Sunday, December 10, 2017

On Mortality

This is (really late) Essay #48 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

I’m thinking about mortality.

What would you do if you knew exactly when you would leave this earth, this body? How would you live our your remaining days?

This is not a new question. In fact, it’s been asked so much that it’s become a cliché to even ask it! But I don’t know if I’ve asked this question of myself and really pondered on the answers. Sure, I’ve asked the question. I’ve told myself and others that we are never promised tomorrow. And the question is usually raised when someone in my life dies. Or, right now, when someone in my life is diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

Stage 3. That’s one stage lower than Stage 4, the final stage where nothing really can be done. So, it’s not a death countdown but it’s also not Stage 1 (early stages).

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. What does that mean? What’s the survival rate? Should I be freaking out that she might, indeed, die? I mean, yes, we all are going to die, but I don’t know how to respond to this information. I can’t tell what level of “oh shit” this is. My friend, M, is really holding it together on the outside. Casual and nonchalant. Really frank about discussing her treatment and saying things like “we’re going to kick cancer’s ass”. Talking facts rather than feelings. I wonder what’s going on deep within. I hope that she’s talking about it with other people: her husband, a therapist, somebody. Because we all know that tamping down emotions just makes them stronger, and, sometimes, toxic. You can’t just will yourself to be strong and not allow for grief and heartache to come into play, too. The sadness and anger will only grow and perhaps hinder the strength.

When she first told me about her diagnosis, she expressed some anger. Why is this happening to me? I eat organic. I take care of myself. But the way she said it – it sounded like she was really working hard at holding it together, working hard at not breaking down. I get it. I’d probably be the same way. But how useful is that? To deny ourselves to feel the things we need to feel?

I understand that everyone has their own way of dealing with feelings, with expressing them. I just hope that she is able to process all of this with help, in the way is best for her. It’s just that holding it together, tamping it down, perhaps even denying feelings – that’s not the best way for anybody.

*

In facing one’s mortality head on, we tend to deny it. We refuse help. We insist on self-reliance. Look at my in-laws who are well advanced in age and need all sorts of help, help that might be best found in an assisted living situation. (I’ve already discussed this a little bit here.) Our pride gets in our way. As does our denial of death. We are very attached to things, to our status quo. Change is inevitable, as is death. So why not embrace rather than resist them both?

And what does it feel like to know more concretely that you are closer to death than most people? How would you move through your life? What would change?

These are questions I am contemplating.

How would I live my life differently? Would I live my life differently?

I’ve been trying to live my life in the present moment, trying to thrive and live like I will die tomorrow. Trying is the operative word. It’s not easy. Old habits die hard. But I am making an effort. I am seeking out and trying to create as much joy in my life, as much play.

The year is coming to a close. With the new year on the horizon, many of us use this as an opportunity to create a fresh start, a clean slate. It always feels so good to do that. But often, these “do better” lists don’t get to the heart of thriving in this life we’ve been given. “Lose 10 lbs” is a good old standby. What does that even mean? That you are unhappy with your body? Love your body and be grateful for all that it does for you. Treat it well, like the holy temple it is. Nourish it with goodness and you’ll feel physically better. If you focus on the weight loss, you’re not creating joy – you’re creating suffering. Because you’ve got this idea that your body isn’t good enough as it is. You got a little extra cushion? Love it and then tell yourself that maybe the extra cushion has served its purpose and now you are working on letting it go because it no longer serves you. Doesn’t that sound more inviting? Like maybe there’s potential for love and joy in that?

When it comes to living the lives we want, many people say Oh, I’ll do that next year. Or, I have to wait until all my ducks are in a row. Or, Just as soon as I do XYZ first. I am one of those people. Or, at least I used to be. Now, I’ve been working on going after the things I want in this moment. And when I say “the things I want” I don’t mean material things (though, to be honest, I do want the Gravity blanket. Have you seen this thing?? So amazing! Though, not cheap.) I’m talking about seizing the day. Do we have to wait until we receive our death notices in order to thrive in the life we’ve been given? Or will we go out each day and do the thing that brings us joy, the things that scares the shit out of us, the thing that pushes us to our edge to that we can grow to the most excellent versions of ourselves? I don’t know about you, but that’s how I want to live: awake and alive exploding with joy. (yeah, yeah, the darkness can come too. Hahaha!)

On that note, I have this dilemma: I want to go on this spiritual study retreat to India in February with my teacher. There’s a whole group going from my home studio. To visit the childhood home of Krishna? To physically be in the sacred space and energy of Vrindavan? Man, that would be something else. The dilemma? Financing the trip. Yes, seize the day. But how to balance that with a certain level of responsibility? If I were dying, would I say, “fuck it and rack up that debt”? I can’t say.

Which brings me to m original question: what would I do differently if I knew when I would leave this earth? Maybe I’d go to India on my already-maxed-out card. Maybe I’d open a new card (if they let me – haha) and take my whole family to the Philippines and to Italy because my kids want to see where their grandparents are from. Maybe I’d get that Gravity blanket. Maybe I’d try skydiving. Maybe. I don’t know – I’m terrified of heights. But if I’m going to die anyway, why the hell not?

I’d definitely tell everyone I loved them every freaking minute of the day (which I kinda already do). I’d take more bubble baths. Take even more naps (because naps are awesome! And hello, Gravity blanket! Naps will be even more awesome!). I’d get some massages because I don’t get enough of that kind of magic. I’d try to create as much magic as possible in my life and everyone around me. And play. Always play.

