Thursday, November 28, 2013

What teaching ESL taught me about mindfulness

 It can be hard sometimes to stay present in our daily lives. Have you ever asked yourself how you can cultivate a feeling of happiness in your daily life?  This is how one aspect of my life, teaching English as a second language, taught me the important lesson of how to stay present.

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I began teaching ESL online about a year ago. I had what many working, breast feeding mothers would give their electric pumps for: a well-paid, stay at home job where I earned enough to afford a nanny. But teaching online was new for me and I missed in person contact with colleagues and students. Sleep deprived, easily distracted, I was tuning out my student’s answers. I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.  

A year prior, I attended a retreat with a Buddhist monk.  An Australian with an acerbic sense of humor, he told us that mindfulness could help us cultivate healthy emotions and a balanced life. Unfortunately for me, I had an allergic reaction to the monk’s sarcasm. His jokes weren’t softened for me by the interpreter.  It wasn’t until a year later as I sat in front a computer screen, did I remember monk’s teachings. I realized that mindfulness could help me that very moment.

When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don't miss them in being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed we are present enough to understand what needs to be done. Being mindful is not a substitute for actually participating in our lives and taking care of our own and others' needs. In fact, the more mindful we are, the more skillful we can be in compassionate action.

It was the subjunctive that triggered my memory of the monk’s teachings. Talking about imaginary or unreal situations, I helped students formulate the questions and I had to reflect upon my own answers. “What do you wish you had?” “Where do you wish you could go?” What do you wish you were doing right now?”  The monk had told us that it was possible for us to find joy in daily chores through paying attention to what we do and say, keeping our minds in the present tense. In other words, I could be present and happy right now. 

Practicing mindfulness as I teach online is how I now get the most out of my chosen profession instead of focusing on the “what ifs” and the “if I had onlys”. When I am in my virtual classroom with a live connection to my students, there is nothing else I would rather do at that moment. I am helping another human being pursue their own worthy ideals. My students, for the most part, live in Spain and have set their goals to improve English in order to have better opportunities. Many of my students have been or are unemployed, and working with the unemployed is a lesson in gratitude. Earl Nightingale said “success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal”. Practicing mindfulness when I teach is how I actively turn my wish for a better life into a reality in my own present moment. Staying present also called my attention to my need for in-person contact. By teaching at a local university three days a week, I have created balance for myself.

Trying to understand mindfulness by its definition is like trying to understand what it is like to fall in love by reading a textbook. You might get a general idea, but you’d be missing out on the best part: what it actually feels like. Mindfulness is all about experience, about the actual aliveness, of each moment. You learn to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, not because someone said that it would be a good thing to do, but because that is where you find your life.

Mindfulness has also helped me navigate when things don’t go according to plan. Life is full of surprises and that applies to online teaching as well. For example, the internet can and will cut out. During the rainy season, a storm will render it impossible to hear students. And then there was the time the school had to cut back my hours because of a drop in enrollment.

Months prior to teaching online, I was worried that, since I was about to have a baby, I won’t be able to find a decent job. Also, I felt anxious over the prospect of having a newborn in daycare. I had closed my eco-friendly business that I ran for three years. I was uncertain about my future and my income capabilities. Today, my past insecurities about teaching online provide me with important lessons. There are still distractions, but I am better equipped to handle them. Every time I come to the subjunctive exercise, I answer the question “what do you wish you were doing right now?” with “I wish I were doing exactly what I am doing now.”

To learn more about how to incorporate mindfulness in your life, I suggest the following websites:

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Visionary's Dream in A Cappella

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Miguel Bernal Jimenez had a dream for his hometown of Morelia, Michoacan. He longed for the colonial jewel to be known as the “Salzburg of the Americas”. Half a century later, The Morelia Music Festival, known as  Festival Internacional de Musica de Morelia Miguel Bernal Jimenez  is celebrating its twenty five year anniversary. Last night I attended the Oxford Choir’s concert in Morelia’s Government Palace. Before the concert began the festival general director (and granddaughter of composer Miguel Bernal Jimenez) Veronica Bernal Vargas and president of the music festival´s trust Carlos Felipe de Habsburgo, presented all of the festival’s artistic directors with the Miguel Bernal Jimenez Prize. Afterwards, James Burton lead the twenty five choristes through some of the UK’s most celebrated composers. Concert goers sat in the main outdoor courtyard. Cobalt blue and mauveine lights lit the Palace’s limestone walls. Outside another concert’s operatic tunes softly broke the silence between the choir’s songs.  Alfredo Zalce’s murals seemed to look on as a nocturnal bird sang in reply, church bells chimed and the Oxford Choir sang Orlando Gibbon’s “O clap your hands”.
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MBJ’s vision in that space of time is as clear as Morelia’s cloudless winter days. It is crisp, joyous, it sings, it hums, it buzzes and vibrates. For a moment, the narco violent reality that we currently live in Michoacan vanishes, the corruption that plagues our state is gone: if only we could use music as a weapon. I reflect on MBJ’s vision. We might be a long way off from being the Salzburg of the Americas but there is no doubt in my mind that cultural events like these are changing lives for the better. This concert fills me with hope.  The Oxford Choir appeals to my traditional choir education at an all girl’s Catholic school back home in New York. While I usually listen to “sexier” versions of a capella, like Pentatonix, sitting in the presence of the Oxford Choir is like coming home.

