Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fighting for a Soldier

He swaggered into my Sophomore Oral English class last semester with his top three shirt buttons undone. He sometimes wore a white sport jacket without knowing that it came straight from the lot sale of Miami Vice. He was trailed by the pungency of cigarette tar but managed to pierce his own nicotine cloud with a quick grin and shiny eyes. He wasn't the HIT-fashioned student with short cropped hair, rectangular glasses and awkward glances at girls. There was something about him that seemed more rebellious and also more calloused, as though he had somehow managed to skin his knees on the world's playground long before his classmates were even allowed out of diapers.

I soon learned that he took frequent smoke breaks, skipped classes more often than not and never considered homework a priority. These truths rose to the surface early because my classes are small enough for me to do a superficial glance to see who's prepared and who's not. And as quickly as I learned about him, he learned about me and how I can usually detect the deadbeats and will call on them ruthlessly. He skipped out on my class, once, because he had failed to do the homework assignment and was afraid that I'd single him out (I would have). During the mid-class break, he and another classmate disappeared and never returned. By that point in the semester, I knew his penchant for bailing and decided to address him immediately. I delayed the class, pulled out my cell phone, and called him. He didn't have my number plugged in and was blindsided by a seemingly benign call. When he answered, I said, “This is Meagan. Where are you? I haven't seen you in half an hour.” He blanked. Then stammered. Then breathed heavily. Then paused. He confessed that he was in the dining hall hanging out with friends. Both he and the other boy had left their things in the classroom because they knew that a full migration out the door would've raised my suspicions. That also meant that they had to retreive those items before the workers would sweep through after our session. So, I reminded him that they'd have to return and that I'd maime and/or kill them with my bare hands once class was finished and they showed back up.

As the other students filed out of the class, they cowered in the doorway. I stared them down and then told them to come get their things. They paused, unsure of what I was going to do. I told them very plainly, “Don't ever do that to me or your class again. From now on, you come on time and you leave on time. You are MY responsibility, and I don't deserve to worry about you like I did today.”

They sheepishly walked out, and as I watched them scuttle down the hallway, I realized that I was only worried about one of them. And it was him.

I worried about him for the rest of the semester, not really knowing why but certain that it was justified. I never got a chance to sit down and learn any life details from him, but what I did find out only added to my burden. One day, he mentioned that he would enlist in the military after graduation. A rough kid like him getting tossed into the cycle of a soldier's life doesn't usually have a healthy outcome. And then I understood why he seems to defy the stereotype of an HIT student. He has been sent here because this is a feeder school for the military. He's here because he has to be.

I only saw him once on campus after our class ended. I kept my hello simple because he was with other guys, and I didn't want to give them fodder for ridicule. After that, I went home for the summer and then returned to Harbin in late October, right around mid-terms. He crossed my mind occasionally, but I don't normally chase down students. Part of knowing on whom to concentrate my efforts involves seeing who comes to me and initiates conversations. He was silent.

Until Christmas.

That day, filled with activity from sunrise to sunset, was the day I heard from him. He sent me a quick text message in Chinese. I could only decipher part of it, but I knew it was the standard message. Still, he had written, and I wasn't going to lose the opportunity before me. So I promptly responded with, “I'm delighted to hear from you! I haven't seen you on campus all semester. Are you still here? I've been a little worried about you.”

A few minutes later, he sent me another message confirming that he is still a student at HIT and that he's been busy. He also confessed that he had wanted to call me but that he had lost his confidence because his English isn't so good. (He's not being modest; his English could use some help.) I wrote back a very earnest appeal for him to reconsider calling and left it with, “I would climb a mountain to catch up with you, so if you've got some free time, let me know.” His curiosity must have been ignited because he soon nominated Monday (yesterday) to have dinner. I said yes without any hesitation.

We met outside my dorm. His telltale swagger gave him away. I asked him if he would like hotpot, and he agreed. So, we walked off campus to a place that I thought would provide some slightly quieter atmosphere. As we sat there, we talked about our summers and about the rush of fall semester. And then, in his broken English, he said, “I wondered why you are worried about me.”

Do you really want to know?

“Yes,” he said eagerly.

I began. I met you last year. You walked into my class, and you were different. You had a rock 'n' roll look, but my heart saw something underneath the surface. I only know a few things about you. I know your hometown, I know your dorm and room number, your major and your birthday. I know you smoke. But, I also know that you've had a difficult life. I just don't know how difficult.

He stopped eating. “You know my hometown?”

Yes. And I named it.

"You know my dorm number?"

Yes, and I named that, too.

“And my birthday?”

Yes, and I named the month, day and year.

He sat there in disbelief and could only respond in Chinese.

And then it was his turn to blindside me. “My mother died last year. That's why I missed your first class last semester.”

