Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I think of winter as the god’s domain. The goddess and her daughter mourn or sleep, while the god tries his hand at giving life, and gets it wrong.

I went for a dawn walkabout this morning. In summer and fall it’s a ritual, but I always forget the peace and joy this brings in the cold weather as well. The light snow drifts down, just an inch or two deep.

Walking around a cold bare garden in winter, you feel the earth as stone and see the plants as dead, the garden is a grey monotone without form or function. But walking around a cold and snowy garden you see the shapes— of a low stone wall, or of the pond, yin in the water, yang in the stone edging. The plants become plants again with each twig or berry capped by a tiny drift of white.

Seeing the garden in such stark contrast recalls for me the volume and edge that define it. The eye follows the line of luminaries that mirrors the wall, and lands on the metal bird nestled between the sedum (so glad I remembered not to cut back the sedum). Even the trite statement of Italian lights becomes magic in the bluegrey dawn. You remember why a thing becomes trite— because it’s so wonderful that everyone does it.

I think I will decorate for the holidays after all, and bring some of the god’s magic inside.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You're not getting the security deposit back

Having finally acknowledged that my son moved out more than five years ago, really, my daughter (who also doesn't really live here, but whatever) took over his larger room, leaving the small front room for another use.

And until there are grandchildren sleeping over, that means, for me. So I turned it into a trash-novel library and seed-starting station, since it's got the only window in the house that gets anything approaching direct sunlight.

We've made a pact that any rehab-type projects will be done right, since when we moved in decades ago we basically just slapped paint on everything and now it's all falling apart. But looking at Nga's old room now, with all her bits and pieces, photos and BFF paraphernalia stripped away, I really don't want to have to do it right. I also have a bone deep sympathy for landlords.

What A Mess. At some point, one of them wrote all over one wall with that glow-in-the-dark puffy glue.Nga  liked sticking photos to the wall, and apparently at one point used glue, which left not just residue but bits of paper stuck there until, I suppose the second coming, because it would not come off with just a knife. Apparently not liking the glue, she switched to scotch tape, which has become one with the wall. I'm going to have to heat strip it. Rather than pulling unused nails out of the wall, she just banged them all the way in, sometimes leaving holes in the plaster.

I've said it before. They leave, but little pieces stay behind.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The most important thing

I grew up in a household that prided itself on the emotional distance that prevailed among family members. I can recall my mother actually telling me that she was very proud of the fact that we were all so independent, she, my brother, my father and me, that we were "just four people who happen to live in the same house."

She felt this way because she had grown up in a family that used emotion as a bludgeon and family ties as a garrotte. Battered and strangled emotionally, she sought to create a family that chose to love each other. Her legacy is a family that never communicates at all, because without that common roof, we seem to have nothing in common, to the extent that it takes conscious effort to remember that I have a birth family at all, let alone cousins, and uncles and aunts.

And inadvertantly, I seem to have repeated the pattern, marrying into a family that mistrusts strong emotion. In contrast to the lack of emotional communication, myown strong emotion seems a pathology. I talk to other parents whose children have left, and they speak of phone calls their children have made-- I can count on one hand the times my son has picked up the phone to call me since he left home for college, and I believe the count is never for his having called just to talk, rather than for a birthday or to report specific news.

You cannot undervalue the importance of the people who share your memories. Losing your birth family is like losing yourself, your childhood. It is hard to recreate a family anew with each generation; you'll just be a skiff on an unknown ocean, without anchor, port, or origin.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"I just want my children to be happy."

Even the most ambitious stage mother will use this line when confronted with the question of what she wants for her children. But as I move through my day, from job to job to job (yes, I have three), where my insights, suggestions and expertise all appear to exist in a vacuum where I have no credibility and must re-prove myself with each new idea (never, sure, you've looked into this, we can try that), I think what I really want is for my children to matter.

I come at this because I think that I just don't matter. What I think, whether I push for an idea or let it go, it doesn't matter. The bosses will be happier for not having to deal with me, and really I have such a small life, my changes to one minuscule corner of the world is not exactly going to solve famine in Africa.

But it makes me very unhappy, this idea that no matter how I've proved myself in the past, or how much experience I have what I say doesn't matter. No one cares what I think. I want people to care what my children think. I want them to know that people care what they think. I don't care if their lives are small, or how they or the world measures their material success, but I want them to know that they have mattered in someone's life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Could my kid do that?

We saw the show High Fidelity last night. Because my son has sort of fallen into "MDing" (that's lingo, folks! "Musical Direction") for theaters, I immediately, of course, project a career for him that inevitably ends with a Tony. I have no idea if he has any amibitions in this direction. Right now I think he's just thrilled to be actually earning a living making music.

