It has taken me twenty-seven years to realize the following sobering fact: the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced and overcome is myself. Always my parents’ darling, I grew up smiling when they said I should and joining the extracurricular activities they’d assured me I’d enjoy. Without batting an eyelash, I always did as I was told and walked the path along stones they’d set out for me like breadcrumbs. This mentality guided me through high school and college. As my peers focused on their personal aspirations and dreams, I focused on the ones that my parents had designated for me.
Fortunately, even as I suppressed myself, I found an outlet in poetry classes.
My small voice began to grow with each workshop and critique. I felt so strong and brave reciting the pieces I’d written. Finally, for once, I felt like myself. I lived for the delicious thrill of hearing my words settle and find a home in the thoughts of other people. If only for a second, I could be alive in the words I was speaking. I could live the life I always dreamed of through rhythm and imagery. I craved the feeling of a pen in my hand as the words flowed through me. I quickly filled many Moleskine notebooks with my pain, my prose, my love, and the voices in my head begging me to be anything other than what I was – a girl terrified to live a life that was truly her own.
Unfortunately, even though I continued to thrive in all of my writing classes, I bent to the expectations my parents placed on me. When they told me I could never make a career out of writing, I believed them. When they said I should apply to law school, I did. For the first time in my academic life, I struggled. I felt totally adrift in law school – like any day, one of my legal professors would recognize me for the fraud I was: a poet parading myself as some sort of future politician. Through it all, I took solace in my writing. Whenever I was stressed or overwhelmed, I found myself kneeling at the feet of the greats: Nikki Giovanni, Rumi, Leonard Cohen, and Frank O’Hara. The writing of these poets nourished and kept me whole. They also inspired my own work. At that time, more than ever before, I found poetry flowing out of me like mystical water. Late nights in the law library turned into miniature poetry readings as I enthralled my fellow classmates with pieces I’d written.
I felt alive surrounded by words – finally, free in an environment that sought to creatively stifle me at every turn. I wanted to quit; but by the time I’d built up the nerve to do so, I was faced with devastating news: my older brother Carlos committed suicide. In an instant, my family was shattered. Suddenly, I felt obligated to complete my legal studies in order to bring some sense of joy to my parents. I thought that perhaps my victories could drown out the loss we’d all suffered. So onward I trekked, through oral arguments, appellate briefs, and judicial internships. I was determined to do anything I could to make my parents feel like they hadn’t totally failed. As a result, the day I finally graduated from law school was a source of pride for my parents but an empty one for me. Everyone kept telling me that I’d accomplished so much – but I felt so small; numbed by this hollowness that seemed to be enveloping me more and more each day. I searched for myself in each mirror but I didn’t recognize the person staring back at me from the glass.
Eventually, the weight of my brother’s death and the stress of my legal studies took their toll. The summer that I should have spent reveling in my achievements was spent crying every single day. That fall, despite the protests of everyone around me, I absconded to California. There, a thousand miles away from my family and their expectations, I began to rediscover and rebuild myself. For the first time ever, I lived. I thrived. I traveled. I loved. I found new words in new places. Most importantly, I found myself along the sandy beaches of Malibu and the cracking desert of Joshua Tree. I slept beneath the stars. I heard my own voice in that of the coyotes howling around me in the wilderness and in the popping of campfires burning at my bare feet. All the while, I wrote and filled myself whole so I could pour myself out again.
In that strange darkness, I discovered a new light. One that illuminated each of my sides: the doting daughter, the haunted poet, the giving lover. I occupied each extreme and it felt liberating. It felt right. My journey revealed my purpose: to write and to share words with others.