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New and Selected Poems: Mystery of Faith

I just watched the film Man on Fire again tonight. There are few films more disturbing about vengeance. And despite the success of its anti-hero, I see violence as a poor cathartic. I do not subscribe to the lynch mob calls for oblique justice like those hoping Roman Polanski will be extradited and forced to pay for his own alleged sins and those of a growing mob’s perpetrators of pain.  It seems to me that it is a bit late to revisit the morality of either Polanski, his accuser or the reportedly power abusing prosecutors and judges in his case.

My motto has become: “Writing well is the best revenge.”  Having to examine, catalogue and give order to horror in order to render it into art can effect great healing. But, I am sympathetic to those who scream our in the name of justice because where forgiveness of abuse is possible, the ability to forget is a myth.

Father Dan Maio, who was in charge of a Pueblo, Colorado youth program in the 1970’s was the epitome of evil: The proverbial wolf in priest’s clothing. Maio, the subject of the poem below, used the power entrusted to him as a priest to emotionally wound dozens of diocesan Catholic youngsters from decent homes and several mentally challenged inmates housed at the Colorado State Hospital. He used drugs, music, personal charm and manipulative psychological seminars and retreats to lure his victims. He was protected by church-bred reverence for his station and the misguided arrogance of accomplices like his assistant Father Jerry Varrone and his confessor Bishop Buswell. This was written both for catharsis and to give credence, and hopefully some measure of comfort, to the pain expressed by those he and others like him have hurt.

Mystery of Faith

There were many boys who knew the sound of black

patent leather coming down the hardwood hall

a floor above the nuns, like Mary Elizabeth,

existing on a belief in simple answers

but who would never feel

the drool, the musk

or late day stubble

on their cheeks

Maybe Sister came here once to answer the same questions:

How do you forget the making and breaking of a spirit?

How do you wash away the incense of aggression?

When does grown-up flesh release its hold

on small bones?

How do women stand it? I cannot forget even one turn of cold brass

or stillness rushing from the room, or prayers taking me

from my body, eyes fixed on the rectory’s stained ceiling.

I would be yanked back by the horrifying

rituals of the familiar: the thin vinegar

of communion wine on his breath,

the tiny cruciform medallion

raping against my chest,

vapors of toxic celibacy

everywhere

I’d try to hold my breath when he left,

and scrub the stiffening linen,

remove every corporeal trace

of the god who claimed

he was a delinquent’s

last and only chance

Sometimes I thought I knew more about being a woman

than did Sister Mary and I longed for her easy beliefs.

But, I never risked asking the questions

that can destroy such a faith

forever

When do we accept, like her, a God like the wind

who polices the night, rattles doorknobs and whispers

reassuringly to us past locked doors

that I can close my eyes again

to the dark?

American Poet in China,poems,Poetry,sexual abuse

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New and Selected Poems: The Expat’s Fiance

“Horror is partial, it keeps you going”

–Rita Dove

He’s proof that angels sweat

and make fat promises

in child-like English

She keeps twisting her oversized diamond

then minces toward the ladies room

on the highest of heels

tries to ignore the ghostly make-up

on the woman in the mirror

(dead to her father,

a disappointment to her mother)

and her weary looks of disdain

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,China Expat,China Expats,Heartsongs,Intercultural Issues

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New and Selected Poems “The Strike”

The Strike

(work in progress: for CD)

At bat is the son of a pro

who looks as though he never leaves

the batter’s box without a hit

Cody is pitching his first inning:

a long shadow of an arm

opens its small hand

and sends a dark disc speeding

over the flat stretch toward home

“Strike One”

Only the next fastball breathes

in the agonizing heat

and fathers close their eyes

conferring with fragments of the future

in the only game that will somehow ever matter

“Strike Two”

There are three sounds you can hear

if you listen closely–It’s never

that  restrained at a Cubs game

It is the sound of a perfect fastball

released across the long barrier

of years from mound to plate

and the impossible difference

between the home run clap of a bat

and the sting and leather slap of an out

It’s the umpire waiting

on the one authoritative second

when he’ll shout as witness and judge

a life-changing verdict

American Poet in China

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Stone Pillow: New and Selected Poems

The only Photograph of Her Affair


Her husband believes it’s a mistake

Yet wonders why she holds on

To what appears to be nothing

More than a tree, small bit of sky

And a tangle of shadows below.

She tells him an unconscious bump

Must have snapped the shutter

On what could be

morning or evening anywhere

Women are vigilant

and men so quickly distracted

She believes he’ll never know

That her lover is near

And she sits, back against a plum tree

With a flower print skirt

Tucked between white thighs,

Soft blonde threads glistening

With dew, and a delirious heat rising

from the tender grass below

There were tiny birds above

Deep in an anarchy of leaves

And limbs. And hungry mouths

Made small cries. The unmistakable

Sounds of dawn or dusk.

