Tag Archives: Honesty

When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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Back to School

My son Eric started first grade last week. You’ve all seen the funny memes, gifs, and videos of parents doing a gleeful happy dance when school resumes at the end of summer. For some reason though, I really don’t feel that way. So I thought I’d break it down a little to understand why.

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First  –and I know I’m speaking as an at-home parent–  I like going at least a few weeks with absolutely nothing structured to do. I loved lazy summers as a kid, loved them as an adult before parenthood, and love them still as a parent. We get to sleep in and take a long time eating breakfast, no lunchbox needs packing, no running out the door, we travel, go out for the day or stay home … we just get to hang out. (And yes, there’s also a lot more TV. So what? It’s summer!) Why would I be in a hurry to be in a hurry every morning again? For the most part, I’m really, really not.

There’s also the part where I miss him and feel nostalgic, plain and simple. I’m sure it’s not unique of me to feel occasionally sentimental about the passage of time. You’ve heard it before: It goes so fast. And the feeling tends to hit me the hardest at the start of a new school year. When we turn a year older or mark the beginning of a new calendar year, we do celebrate, but then we go back to our relatively unchanged routines. A lot more changes with each new school year.

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Kindergarten graduation in June.

For instance, Eric graduated kindergarten in June. But it’s not until I see the new crop of kindergartners and their parents at school now that it really sinks in. There are new teachers and new classmates. He has a locker now instead of a cubby. He’s literally moved up one floor in the school building. He knows he’s one of the bigger kids now and very proudly displays a lot more independence in many different areas.

So between laziness and nostalgia, I love summer and feel less than thrilled about back to school.

And yet …

If researchers were to conduct studies on when even the most well-meaning parents are most likely to lose their patience with their kids and, shall we say, speak to them in a slightly raised tone of voice, I suspect they’d find a correlation between this phenomenon and summer, particularly its final weeks. I think both kids and parents get stressed knowing school’s about to start. No matter how much we love our school, there’s anxiety over change and the unknown.

Obviously, it’s all the togetherness, too. Let’s face it, Eric’s used to not being with his parents 24/7. And that’s a good thing. An important thing. My kid honestly doesn’t want me around all the time, and by the end of a few weeks of that, he’s probably ready to spend several hours a day where I don’t see or mediate most of his actions.

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Hugging it out in Venice, Italy this summer.

From my end, the more we’re together at home in the context of a daily routine, the greater the danger of me believing the terrible delusion that I can control all the influences my kid is exposed to, and that in the degree to which I control that, I can rest assured that he’ll mirror back and validate me and my values. I think plenty of parents, stay-at-home moms especially, are vulnerable to this. In the first week of school alone, Eric has come home saying some things that make me want to ask him where he heard it, who said it and in what context, what he said in response, and what he thinks about it all. In other words I’d thoroughly dissect everything with him. Then I’d tell myself it’s so that he has a chance to discuss and process it. But I’d bet that a good eight times out of ten, I’m doing it just so that whatever he’s exposed to goes through the filter of Mom, and I once again have the illusion of control.

So with everything Eric says that comes from school, I try to stay aware, and check myself first. If it’s something that could compromise his safety or ethics, I pursue it. If it just threatens me and my delusions of control over my kid, I rein it in. His knowing I’m not a needy hovering parent is at least as important as knowing I’m there whenever he needs me.

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More summer fun!

So, do I celebrate back to school? Yes and no, I guess.

Parenting someone so young and sweet is so much more precious that I ever imagined. And the separation we experience every year at back to school, more so than at birthdays or New Year’s, reminds me all too keenly of how crazy fast these years are moving. My heart aches a little. The tug is real.

But there’s something to be said for making it through another school year and summer together. It’s not a flippant reveling in having him “out of my hair” again though. Yes, there’s relief that the end-of-summer jitters have passed and the year has started out well. Yes, I do better when I have some time to myself for a few hours five days a week, and he does better when a portion of his time and interactions with people and with information aren’t controlled by his mom. Most importantly though, my boy is slowly yet assertively making his own way in the world. I honor that. That, I celebrate.

 

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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Things I would say if I didn’t have a filter, Part 2.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes daydream about saying certain things that, for one reason or another, I didn’t say in the moment, particularly when something made me mad. Makes sense, too. Filters kick in more frequently when something makes us mad, and there’s a danger of being unkind. Luckily, the first one in this installment is a happy one. (I first talked about things I would say without a filter a few months ago–the link is HERE.)

