For the Queereans

I’ve compiled a short list of queer Korean (“queerean”) resources that I’ve collected over time and wanted to share, in both Korean and English. You can scroll down for Korean language resources. The post will be regularly updated over time.

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N A R R A T I V E S  /  우 리 들 의   이 야 기

Personal Stories / 개인적 경험담

For Parents of Queer Children / 성소수자 자녀를 둔 부모님들을 위해서

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I N F O R M A T I O N A L  /  정 보 마 당

Organizations in the U.S. / 미국 한인 성소수자 시민단체

Organizations in Korea / 한국 성소수자 시민단체

Media / 미디어

Writing / 잡지 + 책 + 에세이

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Hopscotch Alley

“Time stops at the point of severance, and no subsequent impressions muddy the picture you have in mind. The house, the garden, the country you have lost remain forever as you remember them.”
— Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation

New Doc 54_1

When I was younger, we used to live in my grandparent’s house, situated on a backroad in Seoul. And across from our house was the opening to a small alleyway, where all of my other friends lived — or at least where we all met to play. I guess I never really knew where they lived. They probably came from all over, but in my mind, our childhoods all existed in that alleyway space, and we never saw each other outside of it. I took a peek into it when I went back last year, on a spontaneous trip after quitting all my jobs and booking a one-way ticket to Korea. I didn’t have it in me to step into the space and explore it again, now almost 20 years since I had left, but I did sneak a quick look as I walked by, and it’s quite a small alleyway. I recall it feeling small even back then. It was a wider-than-normal walking path between two 빌라 / “villas” (which is what Koreans call 2-3 story apartments) that faced each other, and then at the end of the villas, there was a sharp L-shaped bend in the alley, which opened out into a bigger road that we used to use to get to our elementary school.

My mother disliked me going through the alley on my own or playing there. It was quite dark and narrow, without any streetlights, and I suppose it was a dangerous place for a kid to walk through alone. But to me, it felt like the dark warm crevice of a familiar space, and I used to run through it on my way back from piano lessons, just to see if anyone was out playing. I still remember the hopscotch board that we used to draw out for ourselves (a different one than the square ones here) and how we would jump rope together, eventually ending up tired and rolling around on the brick-paved alleyway till dusk.

I don’t remember their names or their faces, just that we spent that parts of our childhood together. Sometimes my grandmother pulls out a name and asks me if I remember running around with them when I was younger — usually after this person has gotten married or goes abroad, probably something that was brought up in the local gossip circles — and I just shake my head. They all remain a clump of warm feelings and nostalgic memories in my mind, and I think actually meeting them against the backdrop of our parents egging us on to be best friends again after nearly 20 years would be incredibly awkward. Plus, they became reshaped and remolded so frequently in my memories that they’re more figments of my own imagination than actual people. I know from experience that retouching old memories sometimes shatters them beyond repair. And so, they will always remain in that alleyway as long as the place continues to exist within my mind — skipping hopscotch in the approaching dusk.

Coming Out

Back in the bay, an organizer asked me to tell my coming out story (family ver.) at a queer gathering that night. I thought about it all day at work, tugging at different moments to find the beginning tip of thread that could unravel the rest of the story, or perhaps the tail end for a perfect wrap-up, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. In the end, I had only written down one line in my notes — I was straight until I wasn’t — and I told her I couldn’t do it.

The reality is that there is no real story to tell.

There is no beginning, rising action, climax, and the resolving conclusion. I feel like coming out stories are ongoing, always evolving, repeating, and folding back onto itself over and over like kneaded dough. Sometimes we only hear of the explosive fight that drove the person out of the house or the all-embracing stories, where devoutly Christian parents decide to forsake their church that would not accept their child.

But there are also the untold stories of pauses, comas, and the indefinite white space that follows the period at the end of a sentence — coming out stories that play like black-and-white silent movies each holiday season. Running their hands through the itchy bristles of their new military cut, in preparation for the trip back home. A bitterness that fills their mouths at the mention of family. A polite smile etched onto their face during the talk about a husband, withering egg cells, and marriage. An out-of-the-blue reminder of “don’t bring a girl home next time.” The words wrapping itself around their throat and suppressing the instinct to scream over the otherwise peaceful family dinner table.

