Ch. 1. My First Communion
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside,
somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God.
Because only then does someone feel like all is as it should be.
~ Anne Frank
A handful of men with white smudges of cracked earth on their bare chocolate bodies made a smooth entry upon the playground of the St. Bernadette Elementary School, the all-girls Catholic school that my parents had entrusted with my primary school education. The men were wearing checkered cotton loin skirts around their waists. The brown seeds around their ankles and wrists rattled while they unloaded and carried carved wooden apinti drums and other belongings from their pick-up truck to the playground.
Every now and then, delightful chatter, words of a familiar song, and occasional bickering and name calling in Dutch or the Surinamese Creole tongue, Sranan Tongo, rose above the cacophony that hovered over the playground. I was too busy numbering a row of square stone pavers to notice much of anything other than the relentless midday sun scorching my scalp through my shiny, dark hair. I patted the top of my head to circulate the hot air. Like most children born and bred in Suriname—a small Caribbean country and former Dutch colony covered almost entirely by muggy Amazonian rainforest—I'd gotten used to getting a bit sun-broiled in this tropical pressure cooker in the middle of the day.
"Come on, get up . . . let's play! Recess will be over soon!" Geeta pleaded while pulling me up by the elbow. Her hazel green eyes sparkled next to her golden honey skin.
Our grandparents were part of a band of contract laborers and grocers from India, Indonesia, and China who voluntarily moved to Suriname right after the abolition of slavery. While some, like my Chinese paternal grandparents, married within their ethnic group, others freely mixed with the existing melting pot that consisted of indigenous forest dwellers, freed slaves, and European, Creole (racially-mixed), and (a few) Black plantation owners, government officials, and public servants. My Chinese maternal grandfather, a merchant and bachelor, found romance outside of his ethnic group. He married a Creole woman, my grandmother, who was of Jewish-European, African, and indigenous descent. Her ancestral roots spanned from our native Suriname all the way to Ghana, Portugal, and Holland.
Not even our bland, olive green cotton blouses and gray pleated skirts could neutralize my friends’ diverse complexions, hair textures, eye color, and facial features. We looked like the layered palette of a seasoned painter. Despite our differences, we all detested taking pages of notes in class until our fingers were about to fall off. If you happened to have nice handwriting, as I did, not only could you be copying an entire chapter from a tattered book onto the blackboard, you needed to copy it again into your own notebook after school.
There was one thing that I hated even more than sore hands and fingers. Watching “hopeless cases” get punished by some of the teachers. In just three years of grade school, I’d witnessed teachers fold these troublemakers over their desk, lift their skirts, and swat them with a ruler on their bottoms in front of the whole class. Sometimes they'd hurl a chalk eraser at their heads for talking too much, or dragged them by the ear to the principal's office.
It was never very clear to me why my friends had gotten in trouble. When I thought it was for talking back, someone else would get in trouble for not saying enough. I once got in trouble for an entirely different reason: for shedding “crocodile tears” like a leaky faucet. I was often unable to stop the drip, which aggravated the grown-ups. And unable to explain what was wrong with me, which aggravated them more. My first grade teacher took me to the principal's office when she couldn't take it anymore, and even Ma once raised her hand and threatened to give me a reason to cry if I couldn't provide one.
I didn't quite know how to say, "I feel sad, upset, and unsafe because adults like you, who should know better, are mean and are hurting us." No one around me did. When I got in trouble for crying, I tried to freeze up my tears and numb my bruised heart, copying some my classmates. It only made me cry harder. When the recess bell rang, I was one of the first ones to bolt to the door, not able to stand another minute inside.
While waiting for me to finish drawing the hop-scotch cross, Petra, one of the few Dutch girls at our school, rubbed her rock in her hands for good luck. Her freckled apple cheeks had a red glow, and her blonde locks, sticky at the ends from sweat, gently framed her face.
The loud clamoring of the bell interrupted our play right before Geeta could claim victory. The head nun and principal of our school, Soeur, was vigorously swinging a short, thick rope underneath the heavy copper bell in the hallway in front of her office.
