Inspiring Women Who Show Us Who’s Boss ::: Happy Women’s Day!

•08/03/2014 • Leave a Comment

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I used to think being a woman meant either accepting one’s “place” in the world as the “weaker sex” or fighting tirelessly for an equality that no one should have to earn. Women have been equal to their counterparts since day one, and yet we’re continued to be thought of as “less than”; not to mention the races, religions and creeds who daily face heinous violence and oppression or even death for reasons grounded in similar backwards logic. People are subjugated and killed for the pigmentation of their skin, their sexual orientation or for their beliefs, and the fact of the matter is, every one of us is equal; we are born equal, but those in power do not wish to be tarred with the same brush as their brethren, and so they’ve built this illusion of inferiority based largely on power and money, an illusion one may only realize is false upon removing their divisive variables from the equation. However, I won’t digress – instead, as it’s International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to focus on the Woman Question.

Why have women so long had to prove their equality while men get a free pass? I’m not sure if one can even discuss the disproportionate disparities between our traditional gender roles, without taking into consideration the complex evolution of humankind and the development of these roles across history and across culture. The biological constructs that initially created such stringent roles are pretty basic (however, with probable nuances that only experts on the subject can outline properly) – physical strength led men to become “hunters,” while strengths in nurturing and foraging led women to become “gatherers.” Hunters chase and strike; gatherers collect calmly; and nurturers are sensitive to others needs and brilliant at making do with what they have.

In some ways this “making do” epitomizes a long, tired history of the mistreatment of women and the calm, collected way women were expected to accept their subjugation. Although I’m not sure how “naturally” the gender roles evolved, I am sure that the female gender role somehow became undervalued, and consequently, women were no longer seen as equal – if they ever were to begin with – thus resulting in women playing a subordinate role in both society and at home.

Despite the fact that subjugation is never fun, it does produce some intensely powerful, admirable and extraordinary character traits in the subjugated. Compassion, empathy, selflessness, even fearlessness. Ask any individual – man or woman – who has ever inspired, and you’ll likely find mistreatment is what shapes the most beautiful creations. Like stone beaten incessantly by the sea’s waves, the perfect pain erodes away all faults, and a smoothness, a softness, a brilliance is all that remains. I guess oppressors have their uses, for they polish the most perfect stones. Here are five profoundly inspiring gems composed of double-X chromosomes.

The Activist – Malala Yousafzai

I want to be besties with Malala Yousafzai. This 16-year-old Pakistani girl is braver than thousands of full-grown Taliban put together. Writing a blog at the age of 11 and 12 to broadcast to the world what the Taliban’s oppressive rule was doing to her beloved Swat Valley, Malala was most tired of being refused her right to education. She was tired of remaining silent, and so she spoke. Brilliantly. And an attempt on her life was the consequence.

On her way to school one morning in 2012, her bus was stopped, a man asked for Malala by name, and she was shot directly in the left side of her forehead. She was flown to Britain and remained in critical condition where, for days, life and death hung in the balance. After successful surgery removed the bullet, reconstructive surgery helped her smile again, and after months of intensive rehabilitation, her voice had grown louder and more defiant than ever. Instead of silencing a lion, they had made it roar.

Though the Taliban continue to threaten her life, Malala intends to block at every turn the terrorist plot to create mass ignorance. Zombifying and misinforming the masses is the aim of any oppressor, anyone whose ambition is to gain corrupted power – such as dictators or terrorist groups. Malala knows this. She’s building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan (donate here at the I Am Malala fund), because she knows that education is the only way to create a culture of intelligence that cannot be as easily manipulated; one that will know injustice when they see it; one that will fight back. Ignorance is so easy to manipulate. Education is the key to freedom, and knowledge literally is power. Hence the long-subjugated role of women, who, throughout history, were often refused education (and sadly still are in some places) for fear that they might reach their potential. The potential that is Malala.

There is more courage in Malala’s pen than there was in the bullet that pierced her or than there ever could be in any bullet sent to kill free speech. This is why Malala Yousafzai is a perfect gem and a fearless lion. And I hope she keeps on roaring.

 

Watch her speak perfectly here.

Buy her book (a great and informative read) here.

 

The Poet – Marina Tsvetaeva

I was introduced to Marina by my friend Lyudmila, who knows all the best poets and philosophers. Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was a Russian and Soviet poet with a difficult life…as seems to be a theme with most Russian writers. From a bourgeois educated family, she’d developed a mind, mingled with elite intelligentsia and produced creative poetry unparalleled during Soviet times. She lived through and wrote of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where Irina died of hunger. Devastated, Tsvetaeva fell into exile in 1922 and lived with her family in various European cities, without two pence to scratch together. When she returned to Russia in 1939, her husband and one of her daughters were arrested on espionage charges, and her husband was executed. The Soviet state having stripped Tsvetaeva of her aristocracy and wealth, forced her into a life of degradation and humiliation. As a washerwoman, she could not feed her children, she could not survive. Her creativity suppressed, poetry died, passion died, life died. She committed suicide.

