I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, page 1
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
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.
1. Kingston, Maxine Hong. 2. Authors, American—20th century—Biography. 3. Chinese American authors—Biography. 4. Chinese American women—Biography. I. Title.
To the Ancestors and
my contemporaries and
Viet Nam Village
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,
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.
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
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
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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