In fifth grade my mother finally let me go to the Concord Music store and buy a “45” single. I bought Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire” written by his future wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore, a noted country songwriter of his day. There was no doubt in my mind back in 1966 what was the best song ever written. I pretty much feel the same way now.
“Ring of Fire” is about as simple and perfect as a song gets. It uses three simple chords, two verses, and two choruses, yet it is a profoundly moving and enduring testament to the power, mystery, and allure of falling, failing, and floundering in love. Only an absolute misanthrope would fail to sense the power of this song.
As you try to write your own songs, it is worth looking at and listening to and reflecting upon:
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire
I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire\
The ring of fire
The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like our’s meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild
The verses are two rhymed couplets of between 6-8 syllables per line. The song starts with a statement: “Love is a burning thing” and likens that love to a physical ring into which the author, “bound by wild desire” is drawn towards—come what may. I often wondered why the unknown character did not leap or jump, but rather “fell” into the burning ring. Perhaps it symbolizes the inescapable nature of wild, untamed and unthinking love, or perhaps it is just a play on the phrase falling in love. However you take it, it works.
The chorus musically rises in a crescendo—much like the flames that grow “higher and higher” as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper in love. It employs the time-honored technique of parallelism and tri-colon usage with its repetition of “down, down, down” with “burns, burns, burns” and employs only a single rhyme scheme with “fire” and “higher.” This love affair totally consumes the main character as it drags him or her inexorably deeper into the burning pain and complexity of love. I don’t always know whether to sing the couplet phrases of “ring of fire” as a warning, a lament, or an ecstatic vision.
The second and final verse totally shifts the tone of the song into something more akin to a narrative reflection—a reflection wizened by experience telling us only that the “The taste of love is sweet/ when hearts like ours meet.” The final couplet of the song describes the predicament of love as laconically spoken as any phrase in literature: “I fell for you like a child” followed by the problem of love: “Oh, but the love went wild.”
Did it grow wild and kill the love or is love a wild part of our nature that cannot be tamed or controlled? Is that love lost when the fire runs its course? “Ring of Fire’ does not tell us much more. We fill the gaps with our own tanglings with love. Is that enough?
I’ve been singing this song for over forty years, and I still don’t know the answer, but I can agree and know from experience how easy it is for the love to go wild.
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibers and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting in long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and/or explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the “I” voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steeped in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, or you pen words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt, if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing—and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
There is not a rubric for reflective thinking and writing. All I can ask is that you be aware of what you are thinking and feeling and to ask yourself why you are thinking and feeling that way. After almost any good meal, none of us really struggles to find words to express our satisfaction with the meal; likewise, if what we eat is pretty horrible, we can also readily find the words to express our dissatisfaction.
But it is never as easy with intellectual satisfaction or dissatisfaction because we are seldom as clear as to why we like or don’t like a piece of literature. Maybe it is because it is our intelligence on the line. Food is pretty straightforward. If you hate peppers, anything made with peppers is distasteful—and few people will judge you harshly; however, if you don’t like poetry…well, you are either ignorant, bigoted or stupid—or at least other more well-read people will smugly feel that way about you, even as they feign politeness.
Not many more nights like this, warm enough to sit outside on the back porch. The kids and Denise long asleep. Usually, during the school year, this is my “time” to catch up on schoolwork–grading, posting the assignments for the week and playing the general catchup game that is the reality for most teachers. I think…
I consider myself a good teacher. I certainly love what I do and what I teach. My school is extremely supportive of “most” everything I do, and it has the resources to help me do what I want to do in class. If I ever feel any angst, it is in the fact that I teach at a wealthy private school that strives to be in touch, but we are not in so many ways. We are working on increasing our diversity; we recognise the various traditions of a myriad of cultures; we teach good moral values; we demand decency and respect in all circumstances, and our pedagogy and curriculum is enlightening, empowering and prepares kids well for…
And that is where my questioning of myself begins. As much as I want to think that I prepare my students for “life,” I fear that in most cases their very access to a privileged lifestyle is all they really need to succeed. I look at my own kids–all doing very well at what they do. I have four in public high school, one in a public college and another who graduated from a public college, and one, Tommy, a 7th grader at my school, but it has always nagged on me that I could not give them what is common practice with my own students who take private music lessons, who hire tutors at any turn or bump in the road, who travel the world and give presentations on safaris they have been on, or service projects to remote villages, or who simply and unaffectedly talk about second homes on the Vineyard, or Nantucket, or St. John–or ski houses in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. They are good kids and not bratty, self important of in any way unkind.
