Video: Walking With Our Parents (A Tribute to the Survivors of Slavery)

 

Walking With Our Ancestors is a collaborative film, created as a tribute to the survivors of slavery and to all of our ancestors. Walking With Our Ancestors contains video and still photographs from the 2016 Roots Retreat to New Orleans and features a reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Walking With Our Parents,” performed by Jaydon Galindo Lovell.

Walking With Our Ancestors is dedicated to our parents and the children of tomorrow.

Enjoy!

Plus, here’s the URL, just in case! https://youtu.be/nKUXc0pXwek

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Making Every Life Matter: How Gen Y Is Reinventing Mourning

 

I’ve often wondered what happened to the American ritual of wearing a black armband when someone in the family dies. The practice is immortalized in the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, where John Bailey’s wears one after his father passes away. In some cultures black attire is worn for a year after a death. And in others, a widow must wear black until the end of her days. It is human to mark death in a public way.

 

Unfortunately, today’s urban youth live with a nearly daily awareness of death, and it’s not just grandparents who are dying, either. These are violent times, and it’s youth who forfeit their lives. Young people of color in urban areas seem to have an inordinate amount of death to contend with on a regular basis. Just how do they handle the burden of so much loss? They embrace it and wear it like armor, and in the process, they bring their love and grief into the most unexpected places.

 

In the past seven years of teaching, I’ve seen the emergence of a new and profound display of grief from young people in my classes. More than ever, the relics of their fallen peers are captured and worn in daily vigil. Tee shirts are emblazoned with the bright face of a friend, a cousin or a sister; epitaphs on shirts, badges and decals to the dearly departed commemorate the loved ones and keep the beloved alive in the hearts and minds of their community. Decorated with the photos of the fondest memories of the deceased, family and friends wear buttons and placards on lanyards. Quite literally, the dead go to college, work and the movies with their living friends.

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The result is magical. It humanizes the youth who wear these tokens of love, while at the same time revering the deceased. These tokens of love are a clear source of hope, respect and grief. Moreover, they bring awareness and compassion to the wearer, who more than ever needs the visibility and the loving gaze of others. This is essential since grief makes people do strange things; it can alter their personality or cause erratic behavior. Without a clear external sign, how can others know that errant comportment is possibly connected to a major life transition?

 

The death of a loved one does not easily fade from memory or dull with time. The ritual of wearing a tribute signals to others the status of the wearer: “I’m hurting.” “Handle me with care.” “Compassion needed.” “I’ve lost a dear one.” There is no way to turn away from such an outpouring, to not look with understanding at the person in pain.

 

As teachers, we need to know when our students are suffering so we can share their burden. It can mean not asking for what he or she may not be able to give on a particular day. As co-workers, community members and friends we can greet these youth with kindness and much-needed compassion in a fast-moving world that too often denies the harsh realities of young people of color. We can grieve with our youth, express condolences and sympathies, and be patient with them. The stress and heartache caused by death is well documented. That’s not new. What has changed is our society, which seems to have become anesthetized to the pain caused by violence and untimely death, especially that of other people’s children. That is why Generation Y has taken to demonstrating their grief in a public way. It’s a form of resistance to the status quo. It’s a loving anthem that cries out, “Every life matters.”

 

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Here’s a picture of Giovanni, who last year almost always wore a tribute to his deceased friend to school.

 

Atonement: the Future of Good Relationships

A recent training with twenty-five women at Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic for low-income women with cancer made me think about how I love the people in my life. I was reminded that many years ago, when I volunteered and served as staff there, I was emotionally open to hold the space for women who were often suffering and always courageous, no matter what else was going on in my personal life. I would hug any woman who wanted to be held, and I would forget any of my own problems at the door. In that space, once again, where I was working from my heart and listening to the pulse of the women around me, I realized that I have not, for a very long, lived in this way. Too often I’m guarded (not without good reason, mind you!), and operating solely from my intellect, resisting my intuition and blocking my emotions. Yet, there I was, physically holding virtual strangers and asking myself, “How could I step into that space and be there for total strangers and not for my own sister?” This is the question I’m grappling with.

