4.27.2010

I belong with the salt and the sea and the stones; save them all for me.

When I think of him, I see him in a white wife-beater and blue shorts, skin deep dark brown, heavy wrinkles. I see him leaning against a brick wall, cigarette in his mouth, distance in his eyes. A few years back he caught pneumonia, and gave up smoking cold, after smoking a pack a day for fifty or more years.

When we speak about him, he’s the cool grandpa, the one who wakes early and does fifty push-ups each morning. He has this uncanny knack for making the perfect amount of food, so everyone is fully satisfied, no one has over-eaten, and there is nothing left on any dish—a real achievement in a household where the number of mouths to feed varies from eight to sixteen depending on the day.

He speaks a little Spanish, a remnant of his sailing days, traveling from port to port in Southern America. The first time my dad met him was at age seven, and only briefly before he left for another sailing trip. He jumped ship and swam to shore, lived in the States for a few months before being deported back to China, then jumped ship again and became a naturalized citizen.

Back when I was in high school, we had a little family reunion on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. My grandpa would stand for hours on deck, a cigarette balancing between his lips, looking across the sea, looking into his past. Towards the end of the trip, he told us, jokingly, “When we get back to America, I’m going to stay on the ship. I’ll be a waiter or scrub the floors or anything. I just want to stay on the ship.”

But I think he meant it. These days I often wonder what would have happened if circumstances had been different: if there hadn’t been three families living under his roof, if there hadn’t been an autistic child and a schizophrenic child placed under his care.

This semester, I have spent more time by the ocean than ever before, waking early and eating oatmeal in the morning light, or spending afternoons there, reading Faulkner or Eliot or Mary Oliver. And when the days are long and weary, I’ll sit out there alone, and let the darkness engulf me, stare out at the lighted oil rigs creating patterns on the shifting water, breathe, in and out, in and out, and all is well.

There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.

Something there is in the ocean that draws me back again and again. Maybe it’s the constancy, the continual rushing up and washing away, rubbing the stones smooth. Maybe it’s the newness each time, the thick swirling fog one morning, and the clear white light another; the pelicans swooping head-first into the water, and the snowy plovers running in when the tide goes out, pecking at the sand, then running out again when the wave comes creeping back up the shore; the orange and purple and pink of sunset, the silver of twilight.

All I know is that it is here, by the ocean, that I understand my grandpa most easily, when the wanderlust tugs at my feet and the memories tug at my heart.

I’ve been steeping myself in the music of Gregory Alan Isakov these last few weeks, who sings of the sea, and makes me want to build a raft and drift off to the middle of the ocean, far from any sight of land, where I can be with God sending us all the big waves and I wish I was a sailor so I could know just how to trust, maybe I could bring some grace back home to the dryland for all of us.

But the other day God taught me a little bit about trust from the safety of shore. My cheeks were already salty from tears, and I turned towards the ocean. It was fishing time, a large fishing boat anchored in front of me, the pelicans hovering, waiting to strike, then diving with alarming speed headfirst into the water with a splash.

Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a dorsal fin, and, for a moment, hoped for a dolphin, looked for a dolphin, but dismissed it as a diving pelican. Then I thought of impetuous Peter, whose toes and insteps, just before sleep, would remember their passage on wave-tip towards the Messiah. And I thought of mustard seeds, and friends of mine who have prayed specifically for dolphins and seen them.

So, despite a deep sense of foolishness, I prayed for dolphins. I waited, and whispered: “I believe; help my unbelief.” And suddenly there they all were: dolphins all around, at play, dancing in the light, for me alone, simply out of God’s good grace. And what I felt was not scalding pain, shame for my obstinate need, but light, light streaming into me, over me…my question not answered but given its part in a vast unfolding design lit by a risen sun.

And now: I am grateful, almost giddy, at peace. God has been good to me, even in the moments when the unknown looms large and close. And I think of my grandpa, his bravery, his sense of adventure, but mostly his attitude of surrender and resignation, the letting go of dreams for the good of all his people.


and oh that full bellied moon she’s a-shinin’ on me
yeah she pulls on this heart like she pulls on the sea

4.26.2010

I ♥ New York

The other night I slept on the couch and dreamt of being four years old again, sleeping on my grandparents’ living room floor on East Broadway. There, the sounds were multiplied and magnified: buses and semi-trucks rushing past, taxis honking horns, drunken men staggering home rolling expletives off their tongues.

A deep red (for prosperity and happiness and longevity) fluorescent light buzzed and cast an eerie glow from the top of a cabinet, illuminating the shrine in the corner, complete with pictures of my great-grandparents, fruit and little offerings set in front. The heavy sacredness exuding from the altar softened briefly only by the headlights of passing cars.

The trucks and buses and taxis rumbled past hour by hour; by early morning, those noises faded into the fabric: the daily garbage truck first, before sunrise; then, the metal scrape of iron gates and bars being pushed aside, their nightly duties fulfilled; yelling Chinese merchants unloading a fresh catch of fish or hanging up new ducks in the window; finally, humming conversation punctuated with the taps and clicks and clacks of business shoes and stilettos on the sidewalk.

My two sisters and I would sit in a semi-circle around the dining room table with three identical glasses of milk, digging the smooth, creamy don tot and the flaky crust out with a spoon, or squeezing and rolling the mon tow into little shapes before popping them into our mouths, or dividing the char siu bou into four equal bite-size sections, or counting how many chews it took to swallow the sweet, sticky, chewy, peanut chay my grandma had made.

