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


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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Eve

The eve of Warren's death happens to be Valentine's Day. I was never a huge fan of the holiday, other than I was born exactly nine months later so I guess I should be thankful for it. I had many Valentine's Days that were just like any other day of the week, whether I was single or not. As a wife, I honestly can't recall all our Valentine's Days together but I do remember our last one. We treated it like any other day because it was a Tuesday. Warren and I both worked that day, having had a date night the weekend before. After work I made our daughter a Valentine's Day box with some treats she liked, including a blue bath bomb she used that night. While she bathed Warren got home. It was some time after 7PM. He had a work event that evening where he wore his olive green suit. He took his final photo at that event, surrounded by colleagues, leaning on a crutch. He had torn his Achilles tendon and it was still healing from the surgery. His cast had been off for a few weeks but his foot wasn't ready for his full weight. He arrived home exhausted. He took a few bites of the dinner I had left for him but was too tired to eat any of the heart-shaped brownie my daughter and I had made for him. It was his favorite treat. His skin was pale with a tinge of yellow. I could tell by looking at him how tired he was. We laid in bed and something played on the television. We ignored it as we talked about our day and listened to our daughter play happily in the tub. At one point she called out, "Can we save this blue bath water so I can play in it again tomorrow?" We giggled at her request and he wrinkled his nose as he told her the water would be yucky by the time she bathed again. She kept playing and we enjoyed the quiet time together. 

After goodnight kisses and tucking her in, we laid for a while longer, a mundane evening like any other. 

That was our Valentine's Day after seven years of marriage. Today is the eve of seven years of living without Warren. I have been his widow as long as I was his wife. Just like our marriage, this time has flown by. So much pain has passed through these last few years along with so much joy. He has missed so much, from births to deaths, graduations and other milestones of those he loved most. Those are some of the most painful moments. Happiness is always tinted with sadness at the thought of not sharing these moments with him. People love to tell me that he is still with me, that he is a part of everything I do and I nod politely because they mean well but have no idea how hard it is to face these moments without him physically at my side - How I ache to see his smile, or hear his laughter or his voice guiding me through them. His spirit does little to fill the void he left. 

Over the years I have become the master of pretending I am OK. And in many ways, I am. A few anniversaries ago I was the picture of anger. It burned from within. For other anniversaries I was numb, afraid and anxious for the mix of feelings I knew would come. I never know what set of emotions will abound. Often I dance between them, doing a back and forth salsa between extremes while functioning as normally as I can given the new normal that is my life. I can never not be his wife even as I move forward with my love life. He is never far from my thoughts even as I try to be in the moment. His example colors my actions even as I doubt whether he would do as I do. I live to make him proud while realizing that he will never have to face the challenges I have been left to handle. At times this new normal is a weight that drowns me and makes me a fighter. Other times it is the armor that gets me through when I think I can't handle something - a reminder that I've been broken and put myself together piece by piece.

Warren shaped me in ways I am still discovering and even in death he continues to influence my being, my thoughts, my view of the world. People who have never met him have talked to me of the impact he has made on their life and those who knew him help me keep his legacy alive. I see him in the smiles of my nieces and nephews, hear twinges of his voice in my father in law's stories. At the same time, the longing for his physical presence still stings at the center of my core, reminding me that my great love is a memory. On the eve of seven years post love-of-my-life I remain thankful to have a soulmate and that because of all he taught me I can say with confidence that while I am scarred and still healing, I am OK in more ways than I ever dreamed possible. My love is still strong but it bends towards him in a grateful arch of recollections, thoughts and life lessons I am blessed to have learned from a man who was made of pure love and compassion and who lives on in me every day.

Tomorrow will be hard. I will remember in exquisite detail the minutes of the day - from his last moments to my first as a widow. I may cry and feel anger, I may spend time in the fetal position. I might mindlessly snack on junk and be numb and I might laugh out loud at random flashbacks of silly moments. All this might happen back to back or over the span of hours. I never really know. All I know for sure is that anything I feel is OK, normal and exactly what I need. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Bad Ass: A sorta book review

I recently left a secure 9-5 to pursue my dream of being a full time speaker and writer. It was prompted by some changes that made my work environment toxic. I would come home so mentally and emotionally exhausted that I had no energy for the things and people I love. 

