Monthly Archives: January 2017

Present Moment essay #4: The Bus Ride

After 9/11, my emotional capacity to tolerate airports diminished. The searching, the sense of exposure, and the subtle discrimination couched as added protection frayed my nerves and filled me with fear.

One day in May I decided to take the Greyhound bus back to Berkeley rather than fly. I had done it once before on the day LAX was scheduled to re-open after being closed due to the September 11 attacks. That was an easy call. This one was fraught with indecision and anxiety. It meant leaving earlier from visiting my depressed mother who was still grieving my father and slipping slowly into dementia. It meant not going to a day spa with my sister or shopping at a clothing store we both adored. Activities to let us escape the sadness that permeated our family.

It meant being with people who cannot afford a plane ticket. People who have no time but even less money. People who don’t own cars or own cars that aren’t up to the trip. People with completely different reasons than I for traveling to the Greyhound station in downtown LA. When asked as they vaguely searched my carry-ons if I had a pocketknife, I lied and said “No”, knowing no machine would turn me in. In this crowd I carried some of the privilege granted to the white businessman at the airport.

I boarded the bus, picked my seat, and spread my belongings out to discourage any company. The buses are generally not as crowded as the plane. I ride them infrequently, but have never had to share my row.

However, they were encouraging the 3 PM passengers to take this bus so it began to fill up. One Latino asked in Spanish if he could sit down when there was still plenty of seats in the back. By the time I looked up to decide my response, he was gone. Then another man, a black man, asked. I looked around to see what his options were. There were other empty seats, but they were next to men. I asked him: “Aren’t there other seats?”

He did not like my question, said something angrily under his breath and moved to the row ahead of me, asking the man there about the seat next to him. He also was less than inviting. He muttered more angry words and sat down.

More people came on board. I noticed a woman holding a young boy’s hand. She looked bewildered, scanning the bus for two seats together.

I knew this look. I had had it many times on airplanes when there were no seats for a mother and her children. Once I boarded a plane with my one year old twins and their other parent. Because getting to the airport had been delayed due to so many little steps in getting the twins ready, only middle seats on opposite aisles were available. Laden down with overstuffed backpacks, we asked the four people in both rows if one would change with us. No. No. No. No. We sat with a twin each on our laps, passing snacks, drinks, diapers, and toys back and forth. The passengers were more willing to have us talk over them and to hand things to each of us than to milk a little human kindness for parents and children on a six hour flight.

A few years later, I traveled alone with both children on a plane trip where we had a center seat and two aisle seats. Again, neither window person would give up their seat so I could be with my two children. When the flight attendant came by after reviewing the safety instructions, she spoke to the man sitting next to one of my children as if he were the father, telling him to put his own oxygen mask on first before putting one on the child she presumed was his. MY child, not his.

I got up from my bus seat and motioned to the woman to take it so she could be with her child. I wandered to the back of the bus, now in the position of the man to whom I had been unwelcoming, looking for the most palatable seating companion. Knowing they were all holding their breath, hoping I would pick someone else.

It was a no-brainer. Like the man before me, I looked for a woman and that gave me one choice. A viejita. I apologetically sat down and tried to be as unimposing as possible, keeping my arms and legs tucked in. A few minutes later the bus driver came back and told me there was an empty row up front. I rose and saw the black man who had asked to sit next to me moving to the empty row. Applauding poetic justice, I sat down again. I do not like telling men of color no, especially when they are doing something completely legitimate.

I considered going up and apologizing, telling him he had every right to ask for the seat and to get angry when I wasn’t gracious. I wanted to tell him my side. Tell him how I never got a seat by myself in semi-crowded places because people will always choose to sit next to a woman rather than next to a man. They will even choose to sit next to me when there are empty seats all over the place. The same way they choose us when they need to cut through a crowd or a line.

I remember being on a plane, a crowded plane, one of the last to board. Knowing a middle seat was likely my fate, I was stunned to see an empty aisle seat. As I approached, I saw that the woman in the window seat was large, very large. I sat down in the aisle seat, knowing that no one would choose the middle seat. They hadn’t even chosen the aisle seat. I won’t even get into the ridiculous size of the seats in general that adds insult to injury.

