All posts by Linda Gonzalez

Cuba Libre, Mundo Libre

This weekend marked one week since my return from a trip to Cuba. It also marks the Cuban people voting to approve a new constitution to replace the Cold War-era charter.People keep asking me “Was it a great trip?” and instead of an enthusiastic “yes!” I keep explaining my experience with three words – Educational, Inspiring, and Sad.

Educational because, even though I have heard about Cuba and have had many friends involved in working for the benefit of Cubanos and the negative impact of the embargo, immersion is the best way to learn a language and the only way to truly understand a reality so different than your own. Upon arriving, my first visual shock is seeing cars I grew up with as a child, as the embargo began when I was two months old. The big Chevrolets are painted in the opposite palate of today’s black, white, and grey cars – rich greens, deep blues, and scandalous reds. Inspiring because our driver explains how they keep these over 60 year old cars running – they are a different kind of hybrid than what is on US roads, with parts from all kinds of cars molded together in the chassis. The new car addiction of the US is in stark contrast to this reality. As often is the case, the absurdity of how the US labels re-use is paltry compared to these Frankenstein cars. Sad because when it rains many people will not drive as their brakes are usually worn thin and the threat of skidding on newly wet pavement is too high.

Yogis de Cuba

Educational because we had presentations by different yogis from Yoga Va community on their particular emphasis in practicing and teaching yoga. One works with people suffering from severe mental challenges, one with people 65 and older, one who integrates in his work as a Babalawo/priest. Inspiring because they have completed their teacher training and have a thriving community that weather the storms of practicing despite always inadequate access to mats and props we can buy easily. Sad because they must have other jobs to support their beloved practice.

Educational because I easily stayed offline to be in the present moment with the Cubanos, inspiring because they have extremely limited access to slow internet and yet they make it work, and sad because like everything else that is scarce, it doesn’t need to be.

Colonized Food

Educational because I learned their Cuban food, like most food in Latin America, is rarely indigenous to the land – it is a mix of what the Spanish conquerors liked and what they chose to feed the African slaves to support their hard labor. Inspiring because there are many movements to shift the food to healthier, more sustainable choices. An aspect of this was shared by a visit to a small perma-culture garden of one of the yogis. Sad because, like for us, colonized habits are hard to change.

Educational because it is one thing to hear about the impact of embargo, but another to see buildings crumbling with plants growing out of the cracks of balconies within arm’s length of the hotels that cater to the moneyed tourists from all over the world. Inspiring because no matter the deprivations, music is everywhere and kindness abounds. Sad because they are forced to rely on tourism to support their economy and free educational system.

What is not scarce is literacy, clocked at 99.75%. And health care, where the government assumes fiscal and administrative responsibility for all its citizens. What is scarce are billboards and fast food empires – I didn’t see any. I saw five police officers in my entire week in Havana and no military personnel.

Cuba as a Microcosm

There is much to learn from this tiny, embattled island, and my hope is that I live to see the day when there is no embargo and Cuba is free to be what it can be. Not perfect, not aligned with any particular political system, just free to find its own way and reject the oppressive mandate that there is only one right way. For this to happen, the world has to be free of countries that are still colonizing and forcing their will on the 99%. The battle rages now in Venezuela.

I returned with more clarity and commitment to push for equity and to be a steadfast steward of my time, possessions, and gifts. As Celia Cruz sings:

Lo que es bueno hoy, quizas no lo sea mañana
Que hay el valor del momento, que hay el presente perfecto
La oportunidad te llega, tu veras si te montas en ella

Agárrate fuerte y ya no te sueltes
Rie…Llora que a cada cual le llega su hora
Rie…Llora vive tu vida y gózala toda

Live with Purpose

There are multiple ways to unearth your purpose, so the real question is: why don’t you? And for those of you who do know your purpose, why don’t you marshal your energy to make it a daily reality? For those of you who feel you do make your purpose a daily reality, what else have you not yet dared so you can live it even more fully? Every time a choice point arrives, being grounded in your purpose means you have a compass to direct you toward a new facet of your passion, vocation, mission, and/or profession. When I work with coaching clients, I send them a purpose worksheet with this quote by Howard Thurman that sums up purpose:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

My own journey to a purposeful life began when I signed up for a weekend workshop on breaking the chains of internal slave mentality that required me to write my purpose statement. These carefully chosen words, periodically changed over the years, are the foundation of my life by design.

To work with multicultural wisdom and balance and inspire people of color to embark on a creative, cooperative journey of love and healing for this and future generations.

With these words, I have an inner touchstone. My purpose is in the bio I send to clients, right alongside the technical and sectors skills I bring. It acknowledges that if I work with you or your organization, there is a warm heart pumping under my skin and my purpose is a core part of my skill set, along with my strategic mind and spirited energy.

Internal Compass
Living with purpose means continually committing to the circumstances for your best self to thrive despite barriers based on race, gender identity, and other oppressions. If you were trained to obey authority or only feel validated by external recognition, a purposeful life will shift slowly to being guided by your internal compass rather than that of others. You embrace your life as your responsibility. Your purpose states the direction your life will take regardless of changing causes and conditions, income streams and supervisors, or cities and relationships.

You can choose to have your life be an expression of what you love doing that benefits you and others. It is your choice. By default, you may elect to have someone else make the selection for you. That too is a decision. In other words, you are primarily driven by other people’s purpose or your own.

Why would you choose to abandon your purpose for another person’s? First, you have had limiting beliefs planted for many years, usually very early in life, that you were not allowed to have your own path. As children, we get that message clearly and it is reinforced in schools and work place hierarchies. If you consider race, immigration status, gender identity, and class, just to name a few, it can seem that your life is only a commodity for someone else’s benefit. Having a purpose disrupts that scarcity mentality.

