NOBODY KNOWS WHY


Several months ago a friend in her 70s told us that her lymphoma had returned. She has had several battles with cancer, followed by bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, Chinese medicine. She has congestive heart disease and an elderly mother with dementia and leukemia, and some days it seems like only sheer force of will keeps her moving forwards. The most recent round of chemo worked, in the sense that it got the lymphoma back under control. What people don’t always understand is that “in remission” is not “cured.” There is no “cure.” There is only a sleeping giant called “cancer” that may or may not reawaken before something else manages to kill you - old age, car accident, a tree falling on your head. You monitor your body and manage your symptoms the best you can, and sometimes you buy yourself more time, five years or ten or twenty or thirty. And sometimes you don’t.

A famous man committed suicide earlier this week. It was shocking that someone who was so funny, and so beloved, could be weighted down with so much pain that death seemed like the only choice left. And yet it was not shocking at all; he was open about his own troubles, and then I remembered that often the funniest people have the most demons, and they live with the hope that the laughter of the people around them can drown out the voices in their head that tell them, “you are not worthy of survival.” For these people who have those voices in their head, there will never be enough love, never enough laughter. Then I remembered, too, that depression and mental illness, like the heroin addiction and alcoholism that killed Philip Seymour Hoffman, are like cancer in that they are manageable if you are lucky but not something that can be cured if by “cured” you mean “completely eradicated from your body.” That shadow of the valley of death recedes and reappears at the edge of your vision, waiting.

I keep coming back to something that Marion Cunningham says to Ruth Reichl in TENDER AT THE BONE: “Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don’t.” This applies to so many things, cancer and mental illness and addiction. You can do all the right things - chemo and radiation and therapy and antipsychotics and rehab and yoga and macrobiotic diets that seem to be mostly consisting of seaweed. You can be positive and forward thinking and looking to the light and eternally hopeful. And you may still die sooner than you are ready for, certainly sooner than anyone who loves you is ready for. This is why I hate the language surrounding death and illness of any kind: it isn’t a battle you lose or win. It’s such bullshit. The body is at war with itself, no winners, no losers, only the understanding that each day is no guarantee of a tomorrow. Mike Daisey calls it “wrestling with the devil,” and he would know. How true it is, there are days when you are standing triumphantly on the belly of this beast, and there are days when you are flat on the mat with some asshole’s elbow on your throat.

Maybe some day those of us who wake in sunshine every morning, more or less, will understand what people who wake with demons shouting in their face go through to shout back even louder in order to get out of bed. The shame shouldn’t be in their feelings and daily struggles, but in our inability to comprehend their despair. Even then the only thing we can do is say, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved. And understand this: so often this is not going to be enough to pull someone back from the darkness.

A line by Joseph Conrad, an oft-repeated refrain in Salman Rushdie’s JOSEPH ANTON, comes to me: “You must live until you die.”

  • -black kid gets shot by the police-
  • White people: Ugh. Everyone makes mistakes! Just because they shot ONE black kid doesn't mean the police are corrupt and racist. Everyone's overreacting.
  • -a DOG gets shot by a cop-
  • White People: OH MY GOD, THE POLICE ARE SO CORRUPT. I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS. LIKE AND RETWEET AND DONATE TO THE DOG KICKSTARTER TO SUPPORT DOG'S FAMILY. ALSO SIGN THIS PETITION TO GET THE EVIL COP FIRED!!! R.I.P DOG. JUSTICE 4 DOG 2014.

THE THINGS WE TAKE WITH US


I was talking with an old friend, tonight, an older woman in her 70s who grew up in Shanghai until the war sent her family to Hong Kong and then Taiwan. She lived in Germany for many years, married young, had children, divorced, remarried, moved to America. She is older than my parents, so her children are older than me, by almost a generation. In Chinese families, when you divorced, the children stayed with their father. My mother told me that this was because “children belong to their father’s family.” This ended with my generation, but even then divorce fractured a family in different ways than our American divorces with shared custodies and fathers living in bachelor apartments until they remarried someone slightly younger and moved into a new house. For us, kids would sometimes end up with grandparents or aunts and uncles, or in boarding schools in another country. The fault lines cracked invisibly at different angles.

My friend talked about her relationship with her daughter, and how different it is from my relationship with my own mother. But then we are all different people, connected in different ways. Her personality is completely opposite from my mom’s, and mine is not like her daughter’s.  I think for a long time my friend carried with her this guilt that she had walked away from her children in order to get out of her marriage. A continent separated them, in the days before Skype and text messaging. Her daughter has long forgiven her mother for leaving, but it is still harder for her to accept. You make the choices you have to make, but you can’t erase them, only make another choice and move on. The right choice is not always the easy choice, and it is never going to be fair to everyone. You can keep looking back, or you can live in the present.

