Thursday, April 20, 2017

Exploring Ideas of Home in the Diaspora

This is Essay #15 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

As a brown child of immigrant parents, I live in a place called the diaspora. It’s this in-between space, neither here nor there, just in-between. I’m not at home in the US simply because I’m brown and I’ve got “exotic” looks. People are surprised I speak English so well. (Uh, I was born here, mutherfuckers.) I’m also not at home in the Philippines, the place from which my parents fled. (Aside: That last word “fled” is something I use to describe their arrival in the US because they left during Marcos’s martial law. This is how I see it. How my mother sees it is entirely different. But that’s for another essay.)

When I first visited the Philippines, I had this overwhelming sense of home. Everyone I saw looked like family. I welled up with tears before I even left the airport. But I knew better than to fall entirely for this romanticized feeling. They can smell American a mile away. And I stank.

All my life, I’ve tried to navigate the in-between spaces, to negotiate a place to call home that really had no fixed location. It’s like home exists in the ether. In a place that doesn’t have a physical existence. Over time, I’ve kinda gotten used to it and worked to be okay with it, to be neither here nor there. I think I’ve created my own space to call home.

Of course, the idea of home, the definition of home is complex. What is home? Is it a feeling? Is it a physical location? Is it people? Is it all of the above? Or none? Or something else?

I’m at a stage where I want to do a little more investigating, a little more inquiry. I’m working on a project that is trying to do just that.

The project is still developing but it involves water and bowls hand made from wood and the idea of memory being held and carried by water and how these things might represent what it is to live in the diaspora. What does it mean to hold water, to be the very bowl that gives it shape? The bowl can be seen as the thing in power because its depth and shape determines the water’s shape. But what does it mean when water spills over the bowl’s rim? Water wants to escape the bowl or perhaps the bowl is not large enough of a “home” for the water and water moves on.

But then consider water as memory, water as carrying memory. Memory creating identity and home. All of our lived experiences build upon each other to create this very moment that we’re in. Water can build, but it ebbs and flows. Does memory rise and fall, ebb and flow? How does this feed into the idea of home? Is home a raft on the current of memory?

What is it to map water? Is it to find one’s way through the unknown, like explorers heading West? Or is it to ensure a way back? Or both? Or something else?

What memories are carried in water? Which ones dissolve into the water and which ones simply wash away? And with whatever is left, what is made?

I don’t know. I only have more questions. Stay tuned for more exploration! 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Blob (as Creative Process)

This is Essay #14 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

While I hate disclaimers & always give my own students (and friends!) a hard time about them, I am making one now (hypocrite! haha!): this essay is bullshit. It's not an essay in earnest. It's really a journal entry disguised as a blog post (what's the difference, really?) (I know, I know: I'm being reductive.). But I haven't been able to really write this past week -- you're about to find out why...

I've been working at Vermont Studio Center this past week; I'll be working here all month. It sounds like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things --when it comes to writing-- it is not. It's a blip. Naomi Jackson is presently our visiting writer (she totally ROCKS!) and last night, after she read some work, she talked about her process. Her novels take years to write. Years, people, years. Which, I know is not unusual. This is why I'm a poet (haha -- I joke. Kinda.). Smaller number of words. Bite-sized pieces of literature. (Though, yes, there are those long-ass poems that tend to pop up from time to time.) But still, even poems take time. The writing process takes time. Today, during my conference with Naomi, she told me what I needed to hear: you can't rush the process. Honor that. And practice self-care. Despite me knowing this already, hearing it aloud from another person usually has greater impact.

I tend to forget these things. Because, you know, I write like I'm running out of time, like I need it to survive. ;)

Because I'm in a different space, literally, my writing process has morphed into something unfamiliar. To be honest, it feels like a big blob. As in: the pink jelly-goo from the movie "The Blob". I can see it now, oozing out the doors of that movie theater while people run for their lives. Yup. That sounds like my writing process right about now. Hah! But as with any kind of change, I am uncomfortable (which is to be expected) and I am trying to embrace that. The past week felt like --as my fellow resident, Pam, said: getting my sea legs. Which is not to say that I'm back (though, I might have said those very words earlier today). It just means that I'm remembering to honor the writing process for what it is in any given moment.

