Mothering Nature

Not gonna lie, I struggled with this year’s Birthday Nude. The entire process was discomforting. I found myself being hypercritical of my aging body. I booted up my images in Lightroom and moved the texture slider all the way to the left to smooth out my spongy middle. I sent the images to Photoshop and cloned my wrinkles and belly folds away. Then in a fit of frustration I closed them all up unsaved.

For the Birthday Nude series to stay relevant in the years to come I’m going to have to post these photos unedited as I always have or I won’t do them at all.

If I continue, I will have to confront my naked self, not just my aging body. My emotional reactions reveal so much of who I am. Posting it publicly adds another layer of confrontation. I will have to ask myself the hard questions. How do I feel? Why do I feel this way? Do I feel shame? What am I ashamed of?

I have come to an age when I am proud of who I am and where I’m at in life. That doesn’t mean I look at my body with rose-colored glasses. As someone who has spent decades creating media with my body, I can look at images of myself with objectivity.

In these photos I wear nothing but make-up. I have not given in to temptations of botox or cosmetic surgery. Yet. Maybe never. I don’t know. No judgement on those who do. I haven’t dyed my hair since four months ago and I’m liking the streak of gray growing out of the right side of my hairline.

I enjoyed celebrating my birthday this year. I feel like I’ve been celebrating for weeks now, random presents, time spent with people I adore.

I look at my healthy, beautiful, smart, and talented daughter and feel successful as a mother. Mothering my child has been top priority for the past fifteen years. Everyone and everything else took the back seat. It’s worth it. I invested my time and energy wisely. Now I’m opening myself up to mothering more of the world.

My co-parent, business partner, artistic collaborator, lover, my Man. How I love my Man. We’ve been through so much, good times and nightmarish ones. For so long I’ve taken him for granted, thinking he doesn’t need my mothering because he’s eight years older than me, bolder than me, everything more than me. I was wrong. We’re holding on for dear life and rediscovering who we are to each other at each stage of the game.

College boy somehow slipped in as one of my favorite people on this planet. We’ve known each other for years and he knows most sides of my compartmentalized life. During those moments when my Man was too emotionally involved in the situation to be my friend, my boy took me in his arms and told me he’s got me. I take care of him, too.

And you… I appreciate you. Thank you for coming along on my journey.

May Ling Su birthday nude
May Ling Su birthday nude in the barn hayloft, sitting on a vintage World War II army cot.

This year marks my 20th birthday nude. We shot at home. The photo above was taken in the barn hayloft, an amazing play space when it’s warm enough. It’s a reminder to seize the moment. Winter is coming. Life goes by way too fast. My time is limited. Soon we will have to leave our 169-year-old haunted farmhouse that we’ve made even more haunted with vintage treasures. I’m a little sad to go, but excited to begin once more.

May Ling Su birthday nude edited

The photo above was taken in the backyard, lush with wildflowers and this abundant hydrangea bush. It’s a sanctuary for birds, bees, and butterflies. Snakes and mice. Chipmunks and squirrels. The best approach to mothering nature is to let it be wild (also applies to mothering humans).

This past year I’ve been spending a lot of time in nature, hiking up mountains and swimming in lakes. This summer I participated in a podcast with Agam, for which they paid me by planting four trees in my name. I intend to plant more trees every year for the rest of my life as part of my legacy.

Cheers! 🍷

May Ling Su signature

My Friend For Life, Gina

I went to an all-girls nun-run Catholic high school in the Philippines, very strict and narrow-minded. I was a good student but something as trivial as my asymmetric hairstyle got their granny panties in a bunch. What made high school life worth living was Gina. She and I connected on an artistic and literary level. She was a huge The Cure fan, so I drew her a portrait of Robert Smith. She wrote me a fantasy article for Town & Country magazine, in which I am a fabulous art curator and married to Johnny Depp. We talked endlessly about ideas for stories we wanted to write someday and we talked about sex. Sure, we had no experience whatsoever, but we were teenagers. Sex was an obsession.

In college she went to UP and I went to Ateneo. She partied hard with her sorority sisters. I got sucked into music and theatre. She invited me to an Upsilon event once. I felt out of place. Our paths divided for the time being.

She tracked me down in the mid-90s when I was in New York. I was performing Off and Off-Off-Broadway. She was a young single mom, making it as a writer and editor in Manila. She found out I made my own body products so she asked me to write an article for her fledgling magazine, Earthian. It was granola and green long before it was a thing. I accepted. It was my first published piece.

In the mid-2000s she discovered an obscure anonymous blog I was writing about my pregnancy and home birth. She asked if she could publish it on Working Mom magazine. How could I say no to celebrating my infant’s birth on the pages of a glossy magazine? Gina made me feel like royalty or at least like a celebrity.

When she found out about my porn, she stayed on my side all the way. She defended me against attacks behind my back from people we went to high school with and if you knew her, you’d know she unleashed a fury on anyone who crossed her or her loved ones. I flew to San Diego to catch up with her when she visited in 2010. We were regulars at her pub, Fred’s Revolucion in Cubao X in 2012. A few years later, she and her family were guests in our old farmhouse in Maine. We shared stories, beer, and laughter indoors while our kids ages 11 and 12 built a bonfire in the backyard because that’s the kind of parents we were and that’s the kind of kickass kids we raised.

May and Gina at Fred's Revolucion

She roped me in to write for Agam, the book of photos by her husband, photojournalist Jose Enrique Soriano. As executive editor, she included me among 24 contributing writers – accomplished poets, journalists, anthropologists, scientists, and artists from the Philippines. I felt like the black sheep among those luminaries, but Gina was my champion. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She autographed my copy of the book: Will always be your friend, fan, and supporter – living vicariously through your groundbreaking work. Love you.

Tuesday night I got a message from her husband. Gina was in a coma in St. Luke’s ER. No one saw it coming. He asked for prayers. When an atheist asks an agnostic to pray for a Catholic, you know it’s serious. I prayed. I used all my mental energy to summon her back. “Come back, Gina,” I commented on a recent Facebook post in which she had tagged me. Come back, Gina, I thought constantly day and night. Come back to us. Thursday around 5 in the morning I woke up with a cramp in my chest. It pinched everytime I breathed. My heart literally hurt. I messaged her husband, “Tell me something, anything.”

She’s gone.

“She loved you and we were looking forward to visiting again.”

I had a difficult loud ugly cry by myself until Jay came out of his studio and held me and we cried together. I am so glad he got to know her. I’m glad I have somebody to grieve with and celebrate her life with.

Gina recently posted a fabulous profile picture across all her social media channels and even more fabulous photos of her and her kids at a kiki ball. Just last weekend her kids thanked her for giving them “a rich uncommon childhood.” She said she won the “lotto of life.” Her latest piece, my favorite yet, the crass and soulful Patricio, was published online on Esquire posthumously. I joked to Jay that it was a memorial-worthy social media presence, one to aspire to. He asked me not to die until my profile pictures got really old and ugly.

I got out a bottle of beer from the fridge, spilled some in her honor, and drank to my friend. Gina had a sharp wit and a fiery nature. She was a fierce mother and a fierce friend. She burned brilliantly, my friend for life. Gina burned fast, but she burned exceptionally bright.

Love, Lust, & Liberty,
May Ling Su