At the end of the day - and since I’m not a mother, I am totally making this up and you can tell me that I’m full of shit - you have to keep a piece of yourself alive that is totally selfish. That belongs to the person you were before you were The Mother. No one else is going to keep that part of yourself alive for you, no one else even realizes that it exists. I watch my friends struggle with this all the time, this burden of guilt and love that wraps around them like a living thing, and oh, how I ache for them. I don’t know how to tell them, go ahead, be selfish. Keep it alive. It will save you. It saved my friend, when it helped her walk away. In the end, she regretted the leaving, but not the life that replaced the past one. It was like a skin that didn’t fit, and she had to let it slip away in order to find a new one.

Dinner when my parents are in town is way more balanced than when I’m alone.

Dinner when my parents are in town is way more balanced than when I’m alone.

mohai:

Have you seen the HBO movie, The Normal Heart? Did you know that it is based off of a 1985 play of the same name? In 1986, the Pioneer Square Theater put on a production of The Normal Heart & MOHAI recently received the original program from this production (which appears above). This program was donated by Bonnie Rae Nygren through the Revealing Queer Collections Initiative. Here Bonnie tells the story of the program:
"The Pioneer Square Theater production of The Normal Heart was riveting. I believe it was the west coast premiere of this play. I saw the PST production twice. I was so impressed and moved by the first viewing that I went a second time. A friend and I were in line and we were asked if, in exchange for seats, we would be willing to hand out programs, act as ushers and help out with intermission. Of course, I was thrilled to not only have another chance to see the production, but to in some small way contribute. I think there may have been many like myself who were asked to be “helpers”. I don’t think there was a large or full-time staff at the theater. If my memory serves me, there was a scene in the play that involved a carton of real milk exploding on the stage. It made the scene all the more memorable and something about it made you really FEEL this story.
I DID see the HBO movie and was also very moved by that. It brought me back to that time in the 80’s when we lost so many in our community. So much sadness and helplessness back then. So grateful to people like Larry Kramer. He’s MY hero.”

Strawberry Theatre Workshop presented THE NORMAL HEART at the Erickson Theatre this past February. The night I went they were nearly sold-out. Between the scenes the actors read out names; later my friend told me that these were names of Seattle people who had died of AIDS. I could hear sobbing in the audience around me. The pain of the past thirty years has not died out, and this story of love, loss, and survival is still something immediate and relevant. It has a fierce, burning fury to it. I can’t imagine what the original production must have been like. I read somewhere that half the original cast is long dead. I can only imagine that this play must have been like a bomb going off in the consciousness of the people.

mohai:

Have you seen the HBO movie, The Normal Heart? Did you know that it is based off of a 1985 play of the same name? In 1986, the Pioneer Square Theater put on a production of The Normal Heart & MOHAI recently received the original program from this production (which appears above). This program was donated by Bonnie Rae Nygren through the Revealing Queer Collections Initiative. Here Bonnie tells the story of the program:

"The Pioneer Square Theater production of The Normal Heart was riveting. I believe it was the west coast premiere of this play. I saw the PST production twice. I was so impressed and moved by the first viewing that I went a second time. A friend and I were in line and we were asked if, in exchange for seats, we would be willing to hand out programs, act as ushers and help out with intermission. Of course, I was thrilled to not only have another chance to see the production, but to in some small way contribute. I think there may have been many like myself who were asked to be “helpers”. I don’t think there was a large or full-time staff at the theater. If my memory serves me, there was a scene in the play that involved a carton of real milk exploding on the stage. It made the scene all the more memorable and something about it made you really FEEL this story.

I DID see the HBO movie and was also very moved by that. It brought me back to that time in the 80’s when we lost so many in our community. So much sadness and helplessness back then. So grateful to people like Larry Kramer. He’s MY hero.”

Strawberry Theatre Workshop presented THE NORMAL HEART at the Erickson Theatre this past February. The night I went they were nearly sold-out. Between the scenes the actors read out names; later my friend told me that these were names of Seattle people who had died of AIDS. I could hear sobbing in the audience around me. The pain of the past thirty years has not died out, and this story of love, loss, and survival is still something immediate and relevant. It has a fierce, burning fury to it. I can’t imagine what the original production must have been like. I read somewhere that half the original cast is long dead. I can only imagine that this play must have been like a bomb going off in the consciousness of the people.

