Saturday, January 7, 2023

A Birthday Remembered

Reading through old files on my computer today, I came across this piece written around the time of my birthday while living in China. 

Tomorrow is my birthday again ... over two decades later.

Remembering that birthday in China from the comfort of my American living room has been a delight. I've chuckled throughout the remembrance, reassured myself that I could only do it because I was young, and wondered about the current status of restaurants, drains, and heating in China. Please come to my party and enjoy this sweet birthday memory with me.

 January 14, 2002

Inner City Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Dear family and friends,

The year clicked over to 2002, and the Chinese population automatically upped their ages by one year. At least that is how one friend explained it to me. January first is the universal birthday. The Chinese are masters of keeping everyone on the same page. For instance, even though the country extends further east to west than the United States, there is only one time zone which in America would mean it’s the same time in New York City as it is in Los Angeles. So in true socialist fashion, on January 1st they all moved up a year.

In fact, this birthday thing is even more interesting because many Chinese gauge their birthday from conception, so on the day they leave their mother’s womb and enter the world, they are already one year old, or thereabouts. When someone mentions age, I wonder—is that really how old you are? Or is your age from conception? Or is that the January 1st universal birthday? The Chinese are an enigmatic and mystifying people.

I had to wait a week until January 8th  to click up a year, too. I was actually born into the world on the 8th, and my parents began counting my age from that date. No mystery there. Despite encroaching age, I feel great, not even one minute of illness in China ... Mao’s Revenge has skipped me. That in itself is a miracle, considering sanitary conditions. Consider, for example, these two examples.

The Chinese have a disconcerting habit that makes me shiver and quicken my pace, in one direction or another when walking through the city. I call it the “Chinese national anthem.” It can be heard at any hour of the day, in any place, at any time ... restaurant, bus, theater, close quarters ... and it results with most foreigners, at least, coming to focused attention. The anthem is about to begin when a person coughs a bit and then starts to roll that cough out of their lungs up through their throat at which point (I never look)...I hustle as fast as I can away from the inevitable end of this guttural emptying of the saliva glands. I’ve never been hit, but there have been a few close ones. Bikers are the most dangerous. They pass at a clip with the wind in their faces, and an unsuspecting pedestrian can really get an eyeful. When I was a child I played that sidewalk game, “step on the crack, break someone’s back.” Well, the game here is hop, skip, and jump around the heaps of sputum on the sidewalk. Hence, the custom of removing your shoes whenever you enter a house. Everyone, always, removes shoes at the door. The sputum and shoe removal make for plenty of local color.

The second sanitary problem has to do with rodents of which there appear to be a small nation. Now, I have a cat, Oreo, back in Pennsylvania whom I treasure. He’s fat, sassy, and loves a good romp after critters in the backyard, but I wouldn’t want to see that prize feline tangle with these fellows. They have taken over the country and are currently vying with the ruling politburo for control. I was in a tea house the other day, and one strolled, not ran or sought cover, he literally sauntered past our table in the middle of the floor. No scurrying along the wall for these brutes. 

Our trash heap behind my apartment building is just that... a heap. No dumpster. So it attracts its share of rodents, but the real heartbreaker was finding out that my favorite restaurant, the local greasy spoon of the neighborhood where I dine at least twice a week because it reminds me of a Chinese version of our Clarks Summit Gourmet Diner, hosts a variety of these long nosed, long tailed patrons on a regular basis. Hence, another custom and often repeated mantra from the Chinese, “If food drops on the table from your chopsticks, leave it there.” Easy for them to say. Most of what they eat with chopsticks makes it to their mouths. I could go hungry.

So my fifty-third birthday finds me healthy but evidently aging. One of my young Chinese teacher friends has adopted the title “Jo Ann’s Chinese Son,” and the faculty refers to him in that way. Daniel has been my translator and right hand man. He’s the guy I call for emergencies if Ming Guan, my neighbor, isn’t around. One day I had a spider in my apartment. Spider is a gentle term for this creature whose span appeared to dwarf a human hand and its exterior was black and furry. I had no doubt of how he gained entrance. The plumbing from the sink in the bathroom falls directly, straight as an arrow to the sewer, covered only by flagstones, which runs along the street. All any self-respecting spider from the street sewer has to do is walk up the pipe. I gained a new appreciation for those crooked neck pipes under our sinks at home. The children’s ditty “the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout” has taken on new meaning. So this Charlotte roamed up and down the walls of my apartment. I made no attempts to swat her with my towel or throw a shoe at her, fearing retribution. Instead, I called my knight in shining spectacles, Sir Daniel, who knocked him on the floor and slammed a book on him, creating a mess beyond civil description.

Anyway, Daniel gave me a lovely Christmas/birthday gift ... long underwear. When I gently probed the reason for this intimate gift, he said that if I am his Americna mother, he should give me what he would give his own mother ... something to keep her warm in winter. Nothing shows love here more than long underwear on a cold day in China..

