Set Sail, My Son

My dreams and I have become one and the same: withered and old. You must do what I could not. It is now your turn. Set sail, my son.

We All Have Our Vices

I’ve done my best to mend the bonds that I’ve let wither through neglect and my own general indifference. Bonds that I once considered safe harbor from the maelstroms that came in the wake of tragedy. Bonds with those that allowed me to emotionally anchor myself to them when the seas got the roughest. Every act, every word marked with the sole intention of acknowledging my thanks, my gratitude, for the provided shelter from the storm. These acts to reconnect were immensely powerful, immensely healing. But, despite what I tried, what I did, something always felt like it was missing. And, after some time, it started to make sense. As much as I wanted to reconnect with the people around me, rebuild the bridges I may have burnt, there were just some things that I could not do. No matter what, you can’t reconnect with a dead man. But, I’ve been known to be stubborn. And, the idea of impossibility has always been more of an invitation towards conquest than a warning of failure.

The journey to find a sense of reconnection started almost two years ago. It could have, and probably should have, started years before that. But, over the past few years, I’ve mastered the art of preoccupation, working tirelessly to put off the agonizing exercise of working through my shit. My belief in this art led me down roads that I would have never ventured without my desire to procrastinate, my desire to postpone the process of healing. Tours. Kitchens. Bars. All of these with some of my closest friends. These experiences remain the few fringe benefits of my emotional irresponsibility.

So, here I was, with the taste of loss still as fresh as ever, about to journey to the land of my father. I set off to explore his childhood home, seeking to see his sights, walk his steps, and, somehow, experience his previous life. I walked through his old neighborhood, visited his old haunts, and even heard stories of those with whom he lived his life. It was my first experience with such a pure form of reconnection, and I loved it. I should have known better though. The first taste has only led me down the road of chasing an ephemeral joy.

When I returned back to the States, I attempted to revert back to my old ways. But, that first taste of reconnection awakened my true self. But, preoccupation has a way of burying our inherent nature. And, the latest season of toil did its best to hide the fiend that I was. I had an insatiable yen for reconnection. My addiction lay dormant, waiting for the perfect time to rear its head. I could keep busy all I wanted, but there was no way I could escape it. It would always be there, waiting to pounce at the first opportunity.

I tried as hard as I could to postpone the inevitable, but preoccupation can only take you so far. I eventually found myself staring directly at a future without work, a future with nothing fettering me to anything, nothing to keep me preoccupied. My buried nature did everything it could to tempt me into tasting reconnection once again, and there was no way I could resist. I broke and binged on what I so desperately tried to avoid.

I packed my bags and decided to drive across the country, hoping to reconnect with my former safe harbors. The company and conversations changed, as did my settings. The supply of constants was scarce, but the demand for them was even scarcer. I had all I needed already. I had the open road and one of the last, remaining possessions of my late father.

A 2002, champagne colored Volvo S60 with 200,000 miles on it. Torn upholstery. Peeling paint. It seems to be composed more of flaws than anything else. It is all I have left, and it is broken, just like me. It has seen its share of challenges and weathered through them, just like what I can one day hope to do. All of its strengths, its weaknesses, they are there in plain sight. Yet, it perseveres. I love it, and I don’t ever plan on getting rid of it.

I was never really one for sentimentality. But, that first taste of reconnection in Hong Kong altered my state. I now cling to tokens of previous times, hoping that they can remind me of more halcyon days. The days before my emotional apocalypse. And, though these types of sentimental tokens are often carried, mine carried me. It sheltered me. Protected me. But, most importantly, it helped carry the spirit of my father to wherever I was headed next. I had no idea that an old Volvo was capable of such things.

Driving was how I was going to reconnect. Every road. Every city. Every single new experience. I was going to experience them with my father. Places we once talked about seeing together. Culinary adventures that would have triggered our shared trait of gluttony. Everything I did was met with a bittersweet cocktail of the sweetness of reconnection and the sourness of loss. But, if my ventures into the food world have taught me anything, it’s that things can only reach levels of greatness when they’re balanced with a dash of the acidic.