My heart ached. I softly spoke, “I'm so sorry,” but I decided to keep pressing him. What about the rest of your family?

“My dad is a salesman. I have a younger brother and a sister. My brother did something bad and he's in prison for three years. He gets out next year. He's one year younger than me. My little sister is in junior high school.”

And I bet she watches and listens to everything you do and say.

He blushed and shook his head. “Nahhhh.”

So you and I are both the oldest children in our families.

He nodded.

I've been a big sister for a long time. Part of being a big sister involves protecting others. When I came to HIT, I realized that I was also a big sister to my students. I want to protect them even though I know that I can't do that all the time. That's how I feel about you. When I heard that you are going to become a soldier, I was fearful for you and wished that I could protect you from a lot of mistakes that young soldiers make. My hometown is a military town, and I've seen many young men ruin their lives because they're far from home and they choose friends who are no good for them. I don't want to see that happen to you. That's why I've been concerned about you. I want you live a wonderful and purposeful life and become an old man with very few regrets. I want you to be remembered for your wisdom and your compassion and your courage and your love for others.

His face suddenly softened and he looked down. When he looked back up, his eyes darted from left to right in the frantic search for words. Finally, he met my gaze and said, “Before today, I didn't know that you cared about me so much. I don't know what to say. I feel so lucky.”

I smiled. You don't have to say anything. I just want you to remember this moment because there will be challenges and difficulties waiting for you in the future, and I never want you to forget that even though life isn't fair, [someone] loves you and desires great things for you, and He sent me all the way across the world to tell you that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Innkeeper

(available for audio download at

This has greatly humbled my thoughts today.

The Innkeeper by John Piper

Jake's wife would have been fifty-eight
The day that Jesus passed the gate
Of Bethlehem, and slowly walked
Toward Jacob's Inn. The people talked
With friends, and children played along
The paths, and Jesus hummed a song,
And smiled at every child he saw.

He paused with one small lass to draw
A camel in the dirt, then said,
"What's this?" The girl bent down her head
To study what the Lord had made,
Then smiled, "A camel, sir!" and laid
Her finger on the bulging back,
"It's got a hump." "Indeed it does,
And who do you believe it was
Who made this camel with his hump?"
Without a thought that this would stump
The rabbi guild and be reviled,
She said, "God did." And Jesus smiled,
"Good eyes, my child. And would that all
Jerusalem within that wall
Of yonder stone could see the signs
Of peace!" He left the lass with lines
Of simple wonder in her face,
And slowly went to find the place
Where he was born.

Folks said the inn
Had never been a place for sin,
For Jacob was a holy man.
And he and Rachel had a plan
To marry, have a child or two,
And serve the folk who traveled through,
Especially the poor who brought
Their meal and turtle-doves, and sought
A place to stay near Zion's gate.
They'd rise up early, stay up late,
To help the pilgrims go and come,
And when the place was full, to some
Especially the poorest, they would say,
"We're sorry there's no room, but stay
Now if you like out back. There's lots
Of hay and we have extra cots
That you can use. There'll be no charge.
The stable isn't very large
But Noah keeps it safe." He was
A wedding gift to Jake because
The shepherds knew he loved the dog.
"There's nothing in the decalogue,"
He used to joke, "that says a man
Can't love a dog!"

The children ran
Ahead of Jesus as he strode
Toward Jacob's Inn. The stony road
That led up to the inn was deep
With centuries of wear, and steep
At one point just before the door.
The Lord knocked once then twice before
He heard an old man's voice, "‘Round back!"
It called. So Jesus took the track
That led around the inn. The old
Man leaned back in his chair and told
The dog to never mind. "Ain't had
No one to tend the door, my lad,
For thirty years. I'm sorry for
The inconvenience to your sore
Feet. The road to Jerusalem
Is hard ain't it? Don't mind old Shem.
He's harmless like his dad. Won't bite
A Roman soldier in the night.
Sit down." And Jacob waved the stump
Of his right arm. "We're in a slump
Right now. Got lots of time to think
And talk. Come, sit and have a drink.
From Jacob's well!" he laughed. "You own
The inn?" The Lord inquired. "On loan,
You'd better say. God owns the inn."
At that the Lord knew they were kin,
And ventured on: "Do you recall
The tax when Caesar said to all
The world that each must be enrolled?"
Old Jacob winced, "Are north winds cold?
Are deserts dry? Do fishes swim
And ravens fly? I do. A grim
And awful year it was for me.
Why do you ask?" "I have a debt
To pay, and I must see how much.
Why do you say that it was such
A grim and awful year?" He raised
The stump of his right arm, "So dazed,
Young man, I didn't know I'd lost
My arm. Do you know what it cost
For me to house the Son of God?"
The old man took his cedar rod
And swept it ‘round the place: "Empty.
For thirty years alone, you see?
Old Jacob, poor old Jacob runs
It with one arm, a dog and no sons.
But I had sons . . . once. Joseph was
My firstborn. He was small because
His mother was so sick. When he
Turned three the Lord was good to me
And Rachel, and our baby Ben
Was born, the very fortnight when
The blessed family arrived.
And Rachel's gracious heart contrived
A way for them to stay—there in
That very stall. The man was thin
And tired. You look a lot like him."
But Jesus said, "Why was it grim?"