Purpose means Change
I fought for my right to express an opinion and care about my values as a child and was consistently punished by authority figures. Even when adding the external validation of a MSW, I was suspended, demoted, and fired. Undaunted, although wounded, I chose self-employment so that I could more fully determine my work life trajectory. I slowly built a solid business working in the field of equity and providing trainings, consultation, and coaching. The original joy from a successful business partnership assisting organizations began slipping through my fingers with each client contact. While many made changes, the leaders were white and would decide at one point they had ‘done enough’. Rather than acknowledging their discomfort with what equity entailed, they would blame me for some action they twisted into a ‘fatal flaw’.

My purpose practice drove me to make a change. Several, in fact. I understood that my particular purpose was best served as a solo practitioner with a focus on coaching, writing, and working with organizations led by people of color. I also left a loveless relationship and flew cross country every six months for two years to complete my MFA in Creative Writing, returning me to my early and current passion for writing. I wanted my twins to see a vibrant parent who believed in her innate right to love and joy despite daily challenges as a greying woman of color.

When you are living your life committed to your purpose, life offers distinct and clear choices. With a purpose lens as a regular practice, you simplify and improve the quality of your life. You spend more and more time in expanded energy fields like peace, joy, and love.

This does not mean you eliminate doubt and failure. You do eliminate the constructs of self-blame and self-sabotage that ignore the current and historical inequities baked into most institutional structures regardless of who runs them. It means you understand the context of the culture of scarcity and competition and work to create a purpose that inspires abundance, courage, and discipline. Many people I work with are social justice change agents and have a difficult time tuning into their passion beyond this high level value. I encourage them to explore what they love first, as they will always integrate justice and equity no matter their path.

We often know what we don’t want and less about what we do want. Confirming our ‘no’ is frequently the door into confirming our ‘yes.’ It requires a willingness to explore and be curious. We all seem to accept the importance of loving, committed relationships, yet have unconsciously given up the possibility of a loving, committed relationship to our purpose and our gifts.

“All the elements are in place. But without the spark it is only a pile of dead sticks. So much depends on the spark.”       Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Once decided, your purpose is the spark that turns dead sticks into fire.

When we are stymied by the limitations of any situation or relationship, purpose is the red flag flapping in our hearts and minds, inviting us to re-think our perspective. Don’t ignore it. Time to get to a mountaintop or read some beautiful poetry or dance. It is possible to untangle the hardest knots, follow our calling, and be an example for others. This does not mean starting from scratch. It means lowering the volume on the commercials that try to convince us that a raise or a certificate of recognition or a few more vacation days will ease the discomfort in our souls. These ‘golden handcuffs’ tempt us to stay bound to external things that limit us from nurturing our gifts.

Life-long Practice
Your purpose is like your core muscles. My nephew told me once that we all have a six-pack – those muscles are there. The issues is whether you or anyone else can see them! When your purpose is exercised, your ‘why’ is abundantly clear to others. Living with purpose is a life-long practice and requires constant quiet effort with no finish line. I learned this when I began strength training, buddhist meditation, and a yoga practice. I was sure it would all get easier with my devotion. It only became easier when I stopped thinking about control and began focusing on growth and acceptance. One muscle, one breath, and one pose at a time.

If you have a hard time starting to develop your purpose statement, pull out pen and paper or open a document and answer these questions: When did I know I was truth? What moments in my life engaged me fully – body, mind, and spirit? What makes me come alive? What and who do I want to impact? What will be different if I fulfill my purpose?

Purpose is your anchor when difficult times require you to hold steady amid the storms of life. The bigger the ship, the bigger the anchor. We often grow our ship without growing our anchor. The more we do, the more often we need to return to the harbor, restocking supplies, repairing torn sails or heart wounds, and gathering the right crew for our journey out. I spent time at a spa with a friend who felt she was weak to need time to relax and replenish. I reminded her that she is sailing a big ship in hostile waters and her emotional and spiritual tank gets used up faster than a sailboat in a bay. Some people are prone to sail past harbors until they sink, and some never leave the harbor for fear they are not ready. Which is your tendency?

To uncork your full-hearted power, you have to be willing to be still so that the roiling water can settle and so you can look, despite your fear, at the bottom of your heart. This means throwing down the anchor when necessary, sometimes in a storm and sometimes in a port. The perfect time doesn’t exist – you must make the time to create slow, steady changes and expect to course correct often.

Too often we focus on the highs and lows of life. Your purpose anchors you to your middle notes where the melody stays strong regardless of circumstances – a life lived with purpose makes your heart sing and your soul soar no matter what winds or fires or disappointments arrive. Being driven by an internal compass rather than by external circumstances is a daily gift to yourself and to all you touch.

If you want to get started on your purpose, contact me for a 20 minute complimentary coaching session!

Making Confidence Authentic and Accessible

Confidence, and especially self-confidence, is something many of my friends and coaching clients consider more a mystery than a characteristic they draw on easily in their lives. To develop and maintain a strong, authentic confidence, the missing element is self-generated confidence.

Confidence is defined as a feeling or consciousness of one’s powers; a visceral belief that one will act well; a relation of trust or intimacy. This last aspect is easily overlooked and really important. For self-generated confidence, you must be your own best friend by trusting your inner voice and forgiving yourself when life takes your breath away.

Authentic, fullhearted confidence is the opposite of perfectionism or certainty.

What does self-generated confidence look like in action? I worked recently with a client who had a negative work incident and requested assistance to increase his confidence, which had been damaged. There were several steps we discussed that are core to cultivating a more resilient confidence that bends but does not break under duress. Self-generated confidence emerged as the missing element in his life, especially because externally generated confidence was out of his sphere of influence.

