Category Archives: The Personal

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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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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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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N is for New York City

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Once you fall in love with a place, you can never leave it, because the place never leaves you. NYC is such a place. It is the city where I feel like I belong.

NYC is more than a city to me–it is a being, and presence, in my life. NYC has taken care of me in ways I never thought imaginable, has watched my back, and changed the course of my life. It has saved my life. It has made my life. It is where I learned who it is I truly wanted to be, at the fulcrum of my life. Even if who I wanted to be would entail great fundamental change.

Even if the great fundamental change would nearly kill me. Even if NYC would bring about that fundamental change in spectacular fashion. It is the place that brought truth and forced me to see things around me as they really are. It is the place that brought me many great, true friends. Loyal and smart and courageous people.

I was born in New York City–Queens, to be exact. I spent my early childhood years in a nondescript brick apartment building overlooking the Long Island Railroad, spending days wheeled around by my grandmother in a stroller to a Korean-owned karate studio down the street, to chicken and pizza down the hill, to a sewing factory down the hill and around the bend, and a playground down the hill opposite of the sewing factory and pizza.

The pulse of life there is a tempo to which I set my life.

One time, a few years ago, I got on the 7 train to Queens. The train made a certain tha-thunk on the elevated tracks once we hit Queens–in that subway car I felt a great reunion between time and space; that sound, that rhythm has been with me my entire life. That specific tha-thunk. Tha-thunk. Tha-thunk.

I thought I’d imagined that sound.

But no, it was real.

I returned to NYC to reside as an adult, a few years ago. My husband at the time came home and said, “We need to talk.” I didn’t know about what we had to talk, but I was worried–could I have missed something between us? (Little did I realize). But then he said, “My boss wants us to move to NYC part time–would you be okay with that? It would be immediate.”

I think I said yes before he ended his question. I don’t know. All I heard was “EeeeeEEEEEeeeee!!!” in my head.

NYC was a centrifuge.

Some of the best times of my life were spent in the setting of that great city. I didn’t even mind the jackhammering (okay, I did). And I loved that I could step out into the sidewalk into a din that said with absolute certainty that this city was the center of the world.

I even loved the summers–the hot heat off the concrete, the water dripping off air conditioning units, and the balmy evenings walking the East Village sucking on popsicles.

I loved brief Spring, with the elation New Yorkers feel when the weather turns warm and the trees turn pink and white with blossoms. When New Yorkers ditch their boots and parkas and sweaters and don dresses and woven shirts. And walk around in shorts when it is 65F, just because it is no longer 30F.

I thought Winter, with its Christmas lights and frigid air and sidewalks slippery with ice or gritty with salt, was most charming. Especially when the snow fell and hushed the city.

And Fall. Of course Autumn, when I rifle through my drawers for my scarf, long buried through Summer, so that I can walk outside look up at the trees turning flame in Tompkins Square Park or Washington Square.

I loved running into friends on the streets of NYC, a thing that happened way more often than you would think in a city of millions. It made the world seem small, and my friendships large.

I loved that the city never slept–that I could have dinner at 11pm on a regular basis, if I so wanted. That food could come to me. That services were top notch. I loved apartment life.

I loved the honking cars. I loved that people honked cars.

I counted my rat sightings my first year in NYC. One time, when I was walking on 1st and 1st, a rat wove expertly through my feet as I walked. I did not scream. I giggled.

I wrote the bulk of my novel draft in NYC, at the Writers Room and at downtown cafes. I was so inspired.

And last month, I said goodbye to my NYC apartment. I did not say goodbye to NYC, because I plan on returning–but the lease was up, and I had to move my things out. I moved my possessions into a storage space into which the movers expertly fit a life. Everything went in. They shut the door, and I put a lock on it.

We were not sure all would fit in that small space, but nothing in my life was left behind.

That evening, we met with a friend at a bar, across the street from my now-empty apartment. I wasn’t sure how I felt–but that empty apartment did not feel as bad as I thought it would feel. I was leaving it as I left it. It felt like a fresh start for someone else, and a clean slate for myself.

A chapter had ended in my life, in more ways than one. I was a mom. I was newly single. I had fresh vows, all to myself. But I wasn’t sure if I felt hope or relief or elation or grief. In hindsight, I realize I felt them all.

The three of us were drinking whiskey at the bar. Toasting our lives. Talking dreams. Talking goals. Flinging jokes. Teasing each other. But at some point, it became too much. My grief welled up, and at that bar, I found no room for tears.