Tsvetaeva’s body of work is considered among the greatest and most inventive in twentieth century Russian literature.

“Much Like Me” by Marina Tsvetaeva

Much like me, you make your way forward,

Walking with downturned eyes.

Well, I too kept mine lowered.

Passer-by, stop here, please.

 

Read, when you’ve picked your nosegay

Of henbane and poppy flowers,

That I was once called Marina,

And discover how old I was.

 

Don’t think that there’s any grave here,

Or that I’ll come and throw you out …

I myself was too much given

To laughing when one ought not.

 

The blood hurtled to my complexion,

My curls wound in flourishes …

I was, passer-by, I existed!

Passer-by, stop here, please.

 

And take, pluck a stem of wildness,

The fruit that comes with its fall –

It’s true that graveyard strawberries

Are the biggest and sweetest of all.

 

All I care is that you don’t stand there,

Dolefully hanging your head.

Easily about me remember,

Easily about me forget.

 

How rays of pure light suffuse you!

A golden dust wraps you round …

And do not let it confuse you,

My voice from under the ground.

 

The Politician – Fawzia Koofi

The fact that Koofi lived past a day is a miracle; proof that she was destined for bigger, brighter things. Born to a politician, her father was a member of Parliament with seven wives, Koofi’s mother being the “favorite.” As her father had just wed another young wife, Koofi was meant to be a son, so that her mother could re-win her father’s affection. When she turned out to be a girl (and apparently an ugly newborn at that), she was left out in the blistering hot sun to die. Her fight to live, her infant wails, wrung enough compassion from the heart of her mother that she could no longer turn her back on her child. And thank heavens she didn’t.

Koofi went on to receive an education, which was rare for girls in her village, and she was the only daughter in her family to do so. She continued her studies at university, graduating with a master’s in business and management. She decided to further her education with a political science focus, after which she became a child protection officer with UNICEF, working with disadvantaged and marginalized women and children.

In 2001, after the Taliban fell, Koofi began her political career, focusing on education for girls. In 2005, she was elected to the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly and later became Afghanistan’s first female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament. She was re-elected in 2010.

Her political career as a female activist has been answered with several assassination attempts, and yet Koofi is currently running IN AFGHANISTAN as a presidential candidate in the upcoming 2014 election. She intends to fight for women’s rights, crush political corruption, and advocate for universal education. 

This woman’s ambition and courage astounds me. To live in one of the most oppressive societies and raise your voice against it seems to me not only to be brave and strong, but to be uncommonly heroic. Speaking about young girls being sold or traded in Afghan marriages, Koofi says, “It was a conspiracy of culture that bound them all and none were free to challenge it.” Well, challenge it, Koofi did and will continue to do. 

I highly recommend her book, The Favored Daughter. You can buy it here.

 

The Philanthropist – Mother Teresa

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Mother Teresa. I liked her even more upon learning that letters she’d written revealed she’d often felt doubt. Though I thought it ugly that they published her letters without consent, I think it’s important to know even the purest and most selfless among us are human, and that their faith, too, can be shaken. To me, this made Mother Teresa’s complete and utter devotion to her work helping the sick, the poor and the hungry even more wholly admirable. Such pure selflessness is so unparalleled that it kind of makes your heart hurt.  

Though she may not have been oppressed as her predecessors on this list, she certainly gave her life to help those who were. I’m not sure anyone has or ever has had a bigger heart or more compassion than Mother Teresa. Like the new pope, Pope Francis, she seems to break the religious barriers of her vocation, drawing love and admiration from people the world over, whether or not they, themselves, are Catholic or even religious.

Born in Albania as Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, in her youth, Teresa was drawn to the lives of missionaries. She received her calling early on and left home at 18. One of her first projects was to teach the children of the poor without any equipment or supplies. But God’s nature provided Teresa the supplies she needed: she taught the children to read and write in the dirt with sticks.

Teresa promoted literacy and hygiene, looked after the sick and poor, and loved the unloved. She created the Mission of Charity in 1950, devoted to caring for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” Teresa saw the value in every living soul.

Mother Teresa won many awards for her humanitarian work, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, the $192K prize money of which she donated to India’s poor. She devoted her life to others until her death in 1997 and, because of this, “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” lives on in the hearts of many.

 

The Nurturer – Stephanie Holom

Mothers are a unique species. They are selfless givers and, oftentimes, the only being in life who loves completely unconditionally. Though my mother is exceptional, she’s no exception. Most mothers are nurturers (unless they’re of the Joan Crawford variety); they’re our security blankets and our creature comforts. I may rest my head in various homes across the globe, but when I think of “home,” I think of my mother. To me, the two words are synonymous.

My exceptional mother birthed five monsters and, in a brave collaboration with my father, she’s raised these monsters into presentable (some might even say productive) adults. I’m not sure I can even begin to explain how she managed such a feat, but I’ll give it a shot. 

