Frogs

Frog

Frog floating in Ohanapecosh River

On a recent camping trip, I wedged the legs of my canvas chair into the rocks along the Ohanapecosh River and paddled my toes in the cold water. It was 95 degrees in the campground just outside Mount Rainier National Park, so warm that, although I wanted to nap in our van, I couldn’t get comfortable, even with the doors and windows open and a battery-powered fan turning. The only cool spot was the river.

Our friend Margaret sat nearby, reading. Her partner Machelle and Arline were up the slope in our campsite, napping. The sun had just dipped below the tips of the Douglas firs and red cedars across the river, so Margaret and I were in shade, but filtered light turned the river rocks shades of buttery yellow.

I had been at the river for at least half an hour, watching the water swirl, when I realized a large frog was sitting near my left foot. “Margaret!” I whispered. She looked across at me, and I pointed down. We peered at it. The frog, the color of wet stone, was completely still, golden-lidded eyes open and unblinking. Was it real? Was it alive? I touched a twig to its right back leg, and the leg twitched. Margaret said she could see, from the side, its gullet move.

I kept an eye on the frog over the next hour. Once it blinked. Later, it slightly shifted position. But it stayed there, still, camouflaged among the rocks.

One explanation I read for the frog’s behavior is that it had shut down to survive the heat, a process called “estivation” – the warm-weather equivalent of hibernation. In recent months, as Arline and I have coped with her cancer diagnosis, five weeks of radiation, two surgeries, and multiple tests and appointments, there have been times I wanted to enter this state myself: lower the blinds, throw the sheets over my head, and shut my eyes. I often sleep nine to ten hours a night, the luxury of not working this summer, and still sometimes I nap in the afternoons, my eyes closing as I attempt to read. But eventually I emerge from these periods of estivation to do the laundry, send emails, help Arline with her exercises, and do whatever else is needed. Even when it’s hot, frogs and humans need to eat.

But that’s not right. I’m describing the frog’s stillness – and my desire for it – as a form of hiding, of retreat. The frog was not hiding. The frog was doing what it needed to do to survive. It was slowing, quieting. Less like my naps and more like my attempts at meditation. I try to meditate every day but I don’t always make time for it. I’ve found a web site with recordings, and I like the woman’s calm voice telling me, at the end, to wish myself well. The frog had, perhaps, temporarily narrowed its focus to breathing, the way I’m supposed to do in meditation. That afternoon, leaves drifted by, the sun traveled behind the trees, and our bodies simply breathed.

After awhile, Arline joined me at the river. The path down from our campsite was thick with roots and rocks, and she needed to lean on me as she navigated with her still unbending knee. Once she had admired the frog and settled in her chair, she noticed another frog to her right. This one was speckled, what I later learned was a Cascade Frog (the first was probably a Red-Legged), and it was also motionless. It rested in the river, only its nose and eyes above the water that eddied around it, cool and clear.

I’ve been meditating to cope and writing in my journal and camping – and I’ve been eating. Usually I can resist something sweet for at least a few days at a time, but not lately. During the long five weeks of daily radiation, Arline and I got in the habit of a cup of coffee and a cookie every afternoon. She wanted to cut back on sugar – many sources say it feeds cancer – but it was hard. We wanted something small and satisfying, a shared moment of quiet in the afternoons. In other words, we accompanied our estivation with a treat.

So we sleep, we nap, we eat. We spend time with friends and grandchildren. We laugh with Margaret and Machelle, taking selfies on our campsite picnic table. And we sit by rivers and look at frogs. We’re surviving. We are.

 

 

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This.

Arline in hallway

Arline taking a walk in the hallway

Five years ago I started writing this blog to exercise my essay writing muscles. I wanted to experiment with voice and tone, with different topics. To think about my imagined audience. Why was I writing and about what and to whom?

Virtually every month I posted a short essay. The blog kept me writing when other things consumed my thoughts and time, things like student papers and committee work, emails and groceries. From this ongoing practice, longer, more complex essays emerged, and I sent them to publications. Ten appeared in journals, including one that was named a notable essay of 2015 in Best American Essays.

And then I stopped writing. Because someone turned this little snow globe that is my life upside down and shook it. Not someone. Something. My love, my partner, my wife — the woman who travels with me — found a lump near her knee that turned out to be cancer.

On February 23, a doctor called to tell Arline that the mass on the MRI looked malignant. Two weeks later, a different doctor called with the biopsy results. He gave the mass a name: myxofibrosarcoma, intermediate, stage 2.

In the four months since then, the only writing I’ve done is in my journal. I have read and read: articles in journals like Lancet Oncology and Medical Molecular Morphology. Blogs left behind by those who wrote and survived, by those who wrote and didn’t. Posts on random chat boards; posts on private Facebook groups. But I haven’t been able to read a book.

