Staircase to Sisterhood

Fall 1995

My hands were sweating and I felt the urge to bite my nails again when I exited the apartment door into the unfamiliar hallway and started walking down the stairs to the apartment below. My father guided me down the stairs even though I didn’t need him to. The stairs in my new Brooklyn apartment were manageable. They weren’t concrete or as tall as me, like the ones in Ecuador. Why is he guiding me when I’ve walked down bigger stairs? Stairs that once left me unconscious and bleeding from my head. Stairs that caused the scar at the center of my forehead. These stairs won’t kill me but my heart beating out of my little chest might.

I didn’t know my father that well yet but I started realizing that he was the kind of person that could walk into a room and cause joy and hope on a dreary day. The sight of him made people shout happily and smile wide. When we walked through the door to the apartment downstairs, it was like the party had arrived with the night sky. The party being my father.

“Marquito!” said a woman in the room. She was a force, the grandmother. Older with a youthful smile and a youthful heart. Another party, like my father.

An older man stood behind the kitchen counter with the kindest smile I’d seen since my own abuelo in Ecuador. The force’s husband.

A little girl about my size wore a bata and hid nervously behind her beautiful mother. The little girl was slim with hair already down to her waist.

Her tiny sister stood beside them with a head covered in curls and a brave look on her face. I say brave because I was peeking from behind papi’s back and staring into what felt like a mirror across the room to the girl in the bata peeking from behind her mother.

“This is Betsy. You’re going to be staying with her and her girls after school some days,” my Papi explained.

I peeked my head out from behind him just enough for him to hear me whisper, “Pepsi?”

Laughter erupts.

“No. Betsy,” Papi said.

In Ecuador the apartment downstairs belonged to my Tio Jaime and my cousins who I wouldn’t see again until I was 18. I didn’t know it would take that long. Nobody knew how long it would take me to correctly pronounce Betsy’s name either despite her attempts to practice English with me every time she took care of me. It took me a while to call her by her actual name but not too long before I felt like the people downstairs were just like my family in Ecuador. Warm, giving and present.

They spoke Spanish just like me even though it sounded different. I even picked up some their dialect and spoke to my grandmother upstairs using words she did not always understand.

Guagua. Embuste. Avanza. Bendito.

Thanksgiving 2016:

There is music, dancing and the aroma of Puerto Rican and Dominican seasoning on an American ass turkey. Crystal and Zandaly and I are swaying and dancing in their aunt’s kitchen to 90s hits, each with a glass of red wine in our hand. Crystal has been holding on to the same glass most of the night and Zandaly and I are probably on like our fifth.

Betsy turns to papi with a huge smile on her face and says “Quien iva a saber que estas nenas se ivan a querer tanto?”

Papi looks at us and says, “That was the best decision I ever made.”

We look at our parents like they’re being madd sentimental and shit. We don’t say anything and keep dancing. But, we know it’s true.

When my dad walked me down those unfamiliar Brooklyn stairs, I had no idea he was leading me to a lifelong sisterhood, to the women who would call me out on my worst and celebrate me at my best. Sisterhood Pics

Brooklyn, New York

sisterhood 2

Long Island, New York

Note:

I love memoirs. Reading and writing them. What I’ve written here is not all accurate or fact-checked. It is based off my memories as a child. Some details are exactly as I remember them while others are probably just results of my imagination. They are memories blended between different events in my life. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this and are inspired to dig into a memory that has shaped who you are, a memory you love.  

 

Dear Teacher, Take Care of Yourself

This is a letter for the teacher who has been playing teacher since their youth and dreaming of their own classroom one day. The teacher who thrives on the smell of freshly-sharpened pencils and feels giddy creating a supply list for their incoming students. If you are already planning and preparing for the warm and welcoming classroom you’ve been dreaming of for your students, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and focus on creating something that will benefit you and your students more than you can imagine- a thorough and thoughtful self-care plan for the academic year.

Being a teacher has brought some of the happiest moments in my life. There is really nothing like leading seven-year olds in discussions about history and current events or sharing the joy with a student that their reading has improved. One of my favorite moments in teaching was when my students had turned all of the sentences in her paragraph into similes because I had just taught that lesson earlier that day. To watch children take charge of their learning and apply what you’ve taught is powerful and I am so grateful that I was able to teach for the time that I did.

Aside from bringing me endless amounts of joy and laughter, being a teacher has also resulted in a lot of sadness, stress and anxiety for me. Throughout my work as a teacher, I have found it to be an extremely abusive job. The expectations that are put on us, the tasks we are asked to complete and the behaviors we are asked to manage in our classrooms are alarming. I would prefer for the system itself to change- shorter days for students, more planning time, a fair teacher to student ratio, mental health resources for students, smaller classrooms, teaching resources and of course, more funding for resources and qualified teachers. The list of ways we can better our outdated education system is endless but after five years of being in the classroom, I’ve seen very little change. What has stayed consistent in the education system is the amount of work teachers put in every single day to assure that our students succeed.

