Universal Design


More than once I have been accused of being a little more than pessimistic, I, of course, prefer realistic because realists tend to see life as a list of goods and bads that don’t weigh each other out or create some kind of cosmic balance; but as goods and bads and parts of a universe that will find balance one way or the other. There is good in this world because people can choose to do good things, there is bad in this world for the same reason because people can choose to do bad things.

At the weakest moments in my life though, in the spiritual depressions and seasons of darkness and silence when it feels as if life is nothing but a relentless black hole of nothingness and apathy that even the most minuscule reminder of hope can be hope.

Mind you, I have spent a grand total of sixteen days in China now and of that time, it has been amazing. I am being worked like an under the table tourist, I get lost on average once a week, living by myself has revealed to me just how weird I actually am, I am either fifteen minutes early to anything or five minutes late for everything, my students are amazing, my colleagues are the best, for the first time in my life I have a peer group that is not ten years younger or twenty years older than I am, just yesterday a random Chinese guy was sent to my apartment to fix my water heater- turns out I just wasn’t holding the power button down hard enough- so now I even have hot water in my bathroom! So much of this time is being spent reveling in hours of quiet solitude where the only sounds are my feet smacking the marbled floors or me yelling when I stub my toes, knee furniture or trip on everything (see, constants are everywhere), that I forget just how much I am doing as well.

My second Sunday brought me to an expat church on Sunday morning, a very expensive lunch in the international district that I regret on principle alone, and then a “trial class” as my boss called it. Where I was gently reprimanded for not taking off my shoes before I walked into class (thank the good sweet Lord above that I had chosen today to wear socks), and then literally thrown to the wolves and their parents. For roughly forty five minutes I pointed to body parts, was touched, poked, prodded, and interrogated by six five year olds, watched a bit of Peppa Pig, sang the alphabet a couple dozen times, taught them how to sit Indian Style, read from a Roald Dahl book, and then about twenty choruses of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” all while watching random Chinese parents stick their heads in the door just to look at me, while trying my best to ignore the three Chinese dads sitting in the back of the class judging the foreigner silently, but also recording what felt like the ENTIRE class. I finally decided that we had ended our lesson. With exuberant “goodbyes” and screeches from the children, I packed up my things and was escorted out of the room by a very nice helper. He told me as best he could that my partner (boss Cathy) was on the second floor and pointed down the stairs. Cathy met me half way and asked me if I was taking a break, and that I should be ready for another forty-five minutes with the kids. I can only imagine what expression my face when I told her I had only planned for one class but that if she gave me a few minutes I could come up with something. “It’s ok, its ok, we are discussing with the parents now if they want to do another class or not.” She led me into a very nice office where there was a massive tea table, complete with ornate carvings and its own water heating system. Bob (Cathy’s husband/co-worker) was already seated in the office with another man who I remember as being one of the nosey Chinese parents who came in during my lesson- I just remembered him distinctly because he happened to have a saxophone around his neck when he did come inside. He and the man sitting behind the tea table/desk (who I also recognized as what I thought was the “helper” in my classroom, played musical chairs for the next couple of minutes. One would walk outside, the other would come in, sit down, pour everyone a cup of tea, talk to Bob and Cathy for a few minutes and then Mr. Sax would take his place, he would pour some tea, talk, laugh and make motions to me. All the while I am frantically taking notes trying to figure out how I am going to pull off the expectations that I have now set with this center. Thinking reluctantly of all the Montessori notes I never thought I would have to use in my career. Cathy would ask me a question and relay it back to the others, they would ask a question and Cathy would translate again. I decided that the more I was writing the less likely they would be to expect me to go back into that class as I realized the cause for the musical chairs between Mr. Sax and Mr. Helper (who I found out were like co-owners/principals of the center so no big deal) were discussing with the parents if they wanted the students to go any longer that evening. Thank the Almighty Creator, those noisy and overbearing helicopter parents thought that the students were too hot to stay in class any longer and so I was done for the evening. I leaned back (but not too far because I was sitting on a traditional Chinese stool that was about eight inches off the ground and had no back) in relief and then Cathy asked me if I had any plans for the evening, of course, my only plans were of going home, taking off my pants and binge-watching television so I told her no. She smiled and then patted me gently on the back, “Good, we will go to dinner!” It was only then, as I watched the way that she hovered around me and listened to the tone of her voice as she spoke with the others that she had just landed a major kind of deal, something larger than myself had just taken place. Whatever I had done in those forty-five minutes upstairs, sitting on a padded puzzle piece mat floor with six Chinese children whose palates were still soft enough that they could pronounce Ls and Rs without great difficulty was something that had Bob and Cathy looking at me like a winning racehorse. A small part of me shuddered at the implications of what may be expected from me in the coming ten months.

We sat in the office for about another hour, long enough for me to notice the giant goldfish in the tank in the corner and to be offered a very skinny cigarette from Mr. Sax. They talked, laughed, pointed and gestured at me. Cathy asked me some more questions, at least a half gallon of tea was poured, I noticed that each time Mr. Sax would pour the tea that Bob would rap his knuckles approvingly on the table next to his teacup. What I am sure had to be some kind of south China tea culture custom.

At one point Cathy leaned over to me and laughing through the side of her mouth said (referring to Mr. Sax) “He is very aggressive and ambitious.” Of course, she was talking about his business technique, which I again logged in the back of my mind for moments when I did not want to plan for whatever this kindergarten class had in store for me. He was a more modern Chinese man, a little bit more western influence as shown by the wedding ring complete with an inlaid diamond on the outside, casual jeans, t-shirt, and Supreme jacket attire, and then I remembered his saxophone; I was maybe dealing with a millennial Chinaman. This man looked at me as if I could hold the key to his future. Then I began thinking back to what I knew of Chinese culture, about what exactly I was doing here at this moment. This man had a child in my class (which I did not know at the time) and he wants nothing more than for his child to get an exemplary education, by Chinese standards being able to speak fluent English is the watermark by which a good education is judged. I was a Promethean foreigner bringing his child the branch of fire that would light ablaze the path of his academic future. Chinese sons live in a world of expectation because China is a multi-generational society- simply put- when Chinese people get old and retire they can no longer work to support themselves and will move in with their son and his wife so that they can work and the grandparents will take care of the home and raise the children.

