Possibilities

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I like to think that the image is blurry because the colors ran in the heat, but there’s the Empire State Building lit up all purple for the Violets.  

Congratulations class of 2013!  If I had started college right after I graduated high school, I would be with you.  But then again, I wouldn’t be here in New York probably, or studying music of all stupid, wonderful things.  Or trying to be an engineer (seriously, what is up with that?).  

But more than anything else this last week has reminded me of the forward motion of existence: how the gears of the universe keep pushing us forward in spite of any inner inertia.  Let go of the irreversible past, it tells us.  Every moment is a chance for change.  Apparently all of our lives have been predetermined since the first particle burst into existence.  I don’t believe that.  Note: I have no background in particle physics.   Still, there are days when you can almost see that everything is in flux, riding on the currents of a greater force that is thundering through nature, knocking old plans askew and opening up possibilities.  

A few nights ago Ace and I talked about what we could say to your younger selves.  I remember as a child hating change so much that any new beginning—or rather any ending—would make me physically sick.  But life is full of little deaths, and that’s fine.  Progressions begin and end but the beat goes on.  

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Swollen Summer

The view from a home I used to know.

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I almost can’t wait for another swollen summer. I can’t wait for the blistering, sweltering heat. How it forces its way under your skin and holds you hostage inside strip malls and other suburban purgatories, lured in by the lewdest of the lewd: that seductive wet whirrrr of air conditioning.  I couldn’t keep one in my bedroom, what with the fire escape.  So at night I’d crawl out onto the hot metal grating to meditate on the blank New Jersey sky, able to pretend that the barest breath of a breeze was refreshing.

I’d curse the night: roiling but empty with a haze of too many lights from airport landing strips and sterile office buildings, formica kitchen counters and caustic railroad stations.  And burned into my memory is that night, years ago now, when we hooligans poured onto the streets and I was that girl with the dragon shirt: dancing red green and gold over the swamp-lit streets.  And it seemed to me that the earth was as blank as that cloudless sky, even with the streets so filled with the half-feral youth of a mile-wide town.

That’s far away now.  My mind overwritten with other summers, other longings.  And yet, and yet.  There are constants in the meadowlands.  I miss how each day the lush trees would grow more and more jaded to the sweating masses underfoot and the morse code of fireflies as they call to each other in the night.  I miss the honeysuckle outside my window: climbing up the bricks of a childhood that I no longer own.

Title stolen, with apologies, from The Bravery who were a big deal for about five minutes when I was fifteen.

Secret Worlds

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

Neil GaimanSandman Vol 5 A Game of You

There’s a scene in Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker (Abarat is a series that I read voraciously when I was younger but probably will never revisit because it will give me nightmares now) where the heroine gets harassed for the contents of her dreams.  Not dreams like the ones that visit us in the night mind you, but our waking dreams that we may or may not share with anybody.  And in that scene, all of the characters carry their dreams over their heads like little universes: there for all the world to see.

Some days I wish I could be so open.  My dreams, or any part of my whole inner world, appear only when they slip out. Maybe the word I’m looking for here is not slip but ooze.  I’ve been told that I’m carrying all the worst parts of myself on my sleeve—something I should have realized myself, long ago.  It’s frustrating, because I know there is a shred of a kernel of me buried deep down that is as adamantine as diamond, as pure as Vajra fire, but it never sees the light of day.  Instead, I am all sharp smiles and serrated edges; so full of complex longings that my horrors have hydra heads: for each habit I break three more spring in its wake.

The lighter I try to tread upon the world the more I sabotage. My thoughts are treacherous. They betray me: selfish things I should deny or put away because they are too sharp, and to run with them means someone always ends up losing an eye.

The best part of you is that you always try to help other people.  A woman told me this when I was seventeen.  She encouraged me to play the cello from this part of myself, so that my sound would always be pure and fulfilled.  Oh, if she could hear me now.  How mean and thin a line my bow makes against the strings.

It goes back to worlds again. I hurt people (inadvertently, on purpose, in small or big ways) when I’m being selfish. In Chinese the word for I (我) “wo” has a dagger inside it.  The ancients avoided using it.

I am modern, and stupider than they.  I am selfish and do not live for others. And when I do not consider the other as having his or her own complex, beautiful world inside of them with a myriad motivations and sensitivities, I sometimes find myself wanting to change people or cookie cutter them, both of which are profoundly stupid things in which I will never succeed.  It’s hypocritical in the extreme to try to place people in boxes when one of my most firmly held beliefs is that there is always hope for change: that the malleable nature of humanity and the constant flux of the universe always mean becoming better is possible.

