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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sometimes the World Seems Up-Side-Down

But God is in Control...

A Major Shift in My Temporary Duties
Two updates have been added to the bottom of this post...
The medical team practices standard “scrubbing” protocols before, during, and after our clinics among the hill tribes, but a setting can only be so “sterile” when pigs, chickens, and dogs roam freely between the legs of those being treated. Of the many images my camera captures each day, the most ironic are those of molting chickens pecking at the dusty ground between triage and pharmacy and nameless dogs napping in the shade of the dentist’s table.
One of the last scenes recorded on my camera, is a case in point. The dentist, who is also a full-time ER doctor, had just put away his instruments when he was approached by a boy with a fresh cut in his foot. Soon a small crowd gathered around as the hooked needle and blue thread tugged through the gaping skin and each suture was tied with quick precision . It took eight to close the cut. Weaving through the dusty feet of little spectators was a mother hen and two chicks, eager to be close to all the excitement, but oblivious to what was going on above.
In a way there is something very comforting about sharing space with animals indifferent to human suffering. This is not unique to the hill-tribes in Thailand. We have a version of this phenomenon in America’s modern hospital settings that make use of huge aquariums and aviaries in family "waiting rooms."
This post is not coming from the mountain regions of Thailand. My journey with the medical team there was cut short last Saturday evening when I called home and learned that my mother, who has been fighting stage 4 cancer for many months, had taken a severe turn for the worse and was on a ventilator in the ICU. The lead doctor on the team did not hesitate when he said, "Tom, we need to get you home." It was our prayer that I would be able to make the long trip back by myself in time to be with her and my family.
I was able to keep my composure as I traveled alone… except for one moment at the Bangkok airport. All around were thousands of kind but distant faces. That airport plays a steady stream of classical music through hidden speakers all across the terminal. I was pulling my luggage from the escalator to my gate when I heard Dvořák's "Going Home" theme all around me. The words were fresh in my mind since I had just posted them the week before this trip. Walking through that looming airport with those words in my head, I never felt so alone and far away in all my life. I went to a wall of windows and stared out at nothing until I could proceed. It was a fragile moment that somehow gave me strength for the long trip ahead.
Julie and the girls were waiting for me in Grand Rapids. It was great to see them. Our prayers had been answered: Mom was still alive. She had been unresponsive Friday evening and Saturday. But I was pleased to hear that she had a few waking moments that day, which was Sunday. Only 36 hours passed from the time I got the news to the time we were going up the hospital elevator. It was about 7:00 PM.
I was prepared for how Mom would look in her bed. (You can imagine all the equipment she is hooked up to and of course, the ventilator hose in her throat renders her completely mute. She can communicate only with her eyes.) When I approached the bed she opened her eyes and was very glad to see me. I pointed to my clothes and told her that this what the outfit I'd been wearing since a day-and-a-half ago in Chang Rai, Thailand. She tried to smile but could only do so with her eyes. I held her hand and said, "It's good to be home." She squeezed very hard and nodded and tried to say words but nothing could come out. I gave her a brief update about the medical mission trip, etc. since she had encouraged me to go, but I quickly got around to more important things like telling her it was great to see her and that she looked very good--she shook her head "no"... not buying that... but I peered into her eyes and said it again. Her eyes are as I remember them. She dozes off and on. I stayed with her for about an hour. She was asleep but did not let go of my hand.

