Proud Mama

29 Jun

The other evening while I was on my knees digging in the garden, a woman riding her bike by our house stopped and circled back. I assumed she was there to admire my colorful flowers, as my “Covid” garden has become quite an attraction for local passersby as of late. Although she seemed familiar to me, with her helmet and sunglasses, I couldn’t place her.

“You’re Jessica—right?” she said, removing her glasses.

I nodded, still unsure of who she was.

She smiled. “My daughter went to elementary school with your son, (dead name)!”  

My shoulders tightened. Up until that moment, I had been relaxed and in my element, enjoying the early evening light with my hands in the soil. I didn’t want to have to stop and explain to this woman—a mere acquaintance from over a decade ago—that my former son was now my daughter. Hearing my daughter’s dead name, let alone saying it aloud, is quite painful for me.

“Oh, hey—hi!” I stammered. “So good to see you!” Before she asked any more questions, I decided to launch into my well-practiced monologue. “Just so you know, my daughter, who now goes by “Cece,” has come out to us as a transgender woman. Until recently, she hid who she really was, and our family is so pleased that she’s now able to live as her true self.” I pointed to the large progressive pride flag we have affixed to the front of our house. It waved at us in the evening breeze.

The woman didn’t bat an eye. “Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I’m so happy that you’re being supportive. My mom tried really hard to fix me when I was young.”

“Fix you?” I was confused. “What do you mean?”

She looked right into my eyes. “She sent me away to a camp to try to make me straight. It almost worked, too.”

When I knew this woman, she had a husband and two small children. “Wait—you’re no longer married to your husband?”

“Not any more. I’ve been in a relationship with a woman for over ten years. We live just a few blocks over.”

Wow. What a surprise.

We talked for a while—reminiscing about our kids in elementary school and what they’re up to now—the “usual” mom-talk. She told me her daughter was about to have her first baby. I told her about my four daughters, all of whom identify as “queer.” Probably not a conversation we would have all those years ago.

Times are changing—not quickly enough, in my opinion—but it’s moving exponentially faster than it ever has before. My children’s generation is largely responsible for continuing the legacy of those brave people who strived for inclusivity and equal rights all those decades ago.

When people begin to open their minds, society begins to change.

It’s simple, really. We’re all part of a beautiful garden of varieties and colors. Unique and exceptional on our own, but so much more vibrant and beautiful when we are all together.

Happy Pride Month!

One Year Ago

21 Apr

Today, exactly one year ago, my debut novel, Lost in Oaxaca was published. I’d been looking forward to 2020 for a very long time, knowing that it was going to be a time of great success for me. After years of hard work, I would finally experience my life’s crowning achievement.

Yes, indeed—I was destined to be the queen of Indy publishing. People would flock to bookstores to buy my novel; copies would sell out in days and the publisher would have to scramble to print more books. A mile-long line of fans would snake around our local bookstore at my book signing event. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the gory details. The truth is, you’d never be able to imagine the vividly narcissistic fantasies I’d compiled in my mind about my 2020 literary success.

It’s truly embarrassing. I’m just thankful you can’t get into my head.

Dreams are fun, but they can dissipate quickly, especially during a pandemic. I must reiterate—my disappointments are nothing compared to what some folks have experienced in 2020. But as it is required that writers write about their feelings, I’ll not let you down.

There was no selling out of Lost in Oaxaca. In fact, bookstores sent back the unsold copies to my publisher. There was no book signing event; no launch party. ZILCH.

The reality is that even without a pandemic, my extravagant fantasies of literary success would not have come to life. After all, I’m an inexperienced, first time novelist who has spent her adult life teaching piano lessons, running a household, and raising four children. Lost in Oaxaca was never going to be a worldwide bestseller.

My publisher made it clear from the beginning: YOU MUST WRITE AT LEAST 3 NOVELS before you can expect to gain a following. EVEN THEN, you will most likely only have moderate success.

