Luis Urrea and the Serendipity of Inspiration–With a Side of Humor and Grace

Have you ever experienced one of those wonderful moments of confluence, when suddenly all the trickling aspects of your life seem to be pouring into the same inspiring river?

Consider these trickles, seemingly unrelated:

  1. I’m teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.
  2. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been listening to podcasts of On Being, with Krista Tippett, on a semi-regular basis, to give me inspiration.
  3. I’ve been contemplating opportunities to bridge our national divide on a local level–whatever that means.
  4. Ursula LeGuin, a writer who felt like more of a teacher than an author to me, died this year.
  5. A friend recommended Luis Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Last week I tuned into my favorite podcast, and found, to my surprise, an interview with Mr. Urrea himself. The topic: “What Borders Are Really About, And What We Do With Them.” I also discovered that Ursula LeGuin had been Urrea’s mentor. She called him Luisito.

Luis Urrea at the Texas Book Festival, 2015 (courtesy Wikipedia)

Urrea knows about borders. He is the son of a woman from Philadelphia and a man from Tijuana. On his website, he sums up, in eerily tidy prose, how he lost his father when he, Luis, was 20:

I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already.  But some of it is central to the Ursula story.  In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift.  And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora.  He died awfully in their care.  And then they sold me his corpse.  He cost me $750.

The details of those days are ugly.  Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English.  My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house.  He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding.  Because I was always kidding.  But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.

As I listened to Urrea and Tippett talk–hey, is it cool if I call them Luis & Krista? Yeah? great–the streams of inspiration just kept building. Luis is a teacher, like I was, and here’s what he has to say about bridging divides in his classroom:

As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.

So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.

Yes, please! I want that infection. Don’t we all?

Luis’s book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is itself inspiring, being the fictionalized story of Teresa Urrea, “the Mexican Joan of Arc,” “Saint Teresita”–who happened to have been his real-life, great-great aunt. It’s full of humor, and pathos, and faith, and Spanish. Gaps are bridged all over the place, between races, between theists and non-theists, between men and women. I could not have found a more apt book for this moment in my life, and the life of our nation, if I’d done research.

Speaking of our nation’s moment, Luis also gives the background of his nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway, a look at the path traveled by people crossing the desert to enter the U.S. without papers. That story hit me harder than anything else he said. While researching the Border Patrol–and being essentially hazed by its agents, he had a moment of epiphany:

...the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”

And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.

And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see…

And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.

And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”

I could go on and on with quotes from the interview, not to mention quotes from the novel. (Can’t quote Luis’s other books ’cause I haven’t read ’em yet, but believe me, I’m going to.) But I think I’ve made my point.

Borders. Bridging. Grace. Hope. 

Any questions?

 

 

How To Gift Yourself With Inspiration Without Drowning

I should really re-title this post and add a question mark, because sorting through all the inspiration available on the web is as daunting as it is delightful. I’m still a novice. So I’ll tell you what I do, and then I hope to hear back from some of you with even better strategies.

I limit the springs of inspiration I drink at, as much as possible, to the following:

  1. a daily poem, read first thing in the morning (before other stuff gets clogged in there). At first I used Poetry Daily, but, finding I wanted my poetry less random, I later switched to favorites like Mary Oliver and Brian Doyle, working my way through their books one poem at a time. But who knows? I may go back to randomizing just to see who appears.
  2. Brain Pickings, by Maria Popova. I became a subscriber this year, and after a few months I became, out of sheer gratitude, a paying subscriber. But Maria is so incredibly wide-ranging that I’ve had to learn how to pick my own Pickings. Survival tip to avoid inundation: assign myself ONE article per issue to read, then share with a friend or relative, including my own question or comment to create a real connection/dialogue. 
  3. On Being, the podcast by Krista Tippett. Survival tip to avoid inundation: listen to one episode per week while exercising.

Drink deep…but take time to savor and swallow!

This is what I try to hold myself to. Then there are BOOKS. How to limit the stack that grows beside my bed, and the list that threatens to run right off the notes-page of my calendar? Uh…gonna have to wait for one of you to advise me on this.

