Sunday, December 18, 2011

Casa La Memoria

He walks right up to the table and sits down across from me.  Steam rises from the heaping plate full of rice, beans and chicken before him. He digs in with gusto but stops after the first few bites to take a look at me.

I nod and greet him in Spanish. He nods back.

"I am Sammy", he shouts back in perfect English, and it stops me in my tracks.

We smile and shake hands.  I couldn't help observing the difference: mine, cold and smooth; and his, warm and calloused.

"Thank you for being here.  This is a great place for people like us."

I blush, suddenly not knowing where to put my hands, or my verbs.  So I wait for him to continue.

He takes another few bites.  I ask how long he has been there.

"About two years.  When I first came, I was on drugs, and so sick. I came to die."

I can't quite absorb the gravity of this, watching him chowing down spoonful of rice and beans. His hair stands tall, each strand in the direction of its own choosing, so the plain of his head has the look of a wild fire, or wind blowing through a piny forest.  His skin stretches tightly across his face, and I can see the shapes of his bones on his arms.  But he ate heartily through the gaps of his smiles, looking thin but relatively healthy and happy.

The bench is hard and cold, but the place is clean.   The ceiling is low and gray, but the afternoon sunlight manages to splash through the small windows, painting glimmers of oranges and reds here and there.  The next room is large and white, with a TV in the center and chairs all around, stacked neatly as if soldiers waiting for their next command, or next event.  The pharmacy is around the bend, a small room filled with shelves piled high with medicine, for AIDS.

This is Casa La Memoria, a small hospice on the outskirts of a small town, just outside of Tijuana.  A lone building away from other residence or business clusters, it houses memories and outcasts. A tiny garden and orchard surround the otherwise bare exterior, among a field of gravel and dirt, just steps beyond the unpaved road.  A mist that started this morning has turned into rain, pushing us inside before the customary history and introductory talk could be completed.

"So what happened?" I catch him between bites and smiling at me, so I let go of my next question.

"They gave me meds, and took care of me.  They also brought me back to God, and He saved me. Now I am clean, and alive.  I come here to see these others who are like me, because on the outside, no one understands.  My family loves me, but they don't understand.  They just say okay, okay. They thought I was crazy when I was doing drugs.  I was crazy and I would have sold anything to get high.   But here, everyone understands what it was like, and we talk to each other, and we feel better."

Somehow this sounds universal.  I give him an understanding nod while trying to remember the last time my family "understood".  Before I drift too far, I ask about his family.

"I have five brothers and sisters. We have a big family, two of my brothers live in the US, in California. I visit them sometimes.  But I like it here, I like to go back and forth.  I like to come to this place and talk to everyone, who are nice to me and understands me. My other brother is struggling, he sells used cars, and my sister is trying to finish school while raising two kids. I wish I could help them."

He looks down for a moment, eyes moist.  He wipes them with the back of his bony hand before continuing. 

"But I can work here. I help them cook and sweep the floor or do whatever that's needed. Everyone contributes here.  We know the medicines are very expensive, but we do what we can. "

Earlier the director told us the medicine for each patient can cost up to $2000 a month.  A bargain, for the lives changed in those small dorms inside this tiny building.  All afternoon I hear stories like Sammy's, from Jose, from Juan, and from those young mothers.  Their bodies look beaten and worn, but there is always a glimmer of light in their eyes. Sometimes it is more than a glimmer, like Sam, his eyes bright with hope, reminding me of the storm weathered plants outside, their leaves clean and gleaming with the sparks of rain drops.

I couldn't help but wanting to stay and listen forever.  The rooms are without heat but I hardly feel cold.  We arrived around lunch time yet before we knew it dinner bell has sounded and everyone stood up to help.  Our leader takes a regretful look at the resting sun and rounds us from the various rooms, so we can bid our goodbyes with hugs and reflections.
Pharmacy wall painting: To Live With Dignity

Outside the rain has stopped as we walk to our van.  It's too late for rainbows and too early for stars.  Still I am filled, too the brim, like tears that want to flow, like boxes of pills piled high on shelves, like stories that got told.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


It was almost eight and we were running late as usual. But the need for coffee beckons, so we dashed into the corner shop buzzing with caffeine, sounds and people.

I turned to scan the room as the line looked infinitely long. That's when I spotted him sitting on the bench just behind the line, studying.

I couldn't tell his age exactly but lines crawled across his forehead and around his downcast eyes. His pristine gray pinstripe suit stood out against the rain forest backdrops and the techno colors around him. A large textbook highlighted in a multitude of colors spread out on the tiny table. Large green plugs filling his ears and index cards filled with scribbles balanced by the edge of the table.  Highlighters, used tea bags, glasses and a pocket translator managed to find and fill any remaining spaces. 

The world around him rocked on.  Two teenagers were necking in a nearby booth, legs stretched out so far that they kicked his table occasionally.  The Batista knocked portafilters incessantly against the sink, punctuating the caffeine filled air with stainless steel rhythms and drums. The murmuring crowd sang base in low hums, not swayed by the occasional giggle or sharp exclamations. 

The old man however, devoured words and knowledge as if a soldier fighting in the battleground of time.  My friend urged me to prod him for answers. So I did.

"Excuse me, may I ask what are you studying?"

It took me a few tries to get his attention.  But when I did, he pulled out his ear plugs and smiled at us. He turned the book to show us the cover, explaining it is about "property law".

"Oh, so you are studying real estate?"

"hm, oh no. Law, I am studying for the California bar exam." He said definitively, with a nod to cinch the deal.

"What?"  I still couldn't quite believe my own ears.

"Yes, I am studying to be a lawyer." He nodded again, smiling ear to ear.

"Why?"  I asked without thinking.

"Because I like to learn new things.  I already have six degrees, but learning new things, " He pointed to his head, "keep my brain working well."  He rotated his hands to show the workings of a brain (or anything for that matter), required constant movement.

We pondered over these words, unable to come up with any reply other than "wow."

He read through our puzzled and hesitant expressions and announced the next question on our minds.  "Do you know how old I am?"

We shook our heads.

"I am seventy two years old."  He spread out the fingers of his hands and smiled again, while we stood with our jaws dropped.

He dug into a small black wallet laid next to his translator, and took out his business card.  It said, XXX, medical PHD, among other credentials. 

I looked at his face again, speechless.  Minutes ago, we were questioning whether we were too old "to learn new tricks", commiserating the rapid passage of time while never finding enough of it in the present.

We walked out together in silence, losing interest in our coffee, deep in thoughts.

"Inspiring, wasn't he?"  one of us said.

We blinked and let the night air carry away the thoughts that weighted on us, driving into a world without limit, at least for the moment.


It rained this morning. So I blamed the sky for foiling my plan to go swimming.

It was the kind that looked like translucent threads, fallen haphazardly at an angle.

This reminded me of going swimming in the summer of Beijing when it often rained as we bobbed up and down in the pond.

The rain would land warmly on our cheeks, blur our visions by draping over our lashes, and mess up our strokes as we reached out trying to capture each sparkling drops.

Lou and I would always be the first to run out the house as it gets too hot to do anything else.  We'd hardly have anything with us, save for swim wears and sandals.  Even those we'd kick off as soon as we caught sight of the pond, with its murky waters and concrete edges. Our shoes would be flying and so would we.  Into the water we'd dive, among the thousand other kids already bobbing in the water.

It's a pot too full of dumplings, my mom would always say.  But it never stopped us.

The Wang brothers and Lou's best friends Dash would always follow us, along with Dash's younger sister Four.  She was like, six by then, but she was called four for some reason and it somehow fit.  She always looked like a child, even later on when she went to junior high, then high school.  She had the face of an angel.

Once in the water, Lou would carry her on the shoulder, and swim like a hippo carrying his prize.  I tried to get Dash to carry me, but he'd be reluctant at times.  I wasn't heavy but Dash was shy.  So we each swam on our own.  Lou would challenge him occasionally into a fight, which would mean Four and I attack each other sitting on our respective "rides", while they peddle frantically in the water.  Lou thought this was funny, and he would laugh out loud whenever he couldn't take it any more, tossing Four into the water as he did so.  As Dash dove for Four, I would land in the water, fist punching air or pockets of rain as I went down.

The rain usually drove the other kids away, so we could have the pond all to ourselves.  We would finally be able to swim for real, like holding our breathes for more than four or five strokes.  I couldn't swim that much anyway, but I loved watching Dash and Lou race each other, their arms tan and hair shiny black against the dimple gray surface of the water. Whenever the Wang brothers were around, Dash and Lou would team up to either race them or fight them into the water.  They'd usually win, leaving the brothers ready to "raise the white flag", as they'd say.

Monday, October 24, 2011


She walked in with trepidations. She was an hour and a half late.

But as she strained to conceal the click clack of her heels, she heard nothing. The swooshing sound of her rain coat that used to drive her crazy disappeared too.  She peeked up through her lashes to see eyes staring  toward the front of the classroom where she stood yet no glances stopped, as if she were a drop of dew evaporating in the rising sun.

