Our Final Days and a Deal With God

I wonder if she woke feeling any different that day, if she’d had any telltale dreams. We women have our sixth sense about things. But she probably had no inkling that it was her last dawn, at least on this earth. It was a sudden heart attack. Who did she greet on the way out of her building? Who got the last of her smiling gift? Who gave her her last hug, reminded her that she was loved? Susan Irene Fox is not the first blogger I’d known to have passed – she is, actually, the fourth on WordPress – but her death hits close to home. She reached out to me, put me on her prayer list three years ago, in response to a difficult post I put out. I just revisited our emails, the comments and the guest post Single At Sixty she left on this blog, a brave, humble confession of loneliness and the peace she claimed. She was a kind, giving person, one who had nothing to prove but the truth that had transformed her life.

I think of people hungry for life who dance on the edge of death. Adrenaline junkies, athletes, addicts of all stripes who run to meet Goliath and nearly die so they can live again. I am not so brazen. I have felt a generosity upon my life, knowing the ground can slip from under me any moment. I imagine that Susan, had she known, would’ve wanted more time. More time to do the many little wonderful things we choose to leave undone: forgive, hold, kiss, dance, linger. For me, I feel a greater urgency in the writing as I wonder how many hours remain in my ledger. I could travel more, see more of people and the world to say I’ve lived, but I would be just a consumer in the enterprise. I would rather leave something behind, namely, more poetry, which though I am just a vapor will endure until the sun should die. That is a marvelous thought. My breath on the page, a legible love and memories – a great honor.

Honey, if my brain ever ends up sustained by a machine, if you don’t see the tears and recognition in my eyes, if I can’t make your amaranth and tell Tennyson to do his math, you have lost me already. It’ll be just a ghost of me on that bed and I want you to pull the plug. I don’t want to be extended beyond my time only to be a burden, not living, not dead, without my words. I pick my lane, the freeway stretching North. But in exchange for the Mexican wife you’ve said you would get, I ask for one final gift: my own little pine box. You are so good with your hands. I know, I know. I put you to work to the end. But you’ll be a free man after that. It should be perfectly within the rights of a man to dignify his wife with a final custom home and tuck her away in the mountains. While you’re at it, bury me with a book. I won’t be needing the Bible anymore. I’ll be in it, getting it 3D! It’s not like I can take this blog. How freaked out will my readers be if I wrote them from the Other Side? But I won’t disturb anyone down here, buried with my nose in a book. I’ll pick it out and put it in the master where you can grab it easily in the whirlwind preparations.


Dear God,

It’s me again. Remember, I’m the one who sends back her plate when it’s not done right. And though I know the cooking will be just right for Goldilocks there, I’m also the one who’ll be bothering all your best writers and asking that you not room me with a fellow Type A, and don’t forget that I’ll be looking for Eve. What a MESS that girl’s got us all into! So how about we make a deal? Give me just twenty more years so I might hold my grandchildren and make sure their mother doesn’t feed them junk, and I will join you, no questions asked. You are juggling so much at the moment: our presidency, North Korea, the refugees, not to mention the missionaries who’ve been asking for you. Why don’t you take a break from my small affairs, drop me from your radar for a bit. A thousand years is like a day unto the Lord. Why, I’ll be there in no time. And one last thing. Please tell Susan I said hi and bye, that I miss her – and she doesn’t need to save me that seat.

 

 

 

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. These are 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.

 

The Tyranny of Feelings

As passionate as I am about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.

When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World

In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as resolutely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.

Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:

“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.

Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live

The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.

I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as it may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and sense of helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. (I’m such a mess. Why in the world are you following?? Stay with me at your own peril.) Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.

When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, had to deny myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years back, I took several lessons in the Alexander Technique, a form of mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down. Really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.

I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.

Where Beauty Dare Thrive

His scream punched through the room where I was hiding for my life and sucked me cold out of sleep. It had just turned midnight Saturday and as the dream evaporated, I did not know I would rest again only after dawn. My son had woken – for the umpteenth time – in pain and spit his thick, cloudy cough into the waiting mountain of Kleenex. Tennyson cried, holding the ice pack down on his head, wiping at watery eyes. How much can a kid take? How much could I? Unrelenting 16-hour-shifts nursing him hand and foot and chasing down every possible remedy, days of aborted sleep. I was now battling the flu.

