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Belief and Philosophy Blog Hawai'i Health Self-help

Hawai’i: Friendship

I spent the ages of 13-17 in boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover. I say now that the only time I wasn’t competing was when I was sleeping. Andover was about performance, excellence, and achievement within the very specific parameters of the East Coast establishment.

In retrospect my journey in life has been highly influenced by the relatively short amount of time I attended that school. I lost touch with almost everyone I knew from that time, and as the years passed came to wonder if I had imagined the friendships I had cultivated there.

In the end, I concluded that the majority of the ways that we were taught to behave were in fact oppositional to how one cultivates friendship and compassion, and the relationships were primarily utilitarian. Adolescence is a difficult time, never mind if you are thrown into an environment that focuses on your believed potential. I deeply appreciated learning the profound lessons of literary analysis, and yes, the testing of one’s abilities is part of growing up.

But true friendship is rarely made of this stuff. It’s about kindness, support, and tolerance. It’s about the joys and foibles of a human relationship. Compassion. Foibles. Joys. Forgiveness. Connection of the spirit and heart. I would like to say that I developed a host of friendships from Andover, but truly, I did not. I’d say I had hundreds of acquaintances, some very close, but could rarely be myself, although what teen is herself? That’s the nature of being a teen! Figuring it out! I will say that if a true friendship was developed and survived from that time, it is likely to be real. Like many private institutions for the elite, it functioned as a place of networking.

For years in my adult life I avoided anyone having to do with the school. I questioned if I had anything in common with them, politically, emotionally, or socially. It was designed to be an environment of handpicked children who were anointed by the Admissions Office Gods as young leaders in the making. After I left, I didn’t feel I was leading in anything. Where was I supposed to lead someone? Why me? Who is leading? Can’t I follow? I’m tired! Where are we heading? This leading stuff is very not mellow! she said…in cowardice? With anxiety? When I did bother to check in on what was going on with most of the people, I noted how many of them continued to compete, and behave in a manner I deeply questioned for reasons of ethics and kindness.

 

During COVID I reconnected with my old dormmate and friend Catherine Cotins. We had seen each other once over a decade ago when I was in Boston for a conference, having found each other again on social media. We had lost touch since high school graduation and had gone on our separate paths, navigating our way through school, children, illness, deaths, work, marriage, divorce, and the long river of life with everything that it throws your way.

A few months ago Cathy Cotins came to Hawai’i. We talked, hiked, laughed, and went out stand-up paddleboarding and got tired shoulders. I met her son and she met mine. She went to dinner with mom and dad after all that time. Her son was older than she was when she had last seen my parents. She had spent the summer after senior year with my family while we toiled in my dad’s lab injecting rats with diseases (more on that later…I know how to swiftly break a rat’s neck, but uh, haven’t used that dubious skill ever since. Any science interest either one of us remotely had was dead by the end of that summer!). We couldn’t stop talking and sharing. What was both meaningful, reassuring, and exciting about meeting up with each other was knowing that I did have a true friend who knew who I was so long ago, and here we are, decades later, and we still have this connection.

 

She gave me this little book I Like You by Sandol Stoddard Warburg, illustrated by Jacqueline Chwast about friendship and inscribed these words: “…I hope we can always stay friends. We’re so different so much the same, and good compliments to each other all at the same time. We may not do that much together, but when we do something, it’s always so much fun no matter how small…The world isn’t such a bad place with friends like you in it.”

Andover was hard on both of us, an experience we wanted to forget for our own individual reasons. I’m so glad we are friends again and know I will know her the rest of my life. This is a fantastic feeling.

Cathy texted me after she returned, both of us so happy to have reconnected and said this about seeing each other, especially in the context of that hard time during school and what it did: I feel less broken.

That’s what a good friendship does—it heals and opens you through connection. It changes the future and present as it changes the memories of a place and time. By reconnecting again, the ending changed, and in this way, everything else ripples back and forth and flows with a different sense of meaning. We get better through knowing and sharing with other people. We need people to cheer us on in life, to empathize and to be compassionate with us. This friendship makes me so very happy. She’s thousands of miles away, but there are few people in life who get who you are and to know someone does! What a great feeling! I feel honored to call Cathy my friend!

This is all to say that yes, get in touch with that person you once knew, because there is a good chance that what you will find out is that you did know each other, you were friends, and that can make all the difference as you journey on discovering who you are. Because the way that someone knows you, if the person really knows you, is probably important and a reminder of possibility and dreams. You are there for each other. Connect. Reconnect. Friendship.

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Educators Hawai'i Parenting Teachers

Hawai’i: Beyond Van Gogh

This was a fantastic interpretation of Van Gogh’s life and work. I was thoroughly impressed by how it could engage so many people and inspire reflections about life and art. The Kid and the grandparents, my sister, we all enjoyed it. I’m thinking about how art can be used to galvanize discussion and how exclusivity is never the point of expression. The human questions of belonging and origin are crucial to all of us. Decades ago, I saw an exhibit of his work at the Met. This was an entirely different experience, but distilled the essence of the WHY of his work. Imaginative. Compelling.

