I’m in Hong Kong with my husband and his family for the holidays, and finishing up a longer work on what I envision would be a better tomorrow. It will be my first novel. It is not entirely fiction. It is one of the most real hopes I’ve created. I’ve shared the novel’s synopsis with my husband’s parents, which as fiction they enjoyed hearing about, but when I told them about this essay on “A Better Tomorrow,” a form of nonfiction, talk quickly turned to injustices they’ve faced in the world. Before I left New York, I’d had a similar discussion with my own parents— that is, talk focusing on discrimination and intolerance they’ve experienced— and with close friends, as well as with my neurologist who is probably shaking her head as she reads this now (Don’t worry, doctor. I am following your advice, and “living for today.”) So it seems inescapable that when we talk about a better tomorrow in the realms of nonfiction, in reality as it stands, we cannot leave out what terrible things we’d like to see vanish. I too have been thinking of the ugliness and hatreds I’ve encountered that, while directed at me, come from a past (but not bygone), deep-rooted place of patriarchal, hierarchal prejudices and oppressions. I don’t always respond in these situations. Sometimes I just let it go. But sometimes I don’t.
This past summer I received a gift from my niece, a gift she’d bought with her own money: a pair of platform stripped sandals with giant, plastic, diamond-like gemstones across the Velcro straps. They are incredibly kitschy and even more comfortable. My younger self would have chosen the exact same thing to wear, and to be honest, my adult self likes them just as much. During the summer I wore them nearly every day, and took photos to show my niece I was making good use of them.
Then one very hot day in August, I was riding the 4 train, wearing a strapless, white lace dress and said sandals. I usually stand on trains, so when two women got on, I moved aside so that they could take the seats in front of me. I was zoning out, half-dreaming as I always do when riding trains, when suddenly I heard one woman loudly whisper to the other: she looks like a skeleton in a wedding dress. Gross.
I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that there are whispers you don’t want others to hear and those you do.
In hindsight, it was such a mild ugliness compared to those I’ve otherwise encountered. This woman was body-shaming me, for sure. But something drew me into her eyes, which pretended to crinkle with embarrassment that I’d heard her. And while I’m not excusing personal responsibility for one’s actions, as she knew what she was doing, I also saw within her gaze the divides— divisions much, much older than her and crueler in their time— such divides that I have been trying to break through to reach a thread, a scrap, of some new, freer world.
So I turned to this woman, and said, “Well, I think you look lovely.” Because she did. Because I truly believed she did, and wanted her to know I did. Because I chose this truer narrative over the crueler, false one.
The woman and her friend looked away from me, and didn’t say anything else.
It was one long train ride.
In all candor, I remember thinking about how many days I have left on this earth.
In all candor, the skeleton she saw was the music holding my poet self to my corporeal self.
That my smallest refusal of hate, albeit fleeting, might lend that music to another.
I don’t want to give up believing we were meant to evolve past this beautiful, terrible, costly world we’ve built. I don’t want to give up on an idea of us: ever imperfect, ever fluid and plurals, ever pervious to futures we cannot even imagine.
Presently, my husband’s father has just put on Rihanna’s “Diamonds” before we eat hot pot on the rooftop on their apartment building, just outside the little room where my husband and I sleep— a gesture meant to cross generational and cultural differences between us. I’m currently in that very little room my father-in-law built, and he’s trying to draw me out of it, away from this essay, away just for a moment, something that when we do visit, he asks for so rarely. I’ve written about our struggles to understand each other, my father-in-law and me. I never forget how difficult my poet self can be to love.
When I think of a better world, I think often that my poet self is not the easiest self to love. My poet self constantly asks for a good amount of solitude and focus. My poet self comes and goes as she pleases. My poet self who thought that it was a good idea to stop in the middle of Fa Yuen Street Market on a busy day— which is any day, any time, really— and jot down these very lines which emerged from the music she heard, never minding of the real time moving forward as crowd after crowd swallowed her up and passed.
I think of how my husband always finds me.
My husband Brian who makes the world a better place.
Often I think of him when I want to give up on a better tomorrow, a particular story that my husband’s mother told me that when Brian was only twelve years old, he used all his money saved and bought his parents a couch for his own birthday.
I think of my physician friend Diane Chang, a brilliant writer who too often puts her writing on hold to treat and advocate for patients at Rikers, a mother who bikes in the rain and snow to Rikers, and gives of herself more than she has in her reserves.
