Saturday, April 27, 2019

Monday at the Moth

On Monday I texted the kids and told them to meet me for dinner at Miss Saigon at 5:30.  "Why are we eating so early?" Grant asked as I joined them in the booth.

The color of the vinyl on the seat of the booth was just slightly different than the back.  The seat is a greenish mustard, while the back is a mustardish green.  It's a nuance I wouldn't have noticed except that the owner pointed it out last time we were there.  It bothered him that he hadn't gotten a perfect match.  The factory that supplied the initial vinyl had discontinued it and he had to settle for the closest color match.  It was just slightly different.

If he hadn't said anything I would have thought it was just the lighting.   But when you look closely you see that something is - very slightly - different.

"I think I'm going to the Moth tonight and I might tell a story."

Audrey nodded.  "I think you should do that."   

After dinner I drove across town to the Basement East by myself and signed up to tell a story.  And about two hours later the host Eddie pulled my name out of the hat and called me up to the stage.  I was the very last story-teller to go up.

It is a weird trek to the stage at The Basement East.  I almost got lost, no joke.  And then, I was standing in front of 200 people and I was about to tell my story.  The spotlights on me were so bright  I couldn't see out into the crowd, except for two guys who were sitting at a high-top table at the right hand edge of the stage.  The microphone was so huge, or so unfortunately positioned, that it hid my face.

Maybe the positioning was fortunate.

It helped, a little, to hide behind it.  

All of the stories that came before me were lighthearted and funny but mine was not going to be.  I breathed in deep and said into the bright light, "My story is kind of heavy.  Are you guys down with that?"

"Bring it!" someone shouted.


I started talking about the night of my own personal Great Inhale.  The one that nearly killed me.  The one that, in some ways, did.



I almost cried.  In front of 200 strangers.  I guess I did cry, but not alone.  Because the Moth, as I have learned, is a special place where no one cries or laughs alone.


Days later when I told my friends about my experience, they asked if I could re-tell the story for them and I think maybe under the right circumstances I could.  In a dark room that smells like beer, with a concrete floor that shakes like plywood when you walk on it.  Under a bright spotlight blinding me from the gentle souls in front of me who welcome a heavy story.

But then again, I'm not sure I could.  I think when I told that story that night at the Moth, it got up on its legs and walked slowly away from me.  Out the back door of the Basement East and off into the open sky.

Maybe stories at the Moth have one brilliant chance at life and when their life has ended they cannot come back.

I think that's how it is.

I feel different after all of this.  Something about me is just slightly different.  I don't think anyone else would notice.  But I do.

If I didn't mention it you probably wouldn't notice. 

But something has most definitely shifted.






Wednesday, April 10, 2019

My 50th Birthday Gift to Myself


For my 50th birthday I gave myself a special gift. 

I cut the label off of the curtain in my living room.

It’s been there ever since I hung the curtains.  Backwards.  But it’s a sheer white panel and you really couldn’t tell that I hung it backwards except for that damn label.  When I watched TV I looked at it and wondered how much work it would be to cut it off.

Would the step ladder in the pantry do the trick?  

Or would I need the 6-foot ladder from the garage? 

Can I just wait until Grant grows tall enough to reach up and cut it off…?

Today I decided that it’s time.  I’m not sure why today felt like the right moment.  Maybe it’s related to me turning 50 today.  Maybe it’s not.  It’s possible I’m over-analyzing.

As it turns out, the stepladder in the pantry did the trick.  The whole process took less than 30 seconds.

So my present to myself for the next 50 years is that I won’t have to look at that label anymore and wonder how much work it would take to cut it off.

In exchange however, I will look at the curtain and remember how many hours I spent looking at it before, wondering how much work it would be to cut it off. 

Regret and self-doubt as a replacement for procrastination and inaction. 

This is The Downtown Diner, you knew that was coming. 

You might wonder how any of this is blog-worthy.  And really, it’s not.  I know most people will read it once and then again, and then will ask themselves what the point is.  Then they will shake their heads and close their laptop with a sigh.

But there are a few people out there who will read this and think about me and nod and smile and say, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”  They will think about my quirks and all my posts over the years and how much they love me. 