And really, the only times I ever feel hurt myself are when I’m being selfish.  When I focus only on how the actions of another affect me rather than realize that, in the grand schemes of their lives and motivations, I count for very little at all.

I should offer understanding instead. I should know that in the collisions of the universe, things that look accidental have reasons behind them all.  I should always try to do better myself.  There is no one I can change but me.

After all, there is a world inside of me that I need to cultivate so that when it flourishes, all of those around me may reap the fruits.

There’s No Mom in Mothers’ Day

So this is my first Mothers’ Day without Mom.  Part of me wishes I could have just holed up in my room and ignored the world: not have seen the girls holding balloons that said “MOM” on the subway or the numerous Facebook posts saying I love my mom.  I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Well.  I can tell you that the first thing you do is cry a lot.  But you’ll want to keep it mostly together for the EMTs.  Their job is easier if you’re not in hysterics.  You offer them gummy bears.  It’s nine in the morning.  Your mother’s body is cooling in the next room.  Her blood is on your shoes.  They refuse the gummy bears.

But it’s not your mother lying in her bed with the sheet pulled over her face.  It can’t be her.  Your mom wakes up early so she can take forever in the bathroom.  She asks you whether her hair looks better up or down when honestly to you she always just looked like Mom either way: you couldn’t see her in any other light or capacity.  In your mind you see Mom in a serviceable black dress with her hair up yelling that you’re making her late.  But the next morning she’d be the one making you late, her favorite boots unzipped even as you ran together for the train.  Then Mom in the last few days: too weak to get out of bed.

There’s no way she’s gone.  You need her.  Who else will call you baobao in public or remind you not to get home too late?  Who else will make your favorite foods when you’ve been away from home?  Who else will need you like Mom?

The next thing you do is…no, you’ll still cry a lot.  For good reasons or for no reason.  Without meaning to, even.  In the most awkward settings possible.  When that doesn’t cut it your brain tries laughing.  And you can see the way her best friend stares at you, a worried crease between her eyebrows.  You know she will distantly adopt you now: hover slightly more than she ever did in the past, make you a Chinese dinner sometimes because now Mom can’t.

It’s really her friends that trigger the next thing you feel: the incredible guilt for the selfishness you’re displaying.  All of the people Mom touched in her life come out of the woodwork: discreetly asking if you need help with college, buying flowers for the frankly rushed funeral.  Talking to your grandmother about what her life will become.

You’re not the only one who’s lost her, you selfish idiot.  All these other people have as well.  You miss the woman who cooked for you, who took care of you.  You haven’t missed the woman she was outside of your life.  If you mourn her, mourn all of her.  You’ve been raised already.  Mourn that she still had other work on this earth.

It doesn’t work.  For a couple days you want to die.  This is well after the funeral, mind you.  The funeral was actually beautiful.  You could see her again, face made peaceful.  There’s no blood on her teeth.  She’s in her favorite dress (a particularly Jackie O number—a cut that neither you nor your sister could ever pull off) and surrounded by flowers.  Why does she have to be put into the earth?  Why can’t you just keep her in that room, so that you could go and see her whenever you wanted?

You’ll never visit her in the earth.  You’re almost certain of this. There’s no point.  She’s not there.  She’s off wandering in the canyons or watching the slow dance of stars in the night sky.  You hope she doesn’t think of you, doesn’t even remember who you are.

Because you’ll still find ways to disappoint her.  You know you will.  And you’ll do them anyway.  Spend your life throwing yourself into “boys’ work” or staying out too late roaming the streets.  Write things that would make her sad.  Write things she would hate.  Listen to degenerate music.  Cut your hair or get tattoos.

This is where the social workers come in, maybe.  You’ll have to talk to many of them, and they’ll tell you to stop feeling guilty about it.  Stop sabotaging your relationships with other people.  To let yourself be sad.

But the only way to do that is to completely forget her.  And you’ve tried.  But she’s saturated in your life.  You need to make some more memories without her.  She shows up everywhere in your town, or you’ll dream of her.  She’ll even haunt your thoughts at night when you can’t sleep.

You’ll try to scrub her from your life: throw yourself into school and work.  Start a fucking blog. Keep doing the things she hates so from wherever she is she’ll make you feel guilty.  Because you love her disappointment.

You love the woman she was.  You love your mother, who gave you her flesh and blood.

