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Monday, November 08, 2010

Oliver de la Paz, Sunbursts

         The light is catching Nolan's face in such a way that his expression folds inward; his eyes scrunch tight, lips press firmly together. But he's giggling despite his sour countenance. My mother bounces him on her knees, every once and awhile raising him up by his armpits into the shooting rays of light in her living room. It is November in the Pacific Northwest, and these quick sunbursts are rare jewels. He's so fat, she tells me. You were skinny when you were his age. So skinny.
         This is hard to imagine. What's even harder to imagine is that I'm the father of two boys: one held aloft in the arms of my mother, the other, Lucas, lining up cars on the carpet making vrooming noises. I had often asked my mother why they didn't have another child when I was younger and their answers were always elusive . . . tinged with what seems to be regret. I'm told lots of reasons. I'm never told that they were afraid.
*
         I'm worried. Worried that my new book is too heavy with emotion . . . with sentimentality. We writers worry about such things. We fear being sentimental. We are told to stay away from sentimentality.
         I am a sentimental fool. My family is filled with sentimental fools. Meredith sometimes catches me crying at movies. I cry when the music surges. It's gotten worse. There are moments when I have to stop, count, and catch my breath while speaking about my children--about my family.  So, I've become hyper-aware of the sentimental when it comes to my own writing. I've become the pathos police with my work. I've been busily stripping back any overt sentimentality, paring it down to the bare fibers where the texture is smoothest. Blankest.
*
         On September 21, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. My mother gave away all the household utensils . . . the bed, her medical equipment. She had even given away the rice cooker and all the food in the kitchen. In the mornings, my father goes to Camp Crame, the headquarters for the Philippine Constabulary at the time, in order to get clearance to leave the country. I'm told that the roosters were crowing when he leaves, and that the dust was low because of the morning dew. My mother packed him lunches gathered together from relatives so he could wait in a line thousands and thousands of people long. He does this for a week, leaving at daybreak and coming back at five in the afternoon without our travel clearance.
*
         The flat, arid landscape that we came to call home is nestled in Malheur County, Oregon. In French, "malheur " translates to "bad luck." The town of Ontario, Oregon, is where my mother begins her private medical practice. The Snake River brushes its sides along the town, separating Western Idaho from Eastern Oregon. The number one employer is the Ore-Ida Factory and the hospital. We are the only Filipino family in the valley and we are viewed with immediate suspicion. The Vietnam War had ended only five years before, and the nearby Air Force and Army bases were filled with veterans. I'm told that my parents bought me a pair of cheap cowboy boots. They thought the boots would help me "fit in."
*
         My attention span is so attenuated these days. Some catastrophe in the next room usually needs my attention, which pulls me from my writing desk. The call away from the writing desk is so much more important these days. Little cries throughout the house snap my trances. Sometimes I have to count. Hold my breath.
*
         My mother tells me that my uncle was educating communist guerillas in the mountains in the Philippines before martial law was declared. My father tells me my uncle was educating poor farmers. I don't know whom to believe. I also don't know whether this is why we left the Philippines--whether the de la Paz name was on some black list . . .  but it certainly adds to the myth of our departure. In the 70's everyone was afraid of communists in/from Asia.
*
         My first Little League practice and one of my teammates is pulling at the sides of his eyes and making "ching-chong Chinese" sounds at me. He's dancing in place like a monkey chained to a Calliope. We are the "Pioneers." Our mascot is a Davy Crockett-like figure wearing a racoon-skin hat, holding a rifle at his hip. Our practice field is adjacent to a cow pasture, and the smell of manure is everywhere. The team is comprised of farmers' sons from the periphery of Ontario, OR. The ball coach looks at my jeering teammate and laughs before calling him back to the dugout for warm-ups. Behind me, the electrical fence clicks, and I can feel the heat from the ground rising to meet my face.
*
         Nolan is laughing. There's a rope of drool hanging from his bottom lip, caught on the collar of his footie pajamas. These pajamas are pink because Meredith wanted variety. My father wonders aloud whether this is a good color choice, but Meredith isn't here to defend herself. Meanwhile, my mother raises Nolan up into a beam of light, then down again. He looks like a plump cloud at dawn, as the sun hits the floating dust on the horizon just so.
*
         Charlie Perez is guiding me over to a water fountain. I have sand in my eyes and the hot sear of the grains press deeper into my lids with each orb's involuntary twitch. Put your head under here, Charlie tells me as the water rushes from my right eye to the bridge of my nose to the left eye. One of my Little League teammates has thrown sand into my eyes. Another teammate is helping me wash the sand away. A little cloud of dust rises in the dugout while I can hear the aluminum bat clunk from contact with a ball in the field.
*
