Thursday, May 28, 2020

Some Birthdays Bring Cheers, Others Bring Fear

Image Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019).

My nephew celebrated his fourteenth birthday this week. It came on the heels of the “liberal” white woman in Central Park who called the cops on a Black man when he asked her to leash her dog in an area of the park where leashing dogs is required. She donned her best frantic voice and lied to the dispatcher about him attacking her as he calmly recorded her antics. That same week, four police officers in Minneapolis used undue force to asphyxiate a Black man accused of writing a bad check. Both instances were not only blatantly racist but showcased how remarkably dangerous this country is for Black men. Every time an instance such as this one, or the list of other times innocent Black and Brown men have been murdered with no consequences for their killer, my mind immediately goes to my nephew.

He is a beautiful deep brown with curious dark eyes, wonderfully curly hair, a deepening voice and is most likely on the cusp of a growth spurt. Like other boys his age, he loves sports, spending time with his friends, and asserting his independence. All of these qualities are perfectly normal for kids his age. The difference is that the more he grows, the deeper his voice, the more of a menace he becomes even if he isn’t doing anything menacing. With every year we celebrate his life, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll get to celebrate another one. That fear often overshadows the milestones he looks forward to, as all kids do. Will he get to play a sport on his high school team? Will I see him all dressed up for a homecoming dance? Will he get to rent a tux and take awkward photos that we’ll laugh about as we reminisce about his prom? I hate to admit that I don’t like to think about those moments for fear they’ll be ripped away if he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But these days, what exactly is the wrong place at the wrong time when Black and Brown people have been murdered by law enforcement in their own homes — their own beds while they slept? Of course our family has talked to him about all the factors we hope will help him survive an encounter with the police or angry white people: don’t talk back; keep your hands where they can see them at all times; don’t raise your voice; never make any sudden moves; and never ever run. I wonder how many of my friends who love and raise white boys have had those same conversations. How many of them fear their sons and nephews might be stopped on the street by a cop or citizen vigilante for no reason and be buried three days later. Do their hearts speed up at every headline of a young male murdered for doing mundane things like going for a run, playing with friends in a park, or walking down the street with iced tea and Skittles the way I do? Have they ever hugged them goodbye and taken a mental photo of their skin and tried to memorize their smell in case that is their last hug? Have they ever hesitated to talk about their sons’ or nephews’ futures for fear of painting a picture they are afraid may never happen?

These were the thoughts I had when thinking about his fourteenth birthday. I also remembered the day he was born. He was the first baby born to our family in a few decades. I lived two blocks from the hospital so I walked there on a beautiful spring day. I felt nervous to meet the first little person who would call me their aunt. Having had a close relationship with my aunts, I didn’t take the role lightly. I felt a strong responsibility to protect him the moment I saw his tiny body swaddled in the hospital baby blanket. I wanted to be his friend, ally and confidant as my aunts had been to me. My aunts influenced my childhood in so many ways and I wanted to do the same for him. I envisioned sleepovers where I spoiled him with too many treats, and birthdays and holidays where I gifted him elaborate, over-the-top-totally-unnecessary gifts. I wanted to see him marvel at the world and have experiences I never had. I looked forward to having the types of conversations I had with my aunts, where I looked for advice or asked them to help me figure out how to approach my mom about something important to me. More than anything, I looked at his tiny face and wanted everyone who met him to love him instantly, the way that I did. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could purposely hurt this perfectly made little human.

While I love to see the man he is becoming, with his natural inclination to help others and keen eye for business, there are people out there who could and would willingly snuff out his life and then go home and enjoy a roast with their families as if nothing happened.

It infuriates me that the loss of his chubby cheeks and toothless smile means that others view him as a threat simply for existing. He is guilty until proven innocent, even if innocence comes post-mortem, as many other Black and Brown boys who came before him — from Emmett Till to Treyvon Martin, and Antonio Arce. When I look at him, I see an ambitious entrepreneur who likes to tell jokes and is fiercely protective of his younger cousins. In his smile I see my sister, my dad and myself. In his eyes I envision all the things a young man should see in his lifetime — a life lived in freedom that spans decades. Yet, I am reminded every day that the likelihood of his future playing out as I imagine — as he deserves, will be a struggle he will battle every day.

The reality of his life’s trajectory is that he is highly likely to be stopped and suspected of a crime and be punished a lot more harshly for whatever discretion he is accused of. In the simplest of acts he will be judged as hazardous and whether guilty or innocent, will face harsher-than-necessary consequences, including wrongful death at the hands of people who do not value his life. While I love to see the man he is becoming, with his natural inclination to help others and keen eye for business, there are people out there who could and would willingly snuff out his life and then go home and enjoy a roast with their families as if nothing happened. It not only worries me into anxious fits, it disgusts me to my core.

Seeing videos and reading about the incessant inhumane treatment of Black and Brown people is poisonous to my soul. It pervades the very fabric of everything around me. Like a venom, it travels through me and leaves me tired, hurt and dumbfounded. How do humans dare decide that other humans are not as fit as they to inhabit this earth? How do they justify creating systems across all spectrums of life that unabashedly hurt others? Where do they find the heartlessness to inflict pain on others who have not hurt them in any way?

As these questions swirl in my head and I struggle to carry the heaviness of hopelessness it brings, I am asked to give guidance to those who want to help. I am expected to be forgiving and to accept excuses ranging from, “If only he would have done what the cop/angry white person demanded of him, none of that would have happened,” to, “Black on Black crime is bad, too.” I am expected to be comforted with thoughts and prayers from people who could not inconvenience themselves to work for a change to the systems and lifestyles that fed into the violence to begin with. I am invited to participate in vigil after vigil, protest after protest when what is really needed is for people who do not look like me or my nephew to make changes that go beyond posts on social media and prayer-hand emojis.

And please don’t ask me what you can do as a white person to help this situation. Google that shit like you would a sourdough bread recipe and do what countless people of color have been asking of you for ages. Follow the advice and recommendations of the scholars and advocates who have devoted their lives to fighting injustice and bigotry and do the things that seem the most radical and uncomfortable to you because what is happening to kids like my nephew is some of the most radical and uncomfortable and deadly shit you can imagine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

I Drank Half My Weight in Water for a Month with Unexpected Results

We’ve all heard that eight glasses of water per day is ideal for a bunch of different health benefits. It’s vital to human survival and over half our body is composed of water. It’s been studied and refuted and new claims about the benefits of water are made almost weekly. I’ve been told to drink more water for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I have never liked water. While that is probably the most classist, privileged thing I’ve ever written, it’s true. As a kid, when I would tell my mother that I was thirsty, she’d say, “Drink some water,” and I would get upset. I saw it as a punishment. Why would I want to drink water when there is so much liquid deliciousness out there? I wanted my water to share space with food coloring, lots of sugar and some bubbles. 

