Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Maybe I'll just take visitors here for the rest of my life

Yesterday afternoon I wrote a chapter in my memoir at the Sewanee library. The library card I bought for $10 gives me access to the building, the stacks and all the digital downloads for ten years. Until I am 62 I will have access to polished hardwood and special collections and erudite peers. 

I feel inspired and fortunate. 

I sat on the quiet floor, the third floor, with the theological and seminary students. In a soft, worn brown leather chair between the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Rabbinical prayer book, I began to write about my life. 

I think I was too loud for the third floor because a student in leggings and Blundstone boots moved two tables away from me. She moved her laptop first and then came back for her books. I put the top on my Mate tea, folded my laptop and went downstairs to the first floor, which is as loud as an elementary school cafeteria, and put in my earphones and listened to bluegrass acoustic music to drown out the flirty, rowdy non-theology students. 

I wrote about what it was like to wash my children's hair when they were babies. Rinsing the shampoo from their shiny heads, trying hard not to get soap in their eyes. Trying to hold their heads at just the right angle, adjusting the water pressure and temperature just so, aiming the water at the perfect angle so it rinsed the soap from their scalp and then ran backwards towards their neck. Not forwards towards their eyes. I wished I had been a better student in Geometry. I remember what my palm felt like against the back of their sturdy little necks. I needed to keep their heads clean and I didn't want them to cry. In those early days of motherhood, it seemed so hard to do both. My babies were so squirmy and slippery. And my hands, so shaky. 

Some nights I was more successful than others. But today they are young adults out there in the world with clean hair and fully functioning eyes. 

                Dear Melanie of the Early Aughts, 

                It's going to be okay. 

                Turns out there is no perfect angle. 

I wonder what I would have written about if I had stayed on the third floor. 

I paid $10 for a drop-in hot yoga class at a gym next to my tiny house. At the end of the class my teacher placed a cool wet lemongrass-scented washcloth on each yogi's forehead and while we relaxed in savasana on our mats, she sat in a beam of moonlight at the front of the room and prayed for us. The cool wetness on my forehead balanced out the warm lightness of my body and kept me from floating off into the stars.

My teacher didn't tell us about the prayer part. 

I drove home, the gravel on the road and in my driveway popping like popcorn under my city car tires. 

I cooked my dinner while listening to Roxane Gay's audiobook "Bad Feminist." I put oatmeal and flax seed in a pot, frozen cherries and blueberries and strawberries in another. At first I thought Roxane was critical of everyone and everything and I wanted to dismiss her as cranky, but I still listened to her and then I said out loud, "she's just ... she's right". Then I said it again. And she's cranky. She's cranky and she's right. 

I put warm compote and Greek yogurt on my oatmeal and my boyfriend called.

I took a shower and put my sweaty yoga clothes in my Barbie-sized washer. I don't know how such a tiny washer can require maintenance on such a frequent basis. Appliance repair companies don't want to send techs to addresses like mine. The last time a guy called to tell me he was fifteen minutes away he was in Texas. 

I live in Tennessee. 

I opened the window in my bedroom and let the cold mountain air pour into the room. I turned on the electric blanket under my down comforter, and sprayed lavender in the air. I closed the door to my room, a pocket of cold and fresh oxygen building inside. 

I poured a cup of Jim Beam,

sat by my fireplace,

and read an article in the New Yorker that my mother gave me at Thanksgiving. A blue post-it with my name on it marks the page. My name is in her handwriting. I held it to my lips as I read the article. 

Which for all of its many words, was not as moving as the blue post-it note that has my name on it, in my mother's handwriting. 

I blew out the candles. I turned off the fireplace. I plugged my laptop into the outlet. I set up the coffee maker for tomorrow morning. 

I turned out the lights. 

I don't know how I will ever come down off this mountain. 

I will try, when the time comes, but 

I think I have forgotten how to live what the rest of the world calls life. 

I don't know how I did it for as long as I did. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

Bruise or Dirt?

Dear readers, this is a vintage post from the fall of 2011. I just found it in my unpublished blog archives and it brought back lots of memories. I wanted to share it with you, just in case the fall fills you with nostalgia the way it does me. 

This story features my son Grant as a 7-year old. He's now a freshman in college at the University of Tennessee. 

