Tale of the Water Dragons

Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!
Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!
        - From The Tale of Bakunawa, a retold Hiligaynon (Philippines) folktale

(c) Jennie Williams, Creative Commons License

2012 is the lunar year of the Water Dragon according to many Asian cultures. The Dragon is the only mythical creature in the Eastern astrological wheel and is known for representing the unexpected and the mysterious. The element of water makes the creature doubly so, evoking images of persistent change both as flood and nurturing rainwater. 

Recently, at a Mongolian New Year event, I retold a Hiligaynon folktale about Bakunawa, the sea dragon who ate six of the seven freshly made moons placed in the sky by Bathala, the creator. He would have eaten the seventh moon, plunging the world into total darkness if the People had not raised their voices, gongs, and drums to drive the dragon back into the sea.

In writing my story about premature motherhood and postpartum depression, there were many dragons that came to the surface wanting to eat the freshly made words. The Dragon of Propriety and Filial Loyalty. The Dragon of Shame and Discouragement. The Dragon of Pity. The Dragon of Anger and Denial. Up they flew into the sky of my remembering, snapping their jaws at memory, trying to scare me into forgetting the hardships and the triumphs. 

Those dragons were shadows of other dragons, the ones who dove in and out of my consciousness as I struggled to make sense of the terrible isolation I felt as a mother of a premature child living in a big city far from family and friends. The dragons that stole from me the sweetness and light that should have been my child's first year with me. The Dragon of Inadequacy. The Dragon of Uncertainty. The Dragon of Frustration, Despondency, and Crippling Fatigue. Writing my story means drawing the shape of each dragon in great detail, means facing each experience with a mixture of reportage and compassion.

Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!
Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!

I'd like to say I was brave and raised my voice and drum to drive them all back, but truthfully, the dragons eclipsed the work, silenced my voice, swallowed me whole until, in the belly of the dragon, I decided the story should be told. Why? Because I'm a storyteller and I was tired of living in the belly of a dragon who ate moons like they were marshmallows. I wanted the light of my own memory and to finally retrieve what was thought lost. So, like in the tale, I found others to help me - big voices, small drums, clanging gongs. People willing to hear me out then encourage me to write it all down, even when it was easier to believe that I was the dragon and not the moon. 

People often wonder why we tell stories of horror about demons and dark times, rather than light-filled encouraging ones. Some believe that talking about demons will conjure them up. Others discourage negative self-talk and put-downs, telling the depressed that their expression is invalid.  In retelling folktales of all kinds - funny and dark- I've learned if we can see the dragon, we have the potential to see the moon within. Naming the demon begins the process of retelling the tale, finding the context, and make meaning from the trauma.

Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!
Bakunawa, don't eat the moon!

... and if Bakunawa does eat the moon, your moon, lift your voice! Shout your story! Send Bakunawa back into the sea of transformation where he belongs.


