shhh mommy's writing a poem
on my twenty-fifth birthday, i call aama and ask her, aama, what does it feel like to be a mother for twenty-five years?
and she asks me back, what does it feel like to be a twenty-five-year-old?
i don’t know what you felt like when you were twenty-five, i tell her. later i realize that is not true. i don’t feel like what aama felt like when she was twenty-five. with her big belly, her water breaking, her going to the hospital on a motorcycle on the unpitched road of biratnagar, lying in the creamish bedsheet of koshi anchal hospital. giving birth at twenty-five, five stitches around her vagina. using a betadine to sanitize it every night. this little girl who came out of her, constantly looked at her. tightly held in aama’s warm chest, this girl would look at aama when she was hungry, when she was tired, when she was sleepy. and aama figured out a language for that gaze when she was twenty-five.
at twenty-five, i am struggling to find a language so that my own emotions don’t go unspoken. i am finding a language to refuse silence, to find the words to match my experiences. walt whitman asked, is it a bird or a demon, to not be able to live life without writing everything down? i don’t know, but once abbu asked my ten-year-old sister if she wanted me or my brother over for summer and she picked my brother. i was taken aback and i asked her, kaya, don’t you like me being around? she said, i do but all you do is sit in your room and type in your computer. what is this urge to document everything in my writing? i would eat aap ko achaar with my left hand, and write with my right hand; this is so good. before laughing at my hajurama’s giraffe-patterned sweater, i would write how funny that is. when kaya told me she fought with her best friend in fourth grade, i wrote that down too, and she asked me, are you listening? but isn’t writing listening?
this morning i woke up, brewed my coffee, and looked outside the window. it looked a little damp when i rolled up the curtains. maybe it rained last night, i thought. i warmed an english muffin, spread some butter, and thought about how i should start my day. read a poem, a nonfiction piece, a short story? i wake up and feed myself words while aama at twenty-five was feeding her newly born daughter and her husband’s family.
when i think about aama meeting abbu, i always think about the scene from the namesake when tabu slips her feet inside imran khan’s shoes, when he came to see her for an arranged marriage. i don’t think aama slipped her feet like that, but i still think about her in her kajaled eyes and the mole above her lips. i ask her often, aama, what did you talk to abbu about during that half an hour? she tells me only that she said she was yet to get her masters and that she would work. and those were the conditions, not a permission that abbu gave. and i still roll my eyes and say, i would never move across countries for a guy. never.
moving across countries, at twenty-five aama had just given love a chance and i no longer want to love. lying in my bed crying, i have questioned aama with bitterness. i have told her over and over that my love life is cursed because of where the venus was when i was born. why couldn’t you hold me in for a little longer? i have asked her and she has replied, all the planets were where they were supposed to be when you were born. the other times i rant about my heartbreaks, aama makes her comeback by saying, how are you always heartbroken, and i struggle to hold a small burst of laughter. after letting it out, i promise myself that the rest of my twenties won’t have any heartbreaks. i will not write letters to my lovers and send them across the oceans, i will not write any sticky notes and paste them at their desks, i will not buy gummy bear lip masks and leave them outside their door.
while i see my friends’ mothers, aunts, and neighbors getting worried about their daughters’ weddings, aama has never questioned me. since i was sixteen i have said i won’t get married and aama never said but, if, when. none of those. i like my solitude and she knows that. i like finding my earrings next to the sink, on the bed, under a vase, wherever i leave them and forget.
when i was small, i would sneak into aama’s classes, she would teach biology wearing an olive-green saree. a class full of students. i would always wonder what she was talking about, writing on the blackboard. one day i also became a student in her class and she taught me how a heart beats. my mother gave me my heart and also taught me how it works. she taught me why we take our hands away when it burns. she taught me how the dominant chromosome passes down characteristics across generations. and still, i have always had problems with aama’s work ethic. why is it always about your students? i would ask her. on saturdays too, she would say there is an early morning class or a school picnic or a meeting and leave the house.
and because all my life, i have seen such a strong work ethic from my mother, nine to five every day, i do not know what my work ethic is supposed to look like as a writer. while growing up, i did not see any artists around me. nobody sat in their room and played guitar the whole day. nobody talked about poetry in my house. nobody practiced dialogues and got into character. nobody bought paintings to decorate our walls. art didn’t exist in the household i grew up in. nobody knew what being an artist meant. now when i am sitting at a table, lighting a candle watching the moon, i ask myself, am i working or am i just watching a poem begin? and is it okay to watch a poem begin for days and not write, because there’s a pleasure in watching. can pleasure fall under work ethic? and how do i show my mother how many hours a day i work?
while there are things i do which i cannot measure, both aama and i decided to get our master’s in our twenty-fifth year of life. she went to the labs and collected slides in a green box for her biology classes, and i am taking my poems to the workshops. a few months ago, i had asked her, aama is it okay that from now on, your life will just not be yours anymore? that eight random people in my workshop will know how you sketched dresses for me in the four-lined notebooks meant for cursive and asked the tailor didi to sew. how you asked her to make puffed sleeves and i complained, aama, this is too baggy, too long, too flowery.
is it okay, aama, that from now on, your life will also be for my readers, that the people who have no idea about your existence will tell me, can you add one more couplet about the kind of fabrics your mother picked? from now on, you will exist in this dimension for my readers, and you will have no idea how intimately they will know you.
at twenty-five, it is impossible for me to imagine a little girl inside me, or outside me, and i often tell this to aama. i don’t know if she had a choice to come to america and do her master’s if she would still choose motherhood. but when aama became aama for the first time, she did not think twenty-five years later, her daughter would give birth to poems.
MANSI DAHAL is a writer from Biratnagar, Nepal, earning her MFA at Columbia University, where she was awarded the Waletzky Fellowship award from the School of the Arts as a distinction in the writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, New England Review, Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, Tupelo Press, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Her poem "doll house" was a finalist for Palette Poetry’s 2022 Sappho Prize. She graduated from Kalamazoo College with a BA in English and a concentration in Media and Film Studies. She is the editor-in-chief of Some Kind Of Opening (SKOO) and lives in New York.