Gratitude

It’s no secret that Thanksgiving is an extremely bizarre holiday. It is fundamentally based on colonialism and the idea that we should celebrate a day that represents the genocide of indigenous peoples, and ultimately the undeserved accomplishments of white people. It’s so strange to me that a majority of people (including myself) haven’t realized that until fairly recently, but I guess sometimes it takes us a while to really “wake up.”

When celebrating this holiday as a child, all I really cared about was the food- which I think is pretty standard. However, since celebrating this day as an adult, so much has changed. Three years ago, I celebrated the day with my family by inviting two Dutch exchange student friends to cook with us who had never experienced a traditional Thanksgiving. The next year a dear friend who’s a vegan joined my family and introduced us to some great new dishes (and ended up doing most of the cooking). Last year, at the height of my mother’s illness, my sister and I worked tirelessly to cook an entire meal while my mom had to painfully watch on the sidelines. One of her greatest joys is cooking meals like this on the holidays and her not being able to participate was such a hard thing to see. I remember my sister and I burning the first round of bread crumbs for the stuffing and the gravity of such a simple mistake felt much greater because my mom wasn’t able to help.

This year will be completely different, we are celebrating Thanksgiving at my Aunt’s house, and although my mom won’t be able to cook everything, tomorrow she and my sister and I will be able to make a few staple dishes before heading over. It’s funny how you don’t appreciate things like stressing out together over making a holiday meal until you aren’t able to do it.

I remember doing a project in junior high where the assignment was to talk about family traditions and I was so frustrated because a lot of my friend’s were Latino and had all these incredible traditions that were so rich and colorful, and I somehow wasn’t able to pinpoint my own family’s traditions. Now I see them so clearly. In the way my mom meticulously plans her recipes like an astronaut preparing for launch; in the fact that we still make a sweet potato recipe from my Dad’s mom who has been gone for years now; in the way that we have added the Dutch Boterkoek cake as one of our essential desserts; in the way we are always perpetually late; and most importantly, in the way that I couldn’t imagine spending this holiday without the people who I am most grateful for.

My gratitude was shown to me in a new light after listening to a podcast that featured two women, one who received a kidney from the other after knowing each other for a very short time. Listening to their story, and identifying with so many of the things they were talking about put my own life into perspective. Words they used and scenarios they described brought me back to moments I have tucked away in the corners of my mind. It’s been really tough for me to take a step back from everything my family and I went through with my mom’s lung transplant surgery, but somehow hearing a similar story made me better understand our own. When I was finishing up my walk this evening, I ran into my sister and mom who were also finishing up a walk (it still feels unreal to see my mom being able to trek up our hill sans oxygen tank). I told them about the podcast I had just listened to and I realized how remarkable our story truly is. My mom then shared a really intense piece of information about her donor she had been holding inside for the past four months and it made me cry. I cried because it made me realize how truly deserving my mom was to receive these new lungs. These last 4 months since her surgery, I have just been learning how to be okay and relearning to live my life, but for now I am grateful. The universe works in mysterious and beautiful ways and the fact that I’m going to get to have my family together for another year is a truly a wonderful thing.

 

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The In Betweens

*This piece is in response to Rihanna’s Perspective on Her Weight Changed How I Think on Manrepeller.com.

 

It’s about a week before Halloween Weekend 2017 (a usually very important holiday for me) and I am without a costume. I have plans to go to a big party, but no motivation to begin planning a costume. I’ve noticed in the recent heatwave that all my miniskirts and shorts are suddenly too tight in certain areas. After struggling trying to shimmy into a few different garments, I give up. My ass is larger than it was at the beginning of the summer and my waistline is certainly not it’s fairly trim usual self. I look at myself in the mirror and feel like shit. I say to myself that maybe I just won’t go. I begin to process the external factors that could be causing this; moving home, stress eating, inconsistent mental health, etc. A couple days later the friend I’m going to the party with sends me texts with her own costume ideas and I still don’t feel inspired to get creative with a costume- which is an area where I normally thrive. Thoughts of self-loathing start invading my head like, “you can’t wear a cute costume, you’re two sizes bigger than normal” or “your fat ass won’t fit into anything.” These are the kinds of verbal self abuse that fill my head when I gain weight because that is how I’ve learned to view my body. As an attractive able bodied, white woman, my worth lies in my physical appearance- and more specifically my weight (or at least that’s the fucked up version of the truth that I’ve been taught).

Fast forward to the day of the party, I decide to at least try to scrap some cliché costume options together. I come up with a cat/cheetah hybrid (very original I know) by throwing on a body suit, with my go-to faux leather skirt. As I begin trying to pull on the skirt, I get frustrated because it doesn’t slide as easily on as it had in the past, in fact, once I wrestle it on and pull up the zipper, I can hardly breathe. I look in the mirror seeing a completely distorted version of myself from what’s actually there. I send a photo of the outfit to my friend and she says it looks great. I thank her, but the evil dark voice inside my head says, “she’s just saying that to make you feel good.”

Later that night, I’m at her house and we’re getting ready. I’m getting in my groove a little bit, slowly regaining some of the mojo I seemed to have lost as of late. I slay a cool cat makeup look and then begin to pull on my fishnets, body suit and then the anxiety-inducing faux leather skirt. I again look at myself in the mirror with the full look and am still questioning if I look okay, insecurity clouding my judgement. I turn to my friend and ask what she thinks. She says, “you look great. Don’t you feel hot? I thought you always felt confident?” I told her no, I haven’t been feeling very confident lately and she was taken aback, this is fairly out of character for me. I normally revel in my own vanity and female divinity that I own so well, but lately that just hasn’t been there for me.