Like most people, I haven’t got the “relationship” thing down perfectly. I haven’t always been there for the people I care about in the ways they’ve wanted. At other times, I’ve come through with flying colors. It’s occasionally hard to tell when I’ve hit the mark or not. Lately, I’ve been listening better, but it’s still not entirely clear when I get it right. I’m drawn to people who articulate their feelings openly, or who trust me with their unspoken realities. Can I really afford to avoid those people who express themselves differently? I think that I cannot. This has me thinking a lot about atonement. Why don’t we have more rituals to help us make amends when we stray? I don’t mean legal recourse, which we have in spades, but rather authentic space for reconciliation in our everyday lives.

The Jewish tradition has a yearly Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. They have it right. I believe my life would be much better—I’d have far more peace in my heart—if I had had the chance to apologize, ask for forgiveness and make amends at regularly scheduled intervals throughout my life.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many role models for this one. Martin Luther King inspires me, but his work seems to be from another lifetime. The training the Civil Rights Workers underwent in order to resist oppression without resorting to violence is ignored and underrated though there is much that can be learned from their displayed discipline in the face of adversity and violence. They literally trained themselves to turn the other cheek.

Why don’t Christians have a tradition of non-violence and reconciliation as a common practice? Oh, I’ve read on the Internet that Christians honor this tradition, because Jesus would have observed these practices, but I cannot recall personally attending even one such service in all my many years as a member of different churches. Perhaps we take it for granted that since Jesus died for our sins, we needn’t trouble ourselves to reconcile with others. That’s not the whole truth. Communion and silent confession have given me great peace and comfort, but what about the intentional righting of wrongs?

I’m a teacher, so it always comes back to training and practice for me. In my opinion, I can’t get good at a thing until I’ve had some practice. Learning to make amends is now moving into the priority range for me. Perhaps I’m more aware of my mortality now that my mother is seventy, and because I don’t have a healthy relationship—friendly communications, even—with my sisters. All this has begun to unsettle me. At the same time as I want to have a relationship with my sisters, I don’t want to ignore the very real problems that have led to our present impasse. I need a ritual that will let me heal the deep emotional wounds that only sisters can inflict on each other and address my concerns as well.  I’d like to have open communication with my blood family. I’d also like to remain sane through the process.

This week I’m co-facilitating a workshop to help young people unlearn internalized oppression, and it makes sense to me that atonement has to be part of the work we do to heal our communities. We can’t move on, heal, or feel good with guilt on our conscience. It’s critical that we learn to forgive ourselves and other people. We have to learn to say, “Sorry,” and then take steps to build trust. It’s essential that when we get a second chance, we use it to make peace. This is not the popular social paradigm of our times—possibly of any times. Generations of families have been known to carry grudges (Note: Romeo and Juliet, or the Hatfields and McCoys—fiction and reality are telling us a truth).

We have to make atonement part of the fabric of our society.

In the Buddhist tradition there is space to air and resolve grievances. It allows individuals to talk openly about their troubles and begin to repair damage with the help of the Sangha, the community of practice. The community both witnesses and mediates, with the goal of keeping the community intact. Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches the practice of atoning by writing letters. Sometimes it’s too hard to face someone who has hurt us and whom we have in turn hurt. In such cases, a letter may allow for the full expression of our emotions. I’m not just talking about forgiveness, which is often a personal practice that has noting to do with reconciliation, per se. I need the ability and skill to speak thoughtfully and compassionately to the people I love.