What strikes me about this post is how much life has changed in ten years. When I wrote it in 2011 I was living in Beijing, struggling to manage life and fit in as an immigrant. I had small children and I was married.

Now in 2021 I live in Tennessee, I'm divorced and my children are young adults away at college. I'm back in my home country so I don't have the same immigrant struggles I did in Beijing.

But am I at home? I'm not sure. The older I get, the harder it feels to go home. 

The things that I remember from "home" aren't the way I remembered them, like Girl Scout Thin Mints and the catwalk in front of my elementary school. 

Then sometimes I'm in a completely new environment and I encounter things like fire cider or a public drinking fountain in Spain that feel so ...  known ... 

The older I get, the more "home" feels like something that I carry deep inside of me. 

It's a rainy day on the mountain today. The raindrops started pattering on the tin roof of my tiny house during the night and they've continued to trickle down all morning. On the wet trees outside my window, yellow and red and brown leaves wave to me. As if they're beckoning. 

I guess this is just a day that wants to pull me back into the past for a few moments.... 

In that spirit, please join me in a brief trip to the past. The year is 2011 and we are in Beijing.  

It's that time of the semester again - Parent-Parent-Parent-Teacher Meeting. Thanks to China's One Child Policy most parents only have to sit through this torturous meeting once, but since I gave birth to two kids, I have twice as many meetings to attend as anyone else. Once for Audrey in 5th grade and once for Grant in 2nd grade. 

For 40 minutes we heard from the principal, who gave us a report on the activities of the 小学部, which as far as I can tell is the Elementary School Department. 

They appear to be doing great, thank you for asking. 

Then for 20 minutes a man from the Vision Protection Program gave us a presentation about, you guessed it, how to protect our kids' vision. 

Then we went to our kids' classroom, where the teacher talked to us about our students' progress. She gave us our children's mid-term exam scores and a rough idea of their class ranking. 

As I was leaving the classroom this one mom came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm {something fast in Chinese}'s mom.    You know?     Last time...?     The accident...?" 

I shook my head sadly. I'm afraid this wasn't enough information for me. I did a quick mental inventory of all the playground accidents of recent months.
  1. Grant "accidentally" pushed a kid down on the playground and he scraped up his ear.
  2. A kid poked Grant with a pencil and left a sliver of graphite under the skin.
  3. Grant kind of "shot" a kid with a slingshot in the eye area.
And who knows what other "accidents" might have taken place in the last few months that I never even knew about. 

Seriously, we play this game at our house called "Bruise or Dirt?" 

It goes like this: you pick a spot of discoloration on Grant's legs and we make bets on whether it's a bruise or dirt. 

The funny thing is when I say "we" - I'm including Grant there. Even he doesn't know if the marks on his knees are injury or dirt.

Then you spit on your finger and try to rub the spot off. If it comes off, it was dirt. If not, it was an injury. 

Or stubborn dirt. 

This picture will show you that I'm not exaggerating. It's a darling picture of Grant and a friend's dog but it also happens to capture the bruise-or-dirt phenomenon quite well.

  Back to that mom - we were speaking Chinese and since mine is not that advanced, I had to be blunt with her. 

"Did my kid hurt your kid or did your kid hurt mine?" 

"My kid hurt your kid," she said. 

"Oh, the pencil thing? It's fine, really. Don't worry. You can hardly even see it anymore. And thank you for covering the medical fees, that really wasn't necessary." 

I didn't tell her that Grant wanted her family to compensate him for psychological damage. We told him he doesn't have a case.

Seriously, he can't even tell dirt from bruises on his own legs.  

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Thank you Summer 2021

I got restless this spring.

I was hungry but couldn't think of anything I wanted to eat. 

I wanted to get out of the house but didn't know where to go. 

Something wasn't right but I couldn't even say what it was. 

And then, Summer 2021...

Buddy had to quarantine for like a thousand hours to be there for Grant's graduation. #familyisforever

I quit my job! #isshecrazy #maybe

Asheville, North Carolina is weird like me.

My Nashville house is rented out to a great family. I'm quite proud of these shiny floors.

It's not a vacation until someone ends up in the ER with a fish hook in their hand. #Chautauqua

Me and Daisy crying in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela after walking 75 miles through the Spanish countryside. 
Photo credit: T-Dog. #BuenCamino

My tiny house on the lake in Monteagle, Tennessee. This is where I'm living this fall while I write a book.