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One of the first times I realized that my body was special or desirable in a sexual way to the white cis colonized male mind, I was probably a Sophomore in high school and my friend’s boyfriend made a comment about my butt while I was wearing a skin tight one piece bathing suit before a water polo game.  It was my uniform, I was an athlete about to get a pool and brutally wrestle other players while attempting to stay afloat, I couldn’t believe I was being sexualized. I was so uncomfortable after the comment was made, but then it gave me a bit of confidence because it validated my worth and gave me a power I didn’t necessarily have to work for. During that game I was so painfully aware of how my body looked that it probably affected how I actually played, in fact I know it did. These types of comments continued in high school, I spent time hanging out with older girls who encouraged me to go to college parties with them where I was conditioned to be just another “hot girl.” This is how I learned to base my encounters with men around, I could use my body and looks as tools without having to put my emotions on the line. It was easier to act like a fantasy girl than a real woman that they might reject. This lasted for many years later (I’ll go into detail in another blog post). Comments from male strangers about my body became common place upon entering college at Chico State. I thought virtually any attention like this was “good” because I thought it meant I was desirable and ultimately worthy of the space marked female. Chico was the first place I got cat called for being “thick,” I was so out of touch, I didn’t even know what it meant at the time. All I knew was that this comment came after I had gained about 30 lbs. from my freshmen year and I was truly unhappy with myself.

About a year later, when I moved home, I lost that weight and then some by obsessively writing down everything I ate militantly abiding to a points program. There were so many nights where I had already used my daily points allowance before dinner time and agonized about how hungry I was but didn’t want to go over the limit. I lost weight fast. Similar to a diet competition I had done in my senior year of high school with some friends to try to only eat about 700 calories per day. This was the time I considered an Iced Carmel Macciatto a “meal.”

Everyone complimented me on this new weight loss as though it were one of my biggest accomplishments. I had just turned 20, and found that this new ability I was gaining because of my physical appearance was empowering. I was then a size medium/small in the waist, 6 in dress size and 28 in pants. I looked thin and long and I liked it because I was getting attention and special treatment for the way I looked. It helped me land a job as a hostess having had no prior experience, it helped me get good grades and gave me a fair number of guys to turn down- after all, I couldn’t focus on anything else but keeping my weight under control, right?

After that year, I went to study abroad in Spain for the summer. It was there that I was reminded how much I enjoyed food and indulging (mainly on bread and wine). I met a friend who opened my eyes to a new view of my own body. On a train ride to a friend’s country home for the weekend, she described me having an hourglass figure likened to the sensual goddesses in greek mythology. My softness and gentle curves were beautiful. I had never heard my body talked about in this way and I certainly had never thought of it like that.

Fast forward to about two years later (I was 22), a couple friends turned me onto the idea of plus size modeling. I was about a size 8 at the time, not technically considered plus, but definitely not a “straight” model (sizes 0-4), nevertheless I decided to pursue it. A friend shoot some basic photos of me in different poses, I wrote down my measurements and sent them off to a few agencies. One popular agency in LA who preached inclusion and acceptance completely ignored me, while another in the UK got back to me quickly and said that although they thought I was “gorgeous,” I just wasn’t the right fit. I took this literally as my body was inadequate in some way. I had already failed at being a normal size model and now I couldn’t live up to this requirement either. I was a mess, but retreated inward not talking to friends or my boyfriend at the time about it. At the same time I was wondering, where was the space for the in betweens? For the women who have curves, but our hips aren’t wide enough and our legs are not long enough and our bellys are just not flat enough?

At the time I was struggling to finish my last full year of college, and really wasn’t finding a real sense of purpose in any aspect of my life. So I thought I’d go with relying on my looks, an obvious choice given my track record. I was dating a materialistic artist who had an affinity for for pretty things- I apparently was just another “pretty thing.” He would manipulate what I wore, how I did my makeup, wore my hair and even sometimes what I was eating.

I have been defined my entire life by these influxes and changes in my weight. Virtually every important or pivotal moment I have associated with what my body looked like at the time. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time but haven’t really had the motivation until reading about Rihanna’s own perspective on her weight, she has been talked about heavily in the media over the past several months because of her recent weight gain. In which her response is that she, “has had the pleasure of a fluctuating body type.” The word pleasure, never crossed my mind in relation to weight gain which I, like so many other women have traditionally been taught is completely negative and devalues you as a human being. I realized that I too have the pleasure of a fluctuating body type and I can certainly learn to work with the in-between moments and sizes. The pants size 12 does not define me and adversely, neither does a 6. I know where I feel my best, and it is certainly not now but I have to learn to appreciate and take care of my body at various stages.

One thing this article talks about that really struck a chord with me is that 59% of black women describe themselves as beautiful compared with 32% of Hispanic women and 25% of white women. More black women also agreed with the statement, “I am happy the way that I am,” when they looked in the mirror. “Growing up, black women are taught you’re strong, you’re beautiful, you’re smart, you’re enough.” These are survival tactics in a world that doesn’t appreciate #BlackGirlMagic like it should.

