In this polarized social climate, many people of color feel a sharpening of their sense of “otherness.” (More in the poem and essay below)
In this polarized social climate, many people of color feel a sharpening of their sense of “otherness.” (More in the poem and essay below)
Back in our Boston days, early in our courtship, my husband took me to Dim Sum in Chinatown. I had not yet experienced this authentic Chinese brunch and watched while J. waved over carts heaped with bamboo steamer baskets and lidded metal dishes. I listened while his voice, once familiar, wrapped around the soft sonics of Mandarin, asked and answered questions from a side of him I could never know. His queries were answered with nods and rapid-fire Chinese, lids lifted from the dishes about which they had clearly communicated. A cloud of steam rose before my husband’s face. He looked for a moment like the images I’d seen of mountains in remote China: an alien landscape, mysterious, shrouded in mist, unlike anything I’d seen before.
I had no clear preconceptions about Asians before I met my husband, but perhaps this illustrates what I have heard him, in rare moments, drop into our conversations — this perception he holds that Asians are invisible. From the first time I saw him, I was drawn to his singular appearance: the way his irises, so black, make you feel as if you are falling into a well, the way his eyelids look as if they’re expertly lined with jet-black eyeliner, the perfect dark arch of his eyebrows, his soft full lips so unlike my own. To me, there was nothing common about him.
But, what happened that day in Chinatown lent fuel to his perception of invisibility. Just before we sat down to our first Dim Sum together, we had waited in a long line that extended out the door, down the steps onto Beech St., then wrapped halfway around the gritty block. I left J. in line to go inside to use the restroom. While looking for him when I returned, I walked past him in both directions, twice—until he grabbed my arm.
“Oh! I didn’t see you,” I said
“We all look alike,” J. dead-panned, really without any sort of a laugh.
I sensed the pain behind his comment, even though I didn’t then know him well. This was one of the first times I felt the truth of another race’s experience. The memory of that day has stayed with me over twenty years later. I find myself cataloging these instances that stand out— when it is evident that we are from two distinct races, two very different cultures.
Our differences play out in myriad ways. When our oldest son, now 22, comes home for a visit, he walks around the house, snapping his fingers and whistling. While I see joy and comfort in these mannerisms (as well as the ghost of my late father who did these same things), my husband sees a display of idiosyncrasy, a weakness that makes one stand out.
“People will get the wrong impression of you,” my husband warns. “They’ll think you’re a lax person.”
As soon as my son’s hand goes to his hair while he’s making a point, my husband stops him: “People will think you’re insecure. You have to always be aware of these habits. Get rid of them.”
After my initial reaction, which is to think that my husband is too controlling, I stop to think about all the ways we have been taught differently. In my Caucasian upbringing, correcting a child for whistling or finger-snapping never happened (it would have been considered charming); in my husband’s Chinese childhood, parental directives on the minutia of behavior were omnipresent. Lest the reader incorrectly surmises that I am married to a harsh man, let me say that my husband tells our sons at every opportunity how much he loves them; he also hugs and kisses them daily, while I struggle to remember to do this. Do these differences have anything to do with culture, or are they behaviors specific to our particular families? Or, is my husband’s experience more directed by being a first-generation immigrant, striving to blend in, while mine is the more relaxed atmosphere of a fourth-generation family? I am not sure, but I know there are many lessons in this for me.
A Buddhist friend once told me that our relationships in this lifetime teach us what we need to learn for our next incarnation. I like the idea of this philosophy. I try (not always successfully) to look at our differences before I judge my husband. His experiences of feeling “other’ make me more aware of how culturally insensitive I can be. I wish to stay conscious of the different forces that influence another person’s behavior.
In this polarized social climate, many people of color feel a sharpening of their sense of “otherness.” My husband told me a story about something that happened at a work lunch this past year. While seated in the dining room with a group of Caucasian professionals, the discussion turned to their impressions concerning what they believe are the advantages that people of color receive, like in college admissions, for example. My husband, who considers himself a person of color, steamed silently while these co-workers continued with their loud musings, even as other POC bused dishes within earshot of their table; the co-workers talked about them as if they weren’t there. For him, this was a typical example of how white men (they were all men) ignore the existence (and experiences) of POC, effectively dehumanizing them.