Without central heating things can get nippy. Another of those famous unwritten Chinese rules is that only homes north of the Yellow River are heated. Everything south of the river is unheated ... no matter how cold it gets. It’s the rule. My best reading time happens when I crawl into bed at night, but in the winter in southern China when I crawled under the covers for warmth to read, the heat of my body and the cold of the air worked together to fog up my glasses, and my breath formed a cloud around my head. No reading in bed in winter.

Despite cold temperatures, the Chinese have this thing about “bad air.” The temperature might be 40 degrees Fahrenheit near the East China Sea in mid-winter, but the windows must be kept open. Every room of the school has its window open, rain or cold. In fact, we teach and the children learn with coats and gloves on and a wind whistling through, but we’ve blown out that bad air. Even the taxi drivers zip around town in cold weather with the windows rolled all the way down. Now, if you ever visit my home in mid-winter, you know I have a fireplace and room temperatures that have made visiting Jamaicans break out in a sweat. The other day I got in a taxi, and the windows were up! I took a closer look at the driver to make sure that he was really Chinese. He was. Not only that, he had the heat blasting. I curled my toes up to the dashboard, and I was tempted to say, “Just ride me around town, honey, until I warm up.” What a birthday treat! Maybe he has a thyroid problem too.

Besides adding another year to my age, I crossed some kind of line with language. For seven months now I have been deaf and mute in a country whose tongue I have been helpless to discern. Mrs. Chen, the school’s gatekeeper, and I have a lovely relationship of waving arms and pantomine. Whenever I leave the school grounds, she and I go into our friendly gyrations which communicate something while we both jabber away in our own language. The other day as I was leaving, Mrs. Chen started waving to me, and she said something that ... I UNDERSTOOD! I stopped in my tracks and looked at her, wondering what she had done with my favorite gatekeeper, but it was still Mrs. Chen, and she had asked me (another famous Chinese question), “Where are you going?” We jumped around and hollered some more in that wonderful moment of revelation. Trouble was: I didn’t know how to answer her, except with another pantomine.

The birthday festivities were unforgettable. The girls in my weekly Bible study group know that my favorite Chinese food is dumplings (phonetically, “joutsa”), so they took me to a “joutsa” house, kind of a Chinese version of Perkins Pancakes or Howard Johnson’s with fifty varieties. There were “joutsa” with duck and mushroom, pork and cabbage, shrimp and vegetables, even peaches. A dumpling lover’s heaven. After the dumpling house the Suns from across the hall piled into my apartment with birthday cake and my name written in Chinese characters ... those sweet people. 

It’s always blessing upon blessing here, and it’s unquestionable that I am receiving more than I am giving even though I ask the Father daily to make every moment among these dear people count for Him and matter for their eternity.

The school term ends here in one week, and then the nation settles down to the serious business of celebrating the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, the most significant event of their year. Another blessing: my son Bryan and my friend Donna will come here for the holiday. I am so eager to have my two worlds meet and to show Bryan and Donna the wonders of the Middle Kingdom and the work for the Highest Kingdom.

Getting older certainly has its up side.

Remembering fondly all of you who are aging along with me and looking to the ultimate celebration.

Jo Ann

Saturday, March 6, 2021

A Reason to Love America:

 America Was Founded and Built 

on Faith in God

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

John Adams
America's Second Presiden

"Our Constitution was made only for a
moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." 


Thomas Jefferson
Author of America's
Declaration of Independence
America's Third President

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."

General George Washington
America's First President

"While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."

James Madison
Primary Author of the
 U.S. Constitution
America's Fourth Presiden

"We have staked the whole future of American civilization not on the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."

Benjamin Franklin
A signer of both America's
Declaration of Independence
and The Constitution.
One of the leading theorists of the
American Revolution

"I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?

                            Blessed is

 the nation whose God is the Lord, 

the people He chose for His inheritance.

Psalm 33:12 (NIV)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Happy New Year - 2021!

Fuzhou Foreign Languages School

Fuzhou, Fujian, China

A New Year's Memory with an 

O. Henry Ending        

December 31st and January 1st are holidays in America. Not so in China where it's business as usual. School is in session.

But on December 31st, 2001, at the Fuzhou Foreign Languages School in Fuzhou, China, students and faculty took a slightly different approach to the school day by celebrating their "First Foreign Language Festival." 

Established by Irish missionaries at the turn of the 20th century, the school had lived through the end of an empire, a civil war, Mao, a Communist take-over and the Cultural Revolution when teachers were often sent off for re-education in the countryside, but the Fuzhou Foreign Languages School had survived. And in 2001-2002 their first native English-speaking American teacher had taken up residence at the school. 

Her name was Miss Jones, an easy-to-pronounce English name compared to Mrs. Walczak as she was known in her high school back in Pennsylvania where "Walczak" created pronunciation problems even for the best English speakers.