And you all, you are the best gift I have given myself over the past 50 years.  Thank you for being part of it all with me.  All my procrastination and inaction, all my regret and self-doubt.  My seemingly pointless posts and the live conversational versions of the same.  I love you all. 

Let’s do another 50 years of this.  


Sunday, February 17, 2019

What the Rain Came to Say


Drops of rain slide down the window glass.   This Sunday morning is dripping over Nashville like a thin coat of grey paint.

As I walk into the kitchen I remember I left the curry out on the stove last night.  I curse under my breath because now I'll have to throw it out.  But then I see that someone put the curry in tupperware and put it in the fridge last night before they went to bed.

I'm not the only adult in the house anymore.

Tip, tip, tap.  Raindrops tap on the kitchen window.

I make a hashbrown casserole and my 7-year-old niece Bliss plays with the Roomba.  Her parents had a date night last night so I got to have a sleepover with my red-headed elf-niece. 

The Roomba is a source of endless entertainment for her.  What happens if she puts it on the chair?

Feeds it a mint?

Feeds it ten mints?

Locks it in the bathroom?

Puts a pillow on top of it?

Lets it run over my foot?

Tip, tip, tap.

She is ready for the next thing.

"Alexa, play 'I Believe in You' by Dolly Par-ton."  She pronounces Dolly's last name very clearly, otherwise Alexa will play a Michael Buble song, which is not danceable at all.  While Bliss and I dance, Grant stumbles out of his bedroom to ask what time it is.

"9:00!" we say.  Bliss dances jazz hands at him, pointing at his knees.  I dance jazz hands, pointing at his shoulders.

Neither of us can reach his head.

It is too far up there.

Tip, tip, tap.

We picked Grant and Audrey up from the airport last night  - they were in China all week with their dad and grandparents celebrating Chinese New Year.



Tired and pale, Grant goes back to sleep some more.  Jet lag is a fact of life for my children.  This is what they looked like at midnight on Chinese New Year.


I feel pity and admiration for them, all at once.

I admire them because they deal with jet lag so well and always have.  They both took their first flight to Asia when they were tiny babies and even back then, they adjusted to the new time zone so quickly.  Not easily necessarily, but quickly.

I feel sad for them because their dad and I have put them in this position.  If they want to have a relationship with both of us, they have to get on a plane and criss-cross the Pacific.  Over and over again.

I'm sorry about this.

Tip, tip, tap.  The drops of rain land on the glass and they cling to it stubbornly.  It's almost as if they want to stay on the window as long as they can, watching us from the outside.  But soon the weight of their watery bellies pulls them down to the ground in a quiet splash. 

Audrey comes downstairs and hugs me. She yawns and hands me the Hello Kitty makeup she brought for me from China.

Tip, tip, tap.

My children are growing up and one day soon they will leave the house.  By this time next year Audrey will be away at college and three years from now Grant will be too.  All I will have is the occasional sleepover with Bliss and there will even come a day when I don't have that anymore.  Everyone is growing up.  
 
And finally I hear what the raindrops have been trying to tell me all morning long.

Tip, tip, tap.   

You are okay.

You are and you will be.

Cling to the glass.  Watch these moments for as long as you can. 

Tip, tip, tap.  

And amen.  



Friday, February 8, 2019

They've seen worse

Here's one from five years ago.  Why did I not post these?

The other day I had a huge problem.

At least, to me, it seemed huge.  

Audrey wasn't registered for the magnet school that we wanted her to go to next year.  I was sure I had filled in the right form and turned it in to the board of education on time and I remembered they had given me a receipt.

Which I threw away about 3 weeks ago.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I threw it away.  I was at the car wash and I was vacuuming out my car and I came across the receipt and figured I didn't need it anymore.  And I can tell you exactly which garbage can I threw it away in.  Three weeks ago.

And then I found out yesterday that she wasn't on the list for the magnet school.  Which, if true, is a disaster. 

So I went to the board of education this morning and prayed that the universe would save me.  By this point I was doubting myself - I was afraid I had actually forgotten to turn in the form and that the receipt was just a dream.  But the woman at the Board of Ed checked her records and found that I had done what I was supposed to do.  I had turned in the form on time, and someone at the Board of Ed had failed to add Audrey to the list for the magnet school.  Totally a clerical error and not my fault.  She even gave me a photocopy of the form I had turned in. 