“LALALALALALALA!” I shouted, stuffing my fingers into my ears. You’d think a piano teacher of over 30 years would understand the art of listening, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I was going to be the exception.

If this damn pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that who I am is not related to how many books I sell, and that my success is not dependent on an Amazon ranking. Sure, it feels good to sell a book. But the act of writing—putting words to a page—is what brings me the real joy, and this should be my focus. I am happy and fulfilled when I write, and that’s enough.

I’m so incredibly thankful that folks have bought my little book and told me they loved it. They’ve left me so many encouraging messages and positive reviews. I am deeply indebted to Chaucer’s, our local Santa Barbara Indy bookstore, who kept Lost in Oaxaca front and center this past year. They even acknowledged that I held best seller status—at least in the category of local authors. If that’s not a modicum of success, I don’t know what is.

Hey—I just remembered that my publisher also told me that the life of a novel is around three years. That means I’ve still got two more years left to promote Lost in Oaxaca.

And two more years to come up with additional elaborate fantasies of my incredible literary success!

And you thought I was done talking about my book. NEVER!

Distracted

15 Apr

I almost didn’t sit down to write this morning. As the queen of procrastination, I’ll pretty much do anything to avoid getting started on any writing project. These days, even the thought of constructing a simple blog post is overwhelming.

I’d already backed the minivan into the driveway with the intention of ridding it of a year’s worth of Covid-19 garbage, including my collection of discarded disposable masks that somehow all smell like a barnyard (I sincerely hope that my breath isn’t really that foul!) Then there are the multiple crumpled up Starbucks treat bags, bits of dried leaves from last fall, and enough dog hair to stuff a small pillow. I had originally looked into getting my car detailed, but the hefty price tag persuaded me that I should do it myself. So what if it took me four hours and came with the probability of straining my already sore back? As I bounded upstairs to change into some sweats and a ratty t-shirt, I passed my laptop sitting alone on my desk, its screen covered in a sheen of dust.

“You’re an asshole,” it whispered.

A true friend always tells it like it is.

Yes, I’ve been distracted lately, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of writing going on. I could blame it on pandemic-related depression (a valid excuse for many of our struggles these days), but the truth is that my avoidance of writing has always been related to my feelings of self-worth. Throughout my entire life, I’ve fought with that malicious bitch in my brain who lies to me about my abilities. And after more than a year of isolation, change, and a constant stream of worry, she has made herself comfortable in my head, soaking in a tub brimming with doubt and insecurity.

Oh, you know her, too?

My personal struggles pale in comparison to what others have been through during this pandemic, and I do realize I am one of the lucky ones. But isolation is difficult nonetheless. I miss my family. I miss seeing my piano students in person. I miss interacting with people—I want the world to see that I’m smiling at them. I’m dying to embrace people again.

I do know we’ll get through this. It’s getting better day by day (at least where I live) and even with all of my worry and distraction, I’m beginning to feel a slight sense of hope again. My family and I are vaccinated. Summer is just around the bend, and maybe, just maybe—we’ll go back to a semblance of normalcy. And when that time comes, be prepared. Because I may hug you and never let go.

There. I’ve written a few words. That bitch in my head has temporarily submerged herself under the water. She’s quiet—at least for now.

Off to clean the van!

Nah. I’ll do it tomorrow

Possibilities

12 Mar

It’s strange how we forget much of our lives over the course of time. At various ages, we are more impressionable, so the details are clearer—the smell of a new box of crayons, or newly sharpened number two pencils still fills me with the excited nervousness of starting a new school year. The scent of Coppertone makes me instantly sleepy, as it conjures up the warm sun, salty ocean water, the dissonance of scratchy transistor radios, and the sting of sunburned shoulders. To this day, when I smell jasmine or carnations, I’m sixteen again, with life stretching out in front of me, brimming with endless possibility.

