wanting

this will be the year

So much longing, so visible, is unseemly. This is the idea that follows me around whenever I think about the Korean television show. I try to explain this to the people who ask. It is one thing to exchange documents, queries. These are simple, contained things. I send my request: I would like a name or a photograph, or a story of one sort or another – and in return, perhaps I receive a note or two through the ether that I can print out and slip into my blue folder. I can take these out when I wish to, consider them in private, quiet moments.

One can imagine Shinhye walking through the office of the agency, opening a file drawer or two. Removing a folder, spreading its contents out across her desk, flipping through pages, coming up empty. Where a name should be, only a blank line. Unknown. N/A. There is a simple beauty to the finality of it: There is nothing more in the file. We have no information for you. But this –

Broadcasting one’s wishes so plainly. The lines on my face visible, the eyes wet, the quivering of the lip or the chin. Perhaps I would at least be spared having to show my hands, their trembling. The way I would be folding and unfolding them, their movements compulsive, involuntary.

No one, I think, should have to see me in such a state.

You made your bed, now lie in it. This was a favorite saying of my mother’s. As a child, it confused me. Making my bed after all, was a thing I did after I rose from it, smoothing the sheets, pulling the quilt up over the pillow. I could only imagine climbing atop it and lying very still on its now unspoiled surface. And why, I wondered, would one want to do such a thing?

The expression comes to mind, though, on the way home from dinner with a friend, driving in the wet snow. I am thinking of the ways in which we organize our lives. The decisions we make – the small, unthinking ones – that start us down one path or another. And we follow the paths where they lead, not always aware of how far we have come from where we started. And then suddenly, there are decisions of more consequence to be made. How did I get here, we wonder? I don’t remember choosing this path. And then, my mother’s voice as she is standing over me, her arms folded across her chest, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose, “Well you made your bed, now lie in it.”

“You don’t believe in fate?” my friend asks.

“Define fate,” I say. “Define the word ‘believe.’”

I am constantly being seduced by the promise of the checklist. I come across one for a spotless kitchen in just twenty minutes a day! This morning’s tasks are to wash out the container that holds the utensils and to clean the top of the refrigerator.

The container is easy, so I do that first, then I take the stepstool that we bought for my son to reach the bathroom sink, drag it up to the refrigerator and survey the landscape. A bizarre collection of random items have made their way up here: construction paper leaves cut out and glued to the drawing of a tree, a plastic bag, an oversized plastic serving tray that I bought for the baby shower I hosted for a friend of mine, whose son is now four years old. Once the debris has been collected and I’ve made a first pass over the surface with a dry paper towel – to dust off the surface grit – I think perhaps the task is not as bad as it may have appeared. Armed with my all-natural, chemical-free, dye-free spray cleaner, I set to work.

It is more difficult than it first appears, though. They layer of grime is thick and greasy. A single pass with the spray bottle will not be sufficient. I check the clock. There will not be enough time. I leave the spray and the sponge in the sink for later.

Beneath the list of thirty tasks on the deep-cleaning checklist is the explanation that these are in addition to the regular maintenance – the dishes, the sweeping, the wiping of regularly-used surfaces. So, I have become obsessed with sweeping. I can no longer stand still in the kitchen. I sweep under the table, come away with toast crumbs and bits of dried cheese, stray grains of rice. While waiting for water to boil or for oatmeal to simmer, I take my broom out into the hallway, sweep up the clumps of dust that collect in the corners and behind the doors. Occasionally, in the pile, the tiny plastic head of an alien or the bottom half of a miniature fireman will appear amid the dirt. Although I am always tempted to dump the contents of the dustpan unceremoniously into the trash, at the last minute, my guilt gets the better of me, and I rescue the little toy pieces and put them in a pile on the kitchen counter. 

“Whatever you decide, we will work to make it fine.” This, from my former writing teacher when I was deciding whether to take leave from my graduate program to move to New York, where Z.’s father had a very attractive job offer.

She said she believed my life to be charmed and that we would find a way to have it all work out. This, before the long lonely months spent in New York, while he traveled. This before I returned to Providence with my young daughter and we lived in the tiny apartment in the squat brick building. This before the divorce.

But she was right, even then. This charmed life.

I walk up the hill from downtown and in front of one of the campus buildings, there is a garden bed full of fledgling shoots pushing up through the earth. I am late, as I often am, so I am walking quickly. There is not much time to stop and examine them closely, but I am fairly certain it is too soon for them to be emerging. This strange weather – the warm days, the full hot sun – confuses.

I think about my own garden – how once the oppressive days of late July and August arrive, there is not much that I tend, so that each year without fail, the last days of summer see the beds in great disarray. Stray clumps of weeds, the rose bushes leggy and wild. How those days seem to slide so quickly into fall – with the start of the school year all its attendant busyness – that I never seem to finish the last chores of the garden, the readying for winter. Each spring, when I am out there, clearing out the detritus of last year’s overgrown weeds, I vow to make one last round of the yard at the end of the season, one last attempt to clean out the beds, to lay down winter mulch. For the last seven years, I have said: This will be the year.

This will be the year. 

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