There is No Restoration in Dehumanization

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A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. In 2014 when this photo was taken, California was under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of its designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer, Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This past weekend, I had the honor of serving inmates a Donovan State Prison through restorative and healing work.  In the process, I connected with a Samoan brother, Utu, who’d been incarcerated for nearly two decades and, most recently, spent four years in, what the inmates and prison guards refer to as, the hole, solitary confinement.  Utu held a type of innocence that is very difficult to maintain in inmates who’ve experienced and perpetrated the most tragic and heinous acts of violence.

There was an immediate spiritual connection that occurred as he began to share pieces of himself in a place where even a little bit of vulnerability can get a man killed; one that allowed me to see we are both greater than our experiences and our choices.

In 2010, do to over crowded and under-equipped California prisons,  Utu was one of many inmates forcefully persuaded to sign a prison transfer request from California to Arizona. He was told it would be a temporary five-year arrangement.  While in Arizona, he discovered that what he had signed up for was “to live in hell,” and doubted he would make it out of Arizona alive.  Not only were tensions between prison guards and inmates more hostile, but racism and inequity were used to instigate more animosity and violence among the inmates.  Without going into details, he told me he got into a confrontation with another inmate, and beat him unconscious.  The next day, Utu was sent to the hole where he would live out the rest of his five-year incarceration sentence in Arizona.

A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated:

The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.

It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” 

His father died shortly after he was placed in the hole.  Samoans follow a code of living and culture called the Fa’a Samoa which means “the Samoan Way.” Central to this culture is the Fa’amatai. The family is the most significant socio-political element of Samoan society. Family responsibility and the care of family land are the keys to the culture. For Utu, not being able to be at his father’s funeral or with his family was devastating and a source of shame; and there was nowhere for him to escape this shame.  As he began to unravel into hopelessness and deep depression, a few months into his solitary confinement, he heard  a clank as someone opened the  small window of his iron cell door and asked if he wanted to find God.  God was nowhere to be found, he thought; that hole was the furthest he could be from God.

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Photo credit: Modesto Bee Newspaper/ Bloomberg via Getty Images 

A clergyman visited him once a week, on the same day, at the same time, like clock work. He learned to keep track of time by keeping track of his visits.  He’d be Utu’s only visitor for the four years he remained in the hole.  Utu was not allowed any possessions, but the clergyman somehow got the prison guards to agree to allowing him to have a bible, which he fiercely read and studied during his four years in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement strips away anything that can possibly remind a man of his existence. There is no radio, no television, no books, no pencils or paper and no hobby-facilitating materials. Inmates are provided institution-issued clothes and possibly, but not always, sheets.  Personal hygiene provisions are reduced to only toilet paper, which some inmates may not receive.  Cells frequently have no windows and inmates are housed with a vacant cell between them to reduce the possibility of communication. The 23/1 rule (23 hours in your cell and one hour outside of it) usually applies, but only if the guards get around to it. This could mean that inmates may only get one hour every five days, and often during that one hour, inmates are not allowed to go outside or anywhere with windows, but are confined to a “common area,” alone. Depending on the institution, sometimes they are provided with golf pencils and paper to write during their hour, but may only be allowed to mail out and receive one letter a week. Utu felt his mind slipping away from him while in there, and reading the bible was the only experience that helped him hold on to his humanity.

No one is ever SENTENCED to solitary confinement – the determination of that punishment is made in each institution at their own discretion and for a duration they presume to be necessary. It could be because an inmate violated a rule within the institution or merely because an inmate is presumed to be affiliated with a gang. It also could be just cruelty and sadism on the part of the institution administrators.

Utu was transferred back to California a little more than a year ago.  His mother passed away three months ago, and though he wasn’t able to attend her funeral, he was close enough for his family to come visit him and pray with him. As he shared  glimpses of his life with me, I wondered how a man who has lost so much could still hold innocence and gentleness in his soul.

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During the three days of restorative and healing work, we delved into discussions and activities that pushed us to think more deeply about transformative power through forgiveness, empathy and consensus building.   One of the activities in which the inmates were tasked to practice the consensus building strategies they had just learned required that each select a photo.  The objective was for each person to partner up, and through consensus building, agree on one photo to represent both.  Once the partners agreed on the photo, they looked for another set of partners and the process of consensus building began again until one photo was selected to represent the group of four, which then joined with another group of four to repeat the same process.

I partnered with Utu who had selected a photo of a blueish-turquoise ocean gently swaying against black cliffs abundant with vegetation. That morning he had spoken of going home to Samoa where his heart had always told him he belonged. His family came to the Unites States when he was a little boy, but it seemed that leaving his motherland had been more of a curse than a blessing.  His family broke apart in the United States.  Upward mobility and the accumulation of things became a priority.  Home to him means returning to a place that nurtures family and community, something Utu feels he can no longer achieve in the United States. There was a profound longing in his eyes for home as he described the aspects of his photo that reminded him of Samoa. He is homesick for a feeling, an experience he hopes to find when he returns to Samoa.  One where his heart is full, his body loved, and his soul understood.

Then came my turn to explain why I chose the photo I held in my hands.  The photo reminded me of the purest love between a child and his parents or grandparents; the bond that exists when a child is nurtured as the one who will continue the wisdom and legacy of the elders, and in turn, of the ancestors. It is this passing on of knowledge that creates strong and dignified communities.  I told Utu that the photo reminded me of the unconditionally love my grandmother poured into me. When children are raised with kind love, veneration and respect, they grow up to be the keepers of the greater community.  Finally, I explained, that most of all, the photo reminded me of the importance of knowing how to give and receive, the collaboration that manifests in a beautiful way within families and communities when everyone is working together toward a common goal.