I was so relieved I burst out into tears.  Because, we're talking about a really big deal school here. 

"Can I come over there and hug you?" I asked the receptionist. 

She paused for a minute and then said, "Sure!" 

I was surprised.  I kinda thought she would laugh at me and we would move on.  But she came out from behind the counter and hugged me.

A security guard standing nearby offered, "Don't worry, we see a lot worse around here." 

I wiped away my tears and sniffed, "Thank you for not thinking I'm crazy."  But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized he hadn't said I wasn't crazy.  He only said he sees a lot worse around there. 

That trip to the Board of Ed reminded me who I am.

I am a mom who usually does what she's supposed to do, on time.      

But one who rarely keeps evidence that she did it.

I am a woman who offers hugs, thinking most people will not take her up on it.

But often they do.

And while I may not be the most balanced person you will ever meet, there are worse. 

It has been independently confirmed by the security guard at the Davidson County Board of Education that there are worse.



Maybe that is the real meaning of life

I wrote this four years ago and never posted it.  

“I’m beginning to think that the real meaning of life is looking around us and recognizing that everything is extraordinary.” 

My pastor said that on Sunday. I am feeling the extraordinariness of it all myself. I’m sitting in church with Grant, who is sitting closer to me than he would if we were at home on the sofa. And our cell phones are packed away in my purse. In the still of the sanctuary I can hear his breath and I’m pretty sure I can even still smell his baby scent. My kids both came into this world with their own scent. Audrey smelled like honey and Grant smelled like butter. I remember smelling them as I nuzzled the tops of their heads when I nursed them. 

As they mutate now into teenagers, their smell is changing. But in a moment like this, when he sits still next to me and I put my cheek on the top of his head, I still smell butter. 

My new patent leather heels have a black scuff mark.

“Can I go now?” he asks.


I say what I always say. “I really want you to be here with me, but if you want to go you can.” 


“Will you be sad if I go?”

I nod yes. 


“I’ll stay with you for five more minutes and then I’m going to check on Audrey in the nursery,” he says. 

Five minutes later he slips away and heads towards the nursery. 

The choir is singing “Here I am, Lord” and the time of day is just perfect, because the sun is streaming in through the window behind them, illuminating each of them from behind.  They look less human to me and more alien. A chorus of extra-terrestrials who have landed in the sanctuary to speak to us in the language that we all understand, the language of song.

Audrey slides in next to me in the pew. “Why are you mad at me?” she asks. 

“I’m not mad at you,” I say, confused. 

“Grant came in the nursery and said you were mad at me and that it was his turn to be in the nursery.” 

“Well I have no idea where that came from. I’m not mad at you,” I said. 

She glares at the cross at the front of the church. Her clenched jaw tells me that she is not praying. Instead she is planning the revenge she would exact on her brother as soon as we sing the closing hymn. I have a feeling it will somehow involve their cell phones. 

Their cell phones. They’re a safety net and a bed of nettles at the same time. When I need to reach my kids, our phones are the constant connection. If I can’t find them, an app on my phone tells me where they are. 

And yet those devices also bring us so much heartache. They fight over their phones (which is particularly mystifying since they each have one). They lose them. They crack them. They live too much in the world of social media and too little in the moment. I wonder if the connectedness is worth it. Is it worth the stress? Is it worth the money? 

If this question was a prayer, it is going unanswered for now. The final hymn has been sung and we are walking to the car in the church parking lot. 

My shoe is scuffed. 

My children are arguing.   

Their heads smell like butter and honey.

And I realize that the meaning of life is to look around us and realize that everything really is extraordinary.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Not a Post About Death

I realize I've been writing a lot about death and dying lately.  In fact my last three posts have mentioned it.  Maybe it's because a lot of my friends and acquaintances have lost family members in these last few weeks.  Maybe it's because I myself was deathly sick these last few weeks.

But if you back up to the summer, I was writing about mosquitoes and keys and icebergs.  I want to talk about things like that again.

I want to think about things like that again.

Because I'm healthy again.  And I have friends and acquaintances who had babies in the last few weeks too.

#saoirsemoore


And it was 80 degrees in Nashville yesterday.

So here we go, I promise, a post with no mention of death.

I know, dear Downtown Diner customers, I know.  Too late.  Sigh.