The "First Foreign Language Festival," Miss Fang's brain child, would cultivate the use of spoken English, encourage a spoken English milieu, and utilize its American teacher. English was one of only four required school subjects because speaking English provided one way up the economic ladder. 

Miss Fang

Dean of the school's English department, Miss Fang oozed creativity. She planned the Festival to be an all-day, all-school event for the 2,000+ students, a way to celebrate the "joys of speaking English" (perhaps a concept needing revival in America). She organized room decorating, games, and song competitions. But the highlight of the day was a two and a half hour show for a packed house at a local cinema just a short walk up the Lu.

If you watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the  2008 Beijing Olympics on television, you know the Chinese have a flair for spectacle, drama, and excess in productions that should make the producers of the Super Bowl half-time shows pale. 

The Chinese have a flair for 
performance even in daily
morning exercises at school.

Miss Fang's show featured 20 student and teacher presentations: songs, poems, speeches, dances, and plays. From behind the stage curtain I watched, thoroughly impressed with their creativity and ingenuity. In fact, we weren't past the first number, and I knew I was out of my league. I could speak English, but I couldn't sing like Dolly or dance like Travolta. I would be a woeful disappointment to Miss Fang, my mentor and supervisor.

Machines pumped fog across the stage for a troupe of Japanese kimonoed dancers. Synchronized dance numbers featured fans and banners swinging in rhythm. Sixty ballroom dancers in gowns moved in perfect formation until I was ready to sashay out the back door of the theater and forget I had a part in the performance.

But the everpresent Miss Fang would not let her only native English speaker escape. She was at the door, in my face, and generally everywhere at once. Always smiling and bowing, this in-charge lady was a task master, a workaholic, and a perfectionist, who had become one of my best friends in the four months I had been in her charge. Driven by love for the school and its students, she taught me much about the art of teaching and the joy of serving her school, but this diminutive pack of dynamite had nearly become my nemesis over the last few weeks.

Before Thanksgiving (a thoroughtly American holiday not celebrated in China), I had a call from Miss Fang to report to her office, not an uncommon occurrence. 

"Jo Ann, we will be having a Foreign Language Festival at the end of December, and at the Festival I would like you to do two hours of English word games at English Corner in the courtyard, teach the  teachers several songs in English to sing at the Festival, and perform a play with your spoken English class." 

My stomach churned for a month like the Chinese wringer washer on my apartment balcony.

Some of the Foreign Language School teachers
under a bell tower built by the Irish.

Initially, the music seemed to be the biggest challenge. My only contribution to any choir had been volume not melody. The teachers nixed several songs I chose as too difficult, including "Lean on Me" and "My Favorite Things." My knowledge of contemporary music came to an abrupt halt prior to my child-rearing years in the '70's, so current hits were not on my radar. 

Fortunately, the Carpenters, Karen and Richard, were making a big hit in China at the time ... long past their prime in America, Karen dominated every sound system in China's larger stores. So the teachers chose her hit "Sing a Song" as their first number. Both Chinese and Spanish language challenged, I was amazed by their choice of "Una Paloma Blanca" as their second number. My ability to provide either musical or language help immediately came into question. As with most of my other directives about life, my coaching amounted to this advice: "Sing loud. Smile big. They'll love you for your spirit." (A philosophy that has saved face for me on many occasions, and in China "saving face" is necessary.)

Those lovely Chinese teachers did whatever they were told, uncomplainingly. At the Festival they sang their hearts out, but most were too nervous to "smile big" because they were concentrating on remembering the words. Our performance did not take the show by storm, despite Miss Fang's efforts to add excitement by having glitter fall from the rafters during our songs. A surprise to all of us, it served to break the concentration of my Chinese colleagues who promptly forgot the words.

But it was the play that dominated by attention in the month before the Festival. Our American short story writer, O. Henry, appeals to the Chinese for his clever and ironic endings. I rewrote his story "The Policeman and the Anthem" in seven short scenes of easy English. The story is about a homeless man in New York City who, faced with winter cold, tried his hand at a variety of crimes to get himself arrested and sent to a warm jail cell.

Our cast of about 25 students practiced for an hour every day. Most students 

One of our policemen and Allen
on the right.
only had to learn three or four lines, except for "Soapy," the homeless man. I chose Allen for that part. His English wasn't the best, but he had mastered the art of class clown, he was fearless about speaking up in class unlike most Chinese teens, and, best of all, he was loud.

Cherry, our narrator who spoke wonderful English, would become incensed with Allen's garbled English during rehearsals and stop in her recitations to give him the dirtiest looks and rail at him in Chinese. Who knows what she said, but her looks were venomous.

Michael was a "reader," like a Greek chorus role. He turned out to be highly nervous and as the curtain on performance day was rising, he was yelling to me, "How do I say 'Enjoy, enjoy'?"

Our policeman,
Vince Carter on the left.
The play has five policemen. We were able to obtain authentic Chinese police uniforms from the husband of one of the teachers. Steven, Disney, Vince Carter, Jordan (Michael), and James were the biggest boys in the class. They received the coveted roles of policemen, and each brought his own brand of "police aura."'

