vanishing

After seeing the Dutch film The Vanishing a few years ago, I have become aware of an intense fear of being buried alive. I suppose the fear has always been there, but the film’s final scenes gave my fear specificity and detail. I tell this to a friend one morning as we ride the train to New York. I tell her that for reasons that I cannot quite articulate, I find that knowing this is among the most common phobias oddly comforting. As if to suggest it is not unreasonable for me to feel panic when I think of it (which is perhaps, more often than I’d care to admit).

This morning, I wake from a dream where I am witness to a woman being tied to the side of a train car. I don’t know why, or what I have to do with it. There’s a cartoonish sense to the scene and I wake just as in the dream I am walking away. 

I have always said I am afraid of heights and I believe this to be true, although I have not had occasion to test this out in some time. Aside from the fear of being buried alive (specifically in a coffin or box), I don’t think of myself as particularly afraid of small spaces. I have, a few times, caught myself in behaviors that might suggest compulsivity. I often find myself doing things and not knowing exactly why. 

I remember an essay I read years ago about a woman who moves to New York and experiences profound loneliness. She goes on to detail the harmful effects that sustained loneliness can have on the body and on the mind. She suggests, as I recall, that pain — psychic pain — can be a call to action. In her case, she moved back to England. 

This is not the point of her essay, but it seems to me that there are some kinds of psychic pain that simply must be endured. I am thinking about grief. The loss of a loved one. I don’t know that there is much to be done in response, save perhaps the typical platitudes — take a walk, write in a journal, etc. I would like there to be actions to take. To change the situation. To (metaphorically at least) move back to England. 

When my mother died, I found the rituals around death — the funeral, the burial, the luncheon, the notes that needed to be written in response to the kind words of sympathy that came from friends and acquaintances — to be a comfort. Tasks to be completed, decisions to be made. I find myself reaching for rituals of one sort or another, but I don’t know what to do. A friend of mine told me that her family acknowledges the anniversary of her father’s death. That they make his favorite foods and tell stories about him. I think of this as such a lovely idea, but the person I am grieving most acutely (if grief can be described in degrees?) is someone I know nothing about. There are no stories to be told, no memories to share. No favorite foods to reproduce. 

I wonder, can I, occasional writer of fictions, simply make it up? An adopted friend of mine who is also a painter went through a period of painting self-portraits as an attempt to imagine his own father. I have myself envisioned recreating a traditional Korean home and courtyard, imagining the home, the artifacts I might have had. I suppose in a way this is some of what we do as writers, as artists — create spaces to accommodate our grief. 

evanescent joys

Walked the track again with my son this morning. Early, before the heat. We didn’t stay long — three times around, plus there and back, the whole excursion takes about 40 minutes — but I like to think I am perhaps offering him some small, everyday rituals to remember. The quiet, shapelessness of cool mornings in early summer. Occasional companionable chatter. 

Sometimes we talk about our plans for the day. He’s working on a little animation project. I’m juggling a meeting or two in an otherwise open-ended day. By the end of the month, the rhythms we’ve acclimated to will change again. But for now, I’m trying to make the most of the time, mostly formless, punctuated by little bursts of activity. 

The early spring blossoms are all gone now — the forsythia, the cherry trees, the irises. The peonies are peaking, but they won’t hold on much longer. Now, the roses. Sweet pea vine. Astilbe and lavender. Purple salvia in abundance. Honeysuckle. 

For better or worse, I’ve spent some time these past few weeks going through all the notes I’ve kept for the past two decades now, tracing the origins of certain lines of thought, ongoing preoccupations. Although most of what I’ve kept is useless, uninteresting even to myself, there are occasional lines or ideas that will spark something in the present. A note my past self did not yet know that future self might need. There is a certain kind of pleasure in this traveling back and forth in time. This reconciling of past and present lives. 

In the museum, in an exhibition hall filled with ancient armor and weaponry, I asked my son whether he thought he believed in past lives. I find myself often thinking of this when confronted with the unfamiliar, ancient world. I find it difficult to imagine all these eras have passed without me — without even some version of me. I suppose it’s a kind of “fear of missing out” on a protracted, epic scale. How else to explain the odd twinge of recognition when entering the reproduction of a darkened, medieval dining hall? Or the study of an 18th century Chinese scholar? 

