Sunday, February 28, 2010

Two Waters

“And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’” - Luke 16:24

On the flight back to Taiwan, somewhere over the Pacific, I developed food poisoning and made it back to the apartment in Taichung seventeen hours later half alive. For the next twenty-four hours I lay paralyzed on the cold, tile bathroom floor in puddles of projectile vomit, spit, and filth. I kept telling myself, little breaths Brian, just take little breaths. But then I would imagine how I was holed up in the high rise apartment with the marble floors and the giant wooden swinging doors and how no one in the world knew I was there sprawled in the fetal position ravaged by icy chills. How if you asked a thousand people below passing by on the street to imagine what might be going on nineteen floors above, you might get a thousand different answers. That’s a beautiful thing about life, isn’t it, that we all see things differently? Yet no one can change your plight, your own individual struggle against the odds. Then I would pass in and out of consciousness and my thoughts were no longer my own. After thirty-six hours I had my first sip of water, drunk from a clay jar I had crawled across two rooms to drip from the tap before heading to the airport to pick up my children and their mother arriving from far away. These moments are crucial in our existence, when we come face to face with God. When we hear God’s voice. When God answers the question, “Yes, it does all makes sense in time.”
“Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” - Ezekiel 36:25

Two days before in Tokyo’s Narita airport, I sat in the newsstand making up stories about the people who would pass. The old man in the leather Crocs was a Big Game hunger, trophy heads of Kodiak and Elands grace his den wall. The woman breastfeeding in the corner actually traffics in human organs. Livers. Kidneys. Hearts. She meets potential clients in airport bathroom stalls and directs them to vans sitting in temporary parking where the merchandise waits on ice. I stopped, for a moment depressed. How much better it is to share these funny jokes with another person, someone who understands your sense of humor, who is just as sick and twisted as you. Yet in the middle of these thoughts, I started thinking about the day I was baptized. Pastor Don Renchler walked me out into the murky green flowing Molalla River and held my shoulders as he dunked me under. I came up coughing after swallowing a belly full of icy current and ended up changing out of my soaked jeans and tighty whities in the back of the station wagon with my mother in the front seat. I studied people’s faces carefully that day to see if they detected any transformation in me. As if suddenly, somehow I was visibly a different person. As if I could see in their expression how I’d now miraculously become holy, redeemed, beautific. No one even noticed. I realized that day that some things in the universe will pass just between myself and God, and no one else needs to be the wiser.
“For He maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapor there of:” - Job 36:27

After five days in Taiwan I was back on my feet. I drove far out into the countryside where there are only strange faces and road signs I can’t understand and directions that are impossible to follow and parked that car and waited out by the abandoned train station in Ershui where the passenger benches droop in sadness and the man behind the window laughs with rows of black teeth that I have come seeking passage through his hands. White butterflies bounced off the green blades of grass, and the rain came down in little blister storms as I crouched in doorways and under awnings until the old engine train came and took me deep into the mountains, drenched in rice fields and little sopping wet towns that mean nothing to nobody.
Ershui in Chinese is literally translated as “Two Waters” and all the while I kept thinking, what are the different kinds of water? What form does water take shape in my life? Does it matter?
The Ershui train rumbles along and stops in the old timber village of CheChang at the foot of the Sun Moon Lake Basin. I exit and wander the twisting maze of streets, snapping pictures of old men sitting in wooden chairs next to canary cages and sullen doorways I wish I could pass through and pretend people knew my name. I watched a cat hunt a mouse in an abandoned field full of burned out engines, box crates, and roosters in a cage, and saw a white crane dive down over a pond and land on a hanging branch. Later I would chat with an old professor of history who carried a leather bound copy of Rilke next to his bored wife who seemed all too easy to pretend she was asleep. Then I drank green tea out of a paper Dixie cup at a bus stop station while the pattering of rain fell on my head. Sometimes you have to stand so far back to see the big picture, to hear the whisperings. Sometimes that causes you to fall off the face of the earth and you have to climb all the way back. Sometimes that is the only way. “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘the old is better.’”
- Luke 5:37-39

This morning my jet lag is still fierce and so I opt for a jog at 4 a.m. It is a good time to see the city. There is no traffic and the sooty air is uncomplicated and mildly clean. I put Lester Young in my headphones and listen to him so slowly drift away on his saxophone as I hit the dark streets. I adore old jazz standards. Songs like “Love Me or Leave Me,” or “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love.” I’ve always admired how jazz musicians can take a song that was originally written with such care and precision but through constant play has been worn down to a toothless snarl. Yet through improvisation, through just the inspiration of the human imagination, it can be revitalized and become something new and beautiful again. I believe that is the exact nature of God, this beauteous capacity of free will to improvise our lives with spirit and nature, to transform like malleable water into so many forms but yet maintain our individual beauty we carry with us through eternity.
My run is good. I am stronger and faster than I have been in years.
As I round the turn and head the last mile toward the apartment the street lamps begin to turn off with the coming of the morning sun. One by one. Click. Click. Click. Down the park blocks in perfect timing to my sprinting. Our pace mirrors one another in the blue predawn light. How marvelous are these moments. I have always believed so deeply in the possibility of the world, that God gives us these little moments of poetry all the time. All the time. We either acknowledge them or do not, but God does not stop pouring them onto us.
Outside the apartment I slow and take the last hundred meters in the grass, stripping down to just my running shorts. The sweat from my shirt can be wrung out into the grass. I watch it seep deep into the green soiled roots as a gentle breeze blows on my shoulders, cooling me. I stand this way, letting the air cover my body and sink into my pores.
A group of early rising Tai Chi enthusiasts pause to stare my way. A vendor laying turnips and mushrooms on a tarp stops to smile. They all know my thoughts. We are light. We are glowing. When we come to this truth, we can never be doused out.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Year of the Tiger