It's a hazard for parents. Everything your child tries becomes the thing that will make them famous. It's the tendency that creates Stage Mothers and other monsters of the household. One's belief in the exceptionality of one's children is so entrenched that it becomes impossible to believe when they are not the ones who get the gig, the deal, the contract, the prize.

Sunday mornings the local NPR station always ends the 9 a.m. broadcast with some young musician or actor or writer who has just "made it" on their amazing talent. Often I'll listen and think "my kid is better than that" (we will not discuss the truth of this statement. As a parent, I take it on faith). And then, equally inevitably, you discover that the kid's stepmother is Carly Simon's sister, or their summer place was next door to Norman Mailer. Not that this helped-- they did it on sheer talent. Uh huh.

Still, I believe. This will be the generation that makes it on talent, so the next generation can make it on connections. Meanwhile, back to the rolodex. Who do we know?....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

Not my kid

When my mother was a little younger than me, she had friends, I realize now, about my age, or a little older. I never thought about it at the time, that these “adults” were so young. In fact, I had a student teacher my senior year of high school with whom I also worked. At work, she was “Dori.” At school, “Miss Starr.”

Now I seem to have collected a whole set of friends the ages of my children. And yet, in Chinese generational fashion, I associate my children’s 20something friends with their generation, and my own 20something friends with my generation, or at least, I identify them with the “adults” and not with the “kids.”

Context is so crucial to identity. Meeting a 23-year-old at work as a colleague or even subordinate, you still put them into the “adult” category. Meeting them as your son’s friend from college puts them into the “kid” category. With the “kids”, I indulge and maybe condescend (I hope not, but who knows how I come across?). With the “adults” I relate and talk about “adult” things. (How are they different? I don’t know.) I have to keep reminding myself that they are ALL adults, if still young and unformed. Some of my own young friends would get on like a house afire with my kids, but introducing them is awkward, like trying to get your daughter to date your best friend’s cousin’s son.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Remember me

It's been a month for reunions. The return of my daughter from overseas, high school reunion, virtual reconnection with lost friends, and lunch with my father after 13 years very nearly sans communication. This is the stuff of memoir, the navel-gazing contemplation of past love; literature is dense with it and my trite musings probably won't add much to the conversation. What I am feeling is so profound that I do not know if I can express it-- the thoughts are deep in my reptile brain-- touch me, hold me, know me, remember me, keep me. In fact, then, perhaps this is not an occasion for essay, but one for haiku. The brief to encompass the vast.

I met you again
In the place we knew before.
Do you remember?

Dedicated to the Class of '73

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


There are people that exist on the periphery of your life. They enter and are important, and fade without ever leaving. They overlap; they are strands of the braid that goes in and out, a part of the tapestry woven by the Graces. Every thread makes your life and each one snipped lessens it.

Maggie is one of these. A good friend once, and a close friend to close friends. She threaded her way through my life at so many instances. Dorm mate and nearly roommate. One-time love of my own one-time love. Roommate with a friend of a close friend, who became a close friend. To think of her as peripheral does a disservice perhaps, to the person she was and the friend she could have been, but she was peripheral the way the sky is peripheral. You understand its importance, and you can always see it, and it's there when you look.

Maggie died today. I feel grief and guilt; as though the sky is falling and I might have stopped it, had I only been paying attention.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


What is it one acquires through faith? Righteousness? Community? Redemption? Acceptance? One needs to understand what faith will offer before you can find it. For acceptance or community, there are the ecumenical, tolerant religions like the Quakers, Unitarians, Buddhists. If it's redemption (whatever that means to you) one must bite the bullet and learn to accept the tenets of one of the redemptive faiths, Islam, fundamentalist Christianity and the like.

If it is righteousness, and the ability to live a good life, then you don't need a religion, you just need a philosophical grounding for your own life. I think that "people of faith" believe that their faith helps them, or even compels them to be righteous, by which I mean honest, moral and ethical. I believe, in fact I know, that you can have those things without an external structure; in fact while the religious often seem to think that people of "no faith" are taking the easy way out, I in fact believe the opposite-- it is much harder to be a righteous person without an external structure-- your goodness needs to come from within.

I was raised by godless communists, who basically taught me to distrust organized religion, and in fact my encounters with organized religion as a child were pretty much universally negative inasmuch as my parents' atheism was well-known in our community and at my school. (Lots of ridicule and abuse suffered at the hands of authority figures who should have known better.)

So when I grew up and more or less became a seeker, the organized religions were out for me. I could not accept either the magical thinking, the hypocrisy, the intolerance, the arbitrary strictures or the authoritarian mindset. How I have approached this, then, as I'm someone with a strong spiritual bent, is to accept the idea of a higher power, but that this power emanates from me and that it is my responsibility to live up to it. Because I have no external structure to compel me, this creates an obligation-- I have no god to forgive me my transgressions, therefore I better be really really cautious about transgressing.

