No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life. — Loren Eiseley


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I’m sorry to Fox Sparrow. Because the dark became darker, and for primordial reasons no one knows, he returned. How did he reckon with the absence after so many years. His ancestors knew of my frontyard and told him somehow, so that he trusted it as a place for sustenance, to fly thousands of miles for this one square foot of shrub. And one year there was nothing.

Now I return to Fox Sparrow.

The figures on top of the architecture here look down, disdaining on our frenzy. They have stood there so long that no one identifies them, relegated minor celebrities now ignored except by erosion and pollution. Sacred space, he said. What do they say from up there about down here. Fox Sparrow flies over them, and I bustle under them, from one cathedral to another, one painting to another.


(Rimini 1300’s, Padova)

And how thanks can be welcomed now, now long enough on this cobbled plaza to understand most of life is forgettable tasks and losses and then precious bursts of presence.  The self-flight of wanting the outside world to adapt to my needs. When really life is all that I needed, even if I only realize it now, hundreds of years later, says this old dusty part of the world. The other drivers madly suicidal, pressing against an imagined self-important destination. So many masterpieces, they blur.

The sum of history, the robber barons and politicians and corrupters careless in their selfish deals, so that an Angelico or a Bellini could escape. Luckier still that someone noticed something there after the floods and the rot. There is art in there, after all.

That is no way to say goodbye, to be stilled in the instant of loss and mourning. In a back room they discovered his final and unfinished Pieta. Who is holding up who, and whose arm is lifting what. And how it looks as if it could topple at any second.

A flight of memories all of them loving even the cruel ones, thank you. Grief is here, too. He tells me, yes the continual parting from which all thought emerges, but it’s the same place same thing that greets what I hold close to me. Sometimes too long. What breaks the heart is mostly heart. And laughter and flesh and thanks. And sometimes catching the ecstatic edge to all this openness, the immense out there, the terror of all possibility. And then having to pack yet another school lunch.

Our performance, this bird and this life, the reverberation is aliveness. Where the play is the only thing to watch and engage — not the players. If only we let ourselves be forgotten. Then we can return to ourselves, however no longer ourselves, but Fox Sparrow. The unfolding self and an empty tomb, completely miraculous. Empty without obligation.

I’m not a believer in anything except Fox Sparrow.


(Performance, “Annunciation.” From Requiem: Welcome Home to Un-Home, 2017. By Summer Lee)




The Dialogue with the Dead Cannot Stop Until They Hand Over the Future that has been Buried with Them. — Heiner Müller


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I am not ready to talk about their immigrant bones, or the difficult stories that each bone box tells. And besides, most are missing, disappeared on the wayward routes returning home, displaced even after death. Or they are in almost-forgotten fields marked by stones that don’t hold names anymore, nonetheless narratives. Sometimes just numbers, sometimes just the memory held by someone’s grandson who saw him bury them over there under there somewhere. And in there could have been my non-existence. As we peered into one unearthed bone urn, the top exposed to the sky cracked open by neglect, he said, there is the way into the underworld.

I need to listen.

I am aware that each word here is an act of listening, opening a new space for the next word. And of my failings of projections and memory and desire and convention, so that some words spill out overwhelmed by chatter and are already dead. Listening, like love, comprises a reverberation between self and other, where words and acts seem to fall out gracefully and illuminated and are received as a welcomed guest.

“It takes two freedoms to make one.”

Even if my grandmother has been gone for twenty years, she speaks to me in a certain way. When she was here she couldn’t explain anything about her childhood or her crossing to the United States, except that she had a favorite brother who died young, she didn’t know how.

By dint of so many unlikely arrangements to explain here, she brought me last week to a 700 year-old village in southern China. A group of villagers greeted me with their own generous hospitality to take what evidence I had and prove it was her home. Easily, she could’ve been from a village destroyed long ago, or one where no one could help. Instead, she knew somehow. What they wanted of her to want of me to know. So I could sit in front of her burned brick house with the gift of her brother in a bone box of a suitcase I brought from his grave in Chicago. So I could witness as nothing and everything took place. I had given nothing. In a long string of no’s, I just had to say yes.

fra angelico prado 3

(detail from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Prado)

They asked me if it felt like my homecoming, and it didn’t. I don’t belong there in any way, or really anywhere these days.  For now, I feel I belong to her retreating voice hurled through different time zones. Or when my sons resign their sleepy bodies near mine. It wasn’t my homecoming but it was his, and hers to give him. At the modest home’s ancestral altar, she had returned her sweet, young brother to where he had just left months before he died, at age 21. He knew of no other home. Even if that year was 1924, it was last week.

