Since the beginning of the term I have been certain that I wanted to devote my case study to Mai Neng Moua. Mai Neng is the founder and long-time editor of Paj Ntaub Voice, the only literary arts journal for Hmong writers. She has been at it for ten years and has been responsible for a dozen issues of the magazine, an anthology (Bamboo Among the Oaks), and the sponsorship of 135 writers to date. She is a primary force in the emerging movement of Hmong (American) literature; she is a potent visionary with unswerving determination.
Mai Neng is also a poem and memoirist. She is preparing to take a year to return more purposefully to her craft through the Bush Fellowship. For the better part of her adult life, Mai Neng has been an activist and an advocate for literacy and literary arts in a community that has been otherwise occupied by the demands of being refugees and immigrants in America.
Mai Neng is bilingual but experiences distinct tensions between her linguistic abilities—specifically the disparity between her English fluency and flagging Hmong ability. She speaks often of her desire to record and translate Hmong language rituals and orature, but she also expresses the dismay of her linguistic limitations. She feels that she is missing something, that something is in danger of being lost. When she addresses these concerns, she is clearly referring to the communal and cultural losses, but it is also apparent that she harbors certain personal anxieties about what such losses will entail for her own identity.
She and I are very close friends and have worked together for more than four years on a wide variety of projects. This case study provides the opportunity for us to focus our conversation—and to record its outcomes—and incentive for both of us to return to the transcript and analyze its content. As a key figure in the world of Hmong (American) literature, I would be pleased to see a chapter of my dissertation develop from these focused conversations.
I have scheduled three one-hour conversations with Mai Neng that I will transcribe and share with her for her corrections, clarifications, comments, and for further conversation.
You have spent ten years creating and sustaining a literary arts movement. How has this shaped your own identity? To what extent does this work define how you conceive of yourself?
In the beginning you seem to think of yourself as a writer. Now you write less, organize and administer more. How have your changes purposes for your literacy (writing poetry versus writing grants) affected your identity?
Your own writing has waned in the past years. Now you are preparing to take leave on a fellowship. How will you structure your writing? What writing tasks will you tackle first?
What are your writing goals for your fellowship? How will you measure those goals? What mechanisms have you built to facilitate achieving those goals?
When you write, how do you write? What tools/technologies do you use? How do you structure your time? What process do you take? How does it differ between different purposes/genres?
What are the connections between basic literacy skills and literary production?
You have written often about your mother. What can you tell me about her literacy practices? How has she been a literacy teacher to you? How has she facilitated your writing? How has she impeded it?
You have written about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Think about inscription, memory, and memorializing. What is the significance of the names in that wall? Comment on the Hmong Veterans Memorial that has more recently been erected.
Writers assume a certain role in society. What is your role as a writer? Do you define that role within a Hmong society, or society more generally? Why one over the other? How do writers function differently in the Hmong community now? What role will they play in the future?
Much of your work has been focused on building up Hmong writers and giving them opportunities to succeed. You are impressively positive. Are there any ways in which Hmong writers are failing themselves and their community at this time?
Trace your own basic literacy--in each of the relevant languages. How did that literacy develop? Describe the tools, spaces, programs, people, and institutions that contributed to (or impeded) that development.
Consider a hypothetical (albeit impossible): If you had to choose between reading and writing—meaning that you would completely lose the skill not chosen—which would you choose? Would you produce texts or consume texts? Why? How does your answer relate to your sense of your identity?
Who are you? Who do you write yourself to be (in a poem or in a grant, for example)? How does the self that you write shape the self that you are?
[The interview guide that follows was a tool I developed for a literacy study I developed for a previous class. The project was influenced profoundly by my exposure to Deb Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives. I set out to write the beginnings of Literacy in Hmong American Lives. I may use these questions—or forms of them—in the current case study.]
