Saturday, August 9, 2008

China on my mind

By the time I arrived home Friday night, take-out Thai food in hand, we had already missed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. But we did tune in during the Parade of Nations, and I was instantly captivated. I love people-watching, and this was a rare array. I felt chagrined and amazed: how could I be unaware of the existence of so many countries? I felt wonder and love: how grand and glorious is the human palette. I felt catty as I sized up the costumes or outfits or uniforms. What a fashion show, and how full of energy and feeling everyone was, waving, holding up cameras, flags, looking up and up. What a stage. It looked like a space station, far, far from Earth. Nature reduced to icons. The utter triumph of the human will.

And what a species we are. It was stunning to see group after group, from the smallest delegations, a proud 2, a determined 4, a stern 7, to surging bands of rudely confident hundreds. People carrying so very many stories of families and lands battered, bruised, bloodied and bashed. That very day a new war had broken out in Georgia, and once again, we turned away from the old terrible news in Afghanistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Tibet, right here in River City. During the commercials, a channel surfer could monitor the nasty, idiotic frenzy over John Edwards' affair. Back to the Olympics and the opening night's face-by-face survey of the state of the human family, which embraces the basketball giant Yao Ming and a tiny hero, the young boy who rescued classmates after the immense Sichuan earthquake, walking hand in hand.

Certain that I needed to see the full presentation, I stayed up and finally after 2:00 am Chicago time, it unfolded before me, a display so spectacular, overwhelming, martial, and imposing, I felt that I was witnessing a seismic shift in world power. The combination of the sheer wonder of thousands of synchronized performers and high-tech wizardry redefines our understanding of the place of the individual in the collective, the ability of technology to liberate and harness us, to realize ideas on an immense scale, to create propaganda of staggering dimensions and complexity and intimidating beauty. Such discipline, such grace, such power. Ancient arts writ large with new media. The director Zhang Yimou drew on centuries of art and philosophy and repression to project a utopian vision. An electric fairy tale. A high-definition dream in which hundreds of men and women became a vast machine among vast machines.

Chicago hopes to host the Olympics in eight years. What might our opening ceremony involve? All I could picture last night, in the blaze and burst and shimmer and military perfection of Beijing's resplendent and humbling and disturbing electronic vision of all for one and one for all was an old style old guys blues band hunkered down on a creaky stage in a small shabby club, playing their hearts out on simple instruments of wood and metal, feet keeping time, voices lifting and falling, notes bending and sliding, songs unfurling about loneliness and love, about yearning for home and needing to get away, of the joys and sorrows of the human predicament on the old whirling Earth. Of all that is lost and denied. Of beauty and hope and the certain knowledge that much as we try to do right, we so often do wrong. That as much damage as we do, we are but small creatures in a vast cosmos we can barely discern.

Let us all be athletes of compassion, peace, and truth.

No comments: