On September 27, 1985 my father left Taiwan for a graduate degree in America. His departure was a formal affair, the kind with leather shoes and a full roll of film. In pictures of him at the airport his sisters, his brother, and my grandparents surround him. They stand solemn but proud next to him, everything full of promise.
My mother is there too. She is small, with hair down to her waist and hands behind her back. She is not smiling, a sort of sadness leaving the corner of her lips like a plucked daisy. It is not a happy day for her; she is not a proud mother or an anxious sister. No, she is a girl, and the boy she loves—the one who is too skinny and smokes too many cigarettes—is leaving her.
After he left she quit her job, started taking English classes, and waited tables part-time at a little teahouse. She tells me she had lost her center, finding herself tethered by a loose sadness and no direction. She knew nothing of what she wanted, instead spending all of her money on long-distance phone calls and all of her hoping on America.
But she soon met the people who would let her drift. In the dim of the teahouse she met a mouse-eyed girl with a big laugh named Ming. Not particularly beautiful but wildly outspoken, she took to my mother, inviting her to weekends spent in the clustered emerald peaks of Taiwan. They drove with a tall boy they called Big Sha, who wore high socks with tiny running shorts and towered over their petite five-foot-two frames. He would drive shirtless in suffocating Taiwanese heat up narrow mountain passes, buttering each bend in the road as my mother peered through the passenger-side window, the mountain stretching steep and endless beneath their crunching tires. They would park and mark four to five different peaks in the course of three days on foot, pitching tents at night and sleeping until sunrise.
For the next three years my mother would pack her portable stove, braid her hair into long pigtails, pull up her legwarmers, and disappear into the mountains with them every week, donning a yellow parka and supporting an external frame pack. Driven by sorrow, excitement, boredom, or a combination of all three, she threw herself into a different life as she waited for her life in America to begin. For the next three years she was bound only by the fatigue in her legs. For the next three years she measured her steps by the slow rising and falling of light on the horizon.
One time, the three of them found a hot spring at the bottom of a marble gorge—a thrilling discovery in the brittle air of a winter night. They slid their bodies into the dark water and watched as the steam from the spring rose from their skin to bleed into a full moon above, to dissolve into the dripping black of the sky. Everything was calm. In that moment they were pulled from every anxiety of life and wrapped into the slow settling of wonder, overwhelmed by the presence of a place so simply beautiful.
Twenty-three years in America, countless camping trips and national parks visited later, and my mother can still feel the same steam rising from her shoulder blades. Every sunrise and summit, every hailstone and bootlace, carved like canyons into her memory. She remembers those as her most glorious years.
This month, your pursuit of glory is mostly cold. You wake up before the sun is up and the streetlamps are still on outside of your window and you get dressed in the dark. Your roommate mumbles into her pillow as you feel for the familiar—Smartwool base layer, cold gear leggings, black snow pants, down zip-up, thrift-store fleece, blue rain jacket. Hat and two pairs of gloves. It all starts to feel familiar, the pulling on and zipping up, the first step into dawn air, the reddened cheeks and the brittle skin. Some mornings your car won’t want to start in the four degree weather and you are hungry for breakfast with stiff fingers on the wheel. One time you tag along for one of your classmate’s projects, finding yourself in the backseat of a red SUV, dozing off as the sky blazes open into morning and two old men banter in the front of the car. When you wake up the sun is on your skin and you have forgotten it is winter. But not for long. You stand outside all day in a bright red trapper blanket with a video camera. You talk to men with coonskin hats and muzzleloading rifles, to a blacksmith whose hands are wide and callused, who has stories bigger than the New Mexican sky under which he used to call home.
Another time you wade underneath a waterfall on the coldest day in January. The water is warmer than the air but you still can’t feel your legs as you test your feet on the ice, the steam roaring and your heart loud in your chest. I am in a pulsing lung, you think. Meagan yells at you from two feet away. “WHAT?” you say. Everything is frozen, loud. “IT’S SO COLD” you say.
The walk back is the most painful, your boots blocks of ice around your feet. You count each step up the hill to your room, take the elevator and try not to fall through the door. Your roommates yell about hypothermia and wrap your toes in blankets, but you will do this again. After a hot shower and eight hours of sleep you will insulate your body with non-cotton layers and step into the frigid world once more—for more stories, for more moments.
Lily buys me Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems for my twentieth birthday, as a reminder of the poem of hers we once heard recited in town on a snowy night last winter. It was a poem about snow and sex and the audience catcalled through the whole thing, screaming with laughter and sipping their ice water.
Walking back in the quiet snow we considered carving SNOW=SEX in the slush on the tennis courts outside our dorm. I don’t remember why we didn’t, but I think the idea alone might have been enough.
