Bears, Pigs, and Dragonflies: An Easter Sunday Non-Sermon

My brother-in-law phoned me yesterday afternoon. He’d locked himself out of the house, and could I let him back in? Someone else might’ve been annoyed, but I was thrilled to get the call. More than once I’d done the exact same thing. Accidentally closed the locked door behind me and marooned myself outside. In fact, I’d done it earlier this week and had to call my sister over to rescue me. Luckily, we all have each other’s house keys and live close by.

On the way to Craig’s place, I switched on the radio. It was already tuned to WHQR, the local public radio station, and was in the middle of an interview. I tried to fit the pieces together. A man was talking about battling a wildfire, trying to save his house. I assumed this was in California. He spoke of stomping on the fire for seven hours straight, his boots melting, his legs aching. At one point, he said, he tried using kayak paddles to beat back the flames, because his legs were just too tired. When a fire truck finally arrived, instead of getting the help he expected, he and his friends were admonished: “What are you doing here? It’s dangerous. Get out.”

As harrowing as his tale was, the part that took my breath away was an offhand remark about a bear who came bursting out of the woods, fleeing the blaze. Just as the bear escaped from the inferno, the man said, the animal saw him and immediately turned and ran back into the flaming forest.

What does this say about us, about humans? What are we to think when wild animals fear us to the point that any other option is preferable?

And it’s not just wild animals, of course. Earlier this week I watched a video clip on Facebook. A truck carrying pigs to slaughter was barreling down the road. The pigs were stacked so that the animals on top were at least ten feet from the ground. The video showed one pig intentionally leaping from the top tier of the truck. She crashed onto the pavement, her body rolling and bouncing like a pink fleshy boulder across the opposite travel lane and onto the shoulder. That’s where the clip ended. A few of the comments cheered the pig on. But the jump had probably broken both her front legs, and other body parts as well, I surmised. And the pain and terror she experienced in her attempted escape must have been horrific. But just as the California bear took his chances in the conflagration rather than face a human being, so this pig, despite infinitesimal odds, preferred any situation but the one humans had put her in.

Is this our species’ legacy? To be worse than suicide.

I mourn many things in this life. But animals’ fear—their reasonable, rational fear of us—fills me with a sorrow like no other. I’m reminded of Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Sanctuary.” In it, he tells of visiting a nature preserve. He goes there hoping to give himself an hour or so’s reprieve from the grim news of war. When he arrives, he notices the animals fleeing from his every step. He can’t tell them that he’s not there to harm them. And it even if he could tell them, why would they believe? Our species has committed, and is still committing, acts of genocide against other species at a pace and scale beyond comprehension. Of course they’ll run, even if they have no place to go.

Today is Easter Sunday. My sister had invited me to a friend’s Easter brunch, but knowing that everyone but me would likely be feasting on flesh, I declined. I too used to eat that way. I don’t anymore. One of the greatest joys of my life came when I learned that I could live, and live well, without having to consume the bodies of other animals. What I’ve chosen to do instead is to take a walk in the woods. A nearby state park is offering a hike this morning. I called to ensure it was actually happening. A hike on Easter morning in the “Have a blessed day” South? It turned out to be true.

The animals there will certainly flee us, too, will cry their sounds of alarm just as they did with Sanders. But I’ll bring my camera and binoculars anyway. Not a gun or a trap, not a crossbow or a bulldozer. Just my sadness and apologies. And my awe. Awe for the ones who have survived, despite our species’ active efforts to destroy. Despite our species’ apathy and neglect. Parks and preserves are not enough for the flora and fauna of our planet to flourish though. A few, or even many, isolated islands set amid devastation disguised as “development” simply will not suffice.

On a walk with my husband last month, there was much chatter about a recent alligator sighting. A woman we encountered on the path asked us, Did you see the gator? Fearfully, she told us exactly where he been sighted, how big she’d heard he was. I wish I’d reminded her the alligator had much more to fear from us than we from him. Instead I smiled, a Southern reflex, and Tim and I continued along our way. It was our first time visiting that walking trail and I didn’t like it. With its high fences everywhere and its fake lake in the middle. I doubt I’ll go back. I hope the state park will be better. I hope I’ll find some smidgen of hope this bright Easter Sunday.

