Saturday, March 26, 2011

Window

She moved through the days with the deliberate considerations of someone who cared, though she knew it couldn't be further from the truth.

She unscrew the cap from a milk carton, and pour a second cup into her favorite green mug.  She heats it in the microwave before adding the shot of coffee into it to make a latte. Now that there is no expensive coffee breaks with cherished pals, she sighs happily with these homemade concoctions free of worrisome gossips and back talks.

But the days are long, in solitude.

The sun rises with the same brilliance pouring through the window.  Her morning routine of rushing through the first hours in complete hapless frenzy ends at nine.  Then she sits, waiting for the day to end, moving through pages of books she must read, to seek comfort, to live in a fantasy, to rest in the dreams of others who she will never meet.

Sometimes she sheds a few tears, in trying to reach out for a world that is suddenly moving too fast for her, like touching a cascading water fall in an attempt to catch a particular drop.  She typically fails at it, sighs some more, and sometimes, a few more tears.

It isn't unusual that she will go out and meet people, who sees nothing beneath her bubbly exterior, and greet her with warm hugs and chatty company.  She thaws for them, even for the moments right after their departure, but then the same lone rider always return, wrapping her in his cape of darkness.

Afternoons bring solace to her melancholy.  The sun being ever brighter, the day ever warmer, and the world ever louder.  Through the window the new neighbor from somewhere in Europe, perhaps Russia, perhaps Spain, or somewhere in between, would play the same cheery tunes on his piano accompanied by harmonica.  At first she was irritated by its monotonous melody, but after a few days she fell in love with it and would swing lightly with the music as do the leaves in the afternoon breeze.  Children would run past the narrow walkway just beneath the window, chirping in incomprehensible tones that nonetheless livens up even the slow moving snails and caterpillars.  Grandmas and housewives return from their grocery runs chatting about fluctuating prices and the latest choice vegetables; then there is always that one family who starts the cooking real early, fragrance of the spices culminating in the air, dancing to the tunes of exotic beats, and inspiring even tired nostrils to go for a different dream of culinary delights.

By then, all seems softer, and the slowness and solitude suddenly just right, for day dreams, for wanderings of the mind, for even tears and laughs, or for no reasons at all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Onion Boy

A colleague once asked us to call him the "onion boy", as he designed a system of layers to prevent computer software attacks, as soon as you peel back on paper thin looking obstacle, another awaits.  It stuck -- both the name and the system, to the dismay of its creator, beyond its usefulness.

So maybe layering has something to do with longevity in creations.  Take the movie "Pretty Woman" for example, each layer of stories, characters and interactions in the movie beg you to discover, peel back and find new richness as you view it through the test of times.

I didn't see all the layers at first.  It was more of an language issue for me at the time.  But once I was able to peel back the outer layer story, the one about a fairy tale prince rescuing a princess (or, as the case might be, working girl), I saw the movies charm also belies in Edward's interactions with Jim Morse, an almost father figure to him, as compared to how Edward's memory of his real father had shaped him. These angles overlap with the fairy tale, but adds a new dimension to the story.

photo courtesy of www.starpulse.com
It's a bit like falling in love with the perfect guy (or girl), then discover that you are in love with his or her family too, and the feeling deepens as a result.  Similarly Vivien's friendship with the loud mouthed but golden heart "kid", while adds little to the fairy tale in itself, builds another lovable sister into the genealogy.  Even the negative characters, especially them, on some levels, adds the odious layers required for a complete onion / family attachment. Edward's faceless girlfriends and wives are central in explaining his character and past.  The greedy, shady and ruthless ex-best friend lawyer Phil completes the family portrait by adding the annoying little brother you never wanted but couldn't stop inviting to family gatherings anyway.  Of course he would always bring his wife, the one who inspires thoughts like "you could freeze ice on (her) ass".

Photo courtesy of www.starpulse.com


"No wonder! ... no wonder you came down to the Blvd looking for me."  exclaimed Vivian.

Can you believe her? The audacity?  But at that moment, I did.  

Why all this talk about onions and layers?  I am just getting to it.  In a way this is something new writers perhaps struggle with.  My stories started with exactly one character, me, or more precisely, my thoughts.  Later on, some of them had two characters, and a few lines about the surrounding temperature and some trees nearby.  It feels pale because it is.  When I read writers who had done it for a while, I not only see the main story, I also see the setting, the people around them, and a very realistic world in which the story unfolds.  Want to see an example?  Check here. It is tough to establish a cast of characters with so few words, but if you browse back in a few stories, you'd find she typically manages OK.




