Writing as Healing

I saw him during his last summer alive. He wasn’t the same anymore. He had aged ten years from the last time I saw him, two years before and he could hardly speak because his stroke had paralyzed part of his face. Before I got on the plane back to the States I thought about taking a picture with him but his stroke had also paralyzed his smile, his happiness.  He seemed so sad while I was there and I selfishly didn’t want that memory captured in a photo. I just hugged him goodbye. He sobbed and I did too because we both knew this would probably be the last time we hugged each other.

On my way to the airport, I nearly asked the cab driver to turn around. “I need a picture with my grandfather,” I kept telling myself but I was also afraid that he would just tell me “no.” I stayed quiet. An hour and a half later I was on an airplane and there was no turning back.

My grandfather died a few months after the last time I saw him. I thought about that fact that I did not have a picture with him from my last trip to Ecuador. I texted my cousins on our group text trying to find comfort in the fact that I was so far away from all of them. I kept thinking that I should have made the cab driver turn around so I could hug him one last time, give him a kiss on his forehead and get a picture with him. But I couldn’t. All I had from the last of our interactions was purely tucked away in my memory.

Memories can be painful but for me, memory has also been healing and transformative. When I was separated from my family at five years old, my memory is all I had. There were some pictures and some phone calls but none of that did the job of preserving my relationship with the family I had spent nearly every day with. For thirteen years before I finally saw them again, I depended on my memory to hang on to the trust and love that I had for my family even though I hardly knew them anymore. When we reunited, I knew very little about them or how they spent their days, but the love and the trust was still there and it was stronger than I remembered.

When my grandfather died, one of the first things I did was dig through my creative writing folders from college to find a memoir I had written about my childhood in Ecuador. There were two paragraphs dedicated solely to him. I sat at the end of my dining room table alone while I read and cried what I had captured about him through my writing. I read what I wrote with no judgment about my grammar or the way I had expressed myself. I just read what I wrote feeling grateful that I had these paragraphs to go back to as I mourned him and remembered him. I typed up each word from my memoir into a new document on my computer and posted it on the very website you’re reading from today. It was the first time in about five years that I shared something I wrote. Not just something I wrote, but a piece of writing that I spent time rereading and getting feedback on from others. It was something I crafted.

Over the past year, I have crafted more pieces of writing than I have in years. There are pieces of writing that I haven’t shared on my website and others that I have. Making time to write again has been empowering and comforting.  After obsessing over not having a final photograph of my grandfather, I found comfort in words I had written about him from my youth. Today, I find comfort in knowing that I have the power of capturing a moment, a person or an experience even when there is no camera or the time is not right for a flash.

Cheers to all the writers who experience healing through writing. I share this again in memory of my grandfather: Excerpts from “When I Had Shoes”

 

Change Can Become Home

It wasn’t long before I moved to New York City that I fell in love with it. I was five years old and I got butterflies at the sight of the skyline at night. Papi would proudly point at it, smile really wide and say “That’s your city! The best city in the world!” My eyes twinkled like the hundreds of tiny lit windows that covered the twin towers. The city sky was starless but the city was still bright. New York City will forever be my home.

Today, I have two homes. I never thought I would say that about Colorado.

I moved to Denver without ever visiting.  I flew into Denver at night and when I saw the Denver skyline, I flickered my eyelids in disbelief. My head tilted. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s the city? Those 6 little buildings?” The answer to all of these questions was yes.

I was on the corner of 13thand Sherman Street walking to Kindness yoga for a class when I stopped to feel my emotions. Denver did not feel like home yet. I questioned why I came here. I stood there and looked around at my unfamiliar surroundings. There was a cold breeze but the heat from the sun made it feel like I could take the box of summer clothes I had put away back into my drawers. There is nothing more powerful than the sun here, not even Colorado’s winter snow. Here, I still feel warmth on the coldest days.

Behind the historic buildings in Capitol Hill and the brand new apartment buildings downtown, the Rocky Mountains sit as Denver’s backdrop. The mountains stare right at me on my way to run an errand, on my way to work, on my way to somewhere I don’t want to be. They remind me that they are there and are not going anywhere.

One of the best decisions I have ever made was choosing to live somewhere outside of New York City. When I decided to leave, there were a lot of people who said things to me like “okay, see you in a year.” People really thought I would come back fairly quickly. When I got here, I was unimpressed the first time I saw the city. I thought I would leave soon too. In the daylight, I began to explore and would find gems within the city I could connect to. I felt the sun almost everyday. I stepped on the mountains I could see from city streets. I camped, sat around fires and stared up at more stars I have ever seen in my life.

