Category Archives: Writing & Reading

Self-care is a series of small actions

Sometimes you go looking for a book,
and other times the perfect book seems to find you.

As if some unplanned hand is guiding you to exactly what you need to read or hear in that moment.

I hadn’t planned on going to the library, but this branch was a few doors down from the lunch spot I happened upon after the hike I chose spontaneously that morning after a couple quick google searches. I wouldn’t have even been out of my house except that they were doing construction upstairs and had turned off the electricity.

I wandered around the stacks for a little while, until I happened upon the memoir section.

A chair had been pulled up alongside the shelf next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior. I had heard her interview on Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons”, so I plucked up the book to skim a couple pages. But I couldn’t stop. I found myself reading nearly the entire book sitting there in that chair in the library. Her writing is so clear and straightforward that it is easy to underestimate how searingly honest she is being every step of the way.

Later that same day I re-listened to that podcast episode, and when Gilbert asks her why she writes her answer is that she wants to be known. It is truly astonishing how clearly she sees and knows herself, and in presenting us with her most flawed, true, human self that, we are able to see and know ourselves in poignant, touching ways that left me reeling — but also freer.

Here are some of the important reminders from this book that I needed to hear this week:

  • We all learned to hide our bignesses starting in childhood. For the sake of the unspoken rules of the game, we are numbing and running from pain and from our “hot loneliness” (Pema Chodron’s words) when these are the very things we should be running toward. Each of our running and hiding takes different forms (food, sex, work, books, tv, money, positivity, productivity, etc.) but we know when we’re using those things to take us away and out of our very lived experiences. This pain, our loneliness, our struggles are inevitable. They are what make us human, and that means we are not alone. The ‘Journey of the Warrior’ is to stay with the journey, to stay with yourself in those moments, and to feel those things. Every crisis is an invitation to grow.
  • You oftentimes won’t have the answer. It’s not a big puzzle to be solved. All you have to do is figure out your next right action. One day at a time. It strikes me that the nuns at Nuns & Nones also talked about being able to sit still and listen and reflect and the importance of that practice in being able to discern the next right action. The way the sisters talked about it is that the root of ‘obedience’ is to listen. And whether you are talking about God, the Spirit, the Universe, or your own inner wisdom, if you are still and silent enough, that voice is clearer. It usually doesn’t tell you the answer (‘living the questions’ is more interesting anyway). But it can tell you what might be the next right action, right now. What you can do next.
  • You are loved. Just as you are. << It’s not about knowing or learning or coming to that. It’s allowing ourselves those moments when we can strip away everything else and remember that.
  • You can always find yourself home again, via your breath.

And more from the podcast re-listen, which has been so helpful. My belief in my artwork and how I spend my time has been shaky for the past 6 months, but the doubts have definitely been amplified in the past few weeks.

  • Your job is to make the thing and put it out there. Your job is not to defend it afterward, or to babysit it. Just let it go once it’s out in the world and go make more.
  • You are not unique and neither is your message, and that’s okay. That’s more than okay. The way you present it will be unique to you — and that might break through to this person whereas the way Liz Gilbert or Glennon Doyle Melton presents it might resonate with those people over there. Even if all of our messages are the same, we need the chorus of all the voices.
  • The way to grow your following is to deeply serve the following you already have. What an honor that they show up to read your words at all. Give them light.
  • Related to above point about next right actions: “Be still and know.” Listen to the voice inside. The book Love Warrior is ultimately about trusting yourself. When we say we don’t know what to do, more often we just don’t want to do the thing we know we need to do.
  • Stop deeming yourself unworthy of these invitations. Trust the inviter and show up before you’re ready.
  • Stay open / Go back in. It never ends. It’s a practice and an action.

