Monday, August 31, 2009

little wonders.

I know these pictures look like nothing, but look closely - what's captured here has made my day.

I can tell you that the last thing I wanted to do this morning was pull myself out of bed to go to the Y. Well, 2nd to last; the last thing I wanted to do was wake up in the first place. But this week begins my new semester schedule: Wake up M-F and go to the Y before I do anything else. I am back on a weight-loss mission. I have gained 9 pounds since moving to Austin. BLAH.

I was so sleepy when I arrived, and feeling so out of shape when I left. Before leaving, I stopped to stretch my legs a bit. I was standing by my car stretching when I noticed little specks of green movement in the grass. And then I realized that I was looking at Austin's wild parrots!!! WOO-HOO. It made my day. I thought I'd never get a look at these little creatures, but here they are - semi-captured by my i-phone camera.

Now, on to conquer the rest of this day. Including my first lesson plan enacted with my 2 classes. I am kind of nervous!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

oh this strange day.

I have just come from dinner. Every morsel was delicious, but dessert was my favorite part - honey lavender creme brulee topped off with a piece of honey comb that I sucked clean of honey and molded into a little beeswax circle to tuck away in a journal.

Today, on the 3rd anniversary of my mother's death, I received an acceptance letter for a story I had forgotten that I submitted. It will be printed in a collection entitled, Her Mother's Ashes 3. It is an annual collection of work by women authors of south Asian descent; the book is published by TSAR Books out of Toronto (Toronto South Asian Review).

I have been drifting in and out of happiness, shyness, fear and sadness.

Voice in my head during dinner: Thanks, mom. And Matt Clark (in whose class--my first fiction workshop--I wrote the story so very long ago). That voice was joy.

It isn't a story I thought I would publish. Truthfully, I sent it in almost accidentally - a last minute email submission just a week before I headed to India. A "What the hell" send. I didn't even record it in my log of submissions. I didn't feel like any of my new work was ready to be submitted, and I dug through old stuff. It's the only piece that I thought of as "finished," that also reflected a theme related to ethnicity. I don't hate it, but I don't love it. It's charming at best, touching in moments.

Voice in my head during dinner: But I wrote it in 1997 - it's such an old story. So young and unimpressive. Today, I would never write that story. That voice was embarrassment.

Voice in my head: Other people might come across this story and read it. Shyness.

Recalling the story my sister told me over the telephone before I left for dinner: When mom worked at Burger King (my sister was in high school, and I was maybe 5), a flasher came to the door one night. She called her coworkers over, and they all stood behind the glass laughing at him. Imagine the flasher's surprise. That voice, that passed-down recollection, is happy sadness.

Everything is all jumbled together.

i have a follower?

I noticed today that someone follows my blog. I was like, What? I have a follower? And then I got all flattered. Who is it? How did she find me? I wondered.

Then I added a little box off to the side that gives a link to my follower (!). Her blog has a lovely name and a lovely, soft, pretty feel. And she's got an etsy business, so check it out. Under the Root.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Six months after my mother had a massive stroke in 1998, nine months after I had graduated college, I moved home to live with her and help care for her. I was 24 years old, and sometimes that alone astounds me. I was with her for almost nine months.

When I was home, I started showing her how to give herself the insulin shot that was due before breakfast. How to replace the insulin cartridges, how to set the needle onto the pen, how to turn the pen’s dial and read the barely magnified dosage numbers that rested beneath a plastic bubble on the side of the pen. I used to watch the concentration in her eyes, the alert focus. I watched her narrow fingers respond to the instructions in her head, move through each step with slow caution. Whatever fear was present in her own mind and in mine, I tried to ignore. After a while, she was giving herself the shot in the belly every morning. It was an accomplishment. Each time the shot had been given, she pulled the needle out of her skin, the slightest grin on her face. “Uh-huh,” she might comment. I did it. Let’s eat. Let’s relax. When she and I were together alone, I was generous with my praise for my mother’s accomplishments.

