Lucky #7

I’m excited to share Episode 7 of my podcast. Two of my passions are not mutually exclusive. Dance is contemplative practice.

American Standoff

“Every day I am deluged with reminders

that this is not

my land

and this is my land…” from “Poem for the young White man…” by Lorna Dee Cervantes

The tall white man had bushy brown hair that hung to his shoulders.  His beard was full with a mustache similar to Sam Elliott in Mask.  He wore dark cargo pants, dark shoes, a black sweatshirt. The bandanna he wore over his nose and mouth bore the stars and stripes but they were colored black and blue,  His light blue eyes bore into me as soon as our eyes met. As I studied his bandanna, he studied me.  It being the Sunday before Inauguration Day, I had selected my Daughter of an Immigrant t-shirt to wear with my jeans.  He would not stop staring.  It made me uneasy.  The older woman he was with tapped his arm and asked him to do or  something.  As he walked away, he looked over his shoulder at me two or three times.  I broke eye contact and chose to study my phone. I texted my partner and my friend.  My gut told me there might be a confrontation headed my way.  

His mask. My shirt. Lines in the sand.  Guns drawn.  This town isn’t big enough for the both of us and yet it has been and will continue to be.  I’m not going anywhere.  Immigrant is a misnomer.  I’m the descendant of indigenous peoples who arrived on this continent millenia ago. 

The tension is a reality for so many people and yet when it happens, it feels surreal like you’re suddenly on a theater stage and you’re acting in a familiar scene. 

 My mouth went dry.  My stomach lurched.  My pulse quickened.  I deliberately paid attention to my breathing. I focused on my inhalations and exhalations.  I became acutely aware of the man’s height.  He towered over me.  I was grateful for the social distance between us.  Two carts away.  He and the older woman stood behind the glass partition as the cashier rang up their purchases.  I hoped the cashier would look over at me.  She was too busy scanning items with the handheld reader.  

I have a right to make a political statement with my shirt.  He has the right to make a political statement with his mask.  The statements in and of themselves are equally acceptable.  But, in combination with our personal demeanor and physical appearance, they became battle attire.  Why was I put on the defensive?  Why did he choose to be bothered by a female stranger in a black and pink tee shirt?  I was wearing my glasses that morning.  I was alone. I was quiet.  I had grabbed a few items and placed them in my cart. I did nothing to warrant those looks other than be myself.  I might have ignored him had he chosen not to stare at me.  After watching our nation’s capitol erupt in violence earlier that week, I was on edge. Perhaps he was too but it wasn’t my people disrespecting our government institutions and leaders. My presence was triggering. I can look at those blue and black stripes and think a great many things but choose not to engage with anyone.  I can judge in the quiet of my mind but I don’t often give the people a second look.  I, on the other hand, was subjected to ten to twelve hard looks, even two or three over the shoulders. As we checked out of Costco by handing our receipts to the clerks at the door, he looked towards me one last time. He and the older woman headed to the left. I headed to the right, relieved they weren’t parked anywhere near me.  I felt safe again. I was grateful there had been no confrontation.  Still, I was shaken.  I know, in my rational mind, that very little could have happened in a public setting.  Yet, in my core, I know it could have gone so much worse.  

Reflecting on this incident has caused me anguish.  No matter how many professional  or personal milestones I accomplish, I can be reduced, judged, labeled, hated.  Before you argue that the same could be said for any person, I will snap back that a lot of folks won’t have reached out to their emergency contacts in a supermarket checkout line for fear for their physical safety.  I was scared.  My heart and mind went into flight mode.  Should I abandon my cart of groceries and leave the store?  Would he follow me to my car?  Would the woman with him intervene?  Even if the worst that happened was being called a racial slur or told to go back to my country, it would have hurt.  Not like an owie, now I’m sad.  It’s the pain of knowing in my physical body that I am considered an enemy or a problem.  It’s a lifetime of pain from being considered foreign, invasive, wrong.  Miss me with all the “we are all alike” platitudes to gloss over my reality.  Accept me at my word.  Accept me.  

My dear feathery friend

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all – 

Emily Dickinson 

Starting in October 2019, my staff mourned the untimely deaths of three young people.  We lost two young men to gunfire.  We lost a young woman to violence; her family has not wanted to mourn this loss publicly as the investigation has been pending.  It was terribly hurtful to see a mother give a eulogy for her child who will never reach 18. It has been awful to speak to mothers as they sob for their children who have been robbed of time.  I am fortunate to still have the ability to make memories and change traditions.  I still have time, that luxury that my friends who have lost parents and grandparents desire.  

Losing my Mama Chelia was sad but it also deepened my gratitude. She lived 102 years and she inspired her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with her tenacity, willfulness, brassy sense of humor, candor, and strength. Mama Chelia left us with many memories and gratitude at leaving us after a long full life.  

