Monthly Archives: February 2017

Present Moment essay #8: Nature Reflects Writing Life

Winding my way up Highway 1, I cursed the car in front of me that my mamita would have called a “slowpo”. I was on a tight deadline to get to my meditation cushion at a buddhist temple and rest my mind. When I reached the fork in the road, I saw a big DETOUR sign and knew I could not get there in time. Taking the right fork, I zigzagged down to Muir Woods. Why not? I hadn’t been there in years, it was the door that was open, and I was early enough to find parking. As is so often true, la naturaleza evoked a different meditation on the life of a writer.

BURNED

The pain will burn in us and around us, leaving our scars and vulnerabilities exposed on the page. And yet we continue, allowing the hot spots time to cool down enough for us to write the next words. Our fears heal into a fierce trunk that supports the next scene, layer upon layer strengthening our resolve.

 

 

TANGLED IN DEBRIS

We write and write and edit and get feedback and re-do until we have too many words, too many options, too much debris to see the story that needs to be pulled out from among the tangle of our mind and heart, but we do not stop.

 

 

LIFE AND DEATH

We know intimately that life and death is one big word and one amazing ride. We know we are blessed with this wisdom and to keep it to ourselves would be selfish and unfair.

 

WHOSE STORY IS TOLD

As in writing venues and in the publishing world, stories are decided by those with the power who try to control the narrative. We control our narratives and we write to expand the canon for children who come after us. We write the stories we want to read.

 

 

COAT PAIN WITH COMPASSION

I remember the day I understood why writers drink and drug in excess; why they decide to end their own lives. What we write is not Hallmark. It is the marrow of our bones and it requires more compassion toward ourselves than we ever give.

 

 

SURPRISE TWIST

One minute you are writing about a redwood and then you are knee deep in a single fern frond, detailing each of its delicate green fingers that reached out and lured you in. You smile at the audacity of art.

 

 

EDIT OUT YOUR DARLINGS

There should be a day when we all get up and just read the beautiful scenes and dialogue and descriptions that we left on the cutting board because they did not, no matter how we tried, move the story forward. Beautiful language in and of itself, we learn in despair, is not enough for a long-term relationship.

 

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

The way the leaf shines, the cool touch of the moss, the tiny chocolate pinecone that did not settle into moist earth. The little bits of dark, rick soil that teems with microbes and teeny, tiny bugs.

 

 

RIP OUT WHAT YOU BELIEVED TO BE TRUE

To find the treasure means to release what you believed was the treasure, the false idols of always and forever, the fear that says you will never be good enough, the seeking of external validation when you know it will only taunt your tender heart.

 

SLOW DOWN WHEN THE PATH NARROWS

There are times when options seem narrow and you want to move quickly past the tightening in your chest. Those times when rejections fly fast and your edits don’t work, and you are encouraged to start all over with a new structure. Slow down so you don’t stub your toe on pride or stubbornness.

 

 

LOOK FOR FLOW

There is always flow in your writing life. Sometimes the writing has to stop to read marvelous literature that inspires and reminds us why we do what we do. Sometimes scanning the landscape and breathing deeply helps us notice the water that is moving just beyond our broken sentence structure and impossible to find perfect adjective.

 

 

IGNORE CAUTION

Writers love to roam where we are told not to go to tell the stories that others are waiting to read. Tírate. Go ahead, do it. Find the loamy earth, put your ear in the dirt, and listen to her heartbeat, know it is yours as well. Scare your brave self with even more daring. Be the atrevida we love and admire.

 

 

PERSPECTIVE

We write alone but we draw strength from knowing others are putting pen to paper, finger to keys, their energy reaching out toward us. One day they pull us up, the next day we inspire them and the cycle goes on and on, spiraling upward to the vastness beyond our single view. #52essays2017

Finding Your Breath

What is breath to you?

I have the unwelcome opportunity, as you probably do, to ponder this often. One day in particular, I woke up with a clear plan for my day. I drove to my yoga studio. After parking my car, I realized I had forgotten my yoga mat and had a moment of irritation that I would have to pay for a loaner mat because I had not been mindful enough to bring mine. As I locked the car door, a woman said: “Do you know you have a flat tire?”

“I didn’t. Thank you.”

