Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

Too Much and Not Enough: Connecting with my Asian Heritage

It’s easy to feel like a fake. The voice in my head injects its unsolicited input: You’re overdoing it. Stop trying so hard. If it’s not natural, you’re doing it wrong. Do something else. Somewhere along the way I collected an inventory of ideas like this—gleaned from neighborly advice, books I’ve read, newspaper headlines, offhand comments from friends. I’ve even used this arsenal of judgments to silently criticize others. The tone-deaf troubadour singing off-key tunes in the coffee shop? It’s just not natural for him. The woman wearing leopard print spandex at the grocery store? That outfit is….a lot. The guy in class I just couldn’t find attractive? He’s so desperate.

I struggle to articulate why, in those moments, it feels urgent that I distance myself from others who I deem too much or not enough. Cognitively I support equity and justice for all. I love Lizzo and Jameela Jamil and all the other women pushing body positivity forward. I care about black and brown folks and those who are differently abled or neurodivergent or under the poverty line or living in bodies that don’t match their gender. I truly want all of these people to thrive. But if someone doesn’t have an obvious label that reminds me to be kind, why do I still recoil when watching them fail?

Whatever that reflex is, I also use it violently against myself. I am afraid of coming on too strong or seeming overly confident in abilities that others deem inferior. I know from conversations with female friends that we all grapple with impostor syndrome to some degree. Every new creative endeavor or project idea or clothing choice, for that matter, comes with a caveat. I’m new. Please be gentle. I wouldn’t qualify my choices, even laughingly, if there weren’t some imminent threat of judgment.

Earlier this year, I discovered that I am 25% Japanese. I have a biological grandmother from Japan who married a GI during World War II. This news came after a lifetime of socialization as a white girl. I was German and Irish, as far as I knew, and I could count on two hands how many people of color attended school in my rural Texas town. The majority of those folks were Hispanic. I’d always passed for white, with the exception of a few confused inquiries from people over my lifetime. A childhood boyfriend once told me I looked Chinese when I tanned darkly in the Texas sun. I told him he was stupid. The African grill cook at my college restaurant job asked me if I was mixed—maybe part Asian? No, I laughed, “But thank you,” and walked away.

With this DNA discovery, I was suddenly cataloguing any Asian person I’d known or cultural experience I’d witnessed. Were there any clues to this secret ethnicity that I missed along the way? I’d never been to Japan, and I’d never met any of my Japanese or Japanese-American relatives. I’d never had an affinity for broadly Asian culture other than loving sushi. I can’t count that—everyone loves sushi. That shit is delicious.

I mean, sure, DNA technically puts me in this category, but I don’t have any of the other street cred. I don’t know the language, the clothing, the music, the food. My life is devoid of the lived experience that many Asian-Americans know. Am I a fraud if I suddenly check the Asian/Pacific Islander box in my demographic information? To add to the sense of isolation, all of this information came to light during a pandemic. I couldn’t attempt to meet my newly discovered relatives and, even if I could, they might not want to connect. Cultural festivals were canceled, in-house dining at restaurants was closed. What should I do? I resorted to the Internet.

I found Eve Sturges’ podcast of other people who had discovered secrets in their DNA. One of the podcast guests mentioned a private Facebook support group, and I met others whose ethnicity was different from what they’d been raised to believe. We each shared our stories and traded frustrations. We recognized our deepest fears as headlines spread about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. We didn’t want to be fakes. We weren’t pretending to be BIPOC for personal gain. Please, god, don’t let us trample on the cultures we’re just trying to learn. How proudly could we, or should we, claim ownership of this heritage?

Someone in the group affectionally called me a “hapa”—a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed Pacific Islander or Asian heritage. I read blogs by others of varying racial backgrounds. Someone coined the term, “quapa,” meaning a combination of “quarter” and “hapa.” Is this me? I thought. I kept researching. I discovered NPR’s Code Switch episode, “Who Gets to Be ‘Hapa?‘” Nope, I was not Hawaiian. Maybe I should use a label that didn’t offend the people who invented it.

