Sunday, January 13, 2019

Hiking the Spiritual Path

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

This morning, I left my cozy bed to venture out in the pre-dawn darkness where a group of 15 people gathered. The intent? To hike up one of the Sahyadri mountains where the ecovillage is located. I must be nuts.

It’s been exactly one week since I arrived here at Govardhan Ecovillage in Wada, about 100km from Mumbai. One week since I began the 300-hr advanced teacher training and cultural immersion in the study of bhakti yoga. It’s been one week since I landed in Krishna Land. There’s even a miniature version of Vrindavan here.

And what a week it’s been. So full and intense. Studying sacred texts. Practicing morning sadhana, evening satsang. Asana practice. Learning asana assists. Learning kirtan, to play harmonium, to play the mrdunga drum, to play kartals. So so much.

And of course, there is the learning that is not so obvious, the kind that is happening on the spiritual level.

A little after 6am, our little hiking group set out for the trek. We walked across a field of hay in the dark. At first, I used the light from other people’s flashlights to lead the way. When we got to the trailhead, I was still good following the other lights. Then the terrain changed. As did the incline. It was slight, but it was enough for me to pull out my phone and use my flashlight app.

Just before the meet-up time, my friend, Dominique, offered to lend her hiking boots as she was not feeling well and was going to stay behind. Thankfully, I took her up on it. I had no idea what awaited me.

The path was narrow at times. In some spots, branches of various plants reached over the trail. As we continued –in the dark!—I thought to myself: how’s this for a metaphor for the spiritual path! 

At the summit, a little after sunrise

You wander around in the dark, following a path that others before you have carved out of mountain rock. There are some things that get in your way –leaves, skinny broken tree branches. The incline gets a little steeper as you go along. There are some young trees along the path that you can grab on to for support, especially when you come across loose rocks. You are enjoying this hike. There are some tight bends and slippery gravel, but all in all, you feel good. You are enjoying the challenge. Then, after some time, you come to a big, wide flat part of the mountain where you are already taken aback by the views. You think to yourself: Yesss!! I made it!! You drink some water. Take a few photos. And then the guide says, “Let’s go.” Wait. What? you think. There's more? He points up. You are headed for the summit.

Okay then.

You continue along the trail, one that is not marked except by the flattened down path of many feet on the earth. When you come to more rocks, you look ahead to figure out which way to go next. You look ahead for the guide. He is out of sight. You look ahead for others in your group. They, too, are out of sight. You can still hear them, though, so you scramble to catch up to them. This happens a few times. The pace is quicker than you’d like but you need to keep up. You don’t want to get left behind at the risk of getting lost. Your thighs burn. Your hands are slightly swollen and you don’t know why. You’ve forgotten those scrambles you had to make. You still push on. Once, in your haste, you trip over a rock you didn’t see and nearly fall flat on your face. Suddenly, you imagine yourself injured. How would you get down the mountain? There is no place for a helicopter to land. Someone would have to carry you. You do not want this. You make the choice to be more careful. To be quick but not too quick. To be alert and agile. You focus on your footing, on where to take the next step. But you must make these decisions quickly. There is no time to think.

The inclines increase. At one point, it is so steep that you are climbing rocks. It is no longer hiking. There is no path. Only rocks and the way up. So you climb. You don’t want to lose sight of the person ahead of you. You don’t want to get lost. Or left behind. So you keep going. You find yourself singing a song you can’t get out of your head. You realize it’s the refrain from one of the kirtan chants. You forget what it means, but you sing it in your head anyway. To sing it out loud would require more breath than you already have, so you sing in your head. You know you can do this. You know this chant will lift you up.

You stop for a moment to watch the sunrise. Standing on a narrow path on the edge of a mountain, you stop. What you see is breathtaking. The mist, the orange ball of light, the tips of tree branches. All of it. You take a deep breath and then move on.

You walk by a temple. You must be getting close. You walk by some caves. “Drinking water” the guide says. He has stopped to wait for people to catch up. Drinking water? you think, Hmmm – not gonna risk it. There are steps carved out of the mountain, leading to what you presume to be the summit. “Three hundred years old”, our guide says. Look how long these have lasted, you think to yourself. You realize you are not just talking about the steps.

At the stop of the stairs, you pull yourself up to stand and you are startled by the expanse before you. A vast swath of blue. You can’t tell where the earth and sky meet. They just blend into each other. The morning mist blurs the landscape. You are overwhelmed. You forget to breathe for a moment.

You walk over to one edge, step down onto a ledge and stand there, leaning against the cliff face. You take a deep breath. We are so tiny, you think to yourself. So, so tiny. And this world is so beautiful. Tears start to roll down your cheeks. Yes. This, is all you can say to yourself. This.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Year, New Vision

This year, I have decided to give the 52 essay challenge another go. And this year, I start en route to India.

Here we go, 2019. Are you ready for me?

