Sunday, September 25, 2011

Athens, New York

The leaves on the trees are orange-tipped and the mist rises from the Hudson, and the decline of much surrounds me -- diminishing uncles, houses all over this sleepy river town slowly succumbing to rot and humidity. At the same time, Athens offers a level of comfort. Church on Sunday, shopping on Saturday, football games and walks through town -- it's all what I've known forever. As I sat in church today, I realized that the person I was remembering was my grandmother, who had sat each Sunday in these pews and possibly held the same hymnal I was holding. I was wearing her diamond, the diamond that will someday go to my own granddaughter, if I am blessed with one. The Hudson looks green and mottled and placid. The Jets hold their lead over Oakland, the Yankees won their first game of the day -- against the Sox, whoo whoo -- and mom and I sit and sip wine from a box. Meanwhile, the air in Beijing is listed as "dangerous" (formerly called "crazy bad"), and so maybe there's no other place for me to be for now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Filling the Days

As the temperatures drop and the visas to China remain elusive, I’ve done a pretty good job of filling my days with coffees, lunches, drinks, and dinners with friends. But there are still enough hours in the day to get me into trouble.

Add that to Alexandria’s lovely collection of stores, and I’m doing some serious damage to my ability to fit all my purchases into the suitcases that are going to China eventually.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve bought:
Two dresses
Four pairs of shoes
One pair of shorts
One top
One pair of jeans
Four placemats
A hanging closet organizer
A universal current converter
A purse
Not to mention an impressive assortment of cat treats.

I realize I need to stop now.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For

I'm sitting in the color-coordinated lobby of a Marriott in Alexandria, Virginia, drinking a pink zinfandel (c’mon, the happy hour choices were merlot, chardonnay, zinfandel) and reading Thoreau's “Walden” on the Kindle that I have downloaded onto my iPad.

What would Thoreau think?

The lobby is over air-conditioned and buzzing with chatter. ESPN plays on the TV and the man across from me has settled in to watch it with his allotment of two Bud Lights and some soft tacos.

"I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well," Thoreau writes in his introduction. Soon after, he writes, "Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me."

It's a perfect message to be dropped into my lap, and it makes me realize that Thoreau would probably have blogged from his cabin at Walden Pond. Emerson would have set him up with wireless access, and Lydian Emerson would have sent him a bright email every couple of days just to check in and to see if he had any laundry that needed to be done.

Even more, Thoreau would have encouraged me to blog from China.

In fact, the truth is that on the warm day in September that I plopped myself on a fake leather couch and couldn't get the wireless going on my iPad and so was forced to look at the books I had already downloaded was a blessing in disguise – or a message from the universe.

A simple and sincere account of my own life. I can do that, and he would have done that too. But Thoreau, I think, would not have joined Facebook (friend Emerson? What about that pest Bronson Alcott?) or tweeted his momentary musings.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Try saying that in a tweet.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Time to Mourn

On September 11th, we found ourselves driving north to New Jersey to attend the funeral of our niece Alanna's mother. It's a fitting thing to do on a national day of mourning, and one of the odd silver linings of our visa delay is that we got one more chance to see members of the Davis family and mourn with them. As I typed this on the Garden State Parkway, John Lennon's song "Imagine" played on the radio and Paul Simon had just sung "The Sounds of Silence" at the World Trade Center in New York.

We stopped for a short break in Delaware, at the exact rest stop where a year ago, minus a few weeks, I found out that my boss Charlie had been fired from his job, and, in one moment I lost one of my pillars. I was rushing up to New York to see my mother who had had a devastating fall.

It’s been just a year, but a year in which I lost my father, quit my job, decided to move to China. I had no idea as I screamed into my cell phone in that sparkling new rest stop that the day was only the opening moment of a period that would test my resiliency. Losing my father meant I lost the feeling of having an ultimate safety net. But it also delivered some valuable lessons. It brought me closer to the rest of my family, especially my mother and my siblings, reminding us that a person could be snatched away in a moment.

One of the family members I've grown to know better in this last year is my Uncle Pat, who is fighting incurable brain cancer and who is using this period of his life to reflect on the joys he's experienced and to continue to live well, which in his case is very much a celebration of good food and wine. It's ironic that while my father was gone in an instant, my uncle has been given the gift of time, time to reflect, time to show love, time to connect.

The June before my dad died we threw him a surprise 80th birthday party. When people asked him over and over again how he felt, he had a simple answer, one that was as typical of him as the long valedictory is for my Uncle Pat.

Dad said he felt lucky. He was right.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Homesick Already

We’ve been out of the house for a week now, but instead of being immersed in the demands of China, we’re immersed in the limbo of waiting for our visas. In this unsettled moment, I had a dream last night about the house. It was the kind of dream you have when you miss a person.

We know the house is in good hands. Our tenants are straight out of central casting for the perfect renters: a young couple and their three-year-old daughter who has strawberry blonde hair, excited to be in the neighborhood.

