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Gone

This weekend, someone very close to me lost her brother to suicide. I found out just before I left for our excursion to Yangzhou, a city about an hour and a half from Nanjing. The day was gray, rainy. We brought umbrellas. I climbed aboard our bus, still reeling from the text I had gotten before leaving.

We drove in the rain, passing fields where people were planting rice, passing huge power plants belching smoke into the gray skies. The roads were slick. I listened to music on my phone and watched the rain streak down the windows.

At Yangzhou, we walked in the rain around Slender West Lake. Our tour guide, Mr. Li, pointed out what he felt we needed to know. Bridge 24, most famous bridge in all of China. Oh, but this one is not the original bridge. The original bridge burned 1300 years ago. This one was built about twenty years ago. But, all the poets have written about Bridge 24. And here, here is the rare black cedar wood. We could see the paint chipping at the corners, but we said nothing. We smiled and nodded and followed along, under our umbrellas, our hair frizzing and our shoes and socks soaked through.

The day continued, gray and hard, as we walked through beautiful gardens, as we negotiated stone steps slick with rainwater. That afternoon, we drove home through more rain, and I sat facing the window, hoping no one noticed the tears on my face.

I looked at everyone we passed. The farmers dropping the rice plants into the wet fields. Drivers of other cars. People on their balconies. I thought of all the people I couldn’t see, the workers at the power plant, the people living in the houses we passed, the children in their car seats. One person who was on the planet the day before was no longer here. One person was gone. No one in China knew about it but me, no one knew about the pain of his family, no one knew. I cried. How many people in these houses had suffered the same loss? How many parents have buried their children?

That evening, we all went to dinner near our university. We had meant to go to a Chinese noodle shop, but it was packed, and our group too large, so we wandered until we happened upon a Japanese restaurant with empty tables big enough for all of us. We took off our shoes and sat cross-legged on blue and white cushions. Paper-lined doors were slid shut, and our group was closed off from the world. The walls were neutral, beige, the table dark brown, little blue and white porcelain bottles of soy sauce in the middle of the table, an air conditioner above us purring cold air onto our heads.

I ate omuraisu, or omu-rice, an omelet wrapped around fried rice, a dish I had had in Tokyo a little over a decade ago with Marianne and her mother, and for a moment I was back there, I was young and abroad for the first time, with my brand-new passport, with its first stamp. That evening in Tokyo, we three had ducked into a tiny restaurant, down a flight of stairs, that had only two tables and served only two dishes: omuraisu with red sauce and omuraisu with white sauce.

Back in Nanjing, in 2014, I ate and thought. This omelet was tender, the rice filled with vegetables and meat, the ketchup streaked on top sweet and tangy. The day felt distant. The rain, far away, the gray skies gone, everything was light and soft paper lanterns. One of the student’s fathers is going in for surgery this week. Tumors in his lungs. I thought of Tom. And of my friend, her grief, the shock, the questions—how was he gone? How could he be gone? How can someone, alive, now be dead?

That night, I called her and we wept together. I cannot be with her, I can only hear her voice and cry, and say, it shouldn’t have happened, it’s not supposed to be like this. There is not supposed to be this pain, but there is. Here it is. Here it always is.

The next day, the group returned to the Japanese restaurant. I had already eaten earlier, so I just drank a juice. I don’t know what it was, because I could read neither the Chinese nor the Japanese description, but it was sweet and white. And we went around the table and talked about our favorite parts of the day. A family dinner. Sitting at the low table, on our cushions, our shoes outside the door.

There is something about travel that is healing. An escape, a chance to be alone with one’s thoughts. And my thoughts return, always, to people. There are eight million people in this city, medium by Chinese standards. And every single one of them has a life I know nothing about. They have lost brothers. They have loved their aging parents. They have prayed for children. And I live apart from them, from their pain and joy, and when I am at home, I am not wondering what Chinese man has not woken up again for the first time.

This weekend was Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese holiday to mark the death of a Chinese poet who drowned himself in 221 B.C. He died on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, a month considered “poisonous” because it’s the time when pests are active, when diseases spread. The poet’s body was never found, but legend goes, people threw zongzi, or rice dumplings, into the river to feed the fish, so they wouldn’t eat his body. And I eat the zongzi now, the rice wrapped in banana leaves, I eat as I walk through gray days, as I, a world away from my friend, cry for her, for her parents, in a country where no one knows them, where no one knows what has happened.

Every day, I pass people on the street who are mourning people I never knew, just as I mourn for my friend’s loss. I can say only a few things to the people who bring me noodles, who make my coffee. I can ask simple questions, I can point to things. I cannot ask them why people die, I cannot ask them why cancer, why suicide, why why why, I cannot ask them this, and they cannot answer. And so, they bring my order, and I eat, and I pay for my food, and I say, xie xie, thank you, and walk back into the night.

A Summer Opus

“But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?” 
― Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Two weekends ago, fresh from school madness, I left Atlanta for a few days in Wilmington with one of my best friends, Hannah. We planned it as a quiet weekend. We both needed to write, to think, and given our history and the familial nature of our friendship, this kind of solitary togetherness is almost always attainable. 
Hannah and I were roommates in grad school, and for a little over a year, lived in a darling little house on Metts, cramming our beautiful and mismatched things that somehow fit together, into every room, building a kind of private kingdom of words and laughter, of late night reading, and a merry fire, of purple orchids, and early morning writing, and impromptu Sweet and Savory jaunts. 

