Saybrook University

To Those Who Want to Give Up

Sunset in Oakland, California

Earlier this year I took a course on Death, Loss, and Meaning in Existential Psychology. I assure you, it was as intense as it sounds.

It was also one of the greatest, most inspiring courses I have ever taken in my entire academic career — easily coming into my Top 3 favorite classes of all time. We dug deep within ourselves and each other. We questioned religion and our own belief systems. We wrestled with the notion that the Universe could care less about us when we care so much about ourselves. We questioned what it means to be happy. We questioned the value of suffering. We questioned the meaning of life and whether or not one’s meaning is the same as one’s purpose. Does meaning have to be meaningful? What if my meaning of life is different from your meaning of life? What if my purpose is destined to be hard? What if my purpose is different from how I find meaning? What if it won’t be fun? Is it even worth it?

And above all: Why me?

Ah, the million-dollar Hero’s Journey question. I often wonder what Martin Luther King Jr.’s response was. Or Odysseus’s. Or Amelia Earhart’s. Or Gandhi’s. Or Malala Yousafzai’s.

Today, the answers aren’t any clearer. But, I find comfort in the fact that I am not the only one to question. Nor will I be the last. This project is dedicated to all of us who ask “What’s the point?” May these words give you strength, lift you up, and remind you that where human life still exists, so does hope.

Blessings, friends.

Presentation Cover Image
Photo credit: Amelia Isabel

The Seal Pose of Creativity

Last week in my Dimensions of Creativity class,  we were asked “What is your creative process?” The following is my response.

There is an exercise in Pilates called the “Seal Pose,” where you begin by sitting on the tips of your sit bones as demonstrated in the picture below:

Pilates - Seal Pose

 [Photo credit: Marguerite Ogle as featured on About.com – Pilates]

As you engage your core muscles, you literally tilt your pelvis under ever so slightly and your whole body rolls back — like a big musclely beach ball, and the momentum of the movement and your abdominals propel you right back up to sitting. It is easily one of the most fun exercises in Pilates, reinvigorating your playful (and creative!) side. Sometimes, simply sitting in the prep position is good enough for me. Inner congratulatory dialogue going something like this:

Hooray! Look how strong I am that I can sit in this position and my tailbone isn’t screaming in agony! Hooray! Look at how my abs are engaged so they can support me, and I look so beautiful doing it, I could be on the cover of a fitness magazine! Hooray! Does everyone see how awesome I look? I can just stay like this and not have to do a damn thing more! 

However, having done this exercise many times, I am acquainted with the joy it brings just by finally LETTING GO and entrusting all that potential energy to tip me past the brink, giving myself the freedom to get caught up in the merriness of the movement.

As illustrated in Rollo May’s The Courage to Create, in chapter two under “The Creative Process” section, he refers to a gentleman coping with escapist creativity. Escapist creativity “is that which lacks encounter” (May, 1975, p. 41). The young man knows he has the talent to be a great writer, but simply attaining that point of recognition after he’s done all the brainstorming, all the prep work, and even the full book outline in his head— stopping there is good enough for him. He simply resigns without writing a word, because just seeing the finish line is pleasure enough (May, 1975, pp. 41-44). I share in both his pleasure and his agony in that truncation. I, too, allow myself to get stuck just short of following through with many a project merely because having my potential recognized (either by myself or by others) is sufficient enough for me.

Growing up, my father always referred to me as the “Golden Girl” of the family. I’m the first born, and I’m also named after his mother. He recognized my creative talents at an early age. Most times just expressing a budding creative idea was thrilling enough for him, and he would shower me in praises and encouragement. Going through with the idea, of course, would earn me more recognition and even more praise. He, after all, was grooming me into the “better life” he wished he had. So, having received accolade no matter if I’m teetering or if I propel myself past the brink — this in-between space is where I really struggle in my creative process.

Just called my dad. He, true to form, praised me on my latest submission.

My creative abs are so weak.

