*An essay a week in 2016*
Last week was that kind of week that leaves you feeling drained and wondering. I did some writing but mostly I brooded…
In the wee hours of Monday morning, my neighbor from the apartment above knocked on my door to tell me there were chorros of water falling in her bathroom. This has happened so many times since I moved into this building six years ago. When I turned on the lights, there was water leaking in my living room, the hallway leading to my bathroom and the bathroom. Not 24 hours later, after getting tons of work done and feeling proud and accomplished, I came home to find the ceiling had collapsed in my living room. Not long thereafter the ceiling in the bathroom came down. And the following morning, the ceiling in the hallway outside the bathroom fell. This hallway is right next to my daughter’s room. She was out walking the dog when it happened, thank God. That’s when I finally called 311.
Dealing with this shit triggered lots of anxiety. My therapist helped me see that it has to do with safety. I was raised in a home where I didn’t feel safe so I’ve worked really hard to gift my daughter (and, yes, myself) a safety I didn’t know as a kid, so it makes sense that I was anxious: my home isn’t a safe environment for either of us…but it took the idea of the ceiling collapsing on my daughter for me to call 311.
The inspector came the following day. She gasped at the gaping holes, debris still falling every few minutes, rocks and sand and powder. I told her my asthma was being triggered, that I was dealing with this kind of nonsense for years. She said these were Class C violations and the building had a week to fix it before they were fined. She made a note of other problems in the apartment:
It’s been two years since a leak in my kitchen corroded a huge patch of tiles. I’m still waiting for them to be replaced. Each time the job was scheduled, I was told an emergency happened that was priority. This happened three times. Three days off of work. Ain’t that some shit?
The light fixture in my daughter’s room has been hanging on a string (literally) for years now. We barely use it because of that. I’ve reported it several times.
Once, the former super (who was levels and layers of asshole) got mad that I’d called the management company about the toilet not flushing. I’d told him about it twice—once in person and another time via a letter in his mailbox. He didn’t come by the house to make the repair. That was him though, he did shit on his own time. He was the super for 37 years and the management company gave him free reign so he took advantage and stopped doing his job ages ago. To punish me, he didn’t come to make the repair before the weekend. I had a nonfunctioning toilet for the entire weekend, a total of a week—seven days. Can you imagine living like this? First world problems, yes, but still…
This super is also the one who would leer at me and tell me, “You lookin’ good!” I live in the apartment a few floors above the entrance to his. When I’ve invited my friends over for dinner and hangout out time, he asked, “Porque no me invitastes?” Once, he saw me walking with this guy I was kinda, sorta seeing. He asked, “Who is that boy?” I sneered, “Mind your business.” Homeboy I was seeing didn’t say anything. He lost points so many points for that. If you can’t defend or stick up for me (even if I don’t need you to), I ain’t fuckin with you. I never saw that guy again. I am not in the business of being involved with punks.
This super made me feel inept when I asked for a repair to be made. When the sinks or tub got clogged (which is a perpetual problem), he blamed us, saying it was our long hair. It wasn’t the old tuberia or the fact that the drainage in this building sucks. It was my and my daughter’s fault. Once he had the nerve to tell me to cut my hair. I glared at him and walked away. I knew that he was capable of stopping his job midway and leaving us without a working tub because he was bitchy like that. Can you imagine living like this?
The repairmen showed up this morning. There are two. They’ve been here for hours. They have barely looked at me. They are busy handling their business. I’m typing this up in my kitchen, the closest room to the exit. I could say that it’s because the dust has been exacerbating my asthma for days and this room has big, open window and air circulation, but I know that’s just part of it. This fear is a slow simmer. This is what it is to be a woman.
After two days of anxiety, I said a prayer before I went to bed asking for respite. I had dreams where my spirits visited me and reminded me that they have my back and all is well; that they’re protecting me though it may not see so right now. There is a message in this situation in my home: the beginning to an end. It’s time to go.
The following morning I came across a quote that read: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Those ceiling collapses are a metaphor for what’s happening in this country…
We were driving on the Sprain Brook the other day. It’s a parkway in Westchester that is all trees and soaring hawks. I noticed that there were many dead trees with vines climbing up them. The leafless branches reached into the sky like veins looking for source. It reminded me of the roads in the Oakland hills where vines climb the trunks and branches of trees. It looks beautiful but the vines are actually choking the trees, killing them slowly.
Ever seen a web and wonder how the spider spanned that juncture. How she got from one corner to the next. From one limb to the other. One branch, feet from the other. Feet for us but miles for her. A distance incomprehensible to us, because we’re not that small and not that willing to take daring leaps. She jumps knowing there is no net to catch her. She knows she will land. She knows she will somehow hit a surface. And there she will continue to build and mold that web that will sustain and carry her. She just does. She doesn’t know how. That’s not her focus. Her focus is the leap and the knowing—I will land. And she does. She always does.
When you’re at a concert (Word Rock and Sword: A Musical Celebration of Women’s Live VI) after five hours of teaching the class that is your baby, the one you created with your everything, and the concert is like a MichFest reunion, so of course you run into the editors of the Sinister Wisdom MichFest edition, and they have galleys of the anthology to which you submitted an essay which was eagerly accepted and what are the chances that you would be here, with them, to receive and edit and approve the essay in said galley, and as you wait for the concert to start, you receive an email saying one of your essays was rejected. You really wanted this one… You read that you made it to the last round and your piece was hotly debated but in the end they decide your essay didn’t add anything new to the conversation and it lost steam at the end and you want to shrink into yourself but you remember the spider and she reminds you: you jumped and yes, you didn’t land there, but you will land somewhere. You always do.
“Release your heart and fly, angel fly…” Asha Lovechild sings as you type into your notes ap on your iPhone. You promise yourself to find and download everything of her, this black woman with a godlike voice and earrings the size of cups. “Fly,” she croons and your heart bursts.
“Maybe one day I’ll fly like an eagle, soar like a bird,” sings Marcelle Davies Lashley. She reminds you of Billie and Ella and Nina at once, and all you can do is rock yourself. The piano and violin slay you over and over, because you know there are no coincidences and that spider is talking to you and reminding you to remember. Remember.
Another singer comes on, you will learn later that her name is Be Steadwell. She sings, “Who have I become… I knew who I was when you met me, I know who I am when you left me…who have I become?” It is a prayer. A question. She started her piece beat boxing that old school way you remember from Brooklyn and the beginning of hip hop, a forgotten story like yours…
Chelsea Peterson says: “We are our own antidote.” She lists the names of men and women of color who have been murdered in senseless acts of violence: Trayvon Martin, Terence Crutcher, Rekia Boyd. “Break dance between bullets…I’m exhausted by rage, battling these enemy bandits and my own damn depression… Salute your own magic, warrior. Conjure your genetic memory, and expect magic, conjure magic… If there’s one thing I know, we will survive.” She tells you she loves you and calls you wounded warrior. “You always find the light. You are the light. Kissed by the sun and sculpted like a god…”
And then the legendary Nona Hendrix sings a song written over 40 years ago and you know because she reminds you: “so hard to live without love, love, love… People need understanding. We need power.” The artists join her on stage and repeat her lines over and over: “What can you do for me? You. What can you do for me?”
And you wonder why that’s such a taboo question? Why is that too much to ask? Why do you judge yourself selfish for asking? Do we portend the shit people will say? The shit we’ll get, especially us women of color who are taught to sacrifice ourselves, our health, our sanity for everyone.
When you’ve learned early, over and again, that you is all you got, over and over again, no matter love or war or sorrow or grief … Nona says: “show me love, show me love, show me love” over and over. That’s the answer to the question: What can you do for me? “Show me love,” is what you’re asking. There’s your reminder.
This morning as you’re lying in bed wondering how your lungs are going to react to all the dust and the fumes, you come across a new Gatorade commercial that makes your eyes water.
It stars WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and focuses on her life off the court that has influenced the way she approaches the game, specifically her relationship with her sister, who is both deaf and blind, and the closest person to her.
She says her sister has taught her: “You don’t focus on what you don’t have. You celebrate what you do.”
I was annoyed with this Relentless Files challenge this weekend. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to sit and sulk, but instead I went to a café on Fulton in Bed-Stuy while I waited for my partner. I was thinking about the week in headline news of more unarmed black men killed by police. One of them, Terrance Crutcher, had his hands up when he was shot.