We honor diversity in a staggering way, yet our hands are never dirtied by true diversity. There are no girls. No children with severe handicaps or special needs. We struggle to find the right fit for black and Latino students to bus out of Boston to our wealthy suburban town.
They are simply wealthy and their options in life are blessed and informed by a quiet acceptance of this blessing. Most of us wish we were more wealthy than we are, so perhaps we are in no way better–just unlucky that the fate of our lineage began some mill town or any hard-scrabble homestead around the world.
So I teach, and I sing, and I give lessons and tutor, build things, dig gardens and write and somehow I help create a pretty good life for my family. The irony is that I am always leaving them to give to other kids what I wish they could have.
And I help create a better life for my students. I hope. But it is just strange to me that my life is so far removed from the lives of those I teach. Maybe that is why I demand my students find the enduring universal themes in literature, if only to help them see that they are not special–that no one is special, and we are all inextricably linked by a common DNA of humanity. I entice them with stories of my academic failures, my reckless odyssey through life. I share my poetry and my songs as if it is the only gift I can “really” give them.
Perhaps they will only remember me for teaching them comma rules or how to whittle a bird out of a scrap of pine.
My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James
For all the time they stole from me…
~Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Today it was a temple built into the mountainside west of West Lake. Mr. Toe drove us out there. In most ways I just follow Rob and Dave on their side adventures. They seemed to have read the guidebooks, figured out a reason to go. And then we go. Sometimes Arvin or Sherry tell us where we should go, and if we agree (which we always do) we are led, tutored, fed and returned home with rarely a finger touching a wallet. With meals of endless courses, strange foods, many toasts. Nothing ever to regret.
Tomorrow Dave and Rob are heading to Shanghai. I had/have no real interest in going. I fear it would put my head in a death spiral of confusion. Hangzhou itself has already left me dizzy and unsure of my step. It is fun, however, to listen to them plot and plan like it is some navy seal mission that must be completed in an eight hour time frame—and it does. They are groping for China in every real and palpable way they can. The day after tomorrow is our next to last day teaching at the Wahaha School. And then we head home. Our bellies filled by different feasts from roadside stalls.
It seems so long that we have been here. Maybe because we have been working every day and have been busy every day (except for the day of the great typhoon—which did not end up being so great) but at least a day off. I miss Denise and the kids and wonder how/why so many people I know can just leave homes with an alacrity and insouciance of stoic acceptance of fate. I know it is always obligation and not desire, but I wonder if they feel that same knot—that same unsettled feeling. Or maybe we are just not used to being apart, like swans bound by common strands of DNA. We have had the same wallet for close to twenty years. Our doors have no locks. Our keys are always in the cars. Our town is more than small. It is like a single carat sliced from the larger gem of humanity. We cannot walk a hundred yards without stopping to speak to someone we know. Our lives enmeshed like strands in a warp of dense twine–Pithy. Strong. Immutable.
Every night here I sit on a sixth floor balcony of a thirty story luxury apartment building maybe smoke a bad Chinese cigar, read, write, and think—all the while in awe of the cityscape spread in front of me. My time here is pretty much uninterrupted time. It has given me time with few concerns or obligations, and so I have been experimenting with my writing by heading down what may seem—at first blush—a pretty strange path. In my first China entry, I tried to elevate the level of a of a journal entry simply by using a more elevated, slightly maddened poetic voice:—calculated images, a healthy dose of double dashes, an inner voice that was/is as weak and reflective as I was and am: jet-lagged, isolated, searching for meaning and reality beyond the obvious.
In my second piece, I let it all hell break loose. In a calculated way I tried to recreate my head with all of its diasporas, phobias, and non-sequiturs intact. An astute or simply intuitive reader might take me to task for borrowing from James Joyce/Walt Whitman in Ullysses and Leaves of Grass. Another might think it pure self-indulgent blather; while another might just think it strange, pointless and illogical. The irony for me is that it is as deliberately crafted a piece that I have written in a long while. I am strangely protective of the words as if those words are dull and imperfect children—loved because they are the progeny of my spirit.