I ended up living just blocks away from 13thavenue and Sherman Street. Walking toward that corner today, I feel at home. The yoga studio that I remember searching for has become my go-to. The restaurant below the studio has become the place I take most of my loved ones the moment they land on a visit. When I walked around there almost six years ago, I thought people knew I wasn’t from there. I felt conspicuous and out of place.  That vicinity today represents growth and transformation. It brings me comfort to know that change always begins to feel better, so much so, that change can begin to feel like home.

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New Year, New Way of Goal-Seting

When I was a little girl, my dad would give me a pen and paper and we would sit down in our living room to write down my new year resolutions. One resolution I made every year was that I would stop being so chatty in class because well, I LOVED to talk. I talked so much that after every parent teacher conference my dad would tell me that my teachers loved me “BUT,” he would mimic, “she cannot stop talking.” After winter break, I was ready to be the quietest child in the room. I tried so hard and replaced my chatting with wide eyes and deep breaths because I REALLY wanted to talk. And then one or two days later, there I was interrupting my teacher and talking to my classroom bestie again feeling like I could breathe again.

A couple of months later my dad would come home from parent teacher conferences and we were having the same conversation we’ve had since kindergarten. “Pamela, you’re doing great in school but you have to stop distracting other kids in class.” “Okay, papi. I’m sorry. I’ll try my best.” I tried my best but over and over again but I just couldn’t stop talking.

Each year, I revisit this ritual of creating resolutions for the new year for myself. Throughout the years, my approach has changed and in the last year I have a new way of approaching New Year resolutions.

At the beginning of each school year, I’ve asked my students to engage in creating resolutions for the new year. Usually the prompt asks them to state something they would like to learn this year, something they want to learn or get better at and finally, one academic goal. Most years, I’ve had them set these goals, write them down and we have displayed them outside on the bulletin board for everybody to see. I could not tell you what my students accomplished with their New Year resolutions because once they’re set and hung up on the wall for people to see, I have not always revisited their goals with them.

That brings me to one of the most common patterns I’ve experienced with New Year resolution. We set them and most of the time, we just forget them. In light of this pattern, memes like the following have appeared…

 

To be honest, they crack me up. Like, I’ve read these on my phone and have laughed so hard that I slap my knee and the knee of whoever is next to me. Yes, I hit others when I laugh. It’s a problem.

I don’t want people to be discouraged because as funny as these memes are, I don’t believe in them. I believe in setting goals for ourselves and I believe that the new year is a perfect time to rejuvenate, reenergize and reflect. You won’t be a new you but I do think you can be a better you. For a lot of us, the holidays means spending time with loved ones that energize us and make us feel our best. It’s a time where some of us indulge in food, experiences and travel that we don’t always get to enjoy so why not also use this time to set some goals for ourselves?

At the beginning of 2018, I tried something I little different. I still wrote a general list of what I wanted to accomplish for the year but I had one overarching goal. My main goal was to practice discipline and monthly goal-setting and reflection. At the end of each month, I sat down and reflected on what I accomplished and set goals for the next month of what I wanted to accomplish and continue in the new month. Before I moved out of my apartment, I had a visual of the goals I accomplished each month.

My goal was to develop and grow as a person. My goal was to make sure that I was investing in my goals so much that they became habit and a part of me. Since the beginning of last year, I always have a book I’m reading although this upcoming year, I want to be better about prioritizing reading. This year, I am so much better at sitting down to write and putting what I write out there. The goal is to create a continuous year of growth and reflection. I hope the guide helps!

Guide to Setting New Year Resolution and actually sticking to it.

  1. At the beginning of 2019 create a general list of everything you would like to accomplish this year(hobbies you want to continue, health and fitness goals, professional and personal development goals, traveling goals, writing goals, new things you would like to try)
  2. The next day, sit down and set goals for the month of January that you can focus on and prioritize. I would usually set 3 goals for the month. If you would like, set a SMART goal. Use my friend’s Nia’s blog post on setting SMART goals to do this (SMART Goals) This is extremely helpful because it helped me get invested each month.

Ex) My priority this month will be reading, exercising and skiing. I am going to read two books by the end of the month. I am going to schedule and attend at least 3 work outs for each week of January. I am going to go skiing at least two times this month and continue practicing!

  1. At the end of the month, sit down and reflect on what you accomplished. Display it somewhere if you like visuals. Ask yourself: What did I accomplish this month? You can stick to your priority goals but you can also add something you were grateful for like an unexpected trip somewhere or visit. If you did not reach your goal, you can adjust for the new month or write down why it was difficult to reach.
  2. Create 1-2 new priority goals for the next month.Your priority can stay the same as the last if you are not feeling like its complete habit yet.

Ex) I’m going to continue to read at least one book a month. I will continue working out three times a week. I will continue skiing at least twice a week. This month, I am going to practice cooking new healthy recipes.

  1. Continue going through these steps each month.

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Checking Your Privilege is Not a Bad Thing

I was ten when I reached my life’s peak (I’m kind of kidding but I’m also kind of not kidding). I stood on stage for so long at my elementary school graduation that my feet started to hurt. My time on stage began with my valedictorian speech and ended with Papi meeting me at the side steps of the stage because I couldn’t carry all of my trophies and certificates all by myself. Talk about Adelle at the 54thAnnual Grammy Awards.

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When I say “killin,” you say “it.” KILLIN.

IT

KILLIN.

IT.

I remember preparing for my speech. I sat at the one massive Windows computer we had in our classroom during a lunch or some special period that I was allowed to miss to work on my speech. It took me a couple of days to type the speech I had originally drafted with pencil and paper. I typed with my two pointer fingers, you know, like a little girl from 2000 who couldn’t even imagine what technology would look like eighteen years later. I tried my best to focus on typing while two or three of my teachers hovered over me saying things like “wow, otra nena Latina y bilingue getting valedictorian.” They were so proud of me because out of all of the fifth graders in my elementary school, I scored the highest scores on the New York statewide exams and a perfect score on Language Arts. I was proud of myself too because five years before I didn’t speak a word of English and now I was sitting at a computer typing a speech that I was going to recite in front of my entire graduating class, my teachers, principal and their families.

In a historically underserved Brooklyn neighborhood, my school did not have the adequate resources to serve all of their children. What I remember most though were the teachers who worked every day to ensure that we all stood tall and proud no matter where we came from. My teachers taught me to be proud of my culture, my language and myself. With this pride, I graduated high school and college even though the road to both of those places wasn’t always easy. I was taught to see beauty in a neighborhood where parents didn’t believe in letting their children have sleepovers at a friend’s house or riding their bikes around the block. “It wasn’t worth taking that chance” is how my father replies when we laugh about how I would rollerblade three feet away from him on our block and he would already be saying “ya pamela, regresa.” My neighborhood was alive with music, talent, potential, rich conversation and fun but also drugs, violence and poverty.

I learned the word “determined” in my first-grade classroom. We had five new vocabulary words on our vocabulary chart and my vision tunneled in on that one word. I remember thinking that’s what I wanted to always be. For a really long time I thought my determination alone got me to becoming the valedictorian in fifth grade and later on in life, I thought my determination alone got me to my first day of college. I did not understand why so many of my friends were not in college with me. I believed they had not been determined enough. I believed they didn’t try hard enough. But then, my first year of college, I learned the word “privilege.”

When I began to critically analyze society and myself, I learned that many different factors impacted my life and people’s perception of me. I began to understand the privilege behind my light skin and something as simple as my experience with daily family dinners. I began to understand that my determination in isolation was not why I was able to pursue higher education and social/financial mobility unlike many of the people in my childhood neighborhood.

The more I learned about my privilege, the more I wanted to use it to ensure that communities like my own were set up to excel rather than fail. Understanding my privilege gave me a lens that prevented me from judging the people around me and understand the opportunities that I have had that others didn’t. It helped me understand that the challenges so many of my peers faced had little to do with their willingness and everything to do with narrow minded perceptions society had of them.

The more I learned about privilege in academic spaces, the more I also came across people who did not have the same response as me. This has been especially true when speaking about “white privilege,” a concept which clearly states that being white is an advantage. I recently came across an article titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.” In this article, Tal Fortgang writes his critiques on the concept of asking people to “check their privilege” and takes the time to analyze his ancestry. He writes about his Jewish ancestry that included fleeing Nazis, extreme health conditions in concentration camps and sacrifices his father made to work and get to where he is today. Throughout the articles Fortgang recognizes the privilege that was passed down to him but also urges people the following:

“But far more important for me than his attributes was the legacy he sought to pass along, which forms the basis of what detractors call my “privilege,” but which actually should be praised as one of altruism and self-sacrifice. Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendants by caring for the planet, it’s called “environmentalism,” and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it’s called “privilege.” (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we’re called Tea Party radicals.) Such sacrifice of any form shouldn’t be scorned, but admired.”

Time and time again, I have come across people like Fortgang. People who believe that checking their privilege is erasing their history and the struggles that existed before their success. People who do not recognize that different people face different opportunities. I worry that people will stop checking their privilege because of interpretations like Fortgang’s which are more common than not. I worry that people will stop listening at the sound of the word “privilege” because they feel offended. I worry that people will begin defending their story before truly understanding it.

