#MatteredToMe - February 27, 2021

Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Marissa Lingen's short story "So your grandmother is a starship now: a quick guide for the bewildered" starts off with a light tone and a fun premise, but gradually and inexorably shifts to something more. I thought it was wonderful.
  2. I was so happy to see a special episode of The Big Loop drop this week. "Memory of a Dress" is, like so many of the stories on The Big Loop, wistful and beautiful, with superb writing, voice acting, and production.

As always, this is just a portion of what’s mattered to me recently. I’ve been starting to feel some glimmers of hope recently, starting to feel like things might get better in the future. We’re not there yet, but maybe it won’t be too much longer. I hope so, and for you, too.

Thank you, and take care.

Breaking Down

Boy, Twitter is awful lately, isn’t it? And not just awful in the way that we’ve been used to and talking about for what feels like forever, but newly and especially awful. I know it’s not just me; in the past month or so I’ve had a number of conversations with Twitter friends who have had to take breaks because it’s gotten to be too much.

It’s not unexpected, of course, or it shouldn’t be. After nearly a year of isolation we’re all (or as close to all as to make little difference) feeling like Bilbo at the beginning of Fellowship, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Compounded tension and stress make everyone more brittle, more prone to fight or take out our distress on others. With vaccinations ramping up, case rates dropping significantly, and scientists starting to admit cautious optimism, it seems like some kind of normalcy is starting to become visible, even if it’s still months away. You might think that would be a boost to people’s spirits, and perhaps it is for some, but often the release of long-standing tension also comes with an emotional breakdown to one degree or another.

People talked about similar phenomena around the time of the inauguration last month (criminy, was it really just last month?), for example that long-standing anxiety doesn’t just go away, or that Twitter was likely to get more agitated as we reckoned with what we’d been through. I remember seeing one thread (which I can’t find again now) talking about how often it’s only after a trauma has passed that we feel safe enough to finally fall apart. And, of course, in many ways we are still being traumatized. We are still having climate disasters, children are still being imprisoned at the border, the President is still ordering drone strikes. It’s not nothing, though, that Trump is finally out of office.

I think it might be more than just a release of tension, though. I can’t help but think that the past four years have trained us to fight, even when we don’t need to. One of the most-shared things I’ve seen over that time has been the line from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel speech in which he says we must always pick a side. It’s a principle that has a lot of applicability right now—there is a lot of injustice in the world about which we must not be silent. But not every disagreement rises to the level of the torment, oppression, endangerment of human lives, and imperilment of human dignity that Wiesel was talking about, and something I know from experience (and from working with a therapist) is that having experienced abuse or trauma can leave us unable to distinguish between what is and isn’t actually dangerous—our bodies respond as though we are in mortal peril either way.

I’ve been thinking lately about Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment,” about his speaker who would “connive in civilized outrage” but also understands “the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.” I read this poem as Heaney processing what he saw and experienced during The Troubles, but perhaps also reckoning more broadly with human nature and the way that justice and revenge intertwine, how our motivations aren’t clean and separable, how a propensity for violence lives in all of us, no matter what we might think of our own ideals or sensitivities. I think perhaps something that has dismayed me lately is not just that we don’t admit that we’re looking more to inflict our suffering on others than to protect people or heal. Rather, what unsettles me is that some of us do admit it and call it virtue.

It isn’t for me to decide what is and isn’t virtuous, or to tell other people what to value or how to behave. And, truly, I want to give people a break. All of us have limited mental and emotional resources, and when those have been spent it’s hard, even impossible, to keep being gracious or compassionate towards others. Lately this mostly means spending less time on Twitter in general.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether social media is sustainable for me—being on it often makes me feel more anxious or depressed. On the other hand, spending time away from it makes me feel disconnected and lonely. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to find a way to stay engaged in a way that feels healthy, but I do know that right now it’s not feeling good to be there.

New KTCO: Kary Wayson

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with poet Kary Wayson. The poems Kary’s latest collection, The Slip, are wonderfully slippery in both form and feeling, in a way that demands attention and rewards deep engagement. In our conversation we discussed what a poem can do, how we approach “meaning” in poetry, and how life changes affect our art. Then in the second segment, we talked about time and our human perception of duration.

Here are some links where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page on the KTCO website.