Utu timidly asked, “which one should we pick?” I told Utu that I had the privilege to experience home, and nothing would fill my heart more than for him to experience home, even if was just symbolically.  So I told him, “You choose.”  His eyes became watery and he said he’d choose the picture I held in my hands, because more than the beach and the tropical trees and the smell of the salty mountains, he missed the love of his mother and father.

Utu is due to be released in 2021.  In a place void of humanity, where vulnerability and compassion can get one killed, where suspicion lurks in every corner, and where brick, steel, cement and barbed wire remind inmates of the total aloneness of enforced solitude and deprivation, Utu was able to maintain an innocence and gentleness rarely found behind bars.  I pray he makes it out.

Another inmate whose been on a long, arduous path of healing said, “I’m thriving in prison. For the first time in my life, I am thriving.” If these men whose hearts have been hardened and hopes shattered can transform themselves in a place meant to annihilate what little love they remember from their childhood, imagine what could be possible if we created opportunities for healing and restoration.

Restorative justice and restorative practices are ancient approaches that are being revived in modern-day systems. Aboriginals around the world have used religion or tribal leaders to peacefully resolve conflicts or crime for hundreds of years. This traditional approach to restoration is rooted in the belief that there should be social harmony, redemption and a pursuit of absolute good for the individual and the community in the handling of conflict and crime. Rather than the punitive elements connected to shame, guilt, humiliation and dehumanization, aboriginal cultures around the world have focused on restorative elements of redemption, reparation, rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness.

 We have long known that in the act of destroying the other, we are destroying ourselves.  In Mayan tradition, there is a greeting that many people working with Mayan tradition know of. In Lak’ ech Ala K’in means I am the other you and you are the other me. It is an honoring for each other, for the sacredness of our belonging.  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning, “my humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom derived from the word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term means being in bayan, which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal. In ancient Sanskrit Sarvodaya mean universal uplifting; the good of the individual within the good of the whole. So you see, we come from each other, to commune with each other, and to thrive with each other.  Even scientifically, we have discovered the presence of mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the other’s pain.  In essence, what we do onto others, we do to ourselves. This is who we were before colonization, industrialization and capitalism.  Who we were has been erased from history, but the memories remain in our DNA, and we are once again being called to rewrite our history, and re-right the injustices we have participated in.

I recently came across this:

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation.  Connection is the only thing that can save you.

Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about our struggles is the key to your liberation. 

Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life.  your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now.  We need you. 

Remembrance and imagination are the greatest tools we have to create a world in which our children can love and be loved, fully and unconditionally.

AHIMSA – nonviolence in thought and action.

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AHIMSA INSTITUTE 

This is Dr. Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center and Institute for teachers. I am eternally thankful to her for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart; for the grace I have received because of the opportunity she gave me. My whole life had been about violence, and that is the only way I knew to stand up for myself, to protect myself. She inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended  the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. A nine year journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening lead me to discovering the greatest love within myself. A love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.

Nine years ago when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail from my principle around 4:00 pm, just as I was going to head home for the day. You know one of those all staff e-mails forwarded by your principle, so she/he can delete it from his/her inbox and quickly move on to more important matters.

The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were, “Nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted with my application the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and each time I attempted to write my statement, I’d end up writing about some of the most painful memories in my life.

Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother.  I was so angry at her.  I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; hat even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself.  So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life, because like me, she was also searching for love. We tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me.

Or the time I almost hit my daughter with a broomstick.  She was about 12 and her room, more and more often, looked like it had been shaken, upside down.  It was definitely a point of contention.  Later I’d come to realize that it triggered memories of instability and neglect, reminding me of dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, loads and loads of dirty clothes scattered everywhere, an empty refrigerator, and cockroaches scattered amongst it all. I remember quarreling with my daughter about why she couldn’t just keep her room clean.  Why she couldn’t just take the time to care for and be thankful for what she had. Subconsciously, I was reproaching my mother , “If you love me, you’d take care of me, you’d take care of our home.”  I grabbed the broom that had been propped behind the door all morning as she procrastinated to clean her room.  I saw myself holding the broom over her and she laying on the bed with her arm shielding her face.  I hit her once with the bristles, before putting the broom down and going to my room to cry.  I had always been so careful to not hit her or scream at her, and there I was becoming the very violence I had hoped to never perpetrate on her.

I turned in my application and was given a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.

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JAPANESE GARDEN 

When I came to the Ahimsa Institute in 2007, my wounds and pain were stripped raw. Often, during breaks or lunch, I’d slip away and come down to the Japanese garden to cry. I had so much anger, it hurt. The Koi fish were calming. Their slow movements soothed my angry thoughts, their patient proximity to one another comforted my anxiety, and their coloring warmed the parts of me that were void of nurture.

Many of the attributes of the Koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life. The Koi fish has a powerful and energetic life force, demonstrated by its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. That’s what the journey of forgiveness, nonviolence and healing I was embarking on felt like. Some of the characteristics associated with the koi include courage, perseverance, and ambition; all characteristics I would need to practice on this arduous path.

Many of the above described symbolic meanings of Koi fish stem from the Chinese legend of the Dragon Gate in which a Koi fish swam upstream, through waterfalls and other obstacles to reach the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain was the “Dragon Gate”. The legend says that when the Koi finally reached the top, it became a dragon, one of the most auspicious creatures in Chinese culture.”

This past weekend after a nine-year journey of healing and after a powerful three-day Ahimsa conference on Giving and Forgiving, I visited the Japanese garden once again to cry. I didn’t cry from pain, but from extreme gratitude for the Grace I have received through my experiences with the Ahimsa center. For the grace I received that day in my classroom when I received the application. I came to thank the Koi fish for their support and unconditional love. To thank spirit for its guidance and lessons. I came here to remember, to renew my commitment to healing and non-violence and to set new intentions for the next beautiful stage of my life.

