Turtle Tale

Ngoc Son Temple (Turtle Tower) , Image by Nguyen Do from Pixabay
Golden Turtle God Courtesy of Casablanca1911 at Vietnamese Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Turtle Tale

Indonesian writer, Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra? * continues to impact my life.

As a reminder in the last two posts, I wrote, “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Mama Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences. We are moms who have lost our sons to suicide while we still live and defy the natural order.”

The author’s portrayal of the raw, radical truths associated with losing a child forces me to revisit the sinkhole in my heart where the extensive pain awakes and prompts the delusional demon in the brain to reach for a lethal injection.   

Simultaneously, the theme of how a bereaved mother keeps her stride while forced to the very edge of grief’s plank is prevalent in Norman’s work. He illustrates sorrow’s underside through the main character’s encounter with a sacred giant turtle, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle or, the Golden Turtle God, on display at Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam. The landmark stands on a small islet inside Hoan Kiem Lake downtown.

Norman writes, ending his beautiful masterpiece:

Then Mama Sandra was there in that room, face to face again with the giant turtle corpse behind glass. She circled the case a few times, eyes fixed on the gigantic reptile. Wikipedia had told her that the Golden Turtle God had lent a sword to Vietnam’s king at the time. The sword had been used to liberate them from China. According to the legend, the king had returned the sword to the god. Now it lay tucked away in the depths of the lake.

“Can’t see it, but it’s there,” she’d mumbled a few days ago when the tale had sprung to mind, as she stood in the toilet at Kuala Lumpur airport gazing into the mirror.

Now, in the temple, Mama Sandra began crying again. Bewildered, the people around her began to stare. She turned to find the Tiger Beer woman standing beside her, hand in hand with her little boy. The child was dressed in a blue jacket. His cheeks were smudged with chocolate.

“This is my son,” Mama Sandra told the woman in English, pointing to the turtle in the glass case, tears streaming down her face. “This is my son.” She felt the woman would understand somehow. “This is my son, you know.”

Standing next to a mother holding her alive child’s hand, Motherless Mama Sandra takes on the mummified turtle’s identity as her child. Her son. The legend behind the turtle and lake represent a hidden sword in the lake that possessed magical powers to change the country’s fate. Faith, after all, is believing in things you can’t see. Mama Sandra latches onto the turtle legend as a form of faith, helping her brave the fact that she lives defying the natural order.

Norman captures accurately the lynchpin of grief between me and Mama Sandra and, likely, others in these unnatural positions in life. One blog writer, a young widow and mother, that I tremendously admire, once wrote about her deceased husband, “he is nowhere and everywhere.”

I also believe the description of the sacred turtle symbolizes her son–and my son–as well, once a “symbol of independence and longevity.”

Faith journey | grief journey escorts us to places where our sons are EVERYWHERE. Sometimes in the least expected places.  One recent example that happened to me last week occurred not in a sacred temple in front of a sacred turtle in Asia, but in Aisle #15 at the lighting department in Home Depot.

The lyrics from a Moody Blues song I hadn’t heard since before the tragedy wafted between me and the friendly store clerk who examined each bulb and socket on the hunt for a halogen flood light to replace the dead one I showed her in my hand.

 I know you’re out there somewhere

Somewhere, somewhere

I know you’re out there somewhere

Somewhere you can hear my voice

I know I’ll find you somehow

Somehow, somehow

I know I’ll find you somehow

And somehow I’ll return again to you

Inhaling the Home Depot air filled with sawdust, metal and an underlining industrial odor, I had to do everything in my power not to become tearful like Mama Sandra. Before me, my imagination superimposed my son’s face on every halogen flood light bulb that the clerk removed from the package to show me.

I know I’ll find you somehow

And somehow I’ll return again to you

I tried to consciously block out the music. Grateful for my face mask, I pulled it as high as I could as I do quite frequently in public on the occasions when I attempt to cover unrestrained tears.

The store clerk handed me one last flood light unaware, smiling. Whether it matched the dead bulb in my hand or not, I could not bare my faithless eyes to peer too close.

Only in my mind I heard Mama Sandra’s proclamation. “This is my son, you know.”

I inhaled and exhaled through my nose, grabbed the bulb, my son. Wiped the final streaming tear.

“I’ll order one on Amazon. Thank you.”

