"This place is just creepy," Manfriend mumbled. A cracked and faded fish-headed man stared out at us.
He had a point.
As we moved through the 76 Taoist Departments of Death of the Dongyue Temple, from River Gods to that of Wandering Ghosts, we got a few shivers.
"It's creepy, but I love it here," I said. Barren trees stood solemnly among pale stele in a courtyard so quiet we brought our commentary to a whisper. It was easy to forget we were only a little way from Beijing's bustling streets.
Selfishly, though, I loved it for quieting my stressful inner monologue. The strangeness kept my overworked mind distracted.
Welcome to my expat version of self-care, I guess — a weird break from my new normal.
As I've explained before, my life abroad hasn't been what folks imagine. I'm jet-setting about as often as anyone else might, working 45-hour weeks like all my pals back home. And as part of the whole "educator abroad" lifestyle, the end of a semester comes with its own brand of chaos. Each day this month has brought with it spreadsheets, final exams and piles of responsibilities I've been loath to do after six hours of teaching.
A longtime procrastinator, I bear the stress well enough, but that didn't mean I wasn't wearing thin.
So I've been doing what I can to minimize the impact of a hard month.
As part of our latest wellness challenge, I opted for daily yoga and meditation. At each cafe I frequent, I have my reusable mug so I needn't also carry the guilt of those disposable cups.
I've been taking care of my mind and body as best I can amid the madness.
But this sort of day was what I truly needed.
I told Manfriend that on this, my only day off, I needed a complete departure from work. No emails, no to-do lists, no regret over a much-needed lie-in. I needed us to go out and explore and soak up this (unseasonable) gorgeous weather we've been having.
Most importantly, I needed to give myself permission to do so. "Yes, you deserve this. Now shut up and enjoy."
So with a centuries-old Taoist temple just down the road, we set out for a few hours of strange. Then to the pool hall, to an indulgent lunch and a lot of long walks in between. Batteries recharged, I set about my evening with vigor. The to-do lists were still there, but they didn't feel controlling anymore.
Leaving the temple, we stopped at the Bronze Wonder Donkey. Ridden by the gods, it could cure diseases in its past life. We rubbed its snout with the promise of good fortune, as thousands had done in the past.
And on our way we went, already feeling as fortunate as could be.