The Savior, Part 1: Breaking

Note: The next several posts are snapshots of my life as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) in Belize City from 1994-1996. I started writing about a summer trip to El Salvador with two other JVs. We were supposed to volunteer with my friend’s literacy program in Suchitoto. We were supposed to stay one to two months. But I couldn’t stay. The moment our bus pulled to a stop at a San Salvador terminal, fear gripped my chest and didn’t let go until we departed three days later. I’ve never understood what happened to me, what I felt, why I cried until we were back in Guatemala en route to Belize. And I think a deep shame over not being able to stick it out, not living up to my vision for myself and my work, has kept me all these years from holding those three days up to the light. I think the light up to this point has been a bare bulb in a windowless room. But last week I woke to the words “My heroes are Archbishop Oscar Romero…,” and I knew it was time to unscrew the bulb, so to speak, and rather than try to hold that experience in my hands, to instead light a candle and hold it up to the walls of that time, exploring it as I would ancient cave drawings, as a seeker. What do I see? How did it get here? What does it mean? 

Fall 1994. I am twenty-two years old, a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) living and working in Belize City. My boss was a Sister of Charity (or maybe she was a Sister of Mercy) from the U.S. We are supposed to share an office in the corner of the parish hall of Saint Ignatius Catholic Church. The office walls are made of cinder block painted the greenish-blue of swimming pools with cut out slats for natural light and fresh air high along the two outside walls. The cut outs angle toward the ground, I think to protect against theft (I have been warned to lock my bicycle, lock the parish hall door behind me, keep valuables away from the window, lest a stray hand reach in and snatch them), but they function more like escape chutes for any sunlight that happens to find itself trapped in here with me.

I direct a program started by Sister Eileen to train lay people throughout Belize to assist with parish duties. There are not enough priests to visit the elderly and infirm, to give communion, to hold prayer meetings, or run youth programs, and so the diocese relies on non-clergy to keep the church alive. I am a believer in living simply, keeping faith, building community, and doing justice, the four tenets of the Jesuit Volunteer program. It’s why I came, why I’ve gotten my college loans deferred for two years instead of immediately joining the work force; this is how I want to live, not necessarily in Belize or working for the church, but simply, doing justice, keeping faith, building community.

My heroes are Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan, and the Maryknoll sisters murdered with her. I didn’t come here to die, and yet I know that being here will break me open in ways I’ve not imagined, ways I would not choose but will ultimately thank for making me who I am.

Published in: on January 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm  Comments (2)  

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 IV b: Más Reflection

Continued from July 29, 2014 post, How to Be, Part IV a: Reflection

Just as love had drawn me into my journal, fear kept me out.

My long-distance love and I broke up over winter break my sophomore year. Instead of writing in my journal, I wrote long, anguished letters to him. Fortunately, he rarely wrote back, which freed me up to do and write other things like schoolwork and applications for summer jobs and travel grants. His silence freed me up to begin imagining, every now and then, a life without him. What if we never got back together? What if we never spoke again? What if I found someone else? What if he did? What if I went somewhere far away, a place where nobody knew him, or me, where I wouldn’t wait for his call?

A journal should be a mirror where you can stick your stomach all the way out. (I borrow this phrase from a fellow writer in my graduate program. I don’t remember her name or the exact context, but I remember her saying that every writer needs this kind of “mirror” for her work, especially in those fragile, early stages.)

The universe, with support from Harvard’s Fellowships Office and the Catholic Student Center, answered that last question in the form of two travel grants, one established in memory of a graduate who loved to travel and the other in memory of a graduate who’d committed his life to helping others. I didn’t mention my broken heart in my applications. I asked for financial support to visit and know Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

I chose Guatemala because I wanted to learn Spanish, and though my ancestral roots are Mexican, I didn’t appreciate at the time that Mexico was more than the village thirty miles south of Deming, where my grandparents bought cheap, non-prescription penicillin and Mennonite cheese at The Pink Store (and that even this had its beauty). I chose Guatemala for the photographs I’d seen in the Guatemalan Rainbow calendars my brother sold at an import shop in Mesilla. And I chose it because the friend of a friend who’d agreed to help me put together a proposal for a summer of purposeful travel had spent a decade in the Western Highlands and said that Guatemala was the most beautiful, most tragic place she’d ever been.

