Engaging My Core, Trusting My Gut & Chronic Illness

I have a conflicted relationship with my gut. When I started my period, my gut totally betrayed me. I had unbelievable pain, pain that woke me up and made me bend over double in a hot shower at 3am, pain that made me get up and drive in my pajamas to get Advil, pain that made me grip the handle of the bathroom door and hope I didn’t pass out. Pain like this, during my period, during ovulation, and in between, for more than 10 years because I thought it was normal and no doctor told me otherwise until I couldn’t get pregnant. Then I discovered I had a disease called endometriosis, we call it endo to make it easier to say (!). Millions of women have it, most of us go undiagnosed for years.

So my core is tender, scarred, broken and full of pain, and I always felt removed from it. Betrayed by my core. Angry at my core. I realized this even more after my last surgery for endo and I found exercise.

This last surgery relieved the pain and inflammation enough that I finally felt able to exercise. And I knew I needed to exercise to keep my scar tissue from hardening and causing pain. And suddenly, I found exercise, like some people find religion. I found it made me feel happier, stronger and relieved stress, just like all the books and blogs said it would! And like in a most religions, where certain phrases are repeated, I found the phrase “engage your core” is invoked all the time. I never understood what the hell they meant by that. Engage your core. My arms and legs are shaking and I’m told to tighten my core.

I had a hard time engaging my core. In fact, I was totally disengaged from my core. After years of living with chronic illness that was mainly settled in my guts, I had stopped listening to my gut, all together. I couldn’t “engage” my core because my insides and me had stopped speaking to each other.

So these couple of years that I have become a steady exerciser, I just started listening to my gut. And I’ve forgiven all the pain it has caused me – we are on the hard long path to reconciliation. I’ve realized that I held all the pain, exhaustion, and fear of pain close inside. Sometimes, I actually feel waves of nausea when I pull in my core and I imagine, it’s all of that shit pouring out. I’m not sure how long the surgery will work to alleviate the pain, and the disease is likely to return, and make exercising harder. So while I can and while I am able, I am learning to engage my core.

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My guts are scarred, after two surgeries and sometimes I feel like my core is broken. But I’ve learned that my core also keeps me standing, and it is really true – if I engage with it, feel it, tighten it, talk with it, treasure it – then my core can help me lift heavier and jump higher and find more strength.

Balikbayan – On Returning Home

Balikbayan translated

Balikbayan:

root words (at the root of it) =

Balik: to return, to go back

Bayan: a town, the nation, the “People”, the homeland,

 Balikbayan = Specifically: A person who returns to the Philippines, usually after an extended time living and working abroad. Generally: a person who returns to their homeland. Radically: A person who returns to the People,

Balikbayan box – A box of gifts, remembrances, first world status symbols that the Balikbayan brings with them to compensate (but never really compensate) for the long absences, the missing of decades of birthdays, weddings, funerals, christenings. They have changed over time, from Spam to Old Navy T-shirts made in some other 3rd World country. Aspiration Definition: The treasure we bring back, the dreams, the hopes.

Preparing for the return home to the Philippines. Technically, I am not a Balikbayan. I was born in the United States. Geography and place of birth and the heart can be contradictory. My mother is the true Balikbayan who returns home with half decades and half lives lived between. I am her daughter and I chose the balikbayan status, the obligations of the balikbayan box, the money wired overseas, the designation of godmother to children of cousins of cousins.

I compile lists to prepare, Tita Vingyan, and her 14 children, born while Tito Carding worked his whole life as a groundskeeper at the American School in Saudi Arabia, his life inspiring the naming of one child – “Haji.” But what about her son Kuya Ahbet, isn’t he working in Dubai as a construction worker? Ahh no, he returned, after deciding it was too hard to be away. And Tita Budha? Who is skinny like bamboo and has lived her life next to the railroad tracks, and squatter camps and whose children are scattered. And what about the children of those children? Lists and lists, and trying to remember ages, sizes, creating timelapse photos in my head from 5 years ago.

