The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so, I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Bernadette Roca. Bernadette is an Asian-Canadian (-Californian) writer based in Spain. She earned her BA in English from UCLA, an MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture from UCL, and a Master of Information from the University of Toronto. She is working on her first book-length project, a memoir, and spends most of her free time scheming up ways to bring her two kitties to Spain. You can find her (very occasionally) on Twitter at @beunscripted.
Last February, I broke my favorite cup.
I was sitting on my couch, drinking wine, thinking. I’d been doing a lot of that lately, more than I admitted to anybody: escaping my feelings, escaping my latest heartache, escaping the anxiety I could never fully tamp down. I set the cup down on the sofa’s arm—a habitual gesture since my side tables are always crammed with books and plants and screens—and scooched onto my side, intending on closing my eyes only a few moments. When I came to, I felt my fingernails brush against something hard and cold overhead, yanking me awake. I knew before it hit the ground that it would shatter.
For several moments I lay immobile, unable to even peek over the arm of my sofa. A hollowness opened up in my chest, a familiar hole that yawned down to the bottom of my gut, the instant knowledge that I’d just done something I couldn’t take back. If I lay there long enough without looking at it, perhaps I could pretend it hadn’t happened. But of course it had.
How could I have broken the cup I loved best in the world? The only one I couldn’t replace?
There are very few physical objects I’m actually attached to, things I would deeply regret if I lost. I can count them on one hand: a ring from my mom, my birthstone, a conch shell from an island in Belize, a few photographs and letters.
My cup is one of these objects. But unlike the others, my cup carries no obvious significance: no one gave it to me, it didn’t belong to my mother, it doesn’t commemorate some accomplishment or transformation in my life. I simply saw it one Sunday afternoon at an artisan market and instantly recognized in it my Platonic ideal: just the shade of mint green I love, a slightly rounded shape that tapered to a fine, fluted lip, and a delicate oblong handle, perfectly suited to its smaller-than-average size and my smaller-than-average fingers. It stood apart on a table amongst its bigger, earthier counterparts. I knew I had to have it.
As soon as I brought my new cup home, it replaced all the other glassware I owned. I loved the brown speckles at its bottom, the uneven color and finish, the way it looked like no other cup I’d ever seen yet simultaneously the only cup I’d ever dreamed of. At the time, I was living with the man I thought I’d marry in our apartment in downtown Toronto. But I carried my cup with me, cradled it through all the changes that followed: packing it into a box when I moved into the house I bought after our breakup a year later, wrapping it in sweaters and t-shirts on my way to Denmark two years after that, nestling it between my camera and lenses on my hand carry to Barcelona. When I finally held its familiar shape in both hands one morning, seated on the wood floor in my new empty apartment just outside Gràcia, I knew I was home.
So when I broke my cup, it didn’t feel like I’d broken an object. It felt as if I’d lost some precious part of me, some fragile thing I couldn’t get back.
I am a careful, meticulous person. Sometimes I feel like it’s not so much me as it is something separate from me, a disembodied voice murmuring her constant requests in the back of my head: my underwear folded to stand upright in neat rows, arranged in a pleasing, perfectly faded rainbow; the uncreased spines of well-loved books lined flush against each other an inch to the shelf’s edge; my leather bags that have never once touched a floor, not even my own at home. Most of my belongings last years, if not decades. I will tire of the things I have far sooner than they will naturally wear down. So when I lose or break something, I remember it. It doesn’t happen that often.
The first time I can remember losing something was when I was 11 years old. I was on a plane going home to Toronto from Seattle, where my uncle had just passed away from a failed blood transfusion, the last of several in his three-year battle with leukemia. I have a vivid memory of counting the seconds between my uncle’s breaths, tugging on the sleeve of my mom’s shirt after I’d reached 200. Aku’s dead, I whispered. I remember the horrible sound of my grandma wailing, and my own pain and confusion, unsure of what I was supposed to feel. I knew he wasn’t coming back, but I didn’t know what that meant. He was still here, in front of me. He’d been breathing only seconds ago.
Apart from the actual moment of my uncle’s death, I remember nothing of that trip: neither where we stayed nor what the hospital looked like nor what I did after Aku died. What I do remember is losing my slinky on the plane. It was a weighted metal thing, small enough to disappear in an adult palm. I’d been playing with it, unwilling to let it go, when I dozed off. When I opened my eyes, it was gone. I searched all around me, squirming in my seat, quiet panic settling in. It couldn’t have gone far, but I was too shy to bother the strangers seated around me. I couldn’t even ask my mother. I knew my loss was minor, meaningless to anyone but me.
