Sunday, November 30, 2014

Visiting A Cluttered Room

When I commit a poem to memory, I inhabit it. I’m a rapid-fire reader and that doesn’t sit well with a poem. To learn it by heart means that I give full measure to every word. I make it part of my breath. I find different tones and moods in which to present it. I become as close to the poet as it is possible to be. I want to call her and ask why did you use this word and not that one? I want to tell him what his words have become in my life.

And once I learn it, if I try to read the next line through my mind’s eye before I’ve finished reciting the one that is emerging at the moment, I lose the whole damn thing. Speed is not my friend when I come to a poem, I’ve discovered, and that is a revelation to someone who believes rapidity means skill.

Some poems that I loved when I was much younger refuse to stay with me. I loved ee cummings’ Uncle Sol who was a born failure until I tried to learn it. It infuriated me; even as a monologue, it didn’t work for me—much less a poem. “That is or to wit,” made me scream “Satirizing bad language doesn’t make a poem.” What delighted me at sixteen no longer works at sixty-six, and why should I be surprised? I couldn’t keep his jumbled syntax and bad story-telling in place where I wanted it and then I realized I simply didn’t want to.

Is that a clue to what we forget? Do undiseased memories deliberately jettison what is no longer resonant, as well as what’s no longer useful? Do they become over-stuffed and make deliberate choices—“lose what I lose to keep what I can keep”?

I tell myself that I’m losing minutia—who cares what my previous telephone number used to be? When I rummage around my memory, I’m really appalled at the unusable information that lives there. The name of my sixth-grade teacher’s adopted son, really? With all of the little details floating around my brain, no wonder a movie title or two eludes total recall. I only wish I could choose where to hit that delete button, what leaves the recycling bin forever.

But even more interesting to me is what chooses to stick around now, and how that happens. Every day I put two to four lines in my head by writing them down and repeating them over and over. Some are as if I’ve always known them; others twist away repeatedly before they become part of a whole, learned poem. I’ve found that if the poet is writing about something I avoid keeping in mind, like death or stability, I’m resistant to having it part of my memory. Eventually it comes, but those lines take work. So does idiosyncratic syntax, which I edit to my satisfaction. “Consumed with that which it was nourished by” took a couple of days to be accepted without change.

On the other hand, W.H. Auden’s poem, The Walking Tour is going down a treat—imagine that.

Slackened Memory

I’ve always thought we become more ourselves as we grow old, both good and bad intensifying as the years go on. What we lose always seemed an abstraction, “sans teeth, sans hair, sans everything.” It never occurred to me that loss would occur without my knowledge, until I learned that much of the sight in my right eye had gone.

When an acquaintance sent me a May Sarton poem in response to what I wrote about that knowledge, it hit me hard, in the best of ways, and I decided to learn it by heart.

My memory has always been a tool that is easy for me to use. I knew every word in many of my Little Golden Books before I could read and song lyrics stayed with me without effort. The things I couldn’t keep with me were the extraordinary ones, and they were telling: the Confiteor, which I never completely learned, and the times tables, which I eventually and painfully did. When I took a linguistics course in my twenties, I memorized every page of notes that I’d taken for it, handing the notebook to my husband and telling him, “Stop me if I miss a word.” It was all there, I could see each sentence in my head.

So I suppose my memory was photographic. It was certainly word-centered. I could never remember during the course of a day what clothing my children had put on each morning. “If they disappear and the police ask what me to describe what were they wearing, I’ll be hopeless,” I told a friend once. My husband’s mother chalked this up to a lack of common sense; I knew it was probably more akin to brain damage. Words stayed with me, visual details not so much.

This all turned upside down in Thailand. I couldn’t read the words that surrounded me so I began to concentrate on the shapes of the letters. Bangkok’s buildings were often featureless so I fixed my attention on the small things, what was in their windows, the faces of the vendors who sold things on the nearby sidewalks, the food sold from their carts. It was a different way of mapping the world in a city where although the street signs were bilingual, their names in English were in combinations of letters that I’d never seen before. And those letters could change from block to block on the same street; spelling in English didn’t require consistency in the Thai capitol city.

When I returned to the states, I looked at the world differently. This was of course as much to do with my ripening cataract as it was to my change in attention from words to details, but I didn’t realize that. Only recently did I begin to feel annoyed at blurred signs across the street and my  eyes that oddly grew tired after hours of reading.

