In her series Imagine Finding Me (2005-2009), photographer Chino Otsuka stands with her back to the window of a French bakery. Her lips touch the corner of a danish, which she grasps in both hands. Next to her is a little girl, aged 5 or 6, who resembles her, somehow. Is it the hair color? The complexion? The little girl holds on to a two-foot-long baguette, raised to the height of her open mouth, as if she is just about to take a bite. This image struck me because of the subjects’ lack of focused attention. How, although they stood side by side, neither acknowledged the other. Then I read the artist’s description. The little girl was not her daughter, or her friend, or a stranger she happened by on the street who happened to resemble her, but herself—30 years ago. The two figures in the photo looked like they belonged together, that they’d been caught together in that moment. The piece did not appear manipulated. Adult Otsuka looked as though she had been there all along, standing with her younger self.
I looked at Otsuka’s other photos in the series and found myself drawn to specific settings much more than others. In some of the photos, she rejects posing with her younger self, instead, choosing poses where she’s walking past her, up a long set of stairs, or walking ahead of her as if to show her the way. The one I eventually spent the most time with depicts two versions of Otsuka perched side-by-side on a concrete wall with their backs to the river. But in the image, the younger Otsuka is much older than in the first photograph—a teenager around 15 or 16. The mother/daughter impression is unbearably strong, but, at first, I cannot figure out why I feel this way. Once again, there is no indication that they are acknowledging the others’ existence. I imagine a conversation between the two I’d just missed before the photo was taken, possibly right before one takes a sip, and the other takes a bite. The conversation might have been similar to one I’d had with my own mother, where I, as a teenager, asked questions expecting that—maybe this time—I would feel satisfied with her answers. But her answers (when she did answer) would often feel false, disjointed, and inevitably lead to more questions: How could I come from her body, occupy the same physical space, but hardly ever the same mental or emotional space?
In a diary entry (that eventually becomes part of the accompanying text to her photo collection), Chino Otsuka writes, “If, again, I have a chance to meet, there is so much I want to ask and so much I want to tell.”
When I am meditating, an image of my own younger self appears the strongest. Sometimes I pretend that I am sitting next to her to comfort her—our crisscrossed knees touch. Sometimes I forget that I am not her anymore; I am no longer the person living her life. And while I, at times, share her life with others, so they feel less alone, it often leads me to believe that I am failing her.
My therapist asks me if I am breathing. Of course, I breathe, I told her. Everyone breathes. She says I need to breathe air into my belly until it expands like a balloon. She tells me I need to breathe that way all of the time: when I’m walking down the street, I can practice, she says.
“Do you breathe when you write?” I tell her I don’t know. I tell her I’d never stopped to notice. We talk about grief. I learn that grief does not always come after death. Sometimes grief means letting go of expectations when you know, deep down, that the person will never be able to meet them.
My mother often confuses her memories with her fantasies as she often cannot distinguish between the two. Because of impairments in her mental health, because of the way she receives and processes information due to a diagnosed condition, it is difficult to talk about anything with any real emotional substance. Instead, we stick to more straightforward topics: Her memories of playing clarinet in the high school band, of walking to the store to buy a loaf of bread for family dinner, her dream of owning her own house someday. My therapist and I continue to discuss what it means to let go of the person my mother will never be. But the child inside of me is not ready to let go.
In the meditation hall, there is a man with tiny round frames and tattoos up his neck and around his bald head. He tells the group sitting on floor pillows arranged in rows that if you are experiencing a feeling of anxiousness during your practice, you should focus on longer exhales. I am at a retreat with sixty other people, and I have no idea what anyone’s voice sounds like. Silent meals mean no small talk—I like that I don’t have to tell anyone who I am. Back in the meditation hall after lunch, I feel the afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows behind my closed eyes and breathe out so far that tears start to fall. Instead of focusing my mind on something— anything other than my mother— as an attempt to lessen the emotion, I continue to breathe out. And the tears continue to fall.