Many ways to explain it, I suppose. But for the moment, the hushed reverence and the chilled, mostly empty exhibition halls, lend an air of magic and mystery to our wandering. An openness to possibility, to the inexplicable. 

“I like the idea of it,” he said. 

I said, “Yes, I like that too.”

The last gallery we enter is a reproduction of a 19th century Japanese ceremonial teahouse. There is a group of schoolchildren there, sitting on the little stools they have carried in from the hallway. Someone standing in front of them with a clipboard is asking questions and a few children raise their hands enthusiastically. 

As we leave, we see the sign, informing us that the name of the teahouse is Sunkaraku, “which reflects the spirit of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a temporary refuse from the complexities of daily life.” 

Sunkaraku, meaning “Evanescent Joys.”

nor was it less

A found note: “In interviews, years later, John Hawthorne will say, ‘Her life was not any more important than anyone elses’s, but certainly, nor was it less.’” He was speaking of his wife, Alice Hawthorne, killed when a bomb exploded at Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I have carried around this fragment for decades. This simple statement about the significance of a single human life.

“She was loved and now she is gone. And it matters.”

Returning to the tasks of domesticity after a few days away is difficult. The piles of books and papers around my desk seem somehow more chaotic than when I left, and I feel a bit wearied, to have to make my way through them. I suppose I am feeling a bit overwhelmed this morning. 

Here in my chosen city, I have come to live at a particular scale. Mostly, what I need is at arm’s reach. Philadelphia is vast and sprawling. More than 1.5 million residents, compared with 200,000 in Providence (and 71,000 in Pawtucket). I know myself well enough at this point to recognize that wherever I am, it is rarely where I want to be. But still, I wonder about the tradeoffs we have made for a certain kind of ease, a certain kind of comfort, the knowability of this place I have lived for nearly thirty years. 

Over the weekend, our friends threw us a “soiree,” as they called it. A dinner party so that we could meet the people who populate their daily lives, and they could meet us. They hosted it in a renovated church that now housed offices and co-working space. Next to it, what had been the church’s rectory was now the stylish home of the church’s owners. All the children found their way over there while the parents sat around a long, gracious wooden table covered with the dishes people had brought to share. There were some Providence connections and we talked about the people we knew in common, shared news of them. But mostly, it was the usual questions, what do you do, where did you live before, what are you working on now. Chatter about children and cats. 

And the evening passed like that, laughing and talking in the company of people, for the most part, we had just met. Something about that experience — the newness of it, the way it required a kind of presence, a particular kind of attentiveness, alertness — that was buoying. 

there all the time

I went back to the art museum alone yesterday, was able to linger in the galleries, wander aimlessly. I was rewarded for my return by Cy Twombly’s 10-part series, Fifty Days at Iliam, based on the last fifty days of the Trojan War. These ten canvases are large — most about sixteen feet long and ten feet high — and nine of them are hung in a small gallery that perfectly contains them. 

When I entered the gallery it was empty, and the feeling that washed over me — reverence, awe, surprise — was as sudden and intense and it was unexpected. I don’t know much about painting or how to speak or write about paintings, but my response was visceral and immediate. Hand-scrawled text, bold, fierce strokes, minimal color, except for the dark red that dominates a few — all immediately suggested the chaos and violence of war, its aggression and confusion. All at a scale I could not help but be moved by immediately. I was reminded of hearing Eileen Myles talk about the painting of Joan Mitchell — the way she took the world in through her body and her painting became the utterance of the experience. I find the notion of painting (or of other forms of art?) being the transfer of the energy of experience through the body — the way its performance becomes a kind of utterance, a kind of language — appealing. 

There were other pleasures to be had. An exhibit of Agnes Martin’s drawings and writings (notes, artistic statements, correspondence) provided quiet insights on sustaining a working life in art. She wrote on beauty and inspiration: 

As I describe inspiration I do not want you to think I am speaking of religion. 

That which takes us by surprise — moments of happiness — that is inspiration. Inspiration which is different from daily care. 