Before I set off on this emotional pilgrimage, Nashville firmly landed atop my list of places to visit. Though, it sounds strange for this Chinese-American Angeleno, my American roots first began to sprout in Music City. Of all the places in America, my father, along with 3 of his friends, decided that Tennessee would be their gateway to their American Dream. Here, they lived their lives together. Worked together. Bonded and grew together. They cultivated a wealth of stories together. Stories that I would never be able to hear firsthand. And, as I spent my time there, cultivating my own stories with my own friends in that city, I could not escape the parallels that I was seeing in both my life and my father’s. This city revealed itself to be the perfect supplier for my vice of choice: reconnection.

Though my emotional bender stood as the main reason for my travels, scouting a new city to call home stood as a secondary objective. I lived my entire life up to this point in Southern California, and the idea of a change of scenery slowly crept into and burrowed itself within me. No matter what other cities I went through, Nashville was always on my mind.

All of this has led me to this point. Led me to this city. Other cities piqued my interest. Portland, Austin, and Charleston, they all fought valiantly to be my next home. But, Nashville provided something no other city could: the purest form of reconnection. My inherent nature could not resist.

A Few Words for a Man of Few Words

I was asked by my mom to share some words about my grandfather. This is what I had to say.

I’ve recently been fascinated with the idea and the power of the human choice. There is much to be said about a man and the choices that he makes in his life. Anyone can just make a decision. But, it takes a special kind of person to honor one’s decision: to stick fervently them, to remain dutiful to them for a lifetime.

I honestly believe that my grandfather was that type of special person. Though he was a stoic man, using his words sparingly, his actions and the decisions he made spoke louder than any voice could. He did right by his family. He did what needed to be done, whether it was working in a transportation depot in China or at a restaurant in Chinatown. Or, even if it was just picking up lunch on a Sunday morning. He did all of that without complaint. Without the need for praise or accolade. He did it because it was the best for his family.

The choices that he made, they were what made him great. They were what enabled all of us here to be a family. Enabled us to share not only blood, but to share memories. To share stories. All with each other. That is what he fought for everyday. That is what every decision, every choice he made was for. It was for us.

That’s how he lived his life. And, there is honor in that. There is beauty in that. There is greatness in that.

The Hallowed Road

San Diego has betrayed me.

I caught myself thinking this more and more. Our relationship had already decayed quietly to the point of nonexistence. It was only fitting to leave it so unceremoniously. I loved it, but it made a cuckold of me. It loved others more than me. It never truly wanted me; it needed me. Maybe I needed it too. But, after it got all it could from me, the city left me.

I was spurned, left with no purpose, no direction, and while at my weakest point, the open road called to me. I thought that maybe distance and time, the healers of so many wounds, would help with the reconciliation. Perhaps I’d be smitten by another and move on. The road’s call grew stronger, more pronounced, and I was helpless to resist it. So, I did what I always do. I left.

I gathered what little belongings I had, packed up my car, and left with as little fanfare as possible, making my goodbyes just long enough to say that they existed but brief enough to where they could be considered inconsequential. I deflected any questions about my return, choosing only to respond with a vague statement about coming back when I was a good enough man to do so. Friends knew the absurdity of the statement and laughed it off as yet another joke. As did I. But, the humor for me was never in the overly dramatic requirements of my return; it was in the fact that I never planned on returning.

There were no concretes going forward from here. No itinerary. No final destination. Just a list of cities I’ve always wanted to see. A list of people I regarded as friends. And, all the time in the world. This venture into the unknown excited me, and I had forgotten what it felt like to be excited about something, about anything.

I headed north to Los Angeles, to another city that I abandoned. And, soon enough, my renewed thirst for excitement met its first bout with the harshness of reality. My homecoming, though joyous in many respects, served to remind me of the reasons I left in the first place. This place was no longer my home. It now stood as a monument to death. The death of my family, of my home, and of my faith in the church of the emotional connection. It only fit that my travels were to begin here.

