I am not happy with the title. It’s so much more than that, but instead of staring at it for ten minutes or an hour, willing the real title to show itself, I am going to be grateful for the fact that I think I know how to finally write this memoir.
Thirty years ago, we were teaching English in China at Ningbo University on the East China Sea.
Two weeks ago, the poet, Ashley Jones, asked me to read some nonfiction at the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series at Desert Island Supply Company, terrific places of support for writers in Birmingham.
When Ashley asked for something along the lines of creative nonfiction. Ashley had also introduced me to the work of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who I knew as a children’s writer, but not as an essayist. She wrote a book called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.
It’s Amy’s life alphabetically as an encyclopedia. It’s wonderfully funny, and I’ve often used it as an example to get my own creative writing students to shape stories about their lives alphabetically. One student wrote about her family’s obsession with “Everybody Loves Raymond” alphabetically. One wrote about a horribly bossy aunt named Aunt Fred under “F.” One wrote about being Jewish in Trussville, Alabama – alphabetically.
Amy begins the the book with a timeline of her life, categories, and finally an “alphabetized existence.”
She writes: For a while I wished my name was spelled Aimee; it seemed so much more original, innovative, so chalk-full of vowels.
My students could see how beautifully simple and ordinary it was, but not only that – they could see they had a story to tell, too, because of how Amy did it.
But I’m so deeply saddened to say that it seems that Amy’s story is ending way too soon.
Here is the beautiful essay she wrote last week for Modern Love.
So I read it, and it broke my heart in a million ways because I’m not much older than Amy, and we have kids the same age. It made think about Ningbo, China and beginning a life thirty years ago around the same time she did with a husband whom I love very much, but have lived apart from for eight years because of our jobs and tenure and lack of planning, but somehow this distance has made us even closer. It also made me remember our first year of marriage in China and the place I discovered Carson McCullers when I was losing my mind with homesickness and culture shock. I have never been able to figure out how to tell that story, but in the fall, I began writing about living China alphabetically to show my students how to do it.
Then I had my proposal accepted for “Carson McCullers in the World” this summer in Italy to commemorate her 100th anniversary (mentioned in a few previous blog posts on Carson McCullers)
So I pulled out the creaky beginning alphabetical beginning and realized that maybe I could write about it all of i alphabetically – Carson, China, escaping the South, the Atlanta Falcons, Thorton Wilder’s Long Christmas Dinner and Kramer Vs. Kramer and Isak Dineson and Emily Dickinson and the Cultural Revolution and the Bourgeois Liberalism Campaign and Ms Xing and Mr. Fishley and Mr. Tilbury and Ningbo University – all of it.
I’d never been able to lasso any of it but with Amy as my guide, maybe I could/can.
So I sat at my desk all weekend, and by the end, I had thirty pages, of which I read only ten last night with a mashup of photographs of China and Carson McCullers and the South.
Oh, and in the last few months, I discovered in all this that Suzanne Vega has an album called “Lover, Beloved” and even has a song about Harper Lee, whom I wrote a biography about in 2009. Carson didn’t much like Nelle Harper and said she’d “like to kill more than just that mockingbird.”
So this is a little of the memoir of Carson and China and loneliness and grief that flat-out refuses to be an essay.
It says – No, No, No – no essay here. This is a memoir, so shut up and write.
I’m grateful for Ashley’s invite to read, the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series and Desert Island Supply Company, and that proposal was accepted for this summer in Rome.
Here is a taste with pictures.
Oh yes, we bought our plane tickets to Italy. And after the symposium, my mother and father and my sister, Keely, and her family are joining us. Keely has figured out the whole trip and booked us places to stay in Rome and Florence. Mom wants to see the Vatican. I may have a whole new memoir after this one. Norah has found Duolingo Italian, so we are practicing in the car as we drive places around Birmingham.
