Monday, September 11, 2006

The Peonies

Over my fireplace hangs a watercolor painting of two red peonies on rice paper. It's handsomely double matted in pine green and light grey and in a black lacquer frame, although the giver of the picture told me not to frame it, it was a simple picture, on rice paper, and he had seen it painted with his own eyes. But I'm not too good at following directions. In the right hand corner are characters, which I assume to be the artist's name, but I don't know that.

This picture has followed me for almost twenty years. For a time it hung in my apartment in Michigan, and then in my office in North Carolina and later in Ohio, and now it has landed on two tiny nails above the white brick fireplace.

For a long time I wanted someone to ask me about the picture, how I got it, where it came from, what it meant. I was like a character out of the Chekhov story, The Lament, a story in which a cab driver yearns to tell his riders about the death of his son by pneumonia. His fares tell him hurry up, what's taking so long to get to the Kremlin? He finally tells his sad story to his horse, his best listener.

The giver of the picture--QiQuan--said we met the day I wore large gold earrings and smiled without showing my teeth. We did similar work, and we were both strangers in a strange land. He sent me a packet with porcelain white and blue dragon necklaces for my children, a silk scarf, an orange paper cutting that he said was from a famous novel, and a black lacquer tea set. He sent a hand written formal note on yellow legal paper, saying he hoped my children would like the dragons.

He told me he was unusually tall for a Chinese man, almost six feet tall, and he had a way of shaking his head that made his hair splay out like he was a shaggy dog emerging from the swimming pool. His breath smelled of exotic spices and he complained that American food was not very good, except for pizza and spicy mustard. He said when they expected company at home there were at least nine different dishes on the table.

When my young children were sick he made pastries from Hungry Jack canned biscuits, filled them with a special pudding, and called them Heart's Ease. He said at home all he did was study and teach his students, and he was an expert on Moby Dick. He said he could outdrink all of his colleagues, but that he worked so hard they had a nickname for him that in translation meant Balls of a Dead Man.

He went on a trip to Atlanta and when he came back he said he told many jokes, and he was known as the Johnny Carson of China. This seemed incongruent to me, as he did not seem funny so much as urgent and intense, with his head shaking and his desire to spill information out to me, making him breathless. He said he wrote to his wife that he still loved her and hoped she did not hit their son.

The picture of peonies he saved for last, before he left the country. He told me that the peony is the queen of flowers in China, and that he was giving it to me, because he saw how hard I worked with his own eyes, and that the queen of flowers should go to the queen of women. shouldn'tt have it framed, because it was just a simple picture. As I said, I'm not too good at following directions.

After almost twenty years, I think it's a good thing no one really asks about it, because maybe it's given me strength not to talk about it, after all. It's sort of a secret, closely held, a trump card I can peek at to remind myself, yeah, I worked hard, and I knew QiQuan, and I am a rich woman, not a character in a Chekhov story at all, at all.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Recurring Theme of the Dancing Shiva

Years ago Joseph Campbell offered a workshop for physicians on the experience of the sacred. At one point in his presentation he showed us slide after slide of sacred images: paintings, statues, pottery, tapestries, and stained glass from many places and times. I remember one of these vividly. It was a particularly fine example of Shiva Nata Raja, a “Dancing Shiva” from the Lieden Museum in Zurich. Shiva is the Hindu name for the masculine aspect of God, and while these small bronze statues are common in India, few of us have seen this charming image before. Shiva, the god, dances in a ring of bronze flames. The hands of his many arms hold symbols of the abundance of spiritual life. As he dances, one of his feet is lifted high and the other is supported by the naked back of a little man crouched down in the dust, giving all his attention to a leaf he is holding between his hands.

Physicians are trained observers. Despite the great beauty of the dancing god, all of us had focused on the little man and the leaf and we asked Joseph Campbell about him. Campbell began to laugh. Still laughing, he told us that the little man is a person so caught up in the study of the material world that he doesn’t even know that the living God is dancing on his back. There is a bit of the little man in all of us and certainly in most physicians.
--Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

I love this theme of the dancing shiva. One of my favorite popular works where it is dramatized is in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. If only we would just open our eyes.

What my eyes see is that my home looks like an ocean liner. It’s long, tall and narrow. The front porch looks like the bow of the boat, slowly making its way through the deep waters of the ocean, carving a way forward. I hope we aren’t churning up too much in our wake. When I’m in my bedroom, which is above the bow, I feel like I’m one of those women carved out of wood that leads the way: a figurehead. Occasionally we hit the doldrums.

(The north side of my house is so steep and gleaming in the summer sun I think it looks like the white cliffs of Dover. So far no one has jumped.)

Anyway, the ocean liner is being re-arranged to meet the current passenger’s needs. You may have noticed the chocolate floor in the writer’s palace. Lately I notice I’m stumbling over what to call this palace, my writing studio. Sometimes I say office (ick, too office-y); study (ick, too 1950’s with masculine wood paneling); and writing studio (just too many syllables).

Now, in honor of my father, I have decided to call it my “shop.”

In my father’s shop were many tubes and wires, most of which I did not understand. I’m not good with things electrical. He spent many hours there, doing things I did not understand, but I understood this: he was passionate about what he did, he always did his best, and treated people with the utmost integrity.

After his death, my mother pulled out a black case from under one of his several desks. She opened it and revealed a vast array of meters, small parts that ended in “or”—capacitator, oscillator-- and wires.

“Your brother says this was the heart of the operation,” she said.

So now I have a shop, and a heart of the operation; I don’t fix things, but then again, maybe I do fix things, with words. Belly up to the bar, folks, we’re serving haiku-tinis and sonnets on the rocks.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Today I’m at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. In the background Marvin Gaye sings “What’s Goin’ On.” I’m groovin’ through the exhibits until I reach the questions the senate confirmation committee asked Ford when Nixon nominated him to be vice president.

Do you know Gordon Liddy?
Do you know John Dean?
Have your children ever been arrested for using drugs?

At the bottom of each page these words are typed: Administratively Confidential.

I had to stop and laugh out loud. Aw, c’mon folks, what did that mean? What kind of bureaucratic morass were we in anyway? "Confidential – senate -vice presidential nominee privilege"? What was Goin’ On? Uh-oh. Has anything changed?

Remember those days? Here are the President’s talking points for a cabinet meeting:

§ you may wish to reaffirm Al Haig’s role as chief of staff.
§ Tell the cabinet you’ll have an open door policy.

This is the first federal presidential museum I’ve visited. On the one hand, it’s a bit awe-inspiring, with replicas of the oval office and the cabinet’s meeting room and the sense of history; but it’s also a little like Betty Ford’s inaugural dress, a big designer-ish, powder blue, with a tight-fitting cinched waist and showing just the correct amount of leg.

Catching up department: gone is the orange carpet, in with the Gleaming Chocolate. For the writing studio, that is. While the high gloss paint I've rolled on the floor, my feet, and the woodwork is named “Turkish Coffee,” much smarter I’m sure than my choice, when I look at the floor I see Godiva.