The Savior, Part 5b: (Gotta Have) Faith

Continued from July 2 post: The Savior, Part 5a: (Gotta Have) Faith


Twice in my life I have returned home from two-year stays in other countries. Neither time was fun or easy. After Belize, the priest at my home parish opened his Father’s Day homily with an observation that all movies featuring single fathers are comedies. I thought he’d go on to say that fathers were important, that Hollywood did them wrong, that men needed support in their roles as fathers. Instead he launched into a diatribe against “the radical feminist movement of the 1970s,” excoriating the bad women who had children out of wedlock and kept babies from their fathers, the awful women who pursued careers and forced children into daycare. He stayed with the image of father as helpless buffoon. This from a man who had never parented, a priest in a community with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

He was one priest in one parish, but I thought of all the people listening to him that day. My high school classmates who’d earned diplomas after giving birth. The boy being raised by a single dad because his mother died. The fathers. My mom who worked her ass off to become a teacher, whose salary kept us afloat when my dad’s job hit a slump and dropped everyone’s hours. The friend who left the mother of his child right after high school. The childless woman. Me. Do I matter to this priest? This church? Do I matter at least as much as the child I might someday bear? And if I never bear children, do I matter at all?

IMG_5930I didn’t lose my faith. It changed. This was when I turned to La Virgen de Guadalupe, weeping before the tilma at her Basilica in Mexico City. This was when I started hiking, when I began shaping journal reflections into poems, when I jogged North Valley ditches with my roommate and her yellow lab, when I found a good therapist. This was when I had an egg rubbed over me by a traditional Mexican healer. I buried the egg and the rosemary she’d swept over me; I felt rooted and ready to fly at the same time and knew I had found a kind of home.

I would never leave the Catholic Church for another. I would miss the ritual, the songs, the liturgical calendar, communion, the sacraments. I would miss the bloody saints, the reverence, the solemnity of Christ’s suffering, a suffering we share in the breaking of bread, and I would miss the joy that follows that suffering because, like the denouement of a good novel, it is earned.

The Catholicism I grew up with and deepened at Harvard was of the Americas, tied to ancient tradition and new, post Vatican II, folk songs in Spanish, children sitting around the altar. Nuns never rapped me on the knuckles with rulers. (Though I, along with all of the other children who crowded into Father Stanley Hall for weekly catechism, was justifiably terrified of Sister Rosalie.) I was part of the mass, a lector, playing my trumpet, serving communion, holding the holy book above my head in procession with the priest.

IMG_5926I still feel at home dipping my fingers in a holy water font, still feel drawn to ritual and sacrament, to Good Friday mass, leaving the church in silence as the white cloth is gathered from the altar and folded. I am learning the newer mass parts (though “consubstantial” will never sound right to me). Pope Francis gives me hope. (Favorite quote so far: “Who am I to judge?”)

As with the fire, building my faith was never about trying to recreate my old life, but about creating and recreating with what remains: the ancient, the acequia, el mestizaje, the word.

Published in: on July 31, 2015 at 7:55 am  Comments (4)  
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Hembras de Pluma



“When I grow up, I want to be a stepmom,” said no one. Ever.

And so begins “Mother Lode,” the short play I wrote and am directing for this year’s Hembras de Pluma. You might remember from last year that we are a collective of women of color artists, actors, and writers. Or that we debuted during the 2014 Women & Creativity series at the National Hispanic Cultural Center to mostly sold-out audiences. You might remember the one and only Lola, grand dame of 1940s radio who refused to be aged out of her long-running show without a making a statement. You might remember the bond between six sisters and their makeup, or the teenager barricaded behind a flimsy bathroom door with her first box of tampons.

Though we know this to be true, I think we were all a bit surprised that we could take the tiniest seedlings of ideas, nurture them with time, attention, and hard work, and share them with our community. But there we were, writing on our laptops and journals around a dining room table, in a living room, on sofas and throw pillows. And then months later, lights, makeup, sound cues, audience.

And so we’re back with new stories. This time we’ve gone a little deeper, peeled back another layer.

Valli Rivera returns as Lola with new spicy advice for your life and a few secrets to share.

Monica Rodriguez brings us María Elena, a 40-something believer in love who has “spent a lifetime chasing the wrong men.”

Bineshi Albert explores the trafficking of indigenous women through a fast-talking, sharp-dressed salesman.

Michelle Estrada Allred shares two stories. In one she journeys to childhood in the land of pecans. In another she introduces a crew of cholas with a passion for public service.

