Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.

Today, I walked around the Red Park for awhile. I was surprised to see that the lake had frozen. Now it's littered with bricks and rocks tossed to test the ice. It was cold, and there were few people there. All the businesses that normally sell eight treasure tea inside had shut down for the winter.

In spring I often spend my mornings in one of the painted, open-air corridors, sharing the early light with peonies and fresh yellow buds on trees that, before coming here, I had only seen in dreams. I sip tea (whose eight treasures are some dried mix of the following: bright red fruits the shape of raisins, dates, dragon eyes, jujubes, and flowers), and leave an empty notebook in front of me. I can only rarely think of anything to write--my time there is more of an emptying than a search.

One thing that I appreciate is how life is cyclical here. It looks drastically different in the winter and summer. I love the first day that those small winter clementines appear. The winter squashes that follow. The first day you can go to the park and bear a whole early spring morning in the cold. The fleeting summer mulberries, just like the ones that purpled our young feet in Knoxville summers. The first sweet taste of strawberries. I love when the square starts filling up with people again at night. And then I love, in its own way, when these things disappear. When the whole world turns back to waiting. To sleep. To tapping its watch, making sure the seconds are still ticking by.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


All last night the curtains in my bedroom filled and twisted with wind coming through my poorly-sealed windows. It purred as it dove in through the hole in my kitchen window and curled around and under the kitchen door.

Today was the first cold, blustery winter day. The first one like I remember from last year, when I wore the Russian-style fur hat that my parents bought me for Christmas the year previous. I wore it when I first met my current landlord, and the next time I saw him, he didn't recognize me. Remember, I'm not exactly forgettable here. But the first time he saw me in that hat, and it alone had curled up in his memory like the small animal whose fur it bears.

This evening a friend came in wearing the same style of cap. It had been given to him by the Police Department long ago, when he worked for them. Now he's a teacher, sixty-seven years old, having twice come out of retirement, now teaching maybe the last classes of his life. As he's talking about his work, even the difficulties of his work, you can often catch him smile.

And then tonight, trying to fix the blender at the coffee shop, I cut my finger, deep. Only then did I realize how long it had been since I'd last seen my own blood. So red, so alive. I am so alive, really. It made me smile to see it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Here, fruit and vegetable carts float through the city like shrimp trawlers. Some always go to the same place. Some are more dynamic, moving all day, loudly yelling the name of their wares.

"Corn! Corn! Corn!" and on, and on, all day.

Today, I passed one full of the tiny winter clementines that we have in our city, that seem to taste sweeter than anything I've had at home. They're not much bigger than a quarter, and for maybe twenty minutes a day I'll carefully make a cut with my pocketknife, peel and eat the tiny wedges one at a time like the sections of a clock. Left will be a pile of orange peels, the fragrance of oranges, a sweet acid taste, and a burning on my tongue like fire.

The man I passed was yelling as usual. "Oranges! Oranges!" And his three-year-old daughter was moving back and forth to the rhythm of it, the familiarity of it, swaying and precisely moving her hands in a dance probably thousands of years older than she is, or will ever be.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Red Park Cafe Couple

The shop had been open about a month and a half when I finally sat down with some regulars, a couple who had often come in.

They told me that they'd only been dating a month, and that every date had been at my coffee shop.

Kind of cool.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The street here, on both sides, is lined with tiny shops, florists or art stores or small dirty places with meat standing on hooks. Shops with gifts for friends, knick-knacks, things that spin and light up and, ultimately, gather dust on your shelf. And restaurants, restaurants everywhere, a few square meters chalked off where you sit and wait for steamed buns stuffed with carrots, or plates of noodles to fog your glasses.

And the people. When you walk down the street, all you need to do to see people living their lives is turn your head. Intimate moments, too--families yelling at each other, old couples grazing hands. People's faces lit up by a TV screen, laughing or incredulous. An old man sitting and staring, and seeing nothing.

Actually, in this the city opens to you like a book. In these shops you can read it carefully, read the families as lines in the history of this place, the streets as chapters. And each person, ultimately, only a word--a word left on a pillow the last time one wakes, or pressed into a son's hand in the final moment.

It is yet to be seen whether you, the traveler, have planted yours here to grow, or tossed it in one of the many small rivers that criss-cross underneath the city.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Right now, this city's biggest holiday of the year is going on. Rams are being herded through the streets, are being sacrificed and eaten. Families are gathering together here, and individuals are returning to the places from which they've come, from which they've been sent.

It's these times when we can clearly both see and feel the wires that bind us all to our homes. And in those moments when we can't quite follow them to our origins, it's easy to see how we tangle ourselves up, choking (if only a little), straining to get just one glimpse of a blood relative or familiar road, to detect a vague scent of honeysuckle, to hear even distantly the groan of a cider press slowly bearing down, the one from the orchard our class visited when we were yet very young.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


I suppose I would say, to start, that one of my passions (and duties) is recording my life here. Trying to really capture it. And I know that lately, I have done a poor job of that.

Part of it may be that it's just been so long. What could help you best to understand? The fragrant pile of orange peels on my desk at work? My breath, quick and white, in the unheated concrete room where, in the mornings, I practice tai chi? The small clinks of forks and plates and cups, the sound of laughter coming from an upstairs room?

Would it be the boisterous conversation over cards, or the hushed tones of lovers in the corner? The crunch of snow, or the flush of a face at sudden warmth?

Holan wrote, "If there were no silence here / the snow would have dreamed it up." Maybe the silence, maybe the sleep, the solitude would speak it all best. I like to think that there was no silence here, and the mantle I bear nightly is a dream of the snow.

Regardless, all of these have been, and for a while yet will be, close companions. From these common seeds, each day blossoms differently.