Right now? I feel like writing about the creative process, NOT a personal essay that has a narrative arc with some kind of emotional investment. And so here I am.

After my conference with Naomi, and after I digested some of her feedback, I spent some time visiting artists' studios, talking to them about their process. And I got some really fantastic stuff!!

I know nothing about creating visual art, so I wanted to find out how to an artist approaches her/his work. I talked to 2D and 3D artists and it was really cool to learn about their conversations with their work.

One said: Ask WHY. Why are you making this thing? What's the driving force?

Another said: Ask HOW. How does this continue the narrative of the work you're doing now? Of the work you've done in the past?

Another said: Art has the same language as music: composition, rhythm, tone. What is the sound of the painting? What do you hear? How do you translate that visually?

I just kept nodding -- yes, yes, yes!

What I'm noticing is that, generally, visual artists seem to have less attachment to their work. They can let go of it pretty easily. At least this has been my impression. If they are unhappy with what's emerging, they throw it out & start over. One artist gets physical & tears up her canvas. Literally takes a knife and cuts it in half. Some try to work with what they've got and see what emerges, as it veers away from their initial vision. They are more focused in the making of things, but not so much so that they are deeply emotionally invested and attached to what they create.

I talked to a few poets and writers about this over late-night wings. What we do is different in that we really invest a lot of emotional labor. So letting go is harder. And it looks different. What does it mean to let go of something in writing? What are we letting go?

For me, with this one particular piece, it's the letting go of a shield. Naomi told me that I was at the edge and I just needed to leap. I asked her: how? And she said: you know. And I thought: dammit! Because, of course, I know. Again, she said what I knew but needed to hear aloud. So I need to let go of the shield I've created in this one piece. To drop it off the cliff, the edge of where I stand. And then leap.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dear Mother, Part 2

This is Essay #13 (a little late) of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Rain raps against the window of my writing studio. Wind pushes trees into a rock-and-sway dance. I watch the Gihon River flow by, undisturbed. I’m listening for something.

(Also? If I’m being honest, I just re-read that first paragraph and I kinda want to barf. What is up with that preciousness? Gah! But to be fair, I’ve been struggling with putting pen to paper since I arrived here at Vermont Studio Center a couple of days ago. It’s a lot of work to mentally arrive and shed the guilt / pressure of having to write, to produce something. Thus, the stupid poetic language that feels totally –I don’t know— ugghhh! Dumb! I will say, though, I am listening for something.)


A few weeks ago, I wrote about being an unkind daughter. Or, at least that was what I set out to do. The unpolished essay ended up recounting moments throughout my life in which my mother and I tried to communicate. Or not. Or completely failed. There really wasn’t much about why I was unkind. Or why I thought I was unkind. But it was a starting point for something I’ve wanted to explore.

Soon after, my mother caught wind of it (I didn’t try to hide it, but I didn’t share it with her either) and had a sit-down with me. I ended up writing about that, too. It’s a big deal when your Asian immigrant mother wants to talk about feelings.

She asked me if my childhood was traumatic, if something happened to me. She told me that she did the best she could, given her circumstances, given what she knew. Of course, I assured her, this is what parents do. She went on to plead her case, as if my essay were some kind of accusation of her as a failed mother. As if she were on trial. I told her that this essay was about me, exploring my personal history to understand how I came to be where I am right now.

She didn’t understand.

She went on to ask me to stop writing about her. Without hesitation, I replied that it wasn’t possible. That she was asking me to compromise who I am and the work that I do. I told her that we don’t choose what we write about – as artists, the work chooses us. And we must comply. (Or be forever tormented within until there’s a release.)

I don’t remember how the conversation ended (how does one wrap up something like this without awkwardness?), but I was under the impression that we could all move on.

A week or so later, she asked me to take down the blog post.

“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure, Mom.”
“Can you take down that blog?”
“It’s still there.”
“I didn’t say I was going to take it down.”
“It really hurts me.”
“It’s not about you.”
“But it is about me.”
“No, it’s not. It’s about me and my experiences.”
“But it is about me. You make me look like a bad mother.”
“It’s not about you.” (In my head, I think about Anne Lamott’s oft-quoted line: If people didn’t want you to write badly about them, they should’ve behaved better. Haha! But, honestly, I’m not writing badly about her.)

