Da Yu

Yu-the-Great_proj-copy-700x420

This is the story of Da Yu, who we saw walking along a roadside on the early evening of one Sunday – Easter Sunday of all Sundays – and a child asked “What’s that man’s story?”

So this is Da’s story.

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia Dynasty over four thousand years ago. Yu’s father attempted to control a great flood that threatened land and life. He built dikes and damns of soil and rock to hold back and contain the waters. He failed.

The great flood continued. Yu was conscripted to do what his father could not. Instead of restraining the great flood, Yu dredged deeper channels in rivers and valleys to carry the great flood to distant rivers and distant seas.

He opened waterways, unearthed damns and removed dikes with hard labor in long days. He was covered with the same dirt and mud his father struggled to amass, but Yu was washed clean in the rushing flood he did not resist. Yu succeeded in the task his father failed, and he was given the name Yu the Great – Da Yu.

Today Da wears his suit. The blue one He has just the one and he’s only ever had just the one. So, Da wears it. As dusk begins to cover this late April afternoon, along a road he’d built, Da Yu walks in his blue suit and white shirt – his shirt as white as his full head of thick hair – he walks home, alone.

As a young man Da Yu was pushed in one direction and pulled in another – he didn’t want what his father demanded for him and yet would not refuse what he must do.

Mr. Yu – Da’s father – insisted, “You will not be like me.” The hard life of manual labor had strengthened the father’s back and his resolve as well, and he was determined that his son would not live such a hard life because he didn’t have to live like his father had to: “I work so you can learn to do better work; not so hard work, and you will be happy and not tired like me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Da received just one gift from his parents – a blue suit. It was as expensive for Mr. Yu as it was important, “You will wear a suit and not dungarees.”

But this changed the day Mr. Yu came home lame.

Mr. Yu would not cry in front of his wife and son – he would yell and stomp and curse, but Da knew his father cried when Da was forced to give up on his father’s plans and dreams. The boss of the road crew Mr. Yu worked said that Da could have the work until Mr. Yu was healthy. Mr. Yu barked “Never!” but he never was healthy again. As a man of hard labor, he withered each day he was lame, and willed from his bed – fighting back the inevitable – the victory that eluded him. Mr. Yu never worked again and Da worked every day for forty years from that day.

Not long after Da wore the suit to his father’s funeral.

He wore it when he asked a sweet girl named Sarah to marry him, and he wore it when they married in her church.

He wore it when his boy Sun was christened for Sarah’s sake, and he wore it the Sunday he went to church each year on Easter. She didn’t ask much and he knew this was to please Sarah’s family because they were concerned about Da, and that Sarah was settling for a man who lacked dreams; a man who did not fight back, a man who simply nodded. All this Da knew but it was never spoken of – there was nothing to be gained and little that would change if he protested. He would work his hard work and wear his dungaree, and save his blue suit for special days to be remembered.

In his first years, Da’s skin became tanned and leathery from summers and winters, the cold, rain and heat of long, hard days. His hair was black and thick and covered his head, and a cap only made him sweat so he avoided his. The crew chided Da that he yellowed in the sun. Sarah worried that he worked too many hours, but a was happy to work and he was healthy and would do whatever was asked and he worked hard. When asked he would simply nod; he was glad to work. He did not refuse hard work.

Da didn’t get bigger or fatter or stooped like the others with whom he worked. Younger men took their places and the next generation took up the same lament – work is hard and the best work is no work.

But Da was healthy and quiet and bosses wished they had a dozen Yu’s but hired more of the others instead. Da’s hair did turn white; not gray – white and pure.

When his child, Sun was a young boy he would asked his father what he did, why his skin was so dark and rough, and why his hair was white like snow. Da always answered that he worked in the sun and rain and snow, so his skin showed he worked hard, and his hair just showed outside what was inside. But the boy didn’t understand.

Sarah was kind to Da; gentle and affectionate – she called him Yu-Yu, lovingly, and she was understanding of his labor. What he earned he gave his family and took little for himself. She worked herself when Sun started school, and she’d ask him to take a day to rest, but he’d always refuse, “What would I do if it wasn’t working?” he’d answer.

When they had time they’d take walks together, with Sun in a stroller, then the three on foot; always just walks that took different paths, along different roads and streets and returned them to their small home. It was the home Da’s father and mother had, the home Da had grown up in, the home Sarah and Da moved into after they were married to care for his mother, and the home she died in one night and their home since the day Da wore his suit to his mother’s funeral.

Da didn’t dream dreams of a different life, and he refused the nightmares of his own son’s life. There was only discontent in such dreams, and Da’s way was a nod and not a dream. He never bought Sun a suit – he could afford to, he had the money, but the thought never occurred to him.

