Thursday, March 26, 2009

4 Mojado

My mom remarried when I was 7 to Ascencion Leon. He had lived in LA and after about a year or so we decided to move to America. (I had a little brother in the meantime too but when youre 7 thats not a huge concern. I did want him to be born a girl and cried when he wasnt. I dont really remember why)
In the scheme of having everything happen with the number 8, we moved to America a few days after my 8th birthday. Well, I moved. My older brother had moved before and my family would move later.
I lived with my aunt Noemi Montes. She had a great family: loving husband, two girls, a boy and my cousin Omar lived with us. (His mother had passed away and Mimi sort of adopted him.) One of the great things about living with her was that she let us once a week for dinner pick whatever we wanted to eat. For something that was of such dramatic importance then, I cant remember what I asked for even once.
I was an ESL student but supposedly I was very intelligent. I had made only 9&10s in 1st & 2nd grade (Its a 10 point system) in Mexico. But honestly, then as now, I realized just how easily intimidated I am. I went home for the first several days of school swearing I would never learn English and believed it with nerve wracking gut wrenching conviction. This is how I have always been: afraid of failure even as I strive to success. I graduate Valedictorian of High School and Suma Cum Laude with Honors from college but every 1st day of the quarter/semester, when they would hand out the syllabi, I had no idea how I would possibly pass. Past success never mattered: this would prove too hard and I would fail. Never happened, the failing part but the fear part happened until the absolute last quarter of my final year at college. (This stands opposed to all my jobs where I always get annoyed at the training because I think that this isnt rocket science and they should just let me get on with it.)
They took me out of the ESL system in 3 months and by 4th grade I was in the GATE (gifted and talented education) program. I remember all my elementary teachers and I thought they were demigoddesses of some sort or another. The first time I saw an elementary teacher in a grocery store it messed with my entire universe. I thought they lived at school. The sad part of this story is that Im not kidding
Like any ESL student, I had a few anecdotes. We were poor and my mother was always looking for a good bargain. So I always encouraged her to buy things that were caffeine free, cholesterol free and sugar free because well you got the same thing with one of the ingredients at no cost! I struggled with the sh and ch sounds as well as some vowels so I swore a lot on my sheets of paper and because of the beach.
Anyway, the intriguing part was that it was the first time that I started attending another church regularly. I went to a Baptist church because the nearest Adventist church was far away. We still went to the Adventist church on Saturday but I went to both. It was then that I learned a very important lesson in matters of faith: there are those who are right and those who are wrong. I guess Id always sort of known that but now I had contact with some of those wrong people and I made sure to tell them so. I was so convinced this was the will of God, two different versions of his truth were out there and it was my job to straighten out the ones that were wrong. Somehow, believe it or not, I failed to convert that Baptist congregationBut at least they failed to convert me. Which somehow meant Id won.
But when I was in 4th grade we were in the library and being asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, everyone said what they wanted to be. Now I was involved with my church and knew I wanted to be a pastor but when it came to my turn, I chickened out. I was embarrassed. I wept solidly that night sure Id burn in hell. I never backed down from that question again but Ive never forgiven myself for not answering it.