If I remember little about my uncle’s death, I remember even less about the weeks that followed. Most are vague recollections, fuzzy, without detail. But one stands out.
In it, I am arguing with my mom in my grandparents’ guest room, both of us standing in the narrow spaces surrounding the two large double beds we’d pushed together. We’ve been staying here—me, my mom, my sister—since we’d all returned from Seattle, even though the three of us have our own apartment only blocks away.
I don’t know what we are arguing about, why I am upset. I don’t remember if this was normal, if I was often upset as a child. All I know is that we are both angry, yelling. And then it happens, the thing I will never be able to take back: out of words, I look up at my mom and wring my hands at her, two angry claws outstretched in the air in front of me, tension bringing them minutely closer and then apart, a motion that looks as if I’m strangling someone invisible in midair.
My mom freezes as she stares at my hands. And then she rushes at me and grabs my shoulders, hard enough to hurt, shaking them, me, roughly, her wide brown eyes looking directly into my own: Why did you do that? Who taught you that?
I can still feel the press of her fingers on my shoulders, the anger that suddenly shifted to panic in her eyes.
Some time after this—I don’t know how long, a week, two weeks, no more than three—my mom went to our apartment, entered the bathroom, and hung herself.
There is a story in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation called “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” (Just now, I wanted to write ‘fiction’ instead of ‘feeling’ but perhaps there is no difference.) In it, a journalist evaluates a new technology called Remem, a powerful search engine that can instantly call up clips of the past that have been recorded in video ‘lifelogs,’ continuous recordings from the lifelogger’s perspective much like the former real-life promise of Google Glass. It is the speed and precision of Remem that is notable, promising to give its users perfect and total recall.
At first, the narrator argues against this kind of technology, claiming that our entire notion of self is based on the stories we tell ourselves, stories, he says, that depend on the fallibility and limitations of memory. It is because we cannot recall every moment with our grandma, for instance, that one specific memory becomes important, weighted with nostalgia.
But he changes his mind when he tests out Remem himself and realizes he has misremembered a pivotal moment in his own life, one that completely reshapes his idea of who he is as a person and a father. He had misattributed words he himself had spoken in an argument to his daughter, and in doing so convinced himself that he had repaired their relationship through his own efforts, when in fact he had done no such thing.
The story he had constructed around his life was nothing but that: a story. And yet he believed it for years.
What would it be like to have a lifelog? A part of me yearns for this. I have never been able to remember much, neither the good nor the bad, the notable nor the mundane. My memory is indiscriminate, erasing whole chunks of my life: meals I’ve had, books I’ve read, entire members of my extended family, celebrations and arguments and little joys.
If my adult memory is bad, it gets much worse when it comes to my childhood. I have only a handful of memories that are clearer than a smudge of paint, my mom a blurry outline barely filled in, and even those are probably gleaned more from photos than actual memory. I would give anything to see my mom clearly in my mind’s eye, to watch her smile spread across her face in my direction, to breathe in the scent of her as she holds me close.
But a part of me prefers it this way. Remembering more of my life would meaning remembering more of the bad as well as the good. I don’t want to know what I’ve done or said, all those nights I don’t remember, drunk or high or maybe just blinded by my own fury. I don’t want to know about all the pain I’ve caused, the wounds I’ve nursed, all the moments that cut me so deeply I sutured them over before I could really feel their sting.
Besides, I don’t need a lifelog to watch and rewatch that last memory of my mom, yelling at her over what must have been something horrifically stupid. It’s already the clearest movie in my mind.
Fact: I wrung my hands, and then my mom hung herself.
How could I have broken the thing I loved best in the world? The only one I couldn’t replace?
The final story in Exhalation recounts a future in which reality exists in an infinite number of parallel universes. Like roots tunneling into the ground, these new timelines branch off when they are activated by prisms, specialized computers that also allow individuals living in one timeline to communicate with their counterparts—your ‘paraself’—in another.
In these parallel worlds, decisions don’t necessarily diverge; that is, your paraself may still make the same choices you do. Or, your paraself might make different choices but still end up in the same place. Your paraself might not, for example, take that line of coke one night but still end up a delinquent in jail years later. The same goes for your influence on others. When that happens— when someone ends up in the same place even if they and those around them made different choices—the outcome isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s fate.
That is, even if I hadn’t wrung my hands, my mom would still be dead.
But would she still have hung herself?
Would she have had that idea?
