Friday, July 31, 2015


the Wudanggongfu Kung Fu Academy
My dear friends,

I am very nearly home again. The last portion of my Watson journey led me to Wudangshan, a town in Hubei province with two considerable claims to fame: it is the birthplace of Tai Chi and home to the "No. 1 Sacred Daoist Mountain" in China. I came to explore Daoist ideas of nature and poetry here at the mountain, and to attempt a better understanding of the role of movement, energy, and the body in our relationships to nature and writing.

Although my stay here was relatively short (serious students come from the world over to study with Master Yuan Xiu Gang for weeks, months, and sometimes years), I was able to learn the basics of Tai He, a form of Tai Chi unique to Wudang style Kungfu. It took hours and hours of following along with my coach and practicing on my own, but I'm proud of what I've learned. I even took a video to show you! 

What I fail to capture, being such a novice, is the true grace and passion that masterful practitioners command.  The master in the video below displays the fluidity and control I so deeply admire and hope to emulate more in the future. I firmly hold that there is indeed poetry in these movements, but I haven't quite translated it well in my own words yet. I'll keep ya posted on my progress.

morning Tai Chi class at Wudang Kung Fu Academy
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds
Students of all ages and skill levels study at the Wudang Daoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy. Classes are held in the halls of the academy or on the grounds of the Yuxu Palace temple. It's gorgeous, and full of living history. The internal forms taught here emphasize softness and flexibility, but don't let you fool you into thinking these practitioners are no great shakes in terms of toughness and power. I got to watch many students and coaches perform in their preferred styles, and I can tell you I was impressed!

students showcasing their moves at the Wudang Kung Fu Academy 
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds
I had the great privilege of hearing Shifu (the master) explain the difference between external (Shaolin style) and internal (Wudang style) forms of Kung Fu. He also gave us a lesson on the effects of qi in martial arts training. I doubt I can paraphrase him properly, but this is what I understood: excelling in Wudang style martial arts means cultivating a keen sense of relaxed firmness in both body and spirit. 

Like other arts, it takes discipline and time, as well as passion and openness. Eventually, one can even learn to tap into the "huge energies" of qi, allowing one to exercise a soft kind of influence over the flow of energy in oneself, in the people around us, and in the spaces around us. 
a coach showcasing moves at the Wudang Kung Fu Academy 
within Yuxu Palace temple grounds

There are no classes on Thursdays, so I took the chance of a lifetime to climb the sacred mountain of Wudangshan.

beginning the climb up Wudangshan from South Cliff
Although it's unfortunately very commercialized, this hike was one of my favorite accomplishments of the year. The bus takes you to South Cliff (you can explore other lovely picturesque stops along the way). From the bus stop, it's an exhausting but highly rewarding four kilometer climb to the summit. And it's steep stone stairs nearly every step of the way.

The views are spectacular, and the cliffsides along the trail are adorned with carved stele inscribed with poems and prayers. Piled cairns marked mysterious sites within the forest and arching stone bridges enabled passage over the many harrowing crags and peaks along the way to the top.

About halfway, I came to the Pilgrimage Palace. I stopped to make a small offering and refill my water bottle from the magic spring. Here the path forks: to the right is the older Ming Dynasty "Back Way," to the left is the Qing Dynasty "Hundred Stairs." Believe me that both paths contain hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of steps, though they do vary in length and steepness. I chose to take the Back Way, and ascend via the legendary Three Gates to Heaven. Little did I know what a knee-shaking and thrilling trip it would be.

rubbish bin found poems? mantra inspiration?
aw shucks Environment, you make me blush
I quickly learned that it is easier to take the stairs at a slow, steady pace. I remembered my guide Tsewang in Bhutan chiding me that "stopping is out of the question!" and repeated aloud to myself and the chuckling/panting Chinese tourists and locals "om a ra pa tsa na di"--a Bhutanese mantra asking for wealth and wisdom. I eventually began just singing whatever I could muster, along with any other prayers, cusses, and grunts that managed to keep me moving. 

just some of the stairs up the sacred mountain
(lady ahead of me: how are you doing this in heels??)

ascending the Ming Dynasty "Back Way" path

elation at passing through the Second Gate to Heaven
 It worked marvelously.
GOOD LORD almighty there are more
But it did take a long time.

