It’s been forever since I’ve written. Being a mom to a 15-month-old (!!) while balancing studies and career and being a partner and a daughter and all the things is… a lot!Trying to fit writing into that sometimes feels impossible.
This summer, I was able to return to Montana for the NEH Seminar I work with. It was beautiful and powerful, as always, and maybe someday I’ll be able to process everything I went through there mentally. For now, I’m just grateful for a bit of space to write creatively again. Melissa Kwasny led us through the same fantastic exercise that helped me write “At Hellgate Canyon” five year ago. I did the exercise there, again, and this morning with my eighth-graders as well. So, here’s a bit of poetry I was finally able to find. As imperfect as they are, I’m happy I got the words on paper.
Revisiting the Canyon Wound
Water dances over black speckled stones, bubbling like gasping mouths begging for breath. Its endless, current churns on, like the white noise machine you use for your baby and husband, while you search for sleep.
Stop, and breathe in the dusty gravel, rock split apart by years of walking. In those shards see the ghosts of who I was and who we were, an endless parade of past lives.
Can you forgive the girl you were and the woman you became? What is forgiveness but wearing your past as a worn sweater that only you can love?
The rocks don’t need to forgive you, the canyon never cares if you’ve mended your ways. Only time asks us to move forward. Its gift for you is that you always do, like the endless babbling creek, even if you can’t see it.
The speckled light through palm leaves looks like a fragile, fresh-laid egg, but it is really rough concrete.
Somewhere, there, is a metaphor about middle school.
As I hear the bright, high laughter of gossiping teenagers— trumpet blasts through the rustling of leaves. Middle school is a study in contradictions. Resilient, but so young still; impressionable, yet something so knowing in their glances— soft flowers on rough ground that still find a way to spread seeds of joy in a world that we’ve made far too harsh.
Yet, always, they persist.
As humid air sits on my shoulders, it’s hard to not feel the weight of the world sitting there too. The constant whirring of an ancient air conditioner, the low, persistent mumble of the highway far off— they underscore the idyllic birds with a sense of the wanting world.
Yet, there are still children’s laughter filtering through the distance, still the gentle rustling breeze moving the air, reminding that nothing is permanent, even tepid, languishing August afternoons.
The fallen flowers dance across sun-speckled concrete, nothing stays still here for too long. It’s
a nice reminder: ultimately, everything keeps moving.
Your mother is currently 38 weeks pregnant with you, sitting in class while her students watch a movie. You’re rolling around, as usual, which is both exciting though, frankly, also pretty uncomfortable at this point. You have very strong little limbs and you really love kicking my right side with them. Your dad thinks you might be a gymnast some day. He’s also texting me names we might call you— the name we were going with we recently realized is too popular and now we have to figure something out. We’re waiting to see your sweet little face before we make a final choice, though. We’re also currently nervous, since you’re acting like you might join us any day now, a few weeks before your due date! While we are very eager to meet you, I’m hoping to finish the school year. Either way, though, we’ll be so happy to finally meet you! We got your room set up this week and we can’t wait!
I’ve been thinking a lot about your impending homecoming, since it’s rapidly approaching, perhaps even more quickly than I thought. A confession: while creating and raising you has long been a dream of mine, and now I honestly can’t wait to meet you, I’m a bit terrified. There are, of course, all the normal fears someone might have while pregnant— Will you be happy? Will I be a good mom? Are you healthy and safe? Am I ready for this?— and I’ve been trying my best to manage those concerns.
Those aren’t the worries that sit heaviest on my heart, though.
Like you know, your mama grew up a mixed-race kid. Lola and Abuelo did a great job of trying to help Uncle Paco and I navigate both cultures in a place where we were still in the minority. I am incredibly proud of our heritage and love being part of two amazing cultures. But I won’t pretend it didn’t and doesn’t have it’s difficulties. The world is forever trying to put people in a box, define what you are in easily digestible terms. They want a simple story that is easily understood.
Some will tell you that you are “practically white,” erasing your papa’s complex heritage and immigrant story or his family’s long and weaving lineage spanning multiple continents like Fafa’s life in Kenya. It will erase the stories Papa will tell you about having to navigate a new culture and way of speaking when he moved to the U.S., the ones that helped him better understand the world and the work he does, pushes him to help others.
Of course, that response erases my story too. It erases my experiences as a Mexipina woman, Lola’s story of immigrating from the Philippines, and Abuelo’s history as a Chicano man studying and working in the U.S. and Mexico to make a better life for his family. It ignores the stories of trying to straddle two cultures in a world that never properly celebrated either and pushed me to try and give up both to try and find “success,” and the success I finally found in trying to rethink what that success actually meant to me.
Even those who claim to see my story in you may be unwilling to see your whole complexity. They will tell you that you are not enough— not “ethnic” enough or not doing enough or don’t speak well enough or don’t act the right way— to fully represent the cultures that run through your veins. They will try and tell you that you’re not really whatever beautiful amalgamation of these cultures you may find within yourself. Or, they will try to tell you that your identity is set and static, that you’ll have to make a choice of what “side” you are on and stick with that choice for the rest of your life, not knowing that your relationship to your mixed cultures will shift by the year, the week, the hour even, as you navigate different parts of the world that speak to all the multifaceted parts of yourself.
Of course, these are struggles at are a small part of a much larger issue that has an even bigger effect on some people. Your papa and I know that we have a lot of work to do to ensure you understand the complicated, often difficult, but also beautiful history of the place we are choosing to raise you. We know we need to raise you to be unafraid to talk about complicated issues, to do your part to ensure justice and equity for those who have been historically marginalized, and to love and celebrate everyone’s wonderful and different identities.
And, I worry.
I worry because while I know the struggles I faced weren’t insurmountable or can’t compare, they were hard. I don’t want you to ever feel like you can’t think it’s hard or be hurt or frustrated just because some people have it harder. I want to validate that it is really frustrating and painful to have people question your identity, tell you you’re not enough, shame your tongue for not knowing enough languages. It might make you feel small and unworthy. It might make you feel angry. It might even convince you that you should warp and twist yourself into an easily digestible, palatable story so that the world might be kinder to you.