Poets use their craft to witness the world around them. Part of writing poetry is to shine a light on complexity. I may not fully understand my husband’s cultural background, but I can write about my own experience interacting with it — I hope with empathy and without judgment. In the poem at the top of this essay, I hope I do just that: witness the mystery of difference.
Rendezvous at Round Lake
Carved by an ancient glacier,
its meromictic waters do not mix—
this is the place we go
where layers of sediment stratify in ribbons.
Meromictic waters do not mix;
within my childhood home, chilled
layers of sediment remain stratified in ribbons,
blue-green fingers stretch across the surface.
When I am chilled inside my childhood home,
I call for my golden friend,
fingers stretch across the blue-green surface,
warmer than my own blood.
I call my friend of gold
to the place we go —
warmer than our blood,
we are carved ancient as a glacier.
*Published in Green Briar Review, Winter 2019.
We should all be so lucky as to have a friend who has known us for most of our lives — the holder of our secrets, the person who understands the way we move in the world. They know our families and our history. I am fortunate to have many friends from different points in my life, including many I have known for a relatively short period of time, but there is something elemental about a lifelong friend. I can still recall the expression we sang in rounds when we were young: “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.”
I remember a scene in a Crocodile Dundee movie from the 1980s. Paul Hogan’s character, the Australian legend nicknamed Crocodile Dundee, shares his views with an American woman on seeing a shrink to discuss one’s problems; where he comes from, he says, “that’s what my mates are for.” While I’m certainly not advocating against therapy (I’ve been seeing a therapist for over twenty years), I count my old friendships as invaluable to my emotional well-being. No one understands what triggers me more than a childhood friend. I catalog my troubles in my mind to share on my next meet-up with my most trusted resource, the friendship of a lifetime.
A few times a year, I travel home to visit family and friends in Upstate, N.Y. A long time ago, a tradition developed between one of my dearest friends and me. We walk the path around Green and Round Lakes near where we grew up. There’s something about walking a wooded path alongside pristine water that makes words flow, especially when your companion requires no explanation of your ramblings and doesn’t judge your craziest thoughts. By the time our trek reaches the more secluded Round Lake, we are compelled to pause and look in unison at the still water and the trees reflected on its surface. I know I can speak for both of us when I say this is a moment of reverence — broken only when one of us decides we need yet another “selfie.”
Surrounded by old-growth forest, Green and Round Lakes are two of only a few lakes in the world deemed “meromictic,” meaning there is no seasonal mixing of the upper and lower water levels as with other lakes. These glacially-carved lakes are deep and stable: Green Lake is 195 feet deep and Round Lake is 180 feet deep. The unusual features of these lakes create an otherworldly aquamarine color to the water. Growing up in this area, I took this beauty for granted.
I know that there were also times that I took my friendships for granted. Many years ago, I received a card that said: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” It’s worth it to hold these words close and to live by them. Our old friends will be with us long after our parents have gone — they are a rare treasure, deserving careful attention. It seems fitting that Round Lake, a rare place, is the scene of my rendezvous with my old friend.
“This sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without is one of the commonest entries in conversion records…And that such a glorious transformation as this ought of necessity to be preceded by despair …”
-William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience
Without ghost lines of turned-down pages,
I pulled the unread book from its wedged perch,
opened to a tale written by a drunk sage.
Without ghost lines, no turned-down pages,
I unlocked the door of my cage —
from weathered story sprung the answer to my search.
Without ghost lines of turned-down pages,
I awakened in this printed church.
Although told in a deliberately obscure way, this poem, midway through my poetry collection, Firefly, marks a turning point in the story of my recovery from alcoholism and addiction. Within the lines of this poem, I sketch the spiritual experience that changed me.