While the girls are off in Korea with their mom for the Lunar New year, it’s time for me to reflect on just how my little girls are growing up.
Xi’an continues to amaze, going back and forth between Chinese songs, Korean conversations with old women in the marketplace, and English Shakespeare sonnets. As she approaches six, she has truly become my little helper. Folding clothes, sitting in the front seat with me driving through the parking garage, and sleeping with my t-shirt wrapped up around her face. Best American travel moment: having her sit in my lap as we drove down the driveway with her grandmother in the passenger seat laughing about how I used to get out and race the car home. Xi’an kept it on the gravel road, only missing the telephone pole by two or three feet. All smiles.
Rebekah is still just my little bundle of love. Sometimes at night I realize I have fallen asleep reading to her and I awake to find she is curled up in my lap whispering to me in Chinese. I have no idea what she is saying. It is the same as when she and Xi’an go back and forth after leaving from school, scolding and teasing one another in this language I have yet to get a handle on. It amazes me that this little thumb sucker, this little playground arbitrator, this little rainbow picture drawer can always bring a smile to my face. Best American travel moment: Mailing her teachers in Taiwan a picture she drew. The teacher has often said, “Rebekah is my class helper. When I am not in the room she tells all the other students where to stand and when to speak. She will make a great teacher someday.”
Lauren Kinu is just light as a feather. I can pick her up with one arm and put her on my shoulders until she digs her fingers in my ears and howls. I spend so much time with Kinu when she is not around I often look for her and imagine she is with me. I try to whisper to her softly, letting her climb all over me and giving her as much time and patience as I can. But she is a pistol, I can already tell. Best American travel moment: Kinu throwing a tantrum at OMSI and laying on the cafeteria floor after I took the bag of chips away. She punched the floor and waited a second before the pain kicked in and let out a horrible scream. I just stood there watching, then scooped her up and sang to her about animal crackers in my soup, lions and tigers…

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Disappearing Acts

This last morning in America I donned an old pair of gym shorts I found rolled up in a drawer and wrapped myself in sweatshirt and knit cap and drove down to the high school to run brutally cold laps around the track while the sun rose over the little tin stadium of Colton Viking High. These are the moments I feel I am at my human best. Frosty grass. Chilled air filling my lungs. Blue skin tight like frozen plumbs right out of the ice box, and my legs pounding out hard truths. I like to think these moments clear my mind, but they just fill me with ravenous thoughts instead. Memories of people I have known who have passed in and out of my life. As I have returned home to a previous life, I can’t help but think of the people who have put their hands and minds onto my body, who have shaped and molded and pulverized and created who I am today.
I have known souls who have chased fortune and power all of their days, chased respect and fame too until they have sat perched along mountain top thrones and laughed at the peons below. I’ve known others trying to live up to legacies of forgotten family kings and queens and who broke their bodies to be taken seriously by bankrupt peers. I’ve seen the trappings of material wealth: the house, the toys, the gadgets, the treasures, and sat in million dollar palaces and watched them turn to dust. I’ve run with the wild ones who have spent their lives looking for one person, rejecting everyone who wasn’t good enough and laid beside others who reject the one person that will ever love them and sought escape instead. I’ve thieved with people whose entire existence is revenge or to blame others for their misery, who cry, “You have broken my heart,” when really they broke their own. I’ve known all these. I have watched them, and like water in a stream, they are the rocks I have beaten myself against as I pass away.
As a boy I filled my life with art. I lived by the maxim that experience was worth everything. For good or bad, even if I played the fool, it mattered nothing, because I was growing, learning. I sought to be inspired, to cast my life like runic stones and read the fortune after the fall. Yet as a man I find those around me, those people I have grown with are miserable now. Those grinning fools, those laughing assassins, those fearless dear souls, they have fallen into the abyss of protecting what is theirs, begrudging all the aspects of their life that they can no longer stand. I want to laugh. I want to scream with humor, but no one laughs anymore. I think the world is a comedy but everyone around me is so serious, unto death. Who has wronged me? Who has stolen from me? What I have lost, given up, pushed into the recesses of the forgotten for the sake of others? These are their maxims now.
I wish it were as simple as this box I had when younger. It was a magic set I received as a Christmas gift. It had rings that would join if you clicked them in the right spot, and a blue plastic bag with a hidden pocket that would conceal an egg. It had a glass pitcher with clear insert that trapped milk inside even when poured into a newspaper, a cane that turned into a bouquet of tulips, and a deck of cards on a string that would return to my hand after I threw them in the air like confetti. But my favorite was this little box of disappearing acts.
About shoebox in size, there were two doors, one on top and another in the front, with a mirror cut diagonal inside so that if you dropped the little yellow plastic bunny in the top and tapped it with your wand, “Abracadabra!”
It wouldn’t be seen when you opened the front door.
Vanished... just like that into thin air.
I used to perform these magic tricks in front of family and friends. My grandparents would applaud, my parents would howl. Sympathy laughs, I realize now, but isn’t that what family is for. To smile and encourage even the most mundane, the most banal, to celebrate just for the sake of goofiness?
Of course, no one asks for those things anymore. No one cares if you can pull magic coins out from behind someone’s ears or if white doves are stuffed inside your coat sleeves just waiting for the right chance. Magic is lost. We live for only the tangible now. We live for what can be bought and sold, what can be measured, adjudicated, what can be put down in black and white. Nothing else matters.
So this morning as I climb the gravel road away from the track of my boyhood home after having run my laps and frozen my body to the point that only hot showers and tropical weather can thaw. I prepare to return to this land of language and culture that I don’t understand, to this place where I cannot pronounce the names of people I meet and whose food places bets with my bowels, to unkind cities and unforgiving and undecipherable laws, so that I can be alone. Quiet in my thoughts now, I am thankful that I need or want nothing. The only things I seek are those which have no names. Things I hope will find me surprised, baffled, perplexed and off guard. My true life, that comes to me in whispers, but leaves me in roars.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day J.D.

