Tuesday, December 30, 2014

“I grow old.. I grow old..."

I watched my son as he zoomed around the fellowship hall. He was flying high. Well, as high as a three-year old can get when he’s riding a tsunami-sized blood sugar spike from liberally doled out cookies and full-strength juice. I cringed. I was less concerned with the peace he might be disturbing and more worried about safety. You see, at our church we’ve got a lot of older folks, and I mean people who are well into their eighties and nineties. The intergenerational aspect is one of the things I love most about the place we’ve found, but it also means coming face-to-face quite often with the many ways that our bodies succumb to those currents of time. I tried, in the moment, to redirect my son and ask him to calm his body, but he’s the kind of kid who really needs quiet and stillness to process. He also needs to understand the reason behind the request. So I waited. And when I laid him down for a short nap that afternoon, I revisited the issue:
“Hey buddy, do you remember when you were running around and having so much fun at church?”
“Yeah, I do!” He giggled.
            “I love watching you have fun. But do you also remember that I asked you to slow down a little bit and make sure your body wasn’t bumping into other people?”
“Well the reason I asked you to do that is because we have a lot of people whose
bodies have gotten older and might not be as strong as they were. If you bumped into them zooming around so fast, they might fall down and break something…like an arm or a hip. Can you understand that?”
            “Yeah, I do.”
He was quiet for a few seconds as he continued to process this information, and then he asked, “mommy, are you very old?” He cupped my cheek with a tiny hand, caressing my face in that way that I’ve caressed his so many times.
“Well,” I laughed, “not yet, honey.”
“Yeah, not yet,” he said in his half-serious, half-amused way, “but one day you might be.”
One day, I might be old. It’s a notion that I hadn’t really considered. I’ve never really been a visionary. Sure, I make plans and work toward goals, but I don’t ever look toward the future in a “one day when” kind of way (hello, despair with a smile, here). Lying there beside him, at the end of another exhausting holiday season, I was suddenly enthralled with the idea that I might get old one day. I suppose it was especially revelatory because around this time of year I feel a deep-down-in-my-bones weariness that tricks me into thinking that I’m older than I am. This year, that was compounded by the weighty realization that my mother is no longer with us. I know, I know, this whole blog is more or less about that fact, but last year we were still reeling, still in a state of disbelief; I think I’ve reached a place of acceptance. I feel the fullness of her absence stretching itself out in me from limb-to-limb and settling down quietly in that place of real knowing. That is to say, that there are few things I know more fully right now than my mother’s absolute and irrevocable absence.
That certainty found me as I began the process of playing Santa for my son. At 11 pm on Christmas Eve, after six hours in the car, for a five-hour visit, with family one state away, I packed all of his trains and tracks into a bin so that I could erect a construction site in their place. And as I stared at the table emptied of all it's clutter, I was struck by the way that we typically move, almost imperceptibly, from one phase of life to another. We never really clear out the clutter completely, we sort of just shuffle through it. New things make their way onto the table while, hopefully, old things find their way off of it and before we know it, we’ve transitioned into something different. So there was something jarring about the table’s absolute barrenness.
The past and present coalesced momentarily on the surface of that table through that telescopic lens of my mother’s absence. She bought the table for my son’s first birthday “because,” she said, “it was something that would grow with him for awhile.” And it has. It served, first, as a supportive object: he pulled up and walked around it, beaming at his newfound dexterity and independence. Then it became a catchall for whatever toys happened to be in favor at the moment. Eventually, we laid tracks and rolled trains. We’ve spent incalculable hours around that table over the past two years, and in that time he has grown inches, acquired language, discovered those first inklings of interest and passion, skyped grandparents, and daydreamed about whatever it is that toddlers daydream about. We’ve bumped our shins and stubbed our toes on it. We’ve found joy and frustration in equal parts at that table. In hindsight, it was both utterly remarkable and categorically mundane in its everydayness; we barely noticed the way that we moved from phase to phase.
That table has been, in all the myriad ways we might use this phrase, a transitional object. It was the first and last tangible gift that my mother gave to us, and it signified so much more than a space for play. Bennett and I have both found ourselves in the four corners of that table—him as an individual with interests apart from me and myself as a mother and a woman apart from my mother's understandings of those things.  I realized, as I placed the tiny orange cones around the table’s perimeter and poured the rice into the plastic bin, that this newest phase, the things that I was in the process of laying down and the things I might later remove were things that she would never know. And when the moment righted itself and time resumed, I felt the shift inside me in the way that you might feel a bone popping back into place—my mother was thrust into the past and I was firmly relocated in the present, in that space of endless transition that we claim for the living.
It’s always around this season of Epiphany that we begin to throw those tired phrases around. You know the ones I mean—“carpe diem!” or “Live each day like it’s your last!” We make promises to ourselves and to others about the things that we’ll change or that we’ll endeavor to do. But this year, I’m not doing any of that. I won’t feel harried or hurried to fit it all in, to cross things off the bucket list, to know where I’m headed or what I want, to be fully actualized (whatever the heck that means), to unburden myself of all the things that weigh me down, etc. Nope, I won’t live with the scarcity of time biting at my heels. I’m going to live as if, one day, I might be old. I’m going to live slow and sure and steady, for the long haul rather than the sprint. My mother didn’t have time to grow old; she died at 58. But even then, as she was dying, it wasn’t the things she hadn’t done that she regretted. If anything, it was having done too much. She sat in my living room for weeks just looking out the window and she said, as I hovered anxiously, “I don’t think I’ve ever had time to just sit here like this.” If I live to be 65 (which, for the record, isn’t very old at all), I will have grown older than my mother, and I will have lived longer without her than with her. Certainly I hope to have done some things along the way, but I also hope that I will have taken the time to clear off the table completely, to bask in the stillness and emptiness that can be found between things. So long as there are transitions to be had, there is new space to be remade into almost anything we can imagine. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Thing About Love Stories

