Friday, December 27, 2013

Smoke signals


When I began to love Nanjing, two years ago, Christmas, it was the echoes from the past that first found their way to me. Not exactly ghosts from the past—though it’s easy to imagine haunting specters from this city’s tragic history—but some kind of residual spirit left by my might-have-been-neighbors now receding in time. They are easy to imagine, these people. The material evidence of their having been here is within reach of our concrete apartment on campus. Right outside my window are the broad boulevards lined with sturdy sycamores planted by urban planners a century ago. They widened the roads for the funerary route that would bring Sun Yat-sen to rest in his mausoleum on Purple Mountain.  When I walk atop the ancient city wall near my home, I can reach further back—to the 14th century. Running my fingers along the bricks of the old Ming wall, I like to feel the engravings carved into the stone by the craftsmen, some local, some distant, who were commissioned to fire bricks that would endure. Beneath my fingers lie their signatures, distinctive trails leading back to them should they need to be found by someone with questions about the quality of their product. A crack in one’s brick could mean a chink in the wall’s foundation, and this crack could have ultimately spelled the loss of the craftsman’s life. There was much at stake in this molding and firing, but they pulled it off, these early masons. They mixed their mud, they stoked their fires, they carved their signatures and here I am, walking on a wall that survived.

In all the hyper-urbanization that is going on throughout China, there are places in Nanjing, here in my neighborhood, where time slows down for me. There has been something thoroughly grounding about feeling the spark of human ingenuity in the very foundations of the places I’m walking. This was my discovery of Christmas 2011, when I made my new home in Nanjing: that I could somehow fold myself into time differently here than in other places.

Now it’s Christmas 2013, and the past few weeks have been sobering for me. I’m feeling less in touch with a foundational past and more troubled by a future that hangs, thick, in the air. In Nanjing, and throughout most of urban China, we have seen historic levels of air pollution over the past six weeks. I feel less like a historian and more like the captain of an amateur HazMat team. Our home is stocked with face masks, air purifiers, replacement filters, and brightly colored fruits and vegetables packed with antioxidants. It's become a habit now, every morning, to look out the window for a visibility check upon awakening: Forget about trying to glimpse the past. Can we spot a silhouette of Purple Mountain—just 3 miles away—against today’s lightening dawn? I then check the Air Quality Index (AQI) before confirming my plans for the most immediate future: http://aqicn.org/city/nanjing/cn/.


View towards Purple Mountain, from our living room window.
The AQI (空气质量指数 kōngqì zhìliàng zhǐshù)is a relatively recent addition to our vocabulary, and to the lexicon of many Nanjing locals as well. The index assigns a numerical value to the quality of the day’s air based on the presence of pollutants that float around us in the form of particulate matter and are known to cause ill health effects. The numerical values refer to the number of particles found per cubic meter of air, 0-50 being “good air” and 301-500 being “hazardous.” We especially pay attention to the rankings for small-sized particulate matter, measured in micrometers (PM 2.5 and PM 10) which can lodge deep in the lungs. For most of the past few weeks the PM 2.5 values have been in the red zone at disturbingly high numbers close to 200 (“very unhealthy”— where everyone, not just the “sensitive,” may experience health effects). We’ve had several days over 300 (maroon) when Nanjing public schools were closed, and even a few days over 400.

Sometimes my younger daughter, ZZ, age 10, beats me to the laptop. “Momma, I’m checking the air!,” she’ll holler, and this morning she exclaims, “Oh no! It’s already 193!” I grab my running gear for the treadmill at school and FF, age 12,  grabs shorts for indoor P.E.—no outdoor recreation for any of us today. ZZ dons her face mask for the commute to school.





The sad irony is that because we’re running late, we snag a cab for the five-minute ride to the subway instead of waiting for bus 13, adding to our complicity in today’s air crisis. The cab runs on natural gas, but still, there are emissions. Sitting in the front seat I fasten my seat belt and contemplate whether or not to take off my mask—the driver isn't wearing one and I feel uncomfortable talking with him with my face covered. I pull off the mask and shove it in my pocket. Looking out the window at commuters on scooters I notice that fewer people seem to be wearing masks today. Is this because the numbers have dipped below 200? I shake my head at the imprecise “measures” we are all bringing to this. We have no idea what we’re doing. We don’t even know whose numbers to trust. The China Air Quality app on my iPad consistently gives me lower numbers than the website I check that uses U.S. embassy readings. Today, in contrast to the 193 number from the embassy-sourced website, the China AQ app gave the number as 96 (PM 2.5) , 143 (PM 10 ) and advice on health: “Masks not needed. Suitable for outdoor activities. Harmless to low resistance groups.” Yeah, right.

When I ask Nanjing locals, “Why is the air so bad this winter?” I generally get the same answers: “The farmers are burning crops outside the city”, or, “There are too many cars on the road.” Ultimately, I trust my nose more than anything and my nose tells me there is more to the story. When I step outdoors there is usually a distinctive smell to the air, not just organic burning or exhaust: something more chemical, a hint of plastic, a whiff of coal.  

***

It’s a new day now, and I woke this morning at 5:30 and immediately checked the AQI. I have a day trip planned to Shanghai. Will I need to bring my mask? Should I run by the lake this morning, or on the track when I return this evening? PM 10 is 240. I groan and delay my run, hoping the index will read lower by the time I return to Nanjing.

Late in the afternoon, on the bullet train heading back from Shanghai I marvel at how modern and efficient this commute feels. "No smoking in any car of the train," scrolls the announcement banner in both English and Chinese along with our current speed: 270 km/hr and rising, 274, 280. The outdoor temperature is also displayed—9.2 degrees Celsius—but not the AQI.

