Be Alive, Don’t Just Survive

Quiet Lightning

Inspiration can come from anywhere

I recently attended Quiet Lightning's event Sparkle & Blink 98, a curated submission-based reading of writers and poets in San Francisco. I haven't been to a reading event in a while, so this was a really great event to attend. I got to meet other writers and get inspired on a whole other level.

The thing about inspiration is you never know where it's going to come from. I arrived at Hotel Kabuki and found my way to the bar. Waiting for my "house red" found on the drink menu sandwiched between sake and cocktails, a woman walks up to my friend and I, all smiles and asks us if we're reading tonight. No, we say, and ask her if she is. She proudly announces that yes, she is! I could tell she was nervous and excited.

I later came to realize that this woman was Shizue Seigel, a Japanese American writer, visual artist and community activist. When she read her poem, the vibrant room became still. Even though her piece was written to resonate with women of color, it still spoke to me.

With her permission, I share this with you today.

More Than A Number

Shizue Seigel

You, unknown woman
from an unknown time
Plaid blouse sharp
Against a wall of white.
Glancing out of frame
At the unseen.

Tell me about your life.
Did you dare break out of the box-
bring yourself alive
as more than a number,
more than a shadow on the wall?

Number Three daughter of Number Two son,
what escape did you seek
with your sidelong gaze?
What part of yourself did you hold
in the secret curve of your smile?

Did you dare tell your ma so long ago
what happened to make Sister
slit her eyes narrower

and shrink down smaller,
what happened that knit Brother's brow
and locked his mouth in a stubborn pout?

Or did you smother with silence
the sudden blows, the endless scorn
the ignore-ance and expectation?
Did you get no peace
outside your home or within it?

Will you carry your wounds enclosed
in a hard shell, a locked casket
that your children will fear the more
because they don't know what's inside?

I have hopes for you-
hopes that someone showed you
you could get what you wanted,
that the walls of your prison
were only as high as your fear.

I hope someone taught you
that a dream is no waste of time
no mere indulgence.
It's a gossamer bridge to the future,
a bridge that grows stronger
every night that you cross it.

They used to say we dream in black and white
I hope you dreamt in color,
free from the hum-drum greys
of limited reality.

Look up! Tell me
you fought your battles and you won,
even if some victories were so small
that no one noticed but you.

Better to risk becoming yourself
than stay entrapped
in the Bingo game of life
playing it safe
lining your numbers all in a row
week after week in the church hall,
shuffling the mahjong tiles,
choosing the same Lotto numbers
again and again for luck.

Living through your children
Number One doctor
Number two lawyer
Number three beggar man
Number four....
We do not speak about the last two.....

I hope you taught your daughters
to step out of line
and risk reaching for all that they wanted to be.
Not to beg, bargain or steal
for some small scrap of freedom.
I hope you taught them
to dare to dare to be more than a number.
To fully inhabit many roles in turn-
dragon and fool, flower and mouse
Taught them to risk everything.
To be alive, not just survive.

To learn more about Shizue Seigel and read her work, visit her website at shizueseigel.com.

Leave a Comment