Of the many things white women steal from black culture, we could really take a page from this. If white women work to relearn their worth and teach girls from the get go that they are whole and beautiful just the way we are, these statistics wouldn’t be so startling. Progress is tangible and I think we can really make it happen. I’m going to do it, starting with me.

xo Aly

 

Transition

I feel like I’m hitting a wall. It’s a frosted glass wall where after a year of shit, I can finally start to see the other side- the frost is thinning, the glass becoming more clear, but the other side still feels far away. There also feels like a weight is being pressed upon my back and shoulders, pushing and pulling in different directions until I break. And today I did. I cried- sobbed actually for the first time in a long time as the feeling of defeat overcame me. I’m actually not sure if that’s the right word, maybe it’s combined with a sense of relief or maybe even catharsis. For some reason today, my ongoing fight with sluggishly slow internet at my parent’s house was enough to make me crack.

This year has been unimaginably hard, so much so that it is too painful to even bring up some of the memories of events or even to look at the past reflection of myself. I am a person who has a flair for dramatics and extremes but this is no exaggeration. Thinking back to my birthday last October SO much has happened: I quit my job, discovered my passion, worked on Women’s March, was interviewed by multiple platforms, won a couple awards, began to start a business, hustled hard being financially stable and then unstable learning that activism doesn’t pay bills (especially not student loans); overcame difficult bouts of depression hitting my lowest of lows by accepting I needed therapy and then consistently going; I lost myself, found myself, learned self-love and the importance of self-care; was a pillar of strength for my mom, my family and myself supporting my mom through a chronic illness, six months in the hospital, a double lung transplant and all the brutally tough moments in between; I opened my heart, stopped talking to fuckboys (knowingly), gained friendships, rediscovered yoga, wrote a lot, began training for a half marathon, and most importantly GREW as a whole. This is the year I evolved and grew into an adult or the person I am meant to be. Although my bank account doesn’t reflect anything impressive, my passion and strength of my heart proves so much more.

I have been living back at home for nearly a month and each day has presented its new set of challenges and obstacles. I forgot what living and working with a tight-knit family unit is like, it’s a lot of work. Especially in my mom’s recovery process from a double lung transplant. Many of our arguments are about who is going to make the grueling drive to take her to one of her almost daily doctor’s appointments at UCLA. This means blocking out my entire day, or my dad’s or whoever is able to take her just to sit in traffic in the commute on the 101 freeway to and from Ventura. No one knows what it’s actually like to deal with a family member healing from a major surgery unless they’ve gone through it, because you are learning to heal and how to re-do a lot as well. The person recovering is essentially stripped of all their basic everyday things that make life easy to live i.e: being able to walk, cook for yourself, go to the bathroom, drive, etc. Fortunately, my mom is strong and working hard to get better physically but it is a really long process. Last week I was overjoyed when, we went to a physical therapy appointment and she was able to walk on her own to and from the car and not have to be pushed in a wheel chair. These kind of small victories are what keep us going and have been throughout the entire duration of this illness for the past 8 years.

I am happy to be able to be back at home with my family and spending time with my mom, there is however the fact that I am turning 25 in a week and am having somewhat of a crisis about it.

Ventura is an escape as a safe, mild tempered beach town where at least half of my high school class still resides or has moved back to “start a life.” I moved back for all the typical reasons a struggling millennial might have for wanting to live a life free of the chains of rent or at least (some) bills. It’s a change of pace from Los Angeles and has allowed me to clear my head a little, but it’s not where I’m meant to be and frankly I am really afraid of being “stuck” here.

I have been pouring my heart and soul into my business Don’t Call Me Pretty for the last 10 months, trying to figure out what I am going to do with it. Actually, if I think back to when the idea started as my senior thesis project in college, it’s been about 2.5 years in total. One of my plans while living at home was to really get it off the ground and while I’ve worked on it a little, it’s been hard with everything else getting in the way. Life never stops so you can start something. I’m learning patience is a virtue I really need to work on acquiring. And its been especially hard putting so much into something that doesn’t have an immediate financial pay off.

Last week, I was spending time with a friend who was telling me that she put all cash down for her brand new car and she doesn’t have to make payments on it. Of course I was happy for her, and I know she works incredibly hard, but it definitely dampened my mood. Earlier that day I had finally submitted the TED Fellows application I had been working on for weeks, and although it wasn’t a new shiny car, it felt good to me. Several of my friends are starting to make investments like that and comparison always rears its ugly head as it reminds me that I am still driving the same 2004 Toyota from high school, and probably will be for a while longer. But in those moments, what I don’t take into account are the hours I spend jotting down ideas and notes and working on graphics for Instagram, and coming up with workshop ideas and researching noteworthy women from history who I think would be inspiring for others to see. This is all for Don’t Call Me Pretty.

For a long time, if not my entire life, I’ve known I was going to do something different and I really wanted to make my mark on the world in a positive, impactful way. I remember when I was little and was discovering how much I loved art and music and writing and thinking to myself, “why do I do I have to choose only one thing for a career?” Later on in college, I chose to study Interdisciplinary Studies which allowed me to design my own major comprised of many other majors. It was much more difficult because it pushed me to think outside the box by doing a lot of self-guided work, but in the end I was glad to have taken that path. Because of my flexibility, I have had great successes in my career for being so young. I can sit in a board room with a team of marketing executives and show them a social media plan and then also meet one-on-one with a celebrity client to snap photos for her Instagram. Because of this, I have been able to develop a career path where I can work with multiple clients from home on a daily basis. These kinds of things make me feel proud of the person I am and a little more at peace with all the nagging voices swirling around inside my head.

