#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

 

Present Moment essay #22: 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

Present Moment essay #21: 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, I would have saved myself years of resentment and grief, years of trying to squeeze blood from a stone. When I did awaken to this reality, I saw how 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. Having been in a spiritual desert for many years, 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 light my path every day.

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 fullhearted power to be at peace when the final breath escaped my mom’s mouth and to keep 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. #52essays

 

 

Present Moment essay #20: 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

 

 

Present Moment essay #18: Swiss Army Knife – A Minor Super Power

When I was in my early twenties, my dad bought me a Christmas gift that I still have — a Swiss Army knife. He almost never was the gift buyer. I doubt many young women can say their dad gifted them a knife that has been a beloved companion for 28 years. After 9/11, this compañera became a ‘threat’ and I stood several times at the security checkpoint with terror in my heart, realizing I had not left my knife at home. I resisted the new reality that I couldn’t fly with it in my purse and became an ace at locating an information desk and devising a way to mail it home. Sometimes I reluctantly put it in my carry-on and checked it if time allowed. Now they have those special hubs where you can mail stuff home for a hefty price.

Full of useful tiny tools, I have pulled out many splinters gently and cut wayward threads on pants, skirts, and shirts. Apples and cheese have felt the larger knife slice through them with precision and the little awl has poked needed holes in plastic and paper. My toothpick unwedges the green between my teeth and the regular and tiny screwdrivers loosen or tighten my screws, depending on what is needed. The nifty can opener and bottle openers have saved many an outdoor trip and even the cork screw has stepped in when the wine is ready to drink but the buyer has not come prepared. It took me a few years to realize I carried a small saw with me — more of a fascination to stare at than a tool I count on.

The toothpick and tweezers had been lost for a number of years, and I was delighted when I researched and ordered a order a packet of them online. One day the red plastic cover fell off of a side. I have glued it on a number of times but it keeps falling off. It has moved from my purse to my backpack to my keychain to my tennis bag.  Writing this inspired me to give my compañera a good cleaning, oiling, and sharpening.

The term “Swiss Army knife” was coined by American soldiers after World War II due to the difficulty they had in pronouncing “Offiziersmesser”, the German name. There now exist a plethora of knife options in all sizes, colors, and price points.

What is more interesting to me beyond the knife’s longevity and usefulness is the symbolism of the knife for my father and me. The father who was driven to buy it when for countless years and countless lists he drank his café and left the decision-making and purchasing to my mother. And who was I as a young woman that a Swiss Army knife seemed like a good gift to ask for?

I was living at the Catholic Worker in East Los Angeles and working on Skid Row when I opened the gift with a surprised smile on my face. I had become intrigued at fixing things in the hospitality house and a Swiss Army knife helped tasks go more smoothly in old buildings with constant small repairs.

The knife is a tool of survival and readiness, serving as a talisman of these qualities I leaned on for many years. I live in a world that pushes me to believe I have to focus on my survival and be ready to tend to my needs when others might not. It has morphed in the present moment to be a symbol of resilience and power, like a faithful guardian angel that has my back and celebrates my constant addition of knowledge, experience, and tools to support an abundant mindset. Because of this, I created a second generation tradition by gifting my twins each a Swiss Army knife in their late teens. It was like giving them a minor super power to encourage them on their journey towards authentic resilience, constant growth, and the delight of taking care of business with the flick of a tiny tool. #52essays2017

Present Moment essay #17: Mother Loss

My heart has been heavy this week. I thought the goblins and ghouls that sneak into my thoughts more easily near the full moon were poking me into this ‘hot loneliness’. Then, at the Chill and Still yoga class, I quieted down enough to understand it was Mother Loss, awakened by Mother’s Day. June marks fourteen years since my mother passed on to her next realm. I had not been thinking about her, which is why I missed the deeper source of my grief and malaise.

Instead, my thoughts had been on two friends and mothers who passed away within months of my father’s death in 1996. This remembrance was sparked by seeing two rose bushes I planted, one for each, in full bloom. I carefully cut some sprigs to mix in a bouquet — honoring them and mi Mamy Isabel, who doted on her rosas.

