Witness

Hi, my name is Serena, and I have a story I’d like to share and a request to make of you. Tonight marks the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy — a natural disaster from which many people are still recovering. I remember them every single day, even when I try to forget. I remember them in solidarity with the other natural disasters that have affected people all over the world.

At the time of the Hurricane, I was living in Jersey City and had just moved there from California to start an MFA program at Rutgers-Newark. It was a frightening swirling thing of a night; I lost my home; I lost the security, peace, and even time, that had brought me to Jersey. I became depressed. Hope seemed to belong to a different me, a successful attorney (insert irony: a specialist in climate change and affordable housing) who was capable of helping people. I wasn’t even capable of helping myself.

A year later, I am surrounded by so much kindness and light in Brooklyn: from my family, the people in my MFA program, from writers and poets, and from my friends all over the world. As I moved from place to place seeking housing, so many of you kept in touch with me through FB, sent me cards, music mixes, clothing, e-mails, and talked to me on the phone or in person. Thank you. (Sorry, but I didn’t receive everything b/c the post was bad, so if I didn’t personally contact you to thank you that means I didn’t receive it!)

The thing I learned over this past year is that even when everything we think we have disappears, when everything we are is irrelevant, when we lose control, when we despair because we were never in control, we are left with only love. That is what I have to give and to receive today. I value my love, more than any skill I possess or action I can take. I give it freely and without reservation.

The catalyst to my journey as a writer, and the people that gave my battered spirit a home, was VONA. They are launching their fundraiser so we can read stories by us, by people of color, and in that humble process, change the world. Please consider donating the small amount of $5 on my behalf — link on the bottom. If 100 people do this — it will be $500. The story below was published in VONA’s March 2013 Newsletter.

Witness
by Serena W. Lin

The parked cars light up and cry, their tin husks filling up with water as the Hudson rises by the inches, pouring down the street from Liberty State Park in Jersey City until finally this river, full of plastic bags and silt, heavy with toxins and sewer shit, creeps through door jambs and into trunks, triggering alarms like a thief that doesn’t care because nobody will come out to turn their alarms off anymore. I walk out the front door and watch the water climb up the steps, the wind in my face, thrilling me, shaming me. One by one, the alarms all go off, up and down the block and around the bend and through the neighborhood, until late at night, the blaring midnight choir signals a loss I don’t yet understand.

(This sound would stay lodged inside of me and seize my imagination, even months later; it gave my fear a soundtrack and seemed more real to me than the fact of Hurricane Sandy, more real to me than the people who lost their homes, the ones who lost their lives.)

The story that fucks me up the most is one I hear on the radio almost two weeks after Sandy. It happens in the projects, central Rockaway in Queens, a few days after the Hurricane hit, and nobody’s got power there, or heat. The concrete is swallowing the light. They’re running out of water. This woman and her dad, they need to get some water. The staircase is slippery, and he falls when she turns around back to go get a flashlight. He hits his head and dies.

(I look his name up months later, Albert McSwain.)

I am in the first semester of my MFA program and all I can think is this is some fucked-up shit as I listen to students in my program whine to me about how they can’t finish their writing assignments, how their semester is ruined, how they are just so done with the semester: I want to slap them. When I hear my own voice complaining the loudest about how I am displaced and can’t find a home, I’m filled with a self-hatred so bleak that it looks back at me in the mirror and actually tells me to go home. Go back to California. Go back to being a community lawyer. Leave this writing dream behind because obviously it wasn’t meant to be.

Just after one of these crisis-induced vanity sessions, because it’s vanity when you start taking a natural disaster personally, I apply to VONA Miami. I’ve been to VONA twice before in the Bay. I write to Evelina, and, next thing I know, Elmaz lets me into her memoir workshop. You’d think I’d be grateful. Instead, I freak out and make excuses about why I shouldn’t go to VONA this year because I’m not writing memoir. Don’t they know this? I mean these folks were the ones who helped me understand that I deserve to write. I know myself: I’m all about fiction, where I get to disguise my emotional truths with made-up humans and other creatures. Sure, my characters are me, just not me-me. I write Elmaz an e-mail about how I can only write fiction, and she tells me it’s about telling my story, and she welcomes fiction. Darn it, Elmaz… I’m out of excuses. I move for the fifth time in five months, this time to Brooklyn, and I hop a plane to Miami the next day after I move.