Many people as adults are so startled by inspiration which is different from daily care that they think they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Inspiration is there all the time

The poet Ralph Angel introduced me to Martin’s writing on beauty some years ago, and then, as now, I am struck by the complexity in it that resists my easy understanding. Her statements are at once straightforward and elusive. I think I understand it, but then question. I find I must return to it, consider it for a while. Think about it in the context of her meticulous, meditative drawings and paintings. Their repetitions, their spare, quietly-controlled gestures. 

There is more to say about the glorious hours I spent there in the galleries. But we are packing up now for the trip home. 

in the morning it was full again

I called the suicide hotline once, but — and I swear this is true — I got a busy signal. I tried several times. This was in 1998. I was calling from a landline. A slim beige receiver. The buttons glowed green. I got the number from a telephone book, which seems unimaginable now. I remember my heart racing. In those days, I did not do well alone. 

I tried to call a few more times, each time, hung up sobbing. I left the television on all night. I knew I just had to make it till morning. I watched The English Patient. When it ended, I watched it again.

“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again.”

At the museum, the thing I love best is a small exhibit of works by Korean American artist Jean Shin, called Collections. Using mostly discarded materials — broken umbrellas, old sweaters, worn shoes — Shin painstakingly reconfigures the abandoned objects of everyday life to highlight the individuals who have used or worn them, the intricate interconnectedness between people, and the traces of experiences and stories that inhabit these objects. I felt an immediate kinship to the work and the thinking that seems to have inspired it. 

I woke remembering a scene from a film I saw several years ago. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was alone. I went to a matinee showing of Of Gods and Men, which ends with a devastating scene of several Trappist monks being marched to their death in the snow in Tibhirine, during the Algerian Civil War. I remember emerging from the cool dark theatre to the bright afternoon. The sorrow for these men, the blinding snow on the screen, the humid air outside. 

Downtown, the city was preparing for the evening’s celebrations — the holiday lighting of Waterfire amid Brown’s commencement festivities. I was to be there later myself, circulating among the artists and administrators for one purpose or another. 

But that snow. How I remember it filling the screen. Beautiful, pristine, silent. Then the footsteps of the men as they trudged through, knowing how it would end. I was overwhelmed with sadness, thinking of it again this morning, all these years later. 

not drawn to scale

Drove down to Philadelphia, arrived in late afternoon. It was a bright and beautiful day. In the car, M played a podcast series about Charles Manson. Mostly, I drifted in and out of sleep. Would wake periodically to some disturbing story or gruesome detail. I don’t remember dreaming. 

One of M’s oldest friends lives here. I recognize places we’ve been before, over the years. Before the children and jobs. It’s a perfect evening for walking, so after decadent pizzas (truffle and pecorino) and happy hour wine (just me), we walk through downtown for gelato and then sit with it in the park. 

This morning, I wake feeling anxious. There are a few things I should have done before we left, a few emails still unanswered. And gradually, I start to see how quickly the time here will go. Already, plans with friends today and tomorrow. Any vague notions I might have had about stretches of time to read and write now dissipating. I have a busy week ahead — appointments and meetings I will need to have prepared for. It’s wearying at times, but I remind myself: This is in fact the life I have chosen. 

Among my various notebooks, I find one I kept during the week-long summer writing course I took at Brown nearly ten years ago now. I was finding my way back to writing. Workshops in the morning, writing time in the afternoon, which I mostly spent in the sciences library. (I think I put myself in an unfamiliar place, so that I would remain in a state of heightened alert.) Readings in the evening. I remember it being a good and productive week. Wayne Koestenbaum was one of the visiting authors. He read from what would become Humiliation, and my notebook is filled with things he said about living as a writer. The long game of it. 

On reading voraciously and widely: “What if you haven’t even yet discovered the nationality of the writers who will become most important to you?”

On finding your form: “You’ll write a novel, and then a second, and then a third, and maybe then you’ll find the right form, which will all be informed by the three novels.”

“Become an activist of your own sensibility,” he said. “Become a cultural sleuth.” I wrote all these things down, sensing their importance, even if I did not then know what they meant. I think I am understanding a little better, now. 

One of the assignments that week was to draw some sort of map. I don’t recall exactly what the prompt was anymore, but it must have made some reference to childhood or to memory. After a few false starts (my drawing skills are extremely limited) I came up with this. 

