Extemporaneous Writing

I have had so many days lately that made me feel like I was carrying pebbles in my chest. Reflecting in bed at night, I feel so weighed down by the day's events -- maybe I shouldn't have given Jahan that piece of chocolate, I shouldn't have yelled at her when she wasn't listening, I should have carved out some time for reading and writing, I really should have organized the garage. On days like this, I feel like I am at war with myself. My thoughts are all so critical, so negative. 

I wish I could identify an easy and sure solution to quiet the incessant critic in my head on such days. A magic shut-up spell. Something. Writing is the obvious answer, as I am doing now, because I cannot bear to spend another minute examining the minutiae of the past few days. There are also cooking and baking, something to turn back to as we settle into the routine of school/work this week. But I must acknowledge the elephant in the room -- the reason all this is happening in the first place. The anxiety of going back to real life has been mounting these past few days, and now on the eve of "back to work day," I am certain that I must have something to show for the last two weeks. Not one book have I finished (though I have read a fair bit of poetry). I have not attempted a single poem, much less written one. And now I won't have a break like this for a whole year. The year seems to stretch before me endlessly -- no wonder I cannot find any joy in this first week of 2015. 

I really don't know what the point of this post is. Better sleep now. 

The State of Not Writing

Goll Gappay turned two while I was absent from its pages. Many times, I opened this page and thought, I've nothing much to say right now. Instead, I read and felt sorry for not writing, for not having inspiration enough to write even a single line. I complained to friends, I can't write anymore. The response was always a familiar roll of the eyes, here she goes again, and a frustrated, "Yes you can. Did you even try?" They are all right, of course. And yet, I drove through the much needed Northern California rain, thought about the rise and fall of life, ruminated on journeys and their transience, and all the while I sensed a poem hovering under the realm of my consciousness. I had several dreams about my father, about seeing him after 12 years, about holding on to things that cannot be named, and letting go of those that can. I experienced restlessness over not producing anything, not even ideas, not even a phrase that could be written, let alone celebrated. 

There are so many reasons for not writing, you see. I am busy at work. My toddler is, well, a toddler. I was briefly traveling. It's the holidays. I have to buy Christmas gifts. Potty training is a looming monster. I am tired. I am not truly "present." And yet, there is only one reason to write that overshadows all of these arguments with the tenacity of its truth -- "because I must."

So, here I am again. No poem in sight, but an image from Joan Didion's Play it as it lays whirlpooling in my thoughts, "The sun glazing over the Pacific..." Nothing extraordinary about this particular image when you look at how exceptional Didion's work is. "The sun glazing over the Pacific." And yet there is poetry in it, the loneliness, the longing...or is that me trying to find all of this, identify, memorize, craft it all -- but how?

Does a poet relearn the rules of the game every time she emerges from self-imposed hiding? Take a pen. Open notebook. Start doodling. Write anything. Write, dammit, write for god's sake write, just write. It is so daunting, this wait, this gloom, the mounting anxiety in this time of silence and loneliness where there is neither comfort nor words. Sure, writers understand each other's woes when one complains, "I can't do it anymore. It doesn't give me any pleasure. It is torture." In fact, this is the exact conversation a talented writer-friend had with me a week or so ago. To which my immediate response is, yes, of course, it is torture, but for most of us there is no alternative. We must write. There is not even a "yes, but." We must simply do it. It's a double-edged sword -- equal parts injury and relief.

And so I am here, to get an infusion of relief. To relearn this art that gives me so much joy and just as much misery, but let's face it, mostly joy. "The sun glazing over the Pacific," not the sun's warmth, not the hot sun, not the yellow sun, or the orange sun, or the burnt sun, simply the sun. And the glaze...how fascinating, this phrase, the sensory reaction it invokes. For now, maybe it's enough to soak this in. Then, maybe, a poem, or a few verses. Another blog. That's how it starts again. And maybe it will start tonight. If not, I must keep clawing my way there.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Telling Our Stories