As I watched this man pantomime with a skinny cigarette in hand and iPhone in the other, switching one out periodically to pour tea I saw the flicker of a ghost of millennia of Chinese generation’s past flash in his eyes. This was not only something being done for guanxi (the Chinese concept of face and relationship) this man saw not only his child’s future, but his very own life being weighed in the balances and somehow, with my hulking LL Bean backpack and frizzy auburn hair; I had tripped and landed right in his path. Finally and at long last everyone stood up to leave, “we will go to dinner now.” Cathy tells me. I followed suit, quite sure I was sloshing from the amount of tea I had consumed.

Walking out of the performing arts center, Cathy kept pushing me to lead the way and I continued to implore her to go in front of me “I will follow you because I don’t know where we are going.” I kept telling her. Another very uncharacteristic move for Chinese people who put a great deal of emphasis on age. Cathy couldn’t be more than fifty-two or fifty at the most, in fact, I was suspicious that she very easily could have been the same age as my mother, and yet here I was.

Dinner was thankfully held in the same plaza as the center so it was about three doors down, we passed the outdoor kitchen on the way inside to a Tibetan Barbecue joint that had an affinity for Tibetan beer so much so that the whole of the restaurant was decorated in empty beer bottles. Remembering the geography of Tibet which is a mountainous, arid, and freezing. My brain relayed to my gut that this would be a warm and spicy meal.

We were seated at a table where the booths were covered in what I assume could only have been Tibetan wool and a black cooking pot was simmering merrily in the center of the table; hot-pot! The first course consisted of mutton ribs which were served with their own box of cafeteria lady grade serving gloves, a bowl of soy sauce, chopped ginger, garlic, scallions, red and green peppers and then another bowl of what looked like fennel seeds and other raw spices. Cathy was trying to explain to me what they were for, “they are a little spicy, maybe you will not like, you don’t have to try.” You basically just dipped your ribs into this bowl of spices and rolled the bone around until you got how much you wanted- like pre-hot sauce I guess- being the cautious eater that I am I graciously turned down the bowl with the red peppers and precariously sniffed the spices. It was Cumin and I almost cried because visions of my mother standing at her stove cooking the best taco you will ever have in your life with the best homemade taco seasoning you will ever have in your life sprang into vision. “It’s Cumin!” I exclaimed thankfully and then dunked my rib into the bowl. I was completely content with this bowl of spices that I was also convinced God had special ordered just for me when Mr. Sax plopped himself down onto the bench across from me and next to Bob. He reached over the table and handed me another small bowl, it was the soy sauce mixture sans peppers. Classic Chinese hospitality. I gave an American and Chinese “thank you” between vicious chews of this not tender but very exquisite meat (whatever they meant by “mutton”) and dunked another rib being low key and yet aggressively (in the way that only mothers do) shoved into my face by Cathy and another new member of the party who we met walking into the school earlier, Steven. Course two was the hot pot dish, mushrooms, beef, pork, chicken, Chinese broccoli, lettuce and nothing else was served periodically between peaceful business negotiations and translations of my input in the conversation. After the hot pot was meat skewers that Cathy and Steven again made it their personal mission to force as many down me as possible and then more talking. During these lulls between eating and talking I drank copious amounts of tea and tried my best to make sense out of what was being said.

In that time I reflected on Cathy and how similar people who will never meet can be to someone. Since my arrival, Cathy had been pestering me (in the most loving of ways) to make sure that I ate enough, always asking at the end of a meal if I was sure I still wasn’t hungry and then looking me up and down suspiciously as if she was waiting for me to waste away to nothing before her very eyes. By Cathy’s own admission Bob was the family cook, as matriarch though, it was still her job to make sure that the meal was not over when I finished all of my food rather when I hated myself for how much I had eaten. Nothing passed under my nose that was not previously checked for any spice or smell or seasoning that I may not like. Each first bite I took was watched by all other members of the party to make sure I really did like it and I had to take care to make sure that I did not eat too fast or drink too much at once because as a rule, if your bowl or cup was empty it was shameful to the host- meaning that I never had an empty cup or bowl. I did not remember this until my fourth beef skewer and possibly tenth or eleventh cup of tea. My mother, church mothers, and work mothers who always made sure that I ate too much would breathe a sigh of relief knowing that another woman was making such a fuss over me.

How comforting is it to know that mothers are such a predictably reliable platitude of home? In a place where I have to carry a roll of toilet paper with me EVERYWHERE I go and there are days when I fear I may die in my sleep from what my paranoid mind thinks may be a bowel impaction, days that I am praying to the Almighty that he would just allow me to make it home before I poop my pants in front of roughly 8 million Chinese strangers. Yesterday, when I walked out of my apartment I made the mistake of peeking inside of a cardboard box sitting on the ground. There were two mallard ducks sitting contentedly, my rational mind knew all too well that they would be someone’s dinner that evening. Sure enough, upon my return that afternoon I noticed a gaggle of older ladies crouching next to a spigot located conveniently right outside of my apartment, which I guess makes for the perfect place to slaughter ducks. I immediately wanted to ask Cathy if this was an everyday practice and then remembered that I was in China and that this is life for so many people. Knowing that my discomfort could be taken to someone with a face and not a face 14,000 miles away and twelve different time zones away just helps. And for that I am thankful.

