When Words Weren’t There

A "Positive Office Referral" that reads: This student was sent to the Office for: Being a kind and compassionate friend. J is always the first person to ask, "Are you okay?" and encourage with "It's okay" You're awesome!

I have always found comfort in words.

When I was a young child, I had big feelings. (I see a lot of those big feelings mirrored in my very enthusiastic and lively 7 year old.) But big feelings don’t always have a place when a family is in survival mode and when the way to survive is to keep your head down, work hard, and try not to make mistakes.

I often felt lonely and out of place, growing up. I felt apart, partially a part of many worlds that those around me didn’t understand, but never in a place of full belonging. And though I was well-liked and well-loved, I very rarely felt seen.

So I began to write. Writing became the place where I could sort myself out. Writing became the place where I could be messy, where I could find my own voice. It became my most honest place, my most vulnerable place, and my most joyful place.

After my mother died, I wrote in a journal every day for a year. I still have those journals although I’ve never reread them. I keep them for when I’m ready to hold that girl who went through all the ups and downs of a first year of grief while also being 16 and a junior then senior in high school. I am glad that she had writing, that I had writing, to help through that time.

This last week, initially, after the Monterey Park shootings, the words were still there.  I even wrote about (but shared less) the waves of emotions, I was riding the day after. But as the week wore on, with the news of the Half Moon Bay shootings, with the release of more information and the video (which I will not watch) of Tyre Nichols’s brutal killing at the hands of police officers in Memphis, and closer to home, with my little one ending the week on lockdown at her school because of an armed hostage situation in the neighborhood, I found myself without words.

I tried to write during the week and no words were there.

I was able to compartmentalize to get through the week. I found it easier to talk to those I didn’t know, at a distance, than those who know me best. Friends texted and messaged to check in, and I didn’t know what to say other than facts and the truth that this is such a hard time.

All that was there was a profound sadness, searching to displace itself in self-critique at points because being mad at myself is easier than being with the deep sadness at a world on fire, multiple crises of dehumanization, and the fact that, at any moment, someone I love more than the world itself could be taken from me.

This morning at 4am, the words returned, so I am writing.

Writing feels strange. It feels transformed in its purpose.

It is, all at once, my most intimate and vulnerable form of communication, but it also requires some distance.

There was a rawness and an unhealed self in the journals I wrote as a child, a space of figuring oneself out.

Now, I write, still in an unfinished state, but also to be seen and heard without having to say all the words out loud.

I write to reassure community that eventually I will be okay, that we will be okay, if we continue to love on one another, be with one another’s humanity, hold ourselves accountable and forgive ourselves and others when we make mistakes and hurt one another.

Eventually, the words will return.

They may not be the same, but they will be there.

Eventually, we will return to ourselves. We will return to each other.

We may not be the same, but, if we engage authentically, we will find our people.

This coming Friday will mark 28 years since my (single) mother was killed in a car accident. It was the defining moment in my life. There was life before this moment and there has been life since this moment, with a chasm of unknown between them.

This Friday also will be a day of possibility, when I need to be and bring my fullest and most authentic self to be among many people who don’t know my story, when I will need words and presence.

I cannot know the future. I cannot stay in the past. I am learning to be in the present, as painful as it can be. I am learning to bring as much humility and humanity as I can into this world which sometimes feels like a dark void. I am learning to hold on to the light, to hold on to those who love me, to return to the messy.

“Are you okay?” my daughter is always the first to ask, says her teacher, and then she follows up with, “It’s okay.” (she says she actually says, “You’re going to be fine.”)

I’m okay, Mama. I’m hurting, but I’m okay. I’m going to be fine. Really. We’re going to be fine.

Gratitude

Photo of a group of people Photo of a group of people

It was a wonderful day, filled with beautiful people.

In person, on the phone, via text.

So many beloved people.

I am grateful.

And very tired.

I will have one more meal with beloved friends tomorrow.

After a sleep, and allergy medication for my very swollen foot.

I was almost too tired to write.

That would have been okay, but this is also good.

