I just looked in the mirror on my camping compass and realized: I’m kind of gold-ish blonde these days. It must be all the sunshine.
I’m stuck in this mentality. “It must be all the…” I don’t know what it is.
Maybe there’s a lemon tree sprouting in my thyroid. Maybe the geckos are giving me a dye job in my sleep; all beauty-parlor foil and brushes. Maybe there’s a gene that’s recessive until you hit Southeast Asia, and then it rattles to life like an old Honda. Maybe instead of inducing allergies, the pollen from fuschia flowers punks out the color-producing elves living in my follicles and gets everyone drunk on mezcal.
Yeah, that. My Chicago roommate Sean e-mailed me the song of the day today: Carmella (Beth Orton, Four Tet Remix).
I’m up and down. That’s the best way I can put it. Up up up and down down down. And up again. Riding so fast on a moto and then sitting in a hot room with a weak fan. Electric conversations: what’s happening in the Khmer Rouge trials and how Libya is churning; then curling up inside, alone in a room of opaque languages. Sipping from a coconut on a beach. Eating peanut butter crackers from a crinkly package on a bunk bed. I am looking for an inner compass to match the camping compass I carry. On the beach you asked me: What’s the word for the line where the water meets the boat? The line of flotation? The watermark? I’m not sure, but it changes, as the wooden boat bobs up and down, and me along with it.
–Cam(blog)dia. Author and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore blogs about her work in Cambodia here. She also did a Leadership Residency at Harpswell a few years back; older entries detail her adventures.
–Lady Penh. For a sampling of what the cool kids are doing in Phnom Penh, here’s Lady Penh.
–Java Arts. I spend a lot of non-dorm hours in cafes like this. Because I couldn’t both work and eat and live in one building all the time, despite the delightfulness of the students. I would lose my ever-lovin’ mind.
–NataRaj. In Chicago I walk or bike to work (and damn near everywhere else), several miles a day. Here, without many sidewalks and with very dangerous roads, this becomes tricky. So to keep myself from atrophying into a terrifying shell person: NataRaj, which also teaches yoga to former sex workers and to the Harpswell girls.
–Quick Draw. A cool cartoonist who draws one comic per day. He’s based in Phnom Penh but also travels around Asia spreading the good word of comics.
In a new place, in a new role, it’s hard to write. I picture that I will look back and cringe. I picture myself reading THIS and cringing. I am trying to remember: I have little concept of right; wrong; pretentious; lovely; cliched; spankin’ new. I can’t expect to. There’s no way. I just got here.
If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large “ifs” and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.
Very often one finds a beginner who is unwilling to commit himself because he knows just enough about his own processes to be sure that his beliefs of today are not likely to be his beliefs of tomorrow. This operates to hold him under a sort of spell. He waits for final wisdom to arrive, and since it tarries he feels that he cannot committ himself to print…. Obviously what such a writer needs is to be made to realize that his case is not isolated.; that we all continue to grow and that in order to write at all, we must write on the basis of our present beliefs.
If you are unwilling to write from the honest, though perhaps far from final, point of view that represents your present state, you may come to your deathbed with your contribution to the world still unmade, and just as far from final conviction about the universe as you were at the age of twenty.
— Dorthea Brande, 1934
… “Things will develop the way they have to. Wrong ways are ways too. Maybe the right destinations can only be reached by wrong ways. Maybe clarity can only be reached through fermentation. Maybe safety can only be reached by passion. Maybe we can only reach the great, quiet, creative, inner force that unites us by wasting our energies in external conflicts. Maybe this is the only way to bring an end to brutality.
Let us find what we, what each one of us, can do to live up to the present moment. And let us, in all this horror, in all this confusion, in all this dreariness, not lose the joy that we need to grow… and to stand tall.”
– Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings
Monkeys. I’m walking the dirt path that circles around the city’s biggest temple and they’re just there, being silly or fast or slow, maybe a dozen of them playing in the trees or sitting calmly in the grass. They remind me first of squirrels on campus at Northwestern, who were unafraid and not all that curious either, just looking around, well-fed and slow. They’re also the color of squirrels — but the size of raccoons.
I pass a middle-aged tourist crouching down to feed one, which takes the bit of bread slowly, bored — not sure if I’ve imagined this, but it may have rolled its eyes.
It’s weird how un-weird this seems. Somehow I’m not bowled over by the appearance of these monkeys, I’m just relating them to woodland creatures of the Midwest.
But then I look up from the man feeding the monkey and stop. There’s a skinny monkey with a question-mark tail in an old tree, leaning back in the crook of two y-shaped branches and holding a mirror at arms length in front of its fuzzy face, a rectangular mirror piece about as big as the one that came on my 24-color eyeshadow sampler in junior high.
