Relentless Files — Week 23
*An essay a week in 2016*
I just read “Night of the Moose” by William Giraldi and Sarah Braunstein who recount a shared experience while on a ride through the Maine woods. They wrote their account without showing them to one another. I was taken by the difference in their stories; how two people can tell the story of the same incident so differently. I got to thinking about how differently we remember things.
I think about my mother and times she’s said “It didn’t happen like that.” Then she proceeds to tell me how she remembers it, which is the only way and the right way, or so she insists.
I think about my brother who always prefaced his stories about Millie (my mother’s partner for 20+ years) with “I know you had a different relationship with Millie but…”
I remember Mom and Millie’s fights. They were loud and ugly and always ended with violence. I remember my mom hurling herself at Millie, all fists and spittle shooting out of her curl-lipped mouth. When we’ve talked about it now that I’m an adult and out of her house, she insists she never raised her hands first. She said it was always Millie who hit first. Mom says she defended herself but it was Millie who slapped and intimidated. I’ve searched my brain but I just do not remember it like this. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Neither is victim or blameless, but don’t tell my mother I said that.
I was on the crosstown bus on 14th Street (the M14D) when, staring out the window, I saw an old woman in Starbucks that reminded me of my great-grandmother, Tinita. I met her only once when we visited Honduras for three weeks the summer I was nine. Her skin was the color of the frijoles she shelled every day on the patio and she wore her hair in a long braid down her back. It was black with gray strands that weren’t wiry like mine are. It was these grays that betrayed her age. That and the cavernous wrinkles on her face, the way her shoulders drooped and her toothless smile. You wouldn’t have known from the way she worked, always the first one to get up in the morning, when it was still dark out and the rooster had just started its sing song cockadoodledoo; and always the last one to get to bed too. I watched her with my nine year old marveling eyes as she moved around the outdoor fogón in the patio just outside her house. There she made the tortillas de harina from scratch and the frijoles with crema, and where she soaked and sliced the cheese bought fresh from the trucha every morning. She had a kitchen but still preferred her fogón, which was made of coarse stone, the fire maintained by the kindle she collected in the patio and the finca next door. That woman was industrious. It was on the fogón that she fried up the chicharron and on the table adjacent to it, she squeezed oranges she picked from the tree in the yard for fresh juice in the morning.
I walked in on her once, fresh out of the shower, she was brushing her waist-length hair. I have her hair—long with the ability to be worn curly, wavy or straight depending on how you style it. She opted for that braid. I watched as she parted her hair down the middle and untangled it slowly. Then, still slowly due to arthritic hands, she braided it. A perfectly tight braid, not a stray hair sticking out. It took me years to learn to braid my hair like that. Whenever I wear my braid (which is often) I think of her and feel her close.
I wonder what she thought about when she braided her hair or when she stared at us as we ate. She insisted that we eat first, and only sat when we were done and the table was cleared. That was when she’d grab a few tortillas and some frijoles with crema. She would massage the tortilla with her thumb, index and middle fingers so she could eat them easily. Then, like the anciana I watched through the Starbucks window, she used her tongue to make the tortilla malleable enough to swallow. She did this methodically. Quietly. When she ate meat, she sucked out the juices then pushed the wad into a napkin. She didn’t have teeth so she did what she had to do. And she always did it all so quietly. I wonder what she thought about. I wonder about the stories I was never told.
I wondered then (and still do now) what she was like in her youth. What did she see? Who did she love? Who broke her heart? What of her mother? I heard it said that she was a twin. What of her sister? Could she write, my great grandmother? Did she go to school?
I think about all the stories that were never written, that were never told, that these women in my family were not allowed to share. The secrets they held because they didn’t have anyone to tell or they were too busy taking care of babies and being the backbone of families. It makes me realize just how much of a privilege this writing life is, even on days that it’s an onus. I am writing the stories they could never write. I know for sure that I was chosen.
We all have our secrets. I hold mine. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power. When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams
I spent this past Memorial Day Weekend up in the Catskills at the Sankofa Sisterhood Writers Retreat where I was both student and teacher. It was so refreshing to have the opportunity to learn and receive as a student. I spend so much time teaching, which I love, don’t get me wrong, but I also love being a student. I am an eternal learner.