Why take it on? – Why take on the stress of trying to compensate for the pure luck of my circumstance, being born in the ruling empire of this era, rather than the colonized nation of my mother? I do it for love. Not my love, but theirs, in exchange for claiming my 2nd generation Balikbayan status, I get a whole family, I get a homeland, and a place TO return. And yes that family is full of drama, anger, petty jealousies, and grudges. But remembering what Audre Lorde said, that we were never meant to survive, and those words are so true of the colonized, violated 3rd word nations like the Philippines. To survive and to build the bridge from one country to another, to RETURN. From the Palestinian fight for the right to return to the lands stolen, to the domestic worker wiping the ass of their first world employers’ child or parent who fights to return. So I claim the right to return back to my mothers’ country, and in exchange for my boxes of gifts I get tears, embraces, love, and the land I lost.

“Wait, white people can be terrorists, too?”

This what my son asks, when I explain that the KKK is a white terrorist organization. As my previous post of explains, we try to not use the word “terrorist” in our home. http://brooklynbarangay.com/2012/09/12/september-11-and-why-we-dont-use-the-word-terrorist-in-our-home-2/. The basic reason is because terrorism is really just code – code for white supremacist logic about who is “civilized” and who is not, whose lives matters, whose does not.

We rarely watch mainstream news. But my kids were hearing about “terrorism” outside our house, in school, and in the headlines, and so I wanted to introduce a counter-narrative when I used terrorist to describe the KKK.

My son’s question, asked in innocence, casts a glaring spotlight on what terrorism means  in our world today. It means brown people, it means Muslim, it means foreign invaders come to take away civilization and replace it with savagery and barbarism. It is racist code, a way to be racist without using the typical slurs or epithets. It is shorthand to attach the weight of white supremacist logic without having to use all the words. It implies the “great clash of civilization” vs the “savages/heathens” narrative in one short word.

Another example of how the racist trope of terrorism has invaded mainstream culture is during the Lord of the Rings, when the “wild men” attack the “last stand of men” with their heads wrapped in scarfs and on elephants. An unmistakable reference to the brown people of India or the Middle East and again my kids recognized it right away – they said, “hey, look, terrorists”.

So I had to unpack it for them. I asked them why they thought this was true. They pointed to the scarfs and said they looked like the Taliban. I tried to explain racist stereotyping, and we talked about what it would mean to have your country invaded by another army. Should defending yourself be considered terrorism? We talked about US drone strikes that have killed children and civilians. Is this terrorism? We tried to talk about perspectives too, to explain that mainstream culture and media is not our perspective because they frame things from a deeply racist set of assumptions.

I posted earlier about talking about race with our children. And I think I will need to have several more posts on this subject. So it is not enough that we don’t use “terrorism” in our house, in fact, it is wrong to avoid the word. We need to talk about it because obviously our kids are immersed in it. I realize now that our children are growing up with different racist codes, different wars, different hatreds and we need to give the tools to unpack these words and understand what they mean.

Mike Brown and Talking to Our Children About Racism & Walking With Them To Fight It

Here’s the thing –IMG_1720 recently I have heard people talking about WHEN they should talk to their kids about race, as if our children will first hear about it from us – but our society and culture ALREADY teaches our kids about race. EVERY SINGLE DAY. The experience is different depending on the skin you walk around in, but the truth is – ALL our kids are learning their respective places in the racial caste system of the US.

Our children learn about race and White supremacy from an early age. When my daughter was just 3 or 4, she declared that White skinned girls were prettier and that she wished she didn’t have brown skin. Of course, this killed me. My daughter didn’t learn about our country’s racial caste system from me, she learned it from being a brown skin girl in America. White kids know it too, but they don’t have to grapple with it like our children. It is easy to bask in the beauty of whiteness when it is all around you. No need to look at your skin the mirror and wish/ache for something more. And of course, why question it? White children are so used to being the center of everything – movies, books, celebrities, political figures, historical accounts, that when a movie like Hunger Games dares to make a small Black girl an emotional center (not even the star), White children felt free to complain about via social media. And while all children of color experience racism – in this country, with it’s history of slavery and genocide of the First Nations – anti-Blackness and Anti-First Nations has it’s own particular virulence.

We talk about racism all the time in our home. We use it as frame and explanation for many of the questions that my kids feel free to ask. But with the recent murder of Mike Brown, I realized that talking about fighting racism, while essential, was not going to be enough to counter to the anti-Blackness that our kids are exposed to every day.