In December, we lost my Tia Nery to cancer.  She was the quintessential bon vivant. At family gatherings, she was always the first to dance and never one to shy away from taking shots, whether they were of tequila or pisco.   She never resorted to the bad habits of other aunties who body shame and pry as if they are owed these uncomfortable moments. I was always “mamita” to her. I always received hugs, kisses, and compliments.  My auntie stood out.  She dressed in animal prints and glittery tops and held parties with live bands in the middle of chemo and a pandemic. She was unapologetically going to keep living so long as she could.  Losing her means losing the spark of many a family gathering.  However what an example she set of being a woman who loved and lived to the fullest.  

Even in my grief and that of my friends, I can’t negate the blessings of 2020.  2020 revealed my priorities and my loyal support network.  I decided who was worth seeing, what was worth doing, why I and we are worth protecting and building up.  While getting through the challenging months was an accomplishment in and of itself, there were small yet immense moments of success and joy.  Friends welcomed beautiful and healthy new babies. I watched a beautiful Zoom wedding of a young couple as they began their life together.  I have so many friends who   reached deep down and started running, continued graduate school, moved home, or left toxic relationships.  It took these losses, this isolation, the frustration of building the damn plane as it careens out of control at times, to push me to embrace my vocation as a writer again.  Wrist tendinitis be damned, I am writing this book.  I’m dreaming my dream again, that my words might reach other eyes, minds, hearts.  

2020 was full of loss.  I can’t write that year, or any year, off as a complete waste.   When I was young, I had a nervous breakdown.  At that time, I thought it was the worst year of my life. I had to build myself back up.  I built a new mindset and ultimately, a new life free of misery.  I will experience grief and pain but I learned how to be mindful, grateful, and whole. I learned to never surrender to despair.   Our world has broken down but it will rebuild itself.  When it does, there will be greater joys.  All is blessing.  There is nothing we can experience that does not make us better.

Medicine morning

“It could only be the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts…”

“…there are more things in men to admire than to despise.”  

Albert Camus, excerpts from The Plague 

When I was younger and a teacher, I was drawn to Albert Camus because I thought his writing captured the futility of life. I had gone through my own existential crisis and thought The Stranger captured the dry coolness of those thought patterns in a spare and well-crafted way.  Later, as I read more of his work and as my life experience changed my perspective, I grew to respect Camus’ ability to see and portray hope in a time of plague. I learned he had been a member of the Resistance. He was not Meursault, the young man who fell prey to ennui and narcissism. Camus, through his writing, was a healer.  

I always think of Camus after dark episodes in our history. I turn to books after tragedies or trials.  Books have been a source of solace from the time I first learned to read to my current middle age.  As we waited anxiously for the results of the 2020 election, I went back through The Plague, from cautionary passages to words that filled me with hope.  Our world, our lives, are filled with lessons yet also celebrations.  

While I pray daily, my prayers between November 3rd and the morning of the 7th were difficult. They didn’t calm my nerves.  They filled me with anxiety.  I prayed for the strength to be a good parent, a good principal, a good human. I prayed to be COVID free. I prayed that we get a new president so my partner would stop dreaming of a life in another country.  I prayed for hope and empathy to win over power and wealth. I prayed with desperation. These were not the warrior prayers of the blood moon or the prayers for the dead when my abuelita or Donte died.  These prayers felt heavy.  

A friend of mine had asked on social media early in the week what we would do if we thought election  results were favorable.  I kept my answer simple. I said I would dance a samba.  Samba, in its most authentic form, is a dance of resistance.  It is a dance created by oppressed people and  rooted in not so feathery history.  I danced to a longtime favorite, Chico Buarque’s “Vai Passar.”  This song commemorates the violent history of racial injustice in Brazil.  However, it also highlights the gift of Carnaval, an opportunity to celebrate in the streets that were once filled with rage and sorrow, how we can create something joyful from tragedy. It’s a song of resistance and resilience. It was the right song to bring light to my heart and soul that morning.  

Saturday, November 7, 2020, was a great day in the United States for many people.  People around the world joined our celebration.  But we have had terrible days and we will face terrible days again. Civilization, particularly our national brand of it,  has yet to overcome its violence,  its divisiveness, its penchant for terror and terrorism. It’s why we can’t have nice things for too long.  Behind many buildings and historical landmarks, there is the specter of the plantation and all its horrors, the ghosts of indigenous peoples robbed of their homelands and forced to relocate in barren wastelands.  For every military parade, there is the memory of bayonets going through peoples fighting for their native lands and for their lives, the curse of permanent mental scars on the people who go into combat for us and the secondary effects on their loved ones.  For every advance in science, there is the price paid by people and animals sacrificed to trials, experiments, and failures to act quickly.  