“Recess is over!” she bellowed. Dead silence settled upon the playground. There were a few pieces of broken chalk, not bigger than a fingernail, lying around. I swooped them up and dropped them in one of my front pockets like delicate gemstones. Hitting my thighs with open palms, I tried to get as much chalk dust off my hands and skirt as I could, turning my clean uniform into a rag in just one day, as Ma would say.
"Hey, where is everyone going?" I asked Geeta, confused that no one was lining up to go back to our classroom.
"Oh, didn't you hear? There’s going to be a special cultural performance on the playground today," Geeta said.
"Really? What kind of performance?" I asked. "No one told me."
"I’m not sure.” Geeta asked others if they knew what was happening.
"It's a winti thing,” Sandra said in a spooky tone of voice with bulging eyeballs while signaling with her hand for us to come closer. Winti, wind or spirit, is the trance dance of the Bush Creoles or Maroons, the Bosland Creolen, descendants of African slaves who escaped and resettled in the dense Amazon jungle in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The playground quickly morphed into an outside amphitheater, and those of us on the periphery stood on our tippy-toes to see what was happening.
"Girls, girls, please move back and open the circle," Soeur said, motioning her arms and palms back and sideways. She was short and stocky, and no longer wore her gray nun cap. Because she had lived in Suriname for more than thirty years, the "hot potato" in her mouth, her Dutch accent, had considerably shrunk, but still sounded smarter and much more sophisticated than the wide range of other accents that the rest of the teachers had.
"No need to push, everyone will be able to see," she said, and walked along the inside rim of the circle and opened it.
"Now, let's give a warm welcome to the dancers and performers and thank them for coming to our school," Soeur said, while clapping her hands and merging into the circle.
I wormed my way to the front as the circle expanded. The drummers began to beat the drums in between their legs, and my heart pounded in unison, louder and louder with each beat. The springy feet of the dancers bounced on the beat and off the stone pavers as if their bodies were feather-light. It felt as if a bouncy ball had been released inside of my body, a funny sensation that made my perfectly still body feel anything but still.
I noticed that some of my schoolmates were intently pointing at the dancers. They had shocked looks on their faces. Eager to know what had caught their attention, I examined the dancers more closely.
Their hips were moving sensually from left to right, and front to back, faster, faster, faster. This alone was enough to captivate my attention, but I got the feeling that the girls standing across from me were ogling something else.
Could it be the white ceremonial clay, pimba doti, plastered on the dancers' skin, glistening with sweat? Wait a minute, that’s not glistening skin! Those are big, shiny safety pins! Your everyday, regular kind of safety pins, pierced all over their bodies through the skin of their arms, legs, and stomachs, without a drop of blood in sight.
I imagined how much it would hurt to pierce all those pins through my skin, and shuddered. They didn’t seem to be in any pain. Perhaps it was true that the sacred, mysterious powers of the white pimba clay could heal all flesh wounds. A sense of fearlessness and power started to swell inside of me, pumped up by the beat of the drums.
I let myself absorb the dancers' infectious joy until I was completely filled up. I felt more energized than I'd ever felt and much bigger and more grown-up than my usual self—clear, wise, loved, and invigorated—not at all on the brink of tears.
A similar surge of curious feelings grew inside of me once before when we learned in our history class about a daring slave who taunted, “Go ahead, kill me if you want. I am more free than you'll ever be,” until he was tortured to death by his incensed tormenter. I somehow "got" the profound sense of freedom that the tortured slave was referring to. It stirred my blood and simultaneously gave me a sense of peaceful invincibility.
We also learned about Baron, Boni, and Joli Coeur, famous rebel slaves who escaped (Boni's mother escaped when she was pregnant with him so he was technically born a free man) and successfully revolted against plantation masters. After managing to escape a cursed life of mistreatment and misery, they instilled fear through their drumming and shouting at night. They burned down plantations and helped many slaves escape. I anointed them as my heroes until they were replaced by Anne Frank, Joan of Arc, and Helen Keller, who were girls, closer in age to me, and easier to relate to.
