Crouching on the very edge
I will say
That the Bible could be entirely
And when I die, I might become
Food for worms
And nothing more.
I do not believe this is true
Or at least
I have to hope with all my marrow
That it is not
For if I slipped off this edge
It would be
Into a dark and dreary chasm
Hell, I am already uncertain
Of most things
Save for this—
Verum esse ipsum factum
What is true is what
We are real not because we
But because we, image-bearers
In great waves of poetry.
I broke up a fight today. Welcome to Brooklyn. I broke up a boy beating a girl. Beating her into lockers, beating her arms, and beating her face. I broke it up by wrapping my arms around the boy and turning him into my empty classroom. I let go of him, and he sat in the chair behind my desk.
“This is why I don’t come to school!”
I spoke to him calmly and told him to breathe. I asked if he could maybe tell me what happened. He didn’t say much. His friend walked in.
“Are you Gucci?” asked the friend.
“Yeah, I’m Gucci. Man, this is why I don’t come to school.”
I wanted to get in his face. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout profanity, and I wanted to be silent. Then he left my room and paced away as if nothing had happened. The girl had been wrenched into another classroom by security. She was shouting. She was injured, and the other staff called for a nurse.
Welcome to Brooklyn. Funny smells and garbage everywhere. Lots of people who don’t look like me. Lots of people who don’t speak like me. Two hurricanes in my first two weeks being here. I arrived on 15 August, so it has been over a month now. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Just keep moving forward. This is a linear exercise. You don’t need to think to write. Just move your fingers. Just move your fingers until something comes out. Hey, you’re stopping. No, just read and write and write and read and listen to the jazz—the trumpet and the drums and the piano. FREEWRITE until things start to make sense and the garbage in your head is safely on the page where it cannot infect your head.
I am experiencing stress. So much to do. So many emails and PowerPoint slides and papers and things to take care of. No resolution or time to breathe. Barely time to eat lunch. I am behind, and the school is remembering how to do things in person. It is a slow process, one for which I am trying to give myself grace. Act like you know what you’re doing. Act like it’s acting school, and you are your own coach. (I’ve never been to acting school.) Keep acting and step into the fight when…
“Well, we can’t let them kill each other. But if you get hurt by intervening, then the union is next in line to ask questions.”
Welcome to Donne’s world of canonizations, songs about impossible tasks like catching stars and impregnating mandrake roots, and of triple fools. Welcome to your first class at the prestigious New York University, a class on poetics and the landscape of literary theory. Emphasis on the theory; more of a side note, really, on the poems. Remind me—what are the theories worth studying? Which are in vogue? Is it Formalism or New Criticism? Not the former, but remnants are doing the latter. Is it structuralism or post-structuralism? Aporia (eureka!)—he’s a skeptic, wanting counsel and questioning everything. Burning the system and waiting until the last second to exit the flaming vehicle of deconstruction. Is there anything valuable about this way of thinking? If one never bothers to rebuild, does it not, soon after, devolve into chaos and anarchic interpretations?
Is it smog or fog? I can’t really tell. Though the weather app on my phone places the AQI at 75, or “Moderate.”
When I was younger, tiny water droplets and ice crystals suspended in the air just above the surface of fields, roads, and hills were emblematic of winter in Helvetia, Oregon. Fog that didn’t exist on the Sunset Highway appeared as soon as you took exit 61 and drove a few miles north towards my home. Helvetia Road—especially the three-quarter-mile stretch with Elmer Grossen’s land on the west and the intersection of Phillips Road heading east—could be spooky. Low-lying clouds which blocked the infiltration of high beams burned off by noon and were back by dark.
Then I moved to China, where some days you couldn’t see farther than 15 meters because of the smog. GROUND-LEVEL OZONE, PARTICLE POLLUTION, CARBON MONOXIDE, SULFUR DIOXIDE, and NITROGEN DIOXIDE. (Thanks, EPA.) Some of my students wore surgical masks, though often as a fashion statement, first, and a shield, second. And when I showed them a picture I took of the obscured apartments across the way, they laughed. “Oh, the Chinese government can control the weather. No big deal.”
It’s not funny. I was serious, and I think they got the point.
What’s my point?
I’m worried that what used to be fog is now smog. That the air I breathed as a child is becoming less breathable. That Oregon, known for her Pacific Beauty, will turn invisible. I USED TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE MOUNTAINS. Now, they are a hazy outline in the distance.