“EXPERIENCES WITH AND ATTITUDES TOWARDS LITERACY IN THE HMONG COMMUNITY”
What is your name? (this question is strictly to identify the respondent and will not be used in any report. All names will be altered and the principle investigator will have sole access to the key.)
Where were you born?
When were you born?
Where have you lived since then and how long have you lived there?
When did you arrive in the United States?
What languages do you speak?
FIRST LANGUAGE (L1)
What was the first language that you learned to speak (L1)?
Can you read and write in L1?
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L1?
Please explain how you learned to read and write L1.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L1?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L1?
How have you used your literacy in L1?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L1? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?
SECOND LANGUAGE (L2)
What was the second language that you learned to speak (L2)?
Can you read and write in L2?
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L2?
Please explain how you learned to read and write L2.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L2?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L2?
How have you used your literacy in L2?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L2? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?
[REPEAT THIS SERIES OF QUESTIONS FOR EACH SPOKEN LANGUAGE]
How is reading and writing, in any language, important to you? To the Hmong community?
How is reading and writing in Hmong important to you? To the Hmong community?
How is reading and writing in English important to you? To the Hmong community?
What is the most important thing about being able to read and write in any language and in any particular language?
How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in that same language?
How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in another language?
How do you use your literacy on a day-to-day basis?
I am not a fan of anything.
Fanaticism, it seems, is not part of my character. Moderate in so many ways, I resist the perceived “imbalance” of being too devoted or dedicated to any particular cultural object or activity. I’ve never owned a t-shirt advertising a musical group. I’ve never tacked up a poster of a Hollywood celebrity (except Alf during my confused adolescence). I’ve never attended a conference (“con”) for devotees of any literary, television, or film series. Even as a teenager my interest in Dungeons & Dragons was on again, off again. If not a fan, then, what am I?
I am a flash-in-the-pan fan.
I’m not admitting to being part of the bandwagon crowd that spoils good things (like Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band), but rather I’m a fan as determined by social context. Perhaps it is more accurate to say:
I’m a crowd-pleaser fan.
I exploit cultural icons for social gains. For example, if at some soiree Tom Hanks—a Hollywood actor I generally respect—comes up in conversation, I draw my respect into admiration, admiration into enthusiasm. For an hour, I am a Tom Hanks fan. I enjoy pleasant conversation, establish positive social connections, and observe the euphoria of enthusiasts in action all while maintaining a safe distance from fan status myself. All of the benefits of fanhood with none of the risks of actual fanaticism. I don’t want to be a part of it, and yet I flirt around the edges because I recognize the cultural and social currency it carries.
Case in point: the first time I met my wife’s parents it was a Monday night. The Vikings were playing. I walked into their home and was greeted by Michele, who later became my mother-in-law, outfitted in a Randy Moss jersey. Hung over the back of a kitchen chair was a Chris Carter jersey. I knew it was for me. I willingly donned it. I knew football was part of the family culture and I wanted in. Now—a man generally disinterested in sports and from Green Bay to boot—I cheer for the Vikings, at least when I’m visiting my in-laws. Otherwise, I tend to forget that it’s football season. However, playing the fan goes a long way to extending the pleasure of my family life.
Having firmly established my status as a non-fan, I can safely divulge a recent “fanatic episode,” as I call it. My first child was born this summer. That naturally brought a great deal of changes to how my wife and I spent our time. Shortly after the baby was born, my mother-in-law (great media fan that she is) loaned us the first season of Alias on DVD. My wife and I had both seen a few episodes of this high drama spy thriller and enjoyed it. The writing, acting, and production were of very high quality, approaching the cinematic standards, in my opinion. Our son ate on a three-hour cycle and, if we didn’t go to bed right after feeding time, it seemed a waste to sleep for an hour only to wake up again. Many nights, therefore, we found ourselves waiting to go to bed, and Alias filled our time.