The bus rumbled out of the station and onto the I-5 freeway. The driver recited the rules over the intercom in English only, despite the fact that 80% of the passengers spoke and understood only Spanish. I contemplated going up and offering to translate. I contemplated writing a letter to Greyhound. In the end, I translated a few things to the woman next to me.

As we rode along she began to chat in Spanish.

“I was born in Mexico City and began coming to the US in 1967 and buying women’s clothing to re-sell in México. I flew in este mañana to shop in downtown LA. All my boxes of ropa are in the luggage. I was so lucky to find three jovenes to help me load them.” They had just crossed the border and had only enough money to by their bus tickets. Her grey hair was pulled back into a neat bun and her hands grasped a black leather handbag in her lap. One hand would rise and fall each time she made a point.

“Can you believe I am now in my seventies?” she beamed, “and married for over fifty years! My three children moved to the San Jose area.  I will spend the next five days visiting mi familia, including going out on paseos with my grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren. I also have to organize my purchases into smaller boxes.” One of her daughters would go to México with her to take the merchandise. Her husband had not worked for many years. He had become accustomed to tending to their home and helping with her thriving business.

I asked her if she planned to keep working and she beamed at me. “Ay, si, I love going to the stores and seeing what to buy. I love the travel, especially the plane rides to and from LA and México City. I have so many frequent flyer miles that I always fly first class.” She relished the moment when she boarded the plane, sank into the large, comfortable seat, and decided what to eat.

She was a little worried because she had not confirmed her arrival with her family. Her usual pattern was to have a faithful seller call her daughter, but she was on vacation and her assistants didn’t know where she kept her numbers. I offered to call directory assistance when we stopped at Coalinga for our dinner break. Yes, this was before cells phones. While I called on the pay phones, she waited in the long line at McDonald’s and bought the three jovenes dinner.

After re-boarding the bus, she nodded off and I reflected on her journey. It was not an easy life or one that would appeal to many people, but she loved it and when she said “Dios nos ha dado mucho”, she was not repeating a platitude. She really believed that we had been given much.

When we said adios, I felt blessed by the ways we crossed multiple borders of difference, most unrecognized by anyone other than me. I also felt sad that I held back from connecting with the black man and from offering to translate to the whole bus. I did not doubt more opportunities to intervene would come up again and that I had a choice each time. Sad that often when I do choose to act in self protection it inadvertently reinforces the sense of scarcity among people of color, among genders, among immigrants and US born people. Sad that a sense of full satisfaction is a privilege I don’t often get, but I wouldn’t trade what I get instead. My heart bruises with pain, and also swells with a love that heals the cracks separating us from ourselves and from the amazing, resilient beings who ride buses and march for justice and write no matter what. #52essays2107

Present Moment essay #3: Not Doing Enough

“Serena is not doing enough to support the women’s tennis tour because she plays in so few tournaments.”

That was it, the micro-aggression that tipped my anger into rage, the pot that is always on a low boil no matter how many breaths I count or my joy in watching her play.

Tennis is my game. The Australian Open is in full swing and the Williams sisters are doing very well. I was watching Serena’s second round match. As she warmed up, the two Aussie announcers, both women, had this dialogue: “What do you make of the outfit, Luce? It’s kind of a warriors outfit, I’m not sure…” Luce answers: “To me it looks kind of like a piano from the back.” Chuckle, chuckle. Nevermind that many of the players are sporting black and white designs on their outfits. It is a sideways comment about her big, beautiful body and how uncomfortable they are with her.

Later in the match, one of them remarks: “That noise she is making is a distraction.” Hilarious. Truly. Ridiculous.There are so many women who make loud noises on every hit and just one loudish noise from Serena is problematic. I breathe and keep cheering her on from my couch, periodically clapping and saying: “Let’s go!”

