Today we went to the Lama Temple.
I didn’t take my good camera, because I wanted to be able to enjoy the experience without thinking that I needed to do art at the same time. Also, because this is a working lamasery and place of prayer/worship for both the monks who live there and many tourists/pilgrams, it would be wrong to take pictures, particularly pictures of people praying inside the various shrine buildings. CONFESSION!: I did end up taking 3 iPhone photos from the outside of the temple and of the architecture in between the shrines, because I just could not help myself, but I wouldn’t think to photograph the sacred places within the temple buildings. I didn’t actually see any signs that said “no photos.” It seemed to be more of an understood human agreement. There were however, some people taking pictures, and even talking on their cell phones. It was highly inappropriate, but it’s not like 10 monks are gonna tackle some asshole for disrespecting their hood. It wasn’t crowded at all when we were there, but I can see it being very irritating during touristy and high-volume crowd times.
More to the point: Having my camera with me—and being on the lookout for interesting frames—has turned out to be the main preoccupation for me during the last couple months. I am not painting, and I’m not really writing, and I’m not really working at a job. I did have a month-long, once per week job teaching 5 periods of art classes to mostly Korean and Chinese 1st-12th graders at an underground Christian school, but that is over now. I feel a responsibility to be creating though, and I am really enjoying the things that happen when I take photos, even if they aren’t the most conventional “living abroad” photos in the world. I really really do want to share with everyone—family and friends—pictures of our adventure here in Beijing. The trouble is that I’m not capable of taking snapshots. Everything needs to be something. I can’t just take and then share a picture of a place or a thing; I need it to be artful. I am interested in composition and storytelling. I love finding interesting visuals, and my some of the photos that I’m proud of are black and white, composition heavy, and could just as easily be appreciated with blurred eyes as abstract images. I realize that this mindset does not lend itself to sharing, and I apologize for not just snapping pictures because we’re in China.
Also, I sometimes need to remind myself that this really is China. When I look at the architecture especially, my brain tries to twist the experience somehow, and I start to think something along the lines of “They did a good job on this set… It does look sort of like China.” I’m conditioned by Hollywood and Disneyworld, and I’ve been left with a cynical attitude concerning reality. I realize that this tends to happen when I go to the more “touristy” or popular areas that people visit. “I won’t fall for your tricks,” I say to myself. “I am way too hip and cool, and you can’t fool me with your 2000 year-old wanna-be Epcot World Showcase facades!”
Anyway, back to the Lama Temple (and the moral dilemma). In the second to last building there is a statue. In the second to last building there is a statue unlike anything I have ever seen. In the second to last building, there is a statue that stands 18 meters tall, (with another 8 underground), carved from a single white sandalwood tree, depicting the Maitreya, (Future Buddha), painted bright and elegant, with a huge-towering-over-you presence— just fuckin’ standing there, waiting for your tiny ass to come pay your respects. Now, I am not easily impressed. I always want to be, but for some reason my bar is set high. I am telling you that I involuntarily said “whoa” when I entered this shrine. I didn’t kneel or cry or devote my life to a big carved tree, but my spine did tingle. It was better than any sun rise or -set, and if I could sleep under those hands I know it would be more comforting than any star-filled sky.
I would like to show you or point you toward a photo on the web that could do justice to it, because I want to share. But there are very few photos that I can find, and those that exist don’t come close to artistically expressing anything about the sculpture. Obviously it is a “you have to be there” thing, but I know I could do a better job than anyone has done before at capturing… something. I have so much respect for the space, so I could never just go there and set up a photo shoot. I only need like 2 minutes. Also, I believe that if I could explain to the monks, or to an incarnate history of the place, or to the spirit and intentions of the statue, they would understand what I was trying to do and say “go for it.”
Again, the irony is that I really don’t feel like I need conventionally interesting subjects in order to take artistic photos. I went to Tiananmen Square and the only photo that I kept from that day was of a playing card in the dirt, in between the subway and our apartment. The “photo opportunity” of a place means nothing to me. I am more proud of that dirty playing card photo than I would be of postcard ready snapshots of the Forbidden City or wherever else I was. This Lama Temple Buddha statue has me confused. I am stymied. It would feel gross to be “that guy” taking a picture in a holy place, and it would feel irresponsible not to photograph something beautiful which moves me. I can do the “Be Here Now” boogie with the best of them, and I get it. Trying to figure out what to do in this situation is antithetical to the Buddhist statue in question, but here we are.
What do you think I should do?
Two days ago they opened the subway station for a new line right next to our apartment. It had been under construction since we’ve been here, but we had no real knowledge of when it would open. I just happened to see that the gate was open and people were walking into it as I was walking to the closest bus stop we use, which is a bit further up the street. I was immediately excited and began to form a plan… the best type of plan. The type of plan that is no plan at all. An anti-plan plan, full of adventure and freedom and all that is good about life!