The dancers in front of me were dancing just like my maternal ancestors had done for generations. Perhaps some of their descendants, my very distant relatives, still lived in villages deep in the jungle and were able to have their winti dance rituals whenever they pleased. The thought of this alone infused me with a sense of warmth, courage, and excitement.
Because some of these villages were strewn along the main roads on the southern fringes of Paramaribo, the capital, we got a glimpse of their homes and family life whenever we left the dank city to to cool off in the creeks and rivers of our favorite jungle hideaways.
Their small wooden huts had beautiful, brightly painted, geometric hand-carvings on the doors. They were typically covered with dried palm leaves and scattered in between acai berry and coconut palm trees on a large stretch of communal land. Fine, glistening savannah sand surrounded their homes and marked the outside living space where children often played with each other or their dogs that were so skinny you could count their protruding ribs.
The women walking to and from their patches of land balanced big aluminum bowls of cassava roots, vegetables, and fruits on their heads. Like the dancers today, they wore nothing more than a thin knee-length cotton cloth wrapped around their waist and legs. With their plumb, bare breasts swaying freely from left to right, I imagined that these women were as welcome a sight to their children as Ma was to me when she returned from the Chinese grocer, Omoe, uncle, at the corner of our street.
I wondered if everyone around me was feeling what I was feeling. I looked at my teacher's face and the faces of the girls standing across from me. They seemed to be under the same spell that I was under. The performance lasted a little less than half an hour. As the dancers exited our circle, still dancing and drumming, Soeur enthusiastically applauded them with jiggly arms and loud claps high in the air, gesturing that we do the same.
After loud cheering and whistling, we lined up the way we usually did, but were much rowdier than normal. There was more of the "Oh my God! Did you see that?" whispering going around, loud enough to annoy Mrs. Aardeveen, our third grade teacher. She sharply shushed us with her finger on her lips, and threatened us with a “Quiet now, or else!”
“Because of today’s performance, we will not be rehearsing your communion ceremony in church,” Mrs. Aardeveen announced. Thank God. No jamming ourselves like sticky sardines onto the hard wooden benches in the Sacred Family Church, a small Catholic church right next to our school. After we had settled behind our graffiti-covered desks, she explained that the Holy Spirit would somehow enter our bodies if we prepared our minds and hearts for this important moment. The experience sounded like what happened to me on the playground earlier today.
“You have come of the age to understand that by accepting the sacrament, the holy bread and wine, you are receiving the body and blood of Christ and giving yourselves to God. You will become one with God on your communion day. Your big day is just two Sundays away, so you need to be extra good, obey your parents, and pray every day,” she said.
She said that we were all children of God so it could happen for all of us as long as we desired it and tried our hardest to follow God's example. Oh, how I desired it. I hoped that my first communion would feel as electric and uplifting as watching the dancers and listening to the drummers.
School got out a little after 1 pm. Ma was late and I was one of the last kids left, sitting on the sidewalk, waiting, squirming. All the teachers had left. They were usually the first ones to leave after Soeur clanged the bell.
Where is she? Is she mad at me?
Ma was the principal of a junior high school just a mile up the street, and every so often got stuck in a meeting with her teachers. After she finally brought the meeting to a close, she picked up Mark, my younger brother, first. He attended the Thomas Aquinas all-boy elementary school, which was like the Siamese twin of my school, joined at the hip and only separated by a wire fence.
There she was. Her royal blue and white dodge swirled around the corner. It looked like a bedazzling vision compared to most other weathered cars on the road. I quickly wiped the tears off my face before she could tell me to.
“Were you worried? I told you not to worry when I'm a few minutes late. It's hard to get out of these meetings. Everyone keeps talking,” she reassured me. I didn’t respond, knowing that she wouldn’t press me for an answer.