As a fat kid, my mom worried about my health and would try to come up with creative ways to get me to drink water, or she’d refrain from buying the soda and juice I loved. Most times, all I had to choose from was milk or water. I always chose milk. Even when I was a sweaty mess from playing outside all day, water was not appealing. The only time I remember being excited to drink water and doing so voluntarily was when I’d drink it straight from a garden hose in the yard. Yes, it was gross but at the time, especially when I was one of half a dozen kids drinking from that same hose, it was somehow sweet and satisfying. 

As I became a more health conscious adult, I bought fancy water bottles with cute sayings and carried them around in hopes of consuming more water. Most of those water bottles ended up lost and I am pretty sure they were still full of water when found by their new owners. I tried infusing my water with limes and blueberries and other fruit that would make it more appealing. Aside from the citrus, I thought the water tasted like grass (yes, I have eaten grass - I’m an adventurous eater) and it didn’t increase my desire to hydrate.

I gave up trying to meet any water consumption quotas long ago. I’d drink whenever I remembered, which was usually during or after a workout and that was about it. I preferred anything but water with my meals, usually opting for agua fresca (AKA fresh fruit juice with plenty of cane sugar) or iced tea. I didn’t notice any health effects and didn’t give it much thought. Afterall, I was young and healthy and all the talk about water was boring and seemed like something for older people to worry about.

Fast forward a few decades, and I became one of those older people and the thought of water wasn’t as repugnant. With age came some changes to my body that made me think differently. The tipping point, when it came to water, was my skin. I began having breakouts in response to stress. I tried various ointments, washes and dermatologists but nothing cured it and it seemed to get more annoying and noticeable over time. It was like I was growing additional siblings via my skin and it bothered me. I got online and read about adult acne and various treatments. I bought face masks and scrubs and spent an embarrassing amount of money on vitamins, serums and supplements. Nothing cleared up my skin for more than a few weeks at a time. 
While visiting a friend in Ohio, I saw a news segment that featured an esthetician who specialized in adult acne. She talked about the factors that contribute to it and the treatments and plans she had developed to combat it. I made an appointment. Before seeing her she emailed me a questionnaire about my lifestyle, which included a super-long portion about my eating and drinking habits. Long story short, she preached the benefits of water. She recommended drinking half my weight in ounces of water per day. Record scratch- half my bodyweight in water per day?!?!? I barely drank a cup a day, but half my weight would be A LOT more than that! But, I was so fed up with my acne that I was ready and willing to try anything.

Per her recommendation, I kicked dairy and soy out of my life, too and committed to drinking water every minute of the day (at least that’s how it felt the first few days). I carried my water bottle everywhere and made the most concerted effort of my life to keep it with me and filled with cold water. I recorded how many days I met my goal. After meeting it once or twice, my competitive nature kicked in and I was a water-chugging machine. As the weeks passed, I noticed several changes.

My Bladder
I had always joked that I  bladder the size of a pea. Drinking water all day long confirmed this. Not only did I urinate more often, but it wasn’t a tickle that I could ignore. From one second to the next I would go from being fine to my bladder on the verge of exploding. I couldn’t be too far from a bathroom at any given time or I risked an accident. If I was driving, I often stopped at gas stations to pee, even when traveling short distances. I began to structure my life around my bladder. For example, I began assigning a lot more in-class group work in my classes so I could run to the bathroom while students worked. I really had to think about what activities and places I was going to and whether or not it would allow me easy access to a bathroom. It changed my perspective on a lot of activities and made me think a lot more about accommodations and people who have special needs.

My Hair
This was a pleasant surprise. I have ringlet curls that I have to moisturize weekly and when I don’t it gets unruly and breaks. Not only was I able to go longer between deep conditioning treatments, I was able to use dry shampoo for the first time! All the dry shampoos I had ever tried had dried my hair and I always regretted trying to take that shortcut. However, my curls had more bounce so I gave it another shot. I was pleasantly surprised. I finally got to shake my head and catch a whiff of the shampoo’s fragrance like the women in shampoo commercials! The increased moisture allowed me to try new styles and go an extra day or two between washes, which for those of you with curly hair, you know that the longer you go without washing, the better your curls look!

My Sweet Tooth
I am a cookie girl. I like almost all kinds of cookies and can’t pass up brownies and other pastries. When it comes to cake and pie, I am friends with most of those as well. But, knowing I would not be able to enjoy these with a tall glass of cold milk took away their appeal. I tried getting it back with substitutes like coconut, oat, almond, and cashew milk but none of them had the flavor or consistency of cow’s milk and after spending a small fortune on the various forms of alternative milks, I decided to count the loss as a win. I didn’t need the sugar, anyway. 

My Sleep
I no longer needed to set an alarm clock (see My Bladder). I am a light sleeper and do not sleep much more than five to six hours in a row and stayed within that range, although I slept closer to four or five hours most nights before having to hit the bathroom.

A Totally Unexpected Outcome
My favorite part of the day had always been the moment I whipped off my bra when I got home. After my bladder went from slow warnings to urgent streams that burst forth with a vengeance, the relief I felt when I peed rivaled the relief of releasing the girls after a long day trapped in a bra.

After the Month
Unfortunately, after a month of this experiment, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It changed my entire routine, which included my drinking habits. I went back to carrying around a water bottle but not drinking much of it. As the weeks of quarantine dragged on, I challenged myself to drink more water but given the toilet paper shortage, I didn’t want to pee so often so I decided to give myself a smaller goal. I have stuck to drinking one-third of my body weight in ounces of water. After three weeks of this reduced water in-take I didn’t see many changes to how my body responded, with the exception of a calmer bladder. My curls are still hydrated, my battle with acne still rages on, I sleep about the same but not because I have to go to the bathroom. 

The biggest change I noticed is that my sweat smells stronger. When I was drinking 70+ ounces of water per day I didn’t smell my sweat at all after a good cardio session. After I cut out some ounces of water, I noticed a more noticeable, pungent smell creeping from my hair when I work out. Thankfully, it isn’t overpowering or overtly noticeable but since it did not exist before, I definitely noticed it.

I started this water thing for my skin, so how did my skin react?
This is where my expectation was different than expected. I started this experiment to clear my skin. However, my breakouts were unfazed. But, overall, my skin had a different flush. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it glowed, but it was smoother and someone commented on how good my foundation looked on a day I wasn’t wearing any. That felt nice, but overall I was disappointed that I was still battling the same acne. 

The Final Outcome
I started on my water drinking binge for one purpose: to clear up my acne. Water in-take had zero impact on that. Were the other changes enough to keep stretching my bladder to its capacity several times a day? Nope. While I liked how my hair reacted, I get similar results from weekly deep conditioning treatments, which I don’t mind doing. I still do not prefer water over other beverages but will commit to drinking at least 1 water bottle per day and choosing water over other drinks during meals because I still believe that it’s better than sugar alternatives. I will also continue to choose non-dairy alternatives because it helped curb my sweet tooth and that is a welcome surprise.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

40 Lessons in 40 Years

40 year old me has a lot to teach 14 year old me.
While 40 seemed like the oldest of old when I was a kid, I feel like I got here pretty damn fast. In that time, life has taught be a bunch of lessons that I have learned over and over again because I am stubborn and because I didn't always see the lesson for the pain. I am still a flawed work in progress but as I live and learn, these are some lessons that stick out.

