Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

With Rainy Season Comes Baha

for survivors of Tropical Storm Ketsana 
September 2009

With the rains come baha. My uncle tells me the stories when Bituan, the house my grandmother lived in, would fill like an indoor pool, water rising and rising and the objects in the house -- the chairs, the side tables, the clocks and vases -- the icebox and toaster, the oven -- would float right out of the kitchen and into all the rooms, like guests at a party. My Lola Clara would sit, he said, on top of the piano in the sala and watch their things circle her. Outside the storm would pound the earth, crashing like a giant tidal wave upon the neighborhood. The roof resisted the rain, felt like it wanted to collapse, but refused.

When I spend my summers in Metro Manila, I watch from my window, the way the streets become rivers. The way the cars roll down the avenues, water splashing everywhere. Everything is dark and wet. I listen to the news as they announce landslides in Antipolo or brownouts in Quezon City.

When she was still living, my bedridden Lola Charing would be carried out the house in Macabebe and placed onto higher ground as the water rose high as a four drawer dresser just underneath the bedroom crucifix. I think about that now, how I'd visit her and see the watermarks on the walls. Baha is part of the rainy season and my Uncle Boy kept a little row boat tied to the front porch and it would rise as the rains fell. That was how he made it around Macabebe then, maneuvering that little boat down canals, through the grasses and to my grandparents' graves. Rainy season.

But this is different. Too many people are dying in this rain.

My nieces write me and say Tropical Storm Ketsana has consumed the first floors of our family homes -- the cars are underwater. They wade waist deep in a storm that has infiltrated all our private spaces. The appliances are floating once more. This time, the family climbs to the second floor and the water follows.  But not everyone is blessed with a second floor. Not everyone has the luxuary of drying their feet.

I saw the streets of Makati, a route I used to take down Ayala on my way to yoga, and the waters have filled all the subway entrances. The people, holding onto heavy ropes are pulling themselves down the street, their children on their backs. On their faces you can see they are resisting the tide. A wrong move and they could drift out into the city never to be found, swallowed by the river that was once Ayala Avenue.

Pray that the rains stop. Pray that the sun comes out. Pray that everything dries and that illness does not breed in that damp nation that is the seven thousand islands now drowning in that sea.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Offering to the Soul Consoling Tower

for Trayvon Martin
The Soul Consoling Tower was built by internees at Manzanar.  It stands tall and white against the desert sky, face to face with the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Quiet place.  Six internees still buried there while others were taken out of the ground and brought home after the concentration camps of America shut down.  Here, Japanese Americans learned to make the best of a horrific situation.  Here, they built rock gardens and flowerbeds, they harvested vegetables from fields they had sown, they sang to one another, hit home runs on makeshift baseball diamonds, dug swimming holes and loved one another.  Here, babies were born in barracks made of wood and tarpaper.  Here, people ate in mess halls.  Stood in lines that stretched around the block in rain, in dust storm, in hot desert sun.  Bathed in open showers like cattle, relieved themselves in front of family and friends.

Here the unimaginable.  Americans incarcerating Americans for the color of their skin, for their ancestry, for the off chance espionage that only fear can conjure up.  Who would do such a thing?

My sweetheart, a Southern White Man from the mountains of Virginia is a good man who believes in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.  He stands next to me at the Soul Consoling Tower and he comes undone.  This pilgrimage to Tulelake, then Minidoka, now Manzanar opens his heart wide and he is seeing the unimaginable that is our American history. 

On the tower, people have placed offerings.  Stones from the earth.  Coins from their pockets.  Peace birds fashioned out of paper.  At the pillar, we say our own prayers.  We gaze at graves marked by stones.  I choose a pebble from the ground and place it on the white altar. 

He puts a quarter on the ledge.  Stands there.  And then looking beyond the tower, beyond the barbed-wire-fence he sees the mountain standing blue and hard and tall.  This he knows.  He goes out into the field.  So small against that mountain.  So quiet. 

Later he will tell me about a circle of stones.  A flock of paper birds.  A secret buried beyond the fence. 

Who would do such things?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Jetta the Mountain

for our angels

 The weekend after teaching intense workshops at Voice of Our Nation Arts Foundation, my friend Elmaz treated us to the spa at Calistoga, California. At the end of the treatment, she put her hand on my shoulder and asked me, “How was it?”

