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Fear

Thursday, August 14th, 2014
The following is the author's description of t...

The following is the author’s description of the photograph quoted directly from the photograph’s Flickr page. “Blue Chicago ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After one day of a perfect calm surface for swimming, choppy waves flared up at my favorite beach in Lake Michigan again this morning. I measured the length and strength of the waves with my eyes when I arrived at the beach and decided to give it a try. After all, I was already there.

It was not the first time I toyed with the waves. Last week, three out of the seven days I encountered choppy water, though didn’t feel threatened (I did go to a more sheltered beach to swim one day.) I knew and fully respect the formidable power of the Lake and swam closer to shore. I was prepared to reach land with one strong kick if I got chocked with a strong tide. While I concentrated on my strokes and speed during calm days, I focused on the ups and downs of the waves in times like this. Occasionally I’d swallowed a mouthful of murky water. However, if I stayed calm—not let the fear of being crushed by a sudden wave overwhelm me, I could maneuver my way quite well.

“You are an hero,” an older man said, raising his thumb at me when he walked by the shower facility on shore where I was rinsing.

I laughed, telling him I’m an idiot flirting with the power of nature. I certainly had no intention to be an hero.

I knew the rest of the day I’d feel the motion of ups and downs as if I were still in the water. But I had no regret.

The season of swimming in the Lake is so short in Chicago, and the water has finally turned warm and comfortable. The joy of being in this body of live water and the energy I feel it gives to me make it worthwhile to keep at it every day.

Of course, there is always a sense of fear lurking in the back of my mind. Today, for some reason, that feeling was gnawing at me all the time.

The Portage Lake Michigan shore looking across...

The Portage Lake Michigan shore looking across the lake to the Chicago skyline. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I chickened out by turning back half way across the beach area. With a buffer from an infrastructure on one end, the waves at the north half of the beach appeared less choppy. I did four half rounds, conscious of the power of water trashing me up and down. I changed to breaststroke from time to time to get a better bearing of my location. As if to make matters worse, I noticed a couple of seagulls looming above, sometimes hanging dangerously low over me as if ready to attach me as their prey. Through my blurred goggles I could see their opened beaks. I turned to freestyle and made huge arm swings in an effort to keep them off.

Eventually the fear of waves and the birds made me retreat to a small, sheltered enclave. The water was much calmer here, but I had to make back and forth turns frequently as if in the confines of a pool.

I managed to do a total of 45 minutes. As I was riding my bike home on the sidewalk by Columbus Ave., I encounter a family of bikers coming my way. I moved to the right side and slowed down. A little girl, probably about 5 or 6, was riding beautifully in a straight line before she saw me. She panicked and zigzagged toward me when she found me moving toward her direction. I had to brake hard and jump off my bike to avoid her. I waved to calm her as she waggled by. I knew it was the same sense of fear that made her lose balance.

I had swum in more choppy waves in the Lake before. I was careful but not so fearful. Today I returned feeling somewhat defeated because I allowed that fear to dictate me.

How many times we don’t accomplish things we are capable of doing because we allow the external threat to compound with our inner fear? Confidence is certainly a major factor in success, whatever the undertaking.

Hope I’ll do better tomorrow, with or without the choppy waves.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. The film was on national PBS in May 2014.

 

 

 

Summer in Chicago

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
Lakefront trail

Lakefront trail

Summer is always my most favorite season in Chicago. Besides all the outdoor concerts, sports venues, and other events, what I like to do most is biking along the lakefront trail or swimming in the Lake.

Biking always starts earlier. This year, I was out on the trail since late April when the air was still chilly and patches of snow were still blocking some segments of the trail. In less than a month, I watched the trees turn color, the leaves emerge, and all of a sudden, the budding flowers cover the entire trees with brilliant yellow, red, white, or pink. The long trail was filled with a sweet, intoxicating fragrance. Depending on the weather, I either rode my Trek hybrid, which has thicker tires, or my Cannondale road bike, light and fast.

