a few words about miss chelsea elizabeth...

she likes: making kites, dancing in the rain, adventures, little-while friends, letters, whole-leaf tea, crayons, bare feet, jumping in rivers/streams/creeks/waterfalls, language, catching the clock as it changes numbers, sleepovers, trains (big or small), cuddling & waking up before the sun rises, among other random things.

oregon-born, seattle-raised, bellingham-bred and franco-refined, she had moved back to the states from her affairs across the atlantic & now resides in columbia city with french husband & love of her life rémy. they spend most of their time taming the garden, taking care of their three chickens & two cats, and preparing the urban homestead for a new little chick of their own.

Friday, June 29, 2007

morning in tainan

i wake to the noise of the city street below. it/s early. the six other girls are still sleeping on their bamboo mats. no one stirs. i remain motionless. the window is closed, but i can feel the air outside, pregnant with noise, a foreign film turned up too loud.

[the room i share with 6 other girls. this is my bamboo mat, covered in my bags.]

[as you can imagine, personal space is limited.]

chinese is a language that fits its speakers. the way most dogs seem to fit their owners. what you say doesn/t matter so much as the way you say it. just like what you do doesn/t matter so much as the way you do it. intonation is key, just like presentation. unfortunately, of those who speak mandarin in tainan, those who speak it with an accent that sounds anything like standard mainland chinese are slim to none. as if i can hear a difference. but it makes even attempting to understand basically impossible.

from behind our closed curtains & with eyes closed i imagine faces to match the voices on the streets below. i picture the old weathered man who rides his bicycle in slow-motion down chongdao late at night & nods each time he sees me. so slowly it/s hard to understand how his bike remains upright. but he only comes out when the streets are quiet. i/ve never heard him speak & for some reason can/t picture him even owning a voice. if he did it would be soft, like the opening of morning lilies or a cloud passing unnoticed in front of the sunrise. his face slowly withers & i try to picture others but i can/t. for some reason duras/s insane beggar is all that comes to mind. yelling in tongues barefoot in the hot streets of saigon. incoherant. crazed & almost violent.

i open my eyes & shift. my feet peek out from under the blanket. it can/t be past seven and already i can feel the heat of the day coming. i quietly gather my things & tiptoe past the others. before i reach the bottom of the stairs to the second floor i/m sweating.

the heat in taiwan is an exhausting heat. the air so full, so heavy. everything sweats. the people, the streets, the walls. everything constantly glowing. the air is so thick with humidity, it/s a wonder i can/t reach out & grab hold. the kind of humid where you don/t feel the need to drink because breathing the air seems enough to stay hydrated. mid-day it/s unbearable. but it/s still early morning. i won/t need shade for a few more hours.

by now my route to the park is fairly routine. i round chongdao to chongde. pass the man with his pineapple stand. he says hello every time, but it/s the only word of english he knows. i smile. i walk past the empty market square with its abandoned stalls. it doesn/t open until afternoon, but the smells of yesterday hang rife in the heavy air. follow the street as it curves west. take my choice of lefts past various mom & pop shops & wander through residential taiwan. the doorways, the alleys, the colours, they all fascinate me. i meander. i dally. i mozy on through the streets of tainan.

[walking along chongde.]

[the pineapple stand man. well, one of them.]

[the market, open.]

[chandler & live chickens at the market.]

[these chickens are a little less live.]


the park is buzzing as usual. groups of tai chi practice, focused. walkers zip by. men sit on marble benches by the stream that winds lazy next to the pathways until reaching the lily ponds. i smile. everyone is so happy here. so connected. so alive. i can feel their joy pulsing through the air. i find a patch of grass that seems flat enough & lay out my mat. this is my time. my time to become one with taiwan. my time to observe. to listen. to breathe. my alone time.

[the park by the convention center.]

[these pictures were obviously not taken in the morning.]

[because usually it is buzzing with people.]

[the lily ponds.]

i finish with breathing & meditation. i miss home, but not enough to crave familiar land. i remind myself where i am. it still doesn/t feel real. but really it/s no different than the past few months. the line between dream & reality has somewhere been confused. i keep trying to think about staying grounded, but i/m so high up i can/t even see the earth below me. & then i remember it reality is as much an illusion as travel or fiction or love. maybe not so much illusion as concept. concept requiring interpretation. if i interpret my reality as dreamlike, who are they to try to alter that? i see beauty everywhere these days.

[after an intense, fulfilling yoga session.]

besides, i/m just a hopeless romantic. or so they say...

