Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How I made my peace with water

This post was sparked by the first annual writing contest hosted by in September 2015. The chosen theme was "Women and Water."

 Lusty villains are chasing a nubile woman. She steps gingerly into a basin of water, wrings herself out like a washcloth and dissolves. Her body reconstitutes itself elsewhere as she steps out of another container of water. No more bad guys in sight.

This is a scene from a movie I remember watching as a child. Another striking image, this time from a TV commercial: A woman lies spread-eagled on a life-size lotus afloat on a pond. Her expression is languid, making her seem unreachable.

Something about both scenes awoke the first stirrings of sensuality in me. Water symbolized escape—whether from danger, my straight-laced Catholic upbringing, or the tedium of reality, I wasn’t sure at the time.

When I was 14, my Dad retired from the Philippine Air Force, which meant we couldn’t live on base anymore. Our family moved from the city to a remote subdivision converted from rice fields. The nearest neighbor was a brisk walk over the hill. At sunset, the lizards on the walls joined the crickets in evening song. At night if you got out of your mosquito net to get a drink of water, the flying cockroaches dive-bombed you. It became a choice between enduring thirst or braving the wilds.

We had electricity but no phone lines or running water yet. We had a pump well in the back yard powered entirely by elbow grease. The water gushed out brown and greasy-smelling with every push on the roughhewn beam that served as the handle. Dad put a sock over the opening. That was our filter. One day a lady came looking for my parents, who weren’t home. She asked for a glass of water. I gave her one from the pitcher in the fridge. She knew, just by looking at it, that it wasn’t from the tap. When she didn’t take a drink, I glimpsed our new lifestyle as it must look to outsiders. Miraculously, no one in the family got sick when we moved to the sticks, apart from the first summer when I broke out in hives.

Our small house had a galvanized iron roof. When it rained, which was six months of the year in the tropics, the rain made pleasing pelting noises on the roof. It could either make you sleepy or help you focus. In high school I studied for a test with the sound of rain on the roof. I aced the exam. In the middle of Typhoon Didang Signal #4, I cowered under a blanket in bed, waiting for the roof to rip off and the fierce rain to pelt us in the dark. The roof stayed put, but by the next morning the trees stood nude.

As a grown woman, the thought of water inexplicably disturbs me. Not the kind in a bottle or out of the tap. The untamed force that tosses ships and hides alien-looking sea creatures. The torrential rains that release from grim clouds.  The malevolent waves that hurl across the ocean and rear up on shore to collapse and crush cars, buildings and the economies of small countries.

In California’s agricultural Central Valley where I live now, concrete irrigation canals snake through farmland, pasture, dairies and orchards to funnel water from mountain reservoirs to thirsty lowland. Some roads cross over these canals. I am always queasy driving over these short bridges. I have never learned to tread water, and I am short enough that my head would be under water if I tried to stand in a canal. That’s assuming one can stand. I suspect there is a current beneath that benign surface strong enough to pull your bloated body along for miles.

I go through a disaster checklist in case my car swerves and plunges into the canal. Unbuckle seatbelt. Hit the button to lower the window, or break it with the small hammer designed specifically for such a purpose. Take a big gulp of air and pray I get my head above water before it runs out. I have gotten much better at holding my breath and extending my exhales from three years of yoga.

While all of California withered to a crisp in the drought, and while forest fires brutalized hundreds of homes this summer, I nursed my distrust of water with shame.

The fear stalks me. One night on a cruise to the Caribbean, I could not bring myself to lean against the deck railing. The moon reflected off the inky waves. It might have been romantic if I weren’t bordering on bonkers. I kept squashing thoughts of climbing recklessly over the railing and flinging myself into the depths. Why would I even be thinking that? Who runs toward the beast?

The human body is about 60% water. Mine wants to retain all my water as though I had a personal scarcity. Sweating is a natural detox, but this midlife body disdains it. On the dance floor, while everyone around me secretes from palms, underarms, foreheads and backs, I remain uncomfortably hot and dry. If I tried hot yoga or sat in a sauna I would likely suffer heatstroke.

In times of trouble, my dreams are variations on water themes:  In one, I am trying desperately to drive a bus home over steep terrain. Just when I think I’m almost there, a flood renders the road impassable. Any dream dictionary will tell you that water stands for strong emotions. In my waking hours, I keep a tight grip on mine.

In the second theme, I feel the urge to pee, but the bathroom always has some faceless guy standing there. Or the windows don’t have blinds and there is absolutely no privacy. So I have to hold my water.

Recently, though, my relationship with water may have shifted. I teach midlife women a fusion called Ballroom Yoga. We undulate to the beat and the breath, shedding inhibitions and self-loathing, flooding with gratitude for the gift our bodies truly are. My husband says we move like water.