There have been a fair share of moments in the last few days where I severely misjudged what I have gotten myself into. I have to swallow down hot bile every time I think about paying my first month’s rent, not that I do not have funds for it, but because it is such a titular step into facing the reality that I will be living somewhere that is not home for another ten months. I get lost on average once a week and as long as I can find a good taxi or a familiar bus route I know that I can make it home. I finally bought enough kitchen supplies to boil pasta and grill a cheese sandwich- I had about six cheese sandwiches this past week alone. I feel safe in this strange new land, but I still carry a pocket knife open in my hand when I am walking home late at night. Kindergarten is absolute hell, btw. I do not know why I thought I could make any real difference with them but props to actual kindergarten teachers who can make it through a day without curb stomping one of the little monsters. 

I am working every day of every week so far. There is talk of me getting a small holiday around Christmas where I plan to eat, drink, sleep without an alarm, and hop over to Hong Kong so that I can see Episode VIII. 

I had a dream that I came back to America after ten days. Not because I wanted to but because I misheard the job offer and was only needed here for ten days instead of ten months. The most distressing part of that dream was that my legs were just beginning to look as moderately attractive as they usually do and now it would be another month of acclimating from jet lag but I would also have to tell everyone who knew that I was going to China- everyone I told I was going to China of my major misinterpretation. Another strange comfort to know that I can stress dream in such a new and exhausting environment. 








I have now been squatting on Abby and Daniel’s (friends who are already living in China) couch for a little over twenty-four hours. Getting an apartment from a Chinese person without the assistance of another Chinese person is virtually impossible and the lady who could get me into an apartment happens to be away on a Chinese holiday.

Right now I am resigned to wait. Fortunately, waiting is something that I have more than adequate experience with.

Finally seeing my brown houndstooth suitcase careening down the baggage claim belt was a sigh of relief that cannot be explained. Connecting to the airport WiFi and hearing the various personalized chirps of the mass of people who bid me to keep them updated on not being dead was equally elating. The Bayun airport experience was comically smooth. Not once did I hear an overhead announcement concerning being aware of suspicious bags left alone, (The Chinese are a more or less very laid back people. There is very little that they get in a great hurry for; I mean let’s be honest, in a country of 1.4 billion people you are bound to be late no matter how early you leave) but they don’t pull punches either. How many terrorist attacks have you ever heard of originating from inside China?

Within an hour of my plane landing, I was on my way through the airport with all of my luggage completely done with customs and security checks, smelling the pungent stench of old man cigarette smoke mixed with ancient Chinese spices and the humidity that permeates the whole region.

Of the many things that I have been waiting on recently is a decent shower. After getting to Abby’s, exchanging pleasantries and WiFi passwords, taking off socks that I’m afraid may have to be burned, playing with the fluffy smushed face cat, discussing food possibilities for the day, and hanging up the four sweaters that I packed because it was raining when my plane landed and my suitcase was outside long enough to soak through into said sweaters which happened to be the only articles of clothing that I chose NOT to pack inside a ziplock bag, obviously were soaked. After my unpacking of essential toiletries, I stepped into the unknown that is the shower you aren’t accustomed to. In all honesty, though, I have to wonder if the Chinese have any idea of how freaking dangerous their showers actually are. Luckily, Abby had a full shower in her bathroom; as opposed to some apartments that have a bathroom, complete with toilet, sink, and a showerhead that extends around the bathroom because the whole bathroom is your shower. Thankfully there was a sliding glass partition allowing for dry/wet separation. In the shower though, which happened to be made out of some faux marble, rectangular in fashion but with about an inch of a drop down around the floor inside of the shower that allows for drainage. In theory its a nice setup. In reality, for someone who trips while walking on flat surfaces, I am just waiting to bash my teeth out after slipping on a bar of soap. But a shower is a shower and after three planes, and thirty hours of travel time a shower was so worth waiting for.

The joy of my shower was brought up short by the sight of my ankles. Suffice it to say that all of this travel had reduced my ankles to poorly cut chunks of a butternut squash crammed on top of what once may have been feet but were now just Vienna sausages crammed down onto a foot-shaped chunk of meat. Come to think of it, my whole body was just a swollen mass of inflammation. A cruel combination of 35,000 feet of cruising altitude and walking/sitting for two days really knows how to break down a body. But still, I shaved the tumor-like ankles and soaped and shampooed and even moisturized after my shower. Remarkable how much your outlook can change after a simple shower and a change of clothes.

The rest of my first day in China consisted of third wheeling with Abby and Daniel to a coworker’s house where we watched a couple episodes of The IT Crowd and other television shows on a Hong Kong router that allowed us access to everything that China really doesn’t approve of you watching. We played board games and ordered takeout from an American themed restaurant, I got a burger and fries and could have cried it tasted so good. 

The first evening was difficult, to say the least. Jet lag had reduced me to some sniveling form of punch drunk/sleepy child. I begged Abby to keep me awake as long as possible and so we got bubble tea, window shopped in a couple of international markets, attempted to get a foot massage that did not play out at all (its China, we can get a foot massage anywhere) and then headed back to their apartment. Through Abby’s tenacity, a wonderfully blessed internet connection that was stable enough to entertain three people, and a cat that really enjoyed my company I was able to push through until just after ten pm. Mind you, I had been awake at this point for just over 25 hours. I methodically forced myself to take out my contacts, brush my teeth, and even put on pajama pants, I remember adjusting my pillow slightly and then waking up promptly at 5 am for day #2 in China. 

Waking up at 5 am in China is not too terribly different from waking at the same time in America. It was actually a great relief just because that is normally what time my first alarm for work goes off so I hoped that this would be a good start to getting myself adjusted. 