We started watching just a single episode but soon found ourselves falling victim to the cliffhanger formula. Sitting on the couch with a sleeping or feeding infant, we would look at each other and I would tentatively ask, “Can we watch another?” To my delight, Christa was just as invested as I and we settled in to indulge in another episode—or two. I think at the height of our mania, we watched four consecutive episodes. Pure pleasure.
We finished Season One within a couple of weeks, just before my birthday. My gift from my in-laws was my own copy of the second season on DVD. About this time, my mother came into town to help with the baby. I was concerned that she would regard my addiction to Alias as retrograde, but after watching an episode with us she was similarly hooked. The prevailing image of the first month of my son’s life is his grandmother, mother, and father sitting on the couch—eyes fixed on the television—passing him back and forth as our arms grew tired or he became hungry. We were a vision of virtual experience.
Thoughts of the show—fascination with its many twists and turns as well as genuine concern for its characters—pervaded my thinking. Hot days of summer and long nights of new parenthood passed pleasantly. But when it was all done, knowing that Season Three would be available until September, I was free. The fanatic episode was over. Christa and I resumed more varied ways to fill our time and my mother picked up a novel. I phased out of my fan frenzy by watching some of the bonus material on the DVDs. Our conversation, which had for weeks been dominated by the show and its storyline, became increasingly diverse until Alias faded away altogether. Now it has taken a place in family lore and memory. And when I see the boxed DVD set in the cabinet, I wonder what I’ll ever do with it.
A flash in the fan pan. A short season of celebrity fascination. The story of my pop cultural life.
Besides the writing that I did in school as a child, I was a prolific contributor to my personal journal, writing nearly every day during some stretches of my youth. While my school writing kept my attention on writing in an academic setting, my journal gave opportunity for expressive and reflective personal writing. In my journal, naturally, I felt free to experiment and to write with a certain playful spirit.
As I moved into high school, I spent some time (as seems mandatory for American teenagers) writing poetry. My interest in creative writing extended to short fiction late in high school when my family bought our first home computer. At the time, the demands of general academic writing, as taught through the public school system, didn’t seem too restrictive or particular. Writing a long term paper about the early logging industry in Wisconsin (during my environmentalist phase) seemed to require substantial facts and data from my research, but allowed—as far as I could tell—the same casual presentation that I used to enumerate and examine my daily experiences in my journal as well as a touch of the narrative from my fiction writing. To me, writing felt holistic; I didn’t feel any competition between the several genres I experienced.
It is important to note, however, that science writing was exceptional. While the writing component in my first science classes was minimal (if not nonexistent), my chemistry and physics classes of my latter years each included a stringent writing requirement. Each quarter we compiled an extensive lab book wherein weekly experiments were written up in detail, rigorously following the standard “scientific method” as it was taught to us. These lab books were infamous in the school culture and were the first introduction to all-nighters for many conscientious, but procrastinating, students. The challenge of writing these lab reports was valuable, but it never achieved the status of “writing” to me; it was matter-of-fact reportage that failed to indulge in any of the practices—creative narrative, personal reflection, inventive prose, lush description, etc.—that I enjoyed about writing. Science reporting was mechanical whereas writing—everything else—was magical.
In my naiveté, I approached my early college writing the same way I had my high school writing: relegating science writing as “the other” and unaware of any other generic variations or disciplinary expectations. In my first year, although I had thoroughly enjoyed my science classes in high school, I avoided the physical science departments, preferring the stimulating expansiveness of the humanities to the confining empiricism of science. I did little science writing in my first year.
The rest of my writing—undertaken in the rather uncomplicated approach I had developed in high school—was received well and left me satisfied with both my grades and my learning experiences. When I returned to college after a two-year hiatus to begin my sophomore year, I suddenly remembered my affinity for the sciences and within the year, after explored various science fields, I settled on a major in chemistry. After completing the general courses (which required minimal writing) that year, my junior year found me immersed in intensive laboratory classes that demanded extensive lab reports that conformed to the conventions of academic journals. The only writing instruction I received in college (I purposefully—perhaps arrogantly—found a way to avoid freshman composition) was self-administered during this phase of my coursework. I invested intensive effort to understanding and mimicking the style of professional science writing.