I look out the window and all I see leaving Wuxi 无锡 and heading to Changzhou 常州 is a thick yellow haze obscuring concrete apartment complexes and endless construction projects. There seems to be no shortage of smoke: a factory here, a smoldering trash heap there. Passing through a small town I see both a kiln with its black smoke spewing above a pile of bricks and the more fanciful curls of white smoke rising from a small temple in a park. Not five seconds pass between smoke sightings as the train speeds ahead.

We slow as we approach Nanjing—133 km/hr—and I see a patch of blue in the sky above and feel hopeful about my prospects for a run. But when I exit the train all hope is dashed. The air smells like chemicals, and I can almost feel a film of grit forming against my lips and teeth. I head to the exits, then catch my breath as I realize I'm about to enter a toxic cloud—smokers are lighting up on the platform and as I weave past them I see embers from cigarettes farther ahead, glowing orange in the dark underpass.












Given my recent obsession with avoiding toxic clouds, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I actually love smoke and many of its associations. We are relocating to the San Francisco Bay area next summer, and while searching for Berkeley rentals my imagination is sparked by a photo of a home with a wood-burning fireplace. I see coppery flames and myself there near them: legs curled on a sofa, a book in hand, a cat on my lap, a steaming mug within easy reach. San Francisco has some of the best air days in the country, yet when SF has “spare the air” days in the winter, the largest single-source contributors are wood-burning romantics like me.

Last night at dinner, ZZ, feeling festive, set the table “like a banquet.” Inspired, I opened a bottle of wine and lit some candles. When I blew out the match—poof— there was the smoke, and I was instantly transported: to bonfires at the beach, warm toes sifting through cool, damp sand; to Shabbat dinners with dear friends, as candles illuminate the faces of our children, dancing around us with challah held high; to the sensual warmth of our candlelit bedroom, silhouettes cast on flickering walls. “I love that smell!” I exclaim as the smoke dissipates and I set the match down. I don’t elaborate, but my daughters sigh, dreamy with their own remembrances.

***

Today is a high-stakes air day. I have a long run planned at the lake, and I don’t want to settle for a slog on the treadmill. Soon after awakening I do a happy dance: I can see Purple Mountain, partially shrouded in a delicate mist. A peek into the laptop confirms that it is indeed a good-enough air day: AQI 123 and dropping. Category orange: “Unhealthy for sensitive groups,” but passable for a run. The roads below are wet and bobbing with umbrellas as festive as balloons—yellow, pink, green and blue—shielding unmasked faces from the cold, fresh drizzle.

On my warm-up jog en route to the lake, it takes all my focus to dodge other hazards of development: the barricades and the unannounced detours, the bulldozers moving in and out of construction sites, the steaming tar and the trucks that haul the rubble, the jackhammers that open and invade the earth. But once I enter the lake area through the ancient city wall, all is clear. I run for two hours, inhaling little more than the cool dampness of the rain. AQI: 93. Category yellow: “Moderate” and still improving.

As I exit the lake area, plumes of incense rise from Jiming Temple (鸡鸣寺 jīmíngsì) outside the city wall as they have since the Third Century: trails of hope, offerings of thanksgiving, tools used by people perhaps not so unlike myself, living in their moment, needing ways to beacon and bargain, their offerings carried in ascending smoke. Not too distant in this city’s past, a dark wintery day such as this might have been alight with fires of all kinds: stove fires, refuse fires, cremation fires, kiln fires. Fires for signals, and fires for sacrifice. We occupy a place within a long lineage of fire-builders—all of us are the tenders of emissions. Surely there were others who, for the purposes of their time, found a cadence with which to run and navigate the obstacles that altered these roads and the smoke that obscured their brick-laid paths. Breathing deeply, because today I can, sweet oxygen and endorphins course through my veins, and so does the incense and all its particles that command my attention.

I love that smell, this smell of smoke, and the many layers of human experience that it conjures and carries, its power to waft spirits into our present. I hope we can find a way to live with smoke, even if it means choosing ways, and days, to live without it.










Monday, December 26, 2011

Nanjing Noel


Far from friends and family, and still building our lives in Nanjing.  Jazz, Christmas Eve, returned home after his customary last-minute Santa shopping and said to me, sheepishly: “I just want the girls to feel abundance.”

“And joy,” I added.

Later that night we bickered about our morning plans for church.  Jazz was feeling unsettled about our options, which number three and deserve a blog entry dedicated solely to our family’s sojourns into a faith community in Nanjing. He also felt pulled towards his Director obligations: the Center was having a Christmas morning gift exchange smack in the middle of church services.  Though we went to bed lovingly connected around our late-night Santa tasks, I was uncertain whether or not Jazz would be accompanying us to worship.

He did, and what a beautiful Christmas morning it was.  As I held my eight year old daughter in my arms for her to see the amazing African choir leading us (at the inter-denominational Christian service), I heard her sweet voice raised in song: “Gloroorooooorria, in excelsis DeeeeeeOOOOOO!” 

The idea to walk along the city wall later that afternoon was Jazz’s, of course, inspired on our walk home from church.  I wasn’t sure about the logistics: there were presents still to open, a gratin to prepare, relatives to Skype. 

 We opened presents, Jazz and I marveling at how much joy our girls seemed to get this year from giving gifts purchased with their own meager allowance.  We left voice messages for family and friends. 

Spy kids
Making a list for thank you notes...