Sunlight is streaming into the room, casting up glares on the whiteboard.  Steven and Megan who sat in the back corners, stood to close the curtains.   She jolted when she heard the sharp sound of the chain screeching against the rod, as if waking from a dream.  Their faces were blank however, when she tried to smile and wave discreetly in their directions.  Then she saw them smile at each other, and nodded toward a few other students who looked back.  She pinched herself, and winced from the pain.

The drone of the teacher's voice put several heads on the desks. But as she sat on the only remaining seat in the back, she straightened her back to stay alert.  A whisper came into her ears, so she turned around.  It was Zara, who wanted to clarify a question.  Dan was whispering back the answer now, but too far for her to hear.  She hadn't caught the question either.  She felt cold, though she sat directly under the sun, wrapped in a heavy coat.

When she couldn't come up with the answer herself, as she couldn't remember the question, she didn't panic.  Somehow she knew no one would check, no one would sneak a choked laugh like they were doing to Sean as he blurted out staccato phrases of confusion.  She scratched mindlessly on her notepad, too clumsy to draw a real shape, too distracted to write verses, and too afraid to pound on the paper as her heart pound into her chest walls, noiselessly but pounding nonetheless.


Thankful things

1. It has been so long since I wrote anything my fingers were shaking as I clicked on "New Post".  This button of anxiety feels like a comfortable old bike somehow.  I only had ten minutes before the next appointment so apologies in advance for what would surely be a post with more than the usual spelling/grammatical foes.

2. A frantic but life so full leaving me fewer moments to ponder and come up with words, but happy and cheerful nonetheless.

3. Supportive voices from the most unlikely places, making the occasional bad day less gray and damp.

4. Rain.  It may dampen the roads but I love how it makes the leaves out by my window shine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


The trip down was as smooth and easy as a top grade tequila.  Why not?  We sat staring out into a span of ocean as blue and clear as the sky itself.  Our rides were comfortable, companies easy and our hearts open to possibilities of the week.

Rosarito was overcast that day. A band of clouds hang at the far edge of the sea where it met the sky like frost that crawled up the bottoms of car windows overnight, smudging your view.  I wanted to wipe it clean, so I could see the line where everything on earth seems to fall off, into perhaps what should be called a better place, though I would have no way of knowing.

The water seemed more turbulent and the waves more fierce here south of the border.  Were the waves rising as a protest against the housing projects and pellet board houses falling to the wayside and scattered between high rise hotels?  Perhaps not.

The swells danced nonetheless, between the sun and the wind, beckoning the clouds lower and teasing the heels of low flying pelicans, who flirted at the edge of the swells spraying like hair into the wind and rhythms of the dance.

As we stopped, unloaded and walked out onto the hotel garden standing at the edge of the ocean, waves splashed onto rocks beneath, making white fireworks of water exploding on impact.  I let go of my bags along with my thoughts.  Looking out into the mists blurring the edges between heaven and earth, I felt myself hanging at the edges of today and tomorrow, my hands and soul shook in symphony with the splashing rocks.

*  *   *

The group had danced the night away. Music banged on my wall, with chatters jumping in offbeat like broken staccatos.  Aged looking terracotta floors and delicate mosaics on the wall carried the sound well, so I could hear shot glasses slam on the wooden tables and bar chairs being dragged across the floor.  As consciousness returned and dreams faded away, whispers between those still standing traveled through the short hallway between my room and the bar, taunting me with secrets I couldn't quite decipher ceaselessly.

The clock struck at four.

I waited, read and prayed but sleep eluded me.  At the first ray of sun kissing the sky fish belly white, I got up to take a walk outside, bathing in the brisk coolness of morning fresh air.  I walked the grounds from one side to another, then back again, looking for what I wasn't sure.

The ocean was angry.  Gray clouds had taken over as far as I could see, smudged view a new reality erasing memories of blues and gold.  Pelicans lingered, mourning what they still felt was home but buried now, under turmoils of churning foams and breaks without directions.

I decided to return to my room.  That was when I spotted him, crouching between the smallness of a patio chair and table.  His red baseball cap lit up the gray horizon, like the tip of a match, darting only slightly but a presence of warmth nonetheless.  As I walked closer, I saw that he was indeed lighting up something - a cigarette. 

I didn't recognize the tall, lanky figure, even when he waved.  He had told me something earlier, something that took me aback but I waved it away as a inconsequential comment. I was just under the hotel windows and he at the edge of the water, enjoying a morning smoke.  I waved back but walked away, again, thinking he were just another early rising hotel guest enjoying a moment's solitude in the mists.  I wished I had known it was him, but it wasn't to be.  Perhaps I had been out wondering needing someone to talk to, perhaps he was too.  But it wasn't to be.

Later on he was to say goodbye, a shocking surprise, a pause, an earlier exit that expected, due to a move, a change, or a job we weren't sure.  But his earlier comment made sense in the light of the departure, giving context to a gray stroke of smoke dissipating into the wind otherwise.  Was it a clue written in disappearing ink?  Or was it just an air of swirling puff meant to be dismissed?  Regardless it was a sad occasion and he would be missed.  We all wish(ed) that there were time and a chance to know him better, but it wasn't to be.

I couldn't help wondering if we could have talked that morning, I would have found out a bit more.  I could not change what was meant to change, but I still couldn't help wondering, what was it to be.

Monday, September 26, 2011


"I miss him." he said it quietly from the back seat, pulling my heart string with only a tiny slice of voice.

"Wanna call him?"

"I can't.  He is in Russia."


"But I can text him. Can you show me how to text?"

"Sure."  I pulled the contact up into the SMS menu and handed the phone to the boy.  He received it with a focus I wished I could see elsewhere, like in school. 

We sat down to dinner, silently chewing our salad.  School was good, we had already covered that.  Just before the staff came to take our plates, he piped up again.

"I even miss the dog...."


"She always snuggles up right next to me, even though she is so huge and takes up most of the bed."


"Yeah.  I miss the cats too. One fat one and the other one is really skinny."

"What do they do?"

"Well the fat one is really dumb just like our bunny.  She stalks me so whenever I come down the stairs she just follows right next to my feet.  As soon as I stop, she sits next to me. She used to be skinny but she got fat after she had kittens.  She stayed fat even after she stopped milking the kittens. "

I thought better about telling him the correct word was "nursing".   He was on a roll. 

"The other one is exactly the opposite.  He runs around and catches his own food, like birds and stuff."  I winced at this, thinking of the bird lovers who cringe at the sight of house cats left outside, but again I said nothing.  

"But he is still really skinny, too skinny, because you can see his ribs. I remember once I went with you to our vet, and they had a chart that showed what cats looked like if they were too skinny, and they said if the ribs are showing the cat is too skinny.  It should be like you can't see the rib but it's not like a huge chunk of fat..."  He ran his hands against the T-shirt outside of his own ribs as he said this, slightly rounding out his frame to illustrate the perfect feline shape. 

"Is he alright then?"

"I think so.  He eats a lot, we feed him twice a day and when we were gone the neighbors came to take care of him and the fat cat.  He also catches his own food.  But he stays really skinny."

He laughed gently as a thought came to him.

"Oh and before we went to camp, we washed him because he was really dirty.  He really didn't like it but he didn't scratch dad.  When we came back, he was just as dirty as before we washed him."

We both laughed at this, him at the memory of his smelly cat, me at the sight of his first big smile of the day.  Our soups came and went, we munch on brownies from the desert bar and he attacked a baked potato stuffed full of bacon bits. 

"Can you imagine how much I am eating?"  He said with an eye on the bacon potato, not waiting for an answer specifically.   Before I realized it, he was attacking a second one. 

"A bit much don't you think?"  I observed as I watched him dug out all the potato and stuff the skin full of bacon bits again.  

"Oh all right. "  He sprinkled a few bits of potato back on top the way chef Emeril Lagasse does his "bam!"

I let it go, forking my own pasta with enthusiasm. 

"What else do you miss?" 

"Well the skinny tom cat has a girl friend cat that comes over and plays with him sometimes. She's kinda pretty because she has black fur, white belly and white feet."  He raised half of a potato skin stuffed full of bacon to his mouth and took a bite.  "It is probably just a stray cat.  But both dad and I feel bad for the fat cat, because we think she is really lonely and that's why she stalks us.  She has no companion, so sometimes she sits really close to this giant dog and try to play with it."

He started on a plate of mac and cheese, before moving onto his own desert.  As we talked and ate, the afternoon sun had settled behind trees and curtains of night drew all around us.  Sparks of lights shone through the windows, illuminating figures, shops, and allowing us to peer into diners sitting at the tables in other restaurants.  They saw us too.  Sitting by the window, arms drawing imaginary illustrations as we talked, smiles creeping up corners of our mouths, despite a long day of drudgery, things left undone, and people gone missing that pulled on hearts.   Mouth full of sweets, weariness melted as we moved between shadows and sparks of light ourselves.

