On March 23, 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an order asking citizens of the State to shelter in place — that is, to stay home except for essential activities. Soon after, the Hoffman Center for the Arts on the Oregon Coast created a web page at hoffmanarts.org called "Creating in Place." The project invited musicians, videographers, visual artists, and writers to post their work as a way to share whatever was coming up or hanging around during this time. I posted an essay called "Practice" on the page. It follows here, in three parts because is it long.
"Why are you crying?" my martial arts teacher asked through the translator.
"Because it's so beautiful. Because I will never be able to do your family's gongfu like that."
We were on a balcony with a small group of USAmerican teachers hired to help Chinese medical students learn English. When I had mentioned I wanted to learn a martial art, a Chinese colleague found a Heritage Master of an ancient practice to teach us. She and I studied with him together and she translated. The crew at the Foreign Teacher house had invited her and the Master to lunch so my housemates could see what we were learning.
Watching him was like seeing Baryshnikov do a 10-minute ballet from five feet away—perfect control and grace flowing through space. I was moved to tears.
My teacher leaned forward and spoke firmly. My Chinese colleague translated.
"'How long you do my family gongfu?' he's asking."
"He says, 'I play this gongfu fifteen years. You practice fifteen years every day every day, be like me.'"
Then he jumped up and spread his arms. "Do not be so serious. Be happy!" The sudden shift made everyone laugh. He gestured over the balcony, over the whole company.
"We are rich! We enjoy the sun now, the good feeling of a full stomach," he put his hand on his belly as my colleague translated. "When we are poor, we enjoy cool dark, the good feeling of light and empty—both are good."
He was not just mouthing platitudes, I knew. This buoyant teacher was born and raised in Chinese high society. His grandmother learned a secret marital art in Beijing when she was part of the Last Emperor's court and passed it on within the family. His grandfather was a general in the Chinese National Army. Then Mao Zedong's Communists took over mainland China, and the family was stripped of its wealth. When my teacher refused to stop practicing the martial arts he knew, he was tortured and imprisoned during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
"Human life—," said my teacher in English on the balcony, flipping his palm up, then down and saying a Chinese word to the translator.
"Alternates," she said.
"Yes," said my teacher. "Human life alternates. When there is no alternates, we die."
"This is Old China teaching," he continued through the translator. "Life has many things. Yang and yin. Full and empty. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
* * *
It sounds good, doesn't it? Move with life. But I did not grow up learning how to do this. I'm an individualist, perfectionist, lucky USAmerican. I know how to set goals and plan. I try to keep my promises and work hard to get the job done. Our Chinese students often commented on that. "Americans work very hard," they said, but I'm not sure it was a compliment.
(continued in "Practice" part two)
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!