Not You Too

I was in my mid-twenties when a friend gifted me four or five books for my birthday that included The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao . I read every book in the stack in just a couple of weeks, except for the Junot Diaz title. It stared at me for months from my bookshelf because I knew I needed to brace myself. Those days were full of a lot of glittery vampires and students at schools of witchcraft and wizardry: for me, the most effective escapism from the sting of a broken heart and a difficult recovery from attempted assault. 

When I did finally read it, I was undone. The hot, choking tears I cried  took me weeks to process. I’d just read a soul-shaking piece of work that left me both stunned in admiration for Diaz’ prowess as a writer and desperately grieving for both his characters and my own experience. It wasn’t really a pleasant read but it didn’t need to be. I was moved. Junot gained a fan that day even if it took me awhile to realize it.

His body of work has meant so much to me,  particularly as one of the few in a small pool of successful Latinx authors to “make it big.” His blurb on a book will immediately make me pick it up. His speech at the American Booksellers Association 2018 Winter Institute on representation again brought on the waterworks and filled me with big, bubbly Latina pride. I’ve lauded his children’s book Islandborn  for allowing little brown girls to see themselves so beautifully reflected in the pages of kids literature. I sobbed through every word of his New Yorker piece where he revealed his own experience with sexual assault. I applauded his bravery, his honesty and his unique ability to wield the written word into a powerful punch to the stomach.

Why then, WHY, did I have to wake up to the news that #MeToo has now come for the great Junot Diaz? Several women have come forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct and all I can do is sigh. This is the one for me that stings, that fills me with a burning and unfair temptation to hope that it isn’t true... that it was a misunderstanding... that it wasn’t that bad... that these women are just out to get him. I want to slap myself for that train of thought, even if it only lasted four or five seconds. When karma calls to task the ones we love and respect, it’s too easy to make excuses. I won’t do that. I know better. But boy, does this fucking suck. 

I’m now seeing a lot of folks calling that New Yorker piece a preemptive strike. I’m hanging on, clawing maniacally to the hope that this just isn’t true. I need it not to be. That piece ripped me open and then put me back together. To lure in readers with such a raw and vulnerable revelation and have it all be a power move is such a gross betrayal. Even in my profuse anger though, I’m reminded that he too - in theory- was a victim; it’s not that far a leap to conclude that his own violent experience and inability to cope with it effectively led to his own destructive and abusive behavior.

I’m trying to balance my empathy for his experience with the conviction that it doesn’t excuse- even if it does in part explain- his own abusive behavior. It’s a mind-fuck, and I hate it. There is not a scenario in which I could ever, ever defend the act of an abuser and I will not dare sit here and attempt to tell any of the women he’s hurt to give the guy a break. I also know that abuse really is a vicious cycle; I’m trying so hard to see the man who wrote that New Yorker piece as one hurting and trying to heal by working through his role in that cycle.

I cannot deny the convenience of its timing. I read it twice again this morning and cannot definitely say one way or the other what it’s true intent is. I only know how it made me feel, the same as I know how the works of so many accused have made me feel. Which brings me to the other shitty part about all of the #metoo movement: not knowing how to move forward. I haven’t yet figured out how to detach myself from prior consumption of the art of the accused. Even if I refuse to support it going forward, can I ever unfeel what I felt in the past? Should I? Where do I draw the line? Am I only considering the line at all because the accusations happen to be against someone I like? 

I still hope it isn’t true. Something tells me it is. It’s awful, and never-nding. It hurts. I don’t have a pretty and hopeful spin to end on here because I’m still too angry to get there. I just want all of these men to do better. Stop letting us down. 

Échale Sal

I landed in Miami on a Wednesday afternoon, the leggings, tank top and hooded sweatshirt that had barely kept me warm in San Diego now slowly dampening with sweat. A fine layer of dew settled on my skin in the thick, humid heat and my quickly frizzing hair stuck to the back of my neck. This was vacation weather. I welcomed it with open arms. 

I met my friend K at our South Beach hotel and we immediately went out in search of food. Only just  slightly put together in baseball caps and large sunglasses, we walked less than a block away to a spot called Bacon Bitch because how could we not? We gorged on delicious croissant sandwiches - a rich lobster confection dripping with heavenly butter for K and a salty, tangy Cuban for me. We washed them down with frozen concoctions from the attached bar, aptly named Drunk Bitch. The red neon lettering above the joint read, "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe." There it was: instant trip motto.

And then we napped. Bliss. K is one of those people who can sleep until the cows come home, leave and then come back again wanting to know what's for dinner. This is one of the reasons why I love travelling with her - in her presence, I allow myself that beautiful mid-afternoon sleep, the kind that feels downright delicious and naughty-feeling. We sunk deeply into one of these naps that day, the sounds of the city lulling us into slumber. This is how I know I'm relaxed, when I can shut my brain off long enough to indulge in a little casual restoration, guilt-free.

We awoke in the evening and prettied ourselves up just enough to walk to Puerto Sagua, one of those casual spots that's always poppin' and where the food tastes like a Cuban Abuela is cooking it up in the back. We devoured piping hot papas rellenas and salty tostones dipped in the buttery, garlic elixir that is mojo sauce. We shared plates of juicy ropa vieja and savory picadillo with black beans and both white and yellow rice porque #YOLO. We ended the evening and early morning at a speak-easy bar where we sipped on finely crafted potions: Old Fashion style drinks for K, signature floral concoctions for me. 

The next four days were spent aboard a cruise ship bound for Key West and the Bahamas. Our days blended into nights as we soaked up the sun by beach or by pool, drink in one hand and a book in the other. We napped and then rallied for comedy shows and dance performances, late dinners and nights spent dancing to salsa, cumbia and merengue. We snorkeled in the aquamarine waters of Key West and marveled at reefs in the Gulf of Mexico; we took photos at the Southernmost Point, ate fresh conch fritters and fish tacos, cooled down with frosty paletas de coco from a street cart and just barely fit in slices of sweet and sour key lime pie from an adorable shop. We drank in the beauty of Bahamian shores on a private island near Nassau where the only items on the agenda were to eat more conch fritters, drink some cold beer and float in those same teal, blue and impossibly clear waters. Sunshine, sun block, sun tan (ehhem, and a little sunburn that looks like tiger stripes on my boobs thanks to my lace-up bathing suit). Lather, rinse, refill, repeat. 

We disembarked the boat on Monday morning, craving cafe con leche, another round of Cuban food and as much of Miami as we could soak up with what hours we had left. We went straight to Little Havana and hauled our bags up and down Calle Ocho in our own little spontaneous food tour: desayuno at El Exquisito complete with eqqs, hash browns, croquetas, tostada and the most perfect little cup of cafe con leche for less than $6.00 apiece; flaky, buttery pastelitos de guayaba con queso at Yisell Bakery; scoops of decadent ice cream at Azucar unlike anything I've ever tasted: the famous Abuela Maria flavor was rich with guava, cream cheese and crispy, sweet Maria cookies, the creamy mamey flavor a tropical burst of decadence. We stopped at a Cuban market and a couple of shops where I nabbed a fedora, some Cuban cigars and two packets of $1 guava paste to take home. These and the $10 handmade seaglass ring I bought in Nassau were the recuerdos I just couldn't leave without. 

As we awaited a Lyft to our next destination, a woman approached us and asked in Spanish if we were looking to cross the street. She was older, short with long, unkempt black hair, a little chubbs and wearing a bright yellow t-shirt as a very short dress. What she's actually asked was, "Van a cruzar la calle, chicas? Porque yo les paro el trafico con el culo!" I chuckled and replied in my Mexican Spanish that no, we would not be crossing and she lit up immediately - "Oye! Tu eres Mexicana!" She then proceeded to stroll right into oncoming traffic and lift up that t-shirt to reveal her dimpled, downward-sloping derriere in a black thong, scream-singing Mexico, Lindo & Querido at me in the middle of Calle Ocho giving not one smooth, solid fuck about no honking cars. K said something like, "Oh, she meant literally!" as we both stared in giggly shock. She wouldn't let us leave until I promised to take her to Jalisco and K consented to take a picture of her and our Lyft driver. Our driver thought we knew the lady and we thought she did. Nope. Just a stranger stopping traffic con el culo.

The rest of our day was spent strolling around the absolutely stunning grounds of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, amazed at this gem of natural beauty nestled in this bustling city. We also marveled at just how many Quinceañera photo shoots appeared to be going down on a Monday afternoon, wondering later if maybe some of those were actually some Prom Dress/Fashion Nova sessions instead. Still, the place was gorgeous. A picture-perfect ending to a picture-perfect trip. 

Now is when I confess that I came to Miami with baggage and a mood, things of a personal nature that I'll perhaps explore on this blog at a later time. I'm learning slowly that it is not only possible but perfectly acceptable to still feel sadness when you're quite happy with your life in general. I am also beginning to see how important it is to discuss the things that ail us, especially as women, perhaps not in intimate detail, but in whatever way makes us most comfortable. There really is a profound relief in knowing that we aren't alone in our feelings, in our struggle. Our pain may feel sharp and completely unique in our hearts but odds are, a very similar hurt has been shared by one or more (much more) of the women we know.

Travel never ceases to do wondrous things for me. It always, always makes the baggage feel lighter. I keep waiting for the effect to wear off but it never does, and it only makes me want to see more of so many parts unknown. I haven't completely shaken the heaviness but it did in part dissolve slowly in the sun. Isak Dinesin once said that the cure for anything is salt: sweat, tears or the sea. There's also the salt in a perfect meal, on the rim of a cold beverage. Seriously. Échale sal.

I want to pack my bags again. I want more sun. Snow is cool too. I want to see places I've never been to as well as those that I know and love. I want to experience new and fascinating cultures, and also surround myself with the majesty of my vibrant, colorful, Latinos. I want to dance, to laugh, to float, to fly, to drink and to savor. Quiero gozar. These are the things that heal me, that brighten my shadows and inject whimsical melodies into my melancholy. This is what travel does for me. So travel I must, and will. 

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Las Gracias

So.

I’m a writer. Like I’m actually calling myself one these days and I no longer awkwardly justify the title with a bunch of embarrassed little qualifiers.

My passport got three new stamps this year. I lived abroad for almost two months in destinations I never thought I’d see in real life - one of which I’ve now visited twice in one year.

I work in a charming bookstore and beautiful boutique in a progressive, tight-knit neighborhood. South Park gives me hope for the future and reminds me that we can and will  do better.

I get to read, by extension, for a living.

I’m healthy. In fact, stronger every day, thanks to pilates.

Friend circle is small and fabulous.

Family is thriving.

My love life... well, that is some bullshit but you know what? It just ain’t my turn. Do any of you know a Jason Momoa lookalike? Get at me. Like... please.

Right *now* right now, I’m sipping a fantastic 2014 Grenache from a beloved boutique San Ynez Winery and taking down some ham and stuffing leftovers in my Hermione Granger T-shirt. I’m reflecting on how many times I said I was happy today. And I am happy, guys. I’m so, so happy. There’s a lot of room to grow and a lot more hard work to get into but how inSANEly lucky am I to get to do these things??

I know it sounds like I’m bragging, and I guess I am in part. I’m also just genuinely thankful and honestly? I’m really fucking proud of myself. More often than not, I got in my own way in the journey here. It takes a lot of balls to say to the world, “I think my stories are worth telling” and even more so to stand up to people you love and say, “Yeah, I want to take this crazy risk.” 

Thank you, dear reader, whether you’re new to the blog or were down from day one. For reading my work,  giving me courage, and feeding my bookish spirit. gracias. Every comment, every text, coffee shop soul session and pat on the back has helped propel me forward in more ways than you know.

 

Humbled and Bookishly Yours,

Vanessa

Mary, Mother, Queen of Scots

Back in October on a blustery day in Scotland, I entered The Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle. I soaked up the lavish details of the lushly appointed space with its wood-paneled walls and impossibly intricate carved roof. It was stunning.

What really drew me in though was a woman posing as Mary Queen of Scots at the far end of the hall. She greeted a crowd of visitors and put on a little show before inviting the crowd to approach her for a photo op. I got in line and waited my turn. At last it was time. I was finally going to meet my mom.

Let me explain.

I went to a Montessori school for two years as a kid where students were placed in one of three rooms depending on their learning pace in lieu of traditional grade levels. Blue Room was for pre-school age kids and students that needed a little bit of extra help. Orange Room was for kids learning just as expected for their age. Purple Room was for kids that were learning at a more advanced pace.

I was originally placed in Orange Room like most kids were, then was bumped up to Purple Room a few weeks later. At first, I was pretty pleased with myself. I’ve had a strong dose of Hermione Granger in me since I could talk and even at age four was a perpetually hand-raised know-it-all. I knew I was smart. Contrary to what you’d think though, I was also quite shy; I was very conscious of my Spanish accent, how little English I spoke and of the fact that I was one to three years younger than most of the other Purple Room kids. My excitement gave way to nervous hesitation.

Thanks to a fantastic and patient teacher and friendly classmates though, I found myself really enjoying Purple Room. That was until a couple of weeks later during reading time. We were split off into pairs and I was matched up with Antoinette, a girl a few years older than me whom I found intimidating as shit. She was pretty with gorgeous brown skin, long legs, and excellent reading skills, all things that she appeared to be very aware of. That in turn made me very aware of my chubby, pale-skinned, ESL awkwardness. But hey, maybe she’d be nice to me.

Nope. My stomach went even colder as she glared at me in a way that made it clear she was less than pleased to be stuck with me. Then she went and picked out the book that we were to read together. This chick went and grabbed some history book with words way beyond my reading level and sneered at me like, “Ha, that’ll show you to think you’re hot shit.” She made me go first and rolled her eyes every time I stumbled on a word I didn’t recognize, laughing each time my little Mexican mouth pronounced the “sh” sounds as “ch.”

Right when I was set to unleash the waterworks, Antoinette grabbed the book from me and let out an exasperated sigh. “Here, just let me read it,” she huffed as she yanked the book from my lap. I just nodded and blinked back the tears, thinking I’d spare myself any more humiliation by just letting her flex and read to me. That’s when she skipped ahead a few pages and began to read me the story of Mary Queen of Scots.

I don’t remember half of what she read, either because I didn’t understand that shit or because I was concentrating too hard on not wetting myself. I snapped to attention though when she asked, “So, do you ever miss you real mom?”

Huh? Me confused. I looked at her, she looked at me, and when I didn’t say anything back, she smirked. “Oh, you don’t know do you? Mary Queen of Scots was your real mom, but she betrayed her country and got her head cut off for treason and no one knew what to do with you. That’s when the people you live with now decided to take you, because your real mom is dead. I am so sorry.”