Natalie Diaz wrote on her FB: A white female officer shot a black man. The black man was left in the road, dying. The white female officer was sat down behind a cop car, held by her fellow officers, consoled. For shooting the black man who was still there, alone, dying in the road.”
There are protests in Charlotte and cities throughout the country. A country that could possibly be led by Donald Trump, if he wins the election. It all feels so surreal.
This week in Writing Our Lives, I assigned Dionne Irving’s “Living with Racial Fatigue: Why Fighting Microaggressions Can Feel Like Treading Water.” I assigned it before Crutcher was killed. It seemed especially appropriate, all things considered.
This week I focused the writing on the microaggressions we’ve experienced as women, women of color, as queer and gay folks. I read excerpt of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a model.
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all come from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
José Alfredo Menjivar writes: “Memories demand attention because memories have teeth.” You repost the status with one word: TEETH.
I have to be honest: while I was writing some of this, I was really bitter about the rejection I got. I’m still curling my lip at the comments that it lost steam at the end and that I didn’t add anything new to the conversation.
I know this might be self-indulgent and I may come across as self-involved and petty. I know I may be wallowing. My essay made it to the last round. It was hotly debated. In the end, it wasn’t chosen and that’s okay, or at least it should be. People deal with rejection all the time. My work has been rejected dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. It comes with the territory of being a writer who submits, who is actively seeking to be published. I know all of this but I have to acknowledge how I feel. This is how I process. I can’t let this shit sit in me. I already know what happens when I do that—it festers and persists until I stare at it and start to pick it apart.
One time, when I posted about being bitter about a rejection, a writer I know (or knew because she unfriended me some time afterwards) reminded me of all the pieces I have published and how proud I should be about that. Really, this isn’t about not being grateful. This is about releasing these feelings. I need space to process.
I remind myself that this isn’t a reflection of me or my work. I write through it. I let myself feel what I need to feel, then I move on. That isn’t self-indulgent. It’s self-care. It’s what I needed, and ultimately, it’s me I have to answer to and come to terms with.
I remind myself of what I do have:
An amazing 12 year old who is trying her hand at cheerleading, doing three hour practices for two weeks building up to the try outs. She comes home excited to share the cheers and dances and what she’s learning in her new school. This week we discussed Kaepernick, who she’s studying in Social Studies. It gave me the opportunity to introduce her to Papa James Baldwin. I told her about his work and read her this quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” She said, “Send me that. I want to share it in class.” Later, she came back and said she was saving it for the conclusion of her persuasive essay on the topic. That was definitely a win for this mama.
I have a partner who is loving and tender and deals with my shit (and I, in turn, deal with her). Just today, we had a spat that ultimately came down to me feeling shame about my financial situation. As a single mama who quit her job to live this dream, I had to sacrifice some things…one of those things was my credit. Yes, I’m working on improving it, but it’s a process. Sharing that triggers me… My partner reminds me that it’s okay. That I’m no longer alone. That we’re in this together and what I once had to do alone, all the time, I no longer have to do… That too is a learning process. I’ve been on my own for 27 years. Unlearning some of this shit is gonna take some time…
I have this career and life that I’ve created for myself and am quite proud of. I have lit mags reaching out to me asking me to submit. This Friday I was asked to participate in a reading welcoming Ana Castillo to NYC. I’m featuring at Capicu Cultural Showcase on October 14th. As soon as I was asked, I cried out, “Mama, I think I made it” and giggled to myself. See, it’s a poetry showcase so to be asked to feature, as a predominantly prose writer, is kind of a big deal for me. I also haven’t been out in the writing scene much. I withdrew a few years ago when I got disillusioned with it and decided to do the work and focus on the writing. I’ve never regretted that decision. Still, I feel it calling me back and I’m open to the sharing.
On October 15th, I’m on a panel at the NYC Latina Writer’s Group 10 year anniversary celebration. I’ve been a cherished member of this group for years now and have facilitated workshops for them. This is a huge honor for me!
My Writing Our Lives nine-week class filled up quickly and there was a waiting list of five! This after increasing the tuition by $200. I’m also working on moving it online, hopefully soon. There is so much deliciousness in this!
I’m steadily working on this memoir, and after getting out of my own way (which took some time and reflection), it is coming together more beautifully and fluidly than I ever imagined…and that’s just dope, especially considering that this has been a decade long journey.
In his “The Creative Process” essay, Baldwin writes:
The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things are real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.
I’m thinking about this hard, especially as a writer of memoir and personal essay. We who’ve been called self-obsessed and narcissistic and so many other things. I think about this work I do and why I do it. The second rule of autobiographical writing is: the story isn’t about you. It’s about a theme like a string that runs through the story and puts it together… Ultimately I write to figure out how it is I’ve learned to live with all this shit, the beauty and the rot and all that lies in the subconscious that bleeds into my life without my knowing it. The point is to be a more whole, productive member of this society. To make myself and this world a better place. And that might sound grandiose or pompous but I believe Chris Abani when he said: “..the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion.” And that compassion starts with you.
“Show me love.”
*An essay a week in 2016*
This past Saturday, September 10th, I read at my gorgeous sister-friend Rhonda Elhosseiny’s show, Resilience: Across the Spectrum. It’s the first time she displays her visual artwork to the public and it was phenomenal. She put such care into the exhibit and the line-up was dope.
When Rhonda initially asked me to participate, it was just weeks after I discovered that this memoir I’m writing also attempts to uncover what it is about me that’s made me resilient while some of the people I love the most, including my brother, weren’t so lucky. I went into this piece with that in mind…
When I think of resilience, I think of the pile of rubble that was Bushwick, the neighborhood I grew up in in the 70s and 80s. Not the Bushwick of today, with its $15 burger bars and yoga studios and trash cans on every corner. No, I’m talking about the gritty Bushwick nobody wanted to go to. I’m talking about the Bushwick that was home.
Bushwick was a lot like those images of the South Bronx that you’ve seen on the screen if you’ve seen The Get Down—trash and rubble strewn lots that went on for blocks; abandoned and burnt out buildings that became crack houses during the crack era; graffiti and rap and disco and track suits and gazelle glasses and people who lived and loved in that. People who defied that devastation.
When I think of resilience, I think of the plum tree in our backyard that I started climbing when I was five. It was up in that tree that I started telling myself stories of a different life. A life when mom didn’t beat me and call me desgraciada and ordinaria. In this life, mommy loved me. She was tender, she was kind, she mothered me.
I think of the junk yard next door that was much like the lots that dotted Bushwick back then, with its piles of trash, tires and rusted license plates, lumber with nails sticking out at angles, trees pushing through the mounds, there among the feral cats and kitten sized rats, I imagined I was the female Indiana Jones on a quest in a foreign land to save the world. I saved myself over and over in those fantasies.
When I think of resilience I think of the many ways we come up with to save ourselves. For me, it was my art that saved me and always has, from when I started telling myself stories up in that plum tree, to when I wrote my first novel when I had my daughter and finally owned that I am a writer, to the journey I’m currently on of writing my memoir. It is through story that I have found the relentless ability to confront and overcome the ghosts that haunt me.
Resilience is my mother surviving what she did.
Resilience is me surviving her.
Resilience defined is:
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
I haven’t always had the ability to recover quickly and I certainly haven’t always been tough, but what I have had is the wherewithal to search for something to save me, hold me, be with me. When I was a kid, it was climbing up that plum tree. Then it was climbing over the gate to the junkyard next door. In both, I told myself stories.
For my mother, for two years during my childhood, it was the garden she tilled in our backyard.
I imagine she was trying to save herself when she climbed out our first floor window into that backyard. Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected from the yard over the falling apart plywood fence into the junkyard next door. It took days for her to weed and till the soil that had been packed by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. Then she used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg, she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
She laid the envelopes of seeds she bought out the wooden table in our kitchen. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into the holes and packed the soil down with her palm. She handled those seeds with a tenderness I rarely felt directed at me.
Do you know what it’s like to envy seeds?
Have you ever envied a seed?
When the sunflowers grew tall and heavy with seeds, she tied sticks to them and tied them to the gate so they wouldn’t keel over.
That garden is how she saved herself back then. That was her resilience.
I wonder now how she saves herself after the death of my beloved brother.
When I think of resilience, I think about the Emily Dickinson poem, Chrysallis, that inspired the title of my memoir: A Dim Capacity for Wings.