Whether heaven or hell, I write out of habit and a conscious choice to recklessly probe the edges of what is true and unfettered writing of self. I am acutely aware of the limitations of my intellectual depth and breadth, so I am constantly searching for what is real in the moment, for no one can rob me or question the validity of who or what I am. I can never capture this present experience of returning to China in a traditional narrative (like this). My head is to atwhirl in a broth of synaptic sensing. This entry is not mine—it is yours: a dumb-downed story that is genuine, but incredibly lacking in totality—a counterbalance to the excesses of completely letting go. It is a making of sense, not a recreation of actual experience because the “actual” is a disparate flotsam of immediacy. In any given moment I am here and there leaping forward and back through the incongruous totality of everything I am and was and long to be. Every word typed to this page immediately places these words into a distant inviolable past, though physically counted only in milliseconds.
This then is my apology, not my anthem. Please accept these travelogues as such. I am not trying to be vague or cloy or trying to wrap myself in mystery. It just is, as Thoreau once wrote, indivisible from its essence. I am not obsessed, but I am convinced that the only test of words lies not in the sowing, but in the reaping. If somehow you—my rare reader—will linger a bit longer in my fields because you sense a greater bounty coming, then I have succeeded.
My temptation is to talk about the people here—the ones who have embraced us with utter and complete magnanimity—as somehow representing the people of China. That would be so easy and convenient for me, but, really, all of us are just slices off the roast of life. The awkward politeness and sculpted awarenesses of our first days here has evolved through Darwinian mutations into something that is not cultural, but rather true friendships honed by the wheel of hospitality, but sourced out of the well of humanity.
Tomorrow night, Arvin—a forty-something science teacher who has made it a life mission for us to appreciate the antiquity of China (and not to measure it by polluted, overgrown, chaos of everyday life China)—has invited us to his house tomorrow night to have dinner with his parents. He wants us to see a China that is not toasting us in city restaurants, bars or classrooms, but rather in a home in a small village—a single stretch of family eager to welcome us through the over-sized door of hospitality.
My fear is that he will spend more than he has and that he will micro-criticise every action he makes and every natural imperfection that is the reality of anything called “home.” He is a man who is impossible not to love, who is insecure in any given moment that his goodness is misplaced or misunderstood; though, to me, it is never misguided. He is a man whose young eight year old boy is everything—as in every thing—to him, which snares both the magnificence and myopia of China.
The one child policy. [Although now they will allow two children, but few it seems are making that leap.]Everyone here gets, accepts, lives, and accepts the logic of the one child policy, but the manifestations implies an approach to cultural norms that has never in the history of earth been put into continual practice and decreed by law upon untold millions of people. All of my students here are “only children,” and in varying degrees they act like only children, but more so their parents are acutely aware that their child is their only child. There one shot at legacy; hence, there is little room for error. As Shakespeare wrote: “That’s the rub.” We—parents of the world—are constantly measuring our success as parents through the success of our children. I do it all the time! but here it is being taken into an uncharted sea whose shoals are dredged by the unyielding claws of a proud and ancient culture lorded over by the insensate paws of massive government.
My rambling asides over (at least for now) I am over-joyed to be invited to Arvin’s home. So much of my time in in China in 1981-1982 was spent in people’s homes—mostly just squares of mud, brick, clay, and tin set in sprawled alleyways; common latrines, and a single pots and pans set on small coal stoves to prepare the feast. I miss that simplicity. When I returned home, I spent close to ten years in an equally small log cabin with an outhouse and a kitchen with only one pot and one pan, though I could have scavenged an entire kitchen from the swap shop at the town dump. Arvin’s home may well be the face of the new China: the China that is reinventing the yardstick; the China that is emerging and sometimes bursting out of a generation resting under leaves like the cicadas now chattering in maddened choruses in every grove of trees.