[my morning yoga routine in the park was interrupted this morning by songs sung by children in a nearby school. they were playing on loudspeakers that echoed throughout the entire park. it was beautiful but slightly haunting. check it out.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

little boxes

-you/re a hopeless romantic, aren/t you? he said.
i didn/t respond. i smiled wider & moved closer to the night sky.

little boxes. in the states, we put ourselves in these little boxes. whether categories or cliches or interest groups. we go to college to study, we try to fit square concepts into round holes, but we all come out the same. we box our clutter, our knicks & knacks, our identities & we move to the confines of four more walls.

i stepped onto a box this morning. an oblong box with oblong windows. i held her hand as the ground beneath us shook & we breathed in deeper with the realization that we all share the same sky.

we crossed the pacific, chasing the sun. watched him rise for three hours straight. i was scared the beauty would fade, that after staring so long i/d become colourblind to the bleeding of the horizon. but then i remembered. i/m a hopeless romantic & my love for an honest sunrise will never fade.

[the sunrise from the plane]

[valerie watching the sun rise]

[again, the sun rising.]

children. sometimes i envision my life, a giant oak standing majestically at the top of a rolling hill. each twisted branch a possibility. i can see a lot of lives of mine, but none of them are without the laughter of children. two boys, fascinated by tennis balls. i watch their eyes light up as she shows them the secret of what/s inside. just rocks & beads, but to them, it/s magic. they sit in the row behind us on the plane. the little one runs carefree throughout the cabin, giggling secrets to himself. he has only one sock. his older brother is missing teeth. they both smile with their eyes.

[val befriended some kids in the airport who were fascinated with the rock-and-bead-filled tennis balls we use for juggling. the were amused for hours.]

[the same kids were near us on the flight & came to entertain us a few times.]

we start our descent. the clouds are the cotton balls & marshmallows my mother described as i drifted off to sleep as a child.

i miss her touch. i can see the change on the cusp of the wing outside our window. i reach to touch it, to feel it mold me, melt me, transform me. but there/s steel & glass between us. i/ve put myself into yet another box & it/s hard to believe what i can make out through the scratched panes is real.

for some reason i thought it would feel different. more visceral. more real. we land with no problems. we snap hurried shots of the flight attendants in their emerald suits, their spring-tight buns, their pasted smiles.
[me with the flight attendants]

their kindness seems genuine but in this foreign air it/s hard not to confuse with formality. they teach us how to count to three. we repeat, broken whispers & then it/s gone. language is such a fickle thing.

it/s early here. not quite yet six when we file through yet another security check. what is this obsession with the illusion of safety? we remove our shoes, we risk dehydration, we follow each proposterous rule & regulation. is it really to keep us free? with our thirst for freedom are we not imprisoning ourselves? boxes. circles. trains. a bowl of smooth brown wood.

waiting. we sit & wait. to file like sheep into yet another oblong box.

[the first oblong box. seattle to taipei.]

to search for comfort within four more walls indistinguishable from the ones we attempted to escape back home. i/m not sure whether to laugh or cry. i think about how far away from everyone i love i am & i lean towards the latter. but everyone here around me seems so happy. is it just a formality? instead i sit, unsure & uneasy & wait with the others. still young. still unwhole. still imperfect & still ready to be changed. i close my eyes & breathe deep. the hopeless romantic in me finds peace. no matter the distance or the differences, i know that when our eyes close we are all the same.

[the world passport gang, seattle division, waiting in the airport in taipei for our connecting flight to kaohsiung.]

Thursday, June 21, 2007

it/s men like these

he calls himself shamrock.

he was a kennedy kid. started on the berlin wall, but ended up in 'nam. the sun has long since dropped behind the bay & his hood obscures his face. all that is visible is a long white beard. if there is a god among the shadows, i believe he shows himself through figures like this. worn & tattered. always there in the background, but no one cares enough to pay him any attention.

i can/t see his eyes but i can feel the burn of his regard. it/s too dark to tell, but i/m blushing.

the night started simple. a few friends. wine. a loaf of bread & a loaf of cheese. bellingham bay. a blanket. the closeness of the night sky & the comfort of intimate conversation. we hadn/t been there long when we saw him approach. he paused in front of our blanket, mumbled something about the grace of god & something to eat. his back to the ocean, his face was shadowed. by his silhouette we could see the hook that had replaced his left hand, the limp of his right leg, the hunch of his back from long years sleeping on the hard ground.