Most times, I want to run away from humanity too. Like the bear, I want to turn my back and flee from all that terrifies me. Other times, I feel I am living in the burning woods already. Everywhere I look, everywhere I turn, I see the flames of cruelty, killing, and routine brutality. Like other animals, I don’t know where to go or what to do. Do I run? Do I leap to my death? Or do I stay on the truck and go in the direction everyone else is going?

I try my best not to be part of the world’s slaughter, the world’s erasure. Confused and disheartened, I walk in the woods or along a riverbank or shore. I gasp at the beauty I encounter. I take photos I can marvel over later. An Anole shedding his skin. An Osprey building her nest. That Yellow-bellied Slider who stayed boldly on the log while the other turtles slipped into the water. And the red-eyed dragonfly who stood still on the end of a twig and allowed me to photograph her again and again and again. It took me forever to get her transparent wings into focus. She could have darted away at any time. And yet she stayed. And yet she stayed.

Chrissy and Me and Sexual Assault


Like millions of others yesterday, I watched Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in front of the senate judiciary committee. Like Anita Hill years before, Ford was there to share what she knew about a powerful man poised to take an even more powerful office.

Ford was 100% certain she had been assaulted as a teenager, but was unsure about many other seemingly important facts, such as the date and place of the attack. Her inability to provide this information, along with her 36 year delay in making the assault public, has caused many to doubt her claim.

A recent New York Post story is typical of the criticisms leveled at Ford and her faulty memory. “Ford still can’t recall basic details of what she says was the most traumatic event in her life,” the article trumpets. How can Ford be believed, it goes on to insinuate, when she "concedes she told no one what happened to her at the time, not even her best friend or mother”?

Ford’s recounting of her experiences forced me to examine my own from roughly the same time period, when she and I were roughly the same age. Other than both being female, the two of us had little in common. Ford was blond; I fantasized about blondness. Ford lived in a swanky D.C. suburb where she attended a private prep school and was at home in country clubs. I was an immigrant from Vietnam who went to public school in Tennessee and for whom country clubs were exotic places mentioned  on TV. According to her high school friends, “Chrissy” was popular, athletic, and universally well-liked. I was none of those things.

And yet Ford and I share something profound: We both survived sexual assault. I am not surprised that Ford is sketchy on many details of her attack, because huge parts of my recollection are hazy too. Like her, I place that my assault in or around 1982, though I’m unsure of the exact location. Like her, I thought I was going to be raped but managed to escape. Like her, I told no one. Not the best friend I confided my hopes and dreams and fears and worries to, and certainly not my mother.

In many ways, Ford remembers much more than I can. While Ford is able to name some of the people who were at the gathering where her assault took place, I can't remember anyone specifically at my location. Nor do I recall, if I ever knew it, the name of my attacker.

But the details I do remember I will never be able to forget.

What do I know? I know I was in college. I know it was at a frat party. (The first and last frat party I ever attended). I know my attacker told me he was from out of town and not a student at my school. I know when the party was winding down I went with him to his vehicle. But my keenest, clearest, without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt memories are these: His hand between my legs. My hand desperately trying to stop him. And the frightening expression in his eyes when he looked at me and said, slowly and threateningly, “Let go of my wrist.” It wasn’t a request.

I doubt the young man even remembers our encounter. For one thing, he was extremely drunk and we never saw each other again. And secondly, what was there to remember? It was “no big deal” because “nothing happened.” At least that’s how I’ve thought of it all these years. I wasn’t raped. I got away. In the world I grew up in, that makes it a non-event.

It took listening to Christine Blasey Ford to teach me that something did happen that night. Something criminal, isolating and silencing. The proof isn’t in a police report or in any eye witness accounts. It's not recorded on a calendar; it will never substantiated by a confession. The proof is in me. The me who has forgotten the details but remembers the trauma. The me who through pure luck got out of that vehicle and stumbled through the darkness back to my dorm and never told a soul. Until now.


The Story Silence Tells

Last week I participated in Southern Griots: Preserving Local History Through Storytelling at the Cape Fear Museum. Organized by Athenian Press, the event featured a lovely array of artists in different genres (poetry, playwriting and screenwriting, dance, filmmaking, music). We shared our work and talents, each of us emphasizing art's ability to lift up, preserve, and pass along human stories that might otherwise be lost.

The night before, in anticipation of the event, I kept thinking about stories. Not just those we tell, but those kept secret. As an Asian-heritage person, I know that silence is woven into my cultural legacy. My Asian-American friends and I have talked about the frustrating silence of our Asian parents, about the lack of demonstrativeness, both physical and emotional.