Now that I’m committed to my monthly service at Charlotte Maxwell, I see that I will pour the love I feel for my sisters, who I’m literally and figuratively afraid to touch, into these women, who want to be touched by me. Even my awareness is a powerful reminder that I am learning and growing because this matters to me. My ability to express  love in ways that are meaningful for the people in my life is important. I know my prayers and meditations are bringing me closer to the healing I desire. In the meantime, I want and need to be loved for who I am and the gifts I bring into the world. This can better happen when I’m open. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the exceptional gifts of love I’m able to share with friends, family and strangers.

Affording care: the politics of wellness

I’ve been thinking about what it takes for the average person to get care. I don’t even think this is about good care, unfortunately, just plain care. The answer, I find, is disheartening. Women and men avoid care until they are in crisis. The kind of the services one accesses depends on the resources at one’s disposal. Once at the hospital, the quality care varies drastically according to the gender, socio-economic class, and skin color of the patient. In addition, the historical trauma, discrimination, physical and emotional states of the patient can further transform the experience. Never, for example, take pain medicine before you go to the doctor. Being in any nearly relaxed state is not conducive to optimal care. Better yet, be a white male of about 28. I’m told you will receive the red-carpet treatment. I don’t mean to be glib, but it seems that too many of us are going without the basics. There are too many factors interfering with our wellness.

Chronic conditions such as pain and disability tax the body, mind and spirit of people who must endure them. I just met a very nice 89-year-old woman and her daughter at Kaiser. I overheard the two women discussing shingles in the waiting room. I was adamant that she get the vaccine, to which the daughter replied that her mother has had shingles for six years. As I looked into the eyes of the elderly woman, I had so much compassion. I apologized profusely. There was no question in my mind that she was suffering in all her regal kindness. All I could offer was a recommendation that she try Chinese herbs, which she seemed eager to try. While I told her that it worked for me, I wonder what she would think about an additional weekly out-of-pocket expense. Later that day, I found myself in casual conversation saying that I only had shingles for six weeks. It’s all about perception.

I’m convinced that poor people are made to wait needlessly. It’s: “Line up for this; line up for that.” Wait three months for surgery you needed last year. Like my mother, she is 70, has a benign tumor in her nose, and terrible health insurance. Instead of scheduling the procedure, her doctors have prescribed her another batch of antibiotics. This is not only bad healthcare, it’s also silly. First, the antibiotics are not going to shrink the tumor; it’s beyond that as were the first two regimens demonstrated, which is actually my second point. She’s already had two doses of ineffective antibiotics before the diagnosis, neither of which helped her condition. And they wonder where the superbugs are coming from! Hello? Third and possibly last point: when they perform the surgery, (why do they call it a performance, anyway? This is a juicy question that I’ll have to explore. I suspect the gallery-style operating theatres of 19th century Europe.) they will have to prescribe more antibiotics. Meanwhile, poor mom is suffering and lowering her resistance while this tumor is already complicating her life and interfering with her ability to work. Did I mention she works in a school with children? Why she’s working in a school kitchen at seventy-years-old is easy: she’s a poor immigrant woman. They work until they drop, and sadly, they’re not the only ones. If you’re not in the top 5 percent, keep your working papers handy.

The shadow side of this is that my mother’s prescriptions are so expensive that she rations important diabetes medication. Two other women I know make medical choices based on economics instead of the quality of care, and not by choice. Both struggle to afford expense medications, just as my mother does. Another friend’s prescriptions are in the several-hundred-dollars-per-month category. Rather than getting the best medicine for her condition, she gets the more affordable option. Who are these companies planning to sell these pills to, anyway? It’s legalized extortion.

