Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Lens of Money

Since my teenage years, my singular image of my father is a vision of him crouching alone, at the end of the day, on the floor in his bedroom in front of his file cabinet. In front of him sits piles of coins: quarters, dimes, nickels, and reams of bills. First, he tackles the bills. He sorts them into twenties, tens, fives, singles. Then he returns to each pile to straighten out the bills, unbending the dog-ears, turning each face side up. Then the coins, each clanking as they fall onto the pile, while he counts softly under his breath. After each mound, he logs the amount into his notebook, marking the sum of his earnings for the day. This ritual is repeated day after day, with the exception of Sunday, when their business is closed. For a man who had no words left for his children, he spent a remarkable amount of time with his earnings.

In our family, life was understood through the lens of money. It represented the hours my parents spent cleaning, pressing, and bagging other people’s dirty clothes at their dry cleaners, where my mother worked through her bleeding hemorrhoids and talked of her simple longing to treat herself to a cup of coffee in a coffee shop one day like everyone else. It represented our mirthless days in the musty store, nodding along with customers who wanted a discount or expected us to carry their clothes to their car when their nails had just been manicured. It represented the monotonous years that passed, while the children graduated from high school and then from college with no parents to witness the commencement. It represented the decades spent away from our extended families in Korea who would eventually learn of our success in America.

Money was precious, precisely because they stood in for the lives we should have lived. A quarter wasted or an irresponsible purchase became causes for rebuke. “Do you know how much longer your mother has to work for that?” When I asked mother why we never invited others over to our isolated house, she responded, “Do you know that costs money?” Doctors went unvisited, gifts unpurchased, all social rituals foregone because money was something to be held, not used. To spend it meant we had no proof for the life we had lived.

Money wasn’t just our past. It was also our future. As we continued to hear stories of other dry cleaners dying of cancer, my father, who spent the most time hunched over chemicals, put off his retirement year after year so that he could save enough to cover treatment if he got cancer. Money was also our language of love. When they could not visit their parents in Korea, they sent money. On special occasions, my parents sent us money in an envelope addressed in block letters with a check inside, no note. When my mother sent me a check to prepare for my wedding, I cried in the dressing room as I tried on wedding dresses.

It would be dishonest to describe money only as a source of oppression. It provided for our food, our shelter, our clothes. It gave my parents a goal and structure when we had none. But we could only fit so much onto these flat, green surfaces already occupied by Washington, Hamilton, and Jackson. These objects offered no space for emotional connection. They didn’t console us when we felt alone. They didn’t comfort us when we needed a hug. We children didn’t understand the language of money. Even though we didn’t know it as we receded to our disparate corners, we were hungry for warm embraces, understanding, words of empathy.

I didn’t realize that I had become trapped on these flat surfaces until I was in college. I remember observing myself, devoid of emotions, intellectualizing everything, disregarding my yearnings. I did not know how to speak the language of emotions, even though I longed for connection. The intellect is superior to emotions, I remember arguing. My closest friends were those who saw eye to eye intellectually; they sufficed. The emotions flooding inside me felt illegitimate; I shouldn’t have those feelings and what was the point anyway. I didn’t know how else to be. The world of emotions was not mine, and I did not belong there.

When I started working, I too adopted the language of money. It was the only way to trump my dad’s power. No, Dad, let’s go out to dinner; I’ll pay for it. Yes, you can afford to take a vacation; I’m sending you. I paid for my mom’s doctor appointments when they had no health care. I helped them buy a new car when theirs broke down in the middle of a parkway.

No one event drastically changed my relationship with money; rather, it slowly became more grounded by the mere experience of living. Making my own money bought me liberation from my parents, and it allowed me the means to distance myself from them. From this distance, I was able to negotiate my own, direct relationship with money. It was no longer mediated through my dad’s anxiety or my mother’s longing for a life she couldn’t have. And unlike in my parents’ case, it bought me freedom, dinners with friends, membership to the ACLU, and a second career.

I am still very reactive when my parents, now in their mid-70s, choose to forego instead of spend, when they cut the paper napkin in two to share. It reminds me of their lives that passed uneventfully in a dusty enclosure, unnoticed by others, with no real sense of purpose or meaning. And no matter how much they have saved, it restores nothing. It saddens me that all they have to show for their lives is their savings.

