Thirty Years Later

I don’t know why people seek out fortune tellers. Why would you want to know the heartaches that lie ahead, the assurance that life will take your spouse and body and dreams?

He will be with his family tonight, Doctor, when he goes home, the deathless man says. Why should I tell him that tomorrow he is going to die? So that, on his last night with his family, he will mourn himself?…Suddenness. His life, as he is living it – well, and with love, with friends – and then suddenness. Believe me, Doctor, if your life ends in suddenness you will be glad it did, and if it does not you will wish it had.

Not me, I say. I do not do things, as you say, suddenly. I prepare, I think, I explain.
~ The one quotable text from Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife I can’t recommend

We hope, with foreknowledge, to hedge our bets, if only mentally. We like to imagine that we can avert, if not preempt, the undesirable – in the least, prepare ourselves and explain it. But the suffering is bad enough. Do we really need to expect it, too? And the glad blessings? Will their surety really help us live differently? Halfway up the California mountain thirty years later, I look down at the girl I left behind on the other side of the country. I wish I could promise her the thousand joys she dare not believe, the love in unexpected places, friends and a mess of food around her table. I wish I could teach her to nurture herself, admonish her away from her follies. But far and past, she is out of my hands. And she is so frustratingly, so helplessly her. She won’t do it any other way.

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Life hangs by a prayer but you take so much for granted in your unhappiness. You have community and, for all their sins, parents who cherish you.

Stupid girl. You don’t listen. You need to take better care of yourself. You eat too much ice cream. You can fool others and even yourself, but not your body. One day you will have to learn to eat, sleep, live all over again. These brick apartments suffocate you but one day you’ll mark your own path. You always do. You will drive through a painting of Montana mountain and sky, and survey the gleaming Pacific. There are many, many good people ready at the crossroads of your life to look out for you. I am sorry that life will become so unyielding you will stop singing for 10 years.

There’s a man waiting to find you. He wants to build you a new life and provide all you need. You don’t know the cost and gift of marriage. The walk down the aisle is just expensive trimming. Though he’ll disappoint you many times over, it’s that he chooses you everyday. You will squeeze and crush the heart he left in your hand. And in his eyes you will still be enough.

You will experience the power and genius of God. You will feel fingers and toes in your womb, touching you from the inside. Those hands and feet will one day come to refresh your grave, mark the place of your memory. She was here. You will put your baby to your breast in the rocking chair, seat of the highest office in the world. You will sing again. Sacrifice is a privilege, because it means a purpose greater than yourself. But you will embitter your child too, as your parents did you. The love of parents, our broken inheritance.

One day the lights will go out in your home and you will read to your men by candlelight. They will love the inflections of your voice.

I didn’t think people could change but you are proof. I’m proud of you! You will grow less rigid, softer with others, having learned how foolish you can be. Wisdom works backward. Your life will be a desert’s bloom, well tolerant of drought. And before the sun has set on your dreams, right here on the edge of this switchback, you will learn it is safe to stop hurting. Learn that you are more than your fears, more than your boy, more than your most unworthy moments, more than your achievements.

The loyalty of friends, the forgiveness of family, You will be wanted and needed – your gifts of grace. And the words. You will claim your place in a virtual world, a very real world, and somehow in all your struggles and humanness, make many people laugh and think. You will matter. Will it take 30 years for you to know it is All Right to breathe, to smile, to trust that life is worth it?

You’ve done well, my dear. Closing the wrong doors to love, choosing the right one. You will bring a beautiful, thoughtful boy into this world. And though life has knocked you flat beyond counting, you keep climbing. We will look each other in the eyes and I will tell you everything when you reach me.

 

Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

I couldn’t believe I was holding it, procured so easily from the public library: “The only known novel by a female African-American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere,” read the cover jacket of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. who laid hold of the original 300-page handwritten manuscript launched an extraordinary quest to unmask the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. Taking the clues he left, Professor Gregg Hecimovich from Winthrop University located the novelist in history at the end of an assiduous ten-year pursuit. Hannah Bond was the mulatto house slave who fled a North Carolina plantation disguised as a man and lived to tell her story cast in part fiction.