"We got a reputation here
That night. Nothing at all to fear
In that we thought. It was of God.
But in one year the slaughter squad
From Herod came. And where do you
Suppose they started? Not a clue!
We didn't have a clue what they
Had come to do. No time to pray,
No time to run, no time to get
Poor Joseph off the street and let
Him say good-bye to Ben or me
Or Rachel. Only time to see
A lifted spear smash through his spine
And chest. He stumbled to the sign
That welcomed strangers to the place,
And looked with panic at my face,
As if to ask what he had done.
Young man, you ever lost a son?"

The tears streamed down the Savior's cheek,
He shook his head, but couldn't speak.

"Before I found the breath to scream
I heard the words, a horrid dream:
‘Kill every child who's two or less.
Spare not for aught, nor make excess.
Let this one be the oldest here
And if you count your own life dear,
Let none escape.' I had no sword
No weapon in my house, but Lord,
I had my hands, and I would save
The son of my right hand . . . So brave,
O Rachel was so brave! Her hands
Were like a thousand iron bands
Around the boy. She wouldn't let
Him go and so her own back met
With every thrust and blow. I lost
My arm, my wife, my sons—the cost
For housing the Messiah here.
Why would he simply disappear
And never come to help?"

They sat
In silence. Jacob wondered at
The stranger's tears.

"I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give
Me life, and then God let me live,
And took your wife. Ask me not why
The one should live, another die.
God's ways are high, and you will know
In time. But I have come to show
You what the Lord prepared the night
You made a place for heaven's light.
In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I
Will rise in three days from the dead,
And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death,
And I will raise with life and breath
Your wife and Ben and Joseph too
And give them, Jacob, back to you
With everything the world can store,
And you will reign for evermore."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Unto us a child is born...

Meet my newest little friend, born a few weeks ago to very proud first-time parents.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

the power of cookies

I gave today completely over to baking cookies. Once I took care of a few phone calls this morning, I slid my Union Jack cooking apron on over my pajamas, pulled my hair into a sloppy bun and started mixing ingredients. That was at 9:00. I finished around 7:30p and immediately headed into the shower to wash away all the butter, flour, chocolate and sugar.

While I was standing in my tiny kitchen with no cabinets, mixing a bowlful of batter with a handheld mixer whose little motor was struggling to fight against the density of dough, heat and the aroma of caramel buttery indulgence emanating out my open hallway door, I thought of my grandmother. She loved vanilla, and agreed with me that it's never a bad idea to add more to a recipe.

Later, I attempted to make fudge according to my aunt's foolproof recipe. I realized that I didn't have enough milk chocolate pieces, so I improvised and added some mint chocolate pieces. How bad could it be if there's only one letter difference between the two? I smiled as I thought of her and how she'd probably approve – if not of the flavor, at least of the courage to adapt the recipe according to supply. My aunt inspires me for a number of reasons, one of them being her creativity in the kitchen. Her kitchen is her palette, and she knows exactly how to mix one flavor with another.

In between digging out from the avalanche of flour, I munched on handfuls of Chex Mix thoughtfully made and shipped from my mom. It's very hard to find a suitable cereal equivalent on this side of the ocean, so it's a luxury that I can't even come close to duplicating. It combines the my favorite snack elements: crunchy and salty. You can keep your gummy worms, kids. I'll take Chex Mix by a country mile.

At the end of such a long marathon, my back is a little stiff, my fingers pruned, and my kitchen floor an imitation Jackson Pollock. But, to show for it, I've got chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, peppermint cookies, pecan pie cookies, eggnog cookies, rice krispy treats, and chocolate-mint-hint fudge.

And family reunions unlocked from memories....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

a baby dedication

A poem I wrote and dedicated to friends of mine here in Harbin who are about to welcome their second child:

A snowy day in cold Harbin
Our feet slow to a crawl
Winter winds growl at our windows
Shoulders bracing for the haul

And yet in our Siberian sphere
We know there is a light
Born years ago to a virgin girl
‘Neath Bethlehem’s stellar night

A canopy of angels sang
Proclaiming our Messiah
Yet in a manger he was displayed
King sent as a pariah

In his mother’s arms he stirred
The stable dust he breathed
Soon walked with sinners and lepers, too
So that they would believe

December’s Son became our Savior
His stripes atoning for our cost
The baby born among the fodder
Became Shepherd to the lost

And as we celebrate the Gift
Formed in the womb of Mary
Our hearts prepare to welcome you
Baby _______, in January

Much like our Lord, you will arrive
Among a darkened land
With hungry souls at every turn
As countless as the sand

This author knows you’ll change the world
If, by your life, will be
Another letter of Godly love
Written to hearts of humanity.