There are simply too many barriers to wellness in our society. How about sadistic, misogynistic techniques like mammography? They’re enough to make any sane woman crazy. I’m convinced that mammography increases the risk of cancer after having only one exam in which my tiny breasts were clamped into a metal device, multiple times on each side, each at odd angles, causing both bruising and swelling; a cold clamp is tightened on the breast as sweat and tears flow down the face and neck; this is followed by several doses of live radiation. Women, this is no joke. I started crying about 20 minutes into it, and I didn’t stop for at least an hour afterward. How does anyone survive that test? Who dreamt up such a nightmare? Oh, I totally forgot to mention that this happens while the victim stands in front of the cold steel table, shirtless. Women line up and wait hours to have this done. I kid you not. It’s like a medieval torture device—that women pay for and undergo willingly. So let’s evaluate the evidence:

  • Torn and bruised tissue
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Physical and emotional stress
  • Physical and emotional trauma
  • Radiation
  • Yearly repetition of all of the above

Do the math. If I were a cell, I might mutate under those conditions. Ridiculous! Maybe mammography saves lives, but I can’t help wondering at what cost. I remain unconvinced. So do several other women, who I love and trust.

At present I persist in seeing the acupuncture doctor. Apart from wanting to avoid neuralgia, I’ve started to take more careful looks at the gorgeous babies trapped beneath the glass on Dr. Kang’s desk. Apparently, he’s quite famous as a fertility doctor. Any way, for now I’m mostly making sure that I don’t have shingles for the rest of my life. That’s just not okay with me. Each visit costs $90 per week for herbs. This is pricey, especially when you consider this is an out of pocket expense. So how does the average woman, who wants natural healing options, afford alternative healthcare? I’m not sure I can answer that, but it’s led me to think about sacrifice. Since I’m Dominican, I grew up hearing about the value of sacrifice all my life. But really, what does it mean? Well, it’s giving up something you love for something which may potentially be more important, for example, luxuries for your children’s clothes. That translates into to money for me. I’ve never been particularly attached, so long as my needs are met, but this is really cutting into my lifestyle—that and my recent choice to quit one of my jobs. So for $360 per month, I can cure my neuralgia, or I can buy a car or something. A no brainer, when I think of it. To stay healthy, I gave up a toxic environment. Now I need to pay extra to stay well. Hmm…

I’ll say this. I know the herbs are working. Here’s how: the other day I whacked my bare toe on a table leg. As I prepared to react—nothing happened, until about 10 seconds later when the message finally reached my brain. Just as I was explaining that it didn’t hurt after all, I gave a hearty yowl. This delay in the synaptic messages delivery from the PNS to the CNS is significant. Neuralgia is a condition caused the inability to shut down the pain signals of the body. After I soothed myself, I smiled and went on to brew my nightly medicinal herbs. I know that I’m getting exactly what I’m paying for. How wonderful.

Mental health counseling, chiropractic care, massage, gym membership, acupuncture, Somatic Experiencing, yoga—all out-of-pocket expenses—are often expensive and not covered by health insurance. When those services are covered, they’re generally offered to those among us who already have a wealth of resources. This is a good spot to plug Charlotte Maxwell Cancer Clinic for women that provides complementary care for women who were poor before cancer. (Learn more here: http://www.charlottemaxwell.org/). The practitioners offer their services such as massage acupressure, Reiki and hypnotherapy for free in the CMCC clinics, and on occasion, at the home of women who were poor before being diagnosed with cancer. For the rest of us, we need to provide for our care. It’s not an option to go without these types of services and care. It’s easy for me to say that since I don’t have children; however, I am willing to support the care of women around me with fewer resources, and I’m not the only one. I have been a member of a powerful community of people who share resource. Ultimately, we’ll either pay for preventive care and services, or we’ll pay the doctor for prescriptions that don’t always work. Personally, I’d rather not stress out and get shingles. If I had it to do over, I’d go for a few more massages. We need to value ourselves and our well-being by prioritizing our care. We owe it to ourselves and to our families.

Manifesto of Pain: Winding Down a Season of Trauma

I was wondering why I had one outbreak after another for five weeks. I couldn’t seem to stop them. Every time I thought I was well, a new rash developed. As a result, I wasn’t sleeping properly because of the constant pain I was experiencing. Another interesting detail I noticed, and could not initially interpret, was the odor of my body. I found it acrid, even after a shower. I believe that cortisol and adrenaline were to blame. Like an injured animal, I was in high-stress alert. Stress was prolonging my shingles, causing me more pain. Here’s what I now understand:

Real pain needs real medicine.

