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I had an insane, beautiful conversation with my mother a couple of weeks ago.

It was like a long, long walk, with many diversions, none of them the least contiguous with the one previous. Flight of the bumblebee? Not even that coherent, but the flow was so clear and straight all the same.

We don’t talk to each other like this all the time– but it happens often enough that it’s usual. This is what makes me want to be friends with someone– their ability to go from subject to insanely divergent subject and speak with some knowledge of and interest in any and all. And now you see where I get my ADD, maybe? A surfeit of intelligence that’s not being used for survival (at least not for physical survival), so it just bubbles away on all these crazy things– anyhoo, I come by it honest. I didn’t say it at the time but it makes me wonder what either of us could have done with just slightly different choices, upbringings… and perhaps some Adderall. But they didn’t have that, then. And as much as we bitch, if I really examine it… I think that at least on a cosmic level we’re both reasonably well situated just as we are.

The gebbeth finally caught up with her– that is, she got the name of her chronic illness these last two years, which somehow eluded her incompetent pulmonologist and the rheumatologist who told her to get out of his office instead of testing her– her new pulmonologist figured it out immediately, a systemic case of autoimmune disease which will probably allow her some quality of life for some time, but is still probably her nemesis even if in five or ten or more years from now.

The only reason I’m not angrier is that it can’t be reversed, no way no how, so it cost her little but confusion and annoyance and some slight worry, not to know these last two years. I did mention lawsuit, but she said you know, he always seems to be out of the office giving a deposition. I have a feeling I’d be waiting in a long line for the pleasure to sue him. I just want to enjoy my life.

In one’s sixties, one can reasonably expect that one’s nemesis will be making itself known before too long– but to me, though I am not in her shoes, it would have to be a fucking bitch to finally learn its name even so.

She’s kind of always been this way– it doesn’t take learning the name of her killer to inspire her to think and talk like this. But I guess she’s just more so right now? She’s also wisely enjoying life quite well these days, at least I think she is.

So she started out with how she spends her time in her little lung-clearing thumper massage vest– much the same way she’s spent most of the past two years, in quiet pursuits, hoping to find rest and peace to ease her cough and tiredness, listening to unabridged audiobooks of the classics. So in this conversation I started really taking note when she broke into– Robinson Crusoe.

I can rewind, actually, to telling her that I think it’s awesome that she’s going back to all these classics (The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the week before and she had the most wonderful things to say about that book, things I would have absolutely missed because I’d have been utterly bored, but now I’m thinking maybe we all need to go to Paris for my baby’s sixth birthday?) but that I have just never had any patience whatsoever with most any piece of literature by a man. I remember telling her of the exceptions I could remember– One Hundred Years of Solitude, and A House for Mr. Biswas, and that’s it. Oh and I did enjoy Dickens’ Victorian soap operas of deprivation and false hope… but A Tale of Two Cities, another of her favorites? Forget it.

So she tells me Robinson Crusoe has everything he needs– we all do, yet we’re so unhappy. I know I am. What’s with us? I’d said to her earlier in the week, as I bitched (as I do, unceasingly) about my lot and my anxiety about my lot, I said callously, though it wasn’t my intent to be, I’m just incredibly self centered– if I had a devastating illness like you maybe I’d be more zen about all this. And I know I should.

Anyway, she said that the whole book was about Crusoe accepting that abundance. If it takes all day to fashion a — I dunno, a nose hair trimmer out of palm leaves, or whatever it was Robinson needed that day, well all he had was time, right? She didn’t say nose hair trimmer. I just made that up for lack of a good example. But for real. What she was telling me reminded me of Rumi, but I feel peaceful just thinking about it, and Rumi doesn’t do that for me any more.

She said he realized that his every trouble was caused by refusing to enjoy his good life and insisting upon reaching for more. She said she didn’t know if Crusoe or Dafoe made the connection between his journey to get slaves and his subsequent shipwreck punishment/enlightenment. I would like to know more about that… but I didn’t follow up.

Then we talked with great anticipation of the coming visit of Miss Du. Miss Du was my mother’s very fashionable and wise young spinster friend in China. I would call her a best friend, but they didn’t pair off like that, over there, and Mother could tick off countless names of people who consistently went to great lengths to spend time with her and to make her stay comfortable and enjoyable. But Miss Du–well she’s just the inimitable Miss Du. I’m going up there the month Miss Du gets here and want particularly to spend as much time with her as I can, especially with my little one.