As your mother, the last thing I ever want is for you to feel any pain. A part of me wishes I could protect you from everything, make the world a soft, joyful place for you always, ensuring perpetual happiness. I also know, though, that that’s not only unrealistic, but not necessarily a life well-lived. We grow in the struggles and are made stronger by them. We realize how formidable we are when we stare down those obstacles and show everyone and ourselves we can take them head on. All I can do is try and prepare you to meet those struggles with grace, with strength, with the knowledge that you are bigger than any of those challenges.
So, I don’t have much advice for you yet, but I can tell you this: you are not made for simple palates.
That’s the lesson I have been trying to learn myself for decades. There are a million letters I wrote to you in my heart before you were ever close to existence, all the promises I made of how I would make the world a better place for you, one that did not make you feel like your sense of self was split in ways you did not ask for, one that did not make you feel like you did not really belong in this world and have to create a hidden one in the fringes of it to be seen.
Yours is a story not meant to be hidden.
Trying to define yourself with a simple and static description is a far too narrow way to live in a world where you encompass so much more than that. You come from a story that is, yes, sometimes a complicated and confusing one, but is written by two very overwhelmingly rich and powerful sets of bloodlines that come together in you. You are the meeting of long plane rides over roaring oceans, tongues that learned to curl around new words and confusing phrases, and hands that worked hard to make a life in an unfamiliar culture while trying to hold on to their own. In your little body is a story that began long before you and will continue with you and hopefully through you long after.
How could anyone ever think that could be a simple, easily digestible story?
Your papa and I will do our best to help and encourage you honor all the multifaceted parts you deserve to celebrate, even when they tell you you are not worthy. But I hope you read these words someday and know that the complexity of your identity, of being a mixed, is a not a vice and instead a beautiful gift. These weaving stories will be the iron that strengthens your back when the world tries to bring you down. They will be the fire the drives you to try new things and commit to hard work. They will be the rope that you can use to scale obstacles that try to keep you down. They will be the light that makes joyful moments sweeter and your bring you comfort when the world is hard.
So, even when it feels impossible, be grateful. Thank the stars for these stories. The stories of my parents and family, of this mixed and complex identity, were what guided me through difficult times, through growing up, to Hawai‘i, and to your father. I hope the stories we give you guide you to be as happy as I am now, waiting for you to join us.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, 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 the fantastic Annie Tan (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).
It’s been 8 months (!) since I last wrote in here. There are lots of reasons for that, which I’ll get to, but I honestly just haven’t had much impetus to write personally this year. However, there are quite a few exciting updates in my life and it made sense to try and at least get some things down while I have some time and brain space right now.
Anyway, I don’t have any grand pearls of wisdom or writerly aspirations for this post, nor do I really expect anyone to read past this paragraph. This is really just for me to reflect on and, perhaps, to give anyone who comes across this page an idea of why the last post was so long ago!
Where Have You Been?
It’s been an eventful year, as anyone can imagine the 2020-2021 school year has been. We (Punahou School) started the year off virtually, before we moved into hybrid in October. That’s where we stayed much of the year, with brief plans to move to all-students that were dashed when cases would rise. However, in late February we were able to move to all students, which was exciting!
And so, so tiring. Much of teaching in a pandemic becomes about safety-behavior-management, which is more emotionally and mentally draining because the stakes feel so much higher. I am eager for the day where I never have to say the word “face shield” again, though I doubt it will happen any time this year. That isn’t a knock on my kids, as the face shields are no fun to wear for eight hours a day and it’s a new routine. Still, it’s not the most fun.
BUT we have found joy in lots of ways. Seeing my students laugh and enjoy each other’s company is honestly so much fun, even though I don’t do a great job of showing it (more on why later). Getting to connect with them in person is much easier than online. And I have an awesome team to do it all with. I am very lucky.
Also, I generally feel safe in my classroom, in no small part because of the safety measures and facility changes Punahou made before we returned. Hawai‘i also have lower case numbers than the rest of the nation, which have helped tremendously. Sadly, as of this weekend there has been a bump in cases, likely due to Spring Break and relaxed guidelines, so we’ll see if we even stay with all students. I hope we do!
As for other work, I feel very lucky that I’ve been asked and able to participate in some very cool opportunities so far this year. At my school, that includes co-chairing our DEI strategic planning work. Outside of school, I’ve been co-teaching an Intro to Behavior Management class at Leeward with Michael, which has been awesome (and… learning to work with your husband is good growth!). I also got to work with LCW and joined Jelani Memory in an interview and Q&A with an organization. I also got to present a webinar for Shifting Schools, and was lucky enough to be featured on PBS Teacher’s Instagram page. Ah, I was finally able to announce that I’m a National Geographic and Lindblad Expedition Grosvenor Teacher Fellow! I was actually chosen last year and supposed to go to the Galápagos in September, but obviously COVID changed everything.
I haven’t been writing professionally much (though I did get a piece into ASCD), because I’m currently in grad school! I’m a post-baccalaureate student at UH Mānoa taking PhD level English classes (and one Spanish class last semester). I’m hoping to apply to their PhD program next winter— I need to take classes because they want letters of recommendation and, since I graduated a decade ago (*dies*), they prefer if I took some classes first then applied. I’ve been loving it so far and the intellectual challenge has been awesome, but it is a lot of work! Especially writing: last semester, I had to do a 300 word reflection per week and this semester it’s 750 words per week! And that doesn’t include other assignments. It’s a lot, but I do like it. It has taken a toll on my professional writing, but that’s okay.
Firstly, I’m happy to report that we’ve all generally stayed safe from COVID. My parents, Michael’s parents, Michael and I have all been vaccinated. The decision to get vaccinated was tough, but ultimately I’m glad I did.
After our wedding was postponed, Michael and I had a nice date on what was supposed to have been our wedding day and decided that we were spiritually married. We’ve been calling each other “husband” and “wife,” ever since, but we are planning to have a legal ceremony soon and a large celebration in June 2022.
Why the delay? Well…
On Tuesday, October 4th, I woke up a bit anxious. Michael was in the living room, watching Sunday morning NFL. As soon as I got up, I went straight to the restroom. I had gotten out my IUD in July, but we hadn’t been intensely trying to get pregnant, just living life and seeing what would happen.
But my cycle was 4 days late, something unusual since I had started tracking my cycle in June. I was excited, but Michael was cautiously optimistic. “Why don’t you wait until Tuesday, your birthday, so you can still enjoy that?” he asked. I knew, though, that I couldn’t wait that long to know.