We could also look at another movie.  The King's Speech, besides a winner of all sorts of awards, is another example on layering.  It differs slightly from the previous examples, in that the layers are built between the two people central to the story - the teacher and his pupil, the speech therapies and the king and in many ways, two great friends in the best sense.

What is similar though is the layers again, dug back deep into childhood hurts. Lionel Logue, an Australian born speech therapist, manages to cut through many layers of royal rules by calling his patient, then Duke of York, by his family nick name: Bertie.  His insistence on building a personal relationship separate from the treatment itself, work to add not only layers of witty and funny dialogues, but also help uncovered the source of the stammer, and the very personal story of a king.  

But what about the family of characters? In this movie they are as much a literal family as a movie one.  Well, I guess I do not have all the answers.  They are there, the movies stands at least in part, on their interactions with the king.  But I can't see them as standing on their own layers.  They serve as important context for the movie, but they are faint, almost like backdrops.  Maybe that's the nature of the royal family, they each have so much stories on their own,  it could be tough to add too much to them without distracting the main theme, where there are so much to tell already.  I mean, how can you have king Edward or Winston Churchill in there and not have a whole movie just about him?  It's a tough balance, and I think the King's Speech did a fine job in tweaking the lever.

Or maybe I just need to see it a few more times.  Only time could tell, and perhaps the onion boy.

What about you? Do you see layers in these and other movies?  Any thoughts about incorporating more layers into your stories?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Worrier Syndrom

I noticed his ID before anything else: Eternal Worrier. It said much with little, and created an instant echo.

"You are such a worrier..." My boss used to always tell me. I'd stare at the ceiling at 2am running through my to do list over and over until I give up sleeping and start on them. No matter how well I try to hide it, people see traces of it. "You are so sensitive" is just another way of putting it, referring more to my worry over people's feeling getting hurt over tiny mistakes or overstated words.  Though sometimes the worrying would create an opposite effect, pushing me into even more awkward poses.

Worrying got me far in some ways. "Attention to detail" usually fails me by design, and worrying pushes me to mull over things and catch a good enough percentage of careless mistakes.

It creates a vicious cycle, unfortunately. The more I catch, the more it scares me into further worrying. This nearly prevents me from thinking clearly in the first place the next time around, of this I am convinced. Soon I can't worry fast enough and the whole thing falls apart.

But of course this is like watching a goose floating on the serenity of a pond. You'd never see it's poor little feet pedaling in hyper speed underneath the calm surface. You see and imagine dance moves from the serene glide where not even a feather is twitched.

That's what I see from his words, elegant feathers of colors gliding across the soft background of his pages. He has an eye for settings, which I envy but could not emulate. He paints the story's background, with watercolor techniques in subtlety. You see it, you feel it, you are affected, but you hardly notice it. The story pulls you in, and leads you in observing the characters with affection, humor, and at times, melancholy and sadness.  He likes to hide the depth of these emotions behind simplicity and soothing flows, but you get there because you follow the breadcrumbs of every word and character like a lost child and finding them feels like going home.  Between the lines, I see talent, confidence, creative flares, not worries.  Perhaps about life, but not about writing.

But soothing as it seems to read them, life and the work behind the stories did seem to take their toll.  He is resigning from his blog with an elegant farewell.  It came as a shock, as there had been more new and creative samples coming forth lately.  But perhaps life is like that, unpredictable and heavy at times. I fear it maybe indefinite, but want to hope there's still a chance for a come back. In the meantime, I want to wish him well and a well deserved rest.  I also urge you to check out his stories, especially the recent posts and those listed under "Most Read in 2010", you will enjoy, be inspired and if you are like me, learn a thing or two about good writing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Broken

I pour sugar into my tea until no more will dissolve, and stir while I wait. The earthquake and Tsunami news from Japan last night had frayed a nerve, when images of thousands search for stability on frail rocking grounds.

Ella is about to arrive, with news of her own. I take a sip of tea while I wait, letting the warmth travel through me and calm the quivers. When I check the time again, the door bell rings.

"Would you like some tea?" I ask out of nervousness. Her eyes have the look of all night crying spells and more tears on the verge of spilling, her pale round face ashen, and her hands trembling.