For me, there was an underestimation of how much my mother’s words would sting. And following it was a frantic desire to explain my humanity to my mother. I found myself helpless in the face of language barriers and reaching for the only thing I knew — academic English jargon that was never meant to hold people like us in the first place. There were moments where I had to swallow my words whole because I didn’t know what to do with it all.

There were friends, who had known me as a straight girl, asking if I was struggling with my sexuality and wanted to talk about it. But I told them I was okay. Because I was. Everything felt so natural and easy. It felt right. I guess I had always imagined queerness to be a hard thing — a life threatening thing, a heavy thing, a sad thing — but this, this was so beautiful and warm.

There were moments when quick understanding of my own newfound queerness felt like a requirement to be a decent partner to them, rather than something I could go about freely. This was perhaps a burden that I placed on myself. I bought up the entire queer literature and perused every blog. We still broke up, and I still didn’t know what it meant to be queer.

There were days when I wish I wanted suburbia, 2.5 kids, and a nice salary man husband. I wished I wanted those things. I wished I hadn’t fated myself into a constant state of wanting.

There was a time I was sitting through a workshop, counting how many times I had been misgendered in the last hour, when a random text message arrived from one of my queer friends: “Yo so like are you gay I’m confused.” I left the room and cried.

There were emails in my inbox, citing studies arguing that gay behaviors were signs of a civilization’s demise. Calls where my mother bawled continuously and kept repeating that she had raised me wrong. Tantrums refusing to come to graduation. Threats of outing me to the rest of my family. Sudden cries of extreme Korean patriotism and framing me as a traitor for dating a Japanese partner. Accusatory questioning of why I was not dating a guy, and if it was because of all the struggles that she had as a woman in our overly traditional family because she assured me that being a woman was still worth it.

There was a night when I randomly emailed a NYC PFLAG member out of complete desperation, begging her to speak to my mother as a fellow Korean parent of a queer child. I was a complete stranger to her. She generously agreed to do it, but then my mother refused and that communication ended. Years later, I met her at a Trans Day of Liberation march and stood around awkwardly to thank her.

There was us sitting in my tiny apartment living room, among a multicolored slew of items that I had somehow accumulated during my four years in college and packing for the flight back home. My mother softly folding in her words between the creases of my rose-colored shirt. “왜 좋아하는지 알겠다 / I can see why you would like them.” And me looking up bewildered, as if newly awakened, only to be met by the steady rhythm of her hands folding down the layers of the next shirt.

***

Even days like this, where I am not constantly warring with myself and those around me in regards to my queerness, my body can instantly call back that feeling of helplessness and self-disgust, as if it had been set aside on a well-dusted shelf that is always within reach. It looms over me in moments where the world calls on me to be vulnerable yet again with strangers I have just met. I try to avoid talking about queerness with my family as much as possible, because of those fears that I’m not quite sure that I would be able to hold up in that conversation, even now.

Over the years, in meeting queer/trans Korean Americans all across the country, I have slowly learn how to soothe my own wounds and unravel a long-held guilt around my queerness and its associated secrecy. There are a lot of us out there (surprise), and there are folks steadily building out different ways to connect to “koreanness” than the ones assigned to them by their families or their church, which have been often homophobic and hurtful. It makes me realize that my Korean identity is not contingent upon my family accepting my queerness and that I can have a relationship with the land, language, and people that does not require carving out a large portion of myself to offer up in sacrifice. And I can’t tell you how freeing that is for a diasporic kid like me.

Update (7/9): I also want to share a post for queer Korean people with resources in both Korean & English. Hope it’s helpful.

May 17

What I’ve been really into these days:

  1. Buying tea to solve all my problems
  2. Saying No
  3. Making my therapist laugh
  4. Teaching my brother AP Biology
  5. Leaving spaces
  6. Watering my chamomile seeds
  7. Splurging on sashimi for my Neko Atsume cats
  8. Sleeping with a little purple eye pillow
  9. Pretending to go to the gym for exercise, then just going to the sauna
  10. Hanging out with doctors more than friends
  11. Crying in my car
  12. Watching sad Chinese lesbian films on YouTube
  13. Meeting people who have left the Movement™
  14. Hovering over the telephone, then deciding not to call my grandmother
  15. Fighting my inner demons & sometimes winning
  16. Sifting through garden dirt to find earthworms, then strategically releasing them next to my precious heirloom tomatoes
  17. Concocting  rooibos lattes variations at home
  18. Dreaming vividly
  19. Going to acupuncture and taking a mid-day nap
  20. Pretending that life decisions don’t have deadlines

