we took to the woods


Two by E. from this week: left, the goddess Kali standing on Shiva, with lion and weapons; and right, Jesus preaching to a crowd, with Mary Magdalen.

Two dolls and The Little Book of Hindu Deities = two hours of uninterrupted conversation between E. and U.

We fly out to Sweden on Sunday night (first, though, we’ll spend a week in Poland). My wonderful neighbor Mabel, who comes over to rub my back sometimes with a tincture that has no label and no known ingredients, said she’ll come to the airport.

We said goodbye to our beloved swim coach today, a very tough but kindly older man who runs the seven-and-under training group. Enormous chest, bellowing voice, crewcut. I’ve heard him pull a kid out of the pool, tower over him and shout “Lazy boy!” I shook coach’s hand, got advice for helping E. train over the summer, said thanks, and expected him to close our season with the team by saying something nice about E.’s efforts or progress… but that’s not the Chinese swim coach way. He wrapped up with two unsmiling observations. “She cannot focus, because she’s vegetarian,” he said. “My personal opinion is a vitamin B deficiency.” Yes, she dreams while swimming, and always fails to snap to attention when spoken to, unlike the other kids. The last time he surmised a vitamin deficiency, I had E.’s blood tested. “Someone with no patience would have thrown her to the side already.” Exact words. Thrown her to the side. Love that guy.

As for me, I am getting very philosophical, as I usually do before a big trip. Perhaps this is because a journey is a metaphor for life, and thus a chance to crash-test one’s approach of choice to things like uncertainty, mortality, and displacement, under controlled conditions, or at least within a designated time frame. I have been reading The Essential Marcus Aurelius nights, a little sheepishly but with great pleasure. Marcus helpfully says, “Just as doctors keep their implements and scalpels ready at hand in case of an emergency treatment, so should you have your guiding principles ready in order to understand things human and divine, and for the doing of everything.” I’ve packed bug spray, sake, a resistance band, sweaters, now for the guiding principles. Staying home, I need to know who I am less urgently, but these days, before our departure, I recognize a familiar and half-fearful impulse to consolidate my identity, simplify it even to the point of caricature. It’s like packing. I must decide who I am and then fit it into my pocket, before venturing out to where it all gets confusing and fast, and where I might be asked to make an account of myself. On the other hand, what has kept me traveling for almost twenty years is the amazing, unparalleled clarity of mind that comes with finding oneself in totally unfamiliar places and situations. All the crud and static gets cleared away. All the accumulated inertia of “normal” gets lifted.