I think my biggest mistake recently with self-care or emotional wellbeing is in believing somehow that there is a finish line. Like if I do enough therapy and read enough self-help and meditate enough and awaken enough and have enough language, that I’ll get to a point where I’ll be okay and that I will need less support then. That I might get to a point where I won’t fall apart, like ever, like ever again. Or that somehow I will have all the tools and capacities to “handle” falling apart better so that even if I fall apart, it won’t, like, affect me. But now that feels off. Because that would be like saying, I will eventually get to a point where I can stop being human. Emotional wellbeing is not an end state; it is a practice, a series of small actions that I need to take in my life to keep myself on track.

Stay open. Go back in. It never ends.

After the move, I was relying on my crutch of workaholism (in this case, working from home and making art) in order to survive. I wasn’t really present, I wasn’t really here. I tried to workaholic through the days, but when that broke under the pressures of too much doubt, I turned inward and shut down completely. I was in a zombie state, zoned out, and escaping into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which I reread in a marathon over 2 days. Sitting and reading for 10 hours straight really hecked up my neck. I realized yesterday that this was all because I was in survival mode and because none of my other support systems were in play.

“For me, I survived because of books. which doesn’t work for everyone, but you have to have something. You have to have something you care about that’s external to you and that isn’t dependent on other people, whether it’s art or music or reading or writing or a combination of the above, or knitting or running.” -Roxanne Gay, from her interview on the Rookie podcast, about how she survived the times that she was profoundly lonely and profoundly lost, those times in her life where she wasn’t sure it was going to get better.

It worked because I survived. Books have been my safe place since I was a little kid. I always prided myself in the story that I found the library the summer after second grade and proceeded to check out a pile of books every single week…but now I wonder if that’s just where I’ve been hiding and numbing all my life.

This summer, I was getting to a point of not recognizing myself. 

And it makes sense that I was running and hiding in my books — it was a very childlike response to my new schedule which mirrored childhood rhythms, alongside the reintroduction of my childhood language. I was falling apart in a new city where none of my normal support structures were in place, so I (re)turned to those old(est) habits that had always worked before. The reasons these self-care practices need to be habitualized and routinized and ritualized is because the stresses of the circumstances that cause you to need them zap you of the very energy needed to pursue them. It’s much more likely that I’ll find myself doing the physical activity that keeps me sane if I know the bike route to the climbing gym, and have biked it a million times before, and the membership is already pre-paid, and I have a routine of doing it every Tuesday and Thursday before lunch. If I find myself in a new city, trying to get used to driving again without any incentive to purchase a gym membership for the 3 short months that I am here, it makes sense that I might find myself sitting at home most days and not having moved much for an entire week…which will eventually lead to a deterioration in my mental and emotional wellbeing. And by the time your legs start to itch that they want to move and you remember in the back of your head that maybe you should go for a run or something?…you may have already built up so many unreleased stress chemicals in your body, that you feel too leaden and weighted down and heavy to even get out of bed.

(But then you get a notice that they’ll be working on the electricity upstairs and that there won’t be any power in your house, so you leave and find yourself hiking through the desert at high noon before making your way to lunch and a library and the chair that has been waiting for you next to the MEMOIR section next to Glennon Doyle Melton’s book.)

What’s hopeful and illuminating is that these support structures can be small actions, like baby steps. And that I can build them back up, one by one, for myself, into practices: find the library, bike to the store, call a friend, take out your yoga mat in the mornings and do just one something, figure out where the ice cream is, look up a hike, go for a walk, subscribe to a local mailing list, listen to that podcast which reminds me where your obsessive-curiosity lies, talk to the people who share your heart’s language, find your local book store, find your tribe…Breathe.

The small actions that I can do for myself that sends a message to my…brain/heart/soul/body/all of the above?…to my self that I matter and that I value myself and that I want to take care of me. 

I need to start infilling my life with these other pillars of care and support, so that I can get back to making art in a more carefree way.

So that it no longer has to bear the weight of serving as a lifeline and can return to being a tool for understanding and curiosity and synthesis and freedom and play.

