2015 in Review: Six Word Memoir

We rang in 2015 in Deming.

 

Grandma China’s been gone eleven years.

We thought it was only ten.

Went ahead with the commemoration anyway.

 

K. cut three years of hair.

Just like that, he looks older.

Little boys get bigger. He resists.

Sometimes his fear outweighs his trust.

We celebrate risks faced and overcome.

We process the others. He grows.

I see him. I’ve been him.

 

P. turned 13. She wears eyeliner.

They grow so fast. Cliché. True.

I love who she is becoming.

She is stronger than she knows.

 

Feast Day at San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The dances root us in place.

 

I am constantly trying to simplify.

 

One board at a time—plenty.

 

After thirteen years, the Saturn died.

We left it where it stalled.

 

EKCO poets with Shelle and Valerie.

Write ten pages. Cut them up.

Collage them together. Rehearse. Perform.

 

We finally have a house plan.

There is a window between our bedrooms.

Can’t wait for that to go.

 

My friend started a book club.

Favorite: Between the World and Me

 

It’s time to be more honest.

 

Being a stepmom is no joke.

P. and K. – my greatest teachers.

 

Hembras. “Mother Lode.” My stepmom play.

My pink rebozo played a baby.

 

It’s time to write about Harvard.

Then I’ll have a suitcase trilogy.

Packing it to go to college.

Clinging to it after the fire.

Unpacking it to live my life.

 

I love reading at Sunday Chatter.

 

The cutest dog ever chose us.

Sat at our gate all day.

K. fed him, named him Leo.

Now he’s ours. I love him.

 

We lost Henry’s dad, April 20.

 

My dear friends lost their brother.

 

Aparna Levine healed my back pain.

 

I’m not allowed to run anymore.

Insurance pays gym fees. Hello, elliptical.

I’m trying to take up swimming.

Easier on the knees. Great cardiovascular.

Took first lessons since first grade.

I’m still learning how to breathe.

 

America Healing in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

Adrián Pedroza for Bernalillo County Commissioner.

 

It’s hard to share this part.

Depression has me back on Lexapro.

I tried everything I could try.

Running, writing, sleep, therapy, acupuncture, limpias.

Weight lifting. No coffee. No sugar.

Yoga. Meditation. Long walks. Good friends.

Poetry. Theatre. Being harder. Giving less.

Some combinations. Sometimes all at once.

But then there were mornings lost.

I’m kind of a mess today.

Yoga unlocking emotion in my hip.

I’m in tears on my mat.

Hours crying in the living room.

Nobody home. Thank God. I can’t.

And the worst is the judgment.

It came from nobody but me.

Suck it up. Pull yourself together.

Stop crying. Get off the floor.

What is wrong with you now?

You have everything you ever wanted.

You are healthy. You are loved.

Henry. P. K. This place. Words.

People are mean in my head.

Stop messing with my friend Michelle.

If I were my good friend

I’d say, you’re sensitive, that’s beautiful.

I’d say, it’s just for now.

I’d say, understanding why isn’t necessary.

Right now just do what works.

There’s nothing wrong with needing help.

Some people need to be medicated.

I guess I am one of them.

What else is there to do?

 

I remember I like to dance.

 

Summer garden wasn’t about the harvest.

I needed my hands in dirt.

I grew stevia, lemongrass, and sunflowers.

I grew six yellow pear tomatoes.

Oaxacan green corn, basil, marigolds, hyssop.

Lemon verbena, bell peppers, volunteer melons.

Grasshoppers and hornworms ate like kings.

K. said to chop their heads.

“Post them on toothpicks as warnings.”

 

I finally took the curanderismo course.

 

I want chickens in our yard.

They would help with the grasshoppers.

 

K. made the school’s archery team.

He and Henry shoot into hay bales.

 

The Kellogg Fellows are buena gente.

I get to work with six.

Carmen, Carnell, Carlos, Kayla, Sarah, Ventura.

 

Happy Arte Hour. So much fun.

 

We are launching an artist cooperative.

 

coffee, coffee, Zendo, Zia Latte, coffee

 

We lost Leo. He came back.

 

We rafted. Let’s do it again!

 

We lost my cousin, Robert Otero.

My BFF married a good man.

We lost Henry’s cousin, Epi Chavez.

We lost my tío, Joe Calderon.

A wonder he lived so long.

We lost Henry’s cousin, Alfonso Lopez.

 

P. was the best Halloween chola.

Thanks, Andrea, for doing her makeup.