My relationship with money hasn’t been a jig, but a slow dance. At times, I let go too much, and other times, I embraced it too tightly to find my own footing. In this clumsy back and forth, I learned that money is just a thing, an object, like a car or a chair, with no power over us apart from what we bestow on it. In my family, it often felt like the only thing. It held all the promise for a better life, but no matter how much we had, it was never enough. It was a currency of anxiety, insecurity, and desperation, but it also offered a glimmer of hope. My parents latched my hands to this glimmer until I was delivered to a safe landing. And like many children of immigrants, I suffer a sense of guilt for all I have and all they lack.

These days, I do what I can to alleviate my parents’ anxiety, buy them some enjoyment, allow them some moments of relief. But my offerings are delivered in the hands of my young children, who come with promises of an afternoon of giggles, a meal to be enjoyed together, and a reminder that there are relationships to nurture. And such afternoons restore my hope in all that is possible, in all that I can do, and all that a family can mean.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making a Big Change

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in The New York Times called “Hesitant to Make that Big Life Change? Permission Granted”.

In the article, Carl Richards writes about why some of us have trouble making big changes. He believes one reason is our desire for permission to make such changes. He writes: "Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find."

About nine months ago, I set out to make a big change in my life - or at least work toward one. After years of complaining about my career path, I enrolled myself in a local community college and signed up for several classes in psychology, sociology, and philosophy. I wasn't quite sure what was next, but I wanted to give myself a chance to explore and see what I liked, to do what I wished I had done more of when I was too young and insecure to give myself permission to try my hand at something that didn't fit the script. For several hours, twice a week, I drove to the local campus and wedged myself into chair-desks to sit next to kids who hadn’t even been born when I received my B.A. and were still peeing in their diapers when I received my J.D. I raised my hands frequently enough to receive full participation points and felt a stupid mix of pride and shame each time teachers commented "Great!!!" with a smiley face on my homework or read my papers out loud as examples of how to write cogently. As far as I could tell, I was older than every teacher except one, who was my age.

I am now in my second semester at the community college, mainly to fulfill some prerequisites for a graduate level program in psychology, while studying for the GREs (yes, yet another standardized test). I am still not quite sure what I am doing, but I feel a certain amount of self-imposed pressure to define a direction for myself, so that I could tell myself and others what the hell I am doing with my life. After all, I am 45.

The one pervading feeling throughout all of this has been a disquieting sense of illegitimacy. In so many respects. I mean, really, I am a mom with one kid who just learned how to tie his shoelaces and another who still eats her boogers. How can I justify sitting in a library outlining social psychology when I have little finger nails to clip and healthy meals to plan and playdates to coordinate? Am I not supposed to be helping them prepare for life, instead of still fixating on my own development? Besides, I already have my B.A. and a J.D. Why the hell am I still hanging out with a bunch of kids who are trying to gain admission to four-year colleges? I could tell from the looks on some of the kids in my classes that they were wondering what went wrong with my career that I was now back at ground zero with them. (No, I did not go into the details about the inanities of corporate America.) And how about being a full-fledged adult with some income to show for it? Isn't it completely self-indulgent to be a student full time?

When I read Richards' article, I realized the unease I've been feeling for the past eight months was the discomfort of not having been granted permission, of not having received validation. Not from any specific person, but in a more cosmic sense. From the world we live in. The world I live in has pretty clear guidelines. Go to school, figure out a career in your 20s, plan a family, lean in and work up the ranks to partnership or management, save up, and retire when you have a decent nest egg. Sure, we deviate sometimes, but on the whole, that's where we fall in if we claim to be a certain kind of adult.

Validation is a big thing for someone like me, for someone who was raised as I was. An Asian, a good daughter, a middle child, an immigrant. I've lived my whole life seeking and receiving approval. I still remember how it felt to start receiving more attention as I began bringing straight As home, how it felt to receive recognition for helping out around the house as my parents started working long hours at their store. I'm one of those good kids, someone who never rebelled, who always accommodated, often to my detriment. I also have a lifetime practice of trying to fit in, as an outsider in America, even to the point of wearing blue eye shadow in high school. Thank goodness we left Texas.  

I read somewhere that most of us live as we think we ought to. We pick up a script that tells us how we're supposed to live, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to enact it. So maybe this process of validating a big change is simply a cognitive exercise. Will it into your script, and voila, it's yours to follow. That is more or less what I've been trying to do. Looking for examples of people who've already done what I am trying to do. There is an endless list of successful women who started their careers mid-life: Vera Wang, Toni Morrison, Julia Childs, Martha Stewart, and so many others like those profiled here. I keep meeting them in my own life as I explain to others why I'm back in school while my husband drops off the kids in the morning. Every mom I meet has a story about someone in her family or someone she knows who went back to school after they had kids. One lady I met volunteering told me that she cried and cried while she tried to decide whether to go back to school in her late 30s. When she called her dad and lamented she was going to be too old for school, he responded, "Well, you're going to get old anyway."

