*An essay a week in 2017*
After reading, discussing and picking apart Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Woven” & Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s “Saving Chickens, Saving Myself”, I had my Writing Our Lives students finish class with the prompt: “What stories have you told yourself?” There was nervous laughter, some glares (at me, of course), one student hid her face while others avoided my eyes altogether. I welcome you to write on the stories you’ve told yourself to survive and those you still tell yourself that no longer serve you. I am writing on how I told myself for so long: “I don’t need anybody. I can do this alone.” Where did that come from? Why did I have to convince myself of this? How did I break my own heart as a result?
This is kind of how we get through our lives: we tell ourselves stories so that what’s happening becomes something we can live with. Necessary fictions. ~Lidia Yuknavitch in “Woven”
The first time I told myself that I didn’t need anybody was up in that plum tree in my backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I was five or six, watching mom in her garden. I was envying the seeds and the vegetables and herbs that got a tenderness from her that was so rarely directed at me. I was sulking. I was trying to cope. I may have folded my arms over my chest and huffed a bit. I may have even pouted. Then I said, quietly so only I could hear: “So what. I don’t need her. I don’t need anybody.” I spent the next thirty years trying to convince myself that was true.
I learned solitude in that first floor apartment on Palmetto Street. I was always a brooding child. I’d climb up that tree or climb over the dilapidated wall into the junkyard next door. And if mom was keeping me inside that day, I’d build a fort in the bottom bunk by pushing the blankets into the nooks of the bunk bed.
I learned solitude again in boarding school in Massachusetts when I realized I’d never fit in and stopped trying. I found solace in literature.
I’d walk those Wellesley roads, stare at the houses with their brick and two stories, picket fences and manicured lawns; houses I’d only seen in movies and on TV until I lived there. I imagined the lives of the people that lived inside. I imagined two kids and a dog and maybe a cat and a mom and dad and their furniture and how damn happy they were.
I’d walk through the woods of the Wellesley College campus, sit by Lake Waban and watch the college girls giggle and suntan and ignore me.
So when that drug dealer from uptown Manhattan pursued me the summer before my senior year, I didn’t push him away. He was 24. I was 16. He made me feel wanted and seen, and he could do things to my body that I’d never felt. I learned an entirely different kind of solitude in the six years I was with him.
After him there were a slew of emotionally unavailable men. There was me telling myself that I didn’t need anybody. There was me attracting people, both men and women, friends and romantic interests, that I could not rely on. That didn’t show up. That had their own stories they were telling themselves that did not include me.
One of those friends was my ride or die homegirl. I haven’t written much publicly about this friendship. She was the one I went to countless happy hour events and nightclubs with. We went on vacations to Miami. I held her hair when she threw up. Carried her up the stairs when she was too drunk to make it to my fifth floor apartment. She took care of me too, in many ways. All in ways that are needed by a girl who says she doesn’t need anyone. We hurt one another more than once. We no longer speak or even check in on each other. I saw her this past summer at a reunion of sorts. I told her I missed her. She told my partner I was a ho. I realized I missed who we were and now wonder how we were ever friends. Then I remember how she punished me by denying me her love. She was so much like my mother.
One time, years ago, we were talking about relationships and sharing our lives. I confessed that I didn’t want to die alone. I wanted someone to share my life with. She rolled her eyes and said she could spend her life alone and be good. I was weak for wanting to be with someone. I believed that for a long time. She reminded me of why I’d told myself all those years before: “I don’t need nobody. I can do it alone.”
Humans are social animals. It is human to want companionship. It is human to want to share our lives.
Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has interviewed hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement. In one study, he found that roughly a third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” Grassian has since concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory. Some inmates lose the ability to maintain a state of alertness, while others develop crippling obsessions.
“One inmate I interviewed developed some obsession with his inability to feel like his bladder was fully empty,” Grassian told FRONTLINE. “Literally, that man spent hours, hours, 24 hours a day it was on his mind, hours standing in front of the toilet trying to pee … He couldn’t do anything else except focus on that feeling.” Source: “What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?” on PBS
People in solitary confinement go crazy. Why? Because we need human contact and interaction. We need love. We need tenderness. We need to see and be seen. I know that now. I sometimes wish I’d learned this sooner, but we all have our journey.
Who made me realize this? My brother. My daughter. My students. My partner Katia has reminded. She still reminds me.
As much as I wanted to believe that I could be alone and be okay with it, I searched out love in all the wrong places. Three years ago, already in my late thirties and deep in my grief over losing my brother, I wrote these words in my journal: “I’ve fallen for mirror images of my mother since I was 12–abusive and emotionally unavailable.” I threw the journal across the room.
There was no way to avoid looking in the mirror and seeing myself and the many ways I’d broken my own heart. How I’d attracted these people into my life. I had to hold myself accountable. Doing this does not excuse anyone’s behavior or release them of their own accountability. It just means that I can see what I did to break my own heart. It’s how I take back my own power.
