Travel Journals - China - Prologue

excerpt from China Pennywalk

China Pennywalk

As a child I loved pennywalks, tossing a penny at every corner, heads go right, tails go left, unless a different direction seems better. Although I no longer use a coin, I haven't outgrown the game.

And I haven't outgrown the suspicion that there's reason behind chance, behind where I happen to step, what I happen to see, whom I happen to pass on the street, or sit next to on the plane. Like the man on my left at the moment. He's clasping his hands over his nose almost as if he were praying, then banging his fist rhythmically on the window ridge. He must be afraid of flying. He just dumped his peanuts out of the foil bag, making a neat little pile in the middle of his napkin. He probably wants to know exactly what to expect, doesn't want to be taken by surprise, to stick his finger in the bag and find there's nothing left.

If so, he's the opposite of me. It's the surprises that animate life. Too much salt, a bit of mold, a hint of honey, every package is loaded with unknowns, whether peanuts or people, strangers or friends. Including my husband.

Life with Adolph's a pennywalk, even when he's out of town. While he was in New York last week, I decided to change our bedding. Usually it's a joint project since we both hate to do it. I dropped the top sheet into the laundry basket, the bottom sheet, my outer pillowcase, thinking I should have checked the linen closet first. The pillowcases have been missing recently. Maybe the kids took them. Eli could have some in Taiwan, Joshua in Portchester, Sarah in Brooklyn, Rosenblatt pillowcases all over the world. I dropped my inner case into the laundry basket, musing on the patterns, roses, daisies, stripes, nothing in our house matches. I took off Adolph's outer case, his inner one, there was another. I removed that, Lilac watching and wagging her tail. There was a fourth. I chuckled. A fifth, a sixth, a seventh, our pillowcases aren't all over the world, they're all on Adolph's pillow. An eighth, I was laughing so hard the dog got upset and ran out of the room.

I already knew Adolph ignores details. It took me 27 years to notice that sometimes he doesn't change his dirty case, just puts a clean one over it.

So, is it merely chance? Today's coin toss sat me next to a man who wants to know exactly when his peanuts will run out, while I'm thinking about pennywalks, thinking my life is a grab bag of surprises.

And predictability.

Music of the fifties awakens Adolph and me at 5:30 every morning. Depending on tune and mood, I'll hobble or dance out of bed; Adolph usually sleeps a little longer. I might do yoga, he won't; I'll definitely swim, he might. Whatever the weather, I'll bike the half mile to the Shorewood Pool. Whatever the weather, he'll drive.

Biking makes each day an adventure; after all, this is Wisconsin, land of thirty below and ninety above, of rainstorms, of blizzards, of sleet. If the sunrise is spectacular, I'll detour past Lake Michigan. If the morning is dark and frigid, I'll wonder about that elusive line between discipline and madness. As I stand at the water's edge, cotton in ears, goggles over eyes, two caps on my head, I might wonder some more. I doubt Adolph does. If he's there, he's plowing back and forth in the diving well, no cotton, no cap, no goggles. He swims fifty widths, I swim forty lengths.

Then breakfast. Adolph has coffee with cream and sugar; I drink mine unsweetened and diluted. He has an apricot houmentaschen; I have a bran muffin. He reads the TIMES first, then gives it to me. Actually he delivers it to me. For he has his breakfast at Benjy's Kosher Deli; I have mine at the Oakland Cafe. In fact, I spend the whole morning there, for that's where I write. He spends the morning sculpting.

Neither of us like ivory towers. He lugs fifty pounds of clay to the bleachers for Brewer games, to cow pastures, swimming pools, alleyways, restaurants; or he invites people to pose at his studio. I write in cafes, libraries, airplanes, anywhere but near my telephone. I paint and draw along the lakefront, in parks, department stores, in darkened theaters. Instead of working in peace and quiet, we immerse ourselves in the world around us.

That's how our art comes about, by combining discipline, chance, and the vagaries of our minds. We've got to be there every day, playing with clay, paint, or words when the wild image appears. In the arts, as in science, the clue to discovery is taking advantage of accidents. A slip of the tongue may improve a poem, a slip of the hand may add life to paint. The unconscious mind may form images that the controlled, conscious mind could never create. I count laps, I pedal, and my thoughts drift. The exercise before I write allows me to peek into the part of my mind that knows much more than I think I know, remembers everything I've forgotten, recognizes my feelings, and organizes my life into metaphors and symbols.

Dreams are similar peeks; they're proof that every human mind is creative. Right before my fortieth birthday, I had one that changed my life:

I was searching in the dark for the bus stop. I had to get the number eighty, it was the only way to get home. My feet led me, over concrete, gravel, clay, through a cornfield, over twigs and underbrush, and finally to a bed of pine needles where I fell asleep.

When I awoke, light was seeping through pines, and the world was transformed. I walked along roads totally new yet hauntingly familiar, and arrived at home exhausted and exhilarated. I didn't even notice that the number eighty had passed me by.

The dream was so vivid I wrote down every detail in the middle of a June night in 1977. The following day I wrote a short story. Then another. Strange, I was a painter, not a writer. Then another. I wrote ten short shorts in a week. It was unsettling. After twenty years of trying to establish myself as an artist, why was I suddenly writing?

I guess it was another version of pennywalking. Not only had the dream told me to take another path, it was so intense it became the path. Popping into my mind a few days before I turned forty, it showed me a new route to eighty.

Adolph and I used to pennywalk with our children in unfamiliar parts of Milwaukee. Years later the five of us traveled in Mexico with a similar attitude, never sure where we were going until we got there. Maybe that's why Eli's job at a Chinese restaurant led us all to China.

He scrubbed soy sauce from plates, peeled shrimp, learned how to cut broccoli and bok choy on a bias and to sauté vegetables in a wok; he picked up a few words of Chinese from the cooks. Eventually he moved to Taipei.

Adolph, Sarah, Joshua, and I visited him for a week that July. From there the five of us went to China. Sarah's a poet, Eli and Joshua are painters, none of us live according to an itinerary. We extended our pennywalk half-way round the world.

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