Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When There's a Will

Recently, I read an article about a 12-year old boy who asked his mail carrier for junk mail in order to have something to read. He would read junk mail in order to have something to read because the family did not have books and could not afford the bus fare to the library. All the child wanted to do was read, and his poverty got in the way. It make me wonder what else poverty made virtually impossible to him. Transportation is something many of us take for granted. We zip around in our cars, not realizing how much our lives would change if we did not have access to reliable transportation. 

Growing up, I had to take the public bus to school and I hated it. It meant waking up over an hour earlier than needed to walk two blocks to the bus stop in the heat, cold, rain and snow. My stop was the last on the route, so I say through other high school kids getting on and off the bus for a multitude of public schools. They were usually in groups, while I was often the only kid from my school on my bus. As a nerdy, nervous kid, they scared me. They were loud, they walked like they owned the bus, and they took up as much space as possible. I tried to blend in and be as invisible as possible. It was a relief when someone I knew got on the bus and I had someone to talk to, or at least a friendly set of eyes with whom I could make eye contact. Lucky for me, I only dealt with the bus for getting to and from school. When I needed to get anywhere else, my parents had cars and soon I did, too. 

But I think about this little boy who couldn't afford the bus fare to take him to the library. What other places could he not afford to visit? Aside from places of dire necessity, like maybe the doctor, or school, wouldn't he need a way to get to places that might change his future, like perhaps an interview for a summer enrichment program, or to visit a college? Those experiences could change the course of his future, help him break out of poverty. Yet, it is that very poverty that robs him of those chances. 

Being poor is a lot of work. It burns me a million ways when I hear privileged people say things that make it sound like the poor are that way because they are lazy, or don't want a different life. It sickens me to no avail when the poor are treated or talked about as less valuable. It is on their backs that most rich people have the lives they lead. Poverty is not a result of laziness or poor planning. It is not lack of education, or will. I have friends with Masters degrees who are poor. I am not going to get into the systemic ways in which our world keeps the divide between the Have and Have-Nots alive so that those in power can remain so. Instead, I want to focus on a small part of the story, the part that most caught my attention - the kid's longing for reading material.

As a reader, this kid is exposed to so much that his financial situation keeps from him. I keenly understand how that feels. Growing up, I would read books set in a suburban oasis of middle-class families where the protagonist's parents worked one job, where they took annual vacations, and picked out lush Christmas trees in December. They didn't worry about wearing the wrong colors outside, and that they could be shot by a rival gang because of it. There was never an instance when they missed their dad because he went from one shift to the other to make ends meet so the kids only caught glimpses of him here and there. The books I chose had none of this. They were my escape into fantasy, and even though I have expanded my reading choices over the years, they remain so to this day.

I was lucky that my mom found ways to fill the house with books. Whether it was the five-cent sale at the local library, hand-me-down books from cousins and friends, garage sale finds, or books from thrift shops, I had lots of them. I took them for granted. I never thought about what it took for my mom to get those books, what she might have sacrificed to make sure the bookshelf was stocked. This little boy wasn't so lucky. His family's poverty was something that he worked around by reading junk mail. That's the kind of dedication that leads to game-changers. This kid has a shot at changing his situation, maybe even that of his family, and yet there is a chance that he won't have the means to make that change happen. His need to survive on a daily basis will outweigh his resolve. He had a need and he found a way to fulfill it that didn't harm or take from anyone else. His reading junk mail was harmless, as was his request for more. That's a determined reader, the kind of reader I hope one day has access to my books. 