I think of what a spiritual advisor told me once: “You have no power.” I have trouble with this. To accept that means that I have no way of living this life with more purpose and consciousness. To be more aware of myself and what I put out there and attract.
What I know is that I am now in a relationship where I am loved and supported in ways I never have. She shows up. She shows me she loves me. She is present and steadfast. No, we are not perfect, but we choose each other every day. We are conscious with the ways we love each other. We work to confront our shit. We hold one another accountable. We try. We are committed to us, to this family we are building. She holds me when I cry about my mother. She reminds me that I am not her. We laugh when I gasp at the realization that I sit like her and hold myself like her, my mother, this woman who constantly pushes me away, who doesn’t know how to love me.
I asked myself: What is the story behind this story?
That I am not worthy of being loved. That I am not lovable. After all , if your mother can’t love you the way you need or want, who can? What does that say about you? It says that you are not lovable. You are not worthy of being loved. You are not worthy of praise or tenderness. So you tell yourself that you don’t need anybody. That you can do it alone. Because this is easier than accepting that you aren’t worthy…
This story continues to manifest itself in my life in so many ways. I am thinking specifically about something that’s been coming up lately: I cringe when someone praises my work, my writing and teaching and the work I do. I have trouble believing it. Logically, I know what I do is important. I believe in the power of story to change the world. I teach this work with all my heart. And, yet, when someone acknowledges me and my work, I feel myself wince. I tense up. I half smile. I blush. I have to fight the urge to run.
There is a memory that lives in me. I am little, my head comes to just above my mother’s waist. My mother who is just five feet tall. We are heading to the supermarket on the corner, El Faro, the market that smelled of sour milk and decaying meat. I reach for my mother’s hand. She swats me away. Glares at me. Says: “Porque tu siempre tienes que estar encima de mi.” I don’t remember reaching for my mother’s hand after that though I never stopped staring at those hands, chubby and solid, they look perpetually swollen, just like mine.
My brother was one of the few people I could rely on when I was growing up. When he left when I was 12 (which is a story for another time), I had no reason to stay in my mother’s house. I chose to leave the right way–I went to boarding school. It was while I was away that my brother started spiraling out of control. He was arrested for stealing cars. For selling drugs. He didn’t come to my high school graduation because he’d taken a trip to Venezuela, where he swallowed two balloons of heroin. He was caught and arrested in Miami. He was sentenced in the fall of my first year at Columbia University.
He didn’t come to my college graduation because he was too hungover to pull himself out of bed.
I didn’t see my brother for most of my pregnancy. He didn’t come to my baby shower and he didn’t meet my daughter until she was three months old.
My uncle had a dinner for the family in the apartment he shared with his then wife and children. When I arrived, my mother came down to help me. You carry so much when you’re a new mom–the carriage, the diaper bag, your purse, the plastic cover for the carriage in case it rains, the bag with the bottles and formula, the breast pump. So much shit.
Mom met me in the lobby. I started unloading when she said, “Your brother is upstairs.” I felt my chest seize. I clenched my jaw. All I could say was, “No.” I started to repack my things. “Don’t do that,” she said. She put her hand on my shoulder. Her voice was soft. Pleading. I started crying.
My brother was great when he wasn’t on drugs. He was reliable and loving and encouraging. He showed up once to a panel I was on in a library in midtown east by Grand Central. He came to an open mic series I held a few years ago. When I called him to share what was going on in my life and the joy I was feeling, he always told me, “I’m proud of you, sis.” When I called him crying about some fool who had broken my heart, he told me I was worth so much more.
But when Carlos was on drugs, he was a monster. He was manipulative. He stole money. He stole furniture. A radio. A TV. He once stole an entire box of Ensure from my mother’s house and sold it for drugs.
He called my friends and asked them for money. He told them I’d hurt myself and he needed to take a cab to get to me. He sold them the metrocards I bought him, saying he had to buy milk for his son. He disappeared for weeks and months on end.
It’s difficult to admit but during his fifteen years of heroin addiction, my brother affirmed what I’d told myself since I was six up in that tree: that I didn’t want or need anyone. That I could do it all on my own.
This week I made neck bone soup. I always make soup when I’m feeling off. When I need comforting. I taught myself how to make soup a few years ago. This is a ritual I learned from my mother.
My mother is an amazing cook. Whenever people came over, my mother made these elaborate meals: soups and rices and beans and meats, that dripped with her homemade sofrito and all the love she put into them.
My mother doesn’t apologize. What she does is make me my favorite sopa de frijoles. I can’t count the times my aunt has called me to say, “Your mother sent you soup. Come get it.”
When I am feeling tender and am deep in memory, I make soup. This week I made a beef neck bone broth.