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I drive the same way home every day. When I emerge from a bend on the freeway, circling on I-280 South past Page Mill, I see a breathtaking view ahead of me. On my left there are the domes of three hills, lush with small blades of grass today, a forlorn deeper green tomorrow, turning brown and patchy another day. On my right there is a towering house hidden behind trees. On an afternoon that blooms as an afterthought to rain, clear and clean, tufts of cottony clouds seem to be hovering above this house. On stormy days, the trees are swaying in front of the topmost tower's topmost windows. In winter, thickets of fog seem to leech on to the ocher exterior of the house and the naked tree limbs. In summer, the house looks bright, the trees full and fat, the sky glitters in the background. It's the same road, the same house, the same age-old trees, but they look different every day. As I merge on to the freeway, I wonder how the house past the bend in the road will look like and how it will make me feel, because it does evoke something different in me every time I see it. These feelings are colored by the successes and set-backs of the day, tinged by the bitterness of failure sometimes, flavored by the aftertaste of disappointment. Sometimes, I am able to find absolute beauty when I look at this house in the heart of the hills, because I bring my happiness with me. It may look like it is crumbling in a winter storm and I may still find it to be a metaphor for resilience, because despite the stony rain and the whipping winds, it stands like it always has, sand-colored with red trimmings around the window glass, peeking through the shivering trees. I find a new story during my drive home this way, and the image of the house makes me bookmark them.

There are so many stories I haven't told. Messy stories. Stories of fear and heartbreak and failure and disillusionment and strength and grit and joy. I don't even know where to begin to tell them. It's odd that I feel so full of these stories, but at the same time, I am so distant from writing one down on paper. To talk about just one, I want to shape a poem around an afternoon during my childhood that taught me a hard and menacing lesson about this world. I want to transport myself to that nine-year-old's body with the two pigtails and the new frock, the hammering heart, the small feet running past the iron gates, into the heart of the house, the trembling hands not knowing what to hold on to, the trimmed fingernails finding a sagging wax candle on a pillar near the stairs, scratching it, clawing at it, breaking it down. The mother looking at that nine-year-old girl curiously, pausing on her way downstairs, "What's wrong?" "Nothing," a croak from the child's parched throat, and all the while her soft nails cracking while shredding the candle to pieces.

How much does a writer choose not to tell in her story? How much should she tell? Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests telling everything, but she also doesn't pretend that it is easy to do so. I can see how telling some stories that I have chosen not to share yet will be therapeutic, but I am afraid of the walls that I will run into over and over. I have built concrete mazes around these stories over the course of many years. How do I start breaking them down, how do I start peeling away the paint that is supposed to hide the ugliness of truth? How do I make myself remember...

Every day, when I come upon that house on the freeway, it makes its way into my story for that day. I package it into memory and put it away. I imagine different people living in it, caring for it, I embellish it in my mind, and sometimes I deface it. Today, having decided to write about the house and about the fear of sharing the other more sinister stories, I kept my eye trained on the hills, but I couldn't find it. One bend after another I searched the landscape, but I could not locate that house or the mounds across from it. I must have simply missed it as I was trying to merge with the oncoming traffic. However, this meant that I had to reach into the recesses of my memory and dig out the images I had filed away, unconsciously, for many days. I closed my eyes and I saw that house again when I began to write this post. I saw it as I had seen it on those wintry days, on rainy evenings, during high summer. I saw it and I wrote about it from memory. I must reach back to that nine-year-old girl. I must touch her bleeding fingers. I must hold her and tell her, It's alright. I can't make her say to her bemused mother, "I am so scared," but I can convince her to breathe, to close her eyes, to remember. I can look into her terrified face and say, Let me tell our story, and then somehow muster the courage to live up to this promise. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Reflections That Matter

I had a long conversation with a friend of mine today about something that matters a lot to both of us. Evidently, it matters more to her than it does to me. And how do you quantify something like this? I used to think you couldn't. But I learned otherwise, and here's a story to tell you how I did so. For a long while I did not speak with my father - familial differences and those of perspective, too, no doubt. I never stopped loving him, though, and being a parent now, I know that I could never love him the way he loves me. But in his Shakespearean way, he often complained to my sisters, "You girls, you don't love me at all, and that eldest one doesn't even think of me." "No, no," my sisters would rally back. "She does, too, so, so much. She thinks of you all the time. And she writes about you constantly." "She doesn't write to me," he'd reply. "How am I to know how much someone loves me if I don't see it." After learning of such conversations I would fume for weeks. Trust my father to be very much the King Lear in our lives. "So young and so untender," Shakespeare whispered to me  with the inflection of my father's voice in moments of weakness and guilt. 

