December 12, 2008

Beijing, China

Little did I know on my way to Beijing that, when I arrived, I would experience a resurrection of my fun New York City life, but in an ancient Chinese style. I was fortunate to be directed to a great hostel located within walking distance from Tiananmen Square, which attracts an older crowd, where I immediately met two well-matched friends with whom I formed an ancient Chinese gang. Joseph, who was born in Brazil and raised in Germany, had just finished a semester of graduate design studies in Hong Kong and was in Beijing to look at some internships and Fang, who was born in Taiwan, had just moved to the city after a 13 year stint in New York that had her drawing the same conclusions as me; New York is tiring.
Beijing seems to have an invisible net around her, which, if you are lucky to get caught for a while, she will show you the intriguing dichotomy under which she operates; there is a flourishing capitalist economy governed by a communist party, ancient Chinese temples are surrounded by highways and modern, high-rise buildings, while local noodle shops that fill you up for 75 cents are neighbor to sleek western establishments that can charge you 75 cents a minute just for looking at the New York priced menu. This city has a constant feeling of excitement, and exploring it with a great group of friends, especially a few who speak Chinese, can keep you running around until the wee hours of the morning.

So what is there to do in Beijing you ask?

1. Throw the word “ancient” before anything Chinese – it just sounds better.
Example: “Let’s meet for an ancient Chinese dinner.” Or “Excuse me, do you know where I can find an ancient Chinese pharmacy?” And perhaps, “Wow, that ancient Chinese eight dollar, full hour massage-(ey) you just gave me was fantastic. Thanks.”

2. Visit the Summer Palace in the winter, get naked at the Great Wall and pass out from incense inhalation at the Lama Temple.
A short bus ride through the city will take you to the Summer Palace, a sprawling complex of gardens, lakes and ancient Chinese architecture whose structures boast names like “The Cloud-Dispelling Hall”, “The Hall of Longevity and Benevolence”, and “The Sea of Wisdom Temple”, which can have you accessing your zen just by reading the palace map.
There are many different ways to experience a trip to the Great Wall. Some people prefer to go to the closest and most reconstructed part, others prefer to take a four hour hike from one spot to the other, while the more adventurous types prefer to go to a spot called Simatai and ride the tram up, drink a beer, outsmart the guard and strip down for a nice photo op and then slide down on a cable, suspended over water, like an agent in a James Bond movie.
You could easily spend your time in Beijing just visiting all the temples and after a while they start looking pretty similar, but the Lama temple stands apart from the rest, not only for housing one of the biggest Buddha statues I have ever seen, but for actively using all the incense burners the other temples just display, and it’s easy to catch a free buzz by standing next to one of the many people holding a burning stick the size of Luke Skywalker’s light saber.

3. Rent a bicycle and ride through the city wearing an ancient Chinese pollution mask.
One of the best ways to explore Beijing is on the seat of a bicycle. At first it looks intimidating as they rival Amsterdam in bell-ringing bike culture, but once you start riding, you see that there are wide bike lanes and no rules, so if your not afraid of peddling alongside a portion of 1.2 billion people who in my estimation are, well…. perhaps not the best drivers in the world, then you and your pollution mask should have a great time.
It’s fun to ride through some of the existing Hutongs, which are the small alleyways characteristic of Beijing that have connected living quarters and local shops and restaurants.

4. Invent phlegm, Release phlegm, Dodge phlegm and Step-on a whole lotta phlegm.
The first experience you are most likely to have in China is either getting hit by a flying wad of phlegm or at least taking note of how often, and with how much gusto, the people around you are spitting on the streets. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone: men, women and children alike. It’s nice to be able to join in on an ancient Chinese pastime, so if you are feeling phlegm-less, then suck in a nice big gulp of pollution, wait a minute and release a juicy ball of flying phlegm just like the locals.

