Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

24 December, 2015

Christmas Angel Mother

I’m Buddhist, and grew up that way, but with the lovely influence of other people’s religions pervading my life. A Roman Catholic Convent and a Christian Missionary School, many notations on a prayer book of novenas said at the All Saint’s Church in Borella as well as numerous coconuts split and baskets proffered at Hindu Temples, as well as the invocations to Lord Ganesh when things went missing in life. That is all in addition to the Buddhist temples we visited each Poya day, and the lamps lit at my grandmother’s home each evening, all things that appear and disappear in the books and stories I’ve written as an adult. But my belief in Christmas was something else altogether.

Christmas, was a time to wish the entire galaxy consisting of friends and family SriLanka.08 1037nothing less than a “Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year.” Always these words, always the same way. Nobody joined in the mayhem with as much enthusiasm as my mother, who took me to Missaka Poth Saappuwa (Missaka Book Store), to look through the baskets of cards to buy individually selected cards for each person on my list. My list was longer than the entire family’s combined. Meaning, the people my mother made sure the entire family wished, since my brothers did not buy or send cards, and were routinely bemused to find cards sent to each other signed by themselves when they neither recalled the purchase nor wrote the loving words inside!

Yeah, my list was long. It went from Angeline to Zainab and nobody could be left out. Not Marcel or Majella, Kamani/Kama (the cousins we always mentioned together) or Kumu, not Romola or Romaine, not Aruni or Anusha. Not anybody. I loved finding these cards and sending them and receiving cards in return. My mother, who hardly had much discretionary income, somehow always indulged this madness in me – as she indulged much else that was frivolous in me (love of shoes and clothes, parties, writing, all the things that still lighten the harsher aspects of my personality).

I miss her all year long, every day, many times a day. I wish her back here with me, but I also take comfort in how vividly she endures in my life because I know this is how we all endure in the lives of the people we take care of. I think of all the caring she did for me even as I do that same caring in different ways in this faraway country. I think of her voice when I hear a middle daughter squealing with delight when she hears ‘Whispering Hope,’ a song she associates with her mother, but which I associate with mine. Somewhere in the singing of remembered songs I am both listening to my mother and singing for my daughter, an unimaginably beautiful melding of generations passed on and those yet to come.

And at Christmas, I hear all the familiar songs as though she were here. In the first years of her passing I heard this particular hymn with deep sadness. It hit me hard that the words of this hymn consoled a very real pain, and that her yearning for rescue was heartfelt, a rescue that would also be a taking of leave from me, her daughter, and my non-card-sending brothers, and that all those sentiments somehow reflected poorly on the three of us, but most especially me.

You can’t take any of it back, of course, and it is something I sometimes accept. Mostly, it seems, at Christmas when something of the optimism and happiness that swept over her during this season seems to come unfiltered back to me. On those occasions I hear this version my mother loved so much, and a sweet peace descends on earth momentarily for me too.

Share This

11 December, 2015

Ode To a Few Things

It’s been seven months. Rats. But then again, Palestine, Paris, London, Sri Lanka, my college room-mate’s wedding, teaching in Colorado, a book launch and more travel, I’ve been a touch busy. Still, this struck me today, so this is a brief ode to a few things.

First, this: the last rose of summer. Which makes me want to sing in my mother’s voice, a song she loved so well.IMG_20151208_192152

The Last Rose of Summer was written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1805 in Kilkenny, Ireland. It is set to a traditional tune called “Aislean an Oigfear” or “The Young Man’s Dream.” My mother didn’t sing it this high, but she sang it sweetly.

Second, if I am forced to, I can bake. And yes, it may have come out of a box — but honestly, if I’m not ploughing, sowing, and reaping, it’s all out of a box, right? — but it was good. And I used the handy tip, and they came out alright and the house smelled warm and lovely when the door bell rang. And the incredulous laughter at my effort and the result was genuine and I was perfect for an afternoon.

IMG_20151210_152941

Finally, this came to an end. It was bought when I was still in college, and a wise landlady had told us that we should not be in a hurry to buy “stuff,” because it would all accumulate to no purpose soon enough. She approved of this purchase, for $5 at a flea market. It has traveled many distances, from apartments to owned homes (though if you’re killing yourself to claim “ownership,” it is good to consider who owns whom, right?) and campsites. It has fed all our friends, everyone in the immediate and extended family more than once, and its delights were appreciated by people in opposite parts of the world. It has been host to fish-based disasters, bacon galore, and thousands of pancakes. It was used by both an older and a younger generation. And now it is done. Goodbye old friend, and goodbye to a time when getting-by was good enough.

IMG_20151207_183538

And so, a poem.

