I unpack the bag and pluck out my fears—
used tissues pinched by fingertips—
the truth of me smeared and hidden
lest anyone see I’m leaking.
Cringe and flinch at the caricature
my husband’s ex must make of me,
the time she caught me coveting her
well-lit composition and poise.
My finger tap, a signal
she was neither out of sight nor out of mind.
My envy was lint in the side pocket
that, unballed, began as threads
from past betrayals and itchy scabs
I picked until they oozed.
In youth I feared deep loneliness,
the loss of power in a room of men,
a roving eye that paused for me but never
Now the vows babies mortgages
bind me tight just as I wished.
In exchange, my solitude, a price I paid
with loose pennies from my purse.
The thing about dreams is
we build them from the inside.
Our eyes close, our minds construct
treehouse cities, disco skylines.
Oh, what a world we’d architect
if our steel was empathy.
A home for every wearied body,
joy in blackness, queerness thriving,
diversity resplendent as stained glass.
Our beauty illumined.
It starts with comparison.
I pull the measuring tape taut,
square it off, count the hashes.
Pencil the number on a crumpled receipt
and chant the incantation:
Money back within thirty days.
Discrepancy makes me a sorcerer’s apprentice
multiplying not brooms, but yardsticks.
All things transmogrify
in service of appraisal:
The floor length mirror.
The business card.
The photographs of Rome.
The published byline.
The summer cabin.
Trust fund disbursement.
A baby’s push up.
The marathon stamina.
The youthful skin.
The influential family name.
The bullish trade.
The glowing skyline.
The time, the time, the time.
It is tiresome to carry the scales of justice
door to door.
To feel a thing blindly, to evaluate its heft
by the space it occupies
and the space it does not.
My arm shakes, the muscles fail,
and in reluctant setting down,
the graceless letting go,
amid the shards of expectation
I inherit the wealth I am due:
I am enough.
Several weeks ago, my husband snapped a photo of our family’s new nightly feeding routine. The scene is set around 3:00 am, the dead of night, and my back is turned toward the camera. I lean over to adjust the breast pump. In the frame, the half of the bedroom we fashioned as a diaper changing station and nursing oasis is dimly lit by a single, soft white bulb. My husband holds our infant son, Charlie, as he greedily suckles a bottle, the contents of which were donated by some other mother with more than enough breastmilk to spare. I sit bathed in white light and attempt to increase my own supply, as the rest of the bedroom glows red. The night light casts bloody shadows across the wall. We are exhausted.
Prior to parenthood, I knew the breadth of change that a newborn would bring: sleepless nights, ringing ears, tested patience. I watched other mothers navigate the early weeks and months, and I thought, “I am up to this challenge.” What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the emotional rawness of the experience. I thought perhaps Charlie’s birth would be a clean slate, a new beginning. His would be a fresh life as yet untouched by the secrets and pain of his ancestors’ trauma. And, in some way, I thought my hopeful focus on the future would seal the jar on my own sadness and loss.
Instead, the experience of bringing a new child into the world was not isolated. I could not wall it off from the past year’s events. Charlie continually reminded me of the DNA discovery–a biological father I would never meet and my mother’s half truths and omissions. I stared into Charlie’s tiny face and big, expressive eyes, and I saw my own eyes reflected. Would I have been so upright if his financial stability and childhood were on the line? If I knew the truth would push him into the same cycle of broken relationships of the family’s previous generations, would I still swear allegiance to it?
I began to see the threads of connection between my own parental experience and my parents’ messy lives. Even though my biological father was no longer alive, his DNA lived on in the tiny human I held in my hands. I had yet to discover which traits of his Charlie carried, and the truth was that I might never be able to distinguish them from the genetic gifts of my maternal line. Would Charlie love dogs and travel? Would he wield a charismatic directness in his older years? Would his almond eyes remain as evidence of Japanese ancestry even as his hair turned my mother’s shade of strawberry blonde?
There was no perfect answer to these complicated questions–no new life blooming except through the roots of the old. Just like the photograph, the legacy of loss glowed red alongside the hope of an unmarred future. There was no separating them. New parenthood taught me that living fully means embracing the reality of what came before.
What the camera portrayed and what my son’s face reflected was this: death is just the beginning of hope.
Reassurance Alice Walker I must love the questions themselves as Rilke said like locked rooms full of treasure to which my blind and groping key does not yet fit. and await the answers as unsealed letters mailed with dubious intent and written in a very foreign tongue. and in the hourly making of myself no thought of Time to force, to squeeze the space I grow into.
