South Africa From the Dorms

On the third night of my arrival, I went out drinking at the Observatory area near the University of Cape Town. I have quickly learned that in South Africa, good beer is hard to come by. I value my quality beer. Most of the beer sold at pubs is light beer that is the equivalent of Dos XX or Heineken. Back home in the States I go out of my way to purchase a good Duvel. Here, I can’t find those high percentage beers unless I find myself in the hipster, perhaps gentrified, places in Cape Town. I don’t like to drink for the sake of drinking. I can’t stand mixed drinks because they give me pounding headaches. Wine is really big here in South Africa. I prefer that cheap comforting bubbly; my main man Andrè. I have found one beer that I have stuck with, Bone Crusher. It’s a heffenweiser type of beer. Better than Blue Moon in taste but slightly similar. It’s only 6%.

I don’t know why I say it like it’s a bad thing. I can hold my alcohol but the older I get the less tolerance I have. I have noticed that as I age, my alcohol tolerance has lowered. It hits me faster. Even after a good meal, I start to feel that buzzing dance party on the corner of my temple. That’s a dangerous area to be in because I just want to keep drinking and start dancing or just start talking about all the wonderful and shitty aspects of the universe. The older I get, the more I want to talk, the more I want to share and the more I think I want to help.

Being on a trip with 20 girls has tested my patience to its maximum. Being around 21 strangers is harder than walking around a city with the highest rape rate in the world. The other day I took a stroll on my own and it was the most valuable time I had. Back home, I am used to doing things alone. I like going on bike rides on my own. I like taking drives on my own. I like eating lunch alone. I like shopping alone. I love walking alone. I like being alone. When I am around people, I am alone. When I am being held, I feel alone. When I talk to my mother, I am alone. When I fall in love, I am alone. I have a love affair with my loneliness. It’s there at the center of my heart whether I want it or not. I suppose, like a good clingy boyfriend, I just accept it.

I am lucky that I met and picked an amazing roommate. I want to dedicate a whole book on her because our conversations are like a supernova. They are just an explosion of feelings, thoughts and exchanges that when photographed, they look completely still, serene, aligned and perfect. Everything inside the conversations is filled with the chaos and beauty of our past, present and dreams. She says I remind her of her boyfriend. One week of sharing a space with her and I think I am ready to settle and look for a relationship as soon as I get back home. I’ve never shared this much space with anyone but my sister.

I should be focusing on the history I am experiencing. After all, I am older than the democracy of South Africa. I should be typing up my research, whatever the fuck I decide that may be. I had Black Consciousness and Hip Hop and then I found out about Franschhoek and the Huguenot “refugees” after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the 17th century, and then I went to the library and Bev, the librarian, would not give up on helping me find resources and she deviated my research into wine making and slave/child labor. There’s too much to learn and take in in such little time. It’s actually quite bad for an impulsive personality such as myself.

All I know right now, at this exact moment, is that I have to wake up early because I don’t want to miss the ferry to Robben Island, the island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in. The island that I totally fucked up on my map quiz here in South Africa.

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Totsiens Vir Nou, Boys

When I travel, I have no sense of time. I don’t know what day it is nor do I care. On Sunday I left on a two day flight to Cape Town, South Africa. Once I said goodbye to my family right before the TSA check at LAX, I forced myself to produce tears. My eyes watered a bit. I felt I should have been sadder at the thought of not seeing my family for a month. But this is a journey of self-discovery and blah blah blah so my selfishness didn’t care to produce tears.

 

I had not flown internationally since 2007, so all these TSA regulations were completely new to me. My x-ray showed I had sensitive areas so I had to be patted down and warned that if I didn’t pass my pat down, I would be privately screened. The TSA makes you question yourself, “Am I carrying drugs?” The last time I checked I was not a drug mule. Right before boarding my plane I was stopped by what I think were the feds. It was a Hispanic lady and a light colored Hispanic looking male. The lady reached out to me with a huge smile and I returned the warmth because I thought it was curious that there was a Hispanic lady on a British airline. When she asked where I was going, I thought she was genuinely interested in my journey. She quickly stopped smiling and started interrogating me about my trip. I looked down near her chest and I saw a badge and became nervous. Of course, she noticed. Suddenly, I was being asked how I paid for my trip and why I was I going, where is my school located, where do I wok and other pointless questions. I felt this inner rage building up inside of me. Is it hard to believe that a short Mexican girl from nowhere can fund her own trip across the Atlantic? She let me go as she looked at me up and down half believing my story. It’s hard not to feel like my ethnicity played a part. Everybody else that traveled alone didn’t have this happen. Everyone else is light skin, white or traveled together. I was a brown girl alone in a British airline destined to Cape Town. I felt some rage. The first of its kind.