Silence. Thirty long seconds of silence.

“Ma, I gotta go. I don’t know what you want me to say, but I can’t be on the phone all night.”

Two big questions here:

1. How do you get your mother to read with critical lenses? All she sees is the surface.

2. How do you navigate the tricky waters of memoir when writing about family?


Dear Mom,

How can I open your eyes to see?

You are hurt because you cannot see below the surface of words. You cannot see that I am trying to love you by unearthing you and the silences of our lives. You are buried so deep that you have forgotten what it feels like to have the sun warm your face. You see only darkness. I am digging for you. I want to bring light. I see you but only understand parts of you. I want to recognize you, all of you.

How do I write our silences into being? How to explore the spaces between words, and half-spoken sentences? Do you finish those sentences in your head in Tagalog? Or do you think I can read your mind? That anyone can? Or is that a reflex of you shrinking yourself? Making yourself small and invisible, not asserting yourself and taking up space; diminish yourself as woman, as Filipina immigrant.

How can I open your eyes to see?

In not seeing below the surface of words, you are not seeing me. And in not seeing me (not only does that hurt me as your daughter), you fail to see yourself.

How can I make you see there is love here?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dear Mother

This is Essay #12 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

[Ocean Vuong gave a reading at Rutgers-New Brunswick on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. The following is fan mail I sent to him.]

Dear Ocean,

Thank you for coming to Rutgers last night and offering your work to us. What a gift! It's one thing to read your poems on the page -- it's quite another experience to hear them read aloud by you, live & in person. For context, I was the first one in line for the signing after the reading -- I'm one of the creative writing faculty at Rutgers. And I know I said this last night, but I'll say it again: the precision of your articulations is astounding to me. And I don't know if you remember, but I went so far as to say that I should just stop writing! Of course, I won't. But this is the kind of impact you have made. Everything you've written in your poems, everything you said during the Q&A -- hit the mark every fucking time. (Pardon my language, but I'm a Jersey girl through and through! Sarcasm and foul language is in our DNA - haha!) In all seriousness, I cried during the entire reading. The tears came more quickly during the Q&A. You named a pain I had within me that I didn't even know was there -- it was buried that deep. And to name it with such accuracy -- holy shit. I left campus completely wrecked. Your reading destroyed me. On my way home, I had to pull over into a parking lot, for safety’s sake, to get the sobs out –that whole-body-heaving kind of sobs. This morning, more tears. You and your work, your words have broken something open (full disclosure: things have been cracking within me the past several months -- this, I think, was the big sledgehammer I needed. Also, I had just drafted a personal essay about my relationship with my immigrant mother -- which she had read, unbeknownst to me. This prompted her to have a sit-down with me about it... the conversation of which was very much what you talked about: how our parents ask why we, as poets & writers, interrogate their pain -- how could we do such a thing after all the hard work they have done to create happiness for us.).

All this to illustrate the extent of the impact of your work and your words on one person. There are not enough words, but thank you. I am ever grateful.

all my best,


Through the large window, morning light slants across the wood table worn with age. Deep, rich Turkish coffee steams from the white ceramic mug, placed on a saucer, accompanied by a spoon. A small stainless pitcher of cream, a tiny demitasse full of sugar packets. A short glass of ice water nearby. This is how you’re supposed to drink coffee.

A bench, cushioned, embroidered pillows on either side. Here is where I write, where I recall the depths of pain and memory.

I invent the details of your experience –no, the story itself, the whole of it—because you are silent. There is no memory for me to recover. It must be fashioned from nothing.

It is in the past, you think. What does it matter now? Why interrogate my pain? We worked so hard to make you happy. Why can’t you just be happy?

Because I need to know how I came to be who I am.

What is it to leave your country, thinking you’ll return? But then thirty years unfurl in the wind.

What is it to leave your home—for a new one, for a foreign one, a strange one, unfamiliar in its snow and ice, bundled in coats filled with the polyester language of English?

What is it to leave your country as its gates begin to close like the jaws of a shark?