Vince Carter did a superlative job with his line, "Is there a problem here?" And Jordan's, "What are you doing here?" was convincing, though not entirely discernible. 

Steven had a wonderful swagger and gave a hearty laugh on cue, but his "Poor slob!" had too many p's and b's, and it ended up mostly spit.

Disney couldn't get his lines out fast enough. He speaks English at record pace, and he managed to run on stage, spew out his lines and hustle off in a flash.

But our star, Allen, did a wonderful job. He managed to look perpetually cold on a snowy winter day, eat sloppily in a diner, and fall realistically when shoved around. If only he had remembered to turn on his lapel microphone.

The art teacher and the school carpenter had been dragged into the mix by Miss Fang, also. The carpenter made a sign for each store scene on our New York street, and the art teacher rigged up a window that dropped a giant crack when hit by Soapy's rock. 

Barry (Cihan) holding American flag.

Even the art department had challenges with my production. Barry, another of my students, worked with the art teacher on the staging, but he could not understand the entire concept. Barry only knew "play" as a verb, so he had to be convinced that we would not be "playing" a game on stage.  

These super Chinese teens put forth a great effort, despite the

Classes averaged 50-60 students.
inabilities of the director. More than once I would forget myself and launch into a lengthy directive, only to discover them bleary-eyed and oblivious to my rambling English. They were patient with me and endlessly graceful. 

But this marvelous New Year's Eve memory had a sequel almost two decades later.

 In 2018 Allen, our Soapy, now in his early 30's and working for a Chinese corporation, came to Texas on business. He remembered his American "Spoken English" teacher at the Fuzhou Foreign Languages School who talked about Pennsylvania, her home. A few emails to old schoolmates, and Allen located me and made the trip up from Texas to visit in my home ... 

Nearly two decades and half a world later,

Soapy showed up On Layton. 

Allen, "Soapy," On Layton almost 2 decades later.

... And he came with a message. He hadn't forgotten the "Soapy" of Fuzhou. Soapy, he said, had changed his life and given him the incentive he needed to develop courage, confidence, and personal strength to step out and speak up in his school and career. Allen knew if he could perform as the lead in a play, speaking a foreign language as a teen, he could do most anything with his life ... and he has. 

An unexpected event brought success and hope to our main character. 

New Years are like that. They can be the beginning of new grace and new hope. 

A satisfying resolution worthy of O. Henry ...

and characteristic of our Sovereign God

who loves happy endings.

Barry (Cihan), my English student/scenery constructor,
first visited On Layton in 2019. Working with Amazon in 
Washington D.C., he has traveled the world with his company
and came to Layton several times...
He speaks marvelous English.

*Note to readers: My memory did not retain all of these details. During my year teaching in China, these specifics were related in emails to friends in the US. Those letters were my memory source. Other Chinese students have also come to visit On Layton. Miss Fang and I have visited several times since 2002 in China. Some of my Chinese colleagues continue to teach at Fuzhou Foreign Languages School.

*Regarding student names: With 50-60 students in a class, remembering Chinese names and pronouncing them correctly would have been a task worthy of Demosthenes. So every student chose an English name, usually of the American English strain. We had five Michael Jordans in one class, known as Jordan 1, 2, etc. We even had an Orange. Some students still use their English names.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

How to Have One of the
 Best Vacations of Your Life 

Americans want to get out of the house.  
We want to hit the road, travel somewhere, "blow the stink off ya' " as my mother used to say when we kids had spent too much time inside. 

With borders closed around the world, your bucket list trip to Italy is out of the question. In fact, even renting a room in Wildwood, New Jersey, has some latent dangers. Are motel bedspreads and comforters washed after every guest? Does the carpet look like it has been through several plagues? 

Ongoing viral infections through 2021 are predicted. This pandemic has shortened our wander leash ... or has it?

"No!" I say from inside my four-man, Coleman dome tent. "We can always camp!"

RV, trailer, or tent camping assure we sleep in our own germs, use our own toilets (possible even when tent camping), wash in our own sinks, keep our viruses in the family. This is not a time for staging mixers with the community's microorganisms.

America is returning to its pioneering roots, but the Conestoga and covered wagon have yielded to  RV's with state-of-the-art kitchens, flat screen televisions, microwaves, ice-on-demand from double-door refrigerators, and plenty of beds, hidden under tables and couches. It's called glamping. We know we "can't take it with us" when we die, but Americans have found every way to "take it with them" on the road.

My son, who works in the RV industry, said it is experiencing an unprecedented 60% rise in sales, thanks to America's desire to get on the road and sleep in their own germs. Glamping in a luxury RV may be a great option for a pandemic vacation, but for many of us a camper or tent are the way to go.

Experience has taught our family the joys and values of camping. 

