I have been teaching my 16-year-old son how to drive. He is a confident young man and his driving reflects that. One hand on the steering wheel, the other relaxed and gesturing as he speaks, I am somehow pulled into his easy conversation. He is a good driver. My body, which has had to learn how to breathe while he is driving, releases into the ride. I trust him. I trust my friend who drives a sports car a little too fast, but with a love for the curves of the road, the trees flashing by, the bumps that send us up for a moment, and our movement through the world. I am learning how to lean into this life.

 

I had already let go of the tightly woven safety

found in car seats and seat belts. So used

to relying on the security of metal locking

to metal, unbreakable fabric, foam cushioning,

that to trust the blood and muscle human

being driving the car felt daring. But

trusting all the other drivers on the road,

speeding and weaving, was surely foolish.

The rules of this world, half a world from home,

were different, and the children loved the

comfort of sitting on our laps while riding

through the busy streets. They trusted us

to hold tight to them. Should we not do the same?

We drove past entire families holding on

to one central driving figure, all balanced

on a small motorbike. The two wheels,

the buzzing motor, were just a tool. The

family, arms linked around waists, toddlers

sandwiched between, was the movement,

the pulsing, the life.

I remembered the thrill of the ride:

visiting Thailand as a child and riding

on the front of Little Uncle’s Vespa. My

feet on the narrow platform in front of

Uncle, standing up while he reached

around to hold the handlebars. I learned

to sway with the motion of the bike, to

lean when it turned. We were connected

to the city, part of the dance, part of

the circulatory system, curving

through veins of traffic.

One night, after dinner, we took a

tuk-tuk back to the hotel. All four

of us squeezed into the bench seat,

sticky skin to skin. The driver was fast,

swerving past traffic, leaning, pulling

us through. Quickly we learned to

sway with the motion of the tuk-tuk,

to not resist the movement. Connected

to the driver powering us to our beds

after a long day, we moved with him,

doing as he told us to do with each

turn. We trusted him. We felt safe.

I saw the peaceful knowing on my boys’

faces, and I understood what they knew.

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Ten years ago this week, I sat at my father’s bedside in his final days. In those last breathing moments, I did not know what I would remember of him. I just knew that something was happening in that bright, white, dreamlike hospital space. I know now that I was experiencing my father’s gradual transformation from fully alive and here and now, to being in remembrance. My grandfather was already there, in a place where earthly imperfection is gone and the godly goodness of what we choose to remember becomes our inheritance, our birthright.

We sat at the kitchen table,

preparing food and remembering

what we only knew from others:

Grandfather was a good man.

We remembered it in stories of

feeding the poor, of donating

blood, of building a school

and a temple. These things

we imagined, like scenes

from an old movie, playing

behind our eyes and

allowing us to see a truth

we wanted to hold, for

Grandfather, and also for us.

Remembering his godliness,

we remembered what we

could be. “Do this for

the remembrance of me,”

our priest says each Sunday.

But at the kitchen table,

we did the same, and sat

taller and made plans

and knew who we were.

I am interested in how memory and imagination intersect to weave a story. Just as my aunty remembered her father, now I remember mine and can feel his spirit presence in spaces he once occupied physically. I live in a house that has contained other people, their voices and movement. Even as memory fades and becomes disjointed, sometimes I still see a shadow standing at the kitchen counter, hear a familiar sound at the door. My imagination remembers deeply and I am grateful for its firm hold on a world that I have loved.

Outside, sunlight glinted on dark leaves

as we wound down the mountain road.

And on something else, too,

it seemed. Aunty said,

“Your grandfather traveled

up here all the time.” She

was speaking to my generation,

not to her own – her sisters

nodded in agreement – and

not to the great-grandchildren,

happily puckering lips around

straws, gulping cold, sweet drinks.

“He knew the hill tribe people here,

and helped them. The school he

built, it’s somewhere …”

Her voice trailed off and it was

clear she did not know exactly

where. She had entered the

world of imagination. I came

into that world, too, gazing into

the shadows and light dancing

through the trees as we

continued our descent into

the city below.

