Forrest Berries, Air Vents, and Invisible Daughters mo

Laughter and conversations surround me, but I strongly sense it is safe to pitch in only to the conversations in my own head. Why do I feel like a passing stranger among people I’ve known for almost two decades? Why can’t I find a single word to say to those whose first language is same as mine? And what is the name of the string that keeps me tied to my roots like a helium inflated balloon yearning futilely to float away into the clear of the sky? 

I rise to the hum of dinner conversations and make my way to the front corner of the room where a festive array of coffees and teas beckon me. That’s the only place in this entire building I feel like I belong in. But I don’t get there in time. A line forms in front of me. I take my place behind a wide-shouldered tuxedo and resolve to wait. 

I look lazily toward the wedding stage. My brother sits in the center of the long table, leaning towards my now sister-in-law. He looks up only when the reception director calls for the parents of the parties up to the stage. My father walks up to the stage. The director hands him the microphone. My father deliberates for a few seconds and then I hear him clearly and directly. 

“Miy pervenets!” 

The phrase jabs into my chest as if it has physical hooks. I inhale sharply and without permission, my whole body swirls to face the stage. There is a smile in my father’s voice. He looks at my brother with the pride I coveted only in my dreams and only when I was still very young and naive. My father calls my younger brother his oldest child. 

. . .

If I could touch belonging, my fingertips would tingle with warmth. Belonging holds the colors of a sunset and has a comfortable feel to it. To belong is to feel safe. To belong is to find a home for your wandering soul. To belong is to never question when and which one of your words or actions will deem you no longer worthy of affection in his eyes. 

I think to belong is to live in an oasis nestled smack in the middle of the scorched sands of the desert called life.  I think belonging is to know you are beloved. For an invisible daughter, to belong, I know, is to be chained to a caravan chasing after a mirage. 

. . .

People accumulate in a messy line behind me. I stand imobile. The soft click of heels next to me finally launches me back into reality.

“He is the oldest?” I peek at the politely smiling lady. I know her but I cannot recollect how or why. I turn my head no and point to myself. I don’t trust my voice at the moment. 

“Oh I didn’t know,” she says, lightly patting my forearm. I don’t either anymore, I silently reply. The tuxedo in front of me moves the left. I give the lady my standard tight-lipped “nice to awkwardly converse with you” grin and walk to the table. I pull at the first tea bag I see. Forrest Fruits reads the label. 

I think of forrest berries glowing in the evening sun rays. I think of the warmth I would feel had those rays kissed my skin. I think of the pride on my father’s face as he looks at my brother. I think of all the times my brother stood by my father’s side and all the times I left it. I think of the distance between a father and a daughter that vastly elongates as the years go by. And I think how the first step in my aching search for belonging involves unchaining myself from its illusions. 

. . . 

Selah sits across from me at the small Starbucks table holding a steaming cup of coffee with both hands. In the bleary late autumn weather, these small cardboard vessels radiate not only heat. They remind us both of comfort, coziness, belonging. They silently whisper us ancient tales of safety. I let the iron gates of my protective walls I’ve built with careful consideration over the years, slowly give way. She never told me in detail, but something tells me the girl in front of me knows the meaning behind the four lettered word “pain.” She is a holder of secrets. She is safe to let in. 

“Don’t mistake forgiveness,” she says, “with reconciliation. They hold two vastly different meanings.”

I look up from her hands and glance into her eyes. They are blue and deep, the color and essense of the ocean. They mirror mine, except in clearer climates. Today, there are grave storms in mine. Tonight, there is a tranquil sunset in hers. 

. . .

I always thought of forgiveness as something loud and dramatic and public. I thought of it more like a shout into the microphone. I never realized forgiveness relates much more closely to breath. To forgive is to breath out. To forgive is to let go. 

I turn away from the stage. I feel the breath I’ve been holding burn inside my chest. So I open my mouth. I exhale. 

I imagine my breath rise. I imagine it float up into the vents high in the ceiling. I imagine it escape into the precipitating December air. I imagine it being pulled down by the heaviness of a raindrop. I imagine it push its way upward. I imagine it finally unite with the clear of the sky. And belong there. 


I received news of my grandfather’s death at a Halloween party. 

I am sitting on a couch in front of the mounted TV and nervously chuckle at the parody playing itself out in probably my third viewing of Scream Queens. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I can’t help hearing my mother’s voice had she suddenly entered through the front door, a gust of frigid air kissing my face tauntingly. “Uzhas, Anyuta! Sho tu duvusya?” I imagine what I would say back. “It’s a parody Mom! It’s actually quite clever!” Excitement would rise in my voice. “It’s art, Mom! We both love art…” I would pause here feeling that little bird inside my chest stir a little. “Mom, if you just gave it a chance—just one chance—if you just sat here beside me and watched—you would see! You would see my story!”  

