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Relentless Files — Week 68 (#52essays2017 Week 15)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I used to write letters. It started when I was in boarding school. No, now that I think about it, it started before I left, when I was 12, when my first love and I would sneak letters to one another through my older brother Carlos, who was good friends with his mother and wanted us, me and Ruben, to be together. But in boarding school, letter writing became something else. It was a way for me to feel connected. To share. To vent and rage and long and want. To express myself in and through the intense solitude that were those four years of high school.

I learned solitude in boarding school. It was through letters that I peeked out into the world. That I showed my heart when I couldn’t show my face.

I wrote to everyone—to my first love Ruben and his sister Cindy, to my friends on the block, Zuleika and Eli and Peggy and her sister whose name I can’t for the life of me remember; to my best friends Marie and Nefertiri; to my sister though I don’t remember her ever writing back; to Chiquita whose name was Vanessa but they called her Chiquita because she was so tiny. I wrote to crushes. I wrote to anyone and everyone who would receive them. I wrote pages and pages and used my $8 a week allowance and the money I made at the babysitting jobs and whatever job I had (supermarket, ice cream store, accounting firm), to pay for stationary and fancy pens and so many stamps.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in those letters, but I remember saying “I miss you” a lot and “I miss home” and “I don’t fit in here.”

Once a friend asked me if I hated it so much, why didn’t I just leave. To be clear, I didn’t hate Wellesley. I just didn’t feel like I fit in, and I eventually stopped trying to. I went into myself and stayed there. But, no, I never considered quitting. I never considered returning to Brooklyn. I knew that once I left, I would never return. Yeah, I went back for vacations and breaks, but I knew I’d never live there again. Not in my mother’s house. I got out. I had to stay out. I knew that at 13.

***

I wrote my brother letters while he was in prison, the first time after he was caught with two balloons of heroin in his stomach on his trip back from Venezuela. I was in college then. I wrote him letters year later, when he went back to prison for violating his parole. I sent him stacks of letters. I bought colorful markers so I could adorn the envelopes. I found some of those letters when we cleaned out his house after he died. I found pages and pages of writing. It was the same story—he was sick of his addiction, he wanted it to end, he carried so much regret, and he always imagined a life, somewhere in the future, when he wasn’t addicted and depressed and a mess.

***

I haven’t been writing as much as I want to. There are days when I sit in front of the computer and just stare. Then there are days when I grab my journal and write the entire train ride downtown, to therapy, an appointment, a teaching gig. I look at those pages later. I read them. I try to type them. More often than not, the trying fails. I have so many starts though…there is beauty in that.

I am struggling with finding the words for what’s going on in my heart these days. It is a mixture of grief and ache and anxiety.

I have a clear visual though:

I am a race car revving up. I am burning tires and smoke. I am reeling body, jerking and swerving. Engine screeching and crying.

I am that race car. I am the burning tires. I am the smoke. I am the guttural roar from the engine.

All that revving is painful. It shakes my insides. My nerves are frayed. My anxiety is on turbo. It is frightening, and yet I know, this too is necessary.

There are no cars but me on the track. It is just me. Revving and raging. This challenge is with myself…

***

Today I wanted to write myself a letter…but all I got was the image and this:

Vanessa, You’ve been here before. You know what this looks like. You know the salt of it. The silt. The way it drags. Keep reading. Keep digging. Stay in that quiet space as much and as long as you need. Show up when you can and want. Go for those walks that feed you. Let your dog sit on your lap when he paws at you. Hold your partner close. Talk. Kiss your baby girl when she lets you. Your role of mother is changing. She is months shy of the age you were when you left. You have no context of a mother-daughter relationship at this age. You know this. It is pulling at you. Yanking. You will figure it out as you always have. Do the work you need to do. Write those recommendation letters. Finish those anthologies. Finish your Writing Our Lives Spring Semester class. Yes, you will miss them. Tell them that. Remember you’ve got the summer to write and be with yourself and your stories. No, don’t wait until then to write…but know that this, all of this, the whirl, the race car, the revving is a preparation…a getting ready. Stay open, love. Remember who the fuck you are.

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Relentless Files — Week 67 (#52essays2017 Week 14)

*An essay a week in 2017*

It is the fall semester of first year at Columbia University. I am 17. I am in the lounge of the 9th Floor of John Jay, the dorm I live in.

We are talking about our latest assignment in Logic & Rhetoric class, the required writing course all first years had to take. I have just completed my response to the assignment question: “What do you see outside your window…” I write about the poverty I grew up in my neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. I write about the rubble and the crack. I write about the slum lords who wouldn’t repair the falling walls, the powder that gave so many lead poisoning and gave me and my brother asthma. I write about the despair. I also write about the love. I share this with the people in the lounge. All first years like me. An Indian guy from California laughs mockingly at me. He says: “From my window I see our tennis court and the basketball court. I see my pool.” He gets up, laughs again in my direction and walks out. I shrink into myself. I go to my room to rewrite the assignment.

***

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings:

The day we left to Turkey, we had to meet a bus outside the school where we had practices. We were there before the sun rose, me and my mom and the other 15 kids and their parents. The bus took us to JFK airport for our flight to Switzerland, where you could see the Alps from the airport, then on to Ankara. I held onto mom the entire bus ride to the airport. I barely looked out the window. I buried my face into her arm, inhaling her, the aroma a combination of Avon’s 24 Hour deodorant, Newport cigarettes and Estes Lauder perfume. When we arrived to the airport, I didn’t want to let her go. I cried as I watched them remove the luggage from the storage beneath the bus. “I don’t wanna go, mommy.” She hugged me tight, then cupped my face in her hands and said, “Go see the world, Vanessa.”

This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere without my family. I remember walking through Ankara with my host sister Asli, a blonde haired, blue eyed girl my age, who lived in a high rise condominium. From the windows in the apartment, you could see the entire city, the buildings with huge banners of the national hero Ataturk flapping in the wind, and the green covered mountains in the distance.

They had a live-in maid who I rarely saw. One day, I walked into the bathroom which was the size of the room I shared with my sister in New York. Asli’s period soaked underwear were in the tub. When I asked her to move them so I could shower, she sneered at me, “That’s the maid’s job.” One of the few times I saw the maid was that day, as I watched her grab the underwear and rinse them before taking them, still wet, into her room through a side door in the long hallway.

One day, towards the end of my weeklong stay there, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The women turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.

I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew I was ready to leave Brooklyn, but I came back knowing I was definitely going to do it: I was going to boarding school. 

I workshopped this chapter at Tin House in January, where I worked with Lidia Yuknavitch. She asked: What’s the story behind the story? The writers in my group of six asked: What was it exactly that made me decide to leave? What was it about this trip that did it for me–made me say: Yes. Me voy. I’m out. I’m going to boarding school.?

I’ve felt that acrid taste in my throat since that day way back in 1989. It was in Turkey that I first learned shame. Shame of where I was from. Shame for being from the people I was from. For being poor and brown and from the hood.

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I felt that shame again in boarding school. When I took out the lunch tickets I got to pay for lunch when everyone else was taking out their cash and buying extras that my lunch ticket didn’t cover. Lunch tickets got you whatever burger or chicken patty or soggy pizza was on the menu. Lunch tickets didn’t cover cookies or ice cream. Not even juice. A lunch ticket got you the milk and a cup of fruit dripping in sugar water or a soft plum.

I felt it again when I couldn’t afford to go to the movies or out to lunch when I got the pass to leave campus my senior year.

I felt it when the girl I became friends with showed up every week with a new pair of sneakers and Guess jeans. One time, she said: “Do you want this pair? I know you’ve been wearing those for years.” She pointed at the Reebok sneakers my brother had bought me with the little money he made at The Gap. I never wore those sneakers again.

I felt it when I was invited to do a student exchange program in Spain but couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. In all honesty, I didn’t ask my mother. How could I? She couldn’t afford it. I had to start working when I got there, babysitting until I turned 14 and could get my working papers. Then I started working at the local supermarket. I worked most of the time I was there in Wellesley, Massachusetts; at an ice cream parlor for a spell, at an accounting firm, and again at the local supermarket, countless babysitting jobs. I bought my own winter coat. I bought my clothes and my pencils and notebooks. How could I afford $2500 for a student exchange program? I couldn’t, so I didn’t.  

I felt that shame when I was invited to the house of the president of the board and saw the statue by the door of the monkey in a tux holding out a tray. We, all the scholarship kids who were invited, stopped and stared. We understood what it meant. We didn’t have the language to express our rage and hurt, but we knew. We knew we didn’t belong there, but we swam in that woman’s pool and we ate her food and the ice cream she made in that ice cream maker that she took so much pride in. I didn’t have one of those at home. I still don’t.

