As I pack my bags by Michelle Nicola


As I pack my bags for Xalapa, Mexico,

unexpected words and phrases keep jumping in between the rolled up shirts and the most likely unnecessary extra pair of shoes.  There, in between the shoes and the t-shirts, is Marge Percy’s poem “To be of use,” the one where she says,

“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.”

And there, next to my summer-to-fall dress is Kathy Jetnil Kijiner’s promise, “Still, there are those who see us,” from her poem Dear Matafele Peinam, which she read at the UN Climate Summit in 2014.  

Clarisa Pinkola Estes’ words wriggle their way in between my smartwool socks and pajamas.  “My friends,” she says, “do not lose heart. We were made for these times.”

Sometimes it’s hard to remember not to lose heart. Sometimes it feels like the only stories I hear are stories of separation, disconnection, violence towards life, hateful words that build walls rather than kind words that strengthen connection.

Rebecca Solnit’s words tuck themselves in next to my passport. “We live and die by our stories.”

As a Fulbright scholar in Mexico, I go seeking a different kind of story than what you might find in your local paper, or in a weathered textbook.  I go seeking the hidden stories of Afro-Mexicans, the largely unrecognized stories that have shaped Mexican culture and have not found their way into mainstream Spanish world language curriculum, at least not yet.  As a Spanish world language teacher, I go seeking ways to give my students stories that complicate their ideas about identity while simultaneously teaching them to use Spanish language skills to connect with others. As a person who wants to be of use, I go ready to listen, hopeful that I can share the stories I hear by creating curriculum.

I unzip the front pocket of my suitcase, and I realize that I’ve forgotten something. My cohort of 38 Fulbright scholars and I have the honor and responsibility of representing the United States to the people we meet.  Reading the bios of my cohort members, it becomes clear that we’re representing the United States that believes in connection, inclusion, and care for one another. I realize that as much as I go to listen, I’m also carrying with me stories that don’t necessarily make worldwide news but that still define our nation.

There’s the story of Rabbi Brian whose organization, Religion Outside the Box, seeks to promote spiritual fitness with the God of Your Understanding.  Two years ago, the sidewalk outside Brian’s home in the Hollywood district was covered in anti-Semitic chalk messaging.  Brian, his wife Jane, and his two children changed the message of that chalk-hate to #lovealwayswins.

There’s the story of my friend Carol, a feminist farmer who doesn’t waste any time posting about climate justice - she lives it, she works it, she keeps all of us connected to the land that is our lifeline.

There’s Natalie, my friend of 23 years, whose keen insights and fierce convictions make her and incredible ally to survivors of domestic violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and promoter of love, acceptance and mental health.

I have countless stories of my educator friends who jump into the work head first.  Like my cousin Jill, whose unit on neighborhoods gave bilingual second grade students the vocabulary and the ideas they needed to become change-makers, to tell the stories of their neighborhoods and to take action to improve the place where they live.  Liz, Joyce, Kathleen, Nick, Haukur, Miles, Michelle S., Erika, Roberta, Emily G. . . . I’m packing all of their stories of excellence in education too.

I add other stories to my suitcase - Linda Christensen, author of Reading, Writing & Rising Up, and Teaching for Joy and Justice, and a mentor who radically changed how I approach teaching. I’m adding the story of her husband Bill Bigelow, and colleague Tim Swineheart who pioneered a movement that in 2016 resulted in Portland Public Schools becoming possibly the only school district in the nation with a resolution stating that teachers can and should teach about climate justice.  

I’m taking those stories with me too.

There’s room for more, so I add stories about Beth who has tirelessly amped up her activism game, using her talents to promote a more inclusive and loving and just world. And what about my sister Teresa who started Untame in order to nourish feminine vitality? I add her story too! My parents, Tony and Sharon, who taught me unconditional love, and my brothers, Joey and Jacob, who teach me unconditional teasing. ;)

It seems to me that this practice of seeing one another begins with the telling of stories.  And if Rebecca Solnit’s words are true, then the stories that we tell about each other, to each other matter. They matter a lot. As I pack my bags for Xalapa, I make a promise to listen to the untold stories, and to share the stories I know to be true.