Saturday, April 29, 2017

Re-entry from VSC, Day 1

If I close my eyes and listen to the recording I made of the Gihon River on repeat, I can pretend I’m in my studio at VSC. If I close my eyes and listen to Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of “Hallelujah” on repeat, I can pretend I’m in my studio at VSC. If I close my eyes and listen to the 3.13.99 live concert recording of Dave Matthews Band’s “Two Step” on repeat, I can pretend I’m in my studio at VSC.

Re-entry is hard. And I’ve only been home a little over 12 hours. I have yet to venture out into the regular world. If it’s hard now, I’m in big trouble. And I can't exactly articulate what's so hard or why it's hard. It just is.

I wonder if the visual artists have this problem. Part of me thinks: no.

This morning, it was too quiet. No sound of the river. An occasional bird chirp. Not even a song. Just a chirp here and there. My home studio is a disaster, full of clutter. I want to take my arm and just sweep all of its contents out the window, into a big dumpster down below. Papers, books. Everything. Clean slate. Start fresh.

It feels weird to be home. Surreal. Like I’m here, but not. This weird pseudo-outer-body experience. Like there’s a kind of fog around me.

I unpacked a few things last night. Looking at my newly-acquired VSC items in my home was strange. Again, like I’m here but not really. For example, I bought a few of Michael’s beautiful wood bowls and they sat on my dresser in my room at Mason House. Now, they are sitting on the worktable in my home studio (I just randomly placed them there). Two worlds are trying to come together and, for me, it’s a little jarring. The bowls remind me of the peace and quiet of Mason House, but now, for them to exist in a space that’s not so peaceful, one that’s cluttered and frenetic? That’s the jarring part.

Also, I’m feeling a little delirious from lack of sleep.

I don’t know what to do with myself right now. Maybe I can start with another cup of coffee. Then figure out where to start in KonMari-ing the shit out of this home studio. I’m sure there will be more to say, but for now, I will clean.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


This is Essay #17 (on time! woo!!) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

(my studio during last night's Open Studios)

My residency at Vermont Studio Center is coming to an end.

I should be packing up my studio right now, but instead I am staring out the wide open window, listening to the Gihon River roll by. Birdsong trilling every now and then at this early morning hour. Everyone is still sleeping after a night by the bonfire behind Schultz studios. I like the quiet, the stillness of the world before everyone wakes. Which is why I'm not packing up just yet. I want to linger here. To savor this moment as the sun tries to break through cloud cover.

Leaving is always hard, no matter how much one practices non-attachment. Well, at least for me.

Last night was Open Studios, which, for those unfamiliar, is like an Open House. Studio doors are open and we wander in and our from place to place, seeing what each of us has been creating during this month of our residency. It's pretty amazing to see all of that art, in varying degrees of process with a vast range of media. To witness each person's specific ways of interacting with the world and their expression of what they see. Because as artists, it's all about what we see and how we see it, how we make sense of it.

There was Open Studios mid-month, but this one, at the close of the month, was really intense for me. It took longer. There was a lot more work to take in and a lot more conversation with everyone. Discussing projects, plans for what's next. Sensory overload. But all of it was really incredible. So much talent in one place.

Afterwards, I just sat in my studio, listening to the river with one earbud in, listening to one of my favorite songs on repeat. I needed to just be alone for a minute, to take it all in and digest before I went back out into the world of socializing. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be in the quiet. Then it started to seep in like the night: that sadness of leaving.

On Monday, I could already sense it: the long goodbye. There was talk of the process of shipping (mostly for visual artists), of breaking down studios and returning them to clean slates. Plans for last dinners, staying in touch, final hurrahs. I started to slow down, to really be present as much as I could (which, to be honest, is something I should've done right from the start. Oh, hindsight, how you vex me so! Haha!). That afternoon, I took a hike with my friend Kara to Journey's End. A hike that should've happened sooner rather than later. It was beautiful. Warm and sunny. Waterfalls here and there --the sound of rushing water so powerful-- which then tapered off into quiet. The water so clear that you could see the river rocks shimmering in the light. I took off my socks and shoes and dipped my feet into the icy water. While Kara searched for her stone treasures, I just sat there, letting my mind wander from thing to thing, noticing the water's movements, noticing water bugs on the surface, feeling the sun's warmth on my face, on my arms. Unhurried. At peace. I didn't want to leave.