I contemplated my options for months. I spoke to my HR department twice. I looked at other positions within the institution. My options were super limited and I decided that it wouldn't help to trade one devil for another. Was I scared? Definitely. Did I feel like a crazy person leaving a job to go after something as abstract as motivational speaking? YES. Still do. But speaking is when I feel most invigorated. Each time I share my story I feel alive in a way that doesn't compare to any other facet of my life. Most people are terrified of speaking in public. I love it. I feel nervous beforehand but once I begin, I get in a zone that is like no other. 

Over my life I have felt propelled to do certain things that fit with my life at the time and are fulfilling. Speaking is another of those callings. As with any change in life, I feel fear, doubt and a sense of losing control. Those feelings sometimes manifest in middle of the night freak out thoughts that keep me up for hours, my mind racing with the all the worst case scenarios of my actions.

As I often do in times of uncertainty, I turned to books. I had heard of the book, YOU ARE A BAD ASS: HOW TO STOP DOUBTING YOUR GREATNESS AND START LIVING AN AWESOME LIFE. By the title it sounded like exactly the book I needed. In some ways it was, but I also had a mix of thoughts.

Like most books of this nature, it is a rallying call to put your goals out there and trust the universe to make it happen. It talks a bit about the author's path to leaving a job and pursuing her passion. Like most self-help books it gives very broad, general advice for how to do so and still feed your family. I was looking for tangible steps I could take that were beyond mantras and faith. I wanted to know how to identify the game-changers that could influence the universe. What is the first thing I should do in my pursuit of a career change? How do I establish my brand on a budget? I was looking for more of a guidebook with steps that I could cross off as I did them.

Lots of the advice was simpler than what reality seems to dish out. For example, at one point it mentions getting a small business loan if that is what is needed to make your dreams come true. While this is certainly a viable route, it reeked of privilege. It was stated as such a simple step with no accounting for the low percent of approved loans for women and people of color. It also did not account for people who have less than stellar credit, which is mostly marginalized communities. That  perspective of privilege tainted many parts of the book. 

Not to rag on the book because it was mostly enjoyable with humor and an easy tone but it was almost too light in its RAH-RAH YOU CAN DO IT LIKE I DID! approach. At points I felt uplifted when the author shared some examples of success but at other times I found myself wanting to scream, "Oh come on, it can't be that simple. The universe does not hand out opportunities on a silver platter!" 

Maybe part of my problem is that I am looking for insider tips for what I know takes hours of hard work, stepping out of my comfort zone and lots more faith than I have had in years. I wanted the book to tell me to send X-many emails a day to influencers; how to identify those recipients and what I should say to get them to want to book me. I wanted the book to tell me how to get over my aversion to phone conversations and what to say that doesn't sound awkward. That is the level of direction I wanted.

I needed a chapter titled: DO WHAT YOU KNOW YOU HAVE TO DO TO GET WHERE YOU WANT TO GO because I was at Warren's side for the hours of research, networking and dedication to the business. I helped him with lots of it although he definitely did the bulk of the work.

I rebranded myself when I transitioned from Corporate America to nonprofits and when I went from nonprofits to academia. Those moves felt less intimidating because I was going from one job to another but I still had to reposition myself from what I was to what I was becoming. 

For some reason, this transition feels larger. Perhaps it's because I am the sole breadwinner for my family and that comes with tremendous pressure. Maybe it is because I am older and more apprehensive and cynical. It felt much more possible with my cheerleader/best friend at my side because I knew he had my back no matter the outcome or how long it took. He saw the best in everyone, including me and constantly reminded me to do the same. Left to my own devices I see the let downs and disappointments in people and mostly myself. I err on the side of little faith in the universe. Nothing I have accomplished came easy or felt handed to me. To believe that I put it out there and the universe takes care of it feels irresponsible. At the end of the day, the universe can't write a check to put food in my kid's mouth or clothes on her back and while the book was an easy read, it didn't take me where I needed to go to feel like a bad ass and an awesome life is just waiting for me simply because I desire it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Storytelling (again)

Over the weekend I had the honor of helping a local producer kick off her first event. It was special because it was woman with a vision and I love supporting women who go after their dreams. I was excited to be part of something that focused on women of color and is the first of its kind in my city. 