I’m worried I don’t quite cut it as a middle school teacher. The irony of my position is fragrant. For a year, I volunteered with WyldLife in Corvallis and found myself struggling to keep up. The other leaders were way too cool for me. The kids were way too cool for me. In the end, I concluded that I just wasn’t enough fun for them. Now, it’s my job, and I have to unravel all the conclusions I had about middle schoolers and rewrite the code of my brain. What do they think of me? Do I care what they think of me? If I don’t, should I care what they think of me?
It was a rough week. They opened my eyes to the delicate nature of INTERACTIONS. Watch what you do, what you say. Be cautious, always. Of course, I understand why. And I agree, mostly, with their reasoning. But I have questions. I have counterpoints. I have my thoughts. Most of all, what is the RULE OF LAW, and WHERE IS IT WRITTEN? I’m sure I’m merely uninformed. And I know it’s not an excuse, but nobody told me, explicitly, what could and couldn’t be done. It’s a steep learning curve I’m on. I’m not sure I belong. I doubt myself often. I fear the results of failure.
On top of all this, I was sick. Couldn’t hardly breathe out of my nose, and my throat was a fountain of phlegm for three days.
It was a rough week. But grace abounds, and God is good. When I’m weak, he is strong.
He’s 5,784 miles away from home. He has $8,792 to his name (and a little more on the way). He does have a shirt on his back. He’s not taking a train home—he can’t. There’s an ocean between him and home. He’s taking a plane. Delta, niner, niner: he’s coming home. Four days. Three. Two. One. He leaves on Sunday in the afternoon and arrives on Sunday in the afternoon. The flights and layover almost perfectly make up for the 15-hour time difference.
It is humid, and he has mosquito bites on his scalp. It’s about the only place they could land last night, as his arms and ankles were under the covers. He woke, sweaty, twice. He did not sleep well. It was hot, and the unit in his bedroom pushes around stale air and not much else. It is old and out-of-date. And his mind was moving. Fast. Tick. Fast. Tock. Breathe. Tick. Slow. Tock. Empty yourself. Think of nothing. Sleep. No, I cannot. Sorry. Peace, Montag, peace. Take your troubles outside. Burn them and repent. Turn away from the books and the work and the pleasure—better yet, lay them on me. Give me your thoughts and desires and strivings. Lay them on me, and I will make your burden light. Sleep. Peace, Montag, peace.
He is grateful for a bed in a too-hot room. He is grateful for monthly wages even if those wages make him poor. He is grateful for the Bible app on his tablet that reads the gospel to him in the mornings while he eats breakfast and makes notes. He is grateful for a gym where he can exercise and stay healthy. He is grateful for the beauty of humans. For their grace. For their passion. For self-control. He wonders, though, to what end does he sacrifice the many hours of weight training? Is it to improve the look of his body? Is it for the endorphins? His sanity? Is it to attract a girl with similar dedication? And what would happen if he gave it all up? He would undoubtedly have more time for other things. He could read more. He could write more. He could play more music and compose more poetry. Instead, he fills his ears with podcasts and strains his muscles in front of mirrors and other men.
Be a little careless. I’m done, almost. I taught my last class for Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College today. I don’t know how it went. My eyes are closed. I am typing. I think it went well. They gave me applause when it was all over. I collected their final essays on the similarities and differences between China and America. Then, they evaluated me via QR code and cellular device. Thanks, Huawei, for letting the Party plant their tendrils into your tech company and for staying out of America. Even though your phones are less expensive and better than the alternatives, we’d rather you didn’t do business in the land of the free and home of the brave. We don’t like Big Brother. We’d just as soon snuff out his lies, oversight, central planning, and inner party.
I don’t know how it went. I don’t know if they’ll ever do anything about the things I said. Do you care? I asked. No, they answered. And that’s what I expected. Most of them won’t care. They’ll enjoy the comfort and the full stomachs and the education and the healthcare, but they’ll turn a blind eye to the past and present evils of their government. Evils? Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet: The Three T’s that you’re not supposed to talk about. When I did, Selina, a student, pointed at the cameras in the classroom to remind me that everything I say and do is recorded and watched, maybe. I know, I said. I don’t like it. The cameras are not there for safety or accountability. The cameras are there so you stay in line. So you don’t cross the Party. So you don’t say anything that could even be remotely construed as “anti-China.” But go ahead, say all the anti-American things you want. We don’t mind. There are microphones, too, somewhere. At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know that I’ve seen them. But they are there?
This is The Information Age. Data, Data, Data. Digital everything. We’ve got stuff flying at our eyeballs constantly. If we are to be critical thinkers who engage society and culture in a meaningful way, we need to learn how to parse that information for ourselves. We need to learn to separate appearance from reality by relying on authentic evidence from trustworthy sources.