"It was like having angels," I told her.

The following day we loaded up the VW Jetta and began our pilgrimage to three of the ten U.S. Internment Camps: Tulelake, Minidoka, and Manzanar. 

On the road to Manzanar, we traveled through the mountains of Nevada.  Were awed by the sight of red rock formations, by the miles of lone passageways, by the skies big and wide as the universe.  At half a tank of gas, he turned to me and said, “Let’s start looking for filling stations.”  We looked as we took pictures of the landscape.  Said things like, “It’s like being on another planet.”  We listened to an inspirational talk on trust.  We sang songs of gratitude for the beautiful, treeless mountains.

The sun began to set.  The sky grew bright with color.  We oohed and ahhed.  We drove by towns where pumps were closed.  We continued oohing and ahhing.  We did not talk about the talk on trust.An antelope leapt into the road all copper and dreamy under the setting sun.  We swerved out of the way.  Freaked that little thing out.  She jumped back fast.

Then the sky went midnight blue.  The stars did not come out.  The rock formations fell asleep around us too.  Their magnificence was lost in all that night.  The needle on the gas tank went down.  Twenty miles, then ten, then five.

When we talked to 911, the lady said, “Sorry but we can’t help you until you’re stopped.” He slowed down to thirty-five miles an hour.  Shifted the car into neutral, coasted.Under my breath, I sang a song to God.  I considered faith and trust.  Made a choice. He went silent, said, “Watch the road markers, Sugar.” The cell coverage went dead.

By the time we were forty miles from Benton, our gas tank had been empty for five miles. We made a choice to go forward any way.  Crawled the hills like snails. Got so high up the ride down shot the Jetta back up the next mountain.  At the crest of one peak he said, “7,125?  That’s 2000 feet higher than Denver.

I whispered, “Thank you, God.”  And then the car flew down the mountain at 85 miles an hour.  He hit the breaks to manage the curves.  We drove 45 miles on that empty gas tank—me singing all the way, he silent and holding my hand.  The Jetta hungry.

At Benton, we rolled into a sleepy town where everyone had gone to bed, save a building next to the gas station.

“The lights are on,” I said.  “Ask them to open up the pumps.”

But he rolled the car next to the newfangled gas pumps.  

“Give me your card,” he said.

We slipped the card into the pump.  We held our breath.  And when the lights went on we filled the tank and danced.  The angels still with us.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gumamela Pula

for Lola Nikolasa, my father’s mother

Every day she offers me a red hibiscus. Each one perfect and set in the palm of her thick brown hand.  Every day I accept the blossom and place it on my altar.


     Since the dream, I have planted four red hibiscus plants in front of my yellow casita. And I wonder why she has given them to me.  I step out the front door each morning to see which blossom has opened up.  One red hibiscus a day.  They take turns.  The bloom pops red against the dark soil, holds its face up to the rain, drinks.  Shines when the sun is out.  Lasts one day long.  At night, she draws her petals in, folds upon herself, dies.  But the next morning, there is always another blossom.

     I’m still learning about this hearty red flower that insists on opening up every single day, no matter the consequences, no matter the fate. I am figuring out how to enjoy that blossom, even if its only for a day. I am practicing how to let go. To understand that no matter what, my lola is standing by, with another hot flower in her fat hands.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Beauty Girls

for V and M in Idaho

In beauty school V and M learned how to wet-curl old ladies’ hair, how to blow dry and flatiron and dye wigs, how to pluck brows, exfoliate skin, how to clip cuticles, shape fingernails, and paint intricate designs on them.  They became best friends.  And when V’s brother saw M on V’s facebook page he said, “Who is that?”  Now they are sisters-in-law too.  Family.  So when they graduated, they came back to this little town in Idaho, a town where most people worked in sugar beet, potato and cheese factories—or in beauty salons, there are tons here— and they went parlor-hopping until they came upon the little gray house in the middle of town.  “Let’s work here,” they said. 
     And so they set up shop. 
      I had been traveling all through the northwest and my fingernails were in sad shape.  It’s hard for a city girl to be without.  I thought I’d stop in for an hour and then head back to the camps where I was researching the lives of Japanese Americans interned during WWII.
     I should have known when V skipped soaking my feet in water.  “Give me your foot,” she said. I lifted my leg and put my right foot in her lap.  She began to take the polish off.
     The second sign should have been when she buffed my nails and started placing polish on it before wiping the dust from the nail beds (forget the washing your hands part), but I was out west and it was not my culture, so I was going with it.
      Little bumps began to form. “It’s clumping,” I said. 
      V pulled my finger forward.  M flashed her cell phone light on it; examined it.  They sanded down the fingernail and started over.  They did that to three or for nails.
      All afternoon they talked to me, simultaneously working on my hands and feet, conferring with each other, giggling all the while.  I felt a little like an experiment.
      I might have been walking through another historic concentration camp, but today I was at the parlor.  And the beauty girls charmed me with their banter, with their earnest attempt to give me the perfect mani-pedi. In that short time, I came to love each one of them and I tipped them probably more than I should have.  And I walked away with fingers and toes that looked worst than when I came in.    

