Well, summer is officially over and, as usual, it went by in a blur. But in that blur, there were some, as Virginia Woolf described them, “moments of being,” things felt intensely and shot through with awareness.

In June, my daughter Natalie and I spent her birthday in Tijuana and Rosarito, sampling street tacos, drinking strawberry margaritas, and eating mangoes. At the beach in IMG_20180628_132845Tijuana, we looked through the metal bars that mark the border. We thought of my grandmother, Natalie’s great-grandmother, crossing over in 1924. My grandmother became a citizen in 1943. She missed by a decade the mass deportation of undocumented Mexican immigrants during the racist-named Operation Wetback in 1955, though many American citizens were also indiscriminately snatched up in the round-ups. We thought of how our own lives might have been affected had she been caught up in that dragnet. We thought of the migrant families being separated at the border. On the beach in Rosarito, I bought a bracelet that said Fuck Trump.

IMG_20180715_164440In July, I attended the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference as I do most summers. Morning bike rides, afternoon walks on the beach, the tiny monastic room in which to write were all conducive to reflection and revelation. I took a workshop on flash non-fiction. I wrote a little essay about the mango, its fragrant delicious beauty, how it arrived in Mexico from the Philippines, how its history reflects mine.

In August, I spent two weeks at Mineral School, the artist residency located in the tiny town of Mineral in the IMG_20180831_210504foothills of Mt. Rainier. I finished a fourth revision of one novel and polished up the draft of another. Writing and thinking about writing were enhanced by extracurriculars such as ghosts in the building, local lore about the Tube Sock Killer, and an evening at the town tavern with Mineral School staff where we raised a glass or two with one of the locals.

IMG_20180908_134205_2In September, I went to San Diego for my aunt’s 90th birthday celebration. She wore a sash, a tiara and hand-strung leis. She sat at a table with her friends from high school. When the band played “We Are Family,” the five of them got up and danced. I thought of them as teenage girls in high school, then as young women, and then as all the people they would become over their lifetimes – wives, mothers, wage-earners, grandmothers. Once in a while, I would glance at their table and catch one of them in a “moment of being,” a faraway look in her eye, a wistfulness to her posture, and I would think, these are the things I want to write about.

Border crossings, mangoes, ghosts, and family. It was a good summer.

And now comes the fall and October, my month of reading with famous people.

• On October 5, I’ll be reading with Charles Johnson and Jess Walter at the Humanities Washington Bedtime Stories fundraiser at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.
• On October 11, I’ll be reading with Kathleen Alcalá and Jamie Ford at Lit Crawl.
• On October 25, I’ll be at the Moore Theater as part of the Ampersand Live line-up that includes Nikkita Oliver and Davida Ingram.

I’m a lucky, lucky writer.

I’m at Mineral School, an artist residency in the town of Mineral, WA (population 200), just off the highway that leads to Mount Rainier.

IMG_20180819_124401My writing studio and my living space is an old classroom. That’s 800 square feet of classroom, bigger than the apartment my husband and I recently moved into. If I knew how to do cartwheels, I would do them. I settle for doing lunges the length of the classroom while curling dumbbells to my chin. (Note: Dumbbells are not among the many amenities of the classroom. After ascertaining that no one else was using the dumbbells, I temporarily removed them from the school gym to my classroom.)

My bike is parked in a corner, but I could probably ride laps in the classroom. No need because there’s a fit desk (in addition to the traditional teacher’s desk) and I can sit at it and pedal while I edit pages or read a book. IMG_20180819_125324

I never have to fold up my yoga mat because space abounds, and I can drop and do a few vinyasa flows on my way to bed or out the door to the Girls bathroom down the hall. Or I can get up and just pace or skate across the floor in my socks. Sometimes, I just sit and think about writing because there’s space to do that too.

My teacher’s desk faces the window and I can see a jigsaw piece of Mineral Lake through the trees. I can see the steeple of the church. I can watch logging trucks roll by stacked with freshly cut timber going one way and empty going the other.

Every morning at 6:50 a.m. I do a 40-minute bike ride. Sometimes, I stop and take pictures.

Sometimes epiphanies happen on bike rides. Epiphany 1 happened on the first full day of the residency on my first bike ride in Mineral. I got back to my desk and rearranged chapters, cut out a minor and (as it turned out) not-so-pivotal character, and eliminated one of the three points of view.