  1. Notice and document negative thoughts and their origins.

My client was able to tag some really juicy thoughts like: A thousand people standing behind me can do this job. If I was strong enough I wouldn’t need help. We are taught and we catch confidence-eroding thoughts from our family, our community, and society that become unconsciously embedded in our minds and hearts.

  1. Pay particular attention to how negative thoughts are tied to one’s societal power and a system of oppression.

In the case of my client, he was the only person of color on the management team in a company that was doing poorly. In letting him go, the CEO used as an excuse that my client hadn’t solved a number of problems that were very damaging to the company, even though my client had no authority or responsibility in the relevant areas. He had to debunk a seemingly positive, but really negative, disempowering thought: ‘If I was truly great they wouldn’t have been able to let me go.’  I gently pointed out that he was on the Titanic and no matter how well he had performed at his company, he was not going to get a seat on the lifeboat. He had neither the right skin color or positional power.

When understanding how internalized oppression works many years ago, I saw how I had bought into negative thoughts I received as a woman of color.  The most important lesson I learned was to identify these thoughts, many of which started with the words: “I should have…” That put an expectation on myself to know and anticipate white supremacy culture as well as live by it characteristics of ‘perfectionism’ and ‘one right way’.

  1. Develop antidote to negative thoughts.

The critical voice has to be quelled by strengthening your nurturing, wise voice. I always have my clients develop a vision of what they will be feeling, thinking, and doing that is different than in the present moment. It is an antidote exercise to cultivate self-generated confidence. It is not a fake, broad ‘you can do this’ affirmation. I encourage specificity and only what my clients can influence – themselves.

My client knew this nurturing voice as he used it with his son. This made it easier to start using this voice with himself. He also got to consciously ponder what attitudes he inherited from his family that he wanted to discard and which ones he wanted to pass on to his son. Breaking our patterns allows us to positively influence those we love.

In speaking with my client, I become conscious of how often I use my inner nurturing voice from years of practice. When I missed an overhead at tennis practice, I mentally noticed the two things I did right BEFORE thinking about how to correct what I did wrong. I reminded myself to hit the ball in front of me rather than saying what I most often hear from the women around me: I can’t believe I did that or how could I…fill in the blank. Given the strength and reinforcement of the critical voice around me, I self-correct constantly. My client told me recently how important it was to be rigorous for the effects to root. He now makes time every day for a self-counseling session where he uses his nurturing voice.

  1. Accept positive feedback from others when genuine.

‘Thank you’ is enough when given compliments. If it is genuine, take it in completely. Notice your patterns of deflecting or feeling you need to say something positive back. These behaviors are steeped in a dominant critical voice and in wanting to be liked. Your nurturing voice will also let you know when the praise is coming from someone else’s lack of confidence. ‘Thank you’ is even more appropriate then, rather than engaging in an inauthentic exchange of platitudes.

  1. Repeat steps over and over.

Self-generated confidence is a practice with valuable repercussions.  Apart from giving you the capacity to be in charge of your confidence level, it performs another core task. It allows you to weigh external evaluation against data from your own assessment. After any speech, presentation, or performance, I evaluate myself so that any other feedback is weighted based on my inner wise self. I focus on what I did well, especially given any challenging circumstances, and note 1-2 things I would do differently. I practice pride dipped in a warm coating of humility and joy.

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, says: “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval.”

Self-generated confidence is an essential, often neglected aspect of overall confidence worth cultivating. By increasing your ability to give generously and honestly to yourself and accept positive regard, you can then give it authentically to others. Wellness is contagious and is a gift that never goes out of style.

Valley of Death

Once again the valley of death and grief are a yoke on my corazón. My brother Miguel Angel chose to leave this earth four days before my scheduled visit. My plan was to check out the extent of his cancer, report back to familia in the US, and consider when I would return again. My plan was to sit next to his thin body and read him my memoir, which begins the day I met him and ends the last day I saw him eight years ago before he returned to México.

I receive an urgent email four days before my trip from my niece to call and a FB message soon after of his death during a work gathering. I step outside, needing to be outside, near mama pacha, under the great eastern sun, where I can dissolve in tears, text a good friend, and call all my Mexican family numbers to no avail. My phone carrier figures out there is a block on International calls. They unblock my phone to no avail because by then my family is not at home and the cells phones still won’t connect. By then they are at the funeral home. By then Miguel’s body is being prepared for a viewing and cremation. By then I am on the phone with my friend, wailing that I had known his time was close and should have gone down sooner. My pain sears me with damnation for being too caught up in a logically timed trip.

Miguel was – and I am – of the heart — foolish and giddy with hope even when smoke clouds our vision and all around us is smoldering resentment and bridges burning. I sit in the sun and sob, full of terror that I have become too distracted by issues less important than the great matters of life and death. A co-worker finds me and my body shakes with grief in her arms, because loss require many tears for many years. It is a stream that ebbs and flows as life continues its majestic journey from dawn to dark, crushing loss to unimaginable joy. A flow that revisits other losses and creates a wave to knock us into an undertow of unresolved yearning.

Arriving home, I change my flight to the next day, packing casually as the flight isn’t until 12:30. I sleep little and wake groggy. I finally reach my sister Rosita who confirms the mass is at 7 PM, just when my flight would arrive. I go into action, canceling my current flight and buying a new ticket with the tentative assurance I can be refunded due to the circumstances. Calling a Lyft, I hurriedly finish packing and endure a longer than usual drive due to the heavy morning traffic.

My heart is in full motion now, willing me forward while accepting I will arrive twenty minutes before my departure time instead of the requested three hours for an International flight. Logically speaking, no chance in hell to make that flight. I pull up a map of the airport so I know to turn right when I enter the terminal, racing with my carry-on to security. No line. Two men in front of me are going slowly through their paces so I ask to go ahead of them and they agree. I keep running toward gate 10, passing 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I hear my name over the loud speaker. I race past 6, 7, 8 and down the escalator. By then my lungs are bursting and I am panting, willing my legs forward past 9 to the very last gate. Screw logic I think as I settle into the emergency row, alone and ready to burst with relief and gratitude.