So I will quiet that little voice that nags that I'm too old, that I already missed my opportunity to set a direction for myself, that I should have been bolder in my youth, that I will be 50 by the time I graduate from yet another school, that I am being frivolous, that this is not my time, that it is too late...

I'll cling to that mantra. I'm getting old anyway. Might as well try it. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Aching for Ava

Sometimes I am startled out of my bubble. This morning, I couldn't sleep for some reason and found myself scrolling through Facebook at 5:30 in the morning. A photo drew me in unexpectedly, and I was caught in the world of Ava, a little girl fighting against leukemia. The pictures of the little girl's wide open smiles and her mother Esther's words of raw pain wrenched me in deeper and deeper until I found myself in a puddle of my own tears. I am reminded, as I wallow in my own issues sometimes, that there are others living through such unbearable pain. I know what a wreck I would be if such misfortune were to befall our family. The random thought of my children facing death even at the end of a full life fills me with sorrow at times, and to think that this family has been facing the spectre of death so abruptly, so mercilessly.

I'm a stranger to them. I'm miles away. Our only tenuous connections - we are fellow Koreans, both parents. But it's enough to fill my ears with the mother's pain. I hear her. And the weight of her loneliness is palpable. I wish I could do something for them. Offer to babysit their other children or cook some meals for them. Hold their hands. Give them a hug. Just sit with them. Let them know that we feel a sliver of their pain.

After reading Esther's posts, I heard my own children wake up. They staggered up the stairs, rubbing their eyes, T holding his ever reliable companion Beary, while S dragged herself up complaining that she was tired. Instead of responding with my usual impatience, I found myself giving them hugs and helping S get dressed, encouraging her with a promise of an M&M after breakfast. As S ate her breakfast of milk, toast, and prosciutto, I braided her hair. I carefully parted her hair to the side in the front and down the middle in the back. Then I tied one side before dividing the strands into three equal ropes. As my fingers wove in and out through my daughter's healthy, shiny hair, I thought of Esther who can no longer touch Eva's hair. As I worked on the other side, I thought of my daughter who will go to school and show off her little braids, jump a little extra higher to see them bounce, and who will want to loosen her braids to admire the curls before bed.

Parenting is not for the faint of heart. I am reminded again and again. We become parents and we enter the realm of possibilities, vulnerabilities, unspeakable joys and chronic fear.  Even though my own parenthood has been shielded from any meaningful challenges, I am anxious every day that something could happen to my children, that they could be taken away, by a misstep in the parking lot, a moment of carelessness, or an injection of a cruel unknown. And I see parents like Esther who face that real possibility. I ache for their big hearts and the love we all have for our children. Our dependence on them and our need for their permanence. Our desperate need to protect them at all costs and our inability to do so at times. We are at the mercy of chance, of the indifferent unknown. We can only hope to linger in a state of grace.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One of Those Moments

I was having one of those moments the other evening. One of those moments when disappointments of life suddenly swell up like edema, filling up the empty crevices of my mind, welling up to a point that they block all that my eyes would otherwise see.

I don't even remember what set it off. Maybe a careless word from Jeff, or perhaps a tantrum from my vocal four-year old. A trifling that should have done noticed, brushed off. Instead, it takes over, like a drop of betadine contaminating a pool of clear water.

I remember taking myself to my bedroom, under the covers, even though it wasn't yet dark out, and blocking my eyes against the feelings of hopelessness. These feelings always hover in the wings these days, with the curtain widely parted, ready to take center stage.

In these moments, I see only failures, disappointments, neglect. I remember the people in my life who have moved on without me, let me fall by the wayside. Those who are now too busy, or can't be bothered. No one seems reliable. No friend true. No effort meaningful. I feel alone in this world, and no one notices.

I have fewer of these moments these days, but they still return. They don't let me forget that my life now feels different, that my relationship with the world has changed. I'm no longer the person I used to be. I'm now needier, more suspicious, more prone to hurt. So many words and silences feel like small rejections, and I find myself bracing for them. I can tell that my social persona is different, that I misread cues and don't play my social role as I used to.

The other day, when we were camping, I was walking behind my son, who was walking alongside our friend's dog. He was strolling at the same pace as the scampering pup, who spent most of his time sniffing this and that. After a few paces, my son turned to me and said, "Mom, he likes me!" Even though I saw no signs of affinity from the dog, I nodded and smiled back.

