I kept a quiet, little blog in 2010 called “Arm’s Length Cottage” chronicling our year in agricultural area of Yunlin County, Taiwan.

From the archives:

January 3, 2010

a thousand moons on a thousand rivers

On our train to Taipei this weekend, I started reading Hsiao Li-Hung’s “A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers.” So far its about a young exuberant Taiwanese girl who’s bad at school and longs to stay put in her home town in the Taiwanese countryside, around about where Michael and I are living now. The requisite pressure from her family to exceed in academics and find a well-paying career diverge with her desire to be filial and an attentive good family person, despite the circumstances taking her away from her family. In the slightest of stretches, I feel a little bit like her. There are the folks that stay put and near to their families, and they are the ones that keep the heritage ball bouncing, living true to something filial and embedded in local culture. From my far-flung outposts, I only experience family, rootedness, and community, in the abstract appreciation of other people’s culture. 

In the story, Zhenguan says, “How happy are those that never have to leave their home!” I think it’s true. If you never have an existential, egoistic, or otherwise psychic pull away from your home and family, or outside circumstances pushing you out, then I’d say that’s at least a good foundation for contentedness. 

I learned a little something about Daosim a few years ago on a night bus to a since forgotten southern Chinese town. Consider a green hilly and mountainous world, prehistoric “China,” a fog streaming, lush landscape of 500 B.C.E, whose valleys thrived with villages, whose residents rarely encountered one another, so much that over the centuries these isolated areas created a myriad of mutually unintelligible dialects. Such was the geographic context from which Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’ first emerged, and, of course, predating Lao Tzu himself. One may ask, from a Taoist perspective, if you hear a dog barking or a rooster crying over the next hill, what makes you curious and driven to cross the hill and enter the village, which is exactly like your own, simply to see what’s going on over there? We’ve got our own barking dogs and cryings roosters. What delusion are you following that you do not have enough where you stand, that you might need to seek something new? Despite it ringing true to me, as I stared out the window of the bus, cutting through the darkness of a place far remote from my home, my adult life at that point and to this day is either a challenge or a doggedly naive rebuke of that idea. I guess I will know which when I am 70.

I’ve put myself in the path of my interests and big dreams. I’ve been successful, but I’ve also achieved a great aloneness. Michael and I both feel this way, though we are not paralyzed by it, but driven by it. And we often justify it as such: We belong to a tradition of humans who don’t settle down. That’s our tradition. We’re led by curiosities and a tendency toward periodic change. Modern lives are characterized by this, and we’re no different. Our nomadic, mobile culture is our own unique offering to the human fabric. Those who stay close to home are sewing metaphoric threads that will stand the test of time, and they settlers and culture makers need us, the travelling storytellers to deliver the news of the world beyond. They’ll need to see how others live, they need us to show them something mundane from far away. They need us to tell them that those in the far-flung hills are just the same as us. It’s a fundamental lesson that must be continaully reminded.

In the story, Zhenguan, returns periodically for holidays from her big city college. Her family tip-toe around her as she “studies” by candle light under a mosquito net. Having gotten used to her isolation, she takes to reading in the crumbly quiet cottage in the back of her grandparents traditional-style country home. They do not bother her; they are satisfied by her seeming commitment to academics. They call it the “arm’s length” cottage.” And she stows away in there reading fantasy kung fu comic books, far enough away, but close.

From the blog “Arm’s Length Cottage”

Hannah Pierce-Carlson, 2010

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