This Christmas season of Twenty Ten
Our thoughts of Holy Child
Give us reason to hope for you
As tender and as mild.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Weather report for Saturday evening in Harbin:

Tonight: Bitterly cold. Mostly clear. Dangerous wind chills may approach -45F. Low -23F. Winds WSW at 10 to 20 mph.

Monday, December 6, 2010

hamburgers with extra grace

About a week ago, Stonecold and his friend came over for what is becoming the default menu: hamburgers. I've never met a Chinese person so infatuated with them and so surprisingly open-minded to some of the more traditional ingredients that have proved stumbling blocks to Asian palates: cheese and yellow mustard. He uses them with the same liberality as I do, which makes me laugh when we both reach simultaneously for my imported jar of French's.

That night, I found out his birthday is in December. I didn't write it down and soon got lost in another tangent of conversation. This morning, as I was remembering him, I was reminded of what he told me and soon sent him a text message asking, once again, for the date. His response was surprising, considering that he had not hesitated with me in the original exchange of information:

Stonecold: May I ask, what for?

Me: I want to make sure that we celebrate in some way. If that's ok...

He was silent for 15 minutes. I was concerned. Finally, my phone beeped.

Stonecold: Well, your idea upsets me. First of all, I'm still too young to celebrate my birthday. It's not worth it. We have a saying in Chinese that's something like, “It's bad manners to only receive.” If you keep doing something like this and don't give me a clue about what I can do in equal [return], I'd be worried, though friends we are.

I was a little stunned and wondered if his limitations on birthday celebrations are more Stonecold than they are Chinese. I felt like I had taken a step back for the ground that we gained with our most recent interaction. I asked for wisdom as I pressed my faded cell phone buttons.

Me: I instantly and sincerely apologize. I wasn't aware that you had such a complex view of birthday celebrations. I should explain to you that, growing up, we celebrated birthdays as a way to express our gratitude for the lives we've been given, and saying that I want to celebrate your birthday is also a way for me to demonstrate an appreciation for the day that YOU came into the world. You see, I know full well that none of us is guaranteed another sunrise. Life isn't fair, and as a response to that, I celebrate things as they come, knowing that I may not have another chance to do so.

There was much more that I wanted to say, but my message was already in four installments. I felt that the rest of the explanation would have to wait. I pressed “send,” with dueling tides of peace (over what I had said) and apprehension (over his forthcoming reply).

He wrote back quickly.

Stonecold: Ok. I understand your theory now. It's December 18th.

Me: Thank you. As for what you can do in return, my answer will have to be in person. It is very heartfelt, and my cheap rebellious Nokia is unworthy of such a task.

As I finished my message, I felt warm tears slowly trail down my face. I was overwhelmed by the realization that he and I are on the cusp of a very pivotal conversation. Telling him what he can do to repay my kindness is nothing less than spelling out what grace is. It is receiving something good and beneficial for which there is neither merit nor equal recompense. My very life has been defined by grace, and so my generosity with him is my very human attempt at enacting what has divinely been given to me. He cannot repay me, as I cannot repay my Redeemer. My tears turned into pleas, and I begged for the explanation of grace to impale him like “a double edged sword, penetrating even to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” (Heb 4)

In remembering my text to Stonecold, may I be given another sunrise so that I might say these things to him face to face. And may he be prepared to hear them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back in the saddle

My colleague (and next door neighbor) took a spill two weeks ago on the ice that crusts the campus, and his fall produced a broken rib and a superficially punctured lung. He's recovering well and should be back soon. In the meantime, I am covering some of his FRESHMEN classes. Last week, I challenged them to make him cards. I left their messages and designs to their creative ceilings. In the process, I ended up explaining what "Back in the saddle again," means. It wasn't something I promoted, just something worth teaching as a phrase of future reference. As it turned out, about 80% of the cards have that ridiculous sentiment written somewhere on them. And speaking of ridiculous...


It's 14 degrees outside...

...and I'm not bothered by it.

I'm back in Harbin and have been for a month.

The summer was long but difficult. Two deaths in the family. Road trips. A slump in support. A lost passport and visa.

So, with those memories still refusing to go away, 14 degrees doesn't make me flinch.

I'm glad to be here in my socks. In my apartment. In my dorm. In my campus.

