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November 17, 2007

Suicide Note Number 28: You Should Have Been There

Suicide Note Number 28: You Should Have Been There

This is not a Dear John Letter. This is a love letter. A love letter to you—or to me—I’m not sure, won’t be sure until the writing is done, until the process has exhausted itself, until the book has been written and on the shelf. The process has not always been the same, will not always be the same. I didn’t understand change until the last sentence presented itself. The future is not found through consistency.

To write is a process, a journey; to live is the same. The process for one poem, one story, one book is never the same. Change is the only truth. Process depends on overall character. Depends on the heart of the book, the blood flowing.

To end a relationship is a process. What worked for the last ending, won’t work for the next one, for this one. Won’t work to end our relationship. Our hearts and blood are thick and thin and tired. The process of who we are goes back several generations. We are connected in ways we will never talk about, not connected in ways we say we are.

Our relationship, like plastic, won’t disintegrate. It is possible to light a match, to set fire, to melt, to liquefy. It is not possible to write the last chapter. It is not possible to disappear. This chapter I am writing is the first, another first chapter, another beginning. There are no endings. We will gain composure, solidify, contaminate.

I need a new process.

I need to mix glass with stone with sweat. I need to break down, to sever, to turn to salt, to slice, to mash, to grind, to speak, to sing, to sway, to leap. I need to set aside stale processes (ustable again, maybe, recycled, maybe), but unworthy of this journey, this cycle, this new beginning. Now, yellow brick roads, poppies, tin men, straw men, and cowardly lions won’t lead me away and towards. I need a new list, a set of rules, funky aphorisms. I need jasmine and eucalyptus. I need solitude, silence. I need jazz.

I need a photo. A self-portrait of the person I want to become; the person I already am. I need a photo of me locked in a frame that breathes, that flows, that fluctuates, yet remains stable. I will throw away splintered frames with cracked glass, fading photos. I can condense, simplify, and adjust to one photo, one me.

You are not in this photo. And, you are not stored in a closet in a cardboard box. You will never be recycled, again.

You should have been there last winter when I grabbed a young man on the street who merely said hello. I was hungry and ate and sipped a glass of red wine.

You should have been there this spring when my prayers weren’t enough to plant hofstas in a garden overrun with the death of last year’s perennials. I dug into my coin purse, nails broken and dirty, for stability, to know next year there would be continuity, there would be lasting beauty.

You should have been there this summer when the heat and humidity rendered me naked on purple sheets, my sweat sensuous, my bed tossing.

You should have been here this fall when leaves turned without you, when I traveled to New Orleans and trumpets blared.
This is about lonely; this is about love.

This is about driving to the woods for a fix of your skin, for conversation, for definition. Desperation.

This is about a five-mile radius you live in; I live far away with no amenities except diversity, which is oxygen, not a well with soft water.

This is about painting ceilings, fixing cars, watching movies, riding bikes, and eating Sushi; about things lost.

This is about family and dogs and neighbors; about exclusion.

This is about history, about Scotch, about coffee, about sex, about cigarettes, about the future, about nursing homes.

This is about ministers and priests about fantasies and horrors; what we desire, what we despise; about velvet trousers, about heavily starched shirts.

This is about the sting of what I thought I could never have, the bite of knowing it still doesn’t fit; the ache of pretend.

This is about not being mean. It’s about metaphor. It’s about getting at truth without spitting. It’s about a new way of writing; a new way of living. It’s not about story; it’s about understanding story. It’s about kindness. It’s about love that comes to the surface then descends, then comes to the surface, then descends. It’s about what gets in the way of love. It’s about goodbye. It’s about hello. It’s about the lost art of letter writing. It’s about not knowing how to end, but being ready for the next beginning.

It is not about anger. Not this time.

Sherry Quan Lee, Copyright, Excerpts from How to Write a Suicide Note: Serial Essays that Saved A Woman's Life

When Do You Leave The Flawed Lover—Or Hold On?