I confess I was drawn to the tragic. My life had felt pretty comfortable up to that point. I remember food stamps and blocks of butter that my dad said was better than the stuff they sold in the store because it was real. But I’d never gone to bed hungry. I’d never had to flee my home. I’d never feared for my safety. I wanted to walk with people who had. I wanted my heart broken by something bigger than me. I think I wanted to be like Jesus (though minus the crucifixion).

I spent the first two weeks in a Spanish-language immersion school, studying four hours a day, and living with a family whose three-year-old appreciated having someone in the house who’s vocabulary was more limited than her own. The friend of a friend led me to other friends who helped line up volunteer opportunities at two group homes, one for girls who had been abused and the other for disabled children, both run by Catholic nuns who still wore habits.

Two questions followed me that summer. The first evolved over time from “What part of the United States are you from?” to a puzzled “Where are you from?” as my skin got darker and my tongue remembered my Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents.

I traveled light in those days, leaving my host family’s house with only the journal, a pen, and a few quetzales folded in my pocket for the panadería or the mercado. And that led to the other question.

“What are you reading?” my language instructor, Walter, would ask, gesturing toward the important looking book on the table between us. “¿Qué ‘stás leyendo?” from the cashier at Café Baviera, where I’d order manzanilla and pay de manzana, and hide away in the upstairs dining room decorated with red and white checked tablecloths and dichos painted high on the walls.

“No ‘stoy leyendo,” I’d answer. “’Stoy escribiendo.”



Published in: on September 19, 2014 at 1:22 pm  Comments (2)  

How to Be, Part IVa: Reflection

Continued from June 26, 2014 post, How to Be, Part III: The Ingredients

photo 2I was eighteen years old, a few weeks out of high school, when I wrote my first journal entries from a spare bedroom in my high school sweetheart’s house. He was a charming, boyishly handsome young man from a village near the Four Corners, who’d come into my life at the national student council convention in Prairie View, Illinois the summer before my senior year. Ours had been a long-distance relationship, maintained by late-night phone calls, letters, and the faith and naiveté of those whose hearts have never been broken. I was a good daughter, and so, as a graduation/going off to college/you’ve suffered enough being separated from each other gift, my parents allowed me to visit him. My mom and I drove to Albuquerque, where I dropped her off at my aunt’s house in the South Valley. I continued solo through Bernalillo, past the red bluffs of Jemez, and the pumping jacks outside Farmington. We spent a day with his friends at Navajo Lake, played board games with his middle schools nieces and nephews, talked and talked about our future—our imminent cross country separation and our dreamy post-college life, complete with international travel and children we’d already named. We road-tripped to Durango, where we took pictures next to a big stuffed bear outside Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and wandered a bookstore hand in hand. It was there that he pulled a burgundy and gold journal off the shelf and offered it to me, as he might have offered a bouquet of roses or his hand.

“You need to buy this,” he said.

So I did. In my journal I asked God to keep us together once I left for Harvard, to make me more patient. Love made me vulnerable. It made me honest. I confessed what a jerk I was being to my parents and little brother, and maybe if I’d spent more time writing instead of worrying that summer, I would have unearthed my conflicting excitement and dread over leaving my family in that small New Mexico town and going to Harvard, my deep knowing that I wasn’t prepared, my fear that I would fail and that the tiny door through which I’d been allowed to slip would be forever closed to other young, brown, working class girls.

September 6, 1990, Somewhere bet/ EP & DFW

Here it is—the day. After the long summer, it hardly seems real. I’m going to Boston….

I wanted to write something…poignant, so that 20 years from now, I could pick this book up and say to myself, “Boy, that was touching.” Now the best I can hope for is, “I was a total basket-case that day.”

Friday, September 28, 1990, 2:19 AM

This inferiority thing is starting to be a real problem for me. I don’t feel special here.

There were other entries. I miss him. I don’t fit in. I wish I could call home. How will I ever finish this essay in time? But as the academic year progressed, the gap between journal entries widened, and I found myself approaching each stint at the journal as though I were making up for lost time. I haven’t been here in weeks so I better make it good. And this is what I ended up with:

January 17, 1991

My country is at war!

