Away from Me, Toward You
I don't remember the moment we first set foot on this continent. My earliest memories, many years before moving to Portland, are of the relentless humid summer air hovering like a heavy lid over the lush countryside of Long Island, where we stayed with friends, and of Manhattan skyscrapers and crowded streets. I didn't understand this place yet; I was a child. It took me more than twenty years to make sense of the two societies that have shaped me: American and Czech.
Back then we were a three-member all-female family unit that shared one challenge—to start a new life knowing we may never again be able to see our loved ones from beyond the Iron Curtain. Our tiny family was held firm by a distinct sense of we-ness, shaped by our shared destiny. We were a mother with two daughters, immigrants who had to stick together like the reeds of a raft to stay afloat.
A family we-ness is all I knew. The “we” orientation of the place we had left, which permeates old-world communities across the globe, had been shattered by a series of violent tidal waves, including two world wars and totalitarianism.
War ravages landscapes in an obvious way. But a regime can pit people against each other, destroying the psychic fabric of a society from the inside out. The inability to trust those closest to you and the fear of being branded a traitor or menace to the societal order and of losing everything—one's career, freedom, family, or life—were constant threats under the old regime. Suspicion, mistrust, and resignation became part of the very skeleton of what it means to be Czech. “We” became unsafe, so we turned to “me.”
Scientists say that trauma is passed between generations through the DNA. I carry in me a visceral imprint of the experience of living in a climate that destroys the spirit. I haven't yet found a deep sense of belonging in this country, where individualism also reigns, but there is a part of me that seems able to tap into an ancient memory of what it must have been like to live in a we-oriented society. I know I am not alone. For those of us who long for it, that remembering is still there, like a spore in a desert, waiting for a little nourishment to grow into something intricate, lush, interdependent, and beautiful.
Tereza Bottman, Portland
I See Me
I teach children to read. In kindergarten, we use a method called phonemic awareness that teaches children how to identify sounds by letter. Our ?rst sounds are m, e, s, and i. After looking at these letters and practicing the sounds each makes, we combine them into words. One of the ?rst full sentences my students can read independently is “I see me.”
Even at this young age, there is something powerful about the word “me.” When students read “I see me” aloud, their voices gradually rise until “me,” which comes out as almost a shout: “I see me!”
These ?ve-year-olds already understand the concept of an individual me. When I ask them if they know what the word “me” means, their initial response is often an action, a ?nger pointed back at the chest, at the heart. Why do they point back at the chest instead of to the head? Or why not sweep the hands up and down to indicate the whole body? Is this a learned response, a cultural construct, or some sort of intuitive action? Do the most important parts of our selves, the parts that make up a person, lie right there in the center?
The verbal answers to my question follow a simple pattern: a full name (“all three parts,” in the words of one), followed by a description of the things they like. They understand that a name is an identi?er and that what they like makes them unique. It is endearing to listen to their answers and the responses from around the table: “Me is I like blue and playing tetherball,” which is understood with nods of appreciation and a few chimes of “Me, too.” They cannot wait to share something about themselves and how they understand the word.
When I think about myself, I see a person who is still evolving, yet I know at my core what it means to be me: I love to create, explore, and contribute, and I have very curly hair. I
understand that much will change with me just as much already has, but, at thirty-six, I believe I am almost able to answer what it means to be me.
Defining “me” is a dif?cult task, without an easy, clear answer, especially as we grow older. Children offer succinct answers to a question that adults struggle with. Could the answer to the question really be as simple as kindergartners believe it to be?
Jennifer Boyer, Ontario
Teaching Where I'm From
Every spring, Southern Oregon University hosts the César E. Chávez Leadership Conference for Latino high schoolers. Here, and at the middle school summer program Academia Latina, students participate in a simple writing workshop developed by my friend Levi Romero: “De donde yo soy,” adapted from the poem “Where I'm From” by George Ella Lyon. Young poets fill in the blanks Mad Libs style (dos comidas que representan tu familia, “two food items representing your family”), but some of the prompts are provocative enough (“description of religion or lack of it,” descripción de religión o falta de religión) that the results are anything but proscriptive:
I am from Ashland, Oregon
Waking up to the usual;
Either to the loud roaring of the vacuum,
The irritating clatters of the dishes,
Or even the delicious aroma of tamales estilo Zamora freshly made.
—Jessica R., Michoacán
We get a pad of that giant 30-by-25-inch self-stick notepaper to post the poems around the room for everyone to see:
Passing by cows fast trying not to step on their poop, feeling the hot sand on your feet, running to get in the river as possible.
—Jacqueline G., Guatemala
Levi, tell me if I am crazy to think I hear Lorca here:
Frijoles recien echecitos, con Bolillo calientito con jugo o un cafecito
Los señores trabajando, llegan con el olor de Rancho.
—Miriam A., Jalisco
And every now and then a savvy student will say to me, “Teacher, did you ever do this?”
Yo soy de no te portes malo y de pon tus chor.
Yo soy misa de Sábado.
Yo soy de Overlook Hospital y soy Arellano, picadillo y tuna rice.
Vengo del Exílio and the day Michael fell off the roof,
the upstairs hallway, the cosas drawer, los cubiertos y traeme un tenedor.
Levi tells a story of going down south to give a talk at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and all the norteño students—meaning from north of Nuevo Mexico—crowd around him like he's an ambassador from their country and say, “Kids down here buggin'. When they're not telling us we're not really Latino, they say we're not Americans, we're Mexicans! Where you from, ese?'”
Levi tells them, “You know what you do? You look them in the eye and you say: I know who I am.”