This fall I have taken several trips for work and for my film project. Although I like travel, it comes with other responsibilities, like making sure things are set at home, that my son is in good care, that I have managed my commitments at work. Even with all that to think about, once I am suspended above, leaving the ground behind, I have time to settle into another space. I find that I read a lot on planes, that I think in taxis, and that generally my life is a little suspended when I step into the anonymity of another place. Rather than travel as motion, going somewhere, it becomes for me a time of stillness and reflection. This crossing over a footbridge in Thailand was a similar moment of presence and attention to the time, place, circumstance, and even uncertainty I was experiencing.

To get there,

we crossed a footbridge, the swaying kind,

over a deep ravine. The laughter of

my uncles and aunts was nervous as we

made our way across, holding the ropes on

either side, the bridge swaying back and forth.

 

While we waited for the food to arrive, I piled

into a hammock with the children, and we

gazed up at the shiny palm leaves, listening

to strange bird and insect sounds and

the laughter of the others. My

father had stayed behind at the hotel,

not well enough to come along. How

would he have managed the stone path,

the swaying bridge anyway? He had made the

journey across the world, but so

often he was not with us. He was leaving

us a little already. Or was it us leaving

him, hurrying on, moving forward?

 

After lunch, I watched as my family –

the aunties, the uncles, the cousins, my mother –

all walked unsteadily across the bridge,

their heads spinning with spicy food and cold beer.

They were laughing at themselves

swaying back and forth. For just a

short time they were suspended there,

in the uncertainty.

My grandfather, crossed mountains

and oceans to arrive in Thailand, and

my parents came to a new country,

suspended in the air before landing in America.

And my father, was he crossing over

into something else now?

 

As they hung there for that

brief time, I imagined that

if the bridge gave way, they would all

come to a dramatic, laughter-filled end.

Instead, they stepped off the bridge

on the other side and continued on,

still full of the light that carried

them across. Then I took a turn

crossing over – into

life on the other side.

I am looking forward to a train ride soon — to take my oldest son off to college in Washington state. I imagine moving through the plains and mountains and watching so much pass by while sitting with my child now moving into adulthood. The train will give us time, even as we travel efficiently west. The train will hold us together a little longer slowing us down long enough to notice the sweetness of this rhythm of our lives, of our swirling together, apart, together again.

Riding the slow train to Lampang,

we passed through small

northern Thai towns, the

stations just wooden shacks,

signs flapping in the gust

created by our train coming

to a stop. These were the towns

where my grandfather must

have traveled, carrying his bolts

of cloth on the back of his bicycle.

I watched as people working

in fields and walking along dirt roads

looked up at us passing by. How

briefly our lives intersected, looking

back, moving forward, winding

around each other like the wind

blowing leaves in dancing spirals,

before resting lightly on the ground.

Sometimes our senses are on high alert, taking in an abundance of sight, sound, smell, taste. The market where my aunties shop in Chiang Mai is this kind of place, so rich in everything that I wonder how I can take it all in. Yet it is all stored somewhere inside me, each sense absorbing a piece of the story. Brush away just part of the dust covering a memory and soon the whole picture emerges again. Try it. Close your eyes.

 

If I were to close my eyes,

the sounds and smells would

be the same as I remembered.

Smoky sweetness of small

bananas on a grill, high

Northern dialect voices of

women selling food,

clank of coins, shuffle

of feet. Eyes open,

and everything is true.

The grills line up on the

ground, forming a room

of smoke. The women sit

on high stools, food they

made – steaming curries,

vegetables, pastries –

spread out like skirts before

them. People move between

stands, reaching, buying,

bags bulging. I search for

the source of the clanking

coins, and then memory

clicks into place. There,

at the bottom of the still

broken escalator, she is

standing, still standing

after all these years. Neat

clothes, short hair, pale

skin, and eyes open, but

her gaze empty, blind.

Standing there, shaking the

tin can of clanking coins.

