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Meditation: The Hermit of Lotus Peak Taking up the Staff

I’ve been meaning to read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” for about two or so years. I haven’t yet arrived at the first digital page in my Kindle. It’s just sitting there, waiting to be held, caressed and listened to. The long list of books I have in my mind are a delicious bunch — Jamaica Kincaid’s collection of short stories is finally nearing its end and I couldn’t be happier. The story of The Hermit of Lotus Peak Taking Up the Staff, I believe, had the right idea. In order to avoid crashing and burning into his grand fight, he observed it from afar at first. Then, with reflection around the observations he made over time, he arrived and then departed like a butterfly touching the nose of its first unseeing child. A kind of meditation within its own meditation since to fight means to surrender one’s body to nothing and everything simultaneously.

“Flowers should be left to their own colors and their own graceful movement. They are the most graceful, living things on the planet.” Free from judgment and far from political treason, they conclude subtleties about the world around them on their own. Perhaps the Hermit of Lotus Peak was fascinated with the historical complexities of the lotus flower and never learned to properly let it go. This is an opinion—at best, an educated guess since I was not present at the mountain during his address.

“One sole independent activity.” During that trip before the last, I remembered so distinctly seeing, as if from an eagle’s eye view, a little girl crossed-legged sitting on dirt. She may have been overlooking a summit, but I couldn’t help but marvel at a long braid curving down her young and small back. She was erect, had a staff in her left hand, and was dressed in white. Focused on her own being, for her eyes were closed, she traveled deeply within to arrive at intrepid oceans, riding each one with ease. I was the eagle looking down, but I was also flying down towards the middle of her head fast. The closer I got, the more I felt bad for her, so I closed my eyes to delete the possibilities. I didn’t want her to die because she was so peaceful in her own state, undisturbed by this immense eagle or the imminent, bad weather. Her staff was so erect that even if the eagle had attacked her, the staff would have been able to carry her spirit back home. A flower warrior was in our midst.

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acts

Where is the good noise? We are the true virus infecting our host, Mother Earth. The thoughts are profound, so I smile my way into another theory worth debating at length with my partner. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” sneakily makes its way into our YouTube search histories. Remaining still enough to listen to my partner’s breath rising and falling every time we fall asleep at night is a therapeutic exercise. The following day, the sun’s rays lay their edges on our window sill at six in the morning. We wake up with this tremendous amount of light pouring through our New York City pre-war home. As if to fill a maternal void, we decide to adopt a short-haired cat I am initially allergic to, hoping that I will eventually stop sneezing. My cat friends remind me that it will be a struggle, but that soon enough, I won’t have to continue taking allergy medication. The many sacrifices we make for happiness are truly endless. I’m immune to that now, so I think about what it means to be alive during such a time.

***

One afternoon, I walk into a grocery store to buy food for our new cat companion. An older man who is checking out his items behind me suddenly asks if I am buying food for a cat before doing so for myself. The question strikes me because between our nervous laughs and my jokingly replying, “No, I just really love and care for her,” I sense that this old man’s question is rooted in a much deeper, troubling reality. The reality that whether or not we want to admit it or not, we are being forced to look at ourselves in ways that test our need to live. Beyond our rented apartments or private homes, we have stepped into a world, again, that is transforming in ways that transcend what former president Barack Obama meant when he said he was running on a ticket for change. Party lines cause me to feel more confusion than an urgent need for unity. Before I turn off the television at night, I wonder who else is turning off their screen too. By the time I look back a second time to see if the old man on the line is still there to debate these ideas with me, he is gone.

While driving home after this interaction at the store, I remember when I studied in Central America at the age of nineteen. I have always believed in respecting and honoring a culture that was far removed from the one of excess I had been so indoctrinated with in the United States. I then had the privilege to live in Cuba for a week and thought the same. I was back in one of my island homes, and I saw this in the faces of the people who looked so much like my own. The old man on the checkout line didn’t understand the foolish necessity in buying food for an animal before myself, so he framed his disbelief in the form of a bad joke. I then wondered if his partner had once bought food for their pet before considering him — perhaps I had struck a nerve. I have had many more encounters like this during the past seven months, and I’m losing count of the ones that have followed. 

