Monday, October 30, 2017

A Holocaust Survivor's Message

There was a time in my tween years when Anne Frank was my secret best friend. Her book, The Diary of Anne Frankwas my constant companion and valued possession. I'm not sure why I was intrigued by her story but her words resonated in my young girl's heart. It might have been the racism and discrimination I experienced myself where I felt Anne was a kindred spirit. 

As soon as I finished reading the book I'd start back at the beginning. I remember buying my first copy from one of my elementary school's book fairs and highlighting sentences in pencil. I'm one of those people who get intimate with my books, highlighting and writing notes in the margins. When I was in between library books I often flipped to certain chapters hoping the story had a different ending. 

Many of us know Anne Frank's ending. 

Had the internet existed in the late 70s I would have spent insanely long hours researching Anne Frank's story still hoping for a different end. I believe the fire for fighting against injustice was lit when I read her experiences of hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

Since then I've read books (too many to name or count) on the the atrocities of the holocaust, Hitler and the Nazis. As I grew older my intrigue evolved into near obsession. My 10-year-old brain couldn't wrap itself around the evil of racism, intolerance and genocide. 

When my middle spawn invited me to the Museum of Tolerance for one of her school assignments earlier this month I was excited. There was an Anne Frank exhibit and a holocaust survivor scheduled to speak at noon the day we went. The last time I visited the museum was over a decade ago when I had a similar class assignment to complete. I took my then teenagers with me to experience the museum. 

This time my daughter and I were pressed for time so I chose to listen to the holocaust survivor speak as I hoped to glean wisdom from someone who experienced evil firsthand. With the recent division of our country and the blatant rise of racism I wanted...no, needed to know if she could provide insight on how best to navigate our current climate. 
Dr. Elane Geller speaking
at the Museum of Tolerance

Her name is Dr. Elane Geller. A soft spoken woman in her early 80s imbued with a spirit of strength. 

When she spoke to us that day she gave a brief introduction of her time in the concentration camp where the Nazis placed her in when she was four years old. The rest of her talk was spent answering questions from the audience which made her story somewhat disjointed. I wrote this piecing together the notes I took during her introduction and answering questions. 

She and her aunt were in Bergen-Belsen, what she called as "one of the worst concentration camps." Her mom just had surgery and was recovering at her grandparents' house when the Nazis came to take her. (Disclaimer: this is what Dr. Geller told us that day. I've read other articles about her talks that told a different story. Like this one.)

According to Dr. Geller, her mother and grandparents were killed because the sick and elderly were of no use to the Nazis. 

In the concentration camp Dr. Geller was with her aunt who gave her explicit rules: obey her orders, don't run around, don't let the guards notice you and stay out of trouble. There were no other children in the camp since "children were not worthy." Her job in the barracks was to help the new prisoners as they were processed in, which provided plenty of opportunities to steal food from their pouches. "I was a terrific thief. I had no conscience." She joked. 

As young as she was she remembers being hungry all the time. They were only fed dirty water and a moldy potato twice a day which were shared with her aunt. Since children were useless she wasn't known by her given name. Her only identification was a number on her arm. 

She and her aunt shared a bunk which was so narrow that they slept upright leaning on each other's backs. For a long time she thought her aunt was her mom. 

Dr. Geller was seven and a half years old when liberation came to the concentration camp. She didn't understand why there were things falling from the sky, watching people picking them up off the ground and putting them in their mouths. It was the first time she tasted candy and she's "liked candy ever since!"

She had no idea why she lived while other children were killed right away. She was seven and a half when she was part of the boat that brought her to a United States refugee camp in Brooklyn, New York. 

I asked Dr. Geller my first question. What do you think of the rise of racism in our country today? She said she felt sorry for the haters. "If I ever lose my anger then I need to be committed. I'm sensitive to injustice to others." 

The next question I asked her was, "what do you tell your grandson when he experiences racism?"  She didn't quite answer my question, only saying that she tries to be respectful of her son and daughter-in-law and doesn't talk to her grandchildren about her experience in the concentration camp. 