***

Over the past few months, I’ve seen various FB posts shaming folks who crowdfund. The language is very “you should have planned for this”/”take care of your own shit”/”the world should not have to carry you”/”you’re irresponsible/don’t know how to adult, etc. etc. etc.” I always think about my mother and the kind of poverty she grew up in in Honduras. I think about the stories she told us about how she didn’t have a doll until she was eight. She had one pair of shoes so she went to school barefoot, and how her grandmother Tinita made sure to get them to school early so they could have the powdered milk the school provided them in the morning. It was yellow and chalky and there were bugs floating in it, but they drank it because it was the only milk they had.

I grew up poor. We didn’t have the latest kicks and we couldn’t go on vacation often, but we always had a roof over our heads, even if the crumbling walls gave me and my brother asthma, and we always had food, even if it was just a can of corned beef with white rice. But my family in Honduras knows the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. My family knows hunger and war and death. My family knows what it is to lose children to diseases that could have been easily treated had they the money and the resources.

My mother once told me the story of a classmate in La Ceiba who died suddenly. As they were watching her body, parasites started climbing out of her nose and poking at the inside of her cheeks, so they had to open the dead girl’s mouth so they could squirm out. This is the kind of poverty my family knows. These stories live in me. All of them.

I know that much of how my family (and maybe yours?) survived was due to the kindness of a neighbor who saw the children hungry and offered a gallina to roast or a bit of frijoles and tortillas. My family still sends huge barrels of food and clothes back to Honduras a few times a year. This is why I react viscerally to people shaming others for asking for help. We’ve forgotten about what community means. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in this American individualism and capitalism that we’ve turned ourselves away from the generosity our ancestors taught us.

During my baby shower, there was a man in rags outside the hall begging for food. The custodian cursed and shamed him. My Millie screamed at the custodian, telling him: “A la gente no se le niega comida.” Millie limped inside (she already needed a cane to get around and would die months later). She filled a huge aluminum pan with food, two kinds of rice and chicken and pernil and salad and bread, and she took that food out to that man in rags. She said, “Donde hay uno con hambre, hay otros.” I will always remember this lesson. So should you.

***

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Poverty is a cycle, and it is a cycle that is nearly impossible to break. There are tons of studies that prove this. I could cite sources for days and still there will be folks who will insist that there’s a way out. I was made to believe that my ticket out was education, so I went that route, attending a prestigious boarding program and then going on to an ivy league. I am still struggling. Let’s not even talk about the debt I’m in as a result of this education people claim is the way to get out of poverty. College debt is indentured servitude.  

These students are often being loaded up with staggering debt that is completely out of whack with the earnings boost they’ll likely get from a degree at a nonselective or less selective college. Already, average student loan debt is higher in Boston than any other metro area in the country, 44 percent above the national average, according to Credit Karma. But  more troubling, many of these low-income students — and, at some colleges, most of them — are not graduating. That means these non-completers are leaving campus saddled with lots of debt but none of the salary gains that traditionally come with a bachelor’s degree. Source: Boston Globe 

***

I have worked my ass off to make this writing and teaching life happen. That has meant an incredible amount of sacrifice. I have gotten eviction notices and three day notices. I have wondered how I will buy a metrocard to get to a gig or interview. I have spent my last pennies on a gallon of milk and bread. I know what it is to grind. I know what it is to save money and see it go on unexpected expenses. Shit is hard out here for all of us.

I’ve raised money numerous times to attend workshops. I raised money as recently as this past December so I could go to Tin House. Asking for help is hard. It is the epitome of letting oneself be vulnerable. We do it because we know this work we’re doing is necessary. I raised more than enough money in under 24 hours and paid it forward with the $1000+ I got over the amount I requested, offering extra scholarships for my Writing Our Lives spring semester class and donating money to different causes. I know folks helped because I stay helping others. I am incredibly generous with my time and resources. I teach. I mentor. I work and work and work. So, yes, when I see folks shaming others for asking their communities for help, it rubs me the wrong way. Folks will always say they aren’t shaming. Some go as far as saying that they are just offering advice. But if it looks like shaming, it’s shaming. I call a spade a spade.

If you don’t want to contribute, don’t. But shaming someone is not what community is about. Ever.

Mi gente, if you don’t want to support someone’s adventures, don’t. If you don’t want to donate to a gofundme or what have you to help a person get to a workshop or catch up on bills, don’t. We’re all fighting our own private wars. We don’t know what people are going through emotionally or spiritually or financially. We don’t know what they’ve endured to get where they are. Shaming them does nothing to help them or you. It’s also an asshole thing to do. We’ve all been in a rut. We’ve all fallen on hard times. Have some compassion. And, yes, check your privilege.

***

Poverty shaming insinuates that there is something inherently wrong with people who are poor. It says that they simply don’t work or don’t want to work; that they want the system to take care of them; that they are not self-reliant.

According to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer:

“Contrary to the criticism that the poor are just lazy, Edin and Shaefer found people who don’t want a government handout. They just wanted to work. And many do.

“Yet even when working full time, these jobs often fail to lift a family above the poverty line,” the authors write.

The narratives give context to the complexity of how people end up living on almost nothing. They often come from situations of sexual or physical abuse, addiction, or parental abandonment. And yes, their stories are also rife with bad decisions that keep them down.

Nonetheless, Edin and Shaefer provide a perspective that should stop us from telling poor folks that all they have to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What if you don’t even have a boot? Source: Boston Globe 

More evidence:

“According to a 2015 report (press release) from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the “large majority of households receiving SNAP include children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and working adults,” and “two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children.” Here’s more:

SNAP benefits lifted at least 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted more than 1.3 million children out of deep poverty, or above half of the poverty line (for example, $11,925 for a family of four). Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/01/food-stamps-snap-soda-nyt

Why am I including these statistics? Because I was a Sociology major at Columbia who studied poverty in depth so I know this shit. I know the reek of poverty shaming both personally and through my extensive studies.

Also, because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t always think people realize that they’re being fucked up and parroting the shaming many of us have experienced and witnessed as folks who grew up in poverty. Shit becomes easily internalized. I get that because I too am guilty of having done this.

Here’s the thing: I grew up on food stamps. This was when they came in little booklets and looked like fake money. I also applied for and received food stamps for six months a few years back when I was struggling as a single mom and couldn’t make ends meet despite working so much and so hard. And I was ashamed of it. I feel the bile of that shame in my throat as I type this.

When I took the card out at the market or the store, I looked around hoping no one I knew was around. I also tried to be discreet when taking it out, blocking the bright blue lettering and my picture in the corner with my hand. And when I swiped the card, I avoided looking at the cashier in the eye. I didn’t want her to see me…or my shame. 

I had to re-certify after six months. That means I had to go back to the SNAP office with evidence that I still needed the assistance. I never went back though I know I would have easily qualified. Why didn’t I go back? Because of shame.

I look back now and cringe at myself. I was just trying to feed my kid while I got through a rough patch. Why is this wrong? 

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It’s all of this that has made me who I am: someone who gives so generously, who offers a free one day five hour personal essay class, because I know not everyone has the resources to pay for my nine week class.

The other day in class, a student said: “You can charge so much more for this class than you do.” This student is in a PhD program. He talked about the classes he’s taken, what people pay thousands of dollars for, where he says they never learn the craft elements of writing that I teach for $620 for nine five hour classes. Other students chimed in, echoing the sentiment. I felt that familiar shame lean in. I said: “I want to keep the class accessible to my community.” And I do mean that. I mean that with my entire heart. But I also hear the echo of the message I’ve been told so many times: that I don’t deserve to ask for or expect more. How do you balance this? I’m still figuring it out. I want to keep this class accessible to the communities that I write for and to, but I also need to live, feed my family, pay my bills, etc.

Logically I know I am worthy. Logically I know that this shame is not mine. It is poison. It is vitriol…but the heart is another matter, and it’s hard to push back on these things that have been ingrained in us for so damn long.

***

I can’t tell you the times people told me that the only reason I made it to Columbia was because of affirmative action. How could someone like me, who comes from where I come from, who looks like me and talks like me, have possibly earned her seat at an Ivy League?

This is what shaming looks like.

***

While at AWP in March, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, writer of more than 32 books. In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, she wrote about the Bushwick we both grew up in in the 70s and 80s. During her lecture she spoke about how in her research, she only found tragedy when looking for stories of the neighborhood in that era. She said she wanted to honor Bushwick, that neighborhood that shaped so much of who she is. 

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During the Q&A, I thanked Woodson for writing about our hood. She asked where I was from, and it turns out we grew up just blocks from one another. I asked: “How did you get past the shame that is imposed on us for being where we’re from?” She said: “that shame grew to rage.” She knew she didn’t learn that rage at home. At home she learned love and pride and hard work. She learned quickly that that shame was from the “outside gaze,” and that was how she was able to transform it to rage. “Who was that person who made me feel that shame?”