So even if I can’t afford to buy a new car, or travel to place I desperately want to visit, or even move out of my parents house, I can take a step back and be proud of what I have accomplished and what I’ve made it through. Earlier this week, my mom and I were in the car together in the commute from one of her  appointments and she looked at me and said in a convincing tone, “Aly I think this is going to be your year.” I think that sentence even convinced me.

“This is your one and only life. What do you want to tell people about it?” – Jessica James

 

Savasana

Tomorrow marks my third week of consistently doing yoga- by consistent I mean 2-3 times per week. But I am not taking this as a loss or beating myself up as I would in the past, especially with high intensity workouts where I didn’t feel like I was doing enough until there were beads of sweat rushing down my forehead and neck. I would like to work up to practicing yoga more, but this in itself feels like an accomplishment for me. To find consistency in a life that feels anything but and for someone who has been struggling with depression for the last few months, this is something I can give to myself that is a gift and an act of self care. It reminds be to stop feeling defeated by things I can’t change, and to take literally one hour out of the day to recenter and feel thankful that I am able to be present in myself.

Tonight during a class at a new studio, I had a particularly intense experience where I felt what letting go really feels like. I concentrated the pain and hurt my heart has been feeling and let it transfer down my arms and flow out of my finger tips. I let go of pain and disappointment- pain of watching someone I love struggle so unjustly everyday, disappointment in myself for not being able to hold a full time job while trying to maintain my mental health and some of the elements that make depression so dark and all consuming at times.

May is Mental Health Awareness month and I have spent a greater part of my adult life not admitting that I have “issues” as western textbooks may say, and that I need to let my guard down, set aside my pride and ask for some goddam help. I had a discussion with someone recently and they said, “the hardest thing isn’t admitting you have a problem, it’s being consistent and showing up for yourself to get the help you need.”

Flashback to March when after my mom’s “dry run” with her surgery, I felt the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve ever felt in my entire life over the course of just under 24 hours. It took me not wanting to get out of bed or really eat for a couple days to realize I needed to go to therapy. Something I have been in and out of for most of my adult life. I have found therapists I like, and then I have had therapists who listen to my story and all my “problems” and criticize me for not coming sooner, when really, the biggest step was me being there at all.

Currently I am attending a group “crisis therapy” for people who are going through intense situations. I had an extremely difficult time coming to terms with the fact that I could be placed in a box with such a loud and problem riddled name. With its hard vowels and sense of urgency, it’s a name that surely suggests I’m not a normal functioning human or one who couldn’t climb out of darkness on my own. It’s a 6 week “course” and so far I’ve been to one out of four meetings. At first, I was angry with myself that I couldn’t even show up, but then I realized that me even taking the initiative to show up that one time and open up to complete strangers was enough. Opening up to anyone really has been extremely difficult for me, especially over the course of the last year or so.

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This weekend, I went out to a bar with a girlfriend (something I used to love doing, but now I find it hard to be social with strangers) and almost immediately after arriving and finding a table at the bar, a pair of machismo dudes latched onto us. She and I had a powwow and decided it was fine to keep them around in hopes that they would take care of our drink tab ($15 for a vodka soda). We talked and flirted and joked around and everything was fine. As we made our way to another bar a few doors down, one of the guys payed special attention to me. I didn’t mind it, because even though it goes against most of what I stand for as a fiery feminist, sometimes it’s nice to hear “you’re so pretty” from a stranger who’s about to buy you a drink. We took a seat at a table and I sat next to him and we started talking. It was just small talk, poking and prodding about what I do, where I live, where I’m from- formalities that I think actually tell you nothing about a person. When people answer menial questions like this, I usually instead watch their body language, their eye contact, listen to their tone of voice and you can always tell how sincere they are being. When we were having this conversation, I was a couple drinks in and my guard was up as usual. After a few minutes, he blatantly called me out on it. He said “you’re a really guarded person aren’t you?” I didn’t respond, he proceeded with, “I can tell you’ve really been through some shit. You hide behind your looks and your personality. But you know what? If you don’t let anyone in, you’ll continue to be this person. And you’ll still be coming here alone in 5 years…” at which point he gestured to a small pathetic corner table with a mismatched older couple looking lost. His words jabbed me like an elbow to the throat, air escaping my lungs, my mouth feeling dry- because loneliness and being alone is really one of our biggest fears as human beings right? Especially as a 30 something woman in LA where your “biological clock is ticking.” I sat with my mouth agape, stunned, totally caught off guard. I was expecting a night of being out to be a fun escape, not a harsh slap of reality. I couldn’t believe that my facade I work so hard to keep up hadn’t fooled him, because it was certainly fooling everyone else. And even if his words weren’t entirely true, and maybe he was just trying to sway me into giving him a chance in my pants (which I probably would’ve fallen for in the past), they still felt painfully real which felt heightened by the Russian vodka I’d been taking down rather quickly. Instead of going along with it, I threw back my drink and dragged my friend to get another shot.

