Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Life Written in Water

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Shanghai. I woke up on a Saturday and wanted to see how people lived and what they did on a regular basis, avoiding the tourist traps of the city. After all, places that cater to tourists are usually not true cultural representations.

My friends who were with me told me that Saturdays are all about parks in Shanghai, so we went to People’s Park and they were right. Thousands of people were there, old men flying colorful kites, people playing with a kind of yoyo, lines of meditators doing tai chi. The one person who sticks out in my mind however was a man doing calligraphy on the gray stones of the park’s entrance.

The man was writing a poem, prayer, or political tract on the paving stones using a kind of water brush. It was a cool day so the words stuck there for a while, but he was on the third line of his work, and each line was about fifty feet long, so the first words had already evaporated into the air. They were gone for everyone, except for those people who had taken the time to follow him and read what he had written as he was going.

There was a small crowd who stood next to him and concentrated on his brush work, getting his ideas, whatever they were, immediately. Others stopped a moment and read a little bit before moving on out of respect for his artistry or ideas. I don’t know.

I don’t read Chinese, so I have no idea what was being written. It was interesting to watch all of this happen from my perspective, how focused the writing was and focused the readers were, completely immersed in this world as the tai chi people, the kit fliers, the yoyo-ers, and I buzzed around them offering all kind of distraction. However, they were completely mindful of where they are.

What did I walk away with? All art is temporary. Everything in this world is after all. The moment of creation implies the moment of destruction, and those people who read his work in water have it in them as much as anyone who has read anything on paper. There are any number of distractions in this world, but staying focused and in this moment adds meaning to all moments.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


I was with another writer working with students the other day, and one of the students asked if it was important for writers to travel. I told her that I thought that it was. The other writer said that she didn’t think it was. This is because much of my writing is based on travel and none of her writing is. She writes about Shanghai exclusively, which is her hometown, and she does so really well.

For me it’s important not so much because I’m going to write about different places. I certainly am, so that is a consideration, but because it gets me out of my own head and keeps my thoughts flexible. There are any number of ways to do this, but for me to keep creative and keep seeing old concepts from a new perspective, I have to keep moving mentally. Otherwise, I end up writing about the same things in the same way and that’s dangerous.

I’m glad that I’m traveling right now. I’m in Shanghai, China working with students here, and I’m seeing China differently than I would have imagined it. I think my biggest surprise is how little difference there is. Shanghai could be San Francisco or Paris. It is homogenized in a lot of ways that makes it familiar. I suppose that’s a tragedy in a lot of ways, but I never would have suspected that until I came here. There are those moments of pure China as well, but so much of the city has bent itself to efficiency in the same way that all major cities have that we’ve lost some of the uniqueness of the street life.

Anyway, I like that my illusions were taken away from me. I like to see them go and I think this gives me something new to think about and write about. The other writer is right, however. It doesn’t have to be travel that keeps us from being stale. It could be any number of ways to work our minds. My wife has a daily exercise for this where she forces herself to see one new thing every day. That of course changes the perception of the everyday. This is natural to her as a visual artist.

So here’s my question for you: what else should I do to keep my mind pliable?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Filling the Well

I’ve moved away from the revision portion of my latest poetry collection now, away from the complete focus that I’ve needed in that last two months to revise. That doesn’t mean that I am moving away from mindfulness. Far from it. I think it needs to be an essential part of what I do and who I am.

For the moment, I am trying to focus on making every moment special and important. It’s easy to fall into patterns in life that are stultifying and make me stale. I’ve always believed, however, that every moment of life can be magical. Each moment can be a part of a larger adventure. The next few weeks, I am going to be focused on writing about how I am making these moments special, as much as I can.

The one that is most on my mind right now is travel. That’s because I’m going to China on Thursday of this week. I’ve never gone there before, and of course, that’s the point. I’m lucky of course, to be doing it. Luckier still because NYU Shanghai is flying me out so I can do a reading for their students and talk to them about the process of writing.

I think that is the best kind of travel. I have friends in Shanghai who have asked me what I want to do while I’m there. What I want is to drift and to experience the place as it’s happening. I want to see how people live and I am grateful that it’s a working trip. How else to experience a place than with working with people who live there toward a larger goal?

I’ll have notes on my trip next week or the week after with all that I’ve done, but I also don’t think that traveling is the only way to achieve this kind of magic in your life. For the next few weeks, I’m going to explore the way I do this with a hope that I find better ways to experience the world.