Remember starting Kindergarten 8 days after moving to a new country?
Nah, me either.
What about starting Kindergarten 8 days after moving to a new country, then having your 6th birthday 3 days later?
Well, here’s another one: remember starting kindergarten in a new country and being the only kid in your class with blonde blonde hair?
Um . . .
And let’s not even get into the whole grandfather dying thing. And mommy being gone for a week. And daddy being kind of a stress bastard that whole time. And being away from your two best friends. And not being able to walk to the school that you walked to with your brother five days a week for three years, and always assumed you’d be going to. And having to take not one, but two busses. And having to run down a hill to catch the first of those busses in 90% humidity. And having 7/8s of your classmates speak a different language.
The week Ellen was gone, I found myself yelling at Lucy more than usual. “Wi-ill! “ she would holler. “Stop it!” as though somehow her older brother were pulling her limbs off. And I’d hustle into the living room to find Will lying on the couch with a book.
“What’s going on?” I’d scream at the top of my lungs, because I was tired, and stressed, and sad, and in a new country, and an idiot.
“He was looking at me!” she’d say.
“I was not,” Will would reply, and from the tone of his voice I could tell that he was, but just only, and that that had been enough to set his sister off.
Or I’d hear, “Jamie, don’t do that!” And I’d rush into her room and find Jamie holding one of her bears, or a book she hadn’t read for weeks, or a piece of tissue paper.
“Who do you think you are?” I’d hiss at her, thinking of the rice burning on the stove, or the e-mails I had to reply to, or of the 400 faculty members I’d never met, but who I was somehow supposed to talk into believing in general education in something like 10 months. “You’re not in charge of him! Leave him alone. What is wrong with you?”
My upstairs neighbors have a fridge magnet that says, “All I want is a warm bed, a kind word, and unlimited power.”
Probably the only real insight I’ve had in my life is that creativity is less a luxury than a psychological necessity.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I think people need to feel like they have the power—albeit on a small scale—to reshape their world. That this exists in the visual and literary arts is obvious: story writers often retell tales in such a way that they’re able to makes sense of meaningless events. In my life I’ve had extremely close relationships with an alcoholic and an anorexic. I’ve written about both of those relationships often, always shaping and reshaping the real-life story so that the narrative created has more meaning, more cogency, more sense than what actually happened in real life.
Similarly, we can all see how painters might reconfigure the world they’re representing on their canvas in order to achieve some pleasurable end for themselves: erasing the signs of aging in someone they love, for example, or deleting an ugly concrete silo in a romantic landscape, or making the king and his inbred wife look like vain idiots.
But my theory extends beyond that. My friend Andrea has a sister-in-law who repaints her living room two or three times a year. I get this. A colleague in biology has half-a-dozen tattoos. I get this too, even though it makes me wince like the coward I am. I’ve had students who buy junky old cars, gut them, strip them, and turn them into show-ready statues of chrome and glossy paint. All of this fits my theory, as does gardening, re-arranging ones bedroom, body-piercing, shaving ones eyebrows, and—sadly—eating disorders.
My point here is obvious, but just in case you’re reading this while listening to Metallica on your iPod, or sniffing Play-Doh, or both, let me make things clear: in recent weeks, Lucy’s life has been completely out of her control. And not in the good, gosh, I just won a trillion dollars kind of way. So she responded by asserting control whenever she could. And since I wouldn’t let her get tattoos or (anymore) body piercings, she spent her time telling everyone in the family what to do.
So given all of this, how’s she doing?
Pretty darn good. Here’s how I know:
The first week we were here, when Ellen was still gone, my boss and her staff invited the family and me out for lunch at the fancy restaurant on campus. They graciously ordered a whole roasted chicken for us (graciously, because Hong Kongers, rightly, I guess, think roasted chicken is unhealthy). Keep in mind, that when I say “whole,” I do mean whole. Which is to say, the head is there, the tail is there, everything is there. They do this, one colleague told me, so that the customer knows they’re getting everything, that the restaurateur isn’t holding anything back.
Anyhow, when the chicken came, and Lucy saw the head, she wanted it. “No no,” someone said, “you don’t eat the head.”
“Hmmph,” Lucy said, very clearly suggesting that she’d always thought adults were idiots, and now knew it for a fact. Then after a beat, she sat up in her chair and said, “Then I want the tail.”
The whole table laughed, and Lucy slumped back down, blushing. But they gave her the tail. And dang if she didn’t eat it.
Then last week Friday she came home at the end of her first week of school. “Look!” she said, holding up a mimeographed sheet of white paper. “Homework!”
It was Mandarin, and her first real homework after three years of seeing her brother and older friends doing it. And while Will curled up on the couch with a book, calculating that he had 60 hours before his own math and writing and Mandarin were due, Lucy sat down at the dining room table and did hers.
And as if that wasn’t enough, when she was done, she laid the paper down on floor, got out her camera, knelt on the rough parquet, and took a picture of it.
Of course there’ve been some downsides. People—particularly middle-aged women—tend to touch her hair when we’re at the market or on the escalator. They always smile when they do this, less at her than to themselves, as if they’ve discovered something glorious, much the same way I grin whenever I get to eat anything involving chocolate and peanut butter, or chocolate and orange peel, or chocolate and, well, tar shingles. But every once in a while it gets out of control. We were down at the harbor last weekend, catching the nightly laser show, and decided to actually get one of those memento photos where the whole family poses in front of the bright lights and some guy charges you the equivalent of a small Humvee to take a slightly out–of-focus snapshot of the five of you grinning like someone just dropped LSD in your slurpee.
Anyhow, I was standing in line waiting to get the finished product, when some woman swooped over to where Ellen and the kids stood, grabbed Lucy up in her arms, and held her against her face as her husband took a photo. Then she put Lucy down and marched away. Needless to say, Lucy was a little freaked out. Just a little, but freaked out nonetheless, with the emphasis on “freak.”
(Okay, so she doesn't look that freaked out in this picture, but she was after the fact. This probably has something to do, Ellen tells me, with my regularly explaining to the kids that we're considering trading them in for a wheelbarrow or a wiener dog or a new kid who eats her broccoli, but I don't think so.)
And then tonight Lucy got off the first elevator and decided to climb the stairs instead of taking the second elevator with her mom and brothers (our building climbs a slope, so you need more than one lift to make it from the bottom to the top). Big mistake. She must have climbed too high, or not high enough, and all the floors look the same, especially when you’re six and can’t read. Ellen found her quickly enough, and no real harm was done, but Lucy was shaken even so.
But then there’s this:
Tonight at bedtime, she told us the story of how, at school, some girl had dropped a bead down her dress.
“Well, not really down my dress,” she said. “Because I was sitting criss-cross, apple sauce. But my dress was making sort of a pocket? Where I was sitting? And she put it in there. And then some other girls put their beads in there too. And we were all laughing, but then I had to stand up without dropping the beads. And we were laughing, and I had to show my underpants, but not very much, so it was okay.”