Out of the Cave

Last Summer, I set myself up in the basement of a professor’s house in Montana with the intention to write. What, I wasn’t sure, but I was so set on it that spent much of the following days feverishly following threads of writing, many of which never panned out.

Then, I had this dream. It was dark, creepy, sci-fi– nothing like what I usually dream or write. I decided to try and get it down. After some very helpful feedback from lots of amazing folks (including Chris Kluwe who, after being tagged on Twitter, was kind enough to spend some real time giving me feedback), I called it a wrap and sent it to some magazines. It wasn’t published, which at the time I thought a failure, but I thought of it today and was proud that I’d pushed myself as a writer. So, here it is.


 

It’s the whoosh of the elevator that wakes her.

She hasn’t overslept like this in months, the sound of the elevator a rude awakening to an uneasy night of sleep. She blinks groggily, knowing that if they’ve already started the tours she’s likely missed her chance at breakfast. Normally, she’s up with the sun, and finds the government-issued tray filled with the same tasteless eggs, toast, apple, and cup of coffee (as if they looked up “human breakfast” when planning) outside the Cave. Most days she even manages a few push-ups and a lap around the room to stay limber. It leaves her with enough time to put the panel back in place just as they begin to walk the halls.

Not today, though.

She looks up at the faux-wood grain on the underside of a long table; the ceiling for the makeshift shelter she calls “the Cave” (to herself, of course) for two years now. She stares at it every morning, knows every swirl and crack in it, has lost herself in its lines as she tries to draft plans and figure out her next move. Now, she uses it as a compass to realign herself diagonally from point to point, the only way to stretch completely in the cramped space. She pulls herself long, her muscles thin and lean from shoddy food and a necessity to skulk. 

Suddenly, she freezes, thinking for a moment that she hears footsteps. What time is it? Footsteps will mean the tour has reached her on the 45th floor, and that will mean it’s already 10:45. Half her morning will be gone– unless she slept through the first round of gawking visitors.

She knows she must get her bearings and calculates the risk in her head. After a moment, she  thinks the footsteps are a trick of her imagination, a consequence of disrupting her routine, but there’s no real way to be sure. She quietly creeps over to a corner of the Cave, not wanting to make her presence obvious. She knows it puts her even more at risk.

In one corner, a small crack of light glistens between the panels. She puts her ear to the opening, seeing if she can catch a snippet of the tour, or the soft shuffle all Wreakers move with. She hears nothing. She pulls away from the corner and stares  at the slice of light. Her stomach knots, but her desire to know and the hopeful shining outside outweigh her sense of fear. 

She reaches over and, without looking, grabs the small steak knife she found in the first month after the Raids. One worker had kept it in his drawer, and she had pilfered it to use as… a weapon? Later, after another breathless dive back to the safety of the Cave (this was before they had a schedule), she’d laughed at how silly she was. She knew a knife couldn’t kill them.

Still, it had proven endlessly handy for building, dismantling, learning the quiet and miniscule reshuffling of objects without being noticed. The knife sits in her tiny tool section along with a flashlight, her only possessions outside of her old book bag, its contents now useless remnants of earlier times of a time before the Raids (something she rarely ever thought about).

She gently– quietly, slowly, as she has learned to be– pokes the knife into the gleaming crack between the panel and the table leg. She takes a breath. As she exhales, she gently nudges the panel a few millimeters. She freezes, has a flashback to the Raids, is half expecting to hear Wreaker-shrieking or the sound of their skin ripping back. She holds her breath.

Silence.

She takes a long, deep inhale, trying to slow down her heartbeat, as if they could hear it (maybe they can? She still has so little information of what Wreakers are truly capable of). On her exhale, she creeps towards the opening, a flower slowly stretching to meet the sun. 

She puts her eye to the crack, blinking as she adjusts to the light, and sees– nothing. Nothing new, anyway. She sees the desks, tables, and chairs in their familiar chaotic pattern, toppled over and strewn across the office. The blood and bile stains– long since dried black– are spattered across everything; the crude artwork is unaltered. The scene is still a frozen testament to everything that happened two years ago and, once the Wreakers settled in, they have kept it both as a memorial and a curiosity.

Well, the furniture is a memorial. She is the curiosity. 

She scans the room and instinctively looks towards “her” desk. It’s one of the few still upright, with minimal matter painted onto it. She sees the cord going into the drawer and breathes a small sigh of relief. The laptop is still there.

Finding the laptop was a lone shining light after the Raids. Once the first major waves died down, she began sneaking out at night to see what she could find. She picked her way around bones and bodies, scavenging anything useful– any edible food, her flashlight, the knife– before she stumbled on the jackpot: a still-functional personal computer. It only worked when plugged in, though, so her research was limited to nighttime, after the Wreakers left the building.

The first time she connected to the internet, she was delighted,  then crestfallen, her searches turning up nothing but cached page after page of old articles. The most recent ones, at that point, were those published directly before the Raids. She skimmed through, reading familiar the news reports of the strange “virus” (later discovered to be a parasite) hitting people first in London, then Norway, slowly spreading across country after country. Then, the science articles and think-pieces on the strange somatic effects– the stretching bones, hunched back, lengthened fingers– came, trying to find reason and logic where none existed. 

It wasn’t until the first attacks happened that the world began to actually fear what was coming. Then came the traditional fallout of disaster: politicians promising safety and restrictions, scientists calling for study, and the pious blaming it on sin. 

Soon the Wreakers (a name stolen from a sermon by the famed Rev. Rawlins, who claimed these “wreakers of havoc” were a warning that all must repent. His insides were strewn across his altar a month later.) were beginning to grow, spreading and attacking so fast that by the time the initial Raids swept the continents, there was no one left to write. There was no logic nor reason to be found. Everyone was running, then dead or infected.

After closing the browser window that first night, she had never felt so alone.

Years later, her brow furrows at the memory. She had been heartbroken and alone, but was she any better off now?

Her eyes dart away from the laptop and up to the large clock near the window. 10:32. She breathes a small sigh of relief. She has time. Gently, she nudges the panel just wide enough so she can creep out. As long as she stays away from the window and close to the Cave, she is safe enough. She slowly slips out and, on wobbling legs, stands.