But I get it now. How am I to know how much someone cares for me if their feelings don't translate into action? This is the very line I employ when I nag my husband. "You say you're sorry about putting the wet towel on the bed again, but you're really not, or you would listen and stop doing it." Cue in the emotional blackmail, "You don't even love me enough to do this simple task that I have asked you to do a million times." It doesn't work on him anymore, but I have already milked it beyond its worth. Essentially, we need to see reminders of caring and love and friendship and feelings to know they exist. 

Circling back to my friend and the thing we both care about - something lifted today. I was able to not just see but also recognize that what she was telling me was absolutely correct and had merit. How can I claim to care about something if I don't show with my actions that I do? Flashback alert: When I was eight or nine years old, I asked my father for a new pencil case. Some girls in school had ones with magnetic clasps, and I desperately wanted one. To this day, my father has never let me ask for something twice. That day, too, my request was promptly granted. We went to a stationary shop and he bought me a beautiful pencil case. When we came home, I arranged my pencils and erasers in it. A few hours later, my father called me to the sitting room and showed me the new pencil case lying forlornly on the floor by the sofa. I had forgotten it there. He didn't say anything. Instead, he waited for me to be embarrassed of my carelessness. He didn't have to wait long. I tried to explain that I would have put it in my school bag before going to bed, but that was not the point. I had been given something I desired, and I had discarded it after the novelty wore off. I would like to think that I have not forgotten this message, but that would be a delusion. Such messages often times need reinforcement.

I used to invest my feelings in people and things and endeavors. I still do, because this is something I cannot help about myself. I am not happy unless I am dissolved in something: a project, a birthday party, a family member's health, et cetera. But I have also started to reign in my enthusiasm for getting carried away with my feelings when I encounter new interests. I depend on people's appreciation of my efforts for encouragement, even sustenance. When my effort and attention go unnoticed, I become angry. I build fortresses around myself. I turn away, turn against, turn around. It didn't used to be this way. I did things selflessly. I did things because I wanted to, because they made me happy. Somehow, over time, my happiness became associated with what people were thinking of my efforts rather than the effort or the act itself. This is a weakness, and I am lately stunned by the inroads it has made into my character. "You transplant yourself into every conversation," my husband told me the other day. "You make everything about yourself. You like to be the martyr." Others have called me a "drama queen," in jest, but probably with a degree of seriousness behind the assertion. 

I realize that they are right. They are all right - my friends, my father, my husband. And it's all connected, but there has to be a balance! I believe that credit must be given where it is due. The kindness and generosity of people must be acknowledged and praised. Similarly, care and love must be shown in actions and behavior for the things and people that you claim to love and care about. However, I must strike a balance in my personality. I need to be alright with what I see in the mirror without embellishments. I need to ground myself in the belief that I am fine with or without anyone's appreciation. I am still me. I cannot and must not expect that everyone will acknowledge all the good I have done. Indeed, I should not do good with the vain hope that someone will see it and appreciate it. I should simply do good. Do what matters to me. Do what matters. And trust that it is enough.

Photos by Rebecca McCue


All good things come to an end. 

I don't think I ever quite believed this. I felt goodness in things (and in people) was a circular quality, that it kept looping around, never ending. In certain cases, I thought, maybe the circle of goodness even expanded with time, became bigger like each ring of a spiral. Good things don't end, I thought, they multiply. 

Naivete is the lifeblood of the uninitiated. It is a shroud we shed eventually, and when we do, we overtly despise it, but secretly wish to internalize it once again. It is irrevocable unfortunately, this gradual emergence from the veil of innocence. What's interesting is that from the other side of this divide, everything is so much clearer. It's like your vision suddenly expands. You realize that your view of the world before was hidden by a giant boulder. Before you appeared on the other side, that boulder was the center of your world, but now you can see that it was just a tiny rock in the vast landscape that surrounds you. The boulder wasn't the entirety or the boundary of your world; it was simply a very small part of the whole. What I am trying to say is, there is some truth in what we tell ourselves when we're naive. It isn't right, but it isn't completely wrong either. It may be, at best, only partially false, and at worst, only sparingly true. But it is always a combination of the two. In my naive belief that goodness in things lasts forever, at least I was partially correct - it has a finite lifespan, but in those moments of its existence, it feels infinite, as though it could stretch out and curve and loop and go on forever. 