 

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HORSE STABLES 

One last stop before leaving…
When I participated in the  Ahimsa Institute, I stayed on the Cal Poly campus. Every morning I’d get up early enough to walk to the horse stables and commune with the horses. I’d often pick up leaves and the horses would eat them from my hand. At some point, the caretaker there started to expect me, and would give me alfalfa to hand feed the horses.

I visited them once again this past weekend, and I stood in silence while one of the horses ate. At some point, it cam closer to the fence and stood their with me. And that was enough.

My longing to be with the horses every morning came from the deep unconditional love I saw in their eyes. The first time I saw that kind of love in a being’s eyes was in my grandmother, and later I’d come to see it in my daughter. In those horses, I saw the love I’d ultimately come to discover in myself.  A love I’d come to understand connects us all. At some point in my journey, I realized that no matter what I had experienced, the wounds and trauma I carried, or the love I was still searching for, I was whole.

WHOLE                                                                                                                                                           

One day I became conscious enough to ask:

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,
indistinguishable voice
inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

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F O R G I V E N E S S

Every autumn season, the eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, and the process is highlighted by a wonderful display of color and / or amazing patterns of strips and flakes.

I imagine this is what our bodies look like as we open our hearts in vulnerability and and allow the wounds and bruises to air out.

When the bark is shed, lichens and parasites that are toxic to the tree are also shed. And a smooth, bark appears, until the next autumn season when the tree sheds once again.

We have seasons of growth and we have seasons of letting go. Both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves is part of the process of learning to let go of things that no longer serve us.

Cleansing and grieving are important processes, so our pain does not metastasize as hate. Hate will ultimately destroy us.

 “A sufi holy man was asked what forgiveness is.  He said – it is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.” – Rumi                                                                                                  

The Gratitude I have for Dr. Sethia, her work and commitment to nonviolence, and the opportunity she gave me to transform my life, I can only honor by dedicating to her my life of service and commitment to nonviolence. There are people whom I recognize as having saved my life – Dr. Sethia is one of them.

Full Circle

The journey isn’t always where you go physically; Sometimes its where you go spiritually. We often leave a place and go full circle, only to come back to it wiser and freer. I left teaching three years ago.  I Walked into the school district office and signed my resignation papers.  I can’t say I never looked back.  In fact, I looked back quite often that first year, wondering if I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  In retrospect, I could have made a graceful exit.  I left teaching as an act of liberation and instead, I became burdened with great financial instability.  And while leaving teaching  allotted me more time to be in nature, meditate, write, and do all the things that have brought great healing into my life, there was always the restriction and physical constriction I felt when the bills were mounting or I couldn’t buy a plane ticket to visit my daughter.

This journey of three years has brought me back full circle.  I have accepted a teaching position in a different district, and feel just as excited to teach as when I first began my teaching journey.

I have been on a beautiful journey of healing, growth and transformation for a while, now. These past three years have left me in awe and wonder of the magic that happens when we release ourselves to spirit and the flow of life. I have been growing and strengthening my roots and connecting deeply to ancestral knowledge. I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to facilitate workshops on forgiveness, non-violence, and restorative practices to youth at various schools. I also developed personal growth workshops for youth, which I have facilitated across San Diego. I’ve worked with youth from around the world in Peru and Costa Rica through experiential learning and leadership development.  I am learning about indigenous rituals and ceremonies to heal grief and trauma. I spent this past weekend doing healing and restorative work with prison inmates. I’ve also had powerful experiences as an ally participating in boycott actions that support the work of farmworkers like Familias Unidas por La Justicia, San Quintin Farmworkers, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers fighting for social justice and and fair food programs.  I am participating in various projects with Border Angels, a human rights organization bringing awareness to the plight of immigrants and undocumented immigrants. I have participated in several marches against police brutality and state sanctioned violence. I am reflecting on all these experiences, because I understand there was a journey I needed to take, and only by leaving teaching, did I find the impulse to embark on it.  

Recently, I discovered that the mortgage company, which held our second mortgage to the house we lost four years ago was reporting us delinquent on our payments.  When we foreclosed, both the primary and secondary mortgages were handled under the terms of the foreclosure.  As you might imagine, this situation brought up a lot of fear around money, much of it connected to childhood financial wounds that existed from living in poverty, but also decisions I had made in my adult life that perpetuated those financial wounds – such as the manner in which I left teaching, without a plan or vision.  What had been arising to the surface during these three years were fears of not having enough, not being worthy, instability and insecurity.  I came to the awareness that as part of my healing journey, I had to also heal my relationship with money.  This mortgage situation catapulted me to begin attending Debtors Anonymous meetings.

As a result, I have begun to recognize that many of the decisions I’ve made around money are rooted in a manufactured sense of impoverishment. Poverty and scarcity have been so familiar to me, subconsciously, I continued to create experiences that put me right back in that place.  Surviving in poverty requires one to live day-to-day, even moment to moment; always in constant worry of the future without being able to plan for it.  Because in poverty nothing is ever guaranteed, one lives for today.  However, living for today without planning for the future induces a perpetual cycle of worry, anxiety, and shame.

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When the time comes for you to make a change, to grow, to do your life in a different way, the universe will make you so uncomfortable, so unhappy, you will eventually have no choice. 

SHAME CANNOT EXIST IN THE PRESENCE OF DIGNITY.

Sometimes we feel shame because we have dishonored our soul. This means we have to restore the damage/pain we have caused, integrate our mind and body with our soul so we can move forward with integrity, and begin the forgiveness process by holding compassion for ourselves.