So, I peed on a stick and held my breath.
And, for the first time in my life, the little positive symbol popped up.
I sat on the toilet, silently, my stomach flipping knots for a moment. Oh, my God. It happened, I thought to myself. Nothing will ever be the same.
I took a deep breath, cleaned myself up, and I walked into the living room.
“Michael?” I said tentatively?
“Yeah?” He asked, tearing his eyes from the TV and looking at me. As soon as he saw my stricken face, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“…I… I think I’m pregnant?” I said starting to smile and cry a little.
He thought I was upset or scared, because he immediately came to me, hugging me, and said, “It’s okay! Maybe it’s a false positive! We can take another test.”
“No, you dummy! I’m EXCITED!” I laughed. He smiled at me.
So… here we are! I’m pregnant!
Baby Girl is due June 7. We’re so, so excited to meet our little bear (we were using “baby bear,” but we would like a second child shortly after and THAT will be baby bear!). We do have some names in mind, but we’re going to wait and meet her and see. Our plan now is to have a big wedding and first-birthday celebration in June of 2022.
It was, admittedly, a tough first trimester. We went back to hybrid teaching, which is probably some of the hardest I’ve planned for, a week after I found out I was pregnant. I was so, so tired (something that lasted until my 18th week, to be honest). I also had a few bleeding scares, which was… really, really hard, particularly because there is literally nothing you can do and not always a clear reason (“You… just might be a bleeder! It happens.” From my OB, the second time). It was so scary. I feel very lucky that everything was okay.
Then, nausea hit! I was doubled over with nausea so much of the time, and actually lost about 12 lbs in two weeks. At that point, my doctor put me on some prescription medication to help with the nausea, which helped quite a bit. I finally got my appetite back at week 15 or so, but just got on track with healthy pregnancy weight gain two weeks ago (week 26)! I’ve never once struggled to gain weight in my life, yet ironically this was the time! It turns out my mom also struggled to gain weight when she was pregnant with my brother and I, so I suppose genetics might come into play. My appetite is now completely back, though I no longer can eat Sriracha or Mac and Cheese, which is very strange for me! I used to have my own sriracha bottle at work, but now just thinking about it makes me gag. I mostly crave sweets (which, in Filipinx myth, was the sign to my mom that it was a girl. She was right!), especially chocolate sprinkle donuts and chocolate chip pancakes. And ice cream. And peanut butter and jelly. And MILK. SO MUCH MILK.
I’ve been able to keep up with my workouts, including a 10-mile run at 22 weeks. I’m much, much slower now, and I have to pee every mile or so, but I’m happy my body keeps letting me move. It’s been so, so helpful. I’m also wondering if it transfers over, since this baby is now SO ACTIVE omg, especially at night. From 2AM – 5AM it feels like she tumbles and rolls nonstop. She also sits very high in my belly.
Also helpful: having such a supportive community. Our parents and family have been immensely helpful with advice and support. I’ve had friends and colleagues give me bags of clothes and donations and just lots of love. I know a few other pregnant women due around the same time as me. My school has been so supportive and happy for me. I’m so lucky.
And, of course, Michael has been absolutely amazing. He was already a great partner, but he has truly stepped up as a dad-to-be, managing the house, finding and picking up donations for the baby, cooking when I’m tired, helping me with my work when I need it, and just being all around awesome. He suffered an accident last month, but is fortunately healing nicely. Watching him grow and prepare for this new journey only affirms my choice in him as a husband and I feel so, so blessed we found and chose each other. I’m so excited for this journey with him to meet our little bear.
Where Are You Going?
Well, for now… no where. I’m sitting on my parent’s couch in Kona for Spring Break, and then will return home for the end of school. The last day is June 4 and my baby is due June 7 so I’m just hoping she stays in the oven until her due date!
Professionally, I’ll take the first semester off next year. I may still do some writing, teach a few online courses, and take one class, depending how I feel. I’m not trying to commit to too much. Fortunately, my mother retired at the end of February and so she and my father will stay with us when the baby first joins us. I’ll travel as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow; we’re supposed to find out soon where we may be able to head this year. I also have an NEH seminar (or possibly two!) in the works for summer 2022. It’s an exciting time!
Anyway, this is the most I’ve written in a while and it felt great! Hopefully I can try and at least get some words on paper in the next few weeks.
I’ve been assigning my summer students writing and occasionally writing models for them to look at. Here’s one from this assignment.
“I don’t know if I can run another step,” I thought to myself as I hobbled down San Vincente Boulevard. The sun was blazing down on me as I stayed as close to the tall, green bushes lining the road, as if they could give me any shade.
I was at mile 22 of my very first marathon. I was terribly undertrained, since my longest distance up until this point had been 13 miles… which I had run three months ago… so I was definitely feeling the pain as I trudged along. I looked down at my feet and saw blood blooming in the toes of my shoes. “Ugh,” I said to myself as I realized just how badly my body was reacting to this run. “Maybe I should just give up.”
It was easy to think about giving up. To be honest, no one thought I could run a marathon. Even my boyfriend, who loved me dearly, had laughed when I told him I wanted to sign up. “You’ve never run more than three miles!” He said, with genuine concern in his voice. He wasn’t wrong. I had never been a runner and didn’t want me to hurt myself.
There were, of course, much less loving doubters in my life. Since I was a kid, I remembered all the taunts I heard about my weight growing up. “Look at her run! Ugh! You should’ve been a dog!” Sebastian Sherman, another 8th grader at my school, called at me while my thirteen-year-old legs ran laps around the basketball court in middle school. The skinny, pretty blonde girls sitting with him all laughed.
These were the voices scrolling through my head as I felt the pain build up with each step. Quitting seemed so easy, so expected of me. Maybe it was time.
Then, a man came jogging by, his body tall and strong. He was carrying a little flag that said “5:15” on it. He was a pacer! He was helping people finish at the pace they wanted to and encouraging them. He looked strong, but a few of the runners with him looked as worn down as me. Still, they persisted. Without hesitation, I started to run with them.
The pacer looked over at me in his peripheral gaze. “You doing okay?” He asked quietly?
I immediately started to cry. “This is just so much harder than I thought it would be,” I blubbered naively.
