Write your way out


Source: my fabulous Latinx Studies colleague Brian Herrera who is working on a project, the #ImWithUs Dichos. Some of his work is available to purchase.

you want to write a poem
but you don’t want to write a poem
because if you write a poem
then the floodgates open
and the rhythms make all your feelings
spill out.

i spend weeks training my students of poetry
to know that the speaker of the poem
is not the same as the writer of the poem
but you know if you write a poem
then the words will peel from you
and expose your innards.

you should know that some poems
tightly wrap up souls in words that fit together
like puzzle pieces.

you should know that other poems
unravel. That’s what worries you, I know. You might
tug at the ending of a phrase and discover
what you truly love
or what truly scares you.

you should know that writing poems
makes you consider language, hold it
in your palms and move it around your tongue
and push it to the roof of your mouth,
breathing in and out as the words take shape.

and when you breathe these words into being,
they will bear your design; snowflakes you have crystallized,
they will scurry through the cold air. They gather strength
in numbers. You could bury something with these words;
you could overwhelm a person with your beauty.

poetry is dangerous, you’re right.


Risky Business

Querido m’hijo:

You and I, we’re both risk-averse, careful people. I’ve known this was a quality of yours since you were 15 months old. You’d been cruising–walking around holding onto the edges of furniture–for several months. We’d wheedled and encouraged and used cookies as bribes, but you hadn’t dared let go. And then, at 15 months of age, you let go of our hands and walked across the entire driveway. You then plopped down with your hands up as if to say, “Yep! Knew I could!”

This poem is for us.


Risky Business

Risk aversion is the behavior of humans when exposed to uncertainty, which is operative pretty much always, since we can’t yet predict what’s coming or how and even futures that seem assured, like the picture eighteen-year-old me had of my forty-year-old life, can’t be fully insured against failure. Life happens, and all that time you spent practicing how to drive does not mean you’ll never crash. We can make some futures more possible, but there’s always uncertainty, and sometimes we lose control because we cannot control all the variables.

I didn’t learn to run until I was thirty and then I couldn’t stop. What I love about trail running is the way that I am always on the edge of control and the variables are overwhelming. I have twisted my ankles and scarred my knees and banged up my elbows. This is not skydiving or bungee jumping; I churn my legs close to the earth and it refuses my mastery. I get knocked down and I get up again. Getting up again means limping, sometimes, means blood and dirt and feeling humbled. I am only a body. I am a body. I am my body and moving through this world. When I run, before I fall, I am swift and graceful and on joy.

If you avoid all risks you will never run.

Running is a metaphor.

Falling is not a metaphor. You will need to fall hard in life. Fall short. Fall down. Fall in love. I am here to tell you that when you take risks, you can get up again. Break your heart. Fall apart. Move through this world. Take your chances. Speak up. Say what’s in your heart. Stand for what you believe. Invest in the world. Love and guts are renewable resources. You can’t know the future, but you can believe in today, in this today when you are brave and loving and know that you can run.


Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Querido m’hijo, mi cielo,

Wow. It has been too long since I sat down here and wrote you a letter. Partly this is so because it’s summer and, with its leisurely pace, we’ve actually managed to sit down and have some good conversations in person. And partly this is so because it’s summer and, with its glorious weather, we’ve been busier and then, when home, more tired.

Today I felt the need to write, though. I was listening to another Beatles song (“All You Need is Love“), trying to get my mind off of the daily news, and then I moved on to one of my favorite Beatles tunes, “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” which of course brought to mind our practice sessions as you learn how to drive stick-shift. Every time we get in the car you plug in your phone and put on instrumentals that I don’t know; more synth than acoustic, the music drones away in the background as you practice getting into first gear, first on level ground, then on an incline.

So you’ve been driving my car, with me always beside you. I know that someday I won’t be there, so I keep on trying to give you “thing big” lessons as you practice. “The most important skill is defensive driving!” “Keep your eyes moving and be aware of other vehicles, and bicyclists, and pedestrians.” “The best drivers are like chess players, they think several moves ahead.” I don’t even know why I said that. I don’t know how to play chess. But I know that you’re an analytical thinker, and it helps you to be able to think through it like a logic puzzle.

It took you a full practice session before you could consistently get into first without stalling. You’d try, fail, then stop and wait. I’d see the wheels turning in your head, and then the questions would come. “How does the clutch work?” “So how long, exactly, should I hold my foot on the clutch?” “Which foot moves first, and how quickly?” There were no precise answers for any of these (well, there is for the first one, but I didn’t know it); you knew and I knew that this drive to analysis was important, but irrelevant. Letting your body feel its way toward the balance of clutch and gas…it was just going to take time and practice.

