I was supposed to be en route to Denver at this moment, but my visit was cancelled this morning. What relief! I had a very productive day and will not be flying at all this week, though Denver and San Francisco both await me next week. Thursday and Friday, I will be in Long Beach – easy breezy drive. Today, I thought I’d share some clarifications as well as some stories. Here it goes!
There are days where I look back at the beginning of it all and it seems surreal that the journey has led me here today. I was born in a city called Mayagüez in Puerto Rico. I was raised in a town called Moca (in the township of Aceitunas). I grew up in a small town where water and electricity were constantly turned off. There were empty acres of land with no end in sight. The ocean was a 10 minute drive away. Across the street, there were often cows and chickens roaming freely (the ones I often tried to befriend). When I wasn’t home, in my earliest childhood, I would spend time in my nanny’s house – the woman who took care of me. At her house, I would spend extensive amounts of time in her garden or attempting to talk to the fish in her tank. I’ve always been a little odd. Once I entered the school years, I spent a great amount of time with my grandmother. It is my belief that the time I spent with my nanny as well as the time I spent with my grandmother and maternal aunt in my early years became subconsciously crucial as I navigated difficult circumstances later in life. For those moments where I wanted life to end. In 1999, my parents decided to leave Puerto Rico and relocate to Rochester, NY.
Life in Rochester was hard. Not only did I have to acclimate to the near-the-Canadian border rough winters, but I suddenly found myself largely indoors, inside of a cramped apartment, without the social support system I had in Puerto Rico. My parents dove into their dogmatic and restrictive fundamentalist religious beliefs which became the foundation for severe dysfunction. Looking back now, I understand that they felt lonely and isolated. When people feel lonely and isolated, they become prey to fundamentalist claims of certainty no matter how bizarre those beliefs may actually be. Feelings of loneliness and isolation coupled with both of their severe trauma backgrounds – creates the hell of a family dynamic cocktail. I’d like to make it clear that while I don’t have deep emotional connections with neither of my parents in the present day, I check in on them at least weekly (on my mother daily) to ensure that they’re ok. Given the realities they lived and endured, they’re nothing less than superheroes. They spent their entire lives in what Brené Brown refers to as the arena fighting the good fight in the best way that they knew how. My parents were the first people that I had to learn to forgive. By learning how to forgive them, I also received my first lesson in unconditional love.
Due to the dysfunctional environment at home, I became obsessed with getting the perfect grades, become involved in every extracurricular endeavor I could get my hands on, found acceptable excuses to go less to a church that I felt I didn’t belong to, started sleeping less, and developed an eating disorder. I still remember the first time I decided to go on a long-term fast. It had nothing to do with body image (eating disorders are not about body image, they’re about control). It was my hope that if I didn’t eat for long enough, I would die and wouldn’t have to live at home. In 2006, the National Science Foundation (NSF) became my saving grace when they gifted a researcher at the University of Rochester a grant to hire talented high-school students as research assistants. In 2006, I began my career in research. This was the beginning of many, many years of grant-based research work for me (aka job insecurity, though it did help me build the hell of a CV). It was also the ticket to my freedom.
At 17, I was accepted in the Rochester Early Medical Scholar Program and made my way to the University of Rochester. I left home for good. Once at the University of Rochester, not only did I have to manage my academics and my budding research career, but I was suddenly introduced to the world of possibility: there was sex, drugs, alcohol, friendships, and a dizzying amount of freedom I didn’t know what to do with. What was I supposed to do when someone outside of myself didn’t control every second of everyday on my behalf? How was I supposed to manage it? As difficult as it was to navigate, every bit of me loved it: I was allowed to say that I loved gay people, and that I supported abortion, and that I thought people could do whatever they very well pleased without being reminded of my worthlessness, without being beaten, without being condemned, without being told I was going to amount to absolutely nothing in this lifetime. I met new friends (that later became my chosen family) and they supported me – they gave me hugs, invited me to fun events, told me I was smart and pretty and never beat me nor exhibited episodes of explosive and destructive rage. It was different with them. I didn’t have to spend the majority of my time examining and analyzing their body language in order to gauge how they felt – to determine if I needed to protect myself from physical danger. With them, I felt happy and free. Being around my chosen family felt like being in Theory of Knowledge class – a class I had taken in high school (for two years), which was taught by a fascinating woman named Juliet Rice. Ms. Rice was the first adult in my life that not only taught, but encouraged me to question everything. Along the same lines, came Mr. Moellering whom further emphasized the importance of curiosity and the inquisitive mind for success in life. By the time I made my way to Professor Brooks classes, I had been given permission to question. Yet it was Professor Brooks who gave me the license to fully engage with all life had to offer. These 3 teachers along with Professor Brown have been some of the most impactful adult presences in my life.
