Friday, January 13, 2017

The Most Important Office in Democracy: Citizen

One week and counting to the anti-inaugural and Women’s March on Washington, friends. And the prez-elect’s antics continue.  Got hope? 

He’s hired his wheeler-dealer son-in-law as his chief advisor. On what? How to make the most hay out while the sun shines on the Trump White House? He spends his time tweeting like a twit about Schwarzenegger’s performance as host of The Apprentice. Presidential much? I can’t help but think of Trevor Noah’s Trump the Toddler routine, balling-up his little baby fists and stamping his feet to demand attention. Even mild-mannered Biden said on a PBS NewsHour interview last week, “Grow up, you’re President now.”

To add salt to the wounds, we all watched Obama’s farewell speech Tuesday night with a box of tissues handy. Or we didn’t watch because we couldn’t face saying goodbye to that guy and his lovely wife and all the loveliness that surrounds them. But if you did watch, as did I, shedding a few tears along with Podus, you had to catch his main message.

It’s time to…

“Hitch our trailers to something bigger than ourselves.”

 Take-on with aplomb “the most important office in democracy:  citizen.”

“Lace-up [our] shoes and do some organizing…and if you don’t like who’s in there, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

This is great, I’m thinking, as I’m scribbling furiously in my notebook. Obama as coach. And as a citizen himself very soon, he assured, he is “staying in the fight.”

Okay, dear Obama, si se puede, yes we can, and yes we are.

And yes we did.  Please indulge me as I take a veer down memory lane…back to this time in 2009 when I was knee-deep in preparations for the Samba-O-Bamba Inaugural Ball. Was that a hoot, driving through the streets of MtP with my friend Gigi, dressed in our ball gowns, 11 frigging degrees out and we’re freezing because we have our new black President in the back seat, a larger than life cutout so big we have to roll down the back windows of the Toyota so he head can poke-out. It was a Bacchanalian celebration of democracy with a Brazilian twist, samba music and dancing and a piñata bashing of W’s head to top-off the evening. 

This year things are going to be a little different. I’m leveraging my organizing power and facilitation skills for What NOW? An evening of drinks, dialogue and dissent! Not so much dancing, but it’s going to be a ball, transforming anger and dismay into action –taking active part in “the joyous task we’ve been given – to continue to try to improve our country.” 

So please come out, friends. Move past Denial and Resistance and into Exploration. Come fueled with march energy. Come tired. Come with rage and joy and hope and hopelessness. Come with ideas, even if they are messy and muddled. Come open to the possibilities. 

My colleague and I, as your facilitators, will come with the questions, the power of questions, to help you clarify the ideas and make connections.  And once those flip charts come out, you’ll know we're ready to make shit happen.
As Obama said in his farewell, “The constitution is just a piece of parchment …We the people give it meaning – with our participation.”

Start now. Post a comment, reserve your space, let your voice be heard. For tix:

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

'Tis the Season to be Jolly?

If you see me at a party this holiday season and kindly ask how I am doing, pardon me if I remove my jolly holiday mask and respond candidly.  

“Not great,” was my answer, over jalapeño poppers, at a friend’s recent Christmas gathering. The world as we know it is crumbling down. Already, it was slipping in that direction – half the population apparently thought so – but living in our bubbles we didn’t notice. Now we’re waking up, having to face the truth of this Trump upset and watch the parade of right-wing billionaires marching behind their leader, straight into the halls of power, determined to undo whatever good Obama managed to eke out during his two exalted terms.

The news reports are disturbing and getting scarier by the day. Almost afraid to look, I squint through  ‘got-hope’ glasses and tell myself:  he will be reasonable, he’s in over his head, maybe it won’t be so bad. I’m white-privileged and can still enjoy a bountiful celebratory Mexican spread complete with high-end mezcal imported (under NAFTA) from Oaxaca. At least the stock market is going up (I’m not sure exactly why) and I won’t be sent across the border (though maybe I’d like to be). 