This is her message to people: I don't like everybody but I respect everyone's right to exist. I don't mimic the things I don't like in people. If you got two legs and living you have every right to not like me. The world is still a better place. If you want to be an anti-Semite, God bless you!" 

I'm not sure what my expectations were in listening to a holocaust survivor speak in person for the first time. I walked out of the room with the rest of the audience yearning for concrete solutions to handling racism. It felt like an anticlimactic end. 

While I appreciated her honesty in saying that she still felt angry and that her experiences will always be embedded in her psyche, I've often wondered since how I would react if I'm confronted with racism today. Would I react with the diplomacy Dr. Geller suggested in her message? Would I respect the right to a racist's existence? 

I wish I could say with certainty that I would. 

We learned in the Museum of Tolerance that we all hold prejudices in some form. I know I do which is why my awareness of it urges me to work on my own intolerance. With the increase of hate crimes today I'm not sure if I would readily choose love when faced with it. 

I can, however, choose not to be silent with injustice and to live my life in a way that would reflect the good in all of us. It won't be a perfect practice but one that must be honed daily. If we all collectively raise our voices against intolerance and exclusion we can affect change because as Dr. Geller reminds us, this world is still a better place. 

Below are a few photos I snapped with my phone while visiting the Museum of Tolerance


Middle spawn taking notes for her assignment





Saturday, September 2, 2017

When Hope Shines In The Midst of Chaos, Catastrophe and Crisis

I took this picture at Universal Citywalk
in Hollywood. Kids of all ages, size, shapes
and color played together on a hot
summer day. If only us, as adults,
can do the same. 
It's been an eventful two months not just in my personal life but in the world. 
It seems as if I barely exhaled in between personal and world events as I have a nasty habit of holding my breath during stressful times. 

With #45 as our country's leader there's not a morning that goes by that I haven't been horrified, frustrated, appalled and angered at what our nation has come to. I struggle with living my life in its "normal" state with the atrocities that affect us all. 

Last month, on August 12, the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia between white supremacists and counter-protesters created a ripple of fear across the country. I won't get into too much detail about the event since you can search it on the internet to find more information. Or, click on the link above. 

I woke up that Saturday morning with images of white males brandishing backyard torches splashed across my Instagram and Twitter feeds. CNN's live feed on my computer told me it started with a "Unite the Right" rally protesting against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue who symbolized the Confederacy. Anti-racist protesters rallied against white supremacists who yelled "blood and soil" including numerous racial epithets. 

While my chest constricted with fear I sat in disbelief that in 2017 I was witnessing what I've only read about in my books. Nazi flags held high while arms raised in Sieg Heils. 

"How is this happening?" I kept asking myself. I sat and cried forgetting to breathe. 

Right when I thought it couldn't get worse a car plowed into the throng of anti-protesters killing a young 32 year old woman named Heather Heyer. 

Heather Heyer. 

She died fighting for what she believed was right. For someone who's gone to two marches this year I understood why she was there. My heart broke in that moment. For her, for our country and for our future. 

#45's initial remarks after the tragic events of Charlottesville did not allay my fears. 
"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. On many sides.” Repeating the phrase "On many sides." He did not specifically call out the neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists for their actions which further encouraged their agenda. 

Although he did issue a revised statement a few days later I viewed it as too little, too late. 


Helplessness filled my days while my anger was directed at people I knew who elected this waste of space. Were they okay with all this, I wondered? 


I wanted to write a blog post immediately after the horror at Charlottesville but what could I write that didn't add to the noise already out there? I didn't want to write a rant. What was the solution? 


I didn't have one. Choose love? It seems so simple but like my Facebook friend said, "It's easy to choose love when you're privileged." 


As an immigrant I'm no stranger to racism. I grew up with Filipino immigrant parents who spoke in heavy accents. I've witnessed white people denigrate my parents in grocery stores, banks and restaurants. I grew up with a dad who railed against the white man. 