So…daily inspirations: how do YOU control the flow, pick your Pickings, or otherwise keep your sources of empathy and joy and motivation from drowning you? Please share your strategies, Wise Ones.

 

“I Do…Right?” Maybe It’s Time For An American Recommitment Ceremony

You may have noticed I have some strong opinions. But one of them, which has been gaining strength since Trump’s inauguration, is this: I don’t want my own strong opinions irrevocably dividing me from my fellow Americans.

Easier said than done, when most of what I see and hear through the media fills me with reactive rage, disgust, and sorrow. But rage, disgust and sorrow are exhausting. So the temptation is to stick with my tribe, to talk only with  people who feel the same way, and to shut out the “ugly voices.”

Problem is, we’re all in this together—”this” being This American Experiment.

All in this together. “Togetherness,” by Author Woldh, October 2015, courtesy Wikimedia

So when I venture outside my tribe, I try to connect over shared values: music. Food. Sports. Children. Animals. And when I’m alone, I make myself read articles and listen to podcasts that force me to consider the downside of my own tribalism.

Recently I was struck by this bit from an “On Being” podcast—a dual interview with an Indian-American journalist from Ohio and an activist from rural White Tennessee. Here’s the journalist, Anand Giridharadas:

…the word that comes to me is “commitment.” … You’re committed to your home… in a way that…almost sounds more like the way people talk about marriage. You’re not there because you know it’s gonna be good; you’re willing to be there even if it’s not great. And I think what’s happened to us is that we’re not committed to each other as a people, so it’s almost like we are in this kind of situation where any disappointment that we encounter in our fellow citizens is like a reason to break up, and any deviation from deeply fulfilling each other as fellow citizens is like a tragedy. And part of commitment as a citizen is embracing other people’s dysfunction, and embracing other people’s incompleteness, because you know you have your own. And we’ve ended up in resistance to each other.

Embracing other people’s dysfunction? Does that mean their racism or homophobia? I don’t want to do that. But if I do nothing but entrench myself against it, nothing changes. So if “embrace” means “engage with, talk to, try to understand…” OK. MAYBE I can do that. No promises. But I can try.

The activist in that interview, Whitney Kimball Coe, had this response:

… I’m always thinking about how do I show up? How do I show up in the world and in my community and beyond, and am I going to show up with an open mind, an open heart, and with curiosity? Or am I going to go in, guns blazing, looking for a high for my ego, and see if I can nail this interview right now…? And it’s such a freeing way to live, if you can approach all of these interactions from a more open, curious perspective. That’s where I am, these days — ‘How am I bringing myself into a space?’

The journalist replies with a suggestion I love:

We live in an age that loves the solution. One of the things you experience, when you’re a writer in this age who tries to partake in an age-old tradition of writing as criticism, as holding up a mirror…is that you get shamed for not offering solutions…When we actually relax our need for solutions, I think we create space for…curiosity, when…instead of saying, “How do you solve this?” — if you like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work or are provoked by it, instead of being like, “OK, what’s your plan?” — let’s start some curiosity. What does he make you curious about? If you’re white, what does he make you — now that you’re unsettled or angry or agreeing or whatever, what are you left curious about?

The host of “On Being,” the articulate Krista Tippett, finishes with a quote from the journalist, stating our challenge:

“It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem.”

And Anand Giridharadas sums up, in his response, my entire point here, using that marriage metaphor:

I think the despair is that we’ve fallen not just out of love, but out of interest with each other. I actually think more and more of us love “our” America, but don’t necessarily love America or Americans. We love the ones we love. We love the ones who love us. It’s kind of become like a bad college relationship. We’re a country peopled by these rowdy, restless gamblers who tried to make it work, and I think we have lost our way. But I think if we can remember that the whole enterprise here is simply to try to make it work — that’s the experiment. That’s it…We’re not trying to make it work to create wealth. We’re not trying to make it work to create innovation. We’re not trying to make it work to restore some illusory, lost greatness. We’re trying to make it work to make it work — and if we can make this work, it perhaps suggests that the world is not one as a world, but the world is actually one here, in America. What a great, great thing to try.

America, I want to keep trying. Let’s keep talking.