“To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun. What is it you see then?”  —Margaret Atwood

There were so many places and people who made me feel that shame. I’m writing this to them. I am holding up a mirror and daring them to stare. I am challenging them to really look at themselves and the shit they’ve internalized. I am daring them to look at their privilege, to check themselves. I am here, with all my rage, saying: I dare you to look. Do you cringe? What will you do with that reflection? How will you change? 

I’m staring at that mirror too. Are you willing? How else can we change the world if not by first working on ourselves? #perspective

Relentless Files — Week 66 (#52essays2017 Week 13)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I haven’t been able to write for days. For two long weeks, I haven’t been able to write anything beyond a few sentences. Fragments.

Something is shifting in me. This something is heavy and dark and painful. This something is necessary..but shit, it’s so much when we’re in the shifting.

“…Transformation has some very harrowing phases. This full moon will exaggerate all that gets in the way of the balance we need to strike. This full moon illuminates the truth that balance isn’t static.

“Balance is a constant state of recalibration.” Chani Nicholas: Today’s Full Moon in Libra: Beauty Bound 

Yesterday, on my deck, after hours on my couch, I wrote this:

There is a hole where my words are. In the hole lives grief. Stealth and quiet with the fury of winds that can destroy. Annihilate. 

It is warm in NYC. I am on my deck smelling and tasting spring. Wondering when these seeds will blossom like those on the tree that peek into my window. Just yesterday they were tight in their buds. Today they are busting green. Aflame like my envy.

My hands cannot grip a pen. Those lines on the page stare. I grab my phone. I finally rise from where my body has made indentations in the cushions. They rise slowly, searching for space to be full.

Me…I miss my brother.

***

Today, I went to The Women Writers of Color group’s final installment of this year’s Breakaway Writing Workshop Series. The featured artist was Yesenia Montilla, who led a generative writing workshop inspired by women writers of color. She had us read poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Aracelis Girmay, Valzhyna Mort, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Natalie Diaz. After each poem, she gave us prompts and had us write for ten minutes. It was magical and hard and wrenching and necessary. So fuckin necessary.

Yesenia started by talking about duende, the term Lorca is said to have stolen from the gypsies of Spain. Duende is the idea of creating art that comes from darkness, from the ground, from the connection of the bottom of the feet to the earth. It is art created from the body.

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Lorca visited Harlem in the turn of the 20th century. That’s where he first heard blues, which he said was the closest thing to duende he’d ever heard.

Yesenia had us hear Kathleen Battle singing “Summertime” at the Met. Then she had us hear the Janis Joplin cover of the same song. 

The idea here is that there are two places an artist pulls from, and Battle and Joplin were examples of both.

Battle pulls from the ethereal. From the heavens. “A voice from God,” Yesenia said. 

Joplin pulls from the soles of her feet. Her voice is gravelly and gritty. She is tapping into her ache.

My discovery: I pull from my feet. From the mother that is earth. I pull from my pain, like Joplin. I listened to her sing as I typed this.

***

I bought a new journal at an art supply store steps away from Pratt where the workshop was held. I bought new pens. Paid $10 for a mechanical pencil. 10 fuckin dollars for a pencil?

I was inviting duende. Calling duende. I know that now.

Truth is I thought I’d left all my pens at home. I chastised myself on the train. If you know me, you know that I only write with the blue Pilot Precise V5. I found it in the fall of my freshman year at Columbia, back in ’93. I’ve been writing with it since. 24 years. I thought: How can I write without my pen? I sulked. Then I thought: “I’ll find one.” Sure enough I did. Later, I found that I had in fact brought a pen. It was tucked into The Body Keeps the Score, which I’ve been reading slowly and quietly, digesting the mirror it holds up, annotating it heavily.

***

Inspiration: “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Prompt: Start writing using the first few words of the poem: “Listen: there was…”

Listen: there was a girl
lost in the woods
lost in the spring
the earth just beginning to burst
with life… the wet of it a
pungent, mossy smell in
the girl’s nostrils… she searched
for the hawk whose cry
she heard loud through
the canopy.. She thought
she felt the whisper of
a wing on her cheek, but
when she turned, nothing
was there… just trees and
brambles and bushes
not yet fully green but
trying for life… reaching
for it…

She walked on, this girl
who was lost in the
woods… she followed
trails that had been
made by the feet of
souls long gone… they
too, lost… they too,
searching…

She, this lost girl, stayed
off the paved paths… she
didn’t/doesn’t trust
paths laid down by men…
she needed to feel the
dirt under her feet, she
needed to be cut by the
thorns that tore at her
bare legs…

Listen: this girl who is
lost, felt a hand on her
shoulder. She turned
around quickly, “Who’s
there?” she yelled. The wind
shook the trees. A blossom,
only days old and still
trying for life, fell at her
feet. She picked it up,
sniffed its sweetness
and walked on…

She came to a river.
There, she stripped down
to her underwear, and
walked into the water.
She felt something pull
her head back, a soft
tugging. This is a baptism,
she thought, as the
water rushed into her ears.
She opened her eyes
and saw her,
blurry,
hair dancing in the
current.
“Hija,” she mouthed, bubbles
floating out of her mouth.
The girl reached, cried
out, “Mamá.” She
swallowed water,
gagged as she felt a
push from the soles of
her feet, pushing her
body up so she could breathe…

When she came to, she was
on the shore.
Her dress back on her body.
A garland of flowers
on her head.

***

Inspiration: “Kingdom Animalia” by Aracelis Girmay

Prompt: How do we imagine loss? How do we process death? Start with a line from the poem: “One day, not today, not now, we will be gone from this earth…”

In the red woods where
they took me that first day,
when my brother died,
I looked up at the
trees, their long, hairy
trunks… I learned that
these trees entangle their
roots with one another to
keep themselves upright…
These giants can’t be giant
without other giants…

I think of my brother.
I think of the last words
he said to me: “You have to
go write our stories, sis.”

I think of my second mom Millie, who
when I told her on her death
bed, “Millie, I think I
wanna write a book,” she
propped herself up on that
arm that was perpetually
swollen after the
mastectomy, and said:
“Pero negra, you’ve always
been a writer.”

In some forests, trees keep
stumps alive by feeding them sugar through their roots.

One day, I will be gone.
I know this… I don’t
want to. I think:
“What will I leave my
daughter?”

What did my brother
leave me? Permission.

What did my Millie
leave me? Validation.

What will I leave my
nena? Stories. Love.
The knowledge that I
loved her like my mother
couldn’t, wouldn’t love
me…

I leave her knowing
that she will hurt,
she will ache, and with
that, she can make
sancocho that will/
can feed.
She must gather her own
viandas, herbs and meats
to make her own sancocho.
Mamá will leave her
the broth.

***

Inspiration: “Belarusian I” by Valzhyna Mort

Prompts: This love loved to visit us… -or- I was born with… (An Argentinian poet wrote “I was born with red lipstick on…”)

I was born with sugar
on my lips.
Crystallized and syrupy,
I was born with honey
on my lips.
But mommy was no bee.
Mom was salt and glacier.
Mom was too much
vinagre in sofrito.
Mommy was a love song
on Super KQ —
one of those corta venas
ballads that she scream sang,
her head thrown back,
the King Pine scent
snaking up her legs,
underneath her bata…
to where I came into
the world…
This girl who was born
with honey on her lips.

But didn’t I tell you
Mommy was no bee?
She’d swat them away
with her heavy,
little hands.
She’d go to their hives and
snatch them out,
her skin impervious to
their sting.
She pulled their wings
off and cackled as they
cried… scurrying over
the earth they were
made to fly over.

I am the girl born
with honey on her lips
to a mother who
killed bees…
I have spent my
life trying to lick that
honey off. To banish it
from me. An exorcism…
But bee killers smell
honey from far away.
Their sense of smell keen
Iike a dog’s.
They smell honey and
think — kill,
think — destroy.

These days I am building
a hive for this honey
on my lips that I was
born with. I watch
over it, tending and
coddling. This hive.
These lips…

***

Inspiration: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Prompt: Think about forgiveness and accepting forgiveness. Who have you not forgiven? Imagine the day you forgive that someone. -or- A blue door appears in the room. You go through it…

(I didn’t want to think about forgiveness. I wanted to stay mad…so, of course, she who I have not forgiven showed up, despite my resistance.)

Blue door beckons and says:
“Come.”
The words like a growl,
teeth clenched and grinding.
It calls to me.
I should be scared but
I’m not.
I was born with sugar on
my lips, pero that
was a front. Honey
to hide the growl in my
throat, the howl like the
sirens that coaxed so many
men to their deaths.