My ankles were still puffy but a horizontal night’s rest had done wonders and I could see the definition of my Achille’s tendon again, and my toes were beginning to resemble actual toes. Showers of blessings… 

This shower, oh this shower would be glorious; and it was. There is nothing like a good shower, and there (for me at least) is nothing better than a good shower with a sharp razor and a thick bar of soap. You can’t really hear the sound of a razor slicing into those invisible and yet so very noticeable hair nubs that pop up after a day’s time, but you can feel it. If I were a braver woman I could have closed my eyes and the feeling of my razor doing what razors do, and the familiar rote that is such a comfort could have fooled me into thinking I may still be in my shower at home. Being able to shave around the contours of my ankle again, just being able to shave. Having this small moment of regularity in the last six weeks of my life where nothing has been regular at all and everything has changed. How was I becoming emotionally vulnerable over a good shave?

Day #2 was better and worse in varying degrees. As it would happen, life does not always go as planned and I am having issues with unlocking my iPhone to work with a Chinese SIM card. It is not the end of the world and if worse comes to worst I will buy a Chinese phone in order to communicate with those I need to for work.  

After the disappointment of still not having any cellular data though, it was lunchtime and so Abby and Daniel took me to what we stupid Americans (Americans living in China but not effectively adapting to Chinese culture and mannerisms) would call a “noodle street” small and insignificant and completely Chinese run streets with hole in the wall restaurants, lining bicycle shops, food markets, a basketball court and various other small establishments that you may find next to any bustling business district. 

Today’s menu consisted of Muslim noodles. Now, for those of you who may not be particularly familiar with Eastern geography: China shares a western border with several predominately Muslim countries including (but not limited to) Afghanistan, Pakistan, and of course India. I am not completely certain of why, but there is a large population of Muslims living in China, and for whatever reason, a great deal of these Muslims choose to set up Muslim noodle shops and I am thankful for them every day. The setup is simple, with eight tables about the height of elementary school desks lined with stools, a bottle of soy sauce (soy sauce is the Chinese ketchup), a ceramic mug of crushed red peppers, and a tissue box filled with tissues that in China double as napkins, paper towels, toilet paper etc… when the lady came to take our order we as amicably as possible pointed to the picture menu conveniently located on the wall of what we wanted. I got beef noodles. We waited at the table for a couple of minutes, went to a shop on the other side of the street to get drinks, came back to our table, exchanged pleasantries, and finally received our food. The silence between a group of friends that falls when food is in front of you in one of my favorite sounds. Slurping in China is encouraged, and when the noodles are this good there is no short supply of slurping. 

With lunch under our belts (literally) and the rest of the day (which happened to be the last day of fall break for all of us) in front of us, we made the very adult decision to get haircuts and then ice cream. For 25 RMB (~$4.16) I got an amazing head massage/wash, hair cut and styled. Which is really hard to beat. The ice cream came from Dongguan’s first nitro ice cream shop which was a real treat, and then we retired for the evening to do what millennials do best: slightly ignoring one another while watching Netflix, staring at combination phones/computer screens and laughing at the same humorous moments. 

4:20 (he he) came on like a hurricane and I began my descent into real and true exhaustion from jet lag. Dinner was a Margherita pizza, more Netflix and falling asleep before I had the chance to even take off my bra. Unfortunately, I woke at around 3:45 and spent the next two hours having a minor panic attack because the WiFi went down and I could do NOTHING.

At 6:30 this morning, after falling into a fitful forty or so minute nap because I could do nothing but freak out about not being able to access anything, I reconnected to the WiFi- which was finally working again and sighed relief. Life could go on (not that it wouldn’t have without WiFi), but these small parts of life that I have become so accustomed to in America have become a lifeline in China. Being able to shave my legs and shower is something that I will never take for granted again. The luxury of connecting to Facebook or Snapchat. These things that I never thought of the conveniences of having any real effect on me hold such a weight now. 

Today, I look out with a renewed vigor and slight terror mixed with anxiety. With any luck, I will be in my new apartment tonight, and tomorrow morning after I shave and shower again after I spend just a little too much time on Facebook and Instagram, and Snapchat, maybe I will set out into the great unknown that in a Chinese WalMart and pick up the essentials such as toilet paper, a garbage can, and some eggs; I will start my first day of work. 


Who will I be if I stay?

Goodbyes are always exhausting. To be frank, they are probably the worst part about leaving. Packing I can handle, emotionally, mentally, and physically preparing myself for all that is about to happen, the thirty plus hours I will spend blurring past strangers I will never think of again; all of that is so easy. Those last glances of loved ones though, the last scratch behind furry ears, the last kiss on a tiny button nose. Jet lag cannot hold a candle. That is what exhausts me about traveling. 
Countless people have shown affection in the most human way possible: by feeding me. I am so thankful for all of those people. The food. I will miss the food. More than the food though is the people who made it or the people who sought me out and were able to stand me for long enough to have dinner with me. There is still serious concern about whether or not I will be able to fit in my plane seat because I have eaten SO MUCH food in this last weekend alone provided by people just wanting to tell me goodbye. 
I try not to eat while traveling and I have always wondered exactly why that is. I think I finally know now that eating is just such an intimate experience for me. To break bread with the elbow of a complete stranger being the only thing I know about that person is just not very appetizing. 
These next ten months will pass painfully slow. But the first night I am home in my bed tucked in with a pack of dogs and rabid toddlers and I wake up at two in the morning because jet lag is the devil I will marvel at how quickly ten months passed. 
My heart will be full of homecoming jubilance while aching from how much I know I will miss China. 
Much like now. As I wait in a Delta terminal sitting next to an adorable elderly Asian couple (ironically) listening to stereotypical late 90s pop music because I haven’t put in my earbuds yet l; and I feel like all of the air has been sucked out of my lungs from how much it hurt me to say goodbye to people I love so much. From the bed I love, the terrible and exhausting job I loved, the annoying and sporadic children and dogs that give me such pause in leaving. But knowing that I am going to others who love me, that I am going to a job that I can make over double what a substitute teacher in America could make while finishing this MAT degree that has taken waaaay too much time to finish. 
I am going to come back. I am going, so that I can come back. 
In Wonder Woman, when Diana is leaving Themyscira her mother tells her “if you choose to leave you may never return.” Not forbidding her to ever come home, but bringing to her attention the obvious dangers that come along with leaving the comforts of home. There is always the chance that I may not make it home. 
Diana responds to her as such: “who will I be if I stay?” 
Becoming a teacher took far too long than I thought it would. I’ve been derailed and put on hold more times than I could count. I will be teaching English and I will be living in a place that I love. I will be finishing the last two semesters of my MAT Teaching degree while finding out exactly who I am away from the people that have made me who I am. 

