Literature 1-9-2023

Be Sweet, Stay Gold

On the search for abundance and how to find your creative muses in the small, sweet moments

Digital illustration of a crow hovering over blue water, with starfruit in foreground, mountains in background, and a cloud of gold flakes in the air.
1UyenThi Tran Myhre, chia vàng, May 2021.

There used to be an arcade at Southdale Mall, tucked in a lower level, down the escalator from Penney’s. Like all the arcades of that time, this one was dim except for the glow from the video game monitors, the incandescent bulbs by the Skee-Ball alley, and the flashing rainbow lights in the kiddie section. Above the chatter of all the players, there’s a cacophony of overlapping MIDI songs and artificial crashes and explosions competing for your attention. After exchanging dollars for tokens, you can choose a game or two to play (I liked Wack-a-Gator best). When you win, the gaming console unfurls paper tickets that you can then exchange for something behind the glass counter, if you are brave enough to point out what you want to the sullen teenager staffing the place. 

My favorite thing to exchange my tickets for were these little novelty erasers. You couldn’t really use them as pencil erasers. Try, and a piece would break off in your fingers, your multiplication tables worksheet smudged beyond repair. The erasers were no bigger than a quarter, but they came in all colors and shapes. There were tiny teddy bears in different neon colors. A set of tiny neon fruit. A tiny hot dog and a tiny hamburger and a tiny saltwater taffy. After the noisy chaos of the arcade, the erasers lived in peaceful silence inside a LifeSavers candy collector’s tin; a red, slightly dented holiday edition with a lid and a vintage illustration of children on a sleigh. I would upend the whole can on the carpet of my pink bedroom, lay on my stomach, and arrange them by set, or by color, or by size (tiny to tinier to tiniest). I could make up stories with them, or try to recreate their likeness on paper, using skinny markers or colored pencils. Often, though, it was enough to just look upon them, absorb their perfectness, and know that they belonged to me. 

At this point, as an elder millennial, most of my childhood toys have been tossed or donated, although my parents still reside in the home where I grew up. In the living room is the coffee table and matching end tables that are older than I am, made of heavy, dark stained wood. The tables have built-in storage behind carved wood doors, and each one is a time capsule: my parents’ gardening catalogs, my old paperback Baby-Sitters Club books (with the original covers) that my nieces read when they were pre-teens, my 13-year-old nephew’s jigsaw puzzles from when he was a toddler.

On a recent visit to my parents’ house, while hunting for the family photo albums, I checked one of the side tables in the living room. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but there, tucked away in the back, was the LifeSavers tin, still holding all the tiny bright erasers exactly as I remember them. 

There’s this story I used to ask my mom to tell me when she would tuck me in at night. It goes like this. There are two brothers, with only a starfruit tree to their name. They depend on the starfruit tree to survive. One morning, when the older brother is away, a crow alights on the tree and begins feasting on the golden fruit. Frantically, the younger brother calls out to the crow. This is our starfruit tree. Please. This is all we have. The crow looks down at the boy, thoughtfully sizing him up. The crow offers him a deal. If you share your starfruit with me, I’ll pay you back. Sew yourself a pocket, not too big, not too small, and meet me back here tomorrow morning. The boy hesitates, but agrees. 

The next morning, the crow returns to the starfruit tree, and instructs the boy to climb onto their back. The crow takes flight, the boy clinging tightly to their glossy black feathers. They leave the starfruit tree and the brothers’ little house behind and begin coasting on the air above the vast blue ocean. The only thing the boy hears is the whoosh of the wind in his ears. The water below them is gentle, and the sun is warm on his back. Eventually, the boy spots a shimmer on the horizon. The shimmer grows and begins to take shape, but the boy doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. By the time the crow lands gently on the soft sand, everything around him is shining. Up close, the glow he saw from the distance is magnified. The island is full of gold. The crow tilts their wing so the boy can slide down. Take what you need, and when you need more, I’ll bring you back, the crow tells him. This time, the boy doesn’t hesitate.

Of course, as a grown up, I don’t have to convince my mom to take me to the arcade, to give me quarters for tokens for tickets for treasures. Still, I find that these days, it’s both easier and more difficult to collect and catalog pockets of joy. As a knitter, for example, I am drawn to the super bulky yarn, and the way the swift whirs softly as it swirls the skein into a perfect cake. There’s so much possibility in the cozy, variegated colors and how they sing together. And, before even choosing the yarn, there’s the anticipation of choosing a pattern. All of this is almost better than actually completing a project. 

At my request, mom tried to teach me to knit when I was a teenager, but the 2 mm needles and acrylic yarn we used frustrated me to no end. When she demonstrated for me, it was almost soothing how the turquoise metal needles clicked together, how the yarn obediently made neat garter rows. But when it was my turn, the yarn would split and tangle. The needles would constantly slip out of my hands, out of the live row, and clatter to the floor, leaving dropped, misshapen stitches in my lap. Despite mom’s endless patience, I would inevitably start crying out of frustration. Not surprisingly, I gave up on knitting until grad school, when, inspired by a classmate who would knit chunky green and pink striped scarves for her line sisters during our ed psych seminars, I taught myself how to knit from YouTube tutorials. In the years since then, I’ve knit everything from Bella Swan-inspired fingerless mittens to a Katniss Everdeen-inspired cowl sweater. 

I cast on my current project, my first cardigan, after seeing the most luscious and squishy rainbow sweater on Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s character on the newest season of Never Have I Ever. When I sent a picture of the work-in-progress to my mom, she texted back: Wow. When do you have time to do that? At night and on weekends, I responded. Ba wants to know if he can have it when you’re done? she joked. A short time later, I visited my parents for lunch, hauling the cardigan and the fourth yarn skein along in an old freebie conference tote bag. Mom was appropriately impressed by my progress, but I also found out what she really meant by her “how do you have time?” text when dad laughed and told me: She said you must have quit your job, and that’s how you have so much time to knit. What was left unsaid was the root of her anxiety: that a job is our only means to abundance. 