And I'm hoping to blog once again. When I don't write, part of me retreats.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mockingbirds in Monroeville

Don't mention the mockingbird!
The reclusive novelist who wrote the classic novel that mesmerised 40 million readers

By Sharon Churcher
Last updated at 1:30 AM on 27th June 2010

In the 50 years since Harper Lee published her classic novel that mesmerised 40 million readers, she has barely written another word – and turned into an almost total recluse. So when her friends agreed to give our reporter an introduction, it was on one strict condition...Don’t mention the Mockingbird.

Despite the thick, black sunglasses, there is something familiar about the frail 84-year-old woman as she is helped falteringly towards the lake shore.

A delighted smile flickers across her face as ducks and Canada geese flock round to feed on the scraps of bread brought from the care home where she lives in a modest apartment.

Unhappy: The reclusive Harper Lee with child actress Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film of Mockingbird

Dressed in a clean but faded T-shirt and loosely fitting gingham slacks, she attracts barely a glance from passers-by.

Yet hers is the face which has stared from the cover of a book that has hypnotised more than 40 million readers around the world, one that has frequently been rated as one of the ten most important books published in the past century.

She is Harper Lee, whose only book, To Kill A Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize, is translated into nearly 50 languages and was turned into the Oscar-winning 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. It also made Harper into a multi-millionairess.

To kill a mockingbird has been rated as one of the ten most important books published in the past century.

Nervously, I approach the novelist, carrying the best box of chocolates I could find in the small Alabama town of Monroeville, a Hershey’s selection costing a few dollars. I start to apologise that I hadn’t brought more but a beaming Nelle – as her friends and family call her – extends her hand.

‘Thank you so much,’ she told me. ‘You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.’

It was the most fleeting of conversations, but that is hardly surprising. Harper has said precious little in public since the publication of Mockingbird 50 years ago next month. She has written nothing else since, save a few short stories in the early Sixties.

Yet on the July 11 anniversary, thousands of Mockingbird Groupies, as her fans are called, will converge on Monroeville for a three-day festival in celebration of her work.

No one expects Harper to give a welcoming address. Indeed, she has spent the past five decades living in almost total seclusion.

Even when she travelled to the White House to receive an award from President George W. Bush three years ago, she did so under the strict condition that she would answer no questions and make no acceptance speech.

Nobody knows what she does with her wealth. Her friends say material goods are unimportant to her and that if she gives to charity, she does so anonymously.

Secretive: Harper Lee in Monroeville, where she refuses to discuss her famous novel

For much of the past 50 years, she has shunned the formality and racism of her native Alabama to make her home in a tiny flat on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Only now, towards the end of her days, has Harper returned to live in a sheltered housing complex in her childhood home town of Monroeville.

I went to Alabama in an attempt to answer the great mystery of why she – like that other American literary legend J. D. Salinger, who died in January – should have spent almost half a century in silence.

Why did Harper Lee, like J.D.Salinger choose to spend almost half a century in silence?

Her friends agree to introduce me to her on one condition: that I make no mention of ‘The Book’, as people here refer to it.

Based on a few gnomic utterances over the years, many literary commentators have attributed Harper’s solitary life and subsequent failure to publish another book to her alarm at the tidal wave of praise for her Mockingbird, in which the racial bigotry of the South is witnessed through the eyes of a little girl, Scout.

Others have suggested that perhaps she only had one great book in her, and that she knew that every subsequent attempt would be regarded as a disappointment.

But according to confidants, many of whom have known her since childhood, what Harper has really found a burden is her enduring sadness about the book’s underlying themes.

They say that while To Kill A Mockingbird is ostensibly a courtroom thriller – in which Scout’s compassionate and principled lawyer father Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman – Harper drew on deeply painful family secrets to create her protagonists.

Oscar-winning: Gregory Peck as Atticus with co-star Brock Peters in the film of 'To kill a mockingbird'

Furthermore, her liberal views on race were extremely unpopular in her native Deep South. Indeed many in her own family were unhappy with the tone of her book.

‘I’m not a psychologist, but there’s a lot of Nelle in that book,’ said 87-year-old George Thomas Jones, a retired businessman who has known Harper and her family since she was a girl.

‘People say the publicity the book got turned her into a recluse but publicity didn’t ruin her life: I don’t think Nelle’s ever been a real happy person.’

Mr Jones said that Harper’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, a former newspaper editor, lawyer and state senator who was clearly the model for Atticus Finch, was ‘a real genteel man, who listened more than he talked .  .  . but he sure didn’t show much affection.

'I used to caddy for him on the local golf course. He was so formal that he would wear a heavy three-piece suit, shirt, tie and stout shoes to play golf, even in the heat of the summer.’

In an episode that foreshadows the compassionate and fiercely moral hero Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in the movie, Harper’s father had defended two black men charged with murder in a celebrated case in 1919.