In that moment of offering inside my grandmother’s childhood home, and earlier on that slave mountain where we hiked for hours with that suitcase to their humble tombs, I asked about home. The calls of the flightless geese from the farms surrounding the village were deafening. Eventually, I understood that he belongs with my grandmother on her mountain overlooking this ocean. Some migrations are irreversible.

There is a lot of fear in listening, of unanswerability, of surrendering to silences too long to bear. In her words, it is the absence that the child can tolerate from the mother and no longer. It wants to choose a withdrawal into a security rather than the uncertainty of new countries, new losses, a new home. Maybe in those spaces created by fear is where unhousedness began, because security is a delusion we need to rest in.  The beginning lines of a tragedy. But a great awakening is at the bottom of a tragic flaw. Tragedy reminds us of our human dignity, opening us up to all possibilities, whereas fear has us only hear what we don’t want.

In southern China where my grandmother is from, more people have left than live there today. Thousands of years ago, her earliest Han ancestors brought their family bones when they migrated from the north to the south. Still now they practice a second burial tradition, where years after the first funeral, bones are cleaned and moved to an ancestral tomb. During the first waves of overseas immigration, arduous arrangements were made for those who died abroad to have their bones returned to their ancestral villages, tens of thousands of bone boxes crossing oceans and borders. But then history changed and almost all of the bones don’t come back anymore. Some I visited are stuck in transit and have been for a hundred years. The odds they will go back to their ancestral homes are near-impossible, but they are a living-dead memorial that continues to cry out for all of us, I want to go home.


(Bone boxes in Tung Wah Coffin Home, Hong Kong, awaiting repatriation.)

So I can forgive those who won’t go, won’t listen, whether they immigrate or not. They don’t go, because maybe the risk is just too much unknown, too much disappointment, the fear that some pain is bigger than us. The greater the connection, the greater the vulnerability when it becomes absent. When I think of moments when I didn’t think I would survive, I remember the scary way my son was brought into the world, when I wanted to be nowhere near what I was experiencing. After losing a lot of blood, I asked my mom to not let me cross over. I discovered then that the over there is so close. Even though I bore it, it was too much to bear.

An angel appeared soon after and spent time with me.

I expected she would say, oh stop, you weren’t even close to going over.

Instead she said, you were close to there, and you could have gone over. But, she added, I know you would have returned. It wasn’t your time. And it shifted something and the nightmares ended, but I understood. We all have our mundane annunciations.

“The wisdom of love is that it isn’t always safe but it is always truthful.”

All of them, alive or in bone boxes, are telling me stories of un-home and home, and underwriting my own restless search for one. Home is certainly not in these small houses of cautionary being, toppled by each new intrusion of life. If so, my sons would not be here. I wouldn’t be here either, along with all the moments when immense gratitude and beauty overwhelmed me. Home seems to transmute from the relentless feeling of loneliness and displacement. Nathan said maybe we hover home, and reminded me that home, if it exists, enters only in the here and now and leaves. And it does seem to be a here of reception and not fear, even if the guest turns despotic or worse. “But without the gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.”

Who knows what I will hear next.

In leaving China back to my temporary un-home, I followed her original route over an uncertain ocean. And I could imagine their bone boxes passing, going the other way. They pass by me, holding things I realized I had also lost, maybe continually losing as I keep living, and they are returning to the spaces I just left.

The same man who taught me most directly about tragedy, and therefore the beautiful fragility of presence, gave me a life-long address for this route: In welcoming a guest, you have found your home.

“Such a caring for death, an awakening that keeps vigil over death, a conscience that looks death in the face, is another name for freedom.” — Derrida


Dai Wan Village cemetery, Toisan.

Welcome home to un-home.


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Non Omnis Moriar

The first bird I met here was half-dead. A Cape May Warbler, my first ever. It had collided with a Chicago building like thousands that do every year. It stood frozen still on the rooftop as I toured the 11-story, urban school for my son, as if warning me of the impending experience there. The Cape May is one of five million migrants and dwindling, but in this season, they still show up as clouds on weather radars every evening as they take into the darkness and as they rest to feed by sunlight.