Beyond the door is a
field, there are flowers
of all variety and color, they
sway in the soft wind.
They are like whispers
beneath my bare feet.
I’m not surprised when
I feel the roots start
to tangle around my
ankles. They pull at me.
They snare.
I look down and I see her–
the weaver.
She who I want to but
can’t forgive.
I grit my teeth, the
siren crawls out of
my throat. I want to
whirlpool her.

I wonder how that happens —
how you can go from loving
someone and protecting them
to wanting to destroy
them.
To curling your lips when
you speak their name, and
so you don’t. That poison
doesn’t mix with your honey.

You think of the girl you were
who invited betrayal
and disloyalty because you
didn’t love yourself.
Couldn’t.
This was before you grew
to own that honey.
And even now, some days,
when the roots wrap
around your ankles and
pull, the thorns dig in
and you begin to bleed,
heavy drops beading
into the earth. You
let your skin be sacrifice.
You drip honey into the open
wounds.
You call your siren back into the
flower of your throat.

You look back at the blue
door and smile.
“Remember,” she whispers
back at you. “Remember.”

***

Inspiration: “From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde

Prompt: Think of mother figures. Think of the gods and goddesses we worship. Write an open letter to him or her.

Diosa,

Mi madre is my alter
and my abyss…
Why did you give me this
mother who could never
love me?
Was there no other way to teach me
these lessons I need to learn
in this lifetime?
Could the lesson not be
gentler?

Don’t answer that.
I know.

I am one who learns through
trials.
I have to drag my body across
fire stones, feel their scarring,
ripping at my
organs.
This is the way for us girls
born with honey on our lips.
Pero, mamá, madre eres, why
could you not gift me a mother
who could love?

My mother is
TNT.
She is dynamite.
She detonates
and erupts.
She destroys everything…
but me.
Me — she couldn’t.
Me — I didn’t let her.

My mother
whose body knows the
claws of rape,
who knows the fangs of hunger.
My mother who has wished
for death since she was 15 —
my mother…

I sit like her
One knee propped under my chin
The other leg tucked underneath.
I hum like her,
absentmindedly,
while I cook and clean and
stare off,
into nothing.
Here, but not.
I didn’t know this until I was 40,
after having left her house
at 13…

I carry my mother under
my fingernails
 like dirt…
This woman who is TNT.

***

Yesenia gave us time to share one piece we’d produced that day. One writer, a beautiful young woman with a hoop in her nose and tattoos on her arms, prefaced her piece with: “This poem is about my mother. All my poems are about my mother.”

And I said “Yasss.” And I felt that shame and anger in my body move and subside…that exhaustion with the altar and abyss that is my mother.

Why the fuck do I always have to write about my mother?

***

I listened to Janis Joplin as I typed this. In the gravel that is her voice, I saw myself, this woman who pulls from the ache in her joints, from the earth, from the soles of her feet…

Today, duende pulled at the siren in my throat. Today, duende grabbed and yanked at my pen. Today I surrendered to duende, and I’m so glad that I did.

Thank you Yesenia Montilla. You be magic, sis. Word.

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Writing Our Lives in the Park

We’re taking it to the woods, familia.

When? June 10th, 2017, 11am-3pm

Where? Inwood Hill Park, 207th Street and Seaman Avenue (on Manhattan Island)

Price? $35

If you know me, you know that I love nature and the outdoors and hiking, and you know I love love LOVE spring. You also know that I love Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan. What you might not know is that I also LOVE to write in the park. I’ve done numerous DIY (Do It Yourself) residencies in the park where I sit and write for hours, using the greenery, wildlife and river as inspiration. I’ve done some of my best work in that park, including essays that were later published. I’d love to share the magic of the park with you. Let’s do this!

This is a multi-genre workshop. We’ll be doing some hiking and lots of prompt driven writing. Let’s take in the park and see if the wood nymphs inject some love into our pens, shall we?

What you’ll need:

– A journal and a pen

– Water – it’s June in NYC

– Sneakers with traction – we’re hiking and may get off the paths a bit so be prepared!

– Long pants – because of mosquitoes and poison ivy

– Mosquito repellent – remember: it’s June in NYC

– A snack – there are tons of restaurants and delis in the area so no worries.

Afterwards, we’ll get some fruit and sandwiches (and maybe some spirits for the wine lovers like me), and have a picnic on the grass (so bring a sheet if you’re staying).

How to register? Send me an email to writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com with “Writing Our Lives in the Park” in the Subject Line. There’s a nonrefundable $15 registration fee (which reserves your spot) that can be paid via PayPal or Chase QuickPay. Your remaining $20 balance is due when you arrive to the park (or earlier).

See you soon! ❤

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Relentless Files — Week 65 (#52essays2017 Week 12)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I was late to This is Us for no other reason than that I just was. I’m not one to follow what other folks are watching, but that has more to do with me and my circumstance — because I didn’t have cable for a while and then I only had the local channels and then I only had Netflix, and then I didn’t have wifi and so, you get the point… I never got into Game of Thrones or Orange is the New Black or any of the other shows that have taken their turn dominating my FB timeline. It’s why I was late to Grey’s Anatomy (clutches heart) and Jane the Virgin (Gina Rodriguez, I love you, girl) and why I was late to This is Us. I caught up over the last few weeks, and oh my gah, I am so glad I did.

If you’ve never seen this show, please do yourself a favor and start today. Cry with me, fam!

The episode “Memphis” stayed with me in a particular put-a-thorn-in-my-heart-and-twist way. In it, William and Randall take a road trip to Memphis where William was raised. (William is dying of cancer. Randall, his biological son, found him only a few months ago, and they’ve been bonding ever since. Of course there’s a lot more to it but we can keep it simple here.) They return to the house where William grew up with his mother. He doesn’t need a map or GPS to get there though it’s been decades since he’s been there.

this is us

Two things in particular stayed with me from this scene:  

  1. When they get to the house, William can’t stop looking at the door. He says there’s used to be two doors when he lived there with his mother, but now one of them is bricked up. “Strange thing to be looking at. All these years and it’s a door that’s messing me up.” His son Randall tells him the story of when he cut his afro, trying to fit into corporate America when he made partner at his firm. When he returned home, his daughter Tess who was then three, started bawling, not because she didn’t remember him but “because she was focusing on the door that was bricked over.”  
  2. They ask the current occupants if they can enter the house. William goes straight for the fireplace where he had jimmied a brick out and placed what he called “my treasure” — a few toys and three quarters. He says: “I put these here once, and after all these years later, they’re still here. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that strange how the world sticks and moves like that?”

It got me thinking about the things that stick and those that move. The doors we focus on. The things we hold onto. The memories that remain, thick and clinging.

I am thinking about our beach trips to Rockaway when I was a kid. My mother dancing to old school ballads in the sala, the smell of King Pine curling around her, a mop in her hand, her head is thrown back, she is singing Rocio Jurado’s Algo se me fue contigo madre…

My neighborhood in Bushwick, all rubble and poverty and love…

My brother, before the heroin, before the heartbreak…when he was whole.

My Millie, the way she loved me, her lessons on life–”con puños, Vanessa, con puños!”

My sister when I worshipped her, before she too broke my heart.

The people on my block. My first love. The girl that was both my friend and my nemesis.

***

I’ve been thinking about mothers. Truth is I’m always thinking about mothers and being unmothered and mothering. It’s one of my most potent obsessions. Recently, in my Writing Our Lives class, during a lesson on how to write the self as a character, I asked my students: what is something you do or write that you wish you could just stop doing? I shared (because I always share, because I don’t believe I can expect my writers to trust me with their stories if I don’t trust them with mine): “I wish I could stop writing about my mother. It’s exhausting. She is both my altar and my abyss…”

Have you noticed how many fairy tales are based on the unmothered syndrome? Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty in Beauty and the Beast, they all have lost their mothers. Cinderella and Snow White gained evil stepmothers in the process. In Hansel and Gretel, the mother is not dead but absent. In The Snow Queen, mother is gone because she’s left in search of adventure.

I posted about this on my timeline, and a friend responded: “Mothers get in the way.” I winced.

