*An essay a week in 2017*
On Sunday I finally landed from my last of 4 trips over 5 weeks: Minneapolis where I helped run VONA’s regional program on the ground in conjunction with The Loft Literary Center; Newport Beach, Oregon for a Tin House NonFiction workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch; AWP in DC where I was on a panel; & finally a gig at The Center for Women Writers in North Carolina this past weekend.
I was out on my deck looking at the night sky when it hit me: this swelling in my chest that felt like a lightening; a pulling in my cheeks that made a toothless smile appear and soon I was giggling at myself. I sat with this strange feeling when it hit me: it was pride I was feeling. I told my partner. She said: “You should be proud, babe. And this is just the beginning.”
Then came the discomfort. Pride feels self-lauding and congratulatory. The shame set in quickly. The who the fuck do you think you are? The: you have no right to be proud. You shouldn’t be proud. Pride ain’t ever a good thing, girl. Como te atrevez? Te crees gran mierda pero no lo eres. Bring yourself down a few notches, girl. Stop being so full of yourself.
Google defines pride as:
- a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. “the team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory” Synonyms include: pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, “take pride in a good job well done”
- a group of lions forming a social unit.
- be especially proud of a particular quality or skill. “she’d always prided herself on her ability to deal with a crisis” — synonyms: be proud of, be proud of oneself for, take pride in, take satisfaction in, congratulate oneself on, pat oneself on the back for, “Lucas prides himself on his knowledge of wine”
Where does pride live in your body? It lives in my chest. It feels light. Like the weight of never feeling like I’m enough is lifted. It feels like accomplishment. It feels like I finally feel worthy and capable. It is so damn fleeting.
I used to imagine this life. I used to wish for it: the travel, the meeting people, the writing and learning and sharing love and heart and stories. I used to wish for it so hard. The wishing make me work my ass off. I quit the safety net of a full time editing job to live this life. I risked so much: financial security, knowing where my next check was coming from, how I was going to pay the bills, the rent, the light, money to fill the fridge. There were days when I had to decide whether to pay the light or buy food for me and my little girl. I’ve gotten eviction notices. I’ve defaulted on my student loans. There were so many times when I couldn’t afford to go anywhere that required money so we spent a lot of time in the park, on the grass, sandwiches and fruit in my knapsack. That’s how much, how bad I wanted this. For me. For us. Me and baby girl.
People have called me irresponsible. What do I see? I see a woman who showed her daughter what it takes to live your dreams. I showed my daughter that she too can live her dreams if she is willing to work for it. She has learned some valuable lessons from her mama.
I know this life isn’t meant for everyone. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of talking to folks to realize just how risky it was.
At AWP, a friend whose memoir was recently released told me how much she sacrificed to make this life happen for herself. When she got her book deal, she was months behind on her mortgage payments. She was near foreclosure. But she knew she had to write this book. She just had to. It was a burning inside of her that would turn her into ash if she didn’t. So she did, and she got a fantastic two-book deal to make it happen. “You’re doing everything you need to do, Vanessa.” she said, outside of a bar where we had just rubbed elbows with agents and publishers, some who were interested in seeing my work and some who were dismissive and gross. (Let’s just say I walked out of there knowing the type of person I want to represent me and the type I don’t.) “Keep going. You’re on your way. You will have all of this. All of it,” my friend said. My eyes welled. I let the tears fall as I stared at the traffic on that downtown D.C. avenue. I didn’t know how badly I needed to hear those words. I know now that I did.
I thought of this as I felt the mixture of pride and shame that made my stomach turn sour. I wondered: Why can’t I be proud of myself? Why can’t I say “I did this” and it not feel like I need to bring myself down a notch? Is that the internalized outside gaze? Whose gaze? Who made me feel this shame? And how can I convert it into action? What can I generate from this? Can I turn it into an acceptance of this pride that I know I deserve and have earned?
Christian theology says pride is one of the deadly sins. St. Augustine wrote: “It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
According to DeadlySins.com:
“The sin of Pride is said by some to be the foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins. Hubris is the gateway through all other sins enters the mortal soul.”
What it is: “Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.”
The punishment in Hell: “You’ll be broken on the wheel.”
Woah. That’s some heavy shit right there.
I write about the human experience. As such, when thinking about pride this week, I started digging into my own life and the moments I was robbed of my pride. I started a list that I’m sure will grow as I continue to dig into this wound.
At my graduation dinner from Columbia University, while still draped in my graduation gown, the Columbia crown stitched into the lapel, my mother told me she knew I wasn’t going to do shit with my life (“Yo sabía que no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida”) when I told her I wasn’t going to law school. She slammed her fork down on the table so hard, it shook.
I have never regretted that decision.
In 8th grade, I came home excited from a dance performance. I’d finally earned a solo in an interpretive dance piece we did for the Black History Month celebration. I remember the poem started: “What shall I tell my children who are black…” (Thanks to google, I now know it’s a poem by Dr. Margaret Burroughs.)
Within minutes of arriving, my sister reminded me that I was “retarded” and “still ain’t shit.” I remember her curled lip and how she looked down at me from her top bunk. My sister has always been quick to be the needle to burst my bubble whenever I’ve felt good about myself or something I’d accomplished.
On Christmas, the last time I spoke to her, she told me my writing was bullshit and my followers are bullshit. When I told her that she is so much the reason for why I’m a writer because as a kid all I wanted was to be like her, she said: “I don’t give a fuck why you’re a writer, Vanessa.” I’ve saved the textument. I am quoting her verbatim.
A college professor once gave us the assignment of writing about someone we knew growing up. I wrote about Teresa, the neighborhood crackhead, and how fragile and beautiful she was. I was proud of that piece. I was so young, just 18 or 19, trying my hand at writing, and I was looking for support, encouragement. When the professor handed back the piece, he told me “this isn’t writing,” and he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it.
Aristotle considered pride to be a virtue. Neel Burton writes on his blog:
A person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate, for pride implies greatness. In terms of the vices, a person who thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them is vain, whereas a person who thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous. Compared to vanity, pusillanimity is both commoner and worse, and so more opposed to pride.
It’s often so easy to write about the difficult things we’ve experienced in life. But what about the joy? What about the times my pride was reinforced? What about the times that I was encouraged to be proud of myself and all that I’d accomplished? I think of my brother…
A few years ago, I was flown down to Atlanta when a book I co-wrote won an award. I called my brother from the veranda of the posh hotel I was put up in by the organizers of the Decatur Book Festival. It was right across the road from Emory College, and every morning I sat outside under the sun to eat a custom made omelet. I called my brother on one of those mornings. “I’m having breakfast on a veranda, bro! This is some All My Children shit.” He laughed: “What the fuck is a veranda?” Me: “I don’t know but I’m sitting on one.” We laughed so hard. Before we hung up, he said: “I’m proud of you, sis. You doing it.” He always told me he was proud of me. When I came home with good grades. When I got into boarding school and Columbia. When I wrote my first book. When I went to my first VONA and the four times I attended after. He was always the first one to say it and often the only one.
From what I can tell, there is a difference between the pride deemed a sin in Christian texts and the pride Aristotle called a virtue. The former is more about vanity; the arrogant, megalomaniac type, where the person is obsessed with himself and his power. The pride Aristotle refers to is earned pride in oneself and one’s work. A pride that is not all consuming but connected to self-worth and the work one does out in the world. A pride that encourages the person to continue producing.
In my research on pride, I found a fascinating article on Psychology Today called Pride and Creativity: How pride is pride related to creative achievement?
“You received a score of 124 out of 147, which is the 94th percentile. Great job on that! That’s one of the highest scores we’ve seen so far!”
When Lisa Williams and David DeSteno told this to their participants, they noticed a significant increase in perseverance on a difficult cognitive task. This intrigued them, so they fiddled with the dials to see what was going on. When they took out the “Great job” part and just told the participants they performed exceptional, they saw no increase in perseverance. When they put people in a generally positive mood by having them look at pleasant pictures, such as a wedding and a tropical landscape—again, no increase in perseverance. What was it about this particular phrasing that increased motivation?
The winning phrasing was effective because it activated one of our most deeply-rooted emotions: pride. Pride is receiving a lot of research attention these days, as researchers are increasingly realizing its potency. In a recent study, David Matsumoto and Hyi Sung Hwang distinguish pride from triumph, another deeply-rooted human emotion. Participants were in strong agreement about what pride looks like:
Pride may have evolved to motivate people to achieve social status in a socially valued domain. This emotion emotion is not just any feel-good emotion though. Pride particularly makes people feel good about themselves. Children are quick to associate pride with domains in which they feel competent, and are driven to further pursue those domains. In contrast, those who continually receive negative feedback in a domain quickly lose their motivation for achieving in that domain.
But here’s the paradox: pride is correlated with both positive and negative social consequences. Pride has always received mixed reviews. The ancient Greeks viewed pride as “the crown of the virtues” whereas the early Christian philosophers viewed pride as the “deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins”. Pride is quite the polarizing emotion!