Carpe diem, my friends. Because you don’t know when you last breath will come.
  

Friday, December 1, 2017

Notes from Your Resident Hippy-Dippy: On Listening & Discernment

This is (really late) Essay #47 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Follow your heart.

You see it on painted wood signs in the décor aisle of Home Goods. It’s on Instagrammed photos that then get shared on Facebook. If one is lucky enough: encouraging parents whisper this in the ears of their children as they wander off into unchartered territory called college. It’s a phrase we hear so often. But what the hell does it mean? What if you can’t even hear your heart?

*

Back in 2003, my friend Erika and I started on a spiritual path together. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I was looking for something. So, she suggested we started listening to Louise Hay’s book, I Can Do It! We listened because we could “read” the book during our commutes between home and work. Erika lives in the Bay Area and I’m in Jersey so we’d Skype weekly to check-in. We talked about writing, mostly (we two were a little writing “group”), but Louise’s positive affirmations also came into the conversation. Little did I know that this began my relationship with the power of mantra. That year, I could feel a shift within me. Something was starting to happen.

Over the years, we sought out book after book: Ask and It Is Given, The Art of Receiving, The Artist’s Way (which we both had for quite some time, but upon returning to it, found new ways of being), The Magic (oh, the magic of gratitude!), and everything Pema Chodron! I could feel my spiritual self grow and develop – it was really amazing! This is what I had wanted from my own religious practices (Catholic), but didn’t know that this was what I wanted, nor did I know I didn’t have it—until I got it.

Small things started to change. And the changes were tiny, incremental. I found more patience with people, particularly my kids. I could create moments of calm. I found yoga to be a more spiritual experience and not just a physical workout. The things that mattered to me were less about material things and status; instead, it was about intangible things: happiness, love, kindness. I felt more connected to my Self (though, at the time, I didn’t know it was higher, divine Self as opposed to self). I also started to pay closer attention. The universe was talking to me, and all this time, I hadn’t been listening.

*

I took my first Kundalini yoga class a year and a half ago. I had no idea what Kundalini was but I needed to take a class with this particular instructor and this is what fit into my schedule at the time. This instructor was running the 200 hour teacher training I was interested in. I needed to know who she was; word of mouth said she was fantastic, but I wanted to find out firsthand.

That was the longest rollercoaster of seventy-five minutes I ever experienced. Holy shit. This is what went through my mind during the class:

First: what the fuck is this? This isn’t yoga! [pause] But she did tell me it was weird. Man, is it weird! What the hell are we doing??

Second: Why am I sweating so much? Oh my God, this is worse than the hardest spin class I’ve ever taken – I might sweat all over my mat! And I don't have a towel. Shit. I didn’t know this was HOT yoga. Wait – it’s not even hot in here. What the hell? What the hell is going on? And we’re just breathing and twisting our spines. What?

Almost immediately after that: Holy shit. I gotta get out of here. What the fuck is going on with me? What? What? There’s something going on in here and I don’t know what it is and I want to leave. Should I just get up and leave? I can’t just get up and leave. Can I? Maybe I can. Shit. Come on. You can do it. Just hold on a little longer. Maybe it’ll go away. Hold on. Hold on tight. Brace yourself. You can do it. You can finish this class. I know you can.

[almost passes out]

Last ten minutes of class: wow – what is that warm light? It feels so good. I feel so light. Am I flying? I must be flying. Is the sun in here?

Later in the reception area: holy shit – I feel amazing. What the hell happened to me? [to Shannon]: What the hell happened to me?

I can’t remember if she actually answered. She probably just smiled at me and nodded. I signed up for teacher training right on the spot. Shannon was, indeed, fantastic. (Of course, I'd change my mind several times over the span of the 9-month training as she poked and prodded us in order to encourage us to evolve. No one said growth was easy. Or fun. But happy to report that I love her to death!)

*

Fast forward to the present.

Kundalini is the fast-track to heightened awareness. I kid you not.

With all of this awareness, a new challenge has come up: discernment. How do I know what I’m hearing is the universe? How do I know it’s not my ego pretending to be the universe? How do I differentiate between the two?

Well, it comes down to the gut. Instinct. The deepest parts of your heart.

But to get there, you need to get through some layers of shit. As you go through the layers, how do you distinguish the shit, the illusion, the ego’s desires from the real, the truth? What rings true? How do you know?

I know, I know: I sound like this esoteric New Age hippy-dippy again! Hahaha!

But these are real questions I ask myself. And there’s so much information out there, coming at us at the speed of light. How can we hear ourselves inside so much noise?

Oh, Meditation. Welcome to my temple.

*

Why, you might wonder, dear Reader, am I even asking these questions? Of what use will these answers be if I find them?

I am a Seeker.

Shannon called me this during our graduation ceremony for yoga teacher training. (There are varying definitions of this, but basically, it just means that I’m seeking out spiritual growth and development, that I’m curious –endlessly curious.) What this means for me is that I am looking for ways to improve my life and how I live it. How to evolve spiritually and how to lead a more authentic life. And what does that mean? To live in as much love and truth as best I can. And to answer the calling for my life, which is the same call everyone has: what are you here to do? What is your dharma? (Oooo! A yoga term! Hahaha!)

