the walrus and the lighthouse keeper

“my heart hurt like a million leagues of ocean pressing up”
– Bushra Rehman, Corona

said the lighthouse keeper to the walrus:
your skin is slicker than mine
the waves roll over you like caresses,
bathing you in salt and brine,
but never breaching through
seeping into pores

when I swim the ocean she changes me
pulls the liquid in me out through my skin
we call it osmosis, with our scientists’ tongues
our cells seek balance
and they send forth an offering of water
desperately seeking salinity

the ocean changes me, walrus
though she is vast
leagues and leagues stretching beyond
my fragile skinbag of bones
yet I seek to offer this tiny drink of water
to become a part, a piece

I want to become the ocean

do you know, my dear tusked friend
at night when you doze upon the rock
I lay awake on my boat bed
hard as the planks of my shorebound ship

dreaming of the days when she tossed me in her arms
when I rode her waves to their crescendos
enveloped, caressed, held
as she rocked me into slumber

now
keeping vigil at my table
or stalking the deck of my tower
my beam of light beckoning her other ships away
to shore

I know I am betraying her
calling other men to land, to stand on firm ground

and my heart aches inside its cage
yearning toward open water
I am a traitor
I have betrayed my lover

but some nights,
dear walrus,
on some of these nights alone
as she beats herself against my home

I feel her running down my face
and taste her salt on my lips
and remember
the ocean lives within me
I will never be alone

 

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fears and aspirations

Happy Year of the Snake! Had dinner with family and friends at my aunt’s house last night, and we ended up going in a circle around the table introducing ourselves, then each sharing one fear and one aspiration. (Yes, this happened.)

Found out that my cousin sees herself as pretty conservative; she has a fear of taking risks, because she’s a perfectionist and she wants to be able to control things. Her brother has a fear of not living life to the fullest, so he actively tries to make the most of every day. And it all comes from the same place — wanting to succeed and fearing failure, and wanting to embrace possibility. The fear I shared was being held back by fear (a meta-fear, as it were) — I’m afraid of letting fear win and not experiencing new things.

Over the past few years, I have pushed myself to embrace failure, to see that not being good at something isn’t really that scary. Sometimes, you just have to do things that are terrifying. Important life skill. Every time I go on stage, I’m scared. And every time I finish a set, I get to have that moment right after when I realize that I’m still alive. And everything is going to be OK.

I did a few shows this week. Performed “native tongue” for my co-workers at our all-staff meeting, and I started by saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize I was going to be this nervous.” After, our CFO’s wife, who was facilitating a training on self-care for that meeting, thanked us (other co-worker covered a Taylor Swift song) for sharing something and being vulnerable. And then later that day, I got to hear from co-workers who connected with the piece and have gone through similar experiences.

Thursday night was [common ground], and I performed “23.” I knew it was going to be difficult; it has taken me weeks to get it to a point where it felt done. But a few other queer artists went before me, and then we had the Partnership of LGBT Organizations speaking about being excluded from Santa Ana’s Tet parade. I ended up revising my set right before I went on to include more love poems. It felt right, and it was what I wanted to share with the audience.

23 excerpt

Saturday, we held a mini-TNC for students from the Claremont Colleges who were taking a day-long tour of Little Tokyo to talk about art and activism in our communities. The staff shared about our relationships to the space, and also our views on art. I said something along the lines of seeing poetry as a way to move beyond academic writing and to find a way to be more honest with myself. And I write love poems because I want to share a celebratory view of the queer experience. I want to celebrate love and being able to live fully, more honestly.

This feels like it’s going to be a good year. Thank you to all of the organizers and audiences who are providing spaces for people to share and heal. Here’s to a year of being honest, embracing love, and striving to take risks and push past fear. Gong xi fa cai, friends.

23

at 23
i believed
that if i could just forget the taste of my first girlfriend’s lips,
i might still turn out OK

that if i could just meet a nice boy,
settle down, start a family
i might not lose my family

that wasn’t so long ago
and some days i still forget that i’ve moved past that now
i am like cotton in an overstuffed couch;
i am always coming out

when i was 23
i spent 40 hours a week with middle schoolers
who did not quite understand the violence of uttering ‘that’s so gay’
kids who cleverly told me,
‘miss, miss, “gay” just means “happy”’
you know,
i wish it did
i really wish it did

try to explain that gay means happy
to the 12-year-old kids
who keep notes on the inside of their arms
whose wrists bear the scars of tally marks
of how many other 12-year-old kids called me ‘faggot’ today