–Lonnie Hodge

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Stone Pillow (New and Collected Poems): The Clearing

The Clearing

–for EB (’94)

I wanted to turn your grief

to dew that deer carry

every morning from the safety

of thicket beds into sunrise

I would have gathered your face close to mine

and looked long into the deep worry

stones of your dark, well worn endurance

I could have embraced you

the way the deer seem to take turns

stepping ahead, watching

and browsing with cautious confidence

just ahead of sunrise

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized

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Stone Pillow: New and Collected Poems 1994-2009

When poetry gets under your skin,even the breaking of daily bread becomes a nuisance until you get to paper and pen or a computer keyboard. To keep from going completely mad, I have decided to publish, between the usual stammering blog epistles from China, 70 of those nagging poems: some soaked in long shadows, a few needing work and hanging out in shivering constellations ahead of me, and a several new transcriptions of old voices that were drowned out by fear, silenced by critique (academics, out of habit can deconstruct an ego right along with a good piece of writing)  or those that I poorly deciphered  and committed to paper because I was an inexperienced translator of my own heart….

When I have them all placed here on OMBW, I will order them into as cohesive a collection as the myriad experiences of my life these past few years will allow and then offer them to you as a PDF. But, first things first: I just have to get them down on virtual paper. I hope you don’t mind.

I will start with one that some of you may have read before:  It is a poem that I first wrote to explain how I feel about a profession that has nourished me for three decades and was inspired in part by a visit to the Appalachian Mountains with three writing teachers on a retreat where where I finally really understood the quote by Jacques Barzu:In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work.  It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” He was talking about students and teachers…

Teaching

I want to be witches knees and elbows:
roots just barely visible enough above the ground
to stumble into a child’s imagination forever.

I want to be a breeze blowing through
a community of Aspen trees–barely forceful enough
to waken leaves, while not quieting the birds

I want to be the loneliness in the center of a Chinese Fiscus seed
dropped from some kid’s pocket at the Colorado Sand Dunes,
and everyone guessing how it is I came to be there.

American Poet in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow

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A day in the life

“Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.”

-Bill Moyers

I am glad to be back writing again after a long hiatus….This is not a regular fare for those of you who have read me in the past…It is simply a laundry list, a sorry set of excuses explaining my absence, and one way to personally reflect on “mundane” events from the last couple of months. I track below one “normal” day’s activities:

–Read RSS, Twitter, NY Times, Facebook updates with coffee–1.0 hours

–Forget to eat breakfast–0 hrs

–Check in on Ms Yue and practice my Yueyinglish–30 min.

Prepare lecture materials for the week on Culture, Writing, Social Media…–1.0 hours

Tweet and Re-Tweet interesting articles about China, Charity, Humor, Inspiration, Good Music and post pics from my i-Phone and relate drivel about what I am up to for the day (zzzzzzzz)….. –1.0 hours

Order in late lunch that I eat cold later while I am working–2 min.

Read and answer all @ and DM Tweets, Email, and FB messages sent my way; try to delete most of the 120 spam mails received overnight–1.0 hours

Speculate on the actual number of Viagara users who buy online–10 sec.

Online meetings with amazing charities to whom I donate time, web work and support–1.5-2.0 hrs

Training and consultation with digital interns in SEO, SEM, PR 2.0, online digital marketing; prepare business proposal for an expat business that will either not pay for, or steal and then outsource to a “good friend who is an SEO expert” –2.0 hrs

Clean my world-view glasses and remember all the good folks; chant “the future is all you can hope to control”–10 min.

Buy some clever domain name (Straight-eye-for-the queer-guy.com) that I will park with the 185 others I own and never use–5 min.

Catch-up on Skype with close friends and collegues–1.0 hours

Lecture on nothing I was prepared to speak about–2.0 hrs

65325_600

Laugh and walk away when students or colleagues ask the meaning of “multitasking”–0 min

Business Planning, delegation of work with PA and team–1-hrs

Re-explain business planning to the interns who pretended they understood my colloquial English the first time thru–30 min.

Do a BBC Radio Interview on Censorship–45 min.

Wonder if that sound at the door is the Net Nanny–10 sec.

Write 3 letters of recommendation for students past and present–45 min.

Give pep talk to the students for whom I wrote recommendations and tell them it is not necessary to send applications to 65 U.S. colleges for safety–1 min.

Help brainstorm three separate creative projects (non-profit) with artist friends in Washington, SG and Shanghai on Skype and by telephone– 1 hr.

Do Guardian newspaper interview about China Internet/Social Media/Censorship–45 min.

Wonder if I have seen that car outside my house before–10 sec.

Hand code/write SEO/SEM work I am “donating” to a $1,000,000 online company that pays a friend instead of me (he is in danger of losing his house due to a layoff)–30 min.

Media Magazine Interview (sound bite) about Baidu/social media in China–20 min.

Drink 3-5 canned drinks (tea, fruit juice, diet Coke…)–Ongoing

Make organizational plans for free networking event I sponsor in Guangzhou –15 min.

Skim a poetry book while in the, um, library (do not visualize)–confidential 😉

Power nap/meditate–20 min.

Catch fast dinner at a local cafe; watch TED video on i-Phone enroute–45 min.

Openly stare at the 60 year old expat and his 25 year old Chinese mate without a rational thought in my head–seems like days

Watch a re-run and then the news (also a ongoing re-run) while surfing the web for new ideas–hard to do as I have had hearing loss since my twenties (THE MILITARY FRANK, THE MILITARY) and often need closed captions or subtitles (yep, really)–1.5 hrs

Try to reconstruct the plot line of the show I watched (’cause I was surfing at the time) and Google/Yahoo TV news stories that the Chinese censors tried to hide by cutting away to commercials–20 min.