At first, once he was home from work, my father still tried to administer her evening shot. But I forbid him to do it. “She can do it herself.” My father, in his own discomfort, laughed off my insistence and placed upon me the nickname “lieutenant.” I had not had a family nickname since my toddler-hood, when I was called “honey bear,” an endearment I cannot even remember but for the retelling. “Okay. Okay. Lieutenant says you have to do it yourself.” He would laugh, I would laugh, my mother would laugh, and the tension – our fears that she could not do for herself, and that it would be painful to watch her do for herself without ease, would break.

There were other tensions as I pushed her to regain a semblance of self-sufficiency. Every other morning my mother took a bath. At first, I rose dutifully when she did. I helped her into the tub, helped run the water, helped scrub her arms and legs, shampoo her hair. With time, I started asking her to wash her own hair. “You do it,” I prodded. I would give her the shampoo bottle, watch her turn it upside down so that soap ran out into her weakened right hand. She raised the soap to her head and scrubbed one-handed, until I encouraged, “try using both hands.” Next, I wanted her to challenge her arms and shoulders to increase their limited range of motion. "Reach behind you. Reach for the sponge I am holding. Scrub your back."

My mother always refused at first. "I can't."

But I was convinced that she could. "Try."

Eventually, my mother did not need me to help her with the bath, except to place the chair into the tub if it had been moved. On those mornings when she did not need my help, those mornings at 7:30 a.m. when I pretended to still be sleeping, I always listened. I knew every sound. Her slippered feet walking toward the hallway bath, her cane clicking on every other step. Her clothing being placed onto the towel rack, her cane being leaned against the corner of the wall.

Only when it was time to get in her chair did she holler for me. I was always ready, waiting for the call. I helped her get situated, and then I left. Still, I listened to the echoed, clinical sound of my mother turning the faucet, sometimes releasing a shocked “ahh” when she’d run the water too hot. (When our everyday functions become challenging, intentional, somehow they are reduced to clinical acts.) During bath time, I held my breath. My heart pounded. I waited for her to get through her routine successfully, safely. Only when the door to the bathroom reopened could I allow my heart to relax. My mother had not dropped the soap bar out of her reach. She had not slipped getting out of the tub.

Bath time was only the first of two times during which I held my breath every morning. The second time was when, after she dressed, she emerged from her bedroom and walked down the stairs. I listened for every single creak on the steps, the metal cane clicking against itself when it landed on the carpet. When she was half way down, on mornings I was most frightened she may take a wrong step and fall, I crept quietly out of my bedroom and watched her descend until she landed the final step. Then I crept back into bed, pretended I’d been sleeping the entire time. Occasionally, I saw her head turn slightly over her shoulder. “Herpreet?” Sometimes I answered. Sometimes I did not.

I walked a delicate balance, as those nine months progressed, between doing for her and helping her do for herself. When she was adept at doing for herself, I walked the balance of trusting in her capability and restraining my fears of her failure to succeed in regaining yet another small piece of independence that the stroke had stolen.

I can still recall one of the most heartbreaking tasks I asked her to complete.

"Mom. Today, I want you to help me write a grocery list."


"What do you mean, 'no'?"

"I don’t want to. I can't."

I ignored her stubborn refusal. I set paper on the kitchen table in front of her. I placed a pencil on the paper. I don't know how long we sat at the table, both refusing to give in. Her expression contained anger, fear, frustration. She almost cried she was so hesitant to write - to witness her damaged ability. I bossed her into trying. Maybe it is because I had always been a writer in my heart, that it was so desperately vital to me that she write again. But now, as I still posses that one tiny grocery list, this moment has remained important because it provided me with a final sample of my mother’s handwriting. Post-stroke handwriting, a visual reminder of her difficult path.

Her struggle to recall the spelling of words, more than the spelling, the actual movements her hand had to make to push the pencil across the page and form the curves and lines and dots that make letters, was painful for us both. After that day, I tried to concentrate instead on helping her read again. I don’t think I ever asked her to write again. If I did, she refused, and I let it rest.

My eldest sister once revealed to me that her daughter, who was four when my mother had the stroke, had asked, “Mom, when is the old Mama coming back?” Sometimes it takes a child to accurately articulate our very own frustrations. “Lieutenant,” my dad joked with me. It always broke the tension, but only temporarily. I commanded my mother to do for herself as much for her wellbeing as for my own selfish daughterly need to make my mother become closer to the mother I had known before the stroke.