***

Apophenia: the minds desire to make connections between unrelated events

***

Then I come upon Granta’s First Sentence series where Granta asks authors to revisit the inspiration behind their stories. Here, Kelly Magee writes about her novel “The Neighborhood”:

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow set out to prove the experts wrong. Everyone from the American Medical Association to the government to practitioners of the relatively new field of psychology was of the same mind: love was a menace, and ‘mother love’ was a particularly dangerous brand of it. Babies who were picked up got sick more frequently, so the advice to new parents was to withhold as much touch as possible. Harlow – by all accounts a cold and demanding man himself – embarked on a series of increasingly disturbing experiments to prove that love was real; that babies needed more than nutrition to thrive, that mothers delivered more than just calories, that physical touch was as crucial to primate development as food. The methods Harlow used to prove the existence of love resulted in the torture and death of baby monkeys, and Harlow has gone down in history as being instrumental in both attachment theories and the development of the animal rights movement. He took hundreds of infant rhesus macaques from their mothers and caged them with two surrogate options: a ‘wire mother’ who offered milk, and a ‘terrycloth mother’ who offered only her soft texture. No surprise to whom the babies clung. No surprise that, even when Harlow pushed his theory further by having the cloth mothers shoot out spikes or blast cold air or shove the babies away with spring-loaded arms – he called these the ‘evil mothers’ – the babies still returned to them, held on to their softness for dear life….

I tried to write a wire mother story, but she would not speak. It wasn’t the cold, robotic mothers of Harlow’s experiment that I could identify with, but the flesh-and-blood ones whose humanity had been stripped from them. So instead I wrote a wire children story and gave the question of love back to the mothers. Mothers who had committed atrocious acts toward their own children. Mothers who had made terrible mistakes. I couldn’t separate myself from them; becoming a parent was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and I’d certainly made my share of mistakes. Given a different set of circumstances, I didn’t know what worse mistakes I might’ve made. But the point of the story was not the characters’ crimes. Rather, it was the question of love. Love after trauma, love in an inhospitable environment, love for unlovable creatures. Harlow proved that primates need touch, softness, nurture. I gave my story’s mothers their own collection of scientists, tasked them with the impossible and set out to see if I, too, could prove that love was real.

***

Last week, my mother texted to ask if she could hang out with my daughter. She was going out with her niece, my aunt’s daughter, who is Vasia’s age, and wanted my daughter to come along. I obliged though I was freaked out by the request. When my daughter got home, I laid in her bed and listened closely as she shared what my mother had said:

Mom can’t eat bananas or even smell them since her son (my brother)  died because they were his favorite.

Mom told Vasia about my birth. How I was born chubby, healthy, 11 lbs of baby rolls, & how I went down to a mere 3 lbs in a matter of weeks. “She almost died,” she said. I imagine her saying this, the accent still heavy on her tongue though she’s been in this country for 45 years. She says she prayed that if I wasn’t going to make it, for god to take me now so I wouldn’t suffer.

I tried not to but I couldn’t help myself–I asked: “Did she ask about me?” My daughter, who was getting her stuff ready for school the next day turned to me and nodded. “Yes, mom,” she said. Her face was soft, searching. She knows…

***

My therapist asked me last week what keeps me hopeful. I saw a clear picture of my daughter’s smile in my head. I thought of my love, my work, my students. I thought about the red cardinal I heard that morning, chirping his little heart out. It’s mating season and he’s calling in his mate. I searched the sky and found him on a nearby branch, puffing out his chest and singing. He survived this recent snow storm that brought ice in its wake. He’s still chirping. I thought of my Loba pack, with all their gutsy and rebellious, their raw pain and tears. I thought of our shadows. I thought of this world and our country and the current administration and the heinous things the president is doing. I thought of the good good work that’s coming out of resistance. Not always neat or pristine, but rooted in love &, dare I say, hope. And I came back to my daughter’s smile, how she smiles with her whole face, how she shows two rows of teeth, how her eyes smile just as bright… 

I remembered that while yes it’s true, there is some seriously scary shit going on, there is also love. I remembered that love is also a form of resistance. And it’s a powerful one. 

***

How delicious, the power these evil mothers had. The boldness of the ogress to demand a child as payment; the fierceness of the witch with her poison apple. They had appetite and desire and ambition; they put themselves first. And yes, they were punished in the end, but their murderous presences called tale after tale after tale into being. They were where the story began. The easy scapegoats, born into villainy, too loaded with their own character to be redeemed. ~Kelly Magee on Granta

***

A few years ago, a woman contacted me after reading my essay “Unmothered on this Mother’s Day”. She questioned why I had to write this on Mother’s Day. She said it was disrespectful and dishonoring to mothers. No matter how or what I explained, she came back to that: how dare I?! In the end, she taunted: “Well, I have a great relationship with my mother.” It was cruel. I blocked her.

***

My daughter held a gem for a few days from her hang out with my mother. We had just had a mommy-daughter breakfast on Sunday and were on our way home when she said: “Tata told me something else.” Every muscle in my body tensed. My daughter stared at me, the worry line in her forehead grew deep. “Forget it, mom. I’ll tell you later.” I had to insist.

“Tata said she’ll never be happy again now since Tio Tio died.” A blue jay cried its distinctive cry. 

My mother said no one suffers a loss like a mother. She followed that with: I know other people feel it but not like me, “he was my son.” I imagine her saying this. I imagine her face looking at my daughter’s face. My daughter has my mother’s cheeks. Her eyes, like mine, like ours.

My daughter was heading off to hang out with her cousins and then to a craft store to stock up on slime making supplies, including the largest jug of glue I’ve ever seen. She lingered for a while, making sure I was okay. I played stoic. She hugged me before she left. That worry line was cavernous. “You sure you ok, mom?” 

I shrugged. “Yes, go. I have to write.”

When she left, I curled up on the couch and slept. Later I cleaned and made dinner. I didn’t try to write at all. It wasn’t until the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, still hours away from daylight, that I started trying, and only because I couldn’t silence the obsessive talk in my head and my bladder pulled me out of bed. I stayed up writing and reading until my alarm went off indicating I had to get ready to go teach.

***

I’ve been searching for literature by women who write about torn relationships with their mothers; the many ways they weren’t held and loved; how they’ve come to terms and haven’t; and how they make their pain into art. I decided to create a list of reading just for us unmothered women, because if I need it, I can’t be the only one. This is my love letter to unmothered women, to us. I see you. You are loved.

I began with the work of Jaquira Díaz. Her work has been like a balm over these years of digging into that unmothered wound. Check out her essay, “My Mother and Mercy” in The Sun. It will shred you then give you life.

This is typical of my mother. I haven’t seen her in seven years either, though she does call on rare occasions to ask me for money. She lives alone in a tiny efficiency in Miami Beach a few blocks from Mercy. Because my brother, Levy, works in Miami Beach, he sometimes (reluctantly) takes care of our mother — as much as you can take care of someone like her.

For many years my mother and Mercy, both addicts, kept each other company. Mercy took pills mostly: Xanax, Ativan, oxycodone. My mother prefers crack, cocaine, meth. Both women have been prescribed powerful antipsychotic medications for paranoid schizophrenia. They saw each other every day, bailing one another out, sometimes living on the streets together, loving and hating each other the way addicts do.

Most recently I added “Mother Could be You” by Chloe Cela. This essay is my introduction to this writer’s work, and I am looking forward to reading more.

A year ago I was pretty, people noticed me in the train. I had this way of not looking. That’s the trick, isn’t it? You present yourself, your perfumed body, soft at the right places, a straight back and tall, strong bones. Living the busy life, giving everything but. And that but is what the weak-hearted want. They’ll crawl for it; they’ll kiss your heels. I know this so well. It’s a model of love, handed over from generation to generation. Mothers who say: go play in the street honey because Mother is busy. Mother has her lover waiting. Mother wants to take a nap in the sun. You really want to play with the other kids, but you wait on the porch for Mother to open the door.

***

Years ago, my mother told me that Rocio Jurado wrote “Algo se me fue contigo, madre” for her mother after she died. I searched for the song on YouTube and played it in the background as I finished this essay. I selected the original version of the song because that’s how my mother used to sing it when I was a child. This was before I knew what happened between my mother and hers. How my grandmother failed her daughter. How my mother has been trying to restore herself since…the wars that have raged between these two women for more than forty years.   

I choked up as I listened to the song. When I went back to the window where the video was playing, I choked up even harder as I saw image after image perpetuating the mother myth, again and again.

Myth says that mother does not fail. Mother is self-sacrificing. Mother always shows up, cradles and coddles and nurses and kisses boo boos and sings songs and is consistent and tender and steadfast. Your biggest advocate. Mother is perfect.

I am proposing a panel for AWP 2017 in Tampa: Deconstructing the Mother Myth in Literature. How writers have and continue to deconstruct the myth in their stories and poems. Why they feel the need to. The urgency of it. How they deal with the backlash.

We unmothered women need to know that there are more of us out there. This existence is so lonely. So isolating. I know this is one of my purposes in this life… and yet, sometimes I wonder, I ask myself: Am I focusing on the door that’s bricked over?