The Dead Dog on My Refrigerator

Tippy was 16 years old. Something had gotten a hold of him during the night causing him to become disoriented and unable to make it home. When two of the other eight dogs that I own found him bedded down in the soft grass of my neighbor’s yard in the darkness of 5:30 in the morning I knew it was not a good sign. His head was still up and he seemed surprisingly alert given that when I picked him up his body went stiff in shock and as I cradled him close to me he relaxed just enough for me to make out in the dim light that the scruff of his neck was coated in what I hoped was mud but feared may be blood. I saw no open wounds and even though his small frame was shivering he was warm, breathing relatively even, and still alive.

This made the second time that he had been left out overnight in just as many months. As I walked across the soggy field of freshly mowed lawn feeling grass clods slip into my flip flops, I could not help but wonder if it was maybe time for him to go. I did not want to put him to sleep, he had made it this far with no more than a small cold in his entire life. For God’s sake the dog was so stubborn that his being neutered (which had taken place over six years previously) didn’t even stopping him from beligerantly pissing with reckless abandon on anything and everything that stuck out far enough for him to get a decent stream onto.

I counted back in my head, nineteen days. I had nineteen days before I would leave for China and if this was becoming a regular occurrence for Tippy… I had been regularly praying, pleading with God not to force me to have to watch him suffer, and if possible to just make his passing as easy on me as that could be.

I watched Tippy come into this world, he was unnamed and almost unloved until my grandmother decided that she was too old to live alone. I held him in a blanket on my lap as we made the way to Grandmother’s house (over the Industrial Parkway and through the woods), I helped my grandmother name him (he had a small white tip on the end of his tail) and not being one for extravagant names we decided easily on “Tippy.”

It was a Thursday morning and after making as much fuss as I could over him I had to get ready for work. I hurried through my shower, beat on enough makeup to hopefully make up for the amount of oil I could already feel beginning to seep out of my unwashed hair, and threw on one of my nicer shirts attempting some sort of compensation for what would be a dismal day anyway. Morning til lunch passed without event. I hopped home during my planning and checked on the heavy breathing ball of fur still on my bed. Hope soared within me when I noticed that he had changed positions and was tucked down into another spot on the bed. I scratched the top of his head and down behind his ears. Then readjusted him in a towel wrapped in a Wonder Woman blanket. He seemed to be in a mild state of shock. He was aware of me, but also seemed intent on breathing, and trying his best to get back to sleep. Reluctantly I made my way back to work. 

My mother sent me a video of him snoring contentedly/ breathing in that same heavy and halting way all advanced beings seem to which makes you anticipate each exhale of oxygen to make sure that they are alive. Roughly three hours later I made it home, I wanted to check on him immediately but not one to tempt fate I busied myself with a few jobs in the kitchen, took a bathroom break and did some laundry. He would be breathing in the same way he was just hours before. I chose to let him sleep for a couple of minutes longer. 

When I finally did open the door to my bedroom though I was momentarily relieved to not smell death’s signature scent- that had to be a good sign right? I reached over my desk to turn on a lamp, and my ears registered that Tippy’s breathing was no longer the baseline for my bedroom- he must have finally dozed off into a deep and hopefully restful sleep. With a final deep breath from myself I turned to him on my bed. He was still, calm, sleeping? I waited, watching for his tiny rib cage to rise and then fall; even in his deep sleep he would halt his breaths- one second, two seconds, three- no rise, no fall. 

I leaned down onto the bed, knowing that this outcome was more likely than the one I was hoping for, listening, watching, smelling. Silence. Stillness. Nothing. He was gone. 

There was no jolt of pain, no burst of tears, no heart wrenching scream. This twelve pound part of my life for the last sixteen years, that had shared my bed for the last two and a half years was simply gone. I could have cried, but the emotion wasn’t overwhelming. I knew when I opened my mouth to tell mom that I would choke up but that was just a natural human response. 

The problem was though that Mom had some errands to run, and I needed a shovel. We made plans to get a shovel and then come back to bury Tippy. Tippy was only one of eight dogs that lived in our house. Had Tippy passed four months ago there would be no problem. I would have wrapped him in my Wonder Woman blanket, laid him to rest in the middle of my bed until I returned to allow all of the other dogs a chance to sniff their last goodbye. Our newest addition to the family though was a Pit Bull Labrador mix puppy of only eight months. He was massive, and as stupid as a puppy could be. His baby teeth were not completely in yet and our household had countless casualties from this exercise. Mom was the main victim having lost multiple pairs of shoes, charging cables, a full bottle of olive oil dragged from an open lazy Susan, baby dolls, any kind of plastic kitchen utensils that made their way into the floor, one pair of shin guards, and any bag of garbage left unattended outside. With Jax (the puppy) in the house there was no way that we could leave Tippy’s body anywhere within reach, either outside (where other animals could come in contact with him) or inside where Jax would end up due to the fact that my step father was a smoker and would not have the good graces to make sure he stayed outside until we returned. 

