on christmas

I have a really hard time saying “Merry Christmas” back to people. I’m stubborn and have a hard time doing anything that most people do without having my own deep understanding and reasoning of it. Holidays are hard because whatever meaning they might have is undermined by the way our capitalist system exploits them. And then there is the gruesome history of genocide and colonization that gets glossed over with gravy, sweetened with pie.

I was born to Cambodian refugees in the United States. They tried to emulate the festivities that I was exposed to by my education, but there was always an undercurrent (and overcurrent) that I was still a kohn Khmer, their child, not American.

By junior high, I had moved past the excitement of prospective presents and began to wonder at the pressure I felt to participate in a holiday that did not feel authentic to me. Not because I was Khmer, or Asian, but because my family wasn’t Christian and before living in the United States, they never celebrated it. And so while I witnessed plenty of sweet ideas about secular Christmas being a time to encourage generosity and giving and being with people you car about, I also came to resent the way it felt compulsory, and the sense of impending judgement that I felt around holiday time in regards to cards and gifts. Why should I try to participate in a holiday that wasn’t really mine?

And then there was the way that capitalism exploits the goodwill of the holiday, making parents feel like they were not good enough if they did not get their children whatever special toy was coming out that season, or if they did not get everything on the wish list. There was also pressure at school, with Secret Santa, and the economic anxieties I felt as a kid from a working class family. I take responsibility for my own anxieties around being “good enough,” but I don’t feel the need to get over them for the sake of participating in a holiday that feels like it has nothing to do with me.

It would be different if Christmas felt like a tradition fully embraced rather than one tentatively attempted by my nuclear family. I always had this sense of worry. That’s the legacy of being a refugee, of being working class– constant worrying about having enough.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of joy my family’s adaptations of American holidays– the whole extended family getting together, a laid-back affair with a lot of food, circles of blackjack or baccarat with cold hard cash, basketball on TV (I wrote a poem about this 4 years ago). Family always included grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews.

Further, the reason my family gets together during these holidays is not because we believe in them, but because that’s what they have time off. Secular Christmas exists because our economic system demands that people work all the time, no matter their religious beliefs or holidays, and they have time off when the dominant culture decides it is appropriate. So people get used to spending time together at a certain time of the year. We get used to not being able to spend time together when we want or need to.

Christmas reminds me that the other 50 or so weeks of the year, my mom has to have her nose at the grindstone. During Lunar New Year, during Khmer New Year, on the anniversary of her mother’s death. And further, perhaps, it also brings up shame because somewhere deep down I wish I were the kind of daughter who earned enough money for her mother to stop working by now.

Many, if not most, of my relatives and friends celebrate Christmas in some way. Everyone finds a way to celebrate it that feels good to them. I’m not against that happening for me. But I’m also not waiting for it to happen to me. Christmas doesn’t feel like mine, and it doesn’t have to.

Maybe next year, though, I’ll send out cards with a message like this on them.

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of past and present

Waking up in the morning with the same specific place to go, most Mondays through most Fridays. The comfort of that. The comfort of going out late at night with the usual friends to the usual bar, drinking the usual drinks, seeing the usual familiar strangers. The usual cigarette scratchiness in  my throat the next morning which I would soothe with the usual coffee and smoke. Wondering the usual questions about other ways to live, dreaming the usual fantasies.  Repeat, with some variations. Poetry readings. Concerts. Dinners. Excursions to other cities. Sharing in others’ usual places, usual days, usual dreams.

The usual desire to feel free.

And now, to feel this:

I sink and float
like a warm amphibious animal
that has broken the net, has run
through fields of snow leaving no print;
this water washes off the scent—
You are clear now
of the hunter, the trapper
the wardens of the mind—*

An unusual kind of freedom. Delicate. A gossamer reality which I must spin into silk. Tenuous at best. Freedom requires more work, more discipline than I understood when I first dreamed these usual dreams. Strange how the usual dreams fit into and fight with the usual reality.

In truth, I am not clear of the usual. Not quite clear of the hunters, the trappers, the wardens of the mind. They are all around. I evade them as best I can. I live in a gossamer reality which I must spin into silk. Gentle and strong, the stuff which incubates transformation.

The stuff which incubates transformation. The usual dreams are dreams of transforming the usual reality, of making the unusual into the usual. I wake into what has become my usual reality, wondering how long my body will allow this to be my usual, wondering what usual longings may pull at my heart, wondering how anchors can hold in ether.


*from Origins of History and Consciousness by Adrienne Rich

attachment, 6 // memories

What is a writer without memories? I often say that I write because I remember so much, so many details that I have to exorcise somehow else I’ll burst.

And yet the relief is momentary. There is always something more to write, some angle that was not yet examined or could be examined further.

Memory is what I am. Memory takes up no physical space. It is an asset, quite often, to remember things. To be able to carry memories around.

But attachment to memory can be a burden. Or, I should say, fixation is a burden. To be fixated on what was, on who I was, on where I was, on what happened, on what I thought would happen, on the sequence of events that lead me to my particular present.

I wonder what it would be like to let go of remembering. To let go of all that was. There is something that feels scary about it. Unanchored, unsettled. Adrift. I don’t necessarily want to be adrift. I just don’t want to feel trapped.

There are parts of me that I have to let go. There are memories which have unreasonable power over me. The constant comparison and contrast of past and present can infringe upon potential futures. I want to own the past, I want to be here in the present, and I want to be open to the future.

attachment, 5 // books

Lander Desk I brought a suitcase full of books with me when I traveled to Lander, Wyoming for work. I was anxious about the nine weeks that I would spend away, and I felt ambitious about how much reading I could do while far away from the social obligations and distractions of normal life.

It was comforting to bring the small, heavy suitcase books up the stairs to my little room and stack them on my desk. A mixture of science fiction/fantasy novels, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda and other poetry collections, and rock climbing guides.

I failed to take into account that I would be living in a building with a library in it. In a town which also had a library. And I could only read for so many hours after working a full day and often rock climbing for several hours in the evening.

Now, I’ve set aside a small box of approximately a dozen books that I feel I must own. I’ve purged several boxes of books already, and there are still more to be dealt with. Some need to be returned to their original owners, some should be given to friends, some I am holding onto because I want to read them someday, and all are only difficult to part with because I have space to keep them now. But even those books that I’ve deemed precious to me, the books which I turn to time and time again, the books which comfort me to have and hold and look at– I know that I could do without those books, too.

Because there are libraries. Not only the traditional kind, but the little free libraries in various neighborhoods. I’ve more than once finished a book in one long sitting at a bookstore. I don’t want to turn books into furniture. Even the beloved books of mine feel sort of wasted. If I love them so, shouldn’t I share them?

The more I talk about detachment, the more I practice, the more I wonder how purposeful it is. The open space does make me feel lighter, feel more free, but I know that detachment from these objects is only a part of what is really necessary: detachment from ideas and thoughts that hold me back, detachment from what keeps me from pursuing what is not really so out of reach. There’s a base assumption that if I make my load light enough, I’ll be able to float toward my dreams. In reality, what is needed, and what is hardest, is to jump.

This is what my meditations on attachment and minimalism come down to: learning to jump by throwing things overboard.