I couldn't help but wonder if our relationships amount to that. A strolling at the same pace, a confusion between simultaneity and attraction.

Noticing my absence, Jeff comes to find me. Wrapping me in a bear hug, he asks what is wrong. Suddenly, my tears come and I find myself stammering to articulate where I am. "What is the point," I find myself repeating. What is the point of all this? What is the point of friendships that dissipate? What is the point of making efforts that go unappreciated? What is the point of working toward goals that fail? And what is the point of family if they abandon you?

He hugs me harder, as he always does in these moments. No stranger to betrayal himself, he listens and nods along. After a pause, he tells me what works for him. Our children. Our little beings who place all their trust in us, and believe us when we say we will keep them safe. Our children who cry when they miss us and are consoled by our touch. They take away the cynicism, he tells me. They help me have faith in people.

It is a thought that jolts me. Since I became a parent almost seven years ago, I have thought a lot about how I could help my children, what I could do for them. But I've thought very little about what they do for me, how they help me.

When I have one of these moments, they come to me with solemn looks on their faces and plant little wet kisses on my cheek. They sit on my lap and wrap their arms around me. They tell me they love me. And I know that there, right there, is one true thing in my life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I'm reading Motherless Daughters, a book by Hope Edelman about women who lost their mothers, many at young ages. Edelman lost her own mother to cancer when she was 17, when her mother was 42. The book is about how women, children suffer, grieve, and struggle to find a way to continue living after losing their mothers.

I'm reading the book on my computer in the middle of a local Starbucks. It's packed in here. At times I find myself ducking behind the computer because I feel the tears coming.

I can't stop thinking about my own children as I read. It is one of my greatest fears, that something may happen to me or Jeff or both of us, and our children will have to suffer the pain of such a loss. I can picture their little faces, mixed with confusion, fear, shock. How could they understand such a devastation? Who will comfort them? It makes me feel panicked just to think about it. And I think about how it would be better for all of us to go together than to put our kids through such misery.

Jeff and I are practical. We have our paperwork squared away. We have amazing friends who have agreed to step in if anything should have. We consider them family, and their children love ours. We know our backup plan couldn't be any better, but I also know that if anything should happen, our children would be thrown off their tracks forever, psychologically and emotionally.

I think of these women who suffered such devastations in their lives, and I think about how sheltered and privileged my life has been. No serious tragedies, no horrible misfortunes. Not even a broken bone. My own family intact. Healthy, beautiful children. The thought makes me want to cross my fingers.

The book also makes me think about the role of motherhood. Until now, I had focused mainly on keeping my children healthy, clean, fed, rested, and educated. But Edelman writes about what she misses about her own mother:
Even now, her absence remains a terrible hole. No home to return to for a holiday celebration. No one to tell me what I was like as a child, or to reassure or comfort me as a mother. 
I paused over her line about not having someone who knew her as a child. We are witnesses to our children's lives. Witnesses with the best seats in the house. We hold in ourselves an archive of their lives, the most pivotal moments as well as the mundane, from their first breath until our last.

I replay in my mind the moment my son was born over six years ago. My obstetrician pulled him out and plopped him right on my belly, his umbilical cord still in tact, his body still slimy. He took a second to shake off the shock and then started screaming, maybe at the indignity of it all. I started bawling because I couldn't believe this little person was real, that he had come into my life.

I think about the privilege of being a mother. This exceptional place that we hold in the hearts and lives of these little people who grow up to run this world. My four-year old daughter loves to say, "Mommy is all mine, all mine." She most frequently says it to Jeff. Sometimes, she tells him not to touch me, or to wait his turn before touching me, because I'm all hers. And I love being her magical, special person, not because I did anything in particular, but simply because I am her mother.

That thought makes me want to be a better mother. To give them more hugs. To console them better when they cry. To listen more attentively. To articulate more clearly to them what they mean to me. And to build a reserve of my love in their hearts, just in case.

It also makes me want to document our lives better. So that I'm not the sole curator of our archives. So that their future self-understanding, their future well-being will be less dependent on me.

I know it's not enough. It will not ward off the pain if some tragedy should befall our family. But I know of no other way to protect my children.

For me, becoming a parent has changed my attitude toward survival. Before, when I was alone, I never particularly cared about it. Not in some morbid way, but I figured I'd had a good enough life and when it's time to go, it's time to go. Now, I can't afford not to survive. My children need me. I have to stick around. I would guess many of those mothers who left their children behind felt the same way.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Time Of My Own

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I watched my parents struggle a lot. They worked painfully long, labor-intensive hours, often more than 14 hours a day with no real breaks, six days a week. They could never catch up on their sleep and had no time to spare. I remember their exhaustion stretching out like a rope of molten glass, drooping from its own weight, threatening to crack with the passage of time.