They must survive the buildings, but also the endless Midwest miles of recently invading soy and corn fields, where there is ironically no food for them. They trace along the lakefront, which is where I found my cathedral among the starving and vulnerable. This church is simple, and the faithful are sensitive souls as they gently but enthusiastically ask me, did I see the black-throated blue warbler over there?

It’s true that in the end love is why. And also, as she crystallized in fragile words, nothing brings so much pain as love.

A third of the first shipment of bone boxes from the United States back to China were empty. Most immigrants back then wanted to be buried in their ancestral homes. They were also not welcomed here. Despite vast impoverishment, the family associations made arrangements to clean the bones and ship them on a 30-day ocean journey via Hong Kong, from where they would be delivered into China. The empty ones were soul-summoning boxes, when their were only names, when bodies could not be located. Something had to migrate home.

Some never made it back. Some are stuck in transit, in boxes in a storage house in Hong Kong, where they opened an empty one for me. When I saw it, I cried uncontrollably. And when I came to, I remembered Faure’s requiem.

Some are still waiting in my hometown, like my great grandmother. And here I had thought the Chinese village name on her tombstone was for biographical purposes only. When in fact, like so many others, it is an unkept promise of a more final return home.  No matter how many children they birthed and raised on this soil, the burial here is temporary. Address labels with no postage, the stone mark of their villages is a question mark of an eternally unanswered request, beseeching unwitting visitors, please take me home. The village name, possibly of a village that doesn’t exist anymore, is a way the dead stay alive. Yes, never dead if your progeny visits and honors you. After all, if someone remembers you, you still exist. But here it is not ancestral worship either, just an endless restlessness for homecoming.

(The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1425-6)

The neighbor in Chicago to the right voted for Trump and the grumpy one on the left asked to take down my bird feeder because it was bringing woodpeckers to her yard. I never saw a woodpecker at my feeder in California, who knows why not, but there are four kinds here. You wouldn’t understand what it is to stop feeding the birds of my home. There is no one now to track their yearly changes as well as their disappearances. To no longer hear their version of truths about migrations and the space they know between heaven and earth. So I set out to ask the strange birds of my new home.

It is cold and rainy as I hold my camera up to these birds. We join together in the hopeful uplift of these visitors, knowing also they won’t be here much longer. And I realized maybe this is the reason I was brought here, and why I must now live between two homes.

It was also cold and rainy when I found him at the nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave. The Hong Kong assignment led me to review my grandmother’s INS interrogation from 1925. In it, her father describes burning the documents of her oldest brother at his gravesite. To erase any reminder that he had died in Chicago, the year before in 1924, at the age of 21 of a sudden illness that is of poverty. The confused clerk looked at me strangely, the white lady who presented his romanized Chinese name, but soon enough they found him on a hand-written map. Minutes later, the groundsmen took me to a field and paced off the coordinates — and there in the middle of fucking Chicago, I had found his bones.

She said, it’s as if I had to become displaced to find my family.

(In my imagination my grandmother’s family experienced one Chicago winter because thank you god they quickly moved to San Francisco.)

And if you have ever uttered a word thinking your dead would hear, you understand the birds. And you also know that all real happiness sets you on the edge of loss. As Judith and I ended our two hour phone call, a Cerulean Warbler flitted across my driveway. It was here and gone so quickly, it exists in the realm of doubt. But somehow my grandmother knows I am listening.



Even if I don’t see it again – Nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does–

and so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as toward a place, but it was a tilting within
myself, as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

— Marie Howe

“Philosophy is really homesickness; the urge to be at home everywhere.” Novalis


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(A deconstructed bird nest for a new art project.)

When we turned the car west, the miles of snowy Sierra pines and stone pushed into greenly-wooded foothills and then into rolling brown scrub of the Pacific. Only a few birds can make a home in all three geographies, as most birds are specialists. As we flew along, something was being pulled from the middle of me, the fragmentation that occurs in the process of becoming not at home.

They would hold him there until I could arrive to say goodbye. Goodbye to who or what I am not sure, but we kept on driving because a monument was in the making.