(via magggi)

WILD GEESE


An old friend of a friend had been struggling with a degenerative brain disease for the past several years. It rendered her mute and robbed her brilliant mind of the ability to understand the world around her. She died last night, or perhaps early this morning. She walked into the darkness while it was still possible to do this alone. I ache for her, but she had been slipping away for years now. This is another long goodbye. There will be more of them in my life, and each one teaches me again and again, it never gets easier, not really.

Instead I choose to remember these things: she loved birds, white chocolate martinis, and poetry. It was through her that I discovered Mary Oliver, for which I have always been grateful. She was as stubborn and immovable as a rock, but so gentle you did not realize that you were beating your head against a wall of granite. Now she is free, as free as the wild geese.

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

- MARY OLIVER

THE LORD PRESERVE US FROM THE IGNORANCE OF OLDER FOLK


I went to a sold-out theatre show tonight, and the woman who took my ticket told me not to leave any empty seats between me and whoever was next to me. An older gentleman standing nearby piped up: “I know who you’ll be sitting next to!” I looked confused, and said, “why, who am I sitting next to?” Then he said, “Oh, aren’t you with the group that came in earlier?” I shook my head, and kept walking. I pushed his words to the back of my head as I looked around for an open seat. I ran into Kathy Hsieh with some of her friends, and sat in front of her, joking about how she’d be able to see over my head, because I’m short, too. Then I realized what the older gentleman meant earlier. He thought because I was an Asian woman walking into a theatre alone, I must be with that other group of Asian women who had come in earlier.

I have seldom come across deliberate, hurtful racism in my nearly 34 years on earth. Maybe never. Hardly even any teasing on the playground in elementary school. Either I’ve been tremendously lucky, or just oblivious. It’s only as I’ve gotten older have I noticed the casual, accidental racism that pops up when you least expect it. The elderly couple on the cruise ship who ask where we are from and mention the sole Chinese family in their small town in upstate New York. The guy in the elevator who tries to say “hello” to me in about ten different Asian languages until I shoot him down with “greeting me in English would be fine.” And that aforementioned gentleman who assumes that I’m part of a larger group of people when I am alone.

The people who make these kinds of assumptions and comments have three things in common: they are always Caucasian, they are old, and they are nearly always male. They are immune to change. I will always be something that is “other” to them. This is what accidental, casual racism is like - something subtle, not hurtful, not deliberate, at least not usually. There is no sting to it, only a sensation of tripping over something in your path that you didn’t see.

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY


We were not a Seattle-Rep-going family when I was young; my parents always considered it too conservative for their tastes, which became my tastes. Ours was an ACT-subscriber house, which shaped my teenage years and then the rest of my life so far. Much later I was drawn to the Rep for EQUIVOCATION, a co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and although I haven’t loved everything I’ve seen there (especially the splashier, Big-On-Broadway plays) I have always loved the talent and care that has gone into each work. Ben (Moore, the managing director, who just retired) and Jerry (Manning, the artistic director), Jerry and Ben - they had an extraordinary sense of vision, of identity, an understanding of their audience that was impressive even when I didn’t agree with it. The sudden death of Jerry Manning today is a tremendous, terrible blow.

I often saw Jerry at other theatres around town, but there are two other moments that stand out in my mind, which I will remember for the rest of my life. The first was at a benefit performance Mike Daisey did of his monologue HOW THEATRE FAILED AMERICA, shortly after the closure of Intiman Theatre, now the Cornish Playhouse. I remember that he seemed hesitant about being there that night. I remember that there was a little bit of the sense that it was The People With The Money Making Decisions versus The People Who Are Trying To Make Art. And I remember him saying, “This is Elizabeth Kenny, her one-woman show SICK is really great, and it’s just been extended at the New City Theatre, and you should go see it.” And I went and I saw it, and it changed everything. I push myself harder now, I pay more attention to the people who make theatre in this town, I see as much as I can. That was three years and two hundred and fifty plays ago, and it all started that night from a little comment that Jerry Manning made. I owe so much of how I think about theatre now to him and what he said that night.

