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Learning to Breathe

After a nice weekend in Heber, Arizona - I have settled back into the noise of the city. I wonder though, what makes a city a city? I've lived in Queens, just 14 minutes outside of Manhattan, I was once a thirty minute train ride from Boston...and somehow I have traveled back to Arizona. It seems that Phoenix tries to be a city...but something is lacking. It could be that the buildings seem too brand new to capture the essence of generational functioning. I know while walking the cobblestone streets in Boston, step-by-step through Quincy Market - that there is history all around me.

So I found myself asking this question on the ride back home - what makes a city...a city? And why does my heart hurt on the way back to it like this?

The people I connect most to in Arizona all agree that the politics are disturbing, the governor alarming, and the newfound laws barbaric. Women giving birth in jail cells, chained to beds, because they are 'illegal' immigrants. I live in what is known as the historic district of Mesa, Arizona. Two blocks north and three houses west, a neighbor has a garage full of motorcycles and a giant confederate flag billowing in the wind. My exgirlfriend has been called sir more times in our "city" than living in Texas. People mostly stay inside of their houses. When I walk my dogs along the streets, I sometimes count the living rooms lit by television screens. When it rains I walk the dogs and count the people standing under their carports. Seldom, they say hello when I initiate greetings. I hear more racism against Mexicans than any other demographic of people, aside from the gay community.

In the mountains, I took a luxurious walk with the dogs. I was even able to keep Havok off of his leash the whole time. He would trot ahead of Sage and I, but he would also turn back to make sure we were still there and still walking behind him. Even the dogs are more mellow up north. Sage was preoccupied for almost an hour staring at a skunk that seemed to be stalking him on the other side of a chain link fence. Havok, not surprisingly, stayed by my feet on the porch while I played cards with girlfriends, or he jumped onto my chair and curled up behind me, making space wherever I thought space was unavailable.

I woke early each day in Heber. I had agreed to make every meal while we were away. Each morning: shaved sweet potatoes curried and simmered until semi-soft in sweet butter with parsley, mint, and cilantro. Eggs with arugula, spinach, garlic, turmeric, green onion. A rosemary/garlic baguette that lasted us four meals. Acorn squash soup on the second night with garbonzo beans, lentils, carrots, marinated onions, celery, handfuls of fresh herbs. Platters with cheese, hummous, olives.

"You really should be a chef," my friend Rebekah insisted.

"I will only be a chef when I have my own commune/non-profit type of place in the mountains." She tells me this every day, about being a chef. Someone once told her that even though she didn't have a lot of money, she always found money to buy the things she wanted. I have been like this for years. I do not have the money for expensive new material things, nor do I have a desire for them. I have enough money to pay all of my bills and to eat well and I count my blessings with every meal. Every time Rebekah spends most of a meal saying, "Mmmm!" I feel like the richest person in the world. My friends come to dine in the garden. I make them fresh soups and stuffed mushrooms, quinoa pasta with heirloom tomatoes, we talk about changing the world and smile around our spoons or forks, knowing there is something special happening. Food is important to me, as it is to everyone, but I realized within the past few years that cooking is a way for me to express gratitude and love. I zone into whatever I am cooking and turn off all other outside distractions at the time. I love slicing, peeling, preparing, roasting, steaming, grilling, stirring - all acts of love.

When I lost my job this past May, I worried at first, ceaselessly, about this and that. Somehow, everything has been working out fine. Somehow, I still have baguettes and fresh mozzarella cheese. Somehow, my notebooks are still being filled with observations and my sheets clean. Somehow, the garden is in full bloom and the lilies are over five feet high. My salary and health care benefits have been taken away and I have learned to breathe in the quiet of each new day.

After the four weeks of VOF ending, I stepped back from the computer for a little while. I picked up a new book that parallels the French Revolution to the current state of America. I don't know where I heard it, but somewhere I heard that an inclination of the Roman Empire falling was the peoples' preoccupation with beauty, or rather, vanity. I think of this country I live in, where opportunity appears plentiful and limitless. But I see everyone at war with themselves. At war with how their lives are versus how they have been told they should be. Living silently in little boxes, never knowing their neighbors with whom they may even share walls. Going, going, goin, doing, doing, doing - unable to sit still.

Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

It is not whether this city I live in is old or new enough. It is not whether the people are kind or talkative enough. It seems to be something deeper happening inside of them - distancing themselves from themselves, each other, the earth.

