Viejo Cara de Hacha

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I was in 8th grade, roughly 14 years old.  I lived in San Ysidro, a border town on the U.S./Mexican border.  We moved a lot, but the one thing that had stayed constant in my life was the school I attended.  So when my grandmother, Tita Carmen, finally received approval for low-income housing, we found ourselves in a little apartment in San Ysidro, about 13 miles away, and an hour-and-a-half on public transportation from my school. Every morning, I woke up before the morning star cast its arms across the sky and boarded the trolley no later than 4:45  in order to arrive to school before the bell rang at 7:30.

There were many men that rode the trolley during that time, mostly construction workers and day laborers or men who worked at the naval shipyard. There were also students who woke up earlier than me, who came from Tijuana and went to school on this side of the border, chasing the American dream. Most morning, my Tita walked me to the trolley station, but some morning, the cold made her bones swell up. I got lots of stares, a few cat calls and whistles here and there, but most of the time, I didn’t pay attention and focused on finishing my school work.  Until one day, an older man, whom I perceived to be around fifty or sixty years old, started to harass me.  He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I was like a birthday gift that he couldn’t wait to unwrap.  His eyes glazed over with lustful craving, he’d lurk around the trolley station making sure he was always a few feet away from me.  He’d make noises like psst, psst to catch my attention, and when he’d catch my eye, he’d lick his lips or make some kind of nod with his head.

He started to creep me out enough that I told my Tita about him.  So the very next day, my grandmother accompanied me, but told me to stay a few feet in front of her and to pretend that we weren’t together.  As we anticipated, the old man was waiting for me and began his perverse behavior toward me.  When the trolley arrived, I got on as I always did, but I wasn’t sure where my Tita had gone.  I sat down and as soon as the doors closed, I heard a loud commotion a few seats behind me.  That’s when I saw my grandmother with her cane whacking the shit out of the old man! People all around watched as if frozen onto their seats.  At first I turned back around and pretended not to know what was happening.  I could hear my Tita screaming profanities in spanish. “Pinche viejo cara de Hacha!  Porque no se mete con viejas come yo?  O que, estoy muy vieja, por eso le gustan las muchachitas!  Pinche limon chupado! I was scared for my Tita, but more scared for the man.  He had his hands up in the air, trying to block every blow, screaming, “Ya, senora! No mas!”

A passenger stood up and tried to stop my grandmother, telling her to calm down because she could hyperventilate.  But he was no match for her fierce anger and strength.  So a couple more passengers pulled her off from the old man, and with commanding, sweet language helped her to have a seat, as she loudly justified why the old man deserved to get the shit beat out of him.

He got off at the next stop. So did my Tita.  I don’t know what else happened, and she never talked about it, except to ask me once in a while if I had seen him again.  But I never saw that man, and no one at that station or on the trolley, not so much as looked at me.  That day, my Tita taught me that all women have a roaring tiger inside.  And that it was okay to let him out.

 

*Viejo Cara de Hacha – old man with a face shaped like an ax

Self-Defense

heart

I grew spines on

my heart to protect

her from predators.

.

Creatures lurking

in the shadows of the sun

who would try to

devour her succulent flesh.

.

But my heart is

pulsating, and still

blooms in spring.

.

My flowers are the

inspiration of

those who seek

beauty.

.

They are the fruit

that nourishes the

longing of the seed.

.

The wine that quenches

the thirst

of the parched.

.

My flowers are

my determination

to survive amidst

the calloused landscape.

.

I grew spines on

my heart

and bloomed flowers

on the verge of the

monsoon rains.

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The Q’ewar Project

The Q’ewar poject is a social and economic initiative working with the indigenous women living in the Quechua Community of Q’ewar in Southern Peru.  The women of the Q’ewar Project live in extreme poverty, and for most, this is the first chance they have had to learn skills to earn money in a humane and respectful working environment.  Although the project is young, the original intention to provide the opportunity for these women to improve the difficult conditions of their lives is bearing fruit, little by little.  The project is self-sustainable and everything that has been accomplished by the project has been possible because of the beautiful dolls the women make.

