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?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Perspective, Exhaustion and Other Observations

This is Essay #5 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

A friend of mine told me about this abandoned lot he saw in Philly, fenced in, with vegetation growing all over the place. He told me he noticed the trash thrown in there: cans, plastic bags, newspaper bits and the like. He also used the word "invasive" to describe the vegetation. So, I asked him: which came first -- the plant life or the trash? Maybe, I suggested, the vegetation is Mother Nature coming back to reclaim what's hers. He hadn't considered that.


What are we looking at? From where are we looking? Where do we stand? Can we relocate ourselves to different positions of placement in order to see other angles (aka empathy)? Can we even try? Are these questions we even ask ourselves?

I think this is what has been lacking --an acknowledgement of different perspectives-- especially now, during this surreal time in the US. 


Yoga philosophy encourages the practice of compassion and loving-kindness. That’s kinda hard to do when you’re mad at people. Also hard when it’s the people who need compassion the most (maybe even empathy) are the ones out to harm you.

Yoga Sutra 1.33 says to cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion towards the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard (or equanimity) toward the non-virtuous (or wicked) to retain undisturbed calmness.

How does one do this when the world demands that you stay outraged? (There is a hashtag after all.) How do you sustain inner serenity?

And then, how do you create and maintain boundaries to protect yourself?


Last week, I shared my essay on marching as a woman of color with a group of women writers. I was looking for ways to polish my piece as I know it’s messy and frayed at the edges. Instead of getting feedback on the essay, I was met with knee-jerk reactions of defensiveness from the white women in the group. “That’s not me.” “I didn’t vote for him.” “How can you lump people into one monolithic group?”

I was accused of being divisive, especially during a time when “we should all be coming together”.

I’m so tired of hearing that language. Can we take a step back for a minute? Look at the history of this country. Who invented the nation’s social structure that is built on division?

Against my better judgment, I actually tried to answer some of their questions, but was interrupted. They said I was alienating my audience. I reminded them of the title of the essay: “Marching as a Woman of Color”. I asked them: who do you think is my audience? 


But then they continued. “If you want to be inclusive…”

I kept my mouth shut. At that point, I had to decide: is it worth my energy to educate these women on how they are exercising their white privilege in that very moment by insisting on themselves as the center? Or is self-preservation more important? I was angry that I had to make this kind of decision in the first place, but: welcome to being a person of color in this country. I decided that I needed to take care of myself, seeing as that I was getting ganged up on. Two of my WOC friends were absent that day –and I’m sure I would’ve been heard had they been there to back me up. (Again: it makes me angry that it has to be that way, that in order to be heard we need to have more than one POC speak up.)

In the end, my perspective was entirely overlooked. To the point that it was dismissed, rendered invisible. Even after I pointed this out. Even after I insisted.

The tone-deafness and ducking of accountability was stunning.


Then there’s gaslighting.

Someone asked me about my reaction to the white woman at the march, the one who told me to take deep breaths. Maybe, this person suggested, that woman was just a jerk, inserting herself into my conversation with my friend. True. That’s a possibility.


Why do you even have to question my view of how *I* experience the world? Why do you have to question whether or not this has to do with race? My very existence is rooted in looking at the world through a racial lens thanks to the white patriarchal hegemony. Why can't you just say, "I'm sorry that happened to you"?

I am fucking tired.
Have I said this already?


My heart aches.

A caving in of my chest
hollowed out by hurt.

I am falling apart.

Trying to hold it together
in the face of (in)(di)visible destruction.
So many questions.
Being questioned.
Of self.
Of others.

I alternate between being a pillar of strength 
and a soft vulnerable child.

I am tired of fighting.
Of justifying my experience as a woman of color.
Of everything.

My heart aches.

How can I nurture my spirit when all I feel is the breaking of my heart?

And then someone says: how do you know it’s breaking? 
How do you know it’s not just heartburn or indigestion?

I am living it.

Are you sure? Maybe it’s something else. Maybe you’re imagining the heartbreak.

Then why am I crying?

You’re too sensitive.

And you are trying 
to destroy me 
by erasing me. 
I refuse 
to let that happen.