Christmas Lights

I really love Christmas lights, and here in Los Angeles - a three hour expanse of homes - there are a lot of them. For one month, LA’s Spanish style, craftsmen, and little mid century bungalows are adorned with the tchotchke glory of mid century kitsch. Fake reindeer hooves touch down on mowed lawns, and mechanical Santas wave at passerbys with a manufactured ease.

Here in ‘Tinseltown’, this edifice feels delightfully on brand. Native Angelenos like me are comforted by setting our sights on snowmen we’ve never seen, on blue-tinged icicles that glisten with the elegance of far-off (frozen) places that exude a coldness and a boldness that we easy-going Californians think we lack.

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When I first see Christmas lights, I also yearn to hang those electric markers of my #Christmasfeels out for all the world to see. In my mind’s eye, separate sets of arms would magically appear, octopus-like, to wrap themselves around a house I don’t have and check light bulbs and test electric switches and run wires and string and hang and arrange things on bushes as my visual contribution to the city. While it’s at it, I imagine that this cephalopod might also make complete all the markings of middle class motherhood, and balance a somewhat dizzying roulette of present purchases, preschool party snacks, work to-dos, cookie baking, and event planning on the tip of one of its many tentacles.

I dream of this cephalopod (perhaps in part?) because I am a single parent, and only have two arms. I am both Santa and Mrs. Claus, which can be a lot. (By the way, she is #goals. Homegirl looks so rested, like she’s just hanging out making hot cocoa.) The innermost part of me sometimes feels like a sleepy squid eye, with vaguely faded bronze eye shadow and poorly applied mascara - all knowing, rarely opening, squivering away upon sight. The early winter nights exacerbate this feeling; after I put my son to bed, hibernation kicks in. I don’t want to do anything, much less post about anything after the work day’s over. Christmas has always been a social holiday - perhaps somewhat peppered with the promotion of contemplation and solitude - but now it’s a #social holiday.

While external markers are celebratory and important, they are not more important than what we notice, alone. Without moments of quiet, without the internal, how do we learn to separate the reality from the artifice?

How do we see what we really need to see?

Beneath the edifice, one can see that the actual reality here in LA is that we have Jesus en pesebre. This pesebre (manger) metaphor is somewhat painfully poignant, as we have the worst home to income ratio and the second largest homeless population in the country. Here, the nativity story of people sleeping under palm trees beneath cold desert skies is our actual brand. Despite well concerted efforts to reduce homelessness and increase affordable housing stock, LA remains full of many young families for whom there is no room at the inn, figuratively speaking.

At large, the actual city itself - immigrant Los Angeles, largely unfilmed by Hollywood - doesn’t really celebrate a ‘white Christmas’ in any sense of the word. Many Christmas carols are sung in Spanish, and rompope is often served instead of eggnog. Tamales are the region’s true Christmas treats.

The Christmas lights I was able to hang this year line my living room. They are draped happily around my Christmas tree and windowsills, and exude a beautiful, glowing warmth.  These small, sparkling wonders recall the short days and long shadows of the earlier months of the fall, when we were thrilled not by the (overpriced) fancy pumpkins we bought at a patch but by ‘Peter Pumpkin’, a small electric jack-o’-lantern toy that my father gave my son Caetano as a Halloween present. More than costumes or candy or any other celebration, Peter Pumpkin was the most magical part of our fall. Every night before Caetano would go to bed, we’d switch off the bedroom lights and project Peter Pumpkin’s pale yellow smile on the ceiling. Time would stop as Caetano squealed in joyous disbelief, “Oh Peter Pumpkin, how did you get on the ceiling?!”

Holiday magic sells us on the idea of temporary transformations, and conquerable evils. These rituals scare just enough to excite; they hint at an unknowing with a happy ending. In the cartoons we watch, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit only to relay the comforting message that everything is fixable - that time itself is flexible, and the outcome guaranteed. Should shadows appear, they’ll fade with the morning sun.

This is magic, microdosed - training wheels for the real thing. In actuality, nothing is guaranteed. Life is long, and fates are unknown. Love does transform, for better or for worse.

A simple plug-in of living room Christmas lights backlight the larger plot points of our life. Pop up style, I can see what we’ve sprouted, here from the little wooden nut of our living room. I see the small perfections of three (my son’s age, as he shows people with his teeny, tiny fingers). The seeming enormity of the softball field was crossed. Letters were learned, and schoolyard quarrels resolved. He learned to put his own shoes on (most of the time). Our daily routine of preschool and teaching and proposal writing and driving and grocery shopping and etc and etc and etc actually spun quite well. Very well.