The clueless clerk smiled another smile. I made a beeline for the front entrance through the crowd, passed the key aisle. In my mind’s eye, I visualized a six-foot turtle god hovering over the key copy kiosk. The turtle god captivated me like a prism of green colors. I found no reason not to put faith in the turtle god. I had a sudden impulse to jump onto the key copy kiosk. Point to the invisible turtle god. Shout, announce to the Home Depot crowd. “This is my son, you know. When he was 18, he made keys at a privately owned hardware store in the neighboring town. He was my son, you know, the one the kindergarten teacher shamed so much because of his lack of fine motor skills that I had to transfer him to another class. At 18, the keys he copied fit every lock that he made them for.”

Instead of words, tears streamed again. Advertisements instead of music echoed through the towering ceiling, soiled with sawdust and alive with wild finches that had escaped the outdoors.

The turtle god vanished.

My son now is everywhere, and he is nowhere. It’s a double edged sword that penetrates things seen and unseen like the dust dancing in the Home depot aisles closest to the windows, visible at sunrise and invisible at sunset.

*Read Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s entire short story, So What Your Name, Sandra?

Faith Muscle

What’s your Name, Anastasia?

Image by unimajinasi from Pixabay

Last week in my blog post, I wrote about how an Indonesian writer, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, impacted my life through his short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra?

I wrote: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences. We are moms who have lost our sons to suicide while we still live and defy the natural order.”

In the story, the author elaborates on the ramifications of the main character who, after losing her son, is forced to change her name. Norman writes:

“Names were a baffling matter to Mama Sandra now. “Mama Sandra”—no one ever used to call her that. Her relatives back in Harianboho had called her “San” or “Sandong.” The people she’d met when she moved to Bekasi called her Bison’s mother, Mama of Bison—“Mama Bison”—submitting to the nationwide norm of calling a mother by her firstborn’s name.”

Prior to reading this short story, I was clueless about this cultural norm. If I were forced to live as “Mama Marshall,” it would feel like a “kick me” sign is permanently tagged on my most vulnerable parts.

“Mama Bison.” “Mama Marshall.” Initially names of endearment turned topsy-turvy into a scalding tirade of distress—and every day we mourning mamas dare open our eyes, it’s Groundhog Day (reliving the same nightmare every day). Paradoxically, after I discovered this Indonesian name custom, a ray of gratitude pierced through my 16-month grief cloud. The “short” story makes me think “long” range, beyond the tip of my nose-grief point, about every Indonesian mourning mama, AND mourning mamas in similar cultures, that are hot-iron branded. These mamas fight hard to open their eyes and when that dreaded ray of sun penetrates, it’s Groundhog Day.

Shown in the excerpt below is another layer of the complications that derive from the Indonesian name custom for Mama Sandra. Note, too, how the excerpt, like the rest of Norman’s descriptive writing, illustrates his precise wordsmith engineering.

“…And since Bison’s father was of Sinaga stock, of course that made her son a Sinaga too. Then her husband had run off with another woman, and all that remained was her, the solitary Borneng, with Bison her Sinaga son. The Sinaga sweat and tears that had gone into that boy’s blood didn’t amount to a shallow bowlful. Oh, but never mind that. He’d stay Sinaga for life.”

To repeat what I said earlier: “My identification on so many levels with the main character, Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences.” I don’t know if Mama’s Sandra’s ex-husband ever saw his son; perhaps, at the end he viewed his cold steel-like body. I do know that my ex-husband did not see his son, who carried his last name, for nine years. He reunited in front of his son’s corpse at the funeral home. I do believe that, although it didn’t justify a nine-year drought, the disguised sweat and tears that my ex-husband shed that day, did amount to much more than a “shallow bowlful.”

Now, all the commonalities I share with Mama Sandra has fed me with faith and a high flow of oxygen to push through the solemn tunnel of my final chapter. In fact, when I recall her grief, it helps me to not feel painfully alone, which was the coping mechanism I used when I wasn’t allowed to register my son’s car under my name at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The rude staff member, who not only neglected offering one condolence, wouldn’t accept my identification and comprehend the fact that I as an American citizen had lived my life with two different first names. I, in fact, submitted a stack of paperwork as evidence. Finally, a supervisor materialized in an attempt to break the deadlock. The supervisor, a piranha in disguise, didn’t extend one condolence either. She simply barked and badgered me to what boiled down to the question why I had “Stacy” on my driver’s license and “Anastasia” on my birth certificate.

