Thursday, August 22, 2019

Pruning, Part 2

An open red rose, illuminated by morning sun | photo by Karen Miedrich-Luo

If truth be told, I wanted to unfriend many people screaming from across a great chasm, recently. At least plug my ears? I am a writer and words mean so very much to me, especially truth and what we do with it. Stuck in an ivory tower, supported by books and words and images, I need those people outside this narrow tower. Even if we don’t agree.

I need community.

As a writer, I need community not only to critique my words and sentences and ideas. I need input because when I air my messy thoughts, then listen to other opinions, I gain more than learning where my mistakes are.

One Saturday, last Fall, I attended writing craft workshops at two different venues. The morning session comprised of a group of local writers who meet once a month to share their work and offer constructive criticism. They are self-defined as Christian, though their writing may or may not be considered spiritual. The second seminar was a public gathering of people who paid for instruction in the craft of spiritual memoir.

The morning session began with prayer, scripture, well-chosen hymns that highlighted “story.” It was followed by a reading from A Light So Lovely by Sarah Arthur, about Madeliene L’Engle and her Christian faith. The group then discussed an essay by Flannery O’Connor (On the Novel and Belief) which laments the modernist tendency to subdue reference to active Christian faith, as if faith were something to be ashamed of. Afterward, we were asked to think about our writing goals, our frustrations, or simply comment on our current works in progress. The group prayed for me and my concerns and I left early.

Across town, the second group gathered. It was double the size and all were strangers to one another and the instructor. On the board she wrote the word Spiritual and the word Memoir. She then asked the class to define “spiritual” and I, still in a reflective frame of mind, decided to listen and observe.

Perhaps lulled by the congeniality and comraderie of the morning session, it simply never occurred to me that a definition of “spiritual” would not include God, or Spirit, or Soul, or belief, or religion. Those words eventually found their way onto the board by the teacher, after pausing for further comments. The communal words were: energy, intuition, being, awareness, universe, vibe, nature, elements, consciousness, inner dialogue. The words I had been thinking, like incorporeal, ineffable, sacred, or holy, could not be expressed because there was no context for these ideas outside of deity. 

I learned a lot from the instructor about craft and I heard many stories that expanded my worldview. And though holding those other ideas before me managed to create more space and new ideas, I did not find community.

I need more than someone appreciating or critiquing my words and ideas. I need community to stretch me beyond high and lofty sentences and challenge me to enter them, ask the hard questions:  What am I trying to say with them? Why are these ideas important? What do they mean, to me? Why do I feel compelled to share them? What is at stake? What is the ineffable and sacred thing I need to express? Despite my fear of conflict and opposition, I need to listen to contrary voices. I need people to spot the holes in my logic and help me see a different perspective, one that is not my own. But I also need community that recognizes where my creative source originates.

Ideas are often likened to fruit and fruit trees need pruning. We’ve had a stressful summer, a very hot one, without much rain. We watered our lawn religiously and our stand of pecans, cypress, oaks, and citrus seemed well. Then one day, a perfectly healthy, very large Pecan branch sheared right off from the weight of its massive green Pecan clusters. Even the smaller branches were loaded with them such that lifting the smallest branch weighed as much as a large bowling ball. I am familiar with pruning dead branches, but not healthy ones. The preponderance of fruit, ripening and growing, was too much for the tree. It is important to shed some of that fruit, to shave off even healthy-looking fruit to spare the whole tree the trauma of self-sacrifice. But I speak again of words. I must look at the whole tree.

I need community.

Community helps me see what I truly need to write. Community shows me how to prune away the good ideas I have for other things that are sucking away my ultimate goals. While following the Kavanaugh hearings, I got side-tracked and was so tempted to enter the fray, stand on my soapbox, and levy my vision of truth. I want my voice to count and to hopefully have an impact on society. But a few close friends helped me step back and consider those competing ideas. As I wrestled with my intentions, I realized that I do not want to write about policy or deeply held political ideas.

My longtime goal is to be a peacemaker, a bridge, a conduit of encouragement that crosses barriers. That is not to say I do not hold opinions, nor that I cannot voice them at the ballot box, or even online. But that is not currently my goal as a writer. I need to prune away the obvious conflicts, the ego, the largest immediate fruit, to protect the health of my tree and bear fruit for a different purpose. 

(This post originally appeared at Write/Create and is no longer available.)


books, clock, two elves on a shelf | photo: Karen Miedrich-Luo

When I look at all the books on my bookshelves, I am struck that each one, prior to publication, represents years of some author's work. Each page, each sentence, was a labor of emotion, thought, and action, and of all the books on all the shelves in all the libraries, these books made it to my home.
These are not the same titles on your shelf, either. These titles reflect my own interests, pursuits, or required reading. Some were gifts or written by friends, books I was compelled to read. But I only keep the ones I like and currently, Goodreads tells me eight-hundred and forty books are mine. I don't count the books on my children's shelves or those that belong to my husband, nor do I keep account of all the books I've read and returned to the library, re-sold to a second-hand store, or lost.
I am a writer and a reader. I have interests that go beyond what I write. Some books are instructional and used for reference. Some are pictorial and pleasant to look through. Many books were half-read or I read excerpts during my college years studying history, philosophy, religion, biblical languages, literature, and Chinese culture. Would it surprise you to know I've only fully read a third of these books? I seem to buy them faster than I can read them!
I consider myself a niche writer, and to that end, I buy many books that fit within that corner of the market. It is a category so narrow, the bookstores don’t know where to shelve it; I’ve seen it in nature, travel, autobiography, even fiction. My favorite authors might be mixed in anywhere. When I first started reading and writing in this style, there was a lot of conflict about whether to include the genre in M.F.A. programs across the country.
Today, creative/literary nonfiction is filling the shelves and the authors are proliferating. This is a very good thing for a reader. But for a writer, the competition is stiff. My inner critic reminds me of this frequently. I worry about wasting time on something no one will read because someone else has written about that topic or for that audience. How can I compete with something fresh and timely when the population has seen that, done that? In this era of blog overload and redundancy, do I have a voice anyone wants to hear?
I look again at my books and remember the labor of each one brought into existence by even modern authors I wish I could emulate or talk with. I crave the conversations in my head sparked by Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Diane Ackerman, Kathleen Norris, Jill Kandel, and Nancy Nordenson. I’ve even tried reading Annie Dillard’s recommended reading list, the seminal books which sparked her thoughts. Those authors don’t excite me as much as she does. She took what interested her and created something new that I identify with and love to read.
As a writer, I cannot be Annie Dillard, or any other author I admire. But I do have a wealth of interesting subjects and resources, experiences and passions that only I can germinate into something new, in a soil where no one but me is planted.
What books are on your shelves and why? Which authors excite you and create a private dialogue in your head? Where is that conversation leading you to explore more fully?

