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!