A year ago today, my phone rang. I knew what the news would be before I answered and in those few seconds before I pressed the button, I thought: “No. Not yet. I’m not ready. I’m on my way. Please, not yet.” In those almost-five months after my mother’s diagnosis, we’d waited every day for this very thing to happen, but when my dad said the words, “your mother just passed away,” I still wasn’t ready. My bags were already packed, and I was already on my way out the door to school that Saturday morning to ensure that I had planned and prepped everything that the substitute would need. When I hung up the phone, I swallowed a sob and calmly called my brother and sister. I kissed my son and drove to the quiet, dark halls of Bloomington High School North where I finished writing up lesson plans, making copies of things and sending out emails. I did it all calmly. Quietly. Numbly.

What I wanted to do was kick a hole in the wall. I wanted to scream. I wanted to lie down somewhere and not get up for a week, maybe two. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t made it to her in time. I was mad at my dad for waiting so long to call. I was angry with myself for not having gone when I got that little twinge of whatever-we-call-it that told me the time was near. I was pissed at my mom for getting cancer in the first place and for not recognizing the signs sooner. I was irate at the miracle cancer drug that had put so many stage four cancer patients in remission or bought them more time, but hadn’t been a match for my mom. I was furious at the universe and at God and at whatever else because I wasn’t ready. My mom and I, we’d just begun in so many ways. My son had only spent a short two years with her. We weren’t done. It wasn’t time. But she was gone.

But here’s the thing about love stories, the end is never really the end. So many great love stories end in death, and we’ve been taught to mourn love’s end. It’s tragic. It’s hopeless. It’s final. I suppose the thing that Christianity gets right is that love doesn’t have a “best if used by” date; it doesn’t expire. Let’s not quibble about theology; whether we take Christ’s resurrection literally or metaphorically (or not at all) isn’t the point here. The point is that love is transferred and transmuted over and again until it becomes impossible to find all the places where it begins and ends. However imperfect we are in our loving, love somehow still persists.

Most days I’m still not ready. My mom and I, we aren’t done. For now, I’m still caught up in the loop of loving which she drew me into and into which I’ve drawn my son. But I’m also caught up in those circles of love that we, you and I, have drawn together—the ones you’ve offered up to me and the ones I’ve extended in return. Holy Venn diagrams, people, that’s a lot of love. This is my love story, and it isn’t finished yet.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Things that Go Bump in the Night

 Can I tell you a secret? I’m afraid of the dark. Growing up, I sometimes felt like we lived at the crossroads of Real-life and Crazy-Town, where most roads actually led to Crazy-Town.* Supernatural beings cluttered our house, and I was aware, from a very young age, of the reach of their collective gazes. I internalized them like some Foucauldian Panopticism. They settled like dust on the furniture, splayed themselves across corners like cobwebs and hovered faintly in the air the way last night’s dinner always hangs half-fragrant, half-rancid on the drapes. At night I shrank from those beings—good or malevolent—as I stared into the shadows that danced around my room taunting me.