Sitting on the edge of my bed before breakfast I flip open to page 59. GLORY says the title. I read it three times during the week and my favorite line is the same every time.
“I WANT ORDINARY MEN AND WOMEN,
BRUSHING THEIR TEETH, TO FEEL THE OCEAN IN THEIR MOUTH.
I AM GOING TO GLORIFY THE SINK WITH TOOTHPASTE SPAT IN IT.”
It’s not actually all in caps but I imagine Mary Ruefle screaming the whole entire poem.
She had cried on the couch when “Nights in White Satin” played, he says. His mother used to play that same Moody Blues record in her dorm room, over and over and over again, when she was where he is now—nineteen years old and still understanding the world.
We listen to “Nights in White Satin” in the dark over a few beers, in silence. The air fills only with song and the blue light of the window. We ponder how our parents were young once too, how they were heartbroken and bursting, small atoms bonding and breaking, moving too fast. The histories buried in their bodies, what they do not say to us over morning coffee. They let it all unravel slowly—when they let us cut up all our clothes and sew them back together, when they find us rubbing mascara out of our eyes in the bathroom, the first time a boy pulls up into the driveway in his mother’s Toyota Corolla with pizza and a mix tape. Stitches unwound and knots untied, but we will spend the rest of our lives wondering who they were.
I wonder what I will cry about when I have lived through so much that my memories will have to be unearthed by the crackling of a record, playing over and over and over again, the leather of the couch worn and the pillows fraying.
glorie (n.) Also glori, gloire.
(a) Worldly honor, fame, renown; also, a position of honor; ~ vein, empty glory; (b) the splendor of God or Christ; the glorious state of Christ after the Resurrection; (c) the bliss of heaven (d) beauty, radiance.
Damp leaf litter can be seen between patches of ice, and moss is nestled, green and feathery, in rotting logs and sprawling rock faces. The sky is indecisive, blowing bitter cold and grey as a brimming sun burns the clouds golden. I pull off my hat and readjust my backpack. Half an hour of following blue bark markings and I still haven’t found the trailhead to Mount Horrid, a trek that starts east of the Brandon Gap in Vermont. Instead, I have been led to a steep drop-off and the sound of rushing water below. I can’t help but feel strung along by the woods, each patch of moss and melting brook mocking me as I begrudgingly backtrack to where I first set out.
Unfortunately my best option is to head back to campus, since trying to hike another trail would take me well into a cold sunset. I tell myself the search for a beautiful vista will have to wait until tomorrow.
But as I head back to the parking lot I can hear the distant churning of water, a rhythmic roaring beneath the creaking of the trees. Last May two friends and I climbed up from the bottom of the stream in search of the Falls of Lana but were deterred when we were faced with angular rocks and no solid footing. Due to what I thought had been a concrete plan to hike Mount Horrid, I hadn’t taken the time to research how to reach the falls from the marked path. But around the bend I can see a gentle drop-off to the right of the path. It is rocky but not too steep, and I suspect that the falls are hiding at the bottom.
Chipping away at the ice with the heel of my hiking boots to build up traction, I make a cautious descent towards the sound of the water. Water trickles slowly underneath the ice and the branches of fallen trees look like twisted vertebrae growing out of the soil. The farther down I get the more mythical my surroundings seem—the fern grows thicker and the wind howls louder, and the trees look as if they are reaching for something in the cliffs or in the sky. I look upwards and feel a dizzying smallness amongst bark and expanses of stone born of such deep history and age.
Before the falls is a wall of icicles. They hang stagnant and frightening, water dripping over each knuckle and swollen joint in the ice. With no sunlight they are wet, grey fangs and I am the victim standing on its bottom lip. The sight is a jarring contrast to the violent water of the falls. They stand like two beasts: one with silent intensity and the other rampant and untamed.
The Falls of Lana spill over a frozen boulder from two sides. The water is loud and hits each surface hard, as if the incline of the earth is rejecting the freezing water from its ribs, spewing a combination of snow, ice, and rainwater to the rotating pool below. Standing at the water’s edge, I am hit by an explosion of senses. The remnants of the crashing water are mist on my cheekbones and the roaring of the falls numbs my eardrums. I want to lie down and know the way my bones meet the earth below.
Is this what the poet felt when he wrote Beowulf into war-glory? Am I Hemingway’s bullfighter or a burgeoning Spenserian knight? In literature, glory is tied to the fame of a masculine elitist, attained by bringing Grendel bloody to his knees, rescuing the lady, or taming all that is wild and defiant. It is an act of dominance, a feeling of power or pride. Even now, men have stood bold on mountaintops and felt the earth to be theirs. But with my feet in the snow and the forest around me I haven’t conquered anything. I haven’t summited the impossible or published a novel. I am just standing at the foot of this waterfall, intimately connected to each ice crystal, each drinking tree root.
