Friday, October 19, 2012

50… 50, With the Glass Half Full

I celebrated my fiftieth birthday the other day; my 3rd birthday celebration in Wuhan. Zhanny and Dash, all that is left of the original Cookie Cutter girls and a part of what I consider my Chinese family celebrated with me on the eve of ‘my day’. We ate ‘jiao zi (dumplings) for good luck, and then they surprised me with a small cake that we shared in the park by my former apartment, at the very same low table where we ate my first ever Chinese birthday cake (and got into a cake war). See the ‘Happy Birthday to Me!’ entry, posted way back in September 2010 for details of this unusual Chinese custom. 

My Sophomore group of students that I had last year as Freshmen were invited over to watch The Notebook the evening of my actual birthday. Titanic has just re-released over here and all the girls are ga-ga for the romance of it. They don’t know anything. In my opinion, The Notebook is far more romantic than Titanic ever thought of being. What is your take on the subject?

They had never seen The Notebook and were suitably impressed. Even the guys. Of course, I had to fast forward through the two sex scenes, relatively tame as they are.

I’ve learned in my tenure here that it is tradition to host a birthday party for yourself. When first acquainted with this practice it seemed to me terribly arrogant to throw oneself a birthday party, and in a sense it still does. However, the more I study and learn and become a part of Chinese culture and society the more I understand it. Throwing oneself a birthday party implies you want to share your day with your friends. It is kind of like a wedding: you want the people most special in your life to be with you on that momentous occasion. Of course it has more import in China than that same situation does in the West. In China the newlyweds (and birthday girls/boys) serve their guests, whereas in the west, specifically in America the newlyweds (and birthday girls/boys) are the ones being served.

I have no wedding plans at all, so my half-century birthday will have to serve as my momentous occasion. It is quite a milestone, isn’t it? 

Too bad I had to celebrate hatted and plastered. My birthday falling on Friday of the week I took my spill (pardon the pun), I still had stitches in my head, facial swelling and the cast on my arm. None of that kept me from preparing a substantial amount of food: pork and lotus root soup, meatballs in barbecue sauce and chicken in a type of spicy Alfredo sauce of my own creation. The coffee table was liberally covered with individually packed snacks as well as large bowls of chips and other munchies. All of it got gobbled up, with the exception of 5 snack packs. That is another phenomenon I am by now well acquainted with: these kids are eating machines! Even if they come over having just finished their dinner they will eat as much as is served and then some.

Now I have attained an age that I had previously thought as a line of demarcation between living and being set out on an ice floe to await my sure demise, as per Eskimo lore. Do I feel any closer to expiring than I did last year or the year before?

In an email exchange with my dear friend and constant correspondent Kevin I tapped out my true feeling.

l consider myself charging into the years ahead - however many more years l'm granted - with wild exuberance, like a formerly confined creature finally set free. lmagine a mustang – the 4-legged kind: hooves pounding, mane flowing, muscles rippling beneath its shiny pelt as it gallops across a vast, open, uncharted plain. That is how l see myself, and how l strive to live: with zest, elan, whole-heartedly and passion driven.

I honestly do not know where these words came from. The best explanation I can give is that they sprang from the very depths of my soul. Typing one-handed, my right fingers flew across the keyboard with virtually no conscious awareness of what I was writing. As though coming out of a trance, I shook myself, got a glass of tea and returned to read over what I had written. I was surprised, both at the poetry and the rightness of my words. Kevin gave me permission to reprint what I had written exclusively to him, provided I shared the credit.

Thank you Kevin, for provoking these thoughts and for your blessing in reprinting, as well as for your birthday wishes.

Obviously I feel like I am poised at the very brink of the beginning of my existence. None of us knows how much time we are granted, and we are all gifted with each day: a new chance to learn, to love and to live.

What if we did know? What if, while I was having my head MRI’ed, the doctors had found an inoperable growth and gave me only weeks to live?

That idea ties in with a question my son had asked me a few years back, before I set off on my China adventure: what is on my bucket list?

At that time I did not have a bucket list, at least not a consciously developed, concisely formulated one. What makes me so introspective now?

My students. One of the projects I dreamed up for my students this year is for them to imagine they only have 2 weeks to live. What would they do? Where would they go? I plan on making it the topic of their mid-term exam: give a 2-minute speech about the last 2 weeks of your life.

It is always interesting to hear what these kids think and what their priorities are. I’ll bet most will say “I will spend it with my family” but some will come up with imaginative projects like mountain climbing, or visiting the country of their dreams (provided it is not China). If they cannot envision themselves leaving China, most likely they will intone something to the effect of visiting someplace in China, probably with their family.

There are plenty of places I still want to go, in and out of China. But if I had to pick a place I’d like to visit as a destination fit for a bucket list it would be Tristan da Cunha.           

I first learned of this collection of 3 tiny islands smack in between the coasts of Africa and South America from Fletcher Knebel’s story Vanished. It is a tale of world leaders hatching a plan for peace. Of course, all great things cost some sort of sacrifice and most of the story dealt with the family of the American President’s envoy to that meeting: how were his wife and daughter managing the disappearance? How did their story unfold? Because that representative is so well known the media made the most of his disappearance. As naturally as had the events actually unfolded, the newscasters took the theme into improbable realms: He has committed a crime, he is homosexual and gone on a tryst, a terrorist faction kidnapped him…

We can see from this dated tale that the media has not changed very much over time.

I’d like to visit Tristan Da Cunha for its isolation, for its beauty and to be a part of a civilization that boasts a mere 275 people. They have no Internet and virtually no connection to the outside world. They are a completely self-contained society. Only one island is inhabited and at that, only partially. There is only one way to get there: by sea. So brutal is the weather and so treacherous are the seas that the island’s only port is accessible about four months out of the year. I relish the challenge of even getting there.

Why the focus on a bucket list when obviously I have no abnormal growth threatening my life and my subconscious dictated words indicative of the idea that I feel I am at the start of my existence?

It is not the list I’m focusing on rather than the contents. Since I learned that my students, by nature and by nurture only envision probabilities without embracing possibilities, I have made it my mission to expand their horizons. Maybe they’ve never heard of Tristan da Cunha. Maybe they have but never envisioned themselves going there.

With a half century of living behind me and, it seems, many more years to come, I’d like to open their minds, hearts and eyes to a whole different world: the world of possibility.

Now there’s a goal worthy of a bucket list.

No comments:

Post a Comment