Epiphany 2 happened on the second full day of the residency, again while on my bike. Did I mention I’m working on two novel manuscripts? It’s because the size of this work space almost demands it. It’s like your brain must expand to a space commensurate with the size of the room. This second epiphany showed me the reason for this other novel’s existence and led me to a structural fix. This novel is the perfect manuscript to be working on in a classroom, since many of the scenes take place in school or at least a schoolyard – like these excerpts in The Adirondack Review and Santa Ana River Review.

So far, no Epiphany 3. Maybe the rule is one epiphany per manuscript. Or one epiphany on average per week of residency. But, hey, in this space, anything can happen.

The Mineral School residency was founded and is run by the very smart and wryly funny Jane Hodges who is also performing chef duties during this August residency. Every meal has been delicious, and at every meal I eat a lot because, you know, sitting at a desk for much of the day squeezing out words is a calorie-burning enterprise.

Not all residency time need be spent at a desk. Inspiration time can be spent in pursuits such as

  • a late-night walk to the cemetery to gaze at stars with Jess Martin, Mineral School board member, teacher, marketer, and outdoors woman who knows a lot about a lot.
  • a Tarot reading. Yay for wands in golden light, boo for swords and the anguish of indecision, yay for golden cups that are upright and receptive to gifts.
  • an excursion to the Ashford Creek Pottery and Gallery where the owner Rick Johnson, a lover of Northwest art, gave a personal tour of his collection that includes photos by Mary Randlett, and paintings by Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa, Kenneth Callahan, Amy Nikitani, and James Martin. Johnson also has a collection of books and artifacts about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
  • a visit to Mount Rainier!IMG_20180823_133721 (1)

All of the above and more are made possible by the volunteer staff, which during this residency, includes

  • the charismatic Urban Waite, “a good guy who writes evil things,” who was dorm dad for the first week of this residency.
  • the luminous Katy Hannigan, Artist Trust program manager, who is doing dorm mom duty this week, and also shedding light on the grants application process in a workshop in nearby Morton.

And of course, a residency provides the opportunity to meet other artists. Check out the work of my fellow residents, essayist and memoirist Judy Bolton-Fasman, poet Linda Malnack, and visual artist Gage Opdenbruow.

Applications for next year open December 15. Donations to support this residency can be made here.

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Thanks to a grant from 4Culture, I’ve made progress on my next novel. The working title is OFELIA AND NORMA, based on the main characters. The novel grew from my short story “Strong Girls,” which was first published in Calyx in 2008, anthologized in 2016, and included in my short story collection HOLA AND GOODBYE, also published in 2016.

“Strong Girls” is the story of large and ungraceful twin girls. When they’re recruited for the boys’ wrestling team in high school, their relationship as sisters is challenged and they question their individual identities. But just as they are about to destroy each other on the mat as opponents, the strength of their relationship saves them. The story ends on a positive note. But what happens to these characters beyond that story? What sustains them as they venture farther out into the world, sometimes without each other, sometimes with each other, but always subjected to cultural pressures about who they should be and what they should look like?

My novel takes the reader through the travails of these two young women who, in a world of eating disorders and gender and racial stereotypes, struggle for and achieve a sense of self, affirm their ties to each other and family, and define their place in the world.

This novel marks the first time I have taken characters from a previous work to further explore their needs, wants, and conflicts in a larger and more expansive narrative. While the story was told from one character’s point of view, the novel is told from two points of view – Ofelia’s and Norma’s.

On July 28 from 1:30 to 3:00 pm, I will host an event at the White Center branch of the King County Library. I’ll read short excepts from the novel, engage the audience in discussion of its themes of body image, identity, and sisterhood, and offer some writing prompts. I look forward to an afternoon of talking about themes, character, and other aspects of craft with readers and writers alike.

 

It’s a pile-on of abuse – children torn from their parents at the border, women’s reproductive rights incrementally eroded, health care revoked, environmental protections stripped away. It’s violence upon people (mostly black and brown), country, and planet that is built upon or supported by the daily lies that pour forth from the rumpled lips of the self-involved know-nothing occupying the White House. We suffer outrage overload, we slump from news fatigue, and we carry on. We go to work, we work out, prepare meals, watch Netflix, and go to bed, hoping, dreaming that something somehow will return us to normalcy – you know, the regular levels of racism, sexism, and disregard for the land.