Home
— Edgar Albert Guest

It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ’preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An’ hunger fer ’em somehow, with ’em allus on yer mind.
It don’t make any differunce how rich ye get t’ be,
How much yer chairs an’ tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain’t home t’ ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o’ wrapped round everything.

Home ain’t a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it’s home there’s got t’ be a heap o’ livin’ in it;
Within the walls there’s got t’ be some babies born, and then
Right there ye’ve got t’ bring ‘em up t’ women good, an’ men;
And gradjerly, as time goes on, ye find ye wouldn’t part
With anything they ever used—they’ve grown into yer heart:
The old high chairs, the playthings, too, the little shoes they wore
Ye hoard; an’ if ye could ye’d keep the thumbmarks on the door.

Ye’ve got t’ weep t’ make it home, ye’ve got t’ sit an’ sigh
An’ watch beside a loved one’s bed, an’ know that Death is nigh;
An’ in the stillness o’ the night t’ see Death’s angel come,
An’ close the eyes o’ her that smiled, an’ leave her sweet voice dumb.
Fer these are scenes that grip the heart, an’ when yer tears are dried,
Ye find the home is dearer than it was, an’ sanctified;
An’ tuggin’ at ye always are the pleasant memories
O’ her that was an’ is no more—ye can’t escape from these.

Ye’ve got t’ sing an’ dance fer years, ye’ve got t’ romp an’ play,
An’ learn t’ love the things ye have by usin’ ’em each day;
Even the roses ’round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they ’come a part o’ ye, suggestin’ someone dear
Who used t’ love ’em long ago, an’ trained ’em jes’ t’ run
The way they do, so’s they would get the early mornin’ sun;
Ye’ve got t’ love each brick an’ stone from cellar up t’ dome:
It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.

13 May, 2015

The Charlie who “Threw Me Back”

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know narrative from Narrative Magazine​, I sat at a dining table with Dimitri Kasaan, and another writer whose repute and influence was beyond my small understanding at the time. It was early and in my memory we were the only ones there. He was talking about writing, good and bad, Bread Loaf, Charlieand the experiences had, over a long career of teaching, with how best to help students along. Listening to this, I was seized by a sense of horror. What if I was guilty of producing bad (creative) writing? I knew my non-fiction/journalism had a purpose, and that the writing was good, but that did not necessarily translate into an ability to write good fiction after all. Hair stylists aren’t all versed in hair coloring, and a conductor may not always be brilliant at playing an instrument. But here before me was a man who sounded like he could tell the difference. A thoughtful man, who hadn’t made it his business to condemn the aspiring, willy-nilly, but was in full possession of the skills of discernment.

I don’t even know if we’d been properly introduced, and perhaps it is a testament to the absolute innocence with which I had set foot in that exalted place, but the words burst forth from me: Please, would you read a few pages of my work and tell me if I should just give up? I remember that he looked a little startled, but I pressed on. I would take your words to heart. I don’t mind if you said it was terrible, it would save me a great deal of time. I’d like to know. Perhaps it was the absolute earnestness of the request, perhaps he could tell I really did mean all that, but he agreed.

I ran away to the computer center and printed out the beginning to the first novel I ever wrote, and got the pages to him. We bumped into each other later that day at lunch, and he told me it was powerful work. Those words – they could have meant powerfully bad work, I suppose, but I took it to mean the opposite. Or if not the opposite, then at least work that was worth doing, or that there was something there that was important enough to be written down. It wasn’t a waste of paper or a waste of me.

I think so often about that moment. I can see it in detail. I can hear the noise of the writers around me, gathering after workshop for lunch, the constant clatter of food service, the voices pitched toward and away from each other, and the hum of excitement and energy that pervades the campus hovering above it all. Most of all I see him, this gracious human being who had no obligation at all to have read the work of someone he had only just met, someone so clearly out of her league in the conversations about creative writing. I see that moment in movement and sound, but also as a still photograph that is both the before and the after. If I had not felt that grace, would I have continued to write? Even after that “powerful” work went on to languish in the house, unpublished save for the shortest excerpt imaginable from a 487 page tome? Or would I have petered out, a memorable summer fading in time?

I can’t say. There were other people at Bread Loaf who nurtured me and held me up. Others who believed in me, and encouraged me, including Lynn Freed, my teacher – now mentor, and dear friend – who introduced me to Jill Bialosky (who later sent the entire 487 page tome back with the kindest of notes).