Who can we trust?
People are dishonest. They tell lies to protect themselves. This happens at a small, personal level AND at a big, societal level. Here are some historical lies: Hitler and the Jews, Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We know that people in power are prone to making big mistakes. We know that people in power sometimes hide the truth or just plain lie to cover up their mistakes. How should we respond?
Do you care? Are you moved? To what extent? Will you think? Will you talk? Will you act?
So say the students: No, we do not care. Most of us, anyway. We are not moved. To be moved is a risk to one’s safety. I’d rather stay ignorant. I’d rather not care. It’s safer; it’s more comfortable. Some of us—say, two or three in a class of thirty—are moved. We will remember the things you’ve said. We will not forget how you made us feel. We will miss you. We love you. I love you too, I guess. Though, I pity you. I pity myself. I am small and insignificant. What can I say? What can I do? I’ve enjoyed teaching and learning from all of you. You are bright young students and you can do great things. I hope something stirred in you this semester. I hope you found something I said to be uncomfortable.
Carpe Diem! But be smart about it. (Dead Poets Society)
Am I in a cave? I don’t know. (“The Allegory of the Cave”)
Be careful who you trust. (Research & Final Essay)
That’s all folks! Until next time, Mr. Rogers. Adios. Zàijiàn.
Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones. Let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless. Sink into the nostalgia, and all of a sudden, miss the times you spent in the campus living room, the room with a piano and couches for dozing and tables for writing essays. Miss it like you’ve never missed it before. Wish you could go back, then know you cannot. Know that where you are is where you are, and where you’re going is a great mystery. Could it be that you’ll decide to stay? Or will you go home to your family? Soon you’ll have to make up your mind. Another year will pass. They do that. Sometimes slower than you’d like. I want somebody who makes me want to stop time. To be with them and never grow old like the girls in my class who, upon hearing of the day, say: We are not women! We are young forever. But they are 18 and in college; they may act like girls, but they will become women. Sooner than they’d like, they’ll have degrees, jobs, pets, and maybe even children. Many of them will teach. I want someone who makes it all stop for even a moment, and I can look into her eyes, and she can look into mine, and we can be silent, still, knowing each other amid our broken skin and graying hair. Stress relief, hear the damper and the resonance of Goldmund. Compose your own threnody to the dead, a wake for the very first time. Improper pronouns making noises. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, the person you didn’t know you’d be. Of course, it’s really all things that make you that person. Take me. Take on me. Take me to the city of green and gold or the cabin by the river where does drink their fill. Stand me up in their midst, a stag. A patronous made to fend off the darkness between moments. I want to protect you. I need to be protected, myself. If I stumble into the darkness, I am naked, dumb, and blind. But if you are with me, I have no fear or shame. I am comforted, even when my skin breaks and my hair recedes and vanishes. I recede. I draw back from the honor and thanks given to me for my excellent teaching and organizational skills from September 2018 to January 2019. Thank you, Mr. Ye and Ms. Hu, for your honor and thanks and the cash bonus. All I did was keep my desk clean and do as I was told. I didn’t argue as much as I could have. I didn’t die on that hill. Instead, I died on my way to the gym. I drank too much bad air and fell flat on my face. But my legs kept going, stepping on the cracks. Running past the restaurants, the hotel, the park, and into the nest of eagles. They bore me away to the land of Rohan. There, I took from the Riders their finest and most regal of horses. He, in turn, bore me through the Lilly pads and to the Mirrormere. Dismounting, I walked up to its banks. They showed me a pale reflection of myself. They, being the banks. I asked for a withdrawal, but they said they had no money. So I dove into their vault, only to find the edges of creation and a stream of never-ending consciousness. O! How insecure he was! So dependent on the approval of others. A leaf falls on him, and he shrivels. Fragile boy! You’ve made it in the nick of time. Climb out of the box for a time. See what there is to see. Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless.
Deep breath as you figure out what to say before you say it. Dang. Sorry, Mr. Elbow, I forgot. That’s not the point of this exercise. I’m in Exodus. Moses, speak up. I can’t, Lord; my lips are uncircumcised. What?
Beautiful day today by Shanghai standards. A nice walk to work with Phil Wickham in the ears. Phil is my friend (we’re on a first-name basis—he said as much at his concert last summer).
My first class slept through my first class. They were told it started five weeks from now. They were told wrong. I’ll have the communication breakdown, please.