I excused myself and sat inside a bathroom stall and cried. I didn’t know for what I was crying, only that I was. But now I know. I was leaving New York. And it hurt. It felt like cleaving.

I had to leave NYC again. But the city will never leave me.

***

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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A year ago

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When I look at this picture from last April, I just think how thin I look, and how over the next several months, my hair would fall out, and I would become downright gaunt. I was teetering on the brink of postpartum depression hell.

My mom visited me in early August a few months after this picture was taken. She is a frank person, at least when it comes to my appearance. The first thing she said when I picked her up at the airport was, “You look like you’re in chemotherapy!”

I certainly felt like I was dying. And in many ways, I was.

And that’s all I wanted to say. That I am very happy these days, but also sad about what happened in 2013. That I want to give the woman in the above picture a big hug. That I also want to punch her on the shoulder and say, “Get help! You have to be the one to do it: save your own life.”

I also want to tell her, Everything is going to be fantastic. You won’t believe what’s about to happen to you, but it is darkest before the dawn–and the dawn will be amazing.

I want to tell her, Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. And you have guts.

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Pickup Lines: What is someone like you doing in a bar?

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In Honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d start a series of posts called “Pickup Lines.” These are kind of true, kind of made up.

I wore a tomato red dress. Curled my hair so that the waves cascaded down my shoulders. Wore makeup. Red lipstick. Glittery platform pumps. My friend and I spotted an empty seat at the bar. “Is this seat taken?” we asked of the adjacent chair topped with a jacket.

“That’s my twin brother’s seat, but you can have it.”

We thought he was joking. And took our seats. Put our drink orders in. Made a playful vow that that would be the last drink we’d pay for–we’d see how many drinks men would buy us! Little did we know.

A few minutes later, a man resembling the one adjacent to us walked up. He was tall, broad, and of South Asian descent.

“Oh my G*d, you weren’t kidding!”

Later, the man I’ll call Allen, a friend of the twins, said he was struck and amused by my surprise. Later, I’ll tell Allen, “Of course I was!” Later, Allen will tell me that look of surprise was what charmed him, when he really noticed me. That moment where I was off balance and true.

“This,” said the man sitting to our left, “is my twin brother Yatish. And my name is Ashish.”

Ashish blurted he and his brother were married. Yatish looked annoyed. None of the men wore wedding rings. “Where are they?” I shrieked. Ashish said he was an invasive cardiologist–too much scrubbing in, so he doesn’t wear one. Yatish said his was on his wife’s nightstand. Allen stepped towards us, from the far end of their small group.

“And you?” I asked.

“I have a girlfriend.”

Ah, I said.

We continued talking. Made plans to go downstairs to the club.

Allen said he went to Princeton. All of them had attended Princeton. He was a lawyer. An assistant district attorney. He was wearing a wrinkled plaid shirt and a cardigan, and we made fun of his outfit–he looked like a dad on Saturday morning, I said. He winced.

It turned out he really was a dad, but I’ll get into that, later.

I had an alias, but when he asked my name I told him my true name. I added, “I must really like you, because I had no plans to give anyone my real name.”

We had all had a few drinks. So we began to skip the small talk.

“I don’t think there’s just one soulmate for each person,” he said, when I shared what was going on in my life. The true reason I was at the bar.

You don’t?

“Each person has at least one hundred soul mates. It’s about timing.” He went quiet. “Like you.”

I had uptil this moment, thought there was only one match. And at this moment, possibilities opened up–it was what I needed to believe and feel. In that dark booth, touching knees with a stranger who at the same time did not feel like a stranger, I began to imagine a new life.

The lines cascaded out of his mouth. Lines I still remember. Some of the lines I’ve heard again from other men. Some of the lines still make me smile. “You’re the most intelligent and beautiful person I’ve met in a bar. What is someone like you doing in a bar? Why couldn’t we have met at work? So we could have a real relationship? If I had met you ten years ago, I’d never let you go.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No, I mean it. Why did I have to meet you here? Now? I can’t believe I feel this way about someone I met just four hours ago.”

“Why does that matter?”

It did matter. He was married. He had a kid. He said he hoped to see my book in a bookstore one day, and he would smile and buy it. I said thank you for giving me renewed hope in romance. I said thank you for giving me context to my life. Thank you for helping me understand what is going on.

“This is more of a bookend than you know,” I told him.

We parted ways, each of us catching a cab heading in different directions.

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