A moment to reflect, even in my exhaustion.

A moment to hold that even with all the love that surrounds me, there is a part of me that still longs for those who are not here.

I am writing.

Writing is showing up for myself.

I am grateful.

A Year of Writing? A Commitment to Reflection

Photograph of the corner of a table with a person's hands poised to write in a journal

By nature, I have a very all-or-nothing, addictive, jump in with both feet and give all the things all the energy approach to life. This comes from the desperation of always wanting (or having) to be the best in order to prove myself worthy of love at all. But once this approach becomes internalized, it is just a part of one’s identity. Or, at least, it is a part of my identity.

This manifests in constantly seeking to attach myself to new things, to people, to conversations, to commitments that drain my energy.

I am exploring detachment. Or at least, investment in re-energizing commitments.

How do I take a step back to evaluate that which fills me and that which depletes me? How can I gain perspective? How do I do less so I can be fully present to being my best?

I am taking a breath.

Being all-in all the time is exhausting. It makes me inaccessible to everyone, at least at a deep level, and that troubles me, particularly with respect to those I love.

Don’t get me wrong. I am always as present and genuine as I can be with the people I choose to spend time with, but sometimes how present I can be is limited by all the things I have to do.

People ask how I am and I answer reflexively that I am well, that I am blessed, that I am making it, because those things are true. I know them.

But I feel sometimes like a shell of myself.

I am a deeply feeling person, and because of this, I am often doing all I can to avoid my feelings, instead of letting them guide me.

I scroll mindlessly because I cannot attend to my heart if my mind is taking in new information.

But this is exhausting.

I feel sometimes like a shell of myself.

The year after my mother died, I wrote in a journal every day. I do not remember why I stopped. Perhaps it is in the pages of the almost 30 year old journals that I still cannot bring myself to read.

I want to commit to writing personally again, to giving myself the gift of reflection, every day. Perhaps not publicly, but intentionally.

I am exploring detachment.

So what does it mean to commit to myself and detach from the necessity of mindless scrolling each day before bed? What does it mean to detach from external validation to seek internal understanding?

I don’t know….yet. But perhaps I’ll come to know in this year.

Voice and Visibility: The Wisdom in Our Words

Screenshot of the publication page of "The wisdom in our stories: Asian American mother scholar voices"

What does it mean to believe that the stories we tell to our children have value to our academic communities?

What does it mean to stand in that truth despite in the face of multiple submissions, multiple revisions, multiple rejections, and finally an acceptance, a publication, and a piece in the world that reflects pieces of our hearts?

We (Cat, Ruchi, Judy & I) started this journey many years ago. My daughter was in her 3rd year of life when I first wrote my letter to her. She is now approaching 8. 5 years is a long time, but the words of my letter are still true. They are excerpted in the article, and they have changed slightly over the course of our writings, but I share here the full text of a version of my letter to my children, the wisdom of which I hold true, that words are powerful, that our humanity is powerful, that our love and the co-creation of a better world is powerful and possible.

So grateful to my sister-scholar, co-author, collaborator, friends. So grateful to journey together. So grateful for your belief in us, our words, our letters, our children, our hearts.

Betina’s Letter: 

My dear children,

This morning on the car ride to school, N and I were talking about how much I work and how sometimes he wishes I would work less so that he could have his mommy.  I know you have all felt this way, even J, in her short three years of life.  So, I am writing this letter to explain why: why I do the work I do, what I hope from that work, how that work is an extension of my love for each one of you and how I hope that, one day, we’ll work to create a better world together.

Words are powerful things. I became an English teacher because I saw the power of words and stories. With words, we can tell our stories and see shared humanity through others’ stories.  I see the way that labels have been used against you; used to separate you from others; used to assume placement or assign privilege.  I have seen how the ways you read, write, speak and listen lead others to believe things about your worth.  I know literacies represent power.  I want the future teachers I work with to understand that power. I want them to think about whose voice is missing. I hear your voices but, so often, voices like yours are silent and silenced in classrooms.