I am speechless and stunned by the skyline of the city. I really can’t comprehend the reality. I drive the streets and crane my head in disbelief and can only wait for time to give context and some infantile understanding that justify the claustrophobia of words cluttered and pressed together. These are the new temples swathed in carbon haze that will be gone long before time has recycled them into something new, not the truly ancient temples carved out of the hillsides along West Lake—not the homes of godly emperors served by scores of eunuchs, peasant farmers, concubines and foot soldiers. I do not feel as if I am embedded in a new dynasty. I only sense the impermanence of something inherently unsustainable. The skyscrapers seem more like Towers of Babel that pale in comparison to the mud homes of my memory.
I am exhausting myself. My head right now is only one of many on the Hydra of my self. In a few short hours I need to be in front of my students who only need to know that I care about verb tenses and sentence structure. Any success I have as a teacher is how well I have learned to wear the proper head at the proper time, so my students will never sense or fear the fulness of the monster in front of them. My teacher head is only a toothless rag of fur and broken appendages that they can stuff in their backpacks and carry through life—if only to shape dreams that help them sleep at night. Dreams stretched in every horizon.
If teacher is not also a dream, he or she is no better than a book carried, shuffled across hard desks, a vague remebrance— as listless as beach sand.
The grass grows. The rain falls
Nothing is done. Nothing is left undone
A day can be perfect. I have to believe this.
Today was. Is. Is was a day in china.
The sun breaking through today after yesterday’s typhoon. Lazy walk to the coffee shop. Practice chinese with young cook dreams of more tells his long story. Reassure him—yes—as good as anything in america. Wished really wished Denise was there. Our every Saturday Sunday trips to serendipity cafe in maynard reborn borne in hangzhou city.
Sweet, strong coffee. Cool clean breeze off sidewalks scrubbed clean by yesterdays torrential rain. Kids running from store to store. Buy muffin there. Fruit here. Dough sticks from roadside vats bubbling oil. Dumplings steaming in scalded trays. Creamy warm milk in plastic bags fattened with sugar. Running skipping hopback to grandmothers. “The waiguo ren [foreigner] spoke to me!” I feel incredibly alive. Placed. Content…old men sweep leaves torn from trees and bushes with brooms made of broken branches and bundles of lashed twigs. We nod to each other like it is a universal tongue. Yes. I get it. I understand without words stammered out of meagre vocabularies. Life transposed on life. Strangely I miss my motherfatherunclesaunts long gone and imagine them beckoning from the park benches steaming in wet morning heat…wisps of smoke rising to balconies draped with flowers laundry tv sets bikes slipping into alleyways filled with poverty love confirmation…always always always a confirmation celebration of age. Dignity. Grace. Acceptance.
I hear Mister Toe’s taxi incessant horn in morning traffic like bellowing from barges on the pulsating sighing unrepentant river. “Come, come. Sorry, Sorry I overslept…” We. Rob. Dave. Me. Cramming our oversized bodies into impossibly small car. More beeping weaving avoiding. A mass (a liturgy almost) of traffic people bikes scooters busses trucks. A city so huge expanding towering with belief in tomorrow acceptance of today democracy of common life. We are all here. We are all here. It has to work. It has to. It does. It really does. It stretches the clothes of my perceptions preconceptions prejudice anticipations. I wear the disbelief like a shawl in the rain. In the tangle of work obligation progress crossing dodging manoeuvring there is no anger—no words to take back regret amplify justify. No righteousness, fingers, pissed off anythings. Simple reassurances that no one is alone. Listen I we you are here. We are not travellers. We are embedded like silk in a fluid tapestry. We are was is.
It has to be a word: isness. We are dropped into the isness of what simply irretrievably is… We are dropped into a warm busy teeming broth of humanity. We shake like dogs on muddy banks and run to our buildings. Work. Work. Work. It is all work. It is all family. It is all friends. It is all there is—a jigsaw of sameness oneness isness. It is a common world of commonness. Fair and unfair in the same accepted fated breath. My head still can’t wrap around it. I am an American. Damnit. An American. I let go of worrying that it matters. The private goal is the collective goal. I am not sad detached wandering wondering. I am going to work. I am going to do what I need came want should must do.