Oh, and this happened too.

I will write more about all of the above once I get over the fact that it actually happened. Meanwhile I'm soaking it in with immense gratitude.

Thank you, Summer 2021.

Monday, May 24, 2021

About Time

"I need your watch for a few days," I said.

"Why?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied.

"This has to do with my graduation present, doesn't it?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied. 

"You're going to get it engraved, aren't you?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied.

"You're not gonna put something boring on it, are you? Not something like, 'Congratulations on your graduation'?"

"Oh of course not. It's going to be so much more better than that." 

But 'Congratulations on your graduation' was in fact, word-for-word, what I was planning to put on the back of his watch. Ver batim. 

It's factual. It's straight-forward. A watch engraving is supposed to be commemorative and self-explanatory. It should answer all the important questions:
  1. What was the event?
  2. When did it take place?
  3. Who does the watch belong to?  

But apparently I needed something more clever for my son's watch on the event of his high school graduation...  

 I googled "what to engrave on a watch" and found a lot of quotes about time. I found poems about life milestones and anniversaries and celebrations. 

None of them seemed quite right for him. Grant's relationship with time is special. He is an unhurried soul. He knows how to relax. Time seems to bend towards his will. If he has to turn in an assignment at midnight and it's 11:55pm, sometimes those last 5 minutes pass in slow motion, allowing him to finalize the assignment and spell check it and submit it all before the clock strikes twelve. 

The internet has no quotes for that. 

I found a couple that come close.

Time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend. (Diogenes Laertius)

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted. (John Lennon)

Neither of them seemed to quite fit the bill, and time was running out. I needed to get the watch and the quote to the engraver before they closed at 6:00 so finally I just made up a quote. I think it's actually pretty perfect for my restful and soulful son.

Time is precious. Be sure to waste a little every day.

Happy Graduation, Grant. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Creeping along


It was a snowy scene so beautiful you could have painted it on a tree ornament. You would have needed just three colors: white, silver, and diamond blue. 


But this scene was so precarious, no one would want it on a Christmas tree ornament. It was Christmas Eve and a snowstorm had moved in to the Great Smoky Mountains faster than expected. Big white flakes were swirling all around our car.  

Audrey, Grant and I were in my Buick on the mountain between Pigeon Forge and Townsend and we were stuck at a hairpin turn.  Four cars had spun out ahead of us and they were blocking our lane. They were  an indication that if we tried to negotiate this curve, we would not make it either.

Even if we were going to drive through this tricky curve, we would have to move into the lane for oncoming traffic since that was the only lane available. And if we got stuck there, then both lanes would be blocked.


We weren't in mortal danger. In the very worst case scenario we could give up and spend the night in our car on the side of the road. We had water and blankets and even a portable gas stove, which was Grant's Christmas present, wrapped with a bow in the trunk of the car. 


Still, I really wanted to make it through this hairpin turn and get back to our cabin in Townsend for Christmas Eve.  



Audrey and Grant and I took a moment to consider our options. None of them seemed very good. Should Grant get out and push the cars out of the snow and get them unstuck? Should we try to drive around them in the lane for oncoming traffic? Should we call for help? Should we give up and spend the night on the side of the road in our car? 


Calling for help seemed futile. There were dozens of cars stuck on the side of the road on this mountain pass. And if these tiny Tennessee towns were equipped with emergency vehicles, they would have been there by now. 


Inside the car it was quiet for a while. The windshield wipers scratched back and forth across a layer of ice on the windshield. The dashboard GPS screen glowed in the darkness, a spinning wheel that was picking up no signal. Even outside the car, the newly-fallen snow had created a layer of hush all around us.

"You know, I just remembered something," Audrey broke the silence. "All my friends say that if they could have one person with them in a crisis, they would want it to be me."


I nodded. She is good in a crisis.


"How about this?" she continued. "How about if I get out and walk up to the other side of this curve, and ask the cars from that direction to stop for a few minutes while you drive around the curve in their lane?"


I nodded slowly. It seemed like our best chance. We looked at the curve ahead of us. Maybe we could make it. But then I shook my head. I was afraid we would spin out like the four cars that were blocking our lane. 