The living room Christmas lights have become somewhat of our north star. Under them, I know we’ve arrived. We’re home. On the couch, Caetano snuggles up next to me and says, “Mom, I love you. And I like you.” This is magic, on our own terms. On our timetable.

During this season, we’re so concerned about what we gift our children, about what we gift to each other. About what we deliver, about what we show. But mothers gift whole worlds - we gift life itself. The real magic of this month - of Christmas lights and Christmas punch and Christmas tinsel and even old Kris Kringle - is that for one brief instance, hopes rise. Heat rises. For one moment, we focus on a birth, en pesebre, and take the rest as taken care of. We commemorate what is, in auld lang syne.

And just like that, everything is illuminated.

On Rhetoric

This past Friday, I finished my first semester teaching college. I taught the ‘art and craft of writing’ in the way that I, as a young Angelena, would have wanted to learn it. My diverse students wrote about the literacies they developed in their childhoods in the sunny, quiet places that rarely show up in books - Covina, Chino, and Diamond Bar. We did Day of the Dead freewrites to prompts by Cuban poet Eliseo Diego, and examined what rhetoric is and how it is used in the public square, to different ends, by different people. To that end, we examined the rhetorical discussions that led to the renaming of Columbus Day to be Indigenous People’s Day here in Los Angeles (picture below).

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And through Writer’s Studio appointments, I worked on projects such as helping a Generation 1.5 student with her assignment visualizing what it would be like for her, as a 21st century Vietnamese American woman, to engage with the different racial communities present in colonial America. I helped a working mom of two craft her thesis on the importance of cultural competency in health care, and worked with a Korean divinity scholar to get his chapters on internationalization publication ready. I also worked with Honors College freshmen to help them explore their use of written rhetoric (and end their semester with an acapella rendition of ‘Carol of the Bells) and helped Johns Hopkins University graduate students learn the fundamentals of grant writing. (I was thrilled they liked a writing device I affectionately dubbed “the toddler” - ask why over and over and over again until you arrive at your true point.)

In all of these scenarios, I had students ask, what is the negative space in the story - what are you *not* saying? It’s good to check for, because it’s often the very thing you need to say. Whether it’s a detail or a deep feeling, it cracks things open so the light gets in. And with that, we see things, ourselves, and the cities we live in as they actually are.

That is never more true than during the Christmas season. Christmas is the time of year during which we most celebrate the whole story, as it were - Christmas lights on the lawn illuminate the red-nosed reindeer who was thought to be unfit to lead Santa’s sleigh, and a Christ child who was born outside, among animals, to young, scared parents. In both of these scenarios, vulnerability - and the radical redemption that comes from embracing one’s whole self - is not just a sideline story but the story itself.

This fall, this vulnerability also applied to me. I had always grown up watching my mother teach composition, and I was a bit intimidated to try it myself. Writing is hard (there’s no way around that, or use in trying to pretend otherwise) and teaching people to be open to even trying to like it is even harder. But the beautiful thing here is that that plasticity went both ways - in focusing my classroom on effort, on attempt, on iteration, my students said they “felt free” to learn and try. And so did I.

This semester taught me that we can make room for ourselves, in the academy and elsewhere. And we can do that by telling true stories. Storytelling is powerful, and honesty wins.

Happy holidays -

Static show - Downtown LA

I'm contributing an original media art work to a Downtown LA gallery show called Static! The show investigates the electric buzz of communication and its effect on the tellers and the receivers.

The opening will kick off with a panel discussion I curated called, "Fake News, Real News, and Trust in Journalism." We have a truly incredible line-up: Robert Hernandez, a USC Annenberg professor whose focus is exploring and developing the intersection of technology and journalism,Sara Catania, who recently launched JTrust, a newsletter that collects and curates the latest efforts to restore the public trust in journalism, and Dani Dodge, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist turned visual artist. 

The opening will take place at 4pm on Saturday, December 2, 2017. The exhibit then runs at Durden and Ray through December 30, 2017. 

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Harvest Season 2017

Today is the official first day of fall - the harvest season! My favorite season. I’m going to be:  

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Advising – I am advising INN, a consortium of 145 public service newsrooms nationwide and am also serving as a Writing Consultant at Azuza Pacific University!

Creating - I’m creating a piece and a panel for a show on the intersection of art + media, called Static at a gallery in Downtown LA in December.

Teaching - I’m leading an Honors 101 Leadership section for the Honors College at APU, and also co-teaching the 4th & 5th grade Sunday school classes All Saints Church.

Lots sprouting!  

It's decorative gourd season. Let the good times (and pumpkin lattes) roll –

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The Light of Other Suns

Our culture knows that mothers think a lot about time. We think about when it’s time for breakfast, and lunch, and snacks, and play dates. But does our culture know that mothers also think about things like the End of Time?

