The Salar Place

At least once a week we would walk across town on those dusty Tibetan streets–our two young daughters darting in the lead like hummingbirds buzzing among tulips drawing smiles of attention and gawks from sun-bitten faces. The dark-haired men would pause, look up from their pelts they had carpeted across the uneven tiles of the sidewalk–yak or lambskin shorn in the hour and drying in the sun–and hail our daughters’ backs with a “hallo! hallo!” but without reply or the response they desired.  My wife and I would surge past in our daughters’ wake–brows raised, our expressions unspoken apologies and commiseration with these men with their cave-mouthed awe and curiosity.

We know how you feel our white faces counseled, we can barely hold their attention ourselves.

At the Salar restaurant, we would make our way through the long sheets of thick plastic that hung like tentacles from the doorway. Always traveling like the Israelites under the cloud of the exotic, our family would draw the attention of the room with each sighting. Rooster-haired men would glance up from their noodle bowls. Women with brightly colored hair coverings would smile and say “Ni hao” as Anna and Sarah shot by them in a blur. Men with white flat hats atop their scalp would flow past us with large plates of stir-fried vegetables.

We would sit on the patio, in the back, as the sun filtered in from the market. The locals, Han Chinese, Hui Muslims, and Tibetans would watch our every move, gathering in small crowds to see and discuss this newest foreign attraction. The fuyuan, usually a waitress in her twenties would come with thermoses of hot mahogany-colored tea and pour it steaming into thin plastic cups. The laminated menus, so well-worn and smudged, were chock-full of delicacies described in Chinese characters. Some dishes we could surmise, while others remained a mystery. We ordered dishes we knew well–sweet and sour chicken, cucumbers marinated in a vinegar and garlic sauce, deep fried potato thinly sliced, stir-fried broccoli or snow peas depending on the season’s offering. We ordered dishes passed on to us by other foreigners. We ordered dishes we had memorized from a cheat sheet with pin-yin pronunciations.

While we waited and sipped glass after glass of tea, often a cook would emerge from the kitchen, pass us on the way to the outdoor market. Dishes were made fresh, ingredients purchased after the orders had been made. Our daughters, free to roam and free from the modern fears of abduction, would chase each other down the alley behind the restaurant. They would squeal and turn, come back to us when they had been away too many minutes.

One day the plump-faced Salar woman who ran the restaurant showed our girls a litter of kittens–newly born. She offered one fuzzy bundle to us–and though my girls wanted to, we could not accept. We were temporary citizens there. Tourists and teachers for a time. Like those passing moments and our future hopes, we could not stay fixed to that place or that time. But some days I literally lived just for that food–those dishes, that covered patio, and the mythic views of the Tibetan plateau overlooking the Yellow River. I found an otherworldly satisfaction (if  centered mainly in my gut) walking back home to our mud-and-brick home, so close to my wife–then chasing my daughters. Fully sated and fed, those all-too-rare moments living in the space of a heart content. And in another land.

the no-prayer prayer guide

Psalms ~ by SAID *

pray loudly against the noise of the human hand
which seeks to drown out
and appear on quiet soles
so that we might understand your footsteps
exert yourself
in order to recognize our prayers
even when they appear in a different garment
because no prayer ever looses itself from the source of the one praying

take up the speech
by which i pray to you
grant me the gestures
which have grown within me in your absence
so that i might  remain true to my uneducable nature
and take your weakness upon me.

stay by me
even if I nourish myself from ashes and salt
be still and listen to the name
which i lend to you
because i want to distinguish you from the idols
grant me patience to endure those who are vain
with their empty words
and the converts
who are zealous to confirm their opposite
and grant
that my waiting be full of revolt

(* translated from the German by Mark S. Burrowemphasis mine)

Over the years, I have navigated through many theological waters; from evangelical and charismatic swells, meditative rip-tides, Methodical straits, and liturgical whirlpools.  Through it all I’ve tried to understand and practice the art of prayer. I’ve read books on intercessory prayer; joined “prayer groups” with “prayer partners”; taught on the dangers of Tibetan prayer flags; solicited prayer in prayer letters; and filled encyclopedic piles of personal prayer journals.

The sum total of all these many years of worn-knee, squint-eyed prayer posturing has lead to a humble (if jaw-dropping) revelation. Namely: I don’t know squat about prayer.

Continue reading

another definition of home

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” ~ Lin Yutang

Gosa Syren in IKEA-Swedish:
not corpulent, not plump,
not for back sleeping
(like the tag says)
Not stiff, not fluffy,
Not fragrant, not memory-
molded, not down-filled–
like the world was once
pre-Portugal and Spain,
rounded corners,
raised on a swell,
sheathed in flannel
cool to the cheek.
No other vessel can convey
this moonlight passage.