The pacer nodded sympathetically. “It’s hard. Find a mantra. Stick with it. You are strong. You have energy. You can do this.”
I sniffled my sobs away and fell back, my legs still too tired to keep up with him. I slowed my pace as I caught my breath, but still kept putting one foot in front of the other.
“I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.” I say to myself. I keep pushing. One foot in front of the other. “I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.”
I see the mile 23 marker and smile. 3.2 more miles!
“I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.”
I think about my parents waiting at the finish line, I see my mom and dad yell, “Go, Baby, go!” as I keep speeding past.
“I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.”
I see students near me, many of them wearing the same neon jersey I am, as their group inspired me to try this in the first place.
“I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.”
Mile 24 comes and goes. Then I hit the mile 25 marker.
“One. More. Mile,” I think to myself. “I am strong. I have energy. I can do this.”
Finally, I see the finish line up ahead, and see my parents, my friends, and my boyfriend, now believing in me, cheering me on. I dig deep and find a secret well of strength as I sprint to the finish line.
As I cross the blue time mat, I immediately start weeping, my breath catching in my chest. I throw my hands in the air. I did it! I really did it! “I actually finished!” The voice in my head cheers.
I walk forward as someone puts a medal over my tired, sweaty head. “Congratulations!” they say.
“Thank you!” I reply. “I didn’t think I could really do it!” I say, to no one in particular.
I look down at the medal in my hands and smile. “What else can I do that I thought I couldn’t?” I wonder to myself.
In teaching Summer School this year, I’m having to do some more creative writing as an example for my students. I figured I might as well start sharing them. The assignment is here, inspired by this.
I am what I am.
I am running towards an always-moving finish line, my heart like the 20th mile of a marathon, tired but still moving. I am the first rays of sunrise, always reaching towards the heavens, hoping something brighter is coming. I am heavy panting in the middle of a long run, challenging myself even when it hurts. I am living in the space where fingers intertwine, the tension between two energies, pushing and growing each other. I am the daughter of two immigrants, a shining coatrack on which all their dreams are hung, made strong with their love but also carrying that weight. I am a teacher, a friend, a daughter, a soon-to-be-wife, a writer, a runner.
The first time I ever ran a race, I was 22. I had never run more than a few miles all through high school and college. Each time I ran, I hated every single second of it. My first 5k, I thought I would throw up in the middle, as I lumbered through the second mile my heart felt like it would explore from my chest. The only thing that kept me going was my students, running right alongside me. As we started down the hill towards the finishing one student, Cristian, cheered me on. “You got this, Miss!” he yelled as he barreled past me. I crossed the finish line and put my hands on my knees as I tried to catch my breath. A girl came over to me and congratulated me, giving me a medal. I held the fake gold in my hands and smiled. I didn’t know I could run a whole three miles! Now, I felt like a runner.
I am the exalting yell, the hand in the air at the end of the marathon, triumphant and excited about what’s next.
When I was six, I found lemongrass for the first time in my Grandma Rose’s garden. I was running around with my brother and noticed the stalky, tall bush near the steps to the house and decided to pull a strand because I was six and wanted to touch everything. It was brittle like straw and tore easily, making a scratching, squeaky sound like grasshopper legs. I noticed something funny about the torn strand and brought it to my nose. Lemon! It smelled like lemons! But it was a bush! What was going on here? I looked at the bush in amazement. I was baffled and enchanted, and saved it in my hand until my parents told us to say goodbye and we got into the car.
Then, we drove to Abuela’s house (though, she did not become “Abuela” until I was older and my Spanish was better). I loved all my grandparents very much, but I had spent the most time with Abuela. Before we moved away, Abuela picked me up from day care each day and stayed with me at my house while my brother was in kindergarten and my parents worked long hours at the hospital. I was the baby of the family at that time and got to have Abuela all to myself. She became the person I brought my treasures to.
Now, though, we lived an hour away and I only saw my grandparents on the weekends (I realize now with gratitude the sacrifice my parents made each week to do this on top of their two-hour-plus long commutes each work day). I tumbled out of the car bursting towards my Grandma Sol and Grandpa Alfonso’s house, where my abuela came to door laughing and opening her arms to me. Abuela always smelled like flowers and she always had on soft clothes and had soft hands that she used to hold my little fingers or stroke my arm or smooth my forever-unruly curly hair. She gave great hugs and gave me a great big one that day.
“Look!” I said, thrusting the lemongrass, the middle now wilting in my sweaty little palms, at Abuela.
“Ohhh,” she said in the sweet voice of wonderment you use with a child, that I now use with kids, “what’s this mijita Linda?”
“I don’t know!” I said, excited, “It’s a bush but it smells like lemons! I found it at Grandma Rose and Grandpa Pete’s house. It’s magic!”
She smelled it and acted as amazed as I felt. She took it from my hands and said, “Oh, I know what this is! It’s lemongrass. We can dry it and it becomes the most delicious tea. Here, I’ll show you.” She took my chubby little hand in her soft one and brought me into the house.
I don’t know if Abuela liked to garden. My Grandma Rose had fruit trees and flowers everywhere, but the most greenery I remember at Abuela’s was prickly crab grass and the giant avocado tree in the back that would gift us delicious fruit throughout the year. Abuela might have handled flowers well, but what she did instead was she turned the aguacates to delicious food. She’d slightly toast up a corn tortilla on the old, rusting gas range, her nails pinching the edges just enough to flip it without getting burned on the open flame, like a magician. I always thought she was magic.
She’d cook the tortilla just right, put in some generous slices of aguacate, add a pinch of sal, and hand it to us in a napkin. We’d sit there in the crowded yellow kitchen at the vinyl table with the birdcage on it, hunched over our palms, devouring the taco de agucate and I would marvel at how Abuela could take an aguacate and a tortilla and a little bit of sal and turn it into one of the best tasting meals I’ve still ever had. It was perfect because she just let everything— the corn of the tortilla, the creamy, rich aguacate, the sal, speak for itself in perfect harmony.
That was Abuela’s magic, her alchemy— she could take things and put them together and make them beautiful and wonderful. Chicken thighs and bitter chocolate and chiles and peanut butter and spices became mole, my papa’s favorite dish. She took plastic toy fun pieces that came in bulk packages she brought to the house and wrapped them with ribbon and cellophane and made them beautiful to sell at the swap meet where she and my grandfather worked for decades. It was only later that I realized that my grandparents may not have much by way of financial wealth, but Abuela worked hard and made things that were plain in parts magic in their wholeness. Food was better and gifts were more beautiful when she put them together.