But it’s not good enough to be a good loser. And that’s the #silverlining. When it’s just another middle-of-the-road Dem in there looking a lot like a Republican, cozying up to the banks and oil interests, I can remain an arm-chair liberal. For the first time in my lifetime, I matter, I’m needed. The situation is so extreme, there’s almost freedom in it, permission to act out, to take my role as a citizen seriously.
This time around I have no choice. Change begins with me. Okay, I may not change the #RedStaters. I’m not ready yet for that challenge. First, I’ve got to look at my Self.   

Where AM I?  And where are you on the Change Curve NOW?  

I find this model (based on the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) helpful in my work with leaders confronting change in their organizations. So how does it apply to a large-scale societal shift? It still comes down to ME.

First there’s Denial.  Many of us are still there. In Denial we avoid news and the ugly truth. Pick your news story du jour: the gratuitous Carrier deal, grandstanding over 700 jobs, a drop in the bucket compared to Obama’s unsung 14 million;  Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp of alligators” when all he’s doing is introducing a variant species; the Exxon-Mobil snakehead; his refusal to divest from his business interests; the seedy Russian connection; and, one of my favorites, our new President charging the American People $1M a day in rent so he can spend his weekends in comfort of his beloved Trump Tower!

Oh, let’s not forget the benign pizza joint in upper NW DC that was raided by a gun-toting nutter, driven by # falsenews that the restaurant owners, along with Hillary, were involved in a child sex ring. Disgusting. Even more disgusting, people believed it!

Okay, the expletives are an indicator I’m moving out of Denial, allowing reality to sink in, and getting enraged. Good for me! That’s Resistance, the next stage on the change curve, an excellent place to hang out (for a while). 

In Resistance, I face the truth and face my fears, taking the news in, perhaps in bite-sized morsels, hopefully from trusted sources. Though, frankly, I’ve got a gripe with the entire #mediamachine, the way the collective of outlets handed Trump the victory on a silver platter in exchange for ratings. So I have to be careful how I digest what I read and see and hear. I engage with friends, try not to hide my dismay, talk, listen, yell, post, and get real clear: this IS happening. 

If I don’t, I can slide back into Denial. And that subtle version, where I downplay the impacts, is most dangerous.

Bear with me as I draw a connection that I hope won’t sound disrespectful or exaggerated. Over Thanksgiving, I read Night, Elie Wiesel’s prized memoir about coming of age in the Nazi death camps. The thematic thread he weaves throughout the story begins right up-front, when no one will listen to the ominous warnings of Moishe the Beadle.  

By page 10, “German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem – were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out – and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling.”

Then, a third of the way through, “Most people thought that we would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.”

Of course we all know where this horrific story goes. Once the boy arrives in Auschwitz with his father, he has no choice but to open his eyes. “I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible then men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps…”

Yes, a nightmare and a mind-boggling reality.

Which is why we must deftly move along the Change Curve, out of Denial and into Resistance, where we hit rock-bottom, and, only then, can we move forward into Exploration.

We don’t have time to stay stuck, nor can we skip stages. The latter is a trap I fell into myself, eager to shift to Exploration mode at a brainstorming dinner with colleagues recently. We had come together with flipcharts and markers to discuss how to put our facilitation and change skills to good use given this new political reality. And we walked away with a can-do game plan.

But later that night my subconscious awakened me to the truth. I dreamed I was part of the resistance movement and we were being hunted down by an army of guys wielding machine guns. The hotel in PG county where we were meeting turned into a bloodbath. I hid behind a white upholstered chair in the lobby as bullets reverberated, glass shattered, and blood splattered the walls. I awoke in a panic asking myself:  Was a hero or a coward? Will I stand up or hide out?

Feeling my fear, fearing my ambivalence, is part of the process. As one of my mentors used to say, “All resistance is information.”  Ironically, I have to get past my own internal Resistance to become part of the bigger Resistance that will propel me forward.

In my next post I’ll talk more about the way forward – and the What NOW? Drinks and Dialogue event my colleagues and I are organizing to help ourselves get past Denial and into the streets!