It feels good to stand. She shakes her limbs out, as if shaking off last night’s dust, and thinks about grabbing her meal, though she doesn’t feel much like eating. She rubs her eyes and looks back at the clock. 10:35. She scans the room and sees the tray, at least twenty feet away, right next to the Wreaker entrance. 

They’re always afraid of getting too close, of somehow seeing a rogue glance of her face or a limb; afraid of setting off their predator senses and, unable to stop themselves, transforming into much, much different beings, intent on only one thing: destroying her, or turning her into another host. 

She closes her eyes, remembering the first time she saw the Wreakers in full effect– the skin ripping off their jaws to make room for the rows of teeth that sprang out, the black claws unsheathing from their fingers, the way the necks grew long and flayed, like the granddaddy of all cobras unearthing itself from some prehistoric museum display into real life.

She is glad they stay away.

At first, Wreakers seemed nothing more than ravaging animals, driven mad by… what? A mad bloodlust? Fear? The instinctive need for the virus to spread? Whatever it was, they seemed driven by nothing more than a savage desire to destroy. Nine months after the first waves, she realized they were something very different.

Late one afternoon in the Cave, she heard familiar shuffling gait and immediately curled into a defensive position to try and cover up the Wreaker-shrieks– knees up, chin to chest, arms covering her ears and head as if fending off physical blows. After a moment, none came. She tentatively put her arms down and heard… words. Halting words, dragged from throats rusty with disuse, but words nonetheless. Wreaker words that echoed in her ears long after their steps had vanished. 

She froze then, utterly still, her eyes wide and her body cold. Were the Wreakers, were they… human? What was happening? She was tempted to move, tempted to see, but stayed frozen in fear.

That night she had gone on her laptop, eschewing her normal visits to pre-Raid archives, her hiatus from the heartbreak of reality, and pulling up a new search. She saw that the Wreakers were… they were writing. They did not remember their pasts, but were beginning to regain the language and cognitive skills they had once had as humans. They were publishing articles– acknowledging the virus, creating a social structure, figuring out their new lives–

And identifying what was left of the old world.

They knew of a few humans (“pre-Wreakers, PWs”) left. A small colony in Iceland, hidden so deep in the forest they were ignored, for now. A few individuals in Kenya, Mexico, and someone in Montana. She had been made, the information posted just three hours earlier, identified as a “young female in an office building in downtown L.A.”

Weeks passed, then months, and every night she read, her stomach dropping, the intense debate about her right to exist at all. Some felt that, while Wreakers were now in the majority, those who had managed to stay human should be allowed to do so. They (almost nearly) posed no threat, and had a right to exist as much as any other “creature” (They actually wrote that! She thought). Plus, they could be “useful” later on. The current, blossoming Wreaker government currently mandated that all non-combative PWs be safely kept and cared for.

Some, though, argued that PWs had no right to exist, and certainly not on the government teat. Who did the PWs think they were? They were an inferior species, and the only way to keep the Wreaker majority was to destroy everything else.

This, in truth, was also what kept her up last night. This, too, was the reason she was not hungry this morning.

She looks over at the laptop, then at the clock. 10:37. Does she have time to read the message once more? Her heart quickens. No. She has to trust herself now. She knows the plan. She knows what she has to do. And she knows how to do it now.

Because now, she has Paco Salazar.

He’d been a high school teacher in the Central Valley, but when the attacks started, had immediately hightailed it to Yosemite, hiding amidst the pines and rocks, reasoning that if large groups of people were morphing into unknown monsters, then it was best to be away from large groups of people. 

He hadn’t been wrong. 

More importantly, Paco Salazar knew how to kill Wreakers. No one knew how. Once he had been designated a threat, teams were sent to eliminate him, but no one came back, and Salazar lived on. She read this in a Wreaker op-ed; the author wanted to kill all PWs left, saying Paco Salazar was proof that PWs needed to be exterminated. The rhetoric was shifting, becoming harsher. More violent. This op-ed was one of many she was beginning to see more frequently. 

After she finished reading, she knew where she needed to go. 

And now, after more than a year of searching, writing, dead ends, and long nights– she had finally gotten in touch with Paco Salazar. And he had helped her plan her escape. And that was the final reason she had not slept well– she would likely have to kill a Wreaker tonight.

She had certainly never killed anything before. The entirety of her life before the Raids had been school, her mother, their apartment, and the office her mother worked in. She had barely seen a dead animal, much less killed anything. 

She shudders at the thought. What will it be like? Will she be able to do it? 

She looks at the office– the one she had spent most afternoons in while her mother finished work and was now, in fact, her prison. She remembers the people her mother worked with, who spoiled her with treats most afternoons while she did her homework or read books. She closes her eyes for a moment– remembers the cool, lilac-powder smell of her mother, her straight black hair, the feeling of a gentle hand rubbing her back as she fell asleep. 

She also remembers the terror in her stomach as she ran through the office, running from Wreaker-shrieks, shrieking herself for her mother, who she was desperate to find. The desk chair and favorite sweater she had found ripped apart, that she buried her face in, sobbing, the first night she left the Cave.

This, she hopes, is what will help her do what needs to be done.

Suddenly, she hears the elevator whoosh– she is sure of it this time. She looks– 10:39? They’re early. Strange. Inconceivable. The Wreakers hold tightly to their schedule, and in the year since they began the tours, they have not deviated once. She dives back into the Cave, and closes the panel just in time to hear them shuffle into the office. She puts her ear to the crack in the corner.

“And this,” she hears, “is the 45th floor, which you’ve of course heard a million rumors about.”

The other says nothing, or is so quiet the response is inaudible. 

“Well, nothing to fear. This PW is harmless. We don’t know a lot– just that she hid from the initial Raids by staying in the air ducts–”

She closes her eyes, remembers the cold metal on her body, the feel of her fingers in her mouth to stay silent while she watched as those she knew below were torn to shreds. Remembers their screams, the vomit in her throat as she saw limbs leave bodies–

“But by the time we noticed her, she had already made her little… space over there. So we leave her alone. For now.”

“For now?” She hears the other reply. Something inside her pricks. A woman? She rarely hears female voices.

