Brave Enough to Believe

Sofi-FlowerOn Thanksgiving morning, I wrote a short but heartfelt Facebook post expressing my gratitude for my little Sofi, my 13 year old Yorkie who passed away on September 22nd. Just after writing the post, I took Miki, my other fur baby, for his daily walk. It was a beautiful day — sunny, no wind. Halfway through our stroll, out of the corner of my eye, I caught something moving toward us across the black pavement. Given the speed and precision of its movement in our direction, I initially thought it might be a small animal, perhaps a light-colored gecko. When I turned to take a closer look, it became clear it wasn’t an animal for it moved with the lightness of a piece of paper or small candy wrapper. I wasn’t able to fully make out what it was before it rolled underneath Miki’s front paws and stopped in front him. Miki, of course, picked it up with his snout but quickly dropped it after realizing it was not a candy wrapper. As Miki continued on his path, the small, paper-like object moved slightly to the side, bumping into one of the river rocks lining the perimeter of the yard we were walking past. I continued behind Miki for about 5 steps before stopping to take a second look at the object to figure out what it was. In that windless moment, it rolled the distance of those 5 steps toward my sneakers. When I bent down to grab it, I realized it was a small, off-white, stemless flower. I looked around to see what tree or flower shrub it had fallen off of but couldn’t find anything, at least not in any of the houses visible from where I stood.

The deep-seated skeptic and cynic in me would have never written this personal narrative publicly a few years back. But age has had its way with me and everyday I’m delighted to see how the fear of feeling foolish and the jaded walls I put up during adolescence and early adulthood (because, of course, I wanted to seem blasé and all-knowing) are slowly crumbling and giving way to a willingness to wholeheartedly believe again. This morning, I checked on my little Sofi-flower now sitting in a shot glass on my kitchen shelf. 7 whole days, stemless and waterless and she’s still holding up beautifully. I think there really are bits and pieces of miracles everywhere around us. If only we were brave enough to get over ourselves and actually see them. 


It Is Only Change

Winds of Change 1
“Sometimes in the winds of change we find our direction.”

Just over 5 years ago, a loved friend of 15 years passed away after a brave struggle with cancer. I met her during my early college years when I was experiencing some of the biggest changes in my life — physical changes in body and environment, yes, but even bigger internal changes in spirit and mind. In these latter mental, emotional and spiritual changes, Maria Elena (or “Vito” as she was called by family and friends) was one of my most inspirational guides.

A few days before she passed away, she encouraged friends and family to visit her for a final farewell. Even as she prepared to transition out of this world, she gave us one final gift and example of gracefulness and acceptance. When I walked into her bedroom, she held out a stack of affirmation cards in her hand and had me randomly pick my own card. It read:

I am safe; it’s only change. I cross all bridges with joy and ease. The “old” unfolds into wonderful new experiences. My life gets better all the time.

Today, a surprisingly windy day in Tucson, the affirmation lines up perfectly with many transitions taking place around me and in the lives of my loved ones. The metaphorical autumn winds of change sweep through us in the most literal sense. So, yet once more, I’ve looked up to the beautiful, bright blue, Southern Arizona sky to offer my most heartfelt gratitude to Vito for helping me open my arms wide to embrace these changes with utmost grace and finesse.

As I told my sister last night, I am grateful for this period of restlessness because it means that we are morphing into our next phase. That’s what growth is. We must take the time to morph gracefully, allow ourselves the time to feel the awkwardness of the transition. It’s an important and necessary step in the process and acting on impulse to speed it up is a shortcut that never pans out.

We are safe; it’s only change.

Love you, Alicia. Love and miss you deeply, Vito

Life in Perspective

Life in PerspectiveFrom the very beginning, 2012 proved to be a challenging year. Although I often wonder whether we become more sensitive or emotionally “thin-skinned” as we age (I certainly feel that I have), I believe this year was especially tough for people of all ages regardless of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. These days, even watching a boxing match, something I did regularly during my early to mid-twenties, has become markedly difficult. While others jump and cheer as a fighter goes down semiconscious, I turn away in anguish and find myself overwhelmed by feelings of pity and sorrow for the fighter, his family and all those who love and care for him. A minor case of overactive empathy heightened by my work with cancer patients, I guess.

