Green

Green.

9 strands of glass, gold, shell and Chinese jade finished with a worked square clasp. 9 soda lime beads and copper frit, worked in the flame.

©2013 N.M. Weigand, Green – Nature. Flameworked glass and glass/metal/stone beading, Approx. 9 inches.

Advertisements

Unwritten Letter #1

I survive. I am grateful. I don’t get lost in the valleys and plateaus of this ever shortening life. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes the memories are fleeting and brightly coloured and tinged with laughter. Always bittersweet, and I can stand the bitterness that prevails for the single warm dissolution of sweetness on the tongue of my mind. My sister’s hand. A minute mandarin orange. A moment of peace.

And then I receive a letter from you.

There is a vortex of darkness. Of self-doubt. Of shredded ends of prayer shawls and chairs toppled on the floor. Of continually failing. Of unconditional love given but uncertainly received. Of trauma bonding. Of weakness. Of never knowing why.

The vortex doesn’t veil the things of loveliness. Spaghetti. Tea. A quiet day in Hell. Love.

But these things lie at the top while I am sucked down the gripless spiral, just seeing your handwriting on a letter, your name on an email. I question every word, every syntax, as I do when I write in response. Hands gone cold tremble as the pen my students gave me travels to draw ink from the well.

I don’t know what to say to you. Amidst the maelstrom of emotion that has been unleashed I cannot draw one single word.

I walk on eggshells when you are with me, because I fear I won’t please you, or give you what you need.

I have worked so hard to recapture some of myself from the illness that nearly tore me out of this web of existence.

My family asks me to let you go, to let you dissipate into the whispering tides of what used to be.

That is not who I am.

Love, once given, is always and absolute. And though I guard my heart and mind, there is a place for you still.

But, as a flower too soon come to bloom, my lips and fingertips have suffered from a late frost. I stand on a strong spring shoot, but my flower will not unfurl.

Is this the truth you’ve been looking for? Another round of pain where you expected comfort?

I have done my best to maintain and keep on living. My closure has changed more than you might imagine.

I survive. I am grateful. I don’t get lost in the valleys and plateaus of this ever shortening life. Sometimes I remember.

Red

Red.

9 strands of glass, gold-plated and hematite beads finished with a Chinese box clasp. 9 soda lime beads and gold frit, worked in the flame.

©2013 N.M. Weigand, Red – Life. Flameworked glass and glass/metal/hematite beading, Approx. 7.5 inches.

Resistance is … Forever

I’ve been thinking quite a bit as of late about the rest of my life.

I imagine I have this in common with those who contemplate all over the world, and especially those considering making a life-long commitment of any sort. And perhaps I have this in common as well with those who know as well that making such a commitment means turning away from something else, shutting a door that has long been an option always hovering at the back of one’s mind, wrenching a key in a lock and destroying it – because otherwise you’ll risk making a promise you don’t know you can keep.

It’s a frightening time to be successful and mentally ill in the United States. Top administration slurring socially acceptable comments as you try to still your shaking hands. Months of wrangling insurance to find help. The community at large making baseless comparisons to perpetrators of violence. Over-publicized lobbyists calling for black triangle lists.

And I count myself among the lucky.

I ride my mania with all the joy and productivity my analytic mind will allow, knowing the depths that are to follow. I create beauty and brilliance, I research and write and succeed without thought of sleep or sustenance or limitations.

And when I fall, from the mania, or from a trigger, or – more often than not – from no where at all, I seldom walk alone.

I have heard Suicide’s Siren Song for almost 13 years, on City streets, on lofty mountains, in Buddhist temples,  in bone-dry river beds. More often than I have taken her hand, have I turned my head away. Her hand is warm and soft, but not so much as my mother’s. Her grip is strong and reassuring, but my father’s is moreso. When I am ill, which is less and less frequent, I know in her arms lies safety and truth and correctness for everyone I love.

But I would rather have him.

I know the point where illusions smother analysis and the kind of darkness with no stars leaves my trembling hand only one key to turn. It’s always there. The door in the back of my mind.

I don’t think a woman, even an ill woman ever working to become well, can say forever with a backup route sketched out. And when you make a promise and mean it, this is what you do – I step forward into your arms and deny the tantalizing tendrils of song calling me beyond the bleakness.

It doesn’t make them go away.

Illness isn’t a switch turned on or off at our whims. So I worry that I can’t close that door.

