The Relentless Files — Week 5
*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I’ve been thinking a lot about the body. My body. Our bodies.
I have a picture on my fridge of myself in a bikini the summer before I got pregnant with my daughter. It was 2003. I was 27. My stomach has never been that flat since.
I started the year laid out on my bed, sick with a terrible asthma exacerbation that I finally got treated after weeks of not being able to breathe. The prednisone the doctor prescribed gave me anxiety that made my hands shake and my heart thrash. I could feel it thrumming in my ears. The only thing that calmed me was mindful coloring.
I had a friend over for dinner and wine the other night. I had too much wine. Way too much. This on the first day of my cycle. I was laid out the next day. My body is reminding me these days that I am not as young as I was and it cannot jump back like it used to.
In my twenties, I went out after work several times a week. I consumed lots of alcohol. Open bars. Reduced drinks. Drinks bought for me by men that wanted conversation, a kiss, to be taken home. I’d get home well into the early hours of the morning to then have to wake up to be at work by 9am. I can’t imagine doing that these days. I haven’t done it for years. These days, a night of overconsumption means a day like yesterday where I laid in bed completely unproductive, watching movies, and groaning at my aching stomach.
I’m facilitating a workshop this weekend. The theme is “Where does your relentless lie?”
The write up: Ever thought about where your go-get-it lives in your body? If a funny bone exists, why not a relentless bone? Or even a relentless organ? In this workshop we’ll be using our bodies as reference points, talking to and from places we may have never considered or stopped to listen to. What can we create when we trust our bodies to tell us what they want to say? Let’s find out.
When I came up with this idea, I was thinking about the Cave Canem class I took with Tracie Morris, Grabbing Poetry by the Throat. One day during class, she had us read a poem we’d recently written. I was sitting there thinking about my mother. A few weeks before I’d blocked her after receiving a heinous text where she took her cruelty up several notches. That particular week, she’d done some wild out shit where she cornered my daughter and started interrogating her about my new relationship. That day in class, I was stewing in my rage. I wrote a fresh poem for the exercise as I sat there, listening to Tracie take us through exercises using our bodies.
Write from the throat
De la garganta
Hand around my neck
De la garganta
What does it say?
What will she say
when she hears it says:
Tracie went around the room while we read our poems aloud. She touched our bodies, a hand on the solar plexus, another on the back. When I read my poem, I read it with all the rage I had gathered in my jaw. Tracie came up next to me and asked, “Can I touch you?” I nodded. First she put her hand on my stomach and said, “Read from here.” On my back, “From here.” Then she put her hand over my heart, “From here.” I took a deep breath. By the time I finished reading, I was crying, the last fuck you came out as a whisper. It was pleading. Hurting. The line of the next poem I wrote said: “I’m afraid to write past the fuck you…”
I’ve had anxiety since I can remember. Of course I didn’t know that’s what it was until my therapist two years ago identified it for me.
I can trace my anxiety back to childhood. I was always afraid of my mom and her moods. The slightest thing would set her off. I spent so much of my early years on edge.
Once, when I was maybe seven, I was sitting at the dinner table, the one Millie built and shellacked when we first moved into that first floor apartment on Palmetto Street. I don’t know why I was alone at that table but I was. I was eating white rice with corned beef (the canned kind). I was about to take another spoonful when a roach fell into my plate from the ceiling. Mom came running when she heard me shriek. She slapped me hard when she saw the roach. She was quick with it, and threw the plate into the sink with such force, it shattered. She kept telling me to shut up but I had to tell her it wasn’t my fault. She struck me several times more before she heard me saying over and over, “It fell from the ceiling, mommy.” Then she pulled me into her arms and rocked me until I stopped crying.
I had an anxious day this week. I could feel it in my chest. A tightness that made me breathe in short gasps. I fidgeted with my hands, opening and closing them, gnarling my fingers. My anxiety shows up as irritability. (My daughter and partner can testify to this.) Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I snap. I can always feel it in my body, a boulder in my throat, my jaw clenches, my nose flares. I’ve taken to staying home on those days. And when I can’t, I spend the time before I have to go out preparing myself for the inevitable assault to my senses. I meditate. I color. I take baths with aromatic herbs and salts. And when I’m out, I count the minutes until I’m home again.
The last few weeks of my brother’s life, his body started to swell. His feet were engorged with water retention. The doctor’s said it was a side effect of his failing heart. One day his feet looked especially swollen. The skin was cracked and dry. He had them elevated on pillows because the doctors said that would help. I stared at the dry erase board at the foot of his bed where he had to write how many milliliters of urine he was able to squeeze out every day. Each day the number was smaller.
I reached into my bag and took out the albolene I’d taken to carrying since I started boxing. Boxers use the ointment to moisturize their hands which get inevitably dry due to the tape and gloves.
I looked at my brother and pointed to his feet with the albolene. “Can I?”
He nodded. “Soft, sis. They hurt.”
I spent the next half hour massaging my brother’s badly swollen feet. I was surprised how hard they were to the touch. It was like they were stone, not flesh. I started with his toes and moved down the sole and eventually to his ankles. My brother groaned and sighed. I thought about the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the Muslim tradition of wudu where the feet and other parts are washed before prayer.
I think of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Adodyne”:
I love my crooked feet
shaped by vanity & work
shoes made to outlast
It isn’t always so easy to write about the beauty of the body, to talk to it lovingly when the body betrays us, though I know that it was my brother who betrayed his body. It took fifteen years of drug abuse before it finally gave…
Another day, during the poetry class with Tracie, she had us write to our organs. She reminded us that because of them we survive. She mentioned the kidneys which filter the blood and get rid of waste products from the body. I was thinking about my new relationship and everything I was learning about love after being single for so long. I hadn’t had a committed relationship in almost ten years. Situationships, yes, but not an “I love you, I wanna be with you, ride with me” kind of love. I had spent a decade learning to have a relationship with myself and my own body. This poem, The Body Knows, came out of that class:
How do you teach your body joy?
Ask her to hold you when she doesn’t know how—to be held?
Ask your kidneys to breathe when all they know is clench?
Ask your heart to open when all she knows is blood and grief?
How do you let go and let love
When love told you:
“You ain’t shit!”
“You can’t ever…
“You won’t ever…
‘cause you ain’t shit!”
How do you tell your pancreas:
“I love you”
When love is what you longed for
But didn’t get
Because mama was raped
Her mama was raped
Her mama too was raped…
Were never taught
To hold and love tender
Never learned love
That didn’t crush
Didn’t teach girls to hate themselves
Think themselves vessels
For men to spit on and in
How do you teach your daughter what you were never taught—
To love herself
Remember how you taught yourself?
The stories you told yourself up in
that plum tree in that backyard
of your beloved Brooklyn
all rubble and crack
Remember how that tree taught you
all thick branches
and heavy fruit.
Teach your daughter that same way
Of surviving and thriving and living.
And forgive— yourself
and your mama’s mama
and her mama too.
They were just surviving
And teaching you to survive
the best way they knew how.
And, baby girl,
they never had a tree in their backyards
to teach them…
Sometimes the best poetry comes from sitting in a place and emotion and letting it take you where it will. That day, the poem took me to Brooklyn and that plum tree in our back yard. That poem took me to rape and sorrow and generational trauma. My writing always takes me to healing, even if it doesn’t feel like it when it happens and even if the form is meandering and all over the place as is this here essay. The point is always to come back to wholeness, to memory…to love.