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Last Words of a Wordsmith

Words, spoken truthfully, carry weight.  Words, set in writing,  go the distance,  geographically and chronologically, with repeated visual visits until they are embedded in deep corners of memory.

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Ah. Words. Carriers of essence– more than sound, more than print. Within their utterance they become a change. Within their syllables they spin history. Within the space between the thought and the speech, they brew a future.

Words carry weight indeed, and oh how heavy some words may be.

“If you leave now, you will break my heart.”

Those were your last words. Or at least, those are the last words I remember from you while you were still ‘you‘. While you were still the strong, sharp, eloquent woman I had known and loved, before the seizure snapped the connection between you and your most precious words.

If I had known those would be your last words, that it would be the last time I would see ‘you‘, I wonder if I would have been able to say something more meaningful.

But at that instance you had been confined in the hospital for the nth time and we had been fighting for days. I must have been turning away, must have looked like I would storm out, because just then for the first time in what seemed like months, you reached out to me like nothing had changed; like your arms were still a safe haven for me. Of course I could only crawl into them and cry, always having been weak against being held.

If I had known I wouldn’t be held by you again, I would have stayed longer.

But all I could think was 1) ‘Thank god no one else is here,’ because I could never quite be completely honest when guests and nurses were around, and 2) that your words were ironic.

Because you were the one leaving me.
And it was breaking my heart.

-oOo-

She always believed so strongly in the power of words– both of us did. The apple not falling far from the tree, I also possessed a way with the written word. But no two wordsmiths are identical, our words colored by different experiences and emotions.

Have you noticed it yet? Do you, dear reader, feel that the words now are of a different shade?

The hand that writes does not belong to Wordsmith Luwee, but to her twenty-two year old daughter. And it is with a deep, vast grief that I inform you my mother’s hand will never write a single word more.

Last December 5 of the year 2016, a day within being brought home from the hospital, my mother’s two-year combat against cancer concluded. It started in her right breast, then flitted to her leg, then her spine, then her brain . Towards the end, a seizure crippled her speech capabilities and as her words, once so precise, turned into garble, the rot in her bones became unbearable. It seems we had arrived at the limit. The cancer had spread everywhere and the alternative of being hooked up to a bunch of blinking machines, with so many tubes and needles that her veins had collapsed–

That wasn’t living. I do not think it was out of my selfishness that I signed the agreement To Not Resuscitate. To ease the pain, we  put her on Morphine.

Later, the nurse told me the life expectancy of a  patient on Morphine is one week.

When she passed away, it was peaceful. She was prayed over by her sister, in the room her mother died in. Walls the color of pale green, although two brave women had passed in that room, it does not house painful memories. Even the cat likes to sleep there on lazy afternoons.

I did not pray. Much of it to do with the fact that I did not really know how. I didn’t know the words to the prayer and after so many ‘I’m fine’s, I had become weary of uttering empty words. So I just held her hand. And I did not cry because there were too many people in the room. I held her hand and I told her, “You were spectacular.”

Her brother arrived less than five minutes after she died and if I could name one concrete regret, it was that I didn’t call him sooner. I couldn’t help but feel that I had deprived them both of something- her of the presence of someone who seemed to have loved her better than me, who could pray for her and ease her soul into Heaven. Him, of the chance to be there with his youngest sister, to whisper comforting words to her one last time.

I am a wordsmith but I am not my mother.

My mother was strong and brave and she spoke so that she may lift up others. She was kind. And generous. And always the first to reach out to me. Her temper was fiery but quick to forgive. I respected her the most. Her words delivered a warmth that nestled in the hearts of people. So many came to her wake to pay thanks and respects, and many cried on my shoulder (Perhaps because ironically, I always smile during funerals and am only on that day generally lacking of the somber aspect which possesses my person on any other day). She was like the sun.

She was and is still the most important person in my life.

I am a wordsmith but I am not my mother.

And yet I know that I am going to live the rest of my life striving for that flame she had, protecting it before  it flickers out. Words–! Her wonderful words, her beautiful words that she loved so much. If my mother was a fire, then I who am cold wish to be the cool steel of the lantern that cradles her sentiments.

Though she is gone, I and all those who had ever been touched by her words will carry her warmth in our hearts like candles in the night.

-oOo-

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“If you leave now, you will break my heart.”

I remember those words clearly but I cannot remember what I had responded.

Some mornings I wake up next to grief in my bed, its arm wrapped softly around my side. I lay awake trying to recall, and I think that perhaps my response had been “I’m sorry.”

On other mornings I slowly turn in my bed to face grief. We smile at each other.

I know now. My response must have been: “I love you. I love you so much.”

And I will always love you.

– Wordsmith Sara

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At the Crossroads, a Clue

Art's_evening_arrival_HKG

It was 2:00 a.m., Abu Dhabi time. The airport was deserted. A man with beautiful blue-black skin and thick curly hair beckoned to her on the other side of the glass as he waved some documents. Annabel hesitated but approached upon noticing the familiar hotel logo on the documents.  She was exhausted from the long flight and she had few options in this foreign land where she didn’t know a single soul.

He introduced himself as the hotel’s HR liaison officer.  With genuine interest, he asked about her flight as he escorted her through immigrations, customs, and luggage claim. The documents were presented repeatedly to the airport officers (every single one, male) as he answered their many questions.  It was a guttural, hostile-sounding language. In time, Annabel would learn to tolerate that sound, but not the open stares.

Sitting behind the HR officer as the car sped through wide desert highways, Annabel realized, with a tinge of fear that she was totally on her own. She calmed her apprehension by heightening her senses and observing the scene, trying to imprint details in her mind.  One day, she thought, this would make an interesting story.

A Gut Decision

When Annabel took the job, friends and colleagues questioned her decision not because it was far away from home but because it was in a place where women, in particular, experienced cultural difficulties.  She went ahead, trusting she won’t encounter such difficulties, and she didn’t. But that’s mainly because she worked and lived in a hotel.

International hotels operate  within a universally accepted environment of neutral space where cultures and industries merge freely.  Seated in the lobby, you easily lose track of which country you’re at, recognizing instead the familiar sameness of accepting differentness.

Business travelers, eager tourists, relaxed retirees and digital nomads inhabit the space with their assorted skin tones, accents, and languages. They’re attended to by trained hotel staff of varied skin tones and accents, speaking at least two languages.  The common denominator: getting things done.

Stark differences in culture are softened by the players’ shared goals in business and diplomacy so interactions are mostly smooth peppered with unavoidable surprises. Used to working in such an environment, Annabel felt no cultural challenges.

Not part of the Plan

Life flowed smoothly with little bumps here and there, but no big jolts.  And then, came a plot twist.  Enter: Luke, an unavoidable part of working life.  The same department, that’s all they had in common. He was an overly self-assured, blued-eyed blond, a combination Annabel associated with shallow beach bums. She kept their interactions to a minimum but the more she avoided him, the more he pursued her company. His vulnerable side began to show, often looking like someone’s neglected dog until colleagues orchestrated a proper connection.  Early on, he asked how she felt about him. “I’m fond of you,” she said. He pressed for an explanation. “Same as liking a lovable dog,” she smiled, but he was not thrilled.  Soon, fondness developed into stronger feelings, which Annabel chose not to analyze, deciding instead to take things day by day.

When New Connections have Past Links

One day at a time, she repeated to herself as she opened the door, and there he stood, dark eyes fringed with unbelievably silky eyelashes.  She’d dreaded the moment when she would face him–an eight-year-old–no longer a baby but far from grown up.  She searched for a hint of openness in those eyes but found none.  The awkward moment passed when he gave her a dutiful kiss on the cheek at Luke’s prodding beside him, done to please his father more than anything else.  Thus, began Annabel’s cultural and relationship difficulties.

She saw very little of Luke during Fredrik’s visit. He spent most of his time with his son and that’s just as it should be, she thought. After all, Fredrik only got to see his father twice a year since his parents’ divorce.  Fredrik was a study in contrast. When he was around Luke, he was the sweetest boy, cuddling up to his father.  The love between father and son was so real, so naked that sometimes she had to turn away because the honesty blinded her and brought a sharp pain to her chest. Away from Luke, Fredrik was distant, even mean. He treated her with disdain.  Annabel overlooked this behavior, trying to see the situation from his point of view. But it took so much effort and she was emotionally drained.

