Beginnings and Boundlessness: 2017 in the Rearview

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You’ve never been good at endings. Never good at beginnings. Real ones, at least, not the abstract construct that is the end of one year and the beginning of another. December 31st bleeds into January whether we want it or not, regardless. Time marches endlessly on, and suddenly it’s the last week of this new year and you haven’t written your annual letter to yourself. How to begin to talk about a year characterized more by discomfort than almost anything else? How to make sense of a year under siege–not so much bodily siege maybe, as the privilege limned into your skin is indisputable–in which boiling vats of ugliness are poured on our heads daily, spilled straight from the mouths of politicians seemingly intent on annihilation, vitriol heated by centuries of racism and structurally-sanctioned white supremacy? How do you characterize a year in which the political has been sublimated into the personal, but where you still struggle to find a way to be an effective ally and a bastion against the tides of unmaking that threaten so many people you love and so many that you have no connection with other than shared humanity? You struggle to find a way, but then feel that you’ve accomplished nothing. Is that struggle good enough?

If nothingness is the absence of action, of consciousness, then that is not what you’re doing. You entered a Women’s Studies grad program with the explicit intention of finding a way to be a part of change. So far you’ve only found enough questions to bury yourself in, questions that don’t even pretend to lead to answers. But you have had to contend with the discomfort of recognizing previously held truths to be products of privilege and in need of scrutiny. You’ve had to acknowledge that sometimes your voice is one that should be sacrificed so that another more marginalized voice can be heard. You’ve come to understand how harmful and alienating white feminism has been and continues to be and how important it is that you do better and stop contributing to the very problems you claim to stand against. You’re only a quarter of the way through the program. You can only work as hard as you can, sit with the discomfort that comes from acknowledging your own ignorance, and take every opportunity that presents itself. You have to believe it will lead to something.

In the meantime, be content with the process, with the more sedentary shape your life has fallen into for now, one in which you spend a lot of time disheveled, bespectacled, resplendent in sweaters and leggings, with a cup of tea and whatever you’re supposed to be reading for class (and sometimes for fun if you can swing it).

In the vein of sitting with discomfort, you’ve continued with roller derby which continues to make you feel simultaneously powerful and like a wrecking ball gone haywire. Transferring to another, larger team in San Diego, where the level of some of the players is sometimes so intimidating that you have to almost coerce yourself into showing up, was a big move. Rationally, you know that you will continue to get better and one day be a great skater, but you have to show up. You have to be willing to be bad at this in the hopes of being good one day… or at least less bad.

The end of the year has been characterized by an almost overwhelming feeling of not having control over your life, of being moved by forces more powerful than you. Obligations to school and state, time spent navigating bureaucratic tangles, have forced you to spend time you would have rather saved. Being there for that most precious person in your life as she literally straddled the bounds of life and death, protecting those who needed it, fighting the same old family battles, has taken so much energy but it is energy well-spent. These are the relationships that matter, the people that have shaped you and nurtured you and helped make you who you are. Don’t despair when it seems like progress is being dismantled or those you love are weakened. Celebrate the incredible luck of having these people in the first place. No one said love was easy or straightforward. Besides the love you feel for your family, nurture this new love you’ve found with the man who has shown you how to be vulnerable again, how to create space for another. Don’t jump to conclusions, don’t run away when you see darkness on the horizons, don’t listen to the voice that says it’s useless and a waste of time. That is the voice of the scared, small part of you that is so afraid of pain. This love is worth sticking around for.

In this last year, you’ve moved cities, switched derby teams, gone back to school, started a new job, and once again removed yourself from the little bubble of comfort that grew around you during the year and a half you stayed in one place. It has been profoundly difficult in many ways, but it has reinforced that you are capable of anything. You have learned again and again that if you put the effort out, if you try, things can happen that you never could have foreseen. That’s why you need to apply that to writing. You’ve spent so long sitting with your desire to write, so sure that no one will value it enough to ask for it or pay for it that not only have you never put it out there (aside from on personal blogs) but you’ve held back on the very act of writing. When you think of how you want to spend your life, what do you come back to over and over and over again? When you think about how you’re most effective in talking about what matters to you, is it in speaking or in writing? When you have time for yourself, what are you most likely to spend it doing?

You have to listen to yourself. You have to try. You might fail. There’s a good chance you will fail–at least as long as the bar for success is set at money and public acknowledgement. But the biggest failure–and you  know it–will be in never having tried. This year you have started new things over and over again and it has been hard. Each time you began to feel comfortable, you started something else and that feeling was ripped away again, exposing rawness to uncaring elements. Sometimes it has felt pointless. But you can’t deny that each new thing has brought something to your life. Each risk you’ve taken has revealed something new about yourself and about what you are capable of experiencing. Make that fucking choice and stick with it.

I love you. I’m proud of you. I believe in you.

La Güera Dreams, Despierta, Makes Lists

It’s 6:01 a.m. In reality, it’s 5:01, but that strange human invention, Daylight Savings Time, starts today. This is not a time of day in which a güera is generally awake, let alone productive. But I was dreaming…

Of work.

Yet I woke up as if from a nightmare–hyperaware and breathing fast. I tried to go back to sleep for a while, but my mind continued to race. It was like my brain was trying to use the limited information it had to figure out why I had woken up the way I did. It felt like it does when there’s an earthquake, or someone’s calling your name, or something is happening that shouldn’t be, and your brain is sending emergency signals to your body to WAKEUPWAKEUPWAKEUP, but the body is slow to answer, wrapped too heavily in shroud-like sleep.

What had happened?

Then it hit me, and the possibility of sleep sailed away on a silent wind.

I’ve been home for a year. Today.

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If that was me then, who am I now?

Let me break it down.

