Twenty-one

I suppose this has turned into a tradition of charting my course over the years as a continually evolving reaction to change. I often run up against the sentiment that “a lot has changed in the past year,” but I can’t help thinking that it holds true for the past twelve months, even more so for this past summer. I’m reading parts of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology as a recommendation from a dear friend, and I’ve spent some time with the question: what does it mean to redirect one’s own orientations, especially in relation to time and the future?

This was perhaps the most subdued of celebrations—not that I had anything very flamboyant to begin with, except that one time with the magician and the puppies. Childhood birthday parties are nuts! But anyhow, I’d spent the past summer watching friends turn twenty-one, posting photos and videos of their parties, and attending a few myself. I never quite figured out how to parse that fine line between birthdays as masks for elaborate social gatherings versus birthdays as personally intimate markers of one’s life. Maybe it isn’t one or the other; maybe they’re intertwined.

There are the perks of adulthood: being able to drink, gamble, none of which I’m particularly fond of or interested in. But I think there’s something to be said about the whole “tradition” of turning twenty-one and the accompanying rituals that follow it—people across the country (and the world) partaking in similar activities, delights, and events, marking a departure from all that held them back in the past. It warms my heart. Even if my twenty-first is not mind-blowing or immediately formative—at least, not yet—perhaps, to someone else, their twenty-first is the best thing that’s happened to them thus far in their life. That’s enough of a gift to make me smile.

And perhaps the meaningful revelation that I’ve come across is recognizing where life has placed me; where I am now, in relation to where I was last year. (Isn’t it odd how we talk about points in time using terms of distance and space?). Twelve months ago, I couldn’t point toward where I was heading, nor could I articulate where I wished to go. Now, I have a slightly clearer view of the land before me, and it has remained within sight, glimmering softly like a November road in light.

By the mirror

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This is one of my favorite paintings. Its English title is “By the mirror” (1996), by Yang Feiyun, a Chinese figure painter, and it’s a portrait of his wife. I’ve never seen the painting in person, only images of it, which, I suppose, says something about my relation to it. But I like to think of my first encounter with the image as akin to the first time one sees an original work in person—footsteps slowing to a halt, gaze transfixed, lips parted, the mind with its buzzing incapacity to describe what the eyes are seeing.

This painting reminds me of Manet’s Emile Zola portrait, except less formal, less intent on providing the viewer with evidential information. I love the plant, the dying branch that bows under the weight of its leaves, curved perfectly under her hand. The mirror, reflecting not the plant nor the woman, but the wall, casts an eerie atmosphere across the greyed background. The woman’s pose—obviously posed, but also natural in its intended effect—makes her seem as though she’s lost in thought at the very instance of the painting’s reveal to the viewer.

What I love most, oddly, is the sweater. The texture, pattern, and colors remind me of an old blanket that I used to sleep with, now full of holes and frayed edges. It is as if its memory has been repurposed into the newness of this painting and this woman’s clothing, unknowingly nudging the past into present.

One Art

There’s a certain staleness that literary analysis/criticism acquires in the early years of education—I remember, in high school, thinking that writing essays was such a dull task. If “creative writing” (poetry, fiction) was freedom, then literary analysis essays were the handcuffs. I don’t think the five-paragraph drill helped in lessening the apathy.

But, no longer! The change came as a wholly unexpected thing—perhaps as a result of the classes I’ve taken, the books I’ve read, the professors I’ve met—but there has been a shift in the air. This past semester, I’ve realized that the structure of essays does not need to be strictly formulaic in order to work well. Rather, there can be a certain flexibility and elegance to the process, an elegance only achieved after embarrassing drafts and relentless practice. In each essay, there is a soft spot, a hidden area of the unknown. I think that spot is where the writer’s voice shines brightest. Within that little area, imagination can run wild among the harvested fields (the close readings) and drift along the river (the thesis)—nothing is left out of reach of the possible.

I’ve also finished reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which is itself a shining example of literary criticism. Carson references Plato’s Phaedrus: “Socrates conceives of wisdom as something alive, a ‘living breathing word.'” This is a tricky thing to embed in written text, especially literary analysis, which is essentially dead written words about a dead written work. But I like to think that literary analysis is also gifted with the ability to breathe life back into text: it is a conversation between minds, an exploration of microcosms and brave new worlds, a reach back into history to assemble a space for voices to sound, a space for those voices to continue echoing gently into the distance.

Nowadays, when I write fiction and poetry, it’s less so with the ambition of creating a polished, finished product and more so with a desire to feel the thrill of creation. Literary analysis and criticism, though? I’ve been doing it for years (granted, poorly at first), yet I have only begun to probe the surface. There’s so much space to learn and grow. There are so many intricate complexities to explore, each offering a taste of more life, more answers, and enough questions to last beyond lifetimes.

The Field

Here is a story that takes place in a dream.


Her eyes were deep at war. Charcoal with a glint of bronze.