The soft tapping of light on a windowpane, the spontaneous stairwell conversations, the shattering of glass on tile. Every door swinging shut, every falling footstep and passing hello.
Glory can be traced through literature through two veins: 1) militaristic glory, where characters achieved recognition for gallant feats in wartime and 2) religious glory, achieved by gaining closeness to God and heaven.
In medieval literature, glory followed the evolving definition of the hero. A hero was often granted gold and the adoration of many for his upstanding morals and physical accomplishments on the battlefield. Glory was a validation of masculine value, supporting the framework of relations among men in the court. It seemed formulaic and concrete—if one led an army to victory or conquered vast lands, he would earn the respect of the court. However, works as early as Beowulf began to challenge the notion of heroism. Beowulf, praised throughout the text for his overwhelming physical strength and wisdom in battle, dies unfulfilled—in battle, next to a rusted hoard of treasure, with no family, alone. His fate begs the questions of: Can we reach glory by superficial means? Is there such thing as “empty glory”?
Spenser’s Faerie Queene seems to try and respond to some of these questions. Arthur, the central hero of the poem, has the ultimate objective of making it to the castle of the Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene, also known as Gloriana, never actually appears in the poem. This suggests an interesting allegorization of glory. As an unattainable entity, it becomes typified by the quest—the search or the journey towards the impossible. Oftentimes the conclusion is that characters can only achieve glory through divine experience or immortality, a religious transcendence from their lives on earth. In that sense, these characters are glorious only in death, after they are returned to a higher purpose.
BOSTON YOUTH SYMPHONY
Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 3 pm
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 in A Major
The second movement like some absurd kind of dream you wake up from and fall back into again and again and again. You are seventeen and sit in the back of the second violin section but somehow you are relevant to this, this melody, the thundering of the basses, your crazy Italian conductor with the bowtie, waving his hands. First the celli and the violas, then the second violins—you cradle those notes like Beethoven himself fashioned your skinny fingers, internalize every complexity of rhythm and tension, feel the stage vibrating beneath your toes. Then the first violins, the winds, the timpani, surging forward like they are meeting the sky, like they are leaking gold from the callouses of their fingertips and letting it pool in your ears.
All you want to do is weep into the f-holes of your violin, you in the back of the second violin section, you, you seventeen-year-old relevant piece of this whole, you are playing Beethoven’s goddamn seventh in Symphony Hall. You have no idea how badly you will yearn for this when you are eighteen, nineteen, twenty, when you are sitting eyes stuck to a computer screen wanting black ink key signatures, turning up your fuzzy recording of the Vienna Philharmonic until you almost bust your eardrums, until the guy at the table next to you coughs loudly and pointedly because you are in the library and college has forgotten to make classical music cool.
Modernist literature followed a similar path in its questioning of militaristic glory. After World War I, writers turned away from nationalistic pride, arguing that there was neither motivation for nor validation of honor in the context of a war so brutal and horrific. “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,” Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms. These writers moved to Europe, drank too much wine, and imagined self-destructive characters unable to articulate emotions or grasp reality in order to reconcile the horrors they too had experienced in the war. They sought to find glory within a modern world of technology and machinery, outside of a glory characterized by war and devastation.
Josh and I strap a canoe to the roof of his minivan and drive behind the baseball fields in our town. It is August and I have sand in my shoes, and the Merrimack River lies before us like a tapestry rug. It once ebbed brown and acidic from the Industrial Revolution but now we wade down from the dock in water to our knees, the canoe clumsy beneath our inexperienced palms. We paddle into a tributary to the right of the river, upstream, under railroad bridges and abandoned warehouses, through areas thick with mosquitoes and tangled brush. The chocolate in the trail mix melts in the bag at the bottom of the canoe. Our feet are cut and muddied. But we find big tires and turtles in the streambed and an old Coca-Cola cooler in the weeds; dragonflies land on our toes.
We go swimming underneath the bridge on the way back. We meet two girls who are smoking cigarettes on the shore, their shoulders olive and bare. I watch the sky turn while floating on my back, the salt on my forehead washing into my hair, into the graffitied concrete of the bridge.
“I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay, “Nature” (1836)
Barb tells me that, for her, the outdoors became a substitute for going to church. “Yeah, about twenty years ago,” she says. She goes out on eight to ten hour hikes and overnight camping trips, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. “It’s like meditation,” she says, “it’s spiritual.”
She takes me on a walk in muddy, melting fields with her dog, Yoga. We find signs of a mink and several meadow voles in the snow. In the woods we track deer, an otter, foxes, and what we hope is a bobcat. She teaches me how to identify trees by their bark, branches, buds, and leaves. My favorite is the ash tree, whose skin is channeled into diamonds, whose branches are wiry and defined.