Growing up, I hesitated to use my voice. I was “too loud” for my position as a Taiwanese American girl and simultaneously “too American” (for my family) but “never American enough” for my friends.  I knew little Mandarin and even less Taiwanese, and what I did know became lost in discourses of “English Only” and assimilation at school.  As I struggled to fit in with my (mostly white) peers, I lost my sense of self. I lost my words and any desire I had to be who I was.  Only through mothering and writing am I beginning to reclaim my voice and all that it represents, because I want you to see the power of your words, in English, in Mandarin, in Spanish (the native language of your father), as a citizen of this world.

As I’ve taught you the power of words; I also teach them the power of words. My teaching means I spend many late nights away.  I know this has hurt you and I’m so deeply sorry.  It has been hard for me as well.  But I must teach these new teachers because I remember entering urban school teaching at  22 years old, how much I still had to learn.  I know now (but didn’t know then) that almost all parents and educators are trying their best, even when their bests conflict, because educators’ perspectives are not always parents’ perspectives.  I teach them that traditional classrooms aren’t necessarily best; in fact, they work best only to reproduce societies that are inherently inequitable.  I teach them to see that each student brings assets to the classroom, and to honor student knowledge and experiences through relevant teaching curriculum.  I teach them that rigor and relevance aren’t mutually exclusive, and that both are critical to address inequities.  I challenge their thinking when they ask why some students don’t want to learn. I hate it when I hear that.  I don’t want you to be in a world where teachers think that some students don’t want to learn instead of looking at what they can do to support students right where they are.  I teach them to start with who students are, but to not ignore the standards that are often gatekeepers to their success. I help them understand that denying access to innovative curriculum because of their perceptions (or even realities) that students may not have internet in their homes isn’t a way to address challenges of 21st century learning. I push them to go beyond themselves because I know they hope to one day teach children, you, those like you, those different from you.

These children, like you, are my children too, and I feel a responsibility to them as I am responsible to you, as your mother. We are collectively responsible for one another although each of us develops as an individual.  I want you to understand our collective responsibility and I want future teachers to understand that.  I want to help build schools that work in a society that works better for everyone.  My role is supporting teachers in their work. It is an important role. It is an investment in the future, your future, and our future. I spend time away from you to make an impact on the identities of teachers who I know can be so powerful for students. I know because teachers have shaped your lives.

I am doing the best I can, as your mommy, as a teacher of teachers, as a human being. You are always with me, and I with you.  I am always thinking of you and the world I hope you will contribute to.  I love you and each of you has given my work real meaning. You are my hope and my light; you help me find my voice and use it to speak powerfully for justice and against misrepresentations of youth.   Each of you, and each child in the world, needs great teachers who can support you to grow into your best selves. So, when I am away, I am working for you, pushing towards hope. One day, I hope you, in your own ways, will also push towards greater understandings, using your words to push towards a hopeful future.  I hope this letter helps you in these days and those days.

 

Decoupling my worth from my work

Photograph of a Japanese garden

It’s not so simple to navigate decoupling one’s worth from one’s work when you’ve spent your entire life working to prove your worth.

Conceptually, I’ve been on this journey for awhile. I understand that I am worth more than my work, that my work doesn’t earn me “worthiness points,” that I am not more loved or more lovable when I work harder, or that if I am, it is a shallow love based on productivity and not humanity. I know these things.

However, I’ve realized, in putting boundaries on my work, in order to achieve a balance between getting things done and being present to the world I walk in, that there are many things I’ve confounded with work and with worth…like writing.

I haven’t wanted to write recently, because writing felt like work, because in fact, writing is part of my work. But writing, in reflection, while always pushing me to grow, both personally and professionally, isn’t always work. In fact, it can help bring me to myself from a space where I am spinning, trying to find the grounding I need — something that work used to help me avoid, because there are healthy and unhealthy ways to make the spinning stop.

I can use work to distract myself (because there is always work to be done), or I can breathe into the space and be with what is there.