In the early '60s Dad launched my decades long camping career. I was 12, so, initially, camping seemed like more work than necessary. I was annoyed with carrying water to cook, chagrined with heating water to wash, and further annoyed with 5 of us in sleeping bags, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder and butt-to-butt in our umbrella tent. Perhaps it is in just such circumstances children learn flexibility and gratefulness whatever the situation.

Our maiden adventure was to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Signs for safety with bears were everywhere. Dad slept with an ax, locked the food in our car, and lay expectantly all night while bears snuffled around the campsite. That was camping trip #1. 
Dad's specialty on the
road - grilling hot dogs.

Even with all the inconveniences, I realized, camping was a way to see the world on a shoestring ... and have some wonderful adventures.

"Shoestring" vacations were the operative words when, as a single mom of a 4 and 6-year-old, I realized that if I were ever going to give my boys some adventure and take them to see our country it would have to be in a tent.

A two-man pup tent was big enough and cheap enough. Peanut butter sandwiches made menus easy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and off we went each summer for the next 10 years. In those days, we could camp for under $10 a night at a walk-in site. We camped in every major park and visited most points of interest between Northeast Pennsylvania and Little River, South Carolina, where we collapsed at Pa and MaMa's house.

Chincoteague and Assateague, Williamsburg, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Cherokee Indian Reservation, the Outer Banks, the Smokies and more ... horses, bears, snakes, Indians, the ocean - this was living adventure for a single mom and her boys.

Our Cross-America van.
The official and formal end to our family camping career came when the boys were 14 and 16. Summer jobs loomed for the college bound, so a final, big bash campout was planned. Pa and MaMa were included. I purchased an old conversion van in the Paper Shop, a local listing of used items for sale. The van, already clocked at 90,000 miles, needed tires and lacked air conditioning which became an issue in Death Valley. Undeterred, the 5 of us set off across the United States in pursuit of as many national parks as we could find. 

The trip would cover over 10,000 miles in our 50 days on the road. Below this blog is a chronological list of the parks, forests, monuments, and cities we visited ... a list I can only remember because of my detailed scrapbook of photos and brochures. The southern route took us west to the Pacific, up the Pacific coast into British Columbia and Alberta, south into Montana, and a final swing across the northern states. 

The van had a pull out bed in the back which we reserved for Pa and MaMa during the entire trip. The boys and I slept in our tent, the 4-man dome ... easy up, easy down. Sometimes we froze at night, like when we camped near the base of the glacier at Lake Louise, British Columbia, and sometimes we baked, like in the high desert near Tucson, Arizona. 

Daily, we made memories: the "Going to the Sun" highway in Glacier National Park, Montana; a
In a snow field.
Glacier National Park,
solitary walk through the Muir Woods in northern California; driving through Death Valley in the Southwest with the windows up (in our non-air conditioned van because MaMa had some crazy theory about keeping it cool inside); exploring the food stands in Juarez, Mexico; and walking, always walking, the trails in Yellowstone, the Sierras, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon.

This was the adventure of a lifetime, a forever family memory, an epic journey.

The result: the family was still talking after 50 days of camping. And ...  both of my sons have made camping a major activity for their own families. Parenting 3 children each, Bryan and Trevor have graduated from the tents of their youth to RVs. They still love finding beautiful places in America to camp, and the joys of sitting around campfires at night have never been lost. We are into our 4th generation of family campers.

Ken Burns says, "Our national parks are America's best idea." Truly. And they are also America's way to point us to God, for the Creator's fingerprints are evident everywhere in nature's beauty and glory. 

The boys and giant Sequoias.
Horace Albright, one of the founders of the National Park System, said, "The parks are something more enduring than we are... they were designed by God ..." 

Our lives are brief, but in the great outdoors we see continuity. Stand on a glacier, under a giant Sequoia, or on a Grand Canyon overlook. Problems dwarf in the face of God's majesty and power. Hot springs and geysers bubbling from deep in the earth, Mount St. Helens witness to the inner power, towering pines in rain forests of the Northwest ... all display an awe-inspiring majesty no man could manufacture.

These wonders take us out of our circumstances and self-absorption. We see ourselves as we really are: a small part of God's great and magnificent creation. Scripture attests to God's hand in it all: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." (Romans 1:20, Message)

On the arch above the northern entrance to Yellowstone, the purpose of the park system is stated, "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Enjoyment, inspiration, a God-encounter ... the vacation of a lifetime awaits. A pandemic can't stop that.

I'm reminded of a World War 2 song my dad often sang on the road: "Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile!" So gather your camping gear and kit bag, spend this winter planning your cross country route, and get ready to SMILE.

With a tent and some time, my family has seen America, and in its beauty, we have seen God's hand.
Lake Louise, British Columbia
You can too. It is unique, powerful, and breathtaking beyond imagination ... a welcome and crucial reminder of who and what we are.

On Layton
but encouraging you to 
"blow the stink off ya'," go camping,
and see America.

