River Garden

This poem was first published by Upwrite Magazine.

In the early evening, a Korean grandmother
works alone in her garden by the river.
She sits low to the earth, hunched over like a bright purple cushion,
planting vegetables and picking weeds.

One side of the garden is outlined in garbage:
bottles, plastic bags, empty food containers
dumped in a line and partially buried.
The other side is lined with bundles of sticks roughly tied together.

I watch her from the river trail as she works in a tiny section of the dirt.
She never moves farther than her arms can reach.

Next to her walker, in the shade of the cherry blossoms,
she silently manipulates what she can,
ignoring every bicycle as it passes.

I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work
and her lack of mobility. Her efforts seem impossible
until I notice the canola flowers rising in a patch of triumph.

They blow quietly in the evening air like yellow canaries behind her back,
still parallel to the ground at the other end of the early spring garden.

There is no praise, no congratulations, no one to keep her company.

Just the sunset arriving shortly,
bouncing through the yellow flowers,
reflecting off the line of trash,

and the woman in her garden,
dutifully tending to the next thing.

Before We Say Goodbye

Before We Say Goodbye

Suddenly the cherry blossoms burst
above the gravel parking lot
at the beef restaurant across the street.
Hundreds of tiny flowers delivered overnight.

They cling together, shaking like pompoms at a halftime show
or miniature wedding bouquets held tightly in the hands of nervous brides.

They stand out against the cobalt sky
like the snowy “up hair” of the halmoni who sits next to
my four-year-old daughter on the subway
and holds her hand.

In awe we look up through the barrier of our
phone screens, shifting on small rocks, adjusting to
capture the best angle of the trees.
Knowing soon
the petals will fall and stick
to the ground like used confetti.

We are spectators and participants
conscious of our short-lived, ordinary lives:

a magnetic display
even if they tower over gravel,
a miracle
even as they fall to the ground.

What February is Like: a trip to the downtown library on a Thursday

February is like pushing a double stroller full of big kids to the subway station.

It’s like the halmoni* who steps onto the train with an elegant walking stick made of real wood. Her white hair swoops away from her face. She wears a bright purple coat and purple floral pants. Her smile is kind and generous. She guesses the kids’ ages and holds True’s hand. But when she stops to think, when she looks out the dark windows, she sits quietly with sad eyes.

February is like the woman sitting next to the halmoni on the train. She clutches her pink prayer beads knotted on a green string and whispers something over and over, prayers filling the train car just past noon.

It’s like the tough guy in a teddy bear sweatshirt or the policeman drinking banana milk in the underground.

(Even the oversized “America” t-shirt for sale, hideous and white, feels like a metaphor.)

February is like the blaring music pouring out of trinket shops with dozens of socks and key chains. It’s boxy like McDonald’s and Uniqlo.

It’s like the puppies and kittens in tiny cages, jammed in the front windows of tiny pet shops.

February is like 2pm, when tiny family-owned restaurants house lingering customers and the smells of deonjang and ddeokbokki leak into the back alleys, tempting our full bellies as we walk by.

It’s like the moment I repeat the library rules so the kids remember to keep their shoes on their feet and off the furniture.

February is like the sad new books tucked away and shoved underneath the double stroller, waiting to be opened as soon as we get home.

————
*Halmoni (할머니) means ‘grandmother’ in Korean, but it is also used to politely address elderly women in general.

————
Writing has been drudgery this month. I keep trying to wrestle paragraphs, but I can’t seem to fit them together. It got me thinking about February in general and how it’s rare to find someone who claims it as a favorite. These notes from last Thursday describe what it feels like to slog through the blahs of my February words. I’m not sure if it will make sense to anyone else, but at least it’s a glimpse into our current every-day.

Friday Morning

“It’s almost 8 o’clock!” my husband says with urgency.
On Friday mornings these words are like a love letter I want to keep forever.

He kicks me out of the house gently, encouraging me sit in the morning with my words and my dreams and a notebook full of ideas.

In this moment of freedom and clarity I am at Starbucks, one subway stop away from home.

I want to write in a memorable, quirky style like Sandra Cisneros, in the thoughtful, direct poetry of Mary Oliver, in the vulnerable, Christ-centered vein of Henri Nouwen.

I want to be faithful to the stories, the words, the message.

My heart fills with a lot of ideas and suggestions, loose paragraphs slipping past like window shops along a busy Korean street. Some of them are deteriorating, some are brand new. Some are trendy, some are something-something holic. Some call attention to themselves with blaring music or synchronized dancing.

Write! My brain instructs my fingers, but they have nothing coherent to say.

I am sitting in Starbucks, by the window, feeling generic like the furniture, sipping a latte and watching the cars go by.

Construction Dance

Construction Dance

Even the tower cranes outside
dance during ballet.
We watch the construction site from the fourth floor of the cultural center
as giant yellow machines, towers of metal lace, pivot in deliberation.
They rise and swing their limbs high above the expanding edge of the city, where golden rice once grew.

Perhaps the way we see imposing structures says something about us.
Are they a nuisance impeding the skyline?
A bothersome strain to the eye,
pulling us nearsighted instead of up ahead to the mountains?

Or do they force us to see things not yet visible?

My two year old son sits captivated in the stroller, eyes moving left and right, up and down, as if he is connected to the heavy machinery.

Behind us, in the dance room, his sister balances on tippy toes,
holding tightly to the barre.
She giggles on one foot as she stands like a distracted flamingo,
floppy like the ripe rice bent over on its stalk, wobbling as it dangles heavy and helpless right before the harvest.

Can we dance to the rhythms of a pounding construction site,
the vibrating ping of metal on metal?

Or do we mourn the way the wind once swept through the rice field, swaying the stalks in unison like the eager legs of tiny ballerinas.