I hope that we can see more exhibits here in Hawai’i that are accessible to all ages, and strongly believe that the people of Hawai’i can also export the art and expression that this geographic locale prompts. This is the mission of (THROB) The Hawai’i Review of Books; I am glad to be a part of this endeavor.

We face challenges wherever we live, but I am always grateful to be living here. There is a reminder here in every gesture, that we are temporal, that nature governs our lives, that beauty and good fortune is in our very existence.

 

 

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Blog Divorce Hawai'i Health Parenting Reading & Writing

Hawai’i: Football and Parenting

“You don’t like football,” my son says.

I disagree and cite evidence to prove my support: team apparel for myself and the family, hundreds of dollars of groceries from Costco for ‘football food’, picking him up from practice, spending hours online trying to upload and organize the multitude of lists and forms, and a general rearranging of life to meet the demands of afternoon practices and upcoming games. We’re in a deep argument by now and frankly, I’ve had it. It’s only later I realize, he’s right. I don’t like it.

I had not allowed him to play for years for all of the usual reasons: concussions and more concussions. When he was small, there wasn’t as much of a concern about the machismo and general discussion that surrounds the sport. While I had played football in my neighborhood growing up, I had never played a team sport other than one dismal season of softball at age 9, and I am the only person I know (other than my sister) who has never watched an entire Superbowl game. I did watch the Bruno Mars performance. I also watched the commercials one year for work (2001?) when I was assigned to do so. But other than that, football was one of those sports that had failed to engage me. I had enjoyed movies about football, but my live game time was limited.

In 3rd grade, my father took me to see the University of Iowa football team play a game on my birthday—the year that they lost every game. Dad bought me a pom-pom and we stayed until half time so I could watch the cheerleaders and then we went home. At boarding school there were co-ed cheerleaders who wore old wool sweaters from a vault of prepwear from days of yore who led cheers at the homecoming game. Since I was part of an advisory senior group, I too led cheers and wore a creamy white sweater emblazoned with a navy blue ‘A.’ I led a cheer where I misspelled our school’s name. I liked the yelling through the megaphone. Details like who was playing, the game itself, and spelling were another matter.

Fast forward another ten years and my mother won a raffle and I got four tickets to a live Raiders game. I went with a sister and my friend from acting class—he had previously studied and danced with the Houston Ballet, and another friend, a writer whose day job was high school football coach. The three of us stayed for the writer/football coach, but as I recall, I spent most of the time going back and forth for snacks. Ballet dancer had initially suggested selling the tickets and going out to brunch, but it was too late to do that.  I had no idea football moved so slowly. I believe the team lost that game. I can’t remember.

As a teacher, I had come to accept football season as the time of year when students left class early and learned that to be a teenage football player was to enter an American myth, a boyhood dream. My student athletes of the football variety were always polite in class. And there was always the exceptional football player, the one who engaged deeply with reading and stories, who asked questions and pondered the material. But mostly, the players were exhausted, suffered from lack of sleep and obligations, having been recruited to these high fee schools for their athletic prowess. I understood what it meant. They were, at such a young age, professionals. The majority were students of color. Their families dreams and their community’s hopes were on their shoulders and they knew it. They were there to serve the elite school with their bodies. I understood what was at stake for them. College. Mentorship. A ticket out. Yet, truthfully, part of me chafed under this idea too. Poets and musicians are rarely granted such privileges and absences. Football players are exclusively boys. What I found even more trying was that the boys with interesting academic or creative abilities were often dismissed and slotted into spots because they were football players. Imposed limits on a young person. I look back on the kids I know who were athletes–what poetry they held was often buried by the school’s belief in how they served the institution. Homecoming at all schools revolves around this single sport that supposedly defines the social culture of the fall semester. None of it sat comfortably with me.

As a parent, I had been easily able to ignore the football stuff. Overseas there was rugby (nope, didn’t allow him to play that either) and soccer (yes, he played it).

The Kid had played soccer in Hong Kong. It had been the chosen sport of his father. Upon relocation to Hawai’i he continued to play, but it was just us two here. The first year could only be described as a heteronormative extreme. While all parents had to contribute, the team parent who took the reigns was extremely disgruntled when I explained my nearly 1.5 hour one way commute, and then said condescendingly, I was more or less like a single mom, (an entirely negative state from her assessment), so let me off of some duties and gruffly assigned me others.

Families are pressed. Modern family life is supposed to be a joyful time, but the sporting activities seem to take a toll on families, and yet there is a strong cultural expectation of participation in these activities. Coaches were the dads who had not played much, or so it seemed. There were a lot of boring drills, not much playing time. There was well-intentioned yelling “Get your head out of your butt, XXXX” and parents’ dreams of a soccer star dying at every practice. A very heavy kid lost 25 pounds that season, the entire team cheering him on as he ran across the field and scored a single goal.

Yet without a male figure by my side The Kid rarely had playing time. Fatherly interest assured time on the field, and while I raced home for practice, showed up for every game, brought the required snacks, and enthusiastically cheered, my presence as a mom didn’t hold much sway. The Kid’s athletic, but his short attention span became shorter as he played defense. He liked the camaraderie, was distracted by his hair falling in his eyes, and amiably followed the rest of the team. I decided then that I had to become more involved the next go around.