I don’t know what comes after this in post-Mom life. This is only as far as I’ve gotten.

Up All Night

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One WTC, New York 

I came upon myself walking. Mostly walking. It was well past one am on a Friday night, when New York stumbles, half-awake, into the kitchen for a drink. The city felt clean for once: soaking wet with spring rain and half-obscured in the darkness. I think this is the only time when the buildings and the street signs and the double-decker buses can see themselves at all, what with puddles making fun house mirrors from the pavement, distorting back all manners of truth. Even the trees stooped down to look at their own faces, new leaves heavy on the branch.  It’s all about reflection. And romance, maybe. There were an inordinate amount of kissing couples out there in the rain. Maybe someone was filming a rom-com every several hundred feet.

They seemed to mock my singular state, reminding me how every emotion I currently harbor is both unwanted and unrequited. But still, there is much to live for as a lonely particle in space. I am young and able to enjoy the light from half-empty bars spilling out into these wet streets. My past few days have operated like an all-night diner. Thursday afternoon, night, and early morning were completely spent at a friend’s dormitory where we soldered our electronics projects for hours straight, kept awake by the frantic passage of too-fast time against the workload of circuitry and sound. Still, everything got built the very minute we left for class. I was manic and giggling. He was nauseous, clammy from stress. I think, in the end, I will look back at that night fondly: even  soldering on my hands and knees on his dirty floor, burning plastic fumes and IC chips corroding my eyes until they went bloodshot. Red like the cherry of his cigarette glowing hot in the dark while we walked back from Seven-Eleven at three in the morning with my cherry lime ricky fisted tight and a four-pack of toilet paper under his arm.

The oddly prosaic nature of the scene makes me treasure it more. Like the next night when we were drunk on tired I went over again to let the weariness really sink into my bones. I kept time while the boys sang a pop song and played guitar with stitched-up fingers. I hear your heart beat to the beat of the drums, oh what a shame that you came here with someone… 

It’s oddly sweet on acoustic guitar. And this sweetness followed me into the night as I trekked from the home of one friend to another. My feet were turtle slow and stumble-steady while my thoughts spun circles around my head and raced into the night. I thought of the glow of that room I’d just left behind (messy, boy-sweaty) and the welcome light of the friend where I was headed (cramped, made for sleeping and not living). And I thought of all the homes of all my friends: how they would look as they returned, as bone-weary as I, to those halogen glows of familiar bedsides. I could map them out (Midtown to Chinatown, East Village, West Village, Chelsea, Queens or all the way out to the far-flung reaches of Brooklyn) like stars and hang them up like a constellation.  They’d be the only visible one in Manhattan, at any rate.

And I walk between them while roaming the Earth, weaving unsteadily now (actually weaving: it took me over an hour to get there) between Chinatown and the West Village. There’s a stop at CVS to buy a toothbrush: it’s day two of not having come to my own home to the far-flung galaxy that is New Jersey and halitosis is not the answer. It takes forever, though. That purgatory of a midnight line.

It doesn’t matter. It is needed in the way a bed is needed. And when you’re closing in on hour 44 without sleep, an air mattress on a friend’s floor may as well be a palace. I will fall asleep on her floor while she is in mid-sentence, my slip from consciousness obvious even as it will be inevitable. But she, bless her heart, doesn’t mind. Because we’ll talk over breakfast. Because there will be other, inevitable nights when I make the long trek to her home.

And if I could find somewhere to belong: let me hang with them, hang my own weary star in that constellation of bedside lamps shining out into the dimness.

I love things most in the night: like my friends. Like the puddle-wonderful city.

Bardo

BARDO—NOUN

  • (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.
  •  an indeterminate, transitional state: wandering adrift in a bardo of intense negativity, blame, disappointment, criticism, and denial

-Oxford Dictionary

“The Tibetan word bardo means literally “intermediate state” – also translated as ‘transitional state’ or ‘in-between state’ or ‘liminal state.'”

—Wikipedia

There are actually other topics I want to write about (my DIY cracklebox, a Hegel quote, a Song Dynasty painting) but alas, I won’t have time until the end of the month.  For now, I’m stealing an hour for reflection, and to thrust such introspection upon the world seems rather self-indulgent (according to Ace at least, and he is an expert on such matters) but really on days like this the only reason time exists is to be stolen in the small hours that live in between things.  In my current case, I’m stealing the bardo between my music theory final and what will be an inevitably stupid meeting with a school therapist.