For the past few days, his words have been echoing in the back of my mind like a looming dark cloud that I can’t clear away. That night brought me even more uncertainty and unfortunately lead me down a path of heartache that I don’t want to remember or feel right now (or ever). Little did said bar philosopher know that I gave my everything to a guy who took advantage of it, all the while I was watching my mom’s health and livelihood get significantly worse. I tried to lean on him as a pillar and instead of standing tall, he succumbed to drugs, self loathing and materialism which were all used as pawns to push me away. I was just another drug to him, another material possession that had to try and fit into his world without him ever actually making space for me. Even though it’s been a while, I’m still not ready to do that for someone because I am already using almost my entire emotional capacity to stay afloat and support people I care for unconditionally.

Today I ran into a guy I sort of dated last fall, he was the closest I came to something “real” in a long time. He had a string of his own issues including being a recovering heroin addict, and I think when I was talking to him back then, it felt okay for me to be vulnerable and talk about real things because he had no choice but to expose himself. I quickly realized that was toxic and our combined negativity and issues were just a breading ground for depression and more gluttonously addictive behavior. When I saw him today, I was reminded of where I was six or seven months ago, how using my body for temporary pleasure was a form of therapy. But obviously not anything that worked, or was remotely healthy. We exchanged awkward niceties and then parted ways, who knows if we’ll see each other again.

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I have been able to find solace in the yoga pose “savasana” this is the pose you typically do at the end of a class where you literally just lie on your back in a receiving position with your palms up to the universe. The goal is to let everything sink into your mat and just be present where you are, in that moment. The instructor of the class will usually start saying things like “feel your arms getting heavy, your body spreading…” “there is nothing you need to think about, nothing you need to be doing right now. Just be here and be present.” Tonight, while doing savasana at the end of class, I started crying. I was glad the dozen or so people around me had their eyes closed because I just wanted that moment of vulnerability with myself. I cried because the teacher was telling us to think about what we’re grateful for, and how we can spread kindness and happiness to others, and then he went into telling us to think about someone we care about and to send good energy their way as we would hope they would do the same for us. I thought about my mom. I thought about how many things I am thankful for in my life and that something inside me really makes me believe that we will get through this. I let go. I let go of a lot and it was overwhelming because I’ve been carrying so much for a long time. Now I’m realizing in time I’ll be able to open my heart again, but first I need to heal it a bit and find peace.

Yesterday, as I was entering the doors of the ICU to visit my mom at UCLA, I passed two nurses chatting and one said, “It’s not so much what happens, but how you deal with it.” I thought it was serendipitous for me to overhear this piece of advice during a tough day. Everyday presents it’s own set of challenges, but it really does ultimately depend on how you handle them. x

A Means To An End

It’s the beginning of December, about a month after the presidential election. I am heading to UCLA’s campus in Westwood to meet my friend Candace who I have been meeting with the last few weeks talking about ways to ignite the LA feminism scene and connect with like-minded individuals. We have just started working as part of the team of organizers for Women’s March LA. We are heading to the campus tonight to listen to our idol Gloria Steinem in conversation with activist/writer/director Jill Soloway. I arrive a few minutes early and decide to explore a bit, I head across the quad to the grandiose multi-floor library that’s bustling with students even at night. I picture myself going to school here, it seems so promising and full of opportunity, like what I imagine setting foot on an ivy league campus for young hopeful scholars must feel like. Little do I know, just months later what this campus will soon mean to me with my mom’s declining health. It will still have its sheen but will appear a more dull brushed silver than a once vibrant warm inviting gold.

I walk back to the hall where the talk is happening and find Candace. We walk into a foyer filled with young and old feminists alike- the room is buzzing. It reminds me of the energy before a concert everyone is excited to see, but slightly different. We take our seats and I glance around at the rest of the audience, mostly affluent white, middle aged women, sprinkled with progressive multi-race millennials eager to soak up knowledge like a sponge from one of their most worshipped demi-gods (although Gloria would completely contest that description). We eagerly wait for them to begin. Gloria and Jill come on stage and almost instantaneously enter into discussions about the election and what it means for our country and various marginalized groups. They both make a lot of insightful points and guide a directionless cathartic release seeking crowd like a goat does with a bell around its neck with a flock of sheep. After Gloria describes what the original Women’s Movement and Civil Rights Movements were like in the 60s and 70s, our problems now seem similar but slightly less real. A small part of me is thinking, “this just seems like something board white people found to complain about” but, as they start really getting into it, Jill talks about herself being a member of the LGBTQ community and how this new administration will basically devalue her entire existence as a human being. This strikes a chord deep within the ethos of my soul. The audience begins asking questions about spirituality, faith and how to not get burned out while being a full-time activist. Among many of the profound things Gloria has said over the course of this evening, she gives the advice that, “We are all looking for an end. We are promoting love and unity and solidarity, but it won’t be easy and it’s going to take a long time to reach that end.” She then describes the importance of “a means to an end,” that the journey is going to be long and hard to get to your goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it along the way. She said it exactly like this, “If your end is singing and dancing and love, there has to be singing and dancing and laughter along the way. That’s the only way to keep going.”

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Yesterday was Easter. I’ve never had much of an aversion to this holiday other than as a teen, I decided I would no longer go to church to celebrate the day’s true meaning as a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. I usually just associated the day with seeing my family and eating a lot of food and consuming copious amounts of chocolate and candy- pretty typical of most holidays for me.

