progress is learning to live with ghosts
San Francisco’s housing crisis has been plastered all over the news this year. You’ll remember the stories about skyrocketing housing costs displacing longtime locals (and poor students) from their homes, Mission dwellers lambasting Google bus drivers and protesting the presence of all those arrogant young techies, those arrogant young techies insensitive to the plight of longtime locals who are just barely scraping by and don’t have the luxury of striving for the same kind of progress.
I’ve heard the argument from a lot of people that the problem with housing in San Francisco is that people are too unwilling, too afraid to build up. There is so much history here that no one wants to demolish. Look at all these beautiful, unique, ornate Victorians. They’ve been here for years and years, and their quirky charm is a part of what makes San Francisco so great, so progressive. And this greatness and progressiveness are what make people want to come here in hoards to drive up the cost of living in these ornate Victorians.
What a catch-22, this desire to keep thriving as a beautiful, progressive city without losing its beautiful, progressive history.
When it comes down to it, it’s a balancing act. A complete lack of nostalgia risks the cold dystopian world predicted by sci-fi novels. In The Giver or in Brave New World, for instance, an erasure of memories and emotion makes the society really efficient, but readers generally agree that it seems like a rather empty existence. An excess of nostalgia, on the other hand, risks holding people back and ultimately leads to elimination in a perpetually evolving world. Think of natural selection. Organisms (or businesses or societies) must adapt to altered environmental pressures, and those that fail will eventually die. But even adaptation builds on what came before.
We need progress and history both, and we just need to figure how much of each is necessary. “Just”—as if it’s that easy.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in several contexts. For one, I’ve been caught up in a grand effort to transform Synapse, the UCSF newspaper, into a more respectable and useful platform for student communication that students and administrators alike will want to read and keep around. It is a historical record in itself, but it must adapt as the ways in which people record history and communicate information change. That’s something all newspapers deal with. As a business model, it must be enough of the same to keep existing readers and be enough of something new to hook everyone else.
On a more personal level, I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic this week, and I can’t quite shake it. I am reading Torch by Cheryl Strayed, and there are moments in this book when she so accurately describes the grief I felt three years ago that it’s as if I’m back there in that time and in that place. Last week, I dreamt I was in high school, and we were together in the old house where another family now lives. The paper-white walls, the tall ceiling in the entry that led all the way up to the roof, the ugly low-hanging chandelier that never quite fit—of all the places I’ve lived, that’s the one I see when I close my eyes and think the word “home.” That’s the place I missed when it was pouring freezing rain in the Nashville winter at 1am, and I felt so alone I could have screamed into the trees.
Out and about, I’ve been seeing things that remind me of my mother. I was in the grocery store, wandering through the aisles trying to remember what it was that I’d meant to go in there to buy, and I saw a row of chicharrones, fried pork skins. I remembered how my mom used to shop a lot in the Mexican grocery stores in Vegas. She’d buy bags and bags of chicharrones when they were on sale and put them in giant pots of soup, and after a few moments, they softened into a deliciously glutinous, chewy texture.
In another aisle, they had those cans of Pillsbury biscuit dough that you just roll open and separate and stick in the oven with a pat of butter. At least, that’s how I imagine you’re supposed to use them to make dinner rolls. But we rolled them out into a small flat circle, patted flour on each side, filled them with ground pork and vegetables, and pinched them into the beginnings of steamed buns. (Lucky reader, you’re getting all these great recipes for free.) It is finally almost not painful to think about making these things again. (Challenge: how many qualifiers can I use in one sentence?)
It slows you down, these memories. You’re rushing through the grocery store, trying to get what you need and get out, and then you see these simple little things—inconspicuous ghosts—that catch you off guard and have you walking around in a daze. How must more efficient we would be without these ghosts. But also, how lost, how empty.
The longer you are in the world, the more ghosts you will have—memories of what you did badly, memories of what was once good and is no longer, things you want to hold onto but can’t if you are to push on. This is true for people, for businesses, for cities. But progress isn’t about getting rid of the ghosts. Progress is learning to accept that everything you love and everything you are will eventually die; you will accumulate ghosts and be someone else’s ghost. And that’s okay. They hold you back a little, but they also remind you of why you push on.
the ebb and flow of memory
After all this time, my dream self is still so easily fooled into thinking she is still alive.