Unlike many of the dolls made with plastic and other toxic materials, the dolls are made with natural fibers from the interior, stuffed with pure sheep’s wool, to the dolls’ hair, made from alpaca yarn.  The women wash, card, and spin the wool used for hair, sweaters and shoes, sewing and knitting all the distinctive clothes. Hand dyed fibers color the hats and the panchos.  Much of the dye used is made from indigenous plants.  The dolls’ clothing reflects a wide variety of styles worn by the rural dwellers.  Most importantly, unlike the mass-produced dolls that companies like Mattel manufacture, these dolls are made with love and joy by the very hands of the women whose lives are being changed by the dolls.  

The Project is located in a beautiful commune-like complex nestled in the hills of Andahuaylillas. As you walk in, the first aspect that catches your attention is the loving and nurturing community that women build as they work surrounded by large windows that let in the healing light of the sun and the beauty of the surrounding landscape.  Here, the women lift each other, teach each other, and inspire each other to be more than they have been treated.

It’s a place where women can recapture their sense of self-worth and confidence, stripped away by centuries of colonization.  In a world in which the Quechua women often suffer marginalization through domestic violence, modern economies, and social systems that perpetuate ethnic discrimination, the Q’ewar Project offers them a space for healing, reconnecting, and building a dignified life. In this beautiful space founded by Don Julio Herrera and his wife Lucy, women are able to come together and act on their concern for creating a more just and moral society.   While engaged in their work,women share personal stories and discuss issues pertaining to child-bearing and rearing, personal and family health, economic stability, sustainable agriculture, access to natural resources, spiritual practices, etc.  Women circles have been around for centuries, and they have been the hub for the sharing of wisdom and solidarity as well as the incubators of transformative ideas and visions.  By teaching and empowering each other, these women, our sisters, are changing the course of how their children will participate and contribute to their community.

 

Qewar4

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I had the honor of listening to some of the stories these inspirational leaders shared.  In telling their stories, they are able to heal and find the strength to continue to transform their lives and the lives of others.  Vilma, one of the women with the most longevity at the project was recently asked, by one of the service learning students I mentored at the project, Alana, if she owned one of the dolls she had hand-made for 13 years. When Vilma responded no, Hanah took it upon herself to purchase a doll for her, and had Vilma select the doll of her choice.  This act of generosity overwhelmed Vilma, but not just for the obvious reason. Vilma lost both of her parents when she was eight years old. As a result, she had to work from a very young age to support herself and her siblings.

The doll Alana gave her was the first doll anyone had given her, and the first doll she had owned.  The doll she had yearned for since she was a child had finally come to her at age 40.  Vilma felt in her heart that her mother’s spirit had nudged Alana’s heart, so that through Alana’s gesture, she could finally give her daughter the doll she had not been able to give her. In this act of kindness, Vilma was not only able to find healing for the little girl inside of her whose childhood had ended so abruptly, but she was also finally able to find closure to her mom’s death, because she had a presentiment that her mom had been with her all along. Witnessing all of this allowed me to see that this is what the magic of life looks like when we are open to it.

Paulina is another woman I met through the Q’ewar project.  I felt drawn to her spirit before I knew I’d become such good friends with her. She had a vibrant spark in her eyes and a confidence that is not commonly observed in the women from Andahuaylillas.  As I began to speak to her and learn about her journey of healing, I became so inspired by her.  In her I saw the journey of liberation and truth I have been on, and that so many beautiful women I know strive everyday to achieve.

She got married at a very young age, 17, and became widowed and a single mother at age 18.  In time she married again, to a man that abused her verbally and repeatedly reminded her that she was “used goods.” He told her she was lucky she had found someone who would want to marry her, especially because she had a son my another man.  In the midst of the abuse, she lost the will to live.  She had lost all understanding of the purpose of life.

Her work at Q’ewar helped her to find that purpose again and have a more concrete vision for the kind of life she wanted to begin to work toward.  We had conversations in which we both held a sacred and respectful space to be able to share some of the most intimate and painful parts of our lives.  One image that she shared with me that was so powerfully imprinted in my mind was one of her sessions with a local psychologists she had begun to visit when she felt she had nothing to live for.

