Relentless Files — Week 56 (#52essays2017 Week 3)
*An essay a week in 2017*
My mind is all over the place today.
I’m thinking about my family, immigrants who came to this country seeking opportunity.
I’m thinking of the kind of poverty my mother described to me in Honduras. The kind of hunger that eats at the walls of your stomach.
I am thinking of the children I saw when I went to Honduras for the first time in the summer of 1985 when I was nine. Kids who lived in huts made of cardboard and aluminum siding along the edge of the Rio Cangrejal. Kids who didn’t have access to clean water for drinking. Who used the bathroom in the river next to their homes. Who didn’t own shoes and whose clothes were tattered rags. I remember feeling ashamed. That was my first confrontation with my own privilege. No, we weren’t rich but compared to these people we were. I had new clothes on my body and shiny shoes. I used an indoor toilet. I had access to food and education. My biggest issues with poverty was not being able to have the latest sneakers and trends, and maybe that’s why they don’t matter to me now as an adult. We may have lived in a hood that was riddled with crime and drugs, our apartments may have been falling apart and the living conditions we lived in weren’t healthy or ideal, but we had food. I can never say I suffered hunger. Ever. Even if it was Spam or canned corned beef, a fried egg over a bed of white rice, we ate every day, a few times a day.
My mother once told me the story of a classmate who died when she was just a girl. They would lay the body out for a day or so to pray over it and do rituals. Lombrices (parasite worms) started pouring out of the girl’s nose. There was squirming in her mouth. Things were poking at the insides of her cheeks causing them to puff out. An adult went over and opened the girl’s mouth. Lombrices slithered out.
My mother learned the normalcy of death early on.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, left Honduras after losing yet another child to the horrors of poverty–childhood diseases that are easily cured with a shot or week long dose of medicine. Medicines that weren’t accessible to them then and still aren’t in so many parts of the world. She left months after her infant daughter died in her own home. The baby had a fever that wouldn’t break for days. Then one day the baby had a seizure. “Su cuerpo le brincaba,” my mother said, showing me with her hands how the baby’s body jumped as she seized. My mother was just nine or ten years old. Her mother would leave to Puerto Rico a few months later with the Turkish family she worked for as a maid. She left to seek a better life. A life where her children wouldn’t die. Where she could feed them and care for them, and she could send money back home to her family.
I once asked my grandmother if she’d ever return to Honduras to live. She’s an old woman now. “There’s nothing for me there.” And I imagine what it must be like for her, this woman who I admittedly resent for countless reasons that I still struggle with and don’t care to divulge now. She’s old and fragile, but still so strong in so many ways.
I thought of her and of my mother as I watched the crowds of people on the trains on my way to teach yesterday, and on my ride back home. There were signs that read: “My body. My choice.” and “Not my president.” I thought of the women in my family who have traversed the world seeking safety for themselves and their families. I thought about what this new administration means for them, for me, for us.
I didn’t go to any of the marches yesterday. My form of protest entailed facilitating a workshop for twelve women of color. I led them through various exercises to help them write their stories.
I left hopeful but still wondering: Am I doing enough? Where do we go from here? How does my work affect the world and help make this world a safer place for all of us? How can I carry this work forward? How can I contribute to the growth of this nation and this world?
These lines from Chris Abani’s TED Talk “On Humanity” have been in my mind on loop for the past few days: “what I’ve come to learn is that 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.”
Some days I believe this to be true. Some days I worry that it’s not enough. Yesterday, in that room with those women, I believed it–that it’s through the work that we do every day that we change the world.
As I scrolled through my FB and saw the pictures of the marches across the world (which were glorious and inspiring), I wondered if I should have been among those women. Should I have been there with my twelve year old daughter, holding signs and shouting and showing our resistance?
I came home to a message from a fellow writer of color. She wrote:
Hi love, I’m not sure where you are right now or if you remember me from VONA but I just wanted to send you deep love and gratitude today for the 52 essay writing challenge. It is giving me the much-needed courage and commitment to words that need to be written, about love, race, white supremacy and more. Slowly but surely I feel like I’m finally going to begin writing the pieces I need to write. You are a force, inspiring and BRILLIANT.
This writer served to remind me that, yes, this work is important and my work is having a ripple effect that is necessary and appreciated. The thing is, I am the type of person who always wants to serve and do more, all while being starkly aware of the fact that I am only one person.
So I wonder: how many people are carrying these protests forward? How can we continue to protest and be involved in our daily lives?
I think about the day after the election when what so many of us feared actually happened. I walked into my Fiction class in East Harlem, into a roomful of students of color who live in NYC in marginalized neighborhoods, who are told again and again, via the media and the results of this election and so many spaces, that they don’t matter and their stories don’t matter and they are less than… I threw out my lesson that day. Instead, I tried to get them talking about what the election results means to and for them. They sat, quiet and sullen. At first they didn’t want to talk about the election, but soon, after I shared my own dismay, they were talking and sharing. Two of my kids told me that they experienced racism for the first time that day. One student confessed that her mother is undocumented and she’s terrified for her. When the end of class came, a few of them lingered. They hugged me. They thanked me. They needed to be seen. I gave them what I could, my heart and my ears and my shoulder. I came home exhausted. The sweet exhaustion of this soul work.