Alcoholics and addicts do not often experience a sudden upheaval in our way of thinking — most seem to have a gradual reordering based on learning how to live sober. I feel fortunate to have experienced a dramatic, unexplainable moment that filled me with light. I don’t see this as a mark of me being “special,” but rather as the universe gifting me with the only thing that could break through my intractable desperation.
This poem went through several iterations until I settled on an old form, the French Triolet. The Triolet, which means “clover leaf” in Middle French, is a medieval verse from the thirteenth century. Enlish poets began using this form in the eighteenth century. The age of this poetic form, with its repeating lines and tight rhyme scheme, felt like an echo of all the people who came before me who had also received this spiritual gift.
My awakening came at a moment when I was certain to lose my family, my husband and young son, if I drank again. Earlier that day, I carted all of the booze at home over to my in-laws’, but I was in the house, alone. It occurred to me that I could easily drive to the store and buy more alcohol. I knew I could lose everything if I did this, but I felt certain that I would drink. I shook with both fear and desire. Not knowing what else to do, I called a sober friend, a woman who had become my mentor. She asked if she could return my call in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! That was so long. How could I stop this overwhelming urge to drink?
I paced in my bedroom, looking at the clock; its digital numbers seemed frozen in place. The fear that I would drink consumed me. My twisted brain whispered, only a drink will relieve this fear — this fear that I would drink! (only an addict understands this logic). Finally, desperate to forestall my impulse, I picked a book about recovery, one I owned but had never read, off the bookshelf. I opened to a story written by a drunk. Within these pages, something changed inside my brain. It was more than merely recognizing myself in someone else’s story: the knowledge that I suffered from a spiritual disease became clear to me. Alcohol and drugs were substances I used to fill the void in my soul. That was what was wrong with me! I had a soul-sickness and it could be treated. This man had gotten better and so could I.
By the time Sharon called me back, minutes later, I was utterly changed. Breathless and giddy, I asked her: Have you ever read this story? Do you know about what happened to this man?
Well-acquainted with this famous story, Sharon merely laughed.
And so, my journey towards recovery began.
A recent publication
I have been on a string of so many days
hung low. The truth is I am
often tired of being alive, of daylight
streaming through the translucent glass
of my body, my virgin rebirth, discarded
diamonds. I am the water in fountains
people dance past.
These days weave together
on a loom, an unfinished tapestry
with a repeating pattern: spoiled wool,
dank, with rare flashes of gold.
The truth is I am often tired
of being alive, though I know this mantle
can unravel with a pull on a thread.
I trudged up concrete steps
into the Art Museum, muscles sobbing
with repetition, this desire to rise
above the carved marble of my heart
pushing me inside another air-conditioned
hallway, where winged statuaries ushered
me up, up, up, hushed
into the darkened gallery. Shush,
whispered metal brush on cymbals,
the drummer on one screen of nine,
each in a…
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A rumble summoned my husband last Spring
to rescue a beehive; he found it
hung like a tongue abuzz with hunger,
urgent hooligans hunkering around
a honeyed crux. He clipped the bunched
cluster, curried the tree branch, and dumped
it into a hovel.
He had three hives at the beginning
of winter, but only the mined line
survived this time. He thinks
there’s something in being wild
that keeps things alive
*"Wild Hive" was published in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Fall 2018.
“Wild Hive” is the first poem in my poetry collection, Firefly. This book is an unfolding redemption story, as it paints the picture of my descent into alcoholism and addiction, as well as my struggle to live sober. I hope that “Wild Hive” introduces the reader to the sense of the bewilderment that permeates the mind of an addict. How did I get here? Why am I still alive? If it is my wild nature that helped me survive, what does it mean?
My husband has been a beekeeper, an apiarist, for several years now. He possesses the mind of a scientist, so he studied all of the latest information on beekeeping; he has become quite the expert on all things related to honeybees. His enthusiasm has infected me as well. I have become as invested in the survival of our hives as he has—well, almost as invested. I’m sure the person who actually does the work of a beekeeper is the one most attached to the outcome.