He/she/it is, without question, looking in the mirror. Now this, this is weird.
It got me thinking about mirrors; how there must be some innate attraction; how maybe I was witnessing some crazy evolutionary leap!; how mirrors were a technological innovation at some point; and about a story I wrote once.
I’ve written one book in my whole life, starting when I was eight years old. It took my four years, but by the time I was 12, I had a thick stack of notebooks that told the magical tale of an ordinary girl named Annie who stumbles through a cheval mirror in a furniture store and into an alternate reality.
This concept was a twist on Alice in Wonderland, which I loved, but instead of ending up in a wacky world of whimsy, she’s plunged directly into a war to decide who will live on which side of the mirror. It’s a privilege to be on the side she comes from and a hardship to live on The Other Side, where occupants are tasked with the hard work of creating the energy source for all of Annie’s side.
In telling this synopsis to a new bibliophile friend who was curious about this random childhood writing project, I remembered that I’ve never been able to let that story go. I think about it every few months, have tried many times to revisit the characters or the plot. I always thought it was because it was the only story I’d ever really finished, or been happy with (flaming out at age 12…. sigh).
But being here in Cambodia helped me pinpoint a new crux.
The clothes on our bodies, the sheets that we sleep in, the iPhones that we hold to our faces every day to talk to our most beloved… everything comes from somewhere. And a lot of it comes from here, from factories in Asia. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for almost ten years; I try to consider myself all socially aware and stuff; but I forget about the source of my objects 99.9 percent of the time. Maybe 99.99 percent. Because you can only think back so many layers in the production chain before you lose all of your manufactured, imported marbles.
At Christmas, walking into Wal-Mart in my suburban hometown, I thought about: 1) A gift to buy for my parents, then 2) the creepiness of the Wal-Mart Industrial Complex, only because it’s so overwhelmingly huge, not because I was being particularly smarty-pantsy. I didn’t even think about who stocked the shelves there for minimum wage, but that would’ve been next on the list. Did I think about who staffed the factory to create the product that shipped to these beige metal shelves? No, no I did not. And I’m not sure I could. It’s a paralyzing amount of information.
Our world is now insanely wired. I’m writing with wifi on a Netbook from a porch in Cambodia. But there’s a bigger disconnect, and it’s mental. When something pierces the illusion of where our nice stuff comes from, the message seems piped in from another universe. There was the iPhone girl whose picture was accidentally left on a device during testing and found by a consumer who posted it online. This raw glimpse felt like such a rarity that it inspired bizarre superlatives like “China’s prettiest factory girl”. If we can believe that there’s really just one pretty, fun-looking girl in all of China’s factories, it becomes a lot easier to accept this stray dispatch as a one-off cable from a distant universe.
And in other ways, I am witnessing the actions of the powerful writ onto the bodies and limbs of everyone else. Land mines and wars. Last weekend I went to the beach, and there’s a story I’ll tell someday about how I watched a twenty-something expat in mirrored sunglasses feed a french fry to a stray dog and then turn reflexively to feed a french fry into the open mouth of a man with no legs who’d crawled over the sand to our table to beg.
In my childhood story the mirror was a portal, and the same is true here. Dollar bills that I shoved in my messenger bag in Chicago quadrupled in purchasing power when I stepped off the plane. But this city seems on the verge of something, and maybe that’s why I love it. It’s in the process of becoming, just a decade into real stability, and everything hums with the juxtaposition between yesterday and today and here and there and this side and the other side. I feel the struggle and the battle, and maybe that’s what draws me to that old story, a shiny shard of forgotten truth found again for reflection.
My friend Caitlin messaged me today on Facebook and once again I thanked the system of tubes that is Our Lady Internet.
Caitlin is one who dreams with me. We write maps on each others’ palms to the places that entice us; new careers, new art, new love. She helped me get here, to Cambodia. On a lazy grassy picnic day last summer, she pointed me in the direction of Alan Lightman’s work here when she noticed I was reading his book. (Several months later I followed up on her tip.)
Her boyfriend (fiance!) also worked in Cambodia a few years ago, and from this chair (on an outdoor cafe patio in Phnom Penh with a hot day getting hotter) his blog of that time makes a lot of sense:
Last week, finishing my meal at a Phnom Penh cafe’s wooden lunch bar, I suddenly began closely watching the restaurant’s staff work with surreal bemusement. It’s the stance my mind takes from time to time in aimless moments. Simple questions pressed into me:
What is this place? Who are these people/objects? Why are they moving and what is their point? The questions became reflexive, turning themselves on me, making me feel just as strange and pointless for being there asking them. Wanting answers, all of them. And I thought: I am a perpetual child, covering the world with question marks. That is the natural state I return to. It is as though the names I have learned for things – wall, Cambodian, coffee mug, fan – expose their essential mystery, and I think: I do not know, cannot know, how these things came to exist before my eyes, weak eyes passing through thick fog.
