*An essay a week in 2016*
We all want to be seen. Every single one of us. Ad there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely nothing.
There is probably no better or more reliable measure of whether a woman has spent time in ugly duckling status at some point or all throughout her life than her inability to digest a sincere compliment. Although it could be a matter of modesty, or could be attributed to shyness—although too many serious wounds are carelessly written off as “nothing but shyness”—more often a compliment is stuttered around because it sets up an automatic and unpleasant dialogue in the woman’s mind.
If you say how lovely she is, or how beautiful her art is, or compliment anything else her soul took part in, inspired, or suffused, something in her mind says she is undeserving and you, the complimentor are an idiot for thinking such a thing to begin with. Rather than understand that the beauty of her soul shines through when she is being herself, the woman changes the subject and effectively snatches nourishment away from the soul-self, which thrives on being acknowledged.
I must admit, I sometimes find it useful in my practice to delineate the various typologies of personality as cats and hens and ducks and swans and so forth. If warranted, I might ask my client to assume for a moment that she is a swan who does not realize it. Assume also for a moment that she has been brought up by or is currently surrounded by ducks.
There is nothing wrong with ducks, I assure them, or with swans. But ducks are ducks and swans are swans. Sometimes to make the point I have to move to other animals metaphors. I like to use mice. What if you were raised by the mice people? But what if you’re, say a swan. Swans and mice hate each other’s food for the most part. They each think the other smells funny. They are not interested in spending time together, and if they did, one would be constantly harassing the other.
But what if you, being a swan, had to pretend you were a mouse? What if you had to pretend to be gray and furry and tiny? What if you had no long snaky tail to carry in the air on tail-carrying day? What if whenever you walked you tried to walk like a mouse, but you waddled instead? What if you tried to talk like a mouse, but instead out came a honk every time? Wouldn’t you be the most miserable creature in the world?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. So why, if this is all so and too true, do women keep trying to bend and fold themselves into shapes that are not theirs? I must say, from years of clinical observation of this problem, that most of the time it is not because of deep-seated masochism or a malignant dedication to self-destruction or anything of that nature. More often it is because the woman simply doesn’t know any better. She is unmothered. ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Do you know what you deserve? When beautiful things happen to you, can you accept them as something you deserve? Can you accept a compliment? Do your insides cringe? What tape plays in your head? Is it the same one? The one that sounds strangely like your mother? Is it the one that tells you you ain’t shit and you ain’t gonna be shit and you are undeserving and unlovable and not enough, not good enough, not hard working enough, not dedicated enough? Do you hear the words you were called as a child—ordinaria and retardada, tu no sirves pa’ nada, inútil?
Can you see pictures of yourself and see your fly? Or do you pick at your flaws? Your never been flat again belly since you got that cesarean twelve years ago. The pounds you’ve gained since you fell in love. The yellowing of your teeth. Your chubby hands that your sister made fun of, saying it was a sign of your retardedness.
At what point will you see yourself?
One day you meet a writer, Annette Estévez, who gushes about your work and its effect on her. She is fidgeting as she tells you. She breathes deep and says repeatedly that she’s so nervous and she’s wanted to tell you this for so long. She says, “You’re my plum tree.” She’s referring to that plum tree you write about, the one from your childhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn. When she says it, you feel the knot climb into your throat. You want to accept this amazing compliment, one of the best you’ve received on your work. You want to believe her. You try… You try so hard.
She shares the invite to your feature at Capicú. She instructs her friends to do themselves the favor of checking out your blog. She writes: “Her work is forever saving me, forever splitting me open. Her healing an endless gift to my own. She is Bushwick, she is resilience, she is moonglow magic, she is raw honesty and vulnerability, she is both heart and grit. She is all this magic and flyness y te lo dice como e’ unapologetically.” She quotes one of your Relentless Files essays:
I call it saving my own life. I’ve been doing it since I started climbing that plum tree in my backyard in Bushwick to tell myself stories. I was imagining a different life, one that I’m still creating.
In this life, I believe I am worthy of all the good and beautiful things.
In this life, when my daughter tells me I’m her best friend and she’s so glad she chose me to be her mom, I believe her.
In this life, when my girlfriend stares at me across the table, I stare back. I don’t shrink away. I let her envelop me with all her love.
In this life, there is a door. I’ve walked through it and the view on the other side takes my breath.
There are fields of wildflowers. A hawk soars overhead. Hummingbirds whiz and dip. Wolf cubs frolic, biting eachother’s ears, yipping and tousling while mama wolf looks on. I am there, face up to the sun. I am smiling. I am glowing. I am free. ~Relentless Files — Week 9
I teared up when I read this post. It feels amazing to be seen, my work appreciated. To know that I inspire… I want to believe all of it.
I want to not feel the fizzle behind my nose when my therapist tells me I’m a good parent. When he reminds me that I am not my mother. That I mother in resistance. That this is wholesome love. That I am the mother to my daughter that I wish I had…still wish I had…
On Friday I featured at Capicú, a poetry showcase I’ve been going to since 2010. I am still overwhelmed by the love in that room. Friends came from as far as Massachusetts and Maryland and Philadelphia, all the boroughs, from uptown and downtown and crosstown. A former student I taught nine years ago, who I met when she was just 15 years old, came through from Florida. She said, “You’re living the life you said you would.”
My Writing Our Lives student were in there deep. I met people who’ve followed me for years and some who were just introduced to my work. After a summer of writing and sitting with my stories and getting half of my memoir done, it feels amazing to be seen and appreciated and asked to share excerpts from this book I’ve been working on for so long and finally feel ready to finish.
Yesterday I was on a panel during the NYC Latina Writers Group 10th Anniversary Celebration. I was asked to give advice on the writing life, how to lean into and overcome fear, what risks I’ve taken in my work and why, what it takes to live this life.
Me. I was asked to share my experiences like I’m a seasoned writer. An expert. Successful.
Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) as: a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”
I heard about John Henryism for the first time in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
…you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
The idea is that we achieve ourselves to point of illness and even to death sometimes in an attempt to counter the many times we are told, directly and subliminally, that we are not enough, we are inferior, ordinaria… I think about how my being unmothered has contributed to this achieving thing I do. How I grind and work and work and don’t give myself credit for what I accomplish, don’t take time to acknowledge what I’ve achieved, how hard I’ve strived to create this life for myself and my daughter.
Then I’m in a room where I’m the featured writer and people are coming up to me to tell me they are excited to hear me read, that they’ve followed my work for years. And my students show up in droves, even a student I haven’t seen since she graduated high school eight years ago, and she’s there to tell me I’ve been one of the biggest influences of her life. And my partner’s brother is there to see me perform for the first time and when I get off the mic and I’m shaking, he gives me a big hug and tells me how amazing I did. And people are coming up to me to shake my hand and hug me and tell me how much they’re moved and that I made them cry and they can’t wait to read my book, to feel it in their hands. And they don’t let me walk out though I want to, need to feel the sky over my head, want to look at the Hunter moon growing full, but they won’t let me… It’s the universe, I know. It’s the universe holding up the mirror, insisting, demanding that I look into it and see myself, the affect I have on people, how my work is moving people… how much I’m seen and appreciated.
I wonder why it’s so hard for me to acknowledge myself. To love myself enough to say: Look at what you’ve done. Be proud. Own it. You did that. You.
I see that door. I know it’s time to walk through it… I’m working on getting there.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with Bomba Estéreo’s latest album, Amanecer. This song in aparticular, Algo Está Cambiando, especially…
Algo está cambiando en mi, creciendo
Algo está cambiando en mi, lo siento
Me voy a buscar una luz pa iluminar
Todos estos momentos
Dejando todo lo que tenga que dejas
Y seguir creciendo…
Algo está cambiando en mi, puedo verlo
Algo está cambiando en ti, algo bueno
Me voy a buscar un sonido pa cantar
Todo este silencio
Cambiando todo lo que tenga que cambiar
Y seguir creciendo…
This morning, the Center for Women Writers shared the video of my reading at Capicú. I snapped a screen shot of it. I haven’t been able to watch the videos of that night. I’ve tried, but my insides cringe and I shift uncomfortably until I can’t take it anymore, close out the window and busy myself with something else.
I’m now sitting in my room, on my bed, leaning on the red wall. I’m staring at the “I❤ Brooklyn” graffiti piece opposite me. I’m remembering the girl I was all those years ago up in that plum tree who told herself stories of a different life. Stories like the one I am living now, that I thought could only exist in my imagination. I am looking at that girl, holding her, telling her: You did this, mama. You created this life for yourself. You started doing it way back then. Look at you now. It’s time for you to start taking this in and giving yourself the props you deserve. It’s time you see yourself for the wonderful woman and mother and writer and teacher that you are. Come, walk with me to the door. Let’s enter…together.