This year, I counted down the days until the usually positive holiday like a ticking time bomb, knowing that in just a few days, we would pass the marker of my mom having been in the hospital for two straight months without a successful lung transplant surgery. I had spent the last few days in Indio for Coachella. I went to work and “escape” my realities in the desert. I was really stressed the days before leaving, and getting there was a nightmare, but that mostly melted away when I arrived. The only thing that didn’t leave me, was the tension in my neck and shoulders and a knot in my stomach that I have been suppressing nearly every day for the past two months. On Friday I worked an event all day and the stomach pains were replaced with the slight buzz I was feeling from the mix of free tequila from the open bar and slight dehydration from the dry desert sun. We left the estate where the party was just before golden hour. Driving down the stretch of open dusty road back to where we were staying, the sun hit the groves of 100s of date palms like a warm soft embrace. The outlines of spikey palm fronds illuminated brilliantly with Mother Nature’s gift of sun. We pulled over to try to capture the setting sun that was quickly approaching the horizon line, but it was impossible to capture what we were seeing through an iPhone lens. I stood and took it in for a minute or two and that was enough to give me a feeling I hadn’t felt for weeks. In that moment, I forgot about the tightness in my muscles and the aching of my sad heart and drew a breath in- just living in the moment and feeling free.

Fast forward to Saturday night, the anxious feelings that cause the tightening and stomach pain engulfed me. I wanted to get home in time to see my mom in the hospital on Sunday and spend time with my family. Something way too precious to waste at this time. We are such a tightly knit 4 piece unit that we knew how un-normal this day was undoubtably going to feel, we all were reluctant. My mom kept expressing how unimportant it was that I came and saw her on Easter, insisting I stay and “have fun” all the while I knew that holidays are some of the biggest joys for her in life. I made it back to LA late Saturday night and woke up the next morning to call my dad and make plans. My dad and sister came and scooped me up and we headed to UCLA. We arrived at the hospital to check in and there were way more visitors than usual. Entire families coming to visit their ill incarcerated loved ones. These are the type of “fair weathered” family members who only show up to visit on select days like national holidays because they are forced or feel guilty. We sat and talked as a family for a while, my mom so out of it at first we couldn’t even have a conversation. But we’ve been dealing with this long enough to be conditioned on how to act while there. Talk to her and give her positive tidbits of the outside world, and just act as if everything’s okay. After talking for a while and receiving several different medications, mom was ready to go on a walk. Something that is quite a production seeing as she needs both a respiratory therapist and at least one nurse to help push and pull the machines that are connected to her to keep her going. We walked as a family through the lobby past overly curious visitors that aren’t so conditioned as to how to behave when in the ICU unit. Sarah mumbled to me how angry it made her that people were staring at my mom like she was some kind of circus oddity. It bothered me too. After the walk, we talked to the nurse and stressed the importance of washing my mom’s hair- something they don’t usually do in the ICU. After some convincing, the nurse and I figured out how to position my mom over the sink, covering all her lines with towels as it is vital not to get anything wet. We filled up containers of water, I put on blue latex gloves as my dad reached over to help role up the sleeves of my 60s-inspired bell sleeved dress. I had the nurse step aside as I massaged mom’s scalp with shampoo and showed him how to rinse the ends delicately. I joked and said we should get our cosmetology license to have on the side. We finished, I wrapped her hair carefully in a turban just as she had taught me so many years ago when she used to have to practically pry me from the bath tub, and we walked her over to the chair where Sarah was waiting to blow dry her hair. She and I both carefully combed through mom’s hair and continued to ask if it was too hot. She said it was fine and I noticed her beaming and caressing her ends saying how great it felt to have clean hair. Imagine that, a luxury to be washing your hair. While we were doing that, dad was sitting watching and telling her about how they had just taken the dog to the groomers as well. We all chuckled. Finally we went to leave and everything didn’t feel as bad as when we had arrived. It felt like a positive means to an end.

After leaving the hospital, we went to dinner at a tiny Thai restaurant with my dad and sister (we never spend time together us three) and I saw both of them smile and really enjoy each other’s company which was enough to make the day worthy of the description of the word “holiday” in itself. I was reminded of how well-read and interesting my dad is when he described how his latest interest is in visiting Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Sarah and I watched him become animated and excited, which is a side I don’t often get to see of him now a days. We all bonded over the delicious food and fondly remembered shared memories. But never once did we dwell on the fact that we weren’t having the “traditional” homemade family dinner we usually do on holidays. Last night represented the beginning of a new chapter for our family and the way we operate. It symbolized our closeness and resilience and our ability to confide in one another- something all of us I know are thankful for. I know the weeks and months ahead will be difficult and I have absolutely no idea what’s in store. I think the biggest difficulty for me is the absence of being able to feel in control. But for now I am grateful for an imperfect day and what it means to have a family that will be there no matter what.

Grey

You know the part of rom drams (romanic dramas) usually about halfway through when a time lapse happens and there’s a montage of scenes set to the tune of a melancholy blusey ballad? Lately, I see myself in that setting a lot. Like the period of time when a voice like Etta James is belting verses straight from the heart and the plot of the story could either go really great or really bad- you don’t know until it happens.