We visited with family in the waiting room (with the aquarium) until it was late. I was exhausted from the trip. We said "see you tomorrow" to Mom, went to my sister's house to sleep, and returned Monday morning.
As I sat with her Monday, along with my nephew Ben who flew in from Seattle, a nurse was in the room and Mom asked for a note pad. She was able to scribble a short scratchy note. She wanted me to tell the nurse that I had come home from Thailand and what we were doing there. This was somewhat of a relief because my time in Thailand was still fresh on my mind, and though I would not have considered it a suitable topic under the circumstances, I remembered that Mom has always enjoyed keeping total strangers up to date on all the details of her children's lives.
When we're not in Mom's room, my siblings and I gather in the very accommodating waiting room around the corner with a large 300-gallon aquarium. In it, lives a large "Yellow Angelfish" [not a goldfish] who is a favorite among the nurses because he swims belly up. He is not dead, nor is he dying. He’s stuck dorsal-down because his gas bladder has permanently inflated. He cannot rise and descend effortlessly like the other angelfish in the tank. With some work, he can swim down to a cleft in the rocks and rest at the top of that small grotto [in the center of the photo below], but eventually he loses his grip there and floats above. In addition to the challenge of permanent buoyancy is the fact that he will forever see the world up-side-down. Other than that, he is a normal fish.
We've been watching this fish when we're not in with Mom. At first, I thought he must feel like I did the time I tried to ride atop a large a plastic 55-gallon drum in a pond only to roll , still clinging to the barrel, trapped belly-side-up under water. Though forelorn, there is no panic in his eyes. He can breath and seems to have accepted his lot.
I can relate to our up-side-down friend. Returning unexpectedly from the far side of the globe, amid these dramatic turns of life, it seems my world has been--not spinning but--tumbling pole to pole for three days (and counting), but I know God is in control. In spite of the cause for this family reunion, it is a joy to once again be gathered 'round our loving mother who taught us so well the meaning of home. We, too, have found rest in the cleft of the Rock as Mom so often sang in two of her favorite hymns: "He Hideth My Soul" and "Rock of Ages."
Update: written sometime in the night, very early Thursday, February 1: Julie and I spent last night with her. This morning I played for her a scene still on my video camera from an Lahu village in Thailand. The small group was singing the old hymn “I must tell Jesus. I must tell Jesus. He understands my burdens alone…” They were singing in Lahu, of course, but Mom nodded along to the tune when I asked if she remembered it. Sometime around 7:00AM her oncalogist came in and said we had to meet as a family with Bob at 9:15. The difficult decision was between subjecting Mom to intrusive abdominal surgery [which she most likely would not survive but, if she did, would keep her on this ventilator for 6-8 weeks only to wake to the final stages of cancer] or to remove life-support if it was required to sustain her for more than four days [as was her written request]. There was no "good" decision and both led to the same inevitability. Still it was excruciating to carry out her wishes.
Mom was removed (as per her request) from "life support" yesterday afternoon [Wednesday], but so far she is holding her own through the night. When they called us to her bedside, we spent wonderful hours around her as a family singing and praising the Lord with all the hymns she used to sing at the piano in our living room. Mom tapped her foot as my sister-in-law held it. She tried to mouth the words of “Amazing Grace.” We prayed for freedom from pain, peace, a presence of her Savior, and a willingness to recline in His arms. She gradually became less and less responsive, but her weak vitals remain consistent.
Pray for her husband, Bob, (my step-father since 2001) who has been a loving and caring companion since they renewed their friendship at their 50th Reunion for the Class of '48. They married in 2001. His bedside manner has been wonderful for Mom all these years and especially during this ordeal. . My brother Jim and I and Bob are spending the night. We’ve each spent time beside her and each dozed off for moments. A while ago, I brushed her hair with the brush from her coat pocket. (She always like when my girls did that for her.) and then went down to the empty chapel on the first floor where I could talk and cry and pray out loud.
As a new day begins to glow through the window behind the reclining chair where I write, I realize God is still in control.... We now face only the acute awareness of the rhythms I wrote about last May.
The Rhythm

Life is danced to rhythms
we soon forget are there.
The blink of eyes,
the beat of hearts,
the breath and sigh of air
are lost to cycles of the sun
and pass with little care.
They slip our mind as measures
in time until we're unaware
we wake t’thm, walk t’thm,
work t’thm, talk t’thm,
laugh t’thm, cry t’thm,
live t’thm... die t’thm.
It becomes a most ungraceful dance
when we ignore the Hand that grants
the Grace and gently taps... the rhythm.
© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink
We are in those delicate hours when loved ones step beyond the desire to extend hope of time and rather help reflect the hope for time no more. We continue to share love as we know it on earth, but our whispered affections are of things to come. We are now experiencing that long indefinite farewell when holding hands is the final form of letting go...
Please pray for us in the hours/days ahead. .
He Hideth My Soul
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.
Fanny Crosby, 1890
Rock of Ages
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
Augustus M. Toplady, 1830

Update: Evening of February 1, 2008. Mom is still with us, but we have been moved from ICU to “hospice wing.” Her doctors are surprised that she did not pass this first day, but all the signs show continued decline toward her final rest. In the meantime, we continue to hold hands and talk at every opportunity. Before I left the hospital tonight she squeezed my hand when I asked if she could hear me.
Through the years, all of us children have spent countless hours on Mom's front porch and beside cars before returning to our homes far from “home”… Mom always did have a way with long goodbyes. =)

Please continue to pray for her and our family.
February 2 AM: It was not my intent to write here daily, but I will today. Mom made it through the night, but she was not able to respond with a squeeze of the hand as she did yesterday. My brother Dave and niece Aimee stayed with her last night. For a few days now, I've been thinking of an old gospel Hymn that Mom used to sing at the piano in our living room. Her piano bench was full of "favorites" that could keep her company for hours. After the last note of each song she'd say, "I like that one" then pull out another. Sometimes we'd sing with her, but many times we were content to let her fill the house with song as we went about whatever else we were doing.
The song in my head is "Come Home. Come Home. It's Suppertime." Some may think it unusual that I would include it here in this unfolding post, but I know Mom would like to hear this Youtube clip now if I could play it in her room, and If she could speak, I know she'd say, "I like that one..."
PM: We had a family meeting today. It's very hard to think "practically" during such emotional times, but we are about to begin another work week and needed to make a new schedule of family "coverage" so that Bob and each of us continue to get needed rest. Sadly, there are other preparations to attend to now that we know it is simply a question of God's timing. Julie drove to our home in West Michigan to be with the girls and get some things in order for what this week yet holds. She will return Tuesday.
February 3: Time on the hospice floor does not seem to pass in "days" but in hours and shifts of nurses as living continues while circumstance suspends part of our lives.
Meanwhile there's the ebb and flow of mourning and mornings, but as a family we're able to talk about and "remember" things fondly even while we wait. My writing when and what little I can here has been cathartic... passing time like this has been very similar to grief, though death has not yet come. In fact, it seems we have stepped over and back across that line many times since Wednesday afternoon. Though Mom is in no pain, these pending days in ways are harder on those who watch and wait than the sudden preparations of an unexpected death. Still we trust in God's plan.
Even now, Mom's presence with us reminds me of two paragraphs from the epilogue of the Duncan Phyfe story Mom helped me with last fall:
"When I was a kid, Mom... darned our socks, and though I now appreciate that labor of love, back then I hated [feeling] the mend down there in my shoe. But Mom did another kind of darning--a kind done so skillfully I didn't know it at the time--she filled all sorts of gaps in our lives....[by keeping] our home happy whenever life "wore through" ...[and making] us feel blessed to be exactly where we were in time and space even when times were hard and space was cramped. She knew enough about darning to know that the secret is not pulling the gap shut--it's filling it in with newly woven threads."
Here is the other paragraph from the Duncan Phyfe epilogue that has taken on new meaning as we pull together as a family.
"With or without a table, we're all of us 'bringing home the Duncan Phyfe.' We're bringing it home each time we see a longing in our loved one's eyes and do our best to meet it; each time we strive to keep the windows of communication open; each time we learn to smile at what frustrates us...each time we salvage what we can from what's been broken. We're bringing home the Duncan Phyfe each time we look back and see that life, perhaps, has not turned out the way we thought it would... but we can embrace the good and bad, the pain and pleasure, the regret and hope... and find joy in living with the way things stand in the end."
Time is a blur. I'll probably not write about these things for some time. Julie will return Tuesday whatever the case.

