theresa cha

to want everything at once

The week has been a difficult one. After Monday, after the comfort of an afternoon spent in relative peacefulness of mind, the days that followed were fraught, anxious, punctuated by moments of panic.

Where to turn in days like these? To the writers, to the teachers.


I look to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. When I first saw her book, Dictee, her luminous, maddening book, published days after she was murdered in New York at age 31; when I first see this text, it is unlike books I have seen before. Composed of fragments that draw attention to language itself; suggest alienation, displacement. From her native Korea, to her adopted San Francisco and the Catholic high school where she learned French and later, to New York. (“It was the first day    period     She had come from a far      period”)

Images taken from history - personal and public. References to ancient texts. Fragments that fit into each other, across facing pages.

“Tell me the story,” she says. “Of all these things. / Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.”

It calms me, transports me, to linger on the final page:

Lift me to the window. Yes.

It is not as though my days are not full. They overflow. There is the work, always – the work. We are preparing for an event, a celebration. I spend hours writing notes on invitations: Please join us. Without you, none of this is possible.


And this is true. Work in the arts, in the humanities, in the places I spend my time, is a constant struggle. We are asked to define ourselves in terms of measures that are not entirely ours. The very system of values that we have come here to interrogate.

In days like these, I (re)turn to the teachers, to Carole Maso, who asks me to remember gratitude. From “A Novel of Thank You (for Gertrude Stein):”

“Begin in singing,” she says, “And this is what bliss this is bliss this is bliss.”

And later, she describes my longing:

“To want everything at once. To write everything at once.”

It was she who called my life “charmed,” and told me, as I struggled with the decision to leave writing for a while to follow my then-husband to New York: “whatever you decide, we will work to make it fine.”

Beckett, too, brings a kind of comfort. In the marvelous, poignant, “First Love,” an early fiction, he writes:

“…things may have passed quite differently, but who cares how things pass, provided they pass. All those lips that had kissed me, those hearts that had loved me (it is with the heart one loves, is it not, or am I confusing it with something else?), those hands that had played with mine and those minds that had almost made their own of me!”

“Humans,” he concludes, “are truly strange.”

These moments of language provide respite from my anxieties. Or, perhaps offer a different set of anxieties over which to linger. I do not know, entirely, why I am struggling so much. Only that I am struggling. Perhaps it is not helpful, always, to know the reasons. Perhaps I should pursue a different set of objectives. 

There are just a few stories, a few moments that I feel compelled to revisit during times of sadness, of struggle. There must be lessons in them that I have not yet learned. Every story I want to tell is one I have told before. Perhaps these are the only stories I will ever tell.

I drag out them out, like a dusty old box from a high shelf in a closet no one uses anymore. But there I am, taking off the cover, reaching inside, holding them up to the light like I will find something hidden there, a message. A sign.

Or perhaps I am hoping that they will be different. This time, it will go a different way:

The mother will not leave. The father will not leave.

The child will know her own history.

The mother will not die. The father will not die.

The girl will not give herself away.

The woman will not give herself away.

The panic sets in when I cannot focus. Cannot stay on a task without the mind wandering. I am living too much in memory, I think. Or in imagining the future. Too much in a time that is not the present moment. Here are the notes I must write. Here are the columns of numbers. Here is the laundry. Here are the dishes. Here are the stacks of paper awaiting this or that. Here is the blinking light that says: do this. The ringing phone that says: and also this.

Maso: “The fax this afternoon. Useless.”

And later:

“To fail. To miss the mark. To not even come close.

In the midst of ecstatic possibility, sometimes, even then, no way out.”

My time runs out. For this particular experiment, these bits of time carved out of early mornings. All of this – these words in space, these hours each day, returning to this space, circling a deeper thing, a thing that I have not yet unearthed – this too, is a kind of comfort.

Once again, Theresa Cha:

     you are the audience

     you are my distant audience

     i address you

     as i would a distant relative

     seen only heard only through someone else’s description


     neither you nor i

     are visible to each other

     i can only assume that you can hear me

     i can only hope that you can hear me