That is a bit dramatic.
But I was excited. I had a suspicion that this newly formed portal to other places could be super useful in our lives. Traveling from place to place in Beijing can be daunting to say the least. Dodging cars with Frogger-like dexterity is the norm if you are walking; and while the bus system has worked OK, it is only as reliable and on schedule as traffic allows, and traffic here is simply nuts. It is also really cold here. Really cold. Consequently, waiting for the bus two or three times per trip makes you cold. Really cold. The bus also has the disadvantage of forcing you to come into uncomfortably close contact with often nefarious characters. I don’t know if nefarious is the right word. What I mean is that people are involved and they often touch you and I don’t usually like that. I also imagine that summertime—when less clothing covers people and they are not freezing, but, rather, sweating—bus travel increases in it’s nefariousness by some degree.
This subway station is seriously right next door to us. In the picture above, our apartment is in the tallest black building. I’m pretty sure either the station or the train tunnel must somehow run right under our building. I realized today that I don’t know much about subway physics, but I was down there, man, I was down there, and it was expansive.
So today we went on an adventure. Shana had the day free and I was in charge of our “plans” so we went to the subway station without a destination in mind, just to see where it might take us. I pointed to the shiny new map and said “Let’s try there,” and off we went.
As I write this I feel like I should build some suspense now, but it’s late and I can’t think of anything clever. Long story short: We had a great day and went to three or so stops to see where they went and figured out some really useful stuff that will begin to keep us warm and sane and more efficient in our travels. I think our days of bus travel are abruptly coming to an end, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Also, we found an awesome little altar in a park; had a great lunch; and visited the arts district, where we visited some galleries and shared a pot of honey-ginger tea and butter cookies and I took a picture of a red thing and some pipes.
Shana letting me take her picture and a photo of the map!
We’ve been in Beijing for two weeks. I had intended to already have posted more photos and updates by this time. I HAVE taken some photos and had some thoughts during this period, but the truth is that I have had a hard time making much sense of either. I’m not sure exactly why I have taken the photos I’ve taken and let other, more interesting scenes pass by; and, I’m not exactly sure why I have chosen which thoughts to explore, which to write about, and which to let pass by. I’ve often found myself bouncing back and forth between feeling isolated and feeling overwhelmed.
I immediately liked Beijing. But when Shana asked what it was that I liked I had no answer. It wasn’t love at first sight… I just liked it. Maybe it is as simple as just being here. It was a very long journey to get here and perhaps I was just happy to have landed, like reaching the beach after a long ocean voyage on a two person raft. Having no real clue about what lay ahead in the forest, at least we had arrived.
I can tell you that it wasn’t an immediate attraction to all of the people on the streets. My first impression was just that there were a lot of both people and streets. A LOT. I intend to write more on this at some point, but Beijing seemingly has an abundance of everything, including a ton of Chinese people… who knew?
I spend much of my alone time, when Shana is out doing her work, looking out the window where we set up a desk for me to paint or write or (apparently) stare out of a window. I watch people and dogs and even a few really cool black and white birds do their thing. Sometimes I think, and sometimes I don’t.
This next bit might seem intensely obvious but I don’t care: This smog business is very real and pretty scary. I won’t go into a bunch of smoggy details because you can find those elsewhere, but I will post two photos that show the difference between a smoggy day and a relatively clear one. They were taken at the same time of day, one yesterday and one today. That’s all for now, talk to you later.
Beijing, first impressions: awesome.
Beijing second impression: hmmmphh
Beijing third impression: Let’s go to the grocery store!
The video cuts off where every video should cut off—at the mention of the cost of a turtle.
We are currently in Iowa, staying with Momma Mary while working/waiting on visa things and Ph.D. things, and Chinese government things to resolve themselves (or deciding how to force the resolution; either through the wit and wisdom of Shana, or the “F-you, I will rent a boat and let customs figure it out when we get there” style of thought that has worked so well for me in the past.
Anyway, I came across this picture on my mother’s wall.
This photo of Jonny and I makes me think of that time, as photos are rumored to do. I can’t recall exactly when it was captured, but I can remember the sense of it. It was a time when I believed I knew everything and I also believed that I knew nothing, and both things were equally true.
It was during a different visit to my mom’s place. That time with Jonny but without Shana. I still believe that I know everything and nothing simultaneously. If there has been any growth, it is in recognizing that there are states of being in between the two.
I remember Jonny
Jonny come lately
I remember her shoes like a ballerina
A girl called Jonny who
Changed her name when she
Discovered her choice was to
Change or to be changed
I remember a girl called Jonny
Black as hell and white as a ghost
“Don’t talk about life or death”
She said “I’ve had enough of both”
A girl called Jonny who was not scared
They’d have torn her to pieces but
Who would dare?
