writing & jealousy

Who's top banana? 
I know two perfect litmus tests for my spiritual condition at any given moment: 1. waiting in a long line at Duane Reade, and 2. hearing the good news of another writer.
    The line at Duane Reade is easier to manage. Say the line's snaking waaaayy back to the dental floss display, and you have nary a sightline to a cash register. You can huff loudly, mutter fuck it, and leave. No one will think you are evil. In fact, people may follow suit and decide to eat Chinese dumplings around the corner instead.
    But hearing about another writer's amazing accomplishment--juicy prize, cash award, plum teaching job at The Best University in the Universe--that's a different story. If you happened to glimpse this news along with 97 thumbs-up on Facebook, you can't walk out of the Facebook store. You can't un-read it. In that split-second, you've waited a half hour in line, overheard a loud cell conversation, witnessed a toddler tantrum, been rung up by an apathetic cashier, and argued about how the sign said 2 for $6 so why are you being charged $9.99?! and ruined a perfectly decent mood.
    What to do? You can swear off the Book of Face. Or you can bitch to another writer about how so-and-so got the watchamallcallit and won the thingamajig. Only another writer will do, because no one else will know what you're talking about, because no one else reads poetry.
     Or, in a case of mixed metaphors, you can shake it off like a dog shakes off water after a bath. That's right, let that bad vibe shimmy down your spine. Wiggle and flick. Regain your bearings. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in humility, breathe out ego. Breathe in gladness, breathe out. Breathe in gratitude, breathe out.
    There now.
    Shoulders down. Chin up. Look the world in the eye, brave writer. Say: Congratulations, my friend. Well done. 


your great-grandmother survived hiroshima. think you got problems?

"to survive--it's such a dangerous thing"--Eugenia Leigh

My great-grandmother Kunie was a survivor of Hiroshima: a truth handed down through my mother's  generations as matter-of-factly as the good tea set. I never deeply considered nor fully absorbed this truth--that is, never felt it in my heart, my bones--until I took my first writing workshop in college. I turned in a poem containing the image of my mother as a month-old fetus in the womb of her mother, Kiyoko. I described how during the morning of the bombing, pregnant Kiyoko was at home in Otake, a town about 20 miles from Hiroshima. My brief poem evoked a universe creating my mother at the same moment when a bomb destroys the old world. I hardly knew what I had written.
Kiyoko, who lives with her husband and parents, is safe at home, while her mother Kunie is walking toward Hiroshima. Kiyoko could easily have been Kunie. My mother-as-fetus could have been within three miles of the bomb’s epicenter. By chance she was not.
     To explain: in the days before August 6, 1945, the Japanese government called for volunteers in Hiroshima prefecture. There are maybe quotation marks around “volunteers.” Someone—say, a low-level clerk with hunched shoulders and bloodshot eyes--handed out postcards door to door. These notices asked each household to send at least one person into Hiroshima to tear down structures that were potential targets for Americans. 
     What kind of structures? I've yet to ask my mother. Schools? Temples? Government buildings? So many questions behind each word she's told me.
   Kiyoko's husband reads the postcard and shouts something in a fury: my father-in-law is dead! What else do they want? This family will not sacrifice anything more!  He slams his fist into the wall, he rips the card in half. Later, when no one's watching, Kunie pastes the torn halves together, using a smear of soft rice for glue. Someone must go, she reasons. Maybe Kiyoko--but she is pregnant. Maybe her son-in-law--but he is stubborn.
    On the morning of the bomb, Kunie, not Kiyoko, is riding a train to Hiroshima, along with other volunteers. Suddenly, an air raid siren slashes the air like a scream or the color silver streaking through the sky. The brakes squeal and stop the train with a gasp. The conductor orders everyone off.
    Kunie steps out onto the grass and walks through an open field. She walks toward Hiroshima, because that is where she is going. Why would she walk in any other direction? She walks into a morning of blue sky, a blue-sky morning, the kind of morning that begins any day of disaster.
    When the Wright brothers dreamed, did they dream of such a clear, crisp blue?
    On the frontier of science, everything touches everything. Smoke and vapor are time-travelers. Dust and ash leave trails for you to follow: along them you can walk backward half a century, walk forward, where everything touches everything, like love can, or an x-ray. What does the future look like? It glows in the dark.


