Category Archives: purpose

poems, lately

A confession: I’ve been a lazy, distracted writer. I had plans to work on my nonfiction prose manuscript this summer, but it’s painful and annoying to think about, so I haven’t. I also have a poetry erasure project, but it’s just sitting there.

Instead, I’ve been traveling all over Kyrgyzstan, meeting incredible people and musicians–Tengri, experimental, ethnic folk/rock artist gulzada, Siberian (Yakutia and Shorian) singers and khomus players. In other words, thoroughly entrenched in play mode.

On the “work” side, I’ve been reading novels and building curriculum for the upcoming school year, determining ways to market products for Matumaini Centre which helps Tanzanians reintegrate into society through sustainable living, signing up to help Gender Equality Health Organization (GEHO-Uganda) to help advocate against the “Kill the Gays” Bill and support LGBT individuals in East Africa.

This week, I’m starting online courses on teaching and webwriting, and continuing not giving a damn about my craft.

In the meantime, some poems got accepted from my first and second manuscripts:

claims at the edge:

“in denial” (T/OUR, 2013)

“bathroom scribble at blackthorn pizza” (T/OUR, 2013)

“for when we don’t know” (T/OUR, 2013)

“anatomy of an end” (T/OUR, 2013)

/diffuse/:

“any creature that cannot rid of want or song, perhaps” (Sukoon, 2013)

“more inequity than the world itself or its counterparts” (Sukoon, 2013)

“guarantee a bruise or the evening sky of every color” (Sukoon, 2013)

“when desiring to be free so we don’t have to be dangerous” (The Nervous Breakdown, 2013)

 

It’s been a lovely vacation so far–I’ll be heading to Istanbul again in a week, then returning to Tanzania to begin another beautiful year. But I need to create soon–just posting it as a reminder to myself.

 

–O. Ayes

LITANY OF A REFORMED IDEALIST, ON YEAR THIRTY

Birthdays are reminders for us to reflect on our journey—where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to be. Year 30 feels significant, as the milestone prompts an assessment of achievements—the reflection of your decisions as a young adult. The shift should now be toward stability, and when your life shows no such semblance—well, it’s difficult not to question how the hell you got there.

My journey has been circuitous at best. From a province in the Philippines, I spent my early years at the beach with family, roasting bangus (milkfish) wrapped in banana leaves. Then, it was pure joy and contentment—nothing mattered, no wants were unmet.

Years later, out of high school in a high-poverty district in St. Louis, my scholarship offers exceeded a quarter of a million dollars from universities throughout the U.S. I chose to pursue marine biology at a university in Florida with a nearly-full scholarship, but because of a system error at the Social Security Administration, some grants were not given. Instead, I chose to stay in St. Louis at an acclaimed (Carnegie Research 1) but way too familiar state university, where my scholarship offers were fully re-instituted with the help of an admissions counselor.

And…I hated it—the culture, the sameness. Here, I was, given the American Dream—and my urge was to leave it. I thought about other directions, new places. There was culinary school. I never hated being in the kitchen from prepping to cleaning. It was simple and true to my heart—a way for me to create. It would be a skill that could give security, despite finding out later that no, real chefs don’t care about this credential; it’s about your experiences and apprenticeships.

Then, there was the military. An ex-fiance, a cavalry soldier, and my brother, a marine, would prove to be influences.

“Try the Air Force. They don’t do anything,” they both urged. “You can retire in 20 years.”

Then, 9/11 happened, and I chose to stay put, mostly to be close to my family—my nephew newly born and the light of my life.

Still, I was unhappy with my career path—innumerable hours at the physics, chemistry, biology labs gave me metaphoric hives—formaldehyde soaked in my clothes, crept underneath my skin. This cannot be my life for the next 30 years, I thought. I conceptualized marine biology to be mostly field-based, but time in a laboratory was unavoidable for a scientist. I had to reconsider my dreams of exploring uninhabited islands scattered throughout the many seas and oceans.

“Go into medicine. Be a surgeon,” my mother urged. She, a registered nurse, knew the prestige attached to this career. I considered it as an adolescent—I was obsessed with a television show, The Operation, on the Learning Channel, way before Nip/Tuck became a phenomenon. Then, the constraints: the many more years of schooling, the residencies, the time demands.