the wind stopped in that awkward moment, the hesitation & apprehension. should we respond? do we want to acknowledge him? should we give him some food? of course we will. of course we always do. just like being stopped at a red light next to a corner where a dirty old man holds a worn sign with a few simple words. we try so hard not to look, or at least not to meet his eyes. we/re willing to look just enough to see what his sign says. to see if his cause seems valid. if it/s too close of a call, we won/t do it. we won/t risk taking that glance because if your eyes meet his you/re doomed. you/re locked in. held responsible. you can/t pretend you didn/t see him, you can/t pretend you were so occupied with your own thoughts that you didn/t even notice his shame so near to your locked passenger door.

i wanted to talk to him, i wanted to listen. i needed to listen. to hear his stories. but there/s always that awkward hesitation.

we offered him some food. broke off some bread & cheese & wrapped it in a plastic grocery sack so he could enjoy it later. alone. we offered him a beer & a place on our blanket. he propped himself on top of his rolled up sleeping bag & you could hear his body sigh as it settled. he was ugly beautiful, so worn, so broken that it somehow made him more whole than the rest of us. what was perfectly clear was that this man had lived. i felt humbled in his presence. i wanted to listen.

by now he/s discussing the details of the situation in the early sixties. how vietnam had this plan to eradicate hunger in all of asia & most of africa. how they needed technology to do this. how the states offered financial support. offered the technology. offered help from young men like shamrock, to provide political & military stability. how the first post-independence years were years of peace. but then kennedy died. kennedy was killed & it all went to hell. johnson & nixon & ford. they were supposed to withdraw. but instead they sent more troops & imposed taxes. conflict arose. "jesus christ may forgive those sons of bitches, but i never will." you can hear the rage in his voice. you can hear that he can/t control it.

he tells us how he hasn/t slept a day in a bed since. how he hasn/t carried a piece of paper with his name on it since.
-it/s not worth it, he says. there/s no point.
-what is your name? someone asks.
he smiles. we can/t see in the darkness, but we all imagine that it/s toothless. he/s already missing so much. he lost his hand in the war. his left hand. his right is crippled, the tendons permanently damaged from vietnamese bayonets. he lost toes to gangrene from cold nights in hiding in the jungles, from the cold & damp of the mekong as she winds lazy through the rice fields of the asian countryside.
-shamrock, he repeats. he smiles deeper. it/s irish.

he/s on his way to alaska. he started in massachusetts. in the valleys of the green mountains where fish don open cancer sores and rabbits are born with missing limbs. the pollution is too much, even in the mountains. he had to get out. he tells us about the earthquake. the big one that/s coming, and coming soon.
-alaska will split off from the mainland, he tells us. but don/t tell no one.

we give him the rest of the bread & cheese. wrap it up neatly & tuck it away.
-looks like you need it more than we do, someone says.
he laughs, deep in his chest, an honest laugh. from the gut.
-that/s for damn sure, he chuckles.

we pack up our blanket, put away the wine. check our cell phones for the time, make sure our car keys are handy. i hesitate. my heart is racing, but i have to know.
-do you believe in god? i manage.
there is a long pause. he recoils into himself. his voice softens, almost a whisper. he quotes james joyce. something about every part of the world, every place he/s been, every person he/s met, all somehow a part of him. he composes himself. draws his coat in tighter, wrapping himself in his own awkward arms. he starts to hum, to whine, to whimper. a lullaby his mother used to sing when he was young. he rocks back & forth, melodically.

we get up to leave. i can feel that something has shifted, something has changed within me, or has been awoken, aroused. i can/t tell what. i feel like i/ve been numb for so long & my limbs are just waking, the excited pins & needles that we both love & hate. i shake his crippled hand. his twisted fingers are unnaturally & unexpectedly warm in the frigid air. almost too warm. for a man from this world.
-it was an honor to meet you, he says.
i can feel his eyes burning into me & i know he/s being honest.
-likewise, i whisper. it/s all i can manage.

i am tempted by this man. by his stories. by the notion of his freedom. i want to travel the world like he has traveled this country. i want to explore, to play, to hitchhike every road & visit every village. but the temptation passes. because i know that he is no more free than i am. that while he may be free in spirit, he is trapped within the systems, the confines of reality within any political system. within the chains of modernity. within the constructs of his own withering body."my skeleton is exacting revenge."

i know that we all must choose to be free in our own way, & that his vagrancy is his own. i must find my own inner vagabond. i must embrace this wanderlust alone.