Water awakened me to my sensual nature when I was a girl, and as a woman I have come full circle to my sensuality and spirituality.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Forgiving vs forgetting "with generosity"

"Let us forget, with generosity, those who cannot love us." Pablo Neruda

One of the comments under this quote on author Elizabeth Gilbert's page was, "Never in my life has such an elegant 'fu** you' been written."
How do we forget "with generosity"?
We allow that those who did not love us—because they simply could not, those poor heart-challenged beings—we accept that they continue to exist, and thrive even, as we walk away and leave that arena of our loss for them to rule. We create our own corner of the universe, where they are not the center, but they are not barred at the doors, either. We face forward. We don't keep walking past that same sad arena, peeking in, keeping track and comparing, reliving every slight and injustice and pondering why, oh why, they did not see how deserving of love we really are.
This is why forgetting with generosity is healthier for us than just forgiving but never forgetting.
(notes to self in this month of love)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Is doubt even a writer's worst enemy?

This post was sparked by Positive Writer's Writers Crushing Doubt contest, which deadlines on June 1, 2016.

One of the first jobs I applied for straight out of college at 19 was an opening for a speechwriter for the chair of a multinational advertising agency in the Philippines. To be considered, I had to draft a speech on women's suffrage. So I did. There were just two problems:

1) I had never written a professional speech in my life.
2) I had never cared for politics and must've been either absent or daydreaming when they discussed in history class the period leading up to women winning the right to vote.

Make that three problems. Google had not yet been invented, and as I didn't know where the nearest library might be in my parents' rural rice-paddy-converted community where I had moved back post-graduation, I clearly did not have the resources (translated: diligence) to research my speech.

Some time later I received a call to retrieve my writing sample. I asked the receptionist what the executive had said about my speech.

"He said, 'It's unacceptable,' " she said blandly.

Ah so. I took it as a sign that I was not put on this earth to be a speechwriter, and went on my way. Over the next two decades I landed jobs writing for a fertilizer corporation, a children's magazine, and after I immigrated to California to join my Mom two years after graduation, a small-town newspaper, a regional newspaper, and finally, the president of the Turlock campus of California State University and the chancellor of the Merced campus of the University of California.

Yup. Somehow despite my inauspicious beginning, I ended up ghostwriting speeches for campus executives for a good 10 years of my career. And not just their speeches, but memos, articles for publication, letters of commendation, condolence and recommendation, social correspondence, donor solicitation, sound bites for the press, tenure evaluations, blah blah blah. If they wanted something said on paper, I was their voice. Or rather, my voice was at their disposal. 

Two weeks on the job writing for the chancellor, who was an electrical engineer, he asked me to write a speech based solely on the PowerPoint slides he had presented two months before he'd hired me to a gathering of fellow engineers. The trade journal needed to print his speech, but he had delivered it off the cuff and now was pressed for time to meet the deadline. (And it didn't help that English is his second language—but that was job security for me.)

The slides were gibberish to this Literature major. There was a reference to a book in one of them, so I started there. I tracked down an online preview of the first few pages and the table of contents of that book, did a little mind-reading about what pithy points he might've extracted from it, and went from there. Where the slides were just too esoteric, I left blanks in the draft for him to fill in, which he gamely did.

Because that speech was one of a mountainous pile of tasks demanding my attention, there wasn't time to get angsty about it. If there had been, it may never have been written.

A deadline. That, it turns out, has been the antidote to any stirrings of doubt that might have poisoned my productivity as a professional writer. The longer I have to complete and turn in a piece of writing, the worse it is for me. Maybe that's why I habitually procrastinate—hmm, that could be another blog post:
"Is procrastination even a writer's worst enemy?"

I've noticed that a commonality among fledgling writers is the question of identity. "Am I a real writer?" Pishposh. Perpetually pondering this is a monumental waste of time. If you write, you are, and if you doubt that, just ask Jeff Goins at You might currently earn your living doing something other than writing, but identities are formed in layers. We shed or acquire those layers by choice or force of circumstances.

Another tripper-upper for writers: the need to Stage. "Before I can write brilliantly, I must have sharp pencils. Or a decluttered desk. Or a rented space in an office building. With white noise on the headphones. Or a sunlit table and mocha frappuccino at Starbucks. Or the beach. Or a laptop that doesn't freeze." So much bull. For the love of Gouda, get on with it already. Fuck the muse. (The last three sentences was a script I ran through my head each time I sat down to write. As mantras go, it wasn't very uplifting, but it got the job done.)

The most important thing we must have as writers is our own voice. With a voice, we have certainty. If we haven't developed a voice (because we are too timid to write furiously and passionately as though rabid dogs were chasing us), we can't convince ourselves, let alone the reader, that we know what the hell we're writing about.

Which brings me to how my story ends: I lost that job writing for the chancellor. And in ceasing to write for someone else, I found my voice. Yay me.