Santa Madre. I managed not to cry or clock this girl, but only because I was in cold shock. I sat there rigid as this monster kept reading like she hadn’t just shattered my little soul to pieces. Again, I was four years old. I didn’t get that this Mary Queen of Scots chick lived and died centuries ago, or that I wasn’t Scottish, or that kids lie. I absolutely, positively believed that I was adopted and my real mom’s dome had been chopped off for treason, whatever the hell that was.

I held it together until I got home, then yelled through tears, “You’re not my real mom!” as I walked in the door. My mom listened to my hysterical story and by the grace of God did not just dunk me in some holy water and write me off as possessed. She calmly brought out the baby books and photographs. My actual newborn photo was a weak link in the chain of evidence since I legit looked like a different baby one month later (see exhibit A below - where did all that melanin go??). Subsequent photos made a stronger case: ones of my mom as a kid that I would have sworn were of me, one of my dad and I side by side where it’s plain that I got my chin from him.

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After an hour or so, I was 99% satisfied with my mother’s Little Girl, You Best Believe I Birthed You presentation. She advised that I ignore Antoinette in the future, lest she try to convince me that Zapata was my daddy. I don’t remember her being in my class the following year and I’ve always low-key wondered what became of her. I mean, isn’t that some sociopath shit to tell a younger student that she was adopted because her real mama’s head was chopped off?? Anyway, I wish her well and I hope she knows that I’VE MOVED ON.

Ha. That’s coming from the girl who almost three decades later waited in line to get a photo with a Queen Mary stand in. I guess maybe I needed to see her for myself, you know, just to be, like, super sure there was no resemblance.

After the photo was taken, I sat on a bench to laugh at its absurdity. I mean, look at the thing. I look like a lumpy mess on account of the bajillion layers I was wearing to shield me from the nippy wind and I’m trying unsuccessfully not to smirk. Still, it’s one of my favorite photos from the whole trip. When I look at it, it reminds me that not too long ago, I stood in a castle that overlooks one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the castle where the very queen whom I once believed to be my treasonous mother had lived and reigned for some time. I went on to visit the café where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, drank real Scotch whiskey (and choked on it, peat is no joke). I walked the Royal Mile and climbed Arthur’s Seat. I explored the Scottish Highlands and roamed the Isle of Skye, trying haggis and black pudding and almost getting blown away by the wind.

So take that, Antoinette. I win.

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Heartburn

I'd hoped to publish a happier piece about my travels in England today- about the buzz and vibrant energy of London that I relish unapologetically, the tranquility (and isolation, both for better and for worse) of the lush and expansive countryside. I wanted to tell you about pints and pubs and beautiful bookstores; afternoon teas and delicious eats; magical theatre and jaw-dropping landscapes. And oh, the hilarious anecdotes of a sassy English grandmother with a penchant for wine and passive-aggressive commentary. 

I’ve also got a story about a hangover that lead to a missed train in London that kept me out of harm’s way; I can tell you all about my panic from across the pond while hurricanes and earthquakes ravaged the countries of my birth and ethnicity. The Spanish city I've just excitedly planned to visit is plagued with police violence and political unrest. France is mourning the victims of a stabbing in Marseilles and now a deadly shooting in Las Vegas has left 50 victims dead and over 400 injured. 

And if all of that wasn't enough - the loss of life and the destruction and the heartbreak - there is the matter of my non-president. Every morning another asinine (and oft hypocritical) tweet, another piece of bigoted vitriol, another outright lie and an outrage that just *cannot* actually be happening in 2017 except somehow it sure as shit is. This administration works daily to make me sick to my stomach and I have absolutely ZERO time for anyone pig-headedly determined to defend it. It. just. isn’t. right.

To say I'm hurt or heart broken is insufficient. My heart burns.

It’s hard not to feel powerless from my post out here in the English countryside. I confess to feeling guilty for chasing a travel dream and generally enjoying myself while the world is out here burning. That feeling lingers, hard as I try to squash it. It's exhausting to feel ashamed of your joy.

One of the perks of my current assignment is its location at a lovely country home that sits on 45 acres of  idyllic woods plucked from a fairytale. I get lost in their natural beauty on a regular basis while walking the family dogs and man, all that nature and silence are good for deep thought. Lately those thoughts have been in reflection on the ways in which travel is not selfish but essential. Time and again, I find that a more honed and developed sense of empathy tops that list.

This reminds of what Anthony Bourdain said on a recent episode of Parts Unknown: “I just wish that more American had passports. The extent to which you can see how other people live seems useful at worst and incredibly pleasurable and interesting at best.” Picture me waving pom-poms in affirmation here. Travel has been not only a fulfilling and enjoyable experience but an exercise in taking the time to consider the hows, whats, and whys of other cultures. I haven’t always agreed with what I’ve seen and learned, but the learning part has been an invaluable takeaway. My eyes, my heart, my brain and my soul are more open and all of this in turn has made me a more tolerant person. This may seem small, but the effect is a potent one: being able to see the humanity in people who don’t look or think like you is a very basic and easy step towards many of the ills that plague us.

I challenge you to practice greater empathy, and if you can, to travel often and everywhere. Imagine what progress might be achieved if a greater percentage of our population sought to see more and thus know more, if we formed our assessment of other cultures and also religions, gender identity, skin color, etc through an informed and empathic approach. Might we see less otherism and find a greater common ground?

I have three weeks left before I return to the states. I hope that time will pass much more uneventfully on the disaster front so that I might return to SoCal and eat all the Mexican food available to me in relative calm and peace. For now, I intend to enjoy what's left of my time abroad and continue to learn, to grow, to observe, to absorb... to come back changed in ways that make the energy I bring to the world a beautiful and hopeful one.

 

Bookishly yours, 

Vanessa

 

 

A quickie little update

Hey lovers!

Sorry to be MIA! An exciting opportunity recently surfaced that while still tentative has taken up a decent chunk of my time. That plus all the promotion and physical work that went into the first ever San Diego Festival of Books (which was SOOOO amazing!!!) had my hands tied when not glued to a keyboard. Also… I’m leaving for almost two months to England and Scotland in about a week and a half, so….. lot’s going on!! 

I’m wrapping up a few projects and will get back to writing my own stuff shortly. Thank to those following on the gram as I post bookish pictures of my reading habits, writing processes and general nerdish tendencies. 

Bookishly yours,

Vanessa

I Haven't Read Anything

So I’ve been in bookish bliss for a little over a month now. As those who’ve followed along know, I left the corporate job behind on a little over a month ago and have been splitting my time between a beautiful shop offering goods for home & hearth and an adorable indie bookstore. Both shops are incredible but I do of course have a little soft spot for the bookstore. It amazes me every day how long I went without knowing that doing what you love as a job could make you this stupidly happy.

My duties are predictable enough: open and close the store, ring people up for their purchases, take in and account for new inventory, manage special orders, maintain cleanliness and organization of the store, and put together/add to book and product displays. I’m also in charge of the Instagram account, website and changing messages on the sidewalk sign which I enjoy WAY too much to be normal. My recent sidewalk creations include, “Hey, we just met you, and this is crazy, but we sell books here, so read them maybe?” and “You know we’re all about those books, ‘bout those books, no Kindles! (just kidding, those are cool too).” Hand me a piece of chalk and a little autonomy and I’m drunk with dork power.

Then there’s handselling: actually talking about and making book recommendations. I go full nerd when I get to do this. I will admit that I expected to do it more often than I actually do. Perhaps it’s that my shop is located in a very small, quaint community where the folks who come in do so either to browse casually on their afternoon stroll or otherwise come in with a super specific selection already in mind. Maybe that’s a trend in other stores too thanks to the internet and apps like Goodreads that users can now rely on to get all of their bookish recs and reviews. Either way, the opportunity to actually rattle off books I think people would enjoy is one that I’ve had to create through conversation more often than not, which is totally fine. Your girl can talk, no issue there.

You know what I’ve learned though? I haven’t read shit.

How is that possible?? I read an average of 50 books a year. I read more in a month than some people read in 365 days or in some cases, in all of their lives. I read across multiple genres, both in print and on audio, I follow book blogs and listen to bookish podcasts and keep abreast of trends and new releases. So how is it that every damn day, I have to say the words, “You know, I haven’t read that book myself but…?” Tha fuck? Books are my thing! How am I coming up so short all the time?

Turns out working in a bookstore will make you acutely aware not of all that you have read but of eeeeeverything that you haven’t. It’s like living in a physical manifestation of my TBR list – everywhere are piles and shelves of books that I want to read while boxes of new ones keep coming in to make that list longer. Sure, there are tons of things in the store that I have read. Those selections are quiet though, minding their own business and existing silent from their place on the shelves and tables. It’s the ones I haven’t read that seem to waive me down on the regular and mock me to shreds, screaming “Hey, hey you! Hey girl, over here! You ain’t read this, have you! And you call yourself a reader, bruh?”  

This really ate at me for a minute there. I pulled up my Goodreads account and perused the list of books I’d read in recent years. What the hell had I been reading? What books had I been shoving my nose into if I was now feeling this inadequate about my reading habits? It became a bit of an obsession for a good 48 hours. My findings:

1.       I love old books.

My favorite author is Agatha Christie. If you read even casually then you might just know who that is; the rest of you might be pulling up the Google machine now to find out that Dame Agatha has been dead for many moons and was a British crime writer, commonly hailed as the Queen of Crime. Her work is classic. Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There Were None are books that I still reread from time to time and am blown away anew by that woman’s ability to hit you with the most left-field, outta nowhereist of twists. My goal is to read and own her entire catalog, which is extensive. I try to read anywhere from two to five of those a year. I still have work to do.

I also love classics. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women – they changed my life. You know what else? There are a TON of classics I haven’t read. Anna Karenina has been making a fool out of me for the better of part of two decades. That shit is my great white whale and I don’t know that I’ll ever vanquish it.

The point here is that because I do spend a formidable amount of time reading old books, I don’t always read new ones that are buzzy and trendy and cool. This doesn’t make me a bad reader – reading classics is never going to be a bad way to spend your reading time. Classics will always be a good default and are after all the blueprint for so much of modern literature.

 

2.       I actually have read a lot of “buzzy” books.

I may have been a little bit hard on myself. When I embarked on my “what the fuck have I been reading” project on Goodreads, I quickly discovered that I’ve done a pretty good job of not only reading some pretty popular/noteworthy/trendy reads, but I’ve managed to do so while reading diversely. I’ve read fantasy and magical realism, essay collections and memoirs, historical fiction and contemporary fiction; I’ve read a lot of books by women and POC, books by authors that identify as LGBT and that feature LGBT characters.

The thing is, as any reader worth their salt will tell you, one’s TBR list is an ever evolving entity. I spend most of my reading life feeling fairly positive what my next read will be then shaking the list up entirely when another interesting book is released and grabs my attention. That’s life in general though: the only constant is change so you may as well embrace the excitement. If you stick to a plan unwaveringly without leaving room for new additions, you may – in fact, WILL- miss out on a lot of great reads and amazing opportunities.

3.       There are too many books in the world. I’ll never read them all and that is a-okay.

There is one person that I know of on this earth that may just come close to reading ALL THE BOOKS, and that is “velocireader” Liberty Hardy. Miss Liberty is a contributor at BookRiot.com who singlehandedly compiles the New Release Index available to members of Book Riot Insiders (of which I’m of course a member *pops collar*), is the author of the New Books newsletter and cohost of the Book Riot’s All the Books podcast. You don’t have to know much about Liberty thus to know that this chick reads SO. MANY. BOOKS. I’m talking books – as in plural – a day. HUH!?? I met her at a book convention hosted by Book Riot a couple of years ago in New York and approached her with all the reverence and humility appropriate for meeting the Dalai Lama. I walked slowly and cautiously towards her and I think I even whispered my hello like a fucking creep. She didn’t have security called so it all worked out.

For a while, as I got more into the book blogging community and Book Riot in particular, I compared my own reading habits to Liberty’s – she’d rattle off all the books she’d read, and not in a braggy way so much as just on natural tangents when discussing new releases – and I’d think, “Girl but do you eat!?” I quickly discovered that continuing this comparison would make me want to end it all. I even tweeted her and some of the other ladies of the Book Riot podcasts to tell them that they were exploding my TBR lists straight out of control; Liberty tweeted back at me with a GIF of Beyonce doing a body roll and the caption “sorry not sorry.” It be like that.

The lesson here is that there is no keeping up with the pace of people like Liberty and really – you don’t have to. You don’t even need to read as much as I do, or at all, really, if reading isn’t your bag. If you are a reader, however intense or casual, the focus of your reading should be purpose and not pace. That will look different for each of us – some of us read for knowledge, some for pleasure, some for perspective or an escape (HELLO? Like when your president won’t renounce white supremacy, @#T^@%!) or all of the above. I’m choosing to worry more about the quality of what I’m reading and what it does to enrich my life, then concentrate on that. I don’t want to dwell on all the books I’m not reading and forget to absorb the one in hand.

So there is my little bookish stream of consciousness for the week, a peek into my reading life and confirmation that I do indeed sleep, eat and socialize in between devouring as many books as I can. I may not have all the answers for my customers but I do have plenty of knowledge to draw from. I also have the time, space and opportunity to expand that knowledge, and that, my friends, is why life is so great.

Oh, and because so many have asked recently, here is a snapshot of the last 25 books I read. Have questions? Need a recommendation? Hit me up! And if you're really feeling generous and supportive, follow the bookstore on Instagram! We're @westgrovesouthpark - thanks a bookish bunch! 

 

1.       Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

2.       Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan

3.       The Wild Woman’s Guide to Travelling the World by Kristin Rockaway

4.       Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helene Petersen

5.       The Good People by Hannah Kent (not out yet, I was sent an Advanced Copy, okaaaaay? #feelingmyself)

6.       Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco

7.       We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

8.       Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam

9.       Born a Crime: Stores from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

10.   This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

11.   The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

12.   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

13.   Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

14.   A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain

15.   The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

16.   So, Anyway… by John Cleese

17.   The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

18.   Turn of Mind by Alicia LaPlante

19.   Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

20.   White Teeth by Zadie Smith

21.   Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

22.   Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

23.   Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

24.   Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

25.   Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

----

Other Fun Stuff:

Think Me: Don't get caught up in what you haven't accomplished yet or dwell on how you could have done things sooner. Just do them now and trust the process.