Given the many tragedies that took place this year – from crippling natural disasters, to ruthless face-to-face and cyber bullying, to unspeakable gun killings – the anguish has been significant. Unlike previous years, however, the emotion has remained with me far longer this time around, keeping my soul raw and tender day after day like muscle tissue after an intensely brutal workout. Similar in that process, I can sense the pain strengthening my soul and humanizing me further, putting things in perspective with every aching second that passes.

Two days after the Newtown, CT tragedy, my sister called me. Her purse had just been stolen out of her car and she was an emotional wreck. Although, of course, I genuinely sympathized with her, my mental and emotional affliction paled in comparison to what I was still feeling for the 26 innocent lives lost in Newtown, for the many moms and dads and brothers and sisters and daughters and sons and friends who were suffering a far greater loss. A stolen purse seemed like such a trivial inconvenience in comparison.

Since then, my soul has continued trying to slowly rebuild itself, trying to find deeper meaning and purpose in the tragedies endured. Despite the intense sadness that lingers, I choose to focus on the many acts of kindness that also take place in the world and I make every effort to put my own life in perspective, to relish the subtleties that bring me joy and minimize the attention I pay to trivialities. I also pray that all those hearts hurting as a result of a tragedy, whether publicized or not, may soon find solace and a glimmer of hope, that they may quickly come upon the realization that, despite it all, life can still be beautiful and worth living. In that spirit, I share this amazing compilation video by Jean-Louis Nguyen which highlights many of those things lived throughout 2012 that attest to our resiliency as humans, our capacity to feel compassion and our ability to come together both in the face of tragedy and sadness as well as in miracles and joy.

The box of tissues, please. :’)

Relearning Healthy

Relearning HealthyWellness encompasses a healthy body, a sound mind and a tranquil spirit. Enjoy the journey as you strive for wellness.”” ~Laurette Gagnon

Throughout the larger part of 37 years (almost 38), my notion of “health” has been rather fluid, flowing and yielding easily to the external pressures of fad diets, in vogue exercise regimens and supplements, and the not-always-so-well-informed teachings and advice from family and friends. One of the biggest disconnects for me was always equating health with weight. I remember being no more than 5 years old when my mother took me to the doctor because I was going through an “uninterested in eating” phase. Although I was only slightly underweight, my interpretation of that visit to the doctor was that I was not healthy because my weight was off. After a few weeks on ProteVit (a nutritional supplement similar to Ovaltine produced by the Mexican division of Mead Johnson), I gained some weight and was quickly bumped back into “healthiness”. Only a few years later, however, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and from the ages of about 9 to 35, I was overweight and continuously struggled to determine what being healthy really meant.

A second and just as important misconception I had for the longest time was the notion that health was fundamentally an external, physical issue (a thought process similar to those who smoke to keep from eating, or take other drugs or dangerous recourses to keep from gaining weight or looking a particular way). It didn’t matter if internally and emotionally I was and felt a mess, if I looked a particular way and the scale registered a particular weight, I was okay. I remember going through a bad heartbreak some years back. I spent days (or more like weeks) in bed and eating seemed hardly necessary. Emotionally I’d never felt worse in my life but the fact that the scale marked one of my lowest weights as a full-grown adult somehow justified that miserable mental and emotional state that I was in.

By far my lowest point, however, came when I was 22 years old. Exactly one week after graduating from college and tired of not being able to break into the 150s, I gave myself the “gift” of liposuction. Thinking that it was a shortcut to health (despite the contradicting information in small-print on the plastic surgeon’s pamphlets and consent forms), I went under the knife only to end up, less than a year later, weighing 198 pounds and still clueless about nutritional eating, physical activity, mental and emotional well-being and overall good health.

My silver lining and my first glimpse at true health came only in recent years. Ironically, it occurred as I found myself surrounded by people struggling with cancer. It was interacting with women trying to overcome or contain the disease that I realized what the basic and fundamental principles of being healthy are. Whereas physical appearance had been one of the primary indicators before, now I oftentimes perceive greater overall health (mental, emotional, spiritual AND physical) in people who may be under or overweight, have no hair, may be missing one or both breasts but have completed their last chemotherapy infusion and are grateful and appreciative of life in a way that someone with a full head of hair and a voluptuous body but a wretched outlook on life and a series of detrimental habits may not.