But I don’t respond. Like a light switch I simply turn both of our voices off. My studies tell me that my mother’s voice will be a part of me for a long time—probably a lifetime. That’s a factor outside my control. But I also have a voice, and it’s a matter to which of them I decide to listen to. That’s a factor in my control. 

Hershey’s chocolate bars line the edge of my friend’s living room table like gourmet plates I helped arrange for my brother’s wedding three months ago. I walked the rows of white-clothed tables with a stack of them in my arms, and  mused at the stark difference between my surroundings. Just an hour ago I was sitting in a dark room, clasping onto a wrinkled scene page, hoping the director did not notice how my hands trembled as he called my name to audition. I listen to the silence around me. I watch my brother’s fiancé lay a plate carefully beside mine. My mother is across the table from us. “So I just auditioned for my first play!” I tell the girl, my voice sounding calculated even to my own self. She smiles at me. “Oh yea?” she says, politeness smooth in her voice like honey on a wooden spoon. I inch closer toward my mother. I want to tell her. I take a breath. I open my mouth. I’ll tell her my story, damn it! But the words suddenly get stuck in my throat. My mother lays down her last plate.

Boundaries are two kids playing on a seesaw. Pros says “how much will my mother’s positive reaction delight me?” And Cons retorts with “how much will my mother’s negative reaction hurt me?” Cons, I realize, is usually the heavier child. He’s also the playground bully. I take another step in my mother’s direction. I stop. She walks away. 

The news come via two text messages, one perfectly timed after another. “Anyuta.” The word I hold dearest. It’s beautiful. It’s magical. It’s art. It’s the name my mother called me as I was first laid into her arms. She hasn’t stopped since, despite the many times I tried to convince her otherwise. The name of my earliest memories. The name my mother would have written on my birth certificate had the cultural formalities and the unspoken rules and what-would-people-say been cast aside. “Grandfather is dying.” The second text read. The text that jolts me. The text that causes the bird dash against the bars of my chest. The first text exchanged after a month of silence between me and my mother. In this moment I want to do what I always do in situations when pain sears like electricity through my veins—I want to run and hide away from the world. But a friend to my right is in the middle of telling me about her day and the friend to my right is listing things she will need for her recital this upcoming week. I feel tears welling in the corners of my eyes. I desperately try to grab onto the snippets of the chatter around me. “Let it go! Let it go!” my brain half scream-half sings Frozen’s most popular lyrics to myself. But pain no longer bids my orders. My tears sneak out onto my cheeks. I feel my body try to get off the couch in broken movements. I cough, hoping it will mask the emotions that are now too evident on my face. I sit back down. The chatter stops. 

I cry. But suddenly I don’t care to raise my hands to conceal my eyes. Instead I focus on the soft pressure of the hands of my friend as they wrap themselves around me and pull me close. I don’t care to cough or awkwardly laugh to cover the noise my runny nose makes anymore. Instead I listen in serene astonishment as the girl beside me begins to sniffle with me. And this time, I don’t calculate how many steps it will take to run up the stairs to the safety of the bathroom door. Instead I let myself fall into the chest pulling me to itself like the wall of a cocoon providing safety and nourishment to the transforming creature it contains. I let the arms around me read my story. 

We resemble plants, I think. A cactus cannot grow in the same environment as a peace lily, and an orchid will wilt where a daisy thrives. Me and my mother are houseplants wondering why we cannot grow in the same pot, establish our roots in the same soil, and sync our little plant hands to reach for the same sunlight. Yet we neglect the two instructional tabs carefully placed into the soil beside us by the hands of our planter. One tab is yellow and the other is red.

A week after the Halloween party I stand over my grandfather’s coffin. I extend my pointer finger, feel a soft prick of doubt and pause, then touch the waxy skin on his artificially folded hands. They used to pull me close as he read me Russian folklore from the books he would pick out from the international section of the public library. Nestled under his arm, I asked him many questions then. But I neglected to ask the most important. I never asked why he didn’t hold my mother as often as he held me. I never asked his story.

Leah of the Old Testament

I am Leah of the Old Testament. A woman well acquainted with trickery and the malice of men’s hearts. A woman named Unfavored. 

I am Leah of the Old Testament. A woman placed aside, though not discarded. Leah was expected to perform a job. But a job she never wanted. A job she never asked for.  Leah had to marry. Just not the man who could love her. I was dedicated as an infant. Dedicated to the authoritarian God of my father and the unsatisfied God of my mother. There were expectations over my life. I was to be a preacher’s obedient wife. I was to be a servant to a man. I was to be contently silent. I was to be bonded.

I am Leah of the Old Testament. Deemed ugly with my chubby cheeks and defective by my thick glasses, how could I ever compare to my beautiful sister over whom guests said words like “she will break many hearts,” and “she will have no problem finding love,” as she sat up in her crib, just a few months old. Or how could I ever compare to my brothers, male heirs with a natural birthright to be favored, placed over their female counterpart, even though she was the one born first. 

