Ode to 艾 and 爱 (Ode to Ai and Love)

— I’m not doing the quote full justice, and there’s much more I want to say on this but here is the story for now —
Today I went to go see Ai Wei Wei’s “Never Sorry” at the Hirshorn Museum.  It’s been over five years since I’ve seen the film. To be honest, at this point I define my life by “life before I went to China” and “life after I lived in China.” Most ex-pats who have lived there for any extended period of time might agree. The place changes you. I was curious – how would I feel about the film this time?
When I saw the movie five years ago, I went with a group of four Chinese teachers my father had dragged along with us. I respect my dad so much – for years Chinese teachers have been visiting his school and he always connected with them so beautifully – inviting them to dinners, Christmas, taking them shopping for groceries, and supporting them just as humans who needed to be seen and understood. Of course, having a bit of a radial edge, he always wanted to dig deeper into their experience. What was life in China really like? Were they a part of the Party? Were they religious? What was life like for their grandparents during Community rule?
So he took them to the film. Big mistake? Maybe. They yelled at the host leading the Q&A after the film. He was also Chinese. He originally came to the US to get his degree in engineering at CMU, but started learning about Chinese history in the 20th century, and switched his degree to nonprofit management. He had been working as a coordinator for wealthy Chinese high school students coming to the US. When I asked him afterwards what the Chinese teachers were saying to him he said, “They think Ai Wei Wei is a nobody, not important, worthy to be ignored. They are still so brainwashed by Chinese propaganda.”
When I saw the movie today, I noticed people in the theater laughed a lot at Ai’s antics. He is quite a hilarious activist, a modern day jester if you will.  There’s certainly shadow side to Ai in this context. He makes those privileged in the US feel safe in our complicity. To  feel good that we “aren’t” China. We are here, in a museum watching an activist film, for free, on a Sunday. I probably watched the film the first time in similar fashion. Amazed, fascinated, curious and in awe of the man. Knowing that “over there” people lived in repression and thankfully we had free access to art, music and culture. A dangerous dose of some American exceptionalism I was born into: the illusion of pure free expression.
My viewing of this film this time around was much more…human.
I cried much more than I laughed. I sobbed seeing schools destroyed by the Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, due to shoddy construction of “tofu-brick” buildings in schools in poor areas; meaning, tuition funds go to a fat salary for an official comes before the price of a student’s life in a safely constructed building. I cringed at the moments when Ai sat in the hospital photographing himself wearing a bandage on his head after being assaulted by the police. The audience laughed, but here I saw a man in pain, trapped in a cage he could not escape, no matter how humorous his approach.
When I came to Washington, DC in 2013 for an interview with Teach for China, I remember heading over to Hirschhorn afterwards, alone, to see Ai’s “According to What?” exhibit. Always was my favorite museum after all. I saw the backpacks of every student killed in the Earthquake lining the ceiling, the names of dead children lining the walls, read aloud by many different voices.
Knowing, in my heart at the time, these students and families would one day be a part of my own world. People I connected with, played music with, shared meals with, attended religious services with (Yes! religion exists in China!), talked about love and relationships with, danced with, cried with, spent the night in their humble homes with.
Today I sat shocked, at the lengths an artist must go to in order to humanize himself to the Other.
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Rowing Through the Rot

He paddled, day after day and night after night. Looking into the mirror of experience. Looking for that truth. That essence of his being that seemed to be missing forever.
Some would call it the Rot. Some would call it the “dark night of the soul.” The dark swamp of despair that he could not get out of. The paddler is like the Grim Reaper coming forth from Death to carry you across the Hades, into the underworld, where you will sit – wondering why you can’t really speak to anyone. Where you feel like you look around and every one seems happy and joyful and you just are not a part of that, while also knowing you are a part of everything at the same time.  Knowing death is imminent, you infinite, and human all at the same time. The feeling of now-ness, of nothingness. Of wanting to connect with your true self yet manipulate the tides of nature and her curses all at the same time. Using your gifts of magic to speak wisdom to the ages, yet lost at sea, alone, wanting to finally reach that next tree, but the water of consciousness just keeps running forever, knowing that you will never quite get there without a fellow paddler at the bow. Yet you keep rowing along, the lone traveler, thinking “If I just try this” or “If I just did this correctly” I would finally get there and I would be whole again. I have bad news for you – the water keeps going and from the illusions of trees there is just more water. You need not row forever, because, my dear, you have not yet learned to just rest in the stroke. You’ll see – something that used to be essential now Rots away, a compositing of the muck you could say, into the very White-Hot heart of Our Being.

Four Cats

Four Cats

I. April  


The way he made her feel sober 

When she was drunk

The way he was too shy

To look into her eyes

They way they performed something 

Closer to making love than fucking

The way he’d sometimes tell her – 

“You’re incredible”

The way she’d always whisper back –

“No, we are incredible”

The way she sent shivers down his spine

Before he turned over modestly

To leave her alone on her side of the mattress 

A habit, he said, he’d learned from his fiancé 

Before she returned the ring

They way his cat would hide under the bed

Flinch at her touch when he left the room

Until she coaxed her to cuddle

Pull a moonbeam from sliced eyes

They way he said

“She’s quite found of you,”

From halfway across the room

Dressed in a robe

With one foot out he door 

II. November 

She had no idea

If he thought of her as much as

She thought of him 

After she’d forgotten what it felt like

To be revived 

So as you search for healing and completion

I wonder to myself –

Did you buy the car to drive to the mountains?

Or the plane ticket to fly to the sea?

You are a hungry bear hunting, searching, and seeking

Rather than taking the medicine that rests deep inside of me

After you drop me off at my front door

The landlord’s cat sneaks up into my room

“He wants up,” I’ll laugh. 

“No,” he’ll sigh. 

“He never knows what he wants

To go up or down

Or to even go at all.” 

III. December


Could it be possible?

Becoming awake together

Through the night 

To first be bound 

In order to know liberation 

To first be found

In order to be lost

When I remind you 

All shadows need light

When you ask me 

How it could be done

We hear suddenly 

Two cats screaming

Out the window we look

On a patch of grass

A black cat and a white cat

Staring at each other

Waiting to see who will back down

When you remind me

Animals never hold on to the fight

When you asked

If you could touch my arm

For your own pleasure 

I knew inside

It would not matter

Because I do not feel

That we are separate 

When I knew inside

It could mean that

People like us are destined to

Heal the immune system of the whole 

When the heavy sweetness

Whispered truth

From the sub-elements

Underneath your pillow

You sent me green

And I saw it in blue

Released from some

Taught string on my heart

Do you know?

My soul begs you to

Tell me to have

Some wonderful dreams