Alicia Anabel Santos facilitated a workshop on Writing Goals vs. Writer’s Goals and taught us about the Pomodoro technique which helps with focus and maximizing your time. She discussed setting realistic goals and the steps we take to accomplish them. I made a list of writer’s goals and writing goals and re-entered the memoir. That woman is magic. I learn from her all the time.
Then the keynote, Tonya Cherie Hegamin, a professor and brilliant writer, started her talk with a question: What nourishes you physically, spiritually and emotionally? She had us create lists and asked us to meditate on the question: How can we live with more wonder in our lives? She said: “We need to eat. We need to sleep. We need to fuck.” Amen. And insisted we take the lists we created back to our lives to remind us.
She dropped so many gems, I wrote direct quotes in my journal:
- Behold each day with gratitude and wonder.
- If you don’t value what you have to say, you cannot claim yourself as a writer. You have to embrace that privilege. You need brass ovaries.
- Sometimes we are encaged by believing what people think and all the thoughts that go through our minds.
- Part of your job as a writer is to be an observer.
- Proceed systematically and intuitively, counting every step as a success, thus there is no war, only expanding cooperation.
She spoke of how Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote of the myth of Persephone as an archetype of women’s lives. Persephone lived a beautiful life with her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, until Hades took her forcibly to the Underworld as his wife. Demeter searched for her daughter but could not find her, so she started destroying crops, land and livestock, threatening to leave the earth barren if Persephone was not returned. The people pled with Zeus who went to Hades and said he had to return her. By then, Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld, thus making her an inextricable part of it. So Zeus compromised, saying she would split her time between earth and the underworld—six months in darkness and six in light, and thus the seasons came to be, winter (darkness) and summer (light). This myth is an archetype for what exists in women—both darkness and light. We need time to both rest and work. We are not supposed to always be doing, as we’ve been taught.
Tonya spoke of Wonder woman who we see flying an invisible plane. What we don’t remember or consider is that she came up with the technology for that plane and she built that plane and she taught herself how to fly that plane before anyone called her wonderful. So we have to remember who we are outside of what people think or deem us.
I said amen so many times during her talk, both loudly and to myself. These past few weeks have been a lesson in that: remembering who I am so when atrevidas dare to tell me otherwise I can push back and say, “No” and dismiss them and their shit.
On Sunday I facilitated a workshop called Harnessing Your Creative Genius: How to Water Your Creative Lawn. I confess that it was originally called Harnessing Your Creative Genius: How to make your muse your bitch but that was a little harsh for a tranquil weekend of workshops in the woods.
In essence what I did was distill how I’ve created this writing life for myself. I created a step by step how to guide on how to live a creative life, from maintaining the lawn by constantly watering it (“A well lived creative life is about maintenance”) to harnessing your curiosity to learning how to say no to people and things, so we can say yes to ourselves and our creativity.
It was strange and beautiful to create this list. It was the first time I’ve created a detailed account of everything I’ve done and learned over the years that has helped me live this writing life. At one point I had all 15 women “toot their own horn.” I had them write a list of accomplishments they were proud of, then they had to share it with the group. I told them, “Instead of looking at it as arrogance, look at it as inspiration. You inspire people when you share your accomplishments. Can you please inspire me?” There were tears, there was laughter, and there was such pride. We are taught to be humble to the point of self-deprecation but we have to remind ourselves that we are bad asses and our existence is revolutionary.
For their final assignment, I had them write a letter to their muses. I talked about how we often have contentious relationships with our muses (the muse as both a part of us and something outside of us). I shared what happened at my recent DIY residency in a converted horse carriage house in Kingston, NY where I showed up everyday and pushed and pushed, but nothing gave. The writing felt jarred and forced, until finally, on the last night, I started yelling at my muse. I told her, “You told me to show up and here I am. Where you at? ¡Me abandonastes!” I paced and yelled until I heard, “Start in Bushwick…” And so I did as I was told and when I looked up, I had pages, I saw the connections to the stories I’d already written and the stories that needed to be written. I had re-entered the book, which is exactly the goal of the weekend.
That afternoon, I was able to put my student hat back on when Yoseli Castillo, another brilliant human, facilitated a Poetry workshop. She had us read Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and we discussed what poetry means to us, as women of color. I’ve read this essay before and every time I take something different from it. That’s what great writing does… A line in particular stayed with me: “And wI dont’ have a e must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage.” When it was time to write, I surrendered, didn’t judge or edit. I just gave myself in to what was coming and the result shocked me.