These memories, which include details such as the color of the carpet, its thickness revealed when her foot sank into it, the soft cotton of her pink and white nightgown folded over the towel bar, they return in moments when I least expect them. For instance, these memories I have shared poured back to me as I prepared my class syllabus this weekend. I feel surprised by the memories, stunned that they sit latent inside of me. In the instant that I remember, the emotions of the time rush back. Then I am confronted with one of my greatest fears, that I will forget when there is so much to remember.

In two days, my mother will be dead for three years. I am terrified of forgetting, and more terrified that if ever I commit to having my own children, I will never properly be able to give them memories of my mother. It is difficult enough to remember the nine years after her stroke, but what of all the healthy years before? I only witnessed 23 of them. So few, and how many of those 23 were consumed by adolescent angst instead of blooming mother-daughter understanding? How angry I have felt at the task my mother has left me with – to remember her. To remember when memory is fleeting and deceptive.

Monday, August 24, 2009

game plan.

I got some good advice from a friend, and I've figured out what to do about having a blog and teaching.

Professional precautions.
I've removed some entries that could potentially be interpreted as inappropriate in that they mention school, students, authors, etc.

Personal precautions.
When school begins, I'm going to take down this blog for about a month. I'll bring it back up after the semester is rolling. Hopefully by then, students will have finished trying to spy on their instructors. After that, I'll put it back up, and what is is what will be. This blog has become part of my writing routine and part of my body of work. It is an outlet for another part of my writing voice. So, while I'd prefer it if students aren't looking me up - at least not until after they are out of my class, I can't stop them from doing so, and I can't stop doing what I do either.

I think I'll do one last entry on Aug. 27th, and then I'll see you all again around the start of October.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So many photos.

I am ever so slowly working my way through the India photos.

I'm posting flickr slideshows on IST Summer. I hope to get several up over the next few months. Some between now and when school begins next week, and others over the course of the semester.

Rather than do a new post here every time I get a slideshow posted, I'm putting up this one message along with a link to IST Summer on the left side column of this blog under the "Blogs and other Virtual Reading" heading. Feel free to check that blog every week or so for new images.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

on meeting my dad's new wife.

My sister wants me to share. But I don’t want to share. I just want to feel free to bitch in my head and jot down some cutting remarks and exaggerated displeasure all within an overly dramatic monologue that I will post on this blog.

I just want to be able to curl up in front of the TV and watch Guiding Light because this is one thing that makes me, irrationally, feel close to my mother, like she is right beside me and we are watching together. I just want to be able to watch a particularly depressing episode of Oprah because I know good and well that it will make me ball, and I happen to need an excuse to ball (but it’s just Dr. Oz dishing out his medical-guruism). I just want to be able to lie in bed at night with the lights off while I cry. My husband will bring me an excessive amount of toilet paper to blow my nose into. He will say, Do you want to talk about it? I will say, No. And eventually I will fall asleep.

What do you want me to say? I ask my sister on the phone.

I don’t want you to say anything.

Except, I doubt that she cares for my silence. So I say: Seeing her interact with our cousins was hard. (Pause) What do you want me to say?

Sister: Just say that. Say what you’re feeling, so I can try to help you.

I wonder in my head again: But what do you want me to SAY?

Because if I say what I’m feeling, she’ll hear the tantrum-like words of a five year old spew from my mouth. Projectile-like. And she already has a five year old at home, so I’m sure she doesn’t need to hear me going on and on saying things that, later, when I am not still reeling from the visit, I will admit I don’t mean: I hate her. I hate my dad’s new wife. I don’t want him to be married to her. I don’t want my mom to be dead (I will still mean that later). I don’t want to see her in the presence of my cousins, acting like an aunt to them, them treating her like an aunt. I don’t want her to fit in easily. I don’t want everyone to embrace her and my dad’s newfound happiness easily. My mom was smarter. My mom was more beautiful. My mom (insert list of unfair comparisons here).

Imagine: Me on the ground, fists and feet pounding. Wah-wah-wah.