And then later that night, I came upon this passage in Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King”:
The world may be strange to a child, but he does not fear it the way a man fears. He marvels at it. But the grown man mainly dreads it. And why? Because of death. So he arranges to have himself abducted like a child. So what happens will not be his fault. And who is this kidnapper — this gypsy? It is the strangeness of life — a thing that makes death more remote, as in childhood.
I think Bellow goes a bit too far here in saying the awareness of mortality is the root of all of our confusion. But that doesn’t make him wrong. When I think I am curious like a child I am partly right; there is real continuity between my sense of wonder, say, 15 years ago, and today. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want to lose that childlike wonder. But mostly I am lying to myself, pushing myself away from the awareness of death into ignorance, the false comfort of a never-ending childhood.
It’s Tuesday; no wait — Monday; no, yes, Tuesday, and last Tuesday was sick day, but now mango bread pudding with chai spices and the French press coffee on the porch at Java, and the way your sunburn just fades to gold, make all of this purr like a moto should. You are planning for Kep and Rabbit Island; you are remembering gerunds; teaching and learning words that trip onto new tongues. What’s the word for “oops” in Khmer? “Ah-ya!” Ah. You know, those fake Ray Bans that everyone has? Everyone is all of us, wondering if two dollars is too many for too much. Meeting new puppies in old bookstores, abetting their theft of Salinger covers between tiny teeth as they bolt for the door.
This morning I helped C. and S. with their homework. This started simply enough, with their bright cheery smiles and a hand motion to join them upstairs. They cracked open the thick green book, though, and that’s when I remembered they’re studying International Law. In English. So, I read passage after passage of dense, jargon-filled text to help them answer four questions about international custom, treaties, general principles of law, and, somewhere in there, the Hague and Geneva and something about fisheries. Holy goodness. I forget sometimes about how difficult their studies are. I teach English from a very rudimentary ESL book, and we talk about “window shopping in Hong Kong” and “What’s happening between Agrippine and her mother in this cartoon”. (Yes, Agrippine is not my first choice of a character’s name either….)
They study at Royal University of Law & Economics, which has this to say about its history. I remembered why it’s so important to study law here, despite the challenge:
From 1975 to 1981, the Faculty of Law and Economics was closed, during and after the Pol Pot regime. During those years almost all legal professionals were killed or fled the country. Law books were destroyed. At the end of Pol Pot regime, only six licensed members of the legal profession remained alive in Cambodia. The former campus of the Faculty of Law was reopened in 1982 as the Administrative and Judicial School. The main purpose of this School was to train the new government officials who were responsible for Administration and Judicial duties (in service or on the job training). The training was organized to assist the socialist authorities after the liberation from the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and to respond to its urgent needs. Three different programs were developed subsequently: a five-month program, then a two- month program and a two-year program. Because the majority of the legal professionals had been killed, there were no teachers available, so a five-month program and overall curriculum were organized by Vietnamese experts and were taught through interpreters. Some of the first group of graduates were selected to be the teachers and assistant teachers for next courses. These newly created teachers began teaching the two-year program. The five-month training program was discontinued in 1989.
I started composing this post while on the folding metal gurney, the hinge of it digging into the small of my back through a thin layer of foam. Soon I was getting a needle in the rear-end and an IV in the arm and thinking, “This is what happens when you food-poison yourself and are a skinny wimp like me.”
See: The very nice, mostly silent security guard here at the dorm gave me a hard-boiled egg from a street vendor, and rather than say, “Egg from street vendor… poor choice.” I thought: “How kind! I should eat it.” And thus began a gastro-disaster that I won’t recount here, just…
I watched the IV drip two fluids into my arm and waited for the bags to empty, watched the clock on the wall above my head (arch the spine, crane the neck), watched the young woman stoop to sweep the floor with a whispy straw broom every hour or so, watched the three-blade metal fan above my head, army green and edged in thick dust, it looked like a propeller that could slice the air and carry us all out of here. But the nurses and doctors look so happy; eyes all smiles above their surgical masks.
I totally couldn’t believe I was getting a shot in the ass. I don’t even know what it was for. But… I didn’t think to care.
And so I slept and slept. And when I woke up, I asked and charmed and wheedled to be let go, please please, no more fluids, I’m feeling just fine now. They sent me away with smiles and cheer and white paper packets of Smecta, which tastes like ultra-refined cocoa powder and all the directions are in French.
One of the girls called me today just to see how I am doing. She’s visiting her family for Chinese New Year and wanted to make sure I was on the mend. So I can’t complain.
And now it’s almost Friday. I’ve subsisted just fine on toast and tea, and the days are falling away soft and easy, in comparison.