Robert Arellano, Talent
America's Cowboy Arms
I'd never seen a pair of glasses like that. One lens was frosted rather than clear. He sat with his party across the main room of the lodge. I had barely noticed him when Granddad Garner got up, made his way across the room, and shook his hand. “Who is he?” I asked.
“That's Jack Williams. He was governor [of Arizona] when the laws were changed so we could adopt your dad and uncle and aunts,” Grandma told me.
It isn't every day you find yourself in the same room as the man to whom you owe your existence.
I grew up knowing Dad was not a Garner. He'd been born a Kim and plucked out of the poverty of postwar Korea with the help of the Holts, a family from Oregon. These folks uprooted their lives to attend to the plight of Korean orphans. My dad was one of their earliest beneficiaries.
At nine years old he walked off a plane and was greeted by a tall white man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a bolo tie—Granddad's version of formal wear. “I'm getting a cowboy for a father,” my dad thought. This made him happy.
My Dad's identity as a Korean adoptee and my subsequent Asian-Americanness became my go-to facts to share about myself. Once, I stood in front of my third-grade class and recounted the story of Dad's adoption for show-and-tell.
“Wait. Is he from North Korea or South Korea?” one student asked.
I froze. There are two Koreas? How was I supposed to know that? With sweaty palms due to the fear I'd answer incorrectly, I guessed. “South?”
“Whew! That's a relief.” the student exclaimed.
I felt relief too.
Governor Williams, the Holt family, and Granddad and Grandma Garner are my history, but not my blood. I see the evidence when I look in the mirror. It stares back at me in my high cheekbones and dark hair.
My whole life I've wondered what they would think of me. Am I what they were hoping for when they offered my father to America's cowboy arms?
I like to think they might recognize me across a room. Maybe they would approach and shake my hand. After all, it isn't every day you find yourself in the same room as a woman who calls herself your legacy.
Andrea Emerson, Portland
When I was in seventh grade, my teacher made me write on the chalkboard one hundred times, “Sometimes I'm so stupid, I make myself sick.” I don't remember what I did to earn that punishment, but that mantra is one of the only things I do remember from that year at Keith Junior High School.
I was in Homeroom 222, the class everybody knew had the smartest kids. Mr. Thompson, our homeroom teacher, was young and cool: he told jokes, called us Mr. or Miss, and egged us on to prove that we deserved to be in Room 222 with its freewheeling atmosphere. I must have gone too far on the day he sent me to the chalkboard. He could never do that now, with all the sensitivity to various forms of abuse and protecting students' self-esteem. But I don't think I was abused.
I'd been told how smart I was since the fifth grade, when I was bussed across the city to an “enrichment” class. But as my adolescence took me deeper into the 1960s, I became an “underachiever”—I failed to live up to my smartness—and that label stuck as I took a countercultural approach to adulthood. When I finally finished my bachelor's degree in the eighties, I joined the smart folks again, being named to Phi Beta Kappa and other honorary indicators of intelligence.
But sometimes I am so stupid I make myself sick. Not necessarily intellectually stupid, but stupid in matters of common sense, human relations, and self-assessment. One Christmas Eve, I removed a rack from a preheated 450-degree oven so a rib roast would fit; five minutes later, I grabbed that still-hot rack with my bare hands because it was in the way of something else. I work myself into a frenzy imagining what other people are thinking about me—and I'm almost always wrong. I eat too much dessert despite the dire gastrointestinal consequences I know are coming. I occasionally check my book's rankings on the Amazon best-seller list (#1,445,495). Stupid ... sick.
Maybe this is a zero-sum game: all our smarts in some areas are balanced by stupidity in others. I know that it's never done me any good to think about how smart I am, but knowing just how stupid I can be is one of the most valuable things I ever learned. Thanks, Mr. Thompson.
Guy Maynard, Eugene
Mother and Me
My mother lived the final decade of her life in a swirling fog of dementia. Whether the cause was Alzheimer's, TIAs, vascular dementia, or the older label, senility, was never determined. Labels seemed useless when prospects for improving her condition were minimal, and slowing it unlikely. Her ability to undertake simple tasks diminished. Physical activity slowed to shuffles. Verbal communication skills disappeared. Empty hours became the norm of her existence.
Yet somewhere in the husk of what once was my mother, she remained. Her hand nested in mine as we sat on the porch swing. She held out her arms for hugs whenever my dad approached her vicinity. She recognized my siblings and me through the merciful arrival of her final days. Her last recognizable words to us were “love ... love ...”
Last year I hit seventy, the age at which my mother first exhibited symptoms of decline. Medical research on the characteristics and causes of dementia has ballooned with the swelling numbers of elderly people ravaged by its effects. Some research has indicated a familial tendency toward the condition.
I forget to turn off the oven, and feel shivers of trepidation race through my body. Has it begun? I can't recall the name of the convenience store on the highway near the Idaho ranch we owned a mere decade ago. I once worked a local election there, but no name returns to me. Mother forgot such things too. I make corn bread and can't recall whether I added baking soda as I pour batter into a baking pan. Should I check off each ingredient as I cook? Mother stopped cooking altogether—even her homemade bread, the specialty everyone loved and that she loved to distribute to neighbors.
And fog. The hazy lack of focus that descends occasionally. It's physical; I feel it. Fear it. I wonder if Mother recognized the gray miasma through which she wandered for years.
I recognize mine, count my mind-bobbles. I'm frightened when I forget to take the grocery list I now need on a trip to the store. I worry when someone says, “I told you that yesterday,” and I have no recollection of what the telling was and when it happened. My moments of blankness terrify me.
But what I most fear is losing the me of me. I take heart that Mother retained an essence of herself. “Love,” she said.
Claudia Charlton, Port Orford
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