On Tuesday afternoon, I spent three hours painting the big canvas (24 x 36) I bought during the start of Week 2. It took me two weeks to just break the plastic wrap and put some blue on it. It felt good. I listened to this one song on repeat and let the body respond with gesture, paintbrush in hand. Again, I was unhurried.

But then yesterday that prickly ball of anticipation showed up in my belly. I still moved at a slower pace than I usually do, but I needed to get things done. I had to prep my studios (both my writing studio & the art installation) for Open Studios. It's like staging a house for open house: you want everything just so. You won't necessarily be there to talk to those who visit, so you want to make sure things are clear. But also, I didn't feel like I needed to be around my peeps (which was interesting since I suffer from FOMO all the time!). I kinda liked doing my own thing. I even had dinner off-camus at the pizza place by myself, reading the comic book, Ms Marvel. I guess I wanted to be alone for a bit.

This seems to be a new way of me dealing with leaving. Usually I'm frantically trying to spend every last minute with every single person I want to be with, squeezing quality time into every tiny second. This time? Quite the opposite.


There are different kinds of leaving.

Leaving home to come here was both exciting and a little sad, but not so much so because I knew I'd return. But what it is to be left behind? To be in the place that is familiar and feel the absence, the gaping hole of that person who has left? This, I think, might the harder of the two. Of course, it depends on one's perspective and circumstance.

This leaving is different. Everyone is leaving at the same time, heading off into different directions, like the burst of colored rays in a kaleidoscope. It is sad to leave the place and the handful of staff who remain behind (Mo!!!), but, in some ways, this leaving feels like a promise of possibility. And that is what I'll hold onto to keep from crying (Lord knows I've done more than enough weeping in my studio this month!).


Which brings us back to this moment of me staring out the window, listening to the river. I'm going to miss that river. I'm going to miss my studio. And my big first-floor window out of which I have stepped. Do you know how great it feels to just step out of your window and onto the grass and then walk a few steps to get closer to the water? I love it.

Leaving is hard but only because we've grown attached to the temporary. While I will miss my studio, I know I will be back. While I will miss the amazing, loving, and supportive friends I have made here, I know my life is much richer because of them. Some of us will stay connected, others may drift into the horizon. Either way, I am grateful for all of the interactions and experiences I have had here.  I am blessed beyond belief. And I hope that I can walk away, take these moments, and create something that will add beauty and love to the world.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mediations on Water

This is Essay #16 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Every day these past three weeks, I have sat at my desk in a small writing studio in Vermont, looking at the Gihon River outside my window. I watch it flow by with ease. The part of river I see doesn’t seem affected by the rains and the snowmelt (that’s further upstream) so the current has been pretty consistent. At least from where I’m sitting.  Some days I hear “Row Row Row Your Boat” in my head, imagine an empty tiny rowboat float by with its tiny oars. Most days, I just hear the waters flow by, calming my heart. If I am still enough, I can feel the river’s energy.

There are days I think about going into the water. To step outside of my floor-to-ceiling studio window, onto the brown grass, clumps of leftover snow, and down the short slope of riverbank studded with rock and weed. To step in, shoes off, clothes on, hair loose. To feel the water’s force around my ankles, then my shins. To wade into the river’s center and let the current carry me to wherever it goes. Despite the freezing cold temperature. What would it be like to surrender like that? To allow yourself to be taken? To be just a branch floating downstream? Or to sink to the bottom as the water polished away your edges, smoothing the very the stone of you?