BondwomanI have always felt a pull toward the African-American odyssey of slavery. The female slave experienced double jeopardy not only for her race but also for her sexual vulnerability. I beckon to light the invisible greatness of a woman who made her way out of bondage with pen as she did with her feet.

TIMELINE
To authenticate and date the book, Dr. Gates consulted experts of historical documents. The characteristics of the paper, binding, handwriting, the iron-gall ink that had been popular until 1860, the style of the narrative were some of the elements they studied. A sedulous search among federal census records turned up the “Mr. Wheeler” whom Bond had served. In 1855 John Hill Wheeler enjoyed more fame than he had sought in government when word got out that his slave Jane Johnson had run away. Hannah describes how she found herself filling the vacancy. So the manuscript would have been drafted after 1855. I was captivated by the rigorous intricacy of the literary archeology.

Dr. Gates reports the observations of the keenest scholars in slave literature, the cause for their excitement over this particular self-authenticating text: “Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice that we have rarely, if ever, heard before…For Crafts, slaves are always, first, and last, human beings, ‘people’ as she frequently put it.” (Gates’ preface to the novel)

LITERACY
How did Hannah learn to read and write? She enjoyed her first secret reading lessons from an elderly white couple until the meetings were aborted. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical investigator, paid “close attention to Crafts’ level of diction, the scope of her vocabulary…the degree of familiarity with other texts, or literacy, that she reflects in word choice, metaphors, analogies, epigraphs, and allusions to other words, concluding that she had the [modern equivalent] of an eleventh-grade education.” She evidently had taken liberties with John Wheeler’s private eclectic library. The plantation also housed students from a neighborhood finishing school. In a news radio interview, Hecimovich said, “Bond would have been listening and waiting on the young ladies who were boarding at the Wheeler family plantation while they were practicing…and she would have intuited, like other slaves we have record of, when she came to write her own stories. She could tell her story in the way that she heard the other stories.” (What does this say, incidentally, about the impact of quality literature upon listening children?) She has a beautiful, bold hand in the word selection and painting of imagery: “The clear cold sunshine glancing down the long avenue of elms…” While Hannah’s multisyllabic words [magnanimity, obsequious] tell of a rich bibliodiet, the many misspellings [meloncholy, inseperable] reveal the struggles of one who was self-taught. The novel was printed with the spelling errors and revisions Hannah had made intact, offering a precious glimpse of the subnarrative where writers play out choices in the birthing of a tale. Scholars thrill to have broken new ground in the landscape of antebellum literature. Gates explains, “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

DEPRECATION
Hannah draws a distinction between house and field slave, one of class and levels of degradation. It is when she is forced to marry into the squalor behind the Wheeler home that she decides to flee. “Accused of a crime of which I was innocent…most horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror unspeakable…” (p. 205) The relative advantages she enjoyed as a house negro and very light mulatto distill the institution of slavery to its unrelenting truth. Hannah wasn’t whipped to work faster under the sun, didn’t have to mind the hogs in their sty. But no matter how light her skin, she was a thing with no license to go where she chose, wear what she wanted, say what she thought. The day she woke to was not hers. She got out of a bed she did not own to meet the needs and demands of another. Why would slavers think she had intellect, talent, feelings, a soul? Hannah was sold and bought, had no say under whose roof she ended up. “No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better.” (p. 6) And even house slaves were not immune to the prospect of torture, rape, or murder. Hannah recounts the tale of a beloved nurse of the master’s son who, after begging for mercy, chose to suffer rather than drown her dog. Woman and pet were gibbeted on iron loops for six days with no food or water, making it through a fierce storm that only revived them to agony. A drop of black blood — and you were no better off than a dog. The establishment of slavery ironically did not discriminate between the classes extant in the world of slaves. Hannah writes of a man who agreed to part with his young chattel for a handsome amount of money: “He reck[on]ed not that she was a woman of delicate sensibilities and fine perfections – she was a slave, and no more that was all to him.” (p.82)