This post originally appeared at Write/Create, Inc. on January 28, 2019)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Power of the Tongue

Words kill, words give life; they're either poison or fruit - you choose. 
Proverbs 18:21, The Message

As a writer, I think a lot about speech and how to communicate with the world. Daily, I truck in words. I write, speak, listen, think, and read words without limit. Words have the power to lift the spirit, encourage, inspire, threaten, devalue or depress the soul. Truly, we ingest words and eat its fruit. For years I interpreted this scripture through how our words affect others; how we can slay or edify others with what we say or write. But recently I've learned how my own words work on me. My thoughts and words can light a fire in my belly that burns all the way up into my ears and out onto my tongue.

I have a condition called GERD. Though the symptoms sometimes are treatable, the underlying cause often isn’t. It is a continuous, high-acid stomach that is made worse by two things – acidic foods and anxiety. The food part is easier to manage; I eliminate acidic foods from my diet. Anxiety has a whole different set of rules and mostly it consists of eliminating stress. And what is stress but a stream of consciousness formation of ideas that induces fear or anger or complaining or self-loathing or negativity in a million different scenarios. These nebulous thoughts eventually form words and sentences. Sometimes I hold it in and sometimes I let it out. Usually, I let it out by complaining.

I recently read an unverifiable yet oft-quoted online article claiming a study out of UC shows complaining creates neuron pathways which rewire your brain for negativity. Experientially, I can attest to this, it feels good to complain. Soon it becomes easier to be negative than to be positive. Others react to your negativity which increases negative feelings and the cycle continues. Conversely, there is a well-known study that, in addition to a plethora of beneficial outcomes, cultivating gratitude reduces cortisol levels by 23% and releases serotonin, the feel-good hormone.

A similar study in primates, shows that depression and stress shrink the hippocampus which is thought to be the center of the nervous system, memory, and emotions.

Whether or not the science has proved a connection to rewiring the brain, the bible does make it clear that the tongue has power over life and death; those who indulge it must eat its fruit. (Complete Jewish Bible) And so, I have begun to pay attention to the effects of my words and thoughts on my flesh. Do words punish me? No, but my grievances do. As a memoirist and a student of the personal essay, I am aware of how uncovering our memories can sometimes uncover negative emotions. Many writers relate how their health begins to fail while drafting their memoir. I once dropped a work in progress after several thousand words due to the depression and sadness it was creating in me. Giving up was so much easier than dealing with strong emotions and physical pain.

The bible is full of complaints and the desire to quit. The Israelites complained about eating only manna and Moses complained the people were too stubborn. David complained about his alienation in songs, Jeremiah lamented on the top of a pole, and Elijah despaired he was the last man left who believed in God. Complaining, it seems, is acceptable under one condition – that we gripe to God with the belief that He hears and sees and cares. There is something about casting our stress on God that eliminates our fear. When David vented through the Psalms, he always ended with thanksgiving and praise.

I struggle with keeping my body free of acidity. My flesh literally burns from within. It affects my health, my appetites, my breath, my mood, and my life. During severe flare-ups, I just want to die. I want to be a sweet aroma, not a walking factory of burning flesh. Instead of complaining, now I am training myself to be thankful, to praise the God who created my stomach, and to choose the fruit of the tongue that brings life.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

(This post originally appeared at

Monday, November 12, 2018

Pruning, Part 1

A cluster of three pecans on the tree | photo by Karen Miedrich-Luo

The Pecan branch cracked and whined as it split and peeled from the very healthy tree in our back yard. The leaves were green and glossy and the large pecans were voluminous. It was overladen with fruit, full to breaking, and it took my husband two hours to cut it so the trash truck would haul it away. The one branch was a good twenty feet long and each branching finger held dozens of thumb-sized pecans. It never occurred to me to prune a healthy tree. Last year we felled a dead Pecan and also pulled a seven-foot seedling growing too close to the fence. The seedling sheltered a large Azalea which was then left to bake in the hot August sun. No matter how much we watered, it baked to a crisp. Our neglect, even when everything seems healthy, has unintended consequences.

I have a tendency to become overripe with the many things I learn along this path. Blessed by God's gifts and the fruits of His labor in my soul, I often forget to prune or water or fertilize the seedlings He plants. I wait for the harvest, but for my own enjoyment.

I need, and was created to need, God, and I communicate with God through prayer and He communicates with me through Scripture, yet, I am most blessed when I release what I learn. The Psalmist declares that the person who delights in God's law is like a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither (Ps. 1:2-3). But if I don’t properly care for the tree, the healthy growth cracks with overripe fruit; the seeds find their way to the ground, but I am damaged. I imagine that pruning might prevent the breakage, but it certainly seems counter-intuitive. I tend to be a “live and let live” person. If something appears healthy, I let it be, but things are not always what they seem.

The story of Hagar caught my attention while slow-reading in Genesis this year. Hagar was Sarah's maidservant and when Sarah lost hope that God would give her the promised son, she devised a plan to use Hagar as a surrogate mother. The plan worked, Hagar birthed Ishmael between Sarah's knees, and the boy was raised as Abraham's son. But then the promised son came through Sarah and Ishmael taunted the young boy, Isaac. Sarah demanded that both Ishmael and Hagar be banished from the family inheritance. Abraham cast them both into the desert with few provisions even though it was against the moral law of the day to cast out a slave and her children. (F. LaGard Smith, The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order.)  Abraham prayed about it, but God released Abraham to do as Sarah demanded. Why? At first reading this seems so very heartless and even the Godless tribes of the surrounding lands recognized it as such. But it wasn't heartless in God's grand plan.

In the desert, dying of thirst, Hagar cried out to God and God responded. God spoke to Hagar through an angel who comforted her and promised that the boy would father a nation. God spoke to a slave woman. It was Hagar who later found a wife for Ishmael. She was free to do that! God pruned her from Abraham's household and gave her freedom and a promise to pass on to Ishmael.

(This post first appeared at Write/Create and is no longer available.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Mural art in Chinatown, San Francisco

This morning I scheduled a grooming appointment for sweet Caspian, who no longer smells of coconut. He needs to, it's the year of the dog.

This morning I built a chair to go around our kitchen table; one of six we bought from a big box store that requires its customers to do all the work, including assembling the product.

This morning a kind mentor waits for her husband to endure five hours of brain surgery which will set the stage for a surgical implant that will reduce the ravaging tremors brought on by Parkinson's disease.

This morning is an odd convergence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day; the slick marketing of a martyred saint into an economic orgy of card-swapping and flower-power and chocolates, paired with the six-week long observance of Christ's impending death and resurrection, marked by fasting and reflection. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, another slick marketing of orgies from who knows where, to sate the bodily cravings with engorgement in preparation for the long fast. More chocolates, please. More flowers, too. Throw the beads in the air and where they land, I don't care.