We’ve since moved onto higher order difficulties: how does one drive a 2500 lb car in this fragile world? How do we take ours and others’ lives into our driving hands? Essentially, you are asking me how you can learn to trust yourself with this incredibly powerful tool.

Adulthood. There are no easy answers I can give you. We wander clumsily into the world with all sorts of powerful tools, from the material ones like cars and money to the abstract ones like love and friendship; you don’t get through life without hurting people around you, whether you want to or not. I surely hope that the pain you leave in your wake is minimal. And it’s important for you to learn all sorts of skills, from driving to communication, to make that more possible. But when you do leave behind something or someone broken, don’t forget or paper over your mistake. Own it. Help pick up the pieces in some way or another.

In the end, m’hijo, know yourself so that you can trust yourself with this incredibly powerful tool. Know what your blind spots are so that you remember how to check them. Know what maneuvers or events you’re most fearful of so that you steel yourself and push through. Know when you get tired or annoyed so that you can choose to get out from behind the wheel and take a nap or choose to turn on music or air that will help you focus. Good drivers are predictable drivers, you know. Practice until you are predictable and until you are ready for others to surprise you. And then practice some more.

Your caution and care as you practice tell me that you will grow to be a good driver. And if you bring this caution  and care to all the other incredibly powerful tools you will wield in your life? Well, you will be a good citizen, neighbor, partner, parent.

M’hijo, you can drive my car…and baby I love you.

What these should not be


This is the dread meta letter. To be fair, you probably knew it was coming. You know I am a person much driven into meta: not just the what and the how, but the messy whys. Face value is never enough.

For this project, I knew there were routes I wanted to avoid. This set of letters to you is not meant to be prescriptive or didactic. I worried that if I took either of those roads I’d end up boring you to tears or, worse, resistant and pissed off. I also knew that what I wanted to try to do was to leave space for dialogue. I think that’s why I’ve ended up dwelling in some of our past conversations and then building through them. In other words, these are not advice letters. I guess they’re more like “getting to know you” letters.

I don’t know what that will always look like, so I hope you’ll be patient. One thing that you know, too, about me is that I love words. You belong to a family who loves words, and we love them fiercely, watching words shimmer as they cross borders and reappear, meaning similar but not same. A moonstone is also a piedra luna and that means the same thing but feels very different. Moon and luna rhyme, they do, but only when you shear the ‘a’ off luna and make the Spanish ‘u’ match the American ‘oo’. So close. But no cigar.

Your families have long histories of word-loving. Your great grandmother Gela wrote verses that she would recite to all the cousins (your own Abi’s cousins, that is). Her sister, my tía abuela Amalia, wrote short stories and was well-respected in the Jalisciense literary scene. Your great grandmother Peggy studied literature; she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1939 writing a dissertation on J.M. Synge. Then I grew up in houses–many of them; we moved more often than you have–and each of them boasted bookcases crammed with books. I was the kind of kid who always had her nose stuck in a book but, to be fair, so did your Abu and Abi.

Loving words and the journeys they take us on —fuera de sí but also, of course, down into oneself–means that I feel comfortable telling you that I don’t know how these letters will turn out. I don’t have a map. You have to trust words, and listen hard to the stories they tell. Words carry large suitcases of past meanings and uses; we carry around those words and, in turn, have our own private suitcases of meanings, uses, inside jokes. Like maybe I will always call you by your pet name and maybe if I slip and say “buddy” instead, you will always get play mad.

It really does come down to having all sorts of words inside me that I’m burning to share with you. I remember when I first learned the word ojalá –it was the most perfect word I could imagine (I must have been ten, but maybe younger). It meant “I hope,” but with no trace of the subject who was hoping. It meant “if only,” but it had the open vowels of expectation. I didn’t know back then that it came from Arabic, and of course this new-to-me knowledge makes it an even more perfect word, a traveling word that, at least in my Spanish, had lost all of its religion but kept all of its faith. It’s a single word that cows verbs into the subjunctive and, honestly, I think we’re a world so very in need of the subjunctive right now. For a good year, I think I used ojalá for everything. “Ojalá que llueva!” “Ojalá que no haya escuela mañana.” “Ojalá hubiera pensado en eso.”

When I lived in Germany, I latched onto the world genau with a similarly unreasonable grasp. Putting ojalá and genau side by side is jolting: one dreams, the other assents. Genau, the way my 20-year-old self learned it, was a nodding head in response to someone else, a vigorous, “exactly!” (Apparently Germans often use genau as filler, just like we use “like.”) Genau helped me fill spaces in conversations when I didn’t trust my other German words. I was just nodding, but I was doing it with a hard ‘g’ and a lilt.