  1. If you choose to help someone who is hurting, you may be hurt in the process.
  2. Saying no is a complete sentence in itself and can help you establish boundaries, for which you should not apologize.
  3. No one wakes up happy every day, I don't care how much their social media feed tries to make you believe that. It takes a conscious effort on a regular basis.
  4. Having had a lot of sad moments/days I often felt like I was failing at life but sadness is a feeling like any other and deserves respect just like the more positive feelings.
  5. Having boundaries and sticking to them for your own sanity is not selfish and does not require apologies.
  6. There are so many instances where women are expected to put themselves last or after others. Being a wife, mother, sister, daughter, business-owner, friend all seem to have more value than the woman herself. Screw that. Love yourself enough to make yourself a priority. It'll make many of these lessons much easier to live by.
  7. Set limits and you'll see that your kids/partners/friends and family will still love you and in the end, you can empower others to do the same.
  8. Accepting myself and others as a work in progress and not taking things so personally because it's not all about me.
  9. I spent a lot of time catering my life to what others thought of me. It made most of these lessons feel impossible. Once I realized that what those people thought of me wasn't changing my life in any way, I felt free.
  10. When all else feels too difficult, try to be kind - to yourself and others. It makes a world of difference for all involved but it's not easy to do. I still work on defining what is kind to myself but I won't stop trying.
  11. I cannot love away trauma. Love can guide my actions but there needs to be a lot of other tools in the mix.
  12. I read that you can be a warning or an example to others. Both have been profound teachers in my life.
  13. We should work harder to have integrity than to have material items. When we're gone, our integrity is really what we leave behind and will form our legacy. I've seen this so many times as a widow.
  14. My voice is a powerful tool and I have to yield it accordingly. Just because I have an opinion/thought, doesn't mean I have to say it every time. I work on this daily.
  15. I have seen more acts of faith in situations on the streets than in a church. Faith is such a personal thing, it can't be limited to one place, once a week.
  16. Self care is important - take that bath, nap more often, eat the chocolate. But, that won't heal trauma, pain, sadness, depression or anxiety. I preserve my mental health with therapy, healthy coping skills and trying various outlets for healing. They have saved me when nothing else could.
  17. Everyone needs therapy. No one can stay stable and pursue happiness on their own all of the time (see #3). My therapist has cheered me on in good times, offered an unbiased perspective, and held me accountable when others could not.
  18. I am not ashamed of my anti-anxiety medication. If my heart were faulty, I'd change my diet, take meds, etc. to keep it ticking. My mind is just as important as my heart. I have to treat it with the same persistence in order to live an all-around healthy life.
  19. Moving my body strengthens my mind. Mind-body connection is a real thing and it has been a powerful tool in my healing and coping.
  20. If I want sex, I should go for it. If I don't, I can say no without an apology. I wish I had learned this decades ago.
  21. Not everything is worth the mental exhaustion of a fight. Sometimes sucking it up and moving on has been the best thing towards managing my mental health.
  22. I didn't realize how critical sleep was to my overall health until I could no longer sleep more than 2–3 hours at a time.
  23. Sometimes my body and mind call for a day or two of taking it easy. Those moments are essential. I used to think I was wasting time if I wasn't on the go all the time but have learned that I need to recharge sometimes so I can give 100%.
  24. I can easily jump to conclusions and have to work on this constantly. I also overthink things and jump towards the negative. It is rarely helpful and I have to remind myself of that before I go too deep into false conclusions.
  25. I used to say there weren't enough hours in the day but then I realized I needed to get better at saying no so that the 24 hours work for me.
  26. Any time I have the potential for success, I have an equal chance for failure, which has always terrified me. I have had to accept that failure can happen and have seen time and time again that failure won't be the end of the world. This has allowed me the freedom to take the risks necessary to meet my potential.
  27. I can't think of a single regret that isn't from something I didn't do. Even failures served as lessons and led to something positive. But not doing something I should have done always affects me negatively.
  28. Some people don't want to be helped or help themselves. It's hard to walk away from them when I love them but I have been unsuccessful at helping those who don't want to be helped or refuse to help themselves.
  29. Whenever I've been surrounded by drama, I have found myself being sucked into more of it, like vicious cycle. Now, I avoid it like the plague.
  30. I have never seen revenge work out the way the perpetrator expects. I have seen it eat up a person's life and create a barrier to their healing. I prefer karma to do its thing.
  31. I am not naturally optimistic. I have to work at it all the time. It's not easy but I try to recognize when I am getting negative and move away from whatever I'm doing to exacerbate that because it can get out of hand. With positivity, I often fake it till I make it believable to myself.
  32. I will never be perfect - not for me, or for everyone else. Trying to be is unhealthy and I need to stop and remember that I am flawed, we all are and that is nothing to be ashamed or try so desperately to hide.
  33. I used to think it was vulgar to drop the F bomb until I started using it more often. It is so versatile! It needs more love and respect so I sprinkle it into my day as often as needed.
  34. I love hacks but when it comes to the things I have accomplished, from careers to health, there were no shortcuts, just a lot of hard work, strategic decisions and sacrifices.
  35. I have many loves and have spent lots of time exploring how to monetize them but it has taken them from hobbies and enjoyable talents to "work". No thanks. I prefer to continue to have hobbies I enjoy that have nothing to do with my income sources.
  36. I need more naps in my life.
  37. It's super hard to bite my tongue but it has saved me a lot of grief. It's something I continue to battle.
  38. I love the friends I have chosen. We love, support and respect each other. We also have spats, get on each other's nerves, and take breaks from each other - just like family.
  39. There are days when waking up is the best I can do. I used to beat myself up about it but I have come to realize what an accomplishment that can be and I am learning to see it as progress when that is all I can offer the world.
  40. Sometimes a little thing makes me smile and while it often takes thought and peace to find that one thing when I am intentional about finding those reasons, it becomes easier to find more.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Love is Not a Cure for Trauma