 

My first trip was straight to Heathrow airport in London. It took nine hours. My connecting flight to Cape Town took eleven hours. Before I left, I was running on two hours of sleep and hung over. My journey started that Sunday morning on a boy’s bed. We talked all night Saturday as we drank ourselves silly. The more we talked, the more he surprised me. Before Saturday night, he was just a cute quiet guy. By Sunday morning he was naked and had me wrapped up in his arms. The occasional adjustment of our bodies called for a kiss on my forehead or intertwining his fingers with my fingers and resting our locked hands on my stomach. I wasn’t sure how to process what was going on. All I knew was that it was different from everything I had ever experienced. It felt like a stupid sentimental pop song about feeling a connection, or some bullshit like that. I felt his loneliness as he pressed his chest on my back. There was neediness in his eyes every time he kissed me with his cigarette stained lips. He told me we didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, but I said I wanted to. I don’t normally say that.

 

I did things I had never done. I felt emotions that I never allowed myself to feel. I gave in to the sentimental side that I was forbidden to give in to with others. I never thought someone could make me feel that way. I never thought someone would rather hug me tightly, kiss me on the forehead and look me in the eyes with compassion. I never imagined someone would think I am interesting enough to give me real kisses.

 

At least it felt real, but it is typical of girls like me to fall so quickly for a guy who is mysterious, good looking and interested in my pleasure only. Whether it was physical or sentimental, it was all about me and he was there to comply with either.

 

Sometime during my eleven hour flight to Cape Town from London, I fell asleep hard after the brutal nine hour flight from LAX to London. My seven hour layover and being under my quiet rage and hangover, I fell asleep even through turbulence. Just as I fell asleep, I suddenly woke up maybe two hours later. I looked around the cabin. It was dark and everyone was sleeping. The only sound was the sound of air in motion. That night came into my mind and I smiled but then it quickly turned into a clench of my lips. I tried so hard not to cry and then I started to breathe rather fast and tears poured down my face.

 

I’m such a god damned stupid typical girl. He won’t be there when I come back. That’s how it always is. I’m flying across the fucking world. I’m going to be in the oldest city known to humankind. I’m going to see fucking real wild lions. Yet, there I am. Exactly like the stupid early twenty-year-old girls in my program who take out their wad of cash in a city with the highest crime rate in the world. I’m just stupid and naive. I’m just thinking of what to write on his postcard even before I land.

 

Earlier today in Cape Town, I visited the V&A Waterfront, the real touristy side of Cape Town. It’s a mall that I don’t really care for except for its Ferris wheel outside, the beach on the front and the big screen broadcasting the World Cup. I entered a small café. A South African young man who called me a princess greeted me. He advised me to sit inside and drink my coffee so we could make conversation. We did and he was incredibly charming. He said I was beautiful. Cape Town people are the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve only been here two days. Our guide, Arlene, has an incredible history that I will share soon. The locals on our first bar night out on Main Road down by the University of Cape Town were more than willing to share their views and perspectives on race. Somewhere in our drunken conversation we decided to bash ourselves and proclaim that Americans are arrogant…and loud.

 

Two days here but I’m still sprung on some guy across the world.

That’s how it goes when you try running away from yourself.

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The Women’s Room

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”   — Rumi

When I entered Pitzer College at 17, I hadn’t been to a formal school since the 2nd grade.  I had no idea who I was apart from my upbringing, didn’t know what I cared about, what I wanted to study, who I admired, what kind of career to look for, where I should live, or who I wanted to become.

I felt lost, frightened, existentially alone, and I was acutely intimidated by an academic world that held (for me) no precedent or projected future.  I consulted my academic advisor and went to classes religiously, sought counsel from every authority figure I could, and in time, began to mold a career trajectory that made sense to me.  But I agree with Anna Quindlen that it’s easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.

 During my freshman year, I met Professor Gayle Greene in a course called Contemporary Women Writers, a class that legitimately changed my perspective on women and writing and defined what I would later choose as my life’s work. Gayle’s passion for her subject matter influenced me in ways that would, eventually, help me become a tenured professor, and I am deeply grateful for that.  But more importantly, Gayle helped me craft a life I am proud of, and for that, there is no gratitude deep enough.

Toni Morrison came to Scripps College that fall, and she sat with us around the square table in our Humanities classroom, answering our questions about her newest novel Beloved.  That evening held life-altering dialogue that would change the way I think about literature and art and women’s voices.  This culminated in the peak honor of being invited to have lunch with Ms. Morrison, along with a very small group who had the opportunity to speak with her one on one–about writing and editing, children and priorities, and juggling personal and professional obligations. These topics felt foreign to me at the time, but remain persistently passionate areas of discourse with my girlfriends today.

I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the effect Gayle has had on my career or the influence her work has had on the quality of my life.  In her classes I read authors like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble and Toni Morrison for the first time, women who taught me that love is never any better than the lover, that wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, and stupid people love stupidly.  Remembering this over the years has saved me from despair during pinnacles of heartbreak.

Margaret Drabble came to our class the next year.  And for the very first time in my young life, I thought of what it might mean to some day become a middle-aged woman.  That’s a frightening prospect for any girl, but Ms. Drabble made it seem approachable, necessary, inevitable, a passage to navigate with grace and humor.

Gayle gave me these gifts in my youth, intangible offerings that continue to make my life richer in immeasurable ways.  Her dedication to her profession, and to making art come alive for scads of naive young women, opened up a world I couldn’t have accessed any other way.  In fact, it is now my top priority as an educator to bring writers to campus to celebrate and showcase talents and accomplishments my students have never had the opportunity to see up close.

In one of Gayle’s courses, we read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, books that explore the idea that women who choose less conventional paths are not inherently crazy.  The most significant thing I gleaned from these explorations is a respect for female friendships and a greater trust in my women friends as my deepest allies. This hadn’t occurred to me before Gayle’s classes.  My mother had no women friends; neither did my mother-in-law.  In Sula, Toni Morrison suggests, “She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be, for a woman. And that no man would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand.”

I have three daughters, the oldest of whom just graduated from college. When they were small, I emphasized the strength of the sisterhood, and I encouraged them to value not only their biological sisters, but also their female friends, to understand that men are not our only or even our primary vehicle to comfort, self-respect or social status.  I am proud to say that in addition to strong bonds with their respective boyfriends. each one of them has cultivated lasting connections to women who have served as powerful anchors in their young lives.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood emphasizes, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing.  I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless…”  From Gayle I learned that to be a woman is to be strong, to be capable, to make hard choices, over and over and over. I learned to respect, rather than be ashamed of my body, and to admire my resiliency as a woman. I learned what consciousness raising means, and why the personal is political.  Our job as women is to fight for each other, for ourselves, and to record our journeys, truthfully and unapologetically. To hold a pen is to be at war, and that’s not a responsibility we should take lightly. 

Gayle changed my life.  The personal choices I make now are a vehicle through which I unite with other women– toward community, empowerment, and change.

We are subjects of our lives, not merely objects of someone else’s desire.  As Morrison reminds us, “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glance of the lover’s inward eyes.”  We don’t have to see ourselves through the male gaze. We get to choose what and whom we love.

We may choose to domesticate with men as romantic life partners, but it is our love for ourselves as women that sustains us.  I try to hold true to that in all that I give to women in and outside of my profession.  From the grace and strength through which she has conducted her life, Gayle has exemplified to me over and over:

 “Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.”

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Spending Summer in Winter

Next week I’ll be across the world.

I had to physically stop after I wrote the sentence above because I took one big breath before a dozen little fast ones. I keep having anxiety about it. I am terrified of flying because dying in a plane crash has always been one great big fear of mine. Dying a violent random death is my number one fear. I keep picturing myself right as the plane is taking off. I’m getting higher and higher and the speed of the airplane is accelerating in an upward slope. The plane rattles, it jerks a few times, and then it stabilizes in midair and we’re flying. I imagine that that is exactly how limbo physically feels. That’s a terrifying feeling.

I hate flying, so why did I sign up for a two-day flight across the world?

Because I am an annoying American. Experience and the pursuit of knowledge are my driving force. Yet, my heart looks like a miniature Teddy Roosevelt, clad in safari gear and a fanny pack to top it off. I am going to Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. Ultimately, the decision to go was based on how boring I think my life is and an incessant need to “discover” myself. Don’t worry. I rolled my eyes harder at myself than you did. I couldn’t think of a more selfish American reason to go.