When Do You Leave The Flawed Lover—Or Hold On?

It is the white man lovers who haunt me
I go to bed with them, they lie right next to my writing table,
I take their stories into my mouth, let out

Jesus Christ, Oh My God, Jesus, Jesus

incorporate their semen
into my secret

is it the slow release of him that calms me, the easy
natural flow, neither of us in control
of disappearing?

Because it is so easy to do,
do I return again, and again?

or is it because it’s hard? Each thrust

A memory,

A sign,
An acknowledgment.

Is it beautiful, this time? Or just
a needed moment
to remind me?

I awake knowing of a woman.
She is brown,
She is soft.
She loves me.
I keep my legs crossed, not ready
to give birth to her song
which is sad, which is honest.

Is it because I won’t sing with her
that I can’t let her pass?

I am not afraid.
Just haunted by dead birds.
It is not about love though, is it? Nor

is it about chance. There’s a mystery
here, but I can solve it, if not in this poem,
in another.

There is something about the white
the man
that is familiar,
that clings to me like the black bird
in the choke cherry tree.

The woman pushes
unplugging a passage;

water will break
when it’s ready

the flood is coming,
it’s coming,
it’s coming . . . . . . .

Hold on.

©Sherry Quan Lee
April 12, 2003

And, sometimes it’s not metaphor.

And, sometimes it’s not metaphor.

And the pain is real, the desperation, the loneliness. And the beautiful brown girl’s desire is so strong she’s willing to pull the white boy off the street, hand him the almond oil, say, “massage my back. Knead your fingers below my skin, into the bone and connective tissue where the assault remains fresh as this morning’s black coffee. Dig in, read who I am or don’t, doesn’t matter. Just dig in, make me hurt more than the pain. Own my sadness. Cross the lines of my tongue, of my teeth. Speak while I remain silent. I have nothing more to scream at you. I am no longer restless, no longer reckless. I’ve had your back for too long, while my back bone weakened, muscle burning, nerves shooting the lump in my left shoulder down, down, down into the intestine, into the holding place of my tears.?

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha wrote, Dictee, University of California Press, 2001(originally published Tanam Press, 1982), page three:

“It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain
of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater
than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says
nothing against the pain to speak. It festers in-
side. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must

And sometimes, the boy in the street, the woman in the office, the child in the classroom, the man in the moon, the plantation owner, the president’s wife, the landlord, the snake under the bed, the bed itself, are all the same nightmare.
Sometimes in a dream, dead girls become women, their brown skin kissed by their author of hope, the black wo/man of isolation, of work, of possibility, of secrets. Their screams in sync, their lives almost touching, their love almost piercing the whiteness, almost obliterating the boy in the street.
The map of who I am is behind me, I can’t see what I look like, but I can feel death turn into life.

We hear the women who have heard the women who have heard the women who have heard the women who are the women that save us. Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Graywolf Press, 2004, page 57, wrote:

“Though Myung Mi Kim did say that the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space. She did say it was okay to cramp, to clog, to fold over at the gut, to have to put hand to flesh, to have to hold the pain, and then to translate it here. She did say, in so many words, that what alerts, alters.?

We are the women that save us. I am the woman.

©Sherry Quan Lee, November 16, 2007

November 6, 2007

From "How to Write...notes that saved a woman's life"


Experience is synonymous with identity. I started writing poetry to visualize the Black Chinese woman that I and no one else could see. My vocabulary was limited, my sentences were blunt like a cheap knife. They sawed across white fences disrupting quiet neighborhoods. I had no lovers to embrace, and no lover was embracing me. Mixed marriages disappeared on roads under construction. I didn’t have the tools to smooth the pavement.

I clung to my poems even though they were ragged. They were edgy, zigzagging their way into black holes. I owned them. I collected them. I honored them. I wrote more poems. I escaped gated neighborhoods and small minded, fearful neighbors that lived there—including me. I entered communities where my poems could breathe, where metaphor banished the girl and bridled the woman. Where I learned that commas and semi-colons slowed the narrative, periods meant stop, take a deep breath. Where no punctuation meant the poem was continuous unstoppable energy.