Flowers in early spring

Flowers in early spring

I started noticing swimmers with wetsuits in the Lake in early June, at a stretch between Grand and Chicago Avenue. Despite the extra protection, I bet their exposed limbs and face would feel the bite of the icy water, like being stung by jellyfish. I admired and envied them, but stayed away. Then one day in mid June, I saw two men swimming in their regular swim trunks. “Yeah!” I hailed as I sped by on my bike.

I didn’t plunge in until late June. To my pleasant surprise, the water was not as cold as I expected, and I was able to swim for 45 minutes. I felt like kicking myself for not getting into the water earlier. But the warm water didn’t stay for long. The next day when I went back, I felt the change of temperature the moment I stepped in. It must be below 60 degrees. I managed to swim for 30 minutes and rushed back to take a long, hot shower. But I went to swim in the lake every day, enjoying the amazing energy the live water was able to give me. It is definitely worth the challenge of the cold.

For those of you who haven’t tried swimming in the lake, I strongly recommend taking a plunge. It’s magically refreshing and energizing. I hope you’ll love the experience as much as I. So blessed to have the vast lake nearby.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. The film was on national PBS in May, 2014.

 

A new perspective on Lake Michigan

Thursday, August 15th, 2013
English: Chicago Lake front bike trail

English: Chicago Lake front bike trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been riding my bike along the lakefront trail in Chicago for the last seven years from spring to late fall, averaging about 60 miles or so a week. I marvel at the brilliant reflection of sunrise on the lake, the green, gray or blue color of the water each time I take a look from a different angle or location, and the rocks and beaches along the lake that receive the thrashing water as if eager to embrace it.

It was not about a month ago that I began swimming in the lake that I got a different perspective on it.

One experience in Lake Michigan back in 2007 when I was doing a writer’s residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest shunned me away from the lake until recently. I remember joining a couple of fellow writers to swim in lake. It was a hot summer. During the July 4th weekend when I was there, temperature reached 91 degrees. I was taken by surprise by the icy cold water. I kicked and pushed as hard as I could but couldn’t stop shivering. I ran out of the lake in less than 20 minutes and never ventured back again.

English: Map of Lake Michigan. Category:Michig...

English: Map of Lake Michigan. Category:Michigan maps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend of mine recently told me how much he enjoyed an early morning swim in the lake, saying the water was warm. A lover of outdoor activities, I decided to give it another try. How glad I was when I realized what he said was true: the water was warm and nice. More, the lake water seems to have so much more vigor and life that I felt energized ten times more compared to my swimming in the heated pool of my building. I was immediately hooked and went back to the lake the next day and the next.

I was lucky that my first couple of days in the lake the water was calm and warm. On my third day, the lake turned choppy, but I managed doing my route, finding it challenging but fun. I got bolder and dived into the lake the following day when a stronger wind created waves in the water. I got disoriented twice and felt as if I was rocking with waves the rest of the day when I was working at my desk. I got a taste of the power of the lake.

Since then, when I ride my bike first thing in the morning along the trail, I begin to pay attention to the movement of the water in the lake. The peaceful ripples feel like an invitation to the lake, and the choppy churning, a warning. When waves push one after another until they crash forcefully on the shore, I know better not to step into the water.

It takes a lot more concentration and strength swimming in the lake. I’ve learned to flow with the waves, cautious and sometimes a little fearful; I’ve learned to appreciate the calmness when I can do backstroke; and I’ve learned not to panic when I chock on a gush of water. Wearing a pair of goggles, I look down deep into the lake. On a day when the water is clear, I can see long stretching plants wavering in certain areas, and when the water murky, I sense the mystery and power underneath. Because I swim early in the morning, long before the lifeguard comes on duty, I’m always alert and welcome the sighting of another swimmer in the water or any jogger or cyclist on shore.

A guy by the name of Frank has become a familiar sight, but he swims way out at the edge of the circled swim area. I also get to know a gentleman named Larry, who, on a wavy day, volunteered as my lifeguard. There is a fisherman standing on the edge of a concrete platform every day. From a distance, he looks like a statue against the rising run, but provides me with a level of comfort nevertheless.

