By Tori Peters
A softness fills the evening air as the immediate foreground darkens. Shapes blend into the landscape while the sky above holds gently to the fading light. Sitting in the Japanese Tea House with my friends at the Beitou Museum, in Taiwan, I sip the jasmine tea and nibble cashews and anise flavored watermelon seeds. As we write in our journals, our silence allows threads of memories and thoughts to weave through the evening light.
When tired, my mind refuses to follow one strand. Like a bird in a garden, it jumps from now, to yesterday, to years ago and back to this moment. But the bird flitting between the flowers gathers bugs and nectar for nourishment. My flitting between memories gather threads of experiences from my life of travel. Which threads will I choose today to work into my writing?
Looking out the wooden framed squares of glass in the Tea House, I see that the soft pinks of the sunset produce silhouettes of the evenly spaced trees that break the rounded breasts of the hills. I catch a thread and hold for a moment the memory of another time. A hill crest in Kenya with similar shaped trees. My youngest daughter and I watch giraffes moving between the trees. Their long necks undulating, heads slightly bobbing as they move across the hill plucking leaves from the trees. I let this thread go as a thread from this afternoon needles into my mind.
In the Beitou Museum, I saw beautiful embroidered chest coverings. During the Han and Ming Dynasties women bound their chests because flat chested women were considered graceful. The mandarin words for these coverings are Zhuyao and duduo. I admired blue and white threads closely satin stitched to create an egret in a garden. I delighted in another that included red pomegranates visible through green leaves. Still another stitched brightly colored blue, purple, and red threads forming chrysanthemums and orchids. Many women today own and wear bras decorated with lace or floral material.
Thinking of bras brings another memory. It was May, the lilacs were just beginning to bloom, I attended a luncheon in the Seattle area. The guest speaker, from the Museum of History and Industry, talked about the history of Women’s underwear. The topic fascinated me. I learned that after women won the right to vote, they bound their chests to appear more masculine? I wonder if they chose flower embroidered or laced material? Did men see them as more graceful?
In the 60’s women “burned their bras” to symbolize their desire for freedom from a male dominated society that believed women’s place was in the home. I did not throw away my bra, but I threw out my girdle which had a flower design.
I wonder why human beings spend hours recreating beauty? We take ourselves away from the hills, trees, flowers, and animals depositing our bodies into villages, towns, and cities. Our art shapes the land and nature and creates the ideal while the giraffe must be wary of the lion. Taking paint brush or needle and thread, or words, we attempt to recreate the world from which we have removed ourselves. Once finished, we then place these works of art close to us so that we may again be near nature. I have a framed quilted hanging in my bedroom. Words written in ink on the silk, “Mama always said, ‘You’d best try to shape the land, cause if you don’t it will shape you.’”*
Thinking of art, my mind offers a thread from my first year in Taipei. I danced the Chinese ribbon dance with seven other women. Two of us claimed European ancestry, a third was from India, and the other four were of Chinese descent. We started practicing before Thanksgiving for the Chinese New Year performance for the International Women’s Club.
Our teacher told us that the dance came from the Han Dynasty (2068 B.C.- 420 A.D.) It tells the story of how Hsiang Po saved the emperors life by deflecting the assassin’s sword with his silk sleeve.
At first I felt quite clumsy and uncoordinated. With practice and hard work, my body became familiar and accepted the unfamiliar precise hand and feet movements and music.
I learned to walk on my toes, as though on bound feet, taking small, shuffled steps. (A picture from a year ago briefly interrupts my thoughts. I see the well dressed older woman holding on to the arm of a younger woman during the Lantern Festival. She shuffled along on her tiny feet which fit into shoes that could fit in the palm of my hand. (She is the only woman I’ve seen with bound feet.) I held my fingers just so - the thumb to a slightly arched ring finger with the other three daintily curved and held above the ring finger. We did not act out the story in the dance. The movement of swirling brightly colored ribbons spoke to me of freedom and happiness not the legend.
It wasn’t until I dressed for the performance that I began to have an inkling of the significance of tradition to the Chinese people. All I knew was that we would be wearing traditional dress. I put on a white blouse covered with richly floral embroidered wide red collar with gold fringe. Around the long white skirt, I tied an apron of hanging colored satin strips embellished with stitched multicolored flowers. I placed the silver tiara on my head and thought, “This is the real thing.”
My friends’ quiet voices interrupted my thoughts. I put down my pen. I listen. We pour more tea, and I join the conversation. We share stories of living and working in Taipei. Someone changes the topic to summer travel. Another thread runs through my head as I remember the calligraphy piece on a wall at home. “Travel…I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”*
I have become unbound from the traditions of my childhood. I am not the person that I was when I left the United States. The colored threads of my experiences have embroidered new understandings of the world around me and the people who share this earth with me.
*Quilted Piece by M. Ensign Johnson
*“Travel” by Mary Anne Radmacher
For Tori Peters, writing and travel are an important part of who she is. She and her husband, now deceased, raised their four children in Africa and Asia, mostly because of his career in the Foreign Service. While raising children, traveling, and journaling, she taught fifth grade in Everett, Washington, Middle School Language Arts at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, and High School English at Taipei American School in Taiwan, Taipei. She has also walked the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago, Spain and then on to Finisterre, Spain, close to 900 km. Together with six other women, from 40-72 years old, Tori trekked for six days in the Andes Mountains from Cachora, to Choquiquerao, and eventually to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Now it is time to write. She is presently working on a memoire of their life experiences living in Mali and Rwanda, and Tunisia, Africa.
We have such a variety of writers in our organization that we thought it would be fun, exciting and enlightening to have multiple blog post authors.
We will be sharing all sorts of writing-related topics!