Friday, January 25, 2008

We Ate at an Akah Banquet Last Night

Some Cultural Delicacies

I hope my words and later my pictures can capture a fraction of the “adrenal joy” that comes from reflecting Christ's love to people who understand simplicity, whose lives are not buried by "things," and whose attitudes reflect daily dependence on God (or various understandings of the unknown). You can't imagine the thrill of having grateful men, women and children climbing up out of the winding paths and fields of dreams as if God said, "If you build a temporary clinic, they will come."

While this trip is not designed primarily as a"cultural experience," working with people does, in fact, require understanding their culture. Always on the back-burner of my thoughts about posts, is my I desire to provide readers with a taste of these experiences.

Every day immediately after we close up a clinic, we experience a meal in the Akah or Lahu village. These doctors and nurses and "assistants in training" work tirelesssly until the last tearful eyes blink and the last head bows an unspoken "thank you." We then clean off the tables used in the clinic and eat a Thai meal prepared by some missionary helpers who send the “picnic” along with us from Chang Rai each day.

(Chosen hospitality ladies from the village also graciously bring us food, and we accept it, but we cannot partake of food prepared with the water we cannot drink.The doctors and our translators know what they are talking about, and they warned us that succumbing to this culinary gesture of gratitude will cause a prompt dismissal of all social graces as one runs to the “squat hut” in hopes of arriving before being assisted by the jet propulsion of what I’ll discreetly call a “major intestinal evacuation.” I’ll explain no further. These vague words will have to do since it’s my goal not to acquire through experience more vivid terms.

There have been two exceptions to this rule thus far in our time here. When we know the Akah person who cooked the meal, and are confident that they use clean water and understand proper food preparation, we can eat what they present. In this case we know two of our translators very well and have been partnering with them in this ministry to the hill-tribe villages for ten years. One of them presented me with fried grubs. These were not little fat grubs like the kind in my lawn at home. These are “bamboo grubs.” They are about the size of a millipede with no legs. They are “quick-fried to a crackly crunch” and safe for American stomachs. So I grabbed a few and popped them in my mouth. He was right. They were good. If you don’t think about them crawling around like worms moments before they hit the hot oil, they taste sort of like shoestring potatoes. I hope to bring home a bag to share with family and friends.

The other exception is dog. In these villages there are three small animals that seem to enjoy free roaming rights: chickens, pigs, and dogs. In fact they wander in and out of our meetings and clinics with little notice.

I asked our Akah translator (John at right) why the Lahu villages have so many more dogs than the Akah. He smiled and said, “Because both Lahu and Akah likes the dog. Lahu like dog for pet or watch dog… Akah likes dog to eat. Whenever one of my Lahu friends has a dog go missing, they think I took it to eat.” He laughs, and I ask. "So they don't ever ask you to watch their dog when they're out of town. He replies, "No. Dey don't ask me dat." [He laughs again.] "Do you name your dogs?" I ask. "No. Just call dem 'dog' we don't keep dem dat long to get to know dem."

At one Lahu village, I was confronted by several barking dogs as I took pictures of the hut they had been sleeping under. It was the first and only time dogs (and we'd seen hundreds of them) barked at me. John said, "See this is what happens when you don't eat dog. Too many watch dogs--not enough to watch." [He gestured toward the simple village where there was nothing fit to burgal. He laughs when he tells me dog jokes because he is a very educated man and knows Americans struggle with this dietary concept even though we eat many strange things that in the Akah mind are no different than dog.]

I asked John how dog was prepared to eat ( I have this description on video, too). “First pick the dog you want. Not too big, but not a puppy. Then you hit him in head like this with stick—strong stick, hit hard… then you just cut open to pull out the insides and throw it in the fire to burn the hairs off the skin—don’t want the hairs part—that part stinks to Americans but I think it smells good because I know what’s coming after and that smells even better. Den once the hairs part is off, you just turn to roast like pig on coals. Then when it's done like a pig barbeque. We do not eat insides—only pig intestine but not dog. Then pull off the meat and stir fry in pan with the vegetables and spices. It’s my favorite.”