To reconcile these different conceptualizations of pride, researchers have found it useful distinguishing between two different shades of pride: authentic and hubristic.
Authentic pride is fueled by the emotional rush of accomplishment, confidence, and success, and is associated with prosocial and achievement-oriented behaviors, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and positive mental health. Authentic pride is also associated with genuine self-esteem, which is high self-esteem controlling for narcissism. Authentic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment may facilitate behaviors that are associated with attaining prestige. People who are confident, agreeable, hard-working, energetic, kind, empathic, non-dogmatic, and high in genuine self-esteem would draw inspiration from others and would want to be emulated by others.
Hubristic pride, on the other hand, is fueled by arrogance and conceit, and is associated with anti-social behaviors, rocky relationships, low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of disagreableness, neuroticism, narcissism, and poor mental health outcomes. Hubristic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of superiority and arrogance, may facilitate dominance by motivating behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and manipulation…
No one said creativity is simple, or has a single cause. People may take different paths to the same outcome. At any rate, one thing is clear: pride plays an important role in fueling creativity.
Why can’t you be proud of what you’ve accomplished and the work you do without someone calling you arrogant or saying you should temper it? What’s wrong with feeling pride when you’ve struggled so much to get where you are, to create a life for yourself in spite of the odds and numerous obstacles? And what’s with this shaming when you say you’re proud? What’s this shame we impose on ourselves? Where does it come from? How can we push back on it and remind ourselves that pride in one’s work is a beautiful thing? You should be proud of what you do and how you exist in the world. I’m talking about a healthy dose of pride, whatever that means to you. Not the pride that makes you think you’re better than people. Not the pride that keeps you from helping others. Not the pride that makes you think people owe you something or should look up to you. Nah. I’m talking about pride in what you do, in your grind, in your accomplishments. Pride that will keep you doing the necessary, important work that will hopefully make this world a better place. That kind of pride.
During her lecture at AWP, Jacqueline Woodson said that even today, after having written 32 books and receiving countless accolades in the form of awards and prizes, she still wakes up some days amazed that she’s a writer. She said she can hardly believe it sometimes.
This begs the question: can you be humble and also be proud of the work you do and know its importance in the world? I think so. The thing is, we often have teach ourselves how to be. We’ve been taught as women, especially as women of color, to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, but if I can’t be proud of what I’ve accomplished, of having created this life for myself, then how can I teach my students to be proud of the work they do, of how they push themselves to dig deeper into themselves and their stories? How can I teach my daughter to be proud of her fabulousness, of being so talented and compassionate and such a hard worker, if I don’t show her that I am of her? That I am proud of myself? Our kids learn by impersonation.
This is my promise to myself: I will work on being proud of how far I’ve gotten, as an unmothered woman who had to learn to become a woman and mother through trial and error. A woman who lives and loves in resistance to the way she was taught in her formative years. I will work on being able to take compliments and being gracious when they come in instead of cringing and wanting to run and hide. I will work on opening my heart to receiving the beautiful recognitions people gift me via notes and emails and face to face gushing that makes me blush. I will work on being a better, more accepting of love, Vanessa. Why do I say this? Because I realize that this is love that is coming my way. People show their love in so many ways. They do it when they see me and run over and want to meet me. They do it by sending me notes telling me how much my work has influenced them. They do it by sending emails to the Director of the center that brought me on to facilitate a talk and generative class, telling her to please bring me back, that I’m one of the best facilitators they’ve ever worked with, that I gave so much of myself, with no ego, with vulnerability and heart.
I don’t want to be the one to slap the hand of love away. I’ve done that so much in my life already. This was me functioning from a place of trauma. I am working on being a better Vanessa. One who can accept and be open to love in all its forms…especially now, when I have to teach myself how to be. Word.
*An essay a week in 2017*
I’m three essays behind, well, two with this one, but as I learned while doing this challenge last year, sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. I’ve traveled three times over the past month, twice on a plane. Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C. So yeah, you fall behind sometimes. Life happens. Be gentle with yourself. Push yourself but not to the breaking point. Just remember to write. Produce. If you want to catch up, cool. If not, then just start where you are. Remember what Daniel José Older says in his essay “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.
I’ve been churning this excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir in my mind since I got back from Tin House. It’s about the trip to Turkey in the spring of my 8th grade year that convinced me that I was ready to go to boarding school.
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. ~A Dim Capacity for Wings by Vanessa Mártir
Lidia Yuknavitch 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’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.
While at AWP last week, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, the insanely prolific and generous writer who has won so many awards and accolades, it’s ridiculous. But she’s also earned every single one. She’s written 32 books. Thirty-fuckin-two, yo. *pause for effect*… In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, which I devoured and just love love love, she wrote about the Bushwick she 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.
During the Q&A, I thanked her 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?”
My heart flashed to the last time I let someone make me feel ashamed of where I’m from.
It’s raining out. A cold early spring day. It is night time. We are on our way back to my small one bedroom apartment in uptown Manhattan. We have just left a poetry reading. A friend and her husband are staying at my place for the night. We are talking about how she has always wanted to live in NY. They are talking about the possibilities. Where could they live? Where should they look if the opportunity presents itself? He is listing the things he needs: sufficient space, an office, a living room, a washer and dryer. The list goes on. Then he says: “I don’t want to live in a dump just to live in NY.” My insides crumble.
I am a single mom. I live in a one bedroom apartment with my daughter. It is mine. The lease in under my name. It is the apartment I moved to in a neighborhood I love, close to my aunt, to help facilitate the writing life I am building for myself. I cannot afford a two bedroom. I can’t afford a building with a washer and dryer in the basement, much less an apartment with such luxuries. I am happy to get an apartment within my price range in the quieter side of the hood. I give my daughter the bedroom because girls need their own space. I learned this when I didn’t have my own room until I was 17 and a first year at Columbia University. I am proud of what I’d accomplished, on my own, a single mom who has recently quit her full-time editing job to live this writing life. All that pride comes crashing down when I hear that word: “dump.”
I feel small. Smaller than he probably intended. It probably isn’t a direct attack on me, but it sure feels like it. I know the smugness of class privilege well. I learned it in Turkey and I learned it in boarding school and at Columbia and in corporate America and in so many places.
This man grew up in privilege. His parents are college professors. He grew up in a house in the burbs. In my mind it is a two story brick beauty with a manicured lawn and even hedges and rose bushes. The kind of house I would walk by in Wellesley, MA, where I went to boarding school, and imagine the family that lived there. So different from me and mine.
This man does not have college debt. He now lives in a house he rents for his family. When he’s struggled to pay the bills, his family has chipped in. They send care packages with his favorite treats. He can say that he will not live in a “dump” just so he can live in New York. He can do so and not understand how hurtful that is. He can say that and not get how accomplished I felt (and still feel) for creating this life for myself, by myself. He does not get how that could feel good or fulfilling to anyone. All he sees is a dump.
I see freedom.
In Ankara, I saw myself in that maid when she picked up those blood soaked panties. I could relate more to her life than I could to Asli’s. Asli who lived in a high rise condominium with a view of the city from every room. Asli with her own bedroom that had space for two beds, one that I slept in. Asli with her Guess jeans and Benetton sweaters. Asli who stared at me then to her mom when she discovered I hadn’t brought her a gift from New York. I never did tell her that I couldn’t afford to.
I understood the maid’s slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. I understood why she hid. I knew my hometown probably looked more like hers than it did Asli’s.
I saw my greatgrandmother in that old woman begging in the street in the market. I’m still haunted by the fact that I let Asli push me away when that woman looked up to see who had filled her cupped hands with change.
And so it was in Turkey that I first felt shame for being from Bushwick. The rubble for blocks. The crack. The trash strewn lots. The poverty. The hunger.
In Turkey I realized I didn’t just want to get away from my mother and her abuse. I wanted to get away from Bushwick. From home. I wanted to see a different world and be part of a different world. I wanted to not feel what I felt when I saw that woman pick up those period soaked panties. When I saw Asli sneer and say, “That’s the maid’s job.” At 13, the only way out from that suffocating feeling was to go away to boarding school. I didn’t realize that that experience would break me in an entirely different way…
That outside gaze is a mothafucka. It will break you. It will teach you shame…and then you learn to transform that shame into rage.
While at AWP, I went to a reading in a tunnel. One of those abandoned metro stations that has been converted to an art space. One wall was graffitied up with some dopeness in bright colors and hues. I was mesmerized. Then I noticed the opposite wall where someone had written in large letters: There are no female graffiti artists in this exhibit. Women had begun to draw and write messages in marker. I wrote:
“Carry rage in your jaw. Don’t let them take it from you. That and love are your arsenal.”
I had a sister friend at AWP who kept telling me she didn’t belong there, amongst all those writers and poets and wordsmiths. This woman’s work is phenomenal. I can’t count the times her poetry has taken my breath. I’ve even teared up a few times.
She’s from Bushwick, like me. She’s unmothered, like me. In her, I see so much of myself. She said I had that shit down. That I could walk into any place like I belonged there. I said: “I had to teach myself how.”