“For now. There’s much debate– we spend quite a bit of time feeding her, caring for her– why? What makes her special? Why is she not turned like the rest of us?”

There is an uncomfortable pause. The first continues. “Of course, it’s whatever the bosses decide. For now, we just leave her be. Hmm.” He takes a moment. “It seems like she didn’t eat today. Maybe we need to up the iron content– their physiology is quite strange–”

“Do I have to do anything about–”

“No,” the first laughs. “No, your only job is to walk the floors occasionally, ensure she hasn’t moved anything, make sure nothing has been touched, and don’t eat her. Our focus is on running the tours on time and keeping the memorials safe. The bosses think it’s important, remembering how we came to be.”

Ah, she thinks inside the Cave. This is a new security agent. Perfect. All the easier to confuse and kill. She looks over at her knife. As Paco told her, all she needs to do is catch them unaware, get the knife into the nape of its neck, where their primary nervous system lives, and–

“Does she…“ the new guard, the female, starts hesitantly. “Does she talk to us? Do we know her name?”

“No. No, we don’t think so. We thought it might be Maya–” inside the Cave, her stomach drops, her mouth goes dry, just at the sound of her name, “from some papers we found, but she never responded, so we don’t think so. We don’t even know if she understands us.”

There’s another uncomfortable pause. Inside the Cave, Maya shudders. Something is off– something… she cannot place her finger on it–

“I wonder if I’ll ever see her…” the new guard begins. And that’s when Maya’s eyes go wide. Her whole body goes cold. 

“I would hope not!” the first laughs. “Killing without orders is prohibited, sets off the bosses, leads to all sorts of paperwork. Don’t worry. Anyway, we have a few minutes before the first tour gets here. Take a look around, familiarize yourself. Meet me in the lobby when you’re ready.”

Maya hears the door open and the elevator whoosh away. She hears the new Wreaker shuffling about. Her mind races. She knows her best chance of escape is tonight. She knows this is her one chance to stay human, to get to someone who can protect her, who has promised to keep her safe from the Wreakers. She must kill the guard to escape. But how? How can she do it? How will she be able to–

“Maya?” She hears the new guard say tentatively, quietly, to the open air.

Tears spring to her eyes. She cannot help herself. Before she knows it, she is sobbing like she has not done since the Raids– fingers in her mouth to try and stay quiet. She cries as silently as she can, her gut wrenching as she remembers the sound of her own shrieking voice the night the Raids came to the city. 

“Maya?”

She cries harder, her whole body convulsing. She takes her hand out of her mouth; she cannot help herself. She sobs out the word as she looks at the crack of light in the Cave.

“Mama?”

She hears a sigh, deep and heavy, and the footsteps shuffle closer.

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The Rhythm of the Heavens

The first thing that strikes me about Kenya are the sounds.

From landing in Nairobi at the airport, to the village we stayed in, it’s the sounds the pop up in my mind: brightly-colored, bustling matatus honk as their exhausts loudly blare and swerve through streets; men dressed in bright pink shirts play trumpets on a truck bed as they drive down the street. Even the language— rich, velvety accents that transformed European English into something beautiful and unique— reminds you that this place is musical and special. Kenya is an audiophiles dream.

I don’t mean to say Kenya is “loud.” First off, it’s a big country that I saw a very small part of. Even then, my experience wasn’t that it was “noisy,” with all the negative connotations that espouses. Instead, it is a space where sound resonates deeply. In the city, it’s urban rhythms of street vendors and throngs of people moving around. In the village, the days and nights are equally alive— cows moo, sheeps bleat, people call out in greeting as you pass by. At every community we visited, there is a welcome of song and dance, voices and footsteps creating a beat that moves through you as you enter a new space.

It’s different than New York or Los Angeles, places where sound seems to beat at or on you– both prepositions implying a cacophony of noise thrown at you very much against your will, your best hope to shield yourself from the hailstorm. Kenya’s sounds, in comparison, feel much more like the first time you hear the rhythm of a song you think you once knew, and that you want to learn again.

It makes sense, since Africa itself is the original heartbeat of our world. It’s where our origin story starts. Kenya’s sounds weave through our very DNA, and being there triggered a connection that was both powerful and jarring. It was powerful how deeply the rhythm of Kenya can speak to the soul, and it was also jarring, because it’s effect was both unexpected and, in some ways, uncomfortable. How can I try and capture that, given who I am? How can I begin to tell you about my time in Africa? How can my short experience in any way encapsulate this place?

We’re told in the West that Africa is “foreign” and “dangerous.” It’s also a place that still very much grapples with the oppressive and colonial history foisted on it. My privilege and lack of understanding was evident from the moment we drove through the city. Who am I to make any connection to a place I clearly do not know enough, if anything, about?

Now, though, I see just how wrong I was. I see that Africa itself holds the origin of so many things, a great cradle for the beginning of earth and life itself.

There was a part of me that honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to write about Kenya. It was too hard. It wasn’t my story. There was too much to try and convey: the bare-walled and dirt-floored classrooms, with wooden benches filled with some of the widest smiles you’d ever see. The smell of the sewer, open in the streets, that we walked over to see where students at the Bethany school in the Kawangware slum live, because the director wanted us to understand what his students overcome to get to school. The way it felt when, despite challenge we think we know about living in a slum, the women in every home we visited said, “Karibu,” and welcomed us in so lovingly so we could hear their story. The powder blue shirts and brightly patterned hair-wraps of the Kithito Kya Kyeengai women’s group as they danced and shuffled over red dirt up the hill to the commune they rented to work and share music and song. The quiet, stoic pride of a nineteen-year-old named Tony, gallant in coveralls and rubber boots, as he told us, “I am not a proud man, but I wanted to have something of prestige for my family and my town.”

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It felt (and still feels, frankly) like too much to try and write down. Each experience was so personal yet so removed from my everyday life, and I don’t always know how to marry the two feelings together. I initially decided wouldn’t bother trying. I’d squirrel away the memories for myself instead, privately ruminating over them like worry beads in the hand of an anxious thinker.