This is what comes to mind right now as the fog is peeling back over my coastal mountains from which my plane is turning on the runway. East-bound, a one-way route.

John Berger says home is the vertical line between the gods and the buried dead. It’s one that can move along the horizontal of human mobility, but he admits some emigrations disconnect. Nomadic tribes no nothing of this. Home travels with them. Birds neither. They build the most tenuous nests for their most profound task.

I have written here before about needing to be at home in the state of unhousedness. When there is an ambiguous loss with nothing to bury, and no effable one to pray to. This of course means that there is so much glory here: laughter that stung my eyes, the epiphany of childbirth, improbable resonances with strangers, friends who are fixtures at every milestone, family there in an instant, and moments when the art came and made me disappear. Not to mention this light off the ocean. And it all is tied to this home.

I met a homelessness back in China several months before I knew of our move. It was there that I discovered something true that I still have no words for. And in this, I found myself lonely. In consolation, the thick bamboo forest offered me a dark and aching embrace, but there was nothing to hold on to. When will I learn that an attachment to loving moments quickly drains them. This resistance is the artist’s mischief and rebellion — to try to extend the present moment, to give presence, to still a nearing god.

That moment in China, as is happening on this plane, something fell undone into her pond with the splash of a thousand fish about to be dinner. She built a life story inside ten kilometers of that pond, and I was from ten thousand kilometers away. The epiphany of scaffolding, smothering beliefs, and cloying security falling away. And resulted in the terror of a new vulnerability and uncertainty. A deepening of the divine recognition of fragility.

I am making this goodbye a self-indulgent monument, lovingly constructed of the small numbers of my childhood address held by the eucalyptus and coastal sage in the evening breeze yesterday. Also the threshold of every door and every word through which I greeted you and you greeted me, in the company of language-less ghosts who don’t seem to age. It leads one to draft absurd postmortem directions for the body, a future tense when I am no longer present, long after the goodbye. Here also are the wounds of possibility.


(Detail from my painting of cremated hummingbird, 2009)

“Inhabit vulnerability as a generous citizen of loss.” David Whyte.

“Only when we learn to transcend our earth-bound selves in love, learn to take ourselves not too seriously, do we begin to truly live.” — Karsten Harries

“Already the knowing animals are aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.” Rilke


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In the thicket of wild and obscure feelings, I want to have faith in the art of incantation.  Because I can’t but darken and over-organize the more luminous and playful energies in the inward privacy of a mind, I had stopped for so long.

But now there is so much uncertainty to invite me here.

The first impulse is to eulogize the land. To grieve the coastal mountains where I have lived all my life, now overlooking a sea-change, with only hazy constellations to navigate by.

Then the birds of my neighborhood, who will feed them now? Who will notice when Fox Sparrow arrives in the fall and leaves in the spring? Who will extoll how perilous and brave he is?

And then there are all my life-long loved ones…. And the ones who love my sons. The ones like me who don’t migrate and never have.

A few weeks ago, I was deep in the grand-mother land, under the green mountains jutting up like crowded tombstones in the fog of familiarly foreign languages. On one clear day I asked her about the lightening and thunder, and she said no, they are bombing the mountains to make way for roads.

I watched the locals prepare for Ching Ming, as I headed home. How it is that the snap of fireworks can cleanse the space of the afterlife. And yet the ways we keep the never-aging dead here with us. Along a new freeway — more of a battlefield than a road — I passed one ancient mountain where erosion had stripped the earth except for one gravestone. The simple tomb seemingly held up the core of stone and dirt and history. And the other unworldly mountains looked on and agreed. We had floated through those sentinels of ancient ink paintings on bamboo rafts. Our handsome raft-man says his family goes back 1500 years to that village, where now he can no longer survive on our one fare. So we helped him carry the raft upstream, and he let me miserably try to pole us as he so elegantly could. But I kept driving us into the riverbank where a lone woman kneeled among the rows of radishes over several lifetimes.

And they would apologize for being simple peasants, their words. And I begged them to know we dream their life. Except I know ours somehow has a deeper horizon — however unchartered, un-ventured and never satisfied. And our pastime of theorizing choices and opportunities when their doors open to another dark courtyard where the chickens scratch. But I sat by her fire and heard the pond language of traveling spring water and ate the fish they just took from there. All while the crickets and stranger frogs hummed oddities. I could place her here in my mind, like how one copes with an untouchable lover on a far-off continent. There I felt a new loneliness that lurked behind me in the bamboo forest, like a luxurious hotel room with no one to share the ache. And it has followed me home.