I found it difficult, but it eventually became a game: how could I distill my characteristically abundant prose into the succinct syntax expected of scientists? I relished in writing the Methods section wherein two days of lab procedures might be expressed in as little as ten lines of text. The purpose, scope, and audience of this kind of writing were so precisely defined that it allowed me to focus almost exclusively on crafting minimalist prose and deploying terminology efficiently and accurately. Whereas my humanities writing had been expansive, far-reaching, and global, my science writing was incisive, restricted, and local to the point of being microscopic. In these ways, I found the respective disciplinary goals—“big picture” analysis on one hand and assays of minute detail on the other—to be manifest in the conventions of writing within the disciplines.
My composition and revision practices shifted in accordance with the nature of science writing as I continued to focus on the genre of the lab report. Always particular about details on the sentence level, my natural tendency was amplified by the value placed upon sparse, exact language. Writing to such exacting expectations and within a prescriptive outline (the formatting formula of specific sections: introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion, conclusion) facilitated the decline of my ability and incentive to make major revisions or experiment with form.
As I contemplated a career in chemistry, I became increasingly certain that I didn’t want one. I found myself stifled and unenthused about my school work. Returning to the humanities classes that had so stimulated me in my early college career, I felt refreshed. It was the writing—as much as the subjects and modes of learning—that rejuvenated me. Writing became more closely associated with thinking—writing generated new thoughts rather than being a practice of documenting data and articulating old, linear conclusions. Science was challenging (heaven knows I didn’t understand half of the concepts expected of me), but its complexities and complications were dealt with formulaically. I yearned for a methodology that was generative and complicated in itself. I needed less order.
Ultimately, I’ve ended up in graduate school in the English department. In itself, that is telling. Learning to write substantial seminar papers that engaged literary theory as well as literary texts has been another process of self-instruction. I have struggled to understand a new set of generic conventions and stylistic expectations that, in many ways, diametrically oppose those of science writing. While it is generally refreshing, at times it is frustrating as I find myself unable to write to the standards of my professional discourse community. Some of the ways of thinking, it seems, are not my own. Furthermore, I resist the detached, disembodied (impersonal) tone of much of the writing—a residual effect of science’s insistence on removal of personality in the name of objective, rational investigation.
At the end of my second year of my graduate studies, a feminist rhetorician in our department introduced me to discourses that validate the personal voice in academic writing and acknowledge the deception behind a thin veil of objective, impersonal language. Writing in her seminar included responses to readings that permitted—and even privileged—the personal. Such personal reflection wedded with rigorous thinking brought me full circle to where I began my writing career (and this account of it). Writing became, once again, a practice that was integral with my identity, not in opposition to it. As I contemplate writing a dissertation—that magnus opus—I am confident that, while my analysis and interpretation requires the same precision and attention my science training developed in me, the project cannot be divorced—in methodology or compositional style—from my identity, my personality, my humanity.
I just received word from Mai Neng Moua, our executive director, that we have received a substantial grant from the McKnight Foundation for general operations. That will keep the doors open and the lights on for a few more months.
Over our short history we have been fortunate to be successful at writing and receiving grants for our programs and operations. Mai Neng is a master grant writer. Even so, it is difficult to keep things going and we have been investing a lot of our time strategizing our fundraising and earned income strategies. In fact, our first major fundraising event is coming up on Saturday, October 23. If you have any desire to contribute, contact me: email@example.com.
While receiving this grant money makes me feel grateful for the support of charitable foundations, it also makes me wonder how long we can keep going this way. I have abiding questions about the popular support of literary and visual arts. Does all art have to function as a self-sustaining capitalistic project?