The kids are waiting for us. Us. Me. Rob. Dave. Old americans. Proud americans. Proud americans come to teach preach perfect tentwelvethirteenfourteen year olds and young startled dreamy suddenly beset by reality sweet loving accepting yearning teachers. A few days ago experts now we are common and is. Three waiguo ren clambering laughing going to have to work. Three teachers going on a Sunday field trip to pick grapes on a farm—a muddy farm outside the city clung between city and mountains. Purgatory. God on one side. Maybe both sides. Maybe purgatory is perfection. Maybe. But today is action not reflecting dust of yesterday. Old peasant women lead us to grapes in groping heat smiling pointing painting coaxing cajoling. Their faces wear long march Mao hunger I have been there and there and there. There too.We nod our vocabularies in gestures and broken guttural primal vestal sounds. The kids meanwhile are kids. kids. kids. Nothing is unreal, unexpected, overdone impressive. More isness. Love. Compassion. Ballets of energy stories leaping stretching reaching towards bundles of fruit—putao, yaomei, pinguo—grapes, strawberries, apples: Sameness. Isness. Happiness. Yes. True happiness. America. China.
Sadness, thinking, wanting, remembering (screaming almost in a vacuum) for my own children to just be here. Not there. Engulfed awed renewed in new hampshire summer camp. Cool clear waters. Stars plucked out sky summer camp. Away. Happy without me. For me. Because of me. Alongside a clay shored quiet stream I share pictures of my kids with these kids—my students—precious precocious indefatigable youth. I need them to know that I am as real their mothersfathersunclesaunts. Each image turned and studied like a textbook. This is what we all learn. This is what we all learn: love. Today’s lesson is love and picking and dancing and remembering and wanting and being indefatigable youth. Infinite tomorrows and yesterdays cloven and jammed into the impossibly small taxi of today. Beeping horns of love in every direction. These are my children. My children in america. They were born when you were born. Cried when you cried. Woke in terror-filed nights like you. Laughed in school-yards like you. Jammed into expectations like you. We them they are together altogether the crazy world of stitched cultures woven by old men and old ways with broken dreams and unbridled ignorance—children together altogether born again in games of minecraft, tag, hide and seek, pushing unwanted food away, grabbing devouring celebrating…They are born and will be borne. Within. Without. Beside. Before. They are. Need to be: every thought every action every dream. My family is our textbook of love. Denise is the mother. I am the father. Here is our universe. Our textbook. Endless flow of sometimes words sometimes action always love always is. Isness of opportunity chance fate desire hammered in the mystic forge of love determination persistence stubborn clinging to flotsam idyllic isles key wests of dreams words nods limits distant horizons figuring out giving a damn…
In the city again playing team tag in an empty mall detritus of progress. The children lead me hide me cajole me protect me old and vulnerable behind columns arching over western sloth: armani, hilfiger, levi, scotch, shoes, handbags. Lean away as if this floor is a diseased ward: typhussed smallpoxed malarial—a story cried in bold decay and impeccable ruin. We win the the game. We win the running man game: Me. The old teacher. Old Laoshi. The youngest kids. Smallest kids by far. We won. We won, I said, because we did not attack. We protected. We won candy. That was all the mattered. Grabbing devouring celebrating turned over to parents eager for harvard princeton mit. Turned over to endless days nights life of work homework absolute perfection. What is your favourite game Shelley. (I asked her on Friday) I said—you must have a favourite game. I do not play games she said she meant it lived it was it and today she played as if there was no tomorrow. Just the isness joy release of a penitent shorn of sin. I pray. I really do. Pray that today had enough rebar to sustain the weight of her play. Play Shelley. Play. Parents maybe only happy she says goodbye to us in english. We. Dave. Rob. Me. We are from Boston. Good schools in Boston. But today. Today was a better school. A mystic forge. Orb resting on pinnacle. East. West.
I wished I shouted—You should see the small towns. Go to the small towns. It is all I know. All I can teach live pray do. It is my is. Go to the mountains that cling to your horizons west of the city of hangzhou. Small villages pocked by endurable endless persistence perfection of patience forbearance love. Do not go to shanghai to the east. It is too close to boston harvard princeton mit. Pick grapes strawberries apples. Fresh fruit. Pithy flesh hung on bones. What Mao could not let be. What we you can’t taste. Rich soil. Soil fed depleted fed depleted fed depleted. Irony. Displacement. The high huge glassy towers of hangzhou sucking in the countryside. Families cleaved apart at the juncture of sinews. Depleted. Fed by wisps of dreams promises borne on trains scooters carts sodden shoes. Here is heavy coal diesel haze parade of weaving dodging fate of progress regression progress regression. Dreams. Unforgivable dreams. Trapped. Living. Celebrating. Coins trapped in mud, sledge hammered into mastheads of concrete steel glassy towers beaked cranes endlessly lifting dream on dream on dream with spindly cables. The captain speaks. The ship sails: straits of Skylla. Ahab. Odysseus. Hydra. Whale.
