So, This Is Love

It doesn’t hit me until I am doing laundry.

My body is already bone tired— there’s a weird pain in my hips every time I turn and I’m pretty sure I’ve permanently strained my rotator cuff, since every time I have to pick up anything there’s a weird pinching in my back. My shoulders sag; even my ear is sore from hitting the mat. I’m tired.

Then, I realize that my laundry doesn’t fit in the machine. I’m going to have to do at least two loads since I just remembered that there’s another pile in my gym bag I forgot to grab. I sigh, since it’s all going to have to be washed on hot and extra long because… frankly… it stinks. It’s covered in sweat and salt and spit and no dinky, express wash is going to be able to handle this.

I rub my eyes, split the load, and get ready for a long night of laundry.

When did this happen? I ask myself. Have I also had this much stuff to wash?

I realize that, no, it hasn’t always been like this. It’s because I’m switching identities multiple times a day now. I jump from middle-school English teacher to runner to CrossFit athlete to jiu-jitsu practitioner in a single twelve-hour period. Each requires its own costume, its own gear, and each has me use and abuse a new article of clothing. That increases the hours I spend doing laundry each week and since I’m out late doing all these things, it makes for a very, very long day.

So, this is love.

It hits me when I was hunched over the washer, stretching my hamstrings as the machine begins to whir. If love is the measure of our devotion and investment in something, the way we attempt to name the amount of time and affection we give, then I have been having an intense love affair for the past few months.

Love is multiple loads of laundry every week so that you have what you need. Love is line-drying jiu-jitsu gi and getting your own CrossFit equipment. It’s separating out piles of running clothes and looking for matching socks at 10 PM because you have to be up at 4:30 AM to run if you’re going to be able to get to everything else that day. It’s having to pack and unpack your car in multiple trips because between all the clothes and all the gear for these twelve-hour-days there’s no way you can carry it all at once.  It is, at the end of that day, running to your classroom and grading twenty essays in your jiu-jitsu gi because it’s easier to go straight to back to school then it is to go home. It’s sore shoulders and aching calves and groaning as you try and roll out all these muscles, knowing that the next morning you’re going to get up and do it again.

Because that’s what it takes. Or, more importantly, that’s what I want— it’s not about medals or accolades. I’m not a competitive CrossFit athlete or jiu-jitsu practitioner; I don’t win marathons. I simply love doing these things, even when they hurt. Even when I have a bad run or my lifts suck or I lose every sparring session, I am in a deep and intense love affair with my body. That love makes me move from workout to workout, knowing that the sacrifice and commitment now will mean something much greater in the long run.

After years of trying to understand love– of my family, my friends, my students, a man– I’m finally understanding what loving myself means. It’s the time and devotion and affection for the physical space I inhabit each and every single day. It’s investing in myself and that space to do things I never thought were possible.

“Joy cometh in the morning,” Psalms tells us. It’s not just a reminder to know that a new day always dawns, but a spiritual exercise in hope and persistence. Love is the mental wherewithal to persevere when things are bad because I believe that they will eventually be better. It’s knowing that, on the days when my body may not perform the way I wanted, the joy is in the practice itself and not the outcome. It’s believing that every failed lift or tired run is a step towards eventual triumph.

So, yes. It’s long hours and lots of laundry and an aching body. Yet, I know that at the end of that day when I finally make it back to my apartment, I will sigh happily with relief. Everything hurts except my heart. My heart is always bursting with a love for myself that completely new and thoroughly joyful.


 

Note: So, during aforementioned marathon grading session, I took a break to run to BJJ so I didn’t burn out. I definitely forgot a change of clothes and had to run back to my classroom in my gi to finish grading. The ridiculousness of it struck me, and I wanted to capture the moment. Thanks to Calamic Photography for the photo edits. 

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Being a Woman in Trump’s America

This piece originally ran in Education Week.

I was going to start this piece off detailing some story of my own sexual assault(s) and harassment(s). I was going to start launch in, like I often do, with what it felt like: the way the pit in your stomach forms into a hard, cold stone. Your blood turns icy with fear. Everything stops moving for a second– it’s the adrenaline flooding your system. It courses through you in an instant as your brain very quickly registers that something jarring is happening to your body, and you become hyper aware in a way that you never want to.

