From the Poet Beans to their Cultivator

Pearl Buck and Lao She

We think you planted us too soon
We’re more than three feet high
There won’t be space in any room
For our vines to twine.
We’re grateful for the fertile womb
Your loving hands provided
But fear that you will have to prune
Before we are outsided.

Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Ho and Wang Wei

Beans I have to remonstrate.
How was I to know your joy at dirt and light
Would awaken you at such a rate
And send you up so high?
I planted you on the very date
I planted all your ancestors.
It’s still quite cold. It still might snow
There’s frost at night and temps are low.
With nature? No debate.

~~~

I imagine Pearl Buck is familiar to most people but you might not have heard of Lao She. Here is something I wrote a long time ago. I don’t think I could do it better today. I guess some of the beans this year write fiction.

In the early 20th century a little boy lived in Beijing and he loved — more than anything — to go listen to a story teller. Traveling story tellers in old China captivated everyone with ghost stories, history stories, adventure stories, and love stories. The stories were long — serialized — and the children and adults would come every night to listen until the story was over. Some of the stories were hundreds of years old. The story teller punctuated his story with the sound of bamboo sticks — special equipment for story tellers — clapping together. He used his voice, too, exaggerating the already highly inflected tones of whatever Chinese dialect he was speaking — for little Lao She, it would have been Mandarin.

Sometimes the stories concealed (well or not) social and political messages. If the story teller wanted to keep his life, he probably did a good job hiding the messages so only his listeners — those with ears to hear — could get their subtle drift. Certain old Chinese stories are, in their very nature, political messages. For example, the very popular tales from The Water Margin tell of a rebellion that ended a corrupt dynasty. The rebellion itself is a quiet thread running through one great wild story after another throughout the long episodic tale.

When Lao She grew up, he wanted ONLY to be a story teller. He reached manhood in perilous times. Non-Chinese culture was making inroads into the ancient customs of Beijing, and while much of the change was — even in the eyes of Lao She — for the good, he could see that his world would NEVER be the same. He began to write the stories of a world that was vanishing. He followed the practice of the old story tellers he admired, hiding bits of political comment in the conversations between characters. With poverty and hardship all around him, he created a different kind of protagonist — as in the character of “Camel” who pulled a rickshaw and struggled to make a life in old Beijing.

Lao She recreated his childhood and the life in the courtyard “hutongs” where he’d grown up — ordinary people, old teachers, a tired old man with a pipe, a screaming Amah, a cheap, flashy, greedy woman who steals the soul of a good man, a little girl who becomes a prostitute so her family has food, even a work of science fiction that openly criticized Communism. When the Japanese invaded his city, Lao She wrote passionately against them (and against Chinese collaborators) through the actions of characters in his novel Four Generations Under One Roof. It is a vivid picture of the Japanese occupation and reveals all of the sinister stragedies (including opium laced cigarettes) used by the Japanese to conquer the Chinese, body and soul.

Another great storyteller — Pearl S. Buck — grew up in a similar China — the same era, a different geographical location; south China — Hangzhou and Nanking. Her attitude toward writing was similar to that of Lao She. She, too, had learned from the story tellers. At the end of WW II, she invited Lao She to come to America to which she had returned in the thirties, fleeing the Japanese. Lao She came to the US on a State Department Cultural Grant, thinking he might live here, but it didn’t work. He could not be happy outside of China, and so he returned to Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, he was hounded and punished by the Red Guard. The humiliation he suffered led him to kill himself — a dignified action according to old Chinese values.

One of the most amazing stories I have ever heard was Lao She’s play, Teahouse. It came wandering through San Diego sometime in the 80s and I got to see it at a local art theater. In the play is a story teller. I wish so much I could find that film again.

Note: In recent years, Lao She’s memory has “rehabilitated” (kind of useless). No one is sure HOW he died, only that he was “hounded” during the Cultural Revolution. The darkness of the Cultural Revolution is pretty well known.

“I think, the Pastoral…”

I recently watched the PBS Great Performances program, “Beethoven in Beijing.” I love seeing film from the early days of the US/China rapprochement, but this turned out to be something very special and, for me, very moving.

I was a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University in Guangzhou from 1982-83. I would have stayed longer but I mistakenly thought my marriage was a higher priority and my then husband was very miserable, then sick, in China so when my contract expired we came back to the States. I remained homesick for China for many years afterwards.

My students had grown up in — and the older ones had likely participated in — the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution which was an enormous and deadly debacle. During this time schools were closed; education was drastically devalued and any western thing was considered evil. Many scholars, writers and artists “got the suicide” (the words of a friend in China). In 1972 when Nixon went to China to meet with Mao, the door opened a crack and then, slowly, more and more. Early in the opening,1973, the Philadephia Orchestra went to China.