To parent-friends at my boy’s preschool.
Thank you! After I gave up my paying job 4 years ago to be home with my baby, I lost an important sense of community, and felt adrift for part of those first years. Post-partum depression in the early months didn’t help. At preschool, I have met working parents, stay-at-home parents, parents from Hispanic and many other heritage backgrounds, writer parents, parents who work part-time, and in every case, parents committed to raising children who are at least bilingual from a very early age. Several of you offered words of kindness and support during the first difficult weeks of adjustment to preschool for my little guy, our first real separation after he was home with me for his first 3 years. I will never forget that! Many of you have expressed excitement about my writing projects. Some of you have become dear friends. When I look back on this year and a half, the best memories I will have, in addition to the joy that school now brings to my boy, will be of the incredible, committed, smart, caring community of parents I’ve had to pleasure to know. Wow!



It’s early May in DC, and out come the shorts and flip-flops. Only the outside temperature is barely breaking the 50-degrees mark. To the person wearing shorts and flip flops outdoors.
Okay. I know you know I know that your feet must be freaking freezing. Get some socks! Put on a sweater! Here, I’ve got an extra one–I’m Puerto Rican, I frequently carry an extra sweater with me. You can have it. Just cover up those goose bumps, please.

To the parent who bemoaned to me that their 15-month-old had, sadly, outgrown all of the toys in their house.
Sorry, I’m still laughing at this one. That thing you hear? That’s me still laughing.
This was years ago, by the way…


To the man who said to my husband, “I know your wife has a lot of opinions…” (You know, with a tone, like it was a bad thing.)

Actually? You know nothing about me. But hey, thanks for reciprocating the benefit of the doubt that I had so generously extended to you, until I knew about this. And how’s this for an opinion? Oh yeah, here she goes again, won’t this housewife ever stop with the opinions?! In my opinion, it takes a weak man(A) to talk smack to another man(B), whom he barely knows, about man B’s wife, whom he knows even less. But of course, put-downs always say so much more about the put-downer than they say about the put-downee. My own husband would never do anything even remotely like that–one of many reasons why I have such a high opinion of the man. And by the way? It’s called having boundaries, and I happen to like that about me. Yes, that was me giving another opinion.

At writing conferences or classes, typically about two-thirds of the way in.
Stop! I’m done listening to advice.
“Grab the reader in the first two paragraphs, or else forget about it. Keep the points of view straight or lose the reader instantly.”
Seriously?! One of the last novels I tried to read (keyword here is tried)–not naming names, but it was Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin–started with the point of view of a freaking horse and was all over the place from that moment on. I thought I was going dumb, which usually annoys me. But I get it, authors like Helprin can pull it off. It’s just the rest of us beginner writers, who will never be the next J.K. Rowling (why do writing “experts” love to remind us of this? I don’t want to be the next J.K. Rowling, I just want to be Sandra Falcón, thanks), who shouldn’t dare try. Oh and I may scream if I hear the word niche–and its seemingly infinite possible pronunciations–one more time.
“Readers cannot spare the time or attention span or brain power for historical detail. But show them, don’t tell them. Make the characters come to life and pop out of the page, but for the love of Christ and Krishna, if you do nothing else, you must spare your busy, instant-gratification-seeking, electronic-device-addicted readers the drudgery of back story.
Print is dead. Don’t believe for a second that print is dead. Just kidding, it’s all about the e-book, didn’t you know?
Facebook is in. Facebook is out. Facebook is back in.
You must have a blog, but don’t presume that it will do you any good unless you write about topics very specifically related to your current book, and unless you have thousands and thousands of followers.
Hey, these are the current trends in publishing, we’re just telling you this to help you!”

Yeah, time to tune out, wake me when it’s over. I call it trend-fixation fatigue: when I get so wary of the the nonstop talk about “trends” that dominates things like writing (and parenting!) that I shut down. Advice is great, and usually welcomed. I want to know the trends. But then trend/advice fixation bugs the hell out of me, particularly when it’s used in the interest of an “expert’s” power trip.

To people looking at their cell phones while driving.
Please. Please. Put your damn phone down and drive! What makes you think that you are above being tragically distracted when you do this? No one is above this danger, no one. And it would bother me a lot less if it were only your own life you’re endangering. But it’s not, is it? It is just plain reckless and … well, the s-word that we try to never say in our house (it rhymes with Cupid when British people say it).

I’ve actually confronted people about this. One night months ago, I was driving home from writing class, and I saw a man who would not put down his phone. At a red light, I motioned something to him. He motioned, “What?” and rolled down his window. I rolled down my window, and said, “I’m really worried about you being on your phone! It’s dark, the road is wet, and there you are staring at the screen of your phone.” His response? “Oh, I’m not texting!”
Oh.
Okay then.
And my hair is naturally blond.
And straight.