As a teenager, I tried as much as I could to help. I cooked dinner, washed the laundry, cleaned the house, helped out at their store. And I was hyper-aware that I should never impose on their time. I remember one time I returned to law school after a visit home. I accidentally left something behind at my parents', perhaps a watch. When I mentioned it to my roommate, she casually suggested that I just call my parents and ask them to send it. I thought her suggestion absurd. No, that's not possible, I said to her.

But more than with regard to time, I knew I should never impose on them emotionally. We weren't an emotionally open family to begin with. But the idea of bringing my personal issues into the household, where my parents' stress already stretched out the seams of our family fabric precariously, was unthinkable. When their frustration and unhappiness started to swell and they started unfurling their anger at each other, we just quietened our breaths and sagged against the cold, desolate walls.

I learned to be accommodating. To figure out a way to help quietly. To identify the areas of need so that I could find a way to fill them. I took it upon myself to play that role. I had to help us. I was the only one who could do something. There was no one else.

To do what, exactly? I'm not even sure I understood. To reduce the level of unhappiness in our family? To minimize my parents' stress? To free them from the unrelenting demands of survival? To create a sense of order when we felt none? To find some sense of security, some assurance that we will all be okay? Maybe all of the above. I'm not sure.

All I knew was that the situation felt desperate.  I had to do something. I had to find a way to help us, to get us out of the morass. So I stepped onto that hamster wheel and ran as quickly as I could.

After years of living like this, it didn't even occur to me to think about what I needed or wanted. In that context, all of my problems seemed so trivial in comparison. I couldn't even call them problems. They were nothing, insignificant bothers that didn't even merit mention. What are the worries of teenage girls? Weight, boys, popularity? None of them mattered, I told myself. Nothing mattered more than our survival, our survival as a family.

I don't think I even realized that I was effacing myself. I remember how detached I felt from my emotions at times, as if I were watching myself from the outside. I remember never crying. I remember constantly feeling guilty for whatever free time I had, for the smallest luxury, like treating myself to a piece of cake, and comparing myself to my parents who worked nonstop. I remember always fulfilling all of my duties first before I allowed myself to do what I wanted. I remember never asking for anything. Never making demands for myself. Simply biting down on that bullet and doing whatever it was that needed doing.

Ever since I became a mom, I realize that I've reverted to that role.  Of putting my head down and doing my part. Meeting everyone else's needs. Trying to make everyone else happy. Doing things for myself only when it didn't upset anyone else's needs or plans.

Of course I've heard all that talk about how motherhood requires balancing one's own needs against others. I heard all that, but it seems impossible to do at times. And selfish.

Despite myself, I've been bulging at the seams, steam leaking out of my ears and my nose. I could feel the frustration building over the day, over the week. The week would pass with me driving the kids to school, then picking them up, then driving them to taekwondo or swim or dance, killing time while they attend class, walking up and down the aisles in Target, Costco, Von's, picking up their toys yet again, preparing their meals, vacuuming their crumbs, bathing them, getting them ready for bed. And a thought would quietly appear, My life has to be more than this. And another thought, I'm getting so old. And I would try to push those thoughts away.

Then a week would hit where the kids get sick, and I would be homebound for days. The three precious hours I had to myself while my little one went to preschool would be taken from me, and those thoughts would keep resurfacing. I have nothing to show for my time. Just scrunched up balls of kleenex, red noses, and mounding anxiety about the minutes, hours, days slipping by. Those days would inevitably end in a blow up. A blow up about how I'm doing nothing with my life.

"Nothing" is a cold word. It slaps you across your cheek and says, Do something! Just do something! Figure it out! It doesn't leave room for excuses, and it does nothing to console the deep sadness I feel about how I spent my 44 years.

Jeff would try to talk to me about hiring a regular babysitter or switching roles and him taking a turn staying with the kids or figuring out what it was that I would rather be doing. And I found it difficult to say out loud that I just wanted time. Time to myself. Time to figure it out. Time to explore.

It just seemed too selfish. We are where we are. We have children, children I desperately wanted. We aren't retired. We need to make a living. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for something like that. It seemed impossible.

But the other day, Jeff asked me why I didn't relax with the kids. Why did I always go running off to this store or that? Why didn't I just sit with them and play?

