The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Our guest, writer Lisa Ling

A Life Worth Living
by Lisa Ling

Before we moved to Jakarta, my primary concerns about living here reflected the things I’d seen on CNN. Tsunamis, riots, and bombs mostly. Enough to make a mother tread carefully anywhere. But after we arrived, these things became the least of my concerns. Neither were the deadly mosquito and water-born diseases at the top of my list. In Canada, a mosquito bite was an annoyance, but here it could mean death or severe illness from dengue fever or malaria. The daily slathering of mosquito repellent on our kids' bodies before they ventured outdoors became an urgent routine, not taken lightly. Our baby’s baths also adopted a gravity of care not seen before. Her bath water had to be boiled to guard against potential typhoid infection, for which she would remain unprotected until age two.

These life threatening diseases were a worry, but hey, I wasn’t the first person to arrive here with a baby. If they could do it so could I. After two months of scanning the Jakarta Post, bird flu catapulted to the top of my list of things to fear.

Each week, new cases of bird flu were discovered in Indonesia, headlined across the front page of the local paper. Soon those cases started to appear in Jakarta, the city where we lived. Whole families were dying because of contact with infected poultry. I wasn’t worried about any of us contracting the near-certainly fatal bird flu from chickens. We lived at the Four Seasons Apartments after all, not exactly your backyard poultry farm in the kampong (village). What seized me with fear was the thought that if bird flu mutated and became easily transmissible between humans, we would be stuck on this archipelago of 18,000 islands in the middle of a pandemic. Airports would shut down and other countries would not accept flights from Indonesia. We would quickly go from paradise to hell as drinking water shortages occurred, food became scarce, and security broke down. True, no place on earth is safe from a bird flu pandemic, but I would much rather be in a country with decent hospitals and resources to deal with the problem than one without.

Week after week, reading the morbid reports in the newspaper, my concern mounted. I attended a meeting of a medical expert from World Bank headquarters who had come to Jakarta to speak to field staff, warning of the “serious threat and potential evacuation” that would be necessary in the event of a bird flu pandemic. I remember the moment I received that news. I think that was the last straw. I didn’t sleep for days.

Fear and worry ate away at my adventurous spirit like termites at a cedar tree. Unable to cope with my feelings, I went to the gym, my usual therapy when I feel lousy. On the treadmill, I picked up the pace, hoping to ‘burn out’ my negative feelings. With each stride I could feel the stress and worry that had built up over the past two months draining away, as if the black rubbery surface of the treadmill was drawing it out of me. I pushed myself to run faster, drinking in the feeling of release.

As the treadmill neared its maximum speed, I jumped off. Bowing my head in part from physical exhaustion, in part emotional exhaustion, I gasped to myself. “I can’t live like this. “I’m miserable, yet we live in this amazing, interesting place.”

I stood grasping the rails of the treadmill, sweat dripping from my forehead, with my chest heaving, sucking wind. Slowly, a calm came over me. I looked up and caught a glimpse of something moving in the wind outside the window. It was a small, pink, flower, floating away in the breeze, framed by broad palm leaves against a blue sky. Sunlight poured in through the gym windows, bathing me in its warm glow.

Suddenly I was filled with a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for this moment, seeing the beauty of my surroundings, a tropical paradise. Gratitude for the chance to have a break from our kids and time for myself to workout. Gratitude for all the mothers who had come before me and raised their families here. Gratitude for being alive! In a country where children the age of mine begged for food in busy traffic intersections, I was reminded daily that life is not something to be taken for granted. I felt gratitude for the chance to live this adventure. In Indonesia I didn’t understand the street signs or the culture, four seasons gave way to two – monsoon and dry, and mangrove forests replaced evergreen trees. In this strange land, I felt a sense of trepidation yet excitement that made me feel alive.

Just as a mountain stream rushes downhill between rocks and crevasses, the feeling of gratitude flowed inside me, filling in the places where fear and worry had sat. In that moment, I decided to make the most of all that Jakarta had to offer. The thought that we might be evacuated at any time only added urgency to the opportunity. What had once fueled my fears would now fuel my passion.

In that moment of transformation, everything changed and nothing changed. The risk of a bird flu pandemic was a high as ever. Malaria, dengue fever and typhoid continued to exist, and bombs were an ever present risk. Yet suddenly these dangers were no longer my focus. They had moved to the periphery of my world and been replaced by thoughts of things that filled my life with joy. Time with our kids, teaching karate, playing jazz piano, yoga, meditation, running. With my change in focus the whole world looked different.

With renewed energy, I left the gym and went home. The next day, I started teaching a kids karate class, bought a piano, joined a yoga group, and started meditating again. Now, well into our second year here, Jakarta has become a home we love.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

What a beautiful tribute to Indonesia and to the gift of life and opportunity, Lisa. Thanks you.

Wed Dec 06, 12:18:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Patricia said...

The thought that we might be evacuated at any time only added urgency to the opportunity.

How incredible. What an amazing experiencethat is continuing to be one.

Wed Dec 06, 02:24:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger lisa ling said...

thanks for your supportive comments. I'm cringing as I re-read my own writing, thinking how cliched it sounds! This is my first 'post', but the journey as just begun...if you have other, critical comments I'm anxious to hear them so I can improve my writing!
we are starting a jakarta writers group in the new year. thank you for posting this and thanks for the inspiration...

Wed Dec 06, 10:59:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

What a pleasure to have Lisa Ling writing with us!

I loved this post. I wish everyone would take from it some ability to choose the joy around them where they might have chosen the fear.

Wed Dec 06, 03:41:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Lisa,

This is beautifully written and says so much about Indonesia and the writer - lovely work.

Thu Dec 07, 10:42:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Thank you for being our guest, Lisa. Such an inspiring letter home.

Fri Dec 08, 06:55:00 pm GMT-5  
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