Category Archives: Life

Alphabet a History: L is for Loveliness

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(An excerpt from diary, July 1989)

Loveliness is one letter away from loneliness.

There is something about writing for me that is lovely and lonely all at once. There are so many more things I am able to express and say through writing that I can’t say in real life. Mostly, because I write what I am unable to feel in physical reality.

Maybe it is because while growing up, I did not have a safe space in which to cry and experience sadness. I had loving parents whose definition of love involved teaching me how to survive war-scale tragedy. To that end, crying and sadness were not tolerated.

I needed somewhere for my intense sadness to go, and so I would stay up all night and write letters to my friends. And write in my diary. And because cutting too is a version of writing, I would carve morse code into my wrists. Because emotions. Because writing was my safety. Because writing became my language for desolation. For pain. For sadness. Because I could write all night and drop tears on paper and the paper and the ink never told me to stop weeping and the paper and ink never judged me for what I felt. Because I could cut into myself and release pain. Because all of this could be done in silence. In private.

And because all of this could be done in loneliness–because I could rip up the paper when I was done. I could roll down my sleeves. But the words were out there. I was creating loveliness out of loneliness.

As I write this, I cry. I weep for that girl. If I could go back in time, I would tell her to cry her eyes out for as long as she wanted, that it was okay. To beat against the walls. To scream. I would hold her. And if she wasn’t ready to be held, I would tell her I would be there when she was ready. I would stay through her rage and sadness and I would tell her she didn’t need to be funny or strong or charming all the fucking time. And when she felt elation, I’d tell her to let loose with abandon.

I am still that girl.

When I see my young daughter, reaching her tantrum-tinged toddler years, I hold her. I tell her she can’t always be cheerful, but that I will wait until she calms. And we will figure out what it is she wants, together. I am determined to be her safety in all dimensions.

I have people in my life who do that for me, now. Who hold me. Who show me there is another way to be. For that I am eternally grateful.

Given the above, I smile when people ask me why I write.

I write, I say, because writing saves my life.

Most people don’t realize that I mean that on literal terms.

When I had my stroke, I wrote my way out of it. I have written my way through love. I have written my way out of heartbreak. I have written my way into exploring ambiguity. I have written my way out of censorship. My writing has made me grow up. My writing has given me a bar for which I should reach. My writing has kept my heart open, even if times a crack.

Writing has saved my life, and it continues to save me. It transforms my loneliness into a loveliness. And I hope in turn, it transforms the loneliness of my readers into loveliness, an exquisite beauty.

And in that way, I hope my writing saves your life, too.

Loneliness is one letter away from loveliness.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Alphabet a History: N is for Numbers

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The horror of numbers.

I wrote a post entitled N is for NYC–the place where in hindsight, I see my life turned tack and pivoted with dizzying fashion in my most beloved city. I thought my life had capsized, but it had not.

But then the Sewol ferry disaster happened. A capsized ferry. Hundreds of children on a field trip in the cold water. And their parents on the shore, waiting for them to come home. Too many of these parents are taking home bodies.

I am not tuned into every disaster in the world. If I were, I’d die of heartbreak.

But there are certain disasters that pierce my heart. That keep me riveted. Like 9/11, when I could not be torn from the news. Or Hurricane Katrina. Or the earthquake in Haiti. Fukushima. The death of innocents. Combined with injustice. Stir with the injured parts (unknown and known) of my soul and psyche, and you get obsession.

I’ve been following Joseph Kim on twitter, as he reports from the site of the tragedy. For the past week, he has been updating his followers with the numbers of the rescued, missing, and the dead. I haven’t turned on CNN, which is a huge deal and progression with my OCD (usually I’m riveted to television news during such sagas). He stopped reporting body count numbers a couple days ago.

I was relieved. The numbers are clearly going to be high. They are already too high. They are going to rise. The number of missing will likely and eventually match the number of the dead. Rescue workers are weeping as they come out of the water and carry the bodies. The vice principal of the high school, who organized the fateful field trip to Jeju, hung himself from a tree after 11 hours of interrogation by police and then 2 straight days apologizing to grieving parents.

