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