We stopped by a vegetable stand by the “big tree,” a fairy-tale shaped tree with a giant umbrella-like canopy. It was next to one of the busiest, paved streets outside of central Paramaribo. Ma bought long beans, kouseband, and large heart-shaped leaves, tayerblad, that she blended and cooked into a watery, green mush. It looked gross, but it was actually quite tasty with some butter and salt. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she stopped by the milk man, the melk boer, to get fresh milk that often boiled over and dirtied the stove when no one was watching. On an occasional Friday, like today, Ma also bought a few bags of soggy cow manure. Lucky Mark and I got to load and unload them out of the trunk of her car.
“I know it stinks, but this is how you get tasty, juicy fruit and beautiful flowers,” she said, ignoring our grumbling.
Why does she need manure? The dark soil around our house is so fertile that watermelon plants begin to grow after a seed-spitting contest!
I didn't say anything, because I didn't stand a chance. Ma knew her plants and trees inside and out, the easy as well as the finicky ones, the new branches that just sprouted, the sick roots and leaves, the blossoms on the verge of maturing, and the dates when our various fruit trees were last harvested. Our pomelo, guava, avocado, cherry, mango, and papaya trees bore so much delicious sun-ripened fruit that we bartered it for fish and shared it with our relatives down the street, the gardeners, and the housekeepers. We could go to the garden anytime and collect a full bouquet of orchid, hibiscus, bird of paradise, and anthurium flowers for a birthday celebration. Ma insisted that the soil was so fertile because of all the manure that had been folded in it.
We drove by half a dozen of Ma’s siblings and their families, who all lived next to each other like nursing puppies. Growing up, my older aunties and uncles took care of their younger brothers and sisters because their parents were far too busy to even say hello to them on a daily basis. Ma and Pa were middle children within a litter of twelve. Actually, thirteen. In both of their families, bad luck struck number the oldest sister in early adulthood; one died from a sudden infection and the other from a broken heart.
Many parents sent their most ambitious and resilient children to Holland to get a university degree. Ma and Pa were among a handful of Surinamese students who quickly found each other and huddled together for warmth and support while studying in cold and desolate Haarlem, far away from home. Because of the dreary and long winters, they, like the rest of their friends, vowed to return to Suriname right after receiving their diplomas.
Pa got his degree in architecture. Ma received hers in education, and taught bookkeeping and Spanish before she became the “boss lady” of the Pool school. Ma and Pa fell in love, got married in Holland, and moved back to Suriname the same year. They and half of Ma's siblings were the first in the neighborhood to buy a bunch of parcels from farmer Tamenga who'd chopped up his land and sold sections of it as if it were a long string of licorice.
Pa designed and built our home on the far end of our muddy street when Ma was still pregnant with me. My neighborhood and I came into the world and grew up together. As I stretched out, took my first steps, became potty-trained, grew bigger and taller, the streets also got longer and stronger, the trees fuller, electric posts and phone lines were put in place, street bricks were laid and large sewage pipes were installed, which meant no more crocodilians making an appearance in the open sewers. Houses of all shapes, sizes, and colors—traditional wood-slated homes on stilts, a run-down, square shack, a large mansion with a super high fence, and a few other modest, one-story homes—popped up like mushrooms and proudly claimed their space on “our” street, the Dieter street, which some people teasingly called the Lieuw Kie Song street after Ma's family.
Ma asked us to pile the bags of manure next to her orchid greenhouse and flower beds. After we had lunch—usually rice, some kind of meat stew, and vegetables—Mark retrieved his toys from a large built-in cabinet in Pa’s office where we kept our stuff. I climbed into my favorite spot: Pa’s swivel chair behind his architectural desk that stood proudly in the center of his study. I twisted myself into a pretzel, turned the chair as far back as I could, then pushed myself off with all my might, spinning 'round and 'round and slapping Pa’s desk top to pick up speed. There was nothing more fun than adjusting the heavy metal rulers up and down and left to right on a slanted desk top and trying to draw straight lines on a large piece of paper after I'd twirled myself silly.