When I was asked to participate the title: STORIES TO TELL MY DAUGHTER excited me. Raising a teenager is difficult and I believe it takes a village so it would be a great way to have other women impart their wisdom and experience on my daughter and give her a varied perspective. It was also something I wanted to share with my own mother.

I said yes without a story in  mind. I figured it would come to me as I learned more about the event. When I met with the producer and she explained her vision, a story began to form. The problem was, I didn't want to share that story. It was extremely personal in a way that would lay me bare in a setting much more intimate than my previous storytelling experience. This would be a smaller venue, the audience would be physically closer. My social circle crossed with that of some of the other storytellers and the producer so I knew there would be a lot more familiar faces in the audience. That was intimidating given the vulnerability I would have sharing that story.

I wish I could say that I had some brilliant strategy for coming up with another story. Unfortunately, my strategy was procrastination. I should have written out the story many times and went over the timeline and details. I did not. Instead I started reading two new books and tried to justify my fears and hesitations by burying my head in someone else's story. I kept asking myself why I had to tell that particular story. I gave myself no viable response other than that was the story I needed to tell. Period. For weeks I fought with my procrastination and ignored my inner-voice. Even as I resisted, the story formed in my head. Without trying, I had a beginning, middle and end. I had the theme and knew how to weave it in without writing it out.

Weeks of this immature behavior went by and before I knew it, it was the night before rehearsal. With no other story formed, I gave in and wrote the one that wouldn't leave me alone. It came easily, which became a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to try a different technique for preparing to speak. Rather than rely on notes and outlines, I recorded the story and listened to it over and over again. It was helpful to hear it in my own voice. I was able to focus on the pace, pauses, alliterations, repetitions and the inflections of my voice. With my focus on those elements of the story I was less worried about the content. I was still telling the story that my heart wouldn't allow me to ignore, but I found a way to be less worried about it. 

At rehearsal I let it flow and was pleasantly surprised. It was more polished than I expected although I hadn't spent much time memorizing exactly what to say. The reaction of my fellow storytellers was reassuring. They each shared how they related to what I shared and how important it was to put that story into the universe. By the time I left rehearsal, I better understood why that story had been so stubborn.

On the day of the event I was more nervous than I expected. I got to the venue an hour early and it helped to be in the space where I would speak. I generally don't feel a need to be in the space where I am speaking much more than a few minutes before I begin but it felt necessary in this instance. I envisioned the seats filled and how I would appear to the audience. I was glad that my mother, brother, daughter boyfriend and best friend would be there, although I had no intention of making eye contact with them for fear my throat would lock mid-story.
My stomach was a hurricane and my knees shook as the MC introduced me but once I got out the first line, all that melted away. I got through my story with no locked throat, no tears and no other mishaps. It was me and the audience and I felt electric and warm. I connected with the room and felt as though I was talking to close friends. That warmth carried through to the end of the event when audience members came to congratulate me. One person in particular smiled with misty eyes and hugged me, completely wordlessly. I did not know this woman but in her embrace I felt like I peeked into her story and intertwined my own to form a bond. It was a lovely and exhilarating moment between two strangers that also felt deeply personal and familiar. At that moment I shot up a little thank you to the universe for the courage to tell that story and not allowing my own fears to steer me away from what that women needed. It was a wonderful reminder that our stories truly are a gift to those who hear or read them and should be respected as such. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Six Years

Mi Querido Amor,

It is strange to think that 2,190 days ago you left this earth. To think of it in years feels like it hasn't been that long yet feels like decades in my heart. 