My buck fifty about human nature: In my Hurricane experience, I got treated to the worst and best of human nature in a collapsed timeframe, as if the Hurricane were an every-human-emotion-in-two-minutes roller coaster that loops you upside down with your most basic baby instincts and then takes you to the top where Buddha and Allah hug in the clouds, right before it drops you to the end. You’re left empty with a case of the shakes. Stressors bring out all kinds of goodies: greed, racism, rage. Sure, there’s love, generosity, kindness in the mix too, but they’re obscured and swirled in with the craptastic. To make sense of it all, you’ve got to get off the damn roller coaster. You’ve got to go on the inner journey, as Patricia Powell once told me, and the only way to do that is to get your world in order. The only way to put your world in order is to find a way to be safe.

***
VONA-Miami gave me sanctuary. My roommate Angelyn couldn’t have been a more grounded person if she tried. Sitting in a room with Carlyle, Bahar, Rosanna, Annette, Kevin, Cindy, Tess, Emma, Anton, I found refuge in their personal stories, their courage. Elmaz was like that lifeguard who is so fucking experienced she doesn’t even need to get off her chair. She waits until you’re tired of drowning and then wades in after you with her packet of prompts, readings, and guidelines. You just know that every single page is crafted with love, with the ache of hard work and the sleepless nights that it takes to be a real organizer, and with the faith that she can bring forward writers of color out of a colonized world. As my fellow writers described their pains and their triumphs, they taught me. At the final reading, all the VONA folks scrambled my brain with intoxicating words. As I heard them reading, I thought to myself: I was saved from the flood so I could witness this. These folks took the other end of a hammer and pried away the nails that I used to board myself up. They kept at it until they opened the door to my heart.

For all of this, VONA, I am grateful.

***
Elmaz had us pick out a line from the faculty reading that meant something to us. How’s this for following instructions?

(Disclaimer: These are quotes as I heard them, not as they actually were read).

Chris Abani:
There is nothing gained from loss.
I was afraid my name would be obscured.

Elmaz Abinader:
My mother declared making me look neat was a lost cause.
The mannequins – they were beyond holiness.
It was all up to this heart and what it had to say.

M. Evelina Galang:
His fire is so strong. He doesn’t have to use his anger.
Even Jesus Christ can get his jaw broken.

Willie Perdomo:
Didn’t drop the secret
Then
No use dropping it now

Yes Poet
I dreamed you

All these songs,
And not one to go home with

Serena W. Lin a is a Truman Capote Fellow in fiction at the Rutgers-Newark creative writing program. She says VONA is a huge reason why she was granted the fellowship.

DONATE HERE:  http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-writers-of-colour-2013-14

Person, Set to Music

The world set in a stone.

All I could draw forth was blood.

 

The world untwisted on a barstool.

We talked about race, then class.

 

I protested that I had the world in my pocket.

My friend, he gifted me a yo-yo version.

 

I set glass on the balance.

Why does my heart always outweigh?

 

I’m lost but for my honesty,

which is critically acclaimed

A Facebook Post About Boils and Combatting Depression

(warning – this post is grody to the max).

Depression: the more people I get to know (really know) the more I see how difficult life can be and how common depression is. Curling into bed tonight with a fresh ginger tea and fighting off the final touches of a lingering cold/flu, I started to ponder gratitude — and why people say that it, along with empathy, is a cure to depression. There was even a cartoon (which I loved) making the FB rounds that explained that telling people they shouldn’t feel down because others have it worse is like telling people not to celebrate because others have done better (paraphrase). I agree with this!

But, I have many things for which to be grateful and also many things for which to be hateful and bitter, so I wanted to give the gratitude cure a try. As I considered what of the many things in my life I should feel thankful for first (and then got more depressed and started watching Top Chef re-runs), a friend called to tell me about her day. A couple days ago she developed a boil on her arm, her dominant arm, upper right, near the triceps. Not just a small, eeeny-weeny boil, but a huge festering disgusting bulging sore thing that erupted out of nowhere and got so big that she had to rest her arm on a pillow as she talked to people at work. She called her doctor and they were like GET THEE TO AN EMERGENCY ROOM.