Mom suggested placing Tippy’s body on the refrigerator. As I was prepping his body in my blanket, I noticed that Tippy’s last act of life was poetically memorable to what he did best in life- pooping all over everything- post mortem defecation was the least surprising event of the day, (there was an unspoken custom for each animal that died to be buried with a blanket from the house) I made sure to leave his head uncovered to allow for breathing and then had to rewrap him after realizing that breathing was no longer a task Tippy had to be concerned about. I carefully walked him into the kitchen. His body was still so warm and I couldn’t help but fear that maybe I had jumped the gun, maybe he was dead? Maybe he was just sleeping? Biology won out over human emotion and I forced myself to take account of the fact that his bony scapula, which was digging into my forearm was already showing signs of rigor mortis. It was a strange duality; I wanted nothing more than to hold onto him just a moment longer, knowing that when I sat him in the refrigerator that it would be an official recognition of his death either way. If he really was dead, then that was simply it. If he was not truly dead, then at any point when he would awake to find himself on top of the refrigerator, whatever attempt he might make to get back to the ground would ensure his death. 

The most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen in my life crossed over I 64 as we drove to get the shovel. It was bitter sweet, being reminded of the story of the rainbow bridge where animals go after death to wait for their owners. Or in this case where Tippy would be reunited with my Grandmother. 

From a more biblical perspective though, I thought of God’s promise to never flood the earth again, and speaking of the Bible; even though there was no biblical evidence I could not help but think that one of the reasons God made Heaven so expansive was because there had to be ample room for all of the animals that he would welcome into those gates of paradise.  I thought of how God also promised provision of what we needed, and what we needed was not always what we wanted. 

I had nineteen days left in America. What I needed was to know that all of the animals I loved and cared for would be taken proper care of. What I wanted was for Tippy to not have to suffer in death, I wanted to know where his tiny little body would rest, I wanted to be the one to put it in the ground. What I wanted was to be able to say goodbye to him without having to see a picture from on the other side of the world. I had been granted the response I prayed for. It wasn’t when I wanted this prayer to be answered (although when is it ever?) but it was what I asked for. I did not want to see Tippy die, but I was relieved that he would not get lost and die of exposure, or animal attack, or even hit by a car. I needed to know that he would be taken care of before I left and what better way to answer this prayer than for God to allow me the honor of digging that small grave with my own two hands. I could smell my own sweat, and every jolt of silt, dirt, and the occasional rock that I wrested from the ground was an exhausting and purposely painful relief. I lightly jumped onto the shovel each time bracing myself for the minute slide into soil. Each root that I ripped from the ground was a reminder of just how fortunate this timing was. My lower back burned and my fingers swelled from work and heat. 

It had rained until early afternoon that day, and as I saw the sunlight stream through the edges of my sunglasses I mentally thought that the sun had probably come out around the same time Tippy left.

Again, poetic.

For the last eighteen months I had been weighing the pros and cons of going back to China. Who would take care of my family if I was gone? Who would make sure that all the dogs had their ears scratched at least once in the morning? Who would make sure that they didn’t go without water for days on end? So many times since I had finally accepted the job though, I had been shown in so many ways the provision that I wanted to make certain of. If no one else was caring for my dogs, God would be. And if I can’t trust God with my dogs, then who can I trust?

Freedom > Comfort

I remember as a child, always wanting to know what it would be like to live as various types of animals. I was an avid lover of Steve Erwin and Animal Planet was my go to TV channel choice when I got home from school. On days when weather permitted I would spend hours outside searching for bird’s nests, trying to understand why minnows swam in schools, digging for grub worms, imitating deer calls, grooming my cats and dogs, climbing the blue/green pine trees whose bottom limbs were long and springy enough to support the sixty pounds of second grader that I was, and occasionally dissecting the corpse of a chipmunk if I was lucky enough to find one.

Playing outside was the earliest form of freedom I knew. My dad was a capricious and mercurial man who attempted to dominate all aspects of life inside the home including but not limited to what was on TV when he was home. Whether or not he was watching, the channel was always on a Buckmasters, NASCAR, or garage/vehicle makeover program. Being outside gave me freedom from such metallic material, and also allowed me to enjoy what I wanted to.

Rainy days though, those were a different story all together. I was subject to boredom more often than not and seeking some kind, any kind of reprieve from said boredom I would pick fights with my brother, wallow in the existential dread that was being forced to sit in a house with my dad, not really allowed to do anything that he did not deem acceptable as a proper time consuming activity for a rainy day. Side note: at the time I was no more than eight years old and the discovery of chapter books was just on my horizon. After this, I would no longer resort to animal imitation as a form of entertainment.

This day in particular though, I somehow found myself sorting through my bedroom. We lived in a single wide trailer and I occupied the classic middle bedroom complete with particle board closet door that never seemed to want to shut, a window that was overlarge given the area of the bedroom, and a bunk bed that took up no less than half of the room’s physical living space.

my most recent fascination, courtesy of the animal kingdom was the butterfly. Specifically, the pre winged caterpillar creature that was the butterfly before there was any butterfly to speak of. Even more fascinating to me than the butterfly, or the caterpillar though, was the chrysalis that facilitated this transformation of one being into a wholly different creature.  When something insignificant enough not to be remembered for this recollection, fell under my bed I ducked down into the pathetic trailer attempt of shag carpet to retrieve it. I had never stopped to admire the amount of space that was under the bed before this moment, and immediately intrigued by said space; I began to form a plan.