I didn’t know about that. Why would I? I was 21 and dealing with university and various other things. That I would EVER go to China was beyond even my wildest imagination. I didn’t — at that time — know where I was going, but as far as I could see I had to graduate from university first.

In 1982, I was among the earliest group of American teachers in Guangzhou. When I was there, the city housed about 100 foreigners including diplomats. I was an attraction.

In this program there are several of the members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic who had gone to China in 1973. That was wonderful to see, but what touched me most deeply was my realization that…

My students had no chance to fulfill their dreams. Not for the most part, anyway. When the Gang of Four fell and things began to “normalize” they were still in school and woefully behind in everything. Teachers were hard to find. Many didn’t trust Deng Xiao Ping to actually DO what he was doing. They’d been lied to before and drastically, tragically.

The government at that time had a plan for what it needed to do to modernize China and it controlled much of the peoples’ lives. My students were told by the government where they would go to school and what they would study. They would be English teachers. Middle school English teachers. A few would teach high school. A very very very few who showed unusual promise would teach college. It didn’t matter where their gifts or interests lay. Most were accepting and resigned. Some were elated even to have the chance to attend university (that year my school was upgraded from a teachers college to a university). Some were frustrated and angry. A very few came to America. It was difficult to do this. The US wasn’t accepting refugees from China and any Chinese who hoped to study in the US had to be accepted by a university before they could get a visa. They needed a sponsor, also, who could put up $20k/year for them.

Their lives were full of traps, though, because of what they’d been told to study. Still worried about Western influence on the minds of the young, the government did what it could to make sure these students never had a high opinion of themselves. Individualism was synonymous with selfishness anyway. The example of this that struck me as I watched this beautiful program was when my students put together a show for a music competition. They had to perform music in English and because they had two, new, American teachers they were told to perform American music. I wasn’t invited to the show, so I don’t know what they did, I only know that they lost the competition (of course) and one of my students tried killing herself by jumping out of a ground floor window which wasn’t (thank goodness) much of an attempt. She ended up with a sprained ankle.

Watching this program, which is filled with western music, I thought of my students who would now be, at the very least, in their late fifties. They would have taught English to thousands of Chinese children, some of whom would now be in their fifties and forties. Some of them might still be teaching. Some of my students would be grand-parents now. My students children and grandchildren would be the young people in this film. I even thought, briefly, “I helped,” and felt very good inside.

The film touches on some important points — important to me, anyway — specifically the deterioration of our educational system due in part to most school districts jettisoning art education because (in their tiny minds) it doesn’t lead to high test scores. One American elementary school in this film had applied for the Lang Lang grant. What is that? A grant from the Lang Lang Foundation begun by and named for the Chinese pianist who plays for the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Watching Lang Lang play in this program? Amazing. He LOVES it. He clearly loves the piano, loves performing, loves the music. Individuality sizzles from him, a character my students could barely even have dared to reveal to the world. His philosophy of music, its why and who, is beautiful, too. Lang Lang was born in 1982. My best friends in China’s son was born in early 1983.

One of the artists in this program makes the point. “Our parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have a chance. They poured all their lost dreams into us.”

1982 with two of my students.

There’s a lot going on this program; at times, I thought, a little too much. It could have been twice as long and gone a little slower with more music. There are a LOT of stories in it that barely get the chance to breathe. My favorite is that of Tan Dun who won the Acadsemy Award for best motion picture score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His story is wonderful.

I like Chinese music and the places in this film where the two come together are beautiful.

Chinese Fiction and Scarlet Emperor Beans?

It wasn’t junk, and I wouldn’t have thrown it out, but somehow Pearl Buck’s translation of Shui Hu Chuan has vanished from my library. I hope it hasn’t really vanished, but instead that in the rush to move books from one place to another when I got my Chinese cabinets a month or so ago, I just didn’t move it. Shui Hu Chuan or The Water Margin or The Men of the Marshes or All Men Are Brothers (Pearl Bucks title of the book) was written in the 14th century but if you were to google it, you’d find films, TV series, comic books pretty much every pop culture genre reflecting that title.

The author is Shi Nai An, but the book was added to by other writers over the course of time. Generally, Chinese writers of the old days didn’t care about authorship with the ferocity writers in the West have/do, possibly because, much of the time, it was illegal to write novels.