What is it to leave your own mother behind?

You say my father planned to return after completing his medical residency and internships. Why does that sound like a lie? What are you denying? What are you hiding? Who are you trying to protect? Yourself? Or are you trying to hide from your own pain, your own guilt from leaving?

What is it to leave?
What does it mean to leave?

You left because you had to. At least that’s how I imagined it. What choice was left in the falling curtain of martial law? If you stayed, what then?

No one will talk to me about this. And so I must invent. Forgive me for the sin of inaccuracy. For the myths I create.


There’s this love on both sides, but neither side understands it as such. We try to communicate but we speak different languages. One does not comprehend the other. We cannot reach across the gap.

How to bridge the ravine that grows with each passing day? With the growth of language, of vocabulary, of, even, self-awareness, the distance widens.

What do you do when someone names your pain? A pain so deep that you never knew was there. And in that naming, the pain is made real. It is unburied, resurrected to the light.

You suddenly recognize yourself. What do you do?

Me? I weep.

And despite my mother (and father) telling me not to write about her--
then I write.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Essays 10 & 11

Essay #10 of The 52 is taking its sweet time to unfold. I'm hoping to post it later this week.

Essay #11 is complete and currently under review for possible publication in a small magazine, so I can't post it here until I hear back on that. If they don't run it, it will for sure be here!

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 3, 2017

How (Not) to Talk to Your Mother

This is Essay #9 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

I am a bad daughter.

Wait. Allow me to be more accurate: I am an unkind daughter.


My mother immigrated from the Philippines to these United States in 1973 to escape Ferdinand Marcos and his martial law. Newly graduated from nursing school, she just married my father, who was newly graduated from medical school. Classic Filipino pairing of that time: doctor-husband, nurse-wife. Their honeymoon was a permanent one in Akron, Ohio, the location of the hospital that accepted my father as an intern. Soon after, I was born.

The details of all of this are unknown –when they left, did they feel endangered? Were they scared? How could they leave their families? How did they feel about this? And then: as newlyweds and new parents in a new country, did they freak out? (I would.) I have no idea. My parents are not known to be storytellers. They prefer silence. (Interestingly enough, my paternal grandfather was known for his stories. What’s up with that?)


From an early age, I already knew there were two distinct worlds: inside our home and outside of it. Outside, there were two distinct sub-worlds: the Catholic school and the neighborhood, which was populated with public school kids. Then, there was just the Outside: the world of the general public. It was in this last world that I was –and, unfortunately, still am— an unkind, impatient, American-born daughter.

While my mother’s command of English was fluent, as a young girl, I saw that many people had a hard time understanding her because of her accent. Often, they would turn to me for a translation of whatever my mother just said in English. I remember once, in a grocery store, she was trying to ask the butcher for ox tail. I was around six. My three-year-old younger brother was in the seat of the shopping cart. The butcher spoke loudly to my mother, as if suddenly, that would make communication clearer for both of them.

I didn’t know ox tail was something you could buy at the grocery store. I thought it was just the body part of an animal in one of my brother’s picture books. I didn’t know that it was in one of our family’s favorite dishes, kare-kare. (Confession: I don’t like it.) All I knew was that the butcher was getting impatient with my mother, his fat face growing pink like the meats he handled. My mother started to wring her hands, deciding whether to pursue her objective or give up.

Memory is an ever-changing thing. Mine is usually fuzzy. About everything. Including what I did yesterday.

We never got the ox tail that day.


I don’t know how to talk to my mother about anything beyond the weather and community tsismis. Did you know so-and-so got pregnant from What's-His-Name? Oh, Tita You-Know-Who got her eyelids tattooed when she went home so now she never has to put on eyeliner. Can you believe that?

When I was twelve and needed a bra for my budding chest, my paternal grandmother took me to K-Mart and dressed me like a doll, not once asking if I needed a bra, but simply put one on me. When I wanted to go to one of the semi-formal dances at school, knowing full well that any kind of interaction with boys was strictly forbidden, I would leave event flyers on the counter and retreat to the safety of my bedroom, which my family called The Cave. (I couldn’t tell if this was said out of affection or if they were mocking me for being such a recluse… uh, I mean, writer in the making!)