Then we were off on Anchee Min and the relief it is to read her retellings of history from a woman’s point of view. She is channelling– maybe not consciously, but like Amy Tan, I really believe she’s channelling. I was relieved to hear that Mother was just as confused as I was by Becoming Madame Mao– but she still had many good thoughts about China then and today to add to our mutual confusion. She reminded me that Anchee Min herself lived through it. Then she said that the daughter of the Communist Party dignitary who disappeared during that time and is mentioned in the book teaches at mother’s local college. Could we meet her? Maybe Miss Du could introduce us? If certain Chinese talk to other Chinese while they are here, that is… I can see them coming all this way to this strange country, alone, yet having a stratified caste system in which they do not fraternize. We’ll find out!

I encouraged my mother to go back… she said her lung damage is irreversible… I said but you were so happy over there! You were walking everywhere, climbing mountains to visit shrines… she said I must have been in remission while I was there (she had her first round of pneumonia when she came home the first time, and when she recovered from that she got up and went back for four more months). I said or maybe it was the Chinese medicine, the purgatives (heh) (not a good thing, in a country with a toilet situation like China).

Then she confessed that she’d checked out the Left Behind series. She was tickled as well as shamed by her spiritual prurience. She said she’s always thought she’d be one of those left behind. I said, I don’t think so. You’re one of the few people I know who gets it. She said, but I always think something is missing. I said that is the human condition. That longing is our life task– we are here to long for unity, the unity we cannot have until we return to dust and ashes. And then, of course– we are in the midst of unity, like Robinson Crusoe– but still we long for it. But those who don’t long, who don’t see that something’s missing? They’re just dumb. She said wasn’t it Moliere who said that women’s only desire is to be loved? That was me. I said well. Moliere was a man. We’ll see what that disappeared Chinese dignitary’s daughter says about that.

Off she went, then, on learning about past life regressions on Oprah. She said it sounded so good. She said, you know, the ones who have the gift don’t even want it because it’s so bizarre. She talked about the credentials of the, um, regressor she’d seen. But she just couldn’t get her head around it, unless our entire being is entirely in our imaginations, in which case of course we have past lives because we made them up. I said didn’t you see What the Bleep do We Know? Don’t you think of Quantum Physics– the act of measuring changes the outcome? Both are true? Of COURSE it’s entirely in our imaginations! [Mass delusion… Jung… the Akashic Record…]

[And I want to know where she got the bit about the Dalai Lama’s willingness to scrap the idea of reincarnation?]

I had to jump back in with Left Behind. I said, you know, I don’t want my apocalyptic vocabulary screwed with. Left Behind is like, you know, Hollywood. I like it just as I have it– a mix of Revelation, Southern Baptist fire and brimstone, and the biker of the apocalypse in Raising Arizona. I’ve seen it a time or two… like the day we set out on the interstate after that blizzard in 1992 or so– no one, nothing but white, as far as the eye could see- silence, and white. That was apocalypse. I don’t want that fucked with.

Then I told her about teasing my friend Courtney, who called to ask me for about five random children’s books, at five forty when I’m madly dashing around because we close at six, without checking the library’s catalog to see if we had them. I thought she’d found them in the catalog, but had neglected to tell me if they were even at my branch much less the call numbers. I’d been off on a goose chase. I said, I have an analogy. There’s the Universe of Books. Then there’s the Universe of Library. Because the Universe of books is so vast, as is the — uh, rethinking those perhaps the library should be a black hole? anyway, these two are classic both are true and never the twain shall meet. When they touch, it is a cataclysmic rarity. But we have a small chance for crossover between them. The maze of portals between the universes (and dead ends, too) is called Catalog.

Then we were off talking about death. We already talked about death a good bit, before we got the Name… although maybe we’ve been inspired by her illness, I can’t say, but motherhood made me really give death– and the nature of the divine– a hard, hard look. I told her about how my little one said, do you notice I’m not asking you what happens when you die any more? I said, why is that? My baby said, because I knew you were serious when you said that if we worry about when we die we won’t enjoy while we are together! What a kid.

At that point I’d tested Mom’s theory that my little girl keeps asking what will happen when I die because rather than needing to hear that a mother’s love reaches beyond death, which is what I told her, she really just wants to know who will take care of her. I asked my baby if that were true and she said well, yes. I asked her who she wanted. She said Daddy, and I said well Daddy would be first in line! I told her the proposed line of succession (although mom’s illness may change that, uncomfortable thought) and that there will be a long line of folks fighting to take care of her. This seemed to satisfy her. She hasn’t mentioned it again.

But I am so grateful to her for asking! I am so thankful I had the chance to tell her, because she brought it up, what I needed so desperately to be sure I told her (as opposed to the answer she was requesting– to think I completely missed that!) just in case, that my love for her is bigger than death, that in fact a mother’s love (or love for a tiny child) is not only strong beyond time and death but is also the closest shadow of the divine we will ever see on this earth. What a blessing those awkward questions can be.

[Will I need my mother’s blessing before I can let her go? Do I have it already? I’m certain she’s given it many times. But do I know it?]