I did not feel grateful. With a big sigh, I unlocked the door and sat back down. I looked up the weird warning that had started flashing that morning and sure enough, it meant a problem with tire pressure. I felt myself sinking into the frustration of missing my class and now having to go to the rental agency to get another car. Closing my eyes to re-center, I recalled an email I had received the day before from a friend asking for prayers for a mother whose daughter had been missing for five days. Fortunately, she followed up with an email a few hours later saying the daughter was found and safe.

Getting Assistance
Pulling out my phone, I called my VISA, who transferred me to their emergency road service number. Another moment of annoyance rose when they said there was a $60 charge to change the tire. I debated changing the tire myself, but quickly talked myself into the benefit of getting assistance. An edge of irritation invaded my voice as I answered the woman’s questions. Do any of you ever do that to customer service people? You know it is not their fault but they are the ones saying what you don’t want to hear. I pulled away from that edge in my voice until it was lower and quieter, reminding myself I was safe and didn’t have a daughter that was missing.

The tow man arrived, kneeled down, and inspected the flat tire. “That is a really big nail!” he said, pointing to the large head in the tire. He raised the car and used his high powered tool to unscrew the lug nuts. “These are on really tight.” I cracked a small smile, glad I called him, imagining myself trying to take them off with a small hand tool, imagining the curses that would have started to spew out of my mouth.

After he finished screwing on the last lug nut, I started the car and turned out of the parking lot. Hot tears spilled down my cheeks and I started sinking underwater again. I wailed: “I am suffering, I am suffering, I am suffering.” A laugh bubbled up and interrupted my tragic lament. That laugh was like someone reaching down and pulling me out of the water. That laugh brought breath to my lungs that spread to my heart and along my limbs until my toes tingled.

What Helps Me
As I drove across the Richmond bridge in the slow lane with my donut tire, I looked out at the great expanse of the bay and asked myself: “What helps me find my breath?” What helps me when I sink into a place where I forget beauty, trust, and gratitude?

First and foremost, breathing deeply. I often hold my breath when I am sinking, and that cuts off oxygen to my brain. Laughter is another way to breathe deeply, as is dancing to a song rich with rhythm and beat. Perspective is another hand that pulls me out – like thinking about that mother who did not know where her daughter was for five days. I did not attend the prayer circle for the mother because I was having dinner with my precious, safe daughter. Perspective reminds me I am not the only person feeling minor annoyance or deep despair. Yoga is another hand that pulls me up and gives me breath, which is why I was sad to miss my class. I pondered more ways I find my breath as I transitioned onto the 80 freeway. I had gotten up that morning and set my timer for 15 minutes to meditate, counting my in-breath and out-breath to 10. Whenever I noticed I was on number 34, I returned to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

As I exited on Gilman Avenue and passed the soccer fields, I thought of my twins, now 21 and embarking on their own journeys. They are finding the hands in life that will pull them up when they go underwater, stop breathing, and forget their resiliency.

On this day my faithful, strong hands, born of constant discipline, pulled me up from a minor drama. Sometimes, when someone we love goes away or executive decrees slap down justice unrelentingly, we really do feel like we are drowning, like we cannot breathe. Many people in my circle are reeling day to day, as if there is a boot on their necks, pushing their precious faces under water. Many I don’t know have had their faces pushed under water for decades, for centuries, for many lifetimes.

So again, I ask you: How do you find your breath?

Finding your breath means looking unflinchingly at the larger picture and also being one with every single detail that grounds us. To make a good cup of tea, I have to be that tea, and the cup. I have to be the hot water. Sometimes I am the honey and the spoon and the coconut milk.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a buddhist teacher, said it well:  If you can hold the pain of the world and never forget the vastness of the great eastern sun, then you can make a proper cup of tea. #coaching #breath #greateasternsun

 

Present Moment essay #7: Love you, too

For a long time, it was easier for me to value the white person, the inner and outer Barbie illusion, which made it very difficult to truly see, value, and love my sister Susan.
Even as a child I watched TV and chose different white characters for a fantasy marriage mate, and there were plenty to choose from. On Star Trek, I chose Captain Kirk AND Bones, the doctor. I was into high status males. I believed I belonged. Susan chose Spock, which mystified me. He was so dry and unemotional, so unappealing and so not sexy.