As I write this, I am somewhere between London and Dubai, 33,000 feet high is the sky. My final destination: Mumbai. I am en route to begin a month-long 300hr advanced teacher training and spiritual study of Bhakti yoga. Because of the end-of semester-crunch and the flurry of holiday activities (shopping, decoration, entertaining, and most importantly: baking!), the reality of this hasn’t had a chance set in. Now, that I’m here, sitting on a plane for another seven hours, I’ve had time to be still. No one asking me where their sweater is. No one asking me what to do with their food on left their dinner plate. No one tattling about her older sister being on her phone. The cabin is dark. There are tiny pinpricks of light on the ceiling above the aisles to give the feeling of a night sky. The babies have stopped crying and the engines drone on, loudly. (I have noise canceling headphones for this reason, but had to take them off, because after a period of time, the pressure on my jaw, right below the ears, was starting to give me a headache. So, I will sacrifice my hearing for a little bit in order to avoid a headache. Some decision, huh.) And in the stillness, this shouts in my head:

I’m going to freaking India!!

How did I get here?

On this first day of a brand-new year, I can’t help but reflect on the journey I’ve had to get to this point. When I first said yes to this –to this chance to continue my spiritual growth in India—I had no idea what I was saying yes to. And to be honest, I still don’t think I fully know yet what I am saying yes to. But what I have seen is my life change and grow and open in amazing, unexpected ways. When I needed something, the universe provided. It was only a matter of me recognizing that, of being aware.

Small example: I was giving a poetry reading in the city on a Sunday night, during the holiday season. I drove into the city during that time of year they call Gridlock Alert season. Who wants to drive in that? And to find street parking? Hah! As if! Well, I got in my car, set an intention for smooth travel and a parking spot near the bar where I was reading, and listened to some Christmas music, Pentatonix style. And wouldn’t you know? I drove in without incident –no crazy and/or angry drivers. Once I got to Houston, I thought: okay, keep your eyes peeled for parking. About two blocks away from the bar, I stopped at a red light. Right next to me was what looked like an open parking spot. I saw it in my periphery vision and in the back of my mind thought: nah, too good to be true. The light changed to green and the car in front of me got through before it turned red again (there was a lot fo congestion). I thought, while sitting at the red light: really? Is this my spot? I mean, I’m sitting at the same traffic light for another round of red. I should at least park in it and then check out the signs.So, calmly, I maneuvered into the spot. Got out of my car to check the parking signs. And sure enough, I was good! It was a miracle! But really not. It was me setting my intention, knowing that the spot was waiting for me, giving gratitude for that spot before I got there, and –this is an important part—recognizing my spot! I almost missed it. And it’s not like I could’ve circled back again. It would’ve been gone by the time I went through the traffic light.

Moments like these –big and small—have been happening in my life since I said yes to India. And I am amazed. Grateful and amazed. The biggest takeaway this year, for me, has been to say yes and then to let go of control., to sit back to let the universe do the work.

I am also amazed and humbled by the amount of support I’ve gotten from friends, family, colleagues –everyone in my community— these past several months. I’m really blown away. Me? Really? You believe in me?says the teeny tiny insecure voice. Yes, you. Beautiful, bold you.The universe never ceases to amaze me. Thank you, my loved ones. I am endlessly grateful.

I am astonished by how much my heart has grown, how much it has opened to love and to compassion. How much I have opened up to vulnerability, despite how terrifying it sometimes (usually) feels. I look at my student from this fall semester –we’ll call him Griffin—and how I was able to hold space for him as he endured one traumatic event after another, how I was able to do this while also keeping my energetic boundaries (and not getting sucked into the tornado of an emotional drain). How I was able to be of service and support to him without sacrificing my own well-being. I had never been able to do something like that before. Incredible.

I’d like to think this all started with the intention I set a year ago today with my touchstone word, “authentic”. I look at my intention bracelet, at the word “authentic” stamped into a nickel token wrapped around my wrist and think: wow – I’ve really done a lot of work to peel away the layers of false selves. I’m really working a being my most authentic self. And I feel fantastic!I look over the past year at moments in which my truest Self showed Herself. The most notable moment for me was when I received my Kundalini yoga spiritual name: Surya Gian Kaur, which means: one whose wisdom shines as brilliantly as the sun. Damn, I thought. The spiritual name is merely naming the thing you already are – you had just forgotten. And I will say that when I received this name, it resonated within me. Yes, I thought to myself, yes, this is me. Truly me.

So, what will this year’s word be? I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my mind the past couple of weeks. What’s emerging are two words, actually. Open heart. “Open” as both verb and adjective. In thinking about authenticity, being open comes with the territory. The willingness to vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, we are not only our truest selves, but our strongest selves (as much as that sounds counterintuitive).

Yes. That seems right. 
And YES to everything that awaits.

Here we go, 2019! Here were go!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Mothering Biracial Kids: Representation is Everything

Oldest kid with her first stack of summer reading (plus a couple of her sisters' books)

There are so many books out there these days that reflect the diversity of where we live, regionally speaking (NYC metro area). Locally speaking, I live in the whitest area ever! that a lot of the time, it’s a wonder how I’m surviving! While yes, more can be done to increase the diversity of books overall –and I’m thinking, here, specifically of children’s books—there are more out there now than when I was a kid.

My kids are bookworms. They devour books. Sometimes to the point where it’s borderline detrimental to their health (i.e they read under the covers so late at night which equals sleep deprivation which equals weak immune system which equals sick!). Never mind that they never hear anything when they’re stuck inside a book. A Mac truck could be barreling their way and they wouldn’t hear it. I’d have to dive into the street and shove them out of the way, letting myself get pancaked by the semi. And while you might think this exaggeration, you would be incorrect. Yes, the Mac truck example is exaggerated, but the lack of hearing is not. The immersion in a book can also be a problem (i.e homework does not get done). But I’m not here to talk about the challenges of raising bookworms.

