Saturday, May 24, 2014

Beach Retreat Day 7

Women carrying bamboo
On my second day here, a woman and her two daughters approached me on my porch for water.  I gave them most of what I had, a full liter.  Then they asked for tobacco, or the betel-nut-tobacco combination that most people chew here, giving them mouths like blood.  I didn’t have any, of course, but at that moment the delivery man showed up with my lunch:  two boxes of food, a coke, and a cooler full of coconut water.  I felt so guilty, like I had done something wrong, just with my plenty.  He gave her a banana-leaf-wrapped chunk to chew, and they walked on, unable to communicate.

As the week has progressed, my solitude has begun to feel less so.  I am not alone.  This beach is for people who work, who fish, who carry water-logged bamboo logs cushioned on their heads, who gather shellfish and hermit crabs at low tide.  One day, as I lounged, watching the sunset, I saw a man hunting something along the water:  he would spy something and then tiptoe, high-legged, towards it, like a parody of someone hunting.  He dug into the hole he found with a stick, and if he found what he was hunting, he’d pull it out and throw it against the sand, hard, with surprising violence.  Then beat it to death with his stick, then coil it—a sea slug or sea snake?—with others in a plastic bottle.

Others walk among the garbage, collecting glass.

This culture is one of hunter-gatherers, people living on the verge.  Two dogs adopted me, primarily because I give them fish scraps.  I don’t think anyone else feeds them.  They have bony ribcages, lean frames.  They spend most of their day sniffing around for snacks amid the refuse.  When I don’t have bones to give them, at night they whine quietly in the sand.  I think they’re hungry.

Beach dogs
And here I am, amid this scrounging society, a writer.  My purpose begins to obscure.  What good am I, Bob Dylan asks, if I say foolish things?  Anything I sang, he says, you can say it just as good.

Today, my last afternoon, I found a bench along the ocean and lay alone with my iPod, listening to Ray Bradbury, an audiobook I brought along.  When I sat up I was surrounded by women in longyis, one of them the old woman from that first day.  I noticed now that she is also missing an eye.  Her socket sagged empty, the skin closed around it.  She asked for tobacco, I think.  I didn’t have any.  She asked, from what I understand, if I was alone—bringing her two fingers together and then separate.  I motioned to my heart, to my bungalow, saying:  just me.

I don’t feel the envy of my alleged wealth here, not nearly as much as in Laos, or even in Thailand.  Instead I feel pity from Burmese people.  I may be rich in material goods—but I suffer from a poverty of companionship.  The woman nudged my ridgerest, feeling its cushion, grazed my bag with her fingers, then went to work, knocking barnacles off the bamboo logs she had stacked nearby.  She seemed to be the forewoman, and hacked notches into the bamboo, so other women could drag them down to the surf, could carry them on their cushioned heads.  All of them had lean, hungry, chiseled muscles, supermodel physiques.  For what reason they carry the logs I don’t know.  It seemed arcane to me, mysterious.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I pulled out my sketchbook and drew.  I thought of ripping out my drawing and giving it to her, but what good would that do?  Would she even understand?  And besides, I was selfish of the pages in my sketchbook, the book I’ve carried for four months and only used for the first time today.  I was selfish of my own drawing.

Beach drawing
She could see what I was doing, but I can’t imagine what she thought.  Did she think:  stupid fat farang thinks that’s work?  Or did she think, as I did:  she’s doing her work, and I’m doing mine?

Some days I can think of it like that.  On good days, when I can think of what I do as a kind of calling, when I can face the truth inside that cheesy cliche.

Another book I read this week, an ebook, was Dodie Bellamy’s the buddhist.  A quote:  “The buddhist once asked me if writing was my religion, and I said no, writing is not my religion.  I don’t know what religion is for me. Writing is my calling.”

My kingdom for that kind of confidence.

I came here for solitude, for writing, and all week my solitude felt invaded, compromised, by well-meaning solicitous Burmese people.  My friend from Dawei showed up with three companions and took me out for coconut and crab.  Various people invited me for rides on their motorcycles, invited me to share meals with their families.  I refused them all,  attempting graciousness.  Other than garbage-pickers, I haven’t seen anyone else alone.