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What I love about discovering this scrap (I’ve written “napkin map” in the upper corner, just beyond the frame) is seeing how I am always attempting to express something about longing. About wanting some other thing, about the emotional charge of desire. I see myself existing in this liminal state — here, but not here. Here, but looking back. Here, but awaiting the next thing, just around the bend, following the curve of desire. 

it does not bring them back

Last night after dinner, we walked down to the river. The evening was bright and mild. There were geese and their goslings and we approached, but carefully. The river ran fast. The air was sweet. Peonies and rhododendrons in bloom everywhere. 

I am thinking about the passage of time. How in midlife, these years pile up so quickly. Was it already two years ago that I wrote to you from the desert? Has it been three years since Montpelier in winters so cold my hair froze as I walked? 

Thirteen years since we moved into this house, embraced its decaying grandeur? We had only one child then. Your parents were both well, with no hint then of what was to come. 

I’m working on something new, something difficult. It’s going slowly. It has sent me back in time — to old notebooks, old notes, false starts. I find a bit of something — a line or two, a question — and sometimes will not recognize it as my own. Mostly, though I have found that themes emerge. Ideas and questions I have been circling for a long time. I find this pleasing. Like I am approaching the same central questions of a life from different angles, at different points in time. What else is a creative life, if not that? 

It’s a strange thing, perhaps, but I like to encounter references to events and people I can no longer remember. “Spoke with P about the Brooklyn debacle” and I will puzzle with it for a while. Who is P? What debacle? I like to think that at some other, future point, I will remember it with perfect clarity. I like to imagine my past self, making this note, confident that no further explanation would ever be needed. Writing from a time when P is so present, so alive, and the Brooklyn debacle so all-consuming that I cannot imagine that it could ever be another way. 

Mostly these days I am thinking about suffering. For the past few years, in one way or another, I have been reading about and thinking about the Korean War — and by extension, other wars — and its aftermath. Not only the death toll, which is significant and unimaginable, but of those who come home from war. The silent suffering they endure, the ways in which their suffering infects their homes, their families; the long shadows of war falling poisonous and suffocating over us all. 

My father served in World War II. I ask my aunt about it and she says, “Something happened there that we don’t know. When he came home he was not the same,” but she doesn’t say much more. She didn’t know him then, of course, didn’t meet him until ten years later, after his first marriage had ended and he was courting my mother. Whether she never learned what he saw or did in the war, or doesn’t want to talk about it, I am not yet certain. But she will say, on occasion, “He had a lot of baggage.” 

Over the years, I have heard suggestions. My sister claims to remember that he told her once that he had seen someone step on a landmine. “Blown up in front of him,” my sister will say. Our father left when we were so young it’s hard to imagine under what circumstances this conversation might have transpired, but I am no expert on memory. 

This note, from 2016: “We wage war, build monuments in the names of our dead, but it does not bring them back.” 

And later: “In war, don’t we do things in the names of our ancestors that they would not want us to do.” 

We are down by the little ampitheatre the city has built along the river, and my son runs across the stone stage, mugging and striking poses. He is drawing an extensive collection of characters for a game he is creating and he tries out the poses to know how to draw them. Of course, the characters will inevitably battle each other, so their identifying poses are stances of attack, meant to hint at their power. There is little respite from the ubiquity and insistence of war. 

The light fades. We can feel the temperature drop. It is still comfortable, but we know we will be heading home soon. We can hear easy chatter of people walking to their cars. The streetlamps glow, and now a row of white lights illuminate the bridge. 

wayfinding

In the morning, we went on a walking tour organized by my son’s school. It was led by a local activist and public scholar who pointed out a series of markers that had been erected in the city on sites of significance to African American history — the site of the Olney Street Riot in 1831, a plaque commemorating the site where Sissieretta Jones lived — and as we walked, he talked about his own work a bit. His daughter, charming at inquisitive at 3 or 4, trailed behind among us. It was a perfect day to walk. Trees in full bloom, the air warm and faintly perfumed. 

Later, with friends, we spoke about creative work — dedication to it, making the time, putting in the hours, as it were. I have been working steadily, if slowly, on this new book, trying hard to stay out of my own way. 