Necessary Magics

"For me, the art of language, the heft and pull of literature, the act of attempting to craft something elegant and large are intrinsically tied to a conviction in something transcendent. When I stopped believing that this kind of beauty could exist, I could no longer work on my novel." - Lisa Jennifer Selzman 
I often feel guilty about the Hawaii Project: guilt for having taken so long to write it, guilt for taking the time away from my family to write it, guilt for even entertaining the notion that writing about postpartum depression is 'appropriate' material. These guilts come in little phrases like "It's been 14 years, how could you think it's timely?" and "You've got kids and a job. You should be taking care of them and not writing." Not to mention "Don't air your dirty laundry in public."   
Lisa Jennifer Selzman's column in the November/December 2011 issue of Poets and Writers,
Why We Write - A Necessary Magic, reflected what I feel every time I step up to the keyboard - writing while mothering a child in a hospital is nearly impossible; finding the strength to write when your child is home again takes recovery, not just from the trauma but from essentially a loss of faith. 
"Words, always until then my solace, were feeble. They meant nothing to me. They might as well have been black checkers on the page, or pennies, or cough drops." 
What does a writer do when that magic is gone for all the right reasons? Feelings of loss are doubled - your child is in danger: she no longer lives the happy, healthy life you hoped for. Your child is in danger: there is no time to do anything but exactly what needs to be done to keep her alive. Losing your writing seems a small price to pay for the chance your child will survive. 
"It wasn't so much that I didn't have time to write, although that was certainly an issue. It's true that I was drained, functioning for months without deep sleep...Plain and simple, I stopped writing because I didn't see the point." 
But the sacrifice takes a toll. The artist unable to express their experiences is like a person who has lost connection to their senses. Blindness. Numbness. Loss of hearing the music of words so long familiar before your child has become ill. 
"With her sick, I moved encased in a scrim that muddied colors, turned food chalky, shortened sound...The most dramatic adjectives -- words like desolation, agony, and torment, straight out of a fourteenth-century epic--suddenly become relevant and authentic."
Sometimes, no, often I struggle to dampen those impulses to write with words with Epic Proportions. Tell it simple, I'm directed, tell it straight. Let the moment speak for itself. But sometimes the abstraction pops up because the memory of all those details are just too hard to bear remembering again. The scent of disinfectant that cramps your stomach in fear. The sight of an examination light you shy away from, remembering a time when you could not look away. The certain smoothness of surfaces that remind you of hospital equipment. Cracking those abstractions open requires a trust that reopening those memories is worth the pain. 
"I hovered two inches above collapse, getting everything done...this is the world without art. This is the real world." 
Before Hawaii, I was a fiction writer too, and I hope to write fiction again once this memoir is completed. The Hawaii Project though is a story I am compelled to write and is the sole reason why I've thrown myself into learning how to write memoir these past few years. I want to tell the story right, to have both the art and the reality sit right next to each other just like they sit next to each other in my heart. 
"I wish I could say I had an epiphany, a moment of intensified certainty, but the way back to writing was subtle...I have to breathe. I have to write." 
Being a writing mother isn't easy, but it's who I am. So, it took me a while to get here, but that's because I was being the mom. Now I'm easing into being the writer who is also a mom. And having the faith to tell the tale.


The Hawaii Project

For a little over a year, I've been writing something I'm calling the Hawaii Project. I've actually been drafting this book for over a decade, producing a decent essay that's garnered some recognition. I've felt all along, though, that the story is a much longer one, taking on the breadth and depth I hope will make a good long memoir.

I've chugged along some 80 pages now, with another 20-30 pages in the wings waiting for development. My sense is that I've close to 1/3 of the book 'done' and that soon I'll transition from writing the first third to the second third. Like all my writing projects, the Hawaii Project has taught me more about myself, what I've fear and hope for, what I've dreamed and failed at.

It's a story that has endured like few in my life stories have, at times haunting me like a nearly forgotten song, at other times, a piercing memory. But always, always tinged with a feeling of great regret.

I lived for a year in Honolulu and it nearly destroyed me. That I survived is a testament to one man's love and my stubborn belief that to be a writer, I had to write. Writing, or even speaking, in such epic terms often solicits disbelief, questions that probe. Countless friends and family are amazed I dare to speak of Paradise in such dire terms. And sometimes their narrative of white sand beaches, palm trees, and sweet cocktails nearly overwhelms my narrative of sleepless nights with a colicky baby, persistent self-doubt about parenting skills, and bodily pains not covered in maternity books. And I feel guilty for suggesting that Hawaii could be anything else but Paradise, for clouding their dreams yet unfulfilled. Sometimes it's easier to be silent rather than risk feeling all those conflicting feelings again and again.

But writing memoir is about telling the truth and making art from experience even when that truth doesn't seem logical or when the art is shaded dark and forbidding.

I'm often asked what my book is about.

It's about moving from Moscow, Idaho to Honolulu, Hawaii. It's about my first child being born 8 weeks premature 8 days after we moved. It's about trying to hold all the shock and grief at bay, and doing all the things a new mom does to keep a baby alive, well-fed, and growing. It's about the slow madness of postpartum depression and the power of self-expression to heal. It's about leaving everything that kept me grounded, and thereby stagnant, and plunging into Pele's fire.