I pushed through the ordeal, remembering co-partner grieving mama, Mama Sandra, under interrogation. In the exchange of dialogue in the short story, Norman writes, “What’s your name? Let’s hear your name.”

Coincidentally, the exchange at the DMV went something like this:

“You legally changed your legal name Anastasia.”

“No, I was a minor. ‘Anastasia’ was forced on me. To say it in a softer manner, it was Americanized to ‘Stacy’ in second grade at the public school I attended, and the DMV, as well as the Social Security Department, ‘adjusted’ the name accordingly.”

I felt humiliated in the same way I had as a child, a first-born American of two immigrant parents. I had to face the raw reality once again. I did not change my name to hide my ethnic identity and assimilate to the American culture; those higher up, starting with my second-grade teacher, took the responsibility on themselves. As much as my identity was ripped from me, the new name “Stacy” was a relief to me as a child. It freed me from the bullies who shadowed me at grammar school mocking the name “Anastasia.” These bullies were the Priscillas, Sues and Johns of the world who kicked Anastasia, not to the sidelines, but off the field entirely.

Anyway, back to the scene at DMV, where we were all raising our voices and getting nowhere. I had brainstormed a solution to the name dilemma, but the bottom line was, even if I presented notarized paperwork stating that I was the same person (Anastasia and Stacy), the supervisor insisted she would not accept any such evidence. I was beyond upset, salt in the wound, and it wasn’t just about the impasse in resolving my identification in order to register my son’s car under my name. It was about forcing myself repeatedly to eyeball my dead son’s death certificate through the process. It was about the tears spilled on route to the DMV, remembering when I took him for his driving test when I was silently sad because he knew, like I knew, his car fanatic, MIA father, should have been with us. It was about recalling that my last visit to DMV was when I had a real life strapping, healthy, handsome son. In fact, the man I was sent to initially to register my dead son’s car under my name was the same one who had been so kind and shot my driver’s license photo three times, before I approved it. In those days, my greatest grief was growing old.

I left beat up, and the sadness inward busted outward as an angry inferno. All I heard was my now deceased mother’s never-give-up voice, and I didn’t. One week later, I traveled to another DMV in another city with the same evidence that now included a notarized document that the piranha supervisor at the other DMV insisted was unacceptable. This time the woman at the desk immediately offered her condolences. Then perusing the paperwork, she glanced around, asking, “Who’s Anastasia?”

And, so the same—different name dilemma started, but this time when the personable supervisor appeared, the first thing she did was offer her condolences. Her sincere tone touched me deeply and my ocean of tears under my skin dripped.

Upon accepting the notarized paper, she replied, “We’ll make it work.”

Ten minutes later, my tears now dried, I almost fainted in relief when the teller presented me with the new license plate for the car and one less son-related trauma ever to be forced to revisit. Before I left the DMV, the staff woman, motivated by compassion, gave me a tutorial on how to order a vanity license plate commemorating my son in the future. This time upon exit I bawled again, because kindness from total strangers in my life is so rare and scarce that I feel guilty and unworthy when I encounter it. On the same token, I vacuum up every bit of it. I’ll happily take it like a pain reliever, because kindness from strangers is an elixir that helps me also cope.

I walked away realizing how I would change all my “Stacy” names on my documents into my birth name, Anastasia. How I can’t take my son back, but I can take my true identity back and try to replant the severed foreign roots in a way that maybe they would grow healthy. After all, if Mama Sandra could brave her name, so could I.  I remembered, too, how my son loved his name, as we all did. How he was named after a prominent millionaire and how beautifully American it sounded.

“It sounds like a General,” someone once commented about his name when he was a child.

Of course, a moniker is only a tidy identity. What matters is how we define ourselves and how generous we are at valuing ourselves. We can pay a heavy price getting caught up in name games and putting up fronts and not have the emotional strength to stand by our faults, because, like pores on skin, our human imperfection is part of our makeup.

Regardless of his high-powered sounding name, my son felt like a misfit. At his age, I, Anastasia, felt the same way. Aging, anguish and a decades-long journey of living in a 12-step program has made me build muscles out of pounds of flab. That’s how I see the main character, Mama Sandra, in Norman’s book: muscling her way on the bicycle of life where scammers have pulled the training wheels from under her, and the only thing she has to rely on is her faith muscle that helps her never to stop pedaling despite every single bruise, scar and backseat driver that says, “You can’t,” because you know you really can’t, but refrain from revealing the truth to your fast moving feet powered by the faith muscles in your legs.