"I really do miss him so much..."  

Just as quietly as when we came in,  the boy said to no one in particular as we walked out, letting the night air carry a half spoken wish away into a land afar.  Perhaps there is no cure for missing someone, perhaps there is a dream waiting for him tonight, a dream sweeter than all the brownies and ice cream this place can offer up.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The church parking lot was quiet, with a few cars parked here and there next to the sanctuary. I know everyone will arrive soon, so I embrace the few minutes of quiet sitting alone in the car reading. A sense of disconnectedness creep up as I stare out into the void of morning grays.  I let it go, focusing a refreshing sense of peace in corners of my mind.

Sound of cars soon broke through the morning silence.  I step out to see Carina, Lynda and others walking towards the van.  We load boxes of school supplies until the cargo area is filled.  Between loading trips, I pause, and hear the sleepy silence again, mingled in the cool morning air, like chilled 7-up poured over ice.

I can't see the stars right now, and the moon looks pale.  I remember their brilliance, however, on that blacked out night.  They shone against the velvety night sky, as I lay under thick blankets in stretched out lounge chairs by the pool staring back at them, mesmerized.  Trees pitched their branches high, their silhouette menacing, as if in protest of being overshadowed.  But even they softened as my lids grew heavy, turning into dancers posing against a dimly lit set of stage curtains.  Neighborhood block parties went on around us, so we didn't feel completely alone.  But the magic and wonders of a starlit sky outweighed everything that night, pulling me close into an embrace, and only letting me go on a tether of silvery light.  To eyes and hearts that are open, something magnificent appeared that night, with more brilliance than all the power combined from all the generators on our tiny blue planet.

350 backpacks for 350 children - fishes and loaves
"Can we join hands?"  Marjolene asked as we finish loading both the cargo and our own supplies for the day.  We comply in a circle and listened to the lyrical prayer bounce off the gray world of concrete and stucco, catching light and fanning out a rainbow of possibilities.  The day ahead is long and filled with dry heat, but I know I will sprinkle everything with tears that cool my scorching face.  I will douse doubts and complaints in my heart with smiles of gratification seeing children lined up to receive their fall school supplies.  I remember their faces from past trips, but I never tire of seeing them again.  Their joy, always abundant and unabashed, never fails to spill over onto me, in songs and claps, in whispers and hugs, in simple words and big smiles, like seven up poured over ice, buzzing with thirst quenching explosions.

So it was with anticipation and excitement we finally set off into the direction of Centro Shalom Mexico.  The road will be bumpy, but all I see are sweet smiles of success, already.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I don't remember his fist, but I remember the fall.

The back of my head stung, like a hammer was ramming through it.  I tried to force open my eyes but only tiny silvery stars leaped into view. The rest of the world was a blur.  I strained to hear the sound of a baby crying, mine, in the background.  It was far and fading as if someone was carrying him away, closing him behind doors of distance, and of barrier.

"So this is what it fells like,"  I said to myself.

I heard a punch then, not at me but into the wall. The crunch and crumble of plaster and whatever lay behind its once pristine surface, surrendering a fabricated wholeness to the weight and velocity of  assault.  I knew just how it felt.

I needed to see what it looked like. I squinted to keep the stars from buzzing, and saw pink insulation protruding from a jagged hole. Brown and gray construction materials reached out like a wrangled head of hair pouring down from a dark, lifeless and empty head.

Like a tired old man crying, without tears. 

I strained to listen again, sounds of an animal huffing and puffing, wild, crazed and seething. Blood rushed in my ears like an ocean or the sound of a first winter rain. I wanted to run but my legs wouldn't move.  Shards of something broken scattered about me, like fallen pedals but they had sharp edges that looked biting.  Were they my prized collections of blue and white china? I wondered if I had returned to a childhood dream where I needed to reach for something but my legs wouldn't carry me.  I tried to scream but no sound came. Everything around me seemed gray, thick and unmoving, gelling me in place, like in a dream. 

A dream that belonged to the night, happening in a sunny afternoon, in my sand colored living room outfitted with cream sofa and scallop patterned curtains.  The ocean room designed for waves of laughter and tides of gatherings, "for generations to come", one relative had said.  I had believed her, along with that promise of "for better or for worse, ... ".

It took forever, but my elbows finally worked, propping up a leaf like body shaking with fear. My head moved though a hangover like pain blinded me once more.  I couldn't speak, didn't want to. When my belief of harmony finally crashed like a tidal wave, over and through me, it left no words behind in the ghost town of my chest.

I moved, finally, like a shadow.  The shadow and the shape of a lost animal.  I crouched; I crawled, towards the ever fainting sound of that cry.  Was it upstairs? I wanted to be there, I needed to be there, to hold that small bundle of warmth and life and to know that it wouldn't go through me like the rest of the world just did. 

I limped up, turning to tell him to "get out", baring my teeth as I said the words.  I came to the stairs and climbed along the railings to stand. Not for long, before I fell, then stood again.  I stood and watched him leave, watching like a hawk, eyes blazing, lips dripping with something salty and thick.  I stood silent and still, not daring a move, lest I fell again, until his shadows retreated beyond the line of my sight.

-- A Few Thankful Things --
  •  A dear friend who called, after a travel excursion and telling me all about her thoughts and we share laughter and understanding.
  • Study groups, for better or for worse.
  • Beauty all around me, too many to list.  Physical, emotional, spiritual, amazes me every minute of every day.
  • Recovery, from everyday falls, from small mistakes, to reach peace slowly but surely.

Finally, another question.   Does the below ending work?  Or is it unnecessary?  Why or why not?

At the sound of the door clicking close, I collapsed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dear You

(A post via Melee.)
Dear You,

You kissed me behind the bushes after the dance.  You made me blush when you whispered words into my ear that no one could hear.  The music was blasting through the windows, so I hoped you couldn't see that I shook with the leaves as if taken up by the rhythm of the night.

I didn't care when you started another song with another girl. After all, only a short while ago I was her, swept into your long arms and carried away by your swift steps.  When your eyes shone on me, the dingy low ceiling and the dim yellow lights hanging just above us disappeared.  Smoke shrouded sweaty bodies turned into angelic shadows, and a stary robe of midnight blue fell over us we twirled.  I thought it would last forever, though forever turned out sooner. 

Why did you call me?  Why did you write?  Why will you not let me forget?   I can't tell.  But when I blinked that night from the stars that fell onto my face, turned into water and tears, I woke up.  

So let me be.  I had a nice dream, and that is where you will stay.  

Now to pass it on - to anyone who is interested, I ask you to write a letter to whoever about whatever. It must begin with "Dear you" and you can only use pronouns. 

Thank you Melee for tagging me with this post, I thought you did a fantastic job with your letter. I've definitely enjoyed reading your stories and thoughts, I hope a few others who visits here would too.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Galaxy Walk

She stepped through galaxies
stringing together
stars and dusts
a necklace of time
and space

she left behind
axles of normalcy
hoping towards a place
of dreams
flights of fancy
vaguely remembering
days of cookies
and lace

but she woke up
from warm showers
of rainfall
musky mists
of earth
and desire
spread through
midnight air

a million years
from tomorrow,
she will learn
the dance
between stars, space
and land
shedding another layer
of thorns and tears
finding center
between a slow cooked
of peanut butter
and jelly sandwich

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teaspoons From Korea

I have eight teaspoons from Korea.

They are about a quarter of the size of a regular teaspoon each. Along the silver handle,  a pale rose grace the surface of porcelain, and a rose colored crystal tops it all.

They don't fit in with the rest of my chunky stoneware kitchen collections. This reminds me of my first day at school.

I had not anticipated attention.  But as soon as I walked in, eyes fell onto me and stayed there. One chubby boy ran up to me and pointed to my face, exclaiming:

"Look, her face is so weird!"

Several other children walked up and looked from above, below, sideways and behind to examine the shape of my head, the texture of my hair and the strange shape of my cheek bones.

"Stop. Stop it. There, there is nothing wrong with my face..."

I tried to tell them. But they talked fast. Eventually the teacher stepped in and class began. I heard them whisper behind me, as I sat in the front row. Then finally when the teacher turned, the boy behind me told me he had saw my file earlier in the teacher's office and knew that I was not a "Han" like the rest of them.

No, I am Korean.

It was a dreaded word for me. I knew no one outside of my family who had to walk around wearing that label, looking and feeling different, and having it constantly pointed out to you.  My parents didn't seem to mind, but they spoke Korean only to each other and never in front of outsiders. 

So I stumbled into a new world hoping to hide yet made a big reveal of my identity on, what else but the first day, and it stuck with me since.  I did not complain.  I knew better.  They ran off without me at recess and then after school, though I called behind them and told them I too would have loved to join in their rope jumping or ball tossing.  I watched their brand new skirts fly as they leaped, filling the playground with songs and colors.  I walked away in my too big green army pants (my brother) Lou had worn down to the last shreds two years ago but mom had patched up nonetheless for me to wear just another year.