This morning also marks the great migration home of a billion Chinese to their family of origin, like a swarm of bees in search of their queen. This year, the year of the dog, marks many shifts in this great swath of humanity which craves security and craves protection from a big brother more than happy to oblige. More chocolates, please. More flowers, too.

This day I will receive the imposition of the ashes as a prayer for my friend and for humility in the light of a resurrected Messiah. I will also indulge in the steak my sweet husband will cook for his family tonight, his message of love with a fist full of chocolates and flowers. More please.

And come Saturday, we will celebrate this year of the dog with friends from far away, friends who could not migrate home. This year of red, blue moons and other odd convergences are one more way to participate in the mysteries of God's goodness in the middle of a strange, messed up world.

Monday, January 08, 2018

In the beginning

by Karen Miedrich-Luo
The Golden Gate Bridge in Fog, November 2017

On January 4, I began reading from the New International Version (NIV) of The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Stop. The earth was formless and empty and dark. This is me. This is the way I feel in my darkest moments; the way I sense things as I grow older and my vision lessens and my memories dim like a fog settling over a town. I know there are alleys and paths I can follow, but sometimes I get lost as soon as I start down one way and then the map in my mind crumples and tears. The brain fog, the slower step, the deep stillness of thoughts without words, these are common woes, maybe depression, maybe just poor sleep. (I still have the presence of mind to worry these common beads!) In whatever form, it is a diminishing. And the waters, yes. Sometimes you feel like you are drowning in them.

Where are the waters? I used to think they were on the earth but the earth is formless and empty. This earth is not a sphere suspended in a newly formed universe. It has no form. It is empty, yet somewhere there is water because God is hovering over waters, much water.

God is hovering. There is energy in hovering, and waiting; there is patience, and closeness, and expectancy. Especially, there is closeness, like a bird hovering over her eggs, like an artist, a teacher, a mechanic, tending to the work at hand, listening for the right sounds, watching every movement. There is no distance here. To hover is to protect and nurture that which is beneath.

I began this year ruminating on the irony that the latter half of life feels like a retroactive descent back into childhood, back into non-memory. And in this season of new beginnings, I am struggling to regain the focus, the energy, and the sense of purpose I once felt. But here is a dramatic twist: The story of all beginnings, from creation to birth, is begun in darkness and emptiness and formlessness. God's creative Spirit is hovering, waiting, so close in this dark and lonely abyss; ready to speak something new to me, in me, for me. Are the waters even yet on the earth? What is God waiting for? I know the next three words will be, "And God said...." But before that, what is God waiting for?

I turned to the New Testament as part of my slow reading regimen and behold, for the first time I am reading John, not Matthew, because this is a narrative bible in chronological order:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

In the darkness, in the void, He is there. A spoken word has not yet been uttered but that is not the only word. The spoken word is the vocalization of the thought which broods in the speaker, the Creator,  they are one and they are the same. God is thinking, brooding, hovering, waiting as the mind and intent and desire of God becomes tangible, expressive. Something big is about to happen. Maybe something too, in me.

Word of God, make my mind beautiful to You. Perhaps restore is the wrong word. Make me new as you promise in Ezekiel 11:19. Give me a new heart and a new mind. Give me a heart of flesh for a heart of stone. Put a new spirit in me, one that cares for others - the one which hovers over the waters.
Renew the spirit of my mind (Romans 12:2). Help me speak truth and do good, speak words of encouragement, and be kind, for you have forgiven me (Ephesians 4:23 ff).

Friday, January 05, 2018

Lectio Divina

Reading the bible in a year has been my chosen form of meditation for the past six years, although I rarely read every passage every day, and, come December, the book of Revelation and the minor prophets are given short shrift. An Advent book of devotions such as Ann Voskamp's The Greatest Gift, or more often, Phyllis Tickle's Christmastide from her book The Divine Hours have been of better comfort than the Apocalypse. I find it hard to read deeply, or pause to follow a rabbit trail through the unbroken snows of Mt. Hermon, if it catches my eye, because I have a spiritual train to catch. So I have set different goals this year in which I will follow rabbit trails and read slowly - very slowly. The bible is still and always will be the rock and the road on which my pillars stand. Hopefully, this method will allow more opportunity to reflect on other works without the clock reminding me to move on quickly. And with my mind attuned to this new goal, I keep bumping into confirmation from poets, professors, and neurological discoveries indicating this is a better way to read anything.

Along with slow reading, I also aim to engage in slow writing. This blog is a way-marker for me and it is who I am at the moment I write it into existence. But I will confess that I strongly edited myself to remain upbeat and inviting and perhaps, at the time, to generate a persona that was upbeat and inviting, always. The last several years have been a struggle for me to be cheerful. I don't like what age is doing to my body and mind and I am often cranky about it. What I write in the future may or may not have a sunny disposition. I say that not for the reader, but to give myself permission to bring myself to the page, not who I want you to see.

Consistency is not my strong point, it is a supreme struggle. But it is my hope to write regularly what I discover as I read. If you choose to read this blog, even once, I thank you immensely for your time. Attentiveness is so scarce where there is an abundance of meat and sweets on the internet. And God knows I don't make it easy for you when I don't post links to my references because I don't wish to endorse anything here. As always, my blogs are signposts along the way to fellow travelers. Godspeed.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Searching for Blue on the Freedom Trail

It's a yearly tradition - this thing we do every Spring; we search out Bluebonnets, that Lupine of the southwest, our state flower. Any native Texan knows the drill. Don't start your search when they pop up in patchy scrabbles of weed off the exit the ramps leading into town. This is a ruse, though there are plenty of native Texan wannabe's risking their lives (and their kids) trying to iphoto the shot off the roadside. No. You wait. You wait until it rains and then heats up and rains again. Then you look at the calendar of all the Bluebonnet festivals in the state and go the week before.
Go, as in get out of town. Go, as in to Washington County first, taking the lazy back roads along the freedom trail, or farther west, to Burton, maybe even Fredericksburg. Maybe you have family in Dallas and you head North, to Ennis or Waxahachie. Go, before the hoards of northerners come and trample the Indian blankets; before the city-slickers discover the hidden jewels of farmland covered in brilliant blue; before the children pick them all to pose in family photos destined for the fireplace mantle.

The Chapel Hill Bluebonnet Festival is right around the corner and the weather on Saturday predicts sun and 75 degrees. We pack a picnic lunch and drive the 90 miles northwest from Houston. Our favorite destination is Washington-on-the-Brazos, the site where the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was drafted then signed on March 2, 1836 at peril of life and property. That echoing protest would usher in a sovereign country for ten years and a sovereign sentiment that has lasted until today. One hundred and eighty years later, we stand on historic ground. Farmland flanked by Goldenrod. Cows standing in fields of Indian Blankets. Horses running through bluebonnets. God wielding an Indian Paintbrush. Truth.

