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

Awareness

3 Jul

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I’ve always thought of myself as a flexible person, but the truth is, change is difficult for me. I’ve enjoyed an easy, comfortable life where I can pretty much go anywhere, do anything, or speak my mind freely without anyone questioning me. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be stopped and questioned by the police because of the way I look. My white privilege has offered me more opportunity than people of color. As a woman, there have been times in my life when I’ve experienced sexism—and even been afraid, but I’ve never been discriminated against because of my skin color.

I recently published my novel, LOST IN OAXACA, where my protagonist, a white, privileged piano teacher named Camille, travels to Mexico in search of her missing protégé. Unable to speak the language, Camille finds herself literally lost in the mountains of Oaxaca, where she must rely on others to help her navigate not only the remote mountainous terrain, but an unfamiliar culture as well. For the first time in her life, Camille is the different one. Yet, instead of encountering racism and hate, she is given guidance, care, acceptance, and ultimately love, by those who are not offered reciprocal treatment back home in her world. She thus begins the difficult process of acknowledging her privilege and opening her mind to becoming aware.

This shift in awareness is the first step in becoming anti-racist. If we allow ourselves the chance to shed a single incorrect belief in our minds, we can move on to shedding another. Then another—and so on. When we finally realize that the story we’ve been taught for so long is not true, we can make real change in the direction of equality for all. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s up to those of us who benefit from white privilege to fight for those who don’t. We can’t stay silent any longer.

I know I have much work to do. I’ve been way too comfortable for far too long.

I won’t tell you what happens to Camille; you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

                           Let’s just say that nothing is ever really lost.

 

It’s on Me

9 Jun
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Graphic by Justin Teodoro

I’m white. I’m affluent. I’m privileged.

I’m also biased. I see color. And it turns out I have many racist bones in my body.

How can this be? I’m educated. I’m a liberal Democrat. I voted for Obama—twice. I’ve been married to a man of color for over 33 years. Of my four children, two identify as LGBTQ. I fundamentally believe in equality for all.

Yet I have made, and still make, assumptions about people based on race. And this means I’m racist.

I wasn’t born a racist. Society made me this way. I’ve been formally educated with unconscious bias since I was a child, when I first learned to read from books that had only white, blond kids like me in them. Remember Fun with Dick and Jane? For years I watched TV shows and movies where people of color were stereotyped or portrayed negatively. My father was an educated man, yet he openly told racist jokes at the dinner table. In high school, my friends and I made fun of gay people because we thought it was funny. We mocked people with accents. I believed the police were always there to help me—and they were—because I fit a certain demographic.

It took the murder of another Black man at the hands of the police to create the essential shift that is currently taking place in our collective consciousness. It’s not the people of color with the problem—it’s me. It’s ultimately on me to make the necessary change.

No longer will I avoid dealing with the reality of systematic racism. I will be conscious of my biased thoughts. I will think before I speak. I will stand up for those who are marginalized. I will not be afraid of alienating others because I speak out against racism.

I will learn to feel comfortable outside of my comfort zone.

I’m just so sorry it’s taken me this long to really get it. But then again, it’s not about me anymore. It’s about our Black brothers and sisters.

Black Lives Matter. Let’s keep the change alive.

Now What?

25 May

My novel, LOST IN OAXACA has been out in the world for over month, and I’m now being hit with a mild case of post-publication depression. From what I understand, it’s a common affliction for writers and other artists, who spend years working on a project, birth it out into the world, and then wait for it to be judged. There’s the initial buzz, we sell a few books, and the reviews begin to trickle in. Our hearts sing with all the positive accolades, until that one bad review pops up, and our souls are temporarily crushed. We don’t usually talk about our melancholy for fear of appearing whiny and ungrateful, but it’s there. Each day, our mood is largely dependent on our Author Central sales graph.

It certainly doesn’t help that an unexpected pandemic landed smack dab in the middle of my spring publication date, postponing my book signing until who knows when? Talk about a buzz kill!