I responded honestly and said that I just needed to get through the day, to pass it as quickly as I could. I just needed to pass the time.

He looked at me for a long time. Very quietly.

Then he said, "We need to make a change. You can't live your life like that."

He offered me a deal. Take a year. Do whatever you want to do. Just write if you want to. Or take classes. He told me I earned it after taking care of the kids for so long.

I didn't believe him. I know his anxieties about money, our future security. I know his goal-driven personality. How could it possibly work?

But the next day, he quit his job. He's been handling the kids' drop off, the pick ups, taking them to swim and taekwondo after school, planning some of the meals, and doing the grocery runs.

It's been a week. I've been writing, and I signed up for a bunch of classes at the community college.

When I was growing up, my family always needed things from me. Everyone else's needs always trumped mine. Their needs were always more desperate, more urgent. No one ever stopped to ask what I needed.

No one has ever done anything like that for me. Put my need above theirs. Put time back in my hands.

It makes me want to cry.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Moment

The sound of our kids' heavy breathing fills the small hotel room. T is under the covers, smack in the middle of the other queen bed about 3 feet away, with the sheets tightly tucked between the mattress and the box to keep him from rolling out. Our little S is curled up in her sleepsack in the pack-n-play by the window, her hair tousled around her face like a protective cloud. The kids passed out immediately after a busy day of visiting old friends and jumping around in an indoor playground. When we drove into San Francisco mid-morning to meet my friend and her daughter at the Academy of Sciences, my six-year-old T, who lived in San Francisco from birth until the day after his first birthday, said, "I love visiting my old friends."

It is only 9pm, but Jeff and I are lying in the dark, whispering to each other, my head on his shoulder, warm under the cover. We hadn't had much time to talk during the day since he came on the trip for business and allowed us to tag along only if we agreed to leave him alone to work. We left him to his meetings after we grabbed my Starbucks in the lobby in the morning and returned after a giggle-filled dinner.

In the dark, we talk about anything and everything: our schedule for the week, funny things the kids said during the day, his mother's declining health.

I don't even remember what it was I said, but he tells me, "You're a better person than me."

"No, it's not true. That's not true. Why would you even say that?"

"You are a good person," he says.

"What does that even mean, to be a good person?" I ask.

"You always try to do the right thing," he says.

And at this comment, I feel my eyes well up. He doesn't see me cry, but I feel the tears roll down my face.

"But it doesn't do any good. It doesn't make any difference."

He pulls me in closer and tightens his arm around me. And by his deep breath, I know he understands.

He kisses the top of my head and says, "It'll be ok."

I lie there as his words settle around me. I recognize the weight of his efforts -- to try to fill the void that he didn't create, to help heal what he didn't damage, to try to compensate when others have failed. I think of the weight he carries for me. And I hope I have the fortitude to do the same for him when my turn comes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Little Reminder

The day before Halloween, my son's class had a day-long Halloween party. The teacher told the kids they could dress up, and the parents were sent an email reminder the night before. When I dropped off my son T at school in his storm trooper outfit, he was greeted by an Iron Man, Elsa, a unicorn fairy, a baseball player, and a host of other luminaries in miniature sizes.

After some effort, I huddled his class together to take some group photos. The little ones were giggling and squealing at each other, the way six-year-olds do. I took a few photos before the kids ran off to chase each other around the playground.

As I turned around to grab my three-year old daughter to make my way out, I noticed one of the girls from his class. She was sitting by herself on the bench, her shoulders hunched, heaving up and down, her hands cupping her face, and her eyes flooded with tears. I knelt down to ask her what was wrong, and she stammered through her sobs that she didn't have a costume. No one else saw her except for another mom standing nearby. We met eyes, and I knew she felt as heart-broken for this little girl as I did.

I grabbed my daughter to get her to her school in time for her party. As I scurried toward the car with my daughter in my arms, I could not get little Diana out of my head. I wondered what her parents were like. I had met a lot of other parents in the class, but not hers. I wondered if they were one of the two parents who didn't have an email address. I also wondered if they worked long hours and whether the family celebrated Halloween.

I had about twenty minutes to get my daughter to her school. As I buckled her in, I ran through the list of stores in the area and realized that CVS would be open. Surely, they sold costumes even if the choices were limited. I did the calculation in my head. If I drove to CVS, that would take five minutes. And if I carried S and didn't let her roam in the store, maybe we could be out of there in five minutes. That gave me ten minutes to drive back to the elementary school, drop off the costume, and then drive my daughter to her school. I was so used to rushing with the kids in the morning that I had to remind myself that being late to preschool was okay.