[Commercial break: Do you remember the “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” commercial (with Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo” Hoedown playing in the background? If Akah had their own TV audience (they don’t), they could take that idea and combine it with the old Ken-L-Ration commercial from the 70’s. You remember the song: “My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dogs better ‘cuz he eats Ken-L-Ration. My dog’s better than yours!” And then at the end the voice over would say, “Dog… it’s what’s for dinner.”]

I should clarify that John is a very “modern” and intelligent leader in this region. I first met him in my office last summer when he was visiting the U.S. He speaks English, Akah, three dialects of Lahu, and Chinese well enough to converse when he crosses the border to visit Akah tribes there. These non-English languages may sound alike to us, but they are completely different. He is amazing to watch at work. He was sharing this conversation with me because I was asking him about the topic. He does understand our American sensitivities. I should also add that these dogs look nothing like the "pets" we keep in America. They are small "wild" looking breed like the dingo in Australia but much smaller. You would not pet these animals if you saw them.

John has a beautiful wife and family who served us a traditional Akah feast last night. It was 20 feet of tabletop covered with exotic fruits and entrées—yes, dog was on the table, and yes, I confess I tried it (even though my daughter Natalie begged me not to last week when she learned about this regional menu item). It tasted a bit like Teriyaki beef jerky except it was in little nuggets rather than strips. It was a bit chewy and felt like the clams in chowder between the teeth. The Thai dinner guests made very positive comments as they scooped it onto their plates. I prefered the egg rolls and cashew chicken.

I'll give you updates on our meetings and clinics later, but thus far am trying to focus on the cultural adjustments. I share this talk of our long days, strange foods, and exhaustion for a purpose…

But I will have to tell you about our Monday Night Miracle--one that left us trembling on the side of a 3-lane highway in Chang Rai--I'll have to tell you about that later.

Written in the Back of a Taxi-Truck

Friday, January 25, 2008, 8:20 AM:

I have been able to call home twice. It’s great to hear Julie and Natalie’s voice. They have had a lot of snow in Michigan since we left—over a foot. No school on Tuesday. Here it’s 90, and my nose is sunburned. I’m writing today on my battery-operated keyboard in the back of a truck.

We’ve been encouraged to switch taxi-trucks each day to get to know the whole team better. So today I and two other U.S. team members climbed into the truck with all but two of our interpreters. I am sitting on a bench seat across from our host, Kiatisak Siripanadorn and his daughter, Grace (Kesarin is her Thai name). Beside her is Weeranuch Prukamnuay (Akah). To my left is Yupin Wichativanol (also Acah), and to my right is Kenaz Selorio (a Thai-speaking Philippino whose English is excellent. He says he owes it all to Sesame Street, “Burt and Earnie did this to me!” he laughs.)

We just stopped along side of the road and Paul Chermer, an Acah pastor and translator jumped on the back deck. He likes to ride there, holding the luggage rack ladder. Between all ten of us, there is enough English to laugh and have a good time as we travel together. They are helping me spell their names as I type, and they don’t mind that I’m doing this during our 4-hour trip. I can type in spite of the bumps, but please forgive my spelling errors and the random free flow of these thoughts. Tonight, I will have time to do little more than download this text and hope for the best when I hit publish.

I have found that I have very little time to “write.” When I get back to my room, I have to begin preliminary editing and downloading each day's video footage onto my DVD burner. There is about 2-3 hours of work each night before I can turn the lights out… when I do sleep, I’m sleeping well.

We are on our way to Huay Nam Khun, this is a four hour trip—one way. So this day we’ve been told we will be on the road 8 hours. It’s hard to imagine riding in the back of a pickup truck all the way to Waterloo, Iowa from West Michigan, but that is what today holds for us. (This is not a question of comparable distance. It is a long ride because it is up miles and miles of “switchback” mountain roads, some so steep we will have to get out of the truck and walk about half a mile. We were very tired the first three days but have now hit our stride.

Now that we are refreshed, I can better explain just how tired we were those first days—and silly things happen when humans mix sleep deprivation with anticipation of the unknown. About half the team has taken this trip before—the lead doctor has been on all but one of the nine trips. For others it’s their first international “air travel” experience. Because we traveled west, with the sun, we snuck up on tomorrow so cleverly (crossing the International Dateline) that our “today” seemed over before it happened.(The reverse will happen when we return. We will leave Bangkok on Friday, February 1st; spend more than 24 hours in the air (or running through airports); and then arrive home—ON FRIDAY—in time for supper with our families. They will be a sight for sore eyes after what will literally be the longest day of our lives!

Meanwhile during those first few days our bodies thought it was midnight when our watch said it was noon. Add to this, the inherently exhausting schedule of rising early each morning to load our three caravanning taxi-trucks, riding in them for 2 to 3 hours in various directions (but always the last “leg” of the trip goes up into the winding hills until we can hear the little trucks chanting “I think I can. I think I can.” Sometimes we have to “disembark” to hear it say, “I thought I could. I thought I could.” Leaving us in the dust to walk up the long hill where it waits at the top.

I hope my words and later my pictures can capture a fraction of the “adrenal joy” that comes from reflecting Christ's love to people who understand simplicity, whose lives are not buried by "things," and whose attitudes reflect daily dependence on God (or various understandings of the unknown). You can't imagine the thrill of having grateful men, women and children climbing up out of the winding paths and fields of dreams as if God said, "If you build a temporary clinic, they will come."