Curse the Great Firewall, Twitter’s Fail whale and the sluggishness of my computer on VPN–Afraid to quantify

Make plans (hotel reservations or prep my spare room) for out of town first and second life  guests who graciously drop by and rescue me from myself at least one day a week–10 min.

Scan and answer tweets and retweet valuable or fun information; blow soda thru my nose at great tweets by @frankyu, @garysoup, @sioksiok and others; marvel at the kindness and wisdom of folks like @sashakane, @meryl333, @billglover, @bestsydrager, @davidfeng, @barbatsea, @dougwhite, @lindasmith247, @weirdchina, @sdweathers, leonacraig, chicagodiane,@rolandinchina, @neilspeen @inkophile, @deswalsh @joeleisen and scores of online buds–30-40 min.

Plan on how to politely turn down a chance to write chapters for 3 books on China SEO, Internet and Business; write three blog articles in my head and “vow” to put them online; “swear” to begin learning more Chinese; think of guests for radio show (soon to return) with Des Walsh and for Web Wednesday Guangzhou; lament that I have not read a whole book straight thru in 2 years; get back up to take medicine for autoimmune condition that keeps me awake and in pain most nights; create 20 new business ideas I will be able to say in 10 years I thought of first–45 min. (while trying to get to sleep)

Be thankful, really–24/7

I will be rotating the posts I swore I would write 😉 with poetry from my new book: Stone Pillow: New and Collected 1994-2009. The first poetry post will go up tomorrow!

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,China Business Consultant,China Editorials,China Expat,China Expats,China Humor,china internet,China SEO,China web 2.0,Chinese Internet,Humor,Intercultural Issues,Uncategorized

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AN AMERICAN POET IN CHINA

My first mentor during my MFA training in poetry Mark Doty had won coveted several awards before I met him and he went on to claim every major award, save the Pulitzer, in and out of the U.S.: The National Poetry Series, Britain’s T.S. Elliot Prize (the only American to ever win and he is nominated again this year), The L.A. Book Critics Circle, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, A Guggenheim Fellowship and now the National Book award. He is America’s best Lyric Poet.

I started going through work, finished and unfinished, after learning of his selection for the National Book Award. His award awakened in me my deep respect and admiration for all he taught me and has prompted me to invite my fickle muse to visit with hopes she’ll have me back. It was during my search that I discovered this post…

Here it is  recovered again from the past with a still unfinished poem added at the bottom….It is far from complete, but you’ll understand why after reading it…

AN AMERICAN POET IN CHINA

I was blog-roll diving last year over at China Rises and saw a listing for An American Poet in China. Now that peaked my interest! I opened the site in another tab, and then another and once more just to be sure: I was looking at my own site.

I am not sure what prompted Tim to label the link as such, but I am grateful. Of all the salutations or titles that I have proudly worn, or have had foisted on me, poet and teacher are the two I most cherish.

Google did not fail me as I went on a hunt for an American Poet in China: I found Tony Barnstone, once an English teacher in China and now Professor of English at Whittier College (Nixon’s Alma Mater) His books include Sad Jazz: Sonnets; Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone; The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry; Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei; The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters; and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone lived for years in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China before taking his Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature at U.C. Berkeley. You can find his work here: Barnstone

You see? There is life after ESL teaching.

And I came across an old acquaintance Li-Young Lee: He was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. His father, who was a personal physician to Mao Zedong (His book, banned in China, is The Private Life of Mao Zedong) while in China, after being released from imprisonment in a leper colony following Mao’s death he relocated his family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959 the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Li is the author of Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001); The City in Which I Love You (1991), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award; as well as a memoir entitled The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His other honors include a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.

He is one of the most passionate writers in America. Many of my phone calls and visits with Li-Young Lee left me believing that I was indeed talking to someone who was hard-wired to an enviable spiritual reality that he successfully struggled to make sense of in his work. I once asked fellow poets at Vermont College to describe him and every single poet, man or woman, called him “beautiful”. A few of his poems are here: LEE

And to my great surprise I found my name. In March of last year the National Endowment for the Arts in America published a retrospective of their last forty years of support and development of Literature in America here. My name was there along with Alice Walker, Issac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, Mark Doty and Li-Young Lee. All of us, and hundreds more in the last 40 years, were once (in some cases twice) given $20,000 fellowships to support our work. I remember it as the most humbling and affirming moment of my life.

The NEA was embroiled in controversy the year I won my fellowship. Attacks by Senator Jesse Helms and many others, following the famed “Piss Christ” piece, ended many NEA programs.Helms and I exchanged many letters on the subject and would themselves make for a special post. The literature program survived its critics because it employed a blind selection process: Only 2% of applicant writers that year, individuals who had already published a required minimum of 20 poems in 5 national magazines or journals, were further encouraged to create work with the help of the awards decided by a distinguished panel of American editors and writers. Most of us are now academics and a few of the thirty chosen that year have gone on to great celebrity.

I have a new book finished, but I am not sure it is ready yet (For a poet, it never really is ready) and I will get to it soon enough because I know were I to have listened to that inner voice of doubt every time it sounded off I would never have published anything. I will let you know when I am OK with its imperfections. Poetry is for me like prayer was for C.S. Lewis: He did not believe that his petitions changed God just as I am doubtful my poetry changes those who read it…But, Lewis knew his supplications changed him as my work changes me…

Here is a FREE anthology by past and present grant winners that the NEA put out as a 40th year gift. I missed inclusion as they new only that I was in China, but had no address for me. I know you will enjoy it. And here is a link to a brilliant writer/translator of Chinese literature (and past NEA Fellow) David Hinton. Enjoy!

