Sidewalk on a fall afternoon during third grade
My velcro sneakers glitter when they touch the pavement. I look down
so that I can see them flicker. Sunlight stings the nape of my neck. An
earthy smudge on my left shoe comes to my attention and now I’m
struggling to forgive the duck-voiced upperclassman who scuffed it at
recess. Eyes glazed, I tread on a sidewalk that moves with the monotony
of a conveyor belt. But then I see the clouds on the concrete—cease
my brooding to watch them float inside a glassy pool of leftover rain.
Sunlight floods my pupils as I direct my gaze towards the sky where the
same clouds glide overhead.
All at once, I grow conscious of my state of in-betweenness, this
disorienting suspension between the clouds. The conveyor belt beneath
me now moves so fast it has become a blur, and my legs burn bad but
I’m pressed to reach home and bury these hot tears in stuffed animals.
I wake up exhausted from that unexpected encounter with reflection,
illusion, and reality. To my relief the sky has waxed into a spotless violet
tone. But the persistent uneasiness lingers. I know the clouds will come
back tomorrow, and with their return, the obligation to find my place
This is my earliest encounter with the discomfort of
acquiring knowledge. With shock and horror I realized
both the cryptic vastness of the world, as well as my own
liminal place within it. I have no choice but to subsist in
the awkward crevice between the endlessness of knowledge
and my own limited capacity for it. To receive something
without asking—something like knowledge—teeters
precariously between a status of burden and gift.
Hsi Lai Temple for the
2018 Chinese New Year
I can cast a desire. All it takes is a coin tied to red wishing paper and
tossed into a wishing tree. My friends choose their desires from a laminated list of wish options: Elimination of Difficulties, Good Health
For the Family, or Good Luck All Around. I scan, scroll, select No. 22:
Ocean of Wisdom.
Icy sheets of rain sweep over the courtyard crowded with stuffed coats.
Marbled clouds hover in dark blue while my breaths reel in and out
mistily, like a tide. I bunch the paper in tight folds around the coin —
so as to approximate the thing as aerodynamic. I wind back my arm to
send my hope for an Ocean of Wisdom sailing into the branches. Mid-throw, some twisted pang of conflict seizes my chest cavity, crunching
my lungs. A familiar queasy gush floods my throbbing temples as I
process the absurdity of this scenario.
I wish for an ocean of wisdom in a world where less than
5% of the ocean has been explored to date. Yet still I toil
in the >5% as I cling to my raft of intellect before waves so
titanic that the whole ordeal seems comically pitiful: a semi-empowered, yet mostly intimidated, ragdoll at the mercy
of epistemological riptides. The ocean may be colossal or
familiar and dangerous or nurturing, but remains always
ungraspable by nature.
Crystal Cove beach
in the early 2000s
There are no crystals and there is no cove but there is the beach. I
sit on the shore, facing the sea. The water stumbles over itself before
unraveling in a shallow foam spread at my feet. The salt makes a
fizzing soda sound and toes curl in visceral pleasure. Beside me sits
the sandcastle Papa helped me build, a plastic hand rake, and the big
blue bucket my sister and I use to catch sand crabs, assign them names,
families, and backstories. In the tidepools there are anemones. I stopped
poking them after Maman said it might hurt them.
My hand flexes into a fistful of sand with the coming wave. No trace
of sandcrabs, I fixate my gaze on the sand that dribbles from my caged
fist. I tighten my clutch around the sand. I cannot contain it. A dense
stream hisses as it escapes. In desperate force, I clench my hand tighter.
My fist shrinks and shrinks until the sand seeps away altogether and my
curled knuckles press the palm of my hand.
Petty pride and brute willpower were weak fuel for
my frantic race to retain all knowledge. Like sand, the
tighter the grip, the harder it is to grasp. It makes for a
profoundly perplexing experience to exist in a body that
does not fully understand what a body is, with a mind
that cannot comprehend itself. The brain itself is always
suspended, sloshing around in head juice (cerebrospinal
fluid). Nonetheless, the bits of knowledge I do feed this
obscure organ inform how I digest the world. How I digest
the world affects how I subsist and act within it. So what
I know or don’t know, then, it is an extension of who I
am. My very being interconnects with my spectrum of
knowledge. Without infinite knowledge, am I perpetually
My little sister and I tire of the monkey bars. We rest our arms limply
as we lie on the overgrown grass. I bend my elbows and cup my hands
behind my head like I see people do in movies. Sophie lets her feet
flop to either side, palms up, blissfully unaware of her appearance. I
recognize the fragile parts of her—still untainted by expectations. I
have to look away from her and toward those clouds again.
I squint at the sky and ascribe each cloud to a sea creature: seahorse,
whale, turtle, no..not turtle... more like stingray. Definitely stingray.
I might be a marine biologist when I grow up. Sophie squints at the
sky too. They look like a whole bunch of spider webs all tangled up, she
says. She’s been learning about arachnids with Mrs. Kelly. But spider
webs? I frown at her, then the clouds. I picture extremely dense clusters
of millions of thin silky threads. Alright, I guess I see it.
Whereas it had always been obvious to me that experience
affects my thought, cloud watching revealed the inverse:
what I think about affects my interpretation of the world
around me. In this way, access to different knowledge grants
access to realities apart from my own. I had mistakenly
taken the pursuit of knowledge to be a solitary endeavor, an
articulation of self-containment and cultivation. All along, I
had overlooked the beauty in exchange. Quiet observation
and genuine conversation help me peer into another reality,
so to speak—this is the optimal proximate to living it. This
is the closest I can get to realities other than my own, to
partake in and perhaps alter it with what I bring from my
own reality, and maybe let my reality be altered in return.
I swim alone on a hot day. School playgrounds sit empty and blacktops
smoke in the searing heat. I ease into the water, weightless, watching
the plastic umbilical cord of the pool vacuum sputter beneath me.
I drift down and look out of the transparent, mobile veil of water
between the world and me. I watch the clouds again. This time they
warp with watery viscosity.
My world here is noiseless and warm—maybe I can stay a little longer.
I think of the day my shoes got scuffed. I think about how this time, I’m
inside the puddle. I’ve slipped under the clouds—the entities and the
reflections. I have at last found a place in the world I am not confined,
where I can move freely between all substances. I may not braving an
Ocean of Wisdom, but I am content in this pool. My breath interrupts
my thoughts and demands air. I shatter the surface with a gasp,
my cheeks flush with quiet awe. With each passing breath, I slowly
succumb to a humble peace of unknowing and claim completeness