As an author, I may come across instances where kids with no means of getting books will want to read my book. Unfortunately, even as the author, the supply I get will be limited. Sure, some publishing companies offer free books through various programs, but do they always reach kids like this one? I can only promise to do what I can to make sure that they do. In the meantime, I pass along books as often as I can, especially to kids, and I hope that this example doesn't go unnoticed by the kids in my life. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Brave Face for a Good Cause

Concert poster: Year 1
When Warren passed away, I was approached by an acquaintance who has since become a friend. He told me the story of how Warren helped him launch some live music events in Des Moines, and asked for nothing in return. The story did not surprise me, as I was flooded with similar stories at the time. Rather than just sharing a story, this person wanted to do something to honor him in return. He proposed a memorial concert that would raise money to support causes that were important to Warren. We met in late winter and he proposed a summer event, around the time of Warren's birthday. For those of you who knew Warren, his birthday was July 26. We had four months to pull it off.
Making Movies performs at the 1st concert

With the help of some other friends and former students of Warren's Latino Leadership Project, we set off to put together an event that would make him proud, and be a vehicle to keep his legacy alive. We brainstormed ideas and settled on a rock en espaƱol concert because Warren loved that genre of music, and always wished there was more of it in Des Moines.
Concert poster: Year 2

Everyone got to work and while I honestly don't remember details due to the fog I lived in at the time, I remember the night of the event. His sister and my cousin came in from California and Chicago. They were a much needed distraction, and truth be told, I looked forward to their visit more than the concert itself. Not to sound ungrateful for everyone's hard work, because I appreciated it immensely, but it was going to be a tough day. I was still reeling from the loss. It was less than six months since it happened. I was unsure of the emotional toll it was going to take. I had a tough time being in public as it was, and I was vulnerable. I felt like I was walking on to a microscope. Was I strong enough to hold my head up and be strong? Could I be joyful so as not to bring anyone down to my level of hurt and sadness? Could I hear the tunes that so marked him in my memory without running out of there screaming and crying? 

Concert poster: Year 3
For those of you who were there, you know that I made it through the night, but not without some tears. The night was incredible. It touched me beyond words to see so many of his friends come together with smiles and warm memories of partying with him. Many gave me hugs that helped me be strong and put a smile on my face.

The event has been wonderful every year since. The crowd has grown, the music has varied to include other genres (Warren loved many genres from Boleros to 70's rock and much in between), and the event has raised money for agencies serving the Latino community in the areas of financial literacy, leadership and education. 

Estrofia performs the 2nd year
What hasn't improved is my love/hate relationship with it. I love seeing people come together for something that Warren loved. It still touches and amazes me that so many people still want to honor him after three years. It doesn't escape my notice the many who come out for this event, even though they don't normally go to concerts, are not familiar with the music, or who do not speak Spanish. I love to see that. It is a reminder of the lives Warren touched. It makes me feel less alone in missing him.

Concert poster: Year 4
Yet, I dread this event. For starters, it marks a milestone. It is scheduled to fall on or around his birthday. I miss celebrating Warren with him. His laugh, his smile, the way his eyes would crinkle in the corners because he was on the verge of smiling. He would never make a big deal about celebrating himself, but his energy was palpable and contagious. That's why I loved planning his birthday parties every year. It was as much for him as it was for me. It was one of the few times he would let me make the day all about him.

Parranderos Latin Combo perform at the 3rd concert
Every time a milestone comes around, I spend the days leading up to it fighting my sadness and anger, reminding myself of the good in the world so I am not consumed by the injustice of it. There are so many milestones to face every year - mine, his, ours, our daughter's, and those of our families. Every birthday, holiday, achievement, etc. I want him there for all of them. Knowing he's not there tears me up inside, even as I go through the motions of living every day as though I am tough. These days get me. I thought they would get easier, but three years in I still struggle facing them.

This event brings together so much that was him. The music, the friends, the good times, making memories, helping others, working together for a common goal. The very essence of it has him all over it, and that is difficult to walk into alone. The room is filled with people, many of whom I love, but at the end of the day, it is without him, and it is with Warren that I want to share it. I want to see his face experience it all. I want to dance with him. I want to hear him sing off-key at the top of his lungs with Estrofia, like he did so many times before. I want to work the room with him as he hugs and shows his appreciation for everyone coming out to support live music in Spanish. All those desires wash over me throughout the night. 
The crowd enjoying the concert
I survive the night by keeping busy greeting and organizing, doing what I can to make sure everyone has a good night. I seldom hit the dance floor. I can't bring myself to sing along much, even when I know the words. I want to. My body moves to the beat, but my heart feels so heavy, like it anchors me to the ground. I fight it and I put on my best I'm OK face. At the end of the night I am exhausted from the inside out. The next day I often wish I could exist in a hole, quietly processing and decompressing. This year that feeling might be stronger because it would have been his 38th birthday. 