FF delights in Daddy's new t-shirt and rubix cube




Somewhere in all of this I noticed our sole nativity image, a gift from my sister, transported from Jordan to D.C. and now here: small and solitary in the window.  The Holy Family, I’m reminded, were once nomads too, during a short but significant period of their lives.

 I abandoned my dinner ambitions, threw tradition to the wind, and we walked, to the lake, our ultimate destination the top of the ancient city wall.



FF gave us the gift of suggesting that we not walk the wall, after all, and that instead, we go out on the water on a boat.  Jazz and I were ambivalent: won’t it be cold?  But creation and holiness move across water, do they not?



It was ZZ’s idea to read aloud the Christmas story from their new “backpack bibles”:  ZZ shared “The Birth of Jesus” and FF followed with “The Shepherds and Angels.”  



The sun on the water took my breath away. Gazing out across the lake I said, “Let’s note, December 25th, 2011, the day I started to LIKE Nanjing.”







ZZ gave me the gift of a very competitive game of tag to warm me up after our chilly return to shore.

We stopped at the base of a Buddhist temple for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant.   ZZ spotted a stray pup in the entrance in need of some Christmas love (“I can’t STAND it Momma, I know I haven’t had my rabies shot yet, but PLEASE PLEASE let me pet him.  I KNOW he’s friendly, I just KNOW it.”).  I was tentative; he looked scared and timid. But it was Christmas, and ZZ is very enrolling.  He trembled at her greeting, and bowed sweetly to her touch.

The restaurant was unheated, but we warmed our hands with cups of boiled water and our bellies with wholesome dishes and bowls of rice.



We never ascended the wall, but we walked the quiet streets home, FF’s warm mittened hand in mine; ZZ blazing a route ahead with Jazz.

Back in our apartment, Jazz baked us chocolate meringues, inspired by the story and recipe on his father’s recent blog (http://www.thebakingwizard.com/a-special-kiss/).


We shared cocoa and a movie: Arthur’s Perfect Christmas.


Christmas Day, 2011 was a day of abundant joy for the Plum-Patents of Nanjing. 

Tired and happy, head on the pillow, I recalled words of faith from the Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” And so it is.

Dear friends and family near and far, nomads and settlers, our fellow sojourners: wishing you abundant joy this Christmas and always.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

All Souls' Day

Halloween 2010, Rutledge, PA




 Last Tuesday I was reading in the chair along the windowed wall of our master bedroom, feet up, the grey outside casting a tranquil light in a room of white linens and faux mahogany. Fei Fei was on the bed, homework complete, barefoot and weaving: using a lap loom of sorts she had created from cardboard, with thumbtacks anchoring the yarn. From her fingers came rows of pale yellow, turquoise, dark brown and lime green, the contrasts striking.  “I love those colors,” I told her. “It’s the only yarn we have,” she replied. 

She had a school calendar next to her on the bed. I have no idea why she brought it in. It was opened to October and I could see two sentences written in blue ink across the bottom of the page: “My birthday month”... “Mark’s birthday month too.”

I wondered what I’d see if she had opened the calendar to November.  Would it read, “Momma’s birthday month”...”And Mark’s death month too”?

She saw me eyeing her calendar and suddenly said, “I kind of wish Uncle Mark were a ghost, like Myrtle in Harry Potter. Then we could see him and talk to him.”  I didn’t reply at first. I was surprised. I’d have thought she’d be afraid of a ghost. “Except,” she was careful to add, “I wouldn’t want him to celebrate his death day, like Nearly-headless Nick  did (referring to a character in the books). I’d only want him to celebrate his birthday.” 

“I wish I could see and talk to Mark too,” I finally said, “I miss my brother,” but realized that in my attempt to honor what she had shared I hadn’t wholly said what I thought. I tried again, “Well... we can talk to him, you know. Avery talks to him all the time.”  “That’s not the same,” Fei Fei countered, “And we can’t see him.”

My heart catches.  “Yeah...I wish I could see him too.”

Fei Fei’s silent now, back at her weaving. But I’m not done yet. I’m thinking about the ghost comment. One night this past July at Mark and Maria’s home I was the last to go to bed. I stepped into the pitch-dark garage to put lunch supplies in the extra refrigerator and suddenly and inexplicably felt chilled with fear at what might lurk there. “Don’t mess with me now, Mark,” I thought, grimly chuckling to myself as I finally found the wall switch and was rescued by a simple bulb.  It would be just like my broski to pull some kind of a ghostly prank, pelting me with wet nerf balls as I took tentative steps in the dark around Mason’s skateboards. I’ve played Marco Polo with Mark as recently as four summers ago, with a gaggle of kids in his backyard pool.  I know how he plays!  I hadn’t thought of my brother living the life of a prankster poltergeist until that moment, and I haven’t since. That possibility just doesn’t seem to fit. And looking back now, I think I called on him in his garage in that moment of fear more for protection than in anticipation of sibling jostling.

I finally say to Fei Fei, “I’m kind of glad he’s not a ghost, even though it would be nice to see him clearer and feel him.  I think he’s too at peace, too close to God to be a ghost.”

She is still weaving. The room is beginning to dim now and I ask her if she wants the light on. “No,” she says, “This light is perfect.”

“You know, you can talk to him if you want to,” I say, “I wish I could talk to him more.  But it’s hard for me...to talk to him.” 

I know Momma,” she says, not in an irritated way, but with a stress on the I, like she really knows she can talk to Mark and wants to reassure me of this. As if she suspects it is Momma who doesn’t know.

