“A Little Life” (or, more straightforwardly: “Taiwan”)

“You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole–like the world, or the person you loved.”

— Stewart O’Nan

It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.

— John Guare

阿姨 sits down next to me and notes admiringly that I have been glued to my book the entire trip. “You’re so studious,” she said. I’ve always loved to read, I confessed. My parents would scold me at breakfast and dinner and in the car. “Stop reading at meals, pay attention, your eyes will go bad if you read while the car is moving.”

I told her I am currently reading an excruciatingly sad novel. “Doesn’t it color your mood?” she asked. “Of course,” I responded.

“Why don’t you only read happy things then?” I laughed and shrugged. I’m reminded so much that I am too emotional anyway, why not face it head on? Someone once told me that the world is wrong to frown upon emotion and vulnerability. So many people deem it weak, but perhaps it can be considered bravery that one opens herself to feeling. I admit I probably also want reassurance that writing about sad things doesn’t preclude becoming a good writer.

I know I will always be a person who thinks about feelings too much, but there are worse things to be in this world (as we are reminded daily by the news). The sad literature and events in life are what provide contrast for us to know what contentment is. The adversity we face is what prepares us for what we need to do to attain peace.

I guess the thing about the sad novel is that it reminds me of the obscure details, the tiny things that make waves. The tiny obstacles that can turn ships, but also the tiny miracles that can turn tides.

***

For months after I bought the plane ticket, I was anxious. I was convinced that my family in Taiwan would scold me:
1. Tell me that I’ve gained weight (which is senseless to say since: of course I was going to look different. The last time I was there was over a decade ago).
2. Comment with dismay about how I am “still single” and childless.

The way I’ve learned Asian families do.

My mom insisted that my arrival to be a total surprise to everyone. I was concerned about this, too. What if grandmother is out somewhere else when we arrive? What if I give her a scare? My mom reassured me. “Don’t worry, grandmother is always there. Where would she go? And don’t worry, her heart is very healthy.”

***

Grandmother was sitting in the yard with her friend when my father and I first walked up. She did not see me at first. When it became clear the visitors were here for her, the friend helped her to stand up. Her face was cloudy, her eyes squinting through the distance to see. I called out “Grandmother, it’s me, 樂樂.”

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Sing the names of the dead who brought us here

I am struggling to find the words to describe how I feel about the events of the past 48 hours.

My parents immigrated to America in the 1970s. I feel hot tears build up as I think about the freedom that this country represented for them, for their entire families that depended on them, for the hope they upheld by investing every last penny in a one-way-ticket to get here. Everything, for the dream. They lived in trailers in South Carolina for years. They borrowed utensils from each other, made home-cooked food for their neighbors no matter the color of their skin. They didn’t speak a lick of English, yet found ways to wade through textbooks of technical and medical language. They overcame discrimination, shame, fear. They thought they could be safe here. Many others did, too. What is happening to that dream? How can we forget the freedoms our country was founded upon, how can we lose ground in our path of progress towards the fundamental truth that we are all created equal?

We cannot, we will not.

Here I am, born and raised as an American. Here I am, feigning fluency. Here I am, speechless and appalled at the events, yet ready to speak loudly in the ways I can. Donating, calling, writing, conversing, collaborating with friends to create art and dialogue. (Kristan sums it up well in her post from today.)

I’ve referenced this Elizabeth Alexander poem a couple of times on this blog and on Twitter, but here it is again. I hope we can continue to march together, into the light.

Praise Song for the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander

(A poem written for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration)

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

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What else could go right?

We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero’s shoulders and the gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.

— Excerpts from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

I’m sitting in the sunlight in a tiny town in Portugal with someone who is terrible at sitting still.

We are (attempting) to read our books while stretched out in front of the Mondego river. It’s been a day of driving with the top down singing loudly to Travis Scott and my hair is tangled, scented with sea. There’s this fountain that’s rising and falling in all directions almost comically, teasing us against the backdrop of the sun stubbornly continuing to set in one direction against the mountains.