Three Holden Caulfield quotes from J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye:

“I don’t know what I was running for – I guess I just felt like it.”

“People never notice anything.”

“You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’?...”

I love short story units for freshman and sophomore year. Juniors and seniors have their minds preoccupied with too much of the adult world. All that college essay, S.A.T., picking a major that just sucks the life out of them like not believing in Neverland or Santa Claus anymore, but 9th and 10th graders will still listen to a well crafted story with awe and reverence, just sitting on pins and needles letting themselves be open to the twists and turns of characters and that just kills me. It just kills me to this day. There is nothing like reading aloud to a class full of students. Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Hemmingway’s “The Killers,” Carver’s “Cathedral,” Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Joyce’s “Araby,” O’Conner’s “Wise Blood.” The list just is endless.
But my favorite short story, I mean hands down my favorite short story to read to students of all time is Salinger’s “Perfect Day for Bananafish.” I don’t say a word, just wait for them to come in and take their seats, and then I pull up a chair to the front of the room, I don’t even say ‘hello’ I just start reading the pages in front of them, just jumping into the story. It’s such a kick.
It has all the Salinger elements: the witty kid, the backlash against elitism, east coast slumming, sarcasm and disillusionment. It’s perfect for a bunch of kids who act all phony like they believe in nothing but so desperately want to hold on to something, anything that is real and true. So in the end, when the main character comes back into the hotel room, looks at his fiancĂ© laying on the bed, and then picks up a gun and shoots himself in the head, I mean, it’s as if a bomb has gone off in the classroom itself. The kids are just stunned.
Pin drop silence.
Wait for it. Wait for it.
Then the eventual, “Hartenstein… why would you read that story to us? Why would you put us through that? That story is TERRRRRRR-IBBBBBLLLLLLEEEEEE!”
My heart is just racing. I mean, it is going like one-hundred and sixty beats a second. It is like I am in sprint with every kid in the room, and we all think we are the fastest and the best and nobody is going to give in without a fight. Yes, it is exactly like that. I am racing. I want so much to tell them what the story means, to give them the truth, to have it make sense, but I have to wait. I have to let them come to it on their own. I have to stand in the middle of the room and let my heart race as the kids try to figure it out. I pace. I stay quiet. I let their wheels spin. It is the hardest part of my job because I love the stories more than anyone. I love their meaning more than anyone, and I want them to love literature too. So I have to just let my heart race and try to be calm.
“It is absurd.”
“It is morbid.”
“Are you sure we should be reading these kinds of stories.”
“I’m going to tell my parents.”
“I think I’ve been placed in the wrong class.”
“Last year when my mom homeschooled us we were reading Romona Quimby…”
It’s then I let them have it.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is not about suicide. It is not a story about a young man shooting himself in a moment of weakness. It is a tale about the bravery of original thought. The man is protesting everything around him, rejecting the life he has come back home to find. He is choosing life. The bullet is symbolic of how one single idea can blow our minds. How we can explode our brains with creativity and individual expression and revolution against conformity. It is about the power of mental penetration and how narrow the gap is between genius and madness and living a perfect life.
The kids just look at me like I am crazy, like they won’t trust a word I say for the rest of the year. I love it. Literature just rocked them out of their seats. A story just brought them to their knees. It’s the reason for everything I do in the classroom. This is the payoff. This is my trigger, my bullet, and it’s a perfect day for it.
So why am I writing about this? Well, about a week ago J.D. Salinger died, and I loved him. I mean, I carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye to Taiwan with me, an old copy I’d been making notes in over the years. I was going to mail it as a letter to a friend. How cool would that be? To just receive Holden Caulfield in the mail with all these passages underlined. I think that’s the message of that book, how we have to take care of each other when we are running blind. When we are trying to help others so much and our hearts are so full of love that we can’t see ourselves anymore or know that we are falling off cliffs, into madness, Holden’s madness.
So this Valentine’s Day, when everyone in the world turns to red hearts and flowers and chocolates, I was thinking about how this one man changed my life. How this reclusive hermit wrote this beautiful book that changed how I think and how I would never be able to say thanks or meet him or just smile in his direction, and from what I have read about Salinger, believe me, enough people have tried over the years to do the same. But it should be said out loud, nonetheless. When someone changes your life, you’ve got to let them know.
So Happy Valentine’s Day J.D. Salinger It’s a perfect day to say that too.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Price On My Head