*An essay a week in 2016*
God, how I ricochet between certainties and doubts. ~Sylvia Plath
I’m moving after 7 years in the same apartment. I’ve amassed a lot of stuff and while I know I’ll be getting rid of tons, the idea of packing gave me tons of anxiety last week. I need help. If you know me, you know I have a hard time asking for help. You think you’ve discovered the many ways that your trauma manifests itself but the universe has its ways of reminding you that there are layers left to be dug into.
After procrastinating for days, staring at the pile of crazy in the corner of my room that is the direct result of the recent collapse of several ceilings in my apartment, I started packing last week. I started with the journals. Flipping through them as I packed, all I could say at first was “Wow” over and over. My daughter, who was sitting not far from me, removing our dozens of DVDs from their cases and putting them into the DVD storage binder, stared and asked, periodically, “You ok, mom?” I nodded and kept sifting. “Yes, baby. I’m ok.” I wasn’t being completely honest.
The oldest one was from 1994, while I was a student at Columbia in a relationship with a drug dealer. (That’s a story for another time.) I was already writing about being unmothered and how devastating that was for me. I was just 19 years old.
I hadn’t looked at or flipped through most of those journals in years. Journals covered in dust, holding so many memories and thoughts, sadnesses and joys scribbled on to lined and unlined paper. Big journals, little journals, journals that can fit in a clutch purse for those nights that I was out on the town. Journals with hundreds of pages, some with only a few dozen. Leather journals, cloth-covered journals, journals made of hemp, others made out of marble notebooks, collages on the front and back cover to inspire and encourage me to write. A suede journal one of my former students gifted me where I wrote my second novel on my long ass commutes across Fordham Road in the Bronx to my aunt’s house to drop off my daughter to then jump on the train for an hour to get to work, and back again in the evening. I’d type what I wrote every night, editing as I typed.
Journals where the papers were stitched together with thread, glued or stapled; ring and spiral bindings. There are so many journals. Many of them filled, others barely written in at all. One, a small, leather turquoise joint with accordion binding and a ribbon to tie it shut, had just one quote on the first page in my cursive: “The heart has reason that reason does not understand.” That feels especially true as I ponder the little bit that I read as I packed and what I’m sure to dig into once I’m moved out and in to start anew…
I am leaving a neighborhood that I absolutely adore. But I know I am ready. I know it is time.
The final straw was when I came home two weeks ago to find that part of the ceiling in my living room had collapsed. Within 24 hours, the ceiling in the bathroom and the hallway leading to the bathroom also fell. We lived in that mess for a week before it was fixed; under gaping, leaking holes, debris still falling in pebbles and granules. My asthma’s been triggered, which makes sense since there’s now a thin layer of dust on everything. I’ve wiped and dusted and swept and mopped, but that stubborn layer is back within hours.
On Wednesday, I went to the management company to hand in the letter saying I was moving. The man who handles the accounts in my building, who I’ve argued with countless time, who’s gaslighted me and been a dick to me, was standing at the window. When he finished with the woman in front of me, I slid my rent payment and letter through the slot, glared at him and said, “I’m moving. I’m done with you and that building and this management company.” I was all flared nostrils and sneered upper lip and swiveling neck. His eyes grew wide. “Ok,” he said. He stepped away to get me my receipt and returned with a smile. Maybe he was trying to be conciliatory. I didn’t wait to find out. I grabbed my receipt and bounced.
I smiled as I walked up the block to catch the bus. “I did it.” I giggled. “I’m doing it. I’m moving.” Just then the bells started ringing at the church across the street. The church’s name is St. Augustine Our Lady of Victory. I took out my phone and texted my partner. She saw it too—that was definitely a sign from the universe. It was a glorious moment. (Note that St. Augustine’s Confessions is the considered the first memoir in history. No coincidences. None.)
I teared up on the bus ride. I cried all week. Pensive tears. Tears as I prep for this new beginning.
I moved into this apartment back in 2009. I moved from the apartment I’d shared with my daughter’s father before I kicked him out when she was one and a half. I moved after my first VONA, where I promised that I was going to quit my editing job and move to facilitate this writing life I was creating for myself. This apartment was symbolic of so many things.
For so long I’d done things and made decisions for my mother—maybe if I do this she’ll love me, maybe if I do that she’ll love me. Moving was for me. Quitting my job was for me. My throwing myself heart first into this writing and teaching life was for me. I was starting a life that was mine, for me and my baby girl. I was taking my life back.
My healing started in that apartment. My facing myself and the ghosts that haunt me and being unmothered and all that means and has meant, started in that apartment.
I took long walks in the park last week. Walks in the woods, where I sat at the various spots I’ve frequented over the years. I thought about the many times I’ve traversed those trails. That time I was falling apart, I felt so lost and alone, I asked the universe, begged her to hold me. It started with the red cardinals, three of them to my left, then it was the blue jays behind me. More birds joined the chorus until I was wrapped in bird song. I cried so hard. This was the way the universe held me—in bird song.
I sat at the end of Diamond Six, in front of me the view of the Henry Hudson Bridge, Riverdale and the Metro North station where that derailment happened a few years ago.
I’ve been saying bye to my park. Yes, of course I will return. Of course I’ll visit and I’ll hike those hills and go hug the tree at the top by the overlook spot that is according to legend the oldest tree in the park. I’ll come hike the forest in the spring when the earth is coming alive and the shoots are pushing through the winter hardened soil. I’ll be sure to come by at the beginning of June when the floor is carpeted by the yellow and orange tulip tree blossoms. And I’ll come when the foliage is bright yellows and reds and oranges, as the trees shed their weight for the winter. I’ll always return. A piece of my heart will always be in that park, the only natural forest on Manhattan Island, but I know it’s time for me to leave…and I know I’m ready to go.
On Wednesday night I read on a friend’s status that there was a blackout in Brooklyn. I immediately texted my mother. It turns out the blackout was only on my friend’s block in Flatbush but I didn’t know that when I checked in. Mom was nice at first. She joked that we should go out for a drink soon. She shared that it was hard for her to see me and my sister recently at our mutual friend’s baby shower. She said that when she sees us “I miss so much my son’s presence.”
I was feeling soft and vulnerable so I let her in. I told her that I miss him too (I so do) but it’s unfair and selfish that she pushes her daughters away. I confessed, “You don’t know how much this has made me suffer. I’m tired of hurting.” Her response came a few minutes later. She dismissed me, saying the same damn thing she’s said since I was a little girl: “That’s your problem…you’re too sensitive.” She told me I had to let go of the past. That it’s up to me to forgive her…that she’s made her mistakes, like I will make mistakes with my daughter.
Forgiveness doesn’t work without personal accountability. Not in my book at least. Not right now.
It’s the same people who tell you to stop living in the past that are the same ones who refuse to face how their ghosts are eating at them from the inside out. Ain’t that some shit?
I’m so tired of being shamed for having emotions and having the audacity to express them.
When I told my therapist on Friday that that apartment symbolizes the beginning of deliberate healing work, he asked, “What does that healing look like?”
I answered: Writing. Walks in the park. Hikes. Reaching out and creating community. Writing Our Lives. Therapy…
And in the middle of that healing, my brother died and the griefs within the grief left me gasping for breath. I embarked on a new healing and confrontation of myself and that wound I never wanted to name because naming it made it more real. It meant I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
The wound of being unmothered.
I don’t know where I found the term. I’m sure if I look in my journals I will find the source. What I do know is that I was looking for women like me who have antagonistic relationships with their mothers, who feel abandoned and alone and unanchored in the world. I felt so isolated. I needed to know that it wasn’t just me…because knowing that was evidence that it wasn’t my fault. That there wasn’t some defect in me that made me unlovable and unworthy… So when I found the work of people like Jaquira Diaz, I read everything I could get my hands on by her. How does she write about this? How does she cope? How has she lived without her mother’s love and guidance? How will she continue to?
This has been my healing: the questions and the answers. This is the journey I embarked on while in this apartment…so, yes, it makes sense that all these things are coming up now, as I pack and get ready to move. As I sift through all this stuff I’ve amassed. As I get ready to throw away a whole lot of shit and start this new life.
It’s scary. I’m nervous. That good kind of nervous where you feel like ladybugs are dancing in your cheeks so you can’t help but smile and laugh. You want to skip and dance and run and cry and cry and cry.
Thank Goddess for those good cries.
My daughter shared a poem with me the other day where she wrote about our family’s eyes. About me she wrote: “Everyone in my family is strong, but behind their eyes they are all crying for a way to let it go, like babies crying for their mothers. My mother has the eyes of a warrior. One with many scars, one who’s been waiting to let go of her arrow…”
About herself she wrote: “Me, my eyes are the eyes of a wise old woman. Eyes like they’ve lived before. Eyes who have been through never ending tunnels of confusion and bright paths of curiosity and strength…”
One of the greatest lessons of this journey over the past seven years is the realization that I did (and am doing) that, I raised and molded (am still raising and molding) this little girl who can write these words; who can tell me without hesitation that her goal for her seventh grade year is to be valedictorian; who after nine years of dancing decided this year to try something new: the cheerleading team at her new school. When I asked her why she wanted to do that, she said, “I want to try something new. I want to challenge myself.” When I prodded, “But why?” “I want to take a risk, mommy. I want to do what you do: you take risks all the time.” Baby girl went to three hour practices every day for two weeks. She found out last week that she not only got on the team but she is also a candidate for captain.