the year i was 23,
i met a 17-year-old boy named James
when he was 14, James was shoved back into the closet
by too many locker room boys

a year later,
James tilted up his chin and strode back out

two years later,
James stood in front of vermont’s house and senate judiciary
and let them know
he’d like to meet a nice boy some day,
settle down, start a family

you see, James told me,
he’s a romantic
and one day, he wants to be proposed to under the stars

and we both knew then
and we both know now
we are fighting for so much more than wedding rings
matching tuxes
hers and hers towels
— but it’s a start

and maybe one day, all of this means that we’ll be one step closer to easing the tear-jerked pain of saying, ‘I’m gay,’ for the first time.
maybe one day, we won’t have trans kids bartering bodies for rocks on the corner
maybe one day, wives will be able to hold the hands of their wives as they’re wasting away in hospital rooms
maybe one day, wives won’t be wasting away in hospital rooms
[health insurance, etc.]

i’m not 23 anymore
but my mother still asks me sometimes
if i wish i were born a boy
for what it’s worth, i don’t
no matter how fucking amazing i look in a three-piece suit

but that’s not the point
because i loved a boy, once, who wished he were born a boy
who grew up girl
but still became one of the strongest men i know
— a good man —
some little boys grow up to be strong women, too
but we have to let them grow

so many of us may wish we were born into different lives
but please
do not take that next step toward reincarnation

please
do not take the razor blade to your kite strings
i can teach you how to fly
and bridges, you know,
were built for crossing troubled waters
not for leaping into them

stay, please.
this life needs you
James and I need you
please,
stay

bridges can be so alluring
when the world is screaming, ‘faggot, you will never learn to fly’
and maybe all of this is cliche

but I want to tell you this:
It gets better.
you get better
stronger
braver
less afraid to love

it’s gonna get better
we’re going to get there
some day
stay
please
stay
turn your back on bridges, on rope, on razors, on shame

stay,
please,
stay.

you learn,
eventually,
to shield yourself from pain

your toes,
they learn
— how to curl for balance
at those moments when you are poised on the ledge
your toes
will grip
for balance,
for staying

please
draw your limbs into yourself
water the roots of your own tree
please
grant yourself permission
to nourish your own dreams
pull everything you have into the safety of your own embrace

this is hard
i know.

it is still hard,
for me,
three years after 23

how
do we learn
to let go again?

but i am learning
that i am done with shields and walls
no more
cradling my heart
like bruised fruit

no more fear
or, at the very least,
no more letting fear win

i am here
to stay

stay here with me

and if you
are still crouching in the closet
please
use that time
to find sight in the dark
because i know a boy
who’s waiting for you
under the stars

Transactive memory, etc.

This is a draft from 1:40  a.m. on July 23, 2011:

Title: Transactive memory, mind-body problem, external hard drives

New Yorker article on Churchlands:

conversation about fear of having so much information stored — I guess it’s good to have everything if your apartment burned in a fire — is that our definition of everything now?

toni morrison house burning down, laptop stolen — mom: you can just write it again

anxiety over losing journals; piece of identity

White Noise — Don DeLillo, daughter surrounding self with artifacts

I have been neglecting my blog of late in favor of 1) studying for case interviews 2) being a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding 3) writing flash fiction every day as part of The Undeniables 4) figuring out a new job. (That list is in temporal, not necessarily priority order.)

Anyway, I have been sitting at my laptop not writing flash fiction for about an hour now, and I figured I might as well take a break (by doing other writing, apparently). I’ve actually been meaning to post about open to access to information for the last few weeks, inspired largely by the joy flooding my nerdy heart as I pored over Bridgespan case studies and articles, but that would take longer, and I still do need to write that piece of fiction before midnight, so I’ll save that for another night. Also, families and communities. (This entire blog is just me writing about things I’m interested in writing about, isn’t it?)

Anyway. The notes above were written long enough ago that I kind of can’t remember the context of all of them — which, since this post was ostensibly meant to be about transactive memory and the costs of storing information externally — is profoundly ironic and self-fulfilling. Mostly, I think I just wanted to link to this New Yorker article about a married philosopher professor couple who have pushed for the inclusion of neuroscience in discussions about consciousness:

The guiding obsession of their professional lives is an ancient philosophical puzzle, the mind-body problem: the problem of how to understand the relationship between conscious experience and the brain. Are they different stuffs: the mind a kind of spirit, the brain, flesh? Or are they the same stuff, their seeming difference just a peculiarly intractable illusion? And if they are the same stuff, if the mind is the brain, how can we comprehend that fact? What can it possibly mean to say that my experience of seeing blue is the same thing as a clump of tissue and membrane and salty liquid?

