above the coast

I woke up on a plane above the California coast,
a memory of who I was waiting for me like a ghost,
I have shed my skin like spring,
learned not to count this as a loss,
discovered moving forward
is always worth the cost.

I have learned how to unearth secrets,
that are stored within my soul,
learned that living in my solitude,
could make me feel more whole.

Learned how to fall in love with strangers,
for brief moments in my life,
the serendipity we shared
will stay suspended now in time.
I have crossed many oceans,
in search of myself,
climbed through the mountains,
to know truth in what I felt.

What has it meant for me,
to go out in search of meaning?
Savoring the seconds
in every new beginning?

Because life is just a cycle,
of lessons we repeat,
from when we’re born,
in different forms,
until the karma is complete.

So pay attention to the details,
because it’s not always the same,
synchronicities that guide you back the way you came.

The universe will take you,
exactly where you need to go,
combined with fate, which we create,
is all we need to know.
So here I am now,
having reached this journey’s end,
a resurrected soul ready to live her life again.

Nepal’s universal lessons

The novelty of this country’s beauty will likely never be lost on me. I have seen head high stalks of golden wheat waver in the afternoon breeze, marveled as they caught a reflection of light that made them sparkle like ocean water on a sunny day. I’ve watched as mist cast itself like a blanket over boundless mountain ranges, fell asleep to the lullaby of a thunderous rainstorm. I’ve seen day by day saplings grow into trees, caterpillars into butterflies, the land morph from winter to spring.

I have walked numerous miles through these mountains for countless hours, for reasons that even now are not perfectly clear to me. Did I come here to find my life’s purpose? Or to find something as trivial as adventure? Undoubtedly, I have a found share of both.

People had asked me quite insistently why I was coming back to Nepal, and I always had the strategic response prepared for when they did. There’s of course, the easy answers that are deeply true. My commitment to this project, my love of this land, my connection to the village, and to all the people I’ve met while here. But in many ways, those are surface level answers, that only address the singular meaning within the context of my singular life.

It would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t admit that I returned for selfish reasons. Here, in these illustrious hills, I am hidden from a certain type of reality. The expectations and niceties of modern society do not intrude on my life. But how privileged and close-minded of me, to hide within the real-life circumstances of impoverished people on the other side of the world? I am no stranger to my own pretences.

Doing this work has pushed me to ask difficult questions, ones that I am still not fully equipped to answer. Such as: what does it mean to help people? How do we definitively know when we do? What does it mean to bridge cultural divide? How do you find proof of it? What does it mean to truly trust one another? How do we create change within the systems we’re given? Do good intentions amount to much in the grand scheme of the world’s conflicts?

Despite the destruction of barriers, I am aware that I come from a world that the community I serve does not fully understand. This goes both ways. I exist in a realm of acute individuality, while many of their lives are intrinsically entwined with the lifebloods of their families. I am forever in awe of these dichotomies, of the separate realities that exist side-by-side, to allow a melding of understandings from opposite sides of the spectrum.

Nepal is so much more than enamored mysticism and prayer flags. It is a land of both intense poverty and generous abundance, deep divisions and shared fanatic national identity. Its people are both astoundingly passionate and at times jadedly apathetic. It is both beautiful and destructive, as flawed as it is perfect. Nepal is a metaphor for humanity in more ways than I can begin to convey — but I suppose as are the behaviors of any people, in every place, anywhere in the world.

But for a funny little foreigner like me, there is a magic here that reminds me so sharply the arbitrariness of my existence, the happenstance of my birth, of being able to experience the world as I do. I am so profoundly enraptured by this place so fundamentally different from the reality I once knew. And at the same time, my ability to discover patterns and parallels in human behavior, across cultures and continents, fascinates and fulfills me in ways I’m still learning to understand.

Living in different places for months at a time has taught me a lot about the tendency of human behavior to move towards polarity. Though it’s internal happenings don’t gain as much international attention, the country is shuddering under the same pressures of industrialization, polarized political conflict, and extreme wealth disparity as much as the rest of the world.

I have learned to recognize the insidiousness of patriarchy in all its forms, how it transforms itself into an easily palatable poison to the point that many don’t even notice. Like in the US, there are persistent preconceptions and prejudices against poor and working class people. There is such a level of government corruption that many people are discouraged from fighting for accountability, and at times lack motivation for civil engagement.