I move on, in dance, in prayer, in knowledge.  Every morning of every day, I have an opportunity to realize how much power I hold to turn the tide of terror, to combat hatred without hands or arms.  I can continue to learn and practice.  I can be the protagonist of my darkest novel or the most hopeful one.  No matter what may happen in the world, I can be a healer for myself and for others.  

The Horror Reboot We Don’t Need

Classics don’t need a remake, not even if the world is in literal flames.  Hollywood is in a bind as far making money or staying relevant during multiple pandemics(viral, environmental, societal.)  There are several horror reboots and sequels headed our way in 2021; the only one I’m excited about is Candyman because it will be a fresh look at an underrated horror movie.  I don’t want to see the 17th Child’s Play.  Having been haunted and later inspired by The Exorcist, I definitely don’t want to see a new version.  There is no need to reboot a definitive horror movie, one so impactful that many still consider it the most frightening thing ever put on film.  Good horror films offer fresh frights.  We may need familiar stories to recover from 2020; we don’t need tired ones.   

Our world has much in it to scare us.  We are living in a world that is plagued by a pandemic, climate change, political and civil unrest as many of express frustration at what is perceived as  inept, disconnected, and/or corrupt government leadership.  These are all frightening realities; filmmakers and screenwriters have opportunities to  dive deeper into social reflection and understanding.  Have we lost our ability to be reflective through our popular culture and art?  The Exorcist was released in 1973,  on the heels of Watergate, after the Woodstock era, as the hell of  the Vietnam war came to a close. While The Exorcist does not make deep social commentary, it premiered during a time of darkness, secrecy, mystery which provided a social context for evil.  As a nation, there is plenty of evil to analyze, ponder, and fear. A retread of cliched evil is weak in every sense of the word.  There’s no creativity or courage in rehashing what has already been done rather than tackle the darkness and evil we face.  

The  Exorcist set the stage for dozens of demonic possession movies; it also set up the cliches of that subgenre. No amount of CGI is going to make these new again: levitation, body contortions, projectile vomit, and the deep dark voice.  These might jump scare us but they will not make us face the unknown. Part of the appeal of The Exorcist is its examination of faith.  The three main characters, Father Karras, Father Merrin, and Chris, Regan’s mother, all grapple with their understanding of the universe at large, with their own spiritual journey, and with their faith that evil can be conquered.  These are disconcerting questions and ideas.  Special effects may add fireworks but they cannot generate reflection.  

We are underestimating our current movie audiences. My twelve year old and her friends are discussing white supremacy and young activists via TikTok. They are intelligent and deserve a film that will set the bar for horror for their generation.  Even if a horror film doesn’t want to examine the real evils of our IRL world, it can provide an opportunity not only for escape but for deep thought.  A great horror film sparks fear while inspiring conversation and contemplation.  

Eulogy for my abuelita

For mama Chelia

My Mama Chelia was my kind of woman, She was my very own Sophia Petrillo, a tough broad with no fur on her tongue, strong fists and backbone, not a crybaby at all.  She was a woman unafraid to punch a man, unafraid to guffaw from her belly, unafraid to tell you exactly what she thought. She could slaughter a hog, plow a field, herd sheep, and cook for a houseful of relatives.  Until her eyesight began to fail, she would read her Bible and several newspapers daily.  As happens with many immigrants’ children, I was only able to visit Mama Chelia every several years.  Thousands of miles separated us. She didn’t get to raise me, cook for me, care for me,watch me grow from newborn to adult.  I wish that I had one of my grandparents in my life to coddle me, spoil me, shield me from the pain.  I grieve that loss of love,culture, wisdom.  I grieve her death but I also grieve her absence.  I always loved her and I always missed her.. 

My favorite memories  of Mama Chelia were made during our family trip to Churin.  None of us had ever visited.  We wanted to experience the hot springs; we hoped they might do my mother’s back some good.  After a grueling bus trip over unpaved roads, we arrived at the bottom of a dusty gray hill.  This can’t be it, I thought, as locals swarmed the bus with waving arms and shouted offers of lodging.  Men and women offered rooms or beds in their homes. They offered meals and warm blankets.  They shouted out prices in soles and American dollars.  I pulled my bag out of the luggage compartment while my parents discussed next steps.  I looked uphill .  Wooden signs along the path indicated that the town plaza was up past where I could see.

“We’re not staying with strangers. I’ll find a hotel,”  I told my mom in Spanish.  I started walking up the hill and half dragged my wheeled suitcase over rocks, gravel, and dirt.  My mom panicked and asked my dad to intervene but I was on a mission. I looked for the best looking hotel in the town square and chatted up the front desk clerk as my family entered the building. 

“A su madre, que elegante,” Chelia said.She kept making similar exclamations as she admired the hallway and her room. She was impressed and consistently made comments on how nice everything was.  

