RETURN TO CURRENT ISSUE OF THE LEGENDARY
Marriage all documented—affidavit of marriageability, affidavit of support, proof of cohabitation, passports, visas, green cards—gone through, picked apart for reasons she and she shouldn’t enter or stay in the States. Chen Qian, Qixuan, and I never simultaneously foreigners or citizens.
Let me retell you a story. In Journey to the West, the monk Tripitaka leaves China to retrieve three documents for the emperor. Along the way, he finds and frees the Monkey King, who’s been imprisoned under a mountain for five hundred years.
On the train together. First time I’m going to meet Chen Qian’s parents, her three-year-old daughter, Qixuan. We speak only Chinese, English banned for the week.
A stranger across the aisle watches us. Finally leans over to Chen Qian, points at me, asks, “<Is he Russian?>”
I say, “<No, I’m not.>”
The stranger eyes me, then asks Chen Qian, “<German?>”
She says, “<Ask him. He can talk.>”
Everyone forgets that Monkey wants no part of the West. It’s Tripitaka’s trip. Monkey saves his ass, beats up demons who would eat Trip’s skin, and what does he get in return? Some bull lecture: “It is better that one accept his own death rather than hurt another. No wonder you were imprisoned so long in that mountain.”
They’ve known each other all of a week, and this monk dude brings up his record? Monkey in no mood to hear this, not after five hundred years without seeing home. He bounds off east, leaves this damn fool for demon food.
But Guanyin, China’s dea ex machina of mercy, is like, can’t be having that. She comes down from the sky, tells Trip, “Make Monkey wear this hat and coat. When he flips shit, recite the Script of the Tight Fit.”
Monkey returns, has thought, chilled. Trip shows him the clothes, says, “He who wears these can recite scriptures without having to learn them first.”
Monkey, craving knowledge, dresses. First gift in centuries. Maybe the monk not so bad. Immediately Trip incants, “Journey to the West,” and Monkey drops to the ground, pulling at the hat and coat. They squeeze him into headache, out of breath.
He wheezes out, “You put a spell on me?”
“Will or won’t you protect me on my way?”
“What choice do I have?”
Here Chen Qian interrupts. “The monk doesn’t say ‘don’t hurt.’ He says ‘don’t kill.’”
“Still,” I say. “Don’t you think it’s weird he tells Monkey to be nonviolent but then uses violence to control him? And isn’t Guanyin the goddess of mercy? Mercy my ass.”
“You have to control Monkey,” she says. “Otherwise, he just gets pissed off and leaves.”
Monkey is one of the first English words Qixuan masters. Because easy to perform monkey. Four years old and doing second language for when we leave China. She flashes cards with my mother over Skype: animals, colors, numbers.
A few weeks earlier my boss told me, “Look, Tim: everybody knows you’re a nice guy, but you don’t have to marry Chen Qian. She already has a kid. Think about that.” As though I hadn’t. As though this were all an act of charity.
We need permission from Qixuan’s biological father before we can leave the country, before we can even apply for her passport. Chen Qian has used her relationships with officials as far as she can, but hers work only on local levels. After all, Qixuan is Zhao’s kid, legally anyway, and we’re pushing into international territory.
Yet he’s seen her so few times that she wouldn’t be able to pick him out from anybody else. He never sends child support. Hasn’t called in years.
On the phone, Chen Qian tells him she doesn’t want his money, that he never has to send any again, just show up and sign his name. Why should he? She puts Qixuan on the phone, thinking the kid will be more convincing.
After a few seconds, Qixuan crouches to the floor, big crying.
“<What’s wrong?>” I ask.
She says, “<I don’t know who he is, but he says I can’t go with you.>”
Through the tinny speakers, I hear Zhao demand ten thousand yuan in exchange for his signed consent.
Most readers of Journey to the West forget that the goal is to return. How hard it was to come here to Kansas, how easily we could fuck off again and forget all this, the United States on a pleasant mute.
Yet another stranger tells Chen Qian that she needs to have my baby. “<Otherwise, he’s going to leave you to find someone who will,>” the stranger says. “<He needs one of his own.>” China, America—doesn’t matter. In both places, strangers tell Chen Qian what she needs to do to keep me.
When things get hard between us, she says, “If you want to divorce me, Qixuan and I can go back to China.”
I say, “I don’t want that. I don’t care whether we have another kid. If you don’t want one, that’s fine. If you want one, that’s fine too. It’s up to you. Whatever you say, I accept.”
Qixuan at first can’t pronounce my name, calls me Ti¯mi? (“Kick Rice”), then Ga¯nba`ba (“Adopted Father,” literally “Dry Father”). She asks Chen Qian one day can she drop the Ga¯n, just call me Ba`ba, Ba, Daddy.