I only know that I can trace the thin red line at the feet of that particular writer, beyond which waited all the writing that I have done since. Charlie3Someone who knew nothing about me, and had no reason to pay me the slightest heed, did. And it made all the difference. I kept on writing, and reading, and eventually publishing, and teaching, and doing a few good things in the world, all of which were invariably touched by that one conversation, those few pages, that one large-hearted human being. Over the years we’ve seen each other under other circumstances, in other cities, among other people: repeatedly at Bread Loaf, dancing in his white shirt in the old barn and in a tuxedo at the Cipriani Wall Street (#108 in that first batch of images) in quiet, over dinners and drinks and good conversations. I have had the deep privilege of having him in the audience when I read from my second novel both where it all began, at bread Loaf, and in his hometown of Minneapolis. Somewhere at the center of every meeting however is that snapshot from the past which made all those other gatherings possible, and which I can never forget.

Thank you and Happy Birthday to you, Charlie – from your very own starfish.

9 December, 2014

My Friends Are Aight

The people who really know me, know that FB is not the story of my life. Well, it’s not the story of anybody’s life, but it’s been a real long spell of “not-really-my-life,” for me. And yet, it is, in some good solid ways. Despite my very strong and often contrarian points of view, definitively expressed, I was born to celebrate. I get excited about everything, big or small. The small, even more than the big, because the big takes a little time to digest. The big is like a Pacific NorthWest twilight that takes its own sweet time. The small? Effervescent thrill like the ball drop on Times Square. Why note get giddy about it ASAP!? And so a lot of the joy and silliness that I express on FB is also an essential part of these “not-really-my-life” times.

I go to FB to remember that, more often than not, to throw my whispers and shouts into the vast churning vortex of friends and acquaintances, knowing that my words may light someone up in the way that their words often set me ablaze. Today, I came across two posts (well, one is a quote), that settled into the deepest part of my soul. Here they are.

The first was from Reginald Dwayne Betts. We met many years ago, all agog about our this and our that, bantering with each other about our work and words, our lives. We were both unpublished writers, whose songs were finally being sung in the light. A light that is particular to Ripton, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This is where Cheryl Strayed and I met, too, though she had a first novel out, and I was serving drinks to the fine and the famous and the aspiring, and delighting in all of it. Both of these people have been an essential part of my life, but even more than that, of my engagement with the world. They are real people, the ones who can get giddy about the silly stuff, but who can also hear the “not-really-my-life” life stories.

Here is Dwayne, reminding me of pretty much everything:

Reginald Dwayne Betts
13 hrs ·
Eighteen years ago today I got locked up. You really do have to pick the dates you remember, but I’m ADHD with the numbers though and so every time the clock strikes 12:08 I think about how you can ruin your life on a humble. Anyway I have work to do and a long night but was thinking that eighteen years ago the future was literally as dark as a life sentence. I still remember so many cell partners. I remember the first cell. I remember the second cell. I remember every single solitary cell. I can still see calluses I earned at pull bars with men named, well they had names. I can see this cat’s ankle protruding out of his skin after he moved a little too quick on the basketball court. Sometimes now my folks folks check up on me. And then I realize that my time stopped and theirs kept on. What you walk around with probably defines you more than where you walk. I can’t really pretend to know that yet. But I did alight since that day in December 18 years back. But shit, if you do run into that time machine, let me know. I can’t rightfully say I’d trade it all – but at least I’d go tell that kid that it would turn out fine.

And here is Cheryl, echoing his words:

Screen shot 2014-12-09 at 11.12.08 AM

28 November, 2014

Thanksgiving

The last time I had Thanksgiving at home was in 2009, the year my mother passed away. I returned from her funeral and the attendant ceremonies (traditions I wrote about in an essay for Narrative, much later), and realized that there were certain obligations I had kept that I just could not stomach. I think there are times in our lives when the large things – big losses, big loves – put everything else in perspective. This was one of them. To me, losing my mother was equal to having children. Those who could not handle the grief of the former or the joy of the latter were, essentially, diminished in my eyes, not just then but forever after.

Perhaps that is judgemental and unforgiving, but I don’t think so. My avowal to stop supporting the ACLU came when I realized they condone the right of the Westboro Baptist “Church,” to protest at funerals. It’s simple. The right to free speech ends where the right to grief begins. And no manifesto should ever trump that. Similarly, nothing should ever stop a person from reaching out to someone who has suffered a loss, particularly the loss of a mother. And surely, no human being can remain unmoved by the birth of a child. These are the basic instincts that make us human: the ones that makes people run into traffic without a second thought, to save someone else’s kid from getting hit by a car, the ones that makes people stop by a dying person, no matter who they are, so they will not die alone. There is simply no excuse for not being able to lend a hand. “I don’t know what to say,” seems like such an inadequate sentence. If birth and death do not move a person hard enough to step out of what feels “comfortable,” then what does?