The pandemic came to town over a year ago. Like the rest of the community, I drew inward to decrease the threat of microscopic invaders ravaging our nation. We all know the stories well. The weekly happy hours and backyard barbecues? Canceled. Stolen moments around the office water cooler? Defunct. Giant wedding parties and dance floors? Obsolete. I, and so many others, staved off total despair by searching for new hobbies—painting, knitting, baking, reorganizing our bathroom shelves. As we surpassed the twelve month anniversary of collective isolation, however, I felt the loss of those little social leisures keenly.
Before the pandemic, I constructed my world around external relationships. I wove silken webs of connection among college classmates, work colleagues, neighbors, friends old and new. My chosen family. These connections were my support system, my entertainment, my first and favorite priority.
My husband, Alex, and I frequently hosted large gatherings. Jovial Halloween house parties, taco dinners before a night out on the town, casual grill-outs, and rolicking New Year’s Eve soirées. During these affairs I loved to smash disparate social universes together to see what conversations arose. These interactions thrilled me when neighbors and acquaintances discovered their shared love of a podcast or bonded over an obscure band they followed.
Then the pandemic winter froze out any hope I had of simulating this level of socialization out of doors. Not even socially distant park picnics or walks beside the lake could survive the freezing temperatures. After months of sitting behind computer screens, even the facsimile video gatherings lost their shiny sheen. I hit a wall.
Meanwhile, Alex joined a Discord channel with several male friends. Each Thursday night, he and twelve other men used the virtual platform to play online games, video chat, and participate in trivia. My heart swelled when I heard his raucous laughter from the other room, but I was also jealous.
Jealous, not of his newfound friendships or the joy he fostered in the midst of a global crisis, but of his unavailability to connect with me. Despite the relative independence we enjoyed prior to the pandemic, I realized he was my last lifeline to human contact. In the before times, I’d supplemented my social appetite with micro interactions—the wave and how are you today at my local gym, the small talk with the bartender when she had a lull between serving rounds. I craved the idle chatter at the bus stop that used to annoy me. Every time I took the dog for a stroll around the block, I yearned to let the leash go long when we met passersby.
To make matters more complicated, I was pregnant with my firstborn. The novelty of planning baby showers and shopping for empire-waisted dresses was dampened by the isolation. I thought of friends in their maternal glory who coordinated photo shoots and birth announcements while I sat at the laptop and pushed Buy on my online shopping cart. Friends and family had only seen me from shoulders up on our video calls. The lack of witnesses to my physical transformation made it feel like an illusion, somehow. I was large and round and stuck at home, a waxing moon locked in the Earth’s gravitational pull. I was a homebody.
Every few months I attempted to recapture some element of spontaneity. I learned how to create lavish cheese plates. I built a makeshift yoga studio in a spare bedroom nook. I ordered takeout and enlisted Alex to eat it with me as we sat in the car across the street from the restaurant. These self-styled car-picnic dates only served to make me more depressed.
My belly continued to expand, and I photo documented the growing girth in the full-length mirror. Tiny flutters from within became more pronounced, and I no longer had to play the game, “Is it baby kicks or digestion?” The spontaneity I searched for had been delivered to me in the form of a wildly changing physique.
If there was anything that could bring specialness to the mundane rituals of my pandemic life, it was the concept that I was housing a tiny tenant. Perhaps this unwilling house arrest could be more of an exclusive party. I began to find joy in the babe’s growth and development and celebrated the wonders of my own adaptation to facilitate life.
This revitalized daily focus brought new questions to mind. What are the things I do for this life inside of me that I’ve neglected for myself? What would I do for my own body if I loved it in the way that I do my friends, my family, my colleagues? After all, this body has supported me for decades longer than it has the stranger within. I began a mental inventory of the ways in which I could nourish and care for both of us, pandemic or no.
I blocked time on my work calendar to stand up, drink water, and stretch. I held forth the boundary that no other meetings could usurp the water break unless there was another open slot in my day to preserve it. I sought new and exotic tea-time snacks. As I bit into chocolate-dipped Pocky sticks or savored Biscoff biscuits with a steaming cup of tea, I banished lingering guilt and shame about the indulgence. The practice was imperfect, but I began to look forward to my oyatsu, a tiny Japanese tea break.
Slowly, these small touchstones illuminated the darker days. They inspired me to explore other self-care—new bath salts and longer bathtimes, slow-moving yin yoga instead of frantic calisthenics, and the freedom to get in bed at any hour of any day, even if just to sit and read. These little crumbs led me away from the abyss and back to myself. Amid the days of hardened isolation I realized the truth: I was not just a homebody. My body was this baby’s home.
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.
The vow you made years ago
in the safety of your heart
was to launch your own ship onto a rocky reef,
to keep the treasure in the hold
from the hands of a watery god.