Before walking back into my apartment building with our cat’s food, I think about how structured time has ceased to exist. I revel in that fact because I no longer get paid to check myself at any person’s door. I work for myself during a time when others wish they would have started side hustles sooner. Friends and family are a lifeline, a necessary antidote to anything that is devoid of love lurking in the corners of every major city and rural town in the world. I make love with every morning I rise from my bed, and with those big, white sheets that don’t stay that color for too long because my sweat, my roundness and my smells are too much for my own body sometimes. They often protrude, smacking everything around me. The mask that we are forced to wear now — we ironically can’t and don’t seem to want to remove it. We’ve always been wearing masks, facades in tow, trying to arrive at what we think we know, but do we really want to know who we are beyond the superficialities? What are we really covering? Now is the only way forward. During this period of pause, we are now fresh and wide open. 

***

I briefly meet and work for people from all walks of life, social classes, races, ethnicities, religions and political viewpoints — they welcome me into their homes peppered all over New York City. This city is my home and always will be, but the people I help don’t always know or care about that. Cash is always king. The intimate looks I get into their private moments teach me more about life during this quarantine than any other time. This kind of work was a side hustle once. I like to think I am free. Yet, I still wonder if they see me beyond my name, my hands, my face and words. Can they see books and love letters in my eyes? The struggle to know is real.

More often than not, my clients do not know I am college-educated, so they treat and speak to me as if I am just another immigrant, woman of color whose body they can use for things they can’t ever fathom doing themselves. I don’t allow them to know the truth. My body has always been and continues to be a vessel for complete devotion to a higher life force. My working body, within their homes, transcends and breaks through each wall in every room they inhabit — my labor has a higher purpose, you see? In reality, they pay me in reparations, again, again, and again — and because of that, I can’t lose. 

I used to clean the homes of strangers after I left corporate office spaces, part-timing my body and imagination. During this quarantine, I think a lot about that time and its many meanings. I think about how my mom and her mom used to do the same. I remember how it felt to do this, so I’m going to tell you my side of our story.

Cleaning their homes is like uncovering secrets in the form of tangled hair, dust and grime. Cleaning their homes is remembering where the keys went after searching for five minutes, and it’s suddenly difficult to walk that line between fiction and reality. Cleaning their homes is a wealthy stranger sitting in the living room behind me, in their Upper West Side castle, and I’m trying not to laugh at how silly this situation is. Beyond moving cheekbones and lips, cleaning their homes is like washing feet that do not need to touch the floor, because tangled hair, mucus in the drain, dust and grime belong in their homes and not somewhere over our heads. Cleaning their homes is, as they open the door, I say yes, and yes, and yes, even when the floors and walls don’t know any better but to fold open and give themselves to me on my full lap.

Cleaning their homes is like scratching backs that itch without lotion in order to soothe the cracks between fingers accustomed to work and travel, through the tunnels. Cleaning their homes is like finding their keys and remembering why my ancestors were forced to close their own doors, our backs and arms firm and pressed against brick walls like the ones I almost felt in more than one narrow hallway. I’m tired of begging for things to change, so I create my own happiness, cleaning and de-colonizing every corner of my body where there is aching, molded dirt. America, I need you to find the strength in cleaning up your act too.