She nodded, and pulled her lips apart in an effort to smile, or talk, or both. But neither came forth. I rush back to the kitchen to prepare tea. I am lucky she likes Earl Grey and I have one bag left.

"Are you off work today?" I push the mug before her, and sat down in front of mine.

"No, but I don't have to go until later."

"Oh, that's good. You just moved here right? Do you like San Diego?"

She nods with an almost smile. We chat more about the weather and her great new job, while she relaxes further into her chair, and her hands nearly stop trembling.

She takes in the steamy tea in big gulps. Her eyes, swollen with red rims, are now slightly obscured by the tiny cloud of fog lifted around her. Her usually neat bob looks slightly disheveled, falling into her eyes and aiming to take control of this side of her face.

She had called me last night, crying and shaking through the crackling phone lines. "I am too scared to move my legs, T! Why is he doing this to me? Why does he plays so many stupid tricks? Is he going to take away my kid so I'd never see her again?"

I pictured her daughter Anni, a wee bit toddler still, her wispy blond curls flying up behind her head while she runs and hides, always babbling something about superheros. Her warm brown eyes are just like Ella's, inquisitive, impatient, and impossibly clear. She chats happily yet never for more than a minute before she's off running again, continuing the conversation herself, until she's back and find you again, a few minutes later.

I somehow couldn't picture her without Ella standing over her on the side, picking up things she dropped, pulling her in when she's about to run into something, or afterward, and wrap her up in a hug. It somehow silences them both, just for a minute and no more; a moment of reprieve, from running, chatting, crying or whatever it was occupying them the moment before. They'd smile into each others eyes, unmoving and holding on to a world of unspoken words.

I had pulled the phone close, as if that would somehow help me convey my thoughts, yet I didn't have a thing to say. Unknowingly I raised my voice and started to tell her to take some deep breathes. But I didn't stop there, I had more steps and instructions. I got so caught up in the righteousness of my logic, voice raising all the more as I speak. Then I realized I was nearly yelling, at her.

I apologized sheepishly and called her back half an hour later to invite her to tea this morning.

"I can't imagine what you must be going through...but come round..., if you like to to have some tea... I'll listen."

So here we are, sitting in the soft rays of the early morning light, studying the swirling patterns and rich brown hues of my battered cafe table. Neither of us seem to want to reach back into last night's sorrow, lest those worrisome confusions and misplaced angst return.

"So how are you doing?" I finally break the silence that was beginning to weigh on us.

Another lips pulling effort. "I was actually doing much better after talking to you last night."

"Oh good." I cringe inside but continue. "So tell me what happened...,um, sorry I was in such a rush last night I didn't,... um,... listen..."

She gives me the story, and I listen, biting my tongue at times. But the look in her eyes reminds me to be patient, the look surrounded by tears still threatening to spill over.

My hands start to tremble when hers finally stopped, along with the story. It is the same old story, of how life can go so wrong when you least expect it, in the flesh in front of me. The absurdity of it all fills me and rises up inside like the beginning of a wildfire. Were I to try to control it, it will just break open every containment and shatter them into pieces.

Instead, I open the lid to tell her how I was in that story not so long ago, of how frightened and angry I was, and how easily those memories could still be triggered. I tell her about having no where to turn, being ashamed and about crying on the floor all night, and shaking until every muscle was hurting in my body. I tell her the story I'd told no one until today.

She starts to nod, her hands reach out then back, and eventually, real smiles broke through, and melted that thin layer of gray ice freezing her face. I had almost forgotten what a nice smile she has. It reminds me of the ones I saw on Anni, always flashing by the second before she runs off.

I feel the tears then, surging in and putting out the raging fire, bringing in an ocean of peace. I tuck back the tears behind my blinking lids, not knowing why. Perhaps that is just what the moment needs, not more drama. Perhaps I am getting used to tucking things behind, after all that has happened.

I can see the questions in her eyes, I can see her wanting to hear more. I can feel the story form on the tip of my tongue, about how I finally walked out of all the mud, but I tuck that back down too, not knowing why. Perhaps there's just not enough hours in one day to hear about brokenness, or perhaps there is too many. Or perhaps there is not a way to put shattered pieces together in one go, or revisit one that is still slightly shaky, and more persistence is needed than mere strength and speed.

I see a calm in her that I didn't expect. She tells me so too. So perhaps this is enough for today. We pray that there is a chance for more stories on another day, when we can sit sipping a second pot of tea, sifting through experiences that are different but the same, shifting into emotions that are echoing but varied, not knowing why but finding that feeling of okay anyway.