Today I sent her a Muhammad Ali quote: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
I remembered how I felt at Tin House last year. I remembered how out of place I felt. I remembered that I didn’t feel that I belonged there. I thought of that so many times at my second Tin House workshop a few weeks ago. I thought about it as I stared at the ocean out my window. The Pacific crashing on the shore. The waves that started so far off the coast. The whale fin that came up off the water that last day. I knew I belonged there this year, just like I knew I belonged at AWP, just like I know my sister-friend did.
But remember what I told you: that outside gaze is a mothafucka.
While at AWP, I gave myself permission one morning to stay in bed until noon. I caught up on Grey’s Anatomy and watched a bunch of nature shows. During one show on the tundra, I learned about the arctic woolly bear moth that spends fourteen years freezing and unfreezing. It spends nearly 90% of its life frozen. It feeds voraciously during the brief summer month of June before it freezes again. Then, in its 14th summer, it weaves a silk cocoon where it morphs into a moth.
This moth lives at the edge of what is possible. It lives a stop-go life for up to fourteen years to build up the resources it needs to finally pupate into an adult moth. It takes that moth a lifetime of fourteen years to get its wings…
We can all learn something from that little moth.
*An essay a week in 2017*
I’m late on this one. I’ve been processing. I’m still processing. I just got back from Tin House where I worked with the phenomenal Lidia Yuknavitch. If you don’t know who she is, I encourage you to pick up her memoir The Chronology of Water (check out Roxane Gay’s review of it here). That book shifted me when I read it last spring. It gave me the permission to write my memoir the way I want to write it. (While you wait for the book to arrive, because I assume you’ve order it by now, right?, read her essay “Woven” in Guernica.)
Instead of telling you how fuckin amazing that workshop was (because it was so dope, amongst the best workshops I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a quite a few so that says a lot), I’ll show you something I produced, because, yes, Lidia didn’t just workshop the pieces we submitted beforehand, she had us generate work too. Thanks again Lidia! I love you.
Lidia said: Locate a place where you came into consciousness. Pick one. Write about the placeness. What was it about your body that you knew you had a consciousness shift.
I’m in the backyard. I’m up in the plum tree. I look over at the junkyard next door. One of the feral cats has had kittens. I will go in later to catch them and play with them and pull the bugs off of them. Squash them between my thumb and index finger. The kittens will claw at me, scratch my arms. I will let them. They will learn that I will protect them and scratch them behind the ears. I will make them purr. Sneak them some milk in a bowl. Mom can’t see me. She’ll beat me if she does. Tell me she doesn’t buy milk for those malditos gatos.
I hear mom in the kitchen. I wonder when she will go out for a smoke or to El Faro, the supermarket down the block. She climbs out the window and goes to soil. I’ve seen her watching the yard. She was plotting but I don’t know what.
She looks up at me and sighs. “Te vaz a caer d’alli un dia. No creas que te voy a llevar al hospital.” Grumbles: “Machuda” befores she turns her attention to the ground and starts pulling at the weeds that up to her knees. She does this for hours, for days. When she finishes each day, her face and clothes are streaked with dirt and sweat.
Mom will plant a garden in the yard that spring. She will grow tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and squash, spices like rosemary and cilantro.
I will watch as she treats those seeds and plants with a tenderness she rarely shows me.
She won’t let me help her in the garden. That is her space. Her project. I will watch from my branch in the tree. Mid-summer, I will pluck a yellow plum off a branch and chew on it as I watch mom. The bitterness will burn my tongue and make me wince. I will keep chewing, grab another and bite down. Let it burn me.
Lidia asked: What’s the story underneath?
She will ask for volunteers to read. I will look around the room. The other five writers are looking around the room too. I think: Fuck it. I’ll share.
When I choke up when Lidia asks: What’s the story underneath. I know it, of course. The story underneath…
That I’ve always longed for and still long for my mother.
Later, when a writer apologizes for crying, Lidia will tell her never to apologize for her tears. She will tell us about her Lithuanian grandmother, who said “crying is the only language she trusted because it was the language of the body.”
Tin House Winter Workshops are held on Newport Beach, Oregon, three hours outside of Portland. The drive is gorgeous, through farm country and forest. And when you arrive, the Pacific greets you with all her majesty. Yemaya of the Pacific has a completely different energy than she of the Atlantic.
I’m processing quite a bit since returning from Tin House. I went into a story this past weekend that I’d willed deep into the recesses of memory. I’d never even written it down anywhere, not in my journals, nowhere, so I was shocked when it came barreling out. It made me realize a few things: 1. That I hadn’t forgiven the girl I was who broke her own heart so many times reliving the “love me, please love me” cycle I learned from my relationship with my mother, and 2. I carry quite a bit of shame around it. As I wrote yesterday and I shook and I cried, I knew I had to tell my partner. Why? She was on her way to pick me up so we could go food shopping, and she knows me so well, we’re so connected, that I knew she would pick up on my energy. I imagined sitting next to her as I penned the story. I imagined her walking into my writing room to check in on me like she does. I imagined her saying, “You okay?” knowing that I wasn’t. She always knows when something is off.
Telling her was the scariest thing. Scarier than exposing myself to the world. I worried: How will she see me? Will her feelings for me change? Can she, will she, still love me after seeing that kind of ugly? So, I told her. I told her minutes after she picked me up. I stared at the grey sky and told her. And she, in turn, held me and reassured me and reminded yet again, that I am safe with her.
Why am I sharing this? Because sometimes process requires that we move slow through the work. That we consider our lives and the people in it. That we confront these kinds of fears. That we let ourselves feel the stories and all that means before we share it with the world.
I keep thinking about what Lidia Yuknavitch asked us the first day of workshop: How many bodies have you been? I didn’t list the body of the girl I was who was so lost she did things that lost girls do. This weekend I learned that I have to forgive that girl. This is the journey.
You were 14 when he first said it: “When you’re 16, you’re gonna be mine.” Years later, this will make you tremble, but not in that good way it did back then.
You were 14 and you were fierce. You cut your eyes. You sassed. You said fuck you to the men on the corner who congregated by your grandmother’s apartment building in upper Manhattan. You loved to go there. Not for grandma. She was so much like your mother. When you angered her, sighed or gave attitude, she rolled up the thick Vanidades magazine she had stacked on her coffee table, and slapped you with it. Hard. She always went for your face.
But when you visited grandma, you got cable. There was no cable in Brooklyn then. You got cable TV and you got the boy-men on the corner who blew you kisses and winked and told you you were so so beautiful. And that made you feel special. Beautiful, even. It made you feel seen. All you wanted was to be seen. But you didn’t want them to know that. You didn’t want them to think you weak or fresca or easy. So you curled your lip, and when one of them, the most atrevido of them all, dared to touch your long hair and get too close, you told him off and pushed him away. They laughed. They loved it. And secretly, so did you.
You were 14. They loved the spectacle of you.
But him, what was it about him? He was no different from them. Early 20s. A drug dealer. He smelled of cigarettes and Heineken. They all did. But him. His smile, missing a front tooth. Imperfect like you. The way he looked at you through his thick glasses. The way he made you feel seen. He called you by your name. Vanessa. He walked next to you. Not too close though. He never dared get fresh. He never dared touch you inappropriately. The first time he kissed you, when you were 16, it was so soft. He was so soft. Gentle. Like you were a doll. You so wanted that kind of tenderness.
You gave him a chance because he was soft with you. Because he treated you like you were porcelain. A doll. At least at first he did.
What can you say about that relationship? About your first. He wasn’t your first love. If only you’d stayed with that boy who grew up down the block from you in Brooklyn. The one that was born two days before you. You fell for him when you were 12. You were with him until you were 16. Until the drug dealer. The one who took your virginity. The one they named after an amphibian, because of his bottle bottom glasses and scratchy voice that was like a rasp. But that bottle bottom glasses wearer was a man when he got you. 24 years old, he knew what to say. He knew how to say it. And he knew how to touch you. Where to touch you. He knew to go visit you in Boston where you were attending boarding school. Where you felt the loneliness in the marrow of your bones.
So you lasted years. Your senior year in high school. Your four years at Columbia. And one year after. Until you said: “Ya.” Until you claimed to have woken up. But you hadn’t. You just went on to the next emotionally unavailable man. But that man with the bottle bottom glasses left you scarred. It’s been twenty years since you left him. And still, when you see him, something inside you squirms. You can’t be around him for long without being disgusted. More with yourself than anyone.
He tried to get you back years ago. After you had your daughter. You were single then. And you still wanted to be loved. Just not by him.
He tried to get you with the same game he got you with when you were 16. Except you were in your 30s by then. You were a mother. You were growing into your writer skin. You’d written a book where the antagonist Fabian was inspired so much by him. Fabian was a drug dealer too and had bottle bottom glasses too. He was vile. He was callous. Later your ex will claim that you wrote the book about him. You will laugh at this. You still laugh at this.