A memory I am grateful for…

I remember everyday, almost unapologetically. It is how I’m able to continue the work of writing this book of old tales, rhymes, twists and turns. It is those prominent memories that fuel my hands and allow them to move across the page and onto the next one. A memory I am grateful for is the first one that happens before the actual realization, in which I am (re)membering and (re)collecting. The process of (re)visiting the past is an entirely personal one, which also means that it happens often. These memories may not be entirely and accurately (re)constructed. They may not even make sense. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the capacity to remember, untouched and undisturbed by the threats of Alzheimer’s disease or even Parkinson’s. I have seen both afflictions invade the minds and bodies of older folks, whom I have loved and seem so especially attracted to in conversation and community. They are vessels of half, full and long truths. They are reservoirs of endless memories up until they are destined to meet their makers, but who says it all ever ends. In conversation with older folks, when it didn’t include the Medicaid, Medicare or home care services I could help them obtain, I realized the past (again). Then, I would suddenly find myself being grateful for the contrast between my being young and them old. Let me not think that to be old is a wretched state to live in, because it never is. I welcome aging with open arms, as every day passes through the hands of a standard clock. I am grateful for the memories I haven’t had yet because I already know they’ll be seductively influenced by the older memories that haven’t climbed to the front of my mind. I touch my face too often and have a forehead that’s been called a five-head, yet another memory I am grateful for because it taught me what it was to be seen. The long, black hairs on my arms and legs and the bullying that followed their unceasing growth also taught me that. It taught me to not hide my forehead behind some bangs even though I’ve had them since I was a little girl. The (hair)styles on my body suit me, you know? I (re)collect memories as a full kind of profession to bond different truths into one line, hoping that in doing so, I can break free from the old, rusted chains that make me and my other memories ignorant. A memory I am grateful for is the memory that is always in progress because it actually doesn’t want to remember itself, so I try not to abuse it, and instead stroke it along the edges of its face, making sure to not press down too, too hard. You know? I’m allowing it to show itself, slowly, on its own, when it is made up and ready.

de la gratitud

I kneel before the Power, an act of consoling. tears exit my eyes and breathe, one after the other. feeling here, fingers grab elbows and the tips of two pairs of feet. if the words stored within the crevices of knees, armpits and behind hairy ears are poisonous, let us see to it that they stay that way –

serpents are ready to inject with multi-colored stabilizing potions as we are laying on the side of the road, steady, still, wave-like, without the Goals and Gods yet. we crawl underneath black, and orange, curtains, hanging from the windows in the room and hold a perpetually upwards gaze. we ask the Sun and try to figure out this Maze Life, why is it shining so hard-ly and soft-ly, simultaneous-ly –

I ask of the lead-filled walls around this to Be in peace or stay comforted by holding in one place, in one chair, in one face easily centered and focused. we should all keep roaming as if this is all normal. we realize that moving between the cracks in the ground is to blink and remember the Imagination’s voice. we are coming and going into the experience of intense focus

lands and languages

My aunt said that my great, great grandfather spoke Arabic and that he was from Turkey, allegedly. It was the year 2019 and I had finally decided to return to Hispaniola after roughly 15 years. This time, however, I was alone and there was a sweetness to this long-awaited decision that I wish I could taste with my mouth. It was also far from bitter because I had arrived, at this particular part in time, to connect the dots and fill in any missing spaces. I only had five days. Over the dinner table that afternoon, Tia Luchy had finally said what I had previously imagined to be true. Perhaps that is why my mom visited Morocco a few years ago — she probably felt a secret and ancient yearning for that part of the world. Morocco, Turkey and the proximity we had to Islam was all too much to comprehend at once. I wanted to meet this Arabic-speaking man in my dreams or in photos, but there were none. 

Down by the river, in your high rise (I’m not the one)

You say that I should take you as an example of what not to do in life. Yet here you are, living on Riverside Drive in a landmarked luxury apartment building you say is only rented. You say you don’t have consistent work or significant savings. I truly wonder how you’ve been able to pull all of this off—my short-sighted guess is that it’s your monthly retirement check from the government and quarterly payouts from a possible trust fund. You say you were once a lawyer and that you hated yourself and the work. It was the conundrum of knowing your heart lay elsewhere but also wanting to satisfy your desire for money and status. Your title kept you cemented to your cubicle and I’m sure you cried many times about it. You show me a picture of your deceased father on your living room TV table, lamenting the things you didn’t get to say to him, in his most cancerous days, about your mother. You speak about leveling the playing field for all women, yet you sit in front of me insisting I shouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders because he hasn’t had the same level of success passing legislation as Elizabeth Warren. 