Shui Hu Chuan has been called “a Chinese Robinhood” but it really isn’t. Very, very, very generally it’s about a gang of insurrectionists who fight the corruption of the government.

As the Scarlet Emperor Beans continue to raise their heads to the light, I have thought about naming them for the heroes in Shui Hu Chuan which would mean reading it again. It really has everything. Magic, mystery, derring-do, cannibalism, tigers, seduction, idealism — it’s really the ultimate book which is one reason it’s more popular now than ever. Chairman Mao (bless his heart) used it as a propaganda tool, a way to enforce the idea that popular revolt could (once more) cleanse China of corruption. Eerily resonant now, but the difference between Song Jiang (the leader of the Men of the Marshes) and anyone attempting an insurrection in the US is that he was intelligent, a good leader, and could write wonderful poetry.

The ability to write poetry was a serious thing in Chinese culture.

One of the cool things about Chinese fiction is that a story in one novel can lead to a whole ‘nother novel and one of the stories in Shui Hu Chuan led to another novel, a pornographic novel, Chin Ping Mei. Sadly, no translation I found in English renders the juicy parts readable to me. They are all in Latin. The Chin Ping Mei has the reputation of being deadly to whomever reads it because once, allegedly, the corners of the pages were poisoned and the man who read the book licked his finger to make turning the pages easier. Definitely a cautionary tale.

I wrote this post some time ago, but it’s a fit addition to this one. A Confucian Parable

Lingering Effects of Poetry

“Tell me not in mournful numbers
Life is but an empty dream;
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.”

Some words trigger memories and some words trigger memorized poetry. Today’s Ragtag daily prompt — the word “slumber” — triggered memories of “A Psalm of Life” a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he was only nineteen. My mom tossed lines from that poem at me even when I was very small, but the lines she usually tossed were “Life is real! Life is earnest!” The poem has been a constant echo throughout all these years.

I got to teach that poem several times and I always enjoyed it, but the best experience was in the People’s Republic of China. Somehow my teaching and Longfellow’s poem hit my students just right.

I introduced the poem by saying that, to Longfellow, our lives were something to create, like a piece of marble that we would carve into something beautiful. I remember reading a lot of very beautiful essays written into the little copy books they used that they were going to “carve their stone.”

It’s funny how the poem still resonates for me. It was sometime during the late spring 2020, with COVID scaring the crap out of everyone with half a brain, that I realized I’d better start oil painting and RIGHT NOW because, “Art is long and time is fleeting…” and I had/have a ton of unused supplies.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

“Crap! I have more paint than I might be able to use in the entire rest of my life and if COVID??? HOLY crap! Martha, you don’t have TIME to be afraid of that big canvas!! Get your ass in there!!”

I really did think that, and I got my ass in there.

Essentially, I guess, the poem is a paean to stoicism and “making the best of it,” which is, you know, pretty much all any of us can do .

A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 
   Life is but an empty dream! 
For the soul is dead that slumbers, 
   And things are not what they seem. 

Life is real! Life is earnest! 
   And the grave is not its goal; 
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
   Was not spoken of the soul. 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow 
   Find us farther than to-day. 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 
   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 
Still, like muffled drums, are beating 
   Funeral marches to the grave. 

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
   In the bivouac of Life, 
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 
   Be a hero in the strife! 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 
   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 
Act,— act in the living Present! 
   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 

Lives of great men all remind us 
   We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
   Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
   Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labor and to wait.


P.S. I appreciate the encouragement on the ink drawings. It’s not my “thing,” but it’s an interesting challenge. One good thing about it is that, unlike painting, I’m not constantly cleaning brushes so the winter cracks on my thumb from cold, dry air and brush washing might finally heal.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/rdp-saturday-slumber/

Chinese New Year

This morning on Facebook the local thrift shop posted some photos. I saw something I needed. For a long time I’ve wanted to replace an open book shelf with one with doors. I texted the shop owner to find out the price. When she told me, I was there in minutes. I got them home, maneuvered them into the house, rearranged furniture, and loaded these two beautiful antique scholar cabinets with books. I should have put the Chinese novels and history books in them, but since I was emptying other shelves to do this, I didn’t. But I don’t think it matters, anyway.


As we were loading my car, about a hundred Sandhill cranes flew over us.

新年好!

If You Need Inspiration…

From the joints where leaves broke or froze, new vines are emerging ALREADY. I love these beans.