“Now, it’s no more work to go forward than it is to go back.” - Alan Breck, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

After church last Sunday I was rolling down 205 through Willamette, taking my time and going the long way toward Molalla and my niece’s eleventh birthday party, listening to NPR and taking it slow while my three girls napped in the back. Classic Ira Glass This American Life episode, just laying it out. This week: The Naismith mystery. Why would a family leave a house with every belonging and possession and keepsake abandoned to fall into ruin? The author postulates, was there a murder? A family curse? What odd set of circumstances led to this occurrence?
I took a right along highway 43 and down the rickety old Oregon City bridge and through the historic district with its murals of frontier life. Men in coonskin hats and women shouldering muskets. Fur trappers. Indians in headdresses. Paddle boats and budding industry. Then up past the McGloughlin House and the open cow pastures of Beavercreek. I would stop the car, here and there, to take pictures. Old rusted barns. Funny roadside signs. A tree in the distance with a rope swing. When suddenly the thought came to me, why am I doing this? To what purpose does it serve? Is it worth anything, these thoughts I have inside? To me? To anyone? Is it just as simple as, well Brian, you do it because that’s what you do?
Yet it has always been this way. As a boy, my role models were the strong, quick witted, able lads of literature. Huck Finn fishing off the end of his raft. Jim Hawkins carrying the black spot on a torn out page from the Bible inside his shirt. Tom “The Great Brain” swindling the neighbor kids at the academy. These were boys who left home and sought their fortunes upon sea vessels and steam engines and relied upon the great human traits of loyalty and honor and bravery as much as bread in their belly or bags of coins in their pocket. I grew up with these stories. I always loved how the courageous young men of romantic narratives could just tell when they met a gentlemen, just by his ruddy countenance or the cut of his jib, if he were to be trusted or feared, an honorably ally who would swear allegiance unto death, or a marauding scalawag who’d slit a throat soon as look in your direction. They had moments of destiny, these boys did. Moments where their entire life came to a head. Where they had traveled and endured and suffered for a belief, and when they finally triumphed, when they raised the flag upon their ship that set sail toward the horizon, when they freed their friend from slavery and watched him walk away proudly, when they revenged the murdering dog they vowed a lifetime to bring to justice, they understood the secret meaning of their life, and most of all, they kept it for themselves to treasure alone.
Of course, on the other end, there was the gallows. There was always the gallows, that hanging canvas where all your inner thoughts and sins are put on display for others to judge and sneer.
It is what Falstaff’s gang of tavern bandits, and Fagin’s crew of boy pickpockets feared most, but knew one day they’d swing from. They lived as wanted men. Ever corrupting. Ever manipulating. Believing in nothing not even the honor among thieves. These were the enemies of strong, young boys, and if I grew up in my imagination, these other boys dominated my real life.
Hard-nosed with fists up, huddled around the smoker tree outside the high school, dealing out of the baseball dugout, and wandering up and down the logger highways with their faces turned toward the shadows. Driving past them in cars, I would study their bodies against the silhouettes of trees. There was always a price on their head. They were wanted for something they had done or some crime they would one day commit. It didn’t matter really, they just had the look. Hometown loser. Small time degenerate. They were the villain I was leaving behind as I sought my fortune upon the waters of the unknown. I was not them. I would never be them. But I would meet them in every corner of every place I traveled.
(My second daughter Rebekah and I adventuring along a hillside path cut in stone.)

Many years later as a teacher these villainous faces would reappear in a different form. I would be sitting in counselor offices listening to students describe the horrors of their life at home. The foster mother who kept kids locked in a basement collecting government checks. The meth-addicted father who pimped out his thirteen year old daughter to pay for his next fix. The grandmother who took the son because the mother dances most nights while trying to kick heroin. In English class I would try to help the student write about their lives, to see that problems could be faced if put down on the page. What I learned is that many of these abused kids, despite their failing grades, despite their troubled pasts, despite their dirty exteriors with the one pair of pants and the one shirt they wore in embarrassing filth, were some of the most creative and brilliant kids in the school. I would read how they tried to help their broken and imprisoned parents, working two jobs after school to help make rent, lying to social service workers just to keep their siblings from being taken away, protecting one another, sheltering the very people in their lives that have hurt them the most.
So many times in those counselor meetings surrounded by the encouraging posters and the tiny four walls, all of us, teachers, administrators, I wanted to just scream to the boy or girl.
Leave this world and all the oppression you are under. Seek your fortune upon the waters. Find your destiny in the four corners of the wind. Why do you give yourself away for free to these people? Don’t you know you are worth so much more than that? Don’t you see your value to the world? Because I do. I see.
It was always a hard sell.
Most of the time the message came in the quiet conversations after the counseling sessions. In the secret moments that come between teacher and student, when you tell them how much goodness you see in them, the potential they hold, the intangibles they have. A teacher’s words can be like treasure maps passed in dying breaths, like love letters washed ashore in glass bottles upon the sand. They can be the difference between living a life of ordinary misery or one of amazing adventure. You can be that trigger. At least I have always thought so.
Of course, with this comes the grumbling.
Why do you spend so much time after school talking to students, aren’t you exhausted?
Why grade papers on Saturday night, isn’t that depressing?
It’s dangerous to get that close, those flaky kids will always let you down.
You give yourself away to kids for free and they won’t appreciate you. You have to back off, make them fear and respect you, that’s what good teachers do.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I know.