On a television show the other day, a group of women sat around a table sharing their opinions on the latest news. They were especially excited about a kid who invited his whole kindergarten class to his adoption. It was one of those feel-good stories about foster care that makes it look as though the adoptive parents are heroes and the kids are grateful to be saved from their pasts. This is a crock and a harmful portrayal of what it’s like to parent a child in the system.
I became a foster parent to care for one child in particular. In the process of taking the mandatory classes, I learned that Latino kids are over-represented in the system. At the time, there were less than a dozen bilingual homes in my state. That horrified me. I was still naive about the ins and outs of foster parenting and all I could think about was that these poor kids were being re-traumatized by being placed in homes that did not speak their language or know their culture.
Indeed, one of the kids I parented spent three days barely eating anything all because he couldn’t communicate in English and his caretakers at the shelter did not speak Spanish. He didn’t eat what he couldn’t identify on his plate. His skin was faintly yellow, his eyes were sunken in and he hardly had the energy to tell me about himself. The case worker told me that if he didn’t eat in the next 24 hours, I should take him to the hospital for an IV.
It took almost two hours of being with him before he trusted me enough to tell me that he was hungry and wanted oranges and shrimp. Weird combo but after three days of barely eating anything, I can understand. We went to the grocery store together and he picked out what he wanted and I prepared it exactly as he asked. He ate every last bite and then asked for pancakes. I made them and an hour later he was running around my house, hands together in the form of a gun, saying the only phrase he knew in English, “Get down.”
Needless to say, the IV wasn’t needed and when the case worker came for a visit two days later, she couldn’t believe the child in front of her was the same fragile boy she had seen at the shelter after they removed him from his home after a drug raid took his parents away.
On the surface, that sounds like the making of a hero’s story. I saved a child from starving and he thrived and lived happily ever after. What that worker didn’t see was how the child took to my husband and wouldn’t let him out of his sight. It was cute for a minute, but the separation anxiety quickly became a problem when the child threw tantrums when he had to go in my car to the baby-sitter’s house. He slapped and kicked and fought me while I tried to tie him into the car seat. He threw whatever he could find at me while I drove. At the babysitter’s house he latched to my leg and it took several minutes of bribes and distractions to get him off me so I could go to work. I was late for work almost every morning for over a week and my stress level was through the roof. When my husband took him to his child care provider it was even worse. The kid made himself throw up and threw a toy at another kid’s head. I got called to pick him up and was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed back and we needed the child care.
This went on for a few weeks until he trusted us enough to know that we would come back for him every time. I don’t blame him. His whole life collapsed in front of him. He was tucked in bed when cops busted in his apartment with guns and dogs and turned everything upside down. He saw his parents laying face down on the ground with guns drawn to their heads while his home was ransacked. A stranger picked him up and took him to a shelter full of strangers that didn’t speak his language. Before I came along, no one could answer his questions about where his parents were, if they were safe and when he could see them again. He couldn’t ask to call his mom or his grandmother, acts that when in my home, brought him immense peace and joy and became a regular ritual.
It wasn’t love that got us to a place where the child could sleep without my husband rubbing his back for hours; where he could stay at daycare without a scene; where I could sit next to my husband without him squeezing his way between us and giving me the death stare until I moved away. It was patience, understanding, discipline, routine and lots and lots of communication with therapists, case workers, other parents, his birth mother and my support system of friends and family.
When I heard the women chatting about the adoption story and saying how they would consider adopting because all these kids need is love, I turned off the television in anger that they were perpetuating this lie that has been harmful to me in my experience as a foster parent.
The little boy was just one of 8 foster kids I parented in the six years I was a foster parent. I didn’t do it with the intent to adopt, but the situation of the little girl that originally led me down that path turned into an adoption case and for reasons I discuss in my other piece, Male Biological Clocks are a Thing,” I ended up adopting her. For purposes of her privacy, we’ll call her Sam.
In the first three years of Sam’s life she was removed from her biological extended family; taken in by people she had never seen before; experienced times of neglect and want when left with her birth mom and later placed in my home. While on the surface she seemed like a happy kid, unaffected by all that upheaval, she wasn’t. She had night terrors even while napping. I was called out of work on numerous occasions to go to her pre-school during nap time to comfort her as she cried out in her sleep. She never woke up from her cries, but it required me holding and rocking her to lull her back to calmness so she could finish her nap. She’d wake up fine and interact with her caretakers and the other kids as if nothing had happened. She didn’t even know I had been there or that she had been crying in her sleep.
She had an irrational fear of washing her hair. For the first few months of her living with me, I had to get in the shower with her and hold her with one hand, and use the other to wash her hair. Sometimes she would squirm and kick and she almost always buried her head in my neck, making it difficult to wash her hair one-handed. By the time she was clean, I was out of breath, my arms were sore and I was frazzled and tired.
Having been told to call her mom’s past boyfriends dad, she had no real sense of the word and developed a distrust of men. That meant that ninety-nine percent of the time, no matter what she needed, she would ask me to do it. Sam would refuse to let my husband comb her, read her bedtime stories, or help her choose her clothes for the next day. That meant that even when I was tired from a full day of work, I had to do every parenting-related thing, even though I had a willing partner who wanted to be hands-on. When he’d try, Sam would cause such a scene that I had to take over plus console him from her rejection. I wanted him to be more involved but in the end, it made more work for me having to mend both their feelings.
I spent a lot of time believing that I could love her through her fears and that love would help shape her into an empathetic child who felt worthy of love after so much neglect. Trying to make up for those years of pain she experienced before living with me was emotionally and physically exhausting and expensive. I tried to win Sam’s love with service, gifts, attention, time, and other love languages. After years of this, it became harder and harder to distinguish what was genuine love and what was me going through the motions of this harmful sequence that bred resentment and discontent when she didn’t respond in love or develop compassion.
It has taken years of therapy to realize and accept that love cannot cure trauma. All the love in the world cannot re-wire Sam’s brain to understand how to accept and give love. She had no foundation for it. The only love she knew from conception to three years of age was conditional. She could not rely on her mother to provide her basic needs so she learned to get them from others, manipulating if need be to get what she needed. This form of survival is common in kids in the foster care system. It manifests in different ways from stealing and hoarding food, to showering adults with kindness to get what they need and then completely rejecting that person until the next time they need something. Their intentions aren’t to be cruel, it’s how their brains developed for self-preservation. The kids quickly learned that they needed another set of skills in order to procure what they were not getting from their main caretakers. For those of us caring for them, it meant we were constantly tested to prove that we would provide for all their needs, no matter what. In psychology circles, this condition is called reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
RAD and other attachment disorders develop when a child has not consistently connected with a parent or primary caregiver in the first three years of life. When their physical and emotional needs aren’t routinely met during this time, they experience trauma and stress. Since this is when most connections are formed and the foundation of a person’s trust is established most profoundly, it affects their relationships with anyone providing care or playing a regular role in their life. Treatment options include counseling and sometimes medication as depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders often go hand-in-hand with RAD. This clinical interference with Sam’s ability to fully experience relationships gave her a negative sense of self-worth, causing her to look for proof of my love on a daily, sometime hourly basis. While love motivated me to go to therapy, create a stable home, surround her with examples of positive relationships, and open dialogue about interpersonal interactions, it was by no means a cure to RAD.
Assigning love as the remedy to actions that are associated with mental health issues diminishes the severity of what the affected child is going through and what they really need. Believing that love alone would fix all that needed attention in my parent-child relationship created an unrealistic expectation that wrongfully negated the more important need for creating structure, an environment of reliability and the stability it takes to combat this serious trauma-induced condition. There are tons of studies about how trauma informs brain development and plays a role in shaping a person’s outcomes. As a foster parent, I was up against nature and all the nurture in the world could not prevent the side effects of what was wired into these kids’ brains long before I met them.
In order to arm myself against nature’s role in Sam’s evolution, I had to take care of my own mental health. Aside from family therapy, I needed my own therapist. I relied on family, friends and other foster parents for support and encouragement, which meant opening up the uglier parts of parenting that lots of my friends had not experienced since they had never tried raising a child with RAD. Many hours were spent self-soothing myself after rejections and setbacks. Ultimately, it led to getting respite care to get an emotional and mental break from the everyday struggle of connecting with my daughter. If I relied solely on love to get us through, neither one of us would thrive.
Thinking that love is all you need to parent through trauma is like believing you can love away a hurricane. Love is strong but nature is stronger. While love may be what drives someone in the work of foster parenting, the message needs to be that love is the base but the work is in the details that show that love over and over again in unique ways that can often look like you are not making any strides at all. Love is many things but alone, it is not an antidote for trauma and we need to stop positioning it as a fix for what nature inflicts on kids in foster care.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Waking in the West

Fall colors blanketing the camp, captured on a morning hike
I was part of a phenomenal group of women that got together at the beginning of the year with a vision. We wanted to create a space that brought women together for a weekend of healing and self-focus. In other words, we wanted women to put themselves first in a judgement-free zone for a few days where they could re-connect with themselves, bond with others and create new friendships. 