You can purchase a copy of The Slip directly from the publisher, or from an independent bookstore like Open Books in Seattle, The Book Catapult in San Diego, or your own local bookstore.

#MatteredToMe - February 12, 2021

It’s Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. When my friend Paula Riff passed last week, I found myself turning to her website so I could see her work, which I'd loved so much. I found a whole new series I hadn't even known about, I think perhaps her best and most exciting work. I wish I could have seen where she would have gone next with her art.
  2. I have valued Yanyi’s newsletters for a while now for their generosity, and because although they are structured as writing advice they are really bigger than that. This latest one gets at aspects of Asian American identity that I've been thinking about and struggling with for a long time.
  3. Lyz Lenz’s recent CJR piece about Seth Abramson. "[How] dangerous it is to live in a world built entirely of your own words, with no vetting, no editing, blocking critics, until everything is a mirror shining you back at you."
  4. Finally, I'm sharing this LitHub piece by Wayne Miller about Poetry Discourse not so much because I agree with it entirely but because it's helping me clarify my own thoughts about social media.

As always, this is just a portion of what’s mattered to me recently. I'm thinking a lot about change right now, and how even healing changes can often be painful. I hope things are getting better for you.

Thank you, and take care.

KTCO: Remembering Paula Riff

My friend Paula Riff passed away recently, after having been ill with cancer for two years. Paula was a wonderful, kind, generous, and enthusiastic person, and a brilliant artist whose work pushed the boundaries of the photographic medium. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with her about that work for the show. In our conversation, Paula and I talked about what photography is to her, why she’s attracted to alternative processes, and how her work is ultimately autobiographical. Then for the second segment, we talked about the value of physical art spaces. In honor of her memory, I’m re-sharing our conversation today.

If you haven't experienced Paula's work before, I'd like to encourage you to do so. In order to see all of the subtle detail, texture, layering, it's really best to see it in person if you can. I'm not sure when or where it will be on walls in the future but if you get the chance, please take it. In the meantime, you can see it on her website at, including her newest series Cut, Paste, Breathe, Repeat, which she worked on right until the end.

Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:

You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript on the episode page at the KTCO website.

Thinking About Regret

All weekend and continuing this morning, my Facebook feed has been full of people mourning our friend Paula. Two things are consistent throughout: Paula was an amazing artist, and Paula was a kind, enthusiastic, wonderful person. I have often wondered what people will say about me when I go. If I could choose between people saying I was good at something—art or writing or my job—or saying that I was a kind person, I’d much rather the latter. So many of the people leaving comments on the mourning posts have been saying things like “Her work will live on.” And this is a comfort, to be sure. Paula cared deeply about art, her work deserves to be seen, and I want it to keep being seen. Still, though, I’d rather have her.

I can’t help thinking, too, what a shame it is that so often we don’t say these wonderful things about people while they’re still alive to hear it. I hope Paula knew how loved she was by everyone. I hope people told her what a bright light she was. A little over a year ago I spent an hour talking with her about her work for my show. I certainly complimented her work at the time, and have done many times. But I can’t remember if I ever told her how much it meant to me that she was so nice to me.

By now I have lost what feels like so many people I’ve cared about, and every time I have been struck with regret for what I didn’t say to them while I could. And this keeps happening, even though I keep telling myself not to let it happen again. Perhaps this is just how it goes. Perhaps there’s just no way to say it all. There isn’t time, especially for those of our friends and loved ones who we don’t see often. I mean, it is nice to imagine that kind of openness but there is always more to say, and eventually you’d want to talk about something other than just compliments. After all, it’s mostly those other conversations and interactions that form the foundation of the relationship. And I do think that there is something to be said for the idea that we can know a person’s love and regard through their actions toward us. That in many ways that may be a deeper intimacy. But still, it’s good to hear it out loud, too.

Every time I lose someone, I can’t help but think of every other person I’ve lost, and how though this list feels long already, I know it will only get longer. When I was a teenager I hoped to live a life without regret. I am sure now that if I get to live to an old age, I will have accumulated more regret than I will be able to count. And yet, in a way perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Regret comes from not doing that which you wished to have done. But the wishing comes from a happier place. I couldn’t regret the things I didn’t say to my loved ones if I hadn’t loved them in the first place. New love does not fill in the hole left by a loss, it doesn’t make us forget the pain. And perhaps every new love means a new future regret. But new love does grow us. If loss erases something from the canvas of our soul, new love gives us new space to paint anew.

