Jacquie Bullard

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Nostalgia and Novelty: Two Things that Drive my Writing

Nostalgia is a place in time

“There’s a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left.”

― David Guterson

You know how people talk about ‘going to their happy place’ when the going gets rough? I bet most of those happy places are built on nostalgia and good times that were had in a place in the past.

One major reason I began to write my WIP, Heads or Tails is because of the nostalgia I felt for Barcelona. How could I feel longing for a period of my life that was relatively short?


The thing is, for an experience to make a strong impact, it only has to be meaningful, not necessarily long-lasting. Novelty has the power to make that impact  and what better way to experience an immersive sort of novelty than going to a foreign country? If you ever have the chance to live abroad, I highly recommend it. It is one of the best ways to get you to pay attention, if for no other reason than the novelties you experience there.

What drives a person to idealize a certain place or time period over another? I loved my time in Barcelona, but to be honest, I had a hell of a time here and there. So what made it worth staying? Was it the romance of living in a different country with different customs, a different language, and a different cuisine? Was it the allure of being able to drop my personal history to a certain degree and just be who I wanted to present myself to the world as? Was it the pure rush of novelty and seeing with the eyes of a foreigner?

And would I have as much nostalgia for it if not for the novelty? Looking back, it’s hard to say. Hindsight is definitely not 20/20; there’s too much emotion involved to make memories accurate.


Looking Back

Looking back can be a powerful thing. There’s all this popular cliche commentary to live in the present moment, and there’s value in that, too. But if we never look back, we never gain a depth of perspective, appreciate how we got to our present state, or reflect on what worked and what didn’t work in various situations.

It’s all about how we look back: is it with curiosity or satisfaction? Regret or longing? Sometimes we can look back with objectivity and maybe even feel triumphant about it (with feelings of “I have overcome”), or maybe we look back with a sort of distant numbness, a subdued wonder that we can view certain life events as if they belonged to someone else.

The thing is, we were always someone else in the past, in a way….and we are usually on our way to becoming someone else in the future. Isn’t that the typical progression of things? I know, I’m oversimplifying this; there are definitely people who are more stable (static?) in who they are, but no matter how much a person changes (or not!), the world around them changes. That’s why we have phrases like ‘the good ol’ days,’ and ‘they just don’t make them like they used to.’

Why else would nostalgia be such a catalyst for strong feelings? It is just as much a nostalgia for our former selves as it is for places we’ve been, things we’ve done, people we knew, and time periods that have passed.


Saudade and the idea that a place has a soul

“The voice so filled with nostalgia that you could almost see the memories floating through the blue smoke, memories not only of music and joy and youth, but perhaps, of dreams. They listened to the music, each hearing it in his own way, feeling relaxed and a part of the music, a part of each other, and almost a part of the world. ”

Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem for a Dream

I wonder, is nostalgia a cultural construct, or is it a personal reaction? Do some cultures allow for more feelings of nostalgia than others?

Saudade is a Portuguese word that roughly translates into nostalgia or longing. I had heard that this word has no direct translation in English, though I keep wanting to label it as a sort of Portuguese brand of nostalgia. When I taught English in San Francisco, one of my Brazilian students came to me and asked how I would translate saudade. Nostalgia, I told him. He shook his head and said, no, it’s not just nostalgia. But he wasn’t able to say more on the matter or why it was different, but you could almost see the feeling simmering in his heart as he struggled to describe it.

Since then, I’ve heard the word saudade in bossa nova music. What better way to express longing than through music? Is it true that saudade is an integral part of the Portuguese or Brazilian soul? I came across this interesting article on saudade that speaks to the collective personality of the Portuguese:

“Portugal is a country full of poets and dreamers, and dreamers are easily disappointed when the reality doesn’t match to their high expectations. The word “saudade” is a word for dreamers.

This state of mind has become a “Portuguese way of life” that consists in a constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that’s missing.”

Will I ever be able to really understand what saudade is? How can I ever know what a Portuguese or Brazilian person feels when they use that word? That is the limitation of words we use to describe emotions; they only make sense after so much life experience and when it comes to words in a foreign language, we may never be positioned to fully comprehend them on a visceral level.


The call to reminisce

“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time.”

-Nick Hornby, Hi Fidelity

However each culture frames nostalgia, I believe there’s some value in it.

In her Ted Talk on nostalgia and hope, Elena Carrera speaks to the value of looking back with emotion and how that can fill a person with hope and help them feel more connected to others. She talks about the power of the imagination and how that imagining allows us to connect to our emotions about certain situations.

There’s some value in reminiscing, which to me, seems like a sort of nostalgia that is pleasurable. I have a handful of old friends that always do a sort of ritual reminiscing with me whenever we meet up. Sometimes it makes me feel old, like I have so much to look back on; other times it makes me feel younger as I recall some of the daring and curiosity I had in earlier years.

Either way, reminiscing is a branch of nostalgia and it can bring perspective and even rekindle feelings of warmth and connection. Of course, some people live too much in the past and end up idealizing it.

I did something else: I reminisced, wrote about it, twisted it around and fictionalized it. It made my experience in Barcelona unforgettable, but also, it helped me realize what the heck I got out of such a crazy time in my life.

I hope you’ll take that journey with me and read my WIP, Heads or Tails, when it comes out. Launch date TBA!

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The Opening Scene

Here is the opening scene from my current WIP, Heads or Tails. After beginning this novel in 2013, it has gone through so many facelifts, including a change from being written in first person to third person.

