Relentless Files — Week 16
*An essay every Friday in 2016*
This week I spoke to a friend I haven’t heard from or spoken to in a while. He said, “You sound good. There’s such clarity in your voice.” I smiled because that’s so true and yet, there’s so much I’m not sure of.
On Sunday I received a comment on my last Relentless Files essay that triggered me. I confess that I struggle with critique especially when it’s unsolicited and from a stranger. Sometimes I can brush it off and keep it moving. On Sunday, I couldn’t. I bit back.
I’m thinking about an essay I read some time ago (that I can’t for the life of me find) about a writer who after a reading was approached by a stranger who offered some “suggestions” on his work. He politely declined. The woman insisted. The writer again politely declined. It became a back and forth. The writer explained that he has a policy on receiving critique—he is only open to receiving it from a trusted group of people he knows care about him and his work. He’s unapologetic about it. I totally respect and appreciate that.
Stephen King has a group of eight people who read his drafts. Only they can read his pre-published work, and it’s only when all eight approve the final draft that the book then goes to Simon & Schuster where no editor can touch it. It goes straight to print. But he’s Stephen King and that’s the clout he has. It’s the policy I respect. He only receives the critique from his trusted cohort. Only their recommendations matter. Imagine if you consider the opinion of every person who reads your work. How much would you get done?
I’m remembering this dude who approached me after a reading in Boston during AWP 2013. He pushed his glasses up his nose and said, “Great reading but I think there’s something missing in your piece.” I looked around to make sure it was me he was talking to. I’d never seen this dude in my life. I put one arm in my coat and smirked. “What?” He went on to tell me about a biblical story he thought I should reference in my story. “Are you familiar with it?” he asked. I was annoyed but trying to hide it, and if you know me, you know that’s really hard for this woman who wears her everything smack right in the middle of her forehead. “No, I’m not.” “You should look it up. It’ll make your work stronger.” “Will it now?” I threw my purse over my shoulder and pulled my hat roughly over my head. “Are you familiar with my work? I mean, have you read any of my essays? My fiction?” “No,” he said matter of factly, like he didn’t have to have read any of my work to know what it is I needed to do. Like him having heard a short excerpt of a story gave him the authority on how I could improve it. “Um, okay,” I said and turned around and kept it moving though what I really wanted to do was slap the smugness off his face with the excerpt I had rolled up in my hand.
The person who commented on my essay is familiar with my essays. He (or perhaps she, I’m not sure) has been following my blog for some time. What I’m learning is that when people read your work, they take ownership of it. They become connected to it, invested in a unique way that I’m still trying to understand. This person wrote to tell me that I could do better, that I was spending too much time trying to prove myself a writer, time I could spend doing real writing. It didn’t matter that this was my blog, that this essay challenge isn’t about posting polished essays, but about pushing myself to write more and challenge my ego.
When people connect to your work, when they support you telling your stories, they want to or feel that they can have a say on your writing. I’m learning to hear them out and try to graciously say, “No.” I appreciate everyone who reads my work, but these are still my stories. And, yes, I will defend what I do and write and I’ll do so unapologetically. If I won’t, who will?
Yesterday, my FB timeline blew up with news of VONA notifications. My phone buzzed with texts and emails from friends and students who’d applied. I remembered the young writer I was back in 2009 when I got my first acceptance to VONA. I was at work when I got the news. I cried out so loud when I opened the acceptance email that the CEO came running to see if something was wrong. By the time I returned to VONA the following year, I had quit that editing job and moved to facilitate this writing and teaching life I was creating for myself.
It never got any less exciting every time I got that acceptance email. I went to VONA as a student five consecutive years, and every year I learned something new about myself and my work.
It was through the work that I grew into this writer who writes personal essays and memoir and fiction and poetry, and will defend her work from anyone. This writer who is still shocked at the shit we woman writers get on-line and is still learning how not to take that so personally. This writer who openly admits that sometimes she fails miserably. This writer who knows who she is and writes about it, and is okay with telling someone to keep it moving if they don’t like it. This writer who can challenge herself to write these weekly unpolished essays and challenge her ego to let them go.