Pounding Hearts

Its cold and smooth surface felt oddly alive against her skin. She hadn’t touched a 장구 / janggu in years. Rubbing her right palm against the smooth face of the drum, she leaned in to take a closer look at its wooden body. A thick hourglass figure, the 장구 / janggu’s chestnut center lay horizontally against her crisscrossed legs. Her right hand grabbed the straps connecting the two faces of the drum on either end and swiftly pulled to tighten. She then slowly rotated her drum like a water wheel to tighten each of the straps around its center and sat silently, thinking about other things while the instructor chattered on.

drums_2

The last time she had been face-to-face with a 장구 / janggu was in first grade, when she had been sent off to weekend Korean school with the rest of her Korean church kids. She learned how to tighten the drum that day, as well as stories about how farmers had used these drums to bring in the harvest. She had tried to imagine her grandmother drumming, perhaps not in her usually baggy floral pants and plastic visor, but nevertheless standing with a drum tied tight to her hips, drumming out sporadically accented staccato beats like the way she spoke her 경상도 / Gyungsangdo-region Korean. Her grandparents had been farmers, she recalled, somewhere on the southern tip of the peninsula. But neither her Korean nor her memory was good enough to remember exactly where. She had never been able to visit her grandmother’s village while she had been alive. But there were so many memories that held her grandmother’s stories of the village 사천 / Sachon, that sometimes they felt like her own. The lines around them could get quite fuzzy sometimes. She remembered the open gravel roads that always snuck a couple rocks into your shoes, the hills spotted with a deep orange from the persimmon trees, and the loud speakerphone peeking out over the blue- and orange-roofed houses, shrilly blaring the news of everyone in town for their daily 마을방송 / village news. She had imagined her grandmother somewhere there, drumming with her townspeople against the backdrop of their golden rice fields.

Here she was now, somehow in the basement of her old church with a handful of Korean American highschoolers like her, all sitting in front of a drum they didn’t know how to play. They had been mercilessly forced to sit on these cold tile floors with their drums for the last half hour or so. She had been listening on and off to the instructor talk about the garak. Garak? Like jutgarak / chopstick?… Occasionally, he would wave the drum mallet in the air and point at someone to tell them to focus. Maybe he’s talking about how to hold the stick. She leaned in, but couldn’t quite catch all the words. He named too many things in that spit-fire uppity Seoul Korean. Her mother spoke much slower than he did and spoke with a different regional dialect, like her grandmother. She grew bored, and as others fiddled over their grip and drum positioning like the instructor told them to, she just gripped the mallet whichever way and brought it down with a loud thump.

.

The instructor stopped talking and swirled around, trying pinpoint the rogue player. But as her sound began to fade, others around her stepped in to fill in the void and took off with their own thumping and ringing. She liked how their drums sounded together, echoing chaotically in the cold interior of their church.

The instructor seemed to be yelling something to the group. Probably to stop playing, she assumed. She looked around, but no one could seem mind him. Hitting down with the mallet in her left hand and then the thin stick on the right, she played the drum in sync with the opening and closing his mouth.

“자, 여러분—”
쿵.
Close.
.
“모두, 플리즈—”
쿵.
Close.
.

He tried for a couple more times, but soon he seemed to give up fighting against the thunderous roar of the drums. Instead, he took his spot back at the center of the room. With his drum tied tight up against his body, he faced the group circled around him.

Everyone was still furiously pounding away at their drums. No one saw him hold his mallet up high with his left hand and the stick with his right. No one saw the way his entire body seemed to be pulled up into the air — weightless — then in a sudden movement, brought down both stick and mallet in perfect sync.

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She looked up. His arms jolted back up to their positions, like a maestro, then pounded down again. . Other students’ eyes flickered up. He drummed out slow, regular beats at first, then gradually it began to grow louder and faster. She was still staring, but some of the older students began to join in. 덩    덩   덩  덩 덩덩덩덩. Even those who had initially dropped their own mallets to silently watch, now took up their sticks, and the entire room pulsated in rhythm. Bodies rocked back and forth with each beat. Everyone’s arms lifting high into the air, then down hard against the drum. Faster and faster, they went; everyone’s arms flapping up and down, as if about to take flight. She felt out of breath chasing the beat around the circle until it just turned into a flurry of pounding, pounding, pounding. Then, during a sliver of a pause, the instructor’s body arched back and his arms opened broad to hover in the air for the slightest second, before he brought down a final beat along with everyone else.