Experience has taught me that when I push myself into scary or unknown places within and outside of myself, I come out with a different perspective of who I am, who I was and what I want. I’ve come to realize that I am very selfish but I relinquish in that feeling. I’ve experienced a freedom and a self-awareness that has brought on many positive changes in the last five years. Of course, that selfishness has brought on many headaches and tears when I refuse to do what everyone else wants me to do.

I don’t know what to expect in South Africa. There is a cold front hitting Cape Town this weekend. Light snow is expected in the high mountain areas. I’m staying right near or below Table Mountain. It sounds like the place that expects snow in cold fronts. Snow in Africa, what? I’m ignorant of geography. South Africa has the highest crime rate in the world. I’ll be traveling with loads of cash because my bankcard won’t work. Getting travelers checks is pointless. It’s like a sticky note on my back, “Rob me…kick me, too.” I’m taking my laptop. I’m supposed to keep a journal of my trip. I’m studying abroad and 45% of my grade depends on this journal. I’m taking my phone because I can’t live without it. I hate myself for it. I’m taking a camera since I’ll probably use up all the space on my phone with “selfies” of me (that’s redundant, right?) with captions like “Beautiful Cape Town” but it’s only my fat round face that will be the focus.

While in Cape Town, I’ll be studying Apartheid history and researching burials at the Cape Town Library archives and the archives at the University of Cape Town. I’ll be taking pictures of documents written in Afrikaans. I won’t know what the hell I’ll be doing but I’ll be doing it. My most pressing concern is how will I get to and back from a bar to watch the World Cup soccer matches. I’m not a soccer fan, but again, I’m interested in the experience. Soccer reminds me of my friends, family and my native Mexico. Not to mention imminent destruction of national identities, riots and idiot tourists, such as myself. I want to be as far away from the American Dream as possible. I suppose now a day the dream is to get away from America.

I’m also going to be in Paris for six days. I’ll be there for the final World Cup match. I’ll be there for Bastille Day. Someone on reddit advised me to go party at some district where firefighters, sorry, Fire Men are abundant. They throw the best parties with really good-looking people but with really bad music and cheap champagne. I like a good party, and cheap champagne is never a bad time. Parisian Fire Men plus cheap champagne sounds like a really bad porn movie I’d direct and the perfect opportunity for any hedonistic tendencies I may have. But I’m terrified of catching Parisian herpes or worse. I don’t think that’s any different from local herpes. Most of my male friends say that I need to get me some international booty. I say, condoms don’t always protect against STD’s, pregnancy or rape. I’m an international prude, what can I say? I’m not opposed to kissing in well lit public places but we all know that’s rude and unsexy. Is it normal for us to think about sex first when traveling?

The second thing I thought about was visiting the catacombs and the graveyards, because sex and death are universal experiences. So it’s normal to think about hot French men and piled up skulls underneath a city. While I am away, I’ll be narrating my life for a month in Anthony Bourdain’s voice.

I don’t know what to expect and I am really terrified. I don’t know what I got myself into but five years ago, I would have never thought I’d do this. Five years ago it was a just a daydream. Just something that my cultured University educated friends did. Not me. But here I am, one week from Winter across the Atlantic. I’m the type of person that wants to write about detours in Victorville. I have a feeling my professor will hate me for writing a book instead of a journal.

 

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Left

 “Just move your legs and walk. Into a brand new world.  It’s that easy.”

 —–Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

 I love listening to podcasts.  Actually, most of my friends do, as do my mostly grown children.  There’s something so inviting and intimate about listening in on other people’s conversations– especially when the dialogue is professionally edited, and the guests converse capably on clever and compelling topics. I love listening to This American Life, On Being, Freakonomics, and RadioLab, with headphones while running, on speaker while driving, or alone in the dark before I fall asleep.

 Several months ago, my friend Nick and I were talking about listening to our favorite shows and we got excited about a topic we felt people rarely recognize or tout.  As we drank beer and brainstormed about some of the most fascinating people we know, we realized those individuals all made conscious choices to significantly shift their previously planned life trajectories.  They left who they were, without any assurance of who they would become.  We looked at each other and we knew we had our theme.  The theme of our friendship, and the theme of our new podcast.

Semper fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine.  In the community in which  I grew up, we pledged specifically to be brave, loyal, and true.  As Americans, we pledge allegiance to our flag, and in culturally in The United States, we undeniably value loyalty, perseverance, and dedication as qualities we admire in people of good character. We’ve been trained to think that winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win, we’ve been taught a deep fear of losing what we’ve invested, and we perceive walking away as a weakness.

For the most part, people don’t like to talk about what they’ve left.

But sometimes leaving is the only choice we can conscionably make.  Sometimes what we leave behind, what we lose, what we grieve, changes us in such profound ways, we can no longer recognize the person who clung to the safety of what was known. 

(Shameless plug: go to leftpodcast.com for powerful stories from ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary obstacles, who have consciously and courageously abandoned previously held beliefs and chosen alternative routes, and where those journeys have taken them.)

The first significant place I left, I was labeled a quitter, and that word held a thickness of shame I couldn’t cut with a knife for over a decade.  But eventually, I discovered a happier woman waiting for me on this side of that seemingly insurmountable track.

And so I have continued to explore this option, to quit when there is no solid reason to stay.  I have left things I thought I couldn’t relinquish, things I thought I’d never survive letting go of, people and places and identities that formed me, which I strongly believed I couldn’t live without.  I’ve left my family of origin, the religious organization into which I was born, many homes and cities, academic institutions, and relationships that restricted the person I wanted to become.

Most recently, I’ve left motherhood as my defining identity.  Looking back, I was a naive little girl, still in school, when I gave birth to twin daughters.  Instead of investigating who I was, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go throughout my twenties (as I trust my daughters will do), I asked myself what they needed, and I made my decisions accordingly.  Of course, I don’t regret my devotion to my family. I stayed with my husband and gave birth to more children, creating a microcosm for them and their animals in the ways I thought would make them safe and help them grow.  It was a strong choice and a worthy focus for my time and dedication.  But now those first pretty little babies are about to turn 22.  My son is 20.  My babygirl is 16.  They are confident, healthy, happy and well-adjusted young people, with steady relationships and attainable career goals.  Of course, the youngest still needs structure and guidance and relentless chauffeuring, but none of them really need me to define myself solely or even predominantly by their needs anymore.

What does that even mean?

It means for the first time in my life I have to ask myself what I want.

I realize that this is a first world problem.  Still.  It is, perhaps, the hardest and least likely question most first world women will ever ask themselves.

 

 

5 Reasons Why I Have Cried 100 Times in 5 Days

1.   Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3:27 P.M.

I run over a rabbit. This doesn’t sound that extreme especially given that I live in the desert mountains where jack rabbits and cottontails are constantly darting across sun-bleached asphalt.  My kids are in the car; they don’t see anything.  They hear me screech and slap my hand over my mouth. Tires thrum once—twice over the little gray body.  What’s wrong?  Mom, what’s wrong?  They both echo from the backseat.  Are you sad?  I look in the rearview mirror and see the little white puff of the tail lying beside gray ears. Hot tears roll down my face and I say, Yes. Mommy’s sad.

 

2.   Wednesday, May 28, 2014 8:43 A.M.

Maya Angelou is dead.  Or so my Facebook news feed says.  I am immediately sad.  Maya Angelou was the first female poet I ever learned about.  Before her, I had never heard of a woman poet.  Ever. I knew Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Frost. I credit the following lines with drawing me to a life of language and wordsmithing:

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

Dr. Maya Angelou opened my throat to sing. I can’t help it.  I cry.

(Read it here: Caged Bird)

3.   Friday, May 23, 2014 10:16 P.M.

He looks like a Political Science professor with his salt and pepper beard and wired-rimmed glasses.  But when he speaks of Christopher, when he speaks of his loss, his anger towards politicians and their failure to do anything about the mass shootings, Richard Martinez’s voice deepens and swells, rumbles like a fucking hurricane.  It catches in his throat and he sputters out words through tears that make me ache.  His anger is so raw, so unmasked, I can’t help but to cry when I hear his grief.  When he speaks of his son, his beautiful, lovely, articulate, twenty-year-old son, I cry.

 

4.   Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day, 6:26 A.M.

She is dead. She is dead and I am confused. I just saw her last week. I click on her Facebook page because there must be a mistake. But there is no mistake. Her uncle has announced her death. Her cousins and friends add to the thread, endless good-byes and R.I.P.s. I am still confused.

I quickly message another student, a friend of Genevieve’s and another former student of mine. What is this business about Gen? She didn’t really pass, right? Before my student can get back to me, the posts keep coming. I will miss you, Gigi. God has another angel. I know it’s true before I can even log off.

I don’t cry. Not immediately anyways. I just saw her. She came to my office just two weeks ago to announce she was transferring to Asuza Pacific. I chuckled. Not because she wants to go there, but it is the way Gen talks. She is so excitable that she can’t contain it; she almost has to hold down her hands when she is telling me. Her eyes—her beautiful copper eyes shake while she laughs—almost guffaws at herself. I tell her no. Don’t go.

We have these conversations almost weekly. Gen comes in and flops down in the maroon chair by my desk. She usually gives me a quick hug but more often than not, she is talking before I can even look up from my computer. She is not my student anymore, but I love that she still comes by to confide in me.

Sometimes she shows me pictures and videos of her little brother Timmy. Once she complained about a guy who broke up with her via text. She laughed at his stupidity. I laughed too. Gen is beautiful and smart and so vivacious, she can’t walk more than three feet in any direction without someone talking to her. Boys are stupid. I sound like a big sister and not an English professor.

Our last face-to-face conversation, I am in a hurry to get her out of there. I have a class in thirty minutes that I haven’t yet prepped for. Don’t go to APU, I keep saying. Stay here. You don’t want to start your life in debt. Private school is debt. She smiles and says that she’s been here—at Chaffey—too long. She needs to move on. Plus, what would we do without you?  I say it as a parting gift because I know that I have class and I am unprepared and sometimes I wish I didn’t have so many students who seek my counsel. She leans over my desk and hugs me. Don’t go, I say and we both chuckle because we both know Gen will do whatever she wants. She may ask my advice, but that doesn’t mean she’ll take it. She is twenty-one.

I scream as soon as I am back on the highway after dropping off my kids at school. It is the first time I am alone all morning. Genevieve is dead.

I cry louder than I have in a long, long time. There are so many tears, I veer the car into a turnout and sob. After a while, I stop and listen for her laughter. My favorite laugh—the one where she laughs at herself for a cluck or two and touches her chest in a dramatic fashion. The one where her eyes burn gold.

When I get home, I hike back into the mountains and cry and until I am certain I am devoid of tears. Later, I shower and I cry. Much, much later, I cry into my pillow so my kids can’t hear me.

I have cried a hundred times this week. I can’t open my Facebook without seeing Gen’s pictures come up in my feed. I can’t choke out her name without falling apart. I can’t bear to feel the weight of the world without her effervescence. I will be forever looking for her smile in a crowd of students and waiting to hear her laugh springing up from around the corner. But the enormity of her death will not fully hit me until I go back to work in August and she is not in my office crossed-legged and giddy with summer vacation stories that she will never live.

Genevieve Gutierrez

  1. Wednesday, May 28, 2014 2:52 P.M.

The school bell rings, and my son wraps his thin arms around my waist.  He says, I’m sorry you’re sad, Mom.  They know about Genevieve; they know I am devastated.  I still love you, he says.  I know, silly, I say.  I muss his gold hair. I wipe the tears running down my neck as we walk back to the car. I am so full of love and tears. But mostly love.

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My Two Moms

The first time I met my stepmother, three things happened in this order:

1)  My dad gave my sister and me a Nintendo.

2)  A dark-eyed woman with red lipstick walked into my dad’s apartment and said “Hi.”

3)  We then replied, “Bye” and turned back around to play Super Mario Bros. (the original version)

During this time in my life, I watched The Parent Trap (the Hailey Mills version) again and again, trying desperately to figure out how to get my parents back together.  If only I had a twin sister.  If only our parents had sent us to a summer camp together where we could discover our past and unite against divorce.  Instead, I had a dopey little sister, who cried almost every day for our mom when we were with our dad—and for Dad when we were with Mom.  I also had a mom who cried every day for my dad when we were with her.

 

One weekend my father took the four of us, him, my sister, the new girlfriend and me, to see  Arachnophobia.  It was 1990; I was wearing a shirt with tassels all over it and a gaudy peace sign choker.  While watching the deadly Venezuelan spiders claim victim after victim, I couldn’t shake the feeling of crawling across my skin.  I remember twitching a lot in my seat.  I remember thinking, Parent Trap.

In The Parent Trap, the dad has a new girlfriend.  A young, beautiful girlfriend.  My dad too had a young, beautiful girlfriend.  (A girlfriend my mother often referred to as “The Mexican Hussy”.)  The girlfriend in the movie barely tolerates the twins.  Thus, the girls are totally justified in pranking her. During an unfortunate camping trip, the girls attract a bear to lick honey off the girlfriend’s feet. The beauty queen surrenders, leaving the dad behind with his very naughty but victorious daughters.  With the girlfriend gone, the mom is free to reclaim her throne.