Then, I realized two very sad facts.

First, I would have to choose an incident. Like most women, I face some kind of harassment or provocation on a near-daily basis. From what some mistakenly refer to as “minor” incidents like being catcalled when I walk somewhere to the multiple times where I have been physically grabbed or touched in ways I did not want.

To be a woman in America (and far too often, worldwide) is to understand that you exist in a space where your body not yours at all. It is a thing to be coveted, ogled, commented on. It is appraised. At best, my body is protected as “someone else’s goods,” instead of having an agency and will all its own. As such, there have been multiple times where that mindset has manifested itself into acts of harassment or violation against me.

Second, as I was crafting this piece in my head, a voice popped up saying, “That’s too cliché. Everyone is responding to this by sharing the details of their assault. It’s already overplayed.”

And isn’t that sad?


I had never planned to delve into politics with my writing. Of course, education lends itself to understanding and discussing points of policy and implementation. With the exception of acknowledging the election and giving my students space to voice their opinions, however, I rarely make clear political stances in my classroom. I try my best to remain neutral.

Recently, however, that has been increasingly difficult. Not because I inherently disagree with a political stance taken by one candidate, or the tax plan of another doesn’t make sense. It’s because, as a nation, we are witnessing the source, symptoms, and consequences of a culture in America that normalizes assault. We are seeing what happens when generations of men are taught that their masculinity is best portrayed in the toxic guise of “locker room talk” machismo that glorifies ownership of women. We are reaping the ramifications of women who have allowed that talk as “boys being boys.”

Here’s the thing: many of us have been saying that we don’t want to live in a “Trump’s America,” or “Trump World.” When it comes to rape culture, however, we are not seeing something created by a single man, we are seeing a political candidate embody a mindset that has permeated our culture for decades. To be a woman in “Trump’s America,” is actually realizing that a culture that has commodified your body now has a megaphone headed towards the throne.

I do not believe it is my place as an educator to sway my students politically towards a particular candidate. I adamantly believe in teaching my students to think critically, help them see injustice, and then allow them to make their own decisions.

Still, as a woman who stands in front of young people– women or men– every day, I cannot keep allowing these beliefs to perpetuate without teaching our students to question the source, symptoms, and consequences of that culture. If it is important to teach our students to critically question the world we live in, that includes not just the politics of our candidates, but the cultures they seek to create as well.

To be a female teacher, or any teacher, in America means teaching that this kind of message–one where our men are taught violence is power and our women accept that as the status quo– must not continue. We must teach our students to hear, understand, and ultimately dismantle those beliefs before another generation of women has to worry that their assaults is a cliché to begin with.


So educators, now is the time.

Start simply, “What do you think of the current scandal around Donald Trump?” Listen to your students. Critically question why they think what they do. Give them space to be angry if they feel that way.

Talk with your students not just about the horrible anti-Islam, anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed (Teaching Tolerance has a number of excellent resources). Teach your students about rape culture and why it’s wrong.

In a world where it is easy for hatred and ignorance to spew and grow and gain an audience, I cannot think of a more important time to be an educator. To be an educator today is to allow and invigorate the tough conversations that won’t just make for interesting classroom discussion, but could help ensure positive change for generations to come.

Beasts and Badasses

This week, Teaching Tolerance featured something I wrote about the words we use for women:

For nearly a decade, I had sought approval under different names, ones much less badass than “beast.” I reveled in being called “cute,” “small” or “too pretty” to do something. When that same coach had, earlier that month, described me as a “110-pound girl,” I basked in the glory of that diminutive for days. I would see myself in the mirror and secretly smile at having been mistaken for someone so much smaller than I actually was.

And isn’t that a problem?

If you’ve followed this blog at all (Hi, Mom!), you know that body image is something I grapple with a lot. The balance between concepts of femininity, masculinity, and what all of that means for me has always been tough. It’s difficult to not swing to either extreme.

So, I appreciate the space to keep figuring this out. Not just on my blog, but as a teacher. I guess all I hope is that my female students don’t have nearly as difficult time to balance this narrow edge.