I did that. Me. Word!
The week ended with the leaked recording of that fool Trump saying his fame entitled him to grab women “by the pussy.” I heard about it from my partner at date night on Friday. I admittedly stayed away from the news outlets last week as I was feeling super sensitive and just couldn’t deal with the shit show that is the election and the media overall. When Katia told me about the recording, my mind flashed to two specific instances in my life where I was grabbed by the pussy: one at the last Puerto Rican Day Parade I attended in 2001 and the other when I was walking through Bushwick one evening. I thought of the essay, The Danger of Being a Woman, that got picked up by Roxane Gay’s The Butter.
I heard him hissing at me but just kept walking. I always keep walking. That hissing and calling me mami shit has never gotten my attention. I slept. I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.
I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.
He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.
The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”
That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.” The Danger of Being a Woman
Over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a woman and what it means to raise a young woman. I thought about how young my daughter was when I first had the conversation with her about how dangerous the world is for girls. I’ve given my daughter boxing lessons, showing her how to throw a straight right and a jab, and showing her how to kick and yank and free herself from holds. I thought about the first time I saw a man harass my daughter in the street. She was ten. He was in his sixties. I told him I would break his fucking legs. I wasn’t lying.
This past spring an atrevido told me I should gift my daughter to him. “Regalamela,” was his exact wordage. I didn’t pounce and claw him porque Dios es grande, but he deserved that and more.
My daughter has confessed that she’s had to deal with street harassment from men and boys for years. “It makes me feel dirty,” she said and dug her face into my chest.
People have dismissed Trump’s words as “locker room talk.” They have claimed that all men talk that way. Some have even said that women are just as bad.
On October 7th, writer Kelly Oxford posted on her Twitter:
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first:
Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.
Thousands of women responded. Tens of thousands. I was going to then I wondered where I should begin. What was the first assault? Was it when the old man from next door grabbed me when I was five? Was it when the teenager grabbed me by the crotch when I was seven? What about all the times it happened at bars and clubs and lounges, where men think your having a drink in your hand and dancing with a friend gives them license to rub themselves on you, grab you, curse you when you reject them. What about all the times it’s happened on the street?
I thought about my daughter. I thought about how though I will try, I cannot protect her from this horrible side of humanity. I thought about all the people I saw denying that Trump’s words are a clear example of rape culture, and those who even dare say that rape culture does not exist.
I don’t wish harm on people but there is a part of me that wishes they could experience this life as a woman, this woman, that woman who knows what it is to be assaulted, raped, violated, so they can see what rape culture is and how the world treats us, violating us again and again after the initial violation, when they blame us, ask if we were drinking, ask what we were wearing, say shit like: “what were you doing there, anyway?” Perhaps then they wouldn’t be so dismissive. Perhaps then they would acknowledge this fuckin problem and stop gaslighting us and making us feel that we are the problem, we are to blame simply for being women and having the nerve to exist and be.
I think of the officer who interviewed me after that pendejo assaulted me in Bushwick.
The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”
I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”
He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?”
I’ve never been the same since that day in my mid-20s. I always look back to see who, if anyone, is following. I don’t sleep on anyone. When I’m out late, I carry my keys splayed in my hand, one key in between each finger, in case some fool dares. Us being careful doesn’t solve the problem, though. The problem is this culture that says that women are here for men’s eyes and fetishes and hands, we are objects to be touched and lusted over.
When I told my mother I was having a girl, she shook her head and sighed, “Girls come to this world to suffer…” I didn’t want to believe her. I didn’t want to understand, but I get it now, as I raise a little girl having to show her how very dangerous it is for us women and girls…
*An essay a week in 2016*
It was a hard teaching week. High school students can be so callous, and I’m a hard teacher who demands a lot from my kids and sometimes that causes problems. But know this, I am here, working with this demographic because I want to be. I could go to a private school and work with the rich, white kids but I know where I’m needed—in the neighborhoods like the one I grew up in in Brooklyn, with kids that look like me and come from homes that look like mine did. And no, that doesn’t make me heroic. It makes me someone who cares, who wants to make a difference. I have to remind my students that no, they’re not indebted to me, but yes, I give a fuck and this is about so much more than a college essay or a poetry or fiction class. This is about preparing them for life. Their lives. I’m just trying to show them that they’re magic…
I’ll call her Mia. She’s a senior now and I’ve been working with her in some capacity since her first year in high school. Various writing classes, a poetry class she signed up for but rarely came to, a mandatory writing class one summer, a social action writing class.
She always had a little bit (no, a lot) of attitude but she’s also brilliant—her comments in class are well thought out and eloquent, she makes interesting connections; when she does her work, she does it well. But she’s a trigger. You never know what’s going to pull that clip out of the grenade that she is. This week, that grenade went off and the shrapnel came rushing at me.
I teach seniors how to write the college essay—both the personal statement and supplement essays many universities require in addition to the common and SUNY aps. I tell my students that the essays are the gates. Their statistics get them to those gates: their grades (GPAs), SAT and/or ACT scores, recommendations, etc., get them to the gates of the university of their dreams, but it’s the essay(s) that will open those gates, or, keep them closed.
That essay is the only place admissions officers see you, the student, not just the numbers. It’s the one place applicants can show who they really are, what they care about, how they think and exist in the world, what matters to them and why. It’s the one place they can show their hearts. It’s that important.
I take this class seriously. It’s often the first class these students have ever taken where they’re asked to share themselves, their lives, their stories. It’s often the first time they can, must write about themselves. For their entire academic careers they’ve been told not to use the “I” in essays, not to write their opinions or their stories, and now doing just that, in an essay, determines where they will spend the next four years of their lives. So much of what I do is teaching them to unlearn what they have learned. The class is also an entry into college level writing.
These students are all students of color, with few exceptions. Dominican, Mexican, Ugandan, Jamaican, Chinese, Nepalese, Pakistani. They are applying to SUNY schools and private universities where for the first time in their lives, they will be the one black or brown face in a sea of white faces. It will be the first time they will be in white America without having the escape of going back home that evening. They will be surrounded by white professors and white students and all that whiteness is and means. They will be the other, and I am scared for them.
This fear makes me a hard ass. I am strict with my students. I demand excellence. I push them to go further, to write more, to dig. I hold them accountable for their behavior. I don’t stand for lateness or laziness or half-assness. I push them hard while also working to show them that they can trust me and that I care. This week a draft of their essays was due. I bought them chocolate to munch on while they wrote.
My style of teaching (an iron hand with a velvet glove) works with most of my students though there are exceptions. Still, I’ve had so many return to visit and thank me for what I taught them. They tell me I was right about what I’d said to them. They share the papers they’ve written, the big As circled in red ink, “Great job!” in the margins. It’s when they go out into the world that they get it and me.
My style didn’t work with Mia this week. She apparently felt targeted and reproached, and she acted out.
To her it didn’t matter that she walked in late. “Oops” she said and rolled her eyes when I asked her why she was so late. She walked in with two friends who don’t go to school with her. That looks suspect and I told them as much. “So,” she said. I let it slide. You have to pick your battles.
She sat and didn’t do any work. This young woman who is applying to UC Berkeley’s Engineering Program Early Action. Whose entire application, including the personal statement and supplemental essays, is due on October 29th, sat there and didn’t do anything. When I tried to relay the urgency, probably already in my losing patience voice, she snapped. I tried. I can honestly say that I tried, but when she told me that she had to leave early for an orientation, I said, “You have done no work. You came late and now you tell me you have to leave early?” She responded, “What does that have to do with anything?” A back and forth ensued. Yes, I get it. I am the adult. I should not have engaged in a back and forth, but you know what, I’m a human being who cares about this kid and doesn’t want to see her fail. I understand that her behavior is self-defeating and problematic and will get her in trouble out in the real world, the white world that she’s heading to in Berkeley, California…that’s if she ever gets that ap done.
“Why do you think it’s okay to talk to me like that?”
“You’re not my mother.”
“But I’m your teacher.”
“And?” That’s when I asked her to leave. This young black woman who is so smart and has such a promising future if she would just get out of her own way.
I think about what will happen if she pulls that stunt out in the world. If she does that to a professor who doesn’t care about her, isn’t invested in her future.