Hmm. I am not sure this was what I meant to write. I had meant to write about Thanksgiving, and staying at home…but I’ll keep following this thought.

That Thanksgiving, in 2009, I attempted to cook a turkey because that is what one is supposed to do and oh, I was mightily skilled at doing what was expected of me. I put that damned bird in the oven and went on a walk where I raged and wept, but I came home and rolled nutmeats in cocoa-powder (rum balls for dessert!), and attempted to create a same-but-different Thanksgiving. We gathered around a table, a group that included my father who had left and returned with me after my mother’s funeral, and I served the food on platters that belonged to my grand-mother, my grand-mother-in-law (who had always treated me like family), and my mother, and I said something about that, about those platters belonging to and gifted by the women who had raised and guided me. Then we sat down and ate a bird that tasted like reconstituted cardboard, and stuffing with too much salt, and we pretended all was well with the world.

This year was another year when I decided that I would do what I felt like doing, not what I was supposed to do. Many things have contributed to making it a far easier choice to make. I am older, and I am deeply aware of how close I am to having only one tenuous hold, my father, on the people and histories that make me who I am, that when he is no more, I will float unanchored and lost in a cold country. I am conscious, more than ever before, that the obligations I have kept have been to people who have never seen me for who I am, not loved me for where I’m from, not ever understood me, nor cared to try. I have come to see that I had, like Mr. Flynn in the musical, ‘Chicago,’ created a lot of “razzle-dazzle,” and “flim-flam-flourish,” in order to conceal the reality of the immense and overwhelming loneliness that comes from being far from people who love me, from my parents most of all.

This Thanksgiving, I was able to say, fuck the bloody turkey. I hate turkey, and I’m done eating it. I was able to say I would cook whatever the hell I damn well pleased, and invite the people I wanted to share life with: good friends who take me as I am, who share a multitude of pleasures and interests, but are fully themselves, distinct and different and inaccessible in significant ways, but still always present, with their own flaws and fallibilities, people whose children I absolutely adore. I was happy to receive a loving message from my dearest friend, Charles, who has never once forgotten to send such notes to me on all the important times – the times when we are most likely to forget everyone in the midst of festivities like Thanksgiving and New Years and Mothers Days – and I was happy to send one along to a new friend who has come into my life, to where she was, enjoying Thanksgiving with her love and his family. I was able to hear news of other dear friends moving to the West Coast, to be happy for them, knowing that the ties of friendship will not loosen with distance, in the same way the ties of friendship with those and other good friends did not loosen with our own moves to Maine and back. And though the candles that usually line my dining table burned one of the beautifully penned name-cards, and part of the table-cloth, and the table too, I was still happy. Table cloths, name-cards, tables, who cares in the end? The faces of those who gathered, who they are, and who and what they have been to me and mine, they are what heal and lighten my heart.

Thank God for the families we create, for the ones who find us, and take us into theirs.

p.s. The lamb kicked arse.

15 June, 2014

Poem for My Father

Cucurbitaceae

I do not need the label.
I know what it is,
this bitter gourd.
Curl gnarled knob vegetable
the one children avoid,
concealing it beneath that which is palatable,
its better-loved cousins:
IMG_1903 the ridged vetakolu, the smooth pathola, the tender cucumbers.
Who would shun the better-named, the ladies fingers, say,
such elegance attached to a bundle of sticks,
such variations in texture within, the slippery, the soft, the fibrous, the seed,
a cornocupiea of treasures.
But this one here,
this one served up as a curry, in chunks,
coconut gravy and briny spices,
green chillies and fresh onions,

doing their best to overwhelm that which resists;
as a salad, thin, spidery, pin-wheels deep-fried and tossed
with lime, and white flecks of capsaicin,
with salt to heal, not wound, and yet –
this one merits no mercy.
It is bitter. There is no acquiring a taste for it.
There is no love possible for it.
There is only an understanding of its virtues:
it reduces the high of sugars
it enhances the complexion
it counteracts the defects of birth
it staves off malignancies,
it reduce the infections of the four-lettered scourge of our milieu.
But in this faraway place, displaced from home,
I gaze at the bag that my father has sent.
Consumed, it is panacea;
left alone, long past its date of expiry, it is talisman.
I think of my father’s health.
I wonder, who will send me bitter gourd?

13 June, 2014

Mary, I Miss You Today

Last Friday, around this time, I was thinking of perhaps going to bed. The next morning, at 3.30 a.m. to be precise, I was going to join in a long drive from Philadelphia to a small town in Vermont to be present at a memorial service for my aunt through marriage.