Read Me: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helene Petersen. I don't know how to sell this enough: it's an incredibly entertaining analysis of several polarizing female figures, women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, Serena Williams, Megan Mccarthy. It takes a look at the cultural phenomena that each of these women represents - love them or hate them - and dives into why they've each been deemed "too" much of a certain quality - too pregnant, too shrill, too queer, too slutty, etc. It isn't one giant defense of each of the women discussed - it's quite nuanced and honest and comprehensive in it's observations of the ways in which these women have made a name for themselves. It seeks to understand how they're affected by misogyny, sexism and where each operate within a feminist space. It's SO FUCKING GOOD. Read this now! 

Drink Me: Rose Milk Tea from 85 Degrees Bakery. Holy florals! This stuff is addicting - delicately flavored, sweet perfection. 

Hear Me: Sorry Not Sorry by Demi Lovato. Alright, sometimes I like pop and I don't care how you feel about that. Ladies - listen to this song and tell me you don't feel like a bad bitch after, especially if you watch the FIIIIIIRE choreography done to this song at Millenium Dance by the great Jojo Gomez. See it here - I've watched it about a thousand times and may or may not have mimicked the moves in my bedroom. 

 

Ink and Glory

For most of my life, I’ve struggled with an exhausting dichotomy: being the independent “I do what I want!” person that I’m outwardly conceived to be and being the kid who ultimately is still entirely too concerned with making her parents proud. I know what you’re thinking: those qualities don’t need to be mutually exclusive. You’re technically right, pero…. when you were raised by conservative, Catholic, Mexican parents, that concept ain’t quite so simple.

I made all of the “right” choices growing up. I was a straight A student who took more than all my required classes, did volunteer work and held down a part-time job. I never did drugs and the most I ever had to drink was a few sips of Boones Farm or a bottle of Smirnoff Ice (we thought we were SO fucking cool). I got into every college I applied to except UCSB (what the fuck, Gauchos?) and was fortunate enough, with a combination of scholarships, loans and a very generous gift from a family member, to attend my dream school – the University of Southern California.

After four years as an undergrad at SC, I stayed in LA another four working post grad. Those eight years molded and shaped me in ways that forever altered the trajectory of my life. San Diego felt small as hell compared to LA, which brought me my first exposure to so many unfamiliar cultures (“Oh, you’re Latino and not Mexican?”) and ways of life. Every day confronted me with a new concept to weigh, a challenge to the conservative ideals with which I was raised. And so I changed. A lot. I like to think these qualities were always in me, but I learned to name them and claim them out loud: I am someone who is tolerant, who embraces difference and sees beauty in it, who demands the right to make decisions about her own body, who owns her sexuality, who wants to be seen as an equal.

Even with all this new knowledge and perspective, I was still too allegiant to my parents to really come into my own. Note: this is not an indictment of their parenting or their belief system so don’t come for me. My parents were loving and supportive in all the ways they knew how to be. They still are. I was just turning out to be a very different person than they were with every passing day and that dissonance proved too daunting to confront. I am liberal in almost all the ways in which they are conservative, a fact that has started more than a few arguments with my father. He thinks I’m crazy and I in turn think his beliefs are outdated. Those conversations have often brought me to crushed, disappointed, how-can-you-not-see-how-wrong-this-is tears. Those moments have been jarring.

It became easier just to stop trying to assert myself and instead fly under the radar. I kept my feminist ideology to myself because I was afraid my father would misinterpret it as a Slut Manifesto. I stayed in a career that I was totally unfulfilled by, quit it, and then spent another two years back in a similar position because that’s what was safe and reasonable and I knew that made my parents breathe easier. I’ve obsessed about my weight and other aspects of my appearance because my worth seemed so attached to these things. I’ve separated myself into two halves: the muted shade of myself that is palatable around family and the loud, colorful, opinionated version that I have slowly learned to unveil around everybody else.

Until now. I’ve made quite plain over the course of the last several months that I’ve reached a tipping point that has armed me with a newfound bravery. It is an imperfect courage and is not impenetrable, but it is formidable enough to push me to make waves. I left the career I didn’t love, I’ve planned a two month move to the UK, I’ve begun work as a bookseller and am trying to make the writer thing happen while I apply for grad school. And two weeks ago on a fateful Saturday evening, I informed my parents that I’d be home late one Saturday evening because I was getting a tattoo.

Bruuuuuuuh… their reaction. My dad looked at me in a way that had me questioning whether my ass had stepped into a time machine and altered history. Was I sixteen and had I just told him I was pregnant with a meth-head boyfriend’s baby? No? GEES. I knew all along that neither he nor my mom would be in love with the idea. Why do you think I waited until the very day of the tattoo appointment to tell them about it? I ain’t no fool. Still, I did not think he was going to go full heartbreak on me. My mom’s reaction wasn’t as dramatic but she did pull a face and tell me she didn’t like tattoos. I assured them I’d be the same person after someone drew something on my arm and walked away, but not before I could hear my dad say, “You will regret this decision for the rest of your life!!!” It’s a tat, Dad, not grand larceny or, I dunno, a vote to take healthcare away from millions of people.  

Later that day, my dad sent me a text several swipes in length reiterating how much I’d regret the decision and piling on the guilt. I didn’t waiver. Like I told him in a reply that went unanswered, I’m 32 gosh damn years old. I never turned up pregnant, I never did drugs. I went to college and built a career, and even if I didn’t love it, I did well at it. Above and beyond all of that: I’m a good person with a good heart, things my father taught me to be. A tattoo wouldn’t change any of that.

Something most people don’t know? I’ve walked into a tattoo parlor on nine different occasions over the course of almost ten years, intent on getting inked. When I walked away from an abusive relationship, when I graduated from SC, when I survived an attack, when I left LA for San Diego, the day I’d gone one year without a hurtful eating habit…. in moments of bravery, of relief, of marked importance, I wanted so badly to do this thing for myself. I wanted a symbol of resilience, of strength, an indelible reminder that while I cannot control what happens to me, I can control how I react. On all nine occasions, even after having the art drawn out by the artist, I backed out. Why? You guessed it: I was terrified of parental backlash.

I’m not afraid anymore. It took a long time, but I finally decided that they’d just have to deal – with my risky career move and with the big, beautiful, expertly shaded piece of ink I now sport on my right forearm. I chose a quill, a design I settled on years ago. It’s a slice of beauty on the arm I write with so I see it every time I pick up a pen. It’s my writer badge, my firm statement to the world and to myself that there’s no turning back. I don’t care who loves it or hates it – I love it, relish it. So I’m good.

As for the parentals… they were in bed when I came home at 9:30 PM that Saturday night – I think they were in mourning. The next day, they went to church at 6AM, probs to pray for my soul, but I did run into them when they came back as I was leaving for work. I played it cool and like nothing was wrong, making chit chat with them and daring them to comment. They had no outwardly negative reaction but gave short answers to my attempts at conversation, acting like they were straight eeeeenthralled with this rerun-ass episode of SVU on the television. I laughed and thought, “Fine. Take a minute.” And they did. They haven’t exactly acknowledged that it’s there, but we’ve gone back to normal. I’m sure they hate it but they don’t hate me, and that’s all that really matters.  

For now. Wait till they find out I’m dying my hair green.

Bad and Bookish

Last Monday wasn’t really Monday. I mean it was Monday but also it wasn‘t Monday because I HAD NO ALARM SET. My eyes opened when they bloody well felt like it, I had a cup of tea in bed as I curled up with a book for an hour and I swear I heard birds outside chirping “Yeeeah, girl. Live your best life.” Later that morning, I fulfilled a dream I didn’t know I even had by becoming one of those women who takes a Pilates class after 8AM on a weekday. I used to yell at these women in my head (and sometimes out loud in the safety of my car), “DON’T YOU PEOPLE HAVE JOBS!?!” I’m sorry, ladies, I get it now.  

I left my corporate property management job behind officially on Friday, June 30th and am finally focusing on writing and applying for grad school. Because I gots bills and need food to survive, I’m also working at two part-time gigs, one an adorable gift and housewares shop and the other a fantastic indie bookstore. Both stores are in South Park, my favorite charming little neighborhood in San Diego, and are around the corner from one another. On any given day, I can be seen skipping down the tree-lined street whistling to myself, entirely too jazzed to be going to work.

I’m off on Mondays and Tuesdays and work one or both jobs the rest of the week. My earliest start when working is 10 AM and some days it’s as late as 2PM; this means that working or not, I have enough time in the morning to get some writing done, enjoy that cup of tea or two and then dance around my room (literally, and full out) as I tidy up and then fit in a workout – usually Pilates or barre because I love supportive torture. I come home to get ready for the rest of my day, listening to an audio book or podcast as I splash on some makeup. I throw a little mousse in my hair for some structure and diffuse it lightly. I haven’t blown out my hair straight in two weeks – it’s wild and wavy and I’m kind of into it.

My first couple of weeks have been a blast. I’ve had the pleasure of opening and closing the bookstore (and pretending it’s my own) while thinking of creative ways to display new releases and crafting bookish puns to write on the sidewalk sign (like “Go On. Treat Yo’ Shelf.” *slaps leg and laughs at own pun*). I’ve learned about the book industry, ordering, taking inventory and gained insights into some great bookish news both locally and in the industry. I’ve sold gorgeous housewares, children’s gifts and stunning pieces of jewelry and more to people with a genuine appreciation for the art and effort that goes into curating products with purpose and displaying them with an eye for design. I’ve also been given free reign over organization projects as well as social media management and creating email blasts. Books, aesthetics, and the space to flex my planning/writing/organizing muscles: I am in my element.

The part I’m enjoying the most is how much I get to talk to people, an activity I think I’d forgotten I enjoy for a minute there. At my last job, I managed a resort-style, 500+ unit apartment community across from a private university, and while we rented to anyone who qualified, we did get a lot of interest from students whose parents could afford that resort-style price tag. Listen. A lot of the people I dealt with were great: college kids, military folks, families, young professionals, etc whom I was genuinely sad to leave behind. But MY GAWD, the handful of folks whose heady combination of money + privilege led them to think they could talk to my team and I like we were lesser human beings… they were the reason I often threw myself face-first on my bed at the end of the day and muttered, “I fucking HATE people.”

Really though, I love people and I remember that now. The cute kids who want to touch everything and squeal in delight when you give them something squishy or bouncy to play with, the husbands and boyfriends in search of a gift for their significant other, the parents who come in looking for books that will empower their kids and foster their love of reading… I love them all. I love when customers shake my hand or even hug me when I help them find the perfect little something, the fact that so many are regulars and remember my name. I love the sense of community, how wholly and incredibly different it feels to work for a small business as opposed to a huge corporation. This is all so new to me. It’s delicious.

I am never, ever bored. If I’m not rearranging or crafting some marketing material, my customers are my live theater. There was a woman who bought an oil-based fragrance from me just last week who raved about the perfection of its scent and emphatically recounted her long search for a fragrance that captured her essence. Somehow we veered off onto a tangent wherein she disclosed that she wears a necklace that’s actually a vibrator around her neck when she goes on dates. “If it doesn’t go well, I’m fine, you know?” she beamed.  “I don’t need him. I’m good! I’m good.” I laughed with her and hoped quietly that she waits until she gets home to explore the many utilities of her choice in jewelry.

Then there was the gorgeous, blonde, tattooed mom who came into the bookstore looking for “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” because she doesn’t want her daughter growing up with a Disney damsel-in-distress complex. She told her beautiful toddler that she could play with this cute stuffed fox we carry in the store but warned her to be careful with it since they would not be buying it. I locked eyes with that precious little munchkin and saw a very clear, "Oh yeah? in her expression as she proceeded to chomp down on its snout and rip off the nose. “Oops!” her her batting lashed seemed to say. “Guess we have to buy it now!” That little girl is going places, I tell ya. People are the best.

So. I get to write. I get to talk to people about books and beautifully curated gifts. Feeling useful and (slowly) knowledgeable while feeding the parts of my soul that were being starved in the name of traditional paradigms of “success” gives me a sensation that it’s taken me a minute to properly identify. It’s calm, it’s relief, it’s happiness. I'm bad and bookish, yo. Let's make that a thing. 

I leave you with a few little somethings that I’d like to start including with my blog posts. A little inspo, a little bookishness, a little peek into my current obsessions. Have a beautiful, productive, life-affirming day. Let’s stay in touch, ok?


Think Me: Take a risk. Let go of some of those I probably can’ts for a few but what if I dids and see what’s on the other side of worry.

Read Me: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby. Sweet baby Jesus, this is the most quintessential example of honest, confessional and witty writing I’ve seen in some time. Irby is acerbic with her wit and embraces TMI to the fullest, most OMG-I’m-cringing-but-I-can’t-look-away extent. It’s a collection of essays that takes you through Irby’s challenging childhood through to her struggles to get her shit together as an adult. She holds nothing back and lets you know how much of a mess she is and has been in figuring out how to adult, how to live in her skin as a fat black woman, how to make room in her life for another person and how to deal with complicated loss. The best part undoubtedly is that between about a thousand oh no you didn’ts, you find these poignant emotional revelations that anyone with a less-than-linear love, career and life path will relate to HARD.

Drink Me: Genmaicha Tea. I love green tea and am discovering just how many blends of the stuff are out there. We all know I love me some matcha, but Genmaicha is another solid favorite. It has that traditional green tea flavor with an added layer of toasted rice. It gives the tea a different depth and tastes fantastic both hot and iced. I get mine from The Loose Leaf at my favorite farmers markets in San Diego.

Hear Me: Mi Gente by J. Balvin. That beat tho!!!! I used to deny liking reggaeton as a genre because frankly, some of the stuff makes me want to jam a pen in my eardrum, which is the same way I feel about EDM. There’s a new generation of reggaeton artists and some seasoned veterans doing some pretty amazing stuff right now though, bringing beats that blend the reggaeton sound with salsa, bachatha, cumbia and allll the things that make me want to dance. This jam makes me want to be a young hoodrat in a club shaking it for all it’s worth. So instead, I do it in my room with only my books and Benedict Bookington III to judge me.

 

 My dancing offends Benny's British sensibilities.

My dancing offends Benny's British sensibilities.

 Oh you thought I was kidding?

Oh you thought I was kidding?

On Fire

Y’all… it’s been a rough couple of days on my end. I woke up yesterday at 3AM feeling like my insides wanted out and only barely made it to the porcelain bowl in time to let them attempt their escape. I subsisted all day on goldfish crackers and coconut water, then choked down some chicken and brown rice at the end of the day with some success. On the bright side, my day in bed with this flu allowed me to finish my latest read (Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty) and start a new one (Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life). I unfortunately missed one of only seven days left at my job and felt too nauseous to even look at a computer screen to write.