My dream self knows something is wrong at the first sign of weakness, and now, I am older and more knowledgeable, have more access to resources that could save her. The first time she faints, I know what I should do. How much more devastating is the reality, then, when I awaken and realize I am years too late.
For days after, everything is tinted. When grocery shopping, I see the cans of biscuits we used to use to make steamed buns, and I think maybe I’ll buy a bit of ground meat and green onions and make them again. I put the biscuits in my basket only to put them back on the shelf immediately. After all this time, I still can’t bear to remember the small bits of happiness that are now lost irrevocably.
oh hey, we got reviewed!
I just found this ridiculously nice review.
I wish "getting creeped on" could be listed as a marketable skill
- [Incident 2 of 2 since Saturday]
- Lyft driver, in a heavy accent: Where are you from?
- Me, resisting the urge to roll my eyes: I grew up in Las Vegas, but most of my family is from China, to answer your real question. Where are YOU from?
- Lyft driver: Algeria. You are very beautiful. You have a beautiful face, not like a Chinese woman. You look Vietnamese.
- Me: ...Uh huh. What's the difference? [Internal monologue: Um, really, you think this is a compliment? Also, good thing I'm going to a public place from another public place.]
- [Lyft driver continues to repeat insulting "compliment"]
- Lyft driver, as we approach the destination: Are you going home now?
- Me: Uhhh, yeah. Getting dinner with my roommate. [This was a total lie, but people are less likely to kill you when they think people will notice right away, right? Right?!?]
- Lyft driver: Can I pay you?
- Me: Um, what?
- Lyft driver, barely comprehensible: Can I pay you? Can I buy you a pizza? [I could have totally misheard that, but I decided "Can I take you out?" was a better interpretation than "Can I pay for your services because you're totally giving off 'Vietnamese prostitute' vibes with that non-Chinese-looking face and blazer of yours"]
how to cultivate loneliness
"Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space."
—Janet Fitch, White Oleander
It is said that the times you most fear being alone are the times you most need it. And this is why, instead of working in a cafe or sitting around in a bar just so I can see human faces when I look up, I am locked in my room, practicing aloneness and restraint. I am refusing the familiar impulse to do something reckless, something utterly mindless, and I am listening to the wind whistle through the void.
libraries of grief
Anyone who loves to read will have a library of grief, the books and poems and articles that move and comfort and eventually transform you.
Add to mine Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir of her hike up the Pacific Crest Trail and her parallel journey through grief. She writes about grieving for her mother, who died of cancer when the author was 22, four years before her PCT hike, and about the dissolution of her family and her marriage, much of which also inspired her novel Torch.
As an avid reader and writer, she makes many references to the books she read along the trail and her attachment to A Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. She writes (briefly) about the sad books she read after her mother died and the books her mother loved—her personal library of grief, in a sense. That, among so many other things in this book, resonated profoundly, and it got me thinking about my own library of grief.
Like Strayed, I used to write a lot. From age 8 onwards, I chronicled every minute detail of my life until it finally got too big and busy to be fully recorded. But after my mother died, I didn’t, couldn’t write anything for over a year. I couldn’t allow myself to think long enough to write. But I read a lot. I had to.
I felt so painfully alone in my grief that all I could do was to seek out other people, mostly fictitious, who might know something about what that painful aloneness was like. I didn’t have close familial relationships to fall back on, and my friends were sympathetic but couldn’t possibly understand. More than ever, I felt like a stranger in the world of my peers.
I remember the first Mother’s Day, three months after my mother’s death. I was with my friends on our senior beach week trip, and they all called their mothers in the morning. One of them, who didn’t know me well at the time, even asked me the night before to remind him to call his mother. I did, and I was totally fine and normal around everyone. But I probably hid in the bathroom and cried while they all did that. (I say probably because I loathe external displays of emotion too much to not repress memories of my own.)
In hindsight, my friends were pretty great about it, sort of awkwardly walking on eggshells around me but trying not to at my explicit request. My roommate often asked me if I wanted to go to the gym with her, and sometimes I went. Probably more often, I just hid in my room and folded paper cranes and and burnt incense and paper money and short letters in Chinese, arbitrarily smushing together a bunch of rituals that I suddenly remembered. And when I couldn’t bear to do any of these things anymore, I built up my secret library of grief.