 

My first language was Thai, simply the result of absorbing what I heard at home as the first child of Thai immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska. The world I lived in then as a toddler was small and safe and full of language. But then school became necessary and the teacher let my parents know that I really did not speak English. So the world grew larger, but a little less secure. Although I have lost my first language, I have not forgotten it. Still, listening to my family talk, I understand. I have held on and kept at least an ear and maybe more of myself in both worlds.

We squeezed around the table –

aunties, uncles, cousins, all –

perched on edges of chairs,

stools, some sharing, together

in the dining room above Aunty’s

shop and the busy market.

Food purchased from the market –

sticky rice, grilled pork, steamed

greens, sweet mangoes –

filled our plates. The talk blurred

by, Thai and English and laughter.

Words ran through my fingers

as I ate, but then, all at once,

something caught. Meaning

clung on, a word, and then another,

and whole phrases, and even

the back and forth. Language

washed over me and I remembered.

I remembered that I knew this

world, that I knew both. One

held me so firmly that I

thought and dreamt its

language. But the other

refused to let go, pulling

me under the currents of

language and smell and tastes –

salty sweet salty sweet –

so that I could not easily come

out. I was amphibious, able to

live in both air and water,

and needing both.

With so many ways of acquiring luck — through charms, rituals, even cash — you would think all would be right with the world. But luck, as we truly know, has nothing to do with any of this. Some part living well, some part practicing integrity, a large part pure chance, good fortune has no formula. It comes down to how we measure it. I count it as luck that I had this lively, colorful moment with my family. And what good fortune to remember Setting Birds Free with my cousin years before, and to see that this is where it got me.

 

We must have looked like we needed it,

the way the hill tribe woman came

at us, determined, her fingers hooked

around small woven cages, each with

a desperately chattering bird inside.

She lifted her arm and waved the cages

in the air, jangling from the many

silver beads sewn onto her

colorfully embroidered clothes.

Aunty bought one – for fun, she said –

letting the birds go would bring us

good luck.

 

So that was it: a long ago

sun-filled room, burned into memory,

releasing bird after bird out the window.

Dust and sun and cheeping birds.

And luck, too, I learn now, so many years later.

 

One was fun, but we needed more,

and I knew the woman was telling us so.

Aunty bought another, and another.

Soon we had released every one

of the birds back into the world.

The old woman grinned a toothless smile:

so much luck now, how lucky you are.

While in Chiang Mai, we visited the Buddhist temple where my family worshipped. We brought food and an offering of money to the monk, and in return asked for the blessing we so needed. “Pour the water,” the monk said, and as we poured, he chanted, the words running with the water. I recognized words and phrases and our family name: Koslaphirom. “America,” he said. The words flowed and flowed until the water ran out. He stopped and bowed. We thanked him, then stepped out into the physical world again.

Blessings tumbled down on us

as water filled a bowl,

the monk chanting words,

rhythm of flowing water.

Outside, cars sped by,

people hung laundry over

balcony railings.

Cats walked languidly

across the courtyard and

fish darted about in their

watery kingdom – an urn

on the stone steps.

Inside the temple, the

blessings flowed onto

my pink-cheeked son, plump

with young blood, and

my mother, cancer cells

coursing through her veins.

And blessing reached across town,

to where my father was wheezing

in his hotel bed, hooked up

to an oxygen tank, tethered

still to our world.

Blessings poured over memory –

of Grandfather, long gone,

though we reached for him.

Grandmother, too, and my

oldest aunty, and others I

have never known. Blessings

flowed, chant like, waking

us with a splash of water

and the presence of

each other, everywhere.

In my everyday life, I am so used to not looking like most people, that it is startling at first when I am with people who do look like me. But arriving in Thailand is such a shock of welcome and familiarity, that it quickly becomes comfortable, easy. The faces greeting us at the airport really do look like mine. The words I hear rush to find me, name me, claim me as one of theirs. “Fon” is my Thai name, meaning rain — for my rainy birthday. It meets me when I return.

We walked off the plane

into a tangle of arms,

brown, stretched towards us,

a rush of sound, the

voices naming us,

again and again,

until I became the girl

I was 25 years before.

“Fon,” they said.

The name traveled through

body and memory,

waking long sleeping cells,

so that I knew it as mine.