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