But, there is still a love for this concert. It fuels me. It reminds me that I am not alone in missing Warren. I feel like he isn't forgotten, and that lifts me, it moves my feet. That love steers my thoughts out of dark places and into a place of gratitude and admiration for those who value the concert, value my journey and dance beside me as I go.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

If I Close my Eyes, Will it Change the Outcome?

I am in full denial mode. I started on a new story that I'm super excited about, but I also got feedback from my agent about my manuscript. I love hearing from my agent. When I see her name in my list of emails I still get that excited feeling like I'm about to open a gift that I've been waiting for. But, for this message there were no butterflies. My stomach didn't flip with its normal buzz. It was confusing and yet, I knew this moment would come.

I've been loving that story for almost three years. I have lived in my protagonist's head in a way that I haven't in any other story. At times I found myself creating her world while driving, and daydreaming as though I was her. Even when working on other stories she was there, her story always the priority, my main love.

There's something about this new story that is diluting my energy for other stories. It has become a stronger pull. I itch to develop this new character that I have already begun to like in a way that is feeling new, yet familiar. I know that I sound like a kid who gets a new doll and no longer wants her original doll that she loved so dearly. I am aware that I have a long way to go on my original story, because hopefully one day soon it will be in the hands of an editor and many changes will have to be made. 

Don't get me wrong, I am not giving up on my manuscript. It still holds a very special place in my heart and I know I will dive in again - and will soon have to. But, for now, I'm pretending to close my eyes and hope that when I open them, another set of revisions will have been done and I can focus my time on my new story, that needs so much work and careful thought. Wish me luck, because reality beckons. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Feeling What You Feel, At Any Age

Courtesy of Disney Pixar

When we think of children, it's common to think of positive feelings. After all, they have it pretty easy, right? No bills to pay or job to go to every day. They're naive enough to believe in Tooth Fairies and fat white guys who drop off gifts once a year just because they were "good" little boys and girls. We refer to them as bundles of joy since before they take their first breath. But, are we doing them a dis-service by associating only positive feelings to their childhood paths?

As adults, we experience a gamut of emotions - in my case, I experience elation to frustration to extreme sadness, sometimes within an hour. Yet, when kids cry, our first reaction is to say something like, "Aw, don't cry. It's OK." When we see an adult cry, we tend to say something like, "That's OK, you have to let it out." Those are hugely different messages and I think we need to flip the script. 

As a writer, one of the hardest things for me to write is emotion. I can write anger pretty easily, but anger isn't in itself an emotion, it's a reaction of an emotion, more of a by-product. It stems from something like hurt, deception, neglect, etc. Those are the emotions that need to be dealt with in order to manage the anger. Those are also the emotions that need to develop in my characters so that my readers understand the anger. Many of my writer friends say the same thing about writing emotions - that it's tough. The sheer number of writing blogs and articles on the subject are testament to the fact that it's difficult to write true feelings, much less flush them out so they are clear and easily identified. I have a few theories on why that is.

Theory #1: We're not encouraged to express or explore feelings as children.
Many of us were told not to cry, asked if we wanted a reason to cry, or were made to feel stupid when tears rolled down our cheeks. My friends recall stories of being told, "I'll give you a reason to cry" when they were kids, and how they all had different ways of swallowing their emotions so they wouldn't have to face la chancla for crying. We exchange these stories with humor and laughter, but at its core, there's nothing funny about being afraid to cry, to show that level of hurt, frustration, sadness, or anger. Feeling like you can only show one emotion - joy, is unhealthy in many ways. One of which is that it prohibits us from truly understanding our emotions. We learn to wear masks that show one side of us, our happy side. That isn't sustainable because we're human. We were exquisitely made to feel a complex array of emotions. That is how we process the world. Sometimes those emotions are ugly and they bring out the worst in us. That's also human and normal. But, the affects of limited emotional acceptance leaves us feeling that there's something wrong with us for feeling disappointed, jealous, insecure or overwhelmed. We were never taught how to properly assess those feelings and cope with them in healthy ways. That results in repression, denial and shame for feelings that were hard-wired into our being. How we react when we're feeling these negative feelings is what shapes our character. 