No wonder I came back singed.


An Encounter with Arjia Rinpoche

About a week ago, I had the chance to meet Arjia Rinpoche at a reception in his honor. He's currently touring the country, promoting his book Surviving the Dragon and raising money for a medical facility project in Mongolia. I'd heard about his visit from friends in the local Mongolian community - we've worked on the same arts events in the past few months and I performed at the Tsagaan Sar New Year's festival this year. I missed his talk because the time conflicted with a workshop I was teaching that same day, but I was invited to join he and the others at lunch.

Although I've read books by Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama, Ticht Nhat Nanh, and Pema Chodron, I had never had the chance met a Buddhist monk before, let alone a reincarnated person. Friends who had met the Dalai all mentioned his sense of humor and child-like approach to life. Arjia Rinpoche was the same - he radiated a sense of wonder and seemed genuinely surprised to hear that not only could I cook (my recipe for biko was used to make dessert, I found out) but I was a storyteller. He asked me questions about how I found the stories and how I performed them. It was strange because I knew he had been talking to my friend Doug Banner, my mentor in storytelling, just a few minutes prior. But Rinpoche's questions made me feel like I was the first person he had ever heard do such a thing. I don't think it was because he forgot or was trying to amuse me, but that he was trying to understand what I felt when I was Telling. He wanted to understand my experience.

This was in keeping with what I had heard from others. They said he spoke about how as humans, we are to practice Compassion and Wisdom. The barriers to the Journey are Ignorance, Attachment, and Hate. Our conversation showed me that he was genuinely interested in taking the opportunity to be compassionate and to gain wisdom from our encounter. I didn't expect that, I didn't expect that there would be anything I could offer that would be of interest to him.

I went to see him because wanted to ask to him about The Golden Tara of Agusan a golden statue from the Buddhist period of Philippine history. I had heard that before the US, before the Spanish and the Muslim, Buddhism influenced the governing and philosophy of the people. The Source material for this claim is scant, and based on archeological finds and the work of William Henry Scott, but still, the possibility of Buddhism in the Philippines intrigued me. I was unable to attend the talk given by Lama Choyin Rangdrol last Fall, and had little luck finding any other sources of information on the statue or the practices associated with the Golden Tara.

In conversations with Lama Rangdrol, I discovered that "Golden Tara" is something of a misnomer, since researchers aren't sure the image is of the goddess known as Tara among mainland Asia Buddhists. Lama Rangdrol was adamant that the goddess depicted should only be understood in relationship to the Philippine people, their viewpoint and understanding of compassion and wisdom. So who is She in the statue?

I wondered what Arjia Rinpoche might know of "Golden Tara." He didn't claim familiarity with the statue, but speculated that Buddhism in the Philippines came from the Pali branch - Zen and Tibetan Buddhism being the other two branches. All three trace their roots to original Sanskrit texts, but each translated the texts into the dominant languages later. It would make sense, he said, that Buddhism spread from Central Asia, through South Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, etc) then across the sea to the Philippines. Tara, though is distinctly Tibetan, he said, so he couldn't speculate on who the image was. He asked if perhaps it was instead Kwan Yin, but I mentioned that her mudras (hand positions) were not classic to Kwan Yin. In fact, her mudras were none I had come across.

He didn't seem disturbed by my questions, just curious and engaging as we puzzled it out together. I wish I had brought a picture of the icon to show to him, but just having the conversation has helped me feel more secure in the possibility of a branch of Buddhism in Pre-Muslim Philippines.

Why is this so important to me? I guess I need to see the concepts of Kapwa, the Self in the Other, in not just the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. That the concepts of Compassion and Wisdom were part of the island culture before colonization. That trade with the mainland also meant trade of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies. I shared with Rinpoche my limited understanding of Kapwa and again, he approached the topic with an open heart, linking my words with his own experience and beliefs. I think we both wished we could speak further on these things, but he had to leave after lunch to continue his travels.