You belong to a family who loves words. Sometimes we gather them up and polish them so that we can see the bands of color; sometimes we lick them with our tongues to judge how salty they are and where they came from; sometimes we warm them up in our palms and hand them to someone else who will appreciate the heat. You are surrounded by our word collections and we tumble them around you, hoping that you will appreciate how rich we are, how very rich we are, surrounded by so many words from so many worlds that mean so much to us.





Sad boy and your words

Explanatory note: I thought this project would be a lot of poems and instead it’s turning into a bunch of maudlin letters. Oh well, I’m just going to lean into it.

Querido m’hijo, you have probably already figured this out, but I just want to make it explicit and direct: I love our conversations. Sometimes we do absurdist bits, all nonsense and bombast with both of us trying to outdo the other; sometimes we’re reviewing the day’s news and exclaiming angrily at the world; occasionally we’re talking about dreams and fears and hearts. And every stage, every year brings a new word or phrase that you share, that I need to learn by echoing you, by using it even when I’m not sure what you mean.

In a funny way, this began when you were a toddler. You wouldn’t just mimic our words with toddler declensions–like when “gol” becomes “dol” or “bravo” becomes “bavo”–no, you would also declare your own language that was mostly impenetrable: “baydo,” “patete,” or, one of my favorites, “no?”–that, when accompanied with a shrug we could figure out stood for “I don’t know.”

School and friends brings a different sort of new language; when you share the words with me, I know you’re sharing these worlds with me, helping me see the contours of your map. One of my recent favorites is “dank meme.” I don’t think I ever really quite understood it the way you did, but I sort of did. Enough, anyway.

Recently you’ve been using the phrase “sad boy.” I’m not sure where it came from, but there’s no “happy boy” that pairs with it. It stands alone. It’s a phrase that comes out when you’re pointing to something hard and sad and emotional. I don’t remember the first time I heard you say it, but I remember the most recent time: when we listened to Dear Evan Hansen together. [1] We were listening to Ben Platt (as Evan Hansen) sing “For Forever,” a song that sings a friendship that never existed into being. With his words, Evan is rewriting his own lonely life for Connor’s parents, after Connor’s suicide. It is a song that pretends to remember happiness when it actually dances around all sorts of sadness: of loss, of loneliness, of love never experienced. You turned to me and said, “sad boy.” It was all you could say; we both had tears in our eyes. All I could do was wrap my arms around you and squeak out, “his parents!”

“Sad boy” is such an understatement. It’s not just an understatement; the phrase doesn’t even cover the amount of ground it needed to. Sad boy? Sad boys. Sad boys–becoming-men. Sad parents. Sad moment. Sad families. Devastated. Overwhelmed. Undone. Unraveled. Despondent. Sad boy. But in its imperfections, yours was also such a perfect statement, m’hijo. How in the world can words ever fully recognize and circumscribe such complicated emotions? “Sad boy.”

You are the same age as Evan Hansen is. You are also just a boy, though you are also on your way to becoming a man. Do sad boys get to be sad men? Will you be as kind to yourself as you are to this sad boy we’re listening to?

Me, I couldn’t even name an approximation of my feelings: “His parents!” But when we looked at each other, I knew that there was something about this clumsy communication–the bluntness and inadequacy of “sad boy” and the strangled cry of “his parents!”–because we break down sobbing.

We arrived at no words through clumsy words. And when we were with no words, I felt so very close to you. I could glimpse the sadness you felt through Evan and I knew you could get a sense of the sorrow I felt through Connor’s parents. There, in that moment–and also now, forever, in this letter–I think we trusted each other with this messy sadness: of Dear Evan Hansen, but also of life.

You know, and I know that you know, that I am holding my breath as you prepare to jet away, under your own steam, in a little less than a year. If I breathe too rapidly, too loudly, you will fall away from me much too quickly, and I could not bear that. I know, and you know that I know, that you are eager to fly away and, let’s be honest, you’re ready to leave.

When the time comes, I’ll breath a sigh out and say … well, I’m not sure what words we’ll use then. We’ll need a new language for a new world.



[1] I told you so!

Anybody Have a Map

I’ve been listening to “Anybody Have a Map” on repeat the last few days. Sung by two different mothers in Dear Evan Hansen, they both exclaim in frustration, “I can’t find my way to you…I’m making this up as I go.” And when you and I, m’hijo, watched videos of DEH the morning of your trip, we both sobbed when these mothers and fathers worry about their kids–about their inability to completely, wholly take care of their kids.