“Finding Carson McCullers in China”
A lyric, encyclopedic memoir of a time long ago
The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
It is 1987, and I am reading A Member of the Wedding in the rice fields in Ningbo, China where I teach English with my husband. We are newly married, and Carson McCullers is saving me from the terrible isolation I feel at a university eclipsed by rice fields where the Number One Teaching Building rises up against a slate sky like a Salvador Dali painting. A white cruise ship sails by each night on its way to Shanghai where I sometimes hold classes down by the river. We all wave to the passengers, and I long to go with them. Wait for me! A water buffalo frolics nearby in a rice paddy when not tethered to its farmer.
I am twenty-four and don’t see the irony of having escaped the South to teach English in China while finding solace in the words of Carson McCullers. My husband senses my homesickness and reads to me her stories aloud at night under our mosquito net, since the television only plays old episodes of Columbo and Mickey Mouse dubbed in Chinese.
“I know, but what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up. There’s bound to
be some sort of reason and connection. Yet somehow I can’t seem to name it. I don’t know.”
Carson McCullers, A Member of the Wedding.
I, too, am both loose and caught in China. Not connected to anything except for being different and foreign and newly married to a man who doesn’t worry about such things and finds each day full of wonder and possibility. As for me, I hunker down and brood about the future and what is to come…He brings home wire and sculpts it into flowers. He builds us picture frames out of wood and glass that I paint. On Saturdays we bike to the market. We spend Chinese New Year in Shanghai and it sounds like a war zone of fireworks. Someone tells me there are “too many eye injuries” after Chinese New Year.
Everywhere we go people ask, “May I practice my English with you.” I’m lost on the other side of the world writing desperately to graduate drama departments at NYU, Northwestern, and UCLA – places I hope will save us by saying yes so we can have a plan in place after China. I don’t want to stay here indefinitely. I can’t eavesdrop here. I’m too noticed and famous. Too big, too blue-eyed – my arms are hairy and apish compared to the smooth-skinned arms of the Chinese. I long for I don’t know what – the next thing. I feel like Frankie Addams from A Member of the Wedding in the rice fields trying to bust out.
Eight eventually months go by. The administration asks us to stay – teach another year. What? They get us drunk on rice wine and we say yes and then we change our minds once sober in the gray Ningbo light of day. Another year? Are you kidding me?
The two other foreign teachers are leaving too. Mr. Fishley and Mr. Tilbury. I don’t even like crabby Mr. Fishley, but I don’t want him to go. I adore Mr. Tilbury with his sense of humor and kindness, but he’s leaving too. What will we do without them? We will be the only two foreigners in a city of seven million Chinese. I realize I want us to be in New York or LA auditioning for plays, being with other artists and seeing movies again – I miss movies and plays and museums. There are only temples and factories and mountains here it seems to me. We’ve climbed three of the five holy mountains in China and rubbed the heads of many Buddhas for good luck. I don’t know how to live in the rice fields for another year. I’ll be twenty-five. Impossibly old.
“Should we go?” I ask my husband.
“We can stay or go. What do you want to do?”
“Maybe we should stay. The students are so sweet and good.”
“But I can’t take it. I’m going to crack up.”
“Then let’s go. We’ll have another adventure.”
Round and round. How does he stand me? Finally, we decide to go home.
But we are paid in Chinese money – Renmenbi – lots of it – and it all has to be spent in China. So we buy beautiful pieces of silk – red, gold, lime, purple – with roosters and rabbits and dragons. The rest we spend for tickets on the Trans-Siberian Railroad where we take a train from Beijing to Berlin. I bring A Member of the Wedding with me and Isak Dineson’s Letters from Africa. They have been my touchstones in Ningbo, and they are my touchstones on the train across China, Russia, Poland, and Germany for ten days where the train wheels get changed at each new border.
Something terrible and irreparable almost happens in Berlin on a train platform, and sometimes I wonder today, all these years later, if I made some kind of Faustian bargain back then in those dark and furious seconds.
But once back in the United States we must get jobs fast as we are broke, so we move into my parents’ Atlanta basement where we lived pre-China. We give away the pieces of Chinese silk as gifts to relatives. I’m still trying to be a playwright. I’ve read everything by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Edward Albee, but I land a job as a secretary for architects who need their blue prints NOW and COFFEE.