The suicides and suicide attempts will continue to happen. The culture in Korea is one about taking responsibility, and where regret is not an issue taken lightly. And suicide is less shameful than letting other people down. The death toll will rise. The numbers will continue to increase.

The numbers.

12.

Then 15.

Then 20.

Then 50.

Then 100.

Then 108.

Now the autopsies. The parents are opting to do autopsies on their children to see if they died from drowning or hypothermia before putting them into the ground. And in doing so, they are discovering approximate time of death.

One of the victims passed away hours before discovery.

If only, if only–if only the passengers had been evacuated. If only the weather had cooperated. If only they had been found sooner. If only the captain had been at the wheel. If only the crew (with the exception of Park Jee Young, who died trying to save as many lives as possible) had done their jobs and stayed with the ship. If only there had been adequate safety precautions and training.

Hours. Numbers. Minutes. Days. Numbers.

I myself am doing a fair amount of waiting these days–waiting for the words to come to my novel. Waiting for the Muse. Waiting for paperwork. Waiting for resolution. But my waiting is nowhere near the perpetual misery of the parents.

And nowhere the hell of the students who struggle/d to stay alive in that sinking ferry waiting to be saved.

Help comes, but sometimes it is too late.

That is the hell of asking for help. Of being vulnerable in the world. Of waiting at other people’s mercy and power.

Numbers. Days. Hours. Minutes. Numbers. Waiting.

As time ticks down, the numbers of the dead increase.

AND DAMMIT: I already did N. I did not have my coffee before I wrote this. Remind me that I need to write “L” next. I guess I really like the letter “N.”

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Windows

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On Windows in my life…

1.
My childhood bedroom window used to have no sheers, just a patterned blue cotton fabric that my parents urged me to close in the nighttime. The walls of my bedroom were blue. A few years later, my parents asked what color curtains I wanted. Because I liked yellow, I asked for yellow curtains.

Did I mentioned I had light blue walls?

Blue + yellow = green. For ten years, I swam in swamp green. A decision made when I was eight years old colored my teenage years.

With the yellow curtains came sheers. My dad still told me to shut my curtains in the nighttime. My silhouette could be seen he said. I never wanted to shut them. I didn’t want my room to be green. And if I could not see out, who could see me inside?

2.
“In California, people really don’t like curtains,” said our interior decorator. She was excited to have clients who wanted curtains. My husband and I, both born outside of the state, wanted curtains with swags and jabots, borne of fabric so thick that light would not be able to penetrate. I wanted to shut the light out, and he wanted a luxe treatment. With every flourish and fabric we chose, her face beamed.

When she gave us her proposed drawings, we were filled with glee.

The lace curtains from Sears, circa 1950 from previous homeowners, came down. The upholstery-thick fabric went up in our south-facing bedroom.

I slept until noon for the first time in years.

3.
“Or you could just not care and not get shades,” said the shade vendor, who was fidgeting with my sink faucet, which had nothing to do with windows, so why was he touching it? “Sometimes, these young girls, they just hang out in their windows, like they want you to look at them.”

Ew.

“The people across the Bowery from you–they had to get curtains once this building went up.”

I wanted to usher him out the door. He’d already given me a price on the sunshades that bore the inclination to do so, and now I could smell the sweat on him in the new apartment festooned with half emptied UHaul boxes, a handle of a saucepan sticking out of one, and sheets pouring out of another.

I had been waking up at the break of dawn since we moved in.

“Get eyeshades said my friend,” and so I began to sleep beyond dawn, and until the sunlight moved across the room until I could feel the heat on my body.

At night, the tenants in the building across the street stare. I got binoculars. And stare back.

I put up California king flat sheets.

4.
It’s been 2 months since we moved in, since we got the exorbitant quote for shades. The sun comes up earlier now, and I awake briefly to fumble for my eyeshades. After several eyeshades, I have come across a pair that I like.

The binoculars are put away. I saw a naked woman in the hotel down the street, applying lotion for what seemed like an eternity. I told myself to not apply lotion in front of my open windows in the nighttime.