I want to say: representation is everything.


Last month, I went to see “Crazy Rich Asians” – more for the curiosity of it than anything else. Let’s just say I’m less than thrilled by romantic comedies in general. But an all-Asian cast in a movie that is notkung-fu? What? What’s that like? So, I watched it and I was –I don’t know… overwhelmed? I felt like suddenly, I was being seen. Not as a spectacle, but as an actual person. I felt like my very existence was somehow solidified. As if I had been walking in this life like an apparition. There but not quite there. Now, suddenly, all of my molecules drew in closer together. All the gaps in my physical being, all the spaces between the atoms, drew closer together. I was an actual solid human being!

What’s interesting to note is that I never thought of myself in this way –as an apparition, a ghost of a person who is not quite there in the physical sense—until I became solid. It makes me wonder what else I don’t know. For example, how much emotional weight am I carrying right now? How much mental work do I exert every day?

The movie itself was fine. I’m sure there were problematic issues (as some friends had pointed out prior to my seeing it), but I was so taken by seeing what I saw and feeling what I felt that my critical mind was distracted. There were little parts of the story that were so familiar, it could have been taken from my own life experiences. That took my breath away. Sent tears to my eyes. You mean I’m not the only one? You mean I’m not a weirdo who comes from a weirdo family and culture? You mean other people do this? Think like this? Act like this, too?It’s one thing to find your people, to connect with your community. It’s quite another to see it broadcast on the silver screen for all to see. And to get validation from that.

This is the power of representation.


My kids are biracial. They present as white. We live in a mostly white town in a mostly white county. For all intents and purposes, my kids are growing up white. (“Not if I can help it!” screams a voice from within me.) They go to a school with a mostly white population. There are a few kids of color, but not many. And of those, some of them (Latino) present as white (skin tone). I do what I can with my kids to create awareness about race, but it’s so abstract when everyone around you is white. I don’t know how much actually sinks in.

I remember when my middle kid was four-years-old, I was saying something about race (in an age-appropriate context, of course) and mentioned that her dad was white. She said: “He’s not white. He’s a person.” Hah! Indeed.

It’s been a challenge to talk with them about race in more specific and concrete ways. When shit comes up in the news (black men getting shot and killed by police, the Charleston shootings, Charlottesville), I do my best to keep them informed about what has happened and try to teach them about the dynamics of race in this country. They seem to understand. 

The same goes for gender. I try to talk with them about how the systems in place are built against girls and women, and they seem to grasp this concept a little better. They get angry at the injustice of it all. They pump their fists and vow to fight back. And because of their ages (I’m thinking of my younger ones, ages 9 and 10), they come up with some pretty spectacular scenarios to demonstrate how they’d fight back. (If I could remember any, I’d tell you, but my memory is foggy today.)

I understand that I am very privileged in this way. I do not have to educate them in order to keep them safe like black mothers must do for their sons. Though, with regard to gender, I do have to educate them to try to keep them safe as girls.

That said, I think about representation in the books they read. 

They have not been told they are different because of the way they look and so do not belong. Because they look white, they will not likely suffer from racial discrimination. So, I am asking these questions: how do my kids read and understand the characters they come across in their books? Do they see themselves in everything they read? Or do they only see themselves in certain books? Or do they not see themselves at all?

Generally speaking, my kids love fantasy and sci-fi books. They’re all about magic and superpowers and worlds very different from this one. My oldest is obsessed with every book series where the protagonist is usually a girl who must fight for her kingdom, family, world, etc. And the girl’s journey usually leads her to realize her true self, her fullest potential, which is fantastic! (We’ll ignore the fact that a lot of these books have a boy love interest in it. Must we always have a boy love interest??) She’s not really into the realist teen drama/romance stuff (thank God! Haha!). She’s got pretty badass taste, if you ask me. I wish I had these books as a kid! 

Anyway, she reads so much so fast that I’ve long given up on screening her books before she reads them (I think I gave up when she was 10. She’s 13 now.). But I wonder about representation. These books are usually populated with white characters (aren’t they all?). Still, I do my best to give her books that have protagonists of color when I find them.

One of them is Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. I am dying to read this book! I picked it up at Split This Rock Poetry Festival this past April. The concept –a novel in verse—was so thrilling for me. Not to mention that it’s a story about a girl of color written by a woman of color! (As an aside; I remember Elizabeth from back in the day when I taught at Youth Speaks NYC (now Urban Word) – she was always so fierce!) I cracked it open this morning and read the inside flap to remind myself the overall concept of the book. I read the first poem. I totally love it! If I could, I’d take today and just sit down and read the whole thing (but alas, this is not the reality of my life right now as there are giant stacks of student poems awaiting my comments).

I am thinking about how my daughter will read this.

I am not speculating or predicting or imposing any expectations. Okay, wait. That’s a lie. I do want her to love this book. I don’t know if she will. She won’t dislike it, but she might not have the same enthusiasm as I do. I have to be okay with that. But I am thinking, again, about representation.