Other cultures have this too, of course. Brits are famous for their "stiff upper lip." And Appalachian hillbilly culture, despite its propensity for tall tales, is known for enduring in stony silence. It's a human thing, I guess. Sometimes we talk too much. We gab. We overshare. (TMI). We tell the same old tale over and over and over. At the same time, we hold it all in. We keep things locked in dark places. There are words and stories and memories that will never pass our lips.

At dinner the night before the Griots event, a Jewish-heritage woman joked that her people never had a problem with silence. But what about Holocaust survivors? I asked. Whereupon she told me that yes, when it comes to those who endured the Shoah, her loquacious tribe tends to clam up. We agreed that  silence is a byproduct of trauma. Think of all the war veterans who won't talk about their experiences, she said. I didn't have to think hard. My father was one such person. Although he wasn't in combat, what he experienced was enough to keep him war-averse and uncommunicative about the military part of his time in Vietnam for fifty years. (Though he was always happy to bend your ear about the pretty Saigon girls).

In the year or two before he died, my father hinted that he was finally ready to talk. Once or twice, he made cryptic off-hand remarks like, If there's anything you want to know, now's the time to ask. I didn't have it in me to remind him of the time when, freshly back from a trip to Vietnam, I did ask about his war experience. He tried to tell me, but the words resisted. His face turned white, then red, and his throat choked with tears. He couldn't utter a word. He apologized, embarrassed, and that was that. I felt for him, but was frustrated too. Because his memories were my past, my history, and his inability to share them meant that a part of myself would never be available to me.

By the time my father expressed a willingness to talk, it was too late. We were living in different countries then (he'd retired to Nicaragua), and I was no longer the brave young woman emboldened by the taste of her home country. I never asked again. He never told. And maybe that's the story. When you can't say the words, when you're unable to ask for themthat's a story too.

What does it say?

I'm still figuring that out.

It certainly says something about fear, about terror. It says something about pain. Who doesn't want to keep hurt at bay? In an age where every iota of human experience seems to be shared ad nauseam online, it's good to be aware of how much still remains unsaid. Silence, like absence, conveys its own meaning. When a finished puzzle is missing just one piece, where do your eyes go? Straight to the void.

Haunted by an Adverb



It's mid-December, Christmas lights are up, and the World Series—the "fall classic" that marks the climax of the 27-week baseball season—feels like a fast-fading memory. Except it still haunts me. Not so much the games themselves, although the Series went the distance. And to sports fan there's no thrill quite like a "game 7." But you may have heard about an incident that occurred after Astros hitter Yuli Gurriel homered off of Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish. Gurriel celebrated his home run by pulling his eyes into slits. Not your typical gesture of jubilation. In fact, a completely nonsensical one—unless you know that Darvish is Asian. And then it makes all the sense in the world.

If you're Asian and you're reading this, you know exactly what I mean. You've been the recipient of "slit-eyes." Probably more than once. You know that, as racial slurs go, it's the equivalent of the N-word.

If you're not Asian, maybe you don't know this. I'm assuming the [non-Asian] writers and editors at Sports Illustrated, the country's leading sports publication, didn't know it. Because what else could explain their headline describing the slit-eyes as a "seemingly" racist gesture?

Damn, that adverb still galls at me.

If slit-eyes aren't racist, what are they?

The day after seeing that headline I wrote this poem. My first-ever "slam" style poem. I think I needed that music, that rhythm, that you-are-going-to-HEAR-me intonation to express what I couldn't not express.

"Seemingly racist" indeed. My blood is still boiling.

In Fear of Ecophobia

Yesterday I got an acceptance notice (yay!) from the online literary magazine Wraparound South, which will be publishing a short essay of mine in audio form. As part of the acceptance, they provided a long list of questions and asked me to answer one of them. (Author responses are included in the "Back Porch" section of their site). The question I picked was "What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?" Here's what I said:
I would advise all writers to learn something tangible about the world they inhabit, specifically the natural world, which we too easily forget is the source of all our highfalutin technology. A single microchip takes many times its weight in fossil fuels, chemicals, and water to produce. So even if you’re an ecophobe (which I hope for all our sakes you’re not), you’re still deeply connected to and mutually dependent on the non-manufactured world. If you’re not keen on learning which rare earth minerals make up your laptop, at least learn about your fellow organisms. Is that “bird” in your poem a flicker or a nuthatch? Are those “trees” in your story white oaks or black locusts? As writers, we must believe that words matter. Words allow us to see the world around us and, by extension, allow our readers to see what they might not otherwise notice. So don’t settle for generic. Know the world. Know its names. 
Was I too blunt? Perhaps. But ever since reading Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook back in the 1990's, I've been haunted by a fear I'd never before heard expressed: "eco-ignorance," let's call it.  Oliver worries that modern-day readers, having lost touch with the natural world, will by extension lose touch with the world's great literatures—literatures that are imbued with intimate and direct experiences of nature's inhabitants and processes.