Stay tuned, comrades…

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” ― Elie Wiesel

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mala Mujer ~ Bad Woman

With the help of some important little messengers of late, I’m beginning to see that Mexico did not treat me very well.  

“As a single and childless woman, you’re an oddity. They don’t know what to do with you,” said Elizabeth, a new friend and client who’d lived and worked in Mexico for eight years. She regaled me with stories of her alienation, even working with the good guys in reproductive health, even in Mexico City, despite her fluency in Spanish. "Until I got married and had kids. Then, miraculously, I got some respect."

How could I know that the very untethered state that allowed me to wander off for two years to be of service would doom me?

I was a mala mujer down to the core. I lived alone in my apartment on Diaz and I bought wine at the Bodega Aurerra (Mexican Walmart) and I used tampons, which you could only get in boxes of 10, available only from behind the pharmacy counter, on the upper shelf, out of harm’s way, where a sales associate had to retrieve them for you. God knows what manner of shameful behavior was going on behind my closed apartment door.

According to Octavio Paz, the ambassador, poet, and Nobel Prize winner for his renowned book of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, “the mala mujer – the ‘bad woman’ – is almost always accompanied by the idea of aggressive activity. She is not passive like the ‘self-denying mother,’ the ‘waiting sweetheart,’ the hermetic idol: she comes and goes, she looks for me and then leaves them. Her extreme mobility…renders her invulnerable. Activity and immodesty unite to petrify her soul.” (Labyrinth)

Wow! I read his piece on Mexican Masks over and over, intrigued, mind-boggled, referring back frequently to my highlights and margin notes that bloodied the pages. But I could not, at the time, see how I how was fighting the unspoken label to curry favor with my counterparts and, in doing so, was losing me. I was too close to it. And if I had seen and acknowledged the kind of discrimination thwarting me at every turn, I would have had to surrender, take a Peace Corps ET (Early Termination), and head back across the border where I belonged.

Perhaps this was why, despite my ambivalence about being home those first weeks and months of my Returned PCV status, a cauldron of profound elation, at moments, was bubbling inside me.
 I remember the first night I ventured up to Mount Pleasant Street for a glass of wine at the local watering hole. Glass of wine. Even the words filled me with a sense of other-worldly appreciation as I stepped in the door as was met with a rush of body warmth and din of merriment. I sat tall in my stool, like a big girl, as the bartender came right over and laid a coaster before me.  I was mesmerized by the lengthy, laminated list of possibilities, Pinot, Merlot, Riojo. 

I couldn’t possibly decide; so Will the bartender recommended the Rhone and gave me a taste before filling my glass to the rim.  It was a late winter in Washington, and every time the door opened, a waft of frigid air swept in and gave me a shiver of exhilaration down to my frozen toes. After two and a half years in a desert, I felt profound thanks for the bone-chilling cold. 

As I sipped my ruby wine, taking in bombardment of English chatter, a waiter suddenly appeared a flatiron pan held high over his head. He lowered it and lit a Bic lighter to it and the pan exploded into flames. The entire establishment erupted in applause; cheese flambé was cause for celebration in Mount Pleasant, USA. My eyes must have been popping out of my head as the waiter set the bubbling halloumi on the bar because the couple next to me smiled and offered me a bite. 

At El Fenix, my local watering hole in Rioverde, other than Rita’s brightness and the merry mariachi music whining over the sound system, a solemnity pervaded, a sense that those of us there, sipping our cervezas and michaladas (only beer-based drinks served), were hiding our sins from the rest of the world, behind the smoke colored glass. We were the scorned ones. And I would not have been welcomed if it hadn’t been for the fact that the owner and bartender was a woman and fast becoming my best friend. 