A friend recently posted on Facebook of her own sense of hopelessness about the devastation to the country and the wreckage to the soul. She asked how others cope. Self-care through spiritual practices, humor, and kindness, some responded. Practical steps such as registering voters, and non-political activism such as teaching kids to read or helping people displaced by disaster, others said.

And then there’s art. And belief in the future. The two came together for me recently.

grid-image-largeEarlier this month, I attended the Inside Out In-Residence Showcase in which the four Town Hall artists-in-residence reflected on the events they had curated over the last six months. Photographer Peter DiCampo’s events emphasized the power of the everyday. For one of his event’s, graphic artist Erik Molano invited notable locals to reflect on a neighborhood’s past and discuss how to shape its future. Writer and educator Jordan Alam’s work revolved around the body’s physical memories. Poet and cross-media artist Shin Yu Pai’s approach to her events are summed up beautifully in her own words:

I believe in the power of the arts to facilitate sense-making and dialogue and to inspire radical empathy…to reveal forgotten or buried narratives that illuminate what it is to be human together.

One of Shin Yu’s events featured writer Kathleen Alcala speaking on “History is an Act of the Imagination,” which took place on April 13. After her talk, I joined Kathleen onstage to have a conversation with her about, among other things, the past and present, the living and dead, and faith and science, and how they coexist.

Ana BC CanadaIn keeping with this theme, we had planned to open a letter to the future my daughter Ana had written in 1999 when she was ten years old. Earlier this year, my husband and I were preparing to sell our house, which we had lived in for thirty-four years. We had nearly emptied it of our belongings when Ana emailed me asking me to rescue something she had hidden in the stairs, certain that the buyer of the house would strip and rebuild and the thing she had hidden would be demolished. She said she had put it there in the hopes that the next child who lived in the house would find it. I lifted the tread of the step and found a cookie tin, which contained, among other artifacts, her letter to the future, sealed with a stamp and with instructions not to open it until the year 3010. (Ana granted me permission to open the letter ahead of 3010.)

We ran out of time at Kathleen’s event so the letter to the future remained sealed. Shin Yu invited me to open the letter during her recap of her residency at the artists-in-residence showcase on June 7.

It was in the context and spirit of the residency themes – art and social justice, art and the power of the everyday, and art and our humanness – that I read my daughter’s letter to the future. Ana’s consent to my unsealing the letter and reading it out loud came with the caveat that should it contain anything too personal or embarrassing, I was to stop reading. I agreed, though I was sure that the words of a ten-year-old girl could be nothing but sincere and true.

letterThe letter to the future turned out to have been written on a ready-made form from a kit. It consisted of Ana’s responses to three prompts. Here’s what we learned that evening:

• The best things in her life are her family and her cats (she mentioned all of us, including the cats, by name).
• Her personal goals for the future are to be a soccer player, a singer, or an actress because they are all very important things.
• Her wishes for the future of the world are for “people to stop ‘puluting’ the planet and for people to stop killing, hating, and hurting.”

Ana is 28 years old now. She is not a soccer player, singer, or actress. She’s applying her strength and creativity in other ways. With a master’s degree in regional development and environmental policy, she is pursuing a research project in the Amazon basin in Ecuador to assist the local communities in developing a disaster preparedness plan. Among her friends is a doctor from the Dominican Republic who spends half his time in the jungle serving indigenous populations. She is helping Ecuadorian friends conduct interviews in a Kitchwa community for an animated book of oral legends. She’s writing an article on cultural appropriation for a local magazine for which she also does translation.

Ana Natalie Oly PeninsulaWhen my daughters were little, I had only a few ambitions for them. I wanted them to be educated. I wanted them to be good people. I wanted them to happy. They’re both educated and they’re both good people. The happiness part is trickier. Here’s what I think is true though. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, but you can’t even hope to be happy unless you’re a good person.

The ones separating families at the border are not good people. And there is no goodness in  controlling women’s bodies, taking away health care, and endangering our planet and our future by denying science for the sake of profits.