We eat the pbj's and pasta salad under a grove of century-old Pecan trees, not yet leafed out, then head down the path toward the old Brazos River ferry, site of the Runaway Scrape. The Mexican President, Santa Anna, was mad as a hornet at the Texian uprising and marched through the new republic, laying siege to the Alamo and Goliad. Terrified, the civilians and interim government burned their towns behind them and used this ferry to escape east. Sam Houston, newly appointed commander-in-chief, didn't even have an army but bought time to train one on the run and was accused of cowardice by the fledgling government. Today there are only large stones, brush and vines marking the mass exodus to the river.

Still in search of our own jeweled plot, we leave the bank of the Brazos and strike out through the woods to the pond. We've brought so many friends here over the years: my sister's family and my mother fighting off the sun and mosquitoes; Allison and her family poking sticks into fire-ant hills; scores of my students, even one from my teaching days in China when Bethany was but six months old. I have a picture of me pregnant with Hannah, roundness pressed against a thin white t-shirt. I am flanked by a group from Sinopec, flush with their new adventure.

Santa Anna marched forward, executing his prisoners-of-war and bands of retreating soldiers. As more and more people fled, new recruits joined up with Houston's green army of pioneers escorting the civilians out of the hill country toward Louisiana. Meanwhile, the Texian government fled to Galveston. Emboldened by their retreat and strengthened by more platoons, Santa Anna advanced, gathering his flanking generals.

The first time I saw a rural field of bluebonnets was the year I applied to teach in China. I'd been firmly entrenched in a bright urban life devoid of color. I took a journal with me on that short road-trip and sat on a rock surrounded by God's artistry. I pondered my motives for going to China. Wondered what I'd bring back, how I'd change, what my future held. Or was this my own, private runaway scrape?

In the rainy April weather, Santa Anna and his army of nearly 900 moved through the plains and lowlands toward the border to reclaim the renegade Mexican state, and Houston inexplicably turned and followed, taking only his best men, a straggling army of 500. As they trudged day after day through marsh and mud, reinforcements swelled the number to 910.

We reach the path to the pond that meanders through more woods to flower-decked fields beyond. But we are blocked. Too much rain has muddied the path and swamped the fields. For the first time in all our treks here, we do not sit in bluebonnets. We find another path back up the hill, stopping to examine two small snakes rustling in a thicket.

The Mexican army crossed the rain-swollen Buffalo Bayou by bridge and camped in an exposed plain. The Republic's army camped only 3/4 miles away in a thicket of trees. Reinforcements arrived and swelled the Mexican army to 1400 so Houston ordered the bridge destroyed thus locking in both armies.
April 21, 1836, dawned bright and blue. Convinced he outnumbered the revolutionary band and with no movement from Houston's troops, Santa Anna allowed his troops to take a siesta in the heat of the late afternoon. Silently Houston and his men belly-crawled through the marsh. It took them 18 minutes to win the battle of San Jacinto and another day to track Santa Anna, who fled dressed as a common soldier. Brought back to camp, he declared himself "Napoleon of the West" and demanded Houston's allegiance. Eventually he signed the peace treaty and was escorted out of the new Republic of Texas.

 The fields and prairies that Spring of 1836 were ablaze with the colors of the sky and sun and flame: Bluebonnets, Coneflowers, Verbena and Larkspur; Milkweed, Daisies and Buffalo Clover, Goldenrod and Mexican Hat; Indian Paintbrush, Squawfeather, and Indian Blanket....  We end our trek where the republic was birthed, in the clapboard meeting house with windows thrown wide and muslin curtains billowing in the April winds. The girls find other wildflowers in a patch of prairie grass they have played in every year we have visited Washington-on-the-Brazos. As they make bouquets, my husband rests on the steps of our adopted home, and I celebrate the lovely.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


My nightly ritual of allogamous reading keeps a number of books near my bedside at any given time. Some hapless books have been known to hang out there for a year as I read a paragraph or two like a devotional psalter. Some come and go before dawn.

This practice befuddles my husband who believes in doing one thing and doing it well. My daughters are mystified that it takes me longer to read the best books. I often wish I could take them all in faster and once even bought a do-it-yourself Evelyn Woods course. (So many books, so little time!) But chewing the cud is part of the fun for me. I've camped out on one page of Mary Karr's book for the last two nights (page 11-12) and I've been reading Osnos' book (a 2014 Christmas gift from my husband) out loud for a year with one of my ESL students. It is excellent, by the way, and as my student's allotted hours are almost over, I hope to finish the book soon!

Death by Living, on loan from Julie, will be returned to her when I visit this weekend. Wilson's book is a rollicking ride, a fast read that simultaneously slows me down to appreciate my own life while spurring me on to do more without fear. This memoir's mantra is, throw caution to the wind and dare to live with one hundred percent attention to the world surrounding you.

Anam Cara, because, like Allison, I didn't finish it the first time around.

Marilynne Robinson, because, as an exasperatingly difficult read, I need to - like cod liver oil.

Daily Rituals has been eye-opening and hilarious. It's a compilation of great artists and their work habits. Need I say more?

Robert Cording, one of my favorite contemporary poets, just released this book. Allison knew I'd love it for Christmas. I read it like Psalms. So good.

Cross-pollination: because it would be fruitless to do it any other way.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Progress Report

Soak in the writings of Moses. These last few weeks, I have been struck by the wealth of imagery and import. To be a priest in the lineage of Aaron was a fearsome thing! On the first day of consecration of the temple, that magnificent and splendid feat of architecture and artisanal skill which the entire desert encampment helped to build (not out of compulsion but with joy and generosity), two of Aaron's sons decided to do things their way. Fire erupted and burned them up in front of Aaron, Moses, and the entire camp who stood trembling and unsure of what God would do next. He said proceed - with care. And the requirements were stringent. At any moment it would be so easy to get things wrong, again. I can't fathom the heaviness of heart that Aaron must have felt, or the deep awe and respect for God's power as he continued his priestly duties.

UT Austin
Thus the service in the temple began - a service that would mark and make all future generations. Everything Aaron did, had to be performed as prayer with excellence and attention to both his inner condition and his outer comportment, year after year, generation after generation. And what were his duties? What do you imagine they were? Here is a partial list: trim the wicks of the golden lamps and fill them with oil to keep them burning; slaughter the sacrifices and dispose of the ashes; bake the bread cakes, carefully measuring the flour; meticulously cleanse the temple and the priests.... Nothing short of butcher, baker, housekeeper, maintenance man. The nitty-gritty menial daily tasks performed so a people ever so beset with more and more stubborness could be close to God. The rituals and cleansings, the sacrifices and the expectations, the light and bread and oil and incense, every day, every year. And in the end, Aaron, like Moses, was prevented from entering the promised land.  So I ask, do the priests sanctify the work, or does the work sanctify the priest?