As I ventured further north along the Pacific coast and deeper into unfamiliar territory, the idyllic vision of my existential road trip continued to lose its shiny veneer. Here I was alone in my car. Nothing ahead on the road. Nothing beside to accompany me. The sheer amount of nothingness around me served only to underscore the debilitating nothingness within me. When this journey first sprouted in my mind, some part of me must have known that this day would come. A last, desperate attempt by my subconscious to save me from myself, to force me to stop running. My time had come.

There was no work to get lost in. No distractions. No more valid excuses. The open road left no other choice but to confront the reasons why I had grown to be so dead on the inside. So afraid to commit to a city. So willing to leave. I had to face my demons.

My dad’s death fucked me up. I finally admitted that to myself; years of practice had made me adept at denial. Seeing the life escape his body, leaving him a sallow husk of the man he once was, left me ruined. That image forever branded into my mind. Everything, absolutely everything, reminded me of that lone image of my lifeless father.

I desired nothing more than for it to stop, welcoming any refuge from the onslaught. Sleep grew to be my sanctuary. The safe harbor where I could escape the maelstrom in my mind. Soon enough, that too would be defiled. Dreams crept in and refused to leave. Dreams of my father still being alive. For a brief moment, my mind believed that the life that had escaped him had somehow returned. Immense joy, immense emotion, welled inside of me. In that moment, my father lived. Once I saw my father, once my joy had reached its peak, I would awake. From joy to sorrow in an instant. To go from such zeniths to such nadirs, night in and night out, left me emotionally ravaged. Left me broken. Left me a husk myself.

I never wished to cause such trauma to the ones that made the mistake of loving me. That burden weighed too much. I refused to wield such power over others. In my mind, no other choice could be made. I had to do it. I had to renounce my faith in the church of the emotional connection. I could bear being alone, being miserable. That cross would be easy to carry. If all it took to save others from such pain was to fall on the swords of loneliness and misery, the decision was easy. Martyrdom always did fascinate me.

I just wanted to wallow in my sorrow, and I did exactly that for so long. But, the road had other ideas. The hundreds of miles between cities left me more time than I ever wanted to think. To heal. To actually slay my demons. The travels that started as a cowardly escape slowly evolved into a holy pilgrimage.

The Central Coast, the Northwest, the Mountains, the Plains, the Lowcountry. These were the parishes, gradually revealing their sanctity the longer I stayed within their borders. The familiar faces that housed me, fed me, they were the prophets, proselytizing their faith in the church of the emotional connection. I saw the beauty in it. My doubt faded. I believed again. My cold heart began to thaw.

The pilgrimage continued for months. Every new city, a holy church. Each one now hallowed ground. Every new conversation, a blessed sacrament. Each one now sacred to me. And, as I returned to San Diego, I no longer saw it as a traitor. The city had grown to be sacred too.

In my mind, it was always the cities in which I lived that betrayed me, the city, along with the community created within its borders, rejecting its newest transplant. But, I’ve come to realize that it was never the cities that turned their backs on me. They have done all that they could to keep me; they battled. But, the battle was never fair in the first place.

I never wanted to stay. I wanted to wallow. I was the traitor. It was so much simpler to leave than face my demons, so much simpler to be miserable. But, friends have a way of getting in the way of my misery.

The Death of Home

The home I once knew died the moment my father did. I am certain of that now. That unnamed feeling of being home, that strange combination of comfort, nostalgia, and security, has long vanished, leaving it a husk of its former self, the vacant shell of the home I once knew.

I knew that fallout from tragedy was inevitable; I feel that we all know this fact. But, the power it wielded, the power it had to dissolve the most cherished of ideas, can never be known unless experienced. The abstract ideas floating in the ether of my mind, of all of our minds, could never prepare for the cruel realities of living. A single death led to the death of so much more: the death of ideas, of dreams. It led to the death of my home.