FREEDOM
The act of running away, of plunging into the harsh vicissitudes of threat and want, is obviously a bravery all its own. What impresses me as much are the battles Hannah won first in the deepest places of self. She was bold enough to envision not only her escape but well before, to have broken through the low, hard ceiling that kept slaves from the daylight of dreams. Taking the words that had come alive to her on paper, she would compose a novel that revealed truth. I find the vast verbal blueprint she was able to draw up in her mind astounding. It appears Hannah had not been “writing this for herself,” as “it was not an internal sort of story [in which she grows or changes] which makes me want to think of her imagining a public for it.” (Preface, lxiv) The pen at work was a soaring of the mind, a declaration of will. She did not heed the holes in her learning. A full imagination, insight, and instinct for the framing of words would do. Her sense of worth, not mollifiable, told her she was capable of attempting what no hand of woman had as of yet and that she could secure readers. This anchor is what impelled her escape, for “rebellion would be virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it, and that whatever accidents or misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse than what threatened my stay.” (p. 206) I love the duty to herself. Her body, her spirit, her dignity were worth protecting, and she would see to it.

COST
Some things are not worth fighting for. “Marriage like many other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system…I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being.” (pp. 206-207) Hannah decides it the wiser course for slaves to forgo certain pleasures. The sweetest of them – creaturely comfort and family – promise in the grander scheme only to embitter their own existence, feed the very beast of their anguish. So how far do you go to protect your child? Hannah describes the response of a young black woman forced to sell her children by their father, the master of the house. “Her eyes had a wild phrenzied look, and with a motion so sudden that no one could prevent it, she snatched a sharp knife…and stabbing the infant threw it with one toss into the arms of its father. Before he had time to recover from his astonishment she had run the knife into her own body, and fell at his feet bathing them in her blood. She lived only long enough to say that she prayed God to forgive her for an act dictated by the wildest despair.” (pp.177-178) This despair was no drama out of a writer’s fancy. Hannah likely knew of the publicized infanticide of 1856. Margaret Garner was fleeing a Kentucky plantation with her husband, their baby and two-year-old daughter Mary, and his parents when she was pursued by her master. Margaret slit Mary’s throat with a knife to spare her the waiting travail. It was a doomed attempt to solve the lesser of two impossible evils, and Margaret’s act of desperation articulates Hannah’s own conviction to refuse helotry another generation of victims. So accustomed to the relative comforts of the wealthiest nation in the world, I can’t imagine what would compel me to extinguish my son’s breath.

GREATNESS
To run away is to face the real possibility of torture and death, but the road before holds out the irresistible hope of autonomy and birthright of dignity. To stay or go back is to assure oneself of a living death. The Underground Railroad saw many, though not enough, lives to freedom. But literacy liberates the mind and creates its own opportunity of voice. The depths to which Bond pursued her art yielded a remarkable achievement. She reached for access to that forbidden code of the written word we call reading, and went on to add her own undimmed testimony of good, evil, and the true to the dark pages of the human heart we call history.

My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so I looking back on my childhood, I speak of myself as a Korean kid but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. My neighborhood was so motley it was in fact homogenous when I started my school career; it was only as an adult that I realized how unusual it was that my first grade class was all Korean – under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and Americanized, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time whose parents, I now remember, were European immigrants. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority being Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found I was one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean (on things not having to do with food), even conspired to get me, with things eventually coming to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for the rejection.

My sense of self was not shaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

Dear Mr. President-Elect

“Remember you can’t eat money…You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people…”

Green Life Blue Water

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Dear Mr. President Elect

My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)

What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and…

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STRANDED

Now, why’s the AC dying again? We just fixed it. Weird. Car’s sluggish, too.

Mph: 70. 60. 50. 45.

Ok. Gotta pull over. I run the hazard lights and crawl over two lanes to the shoulder. Just in time. The Sienna gives out and it takes me a minute to realize the hood’s smoking. My eyes fall to the cubbyhole where the mobile usually sits. Great. The day I run out of the house without it. Noted, husband. Noted. I can make out Pyrite Exit, 1/2 Mile up the freeway and all I can do is hope for a gas station there. I collect my hat, keys, and the little water I have but don’t go five yards before deciding, “Not in these sandals. Not in this sun.” Turning back toward the car, I do the only thing left to get to a phone. I stick out my thumb. As the minutes wear on, I’m not sure what strikes in me greater wonder. Finding myself “hitchhiking” or seeing that nobody was stopping. I am also a little nervous about who might want to come to the aid of a lone woman.

