Hong Kong

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I’ve been here before, trying to quell this underlying feeling of wanting to bolt, to run away, find something new. I’m mostly contented. The threat of violence or starvation or homelessness is not hanging around my door. I love my family. But day to day routines don’t hold much in the way of surprise and that little bit of fear that breeds excitement.

The last time I was away from what was familiar was before I had kids, a couple years before Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese control.

I was with ten other girls who worked in the same department at the airline. We were going to Hong Kong to see the hotels we were selling as part of a vacation package.

Stephanie was my roommate. All I knew about her before this trip was that she had just turned fifty and called in sick on her birthday. I knew that she spoke sweetly to the people who called in to make reservations. I knew that she had a wide, beautiful face, smooth white skin, and happy blue eyes.

The first thing she ever said to me was, “What are you?  A baby goat?”  It was right after I’d moved to her quad of desks and I was drinking from a pull top water bottle. I think I must’ve smiled at her but I don’t remember.

In Hong Kong, our friendship just happened. We laughed when the elevator alarms sounded because our group exceeded the weight limit. We laughed when she woke up “feeling like she had licked a cat.” We laughed when I said I felt like I’d been eating Science Diet dog food.

I told her I’d grown up in Venezuela, that the multi-national company where my dad worked had transferred him there when I was three. I told her that being in Hong Kong, which is much closer to the equator than Minnesota, I had it in my mind to find an expanse of lush tropical gardens, complete with the traffic of birds and over-sized insects. I was looking for the environment of my childhood.  Even when my eyes were focused straight ahead, I was really looking back.

So why didn’t I just go back to Venezuela, my heart even being its exact shape? Why didn’t I leave my husband, my kids, my dogs and cats? Why didn’t I move away from Minnesota, from the this place of crushing winters? I knew I was going to be laid off from my job in five months anyway, the job that took me to Hong Kong.

I didn’t go back because the circumstances that took me there in the first place were gone. People, like land, are not static. I just wanted to relive it. What I was looking for in Hong Kong were the smells and sounds and colors of my youth. I wanted to feel the air again, wet and heavy, clinging to my skin like a blanket. I wanted the sun to dominate and permeate my vision, making the dirtiest, dustiest corners flash with color.

On our last day in Hong Kong, Stephanie and I opted out of joining the rest of the group on a bus tour to Canton. Instead, we took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island in search of flora and fauna.

It was clear as we climbed the steep street that we were on a mountain. But it was a mountain of buildings, stacked and leaning over each other. We saw a church built in the middle of a parking lot. Sacred space, so sacred is the space.

We found a small botanical garden at the top of that road, a meager park with a zoo and a tiny hothouse. Inside the hothouse, looking at the orchids clinging to their tree fern fiber perches, I realized this was the closest I was going to get to Venezuela. But we stayed in that park for a long hour before going in search of the mountainside escalator we’d read about.

It went up in levels, that escalator, each one opening up into a singular community. Steps away from the escalator were households, laundry hanging out of windows, over walls. There was a level comprised of real estate offices. Another was food shops.

We got off the escalator where it opened into a mosque. Duly shedding our shoes, we stepped into a carpeted room. It was poor and plain and a group of children sat around a turbaned man. He attempted conversation with us, practiced kindness. But in reality, it was as if we had walked into a stranger’s house uninvited. It occurred to me that in this crowded city, boundaries were erected through body language. Downcast eyes were doors. Stiff bodies were fences. We left that mosque quickly, our eyes downcast.

As we wound our way back down the mountain, Stephanie tripped on a hidden step, crashed into me, crashed to the pavement. She said, “It feels like my foot isn’t attached to my ankle.” In the cab on the way back to the hotel, all I could think to do was to tell her stories so she wouldn’t pass out.

I told her about the time in Venezuela when my younger brother, Mike, skipped school, took a quaalude, and borrowed a motorcycle. He crashed. The person that found him didn’t know where he lived but knew he went to the American school so he called the school. The school tried calling our house but kept getting a busy signal. I was called out of class. My first thought was “Good. I don’t have to take that marine biology test I didn’t study for.” It happened that my first boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, was up at the school. He drove me home in his little green Renault. And, while my mother got dressed and waited for my dad, he drove me to the hospital.

There was Mike in a darkened closet of a room, unconscious on a cot. Half of his head had been shaved.