We part with the news back on, remembering how people in the other corner of the world is still churning, scattering and struggling through impossible forces of the elements, praying with the spirit that is carrying us, today and tomorrow, that we will persevere both inward and out, together in aid, somehow.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Firelight


The dusty and breathless air hit me like a pot of ripened stew. A small plume of smoke rises out of a gray corner, though it is no grayer than this or any other I corners I see here.  Faint fumes of plastic, battery acid and cleaning chemicals manage to travel through the apparent stagnant air into our lungs, making my nose wrinkle and itch but I hold on and persevere through my walk.  Garbage, gravel and dirt crunch under my feet, while my eyes take in the desolation.

A small bridge hovers just above the swirling stream below, pungent with the smell of rotten litter of unknown origins.  Two shallow banks, with slumbered shoulders and shifty slopes, try but fail to shed a colorless cover of everyday living carnages. The bridge seem to be made of flats of overlapping cardboard -- an impressive exhibit of mechanical ingenuity of its maker.  Yet somehow it fails to convey strength and stability, or encourage confidence in those of us  standing about.

Our translator steps on to show us it's safe, and we all cross gingerly but without the fanfare of danger or squeals.  We are carrying jugs of water to the neighborhood on the other side, one, two or three each -- as is the case of a few local teenagers buffing the shine off of their arm muscles.  

The neighborhood, so called yet it betrays those warm memories the word denotes.  No cookie cutter navajo and brick suburban developments surrounded by trimmed bushes and soaring palm waves.  No paved driveways and earth toned exteriors and trims. Not even over stuffed trash cans lining up at the curb. All I see is litters dumped off on the road, foaming at the bank, falling into the stream and burning off into plumes of smoke in the distance. A long line of more cardboard and some wooden pallets (a significant improvement since my last trip, perhaps in response to the stormy weeks we've been having here), erected on the narrow plane next to the stream to form rows of houses, or haciendas, as my friend "Sammy" calls it.

It took us not much longer than an hour to drive here, yet the scenery has changed so completely it might as well be another world.  The hills off to the far distance, against the sky it seems, has neat lines of housing along its ridges.  They seem more like the houses we see back home in San Diego.  But here, the cardboard contraptions we face have no roofs, disposals, or electrical supplies.  A few resourceful owners have pulled electric wires across their exteriors to provide rudimentary lights and they almost serve as a curious and intriguing form of decorations.

Linda, our group leader, knocked one flap of cardboard before us.  She must have been here before, as it opened the way a door would. A lady, small, weathered, but neatly dressed in a cotton t-shirt top, and long wrap skirt tucked at her waist, step out to greet us. Her smile blossomed throw the lines on her face. As we look down, a tiny little girl appeared behind her legs with a toothy smile. Her face is covered with grime, channels of sweat dripping down, and the eternal hopes of sunshine only a child could pull off.

"Buenos días! ¿Cómo estás?"

We tell her we are very well indeed, and hand her several jugs of water. She hold out a section of her bible, the only she has, and ask to pray with us.

"Her husband has just recently lost his job, and she has three children who are hungry all the time." Patrick, the translator, turned and told us the gist of her story.

We hand her several bags of rice and beans we've also brought, then we hold our hands, all sweaty palms and trembling hearts, to pray at the feet of tragedy, lyrical translations of each line we utter, and that glimmer of hope lit up by faith.

I sneak my eyes open to observe the girl who was writhing at her feet.  She has stopped fidgeting, and two pools of warm brown liquid are staring up at me in curiosity and wonderment.  My Spanish fails me, in telling her she is blessed, but our translator comes to the rescue.

"Dios te bendiga!"

Everything sounds so much better with the exotic twang, the ups and downs of the foreign tone.  The air is still hot, bearing into our skin, making me crave a sip of the burdensome load we are carrying. But we press on, after several more rounds of "bless you"s, and good days.  


Another makeshift door, another family, another story.  They are each unique in their struggles, just like us. Yet their dignities prevail, just like ours. Our steps become lighter with each door opened, as our walks approach that distant spark, a blink of fire light still burning.  It's almost afternoon when we finish, and return with empty hands and heavy hearts, laden with purpose. 


