Sentience

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther, published 1949, is a memoir recounting the life of his beloved son, Johnnny Jr., who died of a brain tumor at age seventeen. It is a deeply personal story of a father's memory of the last year of his son's life, raising many timeless ethical questions in end of life. Johnny amazed everyone in the medical profession by living a full life leading up to the end, surviving multiple experimental treatments at his parents' attempt to "stave off death." He was dedicated to his academics, taking exams, performing his science experiments, gathering the strength to walk at his high school graduation, learning to dance, submitting his college application to Harvard, planning what books he wanted to bring to the country on a long awaited summer trip. 

Having something to look forward to makes for a rich life, makes for a life worth living.

I was impressed by the family dynamics in this memoir. I had the sense Johnny's parents, John and Frances, had an amiable divorce because they took equal responsibility for his care and were loving towards one another even though they led separate lives. John Gunther rented a hotel room and lived near their house in order to see his son regularly, and they shared family meals at the house. John brought scarlet carnations to the funeral because they were Frances's favorite flower. They were a close and tender family who expressed their feelings. I loved that Frances read to Johnny and encouraged him to write in a journal. John Gunther wrote that his son used to leave the journal out in his room as a way of communicating his feelings with his parents when he wasn't able to say them aloud. This was a time of letters and telegrams that is lost in modern families.

It is remarkable this memoir is John Gunther's literary legacy, considering he was a popular journalist and travel writer. Death Be Not Proud withstood the test of time. Despite advances in medicine, the end of life experience remains largely the same and retable.

This is my favorite passage, defining what it means to be human and how delicate life is:

"All that goes into a brain - the goodness, the wit, the sum total of enchantment in a personality, the very will, indeed the ego itself [...] Everything that makes a human being what he is, the inordinately subtle and exquisite combination of memory, desire, impulse, reflective capacity, power of association, even consciousness - to say nothing of sight and hearing, muscular movement and voice and something so taken for granted as the ability to chew - is encased delicately in the skull, working there within the membranes by processes so marvelously interlocked as to be beyond belief. All this - volition, imagination, the ability to have even the simplest emotion, anticipation, understanding - is held poised and balanced in the normal brain, with silent, exquisite efficiency." (p. 79)

When the time is right the words will find you

An older man stood in the shade under the canopy entrance of an apartment building. He was wearing a loosely fitted short-sleeve collar shirt draped over his pot belly, beige shorts below the knee, a matching beige drawstring bucket hat fastened on his head, and dark glasses. He looked like someone dressed to face the elements. The sunlight shone on his protruding belly with his first step. Before the entirety of him stepped out into the light, he reached forward and grabbed at the air with his hands like a blind man feeling in the dark. He seemed to be checking the intensity of the sunlight, the temperature, preparing himself to make that second step forward, and then the next, and the next. 

This scene unfolded in a quick instant while I was riding past on my bicycle one day, it has been replaying in my mind since. I remember turning my head back to savor it a little longer as I rode past. Each carefully calculated gesture, the sequence of events, the preparedness, the adventure of it all, the man stepping out into the sunlight, replays in slow motion in my mind and I've been wondering why. The reason is nothing is perfect. Nothing is Perfect. These black spray painted words are fading on the stone wall beside the overpass bridge I've been climbing. Perfection to me is not about symmetry or achieving a certain standard of beauty. It is merely feeling at peace, like all is right with the world. The last few months almost every time I pick up the phone, glance at the news, walk past another tree stump, witness resilient things cut down to the bone, I am reminded that it isn't. 

There have been moments when I felt time stood still and I thought, I will write about this feeling, but was preoccupied being in it that by the time I sat down no words came. Perhaps that is all the man who wanted to be ready to embrace the sun was after, to know he wasn't going to get sunburned, nothing painful would catch him by surprise, the sweetness of the linden trees would fill his lungs, he would be alright. 