Why is this piece taking me so long? A few reasons: one is that life is just so busy, especially the parenting part, and the other has been the struggle in ending the book. Since I've been writing this novel based on my own life experiences, it has taken some time and distance to fictionalize it. So, when I set out to write it, I was following more of a drive to share the feeling of being in Barcelona, and some big lessons I took away from my time there. I didn't map out a plot (I'm more of a pantser than a plotter, in writing and in life planning:)

So, here it is, the opening scene inspired by this lovely, athletic man in the photo. He's one of many Barcelona icons. Thank you for being my muse, Man-with-hoop-whose name-I-don't-know.

photo courtesy of Kristijan Arsov

As Blaise stood in the shade cast by Arco de Triunfo on Passeig de Sant Joan, she didn’t pay much attention to the man playing saxophone just about fifty feet away from her. She didn’t focus on him at all because she was watching another man holding the edges of a giant hula hoop, his whole body embedded in its circumference the way DaVinci’s l’Uomo Vitruviano occupied the void of a circle. The hoop dove and spun the way a coin does when gradually wobbling to flat stillness on one side: heads or tails. But the man never let the hoop fall; he only hinted that it might fall if he weren’t there. Instead, when its edge rolled in place along its circumference, he dodged it defiantly, a matador in a part of Spain where bullfighting and flamenco lived mostly in the minds of the tourists, who were often disappointed that such traditions were mostly found further south.

He would step in and out of the hoop, allow it to continue spinning in a sort of orbit, then step through it back and forth a few times, as if he were now the bull and the hoop were daring him to charge. It was never heads or tails, though. There was nothing about it that implied a fifty-fifty chance at the outcome of things; it was all calculation, intention, control. Meanwhile, the saxophonist played with the hula hoop guy the way a shadow moves with its caster. Strong, bellowing notes were punctuated with more staccato tones, sounds unfolding over a rhythm that jumped, delayed, and bent the rules of a steady beat. His song took sudden turns and unexpected dives, echoing the hula hoop as it threatened to fall in any direction along its round edge.

Sometimes the hoop man would step quickly out of the hoop and stand aside to watch it spin on its axis like a coin that had been flicked. Meanwhile, people came and went, an audience that kept shifting as people watched for just a moment; some tossed coins into the nearby cardboard box, others left without donating.

In the background, the crowds flowed around and under the Arc like water avoiding a boulder in its path, many not knowing why it was there or what it was meant to symbolize. The leaves on the trees hinted at the complete absence of wind as they hung as still as the bricks of the Arc. But the saxophone player, who disturbed any semblance of quiet, and who echoed every skip, sway, and spin of the man and his hoop, was as invisible to Blaise as the hypothetical wind itself. The occasional person dropped a coin in the hoop man’s box; some danced lightly to the chaotic melody of the saxophone. One young couple tossed a few euro coins in the box, lightly, as if throwing them into a wishing well, then continued on their way.

It was only the hoop man that captivated Blaise, while the saxophonist fixed his gaze on her, projecting possible stories of her on the screen of his mind’s eye. Perhaps it was the way she stood beside the Arc, as if she were almost equal to its height; or it could have been the way she swayed slightly as she watched, as if there were a breeze that blew only her and the hoop man. She stood out to him, even at a time when she felt very small; she was just doubting her stay in Barcelona as an illegal immigrant. Whatever it was, she made such an impression on the musician that he would recognize her some months down the road dancing on the rambla known as Passeig del Born. From that point on, Blaise’s life would change in the most unexpected way.

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Uniquely Unfinished

When you hear the name Barcelona, what do you think of? Tapas, beaches, nightlife, the Sagrada Familia? For sure, this foreboding work of Gaudi has more mystique because it's unfinished. We keep asking, when will they finish it? Will it ever be finished?

The fact is, though, that even though it's been under construction for over a century, people have come in droves to marvel at it. It's already beautiful, unique, captivating.

Here, I've shared a photo of it that is not the most polished, glamorous image. But I think of it because I've been working on my novel set in Barcelona for over a decade now, and occasionally I like to drop the joke, "When will it be finished? Will I ever finish it?"

Of course, writers and creators of all kinds know that 'finished' is subjective. It's a decision the artist makes, not some prescribed state that is unmistakeably complete.

In that light, I wanted to share a little snippet from my WIP, Heads or Tails, this novel set in Barcelona that I've been working on since I was captivated by my time there as an English teacher:)

"Working with children was like the work of the bulldozers that combed the beaches of Barcelona at 4 and 5 in the morning, putting the sand back into place to maintain a flat shore for tourists to enjoy. Repetitive work that everyone took for granted, not creating anything but instead just keeping something from total destruction. Sometimes she imagined that the Sagrada Familia and its earthy color, was a sand castle, ready to be ruined by the next big wave, or crumbled slowly by everyday winds, constantly a work in progress. Everyone stood in front staring at the complex facade, more people inside gawked at the way light bounced off the intricate detailed ceiling while shadows highlighted others. It was a spectacle before it was ever finished and there she stood in that classroom, sensing her life as another unfinished piece, full of missing parts and gaps."

There you go...the sentiments of so many writers. Stay tuned for more excerpts and another post to piggyback off the first two that I wrote on Why I Write about Culture Clash.

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Character Sketches: Chloe

Now and then, I write some character sketches do tease out details about characters I want to develop. This helps me a lot when I write in third person, which often feels a little impersonal, so I write the character sketches in first person to give it more emotion and subjectivity. Here's a sketch of Chloe, a good friend of the protagonist (Blaise) from my WIP, Heads or Tails. The picture is here a very basic sketch I did of the sidewalk tiles in the Barcelona neighborhood called l'Eixample (which Chloe mentions below).