A friend connected me with Jo Oyama-Miller, the woman who leads Madison’s sister city relationship with Obihiro, Japan. She explained that the Japanese use the term, “hafu,” which is a transliteration of the word “half” from English. Even in Japan, where they value homogeneity, people of mixed race are considered inauthentic. I wouldn’t be considered Japanese by my grandmother’s country, either, even if I had been born there.

So where does this leave me? I can’t write Japanese kana, I never learned how to make miso, and I’ve only ever seen one Studio Ghibli film. Sure, I can take cooking lessons and read books about aspects of my culture. I can watch documentaries and listen to the Asian Enough podcast, but there will always be the risk of seeming like an overzealous white girl. Then again, maybe the most authentic thing I can do is to do it anyway, internal voices be damned. Perhaps the experience of being too much and not enough is what it means to be Asian in America. I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

What My Husband Taught Me

What My Husband Taught Me

Although we’ve only been married for three years, Alex and I started dating in early 2012. By my count, that’s eight years of learning each other’s favorites. It’s also ample amount of time to find those quirks that begin as endearing and become insufferable. A few years ago, Alex became so attached to his particular brand of running shoes that when they fell apart, he marched back to Movin’ Shoes on Park Street and asked for an identical pair. When they discontinued the line, he searched high and low on the Internet to find as many pairs as possible in size 12.5—both new and gently used. He bought them all at once. For the last several years our entryway has featured at least three sets of the blue and gray Adidas lined up like a little family. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

This lack of variety is anathema to me. Over the weekend a new acquaintance of mine asked me when my birthday was—upon finding out I was a Sagittarius her eyebrows lifted to the heavens. The only things I know about my horoscope are what I’ve deemed to be true: the wanderlust is real, when my gut says it’s important I do it IMMEDIATELY, and variety is oxygen and I need it to survive. I ask you, what’s the fun in getting new shoes if they are going to be exactly the same as the ones you had before? Sacrilege.

However with the pile up of trauma and loss we’ve experienced this year, I’ve found it deeply important to ruminate on little joyful things that still exist. I need them as touch trees to find my way back out of the forest of despair. And as I confided to my close friend, Kitty, there are many things that are wrong in my life, but at least I chose the right partner. Maybe it’s a good thing that when Alex finds something he loves he clings to it for eternity. In the spirit of that joy, I share with you the top ten lessons I’ve learned from my husband:

  1. Koop’s Arizona Heat will transform a grillable into the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Furthermore, the world of mustard is wider than you could know.
  2. Ritual can be beautiful. Every morning Alex makes coffee and sits on the back deck to throw the ball for our 85 pound rescue dog, Arrow. He then comes in and makes a very deliberate breakfast sandwich to fuel his day.
  3. There is always a way to pack more items into a hatchback, car trunk, or moving van. And the way to do that is for Alex to Tetris these items into the space himself and for you to get out of the damn way.
  4. VOTE. It’s important to watch and listen to the world around us. We are connected. Don’t take for granted that our relative comfort will remain indefinitely. We must fight to preserve what is good and right and to expand our privileges to others.
  5. It is possible to be very soft and sensitive and have a convincing gruff outer shell. This is a development born out of necessity, and sometimes that shell is heavy to carry.
  6. No creature is happier than a dog with a ball. Except maybe a man with a dog with a ball.
  7. A well-curated reading nook is desirable. To pass muster, the nook must be on a screened-in porch or by a window, and extra points are assigned for the presence of a bird feeder.
  8. Solitude is important and refreshing from time to time. (Again, Jess, get out of the damn way).
  9. Love letters can look like a clean kitchen and a freshly mowed lawn.
  10. Heaven is a big, rowdy crowd of our favorite people. The party soundtrack is a very important ingredient to get there.