***

I wish I could rewind to the beginning of May when everything was in bloom and summer was full of possibilities. We traveled that month and I was obsessively planning and fixating on small details, like selecting the best crossbody bag to wear on a weeklong getaway. After much sweating and fretting, I found myself perched on a windowsill inside an observational tower and a ray of sunlight touched my face. I closed my eyes and enjoyed its warmth, feeling all at once tired, sleepy, happy. My husband is always full of energy when we travel, wanting to venture out and explore immediately, while I seek out the softest spot to lie down. 

Lately there have been many days of relentless heat and observing the world around me and myself in it. I have not been reading or writing as much as I would like, although I still write every day. I have been reading, not every day. I have been pushing forward on my bike, anticipating the freeing speed of the incline, and looking out from windows. I was recently reading on the train, a lovely essay in Donald Hall's collection titled A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. He lived 23 years without his wife and made it to 89. I was charmed by the way the sunlight danced on the cream pages, flickering through the trees outside the window like a light switch flipped repeatedly on and off very fast. 

Today, a slender young man sat at the bench seat across the aisle. He placed a small cardboard box on the table that looks like it could have contained a ring. He was wearing a black face mask and a blue rubber glove on his left hand. He carefully pried open the box with his gloved hand, inside was a styrofoam lid and underneath it, he lifted a tiny test tube with an orange biohazard sticker taped around it. He examined it briefly, noticing I was watching, his eyes darted back and forth and he placed the sealed tube back in the box and tucked it in the outer compartment of his backpack. He removed the glove and scrunched it in his palm, swinging his backpack over his shoulder, and walked away. I kept looking at the empty seat backs, expecting him to return. 

***

In the beginning of this summer, I was preparing my first lesson plan for a class on keeping a journal. Teaching this class had been one of the most rewarding and soul-enriching experiences I've ever had. Before I figured out what I was doing, I read through one of my old journals for inspiration. Ten years ago, I had written: 

I want to write a story where nothing happens. No one will inflict pain. No one will get hurt or die. Nothing obvious will change. There will only be love, falling in love, living in love, the joy of life.

Now the sentiment reminds me of one of the last sessions when we had shared the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary things in our lives. One of the more quiet students didn't want to read from his journal, he shrugged his shoulders and said that nothing notable happened to him that week. But then someone described how they had witnessed an ant struggle, climbing up the wall, carrying an injured or dead ant on its back. Then I heard him turning back the pages and I saw them filled with writing. Is it really true? I asked, No, in fact, there was music and he talked about the pleasure of learning to play piano again. 

***

The truth is I have been wanting to write for a long time and while I still write, it is often in fragments. I write about the golden rain tree and how it looks most beautiful now, decorated with its bright green seed pods that remind me of paper lanterns. When I am drawn close to a branch and reach out to touch them, they sound just like hollowed paper forms. I write about the cat we've deemed The Patroller napping on the front step of his mansion. I write about the relief of the summer rain, the clusters of dried blue rose hibiscus flowers on the ground marking the nearing end of this season, the whirring air conditioners, the soothing sound of insects and tree frogs chirping and buzzing at night. 

I have been looking to feel something when there is no time to stop and feel. The journaling classes helped me regain some balance and my sense of self this summer. It was a safe place where I felt I could be myself, a place where it meant something. I remember telling a friend that I felt my heart opened, like there was suddenly more room in my chest and I was calm and receptive to all conversation. I always arrived early and stayed in the room a few minutes longer after everyone had left to revel in that feeling, because I knew each week my heart would shrivel in its little cage again.

I always say to people who want to write, to write about the uncomfortable. The writer Burghild Nina Holzer said the key to writing and life in general is giving away what is most precious, instead of holding on to it. At the end of the last class session, after the thank yous and goodbyes and wishing each other a good rest of the summer, I remained seated at the table in front of the whiteboard and looked out at the clean gray desks and empty chairs. Outside the window, the evening sky was already coming into view and I remembered how when I first started it was still daylight after classes. For the first time a bittersweet kind of happiness welled up inside me, there is so much more left to give but I gave all I could in the time I had. 