Excellence. I demand excellence. Will it protect her from the microaggressions and racism she is sure to encounter? No. Sadly, no. But I’m trying to help her see her own magic so she can learn to protect herself. To see her own beauty. To see what she is capable of so when they lean in and try to tell her otherwise, she can push back because she knows who the fuck she is, the strength she has chiseled into her backbone like hieroglyphics on pyramid walls.
I think of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen…
…you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
Has my achieving saved me from the claws of racism and the cicatrixes they leave behind? I remember all those times I’ve been made to feel less than and not enough. That professor who said, “You people…” and let the door slam, like a casket, a cage, a vault.
Clarissa Pinkola said: “if you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.” (Women who Run with the Wolves)
I am trying to show my students my door so they can learn to construct their own…
This week I went to the Dominican spot to get myself some lunch before heading out to teach and write and lesson plan, etc. An African American man was placing an order for several trays of whole chickens for pick up on Saturday. The women struggled to communicate with him so I stepped in to help, being apparently the only English speaker there. Man is smiling and thanking me for helping. Bottle blonde Dominicana behind counter says he has to pay in advance. Man has no problem. Steps out to confirm order with someone on the phone. Blonde Dominicana says she doubts he’ll be back. I ask why. She says she doubts he can afford the $100+ order. I ask again why. I stare, accusingly. She flutters her eyelids nervously. Me: “¿porque es moreno?” She huffs and walks off to take another order. This is the same woman who makes my coffee in the morning, perfectly, without me having to ask. The African blood in her is undeniable, obvious in her hair and skin and curve of her nostrils, and here she is being racist. Le debe de dar vergüenza. My people make me so ashamed sometimes. (That man did come back and paid for his order of ten whole chickens, by the way.)
I think about Mia and the racism she’s probably already encountered from her own people, because she’s black and she’s beautiful and smart and has some serious attitude. I wonder what’s happened to her that she has built this armor around herself.
When I told my partner about what happened, she said: “Do you see yourself in her?” I winced. The undeniable answer is yes.
I remember the girl I once was who was so hurt and so angry and felt so unseen that I acted out. I was violent. I used my fists and legs. I pummeled. I kicked. But I also had books and I had writing. That was my door. It’d take me some time to find that out, but I know now that that’s what saved me. There are the roots to my resilience. It was books and words that saved me.
Alone by Maya Angelou
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
I think of that scene in The Color Purple, where Harpo marries Sofia, and Mister goes up to congratulate Sofia. As he approaches, three of Sofia’s aunties stand in front of her, like a wall, a fortress, a moat around Sofia. They don’t let him get close to Sofia, as she holds her baby and rocks her body the way mommas do.
We can’t make it out here alone though we will try. It’s what we do. It’s how we try to shield ourselves from the heartbreak that life delivers. Pero mi gente, the most beautiful thing there is is family (blood or otherwise). The most human thing is to want companionship. To share our lives and be held when we are hunched over, the ache inside too much to stand upright.
It’s true, none of our achievements or our kindnesses or our living right will save us from the racism we will surely encounter. They will still want to make a stereotype out of you. They will still make you believe you are the exception and in the next sentence say you’re all the same. “You people…”
When you know you are magic, you can remind yourself. And when you have family to hold you, together you can pull yourself back upright again.
*An essay a week in 2016*
Last week was that kind of week that leaves you feeling drained and wondering. I did some writing but mostly I brooded…
In the wee hours of Monday morning, my neighbor from the apartment above knocked on my door to tell me there were chorros of water falling in her bathroom. This has happened so many times since I moved into this building six years ago. When I turned on the lights, there was water leaking in my living room, the hallway leading to my bathroom and the bathroom. Not 24 hours later, after getting tons of work done and feeling proud and accomplished, I came home to find the ceiling had collapsed in my living room. Not long thereafter the ceiling in the bathroom came down. And the following morning, the ceiling in the hallway outside the bathroom fell. This hallway is right next to my daughter’s room. She was out walking the dog when it happened, thank God. That’s when I finally called 311.
Dealing with this shit triggered lots of anxiety. My therapist helped me see that it has to do with safety. I was raised in a home where I didn’t feel safe so I’ve worked really hard to gift my daughter (and, yes, myself) a safety I didn’t know as a kid, so it makes sense that I was anxious: my home isn’t a safe environment for either of us…but it took the idea of the ceiling collapsing on my daughter for me to call 311.
The inspector came the following day. She gasped at the gaping holes, debris still falling every few minutes, rocks and sand and powder. I told her my asthma was being triggered, that I was dealing with this kind of nonsense for years. She said these were Class C violations and the building had a week to fix it before they were fined. She made a note of other problems in the apartment:
It’s been two years since a leak in my kitchen corroded a huge patch of tiles. I’m still waiting for them to be replaced. Each time the job was scheduled, I was told an emergency happened that was priority. This happened three times. Three days off of work. Ain’t that some shit?
The light fixture in my daughter’s room has been hanging on a string (literally) for years now. We barely use it because of that. I’ve reported it several times.
Once, the former super (who was levels and layers of asshole) got mad that I’d called the management company about the toilet not flushing. I’d told him about it twice—once in person and another time via a letter in his mailbox. He didn’t come by the house to make the repair. That was him though, he did shit on his own time. He was the super for 37 years and the management company gave him free reign so he took advantage and stopped doing his job ages ago. To punish me, he didn’t come to make the repair before the weekend. I had a nonfunctioning toilet for the entire weekend, a total of a week—seven days. Can you imagine living like this? First world problems, yes, but still…
This super is also the one who would leer at me and tell me, “You lookin’ good!” I live in the apartment a few floors above the entrance to his. When I’ve invited my friends over for dinner and hangout out time, he asked, “Porque no me invitastes?” Once, he saw me walking with this guy I was kinda, sorta seeing. He asked, “Who is that boy?” I sneered, “Mind your business.” Homeboy I was seeing didn’t say anything. He lost points so many points for that. If you can’t defend or stick up for me (even if I don’t need you to), I ain’t fuckin with you. I never saw that guy again. I am not in the business of being involved with punks.
This super made me feel inept when I asked for a repair to be made. When the sinks or tub got clogged (which is a perpetual problem), he blamed us, saying it was our long hair. It wasn’t the old tuberia or the fact that the drainage in this building sucks. It was my and my daughter’s fault. Once he had the nerve to tell me to cut my hair. I glared at him and walked away. I knew that he was capable of stopping his job midway and leaving us without a working tub because he was bitchy like that. Can you imagine living like this?
The repairmen showed up this morning. There are two. They’ve been here for hours. They have barely looked at me. They are busy handling their business. I’m typing this up in my kitchen, the closest room to the exit. I could say that it’s because the dust has been exacerbating my asthma for days and this room has big, open window and air circulation, but I know that’s just part of it. This fear is a slow simmer. This is what it is to be a woman.
After two days of anxiety, I said a prayer before I went to bed asking for respite. I had dreams where my spirits visited me and reminded me that they have my back and all is well; that they’re protecting me though it may not see so right now. There is a message in this situation in my home: the beginning to an end. It’s time to go.
The following morning I came across a quote that read: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Those ceiling collapses are a metaphor for what’s happening in this country…
We were driving on the Sprain Brook the other day. It’s a parkway in Westchester that is all trees and soaring hawks. I noticed that there were many dead trees with vines climbing up them. The leafless branches reached into the sky like veins looking for source. It reminded me of the roads in the Oakland hills where vines climb the trunks and branches of trees. It looks beautiful but the vines are actually choking the trees, killing them slowly.
Ever seen a web and wonder how the spider spanned that juncture. How she got from one corner to the next. From one limb to the other. One branch, feet from the other. Feet for us but miles for her. A distance incomprehensible to us, because we’re not that small and not that willing to take daring leaps. She jumps knowing there is no net to catch her. She knows she will land. She knows she will somehow hit a surface. And there she will continue to build and mold that web that will sustain and carry her. She just does. She doesn’t know how. That’s not her focus. Her focus is the leap and the knowing—I will land. And she does. She always does.
When you’re at a concert (Word Rock and Sword: A Musical Celebration of Women’s Live VI) after five hours of teaching the class that is your baby, the one you created with your everything, and the concert is like a MichFest reunion, so of course you run into the editors of the Sinister Wisdom MichFest edition, and they have galleys of the anthology to which you submitted an essay which was eagerly accepted and what are the chances that you would be here, with them, to receive and edit and approve the essay in said galley, and as you wait for the concert to start, you receive an email saying one of your essays was rejected. You really wanted this one… You read that you made it to the last round and your piece was hotly debated but in the end they decide your essay didn’t add anything new to the conversation and it lost steam at the end and you want to shrink into yourself but you remember the spider and she reminds you: you jumped and yes, you didn’t land there, but you will land somewhere. You always do.
“Release your heart and fly, angel fly…” Asha Lovechild sings as you type into your notes ap on your iPhone. You promise yourself to find and download everything of her, this black woman with a godlike voice and earrings the size of cups. “Fly,” she croons and your heart bursts.
“Maybe one day I’ll fly like an eagle, soar like a bird,” sings Marcelle Davies Lashley. She reminds you of Billie and Ella and Nina at once, and all you can do is rock yourself. The piano and violin slay you over and over, because you know there are no coincidences and that spider is talking to you and reminding you to remember. Remember.
Another singer comes on, you will learn later that her name is Be Steadwell. She sings, “Who have I become… I knew who I was when you met me, I know who I am when you left me…who have I become?” It is a prayer. A question. She started her piece beat boxing that old school way you remember from Brooklyn and the beginning of hip hop, a forgotten story like yours…
Chelsea Peterson says: “We are our own antidote.” She lists the names of men and women of color who have been murdered in senseless acts of violence: Trayvon Martin, Terence Crutcher, Rekia Boyd. “Break dance between bullets…I’m exhausted by rage, battling these enemy bandits and my own damn depression… Salute your own magic, warrior. Conjure your genetic memory, and expect magic, conjure magic… If there’s one thing I know, we will survive.” She tells you she loves you and calls you wounded warrior. “You always find the light. You are the light. Kissed by the sun and sculpted like a god…”
And then the legendary Nona Hendrix sings a song written over 40 years ago and you know because she reminds you: “so hard to live without love, love, love… People need understanding. We need power.” The artists join her on stage and repeat her lines over and over: “What can you do for me? You. What can you do for me?”
And you wonder why that’s such a taboo question? Why is that too much to ask? Why do you judge yourself selfish for asking? Do we portend the shit people will say? The shit we’ll get, especially us women of color who are taught to sacrifice ourselves, our health, our sanity for everyone.
When you’ve learned early, over and again, that you is all you got, over and over again, no matter love or war or sorrow or grief … Nona says: “show me love, show me love, show me love” over and over. That’s the answer to the question: What can you do for me? “Show me love,” is what you’re asking. There’s your reminder.
This morning as you’re lying in bed wondering how your lungs are going to react to all the dust and the fumes, you come across a new Gatorade commercial that makes your eyes water.
It stars WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and focuses on her life off the court that has influenced the way she approaches the game, specifically her relationship with her sister, who is both deaf and blind, and the closest person to her.
She says her sister has taught her: “You don’t focus on what you don’t have. You celebrate what you do.”
I was annoyed with this Relentless Files challenge this weekend. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to sit and sulk, but instead I went to a café on Fulton in Bed-Stuy while I waited for my partner. I was thinking about the week in headline news of more unarmed black men killed by police. One of them, Terrance Crutcher, had his hands up when he was shot.
Natalie Diaz wrote on her FB: A white female officer shot a black man. The black man was left in the road, dying. The white female officer was sat down behind a cop car, held by her fellow officers, consoled. For shooting the black man who was still there, alone, dying in the road.”
There are protests in Charlotte and cities throughout the country. A country that could possibly be led by Donald Trump, if he wins the election. It all feels so surreal.
This week in Writing Our Lives, I assigned Dionne Irving’s “Living with Racial Fatigue: Why Fighting Microaggressions Can Feel Like Treading Water.” I assigned it before Crutcher was killed. It seemed especially appropriate, all things considered.
This week I focused the writing on the microaggressions we’ve experienced as women, women of color, as queer and gay folks. I read excerpt of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a model.
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all come from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
José Alfredo Menjivar writes: “Memories demand attention because memories have teeth.” You repost the status with one word: TEETH.
I have to be honest: while I was writing some of this, I was really bitter about the rejection I got. I’m still curling my lip at the comments that it lost steam at the end and that I didn’t add anything new to the conversation.
I know this might be self-indulgent and I may come across as self-involved and petty. I know I may be wallowing. My essay made it to the last round. It was hotly debated. In the end, it wasn’t chosen and that’s okay, or at least it should be. People deal with rejection all the time. My work has been rejected dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. It comes with the territory of being a writer who submits, who is actively seeking to be published. I know all of this but I have to acknowledge how I feel. This is how I process. I can’t let this shit sit in me. I already know what happens when I do that—it festers and persists until I stare at it and start to pick it apart.
One time, when I posted about being bitter about a rejection, a writer I know (or knew because she unfriended me some time afterwards) reminded me of all the pieces I have published and how proud I should be about that. Really, this isn’t about not being grateful. This is about releasing these feelings. I need space to process.
I remind myself that this isn’t a reflection of me or my work. I write through it. I let myself feel what I need to feel, then I move on. That isn’t self-indulgent. It’s self-care. It’s what I needed, and ultimately, it’s me I have to answer to and come to terms with.
I remind myself of what I do have:
An amazing 12 year old who is trying her hand at cheerleading, doing three hour practices for two weeks building up to the try outs. She comes home excited to share the cheers and dances and what she’s learning in her new school. This week we discussed Kaepernick, who she’s studying in Social Studies. It gave me the opportunity to introduce her to Papa James Baldwin. I told her about his work and read her this quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” She said, “Send me that. I want to share it in class.” Later, she came back and said she was saving it for the conclusion of her persuasive essay on the topic. That was definitely a win for this mama.
I have a partner who is loving and tender and deals with my shit (and I, in turn, deal with her). Just today, we had a spat that ultimately came down to me feeling shame about my financial situation. As a single mama who quit her job to live this dream, I had to sacrifice some things…one of those things was my credit. Yes, I’m working on improving it, but it’s a process. Sharing that triggers me… My partner reminds me that it’s okay. That I’m no longer alone. That we’re in this together and what I once had to do alone, all the time, I no longer have to do… That too is a learning process. I’ve been on my own for 27 years. Unlearning some of this shit is gonna take some time…
I have this career and life that I’ve created for myself and am quite proud of. I have lit mags reaching out to me asking me to submit. This Friday I was asked to participate in a reading welcoming Ana Castillo to NYC. I’m featuring at Capicu Cultural Showcase on October 14th. As soon as I was asked, I cried out, “Mama, I think I made it” and giggled to myself. See, it’s a poetry showcase so to be asked to feature, as a predominantly prose writer, is kind of a big deal for me. I also haven’t been out in the writing scene much. I withdrew a few years ago when I got disillusioned with it and decided to do the work and focus on the writing. I’ve never regretted that decision. Still, I feel it calling me back and I’m open to the sharing.
On October 15th, I’m on a panel at the NYC Latina Writer’s Group 10 year anniversary celebration. I’ve been a cherished member of this group for years now and have facilitated workshops for them. This is a huge honor for me!
My Writing Our Lives nine-week class filled up quickly and there was a waiting list of five! This after increasing the tuition by $200. I’m also working on moving it online, hopefully soon. There is so much deliciousness in this!
I’m steadily working on this memoir, and after getting out of my own way (which took some time and reflection), it is coming together more beautifully and fluidly than I ever imagined…and that’s just dope, especially considering that this has been a decade long journey.
In his “The Creative Process” essay, Baldwin writes:
The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things are real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.
I’m thinking about this hard, especially as a writer of memoir and personal essay. We who’ve been called self-obsessed and narcissistic and so many other things. I think about this work I do and why I do it. The second rule of autobiographical writing is: the story isn’t about you. It’s about a theme like a string that runs through the story and puts it together… Ultimately I write to figure out how it is I’ve learned to live with all this shit, the beauty and the rot and all that lies in the subconscious that bleeds into my life without my knowing it. The point is to be a more whole, productive member of this society. To make myself and this world a better place. And that might sound grandiose or pompous but I believe Chris Abani when he said: “..the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion.” And that compassion starts with you.
“Show me love.”
*An essay a week in 2016*
This past Saturday, September 10th, I read at my gorgeous sister-friend Rhonda Elhosseiny’s show, Resilience: Across the Spectrum. It’s the first time she displays her visual artwork to the public and it was phenomenal. She put such care into the exhibit and the line-up was dope.
When Rhonda initially asked me to participate, it was just weeks after I discovered that this memoir I’m writing also attempts to uncover what it is about me that’s made me resilient while some of the people I love the most, including my brother, weren’t so lucky. I went into this piece with that in mind…
When I think of resilience, I think of the pile of rubble that was Bushwick, the neighborhood I grew up in in the 70s and 80s. Not the Bushwick of today, with its $15 burger bars and yoga studios and trash cans on every corner. No, I’m talking about the gritty Bushwick nobody wanted to go to. I’m talking about the Bushwick that was home.
Bushwick was a lot like those images of the South Bronx that you’ve seen on the screen if you’ve seen The Get Down—trash and rubble strewn lots that went on for blocks; abandoned and burnt out buildings that became crack houses during the crack era; graffiti and rap and disco and track suits and gazelle glasses and people who lived and loved in that. People who defied that devastation.
When I think of resilience, I think of the plum tree in our backyard that I started climbing when I was five. It was up in that tree that I started telling myself stories of a different life. A life when mom didn’t beat me and call me desgraciada and ordinaria. In this life, mommy loved me. She was tender, she was kind, she mothered me.