And that day when he cried to you, said he missed you, said you were the love of his life, you again laughed at him. You laughed at his tears. You laughed at him saying, “I can’t believe you had a kid. How could you do that to me?” You will look down at the overnight back that he brought with him and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You are so not comin’ home with me.” The fuckin audacity.
You know that so much of what happened in that relationship was your fault. You wince as you type this, but you know it’s still true. Because you allowed him to treat you like that. You allowed all the women, all the nights he didn’t come home. You fought, you accused, you cried, but you stayed.
You will flash to the memory of a night you have tried to forget, and you did for so long, until Tin House, when in her craft talk Melissa Febos asks you to write a list of things you could never write, and then challenges you to write one of them. The memory comes out in the writing.
It is 1994. It’s the fall of your sophomore year at Columbia. You’ve been together two years. He is staying with you in your dorm. He always has since you started at CU. Your first year you buy a futon to accommodate both your bodies. You do it with your first credit card, thus beginning a history of bad credit decisions.
That day he comes home late. So late you have to go down to the front desk to sign him in. This is before the guards know him so well, they just let him come up.
You have class early the next morning. He knows this. He doesn’t care.
He will barely look at you in the elevator on the way up to the suite, where you have a single room in an apartment with five other people.
You watch him, your arms crossed over your chest, wondering what he’s done now. He’s already done so much.
You want to be close to him. You want him to love you. Want you. It’s all you’ve ever wanted. For someone to love you. For him to love you.
You smell her later. The other woman. Her perfume and the acrid scent of her body. He didn’t even shower after being with her. You wonder, think: I’m not even worth that?
You want him to think of you when he closes his eyes. Not her. Never her… So you do things with him. To him. As you smell her all the while.
You don’t leave. You will stay with him for another three years. There will be more women. You still stay.
Weeks later, on your way back to your dorm, you will be pulled over by the cops a few blocks from where your dorm is on Claremont Avenue. The cop will tell you to get out of the passenger side of your boyfriend’s green convertible Volkswagen rabbit. You shake in the cold as the officer questions you. His tone changes when you show him your Columbia University ID. You point up the road, say: “I live up there at 47 Claremont. We’re on our way back. I have class in the morning.” He will tell you both to get back in the car and have a good night.
When you park, you watch as the man with the bottle bottom glasses pulls something out from under the seat you were sitting in. It is a brick, a kilo of cocaine. You will yell at him. You will rage. You will stay up that night as he sleeps next to you. You will think about how differently that police stop could have gone. How that could have fucked up your entire world. You know he has probably carried drugs in the car before with you in it. You know he will likely do it again. You still don’t leave.
How do you come to terms with that girl you were who put herself in such danger? Who accepted such treatment? Who didn’t love herself enough to know better? To demand better?
Last night, I went out on my deck and looked up at the moon. I mouthed: I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. I almost believed it.
*An essay a week in 2017*
My mind is all over the place today.
I’m thinking about my family, immigrants who came to this country seeking opportunity.
I’m thinking of the kind of poverty my mother described to me in Honduras. The kind of hunger that eats at the walls of your stomach.
I am thinking of the children I saw when I went to Honduras for the first time in the summer of 1985 when I was nine. Kids who lived in huts made of cardboard and aluminum siding along the edge of the Rio Cangrejal. Kids who didn’t have access to clean water for drinking. Who used the bathroom in the river next to their homes. Who didn’t own shoes and whose clothes were tattered rags. I remember feeling ashamed. That was my first confrontation with my own privilege. No, we weren’t rich but compared to these people we were. I had new clothes on my body and shiny shoes. I used an indoor toilet. I had access to food and education. My biggest issues with poverty was not being able to have the latest sneakers and trends, and maybe that’s why they don’t matter to me now as an adult. We may have lived in a hood that was riddled with crime and drugs, our apartments may have been falling apart and the living conditions we lived in weren’t healthy or ideal, but we had food. I can never say I suffered hunger. Ever. Even if it was Spam or canned corned beef, a fried egg over a bed of white rice, we ate every day, a few times a day.
My mother once told me the story of a classmate who died when she was just a girl. They would lay the body out for a day or so to pray over it and do rituals. Lombrices (parasite worms) started pouring out of the girl’s nose. There was squirming in her mouth. Things were poking at the insides of her cheeks causing them to puff out. An adult went over and opened the girl’s mouth. Lombrices slithered out.
My mother learned the normalcy of death early on.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, left Honduras after losing yet another child to the horrors of poverty–childhood diseases that are easily cured with a shot or week long dose of medicine. Medicines that weren’t accessible to them then and still aren’t in so many parts of the world. She left months after her infant daughter died in her own home. The baby had a fever that wouldn’t break for days. Then one day the baby had a seizure. “Su cuerpo le brincaba,” my mother said, showing me with her hands how the baby’s body jumped as she seized. My mother was just nine or ten years old. Her mother would leave to Puerto Rico a few months later with the Turkish family she worked for as a maid. She left to seek a better life. A life where her children wouldn’t die. Where she could feed them and care for them, and she could send money back home to her family.
I once asked my grandmother if she’d ever return to Honduras to live. She’s an old woman now. “There’s nothing for me there.” And I imagine what it must be like for her, this woman who I admittedly resent for countless reasons that I still struggle with and don’t care to divulge now. She’s old and fragile, but still so strong in so many ways.
I thought of her and of my mother as I watched the crowds of people on the trains on my way to teach yesterday, and on my ride back home. There were signs that read: “My body. My choice.” and “Not my president.” I thought of the women in my family who have traversed the world seeking safety for themselves and their families. I thought about what this new administration means for them, for me, for us.
I didn’t go to any of the marches yesterday. My form of protest entailed facilitating a workshop for twelve women of color. I led them through various exercises to help them write their stories.
I left hopeful but still wondering: Am I doing enough? Where do we go from here? How does my work affect the world and help make this world a safer place for all of us? How can I carry this work forward? How can I contribute to the growth of this nation and this world?
These lines from Chris Abani’s TED Talk “On Humanity” have been in my mind on loop for the past few days: “what I’ve come to learn is that 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.”
Some days I believe this to be true. Some days I worry that it’s not enough. Yesterday, in that room with those women, I believed it–that it’s through the work that we do every day that we change the world.
As I scrolled through my FB and saw the pictures of the marches across the world (which were glorious and inspiring), I wondered if I should have been among those women. Should I have been there with my twelve year old daughter, holding signs and shouting and showing our resistance?
I came home to a message from a fellow writer of color. She wrote:
Hi love, I’m not sure where you are right now or if you remember me from VONA but I just wanted to send you deep love and gratitude today for the 52 essay writing challenge. It is giving me the much-needed courage and commitment to words that need to be written, about love, race, white supremacy and more. Slowly but surely I feel like I’m finally going to begin writing the pieces I need to write. You are a force, inspiring and BRILLIANT.
This writer served to remind me that, yes, this work is important and my work is having a ripple effect that is necessary and appreciated. The thing is, I am the type of person who always wants to serve and do more, all while being starkly aware of the fact that I am only one person.
So I wonder: how many people are carrying these protests forward? How can we continue to protest and be involved in our daily lives?
I think about the day after the election when what so many of us feared actually happened. I walked into my Fiction class in East Harlem, into a roomful of students of color who live in NYC in marginalized neighborhoods, who are told again and again, via the media and the results of this election and so many spaces, that they don’t matter and their stories don’t matter and they are less than… I threw out my lesson that day. Instead, I tried to get them talking about what the election results means to and for them. They sat, quiet and sullen. At first they didn’t want to talk about the election, but soon, after I shared my own dismay, they were talking and sharing. Two of my kids told me that they experienced racism for the first time that day. One student confessed that her mother is undocumented and she’s terrified for her. When the end of class came, a few of them lingered. They hugged me. They thanked me. They needed to be seen. I gave them what I could, my heart and my ears and my shoulder. I came home exhausted. The sweet exhaustion of this soul work.
They are the reason I wonder. My daughter is the reason I wonder: Am I doing enough? Is this work enough? Then I get these messages from writers, dozens of them over the past few weeks, who say thank you and tell me this #52essays2017 challenge has them writing and producing in a way they haven’t in so long or ever. And I poll my high students and they say they want me to continue the fiction class in the spring semester and they say they love the readings I’ve provided–all writers of color, all writers who look like them and come from places they come from and/or they can identify with. Writings by Junot Diaz and Judith Ortiz Cofer and Glendaliz Camacho and ZZ Packer and so many more. And so as I sit to create the syllabus for the spring, I think of what else to share–a story from Roxane Gay’s “Dangerous Women” and an excerpt from the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” And on Thursday I learned that a record number of students have registered for my Fiction class, and the class is now vying for first place with Robotics for the number of students trying to get into the class. This has never happened before. Wow.
