Monday, April 19, 2010

The story behind the name.

My little trip to the far corners of my mind with my train story stirred up an old sensation I haven't felt in a long time, even though it was one that dominated many of my nights here in the States as I made my journey into adulthood. When I moved here from Malaysia at 19, the excitement overwhelmed my sadness of leaving my family behind. I had a future of new-world explorations that kept me busy, and I protected myself from homesickness by learning to adapt quickly to the new culture and assimilate, assimilate, assimilate. It wasn't difficult - years of American TV prepared me well.

Even then, there was a part of me that always felt like a misfit. I could change my clothes, my accent, my behavior, but I just couldn't change the fact that I had left a part of me behind, and what's left felt separate and hollow. As weeks and months turned into years, that hollowness morphed into a gaping hole. That was when I read Adrienne Rich's incredibly powerful poem, "An Atlas of the Difficult World", for grad school, and it spoke to me. That voice in those verses came from that hole, that darkness I could not reach or fully understand. While I was doing well in school and had many friends, something always felt amiss, except it was not known to me until after this poem began to take shape in my head.

However, that didn't unfold with each word I read. Nor did it happen overnight. I felt a kinship to that voice and decided to write a paper on it, but dissecting that poem only further entrenched the emptiness I felt. In the years that followed, I sought answers in all the wrong places, resulting in what seemed like covering a hole with mismatched jigsaw puzzles. It wasn't until I finally have my own little family now that I realize what that hollowness was - belonging.

In my attempt to procure a new identity for myself here, I had given up a large part of my own, until one day, I could barely recognize the girl staring back at me in the mirror. She was smiling with mirthless eyes. It brought me back to Rich's poem, where I felt like one of its characters fraught with melancholy - they were all where they had to be, not where they wanted to be.

The poem unleashed a tidal wave of sadness that was dammed in that dark space inside me, saturating my pores, and I was overwhelmed. Ironically, that was also when the healing began, when I realized that I couldn't just exist; I needed to belong. Finally knowing the ailment meant I could stop just treating its symptoms and start looking for my answers in the right places. I ceased clinging on to people just to feel whole and leaning to feel strong. Belonging no longer felt like losing my Self to something, but gaining clarity to another part of my Self. Eventually, it led me to this woman in the mirror, who is not just smiling with her eyes, she is laughing. And dancing. With her family. And happy. Happy. Happy.

While I continue to empathize with the characters in the poem, I feel like I have broken away - I am no longer one of them. It took me awhile to get here. But I'm here.

from An Atlas of The Difficult World
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains' enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

An astute reader like you would have noticed that I adapted the title to my blog from this poem. This an homage to the voice, the "I" from the verses, that marked the beginning and ending of the black hole that almost engulfed me. Depending on how you look at it, "Here Where I Have Landed" may either sound like I have arrived here quite by accident or by a premeditated course charted by Google maps.

In my case, both are true.

[image source:]