Faith Muscle

Taking Fear for a (Fast) Ride

Mean Streets of New York City

More than 40 years ago, after I decided to pursue a career in writing, I dramatically proclaimed to my mother, “I’d rather cut off my right arm than not become a writer.”

Looking  back, I’ve had a hate-love relationship in the field I put my faith in. In fact, a part of my career was spent feeling like I was dealt bad karma in my role as a writer. My personal growth, very much like self-editing one’s work, is a metamorphic experience filled with exhaustive nights, missed quality-time experiences with loved ones and a regret list that leaves my conscience guilt-ridden and as uncomfortable as a nasty case of bedbugs.

As of late, however, my relationship leans towards the love side of the writing life. Underneath all the gunk is one strong lightning rod of desire. From the start of my career, I wanted each piece of my writing to reach out and touch one reader. I certainly experienced plenty of opportunities to achieve this goal by writing fiction and non-fiction. Certainly, over the span of such a long career, I’ve won praise from some readers and garnered a few awards along the way. I’ve also made numerous mistakes and heard my share of constructive criticism. Fortunately, I was never forced to deal with any personal attacks aimed at me or my work.

About 15 years ago, I wrote a profile about a jewelry designer. After the article was published, she was ecstatic and surprised me with a necklace she designed especially for me. She said the article impacted her life in some wonderful way. We agreed to meet over a cup of coffee so she could elaborate. Unfortunately, time went by and I never heard from her again. However, whenever I feel defeated as a writer, I remember the woman and delight in the thought that something I wrote changed this complete stranger’s life in a positive way. (I just wish I knew what it was!)

I write all this to say that a few months ago, the table turned and an Indonesian writer, Norman Erikson Pasaribu, changed my life in an unimaginably huge proportion through his short story, So What’s Your Name, Sandra?

My identification on so many levels with the main character, Mama Sandra, who is Indonesian, supersedes our cultural differences. We are moms who have lost our sons to suicide while we still live and defy the natural order. After losing her only son, her only child, the character’s walk in grief articulates the depth of my despair and helps to elucidate how grief can mold every piece of you into someone you are totally unfamiliar with, a stranger in your own skin.

In Mama Sandra’s and my case, we are boomeranged out of our comfort zone and befriend courage. Here is an excerpt from the short story:

“Mama Sandra declared her intention to get a passport.


Mama Anton’s jaw dropped when she heard about the travel plans. She and Mama Sandra came from the same small town in North Sumatra and were both active members of the women’s choir at the local Batak Christian Protestant Church. Mama Sandra, like practically everyone else Mama Anton knew, had never been abroad. ”

And so it was that four months after losing her one and only son, Mama Sandra shook courage’s hand and boarded a plane on route to Mỹ Sơn, Quảng Nam, Vietnam.

After I read about Mama Sandra’s journey of navigating her way through a mourning mama’s life, the thought came to me that if that mama could go to Vietnam, this mama could go to Indonesia one day in search of the author of So What’s Your Name, Sandra?

I’d like to meet Norman, who is three years older than my own son was. I’d like to find out exactly how his divining rod of an imagination dipped so far downward into a mom’s empty soul and located every spilled tear. If Mama Sandra could fly to Vietnam, I can fly to Indonesia.

Before my Indonesian flight takes place, I experienced a major breakthrough by overcoming one of the fears that imprisons me. Mama Sandra co-piloted me through the streets of New York City to pick up my daughter and bring her home for a visit last week. * This feat may sound simple to some, but to me, a woman who had a major anxiety attack driving over the old, rickety Tappan Zee Bridge when she was 27-years-old, it really is a miracle.

Faith in Mama Sandra. That’s what this mama needs to fight fright and anxiety and take on the next scheduled or unscheduled flight—and maybe on route churn a story in my mind that could end up being a life changer someday to someone.

* Please think about me this Thursday when I am driving my daughter back to the concrete jungle!

Faith Muscle

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers &Other Musings

B-Day Bashes, Messy Dryers & Other Musings

One year ago yesterday we had a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Pat on her 85th birthday. In essence, it also symbolized a good-bye party. Little did any of the celebrants know that our world was about to change BIG TIME. I mean, I don’t think there was one single person at that party that could pronounce the word “Covid,” never mind define it.

Over this past year, I remember the party and feel it symbolized a halcyon day of rebellion. We happily huddled together. Shared endless trays of food. Who would have ever dreamed of covering our over-stretched smiles with a mask? No way.