The success of Barnes and Noble and other mammoth booksellers is encouraging—Americans are not only reading books, they are buying them too. Can this trend towards popular literacy and literary interest find its way from the successful marketers and retailers to small operations like ours? Will we forever have to rely upon funds from institutional philanthropy, or will we eventually secure a financial based comprised of actual readers, writers, appreciators, and artists? Do we want to become a business, even if it is not-for-profit?
When I set out to write my narrative of moving to Green Bay, I hadn't planned on focusing on its spiritual aspects. I thought I would describe the challenge—and my response to it—in more secular terms of struggle and learning and experience. Seeing what the piece ended up looking like, however, reveals that the spiritual narrative is obviously a central force upon my memory of that episode.
Motifs of darkness crept into the narrative without premeditation. Of course, it was January in Wisconsin and naturally very dark, but the metaphor of darkness is convenient for the drama of my memory. For as many times as I invoke darkness, however, I didn't turn to its logical complement of light to describe the spiritual processes of prayer and faith. If I resisted that impulse, perhaps it is because my memories are spliced to the context of darkness visually and affectively. When I recall the scenes in my mind—clear and vivid still—they are defined by darkness and grayness, including the moments of spiritual "enlightenment." It is curious and interesting to me that light does not figure into the narrative. If I were to similarly narrate other moments of spiritual growth they probably would include metaphors of light. Is it my relapse to teenage angst that keeps light out of my narrative?
The details that emerged are striking to me as well. The memory of my dad's dinnertime prayers—one of the first memories that appeared in my mind as I started to write—seems to have influenced how the rest of the narrative goes. In recalling his sincere supplication, I appreciated anew his love and concern for our family. He is a gentle, and a pious, man. While I have told this story many times in many contexts, that detail of his prayers has rarely been a part of it. I think it has a great deal to do with how my story was shaped this time, and with how my experience turned out. Each time I tell this story, the experiences and the lessons learned assume a little more meaning. Whereas it bewildered and overwhelmed me at the time, reflection has revealed its meaning. Or perhaps reflection and retelling has given it meaning, created meaning from a set of events that, retrospectively, can be considered symbolically.
The other prominent details (my first encounter with our new house and the smell of that rotten apartment complex) are also surprises to me. Obviously my memory of those things is vivid, but, again, those details, while never forgotten, have never figured prominently into the story. Reading the story as a critic, I can't even tell what relevance they have, whether they do more than just provide some concrete images to ground the reader. Does my disappointed disgust with our house reveal a psychological state? Is the apartment odor a metaphor for my disdain for relocating? I'm quite sure that this tale isn't crafted carefully enough to claim any such effects intentionally.
For as much emphasis as I place on personal prayer, attending church figures into the story in a rather minor way, even though it was very important to me. My mother similarly takes a pretty small role despite the fact that she was my vigilant companion and champion.
I guess narratives like this tend to be narcissistic—neglecting many of the people around me—and my narratives tend to indulge in the nostalgia of the details. Hence the random assemblage of facts and trivia. However, the inclusion of these details points to the great importance of the context and conditions of our move. I see my experiences with the buy outs as my participation in the corporate culture of the 1980s. With it I secure my membership in the "Victims of 1980s Corporate America" club.
My first response to our new house is a moment I am still particularly ashamed of. My parents were really crestfallen and I have always felt guilty for my instinctive response. I really don't think that I even thought it was a bad-looking house. The combination of the stress of the move and the instant of just waking up after a long drive generated such a response. In addition to feeling guilty for making my poor parents feel bad, I think I know that it was untrue and there is nothing that bothers me so much as telling a negative lie when there was absolutely no reason to. Why didn't I just say, "Wow! It's big!" That was probably what I was thinking.