My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air:
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.
A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadow of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.
So I must baffle at the hint
And cipher at the sign,
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clew divine.
Vanessa means butterfly in Greek. When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it must wait for its wings to harden so it can bear its own weight. Until then, it cannot fly.
I had to go through what I went through for my wings to harden.
People have told me that being unmothered is what’s made me strong. It’s difficult to hear that what has made you suffer also made you strong. It’s not that I don’t get that. Trust me, no one knows that about myself more than me. Yes, I am resilient and relentless because I had to learn how to be. It’s just that that strength didn’t protect me from the suffering that came (and still comes) from being unmothered. This shit has layers.
Still I wonder: What is it about me that has made me able to confront and make something beautiful of these ghosts that haunt me when my dear brother Juan Carlos was taken out by his? Why did I have the resilience to survive and thrive while he reeled into a fifteen year heroin addiction that eventually killed him?
Don’t we all have a dim capacity for wings? What does it take for us to make that dim capacity fire? A full flame that feeds us and our work? A fire that doesn’t ignite us and make us implode? How did I manage to create this life for myself, to do this work, to teach and write and create and make magic? To be here, before you, reading this ramble of thoughts and feelings and wonder?
I don’t have all the answers. I can tell you that I had that tree and I had that junk yard and I have these stories that I write and I have this relentless drive to continue to be resilient, to continue to write and create art and teach…to write these stories that have both haunted and saved me, over and over again.
Mary Oliver once wrote: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Is that what’s made me resilient? That I’ve given this call to create both power and time? Let it twist me up and wrestle me into knots, then written it out? I’m not sure. I can’t say…or maybe I can. Maybe my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings is my answer.
The book opens with a poem by Lucille Clifton:
Won’t you celebrate with me
What I have shaped into
A kind of life? I had no model.
Born nonwhite and woman
What did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
Here on this bridge between
Starshine and clay,
My one hand holding tight
My other hand; come celebrate
With me that everyday
Something has tried to kill me
And has failed.
Resilience for me is just that: being myself. Making this life for myself. Ensuring that what has tried to kill me, has failed. Over and over. Failed. While I continue to save my own life. My one hand holding tight my other hand. Won’t you allow me to hold your hand and remind you, if you need reminding, remind us, that you too can do this. Be resilient. Be relentless. Unfuckwithable. Be bad ass. Vamos. Let’s do this. Let’s be resilient!
This week was a hard week. I faltered. I forgot…
Here’s the thing about resilience that’s so frustrating and roller-coaster: when you’re in the thick of the hard, say it’s a full moon, a Harvest moon, and an eclipse in Pisces (and your moon is in Pisces in your birth chart and from what you’ve read and heard from people who are more knowledgeable about astrology than you, it makes you super emotional and sensitive and all things you already knew so hearing it makes so much sense) and Mercury is retrograde and the autumnal equinox is nearing and the combination of this celestial dance has made you a mess, old wounds are showing up because to shed them you must face them…in the thick of that, you can forget that you’re a resilient mothafucka and you forget about the plum tree and the junkyard where you saved your life over and over again when you were just a girl, and you feel that ache in your bones, that lonely ache of alone, that feeling you haven’t felt in a long time but you are so very, probably too familiar with, so you know it’s acrid scent and you know it’s spindly fingers on your throat…and so you have to remind yourself and that reminding may take time to sink in. You have to cry and walk under that full moon and howl at her and it’s in the howl that you hear the echo of that resilience you also know so very well…that dim capacity you made wings.
Can there exist a butterfly that cocoons repeatedly so each time it surfaces, it’s morphed into something bigger and more grand, its wings brighter hues that only nature can produce and artists attempt to capture in oils on canvas?
If there is such a butterfly, she is I and I am she. We keep reinventing ourselves. We keep coming back knocking on the door of resilience. We keep reminding ourselves. And when we forget, she is there. She has our wings. She waits until we remember.
*An essay a week in 2016*
This week I’ve been all up in my feelings. Tuesday was my last day of this summer I gifted myself to write and be with myself. I didn’t go to many events. And, I was productive as a mothafucka. I sat with my memoir and dug in. I wrote weekly essays for my Relentless Files challenge. I reinvented my Writing Our Lives Workshop (again). I sat under trees and counted stars and traced the lines on my palm. It was glorious and hard and I can’t wait to do it again next summer, because, yes, I’ve already decided I am absolutely doing it again.
Don’t get me wrong, yes, I missed teaching. I missed the glow on an emerging writer’s face when she knows without a doubt that she wrote a kick ass scene. But this writing I did was invigorating and challenging and so fuckin powerful, and it reminded me of the life I’m working towards where I write more than I teach and not the other way around. This is how dreams morph and evolve even further than we imagined. This is how we keep striving and growing and being our fly, relentless selves. Word.
I’ve been thinking a lot about permission. The permission we give ourselves and the permission we seek from others. I’ve had so many people ask me how it is I do this: live this life where I write and publish and teach and make a living doing what I love. Some people want a formula and cringe when I tell them there isn’t one. Others want me to give them permission.
I had a young writer tell me she wanted to finish her novel by the beginning of next year. I breathed hard and told her to take her time. She said she’s had this idea in her head for ten years. I said, with all the gentleness I could muster, that an idea is great but it’s the action that matters. I asked her how much she writes. I asked her what she was reading. I told her that it took Junot Diaz eight years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the novel that garnered him a Pulitzer. I told her I’d been writing this memoir for more than ten years and it’s only this year that I’ve finally felt ready to finish it. I had to become the writer who could finish the book. I confess, I am afraid for her. I am afraid that she is setting herself up for disappointment. Finishing a book in three months is no easy feat. What happens if she doesn’t? Can she handle the weight of that disappointment? She pushed back and I let her. I get it. I’m the same way: when someone tells me I can’t do something, I say “watch me” and proceed to do it. Do I doubt that this young woman can do it? I’ve never seen her work. She took a one day workshop with me a few years ago and she stood in the back, didn’t raise her hand once, just took notes and watched. I don’t remember seeing her blink. She’s told me that she’s only written poetry. She’s told me she doesn’t write everyday and reads only sporadically.
I sent her the essay by Daniel José Older, “Writing Begins with Forgiveness.”
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
The writer didn’t respond but later she asked me how and when I was ready to write a synopsis for my novel. I told her that I had to write the novel first. I said: I may have had an idea of what I wanted the story to be but I had to leave room for the story to become what it wanted to become. I had to leave room for mystery. And when I did, I was amazed by what came out of me.
I wrote my first novel in a few weeks. I didn’t sleep. I barely ate. I only stopped to nurse my then months-old daughter, cook and fight with my then partner (my daughter’s father) who was jealous of everything that didn’t involve him. (That’s how I knew for sure that it was over: he was jealous of my writing and I knew not being a writer to assuage him wasn’t an option.) The thing is, I’d been writing that book in my journals for years though I didn’t know it then. That’s mystery. That’s process. One couldn’t have happened without the other. I had to read all the books and essays and articles I read. I had to write in my journal and dream of this writing life. I had to live the life I led. I had to do so much before I could birth that book. I had to become the writer who could finish that book. I had to give myself permission.
I left that conversation with that young writer feeling conflicted. I wanted to tell her yes, that she could do it (because if I could, she can), but the writer and teacher in me also wanted her to know that this writing life is not an easy one. That it requires a surrender that is shocking and can freeze you up if you don’t allow it.
I revisited that confrontation with surrender this summer when I reentered my memoir. I had this idea of what I wanted the book to be and spent weeks trying to shape it. I was frustrated when it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. I had to get out of my own way. I finally did. How? I had to remind myself that I’ve been writing this book for more than a decade. I had to remind myself of the surrender I permitted when I wrote my first book. I had to ask the memoir to show me its beauty. The minute I did, something shifted and the book started pouring out of me. The stories I’ve written a thousand and one times started coming together to create cohesive chapters. And, no, it’s not what I imagined, it’s better. So much better. And more powerful. And also more wrenching. It’s twisted me up in ways that I can’t really describe. Let’s just say, I ran to the woods often. I cried. I raged. And I have thanked the universe for therapy at least a dozen times a day.
I think of a quote my friend Erica Woods Tucker sent me a few weeks ago from a podcast Gary Shteyngart (author of the memoir Little Failure) did with Elizabeth Gilbert: “When you’re doing it right, writing memoir will feel both a relief and a trauma.”