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

It’s Personal: My Experience with Pregnancy Loss

When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.

Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.

I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.

No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discretely take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.

When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”

My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.

They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.

No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.

The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.

What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.

Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.

We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.

Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.

If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.

Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support

PALS (Pregnancy After Loss Support)

Life After Miscarriage with Shelly Mettling

ReplyForward

Feelings Are For Feeling

Feelings Are For Feeling

“To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

Desmond Tutu

“Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

Tibetan proverb

These are difficult days. It’s been said multiple ways by many people over the last six months, but I cannot get away from the fact that this season in American history and culture feels dark. We are suffering, collectively, from both known wounds—systemic racism, wealth inequality, and a general capitalist scarcity mindset, for example—and new ones, like the life-threatening nature of COVID-19 and our country’s lack of empathy towards the elderly, the differently abled, and the immunocomprised. Some in our circles are demanding angrily that the government relax restrictions on group gatherings, citing the massive impact on the economy and their offended sense of freedom, while others are terrified for the lives of their friends and families who could be killed by reckless individuals passing on the invisible death.

This isn’t news to you, I know. You’re feeling exhausted, too.

For me, the darkness has me turning inward more frequently—I have an altered sense of what feels urgent and important as compared to this time in March. In the early months of the pandemic, there was concern for my fellow man, but there was also a sense of adventure—that I would have the chance to test my mettle, like a child playing war. And when the novelty wore off, along with the affirmations that I would maximize my time at home to advance my own enlightenment, I could no longer hide the fact that my life, our lives, are and will be irrevocably changed.

In the previous post, I mentioned the concept that trauma is not what happens to us, but within us. This is doubly true, but the reality is that some days I still feel resentment at how many craters life has left in the lives of myself and my friends, in rapid succession. The meteor shower falls disproportionately, and some of my loved ones are still scaling the residual bluffs created by giant, falling debris. It’s disheartening to be in the process of deep personal transformation just to have more trauma interrupt the journey.

I have one dear friend who survived the loss of a child just to have this damned virus take her father from her way too soon. Another had to fold her business just as she was taking the leap to take additional professional advancement courses. Several friends who had to scrap their plans for weddings and baby showers, canceling or delaying the well-deserved celebration of life’s joys. Folks laid off in droves or working part-time hours, grateful for some small paycheck while also balancing homeschool education for their kids. Teachers wearing themselves ragged to adapt their curricula, trying to hit an ever-moving target of in-person, then remote, then partially remote scenarios. It goes on. Pain is surely creative.

Nothing is right or just, and I am angry. I feel helpless to protect the people I love. And I know that this righteous anger is also a convenient distraction from my own worries and fears; a new job prospect collapsing into dust, searching for a new job and training remotely, the emotional rollercoaster of familial and ethnic identity discoveries, and maintaining important relationships despite physical and geographical barriers.

My husband and I have been telling each other our dreams lately, usually right after we’ve stopped snoozing our alarms on alternating schedules, and we have a few minutes to lay in bed, awake, warming to the idea of consciousness. It’s been a melange of fantastical scenarios that scream STRESS! Missing the train for an international trip due to lost passports, gaining consciousness in an unfamiliar house and learning you’ve been drugged, running from violent dissidents with explosives, horrible scenarios in which we lose our beloved dog. Our hearts are full of loss (both real and imagined).

As Glennon Doyle would say, “Feelings are for feeling.” So, I’ve given myself space to feel the anger and the hurt, but I also hear my inner child, the optimist, the one who is usually out front waving the “Hope!” flag. She’s been quarantining, too, and she needs some time in the sun. A chance to dance like a goof in the front yard just to make the neighbors laugh.

In late 2019, I read “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” It is compiled based on a series of interviews with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and it was enlightening to hear from two spiritual thought leaders on the ways they approach hope and happiness amidst the shifting sands of fortune. I discovered the quotes above from that book and jotted them down in my Notes app, unaware that they would come in handy in this moment.