I leave China two months before them. The night before my flight, Qixuan asks, “<Daddy, do you think I’ll have friends in America?>”
“<Are you worried?>”
“<I don’t want to speak English. It’s too hard. I want to speak Chinese, but what if nobody else does? >”
The second week I’m in Kansas, a new colleague asks me, “Are you sure you want to bring your daughter here?” Idiot.
At the grocery store, Qixuan and I run away from Chen Qian. A joke. Hide from Mom. We hold hands, I a little faster than she. Except that I notice another women’s open-mouth alarm and realize what I’m doing, what it looks like I’m doing from her perspective: pulling a Chinese girl from a Chinese woman. I realize who we are, what we look like, how she doesn’t know our story. The woman runs to Chen Qian. “Ma’am, ma’am! That man! That man has your daughter!”
“That’s his daughter,” Chen Qian says, not looking up.
One day we notice that Qixuan no longer responds in Chinese, no longer calls herself Qixuan, wants only to be called Eileen. Has wanted for a long time. “I don’t want to speak Chinese. It’s too hard,” she says. She’s six. She forgets leaving China.
This hasn’t happened, but I always think it will.
Someone asks, “What are you writing about?”
“Meeting my wife and daughter in China. About us not knowing each other’s language at first but then slowly learning toward each other.”
“A proper West-meets-East story,” this imaginary antagonist says.
No. No West meeting East. I meeting her and her. Just where we happened to start, have happened to end up.
Monkey feels his head, notices for the first time that the cap has come off.
Tim Lantz’s writing has appeared in Alice Blue, Diagram, Prick of the Spindle, and other publications. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where he is the nonfiction editor for Beecher’s. His website is timlantz.com.
How to articulate the word's commanding need? In a stunning book about writing, Donald Murray listed twelve reasons why authors must write. Here in this list you will find simple rationales why you write, and why you're reading this. Myself? These twelve work for me. I fritter away hours imagining the motives of writers I respect through Murray's lens, guessing at their interior selves. Here they are, in their illogical glory.
To Discover Who I Am: Virginia Woolf said, “I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again - as I always am when I write.”
Like Woolf, I am myself again as I write. Writing gives me back the humanity and complexity that workaday life scrubs away. When I write, I am more than a list of tasks that need accomplishment, a series of barters and transactions that pries me out of bed and dumps me back into it at the end of day. The story is more than the sum of a human's parts.
To Say I Am: The powerless voice, suddenly awake and awaking us. Allen Ginsberg, smothered under an American blanket of materialism, of bigotry and conformity, surely he stood up for himself – and for other disenfranchised artists – when he first read “Howl” aloud.
To Create New Aspects of My Life: David Morrell tells his students and his readers, “Don't write what you know, write what you want to know.” I would add, write who you might become. We contain multitudes.
To Understand My Life: I surmise Richard Russo unraveled Empire Falls to illuminate what his relationship with his mother and what his thwarted dreams had been. I believe James Jones had to write and rewrite the military novel. He had to sift through his life for his own thin red line.
Someday I will be good enough a writer to type out my broadside on corporate life. I will illuminate thirty years of that stranger who dedicated sixty hours a week, committed to teams that struggled mightily, kowtowed to authority that blindly thrashed out misery, and quit out of childish ego. And then I'll get it. Perhaps.
To Slay My Dragons: Harlan Ellison transmitted major shocks of fear into his readers, fear that had to erupt from somewhere. Ellison, above all the horror writers I know, must have had dragons and bugs in his head waiting to be exorcised. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” – could he again sleep at night, once this piece hit paper?
Have you imagined going blind, or having two legs being pulverized by an IED? Have you jarred awake after dreams of burning or drowning or raping? My characters can make these fears into real lives, and I need only listen to be healed. Or at least soothed.
To Exercise My Craft: Consider Herman Melville, a writer we return to again and again, maybe the first modernist and a magician with his words. So few of his contemporaries could have written works that still matter now, as implacable change drives language generation after generation. Years wash away meagre talent, but not Melville's craft.
To write is a responsibility. To write well is a personal goal, unreachable, but one sought by writers I admire. How can there be authors who write casually, crapulously, who depend on charm and plot pacing to hurry the reader past literary debacle?
To Lose Myself In My Work: Dylan Thomas, addicted to young admiring women, slipping along the alcohol fault-line to desperate damaged health: Thomas returned again and again to a beguiled childhood along the heron-priested shore – searched for who he had been to avoid the grayness of who he had become.
If to pay attention is our endless and proper work, how can we obsess about ourselves while we pay attention to the character? I've turned off endless self-maundering with five first drafts, freeing myself from myself. Don't we all, as we stare into the page?