But my suggestion hangs there, unfinished. I guess it suddenly occurs to me that my children have their own relationships with the dead, relationships I can’t fully mediate, and probably don’t want to. I have a hard time imagining what Fei Fei might say to her uncle. Would they talk about “Dirty Jobs” or “Chopped” or any of the myriad other programs she shared sitting next to him with his tubes and machines, exuding her calm and acceptance like she so often did beside him?  Would they talk about Harry Potter? He loved the series as she does now.  Perhaps I should have told her she can still sit next to him if she would like to, to be with him in the way that was so comfortable for him and for her.  But I suspect that this, too, is something she already knows. I remember one trip in particular to see her uncle, where she sat for long stretches of time, knitting on the couch near him.  She clearly misses him, yet I still have a hard time identifying the scope and import of their relationship.

Later, at bedtime, Fei Fei and I continue reading Harry Potter, Book Four, The Goblet of Fire. I’ve read the entire series long before her, in tandem with my brother as each book came out, one summer at a time, he in California and me in the hammock strung between two Ponderosa Pines behind Jazz’s folks’ house in Missoula.  When we started Book Four I warned Fei Fei that this could be the last one we read for a couple of years.  I recalled that it’s in this book when things get very serious and quite scary, and I’m not sure Fei Fei is ready for what comes next.  Now I’m wondering if it’s more me than Fei Fei who would need to take a pause.

But for tonight we continue to read about a fearsome task in a tournament of young wizards.  I had forgotten most of the plot, but suddenly it happens, each champion is expected to rescue the thing he or she can’t be without, which for each of them is a loved one.  Reading aloud, I find myself nearly choking on the words, it hits me so hard, the description of two of the characters almost losing younger siblings.  The plot is flawed, but the emotional tenor is close to perfect. Rowling gets it: the import and complexity of sibling relations to these characters and to her young readers.  My face is suddenly wet and Fei Fei asks why. I explain, “Because they almost lost their brothers and sisters.  And I’m glad they didn’t.”  Fei Fei pats my knee, a bit impatiently: it is nearly time for “lights out” and these days I’m a stickler for “lights out.” There is no time for grief if we are to finish this chapter. “Keep reading Momma,” she urges, and I do.

Later that night, stepping out of the shower.  I recall our conversation from earlier in the afternoon.  I wonder again why I don’t talk to Mark more.  I realize I’m afraid to let him in without knowing the rules.  Is communication with a deceased loved one a window one can open and shut at will?  I want him here with me in the present; I want to feel he is, at minimum, a companion, at best a kind of guardian angel.  At times I do speak to him, share a grimace with him or a hearty guffaw.  There are moments when I converse with God and the saints fervently about him. But do I want him to see me glancing vainly at myself in the foggy mirror of my bathroom, or catch me misidentifying a Chinese character on a slide, as I did during a lecture I gave today, and my embarrassed attempt to cover the limits of my knowledge?  Do I want to expose so much to him?  He had his purgatory on earth—this I witnessed. His ego and will, my faith tells me, are wiped clean now, transformed or consumed by a brighter fire. He will not judge me and I will not disappoint or surprise him. He is pure love and can be present to me as such. Yet I shy from this, I shy from relinquishing my status and stature as older sister, my know-it-all facade, my veneer of goodness and righteousness.  He may now be perfect, but there’s room here for my growth.   How much does a sibling relationship grow after one of the pair is gone?  Do I love enough?  Have I grown enough?  What work is left for me in this relationship?  Where might I let his love work in my world?

---

Wednesday, a new day, and the girls are working on Halloween decorations while listening to Emmylou Harris: All I Intended to Be.  They adore this CD with Emmylou’s soulful interpretations of loss and death.  They have—on black poster board—glued white silhouette cutouts of churches with high steeples, ghosts and gravestones.  ZZ calls to me in the kitchen, where I have just discovered that I’ve added too much salt to what might have been a perfect egg salad.  “Momma,” she yells from around the corner, “When I die can you please bury me in a church graveyard?”

“Huh?!!!’’

The disappointing egg salad is suddenly unimportant and seems strikingly out of season.  I step out of the kitchen and join my daughters, sitting on the carpeted floor amidst their scraps of paper and scattered pencils.  “You really want to be buried in a graveyard, like in a coffin and everything?” “Yeah,” ZZ nods, and Fei Fei pipes in, “Yeah, me too!”  I fail to see the romance in this vision that they evidently share.

“You know...” I muster, slowly, a bit cautiously, “You can still be buried if you’re cremated.  Lots of people are buried in cemeteries after they’ve been cremated.” I don’t know why I am suddenly fixated on cremation, but I need to move quickly away from an image of their bodies in small coffins. 

They both wave their uncapped glue sticks in the air, idly, as they consider this.  “No,” ZZ finally says, emphatically, “I’ve changed my mind.  I want to stay with you Momma, cremated and in a box.”

For a split second I share a silent chuckle with my broski, who was a fan of the series, “Six Feet Under.”  He would have found this entire conversation, to this point anyway, highly amusing.

Fei Fei sets about gluing another tombstone on her well-populated panorama, which I now notice includes a pirate.  “Here’s what I want,” she says energetically, like she’s just thought up the perfect plan. “I want to be cremated and you keep half my ashes in a box and scatter half of them in the ocean in Hawaii.  I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii...or some other tropical island...” she trails, dreamily.

I did not know of this secret wish of hers—she spends a couple of weeks most summers and some piece of winters on beaches in Southern California.  Who would have thought she dreams of tropical islands?  I make a mental note: take this child (living and breathing, splashing and swimming, and yes, weaving and knitting) to Hawaii. 