And so because I know this, I wanted to be realistic with this young writer. I didn’t want to be discouraging but I didn’t want to lie to her either. And I was afraid of her waking up one day in January and beating herself up for not having finished the book she set out to finish. It’s so wonderful to have a story percolating in you for so long, and so devastating when you can’t get it down on paper.
We read a lot about different writers’ eccentric processes—but what about those crucial moments before we put pen to paper? For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like, I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it being to a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
I put my hands on the keyboard and begin.
I hope that young writer can write that book she’s been aching to write. I hope if she doesn’t meet the deadline, that she forgives herself. And I hope that what I said to her didn’t discourage her. I hope she realizes that she doesn’t need mine or anyone’s permission, just her own.
And to all those out there imagining this creative life I want to say:
Don’t wait for someone to tell you you can do something big, that you can write or paint or draw or take pictures or whatever it is your heart desires. Do that shit. Do it relentlessly. Get up every day and work towards that goal. Write a page or a scene or develop a character. Put that paintbrush to canvas. Open that sketchbook you bought months ago. Do it today. This work takes time and patience. You can’t get up one day and say you’re going to run a marathon and expect to do that without keeling over. That’s 26.2 miles, homie. You will have to train. Art requires the same dedication and effort. If it’s that important, start. Poco a poco. Día a día.
And when you can’t get up every day and do it, forgive yourself. And when you don’t meet that self-imposed deadline, forgive yourself. And when people don’t support you or your work, insist you’re living a pipe dream, forgive them too. Then buckle down and do the work. Show them. Tell them: Watch me.
After that exchange with the writer, I started thinking about my sister who used to tell me every time we fought that I thought that I was better than her. She was the smart one when we were growing up. She was the one who was supposed to go places so when I was the one that was offered a four year scholarship to boarding school, she treated me like shit that entire summer before I left, ratted on me about my boyfriend (my first love who lived just down the block) and told me she celebrated for a week after I left. (I’d find out years later that she cried for weeks afterwards.) On the flipside, she also gave me a pair of her favorite shoes that I coveted—the square toed Mary Janes with the three thin straps that I was only able to wear once because they blistered my feet so bad.
She started saying it not long after I left but it got worse when she became a teen mom. Whenever we argued, which was often because that’s just always been our relationship, she’d say, accusingly, “you swear you’re better than me.” A few times I said, “That’s cuz I am.” I’m willing to look at my shit and see how I internalized that elitism I learned in boarding school and at Columbia. Then I learned in so many ways and so many instances, in microaggressions and not, that no matter what I did, to white America I’d always be just a spic from the ghetto. It didn’t matter what degrees I had or what job I had or what workshops I attended or what books and essays and short stories and poems I published. That was sobering as fuck, let me tell you.
I’ve been called pretentious. It’s been whispered that I swear I’m all that because I went to Columbia and have studied with some of the greatest writers of our time, at VONA and at Tin House and Acentos and so many workshops. It sucks when this happens to you. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If I hadn’t gone off to study, I’d be labeled a low life with no direction. When I did go off to make my way in the world and committed to this writing life, I was labeled this and that, all synonyms for conceited and full of herself.
We talk about superiority complexes but few want to talk about inferiority complexes and how people project their shit on you. I’ve been dealing with this for much of my life, so much so that for a long time I wouldn’t tell people where I went to school. It started with my sister and continued with other family and friends and people who weren’t my friends though they claimed to be. Yes, for a while I thought I was better because I did this and that, but here’s the thing: I know better now. Just because I’m educated and published, etc., doesn’t mean I think I’m better. In fact, I think if you set your mind to it and work hard and smart, you too can write your stories and publish your work and teach what you’ve been obsessed with for as long as you can remember. What this life requires is hard work and staying power. You have to be willing to fail and get up and try again. Talent won’t do it for you if you don’t have the grind work ethic. You have to study craft and read and write tons, and then read and write and study some more. The work to be better is never ending. You have to be relentless in your pursuit.
Let me be clear in no uncertain terms: demanding excellence of yourself and others isn’t pretentious. If you don’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you…
So, yes, you can do it too. Fuck yes you can. Pero, please, if you don’t or convince yourself that you can’t, don’t be mad at me for doing it. That’s your shit, not mine.
And that brings me to something else I’ve been thinking about this week: the friendships you lose when you’re grinding towards your dream.
They love and support you, call you sis, until they fear you’re shining brighter than them, until you reflect a mirror they can’t handle, until they see you doing what they aren’t… Then they label you problematic and whisper: “oh, she thinks she’s hot shit now.” That’s the thing about grinding relentlessly towards your dreams and earning the fruits of your labor—people fall by the wayside. Yes, I get the whole “you’re better off without them” platitudes but this isn’t about that. This is about the wackness and insecurity of people, and how lonely this road can be sometimes.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the sting of those losses. I love hard. I cherish my friendships. Yes, I know a lot of people (so many) but I don’t let people in easily (which is a topic for another time), so when I let you in, it’s hard for me to see you go, especially if I see you hate on me for doing what I do. Especially when we’ve shared stories over plates of baked chicken and glasses of bourbon and you know how hard I’ve worked and suffered. Yeah, that’s just wack and it hurts…but I guess it just be like that sometimes.
*An essay a week in 2016*
I finished Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson this week. All I can say is cop that. Cop it soon, especially if you were raised in 1970s &/or 80s Bushwick.
What stayed with me?
Repeated refrán throughout: This is memory.
Woodson seamlessly braids the story, jumping back and forth, making connections. I was never lost.
Later in the book, she writes:
“Linden, Palmetto, Evergreen, Decatur, Woodbine—this neighborhood began as a forest. And now the streets were named for the trees that once lived here.”
I learned something new about the neighborhood I still consider home though I’m no longer of there, I will always be from there.
The book ends with the protagonist, Autumn, her brother and father back in Tennessee, on the land where they once lived, that they left to move to Bushwick. They are at the lake that their mother walked into. “This earth is 70% water. Hard not to walk into it.”
She ends the book: “I lifted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, all this, everything and everyone, became memory.”
It was a betrayal by one of her best friends that made August finally look to leave Bushwick. She threw herself into her books. They were her way out.
For me, it was my brother’s leaving the house that was my reason. I was in seventh grade. There was no one in the house to love me like that… Books were also my way out.
The book brought me back to Brooklyn. To my brother Carlos and all the stories I have of him.
…When we played house one day and I discovered something was different about him. He flicked his neck and the pantyhouse he was wearing on his head cascaded over his shoulder. I knew later that what I was seeing for the first time was that my brother was gay.
The time he burned his face making my sister and me pancakes.
How he would tuck us in at night and tell my mom, “Ya arrope las nenas…”
In a house where no one could protect me from my mother’s abuse, my brother brought me a sense of safety and love no one else could. Then he turned 13 and everything changed and I didn’t know why. He started acting out at school. When he broke curfew, mom beat him with a belt then locked herself in her room. We could hear her crying from three rooms away, in the kitchen.
Mom would later say, “Se aferraba a mi…”
She says Millie told him. Has built a whole narrative around that. My brother told me she’s the one that told him about how he was conceived in a rape. He was never the same after that.
This is memory…
What I know is that once my brother left, the abuse became amplified. Maybe mom wasn’t crueler, maybe she didn’t yank my hair as often, giving me whiplash, but my brother wasn’t there to get me out…to help me forget…
Carlos me apoyaba. He wrote letters that my first love dictated to him. Then he snuck them to me. He helped me get out of the house to see my boo. Carlos talked to me and trusted me. He told me about what boys do. He didn’t call me puta when I told him I kissed Ruben, like mom did that time she caught me and Ruben talking. All we were doing was talking.
When I got my period when I was ten, he mushed me and said, “Stop growing up,” and laughed.
When I told him about boarding school, though he rolled his eyes when I told him Millie agreed that I should go (they had a different relationship), he called mom to help convince her. I never moved back…
Juan Gabriel passed away on Sunday, 8/28. If you were raised by a doña in the 70s and 80s, his songs were part of your Saturday morning ritual.
Katia and I were listening to his songs, Hasta que te Conoci, Querida, No Me Vuelvo Enamorar, on our way to my house early Monday morning. The sun hadn’t quite come up yet but she was announcing her ya vengo arrival in the purples, red and deep blues that crept up on the horizon. NY was still quiet. Early risers made their way across the streets to trains or buses, mostly women from what I saw, carrying lunch bags with what I imagine was leftovers from last night’s dinner.
I thought of my mother, mop in hand, singing along loudly to Juan Gabriel. She is in a bata, her hair messy, the smell of King Pine wafts through the apartment, I stand in awe of her and wonder if she knows how beautiful she is.
No sabia, de tristezas, ni de lagrimas
Ni nada, que me hicieran llorar
Yo sabia de cariño, de ternura
Porque a mí desde pequeño
Eso me enseño mama, eso me enseño mama
Eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo vivía muy bienYo vivía tan distinto, algo hermoso
Algo divino, lleno de felicidad
Yo sabia de alegrías, la belleza de la vida
Pero no de soledad, pero no de soledad
De eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo vivía muy bienHasta que te conocí
Vi la vida con dolor
No te miento fui feliz
Aunque con muy poco amor
Y muy tarde comprendí
Que no te debía amar
Porque ahora pienso en tiMas que ayerY mucho mas
We had a sound system by then. The one with the glass front that clicked open. It was the most expensive piece of equipment we owned. The speakers were almost my height and just as loud.
Mom doesn’t like the way I write about Millie. “She was bad to me,” she says, but that’s not what I remember. And isn’t that the problem (and beauty?) of memory—it is flawed, imperfect. Think about it: how different people tell stories of a moment they all shared.
Whenever my brother spoke of Millie, he prefaced it with, “I know you had a different relationship with Millie than I did…” and what followed was usually a story about how controlling Millie was, how violent…
Like the story of how my brother ended up moving to our grandmother’s house after a fight with Millie. At that point he was in high school, working at The Gap, and coming into his own. He dressed in that New Wave/Village style of the 80s that I later learned was popular in the gay clubs—fitted tees, bell bottom pants with thick soled, platform Village shoes with the metal plates on the toes.
I don’t know what they fought about this time. My brother said I was somehow involved. He and Millie were always fighting at this point.
Carlos admitted he wasn’t doing the right thing. Although he was working and going to school, he was selling weed on the side. Millie confronted him about it but the war between them started long before that when Millie suddenly moved in and months later we celebrated our first Christmas. This was their final battle.
Mom told me the story of how she met Millie after Carlos died. She went with a brother from the Kingdom Hall to his sister’s house, for what I’m not sure. Mom says there were all women there but she didn’t think anything of it. Millie noticed her right away and sat next to her on the couch. I imagine my mother, who though she was 21 and had three children by then, was naïve about so much. Millie asked her why she was there. Mom pointed to the kitchen where the brother was talking to his sister. Millie asked if she knew what was going on there. My mother shook her head, with confusion. Millie grabbed a woman’s hand and started dancing with her. She brought her close and grinded against her body. She let her hands slip below her waist. My mother stared.
After that, Millie started showing up at random moments and places: on the train when mom was on her way to work en la factoría: when mom picked us up from the baby sitter, Millie would show up on a bike and ride alongside us, Carlos, who was six, glared at Millie and pulled Mom toward him, but he was no match for Millie. One day Mom came home to find Millie waiting for her on the stoop of the building. She walked us up and marched in without waiting to be invited in. She moved in not long after and that was that…
Carlos and Mom told me stories to correct my memory.
When they fought before we went to Coney Island, the threat of cancelling the trip hovered ominously. Mom explained that it was about money. Millie raged about mom not having money, meanwhile Mom says Millie never paid for a bill in that house, not the rent or the light or groceries. I don’t remember that.
This is memory…
On Wednesday, enroute to NYC after a fantastic day at Dorney Park, the car started rattling and making scary noises. We were on a busy highway. Babe, being the stupendous driver that she is, made her way from the outer lane to the shoulder, thus preventing something tragic from happening. We got out to find the back left tire shredded so bad, it was smoking. She had a spare and the tools necessary (of course), and she and my sister friend Nívea joined forced to change the now disintegrated tire. Lawd, I have never been so grateful to be with two butches who know how to handle these kinds of situations. I watched, my body shaking and heart pounding, as cars sped by so fast, the car shook in their wake. I prayed silently, asking the universe to protect us. “All is well,” I repeated over and over, like a mantra, while I watched these two women work, my daughter and her BFF giggling absentmindedly in the backseat, unaware of how different this could go… Then a generous trucker pulled up behind us to help, his 18 wheeler now protecting our car from the rushing traffic. “Y’all alright? Need help?” he asked in a thick Southern accent. He gave us air to fill the spare, told us he once lived in NY, now lives in South Carolina but his daughter is still at NYU studying medicine. I have never been so grateful for the generosity of strangers who see someone in need and pull over to help. May his generosity return to him a thousand fold.
God has so many faces. Mother, Father, God can show up to you in the form of a truck driver with a thick Southern accent who first words to you are: “Y’all alright? You need help?” And proceeds to assist you by giving you air from his truck to fill your spare. Homie really just pulled a hose from his eighteen wheeler. *pause for effect* The cars and trucks whizzed by him but he is unbothered by it, he does not flinch or hesitate. He lifts the shredded tire, thick workers gloves on his hands that are dirt and oil stained, he is like a fish in water, the roads are his ocean. And he was sent to help you. How beautiful is that?
My comadre Alicia introduced me to Pomodoro this past May at the Sankofa Sisterhood Writers Retreat. My bruja sister Lizz reminded me of this magical method during our weekly check in. Basically, the method goes: you write/work for 20 minutes (timed), take a five minute break then hit it again. After an unsettling night of repeatedly interrupted sleep and strange, lucid dreams, I woke up anxious and couldn’t kneed the tightness from my chest, so I needed this method this week more than ever. I lost count of how many Pomodoros I did, but I got so much done including writing for the memoir, syllabi, Writing Our Lives prep emails and questionnaires, creating Google drives for my classes and inviting the appropriate parties, etc. Praise your community that holds you up and shows you you got this even when the anxiety leans in and makes you fret and wonder how the fuck you’re gonna get it all done.
That night, exhausted and still feeling the heaviness, I received an email telling me that one of my essays is slated to be included in textbook for first year college students (in the chapter on Race and Identity). I squealed when I got the news but I hesitated to share it. Still, after such an emotionally challenging day, I pressed myself to share the joy.
This got me thinking about how we’re taught to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, especially us women of color. And we internalize that shit too so we often don’t share when something beautiful happens to us and when we do, people say we’re showing off, we’re arrogant, full of ourselves, etc. Why? Haven’t we earned this shit? Haven’t I?
Celebrate yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate your love(s) and your life and your ovaries. Don’t you remember how you walked through fire? Don’t you remember when they told you you were too much of too much, that girls like you ain’t shit and won’t be shit? Don’t you remember how you vowed to be somebody, to show them, the most stinging blow coming from your mother who called you retardada and ordinaria, said, “yo sabia que tu no ibas a ‘cer ni mierda con tu vida” when you told her you weren’t going to law school. It didn’t matter that you still had your graduation gown on, the Columbia crown stitched onto the lapel. You had to prove your worth. Is it enough yet? Have you showed yourself yet that you’ve always been worthy? Do you see now that though you suffered, all this served to show you how relentless you are? Unfuckwithable. G’head mama, be proud. You were forged in storms. You’ve earned all of it, carajo. Word.
Y después de un tiempo
uno aprende que si es demasiado,
hasta el calor del sol quema.
Asi que uno planta su propio jardín
y decora su propia alma, en lugar
de esperar a que alguien le traiga flores.
Y uno aprende que uno realment puede aguantar,
que uno realment es fuerte,
que uno realmente vale,
y uno aprende y aprende…
y con cada día uno aprende.
~ “Y uno aprende”, Jorge Luis Borges
*An essay a week in 2016*
Here’s the thing no one tells you about digging into memory and writing about the ghosts that haunt you: you will have to relive those moments and it will leave you reeling and you will carry that reeling in your chest and you won’t know what to do with it or yourself, and you will snap at people, the people you love most, who hold you when you’re heaving, and you won’t know what to do with that pain so you lash out and you can’t help yourself…in the moment, you will blame those people, say it is them, their nagging, their demands…and only later, when you’ve had time to calm fuck down will you see that it wasn’t them, it was you and your shit coming up…and you will be so fucking sorry but sorry doesn’t heal the pain you already caused…so what do you do with it? With yourself? You will have to figure that the fuck out and you will wonder why this healing journey is so fucking hard.
