There are lessons that school doesn't teach you
Some things can't be learned by sitting in an uncomfortable chair for several hours a day, tapping your pencil against a desk with your head in your hand staring blankly into space...and if you're like me you have headphones in your ears, thoughts in the clouds, feet off the ground with the touch screen of my phone at my finger tips.
One of those things you can't learn trapped in the four walls of a classroom is that life hits you, hard, in the face, like that first heartbreak...causing an unbearable ache in your chest that feels like you may be entering cardiac arrest.
Your body goes into shock and it's almost like you're in la la land for a moment with a hangover infecting your heart that no type of Advil can fix, until you realize that the person you've thought you were in love with for the past while is no longer that person...they reveal themselves by ripping off their mask of a handsome face to expose a terrifying appearance of sharp teeth and beady eyes, a monster, a liar, a cheater...a heart breaker...
Life waits for you to stand back up only to kick you back down and although you've already fallen seven times and your hearts a little bruised and tattered you stand up eight with a stubborn refusal like the ocean waves always coming back to kiss the shore line no matter how many times it's sent away.
When I was thirteen years old, my older brother taught me something that no teacher could ever have written down in their lesson plan, he said that the number one rule to being cool is to remain unphased, never admitting anything can hurt you, excite you or impress you.
I figure it's like walking through life with your arms as a shield, to protect yourself from all the unexpected miseries or hurt like heartbreak or getting fired or not getting hired. I try to walk through life with my arms and hands wide open...and yes that means catching every heartbreak and each last drop of pain life can squeeze out for me but it also means that when beautiful...amazing things just fall out of the sky...like love...I'm ready to catch them.
I may get an F on one of life's tests but that doesn't mean I can't study for the exam, the bigger picture, because failure is success when you allow yourself to learn from it and that's what I'll do, I will be as open as a book and make sure to write down all of my journeys with no details left out, highlighting the good parts but never forgetting the bad
But I'll be sure to tread carefully because life is as fragile as a bubble but I have to remember that I can't be afraid to stick my finger out and pop it if I don't like the direction it's going in and if popping that bubble means a down pour of miseries, bring it on because my hands are as strong as the suns love for the moon, so stack up my problems like books in a library and I'll read them again and again
And for each new lesson I'll show up with a backpack full of everywhere else I've been, eager to collect another souvenir like the laugh lines framing my mouth or the worry wrinkle etched into my forehead and my heart will come along for the ride, strapped in tight, prepared for all the potholes and sharp turns but there's no air bags aloud so every time we crash there's nothing coming between me and the beginning of a new lesson
Revenge is a demon that’s hard to exorcise,
and forgiveness, an angel sent by the god of Mercy.
The devil hovers on my left shoulder, the seraph lies
on the right, and each one is the purest expression
of love and hate, temptation and conscience.
They both whisper sweet nothings in my ears,
trying to comfort me, to free me from the loud
thoughts in my head and the torture of silence,
while the smells of heaven and hell surround
me and hang heavy in the air
like sulfur and petrichor,
like fire and rain
that excite and soothe
that consume and flood
looking out for me.
want my happiness.
They’re both protective and want
to sate me and save my soul in
their own righteous ways;
to take me by the hand
and walk by my side
on whatever path
As a woman, and in the service of my Lord the Emperor Wu, my life is governed by his command. At twenty I was summoned to this life at court and have made of it what I can, within the limitations of the courtesan I am supposed to be, and the poet I have now become. Unlike my male counterparts, some of whom have lately found seclusion in the wilderness of rivers and mountains, I have only my personal court of three rooms and its tiny garden and ornamental pond. But I live close to the surrounding walls of the Zu-lin Gardens with its astronomical observatories and bold attempts at recreating illusions of celebrated locations in the Tai mountains. There, walking with my cat Xi-Lu in the afternoons, I imagine a solitary life, a life suffused with the emptiness I crave.