I attend the 7 PM mass, remembering the prayers in Spanish as I sit between my sisters Rosita and Tere and look at the photo of Miguel and his querida hija Aranza. We are all a bit befuddled when the priest asks us at the end of the service to clap for Miguel, but we do so. We then become a procession that sidles into the narrow hallway behind the main seating area. Passing walls lined with small vaults, we stop at the open one that already contains the ashes of Miguel’s mother and nephew. A song by Pepe Aguilar that my niece Aranza has picked plays on her mother’s phone as she sobs quietly, mounting a small ladder to place the wooden box of her father’s ashes inside.

I sleep in a bed the first night on Rosita’s bedroom floor near where Aranza sleeps in Rosita’s bed. Rodrigo, her 20-year-old grandson, sleeps in the room I am in now, on the first bed, by then moved to the room where Miguel spent four months dying. Aranza now sleeps on a foam mattress in the same room with me. This is all to say there is alot going on and the chess pieces of familia move sideways, diagonally, and backwards more than forward.

Thus, sleep is difficult even though I spend a good nine to ten hours in bed, keeping to the Mexican CST time zone at night and to my PST in the morning. Grief is a greedy lover. My dreams are intense and fractious. Amid the time change, a lack of exercise, much caretaking, and my family’s different eating patterns, I practice compassion. I tell Rosita I am here to be the ‘gray’ in the black and white of death. Grief eats at our perspective and demands answers that insist on a winner and loser.

It is about the same temperature here as where I live in Marin, but Rosita’s house, like most houses in Mexico City, only has portable heaters. Aranza and I set up the oscillating one wherever we go in the chilly house, as we play cards, practice jacks, and eat meals at odd hours. It warms our room each night and comforts our broken corazones.

“Soy muy dispersa.” We repeat this phrase over the next eight days when we lose our train of thought or forget what we are doing. We chuckle and feel our way back to the present moment with each other’s help. “You were talking about this and then you said that and then you started saying A so you were probably going to talk about B.

On Monday I accompany Aranza and Rosita to the therapist, bringing my laptop as I imagined sitting in the waiting room while they met. Pues no. He meets with clients in his living room, so I sit on the smaller couch and tenderly witness the session, listening to both of their expressions of grief and loss. Finally, Rosita tells him to ask me something. I feel my  sadness expand through my body and my voice quaver as I speak. Cannot remember what I said, but I know my wish was to add some shading and texture to what they had said. We end up eating at a place called Sushi Miguel, which I love for bearing my brother’s name. You can’t make this shit up.

Later that night in Rosita’s home, I go to my room to ground myself, to allow others to be away from my aura that pulses strongly. It can be sharp and forceful apart from my wishes to protect me. I had excused myself from watching a movie together. My niece comes in to say the DVD (old school) isn’t working and to spin in pirouettes around the room. Then el gato Sebastian pads in and climbs over my keyboard. My sister Rosita follows a few minutes later to say the DVD is still not working and to kiss me goodnight. She easily slides into telling stories in her masterful way, building tension slowly and tortuously, delivering perfectly timed punchlines with wonderful voice inflections. I keep writing amid the creatures surrounding me because I must. Because it is what writers do with angst and pain. Rosita notices she is wearing a slipper on one foot and a clog on the other. Sebastian climbs on my, uh, that space between the laptop and my chest.

“Doesn’t he bother you?” asks Rosita.

“Pues sí,” I answer.

“Do you want me to take him away?”

“No.” I pause. “If I removed everything that bothered me I would always be alone in a beautiful garden.” Rosita laughs and leaves with Aranza to go downstairs. Sebastian then settles on my neck, purring and occasionally gouging my neck with his claws. He was buena compania for Miguel as he lay in the same bed I have snuggled in for five nights now.

I spend Tuesday,  el día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, with Tere and her familia, eating at Johnny Rocket’s, something I have never done in the US. Afterwards we wander the mall, enjoying the lights and a break from underlying grief. My family here is BIG into Christmas decorations. I even try on some shoes, but I cannot find a style and color I like, which is a shame as the prices are so much more reasonable than in the US. Life does go on amid loss.

I spend several hours the next day sitting in the sun on a bench with Rosita and my laptop, translating my memoir with much more ease than I thought I would. At times Rosita makes the ‘time out’ signal and adds a story, asks a question, or gives her analysis of family dynamics. Aranza is picked up by her mother and abuela later that evening and I search my belongings for something to give her to seal our new connection. I decide on a small bottle of oil full of healing yerbas I had received at a training. I had used it once and she liked the smell. Many abrazos later, nos despedimos. Rosita and I continue wading through the memoir past midnight, avid readers caught up in observing ourselves and other family members as characters full of flaws and courage.

Fretting the next evening we will not finish the memoir, I tell her we can finish via phone or WhatsApp video. We end the storytelling near midnight again, snuggling in my bed with Sebastian. I sleep poorly this last night for a number of reasons and wake with a mild headache and tears brimming. Now that I am leaving, all the cortisol I have been releasing from my adrenal glands to supplement my natural energy is ebbing and grief is breaking open my heart again. I miss having one of my dad’s pañuelos instead of grabbing nearby toilet paper and napkins to mop up my tears.

I am grateful my last meal is with both Tere and Rosita, bringing us together to forge a plan for supporting Aranza. As I sit in the restaurant booth, I diagnose my headache, lack of appetite, and urge to vomit as an incoming migraine. They occur rarely for me, but this one is not surprising given my week. I love it that Tere asks and the waitress gives me some aspirin. This would never happen in the US. That and my electrolytes packet dissolved in water ease the surge of disequilibrium, but I still sadly leave my chilaquiles uneaten on my plate.