The idea, pervasive in our society, that atheists, the "godless" if you will, have no understanding of morality is so personally offensive to me that I literally cannot watch mainstream media at all. I am, despite my lack of *a* faith, a person *of* faith-- someone who believes in and strives for my own inner goodness, who seeks and in fact finds that goodness in others, and who lives what a religious person might call a godly life.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Perfect Storm

Funerals combine three things I hate the most:
death, sentimentality, and small talk.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What if

I've written about this before-- the ease with which you can spy on people on line. I joked with my kids that I needed to be on Facebook in order to stalk them, but it's really not so far from the truth. When your loved ones are far-flung, it's a way to connect without being intrusive. How far you take it is like anything in life: on the honor system. I promise I will not abuse the access you give me (there's a lesson our government needs to learn).

But the web also has the wonderful capability of reconnection, something new in human development. Haven't seen someone for 30 years? Google them. Some members of my high school class decided to set up our entire 2009 reunion just using the web, and found hundreds of grads on the "6-degrees" principle.

So I did something slightly forbidden-- I found an old, boyfriend?, on Facebook. He wasn't really ever my boyfriend, and our relationship in college was like slightly-too-close brother and sister, but he's definitely in the "what if" category. Not really the one that got away, but certainly one that was available for fishing if I'd put some effort into it. We danced around each other for years, and watched bemused while each hooked up (in the modern parlance) with someone else.

And there he is, the same evilly-goofy face I loved in college (sorry Mark, but there it is), and it brought such joy to see him after all these years. So where was I going with this?

Nothing. Just. I really love the web.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Cleaning day

My son moved out, the real one, the official one, the not living at home for sure anymore one. But his spirit, that is to say his STUFF lives on. He took what he "needed," although I personally think he needs more than he believes he does. He doesn't want to be anchored to things; I get that. However, he doesn't seem to mind anchoring us to his things, namely the items that he left here.

When your children move out for the first time, they take their things, and leave the memories. That's one of a parent's functions, I suppose, to be the repository of memory. But so much memory is locked up in stuff. Is the hideous peanut-shaped jar junk, or is it a precious childhood artifact? If I get rid of the admittedly brilliant 6th grade spanish class poster, will someone regret it? There are reams and reams of drawings; I have no idea what to do with them.

It's not so easy moving a child on. Memories seem ephemeral, but they attach themselves. They are sticky, and their things have weight.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day

Thanks for dinner, kids. You're the best and I love you very much.

Seng Lim and Nga Jee are back, Jules since mid-January, Nga since late April, and you see what happens. When they are here, I don't write about them. There are comic ways of saying this-- they suck all the air out of the room; and psychological ones-- their presence consumes me; and philosophical ones-- where do I end and they begin?

But the fact is that when they are here I don't need to think about our relationship, as I am now simply living it daily. Separation from them as adults feels like it was less traumatic than connection to them as infants, although I think they will tell you differently; their perception of it is different. They are creating themselves without me. I am simply remembering who I was for the 30 years before they arrived. When they were babies they were suddenly the two most important people in the world, and yet they were the ones who knew absolutely nothing about who I was, but merely knew who they needed me to be.

I used to say that they saved my life. My periodic wrenching melancholy might have killed me if I hadn't had these helpless dependents, and I used to fear their leaving; that without their need my melancholy would win. But in reality, their need has not disappeared or diminished, it has simply changed. Right now I think we are still finding out way through this changing relationship, but it's intriguing enough that I guess I'll stick around and find out where it goes.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The family I don't have

The family I do have is a wonderful family. A handsome and engaged husband, creative and active children who are fearlessly pursuing their dreams.

The family I do not have is the family of a former boss and dear friend. She and her husband are the parents I should have had; in fact they are the parents I did have, except that Jack and Lynn made choices that honored their artistic natures and unconventional attitudes. My own parents bought into the whole postwar 50s domestic nonsense, which fit them not at all.

I live my life in an unconventional way far more because of Lynn and Jack than because of my own parents. They showed me that artists could be artists, that you can raise your children according to your own rhythm and values. They let me understand that you can live a rich and even a consumerist life with no money. These are people who changed my life profoundly.

Yesterday I saw their entire family together. The grown son and daughter with their spouses and children. They are close knit, nice, welcoming and warm. I want intensely to be part of that circle. They all accept me; Lynn thinks of me nearly as a daughter. She loves me. But in fact it's an empty shibboleth. I know the stories and can say the words, but the clan is a closed one and I am not a part of it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Around the world

I managed to connect, at a remove, my daughter with a "cyber" friend, Joyce, in Singapore. Joyce went and saw Nga Jee skate a show, and I've been trying to wrap my brain around a world where I can meet someone on line, and then connect them on line with another person, who they can then meet. At 9 p.m. last night, when Nora was skating the show that Joyce was watching, I closed my eyes and imagined them in real time.