And I forgot that the brain is a muscle. If parts are unused, they begin to lose their strength. When I began to memorize the Sarton sonnet, the words were reluctant to stay with me. What was worse was that I couldn’t conjure them up in that part of the brain that had always taken the required photograph.

At last after three days of trying, I had almost half of that sonnet with me, but recalling the words wasn’t easy. I rationalized this silently: poems are difficult because of their precision of language. There’s no room for improvising. This poem was difficult because of its subject, which is loss. The one line that resonated most, “This strange autumn, mellow and acute,” became the hardest for me to remember, even though it aptly describes my life. And I had never before tried to learn something from a computer screen.

That is the rationale that makes most sense to me. Every minute I’m looking at something on a screen; the deluge of information is instant, inexhaustible, and ephemeral. I’ve trained myself to read and forget when I turn to that source. Why worry about storing it in my memory when Google will do it for me? I read somewhere that we’ve outsourced our memories, which I believe is true—for me at least.

Just now I tried to remember Robert Frost’s verse about the end of the world. When I mentally pulled up the first lines, I saw them in my own handwriting because I’d once copied them into a notebook for a class I was teaching in Bangkok. When I remember “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands,” I could see the rough, grainy  paper that these words were printed on, the line drawing of the blacksmith, and the shape of the font that conveyed the poem. When I try to remember the Sarton poem, the visual image is the same as the words I’m typing right now, the manuscripts I’ve edited, the e-mails I’ve received for at least a decade. It’s an image so common that it’s become anonymous.

So I’m turning back to adolescence, when I memorized one hundred lines of Julius Caesar by handwriting them over and over. If I write the words of this sonnet repeatedly on paper, will I remember it? And if I repeat them to myself, or read them, before I fall asleep, will they be there in the morning” Is my memory a slackened muscle or an organ that has dissolved?

The peculiar thing is that this morning when the words didn’t fall into my brain, I typed them onto a screen. For the most part, my fingers remembered them, the way they have remembered phone numbers and ATM codes. Are we developing a new, more tactile form of memory? Before I could read, I learned my alphabet by playing with hard plastic capital letters. Learning Braille has taught people a different form of memory. Maybe in old age, we don’t need to lose. We have to rediscover.

Friday, November 14, 2014

November Jasmine

It's very cold by Seattle standards, in the low 40s and dipping below freezing at night. It's my birthday present, what I wished for, cold, sharp sunlight and clear night skies.

In the tradition of granted wishes, this one came with a mean twist. I've been so drained by a cold that I haven't taken the walks I wanted in this perfect form of winter. I watch the light in an apartment that refuses to be truly warm, even though the heat has been turned to high for well over 24 hours.

But that's the price I pay for the big front window that takes up most of one wall and brings me the light that I'm always greedy for. I wear socks and sweaters indoors and in bed at night, happy to pay that price for this pale winter-blue sky and its gift of long shadows.

This morning I walked past a table to get another cup of coffee and there, incredibly, was a small white jasmine flower on the plant I fitfully care for. It holds a faint fragrance and memories of heat and light in another place. This year I inhale, remember, and feel satisfied to be where I am, right now, in this unfamiliar winter.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...

I have a friend who goes to Bangkok a few times every year and stays for several weeks in the same hotel each time he visits. The hotel has copies of the Bangkok Post, which he reads and then brings back to Seattle for me. Last time the paper was filled with news about the new government; this time it was dominated by news of the entrenched junta's accomplishments, especially those of the Prime Minister, whose talents and wisdom seem to have no bounds.

One of the new plans that will be launched in 2016 is guaranteed to change cities in the north, northeast, and south of Thailand, which are (no doubt coincidentally) all areas of concern to the junta.

Twelve border areas are slated to become "special economic zones," with free trade and customs duty exemptions between neighboring countries, which are expected to "attract foreign investors."

One of the targeted districts, the northern city of Chiang Khong, is protesting this plan, saying that in anticipation Chinese investors are snapping up local real estate and driving up prices. Known as a center for culture and natural beauty, Chiang Khong says this plan puts the area at risk of "losing its identity." Fears that industrial factories will be built with accompanying environmental degradation is a large concern, as well as the effect of rapid population growth. At the same time, job opportunities for local residents and a bolstered economy is a large attraction of this plan.

