I love a broad margin to.., p.1

I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, page 1


I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

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I Love a Broad Margin to My Life


  Published by Alfred A. Knopf

  Copyright © 2011 by Maxine Hong Kingston

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.


  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

  Coleman Barks: Excerpt from “Song of the Reed” from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Reprinted by permission of Coleman Barks.

  Irving Berlin Music Company: Excerpt from “Sittin’ in the Sun (Countin’ My Money)” by Irving Berlin, copyright © 1953 by Irving Berlin. Copyright renewed. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Irving Berlin Music Company.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Kingston, Maxine Hong.

  I love a broad margin to my life / by Maxine Hong Kingston. — 1st ed.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-59533-1

  1. Kingston, Maxine Hong. 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. 3. Chinese American authors—Biography. 4. Chinese American women—Biography. I. Title.

  PS3561.152Z46 2011


  [B] 2010028819


  To the Ancestors and

  my contemporaries and

  our children



  Title Page




  Leaving Home

  Rice Village

  Bad Village

  Art Village

  Spirit Village

  Viet Nam Village

  Father’s Village

  Mother’s Village


  Home Again



  A Note About the Author

  Other Books by This Author


  I am turning 65 years of age.

  In 2 weeks I will be 65 years old.

  I can accumulate time and lose

  time? I sit here writing in the dark—

  can’t see to change these penciled words—

  just like my mother, alone, bent over her writing,

  just like my father bent over his writing, alone

  but for me watching. She got out of bed,

  wrapped herself in a blanket, and wrote down

  the strange sounds Father, who was dead,

  was intoning to her. He was reading aloud

  calligraphy that he’d written—carved with inkbrush—

  on his tombstone. She wasn’t writing in answer.

  She wasn’t writing a letter. Who was she writing to?


  This well-deep outpouring is not for

  anything. Yet we have to put into exact words

  what we are given to see, hear, know.

  Mother’s eyesight blurred; she saw trash

  as flowers. “Oh. How very beautiful.”

  She was lucky, seeing beauty, living

  in beauty, whether or not it was there.

  I am often looking in mirrors, and singling

  out my face in group photographs.

  Am I pretty at 65?

  What does old look like?

  Sometimes I am wrinkled, sometimes not.

  So much depends upon lighting.

  A camera crew shot pictures of me—one of

  “5 most influential people over 60

  in the East Bay.” I am homely; I am old.

  I look like a tortoise in a curly white wig.

  I am stretching head and neck toward

  the light, such effort to lift the head, to open

  the eyes. Black, shiny, lashless eyes.

  Talking mouth. I must utter you

  something. My wrists are crossed in my lap;

  wrinkles run up the left forearm.

  (It’s my right shoulder that hurts—Rollerblading

  accident—does the pain show, does my hiding it?)

  I should’ve spoken up, Don’t take

  my picture, not in that glare. One side

  of my neck and one cheek are gone in black

  shadow. Nobody looks good in hard focus,

  high contrast—black sweater and skirt,

  white hair, white sofa, white

  curtains. My colors and my home, but rearranged.

  The crew had pushed the reds and blues and greens aside.

  The photographer, a young woman, said, “Great. Great.”

  From within my body, I can’t sense that crease

  on my left cheek. I have to get—win—

  compliments. “You are beautiful.” “So cute.”

  “Such a kind face.” “You are simple.”

  “You move fast.” “Chocolate Chip.”

  A student I taught long ago

  called me Chocolate Chip. And only yesterday

  a lifelong friend told Earll, my husband,

  he’s lucky, he’s got me—the Chocolate Chip.

  They mean, I think, my round face

  and brown-bead eyes. I keep

  count. I mind that I be good-looking.

  I don’t want to look like Grandmother,

  Ah Po. Her likeness is the mask of tragedy.

  “An ape weeps when another ape weeps.”

  She is Ancestress; she is prayed to. She

  sits, the queen, center of the family in China,

  center of the family portrait (my mother in it too,

  generations of in-laws around her)—all

  is black and white but for a dot of jade-green

  at Po’s ears, and a curve of jade-green

  at her wrist. Lotus lily feet show

  from the hem of her gown. She wanted to be

  a beauty. She lived to be 100.

  My mother lived to be 100. “One

  hundred and three,” she said. Chinese

  lie about their age, making themselves older.

  Or maybe she was 97 when the lady official

  from Social Security visited her, as the government visits

  everyone who claims a 100th birthday.

  MaMa showed off; she pedaled her exercise

  bike, hammer-curled hot pink barbells.