But I know that if I’m walking beside you and her Siren Song comes along, it will always be your hand I take. I know that if the starless darkness falls, the promise I made will shine. I know that a promise made is rooted in my intrinsic stubbornness that makes my work fantastic when I’m less than, marries me to a task of which I’ve long since wearied, and made me choose family and lithosphere so many times before.

I know that if I make a promise to you, I can continue to resist … always.

***

A special thank you to the courage and truth of George Rohac, who helped me feel able to muse about my own bipolar disorder II in a public forum.

Temple Garden

Carefully nurtured curls of colour graceful between etched Chinese vines remind me of the meditative gardens humming with the sweet dissonance of deep singing bowls stirred by monks in maroon and mustard robes.

©2012 N.M. Weigand, Temple Garden. Flameworked glass, Approx. 7 inches.

Noodles

Winter mornings dawned cold, wet and white in the chalice bowl created by the convergence of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers, as the fog thick as a concrete sweater (and often the same colour) settled into the valley and the damp chill settled into your bones. Students would dress in layers and we’d do finger calisthenics to warm their swollen red hands before writing. Teachers were a bit luckier (at least foreign teachers were) because we had a bit of heat in our apartments. I had a small wall unit in my bedroom that served as both heater and AC, as well as an oscillating fan space heater that gave off a tremendous amount of heat in a small area and was, I’m certain, a fantastic fire hazard.

But I had a hard time getting warm that first winter.

Six months in to the Peace Corps experience, still battered by endless waves of culture shock, unprepared for the incoming ideological culture shock, terrifically lonely, having just had my teaching abilities challenged by the majority of my students plagiarizing their journalism finals, and discovering infidelity in my long-term relationship – it was a chilling place to be on every level.

***

Gansu was as far from Chongqing as any rural Midwestern town is from Anchorage, Alaska – not quite in physical distance, but in food, people, feel and liberation.

All of the PCVs were there for training, but I wasn’t feeling at my most social.

One day, on a trip to climb a mountain, Bei Xiang and I took a detour when everyone else stopped for lunch. We navigated cramped, brown back-streets where dust hung in the air with the smells of dried spices and both clung to our clothes. There was an open air market in an alleyway, with live animals in various states of animation beside their butchered and hung-for-sale counterparts, beautiful, bent-back grandmothers jockeying to grasp the hanks of meat with bare hands – lovely faces lined like maps of their lives and withered lips pursed in intensity as they began the bargaining process.

This was not the farmer’s market from home, nor even the brilliant green shock of vegetables ever available in the warmer climate of Chongqing, and we would not find lunch here.

Still, my fingers ached to be freed from the confines of gloves and pockets and dipped deep in a rough burlap sack of smooth green mung beans, to dance over a dozen different kinds of fungus. (I wish I’d known K then.)

And then it hit us.

Like the lilt of a snake charmer’s flute, a warm, soya, oniony broth arrested our senses, and both of us turned.

A man in a long white apron over a brown striped polo shirt and a wrapped white chef’s cap was stepping out of the ceiling-to-floor strips of thick overlaid plastic that are so commonly used to keep heat or cool in. With him had come the irresistible draft, and now we could see the source.

Another man in cooking attire stood inside, dusted liberally with flour and standing before what looked like a fantastically large cauldron. Under one arm he held, like a baby, a baby-sized block of what appeared to be dough – in the other, an oddly-shaped knife. In smooth, repetitive motions that seemed absolutely second nature, he ran the knife across the top of the block of dough and a long, thick, triangular wedge of noodle backflipped into the pot.

Transfixed, we moved inside and took a seat, watching as our portion was shaved off the top, boiled, and whisked away for a few moments while something magical happened to it involving soy sauce and scallions. Bending over the shared bowl with one of my dearest friends, I suddenly realised that comfort food could exist outside of one’s own culture. I would find many comfort foods in China, including Uighur lamb, hot pot (as unlikely as that may be), and pretty much everything my Chinese mother cooked, but it’s this moment of shared savour, biting into those intensely-flavoured, thick, chewy, spicy ribbons of warmth that I remember thinking I could continue on this journey.

It was reluctantly and with runny noses (spicy!) that we wound our way back to the group, but there was nothing disappointing about that day. I had found new heart, and new appreciation for the whimsical and downright odd things we passed (amusement park equipment standing old and idle at the foot of a holy mountain). As we climbed, we found ourselves above the smog-level of the city, and though it was unnerving to see the layer of brown spread like peanut butter below us, the clear blue sky above was a revelation all of its own.