I've yet to go to Chiang Khong, but I have seen other cities that will also become part of this plan. Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Nakhon Phanom are also on the agenda to become special economic zones, each one a Mekong river town with charm and its own unique character. I've seen how Mukdahan's riverfront has changed over the past five years in response to increased tourism as buses filled with Asian travelers belch their way into the market areas and disgorge travelers daily. It isn't pretty. Local food spots have been replaced with coffee houses that serve mediocre versions of Starbucks offerings along with microwaved meals. Near the tourist office, women arrive in the morning and set up an arena for selling silk. They stand there without enthusiasm all day long, as buses pull up and then roll away. The walkway that runs along the riverbank is clogged with a double row of stalls for at least a mile, selling fabric, clothing, and souvenirs, with still more of the same in the Indochine Market that runs under the walkway. A pretty little restaurant that served Vietnamese food on the banks of the Mekong is now as crowded and lackluster as a foodcourt at any Bangkok shopping mall.

In February I spent half of my Thai time in Nakhon Phanom, which is one of the most delightful places I've ever been in Thailand. A friend who has lived there much of her life told me that real estate prices were soaring. Right now its riverfront is quiet and open to anyone who chooses to enjoy it. Residents come to the old center of the town on weekends to shop on a "walking street" and an old building near the river is the local Indochine Market which is decidedly smaller than Mukdahan's. It is still a Thai city, not a tourist mecca, but soon it may be an economic monster.

But bread and circuses are still the best way to calm a recalcitrant population, and nobody knows better how to accomplish this than the government in Bangkok. That city has spread almost all the way to Khorat and down into Rayong, with business parks and housing developments and superstores. Where to go next? It looks as though they have that all figured out.

The tourist zones are already well established. Now on to the areas that pose a political threat--fill them up with entrepreneurs, bring in the Chinese money, and let the games begin.

And I watch a country I've loved for two decades face the threat of becoming something I will never want to see again. But at least its population will have the disposable income that will allow everyone to come to Bangkok and buy something from the new Embassy shopping paradise, or at Asiatique along the river, or at whatever new behemoth has destroyed yet another neighborhood in Thailand's primate city.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


I was born dark to two fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, who went on to have four more fair-skinned, pale-eyed children. My skin had a yellow cast in winter and became as brown as an Alaskan summer could make it when the weather grew warm. My eyes were dark brown and so was my hair.

One of my sisters was so white that she blistered even under Alaska’s pallid sunlight. Another had fair skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair that was tinged with gold. She was silently recognized as the pretty one.

I always told myself that I was proud of looking different from the rest of my family. At first I was certain I was adopted, until at last my mother showed me my birth certificate. She told me how delighted she had been to have a brown-eyed baby after one of her brothers had told her this was genetically impossible, citing the Mendelian theory. Then she told me what my brown-eyed grandmother had said when she first saw me, words that had become a family joke. “Why, she looks just like Santa.” Santa was my parents’ iceman; they still were a fixture in post-war Manhattan.

Already a small snob, I wanted a more exalted resemblance than that, and pored over photos in issues of Life magazine. The only children who looked like me were black and white images of emaciated children in the Subcontinent and I began to hate my hair because I thought it made me look like the Swami Yogananda, a popular mystic of the time.

Every Halloween, my mother costumed me as a gypsy. To people who didn’t know us, I probably appeared to be the adopted Alaska Native child in a white family. After all, the Native kids whom I met in school looked more like me than I did my sisters.

Skin color was a big issue in territorial Alaska and prevailed into statehood. When I became an adult, my mother told me her friends had criticized her for allowing me to become best friends with a Tlingit high school classmate. “Allowed me,” I exploded and she looked at me sadly and said, “I know.”

What she didn’t know was that when we moved to Anchorage, I hung out with a bunch of kids from Nenana and Attu at the pool hall on the corner of Third and C, and made occasional evening forays into the cafes on Fourth Avenue, the ones next to the bars. I was easily accepted there, I fit in with my homestead upbringing and dark coloring. One night a gallant young G.I. insisted on taking me home after we’d had a brief conversation, and my parents told me to stay off Fourth Avenue after dark. But by then I’d become comfortable enough in the pool hall that I’d drop in during the day to warm up on my way home from school. I didn’t stop until one afternoon the manager offered to set me up in my own apartment as soon as I graduated.

When I read about “people of color,” I feel as though that’s where I belong. But I don’t. And yet when I’m in a group of fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, I always feel as though I’m not one of them either.