3 Dear Mama

The ages between the time I was five and the time I was 8 were absolutely crucial to my development. I was positively obsessed with religion. I read my Bible every day, got up and went straight to my knees before I woke up and before I fell asleep. I was asking every question I could think of about every topic imaginable (I still don't have a good answer about where rocks come from). If there was any one person that left an indelible impression on me at that point, it was my mother.
(Every good drama requires good characters, its share of villains and heros. But I've found that in the best dramas and certainly the performance that is my life that the characters have never been that clean. The icons and scoundrels in my life aren't: they are just people, trying to find their way as well. Most will be briefly introduced but in this puzzle that is my life a few will need to have solid introductions. They are the corners and edges that let the rest of the puzzle take shape.)
Anyway, the great characters of my early life are my grandparents, my great grand parents, and my mother. My mother, the giver of life, looms larger than it every memory.
Now undoubtedly the relationship between any of us and our parents is at best complicated. If our parents our only goddesses or only monsters, our thinking is simple if not simplistic. My mother was a goddess. She cooked, she cleaned, she cared. God's plan was simple for hers and all of our lives. We accepted grace for all of our sins and then dedicated our lives entirely to the service of God. I bought this hook, line and sinker. I was plagued by thoughts of how to even brush my teeth to the glory of God (in case you too are wondering the answer, it does require flossing).
I have no memories of my mother ever spanking me, of her ever having yelled at me while knowing both events occurred. This is perhaps because the perennial discipline with her was more like an occupation. She was a travel agent…for guilt trips. Any time I did anything short of desired at school or at home, she showed her disappointment and not infrequently questioned me on what God would think of this. Disappointing her became the fear of my life and pleasing her the goal. This may still be true. For most of my religious life, this has also been true. Some people dream of heaven and fear hell and this keeps their behavior in check. My mother was my first image of the deity and I don't fear damnation and have never been that excited about paradise. But the idea that God was smiling or crying in reaction to my behavior; oh yeah, that kept me in line.
In fact my behaviors and choices were often an attempt at pleasing both God and the goddess of my life simultaneously. While I'd like to believe otherwise, I'm not sure that I decided/discovered that God wanted me to be a preacher at that age for any other reasons. I am no longer a preacher but every once in a while these days I take a speaking invitation. I am unclear as to whether I do it because of what I have to say or so that I can tell my mother that I'm speaking somewhere.
Her redeeming qualities unsurprisingly abound. She is generous and graceful in her approach to people; elegant and immaculate in regards to anything of substance. She is resilient and had many leadership qualities. Her strong belief that everything happens for a reason made her look for a reason in everything (in case you're wondering why this is a strength, it's what shaped my need to question things). She raised three good young men. I used to say in my flattering but unsophisticated kind of way that all my positive attributes were because of her and the rest because of me. Like a believer in a fundamentalist God, I could for most of my young life attribute no faults to her.
My mother, of course, also has her faults. She tries to be too controlling; she thinks she's right at the cost of everyone else being wrong and her diplomacy about this is notably lacking; she's religious to the point of a fault (the last two character traits may be synonymous); she talks disproportionably to her position in any circle; she doesn't put into perspective that some things are more dramatic than others, that not every problem or challenge is the end of the world; and she's so uncomfortable in her own skin that self-awareness is painful. Who knew that all of these traits were genetic and that one son would inherit them all?
My mother had her own reasons for being this way, her own story. She too had parentage that shaped her, and most of her life in a country where strong women like her were even more of a problem than they are in America. (The work environment rarely finds in any place a good place for strong women to thrive. Perhaps, that's why we find so many of them in church.) She made some poor choices regarding men and lifestyle in her youth (it's hard to not contemplate that my conception was one of them) and needed grace to regain strength. Thank God she found it.
No one can choose the circumstances of their birth or their parents. But in the end, my mother was and is still a goddess in my view, perhaps like the ancient goddesses which had faults but goddesses none the less. So she was the giver and sustainer of my life, the author of my faith. Could anyone ask more from a mother?
There was a time where a friend and I were dreaming about our futures. I went as far ahead as my 50th wedding anniversary and what a great party it would be. How everyone would come, my friends, and my family and my mother… and then I realized in all likelihood that my mother wouldn't be alive. It never occurred to me my mother would die before then. And I wept. In the past, in the present, in the distant future, I can't imagine my life without her presence.