Yes, we’re weary of the onslaught of injustices. Let’s resist, in whatever way we can, the lies. Use art – literature, music, theater, photography, whatever kind of art – to, as Shin Yu Pai says, “inspire radical empathy.” Let’s reveal and further the narratives “that illuminate what it is to be human together.”

 

You could say I asked for it, that I knew what I was getting into. Still, I went. To the San Miguel de Allende Writers’ Conference. I wrote about it in a previous post. I’d long known about the conference. And I’d long wanted to experience San Miguel de Allende, its picturesque cobblestone streets, its markets, its artesanías. I did love the city.

I did not love the conference. I didn’t hate it either. I got what I expected, what some had warned me about. A very white conference in the heart of Mexico. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I attended some very useful sessions, but there were others that were a reminder of its whiteness, its clueslessness about racism and cultural appropriation.

I sat with the experience for weeks when it occurred to me to return to the conference website. The deadline to apply to be faculty for the next conference was a day away. Having attended a half-dozen sessions at the recent conference, I was convinced that workshops I’d taught at other venues were of the caliber of the San Miguel conference. I submitted my proposal and emphasized my intent to use examples from works by writers of color, noting the lack I’d encountered in my recent experience at the conference.

A couple of weeks ago I received my rejection letter from the conference. A form letter, of course, that lamented the need to turn down so many of the 250 proposals that were submitted for the 70 sessions. They suggested I apply again next year.

I get it. I’ve been rejected many times for many things. My response most often is to shrug it off and move on, or as I was invited to do, to apply again. But there was something about this rejection that I couldn’t so easily shrug away. I decided to write back to the organizers and tell them why I had been compelled to submit a proposal.

I wrote about what it felt like to be one of the few writers of color at an overwhelmingly white conference. I described the unsatisfactory response from the all-white agent/editor panel when I asked what they were doing to increase representation in the publishing industry. I described the racist text one faculty member used to convey an example of humor. I talked about the missed opportunity in the travel writing workshop to discuss colonialist or racist perspectives when white people write about being in countries of brown or black people. I wrote that I had wanted to bring my perspective as a writer of color to the conference. I ended by saying, “Of those proposals that were accepted for the 2019 conference, I’m hoping there were some from writers of color. Otherwise, your conference will continue to be representative only of white writers and white experiences – a white bubble of American privilege in a country of brown people.”

I got a reply the next day, bubbly and breathless in its defense of their desire and efforts to be diverse. She listed all the brown and black people they had featured as keynote speakers over the years. She assured me that the list of general faculty was even more impressive. She described the Spanish-language element of the conference and its Mexican faculty. She expressed regret that “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers.”

She ended with, “If you know of writers of color whom you can encourage to apply to teach at our Conference, please do encourage them to apply. We need more applications from people of color.”

Could I possibly let this go? I wrote back that their response was lacking because their effort was lacking. I made the following points:

  • The Spanish language aspect of their program taught by Mexican faculty was fundamental for any conference held in Mexico and was separate from the issue of diverse representation of general faculty and participants.
  • A look at their website is evidence of how few faculty of color outside of the Spanish-language program they invite.
  • A genuine effort to diversify their faculty would involve getting to know writing communities of color and actively recruiting their members to teach at their conference.
  • Saying “Unfortunately, we receive very few proposals from African American or Asian writers” is lazy and shows a lack of commitment to true representation.
  •  A commitment would involve a public statement on their website of their intent to increase diversity of both faculty and participants. The statement would include assurance of respect for race, culture, and class so that the racism and microaggressions, which I mentioned in my email but which they failed to acknowledge, would be rarer and would be addressed when brought to their attention.
  • Diversity doesn’t happen by wishing for more applications from African American or Asian American writers. Nor does it happen by asking someone whose application they rejected to do the work for them by asking her to encourage her colleagues of color to apply.

I got no breathless and bubbly response this time. I got no response at all. When conference organizers say they’re working hard to be diverse and you as a person of color who has experienced their conference tells them, “No, you’re not,” and tells them why they’re not, and the conference organizers stop talking to you, well, what else is new?

As for the photos in this post, they’re indicative of the fact that I took hardly any photos at the conference, focusing my camera instead on the sights of interest outside of it.