Luckily I had plenty, for I like my conversations with mountains to be long.

Ok. Yes, mountains. You're always worth it. I hear ya. 

The Third Gate to Heaven (leading toward the Golden Peak)
The weather stayed marvelously friendly right up until the moment I summited. As soon as I laid eyes on the Golden Peak at the very top of this celestial wonder of a mountain, heavy rain pelted itself out of the nearby sky. The storm put the cable car down the mountain out of commission, meaning I had to have a firm but gentle conversation with my tired legs that they'd have to take us the long way down too.

Wudangshan's Golden Peak,
a rumored celestial and spiritual wonder

Aha--I'd been waiting for you, rain. Let's just float here awhile.

Perhaps it was the altitude. Fatigue? The intoxicating effect of sublime beauty? I don't know, but I went kinda crazy hiking back down. I couldn't stop singing. I practically ran the whole way, though my knees were wobblier than they'd ever been in my life! I did take the bus from South Cliff down to the Mountain Gate (it's obligatory) but then my reeling brain and body kept waving away taxis and buses on the route back into town. I walked the additional few kms toward the city, savoring the delicious madness of being utterly and comfortably bewildered in a world so strange and full of wonder.

hiking back down
I wish you so very much joy and exhilaration. Thank you for sharing in mine.

With deepest love,

P.S. Below here are a few more samples of Suzhou adventures. As always, I promise more stories when you and I can get together in person. 

Gully of Raising Cranes, Tiger Hill, Suzhou

boat ride near Shantang St, Suzhou
exploring Shantang St, Suzhou
Tianping Shan lotus pond, Mudu

cave temple on Tianping Shan, Mudu

performing original improv poetry with Emily Snow,
The Bookworm, Suzhou

Friday, July 3, 2015

Gardens of Suzhou

in the Lingering Garden

inside one of the residential pavilions
These days I live in Suzhou, China. Some call this ancient canal city the "Venice of the East." However, the road signs around town read: "Suzhou The Human Paradise Oriental Water City," and this feels more accurate. Human? Yep--there are a lot of humans here. Oriental water city? Check. Paradise? That's a little trickier, but I feel pretty dang blessed that I get to spend two months here visiting Suzhou's classical gardens, refining my writing and sharing my art at weekly open mics.

cloud sculpture in Humble Administrator's Garden
I spend my days visiting the gardens around Suzhou Downtown where the World Heritage listed gardens and dozens of important historical buildings are protected from the pattern of demolish-and-rebuild in other parts of the city. Poised as it is south of the Yangtze river and along important trade routes, Suzhou has been an industrious center of silk production and high society for centuries. The construction and maintenance of the gardens spans several dynasties, the earliest being the North Song Dynasty of the 11th century to the Qing Dynasty of the 19th century. Most began as private residencies of government officials, their families, and their literati friends.

The recreated environments within Suzhou’s gardens usually center around ponds full of lotus plants and brightly colored fish.  Open air pavilions containing calligraphic works, paintings, and antique wooden furniture overlook the gardens through elaborately latticed windows. Zigzag or arching stone bridges link the pavilions with the courtyards where deliberately placed trees, shrubs, and grasses give an illusory impression of wildness. Above the ponds but below the trees wind the lake-stone rockeries. The twisting steps ascending and descending throughout these man-made mountains simulate a wandering journey through the ravines, caves, and summits of China’s sacred ranges.

a miniature landscape
I’ve been deeply impressed at the evocative quality of the gardens, but that’s partly because I’m a sucker for it, and it’s designed to impress me. The aesthetics here capture a deeply poetic synthesis of natural shapes and materials with human symbols of beauty. The circular doorway pairs with the square frame of the pavilion; within their lines flicker the leaves of ginkgo trees and a serenely still pool of emerald water. I emerge from the stone-chilled chamber inside the rockery to find a gazebo with a sweeping dragon-like buttressed roof. A plaque nearby tells me the inscription inside the gazebo means drifting lotus fragrance.

rockery in Lion's Grove Garden
So, I’m going to these places to try to siphon up some of their art into my writing. Of course, writing doesn’t have to originate in a point of beauty like these places, but so far it’s helped me develop more ideas about what nature is and what purpose writing has… It’s a little late in the game to be defining the two fundamental elements of my Watson project, but, being functionally illiterate and mute (my Mandarin skills are woefully poor) makes a lady introspective.