“How do Europeans do absolutely nothing all day?” he asks me when looking up from his book.

I laugh and shake my head at my you’re-such-a-typical-New-Yorker friend. “Because maybe they are the ones that really know how to live.”

In New York City, I’m always writing things feverishly while walking up subway steps. There’s always such urgency, never enough time to sit still and do nothing. I think to myself: god, I could trip and fall and die. And there’s that part of me that thinks: writing is one of those few things that would make me fold my hands in my lap in the afterlife and say, “Well. Good thing it was worth it.”

A few months ago my friend came to visit, all memories and lines and bait — like a good fisherman. I talked like he was going to move back here, and he said quietly, “Man, New York City takes so much effort though. You seem like you love it. Is it really worth it?”

The good things are worth the effort. This past year, we’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies, relationships — everything — on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. But let’s remember: there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, not just this year. So many of my friends have faltered this year at the absurdity of fighting for what we believe in. Or what we love. We’d all like to lose ourselves in something big, gigantic; but more unfortunately, it seems, something we are absolutely certain we can win at.

We are here now. Even if the odds are (obviously) that we can’t win every time, struggling in our convictions for what is good and right seems to be a worthy cause.

I could go on about 2016, but I think everyone else pretty much has the negative side covered. Every blog post and tweet sums it up: “2016 was shit. Good riddance.” I thought about the posts I could write: summarizing the books I read, new jobs, new loves, my travels, how it felt to meet my goal of writing in my Day One journal every day, the number of steps I’ve taken since getting a Fitbit; while they are all things I’d like to expand upon, nothing seemed to fit for the final entry of the year. I thought about writing nothing at all. Or just quoting from the greats. There are endless relevant quotes from James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, Margaret Mead, W.E.B. Dubois, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, and on and on.

 I don’t think I’m the only person who has been paralyzed about what to write (or what not to write) — what if people get angry with me because I leave out important issues? What if people get angry with me when I do write about important issues? Is it worse to be silent than to write incompletely? Is it frivolous to write about love and hope in a time of terror and despair? Is it ok to quote poetry instead of more politically-relevant works? (Many of the same questions I asked myself last year.) It took a lot of courage to act on the thought I had: What any of us writes will always be incomplete. Write anyway.

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Did any world not begin with love?

Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical forces.

— Hannah Arendt

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Did we not walk through the woods side by side, our hearts bursting with as much light as there was shining through the trees?

Did we not meet on an airplane, our ears popping, but speaking louder to each other in Spanish about literature and South American poetry?

Did you not put your arm around me for the first time while walking down Crosby Street?

Did we not kiss with the Empire State building watching us?

Did we not grow up together, under the same sky? Are we not growing old together now, walking the same earth?

Did we not run through the leaves together, marveling at the sound?

Did we not break bread together, bandages on fingers and coffee in hand?

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Did I not think of you while watching the city skyline from a distance; the shadowy outlines of Manhattan coming to life in the morning after shedding itself from the mist and fog of the night?

Did you not surprise me with flowers one spring day?

Did you not disappoint me with your absence one summer night?

Did we not wake at the same time to hear the owl’s song?

Did you not send me a quiet message-in-a-bottle: “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. That might be the opposite of love, as well.”

Did you not sit on the other side of the door while I was weeping, your voice reaching for mine?

Did you not sing to me as I fell asleep?

Did we not stand, a river apart, wondering how the other was sleeping?

Are we not countries apart now, thinking of the same thing?

Are we not all of different skin colors and religions and even political beliefs, yet marveling all the same at these little details of love?

Did any revolution not begin with hope? Did any winter not end with spring? Did any change not begin with doubt? Did any world not begin with love?

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For it is important that awake people be awake

This morning, B. gave me my first hug when I walked in. “It’s going to be ok, because we have each other.” I could not cry last night, but I felt that her words gave me permission to.

Below, excerpts from “A Ritual To Read To Each Other” by William Stafford. Line breaks and boldface are my own. Full poem can be found here.

***

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear:
the darkness around us is deep.