Deadline at Dawn

Unable to sleep at the end of a particularly difficult day, she watched Fredrik in his slumber.  Annabel ran her fingers lightly through his hair–dark brown, not blond like his father’s.  Asleep like that, he could not hurt her.  She knew she could not take his mother’s place nor did she wish to, but she wasn’t even allowed to be his friend. This hurt and angered her. She was angry with Fredrik for being there and taking away Luke’s attention, which she wasn’t used to sharing. She was angry with Luke for springing Fredrik on her, expecting her to take him into her life.  She tried but Fredrik remained unmoved. In his natural eight-year-old world view, only one woman should be sharing their lives–his mother. Most of all she was angry with herself.

In the night’s stillness, the sound of a Christmas carol drifted through the open window.  A rush of yuletide memories hit her.  Suddenly she felt so isolated, so far away from home. Quietly, she began to pack. It was December 23.  If she hurried, she could catch the 6:50 a.m. flight and be home for the holidays.  By the door, she whispered a soft goodbye, gazing at father and son in repose, arms around each other.  Her heart warmed from being witness to their deep connection in spite of the pain she felt for not being part of it.

Outside, the sky was slowly turning light. It was unusually cloudy, with a rare drizzle.  Annabel buttoned up her coat, raised its hood, and turned right at the corner toward the exit gate. Suddenly, soft rays broke through the clouds even as the rain continued. She paused, raised her face, closed her eyes, and finally let the tears flow.

When she opened her eyes, the rain had stopped. A gasp escaped her lips upon seeing a breathlessly perfect rainbow arched against the blue-gray sky.  Glued to the spot, she sat at that crossroad, watching until it faded into the orange reach of the rising sun .  A new serenity enveloped her as she stood up to face the new day.  One day at a time, she thought to herself.  Her wristwatch read 7:04. She had missed her flight.

Art's_Northridge_CA_skies

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What’s Your Center?

image,Pauline Cauton

image,Pauline Cauton

Nicholas St. North (better known as Santa Claus) asked Jack Frost that very question in the Rise of the Guardians, the 2012 animated children’s movie that touched the hearts of even the most jaded adults. In that scene, Nicholas hands Jack a matryoshka doll representing him (Nicholas).  He instructs Jack to open the doll, layer by layer, until the innermost core.  There, Jack uncovers a tiny doll with huge eyes. Those eyes, says Nicholas, represent his center–WONDER.  His much loved role is to gather up delightful toys on Christmas to deliver all over the world; thus, keeping the sense of magical, wide-eyed wonder in children.

What’s your center?

Jack Frost did not know his yet.  Neither did I know mine.  Many months later, I was presented a book which asked the same question in so many different ways. What do you wake up on Monday mornings for? What are you most passionate about? What do others claim you do so well and with little effort? What spurs you to action?  In The Power of Purpose: Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work, bestselling author Richard Leider writes about how purpose gives us a “profound sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.”

Finding answers to the many variations of what is essentially one question required me to take long and frequent pauses which led to many paths, pseudo answers, and more questions. But after a long, long while of contemplation, listening,  phrasing and rephrasing,  I found my life purpose from my center.  It somehow always came down to WORDS–a love of and respect for its creative, healing and manifesting power.

And so to affirm here and now:

What’s my center? A spring of words that come forth, sometimes in bursts, sometimes in trickles, always flowing.

What’s my life purpose?

To WRITE the stories of people

who are living their life purpose

and to inspire many others

toward finding and living theirs.

***

To BE an example of a life re-created

by the conscious use and choice of words

expressing always what’s positive and true

in all I think and say and do.

***

To BRING cheer to another

at every encounter

picking kind words to utter

leaving hearts warm and better.

***

To GROW into the best version of me

spiritually and socially

emotionally and mentally

physically and financially.

Now, what’s YOUR center?

Jack Frost’s realization was poignantly simple.  So yes, get inspiration from that Dreamworks movie and find motivation in Richard Leider’s book.  (And no, I’m not in any way connected to either Dreamworks or Richard Leider.)  The journey to your center may be a winding road or even an obstacle course, but arriving at your destination will be absolutely satisfying.