When we became U.S. citizens I thought it would erase my parents' accents. I remember being embarrassed of my parents wishing I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes so I could fit in. 


Growing up I've been teased for my chinky eyes and bongo lips. My last name was fodder for every derogatory variation cruel kids could come up with. Chinkaforte was the favorite of my elementary school classmates. I was tormented and bullied in my first, second and third grade classes in Inglewood. 


I don't know when the presence of racism diminished in my life but it did. We moved to Norwalk at the beginning of fourth grade where the teasing and bullying stopped. I haven't experienced discrimination in the last twenty years although my parents have. 


Now I ask myself often: what kind of world will my granddaughter, future grandchildren, nieces and nephews grow up in with #45 as our leader? Every day that passes brings us backward, undoing all the hard work of his predecessor. 


The following weeks after the events in Charlottesville my view was one of despair. Every white person I passed in my daily life was suspect. Do they hate me? Are they undercover white supremacists? That white man didn't smile at me he must be a racist. That white lady bumped my cart in Target she must be a racist. Those white teenagers staring me down must be racists. 


Who the hell wants to live like that?! I do not. 


I'm not one to close my eyes to the truth I don't want to see. Watching the hatred on my computer screen compelled me to look within and face my own form of racism. Yes, we all have it in us. I contemplated on how I also contributed to this problem in my own life with my thoughts and actions toward others. 


The question I asked myself was: how can I come to a resolution of my own prejudices toward others? Let's face it, we are part of the problem we see on our television screens. 


Shortly after my self-reflection Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm, hit Texas hard on the last Friday of August. Helplessness and horror once again filled my days. I didn't personally know anyone who lived in Houston, Texas but one of my favorite writers, Brene Brown, made it real for me that morning. 


Even though CNN aired live footage in Texas it was Brene Brown's post that showed me the severity of the situation in Houston. 





I am aware that misinformation is rampant on the internet. I've seen memes on my feed that show grocery stores selling a case of bottled water for $99. I've also seen images supposedly taken from Hurricane Harvey but in truth were taken from another disaster. The tweet from Buzzfeed News below sheds light on misleading news. 

As the week unfolded with more tragic images (real and fake) from Houston I noticed something bright piercing through the catastrophic chaos: hope. 

People were coming together to help; to save; to rescue. There were no boundaries for the acts of kindness that shined in Texas. I read stories of ordinary people acting in heroic fashion. One example of this are these Mexican bakers who baked pan dulce for victims after being trapped by the floods. 

Or the images of a white man carrying an African American child in waist high water; or the African American man carrying two small white children through the flooded streets of their neighborhood. {Please note: I won't post all of those images here as there is so much misinformation on the internet but I've added one from a tweet below.)




I know there are hundreds of stories of unsung heroes in our country doing what is right regardless of race, political stance, gender identification, religion or citizenship. 

My mind is still reeling from the fact that it had to take a crisis for Americans to lay down their differences and exemplify the good in all of us. 

Watching people come together for Hurricane Harvey victims showed me that the solution begins with me. It's simple. We choose to help without bias or agenda. 

With all the gofundme pages and internet scams flooding our social media feeds it's difficult to determine which organizations are legit. Many are reluctant to donate to companies wondering if their money will be used appropriately. I get it. 

Of course, there is always the American Red Cross. [Update: Since I published this blog post several reports came out on why donating to the Red Cross is not a good idea. https://www.vibe.com/2017/09/houston-council-member-blasts-the-red-cross/]

But Brene Brown brought up a need I never thought of. Underwear. I had one of those ah-ha moments when I saw her video on her Facebook page. I include the video below that has a link where you can donate underpants for those displaced from Hurricane Harvey. 