Now talk about a mala mujer. Rita was not only single and childless, but a cantina owner on top of it, serving up the diablo’s brew, and Dios only knew what else. But she didn’t care what they thought. She’d lived through the death of her father at age 12 and abandonment of her mother at 15. Left to raise her four younger sisters, she crossed the border, worked as a domestic, and sent the money back home. Even then the neighbors in her community cursed the Garcia girls:  You’ll all grow up to be bunch of putas. They did not. They learned how to survive the small town fires. Pueblo pequeno, infierno grande.

Once I found Rita, and she found me, we did not let go. I became her protection – because “Nobody gonna touch me when I have the gringa by my side.” And she became mine, because nobody would or could explain the inner workings of the pueblito and make me feel better for feeling so useless as Rita. Suddenly I felt not so alone.

So can you see I’m only just beginning to understand all this? To survive my time in Mexico I had to stuff the fears down and put on my Mexican mask and carry-on. My ingrained American optimism, in the face of challenges, also served, or it suckered me. 

A year and a half after I left Rioverde my friend Rita risked life and limb to cross over the border again. It took her three months and close to 10,000 dollars, money saved up for El Fenix and her sister’s house-cleaning business in Dallas going into the hands of the narcos, not just dealing in drugs anymore, but much more lucratively, in people.  On her journey she was jailed twice, and the final time held in a motel room with 12 other migrants for weeks until the coyotes decided it was her turn, until her sister was so desperate that she would agree to a doubling of the fee upon drop-off or never see her sister again.

That’s how bad Rioverde was for single women.

As my writing partner, Julie Gabrieli, put it on a recent check-in call, “We’re good at talking about the lipstick, but what about the pig? There’s only so much you can do if you are forced into a system that is fundamentally broken.” 

What IS ‘The Story of Sustainability from South of the Border,’ really?  I’ve been getting closer to the truth, moving away from my initial yearning to make it a story with a happy ending and, thus, justify my 2 years and 3 months’ investment in PCMX at the peak of my career. 

But underneath it all I’m still blaming myself. I was the demanding exijente gringa, pushing for change when they weren’t ready, not honoring the cultural norms, fighting the paternalism ineffectively, and even deeper, bringing my history and baggage of issues with the ‘father’ inappropriately into my Mexico service. "Life is a fight and I am alone."

I don’t want to put lipstick on a pig, and I don’t want to be a whiner. I want to share the truth of the experience:  the good, bad and beautiful. I want to discuss the darkness of the culture and the experience and also the light.  Because there was light.

I stuck it out and met Angelica and the Zama Mamas and we did something together that was pretty extraordinary.  I don’t know if it was sustainable.  I have not been in touch with them.  I’ve been too afraid to find out.  I stuck it out and met Rita and made a friend for life. And I cannot say I wasn’t at least an indirect influence on her decision to cross the border and make a more sustainable and happy life for herself with her sister on this side of the border. I stuck it out and met Professor Fernando Nino and had the opportunity to teach his engineering students about sustainability and innovation and open their eyes to what’s possible.   

But mostly I stuck it out. Now coming on four years since the completion of my service, I may be just be getting glimpses of what it all meant.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Heart of Memoir

I had the good fortune, last week, to attend a book talk by my memoir hero, Mary Karr. Her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, opened my eyes, back in the 90s, to what’s possible with the form, joy and pain in the unvarnished truth, through the eyes of a child.

I began to devour memoirs back then (Nabokov, McCourt, Welty, Woolf and Wolfe), developing a quiet aspiration to tell my own story someday.

The other night, at Busboy & Poets, amidst a packed house, I devoured the author’s nuggets of wisdom on the craft, a few of them harder than others to swallow, washing them down with sips of mojito.

Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
Mary Karr & Busboys & Poets
First and foremost, she told us, find your voice as a memoirist, the most interesting version of yourself. And yes, she clarified, it’s made-up.

I haven’t found that voice for Mexico yet, though I have heard it in fragments here and there.
Write (even the people you hate) with as much love as you can, said Karr.

For me that means the corrupt mayor, Don Bruno, the paternalistic Peace Corps bosses, the machismo engineers, the gossipy, dismissive Consejo. The whole cast of characters with love?