When my mom and dad showed up and made arrangements to have him transferred to a private hospital, I rode in the back of the ambulance with him. While we wove in and out of traffic, Mike’s head rolled from side to side. I would be looking at the side of his face that was scraped black and purple and, suddenly, I would be looking at the smooth, untouched side, the sweet side. The ambulance attendant wouldn’t let me hold his head steady. Mike was in a coma for three days. Then the pressure eased. The bleeding in his brain stopped. He woke up and said he’d been attacked by a chocolate ice cream monster. There were so many things I didn’t know existed.

I looked over at Stephanie, her eyes closed, head leaning against the back window. I was aware of this new forced intimacy between us, her nylon covered legs stretched across my thighs, my hands holding them still. I reached over and rolled down her window, hoping the air would bring her back like my story hadn’t. And I began another story as we headed through the tunnel bridge to Kowloon.

I told her about the time my mother was driving us to the beach. The “us” was me and two friends from college. While driving down the steep mountain road to the coast of Puerto Cabello, my mother had a grand mal seizure. We flagged down a truck full of military men, my arm straight in the air, fingers spread, the same way I flagged down the cab Stephanie and I rode in.

Stephanie started to perk up. She rolled up her window. I relaxed and quit talking. This was familiar. I knew about hospitals in foreign countries.

Back at the hotel, we made the appropriate calls, ordering an ambulance like it was room service. I watched while Stephanie cracked jokes with the three ambulance attendants who grunted and groaned as they lifted her onto a stretcher.

“There are big Viking women in Minnesota, where we come from. Strong. Hardy.” she said. They asked her if she’d been drinking.

The hospital was like a classroom except there were beds instead of desks. Hand written signs were taped up around the room. The “Exit” and “Radiology” signs could have easily been child’s work.

“When I get back home, I’m going to send them pillows.” Stephanie said. She could have just as easily said, “They need pencils.” It was all the same.

I went outside to smoke when they wheeled Stephanie away for x-rays. In the span of a cigarette, I saw two ambulances drive up. Two stretchers were unloaded from the first ambulance. After unloading two more stretchers from the second, the attendants lifted out an old man and carried him inside. It was like a bus service.

I went back inside and found a chair under the taped up sign that said, “Waiting Room.” Seven out of the ten people that came in had head injuries. I knew this because of the blood stained rags and scarves that were tied around their heads. Was this the form domestic violence took? Or was this what happens in a society that is overcrowded, when doors and windows are unexpectedly thrown open?

Stephanie’s foot was, in fact, detached from her ankle. It had been broken in three places. Since we were flying back to Minnesota the next day, where she’d have surgery to reassemble it, they just put it in a thin cast. Then Stephanie could send pillows and pencils and a thank you note to the doctor. She was thoughtful like that.

As I sit here now, intermittently typing and petting Betty, for a second I think I’m petting Harry or Kimball, other dogs I’ve known. The feel of her fur is oily smooth one way and course and choppy the other. It is familiar.

In Hong Kong, I ached to recapture the feeling I knew at seeing the sun glitter silver and gold off the mica speckled rock we found at the base of the mountains that surrounded our house in Valencia, Venezuela. Here, in winter, when I look outside, I see the same shimmering diamonds crossing the snow. It’s as if shimmer and glitter and sheen are not phenomenon but species.

When I was in Hong Kong, I couldn’t see the sameness. I didn’t see that the neon signs arcing out over Nathan Road were the same as the trees that used to arc a tunnel over Summit Avenue, the same, even, as my arms arc away from my body.

I didn’t see that the woman in the jewelry shop who had followed me around, trying so hard to sell me a string of pearls was the same as the little boy in the Andino town of Jajo who had tried so hard to sell a plastic bag full of oranges.

I didn’t see that my friendship with Stephanie was the same kind as I had with Susie, my best friend I had in Venezuela.

Nothing has really been lost. Shapes have just been altered. So I will look more carefully, more expectantly, at what is routine and familiar, to see what surprises are there.

Pook at Eight

Rebel Pook

Eight years ago our Pook was born. He was a mild baby. He didn’t fuss. He always fell right to sleep when I held my hand gently on his forehead. When he was awake, he calmly, often without expression, watched his world. I thought he would be a shy, quiet thinker.

But he’s not like that at all. He is a great ball of passion. He is loving and full up with compassion. When he plays the piano, which he does at all hours of the day, I’m filled with wonder. He can be noodling on the piano, his fingers instinctively knowing where to find melody and, at the same time, be looking at and chatting with whomever is in the room. It’s as if he exists on two separate planes. At once, he is on the spirit-creator plane and the plane of our hard edged world. He’s divided and yet perfectly unified.