Dating was never a topic of conversation with either of my parents. It was something that just wasn’t going to happen. In my lifetime.

Then, I went away to college. You can only imagine what happened then.


My junior year in college, I told my mother that I was changing majors. Well, revising it actually. At the time, I was double majoring in biology and English. As is typical of Asian parents, mine wanted me to be a doctor; thus, the biology major. But I was no good at chemistry or calculus. Seriously no good. I loved literature. I loved writing. I told my mother that I was dropping the biology major and would only be an English major. To which she said, predictably: what are you going to do with that? And: if you go to medical school, we’ll pay for it, but if you do something with English that requires more education, you’re on your own. Ah, the bribe. She stopped short of threatening to stop paying my undergraduate tuition.

I told her that it didn’t matter. That this was a choice I had to live with for the rest of my life, not her.

She was silent. She knew I was right.


In graduate school, I wrote a long poem called “Song for Virginia”. Its structure is song-like in that it has verses, a refrain, and, if my memory serves me, even a bridge. The poem on the whole is about my mother-in-law, but interspersed with meditations on mothers, including my own, and daughters and motherhood and everything in between. This, before I became a mother to daughters.

One verse is titled “Carmelita”, my mother’s name. It imagines what it might have been like for her when she first arrived to the US.

As part of our completion of the graduate degree, we were to give a reading from our thesis, which is a book-length manuscript of our work. My mother attended. And because I was learning how to lean into the fear, I chose to read this verse with her in the audience. This was my way of speaking to her.

Afterwards, she said nothing. Other people in the audience came up to her and told her that she must be so proud of me. She smiled, clearly uncomfortable that she was the subject of one of my poems, and nodded. I think she was proud but didn’t know how to express it. She doesn’t know how to talk to me.

She still doesn’t.


Last summer, I found out that I was awarded the James Merrill Fellowship in Poetry for the Vermont Studio Center. Naturally, I was thrilled. I reluctantly called my mother to tell her the good news. And true to form, her first question: who’s going to take care of the kids? No “congratulations”. No “that’s exciting”. No “wow”. I called her on it. I was upset. She doesn’t understand what I do. And in this moment, it was clear that she wasn’t willing to even try to understand. She was more concerned with the predictable demand that I would make on her to help me by caring for my children. She was concerned with her active still-working-a-job lifestyle and how my writing residency would affect her life. This was not exactly a supportive response. It was also not a surprising response. Nonetheless, even after all these years of this predictable response, I was upset.

Is it wrong for me to expect that my mother would be excited for me? That she would be more than willing to offer to help with my kids without my even asking?

But that would be a different mother. Not mine.


I am an unkind daughter.

I have little patience for my mother, an immigrant woman who will never understand her American-born daughter. My mother who will always be “immigrant” despite the fact that she’s lived here for more years than in her homeland. What kind of daughter is that? What kind of love does not extend patience to one who –to use a cliché—is a fish out of water in this country? Maybe it’s not love then. Or maybe it’s the daughter-of-immigrants love.

I don’t know.

Love takes on many forms.

I used to think that becoming a mother would make me kinder to her. The effects of empathy, compassion. And sometimes this is true. But it’s rare. Most times, I am the sixteen-year-old girl who never opens up to anyone and treats her mother with an air of condescension. The girl who rolls her eyes every time her mother mispronounces a word or doesn’t get the punch line of a joke. The girl who has zero patience for her. The girl who takes her mother for granted.

I am an unkind daughter and I still don’t know how to talk to my mother.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Un-writing Violence, Love

This is Essay #8 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

One of my dearest friends just had her heart broken. And I'm not talking teenage breakup heartbroken. More "I gave you the soft vulnerable gift of my heart and you lifted it up and brought joy to my soul and then threw it down into the earth, smashed it, trampled it into the dirt until there was nothing left but traces of stardust on your boot heel".

I don't know the details of what happened but I know that she is shell shocked. Destroyed.

I wouldn't wish this on anyone.


The camps at Standing Rock have been vacated and ceremonially burned. Destroyed.