As she sat in his office describing the degrading experiences she lived with her husband, he grabbed her hands and told her she was consumed by fear, so much fear she had forgotten how to live.  He then covered her mouth with his hands and she began to feel a sense of suffocation.  A slow loss of breath, an oppressive heaviness in her chest synonymous to the overwhelming fear that was dictating her life.  He pressed his hands harder against her mouth and nose.  She became agitated and tried to shake her head away with no success, until she gathered enough strength to pull his hands off her mouth and push him away from her.  He then raised his voice at her and asked, “Quien respira por ti! Quien respira por ti! Quien respira por ti!” (Who breathes for you!)  Over and over, until she sreamed back, “Yo, you respiro por mi!” (I breathe for me!)  She now speaks without her voice quivering or her hands shaking.  She says she is not afraid anymore.  Her life is hers to create.

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Like many of the women, when she started working at the Q’ewar project, Paulina wouldn’t look at anyone in the eyes; didn’t feel worthy enough, to.  At Q’ewar she learned about labor laws and just labor conditions.  Simple regulations like keeping track of the hours she worked, understanding full-time and part-time shifts, knowing she had a right to two breaks during an eight-hour shift, and demanding overtime pay when she worked over her eight hours empowered her to demand dignity, both at work and her house.  Here was a seemingly vulnerable, but confident woman starting her own quiet revolution; beginning to assert her truth and demanding the dignity she was born to deserve.

When Don Julio began this project, he hired three women, whom he paid from his own salary as a teacher.  The project now hires over 40 women.  More than 60% percent of the women have been able to build their homes from the sustainable work they do at the project.  Many have also been able to find the self-reliance they needed to leave their abusive spouses.  The Q’ewar project has also expanded into other areas.  They have an on-site kindergarten school, “Wawa Munakuy” (giving love to children – in Quechua),  based on the Waldorf pedagogy, which strives to transform education into an art that educates the whole child – “the heart and the hands, as well as the head.”  The children of the women that work at the Q’ewar project attend the kindergarten school free of charge and are supplied with all the materials they need for learning.  The blueprints for the expansion of the school to include primary grades have already been created, and Don Julio along with supporters are working on raising funds to see this vision come to fruition.  Change happens when opportunities are created for people to empower themselves and have ownership and determination over their lives.

One last anecdote:  One of the students during the last session bought a doll, specifically assembled to reflect the student’s physical features.  When the student saw her doll, she became overwhelmed and welled up with tears.  The women, concerned with her reaction, questioned what was wrong, to which she responded that it was “so beautiful and the first time [she] had a doll that looked like [her].  The student was of Indian heritage and had lived in the United States her whole life, yet it was in this magical place that she finally found the very thing that would allow her, like the women, to rescue a piece of the self-acceptance she had struggled for so long to experience.

To order a girl or boy Village or  Collector’s doll, please contact JoAnne at Dolls@qewar.com or by phone in the U.S. (802)425-4185.  You may also visit the website at http://qewar.com

41 and Timeless

I turn 41 today, but for the first time in my life I feel a glimpse of timelessness.  It’s a very unfamiliar feeling, to not feel of any age.  Sometimes I have this strange sensation of being completely detached from my body.   Other times I feel like a visitor who is just passing by.  There is an ancient knowledge of me that my own body cannot grasp.  A knowledge that my mind tries to contain and mold, as if it were a dam waiting to rupture.  A timelessness in which death is irrelevant, where beginning and end fade into each other in an ever-illusive horizon, and where the aging of my body gives way to the expansion of my soul.

I am like water – I never die – I transform, and take the shape of the creeks and valleys I flow through. I am everything and anything all at once.  My thoughts, the stuff that is constructed by my beliefs and perceptions, are limiting.  But when I stand in the experience of my soul, I can feel my infinity.  It is in experiencing the magic of life that I can subtly grasp my eternal self, thought it feels like trying to grab water with my hand.  I have to just experience it, without trying to hold on to it.