Logically speaking, a chrysalis was a small space; just as under the bed was a proportionately equal small space. Within this small space though, a chrysalis allowed metamorphosis to occur; so there had to be some ample, potential space within this small space… somewhere. Beneath the bed was a small space, but given the confines of a chrysalis I began thinking of ways in which I could capitalize on compartmentalizing an even smaller space.

Let me preface what happens next with this statement: I am not a claustrophobic person. I have lived in the smallest bedroom apart from Harry Potter I have ever known for twelve years. I have stuffed myself in between complete strangers of Asian men on either side of me (literally knocking elbows against one another) on the largest commercial flight and arguably one of the longest flights one can fly with barely enough room to breath. I grew up sharing a bath time with my younger sister and cousin. I have chased cats up trees and followed dogs into storm drains. Small spaces have made me the person that I am today.

I took it a bit too far though.

With the precision of a Masonic master builder, I took a blanket from my bed and proceeded to make my bed- under the bed. Complete with non fitted sheet, pillow, and comforter; I meticulously added each layer of bedclothes under the bed preparing for my chrysalis. Once the preparation was complete, I aligned my body with the outside edge of the bedclothes and grabbing the top corner of the comforter with a free hand, the bottom corner with my overlarge big and pointer toes, and the middle with my other hand I made one glorious roll of my body to the left- effectively enveloping myself within my makeshift cocoon while simultaneously lodging said chrysalis beneath my bed.

I rolled within my blankets, adjusting to my new world. It was warm. Which was to be expected.

Upon first inspection of this whole new world I realized just how little space there was. There was none in fact at all; maybe a quick adjustment of the arms- wait? I couldn’t adjust my arms, they were tucked securely next to each of my sides holding my cocoon layers tightly in place. My legs? No, useless femoral bundles of knobby knees and big bites in this situation. Maybe I could wiggle the blanket out of the bunk bed and reconvene another attempt in the fresh air of my open bedroom floor? I flailed my body to and fro, up and down testing this attempt. Nope! My head hit the bottom side of the bed and made company with a two by four used for support. I took a deep breath and realized quickly that another attempt like that could render me unconscious. Body heat was now circulating to create a compact Kelly burrito. Maybe instead of wiggling I could scoot? No again! the blanket was just bulky enough to consistently get caught on the rough wood of the bed frame.

Were I any older I may have been able to assess this situation from a more reserved and less frantic frame of mind; however that was not the case. I had very abruptly run out of options.

Time for my last resort. Tears. This was in no part a decision made on behalf of myself; this was a decision that my feral brain and body made without my consent. I began to cry, not just for someone to get me out of this prison that I had quite literally wrapped myself into, but I began to cry because my mind (even the seven year old version of my mind) is a quick and vicious machine. Cranking out various maudlin possibilities of every possible situation, mutating from one disasterous possibility to the next,  typically devolving into the worst case scenario within 30 seconds flat.

I saw my life flash before my eyes. Or what would have been my new life, flashing before my eyes. It began with dinner that night, we were supposed to be having tacos and I just knew that since dad wouldn’t be bothered to take apart/destroy the bed (which was the only plausible way to get me out of this thing short of firefighter involvement) mom would be forced to slide plates of food to me across the floor. Not only would I have to learn how to eat without the use of my hands, I would also have to learn how to eat from a sideways and prone position. Because there was no way of ever being able to get out of this bag of regret, I would also have to listen to dad berate me every time mom would feed me because even if eating was possible, there was no way I could manage cleaning my dirty dishes.

It did not take long for my silent tears to become a healthy sob, but being stuck beneath my bed, wrapped in layers of covers, with my bedroom door closed, even this level of sobbing would not be heard. Hysteria ensued.

How would I do my homework? Was being stuck under your bed even a way to live? If it was, I had never seen a documentary outlining such a lifestyle. Would I be allowed to continue to go to school even if I couldn’t leave home to do it? If I couldn’t leave this bunk of bereavement, I was sure dad would not allow mom to give me a birthday party. Throwing a party for someone stuck under the bed would be a waste of money and only he was allowed to waste money. How was I to graduate college? I couldn’t, if I was not able to graduate college that meant that I would be stuck here for the rest of my life. Mom would be so disappointed if I had to start dating from literally beneath my bed… would I have to have all supervised dates? How would I date? Oh good God, how would I even get married? Were there laws against people dumb enough to get stuck under a bed pretending to be a caterpillar getting married? Probably, but if not they may consider making it a special case for me. Or possibly worse, what if I did fall in love and have to explain to that live that I wouldn’t ever be able to truly love them because I was stuck under a bed? Or even worse, what if someone fell in love with me and insisted on living under the bed with me?

The life that my seven year old self had worked so hard to build was completely finished. Even with mom helping me eat, there was no way I could enjoy a taco in this taco of tumult that I had tucked myself into. How was I to drink? I have never been more thirsty in my life, have never longed for the cool kiss of water more than in that one hot second. We only used straws when we went out to a restaurant, we didn’t even keep straws in the house. I wouldn’t be able to drink ever again, or worse, dad would teach me a lesson by just spraying my face with a water hose as his version of a “drink.” But after I succeeded in reasoning how I would achieve basic sustenance I began wondering how I would ever get to the bathroom again and my hysterics turned to full blown animalistic, deer thrashing on the edge of the road with both back legs mangled from a Dodge Ram front end, my life is about to be over and flight has somehow mingled with fight and there is not enough of my body to handle the amount of adrenaline flooding through it, fear.