Tere drives me to the airport with Rosita and the braid of joy, sadness, and fullhearted longing that accompanies me on every visit to México surrounds my corazón as I hug them each in turn. I am once again alone in the emergency row, grateful I avoided a full-blown migraine with aggressive allopathic medication and the EFT tapping I was  taught by my naturopath when my first one occurred a few months after my mom’s death. I sooth my puffy eyes with the amazing vistas after take-off and then a romantic comedy that is predictable and sweet — much better for my soul than the fake ‘churro’ I leave for the cleaning crew.

Life and death hold hands all the time. They do not fear each other. This year and every year they welcome me to the valleys and mountaintops to sit and gather the unpredictable lessons each holds. I often say a day without tears is a day my heart is not doing its job. It is a day I have succumbed to the limitations of my logical mind and forgotten to listen to the wisdom of my corazón. The dominant US cultural norm of thinking over feeling breeds denial. I received a tough lesson on its impact last week. I can only go forward with a renewed commitment to listen and honor the beat of my heart despite the clamor of logic.

Que descanses en paz Miguel. I look forward to our new connection across the realms of vida y muerte.

Día de los Muertos

Every year as November first approaches I do the math to remember how long ago my father passed away on Día de los Muertos. This year I dutifully pulled up my calculator and subtracted 1996 from 2017. Twenty-one years. And then the obvious hit me. I can always know how long it has been since he passed on to his next life by subtracting 1 from my twins’ age. They are 22 and were just one year old when their abuelo died. I remember carrying Gina down the aisle behind the casket, her and Teo’s new life blooming while that same year Tot’s was fading.

I set up my altar this week, pulling out the pictures of my dearly departed and adding new ones from this year. The first step is always laying out the cross-stitched mantel with years of stains and a dark mark from when a candle burned too hot. I taped papel picado above the altar, remembering this ritual is not a dirge; it is an opening of the veil to celebrate the lives that touched me and my comunidades. It is a time to think about why I miss them and ponder how to keep them alive in the present moment.

I imagine my dad’s disappointed spirit hovering over the Dodgers as they lost in the World Series. I invoke my mom’s stove-top magic as I figure out what to do with a bag of zucchini that must be cooked tonight. I remember the mothers who grieve their sons’ vibrant spirits everyday and send snapchats to my beloved cuates.

Día de los Muertos is so ingrained in my being that I kept being surprised by seeing people in costume on Monday, my mind wondering what it was all about. This is amazing given I was so involved in Halloween while my children grew up — making costumes, figuring out what was the healthiest candy to hand out, trading my children’s candy for money so they were not overloaded with sugar and I could store it for the next Halloween.

In years past I have hosted gatherings to decorate sugar skulls, loving this tradition of blending death with creativity. I treasured giving my children and their friends the chance to be playful and imaginative with what so many people fear. As a writer I live in that crevice of light and shadow, writing drafts only to end their existence for another version and then another and then yet another.

I love the transparency of life and death, the calaveras that dance and meditate and watch TV. Each skeleton could be anyone of us and one day we will know what our antepasados experienced after their last out-breath. One day we will see there is no separation between any of us, alive and dead.

 

The first and only altar in my parents’ home was the one we created on a cake after my dad’s funeral, laying out the detallitos of his life that he allowed to be visible. The secrets were still within him, wisps of energy that over the years encircled us with cariño or strangled our voices or tripped us as we ran.

As I set up my altar year after year, I breathe in the musty smell of the newspapers I have carried from home to home. These crinkled papelitos wrap and unwrap memories and give space for those I loved and lost to whisper consejos in the stillness. I unbind my heart wounds and apply the salve gained from another year of living — that little bit more of perspective and wisdom nestled in my corazón that wraps around me like a soft, colorful rebozo.
#52essays2017

#TakeTheKnee for National Anthem

 

The US is in a tizzy about Colin Kaepernick not taking a knee during the National Anthem or who is or is not invited to the White House as NBA champions. Not affirming the parody of the National Anthem by standing has long been my practice before these two fine young men began speaking out against oppression. Since my twenties, which means a span of almost 40 years, I have not stood when I hear the opening strains of the song that begins “Oh say can you see…”

I can’t remember the exact dots that connected for me to make that decision so very long ago. I was in college and being steeped in white supremacy culture, like a person in a strait jacket, twisting and flailing desperately to refuse the mandates of perfectionism, individualism, either/or, power hoarding, and objectivity. I was thankfully not alone, having found others who sought the antidotes of deepening our political analysis of racism and oppression.

My relationship to this country was altered for the good as I refused to make complex issues simple. The act of not standing for the anthem emerged. It is often uncomfortable. I have blessedly lived a life where I am rarely in a place the anthem is played. And there are times when I have stood. Circumstances dictate my approach.

When there is little chance of serious repercussions, I stay seated and see it as a choice to refuse the glory associated with a country so far from equity and opportunities for all. It is similar to the choice I make when deciding whether to give a standing ovation or get a better look at something or someone. It is valued based, not herd mentality based.

As in the case of Colin Kaepernick, professional sporting events are a place where I have a choice. In the San Francisco bay area I generally sit, in other places I may go to the restroom when the anthem is played. The few specific times I stand are when I feel the negative impact is not worth my emotional and physical safety. Oppression is real in my life.