After they were convicted and hanged, he never practised again. But unlike the fictional Finch, Mr Lee was a staunch segregationist who supported the harsh ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the American South.

In the novel, Scout lives in fear of a ‘malevolent phantom’, a psychologically disturbed neighbour called Boo Radley, who ultimately saves her life.

While it is clear that the character is in part based on a reclusive neighbour, in reality, it was Harper’s mother Frances who was the source of much terror and unhappiness.

Suffering from depression and violent mood swings, friends in the close-knit Alabama town say that Frances allegedly twice tried to drown her daughter in the bath. As a result, perhaps, the young Harper was regarded as a difficult and aggressive child who would think nothing of punching other children who annoyed her.

‘When you passed by the Lee house, Mrs Lee would be sitting in a swing with just a stone face,’ said Mr Jones, ‘looking dead ahead, emotionless.’

Other neighbours recalled she would sometimes shout nonsensical invective at passers-by.

Mr Jones added: ‘Nelle always seemed to be on the defensive when she was a little girl. The book didn’t make matters any better. People here recognised it was based on her life.

'My late wife was her golfing partner and she knew never to ask her about it. It’s not just something she didn’t want to talk about – it’s a subject you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.

‘I don’t think Nelle is lonely, necessarily. This is just the life she has chosen to lead. She could afford a lot better, but maybe this is what makes her feel safe after a life starved of affection.’

‘She touched the hearts of readers but I don’t think she knew much about her own heart.’

Harper’s biographer, the American academic Charles Shields, said that her mother Frances was descended from slave-owners who had farmed cotton around Monroeville, where they built a stately plantation house.

In her younger days, Frances was considered a brilliant pianist, but by the time Harper was born in 1926, she seemed to have lost all interest in life due to depression.

Harper’s older sister, Alice – who, remarkably at 98, still practises law in an office above a Monroeville bank – said: ‘My mother was a highly nervous person but it was no problem. There was nothing abnormal.’

Alice is still close to Harper and helps handle her financial affairs. I asked whether her sister ever regretted writing the book. ‘I don’t think she has any regrets,’ Alice replied with a frown. ‘But we talk about the book only in relation to business.’

The young Harper once dreamed of becoming a lawyer like both her father and sister. But she was diverted from that path by her lifelong friendship with Truman Capote, the author of Breakfast At Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, who was a childhood neighbour much like Dill, Scout’s best friend in Mockingbird.

The young Capote had already begun to work on stories. ‘I convinced [Harper] she ought to write too,’ he said later. ‘She didn’t really want to but I held her to it.’

Writing did not come easily to Harper. Sometimes she would labour for a dozen hours before finishing a single page. But it was her only life.

Her mannish haircuts and hatred of make-up led to speculation that she was a lesbian. However, Mr Shields believes she was just shy and, like Charlotte Bronte, had an unrequited crush on a married man, her literary agent Maurice Crain.

She wrote short stories about racial prejudice in college and moved to New York in the mid-Fifties. There she rented a cheap apartment and attempted to earn enough money to write by working as a reservation clerk with the BOAC airline.

To Kill A Mockingbird began its existence as a series of anecdotes drawn from her childhood. However, Harper was either so naive or so traumatised that she seems to have failed to recognise its semi-autobiographical nature until after it was published.

Writing did not come easily to Harper. Sometimes she would labour for a dozen hours before finishing a single page. But it was her only life.

Mr Shields said: ‘She touched the hearts of readers but I don’t think she knew much about her own heart.’

In Monroeville, there was sharp criticism as the book became a bestseller. ‘People recognised people they knew in the book. She got hate mail,’ said Mr Shields. The critics included her other sister, Louise. ‘She felt it was too much dirty laundry,’ added Mr Shields.

Initially, there was talk of more books. Harper assured her agent in the early Sixties that she had started a new novel with the working title The Long Goodbye. It never appeared. According to Alice, the reason is that the manuscript was stolen by a ‘burglar’.

Others, however, claim that by the mid-Sixties, Harper was drinking, some would say excessively. Mr Shields said: ‘I think she drank to overcome her shyness and because her support group, small to begin with, had eroded. Maurice Crain was dying of cancer.

Truman Capote had drifted off into a sea of alcohol and drugs, while her editor Tay Hohoff, who had spent two-and-a-half years working with her on Mockingbird, had died suddenly.

Early in her career, the military academy West Point, the American equivalent of Sandhurst, dispatched two officers to meet Harper in the hope of persuading her to address cadets.

One of the pair, Brigadier Jack Capps, said last week: ‘It was mid-morning when we arrived at her little apartment and she said, “Would you like a drink?’’ and she mixed a martini and then she said, ‘‘Let’s go to lunch.’’ She had another Martini before lunch and she agreed to speak.’

