When the world was small. I didn’t have a plan. It just happened. The way that it did. I remember getting up one day and my world collapsed. It was like the sea had come. My mind was full of China, or what I believed I knew of it. My grandmother in a dusty small town. Tiles and mud. Black cotton pants and purple button down shirt. Hair slicked back, cut short, unwashed for maybe a week. There was no time for that. No time for water to be carried in and used on washing hair. What use would it have been anyway. Her husband didn’t see it. Every day passed by like mud brick tiles again and again in a blur. Her children too, once soft and precious now with eyes and faces streaked with dirt. Black cotton pants, blue and purple shirts, sandals and worn cotton shoes, just like her. Just like their father who rode the bicycle every day, ferrying passengers that looked more or less like him. They stare at me these photographs of my grandmother and grandfather. Wordless and silent and stoic. Like stone tablets. I feel as if I come from them, these wordless statues. Themselves made of brick and mud. Living and dying. Because I don’t know what it meant to them, these living people who were my father’s parents. I don’t know what dreams they had, what sufferings and joys and loneliness and depth of feeling they had, that long succession of moments that ended, forgotten and without trace. None at all, like concrete. I guess I’m scared because I don’t want to end that way. Unknown by my grandchildren. Unknown by even my children. The root. The brown long suffering root.
Imagine if you come from a place without words. Without written words. Where everything took place between sky and earth, and whatever you built was on wood and earth that washed away with time. Imagine if what you did was the same, day after day. You woke up and hoed the earth and planted some seeds and watered and bartered and scratched and sometimes you were scared, sometimes you were content. Things happened like the sea coming into your land washing everything away. Sometimes death happened and killing and robbing and you had to run into the hills with nothing except what was tied into a bundle. You lived like that for days, weeks. Waiting. Just waiting for it to pass.
I think this is what affected me so much when we went to visit that village in Yunnan. Everything mud and wood. All the children suntanned brown and windswept. I felt as if i had come back to something. Something that frightened me with it’s closeness and distance at the same time.
The distance between them and with me here now writing these words. So many words when they had so little. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how it’s possible. How it’s permitted. Why this is. How subtle variations in character became pronounced into an individual. But maybe that’s because of the distance of time and not knowing. I didn’t know my grandfather. I knew a little of my grandmother. What she said, and did, and the way she walked. The way she stood at the sink and washed fish and vegetables. I loved her so much and love her still. Her quietness and loveliness. I have such pure love for her. Despite everything. A love beyond words. Because I can’t explain what she did exactly that I loved so much. It was just that she loved me. That time when I was three or four or five and couldn’t sleep. I came to the living room and turned on the light. I took out a tin cookie box, pale yellow with small brown dots, where my mother kept plastic tiles with pinyin written on them and started to play with them. My grandmother came out and sat in her chair, looking at me. We were quiet together. Her watching me, and me playing, feeling safe. That kind of quiet love like mud brick that doesn’t last forever but keeps out the cold and wind. It was a certainty that at so many times back then I didn’t feel. A safety and closeness and firmness under my feet.
In my most hopeless moments I try to remember this and when it works it floods me with worthiness. A sense that I am here on this earth and it’s ok. It was neither meant to be, nor is there anything to be ashamed of. It just is and how beautiful and worthy that is in itself.