Now, 26 years after showing my abuela the magical lemon bush, I am 3,000 miles away, sobbing on my table at midnight. My face is down in my arms and I’m weeping because twelve hours earlier I got the text from my mom that says, “We tried to call you. Grandma is gone.”
After seeing the text, the blood drained from my face as I sat down at the table and called my parents. At first, I marveled at how numb I felt, but it was fleeting. As soon as I heard my mom’s voice saying, “Hi, mija,” my body crumpled in on itself.
“What happened?” I choked out.
It was peaceful, they said. My papa came on the line, his voice calm even though he has lost his mother an hour ago. She hadn’t been awake since I spoke to her yesterday. Abuela’s breathing had slowed and Papa noticed so he called everyone in and she slipped away. “It was so peaceful, mija. She just slipped away like going to sleep. It’s okay,” my papa consoled me as I sobbed. “It’s okay.”
But none of it feels okay. Despite everything I have done to try and prepare for this moment, I am not ready for my abuela to be gone.
While many have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic may be letting the world heal itself, it kept me away from my grandmother as age made its final ravages of her body. It meant that I was not there to hug her one last time or to squeeze those soft hands that used to wrap around my little ones, the skin now wrinkled and papery, as she left our world for another. Now, her body has been burned and only smells of ash, not flowers, and we’ll put it into the ground some day when we can finally come together as a family again.
For now, though, I am alone. After sobbing all day and being consoled by Michael and calls from my family, I have snuck out of bed and into the living room to cry on my own. While I know that Michael would wake up and hold me if I need it, I do not need to be held. I need to write—not just as a tribute, but because I am terrified. Abuela’s love feels clear, but I’m scared the memories that let me know that are not. I remember Christmas a few years ago, wrapping my arms around her while she held me, taking a deep breath of her perfume and thinking, “Don’t forget this smell, this moment, when you are so clearly enveloped in your grandmother’s love.”
But I’ve never had a great sense of smell nor memory. There are so many things I’m scared of forgetting or scared I don’t fully remember. Was the kitchen yellow? Did my grandparents have a bird cage there? Her bedroom in the house was always dark and mysterious, smelling like incense with a messy bathroom attached— right? Or was that something I dreamed?
One of many problems with being far away when someone you love leaves us is that you are stripped of the chance to participate in the collective memory. Later, my father will tell me how they sat on my aunt’s back porch and shared memories of my abuela— funny stories, the food she made, the way she took care of us. I could not be there, though. Instead of reminiscing with my family on my aunt’s porch, I am far away, on an island my abuela never got to see.
I try and blink the tears out of my eyes as I look out the window at the darkened ocean. A small smile crosses my lips for a moment. I think she would have liked to see my view overlooking the beach. “Que bonita,” she might have said, marveling at it all. She might have had some complex feelings, the tension of her sadness that had started when we moved an hour’s drive away to my sojourn across an ocean balanced with the fierce pride she had that I was doing well and living somewhere beautiful. I can still hear the way she would say “Hawai‘i” tinged with a Mexican accent— Hah-WHY-ee. “My granddaughter is visiting all the way from Hah-WHY-ee!” She’d brag to the nurses when I came to visit her in the care home— something I’m horribly ashamed that I didn’t do enough. She’d smile and pet me, her hands forever soft, the skin thinner and thinner as she got older.
Maybe she’d see my view and think I was spoiled. I don’t think she would have minded. Abuela loved to spoil us. She always wanted us to have that little extra or something nice, finding us little trinkets like the little cotton ball chick at Easter that I still own. As a little girl, she’d take me to Hugh’s grocery store even though it was pricier, because she knew the man at the bakery counter would see my big smile and give me a sprinkle cookie, which she knew was my favorite. Abuela even called me “consentida,” without a bit of acid in it. For years and years and years I thought it meant “sweetheart,” just because of the way she said it. She’d give me a tostada with crema or a popsicle, kiss my head and call me “mi consentida linda” before going off and doing something else. Years later, I was sitting in a Spanish classroom at my high school only to learn that “consentida” is not a term of endearment but the word for “spoiled!” I brought it up with her later, and she just shrugged and laughed. I laughed too.
I reach back into the recesses of my mind and try and find my first memory of Abuela. It’s hard to do. We spent a lot of time together in my first childhood home in Monterey Park. If I close my eyes, I can still see her from my seat on the carpet in front of the TV, waiting to eat my snack at the battered wooden coffee table. I’m three or four and I look up at Reading Rainbow or Sesame Street— she always had on PBS because she wanted us to be educated— and if I look just past the TV to the right, there’s Abuela, cutting, slicing, mixing delicious food together. She’d make me egg salad sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise and make just enough to put another scoop in my favorite little bear bowl so I had an extra treat. She’d set it on the table with some Goldfish crackers, make the crackers swim at me a little until I giggled, grab my face, kiss my forehead, and then get back to cooking something else. She made sure we knew that she thought we were special, that we were loved, that she wanted us to have all the best things.
I open my eyes again and write everything I can down— the lemongrass story, the time a few years ago I pushed her in her wheelchair to get caldo together (what did we talk about? Why can’t I remember?), the way she sang the theme song to a cartoon she thought I loved to me, the way she told me, “I love you,” every time I spoke to her, including the last time we spoke.
I write until the knot in my chest swells up so much that remembering hurts. I put my forehead on the table and cover it with my arms as if I could barricade myself from the truth, though I know I can’t. My head bounces on the table as my stomach convulses and I cry so hard I can’t breathe. Abuela is gone. Abuela is gone. Abuela is gone. And maybe the magic is too.
How do I live without my abuela? I never got to show her my wedding dress. I never got to tell her how much I loved her cooking. I never got to ask her the millions of questions I have now. Why didn’t I call her more? There were so many times I thought about it, but felt it would make me too sad and miss her too much. I feel so stupid now, realizing how in my fear of missing her I lost chances to talk to her at all. I knew the end would come some day. I remember the first time I noticed that Abuela was, indeed, getting much older. Sometime in my mid-twenties after I came home from Hawai‘i to see her, I got up to hug her and realized she had shrunk down. Oh, no, I thought to myself then, it’s starting to happen. There’s a moment where we all realize that the people we love are getting older, are not promised to us forever. But still, we think there’s time. There’s always time, always a next time.