Two years ago this Spring, a couple who are good friends of ours called my husband. A swarm of honeybees had gathered in a tree near their home. Swarms occur for reproductive reasons; a queen bee leaves her hive, taking a number of workers with her, to form a new colony. Our friends had learned, probably from my husband, that it’s best to call a beekeeper to come and retrieve a swarm for their own hive collection rather than call an exterminator. With the honeybee population in decline, we need to respond to swarms in a way that protects them. So, off went my husband, garbed in his netted hat, to rescue his first swarm.
The rescue unfolded just as described in the first stanza of “Wild Hive:” he clipped off the tree branch on which the swarm had clustered, dropped it into a cardboard box, and brought it home. At home, he used his smoker, an aluminum can that bears a striking resemblance to the Tin Man’s oil can in “The Wizard of Oz,” to blow smoke at the bees. The smoke masks the alarm pheromones of the bees, allowing a beekeeper to work around the hive without getting stung; in effect, the smoke stuns the bees into submission. In this way, my husband was able to get the wild bees settled into their new home.
This “wild hive,” meaning a hive that was not cultivated for sale to beekeepers (yes, there is such a thing), but was instead formed in the wild, thrived. At that point, the wild hive constituted my husband’s third hive; they were safely ensconced in their own set of hive boxes.
Most hives are lost over the winter months. Several theories have been posited on the causes of colony collapse disorder, such as the widespread use of pesticides, climate change, or mite infestation; most likely, it is a confluence of factors. When springtime arrives, beekeepers assess their losses—my husband has lost most of his hives each winter and needs to begin again with new bees each spring. The springtime following the first winter of the wild hive heralded a big surprise: the only hive of the three that made it through the winter was the rescued hive. Not only had it survived, but it had flourished.
When my husband reported this news to me, I asked him why he thought the rescued swarm had made it through the winter when his other, more established, hives had not. He shrugged his shoulders and offered this considered response: “Maybe there’s something about being wild that keeps things alive.”
This comment resonated deeply with me; it incubated in my mind for several months, almost like the bees themselves, looking for a place to colonize. In a poetry workshop, the words of this poem spilled onto the page fully formed, as if they had been there all along. In this workshop, the facilitator read William Blake’s “The Tyger”—he prompted us to write a poem or an essay using sound in an inventive way. In one of those too-rare moments of poetic inspiration, this poem wrote itself.
So, why did the words my husband had planted months before worm their way into my subconscious? For me, this message, which appears in the last two lines of ”Wild Hive,” voices what I have often wondered: how is it that I am still alive, given my wild past when I was blackout drinking and using drugs? At 20, I crashed my car while driving drunk into a barn on the side of the road. The accident happened in the middle of the night on a back-country road. We were lucky that another car happened upon us— my ex-boyfriend crawling along the side of the road with a shattered back; me, bleeding internally, pinned behind the steering wheel. Unfortunately, there were many more years of risky behavior while drinking and using drugs. I did not get sober until over forty more years had passed.
Why did I survive? It is unknowable, but it is a common question in the human condition. Why does one person live through a series of traumatic events while another dies young, having lived a short, blameless life? “Wild Hive” is not meant to posit an answer to this complex question, but instead reflect the seeming randomness of mortality. During the peaks of my disease, when I was filled with self-loathing, I didn’t want to continue living. I was too entrenched in the hopelessness of addiction to see a way out. I am grateful that I am now sober—on a good day, I see how my experiences may help another to recover. That is the meaning that I attach to my own survival; that is the way I make sense of this question.
What manuscript? Those were my first thoughts when I read the subject line on the email. It was nearly midnight on a Sunday night this past July when I opened my email to find a publication acceptance for my first chapbook, “Firefly,” from Finishing Line Press. I was taken by surprise on so many levels—the first, not remembering submitting it at all. A quick search of “Submittable” yielded the answer: I had submitted this manuscript in April to the “New Women’s Voices” chapbook competition at Finishing Line Press. I had neither won the contest nor placed, but my poetry collection had been accepted for publication nonetheless. My mind flashed back on the moment when I hit “send” on this submission. A strange confluence of events had led me to compile this collection.