I am invisible. They do not care about my MFA in Playwriting from the University of Tennessee or about China. The head secretary advises me to get a decent haircut and offers make-up tips. She suggests that I put in my contact lenses before work. She makes me feel like Miss Amelia from Ballad of the Sad Cafe stomping around this boutique agency of glass brick and designer plans. I think of hog-killing time and crossed eyes “exchanging one long and secret gaze of grief.” I wonder how in the world I will ever write stories too. I wonder if we left China too fast. Why am I never satisfied and always seeking the next thing?
My football coach dad is a little lost too, but I don’t see that. He has been fired by the Atlanta Falcons so he’s now working with a commercial sports guy doing something that could lead to something, so sometimes he and I take MARTA together to our respective jobs downtown, so Kiffen can use his car go to go to his temporary job. Everything about our lives is loose and caught and temporary.
Kiffen and I are also trying to decide whether to move to New York or LA or Chicago to find work as writers and actors. I am determined not to stay in Atlanta. That equals failure for me. But NYU doesn’t want us. UCLA doesn’t want us. Northwestern says to try again next year.
One morning while on MARTA with my dad, I complain to him about the monstrous egos of the men in the architecture firm where I’m sent to make coffee or get coffee or file or something all while getting yelled at, which makes me drop the blue prints like some frazzled Vera in Alice’s Restaurant. Dad is reading the sports page and says without looking up, “Well, honey, you gotta understand when men are at work they don’t have time to be polite or sensitive. They’re getting the job done, my dear.”
He went back to reading the sports page. Case closed. Could he or would he have said that very thing about women at work? No he would not have said that.
And then I see it. A miracle! A Carson McCullers Symposium announcement in the newspaper to take place in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia – it’s the first one of its kind! Edward Albee, the playwright, will be there. David Diamond, the composer, too!
Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
That’s how it feels seeing the announcement for the symposium. I begin to see light and hope and adventure again. There will be screenings of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and “The Member of the Wedding.” There will be discussions of the “We of Me” and the twisted trinity of Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia, and Cousin Lymon in “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” As if we are citizens of the literary world, this Carson McCullers Symposium gives us something to look forward to. Lucky for me, I have a husband who is game for anything.
We will stay in a hotel in Columbus like adults and it won’t be a Chinese hotel packed with noisy travelers and paper-thin walls or my parents’ basement. We will cross over the river into Phenix City, Alabama where Carson and her husband, Reeves, used to go drinking since Columbus was dry. By now, I have read her biography and want to explore the geography where she grew up, and I’ve expressed this in a fan letter to Virginia Spencer Carr, her biographer.
We have tried to visit the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, but Andalusia is locked up tight with barbed wire. Thou shalt not cross. But with the announcement of this symposium, we are going to go hear how Lula Carson Smith became Carson McCullers, a writer, and see how it applies to our lives, since we have returned home from China maybe too soon and more than a bit lost.
Which makes me want to tell the egotistical architects that I’m not a nobody even though I’d taught the Emily Dickinson poem “I’m Nobody” to my sweet and polite Chinese students who mostly all said it was best to be “a nobody” because to be “a somebody” perhaps attracted too much attention.
I want to tell the architects about teaching in the middle of rice fields in the city of Ningbo and trying to write letters like Isak Dineson had written from Africa, discovering Carson McCullers in the worst kind of culture shock, listening to Laurie Anderson along the muddy canals, traveling ten days on the Trans Siberian Railroad, and the train platform in Berlin where everything almost ended. But the architects don’t care about these things. They need their files and blue prints. I have no blue print for my life.
But Carson escaped Georgia. Maybe we can too.
We do and we will but not without consequences. This is a memoir about a marriage and mostly about our first year of marriage in China over thirty years ago, but I’ll flashback to BC too – Before China…and leap ahead to AD – After What? After Decisions…After Drugs…I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know, but I’m going to begin the way Amy Krouse Rosenthal began in her memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Alphabetically.
We are homesick most for the places we have never known.
A is for abacus. Nearsighted Chinese clerks used an abacus to count everything, fingers flying across the colorful balls, clicking away, heads bent over beads.
A is for addiction. We’ve had it in spades in our both our families, but back then it was just part of being Irish and/or Southern. We didn’t understand the reach of addiction’s grievous tentacles yet and would not learn so for decades.