2 Mexico Lindo Y Querido

Growing up in Mexico was the best thing that could ever happen to me. It was a place where the people were poor but happy, community oriented, ruled by simplicity, and any other stereotype you wish to impose on the third world. While it's easy to be condescending towards these places, the value that I learned there was loyalty. There were no convalescent homes, few childcare centers. Mexican raise their young and keep their old. I don't know what money, education and status are for if we miss these connections.
Like any typical Mexican neighborhood, we played in the street. We didn't have many things so we made do. We played a game of hide and seek in which the timer was a soda can filled with little pebbles. There was of course a fascinating version of a snake game in which we all twirled around and the last person hung on for dear life, almost quite literally. There was several times where we were sent up against sidewalks, fences, rocks. My action figures were hard plastic wresting figurines and their ring was a board with four nails and some rubber bands. Imagination, creativity were born out of necessity.
We played soccer on the dirt streets. Well my brother played soccer. He was so much better than I would ever be that I felt inadequate and chose not to play most of the time. (Here is time for one of those cheesy psychological asides: I'm not sure what it is about big brothers but mine intimidated me. None of my older cousins did and few adults held such sway over me. He was so full of life, bigger than life really. He liked motorcycles and all the neighborhood kids gravitated towards him. Yet he always seemed angry to me. Angry at my mom, angry at my grandfather angry at I don't know what. Even all the pictures of him as a middle school aged kid don't show him ever smiling. I was kind of scared of him but at the same time mesmerized. I wanted to be just like him but so afraid to try.)
Things like being sanitary were insignificant. We all drank from the same soda can, ate things from the floor, played in the dirt. Mexican germs must not be as strong because somehow we all survived.
However, I was really sick once then. I remember it vaguely because everyone was stressed out and I was worried for them. Apparently I had a strong pulmonary infection and my mother was rather worried about my survival. They were up for a few nights while I had strong fever. The medicine they prescribed to me then was effective and inconsequential except for one thing: it stained my teeth a very ugly brown. (This is the first psychological scar that I concede. It was never a problem in Mexico since many of us shared the attribute. Once I got to America kids were so mean, they told me I had crap teeth or that I should brush me teeth—Ironically, it first inspired me to brush my teeth vigorously but once I realized that this wasn't fixing anything I essentially did not brush my teeth at all…I have had dental health problems my whole life.— I tried so hard to get rid of this throughout my entire life. As a teenager, my aunt tried a home recipe of muriatic acid, a poison, to get the stains off. It worked for a while but I think it took much of the enamel off my teeth and they became restained. I tried some dental work in Mexico that was supposed to be replaced every year but it wasn't and the stains returned. Finally, about a year ago, I paid several thousand dollars to have most of my upper front teeth replaced with veneers, just to smile pretty. Just to feel better. And now, every once in a while I get a complement on my smile and think that I just got complemented for being a liar.)
Anyway, I was always a good kid. Conformity was the path of least resistance and I had no real temptations. I was naïve to the evils around me. There were gangs in the neighborhood and violence (a murder occurred about a block from my grandfather's house) and I was impervious. There were other things that should be harder memories but I can't recall them. My mother was a single mom really struggling and I was being taken care of by my aunt who even wanted to adopt me. My grandfather was an alcoholic who struggled with his temper. My uncle Lalo was also an alcoholic and threw a dart at me. Yet out of some suppression or the fact that the echoes of happiness drown out the problems, these memories will not be evoked. I only remember my great-grandfather Benedito and my grandfather Medardo telling these great stories, my great grandmother and grandmother cooking these great meals. I remember my friends coming over to play and always laughing because well what else was there to life?
Most of my childhood friends are still in Mexico. Many of them are in the same neighborhood, almost all their families still are. The girls are popping out children, Hugo is a taxi driver, Julio a police officer, Francisco an electrical engineer. Most of them have not had the "opportunities" I've had. They are still poor in Mexico. I'm not sure which one of us got the better end of the deal.