I was thinking about this recently, if I were giving myself and my thoughts away to easily. This last week I returned again to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, finding it on my old boyhood bookshelf. It is the story of David Balfour, who must seek out the mystery of his lost inheritance across the Scottish Highlands surrounded by pirates and scalawags with a price on his head after having been sold into slavery on the high seas. What joy these adventure stories have given me over the years, as if they were truly just written for me, to instill the belief in travel, in wanderlust, in seeking my fortune, in staying true to myself and others with similar creed.
It also reminds me how much I love and miss teaching.
I think it is good to take these little breaks. It allows me to re-group, to think about the importance of a career that is not a job but a way of life. In school we teach students to hoard the beauty of the world, to covet answers, to seal the personal poetry of the world in singular meaning that becomes universal truth, to live by the axiom: Give Nothing Away. I don’t know if anyone talks about moments of destiny anymore or about how courage or loyalty or honor will sustain you in life when everything else fails. What our ideas are worth, to anyone, to ourselves. All I know is this, we live, we die. We swing from the gallows of our own thoughts, and if we don’t share the beauty of the world with at least one other, if we don’t at least try, then our lives have been lived in vain.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Random Colton News and Notes

1. A random chicken from a neighboring farm has built a nest under my parent’s deck and wanders freely around the property. She’s rather large and senses my apprehension, chasing me indoors on one occasion after sneaking up on me and pecking the back of my knees.
2.Although my jet lag worsens and I cannot sleep, it has led to great morning discoveries. Today after my shower, I took a wedge of chocolate fudge a woman from my father’s work had made for his birthday, and wandered out into the misty fields to see if my hair would freeze. It didn’t, but led to me finding a new deer trail cut in the grass which led into a hidden glen where I saw a jack rabbit pass by me in a blur.
3.Who knew that my Rebekah would be such a little lover? Who knew that she would know exactly when to give me a hug or to take my hand or to make a joke and not stop until I was giggling? Who knew that she would know the right thing to say? Four year olds aren’t that in-tuned to when their fathers are sad, are they? Xi’an is my first born and got the best of me. She can memorize poetry and loves art for art’s sake, and Baby Lauren Kinu is just a toddler on my shoulders, like carrying around a monkey, but my sweet little Rebekah… a father knows his kids, and she is just made of gold. We’ve been camping out on my parent’s floor all wrapped up in quilts and sleeping bags and dollies and picture books and whenever I get up in the middle of the night, which is always because I am so restless, she finds me, “Daddy, I couldn’t sleep. I missed you so.” Oh, my little angel. I’m here.
4.My parent's strange relationship continues to be a mystery. It always has. Even now, watching the same television program simultaneously in different rooms of the house. Being on their farm has brought me back to my former self. Saddles on horses, climbing beneath cars to check oil plates, and drinking my father’s strong Folger’s coffee in the morning, meeting him as he leaves for work well before sun up. We stand in doorways and discuss the weather or his conservative politics. He and my mother leave notes for each other all over the house: “I’ll call at 12:30” or “Be home for dinner at 5.” I find them everywhere and it reminds me how marriage can last for years in isolation.

5.Loki and Scout were my parents yellow labs. When Loki died, Scout used to lay on the ground where he was buried and just moan. Now they are both gone and there is nothing to keep the coyotes from walking around on the front porch. You can hear them howling all through the house. Last night, I went outside to confront them and could see their eyes glaring back at me in the pitch black. When I turned on the porch light they scattered, and it reminded me once again that light will always defeat darkness, not matter the odds stacked against you.
6. If this trip has taught me anything, it's that the only real important thing in my life is being a good father. That's the only job that truly matters. I can wish all I want for other things, but wishes are like the little sparrows that cross my parent's fields and fly away. The only real things are my girls.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Battle Royale