The ritual starts the day before and always includes cleaning out the fridge and cupboards as I search to see what I have and what I have to purchase.
Beef neck bone. Beef shin bone-in. Kielbasa sausage. Cilantro. Recao. Scallions. A potato. Yucca. Carrots. Calabaza. A pepper. An onion. Vegetable broth. Fresh garlic. Herbs like parsley and oregano.
At some point, during the process, I will think: We should really clean this fridge more often. and: Oh, that’s where that is. and: I was looking for that. and: We really have to stop buying shit we don’t eat.
I tell myself: I’m going to clean out the fridge more often. I never do.
I make a note of what I need and head to the market.
I love to cook for folks. I’ve had dinner parties where I bake chicken that’s sat in seasoning for two days. I make a huge caldero of arroz con fideos. I make salads and stir fry shrimp. I cut up cheese, make a plate with three different types of cheeses, fruit and crackers. We sit. We eat. We drink. We laugh. We share stories.
I learned this from my mother.
I start the soup early like a true doña. I take out the meat and clean it. I season it with herbs and spices: parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme, comino. I mix. I add the broth and put the meat on the stove on a high flame. I make a note of how much of my family’s comino I have left. I add a bit to everything.
My aunt buys the comino seeds from the Africanas on 125th like my mom would buy it from the Africanas on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick. She roasts the seeds with peppercorn. Then she grinds the mix in the little old school grinder that sits on the shelf over her stove. It’s wood with a handle on top which she turns to grind the seeds she puts in the contraption. What comes out is the ambrosia of the gods. A seasoning I have yet to replicate.
Mental note: get more comino from titi.
I lay out the herbs. I cut up the cilantro and recao. I add them. Next is the celery, scallions, onions and pepper. I crush several garlic cloves and add them as well.
I add the potatoes when the broth starts to boil. I’ve cut it up by now. Half into small pieces so they’ll dissolve and thicken the broth. The other half in chunks.
I cut up the sausage. Add it to the broth that is now simmering on the stove. The house smells like love.
I peel the carrots. Cut them in large pieces so they don’t completely dissolve when I put them in the soup.
I peel the yucca. It took me years but I can finally peel it in a single sleeve. When I’m done, it wraps itself into a tube, the same shape it was when it was coiled tightly around the white tuber I now cut up in chunks and put in the soup.
The calabaza is last. It cooks quickly and dissolves easily.
The story behind the story (because there’s always a story behind these kinds of stories) came to a head this week.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowship application was due this week on March 8th. This year applications were open to prose writers. I walked around with a print out of the information for weeks. I even printed out the how-to-apply guide because this fellowship is notoriously difficult. It also may be the last year that these are available since Trump has put NEA funding on the chopping block. In other words, the grant has been a buzz in the literary community since the information on the deadline was released in December. It’s for $25K, no strings attached. For a woman like me who comes from poverty, that’s real money. That’s I-can-teach-less-and-write-more money. That’s I-can-finish-this-book money. And still, I waited until the last minute to apply. In fact, I’d already decided I wasn’t going to, then I had a dream.
I am a lucid dreamer. I’ve had dreams where I know I’m dreaming. I’ve had dreams where I have a dream inside of a dream. I’ve woken up sweating from nightmares, scared to close my eyes again because I know I’ll inevitably go right back into the dream that I ran from. The dream I had on Monday night was not one of those dreams.
My friend, R, who took his life last summer came to me in the dream. We were in a car, which makes sense because we spent so much time in his car during our friendship. In fact, he’s the one who taught me how to drive. I have a hot foot because of him. We’d get on Route 280 to get to his house in Orange, NJ and he’d say: “You do 90 on this road. Everybody does 90.”
We met when I was a girl of 17, a first year at Columbia University. He was my then boyfriend’s brother. We got close fast. Went to clubs together and hung out together, played handball and rollerbladed all over NYC together. R was the one person crazy enough to join me on my missions from uptown Manhattan to Brooklyn on rollerblades. We saw one another through so many phases in our lives. Break-ups and heartbreaks. We cried together and laughed together and shared so much together. I even introduced him to his wife. Then he betrayed me. I found out that the man I was then involved with was also sleeping with someone I considered a friend. Of course she wasn’t but when you tell yourself you don’t need anyone, that you can do it all alone, you will attract people that are not loyal. People who do things like this: sleep with someone you love. The thing is that R knew. Everyone in the crew knew but me. I was devastated. I bounced because that’s what I did back then–I ran. Our relationship was never the same.
I realized when he took his life that I hadn’t forgiven him. I didn’t cry though I felt his death deeply. See, R talked about taking his life so many times over the years. None of us thought he’d do it, but we weren’t entirely surprised when he did.