“Momma,” she suddenly says very seriously, “I want to be buried with Uncle Mark.” 

“But he’s not going to be buried, honey,” I reason, “He wants his ashes scattered in the ocean in Hawaii.”

My heart is racing.  I want to throw out some correctives, to shape expectations and possibilities.  What I want to say is, “A little mercy, please! Don’t you know you are forbidden to talk of your own deaths with your own Momma!” Or at least, “You will be buried long after your Uncle Mark’s ashes are scattered, and long after your mother is buried.” But I don’t say any of this. Play this one out....I warn myself...keep your cool and let them play this one out.

“OK then,” Fei Fei drops the whole “burying” idea and returns to her original line of thought, “I’ll have half of me stay in a box with you and half of me scattered in the ocean with Uncle Mark.”  She looks up at me with an expression I’ve seen before when she really wants something and is shaping her argument,  “I didn’t get a chance to know Uncle Mark for long and some day I may hardly remember him.”  She shrugs her shoulders, apologetically. “This way I will be with him forever.”  There, she’s finished.

“I want to stay with Momma forever,” interjects Zhou Zhou, loyal and solemn.  “Momma, keep me in a box with you forever and ever.” I know, as she says this, I can expect a visit from her deep into tonight, standing at the foot of our bed clutching blankie and Momo, before she climbs under the covers between us and pulls my arm over her shoulders, locking herself fast to me, spooned.  As much as she may rehearse death, it terrifies her like the rest of us.  Tonight she’ll awaken for certain and come seeking a piece of forever.

They are no longer playing: this is serious.  “Hey,” I say, “What I hope is that I live a long long time.  And I’ve told Daddy that when I die I want to be cremated and then interred at a really beautiful place called Mission San Luis Rey, near San Diego.  It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.  I used to go to mass there sometimes with Grandma and Papa and loved to hear the monks sing. Grandma and Papa want to be buried there too, and I want you girls to have a beautiful place you can go visit and be with us...kind of like a graveyard with a church, for when you feel you may need a special place.”

Fei Fei is now gluing one last ghost onto her panorama and I remember her wish to see her uncle as a ghost. “You know,” I say, “After I die, you don’t even have to go to a place to see me.  I want to be with you whenever you want, to find me in your hearts always.”

Zhou Zhou is wielding a pencil now, writing on her churchyard’s tombstones, but Fei Fei looks very interested. 

“Have I been there before?” she asks.

 “In your heart?” I tease. 

“No, to that mission place!”

“No.  But if you want to, we can go there this winter when we’re in San Diego.  We can go to mass there and you can see why I like the place so much.”

“O.K,” Fei Fei says, “And then can we go to the beach?!!!”

“Yes!” I say, “Or...if you want to just go to the beach, we can just go the beach!” 

I like thinking of her and me at the beach.  I like to imagine that some day she will find both me and her uncle on shores of white sand.

---

When Jazz returns home that evening, Zhou Zhou presents him with a gift: her black poster board with its white cut-outs.  His face grows solemn as he reads her inscriptions, which tell a story she was writing on and off during our conversation.  Jazz sets the poster board down and embraces her.  Later I look at the writing that I’ve failed to see until now, and notice the fact that her graveyard only has two tombstones.  One is labeled “Mark Plum” and the other is labeled “Scott Shields”—our neighbor in Rutledge, former mayor, and father to the girls’ same-aged playmates, who died tragically last spring in a skydiving accident.

And it hits me, the difference between this Halloween and last. Last year my girls knew no one who had died; this year they know two departed souls.
My brother passed away, on November 2nd, three days after last Halloween. Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, All Souls Day.  Inspired by my daughters’ artistry, I begin to collect things for an altar:  a shell from a beach in Encinitas, a pair of field glasses Mark once gave to Jazz, a rosary he brought me from Lourdes.  I make a note to myself to look for nerf balls at a sporting goods store in Nanjing.  I contemplate doctoring up my egg salad—adding more wild hen eggs with their bright orange yolks; celebrating my brother, newborn and salted.


Waiting for pancakes, FF birthday sleepover, Nanjing 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Poland, Part I




Last spring, when Jazz emailed the itinerary he had booked for me on Orbitz, all I could do was smile. It was so outrageous: Shanghai to Moscow to Warsaw.  Departing from Pudong International Airport at 2:00 AM, on Aeroflot. “He found a really affordable ticket,” I shared with my department chair, a historian of Russia, who raised an eyebrow. 

The truth is, though Russia wasn’t my ultimate destination, I was excited about my Aeroflot flights and my brief layovers in Moscow.  I’m not a fan of cultural theme parks where exotic other cultures are commodified and put on display, usually for consumption by members of a more hegemonic culture.  But I do find certain kinds of self-consciously manufactured cultural encounters fascinating: opening ceremonies for the Olympics, for instance. And I do like traveling on other nations’ national airlines.  In both cases the hosts have a unique opportunity to communicate their own perception of some essentialized self to a captive (and temporarily vulnerable) audience.   Hungry and strapped in my seat, I’m surprisingly willing to listen. 

