Bird of paradise
Tien Hau is the oldest Chinese temple in the US, built in 1852. It is located on the top floor of what looks like a residential building in a Chinatown alley, and this is not a place to sit in quiet contemplation. This is a working temple, where busy ladies sit along the wall folding paper, which visitors buy to burn in the fireplace. The ceiling is covered in red and gold lanterns, with dangling messages attached, while every surface is covered in icons and incense. The smoke fills the temple before escaping out the open door, taking the prayers along with it.
You can’t stand on a corner looking contemplative for long in this city before someone asks if they can help you, or alternatively, if you can help them. In Chinatown, an old man who saw me standing on the curb asked if I was looking for somewhere to eat, and when I said yes he offered to show me somewhere. He thought I was brave to come to San Francisco alone, but he came here alone once too, from Hong Kong. “This city gives you wings,” he said, as we walked up to a little restaurant on Stockton. He used to be an engineer, then an English teacher, and now he teaches philosophy and theology in two languages; “Oh if I had kept diaries I’d be famous,” he said, cracking up. He pointed me to a seat in the restaurant and came back with a plate of food for me, and as I ate we talked about books and languages. I asked if he had a family but he has other priorities: “For 31 years I have not held a lady’s hand. I like to be in the library, but I would come home and she would ask, are you married to me or to the books?” He leaned forward, his eyes lighting up: “I like ideas.” The trouble with people is that we all come from such different places, he said: “You are the kite, they are tugging at the string. They have to work hard to keep up with you.”
I think it’s called synchronicity, this feeling. That’s what Ely said as I was going on about how everything seems to be happening faster, like when you are on a bike and it’s soaring downhill and you feel completely in control, and the lights turn green when you want them to and everything just flows. We were having food at Burma Superstar in the Richmond last night, arriving at pensioners’ dinnertime in order to beat the crowds that invariably form outside, swooning over the tea leaf salad, the mint chicken, the beef curry. It’s manna from heaven, this place. That tea leaf salad! I have no words to describe what goes on on that plate, just that it came from the earth and has been touched by magic. But the synchronicity. Usually when I feel like things are speeding up it’s not a good thing, as I’ll be constantly scrambling to catch up, but now … maybe it’s because I’m in full holiday mode, having officially given up on doing any work until I get home, meaning I have nothing to do other than to walk around and ponder these things. I’m a little amazed at this holiday feeling, even though it was sort of the plan, but it’s been so long since I’ve thought about other things than work that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to put it away. But as they say, a little freedom is a dangerous thing. I’m in Maxfield’s House of Caffeine again, by way of Dolores Park, about to go over to Yoga Tree in Castro for another vinyasa class. Happiness is a sunny day. But right now all I can think about is how I want to go on the road, on and on, because a month is just enough to show me a flash of what it could be like. I never thought I wanted to go travelling on my own, but now, as I’m plugged in and the impulses come thick and fast, the thought has taken root.