As a teacher who grew up in a high-need community and has worked in high-need communities, I understand the urgency of prioritizing our students. I understand that we need quality and committed teachers in our classroom. I am in no way trying to discourage teachers from being teachers or asking teachers to do less. I am asking you to make thoughtful choices and take care of yourself so that you could be there for your students, because you do make a difference in their lives. It is also a cry for undoing a system that will eventually abuse the very students you’ve served.

As you enter the 2018-2019 school year, I urge you to be a part of something big. I urge you to end the cycle of overworking yourself. I urge you to prioritize finding a balance between taking care of yourself and taking care of your students. I want you to challenge your leaders and your colleagues when they tell you to “put students first” because while our students are in need and extremely important, asking us to put them before ourselves is a form of abuse. Creating a self-care plan and sticking to it might not seem like a big deal but I assure you this – it will be extremely difficult in a system that expects you to put your students before anything, including yourself.

In addition to personal realizations, the “students first” mentality is essentially what drove me out of the classroom and made me lose my love for teaching. After five years, June 1st was my last day as a classroom teacher. The reason I am writing this is because deciding to no longer be a teacher was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I am an immigrant, Latina, native-Spanish speaker who grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York. I believe in the power of education because it changed my entire life and existence in this country. I so badly wanted to give that to my students. The connection I had with many of my students was so real that I truly believe it impacted their learning for the better. Throughout my career, I’ve watched excellent teachers get driven out of the profession and for a long time, I had no idea I would be next in line. The saddest part of this, has been watching teachers that reflect the population they teach and have been proven to create more of an impact leave the classroom because the work isn’t sustainable. Creating a self-care plan and modeling self-care for other teachers in the education system, might seem like band-aid over a bigger issue but the goal of this is to help you bring your whole-self to work while still honoring your needs.  I hope it helps and I hope it helps keep you happy and effective in the classroom.

So- how do I take care of myself and also give my students the quality education they deserve and need? The first step in creating a self-care plan is to remember two things.

  1. You are a human being who teaches. Sticking to a self-care plan will not work if you don’t remember one thing- YOU ARE HUMAN. Teachers are asked to complete an overwhelming amount of work. In order to take care of yourself, you need to remember that before a teacher, you are a human. You are a human who teaches. You are a human with an actual body and physiology that needs attention and nurturing. You love teaching and you love your students but you must meet your human needs in order to be the best first version of yourself for your students and for yourself.
  2. Be transparent with your team about your boundaries around work and self-care. Working hours outside of your work schedule is somewhat of an expectation in a school. In my opinion, it really shouldn’t be. Setting clear expectations and boundaries with your team about when you can have meetings and plan together sets you and them up for success. Before the academic year starts, sit down with your team and set norms around how you operate during the school year. Self-care does not mean being selfish Honor your work and honor your team by communicating your needs and being transparent with them. They are also working extremely hard and you don’t want to put the entire work load on them.
  3. Remember that you are doing this for you and your students. For a long time I confused taking care of myself as choosing myself over my students.  I shamed myself and made up stories in my head about what my colleagues thought of me and what leaders thought of me. As I reflect about my teaching career, I wish somebody would have told me to create a thoughtful self-care plan. I wish that I would have figured that out on my own before I lost my love for teaching. I know the happiest I felt in my career was when I felt a balance between taking care of myself and being a great teacher.

Now… the fun part! Create a loving mindset for yourself in a comfortable environment and start writing down how you want to take care of yourself this academic year. You can use the SMART goal format or other goal-setting formats to invest yourself in the what and why. Below I list some things to consider when creating your self-care plan and also, some things I practiced during times where I felt like my best self and my best as a teacher. 