As I hiked through Christopher Creek, jumped over river rocks, lept over fallen logs, and stood still to look up to see how high the sky would be amongst the ponderosas - I felt alive. I could breathe. I could feel my heart pounding. Even the dogs would stop and be still. Rebekah found mushrooms and dandelions to photograph as though they were their own little villages. Havok and Sage were not timid crossing the river, as I stepped carefully onto and off of each rock. I always feel rejuvenated after being up north for a few days, but when I unpack my things and am home again, I am filled with a sadness that is built of noise.

One thing that became clear to me on this last trip...I want more than anything to have my own space in a foresty location. A place where women can wake up and be still with themselves, commune with each other, re-learn how to eat. Most of the time I have no idea what I am cooking. I may glance at a recipe, but I hardly follow them. After the weekend my friend Christan said she didn't know how she would go back to eating like she did before I was cooking for her. There is sheer delight in eating something someone made with love and patience, throwing common things together to make simple cupboard leftovers appear as a bountiful feast. Full, warm bellies create full, warm hearts. Taking a little and creating a lot...small or normal portions to create energetic, happy bodies.

The clarity came while I was having coffee on the porch the morning we left. I love the scent of fresh coffee in the morning mixed with nutmeg. I am joyful adding creme to the cup. But on the porch, in the sunniest spot, I knew my place in the world revolved around small circles of intimacy that create larger impacts. I knew that if I regularly got together with the strongest, most empowering women I am connected to, I would understand even more what needs to be done. My dream has long been to take these women I often speak of and have each of us contribute to an entire center of well-being, one that focuses on self-love and self-acceptance for women in the United States, but works to impact on much larger scales.

During VOF assignments...I read so many posts about women being less than and never equal to men in different cultures. I relayed a story about widows to my friend here and she said that the men in Cameroon who were upholding the traditions of widowhood relay a strong message about the innate power of women and how much it is feared. So then, I can think of nothing more empowering than gathering women, strengthening them, and creating solutions that will change the world one community at a time.


Sharese's picture


Oh Melissa- how beautiful you are. I literally held my breath throughout this post until the final full stop- then I exhaled. Thank you thank you thank you. I have been in such a chaotic place of late- transitioning back into American culture with no job, no money, no support system has been extraordinarily hard- but you are so right that we can go on. Even without a job and support I can find happiness in the little things.

I envy and am so joyful that you have strong women to surround yourself with. I need to start up something where I can surround myself with strong feminist women- I know that that is my source of strength and sanity. Sometimes it is hard to find these women where we live (you mention Phoenix- I find it difficult in Kansas City as well). But never ceasing to try is important.

When you get your commune I will happily come and join you and your strong women friends for a visit, perhaps we can sing and dance together!! It makes me smile just to think about it.

In love and sisterhood,


Mei Li's picture

Thank you

You inspired me in return! This response warmed my soul. I am always reminded when I need to be the most how a single post can effect one person, or many. After I read this I went to get a cup of coffee. Outside of the store was a man who appeared to be traveling extensively by foot. I am not quick to say "homeless" because I have met quite a few world travelers who are living out of a backpack and by foot by choice...I asked the man if I could buy him a cup of coffee or anything else, like a meal. He said to surprise him. I was thinking of you and how you said, "even without a job and support I can find happiness in the little things," and how I have been taken care of over the past few months even without a job. In times of great need a friend showed up with bags of groceries. With that in mind, I reached for apples, pistachios, soup, and a sandwich. The man was so grateful. My gratitude stemmed from your response though, and I felt so good after reading your words that I wanted to be sweet to someone as well and warm them in the same way I felt warmed by reading your post...

so thank you....the smile on his face was priceless...and I was reminded once again that single people can make gigantic impacts simply by remembering our connections as brothers and sisters.

Last, thank you for signing your post "in love and sisterhood"

everything will work out, you just have to believe you are on the path you are supposed to be on, because if you weren't, where else would you be? pulse is here so you can surround yourself with strong women and feel empowered, we are all here for each other, i know it would be nice to have strong women physically surrounding you, but I have learned to cradle these women in my life with deep gratitude - no matter where they are - and the ones who have taught me continuous lessons of gratitude, self-love, and heart expansion live clear across the globe...some I have never met physically...some are forty or fifty years older than me...some are 10 years younger...and I don't care how far they are - because I am blessed to have crossed paths with them at all....

"...our compassion is the practice of unconditioning." Jakusho Kwong Roshi

antoniamichaela's picture

Thank you

Dear Mei Li,

I just want to say thank you for writing this post, because it really touched me, somehow... and you write so beautifully. Every situation you described created such a rich visual image - walking in the rain in your city and greeting people who don't often greet back; sharing food you have made with friends in your garden; trekking with your dog.... you have such a gift of expressing yourself in a very accessible and engaging way. I am very glad to see that you were selected to be a VOF correspondent.

I felt touched and reassured by what you wrote, somehow.... especially by sentences like:.... 'I want more than anything to have my own space in a foresty location. A place where women can wake up and be still with themselves, commune with each other, re-learn how to eat."

And... "in the sunniest spot, I knew my place in the world revolved around small circles of intimacy that create larger impacts. I knew that if I regularly got together with the strongest, most empowering women I am connected to, I would understand even more what needs to be done."

Sometimes I feel isolated and overhwhelmed by the pervasiveness of patriarchy (as my visceral awareness of it is still very fresh, only a year or so since I began to realize its incredible dominance and damages, which were scarcely visible to me before that) and your post helped nourish me, somehow. Also your calmness and confidence with dealing with losing your job encouraged me (I am currently job-seeking and it is often a demoralizing, exhausting process). Thank you so much.

Warm wishes,


Mei Li's picture

Thank you for all of your

Thank you for all of your kind words :)

This week has been a particularly intense one, filled with preparations for my friend's parental modification court hearing, preparing the soil for winter harvest, finishing the last few quadratic equations for the last math class I will have to morning this week I woke up with a terrible headache. I went to the front porch and sat quietly. I watched the garden, listened to bird song and wind, noticed the leaves of the mulberry creating dancing shadows on the ground. I come to this spot often, whenever I feel anxious...whenever I feel stressed about anything...because this space is alive and filled with quiet beauty. I value it so much and wish for every woman to have a space that fills her with gratitude, simply by witnessing the world around her.

When I first began to notice the full-effects of patriarchy on the country I live in, countries the world over, all throughout history, was overwhelming...even dismantling. It left me feeling like a hopeless mess for a short while until I realized the only way to combat such a world, such circumstances, was to re-build myself of that which has been so long taken. Alice Walker has an essay called, "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," and I read it years ago for an English class...but it sits on my desk right now and I re-read it often. I read a post today too from a WP member about how land used to belong to women and was so handed down to daughters. I dream of creating vast spaces by/for women to be left to daughters.

I place high value on the earth, gardens, farms, women creating through a variety of medians - song, dance, beadwork, cooking, painting, writing, weaving - cottages filled with kilns, shelves of oils and acrylics, mason jars filled with lavender, yarrow, bright red, yellow, blue, purple corn seeds. Yes, viewing patriarchy and all it has done to dismantle the strength of women can be quite disturbing to the heart and mind...but I have learned that by embracing solitude, reclaiming the earth space I occupy and transforming it into a tiny garden paradise, learning all of the metaphors the land has to offer, communing intimately with those I hold dear - this will all be the unraveling of the silence of women.

My calmness over my job loss....this has been the greatest blessing I have experienced in the past four years. I was working for a company that demanded conformity, looked illy upon creativity, valued the strength of women only if they were increasing capitol, and I often got in trouble for having a big mouth and refusing to be unethical. I did not belong there. I would rather struggle month-to-month and spend mornings in the garden, afternoons developing curriculum for workshops - even if I will not be paid for teaching them - and evenings communing sweetly with those who compliment my existence as I compliment theirs. I feel confident now on job interviews. I feel as though I am interviewing the companies. I want to know how they impact the environment, how they give back to the community, what their overall mission is and if their ethical statements match their actions, what value they place on education, and how they effect the environment in which they function, how their employees are treated, etc. And, after working for four years and then being fired....I have learned within the past six months the value I place on myself, rather then the value others may see in me based upon a resume.

Try not to feel too demoralized - you are worth as much as you wish - and I speak not of salary. I am so happy to hear, also, that what was once scarcely visible to you is now something you are acutely aware of. That means one more voice is rising and I look forward to hearing all you have to say.

Namaste dear one!

"...our compassion is the practice of unconditioning." Jakusho Kwong Roshi

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