“I’ll be on call 24/7?” I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment—despite the prestige, the financial security. And anyway, I hated hospitals—the smells, the cold sterility, the pain numbed by intravenous drugs.

I thought that there has to be more to life than this: meaningless competition for the sake of social prestige and financial security. Inciting resistance from my parental figures, I switched majors from biology to creative writing—poetry—because I spent my free hours composing, thinking, observing. On weekends, I’d be lost in some used book store for hours. I committed—eventually pursuing an MFA, partly because of the idealism attached to it. It’s an avocation. It meant that I was beyond society’s typical survivalist drive—evolved somehow; it meant that my internal values were more important than what the hungry world wanted out of me.

In the last decade, I’ve attempted to live my ideals as reality, in turn causing me years of uncertainty and chaos, and twice, almost my life.

For years, I regretted my decisions—“I could have been…” always at the back of mind, especially when I had to sacrifice time, circumstances, and happiness in order to actually feed myself. What were the values in ideas, culture, meaning—things that actually resonate with my soul—if one couldn’t have a sustainable quality of life?

Not much is certain, still, except the comfort of knowing life will be exceedingly beautiful from here, as I’ve survived the toughest parts of young adulthood—especially, for those who pursue life with authenticity and dangerous abandon, trusting that somewhere down the road, clarity and meaning will take form, that even if these ideals caused suffering, a life without them would be even more painful.

Times when I doubt my decisions as I look at the intangible fragments of what can be called “success” by the age of 30 (I’m unmarried, with an indeterminable career path)—I remember ideas I did spend time learning and applying and failing at over the years. Yes, that polysyndeton is used on purpose. (Credits to unnamed persons involved in the making of the list below.)

1.) Everyone is on [insert singular, non-gendered pronoun here] own journey. Accompany them or step out of the way.

2.) If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.

3.) Luck is when opportunities meet preparedness.

4.) From my father: “work to live, not the other way around.”

5.) Life is a puzzle; the more pieces you connect, the clearer the picture.

6.) A creative outlet isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.

7.) A mistake doesn’t make your character. Your subsequent actions do.

8.) Question everything; then listen and observe.

9.) Know your values so you can define what you want.

10.) Your subconscious is a tricky animal. Free it.

11.) Freedom is not the same as escaping.

12.) Only sacrifice what you can part with.

13.) Don’t hold back; don’t hang on.

14.) Honesty is only painful at first.

15.) You can’t control what happens, only your reaction to it.

16.) From my mother: “love yourself, first.”

17.) Love and attachment are not the same.

18.) Attraction can manifest in multiple ways—treasure beyond the physical.

19.) Follow your heart; take your brain with you.

20.) Feel the pain, heal, transcend—“turn the ugly into beautiful” (per a poetry mentor).

21.) Sometimes, the truth is larger than you.

22.) Experiment; then, improve your process.

23.) If you don’t catch the lessons the first time, pay attention to reminders.

24.) Literally and figuratively, leave the place cleaner than when you arrived.

25.) Be grateful for your freedoms and enable others to gain theirs.

26.) Know your boundaries so you can say, “no.”

27.) Don’t make decisions based on fear—real or imagined.

28.) Dreams are only useful when put into action.

29.) Know your potential so you can exceed them.

30.) The opposite of destruction is not peace; it’s creation.

The two hours or so I may have spent typing amounts to no monetary compensation. In between conception and implementation, I prepared hot green tea, cooked some mid-afternoon oatmeal, stared outside at the cloudless African sky and distant green hills. But when I did—I felt whole, connected. In those few hours, nothing else mattered.

Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!

 

–O. Ayes

for continuity’s sake: a silent argument in fragments

 

Nice issue, Blackbird (v11n1, Tracking the Muse). Many thanks for publishing my poems, after our non-existent literary debate over the last year about craft and the role of editors.