Then she asked about my dogs, I guess. I said, remember in the Little House books when they found Jack frozen in a little ball on the front step? That’s what I’m waiting for with Lucie. I said she’s a model of dignity and perseverance, just like my childhood dog. We talked about how impossible it is to know what’s going on with my fifteen year old– is she staying because she wants to be with me? Or because she thinks I need her? Or does she even give a damn? I asked how she knew with my childhood Brittany Spaniel. She said the dog was seizing couldn’t take herself outside to potty any more, and my dad told her she’d done a wonderful job, and it was okay to let go.


We talked about how the loved one is often desperate to ‘go home’ but stays because the loved ones can’t let them go– my children need me. Mother brought up that death is often a relief both for the dying and for the survivors– but then the survivors have to go through horrible guilt for feeling that relief. We talked about her mother, in the hospital recently with heart trouble, saying your Daddy must be wondering what’s taking me so long.

This is some serious doublespeak… Mother was a nurse for many years, in places from the ER to the OR to the Psych unit, and before that she was an EMT. She knows whereof she speaks. She used to tell me the most hilarious, disgusting, horrible stories, completely steeped in the blood, guts, sputum, stupidity and poor hygiene of our mortality– although she never talked about losing a patient, whether from the imperative to protect confidentiality or because it affected her too deeply or because she didn’t allow anyone to die during her tenure, I don’t know. The few times she’s spoken to me about it in general terms, she’s always had a ‘this must not be’ approach to potential death. But you know she saw it. And now you know where I get my relentless ‘this must not be’ when I hear about an illness or injury…

And some day, of course, even if we hadn’t learned the killer’s name… we’ll have to face it too, it’s a rite of passage for most of us, watching our parents lose their parents, losing our own. I believe firmly that it’s good to talk it over now.

But I stayed with the dog side of the doublespeak. I said, i can’t really tell what she wants because I’m concerned that her dying is what’s most convenient for me.

And– although I won’t know for sure until it happens, I will be upset when she goes, but I think I am ready. What I can’t handle is– what in hell do I do with the body? Even in its emaciated state, it’s still pretty substantial. How do I dig a hole deep enough for that, deep enough to prevent it from stinking and getting dug up by varmints? Our yard is big, but not that big.

Mother extracted a promise that I would not just pet and comfort Lucie, as I do every day, but actually commune with her, ask her what she wants, tell her it’s okay to go on.

[And last night when Lucie was unable to use her back legs to walk down the stairs and I had to carry her, I went and petitioned my five year old regarding Lucie’s departure to the Happy Hunting Ground to see what she thought. I was a bit sickened, as I looked into those clear brown eyes, to think I was feeding my insanely acute child a line of shit… but I couldn’t quite explain why returning to the earth is a good thing in terms a five year old is going to buy. I did tell her that while it’s a good thing for Lucie, it’s just hurtful for us because we’ll miss her. I was honest about that much. I still haven’t told her about our dear Sitte’s death. I can’t. So I know I shouldn’t lay the dog’s impending departure at a five year old’s feet… but if there’s one thing I hate, and have always hated, it’s a nasty surprise, and this is my way of allaying her fears and saving her that nasty surprise. And if I can teach her some acceptance and peace, to be stored up for later departures, so much the better. A book I am reading that outlines the differences between how boys/men and girls/women perceive, worry and physically experience emotions tells me I’m actually doing a pretty good thing.]

That’s all the notes I have. Well, I’ve written down O Brother Where Art Thou, but I can’t remember what if anything we said about that. But it is one of the greatest movies EVER, so it’s okay to mention it anyway.

So we’ve been grappling with centuries of obliterating sexism, the Cultural Revolution, enlightenment, quantum physics, the apocalypse, and death… and am I unhappy? No. I’m happy at the end of this conversation. I feel connected, and thoughtful, and thankful to be able to talk to my mother like this. Crazy, or what? But it is what it is. I went in and, before going to sleep, wrote down everything I could remember from that conversation so that I could eventually share it here.


Life’s a labyrinth. Here’s the latest installment in my China fascination.

A few years ago my mom, in a fit of midlife growth, suddenly decided she would teach English in China for several months, two different times.

A Vancouver BC librarian contacted me out of the blue a few years ago, here in deepest Dixie (of all places!) for information about a young Chinese woman pilot whose small plane crashed here in the thirties.  A Chinese pilot? A woman? Here? In the oat field that eventually became part of the country club golf course?  My dear colleague’s labor of love, involving contacts with people all around the world, resulted in the book Sisters of Heaven.

Then my book group read Haruki Murakami’s Wind up Bird Chronicle, and in its explication of modern Japanese culture (beautiful, lyrical, gritty, mystical, meaningful, not in the least dry like “explication of modern Japanese culture” would imply) an old soldier details his days of cruelty and deprivation in Mongolia in the 30’s.