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our Visit to Minidoka Camp

in honor of Teruko Nakauchi

Mindoka National Historic Site
On our way to the Minidoka National Historic Site, we drove through flat green fields with irrigation systems. Five in the afternoon and the sun was high and golden. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Alone.
     I plugged the iPhone into the car.  That Deva Premal song flashed on the dashboard while on the iPhone the words “Corrine Baily Rae" appeared, but what we heard was 1940's big band. We exchanged a look.
     “What is that?” you asked me.
     “I have no idea,” I said.  
     But we knew from Louis Armstrong's horn and Ella Fitzgerald's song, we were going back in time. We were starting with this stretch of earth and then the music.
      We drove onto Hunt Road and parked next to the gates where "guests" would have entered and we could see what was left of the guardhouse.  Nothing but a ruin of red bricks and the remains of a hearth.  I have no idea what they must have felt, being bussed in like that, looking over the open fields. Remember when the towers fell on 9/11? How we didn't know what next? But you and I were free, living half the country a part, unaware of one another.   Still, we shared that uncertainty back then.  The towers had been hit and there was that traumatic unknowing. Imagine you and me on a bus to Minidoka, arriving here, seeing this barren stretch of dessert. Imagine not knowing.
     We listened to the whistle of quiet wind.  We marveled at the open spaces where barracks once stood.  Then you stepped off the path and sat by the barbed-wire fence, looking out onto the canal.  I watched you from the place where barracks once stood. You know how you and I get when either one of us is in a mood? When we are feeling the burden of our days? That heavy tension that sits between us, that fire that's ready to spark a stupid fight? How you like to go off in a huff to think it through? What if you were sitting by the barbed-wire fence all that time ago, a Japanese American who loved baseball and newspapers and falling in love and fighting with your girl and suddenly you were there, looking through the fence, at each little wire and how it was keeping you and me from being what we wanted to be?

     We walked around the camp, holding hands, from post to post, reading the stories of swimming holes, and root cellars, and hospitals and recreation halls, and in my head that big band music playing. What if we were here then, would we still love each other or would we fight and fall apart, the pressure being too much?
      Last night, I closed my eyes, so tired from the day and what I saw was the land. What I saw were trees and the sun low to the earth.  I am glad we took a moment to sit quietly and pray, to think about David's mother. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Show me the Way to Go Home

for the No-No Boy at Tulelake Camp
There are notes like this written on the walls of Tulelake Segregation Camp where 29,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were held captive during WWI
"Show me the way to go home."  What is home, where is home, why can't I feel like I'm at home? I am thinking about the man who etched this on the wall of the prison camp at Tulelake, of the man who thought that he WAS home and was suddenly yanked right out of it and forced to choose, to pledge allegiance without freedom, to disregard his ancestry, to question everything he's ever known.

All during our drive through the mountains on yesterday's fourth of July, I thought of this man. Home of the brave. Ironic, I think. And so recent in time. When the "relocation center" turned into a "segregation camp."  Evacuees were made to build the jail.  A prison they created for their own selves. A prison of finest materials. A prison to call home.

Some of the Filipina "Comfort Women"  told me that during the war the Japanese would make the Filipino prisoners dig ditches. All lined up in a row they'd dig deep into the Philippine earth and when the ditch was wide enough, dark enough, long enough, the soldiers would raise their guns and shoot. And the ditch diggers would fall into the graves they had made.