Firstly, she was always there. Always. Don’t know if every parent realizes that just being there, being available, by having ears to talk to and a shoulder to cry on, you’ve fulfilled much of your parental duty. A parent’s presence is everything to a child. The Nurturer would wake with her brood of five in the morning, see us off to school, and be there to greet us when we returned home, often with some form of foods involved. I know not all mothers have the option to be present as much as my mother was, but if you’re shooting for “The Nurturer” status, be present as much as you possibly can. Your children will thank you for it. 

…or they won’t. Which brings me to my second point: being a mother is largely a thankless job. Mothers are celebrated one day a year (if their offspring don’t forget from whom they sprung). I don’t have breath enough to thank my mother for all she’s done for me, and she will never know how much she inspires each one of her children. And yet, though at times, her babies were enormously self involved, and though at times, they still are, my mother has never once complained about their lack of praise or accolades. But that doesn’t surprise me; The Nurturer is perhaps the most humble of women. The least I, or anyone, can do to show our appreciation is begin every statement with a “Thank you, Momsie. I owe my life to you. Literally.”

Lastly, even as monsters, the flippant five have always known our mother loves us with all her heart. How do we know? Because she weeps with pride over every single little thing we do, every teeny tiny accomplishment. In fact, I can guarantee you she is crying right now as she reads this. Moms wear their hearts on their sleeves, and that’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

 

I used to think…

I used to think being a woman meant either accepting one’s “place” in the world as the “weaker sex” or fighting tirelessly for an equality that no one should have to earn. But though I hope we continue to do the latter, I also hope we understand that being a woman means so much more than having a “place” or forever fighting. Being a woman means that we are human; we have heart, mind, character, quality, strength, skill, talent, ambition – all these things are already ours. We have value. It’s what we do with our value that determines our worth. For anyone to tell women otherwise is simply laughable, and I encourage all not only to call every autocrat out on their propaganda, but to show them where they’re wrong through our acts and through our deeds.

Observations on A Grief Observed

•28/11/2013 • 2 Comments

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Having recently read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed (https://www.dropbox.com/s/ugapeavdch7x7n6/A-Grief-Observed-C-S-Lewis.pdf), by order of the exclusive book club I have with myself (my parents having forbidden me from joining theirs), I feel…I wouldn’t say prepared, but at least capable of processing the grief which has befallen the whole of our family. Arriving in Greece barely a week before Grams’ passing, I’ve since been pensively wandering around my quiet villages of Aspro and Almyrida, these walks inundated with adoration for life’s little beauties alongside the shattering pain of losing the Grams whom we all loved so dearly and with whom we’ll no longer share life’s little beauties. I can’t help but become bewildered by this fact, breathing in all that surrounds me, while sifting through memories in my mind, like a chest of old keepsakes.

Grandma is in everything. I stop thinking about her for a moment, only to have the memory of her return in brute force, shocking my heart to my throat. Is she truly gone? Can I really not hug her one last time?

In A Grief Observed, Lewis illustrates these stings of grief so precisely. “Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead” (19).

Grief is this exactly – a bomb. Shocking. Powerful. Earth-shattering.

Momentary.

Keeping the last in mind I think is the key to remaining sane when your heart feels like it might explode from the taxing task of grieving; the effects of that memory bomb and its subsequent heartache, too, will pass…at least until the next bomber circles. The fact that we can still laugh and smile and see the beauty surrounding us in the in-between moments, and not feel a total and absolute incessant agony of bereavement; this is what comforts mourners through their purgatory of grief.

After losing someone, the initial pain and yearning for the love lost is completely selfish when you think about it. Lewis ponders after losing his wife, “What sort of a lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers? Even the insane call, ‘Come back,’ is all for my own sake. I never even raised the question whether such a return, if it were possible, would be good for her” (19).

We’ve all wished it – that we could have just one more hour, one more day, one more lifetime with Grams. Is one more eternity too much to ask?

And, yet, she was ready to go. Her soul was ready.

I was in Ukraine about a month ago, visiting my best friend, Lyudmila, one of the strongest people I know. She shared with me what it felt like to lose her mother to cancer last spring. Her mother was not ready. She fought and fought and would not accept that death was imminent. Until the last breath, she was determined to live. Though Lyudmila wanted her to come to terms with dying, tried to help her face reality so she would arrive at some semblance of peace, her mother wouldn’t even entertain the idea. Lyudmila told me, in the throes of death, her mother cried out that her soul was in pain. She was not at peace.

Our Grams was.

And I thank God every day that her soul was not in pain, as her spirit and her body parted ways.

Halfway across the world, I looked up at the moon that night, while Grams was surrounded by those whom she loved, and that crazy moon shone so bright and clear in the star-studded sky. It shone beautiful, like a smile just for her. It beckoned, welcoming her warmly.

Ode to A.G.