And finally my last work–still in progress:

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

—for Ms Yue

When she called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I had to walk

into the thick heat of Southern China

toward our prostitute of a River–beautiful

after dark and flattered by artificial light.

I found it especially hard to breathe

because she reeks of smoke and poverty.

During the day, the sky, a gray cataract,

will ignore the whore whose name

no one speaks with longing in their voice

The water was unlined:

a corpse without worry as I prepared

a place in my memory

for what I would destroy perhaps forever:

The hair, the forty-five years

of silk still glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

She asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. I was told to cut

and shave the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlight, fires,

and the wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and the forgotten.

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”

when it is a name like hers that you clutch

deep in your throat. As strong as she

will be, and as proudly high as she has always

held her head, the quarrel with her body

will not always look this well.

I addressed sorrow in suffocated sobs

and the still water confirmed my questions with silence

Cartoon, copyright Cagle.com

American Poet in China,Asia,China Cartoons,Chinese Poetry,Personal Notes,Poetry,中国

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Ghost Whispers

death catcher

I learned today that my sister passed away. I learned over the Internet that she died in November of last year. She was much older than me and never in great health, so I had wrongfully assumed she had “crossed over” years ago. Tonight in the still heat of a stifling Guangzhou I smelled the sour scent of some hard traveled memories and heard her whisper to me….

No, we were not close. Marriage came early for her, when I was 5, and before I was developmentally mature enough to crave or mourn losses. My military family was turning corners in or out of countries every three years or so and making the word “home” an abstraction. My sister was never in our family pictures. I saw her only a few times through the years and her face in my mind’s eye is blurred. I can remember her often speaking of pain and that remains palpable.

Until tonight I had almost forgotten I had a sister. She had been adopted by my unmarried mother at birth. She saw herself later in life as a stubborn vine that connected all of us to my mother’s alcoholic ex-husband and his mistress: She was the offspring of an affair, so her past was kept secret by my simple and well-meaning parents until she was a teenager. My mother and father, emotionally unsophisticated and afraid, asked a Catholic priest to substitute for them and tell her that she was adopted. It did not go well.

I have been watching DVDs this week “expat style.” We often buy two or three seasons of a show at a time, ones we cannot watch on regular TV and then air them from beginning to end in only a few days. It is a way to keep current with our abandoned culture and remain bonded to the lexicon, fashions and familiar emotions of our birth home. This week I have been storming through two seasons of Ghost Whisperer. And I have come to love the show for its generally positive outcomes, its promotion of health through acceptance and forgiveness and its desensitization of our collective fear of the unknown.* The protagonist of the show, who can see troubled spirits, helps earthbound souls unpack the heavy emotional baggage that holds them here. She helps them release after-longing and pain from the past so they can peacefully migrate into their future. It is not a story about religion, or eschatology (life after death), but about how to live well and without regret.

My mother developed Alzheimer’s disease and never was able to finally confront the trauma of being abandoned by her impoverished mother during the Great Depression. Too, she rarely spoke about the man who had deepened her emotional wounds later in life. She did so to protect herself and to maintain some illusion of normalcy for my sister and me. There was no malice in her deception, though my sister never forgave her or my father and never found emotional nourishment that would sate the pain. Where my mother insulated herself with delusions ( and maybe her disease), my sister did so with anger and distrust. After my mother died, I read in another Internet article that my sister had embarked on a public journey to discover more about her origins. I hope to learn one day that she was successful.

I wonder if other expats learn about their vacated lives past and present as I do? I view time compressed, via boxed sets of information that arrive in emails, letters, DVD’s and Internet entries. It was almost five years ago to the day that I leaned my sister’s husband had died an improbable death: an avid outdoorsman, he had contracted Bubonic plague from an insect bite while hunting. He was the first man in America known to have succumbed to the disease in decades. He was the most gifted craftsman I have ever known, but held back from his dream of being a woodcarver and gunsmith by the needy gravity of my sister’s suffering. So, I grieved my loss and his because his short fame was only in the peculiarity of his demise. We wandering expats may seem not to care about what happens to you, but we do. I do. And I, like others, frequent the few paths we can find along time’s rivers looking for signs of you. But can be a lonely and overwhelming journey when information flows so fast from so far away.

I laugh, mourn, celebrate and educate in absentia. Memory also presents to me as a frightened bird that requires patience to keep it nearby long enough that I can study, appreciate and accept both its beauty and its flaws.

I pray that both my sister and my mother are finally at peace. I long ago forgave them for simply being human. I hope they forgave this homeless child for the manifestations of his confusion .

I am the earthbound spirit now: I am on the banks of the river, coaxing the birds and vigilantly listening for whispers….

————————————————

* In another coincidence, I was surprised to see that the crystal ball mind reader on the GW website was created by my old friend and British doppelganger Andy Naughton .

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Things to do in China when you are dying….

Don Quixote

I am a believer in synchronicity. I am convinced that external events happen in concert with internal “business” that begs attention. And, I believe, that these seemingly random, unplanned instructional happenings occur with an intuitive precision that defies the laws of chance.

