On death and how we live
This has been a difficult year for most people I know. So many deaths, first my dear friend Will Alicea aka Will Teez in January then my brother just over a month ago. Days later news of another heinous tragedy, a suicide, and more news of deaths of fathers and sisters and brothers and friends. So much loss. Just so much. I’ve been sitting with this. Rolling it around my heart and thinking about what someone told me Saturday night, “Death is a part of life.” I stared at the skulls, dozens of them, tattooed on the arm of my new friend, covering the circumference of his forearm, from his wrist up to his elbow. I listened to this man tell me of how many people he’s seen die, in Iraq, here in the states, in the Dominican Republic, friends, brothers, uncles, aunts, sisters. So many deaths. A young man he’d just had a conversation with the night before gunned down in Iraq. I stared up at the night sky. “I know death is a part of life, I just don’t want to accept it though. Not now.”
I knew I sounded ridiculous, insensitive even, but I couldn’t care. All I could do was ache for my brother. All I could do was be angry that he’s gone. I will never touch his face again or hear him call me “sis.” He will never again give me advice on men and life. I know it but I can’t accept it just yet. It hurts too bad. I didn’t want to sound careless or inconsiderate especially not to this man who has seen and experienced so much more death than me. He looked into the park and said, “I get it. It’s too soon.” Yes. It is too soon.
In thinking about death, I’ve been thinking a lot about life. This life. What we make of it. I’ve been thinking about this life I’ve made for myself. That May 28th marked three years since I quit my job to live this writing-teaching life. I wanted to write about it when the day came but I was wrapped up in my brother’s hospitalization. In convincing myself that he wasn’t going to die. He died three and a half weeks later.
I told him when the day came. He’d just been readmitted to the hospital. He couldn’t walk a block without losing his breath and having to sit down. It was his heart. When he was initially released, after more than a month in the hospital, the doctors said they thought they could treat his heart problems with medicine. That the operation could wait. They were wrong.
I brought him a salad from the spot up the block from Cornell Weil Medical Center. Mesclun mix with chick peas, cucumber, corn, craisins, sliced almonds, cheddar cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. I’d made him a fresh juice the night before: spinach with beets, pineapple, orange and ginger. I tried so hard to take care of him, my Superman. I was trying to keep him alive. I was trying to make up for having left him for a year.
“What’s up?” he asked as he ate. Only a little bit. He said he was waiting for mom’s food, but when it arrived he only picked at it. He didn’t have much of an appetite towards the end.
“Today makes three years since I left my job.”
He stopped and stared at me. “Shit, it’s been three years already?” He smiled. “You doin’ that shit, sis.” He never hesitated to tell me how proud he was of me.
I was working as an editor in a nonprofit when I made the decision. It was after my first workshop at VONA, memoir with Elmaz Abinader. I left there changed. I left there knowing I had to change my life. That I wanted to write and teach and move back to the Inwood area of Manhattan to facilitate that new life. I was living in the Pelham Parkway area of the Bronx with my daughter and I hated it. My daily commute totaled four hours. An hour bus ride to Manhattan to drop off my daughter at day care then an hour commute to work. And I had to do this in the reverse in the evening. Every single day. It was a nightmare and it was starting to take its toll. I loved my huge apartment but hated the neighborhood, hated that the building was falling apart and little was being done to fix it, hated the new “element” that had invaded the building bringing a hangout in the hallways and on the front stoop and weed smoking on the stairs at all hours. I was having trouble writing and dealing with it all so when I left VONA I promised myself that I would: 1. Move to Inwood, closer to my family, the day care, and Inwood Park, and 2. Quit my job. I didn’t know how I was going to do these things but I knew I would. I knew I had to.
I moved to Inwood in December of 2009 after being hospitalized for five days because of an asthma exacerbation brought on by mold in my apartment from a year-old leak they patched over several times but never fixed. I sent the management office copies of my hospital bills and pictures of the mold. I told them I was moving. Said I wasn’t paying my rent. I dared them to sue me. I used my rent money to move.