Things I like: dancing, roller skating, hot dogs, scars, kissing, strong coffee, stronger beer, belly laughter, my body, artistic expression, 90s fashion, being underwater, the word “fuck”, people watching, friendship, honesty, hirsute men, tattoos, language.

Things I don’t like: shaving, high intensity workouts, the disparity in effort to orgasm between the sexes, applications, standardized testing, things that look unlived in, disrespect, intolerance, gratuitous violence, abuse of power, debt, ignorance.

Things I like: shirts that say things, costume jewelry, lying in bed, lying in bed with books, lying in bed with boys, religious art, leather jackets, outdoor markets, intelligent conversation, lingerie, driving, spontaneity, baking, chicken wings, playing sports.

Things I don’t like: sports fans, traffic, diminutive pet names given by strangers, catcalling, shaming, religion, the word “nut butter”, romance (mostly), the absence of critical thought, pain, malls, small talk, cages (generally), alarms, being afraid of–


So, who am I, a year after coming home?

I’m very much myself, a little less afraid than I was before, less inclined to be “nice” and “accommodating”, a little more sure of where I might be heading. I’m also more aware of my weaknesses, my strengths, and also that nebulous area where the two blend seamlessly together.

I’ve been very close to the bottom several times since I’ve been home, but here, at dawn, a year from stepping off the plane from Colombia, a year from dancing alone in the rain in the middle of thousands of people, a year from racing down the streets of Bogotá both thrilled and horrified that my taxi driver ran every red light…

I’d say things are coming up roses.

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My Life Off the Road: Reflecting on 2016

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2017, goddamn. It’s the beginning, again, although lately you’ve felt little that is new. It feels rather as if this is something of a middle–the middle of what being the only question. If this were a book, we might be nearing climax, but still far from the resolution. The New Year really is nothing more than an arbitrary cusp of time created to break things down into small enough pieces that our little human minds can understand them, and yet somehow it still feels meaningful. Like the tone needs to be set, or the rest of the year will be a mess. Like life is, generally. A mess of options and decisions to be made, of relationships to be nurtured or set loose, of words to swallow and actions to take.

You’ve been feeling lost and unsure, and very much in need of some self-love. You’ve been focusing on the negative, on your proximity to failure, but you have so much to be thankful for, and so many things you’ve done look like a raging success to others who dream of doing what you’ve done–of living abroad, of traveling far and wide, of having the time and the freedom to create yourself in your own image. This woman whose creation is continually being molded by the world, by the people who love her, and by her very own will is beautiful and worthy and well-made. Remember what you’ve been given, and what you’ve earned for yourself. Try to see yourself as clearly as you can.

Regardless of your proximity to other people’s idea of failure, think of the things you’ve done this year. You’ve worked tirelessly to pay off your credit cards (so close, now). You joined a roller derby team, something you’ve dreamed of for years, putting you face to face with one of your biggest weaknesses–the reluctance to do things that you’re not good at. You even hurt yourself in your first practice, adding insult to injury. But once you healed, you went back. You didn’t give up. You didn’t tuck tail and pretend that you didn’t really care. Skating has lit a fire deep down inside you, in a place that has been dark for a while. Cherish that light. Build up the flames until it warms every inch of you. Even if you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. As you well know, injury can come even when we think we’re consummately safe, so do what feels right and good and true. As Charles Bukowski said, “Find what you love, and let it kill you.”

One thing that you’ve struggled with this year is fear and anxiety, in ways you never have before. You’re not a psychologist, but you know it has something to do with how you felt in Ecuador, how you felt when you were mugged, how you felt when men tried to take advantage of you, how you felt when you were, both literally and figuratively, pushed up against a wall without your consent. Don’t focus on that. Focus on what you did in response. Think of how you fought, with your words, with your body. Think of the strength you found within yourself. Even if you smiled and joked after, because you couldn’t admit what almost happened, because you thought that was the safest way out of the situation. Focus on the fact that nothing they did or said or implied dimmed your light even a shade. You burned only brighter. Still, never before have you been so reluctant to touch and be touched. Never before has the very idea of bodily proximity with another person caused you to physically and mentally retreat. But you’ve also never been as in tune with your body as you are now. Perhaps you need to heal and there’s nothing wrong with that. You have all the time in the world and, luckily, you already know that your relationship status has nothing to do with your value or worth. Even if you never wanted to be touched again, it would never make you any less than whole.

You are not failing. But part of you is waiting for your professional dreams to knock on your front door, for someone to recognize that your writing is worth publishing or that your voice is worth listening to or your experience worth sharing. Waiting will never make dreams manifest. You have to put in the work. You have to put yourself out there. You have to set yourself up only to be knocked down, and do this again and again and again and again. One day you will get there. One day you will find that job that makes your heart beat faster and the blood race through your body with passion as its fuel. But not if you don’t try. Not if you continue thinking that maybe you’re not capable of greatness, maybe you’re not as wonderful as those you love think you are. Try, try, try again, even if, in the end, all you have is evidence of effort. At least when you reach back into your past, it won’t be the strangled seedlings of desiccated hopes you hold in your hands.

In many ways, you have felt more vulnerable this year than you can remember feeling since high school. Vulnerability is good. Growth comes from such things. Love your vulnerability as you love that which is strong and confident in you. Don’t wait for inspiration. Dedicate time to your art, and be surprised by what you create. You don’t usually do resolutions, but here’s one: do something creative every day. Whether it’s working on your lettering, or writing (even if it’s just a sentence), or cooking, or dancing. If you’re creating something out of nothing, you’re succeeding.

Work to keep your heart open. You wear your heart on your sleeve, even if you boast the opposite. Only it’s not the heart of epic romance or fairy tales–or at least not the heart of the fair damsel. Your heart speaks of stormy seas and lonely woods, of paths with no end in sight, of fireplaces and books and star-spilled skies. It seeks no twin but rather the fulfillment of its own self. You shouldn’t want it any other way.