As I was driving toward CVS, I saw the Halloween store that we had just visited a couple of days ago. I knew they had an array of costumes. At the red light, I called the store to see if they were open. A young lady answered and said the store wouldn't be open for another 20 minutes. I pleaded with her and asked if she could make an exception for me. She got off the phone to talk to her manager and finally came back to say that she would let us in.

I u-turned the car, and parked as close as I could to the store entrance. I grabbed S out of her seat, and said, "Let's go get Diana a costume!"

She was so excited. She said, "Yeah, Mom! We can give it to her and say, 'Diana, this is for you!'" 

We rushed down the aisles looking for the kids' section. We finally found the row of little girl dresses. I grabbed the first poofy dress that looked about her size, plunked down my credit card, and thanked the cashier profusely. Then it was back to school.

I parked again, grabbed S out, and then we sprinted toward the school, the Cinderella dress blowing in my hand. We signed in at the front desk and rushed out to the playground where the kids were still gathered for their costume parade. I found one of the parents from the class and practically threw the dress at her.

"This is for Diana! Gotta go!"

S and I ran back to our car and rushed to her school. We were just ten minutes late.

Later, one of the moms who was volunteering in T's class texted me to say that Diana was thrilled with her costume.

The day after, at our friends' Halloween party, I recounted the events. My friend's dad, who was listening quietly, started nodding along. His eyes softened as he said, "She'll remember that when she's grown up."

When I dismissed his comment with a retort that she's only six-years-old, he said, "No, I know because I was one of those kids. And I remember every time someone did something nice for me."

Maybe she'll remember or maybe she won't. But I'll remember it -- as the day I played the role of the fairy godmother and how magical it felt.

Where I Am

For the past couple of weeks, I've been feeling different. Not as anguished. Not as dejected. Not as aggrieved. The intensity has subsided, and gone is the constant agitation. I don't know what happened, but I no longer feel as if I'm in the middle of a heated ongoing conflict. The crisis has passed, and I feel like I crawled out of the wreckage and am watching an ambulance drive away.

Maybe it is because three of my girlfriends from law school flew in for a getaway weekend. We did the typical things. A spa day. Dined out. Joked about past boyfriends. Gossiped about who's where and doing what. But we also laughed. The kind of laughing you do with friends who know you. They also let me cry in front of them as I filled them on all my family drama. They listened, and tried to advise me, and listened some more.

I've been blogging about the situation with my sister, but I haven't talked to too many people about it. Mainly because I can't stop myself from crying whenever I talk about it. But I let myself cry with my friends in the middle of a festive restaurant as strangers laughed in other corners of the room and as our bowl of orecchiette turned cold on the table. As I talked, I saw the understanding in their eyes. Not just an understanding of my point of view, because they didn't agree with everything I said. But they understood the depth of my calamity. And they understood the context. And the impact it had.

Maybe that's all it took. For someone to understand the situation. For someone to listen and to nod along.

Others have listened and nodded along. Jeff. A few other close friends. But it was different this time. Maybe because I was able to tell the whole story, from beginning to end. Or maybe because these friends knew me from a different time and knew how things were 20 years ago.

I've been struggling with this on my own for so long. Internally. Trying to understand it. Trying to make sense of it. And reeling from the disappointment I feel toward my family. Their inability to help, to be the kind of family I want them to be.

But I'm beginning to realize that it is my perspective that was faulty. I always assumed that my family would be there for me, to help me in times of need. That now seems so naive. I think back to the way we grew up, and I wonder why I even picked up that ideal in my head. Why did I ascribe such attributes to my family, when I can find no evidence of them in my memory? Most memories I have of my family are of me trying to help them. Of me cooking for them, listening to and absorbing my mother's sadness, trying to make them happy. And not vice versa. What I remember are my parents' absence. Absent at my high school graduation. At my college matriculation. At my college graduation. Of me helping my sister, and of her not even considering that she could be in a position to reciprocate.

I don't know why I thought my mom should be able to help us. Maybe because I could think of no one else who could, and I thought surely, my mother of all people should be able to. But she has never been one to help me, at least not when emotions are involved. She comes from a culture that believes emotions should be tamed, not caressed. I remember when one of my friends died in college. She gave me one firm hug, and then told me not to think about it anymore. She believes bad things happen if you voice it. That articulating it makes it come true.

I was never able to rely on them. I knew from early on that I was on my own. That if anything needed to get done, I would have to do it.

Maybe I attributed such ideals to them because I was in a void. In their absence, I was free to construct a family in my head, a family of perfect people.

