“Traveling traveling and still traveling traveling,
You’re separated from me for life,
Ten thousand miles apart,
Gone to the other end of the sky.
With your road so long and difficult,
How can we know if we’ll meet again?…” Anonymous
October is called the Season of High Skies in China because temperatures hover around 70 degrees and the sun shines in a sky cleared of clouds by a gentle breeze blowing from the Gobi Desert. When I travelled there one October, the elements pointed toward an incredible adventure, which began on the 12 hour flight with my boys trying out chopsticks while their dad prepared his lectures and I read the guide books, devouring words. My life had felt empty for a while…and I attributed it to a miscarriage the previous October.
The guide books only hint at China’s beauty with their words: The Temple of Heaven, Temple of Longevity, Temple of Azure Clouds and then the Forbidden City, the Gate of Obedience and Purity, the Hall of Supreme Harmony and in the Summer Place the Hall of Jade Ripples… names that bled together in my reading like the colors in a Monet painting, leaving me with a warm but vague appreciation and anticipation of the place.
After the long but uneventful flight, we landed in Beijing and were picked up by our host to enter the flow of traffic. At the time there were 1.3 million private cars in Beijing), a city surrounded by ring roads. Ten years before our visit there were three, when we visited, seven.
In the lobby of the Rui Chen Hotel, I had my first on the ground encounter with Chinese beauty. I watched through a fog of travel exhaustion the clerk checking us in and other young women behind the counters filing papers and answering phones. They wore identical blue business suits but they were as unique and stylish as the green, honey colored and variegated bamboo growing in ceramic pots in the foyer. Because writing about the Chinese sense of feminine beauty risks calling to mind bound feet and powdered faces, I worried that I might be romanticizing notions of beauty, but these are notions every culture shares, whether they be bound feet or whale-boned corsets or anorexic teenagers with belly rings. Their beauty mesmerized me. I felt shabby in comparison.
That night, in a wood paneled room laden with delicious, exotic foods–baked lotus, steamed dumplings, bamboo salad, sweet sesame cakes and a translucent soup–I watched the waitresses carry dishes to the table, their traditional Chinese silk flowing with a gracefulness of presence and tried to see what beyond the surface made them so beautiful. Their bodies made no sound as they moved. They practically floated around the table and the focused attention they brought to their actions was part of their beauty, something that was internal. The colors of the dishes accented their silk dresses: emerald mustard greens, pearl white chicken, orange sweet potatoes glistening in steam. This beauty begged for one to stop and see and having seen to celebrate.
I watched the boys swinging their legs under the table mimicking the motion of the toys they had acquired before entering the banquet room. Outside the door, an artist stood behind a table filled with bowls of soft clay. Ben, small, bespectacled but definitely the more adventurous of the boys, approached the artist, who pinched some of the colorful clay, rolled it deftly between his fingers and within seconds presented a tiny bird swinging on a wire perch and fastened by string to a bamboo stick. Alexander, blonde, green-eyed with the delicate features of watchfulness, hung back, less sure and when the artist gestured to him he looked shyly away. Not to be deterred, the man repeated his magic and handed Alex a beautiful blue bird to complement Ben’s red one. The boys held the swings watching their birds as I watched them. Much later, back at the hotel I hung the birds on a freestanding rack in the boys’ room to watch over them as they slept.
The next morning, we ate our breakfast in the hotel: steamed noodles and dumplings and soups and greens and hard boiled eggs. The conference host, a Chinese law professor, brought over a young woman, whom he introduced as one of his graduate students and announced that she was to be guide for myself and the boys. I wanted to see Tiannemen Square, but Cathy X had a list of places that the law professor had suggested she take us and that was not on the list. Outside the hotel, we grabbed a cab to Beihai Park. The park, associated with Kublai Khan’s palace, was the center of Beijing before the Forbidden City. We entered the park through one of the four gates, straight into the midst of people dancing, about twenty couples waltzing, turning like leaves in a spiral of wind. A boom box sat in the middle of the circle and Benny Goodman’s “Blue Skies” filled the air. The people glided—together-apart; no effort, no pain creased their faces. Indeed, joy radiated from them a golden sheen in the full light of the sun.
“Chinese people never feel lonely when they retire,” Cathy explained, “because they keep themselves busy.” How could it be there was so much happiness there?
I watched the old women. They were beautiful with the sun shining down on them. Was it joy that made them beautiful? We walked on, into a continuing river of movement—this time tai chi. Ribbons fluttered like wings, seemingly suspended, but controlled by arm gestures of the practitioners. The physical exertion was clear, but energy flowed from their focus and that energy was beautiful. A few steps further, a lake dotted with pavilions sparkled in the center of the park and from one of the pavilions, a man’s rich baritone voice filled the air. Opera unraveled with perfect pitch. As we approached, the man finished his aria and we joined in clapping.
Cathy asked him a question in Chinese and in Chinese he answered. Turning to me, she said, “He is sixty nine years old.”
The man nodded proudly, his eyes crinkling as he smiled. I thought how in our youth oriented American culture, no one would ask a person their age, and if, in fact someone revealed their age, it would more likely be with embarrassment not pride. Here in Beihai Park, the names of gates, temples, and halls of longevity and supreme happiness and purity distilled the essence of life, saw age as a factor of the beauty in people. The poetic names took shape, gained focus and I saw that the beauty I observed in the hotel clerks and restaurant waitresses was not exclusive to women. This senior opera fan exuded beauty as did the male artist who made the clay birds for the boys the night before.
That afternoon, I took a walk on the streets of Beijing. A crush of cars and bicycles flowed by on the street. Construction workers sprawled on the sidewalk beside a deep trench and exposed pipes. The workers slept under the October sky. It was about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but some of the workers wore tattered brown coats, without buttons, others twined through their belt loops to hold up their pants. A few of them were barefoot. There were at least a dozen men; all appeared younger than thirty. A man in a large dump truck watched me watch them. I had been told that the influx of population from the country into the city brought these construction workers from the farms to find better pay and opportunities, specifically education, for their children.
Further down the street, I confronted the Old Beijing Hotel, a remnant of colonial imperialism in the city. The imposing, elegant hotel with spiral staircase, marble floors and steps, plush chairs and fancy shops on the first floor, an entire city block. Once I passed it, I found myself behind the building with the common Chinese people. Men worked in dusty ditches, digging, or running stone cutters. A few squatted, eating oranges or thin gruel. Bikes perched precariously. I thought about the young men sleeping on the sidewalk, and the beauty Cathy had shown us in Beihei Park.
A contradiction. Having seen it, I couldn’t un-see it. I spoke of it later that evening with one of our Chinese friends, who said “The more you are in harmony with Tao, the more clear seeing you will be,” and while that was the end of the conversation, it was only the beginning of my seeing.
On our second morning in Beijing, Ben wandered off to take a picture of a temple. Before I could blink, a crowd surrounded him. Cathy, Alex and I went running over and Cathy gently parted the crowd to reveal Ben smiling at his new friends.
A few of those gathered spoke excitedly to Cathy, who then turned to me. “They think he looks like Harry Potter,” she said. “They want a picture.”
Seeing Alex and his blonde hair, a rare sight in China, the crowd gathered him into the picture, too.
“They think he’s Harry Potter’s brother,” Cathy said.
Each day, the same scene unfolded—with women, mostly, stopping to pat and admire the boys and then pulling out cameras and proclaiming,
“Harry Potter!” Click. Click.
On our last day in Beijing, as we rode the subway on our way to the Forbidden City, this maternal interaction presented itself with a twist as a curious woman stared at me and did not return my smile, but addressed herself to Cathy.
Cathy leaned in to me and said, “She is worried at the size of the backpack you make the boys carry. She asks why a mother would let her child carry such a big bag.”
I looked at Ben. The backpack was almost half his size, but held only sweatshirts, map and water bottle. I said so to Cathy and she passed that on to the woman.
The woman spoke again and again Cathy translated. “She says in that case you have the right idea. She did everything for her son and now he is thirty and he still depends on her.”
The woman and I regarded each other. She still did not return my smile. I tried to practice my clear seeing. She was older than me but her skin was smooth and unwrinkled.
“Mama?” She asked me in English.
She held up two fingers and pointed to the boys.
Again, I nodded.
“You lucky,” she said.
I felt an internal shift occur. I had grieved the missed opportunity of another baby, but here in China where women’s opportunities for family were limited, pressured, even dictated, I saw that I was indeed lucky.
The next day we left Beijing for Shanghai where the boys and I walked the streets without a guide, without Cathy to steer us to sights of beauty. There, we stumbled onto street life unedited, where maimed children begged for coins and broken men built the concrete foundations of a poetic skyline breaking for a thin bowl of gruel or a moment’s sleep on the sidewalk. We saw the people who suffer in China, those who lack basic needs; the grace and beauty so prevalent in historic places and names did not sustain them.
“Mom, what can we do?” asked Ben when we had used up all the coins.
“Go to the ATM,” Alex demanded. “We need more money.” Their active engagement showed early and develops still as they move along in their lives.
Me, lucky? Absolutely.
We came home and contributed a little more money, but it certainly hasn’t solved any problems. The Chinese culture is a complex culture with centuries of history, not all of it easy to reconcile with what I observed in the moments of seeing beauty. Our country faces troubling contradictions too—poverty? Racism? I tried to practice more clear seeing at home. I returned, grateful to the woman on the train, whose name I don’t even know, who spoke those few words of English, such important words: You are lucky. During that exchange, my focus intensified. Grace descended.
Back home, the foliage was just beginning to peak. The fiery red at the base of the hills shot flames into the sky, the same sky that stretches over Beijing and up to Heaven, where years before a child of mine made its way to the land of the immortals. I began to see in the season of foliage the ebb and flow of the natural world as the same cycle of ebb and flow within me. And with an ease I can’t properly explain, I surrendered– for even with its contradictions, this world is a world of infinite delight.
Susanne Davis holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been published in numerous magazines including Notre Dame Review, Feminist Studies, American Short Fiction, descant and others, and her work has won awards and recognition.
Great Grandma in her black-taffeta bathing suit
waded in the Atlantic Ocean,
before storms toppled houses,
before sand washed into the marsh
and sent herons flying.
One summer I lived in a beach house,
struggled to swim. I wanted to wear long hair
knotted in braids. I wanted to float on the waves.
Buongiorno, I said. Then sat with Great Grandma
and her friends.
She knows more English than I know
Italian, I thought.
When she looked sad, Mom translated.
She’s missing her cousins and those
she midwifed into the world, Mom said.
Great Grandma and I gathered sand dollars
and other beach treasures, lost now like her stories.
I wish I knew why she had a cross, blued on her arm,
and why she burned it off.
I do know she arrived at the Port of Boston in 1913,
with her thin sons. They learned English,
but she didn’t. She expected to die young,
heartsick for home.
MaryEllen Letarte, founder and director of the Louise Bogan Chapter of the Massachusetts State Poetry Society writes stories and poems. Her work has appeared online and in print publications such as Friends Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Silver Boomer Books and Pitkin Review. She’s thankful for having found a writing group and sharing poetry with her granddaughters.
Poet’s statement: Reading favorite poems triggers a memory, a story, or an observation that seeds my lines. After writing a couple of prose pages, I chip at the paragraphs and find stanzas. I may revise the poem many more times after that except in the rare instance when a poem seems to spring from inside of me almost whole.
The look on the face of my daughter when the sirens go off
And we run to the safe room, collecting babies and toys
And the phone, a bottle of milk that rolled under the couch
And we count as if it is a game…one, two, three, four…
And we wait, ten long stretching moments, for the shrapnel to fall,
The babies nod back to sleep,
And I look at their faces and think of future wars.