You tell me that Donald Trump will not be impeached because Democrats simply don’t have the votes. In the same breath, you proceed to criticize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina congresswoman, for being outspoken about impeaching him. You pit her up against Warren, another woman like you, precisely because you are incredibly uncomfortable and admittedly scared. Alexandria could run laps around you — don’t get me or you twisted. Would you believe me if I told you I look up to her?

Your discomfort and projected negativity is a result of feeling that power is slipping from the hands of landed, white men and women in a country that wasn’t yours, or ours, to begin with. I assure you that this power is and will continue slipping from your hands, but don’t pass me your baggage. Lay it elsewhere, far away from my deep waters and the soil I pray continues to sustain me and the communities you choose not to see. Out your two windows and down by the river you go.

Grounded (pre-pandemic)

My old block sits behind me, stretching far down to 9th Avenue. It still kind of looks the same, but not completely. Some time last year, I drove up the street — I might’ve been in a Zipcar rental — expecting to see the same red and white canopy resting over and protecting the door below it. Instead, that canopy was now a different color and I wondered whether “Ketly,” not “Kelly,” still lived next door. I remembered she would try to convert me and my family into Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she was so fucking persistent. She would preach the word of her church whenever we’d open our door to her and review biblical passages that made absolutely no sense. We opened our door with some hesitation every Sunday or Saturday morning, hoping to learn another lesson.

My brother had a speech impediment. He couldn’t speak until well past the age he was supposed to have been able to, according to speech pathologists. They said to my mom, “he‘s confused,” and not that we actually spoke two languages and cultures in our home, which meant that he was actually grappling with the two competing halves of himself. His speech therapist’s name started with a C – Courtney, Catherine, something along those lines. Christine. She owned a dark green or grey Jeep Cherokee that she’d always somehow manage to park right in front of this house with the red and white canopy over its door. How did she find that same parking spot every single time? These were the questions I never bothered to ask then, but now viewed as critical. She would play with my little brother on our carpeted living room floor and I remembered wondering whether or not her knees hurt from stooping so low to meet my brother’s gaze and mouth. Could she actually make out his words? How was she calculating his progress over time and why were these sessions so long? Who was this random, blonde, white woman in our house? She was sweet though, so every week, we welcomed her.

Nancy asks me why I chose this cafe today and I respond that I used to live down the block, and that I miss Sunset Park. I really do. I miss it with every inch of my body and mind. I yearn for Sunset Park every day I’m living in another neighborhood and not because one neighborhood is necessarily “better” or “safer” than the other because in reality, issues exist anywhere you find people. My old block sits behind me now because every day is an opportunity to remember a past that came and went too fast. Seeing whether or not the same Chinese stores from when I lived here still stand here brings some level of comfort, albeit short-lived. When I think about the games I used to play outside with my other friends on the block, a little hum emanates from within my vocal cords. I still remember some of their faces and how they smelled of our youth, our sweat, and even the 25 cent WISE potato chips from the bodega on the corner. I swear the bag of those cheap ass chips was always half-filled. On purpose.

I remember almost fighting some chick up the block who was half-Asian and half-Puerto Rican just because she looked at me the wrong way, or so I thought. My anger had no direction yet. The adults just watched, jokingly egging us on, knowing nothing would happen. We were just kids then. This was all before we had to worry about managing our finances and being priced out of our own neighborhood. It’s amazing how for as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I still can’t speak all of its languages. I want to speak every language there is to learn here, regardless of where I am and what block I’m visiting or (re)-visiting. It’s a shame people don’t really sit on their stoops like that anymore. There’s a culture around stoop-sitting in New York that says you know what your neighbor is doing or saying at any given moment, and word gets around no matter which step you have your butt on. Despite all the gossip on this block or that one, how can I be both so tired of and attached to this place? Riddle me that. 

45th Street and 4th Avenue

We used to get toasted butter rolls from the Dominican-owned bodega across the street. I eventually came to the conclusion that I was obsessed with coffee and these butter rolls by the time I was three years old. My family tells me that coffee was a part of any baby’s diet on the island, despite how much they halfway believed it would supposedly stunt our growth. Did my family listen or believe in what “los Americanos” said about this mild form of child abuse? No. Therefore, it simply remained a family secret. “El dominicano,” como my father affectionately says, creates his or her own facts and myths, something white Americans may understand historically within the pages of a social studies textbook.