All good things come to an end. The monumental things, like a life well lived, and the seemingly insignificant things, like a wonderful meal. But I always knew this, didn't I? What's changed? What's the new discovery? The big realization of the newly enlightened? That's the question, and I can't put my finger on the answer. The closest I can come to capturing it is by describing an amalgamation of feelings - anger, disappointment, resentment, helplessness, desperation - directly juxtaposed with the naive understanding of attributing the opposite of these feelings to something not worthy of them. I don't know about you, but side by side like that, they make me momentarily feel nothing, almost empty, and then, invariably, a fierce rage, and simultaneously, a melancholic yearning for that old naivete. That's all. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue

The Conflict of a Reader

I am listening to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair these days narrated by Casey Affleck whose performance is strong, clear, and very moving. I obviously don’t agree with the customer reviews on audible.com in which Affleck’s performance has been called anywhere from “underwhelming” to “poor.”

It is a brave thing I do, playing this book every morning when the sky is still fractured with tinges of gray and orange and if I listen carefully, I can hear birds chirping somewhere just out of sight. Deciding then, when I should be celebrating every vestige of peace, to be transported into the bitter winters of poverty, hunger, disease, and suffering in early 1900s Chicago stockyards takes courage.  It is also easy to do - cocooned as I am in my car with the heater on, the January sun slumbering on until well past 7AM in the unusually warm California winter that allows me to not even reach for a pea-coat when I get out of my car to walk to the office building.

I have read some articles on how this book has made others feel. The horrors of the meatpacking industry laid bare by Upton Sinclair have the power of turning an attentive reader into a vegetarian for life. Shock, disbelief, sadness, disgust, compassion – I am sure readers have felt all this and more for the characters in the book. And I, too, feel all that, but I also feel gratitude. I am grateful to be born in a time when it is important to people to live well and learn what kind of food they are eating. I am grateful that I have had a very different (positive) experience as an immigrant compared to the characters in the book. I am grateful for having an education and to have had the opportunity to choose what to do with my life rather than being a passive spectator of its passing.

There are corruption and discrimination and oppression still in the world, but I am grateful that there is at least some degree of accountability, too, disproportionately present, but there.

There are suffering and poverty and hunger still in the world, but I am grateful that there is a more crisp awareness of all these deprivations, so at least there can be a stronger hope for help to come.

As I continue to read the book, about the squalor and starvation and lack of humanity, I choose to think that this wouldn’t be possible now. I am fooling myself - I know that. The conditions mentioned in the book still thrive, perhaps not in the meatpacking plants, perhaps not in Chicago or in the United States, but in sweatshops and factories all over the world and…I have to mention this…war-zones. I choose to be grateful because I should be. I have seen no despair in my life, not real despair anyway. And when I park my car and pause the book, my jaw is set. I walk out of my comfortable car my heels click-clacking on the asphalt of the parking lot, and I enter my centrally heated office with its large glass windows overlooking a beautiful patio with comfortable chairs and round picnic tables. I choose to be grateful for all this because I have good reason to be, along with the ability to walk away from the book, the impulse to nurse the notion, “Surely this doesn’t happen now.” This, I tell myself, was a long time ago. Those were other people. And what do I know? The winter is never bitter here in the Golden State.

Disquietude at half past 11

This afternoon, in the quiet space that stretches as a token of peace between two meetings, I slumped in my chair, rested my head against my hands, and wondered why, on impulse, I promised to write a blog post every day. Even though I have enjoyed writing my last three posts, and they have flowed relatively effortlessly, I was at a loss today.

Just a few days ago, I was complaining to Rebecca. "Why do I sign up for things in the hope that I will somehow magically transform into a different person and actually do them?" For context, I signed up for weekly Zumba and Yoga classes that I have not attended because of a busy schedule at  work and laziness. In addition, I signed up for a Tuesday night poetry class and was unable to attend more than one session because of a very cute two-year-old girl waiting for me at home.

It is very difficult to start these new activities that I so desperately hope to make a part of my life. I want to be the active working mother who also furthers her knowledge of poetry and fiction by taking classes. So far, I've had very little success, but I have resolved to keep on trying. Transformation is not necessary, but something I desire, moving forward, making good changes, growing, because how unfortunate is the alternative?

So today's post is an exercise in making good on a promise intended to foster the good habit of writing in me. It is a small effort to work towards that transformation I am trying to achieve. A more interesting post tomorrow, I hope, but for today, a glimpse into the daily rumination of someone who's not only trying her best, but also striving to make the best of situational limitations.

Until tomorrow, then.