It’s good to be home. I love Barcelona, and it will always be a special place in my memories, but trying to stay was just too hard. It was like jogging on a conveyor belt of dollar bills, hopping from one to the next, spitting each bill out behind and knowing that each one is gone the moment you touch it.

Not that money is all I ever think about. But when you work under the table because you don’t have a visa and you ride the metro through the city with an envelope of cash each month to deposit it in your American bank account via ATM, it’s hard to feel that you can put any roots down. Barcelona was never meant to be that for me, anyway. I didn’t go there to put roots down, or to fly, but to ride each day like it was a wave carrying me onto the shore.

I love home, though. There is such security in knowing that I can make enough money to pay the bills and have some left over for my savings; such security in knowing the language without lingering doubt about the meanings of words; such comfort in knowing that I can show my ID to police or other authorities and I don’t have to worry about how long I’ve been in this country.

I know there are plenty of people here that don’t make enough money to get by, don’t know enough English to function in daily life, and live in fear of deportation. There are lots of people in that boat, and it makes me sad, but even though I had similar worries while I was in Barcelona, I can’t say that I felt exactly as they do about being in the United States.

It’s different. They are here because they are trying to improve their situation, or flee from it. I went to Barcelona not because I didn’t see promise in staying in the U.S.; I went because I had some image of Spain as this romantic, exotic place where I could be a whole new person. That land of opportunity that I was traveling to was not a place, it was me, a version of me that I so wanted to be. I’m not sure if I succeeded, and I lost sight of that version of me all the time. There were too many distractions: the festivals, the bars, the sights, even the little things like each new pintxo, tapa, and every detailed tile in the sidewalk in l’Eixample. The sidewalk tiles! It really was those little things! How often can I say that in the U.S., the sidewalk tiles were beautiful and added character? Here in San Francisco, you’re more preoccupied with stepping in shit on the sidewalk, and not from a dog, but from a person!

Then I met Blaise and together, we found out how to be another version of ourselves in a place where people didn’t already know us. A place where some people didn’t really know our culture, if you can say America has a culture. Ha! America.

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An Unconventional Eulogy for my Mom

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

R.I.P. to my dear mom. She passed away almost two weeks ago and the only writing I had done since then was to write her obituary. So much could be said about her, more than I could fit in that little blurb. An obituary isn’t meant to be all that personal or emotional, though. It doesn’t usually talk about the ‘lemons.’ Life had given her many ‘lemons’ throughout the years, but you would never know, by her cheerful and optimistic demeanor.

I used to go for walks with my mom and sometimes we’d spot a lemon tree in someone’s yard. If there were lemons within easy reach from the sidewalk, my mom could hardly resist going to pick one. I was a teenager at the time and I was embarrassed by this. I’d sigh and say, “I’ll meet you at the corner, mom,” as I walked ahead of her. In those moments, my mom was just an old lady stealing someone else’s fruit. Now I look back on that quirk of hers and chuckle. She didn’t wait for life to give her lemons; she was prepared to just seize them when the opportunity presented itself!

Thank you mom, for bringing me a sense of lightheartedness in a not-so-lighthearted world. I hope that even after your passing, you continue to help me see things in a different light when the going gets rough.

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Los Cubos (Outtakes)

[Blaise’s] mind drifted to the feeling of the air late at night in the summer, how it retained the warm humidity of the day and combined with the darkness of night so that she felt held and cuddled, even when she walked around alone in that city past midnight.

One image always came to mind: Los Cubos. That was a local term for L’Estel Ferit (La Estrella Herida in Spanish), The Wounded Star, but hardly anyone knew that, or at least they didn’t talk about it. It was a sculpture that stood randomly on the sand at Platja Sant Miquel, the beach at the end of Passeig de Sant Joan de Borbo, at the tip of the neighborhood of Barceloneta. It reached skyward, casually like four rusted metal boxes stacked haphazardly. The sides were made of panels of glass so that it looked like Barcelona’s own leaning tower of Pisa dreamed up through the eyes of Dali or Picasso.

The image of Los Cubos didn’t resemble an injured star, as its true name proclaimed. To Blaise, that towering sculpture reached up toward the sky the way that the toes of an acrobat point defiantly away from gravity, counterbalancing the weight of the upper body, inverted, creating a posture of impossible balance. She sat up straighter as she thought of it and inwardly reprimanded herself for neglecting her yoga practice.

Comments on this outtake:

Honestly, I really like this depiction of L’Estel Ferit as it rises upward like ‘...the toes of an acrobat point defiantly away from gravity.’ The main reason I removed it from the manuscript was its placement — it took the reader out of the moment at a time when it wasn’t necessary or helpful. It initially was my attempt to introduce one of the themes in the book, which is how an ancient practice like yoga can apply to the life of a modern young woman living abroad.

Why yoga?

During my time in Barcelona, I connected to the yoga community there and was even able to teach some classes (for context, I’m a certified yoga teacher, since 1999). It was intriguing to teach something I was so familiar with, but in a foreign language: Spanish, or as they call it there in Spain, castellano. It got me thinking about how living abroad can make such ordinary things seem new. If you let yourself get caught up in the language and the place, you see things in a different light even if you think you know them well. That’s why I imagined Los Cubos as an analogy for an inverted acrobat, or yogi, stretching up to the sky. Not that long ago, that might have seemed like a strange juxtaposition, but now that yoga has become so mainstream, there are more people that might click with that.