El bodeguero and his brothers, who sold us our daily obsession, went by the name of Los Primos. They used to call my mom Prima. Every single time my mother would visit one of Los Primos at the bodega, they would always receive her with open arms, some urgent bochinche, and maybe even a few discounts. She had an infectious, wide smile and an accent that said I was not educated in a North American institution, but I know how to defend myself before any boss with a superiority complex.

It seemed like everything and everyone we needed was so close to where we lived, including the Chinese bakery on 45th street, which was only a block away. The women who served us croissants, dollar coffee and Asian pastries spoke Spanish. Good for business, right? They often predicted exactly how my family and I liked our coffee in the morning. They knew which pastries we wanted before we even said good morning. Food transcended cultural, linguistic and geographical borders in this part of Brooklyn. Still, I wonder how Dominicans and other immigrants in Sunset Park truly view the prospect of owning a business in their community. For my family, it was clear that arriving and making it in the States meant working for someone else so that you could have enough money to put food on the table and keep the lights on at home. Owning a business, like a laundromat, bodega or restaurant, was not something my family discussed over dinner. I can only imagine how differently things would have turned out if we had cut a “piece of the pie” like Los Primos did.

Either way, everyone smiles in that part of Brooklyn, either at themselves in their own mirrors at home or at one another in public. The gray 45th street sign, etched into the walls of this particular train stop underground, is still the same one from when I grew up in Sunset Park. The Chinese women in the bakery my family and I loved still work there. They do not remember me anymore, but I still remember them. They still speak that same language of food and love from when I was a little girl, except now I can actually reach over the counter to pay them. I keep thinking they will remember me, but when they don’t, I smile. It’s my own little secret now.

*Update: About sometime in August 2020, I took a chance by asking them if they remembered me, and they said they had. My mom, during one of her own visits to the bakery, had apparently decided to strike up a conversation with one of the workers, more specifically with an older woman who had been working there for more than 20 years. This woman said she did, indeed, remember my mom. She said the resemblance between my mom and I is undeniable.

She tells me they die alone…

but perhaps, that is why they are dying. They are alone in their rooms, intubated and isolated from everyone else. Alone in their hospital rooms and beds, they think about their own deaths and how their bodies have crippled in the face of an unfaceable virus. It’s some kind of disease that rips the lungs right out of their bodies, rendering them completely useless.

My mom, a healthcare worker in two states, tells me they are placed in rooms where their loved ones cannot visit them. They remain in their beds as other patients are dying and being stored in big, white trucks. Doctors and nurses alike face the same likelihood of succumbing to this virus. It’s an invading agent resting right under the bellies of every major hospital in this country, its states and cities. Politicians and government leaders fret about the state of the economy and the different possibilities surrounding the coming election. Will Trump win again?

My father is very open about wanting Trump to win a second time. He just received his unemployment check in the mail from el Presidente himself. He’s starting to sound like he once lived under the Trujillo regime. His father, also my late grandfather, left the Dominican Republic to escape from Trujillo’s grip. He eventually left the island with his family and never looked back, but I guess that’s exactly how Trump got my father and his conservative friends. He has finally given them all they’ve wanted ever since they arrived on U.S. soil. He’s given them appreciation in the form of checks and money, not empty promises this time — just like every other President we’ve seen presiding over this grand country. Perhaps that is why we are all dying.

but perhaps that is why we are also mining for truth more than ever. Even as we are all united to fight this common “enemy” in the form of a virus, we are separated from each other by six feet. Is that distance enough in the end?

Sin titulo

La suciedad de mi piel se forma contra los dibujos de un mar con olas alegres, y un par de perros caminando hacia una casita vacía. La suciedad de mi piel se forma mientras que hablan acerca de la política y yo sigo acostada. Dormida. Una niña curiosa se viene a mi lado, y me hace preguntas de lo que es soñar y como hacerlo. Le digo a ella que es un poquito complicado.