This is one of those articles I read several years ago that has since been bouncing around in my own brain (or, I suppose, I should say, bouncing around in what I perceive as my consciousness). The couple is the ultimate example of transactive memory, in that they actively cultivate each other as extensions of self:

And they are monists in life as they are in philosophy: they wonder what sort of organism their marriage is, its body and its mental life, beginning when they were unformed and very young-all those years of sharing the same ideas and the same dinners. When they met, Paul and Pat were quite different, from each other and from what they are now: he knew about astronomy and electromagnetic theory, she about biology and novels. But as time went on they taught each other what they knew, and the things they didn’t share fell away. […] Paul sometimes thinks of Pat and himself as two hemispheres of the same brain-differentiated in certain functions but bound together by tissue and neuronal pathways worn in unique directions by shared incidents and habit. This is not a fantasy of transparency between them: even one’s own mind is not transparent to oneself, Paul believes, so to imagine his wife’s brain joined to his is merely to exaggerate what is actually the case-two organisms evolving into one in a shared shell.

The couple goes on to describe the process through which they have shaped one another’s frameworks and understanding of philosophy. At some level, I consider their relationship, rationally bound and discussed as it is, to be profoundly romantic. Pat and Paul have dedicated their marriage to exploring something they are both passionate about, and they freely share with each other in order to multiply the scope and impact of their research.

The other fragments at the beginning of this post were working toward a theme I have more or less dealt with already here (not that doing so generally stops me from writing about something again). I assume I had a conversation with someone at some point about how terrifying it is to have so much information stored on the Internet, where it technically does not belong to you. (I will guess that this was with Machiko, but I was kind of talking about these things to everyone all summer, so who knows?) I attended a Toni Morrison lecture at the Louvre in 2006, and she talked about how she felt like she lost a piece of herself when her house burned down; there is writing you can never get back.

A few months later, when my shiny new beautifully matte black MacBook was stolen, I was much more upset about having lost the notes I had in there from my first few months studying abroad, some journal pieces, some early drafts of fiction and random thoughts about Virginia Woolf. My mom, in an attempt to be reassuring, told me, “Well, you can just write it all again.”

That utterance still strikes me as the moment in which I felt most disconnected from my mother, ever. It was all kinds of teenage and writer angst rolled up into a “Holy shit, you don’t know me at all!” epiphany.

Words, books, memory, identity, etc., etc. I had an interesting conversation about books and material culture this afternoon, while checking out the Weegee exhibit at MOCA. Go see it. I’m sorry this post is not all that coherent or interesting; you should really just read the article about the Churchlands.


T+N: Books and circles

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.

I’m in the process of packing up my apartment, or perhaps more accurately, I’m rediscovering my blog as a way to procrastinate, instead of packing up my apartment. I’ve only been able to bring myself to pack up one of my bookshelves — the one in the living room* — and haven’t touched the three in my room. I’m pretty sure that once I do that, my room will no longer feel like a living space.

This (23 months) is the longest I’ve lived in any place since leaving home for college, and I think it’s become pretty apparent that my nesting instinct involves surrounding myself in the comforts of poetry and prose. I prefer buying books used, but if I read a book and have any kind of emotional reaction to it, it becomes really important for me to hold on to that specific copy, which probably explains why there are now more than four bookcases worth of books for me to pack up and transport to my new home.**

I originally posted this note, “Books and circles” on Facebook, on July 7, 2010, after visiting my mom’s cousin. I was in Taiwan for just under three weeks, in between my two AmeriCorps terms:

When I was eight, I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I have this vivid memory of being sprawled on a living room floor in Taiwan in what I thought was a family friend’s house, completely caught up in the story, then trying to finish the entire series before I left the country. I remember getting to the part about Aslan and the stone table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and figuring out it was an allegory, and that was the moment where I realized authors are badass because they can, like, do things with books and words and metaphors, and readers are all, “Hey, I was just reading this story about animals, but it’s actually not even about animals.

Today, I went with my mom to see her cousin, whom she thought I hadn’t met and whom I didn’t recognize. The first thing she said was that she remembers the first time we met, when I was lying on the floor reading while all the other kids were playing. (Me: “Yeah, that sounds like me.”)