And I haven’t been writing because I’ve been going with Arline to appointments, to MRIs and CT scans, to a PET scan in a city an hour away, to some of her twenty-five sessions of radiation. I didn’t write when spending three nights with her in the hospital after the first surgery in May or five nights after the second surgery in June. I wasn’t writing when I went to my own therapy appointments and caregiver support group meetings.

But mostly I haven’t been writing because this turn of events has left me wordless. Everything seems to be coming at me — explanations, diagnoses, pathology reports, test results — and the only things leaking out are tears.

What topics are there to write about now? Only cancer. Who would I be writing to and why? I’m not sure.

But something happened after the first surgery. After several months of not being able to concentrate long enough to read a book, I found myself reading something besides medical studies again. As Arline napped, I read comedian W. Kamau Bell’s book about his life, sent to Arline by Karen Maeda Allman, our friend who works at Elliott Bay Book Company. I think what happened was this: my attention narrowed to what needed to be done in this moment. I needed to wash the morning’s coffee mugs. To open a can of soup. To tighten the Velcro straps of her leg brace. Arline needed me to give her a daily injection of blood thinner. To record the times she took pain medications. To hand her the phone she’d left charging on the table.

My gaze dropped from the uncertain future — its terrifying fog — to this certain moment: a bowl of pears, sun setting on the library bookcase, a drawing of a bunny left by a granddaughter. With my focus tethered to this moment, just this one right here, I could read stories again and maybe tell them. To you. Because why? Because this is what I need to do.

I’m going to try to write blog posts again. They will be short. It feels as if, when I raise my eyes to the future, I risk turning to a pillar of salt. So I’ll keep my eyes down, low to the ground. Plots will be foreshortened. Ruminations kept to a minimum. This is how we live now that we know what we didn’t know before; life is short. It’s this moment right now. This one. And this.

 

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New Publication: “Signals”

I’m honored to be part of this online anthology: Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival. Editors Sarah Einstein and Sandra Lambert set out to push back “against the bigotry of all kinds that has reentered the public conversation, unrestrained.” Thanks to Alma García and Donna Miscolta for helping me shape my essay.

 

 

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Dignity and Dust

rocks

Cowen Park sculptures

In the park near our apartment, we often come across sculptures of carefully balanced rocks. Sometimes they are small and simple, a few rocks tall. Sometimes they are as tall as I am, boulders standing on end.

One day recently we happened upon the man as he was making them. He told us that at larger parks, he gathers crowds who watch him work. The sculptures never last long, he said; kids knock them down at night. But he comes back and makes new ones.

Stacking rocks, one on one, is not so different from stacking words, one on one to the end of a sentence. Words don’t get knocked down so fast, but they do get read quickly and, for the most part, are soon lost to memory.

I have no regrets for the many books I’ve read whose characters have faded forever; the reading in the moment was what mattered. But there’s something special about the words that stay. Three books written by friends that I read this year have stayed and stayed.

Book cover of Hola and Goodbye

Donna Miscolta’s book of linked stories, Hola and Goodbye, brought me into the backyards and kitchens of three generations of connected family and friends in a city near San Diego. The characters dream big, and too often fail to reach those dreams, but the dreaming keeps them alive for years. Lyla becomes, not a Broadway star, but a fortune teller. Julia wanders through Mexico, trying to find her roots. In small, significant moments and perfectly chosen details, Donna, a member of my writing group, gives her characters dignity. Whatever mistakes they’ve made, whatever circumstances have weighed too heavily, they keep trying.

Book cover of Coming Home from CampLonny Kaneko’s poetry collection, Coming Home from Camp, was recently reprinted with a number of newer poems. I will be forever grateful to Lonny for hiring and mentoring me at Highline College, but I’m just as grateful for his poems. They are timely reminders of life in the concentration camp in Idaho where Lonny and his family were incarcerated in the 1940s. Dignity makes an appearance here, as well: “At 70, my father stands between dignity and dust.” But camp has hollowed him out, made him “empty as an open hand.” Lonny responds with poetry: “Our words,” he writes, “work a web around us./They house our grief.” His poetry turns readers into witnesses.

Book cover of Relocating Authority

Although Lonny was too young to write when in camp, many adults around him were writing. My friend Mira Shimabukuro’s Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration unearths many ways that Japanese Americans fought against imprisonment — with words. They argued in diaries, documented in notebooks, and wrote poems, petitions, and manifestos. Mira finds inspiration in these documents; they remind us that we all can “find ways, earnestly and wisely, to rewrite-to-redress and rewrite ourselves.” The book is a stunning combination of theory, research, and personal revelation, inspiring in its own right.

While it may sometimes feel as if writing in hard times is fiddling while Rome burns, in fact it’s more necessary than ever. Our new president has excoriated the kinds of immigrants who populate Donna’s stories and promised a repeat of Lonny’s experiences. We must continue to build our sentences, word on word, because they keep us standing between dignity and dust.