*If there were a graphic, it would look something like this:

We moved every three or four years because my dad was in the military, and each time, I hoped that they’d be left behind. My mom was, after all, a masterful packer and purger; she had to be with all of the moving. Somehow, though, those “spirits” seemed to follow us from house to house. If we argued on Sunday morning while our family prepared to go to church, it was always the “devil” intervening and staunching our joy in the process. On the other hand, whenever something good happened in our lives, whenever convenience and chance collided to produce some unforeseen outcome, it was always through the hand of God or the Holy Spirit. Wherever I turned, the supernatural world orchestrated our daily lives and decided our eternal fates.

It’s no surprise, then, that when we argued or when I took a position my mother found problematic, she leapt to demon possession. She didn’t mean to be cruel. She actually believed in the possibility. “Did you see that in her eyes?” she’d ask my dad in a heated moment between us. And in the midst of an argument I’d think, frantically, “What? What did she see?” Terrified, I’d scan my outsides and take stock of my insides, trying to ascertain what it was, exactly, that she had seen.

Later that night she would lay prostrate across my body, deadweight, her hot tears scalding salty tracks along my arm. When she left, I’d trace the length of them and count them in the lines—those lines of self-loathing and fear—that I’d carved into myself. In those moments with her, I held myself perfectly still and tried to take slow oceanic breaths, even though I was terrified, hoping she would think I was asleep. She prayed over me in Korean, demanding that the unclean spirits leave my body, seeking mercy for my soul and pleading peace for both of us. Perhaps if she’d prayed in English I would have rolled my eyes or laughed or told her to go away. But there was something about the urgency and ferocity of her prayers in Korean, that hard syllabic certainty, that cowed me into silence. Instead, I waited, wondering if that night would be the night that something horrible would exit my body, Exorcist style. Eventually, she’d drag her exhausted and fear-laden body off of mine. Sometimes she’d go off to her own bed, the click of her bedroom door serving as a Pavlovian signal of safety and sleep. Other times she’d return to those household chores that she’d put on pause as she attempted cast out my demons. Often, I’d lie there for hours afterwards, watchful and still, waiting for my body to betray me.  After all, what do you do when the monster you fear most isn’t lurking beneath the bed or skulking around in the closet?

I wrote, in another post, about the productive side of fear. But fear is also, of course, incredibly destructive. It’s a master dissembler. It gives us lies in truth-colored wrappers. It transforms otherwise innocuous shadows into our worst nightmares. It urges us to flee though nothing pursues us. It prompts us to attack when there’s no danger to be found.  Knowing now what I do about my mother and about her own difficult past, I’m able to understand a little better how I might have begun to take the shape of her fears. I became the specter of all her missteps, misfortunes and all her might-have-beens. When she looked at me, she saw all the lies that fear had fed her about herself writ large on my body, and she wanted to save me…from myself, but more importantly perhaps, from becoming her. In the process, however, we became monstrous together. 

In the months that followed my mom’s death and in the midst of all the grief and disorienting chaos, I found that I was terrified again. Even though I don’t really believe in the spirit world, the nighttime hauntings of my childhood stayed with me. I was afraid to be alone in my house, especially at night. I was afraid to sleep. I was afraid to dream.*  Drawing on cultural and religious confirmation, my mother treated dreams as sacred texts. They were signs that she lived by. For me, however, they were just dreams. Fodder for a creative life? Yes. The important symbolic working out of day-to-day glitches and deeper traumas? Sure. But signs and divine/prescient messages? No. So when one of my parents’ congregants told me that she’d dreamed of my mother—they’d met in a stairwell and my mother had assured this woman that she was okay and we shouldn’t worry about her—I was surprised to find that I was pissed. What business did this woman have dreaming about my mother? Then, I was hurt. Why had she visited this woman and not me? I felt instantly foolish because I didn’t even believe in those things, right? There was, I suppose, a small part of me that was still waiting for my mother to be right, for the spirit world to be blown wide open the minute I closed my eyes. If that were true, what other things would I have to accept? And then I just felt relieved that it hadn’t been me who’d had the dream.

*Among the many things my mother passed down to me, one of the most powerful is a rich and vibrant dream life.  I remember my dreams on a weekly and almost daily basis. I’ve learned to slip back into them after waking in order to finish a narrative arc. I’ve discovered that I can change the landscape and rewrite outcomes. I’ve taught myself to fly in moments of danger. I can call up familiar dream worlds again and again.