 

I excused myself to go to the bathroom and walked a couple of rows back in the dark theatre.  I untied one of my high-tops and removed the shoelace.  I tied a knot at the end of lace and tugged it a couple of times.

Popcorn stuck to my hands, as I crawled down the movie theatre aisle until I got one row behind my dad and his girlfriend.  I positioned myself ever so quietly behind them and waited for the music to swell.  Waited until the spider crawled ominously across a towel, down a shirt sleeve across the big screen.  Waited until the music hit loud so I could throw the shoelace over the shoulder of my dad’s beauty queen.   The music inflated; I threw.

I wanted her to scream.  I wanted her to jump up and run down the carpeted rows of the theatre, shouting to my father that we were horrible little monsters.  I wanted her to cuss us out, to say something so heinous about us that my dad could never forgive her.

I held my breath and tried not to squeal with delight.  At any moment she was going to shriek, rip the spider-like tangle from her hair and run.  And be gone.

But she didn’t.  After a minute, she casually turned around and looked at me in confusion.  Maybe it was pity.  Maybe she had seen The Parent Trap.  Maybe she knew what a sad and confused girl I was.  But by then my dad noticed, and he hissed through his teeth to get back to my seat.

 

She married my dad less than a year later and asked us to be the flower girls.  She was kind to us even when we asked her things like, “Are you a real Mexican?” knowing full and well she was Puerto Rican.  She took us out a lot—bowling, swimming, golfing, horseback riding, even when our dad wasn’t there—which was a lot.  Even though we probably never said thank you and probably always talked about our mom.  Our perfect, beautiful, broken-hearted mom.

But our new stepmom sang at the top of her lungs in her car.  She danced when she heard a good song on the radio.  She made our dad laugh which was rare.  She was even kind to our mother who was, often, not kind to her.

As I got older, and I struggled with issues with my own mother, my stepmother, who had lost her mother at twenty-six, reminded me that I would never get another mother.  She told me to be patient with my mother, to forgive her, to never stop loving her, to be kind to her even if I didn’t feel like being kind, to not judge her.  She often urged me to call my mother, to go and see her.  You only get one, she said.

 

But the truth is, I got two.   My mom is my mom.  But my stepmom is my mom too.

 

Mother’s Day is about so much more than mothers.  Mother’s Day isn’t necessarily about the woman who birthed you.  It’s about women.  How our sisterhood, our love, and our contributions to this world are inimitable and momentous.  If you’ve ever been loved by a woman, you know the love of a mother.

Oh sure, it’s about moms too.  But it’s also about the stand-in mothers.  So many of us were raised, influenced, and encouraged by women that weren’t our mothers.

So here’s to you: To our mothers.  Our stepmothers.  To our aunts and grandmas.  Great grandmas and godmothers.  Sisters and cousins.  To our friend’s mothers.  To our mother-in-laws.  To our teachers and mentors.  To our best friends.  Here’s to the women who have loved, love, and will love us.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

Dad & Deb Shaver Lake

My kids, my dad, and my Mom #2.

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are you my mother?

It will be Mother’s Day again soon. I am not scheduled to have the boys on that day, but Ryan is being more than accommodating. We will feel our way through this holiday like we have done with the past several, and we will be a little stiff but kind to one another. I have no biological mother to buy flowers for and celebrate. I have no stepmother. And though the paperwork is still unfiled, I now have no mother-in-law. The latter was the closest I ever had to a mother.

In P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, a confused baby bird asks one animal after the next if it is his mother.

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He naively thinks a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, and a plane are his mother. He bumps around from one to the next, growing more and more frantic. He finally winds up on top of a seemingly dangerous, harmful-to-the-environment bulldozer-type machine. He feels panicked and trapped. He pleads for his mother. Fortunately, at the most crucial moment, he is miraculously dropped back into his nest, and they are reunited.

I was 10 when my biological mother died, but only 4 when she left me. I was raised by a stepmother who could be cruel and irrational, who hit me often. Like the baby bird, I bumped around, seeking the nurturing I lacked. I felt fortunate when I met my future mother-in-law at 15, and I eventually became part of her family when I married her son. We are both tall and brunette, with broad smiles. In public, people often mistook her for my mother, and I loved that. She told me she loved me like a daughter, and I believed her.