I know it goes nowhere and is pointless to ask. But I’m going to ask anyway. Is there an alternate reality where I don’t break my cup? An alternate universe where I don’t wring my hands?
Is there a branch where my mom doesn’t die?
A little less than a year before I broke my cup, I enrolled in my first meditation class. I’d never before been able to meditate, but I had reached a new level of anxiety in those first days of the pandemic and was willing to try anything that might alleviate it.
After our second sit, I sent the instructor a long and confused email, and she asked me to call her. In that conversation and the dozens that followed, she told me things I couldn’t understand, words like you’re in a story and feel it in your body. I didn’t know how to enter a body I thought I already inhabited. I didn’t know what story I could be in other than the ones I was writing on my laptop.
She would tell me that meditation is a celebration of failure. There was something in her words I recognized as true but nevertheless, it landed hollow in my ears. I didn’t want a celebration. I wanted someone to tell me I was wrong, to tell me I was bad, to berate me for the three bottles of wine I drank a day and the boyfriend I was cheating on. To tell me, this is how you atone for your sins. Instead she would tell me to chant so hum, I am that. She would tell me the energy within me is the same as the energy within her, the same as all of creation. She would tell me about the Japanese Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi, repeating the famous line: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.
I would tell her I was broken.
She would tell me, The world is already broken. And yet its preciousness is there too.
When I woke up the morning after, at first I didn’t remember what I’d done. But then I opened the door to my bedroom, and my eyes immediately fell on the mess I’d made, the mess I’d left behind: a dozen pieces on the floor, exactly where they’d fallen.
I bent down to pick up some of the pieces, fingering their shattered edges. Some slid together in a seductive lock, perfectly fitted, only to fall apart in my palms the second I let them go. I gave up, but I couldn’t do it: I couldn’t throw them away. Gingerly, I placed them in a paper bag, pressing the top down neatly in a double fold.
For a long time after, I couldn’t understand my own feelings about the cup I’d broken. The anger and the grief felt so disproportionate to the facts. I broke an object. That’s the fact.
I know, too, that any therapist would tell me my mom’s death was not my fault. That to assume I could have done anything to alter her actions is an enormous act of ego. I know this to be true. I know this as fact.
This is the truth of my feeling.
The Japanese art form that most exemplifies the philosophy and aesthetic of wabi-sabi is kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer. The process is slow: even the smallest chip can take weeks to repair. Kintsugi practitioners believe that the moment of breakage is a moment of transformation, the rupture that reveals the true shape and beauty latent within the unmarred surface of an object. Far from attempting to hide the flaws, kintsugi calls attention to the moments of breakage, renders them more visible through ‘golden joinery.’
Before I broke my cup, I loved kintsugi artifacts, irresistibly drawn to those uneven lines of gold. Who wouldn’t want to be wounded and beautiful? Who wouldn’t want their flaws to be the source of their appeal? The way a mole in just the right place on just the right face can be a mark of beauty instead of what it is—another imperfection, an unremarkable brown spot.
Pieces joined by kintsugi seemed more beautiful than they could ever have been whole. But even as I admired their beauty, I resisted the philosophy. I knew it could never apply to me. It’s one thing when other people break you; your brokenness is allowed to be beautiful. It’s another when it’s you who breaks your own cup, your own life, and grind to dust the shattered pieces that remain.
A few weeks ago, when I started this essay, I took out the fragments of my cup and spread them out on one side of my dining table where I write. The table sits in a room whose far end is paneled with wall-to-wall windows that overlook the roofs of the buildings in my courtyard and beyond, giving me an almost unbroken view of the sky. In the afternoons, the sun bears down relentlessly, piercing my eyes and glinting sharp off the jagged shards on my table, these pieces that accompany me as I write.
For a long time after my mom died, I couldn’t talk about what I did. I didn’t write about it, either. Back then, I thought I could tell a certain kind of narrative, one that would transform my past into something pristine, beautiful, my whole life buffed to a gleaming shine, the cracks undetectable. I think I really believed I could save myself and my life and everyone in it. I just had to find the right story. To take back what I did. What she did.
But maybe I got it wrong. Maybe it’s not about the story. Lidia Yuknavitch says it’s the telling that saves us. Maybe she’s right. Or maybe there is no saving. Maybe saving’s not the point.
Let me tell you what I now see: every word, every period, every sentence the golden glue that joins one broken piece to another. I am slowly, deliberately, painstakingly rebuilding my cup. When I’m done, you’ll be able to see every crack, every fissure, every imperfection. Every place I’ve been broken. Every place I’ve broken myself.
What you’ll see is gold.
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