It is time to take a look at the body’s Central Nervous System (CNS). Our bodies have a dual nervous system, the CNS and the PNS or Peripheral Nervous System. The Chickenpox virus lives in the spinal cord, the CNS. The rash itself attacks along the PNS on the body and skin. Neuralgia, associated with shingles is a consequence of nerve damage on the PNS. The PNS system contains the nerve cells that travel to the CNS. Nerve cells, unfortunately have a kind of binary functionality; they’re either on for off. After weeks of being on, nerve cells may no longer know how to shut off. In a sense, they atrophy in an “on” position, which is why a very common side effect of shingles is the chronic pain caused by nerve damage, known as neuralgia. Some unfortunate souls experience neuralgia for upwards of six months post-shingles! Poor dears.

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It was only while talking to a friend of mine who lives with chronic pain that I understood that my pain had not been addressed by my medical provider. Even though the doctor herself told me to expect pain, she never prescribed a pain medication beyond Motrin, and even with Motrin, I was not prescribed the maximum dose available. My gynecologist gives me a higher dose of Motrin for menstrual cramps. At any rate, after trying to “bite through a nail” for another week, I crawled back to the doctor, balled myself up on the examination table, and wept openly. I managed to finally get the lowest dose of Vicodine available. It didn’t help much, but I stopped sweating. My offensive B.O.? Gone by morning! Also, the doctor doubled my dose a day later. I finally slept the entire night. The next day, I had a smile on a face. I knew my body could finally begin the healing process.

 

I’m fascinated that while in my doctor’s office, writhing in pain, she was trying to give me antibiotics. Surely I had something else, she thought. This was not a normal shingles outbreak. Well, what if one’s skin is brown and one has had about four consecutive outbreaks in a five-week period? How will that look? Through my pain I had the presence of mind to reject the antibiotics, which were in part responsible for my weakened immune system, leading to my original outbreak. At home, while awake in the early morning hours, I looked at pictures of shingles rash. They, in fact, looked exactly like what I had, only on brown skin, no big surprises. But, was my skin color playing a leading role in my treatment? I think so. An additional powerful realization of how lucky I really am, knowing things were bad for me, was seeing that I’ve had a relatively mild case of shingles. My heart goes out to people who are suffering with severe cases. That pain must be unforgiving. I pray that those people had proper opiate pain medicine. I’m convinced that untreated pain will prolong shingles. This is a compounded travesty. Let no one who reads this allow anyone you know to go without the appropriate pain medicine during shingles.

 

I have had some comforts, one of which is laugh therapy—did you even know that there’s such a thing as Humor Therapy? Well there you have it. We all need a good friend, or ten, to make us laugh, let us cry and miss us when we’re down and out. One friend in particular has seen me through this crisis with sheer exuberance. Somehow, just at the moment when we are both about to cry, Robyn will say something that brings tears of laughter to my face, sending me running to the bathroom to void my bladder and avoid an accident. I don’t know how we manage it, but this unexpected joy has brought me back from the brink of darkness numerous times over the past five weeks. I know it has been the same for her. Even when we are laughing at ourselves, we look through a lens of compassion, understanding and childishness, touching the innocence in ourselves. We get silly people! And, it heals us deep down where the hurt curls itself up. Laughter is one of the few ways I know to naturally get high, elevate your mood, and stay in your body.

 

 

I don’t have all the answers or even fully understand this episode in my life, yet. What I do know is that talking to friends has helped. They have led me to alternative care. Their advice has translated into self-advocacy. Friends have driven me to the doctor’s office. Friends have let me cry when I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Friends have made me laugh my head off. Mostly, I don’t feel alone in my suffering. This has changed everything. I know I can’t rush ahead blindly. I must be mindful and manage my stress, avoiding extremes. I get to start over. Tea, anyone?