The last time Mary posted on Facebook, this is what she wrote:

Mary Freeman shared a link via Northern Stage.
December 11, 2013
Mike and I went last night and it was great. Really put one in the mood for the holidays. Tonight we are headed to Norwich to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Ann Hood. Of course my favorite has to be my own family member Ru Freeman:).

She and Mike had gone to see Northern Stage (Vermont), put on a production of “White Christmas.” I don’t know what the days were like since then for her, I only know that by on February 24th, when I landed in San Francisco en route to Seattle for a conference (AWP), I turned on my phone to a voice mail that told me that Mary was very ill and was not going to make it. It wasn’t something I was ready to believe. I had seen her over Thanksgiving, and had a particularly lovely memory of that time: an almost adult who is rarely demonstrative, somehow cuddling up to Mary and resting her head on her shoulder.

IMG_1127

How could it be, then, that I’m sitting here now realizing that this particular image of Mary is the last one I have of her? Among the things we’d talked about that Thanksgiving were presents. Somehow, over the years, Mary always seemed to know exactly what to give me as gifts. One particular year, I had been looking at a calendar from Syracuse Cultural Workers that I liked, and also loving – in the gushy way I love and dog-ear and never buy other such things in catalogs – a gorgeous, mostly orange, serving dish for crudités. I never mentioned these things to anybody, I just tossed the catalogs away. And yet, that year for Christmas, she gave me those two very things that I’d been hankering after. In years since, she’s given me many gifts, among them two I treasure greatly – a pair of gorgeous Simon Pearce Thetford tea-lights that have sat on my dining table ever since she gave them to me. How did she know exactly which things catch my heart?

As I listened to the people from Mary’s life describe their relationship to her, and I learned about worlds I hadn’t known Mary was a part of, it occured to me that Mary knew far more about me than I ever knew about her. She had a way of asking questions about my life, not just the one that had come into being when I married her only nephew, nor the person I had become because of that, but the person I had been before I even arrived in the U.S. She was curious about my parents, my brothers, even my friends. She asked after each one by name. She remembered the details of their lives, their marriages and divorces, their struggle with employment, how many children they had. She knew the name of my best friend from childhood, and my best friend in my current neighborhood, and she knew the various estrangements that had occured between each, as well as the forgiving that had taken place. She asked about my writing, bought and gifted copies of my novels, argued with her husband about who might have modeled for the cover of the first, and read every blog post I ever wrote. She didn’t say much on Facebook, but if ever there was something I said that concerned her, or made her laugh, she would message me.

Things like this:

Mary Freeman
Who is taking flying lessons?

Mary Freeman
Ru–are those great nieces of mine giving you grief?? Just tell them that Jerry is coming to town (that should scare them-it would me if I was them). I hope you are in a better space today. Mary

Mary Freeman
Does this mean you won’t be wearing your sexy boots next week? Mike will be soo disappointed.

Mary Freeman
No crutches at the wedding–there is a slope. So, no flinging yourself at passing taxis.

Mary Freeman
I know you shouldn’t pick a book by its’ cover, but I often do and your’s is a beauty!!!!

This is an exchange I remember particularly well:

February 22, 2013
Mary Freeman
What is in Kansas City? Watch out for the twisters.
Ru Freeman
Ha! Winter Institute. Big American Booksellers Association meeting. Lots of socializing with booksellers : )
Mary Freeman
Have fun. Kansas isn’t all straight laced–Melissa Etheridge is from there. I’ve only been through in the early hours of the night. Say hi to Dorothy.
Ru Freeman
I will/ And try to stay on the ground : )
2/24, 9:48am
Mary Freeman
When are you flying home? NBC has Kansas City as the bull’s eye for a major storm–stay safe, my friend.

But most of all, messages like this one:

Mary Freeman
Ru, I hope you are happier than you look–you seem sad, but that can’t be (can it?). You must be exhausted and running on adrenaline. We have friends that are moving to Petaluna as I write this and I’ve told them about your appearance at Copperfield’s. Stay happy and healthy. Love, M.

It was to Mary – visiting me at an apartment in Holyoke – that I blurted that if things did not work out with the boyfriend (her nephew), I would never want to be involved with some guy again; it was too much work and trouble. She found that a bit shocking, given that I was just a freshman in college, what could I know of the blows of life and the viccicitudes of marriage after all, but she listened anyway, talking with me about things that concerned me, neither affirming this sentiment nor trying to talk me out of it, simply communicating, while letting me be.