Then there’s the decade when I was so busy working and raising a family, that the years passed by in a blur of birthing children, changing diapers and folding laundry. I used to think I was happy to leave those years behind, but to this day, the scent of Johnson’s baby shampoo and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instantly makes me long for the time when my children were small.

There are years that help me mentally categorize my life: graduation from high school and college; my father’s death, when I met my husband; when I married him. All the years of my children’s births. The year my youngest was diagnosed with cancer.

And now 2020.

In 2019, in anticipation of the remarkable year to come, I had spent a good amount of time creating some pretty rich fantasies in my mind. My novel, LOST IN OAXACA was set to launch in April, 2020— a life-changing event for me, to say the least. There would be a huge book signing at our local Indy bookstore, followed by a launch party featuring Oaxacan food and drink. Friends and family would come from all over to celebrate my success. I could imagine the smell the mole negro, pan de Yalálag, chocolate and mezcal that was going to be served at the party of a lifetime.

Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans.

¡Pinche pedazo de mierda, 2020! (FYI, you’ll get that reference if you read the first page of my novel.)

The pandemic changed our lives pretty rapidly. My husband (a first grade teacher) began to teach from home—not an easy task. I started teaching piano lessons from an iPad that someone loaned me. The smell of bleach, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes permeated our lives. We ran out of toilet paper. Two of my adult children moved home. I won’t go into the details—you know the story—you’ve lived it, too. Over time, we’ve learned to deal with our depression and anxiety.

But where my pandemic story has been one of personal disappointment, it has not been one of death and loss. While one of my daughters tested positive for Covid-19 and had to quarantine upstairs in our bedroom for two weeks, (she was asymptomatic) we did not have to deal with hospitalization or death. While I have not been able to hug one of my other daughters for a very long time, I have been able to visit with her outdoors while masked and socially distancing. I can’t even imagine the pain that so many people have endured—not being able to hold their loved one’s hand while they lay dying in the hospital. My husband lost multiple cousins and other family members to this insidious disease. Our hearts ache for the loss their families have experienced.

And while it’s not over yet, there is hope. People are getting vaccinated. My 84 year-old mother remains healthy and has received her two shots. Two of my daughters who work in health care have been vaccinated as well. My husband has received his first dose. Hopefully I’ll be eligible in the next wave.

We will persevere. Our government is finally taking care of business. If all goes to plan, we will get back to some normalcy and be able to spend time with our loved ones this summer.

The smell of blooming jasmine in the air again, and while I’m closer to sixty than to sixteen, the fog is beginning to lift, and I can once again see the possibility that life has to offer. I fully believe that after all we’ve been through, we will soon have the opportunity to create many wonderful new memories.

And they will be sweeter and more magical than we could have ever imagined.

Hang onto your copies of LOST IN OAXACA for me to sign. We are most definitely having that party someday soon— including the shots of mezcal!

Two Simple Things

23 Dec

We are born into this life completely alone; naked, vulnerable and empty-handed. Then we spend most of our lives working long and hard to accrue huge amounts of stuff, all of which is left behind when we die.

Birth, while natural and beautiful, can be a traumatic experience. I should know—I’ve been born once and given birth four times. I don’t remember my own birth, of course. But I do know that when I shot out into the world, there were people around to help me. They bathed me, held me, fed me, and loved me. And when the time is close for me to leave this world, I assume there will be people to do all of these things for me again.

If we’re fortunate, the beginning and ending parts of life are pretty much handled. It turns out, though—that the middle part of life—the part that we’re supposed to enjoy, can be really, really hard at times. We try our best to get it right, but we fail more often than not.

If this past year has shown us anything, it’s that we’ve really blown it this time. I don’t need to give you a list. As you read this, you’re waist-deep in the muck of 2020, and I’m right there alongside you. Now, I could rant on for hours about whose fault it is—some of you will take my side, some of you won’t. It doesn’t really matter though. We’re all at the bottom of this polluted pit and we need to help dig each other out.