I’m not sure how I survived the next five or six months. I stopped dreaming altogether. Probably because I stopped reaching REM sleep. I hovered, instead, somewhere in those four stages of NREM sleep, exhausted but safe. But as the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death draws near, I’ve begun to dream of her often and without fear. In my dreams, we are both exposed and remade a hundred times over, not into romanticized selves that we weren’t and would never be, but into selves that we’d forgotten and had begun to be to one another when she died.  

The other night as my son and I looked for the moon before bed (his newest bedtime ritual), the cord from the blinds rustled in the breeze and cast a momentary shadow on the ceiling. Before I processed what it was, my heart began to race and I gasped involuntarily. “What is it, mommy?” my son asked, his voice tight with anxiety.  I made my voice light and easy, “it was only the wind, sweetheart, rustling the strings. It just surprised me; that’s all.” I’m determined that our demons not be his. In these iterations to him—where strings are just strings, chairs are just chairs and shadows are just the product of object and light—the night has begun to take on less terrifying shapes. And in those small pockets of peace, in those moments of relief from the fear has that threatened to terrorize and consume me, I suspect that, after all, I’ve found the thing my mother wanted most for me.

(August 11, 2014)
It’s not my dream. I feel the foreignness as I slide into it, liquid and warm. It’s her dream. Flecks of gold fall from the sky landing on my eyelashes, caressing my cheeks and covering the ground. It glitters. It’s too bright to look anywhere but at her and even she is too much to bear as she shimmers in the mid-day sun. She is me and not me. She is the first face I can recall and the last face I see each night.

 She comes to me across the field and offers me her gift, “this is all my love for you.”

 I take the small, slippery pearl and swallow it whole; it fills up all the wells of longing in me. “Spin me,” I say.

Hands clasped in hers, she sends me soaring—arms outstretched, feet flying behind me. She spins us out of time. I am five. I am ninety. I am fifteen. I am ageless. I am dead. I am born. I am alive. I am all the things I’ll ever be and all the things I never was. And for a moment, together, we are enough. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Making Space, Redux

I let my son play on the sidewalk by the gate for a little longer than usual and I stood there, the sun warm on my forehead, listening to the chatter of the six or seven Korean women who had gathered in the parking lot. Someone’s mother, a grandmother, walked back and forth along the sidewalk carrying a baby on her back, uh-buh-bah style—the way my mother and grandmother carried us as babies, the way I still sometimes carry Bennett as I put him to bed at night. With all the innocence of a presumably inattentive bystander, I listened (only somewhat guiltily) to their conversation the same way I’d eavesdropped on the conversations of my mother and her friends when I was young.

How many secrets had I squirreled away like that? Those tiny morsels of information and juicy bits of gossip had been laid out casually, help-yourself-family-style, because they assumed that we didn’t understand what they were saying. Back then, in those half-Korean/half-American circles, most of our mothers raised us in the languages of our fathers. Perhaps it was easier. Perhaps English was still a coveted enough tongue to compel them to subjugate their own. Perhaps they felt their immigrant status too acutely in the way others strained to understand them through their accents. Perhaps speaking English at home provided them the practice that they needed in a low-stakes environment. Whatever the case, we spoke predominantly English in our homes.

But as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I spent my early years with my grandmother who only spoke Korean. Since she was one of our primary caregivers for many years, I was forced to internalize the language. I remember driving my mom insane with my incessant questions: “mommy, how do you say ‘towel’ in Korean? How do you say ‘thermometer?’ How do you say ‘spend the night at my friend’s house?’ How do you say ‘go to the park?’” That last one was prompted by a situation that had landed me in hot water. I’d gone to the park down the street one afternoon after informing my grandmother (in English) of my plans. I was four or five at the time and my mother was away for a day or two with church duties. Some time later, as I was hanging upside down from the monkey bars, my uncle arrived. He was red-faced and roaring. “You are NEVER,” he bellowed, “allowed to leave the house without telling an adult where you are going.” My grandmother had called to tell him I was missing, though she’d probably called him more out of irritation than concern (this was before people were actually arrested for letting their children walk down the street alone). “But I did tell her,” I whined, feeling the injustice of the situation. “Well,” he yelled, “she didn’t understand! Next time, draw her a picture!” After that, I learned from necessity as much as curiosity.