Nevertheless, there’s a sadness that goes along with leaving a place where you’ve lived for 24 of the last 25 years. We brought a newborn Joanna home to those walls, and marked the kids’ growth with notches inside Joanna’s closet door. We have the ashes of my cat Persephone buried in the front of the house, just under a sweet stone shaped like a sleeping kitty. We’ve had more New Year’s Day open houses, dinner parties, dancing-on-tables parties, birthday celebrations, Passover seders, Thanksgiving dinners, Easter egg hunts, latke fries, book club meetings, PTA gatherings, and unauthorized high school parents-are-away parties than we can count.

We’ve mourned deaths. My acapella group sang many times there. The house has been home to two cats.

After everything had been moved out of the house and the walls were freshly painted, I sat for a while on our front steps and chatted with neighbors as they came by to wish us well. All the babies and young kids on the street will be so much bigger when we live there again. I hope the old folks will be well, and that all the street’s pets live long. One thing that seems certain is that the house will be basically the same old house, with its old tiles in the bathrooms and the front door that sticks in the humidity. One of the joys of leaving is coming home again, and I’m already looking forward to that.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Brain Freeze

There’s a certain toll taken on those who are stuck in a situation where most things are beyond control. That toll, in me at least, manifests itself in a certain escalation of what I’ll call brain freeze. I don’t remember things people tell me, I get distracted more than I’ve ever been, I can’t sleep, and I’m turning to beer and munchies to fire up the misfiring synapses.

One problem is that Bob, Daniel and I are stuck in a hotel together. Granted, it’s a suite so that there are actually four separate rooms – bathroom, bedroom, main room, and kitchen – but with the seven large suitcases, the cat cowering under the sleeper sofa, the leftover food, the litter box and the three laptops, three iPods, one iPad and various other electronics, the place is packed full.

When it rains, like today, the feeling of being both trapped and handicapped by brain freeze is all the more acute.

Yesterday we tried to visit the 9/11 memorial at the American History museum, but the line was hours long. We wandered around the museum for a bit, feeling aimless, and wandered back past memorials and statues we had never noticed before. We’re a bit like tourists in our own home, which is not altogether a terrible feeling, but it is disconcerting.

These are all, in the words of many of our friends, First World problems. We have food, a place to sleep, and coffee any time we want it. We’re staying in a place with an exercise room and a business center and a laundry. When the cat doesn’t come out from under the sofa, I can go to the Safeway and buy her four different kinds of cat treats.

At the same time, even First World problems can get old.

Monday, September 5, 2011

It Takes a Village to Move Us to China

All our bags are packed and we’re ready to go, but the Chinese are in no rush to grant us visas. So we’re cooling our heels in a DoubleTree suite hotel in Foggy Bottom, which gives me ample time to cater to a traumatized cat and to reflect on the wonderful friendships we have and how many people already have helped us in our big move.

Many thanks, for instance, to Susan and Tim who graciously accepted our half-empty bottles of cointreau and vermouth and some crazy coffee liqueur, all packed up in a Tea Party bag inherited from a Roll Call reporter who thought it would be funny to leave it at my house; to Jennifer and Bill for taking all my tea, some cocoa, and various other odd items as well as our forwarded mail; to Grace and John who now have enough vinegar (rice wine, balsamic, red wine, white wine, white) for a lifetime along with a nice collection of orchids; to Rick and Kathy for picking up my ancient grapefruit tree and other assorted plants and bringing them by pickup truck to Fredricksburg; to Carol and Bill who took temporary custody of Joanna’s car and my grandmother’s fern; to various folks who were happy to take leftover wine and beer.

Many thanks to all who have invited us for dinner in our homeless state. Our waistlines may not thank you, but we appreciate it more than you know.

Many thanks to the movers who cheerfully boxed up our gas grill, our sofa, beds, tupperware, candlesticks, paper towels, refrigerator magnets, and the odd assortment of items accumulated over time, and who treated me with a wary respect after I tried to send them back to Delaware when they showed up a day early.

Many thanks to all who have offered to put us up when the DoubleTree gets to be too much.

Many thanks to the folks at Friendship Animal Hospital who have helped me figure out the ridiculous demands of taking a 13-year-old cat halfway around the world.

Many thanks to the folks at News Corp. who are funding this grand adventure even as it struggles to get off the ground.

Many thanks to our kids who think it's kind of cool that their parents are as wanderlustful as they are.

And most of all, many thanks to my mother, sister, and brothers for the support. This was not an easy decision, and I know what it means to all of you.

The months preceding this moment were a blur of decisions: Do I take all my serving platters? Do we have time to clean the chimney? Is 200-plus people too many people to invite to a party in our tiny three-bedroom? (Those of you who had to fight your way to the deviled eggs know the answer to that question.) Will the tenants want the pots of mums on the back steps?

Our encumbered, cluttered life has been pared down to a simpler existence in which we have time to stroll the National Mall, go the movies, visit the new MLK memorial, and spend hours sliding cat treats and a water dish under the sofa bed where the poor cat has taken refuge. 

I’ll keep you posted on all our adventures on this blog with the silly name. I hope to stay in touch with everyone if and when I get to Beijing by email, phone, Facebook, instant-message, and regular visits home. Let’s get this adventure started now.