But also I think about drowning. I am terrified of drowning. I won’t go off the diving boards at the community pool. I know how to swim, but when I’m in the deep end of a lap pool, a tiny tremor of panic rumbles through by body. Yet I am fascinated by it. By drowning. Is that a messed up thing to admit? Morbid, yes. Terrible? Probably. But don’t get me wrong: I’m not suicidal. I am curious about what it feels like to be submerged in freezing water. What it feels like to have that cold liquid fill your lungs like an ice tray. Like so many snowflakes crystallizing you from within.

To suddenly become fish.

I think of Ophelia.


I am drawn to water.


I just completed an online flash workshop with Winter Tangerine literary journal. The workshop’s theme: Dissolved in Water.

What dissolves in water?
Water carries memory
Does memory dissolve
But memory changes, shift shapes
Just like water
Does memory make home? Or home make memory?
What shape does water take in order to make a home?


Chirping in the trees. Wing flap. What if a bird flew in the open window of my studio?


When I sit next to the window and look to the right, I can see a bit more of the river, the way the water spills over rocky terrain: part waterfall, part rapids. The way the current curves out, away from me, streams beneath the bridge with its stone-railed edges, only to slingshot back, bringing with it a big white water rush, pouring forth like froth, before slowing down into a ease of water and light.


Lately, I've been thinking about home & identity & diaspora & water & memory. A lot of big things. Thinking about how water needs something to hold its shape. (And conversely, how it shapes other things, like landscapes.) How a bowl can hold the water's shape but also spill it out to change water's identity (via volume). Also: how is the bowl's identity changed by the presence of water? The unfinished surface of turned wood allows water to seep through to the other side of the bowl. But not only that – what about the presence of a word or phrase etched into the bowls? What happens to words & language when they are etched into bowls? Then submerged and/or soaked in water? How are their identities & meanings changed, if at all? Changed by its existence in wood (wood as word) but also in water?

Other inquiries can be found in last week's essay.

So with all of these questions, I created an art installation with the help of my writer-turned-artist wood-turner, Michael Badger. I wanted to explore the answers to these questions but felt that actual answers through language was limiting. Verbal and written language feels limiting here. I wanted something physical. And thus: “Cartography of Water: Home, Memory, and Identity in the Diaspora” was born at Vermont Studio Center.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Exploring Ideas of Home in the Diaspora

This is Essay #15 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

As a brown child of immigrant parents, I live in a place called the diaspora. It’s this in-between space, neither here nor there, just in-between. I’m not at home in the US simply because I’m brown and I’ve got “exotic” looks. People are surprised I speak English so well. (Uh, I was born here, mutherfuckers.) I’m also not at home in the Philippines, the place from which my parents fled. (Aside: That last word “fled” is something I use to describe their arrival in the US because they left during Marcos’s martial law. This is how I see it. How my mother sees it is entirely different. But that’s for another essay.)

When I first visited the Philippines, I had this overwhelming sense of home. Everyone I saw looked like family. I welled up with tears before I even left the airport. But I knew better than to fall entirely for this romanticized feeling. They can smell American a mile away. And I stank.

All my life, I’ve tried to navigate the in-between spaces, to negotiate a place to call home that really had no fixed location. It’s like home exists in the ether. In a place that doesn’t have a physical existence. Over time, I’ve kinda gotten used to it and worked to be okay with it, to be neither here nor there. I think I’ve created my own space to call home.

Of course, the idea of home, the definition of home is complex. What is home? Is it a feeling? Is it a physical location? Is it people? Is it all of the above? Or none? Or something else?

I’m at a stage where I want to do a little more investigating, a little more inquiry. I’m working on a project that is trying to do just that.

The project is still developing but it involves water and bowls hand made from wood and the idea of memory being held and carried by water and how these things might represent what it is to live in the diaspora. What does it mean to hold water, to be the very bowl that gives it shape? The bowl can be seen as the thing in power because its depth and shape determines the water’s shape. But what does it mean when water spills over the bowl’s rim? Water wants to escape the bowl or perhaps the bowl is not large enough of a “home” for the water and water moves on.