When I am present to what is, what is there needs a place to go, and when I am sad, that place to go isn’t through spoken words. It comes through writing, or through song, or through tears, or through cooking. It has to be transformed; it is energy that goes into creation or expression in one way or another.

I am learning to come back to myself.

I am reminded that I am in my writing.

But I am also giving myself grace as I grow. I will find times where I forget myself in my writing. I will have times where writing is labor and not expression; I will write for work just as I write for myself.

There are also other ways to come back to myself.

I sing, I cook, I cry, I laugh, I spend time with those I love.

I am still growing. I will probably have periods when I overwork. I will be too tired to write. I will forget myself. I will go back instead of forward.

Writing will not disappear. It will be here when I return.

I will not disappear. I will be here when I return.

 

Unlearning the Second Nature of Self

Photograph of flowers in a square vase in front of a picture of a raised fist with the words "love yourself" written on the wrist and the word liberation written below the raised fist

What does is mean to put myself first? To prioritize not just my needs, but what I want, yet remain committed to community care?

This is my current inquiry.

My whole life has been spent thinking that I should prioritize others, the work I have to do, the work that others call me to do, that I’m good at, for the greater good. I have spent so much time denying that I even have desires for better, let alone reaching for them. I have prioritized what seems to be the most obvious paths forward, that in some ways seem simplest because they are the expected paths, but in other ways bring complexity and questions about why I don’t have joy even though I’m doing “what I’m supposed to.”

However, in this last 12 months, I’ve found inspiration. In my work and in the relationships I’ve cultivated. I’ve found myself living moments of true joy, bliss, and peace. For someone who has been searching for these feelings for years and had thought they were somewhat unattainable, these moments have been life altering and transformational. I’ve felt movement that propels me towards the things that truly matter to me, towards pushing beyond what is comfortable or expected, towards the desires of my heart, spirit and mind.

And yet, in this, or perhaps in spite of it, I feel myself being pulled back.

There is a strong pull back to the “right path,” the path that I’ve always walked, the path that seems logical given the path I’ve been on.

It hurts to diverge from that path. It is difficult to stray away. It is not the simplest thing to walk towards this joy, even with the love and support of community.

It feels completely right and completely wrong at the same time.

It is new and different and requires a courage and investment in myself that I don’t really know. I know how to be courageous for others. I know how to sacrifice for community. But I don’t know how to prioritize myself, my heart, MY work and calling.

It feels selfish.

Breathe.

Perhaps this is why I have not made the time to write, to confront this conflict and name it as it lives within me. Seeing the words on the screen bring tears to my eyes.

I know if I were speaking to someone else, someone I love, someone who I get the privilege to walk alongside, I would remind them that doing our work, loving ourselves, honoring our hearts, these things are not selfish, they are forms of resistance, in a world that constantly calls us to sacrifice for institutions that limit us and don’t love us, for people who want from us but not for us. This is not real community.

True community calls us into ourselves, supports us in steps that require courage, reminds us that who we are is worthy, and to honor ourselves provides a model of self-liberation that is as powerful as any thing else we can do.

I remember myself through writing.

It is why I haven’t made time and why I must make time.

This is why I must push against what has become “second nature” to return to my first nature, my most true self, my heart, which has begun to speak to me again, which has begun to dare to trust, to want, to choose.

Breathe.

In each act of choosing myself, I am choosing community, because I can best contribute to community in my own authenticity, as my full self, and with my full heart.

I remember.

Letting Go: Reclaiming My Write to Be

A notebook, pen and several wads of crumpled paper

Today, I felt like myself for the first time in over two weeks.

I didn’t wake up feeling like myself. I woke up with the sense of dread that I had been feeling for the last 15+ days welling up inside me, knotting my stomach, making it hard to think and harder to feel, waking me up earlier than I should be awake and making me tired far too early.

But, in therapy today, I came to a realization, one that I have needed for a long time.

When I was young, I loved to write.

And I wrote for myself.

For me, writing was my place to be.

Writing was a way for me to create the me that I wanted to be, because no one was ever going to read the silly words of a little girl.