gas stove explosion, mon amour

West Virgina, 2004. Fear #32: fear.
Eight a.m. I’m the first one awake this chilly October morning, here in a farmhouse-turned-meditation retreat center. I’m bunking for the weekend with seven women I barley know. Not my thing, but I’ve just moved to the area to begin graduate school. I want to see the autumn leaves, I need to make new friends. 
    Cold and stiff from sagging bunkbed-sleep, I stumble into the kitchen, a drafty room overlooking woods on one side, adjoining the great room on the other. The old house seems to ache for generations under its roof: grandparents and babies, nosy aunts and conspiratorial teens, drowsy fathers and waddling toddlers. The towering double-door fridge wants to feed hungry farmhands, not a bunch of skinny yogis. 
    I start pulling food from cupboards, thinking I'll cook breakfast for everyone. I just need to figure out how to light the massive stove. Eight burners, two ovens, a griddle that could fry a half-dozen flapjacks and a side of bacon. The stovetop's still cold, as it was last night when we’d arrived, fumbled in the dark for light switches. Someone found a crumpled piece of paper in a kitchen drawer. Someone else said, ah, directions, a gas pipe here, a valve there, a few twists to open it. Lefty-loosey, righty-tighty? A soft hiss I didn’t hear, didn’t follow with my imagination into the black belly of the stove, a cloud trapped, swelling all night, and no pilot light to burn it.
    I meant well. I meant to climb out of my shivering loneliness and do something nice. I meant to invite my new friends into the cold kitchen with the wafting scent of maple syrup and apple pancakes. I meant to brew coffee and pour milk into a glass creamer like my grandma would. I didn’t know about the all-night hiss, the vapor waiting patiently for a spark. 
    I hold my face inches from the stove and peer into its iron skeleton. I see a tiny pipe that might be a pilot. I light a match and stick it in. 
    I can't remember the explosion. Can’t remember a sound, a flame, a flash, whether a ball of heat or wave of pressure pushed me, sent me staggering back.
   I smell burned hair, burned skin. My face is hot. My face is very hot.  I take the one or two long steps to the kitchen sink and thrust my face under a running faucet. I shout for ice. No ice, someone says, no cold water. Lukewarm water's best. Someone leads me to the bathtub where water flows thicker, faster. I kneel and twist my neck awkwardly so that my face can meet the stream. My face won’t cool. I can see--at least I can see. I start crying. As if a valve or pipe has been opened within, the tears flow, for fright and fury, for the city and friends I left behind, for strange hallways and unknown paths ahead. I can't stop crying. I sit on the tub's edge with my head dangled down, gasp into a paper bag.
     An ambulance comes. An ambulance for every tear, every heartbreak. The ambulance that took my father, the truck that rescued my great-grandmother in Hiroshima. I lie down on a stretcher in the back, feeling foolish, helpless, the way one feels inside the wispy flaps of a hospital-gown. How bad is my face, I wonder. Do blisters take a long time to appear? Why is my face still warm? My pulse races.
-Is there a mirror? I think, or say aloud.
-We don’t have a mirror.
-You're lying, you just don’t want me to see, my face is burned that badly. I feel lightheaded. The ambulance ceiling moves close, faraway. Shiny metal, as if it could be easily rinsed. What my father saw. What Obaasan saw, or no, she would have seen the sky.
-No, we really don't have a mirror.
-I don’t believe you.
-Here’s some oxygen. Just breathe. Long, slow breaths.
-You’re okay. Iiyo. You're okay, you're okay.