Monthly Archives: May 2017

Swiss Army Knife – A Minor Super Power

When I was in my early twenties, my dad bought me a Christmas gift that I still have — a Swiss Army knife. He almost never was the gift buyer. I doubt many young women can say their dad gifted them a knife that has been a beloved companion for 28 years. After 9/11, this compañera became a ‘threat’ and I stood several times at the security checkpoint with terror in my heart, realizing I had not left my knife at home. I resisted the new reality that I couldn’t fly with it in my purse and became an ace at locating an information desk and devising a way to mail it home. Sometimes I reluctantly put it in my carry-on and checked it if time allowed. Now they have those special hubs where you can mail stuff home for a hefty price.

Full of useful tiny tools, I have pulled out many splinters gently and cut wayward threads on pants, skirts, and shirts. Apples and cheese have felt the larger knife slice through them with precision and the little awl has poked needed holes in plastic and paper. My toothpick unwedges the green between my teeth and the regular and tiny screwdrivers loosen or tighten my screws, depending on what is needed. The nifty can opener and bottle openers have saved many an outdoor trip and even the cork screw has stepped in when the wine is ready to drink but the buyer has not come prepared. It took me a few years to realize I carried a small saw with me — more of a fascination to stare at than a tool I count on.

The toothpick and tweezers had been lost for a number of years, and I was delighted when I researched and ordered a order a packet of them online. One day the red plastic cover fell off of a side. I have glued it on a number of times but it keeps falling off. It has moved from my purse to my backpack to my keychain to my tennis bag.  Writing this inspired me to give my compañera a good cleaning, oiling, and sharpening.

The term “Swiss Army knife” was coined by American soldiers after World War II due to the difficulty they had in pronouncing “Offiziersmesser”, the German name. There now exist a plethora of knife options in all sizes, colors, and price points.

What is more interesting to me beyond the knife’s longevity and usefulness is the symbolism of the knife for my father and me. The father who was driven to buy it when for countless years and countless lists he drank his café and left the decision-making and purchasing to my mother. And who was I as a young woman that a Swiss Army knife seemed like a good gift to ask for?

I was living at the Catholic Worker in East Los Angeles and working on Skid Row when I opened the gift with a surprised smile on my face. I had become intrigued at fixing things in the hospitality house and a Swiss Army knife helped tasks go more smoothly in old buildings with constant small repairs.

The knife is a tool of survival and readiness, serving as a talisman of these qualities I leaned on for many years. I live in a world that pushes me to believe I have to focus on my survival and be ready to tend to my needs when others might not. It has morphed in the present moment to be a symbol of resilience and power, like a faithful guardian angel that has my back and celebrates my constant addition of knowledge, experience, and tools to support an abundant mindset. Because of this, I created a second generation tradition by gifting my twins each a Swiss Army knife in their late teens. It was like giving them a minor super power to encourage them on their journey towards authentic resilience, constant growth, and the delight of taking care of business with the flick of a tiny tool. #52essays2017

Mother Loss

My heart has been heavy this week. I thought the goblins and ghouls that sneak into my thoughts more easily near the full moon were poking me into this ‘hot loneliness’. Then, at the Chill and Still yoga class, I quieted down enough to understand it was Mother Loss, awakened by Mother’s Day. June marks fourteen years since my mother passed on to her next realm. I had not been thinking about her, which is why I missed the deeper source of my grief and malaise.

Instead, my thoughts had been on two friends and mothers who passed away within months of my father’s death in 1996. This remembrance was sparked by seeing two rose bushes I planted, one for each, in full bloom. I carefully cut some sprigs to mix in a bouquet — honoring them and mi Mamy Isabel, who doted on her rosas.

Meg died first, the cancer that had stalked her for a few years finally snaking into her brain one month after attending my father’s funeral. She had desired motherhood for many years and finally adopted Natalie, who was about seven years old, a rambunctious girl who must be in her early forties now. I hope she has the same spirited approach to life that stretched Meg’s reticent personality to its limits and beyond. Natalie lost two moms and I wonder if she feels the heaviness I do around this time of year. Meg sent me a card many years ago with a quote by Adrienne Rich that nestles in one of my drawer:

An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

These words she gifted me have set a high bar in my life and I don’t regret that. I am even more honored she read these words and thought of me. It gave value to a word used too easily and with no thought of its amazing power. Love is a verb and this quote has reminded me of that through the years thanks to Meg. She is nodding quietly at this, a slight smile playing on her face. She was one of very few white friends over the years who did not decide one day, with no dialogue or clear explanation, to unfriend me before that became a thing on FaceBook. She went that hard way with me.

Willa was a force of power and grace who I met at Alameda County Child Protective Services. Her nails were long and her heart was as wide as the Pacific Ocean. After losing her first husband, she had found love again and her son joined an older daughter. Willa died because of the elitism system of health care when the Richmond Kaiser “standby” emergency room was not equipped to deal with her life-threatening illness, a classic case of structural racism. This poem emerged while in my MFA program.

Willa, Willa, Willa
You died too young
left your children too young
your oldest daughter an orphan
her father a Jonestown casualty

what can she use for hope now
what can help her know justice
when her father drinks cyanide for breakfast
on an island he flew to for community

when her mother’s heartbeat fluttered one last time
en route to a second hospital
the hospital she first drove to
had shut its emergency room down

greedy, racist economics killed you, Willa
heart that overflowed in kindness
black body that could not hold the pain
that ate your nerves as you drove that night
drained your adrenals down to empty

you could have lived
to tuck your children into bed
could have laughed that deep joy into the world
for days and weeks and years

if the world loved your people

you are with me when I wear shades indoors
when I grow my fingernails long
your spirit hovered as I watched my babies grow
beyond the age of your son at your death
past your daughter’s age at your death

you are in me when I rail against hate and ignorance
that deprives black and brown women of dignity and health care

Willa, Willa, Willa
Your name means desire and protection
May your strength rain down upon us all

These three mothers made an indelible mark on my soul and on my mothering. My mother never used the word ‘love’, but that did not stop me from learning what I could from how she tended her garden and embracing love, amor, y cariño in my mothering. I take no day for granted with my twins, and am committed to doing justice to the complexity of motherhood.


Read it and Run

I became a whitewater river guide the year I held my last j-o-b. That would be 1992. It was a rocky beginning at guide school and in my new path with self-employment, but the river has more than made up for that in life-long lessons since then that are true on and off the water.

Right Attire
Enjoying the beauty and being safe on the river requires having the right attire and equipment. On the river it would be a hat that won’t fall off, clothes that dry quickly, shoes or sandals that will stay on, and a life jacket that squeezes you enough to know it will stay with you if you end up in the water and need to float until you are pulled back into a boat. Off the river, this is still necessary. I think of it as a uniform. I have my working at home uniform, my being in public uniform, my workout uniform, and my fiesta uniform, por darles unos ejemplos. They all require a different attitude and there is a purpose for each. It is not about bowing down to other people’s requirements or expectations. It is about setting myself up for success so I can focus on my goals and aspirations.

Right Company
I am very intentional to bring people on the river who may not have grown up feeling comfortable near water and who add racial/ethnic diversity to the natural world. As a river guide, I assess and then re-assess the strengths and growth areas of the folks in my boat because I count on them to listen to me and trust my leadership, their own capacity to confront challenges, and the power of the team. I am not expecting perfection, I am looking to balance our strengths so that the raft does not veer too much to the left or right. I also make sure we are all seated in a posture like a tripod, balancing on our two feet and our fabulous butts, allowing for the best use of our biggest muscles and for keeping us steady as we plow through the rapids. Off the river, being with people who value all of who we are and pronounce our names as we prefer is key as well. We need a tribe to cheer our success and console us when we suffer inevitable loss and disappointment.

Right Direction
To get down the river, I have to use the right commands at the right times. To be a guide is to speak up often, loudly, and con ganas. Your voice and your experience are your most important assets. Just like a car, the raft can go in five directions. Forward, back, right turn, and left turn. In many ways, the most important command is the fifth: STOP! This allows for the pause necessary to change direction, to celebrate success, to catch your breath, and to drink water. People tend to wonder ‘why you would paddle backwards on a moving river’? For the same reason we do we do this on land. Sometimes the best plan is to pull away from danger rather than hit it head on. This can be a person, a work situation, a group or even sometimes a family drama.

Right Effort
More than anything, as a guide my goal is to stay in the current. It is the true meaning of going with the flow, connecting with the river’s knowledge of the most efficient path to your destination. My most important tool to stay in the current is the guide paddle, which has a longer handle and blade. I am the rudder, quietly moving the raft or course-correcting my paddlers to create even power on both sides. On and off the water, it is important to exert enough effort – not too much and not too little. This is rarely obvious and requires us to know our tendencies and course-correct regularly.

Right Thinking
As the guide, I am always looking a few curves ahead, like a chess player who makes every move with the next few in mind. In essence, I am setting my raft and paddlers up to manage the dangers and thrills of the river with grace and ease. I also know that the best laid plans are full of rocks hidden just below the surface of the water, paddlers who get distracted just as I call a command, or of other rafts who may not understand the etiquette of river collaboration. The meta-plan that ultimately guides me to read the river and then run it. Being in the present moment is the intention and truest approach, on and off the water. What just happened? What is the best response? If that doesn’t work, what is another response?

Right Decision
Inevitably, someone, including the guide, may fall in the river. The instructions are to listen to the voice of the guide to tell you what to do, even if they are the one swimming. Generally someone will pull you into a boat. Nice if it is the boat you fell out of, but any boat will do. If far away, then perhaps the best option is to lay on your back with your feet up to push away from any danger like a rock, using your hands as paddles, and your life jacket as flotation to hold you up. If in breaking waves, you breathe in the troughs between waves. If under the boat, you feel your way out. If right next to the shore, you get out and decide the best option.  You breathe, you listen, you trust and you learn. Those who falls in have the best story, even if they also feel the power of the rapids, understand why one rapid is called “Lost Hat”, and sport a few bruises. Off the water, we fall all the time, tripped by our unrealistic expectations, the daily inequities of society, and our distractable minds. We remember this happens because we are living life fully.