Standing there beside those women, I felt all the summers of my childhood swelling up around me like deep pools of memory and longing. I’ve written about nostalgia in other posts (here, for instance), but the feeling that washed over me, that particular brand of homesickness, was less about a place/time and more about “fit.” In my childhood, I’d passed easily between languages and between cultures. My mother always served as a kind of entry point to those small clubs of belonging, those small communities of women who gathered in parking lots and coffee shops, who frequented the same businesses together with a kind of devotion and loyalty that rivaled their religious fervor. They will make or break a business with their praise and derision. “This one, not that one,” someone will say and they will all change course together.  “Just wait,” I told a friend months ago when my son’s daycare only had a couple of Korean families, “once the word gets out, you’ll be inundated with Korean kids.” And there they were.

One of those families has a daughter in my son’s class. At our last class gathering, they stood quietly to the side. I made my way over to them to ask them how their daughter was acclimating. “She loves it here,” the mom told me, “every morning she wakes up and says that we need to hurry up and go see her seong-saeng-nim.” She translated, “ah…that means teacher in Korean.” “Yes,” I replied, “my mom….” I’d started to say the phrase, “my mom is Korean” (in Korean) as I had so many times before. But I stopped. I realized that I didn’t know how to say, “my mom was Korean.” Past tense. I should have said, instead, “I’m half Korean,” but in the moment, I floundered. I finished in English, “my mom was Korean, but she passed away last year.” I rushed through the moment and quickly went on to tell her about the morning before, when I’d spoken Korean to her daughter. Her daughter had been walking away when she realized, mid-stride, that someone had spoken her first language to her and she returned wide-eyed to give me a closer look. We laughed and her mother said, “she must have been surprised to find someone speaking her language who doesn’t look Korean.” I know. Pull your jaws off the floor. But yes, this happens quite often. Korean people don’t always read me as “Korean.” They see whiteness. And “white” people see me as “Asian” (or American Indian, Latina, etc.). It all depends on who’s doing the seeing.Without my mother, we—my siblings and I—are three “other-ish” looking kids with a white guy in tow. My mother made sense of us; she provided our papers and credentials for entry into that other world, into those other parts of ourselves.  Now, I often feel like a “foreigner” in all the spaces of my life. I find myself moving uncomfortably through situations that once felt easy. After all, she’s no longer around to bear the burden of our difference.

When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a tendency to focus on what we’ve lost, to dwell on the bruises from the fall. Sometimes, however, if we take a minute to look beyond those things, we unearth long-forgotten hardwood floors, or kitschy tile made chic again by time, or maybe we find the hideous linoleum that reminds us why we bought the rug in the first place. Whatever we find, that rediscovery has the potential to make novelties of old things. My mother’s death has, in so many strange ways, made the world new for me. But it’s not only the world that has been made new; I’ve unearthed uncharted territory in myself as well. I’ve come to understand how much of my self-narrative has depended on that between-ness.

Lately, I feel myself grasping for the vestiges of that feeling, that comfort of being nestled effortlessly between those parts of myself and between cultures with my mother at the center. That longing has manifested itself in intense cravings for all the foods of my youth. For the cold rice drink (shikhye) that my mother would give us on special occasions when people came over for lunch. For rice mixed with water, the gruel of my early childhood, served with an array of banchan. For green onion pancakes (pajeon) with cilantro and fish/lemon dipping sauce. For Omelet rice (omurice).  For, oh god, delicious noodles in black bean sauce (jjajang myeon). For those chewy pink candies wrapped in rice paper. For weird shrimp crackers (Saewookkang). For Korean moonpies, (Chocopie). And, of course, for Pepero.* Sure, I can make a lot of this at home and I can find the rest at one of the three Korean markets in town, but most of these things never taste quite the same as they did back then. The tastebuds of my childhood—that hadn’t yet learned to love truffle oil and brie, that considered Red #40 and Blue #1 essential to making food more compelling and tasty—have left me perpetually wanting. Moreover, my mother’s death has left me endlessly in search of her distinct and refined notes in those dishes that I haven’t been able to discover elsewhere or replicate exactly on my own. Some things live only in the past.

*This little treat even has its own day. Supposedly, at its inception, people gave boxes of Pepero to those they loved with wishes for growing “taller and thinner, like Pepero.” Insert your own wide-eyed emoticon. Only in Korea, ya’ll. Weirdest marketing scheme ever, right? At some point Pepero day became a kind of Valentines-esque observance on November 11. Any Korean friends out there want to comment about whether or not this is still observed?