For Revenge: Did Melville mean Billy Bud as a revenge spelled out against a corrupt maritime system? Did Faulkner portray his neighbors as the boorish debauched Snopes's to get back at the Southern abuse heaped upon him?
Yes, I too portray the petty bullies who made life a misery, but in surprise, I rediscover them as interesting humans, if not sympathetic. Revenge is best if true, and cooked up into words.
To Share: Of authors I am reading now, Bruno Schulz stands out as the loneliest and most isolated. He sent his book Cinnamon Shops letter by letter to a friend, shared in a secret way. A stuffed envelope in the mail – Schulz's only artistic outlet. But even Schulz had to launch his work out into the world.
To Testify: When Roddy Doyle writes Paula Spencer or John Steinbeck gives us Tom Joad, a writer champions those who have no voice.
For me, to bear witness drives writing as much as any selfish authorial ego. Someone should speak for the working poor, the brown, the dismal white, the men and women so battered they also batter, the child so persecuted that only rage remains. I think I can be and should be one of those authors.
To Celebrate: I believe Richard Brautigan wrote to celebrate, to spin out fantasies both outrageous and free, chanting a poetic line into the reader's sense of wonder. I believe Torrington wrote Swing Hammer Swing as an unashamed love song to Glasgow's tenements, even as the planners tore down the best and the worst.
To Avoid Boredom: Boredom often attacked Kerouac. Indeed, he had a vast need for his words to be important to someone – Bt the bottom of it all, below the ego's need, he drifted through the Beat world rummaging around for something to fascinate him – whether it was the ramblings of a male prostitute strung out on bennie or William Burrough's imagined world-order of druggies, whores, artists and writers.
One of the many reasons I write stems from how boring I am. Once a departing girl friend compared me to a sphere, present in life but perfectly featureless. Scathing, but close enough. But other people, now, that's a different thing.
People are kaleidoscopic and they don't know it. Locked in despair, chained to a daily treadmill, they live thoughtlessly. They wall themselves up alive with their own rationalizations about small failures and they miss their own triumphs. They don't know how fascinating they are. Try it out – if you ask, they will tell you the damnedest things. And all you can answer is, “Really? What happened next?”
These people slide into fiction and march around in my head. Sometimes when I'm out wandering with my dog in the morning, I will snap into awareness – first person point-of-view, present tense. The signs I've been absent show clear, the changes I haven't marked: wet boots, my jeans soaked up to the knee. The coffee has been drunk, the dog wants me to catch up. I've been talking to Maudy or Grace, Little Jan, Ezekias or Tommy the Rat in my head and they've been answering back.
“That goddam horse shied back and quick as a flash, she jerked my thumb off.”
“No, I woulda nevah touched her, 'cause I'm not bi.”
“When he finally died, that's when the beatings stopped. The day after the service, I carried all of his clothes into the vacant lot next door and I burned them.”
“He was liquid fire. I couldn't help myself. When he asked me to pack a bag and slip into the car, I did. That was ten small towns back, when I knew my name.”
“This tattoo, see, on the back of my hand? It's for the time they raped me. I stare at it all the time.”
When on these morning rambles Maudy and Ezekias stop talking, I have to sort out where I am, what overgrown thicket of fir and spruce I'm in. Trudge downhill – I'll stumble onto the road. The next day I might be ready to write down what one of them whispered to me.
With all these people tramping around in my head, how can I not write? And they have to receive the voice they each deserve. The writing has to be good. They deserve great, in fact. And so the language has to be worked, over and over. Until they say it's right.
Scott Archer Jones cuts and splits all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor, and writes grants for the community.
The first thing I noticed when I met Olga was the wart under her lip. It was growing a hair and seemed to dance as she talked. She also wore pink bunny slippers and a long, ankle length jean skirt. Her accent rendered her words incomprehensible to my ten year old self, and the first time I made eye contact with her, felt uncomfortable and scary. She stood 3 feet taller than me, and much wider too. Her large form and thick accent frightened me. However, my fear vanished as she placed a violin in my hands. She bent my arms into the proper position, and guided my bow across the strings, making a sound that I can only describe as an audible iteration of childhood wonder and joy. It was at my first lesson with Olga that I began to understand the power of music.
I visited Olga once a week after our first lesson. She gradually allowed weaned me off of using her arms to help me move the bow, and taught me how to stand with the proper posture. During my first three or four months with her, she would try to explain my mistakes and how I must fix them. Each time she explained her corrections, I looked up at her with wide, curious, helpless eyes.
“Da, you only play when you hear sound already. Expectation of sound. Find note in air, catch it with bow in air and then you play.”