She also said: From the second you choose one event over another you’re shaping the past’s meaning. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility.

She went on to say that sometimes you have to write a ton to get past the pages that don’t belong, like I did the first 100 pages of my Mexico book. But that’s nothing. Karr told us she had to lop-off 1200 pages of her memoir, Lit, before it set right. The DELete key is my most important tool.
During the Q&A, I forced myself to raise my hand. I stood-up and posed a question into the microphone. I had a million, but the one that won out was about my challenges writing and completing the story of my Peace Corps Service. ‘I got back in 2013,’ I told her. ‘Do I need more distance from the events?’ Here was my chance for some answers. (I mentioned, incidentally, that I had my Kickstarter backers – like an agent collective – waiting for the finished product.)

‘Oh, that’s tough,’ she acknowledged, and graciously thanked me for my service. Then she answered my question with a question:

‘Is there some way in which you were meant to change through the experience and didn’t OR some way you changed and aren’t ready to claim? Explore that.’

‘Yeah, do I have to?’ I grumbled under my breath, feeling my face turn red hot, and sat back down like a kid who’d gotten the answer (or in this case the question) wrong.

Okay, I admit, there’s stickiness there, like dried soda pop on the kitchen floor, and I keep stepping in it. I’m the President of SeeChange, for godsakes. I should have known better, done better, if not in changing Mexico, at least in changing my self.

What pops to mind is an infamous line of my mother’s, worn in to grooves of my record so it keeps repeating: ‘I have great things in mind for my daughter and I don’t want you fucking them up.’ Back then the you was a man. Now it’s universal, anyone (including me) that might get in my way.

Then I think of my wise and concerned friend, J, who tried coaching me through a rough patch in my service when the local board of sustainability to which I was assigned turned on me and the Peace Corps threatened to throw me out. ‘Has it occurred to you,’ J posed over Skype at about my six-month mark in Mexico, ‘that this experience could be doing you more harm than good?’

No, no, no, he didn’t get it. My friend was in development, yes, but a policy wonk, a diplomat, jet-setting around the world to negotiate treaties and wine and dine with the powers that be. On the ground work was a different ball game. He just didn’t get it.

But in the end, had he been right? I had (hidden) aspirations to change the world, at least a small corner of it. I had stuck it out, two years and three months. But what had I accomplished? Returning home to DC, I was back in the same old place, maybe I’d even gone a few giant steps backwards.

I don’t want to tell that tale, a story of disillusionment. But it’s there. Ways I hoped to change and didn’t. Ways I changed and don’t want to see. Can I face them? Can I handle the truth with tenderness? Can I see beyond the parternalismo and machismo and corruption, and my own getting in the way, to recognize that I did do some good, maybe even some ‘great things’?

F. Scott Fitzgerald says the definition of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing truths simultaneously. When I’m there, I’ll be ready to write. Or perhaps I write to get there.

Mary Karr's new book is called The Art of Memoir and can be found on Amazon or her website

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Writing Through the Doldrums

‘Mom and N, is that you?’ My voice awakens me from a dream, the image of them plain as day.

The elevator door has opened – a man gets on and his back is too me – but I could see Mom with the baby in her arms. She looked so happy. They both glanced over at me smiling, then the door shut and the elevator arrow dinged for down. They were going out to play in the park.

‘But I missed them and miss them,’ I think, coming out of my sleepy stupor, rubbing tears from my eyes.

I saw a close-up of my nephew on Facebook the other day, his first day of kindergarten. ‘Where has the time gone,’ my sister-in-law wrote, and I could hear her dry, Texas lament in the post on the screen. N wore a striped polo buttoned up to the top. He had a big boy haircut, a little punk, no more blond bowl, shaven close on the side and a shelf of mousy brown bangs combed long to the side. A sly cat ate the mouse grin hid a hint of trepidation. His faced had slimmed and his eyes had become decidedly his mother’s since I last saw him, Scandinavian wide-set and slightly slanty. Exotic-looking.