They are the reason I wonder. My daughter is the reason I wonder: Am I doing enough? Is this work enough? Then I get these messages from writers, dozens of them over the past few weeks, who say thank you and tell me this #52essays2017 challenge has them writing and producing in a way they haven’t in so long or ever. And I poll my high students and they say they want me to continue the fiction class in the spring semester and they say they love the readings I’ve provided–all writers of color, all writers who look like them and come from places they come from and/or they can identify with. Writings by Junot Diaz and Judith Ortiz Cofer and Glendaliz Camacho and ZZ Packer and so many more. And so as I sit to create the syllabus for the spring, I think of what else to share–a story from Roxane Gay’s “Dangerous Women” and an excerpt from the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” And on Thursday I learned that a record number of students have registered for my Fiction class, and the class is now vying for first place with Robotics for the number of students trying to get into the class. This has never happened before. Wow.
I know that hunger for stories that represent me. I am reminded that representation matters, and so I’m also reminded that this challenge I created with the push of my brujermana Lizz Huerta (#52essays2017) is an effort to get more stories like ours out in the world. I think of how this will influence the literary landscape in the next five to ten to twenty years. And, yes, sometimes the weight of it overwhelms me. Sometimes I am scared by what it is I’ve taken on and what was and continues to be the driving force behind my Writing Our Lives classes–that our stories matter and only we can write them, and I’m here to help people do this, especially writers of color. Us. You and me.
My daughter went out with her friends today. She woke up early to finish her homework and study for an upcoming exam and help clean. She swept the house. She cleaned the bathroom. She did three pages of the Kaplan test book I got for her. She showed me what she’d done and promised to do a few pages more when she gets home around 6.
She’s twelve and wanting to be with her friends. She wants to see the world like I did. She wants to experience life. I worry about the world I’ve brought her into. See, I get the many who say that they don’t want to bring kids into this world. And I also know that I couldn’t imagine a world without my little girl. This girl who isn’t so little anymore. Who is taller than her mama. Who has a 97 average and when she finishes her work early in class, spends the rest of her time helping her classmates. This girl who doesn’t come to me to help her with her schoolwork anymore. Who says, “I got it, mom” when I offer.
There was a time when I was her best friend. I didn’t think about when I would stop being cool and everything that she aspires to be. I wonder if I’m doing enough. If my hands off approach and “I won’t hover or helicopter mom you” style of parenting is enough. I don’t know, just like I don’t know if the work I do teaching and facilitating writing workshops is enough. But the evidence is there, isn’t it? It’s in the writers who before walking out of the class yesterday told me that they have the beginnings of two short stories and possibly more. It’s in the messages they send about how my work inspires them and pushes them to write. It’s in the eyes of the student who told me recently “I usually hate reading, miss, but I really like what you bring in for us to read.” It’s in the conversation I overheard my daughter having with a friend where she said, “My mom can be a pain sometimes, because, you know, moms, but she has my back. I know I can talk to her and I know she won’t let anyone mess with me.” The evidence is there when I walk into her room at night to turn off the light and she’s fallen asleep with a book on her chest.
All this inspires me to keep revisiting and reinventing ways I can show up for my students, young and old, emerging writers and established. And it keeps reminding me to keep mothering my daughter in resistance to how I was raised and how the world tells me I should mother her–conflicting messages that do nothing to affirm the role of mother.
We all have our way of showing up and loving. There is no one way and no one road. The point is to keep striving and giving and serving and working to be your best self. The point is to contribute positively.
Two days ago a video came across my feed. It’s a speech (which felt like a prayer) by Valarie Kaur, Sikh activist and interfaith leader who centers her work on storytelling for social change. In her prayer, she talks of her grandfather’s immigration story, how he was imprisoned upon arrival for months until a white lawyer filed a habeas corpus and got him freed. Ms. Kaur connected her work as a lawyer and humanitarian to her grandfather’s experience. I choked up as I listened. The tears came when she said: “”Yes Rabbi, the future is dark, on this watch night, I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell. And I can feel the spirit of ever rising optimism (in the Sikh tradition ‘Chardi Kala’) within him. So the mother in me asks, ‘What if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?…. What if this is our country’s great transition?”
Ms. Kaur wrote on her blog:
What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?
What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: “You are brave?” What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?
Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”
Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.
I like to think that my relentless hope is my superpower. I’ve written about how my faith has waned during these times and how that scares me. Ms. Kaur’s speech reminded me that this kind of hope is necessary, because it makes us push, it makes us fight, for ourselves, for our ancestors, for our children and our students and those we call brother and sister and friend and family and brujermanas and brujermanos. And, yes, for those ancestors that came here, who survived so much pain and hunger and disillusionment, who kept trying and fighting and didn’t give up. Who knew they couldn’t give up, not on themselves or the generations to come.
I remember those labor pains when I had my daughter. I remember when I first saw her. I remember when I decided not to return to corporate America because I was so miserable there. I learned firsthand what misery can do to a child. I didn’t want to bring my daughter up in that. So I wrote my first book and didn’t look back. And in the journey of writing the book, I faced what I feared and started moving toward it: becoming a single mother and pursuing this writing life while doing it. That was more than twelve years ago. That was my new beginning. It hasn’t been an easy road but it’s been a beautiful, fulfilling one and I’m still here. Still doing this work as the dream evolves as I do. I continue to push. I hope you will too. Word.