Sometimes, however, we feel shame because we have bought into the narrative that the world has created for us: “I’m inadequate, I’m not worthy, I’m not smart enough, capable enough, good enough, strong enough, I’m not enough.  My financial wounds were carving a path of humiliation for me, and the only way to dignify my experience is to face my circumstances and confront my troubles.  It is, I have come to realize, part of the lesson of taking care of myself with self-respect and forgiveness – belief in the best parts of myself. 

You want to perform a miracle? Forgive yourself. – Rune Lazuli

Forgiving oneself starts with acknowledging the way we have wronged/hurt others, and often, ourselves.  I’ve been carrying the burden of financial wounds as guilt and shame. And I have come to realize that the longer I carry that burden, the more oppressive it becomes. As I am learning to recognize the psychological and emotional factors that lead me to inflict those financial wounds on myself, I am also observing how attached I am to self criticism and judgment; still stuck in regret and disappointment. “I shouldn’t have… Why did I…? If only I would have…” Rationally I understand that my experiences were necessary for me to learn, grow and transform. Emotionally, I have had a more difficult time releasing myself from punishment and punitive self-talk.

What I’ve come to understand, is that in order to completely forgive myself, I must take action to restore the harm that I have caused myself. Learning the lesson is part of the equation. Often times we stop at the lesson and the apology to self, but never take action in repairing the actual harm, the way we would for someone else. It is in the very act of self-restoration that I am able to heal, pay respect to myself, know I am worthy of my time, discover my power to overcome, and change my relationship with how I feel, handle, and view money. When I stand up for myself, I dignify my experiences and determination to overcome my circumstances. It is also in this act that I am able to assert my commitment to live in truth, to hold accountable the aspects of myself that might still be in denial, and to attain liberation from the limitations I have set for myself.

Pause. Research. Pray. 

Life presents opportunities to test us on the lessons we have been learning.  Many times when a difficult situation presents itself, we rush to action, sometimes even forcing a solution that ultimately hurts us more.  When I quit my teaching job, I was feeling lost, uninspired, and empty.  But I didn’t allow myself to pause and sit in those emotions long enough to understand why I was feeling them. I forced a solution, and in doing so, moved from one burden to another, instead of finding liberation.  The last DA meeting I attended, the facilitator opened with a story that relayed the power she had found in the ability to research and pray before taking any life-impacting decisions.  This was a lesson that had been lingering, waiting for me to bring it to my consciousness, and as so often happens, we hear the words we need to hear when it is the right time, when we are ready.  Pausing when my emotions are on overload, whether it’s because of excitement or trauma, has taught me to recognize what it is I need to do next. Is it something I need to find a solution for or is it something I need to work through?  I am still putting this lesson into practice, and I don’t always get it right, but I am acting more and more from a place of mindfulness and intention.

I have a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life, and how I want to continue to cultivate my abilities and gifts to serve.  Life is not just about the actions, but also about how we use who we are and what we are learning in the process.  There are many opportunities for me to continue my learning and many require that I make a financial commitment to invest in those areas. I kept thinking, “I can’t afford that. How am I going to get money to pay for this?” Rather than become worried, anxious and inpatient, I took a step back and took a hard look at my options and my resources. I’ve been substituting as a way to subsidize my income when I’m not teaching workshops, but it has become mundane and aimless.  I often found myself feeling nostalgic about my experiences in the classroom, but wasn’t sure if those emotions were because I truly missed that work, or because I was uninspired with substituting.  Simultaneously, I was exploring job options that would allow me to use my gifts and talents while continuing to do all the projects that I am passionate about.  After working through these emotions, exploring my options, and doing a lot of praying and meditation, I had an Aha! moment.  Teaching is one of the aspects I’ve always been passionate about, but it isn’t the only.  I had gotten myself in a rut, and the classroom had become a confining space for me.  It took me three years of exploring to come back and realize that I really do miss teaching and serving students, but I also love all the work I am doing in the community.  I can do both!

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I don’t know what the future holds.  I’ve had dreams of opening a youth center where I can merge all my passions – serving youth and working to bring change to our communities. This is where I am now.  I will continue to listen to my heart, take pause during periods of confusion, and listen to the gentle guidance of the universe and my ancestors. 

Sometimes living my truth is scary because it requires me to let go of things known, things familiar, things comfortable. It requires me to be okay with the uncertain and unpredictable road. It probes at feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, and worthlessness. Am I good enough to do what my heart truly desires? Will I have enough money If I walk away from this job that no longer fulfills me? Do I have what it takes to start over again?

Sometimes, for those looking in, it may seem that I don’t know what I want, that I am confused and adrift. I have felt that way at times, in part because I am still learning to listen to my heart with clarity. The process isn’t perfect; I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hit dead ends, stepped back to assess why something wasn’t working, taken wrong turns, and yes, have gotten lost. But even in all of that, I have been able to continue to define and refine my vision and purpose. Along the way, I have discovered and uncovered layers and layers of truth, digging deeper and having greater introspection of who I am without the programming of the world. It turns out sometimes you have to do the wrong thing. Sometimes you have to make a big mistake to figure out how to make things right. Mistakes are painful, but they’re the only way to find out who we really are, our truth.

I have discovered the courage to speak my truth. Learning to do so requires that I speak it with integrity, compassion, and humility. For too long, I didn’t speak up because I was afraid of offending, making folks uncomfortable, not being a team player, being shunned from the group. But I have learned that in the process I have betrayed myself, and the shame of self betrayal is too heavy to bear.

In exploring my truth, I am learning to be more mindful and intentional with my decisions; to transition gracefully through my seasons, to have the courage to ask for what I want; to be truly open to receive the messages of my heart and what I am asking for; to see my relations as sacred and know they are there to teach, support and uplift me.

Living my truth and balancing my consideration for the relations in my life has been, and is, a great challenge. Compromising without betraying myself. Giving without depleting. Focusing without ignoring. Moving forward without excluding. Loving myself without hurting others. These are the aspects I am learning to balance in my life.