5.
I’m back in Berkeley now. In NYC, we ended up getting cheap curtains from Bed Bath & Beyond–blackout shades and cloth curtains. Totally utiltarian and functional. I slept. I am back in the house with the French upholstery fabric curtains. I am back walled off from the world.

And yet I cannot sleep in. Because I’ve a toddler who screams awake each morning.

I love her, but I cannot sleep.

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M is for Mourning: Ziggy the Wiener Dog, 1996 – December 17, 2013

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Ziggy the Wiener Dog’s cremains had been ready for pickup for several months. For three months, in fact.

“Do you want to pick him up?” I made the rare call to him to ask.

“No, can you?”

“All right. You okay with waiting?”

“Yes.”

And I took my time. After wading through the raw emotions when I picked up Scarlet the Wiener Dog so immediately after her death, I learned my lesson and took my time in carrying him home. I wanted to be ready. I waited. I waited months. I waited until the trees blossomed, and then after the blossoms fell.

I picked him up a couple weeks ago, my grief long processed in a grueling succession of bad news after next. He was in a box. A small box. He was a good dog until the end, always low maintenance and accommodating. His life with me bookended an amazing chapter in my life.

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I adopted Ziggy a couple months after my fiance broke off our engagement–there he was, a trembling little dachshund in my life. It was February 1998, in the middle of a rainy El Niño season; he had been found wandering the streets with his sister-dog. I was alone, too. Next year, the fiance and I got married.

I had no idea what would happen ten years hence, but I knew I would have a dog. He ended up being my constant for fifteen years. And he died a week after my husband asked for a divorce. If I had made this timing up and workshopped such a story, I’d be criticized for being too “device-y” and the timing too coincidental. But it happened. He came and went with my marriage like a wedding ring.

Ziggy just–died one evening. He rose, teetering, from his bed. Since Scarlet died, he spent a lot of time in that bed, napping.

My mother’s helper asked, “Um, is Ziggy acting weird?”

We were sitting in the den, playing with my baby before bedtime. I looked over. Ziggy was not walking straight. He had trouble standing. “Yes,” I said. So much had happened in 2013, I didn’t want to look yet another other Bad Thing in the eye. So I looked away. “I think he’s dying.”

“Really? What should we do? Shouldn’t he go to a vet?”

It was 7pm. He would have to go to the emergency vet. I shrugged. “I don’t think there’s much we can do. I’ll take him to the emergency vet. But he’s probably going to die.” I know I sound cold, but if you were there, you’d have heard the pathos in my voice. Also, I’d given up on all good news by that point.

I emailed my husband. I typed, If you want to see your dog, you should come see him now. I don’t know if he’ll live another week or another hour, but now’s the time.

So much had already happened.

I drove Ziggy to the vet, about 5 miles away, across town. The drive took the length of an Adele song, “Someone Like You.” At some point during the drive, my husband called.

“Are you serious?”

Yes, I said. Your dog is dying. Where are you?

Far away, he said.

Ziggy stopped breathing as I handed him over to the pet emergency veterinarians, a team of UC Davis doctors who then asked me, “Do you want us to resuscitate him?”

Why? I asked.

Because he’s stopped breathing.

Oh, I said. He was over 17 years old. It was time to let him go. No, I said. He’s an old dog. He had a good life.

“What’s happening?” I could hear the husband on the phone. This intertwining of my lives. The present, the past, the near and the distant.

“He died.”

“What?”

“Probably from a heart attack or stroke. My guess is a stroke.”

And then my ever-stoic husband started crying.

So much had happened.

My life was officially a country song.

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***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Acknowledge Beauty

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I was walking into the corner cafe to get coffee a few months ago. In the flurry of ripping off my gloves and hat in the sudden heated indoors, I nearly bumped into a beautiful woman.

This was New York City, where an acquaintance advised me upon my arrival with, “The people here are beautiful. A 10 anywhere else? That’s a 7 in New York City. And a 10 in New York City? 13 anywhere else.”

“Okay,” I said.

“No seriously. The people here are gorgeous. So gorgeous you think this is what people are supposed to look like.”

When you are surrounded by beauty, you can become blinded by its prevalence, take it for granted. When friends come over to visit me in Berkeley, they often ask me, “Do you even notice how pretty it is here?”