Of her life, I only knew the things that she chose to tell me. Most of the time she talked about her friends (Michelle, Sue), and the various comings and goings between the households – often involving pets and Leah, her daughter – she told me about Mike and his caving, marathons, and work, and she shared her stories of Leah. Leah as a seven year old, Leah as a teenager, Leah with boyfriends, Leah in college, and Leah planning a wedding. But the reasons for the things she did, or the passion behind what moved her, these escaped me. It seems strange, looking back, that I didn’t ask her more questions than I did. It is a habit with me, after all, the asking of questions, the trying to understand what’s what with people. But not with Mary. She was so good at deflecting attention, and making it seem as though it would be okay to let all the light shine on me. Mary, in more ways than I can count, let me be a child, focussing on my doings, accomplishments, trials, and joys as though they were all that needed to occupy the space between us.

So much of the gentler moments in our lives come about because someone is willing to do what Mary was so good at doing – expressing repeatedly, year after year, how genuinely interested they are in us, and our evolution. At her memorial, I gazed out at rows of tables laden with quilts that Mary had made for her beloveds over the years. It seemed so fitting a display of the giving aesthetic of her heart, as well as the complexity of someone I had always enjoyed being with, but never knew completely. One day, some day, I imagine that the whys and wherefores of her life will be revealed to me through anecdote and memory. For now, there is only the steady knowledge that she loved me and was always willing to show it.

Candles

2 June, 2014

Enduring My Name

My favorite aunt, the last person my mother called on the phone before she passed away, wrote IMG_1853these words to me today: “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” She was talking about personal difficulties, the lives we’ve each lived, the set-backs experienced. I’ve been staring out of my window here in my study, thinking about those words and what they could mean.

In the popular philosophy of my American life, endurance is something associated with distance running and officially undocumented cross-border travel. It is a trait that yields the aquisition of something: accolade or livelihood. In the Buddhist philosophy of my homeland, the term ‘endure’ means something else altogether. It is still a positive, but it is associated with relinquishing the desire for change of any sort, rather than obtaining anything measurable in material terms.

I’ve been thinking about a woman I met in New York two days ago while I was there for Book Expo America. She is a Peruvian woman named Carmen. She spoke very little English and her sentences were punctuated with long strings of Spanish as though she were asking some invisible multi-lingual person for help in translation, and many repitions of the word ‘pero’ which means, ‘but.’ For my part, I speak no Spanish at all, though I can read it and make it sound like I can speak it and understand it. Still, we communicated. I understood what she was telling me: she worked in a hotel as a maid, her husband died of cirrhosis, her son of cancer, seven years after he was supposedly cured, her daughter attends LaGuardia Community College and works at the airport, her mother lives with her. She has tried to learn English but after menopause, she claims, nothing can be retained in her head. By the time she gets home, she is too tired to read or even watch TV. She showed me a photograph of her daughter. I told Carmen that she – Carmen – was beautiful. She is. She said thank you, and told me that people ask her what she puts on her face to have such lovely skin. She told me she puts nothing on her skin, no make-up on her face. But what struck me most was her resignation. She kept saying “no more, no more,” this was it, there was “no more” for her in life. She was searching for the word to describe what she felt, looking off into a distance the way we all do when we are trying to bring back to memory what we know but cannot yet recall. I said, “destiny?” Yes, she said, this was her destiny. To be here, to work as a maid at a hotel, to help her daughter pay for college, and take care of her mother.

I can’t get her out of my mind. I wonder to what extent the simple beauty she exudes comes from her deeply felt acceptance (endurance) of the circumstances of her life. The unmourned loss of a reprobate father of her children, the lasting grief of losing her son, the difficulty of navigating a new country where she is often among people with whom she cannot speak easily. She admired what I do – writing – and spoke about the importance of education. I don’t imagine she considered me beautiful and perhaps at least some of that comes from the fact that I do not practice acquiescence as she does, though I have endured. Maybe my endurance is different from hers, mine a form of suffering/tolerance, rather than a yielding to the way things are as it is for her. Mine is the endurance of wanting a different result, while knowing full well that there is never going to be one. It is the kind of endurance that my mother practiced all her life, staring directly into the pit of her despair while imagining that someone was going to step forward at any moment, fill up that vast depth, take her hand and lead her gently away into some better light. It is the endurance of continuing to stand facing in that same direction while holding on to the hope that such a benign presence will eventually materialize beside, convincing her that yes, that pit was an aberration, not a permanent reality.

It is the endurance of a person like me whose character is built around fixing and solving. To turn away from my version of that pit would not be hard for me. But to leave the pit unfilled as I walk away is impossible. Somewhere within me is the notion that if I could only fill up that pit, smoothen the edges, maybe even plant a fruit tree in fertile soil upon it, then all will be well in the world. Until then, I, like my mother before me, keep staring at the pit, wondering about its origins, looking around for the tool or asteroid that might have created it, figuring out if there is some greater purpose to its existence than I have the capacity to understand. My mother decided that it was her destiny in this life to endure her vigilance over the circumstances of her life. I don’t know what I have decided about my own version of that great unknown.