The only way out is through. We. Rob. Dave. Me. Resist exhaustion easy to return home to sleep morph ourselves into another taxi-cab to the markets on hufang jie—the street near west lake: mad market of many everything every pedlar ever peddled. I try to film the scene and spin slowly. Then delete everything. It tells nothing really of what the scene is doing to me in me through me. More of that isness which really is what I feel: senses synapses bursting lighting arcing thought to thought sense to sense. I find myself drawn to old china: the old artists patiently waiting for anyone no one to pay 300 kuai for a ten minute portrait flash in the enormity of life. I just say wo meiyo nemmo duo dian. I do not have that much money…and try to get words palpable breath memories from them to me. Some kind of connection that is nod-like real conversation betweens souls and not cultures. They smile and get it. No painting is real just the finger pointing at the moon.
But not the moon itself. Not the moon itself.
The wizened ancient woman sitting waiting on a bench with me waiting on the bench warm smile big laugh looking at me and sway smiling in the closing hours of the day while menwomanchildren pass by stare. Munch: crabs four to a stick spitting out pulpy entrails brittle shells. Whole fish speared on skewers eyes pleading smothered gasping in air bellies ripped quickly skewered over fire. Sucking duck heads taste good really boiling in languid bath of oily broth. Squid speared too and tied with flaccid tentacles clove hitch bowlines fast to boom of death continuance birth and rebirth. Depleted. Fed. Depleted. Fed. Joy. Everywhere joy. Families. Lovers. Friends. Eat. Drink. Twist their ways through pulsating crowd hawkers beggars who always find me. African engineers diplomats. Some few americans who too cool maybe want need to avoid me or maybe just embarrassed to be american mistaken for tourist. I am your thorn. I want to call your bluff expose the absurdity of your truth. I am the proud american who says hey first who always never turns my head down sideways askance. Practiced feints. Enervating avoidance. Are you alive as me I want to say.
And then this old woman lady maybe once madame on shady bench makes me more alive sucking vestigial memories wisdom lessons pain loss everything that humanity wears probably like (or is) Penelope and me maybe I have returned to hearth destroyed by vagaries of fate. But no gods to praise thank remember resist blame. My temporal isness. Her isness. My fraud of words no match for hers—Go. Go. You go slowly. Through life? Next stall bench store hawker home? I do not take any more pictures. I look for Rob. Obscenely tall american god. Dave’s loud laugh cleaves the market like a village on the edge of mountains. The waypoints of this journey descent ascent. Drawn to siren songs. Us. Them. We and eddie and bill…We are in orbit around each other sucked in by gravity of familiar mutual assured levity and forbearance. Necessity. Will. Mere inclination.
Together we laugh and laugh and laugh. Trundle. Limp. Like old beggars under sacks knocked kneed backs bellies twisted by raw fish frogs roe jellyfish snake chewing sucking bones fat sinews of fated fowl flesh noodles grain liquor. I am like a child twirling in an arc bound to them following them completing them each other. We wend like untethered box cars towards hazy mountains draped in wispy belching of young factories insistent on more and more for them and we and me always wanting never really resting on that pinnacle orb. West Lake first sun in days floating outside of gravity. Sidewalks stretching cars busses people skirting going to ignoring beckoning the sun reminder of impermanence setting into west lake antiquity.