WE ARE HERE

"We are here! We are here! We are here!"
—Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who


I didn't plan on writing a Letter to the Editor this morning. 

No, I'd awakened from a restful sleep (as evidenced by the damp spot of drool on my pillow), having been serenaded by the patter of raindrops all night. I opened my laptop to check the weather (clearing) and the scores from the midnight tennis match I was too sleepy to watch to conclusion (Sasha Zverev, in three). Then I scrolled down for more news, thumbing past sex offender photos and a bagel shop grand opening to click on “5 plays John Staton would love to see done in Wilmington.” 

Having recently attended some very good plays here, and anticipating seeing more, I was intrigued to know which works our local theater critic would be advocating. I read his choices (interesting, but no real surprises) and was about to close the tab when my personal spidey sense kicked in and made me look again. And there it was. Or, more accurately, wasn't. 

What I mean is, people like me didn't make the cut. 

Of the five plays listed, all were by white males. And while this does not qualify as a calamity, when you're a female writer (like me), and you've just written a play whose main character is Vietnamese (like me), and you harbor the deepest doubts as to whether this work could ever be staged in a city lacking a discernible Asian population (like Wilmington)—well, you see why I might be concerned. 

We writers who are not male and/or not white have something to say. We do the work, get our degrees, hone our craft. But with all the statistics piled up against us, it's hard not to wonder if we're invisible. I grew up in the south and I love the south. I don't want to live in LA or New York. But I also want to know that there's a place for me and my work in this region. That someone out there hears my voice and the voices of others like me. 

And since it may not appear in the paper, here's the letter I wrote. 

HOPEWARD BOUND

A while back my brother-in-law asked if I wanted to collaborate with him in putting on a poetry event here in Wilmington. Yes, I said, before he proposed hope as a theme. 

Hope, of course, forms the basis of all my writing. Just kidding.

Early on, as a poet in college, I wrote a poem mocking Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things." It was a scathing lampoon, and accomplished too. One day I'll dig it up and post it here. Earlier, in high school, I wrote of tortured love, depression, the impossibility of closeness or connection. Earlier still, in grade school, I penned story after story of human cruelty toward other animals. You could say hope was my essence, my obsession, my brand. If you were an idiot.

So as the day of the event draws near, I've been turning my attention hopeward. I remember being in a meeting of Unitarians where the leader eloquently made clear that hope, not optimism, was the thing. I wish I could recall her exact words, but her conclusion, if not her rationale, has stuck with me. I've always had hope, I know. I would not still be alive if I didn't. But I've never thought to explore or emphasize it in my poetry, until now. With just over a month till the event, I'll be seeing what happens when I adjust my poetic lens to put hope in focus and let the rest go blurry. Here's what happened this morning:


FIVE GRAINS

One day I went looking for hope
enough to leaven a poem
the way yeast leavens powder into bread

knowing I wouldn’t find it in any store
I walked past all the markets
knowing I wouldn’t find it on a road
I left behind asphalt and macadam 
and the dead epaulets clasped to their shoulders

did you know there are roads almost everywhere
did you know I have heard the sound of machinery
every day of my life

I took myself as far as I could go
not very far
just a shady patch of earth
where it was easier not to see 
vehicles crisscrossing the sky

I watched the sweat bees drink
their fill from my salty skin
and that was one grain of yeast
I swam in the drying wind
and that was another

and when a squirrel scolded me for staying too long I left
wondering if my species
was the world’s unwanted guest

then I saw a family in a dusty sedan
stopping to let a turtle cross their path
and their patience was one more grain
and their wide eyes taking in the turtle made two
and the turtle herself 
sticking her neck out into a future 
not even the blind could see 
was a third

and then I had enough grains
for this poem to rise
enough hope to keep plodding
my way through the world

where you also are
and you
and you
and you.