I am the child of a culture that believes in many lives. I live in a culture that belives that our many lives are our own to make and that all those transformations take place between one birth and one death. I come from a place where changing what we do not like is an indication of moral avarice. I live in a place that belives that we must strike out and secure the things we do not have, and that the ability to do so is a sign of moral strength. I often hear my aunt speak with admiration about other women of my generation who made different choices than she and my mother did. IMG_0406I wonder what my mother might say to me if she were to know the real details of my life that she either never saw or chose to ignore in the face of such seeming prosperity. I wonder if she would nudge me away, tell me that there is no merit to staring at emptiness, expecting it to resolve into a recognizable and human shape. Or would she say that what I have in my life is so much more than she ever did, and this alone is enough? I believe she would. I believe she would ask me to behave more like Carmen, who is a better, more calm, iteration of herself.

The name Carmen means many things, but the derivative the Carmen I met embodies is that of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps the tragic heroine of George Bizet’s opera. I was not named Carmen. The name I was given, ‘Ruvani’ means, loosely, everything that is precious. The name I go by here in the United States, ‘Ru’ is a dimunitive. It was an alteration that I chose because it allowed me to be favorably disposed toward the Americans who speak it, because it sounds like an endearment, unlike ‘Ruvani,’ a name they cannot pronounce correctly and which – that mispronunciation – always infuriates me. But it is not my given name. I wonder sometimes what aspiration was tied to the name I was given by my mother, this ‘Ruvani,’ which was a correction of the one my father preferred to give me and did, ‘Rushitha’ (which means the angry one), a correction that appears on my birth certificate, the first name crossed out, the new name written in. The ‘Ru’ that I go by now, the name that appears on the covers of my books, is what unites – and all that remains – of both my father’s recognition, and my mother’s hope. But I do not know what that name means.

10 May, 2014

The Hail Mary Pass

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m in the midst of many crises. On the one hand, the public – I live in a neighborhood where I am perpetually reminded of the American tendency to shut up and let others fight our battles so that we may preserve our veneer of bogus solicitude. On the other, private – including prom for a gorgeous freshly minted adult whose similarities of disposition with mine (speaking out, a gift for writing, a deadline-oriented academic rigour), are only matched by her complete dis-similarity, namely, (apart from her athleticism), a vast disregard for planning when it comes to clothing and presentation. It includes rushing into shoe shops ten minutes to closing to find the perfect shoes. It includes a freshly minted teenager in conniptions about what to wear to her 1000th bat/bar mitzvah. And it includes clothes flying out of my closet upon the lithe and graceful backs of daughters. Usually the same clothes they had so recently scorned as being beyond the pale when it comes to fashion. Uh-huh. Oh, it is hard not to gloat.

As I nipped in here to check in on this and that, I happened to write back to a dear friend whose exceedingly well brought up son, a chivalrous and handsome young man who is now in college, is due to arrive shortly to escort my daughter to her senior prom. A few years ago, when he was still only my height, I taught him Latin/ballroom dance in my class for kids between the ages of 11-14. A class I was inspired to take on after I watched the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, about a group of NYC kids. My daughter and many of her friends were among those in the class. Little time has passed. And a great deal, too. Here they will be in a few short hours, looking like they never jumped around in socks to Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 at the end of class.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, that email. In writing to her I was reminded that this young man stepped in to rescue her from the ridiculousness of having to wait for a “promposal” from some inept high schooler. Instead, she will go to prom with someone who has, over the years, cooked for her family, walked and run her dog, lead her onstage in a jerky but charming tango, and even, during a blizzard in Maine, towed her maternal grandmother in a sled through the snows to his house for Easter dinner. This date was a scheme cooked up by two mothers, as mothers the world over have cooked up schemes to rescue their sons and daughters, sometimes from each other.

The phrase “the Hail Mary” popped into my head as I wrote her back. I’m sure most people who read this blog know what this term means, but here it is for those who may not:

The phrase Hail Mary was coined by Roger Staubach , the quarterback of Dallas Cowboys after throwing the football to Drew Pearson in the NFL divisional playoff match in the year 1975-76. The move turned out to be a winning touchdown pass. A Hail Mary is considered an offensive move where the quarterback sends the ball up with no specific receiver being targeted but just hoping that one of his team members would successfully catch it.

It has entered the vernacular to mean a last ditch effort to save what is worth saving. And I was reminded of the hundreds of times I have been called upon over the years to answer that prayer for this particularly errant and absent-minded oldest daughter of mine. The numerous times when I have procured everything from a Cliff bar to a necessary totem before a meet, from arguing her case (successfully), with a national outdoor program to reconsider their decision to deny her admission, to persuading a college to award her a scholarship (also successfully). All of it was deserved, it took no great skill, just great love.