.

His arms fell limp against his sides. Warm and pulsating.

He slightly loosened the drum strapped to his body, and in between his ragged breaths, he began to describe the sound they had just made together: “The 장구 / janggu that we just played is the sound of rain. It goes along with the thunder, wind, and moving clouds of other instruments in 풍물 / korean drumming.” He brought down the mallet on the left face of the drum. . Rain. Her eyes shot over to the still vibrating skin of the 장구 / janggu.

She wondered if this is what rain sounded like this in her grandmother’s village in Korea — a heavy and low rumbling against her chest that exaggerated her hollowness yet left her feeling full. And as she absentmindedly rubbed the left face of her drum, feeling a warmth radiating against her palm, she wondered why the drum sounded so similar and familiar. Like the sound of her own heartbeat.

On Trauma & Resilience

There were an eclectic mix of plastic school chairs, rolly office chairs, and little stools all huddled together in a circle around the gallery. The gallery opened to a high lofty ceiling enclosed by smooth white walls, each decorated with a series portraits of Minneapolis residents. Their photos warmly peered down on us like protectors of the space, and it might have felt cold and unwelcoming had the core of the room not been softly filled in with a knit blue rug and a heap of colorful pillows. And of course, there was that freshly brewed coffee smell encircling the space. No Saturday morning healing workshop would have been complete without it.

“I once was powerful. I still am powerful. I will be powerful again. We are powerful together.”

Our workshop started with a collective chant and continued on the theme of power through the opening question: What is the first moment that made you feel powerful? It took a couple seconds for me to rewire my brain and cast aside the moments of powerlessness that I often replay in my mind. But it came to me: “At age 14, going back to my mother’s country and seeing what a powerful woman I came from.” My moment of power took its place in the hat along with other slips of paper. We each took one and read it out loud for all of us to hear.

When I made my brother stop crying.
Picking out groceries at the grocery store for my family.
When I refused to pledge allegiance to the flag,
and they couldn’t do anything to make me.

The Restoring Power: Trauma & Resilience for Organizers workshop had been advertised on Facebook — my only network here in Minnesota — and to be honest, I had gone in with very low expectations. I think a part of me had (wrongly) believed that “radicalness” existed outside of Minnesota. And another part may have been that I was just wary of another trendy workshop on “healing,” “collective care,” and “ancestors” in some uncomfortable manner that fetishized traditional practices, to ultimately leave me feeling empty and hollow.

I can honestly say that the entire six hours of the workshop left me feeling energized and full. The workshop didn’t aim to give me knowledge or skills in a didactic manner; rather, it helped to unearth and discover things that were already inside of myself. It was an incredibly thoughtful workshop — and I think that’s what caught me off guard the most. Accessibility wasn’t done for good ally points or for “those” people, but with the mentality that they themselves would be recipients of others’ care someday. There was plenty of food and coffee to keep participants well-fed, and everyone was free to walk around or sit on the ground during the workshop, as they felt comfortable.

Ricardo and Molly were the facilitators for the workshop, and they were incredibly wise and generous, seeming to believe in my body’s capabilities much more than I ever had. Scattered in between stories and discussions about healing were acupressure point demonstrations to keep our bodies at the same pace as our minds. I think it’s very rare to get an opportunity to feel your body and become aware of its pain & breath outside of a medical office. At times, my body still feels like a long lost cousin I haven’t seen since childhood. It’s always an uncomfortable and clumsy meeting, an awkward “hey remember me?” reintroduction. But gradually the tension softens with each touch, and this time was no different. I had the opportunity to explore the “letting go point,” which can be found if you cross your arms in an X on your chest, which each arm pointed towards the opposite shoulder, and then you press down with a couple fingers from each hand, and then the “speak your truth” point found in between your clavicles on your chest. Molly walked around to gently guide our hands in the right direction. The facilitators also noted that we could look to the earth as an extension of our bodies and for inspiration around our own healing abilities. Our bodies know how to heal itself, just as the soil knows how to cleanse itself over and over again. It just required that we trust our bodies and recognizing the histories & wisdom it holds. The body is the way we know everything we know.

