Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 16.1: Happy Valentine’s Day, Christine Crites of Nashville, Wherever and Whoever You Are
February 14, 2021
As the impeachment trial to hold President Trump accountable succeeds only in putting another asterisk next to his name, I find myself emotionally exhausted by the mess: the Republican party’s avoidance of accountability, their lack of will to draw clear lines around abuse of executive power, their tacit endorsement of the mob, their unquestioning loyalty to the mob boss, and their smug solidarity around power as opposed to principle or the well-being of the nation or all its citizens. It is a time that bodes further difficulty for our nation, in the midst of a pandemic which has left nearly half a million Americans dead in its wake, as of this writing. On Valentine’s Day, my thoughts turn back to my own childhood in the South, and the possibility of love and relationship which existed then, which now seems like a small island of safety and nurture in an ocean of callous disregard and violence to those basic needs. Here are my memories, dreams and reflections, offered in hope that we all find our islands, and with them, make a continent and a world. This is a letter to the girl I might have called ‘my sweetheart’ as a nine-year-old, but never did, and dedicated to all the elementary school children and their teachers and parents of 2020 and 2021, around the world, who have had so much on their plates this last year. Let’s nurture the best of what’s latent in our youth and in ourselves.
I hope this message finds you and yours well, healthy and safe, in this difficult time, in this difficult and changing world. It’s been nearly 44 years since I last saw you. 44 years since I made a nine-year old’s fateful decision, a decision I regret, a decision which changed my life, and perhaps yours, forever. That summer, after fourth grade in Mrs. Rehorn’s classroom at Margaret Allen elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, my mom and I moved to St. Louis. You mailed me a letter, directly addressed to me, not c/o anyone. This may have been the first personal letter I had ever received from anyone not directly kin to me, and it is probably still the most important. It was 1976, the summer before a peanut farmer with a degree in nuclear physics from Georgia was elected president, the summer I began to feel America’s confusing, discordant effects on my identity as a brown-skinned immigrant from India: skinny, smiling, precocious and innocent to the point of being naïve. I had no idea what I was getting into – but I was in it.
The author in 1976, then a Cub Scout pack leader
The motherly Black woman managing the front desk at the resident physicians’ apartment building handed your letter to me, I think with a slight smile, perhaps amused by the scenario – the predicament – of a little boy getting a letter from a little girl. (Your name and address were in the upper left corner of the envelope.)
I nervously took the envelope (what could THIS be about?), and started walking with it. I opened it, and read, still walking. You wrote with a beautiful cursive script, so much more beautiful than my own nearly illegible scrawl, a scrawl which has never really gotten better. You wrote with warmth, clarity and longing. You wrote that you missed me, that you were in love with me, and that you wanted to marry me.
I think I must have broken into a sweat. My heart must have raced. My first and only thought was “what will mom think?” I was afraid, I’m not sure of what, but perhaps afraid that the idea of a nine-year old girl being in love with me would have provoked such a deep protective response in my mother that I would have somehow been in trouble. I was viscerally paranoid, I think, that this confession of love would be a betrayal of loyalties, a Pandora’s box of emotional complications. And I already had enough of those, trust me.
And I was Brown, and you were White. This already meant something to me, though I would have been thoroughly incapable of articulating the significance of our difference at that time. Or maybe even in the times we live in now. I was born in 1967, the same year that Loving v. Virginia was decided, making our hypothetical future marriage legal in all 50 states and five territories of the nation. But I already had been given the sense that the color line was not to be crossed.
I spotted a bollard, an open, standing pipe. In one mortified instant, I crumpled the letter and envelope into a tight ball and stuffed them down the pipe. In that rash moment of abject terror, all was lost. I broke my heart, and I am sure I must have broken yours.
Can life ever be the same after silencing our affections, severing our bonds?
About fifteen years ago, I visited Nashville with my mom again, and we had a reunion with the Whidby’s. Thomas Whidby was our fourth-grade classmate, and one of my closest friends. I would stay with the Whidby’s when my mom was on overnight call in the hospital. Nancy, Thomas’s mother, was den mother for our Cub Scout pack. I went to Bible study with Thomas on Sundays, put the dimes his mother gave me in the collection plate, ate the pancakes and scrambled eggs his sister made (best EVER!), and bawled when his grandmother died, the first person I knew who’d ever done such a thing. Where did she go? When Thomas said her ghost had woken him up in the middle of the night, I said I’d seen her too, in support of him but also because I didn’t want to feel left out, I think. “No you didn’t!” he exclaimed – but we knew we were brothers under the skin that night, and acted it, with both tension and love. The Whidby’s were family, because Nancy and the family thought nothing of taking me and my mother in.