 

 

 

 

Running Back to Myself, for #GlobalRunningDay

It’s Global running day!

Last year, I was interviewed by On Being about my relationship with running, and how it’s affected my sense of self. Thanks to the amazing Lily Percy for  being a great interviewer, having a lit soundtrack, and pulling out this bit:

I would get out on the road and all of a sudden, step by step, it was like running myself back to myself in a lot of ways. So it’s nice to know that there’s always going to be this place I can go where it’s just me and the road. And there’s something really beautiful about that.

Listen to the interview below:

I Am Fire Itself

In a salsa club, the only silence exists in the panting breaths between songs.

When the music starts again, it normally begins with the tambores, hitting a heavy bass rhythm on calfskin, setting the stage. BA-rum-rum (breathe) BA-RUM-rum. The snap of the drummers wrists gives our bodies the heartbeat for what comes next. The bass and piano listen for un momento, oyen el ritmo, pick up the cues, then slide into the stereo the way crema spreads over a tostada. Ya listo. It’s ready.

At this point, everyone in the room who speaks “Latin music” knows what’s coming— bachata, salsa romántico, cumbia— and men begin to grab women’s hands and move towards the floor. The more conservative dancers stay on the edges. The peacocks and studio dancers (and maybe some viejitos who’ve decided life is too short to dance on the edges) move right to the middle.

A bar or two, then trumpets begin blaring and the floor— which is anything from gorgeous polished hardwood to interlocking pieces of plastic faux-wood set down on the carpet of some Cuban restaurant; we are a resourceful people after all— is alive. It’s own moving organism, the floor ripples and undulates with the collective heartbeat and shared shoulder rolls of whoever is on it.

Except, of course, when cha-cha comes on.

Cha-cha, for most dancers, is “when we all take a break y tomamoms bebidos,” my partner, Marco, said to me once. He shook a glass of cheap tequila at me before taking another sip. Then he winced. I had been dancing (badly) for six months when he approached me at La Playa, the only club that would let me in. He was 26 to my 18 and, when he realized I was too young to date (“A baby!” he had said, “I guess you’re not coming to my place tonight. Let’s go,” as he pulled me onto the dance floor), he decided to mold me into his dance partner instead. Unlike most Latinos, I didn’t grow up dancing at family parties or in backyards, so I just looked up at him, wide-eyed and eager, sipping my water.

When I first started dancing, I knew none of these rules. It would take me years of clubs, then performing, then competition to understand the difference between a salsa and a cumbia (footwork and the accented beat) or the unstated rudeness of neglecting to keep your long hair up (lest you whip it into the face of some unsuspecting nearby couple or, worse, your partner). I began to go to clubs by myself, but it still took thousands of nights before I could read the difference between being led by studio dancer, practiced and flailing for attention; the LA B-Boy whose body dipped into hidden hip-hop bass drops only he heard; and el salsero, who had somehow found the more ancient rhythm that had been flowing in our blood for centuries.

Somewhere in that time, I thought I understood my body’s role in it all. It was the frame (Marco would pinch my shoulders when they drooped) and the steering (one touch on the front of my left hip, and I knew which way to spin). One night, a studio dancer pulled me close and put his lips to my ear. He told me he needed to use my body to help make space on a crowded floor. “No tienes miedo,” he smiled devilishly as he told me not to be afraid before he whipped me out into turn after turn that purposefully smacked into the dancers around us.

That night, my body was the weapon.

Still, all that was years ago, I take a breath and remind myself. I am newly twenty-four, newly single and, for the first time, at Steven’s, a massive steakhouse-turned-club in industrial Los Angeles known mostly to locals y Latinos.

This is my first time out in years. Marco got a girlfriend, I had had a boyfriend who didn’t like to dance. I became a teacher and a runner. I understood that the rules often meant short skirts and forever-wandering hands (lest no man ask me to dance for the rest of the night) and I stopped dancing.

Now, though, it is a Saturday night and I don’t know what to do with myself. I am on my own for the first time in years. I drove to Steven’s on whim; I put on make up for the first time in days. I am wearing the only skirt that fits— too long and a little loose. I have only been asked to dance a few times, but fortunately years of training make up for lack of eye-candy status, and I get asked a few more times.