But this was happening. Audrey got out of the car to tell the two cars in front of us about our plan and see if they wanted in on the action. We sort of knew them. They had gotten stuck on the ice on the last two curves and Grant had gotten out to help push them across. 


"They didn't say thank you," he said, rubbing his hands together as he got back into our car after getting them unstuck the first time. He seemed more surprised than annoyed. And then when they got stuck a second time, he got out to help them again. 


Audrey finished conferring with the cars in front of us. The first car, the white Lexus, had called for emergency services and was going to wait for help. The second car, the gunmetal grey Hyundai, wanted us to go first and he was going to follow in our tracks. This made me nervous because the gunmetal grey driver seemed to know more about snow driving than any of us. And he wanted me to go first.


Audrey went to go hold up the oncoming traffic.  I rolled down the window and called out to her. 


"Hey ... be careful!"


"Yeah," she said over her shoulder, as if she were walking into the gas station to get a cup of coffee.  


I watched her walk away and with each step, I saw a little less of her and a little more of the snow falling between us. Then she rounded the curve and disappeared altogether. I heard the click of a shutter, the sound of my anxiety taking a mental picture, in case this was the last time I ever saw her.  

"Hush," I said to my anxiety. It's going to be fine.


I gave her a few minutes to stop the oncoming cars, and then I held my breath as I began the slippery drive. My wheels were already spinning as I passed the gunmetal grey Hyundai. The driver leaned out of his passenger side window and yelled to me, "Don't give it so much gas! Just creep along."


I crept. I crept and I crept and I crept.


As we passed the first spun-out car we started fish-tailing. I took my foot off the brake and somehow a combination of gravity and inertia kept us on the road. 

I crept. 


I tried to find tire tracks from a car that had navigated this curve ahead of us. The snow was falling so fast though, all tracks were covered up. 


I prayed that the tread on my tires was good enough.  

I crept. We approached the second spun-out car. The curve of the hill was so steep that we started to slide towards it. "Lean to your left!" I yelled to Grant. I have no idea if that helped. Probably not. But we did manage to miss the spun-out car by an inch and we re-gained traction. 


We crept.  

The only sound was the crunch of the tires over ice and snow, and then, slowly we came around the bend at the top of the hill and I could see Audrey standing in the falling snow, holding her hand up in an authoritative traffic stop and just behind her, several cars waited. We had made it around the curve without spinning out, and for the first time in several minutes, I exhaled. Audrey hopped back into our car.


"And that" - she snapped her seat belt into the buckle - "is why people want me around in a crisis!" she exclaimed. We high-fived. We clapped. We yelled. 


And then we continued to creep because we still had a few miles to go before we got home.

That hairpin curve was the last dangerous curve on the mountain pass. For the remainder of our trip home the road remained thankfully flat and straight. 


We still had one final challenge though - it was the hill at the entrance to our campground. And ironically, after everything we had gone through on the mountain, we just couldn't ascend it.  So we abandoned our car on the side of the road just a few hundred yard away from our cabin and trudged the rest of the way through the snow. 

When we finally got back into our cabin we took off our wet clothes, made hot chocolate and reflected back on our trip across the mountain. A drive that should have taken 30 minutes had taken almost three hours.



It would be dramatic to say it was a miracle. But it really would have been bad to be stuck in the ice on that mountain on Christmas Eve, as the temperatures dropped to single digits and the snow continued to fall. It was so much better to get ourselves and our car across the mountain in one piece. 


I felt a special sense of gratitude.

For Audrey. She really is someone I want with me in a crisis. She is brave and bold and calm, and a wizard problem-solver.


And for Grant. I want him with me in a crisis too. He has a giant and strong body and an even bigger and stronger heart, and he will get out of the car as many times as he has to to push someone across the ice, even if they never say thank you. 

And this, I think, is a scene you would want on a Christmas ornament. A mom and her two young adult children, sitting around the fireplace in a mountain cabin, with snow falling softly outside and their car parked in a snowy embankment at the foot of the hill. 



This scene says that creeping along is enough. This scene says that even your very worst case scenario isn't that bad. It says that your best-case scenario is more likely than you think. It says you've already come through a lot and although you don't know exactly how much more lies ahead, this hairpin turn might be the last difficult one. It says that hot chocolate and a fire are closer than you realize, and your tread probably is good enough.

Creep along.