And it reminded me of the thousands of times my mother did the same for me and for my older brothers. Hers, like mine, was not always an easy love to bear, but it was an easy love to take for granted. She persuaded a physician to remove the word “possibly” from the phrase “possibly negligible” on my brother’s medical record when he was admitted to college in the U.S. It was a clearance for Tuberculosis, a completely benign trace of which exists in every Sri Lankan vaccinated during a global effort to eradicate it from the populace. Nothing would come between her son and the safety guaranteed him by his leaving a country where boys were being disappeared by the dozen. Nothing would come between her daughter the preservation of her dignity, either, when the nuns sought fit to expel me from the convent I attended.

But the story that I am reminded of most is the one where my mother, even after realizing that I had lied through my teeth to (a) get a friend permission to attend a party and (b) stolen – yes, I admit it, stolen! – money from my mother for a wash-and-blow-dry hair appointment that I had told her was free, still played along so that my friend’s parents would not know what a dreadful creature (that’s what she called me privately as she berated me all the way to the hair appointment), I was. My mother taught me that brand of love, the one that would defend to the death the one who is loved, against all odds, and beyond all reason. The kind of love that alone is worth living for.

It is, I know, a form of madness. It leaves me, sometimes, feeling depleted and crazed, questioning my own sanity and wracked with self-doubt. But in the end, I have never regretted any of it. Not the many rides to school, nor the time I marched in and requested of the befuddled school secretary that she exacts detention on this serial late-comer, not the late night sojourns to procure “twenty apples for tomorrow!” nor the times I have flung everything out of a hideously ill-managed closet and delivered my ultimate punishment “clean it up you ingrate!” not the time that, “Karate Kid” (new movie version) style before that movie was ever made, I have asked her to pick up the coat dropped on the floor, walk to the closet and hang it up bring it back, throw it on the floor, pick it up, walk to the closet and hang it up, 100 times, nor the moment I watched her walk in with a list – a list! – of things that are wrong with me (me?!), and listened as she went through each one, not the times I have heard her cry and sometimes said “get a grip,” not the times when I’ve seen no tears but have known enough to ask, “what is going on, sweetheart?” And never the times I have simply opened my arms.

Thinking now of my mother, I realize that all of those times, every single one, were about opening my arms wide and saying this is a safe place. There was a time when I would wrap her in my robe every morning as she got ready for kindergarten, and we would talk about how safe and cozy she was in my “house.” She doesn’t fit inside my robe anymore. But I know that this evening when she stands there in her borrowed dress, and her last-minute glittery shoes, and her graduation-gift jewelery, and that other mother’s son beside her, offering his steady arm and comforting presence, she’ll still be safe with me.

I may even recite the Hail Mary, a prayer that has often sprung to my lips as an ambulance passes by, a prayer I have taught my daughters to recite, too. It has always felt like the right prayer, the prayer when all others fall on deaf ears. Little wonder that it is attached to that most masculine of games, football. Mothers will catch every pass. They will make sure your uniform is clean before the game. They’ll get you to the game on time. And when the goal is made, they will miraculously also be there to cheer from the sidelines like any other spectator. Whether you see them or not, they will be there.

So here’s a little Ave Maria for all of you and Happy Mother’s Day to those who play Mary to sons and daughters of your own!

18 December, 2013

Bourbon & (Mothers) Milk?

I am over at American Short Fiction today, talking about my favorite good/bad mothers in fiction alongside a group of excellent folk like Xhenet Aliu, Alexi Zentner, Eugene Cross, Shann Ray, and J. Capó Crucet You can read the whole piece here. Below, an excerpt (this one from Xhenet):

When I read Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” of course I find myself oppressed by the mother’s admonitions and lessons. Of course I want to pluck the broom from that poor girl’s hands. Of course I want to insist that sluttery isn’t in the swing of a hip but in the eyes of those who are terrified of sex and any form that reminds them of their own fear. Of course I resent the overbearing, unnamed but monstrously present mother—and yet I find myself wondering, secretly, if the mother believes she’s actually doing something right, and if that counts for anything. I wonder if the mother thinks that doling out a little bit of pain will spare her daughter from a well of it. Even if the mother is wrong—about how best to armor a daughter, about where the biggest hurts spring from—I can’t help but find a teeny sliver of tenderness in there, the kind of maternal hardness that’s like an autoimmune response: a natural defense in functional, small doses, and painful, even fatal, when unrelenting.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


Twitter