I have primarily been reading Vietnamese writers over the last month, and this weekend I picked up Kim Thuy’s autobiographical novel, Ru. The book is written as a series of vignettes that pass through time from the author’s upbringing in Vietnam, her family’s escape and rebuilding of their lives in Canada, her brief stint working in Hanoi, and her role as a mother.
Yesterday, this section stood out in my mind:
As for my father, he didn’t have to reinvent himself. He is someone who lives in the moment, with no affection for the past. He savors every instant of the present as if it were still the best and only time, with no comparisons, no measurements. That’s why he always inspired the greatest, most wonderful happiness, whether holding a mop on the steps of a hotel or sitting in a limousine en route to a strategic meeting with a minister.
From my father I inherited the permanent feeling of satisfaction. Where did he find it, though? Was it because he was the tenth child? Or because of the long wait for his kidnapped father’s release? Before the French left Vietnam, before the Americans arrived, the Vietnamese countryside was terrorized by different factions of thugs introduced there by French authorities to divide the country. It was common practice to sell wealthy families a nail to pay the ransom of someone who’d been kidnapped. If the nail was bought, it was hammered into an earlobe-or elsewhere- on the kidnap victim. My grandfather’s nail was bought by his family. When he came home, he sent his children to urban centers to live with cousins, thereby ensuring their safety and their access to education. Very early, my father learned how to live far away from his parents, to leave places, to love the present tense, to let go of any attachment to the past.
I love the idea of living fully in the moment. But, I know that I carry a certain nostalgia about the past, and that I am insatiably curious and impatient about what the future may bring. While I feel content, secure, stable, and happy even in my life right now, I know that I have not reached that level of presence as Kim Thuy’s father – this ability ‘to love the present tense, to let go of any attachment to the past.’
It was only recently that I realized how much I had been holding on to a situation from many years ago, a person who still lingered in my mind, despite the miles that separated us. I am not sure what I expected, what I desired, or why I couldn’t let this go. Once I did though, I felt lighter, more present, and not surprisingly, more open to people and situations in front of me that I might have overlooked. It struck me then how we can often hold ourselves back, how we can be our own obstacle. If we live partly in our memories and partly in our longings for the future, we can almost entirely miss the present. Now, I’m trying out this new practice – of loving the present tense.