Let’s take this blog post, which is a result of a writing prompt posted last week in my Dimensions of Creativity class. Our professor posed the question, “What is your creative process?” and I instantly knew I could write something brilliant in response. So, I readied myself up into the psychological prep position for “Seal Pose” and sat on my mental sit bones ever since. It is only right now, this moment, that I finally found my inner creative strength, engaged my intellectual core, and rocked myself into this assignment.

And what joy there is in being caught up in the flow of writing right now! I can’t be distracted. I don’t even want to look at Facebook or check my email or my text messages or my Instagram account or get a snack, because I’m in it. I’m rolling like a happy seal, content that I’ve finally done the assignment. This, my friends, is what May calls the encounter or the creative act or the “absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved […]. By whatever name one calls it, genuine creativity is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness […]. We become oblivious to things around us [including] time” (May, 1975, p. 44).

The creative act itself is so delicious and so life-affirming, I can’t understand why so many of us often choose to just settle in preparation. Maybe it’s fear of falling, of failing, of looking stupid, of getting hurt, of not being able to get back up again, of not being as strong as we think we are, of simply believing this is as far as I can go, this is all I am capable of.

To you, and to me, I say: just let go already.  

And the more we engage our creative core, the teetering will ease, the balance will come, and the joy will be infinite.

References

May, R. (1975). The Creative Process. The Courage to Create (pp. 41-44). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Ogle, M. (2006). Seal Prep. and Core Challenge. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:  http://pilates.about.com/od/pilatesmat/ss/Seal.htm

Washateria Identity: Through the Language Spin Cycle and Back

Inspired by Dr. Stephen Pinker’s interview on Thinking Allowed and Dr. Wade Davis’s TedTalk on Endangered Cultures, I wanted to explore the themes of language, consciousness, and identity in my own life. The result is the following piece I submitted to grad school.

A gay redheaded Jew from New York greeted the class on our first official day of college-level Spanish. Affectionately known as Donaldo by his students, Señor Wood looked like a GQ model, his yamaka matching impeccably to his perfectly pressed shirt. He sang opera, played the cello, the violin, the clarinet, the piano, the harp, and spoke five languages. As soon as class settled, he began his introduction. Out from his mouth flowed the most beautiful Spanish I’d ever heard. And I couldn’t understand a word of it. Once he finished, he cheerfully asked if anyone understood. A few students halfway raised their hands; the rest of us just stared back in paralysis. He turned to the class roster. I shrank in my chair as he reached my name. “Amelia Torres?” he chimed in flawless pronunciation – the same way I was accustomed to hearing only come from my parents. “Are you a native speaker?” he brightened. Lowering my gaze, I shook my head. Never had the reality of not being a native Spanish speaker hit me harder than in that moment.

Growing up with a Mexican father and a mother from Texas, I always knew I was supposed to speak Spanish fluently but never could figure out why I couldn’t. We moved from San Antonio to middle Georgia in the fourth grade, away from piñatas and breakfast tacos to the planet where macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable. “Of course, I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican!” I would tell my friends and managed to fake it all throughout my schooling, but only the Peruvian substitute in high school saw through my façade. I couldn’t speak it even if my life depended on it. A language is like a key to another door of opportunity; my father etched this phrase into my brain. He knew the importance of being bilingual, yet, he did not teach me Spanish, only spoke to me in simple phrases and accepted my English in return. How can I be Mexican if I can’t speak Spanish? Commence identity crisis.

So, when the flyer to study abroad in Costa Rica came across my desk later that semester, I knew the path to mending my identity would continue there. Equipped with my new fundamentals and my emergency kit of phrases from my father, I hiked my way through the language and into the mountains of Central America. I picked up several colloquialisms during my time there, like mejengear, which means to play a game of soccer or tuanis slang for “cool!”  I remember being so proud to share these words with my father, but he only criticized them. “That’s incorrect,” he would say. “Their Spanish isn’t correct Spanish.” Which led to me to think, how can this entire group of people be wrong? What is standard Spanish? And who gets to define what proper language is and what isn’t?