What is violence? Merriam-Webster's first definition is: the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy

The other night, Lidia Yuknavitch, gave a reading at Rutgers New Brunswick. I talked to her briefly beforehand, while we waited for the event to begin. Of course, we talked about writing and I mentioned that I was doing this weekly essay challenge. She brightened up right away; she had just worked with Vanessa some weeks ago at the Tin House Workshops. I told her I was having a little trouble with this week's essay --my mind being all over the place, particularly in light of the recent developments with Standing Rock (along with the rest of the shit show called the US government). I couldn't focus on just one thing. She assured me that what she was going to read would spark something for me. She also said something that perked up my ears, something of which I only got a portion, but I think I got the main idea: un-write what we mean by violence.

I've been thinking about this for a few days. What does that mean? To un-write something? And then to apply it to violence? Does it mean the opposite? To write about peace? I don't think so. For me, I think it's about examining what we understand violence to be --and it can be many, many things-- and how we can try to undermine its power through language. Though, it's tricky. Language can be violent in and of itself. So how to un-write that?



Definition 4: undue alteration (as of wording or sense in editing a text)

I hate when people shorten my name.

Especially the moment immediately after I introduce myself as Leslieann. Uh, did you not hear me tell you that my name is Leslieann? Who the hell are you to presume a kind of familiarity? Who are you to impose your power on me by violating my name? Truncating it is a kind of violence. You don’t know me. You don’t know my relationship with my name. But you don’t need to know. You just need to show respect.

Tatum Dooley wrote this terrific piece, "Word Perfect", on the politics of the pronunciations of names and what implications are made. Two of my favorites: "What I know for certain is that pronouncing a word properly is a work requiring care and attention; the words that individuals choose to apply their labors to demonstrate a power imbalance that lives outside of phonetics."

And: "Mispronouncing a name becomes purposeful — it tells the other person not only that you couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge their identity, but you intend to subject it to your own."


"Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It's not 'I love you" for this or that reason, not 'I love you if you love me.' It's love for no reason, love without an object. It's just sitting in love, a love that incorporates the chair and the room and permeates everything around. The thinking mind is extinguished in love." (Ram Dass, Be Love Now, p. 2)

That last sentence. The thinking mind is extinguished in love. A kind of violence, no? But this feels different. Destruction for something better. Destruction for spiritual unconditional love.

Is this how to un-write violence? Through love?


After she read a shorter version of “Weave”, Lidia talked about emotion as energy. That instead of dwelling in it, we need to move it. We (and I might be getting this wrong – my notes don’t make sense) can see emotion as a portal to our souls with writing as a way in or a way to radiate out.

Did you know that physiologically speaking, an emotion lasts ninety seconds in the brain? That's it. A minute and a half. The reason it lasts longer is because we feed it with our narratives, with the stories we attach to the emotions. If we just breathed, acknowledged it passing through, like a wind through the trees, then we'd be good. No ten-year-old anger or grudge. Just undisturbed calm. (I know: easier said than done! But it all begins with awareness, right?)

When there’s emotion, I always write.

It's my way of moving the energy. It is a space for me to process, to be messy and untethered. That is, if I’m doing “right” - i.e. not hiding. Even now, after all these years of writing practice, I still find myself, at times, falling into old habits of hiding the truth in oblique language. During those times, I have to coax it out with love and trust.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And yet, I persist. I continue to write.


Make no mistake about it — enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.” (Adyashanti, spiritual teacher)

Even enlightenment is a kind of violence.


So what are we to do? What am I to do? How does one un-write violence? I don't think I've come any closer to an answer. This essay feels fractured. (Can we even call it an essay?) Perhaps this is my attempt -- to break violence into pieces of something that feels like love but sounds like brokenness.

To love the broken that once was whole. To love it unconditionally.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Reading and Navigating Silences

This is Essay #7 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

Silence, like love, comes in many forms.


I wake very early in the morning, before the sunrise. I like the silence before the day begins. The stillness. Long before there is any stirring in my house or even out on the street. During the warmer months, I sometimes hear the first birds, but not often. This I how early I wake.

I spend that time meditating and writing. Sometimes they are one and the same. I find that the mind –while it still whirls with endless thoughts—has a slower pace. Of course, that lasts about five minutes before it ramps up. Then I try to return to the breath. Listen to the silence.