There’s a scene in John Dies at the End by David Wong where one of the characters falls in and out of time literally, calling his friend from all manner of hours besides the present.  I feel the opposite: that time is flowing around me at different speeds, never leaving me enough time to be sleepy and half awake in the morning, or stretching individual moments until they break.

Yes, I know I’m not unique in this—the feeling that the present is just this illusory gulf between the insurmountable cliffs of the future and the past—but it’s been exacerbated lately until I find myself trying to steal moments by manipulating time in my own head.  Stretching fifteen minutes into enough time to catch up with a friend, or throwing away three hours with another one.

The universe is as transient and malleable as human thought, it seems.  But when you dwell beneath its canopy (the ebb and flow of existence) it is as crystalline and unforgiving as a night of cold stars.  And here, time is a solid presence, flowing from birth to death, counted by ticking atoms waiting like bombs in their bunkers.  (Aside: I’m pretty sure “bunker” is not the word I’l looking for, actually, but I couldn’t remember what the-place-where-you-store-bombs would be called and missiles in their silos doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…and now I have “Where do you store bombs?” in my Google search history which possibly just put me on three government watch lists.)

Anyway.  Time.  The movement of future to present to past.  This progression means if you dwell on the future, in the impossible possibilities of it, you eventually find yourself fixated on the past.  Events slip past you, you know: like thieves in the night, robbing the world of its boundless potential and leaving the irreversible in its place.

Perhaps, all this time, I’ve been cycling around regret, an emotion I may be slightly too familiar with for my age.  But the thing about regret is that it’s also something you do, not something that happens to you. Events, pasts, the end of infinite possibility: you regret things.

But then regret itself is also a thing.  You carry it with you.  With regrets… She sends her regrets… They are like so many rocks in my hands, weighing me down with their love of the earth.

I have to put them down.  And I have to stop doing this thing: regretting.  Because regret itself does as well: it is itself a thief of time, stealing the present from us as we dwell on the irreversible past.

And if I am capable at all of bending time the only thing I can move is the present: stretching each individual moment like taffy even as they flow into the past.  The future is some untouchable unknown, undefinable (undivinable, even) while the past is irreversible.  And only we who are in bardo (we transient, changing and changeable creatures) can decide what belongs in each.

(I know you didn’t ask, but in case you were wondering: Blade Runner is always relevant.)

3 Poems For Spring

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Outside Cole’s at NYU

It seems as if all the flowers of the world have blossomed at once, or did you just now notice the forsythia outside your window? Yellow and bell-like, inherently graceful with their long necks stemming from that brown branch. But look again, and lean your head back to see pear trees with their heads adorned all in white with an almost invisible green veil, standing bridal at the street corner.  Or turn and stoop with the magnolias while you can: those  fat purple-pink-white petals always rain down onto the earth far too soon. They fade, they all fade. When better to see the sweet sakura than in bloom?   You will turn back again to remember this time when you were just so happy and grateful to be alive, still standing on a planet made of packed earth, because of the wild twist of trees against a perforated sky…

A cool breeze flits about my bare legs, enough to hurry me along.  But the cotton swish of skirt against my skin makes a passing thought to the smell that finds me in the dark: the calling card of a short pear tree made more ornate than a candelabrum, than a cake on Christmas. I am so in love with spring: so drunk on the feeling of it. So many things come alive around me, no longer locked in their cold shells. Foolish, I mourn their passing when they’ve barely arrived.   Every petal will soon fall: like the water drops that slip through my fingers to melt into the earth. I am greedy: I cup my hands and catch them, unable to just enjoy the falling rain.

Why is the city so beautiful on spring nights? Stunted trees twist in their planters to dapple patterns on skin bared beneath neon lights. A crowd of hedonistic youths undulates past, howling up to that punctured skyline of mis-matched fate. Take me with you, I cry to them, wherever you are going. There is too little for me in the hermitage of my own life. I want to feel a beat tattooed across my skin, like the pulsing of the packed earth itself breaking into song. There are wilds beneath the pavement, but maybe just the loam and the stones and the corroded wood husks remember. There is nothing to do but walk over them, weaving down Broadway between the backs of those packs from out of state. They let me experience the lights by proxy: Times Square is an eyesore of a show with money in screaming colors plastered across every surface. So we’ll slowly pick our way south, to the more organic glow of bar lights spilling out onto these dusty streets we call home.

Because finals and final projects are coming up and also because I, understandably I feel, didn’t feel like writing any odes to the weather this spring, the above are three poems I wrote last year.