1 We Weren't Born To Follow

I was born at a very young age. At least, that is what people tell me; I don't really remember. I was born 8/8/80. I wanted to be born in 88 to make it complete but my mother didn't want to wait. It's not that I don't have a cool birthday. It just could have been cooler. Even at birth I was always aiming high.
I must confess that I am a bastard. My parents were never married. Well, I guess technically they were, just not to each other. My mother was a young divorcee with a 6 year old son seeing a man who at the time had 3 daughters but no sons. They had been childhood friends and now were busy conceiving me. Well, I guess conceiving me wasn't the goal but you know what they say about the best laid plans (pun intended). My mother actually did not tell my father she was pregnant and disappeared out of his life. I grew up without knowing who my father was. (Actually, for those who use these self descriptive episodes for psychoanalysis, this is my first real bad memory: my brother's dad, my mom's first husband, would come to visit him and I would go outside to say hi thinking he was my dad. Well, he knew I wasn't and did not engage me and I wondered why my father didn't love me. Fill in your oh that explains why Iram does this here)
I was born in Mexico which frankly makes me embarrassed to be writing all of this in English. But while I speak Spanish and my heart beats in it, my education has been in English and my mind betrays my heart. I was born in Chihuahua, Chihuahua. Like New York, a city so nice, they named it twice. I grew up poor, I guess. Funny thing though, I never realized it until I stopped being poor.
Like most children, I imagine my memories are fleeting and sporadic (which is a warning that this first chapter will be a great stream of consciousness; actually while we're in warnings, all of it will be stream of consciousness). I apparently was a charming child. My grandmother and other older ladies from the neighborhood always tell stories about my charisma even as a kid (like the time I had potato chips and after one round of sharing with them, I declared "why should I keep giving them chips; I'll run out and they'll get fat; or the time when I was hemorrhaging from my nose and while everyone else was worried piously spoke up and said, "don't worry, Jesus will get the pipes to stop flowing"). I had a big head (literally speaking, arrogance would come later) and apparently when I was learning to walk I would fall because my head was too big and would get swells…my grandmother tells this story and can't stop laughing as she tells it. I still have bumps as my forehead seems to have horns or at least my brain seems to be pushing its way out.
My mom was a single mom. We lived with my grandparents at 358 Martirez Agradista, Colonia Villa Nueva. It was a complex on a corner in a typical Mexican neighborhood. Quite an extended family living there. While I lived there, there were as many as six of my grandparents' twelve kids and fifteen of their grandkids living there. I don't remember once in my childhood ever being alone.
I was an extremely religious kid. We went to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I always studied my church lesson and memorized the weekly verse without any prompting. I enjoyed it. Very early on I was involved in any program to be upfront. In fact when I was six years old I declared I wanted to be a pastor. I held on to that dream for almost 20 years. I was sure the call of God was in my life. I don't know if that was true or the fact that I am a ham led me to always want to be upfront and the church was the venue of choice in my upbringing.
I was always nerdy. I liked learning. I learned to read and do basic arithmetic before I ever went to school. I was always running my own experiments. The world was such a big place and I wanted to absorb it all as quickly as possible. My family invented a game to send me away once they were weary of my questions but overall they had great patience. School was the place where my ego was blown up. It didn't take long to discover that not only was I brighter than most people, those who were as bright as me didn't process things as quickly. I was labeled as having great promise and I believed it. There was an opportunity early on to skip a grade. My mom left it up to me. I didn't want to leave my friends. I still don't know if that was a mistake.
This is mostly because I don't know if I have ever had friends. I have had problems with attachment. I seem to not really know how to do it. Even as a child, it seemed to me there were lots of people who had lots of affection for me and I didn't know why I didn't feel it back. I learned early on to pretend. I sometimes wonder if this is universal but I've learned to accept that's unlikely. And yet I always want to be surrounded by people. I'm the loneliest friendly person you're ever likely to meet.
I was never drawn to sports. I liked them but no more than reading, no less either. This has, I've discovered, been a huge problem in my life. I never had anything consume my interest, instill my passion to pursue diligently. Except for religion, God. This however may well be due to my mother's intense piety as a guilt reaction to poor choices she had made. Or because religion is just the end all be all. I mean both of those options fullheartedly.
Honestly, very few things stick out to me in my time in Mexico. They are just moments grabbing my attention. I had a dead dog once; I think someone shot it. I remember being happy after leaving the dentists office because I was going to get an icepop. I remember one Christmas where I really got what I wanted; a He-man doll which I lost the next day. I remember piñatas, candy, games, tortillas with salt, a huge boulder in my grandfather's house. I started a couch on fire because I was playing with matches and was trying to cover it up by throwing a lit newspaper under a couch. I think I don't remember more because I don't speak in Spanish enough and the memories must be connected.
The big moments were my great grandparents and grandparents. They were always sages, dispensing jokes or wisdom but always coming across with gravitas. They were bigger than life, they were simple men with big hearts, sharp wits and a wealth of experience that was deeply carved into their faces.
I know now that life was hard then, that my mother struggled, that my brother was growing angry and bitter. I know now that there was and is some serious tension in my family. I never even noticed that then.
But I will say this for growing up in Mexico in the Adventist church. They were conservative and straight forward. For all their faults and which ones they embraced secretly, there was something strangely comforting about this world of black and white, of right and wrong. Cards, dancing, swearing, movie theaters: these were cardinal sins. I was committed to never breaking any of them.