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Relentless Files — Week 64 (#52essays2017 Week 11)

 

*An essay a week in 2017*

Date: March 22nd

Time: some time between 9:30 and 10am

Location: NYC, downtown express A train, between the 207th & 125th Street stops

My hands are shaking as I type this. I tried to write it in my journal but my hand was trembling too hard to hold the pen. I’m on the A train, heading to Queens to teach. I’m in the corner seat. There are three seats in this section. White man comes in on Dyckman/200th Street and sits two seats away from me, leaving one between us. He looks at the bag I have on the seat. It’s the paper bag that my oatmeal was in. The oatmeal I am preparing in my lap, adding the nuts and dried fruit and agave. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him look from the bag to me and back to the bag. I ignore him. It’s too early and the train isn’t yet crowded—my bag isn’t keeping anyone from sitting. I finish preparing my oatmeal. When I’m done, I move the bag. He looks over as I do so. He goes back to reading on his phone. White words against a black background.

I eat my oatmeal as the train gets increasingly crowded. I am grateful for my seat in the corner.

A young brown man enters the train on 175th. He wears torn jeans, a jean jacket to match, a hoody underneath. He has the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his cap, big earphones on over the hoody. (Later I will notice that his cap reads: “Trump Central Wollman Rink” and I will giggle to myself at the irony of this.) He looks around for a seat.

Young man comes to squeeze in between the white man and me, pinned against the wall. I move over to make room. Young man turns to me, says, excuse me. I nod. He goes back to his phone. He is leaning over, resting his elbows on his legs. I see the white man. He’s red now. That’s when he starts talking hatred. He says things like Rikers and criminals and punks and handcuffs and fuck you up.

All this young man has done is have the audacity to sit in an empty seat.

The young brown man is all in his phone. He has headphones on. The good kind that keep his music in and the noise out.

The white man keeps grumbling.

The train stops at 145th. Young man across from me gets off the train. Young man next to me moves to that seat. White man glares at him. Young man notices. Says: “Excuse me sir, is there a problem?”

White man says “No, you have a problem?” Barely looks up.

Young man says: “Because I paid the same fare you did.”

White man swallows his lips, flares his nostrils. His ears are getting red again. “You have a problem?”

Young man says: “Because if you have a problem…”

White man says: “Go ahead. I have three uniforms under this. You’ll go right to Rikers.”

Young man says: “I don’t give a fuck if you NYPD. I’ll fuck you up.”

I lean over so young man can see my face. I put up my hand. “Don’t do that. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.”

White man says: “Oh, I’m worth it. He’s not.”

I turn my attention to the white man. I go in. Call him what he is: a racist. Tell him I heard what he was mumbling. “Your badges and uniforms don’t give you the right to treat people like that.”

He says: “Yeah, everyone’s racist, right?”

I say, “No, you are. You.” My tone is even and sharp. I do not yell. I stare right at him.

He does not look at me. Says: “Run a zoo for 30 years like I do and you’ll understand.” The zoo he speaks of is Rikers. The inmates are the animals.

I say: “Understand what? Your racism?”

He mocks me, says: “Yeah yeah, the system failed everyone, right?”

“No, but it failed you. That’s why you’re racist.”

He curses at me. Says something about “fuckin'” this and “fuckin'” that.

“Don’t curse at me.” I say. “I have not cursed at you. Your badge doesn’t give you the right to be disrespectful.” He frowns but still does not look at me. I continue: “You’re talking to the wrong one.”

“I don’t care,” he says. He’s still staring at his phone.

“I know you don’t care. Racists don’t care. Have you heard of the school to prison pipeline? I’m a teacher. I see you. Educate yourself.”

He sucks his teeth but says nothing. He does not look at me. The entire train car is quiet from from 125th to 59th street.

For the rest of the ride I imagine smacking him repeatedly with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

If only it were that easy to cure someone of their ignorance.

We approach 59th street.

Brown man gets up. He approaches and puts out his hand. He clasps the hand I extend with both hands, as if hugging them, me. He bows his head. Says: “Thank you.” I say, “Respect. You take care of yourself.” He thanks me again and smiles. He does not look at that racist white man again. White man does not look at him.

White woman as she exits train looks at me and says: “Good job.” I wonder: Where were you?

Brown woman gets on with her toddler. White man gets up to give her the seat, as if to say, “Look, I’m not racist.” Brown woman across from me looks at me and shakes her head. I wonder: And where were you?

White man gets off at 42nd. I look up. He does not look at me. Beyond his head I see an ad that reads: “Stories about your city from the people who’ve seen it all.” I think how appropriate and fucked up at the same time.

This too is a story of this city…

White man exits the train.

I make eye contact with a handsome, bald black man who witnessed the whole thing. He says: “You have to ignore people like that.”

I noticed him watching as I schooled the white man. He wears an expensive suit, his tie is perfectly knotted. He has well oiled hands and two big gold rings that glint when he moves. His face is concerned.

I shake my head, tell him somebody had to say something. Tell him that happens too often. Tell him about the racism that spewed out of the white man’s mouth. Say: “I had to show that young man that he’s not alone. That somebody cares. Our young people walk around so wounded in the world. If we don’t take care of them, who will?” He smiles, says bless you, something about “I love y’all strong women.” And I wonder why it’s so often on us. Why didn’t he say something sooner? Where were you?

He says: “Don’t let that ruin your day.” I say no, “I’m a writer, imma wrote an essay about his ass. Imma use this in my work because that’s how you effect change…but we gotta stand up for our kids,” I say. I am almost pleading. “They need us.” He nods. Puts the earphones back in his ears.

I wonder what he’s seen that’s made him choose silence… I imagine none of it is good. So many of us have learned silence as a method of self-preservation.

Later, when the train has emptied and the train is snaking underground in Brooklyn, the black man will ask me what I teach, where, what age. I tell him my youngest student was six, my oldest 86. His eyes open wide, brow arches, says, “That’s social work.” He thanks me. Says: “Stay strong, sis. We need people like you.” I smile. “Our young people need people like you too.” He nods. Says: “I’ll try to remember that.” He gets off the train on Euclid.

***

I go teach. I spend the day remembering the many encounters of racism I’ve had in this city I love and hate at once.

I was on the 7 train one Saturday morning on my way to a teaching gig with my daughter who was then maybe 9 or 10. It was one of those horrible “pardon us while we handle some necessary construction” days on that line where you have to travel well into Queens before taking another train back to get to one of the many stops the train skipped due to said construction. The train was crowded. Folks were frustrated. A woman stepped on and started pushing her way in. She pushed me too though I wasn’t even by the door. I looked at her and she started yelling, in a thick European accent: “you people” aren’t taught manners and “you people” come to this country to do this and do that and “you people” need to go back to “your country.” She pushed me again with her shoulder.

With one hand I put my daughter behind me while I stared at this woman. I said: “You, an immigrant, are telling me about who I am? That’s funny. If you put your hands on me again, we are going to have a problem.”

“Then get out of the way,” she yelled.

“I’m not in your way.” I responded, this time my lips were tight and I was clenching the pole so hard, my hand was cramping.

She kept yapping her mouth, saying that we need to go get jobs and we’re all criminals and deadbeats…but she didn’t touch me again.

Baby girl stared on with wide eyes. Later she said: “How could that woman say that to us? She’s not from here either.” I tried to explain but what could I do to fully explain a system that teaches people that it’s us brown and black folk that are the problem?

I wonder if that woman with her white skin and blonde hair had ever been told to go back to her country.

This happened to me a few times when I lived in the Pelham Parkway area in the Bronx. One time, at the fruit and vegetable market, an elderly Eastern European woman pushed my toddler out of her way with a hateful glare. My daughter was just three years old. She was picking an apple out of a pile like I’d asked her to. I pulled baby girl towards me and told this woman, “How dare you touch my child.”

“You people need to control all your kids,” she said, her accent also heavy.

“You’re lucky you’re an old, lady,” I said.

Later, when I caught her glaring at us on line, I laughed in her face. Why? Because it kept me from doing what I really wanted to do—cry and beat her to a pulp.

***

You remember these moments with tears in your eyes and rage in your jaw. The slideshow in your mind makes you grind your teeth. You put gum in your mouth to ease the tension.

You realize you have to do something with this rage and pain over the racism you encountered on the train, and the memories that came cascading in. You channel it into your high school fiction class, reworking your entire lesson plan on your commute from Queens to East Harlem. You have your eleven students read the flash piece “My Brother at the Canadian Border” by Sholeh Wolpé. You engage a conversation about race. You share what happened to you on the train. What you witnessed. What you said. How you went in on that white man.

You ask: “By a show of hands, who has ever witnessed or been a victim of racism?” You wince when eleven hands go up. You ask if anyone wants to share their story. No one volunteers. They squirm uncomfortably in their seats. You understand. You think of the black man on the train.