I think of the junk yard next door that was much like the lots that dotted Bushwick back then, with its piles of trash, tires and rusted license plates, lumber with nails sticking out at angles, trees pushing through the mounds, there among the feral cats and kitten sized rats, I imagined I was the female Indiana Jones on a quest in a foreign land to save the world. I saved myself over and over in those fantasies.
When I think of resilience I think of the many ways we come up with to save ourselves. For me, it was my art that saved me and always has, from when I started telling myself stories up in that plum tree, to when I wrote my first novel when I had my daughter and finally owned that I am a writer, to the journey I’m currently on of writing my memoir. It is through story that I have found the relentless ability to confront and overcome the ghosts that haunt me.
Resilience is my mother surviving what she did.
Resilience is me surviving her.
Resilience defined is:
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
I haven’t always had the ability to recover quickly and I certainly haven’t always been tough, but what I have had is the wherewithal to search for something to save me, hold me, be with me. When I was a kid, it was climbing up that plum tree. Then it was climbing over the gate to the junkyard next door. In both, I told myself stories.
For my mother, for two years during my childhood, it was the garden she tilled in our backyard.
I imagine she was trying to save herself when she climbed out our first floor window into that backyard. Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected from the yard over the falling apart plywood fence into the junkyard next door. It took days for her to weed and till the soil that had been packed by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. Then she used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg, she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
She laid the envelopes of seeds she bought out the wooden table in our kitchen. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into the holes and packed the soil down with her palm. She handled those seeds with a tenderness I rarely felt directed at me.
Do you know what it’s like to envy seeds?
Have you ever envied a seed?
When the sunflowers grew tall and heavy with seeds, she tied sticks to them and tied them to the gate so they wouldn’t keel over.
That garden is how she saved herself back then. That was her resilience.
I wonder now how she saves herself after the death of my beloved brother.
When I think of resilience, I think about the Emily Dickinson poem, Chrysallis, that inspired the title of my memoir: A Dim Capacity for Wings.
My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air:
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.
A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadow of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.
So I must baffle at the hint
And cipher at the sign,
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clew divine.
Vanessa means butterfly in Greek. When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it must wait for its wings to harden so it can bear its own weight. Until then, it cannot fly.
I had to go through what I went through for my wings to harden.
People have told me that being unmothered is what’s made me strong. It’s difficult to hear that what has made you suffer also made you strong. It’s not that I don’t get that. Trust me, no one knows that about myself more than me. Yes, I am resilient and relentless because I had to learn how to be. It’s just that that strength didn’t protect me from the suffering that came (and still comes) from being unmothered. This shit has layers.
Still I wonder: What is it about me that has made me able to confront and make something beautiful of these ghosts that haunt me when my dear brother Juan Carlos was taken out by his? Why did I have the resilience to survive and thrive while he reeled into a fifteen year heroin addiction that eventually killed him?
Don’t we all have a dim capacity for wings? What does it take for us to make that dim capacity fire? A full flame that feeds us and our work? A fire that doesn’t ignite us and make us implode? How did I manage to create this life for myself, to do this work, to teach and write and create and make magic? To be here, before you, reading this ramble of thoughts and feelings and wonder?
I don’t have all the answers. I can tell you that I had that tree and I had that junk yard and I have these stories that I write and I have this relentless drive to continue to be resilient, to continue to write and create art and teach…to write these stories that have both haunted and saved me, over and over again.
Mary Oliver once wrote: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
Is that what’s made me resilient? That I’ve given this call to create both power and time? Let it twist me up and wrestle me into knots, then written it out? I’m not sure. I can’t say…or maybe I can. Maybe my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings is my answer.
The book opens with a poem by Lucille Clifton:
Won’t you celebrate with me
What I have shaped into
A kind of life? I had no model.
Born nonwhite and woman
What did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
Here on this bridge between
Starshine and clay,
My one hand holding tight
My other hand; come celebrate
With me that everyday
Something has tried to kill me
And has failed.
Resilience for me is just that: being myself. Making this life for myself. Ensuring that what has tried to kill me, has failed. Over and over. Failed. While I continue to save my own life. My one hand holding tight my other hand. Won’t you allow me to hold your hand and remind you, if you need reminding, remind us, that you too can do this. Be resilient. Be relentless. Unfuckwithable. Be bad ass. Vamos. Let’s do this. Let’s be resilient!
This week was a hard week. I faltered. I forgot…
Here’s the thing about resilience that’s so frustrating and roller-coaster: when you’re in the thick of the hard, say it’s a full moon, a Harvest moon, and an eclipse in Pisces (and your moon is in Pisces in your birth chart and from what you’ve read and heard from people who are more knowledgeable about astrology than you, it makes you super emotional and sensitive and all things you already knew so hearing it makes so much sense) and Mercury is retrograde and the autumnal equinox is nearing and the combination of this celestial dance has made you a mess, old wounds are showing up because to shed them you must face them…in the thick of that, you can forget that you’re a resilient mothafucka and you forget about the plum tree and the junkyard where you saved your life over and over again when you were just a girl, and you feel that ache in your bones, that lonely ache of alone, that feeling you haven’t felt in a long time but you are so very, probably too familiar with, so you know it’s acrid scent and you know it’s spindly fingers on your throat…and so you have to remind yourself and that reminding may take time to sink in. You have to cry and walk under that full moon and howl at her and it’s in the howl that you hear the echo of that resilience you also know so very well…that dim capacity you made wings.
Can there exist a butterfly that cocoons repeatedly so each time it surfaces, it’s morphed into something bigger and more grand, its wings brighter hues that only nature can produce and artists attempt to capture in oils on canvas?
If there is such a butterfly, she is I and I am she. We keep reinventing ourselves. We keep coming back knocking on the door of resilience. We keep reminding ourselves. And when we forget, she is there. She has our wings. She waits until we remember.
*An essay a week in 2016*
This week I’ve been all up in my feelings. Tuesday was my last day of this summer I gifted myself to write and be with myself. I didn’t go to many events. And, I was productive as a mothafucka. I sat with my memoir and dug in. I wrote weekly essays for my Relentless Files challenge. I reinvented my Writing Our Lives Workshop (again). I sat under trees and counted stars and traced the lines on my palm. It was glorious and hard and I can’t wait to do it again next summer, because, yes, I’ve already decided I am absolutely doing it again.
Don’t get me wrong, yes, I missed teaching. I missed the glow on an emerging writer’s face when she knows without a doubt that she wrote a kick ass scene. But this writing I did was invigorating and challenging and so fuckin powerful, and it reminded me of the life I’m working towards where I write more than I teach and not the other way around. This is how dreams morph and evolve even further than we imagined. This is how we keep striving and growing and being our fly, relentless selves. Word.
I’ve been thinking a lot about permission. The permission we give ourselves and the permission we seek from others. I’ve had so many people ask me how it is I do this: live this life where I write and publish and teach and make a living doing what I love. Some people want a formula and cringe when I tell them there isn’t one. Others want me to give them permission.
I had a young writer tell me she wanted to finish her novel by the beginning of next year. I breathed hard and told her to take her time. She said she’s had this idea in her head for ten years. I said, with all the gentleness I could muster, that an idea is great but it’s the action that matters. I asked her how much she writes. I asked her what she was reading. I told her that it took Junot Diaz eight years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the novel that garnered him a Pulitzer. I told her I’d been writing this memoir for more than ten years and it’s only this year that I’ve finally felt ready to finish it. I had to become the writer who could finish the book. I confess, I am afraid for her. I am afraid that she is setting herself up for disappointment. Finishing a book in three months is no easy feat. What happens if she doesn’t? Can she handle the weight of that disappointment? She pushed back and I let her. I get it. I’m the same way: when someone tells me I can’t do something, I say “watch me” and proceed to do it. Do I doubt that this young woman can do it? I’ve never seen her work. She took a one day workshop with me a few years ago and she stood in the back, didn’t raise her hand once, just took notes and watched. I don’t remember seeing her blink. She’s told me that she’s only written poetry. She’s told me she doesn’t write everyday and reads only sporadically.
I sent her the essay by Daniel José Older, “Writing Begins with Forgiveness.”
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
The writer didn’t respond but later she asked me how and when I was ready to write a synopsis for my novel. I told her that I had to write the novel first. I said: I may have had an idea of what I wanted the story to be but I had to leave room for the story to become what it wanted to become. I had to leave room for mystery. And when I did, I was amazed by what came out of me.