•21/11/2013 • 5 Comments

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My grandma was my first pen-pal. When this new-fangled fad called “email” shot to prominence in the ‘90s, I took advantage of the fact by penning the first of what would be hundreds of emails to one of my favorite people in the world, my Grams. All of ten years old, I got it into my head that these emails should be coded so as the sneaks and the snoops (Mom…and Andrea, apparently) couldn’t crack our correspondence; I suggested we choose pseudonyms. Now, I know the point of a pseudonym is to keep a person’s identity secret, but as I’ve long since realized that privacy is null and void when it comes to family, there’s no longer any discernible reason to hide behind our aliases. Over the years, Grams went under two pseudonyms – A.G. which stood for “Aging Gracefully” and E.W., “Elder and Wiser.” The only pseudonym with which I christened myself was S.A., “Sweet Angel.” We all know how pseudo that nym is. Grams preferred the acronym, “Smart Aleck.”

I wrote A.G. religiously of my day-to-day comings-and-goings. I wrote her long-winded, tediously detailed rundowns about the highs and lows, the ups and downs of my fourth grade life. I couldn’t wait for a prompt reply from my gram, and she was never one to disappoint. Arriving home from school, I’d dart upstairs, hop on that Outlook Express, and pour over A.G.’s response to my most recent oh-so-important life update.

In this way, my grandma deeply influenced my love of writing. I would sit for hours over those emails, contemplating my prose, trying to dazzle Grams with my clever wit and hyperbole, spending much too much time in choosing just the right word. I wrote to tickle her funny bone, I wrote to entertain. I wrote to impress my grandmother.

As one of my favorite people in the world passes out of it, I wanted to shoot her one last message.

My dearest A.G.,

Life will be a shade duller without you in it. At the age of five, you inspired me to art; I still remember vividly that mean Ursula-esque Octopus Lady you drew, the likes of which I tried to imitate to grave and utter failure. Mine looked like a fat spider. I wanted to draw just like you.

You made me laugh, and you laughed with me. Your laugh was the best; I hear it now. I always loved being near you. You understood me without my ever having to explain.

You taught me a sense of warmth in family – to love, even when, at times, those whom you must are a pain in your tokus. You were always the hearth around which your family gathered. And even though your light on this earth is nearly out, your warmth will remain.

 

Miss you already.

Love, S.A.

Nian: Part Four, The New Year

•13/02/2013 • Leave a Comment

As the beggar slept, I watched the rest of the village through the window, scrambling round like ants under glass. Many were on their third or fourth trip up the mountain, owning no mule or wagon to haul their possessions. On the other hand, some were so accustomed to the annual retreat, it’d become old hat; they’d prepared weeks prior, so could afford holding off until early evening.

Then there was me, standing there like a dope, flustered and shivering with nerves. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I tripped across the room, lifted the beggar’s walking stick from the ground and brought it to the sunlight for closer inspection. I’d assumed the characters engraved in the wood might tell a story of some kind, for the beggar seemed such a natural raconteur but, instead, written in a twist along the length of the stick were seemingly random words – love, fire, happiness, red, community, noise, joy, festivities, good fortune, and so on and so forth – words that ignited and resounded warmly in my chest. This was a walking stick of goodness. The goodness weighed heavily in my hands, making me feel light as a air.

The beggar slept and slept while I ran my fingers along the carvings, watching the villagers flee, waiting for darkness with a heavy heart. I was scared; yes, I was scared. But I no longer trembled as I held the walking stick; it seemed to me such a great comfort that I, too, fell under the spell of sleep, a sleep undisturbed by nightmares, and when I awoke, evening had crept up on the both of us. As if sensing the approaching darkness, the beggar stirred.

He took his time in sitting up. He was truly old, he wasn’t sprightly. But when on his feet, I felt his energy; his goodness was powerful. Spotting me in the corner, gripping his walking stick in the tightest of grips, he smiled.

“Maemae, do you remember what I told you earlier?”

I nodded.

“We will shower Nian in goodness, because goodness is what he fears most.” Approaching me, he reached for his walking stick, and I reluctantly returned it to him. But then he presented it to me with both hands, and said, “What do you believe is the greatest good, Maemae, the greatest above all else?” I realized he had no intention of repossessing the walking stick; he had only wanted me to choose which character, which word, best represented the greatest good. I pointed at the Chinese character for love.

“Love – yes, I’d agree with you there,” the beggar said with a twinkling smile. “And do you remember which element represents love and compassion?” He presented his walking stick again, and I pointed to the character for fire.

“Right again! Good girl! Love and compassion are represented by fire,” here he tapped his velvet bag with the walking stick and out jumped flames of fire. My eyes, round and bright as copper coins, followed the dancing light, which floated precariously above his hand. As if floating fire was as common as the noon hour, he set the flames a-timbre in midair, and then returned his attention to me.

“What do you think is the second greatest good?” the beggar presented his walking stick. I hesitated, then pointed out the character for happiness. “Beautiful, Maemae,” said the beggar, “and what color represents happiness?” My eyes casted over the walking stick until they found the character for red, and the beggar again tapped his bag and drew from it red sheets of paper, red lanterns, red decorations, everything red, red, red. “Nian greatly fears happiness,” he explained, setting the paper decorations a-float alongside the fire. “Red will frighten him back into his darkness.” The objects floated above me, revolving slowly.