And they will beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks,
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
Nor will they train for war anymore.*
I am not a farmer,
Plowshares, spears or pruning hooks
These I am not unfamiliar with,
But I can see my hand pruning the flowers in my garden,
It is a peaceful scene.
If I will not train for war,
Maybe my children will go to war no more,
And the sweet faces of my grandchildren
Will not have to become the faces of soldiers.
*Bible verse from Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (International Bible).
Ariela Zucker was born in Jerusalem in 1949. She started writing nonfiction, mostly memoir, and discovered the great joy of writing poetry only recently.
Frozen solid. All the doors of the van are frozen solid, the folly of a car wash earlier in the day. I try and fail to yank the doors open, throwing my entire body weight into the tug. I insert a credit card into the crack by the door, attempting to dislodge the ice. Bending close—my nose pressing against the frosty window—I breathe long, hot breaths into the crevice, hoping for a melting drip, praying for a miracle. Nothing works.
My toddler twins, Isaac and Madeline, huddle together in the shopping cart, nestled among the grocery bags. Madeline peers up at me. The icy air has brightened her aqua blue eyes, which stand out against her fair skin.
She has pulled her mittens off. I reach over and tug them back onto her cold fingers.
“Leave them on,” I instruct.
Isaac pulls off his hat. I yank it back down over his blonde hair.
“No, Isaac,” I command. This is no time for toddler shenanigans, with the wind gusting across our faces.
Nathan, my five-year-old, sits on the van’s rear bumper. His cheeks are chapped and reddened, and he, too, has removed his hat. But he swings his stubby legs back and forth, back and forth. He is blissfully unaware of his angry cheeks, or the bitter cold or—more importantly—our uncertain situation.
It’s such an absurd problem—doors iced shut—and yet I am numb to a solution. Little has prepared me for the length and ferocity of Minnesota winter, or for incidents such as this. I purchased heavy-duty winter gear long before we left Virginia, while the tulips were still blooming and before the summer cicadas began their seasonal concert. Back then, my husband Brian and I sat on our back porch and discussed ice melt and snow blowers, warm boots and thermal underwear. In moving to Minnesota for one year of specialized medical training, we knew Brian would be travelling among two dozen hospitals and medical clinics across a large geographic area. Because of his rigorous schedule, we also knew I would be on my own to navigate six months of winter—with small children in tow. I figured the season would bring, at most, a degree of hassle and inconvenience. I believed I was prepared.
Winter roared in on a Saturday morning in early November, not long after our move. I stood at an upstairs window and watched the dense snow paint a blank white canvas over what had been a colorful autumn world. It blew in sideways for eight hours, stopped long enough for plows to treat the city streets, and then just a few days later, started again.
Since that first storm, I have grown familiar with this beast that is Minnesota winter. I have encountered blizzards and flurries and everything in between. I know the angry bite of subzero wind chills on my exposed flesh; I have felt piercing pain of blizzard-level snow, blowing horizontally, striking the whites of the eyes. I have discovered the blinding intensity of the noonday sun on the coldest days, as well as the barrenness of a world dressed in white and dulling to grey. I have begun to measure the short days and the long nights by the ever-growing mound of cleared snow on our driveway. It is nearing shoulder height.
While I have struggled to acclimate, Minnesotans have dispensed plenty of advice. I have been counseled to keep kitty litter in the car, along with a shovel, snow pants, signal flares, and energy bars. A cashier told me to avoid semi trucks and to quadruple my travel time. I learned that “cold” meant any temperature below zero. A neighbor advised me to drink a glass of wine before opening the February heating bill. And I was admonished never to run a vehicle through a car wash on a frigid January day.
As I recall this nugget of wisdom, I feel frustrated by my own stupidity. I lean against the frozen sliding door and wonder whom I can call for help. My husband? No, he is at work many miles away. I feel a twinge of irritation that Brian is not available to come to my aid. My meager list of local contacts offers no possibilities, either.
We are stranded.