I remember a girl called Jonny
The train came to town, boy she got on it
With no looking back, with not a word
If she said goodbye, well I never heard
But the noise goes on
The noise, the jazz
And the truth is in somebody else’s hands
And the house that a girl called Jonny built
Is now just ashes and sand
I suppose when you call anyone at 3am there is a good chance that they were sleeping. I told a groggy but awesome dude named Jim on the situation and he gave me directions and off we went. Shana and I are horrible with directions… we have lived here for 3 years and I honestly can’t tell you which bridge is the Ravenel or the Cooper or the Connector and which of those constitute 17 or old 17 or what the fuck is going on in this town. But, we’ve managed to get from here to there and will leave quite proud of our Charleston knowledge.
I also suppose that when someone calls at 3am and they are coming to visit, this man named Jim—presumably the assistant—whose job is mostly to learn from and wake up the other vet because of emergency situations, goes as fast as he can into high gear and becomes a Robin to Batman Superhero of “what is wrong” mode.
That seems slightly dramatic as I write it, but fuck off… that is what happened. The assistant, Robin, immediately triaged the situation, and I think there was a slight lag while he decided to awaken Batman.
This is all to say that the assistant and Doctor at the Emergency Vet that we arrived at were nothing short of incredible. Here are two people–one a pretty asian girl, the other a mad scientist without the science part, who walk in at 3am and say “Hi, this is Jonny, I think she hurts.”
We go into one room…….. Jonny goes into another room….. and I can hear her crying again. (this could be because you touched her paw wrong or pet her head in a way she didn’t like right then, or if you interrupted a great dream where she almost caught that pesky skunk)… it’s a different cry though… it was a fuck! this isn’t good type of cry and I knew it and I recognized it and I was like fuck! this isn’t a good type of cry.
The vet, probably a guy in his 40s or maybe he was 30 or whatever he was he knew the deal. It turns out that he has a husky dog that is 13, and I would bet anything that he saw me in his own eyes. This entire time, neither he nor the tech or the wind or the universe could have been more quite, understudying, supportive, and compassionate, or open to whatever I said to do.
Long story short: I signed some type of paper and they gave Shana a packet or folder with cremation details and then asked if we wanted some time before the final drugs. I was adamant that no, I don’t want a drawn out thing… so the vet came in, Jonny was sedated and she laid down and I say I love you bird, and I held her her head and Shana stroked her back and then Jonny was gone.
They asked if we wanted some time and my first thought was no, I want to get out of here, I can’t stand this pain and we both got up to leave and then at the same moment we both looked back… and there was Jonny’s body… and without a word we both went back to her and talked and cried and Shana said “I love you J”, I said “fuck you, you little shit… that wasn’t supposed to happen, but thanks for everything.”
And then somehow we drove home.
I feel that I need to write or say or scream or scratch on a wall with my fingernails something about Jonny. Or maybe it’s Jonny’s death that I need to say—I’m not exactly sure, but if I am writing things I should be honest, yes?
Everyone who could possibly be reading this knows the relationship, and the love connection, and the “if-not-for-me-who-are-you-ness, and the this and that-ness”…. and they also know the Mother who got a new apartment that accepted Jonnies. And maybe they know the Wife who joined Jonny when Jonny and I were both sort of old and already haggard, but who eventually made herself a natural wolf-dog mother, and they grew to love each other. Shana was now a mother—or competition for me—as Jonny and I had a set-up arrangement, as pack dogs do: I was Alpha and she was next in line, should anything happen to me while I showered, she was second in command in the home. At some point, maybe the first night they met and Shana Frebreezed her as we slept, or maybe when Jonny was ok with the constant vacuum, or when they both just said “ok, we can both be #2 and let’s just be ok… you leave me alone when I guard the shower door and I will leave you alone when the bedroom door is closed and I will trust that no one is actually being attacked.” It was always a question and sometimes difficult and often funny, and lots of times I was third… a simple observer.
Jonny woke me up at 2:30, two Thursdays ago telling me that she was in pain. Behind the couch—not a usual spot—she was asking for help. She and I walked it out and she was crying and I was crying and we talked it out and she kept circling and circling and I knew she was looking for a place… a tough place for everyone involved. At 3:30 I called the emergency vet and got directions. I told Shana the details and asked if she wanted to come… she jumped out of bed immediately and we were on our way.
Now—any vet—emergency or not, cannot really “tell” you what to do. Their eyes can tell you and their demeanor can tell you, and this and that can tell you. But everything was an option… She was 15, had gone through 3 cancer surgeries, and he was “pretty sure” he felt a mass in her stomach area.
I will finish this story at another time, because I’m crying.