My height is an aspect about my physical appearance that I just can’t hide.
I really can’t hide.
Not in a crowd, not in the subway, or the supermarket, nope I stick out. The only place I have traveled where I felt short was in the Netherlands. Everyone there, women included, were tall! Even the friend I was with made a comment about how I had “found my tribe.” The only problem was they were all blond haired and blue eyed and spoke a language I don’t think I could ever understand. They were not my tribe.
The places I have visited where I feel most tribal, like Peru, Bolivia, Cuba or Mexico, I don’t look like them. My 6-foot, olive skin, light brown hair and eyes, just don’t allow me to fit in. The looks I got when I spoke Spanish in those countries were ones of confusion and disbelief. “Where did you learn to speak Spanish with an accent?” They would ask. Even when I explained my colorful heritage – Mom is Cuban, Dad is German, grew up in Chicago – they would answer – “Ah, es Alemana.” Oh, you are German… Problem solved, at least for them.
My senior year of high school, I thought I finally had my chance at being part of a tribe. My school was finally getting a girl’s basketball team. It was 1987. What other place than on the basketball court with other tall girls, would I feel most at home, most normal?
I was tall, I was a quick learner, my hand-eye coordination wasn’t so good, but I learned how to dribble and run at the same time. Basketball workouts did wonders for my physique – I think that was when I finally burned off all of that pudgy stuff called “baby fat.” I became a tall, lean, basketball machine.
I played Center. Which is sort of a cliche, but I was the tallest on the team. Although it was always a source of contention for the second tallest girl, whose perm made it look like she was taller at times. I had a mean rebound, which made up for my failures at doing lay up shots. Why I couldn’t hit the little square with the ball, at the right angle, with the right force, to then make a basket still perplexes me… I think the analytical part of my brain wanted to know the equation or law of physics or geometry behind the theory of lay up shots – then I may have been able to “get it.”
There was a level of respect between teammates. We played well together and we didn’t fight each other, but we were not best friends and we never hung out after practice.
This didn’t decrease my desire to be their friend or to hang out. It’s just that even though we were the tall and athletic girls of our school – we still had differences that were hard to overcome. We lived in different neighborhoods, we had different socioeconomic backgrounds, none of us went to the same grammar school (which mattered for some reason) and I was in all AP classes.
I was learning a lesson that season of basketball. I was learning that the idea of a tribe of similar people is a farce. A farce that I feel many people aspire towards – that fantasy-land of similar looking and like-minded people. What I gained and cherish to this day, is the ability to look at someone and see myself in them. A person searching for their tribe, when their tribe is all around them waiting to be acknowledged.
Author’s note: This story shares an event in my childhood, my dad’s 40th birthday, whose impact subconsciously stayed with me into adulthood. Today would have been my father’s 80th birthday – he died last November, ten days before my 43rd birthday, a few months after I finished this story. I grew to love my dad very much, once I learned he was only human…
I awoke with a gasp. Today is the day.
My eyes popped wide open, my heart raced, I threw off my red plaid comforter, bolted around my brother’s bed like the next contestant on the Price is Right, not caring if I woke him.
Today is March 31st,a Sunday, Dad’s only day off, he should still be in bed.
I slipped and slid across the parquet wood floor, down the short hallway in my slick footed pink polka dotted pajamas towards my parent’s bedroom. It was a small two-bedroom apartment, in a building finished in the early 1960s on Howard St. in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. Sundays were quiet, not a car stirred in the parking lot below my bedroom window, no TVs blared through the plaster thin walls, no babies wearing shoes stomped across the bare wood floors over our ceiling.
The door to my parent’s bedroom was slightly open. My mother was up making coffee in the small galley style kitchen. The smell of Folgers wafted through the air. I had him for myself. His eyes were closed. He didn’t hear me come in.
Without a thought I leapt onto the big bed and bounced my way toward him, a big grin stretching across my face. “Happy Birthday Daddy!” I yelled. My heart bursting with joy, my mind swimming with images of balloons, strawberry whipped cream cake, presents and a piñata like the one I had at my third birthday only four months earlier. I was ready to celebrate the birth of the man I loved with all of my little heart and soul.