In addition to Dad's prayers, I also really remember the way that he worried for those several months. He didn't eat well, he lost weight, and I was unsettled that one of my life's pillars seemed so weak. Here again is perhaps another reason for why I take time to comment on his anxiety: in a moment when he appeared particularly weak, he was actually quite strong. His humility and submission lead him to rely more particularly upon Providential protection, a pattern I so admired that I imitated it when I was in my own moment of distress. This most recent retelling of the story highlights for me how vital my relationship with my father was and how critical his example of faith was to my survival.
Constructing this narrative has been a provocative experience of really constructing what I believe about this particular event in my life. While the lessons that I take from it now do not differ radically from my previous perceptions, there are nuanced differences in how I perceive it. I suppose that is one lesson of literacy in general and storytelling more specifically: they are practices which create identity.
It was dark as pitch on Saturday, January 16, 1988 when we pulled up to our new home at 3230 Normandy Lane in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was our second day of driving from Plano, Texas and the dog, Murphy, and I were sleeping in the back seat of our Mercury Marquis. I awoke as the car stopped and my mother said, "We're here!"
I opened my eyes to discover that we were in the driveway of a big, awkward brown house. Deep piles of snow loomed at the edges of the driveway. Before I could clear my mind to think better of it I blurted, "This is it?!?" I regretted my words as soon as they slipped out.
I was thirteen and the last child at home, my older brother and sister both having left for college already. My parents were very anxious about moving, especially for my sake. They knew it would be difficult to leave the only home and friends I had ever known in Texas for new ones. We've talked about it since, and my disparaging response to our new home really deflated mom and dad.
It wasn't such a bad house. It was spacious and, in a 1970s kind of way, attractive. If I'm honest, it's the house that hold my most treasured memories of my youth. That two-story cul-de-sac house was the setting for the most formative experiences of my life.
But they begin in an funky smelling apartment a half mile away.
My father, a research food scientist, was the victim of multiple corporate buy outs. Anderson Clayton Foods had first been purchased by Quaker Oats (the parent of Ralston Purina) to acquire the Gains/Cycle dog food line. Having got what they came for, Quaker put the company back up on the auction block and Kraft picked up what was left to get their hands on the Seven Seas salad dressing label. It was the way of the food industry in the 1980s--conglomeration and corporate takeovers of your competition. Kraft retained very few employees so my father, 55 years old, found himself on the job market.
He was anxious. He didn't eat much. He led long family prayers around the dinner table desperately pleading for help for our family. I've never been so moved, before or since, by his prayers. He polished his resume, donned a new suit, and launched into the networking game with determination.
My dad's a brilliant man and a dedicated worker. I don't think I ever really had a doubt that he would find a job, but I certainly felt the anxiety of the uncertainty of our situation. Within a few months of Kraft's announcement to close Anderson Clayton, he had a number of interviews and several good prospects.
Frigo Foods, an Italian cheese company in Green Bay, turned out to be the match. Frigo was excited to have my dad and I think my dad, although he was eager to take any job that paid, was excited about the work as well. But Green Bay threw me. I had no idea where Wisconsin was. I didn't know what people did there. I had no way to know what to expect, but, to my thirteen-year-old way of thinking, if Green Bay wasn't the edge of the earth, surely you could see it from there.
Over the summer we prepared our house in Plano to sell. I started eighth grade and my dad started work at Frigo in October. They put him up in one of these sprawling, one-story 1970s apartment complexes with long hallways that looked like they had been borrowed from a cheap hotel. Its most distinguishing feature was a really odd--and unpleasant--odor that permeated the whole place. The way the timing to close on our new house worked out, we would spend our first week in Green Bay at the apartment.
Arriving that Saturday night, we went to church on Sunday morning. I found it a welcoming place and I genuinely appreciated the familiar structure of an LDS worship community. But I was never really worried about attending church--these were people with whom we shared sacred faith and beliefs. The whole enterprise was about being kind, loving people; I didn't figure I had much to worry about there.