Today, I went to visit my mom in the hospital after not having done so for a week. I felt guilty for not going, mainly because she has had a cold and they haven’t been really allowing visitors, but I’ve been throwing myself into work and projects head on. Feeling that if I burry myself deeper into work, the reality of the situation will be a little numbed. It’s funny because, just two weeks ago, I felt there was no way I could go back to work. And now here I am, and it’s the only thing I am doing. There seems to be no happy medium.

When I first arrived at the hospital, the conversation with my mom was light and immediately I realized how much I needed to actually talk to her, and I felt tears well up in my eyes. My chest tightening and my soul feeling too fatigued to actually cry like I felt I needed to. I told her about how our family is struggling “on the outside.” And I watched her feel broken and helpless as I described how our tight-knit tribe was starting to sluggishly succumb to the harsh realties of depression and life without her on a daily basis. Our dog Nina, who’s sole purpose has been to stay at my mom’s side for the past five years, cries out for her and the longing in her eyes is enough to break your heart. My mom makes this face when I give her information like that, her lips purse, her breathing quickens and she looks like she wants to say something but always waits a long while before answering with something like “I can’t do much from the hospital, now can I?” in a hasty tone filled with hurt and guilt. I don’t mean to upset her, I just need to confide in the one person I am always able to talk to no matter what.

I then realize, I need to lighten the conversation after watching her big chocolate eyes cloud with sadness- something I don’t want to inflict on her as I know she’s already having such a hard time. I go to something that I know will make her happy. I tell her about the hike my sister and I went on this weekend in a park near my parent’s home in Ventura and how gorgeous and vibrant the wildflowers were. I described the bright yellow mustard flowers that towered an entire foot over my 5’8″ frame, and the sound of the endangered honey bees buzzing around happily doing their work pollinating the flowers like they have done for so long. I even told her about me spotting a rattle snake in the grass only about a foot away from my bare ankles. And then I described the story of how, after we finished the hike and walked back into the park, we spent about an hour helping a young single mother set up her son’s first birthday party. While we were struggling to set up a volleyball net, another stranger came up and asked if we needed help. Together, we figured out how to attach ropes to stakes in the ground so the net wouldn’t blow away in the light spring wind, while her preteen daughter held the smiling baby and their tiny white dog planted kisses on his chubby cheeks. As my sister and I went to leave, the young mother profusely thanking us, I watched the two parties of the strangers come together and introduce themselves and join celebrations. When I finished telling my mom this story, a smile crept up on her face and she told me, “people really are good. I believe that people are really good and willing to help each other when given the chance.”

We paused for a moment in that glimmer of warm happiness. She said, “I haven’t even been out of this hospital room in 6 days” (she hasn’t been able to go on her daily walks around the unit since catching a cold). As the mood began to change and the moment slipped away, her eyes suddenly flickered and she was calling a nurse to remind her to send a RT (respiratory therapist) so she could do one of the tests she needed for the day. I am so amazed (and thankful) for how sharp her mind is and how many different things she is able to think about at once- definitely a superpower you gain during motherhood. Her medication schedule is a full-time job in itself and she keeps track of it with such dedication (frankly better than some of the nurses). After a few minutes, an RT arrived. He was a very large black man with a friendly face- the kind you just know is an excellent family man and someone you’d want to have on your side. I glanced down and noticed a bejeweled name tag hanging from the pocket on his chest. He began to set up my mom’s breathing test and I asked him a string of questions, “what was the mediation?” “what was it for?” etc. I’ve always been curious, and this situation is no exception. I then began to say that she needs to nip this cold in the but (because as long as she has a cold, her status on the lung-transplant list is on hold). The RT looked at me suddenly serious and in an unshakable tone said, “Your mom is a fighter. Your mom is a fighter and she is going to get through this.” I looked at him and believed it with every fiber of my being. I wanted to hug him, but didn’t feel that was appropriate. He then said under his breath, “but you know that.” And I do.

I left as she was finishing up her breathing test, as I noticed the sun was setting and I didn’t want to walk to my car in the dark. I walked back down the long recently-shined linoleum hallway to the elevators and went to the front desk to validate my parking. I stood next to a chipper couple carrying drinks in a drink carrier and ready for a “fun” hospital visit. I envied their layer of visible strength and “we can take on anything attitude” (that had been me months ago) and the energy of one another they had to work off of. I now felt weighed down by the countless visits and trying days- even though I was working really damn hard to get back to their level of umph where I once was. I looked at them and managed to spread a small grin across my lips. I turned on my heel to leave through the automatic glass doors of the hospital and was greeted with a chilly shrill gust of wind, as if to remind me of how alone I felt. It was that time just before the sunset when the sun is low in the sky and passing through the clouds and the warm orange of the sun competes with the closing in grey of the night. I look to the right and notice all the towering hospital buildings are grey- growing taller with every step I take, the sidewalk is grey, the parking structure that I loathe it grey. The only color in sight are a flock of orange and lavender bird of paradise flowers that even look muted because of the surrounding grey.

I’m walking but to the tune of a longing blues voice in my head. I’m present but fighting back tears, as I enter the parking garage, mostly unaware of where I am, I feel something abruptly hit my arm, I fear it’s a hand dragging me back into the hospital, but realize it’s gate of the parking kiosk. I can’t really tell if it hurts or it just startled me. I look up, now more slightly in touch with where I am and I notice a woman staring at me, having seen what just took place. I start laugh crying and she just looks at me bewildered with her mouth slightly agape- her expression completely blank. I make my way to my car, get inside and start trying to sob but it doesn’t feel real, I look down at my phone and have a text from my sister that says “thanks for going to see mom.” Just seeing that immediately makes me feel like things will be okay, because I am not alone.

