Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My parents (on the right) and friends at the Wah Mee Club, Seattle.


Main Entry: abyss

Pronunciation: \ə-ˈbis, a-alsoˈa-(ˌ)bis\

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle English abissus, from Late Latin abyssus, from Greek abyssos,from abyssos, adjective, bottomless, from a-+byssos depth; perhaps akin to Greek bathys deep

Date: 14th century

1. the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old cosmogonies
2 a. an immeasurably deep gulf or great space b. intellectual or moral depths

I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to come to this island. I didn’t expect to greeted by every islander with open arms (though many did), nor to be accepted at every social gathering (though I was grateful that people made an effort to include us in community events).

This was not the first -- nor will it be the last -- time that I have taken a wild leap off into space. I’ve had more jobs than I can count. I’ve met my relatives in Kwangtung Province and in Mongolia. I’ve sailed around the world at least twice. I’ve survived de-masting in the Tasman Sea and a sinking fishing boat in the Georgia Straits.

Even the “sports” I favor--sailing, paragliding--ask me to tack off the edge of the earth, or to literally run off a cliff and leap into the abyss. In my mind, I am taking risks, having adventures, making quantum leaps, moving forward by cutting all ties with the past. I love the abyss, the unknown.

But ask my oldest friends what I’m doing and they might raise an eyebrow and say that I run away just as I am about to be successful, that I do something different rather than actually succeeding.

Make my living as an artist, as a photographer? I’ve had every opportunity and I’ve taken very few of them. When I was fresh out of college I marched into the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with my portfolio and announced that I wanted to do a photo essay on Seattle’s rapidly changing Chinatown. I got photo releases on P-I letterhead and shot 10 rolls of film. I still have the proof sheets. The photos are good. There are lovely images of my Chinese elders, old storefronts, signage, and the community garden. The images capture a transitional time in the International District. But I never went back to the P-I with my work.

A big revelation came when I did an intervention with my mother. She had been a heavy drinker all her life and I finally truly wished to know—or so I thought—what she was like when wasn’t drunk. In retrospect, I was more interested in being in control than having my mother stop drinking.

My parents and their friends regularly tied one on when we came to Seattle—twice a year, to stock up on Chinese groceries. They’d leave me in the Milwaukee Hotel and go drinking and gambling at the Wah Mee Club. I was quite safe at the Milwaukee—the elders would check on me, leave peppermint Life Savers under my pillow. My parents would roll back to the hotel at dawn, giggling, smelling of cigarette smoke and booze. They’d check on me and have a nightcap.

Things changed after my dad died. I was fourteen when he chose suicide over losing his soul to brain cancer. My mother blamed herself for his decision—she never should have left the house to go Christmas shopping. After his death, she drank more and more until she was hardly ever completely sober.

But my mom wasn’t a drunky villain.

Her parents died when she was five years old and she and her sisters grew up in the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Girls—both what she called the “old home” on the campus of Mills College and the “new home” in Oakland.

Her oldest sister said that their mother would take them to be extras in various Hollywood productions—silent films. I’ve looked for them in old films. Sometimes I think I’ve seen them, but I’m not sure.

My mom had polio before I was born but taught me to ride a bike and to roller skate by giving me verbal instructions. She was constantly taking apart things that had broken (the toaster, the heater, the air purifier) and fixing them, as we didn’t have money to buy new stuff.

She had wanted to be a photographer and still had her Argus C3. Dad bought her a Brownie Starlight. I started taking photos with the Brownie when I was six years old. I got to use the Argus when I was twelve. My early graduation present was a 35mm Honeywell Pentax.

Mom stayed a couple of days in rehab and told a big lie so she could leave. I’m sure the rehab folks were used to hearing lies. I was so mad that I didn’t talk to her for six months. But it was also a big “ah-ha” moment for me. My mom had, consciously or unconsciously, taught me to get myself out uncomfortable situations by lying.

I decided to change—and once I changed one thing, I had to change—everything. I adopted my dad’s favorite catchphrase: “Tell the truth, walk your talk.” It took a long time to say “no” when I meant “no” and even longer not to come up with a string of lies (told mostly to myself) about why or why not I could or could not do something.

My mom did stop drinking, all on her own, and at the age of 65. I have the photo I took of her the summer before she died. She put everything she had into the look she gave me through the lens of my Nikon.

My mom and dad had succeeded in raising a physically fearless daughter, and gave me every skill they could to succeed.

Which brings me back to this island.

Moving here was another step off into the abyss for me. I had run into a brick wall at KCTS. My department had been eliminated and I’d just spent weeks sorting and filing 50 years’ worth of materials. I’d been at the station for ten years.

There were other jobs I could do at the station, but I was tired and frustrated and it was time to move on. I organized my list of clients, emailed everyone I’d worked with in the hopes that some freelance work would filter in, quit what had been my dream job and cashed out my 401(k).

Did I run away again? Maybe my friends thought so.

I ruefully realized that though I now had the time to work on being an artist, I was out in the middle of nowhere. But the art workshops were in town. My support group was in town. Hell, my camera, paints, drawing board and easel were all in town.

I’d kept my Seattle apartment.

Hedging my bets?


1 comment:

  1. Hey Ti, you've done some darned fine editing while living on that island.