When I went back to visit them, I mentioned your name with a shy, curious smile. Mrs. Whidby was silent and avoided the topic entirely. I don’t know why. Perhaps she’d forgotten your name in the intervening decades. Perhaps she was deciding it was best to not give our connection any oxygen. Perhaps – and this is my Schrödinger’s-box uncertainty and fear – perhaps there was some unspeakable hardship or tragedy that touched you, and she thought it best to close this door to the past.
In the big picture, maybe that standing pipe was a minor road block, a small disappointment in our lives. Or maybe it is the axis around which our lives still orbit, albeit from a forty-four year remove. I’m writing you back, finally, in hopes that the axes of our lives can align, or resonate, in some way, that the dark losses that we have both experienced as human beings, can gain some light. Perhaps I carry an inconceivable, unfathomable, and impossible hope that a little more light, love and relationship at this time of great disconnection in the life of our country might somehow help us all remember what’s really important in life. That we might not collectively make a rash pre-pubescent decision and stuff our common humanity, our Constitution, our love for fellow man, down the bollard on this path we walk together, and thus forever live with regrets of how we fell short of love. That we might not live out the rest of our days carrying the hollowing ache and weight of missing people in our lives. That we might soften our stances against each other to remind ourselves, in the words of Justice Hugo Black, “we are all just children grown tall.” If we are fortunate enough to live, we all carry our nine-year old selves within us, and our nine-year old selves are always asking for our care, compassion, love and attention. I’m sending my affection back in time, for you, for me, for all the 4th graders in Mrs. Rehorn’s class. We had a world of possibility in that room, and my head and heart ache in wonder and worry of what has become of us.
What fates have taken us? What have we become? What has become of all the world’s nine-year old’s? What tragedies have they already experienced? How can we fulfill our duties to them and their future? I want to stop the world for them, make the world look at them, look for them. And just stop. Just listen to them. Maybe this is the great message of these COVID times. Maybe the Earth herself is channeling the voices of all nine-year old’s, past, present and future, saying, “what are you all doing? Don’t you even care about us? Prove it. Prove that you care.” If I were nine right now, I’d be confused and angry about all the shitty grown-ups who have a lot of power and no seeming concern or responsibility for the world they govern with their words and deeds. What kind of parents, classmates, teachers and role models did these grown-ups have?
Well, probably worse than mine. And even I have fallen short, in worst ways than on that day 44 years ago. But as I look at all the moments of my life, it’s hard to know when I had full control of myself, my situation, my choices, or my possibilities. Certainly, a lot more now at 53 than 10. Now, I have time to uncrumple a letter, time enough to try and heal all the places that the crumpling cut.
And even as I do so, I worry that this uncrumpling will somehow cause you distress, or even harm. I’ve seen a lot of dark possibilities, and can imagine more. This is not yet a world where women can feel safe and at ease, to say the least. I worried about writing your name, and the names of others I knew back then. But you are all good news to me. Doesn’t the world need and welcome good news?
Adobe stock image by billionphotos.com, licensed by Ravi Chandra
Other things that I am fearful of: that you have grown in all the unpredictable ways life can take you. Perhaps you wear a MAGA hat and drive a pickup truck with a gun rack, and you have shouted your unending love for Donald Trump and all that he stands for. Could a White girl who fell for a Brown kid really fall off the deep end like that? You were down with Brown then, and I hope you still are. A lot of White folks are apparently not.
Other possibilities: Maybe you contracted a terminal disease. Maybe you have died, and this letter will be like a flash of lightning in the thunderstorm of your family’s sorrow and loss. Maybe my silence 44 years ago was part of your own depression, disconnection and alienation, and maybe that ended your life, as it could easily have ended mine. Accidents (led by car crashes and firearms), suicide and cancer are the leading causes of death for American children and youth, and it’s possible that one of these has taken you.
Maybe you grieved, maybe my silence was a hard life lesson, maybe you grew out of puppy love and found your beau or beaus. Maybe your personal will and resourcefulness has led you to a life of well-being and happiness. I’m still not fully there. The times weigh too heavily on me.
Maybe you moved away from Tennessee, to Texas or Canada or California. Maybe you live down the street from me. Maybe we will meet again. Maybe we will never meet again. There are quantum possibilities of uncertainty; but I have a deeply held belief that the quantum field of love and relatedness undergirds everything in existence. It’s kept me alive, that’s for sure. Everything leans, everything leans, and in the leaning and being leaned on we find the deepest reality there is.