I always pause before replying, because I never like my answer. I see the landscape around me come into focus–the hills lush with greenery, the Bay Bridge looming in the distance, the light glinting off the pewter water, the sky blue and maybe misted with fog. The faint smell of jasmine. My answer is, “Most of the time I don’t.”

Someone I know has a ritual–at the end of each day this person says, “Another beautiful day.”

My reaction at first was, “Did you doubt it would be beautiful?”

“No, I didn’t doubt it. I just wanted to say it was a beautiful day.”

Huh. But then there was this woman in front of me. Tall, even though tall doesn’t mean beauty to me. Slim, even though slim doesn’t mean beauty to me. Alabaster skin. Raven hair. The most serene of facial expressions. Cheekbones that would cut my finger. Lips like cherries. The combination of her features were Snow White, incarnate. But still–it wasn’t just her appearance–it was something deep inside her psyche that struck me, made me stop peeling off my gloves.

“You’re beautiful,” I blurted.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“You’re beautiful!”

“Oh!” And then she blushed. She really blushed. I was shocked at her reaction, and it made her all the more beautiful. That she could be thrown off by such a compliment. That she wasn’t jaded by her beauty.

Acknowledging beauty is a powerful act. Do it. Tell someone beautiful that you think they are. Acknowledge a beautiful day. Acknowledge landscape. Acknowledge feeling. Acknowledge sensation. Acknowledge.

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The Summer of 1995

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The Summer of 1995 was a huge turning point for me. I was 21. I’d just graduated from college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I had dreams, but they were just that–intangible. I was laying down the template for my future. I hadn’t yet met the boy I would marry. I was searching for the meaning of life–more specifically, my life. I was struggling. And I completely broke.

I apparently wrote much of it down in my diary. Which I found. And I thought I’d share some of what I wrote with you. Here are some excerpts:

June 24, 1995:
You know, you ask for Spring to end…and Summer solstice starts and the world boils.

June 27, 1995:
I’m going to try to adopt the Daoist method of just finding my center and waiting for things to come to me instead of searching frantically for whatever. It takes enough effort and focus as it is just to reach out and grab what passes you.

July 4, 1995:
So anyway, I’ve decided to switch my reading from Foucault’s Pendulum to Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee. I think I could write a book. If only I could be more imaginative! Or rather, more complete with my imagination!

July 9, 1995:
JW of course, showed up at 5am this morning. Didn’t fall asleep til 7am or so.

Woke up to congo drums from above again.

Check this out: I live below a congo drum instructor who gives lessons on weekend mornings.

July 14, 1995:
I spent lunch hour mulling. MULLING. Just mulling SHIT. I’m trying hard to be good to myself and do the right thing, but it’s so much easier to be careless. It’s so much easier to say who cares and indulge and put feelings aside and fuck all night with a guy whose priority in life is to not deal.

July 23, 1995:
Still in a funk. Being suicidally depressed is unbelievable. I think I usually just lie stunned at its power, this monster hold on me. I have spurts of energy, nervous energy and I try to do all I can during those periods and other times, most of the time, I just lie debilitated in tears or numbness. But the energetic times scare me. I want to live again.

July 28, 1995:
It’s been hard. I’m seeing a doctor on Tuesday. J gave me a squash. For some reason it made me happy. I think it’s one of the few things he’s given me, and it was given to me when I felt like I had nothing in my hands. But Squash? I think I’ve lost it.

July 29, 1995:
So yeah, it’s weird I’ve found hope in a yellow squash. But when I sit with it or think about it, I feel better. I figure hell, “whatever gets me through the day,” no matter how fucked up. So I sit with the squash.

July 30, 1995:
Today from 3pm to 7pm…I had a hard time. J called at 5pm in the middle of the hardest part and broke the trance, the ritual, the whatever. It was strange talking to him with bloodied wrists wet with warm water while holding a bloody napkin. I know, I’m so insane…yet sane. Afternoons and evenings are the worst.

