Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins, it is quite useful if you need some guidance.  I sure did.  Don’t expect to be able to transform while your watching, though.  Just take the lessons, and chew on them till you can digest.

Today confirmed for me that this forgiveness is sticking.  Peace floods through me when I think of it, and of that woman.  And I felt the brilliance of the flowers, and tasted the juices of that lamb today, more intensely than I have sensed things in years.  My heart is tender, but not as painful.  I have more forgiving to do.  I need a lot more practice before it is an automatic thing.  But at least I know what I need to do now.  And for that, and for forgiveness, I am grateful.

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When the duct tape and baling wire fail, things get messy

You know them. These two essentials for any household handyman have been used to repair plumbing, car upholstery and hold any manner of furniture together to keep it functional.  And for the last fifteen years, they’ve held me together.  But, as any handyman would know, they aren’t permanent fixes.  And it ain’t pretty when they fail.

Industrial artists know you can make duct tape and baling wire look pretty good.  After my loosing my home and family in my mid-twenties, I mastered the art.  I pulled myself together.  I got a job, an apartment, became self-sufficient while surviving the wrenching trials of divorce and fighting for the right to be my children’s mother.  I eventually remarried, and built a new home and family, and even began to develop my passion and calling in life.

Six months ago the duct tape sprang a leak.  It was a slow one, steady though, and did a fine job of un-sticking the rest of the adhesive.  Several month ago, the baling wire couldn’t do its job on its own anymore, and I split down the middle.  On one side of the chasm I could see my life, with my beautiful children and my husband, my writing and teaching, friends and community. But I was on the other side, falling away into  an unknown abyss, filled with rage and sadness. God, it was dizzying!  I was so angry, I thought I had broken, and would be bitter and resentful for the rest of my life.

I stopped writing, and I started painting on our iPad. The piece above is an example.  I was also given enough insight to know that I needed help, and had the miraculous ability to get it.  That is a feat in China, where mental healthcare is rare.  According to Dr. Xu Yong, the Director of Education and Training at the Shanghai Mental Health Center and at the Medical School of Jiaotong University, “a recent epidemiological survey in four provinces in China showed that the prevalence of at least one current mental disorder in adults was greater than 17% in 2001-2005, and mood disorders and anxiety disorders are the most prevalent types.” But in a population of 1.3 billion, there are only 16,383 psychiatrists, mostly concentrated in areas like Shanghai and Beijing, and there are very few social workers or clinical psychologist.  The rural population has virtually no access to mental healthcare.

Though access is the biggest challenge, perhaps a more difficult challenge is the stigma that mental health issues hold in the culture.  A friend of mine, an English major in his senior year at a local college, had a breakdown in December.  I was terrified for this gentle, extremely intelligent young man.  He was severely depressed,  very likely suicidal, and possibly bipolar.  We were able to get him to his family, who got him to a mental health facility.  But he didn’t like it there, so his family took him out.  They didn’t like  the financial burden or the stigma his problem brought to the family. He wandered the streets of Beijing, making mystically profound, but deeply disconnected phone calls to me in the middle of the afternoon.  He showed up on our doorstep one morning at 4am, scaring the daylights out of me in his manic state.  He was unconscious of his forcefulness and his bizarre and scary words.  And I had nowhere to take him, no reliable path of care.

When we break, psychic baling wire and duct tape can do the temporary survival work of holding us together.  Somehow, this young man has gotten a hold of some.  He has periods of clarity now, and has graduated and moved back to his hometown.  But I don’t know what his future holds.  My patch-up job failed.  I was able to find and afford counseling in English in my area, and  I’ve started the deep healing that I’ve needed for a very long time.  What will he do?

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Boat in waves

Giving children a bow in their lives, a vast horizon that guarantees nothing

I just watched a Ted Talk by Tan Le, a technologist who spoke about her immigration from Vietnam as a young child.  She speaks of being on a boat disguised as a fishing vessel, of the adults keeping poison available for all of them to escape from the rape and torture of pirates if they were captured.  She tells the harrowing tale of their escape, and the courage of her mother and grandmother, and by extension shows her own bravery, as they establish a new life in Australia.  She speaks at the end about her desire for children.  She says, “I wonder about the boat.  Who could ever wish it on their own?  Yet I am afraid of privilege, of ease, of entitlement.  Can I give them a bow in their lives, dipping bravely into each wave?  The unperturbed and steady beat of the engine?  The vast horizon that guarantees nothing?”  The confident assurance of her mother and grandmother that failure was not an option carried Tan through her childhood, through law school and international recognition, through greater achievements after that.