But circumstances change. People say parents love unconditionally, but I’m not sure I believe in that sort of love. Or maybe it’s the blood that makes the difference. I have moved from one mother to the next, but they either die, or resent, or give up on me.

I get the feeling that it would be much easier for Ryan’s parents, especially his mother, if I could somehow be erased. I understand that this is painful for them, too. Like that photo of the McFly siblings in Back to the Future, maybe they wish I could just gently fade away and disappear.

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The problem is, I am everywhere. I am in all of the family photos from the past two decades. I am at birthday parties for my nieces. Their grandchildren have my DNA. Worse, I am in their memories. I won’t fade away because I exist.

I am no baby bird. I am an adult now, and nothing will drop me into the comfort of a mother’s arms. I only wish I could kill that instinct in me that still longs for that kind of connection. Fortunately, this feeling lives in a tiny corner inside of me, and on most days I don’t notice it. I try to give my boys the unconditional love and connection no mother ever gave me. I am lucky to have plenty of people who love and support me, even if I will never have a mother. I have figured out how to fly, and most of the time I fly just fine on my own.

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For a Friend

I was not there when you said goodbye when his heart finally gave out after thirty-five years.

I was not there when you said No again and again—when you whispered, Come back. I need you.

I was not there when you threaded your fingers between his—the way your mother instructed you to when you were little and she wanted you two to stick together. Take good care of him, she might have said again and again throughout your childhood. How could she have known that you would.

I was not there the last seventeen days while you slept by his side while you teased him about getting up. Get up. When you pleaded with him, GET UP. When you shouted at a god you no longer believed in when he did not.

I was not there when you kissed his forehead. When you ran your fingers through his hair, straightening it because you knew how he would have hated his hair looking crazy at a time like this.

I was not there when you left the room–when you looked back one more time at room 580— when you reminded yourself that it wasn’t him anymore—that he was gone. When you thanked the nurses for all they did. When you rode down the elevator feeling like you had forgotten something like a pit in your stomach. Like a boulder in your throat. Like an enormous piece of yourself. When you walked to the car and the sun heaved its warmth on you. When you said, Fuck you, to the Presbyterian Church bells as they echoed through the parking lot. When you got into your car. When you turned up the radio. When you screamed.

And then you screamed.

And then you screamed.

And then you drove home.
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20 things i’ve learned

In the last four months, my life has changed dramatically. After our separation, I stepped off of a cliff, not knowing where I would land. Here are some things that I have learned so far.

1. I loved someone and tried my hardest and it wasn’t enough.  I spent years blaming myself and trying to fix it in my brain and in counseling. I read books about how to fix the damage I imagined was irreparable from my childhood.

2. I still love him and want the very best for him, and we will be friends and parent our children together. I can’t imagine a life without him in it.

3. I am not a bad person and anyone who tries to make me feel like I am can go fuck themselves.

4. I am a good parent. This is really hard, and it isn’t perfect. But these boys are strong and we love them fiercely and they will be okay.

5. (I hope they will be okay.)

6. I don’t think I will ever be able to get married again.

7. It has been over a decade since I lived in an apartment complex. It is reassuring to discover that apartment managers still have raspy voices and cry at unexpected moments and wear Minnie Mouse shirts that proclaim, “I WANT IT ALL.”

8. I do not have enough time to file divorce paperwork.

9. I have no back-up plan.

10. There are people I thought loved me unconditionally who have dropped me like I do not exist, who have erased me from their lives. It made me sad, then angry. They are choosing to cut ties, and I am floating away.

11. My father can be kind.

12. My brief foray into online dating was fun/depressing. A lot of men take photographs of themselves taking photographs of their abdomens in bathroom mirrors.

13. I still wake up alone and look at my new curtains and wonder how I got here.

14. I am capable of losing weight without trying.

15. There are people who have lifted me up and changed me with their love and kindness. I am so grateful it is overwhelming.

16. Although it is not a comfortable place, I am learning to rely on others.

17. I thought this was a mutual decision, but then I didn’t know. I am the one who said the words. I am the one who left. I think we have both told ourselves stories about what happened, and maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

18. There are waves of intense fear and joy, and they almost always surprise me.

19. I liked to plan and control things. I thought I was good at this. I have had to admit that I was very wrong. I am 34 years old, and I don’t know anything for certain.

20.There is freedom in admitting this.

 

 

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