I am not Dominican but there is a resonance for me when I read stories and poems written by people of color for people of color. The details might be different, but the feelings? So, so familiar. What I’ve read so far, Acevedo’s book is bringing me back to my own experiences of that age –high school. While her story-poems in this book are different from mine on the literal level, the emotional core is the same. The strict immigrant mother, for example. The secret writing of poems. My daughter does not have these experiences. But will she find herself somewhere in this book? Perhaps simply as a poet, a writer, a girl navigating the ever-changing landscape of her world. I can’t say. But I hope she does see herself somewhere, whether it’s in this book or in the other books she reads. And I hope the same for my other daughters.

We learn who we are based on what is reflected back to us. If we see white folks all around, we will think we, too, are white. Until someone tells us –usually abrasively—otherwise. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves at all. Sometimes there is no reflection. Sometimes we just accept that we are invisible. But sometimes, we find that book, that poem, that movie (!) that shows you finally –finally! —that you indeed are here, that you exist, and that you are beautiful.

And that is when the world opens up for you into something amazing and open to infinite possibilities for greatness. Your own greatness.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

"Holy Shit. What Just Happened?" A Sat Nam Fest Re-Cap.

What's Sat Nam Fest? you ask. It's a Kundalini yoga and music festival in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Now you know. So here's the re-cap:

It started innocently enough.

Morning sadhana Jap-ji
Morning sadhana at 4:30am. Jap-ji, asana practice, Aquarian chants. The usual. Lovely experience with the cool early morning air sweeping in below the big tent’s walls and the shift of the sky from dark to daybreak. I felt good. Fresh. A clean energizing start to a new day. I was ready for whatever lay ahead. Or so I thought.

Outdoor breakfast under an open tent was fantastic. The chai tea hit the spot. Then a little time before the first workshop/class to do a little shopping. Long Time Sun had a vendor tent set up and I picked up a few things to add to my whites. I can’t wait to wear them! And then it was off to the first session with Mahan Rishi Singh Khalsa, one of my teachers. We did a meditation with this crazy mudra that had our arms up at heart level for 22 minutes! It was a challenge, to say the least. Both physically and mentally (I was fighting with my ego, trying to tell it to shut up and stop complaining. Haha!). In the end, I made it through.

The next session was where things got serious. I mean, really serious.

Yogi Amandeep led us through Sufi kriyas, meditations, and chants. His voice was commanding: loud and powerful. You couldn’t help but do as he said. But it was also loving. He challenged us to break past our self-imposed limitations (Example: “I can’t” we often tell ourselves before even trying.). Here’s where things got real for me: while we were all doing some crazy chanting and arm swings and blinking our eyes and contracting our sitz bones (did you know you could do that? And that it’s different from the mulabhanda?) –and I’m thinking: what the heckis this?? – he’s talking about merging with the cosmos, about when we hold the breath, we hold the universe. He was talking the whole time, guiding our minds as our bodies went through the physical practice. And the things he was saying were pulling me in deeper. And then they lifted me higher. Go deep within yourself in order to elevate.

And then he said something that was like an arrow shot straight through my heart. Like he knew me. Like he knew my story. Like he knew something about me that I had yet to uncover. Of course, he wasn’t directly addressing me but it was as if he were. And then I just lost it.  The tears just ran like rivers. Good thing it was towards the end of the session because I don’t think I would’ve been able to continue. I just stayed in child’s pose, weeping.

My friend rubbed my lower back for comfort. After a few minutes, I gathered myself together. The big tent had mostly emptied out. I sat up and saw Yogi Amandeep through the curtain backstage. I went to him and expressed my gratitude. For what? I don’t know. I can’t name it. I know something was released. Something big. So, I just told him that something shifted within me and I was grateful for him. He smiled back, like he knew what he had done, like he knew what he had started within me.

Yogi Amandeep & me
And that was just the morning.

After lunch, my friend and I went to this 4-hour workshop experience with Gurmukh and her daughter, Wah called the Radiant Power of Women. It started out like yoga boot camp (Leg lifts. 108. Go. Slowly. Feel your body.) and shifted to small support groups (hold each other up in meditation). Then to a big dance party of joy to a drop-on-a-dime cry-fest on forgiveness to a closing circle that created a big badass chain of strong women. Holy shit. I’ll tell ya: by the end, we were indeed radiant.

I met so many wonderful and kind people. I’d never been to any kind of yoga festival before, so I don’t know if this is true of other communities, but I’ll say that there’s something magical about the Kundalini yoga community. The love and kindness that exuded from the collective energy was really palpable.

And that Kundalini yoga is magic. You’d think I’d be dead tired with an aching body from the rigor of yesterday, but nope! I feel amazing. My body feels rejuvenated. I will say that I could probably use a nap later, but on the whole? I feel strong. Real strong. Mind, body and spirit. Yeah!

This is just a tiny glimpse of what it feels like to be transformed from the inside out.

Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Magic of Music

I just finished watching that clip of James Cordon's Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney and cried. I didn't know how much the music of the Beatles was a part of my growing up. How deep it went. Until now.

My parents were hippies. Well, at least the Filipino version (which is to say, as a mutt-like culture, it’s not surprising to embrace the wide-ranging diversity of American music. Keep reading. You’ll see what I’m talking about in a moment.). They didn’t do acid (at least, not to my knowledge, but who knows! They are never very forthcoming about anything that happened before I was born. Or, actually, even after. Unless I ask direct questions. To my dad. Which he may answer. Or not.) Maybe they smoked? I have no idea. All I know—from photos taken in Manila—is that they wore bellbottoms. My mom wore flowers in her hair. My dad’s hair was long, just below his shoulders, and he wore those thin headbands across his forehead. I always thought it made him look Native American. Were they politically active? I don’t know. I’d like to think so. For one, it might explain my dad’s tendency to “keep your head down” and to over-prepare for anything. (At the time, the Philippines was going through their own political unrest with Marcos’s rise to power, resulting in martial law, which was the driving force for their immigration to the US.)

