Relentless Essay — Week 38
*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.