Places of interest, national parks and monuments visited on our 50-day cross-country adventure:
  1. Opryland and the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tennessee
  2. Memphis, Tennessee
  3. Dallas, Texas
  4. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  6. Guadalope Mountains National Park, Texas
  7. El Paso, Texas
  8. Juarez and Nogales, Mexiso
  9. Silver City, New Mexico
  10. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico
  11. Tombstone, Arizona, National Historic site
  12. Saguaro National Monument, Tucson, Arizona
  13. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, Arizona
  14. Tonto National Monument, Arizona
  15. Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
  16. Sedona, Arizona
  17. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  18. Painted Desert National Park, Arizona
  19. Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona
  20. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  21. Sunset Crater National Monument, Arizona
  22. Hoover Dam, Arizona-Nevada
  23. Las Vegas, Nevada
  24. Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley, California
  25. Sequoia National Park, California
  26. Yosemite National Park, California
  27. San Francisco, California
  28. Napa Valley, Sonoma, Mendicino, California
  29. Redwood National Park, California
  30. Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington
  31. Mount Rainier, Washington
  32. Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
  33. Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada
  34. Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
  35. Lake Louise, British Columbia
  36. Calgary, Alberta
  37. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Montana-Canada
  38. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  39. Cody, Wyoming
  40. Custer State Park, Wyoming
  41. Mt. Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota
  42. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  43. The Dells, Wisconsin

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Food Place, A Happy Place, An Escape Place,

A Garden

It's the heighth of summer, and Layton has never looked so good. 
My grandmother's 70-year-old
peonies on Layton.

Fresh mulch is heaped around flower beds, tomato and zucchini plants are peeking from the oddest spaces, perennials and annuals are lush up and down the road. Is this any different from other years? The experts say, "Yes!"

One nursery grower reports that seed sales doubled this year, and tomato plants flew off shelves faster than toilet paper.* Mulch salesmen said they had never seen such a high demand. Customers were lined up to have bags and trailers filled. Yards and gardens look gorgeous everywhere.

John and Colette Hughes' Covid-
escape flower garden.
Gardens have been one of the positive results of quarantine and isolation caused by Covid 19. With activity limited to anything we can do outdoors, attention has turned to gardens, a traditional source of help and comfort when the world presses in and the going gets rough.

In 1917 the government asked the nation to plant War Gardens to free up food for our soldiers in World War 1. Americans responded whole-heartedly. And in World War 2, the government changed the name to Victory Gardens and asked the same gardening efforts of its people. In fact, Victory Gardens produced 40% of the nation's fruits and vegetables.*

Covid Gardens have sprouted from the needs of a different kind of war. They are not just food places although staying out of grocery stores and controlling the growth of our own food has wide appeal. Our Covid Gardens have become escape places, happy places, when the four walls of the living room begin to close in.

Several of my favorite gardeners on Layton have made their Covid Gardens virtual Edens.

Colette, lost in squash.
John and Colette Hughes tend a fully-stocked garden that far exceeds hobby gardener status. Last year's garden produced 47 quarts of tomatoes, 10 quarts of salsa, 10 pints of tomato sauce, 10 quarts of jerry peppers and pickles, 10 quarts of carrots, green beans, and green peppers, 40 pounds of potatoes, and 40 cloves of garlic ... not to mention the ever-abundant zucchini. But that was last year. Their Covid Garden is on track to outproduce 2019's crop.

My favorite part of their garden? The whimsical trellises John has constructed above the garden where his trained cucumbers climb and provide a shady, peaceful, Covid escape.
John and his beanstalk

Keep in mind this is JUST a backyard garden, no acreage, no tractors, an ordinary Layton backyard. Weeding, watering, battling beetles and other critters who come to dine then freezing and canning their harvest dominate the weeks ahead for Colette and John, but they glean joy and personal satisfaction in sharing their bounty as well as a taste of summer throughout the winter.
John Hughes and his cuke trellis.

About a quarter mile up Layton, Virginia Richardson tends an English garden. Like its Oxfordshire forbears, the garden incorporates her rolling lawn, groves of trees, and hundreds of flowers. The Richardson family has owned the land for over 80 years, so roots go deep around the house on Layton she shares with husband Reggie.

The largest bed of her many gardens fronts her house and extends close to 100 feet in a sculpted style. Primarily, perenials pack Virginia's gardens. Her favorite flowers are day lilies which can be found in a variety of colors.
Day lilies in bloom.

When spring comes, Virginia mans her garden dawn til dusk, weeding, dividing large clumps of roots, replanting bulbs in various other places (including in my yard!). Years of work and long days of grooming have produced a lovely landscape flower garden ... and neighbors, like me, take great pleasure in its beauty.
Virginia Richardson in her English garden.

Gardens hold a hint of the divine for, it seems, God loves gardens. He placed His most perfect creations, man and woman, in the most ideal spot to begin life - a garden.

And the night before His Son was to die for the sins of all mankind, God led Jesus to a garden where they could commune. Gardens loom large in His story.