I'm in contact with a couple of researchers of the Golden Tara and I'm hopeful to learn more of the statue's origins and the practices associated with the goddess.


Struck Blind

Once, on the Big Island, Pele struck me blind. She didn't want me to look at her, nor to write about her. I could here her say, "So you call yourself Woman Warrior, do you? Take that." I feel fear even now as I write her name. And I could hear the Hawaiians: "You have taken our land. Don't take our stories." Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer, xii

The book is slim with a green cover and a photo of an entry way strewn with hats and ti leaf leis. It's closer to a chapbook of essays than a full-length book. Kingston writes about living in Hawaii during the height of the Vietnam War, her struggles with writing, with belonging.

I would publish these humble pieces in New York, and bypass Hawai'i. I mean to honor kapu, not touch kapu things at all. But though I did try to leave her out, Hawai'i--people sing her and speak of her as Spirit--made her way into these essays...Now a dozen years after leaving her, I realize a way free to tell a story of Hawai'i.

I tried to write about Hawai'i too, over the course of a dozen years, a couple of decades after Kingston. I managed one good essay and a handfull of false starts. You'd think I'd give up on writing about Hawai'i. If Pele had struck me blind too, wouldn't it be better to just accept the darkness rather than struggle for the light?

I don't think she struck me blind when I lived there. No, but Pele perhaps shoved me off the island. Pushed me right back to the Northwest where the volcanoes are more patient, more familiar with my feet. Kulshan, Shuksan, Wyeast, Klickitat, all of them did not seem to mind my wandering, my questions. Perhaps it's because Loowitlatkla is known for her patience and kindness... at least in legend. She did blow her top, after all, in 1980.

No one means to anger an Old One, especially a Firey One, and perhaps that's why she shoved me off and didn't blind me. No matter. What's done is done. If I get a chance to try again, I'll send a message first or ask the Old Ones here to speak to her and let me come in peace.

But back to Kingston... It took her a dozen years to write about Hawai'i and it's been about that long for me too. I'd say, it was only in the last couple of years I could speak about Hawai'i without feeling a terrible weight on my heart, a shudder on my spine, and brief but persistent panic in my throat. But I realized, I was still talking about Hawai'i, still wanted to write about Hawai'i. That persistence of story is why I don't think I was struck blind, so much as body-checked.

Like most of the Hawai'i story, I meant it to be different. Meant to have a different life there, but how can we be different than who we are? I think the thought ran that I'm genetically tied to islands - the Philippines first, Fukien Island on one branch of my tree. I'm mistaken for Hawaiian almost as often as I'm mistaken for Salish or Nez Perce. I should have been able to handle the heat, the sun, the ocean all around. I was moving to paradise, the place people vacation to get away from it all, go someplace completely different from where they live. It all made sense that I could and would survive and thrive there.

What happened?

The Light was too strong and too predictable. In summer, the sun went down before 7pm when I felt it should be up until 9pm. In the winter, the sun was up as late as 6pm when I needed it to be dark by 4pm. The quality of light was yellow not green-blue. The foliage was yellow-green, not blue-green. Plumeria on one side of the street bloomed while on the other side it was shedding leaves. Worst of all, I sunburned right through my brown skin, like the magnolia trees they nickname "tourist trees" in Hawai'i because they peel in the sun.

The ocean was no help. I got vertigo every time I went to the shoreline. I needed to see an island or peninsula, anything to tell me that there was something other than the vast ocean to swallow me up. I was looking for the edge of the lake, the edge of a pool, the rim of a bathtub. Anything I could latch onto if I fell. The waves pulled on my ankles but did not cool me off. The hot sun burned my feet worse than the sands thrown into dunes by the Snake River.

And the mountains. The mountains were young and scraggled and sharp. Clouds raked across their knuckles and I imagined their fingers grasping the seafloor to keep from floating away. We were warned not to venture too far into the jungle. It was too wild there, too many creatures whose language we did not know, who did not mind eating us bit by bit, or tricking us into falling down a cliff. This was not about mischievous menehuenes. This was about Hawai'i, wild and predatory.