Like the Philippines, Nepal struggles from the destabilization of work diaspora, families split apart in search of greater opportunities; young people choosing to work abroad because ultimately there are few relevant financial prospects at home. This is also a consequence of imbalanced socio-political dynamics established through history, with much of the country’s abundant resources under the vice of Chinese and Indian government control.

Like nearly everywhere else in the world, Nepalis are disillusioned by their government. Asking people in this country to not just trust in the work we do together, but to believe that they themselves are capable of creating change, is sometimes a constant uphill battle. Many people in my own country don’t even believe this about themselves.

But here’s the thing: when you choose to believe you are not capable of creating change, you then evade your own responsibility to help others, simply because you don’t think it is actually possible. You then continue to perpetuate the same systems that destroy the earth, that create apathy, that allow things to continue as normal.

The struggle here is universal. How do you convince people to care about the greater good? To be willing to work hard and make sacrifices, not for their own self-advancement, but to improve the livelihoods of others? For a community? For a country? For the world?

Nepal hasn’t taught me how to convince non-believers, but has showed me something else more important. That there are people who have lived entirely different lives, experienced far more difficult realities than I could ever fathom, and yet also share the same vision for the world as I do. Narayan Bhatterai, or Mama as we lovingly call him, is not just one of the longest employed members of Conscious Impact, but also one of our deepest inspirations. He is the type of man who not only wants to fight for the same world I do, but has taught me more about it than I could ever learn in a classroom.

Jenisha, my partner who ran the Girls Empowerment group with me these past few months, is one of the most inspirational and loving women I’ve met, and her connection and passion for empowering young girls in her community blew me away. Both Jenisha and Mama exemplify willingness to lift others up, to see another person’s individual happiness and security to be as important as their own.

My work is not about coming here and helping Nepalis with my knowledge, as if I know what is truly good for a country I am an outsider of. My work is about uplifting the people here who believe in change, and are truly capable of it. Who understand that by sharing our abundance, we bring ourselves closer to the source of our humanity. Their friendships have taught me that the limitations and boundaries of language and lived experience do not restrict the depth of connections possible between people — not when you are willing to open your heart.

I am now driven by this desire, to continue building mutual bridges of understandings between realities — to find common ground in our desires for meaning and love and family, in our deepest despairs and sadnesses, in shared ambitions and achievements. Because isn’t that what it means to be human at the end of the day? To achieve true understanding between beings of consciousness, however futile it may actually be?

Rather than end this with my own words, I’ll leave you with something Mama had said not too long ago, and has continued to resonate with me. If you’ve made it this far, I hope it does with you as well.

“The benefits we receive as individuals are not large. We are not taking any things with us, yet we try to earn so much to have sufficient things. We come into this world with empty hands, live in nature, step on this earth, breathe the air, drink the water, get warmth from fire. And when we die, we leave empty handed. We reach again the water, and are burned by the flame, mixing our soul back into the fire. We take only the satisfaction that we drew from our own lives, and the thoughts that others had of us, when we die.”

Why you’re alone

I’ve grown attached to the stormy solitude that rages inside my skin,
Have romanticized the idea of being alone, because I’ve forgotten there was any other way to be,
These sensitive surfaces yearn for
staccato touches,
Trembling fingertips along my softest parts,
But I’m too busy burning myself under the hot sun,
Proving I am worthy to some unknowing Greatness, & in pursuit of some deeper virtue,
I’m not sure even exists,
Because focusing on the development of my singular soul,
Is so much safer than subjecting myself to the troubled turmoils of ‘love’,
Misdirected attempts at searching for my reflection,
In the eyes of other people,
I’ve become poorly conditioned by a culture,
That taught me that true love exists in someone else, rather than in myself,
Yes, solitude is safer than being forced to confront,
The most liberating of truths,
That no one will ever give me, what I cannot give to myself.
And what I cannot find in myself,
I will find in the great depths of the world,
From the babbling brook to the cliff crashing waves,
In the flap of a bird’s wing, and in the space between stars,
& if there is some soul-igniting epiphany to be found,
In the touch of another,
Let it be as chaotic in nature as a passing monsoon rainstorm,
Unpredictable in its rhythm,
Leaving only rebirth and abundant regrowth in its wake.