I recently read an illuminating book by Nancy J. Nordenson entitled Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure. Nordenson, a medical writer, explores the meaning of work and those seasons when work ceases. It is an evocative and meditative book that unflinchingly examines who we are in relation to what we do.

Nancy writes, "I don't spill blood for my work; I don't even break a sweat. I write and take my diminished breaths. Expand, contract, expand, contract, expand, contract. I sit and think and write and my work gets done. Beat, pause, beat. here is a sentence about transfusion requirements; here is a paragraph about complications. I wonder about the physicality of the blood in the bag versus the electronic document on my computer screen, both in the service to the same disease. Inside me, 3 million red blood cells expire for each second the document grows. Have you anything to fill you back up?" (page 63)

Under the Camponile
There are layoffs happening this week here in Houston - an expected death that has kept many of my students on edge for months. Some of them will go home to other countries and continue to work. Some will uproot their High School students with only one year left to graduate. Some will be out of a job. When the work is tedious and long and doesn't make sense. When everything goes wrong and burns up in smoke. When the layoffs keep coming and you might be next. When she is old and the benefits don't match the expenses. When his strength fails and he is forced into retirement. When I do one thing wrong and watch someone else inherit my reward. Who are we then and where next?  Have we anything to fill us back up?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Continuum Mysterium

I have this day at home, a full morning to stretch out the limbs of the usual: I switch on the cracked ginger-jar lamp and with a Mudlark match, light the votive candle called Mediterranean Sea. It flickers inside the silvered glass on my dad's carved-oak coffee table. I lift my books off the floor because there is no room on the bookshelves monopolizing the room and then pick up the pen from my mother's gilt tray. I open this month's journal, a gray one, and then the bible - the one LeeAnne gave me for my birthday at UGA which, twenty years later, was stolen by Andrea, who secretly sent it away to have it re-bound. All that time thinking I'd lost it and mourning, until my birthday when I unwrapped the heavy box and there it was, now gray leather, instead of wine, pages with coffee stains and decades of notes bleeding into the margins. This book I open, and wince at the memory of the previous day's reading. Too many unanswered whys.

I take a drink of coffee - mixed with cream and sugar and cold-pressed because my aging stomach cannot take more of the anxiety induced acid it churns - and I sip it from the blue and white tea mug that Brad and I bought at the dirt market on the ChiangJiang Bund in Hankou. The light is dawning as I nibble on a piece of waffle from my favorite plate which was once my grandmother's, and when I look up I see photos of my family underneath the large gilt mirror that Marie gave me for Christmas before I left for China; in that mirror, I see reflected the portrait that Cheryl painted of Brittany after her death.

I am alone and the sun rises and the cat has squeezed herself underneath my arm. This long, stretched out daybreak in which I read and pray and write; is it because it feeds my soul or my flesh - these feelings of contentment and calm - in the wake of anxiety or dread. Where am I in this continuum mysterium? Am I more in love with the trappings of this quiet time or with the One whom my soul seeks? Am I more enamored with the words on the page than with the sayer? And what if I begin to sense the answer is yes? What if I have missed the mark? Should I remove the trappings? Change my temperament? Do more and be less? I am indeed a selfish sinner who craves the presence of God for selfish reasons. Would I withdraw my devotion if the ambiance changed? Is it wrong that a ritual sustains the quest? or that I am associative by nature?

But the omniscient, omnipresent God knows this. Knows me.

He woos me with this: deep calls to deep and word calls forth action and I want more of that presence Moses breathed, in smoke and fire, at the tent of meeting; more of that presence fogging up Solomon's thoughts; more of that presence sung from David and swallowed up with Jonah. I want the breath of God in my nostrils, the whirlwind on my face, the taste of his words like honey to set my hair on fire.

Of all Annie Dillard wrote, did you ever read these lines from her poem Tickets for a Prayer Wheel:

The presence of God: 
he picked me up
and swung me like a bell. 
I saw the trees 
on fire, I rang 
a hundred prayers of praise. 

I no longer believe
in divine playfulness.

I saw all the time of this planet
pulled like a scarf
through the sky....

....Why are we shown these things?
God teaches us to pray.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Moving Forward

Life has a way of moving forward and sometimes we don't give it a backward glance. Thanks to Jill Kandel, who asked to interview me about my cross-cultural marriage on her writer's blog, I looked back, dusted off this blog and realized what a beautiful, boatload of memories it holds! The girls are in Jr. High and High School now and I've been working oh, so slowly, on a memoir these last few years. It's time to re-enter the fray of public blogging. Five years ago there were 160,000,000 blogs to vie for your attention. Now there are way more than 250,000,000 according to Robin Houghton's book, Blogging For Writers (Writer's Digest Books, 2014). If you choose to spend time here, thank you. I know you could easily pass by.There is a lot here about China because I love that massive chaotic mess of humanity. There is also much about my family because I love that chaotic mess even more. And since this is my blog's tenth anniversary year, there is much more to come. I keep my promises.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I’ve been told I walk with my head in the clouds, and so it must be true. I am wasted by a buttercup; I hold the bus for one last look at a piece of broken glass. I listen for the poetry of rustling leaves, notice a lover’s knot in a willow tree, follow the sound of a Tibetan folk song and discover a conclave of retirees singing in a grove of bamboo. Their maestro dances the time with a white silk shawl draped over his arms like an offering to God. It seems whenever I walk out the door, strange beauty assails me.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, prefers to call it “synchronicity” - a supernatural event or creative catalyst presenting to artists when they are open to see it happen. At least that’s how I interpret her idea. So I watch with intent; I listen with purpose; I look for the sublime, even if it is rusting metal buried in green, green grass.

In High School, I once lived in the town of Colorado Springs near a street named Carefree which dead-ended onto a circle named Serendipity. I have loved that word ever since for it is far more lilting on the tongue and in the mind than coincidence or Cameron’s synchronicity. The timing of those years in Colorado also dove-tailed with my spiritual awakening at the age of fifteen when I looked to the mountains and realized there had to be a God and only He could help me navigate this hard, strange world. I saw the morning light dawn on that snow-dusted Pike‘s Peak as I perched at the foot of the mountains in a glen of wind-hewn rocks that towered as ships and shapes and tunnels of time. And that first Easter of my new faith, as I saw the sun rise in that sacred place, watched the light paint lavender and roses and lily white on the grey morning clouds, I witnessed the God of creation, the God of resurrected life, make art that morning and I have hungrily looked for his art ever since.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The good bug

RIP GuoGuo. We inherited you along with the fishtank, one goldfish, one blue beta, and two orange bubs. Unlike the fish, you lived in a tiny bamboo cage with a water dish half the size of a short thimble. You disliked cabbage, loved spinach and rice, and hated getting wet. So I kept the water tepid and slow when I washed your cage.