There are little things I’ve attempted to do to harness this chest-baring bravery—thrilling in the casual conversations shouted across backyards and parks with friends who distance socially, working on loving my body for its abilities and intuition, as opposed to how it appears in photographs, investing in new books and media subscriptions to continue expanding the diverse, creative ideas in the world, buying stamps to send postcards and books to pen pals across the country. I’m learning that hope is an exercise in endurance. Refusing to only feel the sad feelings or the hard feelings, and scraping the barrel for the remnants of joy. Savoring them when they are there. Lapping up gratitude where I didn’t know it flowed before, and trying to give others the opportunity for thankfulness, as well.

So far, it’s kept me breathing. I hope it keeps you breathing, as well.

Rocks in the Riverbed

Rocks in the Riverbed

Ask yourself about your childhood. Was it a happy one? When you recount the story of wiggling your first loose tooth with your tongue or the time you got the chicken pox, is the sun shining in the background? What about the trip to the park where you flew kites with a neighbor kid? Or visiting Santa at the mall? Or falling off your bike? Or the stray kitten you found in the alley?

I realized recently how often I recite stories about my past beginning with, “I had a pretty happy childhood.” The stories I tell are often accompanied by a rye, self-deprecating humor where I retroactively giggle at the failures, the scrapes, or the desperation with which I navigated the world as a six-, ten-, or fourteen-year-old. I have many a joyful image stored away of tromping through the underbrush in our rural backyard with a gaggle of friends, dancing to Ace of Base albums with the neighborhood girls, or dressing in homemade Halloween costumes expertly crafted by my mother. The girls that lived across the invisible property line from our tan brick-and-stone house used to say that our family was “All-American.” Two parents, still married, one son, one daughter, all churchgoers and involved in the right amount of extracurricular activities.

That image of us as the perfect, normal family used to hang in my mind like a postcard on the fridge. Of course, I knew it was a generalization and would humbly say, “Nah, no family is perfect.” However, even that response was part of the glossy print I’d composed of our life. Polite people don’t brag, I thought, and besides, my brother and I had just been fighting over who could use the desktop PC in our family’s dining room. How human. No one close to me had died. I wasn’t battling betrayal or divorce or abuse. I had opportunities to hone musical skills, compete in spelling championships, read books, play sports. I was #blessed.

However, as Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.” As I graduated from teen to adult, the reality of complex wounds, bereavement, and guilt began to crack its way through our family’s smooth shell. Drama and in-fighting among church leadership cast shadows on my belief system. I formed adult relationships and navigated the pain of infidelity, molting the chaste innocence that my mother had wished for me. I supported my boyfriend (now husband) through his father’s untimely diagnosis and death from malignant brain cancer. I helped my mother coordinate an intervention for my alcoholic father. I discovered via DNA test that I am not biologically related to the man who raised me, and that the man who passed me his genes also passed away before I could meet him.

After the intensity of the last decade and a half with grief building in new, creative ways year after year, I adopted stoicism as an advanced guard against fear. The longer I live, the more grief I will see, I quoted to friends on multiple occasions. I thought of that mantra as my form of the Doris Day song, “Que Sera, Sera” — that it wouldn’t keep me from living life, but perhaps I wouldn’t be so taken aback by pain if I knew it was waiting for me in the wings. I became bold and forward with my feelings, keeping no secrets and defiantly opening my arms to the world, sharing my authentic woundedness with friends and acquaintances alike. I saw myself as a rock protruding from an inevitable river of grief — holding forth bravely to fight against its slow, steady erosion of my being.

This approach sparked a fascination with family secrets — so much so that I imbibed every word of Dani Shapiro’s podcast of the same title. I listened to it in the car while running errands, while jogging around the nearby lake, while walking the dog in our Midwest neighborhood. I read books and watched documentaries about them. And then, amidst the stories of others who have uncovered life-altering revelations, I heard the words of Dr. Gabor Maté:

“Trauma isn’t what happens to us, it’s what happens inside of us.”