I read about others who’d lost their mothers young (a blogger’s interview with another 19 year old who’d lost her mother to cancer) and even people who lost loved ones old, every poem with “loss” or “grief” or “mother” in the title (there are lots of these). I built a mental collection of “grief poems,” and, when I could handle longer things, a collection of “grief books” and “grief TV shows.” I was starving for a bit of understanding.
There are some books that stand out as having been particularly significant:
- most recently, everything by Cheryl Strayed (Tiny Beautiful Things, Wild, Torch)
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
- The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer
and bazillions of poems
- Jack Gilbert
- Sylvia Plath
- Ellen Bass
- Anais Nin
- Charles Bukowski
- Anne Sexton
- Marie Howe, ”What the Living Do”
- Robert Hass, “August Notebook: a Death”
- Ira Sadoff, “My Mother’s Funeral”
- John Donne, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
- Nellie Wong, “Mama, Come Back”
- Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”
- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
- Natasha Tretheway, “Myth”
- Michael Dickman, “Killing Flies”
- Laura Kasischke, “Near Misses”
- Reginald Shepherd, “My Mother Was No White Dove”
- Collier Nogues, “She Leaves Me Again, Six Months Later”
- Traci Brimhall, “What They Found in the Diving Bell”
- Toi Derricotte, “Elegy for My Husband”
- Richard Blanco, “El Florida Room”
- Claude McKay, “December, 1919”
- Li-Young Li, “Eating Together”
- Richard Aldington, “The Poplar”
- Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
- Rose McLarney,”Gather”
- Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet”
- Anna Akhmatova, “We Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye”
- Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
- Rob Hardy, “To the Daughter I Never Had”
- Jack Vian, “Like an American Princess”
- Lyle Li’s college essay in NYT
- a NYT essay by Joyce Carol Oates on grief
- Carl Sagan’s Parade essay “In the Valley of the Shadow”
- various Modern Love essays. I most strongly recall one about a mother who was freaking out about her daughter taking care of an egg for class, and she realized it was because she’d lost her own mother and felt the need to prepare her daughter for the future in case she lost her too.
- an article in the Lancet about whether grief should be classified as a mental illness because it so transforms the person
- Philip K. Dick’s essay on loss and grief
- various science and social science articles about loneliness and depression and grief
- The Carry Diaries (or at least a few of the episodes)
- the Portuguese word “saudade”
- Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “No One But You”
- Chinese lullabies: “Green Island Serenade,” “Grandmother’s Bridge,” “The Moon on the 15th” (which is actually a Cultural Revolution song), “The Moon Represents My Heart”
And then there were the books my mother loved and the books she wrote, which I had to translate painstakingly and still haven’t finished, all of which which I now read to try to get a sense of who she was as a person beyond being my mother.
- Jane Eyre
- Les Miserables
- Tess of the D’ubervilles
- Gone With the Wind
- Little Women
- Mary Higgins Clark books, which I also read until I, like Strayed, decided they weren’t “real” books
Much of this was horribly sad, and some of this was only a little bit satisfying, especially when my own loss was so fresh that it seemed like the worst thing that could have ever happened to almost anyone. (I say almost because I felt ashamed of that line of thinking when I heard about even younger kids losing parents or parents losing children or loss of siblings. Even in my tremendous, selfish grief, I could recognize that there are some things that seemed more biologically wrong.)
Now, I can confess plainly that I was so utterly wrecked by my loss that I envied people who seemed less alone than me, and most people seemed less alone than me—people who were close to their fathers or other family members, people who had siblings to share the loss, people who lost their parents when they were older, people who were married or otherwise had supportive SOs, people who seemed less emotionally stunted than me, etc. I was angry at my father for still having a mother and having the gall to say that his loss was greater than mine. I was ugly in my grief. We both were. Everyone is at least a little ugly in grief.
I loved Strayed’s Wild because it was so painfully honest about all of these ugly feelings. She wrote without apology, with a sense of understanding that this is just how she experienced grief. And I felt a sense of solidarity, because in a giant sea of people who claimed to “move on” just fine after a short period or said they didn’t want to be defined by their losses, she was as shattered by her loss as I was by mine. She let her mother’s death define her, but her “mother’s death made [her] a better person.” She replies gorgeously to a fan in another book, Tiny Beautiful Things, “When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place.”