My dysfunctional background often led me to find myself in equally dysfunctional romantic connections. That’s a story for another day. This post is about my career trajectory. After my NSF grant work, I found project after project after project that was grant-funded. For those that are unfamiliar with grant-funded research work, here’s a quick crash course. Some governmental agency gives an institution and/or researcher some dollars for some kind of research for a period of time (ie. 6 months, 1 year, 2 years). After that time period is over, so is your grant. Time after time, I would find a position, gain a tremendous amount of experience and end up right at square one. There was a little voice inside of me that guided me not to give up. My quest for grant research work led me to New York City (where for a period of time I worked at Columbia University’s Medical Center) as well as to Washington, DC (where for a period of time I worked on research at American University).
From a reader’s perspective, that doesn’t sounds all bad. Good for me! It all worked out. Well, that may be because I’m leaving out some details.
I don’t want her to have the freedom of having a car. I want to know where she is at all times. (Words my father told my uncle). I bought my first car in 2012. It was a 1999 Honda Civic. It was an $800 junkyard find that got the job done. I drove that little thing until the transmission went out. Our stories reside in the details. Like the number of nights I slept in my little car in the dead of winter. Or the semester where I went to school full-time and worked full-time and lived in complete isolation from society. There was the time where I lived in Manhattan and all of my money went to rent. At the time my meals consisted of a 69 cent bagel every other day. I would save my money and my best friend Matt and I would sometimes go get $3 dim sum on Canal St. (Chinatown). Life in New York was hard, but it was exciting. There was the 1 and A train express to the 168th street for Columbia’s Medical Center and trips to Flushing on the 7. You never realize the magic of an express train until you’re stuck on a local running on little sleep. As sleep deprived and skinny as I was while living in New York, there was always one thing or another that would make it worth while; and that little voice within – the one that asked me to hang on, to forge forward – better days were coming. My life in DC wasn’t that much different. I survived off of 1 PB & J sandwich a day. My roommate (Matt’s best friend from high school) had a really good friend whom was an incredible cook and would feed us from time to time. Amidst the lack of life security (and no safety net in sight), I experienced a great deal of emotional and sexual trauma which I will not expand on in this post. There were major losses along the way that constantly left me gutted and took my breath away. And yet all in all, that little voice within, asked me to carry on.
I am forever grateful for the angels I met on the path: Ivanna, Sara, Matt, Elise, Cmack, Jalon, Quinlan, Liana, Jaisen, Kathlyn (and crew), Tony (and Jon!), N. Trabold, Librada, E. Poleschuk. I. Juskiewicz, Shirley, C. Field, C. Weaver, K. Helles, Tracy, Nick, and many more whom I’m forgetting. Each one of you were my saving graces and sources of divine interventions in moments when I thought it was all done (or where I was ready to end it). Each of these people believed in me when I could only focus on my worthlessness and my shortcomings – when I could only focus on what I had learned. And now after years of therapy, I have learned to give myself credit too. Credit for listening to that little voice within that asked me not to give up regardless of the circumstances. The voice of my heart. There were a million and one ways my upbringing affected me negatively. I acknowledge those. I have worked and continue to work on healing those. Yet, I’d like to highlight (as I’ve mentioned on this blog plenty of times before) – all shadows come with light counterparts and companions. You want to know something my parents did do right? They taught me how to stay in the arena.They taught me to show up. They taught me to navigate the unknown by navigating a culture drastically different than their own. They taught me to endure ridicule – for their accents and the way they looked – brown and poor. They taught me how to get up and show up even when all they could afford were clothes from Family Dollar, food from Save-a-Lot/Aldi, and could barely pay for heating for the apartment. They taught me how to become resourceful when their little junkyard Suzuki would give up in the midst of winter on the way to church. They taught me to stay the course, to listen to the relentless little voice inside that presented the possibility of a better tomorrow.
