Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Telling Name


I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but there have been times when I have denied my birth name. As recently as this afternoon I referred to myself as Christina Morrow, deliberately leaving off my hyphenated maiden name because I wanted to get a call back from someone. It makes me angry to think that I live in a world where I get a feeling down my spine that tells me that I won't get the response I am looking for if the person I am communicating with knows I am Latina. This has been happening to me for years and up until I got married, I had no buffer from my very Latin surname. Yet, when I got married and had the chance to drop it for an Anglo last name, I could not imagine not having it.

Obviously, the only time I can get away with using my married name and not having the person guess my ethnicity is over the phone or email, because upon looking at me, I definitely don't look Anglo. Some people have told me that I am ambiguously brown, meaning I can pass for many ethnicities and combos thereof. Growing up, my skin color and heritage wasn't an issue until I got to high school. I attended an all-white school where my color, my neighborhood and my roots stuck out like a fly in milk. I was often asked to explain my background and some even argued with me that I was "mixed" rather than Latina. It made me very aware of skin shades and also very attuned to when it could potentially be an issue.

I live in the middle of Iowa. While it is a blue state, it has a lot of conservative values, many attached to negative stereotypes about people of color. The anti-immigrant sentiment has at times made me feel unsafe in certain situations, despite being a citizen. Those times have definitely made me wary of using my full last name. There was even a time when I visited a small town for work and someone flat out asked me, "You aren't one of those illegals are you? They seem to be everywhere these days." I informed that person that my ancestors became part of the U.S. in 1917 and that I was born in the United States. He gave a look that gave me the creeps and I quickly did what I needed to do and got the hell out of there. 

When looking for service providers, specifically in male dominated industries, I have found that when I use my hyphenated name I don't get calls back. When I use my married name I do. It has almost become a habit that if I am calling a stranger to conduct personal business, like a new doctor, contractors and mechanics I use Morrow, most times without considering otherwise. I caught myself doing it this afternoon and it stopped me in my tracks. It made me feel like a hypocrite because I love my Latina roots. I celebrate them as often as I can and I am trying to do the same for my daughter. I have committed countless hours to working in the Latino community and educate anyone who will listen on the positive contributions we have made locally and nationally. Yet, in the privacy of meeting my own needs, I hide it. It feels shameful and I don't like it.

I have white friends who have married Latinos and gladly taken on their surnames, proud to go from Smith to Lopez, like a badge of how open-minded and liberal they are. They practice rolling their R's when they go from Jones to Rodriguez and don't think twice about using their new name to let the world know they are a part of a multicultural union. They don't understand why I do the opposite. They don't know how it feels to wonder if your name could mean the difference between respect and human dignity, and painful discrimination. They have no idea what it feels like to have people look at you as though you don't belong, are not as valuable, can't possibly be as smart, and therefore easily dismissed. For all my education, awards and recognition, there are still times when a look from a stranger makes me doubt my own abilities, if only for a second, before it pisses me off and makes me work twice as hard to prove that I am more than their misguided perception of a brown woman. 

Don't take this the wrong way. This post is not an anti-white rant. It is a small part of my life that I happened to examine. The sad thing is, I doubt that I'm alone in exercising this life skill. I know there are others out there with ethnic names who change it up to get the response they know they deserve. Just ask Jose who became Joe to get a job. Studies have found that names elicit certain reactions in others. Most often, they are negative and trigger judgment calls about the person with the ethnic name. 

When thinking about using a pen name, this reality definitely rears its ugly head. I truly LOVE being Latina. But I can't help but wonder if writing under Fernández will mean that my books will only get displayed during Hispanic Heritage Month, or that I'll only be considered to speak at events that highlights my culture instead of my talent. Will my book(s) only make it to multicultural lists, or will they be seen as universal based on content? Will kids from all backgrounds have the opportunity to read about my characters or will they relegated to libraries that have significant Latino populations? The fact that I even have to wonder about this saddens and angers me. I have heard the stories from Latina authors about constantly being referred to as a Latina writer, rather than just a writer, as though being a Latina who is able to write makes them an anomaly. I wish that in 2015 this could be a topic of the past, but the truth is that it's just as pervasive today as ever before. And of course, it is not an issue limited to Latino surnames. When was the last time a white writer's ethnicity was stated in their bio or introduction? Why can't writers of color just be called writers?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dancing with a Limp


I was looking for something on Pinterest, and this quote stopped me in my tracks. In fact, it made me forget what I was looking for. 
Lifes A Quote ~ Widow in the City

When people ask me how I'm doing, I often say that I'm doing fine, because I don't expect they want to know the truth. The truth after three years of grief feels stale to me. By that I mean that while it is still fresh in many ways, so much of life has happened that I don't always feel comfortable acknowledging that I still hurt on a daily basis. The sad thing is that no one is doing anything to make me feel this way. I do it to myself. 