Stevie

It’s late October, I’m leaving the hospital after visiting my mom who had been recently admitted. This is nothing new, she’s been in and out of the hospital for the past six years since she’s been seriously ill. I’m walking through the parking structure and suddenly realize I can’t find where my car is parked. The next thing I know, I feel the air being robbed from my lungs so violently I start gasping not knowing what is going on. I realize I am having a panic attack and am too caught off guard to fight the feeling of losing total control. I have never really experienced something like this, since I am usually able to get ahold of my emotions before it gets to this point. I think I must’ve blacked out for a few minutes, but I remember sobbing and trying to catch my breath while pacing the floors of the structure, feeling so terrified, alone and lost. I call a close friend and she attempts to calm me down. I then call my sister and she is able to stay on the phone with me until I get safely into my car and am breathing normally. Her calming presence knows empathy more than an average 18-year-old which I am forever grateful.

It’s now March, my mom is again at the same hospital. Every time I visit her there I have to overcome my fear of what that garage means to me. It’s a pit, a void where I might lose myself if I don’t fight to maintain reality. This entire month has been a blur. A string of slow days oozing together into the next, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Don’t get me wrong, there have been happy days, but it’s hard for me to pick them out from the bad ones. A mix of insomnia, sleeping too much, and feeling sadness in my heart like I have never felt before.

I just read an interview with Stevie Nicks in Rolling Stone where she describes her eight year long battle with Klononpin. She talks about how she lost those years to the drug and what she could’ve been doing if she would’ve been present in her life during that time. Although I’ve never taken that drug or built a dependency in that way, I know what it feels like to not have control. And that’s what I’ve felt for the last 6 months- but if I’m being honest with myself, much longer. Stevie has always played a role in my life (although I don’t know her personally) I feel like she’s been guiding me through various highs and lows for a long time. One of the last good memories with my mom that felt “normal” was two days before this last Christmas, I was driving her from Ventura to Los Angeles for a doctors appointment. We were both upset about the timing during the holidays, but knew it was necessary because of her rapidly declining health. It had put a dark cloud over the entire season that was our favorite time together as a family. There was a lot of tension between us in the car ride, until I realized Fleetwood Mac Rumours was in my car’s cd player. I pressed play and she and I started to sing along to every word. She told me the story of her buying the record when she was in college and how the group had influenced her 20s so heavily. I saw her light up in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time and saw the shackles of her illness fall away for just a brief hour and a half long car ride. As we moved along with the music, I think we both really believed in the band’s powerful lyrics. Ones that are meant to help through times of heart ache and pain and uncertainty. It was healing for both of us and a memory I’ll cherish for a long time.

Tonight, I went to visit my mom after work. This was my first real day back at a “real person” job for over a month, after coming to the realization that I have to pull myself out of this Klonopin-like self induced fog. I thrive when I’m working on lots of projects and have real attainable goals. Last week, I had a conversation with my dad and he said in a stern voice, “Aly, you need to focus on your career because it’s what’s important right now.” He wasn’t devaluing how I have been trying to help my mom for the past month while she’s been in the hospital, he just saw me losing focus and ultimately myself.

After checking in at the hospital, I marched  down the long newly shined eggshell yellow linoleum floors with the sound of my heels clicking during each stride I took down to the ICU where my mom is. I knew she hadn’t had a particularly great past few days health wise, so it might not be the best visit. But nevertheless, I drew in a long breath (as I always do right before entering the floor), pulled my shoulders back and pushed through the heavy double doors into her unit. When I got to her room, I was met with a weak “hi sweetheart”- something I’ll never get tired of hearing. I immediately started telling my mom about all the new ventures I was working on and reassured her things were good “on the outside.” While I watch her struggle with things like having a strict fluid intake and diet restrictions, I try to distract her with things she might find interesting, and try to keep the conversation as positive as possible. I am barely able crack a smile on her face, she has had a hard day and has been extremely tired. I describe to her the warmth and brilliance of today’s LA sunshine and we talk about how it will be even hotter tomorrow. She eats dinner and I realize it’s getting late and I need dinner myself. As I go to leave, stroking her forehead and peppering kisses on her forehead like she would always give me growing up, she asks, “hey, do you want this Rolling Stone?” I take it and point out Stevie’s name on the cover and she explains that she doesn’t know who any of the other artists are that are featured. I chuckle as I notice Ed Sheeran on the cover and I say goodbye and walk back down the long hallway to the elevators all the while reading Stevie’s interview. She stands in her affirmations and is unapologetic about her womanhood, sexuality and the struggles that come with that. I reach the elevators and a man is there waiting as well- I can feel him looking me over like a piece of meat. I pay no attention to him and continue reading. We enter the elevator and he reads my name tag and says that he thought it said “angel” because that’s what I am. I don’t respond. I exit the elevator and thank my long limbs for carrying me swiftly away from this 5’3″ elevator creep. I cross the street back to the parking garage and am able to play back in my head where I am parked and feel a wave of relief wash over me when I see my Camry waiting for me, just where I left it.

Everyday is filled with new challenges, and finding small victories are essential to keep on keepin’ on. I’ll consider this a victory for today, thanks for guiding me, Queen Stevie.