Maybe you’ll never have a lot of money. Maybe you’ll never live alone. Maybe you’ll never be able to stop making lists of what needs to be paid for, but also, maybe, you’ll be happy and secure and content in all the ways that matter. Maybe this empty, flat midland you feel yourself in now is just something that needs to be crossed in order to reach the magnificent future that awaits you just beyond the horizon. Keep moving forward, even if only in half-steps. Keep holding yourself up and allow others to hold you up when that feels too heavy a burden.

Do you know that you are loved?

I love you.

 

 

An Elegy to a Dream Deferred

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Up until midnight, I was so sure that this wasn’t going to happen. The people I knew weren’t racists or xenophobes. They didn’t explicitly demean women or mock those with disabilities. They weren’t looking to take America back to some halcyon time when the gods and the white men frolicked together in fields, while women and darker-skinned people raised limbs heavy with chains to pour wine into the men’s gaping mouths and used up their own bodies and dignities to sate the white man’s pleasure. But then midnight hit, and Clinton conceded the election, and suddenly messages from friends all over the world started pouring in, asking me if I was ok, if this was really happening…

Because somebody is, and believes, all those things. And those somebodies have elected Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States. Some staggering number of somebodies are so cavalier about the well-being of Latinos and LGBTQ people, women and Muslims, that they voted for a man whose rhetoric and demeanor and beliefs are the shades of Pinochet and Trujillo and Hitler come back to haunt us. Those somebodies truly believe that a man who openly assaults women and lies and cheats and steals… will be a better president than a woman. Because let’s call it like it is, folks. America just wasn’t ready for there to be a pair of ovaries in the Oval Office.

But my goal here is not to spew blame. I think–I hope–that people chose their candidate because they truly believed he was the best hope for the future. We have our president elect now and, sadly, we deserve him. All of us. I do and you do and all the people who voted Hillary and Bernie and Jill Stein and that other guy. Those of us who hoped that Americans were better, kinder, more accepting, and more tolerant than we turned out to be. We all deserve him.

Because we let this happen.

For so long, we have believed that we were the best, the brightest, the North star to the entire world. Over half the population has never bothered to get a passport, because why would you leave? Where else would you need to go if you already live in the best country on Earth? The rest of the world is scary, anyhow. Full of criminals and sex trafficking, corrupt officials and drugs, rabid dogs and, worst of all, poor people. Our confidence in our own comparative greatness has let that very attribute slip through our fingers.

Because we thought we were already the best, we have let education lapse. We have sat by and waited for someone else to solve the problem of skyrocketing higher education tuitions, allowed the military to come into our high schools and recruit those who no one was paying attention to anyway, stopped reading for the sake of reading and learning, acquiesced to the fact that teachers are barely paid a livable wage. We have written angry words on our Facebook pages and then sat back with a satisfied smirk before turning back to the television and binge-watching House of Cards (because that kind of corruption could never happen IRL, right?). We have sat and been silent, stood up for the national anthem, hand over heart, and waited for someone else to chase away the angry, violent storms darkening the horizon.

As a collective group of citizens, we have failed, and what comes next will come down on us all.

But it will be what happens afterwards that will really decide what kind of country we are, and want to be. Those of you who stand up for the women in your lives as their right to choose is taken away, for your LGBTQ friends and family who will be sent back to second-class citizenship, for your Muslim and Latino and minority friends who overnight have realized that they truly are seen as criminals and sex offenders and terrorists by the fearfully quivering masses of whiteness–you will be the harbingers of a new age of American. What Hillary Clinton promoted in her campaign must continue to stand true for us: We are stronger together. We are a country of people who all (with the exception of Native Americans), whether recently or generations past, came here as travelers or were brought involuntarily from another place. We were all once the hated and misunderstood intruders, but now we are all Americans together. Whether we speak English or Arabic, Spanish or Cantonese, we are here because we love the ideals that America stands for. Fight for that which you love.

We have minds that can think rationally and hearts capable of the deepest compassion. Use them. Educate yourself. Talk to people. Let’s shake off this idea that we shouldn’t talk about politics or religion because we might disagree. Disagreement is healthy! We’ve let intellectual, honest, and open debate atrophy and die. Use your natural abilities to think and speak and feel.

Donald Trump is our president elect. We have chosen him, or, at least, allowed him to be chosen. We have allowed fear and intolerance and small-mindedness and apathy and complacency and sexism to defeat hope. But this is not the battle for Middle-Earth. We are not suddenly plunged into a darkness from which there is little hope for return. We must rage against the dying of the light. Hold on to your hope, but do not guard it as a miser his gold–work to keep it alive, work to make your hope a reality.

Most of all, show the people around you that you care.

Don’t be afraid.

And, you know what? Let’s make America great again. We the people have the power to make it so.

Lines Written in the Days of Fading Brightness

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I am fast approaching the end of all this, having arrived at the sodden tea leaves swirling round the bottom of my cup. I eye them half-heartedly. But as much as we would like a roadmap, such things belong in stories and not here, on this cynical–though wondrous–plane we inhabit. Home and all it entails is looming once again on the horizon. I sit here, or rather, I wander slowly back along the road I arrived by, and watch its approach. When it hits me I’ll know it’s time to squeeze who I’ve become back into the Kaelyn-sized space I left, knocking down walls and splitting seams in the process. Another paradigm shift in the making, another cliff’s edge that in all seriousness I should be toeing anxiously, despite my travel-tested wings, yet all I want at the moment is to lie in a hammock with my book and order some delivery Thai (beautiful dream). In the shadow of big changes, it’s the small appetites we turn to and seek to sate.