The threads of brown identity

For more than half my life I have been confused about where I am from.

I once wrote “FILIPINO” as my nationality on a student visa application form, and had my mother hurriedly correct it before I turned it into the embassy official.

I have memorized how to recount, “My family’s from the Philippines, but I was born in Texas,” to every inquiring stranger since I was a child.

I do not speak my “mother tongue”, and have been asked on more than one occasion to justify this.

I experience a myriad of pride and distaste, when strangers try to connect the dots for me about my own history.

I am inherently upset by the same corruption, poverty, and religious zealotry that probably drove my parents from their home country decades ago. But I latch fervently to my inheritance of unbridled hospitality, familial loyalty, and a universal perseverance to retain culture no matter how far we are spread around the world. In the face of constant struggle, Filipinos exert light-hearted humor and improbable optimism, an ability to laugh at life’s hardest moments. I see this inherently in my own family, and in the smiles of uprooted Filipinos I have met all over the world.

My time spent abroad has taught me the duality of self-perception against global understanding. Being identified openly by my race was something I became more familiar with once outside the comfortable bubble of the Bay Area. In many ways I have taken back the perception of who I am on the outside with the ink I’ve engraved onto my body, with the tone of voice I use when I speak.

But I have found myself asking, what is it makes me Filipino?

And what is it that makes me overwhelmingly more American?

I read somewhere that the best part of a country is also what makes it the worst. In the case of Filipinos and the Philippines, an ability to retain happiness in the face of adversity has also normalized suffering. Like those in heavily corrupted developing countries, Filipinos will retain the status quo that gets them by rather than upending the system, perpetuating immoral societal structures that exacerbate gaps between the wealthy and poor; they remain frustratingly attached to Western influences, the twisted vestiges left behind from centuries of colonial occupation. Maybe in a lot of ways, my own identity crisis mirrors that of my collective kinfolk.

There is a consensus in popular culture about the selfless demeanor of Filipinos; hardworking people whose natural tendency to give care has developed  into an expansive diaspora of Filipinos abroad. Popularly, many Filipinos working abroad raise other peoples’ children, take care of their elderly, tend to patients in crowded hospitals. Just as with all of reality’s dual perceptions, this humble work ethic can also be seen as learned docility, a toxic reframing of our willingness to work in a system of unfair power dynamics.

I have seen how twisted cultural norms degrade a country I’ve hardly spent any time in. I have met many women and men who left everyone they knew to do backbreaking work, away from their families in order to support them.

When I lived in Paris, I stayed briefly with a distant aunt who I fought with constantly over the course of a year. Time has given me the power of forgiveness, because I finally recognized what caused the sharp edge of resentment in her voice whenever she looked at me. Bitterness from years of dealing with an alcoholic husband, of not having been able to raise her own children, from doing the emotional labor for a rich family that did not value her. Even then, this conclusion is very one-sided, observations drawn from such a brief time spent together, one that could never truly reflect the complexity of one woman’s life.

I rediscover new appreciation for my roots everyday. Yet I also find myself finding new reasons to be outraged, to bristle at the fact that an entire people has spent so much time under the vice of colonialism that assimilation now comes second nature. A rejection of indigenous roots, animist traditions that date back further than the tide of Spanish control. And I am unapologetically exasperated at an inability to see institutional Catholicism as nothing but a historical consequence of colonization.

My adolescence took me on a strange journey of acceptance, as I constantly rearranged the way I prioritized my ethnic identity. I have reconciled my hang ups over the years, while simultaneously realizing there are some things I may never make peace with. This especially applies to my perception and understanding of myself as a first world American citizen. I can’t help but balk at every backpacker that drawls on about the beauty of Philippines, their love for a tropical paradise that I never really felt authentically extended to the people living there.

But I digress since this can be said of any exotic country westerners choose to find refuge in. I am quick to accuse myself of the same behavior when I think of my attachment to Nepal.

What has fascinated me about life, especially in recent years, is the resurfacing of themes from my childhood that have manifested again in more nuanced and complex ways. My desire for purpose. My connection to my family. My power as a woman. The origins of my history.