  1. Consider your basic human needs when creating your self-care plan- healthy eating, sleeping well, exercise and water. I don’t want to come off as condescending. Obviously, you know what your basic needs. I am only telling you because of my own experience in the classroom. There were days where I actually forgot to drink water. By this last year, I made it a student job. One of my wonderful students would literally just fill up my water bottle when it was empty and it was so freaking great. Maybe you want to write down the types of energizing snacks you will keep in your classroom. Do you need a refrigerator and microwave in there? Is it time to go to Target and get yourself a really cool water bottle? How many hours of sleep do you need to feel you most successful? How many times a week do you want to exercise and why?  Where do you want to exercise? Get clear on these basic needs and how you will be sure to do them!
  1. Make an emergency plan for your tough days in the classroom. There will be difficult days in the classroom. Try to think and write down a list of people you can count on after a tough day to cheer you up. Write a list of activities that energize you. One of mine was leaving the building and taking a walk.   
  1. Make multiple emergency sub plans. At the beginning of the year, teachers are often asked to create emergency sub folders. The first two years, this was the last thing on my list but I actually think it’s one of the most important parts of getting ready for the school year. Take a day to create multiple sub folders and resources. There will be days when you will be dealing with personal situations that require a day of dealing with and recharging for work. There were so many days I brought part of myself to work instead of my whole self only because I didn’t have sub plans. So, seriously get on that! It would be great if you never need them but the likelihood is that you will at least once during the school year!
  1. Honor your weekends: You might not mind working on the weekends but my suggestion is don’t. If that truly feels impossible, leave the more mindless tasks for the weekend, like entering grades- something you can do while watching TV or listening to music.
  1. Honor the people around you- the people that love you deserve to spend time with you and you deserve to spend time with them.Make plans with your friends and family and stick to them. People will be kind to you and understanding because you’re helping mold the future of America but that doesn’t mean you should just ditch the people who love you.
  1. Use your planning time wisely- the best thing you can do during your planning time is plan and meet with your team.
  1. Make goals around how often you want to stay late or go in early. There are endless amounts of tasks to complete before and after school. You must set boundaries! I would only stay after school for parent meetings or emergency/urgent meetings.
  1. Explore and get clear on when you are the most productive. I am so productive in the morning. So, if I had multiple tasks to get done, I would go in early to get them done. When I realized that I was practically useless after school, I stopped making plans to plan after school.
  1. Go to therapy: Even if it’s once a month, I think therapy is a necessity for teachers. Denver Public schools offers 5 free therapy sessions through the Employee Assistance Program.Therapy will help you manage any stress anxiety that you might experience as a teacher.
  1. If you are a first year teacher- don’t spend your first year figuring out how to get all of your work done for school. Spend your first year trying to find the balance between taking care of yourself and being a professional. More often than not, first-year teachers are not fully effective their first year. I don’t think the question we should ask is “How can I become a more effective teacher for my students?” I think it needs to be “Teaching is an extremely demanding job. My students deserve the best. How can I ensure that I am being an effective teacher while still taking care of my needs?” When we are only asking ourselves how to be effective teachers, it is easy to lose sight of ourselves as humans since the list of things teachers need to do is extreme. Rely on the experienced teachers in your building and use the resources they’ve created especially if they offer them to you. This will give you more room to complete the tasks you need to complete, build relationships with students and solidify your classroom culture.
  1. Stick to your self-care plan. This is the hard part. I’ve worked in two schools. One where the work truly felt overwhelming. It had a lot to do with the role I played and the fact that I didn’t really have a team to work with. At my latest school, my team was so experienced and established, that when I walked in my first year there, I was truly set up for success. I used and tweaked the unit plans they had already planned and it gave me the opportunity to improve my craft. I can see how sticking to your self-care plan might be easier in one school than it is another. At the same time, I do not think this system will ever change if we just keep overworking ourselves and not challenging the expectations that keep us from being able to balance work and life. It should not feel so impossible and in a system that doesn’t seem to be changing, we need to be very clear about what we will do.

 

Five years ago, I was really excited to walk into my second-grade classroom for the very first time as Ms. Vivanco. Butterflies wandered my stomach and I could not contain the anxiety and excitement that intertwined within me. I wanted my students to take me seriously so I tried my best to avoid smiling too much but when my first class looked up at me from their small square carpet spots, I didn’t understand how I was supposed to not smile at their angelic faces. Their eyes literally twinkled on their first day of school. I had just stepped into the most challenging experience I’ve ever had but I had all of the energy in the world for it.

Until I didn’t

By the end of my second and third year of teaching I became violently sick. The first year, I had a really awful stomach flu and the second year I got mono. And no, I didn’t get mono because I was going around kissing errbody at the club. I worked 8-12 hours a day and then somehow I would try and make it to a 7pm yoga class and then I would cook something, get things done on my computer, go to sleep and wake up and do it all over again. I was so stressed out physically and mentally that I became physically sick and unable to be there for my students. I hardly had an evening to just do whatever I wanted. I truly believe that if you can spend even a portion of your time before and during the school year, being thoughtful and thorough abut your self-care, it will make a world of a difference.

As you enter the 2018-2019 school year, I really hope you make time to honor yourself as a human so you can bring your best self to work everyday for your students. I believe that educators are a gift and so are our students. As I reflect on my career as a teacher, I’ve uncovered many mistakes I made but I have also reflected on my successes. It has been an honor to work with the educators I worked with and life-changing to watch my students grow. One of the biggest mistakes I made as an educator was selling myself short. That is what prevented me from bringing my whole self to work. Through my reflection and advice, I hope that I can encourage you to do something different this year in hopes that you spend more time, if not the rest of your life impacting our students.

Compassion too much to ask for?

When I was five years old, my father who I barely knew at the time told my maternal grandparents that he was taking me to Quito for the weekend. I did not see them again until thirteen years later, at the age of eighteen. During an ugly custody battle, my father felt that his only option was to take me from my mother. Leaving Ecuador and everything I knew was traumatic. I went from running freely in my grandmother’s front yard with my cousins to playing in a small, gated square of concrete in Brownsville, Brooklyn because it was “too dangerous” otherwise.  I couldn’t name it then, but what I experienced as a small five-year-old girl were my very first memorable encounters with anger, depression, and anxiety. I was crying myself to sleep, throwing shoes at my father for taking me away from my family and violently biting my nails at the sight of my new life.


 

It’s all over the media right now. Over 2,000 children have been separated from their families. Detention centers. Cages. Foil sheets. Children pleading for their parents. There is no way to console them. Keep families together. Trauma. Uncomfortable situations. Straight up inhumane and traumatizing circumstances. Do I have your attention?