So, she went into the emergency room, and the growth on her arm was so disgusting that the doctors looked unhappy to have to help her. But if you don’t treat these cyst-like things then the infection they contain can get in your blood stream. So they decided they had to lance the thing, which they did. And then they took an actual pump, like a sump pump, and they sucked all the yellowy pus out of her boil, and then there was this giant gaping hole in her arm. They didn’t want that to get infected so they actually stuffed cotton balls into the hole in her arm. She was in pain, and her partner had to leave, but he took the bus and left her the keys to the car without telling her where the car was parked. She wandered around the parking lot for half an hour trying to beep beep her car. Eventually, she found it, but she was in so much pain that she drove home left-handed and woozy from the meds, endangering many pedestrians.

After I berated her for careless driving endangering hipsters, we laughed! She said that, ironically, she’d been going through hard times mentally and emotionally, and now she felt a lot better because the physical pain was somehow distracting and focusing her attention on other things. When she finished telling me this tale, I asked her if she would write a short story about a woman with a boil. She said that there was no way. So, I said, could I do it? Would she please send me a picture? She said that she gave me full right and permission to write a story about a woman with a boil. So I said YAYAYYYYYYYY! Then I felt a lot better and realized that I am lucky that I have friends who have crappy things happen to them and then call me to laugh about it and yeah I feel better, but not at her expense, but because my friend called to tell me about what was going on with her, and she shared even the grody, yucky, hard stuff. I am truly grateful and waaaaay less depressed!

© Serena W. Lin

p.s. I hope she posts the picture on my FB PAGE!

For Natalie Diaz

OCTOPUS REJOINED

Today I heard Natalie Diaz read (author of When My Brother Was an Aztec) and was utterly spellbound, blown away, taken out of whatever place I was in (flu-ridden and foggy-headed) and transported into story and pain and sorrow and silent contemplation.  She talked about her process, and I kept thinking about the octopus.  In the ocean, the octopus delights me, jetting its arms out through a blue sky, surprising me when it emerges, a whole alien shape in a terrain I only thought I knew.  In the world, the octopus terrorizes me, its tentacles remind me of a white friend in my writing program who surprised me when they stopped calling me socially because I had called out white privilege in a classroom full of white people (of which he was one).  He said that it was expecting too much to ask him to say something as well because he was still learning.  He said that I was too intense.  So instead of learning how to talk about race, which was no good for octopi spotting (a paramount skill), I learned to be gentle so that the octopus would only bother me when I was alone.  I am scared of gangs of octopi – the ones that sit on the ocean floor.

 

 

I’m not the kind of girl who would go put a stick in the octopus’s lair.  The octopus is everywhere.  I first saw its shade when I wondered why people could never pronounce my father’s name correctly, or why before he died, he complained that everything tasted so bitter, so foreign.  Perhaps his tongue was caught by an octopus’s mouth, which may or may not be pink and have sharp teeth inside.  His business partner was an octopus that appeared out of nowhere, although they shared two countries — flailing out at him when he had cancer, and dissolving their partnership.  This attack happened before my father could understand what was ripping into him.  I think he fell without knowing that he was falling because the octopus tripped him with a lazy suction.  He hit the ground and shattered into a million pieces. 

 

The stuffed octopus with a smile that stretches to every side of its oval can be won at the circus, and I always wanted to go on a ride with her at the boardwalk, but she was terrified of the octopus and its million babies that would surely spit at her and then float away into the night sky, like umbrellas whose broken frames rise disjointedly, and dance like synchronized swimmers, one arm, one leg, many arms, many legs. 

 

Tonight I sit alone, in the deep, swallowing sand and waiting for my time to come.

conversations i’ve never had

 The tabletop is full of returns.  I haven’t seen her for two years.  I stretch my hand across the tabletop.  How are you?  I am filled with genuine concern.  How did you fare without me? 