So, welcome to the Year of the Dog!  

That is the Chinese New Year, of course.

As is our tradition, my kids flew to China to celebrate the holiday with Buddy and his family.  The family gathered together, warm and cozy, in Buddy's Beijing apartment on New Year's Eve and ate homemade dumplings that his parents made.

In the first days of the New Year, they went out to eat, reuniting with friends and extended family and high school classmates.

There were giant, deafening fireworks, although due to new government regulations this year they were allowed only on the outskirts of the city.  Grant was very upset about this violation of his human rights. 

I was looking forward to Chinese New Year too because when the Year of the Dog starts, the Year of the Rooster ends.  And I would finally get to take off the obnoxious red thread I'd been wearing around my waist all year.

You see, the Year of the Rooster is my 本命年, or Chinese Animal Year.  There are twelve animals and twelve years in the Chinese Zodiac, so every twelve years you celebrate your Animal Year.  You can find yours here.

You would think your Animal Year would be a special and fun year, sort of like your birthday.  But in fact it's the opposite - your Animal Year is a dangerous year according to Chinese tradition.  There are three things you can do to protect yourself during your Animal Year:
  1. Wear something red against your skin all year along.  It can't be something you bought for yourself though - it must be something that a friend or loved one gives you.
  2. Wear jade all year.  
  3. Spend a lot of time facing due West, which is directly away from the God of Age, Tai Sui.
Granted, it's a tradition most modern-day Chinese don't put much stock in but I thought it would be fun to wear something red against my skin all year long.  So when Audrey and Grant went to China last year for Chinese New Year, I had them buy me a red thread to tie around my waist.  The one they bought me had bits of jade woven into it - two protective elements in one.  Clever.

And it annoyed me from Day One.

In the mornings when I showered and got dressed, that red thread felt like a damp earthworm wrapped around my waist.  Often during the day my finger would catch on the thread and I would be reminded that this year was a dangerous year for me.

While it started out as a fun thing, the red thread got into my head as the year wore on.

In the early months of the year I thought of the thread as a helpful reminder to be cautious.  This is a good year to wear my seat belt at all times and wash my hands after being in a public place.  Those are simple, common sense things that everyone should be doing every year.

But as time went by, the red thread crossed from being a friendly reminder to an ominous presence.

My thoughts progressed from

"Take good care of yourself, this could be a dangerous year" 

to

"Watch out, this is a dangerous year."  

Do you see the difference?  It's subtle.  But even subtle messages can leave their mark on your mind over time.  Even the lightest green snake will leave tracks in loose topsoil as it zig-zags across the garden. 

And then when I got sick in late November with strep throat and then bronchitis and then a calcified granuloma, the red thread sent me into an internal dialogue that I could not resolve.  The cycle went something like this:

"Good thing I had this red thread around my waist this year.  If not, all of this could have been a lot worse.  Maybe I would have died."

to

"Did I bring this on myself this year?  Did I, with constant worrying that something bad was going to happen, actually make something bad happen?"

to

"Maybe I just focused on the bad so much that it's all I could see.  I had a sore throat after Thanksgiving and the only reason I went to get tested was because it was a dangerous year for me.  And the strep throat diagnosis was the beginning of a long series of medications and tests and scary diagnoses.  What if I had never gotten tested for strep?"

You see how this got exhausting after a while.

And then one Saturday morning before the CT scan which was to determine if I had cancer or not, I was lying in bed wondering how to explain the red thread to the tech.  Should I offer to take it off for the scan?  It was still four weeks before I was "supposed" to take it off, and just before a CT scan seemed like the very worst time to let go of my protective talisman.

And yet, what if the thread showed up on the scan and whoever reviewed it didn't know I was wearing it and didn't know what to make of it?

What if the bits of jade embedded in the thread showed up on the scan as something that looked like a tumor?

Or even worse, what if there was a tumor hiding just behind a bit of jade and the scan didn't reveal it?

The only thing worse than a false positive is a false negative.

My thoughts circled and turned left and right, folding in on themselves like a labyrinth.  And then, just like in a labyrinth, I reached the center.  I stood up, went to my bathroom, pulled a pair of scissors out of my top drawer, and I cut the red thread off my waist.  I held it up over the trash can and let it fall in like a boa constrictor I had just beheaded.