5. Get cultured with dance performances, lectures, art openings and live music.
There is so much happening in Beijing on any given day that it’s hard to choose what it is that you want to do. There is everything from hand pulled noodle-making classes, book clubs, and punk shows to talks on meditation, qigong workshops and art openings.
While I never did make it to that noodle class, I did get to see a Martha Graham dance performance at the new Center for the Performing Arts, which is an egg shaped landmark building designed by a French architect who succeeded in making an rather unusual exterior structure surrounded by water which houses an interior design catastrophe. I also attended a Jane Goodall lecture, which along with learning that people really can make a difference, I also learned from Fang that the ancient Chinese translator had weaved his own conflicting viewpoints into her perfectly written speech and that poor Jane was duped into actually thinking her words were making it to the audience untainted. These were welcomed breaks from the normal tourist sight-seeing schedule and were mixed in with fun dinners, spa time with the girls, live music shows and gallery hopping which made me feel like I was back in New York, running around the city with old friends.

6. Eat, Eat, Eat….and then eat some more.
Yummy! Beijing has so many culinary delights that it’s a good idea to pack an expanding pair of pants if you are going to take part. The streets are brimming with a myriad of aromatic flavors that snacking every few hours while walking around becomes an unavoidable pleasure. Try the hot pot where you throw a bunch of raw meat and vegetables into a spicy bubbling cauldron of liquid and then fish out all the surprises with a pair of chopsticks. Or get some squid or scorpion grilled on a wooden stick and then wash it down with a sweet sesame cake. And if you are lucky enough to get an ancient Chinese translation error, you can even have the opportunity to order things like “hot and spicy dick heart” from the menu.

7. Get an ancient Chinese haircut.
When I walked into the bustling salon I happened to pass on the street, deciding just the day before that I needed a haircut, I must have overlooked the people cutting hair in the front room. It was so busy and energetic that even though no one spoke English, it was as if they were saying, “don’t worry, we are hip, we know what will make you look good.” I was quoted five dollars and fifty cents and was immediately shuffled into the back where a large crew of attendants were assembled, ready to get to work.
They proceeded to give me an amazing scalp massage and then continued with a neck and arm massage and ended with an upper and lower back massage. They even cleaned my ears with a cotton swab! I started to think that they might just massage my hair into the charade-requested trim I wanted, but after my luxurious included-in-the-price hour, I was finally led to the front room where I, for the first time since arriving, took note of the stylists …well, that title could be debatable. All I could see were straight, middle-aged men sporting bowl cuts and wearing jeans that were hiked up to their necks. I couldn’t stop thinking I was going to look like Dorothy Hamill at the 1976 Olympic games and, in a panic, I couldn’t figure out the correct charade for “Isn’t anyone in here gay?” But in the end, even though I got my haircut by a pancake vendor, I think it could have been a lot worse

8. Shop until you get a really good price for a really fake item.
If you can’t find it in China, then it simply does not exist. And if it does not exist, then it can be made. Shopping here at the many markets can be a full day event and even though it might take you a good half an hour to bargain the price down, it’s all part of the fun. You can find anything and everything, from electronics to toys to clothes, and the black market of brand name items is alive and kicking. You can get yourself a fake ipod, Tickle Me Elmo doll or, in my case, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume. You can buy fake Adidas sneakers at a bargain basement price and then walk next door to the flagship store where real versions of the same shoes sell for ten times the price. Or are they real?

I decided to take my time with Beijing and stayed on for three weeks, giving me enough time to come to the realization that it’s a good thing the pollution kicked in or I might have never left.

December 11, 2008

Trans-Mongolian Railway (kind of, not really) from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing

Manduhai was a 15th century female Mongolian warrior of legend proportions. It is said that she united the squabbling tribes of the Steppes, conquered enemy armies while riding into battle pregnant with twins and instilled enough fear in the Chinese that they started a rapid expansion of the Great Wall. Mongolians have been waiting for a second coming of Manduhai, but they need not wait any longer, because I found her on my train ride from Ulaanbaatar to the Chinese border.
We were a three-person troop under this mysterious, middle-aged Mongolian woman’s command in the cabin, and she ruled us like a leader who has only concern and love for her people. Her precision with the latches, ladders, bed sheets and lights were like none I have ever seen and when the compassionless train attendant came in to wake us up an hour and a half (an hour and a half!) before our arrival time, she fought our battle well and won us much more uninterrupted sleep time.
My train arrived at the Chinese border instead of making its’ way all the way to Beijing. I was told in Ulaanbaatar that the last leg of my Trans-Mongolian journey would have to be taken in first class, as these were the only tickets still available, but knowing that all the fun happens outside of first class, I chose to take a local train to the border and then a Chinese sleeper bus the rest of the way. A Chinese sleeper bus? This I had to see.
After getting my pride handed to me on a pupu platter when a group of Chinese teenagers beat me at a few games of pool, I boarded the sleeper bus, which has three rows and two floors of “seating”. To assume that this bus was larger than one with regular seats would be pretty much inaccurate; it looked as though they had configured the interior space based on fit models that were four feet tall and ninety pounds. Thankfully as the only westerner on the bus, I didn’t have to suffer watching a six-foot human try to stuff themself into their assigned tray. Instead, I was busy trying to stuff myself in, carefully directing my limbs to contort appropriately, and when I had finally gotten settled, even though I was in China and not Japan, I felt like a piece of sushi on wheels waiting for a pair of chopsticks to come and abduct me.
I had a pretty prime seat in the middle row on the top bunk but my tourist status made me prey to the locals who were looking for a trade-up. I was approached by a man half my size who offered me his bed on the bottom row, over the motor, with a hump in the middle in exchange for mine. His selling point in charades was that he had a window, and since I was seeing this landscape for the first time, I would probably want to look out of it. Well, he was right and after the brilliant packaging I had managed with myself, it was time to unwrap this piece of tuna and rice and start the process all over again.
Once we were moving, other than the considerable drop in temperature from my previous spot, I was happy I had exchanged, as I was able to lie back and listen to music as the setting sun, open fields and clouds that resembled Mr. Miyagi’s beard from the Karate Kid rolled by.
The cliché of “the journey is just as important as the destination” was certainly true for my exit out of Mongolia and entrance into China, albeit with my own little modification that “the journey is just as entertaining as the destination.”

