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 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?”


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.”