After watching a ball hit close to the baseline, Serena raises her finger to challenge the call. The announcer says: “That ball looked good – I think she is not certain about this challenge.”

Lo and behold, Serena’s instincts are right – the ball was out. Again, the announcer cannot stop her unconscious language choices and says: “She gets away with it.” What did she get away with? Serena was correct to challenge the call. In fact, she and Venus are known for rarely challenging calls and being almost always right when they do.

As Serena slowly wins points and is one away from winning the match, the other player is serving. “It would be ideal for Serena to serve out the match.”

Anyone who plays tennis knows that what is ideal is to win the point regardless of who is serving. In fact, it is a key skill to break your opponent’s serve and win the point. In an Open when you must play and win seven matches against progressively stronger opponents, what is ideal for Serena is to win sooner than later and get off the court to rest. It is unclear who this ideal scenario they spout serves.  When her opponent does win the point, the announcer’s comment is: “Safarova forced her to serve out the match.” What another interesting word choice. Especially when Serena won most of the points of the match. It is a tired attempt to build up Serena’s mostly white opponents and shrink her dominance in tennis. As a creative writer, I truly cannot match the word choices that come out of these announcers today.

 

Serena, as she serves out the match, is said to have “some extra venom” and “who knows what is bubbling inside of her”. For others that would be called grit or determination.

 

They don’t say directly why they think Serena not playing in more tournaments equals not supporting the tour. I imagine her star power would bring out more fans, and I agree I would be far more willing to pay for the expensive tickets to see her or Venus. However, Serena does her fair share and more for the tour when she does play and even when she doesn’t. She and Venus have been role models that have increased the level of play across the board and resulted in a new crop of racially diverse US female tennis players.

In just this one match, she tolerated the ignorance of announcers who picked on her clothes, her noises, her call challenges, and her ‘venom’. She must, like all women of color, take breaks from a racist, sexist society to recuperate and rekindle her patience. Otherwise she is, yes, an angry black woman. They keep wanting her to act as if the world is fair to her and therefore she should be grateful and set her needs aside.

In fact, because she takes care of herself, she had the confidence and courage to call out a reporter in a media interview later for diminishing her play:

Women of color do get weary because life is not an easy match. We must be good with a few more errors and alot more self-care so we can claim our truth, as she did, when it was not given to her. To say she doesn’t support the tour enough is the wrong statement. The accurate one is that the tour does not support her enough. While many women marched around the world for justice and equity, she marches out onto the big stage again and again with a deep breath, showing us all how to be great despite the endless micro-aggressions that are slung our way.
#52essays2017 #GOAT

Present Moment essay #2: In Memoriam

A friend died last week. The first death of 2017 to touch me personally. While I hadn’t seen him for a few years, he will always be ensconced in my heart, and when I lift a conch shell to my ear, the sound that will not die will remind me of his noble journey on this earth.

The last time I saw him was when we co-facilitated a session at Stanford University for Latinx students. I can’t remember the topic, but what remains is a ceremonia we did together next to the soccer field on campus. I had taken a class there as a sophomore and been mocked by the coach, his distain unbridled toward the four women amid thirty white men.

I was color, I was woman, I was deft with the ball, I was shut out of my beloved game. The men ignored me on the field until I switched to being a defender so I could touch the ball, play the game, be slammed into as if I was a mighty warrior.

Mi amigo and I sat together on a bench, burned sage, and I released my lingering anger and grief. Sexism can trail smoke for years, and I was so young then, still clinging to my father’s notion of the level playing field. Still believing the lie that education and hard work would count on the soccer field or in the jobs that ended with me labeled the “problem” for speaking out as if truth would triumph over vindictive power. This mid-day ritual was witnessed by a man who bent over backwards to use his male privilege for the benefit of females. It was right and just to sit, to breathe, to grieve the joy that had been squashed flat by cleats and patriarchy.