It’s the end of January but it feels like a spring thaw. The forest floor is foggy as the snow evaporates into the trunks of trees. “Hmmm,” Barb says, “this is nice.”
Josh climbs the ladder on a telephone pole next to the railroad tracks. He’s wearing a straw hat, rope sandals, his t-shirt is still dripping wet, and I watch with skepticism as he steps up and up and up. I listen hard for trains, get prepared to duck into the bushes. But there is no room for fear here, no space for reluctance.
“Come on, Emily,” he always says, “just jump.”
The moon is still sitting stubbornly above the horizon when Abra and I pull into the curved parking lot off of 125 East. We strap on our snowshoes, fingers fumbling for buckles and straps in the dark, and clunk across the road towards the trailhead. It is 14 degrees outside, 6:20 in the morning, and my body is still incredulous at being pushed into the world at such an hour. But we are fighting light, determined to catch the sunrise at the end of the Silent Cliff Trail.
Abra leads, following the tracks of a pair of cross country skis into the woods. The trees are bathed in a grey-blue light and I can feel the impending dawn in the air as I struggle for breath up the hill. My legs remember the previous three weeks I spent idle reading Virginia Woolf and eating my parents’ cooking, the weight of the snow burning in my thighs and lower back.
As we approach the end of the Silent Cliff Trail the sun is minutes away from peeking over the horizon. To our dismay, however, we realize that Silent Cliff faces a pale western sky, the blushing horizon glowing through the woods emptied from the trail as we look over our snowy boots to the valley below. We backtrack, trying to find a clearing in the trees to no avail.
Walking back from the library, cold and miserable in the slow rain, you take a moment before you cross the street to notice a streetlamp positioned perfectly behind a dripping tree. It looks like a gigantic fluorescent spider’s web, its boughs spindly, bending upwards like half-moons.
There is goat cheese, a bag of grapes, arugula salad with olive oil, red wine, tortilla chips, hummus, and a plate of apple slices on the picnic table when we arrive. All of my favorite people are here—the girls with long skirts billowing; the boys hunched in their fleeces and button-up shirts. We drink from open mason jars, cut bread on the splintered wood of the table, and lick our fingers clean. Elias, in a kilt and high-tops, plays the bagpipes by the chairs. The dandelion seed heads sway like translucent eyes next to peeping sprouts and root vegetables. The sun sets bloody over the fields and the garden glows.
Elias pulls out his violin and teaches us how to line dance. We partner up, hair wild in our faces as we dosey doe and swing each other around. The music follows our stomping feet and we holler and clap along, forgetting everything but the feeling of our heels in the grass and yellow light on our cheeks.
I have only laughed like this a few times in my life. It is a release of air, a primal reaction to happiness that escapes my lungs purely, uncontrollably. I can’t stop smiling. I let the music and the breathing bodies in this garden rock me about. We are thunder and whirlwind in this grass, celebrating for the sake of celebrating, for all that is whole and real, for bellied laughter. I am all teeth and no shame.
The air starts to chill our bones as the fiddle winds down and we retreat, breathless, back to the picnic table. By this time a screen of indigo is crawling overhead, pulling itself like a blindfold over the burning skyline.
“Look! There it is!” someone exclaims, pointing east.
My mother always says that full moons look like gold coins in the sky. But I have never felt the metaphor as much as I do now, wrapped in a blanket, watching the supermoon rising. The statistics say:
March 19, 2011.
221, 566 miles away from Earth.
20 percent brighter and 15 percent bigger than a normal full moon.
But all I can think about is how easy it would be for me to reach out and pluck it from its nest in the Green Mountains, to hold it raw and cold against my skin. It moves swiftly like a second sun in the sky and before we realize it, it is night. The wine is cold on the table and the wind shivers through our sweaters. As we wander our way back to campus the light of the supermoon melts behind wispy clouds, disturbed like a pebble thrown into a watery sky. Teddy pedals past us, the bulb on his road bike illuminated. In the dark all we see is this orb of white moving farther and farther away from us—slowly, steadily—like a flame tunneling through black soil.
“You know, we could try climbing that tree.” Abra looks past me to a thick fallen birch that has created an arch over the trail. Laughter echoing in the quiet of the snow, we unstrap our snowshoes, shimmy up the trunk of the tree, and drag our bellies across the bark, pushing away the snow as we go. We wedge ourselves between a few branches and breathe, feet dangling five feet above where we were standing before. Abra pulls out a Nalgene full of warm mint tea and we alternate sipping from it, lips chapped and red. The air stands cold and the trees glow a soft orange.
Abra lets out a contented sigh. We keep our eyes on the bursting pink in the distance, waiting.