Relentless Files — Week 46
*An essay a week in 2016*
We turned the TV off around 11pm on election night. It was too much to take. We could barely sleep. My partner and I tossed and turned. We were up at 3am, checking the news for updates, praying, hoping that a turn had happened. Of course you already know that it didn’t. We couldn’t sleep after that. Bae had to get up at 4:30am to head to work. Those crazy electrician hours. I stayed up despite myself.
At 7am I was staring out my bedroom at the yellow and red leaves glowing in the morning light. I wondered how the world could still look so beautiful after the tragedy of this election. My twelve year old knocked on the door. She stared at me wide eyed. “Mami, Trump won.” I pulled her into bed and held her. A few minutes later, she went out to walk the dog then left to school. What more do we have but to go on with our lives?
I spent the day wafting between desperation and trying to work. I had lesson plans to create, payments to send to AWP and Tin House, I had to keep unpacking the boxes that were stacked in the living room and kitchen and just about every room in the apartment we just moved into. I also had to write. I spent most of the day staring at the blank screen on my tablet.
I was terrified to leave the house. If only I could pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep through the next four years. I thought about the high school students I was supposed to teach that evening—all poor, all black and brown, two undocumented, a few queer, one trans. If I as an adult was having a difficult time grappling with this, what were they feeling? How are they going to navigate a world that has told them in no uncertain terms that they are hated?
I resisted the temptation to hovel up at home, got dressed and headed to work. My kids needed me. What I didn’t realize was that I needed them, too.
What is hope?
Hope — hōp/
1. a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
“he looked through her belongings in the hope of coming across some information”
synonyms: aspiration, desire, wish, expectation, ambition, aim, goal, plan, design; dream, daydream, pipe dream
“I had high hopes”
2. archaic a feeling of trust.
1. want something to happen or be the case.
“he’s hoping for an offer of compensation”
synonyms: expect, anticipate, look for, be hopeful of, pin one’s hopes on, want; wish for, long for, dream of
“he’s hoping for a medal”
I confess that on my way to work I side-eyed every white person I saw. They voted Trump into office, overwhelmingly so… so I was not happy when a white man sat next to me. He was young, had black rimmed glasses on and jeans that were tighter than mine. He took out a book. I peered over. It was Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. “That’s a great book,” I said before I could stop myself. He smiled. “It’s a lot. I’ve had to read it slow.” I nodded and heard “mansplain” in my head. I thought of the million and one times I’ve quoted that book, in essays and to men who explained things to me in that condescending-let-me-school-you manner that they do to women. Pendejos.
We got to talking about the election. It hadn’t been 24 hours and he too was dumbstruck. I thought: he doesn’t have as much to lose as a white cis-man but I didn’t say this. I listened to him, this man who asked me what I do and nodded when I said, “We have to keep doing the work. It’s all we have.” He said kids give him hope. I tell him that not all my kids are hopeful or positive but they have a unique way of looking at the world that inspires me and they teach me so much every day. “Teaching should be a symbiotic relationship. You should learn from your students as you teach them.” I said. He nodded. “My name is Jesse,” he extended a hand. His hand was warm, his shake firm and welcoming. It said, “I see you. Please see me too.” And thus he reminded me that there are good people in the world and although the stakes are different for all of us, the point is that we all have stakes in this, we all have something to lose and to gain and to work through. How’s that for perspective?
One of my students, a writer who overthinks and feels everything, caught me as I entered the building. I was two hours early. “As soon as I found out, you were the one person I wanted to see.” Her face looked like my daughter’s did that morning–crestfallen. I hugged her.
A few hours later, I sat in front of the class and stared as my fiction writers walked in. This group that’s normally boisterous talked in whispers, their shoulders were slumped, eyes downcast. That’s when the tears I’d been fighting all day came. Soft tears that gathered at the corners and slipped down my face.
“Who’s scared?” I asked. Hands went up.
