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.”
This is part of a much larger fiction (!) piece I started last summer and… stare at from time to time. But the world is crazy right now and I’m hoping putting writing into the world will actually get me to, ya know, write.
You never felt like a pretty girl. You had a lifetime of being chubby and awkward and brown in a world that didn’t want any of those things, and so “desirable” was something you had never seen in yourself. The only way you got boys, it felt like, was if you went out and got them. You were aggressive and flirtatious. Subtly was not your strong suit.
That’s how you’d gotten Brian. He was in one of your elective writing courses and seemed so much cooler than you— the English department darling, bright blue eyes. He was way out of your league. And yet after a few weeks of very targeted flirting, you hooked up (making out and some under the shirt action— you were still very uptight and confused by your body). That led to actual dating, which led to a serious relationship all through college. Brian stayed and cheered for you when you switched to a journalism degree. You stayed as he graduated and decided to make writing into a career. You both stayed through the first year of your internship at the local paper. You had stayed close to home for Brian and, at 22, were planning a life together.
But the seams were starting to rip on the relationship. You had outgrown each other, in many ways— his love of niche, fantasy literature were at odds with what you felt were “real world problems.” You hated following him to networking parties; he didn’t connect to the reporting you were doing. There was a lot of love, yes, but there were long fights, uncertainty, and confusion at where the spark of your young love had gone when you were both in your early twenties.
So, when Andrew joined as a summer intern a few months after you, you were happily surprised at the connection you felt. You didn’t think much of it– when had things like that ever panned out for you?– but it was nice to have someone who shared your interests and sought you out in the lunchroom. You made it a point not to mention Brian, which you knew was terrible, but you justified as “not that big a deal.” Women were punished and put in boxes for their relationships all the time. You didn’t want to be known as the girl who only talked about her boyfriend, you reasoned. It was just good career skills.
When Andrew invited you to get a drink, you didn’t think anything of it. You didn’t get pursued or asked on dates without reaching for it. He was way too cute to be interested in you– a tall, lean former cross country runner with glasses and a big goofy smile. So, you agreed. Did you put on a cute dress and make up? Sure. But you were just putting your best foot forward for a colleague. That was all.
Except it wasn’t. Andrew took you to a little Mediterranean joint, laughing as he told you about his life and his plan to eventually go to medical school and eventually Doctors Without Borders. Your fingers touched as you split pita bread. He asked you about your latest article, gave clear and thoughtful feedback, and insisted on paying. You were roundabout about Brian, making it unclear if you were single or not. He didn’t pry. As you were walking out, he recommended a good dive bar a few blocks away. Then there was beer. A shot. Karaoke. He admitted to you he’d just gotten a tattoo on his bicep, the snakey medical symbol, to remind him of his own plans.
You smiled as he told you, and he must have seen you bite your lip before asking you coyly, “Do you want to see it?”
You had never had this before, a man offering his body to you, even in this small way. You always felt as if yours body was the one that needing to be proffered. You nodded slightly and he rolled up his t-shirt sleeve to show you. It was intricate and beautiful, black with blushing red on his white skin. Without thinking, you reached out, then hesitated. “It’s okay,” he smiled slyly. “Touch it. Go ahead.”
Your breath caught in your throat at the small innuendo. You couldn’t help it– you bit your lip again. What bad movie is this? You scolded yourself, but the alcohol had already numbed your mind so much that rationality had left you long ago. So you reached out and felt the heat of his skin under your thumb as you traced the tattoo, your fingers dancing on his arm, chicken skin arising on you both.
“Does it– does it hurt?” You gulped out. You looked away from his arm and into his eyes for what seemed to be the first time that night.
The brown of them danced under the tacky flashing of the bar’s party lights. He took a breath and then smiled. “No. Not at all. It feels nice.”
You breathed quietly, taking the moment in, looking into his eyes again.