The world stopped. I paused the recording. I rewound it and heard it again. And again. And again. My vision of the rock in the middle of the river, whittled and smooth, blurred into a fine mist, and a new image took its place. I am not the rock. I am the river. I am in constant forward motion. I cannot change my origin, and the path where I have been is set. Instead it is grief that is the protrusion, the sudden push displacing me from where I’d intended to go. I will tumble around it, regrouping and coming back to myself, and grief will be the one that eventually sinks beneath the surface, worn to a pebble in my riverbed.

These boulders of grief are part of my story, but they are not my destination or definition.

I am the whitewater. I am the rapids. I am the river.

A Reflection

A Reflection

I’m on a kind of runner’s high ー that euphoric inner glow, fed by adrenaline and endorphins, my brain’s reward to a body that has gone the distance. I’m just across the finish line of this past weekend’s Rise! Yoga and Writing for Transformation retreat, led by Molly Chanson and Julie Tallard Johnson. I’ve spent three days alongside poets, writers, and bloggers, each of us delving into the inner sanctum of our hearts to surface the truths we’ve buried out of fear, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. It’s this, the realism, that will form our best work.

As part of this discovery, we are instructed to find a myth that most clearly illuminates our writing intentions and aids us in wrestling with the dynamics that muscle us away from the important work of meaning-making.  I begin, reciting my own intention as a mantra: Listen to my heart. Listen. Listen. Listen. I name the equal and opposite force that works against this endeavor ー the silencing of my one and precious voice. I am afraid. My fear makes me hesitant, small, quiet. But out of the silence, I hear her name:

Echo.

What a tragic creature she was. Her voice reduced to a whisper in the quiet places. Her body rendered into oblivion not once, but twice from fickle men. Wanting her and not wanting her, each worked his violence upon Echo’s being ー her only sin having obeyed the order of Zeus.
It seems Echo’s life and legacy is centered around the punishments she endured; we use her now as an explanation for the reverberations of the songs in our own mouths. She still serves us. First employed by Zeus to distract his wife, Hera, from the god’s adulterous ways, Echo caught the full retaliation ー conscripted by the betrayed bride to a life of imitation. Echo would never speak her own sentences again.

The voiceless nymph then fell in love with Narcissus, a man who could only love himself. She had not the tools to express her heart. The effect was to reinforce that his was the view that mattered ー his voice, the one she repeated back to him. When Narcissus languished by a pool, she bound herself to him in an act of despair, wasting into invisibility for a prize she would never receive. The other stories tell of her suitor, Pan, who when rebuked, tore her limb from limb. Her body scattered from corner to corner, she only retained a facsimile of the song she once sang.

I dream of Echo ー she awakes me at night, starkly. Her story is the cautionary tale every mother tells her daughters. To raise a girl in a world filled with men who would relegate her as a foil to their own purpose, something to manipulate, rail against, obtain love from ーeach day of motherhood must feel like preparing a soldier for war.

And yet, here I am, having protected the message in my heartーnot perfectly, but with love. In the past I’ve emulated Echo in her loyalty to unworthy causes, trying to make it work out of my trepidation. In the past I’ve wrapped myself in the lie of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” In these moments, failure has been the truest miracle ー ended relationships, lost jobs, missed opportunities that were not meant to be. They’ve given me second chances, despite myself, to run across rocks, amidst fire, to push against those who would wield my voice as a weapon. To train for this moment.

So I set my intention deep within ー to sing where Echo cannot. I anoint her my patron saint, my mother martyr ー her story of self will live through the one I tell, her words amplifying my own. The gift I take from this story is edifying: I must be true for me in order to be true for her ー a voice for the voiceless.