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Yesterday, I copied a series of first lines from Renata Adler’s Speedboat, to to try learn something about her sentences. There are countless examples I can point to but something about a line like: “There is a difference, of course, between real sentiment and the trash of shared experience” that gets to the heart of the matter with speed, precision, and the recognizable clipped tone I have come to associate with her. 

This morning, I returned to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Each time I pick it up, after some time away, I expect and fear that it will not be as I remembered it, that it will have deteriorated over time. And each time, I am surprised anew by its intelligence, its lyricism. Its ability to string together events and ideas that at first seem so disparate — with such ease. 

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The places we walked were not unfamiliar. We began at an intersection I drive past nearly every day, and none of the sites where we lingered were wholly unknown. Walking the streets however, in this particular configuration — from the east side to downtown and back — was not something I have done many times before, and certainly the route was winding and without the purposefulness with which I would usually be traveling. 

There are obvious messages here — about slowing down, taking the time to truly observe what we take for granted, to attend to the familiar to see it anew, and so forth. But part of the purpose of the tour, I think, is also to remind us of what is suppressed or missing in the way we understand our surroundings. Every historical marker, every sign, every wayfinding system, every street name, every building erected, does so in a certain context and is laden with a particular set of values and assumptions about its use and usefulness. 

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In the evening, we went to the opening of a friend’s installation, which, among other things, documented aspects of the experience of the earliest Colombian immigrants in Rhode Island. In the interviews he’s conducted and recorded, there are stories that have not been heard before, which would otherwise be disappeared, erased. 

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Our guide ended our tour talking about the kinds of projects that have yet to be undertaken, for the usual lack of resources, time, and will. I think of my own eagerness to start things and how quickly — at signs of adversity — my energy flags. 

Along the way, our guide made a reference to one of his own teachers, an anthropologist who had made an offhand comment about recent archaeological discoveries in Egypt. “Oh, they’ll be finding stuff there for years,” he said. Our guide mentioned this for the perspective it brought — that we are constantly in the process of discovering new truths, unearthing new stories that have been — intentionally or unintentionally — untold, silenced. There is something there for me, I think, about taking the long view on work. Longer, perhaps, than one might imagine possible. 

For when there is time

I’m working on a novel now and thinking about how I use my time. It is not as though I have not worked on long-term projects that have spanned years. But it is fair to say that perhaps I didn’t know at the outset how long I would work on it, how long it would hold my attention, sustain me.

It is clear to me, every time I take notes, or identify a research question, or think about a character’s backstory, that to do this, I will be in it for a long time.

I have always tended to work on multiple projects simultaneously. At times, this can feel generative, exciting. At others, I wonder, am I diluting the work? Short-changing it all somehow? At this point in my life, I think maybe some modes of being are too deeply rooted to change significantly. Even now, as I write this, I have interrupted myself to take a note for some possible future thing.

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A workshop leader once opened the class with the question, “What poem have you read today?” When no one rushed to answer, he made some comment to the effect of, “Well I hope you enjoy your hobby.” His point being about seriousness, engagement with the “craft.” I took his point, certainly. I think of it often.

I wonder whether my anxiety about claiming identity – artist, writer, poet, etc. – is at least to some extent, gendered. I have not discussed this much with men, so it is only an open question for now with suggested likelihood implied.

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How many installations must I complete before I can call myself an artist? How many poems must I write before I can call myself a poet? Does formal training make the identity? To what extent, really, does it matter?

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I remember a former mentor who talked about his file drawer of possible projects. Sketches for book projects, workshops, courses he might teach. Some were fairly detailed, other just hastily-scribbled concepts. He was nearing retirement at the time. We’ve since lost touch but I wonder whether he’s been able to attend to any of those file folders now. That drawer full of promises to a future self. For when there is time. Don’t we always think there will be time?

"I remember everything"

I will try not to give anything important away, but there is a point in Call Me by Your Name when one character says to another, “I remember everything.” It is so moving because contained in this simple statement is the declaration that the love, even if impossible in the present moment, or in the future, is held.

People will often ask what memories I have of Korea. I don’t have many and that lack feels to me like a particular loss. But I think what often can feel like a greater loss is not having memories of me, reflected back to myself.