Being home again solidified this idea, this idea that my old concept of home is as dead as my father. There now only exists an uneasiness while there, as if the house itself was clinging to its old existence. It tries valiantly to act as if it is still whole, but the irreparable damage has been done. It is no longer home to me, only a sad reminder of the joys that I once had within its walls.

The dead, however, still have their uses, and my time spent within the walls of my old home reinforced the ideas I had that inspired this journey. Home is still out there in some form that is foreign to me, and I will find it. And, I have death to thank for that. Death, despite the depths of its sorrows, birthed an insatiable thirst for life: the life that comes from searching for a home.

Pleasant Conversation

He spent most of his weekends there. The combination of the quiet neighborhood and the ever rotating number of silent companions sated his desire to be calm but not alone. He liked it here: the open patio, the breeze flowing through the trees, and the house roasted beans. It was easy for him to just sip his cold brewed coffee in silence, rationalizing to himself that he was okay. That was his favorite part: the rationalizing.

Most of the time, he just sat, wrote, and waved amicably at the strangers who acknowledged his presence. But, she…she was different. He saw her there regularly. They exchanged glances, even the occasional coy smile, but not once did they speak to each other. That was it. That was the extent of their relationship: an awkward dance of sheepish niceties. A glance here. A smile there.

Eventually, she broke the silence.

I see you here all the time. Figured I should at least get to know a bit about you.

She immediately shook her head in a subtle, nervous fashion, questioning to herself why she had said something so tired, so trite.

Well, my name’s Clark. And, I must really apologize to you for not introducing myself to you earlier. I tend to keep to myself.

His response was warm and kind, inviting almost.

She sat herself down in the open chair at his table.

I’m Emilia. It’s nice to finally be able to put a name to the face.

They both smiled and sat in each others company for a few moments, and it was in that moment, that very moment, that their relationship was perfect.

I’m going to be honest with you, Emilia.

The interest could be read on her face.

What we have now is perfect. It will only be downhill from here, and there’s only one way that this is going to end.

Her face changed to one of a confused intrigue. She had no idea where he was headed in the conversation, but she knew that she wanted to hear it.

I am only going to hurt you. Whatever this was going to be - friendship, something more - it will only end in the tragedy of you seeing me in a hospital bed. Tubes everywhere. The plug will be pulled, and you will see my body convulse as if the life within me is fighting desperately for its survival, for its last chance.

She could only sit there as tears slowly welled up in her eyes. She could see the pain in him, and it was a pain that she knew all too well.

My body will rise from the bed, giving you that small hope, one last sliver of hope, that I will be okay. But, that hope will be ripped from you in seconds as my body falls lifelessly back into the bed. The color will leave my motionless, broken body, and you will know that with the loss of color comes the loss of life. You will be in pain, more pain than you ever deserve. And, I cannot, with all of my heart, put that burden upon you, upon anyone. I do not want to hurt you like that.

She didn’t know what to say. Who would? And, after a moment, she got up and left.

They saw each other a week later. They shared glances, coy smiles. They both saw the pain in each other, and they both understood.

They never spoke again.

Down in the Valley

Though my childhood knows nothing of this place, this valley has become my home. I have roamed these trails long enough to know both of its beauties and of its dangers.  If you ever find yourself in these parts, I will gladly guide you, help you through its perils. But, I do not wish you to be here. I do not wish this place upon anyone, for this valley is carved by a river of sorrow.

Still, too many find themselves here. Some choose to travel here, while others are forced to these parts. Despite their origins, they all carry a burden, some larger than others. But, their effects remain the same. They all stagger. They all fall. They have yet to grow accustom to the weight that bears on them. But, I know these burdens well; I have carried them for as long as I can remember. If you find yourself here, I can shoulder your load. If you take my hand, I can help you find the path out of this place, up towards the mountaintops. But, this is where we must part. This valley is my home; I cannot leave it. This valley. This burden. They are all I have; they are all I know.