~~~

MOON, RAIN, RIVERBANK
Tu Fu

Rain road through, now the autumn night is clear
The water wears a patina of gold
and carries a bright jade star.
Heavenly River runs clear and pure,
as gently as before.

Sunset buries the mountains in shadow.
A mirror floats in the deep green void,
its light reflecting the cold, wet dusk,
dew glistening,
freezing on the flowers.

FALL RIVER SONG
Li Bai

On Old River Mountain
A huge boulder swept clean
by the blue winds of Heaven

where they have written
in an alphabet of moss
an ancient song.

NIGHT SNOW
Bai Juyi

I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.

WALKING THROUGH SOUTH MOUNTAIN FIELDS
Li Ho

The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.
Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.

Wilderness fields in October — 
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.

“That’s a lot of money, Martha Ann.”

Thanks to the miracle of the inter webs, I listen to a Chicago radio station. Through the winter they play REAL albums on Fridays which is great. They also introduced me to my second favorite song , “Home of the Brave” by the Nails.

Today?

“It’s 1983 on XRT Saturday morning flashbacks.”

The song comes up. Ouch. Sometimes Mohammed’s Radio hits a nerve.

In my list of worst years of my life, 1983 is right up there. I came back from a year teaching in China late that August — about now (yeah yeah I know it’s September. Split hairs will you…) and tried to negotiate a place for myself in the Great American West which I had left in the first place because I hadn’t found a place for myself in the aforementioned Great American West. Whether or not you can go home again remains an open question, but I know for sure you can absolutely return to alienation.

I loved China and didn’t want to come back, but my marriage seemed important. It wasn’t. It wasn’t working, remained not working for the ensuing decade, and staying in China would have been an easier way out than the one that happened ten years later. My brother’s life went rapidly south soon after we returned to Colorado (no cause and effect there). It was a real nightmare and even my little niece was in danger. I came back to that. The ONLY good thing about that winter was Denver got an absurd amount of snow. The next summer saw us moving to California. Serenity remained elusive. I continued yearning for China for a long long long long time, I think until a few years ago I googled my Chinese home town and saw that it was gone and there was no way to go back.