So in order to follow you heart, you first need to hear it. To truly hear it and not mistake it for the ego. For me, following your heart is about doing your best to live your best, most authentic and truth-driven life, led with love, kindness, and generosity. And what that looks like changes every day, every minute. My best might be taking a nap because my body needs it. My best might be eating a Bavarian cream donut because my body needs it. Hahaha! I'm kidding! My best might simply be listening to someone, to actively listen and see them --really see them. My best might be holding my tongue when I really want to shout. My best might be to shout after holding so much silence.

Get quiet a little bit everyday so you can listen. What does your heart-soul say? And after you listen, will you follow it?


Sunday, November 19, 2017

When Your Parents Are The Elders

This is (slightly late) Essay #46 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Who’s on the guest list?

I am planning my annual holiday party and putting together my guest list. It’s a little later than when I usually send out invitations, but it’s been that kind of year. And every time, as November approaches, I sit on the fence. Do I want to host the party again? Do I want to invest that kind of time and energy that goes into planning and cleaning and preparing? I go back and forth. I think about what it might be like to not host a holiday party. Would I be okay with that? Would I be okay with just trying to make plans to meet up with friends at a restaurant or bar instead?

And then I think about how restaurants aren’t as much fun as home. How we’d have to jostle with other patrons. Sure, someone else will cook the food and serve the drinks. But then we’d be stuck in place, sitting in our seats (or cramped at the bar), limited to conversation with whomever was next to us. We’d probably be yelling, too, as everyone will be out getting together with friends, too. And this is if we can even find a date that all of us would be able to meet. Which is virtually impossible.

But also, it’s more warm and inviting being in someone’s home –namely my own home—sharing in the holiday spirit, moving freely throughout the house, mingling with whomever you choose.

Okay, okay— I convinced myself: I’m going to host the holiday party again this year.

Now the matter of the guest list.

*

Growing up, my parents would take us to people’s houses for parties all the time. And “party” seems like a misnomer, though I don’t know what else I’d call it. “Get together” maybe? It was always a house full of people my parents knew from back home –kababayan, countrymen—or, more often than not, specifically folks from my mother’s hometown of Lucban in the Quezon province: Lucbanin. It seemed like there was some special occasion or another practically every weekend. This one’s baptism. That one’s First Communion. This one’s post-piano recital reception. Or just a picnic to celebrate summer.

The kitchens of these homes would be jam-packed with trays of food on every available surface –counterops, tables, unfolded tv trays— kept warm over sternos. The requisite lumpiang shanghai and pancit (at least two kinds, if not three – canton, palabok, bihon, sotanghon). Diniguan, pinakbet, sinigang, If it was a really special occasion, then lechon: a full roasted pig, complete with apple in mouth.

The dining rooms hosted desserts: ube, maha blanca, cassava cake, brazo de Mercedes, espasol, sans rival, bibingka. And a sheet cake to mark whatever occasion we were celebrating. And there was plenty of soda. Plenty. And Johnny Walker Black and Chivas Regal.

The titas would chitter about, gliding through the two rooms, ensuring the food was always replenished. Where the extra food came from I never knew. I wondered if the oven was some magic portal to the local Filipino turo-turo where these titas just pulled out dish after dish. As they moved, they’d share tsismis about this daughter or that cousin. And did you notice how Baby is getting fat? What’s the latest on Totoy’s girlfriends? The titos would talk about back home: the political unrest. Everyone sitting wherever they could –folding chairs, stools, the arms of couches—balancing paper plates snuggled inside bamboo plate holders on their laps.

The kids? We really didn’t eat (except for maybe the desserts). We kids would scatter everywhere, depending on how old we were at any given point in time. The backyard for tag. If we were lucky, there’d be a swing set, too. The driveway for basketball. The upstairs for video games. The basement for movies and combat practice (think: Street Fighter) – that is, if it wasn’t set up for card games.

When I got to the tween years, the basement would be set up with a DJ – a crew of boys I kinda knew from these get-togethers, messing around with vinyl and beats and sound. That was some good shit in those days.

But if you were quiet like me (if you believe there was such a time!), you’d hang with the elders, your face in a book. Maybe you’d sit in a corner of the family room, watching tv with them. Or watch them play mahjong, kicking each other’s asses, raking in the dimes. Laughter above the clack of tiles as they reset each game, the sound somehow soothing. But be mindful not to bring too much attention to yourself lest the questioning begin: how is school? How are your grades? Are you studying hard? From the lolas: do you have a boyfriend? To which you lower your head even further in embarrassment. And then: go help your mother.

If we were lucky, they’d force one of us kids to play the piano. Sige na, play us the “Cats”. You are so good at it. It didn’t matter if we were actually good at it or not. As long as we could play the melody to “Memory” from the musical “Cats”, we would be yanked to the piano bench and made to play. The excuse of “I don’t have the music” doesn’t fly. Everyone has a copy of the sheet music in their piano benches. Everyone. And if we were really lucky, one of the titos would stand up next to the piano, which was in the living room saturated with plastic-covered couches, mirrored walls and capiz shell chandeliers, and sing along with our stuttering play – start, stop, start again, fumble over the keys, stumble through the notes. He would belt out the notes as if he himself were on a Broadway stage.

Ah, those were the days.