What I know to be truest of all is that I can’t hide from who I am and who I am meant to be. When I do, I feel life begins to drain from me, like I imagine a hummingbird would feel without his wings and nectar.

I am committed to the continuous healing of myself and all aspects of my relations. Healthy relationships go beyond my interactions with people, and also include my perceptions, behaviors, and interaction with my body, food, money, mother earth, water, Spirit, my ancestors, and all that is part of living life as a sacred experience. Each relation and encounter is a sacred exchange, and by recognizing it as such, I am able to deepen the connection I have within the web of life and experiences that connects us all. And so by forgiving myself and healing my financial wounds and relationship to/with money, I am giving myself permission to live a fuller life in which I don’t have to live in fear of not having enough. Removing the stress, removing the anxiety, removing the depression connected to money can only happen when I release the unhealthy attachments I have to it.

I am creating the intention of having a purposeful relation will all things, including myself. Forgiveness releases the karmic bonds that bind us to our relations in a destructive way, and it can only happen when we take on the work of restoring, rehabilitating, and rebuilding in a way that is whole and sacred for all relations and connections.

In every step of my journey, I am feeling more connected with the vastness and abundance of the universe. Sometimes it feels as if I can no longer contain my heart inside of me. In every being I encounter, I see myself, and I understand the oneness in which I am contained more profoundly than I’ve ever had. There is so much love in my heart, there is less and less room for fear. I don’t feel my age or any age. I am ancient and eternal.

One day I became conscious enough to ask,

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,

indistinguishable

voice

inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

To Know Forgiveness

I have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate forgiveness and restorative practice workshops through the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and learn from various groups of middle school students for a year now.  While I am greatly impacted by all the students I get to work with, this past session, a young man who I will refer to as Omar, had a very profound impact on my work and me.  From the onset of the workshops, Omar was resistant to the idea of non-violence and using restorative practices.  He pushed me to analyze and think more deeply about what it means to be committed to non-violence, not just in the ideological sense, but in the everyday world filled with violences, oppression, and injustice that we live in.  He said his father taught him that if someone came at him, he was not only to defend himself, but give the person a “beat down”; it would teach that person not to ever mess with Omar again.

“Effective non-violence is not about putting the right person in power, but awakening the right kind of power in people.” -Metta Center for Non-Violence 

I remembered my grandmother telling me about a group of girls who bullied my mom when she was in upper elementary school.  These girls were always ambushing my  mom in the bathroom taking her lunch money, her lunch or whatever they could take from her.  My grandmother brought the issue up in school to no avail.  Finally after weeks of attending school in fear, my grandmother had my mother meet up with the girls who were bullying her, and in very forward terms told my mother she either had to kick their ass or my grandmother would kick my mother’s ass.   So, against a fence near the school, my mother, as terrifying as it might have been, fought those girls with my grandmother cheering her on.  Those girls never bullied my mother again.  My grandmother had survived two abusive marriages, and fighting back was one of the ways she learned to defend herself when she was the target of violence, especially during a time and culture in which police very seldomly protected a woman from an abusive husband.

Omar was speaking a philosophy that had been spoken and taught in my family.  I also understood that in neighborhoods ridden with poverty, gangs, drugs, and all sorts of other violence there was a different code for survival, especially in the streets.  Who was I to dismiss his father; to dismiss what Omar had learned from his father and his own experiences to survive.  I grew up in neighborhoods where understanding and abiding by the law of the streets was what kept me safe.  I didn’t know what Omar’s environment was like nor what he had to do to ensure his safety and survival.  Restorative practice takes community effort and while an individual can commit to this kind of work, it is only within a committed community that the work can sustainably change behavior and thought patterns entrenched in violence.  Omar was being guided by his father’s own experiences of safety and survival and whether I agreed with his perspective or not, I had to tread lightly for I wasn’t their to diminish the bond that existed between Omar and his father; the minute it sounded like I was saying his father was wrong, that is exactly what Omar would perceive.

My approach with Omar wasn’t to tell him that the only option was non-violent action, so instead it was about looking at consequences and ripple effects of violence.  It was about teaching him problem-solving skills and what it meant to be intentional and mindful about his actions.  In this context, whatever action he chose to take in the future, he would do so understanding the potential consequences, stand with conviction, and take responsibility rather than feel ashamed or dishonored.  In other words, I was teaching him how to act and behave with dignity.  Our decisions should be made with conviction rather than simply from a place of reaction, which allows us to have ownership over the decisions we make in our lives, leaving us feeling empowered rather than helpless.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim-letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
―C.R. Strahan 

Toward the second half of the workshop series, I started to notice a shift in Omar.  He began to describe scenarios and ask what would restorative practices look like in those situations.  On one particular day, when we were discussing forgiveness, he asked what would happen if he forgave someone who kept doing the same harm over and over again? I responded that forgiveness was a process for him to let go of the pain and anger that enslaved him to the person that caused the violence & harm, but it did not mean he was accepting the person’s behavior, and it certainly didn’t mean he had to have a relationship with the person nor accept him/her in his life.  We can forgive someone and still choose to never engage that person ever again.  He also stated in a questioning manner, “But if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will think they can keep messing with you.” I told him that he was absolutely right.  I went on to give him examples of people around the world that had and were using non-violent resistance to fight for their rights and dignity.  The reality is we aren’t always going to engage with people who are interested in restorative practices or justice, though that doesn’t mean we have to necessarily revert to violence. I also explained that we weren’t always going to engage with people who were sorry for the harm they caused us, but in order to be liberated from our pain we would have to find a way to forgive.