***

I've lost track of where I was going. That's how I generally write and how I live my life. I don't have a pre-set destination and that is what makes journaling and any kind of writing most pleasurable. There is nothing wrong with preparing for the worst, but don't let it become all-consuming. I hope you find a place within yourself to release what is most precious. Even if it takes time, even if you don't know where to start. Put down the unspeakable on paper and when the time is right the words will find you. 


Real life has no table of contents

I saw Ghost Forest, by Pik-Shuen Fung, on the Staff Recommended shelf at the library. The title caught my attention and leafing through, I knew this would be a stimulating read. What convinced me, at first, is the structure. The novel consists of brief stand-alone chapters, or vignettes, chronicling the narrator's upbringing in Vancouver as a child of immigrant parents from Hong Kong in the nineties. Her father remained in China, where his financial prospects looked best, while the narrator is raised under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother in Canada. She visits her father during the summers with her mother, and sometimes he flies out to stay with them and looks disapprovingly at their Westernized customs. The story is interweaving with her mother and grandmother recounting their lives, the family growing closer and coming to terms with the father's terminal illness and ultimate death.

I loved the subtle and often funny descriptions of how the family adapts to new traditions, mixing two worlds. The narrator has a close friendship with her grandmother, who shows her love through cooking. The narrator's favorite snack is her grandmother's sticky rice roll, where Lay's potato chips were added for extra crunchiness. In a section titled "Hair Ceremony," she watches a restored video tape of her mother's pre-wedding ceremony where someone places red candlesticks inside Coca-Cola cans and the narrator follows in her mother's footsteps placing her own candles in empty jam jars. 

The writing is sparse, but every sentence carries weight. One of my favorite vignettes is "The Artist's Spirit," where the narrator described studying Chinese ink painting in college. She is introduced to a freehand style of painting called xieyi, which means "to write meaning." 

Xieyi artists "left large areas of the paper blank because they felt empty space was as important as form, that absence was as important as presence." (p. 70)

This concept mirrors the structure of the book and the underlying struggle to experience a shared love and grief in a family that doesn't speak openly about either. There are several vignettes where the narrator struggles to tell her father that she loves him, and then struggles to accept his inability to say it in return. While her family has difficulty saying the word, they show it instead. Her mother gives her father three-hour long foot massages when he is at the hospital, and the narrator reads aloud to him and holds his hand. 

There were many interesting Cantonese sayings in the story that I stopped to jot down, and it was eye opening and refreshing to read a different perspective on death and mourning, and moreover what it means to be truly alive. This is the author's first novel, but I couldn't help but wonder if it is as much of a novel as Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is more of a memoir. A novel that is, with a few ironed out memories, is based on truth. 

There was a section towards the end where Pik-Shuen Fung lists the questions she wished she had asked her father. When I sat down to write this, I couldn't find the passage and kept turning the pages over and over. Frustrated, I said aloud, "I wish this book had a table of contents!" and my husband walked behind me, laid his chin on my shoulder, "Life doesn't come with a table of contents."

These are the questions the narrator would have asked her father, and these are the questions I encourage you to ask yourself and those you care about.

"What were you like when you were a kid?

What are the things you wish you'd known?

What makes you sad?

What makes you happy?" (p. 231) 



"Home is a route anchored in memory"

I repotted the violet orchid in my office. It has a single drooping node, weighed down with five vibrant flowers on its tip. The flowers are opened like the exuberant skirts of can-can dancers tucked in behind one another, three on one side and two on the opposite. There are four new buds waiting to join the line, each slightly larger than the proceeding one. The long rubbery green leaves are draped over the plastic gray pot. The plant had outgrown the pot for quite a while, stringy roots protruding out of the soil. I titled the pot to the side and pulled out the smaller plastic container nestled inside. Within lies a web of roots twisted and covered with a soft white coating the texture of styrofoam.