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Two Degrees from Pope Francis

image: dennis sabangan rappler.com

image: dennis sabangan rappler.com

About a Boy

There’s this boy I’ve been seeing one afternoon a week. It’s not exactly a secret but not many people know about it.  Once a week, I drop what I usually do–organizing schedules, planning stuff, and chauffeuring or stringing words and stories on the computer screen or on the pages of my mind as I rearrange furniture or zigzag through city traffic. One afternoon a week, I leave all that and volunteer my time to help a street child with reading.

His favorite food is fried chicken. He’s a good dancer, loves football, and wants to be a chef someday.  He’s 10 and is just like most children his age … except for the fact that he had lived and fended for himself on the streets for most of his young life.  Recently rescued, he now stays at a center for street children managed by a religious order and sponsored by businesses and individual benefactors. This is where I, lugging reading materials, colored pictures, pens, and a home made alphabet chart, keep my once-a-week “dates” with Karl Oliver Sarhentos (not his real name).

It’s not always smooth sailing. I’ve never done any teaching and Karl Oliver has never gone to school.  He’s not always willing to sit down and read letters whose sounds don’t match the words they form, and I often forget that books are new to him.  Still, we keep at it.  Him, because he needs to catch up. Me, because I made a commitment to help. Mostly, I want to show him that learning to read opens the doors to self-sufficiency and unlimited knowledge. Wistfully, I hope my love for words and reading will rub off on him by osmosis.

On our last session before Christmas break, Karl Oliver told me self-importantly that he may not be able to resume tutoring lessons immediately after the holidays because “I need to welcome the Pope.”  I patted his back and assured him I will check with his assigned social worker before showing up.  I imagined Karl Oliver among the many, many children lining the sidewalk, waving small flags as the popemobile passed through the crowds.

Allergic to Crowds

Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines promised not just crowds but massive throngs in unprecedented numbers.  A part of me wanted to be among the multitudes but the other part knew I would be irritable about being hemmed in by people from all sides and impatient with waiting for hours in the scorching sun or drenching rain.  Both parts of me were sad about passing up the chance of being touched by the presence of this open-and-inclusive pope, of breathing the same air even for just minutes as his motorcade passed.  I mourned for the younger me who would have happily camped with crowds of assorted humanity. No, it was not destined for me to cross paths with Pope Francis; not even by some-kilometers-distance degree.

Excitement mounted with news programs’ airing of the countdown to the pope’s arrival day.  I was watching one such program about the welcome arrangements as the news correspondent introduced the two lucky children chosen to hang the welcome garland on Pope Francis as soon as he steps on Philippine soil. I stared open-mouthed as a familiar face filled the screen. It was Karl Oliver and a girl from the same center.  The news correspondent asked what he had to say to Pope Francis. His eyes lighted up but his words were sparse, spoken with a timid swagger.  “.. ask him to play … football.”  “And where will you play?” she followed up.  “The field,” came the short reply (sounding like obviously it won’t be on the basketball court!) I had to laugh at the logic.

Some 6- to-7 million people reportedly showed up for Pope Francis’ last mass in Manila and millions more watched his 5-day visit on their TV screens.  But only one boy, a former street child who loves football and wants to be a chef one day, got to give Pope Francis the biggest, tightest welcome hug.

As for my crowd-avoiding self, well, I didn’t get anywhere near the pope at any time during his visit.  And yet,  I AM a mere two degrees of (hugging) separation from Pope Francis.  And it’s all because of this boy I’ve been seeing.

 

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Mother Tongue, Native Speaker, and Assorted Assumptions

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One job description stood out on the online job board for writers.  The post was long but promising, and I continued reading until the last lines.

“Write the word ‘pineapple’ at the start of your application so I know you’ve read it through.”

“Only native speakers from North America can apply.”

And then, in all caps.

“IF ‘PINEAPPLE’ DOES NOT APPEAR AT THE START OF YOUR REPLY, IT WILL IMMEDIATELY BE SENT TO TRASH.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT A NATIVE SPEAKER, DON’T WASTE MY TIME!  DON’T BOTHER APPLYING!”

My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily and with a dismissive click, I left the job board. No, I didn’t respond to the post, but not for the more obvious reason.  A good piece of writing speaks for itself, after all, regardless of the writer’s native tongue or country of birth.