I had initially been excited to join the #blackoutNFL movement until Colin was hired by an NFL team. Conflicted about football overall because of the violence and long-term damage to players, I also appreciate the grace and athleticism. I have not watched any football this season and turn down my favorite sports talk radio when they discuss football. Then I read a great article by Roni Dean-Burren, Ph.D. which voiced some of my discomfort with the movement, reminding me of the intersectionality of all oppression and of what gets the attention of men and what does not. She is NOT observing the NFL boycott “because it is steeped in hypocrisy and misogynoir.”  I have not returned to football yet. I have enjoyed more tennis. More importantly, I am taking time to rethink actions that may have become habitual and unconscious to my detriment.

The core antidote to white supremacy culture is to stay alert to the insidious straps that wind their way around my body, heart, and mind. To be conscious and question myself regularly. Not because I am flawed or inadequate, but because oppression is wide and deep and ever present. I have to remain girded for the long haul. While sports, both playing and watching, often given me a chance to enjoy my competitive nature, they can also wound me.

Habits are powerful present moment antidotes to despair and I maintain the discipline of assessing mine as causes and conditions change. It is both the cost of oppression and the true glory of joining my heart, mind, and body for the benefit of all. #52essays2017

 

Living with Grief

“I don’t when, or where, or how, but I see a tattoo in your near future. Perhaps it will be the date of Javi’s death, or his birth, but you will sear his pain into your skin to keep his heart beating in yours. An acknowledgement that his life and his death are part of who you are. It is a full moon and he calls out to all of us across space and time. He reminds us of what is not yet done, what arms we must now take up, what sorrows we must now bear and what joys only we can express.”

I spoke that into my Notas de voz app in the middle of the night on August 7, 2017, a week and a day after my son’s best friend died of an accidental overdose of Xanax and alcohol at age 22. Three days after the full moon my son celebrated his 22nd birthday with many friends he had met through Javi, who had planned to be there in body, but only hovered in spirit.

Another question woke me a few nights later: How to stay present in the grief of the moment and not get tangled in the grief of the world or the grief of the past. Not an easy task ever. In Charlottesville, Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer said: “Remember in your heart: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. You make it a point to look at it, and say to yourself, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’And that’s how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”

With my mother’s birthday on August 18th, the grief from the past entered the tattered muscles of my heart. Grief is always present if I pay attention, coming like a wave and triggering all the losses in my life, no matter how much I honored and felt them at the moment. There is no end, only a settling in with grief. That is why I mark dates on my calendar, why I keep reaching out to people who have suffered loss. Like tiny petals from a flower, grief falls into the moist soil of our corazones and slowly becomes one with our lives. Someone has the same accent or we use the same gesture of one who has left this earth and we wince with remembrance. My practice is to welcome the moments with a deep breath of love and gratitude for my life, for the opportunity to feel deeply, love deeply, and offer compassion to others living with grief.

I sat with my son for several days after Javi died, along with his twin sister, and witnessed his shattered heart. I set up an altar with a vela and some flowers. My son added an art piece painted by Javi and a bottle of his favorite alcohol. We said very little, offering him a wide meadow to empty tissue boxes, eat in little spurts, fall asleep with the lights and TV on, drink and sob and drink and sleep.

His wings dragged behind him, his breath stuck in his throat. He could only see a few feet ahead, his wish to fly unfettered with so much space he could close his eyes seemed impossible. He was so weary, so wanting to rest.

But ahora he can’t with his heart ripped to shreds, his guilt a noose around his neck, time too slow and too fast at the same time. How could it be a week already, how could the minutes pass so slowly. He dreads ahora, dreads going to sleep, dreads waking up and facing the same horrible reality. I can’t ease the pain that is a knee to his gut, a kick to his thigh, a punch breaking his jaw.

Al final, he is still alive and Javi is still dead. Al final, life will bear a gap where Javi would have been, as on his birthday. Al final, there is death. Al final, there are tears dripping off his nose. Al final, he will not sit in Javi’s room again with the fan he never turned off, will not talk tats with him or be stupid drunk with him.

Al final, I cannot make this go away. Al final, al final, al final there is nothing to soothe Javi’s mom, nothing to say or do that changes death. Nothing to take away the knives of sorrow that pierce my son’s heart. Heavy already with David’s death last year and Javi’s now, fear grips him about who will be next. He might even wish sometimes it would be him so he doesn’t have to ever look inside a casket again at a friend’s still body. As for me, I wish these young men of color would egg on each other’s brilliance as much as they do their risk-taking with drugs and alcohol. But then I remember they were not meant to survive and they do their best in a world that does not honor their gifts except to appropriate them for profit. When I looked for news the day after his death, I saw that he was not the only young man of color that died that night in Oakland. RIP Javi. Que descanses. Que todos descansamos until the next wave washes over and reminds us we are never alone in our grief. #52essays2017

Familia de Agua

Blood and water, given and chosen.

We are born into a familia that can rarely give us all we require to grow into our full vibrant selves. If I had been told that earlier in life, I would have saved myself years of resentment and grief, years of trying to squeeze love from a blood stone. When I did awaken to this reality, I saw my life has been filled with people who were my familia de aqua, people who came around when I required a lifeboat to take me to shore. We were born to be raised en comunidad, not in nuclear family silos that breed scarcity and competition. Many spiritual paths understand this and fight to teach this amid the “rugged individualism” of the US culture, seeing relations as a broad notion that signifies connection with all beings.

When I was very young, Gloria was the first person that brought water to my parched corazón. She was raised by my mom’s tía and should have been introduced to us as our aunt. My mom didn’t do that so I didn’t realize for years she was my relation, even if not by blood. She struggled under the harsh judgement of my parents, but her indomitable spirit and cariño seeded love in my heart and allowed me to play and feel delight as a little girl and now as a woman.

The next water woman to enter my life was Judy, a neighbor who gave me unconditional love in my early teens and for many years to come. Even as her own family struggled through challenges, her unwavering belief in my capacity to succeed and flourish stayed strong. Her twin Jill also bolstered my self confidence when we would all be together. Judy, pictured on the left, would even introduce me as her daughter to people who would give us a funny look. They wondered what she meant, since our closeness in age and difference in color tones did not match those words.

