Fragrant Tan Hua flowers bloom only at night once a year. By sunrise they are gone. The night we three sisters happened to be together was that special night.
The flower is actually a cactus plant, also known as "The Queen of the Night," and is found in places like New Mexico and Arizona. It is cultivated and prized by Chinese people, who have nicknamed it Tan Hua. The ephemeral quality of Tan Hua is expressed in this phrase: tan hua yi xian. "As soon as the flower blooms, it disappears." It's an apt description for the bittersweet discovery that what we await with great expectation may arrive but is actually only temporary-- be it physical beauty, celebrity, or infatuation. Nonetheless, the blossoms of Tan Hua are indeed worth waiting for, and when it's evident the flowers are about to bloom, the call goes out to friends and family to come to a spontaneous viewing party. Our sister Jindo from Wisconsin was visiting us, and Lijun, our other sister was cooking dinner for us at her house.
Jindo immediately noticed that three Tan Hua flowers in Lijun's garden would bloom that very night. We had a delicious dinner and then watched a Chinese melodrama about heroes who plotted to save Sun Yat Sen from assassination. Coincidentally, Sun Yat-Sen's name in Mandarin is Sun Yixian--but does not have the same tones or meaning as the Yi Xian that relates to flower's disappearing act. By 8:30 p.m., Sun Yat-Sen's double was in a rickshaw with Imperial assassins racing through the bumpy lanes, and one of the Tan Hua flowers began its unfolding. The flower emitted a lovely fragrance, which reminded me of a lighter scent of tuberoses and gardenias. The flower was nearly fully open when Sun Yat Sen's double heroically died with a spear through his chest and about quart of red sauce pouring out of the actor's mouth. Ephemeral, as I said.
Since it's nearly impossible to buy Tan Hua plants, I took two large cuttings with me, instead of the huge and unruly plant Lijun wanted to press on me. The Tan Hua is fairly easy to grow, my sisters said--just stick the cutting in the soil in a sunny spot and water every now and then. I looked up more complete instructions. It actually requires a proper beginning -- leaving the cutting out for three days so that the end forms a "callus", then placing it in a pot with soil suited for cactus. The pot is set in a sunny spot, and the root ball should be checked from time to time. A mister is used to lightly dampen the soil or leaves every now and then, and once a month, the plant is fertilized. With what, I don't know. As it grows, it should be repotted. There's more, but suffice it to say, you need to devote some care to a plant that does not call attention to itself except once a year. If you do, Tan Hua will last long enough to pass on to the next generation. You can also make friends and relatives happy by giving them cuttings, accompanied with advice that some things are worth waiting for, but be aware that they can also disappear.
I met Davone Tines at a student event called Adventures of the Mind. He was a guest mentor to high school students. He was in his early twenties, had graduated from Harvard in Sociology and was studying at Juilliard, training to be an opera / classical singer. Although his conversational voice seemed medium pitched, his singing voice was a bass baritone. He sang a lovely solo. He had a beautiful voice.
The next time I met him, he was twenty-seven. His trained voice was now phenomenal--shivery good. I discovered also that his vocal range is greater than that of a bass baritone. It has about a four octave stretch. What's more, he had continued to be an excellent mentor to younger musicians, coaching them to feel the flow of the music rather than adhering to strict time beats.
When he was in San Francisco, we had tea and I suggested we meet up at the Opera House and watch "Showboat" together. I was especially interested in what he thought of the character Joe who sings that deeply resonant and soulful "Ol' Man River." I joked that one day, if he gained a hundred more pounds, he might be able to play Joe. Davone had never sung that song, but felt confident that he his bass baritone would be able to easily accommodate it. I was intrigued. I encouraged him to record a YouTube video of his rendition and to send it to me. A short while later, he did. He had found someone willing to play chords on the guitar. They had not rehearsed this, and that's what also makes this special as he feels his way around the music and quickly fills the music with his voice and emotions. As you can see by the comments, I am not the only one bowled over by his voice, one that both raw talent and rigorously trained.
Last weekend, Lou and I visited friends at their borrowed beach house on Long Island Sound. In the afternoon, we went on a birding walk along the beach. Megan was our guide. She identified the "sweet-sweet-I'm so-sweet" call of the yellow oriole with its honey-colored body. We saw the kiting behavior of an osprey as it hovered over its next victim. We saw a gull drop a clam on the rocks to break it open. And there were barn swallows, robins, sparrows, mockingbirds, catbirds, plovers, and herons. As we wandered, I picked up and examined smooth wet stones that glistened with depth. They felt sensual and valuable, and I took a few home with me.
While our friends were preparing a dinner of tilapia on the grill, I played idly with my rocks. I remembered a Chinese man in Sausalito who stacked rocks in what looked like a magic trick. Years ago, while writing The Hundred Secret Senses, I had come upon him at a point in the story I was writing that involved the appearance of cairns in a dark valley. I wondered why I had written that scene only to see it appear on the beach as I walked my dogs. " With everything there is a point of balance," I had my character say later when I returned to my desk, "you just have to find it." An obvious visual metaphor for balance in the upheaval of life.