No white girl ever liked me the way you liked me. Actually, no other girl, woman, boy or man, period, as far as I know. I’m a single man at 53 years of age. Maybe that’s the price I’ve had to pay for blowing it so spectacularly with you at age nine. Maybe it’s because you called dibs on me, and that shooed everyone else away. Called dibs, and then said, “well if I can’t have him, then no one can.” Girls are just that powerful, trust me.
Kids, pay attention.
This uncrumpling is an experiment. A trust fall. I have to know: what kind of world do we live in? What kind of world can these words built of memory, sentiment and affection create? Can they make a difference, in some small way?
My fourth-grade year in Nashville, Tennessee seems magical to me, but also portentous, in retrospect, especially in regards to race and the question of my viability in America.
Ages six to twelve are termed “latency” in child development, and I was smack dab latent. Freud first labeled this stage, tagging it to repressed or undeveloped sexual impulses and he was therefore supposedly uninterested in it. Latent derives from the Latin word for being hidden, and all the definitions of latent and latency, from biology to infectious disease to psychology are rooted in this meaning. It is the state before uncovering, exposing, avowing, coming out, illuminating, revealing. Perhaps, to take religious overtones, it is the state before revelation, or even apocalypse, a synonym of revelation. I don’t think latency is purely about repressed sexuality, but all that is hidden in the bud of youth, which may or may not be nurtured to bloom.
In Greek, kalyptō means “to cover, conceal, hide or deceive,” and Calypso was the nymph who enchanted Odysseus on her island for seven years, while he was ostensibly on his way home after the Trojan war. He finally started missing his wife, Penelope, after those seven long years (“took you a while, Odysseus!” Penelope might say), leading his goddess Athena to talk to Zeus who talked to Hermes who tells Calypso that Zeus said it was time to let go. It’s a myth that I read as explaining the fog of time after the trauma of war, when Odysseus needed comfort and respite, and Calypso and her isle provided it. But finally, he remembers his deeper commitments, and journeys on. Still, this change of heart required divine intercession by Homer’s reckoning, because we are not truly capable of completely free will and total agency. It is questionable whether even the gods are, or whether all are bound by the fabric of time, circumstance, duties, and whatever pressing needs seem inescapable and most pertinent and pure, I suppose. In Odysseus’s case, this would be the commitment of love made before war ripped him apart from Penelope. In my case, perhaps the commitment of latent love made in the midst of the unseen wars we are born to.
For Odysseus, Zeus happened not to be too busy turning into a bull or a swan to f#*k a hapless maid or whatever else he does. “Glad you could spare some time, Zeus!” Greek gods have interesting personalities, mythic metaphors for the whimsical, emotional entanglements of consciousness and life which define our lives on Earth. Would that all our entanglements and conflicts had interested third-parties plotting meaningful resolution. All too often, the third parties in our lives seem far too self-interested for our dreams, nine-year-old kid-sized, or 39-year-old King-sized.
Adobe image licensed by Ravi Chandra
I still feel a bit latent in my life. Aren’t we always uncovering or discovering something that’s been hidden, or gathers dust in the closet of memory? Aren’t we always creating ourselves bricolage out of a hidden, inchoate sea? Translating the wordless waves to long and winding ways? To which god or goddess or bodhisattva must I appeal to make a case to continue my journeys of identity, belonging and wellness, after all the wars I have been through with the country of my heart, the wars of which that 9-year-old child knew naught?
I’ll start with the goddess of the internet, and all who weave the threads of time.
There were 13 children of color out of a class of 29 in my 4th grade class, from a surviving photo. Ten of us were Black, two American Indian (I think), and me, the only Asian. 45% of us were BIPOC, a percentage that we are almost attaining now as a nation and with considerably more tension and less maturity than existed in my 4th grade classroom or just about any elementary school that exists today. Let’s just say that some people’s emotions, fears, and selfishness have grown bigger than their common sense, distress tolerance, wisdom, compassion, relatability, ability to understand or care about cause and effect, and willingness to adapt to change, as they have grown older. Somehow the media translates all of that to “economic anxiety.”
The author’s 4th grade class. Mrs. Rehorn is on the far left, and Christine and the author are circled in Valentine’s Day red 🙂
My mother first found the Whidby’s (who were White Americans) through Mrs. Rehorn, asking my soon-to-be teacher for the name of anyone who might be able to care for me while she did overnight call as a resident at the Meharry Hospital. Mrs. Rehorn connected her to Mrs. Whidby, whose son Thomas was “smart and good,” as my mom now recalls her saying.
She was in the second year of a rotating residency that took her to several hospitals and cities in the South, from Tuskegee to Nashville to St. Louis, allowing her to serve in inner city, historically Black institutions as an IMG (an International Medical Graduate). Her immigration was sponsored by Black doctors and administrators, who welcomed her and me with absolute generosity and, I think, a deep sense of responsibility and hope for a changing America and evolving American dream that had met the dreams of Black America with such violence and hostility. Many, many IMG’s were given H1B visa’s and then Green Cards like my mother to staff the country’s hospitals and clinics after Medicare became law, creating a demand for more health care providers. Many of them worked in inner cities and other underserved areas, and still do. My mother later worked the bulk of her career for the State of Georgia, caring for institutionalized children and adults, many of them with developmental disabilities. She served alongside immigrant Filipinx, Korean, Greek, Indian and White and Black American doctors, all taking call for minimum wage. She always remembers her career, and Georgia especially, with gratitude, even those hard days and nights she worked just to put me through some very expensive schools.
My life here is a simple hope, born of the hopes of my mother, most surely, but also of a people whose ancestors were enslaved, and who themselves are yet to breathe fully free, safe, and unburdened by tyranny. I have always felt both these connections of hope and necessary obligation, though I have not always known what to do with them. How do you repay your mothers and fathers? Is it even possible?
At 53, I feel limited, poisoned, adulterated, chained by America’s racism, a racism that has tagged me, my voice and life as still not meeting some silent standard of full acceptability. As active as I’ve been as a writer and participant in the Asian American community, I still feel like an arm’s length acquaintance with many or most I have known in that community. We are a weird bunch, I think, not particularly given to consistent validation, affirmation, endorsement, affiliation, or barely even affinity, until some higher power ordains it, or until there’s some kind of collective nod. We’re much better at making each other feel like we’ve done something wrong or are bad or not good enough, something which White America does de facto. As I wrote in MOSF 15.2 last August:
“But how can you belong to a community that has itself been deprived of belonging, that has anesthetized itself from its possibility, yet remains in denial of the surgeon’s knife which threatens to carve us apart as if we weren’t one body at all?”
The surgeon’s knife has been White Supremacy all along; and sometimes it has been wielded by other Asian Americans. We wield it every time we choose not to see or hear each other, or not to see and build ourselves as a people, as a community. I’ve asked before, “is Asian America a planet, an asteroid belt, or a constellation?” I have convinced myself we are mostly a constellation, but one which requires the perception and imagination of the observer to come into existence, and even then, our constellation is evanescent in corporeal, tangible, visible reality, more rare and fleeting than the seasonal sakura I now see blooming in San Francisco.
Adobe stock image by sayuri_k, licensed by Ravi Chandra
“There were 13 children of color out of a class of 29 in my 4th grade class, from a surviving photo. Ten of us were Black, two American Indian (I think), and me, the only Asian.” We were so close, and I needed a lot of family at that age, having already experienced some significant abandonments, bumping up my ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score several points. I remember calling Mrs. Rehorn “mom” by accident at least once.
Christine fell in love with me.
I think she thought I was smart, funny and nice. And cute. She was all of those things. I think all the kids I see in that surviving photo were all of those things, and many of them more of those things than me. Christine rooted for me in the spelling bee (I lost by misspelling “chocolate,” of all things, this Valentine’s Day), and in the 4-H public speaking contest. I won first place, to my absolute shock; I think she said she weren’t surprised. All I remember is reciting my short memorized speech and looking out to see her face in the audience, eyes intent on me, though I couldn’t fathom why. I think I told her I was surprised to see her there, and she said something like “of course I would want to see you!” Why in the world did she like me? I didn’t even know what to do with that.
Once, she told me her younger sister wanted to marry me. I don’t think she’d yet worked up the courage to tell me her feelings about the matter. Somehow I found out that her mother, a German immigrant, disapproved of this: both her daughters in love with a Brown kid.
Midway through the year, she got glasses. She stopped sitting next to me on the bus ride to school. After a couple of days, I asked her why she wasn’t sitting next to me anymore.
“I thought you wouldn’t like me anymore because I got glasses!”
“I thought you didn’t like me anymore!” I remember us both laughing about it, relieved that we were still best buds.
But a lens that came between our eyes that year did in fact separate us.
One day, we all stood in line waiting to come back into class after a school assembly. Suddenly, I heard a squeal from the back. Mrs. Rehorn went to investigate. She pulled one of the Black boys, the class comedian, a funny and gifted child, out of line and marched him towards the classroom for a paddling. I think I remember there were two paddles hung on a class wall: one with holes and one without. The one with holes hurt more, I was told. It moved faster, without as much resistance from the air, less drag before reaching its target.
I jumped out of line and shouted at Mrs. Rehorn, spreading my arms wide. I looked her right in the eyes: “NO! You cannot hurt my brother!”