When the crow drops the boy home, his older brother is waiting for him by the starfruit tree. Older brother’s eyes grow wide when the boy explains what happened and shows him what’s inside the pocket. That night, the older brother sews his own pocket, piecing it together with as much fabric as he can find, reinforcing the seams. The next morning, older brother wakes up with the sun. He doesn’t have to wait long before the crow arrives to feast on the golden starfruit. Take me to the island where you took my younger brother, he tells the crow. This starfruit tree belongs to me, too, and I need my fair share for what you’re taking. The crow obligingly tilts their glossy black feathered wing to the ground, and older brother, clutching his pocket tightly, climbs onto their back. The crow glides effortlessly into the air, quickly leaving home behind. Older brother doesn’t seem to notice the whooshing wind in his ears, or the warmth of the sun on his back. He is focused on the horizon, and soon he sees the shimmer that his brother told him to watch for. As soon as they land, he quickly slides down to the soft sand, and begins filling his pocket. His heart is pounding, and he is worried his pocket is too small to gather all that he needs, but he works steadily, on and on. The crow waits, patiently at first, but finally, they venture to ask older brother: Are you done? Older brother doesn’t reply, just keeps working. At last, the pocket won’t fit anything else. He cinches the pocket shut, and hugs his treasure close. I’m ready. Let’s go home. 

I did, actually, quit a job during the pandemic, but it was well before I cast on the stitches for the Never Have I Ever cardigan this past summer. Fall has come and gone, and my poor cardigan is languishing in the closet because I got to the sleeves and then remembered how much I despise knitting with double-pointed needles. So, on this visit home, I’m empty-handed. Dad is taking a cat nap in his chair, and I’m searching for “BTS Viet subs” on YouTube to cast to the dining room TV from my phone. As I wait for my phone to connect to the TV, one of my sisters is tossing spaghetti with fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and an obscene amount of garlic browned in butter. She hands me a bowl and asks if it needs more cheese to balance it out. Maybe Mom’s brand of fish sauce is stronger than mine? she asks. Without waiting for me to respond, she dumps too much Costco parmesan cheese into her own bowl. Oops, she says. 

At the dining room table, Mom is finally sitting down herself, enjoying a bowl of creamy tomato soup (that my sister also cooked) and a handful of potato chips (my own humble contribution). My other sister is sitting nearby, huddled over a video game on her Steam Deck. The phone finally connects to the TV, and on the screen, a cascade of ARMY bombs ripples across a dark stadium. Mom studies all seven as they perform their “Answer : Love Myself” encore at Tokyo Dome back in 2018. As the fan-provided Viet subs flash across the screen faster than I can read, I point out Jimin. He’s my favorite, I tell her. She takes a moment to consider as the camera moves from the vocalists to the rappers and back. That boy, she declares. I like him best. I translate for my husband: She says Jung Kook is her bias. She doesn’t ask me how I had so much time to fall in love with BTS, but if she did, my honest answer would be that I found them when I quit my job. Instead, when the song is over, she reminds me for the second time that there are three kinds of leftover dessert in the fridge, and she heads into the kitchen to pack up leftovers for us to take home. 

This morning, the CHANI astrology app tells me: Let your muses nap so your firepower can be used for the right activities when the time comes. Meanwhile, Co–Star says Do: Longform essays. And: Put your thoughts into words; it will help. When I think of my muses, it’s hard to identify any one individual person or thing. Rather, I think about moments that, when added up, give me a sense of spaciousness. These moments of joy and loveliness, both small and large, open up brighter possibilities. I catalog these moments, and actively collect them; not in opposition to the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us, but alongside it all. I don’t want to have to earn these moments, or keep them to myself. I want this abundance for everyone. 

The way home seems longer than the way there. The crow, carrying older brother and his nearly overflowing pocket of gold, begins to grow weary. You took too much, the crow says to the older brother. I can’t carry all of this and you home. Let some of the gold go. The older brother glances at his pocket, but he can’t imagine losing any of it to the endless depths of the ocean below. He thinks, in the distance, he can see home on the horizon. No, no, he tells the crow. You can make it. We’re almost there. Just a little bit more. 

I remember how this story ended when I was a child, when my mom would tell it to me. I remember how, even after the story was over, she would keep stroking my hair until she was sure I was asleep. Even though I remember what happens, here, I want to rewrite the ending. I want to recast the older brother here, not as a selfish character driven simply by greed, but as someone who has a chance at abundance, and is afraid of losing it. At first, he doesn’t trust that the crow will help him again. He thinks he has to take everything all at once. But just in time, the crow convinces him that it will be okay, that he will have more than enough, that he can return and fill his pocket again with what he needs. The older brother lets some of the gold fall through his fingers, watches it sail away into the depths below. The crow instantly feels lighter. They make it home, safely. The boy is waiting for his older brother and their new friend. He greets them with a plate of starfruit, already cut into gold pieces, enough sweetness for everyone to share. Did you eat yet? 

The title of this piece is a reference to two songs: “Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast and “Stay Gold” by BTS.

UyenThi Tran Myhre

UyenThi Tran Myhre is interested in storytelling and narrative-shifting as strategies for social change and creating a better world. As a daughter of refugees, writer, and facilitator, her work explores the intersections of family, feminism, abolition, and beyond, often through a pop culture lens. She is currently part of the team at Building Movement Project and Project Yellow Dress. UyenThi lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and their calico cat. …   read more