At the same time that a broader demographic has encountered yoga, there’s still some work to be done in terms of putting forth a true reflection of yoga: it’s not just postures and breathing, after all. Some call yoga a science, others a spiritual practice or way of life, and still others see it as just a physical discipline - it’s all those things.

As a yoga teacher over the years, many people have told me, “I can’t do yoga. I’m not flexible enough.” I sometimes would reply, “Not coming to yoga because of a lack of flexibility is like not going to school because you don’t know anything.”

But what do we really know about yoga? And even if we’ve spent years on our yoga mats, how does that really translate into our lives ‘off the mat’ as they say? What can someone get out of yoga even if they think they aren’t interested in it? I began writing Heads or Tails as a reflection on why my experience in Barcelona had such an impression on me. In the process, yoga surfaced as a theme and a force that influenced my time in that Catalan capital. In Heads or Tails, we get an example of how yoga is, more than anything, a state of mind that can still apply to life today. It can serve you while you are in the most familiar setting, and also when you find yourself in uncharted waters.

Stay tuned for a post on scenes from Heads or Tails on how Blaise leans on her yoga practice while she lives as an expat in Barcelona:)

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Why I Write About Culture Clash: Part 2

One night in 2012, my friend and flatmate coerced me into playing guitar on Passeig del Born; that's me in the picture, and to my left, our bartender friend from Bar El Born:)

It's moments and memories like these that have really fueled the writing of my current work in progress, Heads or Tails*. Here's a part two of a post on culture clash and how it's also been an inspiration to all my writing.*

Yoga: part of one culture that became part of many cultures

When I began practicing yoga, it was just beginning to surge in popularity here in the United States in the 90’s. As the years went on, yoga pants were invented, different styles of yoga were developed, and the idea that one can appropriate parts of another culture began to rise.

It’s true: culture can be misrepresented, misunderstood, and misused. But on the flip side, culture is born of mixing, conflict, sharing, inspiration, and yes, sometimes a sort of appropriation. The word appropriation indicates a sort of stealing - but is culture something that is owned, something that can be stolen? Maybe even something that can be borrowed?

I’m an example of this cultural mixing, conflict, and sharing: I am Filipina, which is an ethnicity that has, for centuries, been mixing with other ethnicities and cultures. Even the language, Tagalog, has absorbed elements of other languages, so much that the modern form of it is now referred to simply as ‘Filipino.’ What it means to be Filipino these days is to be proudly mixed, eclectic, and absorbent of other cultures via the cuisine, language, and lifestyle.

So let’s just say I shy away from defining culture as something that is pure and only correct in its unbroken, long-held traditions. Perhaps this is why I really came to love yoga - I knew that it was exotic and foreign at one time, but not because it didn’t apply to other cultures. Once it expanded beyond India, many realized that the heart of yoga is universal. As Swami Satchidananda and the Integral Yoga sangha say, “Truth is one; paths are many.” Swami Satchidananda was just one of many gurus and teachers that have claimed that yoga can be practiced by anyone, from any cultural or religious background. In this light, no one viewpoint, religion, or spiritual path is the only one for all people.

Culture clash on a macro and micro scale

This is where culture clash comes in: because many people of different cultures hold the view that their culture is the best or the most correct way to live. It’s exclusive, confining, and has more to do with social pressures around what one should do as defined by long-held tradition (and things that are long-standing are not always best or morally correct).

On a smaller scale, though, families can have this type of clash. I grew up in a mini-culture clash since my parents were born in the Philippines, yet I was born in a liberal, free-spirited town in California. My parents only wanted the best for me, but they expected me to follow their cultural norms, but every time I stepped outside our home, I entered into American culture.  Which culture won the battle for my attention?

Actually, they both had an influence on me. I am neither fully American, nor fully Filipina and I find that so fascinating. I know there are so many others like me, and that’s what drives me to write about this meeting point between cultures.

I’m not saying that Filipino culture has had no value for me; on the contrary, it’s brought some depth to my world view, but it was never destined to be my sole influence. So, I started wondering, aside from culture and ethnicity, who am I? On a deep level? Or on the highest level?

Who am I, beyond my culture and ethnicity?

That’s where yoga comes in, because even though it’s from a different culture, it’s more of a spiritual approach to life, not merely a cultural one.

But, my parents didn’t have access to yoga growing up or even throughout much of their adult lives. They raised me with what they had, which was their culture and their religion (Catholicism). That is what they had to offer me, besides economic security. All these things they raised me with did have value, but there was something missing to breach the gap between the culture of their upbringing and the culture they were raising me in. Their way of life didn’t explain to me everything I was experiencing. Parents don’t always know what challenges their children will meet; lifestyles change, the world changes, and the new generation faces things their parents never could have imagined. Sometimes the life knowledge gained by the older generation doesn’t apply anymore, and in my case, it wasn’t just a clash of culture: it was also a clash between generations. Here’s a little excerpt from my first novel, Erased by the Tide, that touches upon this idea:

“I think of the Footprints story. My version would also have me facing one set of footprints going off into the distance. They are my footprints coming towards me up until this moment. Then I would turn 180 degrees to find smooth sand with no footprints. This spooks me until I realize that this must be what the future looks like. I look around, and there are not even the footprints of other people. I think of what Daniel said about following in the footsteps of my elders, but how can I if I want to go forward? They haven’t walked into the future any more than I have.”

So I left behind the religion of my childhood. I was raised Catholic, but somewhere around the age of 18, I told my dad that I wasn’t Catholic anymore. When he asked why, I told him that I didn’t believe that Jesus was our savior; I told him I respected the teachings of Jesus, but that being Christian or Catholic wasn’t the only way.

