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Lucky #7

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

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.  

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. 

Confessions from Level 8

 

FB_IMG_1593886415249The rona had me in her sights.  Like many, I haven’t always made the most conservative decisions for my health lately. I attended church services twice in the past three weeks. I got my hair cut and colored. The loved ones in my social bubble haven’t all been social distancing; one regularly attends family gatherings.  I’m not as cautious as I was a few months ago and have gotten lax with sanitizing surfaces and not singing entire song verses when washing my hands. After my experience this past week, I know I need to do better.    

I first began experiencing symptoms a week ago. Beginning last Sunday, I noticed joint and muscle stiffness, a mild sore throat and low energy. This past Wednesday, my sore throat had intensified and I developed a headache. My temperature hovered around 99.6 most of the day. In adults, that temperature is not considered a fever; it became normal by bedtime.The following day the muscle aches and sore throat had worsened and my digestive system took a turn for the worst. I wasn’t able to keep down any food.  Friday morning I felt better so I did work out at home. My breathing wasn’t labored so I felt encouraged that I was recovering.  Saturday I had wanted to go for a run because I haven’t done so in a few weeks but my joints and muscles were still sore and stiff.  I took my usual Zumba class.  My breathing was fine though my energy was low. That night after our daily walk I felt exhausted and I felt that my chest congestion had worsened. Sunday morning I woke up congested and feeling chest pressure so I called the advice nurse. I was set up for a video call. After we discussed my symptoms, the doctor recommended I get tested for Covid-19. He said my healthcare provider has experienced a shortage of tests and that many were having to wait until the end of the week to be tested.  However because I was experiencing symptoms for several days, he felt that my need to test was urgent. He said he would speak to the supervising doctor about expediting my test. I was called within 20 minutes and given an appointment for 11:40 in the morning. After prayer, meditation and some tears, I headed to my test site.  

I drove into the parking garage where I was directed to park my car until it was my turn for testing. I was then directed to pull into a parking slot where I was finally allowed to lower my window. The nurse described the test process.  It would be both a nasal and oral test with a swab.  Both tonsils and both nostrils would be swabbed. I was told that it would be uncomfortable but that it would be brief.  I was then asked to remove my mask for the oral exam. I was asked to sing ahhh for ten very long seconds. I gagged but it was more uncomfortable than painful. Then we moved on to swabbing the right tonsil. I was directed to place my mask back on while the next test was prepared. I was directed to only lower my mask so my nose was visible. I remembered what a friend had told me about keeping absolutely still during the nasal swab so I tried to not move. As with the oral swab the nurse counted out 10 seconds while swabbing each nostril. I tried not to visualize where the swab was going. I thought of calming images though I wanted to flinch. Then it was over. I was asked to adjust my mask. The nurse told me that negative results would be sent via email and positive results would be communicated through a phone call. She told me to take care of myself. I thanked her and drove out of the parking structure. 

At home I moved into self-isolation. Because I have been taking a class which was due to end Tuesday, I decided to move into our home office. I brought in a sleeping bag and pillow and blanket and sufficient water. I spent the majority of the day completing my class and watching YouTube videos featuring my favorite Pose actors. Earlier that morning I had asked the doctor about exercise. He had said he had no objection so long as I was mindful about not being contagious to others.  I went on my evening walk by myself and wore a mask as usual. As I’ve been doing for many days, I applied Vicks Vapor Rub before going to bed. 

Today I woke up and felt that my chest congestion had dramatically improved. I also saw that I had received an email from my healthcare provider. I knew the news was good.  I am negative for Covid-19. The doctor sent a follow-up email recommending that I continue to self isolate until my symptoms improve and to monitor my health. 

This experience terrified me. While most of my symptoms have subsided, I am still experiencing joint and muscle pain. I’m grateful I don’t have Covid-19 but I am still susceptible to catching a virus. We all are. This is not a hoax. My brother lost a good friend. I have friends who have lost relatives and friends. One of my former students is on life support. We can’t lose sight of what’s most important.  Without our health, we can’t make beautiful memories with those we love. That’s what I most feared, being separated from my daughter and my husband. My eyebrows can wait.  I can attend Mass from the comfort of my desktop.  I can only hope that more of us realize how important it is that we protect ourselves and one another. 

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The plague of flies

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“To be a leader, don’t get led on or led in the wrong direction” Rakim

“I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses…” Exodus 8 

Speaking truth to power is an important quality and sign of leadership. We view people who are willing to criticize the status quo or the powers that be as brave, frank, and possibly heroic. Are we as open to honest critics within our institutions, organizations, and groups?   Do we accept constructive criticism or negative feedback ? Do we allow people to speak their truth without permanently shutting the door on them? I would argue that the outspoken are great as ideal heroes but often ostracized as real people.  

During a weekly principals’ meeting, I learned that one of my colleagues, also a new mentor, had made the decision to take a job elsewhere. This person was given an opportunity to address the group.  What the person offered was not a simple farewell.  Though some of the opinions and observations shared were not new to me, they had not been shared in a formal setting with our supervisors.  This person has been openly critical of decisions and actions in the past. However, for the first and last time, this individual  owned the feelings and experiences of having been that voice which led to having not been heard. That broke this person’s resolve and commitment.  It was shocking, saddening, maddening, frustrating and demoralizing.  Though our line of work calls for leadership skills and tendencies, my colleague’s experience became that of being ignored and dismissed.

No one wants to listen or hear that voice in the wilderness.  We want it in theory.  We want it on the grand scale on global issues.  Because this individual chose to be a leader by being vocal about inconsistencies observed,  that experience ultimately ended a sense of belonging.  If one of the toughest people I know gave up, where does that leave me? Do I want to belong to an organization that is not willing to make difficult growth?  How long will I remain silent  and shrug off those things that don’t sit well with me?  Isn’t being a leader about giving voice to effect change? 

 After I received this news I found it very difficult to focus on work.  It was too close to me. I have sought  leadership opportunities outside of work specifically parent-teacher groups and dance organizations.  I know what it’s like to be critical and have that ruin the rest of my experience because I chose to be honest about my concerns. Mission statements, codes of conduct and growth mindset are great concepts that have little meaning if disagreement or controversy lead to dissension.  To make matters worse, speaking out can affect how others perceive you; I have been labeled difficult or disloyal even if my intention was to seek improvement.    

I am generally a passive person.  I don’t like conflict or confrontation.  At work, I usually lead through facilitation or building consensus.  I generally go with the flow.   I don’t go out of my way to seek to stir up controversy or to upset people. I take pride in being a calm, quiet leader.  I do admit that one area of development for me is to be more courageous in my conversations.  However, when I get shut down or even shunned because I did speak to my frustrations, questions or doubts,  then I no longer feel empowered or engaged.  I disconnect.  I dismiss. I turn into stone, a stone sinking still waters where the bitterness of loss runs deep.   I understand my colleague’s decision.  I’ve made it myself.  In the meantime,  I think of that old wisdom saying, en boca cerrada, no entran las moscas.   Shoo, fly, don’t bother me.