Most important in making the connection with the true meaning of “whole health” has been the realization that it is undoubtedly comprised in equal parts of a healthy physical body (internal and external), a healthy mind, and a healthy emotional and spiritual state. In my own attempt to achieve whole health, the first step has been dismissing the erroneous belief that it (or anything else worthwhile in life) can be achieved fast. The second step has been realizing that in order to achieve it I do not need expensive or sophisticated gadgets, equipment, pills, shakes, creams, lotions, memberships or subscriptions. In a single hand I can now list the 5 things that, over the course of two years, are gradually yet consistently bringing me closer to my utmost and healthiest self:

1) Eating more natural, fresh and nutrient-rich foods which, coincidentally, have made me enjoy my kitchen and cooking a lot more;

2) Drinking plenty of water. Ice water with lemon has become my newest addiction and, quite honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it;

3) Being physically active on a regular basis, whether it’s yoga, walking, cycling or jogging, the trick is to move around. I never thought I would be one to love jogging but, as my body has slowly gotten in shape and built up stamina, it is now something I actually look forward to and enjoy;

4) Drinking a daily multi-vitamin. The Walgreens’ brand is a great, cost-effective alternative to the national brand names.

5) Being kind and patient with myself. This includes picking myself up gently after a setback and gracefully taking that first step forward once again, and loving the life I’m living no matter how imperfect it may be.

Latina Brew

Latina BrewBrew -verb \brü\: sit or let sit in boiling water so as to extract the flavor

Hanging on the north wall of my home office is an oversized greeting card that I bought almost fifteen years ago in a small bookstore in Tucson, AZ. I purchased the card just after landing my first job out of college. On the cover, a deep-pink, watercolor Amaryllis embodied the exact feel that I wanted for my new office. It was lively and colorful yet mature and sophisticated at the same time. Just below the elegant flower, Eleanor Roosevelt’s words moved gracefully across the cardstock: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” Of course, I found the quote to be insightful and stimulating back then but, it wasn’t until many years later, after many setbacks and challenges in my professional life and quite a bit of sitting in boiling water in my personal life, that I fully came to appreciate Ms. Roosevelt’s words.

Over the years, the analogies between tea, coffee and people, not only in terms of brewing but also in terms of cultivation and processing, have become more vivid and poignant. Species, soil, climate and processing techniques influence the resulting flavor of tea leaves and coffee beans in the same way that family histories, culture, customs and environment influence who we are as people and what our personalities are like. According to Social Psychologists Harry C. Triandis and Eunkook M. Suh, ecologies shape cultures and in turn cultures influence the development of personalities. For me, as a Latina born and raised in the heart of the Mexico-America border, the analogy between coffee and people has played a crucial role in helping me find a sense of self amidst the push and pull of two culturally-powerful countries. It has helped me embrace and learn to savor the different blends and factors that make me who I am.

Of course, with so much history and with the enormous role that both tea and especially coffee continue to play in our society and popular culture, the opportunities for comparison are endless. In my own pursuits and research on the subject, a second unexpected piece of good fortune has come about: I have learned about some of the best and most delicious coffee around. Included in my findings are: 1) Santa Elena Coffee Co., Inc., founded in the United States by Latina entrepreneur Astrid Bernstorff; and 2) Gariola Coffee, a coffee-roasting business that originated in owner Claudia Garibay-Acosta’s kitchen in Caborca, Mexico and, as of 2008, has crossed borders into Nogales, AZ. Both of these businesses offer some of the best Mexican coffee and also exemplify the essence of strong, hardworking and humanitarian Latinas who have discovered their individual flavors.

Santa Elena Coffee Co., Inc. produces some of the world’s finest coffee through revolutionary agricultural practices that include better working conditions for plantation workers and less detriment to the environment. Gariola Coffee imports its green or raw coffee directly from growers in Mexico and roasts it the moment an order is placed to maintain the freshest aroma and flavor. They offer ground or whole bean coffee (a better option for those aiming to preserve the flavor for a longer period of time), regular or decaffeinated and medium or dark roasts. They also work closely with community and local non-profit organizations to raise funds for schools and churches.