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?

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