I thought I could learn the language of the islands easily, because of my heritage, because I knew the land would have a language at all. I could sit a the top of Moscow Mountain or Steptoe Butte and hear the wind across the Palouse bringing stories down from Canada. The waves of the rivers licked my bare toes, the melted glacial water chilling me on hot summer days. The salt and pepper beaches were old and patient, happy to be noticed, willing to tell me the short stories woven in sea grass and bullhead seaweed. These familiar things made me arrogant when I stepped on Hawaiian shores. I knew enough to know I did not know pidgin, but didn't know enough to realize that Pele's language would be so indecipherable as to render me deaf and numb.

How long does it take to recover from the touch of an Old One? Apparently 12 years. From then to now I've been haunted by the story by day, nightmares of half-remembered things by night.

But here is this - I know Pele loves my child for being born there. I know she calls to her still. She may hold a grudge or at least a judgement against me, but perhaps my child will lead me back, open my ears and eyes and skin gently, teach me the language of her blood. That gives me a bit of hope, enough, I think, to finally write about it all.


By Any Other Name

Black Friday. The day retailers go from operating "in the red" to operating "in the black," a day when they can breathe easy knowing that they can show a profit at the end of the year. I remember as a kid going with my parents to downtown Seattle, not to shop, but to see the window decorations. Animatronic scenes of the perfect Christmas moment - children playing with new toys, mother's decorating a Christmas tree, friends taking a ride in a sleigh - usually Victorian in style with window dressings in gold and red to match.

I remember one year we went to the top of Fredricks and Nelson and rode a small train through a wintery scene, very much like the rides at Disneyland only smaller, more compact. Fluffs of fake snow fell gently from the ceiling while large snowflakes covered in sliver glitter floated on wires. I don't remember if the ride cost anything, but I do remember that the ride seemed to last forever, a transport from the grey rainy day outside to a kind of winter I wouldn't experience until I was living on the Palouse where winter temperatures were typically in the 'teens and the snow stayed from Thanksgiving to well after New Years.

I do remember being bustled about through the crowds. The press of a mink coat on one side of me, my mother's hand firmly wrapped around mine as we made our way to the escalators. I remember instrumental symphony renditions of Christmas songs like Sleigh Ride and Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and the Halleluia chorus floating over the murmurs of shoppers voices. I remember bright packages with gold and silver bows stacked on top of tables. I don't think they had anything inside them, but I know I wanted to see what might be wrapped up. Something big, I imagined, something wonderful, but I was never very specific about what a surprise might be.

I was always a bit non-specific about my gift requests - books were a safe choice, Legos were a favorite when I was in grade school, but usually if someone asked what I wanted for Christmas, I wouldn't really know. I always wanted it to be a surprise, I think, to have my face light up like on the commercials when the kid opened the box - didn't rip the paper off the box at all, just lifted the top and kept the wrapping and bow intact - and looked as if she just received the most wonderful gift of all. For me, it wasn't the thing inside that was important, it was the surprise, the wonderment that someone had gotten something just for me, put thought into it and it was a perfect thing.

Totally unrealistic, but then again, I wasn't the most grounded of kids - not really grounded now, I suspect. I was in for the experience, not the object, and I think I'm that way still. I once gave an improv storytelling performance as part of a contest to be included in an exclusive group in writing workshop. I wasn't particularly interested in getting into the group, other than that wanting to belong to something special. What caught my interest in the contest though was the challenge of making up an origin story based on a few lines of text. It was great fun and I had a blast. Folks laughed and followed along, and many thought I should have won the contest. I didn't get into the special group, but I did win a small trophy and gift certificate for a book. The thing was, the best part of it all was the experience of getting up there and trying something completely new. The prize I got was a bonus.