I wrote my first novel in a few weeks. I didn’t sleep. I barely ate. I only stopped to nurse my then months-old daughter, cook and fight with my then partner (my daughter’s father) who was jealous of everything that didn’t involve him. (That’s how I knew for sure that it was over: he was jealous of my writing and I knew not being a writer to assuage him wasn’t an option.) The thing is, I’d been writing that book in my journals for years though I didn’t know it then. That’s mystery. That’s process. One couldn’t have happened without the other. I had to read all the books and essays and articles I read. I had to write in my journal and dream of this writing life. I had to live the life I led. I had to do so much before I could birth that book. I had to become the writer who could finish that book. I had to give myself permission.
I left that conversation with that young writer feeling conflicted. I wanted to tell her yes, that she could do it (because if I could, she can), but the writer and teacher in me also wanted her to know that this writing life is not an easy one. That it requires a surrender that is shocking and can freeze you up if you don’t allow it.
I revisited that confrontation with surrender this summer when I reentered my memoir. I had this idea of what I wanted the book to be and spent weeks trying to shape it. I was frustrated when it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. I had to get out of my own way. I finally did. How? I had to remind myself that I’ve been writing this book for more than a decade. I had to remind myself of the surrender I permitted when I wrote my first book. I had to ask the memoir to show me its beauty. The minute I did, something shifted and the book started pouring out of me. The stories I’ve written a thousand and one times started coming together to create cohesive chapters. And, no, it’s not what I imagined, it’s better. So much better. And more powerful. And also more wrenching. It’s twisted me up in ways that I can’t really describe. Let’s just say, I ran to the woods often. I cried. I raged. And I have thanked the universe for therapy at least a dozen times a day.
I think of a quote my friend Erica Woods Tucker sent me a few weeks ago from a podcast Gary Shteyngart (author of the memoir Little Failure) did with Elizabeth Gilbert: “When you’re doing it right, writing memoir will feel both a relief and a trauma.”
And so because I know this, I wanted to be realistic with this young writer. I didn’t want to be discouraging but I didn’t want to lie to her either. And I was afraid of her waking up one day in January and beating herself up for not having finished the book she set out to finish. It’s so wonderful to have a story percolating in you for so long, and so devastating when you can’t get it down on paper.
We read a lot about different writers’ eccentric processes—but what about those crucial moments before we put pen to paper? For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like, I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it being to a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
I put my hands on the keyboard and begin.
I hope that young writer can write that book she’s been aching to write. I hope if she doesn’t meet the deadline, that she forgives herself. And I hope that what I said to her didn’t discourage her. I hope she realizes that she doesn’t need mine or anyone’s permission, just her own.
And to all those out there imagining this creative life I want to say:
Don’t wait for someone to tell you you can do something big, that you can write or paint or draw or take pictures or whatever it is your heart desires. Do that shit. Do it relentlessly. Get up every day and work towards that goal. Write a page or a scene or develop a character. Put that paintbrush to canvas. Open that sketchbook you bought months ago. Do it today. This work takes time and patience. You can’t get up one day and say you’re going to run a marathon and expect to do that without keeling over. That’s 26.2 miles, homie. You will have to train. Art requires the same dedication and effort. If it’s that important, start. Poco a poco. Día a día.
And when you can’t get up every day and do it, forgive yourself. And when you don’t meet that self-imposed deadline, forgive yourself. And when people don’t support you or your work, insist you’re living a pipe dream, forgive them too. Then buckle down and do the work. Show them. Tell them: Watch me.
After that exchange with the writer, I started thinking about my sister who used to tell me every time we fought that I thought that I was better than her. She was the smart one when we were growing up. She was the one who was supposed to go places so when I was the one that was offered a four year scholarship to boarding school, she treated me like shit that entire summer before I left, ratted on me about my boyfriend (my first love who lived just down the block) and told me she celebrated for a week after I left. (I’d find out years later that she cried for weeks afterwards.) On the flipside, she also gave me a pair of her favorite shoes that I coveted—the square toed Mary Janes with the three thin straps that I was only able to wear once because they blistered my feet so bad.
She started saying it not long after I left but it got worse when she became a teen mom. Whenever we argued, which was often because that’s just always been our relationship, she’d say, accusingly, “you swear you’re better than me.” A few times I said, “That’s cuz I am.” I’m willing to look at my shit and see how I internalized that elitism I learned in boarding school and at Columbia. Then I learned in so many ways and so many instances, in microaggressions and not, that no matter what I did, to white America I’d always be just a spic from the ghetto. It didn’t matter what degrees I had or what job I had or what workshops I attended or what books and essays and short stories and poems I published. That was sobering as fuck, let me tell you.
I’ve been called pretentious. It’s been whispered that I swear I’m all that because I went to Columbia and have studied with some of the greatest writers of our time, at VONA and at Tin House and Acentos and so many workshops. It sucks when this happens to you. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If I hadn’t gone off to study, I’d be labeled a low life with no direction. When I did go off to make my way in the world and committed to this writing life, I was labeled this and that, all synonyms for conceited and full of herself.
We talk about superiority complexes but few want to talk about inferiority complexes and how people project their shit on you. I’ve been dealing with this for much of my life, so much so that for a long time I wouldn’t tell people where I went to school. It started with my sister and continued with other family and friends and people who weren’t my friends though they claimed to be. Yes, for a while I thought I was better because I did this and that, but here’s the thing: I know better now. Just because I’m educated and published, etc., doesn’t mean I think I’m better. In fact, I think if you set your mind to it and work hard and smart, you too can write your stories and publish your work and teach what you’ve been obsessed with for as long as you can remember. What this life requires is hard work and staying power. You have to be willing to fail and get up and try again. Talent won’t do it for you if you don’t have the grind work ethic. You have to study craft and read and write tons, and then read and write and study some more. The work to be better is never ending. You have to be relentless in your pursuit.
Let me be clear in no uncertain terms: demanding excellence of yourself and others isn’t pretentious. If you don’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you…
So, yes, you can do it too. Fuck yes you can. Pero, please, if you don’t or convince yourself that you can’t, don’t be mad at me for doing it. That’s your shit, not mine.
And that brings me to something else I’ve been thinking about this week: the friendships you lose when you’re grinding towards your dream.
They love and support you, call you sis, until they fear you’re shining brighter than them, until you reflect a mirror they can’t handle, until they see you doing what they aren’t… Then they label you problematic and whisper: “oh, she thinks she’s hot shit now.” That’s the thing about grinding relentlessly towards your dreams and earning the fruits of your labor—people fall by the wayside. Yes, I get the whole “you’re better off without them” platitudes but this isn’t about that. This is about the wackness and insecurity of people, and how lonely this road can be sometimes.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the sting of those losses. I love hard. I cherish my friendships. Yes, I know a lot of people (so many) but I don’t let people in easily (which is a topic for another time), so when I let you in, it’s hard for me to see you go, especially if I see you hate on me for doing what I do. Especially when we’ve shared stories over plates of baked chicken and glasses of bourbon and you know how hard I’ve worked and suffered. Yeah, that’s just wack and it hurts…but I guess it just be like that sometimes.
*An essay a week in 2016*
I finished Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson this week. All I can say is cop that. Cop it soon, especially if you were raised in 1970s &/or 80s Bushwick.
What stayed with me?
Repeated refrán throughout: This is memory.
Woodson seamlessly braids the story, jumping back and forth, making connections. I was never lost.
Later in the book, she writes:
“Linden, Palmetto, Evergreen, Decatur, Woodbine—this neighborhood began as a forest. And now the streets were named for the trees that once lived here.”
I learned something new about the neighborhood I still consider home though I’m no longer of there, I will always be from there.
The book ends with the protagonist, Autumn, her brother and father back in Tennessee, on the land where they once lived, that they left to move to Bushwick. They are at the lake that their mother walked into. “This earth is 70% water. Hard not to walk into it.”
She ends the book: “I lifted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, all this, everything and everyone, became memory.”
It was a betrayal by one of her best friends that made August finally look to leave Bushwick. She threw herself into her books. They were her way out.
For me, it was my brother’s leaving the house that was my reason. I was in seventh grade. There was no one in the house to love me like that… Books were also my way out.
The book brought me back to Brooklyn. To my brother Carlos and all the stories I have of him.
…When we played house one day and I discovered something was different about him. He flicked his neck and the pantyhouse he was wearing on his head cascaded over his shoulder. I knew later that what I was seeing for the first time was that my brother was gay.
The time he burned his face making my sister and me pancakes.
How he would tuck us in at night and tell my mom, “Ya arrope las nenas…”
In a house where no one could protect me from my mother’s abuse, my brother brought me a sense of safety and love no one else could. Then he turned 13 and everything changed and I didn’t know why. He started acting out at school. When he broke curfew, mom beat him with a belt then locked herself in her room. We could hear her crying from three rooms away, in the kitchen.
Mom would later say, “Se aferraba a mi…”
She says Millie told him. Has built a whole narrative around that. My brother told me she’s the one that told him about how he was conceived in a rape. He was never the same after that.