*

My grandparents have been gone for thirteen years. A lot has happened in thirteen years. Including the fact that my own parents –and their friends (my titas and titos)— are now the elders. How weird is that?! And I can’t remember the last time I was at a Filpino get-together. The only ones who now host such things are my parents and their local friends. Only every once in a while. Gone are the days of getting together with Lucbanin every other weekend. Now, it’s just once a year, if that. And I don’t usually attend. I have my own family and our own very busy schedule of commitments and our own friends with whom we (occasionally) get together.

And so, in putting my guest list together for this holiday party, I am thinking about these things. Thinking about how life is shorter than we think it is. Thinking about how, while I hated bring dragged to these get-togethers with my siblings, I actually miss it. How I’m a little sad that my own kids won’t get to experience these gatherings. That yes, they will have their own version of childhood get-togethers and being dragged to places they don’t want to go –I just hope they look fondly back on them as I am doing now. But I am sad about what is lost. This is part of living in the diaspora, no? What is lost and what remains.

I am going to do what I can to keep what little remains and try to pass it on to my kids. I will invite the elders to this holiday party. I will order trays of Filipino food. I will bust out the Magic Mic (because, after all, what Filipino party is complete without a little singing, a little karaoke?). Maybe one of my kids will play the piano. Or maybe they all will. And maybe we will laugh and gossip. Maybe they’ll talk about the good old days. Maybe they’ll talk about back home. (They most certainly won’t talk about getting old.)  Maybe they’ll ask my kids about their studies. Or offer strategies for winning mahjong. The sound of Tagalog filling my house full of love. Maybe, after all, not all is lost.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Privilege as a Non-Black Woman of Color

This is (slightly late) Essay #45 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

It’s ten-thirty on a Monday night. I’m driving home from hip-hop dance class. I am thinking about a million things –the choreography I just learned, the emotional weight of the song that just came on, the stack of ungraded papers that keeps growing, my schedule for tomorrow. The residual vibrational energy from Kundalini teacher training this past weekend is humming. (Trust me, it’s not the afterglow of dancing – that’s an entirely different sensation. I’d try to describe it but the humming is overpowering my muscle memory right now.) The road is pitch black (I live in the country where streetlights are sparse, even on main roads, and full of deer. Okay, I don’t live in the actual countryside, but I’m not lying about the streetlights or the deer.) There’s a car behind me driving a little too close. I try to ignore it.

Then the blue lights start flashing.

I’m getting pulled over.

For what? I have no idea. I was going the speed limit. I wondered if my tail lights were broken. Why on earth was I getting pulled over? I start a small panic: I noticed this morning that my registration wasn’t the current card & I couldn’t find the current one at the time. He (because I know it’s going to be a “he”) is going to ticket me for that. Shit.

At this point of waiting for him to approach, I notice that I am not my usual panicky self. My palms are not sweating; my heart is not racing like it usually does. Maybe this pranayama and meditation stuff does kick in automatically after all.

The officer comes to the passenger side and signals for me the open the window. I am startled because I was expecting him at my side of the car. He is polite and introduces himself. Then, he asks my to turn down my music (which wasn’t loud to begin with but probably just to make it easier for us to have a conversation) and asks to see me license and registration. As I am getting those things out, I ask him what the problem was. I don’t usually do this; I usually wait for the officer to inform me of my transgression. But I knew I did nothing wrong. He tells me that he will let me know as soon as he looks at my credentials (translation: who are you? And do you live around here?).

“Where are you coming from?” he asks.
“Dance class – over at [the dance studio nearby].”
“Good class?” He’s making chitchat.
“Yes. And exhausting,” I reply.
“So a good workout.”
“Yes.”
He is looking at my information during our verbal volley. Please don’t look at the date on my registration, I plead in my head. I’m watching him. I don’t think he’s really seeing the documents in his hands. He’s just staring at them.
“The reason I pulled you over was because you took that curve back there really wide. If it wasn’t so egregious [yes, he used that word], I would’ve let it go.”
“Which curve?”
“The one by the elementary school.”
“Oh.” Honestly, I don’t recall if I did that or not. It’s possible, but I was so inside my head that I can’t remember if that happened or not.
“I just wanted to check in with you.”
“Okay.”
“Well, get home safe.”
“Okay. Thank you.” Why the hell was I saying thank you??

I take my time putting away my documents, hoping that he will drive away first. But no such luck. So I practice extra-careful by-the-book driving. I put on my turn signal, check for traffic (the streets are empty at this hour, so I have no idea why I’m surprised to see no cars in that moment), and pull out onto the road to continue my journey home.

And then I lose it.

I burst out weeping. There’s a heaviness in my chest, like stones gathered beneath my ribs. I don’t know what this is. At first I think it’s the emotions triggered by the song that was playing before I got pulled over. But the tears keep coming. I keep asking: what is this? What is this? Then, I realize that it is something else.

I have come to experience firsthand the level of privilege I carry. While it’s not white privilege, it’s privilege just the same. It’s not that I was unaware of my privilege, but I really got to see it in action. Often, it is me seeing how I am oppressed.

I was crying for my black sisters and brothers who cannot be at a peace when an officer pulls them over. Who must always be on alert, always “on”, always at the ready. Who fear for their safety, for their very lives.