Because of course I went to a different library today and of course I found a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which reminded me that:

  • Your art doesn’t have to save the world. In fact, when your quest with your art is to help others…as Katharine Whitehorn says “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.” Write to save yourself, to heal yourself, to satisfy your own curiosities, and to follow your own fascinations.
  • “Do whatever brings you to life…The rest will take care of itself.”

 

FOOTNOTES

caught / uncaught

The Saturday after the election, I found myself at the East Bay Meditation Center for a daylong workshop about “Courage at the Crossroads: Faith Over Fear.” The teacher opened the day with reflections from the audience about what brought them to the space that morning. There was so much emotion in the room, we had to air it out in the open before settling into meditation. People spoke honestly, and from the heart. Much anger, frustration, sadness emerged. We were a mixed group: gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, ability. I could sense from the outset that this day was going to be both challenging and necessary for our individual — if not also our collective — healing.

I found myself sitting next to a young woman whose community in East Texas was missing her queer black radical voice. Part of me wanted to say hi to a fellow liberal Texan questioning whether she should be in the Bay Area or back home, but I ended up not saying anything: didn’t think my feelings could compare, having lived in a larger Texas city, having faced less discrimination growing up. On my other side sat an older black woman who spoke with palpable rage and frustration, whose presence emanated strength, and grace, and calm. I listened and I felt alongside her. I just wanted to sit in quiet that day.

After our sitting meditation and our walking meditation and our dharma talk, the day ended with small group discussions about how we might view current events as a positive thing: a hard challenge, and a necessary reframe. I was not courageous enough to opt out of the discussion and to stay in my own silence, so I found myself in a group with three other women of color, who were all farther along on the social justice goddess warrior path than I am. They were frustrated. They were hopeful. They were angry. They were tired. They were energized in their strength and groundedness and hurt, as they have been doing this for so long. When it was my turn to speak, I did so in vague abstractions, alluded to my baby feminism, and shared how these times were going to push me into facing the realities of finally putting my body on the frontlines.

The workshop was wonderful, and helped me to heal, and provided much needed context and compassion from which to move forward. I left the workshop more grounded than I had felt all week — but I also left feeling like shit.

I didn’t feel entitled to the same rage and heartbreak of other black and brown people of color that I was feeling because I was at the same time also feeling the guilt and complicity of the white people that they were railing against, who I too was frustrated with. This feeling of invisible frozenness within their in-between was so familiar to me as a yellow person, that I started spiraling, wondering if I was complicit in this self-silencing of myself, feeling tripped up in repressing my feelings and my words because I didn’t feel I could claim any of it for myself, as if there were someone checking claims tickets, but then again who…?

That’s when I realized I needed to stop,
that I needed to write, to at least reflect
this experience of the stuck in the in-between,
before I could move,

move beyond that
into action in solidarity with all marginalized people
into confronting my own privileges and prejudices
into dismantling any learned and internalized oppression
into embodying compassion for all beings
into making concrete the world we imagine wherein these structural oppressions and inequities have been replaced with just systems that operate from a place of full&complex humanity, dignity, and equality for all.

So. A poem.


 

caught / uncaught

For a time,
in the rawness of grief,
when mixed groups can trigger,
it is okay to gather your tribe
To be with your people
To confess your sins
to those who understand
the complexity of living
your skin

This poem
is for any Asian American out there
feeling stuck righ’ now

‘cuz I feel it.

I feel caught.