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As my husband and I were finishing up weeks of sorting, recycling, and tossing many of our possessions and packing what was left, and the old house was nearly empty and we were days away from leaving a life of blown fuses, roof leaks, the chill from a broken furnace, and other woes of an infirm abode, I got an email from our younger daughter in Ecuador.

I left a tin box under the bottom stair when I was a kid thinking the next kid would find it. But given the high probability the next owner will be taking a wrecking ball to the house, maybe you should collect it before selling.

So, we lifted the tread of the bottom stair and there it was: A Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit Cookies tin. I hadn’t known about this liftable tread in all the thirty-four years I went up and down those stairs to wake up, scold, placate, or say goodnight to our daughters. I didn’t think twice about the hollow sound of that bottom step. It was just one of those idiosyncrasies of an old house whose seams were slowly separating. Of course, it was one of those things a not quite ten-year-old would know about.

I opened the tin and atop an assortment of artifacts –  a jumble of Canadian and American coins, a little pewter case with yet more coins, and photos of the family and our cats – there was this:

IMG_20180416_194520

It stirred nostalgia and delight for that ten-year-old girl. Ache for that lost innocence. And a kind of sacredness toward this act that was meant to connect a ten-year-old girl to another child far into the future. A future when my ten-year-old would herself be long gone if the letter lasted into the year 3010. But when we rescued the tin from oblivion, from possible destruction by a sledge hammer or even heavy machinery in 2018, we also removed it from the realm of the future. The future is now, nineteen years after Ana hid the cookie tin under the stair.

It seemed too unceremonious to unseal the letter to the future there in our nearly empty house. It deserved preamble, witnesses other than ourselves, a communal appreciation.

Kathleen Alcalá suggested I open it at the Town Hall Inside Out event at which she was to deliver a talk on “History as an Act of the Imagination,” after which I would join her onstage to interview her. My daughter consented to this venue for unsealing the letter to the future. It seemed to fit with the theme of the evening – researching the past, connecting it to the present, and helping us to imagine the future.

We added it to the program, even publicly announced it on social media. We had a plan. But there is always the possibility that things will not go as calculated. The conversation takes a turn, the timing is off, the cue does not materialize, and the moment is lost. All of that happened. The evening was a success without it.

The disappointment at not opening the letter was fleeting. When I thought about it, I concluded that for whatever reason, that evening was not the time and place for finding out what Ana wrote to the future.

The future had not yet arrived. And that was fine with me.

Ana bridge2

Many years ago, I left my laptop open and my younger daughter read the story I happened to be working on. She asked, “Why did you make me a boy in that story.”

“It’s not about you,” I answered.

Another time she asked why I killed her off in a story. It’s not about you, I said again.

But one time I wanted to fictionalize a true incident involving her and a dead rat. She was reluctant, but she agreed and signed over permission for me to write about the rat incident, but only once. Recently, as I was purging old files, I came across that contract.Ana's rat story note

The story is still unpublished. It needs work, but I haven’t had time to revise it. It has sat dormant for years. But it might never have been written in the first place.

A few years after I’d started writing, I considered giving it up. Not forever. Just until I could retire from my job, which at the time seemed like forever.

I was in my early forties, in the decade which my doctor at the time described as the worst in a woman’s life. I worked full-time. My husband was starting his business. Our children, though still young, would reach puberty right about the time I became perimenopausal.

Prior to having children, we had bought a sad house that we thought we could fix, but money, time, and patience were always in short supply. We lived in a house that we could never love. Things broke. Sometimes they were fixed or replaced. Sometimes not. We did what we could.

Life was stressful. Overwhelming. And yet I wanted to write. But. Life was stressful. And overwhelming. The thought of setting aside writing until the kids were grown and I qualified for Medicare added to the stress. I feared that the thing that drove me to write – the sense that something was missing in my life – would come back and settle on my chest or stomach or throat, someplace that would make it hard for me to breathe.

It was my father who convinced me not to give up writing. My father who was already dead – who died eight months after I enrolled in my first fiction writing class back in 1992 – came to me in a dream. Keep going, he said. Don’t stop.

So, I kept going.

And now it’s 2018. In April, I’ll complete my thirtieth year at my job. In June, I’ll turn 65. In December, I’ll retire. We are selling the house. We have gradually emptied it of its contents, so it echoes when we walk and there’s a loneliness in its bare walls. I am only a little sad for it.

Soon I will have more time to write and we will live in a different place and I will finish the rat story.

Gravitational pull
I hadn’t been to Mexico since 1976 when I attended a summer session in Guadalajara after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology. I signed up for Mexican History and Intermediate Spanish but spent most of the time hanging out with a Chicana from L.A. We had spotted each other the first day across the patio and immediately headed toward one another. Call it a gravitational pull.

Three birds with one conference
IMG_20180213_091615_174I never meant for so much time to pass before returning to Mexico, but thirty-two years can pass in a bat of an eye out of hell. Speaking of an eye, I had had mine on the San Miguel Writers Conference for a while, mostly because it was in San Miguel de Allende, known for its picturesque streets, vividly colored buildings, and significance in the war of independence from Spain. It was a place for inspiration, and I was all in for that. I wanted a three-fer with this conference: learn new things about writing, explore a beautiful city, and write.

Frida, a pink bedstead, and mangoes
IMG_20180212_165427I rented a small room with a kitchen less than a ten-minute walk from the conference hotel. The only drawback was the lack of natural light which lent a slight mustiness to the air. But the Frida Kahlo portrait on the wall above the pink iron bedstead and the ripe mangoes I kept in a bowl on the counter freshened the space. Each morning, I ate a mango, bade Frida adios, and headed off to the conference.

What I learned – the good
The session on scene mechanics was a good reminder to me to turn my exposition-heavy first draft of a new novel into real-time events. The overview class of the different movements of modernism in art and literature gave me new ways to experiment with my writing, and the flash prose class provided masterful examples to study.

A panel on writing and activism featured the journalist Felipe Restrepo Pombo, whose first teacher was Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Art is a political act by nature, he said. The act of writing is an act of empathy. Politics and empathy are evident in his introduction to The Sorrows of Mexico, a collection of reportage by seven Mexican journalists on such issues as the drug cartels, teenage prostitution, and the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa.

What I learned – the bad
I had hoped to get more from the travel writing class, but the best nugget was dropped in the first minute of the session when the instructor shared the fascinating finding that the brain is most active when one is wandering around an unfamiliar city. A good thing to know for those of us negotiating the  streets of San Miguel for the first time. Also a good thing to know that would’ve been worth mentioning is how travel writing is different from other types of essay writing. Otherwise, why call the session travel writing? And this too: How does one avoid being patronizing, colonialist, or racist when writing about another country and culture? A most appropriate perspective given that overwhelmingly the session participants were white Americans in Mexico.

What I learned – the ugly
I attended the agent panel because sometime in the near future, I will be seeking an agent for my new novels (I have two in the works). I took few notes because I was fidgety and distracted by a glaring omission in the makeup of the panel, one I’m sure was evident to few others in the room. It was an all-white panel. Of course, they were speaking to a mostly white audience. Nevertheless, I pointed out the exclusion of writers of color. Whenever people are challenged on a point about race and diversity, they get defensive and focus on the wrong thing – like saying everyone gets rejections or that white writers featuring protagonists of color in their work are having a hard time getting published too.

I went to the class on humor writing, hoping to find some comic relief. Also, because I occasionally teach a class called “Dissolving or deepening tension with humor,” I wanted to see what I could learn from someone else’s class. What I learned is that two people will approach the same subject differently. Whereas, the instructor of this class used examples from P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, mine come from work by Lorrie Moore and Antonya Nelson. A gender difference, yes. But also a difference in terms of where the focus is on the spectrum of humor – the one-liner at one end and conceptual humor arising from incongruous behaviors at the other end. I’m all for the one-liner – as long as it doesn’t offend.

But here’s an example of humor the instructor used from a Bill Bryson book:

And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years, haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?

Am I alone in thinking that this is racist? Am I alone in thinking that using this as an example will encourage others in the room to follow it and perpetuate racist humor? Should I have mentioned this in class or brought it up with the instructor privately later? Probably. But this class followed the agent panel where I had stood up in front of fifty or sixty people and pointed out the lack of diversity in the room that was reflective of the publishing industry in general. So, yeah, I was done with that for the day.