When time for soccer came up the following year, I volunteered for team parent, assigned snacks, sent out regular emails, and became the uber soccer mom to blow out all soccer moms. There were assigned snacks with specific rules. Get well cards. Car pool coordination. I refused to be trifled with. It was also a team that had several single moms and this time women, more than men, were the ones present at practice and games. The paradigm shifted. The coach had minimal drills and the kids played. “Kids like playing,” was his response. “Not so much drills.” Everyone played. The coach had no ambitions of anyone becoming a serious soccer player. The point was exercise and fun. The philosophy worked. The team did well. We’re still in contact with a few of the boys from that time. The Kid says that was his best year of playing soccer ever. It was that mythic time before boys’ playing abilities were about potential and the goal was fun.

The following year, several members of the soccer team decided to try basketball. Indoor games ran late–up to 9PM for an elementary school kid. Parents were friendly, but the vibe was different. Competitive. By now, students were 10 years old. From what I could see, no one was heading to a professional team, but the intensity at which they played and the parental involvement was clear: they were gunning for private school spots, and to do this, they had to show that they excelled at a sport. Parents were not messing around. I heard a parent brag that her child’s ambition was to play basketball at Yale. He was 10. The tiresome vibe had started: What school is your child applying to? An admissions officer encouraged me to keep my child on a team, to have him play at a high level as that might influence his private school acceptance. My child liked basketball as much as soccer, but it was mostly about the camaraderie. Why I was supposed to do this instead of art class to get him into a private school was beyond me. It was, in fact, the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard–unless the child was keen to do the sport. I suppose if I was dealing with a professional level figure skater this would be one thing. But I’m not big on sacrificing time to the altar of sport for a school spot when the kid is 10!

The next soccer season happened when my marriage headed to extinction. The difference for this team was that the the involved parents were fathers, unlike the previous season of mothers. They were a nice bunch–the fathers were friendly. It was hard for me to focus on being the uber soccer mom given what was happening personally, but again, I coordinated the snacks. I sent out schedules. I tried. The tent was in my car. One dad gave me weights to hold it in place. But the names remain a blur and while The Kid enjoyed the time on the field, the chemistry was just OK, though this wasn’t the fault of anyone in particular as all were generally jovial and nice people. It was me: I was preoccupied. I wasn’t quite divorced, but I was feeling my existence as a single parent and trying to decide how I felt about it.

The following year, my divorce was final. A few weeks after signing the paperwork, The Kid made the cut at a competitive soccer club in town, before we moved off-island. The soccer coach gathered the parents and announced in a firm voice that certain behavior would not be tolerated. No brawling parents, no bad attitudes, no sideline refereeing, and everyone had to get over the idea that their child was going to win a college soccer scholarship. This was supposed to be about fun! Fine by me, though I am sure some parents were disappointed, and if they were brawlers, likely to be pissed off about that. I would like to say that this is because they were really concerned about tuition, but from what I could see, much of this scholarship desire was influenced by parental ego and bragging rights as opposed to genuine abilities.

No matter, we were off to a different island. By now I was in the throes of the fallout of a high conflict divorce. Given The Kid’s entry into club soccer, and my feeling that continuity was important, I agreed to drive upcountry over an hour one way for club practices, but a teacher’s salary meant several hundred dollars a month for fees and gas. Did The Kid even like soccer that much? What was I trying to do, anyway? When his father refused to pay soccer fees that changed the direction of my son’s soccer trajectory. In retrospect, this soccer playing was never The Kid’s fantasy, but his father’s. The Kid had always gone along. It was then that I realized that he was one of those parents that the coach had said he was tired of. I felt some satisfaction in this. There was me, one of the normal parents, and then there was him, the parent who harbored delusional fantasies. So, The Kid ended up playing more casually a short drive from home with other kids from the neighborhood and school. The coaches were neighbors and knew The Kid lost interest unless he was directly chasing the ball. Everyone had a shot. The parents harbored no scholarship ambitions. People meant well. I began to question whether or not The Kid really liked soccer all that much when I saw a photo I took of him gazing in the opposite direction of the ball while everyone on his team was intensely focused on the ball. He looked bored. Soccer was fun, but I realized, not that serious for him. It was recreation.

Then came basketball season which showed me what team sports could be: A good coach, the best on the island, took over the team and magic happened, as it does when a good teacher or coach leads. Everyone had playing time, no matter their playing ability. There was camaraderie and friendship and laughter as the boys tumbled into the backseat. The Kid had a ball. My fondest memories of that year of turbulence and change where I was signing papers and going in and out of court finalizing the divorce revolved around The Kid’s basketball practice and games. An old friend, E, from decades prior stepped off the plane the day after my divorce was final, and for the first time ever, myself and The Kid enjoyed a family life that we had always wanted to have, but had never experienced. We laughed together and E cooked dinner every night and we became during those brief months, a little unit of our own. A former student athlete himself, E told The Kid he had to have protein the night before the game and the morning of, diligently prepared him meals, and together we shuttled The Kid and sometimes other boys in the back of the car to late afternoon practices and morning games. E chatted to parents and the coach. We cheered from the sides and in our own way, were part of the crowd and suddenly I was experiencing with joy and celebration all aspects of heteronormative youth sporting event participation and such involvement was fun. The Kid and I have fond memories of that time. E showed The Kid what it meant to have man be kind to his mother and take interest in his activities. It was also where I saw the fallout from the divorce begin to manifest through sports.