I am Leah of the Old Testament. They have tricked and cheated me. They gave me away to a doctrine that hated and despised me from that very first night in its arms. For twenty two years, I was the property of a church. I was a body to be subdued by misogynistic pastors and sexist preachers who convinced me the Devine put them in places of authority, and told me just how low I stand in Divine’s eyes. Not by what I did or didn’t do. But by who I was. I am a woman and therefore by default defective in the wise eyes of the Most High. Ironically, though the hands of Love fashioned my body for nine months, threading it in my mother’s womb, I was also despised by Love for having a curved silhouette, wide hips and breasts.

I am Leah of the Old Testament. I was expected to be beautiful and I was expected to have the correct vision. And when I could not attain either of those, I was deemed flawed. I was named Unfavored. Sometimes as I drift into sleep, phrases of the past float like lost paper boats through my mind. “Is this the example you are setting for your younger siblings?” and “I expected them to do that, but how could you, being the eldest, think to do that?!” Words spoken to me for so long, they became my life’s motto. Because, at five I was expected to perform as a ten year old, and at age fifteen I was expected to to have maturity of a twenty year old. The burden of the eldest was placed on my shoulders but without instructions on how to carry it, and without a guide to show me where to place my trembling feet. When at nine, I got lost in my games, and my brothers took the candy from the candy jar I was the one punished for it. I did not dare ask why and I was not permitted to present my case. My responsibility was to watch them and I failed. 

I am Leah of the Old Testament. I was expected to teach my younger sister on how to be a queen, even though the throne would never be mine. It was designed for her because she was the adorable one with dark locks of hair, olive skin tone, lean body, and eyes the color of the night sky. 

I am Leah of the Old Testament. I want the love that my sister has, but I receive the freedom that she wants. “Of us all, you are a free spirit,” she says as we bathe in the sunlight on her front porch, her rocking her youngest son, and I embracing her oldest. I glance at her and cannot help the smirk that betrays my heart, so used to live in hiding. My sister looks ahead with a glistening spark in her dark eyes. And I am thankful she doesn’t notice the tears that spring into my own. 

Because I am Leah of the Old Testament. I broke under the burden. My vision grew blurry from the liquid of pain, and I rebelled against the God of my father. Hearing a gentle call of Mysterious Affection, I walked away from the God of my mother. 

Because I am Leah of the Old Testament. I am free. But my fingers repel the feel of the metallic pressure of a band they seeked to place on my finger. Rachel was the bright light in Jacob’s eyes. But it was Leah they say the Divine favored. And it was Leah He blessed. It was Leah, they say He placed above all those who deemed her lesser. They say the Divine placed her above even her forefather Abraham. The Divine’s heart shattered by her tears and the Divine reached down and took her gently by the hand. “Let me be your lover,” the Divine told her, and made a covenant with her without pressure or convictions or visions of the Sahara Desert’s night skies painted by millions of stars. The Divine’s covenant with Leah was based on the Divine’s essence, the Divine’s heart. The covenant with Leah was based on love. For it was Leah through whom the God of Abraham created a nation for Itself. 

But Leah never saw the favor hovering over her life as a dove that hovered over her sister’s distant descendant, born in Nazareth, the land they called unfavored and executed in Jerusalem, the favored city. Leah outlived her younger sister. She became her husband’s only wife. But she never received what Rachel was given freely. She was never named Jacob’s favored. 

Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Mist


Sometimes I feel like a captive bird inside a white vintage cage with the fragile door wide open. I know the freedom of the wide sky although I’ve never seen it. I beat my wings inside the cage until I fall out. But I can never reach the sky. For I am hidden behind thick walls of a rich man’s mansion.  

I circle around these walls like the Israelites around Jericho. I hope the unconquerable granite will fall effortlessly, miraculously, brought down by the echo of my mere footsteps. I laugh at the ridiculousness of the notion. And I desperately hope it is true.

But the Jericho walls only rise. Arrows rain from their cracks. They wedge themselves in the spines of our weakest. A woman falls down, blood coming out of her mouth in the morning. In the midday a six year old boy hits the ground. For the first time he dared to leave his mother’s side and ran to the outline of the procession. He hits the dust with eyes rolled back. His head bounces like pebble from this scorched ground. I look up. The bright blue sky meets my dry gaze. The smoke descends on me with vengeance. I stare with burning eyes.

Every fiber of my being desires tears. But I cannot summon them. I forget how. I watch those around me call out to their God, their faces wet from weeping. They call him blessed as their daughters fall at their feet, blood seeping from their dusty tunics.

I ask God questions. I hurl them. Are you a liar? Are you a tyrant? Are you a sadist, wallowing in my pain? Do you shower me with empty promises to raise me like a helium inflated balloon just to pop me when I’m closest to someone’s ear? Do you taunt me with promises of the open sky only to slam the door on my flapping wing?

They turn to me with wide eyes. “How dare you?” they say. “Have you not seen his mercy? Or do you not see the pillar of fire guarding us at night? Do you not fear it consume you?”