Let's talk underwear! #realtalk #Harvey
Here are three ways to give NEW (still in package) underwear. Please keep in mind that we need a variety of sizes for men, women, boys, and girls, including XXL.
2. Collect new, packaged underwear and mail it to the address below. It’s our local Hillel and they are collecting for us. This is a really great neighborhood or school project. If you’re purchasing, we recommend Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. UFE doesn’t process or give out anything but underwear!
Undies for Everyone
1700 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX 77005

[Disclaimer: I'm not paid by Brene Brown to advertise. I'm posting this because she presented a need not many of us think of and one I know is not a scam.]

As I write this another hurricane is on its way toward Puerto Rico. Hurricane Irma is touted to be a Category 3 storm and I can't begin to imagine the devastation it will cause. 

When we are not living in the midst of disaster and experiencing trauma it's easy for us to become ambivalent to those who are. In the past 10 years where I've fought against human trafficking and volunteering for my causes I've heard numerous times, "You can't save the world. Focus on your own life. Help your family, instead." 

While that may be true and I do help my family when they are in need I can't pretend to be blind to the plight of others less fortunate than my family. From my years of volunteering for various causes I've seen that any help, big or small, makes a difference. 

I encourage you to do your part as I am with mine. If the organizations I recommended above doesn't sit well with you then I ask that you research to see which ones are not scams. 

We are all one. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Father's Day Reflection

Father's Day will never be the same. It will always be tinged with weirdness. For me, at least. 

Last year my dad passed away the day before Father's Day. Leave it to him to make sure our memories of him wouldn't fade. 

Tomorrow, my family will get together to pray for him and celebrate his life in the only way he would appreciate. Food! 

Grief is funny in that it can be a friend and nemesis at the same time. A friend when it brings comfort in the long forgotten memories that come in unexpected moments. A nemesis when the pain of loss slashes through the core in the most inopportune times.

Times when an Access van driving by can trigger an unceasing torrent of tears in the middle of a grocery parking lot. A nondescript white van with black letters can now cause an avalanche of memories filled with my dad transported in his wheelchair to and from his countless doctors appointments. 

I'm no stranger to grief. But when it's attached to a parent it reaches a new level only those who've reached it understands. 

When my boyfriend's mom passed away I told him grief has no expiration date. I didn't urge him to move on as I know everyone processes grief differently. 

Worse than grief is its Siamese twin---guilt. One cannot exist without the other. 

There are two kinds of guilt that accompanies grief. The first one is when you regret what you never did or said while your loved one was alive. The second one lies in the present when guilt plagues you for enjoying life as if moving on was wrong or untimely. 

My guilt falls in the latter. 

Should I be more miserable? Sad? Depressed? Distraught? Angry? Inconsolable? 

These are the tormenting thoughts of my guilt. 

In the weeks before my dad passed away he expressed his unhappiness numerous times. When he took his last breath I told him, "You're free now, Dad." Knowing that my dad is finally free from his weakened and diseased body he hated so much serves as a reminder to live my life to the fullest. Every day. 

Oftentimes, I lose patience with my mom. It's in these trying moments when the guilty thoughts run amok like a mosh pit at a punk concert. 

I've realized this past year since my dad's been gone that grief and guilt don't go away. They're either crazy in your face or hibernating for the winter but their existence is inescapable. 

Meditation and prayer are always my saving grace but more so this past year. It is in the stillness when I acknowledge the two Gs and let them be. It is in the silence when I accept their presence in my life without giving them power to consume me. It is in the solitude when I can release myself from their oppression. 

Today and onwards, I commit to living my life with gratitude (the all-powerful G), to let my people know I love them and to respect my elders. This is what my dad was trying to convey my whole life except I refused to listen. 

Happy Father's Day to all the dads and single moms! May we always listen with our hearts beyond the pride and anger. 

[To read the last installment of my photo project please head over to my photography blog here.]

Friday, March 31, 2017

Birthdays and My Dad's Legacy


I used to hate celebrating my birthdays. Every year my boyfriend and family stressed out knowing I would go through the same rant about why birthdays sucked. 

Why did they suck? It's not that I was afraid of growing older. Or, that I wanted to pretend I was still 21. To me, celebrating birthdays after 25 seemed pointless and no one felt me on this. 