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“Showing Up” Published in Federal Way Mirror

My college hosts a column in a local newspaper, the Federal Way Mirror, and I was asked to contribute. Of course, I was thinking about the recent election. It seemed a good time to think about how our perceptions of historical events change over time, and how our actions today might be perceived in the future. So I wrote “Showing Up.”

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Translation

oakland

Oakland from our Hotel Window

At a recent conference on literary translation, Arline and I sat in a beige hotel ballroom, listening to a panelist make painful, even nonsensical, generalizations about Panamanian literature. When the panel started taking questions, we escaped to the lobby and talked about whether it would be worth having a conversation with the woman, whose primary knowledge of the topic seemed to have come from one writer she was translating. Arline took a deep breath, returned to the room, and, after the session, gently asked the woman a question that might open a dialogue. But the woman retreated into defensiveness and said she had somewhere else to be. A later encounter was more disturbing; when we tried to explain what we had found problematic, she walked away.

This encounter was not what we had expected when we registered for the conference. We had wanted to think about ways to use translation in our classrooms. Arline, with her degree in Spanish literature, was considering translating some Panamanian writers. But as we talked that evening over quesadillas, we realized we had been naive. Of course, some of the translators would be white, U.S. Americans who, on the basis of a few projects, would present themselves as experts on whole national literatures. Of course, some of their generalizations would dovetail with old tropes about backwards banana republics, where no one reads and young writers don’t care about colonization because they want to “move forward.” These translators might even make strange slips like “Panama, of course, did not have to deal with Spanish colonization” when they probably meant to say that U.S. colonization loomed larger than Spanish in the recent past. They couldn’t know, of course, that a Panamanian might be sitting in the audience, cringing.

What was missing from the woman’s talk, Arline said to me, tilting back her beer on that warm Oakland evening, was an acknowledgement of how her position as a U.S.-born white woman reflected what she knew about the topic. Happily, Arline and I found many others at the conference engaged in nuanced self-reflection. At a session on “grassroots” translation called “Inheriting the Future: Cross-Pollinations of Race and Translation,” the panelists considered the complexities of identities and audiences — who are they and who are they translating for? – and talked about developing communities of readers, translators, and writers. Sawako Nakayasu, for example, talked about how her evolving identity as a transnational poet has affected her work. César Ramos, who publishes the journal, Raspa, described his efforts to nurture Spanish-English translations that can bridge U.S. and Latin American queer communities.

It was at this session that I began to envision a translation assignment for my students, many of whom are multilingual. What if they were to choose a text in their first language to translate? Teams of students could collaborate on revision, considering how their choices might affect different audiences. But how could I possibly find source texts in multiple languages? Arline suggested they do oral interviews with friends or family members. For heritage speakers with varying degrees of reading and writing skills in their heritage language, an oral interview would be more accessible. Great idea. But what would the monolingual English speakers be doing all this time?

I was still thinking about the conference when I returned to work. I shared with a colleague my question about what the monolingual students would be doing during the translation assignment. Avery pointed out that, because translation requires thinking about how much to explain about cultural references, the monolingual English speakers could “translate” their family stories, still in English, for different audiences. Arline had said something similar. I realized I needed to think more about how my own position, as a monolingual English speaker, not fluent in any of the languages I have studied, was influencing my framing of the assignment. What, in other words, was my own relationship to translation, as a writer and reader?

My first thought was this: I know that Arline courted me with a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. I can sometimes tell that a student is relying on Google translate for an English composition assignment. I know that “thank you” in Portuguese has both a masculine (obrigado) and feminine (obrigada) form because I looked it up in my guidebook this summer. That’s not much. I’ll have to think more about what I do and do not know. In the meantime, the conference made me want to read much more than I do in translation; I came home with a long list of books.

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A Notable Essay!

Recently, my essayist friends were posting on Facebook about the new Best American Essays, due out any day. A certain online retailer allows you to virtually page through books, and my friends were searching the back matter for their own names. Twenty-three essays are published in full, the “best” of 2015. But many more are listed in the back as “notable” essays. These essays are the runners up, the honorable mentions — and it’s quite an honor to be on the list.

A day of Facebook posts scrolled by before it occurred to me to look for my own name. I had to search a few times; the pages available for preview change with each refresh of the site. But then I found it, the page with the “Gs.” And my own name.

I am beyond thrilled that my essay “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” originally published in The Gettysburg Review and reprinted by Utne Reader, is a notable essay of 2015.

I spent much of the summer of 2013 writing that essay, which emerged after I listened to the cassette tapes of my therapy sessions when I was coming out over a quarter century ago. While I knew what I wanted to say in the essay, finding the best structure was a challenge. My writing group’s feedback made all the difference, and when it was finished, I knew it was one of the best — if not the best — pieces I’d ever written.

Among the notables are some of my biggest influences, writers like Bernard Cooper, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Rebecca Solnit, Ira Sukrungruang, and Ander Monson. It’s an honor to be in their company.

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