I know that hunger for stories that represent me. I am reminded that representation matters, and so I’m also reminded that this challenge I created with the push of my brujermana Lizz Huerta (#52essays2017) is an effort to get more stories like ours out in the world. I think of how this will influence the literary landscape in the next five to ten to twenty years. And, yes, sometimes the weight of it overwhelms me. Sometimes I am scared by what it is I’ve taken on and what was and continues to be the driving force behind my Writing Our Lives classes–that our stories matter and only we can write them, and I’m here to help people do this, especially writers of color. Us. You and me.
My daughter went out with her friends today. She woke up early to finish her homework and study for an upcoming exam and help clean. She swept the house. She cleaned the bathroom. She did three pages of the Kaplan test book I got for her. She showed me what she’d done and promised to do a few pages more when she gets home around 6.
She’s twelve and wanting to be with her friends. She wants to see the world like I did. She wants to experience life. I worry about the world I’ve brought her into. See, I get the many who say that they don’t want to bring kids into this world. And I also know that I couldn’t imagine a world without my little girl. This girl who isn’t so little anymore. Who is taller than her mama. Who has a 97 average and when she finishes her work early in class, spends the rest of her time helping her classmates. This girl who doesn’t come to me to help her with her schoolwork anymore. Who says, “I got it, mom” when I offer.
There was a time when I was her best friend. I didn’t think about when I would stop being cool and everything that she aspires to be. I wonder if I’m doing enough. If my hands off approach and “I won’t hover or helicopter mom you” style of parenting is enough. I don’t know, just like I don’t know if the work I do teaching and facilitating writing workshops is enough. But the evidence is there, isn’t it? It’s in the writers who before walking out of the class yesterday told me that they have the beginnings of two short stories and possibly more. It’s in the messages they send about how my work inspires them and pushes them to write. It’s in the eyes of the student who told me recently “I usually hate reading, miss, but I really like what you bring in for us to read.” It’s in the conversation I overheard my daughter having with a friend where she said, “My mom can be a pain sometimes, because, you know, moms, but she has my back. I know I can talk to her and I know she won’t let anyone mess with me.” The evidence is there when I walk into her room at night to turn off the light and she’s fallen asleep with a book on her chest.
All this inspires me to keep revisiting and reinventing ways I can show up for my students, young and old, emerging writers and established. And it keeps reminding me to keep mothering my daughter in resistance to how I was raised and how the world tells me I should mother her–conflicting messages that do nothing to affirm the role of mother.
We all have our way of showing up and loving. There is no one way and no one road. The point is to keep striving and giving and serving and working to be your best self. The point is to contribute positively.
Two days ago a video came across my feed. It’s a speech (which felt like a prayer) by Valarie Kaur, Sikh activist and interfaith leader who centers her work on storytelling for social change. In her prayer, she talks of her grandfather’s immigration story, how he was imprisoned upon arrival for months until a white lawyer filed a habeas corpus and got him freed. Ms. Kaur connected her work as a lawyer and humanitarian to her grandfather’s experience. I choked up as I listened. The tears came when she said: “”Yes Rabbi, the future is dark, on this watch night, I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell. And I can feel the spirit of ever rising optimism (in the Sikh tradition ‘Chardi Kala’) within him. So the mother in me asks, ‘What if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?…. What if this is our country’s great transition?”
Ms. Kaur wrote on her blog:
What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?
What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: “You are brave?” What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?
Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”
Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.
I like to think that my relentless hope is my superpower. I’ve written about how my faith has waned during these times and how that scares me. Ms. Kaur’s speech reminded me that this kind of hope is necessary, because it makes us push, it makes us fight, for ourselves, for our ancestors, for our children and our students and those we call brother and sister and friend and family and brujermanas and brujermanos. And, yes, for those ancestors that came here, who survived so much pain and hunger and disillusionment, who kept trying and fighting and didn’t give up. Who knew they couldn’t give up, not on themselves or the generations to come.
I remember those labor pains when I had my daughter. I remember when I first saw her. I remember when I decided not to return to corporate America because I was so miserable there. I learned firsthand what misery can do to a child. I didn’t want to bring my daughter up in that. So I wrote my first book and didn’t look back. And in the journey of writing the book, I faced what I feared and started moving toward it: becoming a single mother and pursuing this writing life while doing it. That was more than twelve years ago. That was my new beginning. It hasn’t been an easy road but it’s been a beautiful, fulfilling one and I’m still here. Still doing this work as the dream evolves as I do. I continue to push. I hope you will too. Word.
*An essay a week in 2017*
I encountered this poem on the train this week:
I’ve read this poem before. I read all of the poems in the Poetry in Motion series when I’ve seen them in my travels across the boroughs. But this one I read with new eyes. I thought about the #52essays2017 challenge and I thought about the first time I actually saw myself in literature.
I was a Latina (Hondureña and Boricua) from Bushwick, Brooklyn and had seen my hometown buckle under the weight of the crack epidemic. I left to get away from my mother and pursue an education that I thought (hoped?) would save me. I didn’t realize that it would also fuck me up in so many ways. It was in Wellesley, MA that I learned the ugly faces of racism and classism. I learned solitude when I realized that I wouldn’t fit in and stopped trying to. I found solace in literature. One day, I was all of fifteen, sitting on the mezzanine in the boarding school I attended. I had my nose in a book, as I always did, when an English professor came up to me and said, “You should read this, Vanessa.” He handed me Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. My first thought was, “Alvarez. That’s a Latino name.” I devoured that book in two days. For the first time, an author I read looked like me and talked like me, and I could relate to her characters and their struggles in white America. For the first time, I thought: “Maybe I can be a writer…”
I was a voracious reader, and though I could relate to the characters and the ways in which they lived their lives and coped, there was always something missing. Those faces didn’t look like mine. Their neighborhoods didn’t look like mine. They didn’t speak two languages. They didn’t get called gringa and Americana when they went to their parents’ motherlands. They weren’t called spic and nigger here in the U.S. I kept reading looking for something that looked and felt more like me…
I wanted to know myself…
Don’t we all want to know ourselves?
I didn’t have the language then but what I was ultimately getting to was this: Representation matters.
My love for all things personal writing began early. I read the Little House on the Prairie books over and over as a kid. In college at Columbia University, St. Augustine’s Confessions was the first required book in my core Literature Humanities class that resonated with me. I wanted to know who this daring man was. I ate his story up. I didn’t yet know that his is considered the first memoir in history.
My senior year I did an independent study where I read and analyzed Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican. As I read, I wondered: “Can I do this too? Can I write a book about my life? About being raised by lesbians at the height of the crack epidemic in Bushwick, Brooklyn?” Reading a book by someone who looked like me and came from where my ancestors came from made me think that I could. Twenty years later, that’s exactly what I do–I write about my life.
The literature I read throughout much of my academic life was very white and very male. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I learned that my people do write and read and have rich histories.
As a woman of color who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, left at 13 to attend boarding school in rich, white, Wellesley, Massachusetts, then went on to Columbia University, I’ve been told countless times, both directly and subliminally that my voice is less than and that my stories don’t matter. I was told that when everything I read was largely white and male, and even the few women that were sprinkled in were white women. The history I learned was western and white, even Egypt was presented as not really being black though it’s part of Africa and clearly a black nation. I did not learn that there are pyramids throughout the Americas, that my indigenous ancestors had written language and intricate civilizations.
When I went to college at Columbia University, I took every Latino Literature and History class I could, and in my junior year I joined the fight for Ethnic Studies because I wanted to study the immigrant experience. I wanted to know myself.
That hunger is still with me. I still seek it out in the stories I write, the stories I read and see on the screen and on stage.
I’m not the only one who’s spoken on this. In an October 2016 Op-Ed, John Leguizamo wrote:
Without a past to glorify and uplift you, how do you propel yourself into an unknown, tenuous future?
I’m only an amateur historian. But I am an expert on my own life and career. So to bring it around to more contemporary slights: Hispanics are the most underrepresented ethnic group in film and television. “Saturday Night Live” has only just hired its first Latina comic. Are we really to believe there are so few funny Latinos? We are similarly marginalized in business and corporate life.
This exclusion sends a painful message to every Latino child about how he is seen and judged. Latino people face a double challenge: to create our own positive self-image while battling against the way the broader society portrays us. Without textbooks in schools that do justice to our contributions to the making of America, and without media representation expanding to include more Latin faces and voices, we are vulnerable to a demagogue like Mr. Trump claiming that we are all “drug dealers,” “rapists” and “criminals.”
In an NBC news interview with Lin Manuel Miranda and his dad Luis, Lin Manuel, whose “Hamilton” has transformed Broadway and American theater, shared that Alexander Hamilton’s quintessentially American story resonated with him because: “When I realized he came from the Caribbean I said ‘I know this guy — he’s you, he’s the taxistas (taxi drivers) that became congresspeople, he’s a version of the story we know.”
I think about my first novel, Woman’s Cry, about a young woman in college at Columbia while struggling with her love for a drug dealer from Washington Heights. That book, because it was and wasn’t about the hood, was about the lure of the streets and the familiar, was labeled hip hop literature, and thus relegated to the tables of the vendors on 125th Street and 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx.
The personal is political.
Because our lives matter.