To give birth is to time-travel through alternate dimensions - giving life while (hopefully) escaping death - until you arrive back into yourself in the hospital, an altogether different person in an altogether different life zone. Indeed, the haze of motherhood is such that we sometimes don’t really know what “time” it is. Peanut butter and jelly time and cartoons time and dishwashing time and laundry time and clean up time and poo poo time and bathtime all sort of start to feel the same. Initially, when breastfeeding, it really is the same. Every two hours, on and off, for months. Round the clock. As in, around the clock. Beside it. Outside of it.

In spite of it.

Right now with my toddler, it’s always Cheerios Time. Or Graham Cracker time. There really is no inappropriate time for those foods.

But beyond this limbo, mothers are actually acutely aware of what time it is. We see our children change daily, before our eyes. We also change, as women. We grow older, and want different clothes. We want different things, different hobbies. Tastes change, thoughts change. In childrearing, time is finite. We have our children “as children” until they’re eighteen. And that’s really a very limited amount of time.

So in transcending both the emotional and the logistical, what truly marks our Time?

The sun.

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Everyday we see the sun rise and set. A new day dawns because the sun rises. So, that is how we actually mark time.

The Atlantic has a brilliant video up about this. In it, the scientist explains, the universe is existing on a finite amount of gas that will at some point, run out. Just like our own bodies. Energy as we know it will expire, and there will truly be a final End of Time.  

In the video, the scientist wonders if in the future people will sit around and talk about the fact that people like me and you got free energy from the sun back in 2017. Let’s apply that to the personal – I wonder what types of things from my present people will look back on and say, “Huh”. This mother,

She used to physically go to a grocery store?
She used to buy diapers in a store?
She drove herself and her son to daycare?
She cooked her own food?
She manually transferred money between bank accounts?
She only flew as a means of transportation, and not for fun?
She called people just to see how they’re doing?
She walked on undeveloped mountains?
She drank tap water?
She went to public school, and then a public university?
She prayed?


I am a mid-30s mother who works in the humanities and has a slight disdain for automation. Not just of the havoc it will wreak on our economy, but on our identities. The futuristic has always carried a very heavy, male, robotic feel to it. Sci-fi is a boys’ world.

So what of my own future? My gifts are truly human, nothing more and nothing less. I think creative, emotional thoughts. I created human life, unconsciously, from inside my belly. A vast DNA scripting that comes from the stars.  What was that “spark” that created my life, that created yours? That created my son?

I call it God.

We live in the waning days of a light-filled universe. In which we knit things ourselves, and make things ourselves. As far as I know, God does not inhabit machines.

The galaxies available to us as homo sapiens are vast and are frightening. Generations are afraid of what the next generation will do because we desperately need to feel like what we’re doing is the right thing. Otherwise, what were these routines for? What do we caffeinate ourselves for? What do we wear ourselves out for?

We need to feel like our way is the right way, just like our sun is the only sun. That there is only one us, in just this one time. 7 new planets were recently discovered, but we cannot feel the light of other suns. 

We can only feel our own. Our very own sun. Our very own bodies. Our very own children. Kinesthetic, and warm, and human. 

We watched the solar eclipse wane, and return. Change, and re-form. Arrive in and despite of time. This life is ours, and this planet is ours: Let’s let the sunshine in.

Waiting in the Wings: Reflecting on #Charlottesville

This week’s events have rattled me in ways I didn’t know were possible. I used to live in Charlottesville, Virginia. In fact, I lived there recently. I lived there from fall 2013 to spring 2015. My husband got his MBA from the Darden School of Business, and our son was born there, on a snowy day at Martha Jefferson Hospital. I also worked there - I consulted for the UVa's Center for Global Inquiry + Innovation. We won a prestigious John Simon Award for internationalization. 

I have beautiful memories there, but neither of us felt completely comfortable in Charlottesville. Something got under our skin. No matter how many bbq sandwiches we were offered, or green pastures we saw rolling onto the horizon, the antebellum chemistry of the area never quite sat with us. There was a racism in the air, that felt just under the surface.

Like it was waiting in the wings.

We lived our life as a multi-racial family around it, in spite of it.  But it was an awkward dance. We were always far too ready to catch a flight home to LA for Christmas, or São Paulo for a wedding, or New York for a summer internship. The slam of the car door shut, driving north, was a happy sigh of relief.

When I found out the march had happened through the campus, I wasn’t surprised. Those were the same guys I always saw with popped collars, but with tiki torches.

It was the violence that gutted me. As a mixed-race American, watching whites and people of color fight is like watching two sides of my family fight. I feel like tearing my hair out. I just erupt in sobs.