It takes a greater commitment to resist and fight back without violence.  I also exposed very complex historical examples of folks like Martin Luther King whose work was based on a philosophy of non-violence, but who had body guards who carried guns for protection. Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence, especially after his home was bombed, though many experts say that by the 1960s he abandoned the idea of weapons for self-defense.  I also talked about Harriet Tubman who carried a gun for protection and told the very slaves she was helping to escape that she would kill them before allowing them to go back.  She knew if they went back, they would be tortured and would compromise the work of the Underground Railroad.

Another students then responded, “yeah, but how are we supposed to be non-violent when everyone around us is violent,” to which Omar nodded his head.  In a world in which achievement, performance, competition and acquisition take precedence over integrity, honesty, compassion, collaboration and community the worst is brought out in all of us, unless we are taught to intentionally approach life in a different way. When all around us exploitation and dominance of our labor, bodies and minds is occurring, we grow up angry, and we grow up thinking “I’m going to get you before you get me.” The how becomes one of the most important questions to ask and continue to ask  ourselves as we embark on and commit to non-violence as a way of life.

“So how do I fix myself,” Omar asked hesitantly.  I knew how difficult and courageous this moment was for him; he was breaking away from the philosophy his father, the man he looked up to and admired,  had instilled in him and taken the first step to explore what forgiveness and restorative practice might look like in his life.  Of course, the first thing I told him was how important it was not to see himself as needing to be fixed, for he wasn’t broken, and there were so many beautiful things to celebrate about him.  When we feel better, we do better, and this is why we use our strengths to overcome our challenges.  I ultimately wanted him and the rest of the students to understand that none of this is easy, and that we are all bound to make mistakes and be backed into circumstances where violence might feel like the only choice. However, learning alternative ways to violence through skills and strategies and working with a community of people committed to non-violence empowers us to continue to explore and discover restorative practices that lead to forgiveness and healing.  And so, the second half of the workshop series we spent a lot of time focusing on skills, tools, and strategies.

Forgiveness can be a very difficult and complicated process, especially when the violence and harm are connected to deep systemic trajectories of dehumanization. Forgiveness is a process, and though there is so much I have learned about this process, I know, within the broader spectrum of society’s ills, I have so much more to learn. The students, though young, had some very profound discussions and never ceased to move me and challenge me to go deeper into my understanding of it, especially as I embark in understanding how to embrace forgiveness and restorative, non-violent practices in the work of resisting and confronting destructive power.

Watching these students discuss, reflect on, and own the process of forgiveness within the context of their own lives and experiences was a beautiful opportunity. While concepts of compassion, nonviolence, and restorative practice and justice become messy when the violence that is perpetrated is so horrific and generational, and when the perpetrators do not acknowledge the violence and harm, it is my hope that the strategies and skills the students have learned will allow them to be more aware of how to deal with conflict, navigate the pain, and ultimate take ownership of their healing.

“We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence. ”  -Mahatma Gandhi 

The students will continue to do work both in their school and community as peacemakers and facilitators of restorative practices. If they engage in the work now, they will be prepared for the difficult work when they become adults. Practicing forgiveness not only changes the karmic path of one’s life, but it also has tremendous neurological and biological benefits for those who are able to release the emotional and psychological trauma associated with the violence. If we engage our children at an early age to practice forgiveness and restorative processes, we are giving them a greater chance of peace.

“Giving and forgiving are matters of the heart. The more magnanimity we evolve in our hearts, the easier it is for us to give and forgive. The more we give and forgive, the more enriched our lives become, widening our circles to include not only those who we give, but also those who we forgive

Giving includes not just charitable gifts or material objects, or donating food and clothing. It is giving when we give of ourselves, our time, our service, our knowledge, even our organs; expanding our love and friendship in the spirit of advancing our humanity. Giving need not be a response of pity or sympathy, of helping the “poor” or the “needy.” It can be an exercise in building empathy and gratitude, opening our hearts, supporting a cause – a journey toward self-fulfilment and joy.

Forgiving or seeking forgiveness, though related to giving, is a much more challenging task than giving. It requires giving of one’s anger and ego so as to accept and embrace those we think have harmed us in some way. It is an exercise in utmost humility that enables us to seek forgiveness of any intended or unintended mistakes in any form. It is a process not based on forgetting the wrong or the harm done, but rather on remembering it so as to learn from it to not repeat it. Like giving, forgiveness too is ultimately good for the self.”

From the Ahimsa Center, Non-Violence in Thought and Action.

 

 

When Forgiving Her Mother Meant Walking In Her Shoes – Part I

Seeing her mother dote over her husband in the hospital, who was constantly readmitted for chronic liver failure due to his years of drinking, Estrella couldn’t understand the kind of love her mother felt for him. She’d never felt that kind of love from her mother. She never saw her take that much care toward her. And it angered her. She wondered why this man was more deserving of that kind of love than she was. What was so special about him that wasn’t special about her? Why was he more significant than her? Those were questions she could not answer. All she could understand was the pain the little girl inside of her was feeling as she watched her mother’s adoration for her husband.

Estrella thought she had forgiven her mother. She thought she had overcome the sense of abandonment she had experienced growing up. In reality, she was still that wounded little girl sneaking behind the door to her mom’s room hoping to catch her mom alone to get a little bit of the attention she gave to her boyfriend. To be able to sit on her lap, maybe cuddle in bed for a few moments, or even a pat on the head. Watching her mother stand so attentively next to her husband, constantly probing to make sure he was comfortable, massaging his legs, repositioning his pillows, and caressing his face evoked a surge of pain she had buried very deeply within her. Her mother had never learned to love a man and love her simultaneously. She didn’t know how to open her heart to that much love, so instead, she focused her concentrated love to whom she felt would give her the most significance in life, her alcoholic husband.