Background image by Canva
There was the barest moment of silence. Then the Black boy whose name I have sadly forgotten pushed me aside. “Man, you ain’t my brotha! Get out my way and let me get my whoopin’! And don’t go tryna kiss no White girls!”
He had puckered his lips as he stood in line behind one of our White classmates. She had squealed, and he’d gotten hit for the “offense.”
None of us spoke of this, but his words stayed with me. I was unable to defend him, and loving a White girl spelled certain punishment. Now, maybe any kid would have gotten punished for trying to kiss another kid. But that’s not what happened.
I was appointed 4-H club president for a term. Head, Heart, Hands and Health. But not, apparently, fully Home for all children. I was leader of my Cub Scout integrated pack. But there was no Anti-racism badge to be earned. I didn’t even really know what racism meant to me as an Asian. But that Black boy already knew what it meant for him.
I believe a lot of adults around me were doing their best to keep racism at bay for us. I think they silently hoped that it wouldn’t stain our lives as it had demolished the world. Nancy Whidby, especially, I remember as being deeply affectionate with children of all races. She was the Den Mother for our Cub Scout pack and she also pulled a lot of hours at the integrated Y helping out with the kids. But silent hopes and wishes could not prepare us for what was to come. We needed massive positive affirmation of our identities and our equality as children and as human beings, something which I can only hope is more present for many more nine-year-old’s now than was available in 1976.
A lot of adults would be doing a lot better today if they had gotten just a little more then.
The last day of class that year, my classmates threw me a going away party. Everyone wrote me cards, filled with sweet affection. I wish I still had those. One young Black friend made me a giant pillow, stuffed with clean, used clothes. It was a kind and enormous gesture from a boy whose family didn’t have much to give, but gave what they had. I imagine him telling his mother that I was leaving, and asking her if they could give me a present. His mother helped him make this pillow, I think, just like my mother helped me make a life.
I wonder where this friend is now, and how he and his family fared. I wonder this about all of those nine-year-old friends. I pinch myself now, a bit surprised that I survived all that I have, and hope against hope that they all have as well.
I have survived and even thrived. Being single is not all bad; it’s perhaps a good thing to carry this state, as it allows me access to the emotional space so many others in Asian America and America-writ-large must occupy. We are a nation of unbelonging. We require active repair. Maybe I need to carry this space with me, grapple with it, as I press as best I can for the beloved community of which Dr. King spoke before I was born.
I am the last of my line; I can only hope for children of my mind. I am kin to the manong generations, the single Filipino men who toiled and died, many of them alone in the end. My friend Peter Kenichi Yamamoto, who died in 2018 at the age of 63, remained a lifelong bachelor, dying in the I-Hotel where he lived much of his adult life. My mother, too, toiled alone as a single mother and doctor, and I am her only child. She lives alone now, despite continuing her social-butterfly-ways, making many new friends in her East Bay town.
Being alone or lonely is not limited to men or people of any gender. The South, though, and Georgia for several decades, provided a kind of partnership with community and friends for my mother that has so far lacked for me in San Francisco. What community I had before 2007, when the iPhone debuted and social media became ubiquitous, has fled to the internet, which is why I must appeal through her first. She is the Calypso that has enchanted us, that still keeps us tethered and possibly saner than would be otherwise, in these COVID times. But she is also the Calypso that keeps us from really knowing each other, face-to-face, heart-to-heart.
So Calypso, if Hermes speaks to you, and Zeus and Athena approve, may this missive reach Christine, and may she be safe and well.
Christine, if you are reading this: Happy Valentine’s Day. I miss you, and hold dear your memory. Maybe we can play this country record backwards, and see how it comes out. (For those who don’t know, the joke goes: “What happens when you play a country record backwards? You get your dog back, you get your girlfriend back, you get your truck back…” Maybe going a little ways back can help us plant our feet and move forward again.)
From Margaret Allen’s current website (now apparently a middle school) Pretty amazing by the looks of it!
We live in a crumpled world, stuffed down a pipe, barely able to see light. Whatever has covered our natural capacities for affection, may this be lifted from our lives. May this be our apocalypse.
May there be a way for kids like us, Black and Brown and Yellow and White, to remain friends, to regain friendship, despite all the mistakes we have made, and all the ill will generated in the disaffected space between us.
And if there is a Q-continuum (nerd Star Trek TNG reference), living somewhere outside time itself, let’s hope they really like kids.
With love and care,
p.s. If you do decide to write back, you can reach me via my contact page.
Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for Eastwind ezine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. You can find him on Psychology Today, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.