You will worry that they will leave. That you and your shit are too much to handle… There go those abandonment issues coming up again…
All of your stuff comes up. How do you hold yourself through it? How do you cope when the healing gets hard? What made you think that healing would be easy? The cliché walk in the park?… You tell your students that the only way out is in and you believe it when you say it, but it’s in these moments when you’re alone, holding your bleeding, pulsing heart in your hands, that you wonder why it has to be this way… why does it have to be so damn hard? Why isn’t the confrontation in the work/the writing enough? Why does it have to linger and make you cry? Why. The. Fuck? Why wasn’t it enough that you dared to go there again? Haven’t you cried and suffered enough? Why can’t that hand around your neck ease its grasp? Whose grip is it anyway? Is it yours? That vise grip that suffocates…
I’ve received several messages over the past few weeks from people, thanking me for the work I do. They tell me I’m brave for doing it. I confess that I don’t always feel brave. No, nix that, I rarely, if ever, feel brave while doing it. Most days I feel obsessed with the stories and haunted by them. Some days I feel worried and stressed about it. I’m terrified most of the time.
A poet I know, Angy, commented on an FB status about my Writing Our Lives Class, saying she’s been dying to take it but is “deathly afraid.” I chuckled. I wonder why people assume I’m not afraid of doing this work. That it doesn’t tax me to the point of tears and irritability (like it did earlier this week). Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t laughing at her. I was laughing at the idea that I can’t possibly be deathly afraid of this work because I do it. I responded: “I’m rarely unafraid when doing this work. My memoir terrifies me. I do it anyway…or maybe even because…”
I think fear is an indication that something is there, simmering below the surface just waiting to be explored. I’m imagining the magma bubbling below the surface of a volcano before it erupts sending a plume of gas hurtling into the air so ashes fall on the surrounding area for days.
This week was one of those hard writing weeks. I pushed through two chapters—one about our backyard when I was growing up and how it was my safe haven until I was molested there; and another about my Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me. The confrontation with my past lingered and made me reel for days before I finally settled down. I gave myself yesterday off from the memoir and instead handled office work and fall prep work that reminds me that I need an assistant. I mean, I have lesson plans to do and syllabi to complete and bookkeeping and emails to send and respond to and grant and residency applications and…and… There’s always work to do, and no I’m not complaining. I know how blessed I am.
I go back to teaching in two weeks after two months off, a gift I gave myself so I could focus on the writing. I love the work I do. I absolutely love teaching but this time off was everything, and it reminded me of the life I’m working toward building where I write more than I teach and not the other way around.
I’ve written this essay over the course of a week that started off tough, but I must also acknowledge that even when it was hard, the universe continued to remind me of why this work is so necessary and why I have to keep doing it.
My upcoming nine week personal essay workshop, Writing Our Lives, is full and now has a waiting list. You have to understand, I started this class five years ago because I wanted to share what I know and love about autobiographical writing. There have been times when I’ve had only three students in the class and I still taught it with my entire heart. I extended the class this semester to nine weeks (from six) and upped the price by $200. When I first did it, I worried that people wouldn’t sign up, that they’d say it was too expensive and not the worth the cost. I had to remind myself of the importance of this work and the political environment that made me create this class. See, I created it for people of color and marginalized folks because we’ve been told for so long that our stories don’t matter, that our voices don’t matter, that we don’t matter, and our faces and histories are not reflected in the American literary canon. The only way to fight and push against that is to tell our stories. This is my way of helping that happen.
I also have been wanting to bring this class online because the demand is high and I want to step up my quest. I’ve been wracking my brain on how to do this, doing research, asking people, etc. but this week I was presented with an opportunity to do just that through an organization. More news on this later.
I also found out today that my essay “Millie’s Girl” which was published in the VONA Voices Anthology “Dismantle” is being taught this upcoming semester at Hawaii Pacific University. Ain’t that some deliciousness right there? No, it’s not the first time my work has been taught at the college level and beyond, pero that shit never gets old. Some time ago, I heard a student dropped a class at a university in California because she couldn’t handle what I said in the piece about religion and the bible and the intolerant views on homosexuality. My second Mom Millie died terrified of going to hell and there was nothing I could do to console her or undo the teachings that were ingrained in her in the campos of Lares where the Pentecostal ideologies are as deeply ingrained as the roots of the wild mango trees. So, no, I’m not sorry I wrote it and, no, I’m not sorry that pendeja dropped the class. I think its dope that she was so affected she couldn’t continue in the class and she will forever remember my story as a result. She and her beliefs were challenged and I’m proud my work did that.
Today, a writer whose work I admire greatly (you should read her essay “It Will Look Like Sunset”) reposted a status from exactly a year ago where she wrote about having left a horribly abusive marriage and her having to deal with having to co-parent her son with her abuser, and learning that her son, all of nine years old, knows the extent of the abuse and will have to live with that for the rest of his life. The status tore me wide open, as someone who grew up with abuse, who was abused, who has witnessed it so many times, who saw her sister beat and attacked her assailant, who is about to go into a chapter in my book called, “The Violence You Cannot Unwear” about how I became violent as a kid, mirroring what was being done to me and what I saw at home and in my neighborhood. I wrote to her immediately and thanked her for her audacity and relentless drive to live on and through and with it all. She confessed that she struggles with people judging her for what she writes and shares. And, of course, I get that too. You can’t imagine the shit I get for daring to write what I do. And I told her as much, and also agreed that some days it’s easier to tell the naysayers to fuck off, perhaps not using such colorful language but you get the point. I think of a line in a post my partner sent me about grief: “Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.”
I had just left a therapy session that made me feel alive and supported. Afterwards, I made my way down to Union Square, walking slow and taking in the city and it’s wonder. I laughed at myself and how I sometimes I feel so exhausted with the frenetic energy of this city, my hometown, but today it’s energy gave me life. I stopped to watch the kids giggling at the clown making animals out of balloons. I looked for the lavender booth at the farmer’s market and shrugged when I found he wasn’t there. I put a tomato to my nose, closed my eyes and inhaled deep. It smelled like earth. I ate cheese from the Amish vendor and walked away without buying any. He still wished me a nice day. I smiled at people and took pictures as I thought about what I’d dug into in therapy.
We talked about how what has helped me survive these ghosts that haunt me is confronting them and writing about them and processing them in my work. My therapist agrees that this willingness to stare at my shit has made all the difference. Before we ended, he said, “You’re such an amazing mom. What you do for your daughter…” I teared up, of course. He knows I mother in resistance of how I was mothered and though most days I know I am doing a good job, I still struggle with owning that I am a good mom…and of course, that makes sense considering my history.
On this day twelve years ago, I went into labor after a really hard labor where I was on bedrest for two months after almost miscarrying, I retained so much water that my feet looking like two perniles, and I cried pretty much every day. My water broke as I was driving across the University Heights Bridge (also known as the 207 Bridge) from the Bronx to Manhattan. I was in my baby daddy’s white Acura Legend (he was my partner then) when my water broke on our way to a dinner at my grandmother’s house. I confess that at first I thought I had peed on myself. It wasn’t a gush like I’ve seen on TV, but more like a trickle. After 26 hours of back labor (the most painful kind because of the way the baby is positioned against your spine), they cut me open and went in to get her. She was screaming before they took her out. My baby girl. My greatest love. The one who has repeatedly saved my life and made me face my shit because I can’t have her carrying what I did. Tomorrow is her birthday and she’ll be with her dad for the first time ever. I won’t be able to wake her up at midnight the way I always have, smothering her with hugs and kisses, telling her how much I love her, thanking her for choosing me to be her mom, giving her bags of gifts and treats and all things she loves. Yes, I’m having all the feelings, but this much I know, I’d go through all of it again and again for her, my baby girl, Vasialys Solae.
A few years ago, at AWP 2013, three months before my brother died, I asked my mentors, “How do you take care of yourself during the work?” They all posited their various strategies but it’s Chris Abani’s response that I remember the most. He shook his head and said, “You can’t.” I was like, “What the fuck, Chris?” We laughed. Then he got serious and said that I will come up with ways to take care of myself, like the boxing I was doing at that time and my walks in the forest. But there will come a time when those things won’t work and I will have to reinvent my methods of self-care. “You will always have to reinvent those ways, Vanessa.”