  Suddenly stopped—what if So-so Security

  won’t believe she’s a century old?

  Here’s a way for calculating age: Subtract

  from her age of death my age now.

  100 − 65 = 35

  I am 35 years-to-go.

  Lately, I’ve been

  writing a book a decade; I have time

  to write 3 more books. Jane Austen

  wrote 6 books. I’ve written 6 books.

  Hers are 6 big ones, mine

  4 big ones and 2 small ones.

  I take refuge in numbers. I

  waste my time with sudoku.

  Day dawns, I am greedy, helpless

  to begin 6-star difficulty

  sudoku. Sun goes

  down; I’m still stuck for that square

  that will let the numbers fly into place.

  What good am I getting out

  of this? I’m not stopping time. Nothing

  to show for my expenditures. Pure nothing.

  8 days before my birthday, I went

  to John Mulligan’s funeral. He was 10

  years younger than me. He died without

  finishing his book, MIAmerica.

  (I have a superstition that as long as I,

  any writer, have things to write, I keep living.)

  I joined in singing again and again

  a refrain, “Send thou his soul to God.” Earll,

  though, did not sing, did not

  say any of the Latin, any of the prayers.

  He muttered that the Catholic Church divides you

  against yourself, against your sexy body.

  “The Church is a gyp.” John Mulligan should’ve

  been given a pagan ceremony; Woman Warrior,

  Robert Louis Stevenson, and Cuchulain

  had come to him in Viet Nam. John

  carried them, tied to him by silver cords,

  to the U.S. The priest, who came from the Philippines,

  kept reminding one and all that the benefits

  he was offering were for “Christians” only. But

  he did memorialize John being born and raised

  in Scotland, and coming to America at 17.

  Summarily drafted to Viet Nam. You

  didn’t have to be a citizen to be drafted.

  The war count, as of today:

  Almost 2,000 killed in Iraq. G.I.s.

  Not counting Afghanis,




  children, babies,


  7 days before my birthday, I had breakfast with

  Mary Gordon, who’s always saying things

  I never thought before: “It’s capitalistic

  of us to expect any good from peace demonstrations,

  as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”

  I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading

  for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer

  (besides Chekhov) who is holy and an artist?”

  “Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”

  Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s

  too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes

  home to Mom for hot chocolate. No

  sex, no tragedy, no humor.”

  Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make

  me laugh. A line from Walden hangs over one

  of my desks:

  I love a broad margin to my life.

  Sitting here at this sidewalk café with Mary,

  deliberately taking time off from writing

  and teaching duties, I am making a broad margin

  to my life. The margin will be broader when we part,

  and I am alone. Thoreau swam, then sat in the doorway

  of his “Shelter,” “large box,” “dwelling-house,”

  alone all the summer morning, rapt

  in the sunlight and the trees and the stillness.

  Birds flitted through the house. “… Until

  by the sun falling in at my west window,

  or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant

  highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

  I have a casita of my own, built instead of

  a garage after the Big Fire. Its width

  is the same as Thoreau’s (10 feet), its length

  a yard longer. He had a loft; I have

  a skylight. I want to be a painter.

  Sometimes, I hear the freeway, now and again

  the train, and the campanile. Thoreau heard

  the band playing military music; his neighbors

  were going to war against Mexico. He made up his mind

  not to pay taxes.

  Trying broad-

  margin meditation, I sit in

  the sunny doorway of my casita, amidst the yucca

  and loquats and purple rain birches. Some I

  planted, some volunteered. Birds—

  chickadees, finches, sparrows, pairs of doves,

  a pair of towhees, and their enemy, the jay. Hawk

  overhead. Barn swallows at twilight.

  I know: Thoreau sat with notebook

  and pencil in hand. Days full of writing.

  Days full of wanting.

  Let them go by without worrying

  that they do. Stay where you are

  inside such a pure hollow note.


  Evening, at an Oxfam Relief benefit

  for Hurricane Katrina refugees, I read aloud

  what Gilgamesh of Uruk (Iraq!) heard about a flood.

  The Euphrates flattened a city “… bringing calamity

  down on those whom now the sea engulfs

  and overwhelms, my children who are now the children

  of fishes.” Earll auctioned away a 100th

  anniversary Mardi Gras doubloon handed down

  from his family. A bakery donated an immense cake

  with candles, and people sang Happy Birthday to me.

  6 days ahead of birthday: A small

  white man sat abandoned at the stairs

  to our garden. Summer sportcoat. It’s autumn.

  He carried a heavy suitcase.