Caught between grief for an America we thought we knew
and wanting to fight for the country that our families chose

Caught between rage sadness & frustration
and guilt apathy & complicity

Caught between worry for our families’ lives
and shame at their racist homophobic lies

Caught between their vulnerability
and their willful political passivity

Caught between immigrant survival in flight
and never learning how to stay and fight

Caught between wanting to fire back, draw weapons, take sides
and avoiding conflict, peace-strivin’, love and compassion

Caught catching them silencing whitewashin you
and realizing you been invisible all along

Too ‘other’ to belong in white America
Too ‘model minority’ to be in solidarity with POC

Shouldn’t be surprised
this feeling as familiar
as second skin
as the complicity of
cringing at mom’s accent
as the guilt of
losing your mother tongue
as the confusion of
being too American
and not Asian enough
but never American enough
to be Asian in America

It is a good thing
I have learned
how to hold multiple truths
in the palm of my hands
as so much layered sand

It is a good thing
I have practice
holding contradictory emotions
in the chambers of my beating heart
knowing they will move

because emotions are built
to move

if you let them

and so are bodies built
to act

if we guide them

If we can catch ourselves from
turning hate into hate,
we become uncaught.

Take a breath
Step back
Look again
Codeswitch n
Flip it
and Reframe it

We aren’t caught…
but poised

in this middle

space

between

Asian   (and)  American

POC   (and)  majority

old generation honor  (and)  new generation justice

acting against oppression  (and) waking up from delusion

wanting to protect the most vulnerable  (and)  having some power and privilege to do so

between being baby activists in America  (and)  having gandhiji ai wei wei aung san suu kyi thich nhat hanh tiananmen square and the dalai lama in our heritage

 

We have always been uniquely poised

to bridge

different worlds

to bridge

loyalty and love

to bridge

the Asian and the American

within ourselves

both/and

.

 

A Game(poem) for Immigrant Parents of Asian American Children

Never say the words ‘I love you.’
Stop hugging or kissing your kids when they are 5.

Show your fierce loyalty and protection in other ways:
Cook for them.
Eat dinner together.
Make them eat fruit.
Always keep them fed.
Drive them to their piano lessons.
Help them with their homework.
Pay for their college.
Always keep them comfortable.
Don’t let them forget your sacrifice.
Discourage them from choosing career paths in the arts.
Remind them to be grateful.
Always keep them moving up in life.

Every time you can brag about them to your friends, gain 5 points.
Every time they forget to call you back, lose 1 point.
Every time they answer you in English instead of their mother tongue, lose 1 point.
Every time they surprise you with a sign of affection, gain 10 points.

For the first 25 years of their lives, discourage them from dating.
After 25, complain loudly about not having grandchildren yet.
If they are currently dating potential marriage material, +50 points.
If they are currently dating good-for-nothings, -50 points.
If they are single and still living at home after 30, -100 points.
If they ask you to take care of their babies, you win.
If they take care of you in your old age, you win.

Do this for their own good.
Do this for The American Dream.
Do this until you die.

(Inspired by gamepoems, via @lethalbeef)

New memories of a person you never got to know

An experiment! A short story inspired by Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlife by David Eagleman and by recent conversation at a Dinner Party table.

IN THIS LIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of the fragility of our physical lives. Talking about the sad stuff makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy stuff makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: cat videos, making fun of hipsters, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you’ve lost your mother, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details about how she passed. Sometimes they’ll ask about your grief, and you’ll tell them of your sabbatical. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to one of your mom’s old co-workers, who invites you over for tea.

This colleague’s retired now.
(Would mom still be working?)
She lives alone in a big house in Houston, with two guest rooms.
(Would mom have downsized to a condo?)
She shows you photos from a recent trip to Peru with a church group.
(Would mom have become more adventurous or more of a homebody over time?)
She tells you stories about Mattie, sweet Mattie, witty Mattie who always who had a great sense of humor.

No one else calls her Mattie. You drink it in and hold your breath for fear she’ll stop. Your fingers itch to press record or take notes. Your heart is a bittersweet jumble of emotion, mostly joy.

You reach backwards in time for new memories of this other person you barely knew.

+++

IN THE AFTERLIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of remaining tethered to our physical world. Talking about the sad memories makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy ones makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: philosophy, transit schedules, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you left behind a daughter just entering college, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details of your last days with her. Sometimes they’ll ask about your process of letting go, and you’ll tell them of your meditation practice. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog over this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to a newly-arrived soul—the grandmother of a young man your daughter used to date. She invites you over for tea.