Because we’re told to forget and move forward, get over it, move on, but that does nothing to heal us.
Because in story you, we, can take back our power.
Because I did this thing, the Relentless Files, an essay a week in 2016, and I saw how much it helped me confront my ego and push back on the self-sabotage of perfectionism; & I know how it helped me open up to my story and make connections I hadn’t made before, and flex this writing muscle that requires, no, demands so much attention to stay in shape.
I believe that our stories matter. All of our stories. Stories of growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile up rubble AND growing up in the ‘burbs with its greenery and great schools AND growing up in the montes of Lares, Puerto Rico, wherever it is you saw and the experiences you had, they matter, you matter, your stories matter, and I want to read them. I want to read about how you sang freestyle songs at the top of your lungs from your perch on the stoop of your building, and how you learned all the choreography to Menudo’s Subete a mi Moto. I want to hear about how hard it was to be raised by lesbians. I want to read about the storefront Pentecostal church you grew up attending with the name of the church in calligraphy over the door and the women with their waist length hair, worn in a long braid down their backs, their skirts to their shins, and the men in their guayaberas, bibles in the crooks of their arms, their noses up in the air so as to look down on you. I want to read all of it. About your first kiss and the girl who broke your heart and how you got her back by hooking up with her best friend. Tell me your stories. Write them. Why? Because this is how we “re-write the script.” This is how we take back our stories. How we say: “Look, I’m here” and contrary to what that fool Trump says, my tios aren’t rapists and drug dealers, and my tias aren’t criminals and we do in fact contribute so much to this country, in so many ways. It’s through our stories that we show who we are, that we rewrite the narrative. We write ourselves.
Latinos are already doing it in various mediums. Linda Nieves Powell with her Latina Icons tribute and her plays including Yo Soy Latina; Alicia Anabel Santos and Renzo Devia with their AfroLatinos: The Untaught Story Documentary; John Leguizamo, Junot Diaz, the poets at the Nuyorican in LES and Capicú in Brooklyn and Lunada in The Bay. #52essays2017 is my way…
I had a dream recently where I was in my mother’s garden. It looked like it did when I was a kid–I saw the chipped red paint on the fence, the plum tree with its crooked lean, the dilapidated fence that separated the yard from the junkyard next door. I was standing there, looking around when a hawk swooped down and circled me. Then she perched on a low branch of the plum tree and stared at me. I stared back. We were staring when I woke up, filled with awe at her and her visit.
I created a video this week for the #52essays2017 challenge. I’m always pushing myself to be more vulnerable, more open, more willing to put myself out there. Why? Because this is who I am. Because I’m tired of hiding and shrinking myself. Because I think this work is so very important.
As I was writing it up, I thought of a writer who showed up to my free five hour Writing Our Lives Workshop the other day. This writer rolled her eyes and said she’d worked through all her shit, all this stuff we write about. She said she didn’t feel attached to her trauma, yet she kept going back to that poetry book she wrote that was pulled by the publishing company when her half sister threatened to sue. This is the thing: there is always a different way to reflect on our lives, to explore and mine our memories for story. I don’t want to not to be able to reflect and remember, even if I’ll be called or considered a victim for doing it, like my sister did on Christmas. This is how I write my narrative, the script of my life. That power is in my hands, no one else’s.
There’s always a writer in this free class who comes in unwilling or unable to learn. This writer sits in the front row. This writer is here to challenge me. She is here to remind me of why I do this work, to stress the importance of it, even if you don’t see it. This writer represents imposter syndrome and that cualquiera who wrote to me years ago to tell me that I had to stop writing “these sob stories.” This writer represents my mother and my sister and those people who question why I do what I do, who don’t respect it or me. This writer is there to remind me that people like this exist and there’s nothing I can do to control that or them. What I can do is dig my feet and heart deeper into the work, and keep doing it and believing it and being fuckin’ relentless.
I told the writer that if her writing felt boring and “not visceral” as she described it, that didn’t mean she had reflected on all of it and milked it for everything it had. Writing for me isn’t about exploiting my experiences, what has and still aches. Writing to me is about reflecting and learning, and yes it’s part of my healing journey. I don’t think about the destination or that moment or place when I will feel completely healed. When she described herself as having worked everything out, I didn’t feel any authenticity in the statement. Instead, it felt rigid and dismissive. It felt like she was avoiding and trying to numb. To me, someone who is healed doesn’t come into a class closed and unwilling to learn.
I don’t want to be so sure about everything. I want to always have questions and be open to a variety of answers. I want to always care enough to keep digging and looking at the world and my traumas through the eyes of someone who is always evolving.
A writer chimed in and encouraged the resistant writer to read more. I thought of James Baldwin’s quote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
I’m writing this at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On the flight here I was seated in the middle seat, which I hate. I prefer to sit at the window. I always have. Why? As a kid looked for heaven in the clouds. I remembered that in all the images of God in heaven, he is surrounded by clouds. Heaven rests in clouds. God rests in clouds. So when I traveled with my family, to Puerto Rico and Honduras, and that time I traveled to Turkey with a dance group when I was 13, I searched for heaven in the clouds from my window seat. And I was always disappointed when I didn’t see heaven with its golden gates, the angels with their white gowns and glimmering wings. I stopped searching for heaven in the clouds long ago. Still, the perspective from above the clouds is glorious. Truth is: I like to know how far off the ground I am. I like to see when we’re taking off and landing.
I always get anxiety before a trip. My chest tightens so I have to use my nebulizer since my albuterol inhaler is useless in these moments. I make lists of what I need. I always overpack, no matter how I try not to, though I’m getting better at leaving things… It’s the flying that gets me. The hulk of metal hanging out in the great expanse of sky, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. The reality of it is both frightening and miraculous. I am grounded knowing the earth is below, the mountains and the rivers and pastures and cities and towns; the blanket of ice I peeked at over my neighbor’s shoulder. Seeing the earth from the window seat reminds me that no matter how high I fly, I will make it back down. I will land.
And isn’t that a metaphor for the work I do mining my life. I pull back the camera and zero in on these moments. Nostalgia creeps in when I remember our trips to the beach when I was growing up. The days long preparation that included a trip to Western Beef, the seasoning of all that meat, ribs and beef chunks and chicken legs, the smell of sofrito and comino filling the apartment and the hallways of our three story building. Joy and sadness inevitably fill my chest when I remember how different things are now, that my Millie is gone and so is my brother…but I also know that no matter where I float in my memory, I will land, in this life, more aware of how these stories have shaped me and continue to shape me. What to do with that awareness is up to me…
This weekend I was reminded that poetry is image. What images do we go to when we think of love and loss and hope and desire. What images do we go to when we describe the people we love and/or have hurt us.
I think of the faculty reading tonight. I remember a poem by Elmaz Abinader about work and labor, and how it starts with her in a pedicure chair and ends with her talking about her father and his shoe business, how he spent his life at people’s feet. I think of Chris Abani’s reading. Chris spoke of the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. When describing him and his compassionate heart, he told us two stories. Once they facilitated a poetry workshop at a prison in South Africa. This is the prison where the hardened criminals were incarcerated. In the courtyard where they were reading, there were four men in steel cages that the poets were instructed not to look at or talk directly to. These were the lifers. The hardest, most violent, most dangerous. The cages were meant to protect the poets, or so they were told. At one point during the event, Keorapetse Kgositsile could not be found. They searched high and low but found nothing. They were worried for his safery. Where could he be? He was later found seated cross legged in front of one of the cages, one hand slipped between the steel bars of the cage, he was quietly reading poetry to the caged man who was now sobbing.
The next story is of a reading Chris and Keorapetse participated in. There was a poet who went on and on for more than twenty minutes, crying out repeatedly “Oh mother Africa.” At one point, in a pause in the poem, Keorapetse, in his seventy-plus-year whisper that the entire audience could hear, said: “I can’t believe Mandela spent 27 years in prison for this!” The audience roared with laughter. I marveled at Chris’s ability to show the layers of what it means to be human.
I thought of the images I go back to when I think of my brother. The way he flicked the pantyhose he wore on his head that time we were playing house when we were children and he insisted on being the mom. Years later when he finally came out to me, I flashed to that image and said, “Pa, I’ve known for years.” We laughed and went on loving each other as best we could…
I thought of my sister and how she would wipe her dirty feet on my head from her bunk bed above the cot I slept on. I pictured the way she would glare at me while she did it, lip curled with a disgust and resentment I didn’t then nor do I now understand. Recently, when she told me she was tired of me playing victim, this scene flashed in my mind.
I think about the ways we love one another and the ways we don’t. The ways that we are tender with each other and the ways we aren’t.
I think of the heart to heart I had with Elmaz Abinader, my memoir mama, the first night we were here. We talked of the work we do. I asked her how her family dealt with the memoir she wrote, Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon. I told her about what happened with my sister; that she called my work bullshit and said that I don’t think about how my writing will affect people. I said, “I think about it every day.” “Of course you do,” Elmaz said. She said that I am dealing with people’s shit that they haven’t or can’t come to terms with. “Your sister has her own trauma,” Elmaz said. I nodded. “But I’m not trying to heal my entire family, Elmaz.”