It took almost a year of planning and getting the word out. Relying on word of mouth, we attracted one-hundred women to a campground about an hour from my home. They came from all parts of the state but some came from other states as well, which I had not expected. The women were all ages and from all backgrounds. There were stay-at-home moms, business owners, single women and married women. Their sexual orientations and gender expressions varied as did their ages and styles. I met women who were excited to be braless for the first time and others who don't own a bra. There were some who were new moms and others celebrating empty nests. I was excited to meet so many women at various stages in their lives and with so many talents. But even before meeting the women, the space we chose had me hooked. 

Journaling on a hammock,
listening to the rushing creek
and enjoying my henna
The campground where it was held was like something out of the original Parent Trap, a movie that as child, I watched more for the camp scenes and my longing to experience something like that, and less for the plot or acting. It had acres and acres of trees, hiking trails and prairie fields bursting with deep reds, bright yellow and countless shades of orange. The cabins had twin-sized bunk beds and could hold ten to twenty women in each. They were fully heated and each one had a bathroom. The cabins were arranged in villages near the main gathering spaces. We all lived as neighbors, grouped around a fire pit with benches. Organizers and camp staff lit fires at numerous outdoor fire pits and indoor fireplaces throughout the camp, creating cozy spaces that smelled of burning wood - the unofficial smell of autumn.

Besides the acres of natural settings, there was lots to see and do around the camp. There was a hammock farm nestled on one of the banks of the creek so you could lay and listen to the calm of the flowing water, trails that ranged from easy to rigorous, a ropes course, and activities like horseback riding, archery, rock-wall climbing, kayaking, canoeing and my favorite: zip-lining. 
There were also massage therapists, a henna artist, Reiki practitioners and yoga instructors who shared their services and talents. Women also got to try Unlimited Breath, a practice where you use breaths to create states of relaxation and openness; forest bathing that combined nature, meditation and serenity; a creative confessional igloo where a photographer captured candid, personal moments; and a room dedicated to arts and crafts staffed by working artists.  All of these activities were run by women and the camp even enlisted as many female staffers as possible to assist with the weekend. Not that men were banned but it created a different feel when women were surrounded by women and that was one of the major goals of the weekend. 

Additional highlights for me included the cafe we created when we asked women to bring a snack to share. When one-hundred women bring something to eat, you know you're eating well! There was sweet and salty, savory and crunchy and I loved trying new things and going back for more over and over again - remember, it was a judgement-free zone! That was for snacking. The weekend also included three meals a day, which brought all the women together to share some delicious meals that included a salad bar at every meal and the most delicious homemade Greek yogurt I have ever had. But I wasn't there just for the food, I swear!

Aside from helping plan and promote the weekend, I was asked to tell a story during the Trail of 5 Fires. Four of the fires were based on the four directions of the medicine wheel, with the 5th fire dedicated to Surrender.

I was assigned the West and while at first I was stumped for what to say, when I looked at it more closely, it felt like the perfect fit for me. The West represents the setting of the sun, the darkness that comes at the end of the day. It also represents Fall and the place of the unknown, the dream state of the mind. As I researched it further, I learned about the teachers of the West, the Black Bear for strength and the Turtle for perseverance and physical healing. It got me thinking about how all those factors fit in my life. Here is what I shared as the smoke of the fire swirled around me surrounded by women who listened quietly, emanating warmth and acceptance.
When we emerge from darkness, we are reborn into light. I have been reborn so many times. The woman I am today was reborn of the women I've been in  my past. I have been reborn as a sister, friend, lover, wife, aunt and mother. These roles tested my mind, body and spirit to lift me into a new light with a renewed purpose and focus. 
The West is the realm of water, without which we cannot survive. It is the only substance that can be liquid, solid (ice) and gas (steam), like the trinity of body (solid), mind (liquid) and spirit (gas). Healing requires a union of mind, body and spirit. One cannot be healthy while neglecting the other. Eventually the weak one will overpower the others. That is where the teachers step in: Black Bear for strength, the Turtle for perseverance. These are the pillars that lead you to a new tomorrow. When my body is taken care of I feel stronger in my mind. When my mind stops racing my spirit takes flight, lightening my load - whatever I am carrying. 
On February 15, 2012 I was reborn from wife to widow. My life plunged into darkness the moment Warren collapsed in my arms and everything inside me told me what I did not want to believe - that he was gone forever. I spiraled into the unknown. I went from peace to chaos; from love to epic pain and sadness; from stability to uncertainty - and this was all within the first 24-hours. 
As the fog of shock lifted, the guidance of perseverance kicked in and the Turtle guided my steps. Little by little I picked up pieces that had been shattered and mended them. I replaced parts of my being with the new me that was emerging in order to get through the pain. Together with the strength of the Black Bear I woke up on days I wanted eternal sleep. I let others help me when I wanted to wither away in fear. 
Healing is a daily chore, an evolution. Losing Warren wasn't my only dark time in my life but it certainly was the most profound. I had to actively look for ways to get through so that I wouldn't lose myself. Each time that I allowed the Turtle and Black Bear to guide me, I moved farther from desperately broken to heroically healing. When I was open to their teachings my dreams became their portal for connecting with Warren. 
He has visited me three times through my dreams. His first visit was the night I scattered his ashes. As I watched the sun go down over the ocean I felt a wave of peace so strong it awoke me from my doze. He let me know I had done the right thing by choosing to release him in one of his favorite childhood places.
Six months later he returned. This time his presence was more solid. Restless with anguish over going from two incomes to one and now to none, the worry of losing my job had exhausted me into an uneasy sleep. I felt his arms wrap around me. He was warm and comfortingly enveloped me, whispering, "I promised you that I would take care of you forever on the day we married and that hasn't changed. I am still taking care of you. It's going to be OK." I am usually a cynic but I knew that message was real, it was him. I felt less afraid and as I believed him in the flesh, so it was from another realm. He is my Black Bear, visiting me in times of need to renew my strength.
His latest visit came six years later. He quietly slipped into a dream and held space, not saying or doing anything. At first I was upset and questioned the visit. I hadn't been particularly stressed or scared. In fact, I had been making a concerted effort to live my best life and make time for myself. I was noticing the little beauties in life that grief had veiled. His visit startled and confused me. It took me out of my being. Then it hit me. His visit was not about my pain, it was about my joy. In life he had always told me that my happiness was his happiness and that I was his happy place. He had come to witness my happiness, to be a part of it. My joy was still his and his soul still celebrated mine. He is my Turtle, at my side to celebrate my perseverance.
The West is about emergence from the unknown to the known, the darkness to the light, the dream to reality. Under the direction of the Black Bear and the Turtle our wells are replenished and we feed our mind, body and soul so that we can be born again and again.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Podcasting