When Sun grew, his mother and father helped when they could with clothes and books and papers that proved their modesty, but Sun grew embarrassed. The very things that showed their love were too modest for their son. Soon Sun was off to school, but Da and Sarah didn’t visit their son until his graduation when Da wore his suit and Sarah coughed through commencement. It was a cough that came one day and stayed, keeping her away from work, in bed eventually being cared for in the evenings by Da who stopped taking the walks.

The next time Da wore his suit it was to Sarah’s funeral.

Sun moved away and stayed away, but Da kept working, now less with shovel and more with a sign that read Stop and Slow. And he again walked at the end of each day, retracing the same paths and same roads and streets he’d walked with Sarah and Sun. He lived in the same home but it became more of a house. He washed his clothes, his own dungarees, made his rice and worked only his own hours until they told him he’d worked enough and not to come back tomorrow.

And then he’d wait each day until it was time to take the walk at the day’s end, walking the same paths and same roads and same streets he’d walked with his Sarah and Sun. And on Easter Sunday each year he’d put on his blue suit and leave it on all day, until the day’s end and he’d walk along the street he’d paved.

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Quiet and loud…

imagine a time
when all’s quiet and loud
at once,
the children’s cries
of laughter crisscrossing
the air, scattering
and careening here
and there,
bills are due, money’s not,
work’s always waiting,
sleep is fleeting,
the windows are drafty,
the weather adverse,
the news is always bad,
and not every I love you
can be trusted,
but all’s quiet and loud
at once
and I don’t want it
any other way.

Learning to be silly…

Not From a Book

When all’s good and all is fair,
she is close and love’s a dare,
season’s all but winter least
fondness lingers, cares ceased,
songless tune, birdless song,
edging shade and time is long,
I’ll find a way, way to be
as close to you as you to me,
and when we’re called we’ll answer not
hearts be filed with headless thought,
learning ways and teasing look
and such is not learnt from a book.

The reason I was born…

The_First_Thanksgiving_cph.3g04961Thanksgiving

Thank you, blind luck,
the binary chance known as me,
the accidents we call history,
when Mom and Dad were where
and I became here instead of nowhere
in the geography called home
for now, but who knows next year
where this might all be I fear
like those who first tried surviving
in the someone else’s somewhere
of those indigenous Wampanoag
thankful with others but not sure why;
may I be at least as unaware
and thus grateful as I don’t care.

When I am old…

The Business of My Business

One of those fascinating oddities
I find so thrilling and my family mocks
blurted out of the radio the other day;
it’s about the paper-products industry
and real life all at once—announcing
its fastest growing and largest segment
is no longer bags or cups or even
plain-old-paper, as anyone would imagine,
but incontinence products, as in,
adult diapers, and much to the enjoyment
of my family, I can’t contain my excitement
over this development; it’s because
we’re getting older, not younger, I say,
and they laugh at me, again,
so I remind them (because I still remember
enough to remind them of certain things)
that when they were children we played
a game I called ‘When I’m old will you…’
as I pushed them on the swing, asking
in a serious voice, ‘When I’m old will you
bake me cookies?’ and they’d giggle
and promise, ‘Yes,’ and I’d ask, ‘The ones
will little chocolate chips and nuts?’ and
they’d agree, ‘They’re the best!’
and I’d go on, ‘When I’m old, will you
cut up my meat into tiny little pieces
so I can chew it when I’ve lost all my teeth?’
and they’d laugh harder and promise,
‘Of course I will,’ and then would come
the best one yet, ‘When I’m old, will you
change my diaper?’ and they’d belly-laugh
and gasp for air just to swear, ‘I will,
I promise!’ and I remind them today
that I knew what I was talking about
when they were just little kids.

 

Too young, too soon, too sad…

Billy You’re Gone Too Soon

It never occurred to us
that you’d be so quickly gone,
so quickly stolen away, too soon,
too young, too sick to stay.

From that young Billy boy
all toothless grins, always bouncy,
never still, never quiet, until
asleep finally, ’til morning.

Mama’s baby boy, her
favorite, her only, her child
of tireless days, tireless plays,
tireless dreams of joy.

And now you’re gone,
gone too soon, gone to where
bouncy Billy’s go to be young,
to be true, to sleep until morning.

 

When Leukemia is Life

Can it be what is deserved
by a four-year-old child?
The cells distorted and
deteriorating inside, from
inside her bones still soft in

youth, but fragile from birth,
some signal isn’t working,
white cells that won’t mature,
too full and crowding life from
within; the word everyone
uses is ‘acute’ – a bad and
unwelcome thing with too
many synonyms to count,
all bad and unwelcome things
with a mysterious origin than
no one knows so there’s no
one to blame, except God;

she only has strength to
smile through dry, cracked lips,
her skin is taunt over thinning
features and only her cheeks
show her adolescence, while
adults are masked to protect
her from what’s always worse,
more tiring, more frightening;

it hardly seems right she is
unafraid and just needs to
rest, while everyone around
her is just terrified and can’t.