You have missed so much and yet you are still part of everything. Mostly I know you are part of my raising our daughter. Most of the time I feel like I am doing things so differently than if you were here. We had some very distinct ideas about how to raise a girl. You are missing the fun of the teen years. She is no longer the little girl who would spend snow days playing dress up in your suits and ties. Today she wears ripped jeans so tight I think she needs to spray herself with butter to get into them and sometimes I look at her and wonder what you would think of that style. Would you hound her to have more integrity in her appearance or would she have you so wrapped around her finger that you would be her shopping buddy? Both are very real possibilities. I sometimes imagine us disagreeing on things like sleepovers and make-up - your more traditional expectations clashing with my wanting to break away from those old ways that make young women question their worth. Sometimes I smile to myself when I tackle things I know would have made your ears turn bright red like puberty and the talk

So often I want to talk to you about everything that has to do with her. I want to hear your advice, see you laugh at her sass and beam with pride when teachers tell me that she is among their top students, or when she wears your Grinnell sweatshirt and says she wants to attend the same school as her daddy. You always wanted her to try her hardest and that is what she does. She gets that from our high expectations and that is part of the legacy you left her that I strive to carry on. 

It is hard not to wonder how her personality would be different if she had more years of your influence. I have done the best I can to keep your spirit alive among us but so many times I feel like I am keeping my head above water that it's hard to know if I make any in-roads. There are certainly times when I fail at parenting and feel that you would be ashamed of my actions. There are times when I send up a little, "I'm sorry" when I know you would have expected me to react differently than I do. I try, I really do but some of the challenges of parenting are more than what even you could face with an open mind and heart. This is hard work that never ends. 

Sometimes I am happy that you got the good years of playing tea party and making her day with a stuffed animal. Those days brought you so much joy and you took those moments with you. They were what brought you happiness and what our daughter holds on to. Nowadays it is way harder to make teens happy. Half the time it feels like swimming against the tide while wearing a weighted vest. I wish you were here to swim alongside me, hold me up when my arms get tired. This is by far the hardest thing you left me to do and I want to do it in a way you can be proud of. Even with the village of love and support you and I built, parenting solo is lonely.

Overall, six years feels like it has dragged on and gone by in the blink of an eye all at once. Was it six minutes ago that the casket closed? Was it sixty years ago I last heard your voice? Perhaps that is why many people equate grief with losing your mind. It feels like that sometimes. I miss you in subtle ways all the time, more so than I ever mention because it has become a part of who I am. I see things that you would like and the thought of you comes to mind. It saddens me but I remind myself that your bliss is better than anything I can see and the feeling passes. It all happens in seconds. It's like breathing. Yet, the days leading up to the 15th all my emotions are so much more profound.

I feel fear and vulnerability at levels that are hard to deal with. I feel needy to a degree that is uncharacteristic and it scares so me so I withdraw when what I really want to do is be curled up among those who love me and have been my rocks. The thought that replays in my head is how clueless I was in the days leading up to your death. I had no idea that we were experiencing our lasts. Our last good morning, our last disagreement, our last Valentine's Day, our last good night. The days were so normal and mundane and then BOOM. You were gone; my life changed; I changed. The trust I had in the universe was flipped on its head. In its place is the dread of the other shoe falling, waiting for the next shock to hit. It's like when you've been beaten and someone comes to hug you but you flinch because you expect to be beaten again, even if the person is smiling and calm as they approach you. I live in that flinch, especially in the days leading to the 15th.

I ask myself how I manage to unflinch the rest of the year and I don't have a clear answer. Why after six  years am I still flinching? I don't have an answer to that, either. I have these high expectations every year that I will be stronger, more prepared and less emotional. But every year I am disappointed at how much I feel, hurt and want things to get easier.

This year is no exception. Every anniversary I try new approaches. This year I have packed my calendar with back to back appointments and will end the night surrounded by family and friends. If it were not for them, I don't know where I would be. Throughout the day it is inevitable that my mind will wander back to February 15, 2012 and I will think about what I was doing that day. The memories will come in waves of feelings as they do every year. The scenes from that day will mix with scenes from your wake and funeral as they always do. One memory that always comes to me on this anniversary is the last time I saw your physical self, right before they closed the casket and how my feet felt glued to the floor. I didn't want to see the actual closing but I couldn't bear to walk away knowing what was to happen as soon as I did. From then on, the closed casket wasn't you. It was a prop from the worse day of my life.

Te quiero Mi Amor. Hoy y siempre.

