birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


It is 1987 and I am standing in the rice fields of Ningbo, China thinking I've carried this too far. The Number One Teaching Building rises out of the rice fields all glass and chrome and brick rising to a point like a Salvador Dali painting against a gray sky. A water buffalo frolics in the mud untethered to its farmer, dancing and splashing and snorting like a massive black Labrador.

I am teaching English with my new husband, who finds everything about China fascinating and intriguing, while I find it all much too much. The world is spinning and I am in some far off land thinking about the red clay of Georgia or the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, furious with myself for being homesick for places that I fought so hard to escape.

Each day, the girls in the Foreign Guesthouse bring us bottles of the thick, creamy milk and two bottles of beer and long sticks of fried dough. We live in two rooms - one room is a kind of living room and the other is the bedroom. At first we were in one room, but the other two foreign teachers told us to ask for two rooms, since there were two of us.

We asked and so we moved downstairs in two rooms near the canal.

Each day, I watch a fisherman fishing in the canal. He seems infinitely patient. The rice fields stretch out for miles. Town is a two-mile bike away on a skinny road where trucks honk and fight to pass each other, ignoring bikers and buses.

On Saturdays we bike into town to shop, and on a particular Saturday, my husband buys a chicken, a live chicken, that we carry home in the bike basket.

We put it on the back porch and it walks around, clucking. My husband intends to kill the chicken and make a baked chicken in the little oven in the hallway. He wants to give me a taste of home.

The murder takes place in the bathroom. The cook in the kitchen has taught him how to kill a chicken. My husband grew up in the country and saw a few of these killings. On the afternoon of the murder, I can't listen to squawking in the bathroom and the flutter and panic behind the door, so I leave and go to the rice fields.

I walk for miles listening to Laurie Anderson and Mozart and Harry Chapin and the Beatles - I wonder what they were all doing at age twenty-five. They seemed all infinitely braver than me and a million times smarter. I had this idea that going all the way around the world would somehow make our lives mean something meaningful. I am terrified of living a life without meaning - I saw the people who stayed in Knoxville and that equated to death for me.

(I was so judgmental in those days.)

So we teach English to freshman and I make them do plays in English that they perform. My husband helps me direct the plays. He teaches the engineering students and names them Picasso, Van Gogh, Washington and Lincoln.

My students give themselves English names. One is Helen after the brave girl in Jane Eyre, and another is Jenny after the brave girl in Love Story.

I walk and think of these students and I think of home, and I hope that somehow my life with my new husband, who at this moment, is killing a chicken in the bathtub, in order to give me a home-cooked meal with spices, will make me less homesick and anxious.

I walk through the rice fields, and I hope that somehow, one day, our life will mean something.

Then I see a giant ship sailing along the river just past the rice fields, and I know it is the giant passenger ship to Shanghai. I wave and long to cry, "Take me with you! Take me with you."

But instead I make my way back to the Foreign Guesthouse. I've been gone a long time. The chicken is in the oven. What do I do then? I don't know. I can't remember. Maybe I write a letter home on my typewriter. Maybe I open a beer. Maybe I read a story to my husband.

I don't look in the bathroom even though it's been cleaned.

Those days were long ago, but it's like they were yesterday.

Far Away