A lot of early life felt very mapped: elementary school, high school, college, and then, in my case, grad school. I know that figuring out where you want to go to college is the big unknown right now, but it is an unknown destination (X) within a set of pre-mapped options. That choice is daunting (because choice in general is daunting), but, believe me, it’s manageable. And you will be ok no matter where you go. So it might not be until you finish college that you hit the big moment where you’re having to look beyond the edges of the map that you’ve been given and start figuring out where and how to trace in the roads and sketch out the obstacles. For me, writing the dissertation was when I hit my first big “oh my god you mean I have to decide what this is all means?” moment. But the second, and more long-lasting time, was when I had you. No parenting book, no parenting friend can ever really prepare you for all of the in-the-moment decisions along the way. And those small decisions often feel like they have the potential to have resounding, permanent impact.

I could regale you with stories of how scary and thrilling it is to be a parent, to not know how to do any of this, and still carry on. They’d all be true. Parenting, seen in this lens, is some sort of endurance exercise, a series of acts of faith, taken on because I have to believe that the wrong turns I take mean less than the moments when I get it right. And my instinct to protect you from the world–from its arbitrary and intentional cruelties–is fierce. So I still remember the day that I broke down, sobbing; it’s not important why, what’s important is how I sat out on the back steps to cry, not wanting you to know and not wanting to make you feel responsible for my grief. You were younger than you are today, but not that very young.

You found me anyway, and you wrapped your arms around me and you said, “It’ll be ok.”

M’hijo. For days after that moment, I kicked myself. I felt like I failed as a mother. It shouldn’t be your job to take care of me. Finally a friend took my hands in hers and said, “You’re being a great mother. He’s learning how to be vulnerable and how to take care of people from you. He’s learning it’s ok to cry.” Yes. And you also were learning that we are stronger when we take care of each other.

Day by day you’ll notice that the firmly-drawn lines of the map you have fade; you’ll need to go outside those expectations and take roads you can’t have anticipated. So will I. We’ll both be figuring out what it means to be strong together even as you leave our back steps and jet out into the world.

Under pressure, we come out singing

We were on our way up to the theater last weekend–to watch Rent -oh my heavens how much do I love that you enjoy musicals the way that I do! [1]–and you plugged your iPhone into the car’s USB port, just like any other time that we spend time in the car together. Tunes start to filter into the air and, just as we merge onto the freeway, Queen’s “Under Pressure” begins.

I learned several years ago–you must have been 11 or 12–that we would have our best conversations in the car. I think this is one of those side-effects of teenagering. If we sit across a table from each other doing something as threatening as eating a meal together, silence will reign. But the car provides an intimate canopy for conversation, facilitated by the fact that we are both looking ahead at the road and the traffic (not at each other), figuring out where we’re going and why. I remember one evening in particular a few years back; we were doing a mom-son book group that summer and you’d wanted..I’d wanted?…one of us wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird. And so we did. On the way home from the lake and the fireflies and the music hanging yet in the humid air, we talked about the scene that bugged us, the one where Scout is trying to make sense of Miss Gates who with one breath denounces Hitler and with the next vilifies and dehumanizes the African Americans of the town. Scout invites Jem’s help in figuring Miss Gates out; “Jem was suddenly furious. He leaped off the bed, grabbed me by the collar and shook me. ‘I never wanta hear about that courthouse again, ever ever, you hear me? You hear me?'”[2] I asked you what you thought; why did Jem get so angry, and at Scout? You said to me,”Mom, I get it, because sometimes you say something, and I get so angry and upset. And I know that what you said isn’t the thing that made me angry, but I can’t help myself.” There are many small moments like this that remind me of how self-reflective you are.

Singing in the car to the music that you choose is a fairly new phase in a long history of car journeys with you. I mean, I used to get to design our playlists. Do you remember that time we did a day trip to Minneapolis with Will and Natalie and I put on Taio Cruz and all of you started singing in the back seat? Or, heavens, I can still hear you all shouting along to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I’d try to sneak in my Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin tunes, but those were not compelling in the face of y’all’s bubble pop. But don’t get me wrong–I danced in my seat too.

Now you have playlists, including a long one on spotify called something like “good music oh yay” which ranges from The National to Hamilton, from Kendrick Lamar  to Twenty One Pilots, from Joy Division and Journey to The Killers, Bruce Springsteen, Pentatonix, Enrique Iglesias, BETSY. I think you get a kick out of introducing me to music. Clearly, though, you also get a kick out of showing me up, because the other day you opted to play someone else’s “greatest 80s” playlist and, I swear, you knew those songs about as well as I did. (Which means that we both knew about 25% of the lyrics, and had fun mumbling through the rest.)