I started this journey from behind a desk, ducking my head whenever the boss went by lest his dreadful vulture’s eye fall on me. I will be ending it back in the city of fears realized–Bogotá, Colombia, where I was once mugged twice in a week. But so much has happened in the meantime. For one thing, I think I’ve had my fill of reggaeton for the rest of my life; also light beer; also the Ecuadorian tax system; machismo; Zhumir–the small and inconsequent gripes that accumulate after any longish amount of time in one place.  But the good, the wondrous: I’ve found soulmates and peace and friendships, flames that will be rekindled in different places around the world again and again; the scent of palo santo; the new meaning of the word chola, which now evokes ebony velvet braids and swinging skirts; a lit match will always bring to mind three women from three different parts of the world whose laughter rang through Cuenca’s cobblestone streets. Now, a day after I’ve finally left Cuenca, and all the things that have made up my daily life, I’m in a place called Mindo, where it’s raining so hard it seems the river is going to rush through my windows and maybe wash it all away. It has me thinking about endings. All things end, and all begin, but it is what comes between that makes things what they are.

I’ve left and come back home so many times now that I could do it without thinking. But I do. Think, I mean. It’s like finding my old racing suit and being surprised, bemusedly so, that although tighter in some places, it still fits, still serves its purpose. It hurts though, in a subphysical kind of way–hurts because, without even noticing, you’ve expanded and become so much greater since you’ve been away, and then you’re home and in the same size space you left, and all the beauty and all the substance you’ve brought with you must struggle to make a place for itself.

Homecoming hurts, but it no longer feels like a punishment, an event requiring a large inhalation of breath and a considerable lung capacity to hold it until the worst is over. I left that baggage along the roadside somewhere, along with my penchant for over-processed white bread and glitter eye shadow. Homecoming has alchemized into something less sinister, not quite gold but far from lead. It is a sloughing off of one set of responsibilities and a shouldering of another. It is family dinners and small comforts, it is a sense of no longer having to look over my shoulder quite as often, a brushing off of whatever remnants of projected cultural shame have managed to settle into my hair and skin. Home is where fewer, though by no means no one, question who I’ve chosen to be.

I have no idea what kinds of things I will begin, continue with, and end this year. No idea what version of myself I will be when I look back a year from now. I don’t feel anxious or fearful, but nor do I feel excited, exactly. I think the overriding feeling is curiosity. I can predict only slightly more about this next phase of my life than I could when I decided to travel South America, and later live there. In spite of having lived most of my life in California, anything could happen there, just as anything could, could have, and sometimes did happen in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

At the risk of an excess of imagery, permit me one more. Coming home after an extended absence is a bit like jumping out of a plane—you’re pretty confident the terrain will be familiar on landing , having been an unwitting (oft unwilling) student all your life, and you’re reasonably sure your parachute will open at the appropriate time. Yet there is still risk, still a palpable tinge of uncertainty, albeit wearing the home team’s colors. We cannot know what exactly will be waiting for us when our feet once again sink into the soil of home. We cannot know if the person we have become is quite as willing to live among the ghosts of the people we were before.

The tea leaves can’t tell me anything. I can’t tell the future. I can’t even objectively analyze the past. But I have myself, my will, and I continue, as always, to cling relentlessly and with immeasurable force to the ever-changing form of my dreams.

“And therefore
Who would cry out

To the petals on the ground
To stay,
Knowing as we must,
How the vivacity of what was is married

To the vitality of what will be?”
-Mary Oliver

 

La Güera Gets Drunk, Takes on the Patriarchy

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Weekends in Cuenca are not in general very exciting. We drink the same beers, go to the same bars, talk and flirt with the same people, reminisce (or remind) each other about what happened the night before, rinse and repeat. I am a woman who thrives on variety and thus have trouble with the sameness of it all. And perhaps, in my boredom, I made a mistake–I got really, really drunk. I mean the say-everything-in-my-mind, sloppy, falling down kind of drunk. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t aspire to it. And I’m not proud of it. But my personal sense of having overindulged and made a fool of myself is not what has me so angry.

As happens when one was drunk and doing annoying/entertaining/astonishing things, people have been coming up to me to tell me of my antics. I may have tried to crowdsurf, I may have told someone I just met that girls with purple hair do it better, and I may have been overagressive with some party foam, but what I was not doing was asking for it. So many people have asked me what would have happened if someone had taken advantage of me in my state, what if some man had managed to get me alone, what if I had been raped? They say, “You shouldn’t drink so much. You’re making yourself vulnerable to bad men who want to hurt you.” I’m lucky I have good friends that didn’t leave me alone, because I can’t even imagine what I would be feeling if I had been raped or otherwise assaulted, but you know what? Regardless of my state of inebrity, it wouldn’t have been my fault. 

I don’t care if I’m walking alone at night on a deserted street. If I’m wearing a short skirt or a low-cut dress. If I’m drunk and friendlier than usual. I refuse to conform to a set of standards designed to keep me from being raped, while men are not taught how to conform to standards that would keep them from raping. If I were a man, no one would tell me not to get so drunk because of the possibility of sexual assault. If I were a man, people would tell me not to get drunk because I was annoying or belligerent or just because it’s not good for my liver–not because someone might force themselves upon me and against my will defile the only thing I have any real claim to in life: my body.

In the absolutely devastating possibility that I had been raped, you know what people would have said to me? “How absolutely horrible. I’m so sorry. But you shouldn’t have been so drunk. You opened yourself up to the possibility.” In what kind of fucked-up world is that what you say to someone who has been raped? What kind of horrifically backwards world tells women they’re “lucky” when they don’t get sexually assaulted?