Hobbiton is Where the Heart Is

LOTR Featured Image

I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with the girls over the weekend. A life-long fan of Tolkien’s works, I found many things to enjoy about the return to cinematic Middle-Earth (in all its 3D HFR splendor). As a Tolkien purist, however, I had my share of quibbles, too (e.g. Peter Jackson’s blindspot when it comes to the benefits and beauty of brevity–less really can be more, Pete. Trust us.) But such criticism is all too blaise and bears no need of repetition here.

What I’d rather discuss was an odd epiphany that came with this recent viewing of a classic book. Namely: I’m getting old.

You’d think I wouldn’t need Bilbo the hobbit or Gandalf the wizard to help me grasp the mysteries of the obvious. Especially when I have Sarah, the nine-year-old truth-sayer, mentioning to me (almost daily) that I could use some makeup to hide the over-sized carry-ons stuffed below my wrinkly eyes. As I near the beginning of my last year of my thirties, these realities are becoming inevitable–unavoidable. (I can almost hear the post-40 crowd scoff and the under 30s sighing ‘like obviously, man, must suck to be you.’)

Continue reading

At home with the ghosts

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

from “Ars Poetrica” ~ Czeslaw Milosz

I just finished watching the first season of American Horror Story. I am not going to lie–the show creeped me out, profoundly disturbed me, and left me feeling as if the ridiculously good short-sale I have put an offer on may merit much deeper research. (I’m now thinking way beyond inspections and appraisals; considering missing person’s reports and coroner autopsies detailing the precise cause of death and psychological stability of all previous tenants. Maybe I’ll consult a medium, too?)

While this gruesome TV series (based on the history of a famous California “Murder house”) feasted upon the many unformed embryos of essays and (oh-so) clever stories that once resided somewhere in my gizzard waiting for birth, I was forced to consider what gives rise to such twisted distractions in me. Am I really so dark? One immediate clue popped to mind from a lecture I attended at the Glen Workshop last summer. Given by the writer/director Scott Derickson (known for The Excorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, and Sinister), the lecture addressed the concept of “dark transcendence” in art and the horror genre.

Continue reading

Home Sweet Home

When people ask me where I’m from I say that I was born in Kentucky, but that I grew up in Florida. But since I returned to Kentucky to complete college and start working, I always felt (and feel) a bit conflicted in my loyalties (and my response). The answer always seems much more complicated than the question was ever intended to be.

In China when asked this question about origins, I once used the Chinese words I knew for Kentucky “Ken De Jie” but forgot the most important part of the phrase. I forgot to insert “Zhou” at the end signifying the state. After the laughter died down, I realized that I had expressed that I was from KFC, the fried chicken restaurant, rather than the bluegrass state that The Colonel made famous.

The confusion of place is compounded by the fact that I now live in a suburb north of Seattle called Edmonds. When non-locals ask where I’m from (usually meaning “where do you live now”) I usually say I’m from Seattle since it is a place with name recognition. But Edmonds is truly what I consider home.

“And how did you get there,” strangers will ask.

“My wife is from Edmonds,” I tell them. “And that’s with an ‘o’ not with a ‘u’.”

“And you met her there?” they’ll inquire, attempting to shove the pieces together.

“No,” I usually reply, “we met in Colorado.”

Though I am a geographic conundrum, I am whole-hearted in my adoption of this place near the Puget Sound. My wife  grew up here. My daughters were born in the hospital I pass daily on my way to work. My commute outlines favored sidewalks and small-town traffic peccadilloes. It’s perhaps too easy for me to roll my eyes at all the retirees clogging the local coffee shops or scorn the inane “police beat” in the Edmonds Beacon. But Rockwellian utopias just pale under the imposing yet awe-inspiring brow of the Olympic mountains. Rick Steves may be known for travelling the world, but he understands the right place to come home to–even if it does rain 8 months out of the year.

Despite feeling grounded in this quaint and oh-so-bourgeois suburban enclave, I still wonder if this is home. Do I have a home? Home is where the heart is right? But it’s also where the heart beats and slows–where the pulse is felt in the toes and temples.

Will I feel the urge to grow roots and actually dig in? The thought of purchasing a house and embracing “permanence” is exciting (and attracts me to it) but produces tinges of doubt and anxiety, too. I am very comfortable here for the time being, but will I be this comfortable in three more years? What about five? If anything my history has been more defined by migration, by the change of scenery, by a practiced nomadicism than stability. But is that how I want to live and raise a family? Not really.

But what will U-Haul do to survive without my frequent contributions?

I guess we shall all see.

