Relentless Files — Week 39
*An essay a week in 2016*
Last week was that kind of week that leaves you feeling drained and wondering. I did some writing but mostly I brooded…
In the wee hours of Monday morning, my neighbor from the apartment above knocked on my door to tell me there were chorros of water falling in her bathroom. This has happened so many times since I moved into this building six years ago. When I turned on the lights, there was water leaking in my living room, the hallway leading to my bathroom and the bathroom. Not 24 hours later, after getting tons of work done and feeling proud and accomplished, I came home to find the ceiling had collapsed in my living room. Not long thereafter the ceiling in the bathroom came down. And the following morning, the ceiling in the hallway outside the bathroom fell. This hallway is right next to my daughter’s room. She was out walking the dog when it happened, thank God. That’s when I finally called 311.
Dealing with this shit triggered lots of anxiety. My therapist helped me see that it has to do with safety. I was raised in a home where I didn’t feel safe so I’ve worked really hard to gift my daughter (and, yes, myself) a safety I didn’t know as a kid, so it makes sense that I was anxious: my home isn’t a safe environment for either of us…but it took the idea of the ceiling collapsing on my daughter for me to call 311.
The inspector came the following day. She gasped at the gaping holes, debris still falling every few minutes, rocks and sand and powder. I told her my asthma was being triggered, that I was dealing with this kind of nonsense for years. She said these were Class C violations and the building had a week to fix it before they were fined. She made a note of other problems in the apartment:
It’s been two years since a leak in my kitchen corroded a huge patch of tiles. I’m still waiting for them to be replaced. Each time the job was scheduled, I was told an emergency happened that was priority. This happened three times. Three days off of work. Ain’t that some shit?
The light fixture in my daughter’s room has been hanging on a string (literally) for years now. We barely use it because of that. I’ve reported it several times.
Once, the former super (who was levels and layers of asshole) got mad that I’d called the management company about the toilet not flushing. I’d told him about it twice—once in person and another time via a letter in his mailbox. He didn’t come by the house to make the repair. That was him though, he did shit on his own time. He was the super for 37 years and the management company gave him free reign so he took advantage and stopped doing his job ages ago. To punish me, he didn’t come to make the repair before the weekend. I had a nonfunctioning toilet for the entire weekend, a total of a week—seven days. Can you imagine living like this? First world problems, yes, but still…
This super is also the one who would leer at me and tell me, “You lookin’ good!” I live in the apartment a few floors above the entrance to his. When I’ve invited my friends over for dinner and hangout out time, he asked, “Porque no me invitastes?” Once, he saw me walking with this guy I was kinda, sorta seeing. He asked, “Who is that boy?” I sneered, “Mind your business.” Homeboy I was seeing didn’t say anything. He lost points so many points for that. If you can’t defend or stick up for me (even if I don’t need you to), I ain’t fuckin with you. I never saw that guy again. I am not in the business of being involved with punks.
This super made me feel inept when I asked for a repair to be made. When the sinks or tub got clogged (which is a perpetual problem), he blamed us, saying it was our long hair. It wasn’t the old tuberia or the fact that the drainage in this building sucks. It was my and my daughter’s fault. Once he had the nerve to tell me to cut my hair. I glared at him and walked away. I knew that he was capable of stopping his job midway and leaving us without a working tub because he was bitchy like that. Can you imagine living like this?
The repairmen showed up this morning. There are two. They’ve been here for hours. They have barely looked at me. They are busy handling their business. I’m typing this up in my kitchen, the closest room to the exit. I could say that it’s because the dust has been exacerbating my asthma for days and this room has big, open window and air circulation, but I know that’s just part of it. This fear is a slow simmer. This is what it is to be a woman.
After two days of anxiety, I said a prayer before I went to bed asking for respite. I had dreams where my spirits visited me and reminded me that they have my back and all is well; that they’re protecting me though it may not see so right now. There is a message in this situation in my home: the beginning to an end. It’s time to go.
The following morning I came across a quote that read: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Those ceiling collapses are a metaphor for what’s happening in this country…
We were driving on the Sprain Brook the other day. It’s a parkway in Westchester that is all trees and soaring hawks. I noticed that there were many dead trees with vines climbing up them. The leafless branches reached into the sky like veins looking for source. It reminded me of the roads in the Oakland hills where vines climb the trunks and branches of trees. It looks beautiful but the vines are actually choking the trees, killing them slowly.