Because in the same day, I was driving down the street of my childhood home, firmly in an Americana that is iconic and unoriginal and unmoving. The same home that bore an insulated, however splintered child that never moved 30 miles from her birthplace. I arrived on that self-same street not by miracle of imagination but by dint of modernity and privilege and luck and post-human transportation and time changes. There are no words to describe that kind of return.

I cannot also romanticize that grand-mother-land — she is my fleeting sight of the glowing pheasant bird heralded in those ink paintings, digging through garbage behind the hastily-restored Great Wall.

Here is my love of grassy and vegetal air rising off the coastal scrub above the rough surf. The cliffs off which people much braver than I, with only fabric and string faith, jump into those circling updrafts. Here also are the voices of people droning on about sniveling inannities. Trying to escape from their own aching hotel rooms of life, like me.

Her migration was epic like Fox Sparrow’s. Not like ours to a new state. Maybe it is her cells flowing through me, carrying the trauma of torn roots that makes me feel otherwise. She came from so far to be buried here, now part of my mountain over this ocean, not one of those over his river. And I don’t want to go. God please don’t make me go. And I will go. I know and forget that all these minor heartbreaks are good practice for the final one, whichever mountain it will be.


(That fish.)

“I come to give you something, and it is the gift of my own beaten self.” — Oedipus at Colonnus


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IMG_3528(My son looking over a piece of whale blubber, April 2015)

For the third time since April, small crowds gather at the beach near my home to see yet another corpse of a dead whale washed ashore. Even for gawkers, an homage of solemnity surrounds this image of great defeat. A gentle and magical beast once gracefully at home in the mysterious reaches of ocean inaccessible to us, is now a heap of rotting surrender, rocking gently in the most derelict of slumbers by the relentless waves. Feet away from our local strip mall.

When we read Oedipus, he pointed out the passive structure of the line — the gift of my own beaten self. Because that is what happens when our will fails, we can no longer act. In those moments when we worry about the increasingly acidic and inhospitable ocean, we pick garbage off the beach, we sign petitions, ban plastic bags, we are careful about what sloughs off into our gutters leading to the sea. And I can’t help but think that this third beacon, a totem of majesty now throroughly exhausted, signifies that it doesn’t matter. And a part of me is like that slumped over dark mass of hopelessness, filling me with deep apology. And like a true gift, there is only a response of stillness — not transaction — just acceptance.

The first whale in April was a headliner. It was a 49-foot sperm whale, a species rarely washed ashore because they are at home so far from land. My son and I stood at the perimeter to pay our respects. In the meanwhile, scientists butchered the prized corpse for data. “Why did it die?,” my son asked. A spokesperson from the Academy of Sciences fielded questions, for some reason focusing mostly on a British vacationing family, whose youngest son was poking irreverently at a dead, starved seal pup a few yards away. While we eavesdropped, the spokesperson told them some facts about the sperm whale and what the scientists were looking for. “Why did it die?,” again. She recounted that the whale was later in life, because his teeth were worn down significantly. “Why did it die?” Then she added that although emaciated, the whale had a big meal of squid in his entrails. “Why did it…?” Finally she addressed my son, mostly to stop the grating repetition known only to young children who are ignored and don’t realize the futility of trying not to be. “We don’t know.”

Analysis is a form of subordination, of trying to assert a superiority. Steiner asks, do you ever find a representative from a faraway subsistent tribe in the middle of a North American city, studying our first-world behaviors? Most thinking is indeed a form of self-establishment, of self-congealing.

In real thinking, he said, you almost disappear. There is an intense turning towards — and it is to be in love with everything around you. But here, I go back and forth, wanting to know why so many dead things are being hurled against our shore, and I am met with a harsh refusal.

It is a crisis of consciousness to try to make beautiful things in what can be described as very unbeautiful times. As Steiner says, music never says no. And my god, there are so many seductions coaxing me away from real-art making, even just the projection of myself into this very writing — which Steiner says is an act of a minor craftsman falling short of any originality. But I must give testimony, for the hope that art happens and shows us the freedom not to be. A freedom that sometimes enters after the beaten self is off-stage, dissolving slowly into the sea.

