Sunday, October 5, 2008

"The Sport of Truly Chastened Things"

Last weekend I joined the Beijing Hikers on an excursion through some of the hills that that lie just outside the edges of the city. It was wonderful weather for a ramble, with a skyful of grey, woolly clouds puntuated by the occasional shower of fine rain.

The instructions on the website said we should bring something to eat for lunch. I like taking curried dal on picnics, so I prepared a great heap -- fiery hot and hauntingly sour --and bought some steamed rolls made of a stiff cornmeal mixture (just the thing to take on a hiking trip, as you have to be famished to find them at all attractive). The preparations took a long time, but I was sure it would all pay off in the end, once I was halfway up a mountain and needed feeding.

Well, all I can say is, I'm never taking curry on a hike again. It is delicious but spilly. Next time I'm taking something self-contained, something you can eat standing up. Some kind of filled bun or pancake, for example.

When meeting for one of their weekend excursions, the Beijing Hikers set off from the Starbucks cafe on the first floor of the Lido Holiday Inn. I was afraid of arriving late (transportation in Beijing can be surprisingly time-consuming) so I got up at five and took a taxi and arrived at the cafe with a good hour and a half to spare.

Well, it was a nice breakfast. Normandy need not worry about its laurels, but even an indifferent croissant makes a pleasant change from rice and mung-bean porridge.

While I was sitting in the nearly empty Starbucks cafe waiting for the other hikers to appear, I noticed that the background music was not the sort of canned, featureless stuff I had expected. It was Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter. "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to be exact. The really funny thing is, although I recognized the song right away, I wasn't entirely sure it was Frank Sinatra doing the singing. Since it has always seemed to me that the Mozart rule (if you think it's Mozart but you're not sure, then it's Haydn) can be adapted to apply to old blue-eyes as well, I sat there for a good long while trying to work out how to "tell the dancer from the dance." Then old Frankie dropped into one of his quiet and beguiling first-cold-pressed-extra-extra-virgin lower registers. Of course after that there was nothing more to be said.

It was a pleasant feeling, sitting in a cafe with the rain misting down, listening to the echoes of another America. Not the one in the news, but the other one. The one my mother's older sisters grew up in. The one everyone fell in love with, all over the world. The one people loved even more than France, perhaps, or at least differently from France. That America.

Just who can solve
its mystery?
Why does it make
a fool of me?

You might think it would just be heart-wrenching -- that it would be impossible to avoid crushing comparisons between then and now -- but actually, as I say, it was a pleasant feeling. I suppose I just didn't do any comparing, or even any thinking. I just sat and listened. Well, it was early and I was kind of dozy.

The hike itself presented me with a curious mix of experiences. The hills were small but spectacular, with great jutting chins of red-grey rock above narrow, viney gorges. Some of the hillsides were wooded in a mixture of pine and deciduous forest, both old growth and new. Others were covered in long, tough grasses of the kind one finds near the bluffs at Point Reyes. There were small purple flowers of the aster kind, with upturned faces on long slender stems. There were tangles of white daisies and a bushy yellow thing like a sort of wild phlox. From various eminences and promontories we could see the hills around us pooled in mist -- a wonderful sight.

It was gaining the eminences that was the problem. The climbs were long and steep. Though the hike was described as "reasonably easy," it seemed to me just at the near side of impossible. I climbed and climbed, soaking in sweat and dizzy as a whelk. It was hard to imagine the sturdy little mountain goat I used to be, twenty-odd years ago and half a world away!

No one else seemed to find the hike difficult. I was the last to round each curve and the last to gain each hilltop. Everyone had to wait for me. Even the guide, who was supposed to bring up the rear, went on ahead.

After a while, this experience produced some bitter reflections. They grew and swelled and welled up. I thought of how well acquainted with loss I had become over the last fifteen years. Too well acquainted, I think, for someone my age. The losses rounded themselves up into a kind of tally -- so much strength and health, so many years of youth.