Growing up, there was music in the house. All the time.

Peter, Paul, and Mary. Carole King. Simon and Garfunkel.

Anne Murray was my first concert. I was six.

Stevie Wonder. Donna Summer. Diana Ross. Heck, anything Motown.

Eric Clapton. Billy Joel. And of course, The Beatles.

I remember sitting on the floor of our family room, next to the stereo, playing records with my aunt, who just immigrated from the Philippines. I must have been around 8 years old. It was summer; back then, the days were long and slow. In our hands, we held the album sleeve, printed with lyrics, and we would just sing. Loud. All day long. “Heaven Can Wait” by Meatloaf was one of her favorites. (Yes, you read that right. Meatloaf. The guy who sings that all-time frat party anthem: “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”.) Diana Ross’s “Touch Me In the Morning” was my personal fave, though I kept wondering, why did she want him to touch her and then walk away? Did she not like him anymore? Also “touch” in my little-kid mind was just that: a hand touching her arm and then walking away. What did I know? The music lent itself to an upbeat feeling, so I really didn’t pay attention to the meaning of the lyrics anyway. If anything, maybe that was my first encounter with being in the present moment: “Nothing good’s gonna last forever / And wasn’t it me who said, let’s just be glad for the time together” and “But yesterday’s gone my love, there’s only now and time to face it.” Either way, I just know that the only way I could participate with the song was through singing.

Then, there was the Beatles.

one of the many albums in my childhood home

I remember how much my dad treasured these albums. How much care he gave them. He was so delicate when sliding them out of the album cover, then the sleeve. Gently setting it on the turntable and slowly placing the needle into that first groove, his face close to the vinyl, waiting for those first beats. 

I remember him instructing me to be extra careful when taking out records to play them. I was also not permitted to put the Beatles’ records on. If I wanted to listen, I’d have to ask him to put them on. He showed more tenderness toward those records than he did me.

While my knowledge of The Beatles was limited to my exposure as a child (I never really explored their music beyond what my parents listened to), I now know how much of their music is foundational within me. What I mean is this: music and memory are inextricable. When I watched that clip of Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney, the music brought me right back to when I was a kid. Back when I could spend an entire day sitting around, listening to music and singing along. 

If I took the time right now, I’m sure I could trace the formation of my current eclectic (I hate that word) tastes along the path of musical roots, in which the Beatles are inevitably embedded. But for now, I’ll give a sample of my favorite music to date, which will probably reveal more about my growing up than anything else (in no particular order): Dave Matthews Band; Prince; 90s alternative rock (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al); late 80s/all of the 90s rap & hip-hop (Public Enemy, Notorious BIG, Tribe Called Quest, MC Lyte, et al), R&B (Anita Baker, En Vogue, Destony’s Child, New Edition – plus all of their projects after: Bell, Biv, DeVoe, Johnny Gill, et al), Latin freestyle (Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Expose, Stevie B, et al). I high school, I also listened to house music & reggae (club reggae, that is) (songs like “Girl, I’ll House You” and “Percolator”), though I never ever made it into a club (my parents would’ve killed me – and I kinda liked living. Haha). During the college days, I also listened to Indigo Girls and Sarah MacLaughlin and Tori Amos. And pop music was always there. Always. One fave that comes to mind right now? Lisa Loeb’s “Stay”. (The video is typical 90s: just walking around in an abandoned building. Haha!) Man, I’m a total cheese ball! Hah! And just typing up this sample list makes me feel really mutt-like. Like a true Filipino. Haha!

But oh, the magic of music. How it can transport us back in time with just a few notes. And how quickly we flash right back into that moment. A moment, perhaps, that we had forgotten about long ago.

For me, hearing “Penny Lane” beamed me back to a moment when my dad sang this song. I don’t see much in the memory except for him singing, wearing a pair of jeans, eyes closed. Maybe he is remembering his own Penny Lane, a street in his childhood neighborhood, a place he will not return to for another 30 years. A place that will always be in his ears, in his eyes, and in his heart.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Letting Go and Working on Self While In Service of Others

Taking the leap involves making a commitment to ourselves and to the earth itself –making a commitment to let go of old grudges, to not avoid people and situations and emotions that make us feel uneasy, to not cling to or fears, our closedmindedness, our hard-heartedness, our hesitation. Now is the time to develop trust in our basic goodness and the basic goddness of our sisters and brothers on this earth; a time to develop confidence in our ability to drop our old ways of staying stuck and to choose wisely. We could do that right here and right now. 
–Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

I typed up this excerpt from Pema Chodron’s book Taking the Leap a few days ago. After reading the first couple of chapters, I felt moved to write an essay on letting go. I wanted to explore my own relationship with this idea of letting go, of non-attachment. I knew that it was very much a work-on-progress. And then my attention got pulled away to a different direction (for one, towards the insanity of migrant children being torn apart from their parents). But here’s what’s interesting: the universe works to conspire with you. You set your intention and the universe puts everything in place to fulfill your request. At that point, it’s just a matter of you recognizing it. This is not news to me, but I got to experience this magic, once again, first hand.