Although I still struggle to do normal things like order food correctly, I have been performing poetry every week! The local and expat crowd at The Bookworm have kindly let me join in their weekly open mic and writer’s group, and it’s been lots of fun. I even got to join in at a community theater production at Locke’s Pub where I performed three poems off-book. Sharing my work publicly has become increasingly important to me this year, and I’m psyched about it. (You can read my poetry here.)

open mic at The Bookworm
I’ve taken a few Chinese painting and calligraphy classes too, and my instructor kindly gave me the name Yu Xi to sign my work. It means the sound of the rain, and it is delightfully apt, considering how prominent rain has been in my journey these last eleven months. I’m proud of how my art and adventures and character are growing as a result, and am grateful to you for sharing in that with me.

May we be heard as we hear the rain.

pavilion in Humble Administrator's Garden
I also went to the zoo.
in the Garden of Harmony (also called Garden of Pleasance)

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Brisbane skyline
I've spent the last two weeks in Brisbane, mainly preparing for my last leg of the Watson year: China. While most of my time has been focused on getting prepared with books and visa and all my travel arrangements, I've enjoyed exploring this Gold Coast city. It's a great city for walking or biking, and I really enjoyed wandering through the street markets in the West End and in Fortitude Valley, riding the free City Hopper ferry on the iconic Brisbane River, and meandering the city's many gardens.

I got to attend a couple poetry events as well: one reading in which I got to perform, and one excellent performance celebrating the centenary of Judith Wright's birthday. She was one of Australia's best poets, and an avid advocate for environmental protection and Aboriginal rights. Certainly a woman to emulate.

I plan to do more exploring of poetry and gardens (and much more) in Suzhou and other parts of China. Because google products are sometimes difficult to access while in China, I may not be able to post on the ol' blog until I return to the States in August. Still, I look forward to telling you all about the coming weeks in the near future!

Sending love,
bearded dragon under the Story Bridge

sculpture on Ann St
white ibis in abstract sculpture
Botanical Gardens lily ponds

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Talofa Tuvalu!

approaching Funafuti by air, one skinny green strip in a vast blue

Talofa! Hello!

Welcome to Tuvalu (Tu-VAH-loo)! Although I didn't initially plan to come to this country when I designed my Watson proposal last year, the evolution of my project made it possible and worthwhile to give Tuvalu a try.

But why Tuvalu? What am I doing here? Where the heck is it?

the government building, with new solar power installation
Tuvalu is a series of atolls and islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The nine clusters of land total about 26 square kilometers sprinkled amid nearly one million square kilometers of open ocean. Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country by population (about 12,000 people), and the second lowest by elevation. The highest point is about four meters above sea level.

downtown Funafuti
Land is precious, and Tuvalu's very existence faces dire threats. Sea level rise, salt water intrusion in the groundwater, coastal erosion, overcrowding, rubbish, cyclones, pressure on fish stocks, lack of nutritious food, lack of economic opportunity...The list goes on.

There are a lot of reasons why life isn’t easy here. But man is it laid back. There’s a beautiful energy. People are kind. They look out for each other, even for the odd visiting pelangi (pah-LUNG-ee=white person) who needs help finding her rented bicycle that some little kid ‘borrowed.’

So, I’m here doing what I’ve been doing all year: trying to learn about how nature conservation and creative writing relate to each other and fit into daily life. The imminent threats to this country make this a particularly fascinating place to study these relationships.

arriving at Funafala islet during storm damage
assessment with PM and MPs
Every atoll/island has a town council, called the Kaupule, that delineates a conservation area where hunting, fishing, collecting, and visitation are restricted. Only Funafuti, the capital, has a conservation area with legally protected status. Other activities play important roles in the workings of conservation here. Some of these include tree plantations of coconut, banana, breadfruit (all important foods), climate change adaptation initiatives, and studies of the surrounding reefs and fish.