 

My godmother was diagnosed with cancer.

 

P. dyed her hair in LA.

Four hours later, it’s bright pink.

 

Things I am embarrassed to admit:

I love that Justin Bieber song.

It’s too late to say sorry.

My mama likes everyone, except you.

 

Why don’t mid-school kids wear jackets?

That hoodie can’t keep you warm.

 

We lost Berna, a family friend.

 

Some things I could’ve done without:

Two words. Donald Trump. Enough said.

Middle school girls with duck lips.

Road rage. Police violence. Susana Martinez.

(Pee-tzah. Cokes. Call off your guys.)

 

I am blessed with good friends.

Stephanie reminded me who I am.

Emmy, thank you for making time.

Avi visited with her youngest daughter.

Anel and I wrote in Santa Fe.

María Limón surprised me one morning.

Finally got to meet Jesse’s kids.

I told them stories about college.

I wish his family lived closer.

Vicki and I ate and laughed.

Got to hold Desiree’s baby Luisa.

 

It’s time to be more honest.

I am constantly trying to simplify.

I’m still learning how to breathe.

Everything is better when I write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on February 2, 2016 at 8:30 am  Comments (7)  
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Vigil

On the passing of my father-in-law, Henry Rael, Sr., April 20, 2015

IMG_6058That first night each of us prayed in our own way. My Henry held his dad’s hand and whispered, almost chanting, “we love you, thank you, it’s okay, you can rest…” His sister held the other hand, smoothed her dad’s hair and prayed the Our Father. I sang Hail Mary, Gentle Woman and Las Mañanitas. Priscilla spoke in tongues.

We thought he would go any minute, grasping our hands, lifting his chest from the bed only to collapse into it again, moving his lips to speak, no sound. The sun rose, and my father-in-law was still with us, the hum of the oxygen machine with its intermittent bursts still a constant backdrop. We drank coffee, ran home to replenish our overnight bag, canceled meetings and travel, made arrangements for our pets. We lit a candle and kept it burning on the bookcase where he kept his Bible and binders of Spanish liturgical music he’d composed over the past 40 years.

We made agreements: when we are here, we will be here. We won’t speak about him. We will speak to him, with him. We will do all we can to make him comfortable.

The next night we took turns. There were long, quiet hours when each of us was alone with him, the light low from his bedside lamp. Loose from its ponytail, my hair cast wild shadows on the wall. I think the shadows spooked him. He was a man who sought light.

And so I changed the angle of the lamp and sat on the floor next to his bedside table.

He stopped eating. Spoonfuls of water to ice chips to a sponge to wet his lips. White spots on the nails. Dark spots on the hands. Cold toes. He didn’t talk or close his eyes for three days and nights.

To his bedside those last 72 hours came the estranged sister, the gay nephew, the niece who’d lost a young daughter a few years prior, the cousin and sister with their rosaries, the priest who got a smile out of him when he said, “I’m here to pray with you.” This is how we should pass. At home, with people we love, no need to talk, just listening to beloved after beloved say, we love you, thank you, you are good, God is with you. And as steady as the oxygen machine, his daughter, his son, his wife of nearly 50 years. That last morning he looked Henry in the eye, took his last breath, and he was gone. I woke to my mother- and sister-in-laws’ weeping. He is gone.

I think of Mary Magdalene weeping at Jesus’s empty tomb. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13)

The day he was buried, rain pounded our procession as we rode from church to cemetery, then again from cemetery to reception. I had run out early that morning to buy umbrellas and waterproof mascara, but we didn’t need the umbrellas because both times we stepped out of the family limo the rain stopped long enough for the pallbearers to rest their boutonnieres on Henry’s casket, for his white-haired cousin to sing an alabado, long enough for my Henry, his brother, his sisters, and his mom to reach across their folding chairs under a blue tent and hold onto one another as the casket was lowered into the ground.

He is gone.

And he is here. In the choir that played his music at the rosary and funeral, in the angels with their crockpots of posole, beans, red chile, green chile stew, their trays of brownies and bowls of macaroni salad, their packets of sugar and powdered creamer, their bottomless cups of coffee. He is in the condolence cards, in these words from a dear friend: “In Navajo Way when a person passes, we talk about how our essence is to be wiped from this world—our breath, fingerprints, footprints, etc. The rain helps to cleanse us from this world to go into the next world. I thought about the rain that has fallen since Friday. Your father left such significant marks upon this land that it took so long, so many days of rain to celebrate his essence.” This is the wettest summer in the children’s lifetime, the first summer that our peach tree—a gift from Henry Sr., started from the stone he planted in a backyard bucket—yielded more than one fruit, a dozen peaches on the northern branches and on the south, about twenty nectarines.