This post has gotten away from me - I meant it to be about how today is Black Friday for those of us who shop and how even though I dread crowds now, I did manage to get out and buy some new pants I needed for work (at a terrific price too). I meant this post to be about how the day after Thanksgiving means different things to different people, like the President who has declared today Native American Heritage Day, or those who see our society as addicted to materialism, urging us to Not Shop on this day. For others it's the start of the Christmas season, and on Sunday we begin the Advent Season, the preparatory time for many Christians who look forward to the second coming of Christ by remembering His first coming.

Then again, all those things are about perspective and experience. Today people all over the country focused on having a certain experience today - some went shopping, some hoped to make a profit after a particularly difficult retail year, some expressed their desire to honor the accomplishments and achievements of Native Americans, others focused on gathering family stories and avoiding retails off and online. Each made choices based on their perspective of what this day means and if each of us was conscious of moving through our lives in a particular way, that's a pretty cool thing. Life can be like that present the kid opens on Christmas day, something that's all wrapped up with a bow and given freely. It's our choice to bring an openness to each experience, to accept the joy the moment brings, the unique experience of the moment.

I still wish that I could go downtown to see the animatronic window displays, but at least I have the memory of the scents and sounds of those grey post-Thanksgiving days when stepping into another world was as easy as stepping onto a moving escalator in the heart of Seattle.


Line in the Sand

When is a story your story to tell? When do you know that a story you've been given is one you can share?

I'm wondering this tonight because I have a story about one of my relatives, one I've heard before, but finally took the time today to ask the right questions, to find out the little details that make a story more complete. What year? What hospital in Spokane? How long did she stay? Did she take a train to Montana? Why did she go back?

I wanted to write it out here on my blog, but I haven't asked her if it's okay to write her story publicly. It's not a story she would write herself. I've asked her to, asked her to write all about her life, because it's a piece of history her family would like to know. She's tried, she says, would like to write it all down finally, but I know she doesn't actually write it out. I even gave her a journal about a decade ago to help her along but she would rather read about interesting things like the way scientists think the universe works. I can't fault her that, I guess, since it's hard for me to write about my life and it's what I'm learning to do right now.

Her story is one I think needs to be written, reflected on somehow. I could write it, I suppose, from the perspective of how her story impacted my life, but still, is that enough 'distance' to give me the right to tell her tale?

When someone's story intersects our own, when does the writing of it cross that line? And what's that line for? Morality's sake? Respect? Other writers have crossed that line, I think, writing about their families in unflattering ways, not caring what the individuals thought. "If you don't like what I wrote," they say. "Then write your own version." This sounds a bit bullying to me, but what is a writer to do? We don't grow up in a void or write in a perfectly objective way. We have to, at some point, involve someone else in our stories because memoir is as much about relationships as it is about meaning. Maybe memoir is really a bit of both, the making of meaning from the relationships we have. There's experience too, writing about experiences we've had, but these can be dry accounts if they lack the context of a relationship.

The part of my project I'm working on requires that I see myself and my husband as characters living a life where they don't know how things will turn out. I do. I know how things turn out in the end, maybe not what it all meant, but at least how it all ended up happening. I'm building a scene to show our relationship to each other and our lives, hopefully giving perspective on the choices we made. Working that scene on paper feels different that telling my relative's story. For one thing I was there and can speak to what, at least from my perspective, was happening at the time. I wasn't alive when my relative made her decisions, can only speculate on what she overcame within herself to make those decisions which really were quite uncharacteristic of her. She was a different sort of person during that time than when I knew her, more willing to take risk, more willing to just see what happened if she took advantage of an offer.

She speaks of that time with great fondness, proud of her accomplishments and a little amazed at herself for having the audacity to do the things she did far from home. She possessed a quiet sense of adventure I rarely saw when I was getting to know her, but there were glimpses here and there if I really thought about it.

That might be one way to get to that story, writing about how I approach adventure, what I was taught about thinking outside the box, and how that's reflected in her story.

Might be a cool thing to do.

I'm not sure that I've necessarily figured out what 'the line' is that I keep trying not to cross when I'm writing a personal story, but I see a bit better how I can take someone's story that intesects mine use it as part of a larger story that focuses on the relationship I have with them.