I had been struggling with the writing of this this post for weeks; and then, two nights ago I watched Elizabeth Edwards on 60 Minutes, talk about terminal illness and I knew it was time, ready or not, to type you this confession. First, I will digress a bit (imagine that)….

In high school I remember reading Carlos Castenada’s tales of enlightenment via teachings imparted by a Mexican Socerer named Don Juan. Castenda learned from his teacher, among other things, to live with death over his left shoulder and then passed on the message to us to “live life to its fullest” from one moment to the next. This thinking has helped drive me through enchanted landscapes on an amazing dialectical journey.

Anais Nin said, “People living deeply have no fear of death.” and Issac Asimov made it delightfully simple with: “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Ms Edwards, like the Unsinkable Ms Yue, has made a similar decision: she will get on with life. The choice for any of us is the same as hers as we don’t know what will befall us. We celebrate life or accede to dying. She has made the only reasonable decision there is to make. Ms Yue has done the same: Fund raising efforts for her have failed and business associates have stolen money and merchandise that were meant to aid her, but she remains un-embittered. She has days of doubt, but seems well equipped to cast a cold eye on death. She still laughs with perfect abandon.

I have to be honest: It hasn’t always been as easy for me. Last week one of Ms Yue’s relatives, a successful web designer in Hong Kong, died of cancer. He was in his thirties. In the days before his passing the stomach cancer made him so thin that his spirit was kept earthbound only by the weight of his family’s love. This event and contact with five of my students, all in their twenties, diagnosed with various cancers, Ms Yue’s ongoing battle and I often find myself in need of emotional waders. And that is why I have not posted about my battle, until now.

My body’s immune system is too vigilant. My natural defenses have enlisted in a war against healthy tissue and I am an uninvited host of the conflict. Treatments to date have not been effective and it is likely that I will die, and much sooner than I had hoped, from autoimmune disease. It has already claimed a gall bladder, nearly killing me in the process, and is now in the late phases of damage to my liver.

Some of you who know me well are aware that I taught Mind-Body Medicine long before it was fashionable. So, yes, I have been doing those things I should be doing to bring back health and homeostasis. But, sometimes a vessel is just flawed. Jim Fixx a celebrated runner/author died in mid-life of a heart attack owing to his genetic make-up. Many people wrongly viewed his passing as a case against the benefits of jogging. The opposite was true. And I am sure that, like his, my life has, and will be, prolonged by exercise, prayer, meditation and other interventions. But, the inevitable it is just that….

Not long before his death John Steinbeck drove his camper, Rocinante (named for Don Quixote’s horse), across America with his poodle Charley as his companion and penned a wonderful journal during the trip. I have longed to for such a land voyage ever since…

So, rather than lament my fate I have decided to take on a new project: I will be traveling next year to all 22 provinces in mainland China. I will end my trip in Beijing in time for a climb up the Great Wall before the Olympics. I have a fellow writer (he looks nothing like Charley or Sancho…) who will be joining me and we look to do some pretty ambitious things (videos, photo logs, the completion of Confucius Slept Here….) during our travels.

So, there will be soon another blog that will chronicle the adventure and it will be structured it so it can raise funds, via ads, for various causes while raising global awareness about a China not often presented to you by Western media. Andrew Young said, “It’s a blessing to die for a cause, because you can so easily die for nothing.” And while I am not so grandiose that I think I am creating a noble exit for myself, I do want this time to count for something more than a grand tour of the Middle Kingdom. Like Elizabeth and John Edwards I hope to be of service in the process of fulfilling a dream.

Today I was reminded of Somerset Maugham who thought death to be a dull and dreary affair and I advise you, as Maugham did, to have little to do with it. The new blog will be about China life on life’s terms and about those who choose to live it well.

I will tell you more in weeks to come. Onemanbandwidth will still be here during the trip and I hope you will be as well. For the record: I am in China for the duration and in the interim: I am typing as fast as I can…

American Poet in China,Asia,Asian Women,Cancer Journal,cartoons,China Cartoons,China Editorials,China Expats,China Olympics,Personal Notes,The Great Wall,The League of Extraordinary Chinese Women,Travel in China,Videos,中国

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Dreams, Repression and Violence

weight of the world on asian shoulders

This week I taught two seemingly disparate classes: one obliquely encouraged students to dialogue about their inner-most dreams and the other, coincidentally and disturbingly scheduled on the day of the tragic shootings in Virginia, had much in common: Students were asked to differentiate between the words job, vocation and calling and apply it to their own lives. I was deeply moved and, as is often the case, I exchanged my role as teacher for that of student. Those of us who have taught ESL for a number of years know well to listen to the sounds that return to us from across the cultural divide. Chinese students are noted for their silence in the classroom and for their rapid adaptation to accepted or expected classroom behavior. Much of what they will express is meant to be superficial; hence, safe. But, occasionally, if you listen closely enough, you will hear the overflow of the heart become word. The sounds that I heard this week were not the usual echoes of my own voice and I listened carefully.

Most of my students lamented that their jobs upon graduation, if they were lucky enough in an economy hit harder than than the government lets on, were likely to be menial and unrewarding. They expressed an awareness that because they were students at a provincial college the likelihood that they would join the ranks of millions of unemployed graduates was greater than average. Many of them spoke of their vocational “choices” as inevitable: preparations foisted upon them by parents, poor entrance scores, or a lack of financial resources needed to pursue their true calling.