To touch the water, feel the power of the lake, and be energized by it certainly give me another perspective on the lake and a deeper level of appreciation and awe for it. Try swimming in the lake if you haven’t done so. You, like me, will realize what you have missed and will enjoy the wonder that the mighty lake provides.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary movie by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. Visit www.mulberrychildmovie.com for more information.

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A stranger’s kindness

Friday, August 9th, 2013

beach 2

I ventured out to swim in the choppy water of Lake Michigan yesterday morning after a few minutes of hesitation. The wind was a bit strong, and the water, wavy and murky. When it crashed onto shore, white foam erupted and then receded, until the next wave hit again.

I knew it would be wise to leave, but I was there at the beach already, I heard a voice in my head arguing. I saw a comparatively less choppy area against the concrete wall on one side of the beach and decided to swim small loops in that area.

Usually there are two other people at the beach in the early mornings. One is a great swimmer who ventured all the way to the edge of safety mark, and other, usually sat on the stairs to the beach reading a newspaper or listening to his radio.

beach 1As I stood there trying to make a decision, I saw the strong swimmer came out of the water. He said he did one loop and was exhausted. He usually does four.
“The waves are too strong today,” he said.

I said hello to the man on the stairs before getting into the water and learned his name is Larry.

The sun was shining brightly despite the wind and the water was warm. A strong wave nearly knocked me down as I stepped into the lake. But I forged forward.

“Be careful,” I heard Larry say. “I’ll watch out for you.”

I thanked him, expecting him long gone before I finished swimming, as was the case over the last couple of weeks.

As I fought my way in the choppy water, I realized that Larry’s figure on shore became a source of security and comfort as I glanced toward shore to get my bearing of location from time to time. I must say that despite the high alertness of my mind to the potential danger, I enjoyed the adventure and challenge. Instead of free style, I did breaststroke most of the time so as to flow with the rising waves. For a while, I noticed Larry standing up and shielding one arm against the sun facing the lake.

I managed to swim for nearly 50 minutes. When I finally stumbled on shore, Larry was still there.

“For a while I couldn’t see you, I was concerned,” he said. He told me he used to be a competitive swimmer and didn’t want to leave me alone in the water.

I was very touched by his kindness and thanked him as he rushed away.

It reminded me of my bike rides along the lakefront trail. Many times fast bikers would give a warning shout passing from the left. Instead of the usual “On your left,” some would say “Good morning,” or “Thank you” instead, generating a totally different feeling.

A stranger’s kindness and polite gesture touched me deeply. I know I should follow their example in bringing a smile or a bit of comfort to others.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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A Nice Treat (1)

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Beaver Lake, WI

I was invited to talk to a women’s book group in Hartland, a suburb of Milwaukee by Karen, my friend Mary’s mother. Last Wednesday, Mary took time off from work and gave me a ride to her parents’ home. As we got closer, she took a scenic drive and showed me Beaver Lake—her parents’ home is located along its shore. I could see the glistening of water through the thicket of trees between the lake and the road. Beaver Lake, on which Mary had spent endless hours cruising and water skiing, appeared larger than I expected.  

Karen came to the door to meet us. She wore a burgundy silk top and her hair was tied back with a matching red ribbon. She looked much younger than her age. Two of Mary’s relatives, Peggy and Ross, were there as well. We chatted over a table of veggies, cheese and crackers in the living room. I soon learned that one of Peggy’s sons and daughter-in-law were published writers. Later, Mary’s father Bill returned home from his golf outing, declaring his winning of $11 for the day. “Better than losing 50 bucks,” he said, laughing. He took us to his clubhouse along Beaver Lake for dinner, and I enjoyed a hearty meal of lamb chops, my favorite, and lots of hearty laughter over our conversation—it was home away from home for me, and later, I joked with Mary to ask her mother to adopt me as her Chinese daughter.   