Then, a cha-cha comes on.


A quiet groan, and the floor clears. Cha-cha is when we rest, I laugh to myself. Santana slowly slides in, crema on la tostada, so smooth you don’t even realize you’re swaying until the guitar’s notes ooze over your body, into your chest and around your hips, like some sorcerer’s magic potion.

Oye como va, el ritmo, “come on and listen to the rhythm,” Santana croons.

This is a great song, I think. Then I realize: I love cha-cha. Cha-cha was the first Latin dance I learned when I was 17 and in my first week of college. I remember when I first started dancing— before I cared about being noticed by competitors or scouted for companies— I always danced cha-cha when it came on. I was sort of a slow salsa dancer— I didn’t read physical cues as quickly as I always should— but cha-cha played into that as a strength. The core of the cha-cha was in the wait-and-hurry-up. This dance was patience. This dance was the slow game in music form.

I am very good at the slow game.

I begin to sway and, without thinking, I take a step forward onto the edge of the floor. It is a silent sign that, if someone is interested, I will dance cha-cha.

A man walks up to me. I don’t register his face or his age, just the pale, pale blue of his shirt, como el cielo, like heaven, as he extends his hand.

I reach up, and take it. We begin moving, and after six years, I actually listen to the words in the song. Oye como va, listen up, el ritmo, the rhythm.

And for the first time in years, I exhale completely and let go. The music carries me, the guitar weaves its way into my hips. My partner watches me, for once, and reads both when to act as the motor and spin me, and when to draw up the breath before the cha-cha-cha step. We are languid and smooth. We are lava over ocean— rolling red over the cool, steady ritmo of the rhythm section. He sends me out into an empty floor and I pause at the end of my extension and look up.

My body is no longer the frame or the steering. I am not a car being driven. I am not the weapon sent to clear the floor.

I smile. Instead, I am fire itself, and my body is nothing but my own.

 

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Unapologetic: Claiming the Self as Woman

This article originally appeared in EdWeek.

This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.


When I was a kid, I used to look in the mirror and imagine my body was made up of puzzle pieces– each one a talisman, a marker of some part of my larger identity. My eyes, big and brown, slightly almond-shaped, were tied to my great grandmother’s Spanish roots. My long, curly hair was a flag that waved a crest full of similarly curly-haired women from past generations. My wide smile and doubled-over laughs were sure markers of my Filipina mother’s family. The soft, fullness of my hips simply identified me as: girl, Brown.

Like many women, I have analyzed my identity piecemeal for years. I have used eyeliner to draw focus to the shape of my eyes and bottles of products to manage the curly-haired flag. I have tried diets and not eating in an attempt to remove a whole part of myself, thinking I could tame the beasts of Vanity and Validation if I only fed them. As I grew older, the reflection changed but my hips remained. Still, they identified me simply: woman, Brown.

As I grew older, I learned it was not just my body that was divided for the spoils. Parts of my personality are also graded on a scale of effectiveness. Big emotional displays are a feminine “weakness,” the kind that tells girls they are alternatively “needy” or “bossy” when they make requests. The willingness to give love instead of fearfully squirreling it away are “naive” or “doting.” My desire to care for others are given diminutive names like “nesting” or “nurturing,” as though only baby birds are worthy of the strength it takes to open one’s hands and hold the heart of another’s.

Now as a teacher, I have been asked–and ask myself–to judge how these aspects of my femininity have affected my classroom. Do my eyes, hair, and hips affect the way I am perceived as an educator? Are caretaker tendencies a benefit to my students, or merely a reflection of the glass ceiling the patriarchal lens perpetuates to cap my own abilities?

Over the past month, I have sat with those questions. I have attempted to cut out the parts of myself I have labeled as “woman, Brown,” lay them out, and look at them in the fluorescent light of my classroom.

After reading some amazing voices this month, I am now struck by an important realization. I can’t help but wonder if I have made an error in my self-perception. While I embrace intersectionality of identity within my students (hence the title of this column), I perhaps neglected those intersections within myself.