A is for Alaska. Technically you could say I’ve been to Alaska, but I only flew there on my way to China with my new husband, Kiffen, in 1987. This was the first time we escaped Georgia, the South. We never left the airport in Anchorage so I don’t count it. And if you truly want to be technical it was 1986 New Year’s Eve. We’d been married four months after eloping in Knoxville at the Courthouse. See “C” for Courthouse that my mother-in-law threatened to burn down if we ran off and got married. See “S” for sin, which is what my parents considered our “shacking up” to be before marriage. See “P” for pleasing everyone, which was simply not going to happen
A is for Anxious. Nowadays I’m anxious on planes. I mentally convene with the pilots on the tarmac, wishing them focus and concentration, while I’m high alert to each bump or odd sound. I drink to turbulence, and as a lapsed Catholic, I once cried out a series of “Hail Mary’s” that our youngest heard as “Hell Mary’s.” But on that plane to Alaska, I remember no turbulence. I remember the fragrant warmth of the washcloths to clean our hands and faces. I remember the warm smiles of the flight attendants. I remember dropping my electric typewriter out of my backpack onto the plane floor, but it clicked on fine with its four batteries in place. I began typing a letter about flying to Alaska before dinner was served. In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie Addams’ brother, Jarvis, is stationed in Alaska, and his fiancé, Janice, is from Winter Hill, Georgia. Frankie finds it “a very curious coincidence” that her brother who lives in Alaska picks a bride from a place called Winter Will.
A is for Atlanta too. We flew out of Atlanta to New York where we boarded Korean Airlines to fly to Alaska then to Seoul and onto Hong Kong. With the flight attendants in bright pink and red splashes of colorful Korean dress, our plan to teach English at Ningbo University in Zhejiang Province began to feel scarily real after months of living in my parents’ basement waiting for our Chinese teaching visas to be processed.
A is for Atlanta Falcons where my father was coaching football, and he’d given us two sturdy red canvas Atlanta Falcons’ bags to take to China.
A is for Alaska, Atlanta, Attendant, Abacus, and Asia. Let life begin! But first…
I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.
B is for Black Hole. My football coach father called China a “black hole.” He didn’t understand why in the world anybody would want to visit much less live and teach in China when Atlanta, Georgia was a great place that had everything to offer. Kiffen had to drive him to the Atlanta Falcons training camp at 4:30 every morning from Roswell to Suwanee, GA. He did this so we could use my dad’s car to drive to our temp jobs in the city. My mother found a play I’d written in a stack of my things, in which she discovered herself a featured character. My mother stopped speaking to me. B is for black hole.
B is for Basement. We lived in my parents’ basement, which was a finished basement with carpeting and not a cot on cement with a swinging light bulb my mother wants you to know. We’d already closed our Tennessee bank accounts and were spending our American Express Traveler’s Checks meant for China, so we found temp work. My mother often dropped me off or picked me up with Manheim Steamroller on a cassette loop. I felt like I was in seventh grade. We were supposed to leave in September, October, November, and finally, after some subterfuge and a lie, we received permission in late December to move to China. During the long wait for our Chinese visas, we consoled ourselves by eating Indian food at Raja in Buckhead and by auditioning for Thorton Wilder’s play, The Long Christmas Dinner. Kiffen was cast as Roderick and I was invited to be an assistant director. My mother wept through the play that spans ninety years in thirty minutes, and my brothers cracked open beers in the back row under duress at being forced to see a play.
The more we settled into Atlanta pre-China, the more my father proclaimed as the autumn months passed, “The Chinese don’t have their act together. It’s a black hole, folks. No sense in going all the way across the world to teach the Chinese English. Time to get a new game plan, kids,” to which I would argue back, “We are not going to be those people who said once upon a time we almost taught English in China.” His reply? “Why the hell not?”
We were temping forty hours a week at Gulf Oil and Dominion Mortgage Funding Corporation and SAAB. We were also expected to go to Mass and Atlanta Falcons football games on Sundays. B is for basement.