I’m not ready to share the poem yet (it needs editing and I need time to process what I wrote) but I can tell you this: I wrote about my first orgasm then wrote “I can’t write about my sex and not think about all the women who walk with me who were stripped of their power, of their womanhood through rape and violation/so sex became blaspheme/a touch there, acid…” This poem is heresy. How dare I talk about my sex? How dare I connect my sex to the legacy of rape in my family? How dare I write: “It is revolutionary to enjoy sex knowing this…”? How dare I say that orgasm is the “closest it is to feeling God…” But I did write it and although I’m not ready to shared it, I know that something came through me that day in that gorgeous house in the Catskills, and I know that I don’t give a fuck who calls it heresy. This poem is fierce heretical magic!
I started a correspondence this week with a writer who is unmothered like me. She’s a poet whose words have taken my breath so many times. When I discovered she was unmothered like me, I knew I wanted to know her. I proposed the idea and she was with it, but it took me a few weeks to actually do it. I think I was afraid of the vulnerability of letter writing. It’s so informal and yet also so intimate. I wrote:
I’ve always loved writing letters. When I went away to boarding school in 89, I used to send packets of letters. Serious packets that I had to get weighed to make sure I’d put enough postage on them. I wrote letters to everyone, my boo from down the block, my first love and first heartbreak who years later still confesses that I’m the love of his life and fucking up on me was his greatest mistake. Mothafuckas get poetic all of a sudden when you move on. I wrote to my best friend who got pregnant our junior year. We kinda drifted apart after that. I can’t blame it all on her but once I was in college, we lost what we had in common. I got caught up in school and the drug dealer I fell in love with (girl, we’ll save that one for another letter) and she was busy being a mom while trying to finish school.
I sometimes wish I could get my hands on those letters. I know they’d give me insight into the girl I was who decided at that tender age of 13 to leave everything she knew and loved to experience the world. I marvel at that girl who knew she had to save her own life. I wonder what gave her those cojones. I thank her every day. I confess it took me a long time to really realize that was what I was doing—saving my life, that is. I knew I had to get away from her mother and her abuse. I lived terrified of her for so long. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I’ve been grieving that for 40 years, sis, but you already know what that’s like—grieving the mother we never had.
I remember discovering that you’re unmothered like me. Your poetry already left me breathless, but this discovery made me want to read your work more. I wanted to know you. We’re a rare tribe, sis. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s that the mother myth makes it so difficult to admit that we do. It’s taboo to say anything negative about our moms. When we do, we’re called ungrateful and spoiled, told: “but she’s your mother” and “madre, solo hay una.” But what if our memories are riddled with abuse and neglect? What if one of my first memories is of my mother holding a knife to me and threatening to kill me…
It’s quite different to write without a picture of your reader in mind. When I write, I write for Loba Pack, a group of people who I love and know they love me. With them I can be my complete self. I can be silly, I can cry, I can sing and dance and be extra. I can be all of Vanessa with her joy and her sadness. When I write, in my heart we are in my kitchen and we have just finished eating a meal I prepared just for us. We are sipping whiskey and we are talking about our lives. But I just met this woman who is so much like me, it scares me. She saved herself, like I did. She found writing, like I did, and made it her lover. She too struggles with imposter syndrome and often finds herself feeling unworthy and like she’s not enough. And then there are days when we feel unfuckwithable.
I think about the writers who had famous correspondences throughout history. It’s rumored that Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara exchanged letters for years. God, if only I could read those. I imagine the treasures they contain.
Over their thirty year romance, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe exchanged more than 5,000 letters. Over 25,000 pages. Imagine that!
I don’t know what will happen with these letters. I don’t even want to think that anything will become of them. What I do know is that just writing the first one this week has fed me in ways that I’m recounting right now in this essay. It is feeding my work and my pondering about the world, and there’s never a loss in that. And I’m connecting with another human being who has experienced some similar joys and traumas. There’s such beauty in that, to connect with another soul to share how you navigate the world. I’m suddenly excited to write the next letter and even more excited to read her responses. Yay!
I don’t have a neat ending to this essay. I can’t tie it all together right now and I’m okay with that. The goal with these Relentless Files isn’t a polished essay. Essay means (n): an attempt, an effort; (v): attempt or try. Mission accomplished.