Well, I just drove across the Continental U.S. to be close to you.  I had a run-in with a very mean meathead in Wyoming.  I slept in Moab and roasted marshmellows with a young adventurer with yellowed hair and bits of yarn in his socks.  I saw the sun rise over the Grand Canyon.

Was it a cop?  In Wyoming?

Yes.

How was South Dakota?

I’m not that patriotic, and I hate Theodore Roosevelt.

Did you see Crazy Hose?

Yes.

How was it?

Awkwardly built and full of homage, but not to crazy horse, but to the guy who built the thing.  Some architect – I don’t remember his name.  It was fine.  I’m taking the Southern route next time.

Through Texas? I squeaked.  She still hadn’t taken my hand.

I’m driving straight through the Klan parts.

Good for you!   I laughed heartily, holding my stomach with both hands.

Put your hand back on the table.

Why?

What’s this?  She traced a line down fifteen short vertical slashes somebody had carved against the wall.

It’s the scoring of days that imagined sailors spent on a ship far away from their loved ones.

I told you to put your hand back on the table because I still have feelings, but you and I need to have a conversation before I’m willing

to take your hand.

About what?  I’m here.  We can talk about anything, but don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?

            You mean that you think I’m being a little dramatic.

The silence filled the space between us.  I automatically assumed marriage.  I didn’t want to fight.

I’m not here to fight.  I’m here to ask you to marry me.  It’s legal in California you know.

            Do I have time to think about it?

                        Is that a yes?

            No.  Maybe.

                        When are you leaving?

            Tomorrow.

I checked the oil and the tank is full.  You can use the same car.

            You don’t suppose that this is a bit on the silly side.

                        What’s silly about two people going back to the place they came from?

            No matter how far away?

                        No matter how far away.

No matter how soon?

            No matter how soon.

Ego-Centric

Pablo Neruda reads her a love poem on the steps of the library.  She falls in love with his enunciation.  It is a word without hesitation, or with.  It is truth, says she, that he will love her.  Will he leave her?  Is it possible that near the mildewed locker banks, returning that first week of high school, he will ditch her for a taller, sturdier girl with Lee Press-on nails and a Soul-Glo?  Is it, in fact, the responsibilities of aging that will charge through him and catch fire and flatten him into the ashes of a solid job:  lawyer, banker, doctor, import-export entrepreneur.  Even IT.  No drummers.  No amateur botanists.  Definitely, no poets.  Is it the pressure of an aging middle-class, a mortgage, crappy healthcare, her inability to conceive, the dissenting speech of her relatives for so sour in their peanut is a mixed-class, mixed-race relationship, or the possibility that he is also staring at a fine man who is walking down the steps, translations in hand, his ass so tight, the fabric frisking it, the poise of a stranger’s hands by sunlight, book-slinger, the ancient sheath of hair, the risen shoulder, the diminishment of her self, and the lack of interest in what he is saying, that will revise her summer romance?

The Sort of Person

I am the sort of person who keeps my friends in my life for as long as I can.  I have a huge capacity for friendship.  It’s why I have friends from almost every part of my life.  Many of my friends have known me since I was really young (like zero).  Much of that is due to my tight knit immigrant community (like our parents were friends and took for granted we would be friends when we were still in the womb).  Much of that is due to my friends being genuinely stellar, solid people (like they tether me to the earth every time I have tried to float away) who are, to a one, remarkably interesting and amazing.

Some small part of that, I hope, is due to my capacity to love.  The larger part is due to theirs.

One reason, however, that I have any friends at all was brought to my attention tonight.  It is my ability and desire for meaningful conversation, and their ability to meet it.  It takes courage and strength to engage with people even when we are scared.  I was born with words.  I don’t know why.  I can’t say that having a bunch of words is always useful.  They don’t make sense much of the time.  They don’t even really seem like they’re from me.  They come at me as if from a distance.  All of a sudden they are coming from me.  That is how I feel about being me.  Constantly surprised.

