I awoke and the children were there. My heart raced with the usual, feral fear, and then quieted itself. This was not anything unusual. The girl lifted me onto my pillows and gave me a glass of milk, and the boy stretched out across the foot of the bed, propped on his elbows to watch me drink. When I was done, it was their turn, and they each lay on either side of me, and bit into my flesh. They were careful, neat always, but the bedsheets witnessed their daily feast and the spatters had grown brown. “I’ll wash them, Mother,” the girl said, and kissed my cheek, her lips moist with my life essence.
They reminded me of Chelsea, that’s why I let them in. They were so small and helpless, and things had gotten so dangerous out there. They might have been children from the first grade class I had so recently delivered Chelsea to for her first day. She was so proud of her new outfit and backpack. I hadn’t posted the pictures. Everything happened so quickly.
I fell back into the sleep, exhausted from the feeding. They were bigger now, and were eating more. They took more out of me.
“She will give you what you ask for,” they warn each other, “exactly what you ask for.””If you’re a very good girl,” Mother said, “they won’t get you.”Yet she taught me things day to day. How to grow living things, plants and insects, and how to harvest them. The ways to read a person’s face, and flesh, to…
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The king had stood naked and vulnerable before his people. The only person who acknowledged the exposure was a small child, and he was quickly hushed. There were rumors that to look directly upon a member of the noble family would render one a fool, or blind, or unfit for service; it would cause one’s deepest shame to be revealed, would cost one’s inheritance, or render one sterile and heirless. He exposed himself to them all.
The experiment in vulnerability was not considered a success. He wanted to convey that these rumors were not true, were unfounded, yet only prevailed in terrorizing his entire kingdom. He was only a man like any other, he wanted to say. But no, his wise sister insisted, he was not like any other man. He was a ruler, and thus, he must rule. The people did not want to serve and follow a man like themselves; in fact it would be dangerous folly to do so. Common men were built for common matters, equipped for planting and harvesting, for managing crops and animals, or buying and selling and crafting goods. A king had to be above all of that, in order to oversee all of that.
“He is only a man,” the child cried out in the middle of the procession, and the king had smiled at that, expecting the people to slowly acknowledge and accept this. He was a man. A man of privilege, who bore great responsibility. A man who would do everything that a man could do for them, and would uphold his duty. But a man, not a god, not one who could heal and guarantee peace and good crop yields and fertility and prosperity. He didn’t control all that.
“You must learn to,” his sister advised him. “If you can’t, they will kill you.”
That was what he was trying to avoid. Revolution had come to the next kingdom, and the entire noble house had lost their heads. Their economy had faltered, followed by a drought, and it required kingsblood to remedy. They didn’t say so – the executions were secular matters of state nowadays – yet the formula held. The old ways demanded that the gods be given kingsblood when things got bad, and in return, things would get good again. After the executions, the rains had returned to the neighboring kingdom. It was hard to argue with results like that.
So the king devised a plan. He would show himself to be a mortal, frail and limited and human, just like they were. His sister advised against it. But he was king, and surely that meant something, so he did what he had decided.
The reports trickled in over the following days. Reports of people struck blind and falling into madness. Reports of secrets revealed and the peoples’ justice being meted out for social infractions, mobs descending on homes and shops.
What had he unleashed?
He sent his soldiers out to quell the riots. Even their numbers seemed diminished over the past few days, he noticed.
He called for his sister. “It can’t be undone,” she said.
“How do I move forward?” he asked.
She told him, “I have a robe crafted by the three spinners of old, made of golden thread, and stitched by our wisest seamstresses. It will let you pass unseen. We can go into exile and return after this has all settled down.”
“Leaving won’t help our people.”
“Let the people help themselves. They aren’t yours anymore. They don’t want you except as an offering to their own fears.”
There was a shift in the demeanor of his household guard as the days went by. They still watched over him, followed him as he moved from place to place, stood guard at doors and windows. Now, rather than a protective presence, he began to feel they were keeping him in.