Questionable gut health aside, I’m pretty damn excited for the changes coming in about a week. I am at last doing what I said I would do the last time I quit my job to chase a dream. I’m actually taking the leap of faith, the scary slash in income and the total upheaval of my schedule in the pursuit of the career and life I really, truly want. I thought I’d share how the big decision finally came to pass.

It all started with England. As I prepared to leave on my two week trip, I was typing up a “while I’m gone” email for my team at the apartment community I manage. I’d originally picked March for my big adventure because that would typically have been our slow season; in an unforeseen turn of events, my owners put our property up for sale and the whole “we shouldn’t be too busy” thing went clean out the window. In the middle of putting together my Vanessa Bible for handling the workflow, I overheard my boss on the phone telling a vendor of ours that I'd be out for while. When asked where I was going, she said she thought I was going off to chase Harry Potter or something.

I walked over to her office with my best, “Bitch, what?” expression and explain to her that my fervent desire to visit Britain wasn’t just about HP. Yeah, I had the Warner Brothers studio tour planned but it’s not like I was going to try all the phone booths in London to see if they were portals to the Ministry of Magic. I gave her the whole rundown of what England meant for me, all the literary allure from childhood to present day. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You aren’t coming back.” I told her that of course I’d return, but she was adamant and we both laughed as joked about imaginary scenarios where I met a beautiful Englishman with a flare for bookish Latinas and started a new life in the English countryside. The last thing I said before I left that afternoon was, “Just watch, the property is going to sell while I’m gone.” It was a joke, of course. Sales like these usually take months.

So then I got to England and my world was set on fire. The big stuff on the trip was of course impressive: seeing The Mousetrap in the West End, visiting the Jane Austen Centre, touring Lacock Abbey and the Roman Baths and standing in front of Tower Bridge. But it was the small, quiet moments that bowled me over – drinking a pint at a local pub with the friendly faces of folks I met only moments before, being served tea by warm and lovely folks who called me “love and “darling,” driving through streets lined with tightly packed brick houses, living and breathing the lush and timeless beauty that is the English countryside. It was everything I ever hoped it could be. 

It was my trip to the British Museum during those first few days in London though that really put a shift in motion. I was getting ready to hop off a bus at the British Library but the intersection was packed to the brim with people and typical London traffic. I decided I’d head to the museum instead and exited the bus when a woman tapped me on the shoulder. I took my headphones out of one ear and she asked in an American accent if I could please direct her to the museum. I revealed that I was not myself a local and she said I’d had her fooled, and it’s a miracle that my head didn't immediately explode.

We agreed to walk to the museum together and talked along the way about the reason for our travels. She was on vacation during spring break and so I imagined she was an educator. I explained that I was on a bit of a “read pray love” trip to see a place I’d fantasized about since childhood. I casually threw in that I was hoping I’d find the inspiration I needed to finally make a career out of my passion, to be a writer and possibly a librarian. She lit up and looked at me incredulously. “That’s what I did!” she beamed, and I looked at her dumbfounded.

When my words failed me and all I could do was stare at her stupidly, she went on to tell me that she’d been a corporate attorney for most of her adult life. She woke up one morning, exhausted from her impossible hours and drained of motivation, and decided enough was enough. She quit her job, went back to grad school for a Masters in Library Science and was now a librarian at a private K-12 school in New York - hence the spring break. Tears came to my eyes as I thought back to just a few days ago when I’d stayed up late to look up online MLIS programs. I think I said something real eloquent like, “You stole my life!” She was nothing but gracious and gave me all kinds of tips for applying and finding a job afterwards. As we got to the steps of the museum and prepared to part ways, she touched my arm and said, “Do it. You won’t regret it.”

The rest of the trip was a dream; inspiration found me at every corner (pssst: peep those blog posts to read all about it – more to come in the future). When it was time to come hone, I looked forward to seeing my friends and family. The anticipation of regaling them with tales of my travels was matched though by such a palpable sadness. I'd left beautiful Britain behind entirely too soon, before I could even scratch the surface on it's beauty. So: it was settled. I'd have to go back. I set up price alerts on all of my usual travel sites and wondered how I would convince my employer to give me another two (or three??) weeks of vacation in a few months. 

The following morning my boss text me and asked me to call her as soon as I could. I expected some bad news about a resident or employee. I did not expect to hear that our property had sold. SOLD. Less than two weeks and it sold. Because it sold, I’d receive a nice little stay-on bonus so long as I remained through close of escrow. I started to laugh like a crazy person, tears streaming down my face as I cackled. This was it, it was my sign. It was a little financial boost to make things happen, a transitional period in which to make my move. I made some inquiries, searched my soul, and then spoke the words out loud to my boss: I was going to quit. I'd apply for grad school. I'd go back to England, for longer this time. It all became real in what felt like a flash.

That was months ago. My time with the company is drawing to a close. One week from today, I will hand in my keys and walk out of my office for the last time. It's time. 

England will come later this year. For now, I’ll be working in South Park, my dream neighborhood, at two stores called Gold Leaf and West Grove. One is a home décor and gifts store full of beautiful, curated items that I want to buy all of (but won’t). The other is… get this… a book store. A freaking BOOK STORE. And as part of my work at the book store, I will get to help in the organizing of San Diego’s first ever book fair. Both stores boast amazing people who I’m so excited to work with and for. I’ll work weekends, make a hell of a lot less money and I’ll have to get my own health insurance. I’m going to really have to up my freelance game, but it will force me to write harder and more often.

My writing will need to be better focused. I made the mistake of being too ambitious. In my desire to reach as wide an audience as possible, I tried to write about anything and everything. I know better now: my writing is clearer and more effective when my subjects are things I'm truly passionate about. You'll see some changes to my website and a honing of the topics. I know that I love books, I love telling stories, and that I'm newly passionate about more natural, holistic approaches to health and living in general. Oh, and tea. I love tea. Maybe I should rename the blog, "Books, brew and brujeria."

Lastly, I’m commemorating all these changes with a few physical ones as well. I’m foregoing the gym in favor of yoga, Pilates and barre classes. I love the way these other activities challenge me, the focus they require and the intention they inspire. I’m finally getting a tattoo I’ve always wanted – a beautiful quill on my left forearm to remind me of what I’m setting out to do. I’m dying my hair a crazy green turquoise balayage to cap it all off, something I’ve always wanted to do and never could. I feel liberated. 

I don’t know why it feels so different this time. Maybe it’s because I reached out to more people for help and received encouragement in droves, or because the people in my life who called me crazy the last time seem so supportive of it this time around. Maybe it’s because I’ve spoken my intentions aloud, worked harder towards them, took a bigger risk and stopped caring so much what might happen if I stumble along the way. It’s still terrifying like before but somehow so much more exciting. I’m going with that feeling and trusting that what makes me uncomfortable is probably exactly what I should be doing. I’m ready for whatever comes next, because it’s all in the realm of what moves me. 

I use fire to describe a lot of things: love is friendship on fire; lust sets my skin on fire; dancing sets my soul on fire, travel sets my curiosity on fire. I feel like I'm getting ready to set my whole life on fire and it feels so natural that I just have to trust it. I thank you all for following along while I light the match. Here's to letting it burn. 

 

Castles, Manors and Farms

It was a spectacular spring Saturday morning in East London and I was positively giddy: I was headed for the countryside. I’d hopped in my rental car - because yes, I was crazy enough myself around England. I turned up the music and hit the road, preparing myself to sit in several hours of traffic and trying to remain calm at the turnabouts I’d feared from afar for months. The first time I hit one with five exits in a busy London intersection, I yelled “Dios to salve, Maria!” and hoped for the best. I got the hang of it though and felt like a badass once I did; shout out to the hundreds of YouTube videos I watched leading up to the trip, they’re the real MVP.

I was headed towards Alderton, a delightful little neighborhood in the historic market town of Chippenham in the county of Wiltshire in the south west of England. The area was all farmland and trees and winding roads through flower fields that I kept slowing to photograph clumsily. I oohed and ahhed at every adorable cottage, tiny chapel and cobblestoned street, all of which looked like something out of a Disney movie. If Belle had come around a corner singing “Little town, it’s a quiet village,” I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. I mean I might have been like, “Hey girl, how’s things? So your town is actually quite enviably perfect but don’t worry, I got this next part - EVERY DAAAAY LIKE THE ONE BEFOOOORE!”

I was in the middle of entertaining myself by saying the names of nearby towns out loud in my best British accent (Luckington, Badminton, Little Badminton – those tickled me) when I pulled into the driveway of Manor Farm. This was the 17th century farm house B&B I’d be checking into for the next three days whose address was simply “The Street.” Adorable. I was immediately greeted by a couple of dogs, the sounds of clucking chickens and then a warm and smiling man named Geoffrey; I’d arranged my stay with his wife Victoria, but he’d be helping me get settled since she was out visiting a friend.

My man Geoffrey was kind enough to withhold judgement when he hauled my large embarrassment of a suitcase up the winding staircase to my bedroom. He left me to get comfortable invited me to come downstairs in ten minutes for some tea. I was immediately smitten by the room’s very English floral décor and spaciousness. The absolute best part of the room was a window overlooking the property’s front lawn. I already felt at home.

I grabbed my Kindle and made my way to the sitting room, a warm and inviting space with more of the same English florals and abundant natural light. The shelves teemed with books and numerous family photographs adorned the walls and tables. I was admiring all of these comforting elements when Geoffrey brought in a beautiful tray of tea and Biscoff biscuits (what we’d call cookies) for me to enjoy. I sat there on a perfect, cushy chair in front of the fireplace for an hour sipping and reading in silence. The adorable family Chihuahua nuzzled me and we became fast friends. The cat sat on my Kindle repeatedly and then stared at me in disgust when I dared to pull it out from under him. I swear I heard it meow, “Peasant.”

It was early in the afternoon when I finished my tea and set out once again to explore. I drove to Castle Combe, a tiny village in Wiltshire that I’d stalked online for the better part of a year. Photos of this place pop up when you query beautiful English villages and I’d plastered them all over the backgrounds of my many electronic devices. I’d get to see it at last and I was beside myself with excitement.

The walk from the car park down a curving, sloped road was laden with beautiful trees. Birds chirped so loudly that I half thought a nature soundtrack was playing through hidden speakers. I was almost tempted to hum a melody like Snow White to see if they’d respond in kind. After a few minutes’ walk, the road opened up and I stopped dead in my tracks. I grabbed my phone, tapped the home button and verified that the very scene that covered my phone’s lock screen, the one I’d stared at day after day, was the one right there in front of me. I was all goosebumps and unintelligible noises.

I got my legs to work again and began walking down the adorable high street from that photo. The chirping of birds was now joined by the gentle babble of the Bybrook River that runs through the village. I gushed at the charming buildings as I gave my iPhone camera a workout. I’ve said this so many times but don’t know how else to describe the experience but to say that it was like a dream.

It was then that I saw a sign for The Old Rectory, a tea room inside of a private home that dates back to the fifteen century that I’d been eager to visit. I’d emailed Anna, the owner, a week prior to see if she could squeeze me in for tea; she regretted to inform me that she was booked solid for two days with private parties and closed on Sunday for British Mother’s Day. She did however invite me to stop by and take a look at the gift shop and to check out a children’s book she’d written, if I was into that sort of thing. HA. Yeah, you could say I’m into it.

I approached the tea room and could hear the chatter and light clinking of china from the private party enjoying their afternoon tea. I peered inside from the open half of the Dutch door to see the tiny anteroom that served as a gift shop. It was packed to the gills with beautiful cups, saucers, pots and entire tea sets in varying patterns and colors plus jewelry, accessories and other assorted gifts. I had just laid eyes on Anna’s book, Mouse Tails of Castle Combe, when a woman called out, “Hello love, feel free to come in and take a look around but I’m all booked up for tea!” I smiled at her accent, the charm not yet lost on me, and asked if she was perchance Anna. “Oh are you the American girl travelling on her own? Come in, come in! Have a look about and I’ll be right round to check on you.”

I entered the room as she scurried off to attend to her guests and immediately grabbed a copy of Mouse Tails. I picked out a couple of saucer sets, stopping at that only because I had stupid luggage restrictions to think about. Anna returned and asked what I owed her for my selections. Instead of ringing me up, she whispered, “You know, I hate to see you leave totally empty-handed so to speak. My tea room if full but if you don’t mind, I have a private room that I use for myself off to the side here. Would you like to have tea for one in there?” I beamed. I replied that I very much would – she didn’t know I’d only just had tea like an hour ago so I figured carpe tea-em. See what I did there? It’s a wonder I’m still single.

Anna set me up with some beautiful photography books filled with shots she’d taken of Castle Combe during the filming of the film War Horse and Downton Abbey (you may have heard of it). I browsed from the comfort of a large leather couch as Anna brought in the cream tea, a term I now knew to mean a light afternoon meal that includes tea and scones with clotted cream and jam. The warm tea’s deep amber color lighted to milky perfection as I added a drop of cream and sugar, its malty flavor now deliciously familiar. The scones were warm and buttery, melting in my mouth with each delectable bite coated in the thick, sweet cream and jam.

I was savoring every sip and every bite when Anna came in to check on me. We engaged in fifteen or twenty minutes of comfortable conversation. She gave me a list of things to do and places to eat perfectly attuned to the interested I shared with her. When I’d finished my tea and she’d packed up my purchases, I hugged Anna goodbye and thanked her for her hospitality. I floated through the rest of the village, strolling along the river and back up the high street in the late afternoon.

The sun had started to set as I was getting ready to call it a day when I stumbled upon St. Andrew’s Church. I walked through the front gates and strolled through the cemetery, taken aback by how beautiful a space devoted to the burial of the dead could be when framed by lush greenery and majestic trees. I then entered the church and took a look around, learning from an information table that it dated back to the 13th century. I stood in awe of the stone archways, the intricate woodwork of the pews, the soft light flowing through stained glass windows. I sat down to pray almost subconsciously and thanked God for bringing me here. This is no exaggeration: I was brought to my knees with gratitude.

I stood after several minutes and walked over to a table at the far corner of the church offering gifts and literature in exchange for donations. I placed a five pound note in the donation box and took a Castle Combe recipe book for myself. A notebook on another table nearby was left open with a pen beside it and a note inviting visitors to write down a prayer. I picked up the pen and wrote down the first words that came to mind: “Dear Lord, I pray for my loved ones – for their health, safety and their lives’ enrichment. I pray for the healing of the world – that it may know peace and unity. I pray for courage, for love, for the confidence to live life fully and beautifully. I pray for clarity and the fulfillment of my life’s purpose.”