According to a discussion on Language and Consciousness with Dr. Steven Pinker (1994), he explains that language isn’t a static thing. Every generation – and culture, for that matter – will add its own nuances. Languages evolve much like plants and animals do. Pinker even mentions that Darwin credited observing the way languages change as a major influence in his research of species evolution: “You may have, say, a group of canine ancestors that got separated by a mountain range or by a river. [One] group got bigger; [one] group got smaller. Enough time passes, and [they become] different species, like a wolf and a fox.” The Spanish in the rural cloud forest of Costa Rica was just different enough from the metropolis of Mexico City for my dad not to fully accept the Spanish I was learning as español de verdad. And my father wasn’t the only one who chided these differences.

Guajolote? No, Amelia. The word for ‘turkey’ is pavo,” my Argentinean roommate corrected me. Two years after my Costa Rica chapter, I found myself in Brazil in the middle of preparing an American Thanksgiving dinner, when I listed off this particular menu item. I knew the word pavo, but I also knew that guajolote definitely meant “turkey” thanks to my father’s teaching.  Before I could defend my vocabulary, my Mexican colleague saved me and explained to the group that guajolote actually comes from Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Since the Aztecs inhabited what is now modern-day Mexico, Mexican Spanish speakers of today use these two words interchangeably. I realized in this exchange my unique position in this language. Because I learned through study and immersion versus growing up a native speaker, my Spanish began taking on its own shape influenced by the vernacular idiosyncrasies of my Ibero-American counterparts, who hailed from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile, Venezuela, and Peru. Though, my fellowmen would frequently correct me on what they deemed to be my improper use of certain words, I found more often than not that they couldn’t understand each other.

One evening my friends and I went out to a local bar. My Colombian friend tried to strike up a conversation with our new Spaniard co-worker. Quickly, they both got frustrated realizing they couldn’t understand what the other person was saying. They turned to me and asked, “Can you understand what the other is saying?” Without hesitation I replied, “Yes, because I understand español colombiano and español de España.”  My Spanish training had cast a wide net over the language and allowed me to tap into its universal root and understand them, much like decoders deciphering a faulty communication signal. Yet, still baffled, I thought how could two speakers of the same language not be able to communicate? A wolf may be a wolf, and a fox may be a fox, but they are still canines through and through. Right?

Dr. Pinker (1994) discusses this phenomenon, saying that within the same language, there are different dialects with their own sets of rules, grammar, and unique enunciations: “Each speaker becomes a listener […], and what tends to happen is [when] we listen to some other vernacular, we pick up on where they slur, and [where] we don’t, [and] we forget about where we slur and [where] they don’t. [Then] we think that they speak in a sloppy way.” Pinker cites the dialectal differences in English between the rural American South and the urban Northeast as examples, which made me remember my first trip to Boston. Like a typical tourist, I tried to order a pizza, but all I heard come from the guy behind the counter was one long harried ribbon of sound. I stared back. Did he just speak in English? I thought bewildered. Maybe I could relate to my Colombian and Spaniard friends after all.

My Spanish-speaking comrades and I would often discuss words that have different meanings depending on their country of origin. For example, the word chucho is considered a puppy in Guatemala. In Colombia, it’s a nickname for Jesús. In Argentina, it means chilly. If you’re in a chucho in Chile, then you’re probably in jail, and in Mexico, if people consider you clever, they may call you a chucho. The phrase “lost in translation” could very well originate from here.

But, what about my identity? I was also learning Portuguese in parallel with Spanish, which tremendously aided my communication with my international colleagues. Almost all spoke English, and at work, we often found ourselves in conversation triangles, which consisted of a Brazilian, a Latin American, and myself switching back and forth between each other’s native tongues without missing a beat. We coined this trilingual discourse Portuñonglish, the language grab bag of Português, Español, and English. During these exchanges, I was acutely aware of the way my mind translated the three languages, like DNA helixes raveling and unraveling and fusing back together into new strings of thought.