“That guy I played with today called me a rich kid, because I’m going to XXX school,” The Kid said defiantly.  As a teacher, my child received tuition exemption. There was no other way he would be attending.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I asked him where he lived. He lives on XXX where those big houses are. I asked him how many bedrooms he had in his house. He said four. I said I live in a one-bedroom cottage,” said The Kid.

“Oh?”

“Then I beat him on the court,” said The Kid defiantly. “Screw him. But he’s OK. Now we’re friends.” The jockeying for dominance. The have and the have-nots. Loss had become more acute in his mind. He did not have a house anymore. He had a lost a family. There was upheaval, envy, anger, and confusion. The divorce, as far as The Kid was concerned, was not only a split up, it was a new way of socially framing himself in every arena of his life.

“Mom, am I a poor kid now? I think I was kind of a richer kid before.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t have my own bedroom. I sleep in the living room.”

“You’ll get a bedroom. Don’t worry. You’re not poor.”

Circumstances shifted upon return to Honolulu. The Kid got a bedroom, but basketball at a big public middle school was no longer a friendly well-organized sport. The Kid left the first day of middle school tryouts. He had loved the coach and playing on his team before, but now he was intimidated: “I’m not doing this.”

I was disappointed as I remembered how much he had enjoyed it. I explained the point was to play for fun, not to do anything else, but he even refused to join the intramural team. Fearful. Ego. Acceptance. Shut down. He was in 7th grade and sports were no longer only about fun. It was a private school calling card. It was parents trying to justify a family’s weekend activity. It was where and how your masculinity and mettle were tested. It was all the stuff that drove me away from participating in organized sports my entire life. The old coach had said that The Kid would be a good player, that he would have the height, and that he would keep improving. But without the guidance of kind coach who saw potential and who didn’t yell, who encouraged fairness, and prioritized playing time for all, who didn’t expect everyone to perform and opened the floor to beginners, The Kid would not play. The days of basketball ended. I was disappointed. But I saw too, that it wasn’t the game. It was what the game meant.

And so during COVID, the football campaign began in earnest. I had kept hoping it would go away. The Kid had briefly waged one in elementary school, but even then, I had not allowed him to play Pop Warner. He had made football rosters for his friends in elementary school and played every recess, but there was a desperate urgency in his voice and something had shifted.

“Football is important in Hawai’i” he said to me. “It’s THE sport here, Mom.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I have wanted to play it since 3rd grade. I’m good at it.”

“You never play it. You hardly watch it!”

“I’m good at it.”

“OK, but you’re good at a lot of stuff. Tennis. You’re good at tennis too. Maybe join the tennis team.”

“No. Dad wanted me to play soccer. You wanted me to play basketball. I want to play football. Football is my choice. I have always wanted to play it and you NEVER let me play it.”

“I never wanted you to play basketball. You liked basketball. I don’t care which sport you play, I care about injury.”

Sandy’s is dangerous, Mom. You let me go there.”

“It’s the ocean.”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s dangerous.”

“The water’s different.”

“How?”

“It’s the natural world. It’s something else. It’s the ocean.”

How to explain rocks and gods and water? The meaning of ocean as life, as who we are as part of this earth to a teenager hell-bent on acceptance? Football translates into mainstream popularity. Campus stardom. Friends who travel in a pack. A position. Belonging.

“I want a family. I don’t have one anymore,” The Kid declared.

COVID had offered a respite from the politics of middle school social life and adjustment from divorce. The fallout of divorce and the instability of a family underscored by strife had come tumbling out. The Kid had clicked on Instagram only to find out that his father had gotten married without informing him prior. Memories of bottles of alcohol in the morning reeking on a kitchen counter, yelling, and fear creeped in. A longing for a family that never was. Escape. Confrontation. The dissolution.

And then, there was the ocean, specifically, Uncle N, the surf instructor, and the ocean. The Kid had begun to surf when we had lived on another island, but he was hesitant in many ways. While he had started to go out with Uncle N on his board prior to COVID, the water took on another dimension once he started going to Sandy’s. Three or four days a week, Uncle N would swing by and pick him up. Time schedules shifted. After a late nite gaming and yelling over a discord call, The Kid would eat breakfast and amble out the door to hop in Uncle N’s car and spend a few hours at Sandy’s, under the tutelage of Uncle N and all the uncles out there in the early morning, sharing tips and guidance and in this, he found, if only a space through Uncle N, a place to belong.

