Sunday, September 22, 2013

Finding Nemo in Phillippines

We stood in our adolescent awkwardness, self-consciously tugging at our cling film-esque navy school swimming suits, while waiting for our PE teacher to sound the call for class to start.

It was second period of seventh grade and also my first day at a new school.

The boys and the girls naturally segregated themselves on opposite ends of the benches. Boys pushed each other around, testing out their new gained muscles from the summer, while the girls showed off  their haircuts or friendship bracelets from camp.

Mr Lant, who constantly reminded me of a sleek greyhound that would nip at your ankles if you slowed down, walked in with his clip board and barked out the training itinerary. After surveying the row of nervous fresh meat with his piercing blue eyes, he paused in my direction. "Welcome," he looked down at his clipboard, "Class, it seems that we have another Messick with us."

All little heads bobbed acknowledgement at me. "Glad to have another superstar athlete at this school. We love 'em Messicks. Ok, kids. Jump in the pool quickly and do your laps. And if you guys finish fast, then we're going to have an epic showdown between Casey and Sisi! Who do you think will win?"

The kids bounced off the bleachers and yelled out their allegiance as they splashed into the pool. "Casey! Casey!" "Sisi! Sisi!"

I waddled over to Mr Lant and tugged at his shirt.

"Mr Lant," I mumbled, "I don't know how to swim."

"What? What do you mean you can't swim? You have your period or something?"

". . . No. I just mean that I can't swim."

"You're just nervous about the race with your brother later. Jump in the pool."

Desperately, I splashed into the pool like a baby penguin diving off the iceberg and landing straight into the mouth of a polar bear. He watched me for a few seconds, then swearing in surprise, pulled me out and directed me to the handicap lane.

And there I stayed throughout high school.


But the thing was I did learn how to swim.

And every time I travel to a new place and snap on my snorkeling mask, I think of Mr Lant. Sometimes, still self-consciously checking my strokes, but mostly, just grateful that I didn't fake periods to get out of PE like all the other girls because I actually liked Mr Lant belting out the "A sailor went to Si-si-si" nursery songs and giving me the "Best Attitude" awards while I huffed and puffed in PE.

I thought of Mr Lant a lot when Andrea and I went on our spontaneous girls' trip to Philippines in July.

Nothing beats swimming in warm waters, staring down 
at fish that ignore you because they are too busy
chasing each other among the corals.

From the right angle, corals look like magical snow cones.
From a different angle, they look like your worst vegetable nightmare.
Either way, it's hauntingly beautiful.

Swimming with the cast of Finding Nemo - well all except
for the dentist and the sharks. 

We kayaked around caves, looked for swallows that flew down
and attacked you, and claimed empty stretches of
beach as our own. We covered up in floppy hats because
an Irish boy at our hostel got burned and stayed brick red the
entire time we were there.

Rings of blue. Yeah, this was really the color of
the water. No filter. Just pure amazement.

I got lots of awkward board shorts tan lines,
which refuse to go away even now.

We always managed to stow away our kayaks away
just in time before a huge storm rolled in.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Telling Stories

I come from a heritage of storytellers.

My waipo captured hearts and rallied the morale of many Chinese soldiers fighting in the Korean War as night after night she starred in White Hair Girl, an epic Communist opera, and belted out the woes of the village girl who suffered at the hands of incredibly evil and fat landlords. Many years later, she still told the best war stories, with sound effects and all.

My mom's brand of nighttime stories steered clear of overt propaganda. Instead, she melded Kung Fu + musketeer + Book of Mormon heroes and made them fight each other for the love of a stubborn aristocrat who dressed as a beggar.

Where my waipo and mom can whip a mystical story up from thin air, I can only tell my own.

I hoard my stories like a jealous little squirrel hiding away its nuts. I wait for the perfect time to tell it so I can see people's expressions, that moment when their eyes open wider in surprise or when they toss their heads back and laugh out loud. So I'm torn when it comes to blogging. When I write stories down, I feel like I've somehow given away that moment of engaging with others and that I can't tell it in person anymore because they've "read it somewhere."

As a result, my list of "To blog" stories grows longer and lonelier.

When I read the afterword from The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly (I always read the afterword because it is so important to know the person behind the book), I stopped upon this line - "While writing The Lizard Cage, I came to understand that the most useful thing I could do as a writer was contribute to the history of kindness."

Wow. What self-awareness. What a beautiful mission.

Last week, a speaker in Church also admonished that we should tell our stories loud and often, because in a country like China where we can't proselyte among locals, we can still share the core principles that guide our lives through stories that touch people's hearts.

I have a nagging feeling that I've neglected to tell many stories - not necessarily the silly-cute trivialities or the glossed over travelogues, but the important ones, like the heart aching but character strengthening experiences from the summer or the faith-building realizations from hours of study.

So . . . who's up for a story (or a bajillion)?