The circumstances in which I was separated from the family I knew were COMPLETELY different than what thousands of children are facing at the border right now. Despite the trauma I experienced, what I experienced when I got to the States was far from instability. Nevertheless, the impact this separation had on me as a five-year old child was huge and the trauma shaped a great chunk of who I became as a teenager and the demons I work endlessly to combat everyday as an adult. I’ve told this story many times throughout my life because it is so much of who I am. It was the transition in my life that caused a thousand tears and a barrier between me and my inner peace as a child.

I tell it today because when I got to New York, I had loving neighbors, incredible teachers, cousins and family members who took care of me, a father and grandmother who worked to give me the world. Despite such a strong foundation, my suffering did not just stop. I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that children are feeling as they are separated from their families and held in detention centers. I cannot even begin to imagine the fear and the uncontrollable tears that must be forming within them. Some of them have been photographed in cages while others work to stay warm with their space blankets? What the actual fuck?

Today, what bothers me the most is the lack of compassion, empathy and humanity for the children that are being separated from their families. Through uploaded memes, status updates, quoted officials in the media, I’ve seen an attack on liberals rather than an attack on laws that allow masses of children to be put into inhumane circumstances. The conversation around immigration in the US is complicated. There are layers and layers of this conversation that myself as an immigrant am working on better understanding. But for those of you who are spending your time uploading statuses that diminishes the pain and suffering these families are feeling, I hope that you allow your heart and your mind to experience something different. You’ve got your president. The least you can do is show some compassion.

Family separation is a common narrative for both documented an undocumented immigrants. Some situations are a lot more traumatic than others but the situation is always really damn sad. Latinos literally had a show called Sabado Gigantewhere part of the segment was reuniting family members after years and years of not seeing each other. Whether the struggle is financial or not, being separated from families within the immigrant community is so real that I am sure that for every immigrants-whether documented or undocumented- the events of over 2,000 children being separated from their families at the border is really hard to see. Whether you agree or don’t agree with Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, is it that difficult to have a little compassion for your neighbors, co-workers, Facebook friends and actual friends that have experienced this? And after you realize that compassion goes a long way, I hope that you consider opening up some of the following resources.

Consider donating to ensure children have the resources they need, protesting to support the Families , sharing this post, challenging yourself to be better.

What You Can Do Right Now To Help Immigrant Families at the Border

The Facts About Trump’s Policy of Separating Families at the Border

Donate Texas Civil Rights Project

Families Belong Toegther

DeiBZEYUQAEXy07   Image from Familiesbelongtogether.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

Improving the Coming Out Experience

“What?

“I had no idea”

“Okay.”

“Oh.”

“WHAT!?”

“That’s weird”

“I love you no matter what.”

“Oh my god”

“I am happy if you’re happy”

“But you had a boyfriend”

“I just want you to be safe”

“Wow.”

 

Silence.

Tears.

Blank stare.

These are some of the initial reactions I’ve gotten when coming out to the people I love. Some of these outings have been intentional and thoughtful while others were impulsive and even caught me by surprise. Some of these initial reactions felt better than others and some of them just made me feel confused. Do they get that I’m gay? Did they hear me? Should I tell them again? I came out to my father twice in two years because since he never talked about the fact that I was gay, I wondered if I had just made it up in my head that I came out to him in the first place.

I watched Love, Simon about two weeks ago and as I walked out of the theater I just had to pause on my way to the bathroom and capture the feel-good fuzzies that were happening all over my face on my Instagram story. “Just watched Love, Simon and it was soooooooo good” I wrote over my puppy eyes and tiny smile. The scene that captivated me the most from this movie was one where he is sitting in the living room with his mother shortly after coming out to his family. His mother, played by Jennifer Garner, explains that even though she didn’t know he was gay, she knew something was weighing on him. “It’s like you’ve been holding your breath for all of these years and now you can exhale,” she says to him. Obviously, tears are like rolling down my face and I’m feeling really fucking passionate thinking loudly in my head YO JENNIFER BEN AFFLECK FUCKED UP YOU ARE THE SHIT haha even though it’s not actually Jennifer and anyway…

For me, this simple phrase shed light on a missing piece of many coming out scenes I’ve watched, personal accounts I’ve heard from friends and experiences I’ve had myself coming out to loved ones. Gardner’s character not only said that she loves her son no matter what or wants him to be happy. She didn’t normalize his experience to the point where she just said “that’s cool.” She recognized and validated the fact that he had been through years of fear and anxiety about being gay all on his own. She accepted him but recognized that even though being LGBTQ is a beautiful gift, it was probably really fucking hard and painful to be in the dark closet all by yourself. In her own way, she recognized a trauma that often goes untouched.

As I watched this scene, I was reminded of the years of anxiety and heartbreak I experienced behind closed doors. My grandmother held me to sleep as I cried by her side when my high school boyfriend and I broke up but I had to hold myself when my college girlfriend and I broke up. I went to years and years of family gatherings where my loved ones asked me if I had a boyfriend and I would say “nope” because I was too scared to tell them that I actually had a girlfriend. I’ve been very lucky that the majority of initial responses have been okay. After watching this scene though, I felt drawn to the emotion I felt and wanted to explore it.  I used to think that just moving on and normalizing the situation after I utter the words “I’m gay” to somebody I love was the best way to respond. After watching this scene though, I realized that being in the closet is actually not a “normal” experience and by normalizing it so much, we disregard a possible pain that needs to be addressed.