People here don’t seem to understand being alone—my loneliness confuses them.  Is it just that I’m American?  Have I fully absorbed rugged individualism as an ideal?  The one part of Asian culture I could never get behind is communalism.  While I applaud the idea in principle, I could never live the way Thai people do, multiple generations crowded beneath one roof, everyone up in everyone else’s business.  In Thailand, people have children just so they have a place to live when they get old.  They plan their children’s births based on astrology, so their golden years will be comfortably padded.  I don’t think I can live with my parents, or with any fictional children, long-term.  Even living with one person  I love gets to me, most days. Small-town gossip destroys me.  I love my anonymity, and my desire for travel rears its head as soon as I lose my status as a stranger.

As the lone representative of my culture here, what must they think?  That Americans are a lonely breed.

I’ve chosen this loneliness, and still my longing for companionship exists inside me like an ache.  Yet I know:  if any others were here with me I’d be turning towards them for validation, approval, comfort.  What does he think?  What does she want me to do?

I’ve written about artist dates before, the prescription given my Julia Cameron in Artist’s Way:  two hours, alone, each week, to do whatever the hell you want.  Truly alone.  No children, not even a dog.  Just yourself to please.

My favorite artist date in Chattanooga was the independent film series at the movie theater downtown.  I loved everything about it:  driving downtown along the curving highway in my Miata with the top down, parking in the garage, the adrenaline rush of walking down the concrete stairs alone, each time remembering that horrific rape scene in the Sopranos—and then sitting all by myself, in the darkened theater.  Even there I got strange looks, the occasional come-on.  Who’s that strange girl here all alone in the middle of the day?  But I adored it, the silence, the popcorn all for me, and the response to the movie utterly my own.  Even now, the movies I saw then are among my favorites.

Once I convinced my friend Ellen to come along.  I really wanted her to; I practically begged.  I thought it could only make it better.  And though I loved seeing the movie with her, sharing it with her, it changed the experience completely.  Instead of being fully enveloped in my own response, I was thinking about her.  Did she like that line?  Did she get that joke?  What did she think?

Being alone sharpens my attention to my own desire.  But it also makes me feel shame.  Spending a week alone at the beach, just like going to a movie alone, feels utterly profligate.  What good can it possibly do?

Another side of communalism:  the shame it engenders.  I hide in my room when I see Burmese people outside because I’m ashamed of my bathing costume.  I had to walk down the beach, out of view of prying eyes, to lay prone in the sun (something I was brave enough to do only twice).  My favorite part of watching the movie alone was that it was in the dark—no one could see my profligate selfishness.

I’m an alien in a strange land.  I still don’t know why I keep putting myself in these situations where I am completely alien.  I like to think it’s because I’m more comfortable inside when the alienness of my exterior matches the alienness of my interior.  I’m more comfortable when everyone else can see that I don’t belong.  In the States, when I do things wrong because I don’t belong, no one understands.  Here I have an excuse.  I am unique by definition.

Still, uniqueness breeds isolation.  Isolation breeds loneliness.  And I am lonely.  This is what I’ve wanted for so long.  Meals delivered me.  Complete freedom to make my own choices.  And yet…

The truth is that I still don’t know how to balance being alone with being around other people, how to balance others’ needs with my own.  I don’t know how to do that, and it makes me sad, because I need other people in my life, but as soon as I let them in they consume me.

Tonight, a giant cricket lands on my mosquito net.  Other crickets croon outside.  The surf rolls, unceasing, to my right.  I have leftovers in styrofoam boxes for dinner, leftovers I’m afraid to eat on my porch because I have to hide them from the dogs.  Tomorrow, back to civilization.


Peter said...

Your comment about communalism is right on. Somehow, despite being raised where we were, that didn't rub off at all. This is Abu adantly clear beings married to S., who is so much more culturally Asian than I am despite being raised in the Bay Area, a strange discovery. Bit thinking about us being in Thailand, the very fact that we were there is a testament to the rugged individualism of our parents, and that's what we inherited.

The people coming up to you on the beach asking for stuff sound Moken. They don't mind asking for things. Say "amoon" to them (lit: good), for hello and goodbye. See if you get a response.

Melissa Jenks said...

I keep thinking about introversion and extroversion and how it relates to culture. Is it just my temperament that makes me so happy to be alone? Would a Burmese writer, say, or artist, feel the same way--at odds in her own culture? I remember a story about a friend who spent some time in Africa, and I was immensely jealous--until I realized that she had to live in a compound with about fifty other people: relatives, wives, children, cousins, hangers-on. With every action subject to the comment, critique, and judgment of the collective assembly, like a Greek chorus.

So you're right. I'm much more of a fan of rugged individualism. Maybe I am an American after all.

You may be right about the Moken (although I'm moving away from that area). Do you know what they'd be using the bamboo for?