This grandma is a retired teacher.
(Which career path did your daughter choose?)
She had a handful of grandchildren and even got to be a great-grandmother before she passed.
(How close is your daughter to being married and having babies?)
Once a year, her family would go to a cabin in the woods.
(Did she ever break out of her shell?)
She tells you stories about Christina, sweet Christina, creative Christina who was always taking pictures.

No one else has said her name to you in years, and you drink it in. You can tell this person loved your daughter, and your heart aches with jealousy before overflowing with gratitude and pride. Your fingers itch to take notes, and you hold your breath for fear she’ll stop.

You reach forwards in time for new memories of this person you never got the chance to know.

Brainpicker: “I write for me.”

I wrote this Thursday, April 10th…and then never posted it! Ironic, considering its contents. Here it is.

My biggest personal takeaway from the conversation with Maria Popova, AKA the force behind Brainpickings (at the Hattery) was her insistence that she writes for herself, and that her blog is for her and not for us. It is a catalogue of her becoming and the process of her learning. She posts what she finds interesting, what makes her feel alive and the things that make her feel like life is worth living. She posts the things that make her feel smarter and dumber at the same time—the things that make her realize how tiny a part of the universe she is, and yet that much bigger for having understood and digested something wonderful. That gasp of understanding.

It makes pitching your project to her useless, since changing the framing of the thing doesn’t change the substance, and she’ll only post the substance that she finds interesting.

It means she was super broke the first 4-5 years of Brainpickings, eating oatmeal and tuna every meal. She didn’t make Brainpickings to make a living; it was a by-product and not the objective. It felt important to her life at the time, and that’s why she was doing it.

“I write for me,” she said more than once over the course of the evening.

She also mentioned that one of her favorite books is Alice in Wonderland (her other favorite is The Little Prince), and one of the last questions of the evening was why Alice? She recounts the part where the Mock Turtle says “The master was an old Turtle…We called him Tortoise because he taught us.” Maria’s takeaway from this was that we tend to hear what we need to hear based on what we are seeking.

And tonight I needed to re-affirm for myself the belief that artists need to create for themselves and no one else. Worrying about audience or monetization or the medium before the message are all paths to paralysis.

I’ve been fighting “shame gremlins” for the past few months (to use Brené Brown’s language) about my own creative output. I’ve been stifling my own creative energies — haven’t been writing, haven’t been making comics, haven’t been taking photos. And Brené Brown’s research has shown that unused creativity is not neutral—it metastatizes and turns into negativity, resentment, shame.

What has been stopping me from creating? I’ve been paralyzed: worried about audience and caring too much about whether other people care about what I have to write and say. Questioning the worthiness of my own voice in an age inundated with everyone’s voices.

Social media can seem overwhelming these days because everyone may seem like they’re on their soapboxes. My theory is that it’s because a lot of people are posting with ulterior motives instead of from a place of sharing something they’ve created as part of living the life of meaning that they are meant to be living.

Now, that doesn’t mean we always have to be “pure” in our artistic intentions either. That’s unrealistic. Living a life of meaning and making a living are not mutually exclusive. I just think we can tell the difference. We connect more when people are putting work out there that genuinely comes from the space of, “I do this for me.” (Example: Humans of New York creator, who stuck with it through the lonely phases because he “was obsessed.”)

I know I feel it when I’m jiving, when I’m in the zone, when I’m following my gut, when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, when my actions are aligned with the universe’s path for me. Just gotta practice following that more.

My Top Read’s of 2013

Have you ever come out of a film thinking, “everyone must see this”? Every once in a blue moon, a book will leave me with the urge to proselytize.