This past spring my bf had an idea to start a podcast to showcase local talent and help them promote whatever cool things they're up to. He has always listened to various podcasts and was ready to take the plunge and do one himself. We carved out some space in the basement and he built himself a studio. He didn't want it to be a solo endeavor so he recruited some people to do their own shows on his podcast. My brother was the first to jump on board and interview his fellow wrestlers. They bought food and drinks and spent hours in the studio talking about moves they love, upcoming shows and how they got into entertainment wrestling. 

I encouraged him from afar, glad to see his excitement and offering advice when asked. He lined up some guests and I kept busy upstairs while they chatted away downstairs. Mostly the guests and topics were his idea but I contributed when asked.

After a few episodes my bf landed an interview with the Brazilian 2wins, a band I had booked for the Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival in the past. 
"You know them better than I do. I think they'll be more comfortable having you do the interview," he said.
I'll admit, I was excited to chat with the band and learn more about them. When I agreed to the interview (see below) I envisioned it as a one-time thing that would support his new-found interest. I underestimated that last thought.   

The day after I agreed to do the interview, he was designing logos and talking about a regular show. I wasn't entirely on-board but I went along with it, determined to see how it went. If I enjoyed it, why not? If it sucked, I'd move on to other projects and let him continue with his vision, with me cheering him on and helping behind the scenes.

As his luck would have it, I really enjoyed it. The guys were intriguing and charismatic and I got to know a different side of them. I was familiar with their public personas and social media selves but asking direct questions about their childhood, life in Brazil and their journey as musicians uncovered some fascinating stories. 

I wouldn't go as far as saying that I was hooked, but when he asked again if I'd do a regular show, I took the idea much more seriously. My initial fear had been that it would feel intrusive but it felt as though I was among storytellers. It was humbling to be allowed in to such personal stories and you know how much I love stories.

Aside from fulfilling my interest in storytelling, it was exciting to have a project to work on together that didn't involve paint, power tools or Home Depot. I agreed and the Christina Speaks podcast was born.

Four months later, we've done nine podcasts and have enjoyed every one of them. My favorite part continues to be hearing the stories. Even though the people I interview are friends and acquaintances, I get to ask them things that don't easily come up in typical conversations. They share about their pasts in ways that would otherwise not be shared and I feel more connected to them when we're done. I love getting to know different sides of people and am lucky to know so many amazing people who stay busy and have lots of stories to share.

As we get more episodes under our belt, we're becoming more tech-savvy. Let me clarify - he is becoming more savvy, I am enjoying the fruit of his labors! We've added slideshows and music, he's learning more about editing and came up with Bonus Bits that we post to social media as teasers for the upcoming show. We aren't hustling for sponsors or following some formula to monetize this project (yet) but we challenge ourselves to make each episode engaging and fun and most of all, we love sharing a meal with our guests before recording the show. It helps ease their jitters and free food puts everyone in a good mood. 

Am I trying to be the next YouTube sensation? NO WAY. But am I having fun and getting to spend time with my bf doing something we both enjoy? Absolutely! While it continues to be fun, I'll keep speaking and sharing stories on as many platforms as I can. 


Monday, July 22, 2019

CommUnity Through the Storm


People expect eloquence and articulation from a writer. That said, I don't feel like a writer right now because the only word I can think of to describe the 2019 Warren Morrow Latin Music Festival is WOW. It leads all other thoughts, which are driven by a strong current of emotions that also end with, WOW.

For those unfamiliar with this event and what it means to me, please click here, here and here and then please come back to read the rest of this post.

The day started at 6:25AM because I am not good at sleeping. I decided to make myself a good breakfast because I have learned over the years that when working this event I may not eat again until I make it home at the end of the night. I wanted to support my favorite coffee shop that was donating 10% of their sales to refugee and immigrant assistance programs so I stopped to get one of my favorite drinks of all time, an iced horchata latte. I grabbed an extra one for a dear friend and fellow organizer and headed to the festival site to unload my first carload of stuff for the festival.

It was a hot, humid day but our festival is under a lovely canopy that provides shade and we had a steady breeze so it was bearable. Over the course of the morning I moved furniture, loaded and unloaded a ton of stuff from various cars and trucks, made a few more trips to grab stuff we needed and helped transform the venue into an event that shows love to all ages.

After a quick run home for a shower and fresh set of non-sweat-drenched clothes, I was off for what I anticipated to be a long day. My heart was full as it usually is when I see so many people working together for a common cause. We truly have the best volunteers on the planet and they were sweating alongside me with smiles on their faces. I sent many prayers of thanks into the universe, along with even more pleas for the weather to remain as it was. We had artists on the roads and in the skies and I wanted them to arrive safely and on time. There were guests coming from all parts of the state and beyond and I wished them safe travels as well. I checked and re-checked my app and it indicated a 30% chance of storms. I thought the odds were in our favor.

Guests streamed in and our volunteers were hard at work creating a welcoming and comfortable space. The bands were full of energy and the place was filled with a feeling of community and joy. Vendors were busy feeding people and making amazing food. The air smelled heavenly. Even though I was still working hard to ensure everything was running smoothly, I was filled with gratitude that guests were enjoying something I helped create.

All was going well when, like something out of a movie, the skies darkened and the air cooled. An officer hired for security at the festival pulled me aside and said, "We heard through dispatch that a storm is ripping through the area with high winds. If winds reach fifty miles per hour we are going to have to evacuate the plaza, the canopy can only safely sustain winds of fifty miles per hour." She went on to explain where they would lead our guests, vendors and volunteers and I nodded, all the while internally screaming, "NNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!"

Rain fell almost as soon as she explained the plan and I ran to tell the food vendors to move their gear to the center of their tents, grab their cash and follow the cops to a safe place. My feet slipped on the wet grass and I got completely drenched as I ran from tent to tent relaying the message and helping them move items out of the rain. 

The wind picked up and our largest tent began to come apart. Guests covered themselves with whatever they could find and hurried to follow the cops to the shelter. Some kids looked scared and I didn't blame them. The sky was dark, wind howled and the rain came down in sheets.

The bounce houses started blowing away and volunteers jumped on them and wrapped their arms around them to keep them grounded. The smaller tents began to blow away and we all grabbed on to the ones we could and held on, rain slapping our faces, the wind making it difficult to see. We called to one another, encouraging one another to hold on. We worked together to tear down the tents and drag them into the shelter. 