After lunch
IMG_20180213_120346I left the conference after lunch each day and walked around the city, browsed the markets, peeked inside shops. Three of the eight evenings I enjoyed dinner with friends. The other evenings, before writing in my windowless room under Frida’s gaze, I made dinner in my little kitchen, or I found a quiet little place to eat alone and watch the foot and car traffic pass by.

Ex-pats
There are a lot of Americans in San Miguel, which is to say, white Americans. They buy homes and retire there. The women wear Mexican scarves and blouses to blend in with their surroundings. The men unironically wear t-shirts that say Make America Mexico Again.

Gravitational pull redux
A friend has rechristened the city San Miguel de América because of the ubiquity of the expats, which is why when I spotted a group of young, brown American men in front of 28061751_10159906829100363_3149448228190315555_ome as I walked to my casita one afternoon, it was like seeing family. I greeted them, pointed them to the centro and headed on my way. The next day, I was delighted to run into them at the mercado and we greeted each other again. The day after that a friend drove me to the hot springs. I was relaxing in one of the pools, my face to the sun and my eyes closed, when I heard someone say, “Hey, that’s her.” It was the young men again. This time we exchanged names and chatted and hung out because some invisible force was bringing us together. Like the gravitational pull that led me and the L.A. Chicana to each other in Guadalajara in 1976.

Ambiance
On my last afternoon there, a Sunday, I found a space on a bench between two solitary Mexican men in the main plaza. They wore cowboy boots and hats. Their faces were weathered, their mustaches showing gray. The one on my right drank a Corona. Each nodded to me as I sat down. Mariachi music reached us from a nearby café, church bells pealed. Strolling gente left bits of conversation fluttering in their wake. In our individual and shared solitude, the caballeros and I watched life in San Miguel de Allende.IMG_20180218_160008

 

We’re downsizing. We’re cramming books, clothes, and kitchen paraphernalia into boxes and bags for multiple trips to Goodwill. Ruthless and unsentimental has been my modus operandi. But then I came to the file cabinet.

I blithely tossed reams of paper into the recycling bin – mostly early drafts of stories. I did feel a pang at chucking those self-conscious, overly written, and earnest bits of narrative. As for the other filed-away relics, it’s been hard to sort out what to keep and what to toss. Ruthless and unsentimental doesn’t work for the miscellaneous chunks of my life stuffed in these hanging folders. TOSS or KEEP is practically an existential dilemma. What would you do with these?

Parenting articles like this one that remind you of your ineptness or cluelessness: Fresh Warnings on the Perils of Piercing – Did I read this before or after younger daughter snuck out to get her navel pierced at age 14? TOSS?

Notes from family meetings 1994, samples from Agenda Item 3 – Issues: When going to the bathroom in the middle of the night, no need to wake up your parents; don’t hit, kick, or punch people; don’t forget to flush the toilet; change your underwear; take a bath at least twice a week. KEEP

Pet rat respiratory treatment bill, followed by pet rat euthanasia bill 2003. (RIP Tiffani, sister of Biffani who preceded her in death, the first of the sibling rats to succumb to lung infection.) KEEP TOSS KEEP

A story by daughter Ana written when she was five that started like this: Once upon a time there was a mother chicken. She stepped on her eggs and two chicks came out and there was a storm and they got hit by lightning and they died. KEEP

The list of questions I asked Jane Hamilton when I interviewed her for Talking Fiction on KCMU public radio in 1995 when she was on tour for A Map of the World. KEEP

Color illustration of frog anatomy from the Lionel Toy Corporation dissection kit I received for Christmas when I was eleven. How had I kept this all these years? TOSS KEEP

A graduate school paper I wrote in 1979 called “Dialectal Variation and the Ethnocentric Bias,” which opens like this: Political and economic power has been the determinant of language dominance and status in almost any given situation involving colonizer and colonized. Indigenous cultures frequently were relegated to an inferior state and in their subservient role as a colonized people began to question the value of their own language, the most overt reflector of cultural ideas. I listed the Philippines as an example. The professor gave me an A+, called it a magnificent paper, said I should try to get it published. I never did try. It seemed a farfetched idea – me published. KEEP

Daily daycare report for daughter Natalie when she was three: Natalie heard Anthony and Jonathan talk about what they wanted to be when they grow up (astronaut and fireman) and she said she wanted to be Ernie when she grows up. – As in Bert and Ernie. I love that she wanted to be a Muppet. KEEP KEEP KEEP

