Thursday, November 13, 2008

There IS a Lake

It's been two months already. Since that first night I arrived in darkness to my apartment here at Lida. After a long harrowing journey from Los Angeles, I fell to bed, hearing crickets and cicadas and bullfrogs. My last thought was--'There must be a lake.'

And there is. Smack dab in the middle of campus. A scenic, though manmade, reflecting pool surrounded by willows. It is serene as it is calm, gently rippling with the breeze. It stretches all along the back side of the administration building, and curves around reaching both eastern and western enclaves of the campus. I remember first arriving to a teaching stint at the University of Texas, Austin, and being blown away by the huge 50,000-seat verticalia of its football stadium, right there in the middle of that campus. Big, tall, pure Longhorn swagger . I suppose it shows what the school values at heart. Or how budgets can budge.
I can safely say, the tourist enthusiasm of my stay here in China is officially over. Life here can be challenging, but I see it as an opportunity to go to a more philosophical place to get me through difficult moments. It allows me to appreciate the freedoms of the U.S. more handily. It gives me insight into how the Chinese culture's valuing of long-suffering molds political habits and societal trends. It focuses me back to my purpose of being here--to have a quiet place to write, a chance to earn some income, and to experience a society in fast (and slow) transition. 

As my honeymoon with being in Shanghai wanes, I accept this arrangement, this discipline, and feel lucky, in that outward bound way, to have this experience. It's tough, it's sobering. It strips me of indulgences and affords me clarity. Through it all, I must say, one of the simple pleasures I enjoy everyday is the landscape of this school. I, being a chronic window-gazer, am buoyed by my immediate environment. The serene beauty outside my windows, from every angle, tempers the frustrations.

The fascinating dilemma of being a writer is the contradiction of playing god from the inside, and then being humbled from the outside. When both these aspects are in balance, when one can also be humble from the inside and work the rules to at least have audience to play god to from the outside, there is movement for the writer. To try and make sense of how any of this transpires is to be reasonable, and reason, in my field of drama, may sell tickets for entrance to some 'erudite' or 'hip' experience, but will not necessarily impact or cathart past the theater exits.

The playwright David Mamet describes this phenomenon in his book about the nature and purpose of drama called 'Three Uses of the Knife':

'...the cleansing lesson of the drama is, at its highest, the worthlessness of reason.

In great drama we see this lesson learned by the hero. More important, we undergo the lesson ourselves, as we have our expectations raised only to be dashed, as we find that we have suggested to ourselves the wrong conclusion and that, stripped of our intellectual arrogance, we must acknowledge our sinful, weak, impotent state--and that, having acknowledged it, we may find peace.'
Gone are these clement, sunny days. The cold is setting in now. My apartment is gorgeously warm, though the classrooms are not, not heated even, a humbling chill as I see it. And so, I'm preparing for 4 months of teaching with hats and layers and coats and scarves and gloves. I just think: Kierkegaard probably had it worse in Denmark in the first half of the 19th century. Just as all that German Romanticism was really pissing him off.  In my mind's eye, he's always wearing a thick coat and refined gloves, wrapped in a bulk of scarves, carrying around his tome of writings, limping on his cane, decrying the Hegelian dialectic, while obsessively pursuing the idea of Regine Olsen. It's time to organically inhabit and deeply feel the comic ice of Either/Or.
The first week I was here, this cute young server man in the cafeteria, who has the wide-eye sparkle of Aladdin, asked me, 'Were you the one fishing for shrimp in the lake?' I thought he was joking, I said 'No, that wasn't me.' 'O,' he said. I don't think he was joking.

And the bullfrogs I heard that first night, well that was just some warped sonic mirage--there were no bullfrog sounds after that night. Sure, cock's crowing at 2 am, even some ducks in the morn, and yes, still crickets and cicadas chirping and spinning their symphonies. But the croaking was fully my mind's own. And I believe the songs around the lake will get scarcer, silent even, as the lake freezes for the winter. Though this again, may be the wrong conclusion, and acknowledging it, I may find peace, as I have, when I pass the lake.

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Blogger MizzB said...

What do you think about blogging? Do you make use of that knife? Or is it a more reasonable enterprise? Keep warm!

November 15, 2008 at 9:47 AM  
Blogger Alice T. said...

According to folks who find me blog too long, I ain't using the knife enough!

The three uses that Mamet mentions is from Leadbelly: First, you cut bread so you have energy to work. Second, you shave to look good for your woman (or man?). Third, when you find her/him cheating on you, you use it to cut out her/his heart.

I'm warm!

November 16, 2008 at 12:44 AM  

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