Tu Preciosa,


Wednesday, December 13, 2017


A few weeks ago I took one of those assessments that are meant to uncover your strengths. It was a bunch of questions that asked me how likely I was to do one thing or another. It took about fifteen minutes and was pretty easy. I had done similar exercises before and was candid in my responses, wondering if I would learn something different about myself that I hadn't already learned. 

The chances of another person having my strengths in the same order as me is one in 33 million. In case you fall in those odds, the descriptions are as follows:
  1. Input: Have a craving to know more; like to collect and archive all kinds of information
  2. Intellection: Characterized by their intellectual activity and are retrospective and appreciate intellectual conversation
  3. Futuristic: Inspired by the future and what could be; energize others with their vision of the future
  4. Ideation: Fascinated by ideas and able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena
  5. Strategic: Create alternative ways to proceed; can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues
These strengths were not a surprise. In the grand scheme of things, some themes emerged that made total sense. One theme that stood out among the descriptions of these strengths was efficient

Having led nonprofits where my actual title should have been, Boss of Making Things Happen on a Zero Budget, I constantly question whether how things are being done is truly the best way to do them. That sometimes comes across as challenging others or bossy but that is not the intent. I like to know that whatever I am doing is the best possible way to do it. I hate to know that resources, time, energy or money are being wasted. That is probably why I can never imagine myself working in politics or government.  

I am learning how to apply that efficiency in my writing. With my latest manuscript, I have asked whether or not a character is necessary. Can another one carry out his purpose? Is it worth having another backstory to contend with or can I move the plot along and develop the characters without him? I also ask that about words. I tend to get wordy in my descriptions or backstories and have to comb through scenes asking whether everything is necessary. I have to remind myself to trust my reader and allow them to insert their own lives into the narrative. As I've blogged before, that is an area of on-going struggle for me.

The craving to know more and archive information has been valuable in writing. I store bits of information here and there for stories. Sometimes it makes it in a scene, other times my understanding of something allows me to create a more complete picture. When I wrote about MMA I read books about the sport, but also manuals about how the moves are done, in what order they work best and why certain body types are better at certain moves. I even researched the associated injuries and what the long-term effects could be. I wasn't surprised I scored high in this area, although I am not as good as by BF at memorizing random trivia. I collect a lot of information when needed, but my storage isn't what it could be. 

In my professional life, I am known as the person who questions everything. I have no qualms about challenging someone, especially when they tell me the reason for something is because it has always been done that way. You might as well taunt me with a red flag because I jump on that as a reason to find another way to achieve the same goal. It has led to co-workers feeling intimidated by me and superiors questioning whether or not I want to be a team player. I want to be a team player for sure but I do not want to be on a mediocre team. At the end of the day I have learned to hone this in with various approaches so I don't come on too strong and try to remember to assure others that my objective is not to step on toes or be a pain in the ass, but rather it is based on productivity.

When it comes to challenging the status quo, I'm your girl. When it comes to challenging my characters...that's not my greatest strength. I love them and want to be nice to them. I want them to come out ahead but it makes for a boring story to always be nice to them. Some of my beta readers find it hard to believe that it's difficult for me to be mean to my characters because they are beaten, abused, mangled and hurt. They lose loved ones and live hard lives and none of that is easy to write. But, at the end of the day, it is still their story and I have to get past my instinct to protect them and give them the opportunity to be brave, strong and fierce.

The other theme that emerged was forward-thinking. I think anyone with anxiety is futuristic. We ponder and worry about what has yet to happen all the time. However, when writing, that is when I can have a little fun controlling my character's destinies. I like to have control in real life, too but reality doesn't always cooperate so creating a world where I am the ringmaster is ideal. It is also therapeutic. With words, I can be the master of my fate. Sometimes as I work through fictional scenarios I subconsciously process my reality. This has been a gift at times and also a curse when my own writing has been a trigger for feelings I thought had been dealt with already.

Moving forward I hope to continue to remind myself of these strengths as I look for others. Over time as life teaches me more lessons I am sure the list will change and I will gain new perspectives. That is the most exciting part.

Contact Me


Email *

Message *