My residency here at Millay Colony for the Arts is coming to a close soon. A handful of days are left. And, uncharacteristically, I feel calm. I’ve got my equanimity. Which feels like a miracle in and of itself! Normally, I’d be freaking out around this time, thinking about how much I still have yet to write, or how much I have yet to accomplish. Normally, I’d put this pressure on myself to have something “completed”, even if it’s a single poem that’s been through a few revisions and feels more polished. But this time? This time, I feel okay. I feel at peace, actually.

How did I get here?

When I first arrived at the Colony, I set up my studio right away. I unpacked my books, notebooks, sketch books, file folders of poems, printer, paper of all kinds, stacking letter trays, arts supplies, mugs, hot pot, mug warmer, snacks, and the ever-important white Christmas lights, which I strung up immediately. Environment, ambiance –whatever you want to call it—is everything for my creative process. At least when I’m at a residency. (Apparently, this is a Taurus trait? Resident conversations inevitably turn to astrology every night at dinner. No idea why but it’s quite amusing.) At home? My writing locations/environments vary. Anyway, after I set up on that first day, I told myself, Tomorrow, we begin!

And then the sun rose. And I didn’t know where to start.

So, I picked a book out of the stack I brought and began to read. I was hoping for some inspiration, some spark to get me to write.


I started to get a headache.

Great. Just what I needed.

The next few days were a bit of a struggle. I was forcing something to happen when I very well knew: this is not how it works. But I got myself all rigid anyway and tried to make something, anythinghappen. (Hello, Ego. Nice to see you. :p)

Because I’m very much an earth-driven sign (yes, I’m talking Taurus again), I thrive on tactile things, on interacting physically. (Sometimes I wonder why I’m not a visual artist. Then I try to draw something and suddenly it all comes rushing back. Haha!) So, I made a physical rendering of my book-in-progress: a list of poems, divided into sections, and tacked up on a wall. I needed to get a visual overview. That felt like a first step towards being “productive”.

As the days went on, I decided that I would fill the creative well during the first half of the month and then get down to the writing business for the second half (how very Type A of me to plan creativity – heh heh). I visited Mass MoCA two days in a row (I love that place!!). I went to yoga. A lot. Even took a workshop on handstands. (Physical, remember?) I went to my first kirtan. I hiked to the top of a mountain. I lay down in a meadow. I knitted in a gazebo with eight strangers, eight fellow knitters. I ate amazing Indian food, and later, wandered into a small-town stationery store, where I bought my first fountain pen! (The physical feeling of the fountain pen is something else! What kinds of things will flow forth? Stay tuned!) I fed my yogic & spiritual self with a day at Kripalu. I visited a glass blowing studio and gallery. I baked. (I joked that the kitchen was my second studio.) I took (and am still taking) a lot of photographs.

Boy, have I filled that well.

Then the halfway mark came.

And you know what? Things started happening.

If you know anything about the creative process, you know that it’s not predictable. But, patterns can be identified. I know my patterns, so I knew that the creative flow would really get going at this point. But it doesn’t always mean the flow is fast.

And this one is not fast.

Here’s the thing about creating art: it’s an intangible process. Even if one is a visual artist working with physical, tactile media. Its source is very much anchored in intuition. The process itself: anchored in experimentation. And if there’s anything that calls for letting go, it’s this.

Creating art really requires that the artist be mindful, to be aware, to pay close attention. And then to try to translate what’s within, without. To translate the inner to the outer. But if I force the ways in which the inner manifests into the outer, it ends up being more difficult a process than necessary. And more often than not, the result ends up being something less than stellar, something that might come close to resembling the inner, but misses the mark.


Yesterday, I spent some time in the afternoon at the Chatham Bookstore, perched on a chair out front with my typewriter on a stool. A pop-up Poetry Booth. Poems-on-demand. This was an idea planted long ago when I first read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bonesas a very young poet. She did it at a state fair. There have been no state fairs on my radar. No opportunities to do something like this. Until now.

After making arrangements with the bookstore last week, I shared this plan with a fellow resident –a playwright. He said, “That sounds terrifying.” Haha! I hadn’t thought of it that way. I told him, “Nah, it’s just like a writing exercise. Poems-on-the-fly.”

At this point, I had been thinking about poetic form. I could sense that some poems were calling to be written, but I didn’t know how to get them out. Poetic form has always been helpful. And freewriting wasn’t working right now. So, I was tinkering. Testing things out.

It was hard.

It wasn’t even the good kind of hard. It wasn’t fun.

If anything, it was excruciating. 

One night, I stayed up until 1am testing out a couple of forms, playing with word choices, word variations –and that was just to set up the form! I hadn’t even written anything yet! (One was a sestina, which works with an intricate pattern of six words. Those six words had better be good ones if I’m going to use them over the course of 32 lines!) 

I was exhausted.

Enter: Poetry Booth.
Enter: Regular folks strolling Main Street of a small town called Chatham.
Enter: Magic.

Me & my typewriter, a Smith Corona
It was slow-going at first. Folks who walked by didn’t want to look directly at me or my typewriter, for fear that I’d pull them into some kind of sales pitch. So, they side-glanced. Skimmed the accompanying chalk sandwich board. They still didn’t get it. If they slowed down their pace with that puzzled look, I’d just say: “Poems-on-demand – I can write a poem for you about anything you want.” Some would respond, as if just attacked by the fragrance girl at the department store cosmetics counter: “Uh, no thanks! Maybe next time!” and quickened their pace. They stilldidn’t get it.