The sky wasn’t the only thing that was clear. We were able to drink from a crisp cold stream that had its genesis in the mountains. There was a hollow cavern with a narrow aperture in the roof, and on each solstice, the sun would shine directly through. And there was a deep but small pool for women to reach into, and what they first touched would determine the gender of their first child. I shed my protective layers and reached my entire arm in to the shoulder while Bei Xiang looked on. But what I felt remains known only to me.

Do you know what else I felt?

Hope.

Perhaps that’s why I loved those two weeks in Gansu so much, despite the pain that came with them. Or why the moment I returned to Fuling, I sought out the local noodle joints to see if I could get Dao Shou Mian (Knife Hand Noodles, as those are called). I could, by the way, just outside the front gate of my university, and I spent many hours reading the Harry Potter series and talking with students over a bowl of my favourite comfort food. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to recreate them, even now, six years back in the States.

And why am I writing about noodles tonight?

I had a preferred brand of instant noodles in China as well. I ate them when I was very busy, or very sick – so, a lot. K and I spend a lot of time visiting Asian food stores, and I’ve tried to find those noodles. Not so much because they’re transcendent, but because they’re transportative. Unfortunately, all I could remember was that the package was red.

Never one to turn a new red package down, I picked up one while shopping for the ingredients for my Chinese mother’s famous dumpling-stuffed eggplant last week. Tonight I tried it.

Transportative indeed.

I don’t care if it’s not a word, Spell Checker – one minute I’m standing in my kitchen looking out at a cat chasing a bird, and the next I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a grey day in Fuling studying pinyin. If that’s not transportative, then I don’t know what is.

We eat so much without thinking about it. I’d like to be more conscious about what I consume, both in terms of health and of memories. Life is too short to consume dross.

Making the Case for Peace Corps China

White mists thicker than wool cloaks blanketed the river valley where the Wu met the Yangtze, as groups of young women congregated of a morning behind fixed rickety desks in folding chairs, kneading their exposed fingers for warmth in the unheated classroom.

These were the daughters of farmers, of laborers, of the men and women who toiled with their hands, whose bodies told the stories of their professions – shoulders bowed from heavy yoke or fingers callused from scythe and sickle. Their parents worked in the city, or the terraced acreage climbing the mountains just beyond the university gates, or perhaps in a province hours away by rocky bus ride. Nowhere was easy to access, as rural as we were. And these daughters, with the occasional son hidden in the back of the room, were the sum total of their parents’ hopes and aspirations – each family was allowed to bear only one child.

This was my China.

I travelled to China in 2004 as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. My primary project was teaching English at a teachers’ college in a rural area in the heart of the country. Rural was much larger there than it is to me now, but in a country of over 1.3 billion people, that’s to be expected. This was no Beijing, no thriving east coast city. I worked with over 1,200 students in my two years, teaching not only English, but also educational methodology classes, that is, teaching teachers how to teach. Our students worked hard to develop the tools that would allow them to obtain jobs teaching, often in even more remote areas, and ensure that the work of Peace Corps was spread far beyond each volunteer.

In the summers, we organized trainings for middle school teachers from surrounding rural areas, offering English and education classes which were eagerly attended. This is how you spread a small number of resources over a large area and empower those in need, while establishing real cross-cultural exchange in the process.

Representative Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, doesn’t understand this. He made an attack on Peace Corps China that appeared in Friday’s Denver Post: “Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman wants Peace Corps out of China.” In this article, Rep. Coffman expresses “shock” at seeing volunteers teaching in universities and demands that Peace Corps China be immediately suspended, as a symbol of poor usage of tax funds.

I hope very much that Rep. Coffman is misunderstanding and not using the Peace Corps as a political soapbox.

It is true that Peace Corps China is not the conventional Peace Corps assignment of digging ditches and building latrines, and teaching children in villages of 150 people. This model is not feasible in China. Nor could Peace Corps insist on it, since the first goal of Peace Corps is to help interested countries meet their needs for training. It would be alarmingly arrogant to assume to set those needs ourselves. We teach the teachers who return to rural areas and teach, and our lessons are passed on ad infinitum. In addition, we maintain peace and build stronger friendships between undeniably important nations. These ties will only grow more vital as we move forward into a global community.

And Rep. Coffman said himself that we did it for a “small amount of money,” quoting a representation in China of 0.5% of the total Peace Corps budget of $2.9 million.

The cost of Peace Corps China is small, the benefit to the U.S. is significant and the positive impact on rural China is immense.

This is a time for increased understanding, and I hope that those considering the Peace Corps and its funding will take the time to weigh the small costs of an effective program versus the potentially painful consequences of making insignificant cuts.

Previous Older Entries