Between-States: Conversations About Bardo and Life

In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” is a between-state. The passage from death to rebirth is a bardo, as well as the journey from birth to death. The conversations in “Between-States” explore bardo concepts like acceptance, interconnectedness, and impermanence in relation to children and parents, marriage and friendship, and work and creativity, illuminating the possibilities for discovering new ways of seeing and finding lasting happiness as we travel through life.


“I hope my last word is a big, loud laugh!” says Sandra Cisneros. “We worry about death so much. But death is one of the things I don’t want to be afraid of.” In her poem “Instructions for My Funeral,” she writes: 

No jewelry. Give to friends.
No coffin. Instead, petate. [straw mat]
Ignite to “Disco Inferno.” 

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros lived for almost thirty years in San Antonio, Texas, and moved to Mexico in 2013. She will soon turn 70, and says, “I think the reason why divine providence brought me to Mexico is because this is a country that deals with death in such a different way than the United States, which is all down-low about it. Here, the border between the living world and the spirit world is very thin.” She feels that being in Mexico is helping her prepare for her death. “It’s exciting, like, ‘Graduation’s coming, and have I readied myself for the exam?’ ”

A novelist, poet, essayist, and short story writer, Cisneros is the author of The House on Mango Street, a semiautobiographical novel about a Mexican-American girl trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs. One of the first commercially successful novels by a Mexican-American writer, it has sold more than six million copies and is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Cisneros’s other books include the novels Martita, I Remember You (2021) and Caramelo (2002); a memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life (2015); and her first poetry collection in twenty-eight years, Woman Without Shame (2022). She has won many awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant, NEA Literature Fellowships in poetry and prose, the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama “for enriching the American narrative.” 

Cisneros spoke with me from her home in San Miguel de Allende about being between cultures, embracing impermanence, and how we can live fully for both ourselves and our communities.


The House on Mango Street and a lot of your other work, including Woman Without Shame, is about in-betweenness. When you were growing up in Chicago, you took regular trips to Mexico with your family. Did you feel like you were in a between-state? I’m articulating this for the first time, so I hope I’m not sounding too clumsy… My life in Chicago felt temporal, like a mistake, but when I went to Mexico, I saw people who looked like me, en masse. It was comforting and affirming. It planted a sense of pride in me, in who I was, that could never be taken away. Anyone who wanted to throw a bad word at me, or who didn’t know my past and wanted to belittle me—it was impossible. Because, how could you believe anyone who didn’t know anything about you and your heritage? You’ve seen the Pyramids, you’ve tasted the food, you’ve seen the volcanoes. Wow! It was like nothing in Illinois. So in Mexico, I didn’t feel between; I felt great joy, a sense of belonging and being alive. 

In The House on Mango Street, the young girl, Esperanza, says she wants “a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” And in your memoir, you write that when you were a girl, you dreamed of having a silent house all your own, the way other women dreamed of their weddings. Have you found your home? Not yet, in the sense that sometimes I wish I had another physical house. I’m getting older, and there are too many steps in this house. I do like being in San Miguel de Allende, though. I’m right in the center, where I was told I should live as a woman alone. Maybe I could live out in the desert if I were a man or like Georgia O’Keeffe with her two giant Chows, which were famous for biting everyone. I just have two Chihuahuas, a dachshund, and a Xoloitzcuintli.

But home is really about this phase I’m entering. Now, I’m going to graduate into meeting my death, earning my death, to borrow a phrase from Jean Rhys. So I’m looking for the authors, the books, the writing, the experiences, the teachers that are going to help me prepare for my death. I celebrate my father’s and mother’s deaths, their transformations, every year, and I feel that my death will also be a transformation. This next period is all about spiritual growth. 

According to Tibetan belief, in death and in life, we’re often in a state of denial, clinging to our old existence and afraid of our new reality. Have you found it difficult to let go of being younger? I don’t feel my age. I feel like the little bouncing ball in those cartoons that have a song you sing along to by following the ball. I feel like a dust mote somersaulting, rolling around, floating.

But I can see things happening. I’ve always had a child’s hands, and the other day, I noticed they look like an old lady’s hands. Watching my body change, my face change, I’m intrigued. I remember reading in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover about how her face collapsed as she aged and how she watched it with fascination. That’s how I feel. 

Has your awareness of impermanence changed over time? It evolved first and foremost with my father’s death, in 1997. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I thought I was going to lose the person who understood me the best, and I would lose that incredible unconditional love. But after he died, I could still feel his love, his presence. I understood, “Oh, he’s just transformed.” I can still give and receive and communicate with him. Not the way it used to be, but in some ways it’s more advantageous, because all I have to do is sit still and talk with him. It feels so great, and I think, “Well, death doesn’t really exist.” 

“When we lose someone we love, it’s an opportunity for us to advance in our spiritual levels.”