But actually being out there fighting for a Black life with Black people as the lead – well – that is the heart of it, right? Our children needed to see our anger and despair over the loss of a Black life at the hands of the State. Because in this society that our children live in – they learn that Black life is disposable, not to be celebrated, not to be cherished, or mourned when taken so brutally. They needed to see their non-Black parents watch the racist’s state announcement that essentially blamed Mike Brown for his own murder & they needed to hear us declare the prosecutor’s words to be racist lies. They needed to see us mourn a Black life. And then they needed to see us all march in the street together and take the streets and declare that yes #Black Lives Matter.

Brookyn Barangay Joins The People’s Climate March!

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Getting ready to make some art with DAMAYAN, Filipino Domestic Workers group!

This Sunday, September 21, Brooklyn Barangay will be joining the 100,000’s of people expected to march in NYC to show the world that we DEMAND our world leaders to act now on climate change.

We March because Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm to ever make landfall – in the history of the PLANET.

From pics taken in our province of Aklan, Madalag, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan.

From pics taken in our province of Aklan, Madalag, Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan.

We March because the Philippines, our home, suffers from energy poverty, has contributed a tiny % of the green house gases that causes climate catastrophe and YET is one of the countries most at risk for the havoc caused by climate change.

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DAMAYAN’s Banner Clean up! FIGHT Corporate Plunder.

But Marching is not enough. We need to start to act like we are in a climate catastrophe – because we are.

We Need to Fight For Community and Worker Control of our Energy Systems. We must understand that the companies who are the worst polluters : oil and coal will literally let this planet burn for profit. They have manipulated science, public discourse, laws, in order to make a buck KNOWING that they are destroying the world. The very definition of Psychopaths.

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We Need to Fight For a Different, Sustainable Economic System Because: CAPITALISM Is UNSUSTAINABLE. 

527639_10150918412181178_1664081966_nSee You on the Streets!

Nervous about Being Happy, Our Impending Death & Our Mutant Brains

IMG_1588I have this nagging twinge of nervousness. It stays with me, this little nervous voice drives me to spend hours contemplating applying for a job I don’t want or spending hours re-working my resume. I am home, full time with the kids, and I absolutely love it. And I am grateful that money isn’t so tight that for now we can afford losing almost half of our household income. (We knew my lay-off was coming and saved up). Yet, I am nervous, I think, “I am only 40, I have 25 years at least before I can stop working.” I worry I am wasting my law degree, even though I loved going to law school (yeah, who loves law school? I am one of those geeks who did, plus it was CUNY Law = amazing activist professors and students). Oh, do I worry. And yet –

A few months ago, I participated in a workshop, where we first identified the three things most important to us. Then we closed our eyes and imagined ourselves as recently deceased. We had to then visualize the funeral, listen to hypothetical speeches, imagine who would attend, feel any regrets. Human existence is such a complex bundle of contradictions! We are so self-aware, it’s almost embarrassing! We are unable to just soar on clouds like birds or glide through water like fish – if we are did equally amazing feats like that, we would have to blog, document, and worry weather we are doing it right. Rarely, can we just experience. Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels, likened our huge, self-aware brains to a dangerous mutation. I see what he means, because our big brains have managed to build this brutal, global system of over-consumption and inequality to the point where we could destroy the whole planet. On the other hand, our brains have enabled us to accomplish, great, small, and large acts of beauty – music that shakes our insides, visual art that stops time, acts of compassion and love that transcend the brutality of capitalism.

But back to my impending death. Impending? Yep, all our deaths are impending. As much as we cling to out big brains and big thoughts and big plans, we are all a moment from death. Our lives are that fragile. It is hard for our self-aware selves to really live with that, with death as our constant companion, so we put false walls and barriers between us and death. And we tend to live like we have our time given to us as a right of birth. I worry about the next 20 years as if they are bricks, already laid down in front of me.

So anyway, I was sitting there thinking of my life right now – parent of two beautiful, healthy children, loving, supporting partner, great family that I live with, and excellent chosen family and friends, a home that we can afford to (and do) open up to any friends and family in need – and it all looked very good. No regrets, except of course not being alive for my kids. Not once, during my visualization did I feel regretful that I am home full time with my kids. I identified family as being the most important thing in my life so my choice, right now, reflects that value. I DID identify my work as 2nd most important, but what I defined as work was not my wage labor. Rather, it was the work of resisting capitalism, no matter how small of a resistance. For me, that means sharing of resources, fighting white supremacy, building democracy at work so we can resist as workers, fighting for our planet, building compassionate thoughtful, freedom fighters in our children. Actually there is so many ways to “do the work” but of it doesn’t involve a high powered career!