Pictures from the Lahu and Acah Villages

In the Hill-Tribe Regions of Northern Thailand

I wish I had time to talk about these pictures. I'm here primarily to shoot video footage for a documentary of sorts about this on-going work with the hill-tribes of the Chang Rai Province in Thailand, but since I can't post video (yet), I sometimes change the setting on my video camera and grab a snapshot. There is so much to write about but so little time each day. I told my family I'd post a few pictures so they'd know that I'm meeting lots of wonderful people here. I wish I knew their language, but they respond very well to a smile.

The four kids (1st picture below) are standing in front of the thatch that was going on the new hut mentioned in the previous post (below) . The hut was done three hours later.

There are two reasons the people in some of these pictures look "serious." First of all, they are not used to a bearded white man pointing a camera at them. When they see the picture afterwards they laugh. The main reason, they look serious is that many of them were waiting to see the dentist. The children gather at the window to watch the "grown ups" get their teeth pulled. We don't do much dental work on children, but when we do they also look a little apprehensive. (The happy girl toward the bottom of this set was already missing her front teeth when we arrived, but I have some video of an older asking us to pull the two front teeth he had left. They were in the way and had grown very long from receding gums. He was very relieved to be without them. =) The older lady with the purple bandana could not walk but was carried on her daughter's back to the clinic for medicine.

All Photos taken by T.K. © Copyright 2008 Patterns of Ink

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Day One Report a Day Late

Monday, Jan 21, 2008. First of nine visits to hill-tribe villages in the northern-most parts of Thailand. We traveled by covered-truck 3.5 hours. (These are Toyota trucks with a covered back with two benches facing each other. They serve as “taxis” in Chang Rai, holding 8 adults in the back and are open in the back with ladders to climb up to the luggage rack above where up to four adults can sit if it gets hot inside the back of the truck. The roads used to be rough dirt roads, but a few years ago the Thai government paved much of the way. Only the last hour was on rough, dusty, dirt roads (some so steep we had to get out so the truck could make the climb.)

Most of the hill-tribe villages we will be serving in the days ahead are Acah, but this first village was Lahu, the Samakat Lahu Village, populated by 170 families and about 1,000 Lahu people. These people are called “hill-tribes” not only because they live in the mountain region of Thailand (north of Chang Rai) but also because their villages are on hillsides, terraced for farming with stilted huts joined by winding paths between tight-knit points of connection. This is the dry season so the paths are hard as concrete but deeply rutted from the rainy season. Each team member is responsible to carry his/her share of “the pharmacy” to the designated site of the clinic, which is inside and around the church or "common building," and that it seems is always at the highest point of each village.

The "pharmacy" consists of eight suitcases weighing 50 lbs each full of nothing but medicine that the team packed and brought with us from the U.S. One of the cases also contains a portable dentist chair designed for just such use. Today's clinic began at noon and continued until the last tooth was pulled and the last prescription filled, which was about 4:00 PM. It was an average size clinic but non-stop, serving 128 patients from the village. There were 21 dental patients representing about 50 pulled teeth. (That is pretty much the only option with the teeth in the condition we find them in.) Patient #1 had 6 teeth pulled, but the average person had two pulled. Twenty-five were served by the doctor’s station. Tuesday's clinic is at a smaller village, but Wednesday's is three villages combined (Acah) and we are expecting 300. That will be long day.

Please pray that we do not get exhausted as that can prove to be very dangerous under these circumstances--especially for the doctors, who have lifetimes of experience in the ER, but this is grueling work far from home in adverse working conditions. (Photos to come.)

We had to pass a military check point because this particular village is within 3 miles of the Burma (Myanmar) border, which is a major part of the world’s opium supply. Opium is still, in fact, a lingering part of some tribal cultures, including this one we were in today. After about two hours of video shooting at the clinic, I went down some of the paths to capture local color and culture. I came upon about ten men and five women building a bamboo and thatch hut about the size of a two-car garage. They allowed me to film them—first from a distance and then very up close. As I was shooting some “how to build a hut” footage, I noticed in the far corner of the unfinished hut were an older man and woman smoking opium from a large handmade pipe of bamboo (about the size of two Pringles cans end-to-end). They were a bit sheepish when they saw this white man with a video camera but could soon see that I meant only to learn about building a hut and not to expose what they do in there huts (an activity which would be no surprise to the local authorities who pretty much leave them alone as long as they are not transporting their opium to the city. I do not mean to sound libertarian on this subject. I’m just explaining the attitude I chose to portray with a camera in hand as I nodded at those around me with hatchets and machetes in theirs… enough said. =)

One younger man who had arrived on a moped knew what a video camera was and asked if he could see the footage in the viewfinder. I showed him and soon all work stopped and everyone wanted to see the portion they were in. They were amazed and laughed and teased each other. The two who smoking opium did not come to the camera, but the others enjoyed it. Though electricity and small televisions have recently come to these some villages, it’s likely that they had never seen themselves on video—perhaps not even in a photograph. I was pleased with how my time with them turned out.