I know, right now I sound either like an atheist or a New Age Hippie and I assure you, it’s more the latter than the former. Just learn a bit about where I grew up and you’ll agree that I must have been immersed in hippie culture and the art of tree hugging. This all sort of complicates my origins, in my opinion. Had my parents immigrated from the Philippines to the Midwest, or to the East Coast, I would have easily been a very different person.

Which brings me to the point that within a culture, there are subcultures. Within America, there are all the different types of Americans, and it’s more than just a melting pot; people from a given ethnicity or race or culture aren’t bound to their parents’ or grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ culture, at least not by the larger society in the U.S. (though they might be pressured by their families to carry on precious tradition).

This type of cultural freedom can be inspiring, challenging, terrifying, enlightening, and in some ways, spiritual. You start wondering, ‘Who am I, apart from culture, religion, my job status, my past experiences?’ In my work in progress, Heads or Tails, this is the driving question as we follow the story of an American expat in Barcelona.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this post, as well as some other excerpts from the novel I’m working on now, Heads or Tails.

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Why I Write about Culture Clash: Part 1

Photo from a paper placemat at a chain focacceria in Barcelona called Buenas Migas.

The Nuances of Being American

I was raised at a point where cultures clash. My parents left the Philippines in 1971 shortly before President Marcos declared martial law. They landed in California, where some of our other family members had already settled. Six years after they arrived with my four older siblings, my fifth sibling was born, then three years later, I was born.

So I am American and yet I grew up around a language other than English: Tagalog. I’m not saying that having English as your first language makes you more American — but growing up in a bilingual household is a unique experience. It makes English-speaking Americans feel that you are somehow exotic or other.

It wasn’t just language that made my experience different, though. There was the food, customs, and cultural expectations. No, my parents were not the stereotypical Filipinos who want nothing more than their children to be nurses and doctors (though I still find Jo Koy’s jokes on this matter hilarious!). They generally let me walk to the beat of my own drum, but I still got immersed in the things that make a person Filipino.

So even though I have never been to the Philippines, I tell people I’m Filipino when they ask, but I was not taught the language. I heard people speaking Tagalog all around me when I was growing up, but then they’d generally turn to me and speak in English. Of course, when I got older, then sometimes extended family members would try to talk to me in Tagalog and then once they realized I couldn’t answer, they’d turn to my parents and talk to them ABOUT me in Tagalog.

I’ll admit it, if I was truly driven to learn the language, I could have. I would have. But to be honest, whenever I made an effort, it was sort of half-hearted. And then I realized that I had somewhat of an emotional block against learning Tagalog. Why?

Maybe because as a teen and young adult, I was talked about in that language. I’ve come to associate it with being excluded or feeling like I didn’t quite belong (though I belonged enough to eat the lumpia and do a little code switching with my tiny vocabulary).

Windows to Other Worlds

I’m a trained language teacher, so I always feel that I should know best how to approach the task of learning Tagalog. But, through my MA TESOL training and experience as a teacher, I know that the affective filter is real. The affective filter is a sort of subjective blockage to learning: some have a high affective filter because they are afraid of making mistakes, for example, while others might have a high one because they don’t like the sound of the language they are learning. In other words, a high affective filter makes it harder to learn while a low filter makes it easier.

So I’ve been talked about in Tagalog my whole life, and I guess that might be why I write about culture clash: because I liked to write about all those awkward tensions that come up when languages create barriers instead of bridges. This could be why I was drawn to becoming a language teacher. It is also why I was driven to start writing my current work in progress, Heads or Tails. When I came back from Barcelona for the third time, I knew I had to share what I had experienced there, because I had my own unique view of the place, different from other expats and immigrants. My story of how it was to be there is just one in millions, worth telling because everyone has a different experience living and working abroad, and every story has its gems.

Heads or Tails is a fictionalized version of my time as an English teacher in Barcelona. It is full of examples of why culture clash is a beautiful thing.

Stories Thrive on Conflict

Yet I don’t know if the term culture clash really describes the life experiences I’ve had with two or more cultures coming together, though. The word clash conveys conflict, dramatic tension, and incompatibility. When I say ‘culture clash,’ it doesn’t sound like a good thing. But maybe that ‘clash’ is musical, the kind of forceful sound that comes when two metal cymbals crash together. Maybe every type of clash like this is a miniature big bang that brings worlds into existence, in combinations never before seen.

The story of Heads or Tails is a peek into what happens when one person struggles with the many facets of deciding where home is: the protagonist, Blaise, constantly questions herself: should I stay in Barcelona, or should I go back home? Where is home? Which career feels like home, and am I really the English teacher that I became when I came to Barcelona, or is there something more for me to do in this life?

Those are her inner conflicts, but on the outside, there are the tensions that come with the lifestyle she has chosen: being limited to those jobs where employers are willing to pay her under the table, remaining in the EU without a visa, dealing with the difficulties of not having all that comes with citizenship in that Catalan capital. And then there’s the task of getting by in another language and culture, navigating intercultural relationships, and a thousand other things big and small. Even something as simple as how she drinks her coffee says something about her preferences and culture.

Culture in a Cup

In America, coffees are large; in Spain and other parts of Europe, they trend smaller. In Heads or Tails, the subject of coffee comes up over and over again, as in this excerpt:

He took a microscopic sip of his cafe solo. Blaise wondered if the coffees were small in Morocco, too, or if he had just adapted to drinking the tiny beverages here. “I see you like cafe solos, too,” she said to him.