I was reminded of that this week when I was struggling. I went for long walks in the park at night and spent time being gentle with myself. I remember Chris telling me that I have to remind myself of why I’m doing the work, over and over and over. “Redemption is easy,” he said. “It’s restoration that takes a life time.” Indeed…
*An essay a week in 2016*
(Late again, I know…)
August 14th marked the thirteenth anniversary of the Northeast blackout of 2003. When I saw an article about it, my mind ricocheted back to that day. I had to walk uptown to Dyckman-200th Street from where I worked on 57th Street and 10th Avenue. I had just met my daughter’s father a few weeks before and we had already declared our love. The following week we went to Dominican Republic and three months later, I’d get pregnant with our daughter. The relationship didn’t last three years. I was such a different woman then.
Over the past week I’ve had numerous reminders of the woman I was. There was a celebration for what would have been my friend RD’s 51st birthday. We all came together at his house upstate to remember him. Dozens of people, many who I knew from way back when and many who I didn’t. I saw people I once considered friends and even two exes. I looked at one of my exes and remembered who I was when we started. Just 16, he was 24 and I thought that was the flyest thing in the world that an older man had noticed me. He loved me when I wanted someone to love me and he was smooth, he knew exactly what to say to a lonely sixteen year old girl. Why that relationship lasted six years I can attribute to the ignorance of youth. He wasn’t faithful and he wasn’t careful with his infidelities either. I put up with it. He wasn’t reliable and I didn’t ever feel safe with him, but at that point that’s what I thought I was worth. I’ve done that so many times…sold myself short because I didn’t realize I deserved more, that I deserved tenderness and consideration and reliability.
He tried to get me back, that one, a few years ago, after he spent a few years in jail. I agreed to see him because, well, I’d spent years of my life with him and at that point I still believed (hoped?) that we could be civil and perhaps even friends. He showed up with an overnight bag. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that he was not staying in my house. He didn’t get it. He pulled the same game he pulled when I was sixteen, but by then I was in my early thirties, I was a mom, and had lived enough to know I wasn’t going there ever again.
You tend to think about the past a lot when you’re writing a memoir.
I’ve been writing about my childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Bushwick of the before. Bushwick when it was all black and Latino, when rubble and tire strewn junkyards and burnt out buildings dotted the neighborhood, going on for blocks. Bushwick at the beginning of hip hop, when Planet Rock blasted from passing cars and boom boxes and the b-boys laid out cardboard boxes to do their headstands and windmills. Bushwick during the crack era, when the candy color topped vials dotted the landscape, in the cracks of the sidewalks, in the gutters, in our playgrounds and stairwells. It wasn’t always pretty but it was home.
I feel an incredible sense of loss when I think of Bushwick, and it’s not just because of the gentrification. Sure, it sucks that the revitalization isn’t for us, the brown and black people that were stuck there when nobody wanted to go there. But what I remember, what makes me feel the loss, is that once I left, I never returned, and in many ways, I’ve felt unanchored since…
If I close my eyes I can go back to that moment. It’s three o’clock in the morning on a warm, cloudless night in late August 1989. My second mom Millie borrowed her brother’s church van to take me to Wellesley, MA where I would be starting boarding school in a few days. We were packing the van with my things. Two maletas of clothes, toiletries, an alarm clock, a bookbag, pens and paper, the square toed village shoes my sister gifted me that I only wore once on the first day of school because they blistered my feet so bad, just the sight of them made my toes ache. When Millie brought out the red ten speed she bought off a crackhead just a few days before, I asked if I could ride it before she put it in the car. Mom shook her head and said “‘tas loca, es media noche,” but Millie insisted, “Dejala, no ves que se va.” I rode that bike up and down my block and said goodbye. I blew a kiss up to the second floor window where my first love lived. I rode through the lumber yard turned supermarket parking lot that we kids played in and where I got my first kiss. I knew somehow that though I’d be back for vacations and breaks, I would never really be of that neighborhood again though I would always be from it.
I stared out the back window of the van when we pulled off an hour later and said goodbye to the Vanessa I was, who I’d never be again.
There have been so many versions of me. The Vanessa who was ashamed to be from poverty, from Bushwick, ashamed to be Latina, brown and black and all things she was taught were inferior. The Vanessa who rejected her roots because she just wanted to feel like she belonged to something, to somewhere. Then I was gifted How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents in my junior year of boarding school and for the first time I learned that my people have history and literature and stories. And so I grew into the Vanessa that would fight for Ethnic Studies at Columbia so I could study the history of my people, their rich cultures and stories.
During that era I was still the Vanessa looking for love in all the wrong places. I was the Ivy League student in love with a drug dealer from uptown. I lived two completely different lives until I turned around shortly after graduation and realized this wasn’t the life I imagined for myself so I left him and I bounced around for a while. I fell in love again and still sold myself short. I worked in corporate America. So many jobs, so many times getting fired, so much unhappiness. So many betrayals and lessons. It was having my daughter that caused the first major shift in my adult life. It made me stop running away from writing. I threw myself into that world and never looked back. The second huge shift was my brother’s death. I had to face all the griefs I was carrying or be broken by them. I had to face and name that primordial wound of being unmothered and all the stupid shit I’d done as a result, including repeatedly falling for mirror images of my mother, emotionally unavailable and abusive.
Of course so much happened in between and during all these eras of my life, all these renditions of Vanessa. So much partying and drinking and hanging out. So many tears, friendships made and ended. A whole lot of drama.
The butterfly effect is the concept that small causes can have large effects. Urbandictionary.com defines it as: The scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.
- A man traveled back in time to prehistoric ages and stepped on a butterfly, and the universe was entirely different when he got back.
- The flap of a butterfly’s wings changed the air around it so much that a tornado broke out two continents away.
This week I revisited the story of being molested. I’d been avoiding it. I wrote it years ago and haven’t looked at it in at least two years. I knew it was time to dig into it for my memoir, so I took myself to the park where I could sit under the big, blue sky and be held by Pachamama while I worked. It was so hard. I’d written it in visceral detail, including everything that motherfucker did to me. I know I had to write it all to get to the point where I could edit it for craft. I chopped it up for the book, then slammed my computer shut and sat for a while.
Later that day, someone who’d read my work reached out to thank me. She too is unmothered but didn’t have the term for it until she read my essays. She insisted that this reality has made us stronger. Here’s the thing: It’s difficult to hear that what has made me suffer also made me strong. It’s not that I don’t get that. Trust me, no one knows that about myself more than me. Yes, I am resilient and relentless because I had to learn how to be. It’s just that that strength does not negate nor does it protect me from the suffering that came (and still comes) from being unmothered. This shit has layers.
I started going out to the backyard and up that plum tree when I was five. I did it to escape my mother and her abuse. I was molested in that backyard when I was six and for a long time, even after that desgraciado moved back to Puerto Rico, that backyard didn’t feel safe to me. That’s when I started climbing into the junkyard next door. It was easy to climb into because the fence that separated the lot from the yard was falling apart so I could easily slip my body through the gaps.
The yard was like those that dotted the neighborhood—piles of rubble and trash, tires and rusted license plates, lumber with nails sticking out at angles, hypodermic needles strewn throughout. Trees and bushes pushed through those heaps of garbage. It was there, among the feral cats and kitten sized rats, that I imagined I was the female Indian Jones on a quest in a foreign land to save the world. I saved myself over and over in those fantasies.
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like had I not experienced such trauma at such a young age. What would my life be like if I was mothered, if my mother was tender and kind? I have no answers. I know that it’s all contributed to me becoming this fierce woman who is just as beautiful as she is flawed. Would I change it if I could? I can’t say no…but I can’t say yes, either. I may have struggled and suffered but I’ve created a life for myself that I’m proud of. I’m raising a fantastic kid who shines supernova bright. I’m in a relationship, experiencing a love I’ve never known where I feel the safest and most cherished I have in I don’t know how long. I’m the writer I imagined I wanted to be, doing the work I want to do. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s no less amazing. So, no, maybe I wouldn’t change anything though I confess it chokes me up to admit this… It just be like that sometimes. I told you this shit has layers, right?