A friend of Harper’s said: ‘Nelle was not an alcoholic but she enjoyed a drink. She didn’t flaunt it but Monroeville is Bible Belt and her sister, Alice, did not approve.

Nelle finally gave it up when her health began to fail. She decided to move back to Monroeville only after she had suffered a stroke about five years ago.’

She initially moved in with Alice, but now lives in sheltered accommodation after suffering further health problems. Despite her illness, or perhaps because of it, she seems finally at peace with herself. But ‘The Book’ is still taboo.

Harper Lee is credited by many with playing a big part in a sea-change in attitudes in the Deep South – not least in Monroeville.

However, even today the old prejudices refuse to die. ‘We have wonderful coloured help,’ one contemporary of Harper told me as three black maids bustled around his mansion.

I also learned that many white children are still being educated at private ‘segregation academies’ set up after the federal government enforced the integration of state schools.

At next month’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Weekend, however, black and white youngsters will stand side-by-side for a marathon reading of the book.

Harper has been invited to join them, but friends say, even now, hearing the words of Scout and Atticus read out loud will bring back too many painful memories.

Rather than confront the ghosts of her past yet again, Harper plans to spend the anniversary in her apartment.

There, with her desk, her computer and her comfortable armchair, she can muse on the great changes that she has helped to bring to the South, on her timeless novel and on the childhood trauma that shaped it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Got It At Ross

This makes me laugh.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

a love-hate relationship

Tonight, I took a taxi to our second campus across town to have a final dinner with a group of about 30 freshmen whom I've taught all year. We went out to a non-descript Chinese restaurant, ordered basic Chinese food, and ate it Chinese style at a round table with a large glass spinning tabletop.

I don't really remember what I ate, but I do remember that the student to my left turned to me and said, "I want to tell you something. You've changed my mind about America. Before I met you, I sort of hated it. Now, I don't."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dragon Boat Festival

Last Wednesday, the country celebrated the nationally-sanctioned holiday known as Duanwu Jie (Dragon Boat Festival). It memorializes an ancient royal advisor named Qu Yuan who drowned himself after being exiled by corrupt government officials in 278 BC. According to legend, the people who saw him dive into the river tried to save him, and when they realized it was a futile effort, they threw rice into the river hoping that it would divert the fish from feasting on his corpse. They also entered the water in boats and beat their oars to scare away scavengers.

Today, Dragon Boat Festival's surviving traditions involve eating zongzi (rice balls stuffed with various fillings and then covered in bamboo leaves), watching dragon boat races on the river, and displaying and/or wearing a variety of amulets meant to bring good luck.

Since the holiday still rests largely on superstition and mythology, I try to extract what doesn't contradict my beliefs and emphasize that through practice. I have to admit, though, that it's not always easy to separate certain threads of culture. This year, I decided to bypass most of the festivities and, instead, spend some time with good friends that we don't see as often. Being a family of four and on scholarship money from their home country of Kenya, they moved farther away from campus to save money on rent. Their two children are some of the sweetest I have ever met, and I love to see their little faces in my doorway.

The last time we shared a meal together, they hosted us and cooked a marvelous African meal. We wanted to return the favor, so we invited them over for dinner on Wednesday. One of my former students showed up that afternoon after his holiday plans fell through due to rainstorms. He knows that he's always welcome at my place, so he called me that afternoon and said, “Can I come over and hang out? My friends and I aren't going shopping because it's raining.” I explained that I was getting dinner ready and could use some help. He confessed that he's not very skilled with cooking but that he'd love to assist and learn a thing or two. The deal was struck.

He came over and jumped right in with prep work. We fried chicken, whipped potatoes, sauteed giant green beans, baked muffins, and peeled/sliced fruit. I asked him if he wanted to stay for dinner, and he eagerly said yes. I was hoping so.

After a few hours, our guests showed up – those shiny brown 7-year old eyes peeking into my kitchen and eliciting a drawn-out “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyy,” from me as I bent down for a hug. Within a few minutes, we were all sitting at the table and bowing our heads. The wife confessed that she had brought along some soft food from home just in case there nothing palatable for the baby, but she was delighted to see that baby Esther went right for the mashed potatoes. By the end of the meal, she had potatoes outlining her little mouth.

Dinner with our friends was wonderful, but my favorite part was knowing that a national was able to see the unity among people from different backgrounds and geographies (Canada, US, Kenya) and – hopefully – connect that to a collective faith that we practice. My student stayed with us for the entire evening and proudly displayed the photos on his blog once he returned to his dorm. I think that, for him, it was a Dragon Boat Festival unlike any other.

