Coming back to our Chinese city from any time spent out of country is usually a good-old-time-game of mind tricks. It's not just dealing with jet-lag and a body all messed up in its biorhythms and sleep patterns, but dealing with, what I call, Life-Lag. Let just say those first days back after weeks in another land where there is usually an abundance of All Good Things is not a great time to try and make any major life decisions, especially decisions about whether or not to stay put.
This week was another one of those Life-Lag weeks. Fresh off the plane from a winter respite of snow-scapes and air so clear it tickled your lungs like magic sprinkles, we descended into a city with pollution levels rising to some of the highest, most hazardous numbers we've ever seen. Outside access was restricted, school was threatened with possible cancellation, and the walls felt like they were closing in tighter with each passing day, like a one of those claustrophobic scenes from Indiana Jones.
I've been through bouts of this pollution depression before, and though I know that the Airpocalypse numbers will eventually subside, those dark days can seem to make me lose my mind, question what we are doing to our children, feel smothered by our limitations and envious of all the children basking in an idyllic outdoor childhood in other parts of the world.
During one of our early, jet-lagged mornings, we watched an episode of Chef's Table, where a chef in a remote area of Sweden, using local ingredients, built a restaurant and a menu and a life out of the natural beauty he had grown up in but never fully appreciated. The fir trees rolled for miles over landscapes of nestled mountain lakes, through snow covered meadows, alongside streams that ran like molten glass. Cows grazed leisurely, the steam of their breath rising in the sunlight of the early morning. A root cellar boasted of home grown garden vegetables. And I looked out our dark window, knowing daylight would bring a sky the color of molten ash.
Even the Morning Prayer seemed to mock me,
O Lord, let my soul rise to meet you, as the day rises to meet the sun.
Except I could see no morning sun. Haven't seen one for weeks. And my soul wanted to follow suit... lie in a shroud, unsure of where to go or what to hope in. There's no sun or soul rising to see here.
In the midst of this battle against discouragement over the oppressive air quality, there was the battle of Feeling Abandoned and All Kinds of Self-Pity that comes from the march of foreigners announcing their plans to leave, or just dealing with that lonely sense that you are the ones slugging away at life and the hardships here while others get a pass, take it easy, get special breaks. It's funny how suddenly, all of life seems irritating and difficult when one thing goes wrong. As if battling on one front is never the way battles work in real life. When it rains, the raindrops seem like they come at you from every direction.
But finally, after a week of ungodly numbers, the conditions improved. Skies were still plastered grey, but the air was at least somewhat breathable. So I ventured out for some much needed exercise. I stretched my legs, and prayed from some kind of peace in the my heart. Perhaps a peace that could surpass understanding what it means to live in conditions like this, peace about the people and all your misguided feelings towards them.
Oddly enough, it was the underpass that spoke to me. The underpass with its giant columns of concrete monstrosity that rise like other-worldly, Y-shaped bones, holding up ribbons of steel streets that thread their way through the city like irons straps.
And on these enormous columns of man-made rock, climbs a delicate God-given vine. It twists and spirals, hanging here in a cluster of rose tinted leaves, weaving there in a blanket of green that slowly sweeps into gold, then amber, and back to green again. As though unaware of it's canvas, or stubbornly in spite of it, that vine screams beauty and beckons for beholding though it clings to the ugliest of forms
Then my husband and I went out to dinner. Somewhere in the conversation, as I lamented our City-Life Limitations, he told me the story of the jazz player who though frustrated and irate at the state of the piano presented to him to use at a concert he was to perform in that night, went on to eek out of his maddening limitations, on a broken and dilapidated excuse for a keyboard, what is now the highest selling recorded jazz concert of all time. He made that broken disaster soar.
Cliche, I said.
Am I supposed to be inspired?
But as much I rolled my inward eyes, the story still stuck.
I don't know how to do it, or what it will look like, but this Polluted City is our canvas, and here we are trying to make our way in it-- and wanting to learn to make our way in a way that beckons to be beheld, that somehow adorns this ugly form with a form of glory.
And even as the Morning Prayer seemed to mock me, the Words I read later were like a calling from the hilltops. Like a casting call from The Chef's Table, looking for it's next feature.
Let me tell you why you are here. you're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. (Matthew 5.13 The Message)
Bring out the God-flavors of the earth... that sounded like creating art. Like our job is full time Life Artists. You are salt-seasoning... that sounded like artistic promise. And creativity, art... it best thrives within limitations. Limitations like a polluted canvas. Like walls closing in. Maybe a feeling like claustrophobia or a place like a prison.
Let me tell you why you are here...