Then, on our last night with our hosts at Kenya Connect, the staff threw us a going away party in their bright yellow and green buildings. There was food and song, as there had been in so many places, and the staff was kind enough to present us with our own Kenyan Animal Connections– the animals they thought best embodied our personalities. We laughed and became teary-eyed as we were connected to elephants, giraffes, gazelles, and impalas.

“Finally, Mwikali,” said James, one of the organizations Executive Directors. Lean, elegant, and quietly funny, James had called me up but my Kikamba name, given to me by a group of Kamba children at the first school we visited, meaning “the one who stays.” He invited Sharon, the other ED of Kenya connect, to present me with my animal. I nervously rose up, wondering what their impression of me was.

“These creatures are known for looking out over the Savannah and observing that everything is safe. They’re named for the feathers on their head, which looks like a quill behind their ear, and we know how proud you are to be a writer.”

Then, she handed me a beautiful wooden carving of a long-legged, heavily-crested bird. It was the Secretarybird, a crane-like, fierce looking creature. I was in love.

James nodded as I looked at the beautiful plaque presented to me. “We hope you write good stories about us. We hope you share what you have learned here.” He smiled at me as I sat down.

And I knew what I had to do.

As much as I‘m still trying to figure out my relationship with Kenya, I know that I should still try and tell this story. I know it’s not my voice that matters most, but perhaps sharing what I saw can help center us all on the voices that do need to be at the forefront of talking about this beautiful place.

The next morning, I went on an early morning run as I had done every day that week. The red dirt and rolling hills along the country highway were filled with scrubby brush and trees, and Kenya’s winter made for perfect running weather. The road was occasionally populated by matatus, or people riding their bikes. Men, women, and children passed by in brightly colored outfits headed to some of the shops or boda boda stands that lined the road. At the beginning of my trip, I had smiled at people, but generally kept to myself— I was a woman alone, after all, and I take precautions to try and ensure I don’t invite unwanted attention in ways that might jeopardize my safety.

After a few days, though, I began to see familiar faces and feel more comfortable out on the road. By the last day, I was smiling and greeting people as I past by, and was met with loving, animated responses and cheers as I ran.

As I crested a hill at the half point of my run, I looked up to see a bright, beautiful red sunrise on the horizon, a ball of flame that completely enveloped the sky around it. It stopped me my in my tracks, my heart squeezing at the powerful, ethereal thing I was witnessing, the sun blazing over the rim of the Kenyan horizon. It was the stuff of movies, and the sheer spectacle of color overwhelmed me as I watched.

I took a moment to marvel, and then take some photos before turning around, and saw that the moon was also high above the horizon on the other side as well. A complete 180° of the cosmos enveloped the village, arcing over to hold that moment and everything in it– me, the village, the brush, the people, the sky– in a perfect embrace.

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I stopped, eager to appreciate just how blessed I was– I was a girl who had traveled halfway across the world and found myself cradled between the heavens. I had come to the place where our earliest ancestors were founded, a place where music, history, art and civilization had so many of its origins, and a place that had overcome and thrived in a world that often denied its brilliance– and been gifted the feeling of belonging in that beautiful place. Africa did not ask me if I was worthy of that experience– I was not– but simply asked that I exist in kinship with it.

I closed my eyes and heard the steady thumping of my own heart, a song that I admittedly rarely take the time to listen to. And in this moment, I finally understood how powerful Africa is and my time in Kenya. In a few short weeks, being here had taken two juxtaposed ideas in my mind– connection and the unknown– and melded them together. It showed me that the rhythm beating throughout Kenya was linked to the beating of my heart, an ethereal rhythm of the heavens much bigger and grander than I thought possible. It existed in every child’s dance step, in the voices raised high in welcome, in the hands working to thrive each day.

My trip had shown me that the actual human experience is so much deeper and more nuanced than the dichotomy I had created. Instead, it revealed that there are songs and singers more powerful than the lines I have used to try and define the world. They are there, as they have been for millennia; I need only I take the time to see and, more importantly, listen to them.

Down the Rabbit Hole

CW: Anxiety and images of death.


I never know when it’s going to hit.

I am sitting in an airplane as it begins to speed towards the end of the runway and take off. It’s a normal flight— one of the the hundreds you take when you live on an island, getting either to the mainland or island-hopping. It’s routine, at this point, to find myself on a plane.

Then, there’s a slight bump as the jet soars higher. The plane pitches forward for an instant, and I hear the metal begin to rip off and break. The bolts are popping off, loud and violent, and I look up to see a fireball shooting down the aisle of the plane, straight for me. In that moment, I realize I am going to die. My eyes engulf the flames coming towards me, the silver second I have left on earth quickly flashing away. My mouth turns to ash as I whisper, “No,” thinking of all the things I do not want to lose.

Then, I blink, and it’s gone.

The aisle is clear, the plane is steadily taking off, safe as any other flight I have been on.

I blink again, and the sequence starts all over, a movie playing behind my eyes on repeat. Over and over I watch myself die— which is not necessarily the worst part. The worst part is imagining what comes after. I see my family, devastated and in mourning, all the things I left unsaid, everything I will not get to do. My heart breaks. My chest clutches and I feel like I cannot breathe.

I blink, and it’s gone. Then again, in an instant, the movie starts all over.

I take a deep breath, and close my eyes, trying to stop the anxiety that is not the monster looming on my shoulder or the storm cloud passing through my day, but torture in the worst way. It is my own mind, forcing me down the rabbit whole of my worst nightmares over and over and over.

May is Mental health Awareness month. My anxiety is something I’ve written about often— in regards to my teaching, my running, and just my day-to-day existence. I can easily share many of the ways it will manifest: crying jags, a temporary inability to breathe, insomnia.

I’ve been quiet about it, though, because I’ve been in the throes of some of the worst manifestations of my anxiety that I deal with.

Which is difficult, because it’s something that’s hard to talk or write about. It’s not the anxiety that my body unwillingly throws at me when I least expect it, a physical mutiny of panic as my rational brain scrambles to try and calm me down. It’s a descent deeper and deeper into the own, darkest parts of my psyche and, if I’m not careful, I can spiral may way down into a pretty terrible place.