*

Earlier that day, a student was talking about some of the things she, a young white woman, notices when she is out with her best friend who is black. She didn’t mention any specific incident, but talked about how she would speak up to defend her friend, how her friend would usually refrain from defending herself. I asked her if she understood why. Why her friend had to make these choices to stay silent in certain moments. Actually, in many moments.

Yes, my student said. She understood that it was because she was white and her friend was black. I pressed her further. What does that really mean, the difference in race? She said it was because of white privilege. And then quickly added: “And I feel bad about it.” There is it: white guilt.

I took this opportunity to tell my students to get over it. White guilt does not help anyone. Yes, you didn’t ask for white privilege, but you got it. So what are you going to do with it? Own your privilege. Wield that power for good. Speak up for your black friend. Declare that it’s an injustice that black bodies are deemed disposable to white police officers. And then do something about it. The more white voices we have in this fight, the louder and more effective we can be.

*

I don’t know what else to say. Getting pulled over really did something to me and I can’t quite articulate it yet.

For now, for my part, I will say this: I am doing what I can as a woman of color in a position of authority as an educator to develop critical thinking in these young people. To challenge the system. To incite change.

Yeah, I’m trying to create an army of rabble rousers. Hah!
  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Kind of Homecoming

This is (slightly late) Essay #44 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.


Last night, I attended a benefit poetry reading at Poets House, Poets for Puerto Rico, curated and hosted by the fantastic Willie Perdomo. I was looking forward to it – it had been a hot minute since I last attended a poetry reading in the city, let alone one that had a headline full of folks I knew. These folks, in particular, I hadn’t seen in about 15 years.

I’ll admit: I was feeling a little apprehension.

My poetry path looks vastly different from everyone else’s. I have kids and live in soccer mom country (parts of which are frighteningly Red – don’t ask me how I survive. I’m not sure myself.). I am very removed from any kind of poetry community. It’s hard. But this is my life and so I make do the best way I know how. By myself. It’s kinda lonely. But I do have my people – albeit through a mostly digital experience.

Last night was about me engaging live and in person with poets who I hadn’t seen in a long-ass time.

Would they remember me? Would they not? Would I feel less than? Under-accomplished (as Insecurity monster considered rearing her head)? After all, it’s been over a decade and I have nothing concrete (ie. a book) to show for my work as a poet for all these years. I wasn’t sure. All I could do was be aware of these possibilities and notice what might happen. No judgment.

*

I met my friend Jen, who is an incredible creative nonfiction writer, for a drink beforehand. It felt like so much goodness to reconnect in person after several months of not seeing each other. We talked about the highs and lows of being a poet & writer. She was going through some frustrations. Me? I think it helped me get perspective: we all go through this shit. And, despite the really low lows where we think about quitting altogether, we still write. There is no other way.

I’ve had a hell of a week, with really extreme lows only to be met with equally extreme highs (I got two big important acceptances, which will be revealed once everything is official). To talk about these things with Jen in person was grounding. For that I am grateful. Our conversation was a good way to kick off the night. And yeah, the double IPA helped too. Hah!


Hello, blurry. Hello, awkward shadows. 
Me & Jen failing at taking a selfie.

*

We arrived at Poets House just as the event was starting. The place was jammed. Standing room only. What I loved most about it? It was a room jam-packed with brown people. I could already feel the love.

Jen and I squeezed in a found a spot on the floor. Thankfully, two people left before the end of the first half and we grabbed two seats. My body was thankful. It’s hard to sit on the floor with riding boots on. Barefoot in yoga pants? Well, that’s a different story.

After some buzzy rhythmic performances, tear-filled voices, and fierce calls to resistance, there was a 15-minute intermission. Our dear host invited us to enjoy some snacks & beverages and to take an opportunity to talk to the poets. I wanted to stretch my legs a bit, so I wandered toward the snacks in search of a little drink of water.

Along the way, I ran into a few people from the Old Days. Willie was one. Hadn’t seen him in well over a decade, like most of these folks. And yet… he recognized me right away and gave me a big hug. I suspect that he had forgotten my name (which was fine – I kinda expected it), but he knew that he knew me. That was enough.

I saw Lee Bricetti and Jane Preston – the amazing women at the helm of Poets House. I had interned for them as an undergrad a million years ago. Both recognized me in the same way Willie did. Both greeted me as he did: big hugs.

And so this is how it was.

Rich Villar: hugs. I didn’t think Bonafide would remember me, recognize me, or anything like that, but he did. Not my name, but he knew, like Willie, that he knew me. From where? He couldn’t be sure, but… from around. He gave me a high five and held my hand right up there, asking how I’ve been. It was nice. John Murillo saw me –totally remembered me – like he knew exactly who I was and where we knew each other. But to be fair, it hadn’t been decades. Only half a decade. Haha! It was he and I who would actually talk afterward & connect in earnest.

I’ll say this:

It felt good to be seen. To really be seen.

But also to feel like part of a community again. One that was living and breathing. One that I could physically touch. One that mattered to me.

Someone put on salsa and merengue. So you know that intermission was longer than fifteen. Hearing that music in that room full of big love and good people – I couldn’t help but move my body into dance. It had been a long time since I’ve felt the thump of congas, the brassy blare of trumpets, the cool tone of piano in my veins. It felt so so good. It felt warm like a single malt scotch in my belly. Like the cool of a mint-muddled mojito.