I felt free.  I felt like I had liberated myself from a 5,000-year-old Chinese curse with the slice of one sharp blade.

Although the red thread was in a coil at the bottom of my garbage can, the tape on my internal dialogue had not run out yet.

"Do you think you'll regret this when you do your CT scan?  What if the scan says you do have cancer?  Will you wish you had kept the red thread on?  Maybe it would have helped.  Just maybe?" 

I put my hands on my now un-yoked waist, 

turned due East, 

and looked Tai Sui straight in the face.  


"Nope," I said.

Because this is not a post about death, Tai Sui.  

It is not.  

I'll deal with you again in twelve years.  

Maybe.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Letting go

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I was having a truly awful year.  It was when the imaging tech asked me, "Have you had cancer before?" as she rolled me into the CT scan.

Yes, that was the exact moment when I knew the Chinese superstition had been right after all.  My 48th year had been truly abysmal.  The Chinese Zodiac says that every twelve years we celebrate our animal year and it's supposed to be a particularly dangerous year.  That might mean relationship troubles, financial problems, or health issues.

I had tied a red thread around my waist in February 2017 to ward off any bad luck that might come my way during my animal year and wrote about it here.  At the time I did it for fun but now I was beginning to wonder if there was something to the superstition.

"No," I said.  And I wanted to add, "Are you saying I have it NOW?  Because I thought I was here for a test to determine IF I have cancer?"

But since I've never had cancer, I wasn't sure how these things work.  On TV I've seen people get a cancer diagnosis.  The set-up is always the same.  They're always sitting in a doctor's office, at the doctor's desk.  They have a loved one next to them.  The doctor gives them the diagnosis.  The patient asks questions.  The doctor answers with percentages and chances and probabilities.

The doctor's desk is always a darkish red wood, probably cherry wood.  I hate that kind of dark wood.  I don't think I'm alone here, am I?  Why haven't doctor practices figured out yet how much patients hate those dark red cherry wood desks?

Maybe they keep the desks ugly so that the news we get when we sit at them seems less ugly in comparison.

That makes sense.

I need for things to make sense right now.  Because getting a cancer diagnosis from an imaging tech, who has yet to roll me into the CT scan, just doesn't make sense.

Although in a way, it does.  Techs see thousands of patients every year and although they're not trained to interpret results, I bet they have a good intuition about the people who come into their offices for scans and tests.  In his book Blink, social scientist Malcolm Gladwell calls it the power of thinking without thinking. 

Sadly, techs aren't trained to keep their intuition to themselves.  I picked up on it.  Their seemingly innocent questions were the first rumblings of thunder in the distance.

As I waited for the CT results, the days jerked by, pixelated and in shades of grey.  When I had mental energy, I wondered what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it came to that.  Would I be the kind who commits to kicking cancer's ass?  Or would I submit to whatever God's will was for me?  I didn't think I had the energy to commit to kicking cancer's ass - I hardly had energy to floss my teeth every day.  But I also didn't want to just raise the white flag and check myself straight into hospice care.

Simply pondering my options was overwhelming, and so I succumbed once again to the grainy black and white images.  My reality was film noir, spliced with X-ray images.

One frame is the front porch.  It's dark and Grant is receiving a greasy, lukewarm dinner delivery packed in styrofoam and wrapped in a plastic bag.  Again.  He tries not to leave the door open too long because it's cold outside.  A single light bulb on the porch illuminates the scene.  His dark shiny hair reflects the light like a mirror.

One frame is the decorative pillows from my bed, in a pile on the carpet.

One frame is a text from Audrey.  She's re-arranging her schedule so she can pick Grant up.

The range of my emotions is as limited at the color spectrum of my memory.  I try not to be afraid because only people who have cancer need to be afraid.  I don't want to start playing the role of a cancer patient.  I'm afraid of even looking like a good understudy.

I feel numb.  It's like my emotions, faced with the flight-or-flight conundrum, have fled.

I don't have enough information to know what to feel.  

I feign cheerfulness.  I don't want other people to worry about me.  Because only friends of cancer patients need to worry.  But as I observe the faces of the people around me, I can tell I'm not doing a good job.  They all look concerned and confused.  I'm pale and when I laugh I start coughing.  My cough is awful.  It's more like a whole-body spasm.  When it's over I'm left wheezing and gasping for air.  I'm embarrassed at how little control I have over my respiratory system.