And yet, this is the same man who was the bearer of bad news to me twice. Both times he served as the spokesperson for alleged white allies who deemed me too uppity, too direct, too unwilling to tow their line. He did the dirty work of telling me they did not want to work with me anymore. While I was deeply disappointed by his decision to stay and continue working with them, I also knew it was out of economic necessity. I directed my anger at the fake allies and felt infinite sadness and also awkward gratitude for him. Someone needed to work with those folks and I couldn’t. My belief is that the education and hard work theory is for those who do not understand and use their privilege for equity, not for those of us who feel the crunch of someone’s boot on our neck. Then both he and I and countless others would not be put in competition for the pitiful piece of moldy pie they leave us on the back steps.

I had been thinking of him lately, as I have returned to Stanford to engage with the Latinx community many times since our visit. His kindness and the undying gentle fire he carried in his belly for justice will remain in the coals that keep us warm amid the battle for access and authentic presence. Because he supported my healing, I was able a few years ago to incorporate my soccer class experience into a performance piece called Fouling is Part of the Game. Humor and creativity joined forces to intermingle with anger and grief.

It takes death to hit the pause button for reflection. His movement to the spirit world allowed me to follow the thread backwards to when sage and early spring enveloped mi compañero y yo – we planted the seeds of transformation together that day and many others to transpose years of pain into love, delight, and joy. Writers and artists know this journey intimately and embrace it, barbed wire and all, knowing voices and words are like fists raised high with shouts of “¡Si se puede!” #52essays2017 #restinpeaceroberto

Present Moment essay #1: My Two Homes

On New Year’s morning I attended a zen buddhist sit and service at Kojin An Temple in Oakland – a natural draw towards the spiritual practice that has held my tender heart for over 15 years.  I walked through the lush rain-soaked garden and tucked my keys into one shoe on the wooden shelf outside the temple. Sliding the door open, my feet tiptoed to an open zafu perched on a square zabuton three feet off the ground on a smooth wooden platform. I bowed to my ‘home’ and the man already seated bowed to welcome me. Together with eight others, I sat for 40 minutes, still as a hawk on a lamp post. While the hawk’s eyes scanned the terrain in search of food, mine looked ahead and slightly down, a sweet spot I found again and again in my ‘no search’ – that moment when my mind stops grasping or avoiding for a precious nano-second.

For years I thought my first experience of sitting occurred in the bowels of the San Francisco Zen Center with a small group of people of color. I sat on the zafu and slowly became uncomfortable and ached physically and mentally, wishing for the bell to let me move. I did not return for quite some time as the experience was awkward and unpleasant. I settled again on a cushion a few years later at a time when I was bereft and empty amid the loss of my father, my relationship, and my mother’s presence due to her depression.

After a few sits I remembered the very first time I sat on a cushion – in my twenties I visited Whitethorne monastery in Northern California. The catholic nuns integrated buddhist sitting into their spiritual lives – I rose early one morning and sat in the chapel, the semi-darkness enfolding us in a shroud of utter silence. I had a runny nose and no tissue so my wish then was also for the bell to signal an end to my discomfort.

At Kojin An I sat calmly with that wish for the sit to end – my habitual desire to fidget is a good friend now. I noted my hand wanting to scratch my nose or my leg wanting to stretch out when it fell asleep. I gathered courage from those around me who were observing their own inner dramas and drawing courage from my efforts.

000_0004After we heard the bell telling us to rise and join together in Japanese chants for morning service, I saw how much this practice mirrors my writing life. Staying through the sometimes uncomfortable groundless repetition of sitting and writing is the core of heart-centered living. So is bowing down in homage to pure truth no matter how much ego tempts you to compare your practice to that of others. Sitting still on my cushion or when I write requires me to simply be one with truth, bravery, authenticity, and terror. I draw courage from other writers sitting with a blank page, willing to wait for the words to emerge.

I am encouraged in both ‘homes’ by others around the world, being with what is and not judging our efforts or requiring acknowledgement. I may feel alone with my computer screen or on my cushion, but blessed others are with me in spirit, creating form from emptiness and finding emptiness in form. The delusion of separation melts when I accept my suffering as yours and your achievements as mine. The forest trees outside my cottage grow together invisibly as we do, the branches overlapping and nestling close with no sense of attack or ownership of the earth and its abundant supply of patience and perseverance.