I, for one, am exhausted from carrying so much anger in my heart over these past several years. This anger has manifested in many ways, mostly in me screaming at the television, unfriending people on social media, and using the F bomb more times than I can count. It’s weighed on me that people I love dearly see the world so differently than I do. And it also hurts to know they look at me and think the same thing.

Here’s the thing though—this pandemic has revealed to us who we really are. And much of it has been pretty horrifying. Yet, through all of the scarcity, pain, unfairness, anger, and even death, I’ve also witnessed great good—people doing what’s right, going out of their way to be kind, taking care of others, and sharing what little they have. Many of us have realized that practicing acts of kindness is so much more meaningful than accumulating all that expensive stuff.

I believe we are put here on this earth to accomplish two simple things: to help others and to give love. If we remember to treat each other with the care and love we’d give to a newborn baby—or a person on their deathbed, we’d all be so much more content.

We now have the opportunity to make real change. Let’s start thinking others before ourselves. Mostly, remember to love, love, and LOVE!        

Good riddance 2020. You’ve tried your best to take us down, but we wouldn’t let you.

Here’s to a better year ahead.  May 2021 send us all in a new direction!

Thank you to all my faithful readers. Your support over the years has meant the world to me.

The author, representing 2020 by not looking her best.

Oaxaca!

14 Dec

It’s wonderful when you stumble upon a lovely and interesting travel blog; it’s even more wonderful when you discover that the blog author has featured your very own novel about a particular location that’s very close to your heart: Oaxaca! A shout out to Shelley, who included my novel, LOST IN OAXACA in her terrific blog about traveling in Oaxaca. You can check it out here: https://clairesitchyfeet.com/dest/north-america/mexico/oaxaca-city-guide/

I sincerely hope that very soon we will all be able to travel once again. If you decide that Oaxaca is your future destination, this blog will give you to lowdown on everything–where to stay, eat, and all the incredible sites to visit!

And bring along a copy of LOST IN OAXACA to read on the plane! https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Oaxaca-Jessica-Winters-Mireles/dp/1631528807/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=lost+in+oaxaca&

Pollyanna

1 Dec

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that my DNA includes the Pollyanna gene. Over the years, I’ve been known to utter: “Don’t worry, it will all work out in the end,” or worse, “There’s a reason for everything!”  As always, I’ll blame my mother for my behavior, as she pushed her be kind, and think good thoughts agenda on me since I was young enough to complain about someone’s bad behavior. If I wanted to vent, she’d immediately put up her hand. “Now, Honey—maybe so-in-so is acting that way because they’re feeling bad about themselves. They probably just need a hug!”

Mom and Pollyanna, circa 1972

Inevitably, we turn into our mothers, and I’m no exception. I’ve always been the “nice” girl, and for most of my life, I’ve put up with horrendous—even abusive—behavior from others because I felt it was my responsibility to be kind and forgiving. I even learned to push my own positive agenda—always touting how important it was to look for the good in everything.

My daughter recently called me out on my Pollyannaishness. As a transgender woman, she’s faced immense personal change in the past year and a half, and dealt with great emotional pain—pain that I’ll never have to even imagine facing. When she tears up about something someone has said or done, my first reaction is to try to make it better.

“Mom,” she tells me, “You don’t always have to try to fix things. Just acknowledge my pain. Sometimes people are just assholes. And sometimes life just sucks.”

Yes, they are. And yes, it does. 2020 has taught me that.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to be positive—quite the contrary. I know for a fact that looking for the good helped me get through some very tough times in my life—especially my youngest daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. And I know one thing for certain: when something terrible happens to you, the really good people show up and offer their help.

But it’s also important to recognize and acknowledge the bad stuff. This is difficult for me, because I come from a life of privilege, where I’ve always had what I need and more. And because of this, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking myself out of feeling sad, depressed or lost. And now that the pain and suffering of so many is all around me all the time, I’m having a difficult time pulling myself together. Not only do I feel guilty when I’m sad, I feel guilty when I’m happy.