In the hot, dry summer days my maid Mei-Lim and I have sought a temporary retreat in the pine forests above Lingzhi. Carried in a litter up the mountain paths we are left in a commodious hut, its open walls making those simple pleasures of drinking, eating and sleeping more acute, intense. For a few precious days I rest and meditate, breathe the mountain air and the resinous scents of the trees. I escape the daily commerce of the court and belong to a world that for the rest of the year I have to imagine, the world of the recluse. To gain the status of the recluse, open to my male counterparts, is forbidden to women of the court. I am woman first, a poet and calligrapher second. My brother, should he so wish, could present a petition to revoke his position as a man of letters, an official commentator on the affairs of state. But he is not so inclined. He has already achieved notoriety and influence through his writing on the social conditions of town and city. He revels in a world of chatter, gossip and intrigue; he appears to fear the wilderness life.
I must be thankful that my own life is maintained on the periphery. I am physically distant from the hub of daily ceremonial. I only participate at my Lord’s express command. I regularly feign illness and fatigue to avoid petty conflict and difficulty. Yet I receive commissions I cannot waver: to honour a departed official; to celebrate a son’s birth to the Second Wife; to fulfil in verse my Lord’s curious need to know about the intimate sorrows of his young concubines, their loneliness and heartache.
Occasionally a Rhapsody is requested for an important visitor. The Emperor Wu is proud to present as welcome gifts such poetic creations executed in fine calligraphy, and from a woman of his court. Surely a sign of enlightment and progress he boasts! Yet in these creations my observations are parochial: early morning frost on the cabbage leaves in my garden; the sound of geese on their late afternoon flight to Star Lake; the disposition of the heavens on an Autumn night. I live by the Tao of Lao-Tzu, perceiving the whole world from my doorstep.
But I long for the reclusive life, to leave this court for my family’s estate in the valley my peasant mother lived as a child. At fourteen she was chosen to sustain the Emperor’s annual wish for young girls to be groomed for concubinage. Like her daughter she is tall, though not as plain as I; she put her past behind her and conceded her adolescence to the training required by the court. At twenty she was recommended to my father, the court archivist, as second wife. When she first met this quiet, dedicated man on the day before her marriage she closed her eyes in blessing. My father taught her the arts of the library and schooled her well. From her I have received keen eyes of jade green and a prestigious memory, a memory developed she said from my father’s joy of reading to her in their private hours, and before she could read herself. Each morning he would examine her to discover what she had remembered of the text read the night before. When I was a little child she would quote to me the Confucian texts on which she had been orally schooled, and she then would tell me of her childhood home. She primed my imagination and my poetic world with descriptions of a domestic rural life.
Sometimes in the arms of my Lord I have freely rhapsodized in chusi metre these delicate word paintings of my mother’s home. She would say ‘We will walk now to the ruined tower beside the lake. Listen to the carolling birds. As the sparse clouds move across the sky the warm sun strokes the winter grass. Across the deep lake the forests are empty. Now we are climbing the narrow steps to the platform from which you and I will look towards the sun setting in the west. See the shadows are lengthening and the air becomes colder. The blackbird’s solitary song heralds the evening. Look, an owl glides silently beneath us.’
My Lord will then quote from Hsieh Ling-yun,.
‘I meet sky, unable to soar among clouds,
face a lake, call those depths beyond me.’
And I will match this quotation, as he will expect.
‘Too simple-minded to perfect Integrity,
and too feeble to plough fields in seclusion.’
He will then gaze into my eyes in wonder that this obscure poem rests in my memory and that I will decode the minimal grammar of these early characters with such poetry. His characters: Sky – Bird – Cloud – Lake – Depth. My characters: Fool – Truth – Child – Winter field – Isolation.
Our combined invention seems to take him out of his Emperor-self. He is for a while the poet-scholar-sage he imagines he would like to be, and I his foot-sore companion following his wilderness journey. And then we turn our attention to our bodies, and I surprise him with my admonitions to gentleness, to patience, to arousing my pleasure. After such poetry he is all pleasure, sensitive to the slightest touch, and I have my pleasure in knowing I can control this powerful man with words and the stroke of my fingertips rather than by delicate youthful beauty or the guile and perverse ingenuity of an erotic act. He is still learning to recognise the nature and particularness of my desires. I am not as his other women: who confuse pleasure with pain.