The impetus for “Firefly” was a substitution for a different project. The year before, I had written a larger collection about the nearly concurrent deaths of my father and my nephew. These were poems I felt driven to write. I felt I owed them this debt, to create something in their memory. My intention was to see this collection in print, dedicated to them, but it just wasn’t gelling. I received advice from a poetry mentor to put aside this work for some time, to allow more distance from these tragic events, so I would be able to come back to the work with a clearer head.
I also learned more about the world of poetry publication. After publishing individual poems, a poet typically publishes a chapbook or two before a larger collection. I wasn’t sure what my vision was for these poems about my father and my nephew, besides illuminating how different losses affect a family, though I had followed an inspiration to deepen the grouping with parallel poems grounded in nature. I understood the wisdom of devoting myself in the interim to a new project. I moved towards arranging a smaller, unrelated group of poems into a chapbook, mined from the hundreds of poems I had written over the previous six years.
“Write what you know,” they say, and I had written plenty about what I know most intimately—alcoholism and drug addiction. I found poems I had written about drinking consequences when I was young, like a near-fatal car crash, but I also had some poems from my more recent struggles to live sober. I wrote several new poems to fill in the gaps. I liked the idea of painting this story in poetry, in more metaphorical terms—to me, this made the events, or at least the feelings they evoke, more universal. I want reading this collection to be like standing in front of an impressionistic painting in an art museum. Up close, you see individual brush strokes; step back, you see how the splotches of color come together to create a whole.
Just six days before I opened the acceptance email, this same collection was evaluated in a poetry manuscript class I was attending. The anxiety I felt around having other flesh and blood humans read about my descent into alcoholism and addiction, even told in the “slant” way of poems, startled me. I felt naked, exposed to their potential negative judgements. There were only four other people in this class, and I knew most of them well. This was not a room full of strangers. So, why was I feeling this way? It was one thing to write the individuals poems, many of which these fellow poets had heard; it was another to string them together into a whole that painted a vivid (I thought) portrait of my underbelly. Sending this same chapbook electronically to disembodied individuals at a press, people whom I have never met in person and probably never would, felt like much less of a threat.
Every criticism I heard in that class, constructive or otherwise, magnified in my mind. I considered abandoning the chapbook, as I could not pinpoint from where this negative energy sprung. I could not have foreseen how much worse I would feel after receiving the acceptance.
I did not sleep after I opened that email. A part of me felt excited and relieved about the news—maybe my writing wasn’t as bad as I had told myself the whole week after my manuscript class. But, as the sleepless night crawled towards morning, I was steeped in fear. My skin itched and I shifted positions as my brain raced: maybe this collection is inferior work. People will read it and know that I am an imposter. Worse, I obsessed over the subject matter: What was I thinking? How could I expose myself like this? Everyone will know about me.
It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on. Shame has this way of reappearing when I least expect it. Clean and sober over 14 years and I thought I had the shame-thing licked—it seems it had only been neutralized in the rooms of recovery. Being in the company of others who had also slid beneath layers of bad experiences due to alcoholism and addiction had magically lifted the paralysis of shame. I entered rooms full of men and women in recovery who were smiling and laughing. These were people who were joyful after having had some pretty awful stuff happen when they were using. If they could do it, so could I. That’s how recovery works, at least for me—bathed in the acceptance of others who would never judge me, who understood how I thought and felt, I could heal after years of believing myself incapable of living a different way.
Over 20 years ago, before I got sober, my husband sent me to a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction medicine. Something he said stayed with me all these years: The hallmarks of alcoholism and addiction are shame and isolation. All these years later, I understand that shame and isolation are as much a part of me as my drinking once was. Living sober has helped me rise above these states of being towards which I naturally gravitate. Writing about my alcoholism/addiction helps me to NOT isolate with the effects of the disease. My hope is that, by sharing my story, I will reach at least one person who struggles with the same shame, one person who is tightly bound in their own cocoon.
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton