The Day I Learned to Swim

I have been running from the ocean since I knew I could swim.

It’s a strange paradox, I know. But at some point early on it
seemed like the ocean of my own heart was
too big to bear. The first time I tried to navigate it on my own,
I was hit with tidal waves of heartbreak and currents
of unnavigable passion that I had no idea how to control.
I was terrified of getting sucked underneath.

So, I jumped on the first floating object I could find.
I sought hands that I was sure could lift me from
the riptides of my own stormy heart, I looked for lips
that would breathe air into lungs too salty with my own
sadness to have a voice. I was so terrified by the first chill
of the water that I desperately clung to the first source of
warmth that would wrap its arms around me and
name me as complete. I played keep-away from the ocean,
And when one lifeboat drifted away, I jumped on the next
insistent that if kept moving I wouldn’t ever get swallowed
by the waves of my own sadness.

After a while, though, as wonderful as the feeling of floating
is, I realized I was missing something.
I learned I can never really feel safe if I don’t believe
in the buoyancy of my own being.

This time, I am trying to be brave.

I stepped out of the ship I built and
decided I needed to learn how to swim.

I jumped into the ocean, felt the chill, and when
I felt like I was going to drown, I began to kick. Hard.
I flailed and churned my limbs. When the winds roared
in my eardrums, I roared right back. I screamed
The sadness out of my chest. I learned to listen to the slapping
of the waves and hear the rhythm of my blood pumping.
I notice the way the tide pulls and clinches at my heart and then lets it go.

And after a while, I realized I could use the currents to push me along.
I could rest in the quiet spaces in the sea, when my
ocean heart would slow the storm and allow me to float,
calmly, from one place to the next. I flipped onto my belly
and began to glide through the water, and embracing the chill.

That was the day I learned to swim.

 

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The Story Doesn’t End: What I Will Tell My Future Daughter About Love

 

Sometimes, I write letters, especially when I am struggling to find my own voice.


Little one,

I don’t know if you and I will ever meet. The universe spins and throttles about on so many different axes that to be certain of anything seems like a fool’s errand.

And yet.

You come from a heart-on-the-sleeve stock, my dear (at least on your mother’s side). Everything can be so exciting– if you want it to be. The graze of a hand, catching someone’s eye, your first kiss– all of it can bubble so effusively in that spot right beneath your lungs. You’ll feel like you’re filling with air and everything will feel tense and your skin will feel like it doesn’t quite fit you because you’re all wiggly with joy and apprehension and excitement about the course your life might take. All of this can be spurred with a small gesture if you want.

I hope you let yourself have that kind of joy if you want it.

We live in such a cynical, difficult world sometimes. We’re taught to “play it cool” or not give too much. The world might tell you that sharing your joy is a surefire way to give up your power at the table, so best leave it at the door.

And to those people, my love, I sort of want to say, “fuck that shit,” (pardon my cursing, of course).

The thing is, there are people in the world who see their love as the weight on a far-swinging pendulum.

You can hold that weight in your hands, let it sit there heavy and cool and close to your chest. When you feel it start to pull towards someone else, throw your balance into your toes so you’re less steady than before, you can react defensively. You can hold it tighter to your chest, squeeze yourself a little harder, assure yourself that the weight and power and shine of your love is still yours and yours alone.

On the other end of that pendulum is a throw-yourself-at-it-drop-everything kind of love. It’s devoting the entirety of your strength and balance to someone else, praying they send it back to you with the same force and devotion. You’re left tottering on your toes, waiting for the other person’s counterforce to steady you. As you swing the weight back and forth, you hope you don’t knock down too many bodies along the way– especially your own.

Sure, either of these is an option, I think.

But there is a magic in the middle ground, if you can find it. You don’t have to see love as this sacred, weighted object that you can only wield with strength and centrifugal force. You don’t have to see it as a shining thing that you lob at someone when you’re ready.

Instead, I want you to see love as a story.

By now, you probably know your mother lives for the story. Love is no different. Your story began far before you took breath in the world, as did mine. It began with me, your grandparents, and back and back and back. When you were ready, you picked up the pen and began writing your own lines. Your hand was unsteady at first, but as time went on, you started becoming more confident in your grip. You caught the mistakes you were making. You wrote adventures and difficult silences and laugh-out-loud shenanigans.

Love is letting someone share the pen and write with you. It’s giving up the agency of sole authorship and letting them wrap their arms around you and hold the pen too. Hips against yours, arm slung around your waist, you will let them nuzzle their chin the crook of your neck. They will kiss your ear and gently place their hand on top of yours and write that part of the story with you.

It will make the story richer. Little star doodles will find their way into the margins, and the story will become so much funnier and sweeter. You will laugh and cry and fight as you figure out the next chapters. You will both make mistakes. You will have big cross-outs and messy, ugly ink blotches that no amount of white-out can fix. Love will never be the neatest pages in your story. It will look like chaos if you want. It will be big and bold and ridiculous.

And it will be absolutely beautiful.

Still, just because someone makes an appearance in your story doesn’t mean they stay. At some point, you may realize it just doesn’t fit. Or they got tired of writing with you. Or they want another partner or you want another partner or the million other reasons love can change and need to be let go.

It will hurt. A lot. Your back will suddenly feel naked against the air without the other person. You hand will feel unsteady again after letting someone write with you. The pages will feel cold and blank. You will feel like you can’t write anymore.

Here’s the thing, though: You still have the pen. The story isn’t over just because someone stopped writing with you. You will still be able to keep writing. The magic of the story is that someone you love can rip out your heart, make you cry and ache, and you will still be able to get up in the morning and keep writing. Your story cannot be ended by anyone but you. 

I don’t know a lot about love right now, if I’m honest. I know I have a lot to learn. But the  lesson I want to give you is this: don’t stop writing. Don’t be scared to share your story. It will be tempting to set down the pen. The first time your heart is broken, you will want to hold it tight to your chest like that pendulum for fear of ever sharing again.

Relax your body. Breathe. Let the grief and the fear flow through you, and then let it go. When you look back later, you will love those pages you wrote when you were in love. You will have a fond, small ache for the people who wrote with you, even if you know they weren’t the right co-author. The pages you shared enriched your story, added color and nuance.

Forgive yourself for the scratches and the inkblots and the “mistakes.” They were just part of your process. They were the lessons that taught you that no matter how empty it feels now, tomorrow will still come and tomorrow will feel better.

And when you’re ready, love, look up from the paper. See people again. Look at the world around you and then write some more.

When someone comes along who makes you feel like you’re filling with air and your skin doesn’t quite fit you, smile. Hold out your hand and ask them if they want to sit with you for a second. You have a story you want to share with them.

With love,

me.

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I am still trying to write a thing. I don’t know how it’s going.


Here’s the thing: I like telling stories.

That doesn’t make me special. I’m a sometimes-writer and full-time English teacher. I have spent years fitting events into narrative structures: dynamic characters, dramatic tension, nuanced relationships wind through conflict and still end with a neat resolution. My world, most days, is spent somehow trying to craft something that fits into a narrative.

I thought this was just craft, something I did on paper. Then, someone noted a small, white lie in my work, saying, “You like making things fit your story.” It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

It wasn’t mean, they were just making an observation. At that moment, it clicked.

I have been telling myself stories for years.

Nearly every relationship I’ve had is subjected to hours in the tumble-dry cycle of day-dreams. I take the smallest tidbits, find the narrative and fill it with so much hot air it floats away with the rest of my imagination.

My narrative habit has been curling its way through my brain, around my heart, and into my actions since childhood. A gossamer string, my desire to adapt my perception of reality– then manipulate that reality to my perception– has been woven into my life since long before I could understand it.

It’s in adolescent journal entries describing, in excruciating detail, the real meaning behind my crush putting his hand briefly on the back of my chair as he talked to someone else. It’s being sure that, when his “ocean blue eyes, like a stormy sea” (a line, no doubt, purloined from some bad fanfic I had read on the internet) locked with mine, it was because he was seeing something deeper in me. It’s embedded into the fabric of time I’d spend skulking around corners at school, hoping to “accidentally” run into some guy.

When, somehow, I would convince that crush to actually date me– with obvious flirtation, with praises and pretty words– I was still creating storylines for them that would, eventually, end.

Storyline: A young Mormon missionary falls in love with a Catholic girl. He proposes. She says yes. He goes on his mission and when he returns, they find a way to work through their religious issues and have a happy life.

In reality, six months after he left, the heady high of my first kiss and first love had worn off. I was sixteen when he gave me a ring. I was seventeen when I sent my missionary a Dear-John-email (we weren’t allowed to call or see them in person, or I swear I would have). He begged me to accept his God into my heart. I ignored his messages. I returned his ring. 

He’s married now, I think. He blocked me on Facebook.

I did this a few more times in high school:

Storyline: The midwestern track star who tutored me in math dates the unathletic drama kid after they meet in orchestra. Very High School Musical, before that was a thing.

He broke up with me when he realized our time was up. I threw a fit and sobbed some dramatics, though deep down I agreed.

Storyline: The fellow thespian, who I badgered to go out with me my senior year. We went to the same church, sang in choir together. It made sense.

In reality, we were both biding our time, play-acting what we thought love looked like. we fought, we made peace and we parted ways. 

This, of course, is natural for many high schoolers. As a teacher now, I see myself in so many sixteen-year-olds skulking around corners, hoping to bump into someone. 

What is more difficult to realize is that I didn’t leave the practice behind in my school like I thought I did. I see now that I have been weaving webs of stories and heartaches long past my graduation.


 

It is a weird, almost-archeological act to look back on old writing.  Yes, many of us find and keep memorabilia from past lovers (photo booth strips, ticket stubs, a napkin they wiped their mouth with after a first kiss and other moony tangibles of the like).

Words are different. Journals, emails, and even now text messages create archives that speak not just to the existence of a relationship, but our mindset while we were in the relationship. Much like past love letters my parents have, first-person stories of just how besotted (or frustrated) we have been with someone exist for years to come.

Unlike the previous generation, however, artifacts of my relationships are not hidden in a Tupperware box in my closet. They are strains of my old-self buried in my email account. They are left-over rice grains in the drafts folder of old blogs—just when I think I’ve cleaned them all up, one sticks to the bottom of my foot months later. Try as I might to delete someone (and trust me, I try), bits and pieces of past relationships are consistently available at my fingertips.

I look over old emails and the words still feel strangely foreign. The person in them doesn’t sound like me at all. Who was this “us” we created? It appears so strongly here—casual banter and mutual knowledge, names appearing as always-conjoined or pronouns notating the “we” and “us”. Don’t worry about us! We’ll meet you there.

It is strangely dissociative, and I’m filled with a sudden urge to figure out the mystery of the woman I have been these past few months who feels so distant now.

After a stable three-year relationship, I had a moving-too-fast fling. Maybe I was desperately seeking to fill the space left by my break up. Maybe I was overly romantic and allowed myself to get swept into someone else’s fantasy. Maybe I just went temporarily insane.

Some texts remain. Like the emails, I feel so removed from the woman in those words. She is more like a character in a story I have written than any semblance of my actual self.

I read the texts in her voice:

Meet you @ home in 20 min. Who was this girl who gave allowed a near-stranger to call her apartment “home”?

That’s ok, I just wanted to make sure you got home ok 🙂 Who let hours-long absences go because of a breezy “I love you.”

Who was this woman, and how was she ultimately betrayed?

He once joked that at least he would be an interesting story for me to write, but he ultimately failed there too. Our relationship ended with so much banality: he cheated on me. A tale as old as time that any good writer could have seen coming from a mile away, but I was so willing to accept his stories that I completely lost myself in them.

I read the messages, and then I realize that I was also telling myself stories the entire time: that I was okay with this “relationship,” that I had been okay with the break up before it, that the two weren’t connected. Even the past emails were, in some ways, stories: I was a girl planning a to meet somewhere with a man who didn’t particularly like travel; we were breezily headed somewhere that, in fact, we were not.

These past words feel foreign because they are merely images of the character I was in that part of my story. They are no mystery at all; they are merely chapters in my life now closed. 

The question is not, though, how to move onto the next chapter. The question is how long I will be able to keep weaving stories for myself, or if I will ever pause, look around at myself and my reality, and see and accept things as they are.

Here’s the problem: I’ve been weaving stories for so long, I can’t help but wonder what that even means. Even now, as I look at what I’ve written, it’s difficult to figure out what is “truth” and what is “story-truth.” I read the words and wonder how many of the choices I’ve made in my life happened because it was what I wanted, or because that’s what I thought, as the writer, should happen next. How many plot-line roller coasters have I strapped myself into, thinking I saw denouement at the end?

Storyline: A woman sits in her apartment trying to write. She is trying to figure out how the story should end. She sits, looks at the screen, sees the blinking cursor. She knows there is no one to ask for help writing the end. She also knows that, as much as she wants to, she does not know how to end the story.

She looks at the screen. She sees the blinking cursor. She waits.

Lay Down Your Sword

In a series of letters to myself.


Baby,

How long do you plan to keep fighting?

I see you, shoulders hunched and brow knitted. You of the ever-muddy shoes and never-polished sword. You are a study in unnecessary persistence.

You scrutinize a face in the mirror that doesn’t always feel like your own because you’ve been running away from it for too long. You claim to have a distaste for confrontation, but you spend every day looking at your reflection to pick out which battle you will fight today. Will it be the head or the heart? Which part of your persona will you proclaim as in need of a fix? For all your cries of non-violence, you have been the most aggressive pursuer of your own perceived inner-demons.

You see yourself piecemeal, picking apart all the stories you’ve written onto your body– the shiny patches left from the times you let yourself be burnt, the scars from when you were convinced that bloodletting was the only way to heal. Like some kind of forensic gravedigger, you see the past written into your skin and try and resurrect these stories so you can carefully dissect them and look for all the clues you think led to your failure.

In each story, you are sure you are reading some kind of a map, where “x” marks some ethereal, better version of yourself. You take up your sword and try and carve out the parts of yourself you are convinced no longer serve you: the naivete, the romantic, the poet. You write and publish praise about being big-hearted only to find yourself consistently trying to scrape that heart off your sleeve, to hide it under an iron suit. You are so sure that it is so overbearing and ridiculous, no one wants to see it but you.

So instead you try and cut away the parts you are so sure no one else wants to deal with, to make space for something you hope someone else will give you. The problem is that if you keep splitting yourself into only the pieces you deem “lovable” or “acceptable” you will soon find that there is nothing left at all. 

Stop fighting, love.

We all have demons. We all want to be better. But to try and rip away the parts of yourself that someone else taught you were weak only weakens you as a whole.

Put down the sword. Take off the armor. Feel the new lightness in your body once you stopped carrying a cross only you have built and only you obliged yourself to. See the scars and let them heal back to the complete version of yourself.

Now is the time to set down the old stories; they were never maps to begin with. They are just memories. History is an important lesson, but it is no match for the beauty of the unseen horizon.

So stop fighting now. Unknit your brow. Raise your chin and look now towards that skyline. See yourself there, just as you do in the mirror: completely whole and perfect in the imperfections.

As I was editing this, this album came on. Perfect music and discussion to accompany this piece. 

Love, Boundless and Unflinching: On Father’s Day

We are walking toward the crater. The wind is whipping and it’s cold— still a surprise in Hawai’i, even though I understand the science behind it.It is Christmas and, without thinking, I instinctively reach forward and grab my father’s hand.

The memory isn’t an unusual one for me, though later when I think bout it I suppose it could be. It isn’t some distant wisp of a moment from my childhood. It’s from this past Christmas. At 28, I still occasionally reach out and grab my father’s hand.

When I think about the myriad of reasons my father is special, this is one. Yes, all people show affection differently, but it less so the actual physical affection my father gives and more the unflinching openness with which he gives it. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I could grab my father’s hand, rest my head on his shoulder, or go in for a hug and that my action—and, I suppose, my love— would be reciprocated without question.

I once had a coworker ask me what made my relationship with my parents special, or what I thought they had done right. I don’t know that I saw it as a kid, but it strikes me clear as day now: my parents loved us without question. It was not only unconditional, which I think most parents feel, but it was obvious in its completeness.

My father, especially with all the tropes that exist about Latino fathers having rule after rule for their daughters, never once gave me a reason to think I was anything but loved. There was never a doubt that the hand would hold mine, the shoulder would carry my head, or the arms would wrap around me when I asked for them.

This is the kind of love that breeds very brave souls, I think. It is the kind of love that sends me into the world, perhaps to my father’s vexation, with a big-hearted sense of vulnerability.  It gives me the strength to always reach out to others, instinctively take their hand, and love without bounds. Not only did it model what limitless love looked like, but it also taught us that we could love others and, regardless of their reaction, know that we would be unquestioningly loved by someone anyway. So many of us go out into the world seeking to be loved or cared for. There is a great sense of freedom that comes with the knowledge that no matter what happens to me, I am still a child beloved by their father.

Recently, I was reading the Prayer of St. Francis, and was struck by the following line: “O Master grant that I may never seek… to be loved as to love with all my soul.” This is the type of love my dad (aptly named “Francisco”) lives: a love without need for reciprocation or repayment, a love that exists as the air does— on principal alone.

So, thanks, Dad, for living a boundless and unflinching love each day. Happy Father’s Day. I know I can say always without question: I love you.

The Breath Before

I don’t often write fiction. I don’t think I do it particularly well, but I’ve been reading a lot of Junot Diaz this weekend and I guess I wanted to see what would happen. Here’s an excerpt. 


 

You are sitting with your back against a white, wood-paneled wall. The sun is streaming in. It is Winter, yet somehow still bright out. It is early morning and the cold seeps through the cement of your crappy apartment near the subway and all the way through to the wood of your wall. The cold is soothing on your back. It is 6:25 in the morning, and you are unsure if what is happening to you right now is real.

Moments before, you had snuck to his phone and looked through. A cardinal sin, yes. But you have a gut feeling. That’s how you justify it. Or maybe your life-long desire to Nancy Drew your way out of situations has reared its ugly head again. Or maybe you were just curious. Maybe all three.

Anyway, you do it, and after snooping through some text messages, you find photos. Lots of photos. And videos. Some girl whose face you don’t know, but in that moment it doesn’t matter. Later, you will wonder if she was in on it, if she knew, but, in the end that won’t matter either. She didn’t promise you anything. All you know is that the photos are there and the photos mean it’s the end and the photos rip you down the middle.

Now, you are sitting against the wood wall, trying to understand what your life looks like in this moment.

Later, after you have kicked him out of your small studio, you will realize you need to be at the lab in twenty minutes. In a daze you will find clothes and your coat. You won’t know how you got there, but the doors will swoosh open. You will duck past the interns waiting to be briefed by you. “Hi, Doc!” one will call out as you give a small, tight-lipped smile back. Later, he will remark to his friends that you seemed off that morning.

You will find your way into the office. Dan, your lab partner, will turn to ask why you’re late. He will see your face and know. He’ll wrap his arms around you and you will allow yourself a single sob. A convulsed release of the air and pain that have been sitting in your chest since 6:22 that morning when you saw the photos. He’ll give you a squeeze, then you’ll release yourself from his embrace, smile, and say, “Here we go,” before you turn to do your goddamn job.

That’s for later, though. Right now, you are sitting in your room, your back against a cold, white, wood-paneled wall. You look at his body splayed across your bed, his feet hanging off. You pull at your lower lip, your nervous tick he always picks on.

When you found the photos, your stomach tightened, you caught your breath. Suddenly, for a second, you saw only white, before it faded away and the photos and the videos were there again, as clear as day. It was as though your brain has taken a screen cap of that image, so that later when you are deciding what to do, it would throw the memory of this moment back front and center. Your ears start ringing. It will not stop until you make it into Dan’s arms later that morning. You drop to your knees, before getting up, putting on the first dress you can find and sit on the bed.

You find yourself there now, your back pressed against the wall for stability.

Later, after you have woken him and told him what you know and told him to leave, he will sit there, his eyes red and wet. He will apologize, but he will know better than to ask for another chance. He will tell you he still loves you, and how sorry he is before you finally get him out the door. It will take nearly an hour.

That hasn’t happened yet, though. That will be the memory you sit with later that night over a glass of whiskey that you are crying into: the image of him on the edge of your bed for the last time.

Right now, you are sitting at the other edge of your bed, you back against the cold, white, wood wall. You pull at your lip and furrow your brow. You wonder for a second if you could simply erase the image. If you could make things easy. If you could continue unabashed and unabated.

You know you cannot.

You take a breath. In. Out. You take another breath in and reach over to shake his leg.

“I need you to wake up now.”

We Are The Adventurers: Thoughts on May the 4th

We have always been a family of dreamers.

My brother and I like to joke that growing up in our house set us up to be nerds. From a  young age, images of space, aliens, and other worlds were as much a part of my life as the introduction music to Reading Rainbow (and when the show visited the set of Star Trek: TNG, I nearly wept with joy).

My father loved science fiction, and I would often walk downstairs to find him watching an episode of The X-Files or Star Trek (TNG, then Voyager later). Sometimes, he would even pop in 2001: A Space Odyssey just for fun.

So, it should come as no surprise that Star Wars was, like many, a seminal part of my childhood. Empire Strikes Back was actually my parents’ second date. I can’t even remember the first time  I watched it. We had (and still have) a VHS gold box edition of the original trilogy that my brother and I would put on anytime our parents worked late or we were just looking for something to do. Our first “pets,” two tadpoles fished out of a grimy stream, were named “Luke” and “Leia.”

When I think, now, of why science fiction was such an important part of my upbringing it was because there was consistently a sense that magic was possible in our household. Growing up one of the few Latino-Filipino families in our upper-middle-class suburb, it would have been easy for our parents to err on the side of pragmatism. They had worked hard to ensure that my brother and I didn’t want for anything, and I have no doubt they wanted us to be successful and be able to take care of ourselves financially as well.

What they also did, though, was ensure that a drive for success never outweighed our ability to dream. When I wrote Star Wars fan fiction (no, you can’t see it, because I burned it) or we spent hours playing and collecting Star Wars cards, my parents never scolded us for wasting our time. When we poured over books to learn the mechanical and tactical differences between an X-Wing and  TIE fighter, they didn’t tell us to do something “better.”  When we devoured Star Wars novels to continue the stories in our head, they didn’t grab the pulp novels out of our hands, shoving “real” literature into them. They asked what we liked about the books.

My parents encouraged our imaginations, enabled our passions, and gave us space to think about other galaxies and imagine what it would be like to pilot the Millenium Falcon. When we watched Return of the Jedi together, my mom said she could understand the Ewoks (and since Lucas borrowed heavily from Tagalog, she could), and my brother and I looked at her with wonder in our eyes.

We were allowed to be weird, mind-adventurers because we lived in a household that fully supported not just the existence of magic, but also the discussion of what could be out there that was much, much bigger than us. 

So, when I hear John Williams’s opening credits, I still feel that sense of childhood wonder. My heart squeezes a little, and I can’t help but feel a smile spread across my face. Sure, in some ways it’s because I’m excited to see the familiar faces of Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie come on screen.

Even more affecting, though, is the memory of my magical family. When I hear the opening credits of Star Wars, I instantly remember the feeling of my family curled up in the living room watching with wonder, dreaming together, and imagining what it would be like to live in a galaxy far, far away.