In yoga, there is something called Nada Yoga. The inner sound. You hear it when you sit in absolute silence. It’s the sound of the vibration of your very being. (If you’re curious, Google it.)

This silence allows for an opening, an expansion. A connection to the Divine.


I grew up a quiet girl.

If you know me, this is very difficult to believe. If you don't know me, well-- I am loud, a bit frenetic. Always urgent. Always trying to do everything at once. And loudly. Sometimes I feel like Hamilton who writes like we're running out of time, writes like tomorrow won’t arrive, writes like we need it to survive.

But I have my quiet moments.

If you take my Asian ethnic identity into account, it's not that hard a stretch to imagine. Asians are notoriously known for our silences. (Though, to be fair, Filipinos, funny enough, are known to be loud Asians.) Plenty is left unsaid. But there is plenty more beneath the surface that is understood. It doesn’t have to be made known with words said aloud. A look is enough. Children, especially girls, are seen –if you’re lucky— and most certainly not heard.

I learned this early on as a kid when I made attempts to communicate with my parents in Tagalog. They immediately insisted on English Only. Also, I was not to speak unless I was first addressed. There were more important adult subjects to discuss at the dinner table. Like that historic moment when Marcos was overthrown and Corey Aquino became president of the Philippines. But they didn’t talk about it to each other. Not really. I just remember excitement in the air. They exuded a feeling of promise and hope for their homeland. If they did talk about it, it was in hushed tones, half sentences. Always in Tagalog. Code that they presumed I didn’t understand.

There were many nights of staring down at my plate, rice swimming in nilaga or tinola broth, wondering when I could be excused. Being silent isn’t easy. But I will venture to say that I’m likely a poet and writer because, in addition to being a bookworm, I had to live in my head to entertain myself during dinner.

I'd like to say that as time has gone by my parents have let go of their affinity for silences, but this, unfortunately, is not the case.

We're not allowed to talk about politics. Ever.

Growing up, my paternal grandfather was a Democrat and his son, my dad, was a Republican. I have no idea how this happened, but this was always how it was. This was my family. I remember times when my grandpa and my dad would get into heated political arguments. Over what? I couldn't tell you. As a kid, I really didn't understand what they were talking about; I just knew that they vehemently disagreed. What's worse is that they were the two most hard-headed stubborn people I knew. The apple didn't fall very far from the tree in that respect. Needless to say, the "conversations" always ended with someone stomping off.

At some point, my grandpa, a WWII veteran, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, a man old and tired, declared that there would be no discussion of politics. Ever.

It seemed like a reasonable rule. Why get all worked up about something like politics? For what purpose? In the end, you're stuck with your family so you might as well make things bearable. Right?

But then November 8, 2016 happened.
Politics are different now. 
They are very real, showing up at the everyday level.

So now what?

My grandpa has been gone 12 years now. It seems I have taken his place as the head-butting liberal in the family. The rule of “don’t talk about politics” still remains in place. But at what cost?

I don’t know. The silence between our words during family gatherings is hard to read. But it definitely feels like a ticking bomb. This is a silence I’d rather not navigate.

So what are my options? What does it mean to be silent in this regard? Is it self-preservation? Or does my silence work as some kind of sanction – that, by not actively disagreeing, I am allowing for agreement?

I think about this with regard to the election and how many people did not vote.

Silence is tricky.


Silence can be damaging.

Secrets are tucked in silence. Traumas never spoken sit within and fester. Destroy the heart and soul from the inside out.

Sometimes you need to break that silence. For your own survival.


How you do you choose when to speak and when to hold silence?

“There are moments when the words don’t reach. There’s a grace too powerful to name. We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.” (from Hamilton's "It's Quiet Uptown")

There is a moment of knowing that words are insufficient, when silence is a comfort. A hand on top of another’s shoulder. An embrace.

There are moments when speaking the words aloud are too scary. After all, you can’t unsay them. What would happen if you released them into the air like an escaped balloon?

The worst kind of silence is when you let your imagination run away from you and you start to build a narrative in your head that doesn’t exist in reality, but somehow you convince yourself that it is real. You invent conversations, predict responses. To what end? Why not just speak?