Jazz and I once flew with the girls direct from Beijing to Delhi on Ethiopian Air.  This too was an “affordable ticket,” and to be honest, we weren’t entirely sure what route we would be taking when we boarded the plane.  We watched the periodic displays on the flight status monitors while chasing our toddler girls up and down the aisles on their frequent visits to the galley. The plane icon on multiple screens indicated we were headed south, then southwest, somewhere over Guangxi, then over Yunnan, before skirting the Himalayas via Burma, Bangladesh, and finally to Delhi.  The flight attendants—an equal number of males and females— were incredibly hospitable and seemingly unhurried. They dispensed a generous supply of snacks and toys—wing pins, crayons, coloring books and playing cards—as the girls made themselves at home in the galley’s jump seats. Nothing endears me more to an airline’s staff than some indication that they actually like children. That, and their serving edible food. The vegetarian meals—both Indian and Ethiopian—were delicious, and announcements were made in English and Hindi, after having first been made in Amharic. The flight lasted seven plus hours.  Days after we arrived in Delhi, someone asked me if we had checked the safety records for Ethiopian Airlines.  No, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind.  All I knew was that after seven hours of Ethiopian Air I longed to visit Ethiopia some day.
 
I’m not so sure I can say the same about Russia.  Perhaps it was the fact that the flight departed at 2:00 AM and both passengers and flight attendants looked haggard.  Perhaps it was the overpowering smell of vodka as I passed through the first class cabin filled with ruddy men; perhaps it was the one woman in first class, a young Russian looking impossibly uncomfortable in a very short, fitted backless dress and high heels and an unhappy scowl directed at her male companion; perhaps it was the lecherous looks of the vodka-drinking male passengers directed at the impossibly uncomfortable-looking woman; or perhaps it was the bright orange suits of the flight attendants and their red hats and scarves.  Whatever it was, the aesthetic of that particular Aeroflot flight wasn’t working for me. 

My perception may have also been skewed by that fact that I was traveling alone and felt some pangs in my parting.  Earlier in the evening my girls had not given me an easy goodbye, and I had then traveled from Nanjing to Shanghai via high-speed rail, together with an old friend from our days in San Francisco.  I had parted from him in the desolate lobby of his hotel in the high-tech industrial suburbs of Shanghai before continuing on in a cab to a cavernous, nearly empty airport.  I suspect I was the only American on that flight, and in any case, I seemed to be the only native English speaker. 

In my uprootedness, I have never felt more Chinese.  Though physically I may have looked more like the Russian passengers and flight attendants, I felt a natural affinity towards my Chinese fellow travelers, as if they made some sense to me and these others did not.  Yet even the Chinese around me didn’t fit into any neat categories of my China world.  Who were these folks heading to Russia one week before the Chinese national holiday?  There were the obvious businessmen and a few grandparent-types, but there were others I couldn’t make sense of, like the young woman seated next to me traveling on a Chinese passport.  She looked like a college student and would have easily passed as a Chinese-American with her shoulder-length hair, iPad, and contact lenses: except that she didn’t appear to speak English.  In our brief exchange she addressed me in Mandarin, she used Russian with the flight attendants and she was reading a Russian novel.  For most of the flight she was curled up comfortably with a neck pillow and iPod.  Who was this woman and what was her story?  And why did I feel so comfortable sitting next to her in our silence?
 
The trip to Poland was my sister Steph’s idea. My mom had a big birthday last December, and Dad the following June.  Poland, the land that sprouted our maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, had always been one of my mom’s dream destinations. Steph took care of booking the lodgings and flights, including her own as “chaperone” (which really meant she was traveling as a very generous and nurturing host).  Once I knew I’d be in China and unattached to any teaching obligations, I threw my hat in the ring with this lot, and hence the bookings on Orbitz.

At root, my trip to Poland was an excuse to have time with my parents and sister.  Steph had conceived of the trip in the weeks that followed our brother’s death.  I somehow assumed there was a connection—the death of a descendent and a trip to the ancestral motherland—though at the time Steph was hatching this plan I never thought to ask for the inspiration.  At minimum, the trip seemed to me to offer my parents a kind of distant respite:  a place and a time where they could imagine themselves arriving months down the road.  When Steph had first floated the idea it felt inconceivable to me to commit to joining, either physically or financially.  I was struggling with letting my brother go and in many ways I was living in the past—in a world of memories and lost possibilities—and simply could not project myself that far into the future.  When I did finally decide to go, if there was one thing I could imagine it was to have more days with my family.  As outrageous at it seemed—Shanghai, to Moscow, to Warsaw—this transnational rendezvous made sense to me. 
 
In the midst of our relocation, I had no time to prepare for this trip.  I couldn’t find any guidebooks for Poland in Nanjing, and by the time I thought of it there wasn’t enough time to order anything from Amazon.  Our shipment of belongings from the States still has not arrived, so my options for packing were limited. I boarded the plane with a small carry-on filled with little more than two pairs of jeans and some light layers culled from my larger suitcase in Nanjing.  In addition to my journal and laptop, I also had two books I managed to download onto my Kindle the day before my flight:  Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present, by Norman Davies; and The Life of Faustina Kowalska by Sister Sophia Michalenko (the official biography of Poland’s relatively recently canonized St. Faustina).  I sweated it out through immigration at Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO), uncertain as to whether or not I needed a transit visa (I didn’t have one, and never researched this).  Having cleared this hurdle, and noting that my LOT Polish flight was due to depart in 30 minutes and was likely boarding, I scanned the long line of transfer passengers for clues of what to do next and then cut through the crowd, following an authoritative female Russian security guard who bellowed “Warsaw!” with such urgency I was propelled into action.  I was the last to board my plane after passing through security, but the flight attendants, dressed in a serene blue, put me at ease by helping to stow my carry-on.  I caught a glimpse of my reticent neighbor as he stood to let me claim my window seat.  Making my way through the opening chapters of the Davies book, I stole looks at my seat-mate throughout the flight.  He looked remarkably like my grandmother, and by his sullen stare and rigid posture I presumed that, like Grandma, he was anxious about flying.