Pollyanna has grudgingly admitted to me that 2020 has been a total shit storm, but as she perches on my shoulder she’s also whispering how lucky I am to be surrounded by the most amazing family and friends. Those who are thoughtful, generous, and kind, and who make me laugh even during these dark times.

Pollyanna is also insisting that things are finally turning around. She admits that we have a long way to go, but she believes that good people are waiting in the wings, ready to do what they can to help. And she also believes that good always wins in the end.

I’m gonna take her word for it.

Beautiful, Inside and Out

30 Sep

Last December, I didn’t send out our annual holiday newsletter. This is unprecedented for me, as for over thirty years, I’ve always sent out a photo card showing our beautiful family of six, accompanied by a letter detailing the many accomplishments of my children. This past year though, I just couldn’t face it.

I was too overwhelmed. And a bit scared.

In 2019, some major changes took place in our family. Our oldest daughter moved back home; our second daughter got married, and our youngest daughter started high school.

And our third child, who was assigned male at birth, came out to us as a transgender woman.

Last summer, at the age of twenty-five, Cecily, who goes by Cece, realized that who she was on the inside did not match the gender originally listed on her birth certificate. For those of you who know our family and are slightly confused, I’m talking about our child whose “dead name” was “Nino.” From now on, I will only refer to my daughter as Cece, and use she/her pronouns because that is who she is, and who she has always been.

It’s so odd that for years, we perceive someone as being a certain way, and have absolutely no sense that they might be someone completely different on the inside. Society has taught my generation that gender is binary—either male or female—so we told ourselves stories about our children based solely on their bodies. We nurtured them as the gender we assumed they were, never realizing that we might not be honoring their authentic selves.

Then, when our children are courageous enough to reveal who they really are, we’re shocked. We’re sad. We grieve for the person we believe is no longer with us. We didn’t realize then how much we had to learn.

While I immediately accepted Cece as a woman, to be honest, it was far more difficult than I imagined it would be. As a perpetual people pleaser my entire life, I worried about what others would think and say about my perfect little family. I was terrified of rejection—not only for Cece, but for myself.

Societal constraints are often oppressive, and for her own survival, Cece unknowingly hid who she was—even to herself. For years she suffered from deep depression because she pushed her true self down for so long. And who wouldn’t want to hide? People can be unaccepting and unkind about what they do not understand.

Our family is fortunate enough to live in a community where people are generally well-informed about transgender folk. I’ve discovered that my kids’ generation is so much better at understanding the differences of others than my generation has been. From the moment Cece came out, her sisters have embraced her with pure acceptance and love. They are closer now than ever.

It’s not always easy, but our family is learning as we go. Our love for Cece has grown exponentially, and there’s no doubt we will continue to support her as she makes her way through life as the woman she was meant to be.

Cece is still the same person she’s always been—she’s just more beautiful now, because she’s finally able to freely show us who she really is on the inside. As for me—well, it took me a while, but I’m done keeping quiet. I’m flying that progressive rainbow flag with pride.

Ultimately, love is all that matters. I loved my child from the moment she was born, and that love has only grown deeper now that she’s given me the gift of knowing her true self. I am so proud to be her mom, and I celebrate her with all of my being.

Winning

18 Aug

When I was a young pianist, I participated in numerous competitions. I remember one in particular, where I had won my division in southern California, and was up against the winner from the northern region. The final competition took place in a ballroom at a swanky hotel in San Francisco, and I was scheduled to play last. I was sick with nerves. My palms were so sweaty that I had to wipe them on the hem of my lace dress. There was also a good chance I was going to upchuck my breakfast all over the gold-patterned hotel carpet.

I remember my competitor was a handsome young man, who played the first movement of a Brahms Sonata brilliantly. After he performed, a well-respected piano teacher I’d known for years—who also happened to be in the audience that day—looked over at me, gave me a sad smile, and shrugged apologetically. He was implying that because I was a young girl wearing a pretty pink dress, I didn’t have a chance in hell to beat this serious young man in a black tuxedo. This was the early 1980’s, and so I believed him.