Based on conversations I’ve had with some of my closest friends I know I am not the only queer person who has experienced a lot of internal turmoil when I was realizing that I was gay. Like many of my fellow LGBTQ, I dream of a world where coming out is not even necessary. But for now, it’s still a reality. There is still pain and struggle for some a lot more than others depending on a multitude of different factors. If you are a parent, a sibling, a cousin, aunt, uncle or grandparents, and ally consider recognizing a trauma that often goes unnoticed by members of the LGBTQ members themselves and their loved ones. Your LGBTQ loved one might say they don’t want to talk about it but offer the space because the likelihood is that they probably do. In addition to the well-received clichés like I love you no matter what, I accept you, you’re amazing, I am so happy for you, I think it’s time to incorporate another layer to the “coming out” scene- one that recognize the greatness but also the possible pain. Below are some possible statements.

  1. If you want to fill me in on any of the pain you went through before this moment, I am here to listen
  2. I am so happy that I know now and am here to offer support if you want it.
  3. Do you want to talk about what it has been like before this moment or what it has been like to realize you’re _____?
  4. I am excited to hear about all of the greatness that comes with this but just know I am also here to listen about the struggle too.

pride

My Coming Out 

We were in the kitchen when I tried to come out my grandmother. I was 11 years old. It was a few days after September 11thand for the first time ever the thought crossed my mind. A girl that I knew told a joke and it made me laugh the way that a boy’s joke would make me laugh. I remember laughing at her joke and then getting a pit in my stomach because I realized I had developed a crush. 9/11 was one of the scariest days of my life. So much so, that I always say it scared the gay out of me.

I sat on our kitchen stool and mami stood on the other side of the counter. “Mami, I think I like girls.” She looked at me and without skipping a beat, she responded “Ay Pamela por favor.” I never mentioned it again until I was 25 years old. In the same kitchen and in the very same spots we had found ourselves 14 years before, I said “Mami, I have a girlfriend.” This time, I didn’t let her brush it off. And when she seemed upset about it, I explained that I loved myself and was comfortable with myself and she has nothing to worry about. I smiled at her and hugged her. “I’m not dying mami, so you don’t need to cry.” She didn’t cry and it was the best decision she could have made.

To all of the people in my life who have had to come out, I see you and am proud AF of you.  Happy pride month everybody ❤

 

 

Two Guiding Quotes

A few months ago, I picked up a small book by Thic Nhat Hanh titled How to Love. I can’t remember where I bought it or who I was with. All I remember is my vision tunneling onto the book without explanation. I picked it up and bought it for $10. In the moment, I did not know how meaningful this little book would be in my journey to self-love and loving others, despite the telling title. I often think that my brain sends messages to my body without my heart knowing why. Buying the book felt robotic. I didn’t feel strongly about it in the moment but I bought it anyway. I have not perfected how to love myself or others. I don’t think I ever will but this little book has empowered me to spend all the time in the world exploring it.

IMG_7561

The book sat on my coffee table for a long time before I picked it up started reading and meditating on it. SIDENOTE: I literally had no idea how to meditate. At first I was like why am I not floating on air right now and coming face to face with spiritual goddesses and shit? I created an altar with candles that symbolized healing, abundance and positive energy (I bought the “positive energy” candle 5 years ago at a garage sale in Denver and again, it’s purpose has become evident now and validates my hoarding tendencies even more which is dangerous). I also light a candle with a Selena Quintanilla image to remind that I’m a mothafuckin’ queen. I read a couple of pages of my How to Love book and think about how it speaks to me. Then, I breathe and commit to showing more compassion or bringing people more joy, whatever the passage in the book is preaching. I do a little yoga on my mat, breathe in love and breathe out hate and anger. So basically, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but I call it meditation because what else would it be?

The first passage in Thicht Nhat Hanh’s book is “Heart Like a River.” He explains that when our heart expands like a river, we are able to accept a person’s shortcomings and expand our heart enough to help them evolve and transform. “When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change,” he explains. We go on to suffer because of this. I read this passage and I remembered the times in my life where my heart was so small, I did not seek to understand. I suffered. I thought about the people in my life who love me like a river, who accept me for who I am and see the best in me and I felt joy. I want to make others feel the way my cousin Crystal and my best friend Emily make me feel. I want to be a breath of fresh air for others. I want to bring others joy, love and understanding.

And so, I’ve been working on expanding my heart by practicing what Thicht Nhat Hanh describes as the four elements of love – loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. There is a challenge here though. The most difficult part of this process has been finding a balance between being compassionate and naming behaviors and actions I find unacceptable in my life. What are my boundaries? Is there a point where I no longer accept? How much will I accept into my life? How much will I make space for? How much is too much compassion or too much empathy? There are two quotes that have helped guide me in the decisions I make regarding how I love and I how I expect to be loved. These two quotes have helped me practice expanding my heart for others without jeopardizing myself or others.  They are quotes I’ve seen posted on social media. They are quotes that have been passed down for centuries in many different ways, through many different stories and by many different people from all walks of life. They are quotes my grandmother and my mother have said to me throughout my life but only now am I mindfully choosing to make these values present in my everyday life.