You nod. Say: “I understand. Can someone tell me why they don’t want to share their story?”

“Shame,” says a student. You remember him from last semester. The day after the election, someone called him a n*gger for the first time in his life. He had just walked out of his building in East Harlem. He told you he went back upstairs and curled himself into his bed. He stayed there for a long time. “I was late to school,” he told you.

“It makes you feel a certain type of way,” says another student.

You ask if they want to write a story about racism as a class. They come up with three characters and the setting: James, a black and Puerto Rican 16 year old; Emily, a white 16 year old friend of James; a 60 year old white man named Sam; the setting is the M102 which travels from the East Village to Harlem 147th, via Lexington and Madison Avenues. They begin…

James and Emily are on their way to school downtown. They are discussing Trump’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. Sam interrupts them: “What are you saying about Trump?” Emily whispers to James: “He kind of looks like Trump.” James asks: “What do you think about the travel ban?” Sam says: “Black people should leave instead…” He looks at Emily and says: “What are you doing hanging out with that black boy?”

After two rounds, where everyone adds a sentence to the building story, you stop them. They are angry and excited. One student says: “But it doesn’t have to be like that…” She is a writer. The one who says you gave her permission to call herself a writer. She wants the story to play out differently. She wants people not to remain silent on the bus. She wants the people to defend the black young man who is being attacked. You ask: “Is that believable?” She sulks. You remember the incident you experienced that morning. You remember the silence of the people on the train.

The final assignment: Finish the story in your journals. Even the kid who says he hates writing has his pen flying across the page…

You remember: This is how you channel the hurt and shift it to something that feeds and teaches, because if you don’t have that, what do you have?…

***

I’d been in Wellesley for all of a few weeks when it first happened. It was the fall of 1989, my first year in boarding school. I was walking with another ABC (A Better Chance) student back to our dorm on the outskirts of the Wellesley College campus. We were the “scholarship kids”—her a St. Lucian girl from Flatbush, me a Boricua Hondureña from Bushwick. We were walking along Washington Avenue, the main street that runs through the town, past the Town Hall that looks like a castle, and the duck pond. I don’t remember what we were talking about or if we were even talking, but I remember hearing the rumble of the truck as it approached, and I remember that face he stuck out of the passenger side window, that bloated and red and hate-filled face. The truck slowed. “Go home, n*ggers,” he said. Then he threw a lit cigarette at us, two teenage girls, her 16, me 13. We jumped away to avoid getting burned and stared at the truck as it sped off. She started crying, a quiet blubbering cry that shook her shoulders. I stayed quiet the rest of the walk home.

We never did talk about that incident, she and I. And I never mentioned it to anyone or wrote about it until a few years ago.

This was the beginning of my racial consciousness.

***

I told my daughter about the racist situation I encountered on the train that morning. Her eyes opened wide and her mouth opened slightly. She asked, “What did you say to him?”

Me: “To who?”

Her: “The white man who said all that racist stuff.”

Me: “How do you know I said something to him?”

Her: “Uh, hello…you’re my mom. I know you.”

Me: (laughs) I proceeded to give her a play by play.

Her: “I love that about you. You always stand up for yourself and you stand up for other people, too.”

***

A few months back I witnessed a situation between two cab drivers. A white cab driver had been following a cab driven by a South Asian man. When they reached the red light, I pulled up next to them as the white cab driver got out of his car and banged on South Asian man’s cab. He said something menacing. I don’t know what because my window was rolled up. I rolled down the window as the white man yelled, “Go back to your fuckin country!” The South Asian man drove off when the light turned green. The tires on his cab screeched. He never got out of his car nor did he roll down his window. He just stared straight ahead. His face did not betray emotion. The white man got back in his car, but not before waving his middle finger.

I am still haunted by this. Why? Because I didn’t say anything. It’s not that I’ve never witnessed such heinous acts of prejudice and hostility. It’s that it seems to be happening with more frequency.

We are complicit if we remain silent. All of us.

***

My daughter had a performance last weekend with her cheerleading dance team at George Washington High School in Washington Heights. After the show, her coach, Ms. Sapp, stopped at a local Dominican restaurant to use the bathroom and buy some food. 

She asks one of the Dominican waitresses if they have oxtail. The woman ignores her repeated requests while at the same time attending to other customers who come in after Ms. Sapp. Another waitress walks over and asks: “What do you need?” Ms. Sapp, a black woman who loves her kids, our kids, my kid, with a fierceness and hard hand that I admire and can relate to, asks, “Do you have oxtail?” The waitress answers, “Yes, but it’s expensive.” I imagine Ms. Sapp’s face. She smirks that sarcastic, “I see you” kind of smirk. She has experienced this before. She has been on the receiving end of this kind of racism from Latinos who look just like her but deny their blackness.“I didn’t ask you if it was expensive.” She can’t be bothered. She has a group of cheerleader dancers waiting for her. It is them who need her attention. She walks out. She tells her girls (that’s what she calls them: “my girls”) what happened. She lets them take it in. My daughter shakes her head. Says: “That’s so racist.” Ms Sapp nods, “Yes, yes it is.”

***

I am working on this essay at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, at the Starbucks on the third floor. A black man with a thick, salt and pepper beard and a plaid shirt, sits at the table next to me. He is reading on his iPad. His camera sits on the table next to him. A white man approaches. Says: “Nice camera.” Black man looks up and nods. White man says: “They don’t make them like that anymore.” Black man nods again. The white man starts to ask questions, make comments. The black man’s responses are curt, mono-syllabic. White man says: “I was just trying to make conversation.” Black man nods. White man walks away. Black man turns to me. I smirk. He says: “Do I look friendly?” We both laugh. Black man says: “Not to be prejudiced, but they come up to us and they expect us to talk to them. Like we have to…” I nod, say, “Amen.” Black man walks to garbage to throw out his cup. He leaves his iPad and headphones and camera and bag. I think: “Homie is crazy. He’s leaving all his shit.” I watch to make sure no one steals his stuff. He comes back after five minutes, a fresh cup of coffee in his hand. He starts to pack his stuff. Puts his camera in his bag. I say: “It is a nice camera though.” We laugh. He says: “You have a nice day.” I say: “You do the same.”

Relentless Files — Week 63 (#52essays2017 Week 10)

I cried today. That your-entire-body-shaking kind of cry. Our dog Napoleon got hurt today and seeing so him so helpless got me thinking about when he came to us after my brother died, and how he was such a big part of my grief. All that hiking I did and sitting with myself and grieving, and how Napoleon was always there. I brought him with me when I hiked in the woods of Inwood Hill Park, and he learned that whistle that still brings him running to me. When I cried, he’d curl himself by me, making sure I felt the warmth of his body next to me. When I sat and wrote, he did the sat at my feet, sometimes pawing at me until I picked him up and let him lie across my lap.

Today he lost a nail. It could have been so much worse. But hearing him yelping and crying, and looking at me like, “mommy, it hurts, make it stop”, just undid me.

Did I realize that my dog being hurt would trigger grief? No. Not at all. Not until I thought about how he came to us just after my brother passed, and what an integral part that beautiful dog was and continues to be in my journey. I had dogs in my childhood; a little chihuahua named Fluffy that was also an enormous part of who I was and what I held. They aren’t just companions and pets. I’m seeing that today, in such a profound way.

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***

I don’t remember exactly when I got Fluffy, maybe when I was eight or nine, but I remember how much I loved him. I was the one who walked him. I was the one who fed him. Mom only let me give him boiled hot dogs but he got so sick of that, that when I noticed he wasn’t eating, I’d sneak him some of the meat mom fed us–some chunks of beef or pollo guisado. I fed him a chicken bone once and was so scared when he started hacking and bleeding from his gums. Thank God that was all the damage it did. I didn’t know any better then.

Fluffy was scared of everything and everyone. He was one of those rare breed of chihuahua that actually has a lot of hair. And he looked like he was always crying; he always had a ring of burgundy wetness under his eyes.

He was at the door whenever I got home. I could hear him yapping and scratching at the door as soon as I entered the building and walked the long hallway to our apartment, 1L, on Palmetto Street. He’d jump on me and lick me in welcome. This didn’t stop when I left to boarding school at 13.

One of the hardest parts of leaving home was leaving him. Who would take care of him? Who would walk him? Who would cuddle with him and give him love? Who would feed him? Who wouldn’t eat so he could?

He was always a skinny dog but he was skinnier when I returned that first time in November, but there he was at that door waiting for me when I arrived. That night, I snuck him onto the bed when mom was asleep. He cried when I left, but I was a young girl and had my own life to make so I did…but I never forgot about Fluffy.