“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” - Romans 12:21

There is a country Troll at the end of my parent’s drive. He shoulders a club, ransacks outskirting farms, and gobbles chickens and small cows. Years ago the neighboring villagers chased him off with torches and pitchforks, but he has returned, demanding secret passwords as we cross Milk Creek by bridge, coming in the middle of the night to carry our children away. Now the villagers are old and have no more fight left, so they have struck a deal. He will leave if I promise him my soul. It just reminds me there is no one above betrayal, and you can never go home again.
My city of Portland is full of ghosts. They dangle from the sky tram. They base jump from the U.S. Bank Tower. They lurk in the bricks of Pioneer Square and rise out the cracks in the sidewalk along Burnside to Northwest. I feel them creeping out the spines of books in the aisles of Powell’s and tickling my whiskers as I cross the Hawthorne Bridge up to Mt. Tabor. Portland is a city full of ghosts. Everywhere I look reminds me of someone or something I have loved or lost.
There are hob goblins around my former home in Beaverton. They snarl and curse in Tanasbourne. They grunt and snort at Cedar Hill’s Crossing. They lie and wait for me at Mill Pond and Common Wealth. They scream murder most foul from old haunts. They dance round a cauldron in the front room of my old house. I have enemies, always have. People I see and no questions asked, I will fight. I will swing and kick and bite until I am restrained and carried away. I will fight them to the death. But I wish it were different. I wish I could just wrap my arms around them and say sorry instead.
There are devils in my dreams. They seep out from the floor like beetles. They fill the sky like locusts. They come riding beasts in the dead of night, nostrils blaring, eyes aflame, screeching over the landscape. I feel there is a battle raging at times for my soul. I carry my house like a man on the road beneath a cardboard box. I open my mouth, but it is full of webs. I should be pricked until I bleed then dropped in water and boiled like a surgeon’s tools. Then I would sleep, when I am clean.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Fortnight in America

“In looking at Nature, it is most necessary to keep the foregoing consideration always in mind- never forget that every single organic being may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers.”
- Darwin, Origin of Species, chapter III, Struggle for Existence.

Relationships are like sharks, stop swimming, and they die. Or at the very least a relationship must evolve. If it ever stops moving forward, it will become extinct. Everybody comes to this realization constantly throughout their life. You fly across the country to be a bride’s maid to a long, lost friend. You show up out of the blue on a buddy’s doorstep with a half rack. If you don’t put in the effort people will forget you. Even though you go through amazing life altering dilemmas together, it is more than just out of sight out of mind, or absence makes the heart grow… forgetful. It’s that the ego finds others to thrive with. We live in a “What are you doing for me now?” society, and if you don’t keep it up, somebody else will take your place.
I thought about this the day before I left Taiwan, returning to my old school just to say goodbye. After just a semester, I have quit my job and decided to fly home to see those I love the most. Yet as I wandered the hallways, I quickly second guessed myself. There was Eva standing and giggling with a group of girls about how goofy the boys were trying to leap up and touch the ceiling fan. Our first couple of months together she wouldn’t even speak, now she was thriving, scoring an 87 percent on her final test. There was Rich, waddling and hiking up his school uniform sweat pants and mocking an epic light saber fight with another kid. He saw me and waved, then went back to slicing the boy to ribbons. There was Rachel, an intellectual creative girl whose work is hanging in the hallways. I went round and round with the Chinese Homeroom teachers about displaying art in school.
“These walls are public and meant to be bare.”
“But this is a school full of students. Shouldn’t we celebrate their ability?”
“It will only make the lesser students feel weaker. We must have balance. Plus, what if another student with better abilities comes along? It will make our school’s students seem inferior.”
I see. I tacked up Rachel’s work anyway. It’s still hanging and I catch her eye as she darts through a classroom door, then returns to give me a hug, almost knocking me over, before sprinting back to class.
I chat books with Oscar and scribbles with Melody. I climb the stairs to check on my old 8th graders. They are busy discussing a short story with new teacher Jessie and look very engaged. Tiffany is talking with her hands, and Aden is translating the hard words, and Anne is keeping everyone on task, and Sandy is making them laugh. I back away. It’s not my class anymore, and I don’t want to disturb. Our Macbeth play ended with great success. My time here is over, and I’m happy to leave it at that. But I had built such strong relationships with them, shouldn’t I come back? Be with them one more year? Wasn’t there still more to teach them, to show them, to help them with? They’ll forget me, I thought, after all that work, they’ll move on and all we were will be a memory.
I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Family is different though.
Twenty-four hours later at forty thousand feet, I am holding a screaming Kinu in the back of the plane singing her every song and poem I can think of. Her ears are popping and the other passengers necks are craning to scowl and then it hits me so hard. What am I doing? This is ridiculous. The flight attendant comes up and tells me to take my seat. There is turbulence, but Kinu has been wailing like a stuck pig for hours. It is madness. I am in madness. I am mad. I think about opening up the hatch door and just leaping out into the clouds, about bashing my head into the wall, about anything to make the crying go away. Anything. What was this trip for? What was all this money spent buying tickets and hotels and rental cars for? For this moment? Because I wanted to prove something, show something to the people I love, is that it?
When it comes to family people think Eastern and Western cultures are different but they are essentially the same. Children are born and expected to take care of their parents when they are older. A mother can disown her daughter. A brother and sister can become estranged. I’ve seen an Asian boy close his eyes and receive an hour lecture from a drunk uncle about the proper way to hold his chopsticks, and I’ve known a daughter to visit her father in prison after a life addicted to methamphetamine.
The point is that relationships takes work, constant work, or else they fall away into nothing.
I know what you’re going to say. If the relationship is meant to last, it can survive anything, even dry spells and long distance and missed chances and hurt. But don’t both sides have to agree to that as well. People think it is hard to go it alone. That it is somehow courageous, that they are showing such bravery by shutting out the world, and maybe that’s true. But certainly it’s a million times harder to let others in. Because having other people in your life means disappointment and heartache and emotional investment. This I know. This has been proven to me by a life full of running away so I can find myself and be strong for some later event that may or may not happen.
When we arrived at PDX, we stepped off the flight from hell and passed through Customs and collected our bags and boarded the shuttle and stepped through the Arrival Doors into the arms of my family. There was my sister Lisa and her kids hopping up and down. Little Gillian, almost teenage Gillian, had made bracelets for everyone, and my Mom and Dad were overjoyed to see grandkids they hadn’t laid eyes on in a year. Sungjoo and I went our separate ways, she to her hotel and me with the girls out to my folk’s farm in Colton where we will sit in the basement playroom with the giant Noah’s Ark mural. I grew up in this room, surrounded by toys and trains and bow and arrows and rocking horses, Tinker Toys and Crayons. My Dad painted the mural, a collage of assorted animal pictures taken from pop-up books and kid Bibles. I’ve always loved Noah, a man of absolute certain belief, that no matter what befall him, he was going to hold his family together. Most people remember that in the Bible story it rained for forty days and forty nights, but they seem to forget that after the rain stopped they drifted in that ark for over a year.
A year?
With all those smelly, stinky animals, trying to appease his family, keep is marriage alive, and his sons from madness out alone with nothing but water on the horizon. My hats off to you, Noah old pal. My yellow rain slickers too.
As for me, my eyes were so weary driving down those old country roads back to Colton. Past the Christmas tree farms and old markets and churches. The whole drive I kept thinking about my parent’s faces, both somber and hopeful. The looks of joy as they tossed my girls up in the air. I had crossed an ocean just for this moment. Just to see this. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t mad. I just know you have to take chances in life, especially for the people you love, to prove to them that you are real, that the feelings you have for one another are not just memories lost on the waves of time. I will only be in the States for two weeks, and despite everything, it was worth it. All the pain that is coming from this trip, it is always worth it, just to show someone you still care, and always will.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Zombie Tai Chi