The reading was amazing. So much energy! Supportive, loving, heartbreaking, truth-telling, loving loving loving. Willie aptly described it this way: It was baptism, sweet 16, birthday party, after-party. It was church. It was vigil, It was elegy.

For me, it was also a kind of brief homecoming. A flash of nostalgia for the days when possibility was an open palm and poems unfurled endlessly. When drinks were two-for-one and I got to slam, to read new shit, to make finals for a Cali team (who knew I had it in me?). When I got to talk poetry for days on end and it mattered. It mattered to the people with whom I spoke, broke bread, and danced. The days when love was rough edges and hot coal, fumbling in the dark for something solid, something true.

Yes, these days are different. But there is still love. Perhaps now, a bit smoother. A brilliant light. Yes, poems matter, but now there is action instead of talk, writing instead of theorizing, speaking up and out instead of hiding in the pages.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To my peeps from the Old Days: so good to see you. May our paths cross again.
xo—


 Willie Perdomo, host & curator, kicks off the evening with a poem.
To his left, Rich Villar. And in the lower right corner: Martin Espada.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Adventures in Tattoo Acquisition

This is (late) Essay #43 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

You might recall my essay on tattoos from a few weeks ago. Welp. I did it. I got my first tattoo.

*

On Friday morning, I went to vinyasa yoga. I hadn’t practiced any physical asanas all week. I needed to ground myself after a doozy of an experience with Kundalini yoga teacher training (read more here). The instructor and my friend, Gabi, gave me a class that I exactly needed. Introspective and grounding poses. Slow pacing. Moments to go within. It was really grounding. After, we talked a little and she offered this delicious beverage: a grounding date smoothie. More like a tea, since it’s a warm beverage. And man, was that delicious! And totally did the trick. I could feel my body get a little heavier, a little more rooted into the earth. Thank you, Gabi and aruveyda!

Also? Warm comfort foods help ground us. So I made blueberry pancakes for lunch. Yes, lunch.

And then it was off to the tattoo shop.

I didn’t make an appointment. I figured: if it’s meant to be, then an artist will be available. If not, then I’ll try again next week. (I know: I sound like a total hippy dippy! At least my Type A self thinks so!)

I walked in and chatted it up with Roman, the person I had talked to before when I was doing reconnaissance work on tattoo shops. He went around to each room, asking the artists for their availability, and it started to look like no one was free and that I’d have to set up an appointment after all. As I was about to hand over my deposit, out walked Ray who said “I can do it.”

When I saw him, I knew right away: Ray is Filipino. I took this as a sign. Yes! Someone who understood my complicated feelings that came with getting a tattoo. Then, it turned out he’s also Buddhist (whaa??) and has kids and is an artist (duh! But I mean, he went to School of Visual Arts in NYC!) and shares the same ideals I have. Talk about a love letter from the universe!

So while he prepped my wrist –swabbing the skin thoroughly, putting the stencil on—and set up the various things he needed (a cream of some kind, some wipes, a tiny cup of ink, a needle and some other stuff), we talked. I was grateful for that. I didn’t have the mind space to really think about what kind of pain awaited me. When he was done, he held the tattoo pen, placed his hand on my arm, turned on the tattoo machine (the vibration of which felt just like Kundalini vibrations, which, strangely, comforted me), and said to me, “Ready?”

“Is this going to hurt?” I asked the obvious question. So obvious it’s rhetorical. Still he answered.

“Yes.”

“Like a bitch?” I half joked. I didn’t know what to expect.

“Yes.” He paused. “It’s what we like to call sakit.” Haha! He used the Tagalog word for hurt, but for me, sakit isn’t all that bad in terms of pain. It’s a word I use after I bang my knee on an open file cabinet. I yelp “Aray!” and then the pain after is sakit. I use it when I have a headache. I use it when I get a paper cut. I don’t know if the pain I was about to endure was quite that low. I took a deep breath.

“Okay.”

He began.

It felt like you would imagine it to feel: a stinging kind of pain. After all, you’re getting stuck by a needle over and over again. Tiny rapid pinpricks of pain. A million bees stinging you in the same small spot. Once in a while, it would smart like a bitch. But only for a split second.

We talked.

“Do you know that women have a higher threshold for pain than men?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah. That’s why we’re the ones having the babies. Haha—“ I stared at the picture that was directly in front of me. I didn’t want to look at the source of my pain, despite the fact that I volunteered for it. The picture was an image of Kali, Hindu goddess, Divine Mother of the Universe, destroyer of evil forces.

Of course.

Nothing is coincidence.

More deep breaths.

We continued to talk as he buzzed the ink and the pain into my skin, wiping every so often. I glanced down every now and then to see the progress. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. That this was real. I was excited. In hindsight, I wish I had just watched the entire thing. But there’s only so much pain I wanted to endure in that moment. The visual accompaniment would have just magnified it for me.

We talked about a lot of things: being brown in this country, raising kids in this day and age (he’s got two of his own), being a kid of immigrant Filipinos and the ways in which we defied our parents (we joked that neither of us was a doctor or lawyer or engineer, but artists of all things! haha), and single origin chocolate (yesss!!). It felt like we could’ve talked all day, well into the night. But alas, he had other appointments and I had children to fetch from school.

He gave me the info on caring for the tattoo, which, by the way, turned out fantastic. (Don’t get excited – it’s not a fancy, intricate tattoo, but I was really happy with it. You’ll see in the photo below.)