Early last year I went to the New Play Festival readings at the Rep, which were all memorable (especially the stunning ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan), but my favorite moment was watching Jerry work with Justin Huertas on his comic-book musical, LIZARD BOY. It was not something you would expect to see at the Rep, jam-packed with Dick’s jokes and references to Grindr, that gay-hookup app, and the tremendously haunting voice of Kirsten DeLohr Helland. Before the talkback session, Jerry turned to us and said, rather cheekily, “Do y’all know what Grindr is or do I have to explain it to you?” I laughed, but I also saw that he took his mentorship of Justin and his work very, very seriously. Theirs was a meeting of the minds, bonded over a shared love of comic books (who knew?) but more than that an understanding of our human need to tell stories. That reading changed how I look at the Seattle Rep, how capable they can be of pushing themselves and their boundaries.

I never met Jerry Manning, but I was very much influenced by him and his vision and his love for art and more importantly the people who make art. Art matters, but people matter more. What is that line from MRS. DALLOWAY? “What does the brain matter? Compared to the heart.”

I HAVE BEEN ALONE BUT SELDOM LONELY*


When my parents moved back to Taipei after thirty years in the United States, back in 2003, I felt strangely abandoned. I was 23. I was living in my childhood home, which seemed huge and empty and echoing, and every noise terrified me. I had my dog for company and a job that occupied my days and I spent my evenings watching CSI and reading Television Without Pity. I had the safety net of my mom’s friends, who would sometimes invite me to dinner, but I had no friends, except for J. who was still a student at UW. Once in a while we would go out to B&O Espresso and eat cake and talk about everything and nothing. I was so lonely, even as I pretended to myself that I wasn’t. I didn’t talk to my old friends from college; a crippling bout of what I later realized was depression had left me paranoid and increasingly isolated from everyone around me in my senior year. Everyone seemed to know where they were going and what they wanted to be doing, and I was floundering. Disappointment - my own and that of my parents - seemed to grab me by the ankles and weigh me down, but when they left for Taipei I was finally able to breathe again.

I turned 25. A guy introduced me to poetry and Charles Bukowski and I began to read a lot of poetry and Bukowski. I taught myself to drink whiskey. I went to the theatre occasionally, newly flush with a disposable income. I learned to cook for myself all the things we never ate when I was a child, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, steak and creamed spinach, pancakes for dinner. I started blogging every day, five hundred words, more or less. I bought a condo and moved out of my childhood home, which my parents later sold. I learned to dine alone in restaurants, striking up conversations with Kelly, one of the owners of Lark, which quickly became my favorite restaurant. It was the first restaurant that became totally mine, not someplace I only went with my parents, like Rover’s or Lampreia. While reading the comments on Nancy Leson’s Seattle Times food blog, I became aware of a Flickr user who went by the name “Suomynona.” I couldn’t know then that two of the women I followed via his Flickr stream - one had blue hair, one seemed to take a lot of photos of her shoes - would later become my friends Rachel and Kate. All of this was still in the future.

C. and I were talking this morning about how it takes time to build a new life, both in a new city and in the city of your childhood. I’ve known her for almost a decade, and it’s hard to remember that the life I have now is not quite five years old, although its roots stretch farther back. The overlapping circles of friends I talk to nearly every day sprang up almost overnight, and at the same time developed slowly. Life is like that; everything happens very quickly, except when it doesn’t. The loneliness I felt at 23 faded so gradually that I almost forget it ever existed, except that it left me with two reminders: I would never feel that way again, and being alone is very different from being lonely. I seldom think about that time, that big empty house, the tick-tick-tick of the gas cooktop as I made dinner every night, the creaking tree branches scraping against my windows when it was windy out. I miss the gas cooktop but not the uncertainty of being young.

*This line comes from a poem by Charles Bukowski, “Mind and Heart.”

WE CAN OUTRUN THEM IF WE TRY


A few years ago I came across Brooke Hayward’s memoir, HAYWIRE, first published in the late 70s. She is the daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan; her second husband was Dennis Hopper, with whom she had a daughter, Marin, once the editor of ELLE magazine. She had a privileged life in New York and Connecticut and Hollywood and then back to New York and Connecticut again, but her family was marked by tragedy. There was mental illness and suicide and divorce and abuse, which cast long shadows across the successive decades and generations. These things, she tells us, are often passed down, like blue eyes or red hair or perhaps the way your laugh rings out in a crowded room.

The edition I have of HAYWIRE has an introduction by the filmmaker Buck Henry, who was part of that Hopper-Hayward-Fonda charmed circle. He wrote about seeing Marin across the room at Dennis Hopper’s funeral, and seeing in her a reflection of her mother, who he had once been in love with. He said something that has stayed with me ever since: “The pleasures of the past live on, mixed in all of us. So do the pains. But we can outrun them if we try.”