A garden is a microcosm of  life: seeds give birth, seedlings soak up the water and sun as they put their roots down deep in the soil. They become fruit and flower bearers, and eventually they die. A picture of our lives.

Jesus' stories, designed to teach us about God and His kingdom, are often about seeds or soil. And when He wanted us to know how to live and walk with God daily, a garden provided the metaphor. The illustration of a vine and its branches (John 15) shows the vital importance of staying connected to God. Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the Gardener" (John 15:1). We branches cannot live for God and His glory without abiding in Him, just as a branch takes its nourishment and strength from the vine to which it must be connected.

When we are rooted and grounded in God, He calls us "a well-watered garden" or "a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green; it has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit." (Jeremiah 17:8)

Let's work on becoming well-watered gardens,
trees with deep roots,
so viruses, social turmoil, and worries
won't keep us from growing strong and bearing fruit.

Watering my garden and
sending down roots ...

On Layton

Information source:

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Choose to Face a Tragedy, a Pandemic, or a Rugby Match ... Like a Welshman

Aberfan, Wales

On the morning of October 21, 1966, the children of Aberfan, Wales, arrived at Pantglas Junior School and prepared for their opening song, "All Things Bright and Beautiful."

Within minutes, 116 of them and 5 of their teachers were dead.

Aberfan, Wales. Buried under
140,000 cubic yards of mining waste.
Looming above Aberfam, a coal mining town, stood a "colliery spoil tip," a 111 foot mountain of waste material removed during mining. A spring beneath the pile and three weeks of rain caused a build up of water. Without warning, 140,000 cubic yards of mining waste slurry suddenly slid downhill, bearing tractors, trucks, and houses with it, burying the school, surrounding buildings ... and the children. A total of 144 people died, including the 116 precious little ones of the small Welsh school, obliterating Aberfan's next generation.

When I heard the heartbreaking story of Aberfan for the first time this week, it left me saddened. Fifty-four years after the event, I grieved the loss of Welsh children, family somehow. For in 1966 I was a college freshman, immersed in surviving my first year and oblivious to the pain and sorrow of a village in my grandfather's home country, the country of my ancestors.

News of the disaster took half a century to reach me, thanks finally to the British drama The Crown on Netflix. Probably we've all watched more than our usual amount of television during this pandemic, and The Crown has been my television time-waster of choice as it appealed to my interest in all things British. The Aberfan episode gave substance and dignity to the drama.

In the film and in real life, Prince Philip attended the children's funeral. The following conversation was part of the fictional account in the movie. On his return to Buckingham Palace after the funeral, Queen Elizabeth asked him a question he considered inane. "Did you weep?" she asked.
Funeral for 81 of the 116 children killed
in the Aberfan landslide, 1966.

"It would have caused anyone with even a fraction of a heart to break into a thousand tiny pieces," he said. "There was anger on their faces, rage in their eyes, but they didn't have rallies or shout or curse or throw things."

"What did they do?" the Queen said.

"They sang."

Welshmen singing in the mines.
They sang. No surprise. They were Welsh. It's what people of "The Land of Song" do when faced with joy or tribulation. They sing. "Even at a rugby match, the crowd will sing ... not pop songs but hymns." *

"Singing is in my people as sight is in the eye," comments one character from the Oscar-winning Welsh mining movie How Green was My Valley.* Travel anywhere in the world today where there are Welsh people, and you will find a Welsh choir meeting regularly.

Blogger Ross Clarke notes of his Welsh heritage that in unfamiliar new surroundings the Welsh find solace and sociability in song. He writes, "I can't claim that all Welsh people can sing, but what I can say for sure is that all Welsh people are singers." *

Grandpa Jones wasn't just a singer. He could sing. I grew up with his powerful tenor in church and
Grandpa and Nana Jones sing at the piano on
Layton Road.
around the piano in his living room as Nana Jones played.

Born in North Wales, Grandpa John Owen Jones had been a coal miner. Making a bid for a better life for his wife Winnie and children Betty and Joe, my dad, Grandpa Jones immigrated to Canada and eventually to Blakely, Pennsylvania, a coal mining area with a large Welsh population. He ended up back in the coal mines at the Olyphant and Throop, PA, collieries and singing at every opportunity in churches, bars, or wherever two Welshmen were together.

Mining and music were in his blood.

My dad, Joe, inherited Grandpa's lead tenor. They would blend their distinctive voices on Sunday mornings. Dad joined the choir in every church he attended. He even sang a favorite old hymn, "Beyond the Sunset," at his own funeral, thanks to a prerecorded video.

Aberfan, Grandpa Jones, Dad ... the lesson of the Welsh is to sing ... in the face of trouble, in the throes of joy. Not pop culture songs. Not the "We are the World" variety. Not the "Over the Rainbow" type. But spiritual songs of meaning and depth. Songs that seek God for comfort and love. Songs acknowledging His awesomeness as Creator and Sustainer. Songs that reveal hearts of reliance on God in trouble and gratefulness to Him for all things. 