In the council room, as he passed by, he heard the accent of the neighboring kingdom. “The time to act is now,” the voice said. “The wealth of this land has been bled away, and it becomes more wasted with every day that passes. It is time for the common man to take his place before god and destiny, to be the true master of his own -”
One of his guards stepped in front of him, blocking the council chamber, and pulled the door closed. “My lord, we should continue on.” The king was ushered into his audience chamber, as he was each morning. No one had come to seek audience with him since the procession.
He called for his sister again. A servant was dispatched, but she never came. He waited, he felt he was patient, and then he stopped a maid in the hall. She ducked her head, but he saw her stealing glances at his face. Her cheeks were flushed. Did she still think she shouldn’t look on him? “Where is my sister?”
“My lord, she can’t be found,” the young woman answered. She looked over his shoulder at the guard, and then hurried along her way.
His sister must have made good on her escape, he thought. He should have gone with her when he had the chance. He needed to get some air, to sort out what all of this meant. He knew exactly what it meant, of course, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept it, to even acknowledge it. At the doorway, the man guarding the door looked to the man guarding the king. They shared a wordless exchange, nodded, and then the guard at the door stepped aside, and the king stepped out into his walled garden. His sister had always loved this space, and he felt calmer here, as though he might gain the benefit of her advice simply from being in the place she had passed so many hours.
What to do? What to do? He paced and kicked a pebble along before him as he went. He had made a gamble, he had trusted in his people, and he had lost. He stretched, looked up, and over the wall he saw the upright planks of a scaffold being built. His stomach turned. “What’s being built over there?” he asked his guard.
The guard looked for a long moment, then shrugged. “We should go back inside.”
The king was not allowed to return to the garden.
Walking up and down the halls of the palace made him feel caged, and so he began to take meals in his rooms. He watched out the window as the scaffold went up and when it was completed, his fears were confirmed.
The morning came when the house seemed alive with a strange new kind of energy. People walked with quickened steps. His breakfast was pushed in with a hurried lack of ceremony, and his dresser never followed. He heard the crowd gathering outside, beyond the garden walls. He could see the tops of peoples heads and saw his ministers seated on chairs along the platform. There were also strangers there, in places of honor. One of the ministers was speaking, but he couldn’t hear the words. And then a woman was led up onto the platform. The minister’s voice raised. The people cheered. His sister’s face was pale as the executioner lowered the noose around her neck. He saw her speak, heard her voice, but he couldn’t make out the words. Then a black cloth was lowered over her face, and the trapdoor opened, and she fell. The people cheered. Though every other sound came to him muffled and distorted, he clearly heard the crack when the rope reached its limit.
A day and a night passed. No one came. He barely noticed. He couldn’t tell if the pain in his gut was hunger or loss or fear. Finally someone came and cleared away the remains of his breakfast from that terrible morning. His guard came soon after that, stood just inside the door, silent.
“My sister?” the king asked.
“Gone,” the guard said. He already knew the answer, he wanted to hear it though, to gauge some reaction in these people who had until so recently been his people.
“What did she say?” he asked.
“My lord…” The guard hesitated. “I don’t remember…”
“Please. What did she say?”
At last the guard spoke, quietly, slowly. “I die guilty only of the name I was born to. May these gods my life is given to appease bring justice on this land. And…” He hesitated. “And, long live the king.”
The king bowed his head.
“She asked that you be given this.” The guard set a bundle on the edge of the dressing table.
“How long do I have?” the king asked.
“Tomorrow. Mid-morning,” the guard answered, and stepped out of the room.
The king opened the bundle and unwrapped a finely woven cloak.
I made some tea today. Chinese green tea from the Yunnan village near Pai in Thailand, in my grandmother’s tea pot. I took some pictures for Instagram and hashtagged it “asianamerican.”