Too often as children we were distracted by fear of reprimand, or shamed with words like, "That's no reason to cry," or tickled and bribed into drying up those tears. As a parent, I get it. Nothing grates on my nerves more than crying, especially loud crying coming from a child old enough to use words. I have found myself saying all of the above, minus the chancla threat. I don't want my child to cry, whether for what I deem a silly reason, or one that comes from a place of deep hurt. I try not to let my daughter see me cry for fear that she'll be scared, or think I'm too fragile to care for her and protect her. I constantly battle with myself to understand the core of the crying, to ask why she cries with a genuine interest in listening, not in making the tears go away. Not to say there haven't been times when I tell her to go cry in her room, but more often than not, I want to understand her feelings because it was something I wish I had when I was growing up. Perhaps if I did, I would have an easier time illustrating feelings in my writing. 

Theory #2: We don't respect all feelings as equals.
Selling happiness is a billion-dollar industry. Terms like "happy pills" make us believe that any emotion other than joy can be zapped away with a pill and sip of water. There are seminars, books, retreats, Podcasts, and endless Pinterest boards dedicated to finding your bliss. Smiling faces bombard us at every corner from ads selling vaginal itch creams (I have yet to meet a woman elated about vaginal itch as the women in those ads), to sales people who want us to believe that buying the latest gadget or new car will make us the happiest person on earth. Happiness reigns supreme all around us. It makes us believe that it is a superior emotion. Yet, why is it any more valid than terror? Why do we only want others to see that one side of us? Why do we feel so ashamed to show another?

We don't validate other feelings. When was the last time you were encouraged to get in touch with any other feeling? Unless you are in the privacy of a therapist's office, or a support group of some kind, chances are you aren't encouraged to acknowledge and nurture any emotion other than positive ones. We try the childhood methods of distraction when it comes to our negative feelings. That's why drugs, alcohol, food and other addictions are so rampant. They act like bandages to our emotions, and later become our crutch in place of true admittance and action. Dulling and hiding our pain becomes the norm and when someone is brave enough to write about their dark times and how they made it through, we treat them as though they are an anomaly, heroes who did something extraordinary when deep down we know they did the same thing we all do on a daily basis - they just had the courage to make it public.

If we treated all emotions as valid, if we trusted them all to be a necessary part of life, we would be free of the misconception that some emotions are good, and some are bad. Emotions are what they are. They are our way of coping. The situations that influence emotions are good and bad, not the emotions themselves. 

I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be one. I loved my Psyche 101 class, but it hardly qualifies me as an expert. I am not trying to be one. Life has dealt me enough experiences that have elicited a broad range of emotions - as it does everyone. My circumstances may be different, but they do not warrant any more understanding of my emotions than anyone else's. When looking at how I react to what life offers me, I have to be brave enough to accept the ugly parts of emotion in order to write with authenticity. If I can't tap into what sparks tears or rage, then how can my reader understand why my character cries or punches a wall? 

Writing emotions from a genuine place will always be a challenge for me. When my agent says she wants to better understand why a character is prone to violence, or why she can't cry, I cringe because I know that those revisions require me to tap into places I have been taught to avoid, hide and be ashamed of. It means I have to go to a place of darkness that should remain unseen, untapped and therefore unaccepted. It takes me longer to dig into that aspect of my character, but I have to in order to know what drives him or her. If I write a scene, I have to provide my readers with the understanding of actions that set that scene in motion. Without the sentiments behind the action, my character is flat and unappealing to readers, especially young readers who are dealing with stifled emotions on a daily basis. As a writer, I can't short-change my readers by avoiding the core of what  makes my characters tick. It's not fair to them, and it wouldn't make a believable story. I want my readers to trust me and with that comes the responsibility of respecting all feelings as equal and valid, because they are.

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