It began with the house. It was imperative that we found a certain kind of house, on a quiet street, with overgrown trees and Spanish moss. A place to write. A place with its own little soul. Eric discovered it serendipitously, while riding his bike through Forest Hills. We lived among books chiefly. We lived with two children (Hannah’s half brother and sister, with us for the year), who are almost teenagers now. They were five and seven at the time. There was a porch with a long black table and red rocking chairs, a stained glass window in a nook where we set a bistro table, green cabinets, and a checkered kitchen floor, and a skylight in the downstairs bathroom. There was an oak tree that obstructed the view of the backyard, which was long and narrow like a football field, with azaleas growing on both sides. 

Half way through the yard, the grass was so tall we never let Aaron and Kan play in it. Or if we did, we never admitted it to anyone. Our landlord had someone come occasionally to trim the unruly azaleas, and mow the back and front yards. He was old and kind and a bit deaf, so we never managed to communicate that we needed the second half of the back yard mown as well. Eventually, we let it go, feeling slightly chagrined only when looking across the fence to our next door neighbors’ perfectly scaled and manicured yard, complete with a goldfish pond and lily pads. By the fall, the man stopped coming, and it was months before our landlord fresh from a chemical peel face lift combo, paid us a visit (rumor was we were keeping droves of pets at the house; in actuality just one, a Maus of a kitten), and decided to hire someone (her lover, I think?) to take over. Our old gardener had gone on. 

December was my favorite. The children and I sensitive to winter temperatures indulged in tuning the thermostat to summer, till a $400 plus gas bill ended our run; Hannah and I decided that the only responsible thing to do was woolen underclothes. That did the trick. Sometimes we slept in sweaters, scarves, and socks, because we were student-poor, first-year-out-of-graduate-school-poor, which meant the heating bill had to be quartered, so other things could be afforded.  

That year, before all our friends ran off to their homes for the holidays, we decided on a Christmas party. Now you have to understand, Hannah does nothing by halves. In this case, the menu was out of a fairy tale book. Goat cheese balls crusted in pistachios drizzled with honey, a leg of lamb marinated in rosemary, garlic, and red wine, cheeses and fruit and dried nuts, six kinds of bread, figs wrapped in prosciutto, Caprese salad with gleaming red tomatoes and fragrant basil, bowls of pomegranate seeds to be dropped in glasses of champagne. I remember panicking, while Hannah stayed cool. We pulled it off somehow. Since then, every party I host lives in the glowing shadow of this one.  Hannah, the kids and I, in our Christmas best, ribbons, and collars and such. Tables laden. Glasses never empty. So much laughter and gossip and fun. Beautiful, clever Kan, shy, sweet Aaron. They charmed everyone. After most people were gone, a few of us sang carols on our porch. Tom played the guitar. Some of the café lights began burning out, and you could spy a star here and there. 

This past weekend was in some ways the same, or perhaps I always try to live back there when things were slightly simpler. We picked strawberries, went paddle boarding, read outloud late into the night until one of us fell asleep. Maus is still there, and now there is a Seamus. We are as much sisters as before, perhaps with longer stretches of silence. We wrote, though for me, it was glacially, disappointingly slow. We read through two books one night, because they were in conversation with each other. We washed the porch, walked to the end of Shell Island, cooked together. A friend gave us fresh eggs from her chickens, and we made a simple frittata of tomatoes, parsley, and a creamy burrata. Another day we made spiced Italian meatballs with spring peas, butter, boursin, and more parsley. We hunted for peonies at the farmer’s market. 

It’s like each visit is a continuum of that time, that this strand of history plaits unbroken through all the folds and rivulets of my life, bright and elemental, this year of difficulty and magic and mirth. And if we drive by the Metts house, from the corner of my eye, I see them, those two girls, black-and-gold winged, waving back at us. 

Eating with Strangers

Jesse and I have been in China less than a week now, but already it feels a month has gone by. We have seen so much, absorbed so much. We have walked so much. We have eaten beautiful food, and we have had lovely conversations with both friends and strangers. And we have both landed ourselves in hospitals in two different Chinese cities (for what seems like the same nasty respiratory infection). We have only now just arrived in Nanjing, where we will call home for the next four weeks, and because of our illnesses we have not had a chance to settle in. 

And so for a while longer, we live in the space between here and there, between home and away. 

Once the illnesses subside, we should be able to get our bearings, to unpack our suitcases, to discover our favorite brand of Chinese candy at the supermarket. Soon. Soon. 

The best meal I have had so far has been in Beijing, in a tiny little restaurant we found after hiking the Great Wall. Our guidebook directed us to the place, which had no English sign, just a wooden sign outside the door. Inside, the restaurant was small, packed with only locals–and, to our great surprise, one other foreign couple, who had also found the place using the same guidebook. We ate with them–Karen and Declan, we learned their names were–and the food was beyond delicious: long, thin dumplings stuffed with pork and chives, pork and coriander, pork and onions. Fried pork balls. Canned soda. We feasted. Everything, our whole meal, was less than $10 USD.

The four of us sat in a back room with two other tables of Chinese diners. Someone at one of the other tables was smoking, and the air in the room was close and hazy. The walls were yellow, the lights fluorescent. There was no draw here except the food–the place was not near a single tourist trap, it had no special vibe or atmosphere, you wouldn’t post a selfie while eating there. You just came for the dumplings. And the dumplings were to die for. 

Karen and Declan are from Ireland but have been working abroad in Australia for the past two years. We caught them in the midst of their long, roundabout way home through Asia. What a life! Our conversation was lively and delightful, and at the end of our meal we parted ways, wishing each other good luck and safe travels, and Jesse and I walked off into the dark night, toward our subway stop, and I thought how wonderful to be in China, how wonderful to be here, to be eating this food, to be standing in places where people have stood for so long, to be eating with strangers.