A note signed by my husband and children congratulating me on my first ever literary grant award – $7500 from the Seattle Arts Commission in 1997, a heaping serving of support and confidence. KEEP

A copy of a letter I wrote to my father soon after his cancer diagnosis in June 1992 that included these words: Even though you’re my father, there’s lots I don’t know about you. KEEP

Things I jotted down from a Sherman Alexie poetry workshop that reads like a poem:
Have no self-consciousness, no ceremony when you write
Don’t have agendas
Think line by line
Don’t be afraid to destroy your poems over and over again
Be in the business of remodeling  KEEP

I recently spent eight days in the Philippines. That’s eight days out of 64 years of my life. I’ve made a list of over a dozen topics I want to write about. Is it arrogantly absurd that the topics number more than the days I was there? How do I swoop in and out of a country and expect anything I write to have depth or meaning? Will I conjure things that don’t exist? Will my desire for connection slurry into wishful thinking?

Will I simplify? Objectify? Distort? Will my privilege cause me to sentimentalize or condescend? Will my memories fade over time or will they concretize into a stilted moment without context?

At night I lie awake, brain waves spiking with thoughts of how oceans separate families, how war and economic oppression drive migration, how colonization obliterates, enriches, and confounds cultures. How a Spanish galleon connected the two lands of my heritage – the Philippines and Mexico. How that most succulent and luscious of fruits – the mango – made its way from Manila to Acapulco and when I slide its sweet pulp in my mouth, slurp its juices off the pit and pull its threads from my teeth and swallow, I am eating my own history.

How social media can make an ocean a little less wide and deep, and a history more accessible. How it enabled members of a family to reconnect after years of being lost to each other.

How.

This summer I’m going to one of my favorite places – the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. I’ve signed up for a workshop on writing flash non-fiction – the perfect fit for my flash Philippines sojourn. I will write myriad little flashes from my blink-of-an-eye experience.

In the meantime, here are some photos – static moments of being that hold glimmers of stories that I will someday write.

Here’s the sign that greeted me at the Manila airport. I apologized inwardly for having taken so long to get there.

MabuhayHere are day and night time views of Manila from the condo we rented for a few days in Malate. We looked out the balcony first thing each morning and last thing at night. We could hear the traffic of this pulsing, nerve-wracking, electrifying, and fascinating city all the way from the 50th floor.

Here I am with my daughter Natalie, an excellent travel companion. I’ve already posted elsewhere the good pictures of us together, so here’s one on the volcano island in the middle of Taal Lake. A goat appears to be coming out of my ass. I am a mythical creature in a spirit land. With Natalie

Here’s the precious gift my sweet cousin Malou gave me. This pen belonged to her mother, my father’s sister, the sibling who survived the longest of the children of my Filipino grandparents, Rosendo Miscolta and Donata Tiongkiao. I never got to meet Tita Melia. She passed away a month before my visit. Malou had my name engraved on the pen and now a triangle is etched on my heart. My father did crossword puzzles. I learned that Melia did too, maybe with this pen. And guess who does the NYT crossword every day? Hint: Me.

Pen

Here’s me riding in a jeepney in Las Piñas as James Lazarra, a proud Las Piñero, tells me about the history of his (and my father’s) hometown.

In Jeepney

Tionquiao, also spelled Tiongkiao, is a common name in Las Piñas. On my father’s side, I am a Miscolta and a Tiongkiao.  If you’re a Tiongkiao, your origins lie in Las Piñas, James Lazarra says.

Tionquiao

Here’s me on what seems to be a duck ramp. I scooted down to scoop some seawater into a small vial. The next time I’m in San Diego, CA, I will sprinkle Las Piñas water on my father’s grave. I also scraped some soil from the plant bed at the entrance to the jeepney company. I will sprinkle this Philippine soil on his grave as well.

Water sample

These are views from James Lazarra’s office just above Plaza Quezon and Padre Diego Cera Street in Las Piñas. My father and grandfather walked these streets.

And here I am gazing at the street below. Thanks to Natalie for capturing this moment —  more than a glimmer,  more than a flash. On the brink of forever.

Looking at street