Susan, being an introvert, being darker skinned, protected her feelings by living in her head. Like Spock, she eschewed feelings in favor of what could be measured and proved. She had, early on, ingested a clear understanding of her lower class status as a girl of a darker color and chose the “Trekkie” who was most “other”.

This difference, her cappucino to my cafe latte, played out in subtle and painful ways for us as sisters. We may have been close in age but not in our heart’s desires. We shared the same bedroom with matching bedspreads for almost 15 years, but rarely shared our secrets. I never knew the depth of her loneliness in pre-school when she was the only one who did not speak English. She did not share how excited she felt when another brown Latina joined her class in second grade and gave her a reflection of herself. I never knew she was too scared to ask an elementary school teacher for permission to go to the bathroom.

She never knew when I started my period or that I cut the pads in half because they seemed too big or how many pairs of chonies I stained and hid under my bed. I was stunned to discover she was tracked into Home Economics in the same the high school that bestowed multiple awards to me at graduation. She did not know I entered Stanford feeling I was a smart cookie and left feeling I must have been mistaken.

For my part, I did not see her as a big sister growing up. I was busy chasing the white ideals that tantalized me with promises that were just beyond my grasp because the society that educated me and my own Latinx culture venerates light over dark. I did not see her color as shaping her experiences in profoundly life altering ways,  just like white people telling me now that color doesn’t impact success.

After I graduated from college and moved back to Los Angeles, we began cautiously circling closer to our own and each others’ corazones. I supported her through her unplanned pregnancy and she supported my decision to join a social justice community on Skid Row. We re-connected for good, even as our parents surveyed our individual choices with great dismay, having hoped for better from their US born children.

We spoke openly of our current challenges and our differing experiences growing up and at work. We rejoiced in our small and big triumphs and mourned the losses that are an inevitable part of living. I don’t know when, but one magical day we gave up expecting our mom to tell us she loved us and we told each other, healing ourselves and giving up one more delusion about the way things were supposed to be. We shared the last years of our mother’s life together; calling, crying, and beseeching each other for help and a date at a day spa.

We took an amazing journey to Colombia with my mom to let her family bid her farewell. We exchanged knowing looks during the trip when our cousins suggested my mother probably had osteoporosis instead of cancer. The power of denial was intimate to us, having bathed in it seven years earlier when our father had become ill and we refused to acknowledge his obvious decline, even saying he “died suddenly” for several years. We lament our brothers’ different styles of communicating and take turns reminding each other to be compassionate when they drive us crazy.

Reconstructing our memories together led to tentatively sharing stories unearthed and dusted off from our parallel universes. My writing life was an unexpected tool to bring us these cuentos because I had alot of unanswered questions and she had a much better memory. I slowly shed my privilege and listened for the differences now, breathing in Susan’s pain. I saw more clearly the immense burdens she carried as the daughter who never left the city of our birth, living within arm’s reach of our mom’s internal pain turned outward on her eldest, her brownest, her shyest niña.

She laughingly called me a “born again” Latina and we both admitted I often act like I’m the big sister cuz I have the louder mouth coupled with the false sense of entitlement bestowed on me by virtue of being closer to the white ideal than she. We raged at the white male estate attorney who we ultimately fired with a feeling akin to glee. “Face it,” I told her, “this will probably be the only time we are in a position to fire a white man. Let’s enjoy our moment in the sun”.

I know how hard it was for her to go to, as she called it, “the white block party”, still one of few people of color on the block after 50 years of our family owning the house. She ended up marrying, almost divorcing, and finally re-committing to a boisterous, warm man quite the opposite of Spock. Susan laughed as she recounted her husband Fred saying he wanted to have a cigar to hold in his hand to make him feel more comfortable. I joked that that was why men of color were always grabbing their crotch, to remind themselves they have “huevos” despite the daily attempts to castrate them of their worth.

We made a momentous journey together in 2004 to México, uniting the four sisters for the first time ever, at ages 55, 49, 47, and me in the unaccustomed role of baby sister at age 46. While the journey itself was fraught with more drama than a telenovela, it birthed a tremendous moment in the process of ending the cycle of separation of my father’s two familias.