Now, is this really what my sister wants me to say? I doubt it. Because, how is she supposed to help a person who just feels like pouting until she is ready to stop pouting?

But her phone dies, and I am off the hook and don’t have to think of what it is she wants me to say, or how to say what I am really thinking, which I am sure is not what she wants to hear, even though she says she has no preconceived notions of what she wants me to say.

I want to vent like a five year old, and I don’t want to be comforted in the process. Or reasoned with. Because I spend plenty of time reasoning with myself. About how my dad was so depressed after my mom died, and how it’s nice to see him look happy. About how hard this must be on his new wife – meeting his extended family, adjusting to the United States, learning English, learning how to drive, feeling totally dependent on my dad right now. Etc.

At dinner last night, when he talked about their upcoming trip to Cancun, I wanted to pick up the fish on my plate and fling it at both of them. In your faces, I would have said.

Consider this my tantrum. Long, overly-dramatic monologue forthcoming.

India Pictures.

I now have a few India photos up on IST Summer. Enjoy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

a new project.

I've begun a new project. It is in its infancy. But I am anxious to get it off the ground and to see it grow in the next few years. I have at least 3 different ideas for directions to take it in. I am certain only of this one thing - it's going to evolve. If you want to, follow along with Landscape Narratives. Even the name may change in time.

I have a few interviews in the works, so I hope to post more in the next month or two. In the meantime, would you be willing to dig through some of your personal photos and choose 1 image that:

a) depicts a landscape or setting (interior or exterior) and

b) strikes a chord with you?

Yes, it can have people in it, but I'm hoping that when you look at it, what resonates with you most is the particular scene/room/view, rather than the people in it - or that the people in it resonate with you BECAUSE of the particular setting it captures them in. Does that make sense?

If you are interested, email me at (this is not a live link). If we are not in the same city, I can look at a scanned jpeg of your photo and we can talk about it over Skype.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

letters to famous people.

Dear Drew Barrymore,

Your directorial debut is about roller derby girls? Really? Can your Hollywood personality be any more predictable? You used to seem so cool, but now you just seem in the midst of your own creative midlife crisis. When you were 12 and in rehab, was that caricature adolescent angst, or classic angst? I am having a hard time deciphering at this moment.

I know that roller derby isn't a fad of the early 2000s yet, but it's certainly headed that way.

I will probably watch your roller derby girl movie. But only as a rental. I might even like it. But only secretly and shamefully. Could I be having my own midlife crisis?

I am an old school Drew fan - a fan of back when you didn't seem so self-aware that you were making cliche actress/producer choices. Now you're directing, but the movie you chose to direct seems intentionally cliche. Are you typecast in every way possible?

I guess I also believe in old school roller skating: cruising to "Funky Town" on four urethane wheels, doing the Hokey Pokey. Relay racing is as competitive and violent as I want to get on skates. Old school roller skating may not be sexy and adrenaline-producing at this moment in time, but when we look back in history, I have faith that cheerful, endorphine-laden roller skating will be the Juicy Fruit to roller derby's Chewels.


Monday, August 3, 2009

definative punch with a side of interpretation.

The assignment:
Choose a short passage of one or two sentences to comment on... In your comment, explain how the passage reveals a theme of the work, or reveals character, or shows a noteworthy feature of the time period, or compares to other works we are studying, or displays style characteristics of the work, etc.

Student's chosen quote:
"I can't make out the lie of the winds, *on wave rolls up from one side, one from the other."

*on is supposed to be "one"

Student's commentary:
I never really have been a fan of poetry. I had always had a point of interest in math though, because there is one answer with math. In poetry the piece can have a different meaning to different people at different times and different feelings, so there's no real answer to what the poem means or signifies. This quote however carries some of the definitive punch with a side of interpretation. "The lie of the winds I can't make out". I love how you don't have to dig deep into it; No matter how you twist and turn it, that's a metaphor for life. You set your course and plan accordingly, but you can never really know what's coming. Waves from all sides, represents life's obstacles and troubles. I would have enjoyed it more if the sailor would have made it out with his ship to symbolize, hey life sucks but you'll be alright. Then again, life isn't always like that, is it? Sometimes this poem is indeed true. You lose everything and get to watch it drift away, but hey, you're still alive. I'd like to have a part two to this poem. Defiantly

Sunday, August 2, 2009

thoughts on india: two


In Chandigarh, before I walk into my mom’s older sister’s home for the first time, I am nervous. How will we communicate with the language barrier? If we find a way to communicate, what will we say? When I do go through her door, I stop worrying about what we will or won’t say, and I worry instead that I will begin to cry. I am meeting her for the first time since I was two years old.