My second class has one boy, and his name is Matthew. He’s losing his hair, and his mom is a Kindergarten teacher, like the rest of the students will be, assuming they stay put long enough to graduate. They should, being nice and well-behaved.
I like early education students: they are kind and listen well. Not that they have a say in the matter of their chosen discipline—likely it was chosen for them. It is difficult to know who actually signed on for the task out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic pressure to conform.
Welcome to China.
After work, the Tianhuogs went DOWNTOWN! on EIGHT-HUNDRED CASH, THAT’S A HELL OF A DEAL. We PULLED UP, MOPED TO THE VALET, and went to the top floor of Robinson Mall for MY SEAT IS LEATHER and hot pot. Then, WITH A BALANCE THAT WILL KEEP HER SAFE, we paid eight yuan for ten minutes in a massage chair. After that, GET OFF MY MULLET and a chocolate Blizzard from DQ. Finally, MOPED LIKE A BULLET in the dark and in the rain back to our apartment. DOPE, I said, GOING 38 km/hr while trying to RUN THE STREETS, BOY.
What do I say about fitness?
I’ve been moving since before first grade
Never have and never will get paid
But I reap my returns
Exercise is health insurance
The chemical ignitions
Firing like pistons
Is all the motivation I need
Though I ain’t some kind of breed
Or a workout fiend
I just like looking lean
So I get to the gym on the daily
Discipline my body
And make it my slave
All I’ll take to the grave
Though I do value modesty
I’m an image-bearer of majesty
I thank God for my genes
And keep a steady routine.
Now that I’m done adding the old stuff let’s get on to the new stuff. I started this blog several days ago and have been busy posting and backdating a bunch of writing from the past five months, starting with my arrival in Shanghai.
Oddly, I haven’t really explored this place. I spent much of my first semester here developing and holding to a routine. Wake up, shower, eat, read, journal. Go to work, teach, eat, teach, grade, plan. Come home, get changed, jog to the gym, lift weights, jog back. Shower, change, make dinner, eat. Watch something, play a game, read, or write. Sleep. Do it again.
All this order made it difficult to get out and do things. I’m not complaining; I like order. It’s comfortable, safe, and quiet. Then I went home for Christmas and saw my family. Highlight of my year. And in January, I left, alone, for southeast Asia: Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kunming, Wuhan, Shanghai. 18 January to 16 February, almost a month on the road. I did not enjoy every minute, and I didn’t expect to. But the minutes of grandeur, sublimity, reflection, elevation—those are what made it all.
Walking a busy city with a pretty German girl. Bicycling around Angkor from sunrise to sunset. Jon Lott telling of hitchhiking and Forrest Fenn. Rousing at the butt crack of dawn to watch Super Bowl LIII at a pizza joint with my roommate. Pondering oaths cross-legged near a Buddhist temple. Getting a Thai massage. Eating 竹筒饭. Spending time with Emily in Wuhan; going with her to the cinema for The Wandering Earth. Missing my train and then finally unlocking the door to my apartment in Shanghai.
Now that it’s done and I can get into currency, I think I’d like to show you where I live. Outside my front door, and before you get in the elevator, there’s a nice northwestern view of a waterway, a vegetable patch, and the ever-hazy suburbs of Jiading.
Going down, to the left, and out to the front entrance, you’ll pass by a number of luxury vehicles. (In Shanghai, if you own a car, you have money; and because of the importance of giving and saving 面子—miànzi or “face”—many of the cars are new and quite spendy.)
Today is the Lantern Festival, which marks the final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. In case you were wondering, it’s the Year of the Pig.
I went to my gym today, which is on the third floor of a hotel in the Jiading Industrial Center (I don’t know if that’s the proper name for this set of buildings). Typically, it’s about a ten-minute jog from door to door.
After my workout, some folks were setting up for an event that night, which would start in an hour. I jogged back to my apartment, showered, and boiled some 元宵 (yuanxiao), a stuffed, glutinous rice dumpling that had been recommended to me earlier by Jessie, my boss. Being stuffed with peanuts, I mixed them with peanut butter for added protein and flavor. Then I walked back to the event, camera in hand. As expected, lanterns and more food.
Except my Rose is just an apartment I’ve not seen in two months, and my Frodo isn’t sailing away to the land of eternal living. Nor was my journey quite as long, and I did not carry a ring. Nor was their fellowship, only loneliness and breakfasts in hostels. There was danger, but not the kind to worry about—petty theft, which I was fortunate enough to avoid. Though I’ve had enough of people staring at me and saying things about me in a language I do not understand. Shanghai is different from Kunming and Wuhan in that regard.