The problem with risking new communities is sometimes they might have too many rules. Rules that may not take the whole community into consideration. Sometimes one can be caught up in believing the community should embrace you because diversity can only make the community better, so there can be fewer rules and more opportunities. So you give everything you are to the community, while the community sends messages in codes that you can’t decipher. Until one day, you’ve earned a degree, but learn from the gossip of gurus that you can’t write. So you don’t write. You stop writing.

Yet, you are a writer. Stamina embraces you on the outskirts of literary streets. You find the women and the men that look familiar to you. The writers who speak in tongues whose poems are smart. Most of them you don’t find in the academy, though they are educated. They have learned craft, but have enhanced the notion of it by creating a vernacular that double-speaks. No one can dismiss the accuracy and loveliness of their words. Because you have stamina you begin to write again.

I don’t write every day, at a particular time or in a particular place. I write whenever a muse beckons, and sometimes when I can find no other excuses not to write. Mostly I don’t write because then there will be nothing for critics to scrutinize, myself being my biggest critic. Honestly, I also don’t write because I am lazy. And because it is easier to have this and that take precedence; most of my energy goes to relationships. But stamina is a lover I can’t release.

So I hang on to my life with an invisible pen. I capture my hot heart in memory. Identity masquerades in loose fitting clothes. Metaphors become mantra. I chant words and phrases and titles until they became story. I let the stories into the world. Give them life beyond the page. Sometimes they dance. Sometimes they sing. Audiences are mostly friendly, pat my back and stroke my imagination. It is scary to be vulnerable and risky. Some say I am angry. Stamina lurks.

My mother died of a leukemia blast. Her body was covered with black and blue bruises. The bruises became larger the closer she was to heaven. I was haunted by the bruises, so I turned them into metaphor. The bruises became larger than bruises, larger than my mother, larger than my egocentric self. They became answers to questions I had stopped asking. They became poetry and stories and books.

The responsibility of the writer might be to tell the truth. Truth-telling isn’t easy. Truth-telling takes courage. Truth-telling is exhausting. Sometimes I don’t want to write. Sometimes I can’t write. Rules to be a writer demand discipline. They are rules that don’t work for me. My writing process like my life is not accommodating to rules, however stamina is necessary for survival.

Excerpt from How To Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

Sherry Quan Lee

Suicide Note Number Two, Self-Esteem

Dear Self-esteem,
Today I am writing to destroy the lack of you. Today I am going to dress you in fine recycled clothes. I am going to wear you, the royal purple of who you are. I am going to take you out in the middle of winter and promenade you. I am going to stand you on your head and turn you inside out knowing the snow angel in the front of my house is real, her halo is my halo and every speckle of grit that garnishes our diamond textured garment is invisible glue that has sewn us together.

I know what it is to be invisible. There are people who can’t see me, people who don’t want to see me, people who see only the parts of me they choose to see. I am all of those people. I don’t know why I am so self-effacing. I don’t know why I recognize ugly, stupid, inarticulate, and shame. Furthermore, I don’t know why I defend this lack of self-esteem to the detriment of lovely, witty, confident, and smart.

How do I write away this woman who renders demons gods and devotes daily rituals to damning glory? Why do I scrub my face to cover it in thick makeup? Why do I paint my silver hair red? Why do I contradict compliments with self-pity? Why do I hide my words in stuffy rooms that could use some freshness? Why do I play the role of martyr when martyrs have no choice but to die?

I will not get rid of her. I will not write away her experience. I will not deny her existence. But I will sever her sadness and wash the blood from her knife.

The angel in the snow has no shadow. There is no outlying grief. I see the angel herself rising. Slowly. Each proclamation, elation. Perhaps you will see her flying. Perhaps self-doubt is a cloud that will release her, all that pent up steam.