The first time I said that was to my therapist this past Thursday, and I was surprised when I said it. He leaned forward and said, “How does that make you feel?” I teared up. “It’s sad that I can’t heal them, but I know I can’t.”
I thought of Dorothy’s craft talk at Tin House last year. At one point she said: “There’s no get out of jail free card. You will be damaged.” She told us about the time her sister called to tell her that her daughter, Dorothy’s niece, was following in the family tradition–she was raped by her grandfather, her father’s father. Her sister wanted to know why it happened to so many of their girls in their family. “You wrote that book. You should know,” she said. Dorothy stared off into a corner and I could almost feel her ache. “You’ll wonder if you’d been better, you could have protected your niece.”
Chris shared excerpts of a book of poems he’s working on about his relationship with his brother. Of course I was sobbing through much of it. One line made me almost cry out: “I wish I could have saved you.” I wish I could have saved my brother. I wish I could have saved my mother and my sister and my grandmother…but I can’t. I can only try to save myself, again and again, the best way I know how: through my stories. That has to be enough. It just has to be.
I’ve always been a risk taker. With this video I am upping my risk-taking game. This is me, my face, all Loba, all vulnerable, sharing with you, in my voice, why I created this challenge and why it matters. Check it.
*An essay a week in 2017*
As of Friday morning, just before posting this essay, 9 days after putting out the call for the #52essays2017 challenge, there are 445 members in the Facebook page who have committed to taking on the challenge. That doesn’t include the many who are doing the challenge on their own. People have called it a movement. I think of that line in the hip hop song: “I’m a movement by myself but I’m a force when we’re together…”
One friend informed me that by year’s end, there will be 22,000+ essays out in the world as a result of this challenge. My response:
People have encouraged me to consider an anthology at year’s end. (I’m focused on what’s in the headlights right now…) Another said this is sure to change the literary landscape in the next five to six years. What?! 😳 … Where am I? I’m still somewhat in shock. I’m taking it all in. I’m trying to support these writers and still focus on my own writing and teaching and mothering and and and…
I’m thinking about the questions I’ve been fielding. A woman asked me how much time I spent each week on the essays. She said she’s not good at time management so she wants to structure her time to make this happen. Another asked for tips on how to write a structured essay as opposed to a stream of consciousness. I’ve been asked for tips on how to organize topics for each week, what’s the difference between a blog and an essay, is a blog less prestigious or less intellectual, and who said so?
I have to confess, if I thought about all these things, how long it would take me to write each essay, how I would structure it so it didn’t read like a stream of consciousness, what made it an essay and not a blog post, I wouldn’t have gotten through the Relentless Files 2016 challenge. This just isn’t my process and it never has been.
I know people who have to map out their stories before they sit down to write them. My comadre did a book treatment for the historical fiction novel she hasn’t yet finished. She’s mapped out every chapter, down to the T. This works for her, she says. It gives her structure and parameters to work with. Me? That would drive me absolutely insane. I wrote my two novels without doing this at all. I just had these characters talking to me. I listened and wrote.
The other day I read an interview with Roxane Gay on Goodreads where she says: “I definitely get into a kind of trance—I just lose myself, and I become immersed in the story and the setting and the characters. When I’m done, I sort of wake up to the world around me.” I can relate to this kind of “losing myself in the writing” style/process because sometimes I go into a zone and I don’t realize what I’ve written until I come out of it. And let me tell you, there’s always magic on the page when I resurface. That’s how I wrote my first and second novels. And that’s a lot of what happened this past summer when I was working on the memoir.
So much of the Relentless Files challenge was to remind myself and recapture that…the writer who wrote without abandon, who didn’t worry about what people would say or getting it “right,” or publishing. The writer who channeled. The intuitive writer who went with what came and let the story tell itself. I wanted to remember and (re)learn the writer who was wide open to mystery, who trusted that the story was there and would reveal itself, because the truth is, it always has and always does.
My mind keeps going back to a writer who asked what’s the difference between a blog and an essay. I admitted that I don’t consider myself a blogger. I write essays and memoir and fiction and even poetry, but I’m not a blogger. She asked: “Do you think blogging has a ‘lower status’ or that you use a different part of your brain?” The truth is I never really thought about any of that. I started a blog a few years back but didn’t really start using it until I came back from my VONA 2012 residency with Mat Johnson, set on working on my voice. My blog felt like a safe place to practice and work since it was mine, my space, my platform. I never thought to differentiate between blogs and essays. When I started the Relentless Files challenge, I knew I was writing personal essays and referred to them as such. Why not blogs? I’m not sure. Or maybe I am subconsciously aware that in the literary world, bloggers are looked down as “not real writers.” Maybe I succumbed to the snobbery. I’m not sure. But I definitely want to look at this because I know what it’s like to not be considered a real writer because of my chosen genre. Do you know how many times people have dared to say that creative nonfiction requires less imagination than fiction? Listen, I’ve written two novels and I don’t know how many essays and short stories. I know that’s bullshit.
by Judity Ortiz Cofer
It is a dangerous thing
to forget the climate of your birthplace,
to choke out the voices of dead relatives
when in dreams they call you
by your secret name.
It is dangerous
to spurn the clothes you were born to wear
for the sake of fashion; dangerous
to use weapons and sharp instruments
you are not familiar with; dangerous
to disdain the plaster saints
before which your mother kneels
praying with embarrassing fervor
that you survive in the place you have chosen to live:
a bare, cold room with no pictures on the walls,
a forgetting place where she fears you will die
of loneliness and exposure.
Jesús, María, y José, she says,
el olvido is a dangerous thing.
Something called me back to bell hooks’s collection of essays remembered rapture: the writer at work. I’ve read the book so many times, annotated it so much, that these days I just go back to the lines and paragraphs I highlighted and put stars next to. I read my notes in the margins.
In childhood, hooks kept a diary which she says was “for me the space for critical reflections, where I struggled to understand myself and the world around me, that crazy world of family and community, the painful world. I could say there what was hurting me, how I felt about things, what I hoped for. I could be angry there with no threat of punishment. I could “talk back.” Nothing had to be concealed. I could hold on to myself there.
However much the real of diary-keeping has been a female experience that has often kept closeted writers, away from the act of writing as authorship, it has most assuredly been a writing act that intimately connects the art of expressing one’s feeling on the written page with the construction of self and identity, with the effort to be fully self-actualized. This precious powerful sense of writing as a healing place where our souls can speak and unfold has been crucial to women’s development of a counter-hegemonic experience of creativity within patriarchal culture. Significantly, diary writing has not been traditionally seen by literary scholars as subversive autobiography, as a form of authorship that challenges conventional notions about the primacy of confessional writing as mere documentation (for women most often a record of our sorrows). Yet in many cases where such writing has enhanced our struggle to be self-defining it emerges as a narrative of resistance, as writing that enables us to experience both self-discovery and self-recovery…
We know that poetry does not save us, that writing does not always keep us away from death, that the sorrow of wounds that have never healed, excruciating self-doubt, or overwhelming melancholy often crushes the spirit, making it impossible to stay alive. Julia Kristeva speaks about women’s struggle to find and sustain creative voice in the chapter “I Who Want Not to be,” which is part of the introduction to About Chinese Women. There she addresses the tension between our longing to “speak as women,” to have being that is strong enough to bear the identity writer, and the coercive imposition of a feminine identity within patriarchy that opposes such being. Within patriarchy women has no legitimate voice. Her voice is either constructed in complicity or resistance. If the choice is not radical then we speak only what the patriarchal culture would have us say. If we do not speak as liberators we collapse under the weight of this effort to speak within patriarchal confines or lose ourselves without dying. (writing from the darkness)
We do not write because we must; we always have a choice. We write because language is the way we keep a hold on life. With words we experience our deepest understandings of what it means to be intimate. We communicate to connect, to know community. Even though writing is a solitary act, when I sit with words that I trust will be read by someone, I know that I can never be truly alone. There is always someone who waits for words, eager to embrace them and hold them close.” (women who write too much)
In “writing to confess,” hooks speaks of how influential Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were to her as a young would-be writer.
I have never heard any critic belittling the confessional nature of these letters. Diverse readers seem to all agree that these letters have enriched our understanding of writing, of creative process. In recent years as women of all races/ethnicities and men of color embrace confessional writing as a way of coming to voice, whether through autobiographies, memoirs, letters, diaries, etc., mainstream critics aggressively devalue such writing… Feminist insistence that “the personal is political” did encourage many women to engage in existential self-reflection about the meaning of life, especially in relation to sexism and male domination… The growing body of confessional writing by women coincided with the proliferation in mass culture of the talk show as a place for personal confession. Since these shows are designed to appeal to a predominately female market of the topics for discussion are appropriated from cultural narratives that were initially validated only within feminist circles, narratives about child abuse, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, abortion, etc. Patriarchal mass media’s appropriation and popularization of these topics helped create a cultural context where confessional narrative has been trivialized, made to appear solely a gesture that is self-serving and exhibitionist. This trivialization has led to an overall devaluation of any confessional narrative.
