By Vickie Ya-Rong Chang
Recorded by author
Sitting in stillness (or is it aliveness) like the stately family of wood that lines the road— rooted to the earth below and connected to the sky above, swayed by the wind of the breath and the steady thrum of the red heart, I pull the darkness out of me and it sits like an old friend, before me, close enough to touch. Today it looks like a chair, with arms and a back, legs and a head, the color of my raven tresses, the hairs stiffened and matted into form.
The chair is living and it is dead.
Much like my dear friend—the young sapling—living behind the wooden box that I call home. I am startled when the elderly mother with wavy ramen framing her pale face remarks—half of the tree is dead. I look in wonder—green sprouting from one side of the intertwined legs, and bare branches on the other. We could cut off the dead part, she suggests. I feel the curl of fear in the belly. To let go of what is dead, when it has been supporting me day after day after day. The days turning into weeks years decades centuries lifetimes.
How easily cement can be mistaken for wood. A lie for the truth.
What is alive and what is masquerading as life?
Life is red.
The red of the moon blood that echoes the rhythm of the tides, stopping, starting, coming monthly, some years not at all, confident in her knowing.
The bumps on the tongue lazing in the mouth, begging for rasa, the juice of life.
The red of the match box, the sudden tiny spark that comes from the alchemy of x + y that starts the journey. The journey with no ending or beginning.
The howl of an newborn emerging from the womb, our first home, the first migration that contains it all.
And the long journey back to the first wail of life from the red mouth of desire.
The simplicity of answers that lie in the trill of the tiny brown birds flying in ribboned paths
the fat bulges of pollen on
the yellow bees’ hanging legs
the curve of the opulent white petal
the click of the glossy raven’s claws on the roof
the blue dragonfly tickling my toes, nudging me to
s e e.
The way the everything everything bends towards the light. How the sacredness of play, pleasure, rage and desire have become revolutionary, radical, forbidden like the name of the dark purple rice I eat with red jujubes and black sesame seeds.
We have created an enemy of the untamable current of life, and the loud echo of violence lives within the wild animals we inhabit—that we force into obedience in a culture a country a world that worships machines, productivity, doing, mind. We have moved from the simple truth of being, belonging, relationship—each breath, cry, and life—to war. The instinct for survival, so deeply planted in all living beings, resting alert in the base of the brain, has been weaponized for a masquerade called life.
Buried within us like the terra-cotta warriors in the ancient capital of Xi’an, we are commanded by a motherless dead king come to life across continents cultures peoples. The ruthless precision of war—to defend to the death—for survival. The elaborate structures each with their specific purpose; the weapons the planning the strategy the armies.
Tracing circles on the soft rounded belly, the limp cobwebs of the mind clear. The truth spills out, and I walk the red road home.
* * *
Life is red.
The red threads representing the Buddha’s robes that adorned the tiny bones of my wrist for nearly a decade. The terror and pain of living in a Taiwanese monastery surrounded by a culture by people cut off from sensuality play desire…separated by lifetimes dynasties from what makes us human. Duty responsibility guilt shame, the guards of patriarchy, dictating nearly every moment every gesture all the way back to the Qin Dynasty that marked the beginning of the Chinese empire over 2000 years ago. The way that work and play were once lovers, one feeding the other, not knowing where one ends and the next begins. Now we are like buzzing drones hovering over life, not quite touching the rich fertile soil of the earth.
The feral kittens who come to teach us how to play how to learn; who remind us how to be. The tumbling the rowdiness, hanging off the curtains on the dining hall tables, the temple suddenly a playground, creating havoc, breaking all the rules, meowing in the face of the scolding tiny nun, and everyone laughs, delights, and the wild animal imprisoned inside breathes.
Spirituality culture life are shaped by the motherless dead king buried within us. The beauty the power the freedom of the lineage outside these boxes outside these rules, the truth that is bigger than all of these ideas, decaying at the moment of birth, destined for death. The months at the monastery remind me, imprint upon me as if for the first time, I have forgotten so deeply, that I am as sacred as the land holding these tender yellow feet, that I am connected in each moment with the ancestors the spirits the deities. The truth knocked into me like the newborn before it takes its first breath, and I remember.
The gift from my ancestral lineage that changes everything and the oppression of day to day life in the monastery like the legs of the dead/alive tree. So when I leave the lush tropical countryside by the sea on a tiny island on this round globe surrounded by fertile darkness, I gasp a deep breath and another and another—the fullness of being reunited with the wild inside. Untangling all the red threads as I drop the robes from my shoulders and step into the arms of the mother—I no longer serve the dead king.
* * *
Life is red.
The color of the square plastic card that fuels the hunt for riches running beneath the land of the people that call themselves red. The body, the land, our first mother, becomes a commodity to be measured, exploited, destroyed. Certain parts, like breasts like oil gas uranium petroleum coal, are deemed of value and pillaged to scarcity—whole ecosystems families communities cultures continents left decimated thirsty screaming dying. The ruthless nature of war, driven to the bitter end by the imaginary engine of survival. A war in our home against ourselves within our bodies against our bodies.
The dying Navajo/Diné, whose territory has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the nation. To be at the top— in obesity substance use diabetes heart disease death—different words diagnoses boxes all pointing to the same violence the same war—a country bowing to the god of patriarchy of separation scarcity and powerlessness, that decides which lives which bodies which beings matter. The green soil flowing like water in the direction of power—the idea twisted bloodied. The decades of oil gas uranium petroleum mining absorbed into the water the soil the food the body. Disrupting the sanctity of the womb of the earth from which we all live. The red handprint on the mouth of the epidemic of murdered missing Indigenous women driven by the men who come to rape the earth.
