Who are you?
How do you answer the Sphinx?
Who am I? Am I woman? Am I man? Or am I an American–straight up, no ice. Or am I a hyphenated breed like Colombian-American, watered down, but still pretty tasty?
Am I my profession: teacher? Or am I my deepest desire: writer?
(Actually, my deepest desire is to be the LordGodKingEmperor of the world, but that is a subject for another time and for a vetted team of Viennese professionals.)
I could define myself by my actions. It was a good enough criteria for Aristotle, after all, and who am I…to argue with such an august person?
I am a free spirit. Some applause from the granola crowd and a smattering of snickers from the Conservatives. For the former, I am a lost member of their barefoot, pot-smoking, peace-loving tribe; for the latter, I am yet another idle romantic fool who has not the mental wherewithal to settle down and become a decent, law-abiding, tax-contributing member of society. I remain aloof to both camps although I must admit each has very attractive features.
The expression ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ (and its linguistic equivalents) has been lobbed at me like a hand grenade by my friends at various times in my life. My God! Just what are you looking for?
Zen. In America.
How to find that sweet spot of spiritual ease and mindful peace in a country that roils with so much sybaritic temptation and scintillating violence, that’s my goal. Then, why–you ask (justifiably)–are you living in China?
Yes, I have fled to Asia. Again. Coward that I am. Or am I?
Briefly, let me say that I need some distance to be able to interpret my American experience. I find that when I am abroad I can more easily distinguish those features that are peculiarly American when I am rubbed against a foreign culture. A knife against a whetting stone, I feel my American edge always sharper when I am a stranger in a strange land—in this case Harbin, China. Back home, I am but one drop among millions of red, white, and blue drops. I cannot tell where I end and where the next drip begins! My Harbin diary will constitute a part of this blog, but always I will measure those experiences against the touchstone of my identity as an American seeking that elusive Chimera of Zen.
By way of a self-introduction, let me make reference to a (relatively) common cultural icon in America. There is a small industry of story makers in the US known as comic books. I was raised on their pulp fiction-like narratives (among other things). One of the comics is a story about a dysfunctional family who blasts off into outer space and then is accidentally exposed to cosmic rays. Their bodies are transformed in strange and wonderful and irreparable ways. Thenceforward they form a fabulous quartet of adventurers, battling against ne’er-do-wells, world devourers, and such ilk. Not the stuff of great literature, but it has a visceral if sophomoric charm.
One of the family members is a hotheaded maladjusted teenager whose body is able to turn into fire, enabling him to fly through the air and throw great balls of fire and so on. Imagining such a thing–one’s body turning into a human-sized conflagration and soaring through the sky like a comet–I marvel that his mind was not also equally transformed: his body has become as light as a breath of flame! How not his mind? He remained a cocky, brash youth, causing mischief, chasing women, and seeking attention with the untrammeled braggadocio of a rock star. Surely, one’s mind cannot remain unaffected by such an event? Evading the superficial interpretation, I would think that the miraculous change occurring at his cellular level would have blasted his mind, setting his consciousness on fire, as well.
I think about that young body set on fire and then I think about my own body set on fire, with the fire of self-knowledge. If the young lad was lit on fire by cosmic rays from a mysterious source and forever transformed, then my own body and mind (are the two ever separate?) was equally set alight by the incisive questions posed to me by my Buddhist tutor in the Indian Himalayas. Like the fictional human flame, I too was transformed forever.
I cannot look in the mirror any longer and see the same person. I may still parrot the same lies and I may still succumb to the body’s vulgar vegetal desires, but always with a wry inner smile, an ironic wink, an omniscient elbow nudge-nudge in the ribs.
‘There you go again, sir! Still chasing phantoms, I see! Still subsisting on air, hmm!’ And in the back of my mind I see America’s four-color youth of flame contrasted with the actual Buddhist monks who protested their treatment in Vietnam. The images clash. I wince.
Like a child who has seen behind the curtain of the Wizard, I have seen behind my own mind and therefore cannot ever again swallow my own lies, not wholly, but I still go back and applaud the feckless, spurious performance. It is as if my body were transformed into a lick of flame and sent spiraling into the ether of outer dark, but eventually after a time it must perforce fall back to earth with all of the sick self-loathing discontent of the mythical Lucifer. The knowing is eternal, lingers permanently in fact like an out-of-work uncle, but the practical vector of intent is continually suborned by the body’s needs and desires.
It’s a tune we all dance to in one form or another. The scale of it can become as terrific, frightening, and fatal as a tsunami for some individuals and cultures. For others, this dance is subtle, innocuous, and slight as the puff of air displaced by the beating wings of a hummingbird. Ubiquitous, this dance forms the warp and woof of the human condition.
I suppose I will try to catalog the American variant of this dance. I am aware of the inherent irony of the title, the latent quixotic nature of this endeavor. I invite you to come along as I tilt my electronic pen at dragons and windmills alike. May the journey serve you in some useful capacity: as comedy; or as succor; or perhaps as wisdom—even if it is the wisdom of a cautionary tale: a road you are better off and infinitely happier for not having traveled.
I make no grandiose claims other than I am a sentient creature seeking a small humble space in the vast tapestry of the wide world in which to live and love and hopefully thrive.