In case you haven’t met me, this is my hair in its natural state.

My husband David later said to me, “You know, honey, I really wish you didn’t confront male strangers on the road at night.” David’s got a good point there.

Again, I think there is a good reason why most of these things I’d say without a filter are mini-diatribes. I try to actually say the good things, rather than keep them to myself. It’s the ones that I know could get me into trouble that tend to stay bottled up inside. But keeping them in is way too hard for me. That’s the other very good reason for these.

Here are a few final things I have been tempted to say–many times!
Are you going to finish those fries?
Are those shoes as comfortable as they look?
I think it’s awesome when you are intensely enthusiastic about things you know well; I find it less awesome when you are intensely aggressive about stuff you know.
Is having straight hair so easy that it sometimes gets boring?
Would it be weird if I asked to feel your hair right now?
I really think you and I could be great friends. No, really! What do you say?

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Mexican lasagna / Food blogger envy

 

 “Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy. And so are you in anything backless!”

(Image from Starstills.com)

 

This line is among my top-40 favorites from The Golden Girls, one of my top-3 favorite sitcoms of all time. I agree with Sophia, that jealousy is a very ugly thing. In fact, I was recently thinking about this when I was pondering the question, what makes people snarky? I may blog about that one soon. In the meantime, I truly believe that rare–and lucky–is the man or woman who can honestly say they don’t feel jealousy with some frequency in their day-to-day life. And because I am talking true honesty here, I will tell you that I too experience my fair share of jealousy. Ugh.

I am jealous of people who live in Paris, women with easy straight hair or thighs that don’t rub together when they walk, men’s ability to go to the bathroom within a wide and flexible array of contexts, people who can eat certain foods without getting heartburn. The thing is, though, there is only so much I can do about many of these things. And that’s if I even wanted to. I am not going to go out and straighten my hair because–hello!–that would cancel out the easy part. The last time I tried to go to the bathroom standing up (after spending a lot of time around my brother and our male cousins), I was about 4 or 5 years old and it didn’t go very well. But I know I have had, and will have, plenty of other lifetimes for that one, and meanwhile I quite like being a girl in this one. And my thighs are an issue that I take one day at a time.