Being privileged is having an advantage. Some of us are made up of more advantages than others. Being privileged does not erase determination or drive although it does elevate your efforts. Privilege also does not erase your story. My experience with white privilege does not erase my determination. It does not erase my Latinidad and the experiences that come with that.  It does not erase the sacrifices my grandmother made when she left her country. It does not erase the sacrifices my father made when he did the same and then again with me, a five-year old daughter that hardly knew him. It does not erase my struggles with trauma and immigration or learning a new language. It does not erase my bad-ass fifth grade graduation experience. What recognizing my privilege has done is made me a better person. It has allowed me to better understand the opportunities I’ve had that have brought me to where I am and where I am not today. In this new year, as you continue to figure out how to be better, start with checking you privilege. The right way.

An example of how not to respond when somebody asks you to check your privilege.

http://time.com/85933/why-ill-never-apologize-for-my-white-male-privilege/

An example of somebody who gets it.

http://time.com/89482/dear-privileged-at-princeton-you-are-privileged-and-meritocracy-is-a-myth/

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A Home Within Me

“As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The home within myself is as safe as my childhood bedroom, as sacred as my grandmother’s voice and as firm as my block on Herkimer Street.

The dim light from my desk lamp and the lavender scent arising from my newest candle transformed my bedroom into a sanctuary. My body was in a natural chair pose with relaxed shoulders and mindful breathing. There was no yoga teacher coaching me into a deep state of relaxation but it didn’t matter; I was relaxed when I sat down to complete one of my first therapy “assignments.” My journal was just a few pages old and the last entry was written more than five months prior to this moment. I had a pattern of bombarding the pages of a marble notebook after a break-up and then hiding it in a place where I only picked it up again to read the entries that reassured me of how far I have come in my healing. This time I picked up my journal and it was different. I wasn’t going through a break up. I was simply sitting down to write a journal entry in response to a very simple question: “What activities do you enjoy doing? What makes you who you are?” I knew what I liked to do but I realized as I sat down to write that I loved to write but had not done it for months. I loved to do yoga but I had not consistently invested in an exercise routine. I loved to dance but I only danced when I was  drunk.

Answering that simple question (What do you enjoy doing and what makes you who you are?) was a vital step in finding a home within myself and becoming the best and most beautiful version of me. This is a forever work in progress. This simple question and the answers I wrote down in my journal set me up to rediscover my strengths, my passions and myself at a time where I hardly recognized myself. I had lost myself. In my case, I completely lost myself in my career as a teacher.  I was living my life with the goal of surviving rather than thriving. I was getting through the day as best as I could without mindfulness and intentionality. I was unbalanced, often not giving myself or my loved ones quality time because I was too busy working and feeling stressed.

For some it’s stepping into parenthood for the first time, a new relationship, a new job or responsibility that causes them to disconnect from themselves. I have had friends who are new parents tell me that they no longer feel like themselves. I have watched some friends disengage from friendships or activities they once loved after falling in love. I have also seen people in my life commit wholeheartedly to their jobs to the point where they are spending Saturdays and Sundays working rather than going to the work out class they once wouldn’t miss.

I am not judging anybody for this because obviously parents love their babies and babies are demanding. People love their significant others and balancing relationship, friendships, work and life isn’t easy. And finally, jobs are competitive and it’s so incredibly important want to do an exceptional job. My goal is not to judge you. It’s actually to say…I get you. We all have different lived experiences. For some of us reengaging in activities we love demands time or money and that is not an easily fixable thing. What I do know is that rediscovering what makes us who we are and continuing to explore ourselves takes practice and practice doesn’t happen without trying or entertaining it. You don’t need money to sit down and think about it and reflect on it and I believe that you have the power to prioritize ten minutes for yourself to think about it.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are saying to yourself any of the following statements, I want you to stop and give yourself ten minutes to think about it, reflect on it, maybe write about it and then decided if it’s something you want to change.

  • I don’t even recognize myself anymore
  • I don’t know who I am
  • I don’t even remember the last time I (insert that activity you love)
  • I don’t even remember the last time I saw (insert that person you love)

Like Thich Naht Hanh expressed in his book “How to Love,” building a home within ourselves is what makes us the most beautiful- and I don’t mean physically.  In a society that demands so much of us, being in touch with ourselves needs to be intentional and mindful. I believe that taking a moment to reflect on what you makes you who are is the first step in reconnecting with yourself and building the most sacred home within you…the kind of home that stands tall despite the huff and the puff of your live’s version of the big bad wolf.