So here I am in Monte Vista, Colorado, YEARS later. A few of my heart and brain cells are still missing China, but a whole lifetime has filled the interval. I’m sitting at my table finishing my coffee. Bear’s chewing a rawhide pencil. I give Teddy my empty coffee cup to clean. I’m trying to write this blog post and feeling intimidated at the reality that I’ve paid $100 to write this blog every day. Tracy (Untidy Mind) suggested I think of it as $2/day and that’s a good idea, but seriously, I’m not saying much here. I have 1900 blog posts up. I’ve deleted hundreds. How am I NOT saying the same thing over and over????

The last two posts I wrote, I deleted. They didn’t seem worth $100/year.

I guess I’ll see how it goes until next year…

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/rdp-saturday-serenity/

Making my Smoothie…

This morning as I put together my smoothie I wondered to myself how is it I have everything I need all the time, especially in THESE times?

I’ve lived in a time and place where having everything you need all the time was no certainty. The largest single feature of my Chinese kitchen was an immense cistern (featured photo) so that when there WAS water, whoever lived in the apartment could stock up for the future. Most people cooked with charcoal or wood. I had propane, and I had a refrigerator. Most people didn’t have those conveniences. Vegetables and fruit were 100% seasonal. Bread was available twice a week from the university bakery. Meat was so scarce that when it was available it was a big deal. Canned food was available in the Friendship Store only and we sometimes went to Hong Kong to get provisions — cheese, tuna, peanut butter, flour, cocoa, coffee, mayonnaise. Who would ever think that stuff would inspire a journey that involved government permission, visas, a three hour trip on the hovercraft, four hours on the train, or overnight on a riverboat? We were allowed because it was a well-known (Chinese fact) that white foreigners needed more protein to maintain their larger bodies than did lithe and slender Chinese. Chinese also hold the belief that food is medicine, and my school did not want their foreigners to become ill.

I didn’t even mind the comparative scarcity of things. It was liberating to have what I had and that was it. It was through this that I came to understand materialism.

So there I was this morning, breaking a banana into my blender connecting that moment to China somehow. There was no blender in China. There was a two burner stove (all I use now, as it happens), my toaster oven that I brought with me (and left behind for the next foreign expert), a wok hanging on the wall (like all good Chinese cooks). An aluminum tea pot I used to make coffee. Pretty much all I need now except for a coffee grinder and a blender.

I thought about the markets in Guangdong at the time. Very very very very few were state run markets. Most were independent vendors. If prices were controlled by any outside power (and I doubt they were) it wasn’t obvious. In the vegetable market vendors openly competed for customers, and it was part of the bargaining process. “What! You want fifty mao for a li of green beans? Old Ma over there only wants thirty mao!”

“Old Ma’s beans were picked yesterday! I picked my beans this morning! Old Ma cheat you!”

If a vendor KNEW the customer LOVED a particular thing (as I loved hot chilis) they’d raise their price and THEN fight over who got my money partly because they’d get a lot and partly because doing business with the foreigner was fun. It broke the monotony, it was a show, and they liked me. Most foreigners never ventured into these markets. At that time, when China was hesitantly opening to the United States, most foreigners were visitors, and their comings and goings closely controlled by China Travel Service. Shi Pai, my village, was rich in foreigners (7!) because there were three colleges and each had foreign experts.

The thing is that when my university realized that I did not have to shop in the Friendship Store or have fancy things, they started paying me mostly in Renminbi, people’s money instead of Wai Wei Jen, foreign exchange money. I was a bargain to them. I got 100 yuan in Wai Wei Jen to send home every month and the rest in Ren Min Bi so I could live in Guangzhou like a Chinese.

