Mary Beth Writes

I just finished reading “Red Dust – A Path Through China” by Ma Jain.  It is a remarkable book that asks more questions than it answers.

Ma Jain was born in the 50’s and grew up grew up very poor in a small Chinese city. He remembers when his mother would simmer stones for dinner so that the neighbors would see her cooking and not realize how poor they were.  (A whole different take on the children’s tale “Stone Soup.") The violent and terrifying Cultural Revolution that Chinese citizens lived through is over but memories of it are in everyone’s minds.

As a young adult Ma Jian lived in Beijing as a writer and graphic artist in a government industry. When not at his job he’s also a poet, story writer, and painter. He has a cadre of artist friends. He also has a failed marriage, a failing relationship, and he seems to be losing joint custody of his child.

He is sensitive, intellectual, courageous, and reckless. He wants to create art. He wants to find a place or people that he could claim as his place and his people. He decides to honor his restlessness by exploring his own country. He has some but not enough money. He gets letters of introductions from some of his friends, fakes other letters when he needs them. One is not supposed to aimlessly wander around China, so he has to always have his wits about him. His journey will be by train, bus, hitchhiking, and a lot of walking. He will brush up against death several times.

This book, like the Peter Hessler books about China I read earlier this year, are more than “interesting travelogues”. They are written by smart, modern people trying to figure out how to interconnect their interior lives with a meaningful place in society. They are living under a government that belittles and threatens their freedom and expression. They try to support themselves and their families. They try to respond to the suffering they witness around them.

But we wouldn’t know anything about that, would we…

Kathleen sent me this poem from one of her favorite poets, Lucille Clifton. Clifton seems to be saying what Ma Jian is saying. You will need to look for the light and spirit that you need to live. If you don’t - the emptiness where the light and spirit should be – will come knocking at the door of your being - and it will not be convenient.

the light that came to lucille clifton

came in a shift of knowing
when even her fondest sureties
faded away. it was the summer
she understood that she had not understood
and was not mistress even
of her own off eye, then
the man escaped throwing away his tie and
the children grew legs and started walking and
she could see the peril of an
unexamined life.
she closed her eyes, afraid to look for her
authenticity
but the light insists on itself in the world;
a voice from the nondead past started talking,
she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand
"you might as well answer the door, my child,
the truth is furiously knocking."

When life is uneasy, questions might be more relevant than answers.

Questions such as:

What do you do when you know what you want to have, but you can’t get it?

How do you keep on when you know where you want to go, but you can’t go there?

What do you do when you know what you want to eat but you can’t go to that restaurant, or you can’t afford that food, or you don’t know how to cook it?

If your child wants something you cannot get for them, what do you do?

When you seek spiritual peace, but that peace seems to be staying over at someone else’s house, what do you do?

When you can visualize the generous and fair world that you want to see out your front window, but that isn’t the world that is there, what do you do?

Comments

I don't know, my friend. I continue on the quest. "peace seems to be at someone else's house" lately. I aim to get it back. Not sure how. Patricia

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