Practicing mindfulness is new to me. I began searching for ways to stay in the present moment when I noticed how my body felt after spending time with my writing. I would spend hours drafting or revising pages, and after it was over, a joy and lightness came. When I could not write or revise, I spent time walking around New York City museums: The Guggenheim, The Queens Museum of Art, The New Museum. I was drawn to the textile art—especially the quilters. I begin collecting images of quilts sewn together in crooked, primitive patterns, and save them in a folder called “writing.”
These images were not like Otsuka’s flawless, digitally enhanced, perfectly executed images; they were skewed, random, interrupted, imperfect; it was apparent where one piece of fabric ended and the next one began. The more mismatched and homemade the quilts appeared, the more drawn to them I was. I imagined the quilters using what they had lying around their homes: an old striped tablecloth, a patterned bedspread, material from a floral skirt their child had long outgrown.
In a day-long quilting workshop, I hated the process of measuring each section of cloth, the level of attention, and the concentration required to match triangles and squares to letters and numbers on an intricate pattern. I hated feeding the pinned pieces through a sewing machine in a perfect and precise way. I began to search for other ways I could practice the art form that required less linear thinking, less following of instructions. I craved a process steeped in discovery. I found it in a technique called improv quilting. This kind of quilting—using no pattern, sorting through discarded scraps, rearranging pieces until they felt “right,” even changing course halfway through—was akin to my writing process in many ways. Quilters described improv quilting as “the practice of being present.” It allowed me space to get lost in my work in a completely different way; to give my eyes and brain a rest.
On a Reddit message board, I am intrigued with how user KetzerMX explains why people display statues of the Buddha in places of meditation: “[It’s] like the reason why you speak to pictures of people who are dead. You don’t believe that the picture is the person, but the picture makes you remember such a person, their voice, their qualities, what that person would say. It is a way to remember to stay [on] the path.” Otsuka’s photo series contains a lifetime of accumulated experiences; memories captured both inside and outside of the lens. They are cyclical; she is visually revisiting herself as a way to remember, as a way to come to terms with the person she is now.
I have a photo of my mother when she was five or six. A square piece of white cloth is draped across the crown of her head, and her mouth is open. Is she singing a song? It is one of my favorite photos of her. If I close my eyes and concentrate on a single aspect of her now, I am reminded not of who she has become, but who she strives to be. Her wants are simple: shelter, family. I know she feels anxious too. I know deep down she is afraid of what she hears when she is alone; I try to remember how far away help can seem when a person insists, over and over again, that they do not need it. Some days I feel especially hopeful and decide I will teach her what I’ve learned so far about mindfulness, just as she taught me what she learned: how to thread a needle, how to change a tire. I wish I could teach her to quiet her thoughts. I wish I knew how to make her hear me.
On the last full day of the silent retreat, I learn a statement of equanimity: Your happiness or unhappiness depends on your actions, not upon my wishes.
The next time I spoke with my mother, it was in fragments. She speaks in fragments because she thinks in fragments—disorganized, disjointed, random. Circular. I’d wanted to share some of the photos I’d found online of her childhood home, a place I knew she had fond memories of. I asked her if she remembered the house in the photo. She said she did, then went down a rugged trail of memory that led to a coal pile in the basement. Houses didn’t have central heat back then, so we had to shovel coal into the furnace. I remember the coal guy coming to replenish the pile. He told me if I dug through the pile, I might find a diamond in there. I tried to stop her there to ask: How old were you? I wanted to reconcile the image of her in the black and white photo with the memory she was sharing with me now; sorting through fat dusty chunks, the black carbon rubbing off on the back of her hands, her palms, her fingertips. Why do I imagine her in a white dress? Did she ever find the diamond?
Just let me finish telling the story, she said. It’s gonna be good. I don’t know how it’s gonna end, but it’s gonna be good.