I think of my mother’s tough love for the ESL children she works with, for very little money, telling them never to give up, never giving them the easy way out, never not showing up when they need her the most.
I think of my husband’s mother in whose arms I have cried, when my own birth mother would have never tolerated such “weakness.” And my husband’s mother explaining to me why my birth mother is so hard, unraveling a mystery in full that I’ve only understood intermittently, in pieces.
Now. And now, my father in law is patiently waiting for me to finish this.
I won’t wish you the hypothetical Happy New Year, but instead leave you with more words from fellow poets and writers on what they envision as a better tomorrow. Because while my poet self doubts as much as she believes, she will never give up on the power and possibility of new visions.
Because change is inevitable and out of our hands as much as it is our responsibility.
Because why speak (of a better tomorrow) when you can sing.
— Rosebud Ben-Oni
Because I hadn’t visited my father’s grave in too long, I struggled for a second to find it in the cemetery lawn today. It’s been two years since he died, and for some reason I thought this time I would know what to do at the foot of the plaque with his name and dates and the engraved roses that I chose the day of the arrangements.
I thought I’d sit on the grass and talk to him, tell him what I’ve been up to, but I couldn’t. Didn’t know how. In truth, I never knew how to talk to my father, an emotionally distant man further hindered by a lifetime of brutally exhausting field labor for almost no money. I knew to talk of cars and the weather when he was alive and not much else, even when in the last few years of his life the anti-immigrant sentiment in this country began to grow so, that he began carrying his passport as proof of citizenship at all times, just in case, because he was a Mexican immigrant with no English.
The history of inadequate parent/child relationships is all too common, and that is what troubles me today—a year into Trump’s presidency, a few months into the purge of sexual predators from Hollywood, a few weeks from the dawn of the New Year, when we’re supposed to envision a better year, a better future. So much wrong that we were taught was buried in the past – police brutality, white supremacy, sexism – is now fully surfacing, and I’m having a hard time knowing where to start wishing. I imagine the countless victims of all this wrong with children at home, returning to their homes to parent after a day of exploitation, brutality, harassment. I want to wish for a future where children have better relationships with parents who aren’t exploited or brutalized or harassed. Maybe then the future will have a better chance of being better.
I didn’t have the kind of talk that I wanted with my father today, but as I turned to go, I found myself saying: Bye, Dad, I’ll be back soon. And I thought, well, that’s something.
—José A. Rodríguez
My son turns two this week. And so there’s a new, strange brightness around these thoughts about the future and about what “better” might be, what being “better” might demand of us. This year—especially in its dying throes—has felt like a parade of calamities. Each day there’s a getting-up hoping for the world to fix itself, but, ultimately, also a knowing that we can’t possibly dispel the dread entirely. There’s work to be done. It takes imagination.
1. Most every class or workshop I’ve taught in 2017 has incorporated Gabrielle Calvocoressi‘s gorgeous, heart-fraught “Praise House: The New Economy” in some way: we’ve read it aloud as a chorus; we’ve drawn up our own lists of images, our own awestruck catalogues of thanks; we’ve discussed her dedication and how our poems are in conversation with the poems we admire, the friends who are our dearest mentors. I invite them to make room for beauty. I invite them to hold onto this couplet however they can: “And justice. And cities burning / if people need to burn them to get free.”
2. I watch a lot of children’s shows. Cartoons and educational walkabouts where everything talks and dances and asks questions. And it’s impossible not to notice all the different languages spoken and shared, how there’s enough room for all sorts of families in their worlds, for laughter and invention, for tumbling wonder. If only we could guarantee ourselves a tomorrow like that.
“Smarter, Stronger, Kinder” is the new song that plays with the ending credits of Sesame Street.
I sing it along with my son whenever it comes on, especially at the refrain. We point at our temples, flex our arms, press our hands to our hearts.
—R. A. Villanueva
i am happy when i make others happy. as i look towards a more perfect tomorrow, i have to sharply draw in my breath and remind myself that i am not going where i really want to be going. i won’t ever be able to heal from my traumatic brain injury, become a confident billionaire playboy, be physically capable of being competitive in most activities, or achieve with perfection and charisma social connections that i dream of having. but i hold in my hand the keys to my own building: words. it is not anyone else’s but mine. in that building, i don’t have to be how another believes i must be, nor must i believe what another does. here, i write my own present, the now i exist in. but when it comes to observing the rest of the world, i see that there are parallels that disturb me. out there, connections must be built, communication must take place, and harmony must be reached. otherwise, dissension will never heal, progress will never happen, the metaphorical house will fall, and isolation will give into tribalism. my injured self should not translate to an injured world, because survival is maintaining, not destroying.
