Coming Home


In response to Pablo Nerudo’s From the Book of Questions III, in which he asks, “Why do trees
conceal the splendor of their roots?”

I know why trees hide the splendor of their roots. They were born in dirt and shit and
sand. It was all they had to feed on.

I know why trees don’t walk until all are asleep. They hide their secret under asphalt sky
so you cannot see where they splinter and smell and learned to breathe.

I know why priests hold babies under water to wash away blood no baths can take. That
blood comes from the place our flesh was born.

So, I understand why I’m quiet and frail when the plane lands down in dust and sun. It
returning to the place I cannot hide from. I’m coming home.

Conversations With My 12-Year-Old Self


Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Dear 12 Year Old Me,

You don’t know it yet, but everything will turn out fine.

It’s an awkward phase for you right now but you’ll grow out of it. Those popular girls that you kind of hang around but aren’t truly in with … well, future you still won’t be friends with them but that’s ok because you’ll find friends that will accept you for who you are. No hard feelings.

I know you thought braces were cool because you could change the colors to match the holidays, but you’re going to grimace a bit when you see pictures of yourself. Especially when they’re red and green … that’s kind of a clashing color combination. It’s not going to match anything other than Christmas sweaters but those aren’t a thing yet.

You have a reputation for being smart, especially when it comes to math and science. Or rather, you’ve been told you have to be good at math and science, no matter what. But it’s English that you’re naturally blossoming in.

This is the year you decide you don’t want to become a doctor. When you tell your dad, he’s going to be disappointed. You won’t forget his reaction, even after he’s forgotten his own reaction. But you’ll settle on becoming something he’s ok with.

You’re going to get the award for the highest academic average in your class. Enjoy it while it lasts because this is the last year that school is going to be easy for you. You’ll continue to do fine academically because that’s what you do, but you’ll find out next year that you were just a big fish in a small pond.

You’re struggling with being Asian right now, but that too will change. It’s hard to be the only Chinese at school when you’re growing up and no one is valued for being different at this stage of life. You’ll learn to balance your “white side” and your “Asian side”, and you’ll also learn it’s ok for that balance to fluctuate at times.

You’re painstaking combing your English to remove all traces of an Asian accent that might have trickled through to you. You’ll change your pronunciation from AD-ult to a-DULT and from fi-NANCE to FI-nance to better fit in. When really, it’s not even a Chinese accent thing — it’s a British vs American pronunciation thing. Your parents grew up under the British and undoubtedly, the British accent is cooler than the American accent.

You hate sandwiches and you’re going to continue to hate sandwiches. But you’ll continue to bring sandwiches to school every day for lunch because that’s what the white kids are doing. The last time you brought a thermos of fried rice, you got curious looks that made you uncomfortable. And that time you brought sushi, you had to explain that it’s seaweed and survive all the “ew” comments. They’ll change and Asian food will become no different than Taco Tuesdays. Once you start working, you’ll never pack a sandwich for lunch ever again.

It’s ok that your parents hold you to stricter rules than the “white parents”. It’s not actually all for your own good, but you won’t be able to change it anyways till you move out and you won’t do that for another decade so hang in there. You’ll find time to catch up.

I know you can’t go to the mall like the other girls can because of said Asian parents and, consequentially, you don’t get to buy the matching bracelets or shirts or whatever was cool back then to fit in. To be honest, you wouldn’t fit in anyways even if you did match them. Also, malls are boring if you don’t have money and you do not have any money right now.

You live under a rock right now and you can blame your parents for that. They won’t let you watch “Friends” because there are too many sexual references and they won’t let you listen to popular music because the Spice Girls are too scandalous. Backstreet Boys … well, they were afraid you’d become a fangirl and they think crazy fans have no dignity. Honestly, it was probably just easier for them to issue a blanket ban than to sort through it all.

To be honest, you’re going to spend a fair bit of time trying to hide this gap in your pop knowledge, but you’re never going to catch up. And then you’re going to reach an age where you still live under a rock but you can’t blame your parents for it anymore. But it’s ok — who needs pop culture anyways?

Don’t pick the clarinet as your instrument in band class. Clarinets are not cool. Pick the tenor saxophone. I know your band teacher says you can switch to the tenor next year but you won’t have the next year with this band teacher, and you won’t actually learn to play the tenor sax for another 17 years.