The roots were contorted to fit the mold of the container. Several passed through the small drainage holes at the bottom. One determined root even cracked the wall. I had to cut the side of the plastic to carefully pry them apart, like intertwined fingers clasped together, clinging to the soil. The extraction complete, I held the plant in my hands and it felt like something sacred from the sea. I poured fresh soil in the new clay pot and placed it inside, spreading more soil and patting it, making sure the roots have ample room beneath. I sprinkled a tiny spoonful of special orchid powder on top and watered it. I placed the orchid, in its new home, on the windowsill in the sunlight to watch over me as I cleaned up in the aftermath of the operation.

I washed the bits of black soil from underneath my fingernails under the warm tap and kept thinking about those complicated roots. In the mirror, a memory flickered in front of my eyes. Looking at my unmasked face, I remembered staring into the same eyes in a sleepless daze in another lifetime. I would stare into black pupils like ink drops spreading on a sheet of paper, a being outside of myself peering into the most private realm. It was a startling realization making the fuzz on my arms stand, like when I was a child and my mom would capture me in the hallway and convince me she is not my mom but a witch who morphed into an identical body. She would hug me and I'd wriggle away, asking for proof she was only teasing. I was slow to understand jokes, even now, my laugh is a few seconds too many delayed.

One of the defining characteristics of a home is the ability to hold. The physical home holds essential and sentimental material possessions. It is a place that cradles, no matter how small or cramped, like the walls of a glass vase a cat willingly squeezes into for the feeling of being held. The inner-workings of the orchid reminded me of resilience, how living things can thrive despite limitations, sometimes in spite of them, like dandelions reaching for the sun through the uninhabitable cracks in a pavement.

Home is a fluid place inside ourselves. In The House, a stop-motion animation film we watched at the beginning of the year, the last segment stars an anthropomorphic cat who converts her childhood home into an apartment building. Her house appears to be the last one standing above water in a flooded world, its tenants slacking on rent, repurposing floor boards from the vacant top floor to build boats and sail into the mist, one by one they leave. She tries to nail the boards back on the floor and wallpapers over the decaying walls, but it doesn't stick. We are resilient and we are stubborn. 

I found a photograph of me, age thirteen, that I keep tucked behind the last page in my journal. I am leaning on a shiny blue railing onboard a sightseeing ship, landscape view cropped from the waist up. My body is turned to the side, glancing back at the camera. My right elbow is propped on the railing, my hand covering the left side of my chin and cheek, a gesture suggesting I wanted to hide my face or was on my way to tuck the strands of hair behind my ear. My hair is strawberry blonde in the sun, in a loose braid flowing behind my shoulder blade. My face is overexposed in the light, my eyebrows almost non-existent. My eyes are squinting and looking at the camera, my lips curved up in a slight smile. I'm wearing a thin teal knitted cardigan, the white skin on my arm visible through the translucent fabric. The background is denim blue water, rippling in the wind, and above it, a symmetrical line of puffy green trees drawing long black shadows on the path. I look mischievous and pleased with myself. 

I am eternally youthful in the photograph. I do not yet know what comes next, nor do I fully comprehend what came before. I haven't yet removed the Beethoven pictures decorating the cover of my school three-ring binder, haven't yet found out what isn't cool, or cut my hair. It was the brief moment of my childhood when growing up didn't equate with finding yourself or becoming somebody, because I felt I was already whole. My roots were beginning to climb out of my container, but you couldn't tell looking at me. I feel closer to that thirteen-year-old me now, in spirit if not in body.

When I held the unearthed orchid in the palms of my hands, I wanted to write about reinventing home. I pictured the walls of a room, the dust on a windowsill, the scuffs and indentations rearranged furniture leaves behind on the floors, the way the feng shui of a space remains intact no matter what changes. The sunlight continues to pour in on the south-facing side, bleaching the curtains, the faded red brick. The wear and tear of life doesn't pull us further away from ourselves, we do that on our own. Perhaps growing older is less about finding yourself and more about rediscovering who you were before you felt the pressure to break free.


