Monday, June 27, 2011

Wait

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

Closure

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

Random

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

Grow

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.

Fight

The flash came seconds before the loud boom of thunder. Sam woke to a roller coaster ride accompanied by the sound of a storm outside.  He could feel the wind, no something stronger knock on his pelican.  Suddenly, they dove together into the waves.

Sam couldn't believe it.  The trap around him remained closed, dark yet warm. But he felt the force of the waves churning him.  So he rode from peaks to swirls, dizzy, disoriented yet excited to have come back to sea.

Did he hear the pelican yelp in pain?  He must have.  That would explaine the fall.

Oh, perhaps his carrier got hurt.  He crawled around in his pouch, looking for an opening.  How unlike a clam to try to get out of a comfy spot like this!  But he didn't have time to think, a new instinct took over and urged him to move, pry, or cut a way out of here if he had to. He thought about whether  great grams had to fight this hard when she made that fantastic pearl inside her own body all those years ago.  Her sacrifice made the family shine so bright the day they discovered this magnificent treasure in her.   Perhaps she had found her purpose in making that pearl, Sam murmured to himself.

Something just knocked outside of the pouch again, and Sam could tell this wasn't just another wave. He heard a cracking sound that sickened his stomach. He shut his shells and held his breath.  When the pouch finally opened, Sam squinted to see the giant white teeth of a shark.

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