The mood was one of surprise and shock. No one expected the storm. It had been such a clear, beautiful day. Iowa is usually dry this late in July. We had never encountered rain during the event, even when it was indoors. As soon as the five organizers found each other in the shelter we huddled up and began brainstorming. Bringing our headliner, Celso PiƱa, a Grammy-winning artist and one of the world's greatest accordion players had been a three-year endeavor. He was finally performing in Iowa and would leave in less than twenty-four hours. We didn't want to let anyone down. Moving the event would ensure that he would perform. 

The winds calmed and the rain became a drizzle but the damage was done. The electrical equipment for the sound and light were wet. It would be too dangerous to try to continue where we were and there was another storm headed our way, slated to hit around the time the headliner would be performing. 

Local performers joined our huddle and within minutes we secured a venue that had the stage, lights and sound equipment we would need to ensure the festival continued. We made plans on the spot and began contacting the bands that had not yet performed and informed them of the change of venue. With the exception of one, all were super accommodating and said they would be there.

We announced the change to the crowd and asked them to give us an hour to get situated and assured them the show would go on. From that point on, everything moved super fast. Volunteers and band members that had already performed stayed behind clearing the venue of all that remained outside. I began selling tickets to guests that had just arrived and explained what was going on. I posted the change of venue on social media. Our friends at the ticketing agency we work with changed the venue on the ticketing website and sent an email to all online ticket holders. We asked all the guests to please share the new plan on their social media. Someone called the local Spanish radio stations and asked them to announce the change on air. Guests began arriving at the new venue and I rushed across the city to get there. 

When I arrived there was a crowd that swelled from inside the lobby to outside on the sidewalk, waiting to get in while the stage and sound equipment was set up. One of the bands was already inside doing a set a cappella while they waited for the stage to be done. I scrambled to set up the ticketing equipment at the door but internet was down. While I worked to resolve the issue, my mother in law took charge. She began telling the crowd about Warren. I could not hear what she shared but it quieted the room as they listened to her. It afforded me time to find a hot spot and for the backline to arrive and begin loading instruments and amps onto the stage.

Running on pure adrenaline and a will to succeed, we got the crowd inside the new spot and dancing within an hour of evacuating the first venue. As the night settled and the bands performed as scheduled, the place filled with dancing, singing, smiling guests. Some complained and asked for refunds and I obliged but the majority got right back into having a good time and our amazing volunteers worked tirelessly to be as accommodating as possible. There are so many small details people chipped in to help with that I did not know about but helped make it all possible and the underlying theme is a will to succeed. Everyone - from our bar tenders, to the bands, volunteers, security guards and guests wanted the festival to be successful. They were committed and jumped in where needed to make it come together and I am in awe of this community. It affirms that they believe in this event as much as the Fab Five of us who work throughout the year to make it happen.

Since then I have experienced a roller coaster of emotions. I am sad that it did not turn out as planned because there was so much I had been looking forward to offering the community. I wanted to see the kids paint the mural the artists had created. We fought for months to get our own beer license to supplement ticket sales and generate a source of revenue we could use to grow in 2020 and those gains were lost. Food vendors had prepped and worked to serve delicious foods from Mexico, Puerto Rico and El Salvador and they would have financial losses as well. I felt for their loss as much as my own. Most of all, I had hoped and prayed so hard that this would be the festival that turned the corner for us, legitimizing us so that moving forward we wouldn't have to beg so hard for sponsors and funding from the non-POC arts and culture purse-string holders in the city. I internalized every mean thing the dissatisfied guests said to me when they rudely vocalized how inconvenient the changes were to them and demanded their money back. 

In the moment I didn't have time to marvel at what we accomplished but looking back, all I can think is, WOW. It could have been much different. We could have cancelled but that never came up. There could have been casualties as the storm tore down trees, knocked out power and caused severe damage to parts of the city but our officers kept everyone calm and safe. We lost some guests who didn't get the message or chose not to venture out but we still packed the house and sold almost one hundred tickets after midnight. But what moves me most of all is how many people jumped in to help. It was truly a community effort that brought together all ages, backgrounds, languages and cultures. I felt supported and encouraged throughout. Messages of thanks and congratulations have been coming in since then and people have posted amazing photos of themselves having a great time, with huge smiles on their faces. I have new heroes that I wouldn't have had otherwise and feel more determined than ever that this festival matters. 

Crazy as it sounds, I am more committed than ever to seeing this festival continue to bring joy because as a close friend of mine once said, "Joy is an act of resistance."


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Year of Crystal

Fifteen years ago today, Warren and I said, "I do," in front of our closest friends and family. I was twenty-three, he was twenty-six. Long before he proposed I knew I would be his wife. I didn't feel pressured to marry him, although once he put a ring on it, everyone seemed in a hurry to see us walk down the aisle. 

He came from pretty traditional stock so we didn't expect to live together before marriage. In fact, we bought a house together but lived in different states throughout our engagement. He got the house, filled with my parents and siblings as they adjusted to their move from Chicago, and I moved to Kansas City to pursue a position I loved with a global company. I wish I had the courage back then to slow us down a bit but given that we only got seven years of husband and wife, I am thankful that we went with the flow and were married a year after becoming engaged.

The actual wedding was the stuff sitcoms are made of. We planned an outdoor ceremony but an
unexpected storm nixed that plan an hour before the start time. Little mishaps popped up one after the other: the ring fell out of the box and rolled under the stage; the videographer loudly took a call during the ceremony and had to be escorted out; our parents forgot to remove the lasso from around our shoulders after the blessing so we had to shuffle around the stage, literally tied together! Warren and my dad started the day in urgent care because the yard work they did the day before led to a bad case of poison ivy and by the time we got off the flight at our honeymoon destination, I was burning up with a fever and red bumps on my arms, an allergic reaction to the poison ivy I contracted when I put on Warren's tuxedo jacket at the reception. All in all, I could write a book on all the things that went wrong on that day, and maybe I will but the thing I remember the most is recalling a conversation Warren and I had many times as we planned the wedding.
"This isn't about the party, it's about the marriage."
At the end of the day, all we wanted was to be married. We weren't concerned about the details of the ceremony or reception. Sure, we wanted it to be a memorable day for our guests because we loved them and were excited to bring them all together, but if a wedding hadn't been possible, we would have been more than OK. We wanted to share our lives together. We couldn't imagine not doing so. He was my best friend and it excited me to think that he and I would be a team for the rest of our lives. We had found our person in each other and were ready to start new traditions, make more memories and be the people we knew we could become with the other's love and support. 

Looking back, I love that it gave me a funny story to tell and I find the whole thing very sweet but what sticks with me the most, is that we were determined that it wasn't about the wedding, it was about the marriage. That helped us laugh off the small debacles that made up the day and to feel thankful for every minute of that day. It wasn't perfect and we didn't expect it to be. The most exciting part was becoming Mr and Mrs. 