Growing up on the Mainland, I knew about Sandy’s as it was the beach my uncle refused to let us go to when we arrived for the summer. No. Too rough. That was it. We never went. The shore break is dangerous. The current is strong. Yet it was here that The Kid began to find himself in the water, losing himself in the blue, charging and challenging the blue, and eating big plate lunches with Uncle N or downing a half a dozen grilled hot dogs on the beach. His hair turned light, his skin browned, and he developed confidence. His back got cuts and scars from the rocks and shoreline, he battled a current, and still, he went out every AM. My parents and I went to see him. A boy in the blue. Light. Strength. Joy. Calm. A slow transformation, if only a few hours a day. Healing had begun.

A teacher, Uncle N said with pride: “He’s looking good.”

My heart swelled. It is something else to see a child who has suffered feel free in the water. I wanted to cry. I laughed and smiled. The Kid looked awesome. Grandma smiled. Aunty said, “Those are big waves.” Grandpa looked for a few minutes too, said, “Is that wave too big?” then walked away and found petting a friendly pet pig lying under the shade to be of greater interest than seeing his sole grandson in the ocean.

One day The Kid was sprawled out on the bed, his body now stretched from one end of the bed to the other. He looked up the ceiling and said to me: “Mom, I thought I was going to die today on a wave.”

“Then what?”

“I prayed. Then, I committed,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Good job,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”

The ocean heals. The water eases. The sea. A boy and the elements.

All during COVID I watched my FB feed. Mothers with sons who cheerfully played puzzles and made pizza. Families that made crafts and read piles of books. The only way we got through COVID and through the school year intact was that I installed a punching bag outside the front door. The Kid grew 5 inches, his voice changed, he worked out like a religion, and he entered the water. He came in from the ocean to do a few hours of schoolwork. COVID was discord and gaming. Two gallons of milk a week. Piles of toast. He changed his diet, grilled meat, and scrambled over a dozen eggs a week. He swore off sugar, and just plain ole swore. Defiant. Rage. It was the kick-off of what I am well aware will be long period of rebellion that is likely to intensify. I think I am prepared. I know I am not. The last several years were hard.

The football campaign had begun the late summer of 2020, but ebbed, and then started to amp up as the prospect of school opened. I had hoped it would go away.

“I’m going to play football. Mom, this is the one thing I have always wanted to do. My whole life. You say no, you always say no. To everything. You’re such a negative thinker.”

“No, I don’t.”

“When you say maybe, maybe is a NO. You are a Debbie Downer.”

“I’m not a Debbie Downer.”

“Yes, you are! Moms say no.”

“Moms do not say no.”

“Well YOU as a mom say no. ALL THE TIME.”

“Listen, football is…it’s a complicated thing. It’s really…we saw that movie together about concussions.”

“I want to play. Not everyone gets one. This is for me. It’s my choice. This is my life. This is me. I’m going to play.”

This is my life, Mom. So when does it become this, exactly? My uncle played it. My students played it. But I resisted. Horror stories abounded. My mother’s doctor’s friend’s son: paralyzed. Brain damage of a former student. I never liked the sport. It was violent. Tennis? Cross country? Hiking? Wilderness sports? Biking? Why did it have to be football?

“Why do you always think something bad will happen? What is wrong with you?” said The Kid. “You always think the worst will happen.”

Friends and family weighed in. No! Absolutely not. I will not let my child do it. Yes. Let him do it a few weeks. See what happens. Once he gets sacked it will be different. Those are men on the field. Some of those kids, they are full grown. No. It’s not a good idea. No, there are other sports. He likes football? He never watches it! The anxiety increased (me). The anger mounted (him).

I researched the coaches and team. Somehow the interview and stories reassured me. From what I read, the point seemed to play.

To my surprise and to everyone else’s, I capitulated:

“OK. You can try it. You have to get to bed early and eat right. You have to take ballet class too. You have to maintain a 3.5 GPA. You have to do your chores. You’re basically just a machine during season. Understand? And if you get one injury, I don’t care what it is, you are out. Got it?”

Deal done.

He’s running with a pack now. School is about to start. Practice is on. Scrimmages. I haven’t watched. He got bigger after a week of hearty eating and play. But when I drove to pick him up at the following week it looked like every other player had also gotten bigger! Every family must have been doing the same! Feeding the kid to protect him. The last time I thought about him eating like this was when he was a baby.

“You don’t like it. I can tell. I can tell you don’t like it,” said The Kid, angrily.

And then I had to examine: why didn’t I like it? Was he right? I’m doing all that I can. But after another late night of arguments I began to remember and had to agree: he was right. Unlike any other sport in which I had only a mild passing interest in, I really mostly found myself bored with football. But was it really avoidance? And then I dug deeper.

Growing up in Iowa, football became the symbol to me of not belonging. Of bullying and whiteness. Of mockery of my father, of my Asian self, my Korean family. We were not a football family and never would be. There were three girls and a father who didn’t care about football who never saw it until he came to the US. We had no reference for this game.

There was a neighborhood and school filled with boys and girls who lived for football, talked about football, whose families followed it religiously. If you didn’t you were isolated and made fun of. Briefly there was inclusion: A young neighborhood boy, Bill, with no football, who was on the 7th grade team and who was dying to play and who corralled my sisters and I and another neighborhood girl into playing. We played football with a red rubber ball with Bill commanding the plays and direction, and those were, in honesty, my only fond memories of the sport. Once when we expanded the play and other kids joined in with a real football my younger sister wound up flat on her back. The wind was knocked out of her. We stood over her looking at her carefully.