“Under Pressure” came on as we drove towards the Orpheum to see Rent. You’ve been singing “Seasons of Love” for months now, and the tickets to Rent were a gift from me for your birthday in April. Rent is a rock musical that tackles the painful effects of the AIDS epidemic (it started on off Broadway in the early 1990s) in a society that persistently and insistently disenfranchises and marginalizes poor, queer, brown people.[3] It finds strength and voice in facing death, recognizing the unfairness–the social inequality–of mortality, and making love and art emerge from those ruins. As Mark says late in the musical, “The opposite of war is not peace; the opposite of war is creation.” It is also a musical of people under pressure and, as I watched the people on stage, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to “Under Pressure”:

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out

“Knowing what this world is about” is both this big existential crisis (a Sartrean cry of loneliness) but also–also also– a recognition of structural inequality: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. And Rent gets at the heart of all that: people on streets, people pushed out onto the streets. Also just like “Under Pressure,” Rent believes in love, in giving love ” one more chance.”

I don’t study musicals. I just love musicals. And I think that one of the reasons I love them so very much is because even as many (more than you might think!) confront pain, grief, destruction, social inequality, racism, classism, and sexism, the structure of musicals works toward redemptive finales, toward tentative resolutions. Powerful anthems and/or show-stopping numbers tend to close out shows. You don’t get soloists and ballads at the end; you get many voices, harmonizing. You get the collective, figuring out together what it means to move forward. You get the world after Hamilton dies, considering the meaning of the personal amidst the big sweep of History; you get all the friends, except Angel, remembering how Angel’s love and generosity transformed their possibilities; you get Evan Hansen writing to himself, with the company joining in, symbolically providing a community where before he felt alone; you get all the Alisons singing together in Fun Home as they “fly away.” “Look at me fly away!” Even the “quieter” musicals seem to demand redemption through some sort of collective process.[4]

Here’s the thing that I feel I know and that I want to share with you: singing together with people makes life and contentment and futurity feel more possible, no matter how you’re feeling before that gasp of air that precedes that moment when you join your voice to someone else’s. Here’s what I think you don’t know about me yet: I sang in church choir throughout my childhood, and what I loved the most were songs with soprano descants that I would float my way through, pretending that the harmonies emerged from my throat out of pure joy, not planning. When I got to college, I auditioned for a number of a cappella groups and got into the newest one at Stanford then, Everyday People. You know, I was never the biggest soloist. At the time, I really wanted to be and sometimes felt bad that I didn’t shine the way I wanted to. Now, I look back and realize how much I learned and gained from harmonizing and keeping beats and ooohing and aaahing around others’ voices.


The first definition of the word kinship is “blood relationship.” But the second definition is, broadly, “sharing characteristics”; the synonyms are words like “rapport,” “affinity,”  “harmony,” and “closeness.” M’hijo: singing with other people puts you in kinship with them. It makes you work with them towards a common goal–whether that’s having fun, sounding “good,” or something else entirely.

Screenshot 2017-06-12 10.40.07
You and I, we are kin in all these ways. We belong to each other. We sing together in the car, tripping over lyrics and laughing at each other; more often than not, we hit chords together and glance at each other in satisfied glee. Together, we make music that makes my face move into a smile before I even realize it.

I tell friends that I hear you singing all the time: in the shower, as you do your homework in the living room, as you make yourself breakfast. The house will be quieter when you go off to college. I’ll probably start singing all the time, trying to fill the air. So, just call me. As you fly away, whenever you’re under pressure,  when there are bridges you’ve burned, call me and sing with me. I’ll be there. Our love doesn’t fix the world. But it makes the work we need to do within that world seem that much more doable. I go out into the world every day hearing your voice in my heart; there is so much more inside me now.



1. Let’s say it started with Hamilton, since it is the first music we saw together. I never want to forget that for months–months–we sang along and learned the lyrics and absorbed as much Lin Manuel Miranda trivia that we could. Listening to Hamilton led to scouting out other musicals on spotify. Somehow you found Heathers and American Idiot. We went to NYC to see Hamilton with the help of a conference. Once there, we walked in and out of the Richard Rodgers theater as if in a dream; the older couple behind us remarked during the intermission, “heavens, how do people know what they’re singing? It goes by so quickly?” We giggled to ourselves because we knew how people do it because they were us: singing along to the soundtrack every time we got in the car. Hamilton is still a touchstone for us–a stage and experience that led to the joys of sampling, hip hop histories, other musicals, U.S. histories, discussions about democracy and slavery and the Continental Congress.
2. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 1960, 331.
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_%28musical%29
4. We each listened to all of Dear Evan Hansen on our own this week, after the Tony Awards.