Part of growth is realizing you cannot make homes inside of other people. The obvious secret one forgets is that you never have to feel homesick for the inside of your own skin. Despite our culture’s pernicious reverence for white skin, I have learned to love the darkness of my melanin, how it allows me to soak in as much light from the sun as I please. I have learned to celebrate my smallness, and to venerate that my beginnings trace to a time and a place out of reach from my realm of perception.

I may never truly know “what” makes me Filipino. I do know what it is that makes me my mother’s daughter. That I have inherited my father’s good nature. That I have my grandfather’s calloused hands, my grandmother’s enduring spirit. Even if, at the end of the day, I do not speak the language of my ancestors, I have found a deep sense of harmony between the identity I was born into and the one I’ve chosen to create. And maybe, at the end of the day, this is enough.

IMG_9268
My grandmother Rosario.
IMG_9266
My grandpa Andy on the left, in a brown suit. Dated Feb 11, 1979.
IMG_9269
My grandmother and her 3 daughters, including my mother.
IMG_9536
My father, as a young boy.

Before you sleep

Lay me to sleep under the setting sun,
Forget-me-nots growing beneath my closed eyelids,
I am the restless sleep that haunts most nights,
Smoke twanging guitar chords in your eardrums,
Don’t forget me in your moonlit slumber,
My shadow stretched long across your door,
Every dream is just a strange story we tell ourselves,
About all the things we have yet to know,
so breathe easy as the twilight comes,
Watch the sky wash with indigo, like a veil pulled over your eyes,
Do not count your worries like beads on a rosary,

instead count your blessings the way you can infinitely count the stars,
There’s so much magic in the moments we re-live lost loved ones,
Besides, your restless soul cannot imagine,
all the beauty you have not seen.

my architecture

I have learned to precariously balance hope like a poorly built skyscraper,
Made of withered flowers and pencil shavings,
And every childhood dream I gave enough room to breath,
My heartbeat is the rumbling roar of bumblebees and the whispers of hummingbird wings,
My happiness the rose petal pink of a blood blushing sunset,
I carry the history of a far away place in the brownness of my skin, but not in the language on my tongue,
I have spent more time searching for myself outside my own country than in it,
I chase after some meaning in who I am, the same way birds fly south for the winter,
An instinctive desire for movement that I still can’t decipher,
I have created homes out of backpacks and between bookcovers, discovered the deepest of loves in the shortest of seconds,
I fear I love too fiercely for my own good, the same way flames do the forests they burn down,
I don’t know how to be halfway myself,
This uncontrollable storm of chaos and kindness, loveliness and rage,
I have found myself struggling to swim in the shallowest of waters,
Unable to simply stand up to my sea of insecurities,
Life taught me to question everything I thought I knew,
Only to re-learn the entirety of the world, over and over again,
I have learned that loss is just as much a part of life as love,
I have learned that the shape of the world is no different than the clenched curvatures of a woman’s fist,
And I have learned the tricky truth about movement, is that walking too far in one direction only leads you back to the exact same place.
Humans were not meant to live in nostalgia, but to rebuild new homes inside of themselves, like every flower that fought to grow between the bricks of fallen rubble,
So I will seek solace in the solitude inside my own skin,
And I will take this hummingbird heart, my wilted flowers, and every lesson I have learned,
To every new horizon, until I finally manage to run out of ways to rediscover myself.

Sunset mantra

Let happiness heal you, in all the ways it knows how,
a way of becoming that only time will allow,

Observe the pattern of the universe, in the chime of a bell,
in the flutter of a bird’s wings, in the shape of a shell,

Breathe through your lungs, feel the earth like a stone,
drink sacred water to light fire in your bones.

You are not merely flesh, pumped to life with only blood,
you are mountains of memories, carved of chaos, called to love.

Seek not your imperfections, but the beauty you entail,
your secret subtleties that hide the bliss behind the veil.

You are constantly creating the person you become,
A force to be reckoned with, not known to just the young.

To know yourself is to love yourself, the truth that must be written,
to sell your soul, to feel your whole, was not sold to us as fiction.

So continue causing galaxies across the universe,
create positive vibrations with a future you re-word.

You are more than just a moment someone taught you to rehearse,
you contain divine intention that can truly change the world.

Photo c/o Jonathan H. Lee