Saddam Hussein is a madman!

photo 1

I didn’t write about how much I wanted to go home, how snobby I found my roommate’s friend and frequent visitor. He had three names and a boarding school upbringing. He mocked my accent—an accent I didn’t know I had—and the white brick house and dirt yard I lovingly displayed in a framed photo on my desk. I didn’t write about how I just wanted him to like me, not in a girlfriend kind of way, but in a see the goodness in me kind of way. I didn’t write about my other roommate’s mood swings. I didn’t write about my need for touch, how much I missed waking to the sound of my parents’ voices at the kitchen table, a kiss on my cheek, a hug as I left the house for school. At home somebody always knew where I was. I expected the same feeling of family, so one Saturday as I headed out the door, my backpack in tow, I told the moody roommate, “I’m going over to the language lab. I should be back in an hour.” Without looking up from her book, she replied, “I’ll alert the media.” I didn’t write about the friend from Deming who had transferred to U Mass Boston because he wanted more than anything to be on the East Coast. He’d grown up on a farm south of town. His first language was Spanish. I remember his mother in a pink housedress and apron. She and I couldn’t talk to each other, but she was always so kind to me, always so happy to see me. The day I got my ACT scores, H. explained to her that my 27 was good, and she held me to her and squeezed my nose as though I were one of her five children. In Boston, H. would change his name to Alexi and dye his hair blonde.

At Harvard, I introduced myself as Karen, my first name (passed over when my Grandma China couldn’t pronounce it and said to my mom, “Pues, dile Michelle”). I didn’t write about how I wanted to be somebody else, somebody smarter, somebody wealthier, somebody who belonged.

To Be Continued Tuesday, August 5, How to Be, Part IVb: Más Reflection

Published in: on July 29, 2014 at 11:59 am  Comments (4)  

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)  

Mamas Day: The Supermom Fantasy

A version of today’s post first appeared on the Strong Families Blog as part of the Mamas Day 2014 series. In the words of Kalpana Krishnamurthy, Policy Director of Forward Together, “Mamas Day challenges the notion that mothers are perfect and instead uplifts the universal, very real picture: that all mamas – that don’t fit the Hallmark stereotype – are doing their very best. No matter what we call the people who have nurtured or mothered us, we want to celebrate them all.” Check out Kalpana’s and many other fine posts here

Family Selfie

I have a friend we’ll call Jessica. She is a supermom. She was raised by a supermom. By all indicators, her young daughters will one day be supermoms with theme birthday parties, perfectly organized hair accessory drawers, and pretty children who score above grade level on aptitude tests. We hang out at playdates and sometimes talk about motherhood, moms with paid jobs outside the home (me) vs. moms who stay home with their kids (her), moms who planned to be moms (her) vs. moms who just fell into it (me).

Today my nine-year-old stepson zooms across her backyard on a zipline, his long hair flowing, his orange “Awesome” hoodie stained on the pocket from the strawberry sundae he ate yesterday on the way home from school. My twelve-year-old stepdaughter sits on the highest point in the crook of an oak tree, her long legs dangling, her black high tops like a pendulum mesmerizing the younger girls as she leans down to display the gallery of selfies she taken since her mom got her an iPhone two weeks ago.

I yawn. Last night the boy came to our bed. He had a bad dream. I stumbled him back to his room, tucked him in, and fell asleep, his elbow cocked between my shoulder blades, my head hanging off the mattress.

I wonder out loud how I’d ever manage to care for a newborn.

Jessica says, “It’s different when they’re yours. Our bodies were made for this.”


Since marrying Henry, I’ve been asked by more than one friend, neighbor, acquaintance, family member, “When are you going to have a baby?”

“We already have two,” I joke.

The sensitive inquisitors change the subject, but some, failing to see that my reproductive future is none of their business, prod, “I mean your own baby.”

My own baby.

Our bodies were made for this.


Before I meet Henry I want children the way little girls want ponies. I picture a fantasy nena with my cinnamon skin and her father’s high cheekbones or doe-like lashes or poet’s hands or insert current beloved’s best feature here. I picture her wrapped in a rebozo at my breast, sleeping, occasionally waking to nurse without causing pain or disfigurement to my breasts.

In my twenties I want this baby more than I want a husband. This says more about the quality of my relationships with men than about my preparedness for motherhood.

In my mid-thirties something shifts. I get tired of dating the same guy over and over again. His name and profession and style change; but the constant is that he loves me best from a distance, loves the idea of me more than the actual complicated, messy me.