A few stacks of savored architectural magazines—yellowish and worn from age, but still in impeccable condition—were within reach, resting on a built-in bookshelf on the back wall. The featured homes, mostly tropical and surrounded by serene settings and pools, were so beautiful that they looked surreal. With my belly on the cool floor, I strolled down their corridors and into their gardens and terraces without a care in the world.
I liked to look at buildings designed by Pa’s idol, Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous architect. Pa wanted his buildings to similarly blend in with nature, just like Falling Water, Mr. Wright's famous house in the woods. It was Pa's favorite. Mine, too. Our snow-white stone house had a similar, two-level flat roof, and futuristic black and white linoleum tiles that you could play a giant game of checkers on.
Pa cared for and knew our home's skeleton and bones, its pipes and guts, its arteries and wiring as if it were a living thing. And in some ways it was, thanks to a built-in aquarium where fish were literally swimming in the dining room wall, and thanks to the back patio pond, where Pa taught me how to call and gently pet our fish without damaging their oily layers.
“I need an assistant,” Pa said when something needed fixing, which was almost daily. I enjoyed tagging along and helping him cement platforms and fix the brick fence, solidify the play structure, check the pool for leaks, make orchid beds, and tighten outside water faucets and pipes. After heavy rains, I was allowed to climb the extra tall ladder and play on our flat roof when Pa was drying puddles to prevent leakages.
Unlike most parents, Ma and Pa didn't seem to realize that I was a girl. Or perhaps they did, but let me to do a lot more than what I saw my girlfriends and girl cousins do. I never thought much about it. I just happened to be the one who outran and outclimbed the boys in our neighborhood when we played tag or hide and seek in the trees. I was always ready for the next adventure.
For birthday and holidays, Pa converted our four car garage into party central by tying a few palm tree leaves to the hollow square bricks of the outside walls, and opened our round pool, the only one in the whole neighborhood, for swimming.
"Pappie, Pappie, can you turn the fountain on?" the neighborhood kids asked him one after another, whether blood-related or not, as if we were all part of one big happy family.
"Yay," we all shouted in unison after he turned on the "fountain," a single spray of water that entertained us for hours.
Ma was in charge of feeding my swarms of cousins and the neighborhood kids. The three big mango trees in our yard took turns bearing fruit, providing a year-long supply of half-ripe mangoes that Elfriede, our housekeeper, pickled for us. Pickled anything, but especially green mango, was my favorite treat.
Elfriede and I often hung out in her break room right next to the kitchen where she polished our shoes. Of all the housekeepers who'd been with us, Elfriede had been around the longest. There were times when we needed two housekeepers, one in charge of “large cleaning”—wiping off hundreds of glass window shutters, mopping the floor, cleaning bathrooms, and washing, hanging, and ironing laundry—and a second one in charge of the “small tasks,” dusting, polishing shoes, copper and silverware, making beds, cooking and washing dishes. I sometimes needed to help gut, scrape, and brush shrimp, octopus, and fish, and could barely hold onto my own guts. Fortunately, the aroma coming from the stove whipped up my hunger pangs and wiped my memory clean when it was time to eat.
Even with all the help, Ma still managed to find plenty of left-over work to do or redo, and complained if our housekeepers didn't do a good enough job, broke stuff, or made stuff in the house disappear, like food, orchids, or a piece of jewelry. Or when the gardeners didn’t show up or forgot to do what she asked.
“Go, go, go, we don't need your kind here. I'll take care of it myself,” Ma huffed and puffed like the big bad wolf after a confrontation. She then took off like a steamroller, doing whatever still needed to be done, even if this was mowing the lawn, cleaning shutters, washing her car, raking, or dragging bags of manure around to fertilize her plants.
I was so glad that she treated Elfriede differently. Elfriede whistled all day and was allowed to finish her work in her own time. She lived in the outskirts of the city and often visited her family's Maroon village in the jungle. She liked to tell me stories about evil and dubious spirits, bakroes and yorkas, and about nature spirits, such as the Water Mother Deity, Watramama.