Meg died first, the cancer that had stalked her for a few years finally snaking into her brain one month after attending my father’s funeral. She had desired motherhood for many years and finally adopted Natalie, who was about seven years old, a rambunctious girl who must be in her early forties now. I hope she has the same spirited approach to life that stretched Meg’s reticent personality to its limits and beyond. Natalie lost two moms and I wonder if she feels the heaviness I do around this time of year. Meg sent me a card many years ago with a quote by Adrienne Rich that nestles in one of my drawer:

An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

These words she gifted me have set a high bar in my life and I don’t regret that. I am even more honored she read these words and thought of me. It gave value to a word used too easily and with no thought of its amazing power. Love is a verb and this quote has reminded me of that through the years thanks to Meg. She is nodding quietly at this, a slight smile playing on her face. She was one of very few white friends over the years who did not decide one day, with no dialogue or clear explanation, to unfriend me before that became a thing on FaceBook. She went that hard way with me.

Willa was a force of power and grace who I met at Alameda County Child Protective Services. Her nails were long and her heart was as wide as the Pacific Ocean. After losing her first husband, she had found love again and her son joined an older daughter. Willa died because of the elitism system of health care when the Richmond Kaiser “standby” emergency room was not equipped to deal with her life-threatening illness, a classic case of structural racism. This poem emerged while in my MFA program.

Willa, Willa, Willa
You died too young
left your children too young
your oldest daughter an orphan
her father a Jonestown casualty

what can she use for hope now
what can help her know justice
when her father drinks cyanide for breakfast
on an island he flew to for community

when her mother’s heartbeat fluttered one last time
en route to a second hospital
the hospital she first drove to
had shut its emergency room down

greedy, racist economics killed you, Willa
heart that overflowed in kindness
black body that could not hold the pain
that ate your nerves as you drove that night
drained your adrenals down to empty

you could have lived
to tuck your children into bed
could have laughed that deep joy into the world
for days and weeks and years

if the world loved your people

you are with me when I wear shades indoors
when I grow my fingernails long
your spirit hovered as I watched my babies grow
beyond the age of your son at your death
past your daughter’s age at your death

you are in me when I rail against hate and ignorance
that deprives black and brown women of dignity and health care

Willa, Willa, Willa
Your name means desire and protection
May your strength rain down upon us all


These three mothers made an indelible mark on my soul and on my mothering. My mother never used the word ‘love’, but that did not stop me from learning what I could from how she tended her garden and embracing love, amor, y cariño in my mothering. I take no day for granted with my twins, and am committed to doing justice to the complexity of motherhood.

#52essays2017

Present Moment essay #16: Read it and Run

I became a whitewater river guide the year I held my last j-o-b. That would be 1992. It was a rocky beginning at guide school and in my new path with self-employment, but the river has more than made up for that in life-long lessons since then that are true on and off the water.

Right Attire
Enjoying the beauty and being safe on the river requires having the right attire and equipment. On the river it would be a hat that won’t fall off, clothes that dry quickly, shoes or sandals that will stay on, and a life jacket that squeezes you enough to know it will stay with you if you end up in the water. Off the river, this is still necessary. I think of it as a uniform. I have my working at home uniform, my being in public uniform, my workout uniform, and my fiesta uniform, por dar ejemplos. They all require a different attitude and there is a purpose for each. It is not about bowing down to other people’s requirements or expectations. It is about setting myself up for success so I can focus on my goals and aspirations.

Right Company
I am very intentional to bring people on the river who did not grow up feeling comfortable in water and who add racial/ethnic diversity to the natural world. As a river guide, I assess and then re-assess the strengths and growth areas of the folks in my boat because I count on them to listen to me and trust my leadership. I am not expecting perfection, but the strengths have to balance out so that the raft does not veer too much to the left or right. I also make sure we are all seated in a posture like a tripod, balancing on our two feet and our butt, allowing for the best use of our power and for avoiding a spill into the river.