B is for battery. When I unpacked our Atlanta Falcons bags in Ningbo, China, I realized that I left the cord to my electric typewriter in Atlanta, so I had to buy Chinese batteries to keep it running. D batteries were the same world over, thank goodness, and my electric typewriter required four. (Still, when the cord/charger finally arrived in a care package from my mother, I plugged it in without a converter and blew out all the power at the International Guest House and ruined the charger.) So I continued to buy batteries and tiny bars of chocolate at the small university shop on the Ningbo University campus, and the lone clerk would count up everything eyeball-to-abacus.
B is for Ballad of the Sad Café, a novella by Carson McCullers, about Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon, and Marvin Macy. I discovered Carson McCullers only after I’d moved to Ningbo. I knew she was a southern writer, but that was all. In her novella, Miss Amelia, a tall, angular woman, loved Lymon, a hunchback dwarf, and Lymon loved an ex-con, Marvin Macy, and Marvin Macy loved Miss Amelia. Described as a “twisted trinity” by scholars, I loved this because the only trinity I’d ever heard of was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit after twelve years of Catholic school. I had no idea it could be used to described odd characters in literature all tied up in knots together. My favorite line from the story is: It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams — sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.
After I read The Ballad of the Sad Café, Kiffen and I created a café in the classroom for our Chinese students to practice their English by ordering items off the menu from milkshakes to hamburgers to onion rings to barbecue to cherry pie. We drew pictures of the food, our mouths watering because lunch would probably be rice and salted eel. I played cassettes of old-time fiddle music along with Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. Kiffen showed the students how to clog. Our classroom café was not a sad café in Ningbo, China – even though it was inspired by one – we called it K & K’s Café and it was filled with Chinese students learning English pretending to drink chocolate milkshakes and dancing to Patsy, Loretta, and Hank.
B is or Berenice Sadie Brown, another of Carson McCullers’ characters, in The Member of the Wedding. Ethel Waters played Berenice Sadie Brown on Broadway and in the film with Julie Harris as Frankie. Bernice had a bright blue glass eye and had suffered tremendous pain in her life, marrying at thirteen to the first of four husbands, but she still dressed up and went out with friends, played cards at the kitchen table with Frankie and John Henry and mothered them, cooked for them, taught them how to live in the world until John Henry broke her heart. I loved Berenice Sadie Brown and the way she was the only grownup who listened to those kids and loved them and knew she was caught and loose in the world too. My husband was like her good first husband, Ludie, and I loved him the way she loved Ludie, but I was caught in the rice fields not knowing our future, making piles of Chinese money. Carson understood. She knew the loneliness of feeling lost. I strapped on my Walkman in the evenings and walked through the rice fields listening to Laurie Anderson and Mozart, thinking about hugging the red dirt of Georgia by my parents’ birdhouse mailbox when I got home. The month of February lasted a year in Ningbo.
B is for Berlin only then it was West Berlin then, and we were on the platform on a sunny day. We were with people we’d collected on the Trans Siberian Railroad. We’d spent the night a German man’s house whom we’d met in a pub and he’d invited us all back to sleep, which is what we did – we were so exhausted from all the travel. We’d become friends on the train. Fred and Leo were from Sweden. Hans was from Denmark. I’d shared a bed with Amanda from England because the flat was tiny. Guys in one room, girls in another. The following morning we made our way to the train station…what did we eat or drink that day? Anything? Coffee? The plan was to hitchhike to Stuttgart to where Kiffen’s sister, Celina, lived with her husband, Bill. We wore backpacks and carried our bulging netbags from China. I also carried my electric typewriter. I was typing a letter on the platform when Kiffen announced that our train was coming and to hurry.
B is for black hole, basement, batteries, bars of chocolate, Berenice Sadie Brown and The Ballad of the Sad Café.
Next the C’s…
A mashup of pictures of Carson and China
“She decided to donate blood to the Red Cross; she wanted to donate a quart a week and her blood would be in the veins of Australians and Fighting French and Chinese, all over the whole world, and it would be as though she were close kin to all of these people. She could hear the army doctors saying that the blood of Frankie Addams was the reddest and the strongest blood that they had ever known.” The Member of the Wedding Carson McCullers