The 2013 edition of Morelia’s Music Festival  will continue until November 24th. For more information please visit the festival’s website at

Monday, November 4, 2013

Alethia: A Soul with Voice

Alethia Rivera
Alethia Rivera sings at the Gastro Cervecera
Festival  in Morelia, 2013. Photo credit: Celeste Mier

Morelia is an old city with a young soul.  As home to more than ten universities, public and private, the city is full of hipsters and hippies, academics, artists and writers, not to mention the musicians. You can’t leave out the musicians.  If it were as easy to pick out the musicians as it were to identify nursing, dental and medical students in their white uniforms, we'd have a visual reference of how much music is studied, reproduced and appreciated in this city. But it isn't hard to find Morelia’s up and coming musicians. They can be seen on any given night throughout the city performing at street side cafés, restaurants, and pubs. Their music spans blues, jazz, pop, narco corridos, banda, salsa, Latin, trova; Morelia’s musicians cover every genre you can imagine. However there is a voice, so rich and soulful that it stands out and makes one stop to listen. This is the voice of Alethia Rivera, a 29-year-old who was born in Mexico City and raised in Morelia.  I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Alethia one Sunday afternoon while she was performing at Tata Mezcaleria (for a review of that dinner, click here). 
Who is Alethia?
I am a being who loves music and my life revolves around it; music and singing are my biggest passions.

Did you study music?
Yes, I did study. I studied classical piano at the Music Conservatory (Conservatorio de Musica) in Morelia for a year and half and at Celaya’s music conservatory for another year and a half.  I quit studying the piano and music for a time to help support my then boyfriend.

When did you start studying?
When I was sixteen I started studying music by mistake: I walked into the wrong school after I got kicked out of Federal High school Number One, and since there was nothing else for me to do I thought I would study music.

Who are your greatest musical influences?

Billie Holiday. Years before I started singing, I had been studying piano for about a year and I went to a party that some composer friends were having and I heard her voice. I wanted to cry. I didn’t understand a word she was singing. It was if she were babbling, it wasn’t clear to me what she was saying, but I was so impacted by what she was doing and the soul, the feeling with which she was singing. I also really admire Björk and her trajectory as a musician, she doesn’t limit herself.

What has been your experience as a musician making a living in Morelia?

Alethia sings at Tata Mezcaleria with Flavio Menses on guitar.
Photo credit: Celeste Mier
Being a musician you have to be really jealous with how you spend your time, the time you spend learning and preparing yourself as a musician is never ending; you never stop preparing.  It is possible to support yourself as a musician but it is a hard path to follow. I’ve been working as a musician for three years. Well, I can say that I started to “make it”as a musician about three years ago.

Do you write your own music?
Yes I do, I compose, and I like funk pop fusions and  love pop. I had left composing for practical reasons, but I am also in process with Alethia’s Band recording, but I have to admit that lyrics are some of the hardest things for me to write.

What do you see as in your future?
I am excited about the possibilities with Alethia’s band and creating art, not just about doing art but creating it: creating it for the love of creating. The Polanco Jazz Festival is held twice a year and we are special guests for this winter. We’ve had a lot of luck with this since we are such a new band, and it is a gift to be playing in the festival. Eddie Schwartz, the festival organizer had a hunch with us after Celeste (Alethia's manager) got in touch with him, and he said “you guys are in.”  Short term, I think I am heading in the direction of playing festivals, not just jazz, people see it (jazz) as limiting, but jazz is what gives me the freedom to create. My goal is to take my music to festivals in and outside of the country. I’d also like to continue recording, continue experimenting.

On what it is like to be a Mexican musician
I think we have social responsibility since I am the first person who lets others know about my country so that they respect it and respect the fact that in Mexico we are more than the stereotype that they might have of us: not all of us are a cliché of “The Mexican”; we are rational, thinking beings and have many cultures within our culture. Not everything is a War Against Drugs. I think that through art, which is like a filter and also an escape valve, we can show that because of a few, the rest of us have to live through these times.

For more information on Alethia Rivera, please visit her Youtube Channel 
And her Facebook page

Click here for more information on The Polanco Jazz Fest

A Taste of Tata: Cocina de Autor

One Sunday afternoon, as the excitment of the FICM (Morelia's International Film Festival) was winding down, I paid a visit to Tata Mezcaleria for dinner.  Just earlier that week, Quentin Tarantino visited Tata. I had gone to hear Alethia Rivera sing (to read that interview click here) and was hoping to have somethig savory to eat. The waitor offered my dinner companion and I courtsey drinks of mezcal or fresh lima juice (sweet lime). We shared the salad that featured bits of fresh goat cheese, garapiñado (candied) peanuts and a light vinegrette. I had the salmon on a bed of asparagus, while my friend had a portobello-style burger (sans meat). Honestly, I loved it and recomend it to anyone who wants a taste of authentic Mexican fusion cuisine known as cocina de autor, check out Tata Mezcaleria. You can tell them Alma sent you!

Check out my interview with Alethia Rivera here.