My most distinctive memory of my arrival at Warsaw Frederic Chopin (WAW) is the smallness and emptiness of the airport. It was nearly 8:00 on a Sunday morning.  Through glass walls I could see a sparse cluster of passengers waiting at an unopened departure gate —most of them Hasidic Jews, males, prayer books open and shawls draping their shoulders.  Several weary travelers had their shoes kicked off and were dozing, some flat-backed and some fetal, across multiple rows of seats. I felt a distinct pain that I had forgotten to download any of Elie Wiesel’s writings onto my Kindle.  Ambivalent about visiting Auschwitz, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to reread Night or Dawn, but I felt a yearning to have Wiesel with me in Souls on Fire or Messengers of God.

I had also forgotten to bring US dollars, and at a money change window before immigration I handed a woman my credit card and for an exorbitant fee I was handed back zloty.  After some hesitation, I emptied my wallet of a thick wad of Renminbi (zipping the red and blue Chinese bills into a pocket in my handbag) replacing these with a very thin stack of unfamiliar bills and lightweight coins.  

When I exited the airport there were no signs of anyone from my Aeroflot flight. I scanned the short row of cabs for a name familiar from the email Steph had forwarded regarding our lodgings (“take MPT taxi, Sawa Taxi or Merc Taxi to Royal Route Residence at the old town, Nosy Swiat, 29/3”).  The second cab in line was a Sawa and so I grabbed it.  The driver, a round-faced grandfatherly man, did not speak a word of English, but he did understand Nosy Swiat.  After we pulled away from the curb I opened my wallet and began to examine the bills I’d been handed, crisp and pastel, marked with eagles and vines.  I counted out 40 zloty: “taxi cost to old town is tariff 1 by day, around 40 zl (10 EUR). May go up to 40EUr with unauthorized drivers (120 pln).”

And it was thus that I arrived in what a tour guide in a golf cart would later name for me as “the golden Polish autumn.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Animal Love





I knew we would have to confront the no-pets problem. I just wasn’t expecting to stare it in the face my first jet-lagged morning in China. But there I was peering down at my daughter in the earliest hours of dawn on a narrow street in Nanjing as she bowed and reached with gentle voice and hands for that quivering ball of fur: sweet puppy. Yes, he’s soooo dear, I tell her. And he likes you, doesn’t he, he really wants to make friends with you…and what a sweet friend he is. But no, honey, I think he has a home already. Look at his round little belly — someone’s been feeding him, and he looks so clean doesn’t he? OK, lovey, it’s time to say goodbye, let’s leave him to chew now, let’s leave him to rest now…let’s love him, let’s bless him, and let’s leave him to be…

It is hard to fathom, when a puppy is licking your hand with its warm and rough tongue, that any hand other than your own should be feeding it. It is easy to imagine that you are the center of the universe when a dog looks in your eyes and directs every wag and wiggle to you, alone. I knew my words to my daughter were of little comfort, but they had to be said. The puppy and my daughter were about to stake their claims on one another, but this is a piece of their futures they have little control over.

FF and Sandy back in Rutledge, PA
And so it was, on my first morning in China, that I was forced to confront the most painful part of our relocation: the parting from our pets. My sweet girls are currently without our puppies and kitties. Our pets have remained behind without us—one pup has her new home with the daughter of her first “owner”, down the street from our old home in Rutledge, PA; the other is at home with our dear friends, Helen and Joel and Isa and Felix, in the neighboring borough of Swarthmore. Our cats are happily ensconced in my sister’s home in Denver, where I regularly see them on Skype, looking regal and rooted on her plush couch as she updates me on their latest antics.

Smokey and Cirrus on the porch in Rutledge
 It helps to invoke the “our” word when forced to contend with this separation and parting. The “our” part of “our puppies,” I remind myself, has always been larger than the immediate circle of our nuclear family, and their home larger than the old Victorian and fenced yard in which they romped when they were most exclusively “ours.” All of them came to us with previous lives. Both cats were street kittens in Beijing, and both of them found their way independently to our stoop, their former travails a mystery. “It’s good luck for a cat to come to your home,” said our Chinese ayi. And so it was, twice over.

Our golden retriever, Sandy, was five when she joined us a year after her first human mom lost her battle to cancer. Our youngest canine, our shepherd mix, Bodhi, was found by my colleague and some students—days old and eyes still shut—separated from his litter on the streets of Chongqing (see my previous blog from May 2009). I helped to hand raise him the first month of his life, and after failing to find an acceptable permanent placement for him in China, my husband and I tenaciously navigated the logistics of bringing him home to us in the U.S. But the rescue of “our puppy” would not have been possible without the Chinese vet who fostered him until he was big enough to travel, the Chinese students who mediated his care in our absence, and most importantly, the generous contributions of my friend and colleague, Paula, and her compassionate brother who financed “our puppy’s” journey home.

Bodhi, after stepping out of his travel carrier, home at last.

Even before our move to China, the “our” in “our pets” was huge. That “our” has expanded as they’ve settled in their new homes, compelling me to consider that the universe of an animal’s love may have several, and shifting, centers.
Bodhi and Jazz in Rutledge

Our animals’ love for humans has found a new home, but what of my little family’s love for animals? Our pets were more to us than companions in hearth and home; they were a daily invitation for us to move beyond our sometimes petty and sometimes serious concerns, and remember that love and connection were always just a heart’s turn and a hand’s reach away. Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva, was named with our awareness that animals are supreme teachers of compassion. Sure, our pets were a fair amount of work, and sometimes in their love and in their giving they demanded a great deal. Please, please take me for another walk! Oh, come on, do you need to work, I want to play with you! No, I will not stop barking, my job is to protect you and there is a scary world beyond that fence. Purrrrr…your lap is mine and only mine and I don’t care if I’m getting my fur all over your skirt…by the way, I pee-ed on the basement floor because you all left town for too many days. And here’s another dead bunny, look, I brought it just for you, excuse the mess, but you prefer them decapitated, don’t you?