I’m grieving my grandmother. It’s like a small tug on something inside me, a small ache there in my chest. I feel like some line that connected me back to the history of mankind has broken and needs to be repaired, and right now I’m still floating, loose – not floating away, just hanging, suspended, and waiting for the connection to be reformed.
There were a lot of conversations I wanted to have with her. I did not have the expectation of them, but I liked to hear her talk about people and things and places I was connected to because of her. It was alien and distant, but still something I could lay claim to, because of her, as her descendant. Now I have no proof, because she’s gone.
I read an article by a woman grieving the loss of her mother, and she asked, “Am I even Korean anymore?” And that’s how I feel a little bit. She was what made me Japanese, and now she is gone. I feel alienated from myself. How can I be Japanese when I don’t know how to make things, or don’t go to the effort to do it all properly? When my gyoza is store bought and I eat it with kimchi, and the rice for inari takes too long, and my miso has turned to a rock in the back of the fridge? My house does not look like a Japanese home, the way my mother’s does. My face doesn’t either. When I go to a restaurant or a cultural event, I’m another white girl, showing up because it’s something weird and interesting to do.
I judge the way other people hold their hashi, because, though I look more like them, I know how to do it properly. It’s a small thing I have that I can say, “see, I’m authentic,” and yet there’s so much I don’t know.
I was complimented once on how well I used hashi by the kindly proprietor of a restaurant. I smiled and ducked my head while my mother expressed her thanks on my behalf. Yet I felt that shame of being so out of place, of being singled out as Other, as not belonging, at a table with my own mother and siblings. “I’m Japanese,” I thought.
You would never be Japanese because you’re American, my mother said. They would never recognize you as Japanese in Japan, she said. It didn’t help that she said she could never be Japanese either. People recognized her right to her heritage. I was named interloper. That was part of it, the reason for not knowing things. If Japan didn’t want me, I didn’t want it. But of course, I did. And I do.
I’ve started to reclaim that as an adult, especially more recently. Still it hurts when people will say unintentionally unkind things (“you’re just white,” from a more-Asian friend), be casually misappropriative (“Kiyomi is a Hawaiian name, it’s my niece’s name, but it’s spelled differently,” from a coworker), or just plain ignorant (“your parents must have been hippies,” from an acquaintance). The bite of these things lingers. Other comments echo in my brain, still raw and upsetting. I try to be diplomatic.”I’m Japanese,” I think, and sometimes say. “Oh, part,” some will concede. “Oh, your mother’s half. So that makes you…” and they look at me, and I can tell they are thinking, “white.”
I am Japanese. I am. I am other things, but this too is mine to lay claim to, who I am. Without equivocation or caveat, it’s mine. I don’t have to look a certain way for that to be true. I don’t have to carry with me all of the cultural signifiers to prove it.
I want to shout these things.
When I was in Thailand, other women repeatedly began speaking to me in Thai. When there was a Thai price and a visitor price, there would be initial confusion as I handed over the visitor price. It made me happy, gave me some small comfort, to have someone else look at me and see belonging, even where I didn’t. It is part of the incredible diversity of Thailand, informed by centuries of rich history and an on-going openness to ideas and people that make it okay that I can look like me, and can still be seen.
You’re still Japanese, my mom would say to me, speaking of heritage. Mine to claim, because it is hers, and I am her daughter. Mine to claim, and she would defy anyone who might suggest otherwise, with that withering stare that other Asian children will know well.
My mom points out other’s like me in restaurants. “They’re at least a quarter,” she’ll assert with absolute confidence, of someone with lighter hair and more tattoos than me.
It’s a concession I’m learning to make, to accept. To be this third generation Asian-American. To eat my store bought gyoza with kimchi. To drink my Yunnan Thai tea from my grandmother’s teapot. I know there are more out there like me, invisible children who go to cultural events and are marked as strangers, to restaurants and get complimented on how they hold their hashi, and questioning looks or gentle cautions when they order off the traditional menu. Others who also have to navigate what it means when our connection to that other place – looming and important, and abstract and storied all at once – is severed.