At some point along the way, maybe when I won my first creative writing contest, maybe when I started getting good grades on essays, maybe in college and graduate school, writing became a way to earn recognition. It became less about myself, my identity, my words, my stories, and more about my worth.

I began to write for others.

Today, part of my professional life is writing for others. I love that type of writing. It is important. It is a way for me to use my voice, the skills I have, and the knowledge I’ve gained to speak to others that are not in close proximity.

I also keep this blog and am active on social media. I love that type of writing too. It allows me to connect and express myself, honestly and authentically. It feels like a place to be seen and heard.

But, today, I also decided to reclaim my right to write for myself, to have my own space and place to let things out and let them go.

So I wrote, in a notebook, with (two) pen(s) (the first one ran out of ink mid-page).

And then I did something that was freeing.

I ripped out the page.

I crumpled it up.

I threw it away.

I struggled with the act of ripping out the page.

For one, I did not write on the back side of the page and I hate wasting blank paper.

Additionally, the words felt important, a reflection on lessons I’ve learned today, which were important.

I spent time on those words. My future self might need those words. My children might want to hold on to me through those words.

Or, they might want to hold on to me through my presence.

Perhaps those words, re-reading them, holding on to them, predicting how my present self could counsel my future self instead of just letting my present self be, could be released.

So, I did it.

I ripped out the page.

I crumpled it up.

I threw it away.

I could literally feel the freedom in every moment, from the ripping of the page, to the crumpling of it in my hands to its placement in the recycling bin.

I will still write this blog. I will still write the academic pieces that are part of my professional life. I will still write for others.

But I will now also write for myself, perhaps to keep, perhaps to let go, but mostly, to be.

I am moving towards freedom.

It is not a linear path.

But it is in forward motion today.

I am letting go.

Walking freely and forward and in love.

And in doing so, I am returning to the home that I have longed for so much.

Today

There is so much to say, so much I haven’t written, and I don’t know where to start, so I will start by writing.

When I was in graduate school, a mentor once taught me about the concept of “brain dumping” and “writing to clarity.” It is this process where you have so many things in your brain but don’t know how to organize them so you just start writing, and then your organize and cut and cull later.  But you get it all out, when you are holding so much in.

That is not the way I usually blog.

I usually have one clear thing. I start with the title and the picture.  Then I write.  Sometimes I stray from my topic, but generally, I write, in an organized, linear fashion, so that it’s easy to follow. I write for my readers as much as for myself, this imagined audience, since who knows who reads one’s blog? Especially now, when it is such a busy time.

But today is not like usual.

It is the end of a semester that has not been the usual.

I didn’t really teach a class this semester.

I supervised student teachers and a doctoral dissertation. I did a lot of support for masters action research projects.  I helped to facilitate a faculty inquiry group.  I did too much service and traveling.  I started a lot of papers that I’m working on finishing now.  I started my journey to reclaim my heritage language, Mandarin.  I ran two half marathons (#11 & 12). I coordinated a 4-year birthday party. I survived the transition to middle school & teenage years.

I did things, but not the usual things.

I’ll teach again starting next week and a class in the fall. I am still supervising. I am writing. I am running (slowly). I am mothering. I am singing. I am planning to take my second Mandarin class in the fall. I am doing the work that I love and living a life I love. I am returning to the routine.

But I have not been reflecting as much as I’d like.

This semester, there have been things, but not the usual things.

I am currently confronted by my silence, by my deference, by the ease of invisibility, of the discomfort of confrontation.

I am haunted by the demons of “not good enough” of “you will never belong” of “they only like you because you do all the things” — these demons that drive my overwork even when I am exhausted and barely holding on; these demons that tell me that the A in my Mandarin class means nothing since there was never a perfect score, since I still can’t understand the e-mails from my son’s school, since I still can’t have a real conversation in Mandarin; these demons that keep me silent when people push back, even though I know it means that I will be doing more work, work that I choose by not choosing NOT to do it and knowing it has to get done, by choosing not to speak up, by swallowing the words that won’t hurt them but are killing me; these demons that keep me silent because I am afraid of their judgment, afraid to lose another person I love, afraid that someday they will all see through all the things and when they do, they will see that I am just a very lonely middle-aged woman who has made many choices that were probably ill-advised. They will see that I struggle even though I smile.  They will see that the demons were right and that there is no more fight in me.