My most intense trigger, in truth, is death— more specifically, death or pain happening to my loved ones. Since childhood, I have been occasionally overcome with the deep fear that someone I love is going to die and I won’t be there to do anything about it. As a kid, I would follow my family around because I’d feel certain that if I didn’t, something bad would happen and I wouldn’t be there to try and help them or simply be around for their last moments. My stomach will fill with hot lead, I’ll get nauseous and light headed— not just anxious or scared, but unable to stop seeing the horrifying movie in my head. It plays my worst fears back to me in vivid detail— seeing my family brutally murdered, discovering their bodies strewn on the street after a car crash, the anguish of discovering they’d been killed in a fire.

Like Hamilton in Hamilton says, “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” I am no Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I understand what it’s like to imagine something so vividly over and over that you relive a memory that hasn’t happened at all. The sequences will repeat itself over, and over, and over again. It can paralyze me. I have lived with the specter of death since childhood, and there are times its presences looms so large that it overshadows anything else. Instead of living my story, I can find myself caught up in the horror movie my brain insists on writing and rewriting.

Now, we live in an increasingly scary world, where our ability to stay safe feels even more out of our control. There are only more images of people mourning lost loved ones that feed my own ability to feel like I am living that trauma myself, over and over again. While I can manage some of the physical aspects of panic, it’s hard to control my vivid imagination when our current climate only adds more ammunition into the gun that shoots off rounds of “what if, what if, what if” over and over through my mind.

The world is scary for many of us, and I think there’s a natural anxiety that comes with a lot of what’s in the news today. I’m not saying I’m special or that my anxiety is any more unique or interesting than anyone else’s. I am just admitting that my panic is not only the out-of-my-control physical reaction I often write it as. My anxiety is just as much mental as it is physical; it takes the horror of events and overlays them onto my own life.

Which is not only painful but, frankly, inconvenient and annoying. While there are many real fears that can upset me, my anxiety also makes it hard for me to function rationally at times where, truly, there is no need to panic. It’d be nice, for example, to not have a panic attack after watching Avengers: Infinity War, because, in watching the end of that film, it triggers the film in my mind that forces me witness my family or partner disintegrate before my eyes over, and over, and over again.

Do I rationally know that this is ridiculous, because this is a fictional movie and, while there are many scary things in the world, the possibility of Thanos snapping his fingers and removing half of us is not one of them? Of course. But that doesn’t make the feeling any less real in the moment. Even though, in my head, I know that it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t take away the overwhelming heartbreak, the tears burning in my eyes, my chest caving in so I cannot breathe, as I see the fear, sadness, and horror in their eyes over and over again.

There are things that help, of course, but anyone who’s ever had anxiety, depression or running thoughts will tell you that saying, “Well, then don’t think about it,” is like giving me a box of tissues to try and stop a flood. Even while well-intentioned, it not only will not work, but also leave a soggy mess in the process.

My therapist has also tried some other tactics, like asking me to play the movie to the end. What would happen if any of those tragic events did occur? And this is what’s also difficult— my mind knows that, rationally, I’d be okay. I would be heartbroken and devastated, but I would live. I’m strong enough, now, to believe that. I trust in the love and support my loved ones have given me to know they would want me to be happy, and that they have given me the tools to move towards happiness again.

But it doesn’t make the moments where I am living those very real things feel any better. Knowing that, eventually, I’ll stop falling down this well of darkness, doesn’t change the fact that I am currently falling and it’s really terrifying. The hardest part with being told that “it will pass,” or “it will be okay,” is that I know those things are true, but it doesn’t fix the feeling I am having right now. Knowing that this will pass doesn’t un-cave my chest or bring back my breath. 

Unfortunately, the best option I have found when I find myself going down this spiral is to try and distract myself so that I don’t fall too far down. I claw my way out towards the light and attempt to move forward by focusing on something else.

Of course, though, that means that it’s really hard to talk or write about, because in doing so, I have to think about it, which makes it really hard to not trigger a downward descent into the darkness. Even in writing this post, I have had to take multiple breaks so that I don’t let myself go to far.

Recently, though, my anxiety has gotten worse, because it’s started attaching to my partner, Michael, as well. Before, it would only be my family I worried about. Once Michael’s departure got close (he is surfing and adventuring for a month), my anxiety went into full affect. I have been terrified that now that I am so incredibly happy and feel stable in my life, that it will suddenly be ripped away from me.

In the weeks before he left, I was a mess. I will be honest: there are time now that he is gone that I am still a mess, because I can’t stop myself from watching his death in my mind over and over again.

Which is a pretty shitty way to live. Michael has been really supportive, but I feel bad dampening his deserved excitement with my morbid fears of his death. It also means that there have been times where, instead of enjoying the time I did have with him, or the time that I have now with my friends, I am very close to being paralyzed in terror on my couch.

But… that hasn’t happened. At least, not yet. There have been a few close calls, but after crying for a few minutes, I have been able to breathe through it, remind myself to let it go, and call a loved one or put on MTV’s Catfish because it is the perfect kind of TV distraction that helps me stop seeing this morbid movie in my head.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if this is a sustainable plan. As vulnerable and thoughtful as I have tried to be with my anxiety, this Mental Health Awareness month I find myself at the end wondering if I’m actually as aware with myself as I could be. Yes, Catfish is a fun distraction, but running from this trigger for the rest of life (one that I imagine will be worse when I have kids) doesn’t seem to be the most enduring response.

For now, I am trying to breathe through it. I am sitting in these feelings taking each day as it comes, and thinking through what comes next while still trying to be kind to myself and figure out my next course of action on my terms. The rabbit hole can be dark, but I know I can claw my way out, and I feel lucky that the light at the top I’m reaching for is full of joy and strength and, most importantly, love.


Hi there,

I know sometimes with posts about mental illness, we want to share our own experiences as a way to validate and connect, and I really appreciate that. But if this is a trigger for you, too, hearing your vivid imaginings of death or tragedy is kind of upsetting and hard for me, so I’m gonna ask that you hold off. Also, I’m not looking for feedback or ideas on how to handle this at the moment, since I’m dealing with a lot and don’t have the capacity to focus on that right now. I’m just sitting in and sharing these feelings. Thank you!

The Seeker of Stories

“So… what are you? Like, where are you from?”