My junior year, I went to Philly to do a three week business program at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business. When I returned, Fluffy was gone. My sister said she put him in the hallway to mop the house. “He probably ran away,” she said. “Pero Fluffy was scared of everything and everybody,” I responded. “How’s that possible?” Fluffy was a trembling coward. If I took him to the corner and let him go, he went running back to the house. Trust me, I tested this theory plenty of times.

“Or maybe somebody stole him,” my sister said. Steal Fluffy? As much as I loved that dog, he wasn’t the kind of dog people steal. He wasn’t cute like that, though he was the cutest dog in the world to me. He wasn’t an expensive breed. He was what latinos call a bira lata, a mutt, a scraggly little thing that only I loved. “Who would take Fluffy?” I asked.

“Ay, who cares? He’s gone and that’s it,” my sister said. My brother and I talked about it over the years and agreed that she probably hurt or did something to him. She’s always denied it. I don’t believe her. But as you know if you’ve read any of my work, I don’t trust my sister. 

The thing is, Fluffy was my companion. I spent much of my youth feeling alone and distraught. It was Fluffy’s fur I cried into to hamper my sobs. It was Fluffy who curled himself into my lap when I was sad. He came out to the backyard with me to escape what was going on in that tiny railroad style apartment. He walked with me to El Faro, the supermarket on the corner, to get milk and ham for mom. I sometimes snuck him a slice of that ham when we were walking back up the block back home. He was my friend…sometimes the only friend I had. This was over thirty years ago and I can still see his face in my mind’s eye. That’s what lasting relationships do to you…even those with animals.

***

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My daughter and I found Napoleon one summer afternoon as we were heading to the supermarket by our apartment in uptown Manhattan. He darted past and almost got hit by a car, before I scooped him up. He had a collar on but no contact information. This was the summer of 2012. The last thing I wanted or needed was a dog, but he was so cute and he was shaking and scared and how could I just leave him? So we brought him home and fed him, or at least I tried to. He wouldn’t eat any of the dog food we gave him. Then, that night, I caught him staring and licking his lips as my daughter and I hate the turkey meatloaf I’d prepared, so I mashed up a little bit in a bowl with some rice, and he gobbled it up quickly. The next day, it rained all day, so we kept him home with us, feeding him whatever food we ate, holding him on our laps while we watched movies. My daughter, who was then nine then, took to him right away. She pulled him up on her bed to sleep, and grew frustrated when he hopped off and followed me out of the room. Over the next few days, we put up signs around the neighborhood, but the rain swept them away. Truth is, I silently prayed that no one would claim him. He made my daughter smile, and she loved walking him and cooing at him. That weekend I had a dinner party at my crib, and my sister-friend commented, “I think he was brought to you, V.” I wouldn’t realize how right she was until much later.

I named him Napoleon because whenever we walked him, he’d walk right up to the big dogs and try to challenge them. He growled, he huffed, he pushed out his little chest. He swore he was a monster, and it was the most hilarious thing to witness. “Napoleon, that’s your name,” I said. He wagged his tail and jumped up. He approved.

I got the call a week and a half later. Someone said he was her dog. His name was Tweety. When I called to him with that name, his ears perked and he wagged his tail. Baby girl cried when we took him to his owner.

That was the summer before my brother passed.

Flash forward to the fall of 2013, four months into the greatest grief of my life and over a year after we’d found and bonded with this dog who always ran to us when we saw him in the street. I got a message from the owner that she was getting rid of him. He kept impregnating the female dog they had, and he was always fighting with his son, who they’d kept. He was a nuisance to them. He kept peeing everywhere and he would growl and bite visitors. I could have him if I wanted him, but if not, he was going to the pound. I told them to give me a few days to think about it.

I had so much going on. I was working and being a single mom. I was trying to write through my grief. I was in such a terribly dark place. I didn’t know it yet. Hadn’t yet called it that but I was in the abyss of depression. My mother had yet again walked out of my life, and I felt like I was suffocating. But I also knew that I needed to bring some light into my daughter’s life. My daughter who was watching her mom unravel. My daughter who was dealing with serious separation anxiety. Who cried when she had to go with her dad for weekend visits. Who told me repeatedly, in the saddest, most whiniest voice I’ve ever heard come out of her, “I don’t wanna go, mommy. I wanna be with you.” I’d learn later that she was scared for me. That she felt helpless and worried about her mama.

Baby girl would tell me a year later that she was scared that I was going to hurt myself…

But this was before that. This was when I was trying to decide if I could handle taking care of something else. If I could take on yet another responsibility.

Then, one day, we ran into Napoleon on the street with his owner. He ran to us, wagging his tail and jumping up and down with such joy. I saw the smile on my daughter’s entire face and I knew.

I called the next day and said, “Yes, we’ll take him.”

It took a week before we got him. He was in a home where they’d never taken him to a vet for shots or a check up or anything, so I had to guarantee that they did that first. Once I got the proof of paperwork, he was ours.

I didn’t tell my daughter. I only told her I had a surprise for her. We waited outside our building. I saw him from afar, walking down the block, and the minute he heard my whistle, he started pulling his owner towards us. She let him go and he ran right to me. He was shaking. It was like he knew his life was about to change but the anxiety over not knowing what that made him tremble.

I turned to my daughter and said, “He’s ours now.” She shrieked, picked him up and squeezed him. He in turn snapped at her and caught her on the lip. That was how he started their brother-sister relationship. Our Napoleon, showing what a loving asshole he can be. Ha!

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***

This morning, I was up making myself coffee and about to prepare our breakfast when my daughter came in from their morning walk with Napoleon in her arms. Her eyes were wide with worry. “Mommy, Napoleon hurt himself.” I took him in my arms and he started crying and yelping. Blood was dripping from his paw. I tried to run cold water over the paw, but he screamed and snapped at me. Then I saw it: his nail was hanging at an odd angle. It was pulled out from the root.

Vasia kept saying, “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m sorry.”

I was distressed. I thought about what this was going to cost me. Another expense. Another worry. Napoleon kept crying and limping. He left droplets of blood in his wake. When he put his paw down, he yelped and hobbled his weight off of it. There was no avoiding it–I had to take him to the vet.

My daughter has said it repeatedly over the three plus years since we’ve had him: Mom, we have to take Napoleon to the vet. I knew she was right, but it just felt overwhelming. The idea of another bill, something else to pay, something else to do, sent me reeling.

Today, there was no avoiding that.

I sent my teary-eyed daughter to school with the promise that I would text her when we got to the vet and would send her periodic updates. I reminded her that she did nothing wrong. Napoleon was in the dog park playing with two big dogs (his name is Napoleon for a reason) when it happened. It was an accident. These things happen.

The good news is the nail came off easily, though he cried so loud when the vet pulled it off with one swift pull. That’s when I first cried. 

What I realized was just how much I love that dog and what a big part he is of our family. I haven’t taken care of him like I should have over these years of loving him. He needs to see the vet more and may need some dental work, but today I realized (with my partner’s coaxing) that I was doing the best I could. Now I can do better. We need him as much as he needs us.

In a few weeks, once his paw has healed, we’re returning to the vet to get him the shots he needs, and we’ll follow up with the dental work too. Popo came to us a little beat up after years of not getting the attention he needed, but he’s ours now and we’re gonna keep loving him up for many years to come.

***

It’s been three and a half years since that fateful day in October of 2013. Baby girl now walks him every morning and evening. He sleeps with her every night, and has traveled with us to Connecticut and Maryland and Jersey and to beaches and parks. He still hikes with me, and though he’s getting old and tires quicker, he’s still my little trooper. He’ll lag behind when he needs some rest but he still comes running when he hears my singsong whistle. Get too close to me or my daughter, and he’ll shred your ankles.

I was sitting in my living room when it happened: grief sledgehammered my chest, caught my breath and made me heave. I was looking at the picture my partner took of us at the vet. I looked over at the picture I have sitting on the table of my brother and my daughter when she was six months old. I thought about how his death shattered me and how Napoleon help me put myself back together, never the same but somehow more beautiful…Napoleon has helped me become the woman my brother always said I was, I thought, and the tears came. They came in torrents. I started shaking and heaving. My partner tried to help but there was no stopping those tears. No one can stop grief when it comes for you.

Sometimes you need these reminders to remember why you love who and what you love, and why and how they love you back. Napoleon can be a pain in the ass. He’s done things that have made me shake with rage, like that time he ate an entire jar of Albolene, the grease that boxers put on their hands to avoid the skin cracking that the chalk and gloves cause. That little mutt was shooting that nastiness out of his ass for days. It was everywhere. Yuck!

Why did I keep him? Because what he’s done for me makes up for all of it and more. He was part of my healing. He’s still part of my healing. And did I tell you how he makes my little girl smile? Yeah, I don’t need another reason. That, he, is everything. ❤