I want to tell them that in the middle of the night, when sleep eludes me, I steal away to the pillar of fire. The fire converses with me. In its tongues I see battles won and I see lives lost. I’ve seen the terror on the Egyptian that maimed my sisters and killed my brothers as the waters filled his lungs. “I’m zealous for you,” the fire tells me. “I avenge you.”  In its brightness I see arms that grab the soul of the boy before his body hits the ground with gentleness even his mother could not muster. “I am here with you in sorrow,” it assures, “cradling your broken in my arms.” In the heat of the fire I hear the voice of the future. The clash of great walls falling. A victory cry in a million voices. “I’ll bring you victory,” it promises.

Somehow in those moments I understand. I momentarily believe. For just a second I see a clear picture. Momentarily enchanted, I do not doubt. One day they will fall. One day these walls will fall.

But the night fades into morning. I close my eyes to the brightness of the rising sun. I open them coughing. I see the impassible granite of the walls. I see casualties they call weak, falling to the ground. I see walls rising higher than the dust in my eyes. Smoke–or is it the pillar of cloud–suffocates me. A God I no longer understand fills my eyes with smoke. They burn once again.

I want to tell them that it isn’t the fire of the night I fear. It is the smoke that rises in the daylight. But I bite my tongue. I stay silent.

Call of the Railroad Mist

This is the picture mentioned in the excerpt 🙂

The call of the seagulls is the echo of the train. The scrunch of broken seashells under my feet is the sound of the tension of its movement.  The whisper of the gulf right below the tracks is the train’s persuasion to keep going.  But it is the horn that makes me stop in my tracks and tremble.  I hear its call. Its calling me to hop on and follow the tracks into the mist.

I rarely saw the train actually rolling on those old, curving tracks. But lost in the sounds of Seattle’s sea near which the tracks were laid, I imagined it coming, appearing out of the mist, so powerful that compared to it I was just a clump of seaweed that after breaking away from its kind, is rejected by the sea and carried to dry on the shore.  In the distance my family leaves imprints in the damp sand.  My mother steps over the seaweed carefully.  My father avoids it.  My little brothers run over it never noticing what caused them to stumble.  My little sister picks it up and carries it to show my mother who tells her to throw it down. I could hear the voices of my family calling each other–calling me–back to reality.

The curve of the railroad intrigues me today as I get tossed by the bump of the tracks under the wheels of my car every morning as I cross the railroad on my way to work in a small Tennessean Bible belt town of Cleveland.  A few days ago, right after crossing those tracks, I swerved, slammed on the breaks and almost crashed into a mailbox that is too close to the tracks in my opinion.  I got out of the car and pulled out my cellphone.  I stood in the middle of the tracks and tapped on the camera app. I tried to capture the mist.  But the camera distorted the darkness.  In a picture, the curve is almost invisible.

If I answered the call of the mist–if I breathed life into my dreams and made them reality–where would I be today?

I would travel. I would take these strings tying me down–a job, family, fear of the unknown, my favorite organizations and even my favorite people–and slowly, carefully, as gently as never before in my life, untie them.  I would fly away like a helium-inflated, yellow balloon.  I would collect airfare tickets like children collect seashells on their first trip to the beach.  Africa. Australia. Europe. South America.  I would overcome my crippling anxiety of lacking plan and purpose. I would learn to stand in the midst of danger by myself–alone.  I would force myself to learn how to live in mystery–how to travel on strange cabs and buses and trains with signs and posters the contents of which I won’t be able to read.  I would learn the art of evading eyes glistering with deception and the power of language-less communication. Perhaps there, in a Colombian hostel, I would lie on a thin mattress of the bunk bed and watch stars shine out the journey of my life in the foreign sky.

I would serve.  I’d venture to places I never imagined myself in–Honduras, Argentina, Thailand, Albania.  I would give my heart for small children to play with.  I would give my hands for old women to hold.  I would give my mind for old men to borrow from.  I would give my hopes for young girls to be healed by and my arms for boys to be held up by.  In the quietness of the evenings I would steal away to a pond or a nearby sand dune or a Moroccan tree.  I would sit in its shade and take out my pencil. I would scribble letters on the thin pages and mold them into tales and poems and essays. And once in a  while I would scribble a word spelling ‘bandage’ or ‘ointment’ or ‘healing.  I would smother them over my loneliness and with them fill the holes left empty somewhere in the giving.

I would learn. I would fly over oceans and sail over seas to bow before those whose soles have been made thick from years and sun-scorched sand.  I would marvel at the soft power of silk  as I would wrap myself in sari every morning.  I will hold hands–wrinkled or smooth or shades darker or hues lighter than mine–and dance to rhythms I have never danced to before.  I would sit among children and from them learn to pronounce words that drip off the tongue in angelic syllables.

