Tai Chi Morning: Snapshots of China

Tai Chi Morning
Tai Chi Morning

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a com­mon ques­tion authors hear, and I’m no excep­tion. Start­ing this month, I’ll be offer­ing a week­ly blog called “Back­sto­ry,” in which I’ll share the ori­gins of each of my books, as well as the fun­ny, quirky things that hap­pened dur­ing the process of cre­at­ing them.

In 1988, I joined a team lead by visu­al artists Gene and Mary­lou Tot­ten on a per­for­mance tour of Chi­na. Orig­i­nal­ly, I was only intend­ing to write some of the dra­mat­ic mono­logues mem­bers of the team would per­form on the planned tour.  How­ev­er, sev­er­al times dur­ing the course of work­ing on the scripts, the direc­tor encour­aged me to audi­tion for the team that would make the trip. I pooh-poohed the idea, but even­tu­al­ly decid­ed to audi­tion on a lark, nev­er expect­ing to make the cut. In fact, I invit­ed sev­er­al friends who were actu­al­ly per­form­ing artists to audi­tion them­selves. I fig­ured I’d tag along, for fun, and maybe one of them would make the team. As it hap­pened, none of my friends made the team, but I did! Some­where, God was laugh­ing. Before I knew it, I was pack­ing my bags for Beijing.

Years lat­er, I draft­ed a col­lec­tion of poems from my rem­i­nis­cences of that jour­ney. When I sent the man­u­script to my agent, I includ­ed pho­tographs I’d tak­en, as well as maps and an itin­er­ary of the tour, think­ing they might be use­ful as inspi­ra­tion for the illus­tra­tor, whomev­er that might be. (I nev­er expect­ed the pub­lish­er to use a pho­to­graph of me on the cov­er. I cringe every time I see it! Ugh.)

I sold the man­u­script and the search for an illus­tra­tor began. I had an artist in mind, but I had no real hope of secur­ing him. I sus­pect­ed he was incred­i­bly busy, knew that he would be expen­sive for the pub­lish­er in ques­tion, and was­n’t cer­tain he would even be inter­est­ed.  I mean, what were the chances that I would get the great, Calde­cott-win­ning Ed Young on board?

I need­n’t have wor­ried. Some things are sim­ply meant to be.

Tianenmen Square
Me and friend Car­ol Tam­men in Tiana­men Square

I ran into Ed at a con­fer­ence, told him I would love to work with him, some­day, and learned that—gasp!—the feel­ing was mutu­al! I wast­ed no time in telling him that I had a par­tic­u­lar project in mind, though I did­n’t spec­i­fy what it was. “I’ll have my pub­lish­er send it to you, if that’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll see where it leads.”

It led to some­thing pret­ty spe­cial. Ed signed on to illus­trate Tai Chi Morn­ing and took on the job of design­ing it as well. Incor­po­rat­ing the pho­tographs I’d tak­en, and adding his own sketch­es, Ed designed the book as a trav­el jour­nal. How per­fect was that? As it turned out, Ed was in Chi­na about the same time I was, and many of his sketch­es matched or com­ple­ment­ed the scenes in my pho­tographs. Can you say serendipity?

Oh, and did I men­tion that Ed is a Tai Chi mas­ter? I think I had him at the title!

God has a great sense of humor.

On the plane to Bei­jing, we were treat­ed to the movie The Last Emper­or. It was a per­fect intro­duc­tion to the ancient land we were about to explore, first hand.

The poems in Tai Chi Morn­ing are my attempt to cap­ture some of the once-in-a-life­time expe­ri­ences I had in the land of the For­bid­den City. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this col­lec­tion was inspired by my vis­it to that very place.  I’ll close with that.  If you’d like to read more, I hope you’ll find this title and share it with the young peo­ple in your life.

“The For­bid­den City”

Golden Lion
the bronze fig­ure in the poem

The For­bid­den City
where roy­al­ty was once

hid­den from view
is a place to tiptoe.
I fol­low the buzz of bodies
swarm­ing over acres
of paved walkway
and greet a bronze lion
guard­ing the ancient temple.
I pat his bur­nished head,
close my eyes and hear
the foot­falls of the last emperor
echo­ing through the courtyard.
His ghost­ly shape
waltzes in front of me.
He lifts a wavy finger
to his roy­al lips
and whispers

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