traditional dancers at Funafuti's Nukulaelae community
maneapa (meeting hall) performing to
celebrate 150 years of Christianity on Tuvalu
There isn’t a big history of writing here. I only met one poet. I'm pleased to say I helped Tongi enter an international writing competition themed around the role of tuna in the South Pacific. While creative writing by Tuvaluans seems scarce, there is an abundance of literature on Tuvaluan history and past scientific studies in the jam-packed National Library and Archives and in the University of the South Pacific library. One of the most interesting was a fragile copy of Funafuti or Three Months on a Coral Atoll: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition from 1899, in which Mrs. Edgeworth David chronicles her life on the island while her husband and team drilled hundreds of feet down into the coral bedrock to prove Darwin's theory of how atolls form. I paid a visit to the remnants of the rusting drill on Fongafale's northern end.

Singing fills the writing niche. I’ve met a couple songwriters and listened to several choirs. People have told me about the symbolism in the songs, and how the lines imply entire backstories beyond the repetitive lyrics. For example, one song about “the paddles of the men, the paddles of the gods” tells a whole tale of fishermen battling powerful spirits at sea mainly just by singing about their paddles.

me performing my poetry at Tefota, in Funafuti
I’ve been trying to branch out in my own writing as well, and try some multimedia things, and I think I'm growing as an artist. That feels good. I even got to perform a 30 minute poetry reading at the local live music bar: Tefota. I'm not sure how well I was received by the increasingly drunken and inattentive crowd, but I had a helluva time, and am growing to love being behind the microphone. My artistic impulses have kept me relatively sane while I've navigated the challenges of island life.

Challenges, eh? Since so few tourists come to Tuvalu (we're talking double digits most years), and most pelungi are here representing foreign aid, I was met with a lot of confused looks when I tried to explain myself and my goals as a Watson Fellow. I seemed like an especially odd duck--too unofficial to team up with the Department of Environment or Fisheries, yet too unusual to be completely dismissed. Whether at the libraries or the conservation workers I talked to in the government or the Kaupule, nobody seemed to really know what to do with me. So--I decided to embrace being unofficially affiliated.

Most of my successes connecting with people here in Tuvalu happened over dinner. Luckily, it isn't hard to meet anyone as there are only four restaurants in town. I learned that just turning up at somebody's office, dinner table, or even by flagging them down when they zip by on their motorbike, opens a lot of subsequent opportunities.

the Nivaga II that brought me to Vaitupu,
my first voyage on the high seas
Just a smattering of these happy chance-adventures:

I got to join the former prime minister and climate change activist/researcher Bikenibeu Paeniu and UN researcher Andrea Milan on a climate change and migration survey on the outer island of Vaitupu.
I joined the current prime minister and several MPs for an assessment of the storm damage of Cyclone Pam on the outer islets of Funafuti, including an afternoon banquet on Funafala islet.

Through the Kaupule, I visited the Funafuti Conservation Area, and explored the islet forests and reefs on the western end of the lagoon. We motored back across the lagoon in driving rain, which blocked out all visuals of the low-lying lands and brought on the only real sense of cold during my time in Tuvalu. 

Bikeni, me, Minister of Cultural Affairs
I met a marine biologist, fisheries experts, school teachers, singers, dancers, fishermen, a theologian, pastors, chiefs and island elders. 

And, since it seems fair to mention these encounters too, I've watched many a gecko gobble up ants while upside down, swum in the midst of schooling baitfish, drunk the slightly fizzy water of freshly harvested coconut, and eaten more raw fish than I ever before dared. I know most of those examples are food related, but food is a big part of any given day here.

I'm certain I will miss this place, and I wonder if I will ever return. Soon, no one may live here if the coming decades bring the predicted effects of climate change on the rising sea level, increased erosion, and further lack of freshwater to the islands.

The world is changing. So am I. So are you.

With love,

traditional foods at banquet in Funafala:
clams, raw fish, laulu, breadfruit, coconut apple

the forest of Fualopa islet
broken corals, shells, and bits of sand on the beaches of Vaitupu
me with traditional garlands (fous) on Funafala
catamaran at sunset off the jetty of Fongafale