I try not to laugh.  I try not to cough.  I work from home.  A lot.

It felt like an eternity.  And then finally, my cell phone rang.  It was my doctor's office, calling with my results.  I happened to be at my office that day.  I walked outside to take the call and found the most beautiful bench under the most beautiful tree.   My office is right next to a park so there are lots of beautiful trees and benches.  And squirrels and birds and ducks.

If the doctor was going to give me bad news, I was not going to make it easier on him.  He was going to have to do it while I sat amidst all this beauty.  In comparison to my beautiful surroundings, the news was going to look truly abysmal.  I dared him.

"Your test results are in and everything is within the normal range.  The spot on your lung is a calcified granuloma.  I know you've never been diagnosed with pneumonia but you must have had it at some point in the past and the granuloma is sort of like scar tissue from that.  It's nothing to worry about.  We don't need to do any further tests."

Which is the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.  I should be grateful, and I am.

But I still don't know what kind of cancer patient I would be, if it ever came to that. 

I still don't know why I had this health scare this year.  Was it because it's my 48th year?  Or would this have happened anyway?  Would it have been worse if I hadn't had my red thread around my waist? 

I still don't know why doctor's desks are made out of that awful cherry wood.

Let it all fade.  

Let the black and the white blend together.  

Let the resulting grey turn to ash.  

I mix it with water, dip my finger in it and taste the fear.  Then raise my finger to the sky and watermark a giant question mark between the clouds. 

Trace it again and again until I can let go.

There are so many questions that will never be answered.

All we can do is let go.


Monday, February 5, 2018

January 31, 1998

It was a Saturday.  I didn't talk to Priya that day.  I don't know how she spent the afternoon but I bet she was studying.  She was the best in our class, partly due to her immense talent and intellect, and partly due to her dedication and hard work.

She highlighted one last term, made one last note in the margins, and closed her books for the last time.

Then she and Jennifer went for a late-night walk along the waterfront on Monterey Bay.  Priya had a cigarette and an espresso in her hand.  She and Jennifer stood in front of an empty row of parking spaces on the commercial fisherman's wharf.  They were in front of a parking meter which flashed "0 minutes left."

She was running away from him when he shot at her.  I hope that means she was running towards the end of the wharf, and that the last thing she saw was the moonlight shining on the ocean.

Her favorite poem was "Der Panther" by Rainer Maria Rilke.  


Der Panther

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf –. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

The Panther (English translation by Stephen Mitchell)
 
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly--. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.


There is no good ending for a post like this.  You just suddenly realize that you're at the end.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What Beijing Traffic Taught Me About Mass Shootings


I have had two trains of thought lately, their tracks criss-crossing my mind.

The first is from one of those jagged and confusing videos that people made with their cell phones as they were running from the Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas.  A young woman is lying on the asphalt, propped up against a metal fence.  She's been shot in the leg and is bleeding badly.  Some people are tending to her as best they can.  They're crouched down around her, using a shirt to soak up the blood.

Meanwhile, bullets are cutting random and lethal paths all around them.

A police officer wearing a neon vest joins them.  He raises his voice just enough to be heard over the gunfire.  "Do you want me to stay with her?  You can go."

That's what he said.

So calmly.

And so kindly.

It sounded sort of like the way you would offer to help anyone with anything. 

Except he was offering to stay in the line of fire while they ran to safety.

And he was offering to stay with this young woman so that if she died, at least she wouldn't die alone.

There are so many scenes from that night that I've seen in videos or heard about from eyewitnesses.  And somehow that officer in the neon vest has stayed trapped in the net of my subconscious.  I can't let him go.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

This is one train of thought that has careened through my mind all week long.  At some point, it is inevitably joined by another, seemingly unrelated train of thought.  But because these two trains insist on being together, I'm beginning to think they are somehow related.  When one shows up in my mind, it inevitably calls to the other.

The other train of thought is about traffic in Beijing.  When we moved there in 2005 I was amazed by the traffic.  The streets are overcrowded and the cars jockey with each other and bicycles and motorcycles and buses and pedestrians to make headway across town.  Almost no one in Beijing traffic is going to stop and give you the right of way.  Passage is something you fight for.