I wanted to ask mom what did it mean to be Korean.  For example, did they also pickle six large stone jars of cabbages with oceans of garlic, ginger and spicy pepper flakes?  Did they eat nothing else with their rice all winter unless their relatives from the north brought fluffy white potatoes that melted in your mouth?

I didn't ask because I knew the answer.  I remembered how Yan from two doors down from us taunted me with her cakes. Fluffy, white, thick with sculpted layers of cream that touched her nose when she bit into it.  I had not even seen a cake like that let alone tasted it so I watched her carefully, deciphering the faint variation in colors between layers.  As I licked my lips, I tried to taste and feel the way those brand new words "vanilla and cream" rolled in my mouth.  My favorite past time until then was melting sugar into hot water and sipping the concoction slowly but it all ended that day.

So when I first arrived in Seoul, pocket flush with cash and friends in tow, twenty somewhat years later, I could hardly contain my excitement.  Rumors about this whole country (or two) that bared the same label as I did had been flooding my ears since I first arrived in America ten years ago.   I had met people.  They looked like me, with the same pale round faces, high cheek bones and strange hairlines that baffled the Chinese.  I almost believed in the legends of a proud country existed full of Koreans then but I still had doubts.  I wanted to see it all for myself.

Naturally I headed to a department store.  Shopaholic tendencies aside, I had to spend some time there alone while my friends, whose family lived in town, took care of errands.  Amongst eighty billion things, I spotted the spoons and fell in love.

They had belonged to a whole kitchen set, pots, pans, dishes, bowls. Each bore the elegant silver and porcelain design, with the signature dusty rose, so faint it's barely there, tying the one hundred and eight pieces of utensils together. 

As it would be impossible otherwise, I picked the tiniest ones out of the sets and decided to take them home with me.  But I couldn't, as the clerk didn't speak English, and I no Korean beyond restaurant lingo.  She stood shaking her head, then her hand, bowing intermittently in between, smiling, yet not budging.  I stood nodding, trying to speak, failing, repeat for an hour.  Then I burst into tears, crying.

Naturally she turned and left.

So I stood holding my first authentic piece of Korean memory, watching it come so close yet stayed so far away, like those childhood jump ropes, flying close, then looping away, never quite reaching me.  I looked around the crowded shopping arcade, pressed amongst my own people for the first time, utterly alone.

"Are you okay?"

My head buried between my arms, I had nearly drifted into an exhausted nap.  The voice jolted me back down to earth. I opened my eyes to find a strange face, staring down into me.  He wasn't tall, but had a reassuring build.  His face was kind, almost familiar, but not quite recognizable.  It occurred to me he looked rather Chinese, then I realized he was speaking Chinese.

"Oh, I am fine. I just, tried to buy something..., but I couldn't."

Saying it out loud reminded me of my failures, so tears came up again, salty and sore. I blinked hard and took a deep breath so I could stuff everything back down again.

"Maybe I can help you.  What did you want to buy?"

I told him my story, a condensed version of how I fell for the unobtainable spoons, minus the childhood trauma.  He smiled easily and walked with me to the counter, uttered phrases in Korean I could not hope to catch, except for a few (overly redundant to my Chinese part of the brain) "please", "honored", "thank you, thank you and thank you"s. 

My spoons in hand, I thanked the stranger for his help. He smiled and shook his hands as if saying "it's nothing" before walking away into the crowd.  Or was he waving me goodbye? He reminded me of someone, but I couldn't think of whom.  Later I reckoned he was one of the increasing number of Chinese immigrant who worked in Korea while sending money back home to their families.  I so reckoned because it had become a new and popular trend then,  given the economic and job market disparities. But I didn't have time to ask.

My spoons now sit between my chunky coffee mugs and even chunkier dishes. They are far too delicate for their American set mates, frail and breakable, so overtly decorative and not microwave or dishwasher or the other thousand appliances for which they should be safe but are not, but that's OK.  They fit, as they sit in my mornings stirring up sugar in hot water, making memories old and new, sweeter.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time Runs Through

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street

She cuts open the belly
of night
finding a yellow ribbon
of dreams
kissing the sky high
weary walls white
like a bride

though neither sun nor moon
joins in her game
she invites time and his shadow
standing in the corner
of ancient and anew
her hair dances
her steps flew

so why hide
brimming tears of gold
songs of blue
rolling into laughter
magical carpet unfold
until tremble subsides
time passes through

* This poem is part of the dVersePoet's art challenge prompt. Photo credits as listed in the caption.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


"Now we wait ..."  He stretched away from his tray, a crumb or two of chocolate reminiscent of the tiny wedge of cake slice I served him earlier.  The cake came from a local bakery, overstocked goods from previous days.

"Wait..." I chewed on this, weighing the possibilities. Not having time to think, fearing that he would see through my panic and nervousness, I grasped for words.  "Wait for..., what's next?"

"Next?  Next thing is the night."

"Oh? What happens at night?"

"It gets dark."

I peered outside through the small windows.  A layer of yellow crust and gray dust had taken up long term residence over the glass panes, but I could still see the early evening light.  It was only seven, still a long way from darkness.  But I felt the characteristic desert night chill, suddenly.


"We sleep out there, on the streets."  His chin lifted toward the double door, through which others had walked out with as much ease as they did walking in, filling this hall a short thirty or thirty five minutes ago.  It was empty now.  The benches and tables laid bare for the first time tonight. I had walked amongst them earlier, tripping over backpacks, shopping sacks, and worn blankets.  Their overdressed owners, layering four seasons of clothing on their backs, indulged me in small talks while waiting patiently for their food.

I bit my lips and bowed my head low.  I despised myself then, my spotless clothes, my almost new car parked outside, my warm, small and messy home, a short ride away.  Most of all, I hated not having the right words.

His voice rose.  "I was doing great. I had gotten my certificates. I can weld, make pottery and...," he paused, making sure I was listening, I held my breath, nodding like one of those toy dolls people place on the dash board of their cars. 

"..., I taught martial arts.  I have skills, this just isn't my time. But, my time will come."

He almost leaped, as if catching himself. A black backpack tossed over his shoulder with one hand, and the empty tray in the other, he walked towards the cleanup line.  I stood to walk with him, offering to take his tray, but he shook me away. His eyes flashed at me, young, intelligent, dark, proud, deep, spirited eyes.  I felt small as a child, walking next to his wiry athletic frame. I surrendered my hands high and stepped aside.

-- Ending #1

As lines shortened and voices subsided, I traced his steps out the door with my eyes, trying hard to distinguish his all black ensemble from the shadows cast by the dimming light of dusk.  His words lingered in those shadows, moving into a daydream, where I watched him lay down on the concrete, shivering in the desert night.

-- Ending #2

The clinks of trays getting cleaned in the kitchen continued, through the night. They walked in, they walked out, leaving stories that stirred me, all night.

Which ending do you prefer?  Would you mind helping me decide?
(*This is a true story, and both endings are real as far as my memory holds)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Last night's moon
stumbled across tree tops
not caring
whose hair she ruffled
intoxicated by that
first cup of dawn

This morning's sun
rained down my sleeves
letting me splash
in sorrows of loss
as well as
of existence.

Question:  Can you give this poem a title?  Please leave your suggestion in the comment?

* update:  Thank you Claudia for picking a beautiful title for this poem. Thank you everyone for all your suggestions. They were each wonderful and inspiring but I could only pick one. 

Sunshine that looked like rain*

- A few thankful things:

1. Friends who thought of me, and brought me what I needed.
2. Connecting with people around the world, one fragment at a time.
3. Cooking trout for the first time, ginger and soy style.
4. Listening to songs of praise, sorrow and joy.
5. Tomatoes and peppers thriving and bearing fruit in the heat.
6. Splashing in the waves.
7. Coffee anytime, warm or iced, golden or black, over a balcony or at a seaside bench.

* No that is not my house. Though I am thankful for my small apartment farther from the ocean.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Molly, Tiber and I gathered here everyday on our way home from the Ginger Root High.  Our dorm rooms would sit empty for now, the first few weeks of school, the longings for home pulled us back like stretched out elastics as soon as the bell rang. 

We wound our bikes along the narrow and bumpy dirt road leading to the train tracks. Overgrowth nearly blocked our views, green tendrils and soft branches stretched into each other and upwards into the sky.  A bit further out of the way of the path, ash, birch and eucalyptus trees stood as anchors for the masses of butterfly bushes, wild hibiscuses and thistles.   At the last turn, we could finally see that a shallow cluster of pebbles formed a ramp to the tracks, allowing our bikes to ride up to and past the metal rails.  Branches and twigs brushed our hair as we rode, tickling our skin. Mosquitoes and flies swarmed some days.  We longed for rain when everything smelled fresh, though dreaded the aftermath of more insects collecting in the puddles forming all about.