I decided to find that point, figuring that if that man on the beach had been able to stack the rocks, it must be possible. Soon I could feel myself intuiting how the weight of the rock shifted as I moved it, and how it aligned into a new balanced state. I moved it slightly--a little forward, slightly back, it to the side, then rotated ever so slightly, moving it further down, then further up. The unwieldy mass slowly became lighter in weight---until it put no force on my fingertips and simply stood. The eureka moment ran through me like an electrical shock. My initial thoughts were overpowering and veering on grandiose. It felt as if I had unlocked a secret power within me. Or that I had trained the rock to possess a new kind of gravity. But, in fact, the rock simply followed the laws of gravity that every rock follows, and I, the rock stacker, had gone beyond the former self-imposed limitations of normal perception.
I was instantly addicted. We went birding the next morning at 6 a.m. and I chose more rocks. I learned more quickly, and not in a way that can be expressed as instructions. It was the refinement of that new intuition about misshapen rocks and their properties of gravitational pull toward the floor or erect posture toward the sun I managed to balance three. I learned that the shape of the rock and its divots can make the task easier. What I had begun with--three smooth and slippery rocks--had probably been the hardest combination. Each time I found the point of balance, a surge of elation swelled in me. It was the sense of discovery, satisfaction and gratitude I have when I write something that surprises me and is so clearly true. It is a rather rare feeling, in fact, and now, it seemed, I had the means to experience it over and over again.
I could extrapolate many metaphors from this balancing act, ones related to hardship, inequities in relationships, revenge, reward, peace, and all kinds of zen thoughts. But I value more the physical sensation of letting go of the rock and having it stand. It is the victory of riding a bicycle for the first time, or of a baby taking her first steps. It is visceral and not metaphorical. It bestows you with immediate understanding about the properties of weight and movement.
While balancing rocks, I wondered where each of these rocks once lay before they landed ashore on Long Island Sound. They have their own immigrant stories, so to speak, many ancient. The smallest, smoothest, roundest stones along the beach are probably among the oldest, worn down by waves over time, and destined to become the oldest of them all--grains of sand. The speckled rock in appears to be a ferrous mass of some sort, whose rust surface might have once been soft enough to become embedded with tiny pieces of rock. Or it could be a chip of concrete aggregate, tinged by rusted iron railing, when it was the material used for the outdoor steps of a house that was torn down to make room for an oceanside mansion -- and long ago enough for this piece to have become smooth. There were many other possibilities within the idle thoughts of a person whose focus it was to be as still, to move slowly, with the singular goal of doing what was previously impossible, and that is, to make the unwieldy a beautiful new form.
I often dictate to Siri for emails, and I've had one very irritating problem: Siri would not spell "Lou" correctly. This was inconvenient because Lou is my husband and I often lovingly refer to him. Siri would spell his name "Blue," "Hello," "You," and even, perversely enough, "Lu." After a while, I started getting this creepy feeling that I must be speaking with a Chinese accent that I never knew I had--that I could not pronounce "L" words in a standard American English way. Perhaps my lack of awareness was similar to those who do not recognize they have bad breath. Horrors! Why didn't anyone tell me? Or was Siri perverse? Maybe Siri is not simply software but people in a room who do transcription--after all, you do have to be connected to the internet to use it. Maybe her transcription pals were high on pot, laughing hysterically as I shouted, "Lou, Lou, Lou" followed by a few F words--which Siri and her cohorts always spelled correctly. Or was Siri like those anthropomorphized robots in movies and was in love with my husband?At the E.G. conference last weekend, I had dinner with a nice group of people, among them Tom Gruber, one of the chief developers of Siri. By the way, the man in the photo is not my husband. That's Tom. I posed to him my problem. He asked if I had many entries in my contacts under the name "Lu." I said no. But when I checked, there was in fact a contact named Lu--someone who was in touch with me only when she wanted a favor. That name had replicated itself ten times. There was another Lu--someone in publishing in China who I met once and who was later fired. I deleted both of them. Tom also said I should tell Siri, "Siri, learn how to spell Lou." So I tried that. After a few attempts, she seemed to have that down. I then said the name in a sentence: "Lou is my husband." Siri insisted that "Leo" was my husband. I corrected her. After a little hand slapping, she got it right-- finally. Lou is now my husband. Tomorrow, when I talk to Siri, she may say he is not. If that's the case, I am calling Tom.
What made me think I could be a novelist when there was contrary evidence that I should even try? I scored in the 400s in the verbal portion of the SAT.
So it did not occur to me that I could be a novelist. I did not have that dream. I did not try to write fiction until I was 33. But from an early age, I was a writer because I had a feeling about words -- that no one word was sufficient to describe what I really felt or saw or had experienced. I tried to find variations in a thesaurus. The nuances excited me, but the answers were not there. The word "love" was not enough to express what love was, nor was the word "unfair" able to capture why I felt I had been punished for what I did not do. The word "alone" did not capture what had happened last week or what might happen in the future. A single word was like a left shoe that belonged to someone else and was too small, yet had to be worn because there was nothing else. Several words were also not enough to describe what I meant or felt. Nor was a sentence, or even a paragraph. In fact, the number of words was not enough until I wrote a whole fictional story that included circumstances, qualities, details, questions, and a big mess that needed to be sorted out. And while the details and characters were fictional, the mess was very real, and that was what I would recognize as the real truth that had nothing to do with facts. It had to do with me.