“So am I.” And before I knew it, I was coming out to my students. I told them that I was in a relationship with a butch who didn’t have the privilege of presenting straight like I do as a femme. “I’m scared for her. For us.” I said. I told them I was raising my twelve year old daughter in this gay relationship. My voice cracked as I told them about the homophobia I’d endured while being raised by my two moms in 1970s and 80s Brooklyn. I told them about the girl who told me, “You’re dirty like your lesbian moms.”
“Is that what we’re going back to?” I was shaking by that point.
Slowly my students shared their fears. One girl came out to me. I walked out of there with more faith than I walked in with. My students showed me that though the next four years look bleak, they, these students, are the reason for hope. When they slapped their hands on the desk and raised their fists in the air and shared their soft, pulsing hearts, I saw the generation that is inheriting this country and was proud.
A few hugged me as they left. One kid lingered. The one who makes a joke out of everything, he stared at me intently from his desk and stood up. As he approached, a hulking six feet of pure love, I noticed his eyes were wet. “A white guy called me a nigger this morning. I had just left my house.” He said he went back upstairs and cried while he played video games. “I couldn’t go back outside for an hour. I was late to school.”
I thought about my daughter. What had she encountered on her way to school? I texted my partner from the bus ride home. “We have to talk to Vasia about this election.” Katia said she was worried Vasia would internalize our fears. I said, “I’ve always shared my feelings with my daughter. I have to show her that it’s okay to be worried. All her feelings are valid.” And that’s exactly how I started the conversation in our kitchen, with me leaning on the door frame, my daughter sitting cross-legged on the floor with the dog on her lap and my partner sitting across from her at the table.
“I learned today from my students that this teaching and writing and mentoring I do is more important now than ever.” I said. My daughter nodded. Later I asked her, “Are you scared?” She shrugged. “A little bit.” Then she looked at my partner and back at me. “But I know I have you.” Indeed, she does.
I normally have incredible faith that is steadfast and virtually impenetrable. I like to think it’s my superpower. But there have been moments this week when I’ve felt stripped of the one thing that’s got me through so much, from being on my own from an early age and becoming a woman by myself through trial and error to being unmothered to having my heart broken too many times to count. I want to believe I, we will bounce back from this. This is our wake up call, our rallying cry, our push to make moves to effect real change. I have to believe that because what do we have without hope?
So many of us joked that we would leave the country if Trump was elected. I wonder how many of us really thought this was possible, that we would spend four years with that orange pendejo as the commander in chief. I certainly didn’t. I was one of those who said that I would leave but I realized pretty quickly that I can’t. None of us should. Remember that if you bounce & head for the hills, as they say, you are abandoning the work that needs to be done here. You are abandoning the young people who are going to inherit this country. This week my daughter and my students reminded me that this work is important and the world isn’t changed through grandiose messianic acts but by the way we live our lives and the work we do and the love we give and gift and receive every single day. So the focus for me is how I can effect change, cada dia, poco a poco. That’s what we have…& really, that’s what matters–what we do, how we exist and share, on the ground. Because let’s be real, while I would have preferred that HRC be the next one in the Oval Office, she wasn’t going to save us or this country. That job is ours. Yours and mine. We got work to do.