“Just a bit further… just a mile, or less.”

She walked clear through the field, over to where a thicket of shadowy green trees covered the cool ground. There was sparse undergrowth, and a jumble of moss-covered rocks bordered a small spring that pooled into a clean pond. This was the place where she had liked to rest and stretch herself across the ground, watching the birds and insects and small animals that rustled and scampered and chirped about. She had liked to face the sky and look up through the moving greenness overhead and count the insects flitting in the hazy soft sunbeams that stood like slanting, glowing bars between ground and treetops. Somehow, she had liked the movement of the little creatures in this place more than the movement of the rest of the world. Everything was intense with life and vibration, a patch of life’s wonders condensed into less than a few square feet.

The memories came like a wind’s stroke against her cheek. She recalled the smell of grass during dry spells. The gossiping trees and the old thin roots underfoot. Rich earth, thick with weeds and crumbly soil pressed under her weight with every step.

Now, she rested beneath a thick elm, and lifted her dark gaze to a red and black bird that had just come to the grove. It twittered on a thin branch, hopped back and forth, and cocked its head. She tried to whistle at it, but her whistle came out too airy, and the bird fluttered away.

It eventually came to her that something else was moving through the field.

She picked herself up from the base of the tree.

Calmly, she turned about and faced the little side path that cut off at right angles through the field. The moon was absent, and no wind stirred the sifted earth. The path dipped slightly where feet had trod and packed the soil beneath into a firm layer. She took a few steps, and the crumbled dirt spurted up in front of her boots.

She plodded along, dragging a scuffed trail behind her. A little bit ahead she saw the expanse and she breathed deeply.

“Just a bit further.”

Something moved in the grass.

“It’s you, isn’t it.”

There was no response, but she didn’t mind, and she continued to walk into the emptiness with the weight of her thoughts swaying like an ocean lullaby.

Remembering

 

 


 

There is no good place or time to write about loss, but it is one of those necessary things to write about. Inevitably, the emotional heft of it grows unbearable, and so words become a (temporary) repository for that heaviness.

I feel guilty writing about my grandfather. What is it to mourn someone you did not know very well? To want to grieve? When I think of him, I think of a few blurred memories, a bicycle, and sheets of drawings. Mostly, it is a blank wall with spots of paint peeling. I spent summers at my grandparent’s apartment in Beijing, most of which I cannot remember. There are videos and pictures from those days; if I close my eyes and breathe slow enough, I can catch strains of movement, all marked with impressions of a buoyant childhood.

What I remember of his death, years ago, is when after he died, my parents flew to China for the funeral and left my sister and I at home, because school was in session. We were only vaguely aware of what it meant to lose someone. I remember when my parents returned, my mother showed me pictures of the ceremony on her phone. She spoke of it in a very calm and dignified manner. I don’t recall my father speaking much of the whole ordeal, if at all. And I remember—I remember a part of me pressing painfully inside, as if struggling to burst out. Where were the tears? Where was the mourning, the anger, the sorrow? 

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”
(Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

Perhaps it was too gradual of a death to feel any type of shock. Perhaps we were waiting for it. All the signs were there. Was I more attuned to this Western notion of lament, hearkening back to funeral rites and wailing laments and faces crumpled into hands? Of youth lost to time, of life too grand to equal death?

“We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.”
(Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary)

Grief works its effects in different ways for different people, and I suppose that it is a slower process for me, and that I have only been able to cope with it gradually, laboriously. But in a perverse and perhaps ugly way, grief is also a solace. How upsetting it must be to live a life not worth grieving over once it’s gone. Even more heartbreaking is that millions, billions of people die in this exact way, because it is too painful to care. Unremembered and forgotten—like in that one book of The Iliad, the one everyone usually skips over, the one with all the family names and places people are from—the fact that we forget the sheer scale of that war. No matter if it was real or not. The fact that Homer only had space to tell a handful of stories of this select group of heroes, and the fact that thousands of histories are swept away in the whirlwind of the epic. (Alice Oswald has an answer to this called Memorial. It is poem that retells the Iliad from the perspective of its two-hundred-some minor characters, briefly mentioned or otherwise).

Death is an obsession in a lot of canonical Western literature. An attempt to prepare for the unfathomable. I read poem after poem on the subject of loss, and I read these Greek tragedies that shouldn’t feel cathartic but they do. It is like partaking in this tradition of learning how to cope. Much in the sense of a tradition, it is both individual and communal.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
(C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

I wasn’t close enough to my grandfather to have his death break me. For that, I am both devastated and grateful.

Back home, in my room, there is a watercolor painting of a forest. It is by my grandfather. Someday, when I move into a place of my own, that painting will be the first piece of art that I hang up on my walls. I imagine it being across from a window, so that light will catch the glass behind its frame, and only by shadowing it will I be able to see the painting without reflection. Someday, I will look at that painting on a fine autumn evening, and I will think, all these years, this has been in my life. It always was and will be.