That afternoon Tiber led the way.  Molly followed in the middle and I dragged behind.  I had lots on my mind.  Molly and Tiber shared a kiss after dropping me off last night, as my home was the first on our ways.  When Molly shared her secret with me,  I froze on the spot not knowing what to say. Tiber had been asking her to "go out" for days now, and she finally said yes, sealing her answer with a kiss. Her eyes flashed, her face blushing, a smile stretched as far as the corner of her mouth would go.  I stared at her in disbelief, this quiet and shy person I knew transformed into a vixen right before my eyes. I reckoned, at that moment, that I was jealous.  I wasn't in love with Tiber, but I wanted to be in love with someone, and to have that kind of a smile on my face. The kind of smile even the armies of the First Emperor of China could not defeat or remove.

The scream pierced the drums of my ears.  It sounded like a girl but it was from Tiber. He turned to us with eyes bulging and face contorted, colorless against a dark background of dirt, rocks and greens.  Molly and I pedaled closer, then jumped off of our seats. We turned to each other.  I could see Molly's mouth wide open, but no longer dripping happiness but horror. I looked beyond her to Tiber and saw blood against the palest colored flesh.

Tiber was standing next to the rails, next to the girl laying across it.  Blood covered her green summer dress, and the grass growing next to her on the track.  It was a moment of complete stillness, a second that lasted a lifetime.  Rocks, wooden planks, bare legs, blood soaked fingers, all took on a life in telling me a story I had no way of knowing, or wanted to know.  Before I could blink, sound erupted out of the still space like someone had turned off life's mute button.  I looked up and realized people were running towards us, screaming in confused curses. Soon we were pushed aside by the crushing onslaught, some uniformed, many not.  Molly and I landed outside the thick circle of onlookers forming around the body, hugging our bicycle handlebars but not each other.

Momentarily, we were separated from Tiber, and from the smell of terror, death and defeat. We stopped stretching our necks after a while.  Instead, we walked backwards toward the other side of the road, where it was brighter, quieter and sat down.  We sat down next to each other, shivering in the late summer heat, waiting for life to come back to us, unchanged.

  I've decided to add this section as of today. I'm hoping it'd be a regular feature.

A few thankful things:

* The boy's recovery from a painful stomach flu.
* Having something to look forward to next week.  More beach time.
* Quiet early morning hours of cool air and playing with bunny.
* Non stop chattering of the boy marking the return of a healthy spirit.
* Being where I am, who I am, who I am with, this hour, this day.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Few Thanks...

* Having had time to write, edit or daydream, with bunny purring happily in my lap, or nearby.

* Made my first visit to a very old local mission - "God's extended hand", and met some amazing people. Their stories stay with me long after my return.

* Good friends got together to celebrate poolside, with grilled chicken and sweet rice.  Heat allowed all the girls to wear skirts that bloomed into the light breeze.  Tears and laughter of joy over the past year's trials and how they helped reveal supportive hands from everywhere, strong arms that held each other up as we walked through this and that.

* A group of writing minds met finally for some discussions.  The critiques are so spot on while respectful, sparks of creativity flew.

* Family near and afar, on my mind.

* The boy makes a safe and joyous return from a week long trip away, browner and chirpier than ever. We eat sushi and watch "the Flying Deuces" together, stopping every so often to chuckle or chat about his experience of the week.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dream Catcher

The boy just got home, and he sleeps.  It is early in the morning, so the sound of my neighbor Michael sweeping his patio comes across the walkway, but not much else.  The house hums in the tune of an ancient clunker refrigerator, interspersed by occasional crunches of bunny nibbling on grass.  Later I hear the soft clicking of her teeth, a sign of utter contentment. 

Traffic, like a gushing river infused by snow, plays out in the background. I have to concentrate to hear it though. Birds tweet here and there, but mostly they fuss over other agendas.  I don't hear the soothing tides of ocean rush onto the beach and retreat with piles of sand on their toes, not from here, a bit too far and removed.  But I hear the leaves whisper, and wind chimes clink. There are no ruckus in this hour except those going on in my head, the battle against stillness, the inability to rest, mingled with whirlpools of doubts.

No matter the time of his return, he sleeps for hours or days before life can begin again.  I've outgrown my angst, pleads and tacit maneuvers to speed up the process.  It's small wonders I don't pull on my cucumber seedlings to promote their growth, seeing as how I manage life. 

When stillness reigns, as it does now, my mind races in chariots of imaginations.  Usually victory eludes me, and eventually I learn to invite peace and relish in rest.  I make a pot of coffee and retrieve the golden biscuits a friend made for me.  I take out a pen, turn to an unspoiled new page in my notebook, and begin scribbling. All is quiet and soft about me, buttery cookies melting in my mouth, sweet and tangy as life itself.

Perhaps blessings seldom live far away, but I want to look beyond the oceans that I can't hear or see, run after those elusive challenges, wander into the unknown horizon.    Weariness always brings me back, from bubbles of dreams bursting and imaginary ghosts fading, so I can finally see the fruit of contentment sitting at my doorsteps waiting. 

I know now as ever, that tomorrow I will forget and allow the call of the chase to stir me all over again.  But I linger in a moment of now, teeth clicking.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lava and Ice

PhotoBy: Rosie Hardy

Black lava erupts
white flames of rats
bent tails of deceit
foam over charcoal, caramel and ice
why frozen blue stares
are those secrets not nice

Once fairy helpers
pumpkin carriages ride
magic covered ashes
cinder secret bequeath
princess twirling in clouds
music fades at midnight
bewitched dusts settles
soon as the hour strike

Dawn dances of shadows
repaint every faces
white sighs beseech
rising sash of smoke
crimson drops of envy
guarding entrance to my door
my prince can't follow
chimney my new fellow

to dust shall I return
in wanders of sorrow
thirsty from kisses
icy blue tears
weaving strands of charcoal
fabric of wayward tales

Scattered glass slippers
remaining white hat of rat
gowns of mists
chariot of past
gentle prodding of love
surrendering hours of wait
for white horse hooves
pounding basement of my heart
surviving rains of lava
til white light reigns

* Note: This was written in response to a photo prompt challenge posted at one stop poetry.

The photo above is by the incredibly talented photographer: Rosie Hardy. Her contact info:

Twitter: @rosie_hardy
Client Website:

Initial Draft (I wrote below initial revision rather quickly, thinking in the realm of #micropoetry. Then I read dustus's entry, and realized I have a bit more room to maneuver and potentially tell a story.  So I thought about the white mice who drove Cinderella's carriage and wrote the second revision above. I kept the original here as it pertains to the first few comments posted:

Black lava erupts
white flames of rats
bent tails of deceit
foam over charcoal, caramel and ice

why frozen blue eyes
are your secrets not nice
begging for forgiveness
or pleading new shine

claws of the lenses
locked you behind frames
tossing away keys
so solidly your stories sealed

thirsty from kisses
gentle prodding of love
surviving rains of pests
until white light reigns

If you don't mind, please feel free to tell me which revision appeals more to you? I am new to this so would love some input. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Family Love

[ T ]
Rebecca said goodbye to her job in May. They had wanted to keep her as long as possible. So she stayed through three reduction in forces and several division shutdowns. When the main office finally closed too, she was asked to stay six more month to "help clean up the aftermath".  They knew as I do, that she was one of the most dependable person out there.

She said goodbye to her down payment when the new condo her bought continued to leak water from the day she inspected it to the day she finally left. A dream of living downtown, and perhaps a more carefree life, gone down the drain.

She said goodbye to us, her so called friends, who told her that "we'd be there for her", then wasn't. Life has a way of working itself out, we'd told ourselves as we watched her life spiral.  Or some such nonsense. She hugged us goodbye and we her, waving away the shadows of regrets weighing down her car and our hearts.


[ Rebecca ]
I came up here to see family -- my family and the pea sized town where I grew up.  The oceans of green here replaced the myriad of sandy brown and steel blue down south. I love it. When I crossed the Washington state line, I wanted to hug the moss growing up redwoods, the needles quietly falling, and the flash of wings leaving trails of songs above.

My sister Stella took me in, though Dad and Sally also offered.  Stella has a four bedroom, for her and two kids from dads that never appeared, so that was a no-brainer.  People say we look like twins.  I offered to cook for her, seeing as she worked all week as an RN and, sigh, stayed in bed sleeping or crying most of the other times. 

Stella came home one day, and saw me got all my cooking going. I had let my friends talk me into starting a food blog recently, seeing how popular those photos of my cooking had become on facebook.  I had planned a fantastic menu for them that night. I got pots and pans on all the burners, dishes spread across the counter.  Fire licked one pot boiling, and sizzled the other one brown.

"What are you doing?"  Stella said with a scowl.
"Cooking"   I said, in my matter-of-fact face.
"Why do you use so many dishes?"
"I need them."

I mean I didn't know what else to say.  I kept on cooking. Just yesterday after spending all day in bed, she announced to no one in particular that she was the only one who ever cleaned up. What a lie! I thought to myself.  I stabbed at the browning pieces of stakes to make sure they stayed in the pan. No telling if this upside down house would turn the food out to take a bite of me. 