I work with this guy who is going through this particularly hard break up. Nobody saw it coming. Les and Sandy weren’t a typical match-up, but that’s what made them great. They’re teachers across the street in the elementary school, and she just up and left him. No reason, really, just slipped out the back Jack. Up to Taipei, caught a flight to Bombay and was gone, leaving him here alone in this country surrounded by the Taiwanese.
Les can’t speak a lick of the local dialect. Can’t read or write it either, but she could. He depended on her for everything. She made doctor appointments for him, bought all the train and bus tickets when they traveled. “It just exhausted her,” he confessed. “Taking care of me was a full time job.”
Then he broke out into tears. Actual tears. Right in front of me. It felt like confession. He’s moaning and wailing in the empty staff room and all I can say to him is, “Uhhh… time …heals…all…wounds?”
Right. I’m a loser, I know. I can do better than that. But what do you say?
Now Les is a wreck. A physical, emotional, mental blithering broken faucet of emotion. He can’t get through a day of work without crying. This is Taiwan, after all. We work on Christmas. Ain’t nobody takes a day off in this country. So we’re stuck with him. Grieving along with his arch of pain. Wincing as he stands at the photocopier doubled over, his guts bursting. Changing the subject to sports and the weather when we are all sitting around grading papers and his eyes well up with tears. Hurrying quickly past the science room where he can be seen through the little glass window in the closed door clutching his shoulders and rocking back and forth like he’s in his mama’s arms.
It just reminds me again, that for some… love sucks!
We’ve all been there.
The last time I remember taking a break up that bad was a couple of days before I left for South Korea to teach ESL for the first time. I drove from Portland down to California to see this girl that I thought at the time I was madly in love with, but she ended up being in bed with another. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find. Perhaps ask her to come with me or confess undying love. Anyway, I drove the whole way back north listening to old Bob Dylan's "Don't thinkg twice, it's alright," and "Simple Twist of Fate," and crying like a tortured lunatic. I mean, twelve straight hours of weeping. That was a decade and a half ago and I’m still pissed. I’m still absolutely pissed.
Time ain’t heal nothing about that.
So I am bound and determined to help Les out, get him back in the game. But Les is thirty, kinda soft and paunchy, sort of losing his hair on top. He hasn’t wooed a woman in years. There’s only one solution: Online Dating.
It is astronomical to me how many people have turned to the internet to find love. It is just crazy. And the kink? On the internet the freaks rule. There is literally someone for everyone. So with a gleeful and hopeful smile, I begin to make an e-profile for him. I fix his collar, tell him to suck in his chin, and snap a photo with my webcam. He looks sort of like a bespectacled Mr. Potato Head. Perfect. I don’t even hesitate. Goodbye Mr. Lonely Nights… and hit enter.
Last Friday night was his first date. Selena is a deliciously, dark skinned African American from Savannah who is working in a travel agency is KaoShuing, a city about an hour west of here. Oh yes, Taiwan has an extensive online dating community, who knew?
Selena is thirty-five, has these strong legs, and an aphro. She’s into art and red wine. I thought she looked awesome, so I set them up.
I run into Les the next day.
“It didn’t work.”
“What happened?”
He explained all he did was talk about his ex, Sandy. How he sees her everywhere. They’ll be this cute actress on TV that reminds him of something Sandy might do like tackle him when he’s standing next to raked leaves or bite her lower lip when she concentrating. Or he’ll walk up to the elevator and the two numbers by the doors are the same as her birthday: 8 16. He says the other day he was at the video story checking out the bottom shelf and there, in a row, were her three favorite movies of all time and he lost it again.
“That’s not good first date behavior, Les.” I tell him
He immediately burst into tears.
That was it. I knew I needed to bring out the heavy guns. I logged onto the Taiwanese dating service and found Les another match and set it up for that night. I psyched him up. Even called him to make sure he was ready. He seemed confident. He was going to forget Sandy. She had moved on, and so would he. He could do it.
Marlene was a South African teaching in Tainan just a thirty minute scooter ride over. She was into rugby, had this perfect athletic build and adorable accent, they were going to see Invictus on Saturday night.