He died during the Easter season, just as he’d wished. “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” (Luke 24:5)

He has risen.

And he is here. In the strum of P’s fingers across the strings of the guitar he left for her. In K’s desire to sleep in Nano’s bedroom. “It’s a little creepy, but even if there’s a ghost, it’s a good ghost.” He is here, in Henry’s eulogy, written and spoken with such honesty and love.

He was 93 years old. He was a good man. No weeping and gnashing of teeth for this one. I picture Jesus and Saint Peter welcoming him, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of [the] Lord.” (Matthew 25:21)

Published in: on August 18, 2015 at 7:00 am  Comments (5)  
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In Search of the Star

Christmas Eve we were returning from posole and tamales at my in-laws’ home, carne adovada and plática at our friends’ annual open house, and hot chocolate and luminarias in Old Town. One block north of our street, Henry slowed the car to flashing lights, an ambulance, police cars, a news van parked just beyond the police perimeter. When we reached home, our 8-year-old neighbor called out to P and ran across the street, a ritual she performs anytime both girls are home and awake.

“Thank you for my present. I’ll bring yours tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do that, honey,” I said. “We just wanted to get you a little something.” I wanted her to talk about the watercolor paints and paper I’d wrapped and sent across the street with P earlier in the day. I wanted her to talk about her baby niece or getting her tooth pulled the week before, anything but the blue-red-blue-red lights behind her house. She is the eyes and ears of Atrisco, an inquisitive girl living in a family compound of older sisters, grandparents, mom, and visiting aunties who don’t always filter their conversations.

“They found a girl,” she said.

I remember my own 8- and 10- and 16-year-old self, growing up in a place where the police blotter was read on the local radio station, where the crimes were property damage or driving on an expired license. Our small town seemed impervious to murder, to robbery, to the shootings and stabbings reported on KOAT Channel 7. I thought Albuquerque was the most dangerous place in the world. Back in Deming the brown kids were shaped by the harsh tongue (and hand) of Sister Rosalie. In a town with one high school and one stoplight, everybody knows everybody else. If nothing else, fear of God and vergüenza kept us from mortal sin against our maker and our neighbors.

“That’s really horrible,” I said, standing next to P at our open gate, Henry and K already inside the house. “The police are still there. We don’t really know what happened yet.” It was Christmas Eve, Baby Jesus swaddled in the nativity manger, the white lights of our tree blinking through our living room window. P and I walked the girl back across the street, wishing her mom and grandma a Merry Christmas, not mentioning the red and blue glow still in view.

P and K changed into pjs while I set up the couch bed (as the kids call it) and Henry searched for news of the crime online. Police are investigating a homicide in southwest Albuquerque. A woman was found covered in blood. Blunt trauma. Puncture wounds. None of us mentioned the body again that night. Henry fell asleep next to the kids. I stuffed stockings and finished wrapping gifts, tasks made easier by living with children who’ve never really been into Santa Claus.

I thought of pre-school, my Christmas show at the Gingerbread House. I wore a red leotard and tights and a band of white tulle around my waist. I sat on Santa’s lap; he gave me the Cootie Bug game. I remembered Grandma Rosie’s tinsel tree on the bookshelf in her living room, her gas fireplace with the fake log that never blackened or diminished in size. I remembered all those Christmas Eves I scanned the night sky in search of the star that led the Magi and shepherds to baby Jesus. I thought of the family that found the body. I thought of the body, the woman, imagining her final moments. I thought of women’s bodies. In Juárez. On the mesa.

It was Christmas Eve.

Her name was Idali Reyes. She was 26. Two men were arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and tampering with evidence. One drove. The other stabbed her. One said she accused him of owing her money. They dumped her body on the street, then burned their clothes. Police are looking for a third suspect.

I am thinking of children, what they know and what they don’t, what they say and what they keep to themselves. I am thinking of stories, those invented and those we only wish were make-believe. I am thinking of Bill Cosby, all the women. I believe them. I am thinking of my 8th grade art teacher. He coached my 7th grade basketball team and, like many coaches, insisted we dress up on days we had out of town games. I told him I didn’t like wearing skirts in the cold. He said, “Wear your wooly bra.” He never touched me, never hurt me. I was never alone with him. I was in college when he was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for child molestation. I hope the children he harmed told someone. I hope they were believed. And even if they didn’t tell or they weren’t believed, I hope they know it wasn’t their fault. I hope they are healing, that the light in them feels stronger than the darkness. I hope they are well.