The Money Tree uk.pinterest.com

This thing that’s mowed him down unflinching in the face of the best practitioners and products turned out to be a seasonal pollen allergy. Which is why it stealthily flared all last month as the pollen count here rose, and let up the two days it fell. Spring comes early in Southern California. On the way home with the diagnosis the other day, I decided to grab some plants to filter the air in Tennyson’s room. We picked out a big, tall palm and a cute little guy who made us smile, a Money Tree. Ten minutes later on our driveway, Tennyson was clutching his throat, hands wet with desperate tears. His throat tightened and hurt. I was afraid he would stop breathing. OTC antihistamines didn’t work. Eucalyptus and peppermint oils opened up the passages. As it happens, he was allergic to the plants. How sad is that, being allergic to the Money Tree! And a virus came along to kick him while he was down, sending him flying off a cliff, making sure not to neglect his parents. I didn’t remember my boy being so sick. But reserves are not bottomless. It’s incredible what life asks of us sometimes.

Where’ve I been? I’ve been stressed, if that isn’t obvious. We’re behind in school. Testing for Memory Master lies around the corner. The TV network PBS is also doing a feature on our music school and Tennyson was to be at the drums filming next week. The best laid plans of mice and moms, see them wheel away like chaff in the wind. It will be hard to swallow those events passing us by. The little mister has missed every baseball practice and Saturday’s opening game. We’ve been so disappointed, but the email from the coach touched me deeply.

Hi Diana,
No worries. I hope he is feeling better. His health comes before baseball. We are praying for him.

I wish this man knew the gift he was giving me. I’m sure he inspires kids to love baseball and teamwork, but his humanity and ministry to me meant everything. He’s played professionally, but didn’t forget it was about people, not the game. It takes so little to help someone up. You persevere in hope but how long? And how, in the teeth of it going from bad to worse? Answers can come from the most unexpected places. Some background on this one.

Flowers don’t like me. I can’t seem to coax them to life. I’m sure they sense the Tiger Mom presence, accordingly suffer performance anxiety. Or maybe they become passive aggressive and decide to just wilt. It also doesn’t help that I forget to care for them. And so looking up from the dishes, I was stunned at the sight of the bold blossom on my windowsill. I had given up on the orchid that dropped all its petals some six months ago even though it was said to be only going dormant. How foregone it’d looked, stripped of promise. But here was a triumphant awakening, the white silk so fragile, so strong. My eyes smarted. How…under my watch? In the midst of this despair? The tenacity not only of life, but of beauty. The insistence of hope.

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Goodness, is it only March? I can do this. Nine more months and I get to reset and wish myself another happy, hard year.

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WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY SHE ISN’T

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany. His posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia were treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9 – and perhaps because of them – he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. His wife Eleanor, won over to his vision, prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.

rd.com June 2014

rd.com June 2014

Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any child who was sick would be refused at the threshold of Immigration and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. Since “Jews were not permitted to give the Nazi salute and any parents who so much as raised an arm could be arrested, their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red and strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and were reunited with their children. Several more succeeded in coming to America during and after the war, but others perished in the Holocaust.” Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.

50 Children by Pressman

50 Children by Pressman

About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed anti-Semitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans who wanted their lives to mean more than personal comfort and safety.

Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:

This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.

Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.

The response to the election results opened these Korean eyes to the, shall we say cultural complacency, of some people my family interacts with regularly. Though they have been plenty polite, nice even, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life that seems unnatural to me in diverse Southern California. But then again, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans always manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. Multiculturalism never works that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color. NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. The reasons are many but it’s one way those who have to interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white acquaintances enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.

But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and news media.

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

Passport Photo, 1977: The Little Wayfarer Sets Out

And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.

Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas, wasn’t it? After all, America had problems of her own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct. War, disease, emigration, loss of culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built herself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.

Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother, separately, were mugged at knifepoint, and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America tried to dust the racial degradations from her knees and rose to her feet, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters came out of the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea – although as long as he has no Native Indian ancestors, he hails from immigrants like the rest of us. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. The commitment to excellence, our I.Q, the drive with which we emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented disparate cultures in the fissures of mistrust as we did business together, advanced the economy together with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.

And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires first, or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance.  It’s not always front and center but opportunity lies somewhere in this country, somewhere in the bureaucracy, sometimes in the cracks, for those who seek it. There is always room for resourcefulness, room to climb one more rung. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can voice your grievance, request help. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. Or they could, before.

I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to keep renewing her vows to liberty and justice, which she now looks about to abdicate.

There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in America. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.