Estrella couldn’t understand why feeling loved and accepted by a man was more important to a woman than being loved by her own daughter. Juvenile Hall was full of young ladies whose mothers had preferred their boyfriends over their daughters. Mothers who made excuses for their boyfriend’s screaming and beating. Mother’s who looked the other way in the middle of night when the innocent were devoured by the secrets of darkness. Why was the yearning for a man’s touch more powerful than the vulnerability and purity of a child?

She had seen so many women in her family relinquish their dreams for a few moments of deceptive romantic love. Her aunt Martha dedicated her whole life to loving a man in secret; a man who left her to marry another woman and create a whole new family. After he married, he looked for Martha again and she became “the other woman.” For over 35 years, she saw him in secret, settling for left over kisses and caresses a few days out of the year. His pictures were all over her house and she spoke of him as if he was the patriarch of the family. She created a fictional character and brought him to life through the script she created for her life.  She’d wait for his ever-illusive phone calls the way the desert anticipates the monsoon season, hoping the next phone call would summon her to his side.  Martha’s daughter grew up in the shadows of her mother’s fantasies, and like Estrella, became runner-up to the love her mother felt for a man.

Estrella struggled with the anger she felt toward her mother.  A mother herself, Estrella dedicated her life to loving and caring for her daughter, and couldn’t imagine how a man’s love could be more exceptional than the spiritual connection that existed between her and her daughter, and yet she understood the circumstances that led her mother to find shelter in the arm’s of men.  The same circumstances that led her mother’s mother to two very abusive marriages.  Her mom’s love for herself was so lacking, so depleted that only the intimate kisses of a man could fill some of that emptiness.

While the role of motherhood can be a very fulfilling aspect of a woman’s life, it’s also a very wearing and overwhelming experience.  It comes with many rewards, but many times to the sacrifice of other desires.  Estrella imagined that dirty diapers, crying children, piling bills, and a complete neglect to self-care did nothing for a woman who was already lacking so much self-love.  The less romanticized aspects of being a mother, like the loneliness that sets in in the middle of the night when a mother feels so incompetent, or the insecurity of a woman’s worth that creeps in in the morning as she looks at the dark circles beneath her eyes and the premature wrinkles that are starting to frame parts of her face, Estrella would learn, are dangerous side-effects when a woman can’t see her self worth.  That becomes exponentially true for single-mothers.

When a lonely woman feels a man’s hands through her hair, that masculine tenderness brings out a vulnerability in her that opens her up into a Calla Lily pulsing at the verge of spring. Estrella had been previewed to that type of sensuality. She had found a man who she could be herself around. In their moments of intimacy, his fingers whispered the truth of her body and glided over the topography of her landscapes. She had felt her hair sift through his fingers like the Saharan sand. She had opened herself to someone she could be unapologetically herself with; someone who had felt the softness of her belly in his hands, and ran them over her cambers, and slopes, and dips; someone who accepted the sacred lands she had to offer. Estrella had been lonely once, and understood the yearning for that kind of love, so the rationale of a woman choosing a man over her children was not so impossible for her to understand.

Estrella’s mother had six children by the time she had turned twenty-three. Each child represented a desperate attempt to fulfill the love she was supposed to have gotten from her mother, who also struggled with her own sense of worthiness. Ironically, with each child, the emptiness and loneliness grew, leaving her more desperate for the kind of love she came to desire from a man.

Estrella wanted to, needed to, forgive her mother.  Cognitively, she knew her mother was a victim of abandonment and neglect, and could see her mother’s own struggles to liberate herself from cycles of abuse, violence, and co-dependency.  But emotionally, Estrella did not know how to stop the pain and resentment she felt toward her mother.  The wounded little girl inside of her still wanted to feel significant enough, important enough, for her mother’s love.

I Wanted to Cry but Instead I Vomited

The day my brother died was the first time I had faced death.  I always thought that you died when you were old, but my brother was 15.  My brother and I were very close; he was my best friend at the time. He had an old soul and he understood things that were beyond our age and experiences.  There was something more than siblinghood that connected us, something connected to the soul of the world.

My grandmother, daughter and I were coming from Tijuana, Mexico.  It was close to midnight because we had been held longer than expected at the San Ysidro border crossing.  As I put my signal to turn into our parking lot, I noticed the yellow crime scene tape blocking the entrance to the adjacent parking lot.  The apartment complex was on a hill, so the parking lots were staggered, each with its own entrance.

I had a presentiment, and without pause, I continued to drive into the parking lot, which geared to the right toward the front of the complex, losing sight of the yellow tape.  I could feel thumping in my chest, and I just wanted to get my grandmother and daughter safely into the apartment.  I tried not to let the wariness show on my face.  I went into my brothers’ bedroom to check on them, and only Francisco was there asleep.  I lied to my grandmother and told her they were all there.

I could feel the staircase trembling with every hard step I took as I rushed toward the yellow tape.  I could hear my breath, loud like when you tightly shut your ears, and the inner sounds become pulsating bass.  As I turned the corner, I saw an ambulance, in silence, waiting.  The doors to the back were open, and the gurney was empty.  No paramedics in sight. A man in a suit approached me and asked me if I needed something.  I told him Alex and David, were my brothers.  I needed to know they were okay.  He looked at me the way my French teacher looked at me when I told her I was pregnant, and I wouldn’t be able to take part in the exchange program.  Then he looked over his shoulder, scanning for an officer, and yelled, “This is Alex’s sister.”

I didn’t know that I knew then.  But my heart knew something was really wrong.   I stood there like a casualty and began to notice 1, 2, 3, 4 cop cars parked dispersedly.  The blue and red lights whirling in my head like a throbbing dizziness.  I kept pleading, “Can you please tell me what happened to my brother Alex?”  Then I saw the paramedics stroll by and get into the ambulance.  Where was my brother? Finally I broke through the yellow tape, and started running toward one of the officers.  And then as if to numb my heart forever, the officer blurted out like a million pieces of sharp, jagged glass, “Your brother has been shot, and they are doing all they can to save him.”