School, however, was another matter. No one went to middle school to become a more generous Christian. To say I was anxious understates the ulcerating pit in my stomach. Sunday night I slept poorly on the couch in that fragrant apartment and I awoke early. For a long time I laid there, staring at the ceiling through the predawn darkness of the upper Midwest in January. I don't know that I've ever seen anything so dark since.
That morning (and every morning for months after) I felt absolutely sick. The nagging nausea that greeted me escalated with my worry to a sense of dread that was absolutely overwhelming to my thirteen-year-old self. I will never forget how, laying on that couch in the unfamiliarity of the clinging darkness and discomforting fume, I started to pray. I had said many prayers before and had been well instructed in the purposes and promise of prayer, but that morning, somewhere around 4:00 a.m. with gloom clinging to my heart, I believe I really talked to God. I needed to.
I needed help to stand up. I prayed for it. I needed help to eat a light breakfast without throwing up. I prayed for it. I needed help to shower and get dressed. I prayed for it. For the first time in my life, I was overcome. I had been afraid before, but nothing had so completely debilitated me. It sounds like melodrama now, but I simply had no power to function. Internally, I was spent.
And because spiritual effort, like so many things, is rewarded in direct proportion to its intensity, my pathetic prayers were answered. I got what I asked for--no more and no less. When I needed to get into the car with my mother to drive across town to school, I did because I had prayed that I would. When I needed to survive the loneliest lunch hour of my life, I managed because I prayed that I would. Though I had been sure of prayer's efficacy before, it became a particularly sacred practice to me that day. It was more than a spiritual exercise, more than a duty of the pious, more than a vehicle to express gratitude. It was nothing less than communication with a God who knew me and, for all of my insignificance in a majestic universe, cared about me.
It was that God to whom my father had pleaded so desperately for sustenance for our family, and while I had been moved by his intense sincerity and honest humility I knew better now what it was to be a participant in a conversation with God rather than just a spectator.
The transition to life in Green Bay was difficult, to be sure. It took time before I was able to prepare for each day without encountering intense anxiety. It took time before I made a few friends and began to feel reasonably comfortable at school. It took time--time enough to cement my relationship with God and to inscribe certain lessons upon my soul.
My parents moved away from Green Bay in 1999. I haven't been back to visit for many years. My wife has never been there. And yet I frequently, even daily, reflect back upon that episode of my life. In addition to--or as a result of--my burgeoning spirituality, I mark those early Wisconsin years as the beginning of the process of maturation that continues to culminate in the perpetual (re)formation of my social and cultural identity. It was an awakening and a struggling that has influenced my life ever since.
Lately we've been having a difficult time making our HAIL* meetings stick. I admit that, given my difficult schedule, I've been responsible for several of the postponed meetings. Being engaged usually means being busy, which I find both a blessing and a challenge.
As I have been bogged down with the concerns of trying to make my schedule work and worrying about getting the work done, I admit that I've felt a bit tired.
I've wondered what that fatigue means. I've concluded that it means I've been too focussed on the aspect of time, forgetting about the work and its satisfaction. It is too easy to start seeing things in terms of meetings, hours, and obligations instead of meaning, power, and opportunities. A little organizing--looking ahead and clearing my schedule--can go a long way to making my work richer and more fulfilling.
But while keeping better track of my schedule is helpful, allowing the work to reclaim my time most invigorates my engagement. If, instead of fretting about fitting in another meeting here or there, I step back and invision the work freshly, the dread disappears and energy replaces it.
HAIL is creating opportunities for writers and artists to do their work. That is my work. Ka Vang's most recent play, From Shadows to Light, has just concluded a successful run with Theater Mu. She is a writer that we know. I believe that she is a writer that we have helped. Some day someone, and it might be Ka, is going to publish a piece of writing that turns the world on its ear. People are going to buy it at Barnes and Noble and weep, or laugh, or both as they read it. It's going to expand how they see our weary world.
Making literature happen is a big deal. It takes some work to do it. If that means scheduling meetings, I'm all for it.
*Hmong American Institute for Learning