I think I love me—and by extension, my fantasy baby in the rebozo—the same way.

I start trusting the voice in me that warns of red flags (first date mentions of a “complicated” relationship with the ex; saying I love you too soon; he can call me, I can’t call him; take your pick), that heavy feeling at the bottom of my heart that knows I shouldn’t be dating this person no matter how beautiful his bone structure or lashes or hands.


When I reach home after my first date with Henry—appetizers and drinks at a rooftop patio in Old Town, plans for our second date already in the works—I text my best friend: I want to have his babies.

The mini me in the rebozo has hazel eyes and a goatee.

Henry and I fall—and grow—in love. We date for a year and a half.

And then, while I am on vacation in Mexico, my apartment building burns to the ground.

I return to Albuquerque with my passport, my laptop, and a pink suitcase of clothes. I move into Henry’s house. I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I play Legos, Build-a-Bears, bedroom-turned-grocery store where I can buy toast on a Hello Kitty plate for ninety-nine cents. Tutors, summer camp, chore charts, voice lessons, what do you mean that jacket doesn’t fit you anymore, play dates.

The rebozo baby vanishes. In her place stand two real, live, human children who go back and forth between our house and their mom’s.

Their birthday parties stress me out. They rarely make beds or pick up toys without being reminded. They don’t really like school.

I am not a supermom. My body was not made for that.

I have picked lice from his hair, boiled water for manzanilla that morning her first period came. These real, live children are kind and self-aware. They are honest and brave and funny and in touch with their emotions. They are creative and smart. They see and understand the world in a way that belies their years. And they have allowed me into their home, into their lives and hearts.

I am a writer. My body was made for story, the stories that flow from my pen, and this story—my life, this family, these kids.





Published in: on May 21, 2014 at 11:54 am  Comments (13)  

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


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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How to Be, Part I: Two Words

Gourd, Seton Village

Gourd, Seton Village

I am thinking of the two words for being in Spanish, ser and estar.

Estar is a temporary state.

Voy a Santa Fe tres veces a la semana. Estoy cansada. I’m tired of the drive to Santa Fe.

Estoy nerviosa porque tengo mucho que hacer. I have so much to do. It makes me nervous.

Estar is right now, in this moment. Estar will pass.

Ser is a permanent condition.

Soy alta. I am tall.

Ser tells the world what defines us. Soy de aquí. I am from here.

Ser says who we are, what we do. Soy Michelle. Soy escritora.

I am thinking of something I learned from Patty Lee, a master teacher who created the Teacher Renewal program at the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe. For the past three summers I’ve had the honor of working with Patty and a fine team to co-facilitate the Teacher Renewal Summer Institute, a professional development program at the Academy for teachers in Santa Fe Public Schools. Over three days teachers at all levels and disciplines release the school year, reconnect with the passion that led them to teaching, and challenge themselves to put into practice Patty’s words: We teach who we are.

I am thinking of the two spring semesters I spent as a teaching artist for El Otro Lado in the Schools in Santa Fe, one with seniors at Capital High, the other with fifth graders at Amy Biehl Community School. Those were early mornings, eating breakfast in my car, catching up with my mom on calls (hands-free) that would drop when I hit San Felipe’s Casino Hollywood. More than once I finalized that day’s lesson plan on the drive, cursing myself for not being more prepared, for always feeling rushed, for leaving behind the poem/photograph/thumb drive/song that would really land this lesson for my students. I’d pull into the school’s parking lot, take a deep breath, and check my teeth in the rearview mirror for remnants of energy bar or toast or—if I was lucky and Henry was up and at ‘em before I left home—breakfast burrito. Those mornings I taught tired. I taught nervous. I taught distracted.

And despite the me who showed up some of those mornings, there were moments of beauty. Asking a class of fifth-graders, “What’s the word?” and hearing twenty-five voices call back in their best Martín Espada impression, “¡Alabanza!” Confessing to a senior that the school’s kiln twisted the ceramic shrine she’d so painstakingly created and watching her shatter that deformed body, gather the shards, and re-fashion them into a mosaic that told a bigger story than the one she thought she wanted to tell. Though I was tired, I was able to drawn on deep reserves of poetry/photographs/files/songs and art and quiet moments carved out over decades of journal writing and long walks and solitude.

But my reserves were running low.

Next Week: How to Be, Part II

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm  Comments (1)  
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