In my class of would-be lawyers, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and those training to be businessmen there were actually singers, visual artists, humanitarian aid workers, writers, Olympic athletes and more….. My students spoke with passion about their dreams now being relegated to mere meditations on what could, or should, have been.

But when I asked them how they felt about giving up or belaying calls of the heart, but they have practiced for so long at giving an outward appearance of gratitude and acceptance that they cannot see the dissonance. For them, to grouse about their lot in life while spending their parents’ hard-earned money on tuition would be to completely dishonor their families. Few Asian students would ever defy the wishes of their parents in such matters. Instead, it is easier to dissociate or suffer in silence than to profess displeasure at one’s lot in life. It is at once admirable and heartbreaking to see students inexorably tied to the dreams of others while abandoning their own.

It is my guess that so many suicides on Chinese campuses are directly related to this sense of familial duty and the inability to express feelings of displeasure. I see student denial of feelings as type of socially induced alexithymia that is pervasive in Chinese culture. Alexithymia is a condition characterized by a disconnect between emotions and actions. Individuals who are alexithymic cannot accurately describe feelings they are having nor are they in touch with how the feelings are being manifested in other parts of their lives. Such disconnect breeds addiction, somatic disorders, difficulty in relationships, or violence.

I have long considered suicide as the ultimate and most devastating act of domestic violence. Suicide is more than anger turned inward: it is rage brought to fruition. And last year four students and two faculty members, unknown to each other, jumped to their deaths in Guangzhou in the same week. I believe that at least two of the deaths were acts of aggression.

Coming: Dreams….Part II


vt

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What would Buddha do?

Buddha in the sky with diamonds

Several years ago, attending a Jimmy Buffet concert with a Catholic priest (Indian trail, NC, not Margaritaville) , we were discussing ways to raise money for his new parish. In neighboring Georgia a woman was drawing huge crowds claiming to see incarnations of the Virgin Mary. So, we laughingly concocted a never-to-be scheme that involved catching and releasing a trout on the church property that we would say bore some saint’s likeness on its its tail. We would then put donation baskets all up and down the creek. It was sacrilegious, but damned funny anyway.

A few years later I visited Shingo, Japan where they claim to have Christ and his brother buried on a hill above town. Jesus, according to local mythology, let his brother take his place on the cross and then went to rural Japan and retired to a happily married life in the sticks. Surprisingly, there was no marketing involved anywhere near the grave site.

Please bear with me as this all comes together for you in the usual intuitive flash at the end…

I just read a delightful book first printed in 1999 entitled What would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf. The pocket-sized tome is rife with well thought out answers to a host of everyday questions, some that made me laugh out loud:

1. What would Buddha do if his credit cards are maxed out?

2. What would Buddha do when making a salad?

3. What would Buddha do to avoid burnout?

4. What would Buddha do about trusting the media?

The answer to last question can be found in the Buddhist writing Undanavarga 22.17: “One’s ears hear a lot; one’s eyes sees a lot. The wise should not believe everything seen or heard.” Buddha must read the China Daily too, where I found the picture above. It seems Buddha hung around for about an hour on Heibei’s Zushan Mountain, but unlike the manifestations in Georgia, he didn’t impart any wisdom to the local tourists.

In another book I reviewed recently, One Couple, Two Cultures, there was a story about a British man and his Chinese wife discussing behavior common in each other’s country. The wife seemed to have no trouble commenting on behalf of the entire 1.3 billion residents of China, while the Brit’ demured on speaking for the whole of England. I can with absolute certainty say that had the Buddha appeared in Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, that every redneck (remember before you shoot that my father hailed from Harlan County, Kentucky), instead of burning him as a heretic would have tried to sell him on Ebay. I still remember the eerie glow-in-the-dark St. Joseph that watched over me as a child sleeping in the dark.

Now I’m not sure what made them think it was Buddha and not Mother Theresa, Confucius, or Steve Irwin. But I continue to digress…

What surprised me the most is that nobody is now selling watches of Buddha waving from the peak or claiming to have private chats with Gautama himself. Another missed marketing opportunity for China. David and I are thinking about sorting through seaweed potato chips until we come up with  some that look like Sun Yat Sen or Lao Zi. We promise to donate all proceeds (and extra chips) to charity.

So what would Buddha do if Buddha were alive today? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be standing around in the Heibei fog, though he might possible blog a few meditations–using a wordpress platform, of course. So I’m off to see if WWBD-in-canton.com is taken. This way, we can answer the pressing questions like:

1. What would Buddha do if someone stole a taxi out from under his nose?

2. What would Buddha do if someone took the food from his plate at a Cantonese buffet?

3. What would Buddha do if he found out he were watching a bootleg copy of Seven Years in Tibet?

4. What would Buddha say if his disciples kept commenting on his weight and skin color?

Now I’m getting ready to read Metcalf’s answer to “What would Buddha Do about that Coffee Habit?” If this post isn’t a call for my spiritual rehab or caffeine detox, I don’t know what is.

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A city slicker in Guangzhou: That ONE thing!

Teacher in China

The Lost Laowai blog has a great project in the works. Ryan is asking that expats blog about “If I knew then what I know now…” concerning life in China.