Like many mixed-race and/or “ethnically ambiguous” people, I’ve spent quite a bit of time explaining myself. I grew up in a mostly white suburb in Southern California, I’ve spent a lot of my time (and writing) trying to explain who I am (my dad is Chicano and my mom is Filipina. My brother and I call it “Mexipino/a”).

Being mixed-race in the U.S. was and is confusing at times. In a society desperately trying to slip an easily-read label, we struggle to fit that narrative. We get told we’re “not-_______ enough,” or not really _______ , as if our mixed status means there’s a quantifiable amount of culture we’ll never be able to maintain.

And, like it did for a lot of mixed race folks, those words hurt. A lot. They made me question myself and my identity, they made me feel less than to my community in a world that already looked at Brown people as less than. Yes, my parents helped me try to navigate these waters and helped me be proud of both cultures, but it was hard when people I thought would get me still made me feel alone. It made me feel as if I had nowhere to go.

I grew up, though, and began finding power in being mixed race, and learning to claim both my AAPI upbringing (most of my friends were Asian-American) with the truth of both cultures. I learned Spanish and danced Tinikling. While I still got the looks and the questions, knowing that I wasn’t alone in my responses and frustrations made it more bearable.

Instead of feeling alone, I learned the stories of others who shared my struggles, or struggled so that I could have more. I learned how to ask my family for their stories: Why did we eat the food we did? How did we end up in America? Where did my hair come from? I was surrounded by people who had so many amazing stories to help make sense of my own– I just needed to listen.

Through the magic of the universe, I found even more stories last night, when I discovered this NPR LatinoUSA piece on being Asian and Latino.

When I shared this online, Darren Naruse showed how this affects the next generation as well.

This made me realize how, even when it was hard, I felt extremely happy to be mixed-race. As one of the participants noted that being Asian-Latino helped him to essentially code-switch between cultures, finding the similarities between the two that helped him navigate both well.

In reminiscing on my own experiences, I realized the blessing, in some ways, of being “othered.” Having others frequently question my identity forced me to dig deep to actually figure out who I am and what my cultures mean to me. It meant learning how to be “fully me,” as Darren put it.

Being mixed race is a sometimes-confusing but ultimately beautiful journey. The additional challenges are rooted in a journey of deep, powerful self-discovery that have made me who I am now. It pushed me to learn the stories of both my cultures to find pride build strong connections with them. The questions and push back I got ultimately led me to learn and develop those cultural understandings even more as I got older.

Then, I moved to Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i is unique in that there is no ethnic majority, and if there were, it wouldn’t be white people. Many residents are AAPI, and its the home of the largest mixed-race population in the United States. The cognitive dissonance I’d had on the mainland growing up began to melt away. I do get asked what my ethnicities are, a common practice here rooted in discovering common ground–the people asking are often mixed themselves. As Darren points out, living in Hawai‘i means that it’s easy to not think about race, at least in terms of “belonging and not” on a daily basis.That sounds impossible to non-white folks, but it’s true.

There’s a blessing and a curse to this, though. Of course, not feeling othered where I live is a huge blessing. However, I’m now largely removed from Latinx culture, since the Latinx population is about 10%. This can feel hard, since it feels like half of my story no longer had anyone to connect with. I wrote about in 2016 for Honolulu Civil Beat:

[The tamale woman] was there every Saturday, yelling with a sense of tired, joyful urgency. It was like a breakfast-and-supper song: “Tamales, tamales ! Tamales de POL-lo, tamales de QUE-so, tamales tamales !” My housemates hated her, and I wasn’t always a fan, but now, in Hawaii, I miss her voice.

I miss her singing, her call, and her food that makes us special. I miss the small, daily reminders I am not just American — even if the United States is a place I feel lucky to call home — but that there is another language, culture and history waiting there for me whenever I want.

In moving to Hawaii, I now walk a weird line. I’m an outsider, but not really. My dark skin and mixed roots make it easy for people to assume I’m from here. It took a 3,000-mile journey, but I found a place where I can walk nearly anywhere and feel like, at least at a glance, I belong.

But in another way, I am a minority again. Half of my culture is completely visible here, but another half feels like it has been lost. I search for that half, seeing her curly hair, the poetic words she knows, and the palate of memories that include my mom’s mole and my grandmother’s noodles.

I know my mother is in me, forever entwined with an Asian culture that is just as beloved, just as precious. But I worry that, being here, the blossoming of one half of me is threatening to overtake less cultivated roots on the other side. I fear that if I am far from the consistent reminders of one culture for long enough, it will slip away into silence.

Is there a place where both of my cultures can live and thrive side by side? Is there ever a stable, fertile ground to place both feet firmly and grow roots, instead of the balancing act I live each day? Is there some way, some place where I can feel whole?

I don’t have the answers. I wonder if anyone does.

As I revisited this piece, and with three more years under my belt, I’ve realized that I have to create the place where I feel whole. It’s up to me to look ahead and create a spaces and connections.

Being connected to my cultures is active work that I have to initiate, instead of waiting for the world to push me there. It means practicing my Spanish when I can, making it a point to make, find, and eat Mexican food. It means finding Filipinx groups to connect and organize with. I am no longer seeking connections in response to being othered, I must actively seek these stories because I know they are important not just for me, but for the next generation as well.

When my children who, of course, will be mixed themselves ask me those questions, I can no longer rely on others to share those stories. It is my kuleana– privilege and responsibility– to share the stories and pride of both cultures with them. This means that I have to keep learning, connecting, and developing my understanding of them, even when it feels easier forget.

I can no longer just keep the stories handed to me by others, I must be the one seeking and sharing those stories too. In doing so, I am able to help the next generation write theirs, as I continue to write my own.


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Julia Torres (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

#31DaysIBPOC_BADGE

Cinched

The first thing I notice is the color– a deep, almost Crayola blue, cooling the warm undertones of my skin. The flowers wrap around my neck and across my chest. I love this dress, and have been complimented on it all morning. Yet, as the fluorescent lights bounce off my skin, I am struggling to like the image I see. I am looking in a middle school bathroom mirror, trying to convince myself that I don’t look ugly.

For most of the middle school girls that I teach, this, sadly, isn’t a new experience. I am not, however, in middle school, nor writing about feelings I had at 13. I am 31, standing in the bathroom at the school I teach in, trying to be okay with how I look.