I’m reminded of one particular class discussion during my graduate studies that pursuing writing is like trying to climb an invisible fence, per a 2007 NY Times essay by Jim Harrison called, “Don’t Feed the Poets,” which reflects on Karl Shapiro’s “The Bourgeois Poet” (1964). Among other things, Harrison brings up the concepts of social class and purpose. I wrote this:

As Harrison discussed the “heroic notion of the poet,” I considered my own experiences and if I ever felt this way—some romantic, idealistic goal of achieving immortality by writing a single great poem. I came to poetry through some form of idealism, but I never conceived of immortality. In today’s world, a name is merely that. And in the field of poetry, who but my colleagues and students would know my work? I must have thought, or expected, as an aspiring poet, that I would end up teaching. To become published was another goal, but I came to a realization early in my graduate studies about the amount of sheer luck it would take.

This made me question, then, why exactly I was driven to pursue poetry. Why did I want to reach for this invisible fence? I thought about other careers I considered (or were suggested to me)—doctor, scientist, chef, schoolteacher, journalist, linguist. All of them seemed limiting—definable, constricting, of this materialistic world. Somehow, I expected poetry to defy all of the agendas this world had thrown at me since birth. I wanted to be outside the realm of the routine. I wanted to be an artist—but not just any artist, a poet, a weaver of words, of emotion and intellect.  Perhaps, in doing so, I could attain a self-actualized contentment with this insane world and make things tolerable.

As Harrison stated, though, I was struck by the “cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts.” I have since doubted my path into this indeterminable and subjective journey. I have made my peace with poetry’s avocation but perhaps I’m losing faith in its purpose in my life, at least at this point. I’m sure that I will never completely leave it alone, but for the time being, I lost my footing, trying to climb the invisible fence. Maybe I’ll look for another fence, one less canonized, critical, and well, impossible.

Five years later, I’m grateful that I’ve come to a better understanding about pursuing the fine arts. I’m now focusing on helping heal through narrative, rather than spending my time trying to climb this fence. Creativity is not a fence; it’s an integral part of our existence. I was reminded by a guest speaker, Gabriel Vockel, whom I invited to class yesterday to show his work, that all of us are indeed artists–the challenge is to remain as we grow up (per Picasso).

I’ve said multiple times in recent conversations that I probably wouldn’t be alive had it not been for poetry. It was and continues to be my form of therapy. Somehow, being enticed by the illusion of the poetry business, I lost sight of that for a few years.

I wish undergraduate creative writing programs and MFA programs were a little more honest and offer a broader perspective about what exactly pursuing this field entails. It’s an investment in apprenticeship, as one mentor states. It won’t guarantee you a job. Some try to package it as “Oh, you’re getting a terminal degree in your field” and “Oh, you can teach at universities.” These programs are very good with presenting a romantic idea: NYU’s undergraduate creative writing program, for instance, offers a month in Paris as part of their workshops. My question is, are these students told about invisible fence? Or do they simply think their chances are better if they pursue creative writing degrees? Do they know that the return on their investment is pretty much nil? (The only way I can justify an MFA now is if the program offers full fellowships to all students.)

Some honesty about the likeliness of one getting a secure job in the field would be nice, or how adjuncts have increased from 20% of faculty in the 1970s to 70% now. Sure, you can teach at universities–if you’re independently wealthy, don’t need job security, have a spouse with health insurance, and don’t mind waiting around for someone to die before you can be offered a full-time teaching position. And oh, you’re also competing with PhDs in your field, so you might consider spending another 5 years of your life getting one and living under “sustained poverty” through stipends.

It would be even better to offer students the opportunity to acquire skill sets that will help them actually survive in the world without being demoralized in the process. We pursued writing because we are sensitive to the world; help us function in it. (This statement goes beyond  writing programs but higher education in general.)

Soapbox, off.

–O. Ayes

 

 

the second phase of grieving

 

Dear Daddy,

While our family will never be same without you, we are at peace that you are in a better place. Your job here was done, and we’re all equipped now to handle whatever the world brings our way.  You’ve taken care of this family—our Ayes clan—the best way you could, and for that, your legacy remains, deep in our hearts.