“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he snapped looking off towards the closet.
Laying like a mummy under the covers, his balding head all I could see, his unshaven face showing no emotion other than a look of disgust as he turned slightly away from me as if I was spreading a disease called birthday. My body stiffened, I had run into a stone cold wall where I thought a soft warm embrace was awaiting me. My heart cracked, withered and then dropped into my stomach with a thud.
What had I done wrong?
My three-year-old brain understood that birthdays were for celebrating.
Wasn’t that my dad behind the camera at my birthday party?
Our small apartment overflowed with our Chicago relatives, his German relatives in the living room waiting for the cake to be served while my mother’s Cuban relatives were in the kitchen chatting and cooking up a storm. Simple white streamers and pink and red balloons were strung across the heavy dark green curtains. A burro piñata waited in the corner to be sacrificed by the hands of my cousins.
Photos captured me prancing between the groups in my pretty new light blue eyelet dress made by my Cuban grandmother.
Photos captured me excitedly greeting my Uncle Danny at our front door to see what he had brought me.
Photos captured me blowing out a number three candle.
My dad bore witness to the celebration and the happiness all from behind his camera. Doesn’t this make him a participant?
My innocence assumed my father shared my vision of the world. At age three, I loved celebrations, I loved my relatives, I loved cake and I loved presents. I knew birthdays were when all of the things I loved came together. My father was part of that world.
I loved his musky smell of wood and sweat. When he came home from work I would find wood shavings in his clothes or hitching a ride in the hairs of his large Popeye-sized forearms. He was a man dedicated to his craft as a violin maker, a trade he brought with him when he emigrated from Germany. He also brought with him, the old-school ethic of working 16-hour days, 6 days a week, leaving little time for anything more than eating, sleeping and watching TV.
Brief visits to the violin shop he owned with his brother peppered my childhood. Its location between our apartment and my elementary school provided us with a special opportunity to see my father while he worked.
Everyday he had a different routine, whether it be varnishing finished instruments, bending ribs, or chiseling violin tops and bottoms until they were the perfect width.
On Tuesdays he rehaired bows. I remember sitting and watching him carefully remove the old hair off the bow, then cutting a hank of new blonde hair from what used to be the tail of a horse, stuff one end into the tip of the bow, wedging it in with a small piece of wood, then combing the three-foot strands of hair before wedging the other end in with a mortise joint into the frog or base of the bow. I was mesmerized by the fluid almost poetic motion of his hand going up and down while combing those strands of horsehair. I secretly wished he would comb my hair too, and then adorn it with a beautiful piece of abalone shell similar to those that cover the mortise joint of the most beautiful bows.
I was jealous of my wooden siblings. The intimacy my father shared with each of his instruments, his attention to detail, his flawless craft, and words of pride, was never bestowed on his creations that shared his DNA. I desired to be the focus of his attention. I wanted him to know me as well as each curve of a violin. I wanted him to know the songs that sang from my soul. His violins, violas and cello were his other children and there were many, almost 1,000 by the time he retired.
But why didn’t he celebrate birthdays?
In confusion and terror I ran towards my mother wailing, aftershocks trembling through my tiny body, a trail of sorrow following me.
My mother roared like a mama bear, thrashed like a tornado through the living room towards her bedroom. I trailed the vortex, as I ran to my room, crying uncontrollably at the storm I had created. I found shelter under my covers, was comforted by my stuffed animals, as I listened to my mother scream at my father. “She is only a child!”
At age three, I didn’t understand how a person’s value system could change so drastically with promises of everlasting life.
I didn’t understand how celebrating a birthday was a sin, an unspeakable event.
I didn’t understand how an adult could be so cruel and callous to his own child.
To this day, almost 40 years later, I still don’t completely understand. What I do know is on that day the universal treaty of trust between father and child broke.
I would try for most of my childhood to get my dad’s attention – something he so easily gave to his instruments and his new religion. When I was seven I started to go with him to Wednesday night bible study. I didn’t go because I loved the Lord’s word, or felt I had a duty to attend. I went because I wanted to be with my dad.