“She’s the running back,” said Bill. There was some question. Do we tell Mom? Stop playing? Was she breathing OK? My sister nodded. We needed the running back. Mom didn’t have to know. Game on!

Yes, there was fun. But football was also whiteness, big people, and gatherings where, from what I could see, you ate a lot of potato chips and there was no rice. As I lay awake thinking about The Kid and all of the misery that football culture caused me growing up, I realized that my reaction to write, to embrace art, to willfully leave Iowa at the age of 13 for boarding school was deeply connected for my utter distaste and dislike for organized sports, for all the feelings and ways it isolated and belittled, and at the center of this, was the sport of football. Proms. Homecoming. The Game.

I had to let go. It was coming to bite me back.

I thought of The Kid’s very first word: “ball”. He runs, moves, and takes to almost any sport with a basic level of competence due to coordination and speed. He’s athletic and the way he moves through the world is at times very foreign to me. I’m physical, but it is something else when this is what defines someone. This year, my capitulation has meant that his dream has finally come true: He’s playing football. Day 4 he broke his finger. There was a moment where he wondered if I would pull him out, he lashed out and said, “You’re going to take me out.”

“No, I’m not.”

I rationalized it by noting his changes. There are friends. He’s catching balls. Kicking goals. He’s doing well. He’s happier. The angst and feelings are always underneath, but football takes up a lot of space. I could use the break. We both could.

“I missed a few. I missed,” he said ruefully. “It sucks.”

“It does not suck. You’re doing great. You’re having fun, right?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. Good.”

He memorizes plays. He texts his friends. He’s in for the season. The Kid’s a football player and me, I’m the mom who worries, the one who hated football, and now the person who is trying to understand. This is the last stage before The Kid goes out into the world. He has his own goals and dreams for the season, and for his own life. How long will football be a part of this? A season? A game? Four years? It’s hard to say, now. Adolescence is a time of constant dramatic change. My football season goals are more modest, but involve a lifetime of unraveling perceptions and feeling. I’m doing what I can to resist voicing my concerns and doing what I can to have faith that it will all work out. I got my T-shirt. I’ll be sitting in the stands, apprehensive, letting myself sink into it, happiness, that is, watching my son live his dream.

Categories
Belief and Philosophy Divorce Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: When I Sleep

This poem When I Sleep was first published in an anthology released by the Asian American Women’s Artists Association Cheers to Muses. I believe there are still hard copies of this book available through the organization. Work exhibited or featured ranged from sculpture to prints to writing. We do not create in a vacuum; at any time there are others who are creating, making, and expressing, and it’s important to note that we are not alone in this way. Women who have chosen a path predicated on expression and creativity often find themselves on the fringes of a society, and so it is important to know that you are not alone in this endeavor, that is often looked upon by outsiders as rather peculiar. It’s important to note that there are avenues of art that are always accepted by society should they fall into the matrix of womanly arts–these are not to be dismissed. But when you begin to question existing narrative frameworks art becomes dangerous.

Always remember that writing is a radical act. And as anyone who writes will tell you: writing is not a choice; it’s a compulsion.

I was remembering what a Korean American friend of my sister’s once told her: “Why can’t you just conform?” LOL. This is such a terrifying statement on so many levels. What was it about how this young woman was raised that she would level this type of criticism? Rather terrifying. The world finds so many ways to keep women compliant.

The poem below was a real dream I had many years before I divorced. I was extremely unsettled, filled with anxiety, but it was difficult for me to discern why or how as seemingly, everything on on the surface seemed to be as it should. Child. Spouse. House. Work. Check. Check. Check. It’s the potential hell of surface oriented idea of a heteronormative nuclear family that is a disguise for unrest and discontent. I found out years later, unsurprisingly that many people I knew were more or less drug-filled, bodies numbed from what modern capital declares is contentment. Purpose and happiness are complicated when it comes to obligations and definitions of women and place. Our bodies know what our minds fail to grasp. There is no peace without sleep, lack of sleep is a form of madness, and this absurd modern condition is the killing of what it means to be who are meant to be. What does one do if the dreams offer no release from the day? If the day is a continuation of what is reflected in a dream?

This poem underwent quite a few drafts. It is much shorter than the original, but I tried to keep the idea of the upset of the ordinary: How we squelch the true ideas we must confront in the daily habits of washing our face, walking across the floor, going to sleep. At this point too, I began to see how the power of beauty, youth stands with age.

There is too a refusal to awaken, because to truly rise means to live seamlessly between what is honest and to acknowledge what most deny. We live this way to shore up some idea of what should be– that is rooted in concepts of scarcity and fear.

The ideal state is to live without denial of who and what you are, to peel off the layers of sleep that seep into our waking hours, to boldly move your body, all of who you are, into a state of consciousness rooted in an awareness of mortality. Calm. Acceptance. Peace. Joy.

And now I head to the water. Have a great day. Aloha.