“Thanks for talking to me the whole time. It got my mind off the pain. A little bit.”

“Yeah, I figured that.”

“But it was also good conversation!” He agreed.

When we parted ways, I told him we’d stay connected. For one, I might have his wife as a guest speaker in my food writing class! But maybe the universe has more in store.

*

The tattoo I got is simple. It’s a single word on the inside of my right wrist: poeta. It’s for those moments when I get low and really really dark, when I start declaring that everything I write is trash, that I’m done with writing, and that I’m throwing in the towel for good (which I know is not something that’s remotely possible, but at times, it can desperately feel this way). It’s me speaking to myself: Bitch, you’re a fucking poet and don’t you forget it! (haha!) I might want to try to forget, but if it’s staring me in the face, permanently embedded in my skin, well, it’s kinda hard to do that.

So yeah. In case it wasn’t clear:
soy un poeta.



A Glimpse Into My Inexplicable World of Kundalini

This is (really late) Essay #42 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Last weekend, I started teacher training for Kundalini yoga. If you don’t know what that is, the best way I can describe it is like this: it’s a yoga practice that works to align the ten bodies of your existence for optimal operation. Like a chiropractic practice for your mind, body, and soul. BUT it doesn’t look like vinyasa or any other kind of yoga you might be familiar with. There are a lot of movements of the body that are strange and unfamiliar (arms held at 60-degree angles, for example), linked with plenty of breath and breathing patterns. If you’re curious, google it – I’m sure my description is not doing it justice. The bottom line is this: if you’re open, the practice is transformative – in difficult ways that, in the end, pay off in bliss. (I know: I sound like a total yogi dork with my New Agey talk, but trust me on this. I’ve experienced it first hand.)

That said, opening training weekend was a doozy.

But the perfect storm was already set up for me. My kiddos were all fighting mild colds. My emotional stress was high because of the Me Too movement & talk of sexual assault and harassment on social media. Which then set off an episode of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Then add Kundalini to the mix? It was inevitable.

For clarification: my experience of Kundalini yoga usually results in a humming of the body; my vibration is elevated. The first day of training wasn’t really training like I expected. I was expecting some lectures & discussions of the science of yoga & Kundalini, maybe some readings of sacred yogic texts. But nooooo. It was an extended Kundalini practice. Morning session was about 4 hours. Then another 2-3 hours in the afternoon. My body was on overload. During the lunch break, I went to run a quick errand & sat in my car for a while, contemplating not going back. Then I went to the field across the street from the yoga studio and lay down in the grass for a while.

I was freaking out.

But I couldn’t explain why or even articulate what I was freaking out about. I just knew that something was happening in my body. And by association, something was also happening in my mind and spirit.

Still, I mustered up what I needed to finish out the day’s “training”. After all, I’m not a quitter. (Hello, Asian perfectionist girl.) The next morning? I couldn’t go to 4:30am sadhana – a 2-1/2 hour meditative & physical practice. Nor endure another 8 hours of “training” (if that’s what awaited me). My body was shot. I ended up sleeping all through Sunday until the next morning. About 24 hours or so.

The rest of the entire week, my body was low-key humming intermittently.

According to astrology and other sciences: we are entering the Aquarian Age (yes, just like the song). We just left the Age of Pisces, the time during which we are given information and, from that, we establish our belief system, our faith. The Age of Aquarius? It’s the age of experience; that what we experience directly informs our beliefs and faith, rather than knowledge told to us. Now, I’m not going to get into all the details of this, though it is fascinating! You can go do your own research. I’m only pointing this out because it helps me understand some of what has been going on in my life.

Go ahead. You can write me off as some crazy New Age weirdo. I don’t mind. Sometimes I call myself that! Haha! But I know what I know because I experienced it firsthand. And I know I didn’t make that shit up. I know it wasn’t a product of my imagination. How? Because some of the things I’ve experienced and witnessed aren’t even in my brain. And if I were to explain it to you, dear reader, it would sound totally generic. As in “yes, yes – I know exactly what you’re talking about because I have also felt this way.” But no. You haven’t felt this way – not like this.

Let me give you a brief example: in one instance, I had a moment when I found something abstract that I didn’t even know I was looking for. If I were to say this to someone (and I have), their response is: oh yes – I know exactly what you mean. Like it happens all the time. Does it? Do people find something they didn’t know they were looking for until it came into their lives? (And no, Target doesn’t count. Haha!) I don’t know. Not the thing that I experienced. It was startling. And if something like that happens all the time, then why the heck aren’t more people talking about it??

This one time I experienced such high vibrations in my body that I could’ve sworn, had I continued the practice just a few minutes longer, I’d probably be levitating. No joke. Not like superpower flying. Maybe a quarter-inch off the ground. But still. It was nuts. I sound nuts!

I considered dropping out of training. It was that intense. Do I want to subject my body, mind, and soul to that level of intensity? For the next TEN MONTHS?! WTF.

Of course I do. Haha – I think.

After some meditation and a really good long conversation with my friend and spiritual teacher, the answer is yes. As long as I have support along the way (and I know I do!), I’m in.

Deep breath.