In actuality, writers who make use of personal confession do not share a common style, standpoint, or intent. This is true for women writers as men. Yet sexism tends to ensure that women’s writing is often approached as though it is all the same–“every women speaking through one voice.”
In The Last Generation, Cherrie Moraga urges us to celebrate confession. “All writing is confession. Confession masked and revealed in the voices and faces of our characters. All is hunger. The longing to be known fully and still loved. The admission of our own inherent vulnerability, our weakness, our tenderness of skin, fragility of heart, our overwhelming desire to be relieved of the burden of ourselves in the body of another, to be forgiven of our ultimate aloneness in the mystical body of a god or the common work of a revolution. These are human considerations that the best of writers presses her fingers upon.”
As Kelly Sundberg writes in Brevity: “I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing… The story is important, but it must also be written with craft, and with nuance. I have no desire to always write about trauma, nor have I always written about trauma, but I am fatigued by the notion that narratives of trauma are rewarded simply on the merits of the struggle that one has endured. I had a traumatic experience, and perhaps that did gain me entrance into a club—a club of women’s pain—but that traumatic experience did not make me a literary writer. My hard work and my craft are what have, hopefully, made me into a literary writer.” (“Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?”)
What I do know is that whether I’m a writer or blogger or both, I am a literary writer. I write. I write a lot. And yes, my shit is literary. I write and shape my stories. I worry about craft. Sometimes too much, hence why I started the Relentless Files challenge a year ago–to get out of my own damn way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own writing and my motivations. I’ve learned that it’s important that we writers ask ourselves why we write and come back to this question now and then.
It was my sister flipping out on me on Christmas that brought me back to this question. Not because I doubted myself or even for a minute considered what she said was true, that my writing is bullshit. A fellow writer’s questions about the difference between blogging and personal essay writing, made me go deeper.
I started telling stories before I knew how to write. When I finally told my mother a few years ago that I’m a writer, she told me a story about when I was in Pre-K. The teacher complained that I was always distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting quietly on the rug in a circle to listen to her read, I wanted to roam around, take the books out of the shelves and skim through them. When my mother asked me what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t behave, I shrugged and said: “I already know how the story goes, mom…” “Really?” she challenged. “Then tell me the story.” Mom says my face brightened. She says I stood up and started: “Once upon a time…” and I proceeded to tell a story I made up on the spot. I was animated and excited, and when I was done, I said, “The end.” She didn’t say it outright, but my mom was telling me that I’ve always been a writer.
Then mom dug into the bottom shelf of a bookshelf she’s had in our living room since we were just kids. I noticed the Compton’s Encyclopedias she bought from the door to door salesman, and paid off little by little. The same ones I used for so many projects and that entertained me on so many rainy, sad days when I was growing up. Mom took out a yellow page legal pad, it’s pages curled at the edges. The papers were scrawled with her cursive. Mom presses on the pen so hard, you can feel the letters on the back of the pages like braille. She let me read some of the pages: stories of her childhood in Honduras, going to the Rio Cangrejal, how her grandmother Tinita mothered her. When I finally looked up, my mother was watching me. She took the pad out of my hands and said, “When I die, this is yours.”
I get this writing gene from my mother.
The other day I was on my deck talking to a writer friend who I’ve witnessed transform and evolve. She shared, “I feel like I’m finally ready.” “Word,” I said. Then I challenged her to join the #52essays2017 endeavor. I told her to do it for her. That she didn’t have to share what she wrote, that the purpose really is to help her get out of her own way, as she’d said she’s committed to doing this year. “I believe in you,” I said. She said, “You really gonna make me cry right now?” And just then a hawk soared overhead, so close I could see the brown and white feathers on its belly, the red on its tail. I was so taken aback at the timing, I shared it with my writer friend. In the two months I’ve lived in my new place, I have yet to see a hawk from my deck, though I’ve scanned the sky for them. I believe that birds are messengers from the gods, intermediaries to the spiritual world. They’ve brought me so many messages in the past so I know this one too was a message.
I thought about the work I do. I thought of the writers I’ve worked with over the years, young and old. I thought about how in that moment, I was sharing and building with a writer, holding up the mirror so she could see herself, see what I see–a strong, powerful woman with a pen that’s calling to her. If I’ve done anything right in my life it’s this: I’ve inspired people to create and make magic of their life stories. I’ve done this by being my authentic self, all Bushwick-bred Loba, fierce and loving, relentless and unfuckwithable.
In that moment, I remembered why I do this work, how I know it is one of my life’s purposes, my dharma, if you will. And I remembered how I quit my fulltime editing job in 2010 to do this work. I did it as a single mom. That’s how much I believe in this work. It’s something I take great pride and care in doing, and that I know comes with great responsibility.
I watched a P.O.P Video that was posted on the VONA/Voices page earlier this week. In it poet Willie Perdomo tells of once watching a guy from his neighborhood in East Harlem walk the span of a rooftop ledge. Perdomo shares that writing poetry to him is like the risk and balancing of walking on that ledge, what’s required to prevent a fall… I think we all have images we circle back to in our work that serve as metaphors for why we write. For me that image is my mother tending her garden in the backyard. This was early 1980s Bushwick, just before crack ravaged our neighborhoods. The poverty had already sank its teeth deep. Our apartment was falling apart, the walls flaked, giving my brother and me asthma. There were rubble and trash strewn lots for blocks. One of those lots was next door. For two years, my mother took it upon herself to till the bit of soil in our backyard to plant a garden.
The yard was partly paved. A fence covered in chipped red paint separated the paved area from where mom planted her garden. This area was separated in two by a paved pathway which led to a red ladder that went all the way up to the third floor. Clothes fluttered on the clothes lines that stretched from the ladder to the apartments above. On the left side towards the back was the plum tree I started climbing when I was five. I’d stretch out on one of the thick branches and watch mom work.
Mom wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat, gloves and gardening apron. She was third world, an Hondureña from La Ceiba. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here. She planted in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt stained with sofrito and dirt.
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 mom 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. She then 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.
The right side she tilled right up to the gate that separated our yard from the yard of the building behind ours. The left side she toiled up to the base of the plum tree.
Then mom went out and bought the seeds. I don’t know how she figured out what she would plant or how she would arrange the seeds, but she was deliberate in her choices. I watched from the plastic covered couch in the living room, pretending to watch TV. She laid the envelopes of seeds out on the wooden table my second mom Millie built and lacquered when we first moved into the apartment when I was three. 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 did this softly, handling the seeds with a tenderness I envied.
The herbs and flowers went in the rows closest to the gate that separated the garden from the paved section of the yard. The vegetables followed. Tomatoes first then the peppers, squash and pumpkins.
In the mornings, Mom stood by the window, staring out at her garden while she sipped her coffee. She cursed when she saw garbage thrown out the window by a tenant. “Estos desgraciados. Por eso es que no tienen na’.” She climbed out the window, picked up the trash and tended to her garden.
Some days, when the sun beamed down hard and rain didn’t come, Mom connected her long green hose into our kitchen sink and pulled it out the window into the yard. She’d water her plants herself, screaming at me to lower the pressure if the water shot out too hard.
I watched her smile as the tomatoes and eggplants came in. When she turned them over in her hand, I imagined her talking to them in her head, encouraging them to grow and flourish. The sunflowers grew so tall, mom got old shoelaces and tied the stalks to the fence to keep them from toppling over.
One day, mom was making dinner when she sent me out to the yard to get tomatoes and peppers. “I need them to make sofrito,” she said. Small piles of onions and garlic lay on the cutting board on top of the table. The day before I’d noticed that the tomatoes were red and green. I turned to see if mom was watching before I touched them, turning them over like I’d seen her do. They were firm to the touch.
I gasped at the scene that greeted me. The rats from the junkyard next door had feasted on mom’s vegetables. Peppers and tomatoes were scattered about, bitten into in chunks. I could make out their teeth marks on the flesh. A few hung limply on the bush. I gathered what few I could and climbed back into the apartment.
“Mami,” I said almost in a whisper. “The rats ate them. These are the only ones left.”
Mom slammed down the knife she was using to chop cilantro and stomped out to the yard. She cursed and yanked up some of the bushes. I ran to the room and hid. I didn’t come out until she called me for dinner.
After two years mom brought her plants into the house where she could protect them.
Excerpted from “They Call Her Saint” a chapter in my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings
My mother built that garden in resistance to the landscape that surrounded her. It was her way of making beauty and love out of the devastation that was Bushwick, Brooklyn in that era. She gave up after a while, deeming her efforts futile.
I am still in that garden. I am still in up in that plum tree watching my mother and telling myself stories. My writing is my resistance to the devastation that has surrounded me, the trauma of my childhood and being an unmothered woman. In the journey I have become relentless. The difference is that I’m not giving up. Not now. Not ever.