Thoughts of my mother. Without my dear father, dead ten years, she is a boat without a rudder sailing on a distant lake. She greets each day as a gift she must honour with good humour despite the pain of her limbs, the difficulty of walking, of sitting, of eating, even talking. Such is the hurt that governs her ageing. She has always understood that my position has forbidden marriage and children, though the latter might be a possibility I have not wished it and made it known to my Lord that it must not be. My mother remains in limbo, neither son or daughter seeking to further her lineage, she has returned to her sister’s home in the distant village of her birth, a thatched house of twenty rooms,
‘Elms and willows shading the eaves at the back,
and, in front, peach and plum spread wide.
Villages lost across mist-haze distances,
Kitchen smoke drifting wide-open country,
Dogs bark deep among the back roads out here
And cockerels crow from mulberry treetops.
My esteemed colleague T’ao Ch’ien made this poetry. After a distinguished career in government service he returned to the life of a recluse-farmer on his family farm. Living alone in a three-roomed hut he lives out his life as a recluse and has endured considerable poverty. One poem I know tells of him begging for food. His world is fields-and-gardens in contrast to Hsieh Ling-yin who is rivers-and-mountains. Ch’ien’s commitment to the recluse life has brought forth words that confront death and the reality of human experience without delusion.
‘At home here in what lasts, I wait out life.’
Thus my mother waits out her life, frail, crumbling more with each turning year.
To live beyond the need to organise daily commitments due to others, to step out into my garden and only consider the dew glistening on the loropetalum. My mind is forever full of what is to be done, what must be completed, what has to be said to this visitor who will today come to my court at the Wu hour. Only at my desk does this incessant chattering in the mind cease, as I move my brush to shape a character, or as the needle enters the cloth, all is stilled, the world retreats; there is the inner silence I crave.
I long to see with my own eyes those scenes my mother painted for me with her words. I only know them in my mind’s eye having travelled so little these past fifteen years. I look out from this still dark room onto my small garden to see the morning gathering its light above the rooftops. My camellia bush is in flower though a thin frost covers the garden stones.
And so I must imagine how it might be, how I might live the recluse life. How much can I jettison? These fine clothes, this silken nightgown beneath the furs I wrap myself in against the early morning air. My maid is sleeping. Who will make my tea? Minister to me when I take to my bed? What would become of my cat, my books, the choice-haired brushes? Like T’ao Ch’ien could I leave the court wearing a single robe and with one bag over my shoulders? Could I walk for ten days into the mountains? I would disguise myself as a man perhaps. I am tall for a woman, and though my body flows in broad curves there are ways this might be assuaged, enough perhaps to survive unmolested on the road.
Such dreams! My Lord would see me returned within hours and send a servant to remain at my gate thereafter. I will compose a rhapsody about a concubine of standing, who has even occupied the purple chamber, but now seeks to relinquish her privileged life, who coverts the uncertainty of nature, who would endure pain and privation in a hut on some distant mountain, who will sleep on a mat on its earth floor. Perhaps this will excite my Lord, light a fire in his imagination. As though in preparation for this task I remove my furs, I loose the knot of my silk gown. Naked, I reach for an old under shift letting it fall around my still-slender body and imagine myself tying the lacings myself in the open air, imagine making my toilet alone as the sun appears from behind a distant mountain on a new day. My mind occupies itself with the tiny detail of living thus: bare feet on cold earth, a walk to nearby stream, the gathering of berries and mountain herbs, the making of fire, the washing of my few clothes, imagining. Imagining. To live alone will see every moment filled with the tasks of keeping alive. I will become in tune with my surroundings. I will take only what I need and rely on no one. Dreaming will end and reality will be the slug on my mat, the bone-chilling incessant mists of winter, the thorn in the foot, the wild winds of autumn. My hands will become stained and rough, my long limbs tanned and scratched, my delicate complexion freckled and wind-pocked, my hair tied roughly back. I will become an animal foraging on a dank hillside. Such thoughts fill me with deep longing and a coital desire to be tzu-jan - with what surrounds me, ablaze with bodily self.