Ever seen a web and wonder how the spider spanned that juncture. How she got from one corner to the next. From one limb to the other. One branch, feet from the other. Feet for us but miles for her. A distance incomprehensible to us, because we’re not that small and not that willing to take daring leaps. She jumps knowing there is no net to catch her. She knows she will land. She knows she will somehow hit a surface. And there she will continue to build and mold that web that will sustain and carry her. She just does. She doesn’t know how. That’s not her focus. Her focus is the leap and the knowing—I will land. And she does. She always does.
When you’re at a concert (Word Rock and Sword: A Musical Celebration of Women’s Live VI) after five hours of teaching the class that is your baby, the one you created with your everything, and the concert is like a MichFest reunion, so of course you run into the editors of the Sinister Wisdom MichFest edition, and they have galleys of the anthology to which you submitted an essay which was eagerly accepted and what are the chances that you would be here, with them, to receive and edit and approve the essay in said galley, and as you wait for the concert to start, you receive an email saying one of your essays was rejected. You really wanted this one… You read that you made it to the last round and your piece was hotly debated but in the end they decide your essay didn’t add anything new to the conversation and it lost steam at the end and you want to shrink into yourself but you remember the spider and she reminds you: you jumped and yes, you didn’t land there, but you will land somewhere. You always do.
“Release your heart and fly, angel fly…” Asha Lovechild sings as you type into your notes ap on your iPhone. You promise yourself to find and download everything of her, this black woman with a godlike voice and earrings the size of cups. “Fly,” she croons and your heart bursts.
“Maybe one day I’ll fly like an eagle, soar like a bird,” sings Marcelle Davies Lashley. She reminds you of Billie and Ella and Nina at once, and all you can do is rock yourself. The piano and violin slay you over and over, because you know there are no coincidences and that spider is talking to you and reminding you to remember. Remember.
Another singer comes on, you will learn later that her name is Be Steadwell. She sings, “Who have I become… I knew who I was when you met me, I know who I am when you left me…who have I become?” It is a prayer. A question. She started her piece beat boxing that old school way you remember from Brooklyn and the beginning of hip hop, a forgotten story like yours…
Chelsea Peterson says: “We are our own antidote.” She lists the names of men and women of color who have been murdered in senseless acts of violence: Trayvon Martin, Terence Crutcher, Rekia Boyd. “Break dance between bullets…I’m exhausted by rage, battling these enemy bandits and my own damn depression… Salute your own magic, warrior. Conjure your genetic memory, and expect magic, conjure magic… If there’s one thing I know, we will survive.” She tells you she loves you and calls you wounded warrior. “You always find the light. You are the light. Kissed by the sun and sculpted like a god…”
And then the legendary Nona Hendrix sings a song written over 40 years ago and you know because she reminds you: “so hard to live without love, love, love… People need understanding. We need power.” The artists join her on stage and repeat her lines over and over: “What can you do for me? You. What can you do for me?”
And you wonder why that’s such a taboo question? Why is that too much to ask? Why do you judge yourself selfish for asking? Do we portend the shit people will say? The shit we’ll get, especially us women of color who are taught to sacrifice ourselves, our health, our sanity for everyone.
When you’ve learned early, over and again, that you is all you got, over and over again, no matter love or war or sorrow or grief … Nona says: “show me love, show me love, show me love” over and over. That’s the answer to the question: What can you do for me? “Show me love,” is what you’re asking. There’s your reminder.
This morning as you’re lying in bed wondering how your lungs are going to react to all the dust and the fumes, you come across a new Gatorade commercial that makes your eyes water.
It stars WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and focuses on her life off the court that has influenced the way she approaches the game, specifically her relationship with her sister, who is both deaf and blind, and the closest person to her.
She says her sister has taught her: “You don’t focus on what you don’t have. You celebrate what you do.”
I was annoyed with this Relentless Files challenge this weekend. I didn’t want to write. I wanted to sit and sulk, but instead I went to a café on Fulton in Bed-Stuy while I waited for my partner. I was thinking about the week in headline news of more unarmed black men killed by police. One of them, Terrance Crutcher, had his hands up when he was shot.
Natalie Diaz wrote on her FB: A white female officer shot a black man. The black man was left in the road, dying. The white female officer was sat down behind a cop car, held by her fellow officers, consoled. For shooting the black man who was still there, alone, dying in the road.”
There are protests in Charlotte and cities throughout the country. A country that could possibly be led by Donald Trump, if he wins the election. It all feels so surreal.
This week in Writing Our Lives, I assigned Dionne Irving’s “Living with Racial Fatigue: Why Fighting Microaggressions Can Feel Like Treading Water.” I assigned it before Crutcher was killed. It seemed especially appropriate, all things considered.