On Thursday morning, my daughter called me in tears. She said she couldn’t hold it in anymore and had to tell me that she was being cyber-bullied by her former best friend from her old school. This twig of an eleven year old was threatening my daughter. She was going to jump her. Send her home with a slice across her face. She has knives and people, she said.
My hand curled into a fist and stayed that way.
In my mind, I went to that backyard in Bushwick when I was six where Millie took me when she found out I was being bullied. She taught me how to throw a jab and a straight right. To block my face and pivot my waist and use my legs when I swung. That’s where I learned my signature kidney shot when I knocked the wind out of Millie. She grabbed her side, face contorted in pain. I watched, eyes open with both horror and awe at the pain I could inflict. “Ten cuida’o con esas manos de madera.” It was too late. I was thirsty to learn what damage my hands could do. The pain they could inflict. The pain they could free me of…
My daughter does not know this kind of pain that makes you pummel and yank hair and scratch faces. At 11, she’s never had a fight. By 11, I’d had dozens. I was both bully and bullied. I don’t say this with any particular pleasure. It’s just how it was.
By the time I hung up the phone, I was wringing my hands. It was too early to call the school, so I started pacing. The Bushwick girl in me had already snatched off her earrings, tied her hair up into a tight bun and slathered Vaseline on her face. The 40 year old mother and professional writer and editor and educator and grown ass woman started strategizing on what to do and who to call. But I still wanted to break something. Watch it crush into a million pieces in my hands. I wanted to pummel and yank and destroy. Instead, I started cleaning. I scrubbed and swept and mopped. It was that or break shit. I chose the more productive route. I cleared space, both in my home and in my chest.
Of course I made the calls I needed to make and got the screenshots of the evidence. I am handling this the responsible, adult way, but the Bushwick in me reminded me of who I was and how that still exists in me. My mind goes to that essay I wrote some time ago, “Violence You Cannot Unwear.”
When you’ve experienced the kind of violence I have, you cannot unwear it. It becomes a part of who you are and how you navigate the world. Yes, it was hard, but witnessing & experiencing violence at such an early age taught me a fearlessness that’s come in handy in so many situations, like when my partner dared to put his hands on me, & recently when an old man disrespected my ten year old daughter in a lewd, perverted way. That fool tried to stare me down. I laughed in his face. No, I’m not applauding violence. I am saying, however, that if need be, especially when defending the people that I love, primarily my daughter, I ain’t scared & I won’t hesitate. Yes these fists now have words but when words fail…
This isn’t theory. This is real life.
This violence comes screeching out when I’m threatened or someone I love is threatened, like happened a few years ago when my sister-friend Jessica was attacked by a far too drunk woman at a bar. The woman grabbed Jessica’s melena. I swung once, a straight right to the temple was all that was needed. The woman let go of Jessica’s hair. I’d hit her hard. Un ‘ta ‘te quieta, pa que no joda.
This week I chose to sit on my fists. The fists that came to remind me of who I was…
I’m still reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of water. I’m reading it slow, drinking it in like I drink brandy, no ice, small sips, smacking my lips afterwards, and breathing through the gap between my two front teeth.
I’m sitting with the fact that it was at 38 that Lidia had a “change of life.” When she started to feel, really feel, and stopped numbing herself with drink and sex and detachment. I was 37 when it started for me. It was 2013, after my brother died.
I want to note that I’m feeling something. It feels a little like my heart is breaking. Like breaking open. Do I need medical attention? Is there a pill? What should I do?..
Happiness? It just looks different on people like me… The grinning of life and joy finally coming to you when all you knew was how to suffer. ~Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water
I wish I could be like Lidia Yuknavitch and say that it was love that made me embark on this path to healin, or the want for change or something more. But it wasn’t romantic love or having my baby girl that did that. It was grief. It was grief that tore me wide open and while I suffered and raged and cried and dove feet first into the black, black hole of depression, I let myself feel it all. I wasn’t numb to it, and it was that, I see now, that opened me up to feeling.