These are beautiful people as you will soon see when I learn how to download photos from on this rented service. There is a striking resemblance to between these nomadic people and the nomadic Native American Indians, and I think some sort of anthropological connection could be traced. I will update our days when possible.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jet Lag in Process

I'm typing this post not on a computer but on a small keyboard that allows me to type plain text and then download it to blogger or email. Please forgive the disjointed nature of this informal update. We're on the longest leg of our flight, non-stop from Detroit to Tokyo. I'd say about 4/5 of the passengers are Asian, probably on business or returning home or visiting family. It is a very friendly atmosphere as we get up to stretch your legs.

My nephew Ben is an engineer for Boeing in Seattle. (Hi, Ben). I'm currently aboard a Boeing 747, loaded with over 400 passengers (and who knows how many tons of luggage,supplies, and fuel), flying at an altitude of over 15,000 feet at better than 500 MPH non-stop to the far side of the globe. No matter how many times I fly, and no matter how many times I hear the principle of "LIFT" explained, I marvel that the whole unbelievable idea works and that man can temporarily part ways with earth and stare down at a blanket of clouds.

I had heard that we would be flying north and mistakenly thought that meant near the arctic north (which struck me as out of the way but what do I know?). Turns out that we did go north but it was in a huge arch across Canada's tundra to Alaska. When there were no clouds, we could see no signs of human life below for hours and hours. In the U.S., we say we're going "up north" for vacation. I don't think Canadians say that. Help me out, Josie and company up there.... How far north do vacationing Canadian parents drive before their kids start saying, "Are you sure this is the way, Dad? Can we at least go back to where trees grow?"

Then somewhere far north of Vancouver, it got very mountainous and snow-covered. I think maybe that was Alaska, but not the parts you see in the travel brochures.

After that, the long, sweeping arch in the air continued pretty much along Russia's north-eastern shoreline, but it was not until the last few hours of the flight that we saw nothing but blue ocean below until we got to Japan.

On the tarmac in Tokyo, the pilot said we were now free to "dis & bark" so all the American passengers began insulting each other and barking like dogs. I didn't, of course, but evidently the others thought it was some sort of Asian custom--you know... sort of like a Chinese fire drill. "Wow!" I thought, "We haven't even gotten to Thailand, and already I've learned something new on this trip."

I was just about to "dis" the lady beside me by telling her she looked like an angry pug as she barked in my direction, but a stewardess picked up the microphone and clarified that they did not say "dis & bark" but "disembark." Everyone was so embarrassed as we got off the plane, but it was an understandable mistake. "When in Rome do as the Romans do" and all that.... It served as a good reminder that in our desire not to offend, we sometimes too hastily adopt customs we do not understand. I'll try to remember that in the days ahead.

Please forgive the silly fabrication above. We've been en route now for about 20 hours and we still have about ten hours to go. I hope I don't regret downloading this in Bangkok. I will give a much more serious update in a day or two. Oh, by the way, we are exactly 12 hours AHEAD of EST in the U.S. So noon here is midnight there. It seems like I should be able to tell you who wins Sunday's NFL Play-off games before they happen, but I've been told that doesn't work.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Feeling Small on Planet Earth

A couple years ago I wrote a post called "Geography and Me" about the "right brain" ways I saw the world as a kid whenever I studied the globe. This was partly because of the two-dimensional nature of maps and globes, but 21st Century technology has changed all that. Over Christmas Break, I spent hours playing with Google Earth. If you have not yet downloaded this free program and "explored the world," you're in for a treat.

Once you have Google Earth open on your screen, rotate the globe until your state or province is in the center. Now zoom in and adjust to your house or neighborhood--yes, you will be able to see it. Then zoom out until the entire earth seems lost in space. Now zoom back in again from outer space all the way to your house. You can do the same thing with any place in the world from Vancouver to Venice.

If you're like me, it makes you feel like a microscopic speck in a blue marble. Even more amazing is that the satellites that provide these images are focused only on Earth. If they showed the whole universe, we would see not only that we are specks on that marble but also that the marble is a speck among a million other specks in the universe.

Feeling that small brings to mind great literature like "Horton Hears a Who" by Dr. Seuss and songs like "From a Distance" (which is more of an artistic than theological expression). But even more, feeling small raises the echo of King David, the Psalmist, who asked God, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?..."

So is it any wonder that I, a speck among a billion other specks, can feel incredibly "lost" and amazingly "found" at the same time?

It's because this speck is not at all lost in a sea of specks. This speck we call Earth that revolves every 24 hours and finds its way around the sun every 365 days is precisely where God put it for His purpose. Do I fully understand this? Not after half a lifetime of wonder.

Do I believe it? With all my heart. When does it make the most sense to me? When I study the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament against the backdrop of the Old Testament. Explaining the new paradigm, the new way of thinking about God and His relationship to man, was at the heart of Christ's parables and the hundreds of questions he asked of his listeners. Like the time He asked the lawyer "Who was neighbor to the man?" Jesus also had interesting ways of prompting good questions from his listeners, like the time they asked him, "When did we ever see you sick and visit you?" and he answered... "'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

About ten years ago, my home church began sending a "medical missions team" of volunteer doctors, nurses, and helpers to the northern-most part of Thailand (formerly Siam) in the mountain region north of the modern city of Chang Rai. (Not Chang Mai... the smaller dot above that on the map.)

A couple months ago I was invited to go on this year's trip to make a video "documentary" about the work that has been done in those mountains with the Akha and Lahu tribes.