Wow, we were fortunate to get in one last hurrah, before the world turned around like a load of laundry in the dryer, and you never knew what would tumble out at you first when the drying cycle finished.

To this day, none of us at that party, as far as I know, ever caught COVID-19. Of course, others in the world were not as fortunate as we were. This past year, though, most of us have faced a range of pandemic-related challenges and stresses like lost jobs and a rise in mental health illnesses.

No doubt, over this past year, faith tests were generously distributed. I know I nearly flunked a few, but mostly achieved some pretty impressive scores. How was this possible? Because as I’ve written about before, the pandemic was a good time for me to regroup. Grieve peacefully. Grieve fully. Do you know how much fire-ball energy I realized I saved by not having to put on a fake face forward?

For me, it’s been a recovery period in which I could truly just back up from the world and lean into what matters–an intimate circle of friends and family.

Pat, for instance, is part of that group. Never mind that she is, in my eyes, one of the few highly religious people that I’ve known who is not a hypocrite. As we say in the 12-step program, “she walks the walk.” Never mind that her faith, even in the eye of total injustice, never fails to see the goodness of love.

If I could ever choose anyone at anytime to be in my foxhole, it would be her. In fact, she was the one who peeled me off the hardwood floor after learning the tragic news about my son who died by suicide 16 months ago. And, in the days and months that followed, I felt like a marionette who dropped off the stage of life. Pat was the one who lifted the strings, gently, consistently until I could accomplish a bit of light lifting on my own.

Guaranteed, her score on her faith tests over this past year were straight As. When I was a child and struggled in school, my mom used to say, “Sit next to the smartest kid in class and see what they are doing.”

Yes, Pat has been my guide, inspiration and “study buddy,” especially these last 16 months since the tragedy and the pandemic and when the world started to whirl like an out-of-control dryer full of clothes. Let me tell you, I would have been a no-show for the first faith test presented, never persevering and enduring the series that followed.

When it comes to faith, she has made Mensa in her life. Maybe it takes 85 years to reach that status. Me, I have a ways to go!

HAPPY 86th birthday, Pat!

Faith Muscle

Color Me Rose

Photo by Simona Kidriu010d on Pexels.com

I have this reoccurring flashback. It takes place in the predawn hours of 1969. I sit in my childhood bedroom watching the first glimmer of the New Year’s morning light stream in through the window.

Deep inside, I know I have been abandoned by my brothers, who are, respectively, 10 and 12 years older than I. They left the night before with a promise that they would return before midnight to celebrate the New Year with me.

Deep inside, I know the painful truth, but on the outside, I create my own reality to help alleviate the pain. I act as if I have faith. As if my brothers will keep their promise. Otherwise, I have to force myself to feel the raw reality of rejection, which I choose not to do.

I think a major difference between being a child and an adult is that everything a child holds precious rests on having faith in adults. My brothers weren’t quite adults in 1969, but did I see them in my dreamer’s eyes? Or faith-filled eyes?

Either way as a child in 1969, I finally acknowledged the truth. I wiped my tears that stemmed from betrayal and loneliness. Feeling safe underneath an old quilt, I lulled myself into slumber. Behind the sadness, I started to come to terms with acceptance. My brothers happily dumped me and went to party and celebrate the new year. As a matter of fact, the next day after they came home, not a word was mentioned, and we moved forward into the new year. Oddly, there was nothing to forgive. Call it faith, naivety or stupidity, from my child’s perspective, they were my brothers, my heroes. No wrong could tarnish my rose-colored vision.

You would think that years later, after all the misfortunes, bad luck and horrors in my life, I would have retired those rose-colored glasses by now. Numerous incidents of unfulfilled promises constitute a lack of faith in people and, I admit, resentments sneak up on me and bite me in the butt, especially at night when I am most vulnerable. Most mornings, however, upon awakening, I brush my teeth, the first sign of trudging forward. In those early hours of day, I retrieve a lens-cleaning cloth and carefully wipe away all the smudges on my glasses and obtain a clearer vision as best as possible since my glasses are old and scratched. The rose tint has faded, but when I squint hard enough, new year into mid-year, spring into summer, I can still see how rose plants propagate freely from stem cuttings snipped during the darkest seasons of my life. Choosing to create a faith bouquet, even if it only feeds my dreamer’s imagination, is strictly up to me.

Faith Muscle