Susan came up to celebrate my birthday a few weekends ago, extracting herself from her job as an elementary school principal to join some of my friends at a delicious brunch. She joked that my cottage was like camping and I teased her about her obsession with the Pokémon app. Yes, we laugh now and are so honest that we wince at times. We talk freely about race and gender and class and the little nicks and cuts we get every day, validating each other’s reality. Authenticity does not mean bliss. We attended a restorative yoga class and indulged in a purification scrub and massage at the Korean Imperial Spa before I drove her to the airport.

We ended our visit as we have ended all our connections for many years, sharing the words that bind our wounds and feed our spirits: “Love you,” I say. “Love you, too” replies mi hermana.
#52essays2017

Present Moment essay #6: Betrayals Run Deep

“betrayals……they run deep and are everywhere – sadly, sadly, sadly”

This was my friend’s response to my email that yet another man in my life had broken boundaries with a female I love. These two revelations crushed my hope yet again, and even more because these men were familia of choice. I did not inherit them from biology, I embraced them because of values, culture, and trust. The ripped shreds of my confianza lay scattered about me as I sobbed, especially for the first one that involved a child I had been around when the degraciado violated her trust. I looked and looked, trying to find the beginning of the tear, the place I could have said stop, the place I could have protected her from harm. It was not there, not even in retrospect. There were the usual foibles, the insecurities, the lack of progress at times. But the stench of power gone awry was nowhere in my exploration of the seams and creases of that, or the second relationship.

I am not the woman who denies children’s truth when they say something is wrong . In this case there was no revelation I could investigate. I was doubly dumbfounded because I have a good radar. I suss out fools quickly, closing myself off the minute I feel the stink of sexism and privilege. These hermanos sent me reeling. I gave them leeway, I loved them up, and saw them as men who my children could admire, learn from, rely on. I relied on them, honored their manhood in a white society that so often tamped down their down.

 

It always burns worse when it is familia, whether bio or chosen. I am sitting amid the hot coals and waiting for the lessons. I can feel myself closing down, wondering who else fooled me, who else laid hands where hands should not be lain, spoke words that were mierda. Is there a place to go and get my radar repaired? I have never been this wrong. The ratas were right there, dressed in warm brown eyes and mired in twisted thoughts of power and need.

It took my father’s death to see he did indeed love me with energy that, near the end of his life, was unconditional, and I eventually came to rest often in that quiet place where loss and love are intertwined. I had forgiven him his betrayals and committed to being different. I saw what I had done to keep him at bay and had opened my corazón with men who carried his essence – my brothers, other Latinos, men in general. And so many had betrayed my trust, even before these two, had made me wonder why I kept trusting.

Fuck you I want to scream. Fuck the harm you have perpetrated and the lives out of which you have squeezed light and love. Fuck the dreams you have tarnished, never again able to shine with the joy of trust. We are done. I am with the mujeres. There are times when the line has been drawn and forgiveness is eons away.

My desire to rant directly at the men is in the corner, begging me intermittently to be set free to break dishes and kick groins, but I look it back each time. My energy is better spent sitting with the roil and seeing what emerges.

The week after I heard of the second hombre’s betrayal, one of my TV dramas serendipitously aired a episode where the main character was fleeced by his love. All his money gone, all his risk to love for naught. His initial response was to shut down the loving heart he usually radiated. He took the road of anger, isolation, and self-abuse, seeing himself as a fool who had been taken. He ignored his loved ones and focused on punishing himself for falling prey to the devious nature that all humans can act on at times. His amiga, the other protagonist, had my question: “How did I miss it?” She felt his friends had failed him. I feel that. It is a clean failure, not one smothered in guilt and shame. We fail people. We just do.

That is my roil, the one that still wakes me up at night. We are gonna sit together until we are good friends. Until I can accept that unwelcome truth of what it means to be human — we trust when it is not the time to trust. I can certainly name everyone who has failed me, but I steer clear of thinking who I have failed. These two situations, one on top of the other, have forced my pride to step aside.

In my TV drama, the friend tells him he can miss who and what was lost. Can wish it was still real. I cried as she said that because I do wish it was still real. I wish it with all the broken pieces of my heart. The friendship, the support, la noblesa, el amor. I miss it all. #52essays2017

photo credit: lalesh aldarwish