"I will wash them." I said, finally. 

She scrunched her face even more, and kept on telling me she usually just used two or three dishes.  So I kept punching holes through the potatoes instead, waiting for her to finally stop.

It didn't even occur to me to confront her.  How could I?  It'd get ugly.  She'd tear open the buckle keeping her mouth pressed and pour out the venom reserved only for her kids.  Her anger.  Her poor boys, the sweetie in kindergarten, the moody teen in high school.  Oh, no, not now when I felt so sick like I could burst into flames from this crazy itch all over me, when I didn't have a plan, a job or anywhere else to rest. 

No, not even then when I do.  She took anti-depressants, then washed it down with her beer, sometimes.  I don't know what that's like for her, but this had gone on for as long as I could remember.  I wished for the thousandth time she got it together already.

No, perhaps never will I confront her. 

[ T ]
Rebecca called me from a payphone. She had ran out of money to keep her mobile.  When I invited her for a visit last month, she had debated that against snow tires.  I was glad to hear snow tires won, though I'd missed her.

Her voice sounded shaky, like somebody had done a job on her.  I've seen her explain things for the dozenth time until someone who should have gotten it the first time gets it, without even a tinge of frustration in her.   But whoever it was took her calm this time.  That coolness, that matter-of-fact-tone, gone.  

"She's crazy!"
"My sister!"
"Oh. What did she do?"

She gave me a run down, except she didn't.  She shook into the phone and I could feel the vibration of her, full of shock, disbelief and a soft wail hanging just on the edge of her voice.  But I only learned that she had moved out and not much else.  After so many exclamations, she faded and only whispered an occasional um or uh, as I deliver my "it's-okay's and I-am-sorry-to-hear-that"s.  Useless words, the only thing I could send across an off-and-on, in-and-out telephone line.   We both took a pause and let the idle buzz talk us into believing calm, prayers and hope.  Then she told me she had lupus, and her uncle Billy had cancer.  He was dying.  She'd have to take a trip to see him in Texas after all.

I couldn't tell if she needed to cry, and whether I should have helped her along.  I did what came instinctively, what every cowardly so called friend would do, I talked her out of it.  Crying that is.  Hiding behind the same faint hope of 'things will work out eventually', hiding behind the cause of comforting someone you really didn't know how to comfort, I whispered those tears dry. 

"The stress of everything is just getting to me, I think I just need to get out, T."  
"Nothing wrong with that..., and family is tough. " I concluded, reflecting those little things that I couldn't quite name but got under my skin every time.  A thought came to me then, and I had to ask her.

"Do you still love her, as a sister?"

I didn't hear anything for so long I checked to make sure she was still there.  Then her voice came up again.

"Do I love her?
Do I hate her?
Just indifference."

Note: I am incredibly lucky to have a friend who cares about my writing almost as much as I do.  She shared her story with me and agreed to let me interview her for further details.  All the names had been changed to protect identities.  Otherwise events are written to the best knowledge and recollection of the protagonist and to some extent, the author.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

California Gold

California is known for healthy living and ...well, plastic surgeries.  But as we came to the gate of the annual summer fair,  along with other potential weaponry of mass destruction, we chucked our notions of natural or artificial beauty into the waste buckets.  We walked into a dusty patch of land by the ocean but smells like the barnyard looking for deep fried everything.   Bacon, brownies, funnel cakes, Oreo cookies, ice cream, you name it.  Into the thick batter they went and out of the fryers they came triple sized, grease dripping, and artery clogging facts forgotten by the eager fair goers. The threat of throwing up on rides afterward seemed to only heighten the excitement.

This wasn't the place for yoga mamas who pack on a pharmacy of vitamins, supplements or allergy medications every time they lift off from home central.  Dusts mixed with sweat, rancid perfume with jalapeno sauce took over from avocado cucumber facial cream and aroma therapy scented candles. High heels, make up or anything delicate would have looked as out of place as a lipstick wearing pig flying over the white house or capital hills.  Not that there would be anything wrong with that as we learned from election campaigns and candidate debates.

We stopped trying to look beyond the sea of people or to part it, riding the tides that pushed us forward passing islands of stalls instead.  Once we gleamed onto the promised land flowing with food and drinks we exited following the pillars of smoke and others who looked hungry. We ordered a plate of deep fried Oreo cookies each the size of my fist, cobs of corn, gallons of lemonade, and barbecued turkey legs fit for Goliath to swing as baseball bats.  We rested our tired legs and chatted about politics and the state of economy, taxes buckets and national debt ceilings, in case the record heat and the abundance of grease haven't completely clogged our minds and shorted our circuits. 
Foot long hot dogs and sides of pork

The six o'clock sun dove towards the ocean through the thick curtain of fog floating just above, soon getting all red in the face like an overinflated balloon.  Silhouettes of palm trees and the Ferris wheel reached high enough into the deepening blue sky you could feel they leaned over you for a peek at all the excitement and yelling.   Shadows formed and air cooled when we found a courtyard with less people and more music, coming from impromptu stages.  The band was on maximum volumes and it felt good, as if balancing the excess from everywhere else, while setting up contrast in excessive beauty.  The last golden ray of the sun reached the lead singer's tender face, full of dream and longing, dotted with tattoos and piercings, contorted one minute, still another, like morning dew smoothing onto the inexplicable wrinkles of a young leaf.  She stepped to the microphone, breathing life into chrome and steel. Behind her, the guitarists draped in tattered jeans, spiked hair and tattoos leaped across the stage drumming out chords that transcended differences.

People slowly poured into the courtyard and as they did they paused to listen, to lock eyes with music and to respond and connect. Besides me a dark skinned young mom held the hands of her curly haired toddler, belting out tunes of her own. Next to her a group of beefy college kids swayed with music under their backward baseball caps while giving each other imperceptible nods. Even further a subdued Asian family let it loose, clapping and moving to the rhythm.  Everywhere I saw worried faces like my own and carefree faces I once knew. I saw the skinny, the curvy, the misfit, the entitled, the beautifully scarred and the delicately strong.  Their faces shone from the evening light and perhaps also the grease in the air, their bodies sang, their voices danced, they are the real people of California.

If there could be an instant, a moment in time, when you are simultaneously hopeless and proud, happy in sorrows, empty yet filled, leaping while standing still, I found it then as I thought about beer, bathrooms, jobs, bills, loneliness, faith, joy, but most of all people.  A salty sea breeze came and waltzed with night blooming flowers hanging over the edges of balconies above the stage.  Wind rustled up leaves and carried over fits of laughter and screams from those on the rides, while everything began to take on shades of gold, amber or chocolate.  The sun dipped further into the now nearly navy blue pacific for her evening splash, taking an early but glamorous leave.

The rest of us stayed.  We moved to the music, moment by moment, tearing free from shadows and thoughts.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Coffee Stop

I sat at the sunny window of Starbucks, cradling my drink, looking out the window absently, and scribbling a note or two with only half a heart. 

Sunlight splashed onto the fountain just outside on the platform, where people gathered and then scattered, like tides of the ocean. A young boy and his little sister raced towards their dad, who leaned against the fountain pouring into his phone, his children’s voice washing over him without effect.  The chased each other some more, the girls hair flew up, like dark curly bubbles riding with wind and waves. After a while, they sat down to devour a coffee cake, snuggling close against dad. The girl’s feet dangling from the edge of the fountain, her ballet slipper, silvery and sparkly, dangling from her feet.

Soon the young family left, leaving the fountain flowing yet empty. The pristine base caught the light, remembering that lone silver slipper dangling from the girl’s toes.  Lives came and went all around it, dangling also, frail and soft, empty vessels, suspended until a spark of light hits so they too, could shine.

Monday, June 27, 2011


I stood against the railing and looked out the window. Clouds scattered across the night sky like cotton stretched thin so mom could stuff them into my lightweight quilts. Were there any stars that blinked? I must have looked but couldn’t find them or the face of the moon, knowing it’d be as soft, distant and beautiful as mom’s face at home.

I had just turned three, and said goodbye to grandma who was watching me when mom and dad worked. She missed her home in the north where ice covered everything outside but her heated brick platform bed made the rooms cozy all winter long. So dad put me on his bicycle this morning, tucking me close, yet pedaling us farther and farther from home. When he told me goodbye, grabbing my fingers and swinging them this way and that, I didn’t understand what he meant by “picking me up Friday”. It was only Monday then, even I knew Friday would be many days away and what about nights? Did the teacher shush me quiet and put me to bed, after dad left? I fell asleep uneasily, missing the sound of our kettle whistling softly on the coal burning stove, missing my brother Lou’s clumsy attempts to make me laugh, and missing the lamp lights that peeked through the curtains of my lashes while mom and dad turned their pages quietly from their desk.

A tear escaped before I realized it. I knew no one would see me but somehow it made no difference. I had woken up earlier from a bad dream, so I reached out for mom’s warm shoulders and soothing steady breath but found nothing. The slats on the railings bit my hand instead, reminding me that I was in one of the beds at the Garden of Children’s Weekly Care Center.