*An essay a week in 2016*
I’m sitting in my living room, trying to ignore the cleaning that I have to do, as I nurse a summer cold that took me out these past two days. Being sick always sucks. Being sick in this heat is a different kind of hellish. The upside is that I’ve been digging into Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A Generation Speaks about Race. If you don’t have it, COP IT!
Race has been on my mind all week. From the #BlackGirlMagic that’s been happening in the Olympics in Rio (Biggup Simone Bile, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Simone Manuel) and the problematic coverage of their accomplishments, to that fool who I refuse to name, whom I can’t believe is actually a candidate for our next president, saying that Obama founded Isis, and so much in between.
This week I learned that a panel I was invited to participate on was accepted for AWP17. I thought back to the last AWP conference I attended in 2015 in Minneapolis and the reflection essay I wrote (that went viral), Color in AW(hite)Place.
There was a time when I refused to believe that race was such a pervasive issue. I’d cringe when people cried “racism.” I’ve been known to say, “Not everything comes down to race, dammit.” I’m not that naive anymore.
On Monday, an essay published on Electric Literature showed up on my timeline as a sponsored piece. (Thank you, universe. I see you!) I clicked on it because, as you might know, I’m an avid reader of personal essays. In the piece, a white woman attempts to own how she was complicit when confronted with racism. Imagine my surprise when I saw an entire paragraph of one of my Relentless Files essays quoted. The essay ended with a line from my essay. I was not named anywhere in the piece though my words, dozens of them, were quoted. I was referred to as “a writer you know from Facebook…”
Erasure: e·ra·sure, əˈrāSHər/, noun:
* the removal of writing, recorded material, or data.
* the removal of all traces of something; obliteration. “the erasure of prior history” Google.com
Cultural erasure is a practice in which a dominant culture, for example a colonizing nation, attempts to negate, suppress, remove and, in effect, erase the culture of a subordinate culture. The idea of “civilizing” nonwhite people can be seen as cultural erasure. Reference.com
At first I was like, “cool, someone valued my work enough to quote a chunk of it.”
But where’s my name? Why wasn’t I given credit by name? This sure feels like erasure.
I wondered if I should address it.
Should I just be happy that my words were quoted and not my name? Is this my ego? Am I just being difficult?
I checked with my FB fam:
Serious question: If your essay is quoted in someone else’s essay, do you think you should be named in said essay? Just saw my essay quoted and I’m not sure how I feel about being referred to as ‘a writer you know on Facebook’…
There were 90+ responses. The consensus was: yes, you should be cited. More than few mentioned the irony of erasure in an essay on race.
I reached out to the writer, used the word “erasure,” asked her to share her thought process. She apologized profusely, said it was a “style” decision, offered to give me credit in the comments section on her page. We went back and forth. I held a mirror to her: “How would you feel?” The result? The essay was updated later that day to include my name and a link to the essay. But the accent on the “a” in Mártir was missing. I questioned myself again. Should I bother? I mean, they did give me credit, but that’s not my name. I pushed through my self-doubt and contacted the writer again. The change was made.
I was left thinking about why I even questioned reaching out to the writer. Why did I hesitate? What is it about my dynamic with white women that makes me not trust myself and question whether I should defend myself? Me, a woman who is normally so quick to talk back and defend herself without hesitation…what is this silence I’ve internalized? Where does it come from? Why didn’t I consider myself and my work worthy of carrying my name? Why was “the writer you know on Facebook” enough at first?
I reached out to my friend D who went to NYU and works at NYU and whose daughter recently graduated from NYU. She shared stories of “me too”—the white female professor who gave her a dirty look; having to ally herself with people who would use her for what she could do for them…there are so many sacrifices we make to survive in white spaces.
I thought about that AWP15 essay again…
I confess: I searched out fellow writers of color at AWP. I gave them extra love when they came over to receive their AWP bag during the hours I was volunteering. I tried to make eye contact when I saw one walk by. I smiled and gave a head nod. I hoped they read my “we in this together” face. When someone walked over to the VONA table, I sold the program with gusto. I am a walking VONA billboard. I’m proud of that shit. Why? Because this shit is hard. Because being in these predominantly white places is hard. Because we get reminders of it when we see a black body stepped over. When we go to readings and not one of the 28 white writers mentions the killing of black men and women by police that has been all over the headlines for the past year. Because silence is a political act.
My silence is a political act. Is this who I want to be? How I want to show up in the world? Acid settled in the back of my throat. It burned.
I pulled out my journal and started writing what I now know is an essay that’s going to take me a little while to complete. I started:
What is it about white women that makes me, a normally very outspoken, quick to defend herself woman, get quiet when challenged or dismissed by them?
Then I started listing the white women who have silenced me, tracing it back to when I was just a thirteen year old girl from Bushwick trying to get an education.
There was my guidance counselor my first year of boarding school in 1989 (I’ll call her Ms. G) who reminded me every chance she got that I was too much, I needed to be tamed, quieted, the Brooklyn bred Latina taken out of me, by force or shaming if necessary.
When I talked too loud or laughed too loud or showed excited too loud, “Hush,” she said, shaking her head.
The keys that dangled from my hip jingled too loudly. “Take those off and put them in your bag.”
“It’s want to, Vanessa, not wanna.”
“You only speak Spanish in Spanish class, Vanessa.”
When she looked at me, she was tight lipped, nose turned up, her eyes scanning me, looking for something else to correct, to make right, to contain…
There was that professor at Columbia who after a challenging semester told me I was irresponsible when I showed her the doctor’s note excusing me from taking the final. When I went to take the make-up exam, she glared at me and slammed the exam onto the desk. “You people…” she said as she walked out and yanked the door behind her. I wondered what she meant by that. Did she mean you people of color, you spics, you hood girls?
There was the CEO of the nonprofit I worked as an editor who referred to me in an article about the organization for Fast Money Magazine as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my education or publishing credits. No mention of the work I’d done for the org, helping them rebuild the website by writing and overseeing the content creation. I was the stereotype in her eyes. No more. All those accomplishments didn’t matter. I was still just a spic…
There was my partner’s (now former) friend who we visited a few months ago in Minnesota…who antagonized me, treating me/us like the help. I spent the morning of my first day of what was supposed to be my vacation, helping her get her house ready for her housewarming, where she was debuting her new house to people. I did it and didn’t complain though I admit to feeling a way about it. That night, after a full moon ceremony, when I shared that this was the first of two consecutive full moons in Sagittarius (June and July of this year), she leaned forward and said, “No, that’s not possible. Let me tell you how this works…” and proceeded to go on her spiel where I was wrong and she was right. This happened repeatedly, where I felt antagonized and condescended, until I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out of the house for good, returning only to gather my things and leave.
The thing is: I didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t take her task for talking down to me. I simmered. I seethed and said nothing.
The list goes on for pages. The truth is I could spend days listing the microaggressions and episodes of blatant racism and erasure that I’ve experienced. I could quote friends and essays and books. I could talk about how it took me weeks to read through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen because it made me cringe and cry (I may have even thrown the book across the room once) because I saw myself in so many of the same situations, in boarding school, in college, in corporate America, just walking in the street or riding the train …
Like that time on the downtown 5 train when an older white woman kept shoving me. The woman could barely walk but she thought it was okay to push me because like her, I’d asked people to make room for me to enter the train. There was enough room for both of us but how dare I take up her space. How dare I insist on making space for my brown body? After the fifth or sixth shove, I stared her dead in the face and said, “Imma need you to stop pushing me.” She sneered, but she stopped pushing me.
Today I’m looking at the ways we internalize those episodes and quiet ourselves, shrink ourselves as a result.
The purpose of erasure is to make us doubt ourselves, feel like we’re buggin’, like we’re the problem if we speak up, if we dare to defend ourselves. Someone thought my words were insightful enough to quote my essay, but my name was not worthy of recognition. Even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention, I’ve been down this road enough times to know what erasure tastes like. I deserved to be cited. Me. By name. And asking for that isn’t too much nor is it confrontational. And, no, a note in the comments is not enough.
We should feel worthy enough to demand that much respect for the work we do, that we labor and lose sleep over. And we shouldn’t feel bad for that or worry that we’ll be labeled problematic or angry.
In the essay, I was labeled “defensive” when I was annoyed by a writer who asked me to translate the Spanish in my essay. Why is it “defensive” of me to expect a reader to do her homework? No, I’m not translating for you. Do. The. Work. I’m doing it. So should you. Word.