Every time I cry out of the blue, or whenever I am overcome with the loneliness that comes with losing my best friend, I berate myself. I try to stop crying as quickly as I can and I am overcome with disappointment in myself. Even in my own house I find secret places to cry where no one can see because I don't want anyone to know that I still grieve so deeply. 

As I've mentioned before, I have phenomenal friends and family. I know I can cry in front of them, and I do. They tell me all the time that it is OK for me to cry, that it is understandable and that in the scheme of things, three years is nothing, and to take my time grieving. Yet, to me, it feels as though I should be feeling grateful for the life I've lived in the last three years, and not so stuck on what hasn't been, and what won't be. I feel like I should be at the point where I focus more on what I've accomplished, and all that I have to look forward to. 

Since that horrid day I have been recognized and won multiple awards. I have made beautiful friends and Allies. I have written a novel. I have started on the path to a career as a writer. I have traveled. I have launched a non-profit. I have organized Christmas Eve meals for nearly 500 people. I have raised a daughter who is lovely and sassy, just like she should be. I have been part of honoring Warren's legacy through his posthumous awards and memorials. I got a Masters degree. I got a job at a university. I lost 30 pounds. When I list it like this, it sounds like I've done a lot in three years. But it took me a LONG time to come up with this list. Why? Because they feel insignificant in comparison to the potent sadness that is still so alive with vigor inside me. I want desperately for all these things to feel like enough to move me past the sadness, but it's not, and that makes me feel like there is something wrong with me.

Silent tears until my son returns to me, the man I know God made him to be...prayers every night for you son, I continue to miss you while you'e "gone"...Love ~ MomEvery day I feel more deeply than I ever have, and it freaks me out. I am not used to being tugged emotionally so many times per day. That's not how I was pre-February 15th. 

As an adult I have always hated crying. I have never been able to let tears fall as needed and accept them as part of life. Perhaps it was the shame I felt crying as a child when I was told I was crying "for no reason". Whatever the cause, crying feels like the ultimate weakness to me. People say it is healthy, necessary, normal, blah, blah, blah. That doesn't register to me. It doesn't feel like any of those things when I do it. Most times it makes me feel worse because on top of the feelings that elicited the tears, I feel indignant that I was not strong enough to suppress them and keep up appearances.

So many people tell me how strong they think I am. It astonishes me. I don't feel strong in the sense they mean. My body feels strong, thanks to hours with weights and punching bags, but internally, I feel as fragile as a feather.

According to Carole Brody Fleet, author of Widows Wear Stilettos, these feelings are a normal part of the grief journey. She says:

Your Healing Journey will take many twists and turns. You will have days that are not so bad and you will have days that are challenging.
Very challenging.
When you have those challenging days or sad moments or sad periods (and they will happen), please do not think of them in terms of having a "setback" or "backsliding".
Instead, embrace those days.
Give in to those times.
If you are having a day when you are feeling quiet or introspective, follow your heart, embrace your feelings and stay quiet and introspective. If you are having a sad day, the exact same thing applies.
If you have done even one positive thing to help yourself heal and move forward, it is to be applauded. To do otherwise by using words like “setback” or “backsliding” is negating the steps forward that you have made and you deserve more credit for survival than that.
In other words...no matter how much or how little time has passed since the loss of your spouse, you HAVE progressed.
I want to believe her, but nothing about these feelings feels normal, or like progress. I am not stronger than anyone else. I am not doing anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances I've been dealt. I am doing the best I can to meet expectations. I expect a lot from myself. Warren expected a lot from me. My daughter expects me to be a mother and a father. My mother expects me to support her in her time of transition. My siblings expect me to help them when needed. My father expects me to follow his example of stoic persistence. My friends expect me to be as awesome to them as they are to me. My co-workers expect me to pull my weight in the office. My colleagues at the nonprofit expect me to reflect their passion for the mission of the organization. My agent expects me to put in the time and energy to write a good story she can sell. Above all, I expect to meet, and exceed all these expectations without hesitation. When that lump forms in my throat and my eyes start to sting when I'm supposed to be doing something else, it slows me down. It means that I'm not doing what I set out to do at that moment, and I am wasting valuable time. I have a lot of expectations to fulfill in a 24 hour period. 