Admittedly, it’s a dubious urge. Just because something is MY FAVORITE BOOK EVER doesn’t mean it will strike the same chord with someone else. It may even fall victim to becoming overhyped by my own praise. I came to the following two books with few expectations myself. I plucked them from other “Best of” lists and added them to my reading queue. Obviously, the books had struck a chord with other readers. That is one of the things they have in common — their writing capture the truth and messiness and hilarious details of larger emotional journeys.

These books were:

To round out the list (3’s always a nice number, isn’t it?) I would probably add a book I read a few years back. I found this book (or it found me) during my 2011 sabbatical, when I was reading every book I could get my hands on that were explicitly about death and dying — including Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its 5 Stages and the New Science of Loss (better than the 5 Stages, IMHO), Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Motherless Daughters, and a couple unfinished sociology tomes on how different cultures treat death and dying. None of these books that I pulled for my “research” were ever as powerful as the  stories that fell into my lap when I wasn’t looking.

I wasn’t expecting a book about loss when I started reading Wild. Or The Fault in Our Stars. And I knew An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination was about a mother’s loss, but I didn’t expect it to resonate so deeply with my own.

While Joan Didion’s writing never “landed” with me, Elizabeth McCracken’s did. Parts of her story have stuck with me more powerfully than the social-science storytelling of Motherless Daughters — even though those losses directly paralleled mine. Grief is universal after all, and it’s no surprise that I find solace in the specificity of how an individual (not unlike myself) grieves a loss very different than my own. It’s the power of authentic storytelling over how-to’s and data and patterns.

I should also mention that these three “must-read books” are all very FUNNY books. That is what makes them human and heartbreaking and uplifting, which is why I want to sing them from the rooftops.

When I finished reading them, I had the uncontrollable urge to tell you that you should read them too. (I also had the uncontrollable urge to start re-reading immediately. I’ve now read Wild thrice, TFIOS twice, and have referred to certain sections of An Exact Replica as reference for my comics.) I wanted to Tweet-Facebook-Instagram-Tumble-Blog about them. I felt like Wild and TFIOS should be required reading for everyone in the world! Then I realized, it’s not just because I think you will like them (though I think you will), and it’s not just because I think they will touch you (though I know they will).

I realized that I want you to read these books because these books reflect my story, and I want you to know — to really know — my story. I want you to understand my experiences with loss. Not the sadness, but the laughter. Not the shock, but the absurdity. Not the tears, but the rage. Not the tears, but the hate. Not the tears, but the joy. Not the dying, but the living. Not the difficulties of grief, but the all-encompassing love that makes the world a bigger, brighter place.

Any old “5 stages” article will tell you about the valleys I imagine you imagine when I tell you I’ve lost my parents. But these books will take you on the journey that I have journeyed to the glorious mountaintops on the other side of all that. And until I muster the gusto to write down my story…you should read these books.

New look, new start, ’nuff said.

It’s not productive to feel any of the following: 1) the burden of filling the gap by explaining everything that’s happened between the last post and today, 2) guilty about neglecting this blogspace, 3) turmoil about this space not having a defined audience, 4) the need to define this space’s purpose instead of letting it continue to be a mish-mash of personal and professional.

In meditation, whenever your brain starts to wander and you catch yourself “lost in thought”, it’s not helpful to beat yourself up about it. Tara Brach suggests we view each instance as an opportunity to awaken anew. Recognize that you are thinking, label it “thinking,” and start again in the moment.

Plus, your spirit’s expression is purpose, and purpose is ever evolving according to Chopra and Oprah). So no use worrying about what it is now and what it will be in the future. Today, I sit and write: this, here, now.

Today, I found a new favorite author writing online at Coffee in the Woodshed. To be lost in the beauty of her words, to be provoked through the framing of her thoughts, and to be feeling what her words meant me to feel…it inspired me to pick up my metaphorical pen again. Maybe one of my posts out of a hundred will resonate with someone as her post resonated with me. That is enough to be writing and publishing and connecting again. And I simply can’t get to “good” without writing “a lot.”

So.

New look, new start, ’nuff said.