The room was so large I couldn’t take it all in, a forest of beds with tall railings standing guards. Were there twenty children sleeping through the quiet of the night on their own? Thirty? Fifty? I felt the presence of others, an occasional cough, a soft wail, but I was alone in my jail of thick slats and stiff sheets. The soft wood on the bed frame gave under the pressure of my nails, crescent marks of smiles and frowns. I had no recollection of this but mom later told me nail marks covered my bed there, a thousand tiny exclamations and question marks. After a while I must have gotten tired and sat down to rest my legs, eventually collapsing down to my side waiting for my eyes to shut.

Moonlight finally wandered through patches of clouds and sneaked around curtains to keep me company. Except it cast shadows that moved, so I turned and buried my face into my palms, willing and waiting for this to end, like the footsteps that went away, the cough that quieted, the dream I had woken from.

I waited, for an eternity, for dad to come pick me up, somehow.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


It's one of those shops with a quaint old name -- "The Bookends" or something like that.  Between its creaky old floors and forest of shelves, I walked slowly with purpose, lest I disturbed the elfin atmosphere floating about like mists.  Pulling a shadowy spine towards me, I half expected to have to blow off dusts from its yellowing pages.  If an elf materialized from his perch atop a shelf and winked, I might just smiled and said hello.  I knew better; it's how I loved walking in here feeling like I'd stepped into another century.   

The coffee shop next door sells freshly made cookies, muffins and magic bars besides freshly brewed coffee with aromas that filled the two story building of shops. A  half door opened to the bookstore in a way that made you remember sweet fragrances between pages, bites or sips whenever either name comes up in conversation. 

The Bookends (let's call it that for now) had never been so crowded as to be deemed "popular".  But gatherings such as book groups prospered here once, after the owner removed or relocated a number of shelves to make room for a large wooden table and straight backed chairs.  So I'd see advertisements about various kinds of word lovers meetings. When I walked in, I'd hear hushed whispers shielded by the stacks. They huddled under a pool of light drinking in kindred spirits and warm mugs of java.  I imagined it attracted the lofty literary types, seeing as how they stocked rather unique books like "The Prospector".  But I also encountered several gatherings of youngsters carrying tattered books and even more tattered laptops. They grew particularly popular after the entire wall bordering the coffee shop was removed and in its place several inviting tables stained in walnut moved in. 

Only later on did I realize the owners did these to strive against their online competitions, where within seconds desires could be fulfilled with sparks of electrons gathered behind the screens and amongst wires.  Some said elves hid there too.  The fight seemed universal and failing as I soon heard the news of 200 plus store closures from Borders and grieved.  I loved my online alternatives yet I'd never wanted to part with the real stores, like the one overlooking San Francisco's Union Square.  I rested hopes in the Bookend's clever strategy of supporting author signings, writing workshops, and book readings, rejoiced over its choice location near the beach, in a busy shopping center, and next to a beloved coffee spot.

Then one day I came and realized even more shelves had disappeared.  A newly exposed skylight from the vaulted ceiling brought in high wattage sunlight while dispelling all sense of mystery that used to cloak nooks and crannies here.  Now the center of the store displayed artful antiques for sale -- the ones I've always admired here but would never have known what to do with them myself.  I ran my fingers over the painted surface of a wooden marry-go-around horse, thinking how tough it must be to say goodbye again to a once cherished home and where would it go next.   Where would those African masks and potteries with a voodoo flair go, and the model airplanes that used to twirl between shelves? Together with the darkened woodwork, handmade crochet pillows and the forest of printed books they spoke a languid and rich tongue of the past, one trending towards obsolete in the ages of electrons, ever shortening attention spans and written character limits.

I hugged my copy of The Prospector and walked to the counter to check out, like I'd done so many times before with books I don't need but wanted.  The proprietor smiled as usual and pointed out the wisdom in my choice, like she sometimes did but other times she just nodded and called a book "a fun read".

"Are you selling your furniture?"  I probed, hoping it was not as obvious as it sounded.

"Yes.  And all the decorations..." 

"Oh..., What will become of this place?"

I asked hoping she will say, perhaps another bookstore.

"I don't know.  That's a question for the new owner."

She finally let out an air of resignation, and handed me my final purchase.  I gave her an awkward smile goodbye and took another look around. The bright airy new atmosphere seemed jarring somehow, like watching a pink ballet skirt thrown over tweed, or red lipsticks painted above five o'clock shadows.  The elves, if there were any to begin with, slipped away one by one, leaving gaping holes among the shelves here and there.  And slowly they merged to form a dark pit, into which the cheers and lively spirits of the bygone store sank, cried out and then was no more.

It wasn't long until when I walked by and saw an emptied out store.  Even the large center skylight had failed to illuminate.  My coffee in hand, I pressed my nose against the window pane until memories came back like pages of illustrations.  In years past, we had sat inside hugged by a circle of yellow light,  leaning into our favorite corner of the store stuffed with soft pillows and cushioned low benches.  We had spread out smiling as lazily as Egyptian royals reclining on their divans, cozy under our blankets of songs, verses and stories.

As I walked away, that yellow light glowed on, long after the pages were shut.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Guest Post

I am guest posting over at another site today.  Her blog name is ShinyStarLight and true to that name, she is almost always happy, bright and cheerful like a star that shines over blogsphere.  Please give a visit to her site and if you would, leave a comment on what I wrote about "Studying", which is the topic of this post.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cake Walk

It is not a proper festival without a cake walk. This end of year party is no exception. They hid the sweets under the shades on the lunch tables out in the school yard, so the sun wouldn't bake and melt the chocolates.

There is no worries however as the clouds dominated the day.  Still you can smell the water melon and the Jamba juice stand next to it.  In just a little while, miles of pizza, bread stick and salad plates spilled out also, with lines wrapping around the yard for a delicious bite.  Adding the colorful jump houses inflating like giant souffles amidst laughing children, you know the school is ending, summer is beginning, and it's time to start celebrating.

Everyone gathers around the center stage facing the soccer field lawn. The performances cast a decidedly international flair over the gray pavement and black stage props.  The Indian dancers swathed in golden threaded pink and aqua taffeta skirts, and the first grader Chinese martial artists wearing silk embroidered red dragon outfits.  Simplicity doesn't mean  ho hum however, as the group of dark haired girls in black tights and a simple red silk scarf around their waists successfully evoke the feeling of Arabian nights, to the tune of their music and the steps of their movements.

A group of fourth grade boys in drag masking as Christina (Aguilera), Britney, etc livens up the crowd with chit chat, astound expressions,  suspicious fingers and heads thrown back laughter.  They danced in choreographed steps until one nearly choked from laughing in the middle of the song, while swinging their hips in perfect imitations of the famed singers. 

The group that got everyone on their feet showed up in black and white.  They belt out tunes mimicking "Blues Brothers" and the tall guy sings, moves and looks as a dead ringer of Dan Aykroyd.  They light up the stage and the air with their steps and sangs, their jazz and their saxophones, but mostly their identifiable music.  The crowd whistled and cheered throughout, unified in their love for the blues.

But the festival started with cakes and so it must ends with them. Though neither walks yielded a win, we walk by the prizes letting our eyes do the feasting.  Never mind that our tummies are bulging, our eyes can still take in all the varieties of pink swirly icing, chocolate almond biscuits, dozens and dozens of berry and apple pies.

And the air smells cool but sweet, decidedly Americana.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Though my back still ached like there is construction going on inside, I decided to venture a walk this morning in the still cool morning air.  Or so I thought.

The sun was already higher than a tall stick.  The air baked my skin making it tingle and buzz.  I squinted sadly missing my dark shades.  I looked at the boy walking beside me, happily bouncing up and down from one spot to another.

"How can you stand the sun so bright like this?"
A short pause and he said:
"I don't know... it just feels good.  You know?  On your skin."
I told him I missed my forgotten sun glasses.
"Oh, just don't look at the concrete."

Then I saw it. Specs of sparks flew from the ground we walk on as he points out to me, waking up to sunshine in reflections.  The sky spilled over its blueness while cradling stars tired from their all night dances.  Dark magnolia leaves twirled their hunter green outfits trimmed in silvery shine, and a choir of birds conspired in code hiding behind the sanctuary of branches and leaves.

I walked on from the school after saying goodbyes.  Behind the mess of cars dropping students off, a giant tent loomed in the tree lines.  Its bold blue and red strips brought on memories of circus, or perhaps one of those hot air balloons that frequented this neighborhood.  An overzealous parent ordered a super sized jumper for a child's birthday party, I concluded.  Until I pass the obscuring trees to see it enveloped a house and no doubt acted as a termite exterminating tent. I pictured the displaced family, distressed parents and perhaps excited children, in the way a sleep away adventure tends to make boring daily routines new and exciting.

As I cross over to the west side of the school to make the loop back, I got a call from a friend.  She had heard about a fatal accident involving perhaps the name of a mutual acquaintance.  It turned out a case of mistaken identity.