I’ve thought so much about him over the past few months. I’ve thought about who we were and how much we shared. I thought about how sad he was. I thought about how hurt and angry I was then and how I took it out on him. I finally apologized to him not too long ago. I told him I was sorry for hurting him the way I did. I was shaking when I said it but I had to: “I’m sorry. I was in a lot of pain then.” He pulled me into his arms and hugged me tight. His hugs were almost painful. Like he wanted to meld your bodies. He whispered, “I know. I love you. I wouldn’t be who I am without you.”
A few years ago doctors discovered that his depression was due to a chemical imbalance in his brain. There was nothing he could do but take meds. R refused to. He was so stubborn. And beautiful. So beautiful. He was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. So why couldn’t I forgive him? I know now that it’s because I hadn’t (and still haven’t) forgiven myself…the young woman I was who was still telling herself: I don’t need anybody. I can do it alone.
In the dream, someone had left me a huge apartment on the top floor of a building downtown in NYC. I remember the floor to ceiling windows and the view of the city with all its lights. There was even a skylight where I could see so many stars. Stars you usually can’t see in NYC. Then I was in a car with R. I remember his sad eyes. The way he stared at me. He kept pushing a quarter into my hands. I kept giving it back but he refused. He didn’t say anything but I knew somehow that he was asking me to forgive him…to forgive myself. I woke up sobbing. The corners of my mouth pulled down into that frown I remember so clearly from when my brother died. There’s something so specific about a frown caused by grief.
It was in the shower the next morning that it came to me: that quarter, 25 cents, was a sign. The NEA is a fellowship for $25K. Oh shit!
Earlier that day, I’d posted on my FB: “I confess that I’m terrible at deadlines. Terrible. I sabotage myself with these things. I say Imma work on something then I don’t because of this and that and the other, and when the deadline passes, I tell myself that I wouldn’t have gotten said grant, residency, etc. anyway so why bother. I know this it that opportunistic mothafucka imposter syndrome. The thing is I don’t know what to do about it.”
I got a lot of supportive messages in response. Folks who offered solidarity and said “me too,” and others who pushed me lovingly to submit that NEA ap. The thing is that when I posted it, I had already resigned myself to not apply. I had convinced myself that it was too late and too difficult, that I couldn’t do and wouldn’t do it, that I wasn’t worthy. One response in particular made me sob. It was from my sister-friend Philly Walls who knows my heart so well.
I invite you to be gentler with yourself, to use gentler language for the things you want to improve upon in your art practice. Is it sabotage to make room for the love you have in your life? Is it sabotage to prioritize and do the hardest part of the equation, the writing itself? Is it sabotage to write 52 essays a year and inspire 500 writers to do the same? Is it sabotage to apply and be accepted to one of the most prestigious writing workshops in the country, with the support of so many people in the caring community you have built and help sustain? Is it sabotage to create and build the Writing Our Lives workshop that has brought many beautiful souls into the NYC and VONA community of writers? Is it sabotage to teach young people who hardly ever see themselves reflected as worthy? Is it sabotage to mother your beautiful daughter, a true gift of a young woman? What other words can you use to acknowledge that you missed a deadline, one that will surely roll around again, one in a constant bounty of deadlines? I’m asking for all of us, sis. How can we be kinder to ourselves while doing this work. How can we stop the negative loops in our heads? And please, whatever you do, stop saying mean things to my friend, the incomparable La Loba. I don’t appreciate it.
Alone by Maya Angelou
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
All of this is say that I got to work on that NEA ap. I submitted it at around 2:30am on March 8th, the day it was due. I pushed and got it in, thanks to my partner who dealt with all my crazy and my daughter who hid in her room because she knows how irritable I get when I’m anxious; who before she went to bed, hugged me and whispered in my ear: “You got this, mom.” Thanks to R and Philly Walls and my homie friends Karissa Chen and Christine Hyung-Oak Lee and Minal Hajratwala and Porochista Khakpour and so many more.
And a special thank you to Lidia Yuknavitch. That same day I wrote: “I have to say this because there’s a difference for me: I am not unmothered because my mother died. She is very much alive. She just can’t mother me because of her own trauma. And, no, I am not motherless. I have a mother. She lives in Brooklyn. I haven’t seen her in months. There is a difference between not being able to talk to or reach out to or be held by your mother because she’s gone. I can’t do that because I don’t feel safe with her. I can’t do that because she’s callous. The truth is if anyone treated me the way my mother does, there’d be hell to pay. I don’t allow people like that in my life. Not anymore. And, yes, that includes my mother. I’m not saying one is more difficult than the other. I am saying that they are different. And they both fuckin suck.”
Lidia responded: “which is why YOU are the one to put this to the page…” I later confessed to her that I was angry when I saw this. It felt heavy. It felt like so much. Too much. I got all up in my feelings. I raged: Why me? Why do I have to carry this? What the fuck, why?