I'm learning that people can disappoint you. Profoundly. And in a way that is critical. But I'm also learning that I have to work through the disappointment. There is nothing else I can do.

I am where I am. And I'm okay.

There has been a difference. It feels as if someone focused the lens. All of a sudden, I am looking at my kids with all of me. They seem clearer. I find myself wanting to absorb them fully. To take them all in. Maybe this is what happens when you clean out some of the clutter in your head.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Telling Our Stories

I've been blogging off and on for a number of years. I started my blog after I lost my job after suffering a miscarriage. I suddenly had a lot of time and a lot of emotions. I started writing in a way that made sense to me - in a deeply personal way about deeply personal issues. One of my writing teachers had once told me to write about things that matter to me. I took his advice.

In the earlier years, I wrote regularly. I wrote about my miscarriages, my feelings of loss and pain. I wrote about my family, our immigrant experience, and the complexities that came with that. After I had children, my time became constrained in a way I had never previously experienced. I neglected my blog to pump, to puree my children's squash and sweet potatoes, to give them baths, to teach them the alphabet. I also entered a hiatus after my mom found out that I was blogging and rebuked me for telling our family's stories.

My blog, though, is one of the places that I always intend to return to. Even when I hadn't written for almost a year, I was shocked to discover that a few people were still reading. Over the years, a number of people have reached out to me by email to tell me that they read my posts, to tell me stories of their own. I have always been so grateful for those snippets of connection. They feel magical, because all I did was write, and from somewhere out in the world, someone understood my thoughts and experiences and found it meaningful enough to reach out.

Every once in a while, though, I am reminded that I am writing publicly about very personal issues. Just on Saturday, I received a comment to a post I wrote about my estrangement from my sister. Someone wrote:
Uh, it's hard to understand what you're going through without understanding the reason that your sister "estranged" you. What did you do that made her cut you out of her life? fyi, it's usually not just one thing, but a series of things over time...and then the final breaking point Without explaining what happened, you seem to be hiding the truth, as if you know that what you did was wrong, and you don't want people judging you, agreeing that your sister is right to have "estranged" you. Maybe it's that guilt that's eating away at you now.
In the grand scheme of things, it's not an unduly harsh comment. But it's clear from the comment that the reader hadn't read too many of my posts. And she/he didn't know that my sister estranged me without explaining much. The comment stopped me -- and intense emotions spiked to the surface. I found myself getting terse with my children and Jeff and withdrawing from the party we were attending.

Later, I went back and re-read my post, wondering if I wrote it hastily or insensitively. Maybe I did, and I am not very good at deciphering the effect of my own writing. But I had tried to convey my feelings of loss, sadness, and desperation. Despite that, I felt as if all the reader could do was judge me, both as a person and as a writer. And it stumped me that someone would read about someone else's painful experience and think first to judge rather than to try to sympathize.

I immediately wondered if I should stop blogging. I do it so infrequently these days that maybe it doesn't really matter. And I could write for myself or just for my friends. But I soon realized that I was being impulsive. I often read personal essays in the New York Times, and I peruse the comments section. And I am shocked by the horribly mean comments, callous, judgmental -- all these adjectives that we would never want ascribed to ourselves. And the web is a terrible place for people to show their vulnerability.

I wonder about this lack of sensitivity that I see around me. People failing to understand each other. Turning to judgement rather than to understanding. Assuming that what is on the surface is all that exists. Failing to grasp each other's pain.

I know that growing up as a Korean-American child of immigrants, I often felt that people couldn't understand what I was experiencing. That other people didn't know what my family was suffering and could never see the world as we saw it. I think part of the reason I write is to try to explain our lives, to try to make sense of it. To understand the pressures of geographical and cultural displacement juxtaposed on the web of biases and assumptions my parents had as products of their own upbringing. To try to decipher the complexities of family dynamics in the context of our immigrant experience. Writing about my experiences is for me a work of analysis, a form of therapy.

I also write to affirm to myself that our lives don't have to be a dark secret. Not everything worked out as it should have, but we are still living out our lives and we don't have to be invisible. I also hope that someone could benefit from reading about my experience. Maybe it'll help someone understand something about his/her own life. Or at least not feel so alone. Or maybe they'll learn what not to do.

I once read somewhere that others being unaware about your suffering is a form of suffering in and of itself. Applying that concept to other emotional experiences makes sense to me.

So I'll keep writing for now, however sporadically. And I'll look for others who tell their stories. Oh, I'll also work on growing a thicker skin.