December 10, 2008

Mothering My Mother

The phone call with my Brother that day remains very clear in the folds of my usually foggy memory. It had been over a year since our Mother had fallen out of a five-year remission from breast cancer and as the new aggressive version of the disease was attacking multiple organs at once, frequent trips to the hospital became a normal occurrence in her threatened and fragile life. “I think it’s time to come home,” he said, the words rising from the receiver like a toxic vile of chemotherapy signaling the precise moment I had been terrified might happen.
I was in Los Angeles only three short months, after moving from New York, before the news of her re-diagnosis became a devastating reality, which, over the course of the next twelve months, had me flying back and forth across the country to her bedside all too often. “I think it’s time to come home,” he said, and I knew immediately from the tone of my Brother’s voice that not only was our Mother in the hospital again, but that, yes, it was time to pack up and move home to care for her - indefinitely.
Soon after my arrival, her situation began a steady descent into an almost full body paralysis and a permanent state of confusion as the cancer clawed its’ way through the last line of defense and straight into her spinal cord and her brain. The days of seeing my Mother walking her two pugs in the park or spontaneously taking me in her arms and dancing me around the room or laughing at the sarcastic, abstract and witty humor circling the table at my 32nd birthday dinner were only a few months away from becoming activities she would no longer be able to physically or mentally handle. And with these new conditions, she would be forced to rely on my physical and mental abilities to function for the both of us; I would soon become her arms, her legs and her interpreter to the confusing and chaotic new world which was forming around her.
Much like parents with their firstborn, I wanted an instruction manual on how to care for her best or a magic green light/red light decision meter so there would be some cosmic guide I could follow for the incredibly difficult choices that we would be faced with. I felt myself having to navigate through territory I remembered little about.
At the time of my Father’s terminal illness from a brain tumor fifteen years earlier, it was my Mother who lead the way, becoming his nurse, his protector and his source of comfort while she let me quietly watch from the sidelines, entering and exiting the battlefield at my own discretion, allowing me the open space necessary, free of heavy responsibilities, to figure out how to say goodbye to him.
But now it was my turn to lead and my confidence was extremely shaky. After all, at the time of my Father’s diagnosis, Mom was a seasoned parent, having already raised two children to the gateway of their twenties, while, at the time of her diagnosis, I was a childless adult who quit walking the family dog I had begged for in my youth after just one week; she was a skilled professional with diapers, feeding times and wound care, whereas I would nearly faint at the sight of a drop of blood.
I had spent my life up to that point being responsible only for myself, while conveniently having a Mother by my side who continued to be responsible for me also, and when this harmonious equation blew it’s top and erupted hot lava through the windows and doors of my comfort zone, I was forced to examine the composition of my core. My insecurities were many, but the love I had for my Mother overpowered any of these and I began to look for guidance and stability in the strengths that she had made impossible for cancer to steal from her: her unyielding hope, her unbreakable courage, her fearless spirit and her extraordinary capacity for love, acceptance and forgiveness.
Our days together spun in alternating cycles of calm and chaos. Some weeks would have us following a familiar routine of breakfast, medication, bath-time, bandage-time, doctor appointments, lunch, nap, dinner and family visits while other weeks were marked by an unexpected infection and another hospital stay. Slowly my life melted into hers, or what was once hers, and the dogs she used to walk were now in my care, the bills she used to pay had my signature, the friends who used to call her direct would dial my number instead, the emails she received had my words for a reply and her neighbors who I ran into on the streets would quietly ask me how my Mother was.
As the medical defeats mounted and Dr. Mason’s treatment options for her became more and more limited, the unpredictable weeks turned into numbered weeks and soon lawyers were called, arrangements were made and hospice arrived with an oversized, mechanical bed for the ”living” room and an indisputable message: It’s time to stay home, Patty, it’s time to stay home.
I remember trying my best. I remember being told I did a good job by family and friends. I remember some of the endearing moments we shared as Mother and Daughter involved in a premature role reversal, where at times I would be bathing her, and out of reflex, much like a child, she would turn to me and simply say “I love you” and out of reflex from my entire life I would turn and say the same. I remember one of the last gift’s she imparted to me, during a rare moment of clarity, her words softly finding their way to my ear, “I have now seen who you are and what you are capable of and I do not worry about you anymore. You are going to be just fine.”
I can remember all of this and yet, after her death, it was as if all the good memories were placed on the inside of a television set where I was able to view them, but was completely disconnected from actually feeling them or living with them. They remained remote, and one by one as they flashed before me, instead of providing comfort, they became annoying background noise to the ever more powerful collection of inadequacies in which I was sure I had committed during my Mother’s care.
There was that time she wanted me to stay next to her bed for longer but I was so tired I had to lie down (She just wanted my company, what was another hour). And the time I didn’t take her home from that doctor’s appointment quick enough, before the anxiety set in (She must have been so uncomfortable, how could I have forgotten to bring her medication with us?). Or the time my arms gave way while transferring her from the wheelchair to the bed (I can’t believe I dropped my Mother, how could I have been so careless?). And the time I showed up without the video she requested and the wrong flavor of ice cream (It was the least I could have done). These were the real memories, the ones I could feel penetrating my logical mind and my broken heart, the ones that kept my guilt firmly in place.
“Are you crazy?” my best friend Sarah said on the phone when I reported that guilt was the first emotion I felt after the fear, abandonment and sadness, which had plagued me after the funeral, had somewhat subsided. That same response was repeated by my Brother’s wife, who had lost her Mother just three years before to cancer, and my Mother’s best friend, who had lost her Mother at the same age as me, while raising two small children at the time.
No. I wasn’t crazy. I wanted to save my Mother. I wanted her to feel safe and protected. I wanted her to feel no pain. I wanted to take away any discomfort. I wanted to take away any fear. In mothering my Mother I was introduced to the extraordinary efforts we make on behalf of unconditional love. She had done this for me all of my life, and now I was standing in her shoes; the invisible cord between us remained, but it’s metamorphosis through her illness from dependant to equals came with the unspoken understanding that we would always be there for one another, whatever it took.
I have been walking in many different directions looking for the path through my grief and my guilt in the 18 months since my Mother passed: meditation, energy healing, clairvoyance, psychiatry, genealogy and world travel to name a few. It took me wandering through the open space of the Mongolian outback before I was able to finally switch the channel in my mind and start viewing my care of her from a logical perspective. I know that one more hour by her bed, leaving the doctor’s office at precisely the right time or arriving with the correct flavor of ice cream would not have changed the outcome of the situation. And, that by the very nature of being a cancer patient, there will inevitably be uncomfortable moments that no one can make smoother, just as being in a state of mourning will inevitably create unpleasant moments of sadness, doubt, anger, and fear in which nothing more than the passage of time will bring relief. The basic questions regarding the precarious situations of the people we love the most remain the same, weather for a teenager who is distant and depressed, an adult who is battling substance abuse or an ailing parent who needs care: Did I do enough? Did I love enough?
In one of the last days of my Mother’s life, as I stood over her bed, putting ointment and bandages on her infected foot, she turned to my Brother with amusement and said, “Look! Your Sister is still trying to fix me.” Not once during her illness did I live under a veil of denial, I was only trying by best, just as she had taught me to do, and I hope in the end, that my best was good enough for her.