Each morning as I cross the railroad on my way to work, I stare into the misty distance like birds in captivity stare at the open sky.  I can only imagine where the tracks lead. Caught in the web of my small town reality I have never ventured into the mist.  Caught in my reality I never found the courage to answer its call.

Silencing Reactions

Thank you, Google,  for the picture.

Like the previous entry, this excerpt is also part of a larger essay titled “Silent in the South” which I wrote a few months ago. 

Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong-American author of Latehomecomer intentionally stopped speaking throughout her elementary school years after a discriminatory encounter at a supermarket.  She went to buy some lightbulbs with her mother.  As her mother approached the salesman to ask, in her broken English, where she could find the lightbulbs in the store, the man looked away as if he did not hear her.  Kao’s mother tried again, and once more, the man did not respond.  Her mother kept trying until the man responded that he did not understand what she was saying.  The incident lodged deep into Kao’s memory.  Why should I speak, she figured, sitting in the backseat of her silent mother’s car on that extraordinarily long drive home, if they cannot hear those like me anyway?

In the online version of Webster’s English Dictionary, the first definition for the word expression is ‘the act of expressing or setting forth with words’.  The second definition continues with ‘a particular word, phrase, or form of words’.  I laugh at this.  The act of expressing oneself does not have to come through words.  The act of expressing oneself too often comes with the absence of spoken words.

I know because I set out to show my heart to the world.  I tried to speak.  Spoken words, however, got me nowhere.

I am a child of immigrants.  It is a lifelong wish of mine to fully understand my world–to fully belong.  To this day, however, this remains only a wish.  At twenty three years of age with a college degree from a liberal arts private university and a full time job in the Southern small town politics I have to admit that I will likely never feel fully American.  And even though I lived in the southeastern Tennessee for the past thirteen years of my life I will never truly feel Southern.  

I used to blame language for this.  More specifically, I used to blame my inability to speak the correct language.  

I made one friend in Ms. Debell’s second grade classroom. I do not remember her name except that it was Emily or Merilyn, or another American name.  I envied her.  I wanted to be her.  I wanted to look like my friend with her blond curls and blue eyes and Hello Kitty tshirts and ruffled colorful skirts.  I wanted to smile as widely as she and make friends as easily as she did and have my grandparents come and cheer for me during our annual walks around the school to raise awareness or money for one thing or another.  But more than anything else I envied my friend’s ability to speak and be heard.  Our classmates, our teachers, our PTA parents and principals heard her.  Ms. Debell responded every time she spoke.  It was also her ability to speak and be heard that our friendship began and ended on the rusty monkey bars of the playground.

I loved the monkey bars more than any other playground equipment for many reasons.  The monkey bars were the least popular among their counterparts.  Very few children frolicked in the wood chips around them and even less actually climbed them.  I was the sole ruler of the monkey bar kingdom on most days.  The rules for monkey-barring were self explanatory.  I neither had to speak nor listen to others speak to understand whose turn it was to go next or how to propel myself to go forward.  I simply grabbed onto one bar, ignored the surge of pain as the rust rubbed against my skin, and grabbed onto the next bar.  My main love of the monkey bars, however, resulted in the fact that they were the only thing in second grade I was genuinely good at.  The monkey bars were my escape from the noisy yet so silent classroom.  At the monkey bars I did not have to feel excluded–I did not have to be imprisoned by my lack of knowledge of the English language.

It was not until a month or so into my solitary monkey bar games that I finally decided to share my kingdom with my friend.  I pointed and smiled and said, “Come!” when we filed out of the cafeteria into the playground.  She ran after me but stopped when we reached the monkey bars.  I climbed them the fastest I could.  I cringed only at the end at the pain exploding through my palms.  My friend, however, did not exclaim in awe as I expected her to. Instead she stared at my hands the way my mother looked at my younger brother when he fell off his bicycle on high speed. She ran off and in five minutes was back pulling a teacher behind her and saying something I could not understand.  The teacher took one glance at my blistered palms and banned me from the monkey bars for the remainder of the school year. She appointed my friend as an informer who was to snitch on me anytime I came close to the monkey bars.

I never tried to explain myself as hard as I tried then.  “No!” I cried, “I like,” I whimpered, “Monkey bars!”  But overpowered by my friend’s voice and the bloody evidence on my palms, my teacher did not hear me.  I tried harder then.  I tried, in broken words, to explain that the monkey bars were my escape from the exclusion of the classroom.  I tried to explain that there I did not feel the anxiety I felt when my classmates copied notes I could not comprehend, much less write, from the overhead, or the fear that gripped me when the only thing I could say about my show-and-tell plush cat was an animated, “I like!” while my classmates blinked at me expectantly.  I tried to explain that the pain of exclusion I felt was much greater than the pain of my calloused skin. My teacher hugged me then, but she pointed to my hands again and simply said no.

Only today am I beginning to understand that perhaps language is and was not to blame.  Language alone–especially language uttered in an attempt to bring justice and equality–unites.  It cannot exclude.  The reaction to language is what excludes and silences.