This week I focused the writing on the microaggressions we’ve experienced as women, women of color, as queer and gay folks. I read excerpt of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a model.
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all come from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
José Alfredo Menjivar writes: “Memories demand attention because memories have teeth.” You repost the status with one word: TEETH.
I have to be honest: while I was writing some of this, I was really bitter about the rejection I got. I’m still curling my lip at the comments that it lost steam at the end and that I didn’t add anything new to the conversation.
I know this might be self-indulgent and I may come across as self-involved and petty. I know I may be wallowing. My essay made it to the last round. It was hotly debated. In the end, it wasn’t chosen and that’s okay, or at least it should be. People deal with rejection all the time. My work has been rejected dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. It comes with the territory of being a writer who submits, who is actively seeking to be published. I know all of this but I have to acknowledge how I feel. This is how I process. I can’t let this shit sit in me. I already know what happens when I do that—it festers and persists until I stare at it and start to pick it apart.
One time, when I posted about being bitter about a rejection, a writer I know (or knew because she unfriended me some time afterwards) reminded me of all the pieces I have published and how proud I should be about that. Really, this isn’t about not being grateful. This is about releasing these feelings. I need space to process.
I remind myself that this isn’t a reflection of me or my work. I write through it. I let myself feel what I need to feel, then I move on. That isn’t self-indulgent. It’s self-care. It’s what I needed, and ultimately, it’s me I have to answer to and come to terms with.
I remind myself of what I do have:
An amazing 12 year old who is trying her hand at cheerleading, doing three hour practices for two weeks building up to the try outs. She comes home excited to share the cheers and dances and what she’s learning in her new school. This week we discussed Kaepernick, who she’s studying in Social Studies. It gave me the opportunity to introduce her to Papa James Baldwin. I told her about his work and read her this quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” She said, “Send me that. I want to share it in class.” Later, she came back and said she was saving it for the conclusion of her persuasive essay on the topic. That was definitely a win for this mama.
I have a partner who is loving and tender and deals with my shit (and I, in turn, deal with her). Just today, we had a spat that ultimately came down to me feeling shame about my financial situation. As a single mama who quit her job to live this dream, I had to sacrifice some things…one of those things was my credit. Yes, I’m working on improving it, but it’s a process. Sharing that triggers me… My partner reminds me that it’s okay. That I’m no longer alone. That we’re in this together and what I once had to do alone, all the time, I no longer have to do… That too is a learning process. I’ve been on my own for 27 years. Unlearning some of this shit is gonna take some time…
I have this career and life that I’ve created for myself and am quite proud of. I have lit mags reaching out to me asking me to submit. This Friday I was asked to participate in a reading welcoming Ana Castillo to NYC. I’m featuring at Capicu Cultural Showcase on October 14th. As soon as I was asked, I cried out, “Mama, I think I made it” and giggled to myself. See, it’s a poetry showcase so to be asked to feature, as a predominantly prose writer, is kind of a big deal for me. I also haven’t been out in the writing scene much. I withdrew a few years ago when I got disillusioned with it and decided to do the work and focus on the writing. I’ve never regretted that decision. Still, I feel it calling me back and I’m open to the sharing.
On October 15th, I’m on a panel at the NYC Latina Writer’s Group 10 year anniversary celebration. I’ve been a cherished member of this group for years now and have facilitated workshops for them. This is a huge honor for me!
My Writing Our Lives nine-week class filled up quickly and there was a waiting list of five! This after increasing the tuition by $200. I’m also working on moving it online, hopefully soon. There is so much deliciousness in this!
I’m steadily working on this memoir, and after getting out of my own way (which took some time and reflection), it is coming together more beautifully and fluidly than I ever imagined…and that’s just dope, especially considering that this has been a decade long journey.
In his “The Creative Process” essay, Baldwin writes:
The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things are real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.
I’m thinking about this hard, especially as a writer of memoir and personal essay. We who’ve been called self-obsessed and narcissistic and so many other things. I think about this work I do and why I do it. The second rule of autobiographical writing is: the story isn’t about you. It’s about a theme like a string that runs through the story and puts it together… Ultimately I write to figure out how it is I’ve learned to live with all this shit, the beauty and the rot and all that lies in the subconscious that bleeds into my life without my knowing it. The point is to be a more whole, productive member of this society. To make myself and this world a better place. And that might sound grandiose or pompous but I believe Chris Abani when he said: “..the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion.” And that compassion starts with you.
“Show me love.”