Others would smile and laugh, say “How neat!” but didn’t want a poem.

Those who were curious enough to stop would ask: “So how does it work?”

“Well, tell me what you’d like me to write about.”

And they’d give me something. Sometimes it was really vague (“The end of the world.”). Sometimes it was specific. (“Our four vizslas” – to which I was bewildered. What the heck is a vizsla? Oh, it’s a breed of dog.) From there, I just talked to them. Asked them questions about the thing they wanted their poem to be about. For the dogs, I could tell by the way the woman talked about them how much she adored them. “Regal,” she corrected when I made a comment about them being cute. That said it all. When her husband read the poem (he returned before she did), he said: “Oh my, she is going to love this.” When she arrived and read the poem, she put her hand to her mouth and started to tear up. “Oh.” She said quietly. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is really them.”

The guy who wanted a poem about the end of the world talked to me about energy, about how everything is energy and that there really is no end of the world. To which I said: “You’re trying to challenge me, huh.” He smiled and left me to my devices. I felt a little pressure but then remembered: you’re never going to see this poem again, so just write it. Write whatever comes to mind.

And that’s when things really got cooking.

One woman, accompanied by her sister-in-law, talked about how she and her husband just moved to the area (Hudson Valley) from the city, where she was born and raised. I made a joke about City Mouse moving to the country. I asked her to tell me a little bit about the house and we talked a bit about the spaciousness of being here versus the city. When she came back to pick up her poem, she read it out loud and as she read, her eyes filled with tears and her voice started to crack. “Oh my God,” she said, pausing. “Yes. This is it.” She finished reading and then gave me the biggest hug. Her husband’s birthday is on Monday. She’s going to frame the poem and give it to him as a birthday present. “He’s going to love it,” she told me, smiling through tears.

A man named John, came up with his dog, Eddy. “A Wheaton Terrier?” I asked. “Why, yes!” he seemed pleased that I recognized the breed. “I have one, too,” I said. We talked a little bit about Eddy, how Eddy was John’s son’s dog but really was his dog –they know who takes care of them, who loves them best-- about how John lives in the city but comes up on the weekends. I watched the way John talked about Eddy. He told me how Eddy, in his advanced age of 13 years, has taken to putting frogs in his mouth. Not to eat them, but just to put them in his mouth. Unfortunately for the frogs, Eddy isn’t so gentle and thinks they are his toys. But it brings Eddy joy. So, John puts up with it. As I write this, I kinda wish I had taken a photo of that poem – I really liked that one. After John read it, he said: “Yes, this is totally Eddy. Thank you.” I could see a few tears well up.

Ben, a friend from Supersoul Yoga (a place that has now become community for me), happened by on his way to dinner with his wife. We chatted a bit and when I asked “what would you like the poem to be about?”, “Dinosaurs!” was the answer. I laughed, already thinking about children stomping through a toy city like Godzilla. But then I heard the story behind it, which was the story of how they met. So sweet. And so, I sent them off to dinner and banged away at the keys (let me tell you, you need some force to get those typewriter keys down! I think my fingers got a good workout!). When they came back and read their poem, they laughed and said, “Yes, this pretty much sums it up. It’s exactly what happened.” How in the heck did I know??

A man, John Paul, strolled over from across the street. A man who reminded me of some old kats on the spoken word poetry scene from back in the day. He said, “I was sipping my beer over there,” pointing to People’s Pub, “you can see it in the window from here—and I saw you here, typing away and thought: well, let me go over there and see what that’s about.” He told me all sorts of stories –about how he taught himself how to type properly (notthe hunt-and-peck method), how he works with the dying –a hospice caregiver. He even spit a few verses (see? I knew he was some kind of spoken word kat!). I sent him back to his beer and told him I’d bring over the poem when I was done since I was wrapping up my “shift” anyway (I was actually an hour past when I was supposed to end). He came back before I was done, told me about how, just then in the bar, he told a joke to get into this group of people he didn’t know except for this one guy. As he told me this, I pulled the sheet out of the typewriter and handed him the poem. He read it aloud, a little mumble under the breath, and said, “That’s it. You got it. You got me.” 

My final poem was requested by Christopher, the owner of my favorite food spot here in Chatham: Main St Goodness, home of Pieconic NY. I mean, he’s got All. The. Pies. He’s got other baked goods and breakfast served all day! (I mean yeah, lunch, too, but lunch has got nothing on breakfast!) I asked him what he’d like his poem to be about. “Perseverance,” he said. “What about it” I asked. And he pointed down the street to his place. “Ah,” I said. Perseverance is what it takes to run a food-service business, for sure. He told me that he used to be a Weekender and got fed up with the corporate world, moved here permanently, and opened up his business. He just opened in December. I told him I’d bring the poem over when I was finished. After I closed up shop (because Nicole, the bookstore owner, was also closing up shop, but not before I could write a poem for the bookstore), I walked over and delivered the poem. He read it aloud, right then and there, for everyone to hear (two employees and one last customer as it was closing time). And then immediately he framed it (a frame just happened to be nearby) and put it up on the shelf for all to see (photo coming soon!). He was so happy. I was so happy. The employees were happy. The customer was happy, too! She said, “You wrote that?” “Yeah, just now.” “Wow.” The poem was titled “The Goodness of Pie” and while it was about making pie, it’s also about what is needed when you want to persevere. To be gentle. To be still. To be aware. And that the results can only bring you joy.

