We were making copies using the ditto machine in the teacher’s resource room of our school.
When the teacher’s aide – we kids called “slap jaw” – walked through the intoxicating fumes of the duplicating solvent to talk to us.
She asked us where we were going to high school – we both replied Sullivan. She pulled out her copy of the Gale Echo – our school’s yearly black and white booklet and opened it to the centerfold exposing the pictures of the graduating 8th graders.
Slap jaw thrust the paper and a pen towards me and asked me to autograph my light-greyish picture, saying I would be famous one day.
You were standing next to me, my sister, my desk mate in our “gifted” class, my friend for as long I could remember, our fate sealed by our shared initials R-F-R, your dark-greyish picture next to mine.
I remember looking at her, looking at you, then looking at her again. Perhaps I had a stupid smile on my face, thinking she just forgot, a simple oversight, she was an old white woman.
I remember that pause – that moment it took slap jaw to realize she should ask for your autograph too, but it was too late. She exposed our differences.
Freshman year of high school, I was labeled white for the first time. I’m not white. I’m a child of immigrants.
I played basketball in high school.
We played all-white suburban schools outside Chicago. We played all-black south and west side schools in Chicago.
To some, I looked more like suburban white than south side black.
When I fell in love with a black man from the west side, he told me I wouldn’t be accepted by his people. To his family, friends, and neighbors, I was white.
I remember feeling my love is no different.
In high school, I labeled myself a half-breed – something I heard or read someone call a Native American whose parents weren’t both Native.
But was I a half-breed German or a half-breed Cuban? What half of what breed would I be?
30 years later I received my AncestryDNA® results. I remember looking at the colored blobs over parts of the globe where my people came from.
The European continent was aglow in a rainbow of blobs.
90% of my DNA is European Mutt, my ancestors traversed the lands from Spain east towards Poland, from Scandinavia, south to Italy and Greece.
The other 10% comes from the continents of North and South America, Africa, and West Asia (the middle east).
The complicated mess of my DNA is a result of wars, colonization, slavery, revolutions, migration, immigration and everything in between.
My DNA unites, rather than divides.
I may not look like you. Our phenotypes make us look different to each other. But when we look inside we will find our similarities.
Love with abandon. You have heard this adage before. You have wished for it. You may have decided you will never know what this means. But you are experiencing it right now, every day, every hour, every minute.
You are loving Earth with abandon.
You think she will support you. You think she will always be by your side. You think she will care for you.
You have forgotten how your actions impact her. You have forgotten to nourish her. You have forgotten her.
When you wash your hair in the morning do you think about where the soap goes? Do you think she will drink it like an elixir of love?
When you go for your morning coffee do you bring your own mug? Or do you think she will take your trash and make diamonds from it?
When you look at her do you only see her beauty or do you see the wounds that you thoughtlessly imprinted on her? Erroneously thinking your love is enough to cure her.
Do you see those marks? They are yours. Only you don’t want to take responsibility for them. You say they are her problem. You say they were there before you met her. You say “I love you” as if it is a magic spell to break all curses.
Her baggage is your baggage. That is what love means. True love needs care, attention, and respect. How did you forget?
Now is not the time to love with abandon, now is the time to love consciously.
This week began with my hand banged up and my finger throbbing from having a splinter. Not the greatest start of a week.
I haven’t blogged because there are days I just don’t have the time nor the story.
Today was going to be another storyless day. I spent 11 hours in downtown Honolulu in a meeting. Came home and was invited by my neighbor’s for dinner (Alaska salmon!). When I returned to my studio the air conditioner blew a circuit breaker (again).
But the story came when I opened a bulging package and out came oodles of love from my niece, nephew, and their parents!📦
A lovely letter from my niece – who asked me to write her notes so we could be writing buddies (!), and so she could practice her spelling. 💌
I received “Holoween” goodies, even though she wasn’t sure if they celebrate Halloween in “hawie.”
The care package was perfect because I have felt weird about buying Halloween stuff in Hawaii.
I don’t have a door to welcome trick or treaters and I am fairly positive I won’t be getting dressed up in a costume. The little bit of October love from this package is sufficient for me. 🎃
Especially, my new artwork drawn by my sweet, multitalented niece.
Have you ever thought about what era your life is in or was in?
I was asked to consider this in a memoir writing class I am taking this quarter. The instructor promised this would lead us to a story or two even… There was one caveat, the era had to be linked with an obsession.
Beginning when I was about 13 years old, I was obsessed with moving to California from my hometown of Chicago. I wanted to go to high school there, I wanted to go to college then graduate school there, I wanted to live there more than anywhere else in the world. Why?
Was it the salty ocean air while walking along Ocean beach? The fog rolling over Twin Peaks bringing cool ocean air inland, on a hot summer afternoon? Was it the sour dough bread? Or was it the cable cars? The natural and man-made beauty that makes San Francisco so special makes everyone fall in love with her, but there was more.
I was attached to my grandmother. She moved to San Francisco, from Chicago, when I was 8 or 9. She was the woman I aspired to be. Beautiful, confident, fiercely independent and unassumingly intelligent.