I go out for drinks fairly often. I like to go to clubs and dance. I like to wear clothes others consider revealing. I like to make out with cute boys in public places. Sometimes I go home with them. I say what I’m thinking and I am who I say I am. Very rarely, I drink more than I should. None of this qualifies anyone to make the decision that I would be “asking for it” or even more disgustingly “deserve it”. But you know what? I shouldn’t have to justify myself. Unless I am saying “yes” with all my mental faculties intact, don’t have sex with me. Don’t. Fucking. Rape. And for the rest of you, never tell a woman that she should behave herself in order to not get raped, because all you’re doing is making the woman feel ashamed of herself and thereby perpetuating the incredibly harmful belief that it is a woman’s job to not get raped rather than a man’s job to not rape

I drank too much this weekend. I won’t be doing it again anytime soon. But never in my life will I agree with a culture that tells me the reason I shouldn’t do so is for my own sexual protection.

The Candle that Burns at Both Ends

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It seems unbelievable, but another year has gone by. It’s 2016! And I think, after all I’ve experienced in the last two years, that I can safely say that I have no idea what this year will hold. In any case, it’s time for my yearly tradition of writing myself a letter about the past year and my hopes for the next. For the last two letters, click here and here.

You’re still here. No small feat, that. Another year gone and you continue to stretch the limits of who you think you are, to challenge your own beliefs, and take apart your own assumptions. You continue to fight tooth and nail for what you want and yet you’ve allowed yourself the flexibility to change the object of your desire as necessary. When the world treats you poorly or life doesn’t unfold as you’d planned, your first instinct isn’t to blame the world, but rather to dissect your perception of the world, although you’re not afraid to place blame where it belongs. This year has been difficult in many ways, ways you mostly didn’t foresee, but you have emerged on the other side stronger, better, and more aware.

It’s hard to believe you’ve been in South America for fifteen months, not counting the three months you spent at home tying up loose ends. That time was spent in a kind of holding pattern. You couldn’t really get on with your life in California because all you could think about was picking up the strings of the life you left back in Ecuador. Eventually you made it back and spent the next couple of months wandering about, second-guessing your choice. So few things are ever easy. So few things are impermeable to doubt. But then you started the job you thought you always wanted, and soon after fell into the job you never considered you might be meant for. Connections came together as if they were meant to be (though you don’t believe that). You met people who irrevocably altered your time in Ecuador, and all for the absolute better. You laughed more this year than you maybe ever have. You loved harder and danced with less restraint than you had ever allowed yourself to do before. You nurtured the flame that burns so brightly within you. Continue to grow, to diffuse your limitations, to open up. Continue to follow–and emulate–the sun.

This year was quite literally a dream, yet it was also a challenge. You resent how the amount of harassment you experience on a daily basis fills you with a kind of oily, residual anger that makes you want to lash out at any strange man that says hello or tries to touch you. You daydream about screaming at them, about pushing or kicking the ones who touch you without invitation. Find a way to channel that anger in a meaningful way. Don’t let it make you bitter. Don’t let it make you blind to all the good men there are in the world. But also don’t let it make you smaller. Don’t change who you are in the hopes that they’ll notice you less. Be whoever the fuck you want to be. Show as much or as little of yourself as you want. Just make sure it’s on your own terms, and not subject to the whim or approval of some nameless other.

The state of the world has also made you angry and, at times, despondent. It seems the -isms are taking over. Don’t let yourself become numb. Don’t fool yourself into believing you can’t make some kind of difference, no matter how big or small. You can. You will. You just have to be brave enough to try.

Take what you’ve learned about yourself this year and hold it close. You’ve finally realized that what you crave above all else–in friendship, in romance, etc.–is intimacy. Don’t settle for less. The withdrawal, the sense of having cheated yourself out of something worthwhile, is too strong and too unpleasant. Work to forge the relationship you want and need from the building blocks of what you’re traditionally allowed. Burn down the cathedral if need be. No one knows what is best for you, what you are capable of, more than you yourself. You contain multitudes. Don’t let yourself be simplified.

In the coming year, you’ll once again be home, in a place that has become more and more worthy of that word. Don’t lose your sense of adventure. Pay off your debts. Cut off any ties that are not worthy of holding you in place, while simultaneously strengthening the bonds that are. Do everything you can to figure out what you want from the next few years of your life. After a year, will you stay or will you go? If you decide on the former, don’t be afraid to put down roots. You can always pull them up again if you have to. If it’s the latter, that’s OK too. Your instincts have led you well so far. Listen to them. Save money while you’re figuring it out, so that when the decision is made you will already have taken the first step.

Continue to work on being kinder. Allow for the weaknesses in others as they allow for yours. Be humble, yet willing to sing your own praises if no one else will. As C. S. Lewis said, “Being humble isn’t about thinking less of yourself, but thinking about yourself less.” Remember that when someone doesn’t want you, it’s only because they can’t see that which is valuable in you. Don’t judge others. When you have a negative thought about someone you don’t even know, remember that your perception is colored by your experience, and you don’t have the right to thrust this perception on those around you. Be authentic with your words–there are enough empty ones in the world without your contribution. Possibly the greatest lesson you’ve learned in Ecuador is how to say “no.” Hold on to that. Use it as both shield and weapon. You’re allowed to use it as often as you please.

It seems as if you’ve finally started writing something. Keep going. Don’t fear failure. Don’t fear that it will be less than a masterpiece. It probably will be. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Pursue the things you love, the things that make you feel free. Take dance classes. Learn one of the many instruments you’re interested in. Take French lessons, or Arabic, or Portuguese. Never, ever stop trying to learn.