Her explanation made no sense to me. Her vocabulary could not express the complexity of her corrections. In those beginning months, the only time I understood her was when she played my violin the way she wanted me to play. She could communicate her ideas to me through the sound of the music better than she could with her words.
Olga’s studio to this day is located inside her apartment building. It is a room dedicated to a piano, hundreds of music books from around the world, and walls covered from ceiling to floor with awards and certificates won by her students over the years. Olga’s ‘Hall of Fame,’ hangs on the wall among the certificates. It is a collection of a few smiling school photos, selfies and professional head-shots. My smiling face is on that wall, a school picture from 8th grade, the same year Olga took me to Lincoln Center. I remember the day she slid my photo into one of the empty slots. She carefully removed the frame from the wall, and looked at me. I don’t remember what she said, but by the way her fingers hesitated in the air, I could tell she was thinking to herself, “I better not be wrong about this girl.” Placing me on a pedestal in her studio meant that she now trusted me with her reputation as a competition violinist.
“You know, when you play for the judge, it is my name you play with. This is why you must practice more!”
Olga hosted recitals in her apartment in the winter, and she makes each of them seem like the most important performance of the year. She spends the weeks before drilling each of her students as if the audition for Juilliard was the next day. The days leading up to the recitals, she decorates her apartment and cooks Russian Sausage.
“Intonation! Faster Vibrato. Da, this is big, this is big! Play bigger use bigger bow!”
At the recital, we all sit around her ornate, intimate, cramped living room and watch as each student shakily stand up and plays beautiful music. At the end of these recitals, we all gather around as one big studio and celebrate with lemonade, cookies and vodka. Olga always looks her happiest at these recitals. Often, I watch her face as her students play. She becomes mesmerized by their sound, her eyes fill with joy. I can tell the music we create holds a special place in her heart. Olga always seems proud of me after I play, but I can see the sadness in her eyes as she congratulates me; It’s as if her eyes are begging me to practice more.
“Da, you just practice more and your sound, it’s flying.” She would lift her arms as she said this and look off to a future in which I practiced.
This spring, Olga entered me into American String Teachers’ Association’s Spring Festival. She gave me a passionate piece, called Czardas. It was technically difficult, requiring a fast tempo with finger speeds I could’ve only dreamed about. However, Olga made it her mission to prepare me for this competition and filled my head with the promise of greatness, if I practiced. Like at my first lesson, many years ago, she played Czardas for me and I fell in love with the song.
“Now, you play this at the small competition, and who knows, we try for Carnegie? We see! We see!”
Learning Czardas required lessons that tested Olga’s faith in me. Sometimes, I even thought I caught her looking at the Hall of Fame, wondering if she had made the wrong choice, put too much faith in me. I didn’t understand why she was so frustrated with me. She would stop me after almost every note, but I was deaf to my imperfections. It was only when she played the correct note that I understood why I was wrong. I thought our relationship had matured since our first lesson, and yet I felt as hopeless as I did those many years ago.
“Good luck! Practice, Practice, Practice good! You have the passion, show the judge. ”
The competition was separated into different rooms based on level, and Olga was assigned to proctor my room. She pretended not to know me, avoiding eye contact. I think she did this because teachers are not allowed to influence students during the competition, and making eye contact might tarnish her reputation. I could tell Olga was nervous for my performance by the way her foot twitched as it rested on her knee. The last lessons I had with her before the competition went badly, and she expected me to play with a few mistakes.
At my turn to play for the judge, I played the best I had ever played in my life. My perfect notes soared from the F holes in my violin to Olga’s ears and touched her in a way she I hadn't been able to before. I could tell she was pleasantly blown away by my performance because after we left the room, she insisted I send the shaky cell-phone recording my mom took to American Fine Arts Festival’s Golden Strings Festival, my ticket to Carnegie Hall.
Olga has shown me the power of music. She has built a community through music, she has learned to communicate through music and she has dedicated her life to helping young people make beautiful music. She has shared her community and talent for teaching music with me and through her guidance and support, I too am able to harness the power of music. I hope to take violin lessons from Olga until I leave for college next year, but, I know that even after I leave her studio, the power of music she has imparted on me will forever be a part of my life.
Veronica Merrill is a junior at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about dance, voice, writing, and violin. She participates in her school Choral, Madrigals Ensemble, orchestra, dance program and started the first Co-ed A Capella group at her school in 2014. She won the Hyde Literary Prize in 2015, and was published in the Fairfax Connection this fall. She has performed violin solos at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, as well in Weimar, Germany. Ms.Merril also enjoys running with the NCS/STA cross country team and swimming on the NCS/STA swim team.
All design and images property of The Legendary. Site design by That Hippie (Allison Hancock)