A generation ago, heck two decades ago, there would have been nearly no point in the exercise. Even telephoning internationally was expensive from the U.S. end and absurdly complex from Europe or Asia. If your loved one was across an ocean there was no point in thinking of them in "real time."

This makes me both more and less homesick for Nga. I know that she can reach me easily, so I wait by the phone so to speak; I'm afraid not to be sitting in front of the computer in case she looks for me. It makes it hard to let go in the way that I was able to let Seng Lim go when he was on the boat, because I knew I couldn't reach him, or now, when he's completely accessible.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The sisters

I have a group of female friends-- Nancy, Sheila, Lynn, Susan, Kaikay. I call them the "sisters," they are people with whom I connected immediately and permanently. In one corner of my heart I believe that they are the lost sisters from my past lives. I never feel a need to seek approval or support from these women; it's a given. Friendship does not need to be sought, or affirmed, or renewed, or nurtured. It simply is.

And yet, despite having these strong connections, I find myself investing my emotional energy in seeking approval and affirmation from people who are never going to give it. My boss, in fact, every boss I ever had except for Susan and Lynn (who are each one of the sisters). I have a positive knack for finding bosses who are stingy with approval, or insecure about accepting input from subordinates. Or perhaps it's not that I have a knack for this, but that the sorts of people who seek administrative positions are people who thrive on this sort of petty bullshit, or who need the affirmation of the title to feel a sense of worth.

Probably this stems from some emotional need not met in my childhood. I'm constantly seeking praise from a father or mother figure, or something like that. Which makes me wonder what neuroses, what bad decisions based on misunderstood emotional needs, my kids will suffer?

Friday, February 13, 2009


The seaman is back, ready to put the waves behind him forever and making noises about staying in Chicago after all. It is all I can do to sit on my hands, bite my tongue, and refrain from falling to my knees with a heartfelt "thank you jesus" that he might stay within shouting distance.

In the meantime, he's living at home, except he's not. I can count on one hand the meals he's shared with us since he got back, and the conversations lasting more than a few minutes. Gentle suggestions that he might contribute financially in tiny ways (buy every third bag of coffee?) are met with blank stares or amusement. I think back to when I was a young adult on my own for the first time, and realize that I never thought about my parents at all. I'd go "home" periodically, but when we were in Chicago I just never thought about them.

How strange, then, for my son, who is in that same life phase, where we are peripheral if not actually superfluous, and yet here he is, living in our house. He can't not think about us when we're underfoot all the time.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The traveller and the homebody

From the skater: "Chengdu was probably the grossest place I've ever been. The pollution was close to intolerable and there was just filth everywhere. I saw a street cleaner once and it was hand built. Despite those sad factors, I actually had quite a good time there. Being in such a different place doesn't seem to get old."

From the seaman: "...with the end in sight the days are starting to drag even harder. I've already created countdowns on the calendar on my phone and the paper one in my room, and it helps to be able to see when I've passed certain markers— yesterday was the 20 days to go point."


For the first time in nearly two years, everyone in the family is experiencing similar weather:

Chicago 36 and overcast
Shanghai 39 and rainy
Southhampton 37 and cloudy

From the skater

Appropriately, a description of a boat trip:

"After our shows in Chengdu I went on a four-day boat trip down the Yangtzee (sp?) River. The whole trip was rather exciting because we never really knew where we were. There was always someone there to tell us where to go but no one ever told us where we were. Our tour guide could tell us 'ok you'll wake up at 6 to go see a temple and you should be back on the boat by 9' and she would give us our ticket for the temple and we would go look at it. Sometimes there would be a sign with English on it explaining the site but usually not. It didn't matter because everything we saw was so beautiful to look at.

"Our first day was spent mostly on a bus in the city of Chondqing. We saw a few sites including a big gold Buddha, 2 prisons, and a knife factory. We never found out what the prisons were all about but one had a torture room with some very used looking devices. The knife factory was quite an experience. Like everywhere we went, we had no idea what it was. They took us into this building and sat us in a little room with chairs set up facing a little table with veggies and a giant metal pole on it. There was also three knives of varying sizes. A lady came in and started talking a million miles a minute about God knows what for several minutes. Then, seemingly out of the blue, she walks over to the metal pole with this big butchers knife and start beating on it with all her strength. At this point we are just buckled over with laughter because we can't imagine what is going on. It is only then that this guy who speaks English leans over and explains that the building we are in used to belong to the government and now belongs to a steel factory that makes these knives out of the same steel tanks are made of and that . Our lives made much more sense then.
We finally got onto the boat that night and sailed off till morning. This boat was absolutely the most communist thing I have ever encountered. Every morning at the designated wake up time an announcement was made over the loud speakers and then music would play until we left the boat. At the same time people would walk around and knock on your door to wake you. It was very interesting. Everyone wake up now! Ok everyone go see this temple now!"