You’re tinkering with jazz piano right now as a junior, wanna-be jazz band member, and you’re struggling. You aren’t going to get the jazz rhythm now and I don’t know if or when you ever will. Stick with classical. There’s no shame to being a classically trained pianist, although I know it gets lonely being a solo pianist all the time. But you’ll stumble across something for that in two years time.

Every week you go to your piano lessons. You’re currently working on the Pathetique Sonata. The boy who has lessons right before you is playing the Moonlight Sonata. You fall in love with the haunting melodies of this composition, but you don’t really remember the boy.

8 years from now, you’re going to bump into him at university, but neither of you are going to remember each other. It’ll take multiple chance encounters, a couple of musical sessions sizing up each other’s piano abilities, and a strong dose of luck before there’s a casual mention about growing up in a certain neighborhood down south. He’s the guy who played the Moonlight Sonata and you’re the girl who played the Pathetique Sonata. And it turns out he was just as interested in the Pathetique as you were in the Moonlight.

11 years from now you two are going to end up living in the same downtown high-rise building. You’re going to sneak into the building together before construction is finished for sneak-peeks into your units. He’ll send you updates about the building as construction is wrapping up. You’re going to text him anytime you’re out of ice for a party or need a neighbor to lend some sugar. But no, no romantic relationships here although it sounds like I’m writing a rom-com.

Back to 12-year-old you.

You’re going to compete in the Kiwanis Music Festival with Liebestraum by Liszt. You’re going to win first place and this composition will always have a special place in your heart because it’s going to be your last competition-level polished performance with Mrs. Malo. She was the perfect piano teacher for you and, for all that she lacked in technical ability, she made up with heart.

She’ll tell you that she’s never put as much heart and time and care into a student as she has with you. She’ll tell you that you’ve surpassed her technical abilities and that if you want to become a better pianist, you have to move on to another piano teacher. You won’t want to and your parents won’t force you, but this will be your last year with her.

Cherish your moments with her because, in the years to come, you won’t be able to find her again. Hang on to that Pathetique Sonata because you’re not done with it yet. Be sad for the farewell, but know that you’ll find yourself with another wonderful piano teacher who will take you much further without losing the heart that goes into your piano. You’re going to have fantastic piano opportunities in the upcoming years.

You love reading and you love libraries and you were so excited that your bus route included a transfer right next to the library. But then you got self-conscious about what the other kids would think. So you didn’t go into the library even though you stood waiting at the bus stop right outside the library five days a week.

You’ll still love reading and you’ll outgrow feeling any embarrassment about it. Those fantasy/sci-fi books you love are suddenly going to become really popular and you’ll roll your eyes at the bandwagoners. You’ll join far too many book clubs (some successful, some not successful), but you’ll continue to love reading.

If I have my timelines right, the Harry Potter trend is very seriously picking up right now and the movies are being released each November right around your birthday. Harry Potter is still cool. Neopets will be thought back on fondly, although you might want to remember that fake birthday you put down because you’re going to need it if you ever want to reset your password later … like a decade later. Animorphs … questionable on the cool-ness scale even back then, but you’ll bring up odd animal facts randomly and will continue to have a fondness for peregrine falcons.

I don’t know if you know this yet, but your parents are going to tell you that the family is moving to Texas at the end of the school year. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be very difficult. But it’s going to be for the better and you will cherish everything that Texas brings to your life.

With love, care, and empathy,

Your 29-year-old self


A small fiction

Photo by Hao Pan on Unsplash

The busy streets are filled with noise. Colors whizzing by mechanical and humanoid. Indistinct conversations and the smell of exhaust. Chance finds me here waiting for what I think is a bus. But chance has other plans this day.

To my left another bench now occupied by a creature so beautiful I dare not look completely for fear of going blind. Glimpses of mahogany shined hair and porcelain skin. Lips the color of cherries. Wrapped in cream.

The sound of the city drowning out my heartbeat but only barely. My hands feel hot even though it is quite cool today. And I try to sit in some sort of cool pose to match the weather and her coolly reflected beauty. I feel I am failing miserably.

Does one start conversations with strangers without a cell phone these days? What would I even say? Hello does not seem to convey the desire I have to hear her voice. Talking about the weather would be so contrived. What does one say to such a thing of beauty?