I work hard on not resisting my emotions. I know they’re all there to teach you something. But it’s still hard not to wince at myself when I rage. My anger is hot and consuming and it frightens me. Still, I let myself feel it and once it subsided I was able to see that it’s up to me because it’s me who actually can do it and is already doing it and it’s time to let those stories of being unmothered out into the world. I confessed this to Lidia: “Your comment that it’s up to me to write these stories of the unmothered really hit me hard. It made me tear up. I admit that I got angry because, shit, that’s just so much. I was all up in my feelings. Then I remembered how right you are, and I kicked myself in the ass, and I sat down and started pushing. And I thought of you just after I submitted everything, and said, ‘Yes. I have to do this. I have to do it for all of us unmothered women.’ Yes, it’s a lot. And that’s why I have to do it. Thank you. I needed the reminder. Love and appreciate you so. ”
She responded: “not sorry. for making you angry (or making you tear up). i can take it — your anger — it’s part of your beauty. i won’t flinch. i love you. you got this… and yup. that’s exactly why. for the sea of women who are amongst us; for the wave that is coming.”
There’s something about someone telling you your anger is part of what makes you beautiful. I’m still working on that. That digging is for a later essay…
So what did I learn: 1. That I broke my own heart in many ways by convincing myself that I could do it alone. 2. That this was a survival mechanism, what my therapist would call a “creative adjustment”, that I came up with to help me survive what I endured in my formative years. 3. That behind this story is another story that I’ve been telling myself: that I am not worthy and am not lovable. 4. That it’s time to confront this and work on healing it, and part of healing is realizing that I can (and should) be grateful for the creative adjustment I came up with because it did in fact help me survive, but it’s now time to let it go because it’s done what it was supposed to do and now it’s causing me harm. 5. That Venus retrograde is no joke and she’s real when she pushes you to confront unresolved wounds. 6. That in spite of it all, when it comes down to it, it is up to me to get these stories out for all the unmothered women, to show them that they’re not alone and that they’re seen. It is up to me to hold up that mirror to myself and all of us. And, yes, it’s a lot, and still, I have to do it. Poco a poco. Día a día. Word.
This week was also International Women’s Day. I chose to dedicate the day to my mother, who is somewhere in Brooklyn working at a school, mothering children who aren’t her own and need her. I honor her even through the distance. Trauma takes such a toll on us, our own trauma and the intergenerational shit we carry that isn’t even ours. I know my mother is a wounded woman. I know a lot of my pain stems from her, but so does my relentlessness and my badassness and my unfuckwithableness. Thanks Mom. Signed, your youngest…
*An essay a week in 2017*
Yesterday I saw a video of a whale caught in a fishing net. A boat approaches. They think the humpback is dead. He begins to move. A last ditch effort to save its own life. The people on the boat radio for help. They know the whale won’t make it until help arrives. They must be the help. They begin to cut away at the net with what they have on the boat–a small knife. They cut and cut. The whale begins to move. He is still tangled. They keep cutting. Suddenly the whale gets free. For the next hour it dives and jumps out of the water. It slaps its enormous tail on the water. It hurls its body above the water and splashes back down into the depths. This is its freedom dance.
On Wednesday, in my high school fiction class, we started reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. I got the students, three boys and five girls, to talk about people who have inspired them, like the protagonist Juliet is inspired by Harlowe. I ask: “Have you ever had someone make that big an impression on you? They go around sharing.
One boy says he has no big inspirations. I know him to be a huge comic book fan. He’s a burly fourteen year old with kind eyes and a big heart who is often biting with his jokes. He’s awkward. He’s been bullied. His humor can sometimes sting. I’ve had to remind myself that he is just learning how to be a brown man in this world. The world has already tried to crush him.
I ask: “Well, who introduced you to comic books.”
He smiles with no teeth. Says: “No one did.” Then he shakes his head. “No, my dad did but not through comic books. He introduced me to super heroes. He gave me a whole bunch when I was like five or six. He wanted to see which ones I liked.” I smile. Lean in closer. “And a few years later, I learned that comic books tell the stories of those super heroes.”
“And you were hooked,” I finish for him.
“Yes.” He smiles again. This time he shows teeth.
I move on to a senior I’ve known since she was a ninth grader. Before she went natural and now dons a head of tight brownish blonde curls. She looks at me and smiles with her whole face. “You,” she says and starts to turn the pages of her homemade journal. She folds white papers in half, staples them, seals the cover with clear packing tape. I imagine she has stacks of these at home. “I quote you all the time,” she says. “Last week, you told me…let me see.” She flips through the pages. I see lines of poetry. The beginnings of stories. Anecdotes. Musings about her day. Quotes from the many books she reads, some that I’ve suggested. She’s always reading. She stops on a page. Scans it with her index finger. “Last week I told you something shifted in me. I told you I think I’m more than a poet. You said, and I quote: ‘I’ve been waiting for you to see that. You’re a storyteller.’” She looks at me. Her eyes are welling. I blink hard. I can’t hide the heat in my face. I am all the colors.