I sigh with relief while feeling heavyhearted for the real victim.  A fragrant bush passed me by and sent a waft of perfume too tempting to resist.  I paused to open my palms and receive a snowy blossom parachuting down with the breeze.  I gazed into its delicate pedals, hardly holding yet bruising it easily on several sides.  Its pristine color quickly tainted with a shade of yellow and rust, like amber tears shed for its departure.   Evidence of crushing pressure lay scattered on the side walk, a blanket of snowy pedals and yellowing carcasses of former flowers.

Cars whizzed by as their heavy tires screeched against the unforgiving hardness of the road, traveling at around 60 miles an hour on a residential through fair.  I knew the sense of rush.  I drove the road with that same feeling of drowning in a life too full of schedules and events. I had that same sense of never catching up, always running late, and needing to squeeze two seconds out of every block, to beat the red lights coming on, to be a little less late for picking up or dropping off.

Yet in our rush we tend to forget the monster we call cars weighing several thousand pounds traveling at a heart wrenching speed.  They turn into careless killing machines at the lightest touch of a pedal, an easy turn of the wrist, in the blink of an eye, a tiny flicker of attention diverted.  We think little of the powers they yield after that initial week, month or at most year of obtaining our license.  Instead we drive with our knees, while applying our make up, talk on the cell phone, send text messages or read a book.   We think there is an invincible charm with the invisibility of hiding behind wheels, shielded from face to face awkwardness and manners we grew up learning.  We sit behind a beast with iron teeth, crushing steel frames and an appetite to destroy and we hardly blink when we turn on the switch to let it go, hoping for the best.  Just look at the statistics.

I close the loop by walking up the gate into the quiet complex filled with sunshine, spring plantings and sounds of life.  Babies cried into the distance, into a new journey they call life, full of morning glories and crushed fragrances.  While somewhere not too far, as the earth churns against the sun, life scraps by on the roads we built, as we rush to destinations we know nothing of, painting the stretch marks of our own demise, under the sun, laced in rain, while stars and clouds stand witness and sigh into their collective tears.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

They Never Told Me

[ Written as a guest post for ShinyStarlight, who kindly invited me to write a story for her site on this topic, please take a look at her site and catch up on one or two of her stories. ]

They never told me going to school meant answering questions.

My first day at school.  I sat in the front row with my back straight, knees together, eyes forward, hands behind my back.  I can't remember much about my first teacher except he made us sit like those baby trees tied to a stick.  So I thought about the summer days of jumping into the fish pond with Tyler and Po, catching dragon flies and stealing walnuts from the tree hanging over our yard.  I listened to birds that chirped chirped outside calling me to go climbing in case another abandoned nest awaited me in the crisscrossing branches.

The teacher must have asked a question so everyone's hands flew up.  I caught the sight from the corners of my eyes and quick as a flash I pulled my right arm out and raised it up high.

Of course I didn't know the answer - I hadn't even heard the question.  Only that dad had told me to raise my hands and stay engaged.

They never told me going to school meant doing homework.

As the bell rang, my heart leaped out of my throat and my steps carried me like the wings of those birds that flew away as I ran across the school yard. My schoolbag flapped against my back and the bees chased me part way through those yellow and white flowering bushes. Grandmas walking home from getting vegetables at the street vendors shouted at me to slow down.  I passed the shop that sold fried bread and soy milk in the morning, and smelled the sticky sweetness that wafted through the windows.  I passed the popcorn guy who sat at the curb with his hand cranked stove that looked like an ink well inside and out.  It exploded when a batch was ready, popping out sweet, fluffy and white corns wrapped in newspaper cones for fifty cents.  When I got home,  I gather with "my team" and we play until all our moms grew hoarse shouting out our names for dinner.

The next day, the teacher asked us for our homework and he looked at me until I bent my head to hide my shame.  I didn't know what he meant and I didn't know how to ask.  No one ever told me to ask questions or how.

They never told me going to school meant carrying notes home.

For the first year of school I gave back no homework.  The teacher shook his head and wagged his fingers.  The class peered down at me calling me the "idiot" or worse, "baby".  I wanted to kick them but dad told me to get along with others so I hold myself back but I had to grind my teeth to get through the day. It  felt like jail to be sitting still from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon and I can't possibly imagine any more "work" at "home".  Mom fussed over dinner and dad fussed over my jackets and socks, everyone said I was too young to go to school yet I liked it so much better than the alternatives and no one made me eat anything like tomatoes or cabbages. So they let me sit there everyday staring into the space in front of the blackboard dreaming of swimming, running, jumping or escaping.

But the teacher eventually got tired of explaining homework to me and got nothing back.  In my second year they finally sent a note home for my parents to sign.  Mom had been teaching me to write my name real good, and she showed me how she write hers.  I copied it so many times I could write it just like her, with the curves and messiness that only adults allow themselves.  I practiced it again on the note the teacher sent me, as I saw a blank line at the end, next to the word "name".   I made it so good it looked like mom had written it.

When they find out I signed the note they got really mad at me and called me a liar.  I had never been called that and it felt rotten like those tomatoes I left sitting on the window sill all summer.  I didn't know what the note said, but I didn't want to find out anymore.  I just wanted to throw everything from my schoolbag into the murky lotus pond under of the White Tower Bridge and ran away. 

They never told me going to school meant admitting you made a mistake, even when you didn't mean it.  But when I did, my schooling finally began.

Friday, June 3, 2011


My neighbor Sam had been urging me for weeks now.  "You should plant some vegetables to allow your boy to watch things that grow".  She obviously had no idea what a ten year old boy's bathroom looks like.

But they say it takes a village to raise a child so I heed her advice and add a new item on my to do list until it too, grew too long to ignore.  Today, the sun shined in a way that says, any more of my rays you'd be too late for plantings.  That bossy attitude scared away the winds and most of the clouds too. With the school year ending my volunteer work had slowed down so significantly that I spent some time today wondering whether the universe had nothing better to do than to conspire against my aversion to plantings.

Not that I had anything against things that grow.  Besides the boy and the rabbit, I have some nice low maintenance cacti and two rose bushes, both of which are blooming.  They hardly attract any insects, and if I forgot to water them for a while, they'd stay ok albeit a bit more bare boned.  They fill a niche in my absent minded gardener's heart and busy do nothing life.

Once I had a large quarter acre garden behind the too giant house I bought because it was foreclosed at an incredible deal.  As I had not much else to my name such as wisdom or experience, I threw my might into a passion for plants.  I bought everything that looked attractive in the home depot garden section, without realizing the amount of things that had to be done after the initial plantings.  I didn't learn my lessons when they died either, I masked my "grief" for their passing with more fresh, blooming and thriving plants.  After all, even those garden experts on TV said "when one plant doesn't work, it may not be suitable for that region. Go ahead and try another".  But after several years of trying, I still looked out my large bay windows to a yard given in to weeds, dry branches and shriveled plants. 

I read many gardening books, the instruction manuals for botanical enthusiasts. But like cookbooks, the variables are too numerous. I didn't realize I belonged to zone 7 or perhaps 8, may or may not have rocky soil but definitely not sandy.   The red clay that's been baked under the desert sun for centuries under our garden barely, if at all, qualify for the term "soil" in my book.  Water simply sat on it for hours at a time, slow drip or a fast down pour makes absolute no difference, despite the amount I learned about watering in the gardener's bibles.

But perhaps that was good practice after all.  I learned to stick with cacti and fewer things.  After I moved into a place with a matchbox sized patio the temptation to plant the garden of Eden in my backyard faded overtime.  Time taught me in more ways than one that this downsizing was all for the best.

Eventually I had a chance to grow a boy.  My distress over having to depart the hospital after three days lasted years.  Imagine my shock when they wouldn't even give me any instruction manuals or gardening or growing books, for boys, that is.  I knew the mothering thing would get harder without the nurses bringing him to me at the right time for feeding and took care of almost everything else.  I didn't enjoy finding out how much.

I guess the fact he survived, with piles growing in his bathroom and all, and thrived in a certain sense is all by God's grace and his own sturdiness despite of my recorded inabilities.  Maybe that is what life is all about, when you thought you'd succeed at something easy, you fail at it miserably.  Then when you thought nothing of yourself as you take on a huge challenge, you scrap by sort of OK long enough until you start to think you might make it after all.  Learning about absent mindedness gave me an insight into both raising a child and other things that lived in dirt.  Some call it pick your battles, I call it squint and think thrice. That and focus, suppose I had tried to grow several dozens at once like I tried in my garden?  I shudder at the thought.

So I shuffle over to the garden store and pick up enough seedling packs to fill the two large flower pots we have on the patio.  I watch the boy splash enough dirt to re-purpose the patio as an obstacle course, thinking how messy this whole growing business gets.

And how it makes a splash.  With garden hose rainbows and little boy giggles, with dirt and worms, with thorns and horns, with bugs and loves, with things that grow.


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