***

At the very core of healing trauma is that trust we have to develop with ourselves. Trauma is an act of violating our boundaries (physically, emotionally, mentally) and being put in more danger than we can handle. The traumatic experiences may result in hypovilgilence (the feeling that nothing is dangerous or threatening; a numbing of sorts / ex: oppression feeling normal) or hypervigilence (the feeling that everything is dangerous or threatening / ex: little things setting you off) as mechanisms of coping. Often times, the trauma becomes embedded in our bodies and held in silence, only rearing its head when triggered and exploding in unpredictable ways. Opening up that bottled silence by speaking your truth is a powerful act of reclaiming power that trauma once held over you.

However, it is also important to recognize that healing does not come from continually retelling that story of trauma, but rather simultaneously working towards reframing the experience. Healing lies in this process of discovering the light on the other side of darkness / in speaking about our survival, not only our trauma / in telling a different story about yourself than the one assigned to you as the “victim” / in realizing that the struggles of recovery are also a testament to the great resilience and power that your body holds. It was difficult for me — and it still is — to look at my body and not focus solely on its crooked spine, spiraling dark thoughts, and aching knees that frequently give out from underneath me. But more frequently now, I can also notice the tight bundle of determination that arises in my chest every time I make time to exercise my body and the discipline I needed to build greater control I have  over my breath to ease and soothe my mind. In those small moments, I feel a sense of awe at the realization that wounds and pain are not a sign of defeat for my body, nor the end. That there is more that can come after the pain.

I believe healing needs to be discussed more in organizing circles, because it is a framework that can be used to organize communities in a more revolutionary way. Healing allows you to shift the focus from the pain (i.e. oppression and victimization) to identifying the survival methods that communities have developed for themselves throughout time, as well as the possibilities and potentials of what can arise from this struggle. During the workshop, Ricardo told a story of how Ojibwe children, who were forcibly sent to boarding schools, were not allowed to speak their own language on the campus grounds. Instead, they would go jump on the trampoline to speak Ojibwe to each other in short clips — in the air, and not technically on campus grounds — as a way to sustain their relationships and language. It was a reminder to honor the ways that our communities already do “resilience.” This type of re-framing immediately places more agency and power into the hands of a community formerly defined only as “oppressed” and “marginalized.” It also allows you to challenge the type of “victim determinism” that pervades current political discussions — a type of thinking that the actions or situations of people are entirely determined by their oppression or traumas (i.e. she acts that way because she’s a survivor of intimate partner violence and grew up in a low-income immigrant Korean family). We all know that it’s more complicated than that.

I believe that larger social movements could learn more nuanced ways to hold both the oppression and resilience of our people, if we were able to draw more from healing justice work. After all, organizing isn’t about lecturing at people about the revolution; it is about making possibilities visible to people and willing them to shift our society. The possibility that I could become something more than my broken pieces — that we would not have to be constantly defined by our traumas and oppression, that our world could mend and heal into something softer and more gentle. That is the reason I joined the movement, and also the reason I left it.

For more information on the Restoring Power: Trauma & Resilience for Organizers workshop, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RestoringPowerMN.

War Stories

My grandmother tells war stories
over the dinner table
or sometimes alongside the evening news,
chatting away with the news anchor on the screen
drowning out his monotone drawl
and filling his mouth with her own words.
She keeps her gaze steady at the fast-flashing clips
the latest bombing, carnage, and wreckage
while her fingers feel out
the easy curves of the persimmon
ripened by the autumn wind,
deftly peel over each layer to expose
its inner skin, sticky and raw.
The knife slices clean into the center
defenseless
vulnerable,
the carnage drops onto the plate
in sync with the flashes on the screen
she strikes
a small fruit fork into the flesh
victorious.

chocolate simply rained from those military tanks,
soldiers threw them out to watch us
flock like a herd of sparrows
for that sweet piece of humiliation.
but I never ate that chocolate, no, couldn’t
them watching our frenzy with those lit up blue eyes,
and rubbing their stomachs
as if they felt full on their good deed.