Sitting in the cramped basement of my Dad’s brother’s house with a handful of others, everyone taking turns reading from the Jehovah’s Witness version of the bible. I sat next to my dad, feeling his warmth through his flannel shirt, our hands touching as we shared his bible. I eagerly waited my turn to read. I didn’t care what Job or Matthew said, I wanted to show off my reading skills to my dad. I wanted him to hear how his seven year old daughter could read at a fifth grade level. I wanted him to bear witness to my evolution, be proud of me, to love me.
The calm after the storm was eerie. We ate breakfast in silence. My father quickly disappeared to the Kingdom Hall, to be surrounded by his new tribe. My mom may have taken my brother and I to my grandmother’s house a few blocks away or the Laundromat across the street. We never talked about this again. There were no apologies, no consoling words, no hugs, no admissions of love.
Throughout my life March 31st was a day I tried hard to ignore. I suppressed urges to buy a birthday card with a sarcastic remark – those years I was angry with him – or one with sappy proclamations of love to a fantasy dad – those years I loved him.
Two years ago my father wondered aloud to my mother, why I hadn’t called him on his birthday. Was old age lifting the dams of religious dogma from his heart allowing him to recall the things he truly enjoyed in life?
He would have turned 80 this year, 40 years since I last wished him a happy birthday. I was planning on surprising him with a visit, to tell him “Happy Birthday Daddy!”
Born and raised in the city of Chicago, I was surrounded by a mix of ethnicities and cultures.
In my neighborhood of Rogers Park we were a delightful blend of spices. A little creole seasoning, chocolate molé, spicy salsa, green curry and other delicious sauces. Me, my classmates, my friends could have represented many of the countries within the United Nations. Countries many of us never visited or will visit. Countries whose language was lost on the boat or plane that brought us, our parents or other ancestor. Countries whose culture was stuffed into a suitcase or strapped to our backs. Cultures that tried to blend with those found in this new country.
With all of this diversity surrounding me, my identity became an amalgam of cultures. I loved hanging with my girlfriends who would put french braids in my “horse hair.” Cook refried beans – with lard! – and eat them up with fresh made tortillas with my other girlfriend. Learn how to use chopsticks at our local Chinese restaurant. Learn how to jump double dutch – I was proud to be the only “white girl” who could turn double dutch. We all played together, we all loved each other, we all were a brilliant family.
That was until we got into high school. Suddenly, we were forced to label ourselves as – white or Hispanic or black or Asian, college bound or bound for McDonald’s, athlete or book worm, pretty or ugly, skinny or fat, fashionable or dumpy, popular or lame, rich or poor. I was all of them and none of them at the same time.
The innocence of elementary school was gone.
Gone were the true values one should categorize someone – mean or nice.
The complexity of all the new labels that befell us as we walked the halls of our new high school – left me wondering where did all my friends go?
Were we all really too busy thinking – she is too white or too tall or too smart or too athletic or too nice or too ugly or too stupid or too whatever – that we couldn’t all be friends just because we were nice and we all grew up together?
Many of us were made in the U.S.A. Regardless of where our ancestors came from or if we immigrated here at an early age, as children we just wanted friends to play with that were nice. As young adults some of us became leery of those who were not identical to us. Suddenly, some of us felt that our cultural identity would be lost by whom we hung out with.
Suddenly, I found myself a friend of everyone and no one.
Many of us had parents with the same cultural heritage which made labeling easier. I did not. My genetic makeup is a melting pot of Germanic and Latin cultures.
Cultural diversity, cultural tolerance, cultural love, are all genetic expressions of my DNA, although I have been greatly influenced by the environmental stimuli found in Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
I am really no different than you or you or you. We all have the ability to express these traits. Our biology is all a mixture of many cultures. Perhaps all it takes is to dive deep down and find your child within and remember what was your original truth.
To say to that nice stranger you just met – “Your nice, can we be friends?”
Is there someone you know who pushes your buttons with a marksman’s precision?
Moms are good at this, at least mine is…
But what about the people you least suspect?