Today, I live a very different life from the life I once lived. It’s far more secure. Far more comfortable. I’ve traveled far and wide. I own reliable and aesthetically pleasing things. I shop at organic food shops. I live in a nice neighborhood in North County San Diego. I can go to different fitness studios. I have friends and connections in all walks of life. And I have the privilege of earning more money than both of my parents combined, so if they ever need practical support (besides me helping them navigate American bureaucracy), I can be there on their behalf. My life certainly hasn’t been easy. I wasn’t “dealt” a fair hand, but you want to know something? That’s precisely what made me into a force to be reckoned with. I didn’t turn out the way I turned out because I’m some super special creature with killer work ethic that makes no excuses. That’s a fucking myth. I turned out this way because life was fucking hard. Because I failed. Because I made plenty of excuses and surrendered to the demons of defeat and somewhere inside of me my spirit found the courage to try again, to take one more breath, to stay in the arena. I’m here because I took a bunch of little steps, some risks, with a dash of luck, a bunch of journey angels, and the hell of a lot of divine intervention. In one of the Professor Brooks classes, he once ended it by saying, “The universe doesn’t care about fair. The universe is indifferent.” The universe responds to action, to courage – to those that are willing to lean into the possibility of just one more breath when everything else seems to have collapsed. It is often in that one breath that we find the infinite.
There were a few times in this post where I mentioned the concept of a hopeful relentless voice. I’ve identified that voice, as the deep part of me that not only craved, but knew I deserved love and belonging against all odds and experiences with plenty of contrary evidence. I’m currently reading Colin Bedell’s Queer Cosmos (if you’re interested in astrology – he’s worth the read! An astro-genius Gemini). While reading the book, I came to a halt when he began to describe the sign of Cancer. He says, “As I’ve said: no sign has a monopoly on merit. But only cancer can claim “belonging” as its home.” I am a Cancer Ascendant (also commonly referred to as the rising sign). Mr. Bedell beautifully defines the Ascendant as “Your Visibility and Representation: Since all luminaries, planets, and constellations rise and set in one twenty-four-hour day from your vantage point on Earth there is always one zodiac sign ascending on the easternmost horizon for approximately two and half hours until the day is complete…Think of your ascendant as your drag persona. Since it’s first impression we make on others, the ascendant is the universe’s first impression on our chart. It textures the entire birth chart – all of the other elements of our chart are expressed through this sign.” He continued by providing a definition of the knowingness or magic that an Ascendant in Cancer (like mine) possesses:
“Ascendant in Cancer: Moonlight shines from your heart. Ruled by this luminary, your first impression is magnetic, alluring, and felt deeply. When you walk into a room people know there’s a depth, a knowing, an enchanting quality that shines and resonates from your being. The same curiosity we have with the moon, people have with you – wondering both how and why you move around the world so differently. You teach the zodiac the answer, which is the power of following the path of your heart”. Cancer Ascendant, Queer Cosmos, Colin Bedell
Tonight, I sit in my bed. With my weighted blanket. My himalayan salt lamp. And an overwhelming feeling of home. I look back at the trajectory that has led me here and think of Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling. This Ugly Duckling finally found its home – it finally found a place to belong – and realized she has been a swan all along. Now that I have a solid foundation (as defined by Abraham Maslow), I’m excited to partake in the heroine journey that awaits. May both you and I always remember that regardless of where the journey takes us – home is in our heart – where we’ll always truly belong.
PS. A very special ‘Thank You’ to Dean Burns whom went out of his way to understand what was truly going on after my suicide attempt. After I told him my family backstory, he made a case for me needing to stay at the university and paired me with a mentor until graduation.