When we lose someone we love, it’s an opportunity for us to advance in our spiritual levels. That’s why my mother’s and father’s deaths were such a milestone in my spiritual development, like my PhD. After my mother died, I created an altar, which was a big installation. I did it like five times in various museums, and it was a way for me to understand the person my mother was before she became my mother, to feel a lot of gratitude and communicate in a way that we couldn’t communicate when she was alive. 

A central idea in the bardo teachings is that by recognizing negative patterns, we can avoid carrying them forward. You’ve said that your mother was deeply unhappy, and in your poem “My Mother and Sex,” you write:

She lived alone
In a house full of lives
By the time I knew her.
Snake bitter. Mingy.
Dead before being born.

How conscious have you been of trying to have a different life from your mother’s? I was conscious from day one of how unhappy my mother was, all of us tiptoeing around her. I just never wanted that life, and I think that’s why I’ve never been interested in marriage. She was married to a nice guy, but he wasn’t her mental equal. And she didn’t sign up for motherhood. She got stuck with it. It was a given, and then once she was in it, with seven children, she was like, “I want to defect.” 

Our relationship was especially conflicted and problematic because I’m the only daughter. I got to live the life my mother wanted, so she felt rivalry and frustration, and rage. She would have liked to have had a life in the arts. She felt cheated by her life; she didn’t see what she’d created because she was so blinded by what she didn’t create. I felt a great sadness for her. 

I think about her every day. I was with her in the room when her spirit left her body, and I could feel her spirit without the envelope of the body. I was like, “Oh, my god, that’s my mom!” I was meeting her in a way that I never met her when she was alive. I couldn’t believe it. I could feel her true self, the self that she’d cloaked with layers and layers and layers, and it was so different from the person I knew. And that immediately healed me too. I could forgive my mother, which would have taken years of therapy. 

Do you feel that in the life you’ve chosen, you’re your true self? When I’m most calm and centered, I’m my truest self. I’ve got to work on improving parts of myself, like my ego comes out when I get frightened. Sometimes certain people intimidate you. But I like myself now, better than I did when I was young. I like who I’m becoming. I’m still in the most important phase of becoming, and that’s why I’ve got so much to do. I hope I live long enough to know more and to write the books I want to write. I feel like Hokusai when he was in his 80s. He said if only he could live a few more years, then he would call himself a true artist.

I haven’t yet written the book that I want to be remembered by, that will allow me to finally say, “Now I’m a writer!” With every book, I get closer to being the writer I want to be. I want to write books like those of Jean Rhys, Diane Athill, Mercè Rodoreda. 

My favorite books among the ones I’ve written are Caramelo and Martita. And Woman Without Shame, because the editor really pushed, and I made myself go further in my writing than I ever had. So I’m very excited about the next book, because I’ll use everything I’ve learned, and it’ll be better than anything I’ve written so far.

One of the things the bardo teachings are about is how we can live more fully, not just for ourselves, but for our communities. At the end of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza is going to leave to find her own way in the world. What’s especially moving is that she plans to return so she can help her community. She says,

“One day I will go away.
Friends and neighbors will say, ‘What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?’
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

The main message in that book is we have an obligation to any Mango Street we know of. We know the address, and we have an obligation to do something. Once you know something, you cannot unknow it, and if that place needs you to help, then you’re obliged. 

“When I meditate, I ask my ancestors, ‘Ayúdame ayudar.’ [Help me to help.] That’s my mantra.”

We each have to take care of our drop. When I meditate, I ask my ancestors, “Ayúdame ayudar.” [Help me to help.] That’s my mantra. If you think about the whole bucket, you’re like, “It’s hopeless.” A way to keep hope alive is to say, “I’m one person. But look at all the people I talked to today, and I didn’t even leave the house. I spoke to so many people, whether through a text or email or phone call.” I try to change the world one by one. And if I didn’t today, I have to be forgiving of myself and try better tomorrow. 

I’m lucky because I’m a writer, and my words go out there. But it also means I have to be more responsible and careful. I used to be so nervous about being onstage, but I’ve learned I just need to be very present. If there’s something I don’t know, I say, “You know what? I don’t know, but somebody in this room knows.” Or all of us together will know. I’m learning to be more humble about the things I don’t know, and trust that if I get my ego out of the way, I’ll do a better job of speaking, performing, delivering the gospel for the day. I ask my ancestors for help, saying, “I’ve got to go out there and speak to this audience. People have come tonight. They’ve put on their boots and their hats and gone out in the cold, and they’re giving me an hour. How can I best serve them?”

I feel so happy that I can create poems and stories that connect with people. I feel a lot of gratitude to have this opportunity to speak and have people listen, whether it’s on paper or onstage. Every day I laugh and say, “How did I get here? How exciting! Isn’t this wonderful? Who would have thought?”

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