Photo by Rebecca McCue

Remedy for a Broken Heart

Human beings are flawed at best and wicked at worst. This means that one expected outcome of even the most well-intended interactions is the potential of causing injury to the sensibilities of at least one party involved. More often than not, however, relationships that begin with promises of love and friendship morph dismally into purposefully malicious and hurtful interactions, orchestrated by at least one person in the relationship, and often both. This results in some hearts that are - for a time, at least - proverbially broken.

The best remedy for a broken heart, I find, is a strange amalgamation if things. The company of friends who know when to let you cry and when to ask you to pull yourself together, long solitary walks, books that make you think, movies that don't, comfort food in a warm, familiar kitchen, cooking and baking - I find that the kitchen becomes a place of solace, acceptance, and catharsis when I am nursing my broken heart. And so, I end up spending a lot of time polishing the glassware and silverware, baking elaborate cakes, cooking delicacies that take several hours to prepare, and somehow with the help of friends and filler activities mentioned above, I find that the heart, broken but resilient, mends itself.

It is definitely easier to realize as you grow older that no matter how impossible it may seem, the broken heart will, in fact, heal . First of all, you cry less at 28 as opposed to 18. Whereas 10 years ago, I would have cried dramatically for several days, now I only cry for a few minutes and get on with my life. Maybe this control over my faculties comes from knowing that no one thing or person deserves the kind of effort that is expended in crying, the brutal force of it, the headache that follows, the overwhelming self-pity and sadness. The other thing to realize also - and I know this may not apply in all cases, but is common enough that it deserves to be mentioned - is that more often than not, the person who breaks your heart is being cruel for the sake of being cruel. The person who breaks your heart is actually trying to make you hurt, unravel you, peel you back like layers of an onion, expose you, bring you to your knees, make you weak, weep, wail, react.

Once you gain this perspective, it is remarkably easy to not let anyone exercise that kind of influence over your heart. It gives you the strength to allow your heart to break in a resolute silence - you know, after all, that there will be plenty of time to pick up the pieces later. Whereas love, by way of its colloquial definition, makes you strong, the act of inflicting someone with heartbreak is the opposite: It is (not always, but most of the time) a deliberate and arguably cold-blooded initiative to strip you (the victim) of every last reserve of strength you have worked so hard to build.

I, in my exquisite stubbornness and intricate melancholy, do not give people the satisfaction of having wronged me. Contrary to what I have read about heartbreak, I maintain that pride is probably the easiest entity to salvage in the carnage of such a situation. As I have mentioned above, there are certain steps you can take, like not reacting, maintaining an icy silence, et cetera, to preserve your pride. What is entirely unsalvageable in matters of the heart that end badly, is trust. I would argue that you are not necessarily reeling from the shock of hurtful words and actions that have made your heart implode, but from the underlying betrayal, which brings the bulk of negativity back to the self: "How could I be so stupid?" "How did I not realize this?" "How did I let this happen?" "Why did I make myself go through this?" Et cetera. It's the betrayal, cold and sharp as a blade, that delivers the final blow, that annihilates any last remnant or semblance of being whole.

And now what? The heart is, as established, unfortunately and decidedly broken. You have agonized over the culprit behind the heinous act, you have recognized your strengths, and harbored your weaknesses. Now begins the long but finite journey of putting the pieces back together. It's time to heal and mend and laugh again. So, for me, this part involves comfort and writing and cuddling with my baby girl. Lots of cooking and baking. Reading. Doing good things with good people.

What does the road to a mended heart look like for you?

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Poem for Peshawar

Peshawar 2013

let me show you the cost of worship:

a man, with his eyes closed, arms splayed
as if embracing the carnage around him,
another man's hand on his back,
mayhem, comfort

five rescue workers carrying a girl on a charpoy,
rubber flip-flops, one dangling from her foot,
about to fall off,
her bright yellow shalwar with a floral print,
basant, kites                                       dead? alive?
a woman sitting on the ground,
hands clasped, head bent low,
meditative, almost,
a crimson stain on her shoulder, blooming,
a full-mouthed lily, an inkblot
another woman wailing, walking toward the first,
her reaching palm, an effigy in midair,
grief immortalized in the contortion of her face,
kith? kin?
a row of five plain oak coffins,
mercifully closed,
a hand resting on the lid,
precious cargo,
78 dead, over a hundred injured,
death toll climbing, climbing, they say,
like a vine it grows,
no photos of children, yet
no children, please, god, please,
no more, no more