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It’s difficult to explain the feeling of timelessness.  It’s like trying to conceive the ocean one drop at a time or measuring the length of the sky.  It’s an odd occurrence to know that I am and I will always be.  This same knowing is what helped me to reconnect with my grandmother after she transitioned from this life.  Though I can’t touch her anymore, I can feel her essence all around me.

I used to be unable to explain moments when I felt immensely overwhelmed for no apparent reason, other than being present in a moment in time, and I’d begin to cry.  Those moments happen very often now.  Sometimes they come when I ‘m watching an elderly person cross the street, other times when I watch the interaction between a mother and her child, even when I’m contemplating a tree.  I’ve come to understand that those moments are moments in which I feel the infinite wholeness of the universe and I experience my connectedness to everything at a very profound and spiritual level.  In those moments, I understand the meaning of God a little more.

Last year on my birthday, the Google doodle was a hummingbird, and I knew that my 40th year would be an extra special one.  I thought about all the spectacular possibilities.  I went to Costa Rica for the summer, I had the courage to walk away from a career that was not fulfilling anymore, I developed and have been teaching a series of personal growth workshops, and I have a vision for the center that these workshops will ultimately develop into. But the most spectacular event that happened to me was the moment I realized I was more than my body, and that part of me will go on eternally, like a hummingbird, boldly taking on the next stage of my journey.  I remember that moment so clearly, because it was the first time I felt bigger than my body, bigger than all that surrounded me. It was as if I was finally breaking out of myself.  I realized that my limited perception of who I am had been my greatest prison.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thought and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  The delusion is a kind of prison for us restricting us, to our personal desires and to affections for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of [the universe] in its beauty” -Albert Einstein 

I hope to continue to experience this limitless expansion of my soul.  The journey of our lives is to understand that we are more than the existence of our physicalness.  Far after a flower has completed her cycle of life, her presence continues to exist in the wind once entangled with her aroma, in the hummingbird once lured by her sweetness, in the light that once captured her color, and in the hearts that once witnessed her bold and gentle beauty.  Like a flower, after our physical bodies have withered, our presence will exist through the way in which we chose to interact with the world.  It is up to us if we want to be remembered as an aroma or a stench, as sweetness or bitterness, as colorful or faded, as beautiful or ordinary.  As for me, I will continue to linger through the universe as the sultry, tropical aroma of gardenia.

birthdayweekend 12

Thank You

There are parts of

me

I’ve been working

to love.

 

Parts that I

have hidden

from myself.

 plump

You love them

without

reservation;

I wonder,

how?

 .

You feel your

way through

my plumpness,

following every

slope and dip

of my sacred

landscape.

.

The softness

of my belly

doesn’t

intimidate

your hands.

.

You stroke me

as if you

were sculpting

your greatest

work of art.

 .

You undress me

with reverence,

and I stand

bare,

unapologetic,

like a Calla Lily

pulsing at the

verge of spring.

 .

You explore the

topography

of my body

in wondrous

lust, nurturing

the parts of me

I have shamed.

 .

I am exposed to

what I have

concealed,

leaving me with

no other option,

but to love

myself.

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.

Jameelah

Jameelah3

You came into this world

like a ray of sunlight

invading darkness.

Pushing your way through bars

created to keep God out.

 

 

While folks around you

buried themselves under layers

of fear, concrete-heavy,

you allowed your petals to unfold,

bravely showing the world

the essence of your soul.

 

Your love was too great to keep

restrained within a bud.

Despite the perils of winter,

you bloomed, magnificently, under

pewter skies.

 

What some may deem a weed,

is a flower with grit, refusing

to be conquered by her environment.

 

Like a Field Daisy, you root

yourself in the soil of hope,

expanding your rhizomes

like arms reaching for dreams.

 

You are a Queen,

wrapped in an ebony robe,

glittering with star dust

created millions of years ago

as a vision of you.

 

You look deep within the corners

of your flaws, within the crevasses

of your wounds and somehow, every time,

you find the star dust that glitters on your robe.

Remembering you were made radiantly perfect!

 

You shined your way and broke darkness.

You shined your way and exposed day.

Oh, my beautiful Jameelah, you have never

diminished against the fray!

 

Jameelah