“whatever we lose like a you or a me
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea” — ee cummings

Detail of Turner's Burial at Sea

(Detail from Turner’s Burial at Sea painting, 1842)

“Song leads us home to where we have not yet been.” — George Steiner


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As the intensity of morning light increases, it signals to different species of birds when to start their morning song. Each bird is prompted to sing by its own special light.

When I visited China, I had in hand my grandmothers INS interrogation which detailed the few belongings they had in hand when they left China, as well as the several dead, young and old, they were leaving behind. In it, she also recounted a gold ring her father had brought to her from America that she lost. I would inherit this reminder of impossible frugality like a mistaken familiar voice in a crowd. As my own trip wore on, I was accumulating breastmilk that I pumped every few hours for relief, but also so that I could return home to nurse my child.

After dumping a heartbreaking amount of milk in China, I persevered the survival of a small frozen stash of milk through five cities (via ferries, taxis, subways, three domestic planes, and a train, all between four separate hotels) and finally across the Pacific ocean home.

By Summer Lee (Photo of pouring my breastmilk off the Great Wall of China, 2014. Summer Lee)

This trip symbolized the means of how an artwork based on my grandmother would come to be exhibited in the region where she was born. And soon, it will enter the permanent collection of that museum, as if I were the unwitting intermediary to repatriate her bones.

Several years ago, I was contacted for a potential exhibit at a university a few hours from my home, a show which took years to come to fruition. Finally this last week, during the same time my grandmother’s piece is in China, the show opened, and one of the paintings chosen for this exhibit is a watercolor of my grandmother’s husband, my grandfather, who was born in the same unlikely town of Stockton, where the university exhibit is located.

I don’t know if birds have homes, but I imagine they are more at home in the state of homelessness than I am, singing on account of the light, as much location.  In this winter of coincidental homecomings for my grandparents, I have become unhoused at the bird feeder of my yard. After so many years, a grasshopper sparrow, a spritely, smaller-sized, streaked sparrow, who was committed to my feeder winter after winter, has not returned. I will never know why, and I have no bones of his to return, nor an understanding of where his song might be.

This dawn chorus is ever a changing one.


(Photo taken by my friend, of where the restored Great Wall meets the ancient wall, 2014)

“Trust is the initial condition for gifting, even being open to betrayal. We are governed by normalities but that needs to fail, or let be failed. Art encourages us to go outside that safety of normality.” — Takeyoshi Nishiuchi


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I am accustomed to a certain sinking kind of defeat after my art goes up in an exhibition. A colleague of mine who has exhibited far and wide told me that after every show he cries a little, then gets back to the studio to make more.

There is, of course, always the sense of falling short of art’s potential, always. But there are the inevitable dysfunctions of gallery spaces and the people surrounding them. Work returned damaged. Being forced to use a gallery’s caterer who egregiously upcharged for cheese and wine.

In this case, several instances coalesced into an impending collapse. I had travelled so far and so expensively, leaving my new baby boy at home for several days. The young and frenetic museum installers botched the frame around my piece. My installation room was in an unintuitively-accessed corner of the building. During the media presentation, I almost tripped over the cardboard box from my piece, abandoned on the floor of the hallway like a turd.

It could have been the jetlag, the nagging pumping of breastmilk, or the moment when my hometown curator hung her head and expressed regret that I didn’t push for more of my work to be included. It also could have been that the first greeting I received at the media opening was from a “famous” artist who didn’t pause to convey her surprise at how I didn’t look Chinese because my nose was so big. I was sent back to a six-year old self in the face of “What are you?”‘s from adult strangers trying to piece together my fair mother and my dark appearance.


Realm of the Heart, by Zhu Yiyong

(The Realm of the Heart no. 1, by Zhu Yiyong. Oil on Canvas. 2013)

The weight of failure contributed to me being a few minutes late to what was a spectacularly surreal, over-funded opening ceremony. Apparently, in this area of the world, it is commonplace at museum openings to hold an event where a gorgeously coiffed talk-show host emcee’s a number of speeches and trophy awards (trophies and cash awards for best art in show!) with video acceptance speeches, complete with music to fill in the pauses like I’ve only seen on the Academy Awards. Lots of speeches are made (in my ignorance of Mandarin, I understood nothing), dignitaries are noted, ribbons are cut, pictures are taken, and then more pictures are taken — then everyone watches a very serious, too-long performance-art piece of young people in tights wrapping themselves in string — all before entering the otherwise beautiful museum space.