The last three years before my dad died he was adamant about having a party for his birthday. And to be honest, I was irritated about organizing and preparing one. My selfishness knew no bounds and I hid my irritation without success. I remember my dad smiling, laughing, and clapping loudly in his wheelchair while we all sang Happy Birthday to him. I remember singing along, thinking, "I don't get it. But whatever..." I know, I'm a selfsih P.O.S.

A month before he passed away, when he was lucid enough to communicate, he repeatedly said he wasn't happy. We knew the end was coming. He knew it was imminent. Yet, he couldn't tell us the reason behind his unhappiness when we asked why he wasn't happy. I chalked it up to him always being unhappy. My dad was never the fun-loving, laughing, full-of-life kind of human being. 

Expressing his unhappiness meant he was being himself. I interpreted it as "I'm not happy I'm dying and leaving mom in your inadequate hands." Our lives were consumed with making sure he was comfortable while he was in and out of the hospital that we never had time to delve into why he was unhappy. I mean, he was dying, who would be happy?

This year, when my birthday month loomed ahead, I couldn't contain my excitement. While my boyfriend was heading on his monthlong Philippines adventure my birthday month promised 30 days of silence and solitude. I scheduled and planned every day of March before he left for the Philippines. 

On this last day of March I look back and thank my dad for his legacy. I finally got it---the reason why he celebrated his birthday in full effect. He knew he didn't have long to live. My dad knew that every year that passed meant he was closer to leaving us. 

To my family's surprise I asked them to help me celebrate my 49th birthday this year. Actually, shock accurately described their reaction. 

I wanted to celebrate every single day of my birthday month. I wanted to do things I normally wouldn't do. I wanted to spend my actual birthday without hearing or dealing with adult matters. I finally understood why LIFE should be celebrated and lived as if every day were an adventure. 

Watching my dad die did that. And it's still a mystery to me why some of us wait for a loss or tragedy to finally see the beauty in celebrating life in all its messy glory. I'm grateful for this second chance to live my life in appreciation for the gift that it is. As I celebrate my last year in my fourth decade I can say it's already a great one as I unapologetically live it according to what makes ME happy. 

I mean, why waste precious time doing things that make us unhappy? Why lie on your deathbed telling your loved ones about your unhappiness? 

Below are some pictures from my thirty days of silence, solitude, self love and self care. My boyfriend is back home but I intend to continue the momentum of what my birthday month manifested. It sounds cliché but happiness is my choice. No one holds that power but me. And every day in the middle of the messiness I choose H A P P Y. 

Live life while you have it.
Life is a splendid gift-there 
is nothing small about it.
~Florence Nightingale


I started my birthday month
seeing Gabby Bernstein live
at Wanderlust, Hollywood. 

Spent some much-needed time
with my seester whose birthday
happens to be a week from mine.

These creative kids helped me celebrate my
no-adult-no-adulting birthday. Their
photography inspires me to
get out of my comfort zone. 

My rolldog, Crystal. She introduced me
to the Detour app and we did a walking tour
of L.A.
The birthplace of Noir. 

The Bradbury Building. The last stop
in The Birthplace of Noir


I've always wanted to go check out wineries and
see what all this wine tasting was about.
So I asked my fave familia to help me. 


My mom, my spawns and Grandkid #1
celebrating my birthday at Steelcraft in Long Beach. 























Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Double Reflections

I don't want to miss your birthday, he said. 

My boyfriend was coordinating his schedule to return to the Philippines for a month and it happened to be my birthday month. I gazed at him across the table with wide eyes. 

GO! Are you kidding me? GOOOOO!, I almost screeched in the restaurant. 

It wasn't as if he was "abandoning" me on my special day. I saw it as a gift! A gift of what I started calling on Twitter as, "my 30 days of silence and solitude." Eight days into it and it has been a beautiful present. 

Days before he left he joked that I wasn't going to miss him being that I scheduled my entire month solid less than 24 hours after he booked his trip. It's not that I don't miss him. I've NEVER had 30 days to myself! 

