Archives for category: Amphibious

Over the last year or so I have returned to swimming. I grew up swimming a lot — my mother still swims laps at the pool where I spent many summer days with my siblings. I even had a brief stint on my middle school swim team. But as life got busier, the time and effort it takes to get to the pool, change, swim, then shower seemed too much compared to the ease of stepping outside and going for a run. Then a knee injury last year opened my mind and forced my body to return to other activities. One of the things that I appreciate about swimming is the awareness of breath and rhythm of breathing. Ever since those days years ago when I watched my father struggle with breath, his lungs too weak to manage this essential act, I cannot take breathing for granted. Being in water reminds me of the intention behind every breath.

“Imagine drowning,”

he told me, as if he could.

How, I wanted to ask, would I know the feeling of filling up 

with something not air?

So I left the doctor in the hallway, 

and returned to the work of breathing,

having decided to forget drowning.

I watched it, the breathing.

The bi-pap machine swooshed air into your lungs, in two parts it seemed,

as if the machine itself needed to take a breath before going on.

Would it break you?

But then, just at the breaking point,


The air pulled out,

leaving you for a moment

smaller, softer.

Then, again, it pumped you up to a taut balloon.

On and on, this would go.

For how long, I wondered.

I saw that you did, too.

Your face:  resignation and fear. 

Like drowning, I suppose.


I have little to add on this day, 13 years after saying good-bye to my father, on my birthday. We will always be bound together, from beginning to end.


In the body of my father,

I was beginning to find perfection.

Even in his shallow breath,

his papery skin, his bloodshot eyes,

was a godly beauty. Watching

him begin to leave this world,

I forgave all flaws. He and I

together, sharing a

birthday and deathday,

passing long enough to know

each other. He was on his way

to resurrection, a rebirth of

himself out of this physical

world, into the world of

remembrance.  My path

was intertwined – I would

build his world of remembrance,

burning the unnecessary, and

polishing the important. This

world I was making would

hold his godly self. This world

contained my possibility of

living a whole life, complete,

like his, at its end.


It has been 12 years since I last saw my father as he lay struggling to breathe in a hospital room. So much has happened since then, and sometimes I think to tell my father about my life, knowing that he already knows. I always wanted to know more about his, but being far from extended family and the places that activate memory, those stories rarely surfaced. Recently, I returned to Bangkok, this time with my younger son. I realized that although it was the place where my father grew up, it did not hold my memory of him. I am at peace with knowing just what I know of my father and who he was to me in the years we shared together. What I long for is not what I cannot know, but what I miss of him.


As the plane left the runway,

hot, hazy air stretched its long limbs,

wanting to hold us to the ground.

But we lifted up, leaving Bangkok

and my father’s beginning behind.


I thought I might learn something.

But what I wanted from my father

was hidden in the humid air, and

lost in the maze of concrete below.

The stories I longed to hear were

caught in his raspy breath.


Still, he had breath, and

I was hopeful when a few weeks

before he had helped my young son

construct a Timeline of Grandpa

for a school project. In careful penmanship,

my son wrote “1941,” then under that,

“Born,” and then, “Bangkok.”


Instead, we visited Bangkok like tourists.

My father watched Thai dancing,

and ate the restaurant meals.

None of these were the things

of his youth. Youth was long ago,

and the memory of it evaded him

as much as he avoided our questions

by dozing in the van traveling

the streets of Bangkok.


The plane peeled off the ground,

and I reluctantly let go my hold

to it, to Bangkok, to knowing.

I let go the hold on me.

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.

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.