Healing, light, to be well. This is my wish for the 8-year-old across the street, for P and K, for our neighbors one block north, for those who have been harmed, for those doing the harming. For all of us.

 

 

Published in: on January 13, 2015 at 7:51 am  Comments (12)  
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Cease to Exist, Part II: Aftermath

It takes me a long time to forgive, longer to let go. It’s harder when the object of my forgiveness doesn’t apologize, and harder still when the object disappears, leaving me to do the work of relationship on my own. Look at me, I want to say. Put your hand here where it hurts. I don’t want to punish; I just want to be seen.

I was spending Valentine’s Day at the dollar movie with my girlfriends because that sweet boy who’d put a journal in my hands all those years ago got engaged to someone else. Though we’d broken up when I was nineteen, he’d written to me during those two years after college when I was a Jesuit Volunteer in Belize City. His letter kicked off a sweet and hopeful correspondence between us. We made plans for him to visit, talked of our hearts coming full circle. And then there was silence. No letters, no calls, except that one from my mom telling me he’d met someone else. Though we had promised each other nothing, in my mind, the story ended with us together.

I learned a lot in Belize, how to bake bread, how to play guitar (well, sort of), how to pray, how to coordinate a youth group and a parish fair, how to teach twelve-year-old girls to play volleyball, how to write every day, no matter what, how to enter and re-enter a long and deep healing process that I didn’t even know I needed. Belize cast light on my shadows, and some of them followed me home.

*

IMG_3606Those days and nights after the St. Valentine’s accident were filled with fear, a sense of dread and doom. On our first trip to the credit union, before my mom and I spoke with the “cease to exist” guy, we’d met with an in-house financial advisor who’d said we weren’t eligible for credit union membership. No membership equaled no loan, which equaled no car to replace the one totaled on the night for lovers. As we drove back to the dealer to explain our plight, clouds settled over me, darkening the crisp blue of Albuquerque’s winter sky. My mom might have said, “It’s okay. We’ll figure it out,” or perhaps commiserated with a “yes, that woman was rude.” But I had already left her for the land of Nothing Ever Works Out For Me. We find a great car in my price range, but I can’t get it. And I wouldn’t need a car if my old one (read: my parents’ car) hadn’t been totaled. And that car would be fine if I just had a boyfriend to take me out on Valentine’s Day.

IMG_2404There have been blessedly few periods in my life when I have felt like Charlie Brown, the Wicked Witch of the West, and my overgrown five-year-old self all rolled into one, alone, threatened, afraid, certain the moment I step outside, a house will land on me. But when those periods hit, they feel eternal. These periods have all been preceded by a Major Life Event (emphasis mine)—a breakup, an accident, a move, a loss, sometimes all at once. Just as in the midst of a migraine, you can’t remember a time when your head didn’t feel like it was being stabbed from within by an icepick, when depression hits, you can’t remember your joy. And if there ever was joy, it was fleeting, the bright spot in an otherwise overcast life. In a depression, I might call a friend, go for a run, or take a nap. Sometimes I’d bake just to have a sense of accomplishment. Look at me, I made four dozen Hershey Kiss cookies. Maybe I am capable. Maybe I’m not a loser. Maybe I won’t have to live in my parents’ garage. Whatever the lifeline, its lift was temporary. Soon enough, I’d have to hang up the phone, jog home, wake up, or find something to do with all those damn cookies (besides eating them, which just leads to an even deeper depression).

Sometimes I would turn to my journal with a pen to bleed out some of the sickness. I tried never to read over what I’d written in the past for fear I’d find the same ailment that plagued me in the present, or worse, that those entries from Joy would feel like dispatches from a far-away land that I would never visit again.

Each time depression hits, I feel singled out, a twisted kind of chosen one whose lot in life is to feel more deeply than others, to carry an emotional and spiritual weight that normal people can’t bear. I wonder, why me? What did I do to deserve this? (And then I remember the words of a writing teacher who spoke about this indignation in a lecture on authenticity in memoir. She asked, “Who are you to be spared?”)