“You’re the first person to tell me I’m a writer. To make me believe that I can make a life out of words.” I give her a high five.
I will hug her later. Tell her that I love her. Tell her that I believe in her. She is going to Smith in the fall on full scholarship. She is going to major in creative writing. I tell her: “You are light years ahead of where I was at your age. Just keep doing the work. Keep writing and pushing yourself. You got this.”
Later that evening, I cried at a comic shop after hugging and congratulating my sister friend homie Gabby Rivera on her first comic book outing, America #1, published by Marvel. There was a line out of the door for her signing, yo!
On Tuesday evening I went to a screening at the UN of the documentary AfroLatinos: The Untaught Story written by my Comadre Iyawó Alicia Anabel Santos, produced by Renzo Devia. The room was packed!
It hit me in the back of the comic shop on Fulton how very proud I am of these two glorious women who mean so very much to me and are amongst the best humans I’ve known. To say that I am proud does not suffice. I was moved to big fat tears, and just as I was about to apologize, I remembered what Lidia Yuknavitch said during workshop at Tin House: “Never apologize for your tears. My Lithuanian grandmother used to say that crying was the only language she trusted because it was the language of the body.”
I think of the inscription Gabby wrote in my copy of her novel: “We are the revolution.” Indeed.
I have a hard time accepting compliments. I have a hard time hearing that I have inspired and motivated and been an integral part of someone’s journey. I have seen these two talented women grow and evolve. We have gone through changes together. There were moments where it was too much to be in each other’s lives, so we weren’t. And then we came back. We’ve shared joy and tears. We’ve shared writing and stories. We’ve sat in classes together. We’ve workshopped each other’s work. They’ve both participated in my Writing Our Lives Workshops.
I tremble as I write this. I want to explain that I’m not taking credit for their accomplishments. I am acknowledging that we have been part of each other’s journeys. I want to say that I don’t know if I’d be where I am had I not met and loved them. I want you to know how much they feed and inspire me; that they are integral parts of my life and my evolution.
I remember when Iyawó told me she Renzo had invited her to tour Latin America and the Caribbean to work on the documentary. I remember when she started preparing for the months on the road and when she left. I talked to her from so many places across the globe. Me here in NYC, being a single mom, working and writing and trying to build a life for myself. Her in Haiti and DR and Brazil and Colombia and Honduras and…
I remember when Gabby told me about this book she was writing. I remember when she shared that Juliet came to her in my first Writing Our Lives class, in the petri dish class. I’ve often thought that that class was a failure. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still figuring it all out. You learn so much in the journey…
In her essay collection Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat writes: “All artists, writers among them, have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them.”
Imposter syndrome has been sinking its claws deep into me this week. It’s nothing new. The feelings of unworthiness have walked with me for most of my life. If I look at the root of it, at where it comes from, I know it comes from my mother. Here’s the thing: a part of me feels guilt over this, over this writing I’ve done about my mother, over calling myself unmothered, over not being able to tell people that I have a great relationship with my mom, that she is my foundation and my church, that all things go back to the altar of la madre.
We texted a few days ago. It ended like it usually does: I am left reeling and questioning and wondering: if so many people love me, why can’t you? Why can’t you love me, mom? Why?
I am tired of feeling that. This shit is exhausting…and yet, here I am. Writing it. Again.
In her forecast for this week’s Venus retrograde, Chani Nicholas writes for Sagittarius:
Get to know what you are capable of. Don’t back down from it. Refuse to diminish it. Own it without arrogance, but with an unwavering acknowledgement of its magnificence.
Consider all that you have learned about your creative, erotic energy over the past 8 years. Which love affairs were your greatest teachers then? What did you learn from them? How have you healed? How do you approach this aspect of your life differently now? What were you learning about your creative energy then? What projects were your biggest teachers? How did you approach them then? How do you approach your creative work now?
The last two weeks of Venus’s retrograde ask you to sink deep below the surface of things. They get to the root of why you feel worthy and unworthy. Desirable and undesirable. Connected and disconnected. They scour the base of your energetic reservoirs, your creative wells, your oceans of imagination for clues as to what may have entered your streams of consciousness, telling you that you aren’t what you are. They ask you to heal the old wounds. Flush out the poisons from childhood. Cleanse the systems that were put in place by familial patterns so that you can better honor the gifts that you have received from the gods. ~ChaniNicholas.com
Over the past two days, I’ve found found myself searching for unmothered womyn like me. I’ve searched their names, their stories, their poems. I’ve been looking to feel less alone in the world. I need to see words like mine. Words that dare to speak our truths about our mothers. Words that chip away at the mother myth with a sledgehammer.