Tomorrow, my mother would have turned 59. By way of grieving or celebrating (I’m not sure which), I’ve decided to remake the room that I made for my mother to die in. I’ll give it a fresh coat of paint. I’ll buy new bedding. Maybe I’ll buy a new rug. Maybe I’ll learn the past tense. Maybe I’ll go buy all the things that I’m craving just in case there’s some latent magic to be found in the bounty. Maybe I’ll say hello to those women one morning as I walk by. Who knows? In any case, I’m making space again. This time, however, it’s for all of the things that we will be after and because of my mother, rather than all of the things that we won’t be without her. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Between the Lines

I was eleven. My mother and I were watching My Girl; she was sitting next to me, sobbing. In case you don’t remember the movie, eleven-year olds Vada (Anna Chlumsky) and Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) are best friends. When Vada loses her mood ring, Thomas J. goes back into the woods on his own to find it, unbeknownst to her. In the process, he steps on a hornet’s nest and ends up dying from anaphylaxis. I felt tears sting my eyes when Vada sees Thomas J. in his coffin; she falls apart and begins screaming that he can’t see without his glasses (he lost them in the woods). However, my embarrassment and annoyance at my mom’s emotional response won out.  I sat there dry-eyed and presumably unfeeling.

“What’s wrong with you? It’s okay to cry if you’re sad,” my mom said.

I wanted to ask, “since when?” It wasn’t really a message that rang true. Or, rather, it was only applicable in limited scenarios like this one. She used to tell me what a deeply feeling baby I had been, that I would cry in response to things that moved me, like Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. I was skeptical.

Instead, I replied, “you can be sad without crying. I don’t really feel like crying.”

“Ai-goo. Don’t be so cold-hearted!” she said, annoyed.

It’s not that I didn’t feel things. Because I did. Deeply. Fiercely. In fact, my feelings were so big that I often found myself terrified that they would consume me, so I swallowed them, instead. But in that moment, I refused to perform my grief for her, as I would eventually refuse to perform so many other things. I wasn’t sure what the response from her would be and I wasn’t sure which would be worse: a rare moment of shared tenderness/intimacy or a knowing and smug, “see, doesn’t that feel better?” So I chose option c—no reaction at all.   

Yet here I am performing my grief for so many of you. Of course, it isn’t a performance, exactly; I write with earnestness and openness. But, and I’ve said this before, these public mediations on my grief often eclipse “feeling” in favor of “intellectualizing.” In those moments when grief threatens to bowl me over, rather than wading through it I find myself detouring around it as I ask myself, “what am I feeling and how can I talk about this?”

Lately, I’ve thought quite a bit about these increasingly public experiences, these communal acts of loving, living and grieving. Social media has infiltrated our daily lives in such a way that we are incessantly managing our public selves. It can be draining and overwhelming; the barrage of information is excessive and invasive. Our world has shifted quickly but imperceptibly over the past few decades as we’ve transitioned from one social media space to another in waves—myspace, facebook, instagram, twitter, youtube, snapchat, etc. After all, it takes no more than a few clicks to land us in brave new worlds. We are awash in a sea of hashtags, selfies and buzzfeed quizzes, bombarded by various forms of activism via social media, perplexed by how we might enforce cyber-bullying laws, tempted by the deceptive impermanence of our feeds, and confounded by the sheer number of things that we can pin but will probably never actually do/make/buy. I’ve become anesthetized to almost everything as, daily, I scroll by heated arguments, make note of people’s vigorous assertions of their religious/political leanings with nothing more than an internal sigh or cringe, and observe other, well…downright craziness. In matter of “likes,” “views” or “searches,” you can skyrocket to stardom or land yourself in infamy.

I guess I’m wondering what it means to give in, to participate in these public and communal experiences via the Internet. Sometimes it feels like the more we say, the less it means. In mere minutes, our feeds will be full of new people saying new things or old people still saying old things. In the former, we move on because there are fresh things to debate/see/ogle. In the latter, we move on because we’re bored or desensitized by the rhetoric stuck on repeat. Or we just block them/hide their feeds. Problem solved. So what? I suppose part of me worries that we’ve lost the ability to be affected and to effect change in ways that rupture, radicalize or reimagine our present. What happens when we forget that these profile pics and handles are attached to real people, with real bodies? What happens when we forget that we aren’t just characters in the various feeds of our lives? I worry that we’ve become so alienated and disconnected from ourselves that we have to find new ways to shake ourselves up—take school shootings, for example. 