Humans are pack animals. We herd together and we expect our herd to look like us—but I didn’t look like mine. The closest I ever came to this was when I was living in Thailand, where Bangkok’s relentless sunlight made my skin the same color as that of my Thai friends. Still they denied that—I was farang and farang were fair-skinned so I had fair skin, Not even placing my brown arm beside their own would shake off that false syllogism.

I sometimes wonder if I would have become a writer without the special outsider-observer status that my color gives me. Sometimes I think of learning Spanish fluently and moving to Mexico—but here’s the crux of the matter. Under my olive skin lies invisible privilege, centuries of fair-skinned people and the knowledge that their bloodline has never been thought a lesser one. This is encoded in my DNA. My skin doesn’t prove it but the official record tied to my US passport does.

Even though I love looking as dark as a Thai woman, rarely would I ever choose to change places with one. I’m too attached to my individuality, my sense of privacy, my bubble of personal space, all legacies of white privilege that have been my birthright.

And yet in the stories I grew up reading, Snow White married the prince, while her darker sister Rose Red was stuck with his brother. Rowena, blonde and pink, married Ivanhoe but dark Rebecca was not so lucky. Golden hair, blue eyes, creamy skin all prevailed. Like it or not, that tends to stick with a kid. And like it or not, I will always be an other—not a person of color, not the fair-haired one, but firmly on the dark side. I tell myself what I always have, that is what has made me a rebel, an explorer, an independent woman and I like it that way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

This Strange Autumn

I began my morning with a column posted by a much younger friend, about the pleasures of being forty. It was a sweet and peaceful view that made me remember the whirlwind craziness that characterized my own forties, when I began to relive my twenties in another mode.

In another week, I will wake up to a new number. Recently I've been looking at what 66 means. Today, prompted by that young slip of a girl in her forties, I want to look at what 66 is.

My first book came out just as I turned 60, and writing has been a hallmark of this decade--I'm working on my fourth this year (and will be well into the next.) My sixties is a time when I can wake up, make coffee, and start writing, without interruptions or human speech getting in the way.

My sixties are turning out to be a time when I can completely and unreservedly enjoy my children. Adult children are the payoff for the years of toilet training, listening to backtalk, arbitrating sibling squabbles, monitoring homework assignments, and  preparing three meals a day, more or less. At 66, I am unabashedly enjoying being a parent. Going for a beer with people who once kept me awake when they were teething is a profound joy.

I've had the great good luck to travel a lot in my sixties, filling up two passports from the time I was forty-five to sixty-five. My next passport will probably never be completely filled--although who knows? I recently met a redoubtable and charming lady in her late seventies who makes an annual trip to Japan to visit her son. Perhaps in my later years, I'll actually be able to sleep on a plane--that would be bliss, instead of catching up on every movie I've missed in the past year, and being worried that sleep may cause me to miss a serving of bibimbap.

I love the detachment from some longstanding desires that have come with being 66. I don't give a jolly damn if any man ever calls me again (other than the aforementioned offspring), and I've become the kind of woman who can pass a Clinique counter without any trouble at all. I keep my clothes instead of obsessively buying new things and giving the old away--and it's hard to remember my last pair of high-heeled shoes. And I don't diet anymore.

I treasure female friends at 66--and my male friends too. But for honest conversation, you can't do better than sitting with a glass of good wine and a woman whom you trust and like. On the other hand, my male friends provide perspectives I'd never find on my own, It's all good.

Yes, aches and pains are more frequent and more annoying as my body begins to wear out--and I see no more reason to talk about those than I used to discuss the acne that plagued my life well into my middle years. Acne and wrinkles make up one of life's crueler jokes--back aches really can't compare to that.

And there are still things to discover. I carry a camera with me so I can keep what delights and surprises me in the outside world. Cooking is a rediscovered pleasure, and poetry too (reading and learning by heart, not writing, thank goodness). Learning the beauty of the changes in light and heat as the seasons progress and remembering that after Christmas, daylight begins to return--not so long a wait.

At 66, my pace is slower and more attentive. I like it that way, after a life of rushing. I suppose that my drug of choice now would be marijuana, not methedrine--although I still love the speed and heroin rock of the Velvet Underground. Although I would never have believed in the years from 20-50, 66 may be the beginning of the best time of my life. I'm looking forward to finding that it is.