When we visited the hot springs, we decided to enter the community bath.  Mama Chelia took to the hot water. She laughed and chatted.  When another family entered with their grandfather, Mama Chelia got quiet.  The old man seemed nervous and uncomfortable. He entered the water reluctantly. Mama Chelia responded by suddenly splashing the old man several times.

 “Mira este chibolito”  The old man cowered but everyone else laughed and laughed. 

The man ‘s daughter said “Ay, que graciosa la abuelita.”  

On the bus trip back to Huacho, my mom’s back pain got the best of her. She began to weep silently as she struggled to find a comfortable sitting position.  Mama Chelia watched her, at first with curiosity and then with exasperation.  She told my mom she was going to slap her upside the head for being a crybaby.  When that failed to get a different reaction, Mama Chelia held my mom close and rubbed her back, shoulders, and head. I have to admit  it made me tear up.  My mom didn’t grow up with Mama Chelia. She moved in with her maternal grandparents as a toddler. But I know that hug meant so much.  

One of my last memories of Mama Chelia are from the summer of 2014 when I celebrated my birthday by taking my immediate family to Peru.  How wonderful to watch Mama Chelia interact with M.  I loved seeing Mama Chelia  smile at my daughter, how she told her to take a cuy home.  She told her how to feed it alfalfa and how it could have lots of babies and my daughter could raise a whole brood. My little brown daughter smiled shyly at my little brown granny.  These beautiful brown women who are the bookends to my life.  My roots and my blossom, the origin and the continuation of a long tradition of strength and sass.  

How lucky I was to experience these memories with Mama Chelia.  She was a light, a fire, a beacon home.  Her eyes told you she was no fool. Her smile told you she was not cruel.  Rest well, Mama Chelia.  Put up your knife and broom. Put away your dishrag and pan. Here there are no husbands, no warring children.   Sit. Have some cancha, some sopa, un te.  Rest now.  Te lo mereces. 

Gate of heaven

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For Donte

Because the shelter in place has been indefinitely extended, I didn’t know what to expect for my 48th birthday. I had hoped to spend time with my immediate family and close friends but over a week of flu symptoms had changed my plans.  I didn’t know that my birthday would be a day of sadness.  

My former student Donte lost his battle with Covid-19 on my birthday.   He was 28 and I can’t help but wonder what he would have done if he had lived to be 48.  I met him when he was a freshman.  9th graders are little.  I know most teenagers don’t appreciate being perceived as children.  They are children; my 18, 19, or 20 year old seniors are kids. Donte was especially little as a 9th grader with signature brightness, innocence, openness and mercy.  I remember him crying big tears across for me in my office because he was being teased by peers.  Understandably he lashed out with choice words. We likely discussed how hard it was to be insulted and how I understood where he was coming from having endured teasing as almost all of us do. I am confident I praised his strength,  intelligence, kindness, and sense of humor.  I hope I reminded him about the importance of taking a deep breath and standing up for ourselves in a way that do not hurt us or others.  It was the kind of conversation I’ve had with so many young people over the years.  I wanted to build him up. I wanted to remind him of his value. I wanted him to leave our conversation knowing he had my support. As the years went on, Donte grew in popularity but he never changed from that loving person he had always been.  That says a lot about Donte. High school can bring out the worst in people; adolescence is a challenging time.  The need to belong can prompt anyone to be her/his worst self.  Thankfully Donte had many mentors.  There was not a staff member on that campus that did not love and look out for Donte.  He was blessed. 

 I learned of Donte’s illness on July 1st.  On July 4th my good friend alerted me to the fact that Donte had been placed on life support.  I made a phone call to Donte.  In my voicemail message, I shared  how much I had loved him then and still loved him now. I told him I wished him healing and peace. I reiterated how strong he was and how proud I was of him and how I hoped he would recover so that we could reconnect. I’m glad that I was able to tell him how much he impacted my life. 

 It’s always difficult to lose good people. I often ponder why good people suffer from illnesses. I think of my dear friend Brett and so many ancestors: Don, Charlene, Danny, David, Father Bob, Mama Luz. I think of the people who have caused suffering in many lives and how they don’t even seem to catch a cold. I often pray about this line of thinking. I know it is not merciful, forgiving or loving to feel this way. Anger is a part of grief, a part of humanity.  I’m angry we lost Donte. I’m angry that we haven’t done enough to stop this disease from taking away so many beautiful people from us. The anger fades and I am filled with sadness and love.  

Donte used to dream of running his own restaurant.  It would serve international cuisine and would be called Donte’s Inferno. The front entrance would bear a sign quoting Dante Aligheri, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”  We laughed about that many times.  I am sure Donte is at the front of the house. Those who enter will be filled with hope, the way Donte was and is.