The glacial air chills the solitary tear on my cheek. I picture the numerous evenings when I tuck the children in bed and then sit in the living room, alone. Curled under a blanket, I listen to the wind howl around the corners of the house and wisps of air whistle through the windows’ insufficient seals. They are the only sounds in an otherwise silent house. My phone does not ring, and I do not know when Brian will return. Such evenings have begun to feel like a tomb.
In short, I am frozen into inaction by both acute cold and aching loneliness. I long for color beyond neutrals, for warmth beyond Gore-Tex. I yearn for Virginia winter, with its crisp afternoons, where children skip down snow-dusted sidewalks and their parents walk alongside them. In the depth of Virginia winters, “cold” merely requires a thick jacket, “snow” means a day off of school or work, and “winter” simply necessitates a good shovel and a bit of patience.
My patience with Minnesota winter expired weeks ago.
I sigh, looking around the empty parking lot and back at my children who, thankfully, are calm and quiet. Nathan remains perched on the back fender but has stopped swinging his legs. Something has caught his attention.
I follow his gaze to a nearby mound of freshly cleared snow. A squirrel is attempting to climb up and over the mound, but it becomes submerged, the snow closing around him like a whirlpool. A moment later he reemerges, dusted in white, laboring onward. Several seconds pass and he sinks in again, the snow closing over him. Again he emerges, bounding upward, energized by the fight.
Surfacing from yet a third deluge of snow, the squirrel’s long tail flicks the snowflakes into the air, casting them off with bravado. The streetlight above illuminates the individual flakes, suspending them in mid-air, highlighting their graceful spin. And onward forges the little squirrel, undeterred, up the mound to the summit.
I watch the squirrel’s tenacity and see in it the doggedness of my fellow Minnesotans: Nathan’s wizened hockey coach, who holds practice during raging snowstorms. The young mother, whose daily exercise consists of cross-country skiing on a snow-blanketed golf course. The generous neighbor, who unearths the four hundred feet of sidewalk around our house, and the recent acquaintance, who invited me to go Christmas shopping in forty-below temperatures.
Two weeks ago, the students at my children’s school gathered at our neighborhood’s outdoor soccer-field-turned-ice-rink. The students brought their own skates. The teachers did, too. The girls, in polka-dot scarves and purple hats with pom poms, clung to each other and giggled as they spun in circles. The boys got up a hockey game, their sticks slapping the ice as they scrambled for the puck. Two timid third-graders clutched their teacher’s hand, slipping along the ice. Parents laced skates and tucked in gloves and distributed steaming hot cocoa. Other parents zipped around the rink with their children. It was a community celebration that was full of life, and color, and warmth of a better variety.
As I picture that Rockwellian winter gathering, I suddenly recognize the ridiculousness of my own ineptitude. I feel it bubble up from deep in my gut—a fleeting pang of embarrassment soon followed by belly-wrenching laughter. It comes unbidden, spilling out in tears and gasps and forming tiny clouds of vapor as I exhale, staccato-like, into the frigid air.
The children stare at me. They have no idea why I am laughing, but it is contagious, and they soon join in. Madeline claps her mittened hands in glee. With an impish grin, Isaac yanks Madeline’s hat off of her head once again. Nathan hops down from the fender, and he flings his arms around my legs.
Mid-laugh, wiping my nose, eyes and cheeks on my gloves, I throw back my head and look up at the foggy night sky.
And I declare enough.
No longer will I allow winter, or loneliness, to hijack me into submission. Instead, I resolve to look for beauty in the season’s white-cold ashes and to stand firm against its wailing wind. I will seek out warmth in new friendships, find pleasure in activity, and see color in my children’s eyes.
I will choose to be independent. Resilient. Resourceful.
I bend down and give Nathan a hug, and then I move to the back of the van. I grasp the handle on the trunk. I pull hard. Pull again. And then a third time, a fourth. At long last, there is a faint crackle of ice being pulled from the seam.
Jennifer Swenson lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband and five children. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and is working on an MFA in creative nonfiction at Bay Path University. Her writing has appeared in Segullah and AlbemarleFamily (now CharlottesvilleFamily).