In the end, memories like that always outshine the darkness of a mystic holiday.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

the silent audience

A text from Liam, a sophomore who never really stood out in his class this past semester:

Dear Meagan: Thanks for your teaching. Your class is a feast for me, you give me the chance to experience foreign class. I feel so happy that I had chosen your class. It's the first time I had the feeling that university classes are so interesting and exciting, although I did not make a good use of your class to improve my spoken English but I do really enjoy the progress. You are so cute that always makes us to laugh and let us know many things about English culture. The tips of public speech for us makes you also a good social science teacher. The most important is your positive attitude toward life has influenced mine. Now I always try to find positive aspects when something happens to me. In this way, I find life is filled with sunshine. For you maybe I'm almost a spectator in your class, but I do really esteem you and enjoying your class. I appreciate the way you teaching us. At last, thank you very much. God bless you.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

the TIES that bind

My two classes on Wednesday morning have been with me both semesters - something unprecedented during my two years at HIT. As a result, we have a close relationship. Today was our last session, and I wanted to say goodbye with something that could serve as a reminder of our adventures together while being practical in some way toward their future.

Several weeks ago, we covered job applications and interview protocol. I devoted an entire lesson to establishing "the look," and it was then that I discovered that almost no one A) possessed a tie nor B) knew how to knot one. So, in anticipation of today, I bought a tie for each student - 61 in all. I passed them out in gift boxes, along with a hand-written note for each person.

THRILLED is how I can sum up their reaction.
GRATEFUL is how I can sum up mine.

the anticipation

All systems are go!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

HIT's 90th birthday

My weekend.

the official ceremony on Sunday morning

Honored visiting guests represented mainland universities and also several from foreign countries.

One of the coolest guys at HIT. He's smart, funny, and likes Johnny Cash.

Saturday evening's ceremony (much more exciting than Sunday morning)

a famous band -- maybe

And, finally...something for my grandmother. The sign on the left says, "Happy 90th Birthday HIT!" The sign on the right says, "Happy 92nd Birthday Wee-zee." Gotta show some love.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dancin' on the Train

Made by fellow ELICers. I think there might be a video throw-down somewhere in the near future 'cause the Canuck and I....we got ideas.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

90 years and counting

Harbin Institute of Technology will celebrate its 90th birthday this weekend. The campus is crawling with workers who are putting the final touches on all sorts of projects. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be filled with ceremonies, people, and lots of red and yellow flags. Here is our main building, Ji Xie (Jee Shee-eh).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Leave Me

a powerful short by Daros Films

Leave Me from Daros Films on Vimeo.

All other ground is sinking sand...

Guatemala City
a sinkhole caused by Tropical Storm Agatha

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Wine He Drank

by David Mathis

Twice He was offered wine while on the cross. He refused the first, but took the second. Why so?

The first time came in verse 23, “they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.” William Lane explains,

According to an old tradition, respected women of Jerusalem provided a narcotic drink to those condemned to death in order to decrease their sensitivity to the excruciating pain . . . . When Jesus arrived at Golgotha he was offered . . . wine mixed with myrrh, but he refused it, choosing to endure with full consciousness the sufferings appointed for him. (The Gospel of Mark, p. 564)

This first wine represented an offer to ease the pain, to opt for a small shortcut—albeit, not a major one in view of the terrible pain of the cross, but a little one nonetheless. But this offer He refused, and in doing so, chose “to endure with full consciousness the sufferings appointed for him.”

The second time came in verse 35. After some bystanders thought he was calling for Elijah, “someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’” Lane comments,

A sour wine vinegar is mentioned in the OT as a refreshing drink (Numbers 6:13; Ruth 2:14), and in Greek and Roman literature as well it is a common beverage appreciated by laborers and soldiers because it relieved thirst more effectively than water and was inexpensive . . . . There are no examples of its use as a hostile gesture. The thought, then, is not of a corrosive vinegar offered as a cruel jest, but of a sour wine of the people. While the words “let us see if Elijah will come” express a doubtful expectation, the offer of the sip of wine was intended to keep Jesus conscious for as long as possible” (Ibid., 573-574).

So the first wine (mixed with myrrh) was designed to dull [the] pain, to keep him from having to endure the cross with full consciousness. This wine he refused.

And the second (sour) wine was given to keep him “conscious for as long as possible,” and thus have the effect of prolonging his pain. This is the wine He drank.

Other condemned criminals would have taken the first (to ease their torment) and passed on the second (so as not to prolong their horrific pain). But He would take no shortcuts on the way to our redemption.

At the cross, he drank the wine of his Father’s wrath down to its very dregs, and he did so for us—that we might enjoy the wine of his Father’s love, join him at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and live redeemed forever in the glorious presence of the one who took no shortcuts in saving us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May Day 2010

Last year, the Canuck and I hosted an afternoon of games and races for our freshmen students. It was so successful that we decided to offer it this year. We do it simply because it's fun. It's outside. It's free. It's a chance to celebrate the long-awaited warm weather.