Perhaps one day, the mountains will beckon, call me by name. They will invite me to settle on their summits, to partake of the joy that they provide. But, today is not that day. I have grown too accustom to this place, to this valley, and to this river. The familiarity is too hard to abandon. There is safety in the nadir, comfort in the fact that one cannot plummet any deeper, plunge any further into the darkness. For now, this valley is my haven, my shelter. The river of sorrow continues to shape this valley, to shape me. And, the longer I stay here, the more apparent it becomes. The river no longer runs through just the valley, it runs through me.

Stamps

There was once a time when I believed that the saddest associations, the saddest bonds, were the ones that were held together solely by the adhesive of postage stamps.  They were nothing more than futile attempts to postpone the inevitable fate of all things good and beautiful: their end.  Every parcel, every exchange could only serve as a painful reminder of what once was, what is now dying, what will soon die.

But, I see that there is beauty in it.  I wish I knew how this came to be.  But, the idea that an association can be mended back together through the mere adhesive of stamps now brings me hope, for every stamp serves as a beacon, revealing the past shared moments of beauty, of love, and of comfort. 

There was once a time when I was capable of such things.  It’s getting harder and harder to remember what I once was able to do.  Sometimes, I need a little reminder.

*I’m basically saying that I want your addresses so that I can write you.

Old Haunts

As I boarded, I still had no idea what I would experience.  The abstract idea of seeing what he saw, of smelling, hearing, and living what he lived, floated in my mind.  But, one of my many weaknesses is merely having ideas; ideas that have done nothing more than exist in the abstract ether of my mind.

I’ve been to his city before. Still, both my legs and my heart wavered when I took that first step onto my father’s land, as if I were learning to both walk and love again.  In a way, I was. 

In seeking out his old haunts - his old neighborhood, the family store front, the school where he once taught - they brought to life a past that I never knew existed; they brought him back, if only for a moment.  I grasp for anything that can remind me of him now.  Time has a way of making you do that.  And, while the stories that arose added to the legend of my father in my mind, they filled me with regret, for I will never be able to hear them from him firsthand.  That is a pain that I will have to learn to live with.

Many have wished that my travels would be a time of healing.  And, to a certain extent, it has been (it has also been a time of gluttony, but I’ll save that for another time).  But, I feel that there are some wounds that do not heal, wounds that haunt.  And, that this too is a pain that I will have to learn to live with.

Ghosts

High above the buildings, above even the clouds, the ghosts of the ancestors lay. The world up here is vastly different, almost alien to what lies below.  Nestled in the quiet of the mountains, they call out and give their thoughts and advice, but none hear.  They lay there trapped, able to do nothing more than watch their progeny from afar. 

I wonder their thoughts, their opinions on what has become of their home.  Do they watch in horror or in awe as their childhood homes are transformed?  Are they filled with pride over how far they have come?  The slums and squatter houses have disappeared, and the reservoirs ensure that no rationing will occur again.  That must mean something to them.  Or, are they filled with loathing?  An ever developing culture of consumerism and materialism spreads throughout the citizens.  That must mean even more.

It must be torturous to watch your creation change before you.  All they can do is hope that their time on Earth, their teachings, have had an effect, have meant something.  That their words can still be heard.  It’s a shame though.  The ancestors have already forgotten their first lesson to their children: never believe in ghosts.

Life After Death

I remind her of him.  I must.  I can see it in her eyes: a tinge of sadness mixed with a sliver of hope. 

I was like him in so many ways, ways that have only made themselves known now that he’s gone.  Hong Kong to Murfreesboro.  Los Angeles to San Diego.  Both represent a longing to escape the crowds.  The restaurant work.  The bar tending.  The near constant feeling that we, as Chinese people, will never truly belong here in the States.  Those experiences, those sentiments we had are different, but they are the same.

She can see our lives running parallel, and it only reminds her that she’s lost him.  That we lost him.  But, he is still here.  His spirit is still alive.  It must be.  For, it is in me.