Right Directions
To get down the river, I have to know and use the right commands at the right times. To be a guide is to speak up often, loudly, con ganas. Your voice is your most important asset.
Just like a car, the raft can go in five directions. Paddle forward, back paddle, right turn, and left turn. In many ways, the most important command and direction is: STOP! This allows for the pause necessary to change direction, to celebrate success, to catch your breath, and to drink water. People tend to wonder ‘why you would paddle backwards on a moving river?’ Sometimes the best plan is to pull away from danger rather than hit it head on.

Right Effort
More than anything, as a guide my goal is to stay in the current. It is the true meaning of going with the flow, connecting with the river’s knowledge of the most efficient path to your destination. My most important tool to stay in the current is the guide paddle, which has a longer handle and blade. I am the rudder,  quietly moving the raft or course-correcting when my paddlers are not exerting even power on each side.

Right Thinking
As the guide, I am always looking a few curves ahead, like a chess player who makes every move with the next few in mind. In essence, I am always setting my raft and paddlers up to manage the dangers and thrills of the river with grace and ease. I also know that the best laid plans are full of rocks hidden just below the surface of the water, of a paddler who gets distracted just as I call a command, of other rafts who may not understand the etiquette of river collaboration. Thus, the only plan that ultimately works is the read the river and then run it. Being in the present moment is the intention and truest approach of every guide.

Right Decision
Almost inevitably, someone, including the guide, may fall in the river. The instructions are to listen to the voice of the guide to tell you what to do. Generally someone will pull you into a boat. Nice if it is the boat you fell out of, but any boat will do. If far away, then perhaps the best option is to lay on your back with your feet up to push away from any danger like a rock, your hands as paddles, and your life jacket as flotation to hold you up. If in breaking waves, you breathe in the troughs between waves. The one who falls in has the best story, even if they also have the most moments to feel the power of the river and sport a few bruises.

Right Timing
If you are excited about becoming a river guide, summer is the time to be trained in an art that will spill out into your daily life. The river is life, beauty abounding, dangers known and unknown, destinations worth every minute of quiet, determined effort with people joined by trust and circumstance. I became a river guide in my late thirties and trained with a woman in her mid-fifties. She is still guiding in her seventies. The force is strong in her.

If being a guide is not your path, than getting on the river is a great option. My first trip was down the Colorado river and the ability to be in such splendor was breath-taking. Yes, I fell in. I mostly guide and paddle on the South Fork of the American river northeast of Sacramento, California. It is new for me every time, as is every day I wake up with gratitude for being alive.

Right Ending
What the river teaches me is that a life of ease and joy requires a Plan A, B, and C. When that fails, as it will repeatedly, remember to read life and run it with your heart, mind and spirit to guide you. #52essays2017

Present Moment essay #15: One Size Does Not Fit All

The Cuddy power pose has been circulating amid folks and is one of the most watched TED talks. It sits into my “One Size Fits All” (OSFA ) file. This is the file that carries the motivation to be writing my coaching/motivational books, the ones that say “One Size does Not Fit All”. The books that contain the challenges and successes of the many people I have coached over the years because they chose to embrace their non-status quo size and create the frameworks and tools that match their life, especially in terms of dealing with interpersonal and societal oppression on a daily basis.

While the Cuddy pose may have some value, nowhere in the talk or book does Ann Cuddy address what happens when women and people of color show their power in a system that is set up to minimize and distort our power. We do not live on a level playing field and the world responds differently to our power posing. I work with my coaching clients on both presence AND taking into account the social, political, psychological, and economic impact of oppression. I read Cuddy’s book Presence because an African-American male client wanted to work with it. I then infused our conversations with the lens of the current state of racism he faces daily and how to notice and manage his particular presence in a corporate setting with very few people of color. Some of the initial questions I asked to enhance the book content were:
When did you feel most present in last two weeks (confident and enthusiastic)?
When this happens, what are the demographics in room? (Race/gender/rank/other variables?)