. Love the collage & mixed media going on on the cover of this journal! I feel an inspired painting coming on!
I don't write this as a way to fish for compliments or seeking pity. I write it because I feel like the above quote says, that I am dancing with a limp. I am trying to live life as if I'm not grieving, as if I don't hurt as badly as I do. I am not contending with the limp of my true feelings. I try way too hard to hide the limp. It takes a lot of energy to act like the limp isn't there. It's exhausting work, and futile because no matter what dance moves I bust out, the limp isn't going anywhere. Everyone can see it. Perhaps it's time I stop trying to pretend it doesn't exist and learn some dance moves that incorporate the limp. Maybe the next time someone asks me how I'm doing, I'll say, "Limping along, hurt but not immobile," and allow myself the freedom of acknowledging truth.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Writing Advice Can Make You Nuts

As a novice to publishing, I look for advice from those who have been there, done that. I ask writers I meet, I follow writer's blogs, I read articles about publishing by writers who know what they're talking about, I join online writers' groups. I hear some of the same things over and over again, like: read widely; write everyday (which I wish was possible for me); don't follow trends; do your research, etc. But I recently read an article by Ryan Boudinot, the executive director of Seattle City of Literature that had a unique bit of advice that has been stewing in my mind. He said:

We've been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete. 
 I didn't agree with all that he states in the article, but I think he's on to something in the quoted text above. In this day and age of posting our every waking thought and getting instant "likes" and "follows" we begin to expect that all of our efforts should bring a quick response. For any aspiring writers, this mentality can kill your spirit. 

A well written story, no matter the length, takes hours of development and research. What flies from your thoughts in that first bout of inspiration is often raw and uncut, in desperate need of revising to shape it into the story it was meant to be. The notion that a book comes to you fully formed is a fool's fantasy. That overnight success you hear about when a book hits the best seller list was probably in the works for decades. 

27 Pieces Of Advice For Writers From Famous Authors

But we don't live in a world where slow is king. We abhor slow. We see it as a sign of weakness, of being less than acceptable. Writers have to straddle two cultures if they want to succeed. They must accept that slow and steady wins the race. They must make the time to read as much as they can in the genre they are writing before and during the time they create their stories. Sometimes it takes reading dozens of books to understand how best to tell the kind of story you want to write. Those who want to be published must also do their work to know what is happening in the industry, just like any other profession. They should keep a pulse on the market, if only to make sure they aren't feeding into trends, and to understand their impact on the business. This kind of analysis requires results over time. You can't read one or two articles and consider yourself educated on what's hot in publishing. It takes patience in a world where that virtue is becoming an oddity. 

The other side of the coin is that writers must exist in the accelerated world where everything should have been done, received, completed yesterday. They are encouraged to blog, tweet, post status updates and Instagram photos to establish a rapport with their readers. These digital relationships don't rest, they happen 24/7 and you have to be "on" all the time to interact with them. That training Boudinot mentions above comes from living in a time where apps are getting faster, wi-fi access everywhere we go is the expectation, and never having to wait for anything is the norm. The instant gratification mindset is completely different than what it takes to get published. Authors must live full speed ahead via their digital world, while forcing themselves to slow down to honor the creative process.

Publishing hasn't caught up with this model of immediate responses and instant reactions. Agents and editors aren't going to drop everything to read your latest query or submission. Even before you get there, writing a novel, even a short story isn't quick work. If an author gets caught up in the fast, fast, fast of life as we know it, Boudinot is right that the now, now, now disposition we're accustomed to will become our own worse enemy. It will dilute our creative capabilities and replace it with doubt. If we feel we are not producing work fast enough we will begin to think that we cannot produce work. When that happens, our motivation becomes stalled. When our motivation evaporates, our confidence is rocked and the writer's block sets in. We don't believe that we have what it takes to become published because if we did, it would have happened already. We lose sight of what writing requires of us, of what it demands.



Art cannot be rushed. No one becomes a master of anything in a day, or a week, so why would a serious writer expect to become a good writer in the time it takes to swipe left on a photo, or click Like on a post? What kind of commitment does that take? What kind of after-thought? As a person who has never been described as patient, I have to check myself on this all the time. This is especially true when I am working on revisions. They're a necessary evil and I completely believe they make the story stronger. Yet, I can't help asking myself, "Didn't I already write the story the way I want it to be? Why do I have to write it again? I want to be done." 

Thinking like that can be a dangerous slope. It devalues what my story could be, where it deserves to go, and my abilities to make it the best it can be. So I remind myself that writing is like a fine wine. It gets better with time, and since I love a fine wine, I pour myself a glass and sit with laptop and give my writing the time it deserves. In the end, it will be worth it and I'll be slightly drunk on wine and relief and that sounds pretty good to me.   



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