“Make sure you treat Watramama with proper respect or she'll drown you,” Elfriede said. I usually hung onto her every word as if gospel truth, my feet dangling underneath the only table that I was allowed to sit on.
“How do you know when you are properly respecting Watramama?” I asked.
“Look out for draaikolken, whirlpools, spiral patterns in the water where Watramama could be swimming and pull you down if you don't honor her strength,” she said. Elfriede made me promise to greet, observe, and listen closely to Watramama and the nature spirits whenever we went to boitie, our four-acre orchard in Saramacca at the northern edge of the Amazon rainforest, or took a weekend trip to soak in the creeks, rivers, and pristine natural world right outside of the city. I liked that she was worried about my safety and taught me special ways to protect myself from invisible and mysterious dangers. It felt like being entrusted with the secret behind an impressive magic trick that everyone else was dying to figure out.
My favorite thing to do at boitie was to wander to the far back of our parcel, pretending to be Tarzan and hacking through the tall growth with my rusty machete while Ma and Pa spent the day planting, pruning, and picking tropical fruits and vegetables upfront. I loved playing peekaboo for hours on end with bold and shy, mesmerizing and hair-raising creatures—snakes, spider monkeys, parrots, Morpho butterflies, giant bugs, shrimp-sized coconut tree worms, bats, and the like. This sacred paradise of beautiful tropical plants and sheltering trees transported me into my own peaceful inner sanctuary of wonder where the jungle and I bled into one. It became my weekly salvation, offering me the spaciousness and safety I needed to reset my soul and explore, daydream, love, and feel loved without fear of being hurt or disappointed.
The dancers today exuded a quiet strength that I’d associated with Elfriede, who would never huff and puff, throw a chalk board eraser at someone's head, threaten to hit me, or ever grab a child by the ear if in trouble. I knew that for sure. Neither would she laugh if I’d told her about my fantasies of living in the woods and being raised by animals, like Mowgli.
Around Elfriede, it felt safe to be enraptured by nature documentaries about Maroon villages and indigenous tribes that lived in the farthest corners of the Amazon rainforest near the mountains where Suriname borders Brazil. And totally understandable why I’d run to my room, collapse on my bed, and bawl inconsolably for an hour or longer after Pa told me that I couldn’t join my older cousins on a trip to a popular waterfall deep in the jungle, because I was too young to get malaria shots and could get deathly ill.
“Superstitious nonsense,” I overheard the adults say when stuff that Elfriede and I talked about came up at a party. I didn’t understand why some people were so against something that made me feel so alive, strong, and wonderful. My aunties and Ma didn't mock the “fantastical” stories of the Maroons, but they didn't speak their secret language like Elfriede did. They usually came up with a few juicy stories of their own, like the one about a bakroe sighting, and another one about a kid who got possessed and died after venturing too far into the woods by himself. They also liked to talk about the healing ritual performed by a Hindu priest, a pundit, who cured Ma's fright after she fell out of a window and couldn't speak for weeks. She was just two years old when it happened.
Because Elfriede taught me how to talk to invisible spirits in nature, the invisible, mysterious things in my dreams and nightmares seemed less scary. For a very long time, I had a recurring dream of being a ninja warrior, dressed in black and masked, jumping from roof to roof and bouncing off walls. I was always running away from something bad that was out to get me. I couldn't see my own face, but I could tell that I wasn't mortified. Flickers of provocative boldness—reminding me of how I felt when listening to stories about Anansi, the trickster spider, ever since I was a teeny tiny tot—hinted that I was toying with this threat.
When I got too smug, the battles and attacks became fiercer and more frightening, determined to show me who was boss. A few nights in a row, I was locked up in Ma's car, and hands with sharp, blood-red nails were fiercely clawing at me, causing me to scurry inside the car like a squealing mouse. That’s when I caved and reached out for comfort.