The Gray Inside Me


I took this photograph in one of the public parks in Cleveland, Tennessee.


This is a rough draft of an essay that I wrote recently . It will likely go through a few revisions before it is ready.  The theme of this draft, however,  keeps recurring in my life these day and I thought I would share it.  

I used to think that a wanderer’s vision is filled with the colors green and blue—the colors of nature.  A wanderer travels.  A wanderer sees mountains patched with towns and villages.  A wanderer sees pastures and fields that turn gold in the evenings when the sun sets.  A wanderer sees the night sky full of lights.  A wanderer is full of life, of possibilities, of bright blue.  I was wrong.

A wanderer’s world is flushed gray—the color of fog and confusion.  The color of being lost.

I like the color gray.

It was the gray sleeve hanging from a rack of sports shirts that caught my attention, but I reached for the black tank top instead. It had an open back and a baggy front.  There was writing on it.  Not all who wander are lost, it read in white letters.  White pine trees and mountain tops grew above the letters.  Even a full moon peeked from behind a mountain top.

Yet nothing in the design looked like it might be gray given the availability of color.


I hate the color question.  I can never answer honestly.

When I told the kids by the school bus stop that my favorite color was black some laughed and some sneered.

“That’s the devil’s favorite color!” someone whispered to someone else.

The devil’s favorite color is not black.  It is gray.


In the first Sunday school craft project I can remember I had to cut out a pair of large hands and a stick figure from white print paper.  I colored the hands pink and left the stick figure black.  The teacher told us to glue the stick figure onto one of the hands and copy the words she left on the board onto the other hand. But I glued my black figure in the middle of the hands—right onto the gray crack I made when I smeared the glue on carelessly.

Today I can say that at age seven I could sleep peacefully in those large hands. I had no doubt they would catch me had I slipped. Today, however, I find it impossible to sleep in the cradle of those hands. The crack of the gray summons me every time I close my eyes.


The color gray rarely shows up in the illustrated bible unless you take into account the nails that fasten Jesus’s hands to the cross and the stones that the Pharisees are getting ready to throw at the woman kneeling beside Jesus’s feet.  Wanderers in the Bible do not end on a happy note either.

But it is easier to wander and gray is ironically a good color to rest in. All questions about religion worth asking inevitably come in the color gray.


Maybe the questions whirling in my head faster than fighter planes around a burning city—and even faster than that when I find myself in the premises of the church I have been trying to abandon for the past 8 months—did not go unnoticed by fate or the universal consciousness, or god, or whoever it is that has the planet earth rotating on its axis.  Maybe those answers I tried to speak out and write and later steal from other wanderers were, in fact, heard by someone bigger; someone who knows the way.  Or maybe I made a wrong turn one day and got lost.  I cannot be sure.  The only thing I know today is that now I’m moving.  Without a guide or a map or a GPS or compass but at least I’m moving.  And moving, even if it is only a gray wandering, is easier.

Wandering is easier than being stuck in a room full of cross engraved windows and doors but no way out.


In the recent years there has been a shift from church pews to chairs.  Perhaps the chairs are more comfortable and therefore more capable of keeping a person sitting on them sitting.  They come in vibrant colors: forest greens, royal blues, sun drenched gold, faded burgundy.  They match the banners and shrouds covering the nakedness of crosses hanging over the slender, modern pulpits.  The banners are always bright; brighter than the preacher in a white, crinkled dress shirt and a dad tie; brighter than the background of a hymn projector; brighter than the dresses and slacks of the women sitting properly in their seats.  And in all of their brightness, sometimes it is downright impossible to find a banner that comes in flushed gray.

I have been in many church rooms: chapels, sanctuaries, altars, stages, lecture halls, living rooms, communion tables, shrines.  They all have the following in common: they lack the color gray.


There is no gray in a Slavic Pentecostal theology.  It comes in white or black and for children, sometimes it comes in other colors. But there cannot be gray.  It is sinful to search for God in the gray.  It is immoral to wander.

Yet Tolkien writes:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

And yet again, “What can be in common in light with darkness?” The preacher quotes.   His voice is thick with an accent and his message on eradication of all crippling uncertainty by witnessing and prayer, rings thin in my ears.

“Gray,” I want to say.  Instead I bite my tongue and walk away from the announcement boards spelling welcome in the Cyrillic alphabet.

I resolve to wander.


Cathedral walls illuminated by the softest candles turn into granite slabs in time, and the most airy sanctuaries suffocate a wanderer.  A wanderer is a restless creature. Church rooms and bright banners cannot contain a wanderer. Church rooms and black and white rules cannot contain a wanderer.

Gray—the devil’s favorite color—contains a wanderer.

And God, if It exists, can only be found in the gray.

Burgundy and Gold

For lack of creativity, here is a picture of color burgundy I painted my bedroom wall with.