But then consider water as memory, water as carrying memory. Memory creating identity and home. All of our lived experiences build upon each other to create this very moment that we’re in. Water can build, but it ebbs and flows. Does memory rise and fall, ebb and flow? How does this feed into the idea of home? Is home a raft on the current of memory?

What is it to map water? Is it to find one’s way through the unknown, like explorers heading West? Or is it to ensure a way back? Or both? Or something else?

What memories are carried in water? Which ones dissolve into the water and which ones simply wash away? And with whatever is left, what is made?

I don’t know. I only have more questions. Stay tuned for more exploration! 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Blob (as Creative Process)

This is Essay #14 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

While I hate disclaimers & always give my own students (and friends!) a hard time about them, I am making one now (hypocrite! haha!): this essay is bullshit. It's not an essay in earnest. It's really a journal entry disguised as a blog post (what's the difference, really?) (I know, I know: I'm being reductive.). But I haven't been able to really write this past week -- you're about to find out why...

I've been working at Vermont Studio Center this past week; I'll be working here all month. It sounds like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things --when it comes to writing-- it is not. It's a blip. Naomi Jackson is presently our visiting writer (she totally ROCKS!) and last night, after she read some work, she talked about her process. Her novels take years to write. Years, people, years. Which, I know is not unusual. This is why I'm a poet (haha -- I joke. Kinda.). Smaller number of words. Bite-sized pieces of literature. (Though, yes, there are those long-ass poems that tend to pop up from time to time.) But still, even poems take time. The writing process takes time. Today, during my conference with Naomi, she told me what I needed to hear: you can't rush the process. Honor that. And practice self-care. Despite me knowing this already, hearing it aloud from another person usually has greater impact.

I tend to forget these things. Because, you know, I write like I'm running out of time, like I need it to survive. ;)

Because I'm in a different space, literally, my writing process has morphed into something unfamiliar. To be honest, it feels like a big blob. As in: the pink jelly-goo from the movie "The Blob". I can see it now, oozing out the doors of that movie theater while people run for their lives. Yup. That sounds like my writing process right about now. Hah! But as with any kind of change, I am uncomfortable (which is to be expected) and I am trying to embrace that. The past week felt like --as my fellow resident, Pam, said: getting my sea legs. Which is not to say that I'm back (though, I might have said those very words earlier today). It just means that I'm remembering to honor the writing process for what it is in any given moment.

Right now? I feel like writing about the creative process, NOT a personal essay that has a narrative arc with some kind of emotional investment. And so here I am.

After my conference with Naomi, and after I digested some of her feedback, I spent some time visiting artists' studios, talking to them about their process. And I got some really fantastic stuff!!

I know nothing about creating visual art, so I wanted to find out how to an artist approaches her/his work. I talked to 2D and 3D artists and it was really cool to learn about their conversations with their work.

One said: Ask WHY. Why are you making this thing? What's the driving force?

Another said: Ask HOW. How does this continue the narrative of the work you're doing now? Of the work you've done in the past?

Another said: Art has the same language as music: composition, rhythm, tone. What is the sound of the painting? What do you hear? How do you translate that visually?

I just kept nodding -- yes, yes, yes!

What I'm noticing is that, generally, visual artists seem to have less attachment to their work. They can let go of it pretty easily. At least this has been my impression. If they are unhappy with what's emerging, they throw it out & start over. One artist gets physical & tears up her canvas. Literally takes a knife and cuts it in half. Some try to work with what they've got and see what emerges, as it veers away from their initial vision. They are more focused in the making of things, but not so much so that they are deeply emotionally invested and attached to what they create.

I talked to a few poets and writers about this over late-night wings. What we do is different in that we really invest a lot of emotional labor. So letting go is harder. And it looks different. What does it mean to let go of something in writing? What are we letting go?