I will try to the point of exhaustion to be open to what people have to say.  Most of the time I fuck it up.  It is not my usual state, being open.  But I am usually up for trying, again and again.  Sometimes, I will try pointlessly and counter-productively.  I used to do those conversations a lot more.  The not-fun, circular ones.  I’ve learned the importance of timing, of trying to gauge my self, and where I am now.   I’ve learned the difference between me and other people.  I’ve learned not to take other people’s problems so personally.  I’ve learned that I can intellectually want to forgive and move forward, but that my heart is sometimes not ready.  I’ve learned that sometimes people need to walk their own path.  I am (more) patient.

Eventually, on their own time, people get up from the ground and rise.  There are voices traveling through the air that we do not immediately recognize.

While my philosophy has its many downsides, the truth is I have also reaped a huge benefit by never saying no to an honest conversation.  I’ve learned from my mistakes.  It is an under-appreciated skill to know the difference between when you are ready for an honest conversation vs. when somebody else is ready for an honest conversation.  I’ve learned the difference between setting a boundary and allowing a lie.  I am constantly trying to separate where I am and where somebody else is.  My inability to know and recognize these differences have led me into terrible pain.  Empathy is part curse.  I give my attention to others most fully when I am also giving it to myself.  I’ve often sucked it big time at giving attention to myself.  Ergo…yup.  Room for improvement…check.

I can’t give up on the transformative conversation.  That is because I am the beneficiary of my friends.  They have literally saved my life.  Much of this saving has taken place in messy, disastrous conversations where I have said questionable and regrettable things.

There was a time when I cruised around town loaded with violence for my shadow.  I never caught up to us.  Good thing, because that would’ve been a hard way to go.  Now, I am trying to let myself be.  Just be.

I try not to shut my door to any human being.  I try instead to continuously tidy my house so that I can keep my doors open and continue to invite visitors in.  Lately, I feel that my house is in shambles.  I am embarrassed by its state and do not wish to have guests.  They still knock.  I still answer.  I explain that now is not a good time.  Do you still want to be here?  Some, but not all, do.  I show these folks in, and I point to the sign that says take your shoes off.  Some of them do not like the mess.  They exit quickly, and I am grateful after some initial outbursts about rudeness.  Some want to clean it up.  They are frustrated easily and blame me for their failure.  I get them window cleaner so we can see the houses across the street.  Others pretend to like it and engage in polite conversation while eating crumpets and other British inventions.  They don’t believe in real magic and are easily entertained by distraction.  A few sit and keep me company while I try to tidy it up.  They smile at me with their sad eyes and hold me with their presence.  They stay.

That was not hard to say.  This next part is:

It took me all these years to see that I have true friends because I am one.  I stay.  I have stayed for so many people over the years.  I have stayed even when I hated myself so much that I didn’t think I deserved to have these same people stay with me.   I have stayed even when I knew that as soon as they were better, we would no longer be friends.  I am capable of staying.  I’ve only ever run away from people a handful of times.  Each of those times, I turned around and stopped running at some point.  I am so deeply flawed, but I am trying to accept myself.  It is scary for me to say this because I have given more to others than I have asked for myself.  And every time I have done that there was always somebody in my life giving me more than I gave them.

I grew up believing I deserved less than what I was capable of giving to others.  This imbalance and inability to perceive myself for everything that I am led me to a profound aloneness.  The aloneness gave me the courage to let good friends into my life.  Those friends helped me become less lonely.

Three things I read/re-read today that inspired this post.

***

http://www.upworthy.com/loneliness-illustrated-so-beautifully-you-will-need-to-tell-someone

(thank you for this link Courtni)

***

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/how-not-to-be-alone.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(thank you for this article Aimee)

***

“People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
When you figure out which one it is,
you will know what to do for each person…

“When someone is in your life for a REASON,
it is usually to meet a need you have expressed.
They have come to assist you through a difficulty;
to provide you with guidance and support;
to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually.
They may seem like a godsend, and they are.
They are there for the reason you need them to be.

“Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time,
this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.
Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away.
Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand.
What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.
The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

“Some people come into your life for a SEASON,
because your turn has come to share, grow or learn.
They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh.
They may teach you something you have never done.
They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy.
Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

“LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons;
things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation.
Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person,
and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.”

— Unknown

(thank you for this poem Justin)

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