Right Timing
If you are excited about being on a river to learn all the lessons it offers, summer is the time to attend the ‘school of the river’ and practice what you learned in your daily life. The river is life, beauty abounding, dangers known and unknown, with destinations worth every minute of quiet, determined effort with people joined by trust and circumstance. I became a river guide in my late thirties and trained with a woman in her mid-fifties. She is still guiding in her late seventies. The force is strong in her.

My first river rafting trip was down the Colorado river and the ability to be in the splendor of the Grand Canyon was breath-taking. Yes, I fell in. Yes, I got distracted by the huge waves and didn’t paddle when I should have. These days I guide and paddle on the South Fork of the American river, located northeast of Sacramento, California. It is new for me every time, as is every day I wake up with gratitude for being alive and open to living with a ‘beginner’s mind’, where all things are possible.

Right Ending
What the river teaches me each time is that a life full of community, opportunity, and delight requires a Plan A, B, and C. When those all fail, as they will repeatedly, remember to read your life and run it with your body, mind, and spirit aligned to guide you. They will not fail you, even if you fall out of your boat or your comfort zone. That is when they shine.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The Cuddy power pose has been circulating amid folks and is one of the most watched TED talks. It sits into my “One Size Fits All” (OSFA ) file. This is the file that carries the motivation to be writing my coaching/motivational books, the ones that say “One Size does Not Fit All”. The books that contain the challenges and successes of the many people I have coached over the years because they chose to embrace their non-status quo size and create the frameworks and tools that match their life, especially in terms of dealing with interpersonal and societal oppression on a daily basis.

While the Cuddy pose may have some value, nowhere in the talk or book does Ann Cuddy address what happens when women and people of color show their power in a system that is set up to minimize and distort our power. We do not live on a level playing field and the world responds differently to our power posing. I work with my coaching clients on both presence AND taking into account the social, political, psychological, and economic impact of oppression. I read Cuddy’s book Presence because an African-American male client wanted to work with it. I then infused our conversations with the lens of the current state of racism he faces daily and how to notice and manage his particular presence in a corporate setting with very few people of color. Some of the initial questions I asked to enhance the book content were:
When did you feel most present in last two weeks (confident and enthusiastic)?
When this happens, what are the demographics in room? (Race/gender/rank/other variables?)

These are not in the book because OSFA books and speakers don’t worry about the stereotype of being a black man or even a small Latina woman with a big aura. He is magnified and I am diminished. In each instant we feel the privileged folks asking us to be the size that brings them comfort and a sense of supremacy. One of the quiet ways this happens is restaurant seating. Once I saw this, I added yet another habit of scanning the restaurant and deciding where I wanted to sit. If the person directed me to a location I did not like, I voiced my preference. I often tell them before they say anything so I don’t have to experience the ‘ouch’.

The power pose requires time in the bathroom posing in a stall before a big meeting or event. I don’t choose to spend time in bathrooms to pose when societal limitations descend. I might spend half my life in the bathroom! I do, however, see restrooms as a refuge, but not to pose. I smile at my reflection instead — I am real, I am enough, I am loved, and I am powerful. “I see you” is my message. That is my power – inside me all the time. Another question I posed to my client was:
What are adjectives that define your power (to)?

While I absolutely agree with taking up appropriate space, that is not going to look the same for each person depending on your blend of historically privileged and not privileged identities and your environment. While Cuddy says the ‘imposter experience’ is experienced across all types of people (and I agree), my work with POC and women confirm it manifests differently and more profoundly for these groups because society is telling us we don’t deserve to be successful and powerful. As a black man, my added question to my client on this phenomena was:
How to you experience the imposter phenomena and how does the combination of ‘black’ and ‘man’ make it particularly challenging?

Interestingly enough, the value of the power pose has been challenged even without the lens of equity being considered. Even in the discounting of it, no mention is made of who was studied and who was not.

The issue about OSFA writers is that people like Ann Cuddy or Ariana Huffington in her book Thrive get the benefit of the doubt with no credible science or awareness of differences in power. I read Thrive as a possible comp for my books, and noted she quoted hundreds of people, mostly white and mostly men, which seems antithetical to her positioning as a powerful woman. Sometimes a page had no less than 8 quotes -with very little original material.

The focus with my client was to use the notion of presence to get at what I have seen over the years build relaxed confidence. In addition to the ones I have already shared, these are questions to answer to understand your authentic power and internalize the external power pose idea without having to stand like superman/woman/girl/person in a bathroom stall.

Take one a day and explore your authentic power to be your brightest, most amazing self.

What are two personal inner core values?
Why are they core and when was a time it proved to be important to you?
When did you recently feel present and saw that someone else became more present because of your relaxed confidence and attentiveness?
How do you capture moments/situations when you feel personally powerful, in control of your own psychological state?
What has personal power revealed to you about your best self?
What body postures do you manifest that signifies power or powerlessness?
What is your ‘haka’ – where is your ‘belonging place’ and what you do that demonstrates pride in your heritage? How do you reconnect to your spiritual/heart strength?