That was part of my life under Communism. Communism did not create China’s poverty. Poverty was part of China for thousands of years, the result of periodic famine (climate related), overpopulation, dishonest politicians, foreign imperialism and war. Communism was an attempt to equalize the distribution of wealth in that immense and immensely populated country. How well did it work? Well, Chairman Mao was a great leader in war and a lousy leader in peace, in my opinion, anyway. He constantly strove to keep things stirred up. Chaos is the enemy of prosperity, but a bad leader can benefit from it (for a while), and Mao did by painting himself as the savior of the Chinese people. Two generations into his dominion, there were people in China who had never known any other leadership, and it was easy for them to believe him. But, by the 1970s, even Maoist Chinese leadership had copped to the reality that major players in Mao’s government were corrupt. When Mao died, it wasn’t long before they were thrown out and China — still communist — began to go in a new direction.

We know how well that worked. 🙂

I’m not an expert on Chinese history by any means, and I’m not Chinese. These are just the wandering thoughts of me making breakfast which I’d probably better eat (drink?) before lunch.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/27/ragtag-daily-prompt-thursday-connection/

“It’s Heaven, Aunt Martha Ann!”

It’s worn and tired. The fringe was chewed away long ago by dogs and vacuum cleaners, but when it was new? My 3 year old niece came into my apartment, saw it, immediately sat in the middle medallion where the two blue dragons fight and said, “This is HEAVEN!” as if she knew Chinese mythology. She’s 41 this year.

I bought it at the Friendship Store — the store where export goods were sold — in Guangzhou a few months after I arrived in China.

There were two things I wanted to buy in China; one was this carpet the other a down jacket. That sounds a little weird considering I was on the Tropic of Cancer, but Chinese down IS the best and such a jacket was very expensive and hard to find in the US at the time. I came home with a down jacket and a full-length down coat. I was glad, too, because that first winter after I returned to Colorado was one of the snowiest and coldest in Colorado history.

The Jacket and the Friendship Store (youyi bing guan)



The carpet was picked up by the college’ van at some point and brought to our apartment. I didn’t open it. I could see it would be easier to bring home if it were still rolled and wrapped. It waited in room in our apartment that housed the fridge for the whole year and I feared mold, moths or worse, that I’d bring home a cockroach.

When the time came to return to America, I had to haul the carpet to Shanghai along with many other fardles. All went well until one of the last legs of the journey — San Francisco to Billings, where my mother lived. We got on the plane. I was sitting in a seat where it happened that I could watch the bags being loaded. My carpet was on top of the baggage cart as it began to drive away.

I went ape-shit. Yes the carpet was an Albatross but it was MY albatross.

“Ma’am, it will arrive in Billings later. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t WANT it to arrive later. I want it to arrive WITH ME.”

The other passengers were thinking, “That screaming bitch is going to make our flight late!”

I cried. In frustration, exhaustion and more. I already didn’t want to be back in the US. I wanted to be in China. The stewardess called back the baggage handlers, and they loaded my carpet.

I showed the carpet to my family in Montana, then rolled it up again. It flew with us to Denver and remained rolled until we finally got our own place. It was there that my niece recognized it for what it is.

Not too many years after returning from China, the Good X and I traveled to Delaware to visit his mom. I wanted to visit Pearl S. Buck’s house in Pennsylvania. I was writing about her at the time. We drove from Wilmington up to Bucks County, PA, over these nauseating rolling hills, surrounded by obnoxious, tall, shady trees that blocked the view of the horizon (I know, I know).

Her house is a pretty two story stone structure filled with her things, but what touched me most was her office. Outside her window she had built a Chinese garden, and it looks like China. On her floor was a beautiful Chinese carpet, worn and a little tattered. I was in the depths of my yearning for China at that time, and I saw Pearl S. Buck’s own yearning in that garden and that old carpet.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/08/23/rdp-sunday-carpet/

Relationship Advice

I had a pretty incredible Christmas all in all. But last night was probably the strangest, most incredible experience of the whole season.