Incorrect assumption:  Native speakers from North America are better writers.

Q & A with a Gentleman in a Zegna Suit

The distinguished-looking Caucasian in an expensive suit walked into the international hotel’s business center in Beijing. He was agitated and spoke hurriedly to the Chinese staff at the counter.  I heard her say, “I’m not sure if it’s possible, sir.”  That was my cue to make it possible and meet the hotel’s standard of “Yes, we can.” I introduced myself as business center manager and asked how we could be of assistance.  He needed his two sheets of handwritten notes to be typed based on a specific format.  It was the meeting minutes of a joint-venture discussion, and he wanted it done within the hour.

I looked it over, told him I will attend to it myself, and assured him it would be ready in one hour. I would, however, need him to review a first printout in about 35 minutes.  The relief on his face was instantaneous.  Then, I asked if he wanted the document reproduced exactly the way it was written, or if I could make corrections to grammar and spellings. He was practically beaming when he said, “Yes, please. Add the necessary corrections to grammar and spelling.”

The first draft needed formatting adjustments, which one of the capable Chinese staff offered to complete.  While waiting for the final printout, we had a conversation that went like this.

Guest:     “You speak English well.  You’re not Chinese then?”

Me:           “No, I’m not.”

Guest:      “You are good with written English too. So did you grow up in the U.S?”

Me:           “No. I was born and grew up in Manila, the Philippines.”

Guest:       “Ah. You’re Filipino.  Then your mother tongue must be Tagalog.”

Me:            “I’m fluent in Tagalog but it’s not my mother tongue.  Tagalog is the national language but there are 8 other major dialects in the Philippines plus minor ones, a total of over 80.

Guest:       His eyes turned wide, and then he concluded,  “So your mother tongue is one of the dialects.”

Me:            My mother tongue is Spanish.  It’s the first language I learned from my mother and that’s what we spoke at home while growing up.

Guest:       His lips turned up in a tentative smile but his brows were furrowed, equal parts confusion and amusement showing on his face.

At that moment, the staff came back to hand over his completed document and spared us both– him from other confusing surprises, me from a long explanation of Philippine history.

Incorrect assumptions:

An Asian in China who speaks good English is not Chinese.

A person who is good with written English grew up in the U.S.

A Filipino’s mother tongue must be Tagalog.

A Principal’s Stereotype

We picked up the same book at the same time from a pile of books.  Then we both smiled and insisted the other keep it.  She took it.  It was the annual sale at a bookshop I frequented in the suburb of Manila.  The woman who I almost had a book-grabbing contest with had her arms full but appeared to be bent on getting more books. While thumbing through the other titles, we got into an easy conversation about … well, books.

Then, she asked what I do. I said I’m a writer.  She paused and gave me a pitying look that dripped, poor you, followed by the actual words, “You don’t make much money writing.”  It was a statement.  Ah, the starving writer stereotype. I shrugged my shoulders noncomittally, quite willing to let her think what she wanted.  She was a high school principal in a public school, she proudly told me.  She had the important side job of buying books to add to the school library.

Later, I saw her again at the pay out counter.  She had at least a dozen books. Once more, there was the pitying glance as I paid for my measly 4 books.  I don’t think it would have mattered to her that I had more books than I could read on my ebook reader. In her mind, I fit the stereotype of a starving writer.

Incorrect assumption:  Writers are poorly paid.

The Power to Un-Make Your Day

It’s been one month from starting a new job assignment and I still wasn’t used to the long and winding corridors of the palace-type international hotel in Muscat, Oman. I was on my way to the sales office where I worked when I passed a function room. From inside, I heard the GM’s secretary barking orders at waiters and secretaries as she checked the set up for a meeting of luxury hotel GMs in the gulf region.  She spoke with an acquired British accent interlaced with a natural sing-song from South Asia.

As I passed the open door of the meeting room, I heard her call out, “Hey you! Come here! I stopped, took a long, slow breath and braced for an unpleasant encounter. That brief delay brought her out of the room and she called out again, louder this time. “You there! Did you hear me?” My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily as I turned to her and asked, ”Are you addressing me?”  This, apparently, came out louder than I meant it to because the waiters and secretaries turned to look at us.