My grandparents took us on walks daily: my grandpa in his tweed jacket, my grandma in her patterned sweater. Our path took us under the smelly, noisy, echoey, puddley bridge, past the fish-markets with fish that stared back at you with large glossy eyes, past the meat markets where you could buy any meat imaginable—chicken feet, pig ears, cow tongue, intestine, heart, gelatinous blood, abalone, snails, jellyfish, sea cucumber—a right turn past the junk yard, take a stop at the newspaper stand for the World Journal and a pack of Bubble Yum, then across the street through the park where the community’s grandparents met for tai chi or Chinese chess or pigeon feeding, then finally to the playground with the tallest slide in existence and see-saws.

In the subway, we dropped tokens into the slot for the adults, then ducked underneath the turnstile because children rode the subway free those days. We were experts; we knew to stay far behind the yellow line and we knew the pattern. First, you could hear it coming, then the lights turning a corner, then the great rush of wind as it slowed to a stop. We hopped onto the train, slipped into one of the hard bright orange graffitied seats, kept track of the stops on the maps overhead, then hopped off again.

Some days we spent snaking through the packed Chinatown streets; I clung on to an adults’ hand out of terror of being trampled by the crowd. In less crowded parts of town, I often trailed behind, staring up at buildings that stretched forever, really did seem to scrape the sky.

But mostly our days revolved around food: meeting relatives for dim sum, drinking bubble tea at Sweet N’ Tart Caf√©, buying zeppole and knish from street vendors, or cheesecake from Junior’s Cheesecake, or cannoli and cream puffs and √©clairs from Ferrara’s. And at night, the kitchen would buzz with adults and the scent of garlic and ginger and soy sauce and sesame oil and hoisin and oyster sauce. The adults would roll out a huge circle of wood and place it on the dining room table to seat at least twenty for dinner, then play mah jong late into the night, long after my bedtime.

These days, when we go back, we stay with the other side of my family, the ones I always remember back in Amish country, sitting on the deck in the backyard, with a barbecue and a farmer’s market watermelon, playing games like Dingo and Turtle, fascinated with my uncle’s fish, my grandpa jokingly trying to color my grey knees and elbows and blue birthmark with a brown crayon, catching butterflies in the afternoons and fireflies at night.

These days, when we go back, we don’t stay in the center of town anymore; we stay in Long Island or Queens, where it takes a bus ride and a train ride to get into Manhattan, but far enough away that the fireflies still come out at night.

These days, when we go back, the once black-haired aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles, whose Chinese titles I’ve never been able to remember and whose real names I was never privileged enough to know, are arthritic, graying, losing teeth and mental capacity, or are simply gone, have died.

These days, when we go back, we go only in summer, missing Central Park in the fall, and the Christmas tree and ice skating rink in Rockefeller Center, and the colors of spring. We go only in summer, when the heat is oppressive, and the air so thick with moisture you sweat like a popsicle melting in the sun, even when the sky is filled with thunder and lightning.

Even so, there is something of home there, something familiar I can put on like an old comfortable pair of shoes with the soles worn through: I can feel the ground beneath my feet when I am there.

4.20.2010

teach me to be a turtle

If it’s true that home is where the heart is, then my heart is broken and scattered across the continent.

Pennsylvania came first, with the funnel cake, and strawberry fields, and fireflies, and wide-open spaces.
Then Chinatown in Manhattan, with the fish markets and bus fumes, tai chi in the park, graying men and women playing mah jong deep into the night, fish eyes and chicken feet.
And my house with the persistent smell of garlic, sitting on the roof, my brothers who love me so well and even now pick me flowers and send me valentines.
Then: the mornings by the ocean, the afternoons in the courtyard, the nights on the rock by the library, hours in the practice rooms.
England and Ireland and Scotland, where feeling came first and life was like a fairy tale, where strangers lived like family, wounding and forgiving each other.
And now this little white apartment with cranes and leaves and maps and frames and candles and handmade books and (now) blue and purple and pink and white flowers.

This is the way it goes: my heart tied by strings to all these places I have lived in and to all these people I have loved, each one tugging at me since I left, waiting for me to come back home. My life is one of discovery, redefining myself in new places, and again when I move on. Always I feel the absence of these places, begging me to remember what it is I have lost in myself.

Is it true that home is where you start from? that you can never get back, that home becomes just some shadowy nebulous past place of strange familiarity?

There is no rest in music until you reach the tonic again, until you find home. But even when you find it again, it’s never exactly the same.

Now I am exhausted by being known in this place—I have outgrown this school, I think—and I feel sixteen again. My only fear then was growing up too fast, but my longing for anonymity was far greater than my fear. So I left.

I am torn between wanting to go far, far away to a new place where my face fades into the crowd and wanting to stay here, with this sense of home, rooted, surrounded by these people I love in this place I love. But I am restless, with conversations that bounce back and forth between what awaits after May 8th and what has happened here these past four years.

I wish I were a turtle, slow-moving, semi-aquatic, perfectly happy on land and in sea. All I want is to carry my home and these friends of mine with me wherever I go, protecting me, growing with me.

I'm afraid I'll be homesick for the rest of my life.