Making Peace With A Guilty Vendetta

My friend Christina, who I had met in Riga over three months ago, told me a story in front of the hostel that we both shared. I can’t remember the conversation that preceded it but I remember the story well. She said there was an African tribe, of which I have tried to research their name or place of origin on the internet and have come up completely empty-handed, that settles their personal vendettas in an interesting way. The wronged party of a particular situation, such as a person who had murdered someone from another family, will take the guilty party out to sea and throw them overboard. If the wronged party let’s the guilty party drown, then that decision is accepted by the community as fair punishment but if the wronged party decides to save the guilty party, then the situation is officially over and must never be mentioned again.
I was thinking of this story during one of my many walks alone through the beautiful, open landscape of Mongolia. My mind quickly went to the place it usually did when I have uninterrupted time to think; to the last eight months of my Mother’s life and to the feelings of guilt I have been harboring since her funeral. I had spent the last year a half beating myself up, engaged in a constant argument with the rational side of my brain, over some pretty trivial events that ignited these emotions. I was trying so hard to heal and this was definitely holding me back.
We were staying with a family near a central mountain range and were preparing to leave on a two-day horseback riding trip the next day. The moon was almost full, the air was cold and windy and there were rocky foothills scattered behind the yurts. After much thought the previous day I decided to use this location and the story of the African tribe to confront my guilt head on and see if I was ready to start letting it go.
I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and grabbed my pen and notepad and followed the light of the moon to a small valley between two foothills where I sat on a rock and wrote down all the things that I felt guilty about; from the smallest to the largest, I left nothing out. My list numbered almost fifteen points and when I was finished, I folded the paper and placed it under a rock that I would be sure to remember how to get to when I returned from the riding trip.
I then went on our excursion and used the two days on the horse to decide if I wanted to rescue my guilt when we got back to camp or if I wanted to let it go. The guilt had, in a way, become a safety blanket; a place for me to keep returning to all the sadness I felt about what my Mother had to endure. I figured, if I went back to the rock and left the paper in place, then I was not ready to let it go yet, but if I retrieved it, then I would tear the note up into tiny pieces and throw it in the air so that the words of my guilt could never form full sentences again; it would be over.
I was tired of feeling bad; really, really tired. I thought of how irrelevant all this was now; I don’t know exactly where my Mother is these days, but I am pretty sure she is not sitting there brooding over weather or not she got her anxiety medication half an hour late or if she had to wait an extra day before I brought her the rest of the O.C series on video. If she wasn't brooding, why was I? I realized that because I was spending all my time focusing on the things I felt I did wrong, I wasn’t leaving any room to acknowledge the things I know I did right.
Feeling full of a power I can’t quite define, I went out to the valley when we returned and retrieved my note. Then I tore it up. Then I threw it in the wind and watched as it rolled over the hill in scattered pieces. Then I took out my writing pad and wrote down all the things I did right and put this new note under the same rock and left it there.


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