Passing Phrases

Passing Phrases

When we first got the news that Governor Evers had declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, my instinct was to react in a measured way. To press pause on any wild terror and instead to move through the planning process methodically, wisely– to prepare. My husband, Alex, had been stockpiling canned goods for a few weeks, asking me, despite my eye-rolling, to buy a couple extra hermetically sealed items every time I visited the grocery store. I tried my best not to gaslight him aloud, but I silently downplayed the possibility that we would truly need three pounds of Basmati rice. After all, this was the same man who had two vintage gas masks hanging in the garage and had been acquiring potable water jugs in the event that we needed to survive a Mad Max: Fury Road scenario.

I had heard about the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic overseas and in large cities on the coasts, but I half expected it to bypass the Midwest for larger, hipper locales, like an influencer on her way to Coachella. I joked with Alex that if the world did end, I’d rather die than eat only canned beans; he said he’d rather die than smell what beans did to our bodies.

Some friends of ours had a small Pi Day party scheduled to celebrate math and sugar (and, plausibly, inebriation), and we opted to attend given we had been feeling healthy and had not interacted with anyone known to have the virus. It was a smirk in the face of the end of the world –one last hurrah the weekend before our places of business sent us home to hunker down and ride out the storm. We didn’t know then that it would be the last time we’d see those friends in person for over a month (and possibly more).

Now some odd weeks later, I’ve gassed up the car for $0.98 a gallon, holding my breath as I imagine tiny germs crawling from the touch screen of the gas pump and onto my outstretched fingertip. After liberally applying hand sanitizer I’m now driving aimlessly through our side of town just to remember how it feels to exist outside the confines of my home.

After 45 minutes of meandering aimlessly and listening to my favorite playlist of raucous Americana and indie rock, I take a right turn and creep slowly down the main artery that runs from the neighboring town of Monona into East Madison. I spy a plethora of bright murals splashed up on the sides of store fronts –some walls tagged with the artists’ distinctive graffiti lettering, others displaying pop art and street caricatures, still others the carefully shaded faces inspired either by a loved one or a lost one or both.

On the left side of the street a colorful flash catches my eye, and I make a U-turn to double back and see it again in person. THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I can’t remember if this mural has been up since before the quarantining began or not, but it’s perennially modern.

I realize I’ve heard this proverb since I was a child, and it always seemed callous, dismissive, maybe careless in its utterance. It’s a phrase devoid of emotion, and I wonder to myself, Who wrote this? Is that supposed to be helpful?

I snap a photo and return home to look up the phrase. It’s an old adage with roots in Sufi poetry — a phrase embedded among works that brought Hindus and Muslims together, reminding people for over 850 years to focus on community and Love Divine in the face of adversity. The phrase acted as a reminder of the temporary nature of humanity, grief, and glory as it was passed on from generation to generation across cultures, reaching from Persian poetry to Jewish folklore. I discover that the University of Haifa still contains multiple iterations of this proverb in its Israel Folklore Archive. The story goes that a Sultan asks King Solomon for wisdom that would remain true whether in times of prosperity or grief — Solomon says, “This too shall pass.” As the lesson has been passed down, the specifics have varied — sometimes Solomon provides the insight, and sometimes he is the one receiving it.

Poetic, then, that the cyclical nature of this phrase was to be learned and then taught again. British poet and author, Edward FitzGerald, was enamored of medieval Persian literature and did what many Western writers do — popularized the sentiment in English:

“The Sultan asked Solomon for a Signet motto, that should hold good for Adversity or Prosperity. Solomon gave him, “THIS ALSO SHALL PASS AWAY.” (The Works of Edward FitzGerald, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1887.)

This was then read and repackaged by Abraham Lincoln, and on and on. Now it has arrived, emblazoned on the cinder block wall of a Midwest store. How fittingly displayed in a time of grief and uncertainty, in its impermanence as a street art mural along a well-traveled road. The message lasts, the art will not. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this is neither the first nor the last crisis we are to survive.

I savor this fleeting moment like a paleta in the summer.