I love Amy Tan and Anchee Min. My women’s book group read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and had a wonderful discussion.  Is the mindset toward women and children nowadays really as different from the culture that produced footbinding as we like to think? 

So China’s been much on my mind. I’m drawn to it. I hoped to go teach there myself and take my little one with so that she could go to Chinese kindergarten, though I’m still ruminating on that. With a good job, bills to pay, a letter of entree into the magnet school, and concerns about what my little one would experience there as a girl child in a culture that seems to be very hard on children in general, I haven’t made a determination there yet.

Now my book groups are reading A Year Without Made in China.

At first glance this book seems like just another product of the bottom feeding confessional literary (unliterary) circus produced by blog culture. Everyone thinks there’s something universal and saleable about their personal experience–my huge life crisis and the ensuing three months in each of three countries learning about three life tasks, for example. I LOVED Eat Pray Love, so don’t think I consider this always a bad thing. I encourage everyone I meet to have their own blog if they never have before, because everyone should, must, express themselves, and I don’t like to think of anyone missing out on the exercise in regular writing and internet use that blogging offers. I blog constantly, and every time a book comes out, I think, why not me? My attempt to cook a gourmet meal every day for 365 days. My wry, defiant chronicle of my failures in my first years as a mom (my blogging attempts fall under that category).

I just feel uneasy about it as really good writing/reading.

Anyway, A Year is a pleasant read. The author and her family are likeable– I like her even more because she’s a southern writer! and her work reflects the social trend toward more responsible, or at least more informed, consumption. But I wanted more. Everybody knows Made in China = Bad.  I wanted to know, exactly what is the problem with buying Chinese-made goods? 

I’m a huge Marxist– as in, I believe every human being deserves the basics of food, shelter, education, family, community, work, and the arts. When people do not have access to these, crime and criminal social injustice and cruelty ensue. Children are starving, being separated from their parents, starving, losing out on education, whether in Darfur or in the heart of urban America. I follow with a mixture of admiration and heartbreak the stories of nations and rulers who have at least paid lip service to the idea of each according to ability and need.

But paradoxically, and I hate to admit it, I believe (for lack of a better paradigm, but I’d be glad for someone to give me one) in a sort of Darwinist way that the developing world inevitably must go through the same paroxysms of cruelty and inhumanity that England and the US went through during the industrial revolution before we arrived at our (at least for most of us) comfortable standard of living.  I read once upon a time that if every single person in developing countries made just two dollars a day, they could eat and have shelter and some human standard of comfort. And the way to make this happen, the way for folks in developing nations to attain a standard of living somewhere above poverty is capitalism.  As companies from industrialized nations come in to purchase Chinese parts and products, they are (to varying degree) imposing more, um, American standards for safety, wages, and time.

Easy for me to say… living years after the industrial revolution, feeding at the public trough, in an air conditioned office, living beyond my means instead of recognizing how many have so little, how blessed I am to have all that I do, and saving up for a rainy day.  But I have the bourgeois luxury of musing on it from my armchair, and I think it’s my duty to at least think about it and try to make conscious choices in what I buy.

So where is China on that industrial paroxysm continuum, then?

Alexandra Harney does a good job of documenting the price for Chinese ascendance. In The China Price  she offers tons of documented facts, personal stories of Chinese workers and factory managers, and knowledgable commentary about the cultural context. She manages not to weigh in emotionally, although she does assign responsibility.

Chinese workers, most very young or with impoverished families to support, are killed and maimed due to horrible working conditions. Cancer villages and widow towns dot the Chinese landscape. Chinese pollution shows up on the West coast of the US. Chinese factory managers, whose hours are just as inhumane and whose pay is often just as low– or their personal funds are drained in their hope of staying afloat– use a numbers game and falsified documents to try to appear to be adhering to fair labor standards, because to adhere to fair labor standards would drive the factory out of business, and many officials charged with making sure fair labor and safety standards are in place turn a blind eye. Wal Mart’s inevitable and witless commentary is present as well.

Many Chinese workers and their families have turned to studying the law and combining forces to sue for benefits after injuries. The seeds of something better appear to be planted and sprouting, slowly. But according to Harney, we all pay The China Price.

The responsibility lies as much with the global consumer as with Beijing, she asserts. If the Chinese government spent as much time and energy policing factories as it does political dissidence, they could eradicate most if not all criminal abuses of workers and maintain China’s place in the world market. But our, the consumer’s, appetite for the cheapest goods is an equal contributor. In other words, if we as individuals are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

So bravo, Sara Bongiorni!

I look forward to seeing how our book club discussions shape up.

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