Your first owners, the Swansons couldn't take you back to America. They used to take you out and let you survey your world from the edge of a computer screen. You liked the hum and warmth and chirped cheerfully. But I was less skilled at retrieving you and kept you inside the cage close by the radiator where you satisfied your curiosity in hanging upside down or stretching out your spindly legs through the thin bars where maybe they felt the breeze of our breath has we read Aesop's Fables and poems from Robert Frost. You ate your breakfast while the girls did math and I got lost in the movements of your mandibles.

Your iridescent green began to change, day by day as the temperature outside dropped farther and farther below freezing. Your chirps would miss a beat, become hoarse, or forgetful. Last week, your armored green blackened like old spinach leaves dried and withered and one day I found you praying. Your body barely stood and attention but your head was down and flat - prostrated on the bottom of your bamboo cage. So still you prayed I thought you died. You no longer climbed the cage in frantic bursts of energy when I rinsed it out. You let the water run under you. You moved in slow scuffles like the old man on his way to the morning market. You did not eat. Your strong legs began to buckle and finally, you did not chirp but once in the day before you died.

"Mom's bug died," the girls told their dad when he came home for dinner. They buried him beneath the rose bushes with his thimble-sized water dish. That night, even my husband missed the ritual act of placing him by the window to keep him quiet. And lest you laugh at a eulogy for a bug, may I remind you of your childhood?
Where were you when Jiminy Cricket, the conscience of Pinocchio, faithfully brought the puppet home? Or when Chester the cricket was in Time's Square? Did you not witness Cri-kee, loyal friend of Mulan? That God said everything that creeps on the ground is good? Or did you not know, as Charles Dickens did in "Cricket on the Hearth" that "to find a cricket on the hearth is the luckiest thing of all?"

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Epiphany is yet to come

Christmas is finished and all our photos and memories will join the others of Christmas Past. It is also the close of a decade rich in life and tumult. Although we began the turn of the century in China, we moved to Texas that year and began having babies while Brad simultaneously began and finished two graduate degrees and worked full time. I struggled to remain creative while raising the girls and working part-time. We packed and moved four times. Loved ones died, marriages divorced, friends moved away. But our girls thrived, our families moved closer, our friends discovered blogging and Facebook. Somehow the tapestries woven throughout our lives got stronger and more intricate and colorful.
This year, at the close of this amazing decade, we are once more in China. Out of necessity and desire, we all created a truly home-made Christmas. Throughout Advent, the girls spent all their free time making cards, ornaments, scenery, decorations - all from paper. It was all we had. We were too far away to receive snail-mail cards so we strung ribbon and hung all their creations. The potted plant we bought looks like a small fir and showed off all the sweet elves and gingermen and santas and stars and angels. Our Chinese tutor, who comes daily, taught us the Chinese words for everything Christmas. She taught us how to carol in Chinese.
I began to bake. I hadn’t made bread in twenty years and really hate to cook but oh how I craved homemade sweets. I’ve been reading a fabulous book about our spiritual lives and food, and the essays made me want to provide food for my family and my own soul, my own body. I craved the breaking of bread. I bought some flour and yeast and found an easy recipe. It worked. From the same batch I made cinnamon rolls. I could actually smell the yeast when I punched down the risen dough. (I have an incredibly weak sense of smell that probably half explains why food doesn’t mean much more than filling my belly.) My family ooh-ed and ah-ed and requested more. For three weeks of Advent, I made bread every Saturday.
Then I got ambitious. I began to cook more than fried rice or spaghetti. For the first time in years, I made an entire Christmas dinner (in a toaster oven) for our Chinese friends who visited from another province. And by necessity it was all from scratch: cornbread dressing, garlicked green beans with onions, squash casserole, steamed pumpkin (so naturally sweet!), salad greens with olive and balsamic vinegarette, splendid peach pie, rum balls and gingersnap cookies. The guests never had an American-made meal. They were awed.

We had to share. We packed the rum balls (yum for Meyers rum!) and gingersnaps, practiced our carols in Chinese and set out in the 15 degree wind chill. Our retired neighbors who keep cabbages in the stairwell, had a house full of guests for a birthday. We sang and offered cookies. Then on to the community center and the family who lives in their shop and delivers our water. We sang to the fruit seller and the vegetable vendor and the mantou lady. The bicycle repair lady and her Pekingese weren’t out but the shoe repairman was and we sang for him and his customer. Lastly, we found the lady who sweeps and puts the trash on her hand-pulled cart. We like her. She waves and greets us warmly when we pass. Someone found a clean napkin as she removed her gloves to take the cookies. We sang Silent Night in Chinese and wished her a merry Christmas, peace on earth, good will toward men. Epiphany is yet to come.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


The Great Wall at Mutianyu in October
Here am I, in China once again, my upside down life creating vertigo as I absorb the land, her people, and the shock of losing the familiar. Most readers of this blog have moved on, for the dormancy in my posts belie the transitions and adventure of this massive move. I now homeschool, live in a frumpy Beijing community of cold-war era retirees, and own a new puppy, some fish, and even a cricket in a cage. Our cat is declawed and living with my Dad, a newlywed to a bride we adore. (The widow in my previous post - we named her Mt. St. Helen - finally imploded and she has thankfully faded into family lore.)

In short, a lot has happened in the year since I last posted and shame on me for being so quiet! My thanks to Wayne Leal and Trisha Swanson for prodding me back to blogging about my latest cairn. I've been so busy building our new life, I've neglected to erect the signposts so others can see what I see. (I have, however been an avid photographer and the best photos are next door on my Flickr page.) So I'm a bit selfish and bloated with fresh adventures, sights and sounds (I can't smell), and I don't know where to begin. Thus I'll end this year's only post with a promise of more in the days and months ahead. Indulge me if I ramble, take some rabbit trails, backtrack through the last few months and otherwise create vertigo as others follow along. It's so good to be faced again with a tabulae rasa, a clean white page to write on.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

All Saints

It's the day on the calendar following Halloween that, growing up Southern Baptist, no one knew much about save the Catholic girl down the street who taught me how to sing "The Lord is my good shepherd, I'll follow Him alway" in a haunting round that still echoes in my mind on sad and lonely days. I was, and still am, precociously spiritual and the rock pillars I've erected to God, those life-changing signposts that say, "God spoke to me here," well, they are many and of varied stones in numerous times and places. Lately some old friends from my non-denominational cairn have become enamored of liturgy. Or maybe I've only lately noticed. But when many friends from many eras not only quote church fathers, but read extra-canonical literature as devotional material and follow the liturgical calendar and participate in High Church services and carry pictures of a saint in their wallet and no longer read Revelation as a tome against the Roman Church, well then I stop slouching and do more than raise an eyebrow.