These are not in the book because OSFA books and speakers don’t worry about the stereotype of being a black man or even a small Latina woman with a big aura. He is magnified and I am diminished. In each instant we feel the privileged folks asking us to be the size that brings them comfort and a sense of supremacy. One of the quiet ways this happens is restaurant seating. Once I saw this, I added yet another habit of scanning the restaurant and deciding where I wanted to sit. If the person directed me to a location I did not like, I voiced my preference. I often tell them before they say anything so I don’t have to experience the ‘ouch’.

The power pose requires time in the bathroom posing in a stall before a big meeting or event. I don’t choose to spend time in bathrooms to pose when societal limitations descend. I might spend half my life in the bathroom! I do, however, see restrooms as a refuge, but not to pose. I smile at my reflection instead — I am real, I am enough, I am loved, and I am powerful. “I see you” is my message. That is my power – inside me all the time. Another question I posed to my client was:
What are adjectives that define your power (to)?

While I absolutely agree with taking up appropriate space, that is not going to look the same for each person depending on your blend of historically privileged and not privileged identities and your environment. While Cuddy says the ‘imposter experience’ is experienced across all types of people (and I agree), my work with POC and women confirm it manifests differently and more profoundly for these groups because society is telling us we don’t deserve to be successful and powerful. As a black man, my added question to my client on this phenomena was:
How to you experience the imposter phenomena and how does the combination of ‘black’ and ‘man’ make it particularly challenging?

Interestingly enough, the value of the power pose has been challenged even without the lens of equity being considered. Even in the discounting of it, no mention is made of who was studied and who was not.

The issue about OSFA writers is that people like Ann Cuddy or Ariana Huffington in her book Thrive get the benefit of the doubt with no credible science or awareness of differences in power. I read Thrive as a possible comp for my books, and noted she quoted hundreds of people, mostly white and mostly men, which seems antithetical to her positioning as a powerful woman. Sometimes a page had no less than 8 quotes -with very little original material.

The focus with my client was to use the notion of presence to get at what I have seen over the years build relaxed confidence. In addition to the ones I have already shared, these are questions to answer to understand your authentic power and internalize the external power pose idea without having to stand like superman/woman/girl/person in a bathroom stall.

Take one a day and explore your authentic power to be your brightest, most amazing self.

What are two personal inner core values?
Why are they core and when was a time it proved to be important to you?
When did you recently feel present and saw that someone else became more present because of your relaxed confidence and attentiveness?
How do you capture moments/situations when you feel personally powerful, in control of your own psychological state?
What has personal power revealed to you about your best self?
What body postures do you manifest that signifies power or powerlessness?
What is your ‘haka’ – where is your ‘belonging place’ and what you do that demonstrates pride in your heritage? How do you reconnect to your spiritual/heart strength?
#52essays2017

Present Moment essay #14: On the Road

“I crashed my motorcycle.”

That was what I said to the few people I told. They asked if I was OK and asked about the damage to the bike. I said yes, nonchalantly, I had bruises on my legs and the bike would need repairs. Only a very, very few knew what really happened, how I ended up laying on the road under a motorcycle I had purchased on a Wednesday, insured on Thursday, and taken out for a practice drive on a Friday.

I had moved out of my apartment and re-gifted, sold, or donated almost all of possessions in the early fall of 2014. About 7 boxes of items were stored at a few locations until I built my next nest, fluffed out my feathers, and settled down. My plan was to stay with friends and family and focus on my writing and network marketing business. A motorcycle seemed like a logical part of my downsizing plan. Even though I owned a first gen Prius, 95% of the time it was only me in the car. Anyone caught in San Francisco bay area traffic or a hard time finding parking knows what I mean. I wanted to use the carpool lane and have easy parking. Light and nimble drove my decisions.

The original plan was to wait until my house sold to buy the motorcycle.  The Prius’ hybrid battery began its death wheeze in October and I upped my original timeline, figuring I needed some form of transportation, as I was then staying with a friend in Grass Valley and there was little public transportation. I had taken classes from Moto U  in the summer months before saying adios to my apartment. They did not believe in the weekend classes format. They wanted you to take a series so your body slowly acclimated to the bike and the skills. I believed them.