I have been asked on numerous occasions if I want another wedding if I ever remarry. My answer changes depending on the day but what I know for sure is that as long as I spend that day with the person I choose to be my person and who chooses the same in me, it will be about what happens after the party and the hope that we'll reach beyond the Crystal anniversary and spend many decades as husband and wife, something I wish I had with Warren. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

My Chicago


People often tell me how much they love Chicago. It is hard for me to see the allure, having spent most of my early years trying to get out of there. To say I hated living there wouldn't be exactly true, but it is a place that elicits a wide range of emotions that are not all positive.
Related image
Common "artwork" in My Chicago 
When I hear about the Magnificent Mile, Lake Michigan and the Bean, it's like I am hearing about foreign places. They were not a part of My Chicago. My Chicago was corner stores and Cobras; dollar stores, drugs and Disciples; bullets and brown people. I grew up far from the magnificence of Lake Shore Drive, the Sears Tower and Wrigleyville. The streets I knew were in Humboldt Park, a place where you had to be aware of your surroundings at all times, and what colors you wore where. You wouldn't want to be caught wearing black and green in a neighborhood ruled by black and yellow. It became second nature to know what colors belonged where and if you forgot, there was always graffiti on the walls to remind you which ganged controlled the territory. As a female, I often felt like I'd get a pass if I messed up the dress code but always feared for my brothers, cousins and male friends. 




Some of my best memories were of the summer, which happens to be when Chicago is most dangerous. I loved being outside and tried to do everything out there from play with my Barbies to scooting on the scooter, rolling in my skates and my all-time favorite thing - riding my bike. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to go outside and there were over a dozen neighborhood kids waiting for the next game of Catch, Hide N Seek or ready to share bubbles, sidewalk chalk and junk food. In many ways, my block felt like a small town. Everyone knew everyone. Most of the moms stayed home and were always popping their heads out the windows to check on us, offering cold water or allowing us to run inside and use their bathroom. The elders on the block sat outside and watched us, sometimes bringing us ice cream or slices of watermelon. It sounds idyllic but there was also an air of tension. 

Although the block wasn't very long, I was only allowed six houses away from home in one direction and eight in the other. Corners were off limits. Do you know how much concentration and coordination it took to turn a bike around on a sidewalk, avoiding the lawn on one side and a fence on the other? As my bikes got bigger, it became increasingly more difficult and annoying. But the corner was where there was an open lot. When I was six, a girl not much older than me was raped in that lot. Next to the lot was an apartment complex where a ten-year old kid shot someone to earn his street cred but got prison time instead. I remember his mother inconsolably crying on the sidewalk as the cops hauled off her youngest son. The corner was where drug deals and gun sales went down and I was told to stay away from there. It was also where I became a victim of crime for the first time at the ripe old age of four. My mom and I were on our way to the corner store and I insisted on riding my Strawberry Shortcake tricycle. As we approached the corner, my mom just a few feet away, a guy ran by, snatching my gold necklace and scratching my neck and chest in the process. I don't recall what he looked like, or even what the necklace looked like. What I remember most was the surprise at how quickly it happened and the panic in my mother's voice when she called out. 

Panic was a common feeling that stemmed from fear and progressed into the anxiety I still deal with today. Fear for my safety is what I remember most about living in Chicago. The worse was at night. My dad often worked jobs where he either left before the sun came up or long after it had set. Because our apartment didn't have garages, he had to park his car wherever there was a spot. It was sometimes on another block and he had to walk in the dead of the night. As a young child, maybe eight or nine years old, drive-by shootings would often wake me up. I would get in the fetal position, clamp my hands together in prayer and beg God to keep my dad safe and that he didn't catch one of those bullets meant for someone else. I would repeat my prayer over and over again like a mantra, my entire body tense, feet rubbing over and under each other, eyes shut tight while tears and sweat dripped onto my pillow. I don't know how long this went on, but it felt like hours. I'm not sure how many times a week this happened but since drive-bys were pretty constant, I imagine it happened often. To this day, I know I am stressed when I lay in the fetal position and rub my feet over and under each other. 

Chasing the feeling of safety led to my choice to attend Iowa State University. By my senior year in high school I had seen a girl get shot by a stray bullet at a bus stop; lost friends and neighbors to gangs, AIDS and prison; been in and witnessed fistfights, and extended my fears past my dad's nightly walks to my siblings growing up and becoming targets in their own neighborhood. When I visited the campus I was less impressed with the academic accolades and more with how people left their cars running at the gas station and students didn't lock their dorm rooms. There was a feeling of peace and safety I hadn't known and I wanted that more than a degree from a certain institution. In fact, I had been all set to attend New York University before visiting Ames. It had been my dream school throughout high school but when it came time to decide, safety won out. 

Growing up in My Chicago carried into my experiences on campus. Whenever I saw someone in a baseball cap I would make a mental note of which side it was cocked so I knew what they represented. It took a long time for me to stop seeing people dressed in black and fill-in-the-blank color and not instantly categorize them into a gang. Even though I was in a place that was safe, embracing it didn't come easy. I often locked my roommate out of our room because I locked the door even to go to the bathroom. A phenomenon that blew my mind was how students of color always nodded and said hello when we passed on campus. I had no idea who they were and hadn't figured out the unsaid solidarity in being one of so few students of color. My lack of response to those greetings got me labeled as "that mean Spanish girl" by fellow students and I figured if it meant they left me alone to get my work done, then I was OK with that title. It took over a semester for me to allow myself to feel connected to the safety of my new environment. While I never got to unlocked door status, I did adopt the nod and greeting and stopped associating colors and hats with gang culture. 

But going home was a different story. I felt the tension of My Chicago in my muscles as I got closer to home. I expected violence at every corner and avoided venturing out as much as possible. In fact, I made it a point to stay on campus as often as I could, taking out loans for summer courses, working during breaks and finding internships in different states. I knew almost immediately upon leaving Chicago that I would never live there again. Twenty years later, my opinion hasn't changed.

Now that my family is out of the city and has made a life away from the dangers of My Chicago, I don't even have the desire to go back and visit. While I recently made a special trip just to visit the places I grew up hearing about like Navy Pier, Grant Park, Michigan Avenue, etc. it didn't feel like a homecoming. It was more about trying to see Chicago from a visitor's perspective now that I no longer have to call it home. While the handshakes, colors and hand gestures aren't as prevalent in Chicago's gang life, their legacy is still found in the homicide rates and makeshift memorials created on sidewalks across the city, honoring lives cut short over the same territorial mentalities that ruled when I lived there. My old stomping grounds has a Starbucks and high-end dog grooming place but the old artwork that adorned garages and sides of buildings that announced whose territory it is still shines. Gun shots are still commonplace and summers continue to be the deadliest season. It saddens me that a place that holds such beautiful architecture, amazing food and charismatic sports fans shares space in my heart with such strong memories of feeling scared for my life and that of my loved ones. Yet, I know that it led me to people, places and experiences that have profoundly shaped my life. It also holds some dear memories and I appreciate Chicago, even if I still don't want to call myself a resident ever again.

Related image
Mural that depicts My Chicago, titled A MOTHER'S GREATEST FEAR

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