 

Gleanings from a Shingles Bell-Jar

This week marks my fourth week battling Shingles. It is now officially a saga. What can I do now that the pain has moved beyond what Motrin can control? I am beside myself with pain—literally; I’m like an alien unto myself, watching myself wriggling beneath a glass. I don’t recognize this body anymore. This new level of pain, discomfort and sensation is almost more traumatic than Shingles itself.

After two weeks, I felt that I had sufficiently recovered to claim that I had overcome my ordeal, surviving all the worse that Shingles has to offer. That is when my second outbreak began. All of the healed areas were once again under siege. A new level of sensation has taken hold; torture owns my body. Itching, biting, and walking creatures move along the flesh of my chest and march beneath my arm at will. This can’t be real, I tell myself, but it is. My face muscles convulse; my eyelids—the tops and bottoms on both sides—twitch and pulse. My fingers go numb, and a star of pain ignites in the center of my back, exploding into emptiness. I cancel plans. Buckle down for another term. My sadness, resignation and grief at my emotional and physical distress are overwhelming.

When this all started, with my usual optimism, I decided that everything would work out fine because it was the beginning of my spring break, and at least, I could stay home and convalesce, and perhaps with some luck, party the last weekend before school. This is the story I told myself. This is the presence of mind I embraced. What a ridiculous fantasy. I urged my partner to go on vacation without me because there was no way I could do anything, go anywhere or see anyone. I have had to remain inside and sit with my pain. I maxed out on Motrin, going to the edge of the daily dose, reeling with pain at the end of the it; watching the seconds tick by waiting for the next capsule. I even tried to dull the pain with alcohol, but the beast will not be lulled by bottled trifles. I must ride this wave. I have no choice. I have to go on.

This is the new trauma of this illness.

The pain overwhelms me and my body coils in on itself like an angry snake. As I catch my breath, my eyes drown in tears. I can’t believe that I’m here—still—again! I’m not sleeping, because the pain is more intense at night. My teeth feel like they will crack from clenching of my jaw against the pain, and my head throbs with the pressure. I don’t understand what’s happening, but my body temperature drops, giving me chills and covering my body in thick sweat; the pain rises in waves all through the night. I wake depressed, but I put on a brave face. After all, I am a warrior. I am a survivor. I can handle this.

I cannot.

I am flooded with heaviness and the weighty tenderness of a body deprived of rest and fed on a sleepless night of torment. I begin to sob in agony. I am home alone; I can weep with abandon and no one will hear me. This is the problem. I am so alone with my pain. Depression has moved in and is finding the ground fertile. I miss my friends. I miss hugging people. I miss running around with the beautiful children in my life. I miss the amorous touch of my lover. I am an alien in this body. I reach out to friends—over the phone. Please make me laugh or forget. It is little consolation. I yearn to be well again, whole and pain-free.

This is trauma, emotional and physical trauma yet it does not compare to other traumas. To me, Shingles is a stern teacher. I must forgive her. Even if I don’t like the lesson, mastery is required. The imposed isolation and the loss of the vibrancy with which I customarily live are more than enough to crush me. I don’t have much to give, because just putting on a shirt feels like an accomplishment. But what I have learned is that people are precious. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this for granted, but now it’s even clearer. I can’t wait to hug people without flinching. Screaming babies will be no obstacle to quality time. I’m looking forward to spending more time with people. I know I’m not the only one affected by this disease. As a community, our lives have been altered.

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On my way back and down from the crest of the curve, I am aware of how steep and sharp the descent is, no less perilous than any other journey of the human spirit. I hope to understand more about myself as I emerge from this dark night of pain. Like one of Millet’s peasants, out of sheer desperation, I am gleaning the earth for sustenance. I plumb my soul in search of the Edissa I’m becoming, holding my hand up to the glass in an awkward greeting. I see me there, and wonder, Who will be left from this fire? Will I know her?