I stumbled on a new trigger for my jealousy through my tireless online searches for new recipes or tips on reinventing old ones. My love of cooking runs deep and sometimes borders on compulsion. I don’t boast much high-brow sophistication in my cooking (or in anything else I do), but I do like to think that it is healthy and flavorful comfort food. So seeing all the food blogs out there was starting to make me a little jealous. This blog post is simply in the interest of my own happiness: I figure that if I can knock off one of my jealousy triggers, it should make me happy.
Here, then, is my recipe for Mexican lasagna. It is half-vegetarian (for me), with pieces of chicken breast on the other (husband’s) side.
Ingredients:
1  4oz. can of diced green chiles
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
8 oz. shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 to 1/2 cup dry black beans, cooked (or 1  15oz can)
2 cups corn kernels
6-8 small flour tortillas
vegetable oil (for frying the tortillas)
2 small or one large zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1-inch half-moons
1 small onion or half of a large onion (about 1/2 cup sliced)
1 bunch cilantro (nothing against haters of cilantro who think it tastes like soap, other than, well, you’re so wrong)
1 pint (=2 cups) half and half
1 chicken breast (2 if using chicken throughout the entire casserole)
1/4 tsp thyme
salt and pepper
Optional: your favorite salsa
Use a 2-Qt rectangular baking dish
Where I cut corners: buying canned chiles. Ideally one would roast poblano peppers, then peel them, remove the seeds, and dice them up. The main reason why I chose not to, aside from time, is that so far I haven’t been very good at it. I also bought salsa rather than making my own (not that I don’t have a fabulous, foolproof salsa recipe) for this particular dish.
Another area for cutting corners was to use frozen corn. I love how fancy it looks to cut the kernels off of ears of corn, and it’s awesome for when fresh corn is in season and you don’t mind having corn flying all over your kitchen. Using (thawed) frozen corn is pretty decent too, that’s all.
Areas where I did not cut corners: I like to start with dry beans and cook my own rather than use a can of beans. Three main reasons. 1) It is a lot cheaper. 2) I have often gagged when opening a can of beans and seeing that slimy goo that they have been sitting in. 3) This way I have a lot more control over the texture and flavor. I just cook about 1/2 cup of dry beans with half an onion, some of the same cilantro I bought for the recipe, and a bay leaf, with salt added toward the end.
I also grate my own cheese. It is significantly cheaper, and I do think there is a difference in freshness.
Cooking instructions:
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan, and sauté onions for a few minutes. Add the cooked beans, the chiles, and the zucchini, with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook until the zucchini just starts to get tender.
Melt the other 2 tablespoons of butter in a different pan. Sauté the garlic for about one minute, then add the corn, thyme, and 1/2 salt, plus another pinch of pepper.
When everything is combined, stir in the half and half. Cook the mixture for about 5 minutes. Cool a bit, then transfer to a blender, and puree. Taste for salt and pepper, it may need a bit more. It will appear chunky and not completely smooth, because of the corn; that’s okay, trust me. This garlicky, creamy corn sauce is the key to the unique awesomeness of this dish.
Roast the chicken breast for the meat-eater(s) in your family. Then shred or cube up the chicken.
Fry the tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side. This makes them more manageable. And very importantly, it makes them puff up, which provides an incredibly rich layer in the lasagna that I find similar to pastry. It’s that good. A cumbersome step, to be sure, but so, so worth it.
Begin the layering! First, spread 1/4 of the corn cream sauce on the bottom of the dish (see how it’s lumpy?).
 Add one layer of tortillas. You will need to cut some up to make them fit.
Layer half of the zucchini/bean/chiles mixture across the dish. Add half the chicken on one side of the dish.
Add a third of the shredded cheese, and chopped cilantro (about 2 tablespoons).
Repeat process: 1/4 sauce, tortillas, the 2nd half of the zucchini/beans & chicken*, 1/3 cheese and cilantro.
*Important note: If, like me, you feel strongly about keeping half of it vegetarian, make sure you keep the chicken on the same side of the dish during the second round of layering!
Add another 1/4 of the sauce and one more layer of tortillas. Top with the final 1/4 of the sauce, and the final 1/3 of cheese and cilantro (I added some cheddar at the end because cheddar is my husband’s favorite and it was his birthday.)
As with most of my cooking, I prepare this in the morning, then keep it in the fridge until dinner time. Then, I put it on a sheet pan (in case the cheese and sauce runneth over) and cook in a preheated 375 oven for about 20 minutes covered, 20-30 minutes uncovered until it’s bubbling and browned on top.
Hearty. Spicy. Yum. And dinner for easily two nights in my house. P.S. Yes, I forgot the salsa. It can add nice flavor and moisture, but really isn’t needed. The corn sauce, on the other hand …
Oh and we followed it up with this beauty.
Chocolate cake with pecans–pecans for the birthday boy, but on one side only for the kiddo who dislikes chunky nuts in his dessert; food segregation is quite important in our house!
I had vowed, after the holidays, to not bake a single thing in all of January–this was January. So this blog post could also be filed under “will I never learn?” I had good reason, though. We were snowed in and the man deserved birthday cake.
What’s my takeaway on jealousy? I believe like Iyanla Vanzant: “Comparing yourself to others is an act of violence against your authentic self.” It would be an impossible–and miserable–life if I was always trying to keep up with whatever makes me jealous about the perceived lives of others. But I have to say, writing this has made me very, very happy. Wow! The kind of “jealousy” that propels me to go after something that brings me joy? Yes, please, thank you. As for spending more, longer time in Paris? Timing is everything, and I am prepared to be patient.
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Resolved: I shall breathe more, and better, in 2014

Happy New Year!

Last week I went to my first yoga class of the year at my local studio, where I have found yoga bliss since summer 2012. And the place was packed! I mean, it was cozy, folks. So much so that I kept thinking, “thank god(dess) I showered right before coming.” Also I thought, WTF? They ran out of blocks, mats, and simply put, space. Then one of my friends, a fellow regular at our awesome beginner class, whispered to me, “obviously it’s a bunch of people making good on New Year’s resolutions!” Aha. Of course! It also explains why Whole Foods was abnormally packed at my usual Saturday morning hour last weekend.

I say, hurray for resolution-ers, even if the overcrowding challenges my comfort zone. On the other hand, it is true that resolving to overhaul eating and/or exercise practices rarely works. I read somewhere recently that small steps driven by loving oneself enough to want to be healthier always works better than any cutthroat, radical decision propelled by self-loathing. Common sense? You bet. Maybe it is so commonsensical that it’s often forgotten. And it’s the forgetting part that is at the heart of why New Year’s resolutions often fall by the wayside.