Out of tune street singer croaking swooning moon river beside crazy intersection maddened crazed by plastic steel sticky tar of importance. I have to need to want to do grab his guitar. Please. One song only. Crazy foreigner. Proud american. Lean on me I sing and mean it more than ever in pub club grass engulfed gazebo in small american town. I am an amalgam of vanity pretence sorrowful primal need to be will be heard. This is me. This is me. This is me. One song only and leave flattered full of plastic importance towards dissolving sun woven into perfect random intersection of elm sycamore willows leading beckoning drawing us to the lake. West Lake. Like faith. Unerring assurance of the improbable happening before us. Rob the improbable god. Daves unerring laugh and me scrunched on impossibly small bench lapped by ancient waters temples herons cleave the sky. Carp swirl to the surface. Cicadas scream from lowing branches. We. Rob. Dave. Me. We are a small sea. Mouth of river. Still cove. Dribbling stream awed and attached to dynasties. Histories. Stories. Mystic forging of lost regained recreated stories. Meticulously recorded guarded preserved in amber. Tradition. Remembrance. Disassembling the moment. Isness of this day. This perfect day.
Xenia. Peace. Disbelief of fate luck circumstance. We are the same stream melded out of all waters retreating returning cleansed. We buy soda from a machine. Check our phones. Remember to remember something. Fed. Depleted. Locked and freed by common things needs even dreams. We. Rob. Dave. Me. We hail a cab and return home.
I am a speck in this night. A single lamp in a concrete tower trapped high above the qiantang river. I do not have the power of the distant barge—dark shadow in moiling water carrier of mystery reality actual substance. I’ll go to sleep and dream: simple dreams unfettered dreams. Cranes. Skeletal steel wires pulleys resting on unfilled towers tentacled to muddy earth earth sucking shores sheathed in mirrors dated in hope need want. Escalators ascending descending everywhere. Hades. Heaven. Home. Solid places. Joy of with for in spite of because of kids. Indefatigable. And maybe please please please always release me from vanity terror of myself just give me me and you and your love—Isness. Perfect perfected solidity of remembrance.
The dull staccato throb in light rain on a dark night. Unseen barges make their way up the QianTian River—concrete shores marked by the arch of the bridge, the spans of beam stretched on beam, the impeccable symmetry of the street-lights broken by a stream of impatient headlights—the bursting aorta of commerce and hope that is Hangzhou.
Or is it the torrent of humanity flowing east and west and north and south around the antiquities of West Lake? Lovers. Couples in every configuration and every intent. Families dragging or being dragged. Packs of friends so hip and cool and daring. So much unlike the China I remember. Soft wool coats: blue or gray. Mao buttons and short-visor caps. I fall just as easily into reverie as anticipation.
The grey fog and swirl of mist on West Lake outlines the rowing prams and party boats decked in imitation of palaces lost to time. On a far hillside—a bare shape of a gray palace on a gray background. Somewhere within: the lusty cries and plaintive words of crazy Li Po, drunk again and strewing words with a practiced and meticulous abandon—picked up by stooped bodies and weathered visages carried and thrown with feral joy—skipping stones stretched across still waters. Heavy, fluttering weight borne down by inescapable gravity.
Right now I am happy to my bones and as lonely and weak as a man can be. I scroll through pictures of my family and share them with the sky which seems heavy enough to fall—the dirt and smoke and smell of progress. Each picture tugs at my heart. I am not built to be away from home—Tommy scales a rock wall. Emma plays her ukulele. Margaret her guitar. EJ fixes his VW. Charlie juggles a soccer ball. Kaleigh collects seashells and beach glass. Pipo washes enormous pans in the camp kitchen. Denise sits in the backyard—our blessed perfect backyard—holding a chicken. I cling to them as wildly as wild can be. I will dare anyone. Any time. It is not a test I need to prepare for.
The craziness is in the contrast: this city of millions and millions and millions sprouting steel and glass and brick in every configuration of a weedy architect’s dream. I should be happy to be here, but I long for the simplicity of my back porch. Morning coffee with Denise. Kids busy. Friends who call. A slow jog. A bulb that needs to be changed. Only a fool would argue with me.
Jet lag wakes me in the middle of the night. I read Joyce for an hour. Is my head Dadelus or Bloom? It is too easy to confuse work of the head with work. Real work. Whatever it is that I need sleep for? Dave and Rob are still asleep. Long in jealous sleep. Or maybe like me—eyes wide-awake, curious if the sun ever shines in this city? Maybe stuck in fogged memories brushed in Song Dynasty waterstrokes. Rounded bellies surrounded by calligraphy’d words. China is not a country that etched its history on cave walls. Everything flows and dies and recreates itself in an unending cycle of births measured in massive ticks of time. For me and Dave and Rob at least: three days of incessant rain, mist and curiosity; still, I am a silent claw scuttling across the floors of a silent sea.