I don’t know that a post like this needs to end with a call to action but if there is to be one it would just be what I always say: if there’s someone who matters to you, whether for their work or their personality or the way that are in your life, I hope you’ll tell them.

Scattered, vol. 6

  • It’s been a hard week.
  • We said goodbye to our dog, Cooper, on Monday. Today, I learned that my friend Paula died from cancer.
  • It is a strange thing about life that when you have a loss—or even a happy change: a birth, a new relationship, what have you—the world and even your own life just continues on. You still have to buy groceries and wash your clothes, your bills keep arriving and demanding to be paid, your neighbors keep having parties in the middle of a pandemic. It is both frustrating and comforting, by turns and all at once.
  • Weirdly, I haven’t been drinking much. In fact, the past year I’ve been drinking a lot less than usual, not because of any effort to cut down but just because I haven’t felt like it. I realized this afternoon that, whether I’m alone or with others, I usually only drink when I’m feeling happy or celebratory or peaceful.
  • A lot of my thoughts lately have been starting with “It is a strange thing” or “Weirdly” or “Oddly enough.”
  • Last night I had to wipe up a spill under our washing machine and I found some of Cooper’s hair under there. I asked J today how long she thought it would be before there was no trace left of him in our house. “It’s only been four days,” she said.
  • I have spent the past several hours scrolling through Facebook, reading the outpouring of grief and memories and praise for Paula. Paula was a brilliant, meticulous, intelligent, and groundbreaking artist. She was also one of the warmest, most enthusiastic, energetic, kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Everyone loved her.
  • I took a break from writing this letter to check the mail, and found a sympathy card from our veterinarian. This was very kind of them, but also I had already been crying off and on for most of the afternoon.
  • When you lose a loved one, the hole they leave in your life is bigger than their physical size. How does that work, exactly?
  • I’ve been to a lot of funerals, starting from when I was eight or nine, I can’t remember exactly when. Up until shortly before I turned 30, I’d been to more funerals than weddings. I don’t know when the next time I’ll go to either one will be.
  • Over the week, a lot of friends, family, and coworkers have contacted me with condolences about Cooper, sharing memories of him. I took him to work with me every day for many years, so he got to meet a lot of people. He was here to see each one of our kids come home for the first time. He was always very patient with them. Everyone loved him.
  • I told J the other day that having experienced loss before doesn’t make this time around less painful, but it is helpful to know the shape and patterns of my grief. It is useful at least not to be surprised by what I do or don’t feel, and when, and for how long.
  • Is it weird that I have spent so much of my life wondering what my own funeral will be like? Is it weird that I have been thinking about what I will say or write about my loved ones if I should outlive them? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s weird that everybody doesn’t think about these things.
  • It always feels strange and selfish to turn inward and think about myself when I lose someone. But if death is the end then they don’t know the difference. And if it’s not, I think they must understand. I hope so, anyway.
  • If you live long enough, you cannot help but lose people you’ve loved. The thing that is amazing is that as much as is taken from you with every loss, there is always more the next time.
  • No matter what you subtract from infinity, the remainder is infinite.
  • Is what we are subtracting, and subtracting from, love?
  • In fact, there are whole infinities that you can subtract from infinity, and still be left with infinity.
  • Oh, I don’t know.
  • It’s been a hard week. I hope next week is better.
  • For you, too.

#MatteredToMe - February 5, 2021

It’s Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently.

  1. Lyz Lenz's "I Am Worried We Will Forget" piece from her newsletter, as usual, captured what I've been thinking about lately. Especially this: "Our future is built upon how we perceive the past. And if we are so focused on forgetting the past pain, we'll just replicate it into the future over and over again."
  2. David Naimon’s recent conversation with Teju Cole on Between the Covers was one of the best interviews I've ever experienced in any medium. A profoundly human discussion of art and writing, what it means to see, what we keep ourselves from looking at, and how to be a person in this world.
  3. Jay Caspian Kang's recent NYT profile of Steven Yeun was one of the more interesting pieces I've read recently on Asian American-ness, the push and pull of identity, and contending with or against the white gaze.

As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I'm very tired right now, which is just to say that I will try to get some rest soon and I hope you do as well.

Thank you, and take care.