I Have No Doubt

They are building some high rises about a kilometre from my apartment. At night as they weld the steel together, I can see the sparks cascading down, just like they did when we used to play with sparklers as kids on special occasions that fell on summer nights. For the two or three minutes it took for them to burn themselves out, all us kids would run around crazed with the power of fire, writing our names in the night sky, laughing maniacally.

Beijing is developing so fast because these buildings are worked on night and day by rotating shifts of workers. There is no rest for “progress” they say, and I feel a sense of loss watching those sparks fall and then disappear as though they were never really here in the first place. The sparks are like the nature that the building is being built upon; falling silently, beautiful until the last instant, and then forgotten.

I stand at my window thinking about the heights we grasp at as a culture bent on metallic, vertical progress. Are we trying to get closer to the heavens, subconsciously? Or are we just so caught up in the superficial price of land that narrow, vertical shafts of cube-box living is the fiscal reality? And space—don’t forget space. We’re running out of it, especially in these monstrous cities. Everything is a commodity.

For the past two years during the time when I’m back in Beijing in between touring and being in Canada, I have been living in an apartment. Strange for me, considering my love affair with the countryside that was so short-lived but so solidly imprinted. I’ve tried to make the best of it and now have a blooming garden on my large balcony filled with fifteen kinds of organic vegetables. My planters are lining shelves and counters and the balcony floor, and there’s still half a balcony for sitting in and watching the clouds. Since I don’t live in a super-high building, I am on the top floor of a 30-year-old apartment block and I have a huge balcony (the size of a separate room) with no roof to block the light and tall privacy walls on both sides. When I sit down on my folding chair and look up at the sky, it looks the same as it used to look in the country, even on the grey days. Sky is sky. It’s vast.

But this is my limit. I don’t want to live higher than this. This building doesn’t even have an elevator and I like it that way. I think modern constructions have taken the expression “the sky’s the limit” a little too literally. Six floors up and I’m already a little woozy when I look down!

But all of the above is nothing new. It’s been written about before. These are not ground-breaking ideas (pun intended!).

The question, remains: What do we do about the inherent contradictions under our very feet, holding us up, reflecting back our shiny ethics with enough glare to make anyone feel like a hypocrite? For instance, I’m living part-time in a city that is really struggling to deal with its pollution issues. It’s over crowded. It’s home to a huge migrant population that are underpaid and overworked building hugh scyscrapers day and night. And that’s just a few of the modern problems. I’m also living in an apartment block that was built on farmland. Thirty years ago or today, it’s still the same issue. So what’s to be done?

Well, for me, it’s about acknowledging that I’m in progress too. This city offers so much beauty and culture and wisdom, but it’s not perfect. And living up (even just six floors) off of the land makes me all the more conscious of what we are doing to it. I’m trying to balance out the bad with the good. For instance, it’s dry here in Beijing. It’s a dry climate. I collect rain water on my balcony. I have rigged the sinks and the washing machine to drain water into collector buckers, and/or the bathtub, so that all the water gets reused for flushing the toilet or mopping the floors. Why our so-called civilized living has included the development of toilets that rely on fresh water to flush is beyond me. This is just one way.

But, mostly, I know my life is not 100% in line with what I believe and what I want for the future and I accept that…for now. Eight years ago, these words changed my life:

“It would be unrealistic to hold ourselves to a standard that is impossible to meet. Our lives cannot always correspond to every political and social principle we espouse. In some cases, it’s simply too difficult. In other cases, it’s impossible.

What each of us can do, though, is take an inventory of our thinking, our habits, our behaviours and our practices, and then get as many of them as possible in line with what we know is right. This kind of personal transformation won’t happen all at once. However, we can start by staying alert for signs of arrogance, power-grabbing and insensitivity and monitor ourselves [for hypocrisy]…

If we open our minds to constructive criticism, we can make meaningful changes. When we direct our activism inward as well as outward, then we can feel assured that we really are practicing what we preach.”

—VERA STOKE, Toronto, Canada—The Activist Magazine, Oct-Dec 2002

I am still watching the sparks from afar, tinged with a bit of sadness. Yet, I feel warmed too because there seems to be a sense of hope somewhere in a deeper place—hope as bright as the sparks themselves—and it’s bubbling up to meet me here at this sixth floor window. In exchange for water, perhaps the ground offers up hope? Especially when we give her a moment of our thoughts. Thank you. I’ll take it!

We’re all working so hard at our humanity, not matter what we’re doing. In the search for groundedness in understanding, there are many different maps. I have faith that we will all find our way. I have no doubt.

May the path be green.

– es

Cleaning the Window Glass

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