She was also an amazing cook. On one visit, she taught me how to shop for ingredients at different stores in her neighborhood of the Mission district. We would walk to the produce market on the corner of Mission and 24th, selecting not too soft avocados and fresh green cilantro for her famous guacamole. We would stop at the butcher that was within a mall off of Mission between 21st and 22nd, to buy a quartered chicken for her famous arroz con pollo. And on special occasions she would buy freshly made ravioli from the Italian market, on 22nd and Valencia, only a block from her apartment, and cook them up with a sauce she would make from scratch with fresh Roma tomatoes, oregano, rosemary and other fresh herbs. I had never experienced a culinary world like that in Chicago. Shopping was at a grocery store and dinner was made from ingredients that were from a can or a box.
Life in San Francisco was a rainbow of colors and smells that I had not found in Chicago. My entire being glowed when I was in San Francisco, only to fizzle when I went back to Chicago.
The era of obsessing over moving to California lasted almost 10 years. To an adult 10 years may not sound like a long time. So let me put it into the perspective of a teenager.
It was FOREVER!
I graduated from elementary school, high school and college before I finally moved to San Francisco.
And this is where my instructors directions became unclear. I didn’t know what to do with the eras within this larger era or my obsessions within the bigger obsession. Obsessions don’t happen consecutively in my life.
There was the era of obsessing over the older brother of one of my classmates. For two years I suffered with a major infatuation for a tall, olive skinned, guy with black curly hair and eyes that were blue like the Caribbean sea. By the time he noticed me, I was on to my next obsession. I was obsessed with bicycle riding along lake Michigan from the north side of the city, where I lived, south 12 miles to Soldier’s Field or north 6 miles to Baha’i temple in the northern suburb of Wilmette. I was obsessed with the 1985 Bears! “Da Bears!” I was obsessed with becoming a Marine Biologist, and so on, and so on…
My instructor had us think of a scene at the beginning, middle and end of the era. She said, that is the backbone of a story.
A story?! Easier said than done!
I must have a gazillion stories I can tell. But that is a good thing. And I hope you can find them in yours too.
For now, I have some work to do… I need to sift through all of those obsessions, within those eras, or those eras within those obsessions and tease out focused stories.
My path to becoming a writer began on a mild Chicago winter day in January 1988. But I didn’t know it. It was the day my uncle Danny died of AIDS related pneumonia. He was one of those rare authentic adults who was filled with the joy of living. I loved, admired and adored him.
His death inspired my journal writing – he suggested it a few months prior to his death and his death inspired the content. The sorrow in my soul broke open my heart and inspired me to write without thinking about what was written.
A few months later, my AP English teacher said I had a “gift.” He said my writing sounded like I was speaking. He said there are people who spend their lives trying to do that.
I now know he meant to say my writing had voice, which is something to practice. Instead, I took his observation, his compliment of my creative talent as an accomplishment I didn’t need to strive towards anymore.
I thought, if I had achieved something that others spent their lives trying to achieve, then why go any further? Why pursue this thing that came effortlessly?
Instead, I exercised my analytic mind, I became a scientist.
I went to college, then grad school and studied things that didn’t come easy to me. But they were things associated with another love, the ocean. I longed to play with fish all day. I dreamed of a life swimming around in their watery environment, studying their behaviors, their life history, and their diversity. I didn’t have a job in mind, I just followed my love.
I knew I loved fish, I loved tropical waters and I loved the TV show Magnum P.I. that was filmed in Hawaii.
This girl from Chicago, dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, marrying Tom Selleck and living happily ever after studying Hawaiian fish. But it was hard trying to achieve this dream. Despite all of this love, I was only a C+/B- student at the illustrious University of Chicago, the school I ended up at because I didn’t apply to the “right” university in San Diego, where I really wanted to go. UofC is a school so anti-social, so anti-anything I had experienced in my previous life as an inner-city kid going to public schools, that my only goal was to graduate so I could continue pursuing my dream of becoming a Marine Biologist some place closer to Hawaii, like California.
For four years, I ignored the better grades I received in those classes that required creative writing and kept working hard at those classes involving solving formulas and equations. I ignored my talent.
My love for the environment and for writing merged on Earth Day 1990. I wrote a comment to a letter someone wrote the editor of the Maroon, the UofC newspaper. I wrote something about think global and act local, but what I remember most vividly is the feeling I felt when people recognized that I was the one who wrote the comment. I remember where I was – paying for books at the local Cooperative book store and the cashier, another student, recognized my name. The feeling that my words meant something to someone else was powerful. I took it as symbolic of what my future as an influential scientist would be like. I didn’t think it was something I could have pursued at that moment, change my degree and become a writer.
I wish I kept a copy.
Society didn’t show me a writer role model. No one told me about the importance of sharing one’s writing. My role model was Jacques Cousteau. His colorful, fish filled documentaries I watched on Channel 11, the PBS station in Chicago, were my inspiration. I wanted to do what Jacques did. Although, on some level, I did know that the elusive “Robin” in the Magnum P.I. series, the owner of the luxurious estate Magnum lived on, belonged to a novelist, but I associated that with the romance novels my mother read. Blech! I couldn’t do that, I thought to myself, I’m too smart.
If only I knew.
Note: This musing was written as part of a class on writing memoir – the assignment, called thematic stepping stones, was to look at things in my life that are in conflict and write about it. I chose “creative vs analytic self” and wrote for twenty minutes about the moments in my life this conflict arose. It was an assignment written by Theo Pauline Nester.
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!”
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…