These demons have become my friends.  They have helped me to survive.  They are a part of my culture and my being and so, even though I know they are lying, and I am trying to fight them, I do not like confronting them either.

Today, I should be happy.  And, in many ways, I am happy.  It is a day of celebration, of commencement, of culmination.

But commencement means the end of one thing and the beginning of a new thing.

Endings and beginnings are hard for me, even when they are celebratory, even when they are planned.

I have not written to clarity.  I do not know what to cut.  I do not know where to end, but it seems that I don’t really have more to say. This is a messy blog, one that perhaps is not good enough, one that does not belong, one that people may not read or like because there is no uplifting ending, but it is honest.  It is where I am at in this moment, and where I need to be so that I can drive to campus, to be with my people, to celebrate them, to be present, to end and begin again.

Making (Taking? Reclaiming?) Time I Don’t Have….

I really don’t have the time to write this blog.

And that’s probably exactly why I need to make, take, reclaim the time to write it.

It is the second week of the semester.  Yesterday, I went pretty much non-stop from my 6am run to arriving home after choir practice at 8:30pm then taking a practice quiz for Chinese, administered by my son 🙂 .  Today, again, it’s a 6:30am to 6:30 pm day. I began my day with a student teaching meeting at a local school before driving to campus to schedule research interviews and observation dates.  I have a collaborative research conference panel call in 30 minutes.  I have my first Chinese quiz in a few hours.  This afternoon, I have another student teaching meeting and a research interview.

My life can go non-stop.

Unless I call a hard stop. Unless I close my e-mail programs & refuse to focus on other browser windows. Unless I breathe and make a fresh cup of tea.

Stopping to blog does not take care of the lists of things that “need to get done.” It does not even, at this point, fulfill a challenge or allow me to check a box off on my busy schedule.  No one may even read this post.

But, that actually doesn’t matter, because it is my own form of personal resistance, to the idea that everything external will continue to be the driving force in my life.

Blogging brings me to a moment of presence.  It reminds me that as much as there is going on, I have the right to reclaim a bit of my time, that I can write for myself and in this moment.

This will not get done without practice.  So, this is practice.

What I hope is that I can catch myself sooner and sooner, when I go in an automatic doing mode so that I can be present, and remember WHY I’m doing all that I do, how much I value it, and how I need to set boundaries so that I can feel the ground beneath me and experience my own life.

From this place, I can go back to the rest of the day, less frenzied and more aware.  I know I’ve chosen to fill my life with these good things, so I want to experience the goodness of them through making, taking and reclaiming the time to breathe.

Habits and Intellectual Discipline

It is rainy outside (a rare occurrence in Southern California) for the 4th morning in a row (even rarer).  My knees hurt, but I also have extremely low energy from 2 rest days in a row because my running schedule is all off, and because, rain. The 30-day writing challenge is over. The semester is about to start. It’s about to get super busy. I have multiple things to do, and I’m just generally feeling unmotivated.

BLARGH.

So, what to do?

I’m blogging.

Not for any particular reason except that it generally helps kick start my day.  My friend, Darlene, wrote in one of her blogs for the 30-day writing challenge about keystone habits (from the book The Power of Habit, I think, which I’ve listened to, but clearly need to listen to again), and I’ve realized that running (and now blogging) are my two keystone habits that kickstart my day.  Without one, the other, or both, my day feels really off and I can be doing similar things, but I don’t feel the same focus and productivity.

This is actually working.  In the time that I’ve sat down to write this blog, what inevitably happens has happened.  Multiple things that need to get done have emerged. Yet somehow, I feel more motivated to do them.  Because I feel like the start to my productivity has begun with the blog.

Now, onto getting those things done.