In closing, you’re so near to being everything you ever hoped you would be. Go on. Keep moving forward. Your candle may burn at both ends, but it casts that much more light for doing so. You deserve everything you want, and more. I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

10 Things a Bookish, Modern Woman Should Never Travel Without

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I’ve been in South America for well over a year now and I continue to be amazed by the sheer variety of life and the experiences that come with it. It seems I fall in and out of love with people and places constantly and without warning. In some ways, I’m so ready to go home and yet I also strive to hold on to each day as tightly as possible, to remind myself that I am actually, truly living a dream. I’ve learned a lot, about myself most of all, but also about travel itself, and I’ve come up with a few things that I think should be on most women’s list of things to bring when traveling — things I haven’t seen on many other lists. So here you go! If you have comments or would add something, let me know!

 

1. An IUD (Intrauterine Device): Yeah, I said it. It’s no secret that a lot of shenanigans happen while traveling — in hostels, on exotic beaches, in showers — and guess what? It’s better to be prepared, and I think the IUD is about as prepared as you can get. There’s a lot of misplaced fear about this form of birth control because of some shoddy models in the 70s, but since then the IUD has come to be scientifically accepted as one of the safest and the most effective option. The Pill is great, but sometimes traveling is hectic, and it’s easy to forget to take one. Just consider this: if you were to accidentally get pregnant while in the middle of a months long trip through South America, Asia, or Africa especially, it may be nigh on impossible to get the kind of care you might need (the day-after pill, abortions, etc.). For more details, check out this world map of abortion laws.

Where you’re traveling can also determine whether condoms are affordable or even available, and that’s not a risk you need to be taking. Travel is all about calculated risk, not haphazard, drunken ones! That said, you should also bring as many condoms with you as you can, since IUDs only protect against pregnancy, not STIs or STDs. Another bonus of IUDs (specifically the Mirena) is that it makes your period lighter. In all the time I’ve been abroad, I’ve only gone through half a box of tampons!

Check with your health provider to see about your options. Many insurance plans provide IUDs for free and, depending which one you choose, they last from 5 to 10 years! That’s a decade of minimal unplanned pregnancy worries…

 

2. A Laptop: If you’re a working girl, laptops come in mighty handy. You can teach English classes online, write travel articles for various websites, or do a myriad of other small jobs which can help fund and thereby extend your travels. Also, Netflix sometimes provides a most-needed hiatus from travel frenzy.

 

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Me actually doing work poolside in Peru.

3. A Kindle or Similar Tablet: I have the Kindle Fire and let me tell ya, I don’t know what I would have done without it. Pre-travel I was one of those book nerds who ranted about how Kindles would never replace real books because, like, book smells! But while traveling, real books literally weigh you down. I generally have around 10 different books downloaded on my Kindle at any given time, which in real life would add a lot of extra weight to my backpack. No bueno. But besides reading, Kindles can do soooo much more. I’ve used mine to edit manuscripts, input grades for my ESL students, and write blog posts (PDF reader and a word processor, say what!), as a music player for long bus rides, and as an alarm clock, among other things. This is also a great option if you don’t want to bring your laptop, either because you don’t want the extra weight or in case it gets lost or stolen. Kindles are much cheaper to replace.

 

4. A Library Card: Huh? Yes. You heard me right. Here’s what you do: Download the Overdrive App and verify that your local library is a participant. Then, if you haven’t already, go open an account at your library. But wait… I’m going to be traveling. Why would I need a library account at home? Here’s why: Overdrive allows you to check digital copies of books out from your home library regardless of where in the world you are. Mic drop. Instead of spending valuable dollars on buying books from Amazon or at the rare English bookstore (although do go in these too while traveling — it’s fun), you can do this for absolutely nothing. Depending on the library, you can generally check up to 30 books out at a time, for up to 3 weeks, and then renew as often as necessary. This. Changed. My. Little. Bookish. Life.

 

5. A Filtering Water Bottle: Backpacking is all about saving money wherever possible in order to be able to do the epic treks or go scuba diving with hammerheads in the Galápagos. Even the small stuff, like buying water, adds up. Reusable water bottles that come with filters are a great way to avoid this. When hard-pressed, you can get water from virtually anywhere (though again, calculated risks are the name of the game) and the filter will make the water drinkable. They tend to run at around $50, but it’s a worthwhile investment. For a list of some of the most popular brands, click here.

 

6. Probiotic Pills and Emergency Diarrhea Medication: I have a stomach of steel, luckily, and so I’ve never gotten truly sick from anything I’ve eaten (and I eat everything), but just in case, I never travel anywhere without these two things. Probiotics are simple supplements that help your digestion and I take these for a few days whenever my stomach is unhappy. In cases where you’re having to run to the bathroom every few minutes though (as happened to a friend in Colombia once, unfortunately in a hostel where everyone could hear everything), it’s smart to have some more hard-core drugs on hand. If they don’t cure you, they’ll at least slow things down till you can get to a doctor.

 

7. An Expired Passport or ID Card: I’m going to pat myself on the back here, but this is seriously genius. A lot of people will bring copies of passports around with them when going out to a club, but I’ve also seen them get rejected. I have an expired Driver’s License that I take out with me and it’s worked every time. If you lose it, it’s not a big deal, but it’s official enough that it probably won’t ever get questioned. (Disclaimer: my experience is limited to South and Central America. Not sure how well this would work elsewhere. It would rarely work in the States for example.)

 

8. Double of Everything You Can’t Live Without (Within Reason): Bringing a nice camera with you on your travels? A laptop? A Kindle? It’s smart to double-up on things like batteries, chargers, etc. Why? Because there’s a good chance they’ll get lost, blown out by power surges, or stolen, and buying them in a foreign country is often a lot more expensive than buying them back home. Just make sure you keep them in separate places, in case of theft or loss. Otherwise you might find yourself carrying around a fancy gadget that doesn’t work. It sucks, let me just tell you.