Soon after we came back to the house, Karen and Bill retired for the night. Mary and I sat in the screened porch and read into the night. All I could hear was the singing of cicadas. No squeaking of speeding tires or the hamming of traffic. As I commented to Mary how quiet and peaceful it felt, I heard the ruffling of the bushes next to the window. Mary smiled, saying it must be their neighbor’s dog. Sure enough, a thin, furry face of brown and white popped up above the screen, but disappeared after a quick peep. “He will be back for a biscuit in the morning,” Mary said.

I sat alone in the dark for half an hour after Mary went to bed. The flood light lit the backyard, highlighting the green lawn and the leafy bushes. I swung back and forth on the cushioned, comfortable chair, savoring the undisturbed beauty of the night.

Early in the morning, I sneaked out of the house for a run. The sun was about to rise and the morning air felt fresh and cool. I followed a paved trail and ran around a nearby newly developed subdivision—all enormously large houses, some still under construction, as if there was a competition for size. When I made my way back 50 minutes later, I ran directly to the lake behind the house and was pleasantly surprised to find the water warm. I decided to get into my swimsuit and take a dip into the lake.

I ran into Mary in the hallway when I entered the house. “Join me for a swim,” I said, feeling excited by my discovery. 

Mary smiled, saying she’d rather swim later when the sun would be high and the water “really warm.” I couldn’t resist the allure of the water and quickly changed into my swimsuit. “Please come get me if I’m not back in an hour,” I told Mary.

Beaver Lake seemed to be asleep. Nearly every house along the lake had a private access to the water, complete with a boat and a dock. But there was not a single human being around. I jumped into the shallow water and swam toward the middle of the lake. Through my goggles, I could see swarms of small fish dodge from my intrusion and disappear into various vegetations at the bottom. As I picked up speed, my body warmed up and got used to the water temperature. I selected two boats across the lake as my benchmarks and swam back and forth, a long stretch. It was so wonderful to press forward or backward without worrying about hitting the edge of a swimming pool or flipping around every half a minute or so.  As I was about to make another round, I heard Mary calling me from the shore. I could hardly believe an hour had passed so quickly.

Karen was sitting at the breakfast table when I came down after a nice shower. “It’s only 65 degrees out there,” she said. “Don’t you feel cold?”

“Not at all,” I said enthusiastically. “It’s so beautiful and lovely!”

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.moraquest.com and www.mulberrychild.com

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Personal Space

Monday, August 16th, 2010

By Jian Ping

"Invaders"

I’ve been swimming in the pool on the rooftop deck of my condo building all summer early each morning—it’s not only my exercise time, but also a time of musing and reflection. I call it my active meditation. Most of the time, I have the entire pool to myself.

This past Saturday and Sunday, I found “my space” invaded by the presence of four Asians—three middle-aged women and a man. I found them in the pool on Saturday when I got there at 6:30 a.m., and on Sunday, I went at 6 a.m., and to my dismay, they came again, at 6:20 a.m. The women were short and chubby and all wore colorfully one piece swimsuits, and the man, skinny, floating in long, blue trunks. They hung at the edges of the pool or walked in the water most of the time, chatting in a language I couldn’t understand. They could be Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodians or Chinese. I did my lap swim so close to the south end of the pool so as to avoid them that I hit my left hand against the rail of the metal ladder a couple of times. But these four people scattered around, with two of them—the man and a woman—standing so close to where I made my turn at the end that the woman’s pink and purple flower-patterned suit was less than two feet away from my gurgles, and the man’s feet were so close that I could see their wrinkles and veins. I cringed and kicked the water as hard as I could to get away at these unappealing sights. “The rest of the pool is wide open,” I thought, “Why are you standing so close to where I swim?”   

I was grateful that water provided good sound insulation that I didn’t have to hear the clatter of their chatting as long as I kept my head under. But I could no longer do my muse or fantasy. I counted my strokes and laps and tried hard to distract myself from their presence. I was struck by the realization that I had been very much “Westernized” when it came to personal space and found the lack of a “comfort zone,” an arm’s length, or rather, the disregard for a personal space disturbing.

I was very much relieved that these people didn’t show up at the pool this morning!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.moraquest.com, www.mulberrychild.com