The scene froze for a few tense seconds. Then she dismissed me with a wave of her hand and a curt “Never mind,” and walked back into the function room.  I turned to continue on my way but first, I gamely returned the smiles of the waiters and the thumbs-up sign of the secretaries.  This GM’s secretary had a habit of ordering everybody around and giving the other department secretaries—most of whom were Filipinas—an especially difficult time.

Incorrect assumption:  People who are accommodating and friendly, such as Filipinos, are pushovers.

Working with a cross-cultural team is a rewarding experience that comes with challenges.  English is the unifying language, but messages get lost or switched as individuals do their mental translations.  When one person in the team flaunts wrongly perceived superiority to wield power that is anchored on a job title, complications arise needlessly.

It helps to be aware of and distinguish between assertiveness and ill-mannered behavior/arrogance. The reflex involuntary rising of one eyebrow has served me well. It does that when confronted with a testy tone of voice, a nasty turn of phrase, or ALL-CAPS screaming on an online job board.  That’s the signal to steer clear.  Such individuals do not fit the profile of a productive collaborator who regards team members as equals and recognizes good writing, whether or not English is one’s first language.

Back at the book sale, the cashier handed me my change together with a brief Survey Form of customers’ reading habits.  There were only 5 blanks, which I completed while standing.  The last blank asked for mother tongue.  Ah, that again.  I paused for half a second, scribbled “Dothraki,” dropped the form in the box, and walked away, whistling.

It’s funny how an obviously wrong answer can lead to a correct assumption. One of the customers surveyed has read George R.R. Martin’s recent volumes.

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Words as Lyrics bring a Soul Fix

Jason Mraz fee photos

The coliseum is filled to the rafters, 16,000 voices singing along to the performers onstage –  just a duo. No big strings, no booming percussions, no breathtaking sax.   Yet the whole place is vibrating with sound and movement as the audience claps and sways in rhythm to the beat of percussionist Toca Rivera. Next to him, Jason Mraz is shaking the place up with just a rhythm guitar.  That and his unbelievably wide vocal range and brilliant wordplay.  The next  song quiets the audience down but singing-along continues. It’s  the same words everybody’s singing but each one sings of something personal.

Jason Mraz songs are rich in unique rhythm and instrumentation. Into that mix he throws in the smoothest, wittiest wordplay.

But if you listen closely, you’ll discover deep spiritual messages woven into a tapestry of unexpectedly juxtaposed words.

Try to picture the girl through a looking glass … as a carbon atom; see that girl as her own new world.  Try to picture the man to always have an open hand.  He’s not a beast, no not the devil either, always a good deed doer.  Just take it easy and celebrate our malleable reality.  Live high. Live righteously.    (from Live High)

Son, in life you’re gonna go far and if you do it right, you’ll love where you are.  Just know that wherever you go, you can always come home.  Every road is a slippery slope.  There is always a hand that you can hold on to. Looking deeper through the telescope, you can see your home is inside of you.  (from 93 Million Miles)

I will not waste my days making up all kinds of ways to worry ’bout all the things that will not happen to me.  Living my life easy and breezy with peace in my mind, with peace in my heart, with peace in my soul.  Wherever I’m going, I’m already home.” (from Living in the Moment)

Jason Mraz is a gentle word wizard dressed in casual, this-is-just-me coolness. He wanders the planet to get us dancing and to remind us that life’s just fine exactly as it is.

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Your Words are a Wizard’s Wand

image credit Louise Kiner via flckr

image credit Louise Kiner via flckr

 

It’s happened too frequently and consistently for it to be coincidence.  It’s pretty much a universal law.

Where you put attention best,

      That will surely manifest. 

If it’s negative, alas!

     That is what will come to pass.

 

Skeptical, are you? Therein lies the problem.

You want proof, that’s what you say. 

Purely logic, that’s your way.

Well,  believe it first, I say.

Or more accurately yet,

What you SAY  is what you get.

 

From mind and heart, there they grow.

Thoughts you choose, speak, and follow.

Stuck in fear? or free and grand?

Your words are a wizard’s wand.

– oOo –

The image shows a handmade wand by Louise Kiner, a skilled, prolific artisan of many mediums. Click to View her work .