Then there was water and the check (he covered again, despite heavier protests from your end). He guided you to the car, lightly by placing a hand on your lower hip, and drove you home, the conversation continuing nonstop. Finally, you were outside your apartment. You blinked a few times, trying to ground yourself. What is going on? You try and figure out exactly what in this experience is real as you look at the dashboard. You are not just drunk on alcohol, but on the experience itself. This man was actively flirting with you: grabbing your shoulder, encouraging you to touch him, encouraging you to speak more, looking at you so deeply you didn’t know you could be seen in that way. This did not happen to you. You didn’t know what to do with it.
You realized he was silent, and looked up at him, the orange of the streetlight casting across on pale skin, a glint on his glasses and in his eyes. Your mouth went dry. He reached across, taking a strand of your hair and putting it behind your ear. Seriously, what movie– he kept his hand in your hair, his thumb lightly stroked the side of your face as he kept looking into your eyes. Your mind went blank, buzzing. You knew that this was too far. You knew that this was wrong. You have only kissed three boys in your entire life, and the one you thought you will marry is waiting at his house for you to text him that you got home safe.
Then, without a word, he leaned across the center console and kissed you, so softly you barely felt it. You had never done anything like this, never thought you would, and even though you knew it was wrong you closed your eyes and let it happen. When he stopped and looked at you, you said nothing, and so he did it again, harder this time, and without thinking you leaned into it, feeling his hands cup the back of your head and pull your body into his. You’re still not sure who pulled away first. You stumbled out of the car, said something about calling him, and ran upstairs to your apartment.
Without thought, you texted Brian, “home”
He texted back immediately, “You okay?”
You breathed hard, felt your throat constrict before typing. “Yeah, some folks from the office joined us. Lots of fun lol and found a new mediterrean place to try. Gonna knock out.”
You held your breath waiting for his response. Would he buy it? Would he follow up? What if someone had seen you?
“haha ok glad it was fun. love you.”
You heaved a heavy sigh as you typed back, “love you too.”
You felt your way to the bathroom in the dark, flipped on the light, and looked in the mirror. Your face felt like it was broken into parts– swollen lips, lined eyes, messy hair. You tried to take it all in as it swirled all together. You blinked hard, then said aloud, “I cheated. I cheated on Brian. I’m a cheater.”
You looked at the image in the mirror. Who was this girl? Who had you become?
You stared harder. You thought you would cry, thought you would feel a wave a guilt overcome you when you said the words. You thought you’d burn up into a million pieces right there.
But you felt nothing. You knew you would not get caught, and knew you would be able to go on without anyone knowing. You kept looking into your own eyes, trying to find something more than, “He doesn’t know and he never will.”
But nothing was there.
You flipped off the light and stumbled into your bed into a night of dreamless sleep.
My hips are a drum rhythm that I have never known how to handle.
They cannot help but move and sway when the right music comes on, but I never quite know what to do with them. I am not a graceful dancer, but an ability to move and rotate these hips were enough to make me a mediocre-to-okay salsa and ballroom competitor in college. What I lacked in grace, I made up for in the ability to swirl my hips in tempo with the music, my body moving in ways I didn’t fully understand yet. Men would touch places on my hips and I knew to turn one way or another or they would send me out to make space on the dance floor, causing me to hip-check people as they extended my body across like a weapon.
Now, my hips are more every day nuisance than the maracas I shake to be noticed. I put my hands on them when I walk around my classroom, or when I demonstrate how to keep my balance when I coach my middle school students through yoga poses. I don’t dislike them, I just don’t really notice them. My hips will occasionally bounce around to Lizzo or whatever rhythm I find while I’m running or while I clean the house. When I hear Latin music— the other day out on the street,a Latin jazz band played— they will feel a sparkle and tinge, asking if they should move now. I sigh with a little nostalgia but my hips have only ever known how to be competitive for attention and it’s a quality about myself that I do not like and prefer not to indulge.
The only times I actively like them is when see them in the mirror, the skin around them taut and curved like a drum. It’s a reminder that under the muscle and tissue there is something hard and strong. Sometimes, Michael wraps his hands around them, his fingers pressing into the bones as if he were going to leave his fingerprints in them, and comes up behind me, kissing my ear and telling me I look pretty. Sometimes, he will kiss them when he gets up from bed. I think of the babies I want to give us that will, God willing, be easily birthed from these hips.