Remembering someone can, of course be an act of love. When I tell my son that he was born with a tuft of hair that stuck straight up off his head, or that when he was little, we dressed him in a fuzzy blue winter coat that made him look like Cookie Monster, or that the first time we took him to the beach, he didn’t want his fat little feet to touch the sand, and every time we tried to lower him, he’d fold up his legs and cry – I think these stories, perhaps, give him an insight into how we love him, how our love was expressed, how we attended to him.

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The dress project started with an idea to attempt to “re-do” some element of the adoption process. That if I could “re-dress” the children who were sent from one life to another, what might I give them, what might I want them to have?

I thought I would want them to know that they were loved. And so I thought about how I could inscribe, in the fabric itself, a message of love. But this feels simplistic, non-specific. I can, after all, understand that I might have been loved as a child. I was healthy, well-cared for when I arrived. I think I might want to know – on some deeper, more subconscious level – how love might have been enacted.

That perhaps more than the statement of love, I would want the memory of having been loved:

Every day, that summer when you were two years old, we walked up and down the street where we lived and brought treats to the neighborhood dogs.

In the mornings, your brother fed you persimmon on a spoon.

You had a favorite pillow. It was blue and you carried it everywhere.

There is still a bit more dreaming to be done. But I think this is where I am headed.

performance and audience

Last night was American Football in Boston with old friends S & F. Drove in for dumplings in Chinatown, meandered to Beard Papa for cream puffs. Made it to the Royale with enough time to snag front-row seats on the balcony, which is really the best way to see a show these days.

Thought about the brief period of time M and I were playing music together and about performance, how challenging it is. I think about it in the context of literary readings, too. That most of the time, readings are just that. How there is such potential for more dynamic, memorable acts to transpire. I often envision more elaborate, choreographed events for myself, but rarely end up putting in the necessary time. Time is a limiting factor, but so is fear.

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I can see the traffic from my window as I type and already, at 5:30 am, it’s heavy and slow-moving down 95 South. I am glad we are not trying to get anywhere today.

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Thinking about an upcoming event, which is meant to be, in fact, a performance, and how it’s an opportunity to try some things out in a relatively low-stakes way. An attempt to clarify certain gestures, to be more articulate about intentions.

What struck me most about this conversation between Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee was this notion of how the recent growth and prevalence of writing workshops has fostered this sense that writers are writing for other writers – for the kind of reading that tends to happen in the workshop structure. I want to think more about the characteristics of workshop, what tendencies they give rise to. It surprised me how freeing it seemed to consider broader audiences – readers with different goals perhaps, different ways of appreciating and engaging with a text.

(Re-)Dress: Week 2, Day 4

Days remaining: 123
Start time: 3:15 pm
End time: 5:15 pm
Complete: 12/200

Working slowly today. Pricked my thumb with a long straight pin and had to stop to bandage. Can't hide blood on white dress.

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Pinned and stitched interfacing to dresses at collars and armholes. Armholes are tricky!

Trimmed.

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Turned one inside out, pressed down the interfacing. I have to learn how to move more quickly.

(Re-)Dress: Week 1, Day 2

To date, I have 12 dresses complete.

In about an hour, I cut and pressed the interfacing for five dresses, and started pinning.

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I am working in little blocks of time intermittently. It’s a busy time and sometimes I panic. I’m overcommitted and this won’t change until after the end of the semester. But the cutting and sewing often feels like relief.

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It’s impossible not to be thinking about sexual assault and rape. I have not wanted to write about it, post about it, although I understand that others need to. It’s exhausting. To bear witness to the relentlessness of sexual trauma. To be reminded constantly of how deep misogyny runs. To be reminded constantly of how little I am valued as a woman. To be reminded constantly, of every instance in my own life where my body has felt not my own.

As part of the Rumpus community, I’ve been asked to write something about my own experience, and I will. I’ll write about the time I was raped in college. I won’t write about the dozens of other times when I have felt harassed, bullied, made uncomfortable, pressured, coerced. I won’t write about how just last week, a former colleague, as part of a birthday message to which I replied with a heart emoji, said, “I am glad you are not here now because I would kiss you for that pretty heart.” This message on a tiny pop-up window on my screen while alongside, in my facebook feed, that ubiquitous smiling photo of the serial rapist again.  