 

 

When I Sleep

 

Memory drowns in dreams—

monsters of the deep bare incisors,

scrape with scales.

Incandescent. Ravenous.

Earth’s belly spits a picture:

you run on a meadow to muses,

blossoms of poetry.

I lift my hands in a corner of disbelief.

 

Trapped by morning.

Eyes raise to the sun.

Escape vanquished by daylight’s rip.

Night’s pictures, a pornographic loop.

 

I am sorry, but I too

have impossible songs that swell.

We bend, but the nightly reprieve will not halt.

 

I splash water onto my face,

note lines on my neck,

imagine words murmured in your sleep

did not leak into my own.

Categories
Belief and Philosophy Gods and Pineapples Hawai'i Health Poetry Self-help

Hawai’i: Stars and Pines

Diamond Head Cemetery. A Cook pine from New Caledonia. Yellow stars that poured from a tree? Anyone know the name? The ground as sky. The dead slumber. Decades pass. Beloved Mother. In Loving Memory. She loved the sea. Flowerless. Forgotten. This heaven was the toil of stiff hands. The invention of paradise. Lost. Airplane-filled. A single taste. A myth cascades. Rock and soil call the return to dust. Go back to where you came from.

Categories
Belief and Philosophy Divorce Health Passing in the Middle Kingdom Poetry Reading & Writing Self-help

Passing in the Middle Kingdom: Genus Mui Wo

This is Mui Wo at night. The path up to my former home. It’s wonderfully quiet and there’s a calm truth to being outside with the frogs and the darkness in utter safety. Forgotten. Lost. Present.

I always felt very out of place in Hong Kong, but I have concluded that this is the nature of the city, both historically and currently, as it is a population that has been shaped by the confluence of trade, politics, and capital. It’s about movement and rather abrupt in that if you are not from the city, it’s where you come to make a deal. I always found it rather humorous that expatriates would jabber on about how HK people were unmerciful and solely concerned with finance. But uh…everyone who was there, the expatriate community–they were there to make money. Very very few expatriates are there to immerse themselves in Cantonese culture or are interested in the native population other than the ways that they provide an avenue for the accumulation of their own personal wealth or well-being. Arguably, there are many cities like this, but the racial and social hierarchies are complex in this city. Not always, but it can be very “us and them.”

There’s the indigenous population,  those that migrated from other parts of China, and those who were part and of the former British Empire–government officials, bankers, carpetbaggers, military, and explorers. Finally, there were those like me, a Korean American who ended up in Hong Kong purely by random chance, a default of a marriage to a Brit.

I was an expatriate, but not of Chinese descent, and not from the UK, nor the Commonwealth, so this made the dynamic quite different for me culturally.

A Commonwealth friend once excitedly exclaimed that there was an English speaking woman on the ferry, and in celebration of a new woman in town, there would be a get together welcoming her! There was even a gathering to greet the arrival of a Western white woman. This is when I realized the depth of the difference in the way I negotiated my existence as an expatriate of Asian descent. When you look like the majority of the population, even if you speak English, there are no Welcome Wagons for you. I thought that this must have been what life was like on the prairie in the 19th century. Like, oh the wagon is bringing out a woman from back Home etc… I know there are Korean Welcome Wagons, but personally, I have never experienced this type of thing because my identity has been so fluid. I hadn’t expected any Welcome Wagon, but I realized that life as an expatriate was different if you were not Asian and spoke English.

I remember my mom got a Welcome Wagon basket from a neighbor when we moved to Memphis. This was decades ago so my parents were integrating the white neighborhood and there was a lot of curiosity about them. I would be mortified because right when the conservative white Southern Baptist woman swung by, my mom would be there with the cleaver whacking on the cutting board with garlic rising and I could see the expression of the person’s face: “Oh my, what interesting new people…” Yes, they were different creatures in that space.

There’s a very old comedy Eddie Murphy Saturday Nite Live skit where he gets on the bus as a black/white person and the differing reactions. So often I’d hear the rantings of people’s derisive anti-Chinese comments and simply act like I didn’t understand English. I passed–hence what came to be the title of my poetry manuscript. In Asia, you have access to spaces if you are English speaking. The caste and color line become very nuanced and complicated. I had some tremendous opportunities that would not have been given to me had I been in the US. As an Asian face with lousy Asian language skills, my value was measured. If you don’t have Mandarin, given the politics of the place, it’s tough now for many, but some of the ways you move through society are personality-based.

I thought about being a different kind of species–Genus Mui Wo…I believe I was evolving into something else too, something I could not recognize. There are many ways that being out of your cultural milieu can challenge your value system, what you know about yourself, how you see the world. I was better and worse, potentially more extreme versions of who I am. This is a physical visceral sensation. My parasympathetic system was entirely out of whack. I was not feeling who I was within my former partnership, and also within my own relationship to myself. Who is the self? What is my species? How pedestrian am I? I move from being a creature of the sea to one of the sky. In a sense, this is also the story of earthly evolution. We are all from the sea and before that, the stars, and to this end we will return. Stardust.