I wish I had more time.
I stumble from the table to the couch and cry hard into a pillow, my glasses falling off in the process. Everything is blurrier than it already was with the darkness and my swollen eyes. I close them tight, trying to remember Abuela’s voice, see her face, remember the way it felt when she held me. I’m so scared it will fade away.
Ya, mija, I hear her voice in my head say, soothing me.
“But you’re gone,” I say back, weeping quietly into the empty air. “I wasn’t ready for you to be gone.”
I’m right here with you, she replies. I remember the way she smoothed my hair, still unruly as it was as a child. I always told you I’ll always be with you.
I blink my eyes as they adjust to the darkness and see, for a moment, Abuela in her red sweater in our kitchen in Monterey Park.
My little hands holding scissors as Abuela teaches me to use the edge to curl ribbon.
Abuela standing under the shade of the swap meet tent, bargaining with customers and throwing us smiles in between. “Are you okay, mija?” She asks as she walks by quickly, smoothing my hair and giving me a kiss.
Easter, Abuela is handing me a styrofoam glass of milk because I ate chili paste thinking it was salsa. She wipes my crying eyes. “It’s okay, mijita.”
I am thirteen and in my first play, Fiddler on the Roof. I look out at the audience, knowing that my dad helped Abuela make the hour-long trek and she’s out there somewhere. I smile big for her.
Abuela greeting me with a big hug at a kiss at one of countless family parties, asking me how I am. I am fifteen, seventeen, nineteen.
Abuela’s 80th birthday. I am twenty-four. We take her to a big Mexican restaurant and she puts on a sombrero as the mariachi band sings “Las Mañanitas.” We all laugh and laugh.
Seeing Abuela for the first time after moving to Hawai‘i, she pulls my chair closer to her. “Tell me, mija,” she smiles at me, “tell me about your new home.”
I am twenty-six, weeping on the phone because Abuelo has died. My Abuela has lost her husband, but still, it’s her consoling me as I cry because I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Visiting Abuela in the care home, bringing her Tommy burgers with my papa so we could all eat lunch together. She gossiped about the other people there and told me stories about my grandfather.
“I have something to tell you,” I smile big, Michael’s hand in mine, at a paleta shop last July. “Estamos comprometidos!” I see her face break into a big, big smile. She always smiled big whenever she saw me.
The second to last time I saw Abeula alive, on FaceTime. We greet each other, and then she asks when we’re having babies. I laugh. “Vamos a tratar en dos meses!”
She smiles. “I can’t wait,” she says happily.
I close my eyes, crying hard again as I remember all these things. Then, I remember the conversation I had with my aunt hours earlier. Even though she has also lost her mother, I was the sobbing one she consoled. “She loved you so much, mija,” she insisted. “And she knew you loved her. She heard you say it. She knew what was going on. She knew it was you. I was right there.” She says it with a fierce sense of conviction, needing me to know that my abuela loved me.
Later, my parents did the same, both reminding me that her love would not leave. “Your grandmother will be right there when you get married, when you have kids. She’s right here with us, mija,” my dad insisted soothingly as I cried and cried into the phone. “You, Christina Elizabeth Torres-Estrada, are never alone,” he told me, each name a reminder of the large family I am connected to.
I remember these conversations and my breathing slows down. See, mija? I hear her voice. I’m not gone.
Abuela’s magic was putting things together and making them beautiful. I see now that this gift extends to our family too. No matter how far I move away or how long I’ve let it be since I see or speak to my family, they consistently welcome me back with open arms. There are times where I’ve been scared they’ll scoff at my distance or the fact that I don’t come home more or call more often. They never do. Each time, it is open arms, hugs, laughter. Even now as I am thousands of miles away, they hold me their hearts as we collectively mourn the woman who raised us all and whose love still connects us now.
As lonely as mourning feels, each time I cry it is not only with sadness but in awe at just how much my abuela loved me, loved all of us. Yes, the food, the sound of her voice, the feel of her hand in mine are important memories, but they are only parts of a bigger truth. “Her family was her masterpiece,” Michael said, while I cried and remembered my her.
And it was true. We were her deepest joy, her great work, her showstopper. Abuela’s magic cannot leave, because she left it in each of us. We no longer have Abuela with us, but her love is magic enough.
First, I want to say how much I love and adore you. I’ve known many of you since you were 12-years-old, bouncing around our classroom for forty-five minutes each day, reading, thinking, and laughing with me. You indulged me when I made funny voices during read aloud and participated (albeit some of you wearily) when I made you go outside to try the “Unity clap” we learned about. I was so happy when I got to have you as students again a few years later. You made me so happy to be back in the classroom. You reminded me then (and now) why I love being a teacher.
Second, I want to tell you how sorry I am.
I’m so sorry all the traditions you’ve been looking forward to for years– the senior breakfast, senior Aloha, graduation and learning the waltz– are not happening as planned. I know that schools are doing their best to get creative– virtual graduations and events– but I empathize and sympathize with you when your heart cries out, “That’s not the same.” You’re right. It’s not the same. It’s not fair. I remember seeing your faces at last year’s graduation, watching everyone give speeches and walk down and since and knowing you were thinking, Next year, next year this will be us!
And my heart breaks, because while some of us are mourning the postponement of things, you’re mourning a moment, a milestone, a set of memories that you won’t get to have the way you’d been planning for 13 years.
So, that sucks. I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It’s really upsetting, and all the frustration and sadness and disappointment you’re feeling right now are warranted. I hope you let yourself feel them. If you want to lie in a puddle in your bed and cry while you listen to sad music, you should do that for a little bit. If you want to punch a pillow or write an angry letter to the Coronavirus where your curse it out for ruining your plans, that’s okay too. These are all things I have done in the past month, to be honest, so you should feel no shame in doing the same. I know how much better letting out your feelings can make you feel.
Here’s what else I know: you are some of the most brilliant, powerful, and innovative students I have ever met. You use the technology and media at your disposal to raise your voices and share your ideas. You’re publishing books. You’re coding programs to help your community. You’re expressing yourselves. You’re creating and sharing funny images (or “memes,” as you all say) to brighten each other’s day. Now, you might be laughing at this last statement– how is meme-making a virtue?