I made my way back up the hill towards the car park and gave some Brits a good shock as I made to leave. I’d plugged my phone into the USB port and the car decided to play “No Lie” by 2 Chainz and Drake at full volume, breaking my English reverie and that of those nice folks with a loud and unexpected jolt of hood shit. Whoops! I turned the volume down quickly and smiled nervously as I put on some Coldplay, laughing pretty heartily to myself as I drove back to Manor Farm. I got over my embarrassment pretty quickly and I l sang my face off for the entire drive.  

When I walked in the door, Victoria was standing in the kitchen and greeted me warmly. I gave her the run-down of my perfect day and she invited me to sit down and have a slice of yummy cake that her daughter had made. I realized at that point that I’d only had carbs and tea to eat all day but did that stop me? Sure didn’t. Before long we were joined by Geoffrey, the daughter and her boyfriend and another couple that I believe were the boyfriend’s parents. We sat there in the farm house kitchen talking and laughing for about everything from how surprised they all were that I’d endeavored to rent a car (“My word, aren’t you an enterprising young lady!”) to how universally disgusted we all were with the man who’d just taken office as the president of my country. I had to remind myself that I was not indeed talking to family. I might as well have been. It was wonderful.

After an hour, it was time for the family to depart for their dinner plans, but not before Victoria could procure me a table at a local pub called the Fox & Hounds. We arranged a time for me to come down in the morning for one of her famous farm house breakfasts and we parted ways for the night. I got lost on the way to the pub but they kept the kitchen open an extra half hour to accommodate me, serving me the most delicious and massively portioned fish & chips I’ve ever seen. I was so, SO full when I finished but had my eyes on this ridiculous profiterole and ice cream concoction that the party next to me had ordered. When I said as much to my server, he said he knew just the thing: he had a miniature version made for me and I relished every last bite.

I took a hot shower as soon as I got home and collapsed into bed in my toasty room. I meant to read for a bit but fell asleep almost immediately, waking up in the same position I’d laid down in with my book in my hand and my glasses still on my face. I stretched my limbs and then stood to admire the sunrise that had been my natural alarm clock. If the rest of the trip was a drag, I could still confidently say I’d had the time of my life.

Of course, it would only get more wonderful.

 Details from the sitting room

Details from the sitting room

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Maria Luisa

While it’s certainly true that my mom’s parents spoiled every one of their grandkids, I like to think I got the best of them. Being the first grandchild meant I didn’t have to share my Abuelo and Abuela Garcia with anyone until the next grandkid joined the party. Abuelo was my knight in shining armor; he was my protector and always played the role of prince in the reenactment of whatever Disney princess movie I decided to stage on a given day.

Abuela though? She was my BFF. She made me a quesadilla and Choco Milk every night before bed and served both just the way I liked them: the milk cold and the cheese Kraft American singles because grandmas don’t judge you for having shitty taste. She always let me borrow her favorite puffy vest, even though on me it was a weird floor-length frock that made me look like one of the three chipmunks. She applauded me when I insisted on performing daily dance shows to the Siempre en Domingo soundtrack, cheering when I made my grand, dramatic AF entrance to Veronica Castro’s Macumba and pretending to be wowed by every such performance then dancing with me for hours while the other tracks played. When I thought I was a dwarf from Snow White, she let me march up and down the yard with a shovel over my shoulder yelling “high home, high HOME!” It was years before someone let your girl know those weren’t actually the lyrics.   

During these shenanigans and a myriad of others, my grandmother always had a smile on her face. She was patient and kind and nurturing. She was the pacifist of the family, always wanting everyone to get along and doing everything in her power to maintain a sense of balance and harmony. She never raised her voice and generally just went with the flow. She was the embodiment of sweetness.

Then one day just over fifteen years ago, my grandparents were on a trip to Mexico when Abuela fell suddenly and severely ill. She was hospitalized in their hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco and suffered through one test after another. She was grilled as to her lifestyle and dietary habits until at last she was diagnosed with cirrhosis. We were all surprised since she had never been a drinker but were relieved to finally know what was wrong. That was until the next wave of bad news came: Abuela’s liver was failing and she’d need a transplant to survive.

She was brought to a hospital back in the states and immediately placed on the transplant list. We waited. I remember visiting her in the hospital that first time and having to fight from gasping aloud. My sweet, vibrant, ever-smiling Abuela was sick. Her sallow skin stretched tight across her cheekbones and her tiny, shrinking figure seemed swallowed up by the hospital bed. Her abundant positivity wasn’t enough to hide the jaundice of her skin and the complete exhaustion in her eyes. It frightened me.

Then one day in a bittersweet turn of events, a family friend’s tragedy became my grandmother’s saving grace. Thanks to a direct donation on behalf of that family, Abuela finally had a liver. The transplant ensued and was an overall success; she’d need constant meds and would have to avoid certain foods for the rest of her life, but she would survive. We learned a lesson then that we’ve been reminded of a few times in the years that followed: Maria Luisa Villegas is a force.

A note of clarification: you may have noticed that I referred to my grandparents as my Abuelos Garcia earlier, but just now gave my grandmother’s name as Maria Luisa Villegas. My grandfather’s last name is Villegas and my grandmother’s maiden name was Torres, and they are indeed both the biological parents of my mother and her four siblings. Each of these five children list Garcia as their last name on their birth certificates. So where did the Garcia thing come from? Hell if I know. There’s a story there, clearly, but the versions of it that I’ve been given vary every time and are riddled with plot holes. I’ll keep you posted if I ever find out that I’m secretly related to a rich and famous family or, you know, El Chapo. Back to my story.

I don’t think any of us knew back then how formidable a force my grandmother would turn out to be. In the weeks and months following the transplant, we all began to detect some… changes. Abuela’s doctor mentioned this possibility prior to the surgery: there are studies suggest that transplant patients often take on some of the characteristics of their organ donors. In spite of the warning, I’ll be the first to tell you that I was wholly unprepared. To put it bluntly: Abuela is kind of bitchy now.

That sugary-sweet lady from my childhood? She gone. She packed her bags, said “Adios, pendejos!” and apparently went wherever that old liver of hers went too. The woman she left behind in her stead is feisty to say the least; Maria Luisa is a card game addict who will tell you exactly where you can go if she doesn’t like the look on your face. She once called me a dumbass when I told her I go to Temecula for the wine and not to visit the local casino. When I did accompany her to a casino, she saw me playing nickel slots and made a face that implied I was a stain on the family’s honor. I asked her what was wrong and she informed me that only idiots play nickels slots as she scowled.When posing for a photo with her last year, she kept staring at my head instead of at the camera, so I asked if she knew we were supposed to be taking a picture; she frowned and asked if I was ready to admit that that massive hair of mine was actually a damn wig. Oooook lady.

These comments and quirks seem innocuous enough, they’re funny even and make for great stories. Other times she’s borderline mean and challenging to deal with. I’ll admit that this has been an adjustment for me. There are days when I look back and miss the old Abuela, the one who never angered and was my hero and champion.

Then I feel like a fool.

I remind myself that several years ago, Abuela was hospitalized for pneumonia but insisted that there was something else wrong with her. Doctors brushed her off but kept on running tests. Then they found it. Cancer.

It was lymphoma and it was aggressive. Doctors feared the thing would kill her. I kept it together for a while as family poured in, distracting myself by explaining to a waiting-room full of people how transplant patients are at risk for this type of cancer. I rattled off facts that I didn’t even know were lodged in my brain. I’m a consummate know-it-all, I find comfort in answers.

My bravery evaporated when I found myself alone in an elevator; I broke down and lost my mind as I sat in the corner hugging my shoulders like a child. I felt a crushing guilt over having the gall to ever be annoyed by Abuela. This was the same person who’d made my childhood extraordinary with not a complaint, my real-life fairy godmother. How could I ever have taken that for granted?

We all tried to be positive, but our fears and emotions got the better of each of us at one point or another. It was harder and harder to stay strong when she lost her hair and dwindled in size, when the chemo’s effects hit her head on and the pain wiped her out for days. It gave me flashbacks to the weeks leading into her transplant and I feared we would indeed lose her this time.

Abuela however never once faltered in her assurance that God would help see her through. She spent the entire course of her treatment praying and reminding the rest of us that no one was helped by our tears. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she beat the disease, and beat it good. That monster gave her all it had and put her through hell, but she demanded survival and achieved it. She did so with a hearty “I told you so!” for good, Abuela-like measure, too. Of course she did.  

Abuela has been cancer-free for a few years now and remains a no-nonsense card-dealing hustler; if you’re not trying to play for cash then you’re just a waste of space in her home. A few years back, she fashioned little wood boxes for each of her grandkids as gifts, decorating them with paint, glitter and decals and filling them with a couple of dollars in coins. When we’d each opened them and thanked her for the kind gesture, one of my cousins stood up and made to leave the table. Abuela’s hand shot out and stopped him dead in his tracks as she snappily informed us all that these boxes were to remain at her house. These “gifts” were the end to any excuses not to play cards when challenged. She was fed up of our tired “Oh I don’t have any money on me!” bullshit. These boxes were her insurance policy.

Abuela also keeps a photo of me in her wallet with some spare cash tucked behind it; whenever she has to dip into that fund, she says she needs to “borrow from Vanessa.” When I greet her, she kisses my cheek and holds my face in her hands every time like my presence is the greatest gift she’s ever received. When I visited her for Mother’s Day last week, she told my parents and I all about her midnight snacking tendencies, how she starts off saying she’ll have something light and healthy then ends up making a few quesadillas with chicken and mole. She says she uses American cheese in the quesadillas because one of her grandkids used to love that stuff, so she keeps it in the fridge at all times in case that grandchild decides to visit. It was a shot to the heart.  

I look at Abuela now and see a woman who though strong-willed ultimately deferred to others for such a huge part of her life. One day she awoke to the realization that her voice needed to be heard, and she’s been giving it to us ever since. I see this trend in my mother, who played a similar easy-going role in my childhood and in her 40s and 50s suddenly decided she’d had enough of that. I admire them both for exploring the assertiveness that perhaps was there all along.

I am starting to see it in myself, now. I feel less afraid, more emboldened in my thirtus. I’m sassier. More outspoken. Stronger. Bitchier. I am the granddaughter of Maria Luis Villegas: survivor, dancer, lover, and fighter. So really, I suppose it was only a matter of time.

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 Cancer or not, Abuela is  always fly

Cancer or not, Abuela is always fly

 Abuela would like the world to know that she is a princess. Tiara in play in case you forgot.

Abuela would like the world to know that she is a princess. Tiara in play in case you forgot.

 Abuela was telling us about the time she went to a casino in Paris rather than join the rest of her family in sightseeing. She'd seen plenty of museums in her life, but never a Paris casino.

Abuela was telling us about the time she went to a casino in Paris rather than join the rest of her family in sightseeing. She'd seen plenty of museums in her life, but never a Paris casino.

I Don't Care About Cinco de Mayo, But I Care About This: 4 Mexican-Owned Businesses to Support

Buenos Diaz, amores

I don’t know a single Mexican who hasn’t been asked at least once in their life what they’re doing to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. As a kid, I stared blankly when I was asked this even by teachers. As far as I knew, I was going home to get this homework done and hope my ama wasn’t making broccoli for dinner. As an adult, sure – I’ve partaken in more than one instance of drunken debauchery on the fifth of May involving a stiff margarita and possibly some tacos (don’t let Cinco de Mayo land on a Tuesday, white people go NUTS). But do I give two smooth f*cks about Cinco de Mayo? Nah.

Mexican Independence Day is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo marks that one time Mexico beat the French in 1862 at the Battle of Puebla. Cool, but imagine going to another country to find everyone celebrating the Battle of Yorktown as American Independence Day and looking at you funny when your only plans that night were to do laundry and drink that bottle of wine you didn’t quite finish the night before.  

Still, I am so proud of my Mexican heritage, perhaps now more than ever in Trump America where so many people seem threatened by my people’s very existence. As such, I’d like to bask in the glory that is my culture. I want to revel in its richness and relish its roots, to shout from the rooftops that my people are warm and beautiful and strong. If it means celebrating a minor holiday with a little more pizazz than normal, well ok then.

As part of that celebration, I invite you to explore these four amazing business run by Mexicanos. Whether you’re looking for a mean shade of red lipstick, a children’s book, a cup of fair-trade brew or your name on a necklace in Old English, I got you.

1. Lil Libros - www.lillibros.com, Instagram: @lil_libros

I mean, you had to know I’d start you off with something bookish, right? I present to you: Lil Libros! The idea is the brainchild of Patty Rodriguez, a badass East L.A. Mexican whose list of credentials includes being the Senior Producer for “On Air with Ryan Seacrest,” designing her own line of jewelry (more on that in a minute) and running a blog called “Manolos and Tacos” (SOLD!). She decided to explore a long-held dream of creating a bilingual line of children’s books after she lost nearly all of her worldly possessions in a house fire. She teamed up with her childhood BFF Ariana Stein to create Lil Libros, a series of 22-page first concept children’s books that aim to expose kids to Latino culture through bilingual storytelling. Their titles include works on Frida Kahlo, Emiliano Zapata, Celia Cruz and la Virgen de Guadalupe. They can be found at select Target stores or at www.lillibros.com.

2. MALA by Patty Rodriguez - http://shop.malabypattyrodriguez.com, Instagram @malabypattyrodriguez

Remember Patty, you know, from the paragraph above? Here’s that jewelry line I was talking about. MALA by Patty Rodriguez is chingona-ness defined. Her rings, pins and necklaces feature mostly Old English fonts and say everything from CaliGirl and Mija to Sin Miedo and of course, Chingona. Personally, I can’t wait to get my name and/or my custom area code necklace (619 till I die, yo) – think of the “Carrie” necklace for Latinas who embody that “little bit classy, little bit hood” vibe.

3. Reina Rebelde www.reinerebelde.com, Instrgam @reinarebelde

Created by Regina Merson, this line of cosmetics is one I’m kicking myself for not discovering sooner. Born in Mexico and raised in the US, Regina describes her products as “equal parts wild and unpredictable, bold and impractical, feminine and luxurious, sexy and severe.”  Her creations for eyes, lips and face are bold-hued, vibrant and rife with Latina sass; her lip products alone run the gamut from bold, creamy reds and chicana-chic browns to metallic sheens that harken the great Veronica Castro. She even offers a black lip liner, so you know she’s real. The names she gives her products are possibly my favorite part of her whole package: they feature monikers such as Brava, Malinche, Rosa Salvaje, Enchufada, Coqueta and Tapatia. Take aaaaalll of my money.