Like the one to be picked last for a dodge ball team at recess, I stayed behind.

As my friends and I posed for our own photos on the deserted stage, my curator found me and said a journalist wanted to interview me. She advised me to grant the interview since it was for the area’s biggest paper, and the curator would help interpret into English. After the journalist’s initial questions of whys and whats and my half-hearted responses, I finally admitted that artists should not talk about their work. That my job is to set the initial conditions for the art to enter, but the more I talk about it, the more I destroy those conditions. She seemed to agree. But her assistant still asked, did I mean for the lantern to reference the historical Chinese lantern? This time, I turned the question back to her, and she said, yes, very much it does. I said, good. Sensing her initial exuberance fading into dissatisfaction, I then asked the journalist to tell me what she made of the art piece, why she wanted to ask me about it in the first place. She paused. Then spoke as if thinking aloud. My curator slowed down her interpretation, it felt in order to represent her sentiment with an impossible exactitude. She uttered, “When I held up the light to the piece and discovered that I was participating in the picture’s disappearance, I felt something miraculous occur.”

Realm of the Heart, by Zhu Yiyong

(The Realm of the Heart no. 12, by Zhu Yiyong. Oil on Canvas. 2013)

Her words fell out so elegantly like a poem and I began to weep. I still weep when I think about her earnestness, her gift. I apologized for my helpless tears, and told her it had been a very long day. She said her day had been very long too, traveling to the museum from Guangzhou, but that my piece had made it worthwhile. I then saw that the curator’s eyes were full of tears, too. Fumbling and raw, I explained to her that after a hard day, she had very simply reminded me that this is about art. That she had in some way restored my faith in art.

I turned away, now embarrassed that I would have to let the rawness drain out in order for it to dry up. And I let my curator friend continue a discussion with her in their language. Eventually, she asked for some photos of the work, so we walked towards the museum where we were denied entrance because of the yet to be finished performance piece. We took a detour through the mezzanine of the museum yard, when suddenly an egret floated by, crossing over us so strangely. And to my friend, I quietly said, hi Grandma.

“It’s better to be neglected.” — Xu Tan (One of China’s most famous artists), to me, as we left the museum opening.




The Realm of the Heart, by Zhu Yiyong


“Ah, not to be cut off, not through the slightest partition shut out from the law of the stars. The inner — what is it? if not the intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.” — Rilke

The wistful sigh-song of the Golden Crowned sparrow in my twilight yard means it is mid-autumn, and they have returned. They usually bring a lift to my heart, otherwise sinking at the thought of another summer gone. The sounds of an inward ritual for the intuitive mourning of the fading daylight. But many haven’t returned to the feeder yet, I suspect because the neighbor’s fat, black cat, named Tater Tot by my son, hovers around their tree. The owner has stopped loving Tater Tot in the ways cats demand, so he saunters from his home to perch on our side of the street where our other neighbor feeds him, and where he apparently receives the necessary recognition, even if it is me yelling profanity at him.

Tai told me that tragedy was born when the individual came to be, when one voice was singled out from the chorus. And tragedy has a way of reminding us we are just a small particulate in a sea of uncontrollable tides. How we are both parts and the whole comprising the endless ocean of being.

Watercolor by Summer Lee, 2014

(Detail of watercolor on paper, by Summer Lee, 2014)

By the undertow of that uncontrollable sea of humanity, I did not receive many belongings of my grandmother’s upon her death. Strangely though, I later discovered a journalist’s notepad, with pages upon pages of obsessive, penciled cursive. It was the travelogue of my grandfather when they joined a small church tour to China in the 1960’s to donate money to some organization. It becomes clear within a page or so that he would go to his notebook not only to document the logistics of their travel (poorly) but mostly to complain in a way that one does to self-congeal. He was born in the U.S. My grandmother had come here as a young girl. His writing is annoying in his superiority, as well as his utter lack of mention of my grandmother.