Why were the paramedics in the ambulance?  An unfamiliar quiet had constricted the scene; a quiet that smelled of dry grass.  Then I remembered my grandmother back in the apartment, and I knew I had to go back, because if I didn’t, she’d know something was wrong.  What would I say to her?  Could I pretend? I had to go back and lie to her, so that I could have more time for my brother to be saved.

The second time I made my way to the yellow tape, my feet dragged like rusted anchors in a mud pool.  The ambulance’s eyes avoided me the way a child avoids the dark.  I saw the ambulance pull away, empty, driving into the distance until it was swallowed by the night sky.    I wanted to cry, but instead I vomited.  The taste of bile and spoiled bitterness scraped my throat and silenced my weep.

My brothers were under the foster care of my grandmother, but I knew the news of Alex’ death would devastate her even kill her.  I pleaded the officer not tell my grandmother anything until I could get my mother and the man I had come to see as my dad to the scene.  My brother David was being held in the apartment where my brother had been killed, he had witnessed it.   I went back to my apartment and pretended that one of the neighbors had experienced a medical emergency.  I calmly went into the room I shared with my grandmother and daughter, picked up the phone, and began to dial numbers to locate my mom, my grandmother was in the kitchen.

What I remember next is standing where the two walls of the apartment building met, shielding my body as if to separate myself from the intrusive pain.  Like a child on the look out for approaching danger, I peaked my head and saw my brother being carried in a black body bag down the stairs through the parking lot.  I could hear my mother’s wailing the way a mother wolf howls at the winter moon to understand her place in the universe.

My brother Alex was shot with a 22-caliber gun through the heart as he was sitting on a friend’s couch in an apartment located just a few feet behind ours.  His friend Roach had been role-playing with the gun and unintentionally shot my brother.

The following is my brother’s brief account of that day:

We had just received our checks for our work through Hire-A-Youth.  Alex worked as a janitor assistant at Smythe Elementary School. We were hanging out with Chris [who lived in the same apartment complex] and had asked his brother to go buy us some beer.  We had been drinking and chillin’.  Then some fools from the Del Sol apartment complex were starting some trouble.  We all got in a car, including Alex’s friend, Roach, and of course stupid, we went to look for them.  Roach had the 22-caliber.  We didn’t find the guys and we ended shooting all the bullets as we were driving around.  When we got back to Chris’s apartment, Alex called a girl he had been seeing.  So Alex was hanging out with his girl in the living room, and David was playing video games with Chris in the bedroom.  I felt like a third wheel, and was tipsy from the beer, so I decided to go back to our apartment to sleep.  I figured all the bullets from the gun had been emptied and there was no need for me to stick around.  Then I remember my mom waking me up and asking me where Alex was.

I don’t know all the events that lead to my brother’s death.  And I want to respect the healing process of those who were deeply affected by his death.  Maybe one day they will choose to tell their story; today I can only tell you mine.

For so long I held on to a tormenting guilt the way the winter skies hold on to pewter-heavy clouds. The weeks leading to my brother’s death, I had begun to notice he was engaging in some risky behavior such as putting alcohol in plastic cups and drinking it at school.  He had begun to work part-time under the Hire-A-Youth project, and I thought this would allow him to become a more responsible young man.  Because we were so close, I used to fulfill a greater part of his desires – from giving him rides to his girl-friends’ houses to picking up his dry cleaned pants to taking him in the middle of the night to buy a carne asada burrito with agua de Jamaica.  He was a charmer and it was hard to say no to him.  It was during this time that I decided that I would no longer give him so many rides, and he would have to purchase a bus pass to learn to get around on his own.  My hope was that he would begin to develop a more self-sufficient attitude, but instead we became distant.  I couldn’t forgive myself.  Once again I had found another justification for my worthlessness.

I did not go to my brother’s wake; I was barely present at his funeral.  Love is a fire, but that day my heart turned into a hardened molten rock.  I was angry at my mom for the times she had kicked my brother out of her bed so some man could sleep in it, I was angry at myself for having abandoned my brother when he most needed me, I was angry at my uncle for the times he had beaten my brother with a closed fist or the times he had lifted my brother off the ground from his ears, I was angry that my brother had been in NA 15 (New Alternatives 15), a temporary social services placement for children, I was angry that he was [we were] never given the chance of a normal childhood!

If I had not stopped giving him rides.  If I had not gone to Tijuana with my grandmother that day.  If our transfer request had been approved by Housing Commission a few weeks earlier (It was approved three weeks after Alex’s death).  If he had stayed in NA-15.  If my mother hadn’t had five children. If our lives had been more stable.  If, If, If, If. . .

My brother died 19 years ago, and I couldn’t understand why.  For many it is difficult to justify a tragedy, especially when they can’t find meaning to it.  Meaning is something you give not something you find.  Making sense of tragedy is up to us.  Through my daughter’s birth I found the power and courage to create a vision for my life.   My brother’s death broke my heart [open], so that I could ultimately understand who I was meant to be.  There was so much pain and anger in our lives, and my brother took it all in.  His death transformed his life and it transformed ours.  I stopped reproaching; I stopped accusing.  Like me, everyone had his or her own journey to heal and forgive, and I had two choices: I either succumbed to the anger and guilt, or I took a chance to redefine my life and offer my daughter and me a more love-filled existence.

This is Alex gently immersing Carmen in the pool.  From the moment she was born, he took great care to support me.  If she was ever restless or agitated, even if it was in the middle of the night, he would immediately wake up and come see what was wrong with her.  And he would sit up with me until I could get her back to bed. There were times only he could get her to go back to sleep.

My Prom. A few weeks after I gave birth to Carmen. Four months before Alex's death.