When I mentioned my goal to transfer to two wheels and a motor, people either loved the idea of me on a bike, dubbing me a ‘Buddha on a bike’ or they hated it, worried about my safety. My son, 19 at the time, said: “Mom, motorcycles are so unsafe.” I paused, noting the oxymoron of him admonishing me at a moment in his life when all things unsafe were considered his purview.

I took my Moto U instructors’ advice and bought safety gear, including a lovely, luminescent yellow jacket, along with padded pants, thick gloves, and a DOT approved helmet. I found the perfect starter bike at a good price in Grass Valley. The one recommended by my instructors. A Honda 250 Rebel.

I wanted to take it slow. Problem was, there were a number of circumstances that did not support that goal. Challenge one was that several months had passed since my classes of a new skill I had not really mastered. Second, there was no real slow in Grass Valley. The roads where I was staying are hilly and also curvy.  My intuition kept prodding me with this data. Heeding my inner valid worry, I found a weekend class and signed up, but it wasn’t for a week and a half after I had bought and driven home my fledgling motorcycle. I  paused, pondered, and then decided to climb back on the verve and fragile confidence that had gotten me home from the motorcycle store atop my new ride.

My plan on Friday was to go for a simple circle drive. I hate admitting my first mistake, because it would come back to send me to the wrong side of the road. When riding, you first open the throttle fully to warm up the engine. You then down it down. I was sitting on my bike, letting it warm up when a car pulled up facing me with people sitting in it. Why I let them dictate my next actions is beyond rational thought so I will just say it.  I was making up stories about what they thought about me sitting there, so I drove away. My plan was to turn the throttle down at the end of the road, but I became completely wrapped up in managing the bumpy, narrow downhill beginning to my practice run and I forgot.  I then missed my crucial third turn because the smoother, wider road was still curvy and I saw the turn too late. No worries, I would just turn down the next road, but it did not come for a while, and then each right turn sent me onto road after road that didn’t lead me home. Cars would show up in my rearview mirror and urge me to drive faster. As my heart raced, I repeated what I learned in my classes – hug the bike with my knees, sit with a straight back, check my mirrors, keep my wrists flat, and don’t go over 35 miles per hour. After about 20 minutes, I came to a stop sign and decided to take one more right and find my way home, no matter what. I was completely exhausted with a roil of panic in my gut.

It was then that, as my mom would say, that mi inteligencia se me fue a mis pies. I saw a car coming on my left and would have preferred to wait for it to pass. There was a car behind me and I foolishly let that push me to decide to turn rather than wait. My next rookie mistake was revving the engine a little too much at the beginning of my turn. This is when the throttle still on high became the final extra push of power to unhorse me.

If anyone reading this rides a motorcycle, you will know there is a difference in how you change direction than what happens with a car. On a motorcycle, you crank your head all the way toward your destination and that tells your body what to do. Instead, I did what I do as a car driver, I turned my head slightly because the hands turning the steering wheel are what turn a car, not the head.

Where did my bike go with my head only slightly turned and my engine revved? It turned past the right lane and into the oncoming traffic lane. In a split second I knew my life was in complete danger because there was oncoming traffic and I held on for my dear, precious life.

I collided head on with a Prius and ended up on the road, underneath my bike, my padded gloved hands still gripping the bike handles. Laying there for a minute, I scanned my body. No searing pain and no mangled body parts. I slowly released the handles and slid out gingerly from under my bike. Some men who had stopped helped me pick up the bike and move it to the side of the road. The left side of my pants had ripped through the first layer. I was flooded with gratitude, adrenalin, and total vergüenza.

The woman who was driving the car that I hit ran over to me. “I thought I had killed you,” she said, and burst into tears. I hugged her, saying: “I am so sorry.”  She finally calmed down and looked at me. “You’re a miracle,” she said.

I didn’t feel like a miracle. I felt like a fool, like I had proved everybody right who had warned me this motorcycle plan was a bad idea. An ambulance arrived and the paramedic checked me out quickly, almost too quickly. I could have had a concussion. They didn’t look under the torn pant at my knee. By then the police had arrived on the scene and I answered their questions completely. After listening, the officer said “OK, we’re not going to take you in”.