So I struggle to remind myself that I am happy. That right now, today, we are lucky to be living our life. And who knows whether I have 20 plus years at all, much less wage labor.

If I died today, I would die with very few regrets, but rather with a life fully lived. I am grateful and today, it is enough.

On the Dole

My First trip to the Unemployment Office!

I was recently laid off. Don’t worry, I knew it was going to happen, I came in with the new president and expected to be out when he retired. Since I was 16, I worked for wages. My first jobs were in the mall (high “cool” status, low pay) and McDonald’s (low “cool” status, low pay, high grease level). This is my first time on unemployment, but I have been paying into unemployment for 25 years. Now that I am laid off, my unemployment insurance kicks in. Theoretically, I have earned this benefit after 25 years of paying into it.

 But it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, I need to prove that I am doing everything I can to NOT be on unemployment while simultaneously swearing that I haven’t done even one hour of paid labor.

 Think of it this way – many of us pay $100’s of dollars every month for health insurance. Now, what if we get really sick and in order to get our medical bills paid, we needed to check in each week and swear that we were doing everything we could to not be sick anymore. I can see the questions: Do you swear that it’s not your fault that you are still sick? Do you swear that you have tried to get well this week? Do you swear that you have not felt well even one day this week?

 Unemployment has changed over the years and especially since the beginning of the great recession of 2008. Some of you may remember the long lines snaking out of the unemployment offices. So it is better now, I suppose. We can check in on line and we can set up direct deposit. But as it is for services for the poor, unemployment still feels like some kind of stigimitzed “charity” that we should be ashamed to be have to use it. Which is really ridiculous since we have been paying into for all of our working lives!

Millions of Americans have relied on unemployment recently due to the great recession. Congress has extended it from 26 weeks, but not this year. Millions have fallen off unemployment but remain jobless. In NY unemployment is capped at $405 a week. It is a bare safety net, not a way to get rich.

 Recently, I received a letter that said I had to go to a meeting at the Department of Labor as a requirement of receiving my benefits. I arrived at the worn and grey building, checked in with the policeman at the front and gave my appointment letter and resume to the woman at the front desk. She gave me a form to fill out, at the top of the form the woman put the time I arrived, and circled the words, “1st appt”. There were other words at the top: 2nd appt, rescheduled & 3rd appointment suspension.

 After receiving my new form, I was directed to the next floor. There I waited in a designated waiting area. As I arrived there were a couple people also waiting and I watched more walk in and sit down in random areas. No one looked at each other, no one made eye contact, we all shifted in our seats looking uncomfortable. Then were called up and a group of us all went into a small conference room.

 Once inside, the quiet and isolation continued. We all chose seats with several seats between each of us. None of us wanted to sit together. No one spoke. Then our “re-employment officer” entered.

 She made a point of letting us know that this is re-employment not the unemployment office. If we had questions about our UI benefits, she couldn’t help us. She is supposed to help us get re-employed she says. And she was a nice person, polite, courteous and she shared her own experiences of being on UI. BUT she wasn’t REALLY there to help us get jobs, she was there to police us, give us our weekly forms where we have to write all our job finding activities and let us know about our next requirements.

Her speech included an acknowledgement of the “new normal.” She spoke about how it used to be that people came off unemployment after a few weeks, but now people stay for the full 26 weeks and leave the rolls without finding work. She also mentioned that waits at the “re-employment” office were long because a lot of her fellow co-workers had also been laid off! This does not create confidence, I can tell you!

 Who were we? Well, she met with each of us, in front of each other, so I got to hear some of the stories. One was a 60 year old Filipina RN, who used to work at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn that just got closed. Our re-employment officer said, “I gave birth to all my children at that hospital.” Another was a young white woman in the “fashion industry,” another an older white man in IT, another a young Black man in security.

 I will have to report back with my forms showing all the effort I made to find work in 6 more weeks. Next time, I think I will try and talk to my fellow unemployed, I will let you know how it goes.