My grandmother’s war stories
they’re never about the war.
but how she thought that
meegook must be a rich country
if their pieces of dirt tasted so sweet.
The war is when she learned
how democracy worked,
that voting 17 times for the U.S.-backed president
would feed her family 17 times over.

The war is the way
her mind has been sharpened,
her heart has learned to ache.
The war is in the fact of her survival.

Inheritance

[content warning: mentions of sexual assault, suicide, intergenerational trauma]

October 29, 2015
My grandmother referred to my uncle as “your brother” and my grandfather as “your father.” It was as if she could only see my mother in me and ignored the rest. I once caught her calling me by my mother’s name, but I didn’t say anything. I figured that it was who she needed me to be.

Something of a tightly bundled package is passed down mother-to-daughter, and the unraveling of these tales tie one generation of women to another in my family. Raw scenes of daughters being sold, repeated sexual assaults, attempts to kill their own children rather than letting them starve, generations of bottled up grief against men — they all spill out into the open palms of their daughters, to stain and to hold. It is the desperate practice of mothers carving age-old trauma into their daughters’ bodies, as if the pseudo-inoculation could provide some kind of immunity to the outside world. It is the secret telephone tree of women that wraps around each daughter’s spine at birth, connecting and binding them to the generations of 한 / grief from their mothers and mother’s mothers before them.

My mother opens today’s bundle, quite benignly: “I always thought being nice was a compliment. But now I know that being nice just means that you’re stupid.” I look up from my meal, mid-chew, and brace myself for the onslaught. She always likes to bring up these things over meals for some reason. At some point, food became the communication method of choice in our household, perhaps after finding that spoken words could mistakenly fall into the crevices between her language and mine and that attempts at White-family forms of affection created far too much discomfort. The stories spill out over our dinner table. Bits of poverty and abusive fathers falling out between the clanging of our chopsticks as we reach for the 반찬 / banchan, and then the shame-guilt and a woman is worthless following as our spoons make the final scrapes against our rice bowl. I try to maintain some emotional distance between us as a buffer, silently nodding and occasionally allowing my mind to drift, as to keep the outer edges of ourselves from blurring together too much. But I don’t know why I even try. It seems like we were meant to be bound up in each other’s pain all along, like some fatalistic umbilical cord was suffocating us slowly, while pushing us ever closer together. I could recite her stories as if they were my own. And I’ll even admit that sometimes I can’t quite remember if it were my mother who quietly burned a kerosene lamp under her sheets to study at night, rebelling against the cries of my grandfather that studying would ruin a woman — or if it had been me lying there with my heart pounding against the enclosure, squinting at the edges of the page that fell just outside the confines of the flickering yellow light.

I find it a bit ironic that I am listening to my mother talk about having to hold my grandmother’s stories and how her brother never had to do shit for anyone. How her own mother had always leaned on her, just a bit too heavy. I find it ironic because when my brother walks in, my mother’s eyes dry instantly and her lips slice open into a welcoming smile. I don’t think that my brother has ever seen her cry. But I know all too well, the way her eyes open wider and wider in an attempt to swallow back the tears, and how they leave long bumpy red streaks on her all-too-sensitive skin, like soft but vengeful scratch marks of a young kitten. Or how she reaches for the stack of flimsy napkins we’ve collected from fast food restaurants to blot away her tears, but always rubs too hard that it leaves bits of napkin flakes on her eyelashes. For some reason, maybe because he is younger, maybe because he is a son, my brother is spared from these family rituals. And maybe because I am older, maybe because I am a daughter, I serve as the lone keeper of these stories that well up inside her whenever she forgets to take her medication or on days when the sky takes on a particular shade of grey.

I always listen to her stories in silence — if only for the reason that there is nothing I can do for her. I wonder when she will realize that she deserves things of her own. I wonder when she will realize that she did the best she could, and that her mother’s pain was not hers to carry. That the weight placed into her palms had been handed down from her mother’s mother and then the mother before her, and that she was never supposed to be able to set things right. I wish I could tell her that the only thing you can do sometimes is to gently soothe the wounds inside of yourself — like a parent placing a soft peck on the bruised knee of their child, more in hopes of showing their love than easing the child’s pain — so that the stories do not grow wild within you and swallow you whole.

Sometimes I forget if I am trying to tell these things to my mother, or to myself.