Well, if you remember Act 2, Scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet (which I’m almost sure you don’t), Friar Lawrence says that, “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, and vice sometime by action dignified.” This perfectly exemplifies something you all do quite well: you take things that could be wrong and make them into something dignified and great.
You have a knack for making the best of bad situations– a difficult news cycle, an election that didn’t go as you hoped— you have risen to the occasion and shown that your bravery outshines any doubts you had about yourself. You are willing to do the hard things. When the world began difficult conversations about race and equity, you jumped right in, questioning the world around you and having critical discussions with each other.
TL;dr, you are uniquely set up to handle this situation with creativity, resilience and grace. It’s not fair that this burden has been placed on you, but I fully believe in. your capabilities to move through this situation. You will come out on the other side, and damn, what a story you’ll have to tell.
What will that creativity look like? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll write something brilliant about this, maybe you’ll work with each other to create a once-in-a-lifetime set of memories to commemorate your hard work, maybe you’ll devise a scheme to allow you to celebrate (safely) in a way none of us has imagined. Either way, I hope that when you look back on this time in your lives, it will be tinged with nostalgia and disappoint, yes, but perhaps you will also be proud of how you all moved forward with love and caring for each other.
Because, really, that’s what all the things you’re missing out on are– expressions of deep love, gratitude, and affection for each other. You have laughed, cried, and learned with each other for years. You’ve sweated in classrooms during tests, celebrated your victories, dated each other (despite my pleas for you not to), and made it through the drama. These were opportunities to put all of it behind you, look back at it, and celebrate that it made you into the marvelous humans you are today.
There is no one way to express those things, though. The traditions and rituals we have constructed to do so can be powerful, yes, but ultimately you decide how you will express those things. At the end of the year, your love for each other is what matters. Your appreciation for each other and everyone who supported you on that journey is what shines through. You still have the chance to give each other all the love and appreciation you were planning to. You don’t need to change the content, you just need to rethink the method. I know you will look through the muck and mire of this situation and still be able to give each other that support and care. And I’m already inspired by it.
Finally, I want to say thank you. I won’t get to see you at graduation, which does in fact break my heart, as I was so excited to watch you all be celebrated in the way you deserve. So, in the best way I can, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being awesome and fun and inspiring and silly and brilliant and all the other adjectives I can’t list right. now. You not only made me a better teacher, but you made me a better person. I’m eternally grateful I got to spend a short chunk of your life working with you. I am so excited to see where you go next.
Remember, I’m only an email or message away. And remember, above all else, that you are loved.
We make enchiladas (from Costco, sure. I’m tired and haven’t made them from scratch in years) and the episode of House Hunters International on TV is about a Mexican-American family deciding to move to Puerto Vallarta to reconnect with their roots. We watch and dream of moving to Mexico one day so our kids will be fluent in Spanish. For the rest of the night, I speak to Michael in my child’s-level Spanish and badger him to practice with me. I am grateful to still be bilingual, even at a basic level, and am able to quickly switch to it. I still remember a time when it was a foreign language on my tongue and I’m scared of returning to that place
The enchiladas are not homemade but actually a bit spicy and pretty flavorful. At least, I think they are. Maybe I’ve lost my ability to decipher good Mexican food after living away from it for so long. I often worry that being away from Latinx culture will slowly begin to strip away that part of myself. Being half-Chicana but growing up in a mostly white place, my identity and how it affects my understanding of the world has always been difficult to navigate. Being half-Filipina and half-Chicana in Hawai‘i has, strangely enough, been an even tougher needle to thread sometimes.
Our identities are not simply made up of our internal beliefs— they are validated and enriched by interacting with those cultures and, more importantly, its people. The 6 years I lived in LA, learning to speak Spanish, working in Latinx communities, and Salsa dancing were some of my most formative. They shaped my understanding of what it meant to be Latina.
Now, though, I live in a world mostly devoid of Latinx culture. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but without that consistent connection (mixed with the interesting fact that I am more likely to “pass” as Pinay while out here) makes it hard to feel Latina sometimes. What does that identity mean now? Do I even get to call myself Latina, or is it merely the card I can slip out when I get lucky enough to spend time with another Latinx person or a party trick I can play when I want to surprise people?
Michael goes out and so I finish my meal and scroll through Instagram. I stumble on the Super Bowl half-time show. I still remember watching when it aired, aware of its problems but also so excited to hear rhythms and music that were so deeply embedded in my muscles, my hips instantly moving when I heard them. I watch parts of the performance, realizing how much I love Latin music and how infrequently I listen to it. Without thinking much of it, I throw some Bad Bunny on the Bluetooth while I get up to clean the kitchen.
It takes about three minutes—just enough time to put the enchiladas away— before I am dancing around, shaking my hips and tossing my head from side to side. I move to the living room, turn the volume up, and dance, watching my reflection in the window, amazed that I can still move my body this way when, frankly, I haven’t danced in years. It puts a smile on my face and I find myself laughing at how good I feel, particularly given the fact that, two hours earlier, I was curled into a ball, wrapped in sheets, crying.
The quarantine and mourning the loss of so many things has been hard, as it has been for most of us. I’ve been particularly struggling for the past few weeks. Yes, I find moments of uplifting joy and my students consistently make me happy, but I have found myself bursting into tears at random moments more often than before. A difficult interval or thought-provoking quote while riding my stationary bike will leave me sobbing and breathless for a moment, the intense adrenaline rush combined with the storm of emotions enough to provoke my body to near-panic. Today was a long one preceded by a night of bad sleep, so I was particularly prone to tears.
Yet, now, a few hours later, give me some Daddy Yankee and I am able to find joy once again.
May is mental health awareness month. I’ve been fairly upfront about my mental health journey but have been struggling with what, if anything, to say about it. I don’t know how my mental health is right now and I don’t know how I’m managing it.
Last night, I had a small revelation, a moment where my racial identity and my experiences with anxiety and depression intersected.
The stereotype of “big Latinx feelings” was certainly true in my upbringing and every day I count my blessing that I grew up in a place where we were allowed to openly feel and experience big emotions. It was okay to cry in our house. The ability to express my feelings without shame is something that has saved me in so many ways. Even in my darkest moments, I was able to share and attempt to name what was happening, and it helped me retrieve stability and control out of the maw of anxiety and depression.
