Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer William Lychack:
Yangon and the day starts the night before. We’re at the airport waiting to meet Owen, his first time back to Burma since taking off his monk’s robes. He looks so different when we see him—t-shirt, jeans, sneakers, watch, and hair—everything except his smile seems to have changed. It’s been a season of wild changes in Burma, as if some spell is slowly lifting from the country, and we catch up with Owen over dinner at a nearby restaurant, make plans to find each other in Mandalay later, and let him get to family and friends waiting for him.
This is my eighth visit to Burma in the last twelve years, my wife and I living in Mandalay last summer with our three young children. I’m traveling ahead of the rainy season this winter with a buddy of mine, the two of us heading first to Mandalay and then the elephant camps and villages north of Monywa and Shwebo.
Our plane leaves at seven the next morning, and we’re heading to the British Club for Yangon’s monthly gathering of expats. We’re lucky to have a chance to connect with the city’s diplomats and teachers and business owners over that medicinal tang of gin and tonics, night cool and comfortable, all the talk about the elections and changes building in Burma. There’s a charge to the air, an energy and excitement, everyone excited and hopeful, last call sneaking up to us surprisingly fast, city streets quiet and dark as we ride back to the hotel, our wake-up call in less than two hours, which is why the day starts the night before, that raw, out-of-sync feeling as we stand on the tarmac and climb the stairs to the plane.
I wish I could describe the scene at the airport in Mandalay. Aung San Suu Kyi’s charter arrives just behind us, and hundreds of people press toward the gates, bright red flags and banners of National League for Democracy everywhere, everyone cheering and smiling and crying, everyone chanting, “Mae Suu! Jemma Bazé! Mae Suu! Jemma Bazé!” In the lobby, at the edge of the crowd, I ask an older man to translate what they’re saying. “It means,” he tells me and smiles, “Mother Suu, long life and good health!” There are tears in the man’s eyes, and tears are suddenly blurring mine as well, the emotion of the scene not easy to understand, my chin going all quicksand on me, none of us knowing whether to cry or laugh or shout as Aung San Suu Kyi approaches and passes within a few feet of us.
The Lady, as she’s called here, seems carried in this river of people, radiant and frail and jostled as she drifts past, the woman so serene and smiling at the center of the storm of bodies and voices, everyone trying to reach to her, trying to hand flowers and gifts to her, trying to somehow call or touch or just see this living embodiment of hope of theirs. It’s impossible to overstate what Aung San Suu Kyi has come to mean to the people of Burma—the woman a vessel into which an entire country’s pent-up hope and promise has been poured—her presence in the crowd almost otherworldly, her connection with people spooky, her hands taking flowers, her head bowing to monks, her pale green dress gracious, magnolia flowers vivid and beautiful in her hair.
Outside, overcast and hot, her motorcade crawls through the crowds that line the long road to Mandalay. For the first time in twenty-two years, she and her party, the National League for Democracy, are campaigning ahead of the new by-elections to be held on the first of April, and the air is choked with dust and diesel and the braying of car and motorbike horns, people waving flags and banners, even soldiers looking on with what seem like eager faces. Even an outsider cannot help but feel swept along in the energy and hope of this—crowds lining the roadways all the way to the city—and it’s deep into the afternoon before we arrive at our hotel, feverish with hunger and exhaustion.
As chance would have it, later we find another friend catching up on letters in the hotel’s courtyard. He’s a former British Consul to Burma and has lived in-country for more than twenty-five years. We can’t help but gush about the scene—Aung San Suu Kyi at the airport—and he smiles and explains how the Lady doesn’t much care for him. He once had dinner with her, he says, and she leaned over to him and called him a conspirator. Well, he tells me, he did work with the government, helping to improve its education policy. And now, he adds, with the elections maybe she’s a conspirator finally as well.
I’m writing this on a riverboat heading south from Mandalay. A few days have passed since we found Aung San Suu Kyi. We’ve been to the elephant camps, been to the monastery, and been witness to the love and hope that the Lady brings to life.
*More on Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi in my essay, “Captives of the Junta,” in The American Scholar.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- Most of my reading for the last few years—let alone the last few months—has revolved around research for my new novel and nonfiction book, both of which are set in Burma, but I am currently reviewing Ron Rash’s intriguing and enigmatic new novel, The Cove, for The Boston Globe. I recently listened to—and loved—Keith Richards’ autobiography Life. I have Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad, and Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan, going on my nightstand as I type this.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Almost twenty years ago, the writer and editor William Maxwell sent some advice that keeps coming back to me: “Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a seashell and then put them down on paper.” That seems the kind of perfect, direct, and reasonable counsel that an aspiring writer (such as myself) might ignore for a good decade. And one ignores it for good reason—it’s difficult, almost impossible work—but I’ve come to feel one’s real job as a writer is to find and say what you feel about the world and put it down on paper.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- Is it strange that I don’t believe any of my writing or reading habits are particularly noteworthy or strange? Alas, sometimes the fact that anyone writes or reads at all often seems to qualify as strange enough in this world.
By William Lychack: