“Lions and Leos…”

We were invited to the Belize Lion’s Club dinner by our landlady and her husband. We didn’t know, until we arrived there, that she is the president of the club. From 16 clubs in Belize they’re down to four: Belmopan, Belize City, San Pedro, San Esteban. There’s been a convention all day, some of the discussions contentious, evidently.

While I managed to avoid having a Guinness in Northern Ireland, I’m not so lucky here, but I’m also grateful when I can find a lighter beer. I try the local brew, Belikin, for the first time and like it. It’s a warm, friendly crowd, and we’re served a delicious dinner. And introduced to the local custom of greeting people with the phrase, “Good night.”

Which works in Spanish but not in English. Yet there are strict rules for polite greetings in Belize, and they are observed even among strangers on the street: Good morning until noon; good afternoon until 3 or 4 pm; good evening after than; good night when it is dark.

Some people fudge the times a bit.

Each Lion’s Club has a queen, and the queen from the host club becomes the District 59 queen, so Miss Belize City will become the new queen. The girls are beautiful, and decked out in gorgeous gowns. They have each created fancy pins with their photographs, and the custom is to pin them on as many guests as possible by the end of the evening. T. and I are impartial, and accept pins from everyone who offers one, so we end up festooned with three of the four available pins.

Our collection of pins from the dinner.
Our collection of pins from the dinner.

The talent show starts out predictably enough, with a dance performance. Next comes a speech about the border conflict between Belize and Guatemala, and the conflicts and borders we create among ourselves — which links the decine in Lions membership and activity to petty conflicts and the inability to the members to communicate with one another. It was bold, I thought, and inspiring, that this young woman would confront her elders so openly.

A poetic, lyrical performance by a truly leonine woman followed, stalking the stage as if she herself were a caged lion, professing her commitment to the values of service, to this community within her country in which she had been brought up. Yet all of these are far too small to contain her power.

She talked about her hair, starting out with the statement, “My mother told me to fix my hair. By which she meant to straighten it.” She started with these words. And dissected the levels of meaning inherent in them, what her hair represents of her heritage, of the mixture of races, African slaves and Maya and Caucasian.

But what does that even mean, that hair texture and skin color have come to “mean” something, when we know that race is constructed? It means that she is encouraged to date lighter, not darker, to purify her blood, and I am taken back to a day when I am perhaps 14, my own hair long and curly and wild from a day outside in the sun and the pool and the humidity of the southern Arizona monsoon season, dressed in cut-off Levi’s 501s, and one of my father’s t-shirts, deeply tanned, very thin, a woman’s body hiding a girl who was afraid of the attention afforded to that body. And my mother’s bitter words when I entered the house: “Go do something with that nigger hair.”

A decade later and 2,000 miles away I am living with and engaged to an African-American man, a relationship my family would not accept. And so I ended the relationship, as I had straightened my hair, to please them. To conform.

And ended up alone.

I have only half the hair I once did; cancer treatments took the rest. But I revel in the days when my hair still curls wildly, am grateful for the effects of salt water and ocean breezes.

The final speech of the evening was delivered in the first person, in the form of a letter written after her own death by a dancer at a Belize club to her lover. To let him know why she had never come home, why she had simply disappeared. Telling how the bus had been late that night, and she had made the decision to walk home, the decision that had delivered her to her death. Sensing the presence behind her. Turning to meet the man who would chain her to an iron table, duct tape over her mouth, and begin to vivisect her body. Sliding in and out of consciousness. Understanding, in the moment when she realized she no longer had legs, that her life was over.

The duct tape off her mouth, warned not to scream as he began again to work with his knife, starting the incision at the side of her face. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. She could no longer stand the pain. The knife came toward her head, not to slit her throat, as she assumed, but to cut out her tongue. Her last memory would be drowning. She would die by drowning in her own blood.

I was older than her, at least 25, before I knew about snuff films and understood the more extreme forms of sadism and sexual violence in our world. The woman who delivered this speech is 19, dressed in an elegant white dress and rhinestone tiara. She is poised and graceful.

I wished so much that she did not know, did not have to know, of this violence against women in this world; that she did not have to know that this is the fate that awaits so many women in this world, to have their lives ripped open, sliced apart, that literally or figuratively they will end up in chains, their bodies and their spirits dissected, until they drown in their own feeble protests.

By all that is sacred in this world I wish she did not have to know that.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.


“…and my husband is in prison here…”

One afternoon, waiting for the bus, I walked over to the front doors of the Belize Central Prison to take a photograph of the wood carvings. A Caucasian woman was waiting on the visitor bench — the first Caucasian I had seen there. I suspect she is much younger than she looked; she had blue wool braided and woven into her blond hair and started to speak to me with the flat vowels of the Midwest as I was pointing my camera at the door.

What follows here is as close to verbatim as I could capture the conversation.

“It’s great that you appreciate the woodwork,” she said. “They all live with it all the time, so they don’t even notice it. My brother is in prison in the States in Minnesota and my husband is in prison here.”

“How long is he in for?” I asked.

“Maybe up to three years. Well, you know how nobody in this country claims their true identity until they absolutely need to? And see, he was applying for a passport and they ran his real name and found an old drug charge from 2008 and between Monday morning and Monday afternoon he was brought to the prison. But we’re hoping to appeal, because he wasn’t physically served, and I know the rules about that, because I’ve done lots of that kind of work. And he didn’t have any representation. So if his appeal goes through, he’ll only serve one year instead of three. I’m here today to pick up his baseball cap and shirt. I had the trip planned already, and there wasn’t any point in changing my plans because there wasn’t anything I could do for him by arriving a week earlier.

“My brother is going to parole soon but I don’t know if I am going to go up to receive him because he can’t parole to my house, because he paroled to my house last time, and you can’t parole to the same family home in 10 years. So he needs to go somewhere else, and he might have found someone else to receive him, but I don’t know if he can live there.”

“Why are you here?” she asked. I explained that we were teaching a course in the prison. I didn’t give a lot of details.

“I think the work you guys are doing is awesome, but I can’t do anything like that, because of this tatoo (a green shark on her neck), and when they see it they say I’m in a gang, and I say, yeah, a gang of one, but it’s a shark, and it’s above the collar, so I can’t teach in prison. It was supposed to be a larger tatoo, a small green shark with a larger pink shark curved around it but I had a horrible reaction to the green ink, it’s because of what they put in it, my neck swelled out to her (holding her hand about five inches from her neck, which was still well within the crown of her braids) and so I never had the other shark done. But I’m hoping to tutor some Belizeans in English, not to take away Belizean jobs, but American English, so they can compete for American jobs. I have an associate’s degree in sales and marketing so I’ve had all those English classes and such.”

At that point, the bus pulled up, and we boarded.

I never saw her again, and have no idea what happened to her husband. I do know she never receieved his baseball cap.

Below: Detail from the doors at the Belize




©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

She taught me to drive

She taught me to drive, the summer I turned 15 and a half, which is when you could get a learner’s permit in Arizona. My parents tried. My first session, with my mother, ended with mom screaming and trying to grab the steering wheel from the passenger seat, even though I was only driving in circles in a shopping mall parking lot which, due to blue laws, was empty on a Sunday afternoon. The second teaching attempt, by my father, ended with him swearing at me for being hopelessly stupid. I had missed out on driver’s ed. That was offered the previous summer, when everyone else in my class at school had their learner’s permits. I was a year younger, and student-teaching during the week, and so I was on my own that summer for the driving.

Enter Donna, and an easy, graceful, generous offer to teach me to drive. Ten years older than me, the only girl of my five Tucson cousins, Donna was the first woman I had looked up to: tall, legs that went on forever, thick brown hair. And cool. I was not cool. She was a genuine hippie, who smoked and drank and partied and wore hot pants and high heels and tons of eyeliner. Except when she wore cut-off jeans and wild print blouses and went barefoot everywhere in her awesome Navajo and Hopi jewelry. I remember her babysitting me and my sisters one night while my parents were out to dinner. I was maybe eight; Donna was going to a party after my parents got home. The idea of a party that would begin that late was something I knew only from movies and television. I didn’t know anyone who would attend a party like that. Except Donna.

She showed up at our front door on a Saturday morning, dressed in cut-offs and a boho print blouse, and handed me the keys to her four-speed Datsun. I got in the driver’s seat; she explained the clutch and gears. And then she pulled a beer out of the six-pack in the bag on the floor on the passenger side, reclined her seat, flipped her sunglasses off the top of her head, and told me to start driving.

When you’re 15-and-a-half, and as awkward as it is possible to be at that age, your coolness factor goes way up when you’re cruising Tucson on a Saturday morning with your semi-drunk and much more beautiful cousin in the car. The only time she reached over was to honk at cute guys. I know I looked panicked the day that she was seriously willing to pick up a couple of totally built guys unloading a truck. The alcohol left her quite relaxed about my driving errors: left turns I never should have attempted; grinding the gears (“that’s not the best thing for the car, T.”); endless stalls because I would take my foot off the clutch at stop lights (all of the cars in my family were automatics).

Her attitude gave me the confidence that my parents’ panicked criticism couldn’t, and to this day I am a self-assured driver, and grateful that I learned on a manual transmission – never more so than on a business trip to Eastern Europe a few years ago, when a local colleague dangled a set of car keys in front of our group, and said that he couldn’t drive the two hours to our destination, as his license had been suspended. As the other members of our group looked at each other in horror, I took the keys, got in, engaged the clutch, and maneuvered out of the tight parallel parking space. Without stalling.

I was much older before I realized the implications of those beers. And her many car accidents. And the overt and sometimes misplaced sexuality. The arrests. And the stays at Betty Ford, Steps, and every other decent rehab place that existed at the time. And finally, her descent into a long illness that left her dead, far too young.

And I was far too young to understand some of the things she said to me. That there are things that happen to a person that cannot be undone. That people take things, as if they are on loan, things that can’t be returned.

I get it now, Donna. And I still look up to you. For your boldness and your spirit. I don’t know if I ever thanked you properly for teaching me to drive, but I am so very grateful. (I wish you could have seen me coming off the mesa in Telluride in the rain. You would have been so proud. The other people in the car said I had nerves of steel.) I remember you often.

Always, and most particularly, when I engage the clutch.

Donna Marie Sivilli 1949-2011

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.






Amazing Grace

Two weekends ago I celebrated my friend Abraham’s 50th birthday in Nashville. Family and friends converged on that city from various places around the US. His girlfriend (and now fiancée) Shannon arranged it, and the location was a surprise for him. I’d never been to Nashville before; I’ve only driven around it on my way to other places.

It turned out to be the weekend when I discovered that I know nothing about the country in which I was born and raised.

I have had hints of this before: stopping for gas in Wyoming on a cross country trip in 2012, I perused the books for sale in the gas station/Burger King/Subway/convenience store: testimonials about God’s power to turn around the most wretched life; advice for women about how to be a proper Christian wife. Nothing I would be willing to read.

Our Friday night plans were to go to dinner at an Indian fusion restaurant, and then to go to the Grand Ole Opry. We were having a good time at dinner, and Shannon called the Opry to find out if we would be seated if we were late. It turns out this is a much more casual venue than most concert halls, and it’s not a problem to show up late. The first thing that struck me, when we walked in, is that we were listening to music seated in church pews. And I realized that many of the mega-churches in the US have been built on the model of the Opry hall: a semi-circular bank of pews rising from the stage, where the preacher/performer can be seen from any seat in the house.

The second thing I noticed, as I looked around the audience, was color. Not the people. Their color was a given. White. As in Anglo-Saxon white. My olive complexion is the darkest in the house. (I had noticed this earlier. I’m in Tennessee, I’m only four hours from Atlanta, and everyone is white. This is puzzling to me. I know that African-American people live in Tennessee. I just can’t figure out where Nashville is hiding them.) No, the color was in the clothes. This wasn’t an edgy, rock-concert audience where people are dressed in denim and black. Nor a tie-dyed Deadhead audience. It’s white blouses and blue jeans on the women. And peroxide poured on their hair. Denim on the guys. White and blue were the predominant colors as I looked out across the audience, set off against the red seat cushions in the pews.

The Opry was launched on Novembe 28, 1925. There are performances on Friday and Saturday nights, and they are broadcast, live, on WSM 650. The broadcast can be heard in 38 states and parts of Canada, and it is streamed on their website. The Opry is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and a few other media I don’t even recognize.

One of the first songs we heard was Bubba Garcia. Abraham, an anthropologist by training and a professor of religious studies in Atlanta, leaned over and tapped my shoulder. “This is one for your paper,” he said. I looked at him wordlessly, my mouth open in shock. Thanks to his mother, Elaine, who figured out how to access the archives of Opry shows, I have the lyrics (appended here). I Googled the lyrics, but the ones I found online were nowhere near as offensive to me as they were sung that night. Why not bring back the old Frito Bandito TV ad?

No one outside of our group seems to be offended by this song. I realize this this is a song you can sing only when you are certain you are singing to people who think just like you.
Jonathan Jackson begins an emotive performance, mostly on his knees, with the comment that “some say the Psalms were the first Blues.” He sings “Love Rescue Me” (by U2!) beautifully, but I cannot focus on his lyrics, because I am caught by the cultural appropriation: with his opening, Jackson wiped out the entire connection of the Blues with slaves working Southern fields, and with the spiritualist tradition that fused with African music. One of the people to whom Jackson dedicates the song is Michael Stipe. As we leave the hall, we are concerned. Has something happened to Michael Stipe? A quick search on our phones tells us he is fine. Is this a reference to Stipes’s “Losing My Religion” – now 20 years old – or to his sexual orientation? It’s another thing we can’t quite understand.

This is the United States of America. This is the country that the rest of the world can’t figure out. And now I am truly beginning to understand why.

But there is something else going on. The music is awesome. Bluegrass. Mountain Music. Country Music. Played by artists so skilled they make it look easy, effortless. This is party of my cognitive dissonance. And it contributes to my cognitive dissonance that this music, with its roots in the hills and the plains, the swamps and the rivers, is authentic, the music that is embedded in this land.

There is authenticity, as well, in the appearance of the performers. None of them has had work done. Their faces show age, experience, emotion. Connie Smith lost her lead guitarist the previous week in a fatal automobile accident. Her grief is evident, not only on her face and in her voice, but also, in the black pantsuit she wears. I can’t imagine a Hollywood star allowing herself to be projected onto a Jumbotron looking so genuinely haggard and sad.

At the end of the show Ronnie Milsap sings a song from his new gospel album, the one he will be signing, and “shaking hands and saying howdy-do” in the gift shop after the performance. Ronnie is celebrating his 40th anniversary of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and he is singing about knowing he will walk those streets of gold and he believes it: heaven is a physical place to him. He wears a black shirt, studded with rhinestones and embroidered with bright red flowers.

With my friends, who are white, and African-American, and Asian, and combinations of races, and Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and Muslim, and educated and open-minded and liberal and humanist, I have a forum for discussing the set and setting of this music, for discussing the alienation I am feeling. A framework to talk about the fact that I do not know the country in which I was born and brought up. At the Opry, I realized that I was in the company of the majority of the electorate in this country, the people who hold the values that will elect Donald Trump. So I am happy that I heard this concert, and experienced the Opry, in the company of some of these friends.

I do not respect the outlook of the people sitting in the Opry audience with their cans of beer and processed hair, and the Confederate flags on their cars in the parking lot, laughing hysterically at Bubba Garcia. I do not think that song is cute, or funny. I think Jackson needs to learn some music history. But I realize that these people came by their opinions honestly, if without self-reflection. And I know that if I had lived their lives I might think and act as they do. I do not assume malicious intent on their part (Except in the case of the flags. I can’t see anything but malice in a Confederate flag). I recognize that many of their attitudes are rooted in ignorance and fear and I know how powerfully ignorance drives fear, and how fear closes us in upon ourselves, makes us crave the familiar and fear that which is different.

I wrote most of this sitting in the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Everyone in line for the ticket office is staring at their phone while they wait in the interminable line. After you get your ticket, you have to stand in another line to get in. This is one thing I will remember about Nashville: the lines. We are in Mecca. And the Hajj goes on year ‘round, even in sub-freezing temperatures.

In this entire complex, there is only one recycling bin. A token, like the one African-American family in the complex that afternoon. Recycling is a symbol of an America that has to husband its resources, to care for the planet, and not exploit it indefinitely. And the America inhabited by the people around me possesses a God-given right to conquer, to subjugate, to live as they wish without regard for consequence. And because these people have accepted Jesus as Lord, they will walk the gold-paved streets of which Milsap sings. Literally.

But in the end, there is the music. Music that we can still feel when we walk this land, rather than pave over it with concrete.

Connie Smith closes the show with Amazing Grace. Vince Gill sits in on guitar. These people are family to each other. The notes of his haunting, heartfelt solo stay with me as I leave the hall.

In the end, as in the beginning, there is the music.

You can check out the lyrics to Bubba Garcia here: Bubba Garcia



© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.



This post is about seeing. And blocks to seeing. In Buddhism, we speak of the fault of wrong view, of not perceiving reality correctly. This is the kind of seeing of which I write, here, on the second anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death. I was working in the Hudson Valley when he died, staying not far from his home in Beacon, NY. His loss was felt acutely there, for Seeger was a constant, loving, joyful presence in the area.

I missed my last opportunity to see him perform live. Chained to my desk trying to finish a project on a ludicrously unreasonable deadline, I had skipped the Clearwater Festival the previous summer. Sitting at the same desk where I had spent a hot and resentful 48 hours a few months prior, I wept for his loss, and also with gratitude for what he had given us. And comforted myself with his music. One recording, in particular, resonated with me in the days following his death: a duet with Joni Mitchell of Both Sides Now, with an added verse composed by Seeger, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyYuFBj8PTU

Two years later, I am again sitting with sadness and grief, but not for a current loss. I am grieving the loss of my father, though I have lived more of my life without him than with him. Now I seek to learn how to honor this sacred space of grieving not only for the loss of my father but more so for my misunderstanding of his life, which led me to hold a cold and arid memory of him these many years. In this time I am reminded of the words of the fourth verse to Both Sides Now, the verse that Seeger penned:

Newborn me 3
Me, newly born.

Daughter, daughter, don’t you know
You’re not the first to feel just so?
So let me say, before I go,
It’s worth it any way.

Some day we all may be surprised,
We’ll wake, and open up our eyes
And then at last, we’ll realize
The whole world feels this way.

We’ve all been living upside down
And turned around, with love unfound
Until we turn and face the sun
Yes, all of us, everyone. 

I have always envied those of my friends whose lives fit into neat, orderly narratives, and especially those who had a photographic record to accompany those narratives.

I do not have a neat, orderly narrative, and far too few photographs—though, I recently learned, many more than I thought. Looking for a letter from my father, I found a treasure chest of old photographs.

Dad and me
Dad reading to me, early 1960s.

I will never have a complete picture of my life. Several important pieces of the puzzle are missing, and the people who hold them are dead. But this past week, I discovered a big, anchoring, important piece of the puzzle. I didn’t do it alone. And it didn’t magically drop from the sky in one day. It was, rather, the culmination of years of work, of questions, of anger, of frustration, of struggle with a hard, blocked place in my heart. When that place yielded, it gave way to space for grief. For softness. For forgiveness, and to nurture love’s tender tendrils. And yes, for many forgotten, sweet memories.

Jack Kerouac was on to something when he suggested we forgive everyone for our own sins, and tell everyone we love them. I pray I may I be forgiven for my sins, especially for the sin of not seeing. Of wrong view, of not seeing correctly. For focusing my lens on what would better have been forgotten, and for letting fade that which I should have treasured, which could have nourished me.

When I converted to Buddhism I created a small shrine in my home, crowded with pictures of my teachers. I added another one today, to honor a man who was not able to show his love to his family in a way we could understand. The man whose name I carry. A photo to remind me that sometimes I do not see what is obvious, right in front of me. In the same way that water is imperceptible to a fish, someone had to help me see the love that had nurtured me. I learned, as well, that fear and love can beget anger.

As I light candles and offer prayers today, I think also with gratitude of three people who supported me — and continue to support me — on this journey and who guided me to this place of understanding. They held me and my pain and my stories; pointed out the contours of this missing piece of the puzzle of my life; and showed me how it all could fit together, until at last I was able to clear the blocks and see.


© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved.

On the Road to Oregon: Epilogue

(Note: In September 2012 I drove from Atlanta to Oregon, helping a friend move. This is the third of three posts chronicling the trip.)

Day 7: All Meetings End in Partings

Just before 9 am today I dropped off S at her first day on her new job. It felt a bit like the first day of school: she excited and happy to be starting something new, me a little tearful left behind in the car. It’s been like that since we stopped at the Starbucks in Bend. She was antsy, I was ready to sit and rest for a few.

2012-09-08 16.12.42But when we reached Springfield on Saturday we both hit a wall, overcome by the exhaustion of months of anticipation, planning, travel, emotion, surgery, and the actual drive. Small triggers elicit big emotions. We pick up six beers for a birthday party at a discount shop; the clerk points out that we have saved $131.14 on our $8.30 purchase; we collapse with laughter at the entrance of the store.

Now I’m sitting in another Starbucks, in Springfield, not far from her offce. It’s a rainy, gloomy day, perfect for ducks — which just happens to be the mascot for the University of Oregon football team. We drove by the stadium on Saturday afternoon, filled with bright shiny students in their yellow jerseys cheering the team. S says she will never go near it. I tell her I will make her eat those words if I come back here in a year and find her tailgating with her boyfriend. “Well,” she said, “if we do, at least we’ll have really good food.”

S has a good job at a good hospital. Eugene and Springfield are small, but not dull. The energy here has a different quality than the endless hustle of Atlanta, where everyone seems to be constantly marketing a product, a service, themselves. Sometimes it feels like we have stepped back 30 years, to tie-dye and hitch-hiking students with guitars strapped to their backs. Lots of people are interested in hiking and camping in the beautiful mountains and boating on the lovely rivers. 2012-09-08 16.11.31There are Buddhist centers and a dharma community. There are people living on the fringe, physically and psychologically, but also people who are grounded. There is a good pottery studio. S already has one friend here. In the intersection of all of this she will build a life, and she will be happy, and because she is happy she will finally meet a man who deserves her. It will be good to come back here and see her embracing a complete, fulfilled life.

In the space of two months I have stood on both coasts of the United States. In that time there have been many changes in my life. Too many. And now my closest friend is starting a new life, 2,600 miles from mine. I will need time to grieve, for this and for other changes.

I reflect on the nature of the bonds that tie people together. Some are like strong, flexible cables. They can be stretched, frayed, but they still hold. Sometimes the bonds rust from disuse and lack of attention; those can often be cleaned up, repaired and put back into service. Sometimes I have been tied to people by the thinnest of threads that snapped at the first sign of tension. Other bonds seem immutable, like the big fat steel cables that anchor ships. I have been blessed by S’s friendship for more than a decade, and know the bond will hold.

Yesterday we drove along the Oregon coast, hiking the dunes and walking the 2012-09-09 19.45.20broad beaches. Standing at the edge of the Pacific I feel my connection to the billions of other people touched by that ocean. I am one with the woman whose heart is breaking with betrayal, with the father who endures humiliation on the job in order to feed his family. Somewhere a woman is giving birth, a child is hungry, and an old man dies alone, lonely, his dreams unfulfilled.

I know a woman, bored with her life and her relationships, who uses her sexuality as a weapon to destroy the happiness of others. I know another woman whose life is so infused with grace that to share a coffee and conversation with her is to know the presence of the sacred in life.

I know a man who can embrace the whole world in the warm light and humor in his eyes. I know another man whose gaze appraises all with the cold cruel calculation of power: to whom must he toady? Who can he fuck, and who can be fucked over?

Being on the road centers me, gives me time for contemplation. As the miles go by I rest in the perfect still place in my heart, in the moment that becomes the next, on the edge between being and becoming, where I must dwell to know my own true nature.

2012-09-09 16.27.50

In Tibet Songsten Gampo pinned the demons that had inhabited the land beneath a mandala of temples. Like Songsten Gampo’s network of temples tracing the borders of Tibet, the points of my mandala inscribe my heart on the earth, from Atlanta to Palo Alto, Berkeley to Boston, Tucson to Washington, DC and Bangkok and beyond. And now, Oregon. I have not lost a friend; another part of my own mandala has come into focus and has begun to glow.

Wherever we are in the world, we share the same choices. We choose love and life, or we choose power and death.

I turn towards the east, on the razor’s edge of decisions I must make. Tomorrow I return to Atlanta.


I flew home yesterday; S and I had to leave the house at 5:00 am to make my 6:30 am departure. I made a tight connection in Seattle and landed in Atlanta at 4, having eaten nothing but a cup of coffee and the single worst airline meal I have ever encountered. Since I have been flying across the country and around the world since I was 4 years old, that is saying a lot. Now I know why the fare on Alaska was $300 less than Delta (not that they get any awards in the food department). Dinner at Donnie’s with D.G. was restorative on many levels.

In the meantime, S went back home, caught a few more hours of sleep, went to the Social Security office for a replacement card, and was introduced to the computer system and the policies and procedures of her new employer. She starts on the evening shift today, but still doesn’t know her exact hours or days off. With the time difference, phone calls will be challenging except on her days off.

2012-09-10 19.09.02S has a close friend in Washington State whose sister lives in Springfield. S will be staying with her until she finds her own place. It’s a nice neighborhood, and not too far from her job. Some houses are tiny, others large, none pretentious. Lots of lovely gardens; one was filled with lavender and rosemary. It’ just a short walk to the park that lines the river.

I’ve never eaten at Zesto’s in Little Five Points, and went there for lunch today to use the Scoutmob coupon for a free milkshake. Can’t say the food was great, but you have to love a place that plays Blondie, U2 and Gary Puckett in the same set. They accidentally overcharged me for lunch; the woman behind the counter walked over to me to return my $2.55 with a smile, an apology and a hug. I have a good life, and I’m grateful for all of the warmth and connection in it.

Some of you have asked what is next for me. There is room in my life for some changes. A new job, obviously. I’m starting a new, intense yoga class on Monday morning. And there’s definitely room for a new man, someone honest and loyal.

The journey continues.



© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.

Steps and Passages

It is November 2009. I am sitting in first class (luckily and gratefully upgraded) on a flight from Atlanta to Albuquerque, where I will pick up a car and drive to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style hot springs resort in the mountains above Santa Fe. It is Thanksgiving weekend, and the holiday has been looming in my mind like the rocks at Railay Bay. 2013-11-22 03.26.07I had booked a small casita at the spa, along with a couple of massages and a facial, and made a reservation at an outrageously good restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. For one. The anniversary of my mastectomy would pass during the trip, and I was giving myself the better part of a week to reflect on the past 15 months: the tests, the biopsies, the surgeries, the fear and anxiety that had gripped me when I was diagnosed with the same disease that had killed my mother and my sister. The initial prognosis had been bad, and my horizons had drawn in, my perspective and my mood shrink-wrapped tightly around me.

I had never spent so much money on a vacation for myself, but I was acutely aware that I might not have much time left to take vacations, so why not? I had barely allowed myself time to recover or rest, returning quickly to work, withdrawing from graduate classes only when I realized that my surgery would conflict with my exams.

I brought one book with me, Mattieu Ricard’s Happiness, and one notebook.

And a swimsuit, so that I could soak in the beautiful outdoor hot tubs without displaying the scars on my chest.

I loved the little adobe casita, with its fireplace and lovely Buddha. IMG_0198I loved being back in the Southwest, in landscapes familiar and reminiscent of Arizona, my home. I spent happy days exploring Santa Fe, pampering myself at the spa, and soaking, endlessly soaking, in that luxurious hot water.

Late one afternoon, after a day wandering through museums and galleries, I was on my way up to the hot tubs in my spa robe and slippers, cold air swirling around me. Cold air on my body meant…I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit. In my haste to get into the hot water I had stripped off my clothes, slipped into the robe, and started walking up the steps that separated the casita from the spa area.

100 steps.

I knew. Because I had counted them. Because the cancer drugs had hideous side effects, and every bone, joint, and muscle in my body hurt. All of the time. And, at that altitude, I was out of breath with any exertion.

I was halfway up. The temperature was just around freezing. To go back meant 50 steps down and 50 more breathless, panting steps back up to the point where I was now standing. An extra 100 steps.

To keep going meant that I would get into the hot tub naked, like everyone else.

I had managed to avoid this situation at the gym, changing my clothes in the bathroom stalls or in my office beforehand, or facing my locker so that no one could see.

There would be nowhere to hide once I got to the tub.

I kept going, deciding I would drape a towel over my shoulders to try to cover my chest. The towels were too small to hide much.

The women’s tub was crowded and convivial as the sun set and the steam rose off the water and I huddled in a corner, too ashamed to cry openly, but sobbing inside.

I used to have beautiful breasts. Men admired them and enjoyed them, and I enjoyed having them. They are gone. One has been sliced off and dissected, replaced by an implant, the other reduced in an attempt the match the two sides.

I have always loved the feel of sun and water on my skin, loved swimming nude. As I started to relax into the tub it occurred to me, though I could not accept it at the time, that perhaps I was the only one who cared, that perhaps it was my shame that caused others to avoid me, rather than my scars.

I finally headed back down to eat and sleep, knowing I had crossed a threshold and confronted something I didn’t want to admit:  how deeply jealous I was of the other women, in all their various shapes and sizes, with their bodies still intact.IMG_0166

Home in Atlanta, everyone was raving about Jeju, a Korean bath house and spa. For $25 you could spend the day in the various Jacuzzis and saunas. The dry sauna rooms are co-ed (you’re issued shorts and a t-shirt when you arrive); the Jacuzzis, cold-plunge pools and scrub areas are located in the sex-segregated locker rooms. No clothing allowed.

I turned down numerous invitations, but knew I couldn’t avoid the place forever, so I picked a Saturday in the summer, when it wouldn’t be crowded, and went early.

Fact: women who have had mastectomies do not hang out in spas where you have to walk around naked. Everyone but me had two breasts attached to their chests.

Fact: the steam room is a great place to hide out if you are naked and unhappy about how your body looks.

I understood the appeal of the place. But I didn’t go back.

So I wasn’t exactly thrilled last week when a dear friend said that the one thing she most desired for her birthday was to spend Saturday at Jeju.

The past two years of Ashtanga yoga have brought me more acceptance of my body, and it would be a fun group of friends. I said yes.

I figured out a couple of things yesterday.

That other people can only be as comfortable with my body as I am.

That I am about the only person who doesn’t have a tattoo. I have toyed with the idea of getting one to disguise the mastectomy scars. It’s time to do it.

That my body is amazing. It is different from every other body. There were skinny bodies, huge bodies, but no other bodies that have survived breast cancer. My body has been through a lot, and still does amazing things. Miraculous things. Climbs mountains and swims in lakes and oceans and makes love and carries me on wondrous adventures all around the world. It even does backbends. Most importantly, it survived. Not only having cancer, but also the toxicity of my own objectification of my physicality and my abhorrence of my own appearance.

That it was true that I had to cross the boundary where the old body gave way to the new body, and then to step across the frontier where the new body would meet the world of other bodies.

But I had made a huge mistake in thinking that I had to make those journeys alone.

We had a great time at Jeju yesterday. The friendship of women is a precious thing. A. had a wonderful birthday, and I enjoyed myself. I am looking forward to going back. With my friends. No more traveling by myself.

I am sorry, I whispered to myself as I fell asleep last night. I will do better, I promised: more gratitude, more care, more tenderness.

Knowing that the only forgiveness I need is my own.

© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.