4. Por Vida Galería, Cultura & Café - http://porvidasd.com, Instagram @porvidabarriologan

I first discovered Por Vida when Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr held an author talk and book-signing at their gallery space – it was love at first sip and I don’t even drink coffee like that. This adorable shop is located in my hometown of San Diego in the arts district of Barrio Logan, a block away from the iconic Chicano Park. They serve up organic, local, fair-trade brew and other refreshing concoctions and – get this – fresh pan dulce. My faves include the Spicy Sandia Limonada, the Mexican Mocha, and the Canela y Brown Sugar Latte. They even have a Mazapan Latte. Say whaaaaat? Go there now.

Harry Potter and the Hot Mulled Wine

It was early in the morning on March 24th in London. The sun has just risen, its gentle light peeking through in soft rays through the skylight cover in the mezzanine bedroom of my Air BnB coach house. Because I’d insisted on staying up late the night before to blog, I’d slept less than four hours. I still managed to wake up fifteen minutes before my alarm was set to go off, the tingle of excitement defeating any pesky fatigue.

I showered quickly, dressed, slapped on just enough makeup to avoid scaring small children and left my hair in its naturally wavy state. I rushed out the door and caught the tube out of East London to Euston Station, feeling way proud of myself when someone asked me for directions and was shocked to find I wasn’t a local. I followed the signs to find the Matthew Flinders statue between platforms 8 and 9, the designated meeting point for the day’s activity. I tried hard to appear nonchalant as I checked in with my tour guide before boarding the train taking my tour group to Watford Junction. I was headed to the Making of Harry Potter experience - you couldn’t have swiped the dumbass smirk off my face if you’d tried.

From Watford, we took a brief ride in a double-decker to Leavesden during which I did my best to choke down the impatient “ARE WE THERE YET???” that bubbled in my throat. When we arrived at the studio, I hopped off with more than a little skip in my step and immediately thought: 1. “Holy shitake mushrooms, this place is enormous!” and 2. “Bruuuuuh it’s like 9:30 in the morning so why is this line already so long??” Seconds later, I was informed that I’d get to skip that line entirely thanks to the VIP upgrade I’d purchased with my ticket. The pride I felt in that moment sums of my life in a nutshell: some people get VIP bottle service or fly first class; I get VIP entrance to geek out with Potterheads and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t smug about it.

The first stop of the tour was a large room where we were shown a brief video introduction. It revealed how the Harry Potter films as we know them only exist because producer David Heyman’s secretary plucked Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone off a low-priority shelf one fateful weekend and stayed up all night to finish it. She was absolutely captivated and brought it to Heyman’s attention who reportedly though the title was “rubbish,” until he of course read it too and fell as equally in love it.

We were then escorted to another room where we were seated to watch a second film. This one gave a behind the scenes look at production, casting, and the comradery that developed over a decade of filming. When Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Danielle Radcliffe came on the screen, the kids in the room all clapped and squealed in delighted unison. Good thing too, or the squeals of a 32-year-old woman whose name rhymes with Schmanessa might have been a lot more awkward.

The film came to an end and the screen that had shown it suddenly lifted away to reveal a majestic golden door, the gilded, intricately carved, and awfully beautiful entrance to mother*cking Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A little girl celebrating a birthday was selected to open up the door, after which the throngs of us pushed ourselves inside. We entered The Great Hall, a feast of the eyes from my very first footsteps inside.

The robes of Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonogall and Rubeus Hagrid stood displayed in all their colorful magnificence at the front of the room. Floating candles hovered over Dumbledore’s podium and an array of stained glass windows framed the front of the hall. The stone fireplace was carved with the emblem of Hogwarts and the long dining tables were laden with sets of glass and silverware. I was a little bummed when a Hogwarts feast didn’t appear from thin air and when I discovered that the ceiling was not indeed enchanted, but otherwise everything about the room made me shed tears of Potterrific joy.

I stayed in a perpetual state of incredulous awe throughout the day as our lovely tour guide led us through the rest of the studio, showing us through a list of iconic sets while peppering in fun facts and amusing tidbits about the films. I saw the Ministry of Magic, Umbridge’s office, the Weasleys’ kitchen, the Gryffindor common room, the potions classroom, Dumbledore’s office, Number 4 Privet Drive, the Knight bus, the bridge to Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. I even got to go in the Forbidden Forest for a sneak preview of the attraction that wasn’t set to open for another week (pops collar). I’m forgetting a few things, you’ll have to forgive me; I may have blacked out for a minute from excitement, there was a lot to geek out over.

I went through the studio again at the conclusion of the tour, taking about a thousand pictures and stopping at the souvenir shop before finally making my way back to the city around 4PM. I was walking around aimlessly on my Harry Potter high when I stumbled upon Borough Market, a gourmet food market teeming with all sorts of delicious fare. I bought some lovely teas (Darjeeling is my new best friend!!!), nibbled on gourmet cheeses (ALL of the cheeses) and bought a giant cup of the hot mulled wine that seemed to be offered at every corner. I was quickly reminded that all I’d had to eat all day was an egg white sandwich for breakfast and a mug of Butterbeer in the afternoon. That wine went straight to my head and had me saying, “Cheers!” to random passersby too loudly.

I figured I should eat something and popped into the pub next to the market, where I chatted with some handsome American boys and was treated to a pint. I enjoyed a plate of fish & chips and read a few chapters of my book, feeling warm and still very much buzzed even after smashing a plateful of fried potatoes (sooooo many chips). It occurred to me that having a pint of English stout and a cup of mulled wine at the same time probably wasn’t helping me achieve any kind of sobriety… did that stop me from finishing both? No. My mama didn’t raise no quitter.

I walked out of the pub, grabbed another mulled wine (I am grown and I do what I want!!) and put my headphones in, pressing play on a mix of songs I’d compiled for this trip. The sounds of Coldplay’s Adventure of a Lifetime accompanied me to a waterfront walkway along the Thames, followed by Bloc Party’s Modern Love as I followed the signs for Tower Bridge. As I got closer to the bridge and the sun began to set, those first perfect notes of Adele’s Hometown Glory hit my ear drums. It was poetic. I was standing in London: face warm from the wine in my cup, soaking up a gorgeous view in a city I’d dreamed of for decades, chills going down my spine at the sounds of a song about that very city’s glory. Nothing could have felt more perfect.

That night, I took a hot shower and slipped into a soft white dressing gown before bed. I fixed myself a warm cup of tea and cozied up on the couch with a vintage Agatha Christie – which I’d bought the day before while buzzed off a pint and not quite aware of the $100 price tag. Whoops…. I eventually rose to pack up my things, wrapping up my last night in London and looking forward to the countryside. I slept peacefully, dreaming of the rolling green hillsides and charming cottages that awaited me. Little did I know by just how much those dreams would pale in comparison to the real thing. 

To be continued…

Buenos Diaz UK

I attended a Montessori school as a kid. There were no grade levels, as is standard practice in the Montessori system: my school had three rooms in it designated by colors and the pace of each student’s particular learning dictated which room he or she was placed in. Thus when people asked what grade I was in, I’d proudly say “purple room!” and almost immediately got a look that told me my audience thought me a little slow.

That expression always changed when my know-it-all self (some things don’t change) proceeded to recite the Gettysburg address and could name the 50 states and capitals in both alphabetical order and geographic grouping, all at age five. By the time I was seven, I could read and write, knew long division and could also play a few notes on the piano and show you the five basic ballet positions. I explain all of this as background for the experience I will now share with you.

After two years at this Montessori academy, my parents made the decision to place me in a private Catholic school. On the first day of classes, our teacher started by greeting her pupils and then telling us a few of the amazing things we were going to learn that year. She decided to quiz us on a long division equation and looked surprised when an overly eager little hand shot in the air, Hermione Granger style. That hand belonged to me (again, know-it-all) and I apparently wasn’t supposed to know how to solve this problem. I was asked to come up to the board and explain how I’d worked it out, so I talked through the steps out loud…. in a British accent. 

I figured out pretty quickly that this was not a thing most people do. Until that moment though, I was 100% positive that the voice in your head was supposed to sound like Paddington Bear. He and his adorable little suitcase may have hailed from darkest Peru, but Paddington, the other characters and most importantly the dude narrating the show all spoke in that same amazing accent that so intrigued me. I think I assumed that omniscient narration was the same thing as your inner voice and that it was supposed to sound British, though I didn’t know what “British” even was. I’ve been apparently thus been drawn to Great Britain since before I could point it out on a map.

The older I got, the more fanatical I became. I soon determined that the United Kingdom was this far away land across the pond where some of my absolutely favorite authors were from and where so many of my favorite stories took place. Once I understood these things, the longing began. England beckoned me through lush descriptions of The Secret Garden. It called out through classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It gripped me tightly through Sherlock Holmes’ capers and the quaint settings of Dame Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries. It pulled at me through the magic and whimsy of this series about a boy wizard that you may have heard of by some chick named J.K. something.

For one reason or another, the trip never seemed feasible; the time I did make it to Europe in my 20s, I missed out on the entire English leg of the tour to attend a wedding back in the states. Though I’ve made travel a priority consistently since that Europe trip, the price tag associated with London in and of itself always dissuaded me from making it happen. I also didn’t know anyone who wanted to see England for the same reasons I did. Visiting this place that I’d fallen in love with despite never having seen with my own eyes began to feel like a pipe dream.

One day in 2014, my cousin Alexis and I found ourselves a couple bottle of wine deep and discussing our goals for the future. We talked of careers, relationships, finances and travel. I asked her if she’d consider going to England with me. “Duh, mijita!” she said, sassiness on steroids on account of the vino. “Just one problem – I don’t gots the monies!” Neither one of did at the time, but we agreed to set date by which we’d make it happen. We named the goal then and there: London 2017.

 

This goal sounded great in theory, but almost two years later hadn’t built much meaningful momentum; Alexis was still working to get into nursing school and didn’t have much of a discretionary income and flight prices stubbornly refused to drop to a level I could afford. Then the ache to visit England reached an all-time high thanks to a series of books that I read in 2016. Kate Morton’s The Lake House and The Forgotten Garden and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale took an already ardent desire to see England and through gasoline on that bitch. It wasn’t just London anymore; it was the seaside charm of places like Cornwall and the English countryside’s rolling hills and thatched roof cottages. With a decent on the horizon at work, I thought perhaps I could finally swing it. I told myself I’d start looking in a week or two, thinking in my heart of hearts that nothing would ever come of it.

The morning after I told myself that I’d at least try to book this trip, I awoke to an email in my inbox with a flight alert. I’d set one for London flights years ago with a ridiculously low threshold, an alert I’d all but forgotten about until I saw the email staring back at me. I opened it and couldn’t believe my eyes – the prices were low. And I mean low. I came to find out that this was all on account of the Brexit announcement, which made me feel guilty for about 45 seconds. When I saw a round-trip flight for less than $600 though, that guilt said, “Bye, Felicia!” and my credit card came whipping out.

I didn’t check with my boss at work, I didn’t check my own schedule. I didn’t ask to see if a friend or family member wanted to join or to verify what the weather would be like. I held my breath as my fingers furiously typed in the details, afraid that if I took too long, the spell would be broken, my laptop would turn into a pumpkin and the prices would skyrocket. I finally clicked a button to confirm my purchase. When the confirmation page appeared on my screen, I burst into a fit of tears.

Today is March 23, 2017, almost six months to the day since I booked my flight from LAX to Heathrow. I am sitting in a lovely coach house in east London courtesy of Air BnB. I’ve just enjoyed a fresh scone with butter and homemade jam as a midnight snack and  am lounging in a soft cotton dressing gown as I reflect on the day. I hopped on and off buses and trains, stopped to sit and stare at parks, drooled over the collection of Egyptian antiquities at the British museum and even faked a British accent at one point just to see if I could get by. I went to an indie bookstore in Mayfair that I’ve stalked on Instagram for months and purchased a rare vintage Agatha Christie novel. I had a proper English tea service – sandwiches of Parma ham, arugula and red onion marmalade, scones with clotted cream and strawberry + black pepper jam, a slice of chocolate cake and a steaming pot of Darjeeling tea. I had a beef and mushroom pie and a pint of beer at a pub for dinner before catching Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre. I have to keep reminding myself that this is, indeed, real life.

I have another 7 days left here and so much more planned. I can only focus on the next 24 hours at any given time or else get overwhelmed by my own excitement. It seems surreal that I’m finally here after years of referring to the place like it was Narnia. My heart is full and my tears aplenty.

If this post is a little scattered, it’s because I am almost too giddy to focus. I will hop back on with updates in the days to come, hopefully with snazzy photos, a funny anecdote and a tiny bit more clarity. For now, I leave you with these emphatic ramblings of a girl with a dream realized, one who thanks you for sharing in her joy and wishes you travel breakthroughs of your own.

Bookishly yours,

Vanessa

Ode to Upstart Crow

It was a crisp December afternoon in San Diego and I was plotting an escape. Five-year-old me had been sitting in an armchair in the Nordstrom women’s shoe department surrounded by a fortress of shopping bags for what felt like days. I was along for the ride on one of my aunt’s infamous shopping marathons at Horton Plaza mall. These trips always sounded like great fun when proposed – just us girls, shop till we drop! Inevitably though, the luster of the new sweater I’d been gifted or shoes I’d picked out wore off after about an hour or two. I’d start to want to make a run for it.

My feet hurt and my hands were pink and sore from hauling bags all over the store. I was ravenously hungry and bored to tears. Even the smooth holiday musical stylings of the Nordstrom piano player I genuinely loved had started to sound cacophonous and mocking. Off he played effortlesssly, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” I asked in turn, “Is it though? IS IT??”

Observing how my eyes had begun darting back and forth between the nearest exits, my aunt got the hint and wrapped up her purchases. Relief had just set in when instead of heading home, she pulled up to Seaport Village, an adorable waterfront collection of boutiques and restaurants butting up to the San Diego bay. I could see even at my young age that the place had a certain charm, but all I remember thinking was, “This is a trap! More shopping!” I just sat there in quiet terror, then noticed a beautiful carousel in the distance and a horse-drawn carriage pulling a family of four to my left. I looked up at my aunt with a “what is this place???” expression and she smiled. “No more shopping!” she said, “We’re going to go get hot chocolate.”