I read many articles on polyglots, and how with every language they attain, they feel as if a new old ancient part of themselves is being unlocked. A language is like a key to another door of opportunity. My father’s voice rang through my head again. I reveled in the new sensation of turning on and off languages like light switches, but I also was aware of something else: the further away I got from English, the shakier it became for me to go back to it. Words actually escaped me, scuttling away into the recesses of my mind as if I abandoned them. According to a National Geographic article entitled Vanishing Voices, certain cultures believe their mother tongue to be a seed of their identity. When a person learns a new language and stops practicing their root, their identity becomes lost (Rymer, 2012).

Was that what was happening to me? Was I focusing so much on gaining sense of my identity through another language that I had forgotten to embrace my mother tongue altogether? I had never even stopped to consider English as my mother tongue! But what about all the Spanish words I knew from infancy? Don’t those count? How could I be losing my identity when I didn’t even know who I was to begin with? Or was my fate to be like the polyglots and just keep expanding and expanding like the Big Bang? What happens when I can’t expand anymore? Would I just pop into nothing?

Of course I wouldn’t just pop into nothing. At the very least, I would stretch out like a rubber band as far as I could go before I snapped back.

My amorphous español provided no restitution. No matter how much I advanced, the Latin Americans would steamroll me if they couldn’t understand or if I took too long to respond. Yet, my Portuguese almost kept me from getting on a plane back the United States, because the customs agent didn’t believe that I wasn’t Brazilian. The scene from the movie Selena (Nava, 1997) came to mind, where her father rants about how hard it is to be a Mexican-American: “We have to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we have to prove to the Americans how American we are. […] Both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” This summed up my exact sentiments while living with my amigos latinos and even to a certain extent, speaking Spanish with my father.

And then, my metaphorical rubber band snapped back. Selena! A Tejana. A female Texan with Mexican roots. She also didn’t speak Spanish growing up. Her father taught it to her through song, and she became Queen of Tejano music. A part of my cellular structure always resonated with the Tejano culture. I danced ballet folklorico as a little girl but stopped when we moved to Georgia, because it didn’t exist in the Southeast. My friends could never relate to my love of spicy food or Latin music. I even believed the Spanish translation of laundromat to be washateria, much to the chagrin of my college classmates who barked with laughter at my answer. I had to Google a picture of a washateria to prove that it was a real thing. Only then did I realize that washateria is a colloquial word commonly used in Texas by Spanglish speakers. Spanglish: a hybrid of Spanish and English used by U.S. Latinos who live in two coexisting worlds (Gonzalez, 2001) – the exact limbo I’d been living in my entire life. Finally, it dawned on me: my quest was never about finding my identity; it was about understanding and appreciating where I came from.

After trudging all across the topography of Spanish, I realized my español could never be like the other dialects, because I am not from those places – and despite my firm adolescent belief – nor am I Mexican. I am a Tejana, a second-generation Hispanic born in the conjugation valley of English and Spanish, where this harmonious sub-species vocalizes in the same way every culture rich its own oral history sings its part in the grand chorus of the human experience. As elegantly described by Dr. Wade Davis in his 2003 TED Talk:

A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

Language is what gives cultures their voice. Our very cognition and perception of the world are influenced by the tongues we speak (Pinker, 1994), and the larger a language is, the more room it has to be dialectally diverse. May the universal human consciousness be forever insatiable, continuously manifesting into new seeds of identity and bridging across generations. For so long as languages evolve, the doors of opportunity shall be endless.

References:

Davis, W. (2003). Wade Davis: Dreams from Endangered Cultures. Retrieved October 2013, from TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html

Gonzalez, L. (2001). Viva Spanglish! Retrieved October 2013, from Texas Monthly.com: http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/viva-spanglish

Nava, G. (Director). (1997). Selena [Motion Picture].

Pinker, D. S. (1994). Language and Consciousness. Thinking Allowed. (J. Mishlove, Interviewer) Oakland, CA: Thinking Allowed Productions.

Rymer, R. (2012, July). Vanishing Voices. Retrieved October 2013, from National Geographic Magazine: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text