The golden chalice passed above me–a fingertip’s distance out of my reach if I raised my arm and stood on my toes. My fingers ached to touch it.  My mouth was drier than the soil of the plant on the bathroom window sill that hasn’t been watered in months.  I ached to taste the mystery inside the chalice.  But that was unspoken of–an act punishable by God himself.

I followed it with eyes as it passed from my mother’s hand into the bony fingers of a slender woman in a white sweater and a powerful voice.  I knew this fact because during hymns her voice would pick up the wavering voices of the congregation in the middle of the room where she always sat–and carry the song safely to its closing note like an attentive mother bird may swoop up a chick who fell out of its nest.

My eyes slipped from the woman’s fingers and focused on the gold she was holding again.  I saw myself reflected in it.  The voice of the pastor broke the silence around me only occasionally interrupted by the quiet clicking of fingernail against aluminum or a slightly louder sniffle.  His command was abrupt.

“You may partake in the breaking of this bread and the passing of the cup if you have been baptized in water, if you are in peace with the church, if you are in peace with man and not judged by God..”

I was in peace with God, but I was too young to be in the community of the passers of the gold. I had not been baptized yet.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” The voice, gentler now, interrupted my wandering mind and forced it back to the golden chalice.  I thought of blood running down Jesus’s thigh in a thin, straight line.  I remembered.  But I still opted out of the burgundy liquid enclosed by the gold.

The chalice passed from hand to extended hand down the row.  But I kept seeing the distorted reflection of myself in the body of the chalice.  My eyes stared back at me–wide and unblinking. They seemed both afraid and longing for the thing I was not qualified to have.  I had to complete the prerequisites to partaking first.


“Those who have not been baptized, those who are bearing the punishment from the church, those who are not in peace with men and God, those who are wavering–refrain from partaking for the sake of the salvation of your soul.”

I listened to the pastor’s voice and trembled.  I could feel the sting of the liquid accumulating around my contact lens.  My nose was a broken pipe.  I watched as the golden chalice neared me but I wasn’t crying for the chalice or the burgundy it carried.  Though I had reason to cry over it.  I was wavering. I forgot what it felt like to be straight and stable–to be in peace with God.  I cried plenty for God in the past five years and even more in the past few months, but this time wasn’t one of those cries.

This time, I cried because it was the last time I reached out and was handed a cup by the rough fingers of the person next to me.  I cried because yesterday was the last Sunday I stood in the pew, part of the community of partakers–of those in straight, bright peace with God–so bright it blinded me and so straight that I could not help but waver.  This was the last Sunday I was a member of my Ukrainian-speaking church.  It just happened to be the first Sunday of the month–the Sunday of communion.

And like betraying Judas and wavering Peter with Jesus at the last supper, I could not refrain from partaking in the holy with my immigrant family and in the community of my own people.

Keeping Words


Ceramic Mugs

You put down the coffee mug and bend your pointing finger once or twice.  You watch how the white reflection from the lamp runs along the microscopic stripes of your fingernail.  It reminds you of those late evenings when the light would go out in the entire village.  Your father used to make dogs growl and dragons fly on the wall with his fingers when he brought them against the flickering candle light.  You laughed and then screamed with your brother when the dragon came too close to you.  But you never did shake off that ball of fear that bounced and popped straight into that deep crevice of your heart every time the light would disappear and the house with its inhabitants became unrecognizable.  You extend the finger to the grey letters on the white ceramic of the coffee mug.  Life is a beautiful ride it reads. You will your finger to slide over the word ‘beautiful’.

Cheap Necklaces

It looks like a piece of yarn the way it curls and tangles in itself when you let the necklace fall on the wooden top of the dresser.  You bought the necklace for a dollar at the writer’s convention last spring.  You had let your peers walk a few steps ahead of you and watched as the feet required to reunite you with them widened and multiplied.  You thought of how the next morning you all will have to walk a mile at four am to catch the flight home.  You thought how you will all disperse once back on campus; the artificial group closeness quickly forgotten. You thought of graduation a month away. You stopped walking.  When Kristen questioned you why you stopped you just pointed to the table stand full of seemingly yarn made necklaces and home craft bookmarks.  “Hold on, I like this necklace!” you had replied. The necklace, if you can call it that, is blue with a recycled bottle cap pendulum.  Write, Dream, Repeat it reads.  You extend your finger towards the words. You brush your finger along the blue string but let it rest on the hot glue gunned knot instead. The string is too velvety to be yarn.