It’s such a subtle change, I chastise myself a bit. All I did was remove the belt I’d had on earlier that day. It had been a nice tie of the outfit together, sure. But, this day, it had mostly been uncomfortable. I’m sitting much of the day (my students are watching a film), and belt sort of sits uncomfortably across my stomach. I also, at this point, just ate a big (and delicious) lunch. I’m done teaching for the day. I sit in my discomfort for a moment, then ask Why am I doing this to myself? Finally, I decide to take the belt off.

It’s fifteen minutes later when I look in the mirror and struggle with the person staring back at me. As I sit in the feelings, I try and ask why wearing a loose dress with no cinched waist feels so hard and makes me feel so insecure.

I could name a handful of things, I’m sure. Being a chubby kid and young woman, I still struggle to find the balance between celebrating the way my athletic body now feels without feeling the need to wear everything tight. I’ll put on a snug shirt and slim pencil skirt, look in the mirror, and have to remind myself that you don’t need to keep proving to people that you’re skinny now. It doesn’t actually matter, before changing into a more comfortable outfit I actually want to wear.

Now, at 31, I am working at being more comfortable in my skin. It’s still a challenge, though, every. single. morning. After running a 3:30 marathon a little more than a month ago, I haven’t run more than 7 miles at a time since. I just… haven’t wanted to.

So, because I’m not running 40 miles weeks, I catch myself still thinking I’m not “good enough” or fit enough. Like with the belt, I know that the change is small and barely noticeable. I have been working out every day (and having my wonderful partner join me!), and am arguably better shape now that I’ve incorporated weight training back into my fitness regimen. Though I know it has no real barometer on fitness, I’m the same size I was when I was marathoning. I know because I am, unfortunately, back to measuring myself nearly every day.

Which is, to be fair, another reason why the lack of belt is such a ridiculous thing to worry about. Why does everything I wear have to be cinched in, as if I need to prove that some part of me is small and, therefore, worthy? Why am I letting that decide whether or not I feel pretty?

I close my eyes, take a breathe, and relax my stomach. My belly goes soft, filled with the food I made it. Soft because it’s Friday at the end of a long week, and my body is in desperate need of some relaxation. Soft because I am, after a week with my partner, my friends, my therapist, finally relearning how to breathe again. Soft as my body goes through its ritual changes and prepares for the children I do not yet have, but hope some day to. Soft as a woman’s body is, sometimes. Soft as my mother’s body, my abuela’s body, the bodies of the women before me and like me who looked like me and who wore and wear dresses like this one.

The dress moves only slightly. With the belt, it would pull and tug at the fabric while pushing in my stomach. Now, without the belt, it flows over my belly, pushing out a little, caressing it, then flowing back down when I release the air and let my body relax. I do it again– watch my stomach move against the dress, try and love the sensation, and then watch as my body moves away from the dress.

It is not perfect. I am still working to like the image in the mirror. But, for the rest of the day, I will try not to put the belt back on, and instead revel in the feeling of loose comfort and bright colors that I know, deep down, are just as worthwhile as I have the power of being small be in my mind.

 

Lifting the Veil

“The hardest story to write is always the one you struggle to tell the most.”

This is what I typed a few minutes ago. Then, I look at the sentence and laughed. Well, duhI thought to myself, That’s pretty obvious.

What meant to say was:

The hardest story to tell is the one you need to write the most.

or maybe

The story you need to tell the most is the one you struggle to write.

That’s the place that I have been in. I know there’s a story I need to tell, but I haven’t been able to share real words about it yet. Because I haven’t really felt like myself for about two or three weeks now.

It’s a little terrifying, to be honest. When I’m trapped in an anxious state like this, it’s as though there’s a veil behind my eyes that separates me from the rest of the world. It’s not active, necessarily– it’s not as though I can’t do my job or generally act like myself. It’s more subtle than that. I remember conversations after they happen, but feel as though I’m watching them in the third person instead of having lived them. My students notice when I misspell easy words (“fued,” “Aril”), or switch them around completely when I speak. I write sentences like the above, which are a bit nonsensical.

This has happened before, of course. I’ve been dealing with anxiety since my childhood and all of these things point to an incoming panic attack. The difference now, though, is that my life is actually, truly happy and stable. There is no big “thing”– relationship worry, job concern, etc.– that will trigger an attack. In the past, there has always been something that my anxiety could latch on to– whether or not I admitted it– that could set me off and, at the very least, allow me to have the attack, get the anxiety brewing inside of me out, and help me move forward.

It’s the most hilarious problem to have, in some ways. Now that I can’t default my normal ways of “bursting the bubble,” I have no choice but to face it. I try and breathe through it. I try drinking or not drinking. I went to yoga twice this week and am working out daily. I am attempting everything I can to be “okay.”

I will think I’m fine, but then something will happen that reminds me that, actually, my body isn’t yet mine. One Saturday, after a wonderful writing workshop, I was standing in the middle of Foodland when the world around me went fuzzy and I suddenly felt like I could no longer stand. The rest of the day was hours spent of trying to work through nausea, lightheadedness, and worry. I didn’t run the half-marathon I’ve done annually for the first time in 4 years, unsure if my body would be able to. This feeling lasted for days, and each morning I’d wake up hoping this would be the day my anxiety lifted away, and at some point, my chest would begin to bubble, my heart race and my throat close, as it hit me that I am still separated somehow from my reality.

Yet, somehow, having anxiety is not the end of the world. Unlike the past, I’m still able to function well, laugh and love and be loved, despite the looming veil of clouds on the horizon. With the exception of that one weekend, I am able to have this anxiety and still feel, well, happy.

Which is a weird reality to sit in. For so long, my anxiety was the monster I ran from, the black smoke that swallowed me whole when it came, leaving me gasping and weeping on the floor. Now, I am in a place where I can still live a generally happy life, if only behind the veil a little.

And it does eventually lift.

Michael and I were preparing for our Friday morning workout when, out of nowhere, my body broke into a sweat and began shaking uncontrollably. I sat on the ottoman by the door, back flat against the wall, trying to breathe, as Michael got ready in the other room, not knowing I was fighting through a storm.