If you are experiencing a difficult relationship with yourself or a loved one, it might be a good time to evaluate how you want to love and be loved. My only piece of advice would be to navigate this journey carefully. For me, embodying the four elements of love does not mean forgetting the importance of boundaries or loving ourselves. I hope these two quotes can guide you in your journey to creating a healthy relationship with yourself and with others.

The first: “Treat others the way you wish to be treated.”

For the past five years within the first week of school, I’ve begun uttering the phrase “Treat others …” and almost 100 percent of my second-graders join me without prompting and say “…the way you wish to be treated.” As elementary school teachers, many of us find books, videos, activities, team-builders and crafts in our efforts to define and explain this golden rule and give our students a better understanding of how to show respect. As an adult, I have recommitted to this golden rule. I want to love the way I wish to be loved. I am going to treat others the way I wish to be treated. This has helped me make choices about conversations I want to have with loved ones and conversations I am not willing to have. It has helped me decide if a conflict is worth bringing up or if it isn’t. For example, if a loved one does something that upsets me or irritates me, I will choose to accept it and let it go or I will choose to talk about it. If it is battle I would not be willing to fight or put energy into then I am not going to bring it up. I am practicing how to speak up for myself and still be understanding and compassionate.  This is a level of self-love I have never experienced.

The second: “The way you treat yourself sets the standards for others. ”

Throughout the last couple of years, I’ve been working day in and day out on building a better relationship with myself and rediscovering the things that make me who I am. I’ve been completely invested in the idea that I cannot love the way I want to love if I don’t have a strong foundation of love for myself. There are many indicators that my self-love has evolved throughout the last couple of years but a few weeks ago, I realized my self-love had evolved beyond what I ever imagined. I realized that it has evolved into loving myself enough to practice speaking up for myself a little better, setting boundaries with loved ones, advocating for my needs, grounding myself in my confidence and not settling for anything less than what I believe I deserve. For a long time, I forgot how I wanted to be treated. I lost myself in my friendships and relationships to the point that I couldn’t strongly verbalize what I needed, because I was hardly giving myself what I needed. Why practice self-love? The way you treat yourself and love yourself teaches others. Set those standards high.

 

31 Days without Alcohol

I committed to drinking my last alcoholic beverage for the month over a glass of Cabernet on January 1st 2018.

I was sitting in my friend Liz’s living room when I began to entertain the idea of participating in Dry January. I had been in New York City for over a week and by that point, I was feeling invincible. Surviving walks in NYC’s merciless winter weather and finding the light after exiting a crowded subway cart does that to me these days. Colorado has me so spoiled that walking in NYC feels like survival. What even.

But really, my heart was also overwhelmingly full. My best friend had just treated me to a manicure, pedicure and a 15-minute massage. On Christmas eve I’d danced and sang the night away with my family. I’d celebrated the fifth annual Secret Satan (yes, I meant satan, not santa) holiday gift exchange with my best friends from college and brought in the new year with my best friends from high school in the comfort of my friend Jake’s very warm apartment. To top it all off, I was getting a daily dose of hugs and quality time with the love of my life, my mami. By the time I was sitting in Liz’s living room, I was radiating with love and happiness. So… obviously when Liz’s roommate announced that he was going to participate in the new year’s common Dry January ritual, I impulsively said, “You know what!? ME TOO!” After a week in NYC, I was clearly feeling empowered as fuck and was about to do something that for ages has felt completely impossible for me.

As I walked through the snow to the dreaded bus stop, my friends cheered me on and shouted things like “you got this!” I really felt like I “had it” until approximately one minute later when my cousin Crystal texted… “ What you drinking boo, wine or beer?” I read that text and my world felt as frozen as my toes. “Damn it” I thought to myself. “I’m trying to do a dry January detox,” I responded. And then I did what I often do when I set a goal for myself.

I said, “I’ll start tomorrow.”

I got to my cousin’s apartment and I drank 3 glasses of wine. I took each delicious sip and I wondered if I really wanted to stop drinking. By my third glass of wine, my lips were tinted purple and I had officially made the drunken decision that I was going to give Dry January a solid try. That solid try has become one of the impactful and empowering accomplishments in my journey to becoming my best self.

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Until I decided to fully commit to not drinking alcohol, my decisions to drink alcohol were far from mindful. Honestly, they hardly felt like decisions. It felt like my brain had developed an automated response of “yes” to the question “do you want a drink?” While the start of a new year is a common time to set goals and get a fresh start, my commitment to Dry January was more than participating in a popular new year practice. Committing to a month without alcohol was about unraveling my relationship with alcohol but most importantly, it was about addressing one of my biggest insecurities that I am not a disciplined person. I committed to this goal to prove to myself that I can and am capable of setting a goal and sticking to it.

