500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

Travel Magic

When we left New York (JFK Airport) at 1:30 am on Friday, we landed four hours later (5:30 am), but on Saturday in Hong Kong. Tomorrow when we leave Hong Kong at 9:20 am, we will arrive back in New York at 1:05 pm on the very same day. Of course, our “4 hour flight” will last considerably longer, just as our 28 hour flight nearly two weeks ago lasted considerably shorter.

Katherine helps put this all in perspective, one way or the other, “We will be on the plane a long time.”

Language

So, we came to China with virtually no Chinese between us. We have a couple of translation programs that work fairly well going from English to Chinese. Other way? Not so much.

I can ask, “Does little sister want to go swimming?” or “Do you like apples?” We work on a thumbs up/thumbs down system. I can show her our house on Google Earth and tell her, “We live on the second floor” or “That is your room.” There is much nonverbal communication. Katherine asks how I know what Shi Hui is saying. I tell her, “I don’t, but I can tell what she is feeling.”

And for the most part, our new daughter has a demeanor of which anyone would be jealous. She laughs often. I tell her “Little sister likes to laugh a lot,” and follow it up with, “Papa likes to laugh a lot, too.”

Until tonight. I do end of the day duties. Routine, routine, routine. In the middle of The Cat in the Hat, right before Thing One and Thing Two make their appearance, a cloud settled on the girl, and she started crying. Patience, and a smattering of questions, “Are you scared?” “Do you miss your friends?”

And I wish she could tell me her story in a language I understood, and I wish I could understand the language she speaks. But in some small way, I know it doesn’t entirely matter. Even if we did speak the same language, would I really undress how she felt?

I think I can understand around how she feels. I can imagine, and also recognize that there are failures and gaps in my imagination. I can run to the bathroom, and come back with a handful of tissues, and can sit with her, and ask questions, and show her pictures of the flowers her mother planted in front of the house where she will live, and tell her that in 2 days we will be home. She clicks on that translation again and again. Maybe, maybe, that is what it takes for now.

The Restaurant Three Blocks Away

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We only ate out of the hotel four nights. Rain and relative ease (otherwise known as a menu in English, even in the Chinese Restaurant) kept us in, but three blocks away the food was about half as expensive and twice as good. Tonight we revisited some favorites: sautéed eggplant cooked in a clay pot; sautéed green beans; barbecued pork; stir fried vermicelli.

This was not a highly recommended restaurant in Lonely Planet, or any another guide, but the flavors were dense and distinct, and the dishes were fairly complimentary. The portions were satisfying without being overwhelming. And after our third visit, we were treated like friends.

We learned that the new daughter does not like shrimp, scallions, and Szechuan peppercorns. Katherine points out that there is no Lo Mein, Moo Shu, or General Tso’s tofu (favorites at home). Go figure.

I recognize that we will be hard pressed to replicate these tastes and flavors back home. But we will look!

Last hurdles

Tomorrow morning we head to the US consulate in Guangzhou to apply for a visa for our new daughter. The consulate in Guangzhou is the final stepping stone for anyone in China who wants to immigrate to the US. Every family that adopts a child anywhere in China goes through the consulate in Guangzhou.

We are somewhat fortunate that Shi Hui is from Guangdong province, and that all are in country bureaucratic hurdles took place in this same city. Yes, that meant we were not traveling about the country and that we did not see more of China, but to be honest, the sight seeing opportunities were slim. We were otherwise occupied.

So, tomorrow at 8:30, we head in passports and application in hand, and we should receive Shi Hui’s travel visa by 3:30 on Tuesday. Fingers crossed for a smooth morning.