Relating to depression in this way feels a lot like cursing the wind. I don’t have to like the grit in my contact lenses or the toppled trash bin; but questioning the wind’s presence doesn’t relieve my eyes or improve the condition of my yard. Telling the wind to f@#* off doesn’t impact its force or change its direction. It only inhibits my movement.

So next time—if there is one—depression enters my room, instead of pretending I don’t see it or telling it to go, I might step closer to it, observe it, relate. Look at me, it will say. Put your hand here where it hurts. It doesn’t want to punish. It just wants to be seen.

 

 

Cease to Exist, Part I: Impact

I am remembering a trip to the credit union with my mom. She was helping me buy a car, and the suit and tie man behind the desk was explaining the ins and outs of the loan, the particulars of early payments, missed payments, and what would happen to the car should I “cease to exist.”

Weeks earlier I had been rear-ended by a Dodge Ram Charger in a 4-car pileup and totaled my parents’ Ford Taurus. The accident happened on Valentine’s Day, and my dates were my roommate Beth and a woman I’d met in group therapy. We were on our way to the dollar theatre to see The Empire Strikes Back when the Toyota Camry in front of me slammed on the brakes. I screamed, certain that I was about to plow my parents’ car into the rear bumper, and then breathed a sigh of relief when I realized we had stopped short. In an instant, a bad thing had become a good thing, and I had made that happen. Beth, in profile, her face illuminated by the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign across the street, opened her mouth to speak. She might have turned to me, the light glinting off her glasses.

The worst hits come out of nowhere. You go to the movies on a Friday night. You slam on the brakes. You exhale. Your friend opens her mouth to speak. But you don’t hear her. Instead light in the rearview catches your eye. The light makes you scream. Or maybe you were already screaming, and that’s why your friend opens her mouth to speak, to ask why.

There is the before: holding tight to the steering wheel, as though it could protect you, bracing for impact, headlight filling the rearview, not looking back, knowing there’s nothing you can do.

And there is the after: A man’s face in my window. “Oh my God, are you okay?” Stepping out of my car, the door still opens and closes. Radiator fluid pools on the road. Saying, “No, it’s okay, I don’t need an ambulance,” even though I probably do, even though I know that saying no is a misstep. An ambulance is a big deal. An ambulance is expensive. But there’s no blood, no broken bones. It could have crushed me. I could be dead. But I’m not crushed or dead. So I must be okay.

I don’t remember the middle: the impact, the sounds, the smells, the feeling in my body. The body-mind is wise in this way; it protects us from pain until we are strong enough to feel it.

Published in: on September 30, 2014 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How to Be, Part III: The Ingredients

Continued from April 22, 2014 post, How to Be, Part II: Holy Saturday

How do I get unstuck?

How do I get out of my own way?

I don’t think I knew what was missing for me those months I drove back and forth to Santa Fe to teach. I thought that if I just had more time, if I were writing more, if I could just figure out how to balance parenting and paid work and writing (and turn more of my writing into paid work!) and relationship, then I could bring my best self to those fifth graders. I could channel M’s sarcasm into an autobiographical comic strip or transform J’s indifference into curiosity or finally develop a hands-on project that was so engaging L would want to stay in his seat. And if I couldn’t do any of those things, then I could at least draw on reserves of compassion and patience to combat the tendency of my shadow side to personalize normal fifth grade boy behavior, buying into the belief that M makes snide remarks and J doesn’t care and L wanders the room because they hate me, and they must hate me because I’m boring and I suck.

Part of me was right, not about being boring or sucking, but about the other stuff. I did need to be writing more. (I always need to be writing more.) I did need more balance in my life. But my frame for correcting the problem was askew. It wasn’t about figuring things out, cracking the code to that age-old work/life balance question. I didn’t need to think my way through this. I needed to do something.

The simple answer to those questions I asked Ana Castillo is this: you just do. You get unstuck by moving. You get out of the way by getting.

So I filled a jar.

Chrissie Orr is the creative genius behind El Otro Lado. As a little girl in Scotland, she would help her mother make jam. There was no recipe. Her mother knew just when to pick the berries, how much sugar to add, how long to stir the pot, when to pour the goo into the jars. She shared these stories at the closing of El Otro Lado for the 2013-2014 school year. She talked about who we are as artists and teachers and teaching artists, how each of us has a need for reflection, how each of us intuitively knows what supports us in our reflective process, the ingredients, so to speak. She gave each of us a jar and asked us to fill it with words or natural materials (or a mix) that symbolize what supports us in our reflective practice. Then she set us loose at The Academy for the Love of Learning. My role with El Otro Lado has changed. Last year I stepped aside as a teaching artist and came on as part of the facilitation team for teacher/teaching artist gatherings. It takes a lot for me to step out of my facilitator role and enter into an art experience. Even if the art experience is really cool—working with vellum, writing an ode—I tend to stand back and watch the room, hold the space. Part of it lies in being present to the participants, holding space so they can move freely within it. But part of it is fear. What if I enter this experience and nothing comes? But this time I picked up a jar and asked Chrissie, “Can we do this too?”