Stoked, I jumped out of the car and followed her up a winding path nestled between a few gorgeous trees. I noticed a small duck pond on my right and felt my excitement swell when I saw several mallard ducks swimming along peacefully. I could have sat and stared at the ducks and been satisfied - mallards had always been my faves with their beautiful emerald green feathers. That hot chocolate was an offer I couldn’t refuse though, so I tore myself away from my duckies and kept on walking behind my aunt. Moments later, we arrived at our destination: Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse.

I know what you’re thinking here: I must have passed out from excitement, right? Not exactly. Sure, I’d been read to since my days in utero and liked (loved) to read (be read to) from the time I knew what books were, but I hadn’t yet reached peak book obsession. I’d only recently learned to read on my own and had only just discovered what a library was (mind *blown*) but didn’t really grasp that there were places you could go to buy books and take them home where they’d be yours to keep… forever. What I saw was plain subterfuge: my aunt clearly had more shopping to do and had lured me here with the promise of a warm and sugary beverage. Sneaky, Nina. So sneaky.  

I joined my aunt in line for my hot chocolate, resolved to claim what I was promised if I was to be subjected to more sitting and staring. Then my aunt handed me my prize, piled high with whipped cream and beamed at me, “Ok! Now go find something to read.” She seemed so excited to deliver this directive, and I just stared back at her in disbelief. I thought, yeah ok - sure buddy. I’ll just go get lost and be unsupervised like I’m totally allowed to do all the time. My sarcasm was strong from an early age, even if only in facial expression.

After a few moments, I finally grasped that she might not be kidding. Feeling a sudden mixture of nervous anticipation and outright panic, I took a few cautious steps away, backing away slowly, to test the waters and be sure. When my aunt didn’t stop me but instead looked at me with what I now recognize was a Herculean effort not to laugh at my confusion, it became pretty evident that I really was free to go wandering. By myself. Alone. In this big, strange, hot-chocolate-serving palace of wall-to-wall books. Deep breaths.

Seeing a family with a few small children ascend a staircase behind me, I figured maybe the second level was a good place to start. I approached the steps and slowly mouthed out the words painted on each one:

Happiness is a journey, not a destination.

Be truthful, gentle & fearless.

This day will never come again.

Good things are to come.

Celebrate your existence.

Live, love, laugh.

One day at a time.

You made my day.

Many of the words were foreign in both pronunciation and meaning – I was after all only five. I only knew that the words felt special and the stairs some portal to another dimension. I climbed slowly until I reached the top and my eyes nearly burst from their sockets. Children’s books and comfy chairs lined this place. More deep breaths.

I grabbed a couple of selections hastily from the first shelf I could reach, one dedicated to popular reads and new releases. I claimed a table overlooking the right side of the store and opened up a “Where’s Waldo” book, taking sips of the warm, delicious chocolate and wiping cream from my face in between page turns and Waldo locates. I stopped and looked over my shoulders every few minutes; I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that aaaany minute now, the book police would haul me away for daring to drink inside the store or handling the merchandise. I got over that notion when I saw others following my lead, then worried instead that I’d plain old been left behind. Every time I looked down though, I saw my aunt downstairs, browsing and sipping a warm beverage of her own. I relaxed my tensed shoulders and moved onto the second book I’d pulled, one with bright yellow cover art of a little girl perched on a stack of books. It was Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”

I held the mug of chocolate in one hand and held the book up with the other, devouring the words more rapidly and sinking into the story more deeply than I’d ever recalled doing with the more simple picture books I’d read before. I fell in love with Matilda instantly, with her story, with the experience of taking in groups of words on a page that struck up vivid and effortless imagery in my mind and made me feel things big and beautiful. I smiled, I scowled; I cheered, I laughed. I did these things with abandon, lost and immersed in the experience of reading.

That sensation has never gotten old for me. Books were my first love and are my truest to date, where I turn when I need everything from comfort or inspiration to an education or a hearty laugh. And while I carry a book or e-reader (and more often both) in my purse or car at all times and will read practically anywhere, there are those beloved places I go to envelop myself in a more complete reading experience. Upstart Crow has been that place for me since that very first visit. The place is warm and inviting and its layout hasn’t changed in as long as I can remember. My favorite post is now a plush chair by a large window, my beverage a Mexican mocha. My wonder at the place is the same one I felt as a child, albeit backed by a higher discretionary income.

I was then nothing short of devastated to come across the announcement that my beloved Upstart will shut its doors after thirty five years at the end of this month. I reverted to my most basic of bitchdom and literally couldn’t even. I called and messaged friends and family to inform them as though a cherished pet had just perished. I did that thing where I blamed myself, like I personally could have saved the place if I’d just purchased more books. I looked at my Kindle with resentment. You did this. You made this happen. You couldn’t just leave well enough alone, could you? Irrational, I know. I did after all buy a ton of books from them. Such is just my affection for this treasured establishment.

I ran down to Upstart that very same evening and walked every square inch of the place. I took big, deep breaths to soak up the smell of coffee and books. I dragged my fingertips against books and displays like someone who’d just lost their first home, wanting to soak up every last memory of the place they’d been a newlywed and raised their children in before they were forced to leave against their will. I grabbed bags and bags of their coffee blends though I seldom drink coffee. I purchased a paperback though I generally collect hardcovers. I ordered my usual Mexican mocha and struck up a conversation with the barista. I learned that the closure is a result of a huge hike in the rent by the landlord that the owners just couldn’t manage. In light of the recent announcement by the city of San Diego that Seaport Village will be leveled in its entirety by 2018 to make room for high-rise condominiums (queue dramatic chest grab and “Santa Madre!” on my part), a move to try and stay open only to be forced to close within the year made no sense.

I am not the first to see an establishment rife with childhood memories shut its door, nor will I be the last. Independent bookstores, like so many small businesses, face a constant battle to stay relevant and capture a big enough piece of our purchasing power, and this is old news. I know this in my heart but I can’t help but be saddened. I won’t be able to stop by on a Friday night to read to the sounds of a local musician. I won’t get that Mexican mocha on a Sunday morning while I gaze out of that giant window with a stack of books on my lap.

Oh, Upstart Crow: I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Thank you for the charm and warmth you brought to my hometown for these thirty five years. It was within your walls and in the pages of your books that I learned happiness is a journey, not a destination. Those books taught me to be truthful, gentle and fearless. It hurts to know this day will never come again, but I know good things are still to come. Today and for as long as I can, I celebrate your existence. I’ll remember to live, love and laugh. One day at a time, you truly did make my day. 


I invite all of you to visit this beloved bookstore while you still can – stop in for a book, a quirky bookish gift, a cup of something warm and toasty or a blend of their brews to take home and enjoy. Website, address and other fun facts found below.

Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse
835 C West Harbor Drive, Seaport Village
San Diego, CA 92101
619-232-4855
http://upstartcrowtrading.com
Open daily from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM

 

About the name… 
According to Upstart Crow’s website, the name is a reference to the ol’ Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Rumor has it that back in the day, many of his fellow playwrights were jealous of his rampant success, including one Robert Greene. In one of his pamphlets, Greene referred to big Willy Shakes as an “Upstart Crow”. The nickname stuck! 

The store features among its many books and bookish gifts a variety of Shakespeare-themed items and hosts (err- hosted. Waaaaaah) a live Shakespeare reading once a month. 

Click here for a list of remaining live music performances and events.

Click here to ease my pain over this formidable loss. 
-    kidding, unless you’re down in which case silly me! I’m totes not.

Wedding Bells

Three weeks ago on a Friday morning, the 24 hour countdown to my brother’s wedding day was on. Ale and I had enjoyed a “last supper” the night before, complete with a shot of tequila and a few DVR’d episodes of our favorite shows. We spent the evening, our last together as roommies, the way we’d spent countless other evenings in the two years we’d lived in his house together. It felt fitting to go out in classic Ale/V fashion.

Now on Friday, I’d set to packing up my stuff and cleaning up a bit before some last minute errand-running and wrapping up of details. Ale and I had just finished checking into the hotel where the bridal party and I would be staying that evening; we were driving back from Downtown San Diego with a few hours left until the rehearsal dinner when I asked if he’d remembered to get the good bug spray with the DEET in it. He’d be honeymooning in Punta Cana and ain’t nobody need no Zika in their life.

“Oooooh yeah,” he said, “I got one kind to spray our clothes, one kind to spray our bodies, and one kind that’s so DEET concentrated that you can only dab it on certain points on your body. I figure at this point, if a mosquito gets me, that’s determination and he deserves to get in.”

I chuckled. “He deserves to give you Zika?”

“Hey. I can’t help it if I get the Seal Team Six member of mosquitos. If you get through all of that DEET, sir: good for you, brotha.”

When I think back on my favorite moments with this kid, this interaction is the type I will recall. Driving around town, laughing at nonsensical shit. My brother often gives people a cool and stoic impression, not at all helped by his stubborn refusal to smile in photography (examples to follow). The truth is that while he’s definitely a study in obstinacy and has an undeniable temper, he’s actually quite warm and a giant goofball once you get to know him. He’s always thinking of ways to make the people he loves smile; he loves both to laugh and make others do so in turn. Thanks to the skill and prowess of a very capable wedding photographer, examples of this side of my brother dearest will also follow. You’ll have to pardon any typos in this post as a result – my eyes are still recovering from scouring close to 2,000 photos to find evidence of his smile.

Later that day with my car packed and ready to head over to the ceremony rehearsal, I took a good look around the house I was about to walk away from; I’d only be moving down the street with my parents (like the good Mexican that I am) and I knew I’d be back in this house for dinner, a Dodger game, to watch Power in no time. Still, I succumbed to those “this is the end of an era” emotions that so often surround these momentous occasions. This house was the scene of the surprise birthday party that Ale planned for me. It was where we waged vodka gummy bear wars, ate delicious meals, where we curled up on the couch with snacks to watch our favorite shows and then talk about our day. Though from only a few blocks away, I’d miss this kid. I wondered when exactly it was that we both became adults.

The wedding was a dream. The bride was stunning and radiant, my brother devastatingly handsome. For dinner we had tacos and not a soul in that venue was mad about it. There were a few surprises; that same brother who rarely smiles and does not dance busted out some choreography to Drake’s One Dance at the start of the reception and later to R. Kelly’s Bump & Grind during the garter toss. The crowd went wild at this supermoon-eclipse rarity. Later, just as the money dance was supposed to start, the DJ announced another special performance. As “I’m Sexy and I Know It” blared from the speakers, my brother’s groomsmen, his best friends and closest cousins, emerged from behind a curtain decked in a variety of superhero masks and proceeded to attack him. It was a mess of dry humping, body rolls and ridiculousness. The rest of the night was a blur of dancing and merriment. It could not have been more perfect.

I had the privilege of saying a few words at the wedding, ones I might not have been able to deliver had a double shot of tequila not been handed to me by my cousins when the nerves and emotions I’d kept at bay finally made an appearance hours before the wedding (#notallheroeswearcapes). The rest of this post is the English translation of that speech. It explains why earlier that morning, Ale received a text telling him to look in my bedroom, where he found a note and a gift bag with a set of gold jingle bells inside. They are the words of a proud and gushing sister who counts herself privileged to have spent the last 28 years with the best big-little brother by her side that a girl could ask for.

Bookishly yours,

Vanessa


For those who speak the Español, the (grainy) video of the speech. 

“First I want to give thanks to Melissa and Alejandro for letting me say a few words tonight, because when I first asked Ale if I could do so, he looked a little nervous. Just because eeevery once in a while I like to enjoy a glass of wine, a little tequila, he looked at me like he thought I was going to hide a shot in my bouquet at church. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  **leans into bouquet and slurps.** Like I was going to get up there and hit him with the, “BROTHER! I fucking love you! MELI! You took BOTH of my rooms away!”

But in all seriousness, let me tell you a story.

Almost 32 years ago, a great blessing was bestowed upon my parents: I was born. We spent a few marvelous years together, the three of us. Then one day my parents got to talking, I think, and said to each other, “Life is, like, too easy right now, right? We need a little drama. I mean look at Vanessa: she behaves so well, she’s going to be very studious and respectful. Let’s try again and see if we get a real troublemaker. And in January 1988, tadaaaaa! *points at brother* Trouble arrived.

At first, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really into this new addition to our family. My parents introduced him to me, he started to cry and I said, “Ummm, thank you so much buuut no. Return him, yeah? Let’s go play!” They didn’t listen.

We learned very quickly how different one kid can be from the next. I loved to read, I played by myself with my dolls. My brother spent all his time running around, scaling walls, sliding down the windshield of my grandfather’s station wagon like it was a slide, always covered in dirt. But we loved each other.

That love was not aaaaalways super obvious. One day my parents had to sit me down and say, “Look kid, when your brother hits you, you have to hit him back.” And I was like, “No, he’s my little brother!” But this kid would sock me, and as soon as he saw me crying would start to cry himself. “No sister, don’t cryyyyy!” One time he took a chunk of gum and stuck it in my hair, and when I started crying proceeded to take more gum and put it in his hair. My parents walked in to find us two crying fools with wads of gum in our hair. They asked what happened; I cried, “He put gum in my hair!” and he countered, “I put gum in her hair!” and off they sent him to his room to be punished.

What my parents didn’t know was this: our bedrooms were connected by a wall in our closets, and in this wall was a small hole in the corner where cables were run though. In this hole, we’d placed a couple of jingle bells; when one of us was in trouble (i.e. when he was in trouble), one of us would climb in the closet and ring the bell. This was the sign for the other of us to come to the closet and close the door so my parents wouldn’t hear. There through that tiny hole in the wall, we’d talk. He’d asked me for forgiveness, I’d forgive him. What started with tears always ended in laughs and jokes and stories.

So, why have I shared this story? Well today, the years have passed. I am getting ready to leave the house that Alejandro has shared with me these two years. Our bedrooms there were also connected by a wall, and what long ago were jingle bells are now cell phones – calls, texts. And the calls/messages from my brother have a specific ringtone in my phone, which I’ve never shared. I haven’t changed that tone in years and that tone is called, “Bell.” That bell serves as a reminder of the past, to remind me that the love between brother and sister cannot be separated by any walls, by distance, by time.

So today, Brother, I congratulate you. I’d like to say to Meli that I love you so much like a sister for making my brother a better man - happy, content, and less angry THANK GOD. Finally I’d like to say to my brother that I am always here for you like you are for me, and if you ever need anything, all you have to do is ring the bell.” 

 

 Stop it. I can't. 

Stop it. I can't. 

 It's totally fine. I'm not crying!

It's totally fine. I'm not crying!

 Daaaaamn. Abuela side-eye X 2.

Daaaaamn. Abuela side-eye X 2.