That's 30 days to practice self-love and self care. It's the intention I set for 2017. No interruptions during my morning meditation. No T.V. noise as soon as I wake up. I could unplug from the idiocy that is called the U.S. president. 

There was no hesitation in buying a ticket for the event when an email in my inbox listed Gabby Bernstein's speaking schedule and one of them was in Hollywood on March 5th! Her books sustained me last year during my dad's sickness and death. I did her meditations and practiced mindfulness. I don't think I would have survived those months without her guidance. 


I woke up on Sunday morning with barely contained excitement. After meditating, praying, and writing in my journal I knew it was going to be a good day. There was barely any rain and by the time I reached Wanderlust Hollywood it was a beautiful afternoon in L.A. 

There were mostly women in line with me waiting to get into the venue. While I stood there listening to the conversations around me I realized Gabby has touched and inspired us all in different ways. We were all seeking truth into breaking free from fear, accepting ourselves with love, healing from our brokenness. 

For me, Gabby opened my eyes to a God bigger than I ever knew. An infinite source of love, healing and power. She's no prophet but a messenger. I'm not new to the "choose love over fear" mindset because the Bible encourages us to do so. But Gabby's books delivered it in such a way that it embedded itself deep into my heart. It wasn't just a concept but a way of life. 

Her talk on Sunday afternoon was on Undoing The Ego. The dratted ego in all of us who sabotages our mental and spiritual progress

She guides us to
  1. Expose the Ego and be aware of it. 
  2. Choose again. Choose differently when our thoughts and actions are not aligned with peace. We pray, "I choose to see peace instead."
  3. Give it away. Let it go, basically. Pray and ask for our thoughts to be reorganized or taken away.
  4. Get aligned. Success always comes with ease and we should ask ourselves, "how aligned I am with God?" This new alignment creates a new reality because vibes speak louder than words. Move into a place of appreciation. 
  5. Joy increases our chances for success. Success is about being. Be authentic, appreciative, joyful. "Be so lit up by the work." 
  6. Instead of running from our shame, acknowledge it. Witness it. 
Last year when I read her book, Spirit Junkie, I learned to acknowledge my feelings instead of numbing myself which I'm an expert in. Her book came at the right time as it was during the months my dad was in and out of the hospital before he died. 

The biggest takeaway I had Sunday night was when a woman stood up to ask Gabby a question. In a wavering voice, on the verge of tears, this woman spoke about her husband who was not supportive in her work. She felt unsupported and unappreciated. What Gabby said to her made the entire room gasp. 

"He's mirroring back to you what you believe in yourself."  

Isn't that a difficult concept to swallow? Immediately the ego throws its hands in the air in defense. 

It's not the first time I've heard it as there are quotes in different variations that teaches this. The woman admitted she was plagued with self-doubt when it came to her work. 

BOOM

How do I apply that to my own life? I've had to ask myself when a certain person bugs the HELL out of me what is he/she mirroring back to me that I believe in myself? If you tell the ego to get lost and are open to the truth you'll be surprised at what you discover. 

I had a friend who was constantly talking mad trash about others in her life. So much so that it was because of her that I decided to have a "No-adult-no-adulting birthday." The hours I spent having dinner with her was tainted by my irritation at what she "vented" about. It's not that I didn't understand what she was going through in her home life, I just didn't want to spend hours dwelling on it. 

When I got home that night I caught myself in my acute irritation. I asked myself, "What is she mirroring to me that I believe in myself?It wasn't long before I received my answer. I was just as judgmental as she was and gossiped just as badly. Which made me delve deep inside myself to find out why I felt the need to talk trash and gossip. 

And so begins my birthday month. My 49th birthday will be here in 5 days and I know it takes work every day to make progress. 

I'm savoring every moment of every day of my 30 days of silence and solitude. My goal is to be a different person when Ray comes home. A better, enlightened version of me.

Thank you, Gabby Bernstein, for your message. May you always inspire with love and light.