This week was an especially emotional one for me. I visited the first University for which I taught. I even visited one of the classes I taught that is about to graduate. I received a visual hug and a room full of warm smiles. Ah, it is good to be a teacher. It had been a rare gift to be able share in the pleasures of education in concert with these students most of whom were the first in their families to ever attend college.

I went there to advocate for a job for a new teacher wanting to move from Macau to “real” China and a more heart-filling experience. He will get it there in classrooms that reach 104 degrees after climbing stairs to the classrooms on the 9th floor. He’ll get the experience he wants teaching rural students hungry for an education and a better life.

They had a few concerns about his age (he is 23) as they had suffered through a culture-shocked man about the same age a few years ago and did not want to have to nurse a newcomer through homesickness, depression and language difficulties again.

My second and most important reason for visiting was to mend a few fences. You see, I came to China thinking that my 17 years in other Asian countries gave me a leg-up on China, that my twenty-plus years of teaching gave me an edge in the classroom and that acculturation would be easy. In reality: I was hit as hard, if not harder, than the expat above that they had endured a year earlier, but I hid it better–kind of.

I was always questioning the system and constantly hounding the administration for its lack of care and feeding of the foreign staff. I rebuked a few teachers and office personnel for what I saw were violations of common rules of educational etiquette. I treated my station as one of privilege when in reality I was an ungrateful guest in a home that was still trying to understand how to balance duty and rules with a need to please….

I took the opportunity last week to sincerely apologize for my cultural insensitivity. I assured them that I had grown as a person, a teacher and visitor in their country because of them; in retrospect I now know they were doing the best they could under difficult financial and political constraints. I let them know that the teacher I was recommending was already more mature than I might ever be….

They then informed me that hey had always viewed me as a friend of the school and of China. They went on to say that the cultural divide that I so often spoke of was a gap we viewed from the very same rim. It was NOT the normal minimizing of conflict that is common here. It was a sincere affirmation of a connection that I had felt shame over dishonoring with my repeated petulance. It has made my eyes well with happiness many times this week.

If I had it all to do again– I would study Chinese from day one, shut up and listen more, and most of all, look very closely for the small acts of kindness that I as a westerner had come to expect as routine and I would express my thanks for them often.

Thanks Ryan….

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40 Years Beyond Saigon…

The Wall Between the Names

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but if you stand
at the base of the wall at the apex when it is quiet you can
feel a warmth ….It’s as if you’re being surrounded by all the
spirits of the wall.

—The Last Firebase

There is a wall between the names

It is the color of residue in driftwood pockets
The shadow in the soft pocket of a head wound
It is their hair and their eyes dark and full of falling
The oil on worthless roads. Factory smoke and ashes
It is charcoaled faces. Shapeshifting under night flares
The toothless smile of a man who no can longer move his legs
A million fragmented hearts pulled below its granite suface
The veils of widowed girls, telegram ink, short bursts of words
It is the color of disappearance and passing

There is a wall between the names.

— On the 40th Anniversary
of the mortar attack near Saigon
that eventually took my father’s life

For those of you who did not go to Vietnam I know that you too, as said by David Lehman, planned your lives around it just the same. And for those of you who know war, or are obliquely affected by it, I hope that you can one day dismantle the worst of weapons: memory…

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BONSAI AND THE CHINESE ART OF PENJING (盆景)

I volunteered last year to assist one of my students in obtaining a summer job: I told him if he landed the gig as translator for an International book on Bonsai and Penjing, that I would help him at no cost. After the first 300 pages and bits of poetry I was asking, “What the hell was I thinking?” Then after visiting a Penjing garden in Foshan and studying ther works included in the book on Gold Ribbon awarded Penjing and their creators from around the world, I was glad I had signed on.

BONSAI PEJING

At the risk of sounding prosaic I have to say: I do learn something new every day.The

book, finally finished and due out soon, led me to discover that the Japanese Bonsai artistry that we find so appealing is an ancient knock-off of the Chinese art of Penjing (pronounced PUN-JING) that dates back hundreds of years. In fact, the first potted plant known to have been used in China has an ancestry going back some 7,000 years.

Penjing is the Chinese art of creating a miniature landscape in a container. The word consists of the two characters shown on the left: “pen” – “pot” or “container”, and “jing” – “scenery”. An artist may use plant material and natural stone to build artistic compositions.

“Bonsai” literally means a “tree in a pot” (Mr. Miyagi just winced in heaven) though some of the “pots” can costs tens of thousands of dollars. The first historical records of this art form in China comes via paintings recovered from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the more elaborate creations, ones that would be prize winners even today, are found in pictures from the Song (960-1279) Dynasty.

It is assumed Japan caught the fever about the 13th century. The exact time during which Penjing reached Japanese shores is not known. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Japan sent envoys to China to study art, architecture, language, literature, philosophy and law. Chan, a form of Buddhism in which the original Indian teachings blended with Taoism was introduced to Japan a bit later and named “Zen” Buddhism. Penjing and Bonsai are Zen-like methods of achieving an active state of meditation that can reveal natural truth, beauty and harmony.

Not far from here in Foshan, Chin, where I helped with the book, the Sixth Flower Fair will take place in a couple of years. The Chinese call it the Flower Olympics as it only happens every four years and draws invited guests from over 15 countries.

One million people viewed the last exhibition in 2006. It is my guess that it will still be a while before the US National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum hits that milestone.