 

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9. A Second Backpack: Sometimes you see people walking around with a huge backpack behind them and a smaller one on their chest like some kind of hunchbacked marsupial. They didn’t overpack; they’re just smart. I always bring a small, closeable bag with me whenever I travel and this is where I keep anything valuable (passport, money, gadgets, etc.). When you take long bus rides, your bags go under the bus and out of sight and sometimes things disappear mysteriously. It’s better to keep this small bag with you at all times. On your lap is the best place for it. I’ve seen many a bag stolen from overhead racks and even pilfered from between a person’s legs. It’s a great place to store valuables, but that also means they’re all in one place, so beware. It also serves the double-purpose of being a day bag when you don’t need to carry all your belongings with you.

 

10. A Piece of Jewelry, Article of Clothing, or Talisman that Makes You Feel Bad Ass: This, in my opinion, is a lot more important (and less silly) than it sounds. You’re going to find yourself in uncomfortable situations while traveling. Maybe you got on the wrong bus, or are in a place where men stare at you in a less than friendly way, or you’re nervous about flying. In any case, even a small boost of confidence helps, and I’ve found that wearing something, visible or not, that gives you that feeling is invaluable.

In my case, whenever I’m moving from one place to another I always wear a quartz stone necklace that my mom bought me in Salento, Colombia. I don’t strictly believe in this kind of stuff, but quartz is supposed to protect you. I always wear two bracelets: an engraved one from my best friend and one my dad gave me that says “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” These help remind me that there are people out there who love me at those moments when I feel particularly lonely or sad. And whenever I’m feeling especially pissed off about the seemingly omnipresent male gaze or just want to seem a little tougher than I actually am, I have a shirt that says “Fuck Your Macho Bullshit” and it makes me feel better. They’re small things, but believe me, they’re something. Even little comforts go a long way when you’re traveling by yourself.

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Bonus Tip: An Understanding that You Are Fierce, Powerful, and Moreover Extremely Privileged to Be Doing What You’re Doing: It’s easy to fall into a pattern of complaining. Yeah, the WiFi sucks sometimes, there are really big bugs in the jungle, and the bus drivers don’t always let you use the toilet, but you are part of the 1% of the entire global population that gets to travel for fun. The people you meet in those small South American towns? They wish they could be you, traveling without a care in the world. Be aware of that. Be grateful. And always, always remember that just the fact that you’re leaving comfort and security behind to venture into the unknown makes you one bad ass lady.

La Güera in Her Labyrinth

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I’ve been abroad for more than a year now, and in that time I’ve seen and done amazing things, things even my dreams would have fallen short of. In some ways the world is not so very different, regardless of which square foot of space you are regarding it from. We get up in the morning, we find a way to make money, we feed ourselves. Hopefully, we laugh and love and revel in the midst of doing what’s necessary (though these things are necessary also). But there are lessons to be learned by leaving one’s home and the people that give that word meaning. Travel is the most effective teacher I’ve ever known. It is both the ruler rapping knuckles and the reward of having your good work acknowledged as such. It is being named Prom Queen and getting your period without knowing it in P.E. I have learned many things in the last year — of the strength of bonds between people, of the importance of openness and tolerance, of fear, of how following dirt roads in the dark of night sometimes leads to paradise, and of the power of that moment in which your whole being is screaming at you, fight or flight!?, and you choose to fight, thus learning simultaneously the extent of your vulnerability and the transcendence of your strength. But just as in the macrocosm that is life, in the microcosm of travel the lesson is never ending.

People who know me see many things. I like to think that what they see is generally positive, but I am not so near-sighted that I could even for a moment convince myself that that is all they see. More than once, people who I wouldn’t have thought knew me very well have said something to me that shows just how useless it is to try to hide our weaknesses. It is not an insult, not a criticism, this thing they say, but rather an observation, and it is one I know to be true: I keep people at a distance.

I consider myself an open person. I try my hardest not to judge people on their beliefs (though I will judge them by their actions); at the very least I try to understand before I allow myself to form a judgment. But I spent so long as a child and a young adult hardening myself that it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that now, at 27, there aren’t a labyrinth’s worth of road-blocks, dead ends, and trapdoors I have erected on the path that leads to my heart. In some ways I am the story of Jason and the Minotaur flipped on its head. I, or at least the truest, most open part of me, has for years stood in the middle, trembling at the sound of cloven hooves on stone.

When I set off for South America last year, I made goals for myself, some of which are evident in my first post on this blog. But there was one that I did not write about, because it was evidence of what I see as my biggest weakness. The goal was simply this, to consciously and lovingly attempt to knock down the self-created barriers to my heart, from the inside out. The patriarchy tells women that the right man will make them whole, will heal their hurts. This is beautiful and saccharine-sweet, but it is a lie. If anything, the right person or people might be able to create a detour and circumvent our barriers, but this does not assuage our fears or heal our wounds. Only we can do that. And so I set out into the world in order to find my vulnerability.

I think I did, but I think it’s true name is strength.

I found physical vulnerability in my trek to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia as well as in the attempted muggings in Bogotá (for some of that harrowing tale, click here). In these cases, I looked within myself and found strength I didn’t know I had. But it wasn’t only physical strength that helped me overcome these two very different challenges. I have a wonderful, capable body, but behind that is a level of determination, of will, that is more beautiful, and more lasting, than even my physical self.

In the end (and I am far from the end, but at least up until this point), it was this same determination, that same iron will, which allowed me to begin to be emotionally vulnerable as well. With my head on my lover’s chest, I whispered him a poem I had memorized, which like a needle served to pierce the marble veneer encasing my heart, allowing him to see me in a slightly deeper sense. Even with an end date already near at the beginning, I allowed myself to feel, to be emotionally challenged, to have layers of protection and heart-padding stripped away, until I stood before him, more clearly myself than I have virtually ever been. I have a long way to go, and I know that I will never wear my heart on my sleeve (as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “I like people and I like them to like me, but I wear my heart where God put it, on the inside.”) but for me, this is a major accomplishment, one which would have been nigh on impossible without the already heightened level of vulnerability that travel, but especially solo travel, brings.