You were weather-worn, soaked in sea brine,
skin cracking from the salt spray
You threw the bowlines,
dragging the anchor of your own wounds
deep along the ocean floor–
Prayers shouted to the gulls
and all else who would hear.
I am thirty four now,
awaking on an unknown shore,
battered, bruised, sun-blind from sudden light.
I cannot see you, but I sense you are there.
You left me! I scream,
eyes wet with rage.
My fists drum a frenzied beat
against the trunks and mussel shells.
I stumble through bracken,
counting the leaves as if they are sins.
The sharp edges slice cloth from skin
and skin from flesh.
I draw a map from scar to scar
and sing the bitter refrain:
You left me!
The forest cracks open, a cocoon of green.
I find you, smiling.
You are a child, pink and glowing,
not yet met with time’s erosion.
I shout, raw and ragged ー You left me!
You clasp my hand with tiny fingers,
You were the treasure.
You were the boat.
And you were the storm.
My child, how could I leave you
when you are the destination?
I’ll admit it.
I’m one of those annoying checklist people.
Before smartphones existed, with their Notes options, advanced calendaring, and a myriad of sleek task-management applications you can download from the app store, I was already addicted to the day planner. This analog habit for keeping track of items and due dates started sometime in my teenage years, where I would stand in the stationery aisle of a big box store, judging each day planner on a myriad of Goldilocks-esque criteria.
- It must have ample space for me to write the assignment for each class period.
- Week days should be granted the most real estate per page, but I also need to see the weekend represented (perhaps with Saturday and Sunday smashed together).
- The size shall not exceed that of a small pamphlet — it should fit in a smaller pocket of my book bag.
- Three-ring binders are ideal, but a spiral notebook binding is acceptable.
- It must look cool. Not leather-bound (read: for grandma) and not Lisa Frank (read: for babies).
And so on.
This methodology was an important part of my Strategy. It was a system I’d come to rely on for keeping track of assignments, giving myself deadlines, and otherwise trying out for whatever the equivalent of Quiz Bowl is for Franklin Covey acolytes. I knew the right day planner would be my 3 wood golf club for long drives — the head start to keep my grades high.
This keen awareness of the hierarchy of life was an invisible force, underpinning everything I did. And not just from an academic standpoint — I wanted to be top tier in any of the activities I engaged in — volleyball, basketball, regional spelling competitions, finger-style guitar lessons, my Driver’s License exam. I had an insatiable hunger for success, and I gravitated away from any of the skills where I discovered I was mediocre. The joke in my family was that even my blood type was A+.
Thus, steeped in this meritocratic Earl Grey, I remember shopping for a going away present for one of my close friends the summer after we graduated from high school. I was with my best friend, Holli, and we perused the aisles of a local party store for confetti, cards, and other goofy items to include in her care package.
On the way through the checkout line, directly by the register, I saw a line up of the kitschy prizes used for award ceremonies, embossed with gold lettering, and affixed to a safety pin. The location was hilarious to me, as if it was common for people to impulse-buy accolades for $1.99 alongside party favors and helium balloons.
I couldn’t help but read through them, and amidst the standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place options, there was a lone purple ribbon that read, “I TRY MY BEST.” I doubled over in laughter, overcome with the tragicomedy of someone receiving this in lieu of an “Honorable Mention,” an alternative award which would confer at least some modicum of respect to the recipient.
The hilarity bubbled up within me that someone might receive this, the saddest little ribbon. Would they recognize it as a consolation prize? Would it make them a target for smug bullies? Was it actually better than not getting a ribbon at all?
In this unassuming shop full of crêpe paper and cardboard, I was facing a symbol of the world’s lopsidedness. I was a giggling achievement junkie faced with the reality that there might be someone who loses even though they gave it their all. This concept was inconceivable to me based on the stories after which I’d patterned my life.
As an adult, however, I’ve now seen first-hand how this competitive winnowing happens every day. People evaluate daily how to succeed when the odds are stacked against them. I’ve personally filed unemployment insurance claims via state website –noticing that the job board excludes the most lucrative opportunities and that the resume-writing tool watered down my broad experience to banal, inaccurate generalizations. I know a Dreamer who, despite having reassurance about her own legal presence in the United States has to worry day in and day out about her parents, who are still undocumented and in fear of deportation. They have lived and worked here for almost 30 years. I know a trans woman who still goes to the doctor and hears, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this,” when speaking with experts who should know how to advise her about her health.
The general manager of that card shop likely spent less than two minutes selecting the purchase of those ribbons, and yet they became a reminder for me that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length, and some have none at all. This little ribbon was a single frayed thread in a carefully crafted tapestry, one that indicated that by trying one’s best you might end up on the winner’s podium, and that we would venerate you for your heroism if you won. Everyone loves an underdog, right?