Faux Leather Journals 

You find space for it in the overpacked suitcase that you tug along with you when you decide to take the weekend road trip somewhere that is not your suffocating little town. You know you wont find time for it in the one and a half days you are to spend on the beach if Google can lead you to one, or the city’s historic district if it will not be too hot to walk through, or a coffee shop or bar you hope will still be open when you finally get there.  But you cram the journal with its stained faux cover (was it hairspray or spilled coffee that stained it?) and toss the suitcase into your backseat. You watch the broken yellow lines that divide the road disappear in your rear view mirror and think of the gold rimmed words centered on the front cover of that journal. Brilliant Ideas they read. You think of the times you let your hair fall and hide the tears that persisted on spilling from your eyes when you spilled your anxiety, worry, anger, frustration, despair, and exhaustion onto those pages.  You think of each entry-the first few paragraphs written in small, neat letters and then progressively in large and sloppy scribbles as the emotional input became too massive for your hand to transform into words. You think of that time when you let Taylor read a few entries and how she looked back at you five minutes later with seemingly darker eyes than usual.  “This is very…honest,” she had said scooting the journal gingerly back to you.  Two days later when you unpack your suitcase and fish out the journal from the  crumpled clothes pile, you take your index finger and cover the gold lettered ‘brilliant’.  You uncurl your pointing finger and cover ‘ideas’ also.

I’m in a love affair with words.  I let them patch up my world.  But just like with all of my boyfriends, I cannot convince myself to keep them.

In the Premises


Three Sundays ago I sat behind a wooden Starbucks table with a large cardboard cup of coffee beside me.  Store signs crowded my peripheral vision-Sephora, Kay Jewelers, Sunglass Hut, H&M.  I watched people-mostly white, and based on their clothes middle class-as they walked in and out of the stores, their gazes pausing on the Starbucks sign above me.  Occasionally, an Asian elderly man passed by, the hems of his black dress pants tucked around a pair of thick-soled tennis shoes.  On another occasion, a Latina young woman pushed a stroller with a curly haired toddler inside, or a little girl-no older than three-called her goatee-growing, slightly grinning father as she tottered forward-surprisingly fast-on the shiny linoleum floor.  The life inside the mall was stirring up.

In my twenty-two years I have never stepped into this mall before.  In fact, I never knew the mall existed until about ten minutes before I entered it. I picked it randomly off of Google.  The three of us-I, one of my very good friends, and her friend were road-tripping through the New England area.  I was looking for a Starbucks in the smallish town somewhere in Massachusetts that Sunday, and since my friend refused to drop me off at the Starbucks by the highway with rows of warehouses behind it, the mall version of the cafe franchise seemed like the next best option.

The people watching, coffee guzzling, slightly writing option seemed to me like the wisely chosen one as I took a sip out of my coffee cup.  My alternative option would have been occupying a strange church pew of a Slavic church I never visited before, and listening to a series of grey and black suit-clad men arguing the pros and cons of living vs. not living in the premises of the Slavic Pentecostal God’s government.  I thought of the time when I lived in that government. I used to work in it. I used to believe that the Slavic Pentecostal God’s government was the truest, the rightest, the best.  Like my friend who went on to church after dropping me off, I should have felt compelled to go to church that Sunday. But as I sat there at the wooden table, I was compelled to do anything but that.  For a while now, I am finding myself outside the premises of the Slavic Pentecostal god’s government.

I took another sip out of my coffee cup and wondered about my friend.  I wondered why she did not, unlike me, feel confused, angry, and even oppressed by the judgmental, law-focused Slavic Pentecostal god. I wondered why she was not bothered to wear head coverings as a sign of her weaker sex. I wondered why she did not cringe over the literal, uneducated interpretations of complex biblical texts coming off from the pulpits as if they were infallible words of god.  And if she was bothered by these things, why did she refuse to voice them? Why did she feel compelled to go to a Slavic Pentecostal church now, while she was on vacation? I sat back against my chair and sighed. I already knew the answer.  I, myself, was the answer.

Letting go of a church that is completely intertwined with culture and heritage is probably the hardest thing a person can do.  More often than not, the feat is impossible.  It’s like abandoning your family, or the only person ready to die for you, or Jesus. And to say that I have totally let go of the Slavic Pentecostal church would be a lie, because no matter how many months worth of Sundays I skip, the culture, the people, and even parts of its god will remain with me always.  But despite the invisible cultural chains that still bind me to it, I know today clearer than ever before, that in order to find the God I am looking for, sooner or later I will have to leave the god I was told to believe in.

Sometimes leaving is not a choice. Sometimes leaving is a requirement.

I keep remembering my great-grandmother standing in a heap of freshly fallen white snow and leaning on her cane weakly, unsteadily, as if the next snowflake falling softly from the dusky sky would cause her to fall from its heaviness.  My family was leaving for the United States of America and she was crying.  That was the first and the last time I ever saw her-a survivor of the World War II horrors-cry.  The memory has always brought (and still brings) a bought of pain and guilt over me.  We were leaving my great grandmother-a person present in my and my siblings’ first memories-permanently behind. And yet, what I did not understand at age 7, was that my parents had to leave in order to give. By leaving the people they loved, my parents were giving me a future I could have never had if we had stayed. A future where doors to possibilities could be opened. A future where bridges could be built and unite the most diverse of people and cultures. A future where answers-even if they are never bound to be found-can at least be searched for.