It is not thought the custom of a woman to hold such desires. We are creatures of order and comfort. We do not live on the edge of things, but crave security and well-being. We learn to endure the privations of being at the behest of others. Husbands, children, lovers, our relatives take our bodies to them as places of comfort, rest and desire. We work at maintaining an ordered flow of existence. Whatever our station, mistress or servant we compliment, we keep things in order, whether that is the common hearth or the accounts of our husband’s court. Now my rhapsody begins:
A Rhapsody on a woman wishing to live as a recluse
As a lady of my Emperor’s court I am bound in service.
My court is not my own, I have the barest of means.
My rooms are full of gifts I am forced barter for bread.
Though the artefacts of my hands and mind
Are valued and widely renown,
Their commissioning is an expectation of my station,
With no direct reward attached.
To dress appropriately for my Lord’s convocations and assemblies
I am forced to negotiate with chamberlains and treasurers.
A bolt of silk, gold thread, the services of a needlewoman
Require formal entreaties and may lie dormant for weeks
Before acknowledgement and release.
I was chosen for my literary skills, my prestigious memory,
Not for my bodily beauty, though I have been called
‘Lady of the most gracious movement’ and
My speaking voice has clarity and is capable of many colours.
I sing, but plainly and without passion
Lest I interfere with the truth of music’s message.
Since I was a child in my father’s library
I have sought out the works of those whose words
Paint visions of a world that as a woman
I may never see, the world of the wilderness,
Of rivers and mountains,
Of fields and gardens.
Yet I am denied by my sex and my station
To experience passing amongst these wonders
Except as contrived imitations in the palace gardens.
Each day I struggle to tease from the small corner
Of my enclosed eye-space some enrichment
Some elemental thing to colour meaning:
To extend the bounds of my home
Across the walls of this palace
Into the world beyond.
I have let it be known that I welcome interviews
With officials from distant courts to hear of their journeying,
To gather word images if only at second-hand.
Only yesterday an emissary recounted
His travels to Stone Lake in the far South-West,
Beyond the gorges of the Yang-tze.
With his eyes I have seen the mountains of Suchan:
With his ears I have heard the oars crackling
Like shattering jade in the freezing water.
Images and sounds from a thousand miles
Of travel are extract from this man’s memory.
Such a sharing of experience leaves me
Excited but dismayed: that I shall never
Visit this vast expanse of water and hear
Its wild cranes sing from their floating nests
In the summer moonlight.
I seek to disappear into a distant landscape
Where the self and its constructions of the world may
Dissolve away until nothing remains but the no-mind.
My thoughts are full of the practicalities of journeying
Of an imagined location, that lonely place
Where I may be at one with myself.
Where I may delight in the everyday Way,
Myself among mist and vine, rock and cave.
Not this lady of many parts and purposes whose poems must
Speak of lives, sorrow and joy, pleasure and pain
Set amongst personal conflict and intrigue
That in containing these things, bring order to disorder;
Salve the conscience, bathe hurt, soothe sleight.
He walked briskly down the street matriculating prisms of light in the rhythm of the half-life gauging the calibration of the saints deluding angels with his card tricks keeping mediums amused with stories of Jewish cowboys in the old west towns like Tucson and Fort Smith El Paso and Los Alamos irradiated deserts and timber towers of purpose harbouring test wrappings and the allure of relativity the tease of light speed the promise of a new universe bore of a split nucleus of electrons freed and neutrons cowed sliding into a chaos of religious quest and the argument of philosophies both lost and found and true dichotomies and myths that excite but lie and serve sweet political purpose of mushroom clouds below home skies before they puncture the foreign and innocence lost on wide blue seas of dreams spiked with insidious isotopes walking the street wondering if he should forget should he discard and will we ever reach the stars
entice me surely
promise to melt slowly
eager tongue can’t bear waiting
illicit desire awakens, pulling myself back
you though, stronger one, seductively luring me
you deliciously forbidden serving of chocolate ice cream!
Copyright © Vijayalakshmi Harish
I must serve
I must give
So far this ensures
I deserve to live.
I touch to heal
your pain I feel
is for you, but not mine
What can I give you
I need to feel good
Take what I offer
it is understood
your business is mine
I know what to do
Just listen to me
or else we are through
My own needs are boring
it is yours that excite
This is my purpose
Just turn off the light