The other evening, however, I went with group of thirty-something-year-old moms to the opening of The Fault in Our Stars alongside hordes of fifteen-year old girls. They (yes, the antecedent here is purposely ambiguous) giggled and gasped and heaved huge sighs at all the right moments. And I’ll admit, I got on the bandwagon. One girl behind me resisted for awhile: “why are they laughing? That’s not even funny! Ugh. This is stupid.” But by the time Hazel Grace was reading her eulogy for Augustus Waters at his impromptu funeral rehearsal, the acerbic commentary had given way to sniffles. The movie theater erupted into a massive carnival of grief. Sniffles gave way to outright sobbing. The young girl in front of me was so upset that I worried she might begin to hyperventilate. They were affected.  But were they affecting more feeling than was real? How much of that, I wondered, was performance and how much was genuine? Would they respond in the same way if they were watching the movie on their own. I considered my own dry eyes—I was transported back to that moment on the couch with my mother—would I respond differently if I were alone? The experience was considerably and uncomfortably different from my previous experiences in “sad” or “moving” movies where people sniffled quietly into their tissues.

So why the shift? I have to think that a large part of this can be attributed to a generational and affective shift. Most of those 14-16 year olds have grown up in a world where their public and private lives are increasingly synonymous. It’s a world where elaborate engagements, sorrowful tales of loss, and rage-y rants are the norm. It’s a world of instant access and excess. Big feelings have always been a thing—especially aomong adolescents; I admitted to having them at the start of this piece. Mental illnesses have been around (though the parameters and our understanding continues to evolve). And guns—well they’ve been around, too (I won’t get into this issue now). But the way that we express and experience that coalescing of private and public selves has changed dramatically. The terrain of our affective responses has been altered. I think those shifts have occasionally taken on some really terrifying forms and have manifested in some very troubling ways. But as I think about that moment in the theater, it was more than a performance of mob-mentality or mass hysteria. That eruption of feeling was unnerving because it felt, instead, like a group of public individuals having a hundred uninhibited private moments. That’s decidedly different than a group of private individuals sniffling through their unexpected or unwanted public displays. We get that "have-your-feelings-but-for-god’s-sake-have-them-quietly” thing. We’re okay with that. 

We often talk about social media and the Internet in a negative way: it has changed the way our brains work; it has alienated us from ourselves; it has produced shallow intimacies. But what if we allow ourselves to imagine the way that it has the potential to create deeper (or at least wider-reaching) intimacies? What if we consider the way that it tethers us to one another through and despite ourselves and our differences? Anyone who has ever played an MMRPG (massively multiplayer role-playing game) understands the way the Internet can serve as a space where we can imagine and create worlds together regardless of things that might otherwise divide us. I’m not saying anything new, here. People have talked about and written about these issues of world building better than I can. In my case, in this blog on death and grief, I’ve created a world where my mom is, ironically, most alive. I’ve tried, as much as is possible, not to romanticize but to depict us the way we were—to preserve the heartache and tension and love between us in a way that feels real. And each time you gather with me here, she is reassembled and reanimated. You’ve allowed me these excesses of feeling in ways that you might not have or that I might not have offered, in the flesh.

But the really interesting and beautiful thing is that these things carry over into our real-world interactions. When we meet, those connections that we’ve made via NSPs, ISPs, LANs and individual devices are still open between us. We haven’t quite logged out. It’s a novel kind of intimacy that doesn’t spring from face-to-face interactions but from largely “artificial” and “performative” ones.  Nonetheless, it’s still a version of intimacy. It has preceded many of my real-life interactions with some you and has deepened preexisting relationships with others. What began as an act of “anonymous” or disconnected grieving has served countless times as points of reference, connection and compassion: as I’ve shared with you, so many of you have shared yourselves in return. Somehow, we’ve cut through the code and found a kind of community in these shared stories. We’ve discovered a network that extends beyond the screens of our computers and phones. However soul-deadening the world of social media can sometimes be and however isolating the Internet can sometimes seem, there’s something compelling about the affective transmutation that has sprung up in this reworking of private and public that affirms rather than shuts down communal feeling. I can’t help but imagine the transformative potential--if we’re brave enough to embrace it--that awaits us in this new openness of being. That, my friends, is something radical.