Goodness knows I was in sore need of returning to yoga after the great, big, mofongo binge during my trip to Puerto Rico with my husband and son. Mofongo is a sort of large fried dumpling made from green plantains, with lots of garlic and other yummy things. It’s usually paired with a stew or anything that’s heavy on moisture … and some more garlic. And I get as much of it as I possibly can every time I visit Puerto Rico. That, and bakery-fresh bread. Fresh Puerto Rican baguette-style bread is superior, that’s all.

 

Power to the mofongo

 

Happy. Happy. Love. Joy.

But another important reason why I was in desperate need for yoga upon returning to DC in the New Year was that I had left my sense of stillness somewhere in 2013, and it was time to slow down the tailspin before it really got out of control. Alas, I did not make it through the holidays this year without a meltdown. Or two…

Cookies baked by yours truly in the month of December? Hundreds.

I started the holidays early this year, with the idea that I’d be less stressed the earlier I started. Also, because I’m so excited at the first signs of the festive season that I’m eager to jump right in. I started my shopping in October because it’s a lot easier on my credit card to spread out the gift-buying than to do it all in one month. I had placed the order for our photo Christmas cards before we left on our Thanksgiving trip, and they had all been mailed out by mid December. By the time we rang in 2014 in my brother’s home in San Juan, I was feeling sleep deprived and burned out, and constantly anxious about doing and saying the right thing so that everyone had a good time.

A week or two into the New Year: Boooooom. Why did I lose control? Did I simply start too early? Maybe. But I still think the head start kept me from panicking somewhere around mid-December. What, then? Over-eating heavy foods. Poor sleep. No writing. Limited time for exercise or quietude. The stressors one typically associates with going back to spend the holidays in one’s childhood hometown. And some of the anxieties that are particular to my visits to Puerto Rico–they have to do with questions about cultural identity and fitting in, and I have a gift for making myself crazy with these questions (future blog post). It all just sort of got away from me. At some point, my center of gravity simply said, “Girl. I’m out of here.”

Arriving at my parents’ home on New Year’s Eve, we were greeted by music, dancing, and this bit Puerto Rican Christmas deliciousness in my mother’s kitchen.
I probably did too much, and gave up too much of my time. Isn’t that a wife and mother’s classic dilemma? Does it not make sense that it comes to a boiling point during an otherwise happy (very!) and uneventful holiday season?
Day 3 of 2014 found me flying a kite over Old San Juan
My husband and I spent the night of 7 January here–not a bad way to kick off the New Year, I would say
With this in mind, here are my resolutions for 2014: 1) Breathe more, and better. 2) Practice radical gratitude.

1) Whenever my yoga teacher says, “Don’t forget to breathe,” there is always a part of me that wants to say, “Um, hello? Who forgets to breathe? Wouldn’t I be dead if I did?” Of course, I get it now. Remembering to breathe is another one of those too-obvious things that make an epic difference. It buys me a few seconds’ worth of time, which in turn gets me a few seconds’ worth of perspective. Most times, those few seconds are all I need. Hell, there’s even a song about the value of remembering to breathe on my son’s favorite Sesame Street playlist. Simple monster wisdom, man.

2) Here are just a few of the things I am grateful for at the start of this bright new year. The smell of the Christmas tree in our cozy living room while Christmas music played throughout all of December. Hundreds of cookies enjoyed by many, many people I love. Mofongo. A new baby niece who has the sweetest face I’ve seen since my own baby was born. The beach. Coming home to my kitchen. Reliable heat in our little casa. Hugs, kisses, and cuddling. Slowly getting back to my book project–after abandoning the 300-plus-page manuscript for over three weeks. A hotel room in midtown Manhattan for $79/night next month (and a husband who says, “Go for it, honey.”). The 3-year-old boy in my house, who, every day, dances and sings every word to The Beatles’ She Loves You. Looking forward to getting a stamp on my passport this year, thanks to the generous gift of timeshare points from relatives who shall remain nameless here. My parents, Carlos and Norma. The health of my beloved family. Having the resources to stay healthy, and for happy reasons. The unmistakable feeling of promise.

Sticking to resolutions is challenging enough. It’s especially tricky when one is also working to slow down the tailspin after holiday turmoil, and during what–to me at least–feels like the world’s longest month, with such short, cold days. Slowly, I am recovering my center of gravity. And when I feel I am about to lose control again, I breathe, and I give thanks for those few seconds (and for the fact that January is almost over!). Then I acknowledge that seasonal affective disorder exists, and renew my vow to not bake a damn thing this month. Finally, I offer myself some kindness. Here’s to living and loving in 2014. Don’t forget to breathe!

O Magazine, January 2013

 

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