“Yes. It’s the best coffee. If you really like the coffee, nothing needs to be added.”

Chloe shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s like saying you don’t like the bread if you add tomato. If that’s true, then I guess Catalans don’t like bread since you see pan con tomate everywhere!”

He threw his head back and laughed, a quiet stifled laugh that showed up as blood in his face. They chuckled along with him, wondering why he found that so funny. “Ha! I like you! You’re very funny,” he said as he gazed at Chloe with unreasonable intensity.

Coffee is one of those things that has crossed so many cultural boundaries. It’s one of those signs of globalization, just like the fact that English has permeated so much of the globe. Language, coffee, music, and yoga are some of my favorite things that have infused cultures around the world. Do these things dilute the cultures they spring up in? Maybe a bit; or maybe they just add to their constant transformation, since, like the Sagrada Familia, culture is constantly under construction. That is why I write about culture clash, because that clash is part of the construction of cultures as they move through time.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, with more sneak previews into my work in progress and a peek back at my first novel.

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Las Ramblas

My current WIP is broken up into 6 parts, each with an intro. Here is one of those intros and it gives a peek into the ambience of Barcelona. I don't mean to overly magnify the problem of petty theft it that Catalan capital, but it does get featured throughout the book as part of the plot. Really, the idea is to glimpse how lively the streets of Barcelona are, so here is a little homage to our dear Man in Gold that, if you've been to Barcelona and walked on Las Ramblas, you've probably seen him:)

A small crowd formed on one side of Las Ramblas; some people took pictures, one man lifted up a toddler to see over curious heads. The focal point of that small audience perched frozen in time and space: a man painted gold dressed in tattered slacks and overcoat, his hair congealed into a freeze-frame moment that showed he was either hurrying along or the wind was blowing just enough to ruffle it. The other clue of his hurried pace were his arms and legs that opened out in a long, energetic gait. Their paused state gave a feeling of settled action, the way a yoga posture might. All around him, gravity demonstrated its existence in the movement of countless other things: occasional leaves falling off trees along the rambla, a few pieces of trash blowing in the breeze, and Pakistani street vendors tossing their glowing blue souvenirs up into the air to float softly back down into their hands.

Even though the gold guy stood as solid and immoveable as Gaudi’s curvy La Pedrera, he offered a flirtatious hint now and then that he was actually as sensitive to whim as anyone else by looking momentarily to one side or the other. In those moments, the whites of his eyes could be seen, as well as the gleam of life and personality that lived inside that costume. Otherwise, he had a remarkable ability to refrain from blinking.

One tourist stood chatting with his friend, taking a few photos of the gold man. Meanwhile, another person slowly approached the tourist, slow and steady the way a stalking cat would, and slipped a hand into the tourist’s gaping pants pocket. Out came a wadded-up tissue and a slim wallet. The thief quickly put the wallet away in his messenger bag and walked slowly along as if his stride was never broken by that moment.

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Expats and Immigrants (Part 2)

Back in September 2022, I posted an excerpt about the struggles of being an expat in Barcelona. Here is a peek into some attitudes towards immigrants and expats from that same WIP.

Ernesto walked slowly across Rambla del Raval and paused at the cat. El gato. El gat, in Catalan. It was a pleasing thing to look at, voluptuous and cartoonish at the same time, but what really made him stop in almost an act of reverence was the thought of Botero, the artist who created El Gato, and how his art appeared in places all over the world. And it wasn’t just normal sculptures, but things that were out of proportion, ridiculous yet full of life and feeling. It was, for Ernesto, a bit like Picasso’s work: so fantastical as to be memorable and striking, so disproportionate as to make one feel like life itself was out of proportion for seeming too square and solid.

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Nit de Foc (Outtakes)

Was it really William Faulkner who said, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."? It's such a dramatic way of describing the editing process, but I have to admit that at times, it really does feel like you're killing something when you cut it out of your manuscript. On the flip side, though, comes more creative options and new possibilities.

The photo here is one of me and some friends in Barcelona on Nit de Foc, also known as the Sant Joan Festival. It was an unforgettable night that I just had to capture in my WIP, but alas, some of the details didn't serve the plot of my novel, so this little excerpt is just part of the scene that I'm cutting out.

This one's dedicated to all the real, living, breathing people that inspired my writing without even meaning to!

“And you? What’s your job?"

“I teach English.”

“You came to Barcelona to teach English?”

“Yes...and no. I came here because I wanted to, and teaching English is a way for me to stay here.”

“Ah. Well, you could help me! I need to learn English before I move to America.”

She giggled, until her laughter grew and grew and pretty soon she was laughing like someone had just told her the funniest joke.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just think it’s funny when people call it America. It sounds so much more legendary and idealistic than ‘the United States.’ America, in my mind, includes Canada and probably a lot of Canadians would want to be distinguished from the United States. The world doesn’t like Americans.”

“That’s not really true. I like America. I want to go there.”

“Have you ever been?”

“Well, no. But for some reason, I think of New York and think that I would like it.”

“I like New York. But also, New York is not like other places in the U.S. It’s different everywhere. It’s like Barcelona, here we are in Catalunya and people from Madrid or Andalucia talk about “the real Spain,’ in other words, the rest of Spain outside Catalunya.”

“True. But here we are, you and I, both foreigners here...”

“Ha! Like half the population of this city! People come here from everywhere!”

“Exactly. We all have our reasons for coming here and probably there are things about Barcelona that we never expected or imagined. But we come here with a different view, an outside view. We see this place with new eyes.”