I, too, have grown tired of contemporary services where I have to stare at a projection screen to follow the words sung too fast, and though I really like jazzy, rocky beats, it feels suddenly foreign in church. I find myself craving a reading, a scripture, a prayer, and the breaking of bread and drinking of wine more than once a month. I'm hungry for a tradition that spans beyond the 1970's Jesus movement. I want to follow a calendar of seasons and celebrate a true Advent and re-learn the wisdom of the Fathers. (It helps that I got a degree in religion and philosophy and actually know what I'm missing.)

This morning we went to my father's church, a stately, new, Methodist one in the middle of vast building expansions which also happens to be where my sister's family have attended for the last ten years. It was this church that performed the funeral services for my stepmother when she died this past March and I rarely attend except on Christmas eve or when my niece or nephew has some special performance. Aside from the connection to the Wesley brothers, the Methodist Church has seemed one of the more mundane of the denominational churches I've attended. But this church observes All Saints Day and this year, Marie's name would be read allowed followed by the chiming of a tiny bell. And how often does All Saints Day actually occur on a Sunday? Probably about as often as my birthday.

We went all together as a family and took up nearly an entire pew. I tried to ignore the widow who's been hot after my father since August and managed to plant herself in the pew behind us. None of us trust or like her except my father, but that's another story. I just suddenly found it hard to remember the precious saint who died in March and left a huge gaping hole in our family like the earth just opened up and threatened to cave in all the buildings and bridges we had built together. Then the choir sang a requiem, Agnus Dei and a slow drum resounded through the Latinate and a soloist sang Pie Jesu and the woman who officiated spoke about the tomb of the unknown soldier and though that connection still escapes me it held the earth in place. The deacons and deaconesses broke yeasty bread which we dipped in honest wine and I had to walk forward to receive it and watched as my children took it for the first time in their lives because the Methodists believe it is okay for anyone to partake regardless. The bread lodged in my throat and the wine burnt my tongue and I forgot everything else. I allowed the ministry of the saints to enfold me.

The widow managed to squeeze my dad's shoulder has she passed behind him and I still don't trust her an inch, but I laid Marie to rest and felt the solace of re-visiting the dead. What have I been so afraid of all these years? What are ashes on the skin or the lighting of a candle or the appreciation of the dead?

A few days ago, I was introduced to the late poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue. Here is his beautiful blessing to his mother, following the death of his father. It is entitled Beannacht, which means blessing, and is found in his book, Anam Cara.

John O'Donohue

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth by yours
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work the words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pieces of Picasso

Four years in Dallas and we FINALLY visited The Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas wherein I saw my first Picasso, face-to-face. I confess I was never a fan of the modern master until I stood three feet away from his genius. I was mesmerized and kept returning over and over to the two paintings displayed in the right wing. The Nasher is most famous for its sculpture collection and outdoor garden and I'll get to that in another post. For now I am still absorbing the colors and lines I saw in Picasso. With art, as with people, I become so engrossed in the immediate topic that I forget names so I couldn't tell you the title of the two paintings. But my favorite was the flower on the table. I walked around so happy that day because I saw that painting. (All the works combined probably produced that effect, but the colors of Picasso, even now, make me happy.) For more pictures of Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, and more, click on my flicker album next door.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We are done! .......... Not.

"One out of four marriages do not survive law school." So said the Dean of Dedman School of Law to my husband's first year class at Southern Methodist University four years ago. (He took the four year night school route.) Brad never told me that until a few months ago when a group of guys went out for a beer. All of them, except his Chinese buddies, had divorced while in law school. Sobering.

Three days ago Brad graduated cum laude. I've never been so proud of someone. Fifteen years ago he couldn't speak a word of English. The first person in his family to go to college. The first person in his county to leave the province for college. Now he has a Master's in education (he taught four years of high school English while working on that) and a prestigious and hard-earned law degree - oh and two children born in the middle of it all.

We celebrated with family and friends who have all been a tremendous support during the past four years. We raised a glass of champagne and toasted each other. We took pictures of Brad in his magnificent robe and watched the hooding ceremony. It is over. We are done.

Last night Brad came home lugging a box. "You won't be seeing much of me this summer," he said. The he pulled out ten of the fattest books I've ever seen. "I have to memorize these for the bar exam in two months," he said.

My old pappy used to say that his old pappy used to say: It ain't over til the fat lady sings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

She ruled the house with an Okie twang

I had four months to write the obituary but I held my breath anyway. Every member of our family had their talents and tasks and could do them far better than I could write an obit. Debbie and Fran cooked the meals; Bill administrated; Joanie shopped; Brad wrote the eulogy; Melisa fixed the plumbing; others kept the kids occupied; I stared at the computer.

For one whole Saturday, we all shared one house and one bed - the bed my stepmother died on. Twenty-five family members cooked and ate and joked and sat at her bedside. She rallied for us and laughed and ate her favorite cake. We partied and Marie held court until we all bedded down on couches and pallets. On Sunday she transitioned into a coma and on Monday hospice took over.

I stared at the computer or played sudoku, finally jotting down memories of first impressions until the muse flowed and the obit was complete. She died on Wednesday and the minister wanted anecdotal information so I sent him the obituary I had intended for a small Oklahoma town newspaper near the Texas panhandle.

Brad spoke the eulogy and Bill thanked thanked the visitors. The Methodist minister led us in prayer and then read the obit. I told him he could. But he didn't stop at the list of descendants she'd left behind and my face flushed as I realized he was also reading from my stream-of-consciousness notes which I'd forgotten to delete from the final draft. Guess which part people liked the most.

In memory of Marie, here is the obit, including the notes, excepting the personal information. If you knew her or my dad, go here to post a note.

Peggy Marie was born the second child to Ben and Lennie B. in Vinson, Oklahoma, August 5, 19--. She grew up in Hollis, OK with her two brothers, Edwin and Ben A. B.. Marie loved to tell stories to her children and grandchildren of working at the soda fountain in her father’s pharmacy. She enjoyed laughter and children and family and pulling pranks. Every family member has a tale about the rubber fried egg she’d serve for breakfast; or the holes she cut in her dress so she didn’t have to wear it; or the dead chicken she would serve for dinner. She ruled her home with laughter and an Okie twang.

Marie, as she was known to her family, married Alan David Miedrich on June 4, 19--, at the base chapel in K. I. Sawyer AFB, Michigan. Their union blended two families into one loving unit. She followed Alan, an Air Force pilot and career officer across the country in sixteen moves and was a master at making a house into a home. She earned her realtor license in three states and was a sought after interior designer and decorator. Every living space had to be both beautiful and child-friendly.

Marie’s Christian faith was the bedrock of both her life and her death. Her special talent was encouragement. After a long and debilitating illness, she continued to speak kind and encouraging words to comfort her family. Marie specifically wanted to thank her parents, her brothers and her husband Alan for contributing to a blessed life. When she died on March 4, 2009, she passed peacefully in her home surrounded by all her family, just as she had wanted.

