Written by 
Du Min, Yinjia Township Central Primary School, Sichuan Province, China 
Date: Oct, 2016

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.   - Garcia Marquez in Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Years from now, when I find myself dithering at the crossroads of my youth, I’ll remember that afternoon long ago when my mother took me to the Festival of Guanyin

My mother was still full of resolute vigor then, when I still regularly saw the strange happenings of the outside world strapped snugly to her back. That day, she had left early and engaged herself in a string of conversations with familiar passersby on a kaleidoscopic variety of mundane topics. In protest to these drawn-out chin wags, I rocked back and forth in my perch behind her. Mom invariably responded with gentle pats accompanied by the soft-spoken explanation: “There’s no rush. There are lots of people there now. We’ll go in a while.” She had repeated this mantra from the time we left home all the way to the village, making me increasingly perceive Mom’s back as a cage that had shackled my spirit, which yearned to break free. 

The Guanyin Festival wasn’t far away, which may explain why my mother was tarrying so.

On the road up to the festival, Mom again struck up familiar, happy conversations with village ladies she met along the way. What concerned me, however, was only how warm and comfortable her back was and whether I might slip from my perch if I happened to fall asleep.

The sound of firecrackers split the air as we approached the top of the hill. My drowsiness disappeared. The winding road was lined with idols set into the rock walls, the tops of their heads wrapped in red silk. These stern-looking effigies seated in niches carved into the living rock stared outward into the distance. Their solemn dignity sent chills up my spine.

The faithful prostrate themselves in devotion and blurred vision, entrusting all of the good and the bad in their lives to the will of gods behind these idols. At each roadside idol, Mom would shake and then rejoin me to be respectful. She taught me the proper way to raise my hands in prayer. She thought that this would keep me healthy and make me successful in my academic endeavors.

My curiosity led me to whisper in Mom’s ear, “Why don’t we light incense sticks and firecrackers for the bodhisattva?

Her mood visibly darkened and she seemed a bit perturbed. “What do these children know?” she said. “Bodhisattva lives in the heart.”

“Bodhisattva lives in the heart.”

This harsh reproach sent my mood into a sharp tailspin.

The road up the hill wasn’t long and, although the entire journey took only a half an hour, Mom’s forehead was already beading with sweat. At Nanshan Gate, Mom took me from her back and put me down on the ground. She pointed to a statue of a golden dragon not far off and said with a smile, “Look, … a dancing dragon! Once you are old enough, you can lead, holding the dragon’s head.”

I squeezed my mouth closed, showing my disapproval. After all, girls don’t do the dragon dance.

Atop the hill, Mom took my hand and led me through the crowd. At the time, I was as tall as my mother’s waistline, which made me a tiny ‘ant’ in this flowing mass of humanity. Fearful, I had little choice but to hold on tightly to her hand.

The festival’s dragon dance and plethora of snack vendors created the backdrop for this unexciting scene. Children my age were walking around with their hands full of cotton candy, balloons and toys, mine were conspicuously empty. I understood that Mom didn’t spend money on such things. Every penny I had originated in the hard work and sweat of my father.

As I watched the smiling faces of the children around me, I wanted to cry … even though, for some reason, I could not. My beloved cotton candy, balloons, and toys were simply a miniscule part of a young child’s needs.

The immense incense cauldron in the courtyard was enveloped in the sacred smoke of innumerable joss sticks, turning the temple scene into something resembling a crossroads in the heavenly realm. Someone set off firecrackers near the incense cauldron, sending ear-splitting crackles reverberating across the courtyard. I remember thinking at the time that people used firecrackers to awaken the gods from slumber, fearing that the gods would snooze off and miss their prayerful entreaties.

Temples scared me. They were places where scary-looking idols were worshiped. Some had big googly eyes, while others were contorted into positions that made them look like they were ready to give kids a serious spanking. A pall of incense smoke hung heavy inside, blackening the roof structure. Grandma even told me once that there was a pot inside the temple specifically for cooking little children. It both made me loathe to play there and kept me in general awe of the place. Although I’ve since searched the temple for that pot Grandma once told me about, I haven’t found it yet.

Mom and I waited in line for our turn to worship. Those ahead of us kneeled one by one on the prayer mat, bent over and kowtowed while murmuring something out loud. This was a sacred ritual, something that should not to be performed halfheartedly.

Time passed slowly. I dared not lift my head to look at the statue of the god on the altar. I feared that their penetrating stares might steal my soul away. It was Mom who finally prodded me, reluctantly, onto a prayer mat. She kneeled down on my right and then pressed firmly on my head so that it bent downward until connecting with the hard floor with a mild bump. I could clearly hear thumping noises that Mom’s head made when her repeated kowtows struck the floor as well. I heard her prayers, “Lord! Please watch over the safety of my family. Help our children in their studies. I will certainly repay your good graces in time with goodly measures of incense, candles, and firecrackers.”

I turned to see Mom’s dignified demeanor. What she was asking for was nothing special, but only I knew that this was an opportunity for her to offload a share of her heavy emotional burdens. The sounds of her forehead slapping the floor rang as loudly as, perhaps even louder than, those firecrackers and shone more brightly than any stick of incense or candle.

Perhaps my understanding at the time was superficial. The meaning that temple gods hold in the heart of a pitifully poor family is something perhaps only a mother is able to understand.

I think I matured a lot that day. When it was time to head home, Mom kneeled on the floor and said with a smile, “Come on little girl, climb up. I’m going to carry you home.”

I hung my head and answered awkwardly, “No. You’re tired.”

Mom ran her hands over my head, her eyes filled with tears. When we arrived home, Mom, as if by magic, produced a balloon from her pocket. The scratches on its surface told me that it was secondhand.

I never let myself blow that balloon up all the way. I knew that doing so would greatly shorten the time I would have to play with it.

Later on, Mom joined Dad to work outside of our hometown. She left one morning before the sun had fully risen.

My eyes welled with tears as she stood in the cold wind, her cheeks flushed red. She hugged me close and spoke softly into my ear, “Our little girl … Study hard. Let’s send a prayer together to the bodhisattva. Once our family gets a bit better off, we must buy some incense and firecrackers for the bodhisattva.” I had the balloon pinched in my hand that day. Ever since Mom gave it to me, I’d kept it deflated. Today, I wanted Mom to blow it up full for me.

But before I could ask, Mom was gone. I buried my face in my grandmother’s bosom and burst into tears. Mom’s figure gradually faded in the distance, gradually transforming into magical childhood memory, like the smoky realm of heaven in that temple courtyard.

Reviewer Comments

This narrates a growing experience for the author at a temple festival. Deeply substantive and meaningful. The article conveys motherly love and dignity against the backdrop of a temple festival, evoking thoughts of the myriad nature of the dharma body. A sacred temple ceremony and the heavy shroud of smoke brings sudden, new enlightenment to the author. Rich in terms of both content and style with rich, florid words. 

The author weaves an emotive story that successfully intertwines the lives of her mother and herself.