This morning, I was restless. Reading silences, inventing narratives to fill the gaps. But then it occurred to me: be still, surrender to the moment, trust that something will emerge from the black hole of silence.

Surrender. Trust. Love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Meditation on Love

This is Essay #6 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.


I love you.

I've been saying this a lot lately. To everyone in my life. Sometimes it's said as a farewell, a goodnight. Sometimes it's said as reminder, lest we take our loved ones for granted. Sometimes, it's said out of urgency, as if one of us were going to die that day. (Our current political climate has that kind of effect.)

In the days leading up to the inauguration, I emailed and texted almost everyone I knew and told them I loved them. I felt like the world was going to explode and that my people would never know how much I loved them. It was important to me that they knew this. I’ve lost too many people in my life to whom I’ve failed to profess my love. Why deprive others of this beautiful gift?


What is love?

I know: a question that everybody asks. To the point that it’s a cliché. But one that really has no singular answer. Still, we recognize it when we see it. In a gesture: a father helping his disabled son put on his coat. An embrace between friends. One hand slipped into another. And of course: a kiss.

We also recognize it when we feel it. For the most part. Well, maybe. It depends on what kind of love you’re talking about. The Greeks had seven words for seven kinds of love. Sometimes infatuation is mistaken for romantic love. It takes practice to discern these things.

Love is a vastness with infinite variations, endless manifestations. The effects of which are just as multifaceted. Like a polished and cut gem.

We can take love further and bring in divine love and cosmic love. Both of which are spiritual experiences and create similar, if not stronger, more intense feelings.

On this site that has the lyrics to Hamilton’s “It’s Quiet Uptown”, there’s a remark about the song that has stuck with me: “humanity’s terrible and infinite capacity for love”.

Oh, how true.


These days I am caught between feeling creative and destructive. Between loving the world and breaking it apart. Between hugging someone and wanting to kick their ass. Literally. Fists raised, wide stance, front leg ready to kick. I move like a pendulum between the two. Create. Destroy. The vibrational energy of my body rises and falls in waves. Sometimes in small movements like the easy break at the shoreline on a calm summer day. Other times there are huge swells and crashes of a storm out in the deep sea.

This makes it very hard to navigate the real shit of daily life.

Last night, I was trying to write in a coffee shop while my oldest was at basketball practice. There were two women sitting at the table next to me. When a third woman approached them, my vibrational energy escalated. She had good energy but it was crazy for me to even pick it up to that extent. It was like someone had turned on a switch inside me.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. And not the most intense either.

The other day, my friend Marina asked me if I was an empath. We were at a reiki community share where Himalayan crystal healing bowls were being played. The sounds activated my energy. I had to sit on the floor against a wall to ground myself. I felt like I’d fly away if I didn’t. No one ever asked me that question before: am I an empath? Generally speaking, I’ve known that I’m super-sensitive to things around me, but I thought that was just part and parcel of being a poet. You know: in tune with the world and all that. Only recently have I heard the term empath to describe a person as someone who is extremely empathetic to others to the point that their physical being is affected. Hmm. I was curious, so I took the first online test that Google gave me. I had no idea whether this test was legitimate or not, but I just wanted to see.

Apparently, I’m an empath. It also turns out that I’m very bad at protecting my energy and aura. Uh, yeah. Duh.

Onyx mala beads, anyone?


What’s it like to love so widely? To love unabashedly? This is a question I’ve been considering. It sounds terrifying. Especially considering “humanity’s terrible and infinite capacity” for it. You see that? Terrible! Who wants to participate in that? And yet, despite this, I am compelled to love, to radiate that love out into the world, even if it leaves me vulnerable, exposed to potential hurt. (Maybe that’s why I swing back to destruction – maybe a kind of defense mechanism?)

But also: how do you love the people you already love even more? How do you grow love? How do you nurture it? It’s always changing, shifting, growing, even diminishing. Perhaps it’s like a garden: you need to tend to it with light, a little water, some good soil. 

My dearest sweetest friend, Ross, whom I love so so much, says: "Attend to what you love. Love is the engine to our own poetry."

What more is there than love and our own life’s poetry?