Vietnam: This Is What Life Does

For one of the prompts in writing group today, I used Eleanor Lerman’s poem, Starfish. I wanted to share it with you, on this Virtual Vacation, along with the prompt I gave after I read it in case you want to write along at home.

I’m also going to share Joanie’s response to the prompt (with her permission) because her piece illustrates the value of the very thing I encouraged everyone to do on the first day of this trip: “Go out and have a little adventure on your own. You never know what you will discover.”

First here’s the poem:

Eleanor Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Now here’s the prompt and the instructions to go with it:

“This is what life does.” Use this line as the first sentence of each paragraph of your piece. Don’t vary it. Use it exactly this way, over and over again: “This is what life does,” and then write one idea or paragraph. Then start again, “This is what life does.” Write without stopping for fifteen minutes. This is intended to be a rough first draft. Don’t edit as you write. Just let it come out in a rush. It doesn’t have to have a beginning, a middle or an end. Raw is just fine. Just let it rip.

You may not have a writing group to read your piece to, but at least read your words out loud to yourself. Words spoken out loud are very different than words festering unheard in a notebook.

Now here’s Joanie’s response to this prompt:

This is What Life Does

This is what life does. It plunks you down in Vietnam. You pointed your nose that way but you didn’t really know what to expect. Someone else planned it for you, and you showed up.

This is what life does. It takes you to a 5-star resort on the coast of Vietnam. You don’t even know where you are on a map, but here you are. You sleep in a perfect room in a perfect bed after a perfect shower. You dip into a sublime South China (or is it North Vietnam?) Sea, and frame the perfect sunset photograph.

This is what life does. It takes you down the beach from your 5-star resort to a tiny fishing village, a village with pathways between homes narrower than your hallways in Santa Cruz. It takes you to the storage place for squid buoys in this village, fishing platforms stacked high forming a wall against the sea, framing a tiny sand playground for little boys who come up to your knees. They climb their tiny mountains of sand and play make-believe in dim illumination under the night sky.

This is what life does. It takes you to a sliding metal gate that says, in English, “Welcome,” tiled into the concrete at your feet. So you slide the gate open and stroll into an international community of young adults, an open stone patio under the sky with a thatched roof counter at the far end. You make your way to this counter and life brings you a friendly, enterprising Brit with his Vietnamese counterpart, and an extensive meal menu. You watch your friends order dinner, and life brings you runners. They run into the village and find someone to cook what you have just ordered. There is no kitchen at this improvised restaurant on the waterfront.

Then, much to your delight and surprise, life brings you fantastic food, run back to your table from the village. A huge sesame cracker the size of a dinner plate arrives, something you saw being grilled on your walk through the narrow, dark village streets. You saw that woman on her haunches grilling something in the near darkness, but you didn’t know what it was. Now it is your dinner.

Life brings you a young man who comes to your table to tell you how this unlikely hostel/restaurant came about, and life brings you another young man who wants to practice his English. He goes round the table twice, asking you to pronounce your names and repeating them again and again. He wants to get it right. He is delighted to see you and you are delighted that he is delighted. Everyone is delighted!

Life brings you a moment of reluctance when you realize you must leave. Your bed awaits in a pristine room at a pristine resort just a few steps down the beach. You take your leave, and life brings you a deep sense of satisfaction as you amble back to your bed.

P.S. After hearing this description, Karyn, Eliza, Eli and I decided to head down the sand to this little place for lunch. We got hummus and crackers, a couple of beers, a couple of banana smoothies, a fresh coconut with a straw for the juice and a spoon for the pulp (my personal favorite). I had the most delectable fish with shredded ginger, cooked perfectly while the rest of my family ate noodles and beef. They reported it was delicious. Dyana, from our group, wandered in and joined us, selecting a beautiful green salad with tons of fresh mango on top.

That’s one thing I love about this trip – midway through the trip, the group has coalesced and there’s an easy flow in and out between people and groups. Someone walks up and they join another cluster of folks for dinner or lunch or in the pool. We have a very diverse of travelers, from aged 19 to 79, and we’re all getting along. I love the easy flow of conversation and companionship. No one is left out and everyone is included.

And now Dyana walked up and joined our family for lunch. We talked about internet surveillance and travel and of course, Vietnam.

As Joanie described, we watched our waiter run down the alley to the little village to get our food cooked to order perfectly. As was the sun, the breeze, the hammock next to our table and the funky tropical ambiance. Lunch for the four of us plus all the drinks was 550,000 dong or about $25.00.

I can’t say the food all came out of the kitchen – or in this case, multiple kitchens down the alley – at the same time. I guess it takes a really long time to cook ginger fish in banana leaves. My food didn’t come out until everyone else had finished their lunch. But who cared? We had nothing but time. The only thing on my agenda before I teach the second writing class (tonight after dinner) is an hour and a half massage at 4 PM.

Here’s the place we ate, the one Joanie was describing:











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