And I did everything I was supposed to do. Leading up to my pub date, I wrote all the prerequisite articles to create buzz for my novel. Maybe it worked, maybe not, but either way, that part is over and done with. Now it’s up to me to keep the hype going. This is difficult, especially because I’m not a big fan of self-promotion. (Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “Then why is she always posting or blogging about the damn book on social media?”) Honestly, if I could, I’d stop all this marketing stuff and get back to just writing. I loathe being that writer who constantly talks about her book, and yet I have to be, because it’s up to me to sell copies.

I figure my best bet is to offer all of you an unpaid internship as a marketing representative. If you’ve read LOST IN OAXACA and liked it, all you have to do is tell a friend about it. Or post a review on Amazon. I swear I’ll reciprocate should any of you need my unpaid marketing services in the future.

And rest assured—when this damn pandemic is under control, WE ARE HAVING A PARTY. I promise to sign each and every one of your copies. I will serve you mole, homemade tortillas, and even Oaxacan mezcal. We will raise our glasses for a toast to LOST IN OAXACA even if we have to stand six feet apart!

Thank you, dear readers, for buying my book. But mostly, thank you for being here with me all these years while I take this journey. I so appreciate all of you!

Empathy

7 May

img_1375When I was in first grade, my mother bought me an adorable culotte dress splashed in pink and green that looked like an impressionist watercolor painting. Lovely as it was, it was probably not the best choice of clothing for a first grader. Shorts connected to a dress that zipped up the back might be fashionable, but it prevented my little arms from being able to wriggle out of it in a timely manner, especially when I needed to pee.

I think you can see where this is heading.

After two unsuccessful trips to the restroom where I nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets trying to reach the zipper, I decided to wait to relieve myself until I got home after school. Five minutes before the bell rang, a sheen of sweat broke out on my forehead. I suddenly realized I couldn’t hold it any longer. Right there in front of the entire classroom, a geyser of pee gushed out of me and formed a golden pool on the linoleum floor. I was beyond mortified. Gasps echoed around the classroom. My ears burned with shame.

Then I heard a little voice: “Poor Jessie. Oh, poor, poor Jessie.”

The classroom tittering ceased. It was Bonnie, a curly-haired girl with big brown eyes and an infectious giggle. She took my hand. “Oh, poor Jessie. I’m so sorry. It’s okay—please don’t cry.”

She took charge and alerted the teacher. All the while, she continued holding my hand, even during my embarrassment of watching the school janitor come in and shake a can of absorbent wood shavings onto the puddle. When I got home from school, I took off that urine-soaked dress and threw it in the trash.

I truly believe children are born empathetic. When they make their entrance into the world, their hearts are pure. It’s only after they watch and learn from adults that some lose the ability to be kind. For a long time now, we’ve seen so much unkindness. Hostility—even hatred—has been openly expressed from all corners of society.

Now with this Covid-19 virus, life has changed drastically for all us—probably forever. There’s been so much loss and pain—so much disappointment. And yet, there are also stories of incredible empathy and kindness demonstrated by so many in our communities. Our front line healthcare and essential workers are putting their lives at risk every day to help us survive. We have seen many in our state and local governments step up and take charge—working tirelessly to give us hope that we may get through this mess sometime soon. People are donating time and money to local food pantries. Neighbors are helping neighbors. Good deeds are happening all around us.

Call me Pollyannaish, but I believe empathy is returning. We are learning to value what is truly important: family, relationships, and most importantly, love. I believe that many of our hearts are starting to default back to the pure state we were born with. At least I hope that’s the case.

Let’s all try to be like that innocent six year-old girl who didn’t point her finger and laugh or judge—but merely took the hand of her friend and told her everything was going to be okay.

Pub Day!

21 Apr

img_0874Well, my big day is here. And during a pandemic, too. When I started this blog almost nine years ago, I never truly believed I had it in me to actually write a novel, let alone publish it. Well, to hell with that woman who had so little faith!

Here’s a link to my story, although if you’ve been reading this blog for all these years, you already know it.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, dear readers! You’ve been with me this long journey and I am so grateful for you consistent support. Here’s a link to my story:

Women Writers, Women’s Books

I truly hope you enjoy reading Lost in Oaxaca! 

Now on to the next book. Lord help me.

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Book Spotlight: Lost In Oaxaca by Jessica Winters Mireles

17 Apr

via Book Spotlight: Lost In Oaxaca by Jessica Winters Mireles