"The Goodness of Pie"
I am my own worst student, I’ll tell ya. Hahaha!

Here’s what I’ve learned but didn’t see until now, until the writing of this:

Poetry Booths are a great way to learn how to let go. Not only did I feel unattached to the writing of the poems (I often hem and haw over a word choice here and there. This time, I just went with whatever word came first and kept going), but I also felt so liberated when I gave them away. The poems were not precious to me (as in, attachment rather than degree of delicateness) but they were to those to whom I gave them. That, in and of itself, was a gift to me.

There was no time for the mind (aka Ego) to come in and say, hey, you sure that’s how you want to say it? You sure that’s what you want to say? What if it’s wrong? What if it’s terrible? Or worse yet: what if it’s cliché???

And the results were so touching. I had no idea.

And you know what else I didn’t know? I had no idea that I could see people for who they truly are with such ease. I’m quite beside myself.

But you know what’s even better? That I did this thing with my heart wide open. And that is what enabled me to see these folks, to really see them. Their gratitude for this acknowledgement was really humbling. I am ever grateful. For this. And for the immense lessons I have learned during this amazing month here.

Let go and let be.
And the rest will shine.
(That last part is mine.) 
(Hey, look, I rhymed! Haha!)

Sending out big love to alla ya’ll—

Writing make me hungry. Thanks for the fuel, Christopher!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Essay 26-1/2: Where is Our Humanity? Part 2

G. Ronald Lopez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

I can’t stop reading about the ripping apart of families, the tearing away of children from their parents’ arms. It’s heartbreaking to hear about these stories. Even the word “heartbreaking” falls short. It feels significantly insufficient. It feels like this word has been used so often in the past 18 months that it verges on cliché. And what does that mean for us? What does it say about us? As a nation, as a people? The fact that “heartbreaking” is becoming commonplace is trouble. Even the word “devastation” does not carry the weight of break like it used to. Use it often enough, it might follow the path of “heartbreak”. And at the rate we’re going, it might happen sooner than later.

Reading the stories does not save me from repeated heartbreak. Over and over.

You’d think that I’d stop. That I would practice some level of self-care and limit my intake. And to a certain point, I do, but this is too horrific, too inhumane to turn a blind eye. How can any human being turn a blind eye to this? (And yes, you are read my implications correctly: there are some who are not human.)

We already understand the basics of human development. We understand the importance of human brain development during the tender age years (birth to 11). We understand how crucial a role this plays in developing a fully functional adult. We know that our brains are still forming up until the age of 25. Twenty-five! (And some would say that we can continue to develop and shape –and even heal—our brains and their neuropathways for as long as we live, depending on our practices in engaging with the brain.) We know that the patterns of attachment during childhood (in this case, namely attachment to parent or caregiver) are everything, that these attachments (or lack of) help determine how we interact (or don’t) with others as adults. It is the starting block of mental health (or illness, depending).

Alan Shapiro, the senior medical director for community pediatric programs at Montefiore Health System, put it bluntly: “This is government-sanctioned torture of children.”

To understand the breadth of this suffering, I spoke with several experts who work with migrant children from Central American countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Each made a point of highlighting the trauma visited upon these children even before they reach the border of the United States.
“They have come from a place where they have been exposed to incredible turmoil and sometimes very severe trauma—whether the killing of one parent or family member, domestic violence, plus abject poverty,” said Shapiro. “There is a lack of food, poor living conditions, dangerous neighborhoods—all of that is the baseline of the children we are seeing. It’s critical to understand that these are not people looking for a better life, they are looking to flee dangerous environments with no protection.”
[…] Separated children are often in shock. But there are also internal changes, ones that are less visible but no less distressing. “Physiologically, we are damaging the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems,” Shapiro said. “All these things with prolonged stress without a buffer lead to long-term chronic diseases: cancer, depression, obesity, worsening asthma.”
And then there is the impact on mental development. “We are putting children in a constant fight-or-flight mode,” Shapiro said. “It shuts down their memory centers and is potentially affecting their long-term learning and development. I almost have never seen this.”
Imagine being a parent and having to decide between the fatal violence at home or fleeing your beloved home for a place that will not only imprison you and treat you like shit (a place that is notyour home) but permanently separate you from your child(ren). Imagine that the latter choice is the “better” alternative to barely staying alive in your hometown. One level of devastation for another.


I don’t know if I can make that kind of decision.

And, of course, this speaks to my privilege. Something all of us in the US have right now. The privilege of not having to make this decision. We also have the power to make change – to change what is happening in our country. Not every person in other countries has this power. Let’s do something about these acts of inhumanity. Let’s do something NOW before we find ourselves repeating a legacy we swore we would not repeat. Because right now, from where I’m standing, we have concentration camps filled with really young “tender age” children on the southern border. And this is a legacy I refuse to be a part of. What about you??

Call and email your Congressperson today: And yes, calling and emailing matters! Staffers take a tally and when the numbers reach a certain volume, the reps are usually then moved to do something. But it has to start with us. So please: do something.

In solidary with love & strength--