I also thought of how familiar this kind of experience had become, the sense that what I was trying to do was too hard for me. Too hard for me, but not too hard for the people around me.

These reflections reminded me of the time a former classmate telephoned to tell me of her plans to spend a few months serving as an attending physician in a Nepali hospital. She said that she wished I were coming too. When we were in high school, we often spoke of hiking in the Himalayas together one day. After we hung up, I cried for many hours. Then I wrote a poem, which I called Admonition.

(To an old schoolfellow departing for the mountains of the East, there to practice her profession and indulge her taste for the far away.)

You do not owe me this, but still I charge you:

In the name of common cause
between all fellows,
kith of every kind

— yoke-mated in formation,
axle-paired, aligned in step,

or scattered as the Pleiades,
flung piecemeal, cast haphazard —

think of me.

Ringed azure
by the mountain sky,

do this:

watch the sundial;
let it tell a quarter-circuit;
while you wait, reflect;

think of my days.

You will be far from me.
your mind’s eye should
fetch forth a picture:

no sundials where I am;
there never will be.
No ridge, no blaze of blue,
no crack of rock.
No slow sigh of moss
beneath a lizard’s
winking patter-weight.
None of these things.

Healing is your business.

But, while you watch the sundial,
do this:

think humbly on wounds.

Think on loss and ravages.
Think on what is gone.

For a quarter-circuit,
think of me.

Then, when the wheel of things has called you home,
look at me.

Pale gold with upland air,

come to me and look me in the face.

I thought of this poem, and of the circumstances that had occasioned it, while I scrambled down the last slope. I was alone. The other hikers were still far ahead of me.

At the bottom of the last hill the other hikers had gathered around a small beck with a bridge of stepping stones. There was a praying mantis on one of the stones and they had stopped to admire him and to meet a local farmer. The farmer gave me a squash. Just me, nobody else. It was a very attractive little squash, shapely, pale green and remarkably weighty for its size.

I don't know if it was the squash, or the tea we had at a farmhouse-turned-restaurant just over the beck, or what, but, long before we had climbed into the bus that would take us back to Beijing, I felt something loosen inside.

At that time, I thought of the signature couplet in James Taylor's "Shed a Little Light:"

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist;

There is a hunger in the center of the chest.

This was the opposite feeling. Opening, loosening, warming, easing. One of the other hikers was cold and I lent her my mittens. As we rode in the bus back to the city, I thought of all the people I have known over the years who would not even be able to think of climbing any hills at all -- people for whom doing what I had just done, even with as much difficulty as I had done it, would be quite as out of the question as hiking in the Himalayas is for me.

It's not that these are new ideas for me. I often think, as many of us do, of those who are less fortunate than I am. But usually, when I think of them, it is with pity, and pain, and guilt. This time, the feeling was quite different. I don't quite know what to make of it myself, but I am pretty sure some people would say it was love.

This leads me to another reflection. Though I do not doubt the squash and the praying mantis helped, I think it was the hiking that really caused me to open, and loosen, and warm. Isn't it written:

I will lift mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.


spazmom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
macgregor said...

Sorry, posted on another login.

What did you do with the squash?

rmp11 said...

yeah, I was going to attempt to be touching and profound... and then I read MacGreg's comment. What *did* you do with the squash?

But seriously, I was really pleased to read this entry. I liked thinking of something loosening inside you. I love you and want things to be well with you!!!

flyingfish said...

I cooked it and ate it. I cooked it with green peppers and a kind of meat paste called zha jiang. This paste is usually used on noodles, but it was good with the squash.

Jonna Wibelius said...

What a beautiful post... I like your writing style, it is really pleasant to read. (and I loved the bit about the guide carrying all the gear passing you, it made me giggle, coz I know that feeling!!)

I am also really glad to hear I inspired u to stay for 10 min longer on the treadmill the other day. Next time I am about to jump off (the treadmill or a spinning bike) I will think about u climbing this hill and run/ride an extra 3 km... Inspiration is the best source for personal improvement I believe. Keep climbing!