Now I turn my thoughts to my own children.  We live in a strange paradox, our family.  To the western observer, we have given up a life of privilege, cut our income to a tenth of what it once was, immersed ourselves in a foreign language and culture, different not only in appearances but also in its deep philosophical roots.  We live in an apartment a fraction of the size of the house we left behind.  We depend on public transportation after being a two-car family.  We have to go to great lengths to make macaroni and cheese. But to our Chinese friends, we are the privileged class.  We take taxis often.  We have coffee at Starbucks occasionally.  Our income is more than three times the local average. We make this expensive food called macaroni and cheese.

Our children are treated like rock stars when we go out, with their blond hair and big blue eyes.  Everyone wants a picture with them.  If we charged a small fee we would be millionaires. They are given candy without even batting a eye in our direction to ask for permission.  My children have to be sternly reminded that they are not to ask for things from strangers because, no matter what it is, the stranger is likely to hand it over…an iPhone with a cool game, ice cream, the lot.

In this limbo land, I have decided to remove my son from public school.  Though I’m fairly certain his sister will do well in the school, he has special needs that the school can’t address.  The decision was difficult, because I have often felt I don’t have the patience or the organizational skills to home-school effectively.  My husband and I struggled with how to address our son’s growing sense of isolation and frustration by hoping the problem would go away.  It didn’t.  By the end of last term, he had stopped doing any kind of work in class, and he was, without a doubt the loneliest child I knew.  His self-talk was (and still is) very negative and even frightening, with occasional suicidal statements. This is terrifying to hear from an eight-year-old.   Sometimes, he had upswings that would give us hope.  But those had recently all but gone the way of the dodo.  Finally, I purchased an ebook that discussed how to home-school a child with his needs.  The first section of the book records anecdotes from other parents who also decided to home-school their child.  There was such a resonance.  I realized that my fears and inadequacies are not enough to keep torturing this poor kid, and torture is what his school had become – a mixture of bullying, and being alternately ignored and belittled by a teacher who doesn’t understand him.

So he is now at home with me every morning.  And we are trying to figure out this homeschooling business.  We’ve hired a tutor to continue his Chinese studies in language and math, plus provide child care during the afternoons while I work.  So far so good.  This is day two.

I keep coming back to that image of Tan Le on the boat.  She went the other way, from the East to the West, from a difficult life to a life of increasing ease.  And she fears privilege, ease and entitlement.   Are our children benefiting from our challenges?  Who knows?  They speak fluent Chinese, and will be fully literate in the language much sooner than I will be.  Does that increase their ease? They will grow up as third culture kids, and that brings its own challenges and blessings.

This world is changing so quickly.  One thing I am certain of is that China has an important place in the future of our planet.  Our children’s bilingual/multiculturalism  will probably benefit them.  But it is a vast horizon, and there are no guarantees.  I have friends whose children, though they grew up in China, have rejected their language and experience here as useless.  How can I help my children avoid that rejection?

That boat.  I keep wondering about that boat, too.  “Can I give them a bow in their lives, dipping bravely into each wave?  The unperturbed and steady beat of the engine?  The vast horizon that guarantees nothing?” This is such powerful image.  It implies something under the surface, invisible and guiding, moving into an unknown future, driven by a profound purpose.  Maybe the best I can do is provide a consistent message to my children about the purpose of life, and then provide them with skills to follow their own path of service.  That’s really what this blog is about.  As an exploration of purpose, it is a constant reminder that I am here to be of service to the world.  My immediate concern is the part of the world that is closest at hand: my family.  Let’s hope I don’t sink that boat.

How do you help ensure that your children don’t become accustomed to privilege and ease?  How do you cultivate gratitude in your children?  Or perseverance in the face of difficulty?   What’s your perspective on these issues?

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