Obon, the Japanese festival to honor ancestors, ended about a week ago. It’s more of a season than a date because of the way the lunar and solar calendars fail to line up. It started right after Gram passed away. It’s maybe right to have this period of saying goodbye happen when her ancestors – my ancestors – are traditionally remembered. She doesn’t feel like an ancestor yet, and I am still floating, untethered, with my tea.
They did say that it was murder. A seaborn girl and a landed lad, how could it be any different, one might ask? They found him in the surf, howling with a rage and madness, and her limp and dead away in his arms. They said that he had drowned her. She never could become apiece to his people. They were of different worlds. She ran away, the poor dear thing, and when he caught her, he drowned her. They say.
He never said anything. They took him away again, his landed people, gathered him back to his big landed house, and no one did see him again, but as a brooding shape in a window casement. That’s the way these things go.
There were ships on the sea, hunting when the season was in, and they brought in a pretty haul, seal meat and pelts and her too, pulled in from the sea and half drowned. Well, she ended as she began. Some soul took her in and nursed her well, and then she was a pretty thing, and they said she bewitched the whole village, every man laid claim to her, and since it would tear the whole place apart, they put her out of town. But she lingered like a ghost there before the crossroads, and it was a cold night, and many at that, and she begged for a coat.
The innkeeper’s wife brought her in again, and fed her and warmed her, and put her foot down that no man who would breathe a word of bewitchery and foolishness should have a sip of ale in that house. That put an end to it, and the pretty innkeeper’s daughter became such a common sight it was forgot that she was pretty, and as well that she was no native daughter.
That might have been the end of it. She could have married some young local lad, one who knew the ways of the sea, one not so high and fine. But they traveled down from their hills in the summer months, to take the air, they said. And he, that landed boy, didn’t know that she was common now, and thought her as fine and precious as he, and so he asked to take her away, and so she went.
Then the storms came, and then the hunt, and then that highborn lad came tearing through town with others like him, color high in their cheeks, like landed Gentry, riding on horseback, and pillaged our catch.
“My wife would have her coat,” it was reported he’d said, with lightning crashing behind him and fire in his eyes. In truth it wasn’t a stormy night, and the flush in their faces gave truth to another rumor that they were all right sotted and had decided on a raid for the evening’s entertainment. They took piles of seal pelts away with them, and it was supposed our girl had a fine coat out of it. What could anyone do for it? The head man applied to the house, and they say some compensation was made.
Who could blame her for running away? In time it became a common sight to see her walking among the rocks and surf, her dress sodden and heavy around her legs. One night, as snow floated across the beach, she stumbled into town half frozen, begging for a coat. Her parents took her back to their hearth and she lay abed there at the inn with a galloping fever for some days. Her landed folk collected her again.
Then they came back, without her though, the lad and the lord of the manor, and a retinue of armed men with them. Door to door they went and demanded to see all the winter clothing, though they left with none.
She could not get warm, it was said, and she was desperately ill. And little wonder, the mad thing wandering through town of a night and wading in the surf the way she did.
That fateful night, she did just that, came stumbling into town in sodden skirts, and screaming and weeping, incoherent and clutching at the fishermen. Her husband came and roughed some of the lads, and would have seen worse himself, had not cooler heads understood that it did not do to strike a landed man. So they shoved him off, and her with him.
That morning they were found together as I have said. It was murder for certain. But landed folk never could know the ways of the sea, nor the cost to such a small town when young men are drawn away by call of a siren, how tenuous our hold through a long winter. And isn’t it fair to have some tribute back? After all, a seal pelt makes a very fine and warm rug as well as a coat.
It’s been a little rough lately – not terrible, just not great. I haven’t been doing any of the things I know I should do to sustain my creativity and energy levels, and I’ve paid for it in lack of focus, lack of patience, irritability. When things get busy, it can be especially hard to make the necessary time for self care. But we know that if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, we don’t have the resources to take care of the other demands on our time and attention, no matter how important they are to us. As the old Zen saying goes, you should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy – then, meditate for an hour. So I decided instead to practice the self care I preach, to be wiser and kinder and gentler with myself in order to be wiser and kinder and gentler in the world, too.