Before I can worry too much, a car horn interjects and I spin to see a beat-up truck behind the fence. Cozy in the front, three Latino men who look to be in their twenties wave. Apply every politically incorrect stereotype and judge by appearances, and these were not guys a sober helpless female would turn to for help. Here goes nothing. My New York sense of adventure moves me forward.

“Hi. Can you please call my husband, tell him I’m stuck on the 60 and need AAA?”

The men smile and three cell phones appear in a flash. The guy nearest me in Shotgun beats his friends to it and waiting through the rings, apologetically swings a tattooed arm to keep his cigarette smoke from me.

“Honey, it’s me!” I call out to prove the call is no prank.

I’m told help is on the way and decline the men’s offer to stay with me. As they pull away, the guys point behind me and looking back toward the freeway I see a young man in something like a Corvette smiling as if to ask, “Anything I can do?”

“Thank you so much but my husband is coming.” I nod my thanks and in a few minutes make out a police car in the distance. California Highway Patrol stops to make sure I’m okay and offers the cooled vehicle for a waiting room but I’m not feeling venturesome enough to climb into the backseat I associate with a jail cell. And then my knight in shining armor pulls up.

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Later: “When I heard a man’s voice on the line saying, ‘Your wife…’ your life flashed before my eyes. I thought I’d lost you and saw myself putting T in school. And writing on your blog.

Over my dead body.

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A Million Signatures of Friendship

I caught crickets with the boy you would marry. “I’ll give you a quarter for the Queen,” I offered, and he dispensed the prize insects in glass Coke bottles. My cousins got to keep theirs on the fire escape but aghast at the sight of black crawlies in her home, Mom threw mine down the incinerator chute. I was so mad. T’s breathing had a restless purpose and he contrived guns from wooden clothes pins and soda can tabs. Who knew he would find and love my dear friend someday?

You were in a different class in elementary school but somehow I liked you. I was the bathroom monitor during lunch in fourth grade and we still get a kick out of the way I told the girls in line to get in size order – because you were short.

Even if I’d journaled the way we clutched bellies aching in laughter, how does one record the telepathy that provoked it? I could’ve noted all the times you found me waiting on the stoop of your building after school but the smell of your home, of worn leather couches that invited me to stay? I showed you how to make Jello and bake out of Betty Crocker. You taught me generosity. Whether from sugar or hormones or real profundity, we cried harder than we laughed. The peals of hilarity, tears and confidences – a million signatures of friendship. You saw the dumbest, boldest, smartest things I did and the words that spilled from my pen; were moved by the poem I published in the eighth grade yearbook but asked in high school what the point was to the vignette. We wore honesty like skin and tread a hundred thousand steps between your place and mine, passing apartment buildings that boxed in the sky when we looked up. And you told me to make something of myself. The encouragement, acceptance, breakfast and TV dinner rituals. They are the muscle and fiber of a childhood.

If I erased you from those early pages, I’ll end up with more emptiness than story. We didn’t expect to follow our hopes, heartaches, regrets to two lives on opposite coasts full of joys of family and the tiredness that is our inheritance as Korean moms. I could not have guessed your boy would one day walk the shiny halls into my science lab and think, eyes on the girl by the window, that his parents never felt what he has with such density. We are startled by time because we feel younger than we did when we knew everything at fourteen.

Bonjour, Texas: Summer 1966

By the second week I learned that Texans sweat as much
as the French, and swear even more, that you couldn’t fight one
twin without taking on the other. But the librarian would slip me
the choicest donated fiction, and I played baseball every day in the
vacant lot until sundown called the players home to black and white
body counts and cigarette commercials on the three channels we got.

Sometimes I lay in bed under the half-light of the whirring fan
blades, and dreamt of heroes and ornithopters, zebras and the scent
of chocolate chip cookies in the oven. Other nights I wondered
how words could rest so calmly on one page yet explode off the next,
or why a man would climb a tower in Austin to kill fourteen people.
Wasn’t living a matter of simple subtraction?

One by one the days parted and I walked through the dwindling
heat, eyes squinting, questions in hand, emerging fifty years later
having suffered the mathematics of love and success, honor and
truth, still asking why and how, where it’d gone, shoulders slumped
under the heft of those beautiful, terrible summers stacked high
like so many life-gatherings of unread books awaiting a bonfire.

Robert Okaji, O at the Edges