I reached out to folks on FB: Emily Dickinson’s poem Chrysallis inspired the title of my memoir. My sister friend Elisabet told me the other day that Dickinson was very much unmothered like us. I did not know this. There’s something about knowing I’m not alone in this that has gifted me much solace. All this is to say that I want to know more about Dickinson’s relationship with her mother. And if there’s any other unmothered woman writer that you think I should know and read, please do share. Yes this is me searching for roots. I am willing to be vulnerable and share that. There is no shame in our wounds.
In my research, I discovered that I am indeed not alone. There is nothing like learning that you are not alone in your ghosts and obsessions…
In a letter to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson wrote: “Could you tell me what home is. I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” Source: Classic Lit
Virginia Woolf’s mother died when she was thirteen years old. She writes in her autobiographical fragments Moments of Being: “Until I was in [my] forties”—until she’d written To the Lighthouse—“the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings. She was one of the invisible presences who after all play so important a part in every life.”…
And once it was written, Woolf noticed, “I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Why? The question haunted Woolf. “Why, because I described her and my feeling for her in that book, should my vision of her and my feeling for her become so much dimmer and weaker? Perhaps one of these days I shall hit on the reason.” Source: The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life
Woolf would later call her mother’s death “the greatest disaster that could happen.”
Her hatred of Aurelia Plath is an ongoing obsession, which she examines from every angle. Her journals describe a moment with a psychiatrist she is seeing in London:
Ever since Wednesday I have been feeling like a ‘new person.’ Like a shot of brandy went home, a sniff of cocaine, hit me where I live and I am alive and so-there. Better than shock treatment: ‘I give you permission to hate your mother.’
‘I hate her, doctor.’ So I feel terrific. In a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother. …
But although it makes me feel good as hell to express my hostility for my mother, frees me from the Panic Bird on my heart and my typewriter (why?) I can’t go though life calling RB up from Paris, London, the wilds of Maine long-distance: “Doctor, can I still hate my mother?’ ‘Of course you can: hate her hate her hate her.’ ”
“Daddy” is remarkable for its startling rage, its mad fury. One critic described it as “assault and battery.” But if one delves into Plath’s violent or murderous fantasies over time, they seem to be centered around her mother, rather than her father. For instance she wrote a short story, “Tongues of Stone,” in 1955 about a girl who wants to strangle her mother, and throughout her life, she reports dreams or visions like one of her mother with her eyes cut out, and another of biting her mother’s arm. In her journals she writes succinctly: “An almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself.”
She writes again and again in her journals about banging up against her mother as a constant impediment to her work, her happiness. “Nothing I do … can change her way of being with me which I experience as a total absence of love.”
They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.
Merriam-Webster’s defined unmothered as: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered woman. ~excerpt from “They Call Her Saint”, A Dim Capacity for Wings, a memoir by Vanessa Mártir
I remember finding the term unmothered and how shocked I was by it. More than anything I was shocked by the realization that I wasn’t alone in my suffering and there were other people out there like me, who walked unanchored in this life. I wanted to read more work by and for us. I’ve searched high and low for it. I’ve reached out to mentors and friends for suggestions and recommendations. What has this made me realize? That I want to, have to, will one day compile an anthology of work by and for us unmothered women. An anthology of poetry and fiction and essays. I will create this for womyn like me to see that they’re not alone. That we see them. That there is refuge. There is something about seeing yourself in literature that is so profound and comforting. This is also true for the unmothered who have been living with the mother myth for so long, who have been told “solo hay una madre,” who have seen people gasp and clutch their pearls when they dare to speak of their mothers honestly, to show that she is not what the myth said, she wasn’t loving, she wasn’t kind, she broke you in so many ways… And here we are picking up the pieces. Let me show you how this shard glints in the moonlight. Let me hold up that mirror, sis. Let me show you what solidarity looks like…
In his essay “Finding Abigail” Chris Abani writes: “Ghosts leave their vestigial traces all over your work. Once they have decided to haunt you, that is. These ectoplasmic moments litter your work for years. They are both the veil and the revelation, the thing that leads you to the cusp of the transformational.”
To be clear, there is no pride in me saying I am unmothered. This is a wound I walk with. I just decided that there is no shame in it either. This is my truth. This is me coming to terms with my existence. This is me seeing you. This is me telling you that for far too long we have carried this, telling ourselves that there must be something wrong with us because how could a mother not want to mother and be tender to her child? Mother is earth. Mother is the world. And to say that mother is wrong or incapable is to say that the world is wrong and incapable, and how could that be? It can’t…right? Wrong. There is nothing wrong with you now as there was nothing wrong with you then, when you saw your mother sneer at you, hatred pulling at the corners of her eyes. This was her pain. This was her trauma. That is not yours. You, I, we are worthy of love. We are lovable. It has been a journey to see that and own it. And some days I still struggle to see it and be it. But today you saw me. You said, yes. You said, me too. This healing ain’t easy but you must name your ghosts before you can tackle them. Mother is not the enemy. She just is what the world made her. What are you going to do with that unmothered wound? Me? Imma make art and I’m gonna love and Imma mother in resistance to how I was mothered. This is what I have and it is everything.