(Years ago, when I was a teacher and had my summers off, I owned a video business and put in thousands of hours behind a camera. It was good work, and I enjoyed it, but my schedule eventually made it impossible to do both "jobs." When we moved to Michigan in 2000, I packed up my equipment, and haven't done "paid" video work since.)

Back in November, the lead doctor on the team learned of my previous experience and asked me to consider joining them to make a video documentary. (They've wanted to do this for years.)

Julie and I prayed about it for a week before saying yes. It's probably no surprise that we are "home bodies." Julie is not going, but we knew it would mean my leaving family just a few days after dropping our middle daughter off at college in Chicago. It would mean delegating some of my school duties to the administrative team. They and the School Board were totally in favor of this global opportunity.

My mom's health also factored into the decision, but she and Bob were very supportive of the idea. She will even be able to spend a week here with Julie and Natalie while I'm gone (and while Bob is on assignment with some photography work for this Special Olympics fundraiser up north).

While they're keeping busy here, I'll be sleeping in the little hut on the left. Just kidding. We will be staying most nights in modern accommodations, but our days will be spent in jungle/ mountain villages like this. The team sets up what looks like a "MASH" unit and tends to the medical and dental needs of hundreds of people who otherwise go without this care (and the cases of medicines we have packed to take with us).

I've never traveled to this part of the world before. We will be flying out of Detroit, north around the top of the globe to Tokyo, Japan; then to Bangkok, Thailand; then north to Chang Rai. From there, we travel by truck caravan to smaller towns and villages. (These are some Akha women. These tribal people are the "least" of the least in the social order of Thailand. Though they have lived for generations within the borders, they are not considered citizens of the country. The royal family and government--which is in a state of flux--are beginning to accept these people into their lower class.) The great thing about going back to the same places year after year is that the team leaders maintain ongoing relationships with the people we help. There are many indigenous co-workers waiting for us to arrive.

Since Christmas, I've been packing, updating my video equipment, researching Thailand, and studying satellite maps and images. We leave early Friday morning, but it will be a busy week. Once there, I don't know whether I'll be able to post weekly updates. (We will have limited access to email, but I'm not sure Blogger will work from those connections. If not, I'll post again in February. Please pray for the team and the many people we will meet. Feel free to leave comments. If I can read them, they'll be encouraging from afar.)

Yesterday morning in church, they had the team stand and people gathered around us to pray for this two-week trip. Feeling that support was very humbling. Like that first time I zoomed in and out on our home from outer space, I felt simultaneously lost and found, needed and needy, empowered and yet very small... on planet earth.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Goin' Home

A Timeless Musical Theme

In my effort to avoid political discussion for as long as possible in this space, I would like to point out that Iowa is known for at least five things besides the Iowa Caucuses.

We lived in Iowa for eighteen years. Julie and I began our family of three girls there, and it is one of the places we call home. But since it is not yet famous for that fact [ha ha], I'll point out five other things for which Iowa is proud. The last one ties directly into our discussion of HOME from these past several months.

"Be it ever so humble," Iowa is the home of President Herbert Hoover, first US president born west of the Mississippi. It is the “college home” of George Washington Carver. It’s the home of John Deere tractors (both manufacturing and use). It’s the home of the “Field of Dreams.” You know... the movie set with the baseball field beside a white farm house where the all the resurrected baseball players come out of the corn field for a shot at redemption—it still stands as the Iowa’s #1 tourist attraction. You think I’m joking, don’t you? I’ve run those bases, sat in the bleachers and stood on the porch in the background. The fifth thing, I’ll bet you didn’t know…

Iowa takes great pride in being the summer home of Antonín Dvořák, the Czech composer who lived in America from 1892 to 1895. Dvořák is best known for his New World Symphony, which he wrote in the spring of 1893. While putting the finishing touches on that work, he left New York by train and went to Spillville, Iowa, where some of his Czech relatives lived. He stayed the entire summer.

The entire New World Symphony is beautiful, but it's most recognizable strains are called "Goin' Home." If you listen to the background music of this clip from “Clear and Present Danger,” you’ll hear that "Largo" so often heard at military and State funerals.

It is commonly held that the melody (and later the gist of the lyrics) comes from an old African-American Spiritual with words similar to those below. It was Dvořák’s common practice to intertwine folk music in his work, and he had been working with Harry Burleigh, an expert of 19th Century spirituals. But the specific published lyrics of this song are credited to a student of Dvořák’s, William Arms Fisher, who said this in the flyleaf of the 1922 sheet music:

"The Largo... is the outpouring of Dvorak's own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man's bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his "spirituals." Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words 'Goin' home, goin' home" is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony."

Those lyrics of "Goin' Home" use compelling earthly images to describe a home beyond this world. Here is the quintessential rendition by Paul Robeson. He was 60 years old when this was recorded live at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1958. I am moved by the longing in his voice.

Goin' home, goin' home,
I'm jes' goin' home,
Quiet like, some still day,
I'm jes' goin' home.
It ain't far, Jes' close by,
Through an open door,
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin' t' fear no more.
Mother's there, 'spectin' me,
Father's waitin' too,
Lots o' folks gathered there,
All the friends I knew....

Nothin's lost, all is gain,
No more fret nor pain,
No more stumblin' on the way,
No more longin' for the day,
goin' to roam no more...