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There are still unformed thoughts about women’s work. About these dresses on the small bodies of children who will grow to be girls who will grow to be women. That is for another time.

(Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand

I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth.

Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it, using fabric my adoptive mother had left to me when she died. The act of re-creating this object prompted meditation on lineage and legacy – what has been left to me, what has been lost. The dress has become an organizing motif for my writing and art practices.

I made a series of dresses for an exhibit to accompany my graduate thesis work at Vermont College of Fine Arts in early 2016.

Since then, I’ve made dozens of dresses – in fabric and in paper.

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“(Re-)Dress, One for Every Thousand,” which will be part of a spring 2018 exhibition curated by Brooke Goldstein for the Jamestown Arts Center, is an installation that uses 200 hand-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be documenting the making of these dresses. I can’t possibly comprehend the number 200,000 in any meaningful way, but I think I can understand 200. Between my birthday (October 12, which is an estimated date assigned to me by the Orphans’ Home of Korea) and the end of February, when the exhibition is to be installed, there are about 20 weeks. To stay on track, I’ll have to complete 10 dresses per week.

When I’ve talked to people about this project, several have offered to help me with cutting and sewing. I am grateful for the offers, but part of what I am attempting to do requires me to spend the time with each dress, to recognize – in a bodily way, through the work of my hands – that each garment represents a full human life in all its complexities – wishes, dreams, losses, and fears.

We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.

I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.

everlasting switching

Yesterday we drove south to the beach in the late afternoon to watch the light fade over the water. The boys went in. The water is wonderful, they said. Occasionally, I would glance up from my reading to see their heads bobbing in the waves.

I walked in up to my ankles. To me the water felt cold, even after standing there for a while. I let the waves pull back, unsettling the sand beneath my feet.

--

I am reading How Should a Person Be? and on the beach, I have no pencil for underlining, so instead, I fold down the corners of the pages I want to return to. “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something,” on p. 17 is the first line that prompts me to such action.

It’s a book about female friendship and art and desire, and “the way we live now,” which is how we have come to describe what is disjointed or fragmented or formally messy.

The idea that lingers with me is about the puer aeternus – eternal child. Through the Jungian analyst “Ann,” she explains that the puer thinks himself too good for the banalities of living, and instead is constantly switching plans, never staying with any one thing or person long enough to be anchored in the quotidian, always changing course when things become difficult.

“It’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.” People who live this way tend to think that they are special, that theirs is a destiny greater than that of ordinary people. So while others build a life in which things gain meaning and significance over time, the puer is perpetually searching for a life without failure, without doubt, and in so doing, ends up empty.

Elsewhere, there is the suggestion that perhaps it is not self-improvement that we need, but suffering.

--

Traffic north is predictably slow as we inch our reluctant way back to the tasks we’ve left undone. I am filled with protest. It is not that I have not suffered, I am thinking, even while knowing this is not the point.

crossed from ground to sky

“At 2:30 in the morning, we’re sitting in the parking lot at the hospital,” is what this one woman is saying. She is wrapping her daughter in a towel. She has just said to her friend, “You’re slaying it, as the big girls say."

We’ve paid $$ to spend afternoons poolside on plastic lounge chairs in the shade all summer. I sit here typing while my son splashes around. When he comes back, I send him away. Go to the playground, I tell him. Sometimes, he does. Other times, he sulks, wrapped in a damp towel, on the lounge chair next to me.

I don’t remember much about summers as a child, except for the time we spent at the shore. In later years, I had a job at a little bakery across the street from the train station in a town fifteen miles away. This killed a lot of time – driving back and forth on the highway, making change, tying bakery boxes with twine. Late afternoons, I remember watching MTV and sometimes wandering my neighborhood, which was not much of a neighborhood at all. For a time, perversely, I was convinced that if I walked far enough into the woods near my house, I might find a body there.

The town I lived in then: run-down, gutted. Movie theatre on Main Street that showed second-run films on one dingy screen. The train station. The one bank. The drug store, where I would sometimes buy stationery for the letters I would never write. I’ve tried to forget so much of those years. I feel a kind of inarticulate, inexplicable shame about the years I spent there. Something unseemly about feeling stranded, so far from what I imagined the kids from my wealthy private high school were doing – lakeside in their summer homes or traveling through European cities. My mother worked temporary secretarial jobs when she worked at all. I was acutely aware of our economic precariousness.