And he can loudly indignant when presented with what he perceives as injustice.

A few days ago, while walking to Lake Nokomis for a swim, Pook decried a message written in chalk on the path. It read Girls Rule!

“That’s just wrong!”  he said, “Everyone is equal!”

“They should be.” I said.

I understood his affront. Terry, his dad, suffered a similar affront when he was about ten or eleven. At his sister’s school, Regina, they were recreating the 1972 album “Free to be You and Me”, which promoted gender equality and the idea that everyone should be true to themselves and their own unique identities. It still rankles Terry that he couldn’t go to that school. It seemed like a fun school. It was closer to home. But it was girls only.

Pook knows about inequality. He knows about injustices. If he hears me mutter under my breath, “That’s disgusting.” or “That’s ridiculous.” he comes running, as if lassoed, to find out what’s going on.

When we talked about the legislators in Texas restricting a woman’s right to govern her body as she sees fit, I didn’t mention that tampons were confiscated instead of guns. Like the Texas legislators, he wouldn’t understand what tampons are used for because he doesn’t know about the reproductive cycles of women.

When we talked about Trayvon Martin being shot, he said, “Why do people kill?”

Pook always gives me a platform and I said, “I suppose it has something to do with how we define ourselves, our self image. And fear. But I don’t know. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone.”

Maybe I said more. Maybe not. But it got me thinking that We ARE sheep and we are supposed to live in community but we don’t have to give up thinking on our own. That’s the great thing about being human. We get to do that.

And self image is just that- an image. By defining ourselves by where we live, what we wear, how we speak, we inadvertently or purposefully pass judgement on others. To kill, first you have to judge.

Pook and I talked about Edward Snowden, too. I’m sure I said, “I wish him safe passage and a safe haven.” And I might have said, “People need privacy because we live in a world with many stones.”  And I thought but didn’t say, “Governments aren’t people and should be like shiny glass houses, unable to cause great, secret harm.

Why was I talking to a seven year old about these things? Why will I talk to him about similar things now that he’s eight? Because he questions and questions and questions and will repeat the questions if he gets a brush-off answer. And I love him for it. Happy birthday my tender hearted rebel.

 

 

Flies in the Kitchen

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Yesterday, I looked closely at a fly, noted the iridescent green of its bumpy back, and decided that was my favorite color. I looked at its helmet face and complicated body. I didn’t swat it because I don’t like how they squish.

But that was yesterday. Today I realized what a sucker I’d been because now there were 50 flies in the kitchen, split evenly between two windows, hiding out under the blinds. I made a fly trap from a water bottle, using a banana peel, vinegar, and old spaghetti sauce as bait.

While I waited for the trap to work, I decided to try out our newly inherited paper shredder. Oh! the satisfaction! I never knew how enjoyable it could be. The gas and electric bills became confetti. The mortgage statements became rodent bedding. The rejection letters were nothing but the soft, curled grey of a memory.

When I returned to the kitchen to see how my trap was working, I saw that it wasn’t. It had trapped only the stupidest two. The others were having a festival, forming their fly relationships, planning their maggot families. It irritated me. So I got out the handheld vacuum and sucked them all up.

Their new cylindrical prison was clearly overcrowded. Some were stunned. Some buzzed with indignation. I could have left them to die but I’m no warden. I see no need to try and govern the lives of others. So I brought them outside to the compost heap, which isn’t a heap at all, but a series of holes I dig, fill up and cover over. And I set the flies free.

 

Fear

Fear

What if, a week after you give birth, there is a thunderous storm and the power is knocked out and won’t be on for days and the air in the house is a 95 stifling degrees Fahrenheit? What will you do? You’ll find somewhere else to stay because you can’t imagine tending your baby in that heat especially in the dark, dark night.

And then after, when you come home and the fridge is stinking, you put your new baby in the bassinet just past the threshold to the kitchen so there’s room for the bucket of soapy water and the trash can.

And suppose you have another child, about 3 1/2 or so, who is eager to show his infant brother a chunk-sized toy and pushes it in his face. You think you hear a small squeal but everything seem O.K.

Then later, you notice that your baby has a black eye and another bruise by his ear and immediately you think he’s got a horrible blood disease so you call the nurse line at the hospital and they tell you to bring him in to the ER. So you do.