You tried to piece a life together, after being broken by it, and you returned to our home in San Jose to live a simple, quiet life. Some would think that living “back to the basics” is a kind of failure, but they do not see the beauty in it—to be free of society’s expectations for what makes a man, a good man, a father, a good father.  These are not dictated by material wealth but solace in having done what you could for your loved ones and giving us a way to achieve our own dreams. Many more people fail in ways that you didn’t and never have—support, presence, and guidance for all of us. You’ve taught us that family values and integrity matter over everything else. Thank you for preparing us; thank you for being an example of love, integrity, and compassion.

~~~

We have always been close, so much so, that I wouldn’t let you leave me during the first week of kindergarten. You stayed in the back of the classroom until I was ready to let you go. And while I don’t remember the times as an infant when you took me on your tricycle to the beach at night because I couldn’t fall asleep, my soul remembers how soothing it was to be held and loved and have the ocean’s breeze to calm my worries. It was going to be a difficult life, and I had you there to help me be stronger.

I was the spoiled one—the one whose nickname was painted in big red, rusty colors above our store, the one who wouldn’t leave your side and preferred the floor next to your bed instead of her own room. We only had one fan, and you would direct it on me so I could sleep. Some years ago when I was twenty, you remembered this. I visited you in Houston, Texas, and before heading to bed, you turned on the fan, although it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I asked, “Why did you turn that on?” You said, “So you can sleep.”

I am grateful for the few months last summer, when you and I were “re-united” again, after “our separation” when I was ten years old. I decided to return home to write and travel, but I gained much more than I could imagine, which was precious time with you and our family.

I’m grateful to know that your early morning ritual included old love-songs that you played on a stereo from your side of the house.

I’m grateful for you accommodating my Filipino and American requests—puto AND kuchinta in the morning, please, and only fish (no meat) during lunch and dinner, and extra vegetables. You said, “The least I can do when you return home is to be able to feed you.”

I’m grateful to have been there as you pursued one of your dreams: to finish college. You never had the chance to pursue because you were taking care of us. You were so excited, although you didn’t show it. You bought a new wooden desk and got a haircut. On your first day, you were dressed in a white polo shirt and white pants, as the college requires. You had your yellow book-bag and hopped onto your motorcycle, and out you went through our red gates to go to a nearby town for class.

You would complain later about the 60 students packed in the classroom, without air-conditioning or a fan, or even textbooks. The last reason—the lack of a textbook—is the reason you cited that you needed my help: to find a poem and write an analysis of it. I laughed about the irony: I’m helping you with homework—or rather, doing the homework for you because you claimed not to understand poetry. And at your age, you said, you didn’t have the patience.

I would help you with other subjects, too: clarifying concepts for a business class, which you understood more clearly, as I asked you specific questions about your own business experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to connect with you.

We also learned together this summer, that your attempts of being overprotective wouldn’t work now that I’m grown up. You said to not talk to politicians around town—not to meddle in political affairs—in order to help clean up our hometown and preserve its rural beauty. I didn’t agree about fearing consequences; and I attribute to you some of this fiery spirit.

I indicated that I’m old enough to know what’s best for me, which is to pursue what I believe in, being an agent of change rather than complying with the status quo. The best thing that a parent can do is to enable the child to learn this.

And likewise, you didn’t agree with my beliefs when I criticized you continuing to smoke: “I’d rather die happy,” which showed me that you will be the same stubborn, beautiful father you’d always been.

I remember a conversation one rainy afternoon, when the water generator had spewed dark smoke and ended its 25-year reign. You talked about digging a hole under the mango tree, near the well, a “jacuzzi,” where you can rest in cool water when the sun would be overbearing in the summer. I could just imagine you, content and resting.

~~~

Daddy, there is never a way to repay you for your sacrifices. We could only honor you by not wasting away our lives on frivolous things and not being afraid to love and dream.

I’ll close this letter with the poem that we chose for you to recite in class. The only criterion you gave was that it should be short because you had to memorize it. I chose a translation of “Despedida,” meaning “Farewell,” by Federico Garcia Lorca. I explained to you that the speaker of the poem is contemplating eternity, the next passage, and how he’s not afraid of it. He welcomes what’s to come, because, perhaps, he’d already lived a beautiful life and has no regrets. He requests for the balcony to be left open so he can appreciate both this dimension—the boy eating oranges in the street—and the next—the reaper harvesting the wheat.  Perhaps, our spirits were preparing our goodbyes then—

 

Farewell

If I die,

leave the balcony open.

 

The little boy is eating oranges.

(From my balcony I can see him.)

 

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.

(From the balcony I can hear him.)

 

If I die,

leave the balcony open.