Even with this achievement, however, the lessons that travel, that living abroad has planned for me are without end. Living, traveling, experiencing… it is all wonderful, the good and the bad. Sometimes we try to hold on to the good so tightly that we fail to see that it withers and becomes wraith-like in our embrace. As a traveler, you constantly meet new people. You find best friends from countries you’ve never been to, guides in unexpected places, and, with a little luck and a lot of openness, even love. Sometimes these things have infinitesimal lives within our own incredibly brief lives, a candlelight compared to a roaring bonfire. (“…It cannot last the night/ but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/ it gives a lovely light.”) To travel is to acknowledge that everything is fleeting. You say goodbye, sometimes promising to meet again, but most likely you never will (although of course there are many exceptions). This brings me to my latest travel lesson…

If you are a successful traveler, you will not only learn to make room in your heart for new people, places, and experiences, unthinkingly filing them into the amaranthine vaults of memory, but you will also learn one of the hardest lessons of all… that in order to keep those good things beautiful and free (while always maintaining in your heart the possibility that one day they will come once again into your life), you must be able to let them go.

La Güerita Takes On Cultural Appropriation

'Miley Cyrus Cultural Appropriation Paper Doll’ by AlexandraDal

Cultural appropriation: the act of taking an image, tradition, or aesthetic from its cultural context and repurposing it in a way (generally as a style or decorative item) that has no ties to its original meaning within a cultural tradition. This is a term you may have heard a lot recently, especially in pop culture. Iggy Azalea is constantly under fire for being a white rapper who appropriates black style and sound, while Taylor Swift has gotten into trouble as a result of her new music video which seems to celebrate the glory days of white colonialism in Africa. Miley Cyrus, who many would highlight as the face of cultural appropriation, uses black women as stage props, “whitesplains” Nicki Minaj, and wears dreadlocks on national television. Cultural appropriation tends to be a sin of the dominant culture, the one historically most responsible for exploitation and colonialism — white culture.

I have always felt cultural appropriation to be a highly problematic idea on both sides of the argument. On the side of those who feel appropriated, I can see why. White settlers decimated Native American populations in a genocide rarely called by its true name, and now young whites dress up in headdresses and warpaint for parties, football games, and music festivals. As certain tribes scalped their victims and displayed them as badges of courage, now we wear the symbols of those we virtually destroyed. After centuries of enslavement and debilitating enslavement in Africa, Urban Outfitters sells tribal prints at a premium price and TV personalities cornrow their hair. While presidential candidates build their platforms on the shameful dirt of mass deportation, costume companies make serious money off selling culturally insensitive costumes involving ponchos, sombreros, and stick-on mustaches and people get wasted on Cinco del Mayo. The argument against cultural appropriation is this: by choosing to wear symbols taken from systematically exploited cultures while remaining ignorant of the symbols’ value or meaning, we perpetuate violence. I can agree with that.

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

However, there are certain oft-mentioned examples of cultural appropriation that I do have trouble getting on board with, the most obvious being dreadlock, cornrows, and braids. Black culture states that these hairstyles are traditionally black, necessary because of the unique texture of black hair. Understood. And yet I have a hard time believing that a hairstyle is a truly defensible part of any culture. Granted, the white person on whom cornrows or dreads look good is rare, and yet they also have hair, which may have a difficult texture or length to easily manage. While traveling South America, I’ve met many people with dreads, from Sweden and South Africa and Australia. Why? Because, aside from shaving one’s head, dreads are the easiest hairstyle to care for when showers are anything but guaranteed. Long hair in hot weather begs to be braided and put up, regardless of the skin color of the scalp it’s attached to. If the argument is that braids are intrinsically black, then what about the braided styles based in the cultures of indigenous America or the Alps or the cold northern lands of the ancient Vikings? We all have hair, so I don’t think anyone, regardless of culture, can copyright its style.

In the big heaving morass that is cultural appropriation, the real question for me is where the line is between appropriating someone’s culture and having the right (or privilege) to wear or otherwise display a cultural symbol. So it’s probably insensitive to buy bindis and tribal print dresses at Urban Outfitters, but what if you buy something directly from the culture, one that makes its living off of selling traditional jewelry or clothing to tourists? Is it wrong of them to sell it? Or only wrong of consumers to buy it? In Ecuador, the country I’ve been living in for a year now, the indigenous people of the northern town of Otavalo have become one of the most successful indigenous groups in the world because they have so effectively marketed their beautiful alpaca-wool hand-woven fabrics. I bought an insanely soft scarf to protect me from the Andean chill. If I wear it, am I wrongfully appropriating Otavaleño culture? When I was in Kenya, I bought an intricately beaded necklace from a Masai woman. Is the fact that it hangs on my wall a sign of my cultural insensitivity? I’ve spent most of my life learning Spanish, spent years living and traveling in Central and South America, immersing myself in their complex, wonderful cultures. Are my Mexican folk art-based tattoos an act of violence?

My views on cultural appropriation are an incipient snarl of thoughts and feelings which I have a really hard time sublimating into a coherent argument. Nonetheless, I am aware that I hold a position of immense privilege as a young, white woman, but even with this potential bias forever in the forefront of my mind, I can not reconcile my own beliefs with the far-reaching tenets of the arguments around cultural appropriation. But my goal with this post is not to take a side, not to say who is right and who is wrong, but rather to open into a discussion a topic that has long been pushed under the rug by the “guilty” party — white culture. While it’s common to hear celebrities get slammed for cultural appropriation, we rarely hear a thoughtful response from them or anyone else. An argument in which only one side is participating is not an argument but a diatribe, and a diatribe, while not necessarily lacking in validity, will not bring about change.