I walked the arroyo at the northern edge of the Academy’s property. I scooped a handful of rocky sand into the jar. I found a flat rock shaped like a heart. Not a Valentine heart, but the actual muscle that pumps blood through my body. I broke a dry sprig of chamisa from its branch. I followed a vine of gourds, some perfectly intact, hardened, a hint of green or yellow at the ombligo connecting the gourd to the vine. Some had a jagged window cracked into them, and I imagined the sparrow that might have tapped in search of food. I picked a dried flower, the petals like parchment. And then I found my gourd. It was broken open as though from within. It was an egg, a nest, a cocoon, a hatch. It was shelter.

Published in: on June 26, 2014 at 8:11 am  Comments (1)  

How to Be, Part II: Holy Saturday

Continued from How to Be, Part I: Two Words

 

Saying “I’m a perfectionist” is another way of saying “I’m never gonna get it right.”     -Ana Castillo

photo

Holy Saturday I spent the morning in Chimayó in a Spiritual Memoir Writing workshop led by Ana Castillo. Prior to the workshop, she had asked each of us to prepare a question about memoir writing and to bring an object that symbolizes our current spiritual questions.

There was a time when writing was my spiritual practice. I lived alone. Every morning I’d write in my journal. I’d eat a simple breakfast—yogurt with granola and papaya from the mercado, a cafecito or te de yerba buena. I’d light a white devotional candle and sit in the company of my own words and stories. I wrote Malinche’s Daughter. I sketched Vessel. I was on a Fulbright in Oaxaca, Mexico, teaching Writing to Heal workshops for women. I was a student in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I knew even then how good I had it, how supported I felt; I wished my life on every writer. It was as close to perfect as could be.

Malinche’s Daughter came out, and I returned to a place that no longer felt like home. I had graduate school loans to pay. I needed a job and a place to live. I missed Oaxaca. I missed that life.

If you’ve read my blog, you know that I got a job and signed a one-year lease on a sunny downtown apartment with wood floors and high ceilings. You know that I met Henry and—in an unrelated move—left that job. You know that Henry and I would eventually get married and that his two children would someday become my family. You also know that somewhere in the job-leaving and apartment-living and memoir-writing and Henry-loving, while I was visiting friends in Mexico, my apartment burned to an ugly, uninhabitable heap.

I spent the first several weeks of this year revising “The New Normal,” a short play about the fire, about loss and new life, and coming to live with Henry and the kids. I performed the first ten minutes of the play as part of Hembras de Pluma, nine original plays by nine original mujeres. Early in our rehearsal process, my director Valli Rivera asked me to walk my piece. We had divided the stage into three realms: the apartment, Henry’s house, and limbo. The stage was sparsely set with a desk, a clothing rack, and the pink suitcase that came with me from Mexico to Henry’s house. It wasn’t until I broke down at the desk that I understood how deeply embedded in me the fire still was. It wasn’t until I performed with Hembras that I understood how much I missed solitude, my journal, quiet, stillness, how much I missed my spiritual practice.

I told Ana about the fire. I told her I’m a perfectionist. I asked her how to go deep when I have only 15 minutes. I want to know how to get unstuck, which I’ve just mistyped as “unsuck.” How do I unsuck? How do I get out of my own way?

Published in: on April 22, 2014 at 6:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Pit, Part I

Before I met Henry I dated everyone: guys I met in coffee shops, guys I met salsa dancing, writers, musicians, professors, attorneys, politicos, a photographer, a chef. I dated much older men, a few men with children, men who adored me, walking wounded men who should have been in therapy and not on Match.com. I dated unavailable men, more than one man who lied about his relationship status, and a few guys I didn’t respect or even really like. I dated men who made me laugh and overly serious men who would say, “That’s really funny,” instead of laughing. I dated creative men, brainy men, talented men, charismatic men who absorbed so much light in a room that it cast everyone else in darkness.