Kundalini teacher training is going to kick my ass –both on the physical and cosmic levels. Get ready! 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reality Check: Life is Short

This is (late) Essay #41 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

We all hear that: life is short. We hear it so often that it becomes cliché and then we take it for granted. Which then defeats the whole purpose of the message. The message of which is: tomorrow is never promised so live the best way you know how every minute of every day that you are breathing. When you first wake in the morning, when your brain is first turned on but your eyes are still shut, give thanks for another day. Be grateful for breath.

*

A year a half ago, my much-younger cousin died suddenly, while speaking to her pastor after mass. She was only 23. She had dealt with a heart arrhythmia for most of her life, but this was a shock to everyone. The only child of my aunt and her husband.

*

Last month, my middle child’s classmate’s father died. He had been sick so it wasn’t a shock, but still, loss is loss. For a nine-year-old to lose her father is no less devastating.

*

This afternoon, I just spoke with a friend. Her daughter and my oldest are close friends. She just told me that she has stage three breast cancer; that she had started treatment is past Friday. She will undergo chemotherapy for the next five months to shrink the cancerous masses and then surgery to remove, hopefully, the rest. She is the second mother in my daughter’s class to have been diagnosed. The statistics are 1 in 8 women. This makes three women I’ve known in my life (the first was a woman whose son was in preschool with my oldest).

*

Just the other day, I was asking myself: what would it be like to know you were dying? Sure, we’re all dying – just some sooner than others. But what would it be like to know when you were leaving this earth? Most people would probably plan to live their last days as full as possible. Others might grip tightly onto denial, fighting against the inevitable. I’d like to think I’d be in the former camp. But more importantly, I’d like to think that I’m the person who already lives life to the fullest every day that when the time came, I wouldn’t be cramming my days, trying to check off my bucket list because I’ve already done it.

To be honest though, I don’t think I really have a bucket list. Nothing that I want to do so badly that I’d die happy after checking it off my list. Climb Mt. Everest? Nah. I’m not really a mountain climber. A lot of things are “would be nice” things. What does that say about me? That I’m pretty content with my life, I think. I think. Either that, or I’m just a simple person who doesn’t really know what kinds of awesomeness are out there! Haha!

*

Every morning, on the days I teach, I walk across campus and pass by a big old elm tree. Its massive branches and limbs create a big canopy of leaves. Morning sunlight dappling through. On rainy days, it keeps me dry for a few paces. Every morning, I say hello. If I’m lucky and there’s a branch low enough, I reach up and touch a leaf to greet my tree. If I’m feeling leisurely in my pace, I’ll stop by the trunk and touch the bark, send a little love. But always, always I look up, smiling at my tree, saying hello, grateful for its presence on my path. I don’t know why this particular tree out of all the trees I see along the way, but for whatever reason, this elm is my tree.

*

What are you doing each day to celebrate life? What are you doing each day to show gratitude for your breath? For the people who bless your life? It doesn’t have to be magnanimous (though those are always fun! Both to give and receive!). It can be simple as a heart in a text message. Or a smile. Or a big fierce hug. Or the always awesome: “I love you”.

Guess what?
I love you.
<3


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Not an Essay on Being Victim and Survivor

This is (late) Essay #40 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.


On Sunday morning, I started to write Essay 40. This was right before the Me Too “movement” (are we calling it that? what do we call it?) but during the height of the Weinstein storm where *everything* was about him and sexual assault and harassment. Everywhere I turned, there it was.

Feeling triggered, I started to write my story.

This is how I process and make sense of the world: I write. Whether or not I share it is determined after I’m done writing. I write to survive. It sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not. If I don’t write, I become physically incapacitated. My body refuses to work for me. It shuts down. Sometimes to the point where I am in bed for half the day or more. So I write.

Then the Me Too thing took off. My FB newsfeed was too much to bear. So many “me toos”. So many.

I am not surprised – no woman is—but to see it, right there on the screen – a parade of “me toos”—made it all too real. My body started to shut down.

I stopped writing my story. I couldn’t fight the shutdown hard enough to write anymore.

I am tired of fighting.

I am tired of being the brave one, the strong one.

I am tired of being the one people look to, the one people turn to.

I am tired of opening up the wounds of old traumas to say, hey, me too.

I am fucking tired.

I need a break.

I want someone to take care of me for once, to hold me and just say, Don’t worry – I got this. And I love you.

Why is the burden put on us? Why must we endure more pain in order to incite change?

And then there’s the yogi part of me that remembers: suffering is optional.* So I’m asking myself how do I transform trauma into healing in ways that do not recreate suffering? Or do I allow for the suffering, sit in it, move through it, and release it each time it comes? And hope that maybe with each experience, that suffering diminishes into a tiny thing that I can flick away with my finger?

[*This statement is not meant to be dismissive of real experienced traumas, but more, for me anyway, of a way to think about how trauma is functioning -- is it keeping me stuck in the past? Or is working in another way that doesn't reinforce the groove of suffering?]

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m trying to practice self-care but I don’t even know what that looks like anymore. I’ve gone to yoga for the past three days straight and I don’t feel any less shitty. Or maybe I do feel less shitty immediately after class, but then I am subject to the shit that’s still out there so I get pushed back to where I was before I went to class.

Writing isn’t helping. I find myself all over the place. Starting one essay, then stopping halfway through. Starting a second essay, then abandoning that. Writing a poem that feels okay…. Maybe the writing is helping and I’m not noticing it. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself (which is par for the course). Maybe.

Right now, all I want to do is crawl under the covers and sleep until it doesn’t hurt any more.