The only writing he grants her, though, is cinematic in my mind. In the Forbidden City, he observes quite tersely, almost with disdain, when my grandmother sees an impoverished mother and child and quietly leaves some money nearby for them, as she knows begging is illegal. What it was that echoed in my grandmother’s heart at that moment, I can only imagine.

Performance with Karen Ficke and Adam Hathaway, 2014

(Art performance with Karen Ficke and Adam Hathaway, 2014. Writing my grandmother’s Chinese birthname with mops and water, on the bridge connecting Chinatown and the Chinese Culture Center. My grandfather was a janitor before going to school.)

At 12 years old, like many others, my grandmother had crossed our ocean. On her way, she spent time in Guangzhou, which has since then grown by 10 million people. As we pave over our luminous ruins, what darkens, what do we forget?

But he reminds me: tragedy does make us remember who we are. Tragedy is our homecoming to being. And so is art.

As I cross over what was once the endless horizon, over our oceans, to the place that was so tragic for my grandmother (why else leave one’s home) — I wonder what homecoming, hurled through with strange birds, she left there to find me. If what has been silenced can still echo in my own heart.

“Greek tragedy honors human freedom in that it allows its heroes to struggle against the superior, the exceeding power of destiny. … But man’s defeat crystallizes his freedom, the lucid compulsion to act, to act poetically, which determines the substance of the self.” George Steiner, Antigones

Breastmilk, by Summer Lee, 2014(

My China Breastmilk Fund, 2014. Pumped milk to feed my baby while I am gone.)

“…wherever gods are in flight.” — Heidegger


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“No god can be held fast by a mortal: but the poet may, in stillness, bring to a stand the passing-by of the god, by speaking what the god has given him to speak. The poet in stillness, stills the nearing god.” — Laurence P. Hemming on Heidegger.

The gods are in flight.

Heidegger wrote that, and he also wrote that they can be near. But they aren’t here. I don’t know if he meant it in the sense I have as doubt is my glass darkly. But somehow his words prompt my own. But who can write into the unknown without just a few glints of necessary faith.

Heidegger’s fugitive gods were certainly about his pessimism about our modern forgetfulness of being. He also wrote that gods need the hearts of feeling men. And I remember how my heart lifted at the return of the Fox Sparrow to my yard a few days ago, as he has the last several autumns. Last winter, a new pair joined him, bringing an unprecedented three fox sparrows scratching below the feeder. How they knew to join him, and his flock of Golden-Crowneds, I will never know. Where the other two are this year, I am not sure either.

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch Painting

(Detail of Hieronymus Bosch Painting, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” 1501)

My body is still betraying me, caging me in illness, the remorseful price of an early hope-filled pregnancy. The gruel involved in what were once rote tasks is also a block to the muse. Who in pain can muster an openness to offer hospitality to the unknown. Pain asks when, when will it be over, and in that way is anxiously future-oriented. Pain rarely wants to be at home with itself in the present moment — the moment of stillness needed to still a nearing god.


(Detail of Hieronymus Bosch Painting, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” 1501)

Like my birds, the gods need my heart in pain, and in glory. And I need them and call them back. One of my last of dwindling tools are words. But the permanency of words, the dispelling of mystery, can keep them at flight also.

And half of my grammar is unavailable to me. Not just because I am sick, but because it was a grammar we shared — and he took it with him into the underworld. An underworld I glimpsed with him and am terrified of. And like his ashes bellowing out of the crematorium a few days later, inhaled into my head with unspeakable dread, those words have broken up and are dispersed into a fading language I am not sure I have faith in anymore.

Hieronymus Bosch detail from Temptation of St. Anthony

(Detail of Hieronymus Bosch Painting, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” 1501)

A friend eulogizing the author Marguerite Yourcenar said, “God has loved me very well through certain people.” Breaking out from the dread is the light of gratitude for those certain people. To see each other completely and still love. Not easy because we take flight ourselves, we look away. But there are those people who have come to me and are the beacon for gods I may never have known, except that they are near, in flight, rising in flocks startled by these predatory words.

And it is in the dark, the extending nights, when Fox Sparrow migrates from his remote, unknown breeding place, following an ancestral path. He does not go gentle into that good night.

“Oh good Lord, who may escape from these snares?” — The Temptation of St. Anthony