So after dating everyone, it felt like a kind of victory to grow in love with Henry, to affirm my belief that I was capable of building an honest, respectful, loving relationship with a good man and to silence the voice inside me that questioned my worthiness of such a relationship.

Before Henry it was easy to fantasize about my relationship, the one that did not yet exist. The pre-Henry breakups were painful, but I could often attribute my hurt feelings to that narcissist/liar/insect/emotional vampire/(insert appropriate moniker here) I was dating.

But here’s the kicker, the thing that shames me to admit. After all these years, all the therapy and limpias and bad poetry and bonfires, after my book and Oaxaca and Henry and our family, I still feel a little wounded sometimes.

to be continued

Published in: on July 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Work, Part I

A few weeks ago, I was invited to facilitate a storytelling session at the opening of a racial equity gathering sponsored by a private charitable foundation. My assignment: begin the meeting with a story around equity or inequity, then lead the group in a storytelling exercise through which participants tell their own stories of equity or inequity.

Racial equity is a tricky one for me. I find it almost impossible to think or talk about race without thinking or talking about class. Living and working in El Paso, Oaxaca, and Atrisco has only heightened that sensitivity. So when I sat down to create a storytelling framework for a group of forty people who work in communities throughout New Mexico, I knew the process had to be simple and focused. I thought back to my early days as an organizational development consultant when I facilitated diversity and anti-racism trainings for nonprofit organizations, how the discussion could so easily fly off-track, how nervous I would get if the white guy in the room sat with his arms crossed over his chest. (I still get nervous thinking of that white guy with his arms crossed over his chest, but that’s a whole other post.) Equity is different; but just as with diversity and anti-racism, I have come to understand racial and economic equity by dwelling in the negative space, defining it more by what it isn’t than by what it is.

When I don’t know where to begin, I turn to my favorite teachers: books like Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir by Jane Taylor McDonnell, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and anything by Toni Morrison; and actual human beings like my writing coach, Demetria Martinez and Sue William Silverman, the Vermont College of Fine Arts writing mentor who, during my third semester in the Master of Fine Arts program, helped me complete Malinche’s Daughter and release it into the universe. Sue passed on many valuable bits of wisdom during my time at Vermont and beyond, but the lesson I find myself returning to over and over again is her article and lecture on the use of voice in creative nonfiction.

Though I lost my notes to Sue’s lecture in the fire, I still remember the spark that shot through me when I copied her words into my journal. “When you write memoir, voice is everything, and one voice is not enough.” She reimagines William Blake’s Song of Innocence and Song of Experience and employs them in the service of writing memoir, labeling them as the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience.

The Song (or Voice) of Innocence relates the facts of the experience, the surface subject. It’s the voice that, in effect, says, “first this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.” It reveals the sequence of events, the particulars of your experience, whether in a one-page essay or a full-length book. It’s the innocent “you”—who you were when the events actually occurred. …

The Voice of Experience is then twined to this Voice of Innocence, thus adding a more mature author persona. This second narrator establishes the progression of thought in creative nonfiction, allowing the reader to know what the Voice of Innocence, what the facts, mean. By use of irony and metaphor, it interprets the surface subject. This voice, in effect, reflects back on the story, the past, and guides the reader through the maze of the experience.                     –from “Innocence & Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction”, Sue William Silverman, Brevity, Issue 19, Fall 2005

How might this information be of service to a group of non-writers—directors of nonprofit organizations, foundation staff, people who work in health care, education, sustainable economic development, and youth advocacy?

First I told a story.

Back Then

I am seven years old. We live in Deming on a dead end dirt road, next to a field of mesquite bushes and a tree that drops yellow balls the size of marbles that pop when I squeeze them. Ofelia Garcia is our neighbor. She speaks Spanish. Her kids are big, and they all have names like Arcelia, Veco, Alma, and Alonso. My name is Karen Michelle, but everyone calls me Michelle because my Grandma China can’t say Karen. Mrs. Garcia’s grandchildren sometimes visit from across town or across the border from Palomas. One of them, Abby Bear, visits the most, and she and I play together almost every day in the summer. She is older than I am. She speaks English to me and Spanish to her mom. My parents and grandparents speak Spanish to each other when they want to talk about us. I understand some of the words. Muchacha fregada. Déjala. My mom is home because it’s summer, and she’s a teacher. She’s standing in the kitchen when someone knocks on the front door in the living room. I answer. Two kids, a boy and a girl, say something to me in Spanish. “What?” I ask. They say it again. I don’t understand the words, so I say, “I can’t play with you. I don’t play with Mexicans.”

