When I saw my partner on the floor and realized he had had a stroke, the strangest thing happened: it was that my life that passed before my eyes; my mortality stared back at me.
The awareness of death lingers as a constant deep in my consciousness. It’s part of my being. I hear Don Juan tell Carlos Castaneda that Death hovered behind his left shoulder and would tap, “It’s Time.” My mother would say that on the day you are born, the day you are to die is already written. These concepts felt ethereal. The picture before my eyes of the fallen man with drool on his chin was tangible, tactile.
I sat in silence next to my partner who lay in a hospital bed. I heard a voice tell me I had to make a “bucket list.” It sounded so cliche. I blamed Jack Nicholson. I didn’t see the movie, but I was living in L.A. and the promotional campaign was everywhere. The jargon stuck, as did the concept which I understood as “the doing for the sake of doing.” Like “art for art’s sake.” Something bourgeois, self-serving.
Concrete passion had a habit of eluding me. I didn’t feel the purposeful drive people who accomplish a lot have. I know people of that caliber, women in particular. I am in awe of them, often wish I was like them, but I am more a person behind the scenes, wanting to be in the shadows. I felt my purpose was to to be of service, in whatever way I could. Or I was before I asked myself that question. I went for walks, read books and wrote in my journal.
That was enough. Until…
“What do I want to accomplish before I die?”
The answer was immediate: write the story of the two months I traveled through Communist China in 1988. I would call it an epiphany, but I had already attempted it over the years. I had three sets of typed sheets of paper, word for word from my journal, done on an electric typewriter and a manual one.
Watching the green lights monitor my companion’s heartbeat, I determined to make it a story. It was a journal written by a young woman of 21 years who studied fine art, not creative writing. (Years later I would read Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg scribble into notebooks stream of consciousness.**)
I began in earnest, fired up for the first time in a long time with a burning desire to complete a long term goal. I figured if that answer was so immediate it must be “my bliss.” I blamed Joseph Campbell for making me want to “follow my bliss.” (And Bill Moyers for interviewing him and introducing him to me.) I did like to draw with pastels, oil sticks, crayons, charcoal, pencils on paper, but that wasn’t the answer that came to me. It was the story of my traveling through China. I didn’t know why it was so important, one doesn’t need to when it’s a matter of the bucket list. It just is important for no reason.
My personality began to change. I became mono-focused, obsessed, impatient, totally self-centered. A Narcissist I think is the word.
A few months later was my 40th birthday. I celebrated on the equator in an eco-cabin high on a cliff. The windows were wide, without screens or glass. There was ocean as far as the eye could see. The royal blue canvas could be zippered close for when the monsoons blew in. And they did.
I had with me my first black spiral bound manuscript and several pencils. I read what was written out loud, protected from embarrassment by the surf pounding against the rocky shoreline, and the company of friends.
I also had with me what would turn out to be the first book I read related to my story: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I bought it in the airport. I knew her name from the old hardcovers on a shelf of my mother’s. Their presence during my childhood may have one of two subtle conditioning toward my desire to know China. The other were wall plaques my mother bought on a trip to San Francisco just before I was born.On each was a reproduction of a watercolor engravings of a scene in China at the turn of the century. The time of Pearl S. Buck’s stories. The pictures were dark, one had to stand close to study the details, to peer into the past. For my mother they were a treasure, a souvenir purchase from a fancy department store. She hung them in every house we lived in, usually in the kitchen – her domain. For me, they were haunting. They spoke of a foreign land, a time that had stood still. (Little did I know what was really going on in China in the early 1900s, but that information came years later when I chanced upon another old hardback by Pearl S. Buck titled: The Man Who Changed China, The Story of Sun Yat-sen.)**
My partner made a stellar recovery and I stayed on task with finishing my book. (Little did I know it would take seven years.) I had a story to go with my mother’s plaques.
The next thing on my list: learning to play the fiddle. (How is that for bourgeois?) I’ve been practicing for six months steady. Now that I’m finally sounding better I can feel a mono-focused passion coming in again: all I want to do is play my violin.
Each pictures was done by a different engraver: Samuel Bradshaw, F.F. Walker, W.H. Capone, J.Sand, J.B.Allen, H. Adler. All were drawn by T. Allons.
*Any skill I might have writing can be attributed to one man: Christopher Ross, my editor extraordinaire.
In my book, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map. Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.” Feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org My website has lots of pictures: elizabethpilar.com If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from your local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection. $18.99 softcover ISBN: 978-0-9904251-9-9