Mornin' star lights the way,
Restless dream all done,
Shadows gone, break of day,
Real life's jes' begun.
There's no break, there's no end,
Just a livin' on,
Wide awake with a smile,
Goin' on an' on.
Goin' home, goin' home,
I'm jes goin' home.
It's not far, Jes' close by
Through an open door,
I am goin' home.......
I am goin' home...home

About twenty years after that recording was made, a very young and shy James Taylor wrote a different song that speaks to the common need we have for a place to call home. As he introduced it, he said, “This is a song I wrote in Spain….I was homesick at the time—I didn’t have a home—but that doesn’t keep you from being homesick.”

I hope I don't sound like a broken record as I continue writing about this feeling of "home." It's partly because we just enjoyed being home with family; partly because our middle daughter is leaving this week for college in Chicago. She has been commuting to college locally, but will now be further away until May. We're excited for her, but it comes on the heels of our oldest getting married last summer. Thank heavens, our youngest is still home. What a blessing she is. Keeps us feeling young to have a middle schooler.
These feelings are compounded by the fact that I'll be going to Thailand in a week, and I know I will be thinking about "home" in new ways during that absence. I'm excited about the opportunity, which I'll write more about next weekend, but I also know that I'll miss my family while I'm gone and be eager to see them again when I return.
There are countless other 20th Century songs about Goin' Home. Here are some you may know in the in various genre: Folk: "Homeward Bound" by Paul Simon (Here's the whole song 20 years later.) film musical:"I Want to Go Back to Michigan" by Irving Berlin sung by Judy Garland; Pop: "HOME" by
Michael Buble; Rock: "I'm Goin' Home" by Chris Daughtry; 80's Country: "Back Home Again" by John Denver. Can you think of other songs that strum this "Going Home" chord?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Photos From The Attic

And a New One New Year's Eve

We had a wonderful Christmas and New Years with family. First in Kansas and then the east side of Michigan. We drove to Kansas in a blizzard which made our arrival feel like the last scene of Earl Hamner Jr.'s "The Homecoming." The trip back to Michigan was clear.

Then for New Year's weekend, we drove across the state to the "homestead" described in the epilogue. It is always good to be "home." Mom and Bob had a new bay window installed in their front room overlooking the front porch with the swing. It looks great. They even had a fire going in the fireplace.

Coming home from there Tuesday evening, we drove three hours through another blizzard, but the all-wheel drive brought us safely home again. It was great to be "home" in Kansas with Julie's family; it was great to be "home" with my Mom, Bob, siblings, spouses-in-law, nieces and nephews, too; but it's also great to be "home" (here at home) with the snow outside and a warm fire burning inside for these past few days of this new year.

While at my Mom's, we spent an afternoon looking through boxes of pictures in the attic (actually, we brought the boxes down to the warm living room). I could have kept looking all night, but we had a party to get to. It's especially fun to hear Mom narrate each snapshot. She held up one picture of her childhood home and said, "I'm not kidding you, Tom. I can smell this room. I can feel it and smell it just like I was sitting there." I knew exactly what she meant.

Photographs are a sort of time travel for the part of us that dwells deep within our skin, the part that feels as young as the person in the picture... the part that says, "I remember you."
I've inserted these epilogue photographs in chronological order. My sister Kathy was born in April just like Mom had calculated. The photo (at left) was taken the summer after.

I won't go into details here, but there was an old wives' tale that someone told my mom that suggested that a woman who was nursing a baby could not get pregnant. Remember this is back in the "rabbit test" days when as Mom used to say, "We didn't know nothing about nothing" when it came to these things.

My brother Paul was born less than a year later. (For a few weeks they are the same age.) That's Kathy and Paul beside the Formica table that we used through the Sixties.

Then my brother Dave came along 14 months after Paul. That's him there in the middle. Dad had his hands full, but this was how Mom's entire days were spent when he was at work.

Then in '56, I joined the swim team. That's me beside Mom. [Paul must have taken the picture.] I'm not sure if we were going to or coming from the beach, but my "swim suit" looks a little wet.

These two pictures reminded me that this was before disposable diapers, and no, Mom did not have a diaper service. For eight years running, she had from one to three kids in diapers at the same time and laundered them herself.

Keeping us clean was no trouble at all. Every Saturday night, whether we needed it or not, all four of us piled into the tub together. This, of course, soon eliminated Kathy, but the three of us boys played in the tub 'til our fingertips were pruny.

That's Dave at the right and me sitting in front, content to be a part of this happy bubble bath. That claw-foot tub was in the house on Lapeer Avenue. From there, we moved to the house we were builing on Atkins Road.

Then a year later we moved to Roseville where my little brother Jim was born in 1968. I used to like to carry him around on my shoulders. "He ain't heavy...he's my brother." Here's Jim the following summer in the back yard with our '65 Plymouth Fury.

Jim has the unique honor of having most of his "growing up" pictures in color. A few years back, I wrote something for him that began, "You may sometimes wonder what you brought to our world / How things were different than before. / I think I speak for all of us...You made everything matter more." It's true. I can't imagine our family without all five of us siblings and each of our spouses who one-by-one joined the family. We still get together whenever possible (and together the five couples represent over 130 years of marriage so far).

Mom found this one a few weeks ago and gave us each a copy. That's my dad's mom, Grandma K_, at the right. I had never seen this photo before so it's been fun to study the details.
Here we are almost 50 years later. Jim (right) enjoys photography and set up this picture of all five of us with Mom on New Year's Eve.

New Year!

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