Yet we laugh as much as men have always laughed at the vagaries of fate in this country which seems to have created the word. We are ecstatic with our luck to be here. We scrounge like beggars for coffee in the morning. We force ourselves into taxis like hobo’s stuffing rucksacks. We teach the new elite of China: sons and daughters of scion and opportunity. Kids only, and no different, as if God only has three or four molds to work with: here is your intense child; here is your dreamy child; here is the child hobbled by a dull mind nurtured in like-minded fanaticism by parents deluded by assumptions of perfection, and here is the kid of the world—the ever-real world—the everywhere world: give me love; give me hope; give me joy; give me space. Save me from yourselves.
We work alongside the young and restless who are torn by conviction and inclination. The young who are prey to vanity, pretence, boldness and unplumbable magnanimity in equal measure. We call them by English names chosen in blithe randomness: this sounds good—I like this name—this is easy to remember—many famous people are named Richard. I want to scream and say that we are not so lost that we can’t remember the tongue-twisters of our youth. It is as easy for us to say to say that one sly snake slid up the stake and the other sly snake slid down as Liu Guo Ping or Ren Qi Wei or Sun Zhu. I like your name. I want your name. Your real name. There is no other way to begin.
Just tell us your name! and maybe the BBC won’t report every day on the gulf between us, on what our misunderstandings are, or on how we need to understand history. We are all ignorant, damn it, in every way, yet we are transcendent in every moment—if given the chance. I don’t want to meet another ex-pat who has been here for three years—or five years—or ten years, for they have nothing to tell me but their story, and as perfect and real as that story may be, I will measure that story against their own ignorance—and then we are surprisingly equal. I need to know that the wisdom of my backyard is as expansive as any unboundaried world. If not, why seek peace? It is unattainable. We do not need travel to suffocate bigotry. We only need to love and accept one thing that is not ours and build from there.
The young teachers from the school where we are working, Arvin, Angie, Addie and Ray, walked us around West Lake tonight—a quartet of twenty-somethings that seems to be the pillars of the new China: modern, ancient, vulnerable, and impertable. Arvin, in almost manic ecstasy, tells story after story of the history, the meaning, and the reality of every turn of the path in spontaneous bursts of every language he knew. Angie and Addie and Ray recreate the meaning, but not the ecstasy, blessed and cursed as they are by the temperance of defined lives.
We feast in some palace by the shore. Table after table full of men doing small shots of incredibly strong liquor—standing like warriors around a magnificent table. Sometimes a table of their wives locked in the chatter of tradition. Sometimes a table like us: a few friends; a few guests, and toasts and laughs in a broken dance of broken language cobbled into some kind of understanding. It almost felt like defiance, a changing of the guard. Sit with your wives, dammit! Yet, I was jealous of their camaraderie of tradition. We men barely change.
We watched a Chinese opera performed on the waters, sitting in the pouring rain surrounded within a sea of flimsy blue poncho’s. I loved my poncho, for it made me as Chinese as the rest of the crowd—my blue tarp like their blue tarp. My Mao jacket and their mao cap. I almost wanted to gasp like the crowd at every cool shift of scenery—of tens of feathers running across the water top—of lovers floating on ancient barges never quite touching prows—of ominous risings and fallings of girded columns of steel rising out of the waters of West Lake. Instead I squinted like an engineer to figure out the mechanism of reality that made people gasp. I regret that this always been my fallback to keep me from the lure of wonderment. I wanted to be lost in amazement, yet I was only gifted by the delight of engagement and deconstruction—the lost twin of faith.
Tonight, like everything, did not end: it was truncated by everything that truncates. It is absurd that I am still awake. Wisdom and experience plead with me to let go of the night, but I can’t, because louder than wisdom of experience is the voice of Li Po. The poet’s guttural cry croaked infinatum. Not unlike the barges—some conveyance I don’t see— a sound, merely, in a gray night, but I feel the dull, throbbing, staccato notes—the predictable heartbeat of a diesel reassurance lurching into the strong, moiling, and unceasing flow of tomorrow.
A tomorrow that is already here.