“Lastly, I said you should never fear-“ before he’d finished, I’d found the character for community. The old man laughed. “Yes, Nian fears community and togetherness; he fears harmony. And what represents community?” Without hesitation, I pointed at “loud noises.” “You’re very sharp, Maemae.” Thus, the beggar tapped and drew from his bag sticks of fireworks and set them hanging in the air next to the paper and fire.

“All we need to frighten the monster is love, happiness and community. What could be simpler?” With a twist of his walking stick, the objects revolved more quickly and then multiplied, driven off in a dozen directions. The flames blew past my cheeks, the paper fluttered my hair, and I twirled, wishing my eyes could take in everything at once. The fireworks placed themselves for launching near the entrance to the door and out every window. The red paper plastered itself across the whole of the house, inside and out; the lanterns strung themselves across the trees encircling the house. Flames lit the lanterns, the candles, and every corner of the room, until it was brighter than high noon.

“One final thing,” the beggar said, tapped his velvet bag a fourth time; he pulled from it two marvelous red robes, one man-sized, one girl-sized. He flung his around his shoulders and, suddenly, he did not look the beggar he was, but rather more like an emperor. He flung mine around my shoulders and, suddenly, I did not look the coward I was, but rather more like a warrior.

Darkness had engulfed the village, but Wai Po’s house was bright as day. We sat waiting, the beggar laughing all the while as he told me tales of his gypsy travel, tales of the road. I laughed along with him, brimming over with happiness. Safe in my warrior robe, my fear had nearly vanished altogether.

As time would have it, midnight arrived, and the old beggar smiled down at me.

“When Nian approaches, he will be surprised and angry at our defiance. He will likely wish to attack the love and happiness he sees here, so you must blast his anger with community. When he becomes angry, we will set off the fireworks. Don’t be frightened,” he could see the slight tremble returning to my lower lip. “We will defeat the darkness.”

Cries of animals fighting until their last breath bellowed not too far off; Nian was fast approaching, the time was nigh. I crouched near the window, a candle held ready to launch the firework. The beggar stood near the front door, gazing out at the courtyard.

From the outside looking in, the house must have been a spectacle in the night, illuminated brilliantly and red as the sun. And this spectacle must have attracted the monster, because soon enough, I saw him; soon enough, I was face-to-face with the grisly creature once again.

Ugly as ever, Nian slither-scampered into view, but came to a halt as his yellow-slitted eyes absorbed the defiance. An ear-splitting howl reverberated from the monster, echoing like a pack of hungry wolves. For a moment, he stared angrily at the house then, with all his might, he charged, screeching furiously, baring every single one of his bloody teeth.

“Now!” the beggar commanded.

My heart in my throat, I lit the firework, and it launched into the sky, exploding with a cannon-like BOOM, scattering its fairy dust to the earth. Simultaneously, the beggar had set off a string of firecrackers, gun-shooting a staccato of sound in the valley. I peered at the monster over the ledge of the window. He was frozen still in fear, just as I had been at the sight of him three years ago, perched in my tree. I felt compassion for him, but my compassion would only make him see red, so I felt it ever the more, as the job was not quite done: he was still there. I shot another series of fireworks – BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM – into the sky, which set the monster trembling.

The beggar was laughing in his corner, as he too lit another fuse. While the fireworks were bursting, he gestured at me to follow him; we would present ourselves, in all our red-robed happiness to the monster. I came quickly beside the beggar, and we stood for a moment behind the door. The beggar whispered to me, “Are you ready?”

Taking a deep breath in, I spoke the first words I’d spoken in years: “Yes, I’m ready; ready to shower all the world’s evils in goodness.”

The beggar smiled down at me then, holding my hand, he flung the door wide. Like a firework, we burst at the beast, our laughter cascading in the sky. The monster took one look at the love, happiness and community emanating from the emperor and the warrior and, with a yelp, fled fast as he could back to the depths of the sea, to the darkest of darkness, to be consumed by his hate, anger and isolation.

(The following is taken from the true tale of the Spring Festival (http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/SpringFestival/200005.htm)):

The next day was the 1st of the first lunar month. When people came back from their hideouts and found everything safe and sound, they were quite surprised. The Wai Po suddenly realized what had happened and told the villagers about the old beggar’s promise.

The story was soon spread far and wide and everybody was talking about it. They concluded in the end that the old beggar was surely the celestial being who came to expel the calamities and bless the people, and that red paper, red cloth, red candles, and the exploding firecracker were certainly the magic weapons to drive out the monster Nian.

To celebrate the arrival of such good luck, the elated villagers put on their clothes and new hats and went one after another to their relatives and friends to send their regards and congratulations. This was soon spread to the surrounding villages, and people all got to know the way to drive away the monster Nian.