When I see her, I immediately see my mother’s face in hers. She shares my mother’s back and shoulders, her build. I think of how happy my mother would be to know that I am in India in the home of her older sister. Truthfully, it feels to me as if my mother does know, as if she’s peering through a window and watching. I wish she could be in the room with us, not a spark, but marrow-in-bones and breathing flesh.

My masi’s arms are like my mother’s arms. Perfectly smooth and slight of hairs. The same microscopic lines scrawl like a faint map across her skin. When she is irritated and scowling, I see the shadow of my mother’s scowl. When she laughs, I hear the echo of my mother’s laughter.

She cries before I do, but then we are both crying. I wish I could remember what she said about my mother, but I don’t. I only remember that I got to grieve my mom with her big sister, a woman who I had no real memory of before that day.

Later, my mom’s older sister takes me to visit my other masi, my mom’s younger sister who also lives in Chandigarh. In this masi, I see and feel my mother’s youngest brother. She cries too, telling me, “You’re mom went too soon.” Then we are both crying. She squeezes her arms around me, brings me close to her, and when she hugs me, I feel my mom hugging me.

In Bhatinda, another of my mom’s younger sisters also carries my mother’s image in her own. “Masi means ‘like mom', ma-si,” she tells me. She also cries for my mother, and I cry with her. She tells me, "Your mom was not just my sister; she was also my friend." Over and over, I want to touch her forearms, press into them like I am kneading dough. I hold her hands because, like my mother’s, the tiny bones and little plump veins rise like soft little ridges beneath softer, taut skin; the palms are comfortable pillows that I squeeze again and again.

Both my mom’s older sister in Chandigarh and her younger sister in Bhatinda have hands are the same as my mother’s hands. Breathing next to both masis, beside all three masis, really, is like breathing beside my mother. And when we cry together, there is grieving in these tears, but also celebrating.

I have always seen them in photos, but the resemblance still stuns me. It is not just the way my masis look – though when my Bhatinda-masi is concerned that c. and I are not eating enough, it writes itself into her eyes and mouth and forehead in the exact same pattern that concern used to spread across my mother’s face – it is the intangible way that I feel in the presence of each of them that relaxes and overwhelms me.

I notice that the three of them have hands that will not be still. Fingers step, one at a time, over their corresponding thumb, thumbs rub slowly against corresponding fingertips like they are counting prayer beads. I watch their hands move when they speak. My mother lived continents away from these three sisters for 37 years, but I used to observe her hands and fingers dance the same meditative waltz. Sitting in India, having seen all three sisters busy their hands in the same manner – one that speaks of weaving, cooking, sewing, storytelling, building everything a person requires in life, I wonder if my mom’s only sister who made it to the US, the one masi I actually grew up with, also has dancing hands. How could I never have noticed before? Rather, how could I have taken for granted growing up with just one masi, one woman who is ‘like mom’?

All together, they were five sisters. Now I know them all. I know what they look like and what they feel like. In my head, I line them up in a row, and there is a thread that weaves through these women – my eldest masi holds the end of it in her left hand and it continues into her right hand. Then it pierces my mother’s earlobe and travels into her her closed mouth where she holds it with her teeth before it falls down and into her right hand. It continues to my next masi, makes a few stitches in her left sleeve and droops in front of her waist; she holds part of it in her right hand. It travels on to my next masi, makes a stitch in the neck line of her blouse and then weaves through her hair. It comes down around her neck, and glides over to the fifth, youngest masi, where the end curls into her hair and emerges out of her mouth and down into her right hand. She holds it firmly. Each of their lips are set in a smirk that indicates deep contemplation and some secret joke. Lips set in a crooked line, half happy and half sad, it is the trait that all the sisters share.