My ex-husband, the one with whom I went to China, called to tell me he loved the China book. We got married and went to China after only knowing each other 4 months. We agreed last night that that was crazy. We also agreed it was crazy to have taken our skis. Then he said that I’d accurately captured the fear he felt when we arrived in Guangzhou and there was no one to meet our plane. “But,” he said, “you didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“What other times?” I asked him.

“Well, there was the time the giant spider came out of the bathroom drain. I was terrified.”

“What giant spider? I don’t remember that at all.”

“Yeah. You took me for a walk around the campus and when we got back it was gone. That was good. I felt better after that.”

“Wow. I don’t remember that.”

“Then there the was time, you know, we’d just gotten into our apartment and set it up. we had our beds in that big room, and you wanted to cuddle, but I was still too freaked out. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.”

A light bulb went on. I said, “I had no idea,” I said and thought, “What if you’d TOLD me that? Why DIDN’T you tell me that?”

Jim and I were not compatible. We tried for 12 years to make something work. My mom loved him, his kids loved me. We liked (still like) each other. We had a lot going for us. We both liked to ski. We came from similar backgrounds, a lot of stuff, but…

We talked on the phone for about an hour. I heard his wife say, in the background, “Are you still on the phone?” He didn’t answer her. Inside myself I nodded and smiled at that. I believe that conversation was the longest Jim and I have ever had.

In the years since, I have quietly diagnosed Jim as being somewhere on the Asperger’s Spectrum.

When you meet someone who has Asperger’s syndrome, you might notice two things right off. He’s just as smart as other folks, but he has more trouble with social skills. He also tends to have an obsessive focus on one topic or perform the same behaviors again and again.”

(https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/mental-health-aspergers-syndrome#1)

That little Dr. Google definition of Asperger’s describes Jim. During our marriage, Jim struggled hard to improve his social skills. He really likes people. He joined and became very involved in Toastmaster’s. He knew where he had a glitch. When Jim DID express himself, it was always — to me — a little obscure. Sometimes I felt that I was just supposed to understand things without getting any information from him at all. If I confronted him, it never went well. He had problems even making eye-contact with me. I could present objective facts such as, “If you don’t get a job, we’re fucked,” that just pushed him into wherever he went in his head. He was impossible to communicate with. Impossible for ME to communicate with. I got frustrated, took things personally — but now I get that. None of the skills I had worked at all, and my skills weren’t that great.

A reminder of how Jim’s mind works came when he said he had found 20 small mistakes in the China book. He gently asked if I would like him to put them on a spreadsheet so I can correct them.

“With the page numbers?” I asked.

“Page numbers and line numbers,” he answered. I felt a little twinge of affection hearing that. It’s SO Jim. His profession — at which he succeeded incredibly so — was writing code, programming. He wrote code for the Space Shuttle simulator. Most people would just say, “There are errors on page 10, 23, 40, 100,” etc.

Last night was an epiphany for me. In China, those two times he mentioned last night, he seems to have thought I KNEW he was afraid. How many other times in the 12 years we shared did he think I KNEW what he was feeling? What would our marriage have been like if he had been able to say, in words, “I need to be alone right now,” or “I’m frightened”?

It was obvious in that phone call last night that he is proud of me, that he’s proud of having gone to China with me, that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished and that he — NOW — feels he can open up to me. I’m not sure 20 years ago I would have understood, and maybe he couldn’t have said, “You didn’t write about the other times I was afraid.”

“I was afraid.” A very powerful admission.

I wanted to wrap my arms around him last night, but that might not have been welcome even if we’d been within 20 feet of each other instead of some 1000 miles. That would have been my instinct, my nature. Instead I said, “We did well over there, Jim. We were just two nice people.”

“That’s true. We were just there being nice to people.”

“Yep. We can be proud of that. We’ve sure lived through a lot.”

“And we’re still here,” he said.