From then on, on each New Year’s Eve, each family sticks on their doors antithetical couplets written on red paper, blows up firecrackers, keeps their houses brilliantly illuminated and stays up late into the night. Early in the morning of the 1st of the first lunar month they go to their relatives and friends’ homes to send their regards and congratulations. These customs have been passed down through the generations, making it the most ceremonious traditional festival of the Chinese people.

Nian: Part Three, The Fear

•10/02/2013 • Leave a Comment

The beggar led me into Wai Po’s house, set his stick and velvet bag aside, took up a sharp knife, and began to chop up the vegetables Wai Po had provided him. Watching the old man like an eagle hawk, I sat at a wooden chair at the table; all the while I could hear the rest of the village scrambling outside, reinforcing their homes as best they could and packing up their valuables, in order to amscray posthaste up the mountainside. In silence, the old beggar chop-chopped away, completely unperturbed. He fried up the vegetables, placed them in a serving dish between us on the table, and handed me a set of chopsticks. I looked at him; he looked at me, his eyes a-twinkle. We ate.

The old beggar eyed me over his chopsticks and, with a warm smile, asked, “Are you afraid, Maemae?”

My brow furrowed, I nodded at him.

“Do you fear death?”

I nodded again.

“The unknown?”

Again.

“The monster under the bed?”

Yes.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” the old man laughed gently. “I cannot placate your fears, Maemae, but I can offer you a fair amount of wise-old-beggar wisdom…and wisdom is, more often than not, reassuring.” I waited patiently for a healthy dose of wisdom, the rice slipping between my chopsticks, my mouth agape. “Death fears life,” he said. “Ignorance, the unknown, fears knowledge. And that monster under your bed – his fears fester too. You will see for yourself tonight.”

I waited on tenterhooks as the man continued to eat for a while, his eyes glittering brighter with every bite. Then he said, “Death fears life, because life is light, and darkness always fears light…have you noticed how the dark of night never fails to give way to the light of day? That’s because it’s afraid. Afraid of the sun-energy. Sun, fire represents love and compassion. At the sight of love and compassion, night and darkness melt away for fear.”

I nodded, my mouth hanging wide.

“Ignorance fears knowledge,” he continued, “for the same reason that death fears life and darkness fears light. Knowledge, the truth will set you free, while ignorance prefers to fetter, does not trust the openness and acceptance that results from freedom. Suspicious and jealous, green with envy some might say, ignorance insists on smothering knowledge with its stupidity and prejudice in order to maintain control. Red, the antithesis of green, has always been a prominent and important color in China. That’s because red represents happiness. And knowledge, wisdom, truth equate happiness.”

I nodded again, looking up at him in bewilderment. His eyes twinkled like stars.

“I’ve never feared monsters under my bed,” he said, smiling. “There’s no need to fear nonexistent things. No, under my bed is where I hide – I curl in a ball, huddled kneecaps to chest, in a ball under my bed…because the monsters in the real world are what frighten me. Under there, a person is alone. Under there, nothing worries, because nothing is there. But out from under, demons wear many masks, leering and shouting boo. People who are angry, people who are crazy, people who carry unfounded hatred in their hearts, ignorant people; people who want to hurt, hunt, eat away at a person’s good. Under there, I am only me. Under there, I am whole. But the monsters out in the world, they want to char your heart black, and they want to eat your soul. And, I don’t know about yours, but my soul does not want to be eaten.”

I was eleven years old. Never before had I been talked to in this manner, like a grown up. I nodded. Though I may not have understood everything, I understood most and, as I grew older, I remembered word for word. As I grew older, I would begin to understand all.

“But you,” continued the beggar, “you, Maemae, are more courageous than an old man. So do not be afraid. Fear nothing and no one. Do not fear community, regardless of the monsters who may reside there. Community can be joyous, represented by loud noises and festivities. Live your life among people, but remember to live a life of fortitude, a good life. I have faith that your soul will remain whole, unchanged and unchained by monsters. For you are brave and strong, much more so than you know.”

I looked doubtfully at the man; but still, I nodded. I’d been scared silent for three years. How could I be brave? How could I be strong?

“Tonight, Maemae, you will face your monster under the bed. Facing him will prepare you to face the monsters in the real world. You will see how easy it is to frighten them, because they fear so much. Above all, they fear good. So you will show them goodness.”

With a full belly and weary from traveling, the old beggar spread out on Wai Po’s bed for an afternoon nap and left me to wonder at how I would show Nian goodness. I sat on a stool in a corner of the room, wide-eyed and trembling. How in the world could I show goodness when I was so full of fear?

Nian: Part Two, The Beggar

•09/02/2013 • Leave a Comment

At the east edge of the village, a Wai Po (grandma) was being hassled by an old, silver-bearded beggar, a purple velvet bag hanging from the wrist of his left hand and a great wooden walking stick in his right, carved up and down with Chinese characters. Though many such beggars passed through our village every year, I’d never seen this particular twinkly-eyed one and, as curiosity hadn’t quite killed the cat, but had only silenced it, I allowed my curiosity to again get the better of me. With a noncommittal expression plastered on my child face, I stepped behind a tree to eavesdrop. The beggar was pleasantly begging Wai Po for food and shelter, but this Wai Po was a very feisty Wai Po. She reproached him, beating the ground with her stick.