So the chaos amazed me in Beijing.  But what also amazed me was how few accidents there are.  Given how many vehicles are on the roads, and given how little regard they give to traffic laws, I would have expected to see at least one or two serious accidents on every drive.  But for the most part, people moved through the chaos unscathed.

I began to wonder if it's all as chaotic as it seems.  Or is there perhaps an order to it all, one that's not immediately apparent?

I spent a lot of time in taxi cabs observing the traffic around me.  And I began to see patterns.  I developed a hypothesis that there are some unspoken understandings between Beijing drivers.  They go something like this.

Rule #1: I will continue at roughly this same speed.  If I slow down or speed up, it will be gradual.  My speed will change no more than 10% in 6-8 seconds.

Rule #2: I will make no sudden turns.  I might swerve into your lane but I will do so at a gentle angle.  You will have time to make room for me.  Perhaps you will move into the lane next to you, or you will slow down just a bit to make room for me in front of you.  But everything will happen at peaceful angles.  My angles will be no sharper than 15%.

With just those two understandings - constant speed and gentle angles - Beijing drivers make their way through the web of highways and byways and almost all of them get home safely to their families in the evening. 

For all I know, there are statistics that say that Beijing roads are deadlier than others.  But still I think the two rules above make them safer than they otherwise would be.

Gentle.  Constant.  Peaceful.

Kind.  Brave.  Selfless.

These two trains of thought have swerved together in my mind all week at gentle angles, steady speed.  

I don't know what all of this means.

I do know that those bullets were moving at sharp angles and sudden bursts of speed.

I do know that kind, brave and selfless people are all around us.

I do know that we have the capacity to co-exist peacefully with each other.  Right?  

Couldn't we be constantly kind with each other for a while?  Couldn't we be peacefully selfless?  What about gently brave?

I think we can do all of those things.

And if we can't, I have another idea.

How about if we all just stop shooting each other?

 








Thursday, August 24, 2017

What I Learned From a Bag of Fruit and Keys


I was only laid over in Beijing for an hour and a half. It was barely enough time to get my suitcase, take it through customs and re-check it to my final destination of Dalian.

And yet, Buddy came to the airport to say hello. 

He hugged me and said, “I brought you some fruit.” We stuffed the bag of fruit into my suitcase and then re-checked it. As it went through security the inspector called us over. The X-ray was showing a bag of metal hoops and chains and he wanted to know what it was. Buddy, the inspector and I stared at it for a few minutes, and then I finally recognized it as my bag of jewelry. I opened the suitcase, took out my jewelry and showed it to the inspector. Satisfied, he let my bag go through.

As the three of us stared at the X-ray image of my suitcase we were fixated on my bag of jewelry yet we totally missed another metal object in the opposite corner, which was actually much more troubling.

Buddy and I said goodbye and I made my way to the gate for my final flight. As I waited to board, I got a text from him.

“I think I left my keys in the bag with the fruit.” 

“Oh no! What do you want to do?” I asked. We were scheduled to board in a few minutes and the fruit was in my checked baggage.

“Check when you get to Dalian and if my keys are there just send them back to me,” Buddy said.

“Does someone have an extra set?” I asked.

“My sister,” he replied.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “And it’s not a big deal.”

So Buddy took a half hour cab ride to his sister’s house to get the extra set of keys, then rode back to the airport to retrieve his car and drove back home. By the time he got back to his house I was already in the northeast corner of China.

And sure enough, I had his keys in my suitcase.

This is sort of how we operated when we were married. Life with us was a constant series of surprises, goof-ups, and snafus. We had too little time and tried to do too much. But we always managed to get ourselves untangled somehow.

Some people probably looked at us and shook their heads and thought how irresponsible and careless we were.  But here’s the thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.

It’s not easy to find someone who will drive out at 8:00 at night to meet you in the airport for just a few minutes to give you a hug and a bag of fresh fruit.

And if you and that person can get through a marriage and a divorce and still want to say hello to each other when you’re in the same city, then I think that’s a win.

I think that saying yes to that person on that unseasonably cool day in August of 1997 was the right thing to do.

Things tangle and they untangle. Keys are lost and they are found. We are bound together and then torn apart.

And if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

It’s easy to find someone who knows where their keys are.