I first met Marie when I was ten, I think. We drove from South Carolina to Michigan in one of those large Chevys that hold a lot of kids in the back seat. There were three of us kids and she had to keep us entertained and introduce herself all at the same time. She taught us how to draw cartoon monkeys and goofy faces. She told us stories about her disobedient childhood: how she cut holes in her dress and plucked out all her eyelashes. When Daddy got impatient, she uttered a gentle, “Al” that had this magical effect on him.

Once home in that bordertown airbase, her arguments with Daddy always landed him in hot water. She tickled him until he cried uncle. Her bathroom towels were bright pink. Her hair was a foot tall. And she ruled the house with an Okie twang.

Mealtimes were a treat: you never knew when you’d be served the fried bacon and rubber egg or told you were having dead chicken for dinner. But boy could she cook. Wilted lettuce, black-eyed peas, fried okra, chicken and dumplings, pepper jelly, chow-chow, and the best Thanksgiving dinner you’ll ever eat.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Nai Nai Left

The day before Nai Nai left America, she brought to me a handful of seventeen pennies and three dimes, many of them corroded or flattened and crushed around the edges.

"You found these on your creekwalks," I exclaimed.

She laughed and waved her hand. "They are no use to me," she said.

My mother-in-law has a keen eye. Once she found a dollar in the creek and once more in the parking lot at Costco. And once, when she saw the girls playing with a million dollar note of play money, she scolded them and brought the paper to me. She would walk the creek in the afternoons when the winter sun warmed her through the barren trees. Noticing my excitement over a rusty hinge she found on one walk, she began to bring me bits of metal and things she noticed in the dirt. The girls taught her to look for smooth and colorful rocks and embedded fossils. I don't know that she understood why these are important to us but she helped us look.

On one creekwalk, we met a grandmother from Korea. I got lost in translation when the grandmother tried to explain where she was from. My mother-in-law didn't know where Korea is. In Nai Nai's mind there exists China - the homeland, Japan - the old enemy, and America - the dreamland.

Most mornings she spent indoors by the window, reading Chinese poetry or tracts she got from church. I love this image of her most of all. She worked all her life in the fields and had only a second grade education. In our home she could be comfortable and spend her days in leisure.

"She wants to go home," Brad said.


She says she is bored and has nothing to do.

Sometimes she would mistake my limited Chinese language for fluency and begin to tell me stories of her life back home. I really wanted to hear her stories, but she only did this when my husband wasn't home. At first I tried calling him at work for a translation but that couldn't last long. Then I tried using a Chinese dictionary, but her dialect wasn't in the dictionary. I was stuck with listening for one or two words I could interpret and guessing at her subject. If I said I didn't understand, she talked louder and louder. Then I would nod and pretend to understand to make her feel better. Eventually I learned enough Chinese to become dangerous and we began to miscommunicate. She would get offended by what I said. Finally I began to ignore her attempts at conversation to prevent further disagreements.

"I never want to come back again," she said, the day before she left.


I am always too confused.

That day, she forgot my husband took the girls with him on an errand. She searched the creek and walked the grounds for two hours, vainly calling out for them. She thought they were lost.

In her suitcase she packed the new shoes and clothes we gave her, the photos from her stay, the jewelry she had asked for to "give her face" with her relatives. She asked her son if she could take some pebbles she found, but he said that the suitcase would be too heavy. She left them in a styrofoam cup on the bookshelf next to her little stack of Chinese books.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On Poetic Justice

"Li Po Chanting a Poem",
ink on paper, by Liang K'ai (13th century)

I glanced up as the plump, middle-aged, Chinese woman rounded the corner and strode through the church coffee bar, passing my husband and daughters, until she stood square in front of my chair holding a stapled essay. My husband looked perplexed. Clearly I had a sign on my forehead visible only to Chinese visitors who wish to have a blonde grammarian check their writing. I'd never met this woman and still don't know who she is for, without an introduction, she shoved the essay titled "The Consequences of Drunk Driving" in my lap and asked me to check the verbs. Her English was halting but with complete confidence that I could help her.

Three double-spaced pages detailed the devastating physical and emotional trauma caused by driving (and getting arrested) while drunk. Prison, guilt, loss of life, financial ruin, she named them all. The essay was chock full of cold facts and figures, but with few grammatical errors. Toward the end, the author referred to a previous blog post that explained details not relevant to her essay.

"Did you write this essay," I asked.

"Oh, yes," she said. "I write this essay."

"Can you tell me about this blog post?"

"What is blog post?"

"Well, I see nothing seriously wrong with this essay except you must be sure to credit all of your sources."

"I write this myself."

"I understand. You did a good job but if you do not tell every place where you found information, your teacher will give you a bad grade."

She nodded and seemed pleased there were no errors. She thanked me and she left. Why try to reinvent the wheel? And certainly, passing the class is far more important than losing face by exposing poor writing skills in a foreign language. Besides, the teacher wants information, not what I think. You see, in her mind, cobbling together a few sentences from esteemed sources constitutes good writing. The Eastern mindset venerates expert opinion and writing.

In Wuhan, China where I lived for three years, I often visited a site near the Number 1 Bridge over the Yangtze River. Built in 223 A.D., the Yellow Crane Tower has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, yet is one of the central landmarks and tourist spots in the city. With a 360 degree hilltop view of the tri-cities below, over the centuries, it has also captured the imagination of scores of poets. The most famous of the poems tells the lore of a man who, while visiting the tower, was carried away to the celestial city by a crane. Written by a renowned poet of the Tang Dynasty, it is considered one of Cui Hao's best poems.

But what captured my imagination during one visit with a translator, was that there was another, equally famous poet during the Tang dynasty who visited the Yellow Crane Tower and read Cui Hao's poem written on the tower wall. Struck by the greatness of the poem, Li Bai (Li Po) vowed he could do no better and would never write again. I was floored until I heard this sentiment repeated again and again during those three years: once greatness is achieved, there is no use going down that road again.

Li Bai does (thankfully) write again and, ironically, in an ensuing series of poems reminiscent of Salieri's frustration with Mozart, his obsessession over that poem on the wall results in some of his most enduring works.

Here is a translation of the poem that inspired so much.

The Yellow Crane Tower
Cui Hào 704-754
The ancient one
flew off on his yellow crane,
Now this place is empty
only Yellow Crane Tower remains.
The Yellow Crane
once gone never returns,
White clouds for a thousand years
empty and remote.
Boats and Hanyang trees
reflect in clear water,
Lush vegetation thrives
on Parrot Shoal.
At dusk I ask for news of home,
These mist shrouded waters
heavy on my heart.

Translator: Dongbo 東波