I met my buddhist teacher in my early forties and her commitment to my spiritual path set me on a course of fearless intimacy. I had been in a spiritual desert for many years, and she guided me into the soto zen practice toward freedom with her  teachings on dismantling and transforming the enduring legacy of oppression. I eventually vowed to live by the buddhist precepts in a jukai ceremony. Ryūmon Sensei’s voice, teachings, and example lit a path that continues today.

In my mid-forties, as I faced my mother’s impending death, I was directed to Tereza, a holistic curandera who welcomed my exhausted spirit. She infused me with full-hearted peace when the final breath escaped my mom’s mouth and kept deepening my wisdom and bravery in the years to come. She still guides my journey and shares hers with me as we walk together as healers and peaceful warriors in a world that asks us to develop and bring forth all our gifts to honor our ancestors.

I longed for many years for my mom to be what I was told she would be for me, but once I released that delusion, I could take what she did offer and see her as a human being who did her best. While I could not heal her wounds, my comunidad supported me to heal mine. The practice of accepting what is beneficial and grieving what does not serve my spirit has been of inestimable value in all my relations.

Because of this, I understand and practice the essential and necessary act of stepping in with younger people when the present moment asks that of me. It is a blessing to offer to others what their parents and blood relatives cannot. Breaking through unhealthy patterns of isolation is a liberating opportunity to be in our authentic power and nurture that in others.

I have highlighted specific individuals, but there have also been groups who have encouraged and validated my path. As a writer, I can name many teachers and readers who share their creative wisdom and fierce determination so I can create my very best.

Familia de agua remind us that we are much more than we often believe due to the inequitable strictures of who matters more and less in this society.  It truly takes a village and I am always on the lookout for water kin. I also stay alert for when it is my moment to be familia de agua to the generation who will carry on a legacy of peace, justice, and joy.

The Camino

I watched The Way with Martin Sheen (birth name Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez) starring as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo walking trek. It hearkened memories of my own hitchhike/walking pilgrimage in 1979 with several friends after a study abroad program. He took the French Way and started in France, while we started the same route in northern Spain as depicted on the map.

We only had a few weeks so we walked and hitchhiked to stay within our timeline. I had only told my sister I was hitchhiking, but my mom, querida metiche that she was, went through Susan’s letters and found out. I received a letter admonishing me to stop ‘hijacking’. I was earnestly looking for ways to be open with my parents about my inward and outward journey, but I did not know how to translate it from US born daughter to parents who crossed borders to find a better life. To my mom, this pilgrimage was a sign that I only wanted to be a parrandera and abandon my studies at Stanford.

She acknowledged receiving the pamphlet I sent on the pilgrimage and that it looked muy bonito, but because it meant stopping at churches and convents, she wondered if I was una Sta. Teresita de Jesús o un San Francisco de Asis. She admitted to believing in God, but also in comfort, something she thought I might want to consider. While we did at times scramble to find cheap food and lodging, we soon met a man who gave us a ride and delivered us at a convent where we were treated to a nice bed and warm food by the nuns. After that, they directed us to the next convent that would welcome and house us. Unlike the pilgrimage documented in the movie, we did not stop at the designated locations to get a stamp because we were digressing from the official version and using the kindness of strangers who gave us rides when they saw our trusty hitchhiking hand stuck on the end of a cardboard pole. (Yes, Sherie, I still have it!)

Several moments remain indelible. There was the day we met some motorcyclists and Karen hopped on the back of one for a ride on the winding roads. I felt the terror of her safety, wondering what I would do if she were injured or killed. She was so tough, but she also had a tender side that provoked my protective gene to watch out for her. I breathed a huge sigh when the ride ended.

There were the meal breaks along the road with gente amables or in a small cafe when Sherie would unpack and play her guitar, inviting us to sing:

May all your dreams bloom like daisies in the sun
May you always have stars in your eyes
May you not stop running not until your race is run
And may you always have blue skies

 

Finally, there was the very end of our pilgrimage, walking up to the main cathedral and hearing the bells ring as if they were timed to go off when we arrived. Magical for three young peregrinas who were drinking in the life of being in the present moment without our usual duties and responsibilities. Here is an excerpt from a poem I wrote:
Nos encontramos por un día de nuestro camino
nos unimos con pan, con conversación
el tiempo que tuvimos era bastante para alegrarnos que todavía hay gente buena
nos encontramos hoy con mas esperanza
mientras seguimos nuestro camino por la vida

One day I will return and walk the whole way, hopefully with one or both of my twins. While Santiago de Compostela is an actual journey to a sacred place and shrine, it is a reminder of the other pilgrimages I have taken and am on now, those long journeys or searches of lofty purpose or moral significance. To every writer and artist, every parent and caretaker of a parent, every activist and lover, every monk and educator, every border crosser and rule breaker – I honor and salute your weary feet, tired souls, and unrelenting belief in the power of the human spirit to rise above the hateful, fear mongering acts that surround us daily. Thank you for believing in your amazing dreams in the sun and don’t stop running until your race is run. Ashé. #52essays2017 #weareone

 

 

The WOW Journal

When did you know your life was in danger, your dreams were about to be thrown out with the bathwater, you heart was about to close its doors forever? For me it was when I got the official notice of my rent increase. I had sucked it up the two years before, figuring out a way to pay; convincing myself it was worth it each time I watched the beautiful sunset over Mt. Tam or soaked in the hot tub. But that all dried up in my throat in the late summer of 2014. This time I was gasping, choking in paradise. I wanted to climb up a wall and escape the vice that had been my joy. Taking a few days to settle down, my heartbeat slowed into a rhythm and I considered a multitude of options – apartment mate, cheaper apartment, boat, living with my sister. And then one day my eyes opened, awake with present moment bodhicitta – I no longer needed the panal. I was going to the forest to sit under the bodhi tree and test my life decisions along the way.

What most people said when I revealed I was giving up my ‘palace’ in Larkspur and being intentionally without a permanent address was WOW.

A friend noted I would be going from wild city Giants championship parade horde to monkish, rural Grass Valley in a day. I delight in the contrary combos. Stopping for an In’nOut meal before landing in a seven day silent, vegetarian sesshin. Wearing sexy undies with well traveled jeans. Applying hot pink lipstick before a sweaty winner-take-all playoff tennis match.

In some ways this journey was about failure. Failure to finish my books in the bay area, failure to build my business. Failure to find true love. Failure to build a nest my teens wanted to rest in. Failure to adapt to congestion. Failure to earn what it costs to live here with space and time freedom. Failure to want a job, to fulfill other people’s dreams, to give up my truth to be liked, failure to say what others want to hear. Failure to play small or do what I already know what to do.

What did I do and what did I learn in the early fall of 2014? I released 90% of my ‘worldly possessions’ and drove to Grass Valley to stay with a friend who was recovering from knee surgery and snuggle with her gata, Miss Mittens Marie. The goal was to finish my memoir, develop my speaking and writing life, build my business, and get into great shape in a quiet environment. I covered the barbed wire of fears with a thick blanket of determination and trust and prepared to scale the mountain of prosperity and heightened well being. I found as the days passed I could not fall back on my past experiences and knowledge. The words of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi rang true: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. My mind said I could do it all well because I had so much wisdom. I re-learned to beware the expert’s mind, which can be more dangerous than barbed wire.

 

I sold my first gen Prius sooner than planned when the battery failed after almost 200,000 miles. I bought and crashed my motorcycle, derailing my get into great shape plan. I sent my memoir to an editor, increased my business skills with no resulting monetary results, and lost and found my faith again and again. I moved to another friend’s home in December and discovered car sharing opportunities. Instead of home and car upkeep, I poured over my calendar figuring out how to get where I wanted to go, both in terms of goals and public transportation, always written in pencil. I re-learned that detours are to be expected, especially if you are atrevida enough to aim high.

I embarked on a series of trips in March, April and May, including the AWP writer’s conference in Minneapolis, MN, a special celebration of Las Comadres para las Americas in Austin, TX, and a family visit in México. I began the arduous process of querying agents about my memoir – finding, among other reasons, that my failure to be famous and/or addicted stymied agents’ interest in representing me.

I re-learned that even if you are on the right path, taking risks means dead ends are inevitable and signal a strategic moment to pause. My reptilian brain kicked in with each rejection, sending triggers to my body and spirit to shut down my love of writing and ‘settle’. My frontal lobe would then kick into creative mode, gather all of my information to create a new approach, and then figure out what other options existed. Being unmoored meant I could go in any direction I wanted and  pivot quickly because I was not beholden to a location, person, idea, or organization. My molecules never settled, reminding me  that ‘unsettling’ for a buddhist is akin to groundlessness, right where I wanted to be. I was instead required to internally moor myself spiritually, emotionally, and mentally.

I began a month-long house sit with a cat named Jezebel who, like me, yearned to tunnel in the underbrush and tiptoe precariously along the top of fences to explore the great, bright, shiny unknown. Wise people know it is skillful to get help when necessary, so I hired a coach who pointed out I interrupted myself before finishing my sentences, signaling too many balls in the air. His advice was to focus on what I loved and did well – coaching as a steady base to maintain homeostasis.

I re-learned to keep your head up amid the narrow, shadowy zone of 1 step forward, 1 step sideways, 1 step back, 1 step forward. It required me to dance away from ‘how do I’ to trust my inner wisdom and unrelenting persistence rather than sink into comparisons. People were too busy with their own challenges to reach their goals to judge me. In fact, they were still saying ‘WOW’. I re-learned releasing anxiety about outcomes opens up space to connect with your higher self and that of others.

 

In July I journeyed to Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center to meditate in a sangha, wash dishes, shake compost through a screen, thin fennel, and hike to Muir beach. My emotional and spiritual gas tank filled and I received an email on the second to last day that I was accepted to Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference to begin in 2 days. The stars aligned for me to catch a ride and room with a dear colega de escritura. These brief moments of community were precious in between the constant leaving and joining, coming and going with solitude my constant companion. I re-learned to STAY until the mud settles and opportunities can be seen in the clear water.

In July I rented a room near my Larkspur palace and re-connected with my yoga studio, Toastmasters club, and the beauty of Marin. I queried two more agents, had two essays accepted for publication and coached people through gentle nutritional cleanses. I started a many months process of navigating the bay area after abandoning my 40 year addiction to the car culture. I re-learned that strong bridges wait for your return, like a trusted friend.

 

The road more traveled has never appealed to me. No one ever believed I would be the settled one. I had the fifteen addresses in ten years, the sixteen soccer teams, myriad salsa classes, the multiple occupations. No one said- Yes, she will find one man, one house, one job, one favorite dress. She will wear a pair of shoes until they fall off her feet, she will have one sports team from birth to death. That was not what was said.

Many wish to be young again with the wisdom of our experiences; that is much of how I felt during my year wandering in the watery forest. I left the harbor and like Mission Impossible, it blew up – I did not want to have the option of returning to my previous life and mindset. Instead, I embraced my focus on possessions that we carry with us no matter where we travel. After a year of no permanent address, I again chose Marin as my home base, living in a ‘treehouse’ cottage with light and a view. It was time to rest. The journey brought back a renewed commitment to the lessons that unfolded and that I carry with me as I continue to roam madre tierra.

#52essays2017