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People see Soto Zen Buddhism as the hardcore practice with rigorous forms, dark colors, and lots of silence. I see my writing life reflected in these aspects. It is not enough to write or sit zazen. I tell people new writing is about 30% of most writers’ lives and 70% is the massaging of the bare words into form, going to the dark corners and finding the love hidden in the folds of shadows. I embrace the terrifying silence because that is where lies the essence of why I write. Beauty is always there to be found, redemption is 3 breaths away, counting to 10 again and again is the most profound experience of my day. It allows me to ‘stay’ with my words when I want to check my email or watch my telenovela.

As I chanted the Maka Hannya Haramitta Shin Gyo and the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, I appreciated that the pronunciation is similar to Spanish – I taste home with words I do not know intellectually but feel vibrating throughout mi alma. My meditation and writing practice nurture each and are my two ‘homes’ – non-negotiable blank slates that reveal life’s intimacy one breath at a time. The bells in temples tell me when to rise and when to bow, when to chant and when to leave. My stories tell me what to say, my teachers show me how to hone, and all writers show me how to dare. As the Buddha said: No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

That does not mean we are alone, it merely means the sitting and stories require our steadfast commitment and we must plant the semillas daily so they grow fuertes and touch the sky. #52essays2017

You are a Ferrari

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Once upon a time there was a tuna who lived in the Gulf of México, who I will call Tunita. She cavorted with her friends and began growing from her juvenile size of half an inch to close to about 2 feet long at 1.5 years. This group of friends and her were shoaling, swimming somewhat independently, but in such a way that they stay connected, forming a social group that provided defense against predators and enhanced their foraging for other fish, squid, shellfish, and plankton. Tunita did not know how big a tuna should grow in the wild, because 90 percent of the worldwide catch of Pacific Bluefin tuna is less than 2 years old and under 3 feet long. She did not know that she could live over twenty years, weigh 1,000 pounds, and be 9-13 feet in length.

Ferrari of the Ocean
Imagine all the tunas swimming with Tunita, fish who can cut through the sea at up to 43 miles an hour. Tunita began swimming across the gulf, her and her shoal’s intention to cross the entire Atlantic Ocean and feed off the coast of Europe, and then swim all the way back to the Gulf to breed. Why go so far? Because those are the best feeding grounds. Tunita doesn’t know it, but she is the Ferrari of the ocean—sleek, powerful, and made for speed. Her growing torpedo-shaped body streamlines through the water, and her special swimming muscles enables her to cruise the ocean highways with great efficiency. She is with bigger tunas who have made the passage many times.

But sadly for Tunita and many of her friends, tuna highways have turned into gauntlets lined with giant nets and endless lines of fishing boats. Fishermen have resorted to high-tech ways to catch Tunita, including devices that draw the fish into bunches so that fishermen can catch more of them at once. One day after they have rounded Florida, Tunita finds herself caught in a net that tugs her slowly up with many of her friends and many of the bigger tunas. Just as they are about to be dropped on to the deck of a boat, she wriggles free and drops back into the ocean. Her size saves her that time, and even though she is in constant danger of not reaching her full size, she perseveres and reaches the best feeding grounds year after year until she grows to be her full length and weight.

We too can meet the fate of Tunita’s friends, and die having only grown to one third of what we could be.

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Nets in our Minds
When I was young, I had amazing dreams. Then my dream became entangled in a net made of family obligations, other people’s dreams, and the glass ceilings placed on me by virtue of gender, race, class, and my parents’ national origin and educational level. I didn’t notice our growth had stopped because all the other fish around me were about the same size and I began to think it was normal. I stopped making the effort to understand and thus reach my best feeding grounds. When someone came along and was what we might call “larger than life” like Tunita, I saw them as an outlier, an exception, crazy, gifted, not part of my shoal.