In order to craft underdog stories, however, we have to have underdogs in the first place. What is it about American culture that only celebrates the people who fight against adversity and win, rather than those who simply fight against adversity? To celebrate someone who miraculously survives systemic injustice but to ignore those that are crushed by it? I’ve seen this attitude as it relates to people deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. Grocery store workers and gas station attendants filling the very roles that parents point to when attempting to scare their children into attending college. Line cooks who couldn’t make ends meet on the hourly wage they receive even if their employer granted them a full 40 hours per week. Nurses who are trying to save lives without sufficient protective gear for themselves or their patients.
Faced with a crisis like COVID-19, we allow our government leaders to deflect protective gear from front-line staff who are witnessing full critical care units and mass death. Our solution is to stand in doorways and applaud for healthcare workers as they start the next grueling shift. Instead of providing funds to keep grocery workers housed and fed, we hang signs in the windows saying “Thank you to our essential workers,” and then allow patrons to scream and curse at them when they are requested to wear a mask.
Standing in that gift shop, holding a little purple ribbon, I had discovered a nod to those who didn’t have a Disney-worthy comeback — for those who didn’t reinforce our underdog system. We give that ribbon in form of hero worship when we are unwilling to provide actual support to the people who fight for us. We love an underdog because it reassures that the world will be alright, despite the fact that we ourselves have done nothing to make it so. And we ignore the ones that fall under the wheel — their loss doesn’t fit into the beautiful narrative of achievement. We are children telling stories in the dark –that the world is beautiful, that light will defeat darkness, and we don’t have to lift a finger to help.
New. Each one of us begins as something shiny, unadulterated ー arriving slippery and howling. Yes, the lettering of our DNA spells out predispositions ー handedness, eye color, height, even likelihood of extraversion or affability. We bring these gifts into the world, holding them aloft to see how they will be received. My own offerings were generally accepted ーmy parents watered the seeds of musicality, storytelling, and creativity so that they might bloom.
Infused with this nurture was a promise of abundance ー of Big and Mighty forces I could entice to sway things my way, as long as I said my prayers, perfected my homework, and kept on the sunny side of life. I’d carried these expectations with me throughout my teenage years, hoarding good grades, achievement medals, and pats on the head, always looking for the next source of praise and expecting that it would come.
Along with a heaping spoonful of cheerful childhood, Mom and Dad also fed me the myths of their own journeys ー bootstrapping themselves upward in society, juggling young children and night classes, shopping at the discount bread store, and refinishing used bicycles for the kids. The underpinning for all of my opportunities, I knew, was that Dad worked long hours as a software engineer, balancing the family’s finances, and wielding the big stick of tight budgets. Meanwhile, Mom navigated the timing of when to tell him that my brother and I needed basketball shoes for the upcoming season. “Don’t lie to your father if he asks what we bought, but maybe…take the bags straight to your room when we get inside.”
Thus, when I arrived at college in August of 2004 I had the understanding that all my family’s dragons were slayed. I could enjoy the kingdom.
I was a small town Texas girl savoring every succulent detail of city living. I glamorized the mundane, trying on adulthood like I used to try on Mom’s lipstick. I journaled about cool professors who stayed up until 3 am, failed relationships, and sermonized about what it meant to live an upright life. One sentence I wrote from this time period sticks with me: Isn’t it great when God picks us up and shakes our little snow globe around? Right now I’m just waiting for the fake snow to settle.
Oh, sweet, naive soul, I think, you’re poised on the precipice of life’s craggy peak, pep-talking yourself to run down the mountainside.
I had no awareness that the demons my family allegedly thwarted ー poverty, broken childhoods, toxic relationshipsーhad not been banished. They’d only been relegated to the basement to hibernate and grow fat ー feeding on shame and guilt and growing additional heads. I was not yet prepared to discover the loose ends of trauma, addiction, and bereavement that were untied and dangling over the fence into my own adult life. The vulnerability and change I was feeling was a mere foreshadowing of the earthquakes to come.
Some years ago, during our family’s struggle with a dysfunctional dynamic and my father’s addiction, I discovered Brené Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she delivered the words of a sacred vocation: “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story.” This was a rebuttal to my teenage observation that I’d need my snow globe world to settle down. I didn’t need peace — I needed truth. The change I was experiencing wasn’t a subtle jostling –it was the first cracks in the glass of family secret-keeping and forgotten lies. Over the next seventeen years, the religious icons I’d made of my expectations for a safe, happy, linear life would fall apart– the result of an iconoclast both painful and real.
Consider this writing endeavor an invitation to join me as I crack my life open, exposing the shards of family dysfunction and forgotten lies, and flip shame the double bird.