Then I gave a prompt.

Free Write Prompt #1: Back Then

Think back to a moment from your childhood or adolescence when you experienced or witnessed racial inequity.

Try to think of a specific moment, rather than a broad period of time. (e.g. Meeting my first-grade teacher vs. elementary school.)

Though the moment could be something shaped by larger historical events, try to focus on something that you either experienced or witnessed directly, something from your own home or community, rather than something on television or in a movie.

Write a simple description of that moment. Tell the story of what happened using dates, facts, and sensory details (what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched). Try to simply describe the event without interpreting it or trying to make meaning of it. If it helps, think of this as what Sue Silverman calls a “voice of innocence,” a child’s voice simply reporting what happened.

Try to write for the entire allotted time without lifting your pen and without making corrections to your work. This is a free-write. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Write in the language that will best help you tell this story. The important thing here is the process and the story. Simply enjoy the process of your pen moving across the page. This will help you get the story down.

And then forty non-writers—directors of nonprofit organizations, foundation staff, people who work in health care, education, sustainable economic development, and youth advocacy—wrote for ten minutes without stopping, without talking, without lifting their pens.

You try it. Then let’s meet here in two weeks* to see what happens next.

*Due to a major deadline, I will not be posting a blog entry next week. Please join me on Tuesday, August 6 for your regularly schedule “Vessel.”

Published in: on July 24, 2012 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Flake, Part III: El Viento

Little evidence remains of the late November windstorm that ripped off four panels of our fence and destroyed a tent in our side yard. Friends remounted three of the four panels. (The fourth is beyond repair and needs to be replaced.) The Valle Encantado farm crew threw out the shredded tent and restacked the vegetable boxes and flats that the wind had scattered about the yard.

Christmas afternoon, while Henry and the kids ran a quick errand, I walked the half acre on which our house sits, something I enjoy doing because it’s good to feel our dirt under my feet, to hear the neighbor’s geese honk, to open the back gate and step along the ditch. By the playhouse, I found two plastic storage bin lids we were keeping on the porch by the office side door until we could find their corresponding containers. The wind had blasted a hole in the bin that once held them.

Princesa and Oso, the German Shepherd and Golden Retriever next door, cried as I approached the fence separating our two lots. They were probably outside in their little pen when the windstorm hit. They are south valley dogs. Like the dogs I knew in Deming when I was a kid, they don’t get much more than food or water. If they go in the house at all, they don’t sleep on dog beds at their owner’s feet. I try to pet them when I walk the arugula and cucumber beds in that corner of the yard. But Christmas afternoon, their cries unnerved me. I wanted to stick my hand through the chain link fence and pet their noses like K. and P. do, but I worried they would bite me. Oso tried to pull herself up on top of the doghouse. Princesa leapt along the fence. They were desperate. They needed too much.

I wrote in Flake, Part II about the people in my life who make me feel small. What hurts in those instances is not my shrinking, not exactly. It’s the feeling I would have if I were stuck out in that windstorm with Oso and Princesa, knowing that I can howl and bark and whimper all I want; and the wind won’t stop. Or maybe it will. It’s knowing that the wind is indifferent toward me, that nothing I do or say alters its course or its ferocity. Those people who make me feel small are like that windstorm. I can shake my fist as they shred a tent or rip my fence off its hinges; but my fist shaking does not change them. And their raging is not about me.

The trauma in my life has been about ambush, the attack that comes when I least expect it. The Dodge Ram Charger that slammed into my Taurus. The angry phone call that Sunday evening. The cough that was cancer in my grandmother’s lungs, that killed her from fall to winter. The sixth grade girl I worshipped, who told me as I drank water from the stone fountain on the Chaparral school playground, the secret that was rupturing my family. The older boy, or maybe he was a man, in my friend’s bedroom, who said he would show me a neat trick if I promised not to tell anyone.

Sometimes I am Oso and Princesa. Sometimes I am the person on the other side of the fence, the person who can choose to engage or not. The person who doesn’t need the dogs nearly as much as the dogs need her. The one who even fears the dogs a little because I recognize something of them in me.

Next Week: Ambush

Published in: on January 3, 2012 at 8:44 am  Comments (3)  
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"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them" ~William Shakespeare

Vessel

a person regarded as a holder or receiver of something, esp. something nonmaterial