When I was a girl and traveling around the world on a freighter with my family, we sailed through the Straits of Malacca and paused in Singapore to unload our cargo of copra. There we took a sampan into the city and found an elegant, red-and-gold restaurant where we ordered the specialty: sarang burung, or bird’s nest soup.
As we ate, this is what the waiter told us: edible bird’s nests are made by the little sea swallows of Indonesia. These are harvested from the ocean three times a year. Using coconut-fiber ropes, young men climb down the sheer cliff onto a ledge high above the rough waves, carrying empty sacks with them. There they wait on a wobbly rope platform for just the right wave to approach. When they see one, they leap into it, clutching their sacks, and are swept under the ledge on which they had been standing. They are washed into a dark cave where they scrabble and fumble around the slippery walls, seeking the bird’s nests. When they’re ready to return, they have to time it just right, or the violent waves will crush them against the cliff, or they’ll be swept out to sea.
Nyai Loro Kidul, the goddess of the South Seas, is the patron goddess of the bird’s nest gatherers. She’s also your WriteSpa guide for this watery month of March. Briefly, her legend (one of many) is that she was the wife of the king of Java, and a rival wife became jealous and put a spell on her that made her horrifically ugly with a skin disease. In despair, she fled the palace and wandered to the ocean where she dreamed that if she leapt into the waves she would be cured and would regain her beauty. This she did, and the spirits and demons of the sea crowned her the Spirit-Queen of the South Seas. From her dwelling place in the heart of the ocean she controls the waves and tides of the oceans around her. She is sometimes depicted as a mermaid with a tail; other times the lower part of her body is a snake. She is also wife to the Sultan of Yogyakarta, known as the “Great Mountain,” whom she visits once a year to consummate their relationship.
As a writer – or any creator – you have experienced times when you feel stuck. You don’t know how you can move forward in your project or get out of your rut. Try to imagine your stuckness as the skin of a snake that you’ve outgrown. Your writer’s block is your not-so-easy process of shedding the skin that no longer serves you.
Nyai Loro Kidul’s skin disease brought her to the brink of despair, until she learned how to jump into the stormy waves, and was not just healed but crowned queen of the seas. She had shed the skin that no longer served her. Another aspect of Nyai Loro Kidul’s mythology is her ability to change shape several times a day.
This is something you as a writer do as well: you take on the shape of one character, and then another. If you are trying to paint the wind in the pines or a rider galloping across the moor, you take on the shape of the wind – or you become the horse. You are the magic. When you’re feeling that your skin is too tight, try something new. This is a good time to venture in a different direction. Take a break from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and deadlines and self-imposed word counts. Do something daring and different. Write a song instead of an article. Get out your water-colors instead of counting how many pages you wrote today. Try extricating yourself from a skin that’s too tight by wriggling into a previously unexplored and potentially scary activity.
Nyai Loro Kidul is not a benevolent goddess: she’ll take the soul of any one she wants. Let her. Fishermen are scared of her, and you should be too. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fish – that’s your life. Instead, it means you should throw yourself into the ocean of Writing and let yourself drown in it, come what may. Be like the bird’s nest gatherers. Be brave.
- flying an orange and purple kite on a windy day
- the scent of cedar in an old chest
- Islamic tiles in a walled garden
- breathing your lover’s breath
- sailing into a hidden harbor for a rest