“I don't want to go to sleep. I'm having scary nightmares,” I whimpered to Pa who usually tucked us in after pulling a story out of his big magic hat.
“Don't be scared. Dreams are not real. They can't hurt you. They come out of your own imagination. Aren't you right here and safe every time you wake up?” Pa said, then drew a cross on my forehead and gave it a kiss.
He was right. How could I get hurt in a dream?
When the hands reappeared in my dream, I carefully examined them. They weren't Ma's. She never painted her nails blood red and they weren’t that long. But they somehow got stuck in her car and were after me. I managed to crack a window open, fight them off, and push them out.
As soon as I passed this challenge, another nightmarish nemesis appeared, and another, as if part of a never-ending Alice in Wonderland obstacle course. Fighting became my full-time job as soon as the lights went out until I was one night stabbed and killed during a lightning-fast sparring match in a dark cave. I didn't see it coming. Not the knife nor the dying. I belly-flopped, face planted in the dirt. I double-checked to see if I was truly dead. The gods of the dream realm assured me that I was. But someone told me that you couldn't die in your dreams, flashed through my mind. I heard that if you die in your dreams, you end up dying in real life too. I panicked and commanded myself to get back up, and to my surprise, my legs and arms responded.
Once you break the “you can't die in your dreams” rule and reawaken from your nightmare, everything changes. I couldn’t remain stuffed in the cramped little box that I was in before. An ancient part of my soul got a taste of my immortality and reminded me of my superpowers.
Apparently, I’d lived, fought, died, and lived again many times before. I kept forgetting my previous gains, but this time was different. Some of my past learning had crossed over and gathered into a few pockets of my dream world like warm golden nectar in the cells of a giant beehive. The nectar that had been saved up couldn’t be accessed or depleted no matter what happened to me. Once the fear of losing this golden essence dissipated, I relaxed and stood my ground like a mountain goat. Whatever was out to get me finally left me alone.
Until lianas, vines, began to choke me in a dream. They were connected to everyone in my life and weren’t going to kill me, but they were also not planning on letting me go. I got my machete and cut through them with one determined whack. I was as aloof and brave as Ma once was when she chopped off a chicken's head to feed half a dozen hungry mouths, mine included. Moments after I awakened from this intense dream, I felt horrible because of what I'd done. The next moment, I became aware that my callous rage didn't rise out of an evil heart, but out of a deep longing to be clear from suffocating pressures that kept entangling me. The people in my life and I were still connected at the roots, but now had more space to branch out into new directions above ground.
I didn't have the words to articulate the life-changing impact that these dreams and revelations had on me, but I knew that they were B-I-G. My imaginary comrades Anne Frank, Helen Keller and Joan of Arc agreed. They nudged me to stuff my peculiar insights into a secret treasure chest deep in my psyche and far away from the adults until the time was right to bring them back out.
“Why don't you respond when I call you?” Ma asked, towering over me with her hands on her hips. Her irritated tone instantly jolted me back into Pa's study, still flipping through his architectural magazines on my belly.
“Auntie Chuny wants to know if you want to go over to play with Mayling,” she said. I nodded and put Pa's magazines back.
Mayling, my paternal cousin, was a month younger than me and lived a few houses to the left on the street behind ours. If I biked fast, I could get there in a few minutes. While playing in the house or outside in the yard, Mayling and I sometimes mulled over adult conversation, sounding more like eighty year olds than eight year olds. On this particular day, she wanted to share some really profound discoveries with me, sparked by our upcoming communions.
"My dad said that humans have tiny brains and are not as smart as God. Our minds are like a bucket of water while God's mind is like the ocean, so we will never be able to understand what God says with our little brains. All that knowledge just doesn't fit," she said.
I stayed silent, deep in thought. I tossed her insights around while continuing to dig through the dirt, not totally satisfied with her and my uncle's conclusions. I decided that my brain was more like a hole on the beach. Perhaps it wasn't as big as God's brain, but the same water and tides moved through us both.
What would happen to it during ebb or flow was still too far ahead to think about.