As I walked up to the stage, my nervousness suddenly disappeared. I figured that if I wasn’t going to win, I might as well just go for it. I performed my piece—a contemporary sonata by Norman Dello Joio—with my total heart and soul. And it was the best I’d ever played it. Not only that, I had a wonderful time.

Here’s where I tell you that it didn’t matter if I won or lost—the important lesson being that I went for it. When the pressure of needing to win was removed, I was really able to shine. I played circles around that guy that day. My performance was more interesting, more musical, and way more exciting than his.

And here’s where I also tell you that I won that competition. I’ll never forget that teacher’s reaction when my name was announced as the winner. The memory of the surprised look on his face has stayed with me for 40 years—lasting way longer than the $500 prize money I received (and spent to pay off a huge phone bill I racked up from accepting collect phone calls from my jerk of a boyfriend—but that’s another story for another time.)

Why, you ask, are you reliving this story from so long ago? Well, it’s because I recently won another award. Not a musical one, but this time, one for my writing. My novel, LOST IN OAXACA, just won the American Book Fest Fiction Award in the category of Women’s Fiction.

Now, I know this is just a little Indy award—it’s not a huge accomplishment by any means. But since I’m just starting out with a whole new career as a writer, it feels really good to be acknowledged.

So I’ll accept this writing accolade with grace. Because the only person telling me I wasn’t worthy of winning this award was me.

And I just showed her.

http://americanbookfest.com/americanfictionawards/2020afapressrelease.html

Scroll down to the bottom of the list to see me!

Not Done Yet

22 Jul

 

img_2247From the time I won an essay contest in second grade, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wasted a lot of years doing everything but writing, mainly because I was such an expert at avoidance and self-doubt. Sometimes, though, we are fortunate enough to hit bottom at some point in our lives, and this sends us into the direction we were always meant to go. I had that experience in my mid-forties, where I was subsequently able to wriggle out of my rusty chains of insecurity and actually start writing. And after many years of back-breaking (butt-numbing) hard work, I actually completed an honest-to-god novel. Then I even got the damn thing published.

Yay! Good for me! I should feel excited, accomplished, and proud, right?

Um, no. I don’t feel any of those things. I mostly feel sad. And guilty. Self-promoting one’s novel is never an easy task, but doing it in the midst of a devastating pandemic and one of the greatest social uprisings in our country, feels overly self-serving (even though isn’t that the point of marketing?)

But like many other writers out there trying to drum up some hype for their newly published books, I’m asking myself, how much is too much? Should I stop trying to draw attention to myself when the country is falling apart? When folks are worried about putting food on the table, getting evicted from their homes, or being pepper-sprayed (or worse) while protesting, they’re probably not going to be excited about seeing another Instagram/Facebook post of a copy of LOST IN OAXACA placed artfully next to a sweating glass of iced tea while I tout it as the next great summer read.

I get it. There are so many more important things to talk about right now. But I’ve been at this for such a long time—I’m just not ready to give up on it yet. Especially when a fricking virus cancelled my book-signing party.

I know this novel doesn’t define me—it’s only a fraction of who I am. But it is meaningful, because it’s a direct result of a major shift that took place in my own life. And I still feel the need to honor that, even if it means still talking about the book. And while I’ll try my best not to over-share, I’m not ready to shut up about LOST IN OAXACA just yet. So if you see that pretty blue book cover in your social media feed yet again, just grin and bear it—and feel free to scroll on by.

Then again, maybe you’re looking for a fun literary escape?

Have I got the perfect book for you.

 

If you’re interested in hearing more about LOST IN OAXACA, check out my recent guest spot on the NEW BOOKS NETWORK podcast.

https://player.fm/series/new-books-in-literature-2421420/jessica-winters-mireles-lost-in-oaxaca-she-writes-press-2020