31 days of no drinking helped me get to know myself better and unveil who I am without alcohol.  I am now better at saying no to alcohol and am more mindful about how much I drink. Instead of decompressing with a glass of wine or a vodka drink after work on a Friday, I realized that sitting at a restaurant and having a good meal with friends was just as valuable. During this month without alcohol, I also made time to meditate and practice yoga at home as a way to decompress after a long week. I am better at having a meal out without an alcoholic beverage accompanying it. This has saved me money. Through this experience, I also proved to myself that I can be disciplined and realizing this about myself has empowered me to create and commit to other goals like working out and creating healthier eating habits in February. This has saved me energy. Ultimately, the most valuable part of this experience has been realizing that alcohol has sucked a lot of my time, energy and money from in the past. I now have the tools and strategies to stop drinking if I need to or if I want to focus on a project that demands a lot of time, energy and money. I am realizing that alcohol is something I can cut out of my life when I need to in spite of the fact that I might really enjoy it.

During a time when shit is hitting the fan in America, preserving our energy for things other than alcohol is worth some practice. If you are curious about who you are without alcohol, how people respond to you without alcohol, developing your discipline, gaining energy and time to focus on other things even if it’s for a short period of time, below are a list of strategies I used to help me commit to this goal. None of this is research-based and is simply a result of my own experience.

How can you accomplish 31 days of no drinking?

  1. Get clear on the reasons you are doing this. On January 2nd, I lit some candles and wrote a SMART goal in my journal. The most meaningful part of this goal was unraveling the reasons why I felt like I wanted to complete this challenge. As I wrote down why, I realized that my commitment to this challenge has less to do with alcohol and more to do with my well-being, my journey and my process. My mission statement gave me something to refer to during moments where I did want a glass of wine or a beer. Referring back to these list of reasons was one of the most meaningful parts of the entire experience.
  2. Substitute your alcoholic beverage with a carbonated drink. La Croix and a lime was mine. Every time I felt tempted to have a beer or a vodka drink, I asked for a seltzer and lime, sometimes with a splash of orange juice.
  3. Make a list of activities you can do in place of drinking alcohol. Sundays are ideal for a boozy brunch. During my dry January, I also committed to 15 days of yoga. So instead of boozy brunches, I spent a couple of Sundays on my mat.
  4. Complete the challenge with a buddy. There might be moments of weakness and we need to prepare for that. My friend Katie also committed to a month of no drinking. We both shared why were wanting to do this for ourselves and every time I felt like I wanted a drink I called or texted Katie. She was my go-to person and congrats to her too cause she killed it.
  5. Share with your friends and family not just what you are doing but why you are doing it. If you can invest yourself in this process, it’s important for you to invest others too. Tell your loved ones why this is important to you so that they are not peer pressuring you into doing something you don’t want to do and so that they’re taking it as seriously as you are.
  6. Refrain from telling yourself you can’t do it because of a vacation or holiday. You can. Before I wrote my goal down in my journal, I considered giving myself one weekend off because I had a trip to San Francisco for MLK weekend to visit one of my best friends. I texted Alisa and told her I was not going to drink that weekend and that we should plan lots of fun activities that don’t involve alcohol. We did. We hiked, we exercised, we shopped, we ate a lot of good food and I had desert every day instead. It was one of the most fulfilling weekends away I’ve had in a long time. So don’t let that stop you.

Even though I made this decision when 2018 was 1 day old, a dry month or more is a valuable experience to engage in at any point in the year. Completing 31 days of no alcohol has not completely changed my relationship with alcohol but I am beginning to see healthier patterns and am working on maintaining them. For the people who have been able to analyze, address or completely end their relationship with alcohol, I commend you and I support you. For the people who have not participated in an alcohol cleanse, consider discovering what your life is like without it. I am confident that you will learn something very meaningful and valuable about yourself.

 

Reclaiming “I am a writer”

When I was 16 years old, I told my father that I wanted to be a journalist. His joy around the news resembled what I imagine a struggling actor who lives in their car experiences when they get their first big break. Pure happiness. Pure pride. Pure excitement.

I could be engaging in my everyday basic rituals like sitting on the couch and watching MTV, doing my homework or simply savoring my last bagel bite when my pops would suddenly interrupt me holding an invisible microphone and staring into an invisible camera. Using his disciplined reporter voice, he would proudly recite “Soy Pamela VIVANCO con Noticias Univision…Desde Queens, Nueva York. Buenas Noches.” Sometimes he would even go as far as pretending he was in the middle of a snow storm, flailing his arms in the air because the invisible wind was so strong and it was, you know, blowing him away. “Sooooyyyy Pammmmmeellaaaaa Vivaaannnccoooo con Noticiassss Univisionnnnn y hoyyyyy…”

The thought of our last name Vi-van-co gracing the ears of Latinos and people all around the country made him proud. His grin when we talked about my future as a journalist would conquer his face and his hyper spirit would come alive as he said…

“Oh man, I can’t wait to see my daughter on TV!!!!”

He was in denial. I did not want to be a broadcast journalist. I had to break it to him several times.

“Papi, I’m not trying to be on TV. I’m trying to write…”

My name as a byline wasn’t as exciting for my dad as the idea of watching me report the news live on Univision but the thought of my printed name accompanying a piece of published writing that I created meant the world to me. I knew that I wanted to write.