My thirst to go numb began to leave my body. ~Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water
I wanted to feel it all. The devastation of loss and the joy of hearing my daughter giggle. The shock of how my writing took off in that darkness and how raw I felt letting it out, documenting it, not giving a damn what people said or why. I’ve grown into myself over these three years and I’m still becoming, and, you know, I think that’s some beautiful shit right there.
I have written at length about being unmothered. My writing is transforming as I evolve. As I do spiritual work, I see that though I may be unmothered on this plane, in the spirit world I have mothers who have fought for me and protected me and shook me up when I needed shaking. I’ve been homeless but I’ve never slept on the street. I’ve been jobless but I always ate. There is an undeniable force of blessings around me. My life is evidence of it. My survival is. My ability to weave magic and make beauty of it all through stories shows this truth.
Stephen Colbert calls it learning to love the bombs. I’ll take it.
There’s so much I didn’t glean from being a daughter in a family full of women. ~Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water
I can tell you what I didn’t learn to do from from my family full of women: self-care. But I did learn how to be self-sacrificial. To take care of everyone but myself. To do this to the point of sickness, where my lungs clenched so hard and so painfully, I couldn’t walk a block without getting winded.
I learned to love harsh, to beat myself up, to rage and rage and expect, no, demand people put up with it, with me.
I learned to love men who didn’t love me. To put up with their infidelities. To love without being loved in return. To pine and wait and give and give and expect nothing. To plea, “why can’t you just love me?”
I had to teach myself how to love with tenderness. I had to work on believing that I was worth that and more.
I had to teach myself how to mother with gentleness. I had to work on mothering myself with that same gentleness. I’m still learning all these things.
I didn’t learn to cook from my mother. I learned it from watching the cook in boarding school (at the Wellesley ABC house) and cooking shows and my aunt during the holidays. I experimented. I made rice that was too hard and rice that was too soft. I burned rice. Now I can make it in all forms—white rice, brown rice, rice with red beans or black beans, arroz con fideo o maíz, un locrio de salchichas de pavo.
I didn’t learn how to be feminine from the women in my family. I didn’t wear make up until my mid-30s and still have no idea how women wing their eyeliner. The last time I tried, I almost poked my eye out. I go months without wearing dresses, and leggings and sweatshirts are my uniform these days. I only got a shopping cart when I had my daughter. Until then, I threw my overstuffed laundry bag on my back and hoofed it to the laundromat.
I’m unapologetically independent and fierce. This I did learn from the women in my family. We handle our business, sin la ayuda de nadie. I had to learn how to share my life. I’m still learning.
This morning I stepped on the scale. Part of me didn’t want to because I knew then I’d have to stop running. I had a rough winter where I endured some pretty deep depression and exacerbated asthma for months, which of course kept me from being active. There were weeks I could barely walk a block without losing my breath. I eventually got it treated but I kept going out to eat with my love and consuming far too much deliciously fatty foods and alcohol. I could feel myself getting sluggish and my clothes fitting different but I kept avoiding. The numbers on the scale this morning shouldn’t have shocked me but they did. My love reminded me of the hard winter I had. She knows I can be hard on myself. I’m trying not to be. I’m trying to remember the woman I was who rollerbladed all over Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens, who rode her bike and played handball and went to the gym religiously. But while that woman was fit, she wasn’t happy. And now that I’m the happiest I’ve been in I don’t know how long and am in therapy and really working on my healing, the scale reminded me that this journey also includes my physical health. I’m not that person who puts a lot of stock into weight. For much of my life, I didn’t even weigh myself. I think those weight to height charts are ridiculous. I don’t want to be waif skinny. I love my curves and my big ass and my shapely hips. I just want to feel energetic and sprite. I know I haven’t been feeling like that so it’s time to ponerme en pila. I’m 40 now. I gotta do this now.
This week has been about remembering who I was and who I am now, and taking all these lessons to become a better Vanessa. It’s a journey. I’m committed to it. If I can’t do this for myself, who will? It starts with the self, right? Word.