I am someone just like Heather, who died there. In fact, I am almost exactly her same age. The press corps has – rightly so – descended upon these events with unbridled mania. They are taking the vital signs of American civics, and finding a very sick patient.

The most unnerving question is, can health and sickness co-exist? We did have a life there. Some memories are beautiful. Caetano strolled up and down that Downtown mall, happily chatting away to one of his many admirers on a cell phone. 



And yet, apparently, gads of Southern whites are appalled that families like mine did that. It undermines what General Robert E. Lee was fighting for. And they want none of it in Abermarle County. On Culpepper County. In the state. Or the nation.

I always knew these men were waiting in the wings. What I didn’t know they were so violent. That they were so small-minded.

Life is not a zero-sum game.

Brene Brown has a great video up reflecting on the events in Charlottesville. She asks, in her southern drawl, for whites to consider the 360 degree implications of what they’re asking.  

She says, “Just because you haven’t experienced something, doesn’t mean you can’t tell another person that what they’ve experienced is invalid.” She calls out shame triggers around the words white trash, and even white supremacy, and unveils how white racism itself is an exercise in shame: it lashes out, then clouds itself, then masks as something else (“the status quo”), then gawks in broad daylight.

It’s a crazy process, borne of a crazy feeling: insecurity.

This is unnecessary. As in the body, two things can exist at the same time socially. Cosmopolitan places (like Charlottesville) can be country.  Southern culture can be appreciated independently of the politics of the Confederacy. Multiple communities can thrive.

This is possible.

It is possible.

Human beings are programming Artificial Intelligence. So why can’t we get a better grasp of our own?

 

 

On Labyrinths

Two of the chief pursuits of my life - religiosity & progressive ideas - are future-oriented. These subcultures are all about "the journey". Every Sunday, we say, “We await Christ’s coming in glory.”  And progressives  - no matter how bad the news - will always refrain that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice.

And in the myriad cottage industries designed for women, "later" is also the name of the game. Women are always sold things for some other phase of life, or other season. Tweens are upsold on the idea of becoming teenagers. Teens then want to be adults. Adults then wish they had the body of teens, all while counting down towards retirement with sleep in their eyes and visions of margaritas at the finish line.

In the summer, we are told to get our homes and our clothes ready for fall. Then ready for winter! And then spring! Over morning coffee, we anticipate our children’s afternoon schedules, and do weekend planning during the week.

There is really no phase in a women’s lives when we're not in constant waiting mode. We’re constantly anticipating and then catering to the needs and perceptions of others, from adolescence to old age.

This Sunday was Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of the waiting period of Lent. Something about the sermon rubbed me wrong – too much talk of sacrifice – so I went to go walk the labyrinth. I’ve always loved labyrinths; in my twenties, I would use them to mull over my various comings and goings, thoughts, feelings, and hopes. It was a very centering practice for me. But to be honest, it was always rooted in the feeling that I had more to walk. A long way to go. In labyrinths, the road is long, and curvy.

When I arrived at the labyrinth, to my surprise, I didn’t want to take my shoes off. In fact, I didn’t really want to walk it at all. I realized, my Easter mediation this year is that I am tired of feeling like I'm "becoming."  I am over the goddam journey. For the first time in my life, I give myself feminist permission to declare, I already am the destination.

Inspired by that very church - All Saints Church, Pasadena - I've raised 10 million dollars for social justice work. And blooming into my mid-30's, I finally realize, I actually don't have to be "more" anything: more spiritual, more forgiving, more giving! I am a working mother who helps non-profits stay in business. I am "given" out. And I'm not going to tithe. I am not a subsidized male with social capital to spend.

In biblical narratives, women primarily appear as harbingers of the present. It is through "the Marys" that we sensorially understand that Jesus was in fact a person: Mary Magdelene points out that Jesus is not in the tomb, and his mother Mary physically grieves him. (Visualized in pietà sculptures.) And in everyday life, women experience the shitshow of our current politics – our tax dollars for healthcare and childcare somehow end up as a "war tax" - while male politicians kick the can down the road. Their privileged speechwriters talk about the bravery and will of the American people, saying that we will rise up and "make America great again"...yet semantically, that sentence already implies that it isn't, currently. That Americans like me, who make businesses and families and growth curves run, aren't really great.

I no longer have the luxury of living in the future. I am a working mother in America, and I need things in the here and now. I can't wait and see if I get the gold star in the afterlife for turning yet another cheek.

This year, to celebrate the Resurrection, I'm not going to go on a green juice diet. And I'm not going to deliberate on a just future that is not yet here.  As the poetic, introverted artista that I am, all I have to do is what lesbian poet Mary Oliver recommended, "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." I am a mystic. I hear the Virgencita speaking. And what I think she's saying is, "You're enough.

And, you're already here."