— erik lee
Yesterday a student stopped by my office to talk about memory: specifically, how because the neurochemical processes the brain undertakes to store memories alters those memories, the dividing line between imagining, feeling, and recalling is tenuous at best.
I remember specific leavings on and behind the conveyor belt–stray can of cat food, an accidentally ripped-open block of orange WIC-approved cheese, leaky chicken streaks, errant husks and stems and threads of split-apart produce–present the moment I first started forgetting things.
A woman had paid but forgotten a bag of groceries. When she returned, I didn’t remember her–or her items that I’d packed–at all. I reached towards recall, but for the first time, and in a gesture that would repeat itself dutifully for the rest of my life, I encountered blankness. As I touched the ice cream in the bag she’d left, not sweat-beaded in the least, and asked her to show me her receipt, timestamped five minutes earlier, her suspicion of me reflected my own.
Therapists have explained that while I may sense it as a personal failure, my forgetting is related to moments of trauma I experienced in high school that rewired me a little. Those are outside the scope of this writing. But as a nearly straight-A student and 20-hour-a-week cashier, I felt the loss acutely. I grasped internally towards anything to keep me achieving. Readily available was emotion, which until then I’d avoided mightily. Locating feeling in my body–shame, tenderness, terror, hopefulness–was the means by which I learned to remember things, a perhaps literal re-membering that no longer permitted me to live severed from wells of feeling. Propelled by worry, I practiced. I found that if I observed my feelings, listened intently, even to the ones that in that time threatened to drown me, real independent thinking arose. Now I am thankful for the forgetfulness because feeling is how I learned to think.
At first I wanted to write about imagining as a liberatory practice. There’s a lot right here and now to be concerned about: the militarization of the americas and the persistent threat of violence against our bodies, particularly brownskinned and queer bodies; about our food supply; about surveillance; about the ways in which we must struggle to satisfy our essential needs. How these misdirections constantly work against us as we fumble towards imagining and enacting positive, healthy and loving structures and relationships.
Imagination requires a commitment to feeling. So much encourages us not to feel, especially privilege, especially trauma. It is possible to decide not to feel, or for our feelings to become suddenly inaccessible. Feeling is inconvenient and can be laborious. We might avoid it to not be or appear vulnerable or to avoid reckoning with our own stunning loneliness. But of course parcelling the self costs us. When I do not feel, my ability to construct authentic thought and to take responsibility for myself is diminished. I can become pedantic and defensive, obtuse and destructive towards what I love, because I cannot imagine loving it at the moment I do not love.
Love is good. Listening and feeling are good. To move towards a tomorrow in which we thrive, we imagine little bits of tomorrow, and even tomorrow’s tomorrow. Audre Lorde’s thinking about the erotic is useful here, as is the motto my casually brilliant friend Carina del Valle Schorske uses to instruct her comp classes: “Thinking is feeling, feeling is thinking, and thinking and feeling are writing.” Our solutions live in our bodies. So too does our imagining and our ability to reckon forwards and within.
In truth, I can only envision a tomorrow in which we are doing the very things we are doing now. We have always pushed the limit. We have always lit a fire, siempre excarvando llanto when the world wants to ignore us, when people want to send a brown or black body to jail, out of the country or even when in our own countries (even in this vey country) a brown or black body in “authority” wants to do us harm. I keep seeing all our words, all our sufrimiento, all our convivencia, as acts of nourishment. I can say that no matter where each of you are, I hope my words feed you as much as your work feeds me. Each one of us, we live, we echo, we light up.
I see a future where all of us are writing new things, performing new acts, publishing and editing voices that are necessary. I see us organizing events that are fruitful – by this I mean, we aren’t just putting the voices that need to be heard out there, but also sparking a llama in the bodies of people who have yet to see themselves as writers. It is one thing to have a literary event or an arts event be the talk of the day, to have a packed house of people who need to hear and see this work, but to encourage a change in thought, to help a click in the head occur. How warming is that? Can you imagine? Have you seen this? That moment when a person who has never thought they themselves could be a writer, could speak a truth to power – that look on the face when they realize they have a story that needs to be told. That is where tomorrow begins.