I have assumed my parts labeled as “woman, Brown,” were things that needed to be cut out and analyzed. In doing so, I failed to realize that the act of separating these parts out inherently ignores that they are a core part of my being.

My femininity isn’t accouterment that I attach to my role as a teacher. Being a woman is a central part of who I am. If I assume the parts of me identifying me as “woman” were something I could easily set aside, I implicitly diminish their worth not just in my practice, but my life.

Obviously, a healthy reflection of the self is essential to our work. However, I think it’s important to consider the place from where we are questioning: are we seeking a deeper understanding of ourselves? Or are we attempting to justify the parts of identity that the oppressor has taught us are unworthy and weak?

After reflecting this month, I have learned that being a woman in education means breaking down walls and being role models. It means accepting hard truths and standing up and asking tough questions.

Most importantly, however, it means choosing to unapologetically claim my womanness as part of my identity as a person and, therefore, as an educator. Instead of attempting to separate it out as an “extra” part of me, I realize I must accept it as a central part of me. The first step to truly understanding what it means to be a woman in education is seeing my womanhood as woven into the fabric of my being, not just little labels on particular parts.

As women’s history month comes to a close, I step back in front of the mirror. Instead of seeing just eyes or hair or heart, I see the whole of myself named: woman, Brown, teacher.

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Courtesans and Questions: On Rediscovering Femininity

“You need to…,” the choreographer tilted her head, looked at me. Then she grabbed my shoulders and gently twisted them back. “Chest out.” She smiled. “Seduce the audience! You can do this.”

Can I? I thought to myself. I had been working on this piece for nearly an hour, and I was slowly realizing that my body was… different than it used to be. There are some things I’ve obviously grappled with (and written about), but this was an entirely new experience.

In college, I was a Salsa and Ballroom dancer (the video below was from about 6 months or so of dance training. I ended up dancing at a sort-of competitive level for a few years. What I mean to say is: I got better than this, I swear! But I thought it’d be fun to share).

I wasn’t amazing (and yes, I can tell you most of the technique mistakes I make in this video). I just loved doing it.

Furthermore, it was part of the way I learned to embrace myself as a young woman. When I was a teenager, I was chubby and dark and had upper-lip hair. I liked sports and hung out with boys. In Laguna Beach, California, this made me a target.

So, from high school and into college, I began to embrace what I thought of as my “feminine wiles.” I body-rolled and shook my hips. I learned to wear lots of makeup, handled the lip situation, and wielded the power of glitter and sparkly dresses. I had fun.

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My partner, Rigo, and I with awards in 2007.

Then, after college and becoming a teacher, my body started changing. I also started understanding my physical relationship with the world a little differently.

I began lifting and running and building muscle. For many women, fitness involvement often puts us in the position where we must defend our femininity.  This has made me question the perception and objectification of my body– both internally and externally– ever since. I have been questioning gender expression and trying to push my own biases both in myself and my students.

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I have been living in that place, it seems, for years now.

Then, a few months ago, I was cast as a courtesan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I was (and am still) incredibly hyped to do something that I haven’t done in nearly a decade.

Also, a little part of me was scared and excited to do something I really haven’t done in years: act girly. I have to shimmy (which I am bad at) and shake and ostensibly seduce an audience. This leaves me where I began: standing in a mirror, trying to make my body do things that, years ago, were my shield, armor, and power.

Now, I am slowly realizing something: at some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that often seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how much faster I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

As I dig deeper into this show (which, as a piece of satire, says some interesting things about women), I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of feminity, power, and vulnerability. I have written that, as an educator, to show one’s vulnerability is often the greatest show of power (Brene Brown talks about this too). If I’ve held to this belief in my teaching practice, maybe it’s time to try and put it to work in my, you know, existence as a woman as well.

Instead of running from the parts of this that are scary, it’s time for me to remember something essential: I had fun being girly! I felt sexy and strong. I enjoyed myself.

It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy– and I am, all the time– then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that female sexuality or femininity is somehow weak.

As I move through 2016, the challenge isn’t just being in a show for the first time in years. I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the sensual, feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons. I am reclaiming that aspect of identity as anything but weak and seeing it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.