“It’s a movie about history, and politics and international competition, man.” I pumped him up. “It’s a true story, and it’s got her favorite sport, just ask her questions and listen to what she says. I bet she’s fascinating.”
He called me later at midnight sobbing.
“What happened this time?”
“You didn’t tell me Invictus was a poem.”
“What are you talking about?”
Les went on to explain that Sandy had always been deeply into poetry, that she quoted it all the time. In fact, one of her criticisms of Les was that he never paid enough attention to it, never listened, never cared that she liked it.
“She used to read me that poem all the time,” he confessed.
Then Les went on to describe how instead of listening to Marlene he talked about loss. How being in a relationship is like entering a dance. You move a certain way and she moves in response, and then she drifts this way and you react, and eventually you are making harmony, but then when it’s over it’s so sudden. Like somebody just cuts the music and turns on the lights and you are alone in the room with your eyes closed still dancing slowly with yourself. You realize it too late, open your eyes, and there is nothing you can do.
I nod my head. I let him talk.
He continues. When you break up with somebody, the advice is always the same. People are unremarkably similar in their lack of creativity on this front. They say, put your names in all your books and grab the good photos. It’s good advice, but what about intellectual property. Who gets your favorite coffee shop with the comfy chairs that delivers the New York Times on Sundays? Who gets your favorite TV show on Thursday nights, the one you used to sit and snuggle under blankets and giggle about together? Who gets your favorite junk food and holiday snacks? Who gets old Beatles songs that come on the radio and cut up your guts to shreds, huh?
Seriously, this guy was starting to depress even me. All I could say was, “She gets ‘em, Les. She gets them for now until you want them back.”
He nodded, and for a moment his crying stopped.
The next morning was Sunday and I couldn’t sleep. The mosquitoes woke me up, and I decided to take a walk at five in the morning. Down the elevator and past the guard station, out into the park blocks and up the canal to the massive stone and brick science museum park with the dinosaur statues and sculpture art. My legs just moving. My arms swinging at my sides. Filling my head with nothing but empty thoughts. The coolness of the breeze. The blue light of dawn rising out of morning shadows.
It was then I saw them.
Standing in formation, their bodies contorting in circles. One legged stork beside a stream. Poking fingered praying mantis clinging to a branch. Crouching tiger in the grass ready to pounce. It was a group of Tai Chi members moving in perfect unisome. Old and withered. Young and stout. Middle aged and strong. A hundred fold. As I stood there, they looked like a group of slow moving zombies marching toward me, an optical kinesthetic, appearing to move like the lights from faraway towns while you stand back from a distance. I watched them dance. Graceful and pure, as if the music of the universe was all in their own head for them to enjoy alone.
It made me think of Les and the loss of love. How to heal ourselves it may take time, or jumping into a new relationship, or fleeing to another country to bury the dead, but mostly it just takes inner peace. The ability to stand by yourself and not be afraid. Only then can we be a part of something mighty and good and healthy again . Only when the peace returns inside, the beauty takes over, and we pass from death to life again.
When I returned home the house was quiet. Everyone was still asleep and I crept into my daughter's room and sat on the floor very still like a whisper. This year will be a year of changes, and I am waiting. These changes are the big life altering ones that march slowly at you, terrifying in their slow ascent. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared. It's hard to put your faith in something like waiting, isn't it? Waiting for something better on the other side. Yet if we didn't, we might as well be the walking dead because without hope there isn't any life at all.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What shall we choose: weight or lightness?

Decided I needed to laugh more than anything and so picked up the girls a little early from school and took them to the park to swing and giggle. All the other boys and girls in their classes glued their sad faces to the window... why can't we go to play. Ha! Felt good.
Here Lauren Kinu and Rebekah Bidan get comfy on the wiggly bridge.
We ended the afteroon on the swings. Can't think of a better reason to skip school. A friend recently wrote me, saying, "Watch those girls twirl." I am.