 Meet the Diaz's.

Meet the Diaz's.

 Baby smile?

Baby smile?

 There it is again!

There it is again!

 Typical. 

Typical. 

 Love and quirkiness. 

Love and quirkiness. 

 Diaz. Alejandro Diaz. 

Diaz. Alejandro Diaz. 

 Here's the cute, normal shot.

Here's the cute, normal shot.

 Then there's this one... sober, but all the way up! 

Then there's this one... sober, but all the way up! 

 AND this one. 

AND this one. 

 There's that smile! 

There's that smile! 

 The root of who I am. 

The root of who I am. 

 The usual. 

The usual. 

 Cousins and friends, but really all my brothers. #weweresober

Cousins and friends, but really all my brothers. #weweresober

 Dexter Diaz. 

Dexter Diaz. 

 But first...

But first...

 He needed one dance. 

He needed one dance. 

 UnBRIDEled joy. 

UnBRIDEled joy. 

 The best man, since little league days. 

The best man, since little league days. 

 Moi.

Moi.

 Tada!!!!

Tada!!!!

 "Yeah, I did that." 

"Yeah, I did that." 

 Proud papa. 

Proud papa. 

 My survival squad - makeup guru, spiritual and comedic guide, tequila providers, and all around favorite people. 

My survival squad - makeup guru, spiritual and comedic guide, tequila providers, and all around favorite people. 

 Cousins who play together....

Cousins who play together....

 My tribe.

My tribe.

 Chanel's finest keeping my makeup on fleek. 

Chanel's finest keeping my makeup on fleek. 

 Our video crew is better than yours. 

Our video crew is better than yours. 

 When the video crew are your friends. #lit #workhardplayhard #allthewayup #wheredanuggetsat

When the video crew are your friends. #lit #workhardplayhard #allthewayup #wheredanuggetsat

 Established 9.24.16

Established 9.24.16

Photos are both from my personal collection and courtesy of the fabulous Monique Feil. http://www.moniquefeil.com

The Heart of the (Lives that) Matter

I thank the educators vowing to teach and to train; to inspire and to mold; to discipline and guide, to care and to uplift. You plan the lessons, you grade the papers; you have the tough conversations, you shape the future. It’s a difficult job, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your service.

I thank the healers vowing to promote and protect our health, to diagnose and prescribe, to recommend and refer. You aid the sick, give hope to the weary, bring relief to the pained, give clarity to the lost. It’s a difficult job, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your service.

I thank the clergymen and women, all religious and spiritual leaders, vowing to act as conduits to the deities to which we pray. You console the weary, promote love and acceptance, counsel the lost and guide the abandoned. It’s a difficult job, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your sacrifice.

I thank the elected officials vowing to lead by example and affect positive change. You enact and enforce policy, lend an ear to your constituents, make impossible judgements, set precedents and limitations. It’s a difficult job, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your sacrifice.

I thank the members of our military vowing allegiance to our country. You fight for our causes, uphold out liberties, chase down our enemies and work tirelessly to defend our freedoms. It’s a difficult job, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your sacrifice.

And yes, I thank the policemen and women vowing to protect and serve this country. You work to restore and maintain order, to ensure our safety, to defend us from those who’d harm us, to bring justice to those who’ve hurt us. You place your lives on the line daily, and I’m glad that you do it. Thank you for your sacrifice.

Make no mistake though: it is not only possible but undeniably true that there are plenty of bad teachers, doctors, politicians, priests, members of the military, etc, in the world. The nobility and inherently challenging nature of these vocations does not pardon culpability for abuse and wrongdoing in these roles. See, with my profuse thanks comes an ardent demand for accountability, an important and essential reminder of what it means to choose to serve. If you will teach, if you will heal, if you will protect and lead and guide, then so too shall you and should you be brought to task for your choice to only do so conditionally. 

We all know the police don’t have an easy task before them. I for once appreciate every single last one of them living up to the service-driven charge of their uniform and badge. And while I do not for one second condone the killing of innocent officers, it is infuriating and appalling to witness such one-sided outrage, misguided rants and delicately hidden racism in the wake of these police shootings. Were you not also incensed when you watched two black men die at the hands of police on your social media feeds? Are you not enraged at the growing list of black Americans who’ve suffered this same devastating fate? Are you not shaken to your core when you realize the histories of brutal injustice you studied in your school days are replaying themselves around you? Why only when the white cops are killed is it that injustice is freshly apparent?

No, violence is not the answer – but consider how much easier it is to say that from your comfortable place at your keyboard. Imagine facing the sobering reality that your oppressors will experience no consequence for the repeated marginalization and persecution of your people. Imagine feeling helpless, disenfranchised, powerless and weak when peaceful recourse has rendered no meaningful change. Imagine feeling pushed to the brink, out of your mind, begging and pleading for the blood in your veins to be seen as precious as anyone else’s, and feeling like the very last card left to play is to fight fire with a like kind of destructive fire. Imagine desperation.

I don’t have all the answers, or very many for that matter. But the feeling that something is very wrong is undeniable and palpable and thick. I believe that equality is non-negotiable, that love is exponentially more powerful than hate and that all big change starts with a series of smaller ones.

So I will start with my words. Yes, all lives do matter, but right now we need to scream from the rooftops that black lives matter. Because they do, and we clearly need to be reminded.

 

Blip

Buenos Diaz, friends.

The original plan this weekend was to post an installment from Bookishly Yours on some of the books I’ve recently devoured and highly recommend. That entry was postponed until next week. Some members of my family are fighting an uphill battle at the very start of an impossibly difficult journey at the moment; the severity of their struggle came to light over the weekend and has left many with heavy hearts. My heart goes out to each and every one of them, I pray that they find some sense of relief, tranquility, guidance and eventual peace. 

Life begins and ends when we least expect it, but the in-between is just as marked by the possibility of sudden, unpredictable change. We could then all do a better job of being present, of practicing empathy, of living positively, and of loving openly - not just when tragedy strikes or at special times of year, but in the regular course of our everyday lives.

Let us each enjoy and remember the simple joy of life's tiny pleasurable moments, the ones that are but a blip in time but mark themselves indelibly in our hearts.

Bookishly yours,

Vanessa

Above Average

Buenos Diaz, lovers! 

Earlier this week, I did a teary-eyed fist-pump when browsing through my Facebook timeline. I was pleased - no, ecstatic to learn that the beautiful Ashley Graham was named a Sports Illustrated Magazine cover model. Ashley has made history as the first plus-sized model to nab this coveted spot and I could not be any happier for her. Watching her reaction to the grand reveal gave me all of the feels; the tears, the incredulity, the jumping up and down in her inability to contain her excitement… it felt like a win for all of the curvy girls out there fighting the daily battle to have their beauty validated.

 Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images  Stunning!!

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Stunning!!

In the same week, I accompanied my soon-to-be sister-in-law along with both of our mothers and the rest of her bridesmaids to pick out her dress and be fitted for ours. The appointment started out perfectly – the bride had already narrowed the choice down to two dresses, so we helped her make the final choice then finalized a few of the color and veil-related details.

Next it was time to pick out the bridesmaids’ dresses. We were given a few choices to pick between and came to an agreement quite easily. The gown is quite lovely if I do say so myself, long and somewhat ethereal in a great shade of purple. The gathered waist and sweetheart neckline each feature some delicate crystal beading that adds a sophisticated level of sparkle to the dress. All in all, a great pick across the board.

With the hard part behind us, we each waited to have our measurements taken. The bride went first and remarked how surprised she was at the sizing schematic, which can absolutely come as a shock if you’ve never purchased a bridal gown before. For whatever reason, your wedding/bridesmaid dress size is, in a word: bullshit. It’s your regular size all hopped up on steroids. I don’t know who decided that it was a good idea to make you feel like a cow during what is supposed to be a positive and memorable experience, but that’s precisely how I felt the first time I was part of a bridal party. My brother’s fiancé, for example, is regularly a size three or four; her wedding dress, rounding one size up to play it safe, was ordered at a size 10.

Now, as any of my faithful readers or social media followers undoubtedly know by now, this is not my first rodeo, or second or third or seventh. I’m a frequent flyer at this damn rodeo, I should have a punch card for a free dress at this point. So I was more or less prepared to have to order a dress in a size that would stir up visions of a circus tent. Whatever, I thought. It is what it is.

 Note: not all weddings pictured here. Side Note: No, I'm not kidding.

Note: not all weddings pictured here. Side Note: No, I'm not kidding.

Then I was measured. I was advised that my bust, waist and hip measurements each corresponded with a different dress size. To err on the safe side, I should go with the size dictated by the largest of the measurements; no surprise here, that meant my hips. Fine, bring on the larger size. Better to have to alter a dress to make it smaller in places than to get one too small and be screwed. I still instinctively cringed a tiny bit when she told me the size I’d have to order, but told myself to brush it off. That was until the sales consultant said the following: “So, we’re going to order the larger size. And just so you know, that’s a plus size and has to be custom made. So you have to pay extra and there’s nothing I can do about that. Ok! Did you want to prepay for the entire thing or just leave the deposit?”

My previously cheery demeanor immediately evaporated, making way for the resting bitch face for which I’m apparently well known. I handed over my debit card for the payment of the deposit only, embittered enough to find, however irrationally, some sort of victory in a partial payment. Sensing my palpable mood shift, the sales girl attempted to make bubbly chatter. She asked if I was married yet, feigned shock that I wasn’t and expressed most enthusiastically her hopes that I’d come back to the bridal shop to get my dress when it was my turn. I couldn’t stop myself from issuing a snarky “Not if you’re going to tack on a premium for my hips, but thanks!” It was bordering on rude in tone and I know it.

I quickly corrected my mood as soon as the bride, who with the possible exception of my mother is the sweetest person I’ve ever met, looked at me with big brown eyes full of consternation. I smiled big and wide and assured her that all was fine. Inwardly though, I was not only upset but embarrassed. I work hard to be healthy – I eat right, I exercise. It was disheartening to be made to feel like a giant red buzzer was going to be pressed as soon as my order hit the manifest, like sirens would blare all across the factory, sending seamstresses whose overtime I was paying for into a frenzy to make my epic-sized gown. “THIS IS NOT A DRILL! GET OUT THE REALLY BIG SCISSORS AND GIANT SEWING MACHINE, WE'RE GONNA NEED THE HEAVY DUTY THREAD FOR THIS ONE!!!”

Later that evening at home with a glass of wine in my hand, I took a break from writing to read up on Ashley Graham and perhaps give myself a little ego boost. I was highly annoyed to learn of the barrage of hateful comments being leveled at Ashley and at Sports Illustrated for choosing her. One idiot called the cover a disgusting effort to shove obesity and laziness down our throats, another said curves aren’t anything to be proud of and said you too could look like Ashley if you just eat cheesecake all day. One troll commented, “Eww, another fat Adele. Wouldn’t want to pay for that grocery bill! What a whale!” and picked fights with anyone who called him out for his cruelty. Ironically, lots of the vitriol I read seemed to be coming from folks who were in no position to call anyone unattractive. I hope they all step barefoot on tiny Legos.

I was quite astonished at a different kind of negative feedback. Many plus-sized women expressed their distaste for the cover because they felt like Ashley wasn’t plus-sized enough. So skinny people are calling Ashley a whale, and bigger folk are giving her the Gretchen Wieners you-can’t-sit-with-us because she’s not plus enough to kick it. What the bloody hell?

So let’s go deeper here. I have never been a big fan of the term Plus Sized, in the assigning of certain sizes as normal and any outliers as not so. It is bothersome to me for a few reasons:

Plus, but No Minus: Only the outliers on the higher end of the spectrum get a special label. While I’m glad someone went with Plus Size rather than Too Big, Super Size, or Biggie, Biggie Biggie, Can’t You See These Clothes Aren’t Meant to Fit You, You See?, I resent the fact that no one went out of their way then to assign a label to the sizes on the lower end of the spectrum. If I’m a Plus Size, why aren’t the size 0 girls of the world a Minus Size? And don’t give me Petites, because that’s more about height.

Law of Averages: I have read and heard for as long as I can remember that the average woman is actually a size 14 or 16. Honestly, I don’t know if this is the case or not. It’s a confusing statistic. For one thing, sizing has changed drastically over the years (a size 8 in the 1950s is now a 16 according to an article I read in the Washington Post last year). Size also varies significantly depending on where you shop (some places I’m a size 12, others a 14 or 16. Blah – there, I said it). If it’s true though, the whole concept of what’s plus-sized relative to what's "average" or "normal" is seriously out of whack.

Who Decides What’s Normal?  As far as what’s “normal,” what the hell does that mean anyway? In my family, for example, wide hips are common. One of my aunts and I often wear a pant size that matches exactly or is within one size of each other. She’s rail thin, I am clearly not. Who’s the normal one and who's the circus attraction? Are we both abnormal because we’re not a smaller size? Am I the abnormal one because I see a larger number on the scale though our hip circumference is similar? I get that clothing obviously has to be bigger if your measurements are larger – that’s called math, and I get it. But why normalize one size range and not another when they encompass so many different body types? It leaves a lot out of the equation.

This all brings me back to why I’m perplexed over the divisiveness of Ashley Graham. I love that she’s breaking new ground but hate that this particular ground was there to break in the first place. For everyone calling her a cow because she’s a double-digit size, shut the hell up. Quit trying to marginalize her success with your “stop trying to make fat people beautiful, they’re all unhealthy and have diabetes” nonsense. I get what you're trying to do here, and yes: I do believe that there is a fine line between body positivity and glorifying unhealthy habits. But sweetie, the girl isn’t sitting around shoveling spoons of lard into her mouth in between shots of insulin and begging you to love her. It is absolutely possible to be of a larger size and be in excellent health, as is Ashley. For those saying she isn’t big enough to truly represent plus-sized women, you too may sit down. It all has to start somewhere, and I think she is a perfectly stunning place to start.   

Where I’m choosing to focus, as I’m sure are Ashley and countless other women, is the positive response. For every hatred-spewing troglodyte likening Ashley to a barnyard mammal or aquatic beast, there appears to an exponential number of light-bearing, love-touting supporters in Ashley’s corner. It gives me hope that the tide may indeed be turning, that healthy, not necessarily skinny, will be the new goal; it’s like I’ve said before – beauty comes in all sizes and real women have mitochondria.  I am still pretty bothered at being told that my bridesmaids dress is going to cost me more because I’m not a certain size. Then again, my waist size is cool enough to grace the cover of a swimsuit magazine.

So maybe I’m just above average, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Bookishly Yours,

Vanessa