Unlike Tunita and the many tunas who face extinction, many of our nets are in our mind. Like her, we can escape and grow into big tunas who find the best environment to thrive, even if it means temporarily or permanently leaving your shoal to find other big or growing tunas. This act of self-compassion is an inner journey that dissolves nets to release our energy and join with others committed to full-hearted growth. This synergy becomes so powerful that you become ensnared less and less with negative messages that you don’t deserve to live your purpose. We all have the capacity to shine the light we were given at birth.

Embracing Conscious Habits
How do we untangle ourselves and begin to swim freely when we are on parched land with a limited mindset and bruised heart? We have to stop worshipping big tunas and instead learn what it takes for us to shine – this usually means releasing our comfortable habitat and embracing failure as a natural outgrowth of risk. Not once, not twice, but as a conscious, habitual approach to life.

Why do we separate ourselves from our greatness? Marianne Williamson says it in a passage many have heard:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

This means taking a good, long look in the mirror and admitting we have decided, consciously or unconsciously, to play small. It could be in many areas. Let me share two that are core to my transformational process.
Physical health: How many of us have taken the time to decide what our optimal health is? Often we have a vague idea of some amount of exercise, some general food and drink parameters, and a minimum sleep requirement. Have we done actual research to identify what our body needs specific to our age, our preferences, and our lifestyle? Do we know what our body positively responds to and are we diligent in honoring those needs? Have we created structures that hold us accountable?

Financial prosperity: Can you tell me how much you spend on transportation each month, each year? What is your basic budget that covers your essentials each month? Have you explored what Robert Kiyosaki calls the Cash Flow quadrant and determined your plan for generating income apart from trading time for money? What is the glass ceiling you have placed above yourself, the limit of money you are allowed to generate? Women talk about the glass ceiling all the time and bemoan sexism and I did too. I woke up one day and looked up at my self-imposed glass ceiling. Ouch. I found the courage to face my own limiting beliefs about what I could earn – it was about $80,000, just a little higher than what I had ever earned. Why? Because it would create a little more ease while not allowing me to dream big. It would also separate me from my shoal — people committed to social justice who thought wealth was equivalent to greed and self-aggrandizement. By exploring the truth behind this belief, I fueled the heat needed to melt my ceiling.

Limiting Self Talk
My aspiration and momentum now is to grow into being a big tuna. Sounds great, right? Not always so. Unlike tunas in the sea, if we get bigger, people get scared. You no longer mirror their own self-limiting beliefs.
You can be met with verbal or non-verbal messages like:
Why do you care so much?
Why can’t you settle down?
That seems really unrealistic.
Can you tone it down?
How can you live in such a wealthy area?

Many of these have been internalized so we police ourselves. Limiting self talk that are the nets in our mind.

Only Data, Not Destiny
What is one step in this journey to better feeding grounds? For me it was seeing information and experiences as only data to assist me to make the next best decision. Oops, I went up the wrong driveway. Let me back up, call a friend, and find my way to my destination. It is not my destiny to stay in poor feeding grounds.

As a school educated, middle class woman of color, I am often not among many people who look like me in privileged settings. My protective survival mode wants to get riled up and angry about the lack of diversity in yoga classes, in business conventions, at buddhist temples, and when river rafting or kayaking. Problem is, starting from this place automatically shuts down my capacity to feel like I belong, and that then shuts down my capacity to be fully present and accept the amazing gifts available to me in the moment.

When I began assessing information as data without immediately using old strategies that simply entangled me emotionally and spirtually, I could then see and scan my options and make decisions with grace and ease. There is still plenty of room for my disappointments, pain, and also for authentic compassion. There is also more room for growing even in feeding grounds that are not ideal, because I am relentless in living my purpose.

Perseverance is non-negotiable to live with the tangle of internal nets that will try again and again to have us play small in life. It is up to each of us to discover and swim to our dreams so that our inner Ferraris can rev up their motors. Decide on and commit to your best feeding grounds. Your journey will require you to return to them again and again, regardless of the changing currents and nets that are inevitable but not the last word. Your growing, brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous being will make sure of that.