For me, with this one particular piece, it's the letting go of a shield. Naomi told me that I was at the edge and I just needed to leap. I asked her: how? And she said: you know. And I thought: dammit! Because, of course, I know. Again, she said what I knew but needed to hear aloud. So I need to let go of the shield I've created in this one piece. To drop it off the cliff, the edge of where I stand. And then leap.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dear Mother, Part 2

This is Essay #13 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Rain raps against the window of my writing studio. Wind pushes trees into a rock-and-sway dance. I watch the Gihon River flow by, undisturbed. I’m listening for something.

(Also? If I’m being honest, I just re-read that first paragraph and I kinda want to barf. What is up with that preciousness? Gah! But to be fair, I’ve been struggling with putting pen to paper since I arrived here at Vermont Studio Center a couple of days ago. It’s a lot of work to mentally arrive and shed the guilt / pressure of having to write, to produce something. Thus, the stupid poetic language that feels totally –I don’t know— ugghhh! Dumb! I will say, though, I am listening for something.)


A few weeks ago, I wrote about being an unkind daughter. Or, at least that was what I set out to do. The unpolished essay ended up recounting moments throughout my life in which my mother and I tried to communicate. Or not. Or completely failed. There really wasn’t much about why I was unkind. Or why I thought I was unkind. But it was a starting point for something I’ve wanted to explore.

Soon after, my mother caught wind of it (I didn’t try to hide it, but I didn’t share it with her either) and had a sit-down with me. I ended up writing about that, too. It’s a big deal when your Asian immigrant mother wants to talk about feelings.

She asked me if my childhood was traumatic, if something happened to me. She told me that she did the best she could, given her circumstances, given what she knew. Of course, I assured her, this is what parents do. She went on to plead her case, as if my essay were some kind of accusation of her as a failed mother. As if she were on trial. I told her that this essay was about me, exploring my personal history to understand how I came to be where I am right now.

She didn’t understand.

She went on to ask me to stop writing about her. Without hesitation, I replied that it wasn’t possible. That she was asking me to compromise who I am and the work that I do. I told her that we don’t choose what we write about – as artists, the work chooses us. And we must comply. (Or be forever tormented within until there’s a release.)

I don’t remember how the conversation ended (how does one wrap up something like this without awkwardness?), but I was under the impression that we could all move on.

A week or so later, she asked me to take down the blog post.

“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure, Mom.”
“Can you take down that blog?”
“It’s still there.”
“I didn’t say I was going to take it down.”
“It really hurts me.”
“It’s not about you.”
“But it is about me.”
“No, it’s not. It’s about me and my experiences.”
“But it is about me. You make me look like a bad mother.”
“It’s not about you.” (In my head, I think about Anne Lamott’s oft-quoted line: If people didn’t want you to write badly about them, they should’ve behaved better. Haha! But, honestly, I’m not writing badly about her.)

Silence. Thirty long seconds of silence.

“Ma, I gotta go. I don’t know what you want me to say, but I can’t be on the phone all night.”

Two big questions here:

1. How do you get your mother to read with critical lenses? All she sees is the surface.

2. How do you navigate the tricky waters of memoir when writing about family?


Dear Mom,

How can I open your eyes to see?

You are hurt because you cannot see below the surface of words. You cannot see that I am trying to love you by unearthing you and the silences of our lives. You are buried so deep that you have forgotten what it feels like to have the sun warm your face. You see only darkness. I am digging for you. I want to bring light. I see you but only understand parts of you. I want to recognize you, all of you.

How do I write our silences into being? How to explore the spaces between words, and half-spoken sentences? Do you finish those sentences in your head in Tagalog? Or do you think I can read your mind? That anyone can? Or is that a reflex of you shrinking yourself? Making yourself small and invisible, not asserting yourself and taking up space; diminish yourself as woman, as Filipina immigrant.

How can I open your eyes to see?

In not seeing below the surface of words, you are not seeing me. And in not seeing me (not only does that hurt me as your daughter), you fail to see yourself.

How can I make you see there is love here?