And in the words of that sonorous bard from Mötley Crüe, Vince Neil, “I’m on my way / Well, I’m on my way / Home sweet home/ Tonight, tonight / I’m on my way, I’m on my way / home sweet home.

Disturbing the Peace

In China, it was the plumbing–the salivating pipes, the bathroom tile splintered under the teeth of pick-axes, the grubby men with hairpin mouths scrutinizing their unnecessary reservoir.

In Lynnwood, it was the Mongolian exchange, nocturnal hip-hoppers perfecting break-dance moves in the early morning hours, police strobe lights, and cigarette butts jettisoned off the balcony like confetti.

In the apartment on 5th it was the audible urination of the hippie neighbor upstairs–the flush and recitation of their pipes settling.

In the apartment on 6th it was the thump of an electric bass guitar–the teenage thrum and pulse of a split marriage.

In the duplex it was the ancient landlord whom we could not reach by phone; it was that yapping Prussian puppy locked in its cage; it was the permit-evading rooster that crowed like Pan at suburban sunrises.

It was the “only 600 square feet”, the sound of an inflatable mattress bursting, the smell of burnt wiring as the ceiling light filled like a balloon with water.

In our brief, dark ages it was the last ember of coal that could not be stoked back to life, the boiling kettle that would serenade dish rituals, the rats that Swiss-ed and twisted gnarly teeth into our Tupperware, and the foreign tongues of Tibetans neighbors.

It was the sound of a freeway in our back yard, the crash of rocks and raccoons in the fish pond, the litany of televisions that blared forever at 2 a.m.

It was this: that ringing tinnitus that hummed on within us, for months and years– that lingering perturbation, so deftly built and remodeled within our head. It was this, more than the others, that remained, when softer, fonder memories had long fled. If was this odd place we once called home.

House sounds

When it is well past midnight and I am creeping on the pads of my feet, from the kitchen to the bedroom, the floorboards wince. My wife is a restless sleeper. I imagine she will hear the stubble on my cheeks bending and crashing like bamboo in a strong wind. Sliding off my socks, I am aware that the sound of the fabric skidding over skin is no quieter, in this still room, than a bandsaw gnawing through fresh pine. The goldfish pond (or raccoon feeder) outside our bedroom window gurgles and the oscillating fan in the corner whirs. The ambience does not mask the flap of denim against carpet, nor do they muffle the blind man’s careful stride to the bedside. The sound of toothpaste swathed over bad breathe cannot be heard–it was left behind in the bathroom, but it still feels loud. The creak of the bed is the final sigh at the end of the day when the shadows on the ceiling  frame us both within the portrait of  dreams in progress and those yet to come.

the thousand shattering sounds of home

Small Prayer in a Hard Wind | by Christian Wiman

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,

which, with its paneless window and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,

wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,

shatter me God into my thousand sounds…

+ + +

This Advent season, Christa and I are in the midst of purchasing our first “home.” We’ve lived in our share of houses (easily a dozen) over the past twelve years and have made many of these places into homes. Most have been in western Washington, a few were in western China. But each of these was always borrowed, always “for the time being” places that we leased and stewarded in the stead of someone else. For the very first time in our family life together, should this home work out for us, we are on the cusp of “permanence” or at the very least the greatest sense of rootedness we have really ever known. This is exciting, mysterious, and a little scary. The nomadic way of life has grown familiar to us over the years and suddenly we find ourselves packing up the tents and breaking soil on a new foundation (figuratively speaking of course).

Reading A Christmas Carol and Wiman’s poem above, I have been reflecting on home–what it means to have a home, what it means to return to a home, what it means to have “homes” shape and haunt, bless and burden, us. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is the ghost that enters the homes of his past and current self unseen. Home provides more than just a setting in A Christmas Carol. It is the window and vessel for memory; the living monument to mankind’s charitable and carnal desires; the welcome mat and locked door that spawns and spurns community. The centrality of home (in all its variety) is not so different today than it was in Dickens’ time.

Obviously, Advent presents an even more ancient and universal reflection on home and homecoming. A stable, an inn, angelic bodies, and a baby’s human form. So many narratives about housing and displacement.

As Christa and I consider our “new home” we say little prayers for this or that to happen. (I do anyway.) These petitions seem so fragile, like a half-standing house ready to teeter and fall. Like child-like faith or superstition (or almost good news) such rituals may seem small and inconsequential, almost silly. I never expected to be that person listening to the “wind that seeks and sings at every wound” the one that hopes for the “openness to receive it”. But here I am, nonetheless, getting excited for Christmas and Advent, and home.

This series of blog-vignettes explores the many-faceted aspects in home:

  1. House sounds
  2. Disturbing the peace
  3. Home sweet home
  4. At home with the ghosts
  5. Hobbiton is where the heart is
  6. Another definition of home