The Year of the Earth Rat



February 7, 2008 

As you’ve probably guessed, one day can look pretty much like another here at Orchard Creek—and if you are 80+ years old, that’s a good thing.  There’s not a whole lot of energy to waste, especially on changes which are insignificant.  And you don’t have to be 80 to feel that way: my personal coach, Debby, gave me an assignment early in our relationship—the assignment was to change three things in my life which are significant changes.   These changes need not be big, but they should have impact on one’s daily life.

 Think about it.  If you had this assignment, what in your life would you change?  “I can’t think of anything,” I grumped.  “I don’t wanna do this!”  Usually I am not so resistant, but I thought about this assignment all week, and it just made me more belligerent.  Why make change just to make a change?  Or because some really perky personal coach told me to?

 The idea, of course, was to see how easy it is to make changes and adapt to them.  It wasn’t easy for me, not because I am resistant to change, but because I am resistant to meaningless change, which this assignment was for me.

 And so it is with my friends here at Orchard Creek,  Try to change a seating arrangement at the dining table, or introduce a new juice on the breakfast menu: not easy!

 It was with amazement that when I wheeled myself in to dinner tonight, I found the homey Orchard Creek dining room transformed into Chinese celebration.  Tables were decorated with Oriental fans, and a huge red and gold paper dragon ran along the window wall which looks out into the snowy woods.  It’s the lunar year 4706, the beginning of the Chinese Year of The Earth Rat.

Sure enough, Larry the new Chef had prepared a special meal.  The Won-Ton soup was superb, the best I can remember having—ever!  And there were egg rolls, sesame chicken and fried rice.  For the first time since I’ve been dining with her, my friend  Irene did not spend any time picking  stuff out of her food and arranging in neatly at the side of her plate,  nor did she call for a bowl of Rice Crispies.  She polished off everything, as did most of the diners, me included.  Larry came up from the kitchen and paid us a visit and we applauded him and told him how much we appreciated his cooking skills.  Judging from the smiling faces, the wheelchair parade down the hallway was a happy one.

After dinner, I spent some time thinking about change—how one person can bring about change which is influential and meaningful to others.  Orchard Creek’s new chef has done just that!

Interestingly, the Chinese New Year’s Eve or Spring Festival is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays.    It’s known as Chuxi.  ‘Chu’ literally means “Change” and ‘xi’ means “Eve”.  And if you’ve ever been to a Chinese New Year’s Eve celebration, you know the extent to which ‘Change’ is invoked and celebrated. Additionally, ‘Change’ is made meaningful in the lives of the celebrants. One of the major traditions of the first day of the year is to “Think Good Thoughts and Do Good Deeds, because your behavior on the first day of the Chinese New Year can influence the rest of your year.  Be positive on this day, New Year observers are cautioned, and this attitude will continue and bring you good fortune throughout the remainder of the year..

Other New Year traditions include wearing red to ward off evil spirits and bad luck, and presenting red envelopes of lai see  (profitable deed) money to children. On New Year’s Day, everyone wears new clothes, and presents his or her best behavior, again with the idea that these good deeds will carry throughout the year if practiced on the first day. It is considered improper to tell a lie, raise one’s voice, use indecent language, or break anything!

 Another custom that has intrigued me is that cautions “Don’t clean your house on New Year’s Day.” If you do, you will be sweeping good fortunes away.  Of course, the Chinese build up to New Year’s Day by a massive house cleaning prior to the day itself.

 The seventh day of this Chinese New Year celebration (which lasts for about two weeks) is known as “Everybody’s Birthday”. Everyone is considered a year older as of this date, not one the anniversary of one’s natal day.

So imagine this cultural New Year: everyone is scrubbed clean and in new clothes; houses and yards are neat and rid of trash and dirt; people do not tell lies, swear, or use improper behavior. It is a time of change, not just another calendar day, but a belief in cultural shifts as well, and in the ability of the individual to bring about change in self and hence in others.

To the Chinese, the Rat is respected and considered courageous and enterprising.  People born in the Year of Rat have a strong ability in adapting to the environment and are able to react successfully to changes.

This is the year of the Earth Rat.  Joseph Chau, Hong Kong feng shui master, described the Year of the Earth Rat as a “period of change” because it marks the start of another 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. He added that the earth rat brings more luck than the fire rat, which began the tumultuous fire period from 1996-2007.

Meaningful change, I reflect, is to be embraced.  It is to be practiced one day at a time.  And it is to be woven into the fabric of life, and celebrated with firecrackers and gifts and parades.  I think tomorrow I will work at being optimistic and cheerful all day and I won’t sweep out my room here at OC, either: this is the year of the Earth Rat and bad luck is not welcome!



6 thoughts on “The Year of the Earth Rat

  1. Three cheers for Larry! Sounds like he’s really shaking things up at O.C. Very interesting reading about the Chinese New Year. Thanks, Gertie!

  2. I too shall refrain from sweeping. I shall think positive things and meditate on the word change. Thanks, for the shove down the corridor of introspection.

  3. Judith,

    I am enjoying your writing so much. Today you reminded me of my favorite shibboleth. I used to keep it taped to my letter slide . . . until I finally committed it to memory. You are living this shibboleth, it is easy to see.

    In spite of illness, in spite even our arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways

    Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

    Stay well, Jeanne

  4. Judith,
    Your writing is delightful and the reflections are useful to me as a physician and cancer survivor.
    Many of the traditions you decribe for the Chinese New Year remind me of some associated with the Jewish New Year-Rosh Hashana-the birthday of the world. In addition to superficial changes, such as the wearing of new clothes, is the life-enhancing commitment to positive change.
    Surviving cancer has made me see most every day as a birthday of sorts. A time to celebrate. A time to commit to positive change within.
    And as for the unceasing change around me, I find strength in the words of the Canadian physician Sir William Osler who said, “Everywhere the old order changes,and happy are those who can change with it”

    Wishing you a happy birthday today, tomorrow and every day.
    with hope, Wendy S. Harpham, MD

  5. Judith,

    Thank you for posting your thoughts and feelings

    I am in Florida caring for my mother with advanced alzheimers. I love your perspective. It helps me put myself in my mother’s position and think of things from the patient’s point of view.

    I’ll be down here until mid-April.

    Your ability to express your thoughts is phenominal.

    Thanks so much.

  6. Gertie…so happy to have discovered your Blog. Wonderful to read. I have spent the last year living with my 90 yr. old mother and from this transformative experience have a blog regarding living in the life of your parent. She is now in assisted living which inspires yet another kind of writing and learning. I will continue to read you and thank you for your contribution.
    Dr. Maya Christobel, Tulsa, Ok.

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