About a week ago, I was triggered after having a lovely sushi dinner with my honey. Once the bill was paid, we still had some sake to finish, so I shared a revelation I had earlier that day – you know an “aha moment.” After I was done with my story he said “I really wonder what kind of roll those girls over there are having.” I looked at him, incredulously, then stood up and walked out of the restaurant in a huff. He was ignoring me, while I was sharing this important revelation! I was pissed. But as I cooled down I realized that I have felt this way before, and I began to wonder if this triggered an anger that came from another place and time, like my childhood.
When I was younger, my reactions to triggers were volatile, impulsive, involuntary. I always blamed my Latina DNA for my fiery spirit, but as I arrived to middle age, about a year ago or more, I realized that those triggers came from a place that wasn’t related to the event or person that triggered my reaction.
I started to pay closer attention to my emotional responses and what triggered them.
What I found is that 99% of my triggers were created during my childhood. My parents helped create them and they also became the first people to push my buttons. I also realized that these were emotional wounds that needed healing because my emotional response to those triggers were my responsibility and if I didn’t heal those wounds and learn how to manage my emotions, then all my relationships would suffer.
Let’s go back to my feeling ignored by my honey after our lovely sushi dinner, where did that come from? The next morning I realized that my inner child was triggered, the kid that was repeatedly ignored by her parents, especially her dad who worked all day and came home at night expecting dinner, then watching TV for a while and then going to bed, with no attempt at engaging her in conversation. His inaction made me feel like I was some unfortunate appendage he acquired involuntarily and that if he didn’t have me, then his life would be free and happy. I was angry at him for ignoring me and because of that I am now triggered to be angry when I feel like someone I love is ignoring me. I captured this revelation in my journal and I am now working on healing this part of me.
Yes I have been like the Tasmanian devil, swirling up a dust storm whenever someone triggers me, my emotions going out of control, but I’m learning how to be aware of them as they come on.
“We’re doomed!” You may think as you are now realizing that many of us walk around being triggered all the time. Uncontrolled responses to emotional triggers drive us to take drugs, get road rage, insult a loved one or you guessed it – shoot people. For example, that guy in Texas who killed himself and three other people was triggered by an eviction notice or the guy in Seattle who massacred a cafe full of people was triggered because the cafe had banned him a few days prior. Yes they were deemed mentally unstable and they took their triggers to the extreme, but are they not only mirrors of us, only magnified? Is pulling the trigger of a gun worse than mentally or emotionally abusing a spouse or child?
First accept that you are only human and you have these things called heart breaks or emotional scar tissue. Embrace that… Go on, give yourself a hug! Feel better? We all have triggers, we all have been abused or neglected by someone we just wanted to love and be loved by, to respect or be respected by, at some point in our lives.
Acknowledging that you are reacting in sadness or anger is a first step. Next time you get angry at someone, take a breath and ask yourself “Self, where is that sadness or anger coming from?” Forgive yourself, the other person and the source of your trigger. Forgiveness and decreasing your stress level will help you manage your emotional responses.
Please do not use this emotional scar tissue as an excuse. Don’t start saying, “Oops, sorry I’m mad again, you triggered my childhood anger, it’s not your fault, it’s mine.” No, no, no… That get’s old and people will runaway from you with lightening speed, is that what you want?
Managing our emotions and healing old wounds is hard work, there is no silver bullet, no quick fix for this stuff, this is literally tearing open an old wound to allow it to it heal properly, then learning new ways to respond to things that make us feel uneasy.
Once you acknowledge you have triggers, you are on the road to recovery. You will love yourself so much more, because you will realize your humanity and that you are not alone in your struggles. You may even discover or rediscover what brings you joy. Perhaps one day your button is pushed the emotion that will be triggered is love. Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Actions that have helped me with healing my emotional wounds:
Keeping a journal has helped me discover my triggers (physical action)
Going to a psychotherapist helped for a time when my journal wasn’t enough (mental action)
Energy work called Theta healing when I still didn’t feel quite healed (energetic or spirit action)
Doing things that are good for my body, mind and soul like massages, walks by the lake or in the woods, yoga, eating healthy foods…