Saturday was the 7th class of this fall’s nine week Writing Our Lives Workshop. Of course we talked about the election. At one point, during lunch, a student and I were waiting outside a Thai restaurant on West 3rd Street when a Trump supporter who overheard our conversation decided to chime in. She said she voted for Trump, that she wasn’t racist but she wanted a change. “But you co-signed a racist,” I said. She shrugged. “It’s the people on welfare and the system that are really worried,” she said. I sucked my teeth. “That’s not true. I’m an educated woman with a job, I teach, and I’m worried.” She said she lived in midtown and was tired of what she was seeing. She said that there was a time when she could get a job at a delis for $10/hour but now she could barely find one for $8. “You go into these delis down here and there’s Mexicans everywhere. ” My student who is of Mexican heritage, winced. The Trump supporter said she had a house in the Bronx and immigrants bought the house next door. “There’s like 20 of them in there. It’s like a hotel.” She insisted they brought the value of her house down. She kept saying that we had to accept the results of the election. When I told her that her language was xenophobic, she shook her head and said, “We’re overpopulated.” When I told her that she can’t try to control what other people do on their property, she again shook her head and said, “I just want a change.” I didn’t talk about red-lining and all the systematic racist shit that’s really to blame for her property value going down. “You just have to accept it. He’s our president.” she insisted. “No, I don’t. He’s your president not mine. You can’t control how people feel.” I can’t tell you how many times I had to repeat myself. Then she told me about the kid whose mother kicked him out of the house for being a Trump supporter. She said it’s Hillary supporters who are protesting and looting and burning the flag. I told her about how not 24 hours after Trump won, two of my students were called niggers for the first time in their lives. My students are high school age. 13-18. You can’t cover the sun with one finger. That’s when I walked away, because I was done. But first I shook this woman’s hand. I don’t understand her or her logic, I have opinions about her greed and the problematic views she shared, but we had an exchange about our political beliefs and we didn’t attack one another or lose our shit, though it took some deliberate restraining of my wild tongue to do it. There’s something to say for that.
I’m a queer woman. I am in a relationship with a butch woman. I am raising a daughter in this relationship. I was raised by a self-proclaimed butch who died terrified of going to hell and there was NOTHING I could do or say to undo the decades of Pentecostal ideology that was drilled into her in Lares, Puerto Rico where those kinds of homophobic credos were (and still are) as deeply rooted as the wild mango trees. My brother was a gay man who lived with HIV for twenty years! Don’t you dare tell me not to be concerned. Don’t you dare tell me to accept this fool! Don’t dare!
If you play pool maybe you’ve thought that this mess of an election is like that time you cleared the table, leaving your opponent with skittles, then you scratch that 8 ball. You loss, yes, but not because your opponent beat you.
I woke up this morning feeling tense. The news on my timeline riled me up and pissed me off. Pence’s assault on LGBTQ equality is already underway (this fool believes in conversion therapy!), there’s a video of students in a lunchroom chanting “build a wall,” in Natick, a town over from Wellesley, the town I went to in 1989 to attend boarding school, the same town I learned what racism looked and felt like, a resident posted a letter that was left in his mailbox warning him to “make sure to get rid of those trash.” The trash the “concerned neighbors” were referring to were black people. “We tolerated the latinos now you are going total black. This trash belong to Dorchester. We have reclaimed our country back by selecting Trump and you are now messing up everything. Our kids and pets are scared to death.” This is the hatred that has been unleashed as a result of Trump winning.
I knew if I sat still I would despair so instead I started organizing my writing room, cleaning and sorting and preparing this room for the work that will be done in here. Clearing space for the act of writing and strategizing and protesting and lesson planning…the on the ground work.
Toni Morrison said, “In times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.”
Tonight I am sitting in my writing room, a white candle on my right, to my left pictures of my brother and my Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me. Tonight I am channeling this rage and pain and frustration onto the page under this gorgeous moon because if the work was ever important, it is now all the more so.
I started off this week feeling incredibly supported and loved. On Friday, November 4th, I leaned into my fear and vulnerability and posted a GoFundMe for the Tin House CNF Winter Workshop I’d been accepted to where I’ll be working with Lidia Yuknavitch. Within 24 hours I raised the $2100 and some. Within 48, I raised more than $3,000, including generous donations from two of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay and Jaquira Díaz. Since then I’ve raised upwards of $3600. I am remembering this as I type this essay. I am remembering that people came through for me, showed me that I am seen. They’ve co-signed my work. They’ve told me with their wallets and their FB shares and their inbox messages that what I’m doing is righteous and necessary. I am feeling all of them as I go in on this page and promise to continue to do this work, for all of us. Word.