And let’s face it, while I didn’t intend it deliberately as I wrote this piece, it touches on this idea: did you ever notice how the future is depicted in media? There are outer space creatures that have vaguely Asiatic features often featured in spandex LOL. The idea is HEY those people are MIGHTY WEIRD. Let’s uh, make them sci fi characters LOL. Because we can’t imagine them. They are perpetually Other and Foreign. As Takaki wrote, we are Strangers From a Different Shore.  I think this has long been part of my awareness of difference–being treated like a different species…so there’s that.

The reference to Korea: I almost drowned in the mountains of Korea, outside of Seoul, when I was six. We were crossing a stream, my uncle who carried me slipped. A cousin grabbed me as I went under. I pulled my uncle’s hair. It took years of swimming lessons for me to learn how to swim, although once I did, I swam quite well. After the near drowning, I would sit on the shallow end of the pool on the stairs. I hated washing my face. I terrified of the water. My mother was from Hawai’i, and while she wasn’t a particularly good swimmer, (the Mom Swim: sunglasses on, face always above water lol) I was expected to swim.

After I could finally swim, she insisted I dive. I refused. I would jump over the swimming instructor’s arm, do anything to avoid being upside down. Undaunted, my mother hired the university diving coach. He took me by my feet, hung me upside down like a fish, and said on the count of three I would be dropped in. Splash! He did this several times, and again the next day, and after that–I could dive! I was 10 or 11. Thanks, Mom! Someday I’ll write about the rip tide which still leaves me with some anxiety, but that’s for later…

Reading this poem again, I recognize that I was fatigued, bored, frustrated, and exhausted by the marriage, but yes, I had the minnow, my small child, and so I stayed, as many do. I felt more dead than alive, but my child kept me going. I poured everything onto the page as there was nowhere else to leave it. You start to collapse into yourself. As a child I escaped by reading and writing. During the course of my marriage I read and write to escape amassing pages and degrees and doing whatever I could to avoid my physical reality.

All the while in Hong Kong, I could easily deconstruct how race and nation played out, but patriarchy was more difficult. I should say this was in specific to my own situation. When you are isolated emotionally you become inured to carelessness and cruelty and in the end, this is how and why you can become subject and vulnerable to abuse. In another cultural context too, one can become uncertain of the parameters and structures. Is this the story I know? Is this story playing out because I am in a different space? Where is the beginning and where is the ending? Existentialist type of questions.

I have a different kind of empathy now watching mothers with their small children if they are raising their children outside of their home culture. I can see all the anxiety, the concerns about doing what people are saying is best, but what, within your own culture doesn’t make sense.When you are not in your own milieu, your cultural values become uncertain and questioned. You must adapt–the question becomes what do you change, shift, and why?

I rewrote the ending of this piece many many times. But yes, I did grab that small hand and we ended up in Hawai’i–the ancestral home. Me and The Kid. Right across the street from where my family is buried.

 

 

 

Genus Mui Wo

 

Kick. Glide. An ageless alien floats.

Close eyes. Close eyes.

No tentacles, only gills, tales of tails.

To elude conscription

I snap skin from honey to olive,

declare citizenship,

nurse milk from stone,

scuttle over shallow water,

dodge mops. Hide. Seek.

Miscalculations of the moon stranded me.

Risks are for the hunt.

On and off the endangered species list,

experts argue: A bony beak.

Jelly lips. Feet trained to point.

I’m pedestrian,

a nylon-clad refugee,

swimming lap after lap.

Please, do not filet.

A diligent learner, I open jars, play puzzles.

Hostile conditions rendered me mute.

Survival, a testament to tenacity,

obedience, fear.

Plastic goggles squeeze eye sockets,

reveal loops ad infinitum.

***

I Almost Drown

DAY— KOREA — A MOUNTAIN CREEK.

We drive from the City. Two urban pale uncles hoist children on their shoulders, water skims chins. The sun flicks its light. Footholds missed! Kicks. Sputter. A strong arm. Saved by Cousin Ki-dong op-ah’s red and white inner tube. I am six. Shattered on the sandy river bank, twisted in bladderwrack, fish cheeks like pebbles, glassy eyes rimmed pink.

Years of failure, but Mother persists. This is not tennis! I butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, dive, hobble ashore with webbed feet. Beached, I weep for the sea.

fin

 FADE TO BLACK

***

My nocturnal mate provides shelter,

hunts with a weapon to his ear.

A stomach x-ray reveals a corroded past.

A beast-baring teeth, he attacks seaweed strands,

black painted lines.

I watch the show in silence.

Dolphin hooped: I applaud on demand.

I long to disappear,

but a tiny one swims by my side.

I stay.

Open a book. Tumble into words.

When the minnow pedals the prehistoric cycle,

I’ll shrink to a cloud bite in the blackest tea.

Before my organs drown and stop,

I dream the sea parts my heart,

walk the collapse of blueberry night,

and lick death’s sweet.

I note my eye’s lemon light,

marvel at my downy skin,

flex my talons.

Ready for flight!

I leap to private myths—

cloud wrap a phoenix belief

from shredded wings,

grab a small hand,

clutch my heart,

instinct pressing me home.