What if you’re so fraught with worry, not to mention your hormones haven’t even begun to level out, that all you can do is cry? When they ask you what happened to your baby, you say, “I don’t know.”

And then, what if the doctor says, “Are you sure you didn’t drop him down the stairs?” and he orders a CAT scan and then he tells you you’re lucky he’s letting you take the baby home. He orders you to see the social worker in the morning.

The social worker wants to know if you’re married and for how long and if it’s to the baby’s father. She’s profiling you and you don’t fit any of the criteria of an abuser except that you happen to live in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

Suppose she says, “I’m really afraid this baby will end up in the morgue.” and you become aware that this woman hates you and she knows nothing about you. She doesn’t ask what you think about violence or guns or God. She has no idea what happened to you when you had children, how, suddenly, your heart split open wide and you understood EVERYTHING about love.

What if when they are trying to take pictures of his eye he gets restless so you pull up your shirt, your bra, and you nurse him? And the social worker says to you, “Are you sure you want your breast in the picture?”

What if they order a full body x-ray and you hear your newborn cry for the first time in his life and then they leave you in the darkened x-ray room on a metal chair for a long, long time?

What if they order a second set of x-rays in two weeks and the social worker says she’s sending this case to the county because your baby has another bruise on him, where he sucks on his arm, where she has seen him sucking on his arm?

Tell me, how long will you be afraid that they’ll come to take your baby away? They’re not calling you and they’re not going to call you. How many years will it take before you can go a day without thinking about this? Four? And why, after almost eight years, when you do remember it, do you feel sick to your stomach?

Maybe now you’re thinking that you should’ve said, “Are you fucking crazy? I would never ever, ever hurt my child!” or “No! You’re not giving him any more fucking x-rays!” But you realize that wouldn’t have done any good because you were rendered powerless.

Now suppose there is someone else who isn’t as fortunate as you, one who has had injustices heaped upon them, cunningly or openly, and are in the midst of that injustice, what are you going to do?

Photo Distraction

Instead of mowing the lawn, I carried two boxes of pictures upstairs to sort. It has been three days and there’s still no eating at the dining room table and the lawn isn’t mown either. Here are some pictures that I looked at longer, didn’t readily sequester into a plastic bag.

Merry-go-round

This first one is of late teenage me on a merry-go-round and I appear to be having a good time. On a merry-go-round? Late teens? Something isn’t right. My happiness must’ve stemmed from the fact that I had long fingernails, painted a glittery pink. It must’ve given me a thrill to be able to tap those things, point those things, to look down and admire my other worldly hands. That phase was short lived. They kept getting in the way and, like high heeled shoes, I realized they were a voluntary handicap.

Kimballbearjas

The next one is when we were living in the jungles of east St. Paul. Kimball, the old guy, is on the left. Jas is on the right. Bear, a gentle Newfie we took care of now and then, is in the middle.

I used to think of this yard as my conscious mind, the way it seemed chaotic no matter what I did. Every year I sprinkled grass seed. Every year it didn’t grow. The picket fence was rotting in places. Rusted nails would slip from the softened wood and the pickets would fall at the slightest pressure. Behind the house there was a slope, a drop off where the soil was eroding. It was there that I built steps. I had the bags of concrete piled on the warped surface of the picnic table. They rested on each other like dead fish.

This concrete is like the work of writing, I thought. It is a physical task, the hefting of those bags, so heavy it feels like my chest will cave in. Oh, and the strain on a writer’s delicate wrists. And it’s a mental chore. How do I get the bags to the bottom of the slope with the least exertion? What will I use for filler? How high? How wide? How much water is too much water? How will I keep it contained? 

Thankfully, I’m not such a whiner anymore and, today, I would use a completely different metaphor. Back then I couldn’t separate the need to sort out the chaos by writing and my fear of the house sliding down the hill.

Grandpa

The next picture I found tonight is at my grandparent’s farm in Little Falls, Minnesota, where, except when we lived in Montreal, we used to spend our summers.

My grandpa had a big head and hats always rested upon his head like a crown. The dog is named Spook. His rusty water can is just out of the picture, as is the slow dripping hose in the can. I’m missing those summers with my people a lot. I’m missing my past and that’s probably why I hauled those pictures upstairs in the first place.

Blonddog

And this last picture is of the All Knowing dog in El Jabón, Venezuela.