Not from a book…

Grandparents used to say things like “There’s book learning and then there’s the other kind of learning.” I spent the first twenty years of my life avoiding book learning (that didn’t take me far), the next twenty years with book learning (which earned me a couple degrees and a nice job), and the remainder of my life trying to discover “that other kind of learning.” I’m not sure I’ve found it, but it may not be find-able. It may not be a destination.

If we ever asked what they meant by “that other kind of learning,” we would have heard something like this: ‘Along the way – that’s where the “other kind of learning” is found, but only by paying attention.’ (I imagine that because that’s the way grandparents sound, oh, and they’re sure we’re not paying attention.)


Taurus on Fullerton

I used to want a Taurus station wagon;
don’t ask me why because I just did;
the bulbous blob of 80’s style in all those
muted tones of earthy discoloration
wrapped in my romantic recollection of
childhood transportation complete
with rows and rows of seats for rows
and rows of kids, now all mine, an
idyllic lifestyle of contentedness and
satisfaction – it’s what I’d wanted;
so imagine my surprise when idling late
last night at a red light next to me
was a parked a Taurus station wagon
all rounded and earthy, hiding in plain
sight on Fullerton Avenue, and the
windows disclosed what must have
been the worldly possessions of the man
asleep with his forehead pressed
against the glass and every inch inside
crammed with clothing, books, bags
of stuff and more stuff untidily packed
around him like a cocoon of some
discontent and what I imagine must be
dissatisfaction; this is not the dream
I had of a Taurus station wagon
and I doubted it was the dream of the
man dozing in the driver’s seat.


Coffee Shop

You make me wonder, as you sit quietly,
considerately across the small table from me
in the midst of our busy, loud and impersonal
coffee shop just around the corner from home;
we don’t speak and only occasionally,
accidentally make eye contact interrupting
our reading – mine of a book, yours a newspaper
and you’re gracious with a small smile,
almost embarrassed by our casual connection,
returning to the worlds on our pages as we
escape the crowded space we choose to share;
our coffee’s are the same, right legs crossed over
lefts, comfortable together like we’re not
with every other person around us;
strangers don’t matter in this place right now,
like they don’t matter so many other places,
and I can tell you wish it was different
like I do, as if this place was in a Paris spring
or rainy London or beside a university campus
with smart ideas filling the air around us
like leaves falling in autumn – expected, raked
together and burned for that sweet aroma
which stings the eyes yet doesn’t drive us away;
but we’re in our cold city on this January morning
and everyone else has someplace to go
and they’re only stopping for their coffee
as they run to work because they’re late or
just  have somewhere more important to be,
while we linger, two perfect strangers
who civilly share a small table together
in an act of pure humanity, anonymously.


Not From a Book

When all’s good and all is fair,
she is close and love’s a dare,
season’s all but winter least
fondness lingers, cares ceased,
songless tune, birdless song,
edging shade and time is long,
I’ll find a way, way to be
as close to you as you to me,
and when we’re called we’ll answer not
hearts be filed with headless thought,
learning ways and teasing look
such is not learnt from a book.

Such is life…

Distractions are as ordinary as, well, distractions. So many things blink, flash and scream for our attention; so many things are distracting. In our ‘get something done’ world, anything that distracts is a problem.

How do distractions work? They take advantage of impulses, lack of control, reactions in-the-moment – thoughtlessness, instinctive, knee-jerk kind of responses that make us wonder Why did I do that?!

Remember that Facebook update from a friend saying, “I’m signing off Facebook for a week (or month, or year, or forever) because it’s too distracting” – but it’s nice that they leave a note to explain why we won’t see hourly updates of what the kids are doing or what lunch looks like. That all-or-nothing approach to eliminating distractions seems like it should magically solve the problem. But it doesn’t.

BrokenFence_smallThe old rabbis (are there any other kind?) told a story about distractions that is a little different from our all-or-nothing solution. It’s about building fences – those binary, all-or-nothing, either/or reactions to distractions, impulses and what we should probably just call life.

We’re sure fences should work, but they don’t…

Such Is Life

In the Talmud, so I’m told,
there’s a how-to about how to
control impulses which get
the better of us all, ever day;
it goes something like this,
build a fence around it –
that impulse which distracts
and makes us forgetful
of the right ought of duty
in pursuit of the wrong ought
of desire and appetite,
and when that fence
doesn’t work, which it won’t
build another fence around
the fence, and when it fails,
which it will because all
fences fail, look at the mess
of fence-building you’ve
made all for an impulse
that was probably harmless
and now build a fence
around fence-building
before you forget
what’s truly important;
for such is life, my friend.