Yes, they demanded a lot, but in this they also helped awaken our own compassion, a task made easier as they softened our hearts with their continual streaming of unconditional love.

And their absence leaves a gap; it's an amputation of sorts. Lately I’ve been observing the ways in which we have been seeking to nurture this special kind of love.

The girls have been setting mice traps: not the kind to ward off rodents, but the kind to attract them as pets. They act as if it is all make-believe, but I know there is an element of seriousness to this. I did, after all, catch them sneaking real cheese to lure their furry friends, and after I warned them against this, I caught them trying to scent their newly constructed origami cheese cubes by rubbing these with their dinner napkins. I have not seen a single mouse since we’ve arrived in Nanjing, but we may have mice yet.

Fei Fei and her old friend, Savannah, have a history together of making mouse houses. Once back in PA I found an apologetic note to the imagined tenants of these fanciful castles:

Dear Mice friends, I wish you could come play with me. Won’t you come play with me? But if you do MY CATS WILL KILL YOU. What should we do??? Love, your friend, Fei Fei.

The cats are gone, and for now, the mouse houses are not enough to pacify my girls. And there are, after all, strict regulations about having pets in our apartment. So the girls have become sneaky about this — we can’t bring an animal into our home, but what if one were to come to us?


The absence of our pets brings the animal kingdom at large into sharper focus. In a Skype session with my sister-in-law I learn that her mother’s small bird, a companion of 20 years, has died. Petless in Nanjing, I feel doubly bereaved as I’m reminded that my late brother once made a home, and found a mate, for a lost finch. Though we think of birds as belonging in the wild, sometimes they are happily at home in a human nest. The girls and I see birds everyday. On our morning commute to school, before the curve of a road lined with sycamores, we pass bamboo cages of songbirds, brought out to air by the doting elderly men who adore them. They hang them on tree branches and on fences, letting them fill their small lungs with the morning air, as these grandpas talk to them in confidential tones. We greet the birds daily, marveling at their small and expressive eyes and faces. Their beautiful cages present us with a dilemma: look how much these little creatures are cherished, but Momma don’t they want to be free? We imagine they yearn to spread their wings and take flight; yet we know how loyal and loving they would be if one such bird were to be our own.
 
Beyond our fish bowl apartment there are flocks of birds, and these too have captivated our imaginations. Look momma, they’re back, the girls call to me as I write. We get out the field glasses that survived our summer travels and try to catch them closer, in flight. Their wings flash white, then black then white and their flight is like a dance, rising and falling between buildings. Sometimes there will be two flocks and they appear to be choreographed in tandem, separating into two formations and then rejoining, or perhaps engaged in a kind of team tag. ZZ laughs heartily at their cunning maneuvers, while FF and I continue to muse: are they domesticated or wild? Could they be rock doves or pigeons housed in lofts, or do they nest in the eaves of those towering buildings? Are they currently migrating or will they remain with us all winter?

Here, in Nanjing, there are birds that fly free, and canine life goes on in Rutledge. I receive an email from my neighbor, Moira, conjuring up our former home. It contains a photo taken of Sandy, who made an appearance with her new family at the annual borough yard sale. Sandy apparently sought out Moira’s sons, Alex and Sam, amongst the neighbors turned peddlers, and characteristically wedged her head between Sam’s knees in greeting. She looks more gray than I remember, but isn’t that how memory works? Beyond her, in the corner of the photo, I can see the distant walls of our mustard-yellow house and the porch where I sat with my pets. Last week there was an email from our realtor concerning our renters: would we permit them to get a dog? Jazz and I practically leapt for joy: our house will once again be graced with a snout and tail. What’s wrong with a few more scratches in our well-trod hardwood floors? In an email to the realtor we convey that we’ll accept their offer of an increased security deposit, but decline an offer for an increase in rent: “In our house, pets stay free.”

So it is that animals remain, regenerating love, in those spaces we’ve vacated of our former lives. We’re still yearning to learn their place in our present, as we continue to construct our lives. I had always imagined animals would be central in my world, but I don’t know what that means in the here and now.

Separated from our girls by miles, Bodhi currently has a boy to love him. Sweet and good Felix, loving Felix, who had, for his last birthday a party at a small nature center, a party that included pony rides and horses. The corral and stables were alive with animal life: in addition to the seven or eight horses and ponies, there were two or three barn cats, several yippy and exuberant dogs, and a huge tortoise that lazed in the sun. Joel, who is Felix’s father, must have noticed my bliss, because he observed, “You’d be right at home here, wouldn’t you C? I could see you in a place like this, you with all of your animals.” There it was, an alternative life, laid bare in the brilliant autumn sun.

That was before this alternative life emerged, and once again, the sun now waning, I’ve caught myself staring out our windows, captivated, my heart riding every dip and rise of those mysterious flocks of birds. They seem to appear whenever I conjure them. I look for them between the buildings, I wait and I watch and then suddenly they appear. It doesn’t matter whether they are domesticated or wild, or to whom they belong. These soaring birds are more than a heart’s turn or a hand’s reach away, but my girls and I turn to them nonetheless, as we seek a place for this special love, this animal love, to nest.