This is memory…
What I know is that once my brother left, the abuse became amplified. Maybe mom wasn’t crueler, maybe she didn’t yank my hair as often, giving me whiplash, but my brother wasn’t there to get me out…to help me forget…
Carlos me apoyaba. He wrote letters that my first love dictated to him. Then he snuck them to me. He helped me get out of the house to see my boo. Carlos talked to me and trusted me. He told me about what boys do. He didn’t call me puta when I told him I kissed Ruben, like mom did that time she caught me and Ruben talking. All we were doing was talking.
When I got my period when I was ten, he mushed me and said, “Stop growing up,” and laughed.
When I told him about boarding school, though he rolled his eyes when I told him Millie agreed that I should go (they had a different relationship), he called mom to help convince her. I never moved back…
Juan Gabriel passed away on Sunday, 8/28. If you were raised by a doña in the 70s and 80s, his songs were part of your Saturday morning ritual.
Katia and I were listening to his songs, Hasta que te Conoci, Querida, No Me Vuelvo Enamorar, on our way to my house early Monday morning. The sun hadn’t quite come up yet but she was announcing her ya vengo arrival in the purples, red and deep blues that crept up on the horizon. NY was still quiet. Early risers made their way across the streets to trains or buses, mostly women from what I saw, carrying lunch bags with what I imagine was leftovers from last night’s dinner.
I thought of my mother, mop in hand, singing along loudly to Juan Gabriel. She is in a bata, her hair messy, the smell of King Pine wafts through the apartment, I stand in awe of her and wonder if she knows how beautiful she is.
No sabia, de tristezas, ni de lagrimas
Ni nada, que me hicieran llorar
Yo sabia de cariño, de ternura
Porque a mí desde pequeño
Eso me enseño mama, eso me enseño mama
Eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo vivía muy bienYo vivía tan distinto, algo hermoso
Algo divino, lleno de felicidad
Yo sabia de alegrías, la belleza de la vida
Pero no de soledad, pero no de soledad
De eso y muchas cosas más
Yo jamás sufrí, yo jamás llore
Yo era muy feliz, yo vivía muy bienHasta que te conocí
Vi la vida con dolor
No te miento fui feliz
Aunque con muy poco amor
Y muy tarde comprendí
Que no te debía amar
Porque ahora pienso en tiMas que ayerY mucho mas
We had a sound system by then. The one with the glass front that clicked open. It was the most expensive piece of equipment we owned. The speakers were almost my height and just as loud.
Mom doesn’t like the way I write about Millie. “She was bad to me,” she says, but that’s not what I remember. And isn’t that the problem (and beauty?) of memory—it is flawed, imperfect. Think about it: how different people tell stories of a moment they all shared.
Whenever my brother spoke of Millie, he prefaced it with, “I know you had a different relationship with Millie than I did…” and what followed was usually a story about how controlling Millie was, how violent…
Like the story of how my brother ended up moving to our grandmother’s house after a fight with Millie. At that point he was in high school, working at The Gap, and coming into his own. He dressed in that New Wave/Village style of the 80s that I later learned was popular in the gay clubs—fitted tees, bell bottom pants with thick soled, platform Village shoes with the metal plates on the toes.
I don’t know what they fought about this time. My brother said I was somehow involved. He and Millie were always fighting at this point.
Carlos admitted he wasn’t doing the right thing. Although he was working and going to school, he was selling weed on the side. Millie confronted him about it but the war between them started long before that when Millie suddenly moved in and months later we celebrated our first Christmas. This was their final battle.
Mom told me the story of how she met Millie after Carlos died. She went with a brother from the Kingdom Hall to his sister’s house, for what I’m not sure. Mom says there were all women there but she didn’t think anything of it. Millie noticed her right away and sat next to her on the couch. I imagine my mother, who though she was 21 and had three children by then, was naïve about so much. Millie asked her why she was there. Mom pointed to the kitchen where the brother was talking to his sister. Millie asked if she knew what was going on there. My mother shook her head, with confusion. Millie grabbed a woman’s hand and started dancing with her. She brought her close and grinded against her body. She let her hands slip below her waist. My mother stared.
After that, Millie started showing up at random moments and places: on the train when mom was on her way to work en la factoría: when mom picked us up from the baby sitter, Millie would show up on a bike and ride alongside us, Carlos, who was six, glared at Millie and pulled Mom toward him, but he was no match for Millie. One day Mom came home to find Millie waiting for her on the stoop of the building. She walked us up and marched in without waiting to be invited in. She moved in not long after and that was that…
Carlos and Mom told me stories to correct my memory.
When they fought before we went to Coney Island, the threat of cancelling the trip hovered ominously. Mom explained that it was about money. Millie raged about mom not having money, meanwhile Mom says Millie never paid for a bill in that house, not the rent or the light or groceries. I don’t remember that.
This is memory…
On Wednesday, enroute to NYC after a fantastic day at Dorney Park, the car started rattling and making scary noises. We were on a busy highway. Babe, being the stupendous driver that she is, made her way from the outer lane to the shoulder, thus preventing something tragic from happening. We got out to find the back left tire shredded so bad, it was smoking. She had a spare and the tools necessary (of course), and she and my sister friend Nívea joined forced to change the now disintegrated tire. Lawd, I have never been so grateful to be with two butches who know how to handle these kinds of situations. I watched, my body shaking and heart pounding, as cars sped by so fast, the car shook in their wake. I prayed silently, asking the universe to protect us. “All is well,” I repeated over and over, like a mantra, while I watched these two women work, my daughter and her BFF giggling absentmindedly in the backseat, unaware of how different this could go… Then a generous trucker pulled up behind us to help, his 18 wheeler now protecting our car from the rushing traffic. “Y’all alright? Need help?” he asked in a thick Southern accent. He gave us air to fill the spare, told us he once lived in NY, now lives in South Carolina but his daughter is still at NYU studying medicine. I have never been so grateful for the generosity of strangers who see someone in need and pull over to help. May his generosity return to him a thousand fold.
God has so many faces. Mother, Father, God can show up to you in the form of a truck driver with a thick Southern accent who first words to you are: “Y’all alright? You need help?” And proceeds to assist you by giving you air from his truck to fill your spare. Homie really just pulled a hose from his eighteen wheeler. *pause for effect* The cars and trucks whizzed by him but he is unbothered by it, he does not flinch or hesitate. He lifts the shredded tire, thick workers gloves on his hands that are dirt and oil stained, he is like a fish in water, the roads are his ocean. And he was sent to help you. How beautiful is that?
My comadre Alicia introduced me to Pomodoro this past May at the Sankofa Sisterhood Writers Retreat. My bruja sister Lizz reminded me of this magical method during our weekly check in. Basically, the method goes: you write/work for 20 minutes (timed), take a five minute break then hit it again. After an unsettling night of repeatedly interrupted sleep and strange, lucid dreams, I woke up anxious and couldn’t kneed the tightness from my chest, so I needed this method this week more than ever. I lost count of how many Pomodoros I did, but I got so much done including writing for the memoir, syllabi, Writing Our Lives prep emails and questionnaires, creating Google drives for my classes and inviting the appropriate parties, etc. Praise your community that holds you up and shows you you got this even when the anxiety leans in and makes you fret and wonder how the fuck you’re gonna get it all done.
That night, exhausted and still feeling the heaviness, I received an email telling me that one of my essays is slated to be included in textbook for first year college students (in the chapter on Race and Identity). I squealed when I got the news but I hesitated to share it. Still, after such an emotionally challenging day, I pressed myself to share the joy.
This got me thinking about how we’re taught to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, especially us women of color. And we internalize that shit too so we often don’t share when something beautiful happens to us and when we do, people say we’re showing off, we’re arrogant, full of ourselves, etc. Why? Haven’t we earned this shit? Haven’t I?
Celebrate yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate your love(s) and your life and your ovaries. Don’t you remember how you walked through fire? Don’t you remember when they told you you were too much of too much, that girls like you ain’t shit and won’t be shit? Don’t you remember how you vowed to be somebody, to show them, the most stinging blow coming from your mother who called you retardada and ordinaria, said, “yo sabia que tu no ibas a ‘cer ni mierda con tu vida” when you told her you weren’t going to law school. It didn’t matter that you still had your graduation gown on, the Columbia crown stitched onto the lapel. You had to prove your worth. Is it enough yet? Have you showed yourself yet that you’ve always been worthy? Do you see now that though you suffered, all this served to show you how relentless you are? Unfuckwithable. G’head mama, be proud. You were forged in storms. You’ve earned all of it, carajo. Word.
Y después de un tiempo
uno aprende que si es demasiado,
hasta el calor del sol quema.
Asi que uno planta su propio jardín
y decora su propia alma, en lugar
de esperar a que alguien le traiga flores.
Y uno aprende que uno realment puede aguantar,
que uno realment es fuerte,
que uno realmente vale,
y uno aprende y aprende…
y con cada día uno aprende.
~ “Y uno aprende”, Jorge Luis Borges