The noises I made, the pitch that I had to reach, the burn that seared all the way down my esophagus as I felt my uvula literally bounce off the back of my throat from the effort of this final scream of terror at the thought of having to go to the bathroom in this already bathroom worthy situation was the bind that broke this butterfly’s wings. I could feel the tears freely streaming down my face and pooling around my left cheek, was it possible to drown in your own tears? For someone who could get stuck beneath her own bed? Probably. If my face was as red as the color I was seeing, then there was no way I would ever reach a regular human pigment again. My hands were clammy with sweat from being stuck to the sides of my chrysalis crypt and I now knew that there was nothing I could do. I would die here, and have to live the rest of my life knowing that mom and dad probably would not find me before my body began to rot under the bed because they would naturally think that I had been kidnapped so they would never start the search party from INSIDE the house, and then dad would be angry at me because my corpse would stink up the house and they would probably both be arrested because they would think they killed me and that meant that my brother and sister would have to go into foster care.

As I began to wonder just how long it would take for my body to begin to stink, I felt the tell tale rhythmic pattern of feet running at breakneck speed in my direction. I sucked in one last fiery breath and wailed with all of my waning might, hoping against hope that someone wasn’t just running to the bathroom. They had to hear me.

I could see the image of my doorknob turning in my mind as mom opened my door. Heavy footfalls stopped abruptly upon entering my empty room. And keeping my head or any other part of my body from hitting the bed be damned, I thrashed, wiggled, squirmed, screamed, cried, and yelled with everything stuck inside that chrysalis.

Mom dropped to her knees and to this day I am not sure if I have ever been more happy to see my mother’s face than right at that very moment. She too, was crying and as she reached her hand out to me I heard her pleading uselessly something to the effect of “how did you do this?” Then advice for me to not move- I mean really? As she shot back out of the bedroom and returned with dad.

Never one to let a good bad idea pass, I had made sure to really wedge myself into this one. After a few moments of mom yelling at dad and dad yelling at mom as to what they were going to do, and me just… yelling; They finally decided to attempt a good old fashioned “yank your daughter out from beneath her bed” pull from the foot end of my prison. To no avail I was still stuck and was now concerned that when they took the bunk bed apart to free me that it would collapse in onto me and instead of having to live the rest of my life under this bed I would just be squished. I could see their feet as they discussed what to try next, mom shifting from one socked foot to the other, dad’s New Balance sneakers stained from the last time he mowed the lawn.

At long last they formulated a plan which involved them grabbing the foot end of my blanket chrysalis and pulling the blanket, instead of me inside the blanket. As they began weaving me apart and pulling out more and more of the blanket I began to roll and shift. This must be what a pinwheel feels like when you decide to eat it from the inside out. I was the nutty and slightly under baked center.

I was rolled out of my ersatz chrysalis at long last, feeling the cool scratchy carpet against my face and arms, an unexpected blessing in comparison to where I was before. I shot up from the floor and accepted the verbal reprimand I received from both mom and dad. About how I could have suffocated, what could have happened if there had been a fire, if they had left for some other emergency. I nodded approvingly at each suggestion, deciding that it was probably best to not let them know that I had already conjured the worst of the worst possible outcomes for my stint under the bed.

I spent the rest of that rainy day next to windows and going outside when the steady showers dulled to a light mist. Animal imitation was still a hobby that I loved dearly, but I purposed in my heart that metamorphosis was not a behavior I was meant to emulate.

I learned that day that freedom comes at a high cost. Sometimes that cost includes your own comfort. Mad respect to the butterfly for being able to break out of a shell without the help of its parents. How they can stand to exist in such a confined space for (depending on the species) weeks at a time was beyond what my human brain could ever comprehend.

Invaluable though, was my appreciation and understanding of the willingness for a butterfly to break free, and to what lengths that insignificant insect was willing to go through in order to dry its wings for the first time. The thing about butterflies is that they will only go into a chrysalis once. They will build it for the first time, and for the only time from instinct alone; there are no “chrysalis building workshops” in the butterfly community. It is of their own free will (in a manner of speaking) as much as it is our own free will to begin puberty or grow our own hair. They never question why they accept this natural process that turns an innocent and unknowing caterpillar into a soup of legs and wings and brain matter. The finished result after weeks/months is a butterfly.

The struggle of forcing itself out of the chrysalis will exhaust the new butterfly and for the rest of its life it will not be as exhausted after exiting the chrysalis until its death. This exhaustion is crucial for forcing the butterfly to learn how to use all parts of its body, this confinement grows the butterfly. It allows her to force blood flow and work out new joints and ligaments that were before unknown to the ignorant caterpillar.

Once the butterfly is free they are thankful for the exhaustion, thankful to be out of the chrysalis that once before held them in comfort and snug safety. But being safe for the butterfly means that they are not free, to be comfortable in her chrysalis means that she cannot freely move, she cannot fly, or see or feel anything outside of her comfort area. The butterfly answers the siren song of freedom unconsciously. There are no accounts of dead butterflies found in their chrysalis simply because they chose not to break free. No butterfly has ever chosen to stay within their cocoon.

I am no butterfly but I know the same siren song of freedom, I know the same feeling of being confined to one space; a space that will not hurt you, a space that is actually good for you; a space you built for yourself. A space you did not realize would change you when built, but a space that turned you into a completely different creature nonetheless. But this space will not allow you to grow.

For no reasons of sinister malcontent or ill will, simply because I as a person have wings that I have not been able to fully stretch. Without even trying, without knowing, I have broken through my chrysalis. Via the process of natural selection and God’s invisible hand moving through and orchestrating my transformation. This is still the most exhausting part though, the dark hours of semi confinement where I have awkward fore wing joints sticking out at various angles and the rest of my body still stuck within the chrysalis begging to join the outside world. It has been a long process, but the chrysalis is falling away piece by piece and I am struggling with every breath.

I can see sunlight through the glassy green shell though, and for freedom I am willing to leave this comfort; I am willing to risk never being comfortable or content again. I can accept that for freedom that is the price I may have to pay.