  Two bigger suitcases, trunk-size,

  sat on the sidewalk. “Here B

  and B?” he asked, and handed me papers.

  Lists of bed-and-breakfasts, the top one

  with our cross-street but no address number.

  A neighbor must be running a secret B & B.

  “Widow B and B.” A widow used to

  live next door, but her house burned

  down, and we bought her vacant lot.

  And there’s a Viet Nam widow down the street,

  and a faculty-wife widow 2 doors up.

  “I got reservation. My name is Fred.

  I came to see about my Social Security.”

  Where are you from? You can go to your local

  Social Security office. “I came from

  airport. I paid shuttle thirty-one

  dollars.” But it doesn’t cost nearly that

  to be driven here from OAK or

  SFO. “Shuttle van brought

  me here, to B and B.” Earll phoned some

  home-inns in the Yellow Pages, and drove Fred to

  a B & B, which cost $125

  a night. “One hundred and

  twenty-five dollars a week,” Fred

  corrected. No, no, a day. He

  looked ready to cry. “Get me

  a taxi.” The innkeeper called motels, and found

  Days Inn at $90 per night,

  and a hotel at $60 per night.

  Fred told us of his life: He had been educated

  at San Jose State. He lived in a basement,

  and studied engineering. He’d made $900

  a month, then in San Francisco $1,200

  a month. Housing was $30 a night.

  “There’s no work for engineers in San Francisco

  anymore.” Social Security will give

  him $600 every month.

  Earll also—$600 per month.

  “In Iran, I live for a long time

  on six hundred dollars.” We took

  Fred to BART. Go to San Francisco.

  At a big hotel, ask for a “youth hostel.”

  Earll gave him a hug goodbye.

  We picture the little lost man, from Iran,

  getting his bags stuck in the turnstile,

  leaving 1 or 2 behind as the train

  doors shut. Should’ve warned him, he has to

  compete with the Katrina refugees’ $2,000

  housing allowance. Should’ve offered him water.

  In Fred’s reality: Widows rent out rooms.

  At B & B on the computer, hit

  Print—voilà—room reserved,

  room confirmed. Taxi drivers know

  the place for you, and will take you to it.

  Everywhere wander people who have not

  the ability to handle this world.

  Late the next day, we went to the City

  for me to talk on the radio about vet
erans of war,

  veterans of peace. In a waiting room, women

  in scarves—Muslims—were serving food to one

  another. Each one seemed to have come from

  a different land and race, her headdress

  and style and skin color unlike any sister’s.

  Silks. Velvet. Poly jacquard. Coral,

  red and black, henna, aqua. Peacock.

  Crystals, rhinestones. Gold thread. Impossibly

  diverse cultures, yet Islam brings them together.

  This corridor is an oasis on the Silk Road,

  as if that thoroughfare continues through Africa,

  and across oceans. An Egyptian-looking woman

  held up to me, then to Earll,

  a tray of fruits and vegetables. “Eid,”

  she said. “Celebrate the Eid.”

  I chose a cherry tomato and a medjool date.

  I willed my Thank you to embrace her, go through

  and around her, and enfold the other Muslims, the ones

  here, and the many far away. Thank you,

  Muslims, for giving food to whoever happens

  among you. I’m lucky, my timing in sync with their time,

  the sun setting, and a new moon coming up.

  Last day of Ramadan, women ending their fast.

  If not for years of practicing Buddhist silence

  and Quaker silence, I would’ve chattered away,

  and missed the quiet, the peace, the lovingkindness.

  Happy birthday to me.

  Sunday, my friend Claude

  brought a tea grown by old Greek ladies.

  “It cures everything.” I drink, though nothing

  needs curing. “Cured!” we said in unison.

  Monday ere birthday, I resolve, I shall rest

  from worry and pursuit. (In childhood chasedreams,

  monsters chased me. Now, I do the chasing.)

  Joseph, our son, calls. In a marathon read,

  he’s finished all the books I’ve ever published.

  I’m the only writer I know whose offspring

  reads her. “How was it?” “Good.” (“Accurate,”

  said my mother.) Joseph cares for accuracy too.

  He’s mailing me pages of errata: I got

  the Hawaiian wrong; I got the pidgin

  wrong. He’s a musician; he has the ear. I love

  hearing his voice wishing me happy birthday.

  “I must be getting old too; I

  really like my power tools.” He’d

  read again and again the instructions on how

  to use a chainsaw, then cut up the pine

  trees without mishap. Borders in Honolulu

  sold all his CDs, and wants more.

  My time in Hawai‘i, I never learned the hula,

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