Before leaving

When I am nearly out the door becomes the perfect time to unjam the drawer with the umbrella I won't be needing, the right time to look for my glasses prescription in the filing cabinet, which means I'll be moving the bicycle standing in front of it momentarily out of the way and while I am there, the perfect time to fetch a paper towel and wipe the dust off the floor. Washing my hands leads to replacing the damp kitchen towel with a fresh one from the linen closet, and then reorganizing the small and large towels on the right and left side of the middle shelf. It is the perfect time to check if the towels in the bathroom need to be washed and throw them in the hamper and then do a quick walkthrough of all the rooms to pick up any clothing to add to the wash. Meeting my reflection in the mirror becomes the perfect time to wash my face and rebraid my hair. The straggly strands of hair around my temples are not long enough to tuck behind my ears, I look for hair pins in my jewelry case to secure them and decide it is the best time to wear those earrings I haven't worn for a while. They don't quite match my top and I change into a different sweater, which is too short for my comfort and so I have to change my pants too. The dark blue jeans fit too snuggly and I start breathing fast, my heart thumping, telling myself this is what you get for eating all those challah buns. My confidence is shattered and I wonder if I should just stay home, but I'd like to go for a walk and swing by the bookstore or the cafe or both. I open the Books list note on my phone to determine which book I will be on the lookout for, although I already have enough books and should check if I can get it from the library instead. It is the perfect time to rearrange the books on the bookshelves, color coding for a change, reds on the top right and blues above my desk. I remember a phrase in a book and want to find it again, the perfect time to look for the quote about the worst feeling in the world and I know where it is because it is the color red. The domino chain is nowhere near the end and I am beginning to be convinced that occupying myself with something at home and risking being sad about not going outside might be better than the risk of going out and being unhappy. I think about writing all the things I do when I am trying to leave and wonder what it would look like, and what others will think of it, and what would others think about what I think about what they think, and what it looks like to care about what others think, and I feel I am looking into an infinity mirror and it is making me anxious.


When all is said and done, I'm probably just as lonely as I was when I was a child.

"When all is said and done, I'm probably just as lonely as I was when I was a child. 

This loneliness sometimes makes me sad, and sometimes happy. I believe it makes me a deeper person. And it makes me live less for the sake of appearances and recognition. We live turned toward the inside." (Paula Modersohn-Becker: The Letters and Journals, March 1902)

After 4pm, the daylight begins its transformation to a blue semidarkness. At night, the human eye cannot perceive color and sees everything in black and white. At twilight, the world is sapphire blue and I like going for runs during that time. It is the only time in the day when I feel time stands still for a brief moment, and while I am moving my body, it can feel like time doesn't exist at all. I am currently listening to the memoir, Crying in H Mart, on my phone, and let my mind drift as I catch glimpses of other lives in the opened windows and store fronts. 

A man sits on a black leather couch, wearing boxers and a heavy sweater, with his hand in a large bowl on his lap, concentrating on the television behind the Christmas tree draped with silver tinsel. Another man crosses the street to a closed Japanese supermarket, where the light is off, but he leans his face against the glass door and his body yearns for something within sight but out of reach. All the tables at Starbucks are occupied by young people and laptop screens. My palms are sweaty and sticking to the phone case in my left hand, while I clutch my keys in my right and the two little plastic beads dangling from my mouse key-chain bounce against my knuckle. The beads make a faint rattling sound, like the tags on a dog's collar. On these runs, I am exercising my imagination while moving my legs one in front of the other, swaying my arms, my heart thumping with strain, like a monotonous dance. I am not running away. I am running towards the lightness of myself. 

***

I don't keep an agenda. Calendars are a reminder of the constraints of time. During the holidays, I bought myself a small daily calendar notebook but as soon as I tore off the plastic wrap the excitement was gone. I hid it carefully in a small plastic bag and returned it at the store on my run the following day, conveniently en route. On the day before Christmas, I ran into a stationary shop and bought myself a brass fountain pen I'd been fantasizing over after seeing a video of a cool adventurer in Tuscon, Arizona, talk about how cool it is. The cashier placed it in a tin box and wrapped it in a thick paper envelope, probably thinking I was buying a last minute gift for someone. I folded the envelope in half and ran with it tucked under my armpit, switching sides from time to time, feeling uncomfortable and guilty. On my next run, I returned it too. I wrote with it for a day but there was no magic, and I missed my old pen and gained a new appreciation for what I already have.