“What’s wrong baby?” He asked, as soon as he saw my face. I shook my head and said I just needed a minute. He came over, stood in front of me, and rubbed my back for a moment. “We don’t have to go,” he said quietly.

“No! No. I want to go. I can go. I can… I just…”

“Just breathe.” He responded immediately. “Just breathe. It’s okay.”

And just like that, the wave broke. I leaned my forehead against his chest and my hand on his back, as if to steady myself against the storm. I started to sob, crying into his shirt as everything inside me whirled about. He stood there, ever my rock, as the storm raged through me.

Then, things settled. I took a long, shaking breath. The clouds began to dissipate.

And there I was. Somehow, slowly, feeling the light of myself shine through again.

Michael asked me later why I hadn’t told him I was feeling so disconnected. “There wasn’t anything anyone could do,” I shrugged. “So it made sense to say to just wait for it to go away.”

“But I could’ve known,” he pushed me. “That way I could understand better.”

For the first time, I realized that panic is not always the monster I have to battle or run from. Panic can just be the sometimes-storm-cloud in my forecast, and I don’t have to wait for it to pass alone anymore. 

It is not perfect (as the sentences at the top of this post show). I was still tired much of yesterday and today. I am still catching myself a bit out of it, but finding a quick shake of the head brings me home. While I am still recovering from this cycle of anxiety, I at least feel like the veil is lifting and I’m seeing the world as myself again. Yesterday morning, I stood under the shower, feeling the water hit my scalp as I dug grains of sand out of my hair from the day before. I inhaled deeply and rejoiced that, in the solitude of my simple, little shower, I was able to finally be my full self.

I smiled then, relieved to realize that these little moments– while lacking in drama or intrigue– are the things making up the happy life I have wanted for a long, long time.

Maybe One Day

I never know when the urge will overtake me.

Something will happen– I’ll see a name pop up on social media, get a notification from an old email– and then I’m down the rabbit hole. I’ll sign into old accounts and start uncovering a past that I forget I didn’t want to remember to begin with.

It’s innocuous at first. Old job applications and embarrassing emails to former bosses when I was in college. A few exchanges between friends. The memories are often funny and ridiculous. It is fun to be transported back.

Then, I see a name. The Big One. The one that rips me to shreds when I do not expect it, and terrifying memories pop and crackle behind my eyelids like flashes from gunfire. It hits me right in the chest and, for a moment, I cannot breathe.

I do not want to waste time nor anger on him. I just want to grieve and move on.

This day, though, and not for the first time, I begin typing the name into Facebook and search engines.

What happened to him? Where did he end up? Why am I looking? Maybe if I can put him into some kind of current context, I can staunch the flood of memories that runs through my veins.  I find very little– a few research papers he published, a mention of him in a club– and one picture that I dare not open, because the face in the thumbnail is enough to make my stomach drop.

I close my eyes. Close the windows, I beg myself. You don’t need to do this anymore.

I can’t tell you why I do this, but I wish I knew how to stop. As much as I will myself to forget, I know a part of me will always bear the mark; a burning red thread woven down my spine, through my belly, will always live there. No amount of time will ever make it go away. It will wear down, slowly, until it is barely visible, but what happened will always be stitched in.

And yet, even if I were to unstitch myself, there would be a permanent hole where the thread– wound of the sights, smells, and images I’d rather forget– once was. I’m not sure which is better.

It’s surprising and not that, even with my skilled internet sleuthing, I cannot find him. It’s strange in this day and age for anyone to be unfindable on the internet, yet he was a self-described “misanthrope” (I had forgotten that until I saw it in one of our final email exchanges) who mocked social media, even a decade ago when it was still new and exciting.

I, on the other hand, am very findable on social media. A quick search of my name will usually land here, or to some other profile with pictures and life updates. It’s a part of the job, in some ways, and I honestly really enjoy connecting people with online. That’s what I tell myself, at least.

But there are times, like now, when I am clinging to the sides of a dark well that echoes his name at the bottom, that wonders if he ever remember me the way I do him. Does the image of my face, my smile, my eyes welling with tears, sneak up on him the way his does to me? Does he round a corner and hear my voice whisper, “Boo!” into his ear, a spectrum calling him down a dark well of a different kind?

He never acknowledged anything after. Once, in the months after, I would get angry and bold and send a text message saying, simply, “I hate you.” It was the only time I had allowed myself to be openly bitter. I still have his number burned into my brain, even now,  but he was an adult (hadn’t he also been an adult when it happened?) and never responded.

So, now the thread hangs there, and I wonder if the other half is wound into him. Does he feel it sometimes? When he does, does he search for me as I have? Does he gingerly, slowly, type my name into a search bar– each clack of the keys asking, “Are you sure?”– and see my smiling face– now molded and thinned out over the past twelve years– on his screen?

As much as I hate to admit it– I hope that he does. He slipped silently out of my life, but I will not afford him that luxury. I will not go voiceless. If he remembers me and looks for me, my face is there, my smile ringing like a bell that will not be silenced.

Maybe one day I will find out something about him but, for now, all I am left with is his  name. I search, let myself whisper it quietly, and close my eyes. The thread starts to burn. My eyes start to sting and I feel my chest twinge. I let myself cry, try and heave it out of me. Instead, my breath is bitter and hot in my throat, his name fouling me from the inside out.

I force my hand to my chest, rub my heart, and try and drown out the bitter, festering taste of his memory. I remember my mother’s hand rubbing my back wordlessly as I cried. I feel a friend’s hand squeezing mine. I picture the man I love and the men I loved before and after it happened. I inventory every kiss I had or body I touched, special in that I had choice, in that I willed them into existence. I think of all these things and, slowly, the memory burning inside me slowly cools down.

Maybe one day I will be able to remember without needing to look, or notice the thread slipping through me, shrug, and move on.

Maybe, one day, I will no longer see the name and feel my body burst to shrapnel. I will breathe deeply, easily, and let it go.

Maybe, one day, I will be able to say his name without my breath turning bitter, but instead taste communion wine, stinging, but softened with forgiveness and redemption and mellowed as it brewed in my heart.

Maybe, one day, I will simply move on.

Maybe.