María Teresa Herrera ignites the fire within three women as they drift into memories of life-changing events.

Andrea Serrano channels the voice of an elder as his life draws to an end.

Please join our audience at the National Hispanic Cultural Center as part of the Siembra Latino Theatre Festival, April 23 – May 3, Thursday – Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. For tickets, call 505-724-4771 or visit

Follow our progress on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, please contribute to our gofundme campaign. By day we work at non-profits, in children’s court, at a cancer center. We defend voting rights, organize our communities to protect clean air and water, and support vulnerable families. We help others tell their stories through poetry, dance, and theatre. Your gift not only enables us to build a set and pay our crew, but it supports our ongoing creative work, telling the stories of our communities, one little seedling at a time.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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What I Learned from Michael Corleone, Part I: Mistakes

But first …

Thank you, Vessel readers, for your patience over the last two weeks.

I am learning to accept that my life is busy, that if I am going to have meaningful relationships with my family, friends and community, then I must create pockets of time in which to reflect and write. Sometimes, as in the last two weeks, the pockets are hard to find.

I am learning to recognize that I have many ways of expressing my creativity. I sing. I write. I teach. I act. And now I direct.


Marit rehearsing with Choreographer Liz Chavez. Photo by Henry Rael.

You are invited to share in the fruits of my first directing endeavor. The White World, the story of Clara, a young dancer caught between the world of the living and the dead, comes to the National Hispanic Cultural Center one weekend only, March 23 – 25, as part of Women & Creativity. Written as a screenplay by Marit Rawley and adapted for stage by me, The White World, a one-act play, is a metaphor for Marit’s own life as a young woman with autism, navigating the world within her mind and the world in which she lives, works, and communicates.

Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM. All three performances will open with an excerpt of Marit’s “self-documentary” about life with autism and her process of becoming a filmmaker as an apprentice to Emmy award winner Dale Sonnenberg. Sunday’s show will be followed by a panel discussion.

Call 505-724-4771 for tickets. (Call soon. We’ve got a big story in Sunday’s Albuquerque Journal, so beat the rush and get your tickets now.)

Visit The White World blog to read Marit’s story, connect to our successful Kickstarter campaign, and see behind the scenes photos from rehearsals.

And now, Part I

“I’ve made some mistakes.”

He woke me out of a dead sleep. It was five in the morning. The faintest light, predawn or artificial I couldn’t tell, crept between the blind and the window frame. K. stood at Henry’s side of the bed. He wakes early on vacation days, and despite his late night sleepover still in progress on our living room floor and “couch bed,” as K. and his sister refer to our pull out sofa, he was wide awake.

“Daddy, I’ve made some mistakes,” he said.

“Are you okay, little guy?” I asked, lifting my head off the pillow. His hair, which he is growing out until it “reaches China,” stood up like a rooster’s crown. He scratched his leg. Henry got out of bed. As he and K. left the room, K. said it again, only this time I heard, “The living room stinks.”

“It’s the polish,” I babbled to Henry, already out of earshot and back in the living room, where I assumed P. and her friend had left an open bottle of nail polish or a tissue with acetone.

The living room stinks.

I’ve made some mistakes.

Lately, even when K. stays in his bed, I’ve had trouble sleeping. I have a recurring dream that I am trying to get somewhere, to an important meeting, a performance, or a class, and it seems the universe conspires to keep me from arriving. Guests drop in and I must cook for them. A tire falls off my car. A quick errand along the way turns into a daylong excursion from which there is no escape.

This dream is usually paired with the one in which I call for help and no sound comes from my mouth.

Paralysis and silence go together, and the only way for me to move forward or find my voice is to shift ground on which I am standing.

Last Tuesday I let go of a contract. After breakfast, I resigned from an advisory board. That afternoon I told the Executive Director of an organization I deeply respect that it was time for me to leave the Board.

I held on to each of these longer than I should have because I felt bad for not giving as much as I would have liked. When I thought of leaving, I heard awful things in my head. Quitter. Flake. You wasted our time. Why didn’t you say something sooner? Now how am I supposed to find someone to replace you? You didn’t do much anyway …

So I would talk myself out of quitting, reasoning that I could leave once I did something spectacular to compensate for my inactivity, certain that my parting act would alleviate the guilt I felt over not being the kind of consultant/board member/human being I should be.

I’ve made some mistakes.

Then I saw The Godfather.

Tune in for What I Learned from Michael Corleone, Part II on Tuesday, March 20.

Published in: on March 15, 2012 at 11:06 am  Comments (2)  
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Jennifer Givhan, Poet & Novelist

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