“Don’t you know what day it is? Have you no sense of time? You could not be asking for charity at a darker hour, when the village is on the brink of its yearly ransacking! I wouldn’t spare you a red cent anyhow – you’d only waste it on rice wine!”

People all around were shuttering up their houses, in the hopes that they’d be spared; Gun Wei and Ting Ting had begun to herd their sheep and cattle up the mountainside; family heirlooms were piled high in women’s arms as they rushed past. The beggar, with those twinkly eyes, gazed around at the mayhem, and a smirk began to play upon his lips.

“What is all this?” he asked the Wai Po, gesturing at the commotion, though by the expression in his eyes, I’m sure he knew.

“Why – for Nian of course! Where do you live – under a rock?!” Though this Wai Po was indeed feisty, she was also known to have the softest of hearts and, thus, with a compassionate look, yet a still scalding manner, she thrust a sack of vegetables at the beggar and commanded, “Take it and flee to the mountains like the rest of us! Don’t be a fool!”

The man smiled and received the food graciously. “Generous Wai Po, continue in your generosity, and I will drive the monster away tonight. Allow me to stay in your home, and your village will never again come to harm at the hands of Nian.”

“You silly old geezer! You’ve got a screw loose, haven’t you? You’re out of your mind!” Wai Po laughed in the old man’s face. But the more she abused him and the more she looked deeply at him, the more incongruous were her insults with the expression of her face. She seemed to believe him. And, as I watched this exchange, I did too.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the beggar turned to me, as if he’d known all along I was standing there, hiding and watching and eavesdropping, though he hadn’t once before glanced my way. He stared at me long and hard and then said, “Young Maemae,” (how in the world did he know my name?), “would you help me rid Peach Blossom Village of its monster? Would you help me conquer the ferocious Nian?”

Despite the fact that everything within was urging me toward the safety of the mountain, and despite the fact that I hadn’t courage enough to speak, let alone to “conquer” the infamous Nian, I looked into those twinkling eyes, swallowed the elixir that is the strange smirking wisdom of a strange smirking beggar and, shaking like a leaf, nodded my assent. I was determined to face my monster yet again.

To be continued…(I can’t concentrate for the fireworks)

Nian: Part One, The Monster

•08/02/2013 • 1 Comment

Tomorrow is Chinese New Year or, as the Chinese call it, Spring Festival. It’s the first day of the lunar calendar, and the most important holiday in China, granting nearly everyone a ten-day vacation. All around Beijing, the Beijingers who’ve stayed behind for whatever reason (most prefer to spend the holiday at “home” with family) have hung red signs over every door, couplets emblazoned upon them in gold lettering. More red lanterns than usual are strung across town, and fireworks are being shot off constantly, making my heart jump into my throat every few hours…until I remember that guns are illegal in China.

All of these fun traditions are inspired by a folk story about a monster called Nian. During my stint at a middle school last December, I learned about the tale from my eighth graders and, after doing my own research, have filled in the blanks to the bare framework of eighth grade narration. So, without further ado, in the spirit of the holiday and in keeping with my new year’s resolution, I’ll continue my blog with a short story about this folk story, which I hope will entertain and educate. Enjoy.

I remember how it happened: how Peach Blossom Village vanquished the holy terror that was the monster, Nian. Nowadays, young folk don’t have the slightest idea what terror is. But I know. My generation knows. Every year, we were dealt this piercing feeling of foreboding; every year, when the first day of the lunar calendar rolled around, we knew it could be our last.

Nian was a ruthless monster…although, what other kind of monster is there, really? He destroyed whole towns, leaving broken shells of hutongs in his wake. He ate every living beast in sight and flattened crops, ruining our village’s livelihood. Before the fateful night of the vanquishing, I had seen him only once. And it was the last I’d ever wanted to see of him.

At eight years old, I was a slip of a girl, and thus very slippery; any absence in my family unit, which consisted of eight children, nearly always went unnoticed. I was also a curious child, some might say a bit reckless in my curiosity. On this account, I’d have to agree, because instead of joining my family and the rest of the village in fleeing to the mountainside, I hung back so as to catch a glimpse of him. A glimpse of the monster, Nian.

Oh, the tall tales I’d heard about Nian! The tales with which my parents and grandparents had teased my wild imagination. The tales passed down from generation to generation only in order to frighten little children into obedience. These tales couldn’t be true. Nian was only a ploy to get children to eat their vegetables or do their chores: “Maemae, finish your green beans, or we’ll feed you to Nian.” “Maemae, go work in the rice field, or we’ll sick Nian on you. You know how monsters enjoy feasting on the flesh of naughty children.” Being that I didn’t believe in Nian’s existence, these were empty threats. But I was soon to find out I’d been woefully mistaken.