         I'm a sentimental fool, yes. So I'm told.
*
         I'm told I had sepsis when I was Nolan's age. And colic. And I was skinny. I was, apparently, a very difficult and fussy child. My mother had completed her medical training and was the resident pediatrician at her hospital, but she was often home to care for me while my father waited in line to get our passports stamped.  I tell my mother that my first memory was of her holding me as we looked out the window of our old house onto a dirt street filled with merchants trying to sell food from baskets. She tells me this is impossible because I was too young. Again, I don't know what to believe. My memory is tricky. Perhaps it was some fevered imagining. Perhaps it's an actual memory. I remember sounds, though. I remember hawkers shouting to the windows.
*
         I'm writing about my sons again. And I think that some people don't want to hear about them, but I want to talk about them. I've become one of those parents--the kind that seems to have something to sell to you. The kind that keeps photos of his kids in his wallet. The kind that sidles up to you and asks do you want to see something really cute?
*
         I'm told that a week had passed without clearance to leave the country and because of martial law, the threat that all travel departing from the Philippines would be shut down. I'm told that my father, in desperation, threw our passports to the government agent stamping them clearance at the head of the line. After a week of waiting in a line thousands of people deep, I imagine my father was fed up . . . desperate. This was the Saturday after Proclamation 1081. There was no work on Sunday, so the next day my father went back to Camp Crame. He came back that afternoon with our stamped passports.
*
         Red car. Blue car. Green car. My oldest son is testing out his colors, feeling the new words in his mouth. As he says each color, he raises a small Hot Wheel up to eye level, puts it back down, and lines it up with the other cars on the carpet.
*
         My father was told that small foreign cars are "tin coffins." Ever since, my father insists on buying Ford pick-ups to "fit in." He bought our first when I was ten. He barely "fits" in them, looking somewhat comical in their cabs--a small man, barely able to peer outside the driver-side window. He's since gone through several pick-ups in my lifetime, each given up for the same reason: they're too big. Each time I tell him to buy something smaller and he tells me we need a big car here. He's always scared of something. Scared that someone will barrel into us while we're innocently driving to the grocery store. That some drunk driver will veer from his lane into ours. That he'll lose us.
*
         The plane we took to leave the Philippines was from Hungary. I'm told that the plane was extremely full and that we were stuffed between other passengers and their bags. I'm told that I cried the whole journey, my small body lodged between suitcases. I'm told that I was very sick. That we had given away everything. I'm told that there was no turning back. I was very skinny, my mother tells me. So skinny.
*
         My poetic lines have been getting longer over the past three years because I've got so much to say. There's so much to tell. Writing day today, and Meredith has taken the kids outside to play. The sun's unbelievably bright, warming the cooled house so that the morning dew steams off the siding. I imagine the house, from the outside looks like it's rising on a cloud.
*
         In San Francisco, where we landed, we ended up living in a third floor studio apartment in the Mission District. We slept together in a queen-sized Murphy bed. My mother did groceries at a nearby canned food store and bought all our clothes from the Salvation Army. My dad worked in the Trans America building, doing grunt accounting, saving up enough to help my mom with her medical residency. I have a picture of myself in diapers, running on a brown tile floor. My parents say so little about those days. My mom says there's nothing to say. She tells me they were happy. That I was getting fat.
*
         I've been trying to get it all down on paper but my time is not my own. I'm told it will get easier to get back to the writing desk when my children are older, but for now I am giving my writing time to my children. I'm told that these years are crucial to their development. I know these things that I am told. The journey from the desk to the living room where the world of toys spills out before my sons is a small journey, and one that I gladly take. I've been writing about what scares me. I've been writing about my children and the things we do to keep them safe. How so many of those things are governed by forces out of our control. How sometimes we take detours. Sometimes those detours take us to a place that bewilders us. How sometimes grace can be found in the wild toss of a passport with the world of hope within its pages.
*
         The toy cars are arranged from hood to fender, hood to fender. The line of cars stretches from one edge of the carpet to the other and everyone has to watch their steps as they cross into the living room. Lucas is full of consonants that growl to match the heavy engine roar of a big Ford pick-up. Nolan is rising and falling and rising again. His vowels arc into the bright sun as we watch him lift, skyward, into the parabolas of love.  

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and the forthcoming Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Mart├Čn Espada.  He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry.  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation.  He teaches at Western Washington University.