At the Aberfan funeral, the Welsh villagers sang all stanzas (without books, print-outs, or overhead screens) of "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," a standard Welsh hymn for weddings, funerals, and sporting events, a hymn basic to their lives. Here are the first two verses:

Jesus, Lover of my soul
by Charles Wesley
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly,
while the nearer waters roll,
while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
till the storm of life is past,
safe into the haven guide.
O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none,
hangs my helpless soul on thee,
leave, ah! Leave me not alone,
still support and comfort me. 
till my trust on thee is stayed,
all my help from thee I bring,
cover my defenseless head
with the shadow of thy wing.

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" was the hymn children sang to open each school day in Wales. The children were preparing to sing it when the mountain slid into their school. Here are a few of the verses:

All Things Bright and Beautiful
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful.
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning,
That brightens up the sky.

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful.
The Lord God made them all.

In this worldwide pandemic and in all of our fears, troubles, and joys, may we have an attitude and perspective that seeks God in all things and honors Him in song ... like the Welsh of Aberfan.

Singing ...
On Layton.

* Information sources:

Saturday, April 18, 2020

In a Worldwide Pandemic,
We Need to Know Our Ikigai.

Our health care professionals are living grueling, dangerous days, 
battling COVID19 and saving lives. 
No question about it: they have purpose, motivation, goals, ikigai

But some of us have been retired or furloughed from jobs. 
Home isolation has been our venue ... for weeks. 

So what's your purpose every day?

  • Are all of the long-untouched boxes in your closets and attics sorted or trashed?
  • Has every last one of the board games been played and your second 1,000 piece puzzle is now on the table?
  • Have you read all the books stacked on your night stand?
  • Is laundry at a minimum as no one is changing clothes regularly?
  • Has the dog been walked ... and walked again to the point of exhaustion?

These are times that try the spirits of the hardiest among us.
Without an ikigai, our days can be empty and meaningless.

"A reason to get out of bed in the morning ... something that makes life worth living" is a rough translation of the Japanese word "ikigai." The French call it "raison d'etre." In America, thanks to Rick Warren's book, we call it The Purpose-Driven Life.

The extra time and the isolation may have you wondering, "What on earth am I here for?" Days are passing without marker events to delineate them and often without any motivation. A life without purpose is an empty life. "It's motion without meaning, activity without direction, and events without reason" (Warren).

National Geographic ran a story in 2005 on areas of the world with the greatest longevity. Okinawa, Japan, had one of the highest concentrations of people over 100-years-old. The demographic study revealed that one of the top life style reasons for their longevity was the individual's sense of life purpose, their ikigai.

So what's your ikigai?

What's your reason for getting out of bed during these days of isolation? To enrich the lives of your  children? To improve some else's life? To foster closer family relationships? To serve a neighbor? Purposes that look beyond ourselves to those around us may not increase our bank accounts or even our own pleasure, but they are life's most rewarding goals ... fulfilling reasons for living.

When we reach the end of our days and people look back on our lives, will we be remembered because we did everything we could to make ourselves happy or because the primary goal of our lives was to bring help and joy into the lives of others and, in so doing, to serve God?

God often works in paradigms. When we set serving others as our ikigai, the joy of giving comes right back on us.

"For such a time as this" was the reason given for Queen Esther's appearance before the king in order to save her people.  Even though precedent and history assured her she would probably be killed, Esther chose to sacrifice herself, if necessary, for the good of her people.

Perhaps it is "for such a time as this" that we are living COVID19. Our lives are not demanded of us, as they may be for some health care workers, but "purpose" certainly is. When we get out of bed each day, let's creatively imagine what we can do from our isolation to make life a bit better for someone else.


  •  Offer to make a prescription or grocery run for the elderly or handicapped in your neighborhood or social circle. Do they have any spring yard chores you could do to help?

  • Cards or notes are a welcome sight when we open the mailbox. Even with texting and emailing, a card can go a long way to brighten someone's day. Send lots. You have time, and you can usually order stamps directly with your postal carrier. There's something delightful about a card in the mailbox that lightens spirits.

  • Let your kitchen be a boon to someone: bake cookies, make soup, or a casserole. How fun leaving a treat on someone's porch or in some safe place. No need to even go to the door ... just text them, "Check your porch."

  • The local hardware and garden stores have drive- through service. Pick up a few spring plants and leave them at the doors of a few people you want to encourage.

  • Call friends, relatives, neighbors regularly. Some people who live alone may not have anyone checking in on them.

  • Make face masks for a nursing home, a clinic, friends.   

  • Donate to a local food bank or another organization that helps the needy. 

  • Give a grocery store gift card to a needy family.

  • Tip a grocery store worker or any one of our "necessary" helpers for serving you.

  • Order a pizza or take-out meal from a local restaurant for someone.

  • ZOOM out-of-town family members.

Cultivating my ikigai ...

On Layton.