I imagine that I somehow found the words to begin a conversation and that she turns her body slightly towards me on the bench. Looking wholly on her exquisite face and then into her eyes. I imagine myself falling into them body and soul. I imagine asking her for coffee and that she agrees to go both of us abandoning the bus trip we were here to make.

Lost as I am in this dream I fail to notice that she has gone from the bench to where I know not. Nor is it likely in a city of many millions I will ever know. And my hands are cold.

Guarding The Fishes

By A. M. Stein

Photo by Gerard JJ Hopuu on Unsplash

“the thrum of the lake water, lapping, in hypnotic pulse, at the lakeshore”

I have had a lot of jobs conducive to writing. William Faulkner wrote his gorgeously lyrical novel, As I Lay Dying, in six weeks, while working the night shift, as a security guard, at a power plant. That is what I mean by “conducive to writing.”

I, too, once worked a security guard midnight shift (which, technically, started at 11:30 p.m.) Saturdays through Wednesdays, on a ferry boat dock in Burlington, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain.

I was “guarding the fishes,” as I thought it to myself, but in fact I had been hired to “keep my eyes open.”

“Can you do that?” my soon-to-be boss asked bluntly during my job interview. “Can you keep your eyes open? The last night guard could not do it. She might have had that sleeping disease, whatchamacallit, but if she did, she hadn’t informed us of that up front, so to us the sleeping on the job was pretty much as it seemed to be. Are you with me?”

“Narcolepsy?” I suggested, to show I had been following.

“Yes, that is what she was claiming afterward,” agreed my soon-to-be-boss, “when we found her asleep, among flotation devices, in a storage closet. So, you can understand how I might be interested in your answer to my seemingly over-simple question.”

One midnight shift, around 2 a.m., few months into my employment, a silent alarm must have gone off, because there was a pounding on the glass door of the dock’s modular office building where I was sitting at my work desk drawing in a notebook.

The noise startled me. I was made further insecure, when I went to investigate, by the sight of a serious-faced police officer shining the thick beam of a flashlight at me from the other side of the glass door and rapping it insistently on the glass.

Once I had let the officer inside, she examined my badge. “Are you on duty?” she asked, shining the flashlight directly into my face, scrutinizing my blemishes, as I supposed. 

My duties were minimal but I was on them, so I said, “Yes.”

I guessed she was asking why I wasn’t wearing some kind of identifying uniform. I had a good reason, but I didn’t volunteer it. The reason had to do with the money bags I transported from the ferry docks to a nearby commercial bank at the end of each shift.

Next, the officer investigated my work desk where my notebook lay open. I had been drawing a dragon flying over some sort of temple. The dragon was a dragon, but it was also a symbol I was trying to unpack. So, for that matter, was the temple.

Almost immediately, upon beginning my solitary night work on the ferry docks, I had begun having sweeping and specific visions of a monastic grounds near a meadow. Full of waterfalls and haiku insect life. Maintained by a cadre of beatific and begowned monks.

Maybe it was only the thrum of the lake water, lapping, in hypnotic pulse, at the lakeshore, but something had triggered my imagination. I caught brief sightings of unfamiliar (yet, somehow, familiar) persons and places. I frequently heard snatches of phrases and even, long, distinct conversations, riding in on the lake winds.

Part of this was, probably, just the entering, of poetry, into my subconscious.

Drawing from the A. M. Stein Archives

“You drew this?” the officer asked, of the drawing.

“Yes,” I acknowledged.

“Are you writing a kid’s book?” the officer asked.

I didn’t want to tell the officer I was working out a new, visionary poetic, so I agreed that, yes, I was.

“My kid identifies with Max from Where the Wild Things Are. You know that book? You remember Max? Sailed away from family and home and became king of the Wild Things? Let the wild rumpus begin. Max was the one who said that. My kid says it every day. Every single day she says it to someone.”

“Max became king of the Wild Things by taming them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once,” I offered.

“That’s right,” the officer agreed. She shined her flashlight beam, once more, around the office. “Might have been a squirrel,” she suggested. “They sometimes trip the alarms. God knows they have nothing better to do.”

Next, she radioed some code to a dispatcher who returned the favor with more code.

“You have a safe rest of your night,” the officer said, departing.

I locked the door behind her. 2:25 a.m.

I sat back down at my work desk.

The drawing meant something, there was no doubt about it. But what? It was crying out for my discernment.

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