I asked if I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but she didn’t recognize the titles or author until my mom repronounced “C.S. Lewis” in a Chinese accent, and then my mom’s cousin walked into a bedroom and came back and presented me with the boxed set that I’d read 16 years ago. Later in the conversation, my mom mentioned that people call her cousin Zhang 老師 (teacher), and that name fit into the memory and explains why I thought I was with non-family.

Now everything makes sense, and the universe feels oddly tidy.

Also, my aunt (Chinese people don’t bother with numbering and removing cousins, thank you very much) is an amazing woman who’s dedicated her life to helping other people, and it was lovely to meet her for the first time again.

P.S. Anne Fadiman’s essay “Marrying Libraries” in Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, about how she and her husband joined their collections, is a great piece about many book-related things, including how individual books become imbued with the memories of the times you read them.

[Actually, I think I’m attributing something Mark Z. Danielewski said at the Festival of Books to Fadiman, but when he said what he said, it reminded me of her essay, and I don’t have that book or a transcript with me to check exactly what words either used. (Embarrassing admission: I checked Amazon to read part of the essay and googled my #latfob livetweeting, but the essay cuts off on the preview, and I didn’t tweet what MZD said.)]

This note was supposed to be shorter than it’s becoming. I could easily tack on something about meeting my mom’s other cousin’s husband in England, who owns a used bookshop, and knowing he was family even though he was technically an elderly English gentleman I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of until a few weeks earlier. Or about talking to him about C.S. Lewis, too. Or about how I came down to breakfast a few days later and a first-edition Great Expectations was just sitting there, next to a plate of scrambled eggs. Or about Ex Libris or about reading as a kid and having to be “woken up” from books, which Fadiman talks about in the preface. But I have a boxed set to go browse.

Summary: Books are important.

-30- Facebook note

Update: I just reread this note and was amused that I mentioned using the Internet to figure out whether I was referring to the right texts. I think that impulse is heavily influenced from years of copy editing and fact-checking, which in turn was both influenced by and magnified by an unhealthy need to be right. I’m working on it, I swear.

My mom’s cousin passed away a few months later. She was battling cancer when we went to visit and was a little low energy, but she was still making sure that they people she helped were taken care of. Along with all of the people she helped through her church, she had a huge influence on my closest two cousins when they lived in Taiwan for a year as kids. After we talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, she asked about what I do, and it was the first time I had a conversation about my job with a member of my family and felt like they got it. My mom was there, of course, and I think she finally got a clearer picture of why I had decided to enlist in a second City Year. My parents have always been supportive and always tell me they just want me to be happy, but from my aunt, it felt like she was actually giving me her blessing to continue working with students.***

I now have my own copy of Ex Libris, a serendipitous stick-everything-in-a-box book sale acquisition. I was thinking about the essay “Marrying Libraries” the other day when one of my new roommates talked about filling our new living room with bookshelves so that we can read each other’s favorites and merge our book collections. I had a really awkward moment of intense discomfort, followed by a “we’re not there yet” conversation. This is one of my best friends, one of the first people I came out to, one of the only people I’ve ever let touch me with bare feet (this is really just illuminating more of my neuroses than helping me to make my point). As I said above, I prefer buying used books, and I’m a huge advocate for borrowing and lending books  — but I’m not ready to intercalate anyone’s books with mine yet. And, in a hugely nerdy way, I realized that “Marrying Libraries” has become my benchmark for choosing someone I want to spend my life with. When I’m ready to call my books ours, that’s when I’ll know.

* Living room bookcase consisted of theory books, memoirs, anthologies and assorted books I bought and haven’t gotten to sorting yet. It was also supplemented by two file boxes with more books, courtesy of a few dangerous stick-everything-in-a-box-and-pay book sales at The Last Bookstore’s warehouse and the UCLA English department’s reading room. These were also, one might say, books that haven’t entered into the circle of trust and are therefore allowed to be out in the open.

** There’s a huge backyard and space for people to come over and sit and there are citrus trees in the backyard and there’s lavender in the front yard and a kitchen nook with adorable carved benches! Dinner parties! Sangria in mason jars in the backyard! Urban gardening! Herb-infused everything! I am very excited! Can you tell!?

*** My mom called and retroactively gave me her blessing a few months ago and told me she was proud of the work I’ve done. I think the turning point was watching the Heroes graduation video I cut together; you can’t see the Heroes and not understand how important youth development work is. They are one of the most inspiring groups of people I have ever had the privilege to spend time with.