August 6, 1995:
I’m at Moss Beach! At the marine life preserve, sitting on the sand by the tidal pools. The place here is teeming with life. Hermit crabs, sea anemones, and eel-like seaweed. This is the most peaceful I’ve felt in awhile. This place. With the waves. With my feet dug into the sand. The earth so giving and hard. This place where earth and rock meet water, where sun and moon struggle.

August 20, 1995:
I must write a book. I must write books, plural. That is what would make my soul happy, I think.

JW says he likes it when I’m a bitch. That no one cares if you’re depressed. It’s better to be a bitch than to let people know you’re feeling fucked up.

But then again, I fell in love with a yellow squash, which sits wilting in the stay-crisp drawer of my refrigerator. Anything I suppose can be for real, even love for a yellow squash in a period of malignancy and despair.

August 28, 1995:
I guess you try to do whatever makes you happy in the little circle of air you’ve carved away for yourself. It’s not big, but you can be happy there.

September 4, 1995:
Watched Mortal Kombat w JW today. Possibly the worst movie I’ve ever watched in my short life. It was so bad I enjoyed it.

I’m going to refuse to be dependent on anyone for my own happiness. My parents can depend on me for their happiness, but I refuse that vicious circle. That felt good to say. Everything for a long time will be for myself–well, but not at the expense of others. But if it’s a choice between me and others, I will take the one that’s best for me. My happiness is my own.

I have to change my life or die.

What was a turning point in your life?

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Terrifying Things

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I started a post last year called “Terrifying Things.” I decided to finish it this morning, because my baby decided to sleep in and because I was up early (my toddler has kicked my butt into submission).

It was an exercise in unearthing my subconscious and kickstarting new writing, because when I write, I face what terrifies me.

Writing is the space in which I explore the dark and dusty corners and undersides that I bypass in my non-writing life. It is when I pause to investigate and feel and ask the difficult questions and really stop and let the sensations of living pass over me. Writing is when I examine my fears, pick them up, and explore the shape and texture and alchemy of my terror. Writing is when I feel most brave. Writing is from where my bravery stems. Writing is how I take care of myself. Writing is what saves my life. Writing is how I am okay, no matter what.

These days, I have to pause to process great upheaval and transition. These days, I have to write.

I am writing my terror, which inspires me. Terror is the terroir of my stories. When I unlock my fears, I also unlock all love and courage.

So what are the terrifying things?

  • My first night in the dorms, someone offered me a joint for the first time. I had never before been offered drugs, let alone a drink. I stammered out, “I have to get back to my room,” and then proceeded to cry. It was a stark indicator that I was in a new place where I had to set my own rules.
  • Being raped.
  • My first HIV test. I made everyone take an HIV test. Those things are made to freak people out. I could have been a virgin and still had doubts.
  • My first kiss. Anyone’s first kiss really, no? The unknown, the exhilaration. In my case, my first kiss was not a sweet moment. A brute pushed me on my bed and then pushed himself on me.
  • Being bullied.
  • Watching my friend Tammy give herself an insulin shot through her dirty denim jeans in the back of the bus on the way to school.
  • The first day of junior high.
  • Having an eating disorder and being in a pink and white striped bathing suit. While being critiqued by middle aged Korean moms and dads at a church party.
  • When our pastor came to live with us, and threw my tadpoles down the garbage disposal.
  • When the neighbor’s cat ate my pet hamsters. I know this because the neighbor showed me the carcasses and bones in the cat’s food dish. I went hysterical. I was seven.
  • I kept a small spider in a jar, one I fed flies (I was a weird child and am a weirder adult, sue me). My grandmother found a cooler insect, she thought–a praying mantis. She put the praying mantis in the jar with my spider. She showed me the praying mantis–all I saw was a little puddle of goo in the hands of the mantis.
  • Wishing I were Wonder Woman, but having to wear Wonder Woman’s costume.

The last item on my list was “being alone.” But I needn’t have feared being alone. I was already alone. I was surviving. And learning new lessons. I faced so many of my greatest life fears last year–the most terrifying things of all, the ones I could not and would not list because I feared they would come true.

And yet they came true, anyway.

It was awful but also incredibly rewarding.

Facing fears, I’ve learned, is the way to safety.

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