Take me in? I then realized they were assessing whether I had been reckless or under the influence of any substances. Certainly laws of reason and intuition had been violated. Meanwhile, the husband of the woman arrived and also gave me a hug. They were being much nicer than I was being on myself. They even drove me home after the tow truck carted off my banged up bike. Close to tears at what I knew had been a brush with death, I had called Dee, my only friend in the area and my shopping partner when I bought all my gear. She met me at home, incredibly solicitous, and treated me to dinner and a margarita.

Over the next few days my bruises spread until my thighs were many shades of purple, while my left knee remained swollen and stiff. I had a few scrapes on my left arm and side, but it was so little given the possibilities of harm. The woman I collided with called me and texted me periodically, asking after my health and continually reminding me I was a miracle. I appreciated her care, and yet her communications also opened up my regrets of the series of unfortunate events that led to my brief moment as a biker mama. My motorcycle was not so lucky, and the insurance adjuster declared it totaled. I sold it for parts to the man who had sold it to me, both of us disconsolate about the circumstances.

A week later a friend posted one of those quotes that shows up regularly on Facebook: “10% is what happens to us and 90% is our response”. I added a comment:
“10% = crashed motorcycle 2 days after buying; 90% = grateful to be alive, focusing on healing bruises, refusing to be drawn into shame and blame, dealing calmly with insurance companies, and planning to get back on a bike once I have fully healed!”

Despite my cheerful post, I did decide to delay my motorcycle era. Not right away. I had signed up for that weekend class and I dragged myself there one week after my crash, wanting to give myself a positive experience on a motorcycle. I hung in there for almost the entire 2-day class. Just a few minutes before they ran us through the final test to award us a temporary license, I became confused with the signals of the instructor as to whether to stop, turn left or turn right. I braked and turned, landing once again on my bruised side. This time I had on my padded boots, which saved me somewhat, but my ankle was sore and cranky. I tried to walk it off and one of the instructor’s gave me some stronger pain pills (whispering to keep it between us), saying I was sure to pass the driving test. Even though I could have toughed it out mentally, my ankle refused to be silenced and I regretfully left the course with another “fail.”

I called my friend, who still rides a motorcycle in her seventies, to flush out my frustration. She gracefully talked me through the jag threatening to engulf me with more shame. It was the best medicine for my wounded body and soul and I returned home ready to give myself all the emotional and physical rest required to make sound decisions about two-wheeled, motorized creatures.

I sold or gave away my gear, creating a clean slate. Like donating organs, women are out on their bikes protected by gear I know, sin duda, works. It has been two and a half years since the accident. I Lyft, walk, bus, ferry, BART, get rides, and rent cars. I have been dubbed a Valkyrie, a vagabond, a gitana and, more surprisingly, an inspiration for folks to re-think their beliefs about the nature of permanence, the car culture, and possessions.

I do ride a two-wheeled motorized creature – an electric bike I purchased in 2015. My tiny wheels, folding bicycle gets lots of love from strangers and friends alike, further inspiring people to consider their transportation options. I favor bike paths as I have no protective gear beyond a helmet and gloves and I know who will lose if a car collides with me. (photo by Minal Hajratwala)

I used to think that my decision to not share the details of my crash was because I was embarrassed and didn’t want people to think I was una loca if one day I do join the motorcycle tribe again. In sharing this story about a year after the crash to a friend, I admitted that I had not done so before because I really could have died. It could have been a bus or a ten-wheeler instead of a Prius. It is not even my possible death that kept this story quiet either. It was the reality of how my death or even serious injury would have impacted the driver, and more importantly, the people in my life who I love – most specifically, my twins. I didn’t want to look at that. Telling this story now is part of forgiving myself and realizing what that sweet woman I crashed into said is true: I am a miracle. I bet all of you, like I did that day, have made some less than wise decisions and we are all here today. Let’s forgive ourselves once and for all so we can rejoice in every moment and every breath of life. #52essays2017 #motorcycles #crashes #miracles