Writing on Wednesday: Finding Language for Primitive Emotional Experiences
This past February I did a blog post in response to a wonderful book I was reading, Why We Write About Ourselves. The post was titled “Shaping the Chaos.” I quoted four of the twenty contributors to the collection. This morning I picked the book back up, hoping that one of the memoirists in the book had written to a particular issue that was on my mind. Bingo. I found A. M. Homes’ chapter. Homes writes fiction and nonfiction, and she understands the importance of drawing clear lines between the two genres. In her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, she pushes through the project painfully, sometimes wondering if she would keep going. Here’s what she says about that choice:
What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer—finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for their adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.
That’s what our son, Jason, is doing with the incredible essays he pens and publishes on his blog, An Opinionated Man. Recently he put this essay, “A Book of Triggers,” on Facebook, and it brought me to tears. He’s a fearless hunter, like the heart. I love him so much and I’m so proud of him. This is only one of many such essays, but I’d like to share it today. If you’re writing memoir—or even thinking about writing memoir—take notice of this courageous and beautiful piece.
A Book of Triggers
Jason C. Cushman
If I were to imagine a book of life it would best be described as a book of triggers. For what is life other than a slowly revealed circle of need, want, and more need? My book of triggers has always been my journals that I have kept throughout my life. Triggering thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the moment laid to permanent rest by drifting pen. At rest, but never sleeping, they are active memories that swim before my eyes even still as I read my life from dried ink. Is there a point when life can finally be accepted and we see a trigger no more. No, I think not.
I have lived my life balanced on the knife’s edge of emotion. Being far too sensitive as a child, I carried much of that pain because of my inability to ignore pain. To ignore the barbs of life that found welcoming flesh every time within my body. Within my soul. Is there an MRI for the soul and what would the picture of mine look like? I imagine my soul is much like me. We would not appreciate the eye of such scrutiny or the nakedness of such honesty. We would instead turn in upon ourselves, as we have always done, seeking the shell that God never blessed us with.
I write my triggers because I recognize they exist. They are as real as the scars that mark my skin. Denial is a luxury I cannot afford anymore and maybe never could. After my first suicide attempt I realized that I very much hold the ability to deny. I could ignore the sun until it burned my face. Actually that is an apt analogy considering I still remember the burn of bile coming up my throat as my body fought desperately to live. I do not take credit for such actions. A white flag of acceptance hovered above my falling body during this point of my life. Falling for I had indeed fallen to the moment. There was never a clearer time in my life as my body fought to live through my stupidity and that is ironic still to this day. To me the sadness that fact brings is the largest trigger of all.
We cannot live our lives cringing from the sound of every trigger we step on. Instead that sound should become like music to our ears as the cacophony of reality impresses upon us the reality of our conquest. We are taught now to ignore triggers and to steer clear of even the subject. In our politically correct society we are forced to forewarn people that “trigger warning” the words written here might actually mean something to you. Might actually affect you in some way.
When I look over my shoulder I do not see a past presented by picturesque Monet created pathways. Instead I am assaulted by the rawness of Memphis city streets alive with the power of memory. A painting littered with forgotten words and stained with pain born tears. A painting of reality is what my past presents and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I wake up to a trigger each morning. A Korean face looks back at me in the mirror and no matter how many times I splash myself with cold water, still the same slanted eye, half smile appears. It must be me. It has to be me. And yet that introduces the second trigger of my story, the power of acceptance. To accept what does not feel right, to be forced to be who you don’t think you are. Who cannot relate to such a feeling for differing reasons? The world is a melting pot of such forced persuasions as we are each told who we are and what we were meant to be.
I think the saddest part about my first two triggers is that they were decided for me. They were part of a path connected by an action one cold morning in Busan, South Korea. A morning when a mother decided she no longer wished to be a mother and in doing so she placed around my neck a necklace that did not hold a locket of love. Instead it held a golden trigger upon which was written a name. A meaningless name which was never to be used. A name that I sometimes wish I was. Ahn Soo Jin.
It is amazing how much meaning a name can have and yet not have at the same time. I suppose much of that has to do with acceptance of what that name truly means. We are given words to mark us as singular in an overcrowded world that will rarely see you as an individual. Who does that name mean more to? To an adopted child a “given name” is simply another tab in our adoption file. Particularly if that child is Asian and adopted into the United States because most of us are forced to have our names changed. Our “given name” becomes an amusing item of memory that we sometimes fondle late at night as we look to the East.
My Korean name is more than just a trigger because my birth mother gave it to me. I am constantly reminded of the holes in my past when Koreans shake their heads and exclaim “that is a girl’s name!” So we can at least pinpoint where my love of alcohol came from. She had to be drunk to name this Adonis of a man a woman’s name. What was she thinking? Did the orphanage mix up my sister’s name with my own? Dominoes of life fall with a clatter as the inevitable line of questions rattles off in my head. I cannot stop them. I allow them all to fall and run their course. Stopping this line of thought simply bookmarks my pain for a later time of contemplation. I rip off quickly the band aid of life to get it over with.
I have long since placed my Korean past in the closet it belongs. It is only revisited when society tells me I should reflect on certain days with happiness… such as mother’s day. People often say that Christmas is the worst time of the year for them and that depression always seems to rear its head during that holiday. For me mother’s day is the most depressing of all holidays. My depression no longer “rears” his head when he hears of this joyous annual occurrence. Instead he grumbles and mumbles. Only the attentive can make out the words he repeats over and over. “Fuck mother’s day.”
I do have an appreciation for mothers and fathers and I have my adopted parents to thank for that. They were great role models, provided for me, and even more importantly were supportive during my adoptive search. They never once tried to hinder what must have seemed like an inevitable train wreck and neither did they belittle me with advice on a topic they had no experience with. That is something many adopted kids forget is that there is no guide for their new parents and mistakes will be made. The love and compassion though that it takes for someone to take a stranger, even a child, into their home is immeasurable.
As I have grown into my new role as a dad I have found moments of pause. Times where I wonder about the man I will never know, nor have any desire to meet. Whenever I walk into a doctor’s office and fill out the family history survey with a large N/A I sometimes catch my eyes rolling… as much as Asian eyes roll. I wonder how many times I will have to explain my own confusion and lack of answers to the world. When entering the military I had to be cleared for my Tops Secret clearance for the Air Force. I remember my mom telling me that the investigators were at their house and kept asking about my birth mom. One of the agents said “well we will need to speak to her. How can we be sure he is really South Korean?” My mother responded, “well when you find her tell her that her son says hello.”
Growing up the only Asian idol I had was Bruce Lee and unfortunately I really didn’t start liking him until college. I instantly connected with his struggle to prove to his own country his worth and how that drove him so hard through his movie career. I wonder if other displaced children have day dreams where they return in triumph to the homeland that rejected them. Maybe they return as the adopted child of the President or they become the next Korean boy band sensation. Instead we live in a reality that never fully accepts us and we in turn never fully accept it. Living life between two shadows of want is a sad way to live.