The other gift was the ability to dance through pain. When my grandfather passed five years ago, his celebration of life was filled with music. My uncle, a singer and guitarist in a mariachi band, pulled out the stops and played everything to classic mariachi to Johnny Cash with Mexican rhythms. We danced and cried and sang that afternoon, celebrating death in a way that is special to Mexican culture.
I realize now that this gift has stayed with me, even 3,000 miles away from home on an island in the Pacific. I remember that, even after a sobbing breathless interval, I still stay on the bike, swaying my hips in rhythm to the music, dancing even as I catch my breath and push through the bad feelings. When I am sad, movement still finds a way to call me back to my body, to home, to the long line of people that I come from, who danced in the ashes and mixed sorrow with joy.
I come from the people who danced. That lineage gives me strength to move even through the darkness. There is an ancestral knowledge that lives in me, helping me find light even when it feels like there is none. Even when I’m sad, I can find rhythm, close my eyes, and swirl my hips towards happiness again.
Growing up, I had an amazing priest, Fr. Fred. Not only did his guidance shape much of my faith today, but he was a master of events. A former advertising executive, he knew not only how to give a compelling homily, but how to put on a show when the time called. We had Christmas pageants (where I played the Virgin Mary more than once) and Pentecost mass with people speaking in multiple languages around the church.
He was great at Easter, too. We’d have mass outdoors when the weather permitted (as it did most Southern California spring times), with a big, beautifully decorated platform and crucifix. The whole thing would be decked out in flowers– draped over the crucifix, surrounding the platform. As part of his Easter homily, Fr. Fred always had not only multiple chocolate bunnies he would give away, but a real life bunny he’d hide under his vestments, waiting to reveal it to the squeals of a hundred little kids. He’d always have a darkly hilarious name, like “Stew-y,” for it too (the rabbits were normally lent by a parishioner or local pet shop). The rabbit was always used as a point to talk about innocence, redemption, and God’s love.
As I got older, I came to expect the bunny, knew it was coming, did not squeal with delight as I had as a child, but instead enjoyed seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when they saw the rabbit. The joy was watching their happiness. It was one of many things that made me love Easter mass. We’d laugh and celebrate with each other, held together under the beautiful blue sky.
In truth, I can’t remember an Easter where I didn’t go to mass. Even when I was angry with God, when I claimed to have “left” the Catholic church, I still went to church on Christmas and Easter. At the time, I said it was going for the sake of my parents, but I’ve always loved attending mass. I love the ritual and community of it all– knowing I am saying the same words (or similar words) that my family has been saying for generations, speaking them in rhythm with people who have either known me since I was 10 or never seen me before. It’s a powerful, heady thing, particularly for someone like me who loves a bandwagon to jump onto or being part of a team.
Yet, like so many other events in the time of COVID-19, I will not be attending mass this year, nor celebrating with my faith community. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very lucky. Michael and I have a place on the North Shore we escaped to and we’ll make a nice dinner and I’ll watch mass and then we’ll watch Jesus Christ Superstar on TV. I’ll call my family. It won’t be terrible.
But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all make me terribly sad. All of the little tragedies outside of the actual sickness and death– our postponed wedding and family plans, not seeing my students, feeling for my kiddos who won’t get graduation ceremonies– have been weighing heavy on my heart. Honestly, this is how I’ve been feeling all month:
So, when I thought about Easter earlier this week, I didn’t particularly feel like rejoicing. Yes, He is risen and there’s still much to be grateful for– but all of that feels much less sweet when you can’t celebrate with the people you love and there is still so much heartache around.
Then, a few days ago, a phrase popped into my head that Fr. Fred used to say each Easter as well: “If not today, Easter will come.” I remember being confused when I first heard it as an eleven-year-old. Wasn’t Easter today?
What he explained to us that year and reminded us each year after was that Easter isn’t just a day, but a spiritual place we seek. Easter is finding redemption and hope again, even in the midst of despair. Easter is the magic of an embrace long-awaited, the sweet joy that comes after trying times. Easter is the strength to get through the darkness because we believe something greater is on the other side.
It’s a phrase I’ve been sitting with a lot this month, since so many things we would call “joyous” feel like they’ve been stripped out of our lives.
Then, I am reminded that “joy” and “happiness” are not the same thing. Joy can be found even in the darkest events, because we know that from those trials great things can come. The crucifixion itself is a joyous event, but not only because we know that not only will it lead to the resurrection, but it reminds us how beloved we are. In spite of it all– the destruction and wrath and muck of humanity– there is still someone willing to love us with unfettered and unadulterated generosity. There is someone who looks at our faults and also sees the beauty, magic, and potential within us. It’s joyous because it gives us a model for how we could attempt to love others. What would it mean to seek and give love that is bigger than ourselves?
And there, in that question, is the grace of Easter.
Easter is found in our ability to look at the muck of it– the bungled handling of the situation, the sadness of death, the grief of what is lost– and still seek new ways of connection, celebrate the generosity of others, and believe that there is something better on the other side of this. Much as God looked at problems of humanity and still chose to see our positives and potential, Easter is found in the ability for us to see that light within others.
So, yes, I am grateful because I believe that even if it’s not today, Easter will come and this will end. I know that, ultimately, I hope all of this could lead to something much bigger and more beautiful than I’m able to see (while still acknowledging the very real pain it’s causing).
But I’ve also recognized that Easter is already here, as it always has been, in the way we connect with and support each other. It’s smiling and laughing with those around us even when we know the trick, because the joy isn’t found in our own surprise but in reveling in the light of others. Easter isn’t just the resurrection, it’s the love we give to those around us and the expression of that love in action and words. As much as I love the ritual and community of mass, the bandwagon-effect pales in comparison to the faith and relationship with God that give me the strength to look this difficult times and try and find grace within it. It reminds me that even when I am not physically with my community, I am not alone.
So, even though this Easter will be a quiet one, I am comforted in knowing that not only will Easter come, someday, but Easter is already here. I just need to look for it. The magic isn’t in the celebration with others, it’s remembering the sentiment Fr. Fred used to end each weekly message with: “Remember, above all, you are loved.”