I, and capable editor David DeGeest (who I roped into helping), are both richer for the experience, but my student owes us a couple of dinners and me a new set of reading glasses!!

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Expats Syndrome

Expats Syndrome

As a former military brat, soldier, student, itinerant teacher, and lecturer I have spent more time outside the borders of my country than within them. I can speak with authenticity and authority on the perils and promise of an expat’s experience. Thirty-plus schools, and 640,000 non-transferable credits, in my lifetime should get me some kind of special certification.

I stumbled onto Robin Pascoe’s site today and was happy to see that someone had created well-written order out of the chaos that is life spent in temporary quarters. Her books: Raising Global Nomads, A Moveable Marriage, and Homeward Bound offer advice from a veteran of culture shock.

Her work, geared more toward married females, is full of wit and wisdom worthy of a read. She has a collection of articles on her site written for the Korea Times that you’ll find entertaining and subtly instructive. She has a gift for the written and spoken word and has parlayed it into a business that includes lectures to corporations and groups on Parenting, Marriage, Relocation, Going Home, and Learning to Write.

She is not for everyone: Her stories are gleaned from a privileged life as the wife of a Foreign Service Officer and she often addresses the corporate and consular functions. So, it is not likely you will relate very well if you have endures soul-numbing depression as a young volunteer in rural China, self-destructive antics after losing your emotional compass in an intercultural marriage or agoraphobia brought on by the sudden affective vacuum created by a loss of most things familiar.

I recently asked a business owner, a Canadian expat in China for 20 years, what he missed. He replied, “Nothing!” with great conviction. HE should be giving seminars! I have days where I ache for anything wholly American. Some days I would settle for a Ronco Pocket Fisherman or the 5-Tray Electric Food Dehydrator ads in lieu of the whole of CCTV. I become so wistful that I would wish upon a star were there actually stars above Guangzhou. And other days I am so depressed that a dark corner of a basement would suit me just fine if only there were basements in Guangzhou.

Thank heavens for other Asian Bloggers, expat sites, writers like Pascoe, Bootleg DVDs (Ya, ya…I will find a State-sponsored church and whisper a confession) and, of course, Skype.

Hmmm, I like the idea of a writing workshop. I know this blog, my personal jounal and the manuscript (Confucius Slept Here) keep me, uh, san-er. So, I might try to make something like that happen in China if there is an interest. And one thing deperately lacking in the Middle Kingdomn is an inexpensive counseling/mentoring refuge for individual expats and especially those in cross-cultural marriages…I am going to have to look into that as well….

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Zaijian

chinglish

Books have been virtually replaced by blogs. But, puns aside, many of them showcase the transformative elements Pablo Neruda* suggests as essential to written art in Ars Magnetica:
“From so much loving and journeying, books emerge.

And if they don’t contain kisses or landscapes,
if they don’t contain a woman in every drop,
hunger, desire, anger, roads,
there are no use as a shield or as a bell:
they have no eyes and won’t be able to open them….”

Here I have I have tried to smooth the stubble of memory, share poetry, attempt humor, journal my social conscience, and reconcile my longings while shoutng to you in some far-off room. I leave here absolutely bewildered that anyone, other than my long-suffering friends, ever returned to listen. I am grateful you did.
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A Poem with Faith in Wellness

BREAST CANCER AWARENESS

SOUNDTRACK

(a work in progress)

When the agitated syncopy
Of your thready heartbeats
Stop to amass a clap of thunder
Over a crashing surf
And you fight The waves
With Cuchulain’s sword

When your body betrays you
And depression is an frail umbrella
In the hot sun of lament

When ravenous silence
Is acrid steam from a bitter ocean’s crest
Or when you think you are
One simple syllable
Shy of a symphony
Remember the lullabies of the past
Conduct them into the present
Lay awash in the fragile swell of hesitancy

Compose reconciliation
Have faith in the God of the metronome
The will of the tides
The gift or accident of nature
That gave you ears for
And a comradery with
The murmurs, sobs, roiling
And wicked playfulness of the ocean
And the weather it dares to rebuke…

for W.L. and Ms Yue

 

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How Long is a Cancer Year in China?

THE UNSINKABLE MS YUE

I think cancer years, the 12 month periods we endure when we or someone we know is battling a disease, are agonizingly longer than normal. And during those years our bodies seem to age in accordance with our perception of the passage of time distorted.

I was scouring old posts about The Unsinkable Ms Yue to add on a new site meant to raise funds for her and The League of Extraordinary Chinese Women when I came across the draft of a poem written one year ago.

The good news is: Ms Yue, though in some discomfort and worried about some lymphatic swelling, has cowed cancer for a full year. Her hair has grown back to the extent that she can almost tie it back with a band. Here is a written toast to Ms Yue, one of dozens of poetic anniversaries that will serve, by comparison, to happily distance her from disease.

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

When she called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I had to walk

into the thick heat of Southern China

toward our prostitute of a River, beautiful

after dark and flattered by artificial light. I found it

especially hard to breathe because she reeks

of factory smoke and poverty.

During the day, the sky, one grey cataract,

ignores the whore whose name no one speaks

with longing in their voice The water was unlined:

a corpse without worry as I began to prepare

a place in my memory for what I would destroy

perhaps forever: The hair, the forty-five years

of silk still glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

She asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. I was told to cut

and shave the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlight, fires,

and the wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and the forgotten.

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”
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