It’s been two years, a third of that kid’s life, since I’d last seen him, at my mother’s funeral, when the weight of the sibling shame and blame and rivalry was too much for the worn connections to bear. My mother was the hub in a hub-spoke relationship and once she was gone we were nothing but a warped and useless wheel.

So on that hot August day in Peoria two summers ago I lost all of them. The elevator door closed and went down without me.

In the Doldrums today, I’m breaking ‘Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate or speculate while in the Doldrums.’ It would carry a heavy sentence, off to the dungeon for Milo, of Phantom Tollbooth fame, if he didn’t stop at once.

But I bend around the rule and write.

I have a tummy ache that reminds me of being back in Mexico. A water main broke on the block and the last trickle drained out at dawn. Now every time I pull the handle in the kitchen I’m reminded how dependent I am.

I awoke way to early this morning for my own good and fell into writing about Mom’s cancer. ‘Change it up, let the Muse lead you by the hand,’ though sometimes she takes me down some pretty dark paths.
This ain’t no Dictionopolis. (That’s Milo’s first stop on his journey out of the Doldrums where he and his dog Tock learn to play with their words.)

When Martin, my handyman, arrives around noon carrying his massive tool box, ready to install my new ceiling fan, I am just arriving at my aunt’s house in Peoria. There I find my mother a shadow of herself, honestly like part of her had already left the body and was hovering above us.


I dropped my bags at the threshold and dropped to my knees before her, grasping around her legs to keep her on this earth. When I rested my head in her lap, she stroked my hair and said: ‘I’m glad you’re here, Annie.’

Is that the moment I started to call her Mama?

No, not yet.

The doctors had said three to six months which we collectively took to mean six months, still not much, but we wanted all we can get. Though the moment I’d entered the room and saw her sitting, back to me in the easy chair, her once broad shoulders narrowed and frail, a halo of lamplight illuminating silvery strands of hair, I knew it could only be weeks.

My aunt didn’t seem to notice a thing. Then again, she’d been along with Mom on the chemo ride from the beginning and maybe she couldn’t see the decline in the gradual day-to-day.

‘Doesn’t she look good?’ Aunt M called down the spiral staircase that led from the open kitchen and living space down to the guest suite of her converted coach house. ‘She took a shower and got all cleaned up for you.’

‘Yes, she does.’ I got up from the ground, having resisted letting tears fall onto the knees of Mom’s drawstring pants. ‘Hair looks nice, Mom.’

She smiled back weakly, unconvinced. ‘M blew it out for me, what’s left of it.’

I muted the damn TV, another ISIS ambush on a town called Mosul, and took in my surroundings. The slight scent of cigarette smoke in the air, a habit all the sisters but Mare had been able to kick. This aunt, a retired art deal, had an impeccable eye. Every inch of the place was perfectly appointed, a combination of antiques and moderns, books and tiny lamps and Persian throw rugs on the wood floors – tiny succulent plants and pots of herbs perched on the sills, classical music wafting down from the living room stereo – Bloody Mary’s being concocted on the circular marble bar above us with stalks of celery and generous wedges of lime on rim.

I loved coming to Peoria, even though it was a ‘podunk town’ according to Mom. It wasn’t our family home and it wasn’t Washington, but Peoria had become a hub over the years of visits, especially since Mom had invested in a little house around the corner from her sister in the historic Moss Avenue district.

‘Or you could have a Bloody Maria, you know, with tequila,’ my aunt’s voice called out over the Bach.
Aunt M, with her socialite gene, knew how to make even the dying days festive.

‘What about you, Ro? A Clamato on the rocks.’

Mom nodded, her eyelids resting shut, and I called up for her.

‘Annie,’ Mom whispered, gray-blue eyes fixed on me. ‘It’s the only thing my body seems to tolerate these days. Craves the lycopene for some strange reason.’

Mom was talking about her body as though it were already separate from her.


The workers are still working, the break is serious, the hole is deep, I’m out of the Doldrums.