And I did it. I joined my high school newspaper, took journalism classes, creative writing classes and walked out of high school with a passion so strong, I made journalism my major in college. I spent almost every Wednesday night with my friends from The New Paltz Oracle in an office with orange walls reporting, writing, editing and designing our award-winning college newspaper. For hours past midnight, we would work, geek out over who could come up with the best, punny headlines and intensely refer to our bible- the Associated Press Stylebook. (Oracle friends, I bet I am butchering some AP guidelines. It’s been years though, give me a break).

College was the last time I remember confidently saying the words, “I AM a writer.” After diving into my second major, sociology, I wasn’t sure that writing was the way I wanted to challenge a system working against people like my family, friends that I grew up with and myself. I began to think that writing was too passive, not a powerful enough “in your face” demonstration of how angry I felt and how intensely I wanted to make change. So, my first semester of senior year, I dropped my journalism major and left the country. The blog I kept while studying abroad in Thailand was the last bit of writing I prompted on my own. That was in 2012.

In the last few days of 2017, I made a choice. Two years ago, I picked up and made time to write in a journal. In October, I posted excerpts from a memoir I wrote in college about my childhood in Ecuador and today, I write to share my goal and the challenge I am setting for myself to nurture the part of me that is creative and eager to share. The part of me that has wanted to be a writer since childhood. The part of me that has reconciled with writing as a tool for all types of change including social, political and personal.

Since my first year working as an educator in 2013, I am finally ready to reclaim my identity as a writer.

My challenge: To write 15 essays this year and post them on my website. Essay topics will range.

My commitment: I am committed to cultivating my creativity and the part of myself that writes. It’s been almost five years since I have taken a writing class or even identified as a writer. I am ready to write, read about writing, learn about writing and find my voice again.

My fears: I have not taken a writing class in over five years so it feels rusty. Sharing is frightening.

My motivation: Writing will make me better. Not writing will keep me exactly where I am.

When I left New York City five years ago, I did not realize I was about to enter some of the most challenging and testing years of my life in Denver. I left New York City during what I still call the happiest year of my life. My weekends in New York were filled with dinners I could hardly afford, pre-gaming at my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, dancing the night away at queer dance parties, losing it over impressive drag shows and naps on the 4am local A train. So, even though I was working in a school, the sense of responsibility and stress I felt in my life was truly minimal.

It is probably hard to believe the idea that I “suddenly” became a teacher. Becoming a teacher isn’t like “I turned the corner and SUDDENLY a black cat passed by me.” Most teachers get their undergraduate degree in education, take education classes over the course of 2-4 years in addition to observing and student-teaching in the classrooms of experienced teachers. That is not the case when you are a Teach for America corps member. I left New York and it really felt like all of sudden, I was a teacher and I was responsible for teaching and securing the safety of 28 seven and eight-year olds. Not only did I have to keep them alive and healthy, I also had to keep MYSELF alive and healthy. Say what? My life had changed. I no longer felt like “Pamela,” the free-spirited, joyful, energetic and optimistic version of me I had grown to love so much. I had become and completely taken on the identify of Ms. Vivanco. Overworked, unbalanced, stressed. The change for me, the person who knows me best, was drastic.

Getting into the ups and downs of how I got to where I am right at this very moment is difficult to craft.  I feel proud that I have finally created the space, time and energy to cultivate parts of myself that I have suppressed for years.

My hope: That my essays inspire movement whether it is in yourself, in your mindset, perspective or community. That my writing helps you explore your own voice, strengthen it and share it. Loudly and Proudly.

Vamos.

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This was taken during my last couple of days in high school in my journalism classroom.  That computer was my baby.

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This is me and my red pen editing the pages  of The New Paltz Oracle.

Excerpts from “When I Had Shoes”

In Memory of Abuelito Hector 

“Once I was ready, I walked through the kitchen into the dining area through a swinging door. It was the kind of door that restaurants have, the kind of door servers swing through, with a circular window at the top center. Seeing abuelito sitting at the end of the table, sipping his coffee and reading the newspaper caused my first smile of the day. I would run toward him and sit right on his lap. He would rub his black scruffy beard on my cheek and I would laugh because although it hurt, it also tickled. He was the funniest man I knew and I was his absolute joy. Slowly, the rest of my hungry family would join in and make comments about the pre aroma of breakfast. Early morning, the house smelled of coffee and the fierce scent of Ecuadorian cheese.” 

……………………………..

“Sometimes, Abuelito chased me around the living room. I would jump over the floral couch and run on the tiled floors of our house. He would try to crack my toes and Anita and I would run out to the balcony. One particular time he locked us in there.  He sat on the couch and looked through the transparent sliding doors laughing hysterically. His laugh screamed satisfaction like that of a bully’s. Eventually, after nearly ten minutes of laughing along, we began to cry. Looking over his shoulder, he realized our pitiful tears, but I couldn’t tell whether or not he actually felt bad. As I wiped my eyes, unable to see, I heard the door slide open. I looked up at him calmly, and he reached down to hold one of us in each arm. He laughed a light laugh and as Anita and I cried our last tear, he carried on to torture us with his beard. We yelled until Mami heard us. She marched into the room, grabbed me from his arms and yelled at him for making us cry. He smirked a 5-year old’s smirk after a funny and triumphant prank. Mami giggled a little as he explained what happened because she knew (and we all did) that he was an old man with a boy’s heart.” 

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