By February I was feeling antsy. I had given myself a year to quit my job and still couldn’t build up the nerve to do it, but the truth was I was miserable. I was co-writing a book for the organization while maintaining the website, writing new content, etc. and still felt under-appreciated. I was having nightmares and questioning everything: who I was, what I was doing, why I was putting up with that kind of treatment. One day, after barely sleeping, tossing and turning and praying and asking for help, I walked into the CEO’s office and resigned. I gave them three months notice. I was going to finish the book then I was going to bounce. I had nothing lined up but I walked out of there confident in my decision. Excited with the possibilities. The universe had been pummeling me with fist-fulls of love, goading me to make that very decision. To take that leap. I finally acquiesced.
By that afternoon, I was panicking. How was I going to feed my kid? Who the fuck did I think I was to quit the stability of a full-time, well-paying job that offered an unheard of health insurance package and three weeks vacation? All this in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression? How was I going to pay my rent? What was I going to do? And how was I going to do it?
I spent the next three months meeting with every writer and teaching artist I knew. I asked questions. I made contacts. I put together a CV. All while facilitating workshops and working full-time and co-writing a book. I also finished the third draft of my second novel in the midst of it. I started with nothing lined up. No jobs. No prospect. By the time I walked out of the office at 4:45 on May 28th, 2010, I had several teaching gigs lined up and several potential gigs.
Still, this life hasn’t been an easy one. More than once I’ve wondered how I’m going to make ends meet. The teaching artist life is a grind. It’s made up of short terms gigs several weeks long so you’re often looking for work and making work happen. Still, despite those terrifying times, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve learned that the universe will test your conviction to see if you really want something. Show her that you do and she will reward you because the universe rewards the work. Always.
I’ve learned that my go-hard nature is built for this. I’m the woman who just rollerbladed from 207th Street to 34th Street in the dead heat of summer. I’m the woman who rides her bike to Brooklyn from Inwood in upper Manhattan. I’m the woman who left everything she knew and loved at 13 to make my way in the world. I’m the woman who is writing these stories while immersed an intense grief that I’ve never known. Still, while all this is true, I’m learning that I also also have to give myself time to be human, to sit with myself and do nothing. To just be.
In the fall of 2011, I worked seven days a week for three months straight. I was so exhausted and irritable and anxious, that at the end of that spell, I promised myself to never do that again. Yes, I needed the money but I didn’t need the stress. Which leads me to another lesson I’ve learned: money is like water—it comes and goes. Believe that it will come and do the work you love and it does come. Trust me, I know. I quit my job as a single mother to live the life I wanted. Three years later I’m still here doing what I love.
I’ve grown to love teaching even more and I’ve learned that I’m really good at it. I have an ability to connect with students and help them figure out what they want to write and why. That’s why I created the Writing Our Lives Workshop which I’ve been facilitating at Hunter College for over two and a half years now. I’m sharing what I learned in my obsession with all things memoir while helping emerging writers write their stories. It’s a lovely, symbiotic thing I have going on that feeds my work and has brought some very amazing people into my life.
Over the past three years I’ve worked with students as young as second grade and as old as 76. It’s been such a beautiful ride. Right now I’m putting together the seventh (or is it ninth?) edition of the Writing Our Lives Workshop, reworking it as I always do, welcoming a few old students (the repeat offenders, as I’ve dubbed them) and some new who I’ve met at readings or have heard about me through word of mouth or via my blog or a random google search. No matter the intro, I know each one has been brought into my life for a reason. I learn from them just like they learn from me. That’s just the type of teacher I am.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned is to have faith. There have been months when I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent, where I can’t pay all my bills and have to choose between filling the fridge or paying my college loans. My credit score has suffered but some things have to fall by the wayside when you’re building a life like I am. Pero al final, I’ve never been evicted, I’ve always paid the bills that mattered the most (rent, gas, electricity, food). Some people may deem me irresponsible. Me? I know I’m taking this chance because I can’t live my life thinking woulda, shoulda, coulda. I’ve seen what that does to people.
When I had my daughter I knew I couldn’t go back to corporate America. I was miserable there and I couldn’t raise my daughter like that. I wondered: What legacy can I leave her? What greater lesson can I teach her than to show her by example that she too could live her dream? I’ve been doing it ever since. The dream has evolved over time as I’m sure it will in the future, but from right now, right here, from this view, it looks mighty fine. And, I’m proud of what I’ve done with what I’ve been gifted with. With these words and this conviction and this love for teaching and learning and growing. Word.