Failing Faith, A Soundtrack of Quiet Desperation-An Intro

I've begun a memoirs of sort. My own million little pieces with less, at least intentional, fiction. I've entitlted it failing faith, a soundtrack of quiet desperation.
Because that's the crossroads I seem to always be at, where I feel that I have failed faith placed in me and that the faith I've placed in many things has failed.
Ive always thought it took one of two qualities to keep a diary or a journal. One had to have an absolutely huge ego and think that ones life mattered enough to write it down or one had to have such a lack of self esteem that writing it down allowed expression that no one would care about anyway. While I have had bouts of low self esteem and have almost always embraced arrogance as a personality trait, the truth is neither ever had enough impact to inspire my writing anything down. But yet Ive been meaning to write down a few things for a few years now and since the thought doesn't stop nagging, it has been heard for its much speaking. I doubt anyway will ever read this; if you are, copyright the cure for insomnia. Quick. Do it. Right now.
Failing Faith, a Soundtrack of Quiet Desperation comes off as a loaded title. It is. By faith I dont just mean, faith. I do mean Faith, the capital f Faith which includes God and Jesus and all that is holy (no pun intended). I feel that up to this point at least both my faith and I have failed each other. From a kid who always wanted to be a preacher, this admission is mildly put heart breaking. The righteous among us would say that Faith did not fail me, I only did it. I don't know if they are right, you can let the narrative explain to you my logic and emotions. However, from the start I want to contest the premise and say that it failed and still fails me, and that I failed it and am still failing it. The double entandra is something I am fundamentally committed to.
The subscript is of course a reference to the famous quote that most men live lives of quiet desperation. I spend much of life feeling desperate these days. Desperate for meaning, hope, love, joy, happiness, peace. They come to my in inklings, wave which rush over me but will not engulf me, distant smells which tantalize me but still I cant taste them. They elude me like the chocolate in chocolate covered strawberries which are usually just dipped, the chocolate is a taste. Youre really just having the strawberry after a small amount of chocolate which so quickly melt. But a soundtrack by its very definition cannot be quiet. So what am I saying that this quiet desperation is for me deafeningly silent.
Is this a true story? No. It is my memories which are there to tell my story. I dont know where truth makes it bed but it doesnt sleep exclusively with me. It is my story told as true and as painstakingly honest as I can render it but I cannon escape my own biases. If youre in the story in a good or bad light, be assured this says more about me than it ever could about you.
Last but not least, this is not a morality tale. I'm not going anywhere with it. I dont know the point to life but Ive learned a few points along the way. I hope you enjoy the story. Im trying to...