We all feel overwhelmed from time to time. Whether it’s taking care of our families, or work demands, we still have to get things done. First, make sure you are taking proper care of yourself, get enough sleep, meditate, insist on a girls night, whatever self-care means for, prioritize those things! With that said, here are 10 steps to streamlining your productivity through it all!
When Red left the house, the wind was tugging at the laundry on the line.
My Gram died this month. I wrote something about my fish, about Anthony Bourdain, within days, and I was sad about those things. I knew what I wanted to say. How to express what I meant. But I didn’t know what to say this time. So I didn’t say anything at first, except to my husband, and my boss when I took the afternoon off. Not even to my closest friends.
It wasn’t like a tear, a wound. No violent, bleeding thing, this. More like a sudden void, an absence, not too heavy to bear, but Noted. Some new gravity in the rotation of what it means to be me.
When Red walked back toward the village through the woods, the sun was shining, the breeze was gentle. The day was bright.
Grama died last night, my mom said.
I finally cried when the boxes came. boxes full of her jewelry, earrings, tea cups, a scarf, her calligraphy set, washi paper. I wear a different piece of jewelry each day. Her jewelry. Every day someone compliments me. Every day I say, “it came from my grandmother.”
“Do you want me to come?” I asked.
She was fine. I just talked to her and she was fine, Mom said. They were planning a trip. A trip I thought I would join them on. We would travel together back to my gram’s hometown. Together. I would meet her brother, her nieces.
I hadn’t spoken to her in… “Were you close?” people keep asking me, and it makes it worse somehow. I don’t know how to answer, what that question even means. The words do not make any sense in my brain. Were we close? She was my grandmother.
We lived together when I was younger. She was a Japanese grandmother. I was an American teenager.
I still don’t know what to say.
Her heart just gave out, Mom said.
Red walked away from the house, back toward the village.
I hugged her, held her small body close, briefly, to mine. Everything about me that is Japanese comes from her. I kissed her cheek. “Love you, Gram. We’ll see you next time.”
She liked my husband. I think she was proud of me.
When I opened the boxes it smelled like her house, and I cried. “My gram is gone,” I said, stupidly, needlessly. “I understand,” my husband answered, both of his gone years now.
I expected to see her again. I suppose we always do. The pictures from her albums are all of us. I don’t feel regret, because there was no opportunity dismissed. There was nothing left unsaid. But I miss her.
When she came up the path to the familiar, neat little house, the laundry swayed on the line. Everything was just as she remembered it, all in its place. But when the woodcutter broke through the door, and she could finally look into the house, it was empty. No wolf.
The first story in which I remember reading about a personified Death, and one I still love, is The Appointment in Samarra (or Samarkand). It’s a very old tale, said to be from Mesopotamia, and is included in the Talmud and collections of Sufi wisdom, and is sometimes also called When Death Came to Baghdad. In it, a man sends his servant on a long journey to avoid Death, only to find that Death had expected him there, in that other place, all along. I remember feeling that there was a certain injustice in that – if only the man had stayed home! How unfair that the man’s fear of dying drove him to flee straight to the place of his death. Yet, how foolish to try to run away, only to spend his final days on a long journey to a distant land, far from all that he knew and loved. That is where Death brings us in the end anyway. In many old stories, Death is portrayed as a neutral, or even benevolent figure. Not frightening or evil, but someone who is just doing a job. These stories represent a way for us to make peace with mortality. Not to say that we shouldn’t cling to the beauty and joy and connection presented by a life well lived, or mourn the finality of separation from our loved ones. Rather Death represents everything that is unknown, and our complete inability to return to what was before – that is to say, death, (with a little ‘d’) in a very literal sense, or any process of change or transition. Not bad, and maybe not good, but inevitable just the same.