My Father Built a Basement

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Twenty-something years after the move from Bangkok to Farmington
my father built a basement.
In the house in Thailand he built it.
He would tell us about the rain outside that house.
Warm, sticky rain that ran down the street,
a gushing river to a boy still too young for school,
which is where his brothers walked in the morning
down the wet pavement as my dad sat next to them in a laundry basket,
riding the torrents that raced down the gutters.

The basement would flood during the rainy season,
even after the water receded it left behind fingers of mold if you weren’t careful.
The basement was not for storage in this house, it was for the imagination of young boys.
I could see the stone steps leading down into the dank room
where the same laundry basket used on the street became a boat.
It was a place of mystery, a place that I inhabited through the eyes of my father’s memory.

I wished I had a basement that flooded,
that we lived somewhere that had enough rain to change the character of the world it filled.
In my mind I was sure that this Thai basement filled all the way to the top, certain that if Grandma (years before she was a grandma) had thought to open the door the warm water would have rushed up the stairs and out, knocking her over
and then picking her back up as it filled the house.
My uncles might have floated by on a couch cushion,
and maybe they would have let my dad on if they were in a good mood.
Then the whole family would wash out the door and into the front yard.
Three boys, one mom, one dad, and a housekeeper.

My father tore down the basement.
He told us that it had never existed, that one day before I was born
he had asked his mom about it and she had told him there was no basement.
The house hadn’t had a lower level, just the two boring stories that most houses have.
Now the basement was better than before, it wasn’t a basement of stone,
where the rain ruined pictures and mementos carelessly left to rot.
It was a basement of thought and fancy.
And my father, who is a wordsmith and not a handyman,
had built it out of daydreams, and pages of a book he had read.
He had made something real to him, real to me, in a place where nothing had been before.
And I thought, I can build worlds that way.

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On Being Brave

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I’m taking a poetry workshop this semester, I don’t like it. Just ask my family, my friends, the barista at Starbucks, I’ve been pretty vocal about it. The other evening as I was in the midst of complaining about the fact that we are workshopping a poem every other week for a total of nine workshops one of my friends said, “That’s not that bad.” This comment rubbed me the wrong way and I spent the next couple of minutes trying to explain to her why it was in fact, that bad. Here’s the thing, my friend was right, the poetry workshop really isn’t all that bad, or at least it shouldn’t be. It is good for me to stretch, to write things I don’t feel equipped to write, and to learn from my peers and teachers.  But the reason her comment put me on the defensive is that so far this semester the poetry workshop has been incredibly discouraging. It’s not just the feedback that I’m getting on my poems, although I now brace myself when I walk into class, it’s not even that I don’t like writing poetry and I’m not every good at it, although I don’t and I’m not.

The real reason that I’m so resistant to this class is that it feeds the fear that’s always present, the voice that whispers to me when I’m stuck in traffic or can’t sleep. It’s the idea that I can’t do it, that I’m not cut out to be a writer. The belief that I am woefully inadequate and am just pretending. The fear that I will never be good at any of the things I want to do and will have to do something else.  I would probably be better able to take and process the criticism from my peers if I was more confident in myself and believed more in the material I’m letting the class read. I am afraid to write because I’m worried I’ll discover that I am actually really bad at it.

But fear doesn’t get to run the show anymore, fear isn’t the deciding factor in my life.  So I’m going to keep going to class, and not just because I pretty much always go to all of my classes, but because I want to.   I want  to go because this is the year of doing things even though they scare me. I want to go because I want to succeed, and in this case success doesn’t mean writing the best student poetry my teacher has ever seen, it just means writing poetry and turning it in every other week. It also means complaining about it a whole lot less (but old habits die hard so I’ll still need plenty of grace in this area).

So, I guess I’m trying to be brave, and while poetry class isn’t truly that bad and is normally nothing to be afraid of, the way I see it bravery is relative.

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7

Cameos

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I was far too young, to appreciate who you were.

Too little to recognize your grace, memorize

the way you curled your hair.

To hold on to the specific things you said to me.

I was too wrapped up in myself,

too small to know you as a real person,

and to see that you were a little bit broken just like everybody else.

 

I cried when we went back to the house for the last time.

I walked through the halls sobbing,

even though you hadn’t been there for almost a decade.

This was letting go of the last piece of you that was tangible.

I allowed the grown up me to mourn you in a way I hadn’t understood

when I first had my chance.

 

I do have memories of you,

busy in the vast kitchen centered around the island,

where I sat drinking warm coke from the pantry

because I was too impatient to put it in the fridge.

I recall the smell of White Linen, and cigarette smoke.

Your favorite song (Sondheim) playing in the living room.

The gargoyles in the front yard and the heavy brass knocker on the door.

A piece of jewelry, easily given as you got ready one morning, now always in a safe place.

 

You are not completely lost to me,

I still know the feeling of having been close to someone

with the cooking skills of Julia Child

and the class of Audrey Hepburn.

Christmas and bird baths and cats make me think of you.

In my mind you are standing in the doorway waving goodbye and blowing kisses.

Won’t you please stay until we’re out of sight?

“Don’t be afraid to talk, be afraid of staying quiet.” ― Eugene Lebid

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I think speech is taken for granted.

I am fascinated and slightly infatuated with words in general. All the things about the English language that irritate other people, borrowing, manipulating, rules that don’t always hold true, all those complexities are part of what I love. I am thrilled by the way words go together, the fact that multiple words can mean similar things, and that sometimes the same word means different things to different people.

But in this case, I am talking about speech in general.

Our ability to talk to one another is a reminder to me that God is awesome. The fact that I can move my tongue a tiny bit and change the sound I’m making without even really having to think about it, is amazing. That my small, delicate vocal folds play such a large part in our conversations, that your brain takes the sounds that I make and strings them together into actual words, and that you can then return to me your own collection of sounds as an answer is nothing short of amazing. I wish I could more eloquently explain how excited I get when I really think about how cool it is every time I talk to someone, how much intricacy goes into every interaction I have.

Yet, I waste words and I keep inappropriately quiet. I say things I don’t mean and I don’t say things I ought to. I am not intentional enough in my speech, sometimes it’s as though I start talking and then I’m watching myself from somewhere else as words just keep pouring out with no common sense to stop the stream. Sometimes, I use my speech to tear down and inflict wounds. Often I am careless and unthinking.

None of this is really a problem if I think of my speech as an everyday thing, just part of the package deal that is being a human. Perhaps intentional speech comes from thinking of this mode of communication as a daily example of the existence of the miraculous.

James 3:5
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.