I am trying to write this suicide note, trying to kill off my lack of self-esteem. I am trying to make sense of why I dislike myself. But it is not a letter than can be written by one author. There are others that must give their approval. There is the mother, and the father. There are siblings. There are children. There are husbands and girl friends. There are beauticians. There are ministers and there are professors. There are governors and presidents. There are Christians; there are missionaries. There are white people. There are alcoholics. There are rapists. There are women and there are men. There are Catholics and there are Lutherans. There are rich people. There are slave owners. There are academics. There are father-in-laws. There are brother-in-laws. There are characters in books.

I am a character in a book that will save me. She will teach me how to write and how to live. I am the angel that has always been on my shoulder. There are others. We are writing beginnings for endings. We are passing notes to each other, sharing our stories; there is too little time to rewrite the world.

Excerpt from How To Write A Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life

Sherry Quan Lee

Writers Who Have Saved My Life

Writers Who Have Saved My Life

There are many women of color writers who have saved my life. Their stories familiar--the anger, the pain, the confusion, the loneliness, the abuse, the struggle, the triumph, the beauty, the passion, the creativity, the love.

Nikki Giovanni wrote: >

“and if ever i touched a life i hope that life knows / that i know that touching was and still is and will always / be the true / revolution? (excerpt from poem, “When I Die?)

Women of color are changing the/ir world by writing and sharing their stories.

Alice Walker asks:

“What can I give you to help you stay strong when you feel the world is turned against you and that you are standing, perhaps even naked, absolutely alone? I give you this poem:? (“Be Nobody’s Darling,? ANYTHING WE LOVE CAN BE SAVED, Ballantine, 1998, page 92).

Have you ever written a poem, or a story, or a letter for a loved one? Marian Wright Edelman wrote MEASURE OF SUCCESS A LETTER TO MY CHILDREN AND YOURS. What other writers have written books that are collections of letters? Who do you want to/need to write letter(s) to?

Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote:

“Creativity is not a solitary movement. That is its power. Whatever is touched by it, whoever hears it, sees it, senses it, knows it, is fed. That is why beholding someone else’s creative word, image, idea, fills us up, inspires us to our own creative work. A single creative act has the potential to feed a continent. One creative act can cause a torrent to break through stone.? (WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES, Ballantine Books, 1992, page 299)

When was the last time/any time that someone’s story made a difference to your life? Was it a book you read, a poetry reading you went to, a letter from a friend, a story in a magazine, a greeting card from your child or a grandchild, a note from a student/or a teacher? A song? Make a list of “creative acts? that have helped get you through tough times.

Whose lives have you touched? What story or poem made a difference to someone you know, or to a stranger? What story or poem haven’t you written that someone is waiting to hear? Write it.

I will never forget the angel I met at a Split Rock writing workshop. After introductions and at the end of the class she came up to me and asked if I was the Sherry Quan Lee that had read at the Loft some seven or eight years before. She went on to recite some lines from my poems! We might never know when we have touched someone’s life with our words, but our words can be transformative!

I keep some of the letters and notes from people whose lives I have touched. It is not narcissistic. It’s what I return to when I wonder what my purpose in life is, when I wonder if my life matters, when I’m feeling low down. The kind words others have written to me save my life time and time again. One of the most meaningful letters I received was from a second cousin. My first chap book, A LITTLE MIXED UP, was published in 1982 by Guild Press. It was all about family secrets; it was a scary endeavor. My second cousin thanked me for allowing her to know her grandmother through my poetry. My mother, however, wasn’t pleased. Yet, sometime before she died, she was able to say “we are proud of you.?

It’s all about love, really. Loving ourselves, and loving others. However, Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells us:

“…love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many many endings, and many many beginnings—all in the same relationship.? (WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES, Ballantine Books, 1992, page 162)

I have been loved, and loved and know that is true because I have gained much understanding by what other women of color have written, and what I continue to write.

Sherry Quan Lee