The genocide that birthed the country I call home alive breathing each day every moment. The shame of being part of a family that murders discards leaves to die. I see red. The rage (fierce compassion) of the red dragon that rises from the belly, fire erupting from her mouth, knowing
the strength the singular power and value of each being. The true meaning of power as reflected in the elements—the power of a cresting wave (water) is not the power of the first spark known to mankind (fire) is unlike the power of air cycling in and out of the intricate lungs is different than its friend metal (who teaches alchemy) and its cousin wood (earth incarnate). The beating of the red heart, the roar of the small dragon (⼩ ⿓, snake) when I dare to exist to see to feel to speak.
For the indigenous way of life, the indigenous way of being circles around relationship, the opposite of war. Where there is no enemy, only kissing cousins, fathers, grandmothers, sisters, friends—all creatures within their own divine place in the mysterious adventure of life. Protectors, we call the Indigenous and those who stand by them, who live by the wisdom of their ways. Land protectors water protectors air protectors. The word pointing to the truth that we cannot live without this holy protection— without the very foundation that we stand on being love.
* * *
Life is red.
The color of the forked tongue of the serpent that dared to enter the house of the two legged in a small town in Mother India. The fear in the daughter the mother driving the fingers to dial the number to call the father the uncle the brother the friend to beat the living creature to death with the slender piece of wood, an echo of her body. The powerful blows, the thuds against the concrete ringing in my ears even as I protest, the useless prayers, the disdain in their faces, this foreigner who does not understand. Then, her long body senseless, the red blood staining the earth always staining the sacred.
The sorrow etched across the daughter’s face, hands pressed against the long dress and pants, legs always shielded from view. She haltingly tells me that they worship the king cobra, and I watch from a distance, numb, filled with dread with remorse as they burn her body, offer prayers, and pour milk on the earth.
The next day a dam has loosened inside me and the tears come in wild torrents like a storm in the high desert. The killing of the serpent has become the war against the feminine, the desecration of the sacred animal body. I touch all the bruises in the psyche, living in the body, from being brutally attacked, beaten, and burned for daring to exist. For longing for desire for moving with the wild body with the belly against the earth. The grief the tears the rage that rise from deep inside into a standing king cobra, alertness blazing from her eyes, ready to defend to strike to live to dance to be.
The ash of the fire stains the earth for weeks months as I circle back on two wheels to remember her, the heart tight, the eyes stinging. Until one warm night, the air punctuated by howling dogs who remember they were once grey wolves, a father with the face of a teenager reminds me, his green eyes looking into my brown ones, as an old friend from another land looks on, that yes, I am the murdered serpent,
I am the mother and daughter who called the men
I am the wooden stick that beat her
I am the men who burned her
I am the red orange blue flames licking her slender form into black ashes
I am the milk poured on the earth
I am the grieving daughter
and I am the earth receiving it all.
The lesson he learned from a teacher whose father was killed in a civil war of the tiny tear drop country, the size belying its heart, Sri Lanka, only a one hour away says the iron man in the sky. And the words, the light in his eyes, my silent friend with the heart full of love leaning towards me, and even the dogs listen as I take one breath then another and another and something inside me slows, and the shaky voice rests, the lungs stop heaving, the heart returns to stillness.
* * *
There is a chasm the width and depth of the grand canyon between survival and living. To travel from the red zone of terror, the mechanized war paths of survival, molded and incited by patriarchy, colonization, capitalism and their children, migration, plague, famine, war
The breathing red fire of the belly, the beating vastness of the great still heart is the work of a lifetime(s).
The truth is that there is nothing safe about being alive; to seek safety in life is certain death. When I follow the heartbeat of the earth; when the heart is my guru and the body is my temple, the red road takes me places beyond imagination. After all, the mind can only create what it knows.
I walk on the earth and she meets me like a lover. The wind caresses my cheek, stroking my hair back from my forehead. The ants tickle my feet and run up my legs, leaving a trail of wonder at all the different shapes of consciousness. The sun celebrates the magnificence of my beauty. I look upon the mountains with the eyes of a mother, full of pride, feeling their solidity inside. The ocean swells in my belly. All the senses are heightened; I can breathe, taste, smell, hear, and touch the earth in symphony. The feeling of arousal echoes the dense, low, full clouds before a tempest. The earth entreats me to open my legs to her, to allow her to reside in the center of my being. She tells me to live how I want to touch and be touched.
Today, I speak of violence and of peace. No one naturally silences the life force; we do so in order to survive. To be separated from the false safety of survival that is American, Chinese ancestral family culture is tantamount to death. And I had to wait until I was ready to die, to live.
Recorded by Carmen Rumbaut
The second daughter of Chinese immigrants, Vickie Ya-Rong Chang (she/her) was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her work as a psychologist and writer, she is dedicated to personal = collective liberation. She is strengthened by her connection to Chinese ancestral practices and shaped by her relationship with the people, culture, and land of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, first settled by the Pueblo peoples, the Ute, and the Jicarilla Apache, and known by the Navajo/Diné; the holy hill Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, India; and the Divine Buddha Temple in Taiwan.