When I was returning the pen, my husband and I were texting one another, arranging to meet after work. I texted him that I was heading to the store and as I waited at the register, saw his familiar tall shape glide to me from the corner and I felt a surge of energy. It felt like a zap of electricity and suddenly I felt more awake, the light in the room seemed brighter, colors richer, voices sharper, like finally tuning to a radio station and being able to make out all the words clearly. I hadn't realized I was listening to static until I saw him and felt the warmth of home. 

He has been so patient with me, all the time, no matter how moody I get, I don't know how he does it. Earlier in December, he had decorated our corridor picture rail with twinkling lights. When I came home from work and saw it, instead of being grateful, I lashed out about the clutter and how I didn't like the sight of wires on the wall. He retreated to his room and I felt awful and apologized. I still wanted the lights and the holiday cheer. The next day I came home and he had removed them and hanged a different string of colorful lights over the bookshelves. He stood to the side, watching me cautiously, like a child who had drawn on a wall and waited to either be scolded or praised. I hugged him and jumped up and down, happy to laugh again, together again. 

***

After we returned home from the New Year family gathering, we went for a walk around the pond and I was brooding. He asked me what I was thinking and I had said I was thinking about what would make me happy. "What would?" he asked, and I said I wanted to be alone. The truth is, I didn't want to be alone but I needed to. I needed to run into the blue to untwist the knot in my chest, to see color again. I felt terrible for what I had said. I need alone time to balance myself so that I can better engage with the world. I often feel hyper aware of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. My way of coping is to tune out into static, but I cannot remain in that sleepwalking state for too long. I need to wake up. 

I have been caught in between extremes of static or a whirlpool of emotions. I am at the halfway point of Michelle Zauner's memoir, but a passage from the beginning has resonated the most. Her mother taught her to keep 10 percent of herself from loved ones, not to give all of herself in case they betray or leave. I've wondered how much I give of myself. To me, relating to others is a visceral experience. When I hear from a friend, whether it be a message, voicemail, or email, it stirs me. I feel a literal warmth in my chest, like sipping a warm cup of tea. The feeling warms me up but doesn't last. I feel a longing to speak, to learn, to write, to give, to share, to live.  

 ***

One of my favorite memories in the last twelve months is the view from the hill at the end of the world. It was the first weekend in September. We sat on an aged grey wooden bench at the top of the hill overlooking the peninsula, where the ocean waves lapped the shores on both sides of the path. The waves gently came and went, revealing a mossy growth on one side and wet sand on the other. The tall grass and reeds shook in the wind, parting like hair. The landscape looked like a painting come to life, with deep green swaying trees. In the distance, another hill rose like a mirror image. It was just the two of us and two apple Danishes in this vast expanse of green and blue, the sound of leaves shaking in the wind. When I closed my eyes it sounded like pouring rain.  

Running into the blue is my way of centering myself. What I've come to understand is, I thrive in written communication because it is a controlled environment. I can take my time to read and decipher the meaning between words, while real life is unpredictable. I realized the only friend who truly knows me and accepts me fully for who I am, with all my qualities and foibles, is my husband. He understands when I want pineapple that I might mean water melon, he knows to hold my hat against my forehead with his finger without my asking when I am tucking my hair into my hat, he brings me a glass of water and vigorously points at it to remind me to stay hydrated, he makes me overnight oats while waiting for his tea to cool.

I've rekindled and build friendships in the last year. I prefer to have few friends. I can count my friends on one hand and keep them close. I have been lonely my entire life and this loneliness is an ever-present melancholy. I believe it will always be a part of me, my muse, the quiet place where I find solace. I need others just as much, if not even more, as I need to be alone. When my husband and I met, we used to write each other letters. Later, being too shy to speak directly, we used to sit beside each other and take turns writing in a notebook to communicate. Sometimes I miss those years, because I feel I am the best version of myself when I write, words are fuel, words are a lifeline, I mean every one and take them all to heart.

 

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