--

These days, I go for days and weeks without writing with any seriousness. An occasional note. A journal entry. A phrase scribbled on a receipt while stopped at a traffic light – something I am convinced I will pick up again. I have a great many aspirations that dissipate almost as soon as the ideas formulate.

--

Some friends of ours left the country. Packed up their lives in shipping crates and moved to another continent. One evening, they were here at the pool and we chatted about readings we had gone to, and readings we had missed. Then a few days later, they were gone. They post photos online and I heart my affirmations at them all, but it seems unreal. I want to think we could pick up like that, too, if we had the opportunity, if we had the right reasons. But since I find myself nearly immobilized when I think about planning a single day, it seems doubtful that I would be spearheading such a campaign.

--

I watch the diving board, which looms in my line of vision as a metaphorical reminder of all I am afraid to do. There is a line of kids and one after the other, they hurtle themselves down the narrow platform and into the water. The first, in blue shorts runs the length of it without stopping. He is like the cartoon coyote unaware that he has crossed from ground to sky. The next in an orange shirt runs fast, but at the end, jumps straight up then plummets. One kid tries to walk backward, but that is not allowed. A group of girls standing alongside the pool jump in together, holding hands.

I am the woman in the shade, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, a cotton dress. I wear my swimsuit underneath, but never go in the water.

This is the way I live, I suppose: just enough ambition, just enough desire to put myself in the path of things, but then I mostly try to avoid immersing myself. No sense in getting wet, after all.

in its fullness

I spent the morning working with paper again, the same dress form. I am trying to figure out how to create frames that can illuminate the forms from behind. A soft, diffuse light. This is hanging in front of the window, mid-morning. To perhaps replicate this kind of light?

I like to think that the repetition and experimentation in fabric and paper has some bearing on experimentation in text. A way of trying to exploit formal constraints.

--

I joined a writing group that has been meeting for a couple years. Last night was my first meeting and conversation was mostly easy, pleasant. I like to think about work beyond these revisions. A new project. I feel a bit desperate for it.

Although what I plan to work on next is not entirely new. Character sketches, plot points I’ve been carrying around for a while, but attempting to put them together in this way is new. I read a bit of it aloud the other night to some other writer friends and it sounded rougher, more raw than I had remembered. There is a lot of work to be done.

--

I feel a bit directionless today, despite my many tasks and projects. Spring has finally arrived in all its fullness, and it’s distracting to think about getting the garden ready, cutting back the shrubs and trees, clearing out beds. Crocuses -- purple and white -- appeared in the ivy this year. Unexpected but welcome gifts.

on ending, an attempt at

I am in the final stages now, with the revisions, even though when I read through the manuscript, I think, “This book has no ending. This is not a way for this to end.”

M. says, “What happened to the ending that used to be there?” He is standing at the sink and I am pacing. “Can’t you just put it back?”

I wish I could put it back. There are days when I wish I could put this whole book back to where it began, when it was a collection of hastily-composed sections. A glorious, unconsidered mess of fragments and gestures. But there is no going back now. No un-steeping tea.

--

I re-read the first few pages of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely because there are some ways of associating one idea to another that Rankine makes seem effortless. These early pages compel the reader forward. There are questions that drive the narrative: What is death? Would I recognize it? How is death made real, verified? I feel the power and propulsive energy of these questions. Movement from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next seems precise, inevitable.

--

I am not the same person I was when this began. This is not a new observation. I like to think I have absorbed enough, lived enough, to bring new insight and nuance to my earlier experience. Aligning current self with past self seems a tricky proposition, and I wonder to what extent it is a useful undertaking, from an artistic standpoint. Life is life, after all, and art is something else? I think I spend a lot of time barking up trees.

Meanwhile, the weather seems to have finally turned, and I walk out into the kind of day in early spring that makes the future seem possible. Bright sun, perfumed air. The promise of forsythia.

These are the last days I will spend with this book in this way. I am trying to make the most of it. How much of these words and sentences I have lived with for so long. And still, none of it seems quite enough