The year I turned eight was my year, the year of the Tiger; a year full of promise, good luck and fortune, which I suppose is what gave me the white-knuckled courage, the bald-faced tenacity, the sense of invincibility, to hang back and face the demon monster. I wouldn’t believe until I saw for myself. Seeing is believing, after all; but did you know that believing is incredibly short-lived, because seeing is almost always certain death? The only thing that saved me from said death was a herd of unfortunate swine and my fast little feet. And perhaps the luck that came along with it being my year of the Tiger.

That year of the Tiger, on New Year’s Eve, my family had fled as they always did, to the remote mountainside, away from Nian’s destruction, while I hid away in a birch tree near the sea. Nian was said to be a water monster, so my perch near the shore was perfect for a sighting. Of course I wouldn’t see him. Of course not. I didn’t believe in him, after all…though, come to think of it, it did seem like an awful lot of work for the elders to invent this monster, “flee” to the mountains in the cold of January every year, and then destroy our village so as to make it appear as if Nian had wreaked such havoc, only to have to rebuild it again. But, as we all know, parents and grandparents must, at times, resort to just such great lengths in order to maintain authority over disobedient youngsters.

As I slouched in the birch tree, drifting off, my eyes growing heavy with sleep, my mental alarm clock suddenly rang midnight, and I jerked upright. My surroundings were inky black, and I heard not a whisper of sound. Stars studded across the sky, reflected in the sea, and the moon was a brilliant white orb overhead. At this point, I should have heard some of the elder vagabonds of our village creeping in to destroy it in Nian’s name. But there was no rowdy, laughing mob. Only silence. My pulse began to rabbit-kick in my chest.

The waves seemed to be growing louder, harsher upon the shore. I squinted my eyes so as to catch any disturbance in the water’s surface. My pulse quickening, I gripped the tree limb I sat atop and glared as the waves started to crash. When the horned beast’s head broke forth, I had to bite my bottom lip to stifle my horror.

Nian was the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen…and I’m well acquainted with some ugly creatures – have you met my cousins? But Nian would put even the ugliest of them to shame. Twenty-five feet in length, the monster’s skin – if you could call it skin – was a pale, wrinkly, decaying grey-brown which made one think of a mummified body, only slimier. Its eyes were two black wells with sharp yellow pupils. Prickly quill-like appendages stuck randomly from its body like a balding porcupine, a body which was long and serpentine, yet somehow protuberant in places like a misshapen blob. All of this was nothing to the terror that the creature’s mouth inspired. Its thick lips hung wide open, exposing two sets of pointed teeth; if I’d had time or sense enough to count, I’d bank on nearly a hundred pearly yellows altogether. The monster was monstrous to put it mildly.

As it slithered to the beach and began to scamper on its sharp little claws, I was frozen still in a silent scream. I could not have moved if I’d wanted to. Moving mightn’t have been the best plan of action anyhow, as the monster surely would have lunged at me had I flickered a finger. In some way, my frozen fear was a godsend for, when Nian glanced my way, though I can’t be sure, I imagine he assumed he’d have plenty of time to attack the frozen human pillar after he’d gorged himself on the dozen or so swine which had dashed to the corner of Chiang’s paddock upon his appearance. Whatever went on in that monster mind, Nian left me hanging there for dessert and, as a prequel to my own demise, I heard the shrieking squeal of a pig whose flesh was being torn asunder with a hundred pointed teeth; only, instead of freezing me further still, this prequel snapped me out of my shock, and I sprung from the tree, falling hard on my feet, and sprinted with all my fear up the mountainside. I didn’t stop until over an hour later, when I’d reached the villager’s gathering on the precipice. I was trembling so, my eyes wide, my face white, that my mother and grandmother didn’t even have the heart to give me the tongue-lashing and finger-wagging I most certainly deserved, but only hugged me tightly to them, whispering words of calm. But I wasn’t calm. I would never again be calm. I didn’t speak for three whole years thereafter.

Each New Year’s Eve following my Tiger year, the first villager to clamber up the mountainside in a panic was little Maemae. I’d pack my things and be on my merry way by dawn. My mother would often laugh at me, tell me not to worry so, that Nian wouldn’t attack until midnight, as I well knew. But I no longer wished to tempt fate. By the time night turned to day, I was off like a dart.

On New Year’s Eve three years later, year of the Snake, I was eleven years old, had not spoken since I was eight and, in what had become my New Year’s routine, was packed and ready to flee before the sun had crept into the windows of our hutong. But this time, my mother scolded me and forced me to wait until we’d at least had breakfast. So I sat at the kitchen table, drumming my fingers with impatience. Being that I was the youngest, I was always the last served, and it was 9AM before I was free to scurry off along the trail towards the mountain, which I did with a huff and a haste that must have irritated my mother, for she called after me that I’d better have the tent pitched by the time the rest of the troops arrived. But I was never to reach the mountain that day; it seems it was fate, not my mother, that delayed me. If I had left when I’d liked, I wouldn’t have met the old man, the unlikely hero of this tale, the beggar.

To be continued…

 
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