He took a drag on his cigarette and held the smoke in, thinking. Then he exhaled and held up the half smoked cigarette. “See this? It’s just a cigarette but it makes me think about time. While smoking one cigarette, you can think of so many things. You can come to conclusions. I told you I came here with the goal of staying one year, and throughout that year you can have good days and bad days, you can change your mind about whether or not you want to stay. You go in phases, you pass through moods, you think of things you never thought of before. But it’s a measure of time; like this cigarette, it is a measure of time, a reminder that whatever is happening now is going to pass, that things change, that cigarettes burn out; you know what I mean?”

“That’s the most philosophical excuse I have ever heard a smoker give for smoking!” she teased. She thought of all those little cortados that people drank so slowly, sometimes over deep conversations, other times alone and in silence. Then she turned to him. “But I know exactly what you mean.”

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Expats and Immigrants (Part 1)

Here is an excerpt from my #WIP, a novel set in Barcelona. This little bit brings out some of the inner conflict of the protagonist as she debates whether to stay in Barcelona or go back home.

“Guapa, let me tell you: history does not repeat itself,” Dario said as he leaned on the bar with one hand and glanced at the TV up in the far corner of the room. “Things are always a little different. The problem is that people imagine others to be someone they are not. For example, I immediately assumed you and your friend weren’t from the United States, and when I asked, it was a surprise. What if I had asked the question with no assumption about where you were from? Many people hate Americans, no? And why? Because they hate your president, or your history. They are not talking about each individual American. America is only an idea. Like Spain. Didn’t you come here with an idea of Spain?”

“Of course. I didn’t come here because I pictured something I didn’t like.”

“Exactly. But did you find what you expected?”

Foam from her cortado had collected at the inside of the rim of her demitasse. She smeared it around with the back of the tiny spoon that had been sitting on her plate. She scooped up some of it and ate it off the spoon while Dario leaned steadily on the bar looking intently at her. She reverted his question back at him.

“Did you find what you expected when you came to Barcelona?”

“I was just a little boy. Too busy thinking about how I would miss my friends in Argentina. I didn’t think much of where I was going.”

“How did you end up working at Bar El Born?”

“You know how it goes. A friend of mine worked here and I was looking for a job, so he got me to start working here.”

“And now it’s your life.”

He laughed. “Guapa, I hope not! I work a lot. It’s true I am the face of this bar at the moment, but Barcelona is out there, so alive all the time. I can’t just live here and in my flat. No.”

He reached into the case with tongs to grab a bikini. He held it up in offering to her.

“Si, gracias,” she said.

He turned around to heat it up for her. She tried to picture him outside of the bar, aside from the image of him smoking on the curb in front of the bar with Mateo. He put the bikini on a plate in front of her, cut in half. “So,” he picked up the thread which she had tried to break. “Did you find what you expected in Barcelona?”

“Not at all,” she replied, then took a bite of the bikini.

“And is that a good thing or bad?”

She shrugged. “It’s both. There are good things and bad things. Isn’t everything that way?”

He chuckled. “Ay, guapa. Your life is maybe too exciting. You have some secrets, I bet.”

She wiped her mouth and swallowed. “I guess as a bartender, you hear a lot of people’s secrets? The ones they would never tell if they were sober?”

Dario’s eyes surveyed the scene outside the window as if watching the past playing out on El Born. He shook his head and said, “Sometimes the secrets they want to forget; or the ones they can’t forget about and just need to tell someone.” He ran his hands through his hair and almost on cue, reached into his pocket, pulled out his keys and placed them on the bar. Then out came a lighter, a folded piece of paper, and a pack of cigarettes. Blaise stared at the keys.

He took a cigarette out and put it between his lips, then put everything else except the lighter back into his pockets. It was just a coincidence, but the sight of the keys set Blaise’s mind to thinking of Adrien, and Diego, too. Dario winked at her and said, “Guapa, I’m just going out for a smoke. If someone comes, I come back inside.”

“Vale,” she continued to eat the bikini. Just before he stepped through the threshold, she called out, “Dario?”

“Si, guapa?”

“You know why a bikini is called a bikini?”

He smiled and shook his head. “Guapa, you think about things too much.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“It’s both, no?”

She waved her hand at him, shooing him out the door. “Go smoke and come back to tell me if you know about it.”

“I do. But only because so many tourists kept asking me why, why, why is it called a bikini. Then I had to find out. Before that, I didn’t care. I never wondered why.”

Dario stepped out and lit his cigarette. Shuffler approached him, who held up his lighter for the old man. They stood and chatted as they smoked. Blaise watched the movement of their arms and hands as they talked, like they were making plans for the renovation of that tiny rambla.

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Off Track

A couple weeks ago, I published a post about using the wall for a mini practice and I started it with the quote, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” Then last week for the Tuesday mini practice, I entitled the post “Time to lean,” planning to link it to the previous week. A few days later, during a random moment I realized that, in the process of writing that post, I veered from my initial topic and so the title didn’t make much sense any more.

This is what can happen when you finish a post as the baby is screaming and tugging on your pants at the same time the older child is calling out to you to play with them (and also, I’m my own editor!).

When I was out the other day walking with the baby, I thought about how funny it was that I published that post with an irrelevant title. It made me think of what’s in a title, and the titles we all assume. I come across all these instagram bios that proudly state things like, “mother of 2, entrepreneur, and foodie,” “wife, mom, and writer,” or whatever other things we call ourselves. Of course, those are all hats we wear, but our true Selves aren’t those hats — instead, we are the heads wearing the hats. And sometimes those hats can get us off track. We might think, “I’m too busy attending to the kids, shopping, cooking, cleaning, organizing activities, fundraisers, working 9-5, working graveyard shift, planning a date with my partner, etc.

That’s when things get mis-titled.

So I didn’t go back and change the title of that post, simply because I wanted it to stay there as an example of how motherhood is full of distractions, including big ones where we forget what’s important to us, and who we are besides somebody’s mommy.

All the items on our to-do lists as well as the distractions from those ‘shoulds’ are just mini stories; but they aren’t the narrator. YOU are the narrator, and you get to tell your story, or stories, as you probably have more than one.

So, you might think, what the heck do stories have to do with yoga?

Everything!

Every time you step onto your yoga mat, or sit on the meditation cushion, you get another chance to look back at all the stories that make up who you say you are, and say, “I am more than that,” or, “That happened then, and now here I am.” Then maybe you breathe and move a little bit and take a vacation from the pull of past events, until you bump up against worries about the future: things like, “Oh no, what if…?” and “I really hope that….”

Those are the stories you tell about the future before they’ve even happened (and they might not!). So I invite you to take a moment, whether it’s a brief pause to breathe and chill out, or a luxurious 20 minutes or an hour to do yoga your way. And by that I mean, do what feels right in your body. Tired? Do some restorative poses. Overstimlated? Burn off your anxiety with a dynamic flow or sun salutation. Take a moment, or many moments, every day to get centered and look back at the ways you’ve mistitled your life: ‘just a stay-at-home mom,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘married to so-and-so,’ or ‘failed artist,’ and know that whatever the chapters that came before, you get to write the ones that follow.

Then the question comes, “Who are you besides all these titles (which are really just subtitles to the True You)?” Then the real yoga comes as you get to know who You are besides a mom, wife, whatever-your-day-job-is, wherever-your-religion (or lack of), and your accomplishments big and small. In our yoga practices, we don’t necessarily have to strive too hard to know that no matter what we do, we are who We are: love, light, peace, human beings.

I know, it’s hard to feel and know that all the time. That’s okay. Just set out to at least remind yourself of it; there will be days when you do feel like love, light, and peace, as well as days where you feel like a hot mess. That’s just being human:)

Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings. I just had to address that misstep because I knew there must be someone out there asking, “Why the heck did she title this post, ‘Time to lean?’”

Now tell me, what’s a title you’ve given yourself, or someone has given you that you got stuck on? What did it take for you to realize you were more than just that one, little title or label?

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Tapas part 2: more than just focus and flame

Last week I wrote about tapas as a form of transformative fire, but that ‘fire’ can have different qualities. Tapas doesn’t have to be a raging fire. It can be the fire of concentration, a spark of insight, or the slow burn of steady focus. It can be mental and not just physical heat created by movement. In light of that, here’s one yogic practice I’d like to share with you that involves this gentle/mental form of tapas: trataka. Over the last couple of months, I wrote about dristhi here and here; trataka is similar, but involves a more extended period of time. Think of a sitting meditation, eyes opened, gazing at a candle flame, flower, or some other object that has spiritual significance for you.

During the summer, I prefer to use water as a focus, to balance the fiery heat of the season. Water dances and reflects light in a softer way than fire does. Water transforms, nourishes, and yet holds potential dangers the way fire does. I don’t have the luxury of living close to the ocean or another body of water, like I used to. But water as an object of contemplation can take the form of a bowl of water, a fruit or vegetable from the garden that contains a lot of water, or even a recording of ocean or rain sounds if you want your focus to be auditory.

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Tapas: bites or burning flames?

When I say the word ‘tapas,’ it’s pretty likely that you’ll think of one of two definitions, or maybe you’ll recognize both: 1. Small dishes that are part of Spanish cuisine, and 2. The yogic niyama that usually gets translated as ‘discipline’ or ‘austerity.’

There are all kinds of ways to explain tapas and how it brings life to yoga practice, but before I get into the nitty gritty, I want to bring up the link between tapas and fire. If you live in a place where summers are hot, then the element of fire is strong and you don’t have to do much to generate heat in your body. But what else can we say about fire except that we feel its essence from the sun?

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Yoga Mama turns 1

Yoga Mama is 1 year old!

As I began to plan to launch my Yoga Mama newsletter, this was my vision:

"There is so much information out there for mamas who want to incorporate yoga into their lives. There’s almost too much…so why do I want to add to it? Well, I’m not exactly trying to reinvent the wheel. I just think that every mama’s perspective counts and it’s all about each one of us sharing our stories. So, Yoga Mama is going to be my outlet for sharing my story as it unfolds."

Check out the latest post at: https://yogamama.substack.com/p/black-moon

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Syncopation of movement

As we zone in on one simple thing, we notice how complex the simplest things are. Not only do our lungs breathe, our attention breathes - it expands and contracts between innermost and outermost. If you’re doing a yoga sequence, then there’s also a rhythm and harmony as you move through a sequence: inhale reach up, exhale stretch down; inhale, backbend, exhale forward bend. There’s the sound and the silence: that hushed sound of ujjayi breath, the light sounds of hands and feet moving around the mat, and the unheard sounds of the thoughts in the mind.

It’s crazy to realize that when you slow down and move with attention on your yoga mat, you discover so much going on inside! You begin to notice more around you, as well. You might not sprout eyes on the back of your head or super sonic hearing so that you can catch your kids before they draw on the walls with crayons, but you will slowly feel more present and calm. You’ll notice the little things more, and you know what they say. It’s all little things.

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