---------
Postscript: This story occurred in Barrio Alama, a neighborhood in Mexico just outside of Tijuana. The families there are in desperate need of water, food and better housing.  Yet from every trip I am the one receiving more than I could ever give.  I wish I could do more justice in offering a glimpse of that here, but if I've failed this time, I will just try again.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Crossing

I open the newly painted old gate, which separates the nook that is our neighborhood from the hubbub that is the world.

The scent of the rosemary bush planted by the side of the stairs greets me with a taste of spring, and reminds me of roasted meat on Sunday evenings, when mom would stop by and buzz over the abundance of dust bunnies, the mess made by my real bunny and the general disarray that is the state of affairs of my life.  The house would smell of fresh laundry, warm spices and the comfort of someone who cares.  I try not to mull over the guilt that comes with it, the voice that says I should be doing this for her.  Instead I relish in the joy of her being able to visit, the satisfaction it brings her, and the health we all still posses to either survive or duke out our differences when the mood fits, about once a year that is.

I tuck these thoughts away while negotiating the stairs with some hesitation, lingering in the quiet affections that is the familiar colors and structures of my condo complex.

***

Earlier this morning, I had stepped out of my sick bed for the first time to walk the boy to school, a potentially treacherous journey in my condition.  So I prepared, downing my warmest chocolate leather jacket, fluffiest scarf,  and a pair of high cuffed black ugg boots. After all, there had been snow in the county just days ago, the first of perhaps thirty somewhat years. The fact that it was a brief dusting in the foothills of mountains two hours from here, while I live on the other edge of the county by the ocean, doesn't diminish the threat of that vicious cold front still lingering to bring out the convulsions of coughs, lingering in me.

But the springs in my steps surprised me,  though it shouldn't have.  The tiny neighborhood enclave whispers signs of seasonal transitions.  The young dove, cooing even when she flew, joined the sonata of chirps high and low from other species I cannot identify but by their tunes.  Palm and Pine leaves are always in some shades of green here, but the easy rustling they gave today differ from those of the winter days, when more violent winds of either hot or cold blew by regularly. Several of my neighbors have gotten started on spring planting on their patios, evidence includes spots of dark soil spilling out the side of the planters, tiny pools and big splashes of water everywhere, and garden tools scattered about.  Though perhaps most of all, spring, is in those sprouts of greens I couldn't name pushing through the dark earth, waving at us in vibrant but harmonious colors worn by those too small patches of leaves curling about this way and that. 

I told the boy about my plan for lunch break today.

"I will volunteer at cougars in motion this morning." I declared, leaving a pregnant pause to make the unspoken suggestion -- he should plan on participating. The enthusiasm for the program, a lunch time exercise-run the school organizes, with charms of plastic feet for each 8 loops completed, had cooled after 3 weeks and then vanished completely by the new year, in time with the onset of winter chills and the passing around of the flu viruses.  

"Oh, but I've been playing tumble jumps lately, I don't want to miss it!"  he exclaims. 

"what is that?" 

"You line up, and you jump shoot the basket..."

He launched into a complete description of the latest game craze at the school.  It sounded like fun, and popular. So I told him that.  Though I secretly hoped he was doing it for the first reason and not the latter.

I said nothing more.  I wished he wanted to complete what he so eagerly started, and not leave so many "projects" dangling in the wasteland of abandoned passions.  But I don't, because hearing that from your mother can be a hard thing, making you feel a bit bluer and turn the day just a shade darker, and making you want to turn a deaf ear to the other, even important or loving things she might say to you.  So I made a choice, to let go of this choice, like the thousand other ones I made the day before.

***

The walk to school had been so warm and invigorating, I decided to push my luck further and walk out of the neighborhood to the coffee shop a few blocks away.

***

So I finally cross the dividing line of what was mine, narrow, familiar and warm, into the expanse of the streets outside.  The sounds of the morning rush hour greets me, in the roars of that semi that could, rushing to deliver some goods to someone somewhere, in the squeals of that little red sports car weaving to pass other morning commuters, in the happy chatters of the retirees gathering at the library waiting for the start of a lecture, and in the quiet whispers of that lady waiting in the street corner, handing out charity pamphlets to people rushing by her, barely paying attention or intentionally ignoring those little pink leaflets of cry for help.  A cry of help in its own world and in its own right, the rashness and the rushing, that is.

The breeze is so warm, that I had long shed my heavy coat and scarf, I want to throw away my boots and run on the grass next to the narrow walk way.  I draw in the symphony of sights, sounds and choices, eyes closed, ears open, heart in murmur, praying for a world of patience.

The patience to stop, and listen.

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