Kintsugi (“golden joinery”) or kintsukuroi (“golden repair”) is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates the artifact’s unique history by emphasizing the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing the artifact with new life. Kintsugi art dates back to the late 15th century, making it more than 500 years old. It is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which calls for finding beauty in the flawed or imperfect. The repair method was also born from the Japanese feeling of mottainai, which expresses regret when something is wasted. Source: My Modern Met
I started therapy a year ago. My first words to him were: “I am an unmothered woman.” I am still in therapy, still digging into that wound. What I’ve come to is this: there are people who have mothered me in ways my mother couldn’t and still can’t. I am grateful for those surrogate mothers every single day. I had my Millie and I had my brother and so many others who reminded me that I am loved and lovable. They taught me that I can be different. That I can use these scars to make something beautiful out of this life I was given, that I have made. And, no, I didn’t do it alone. And, yes, I can stop the cycle. And there is also the bittersweet realization that I wouldn’t be who I am nor would I be able to do what I do, see you and be with you and be the mother and writer and teacher and student that I am, had I been mothered. See, it’s true in many ways que solo hay una madre, and that’s why I am still wounded by this truth of being unmothered. So the decision is: be broken by it or let it be my fuel. I didn’t know that I made the decision when I left at 13 and didn’t look back. I didn’t have the language then but shit, that girl somehow knew she had to save her own life. I’ve been doing it ever since. Even when I fucked up. Even when I repeated the “love me, please love me” cycle I learned from my mother. I was then and now still trying to save my own life. I was trying to see the glint of the moon in these shards. Today I want to say thank you to that 13 year old Vanessa. You are my hero, nena. You be the illest.
I have family on my FB friends list who don’t get why I write what I write or why I do the work I do. I see you. You’ve had a different experience with my mother or you don’t want to look at your own wounds or you’d rather I stay silent because you’re more interested in protecting the family name and keeping these secrets that don’t protect any us. I get it in many ways. I still won’t be silent. Don’t ask me to be. I’ve thought this through. I know I may hurt some people in my journey to heal and free myself of these ghosts. Yes, I think it’s worth all of it. Why? Because the cycle stops here. It has to. Silence already killed my brother. There can be no more casualties.
A little a while ago, as if to remind me again, a post came across my FB. The article starts: “How did Marcia Butler, the distinguished oboist, save herself from a detached, withholding mother and a sexually abusive father?… But Marcia was also hooked on trying to understand her mother. ‘I cobbled together weekly rituals through which I might pretend to be close to her and imaginatively pierce her thick veneer,’ she writes.”
So many of us are broken by our wounds. Some of us have somehow found a way to overcome and be fed by them. This is one story. I am writing mine.
[Woolf] was shocked by her [mother’s] death, but then again Woolf believed it was her “shock-receiving capacity” that “makes me a writer.” She thought the productive thing to do with a shock was to “make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.” The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life
*An essay a week in 2017*
My partner got me a DNA testing kit for Christmas. It’s been sitting on my bedside table for two months.
I can’t count how many times I’ve lied in bed looking at that DNA test kit box. I read the directions weeks ago. I placed the box amongst the stack of books (always books) I keep next to my bed. I wondered if I’d done that on purpose. This week I realized that I subconsciously did.
I went online to register the test and was prompted to do a family tree. It was basically a visual of how little I know about my family history. I don’t know my mother’s father’s last name. I don’t my father’s parents names. I don’t know what year my father was born.
I’m triggered as fuck.
My mother and I haven’t spoken in months. I can’t remember when was the last time I saw her. I know it was sometime last fall. I know I was nervous to see her.
Our communications have been via text message. A random and sporadic, “Have a good day. God bless you.”
Today I learned that a friend’s mom is having heart surgery that she may not survive, but the surgery is the only thing that can possibly save her. I thought of my mother. I texted her. She responded with surprise. Sent me a side eye emoticon when I told her I missed her. I thought it was hilarious. Told me she was lonely. Invited me over to eat my favorite bean soup. I was already lying on my couch. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere today. I told her I wasn’t feeling well. Asked if she wanted to plan a visit. It spiraled from there.
I was reminded of why I don’t reach out to her: I can’t trust her with my heart.
My sister flipped out on me on Christmas and we haven’t spoken since. Yes, I ended up flipping out on her too but that’s a story for another time.
My father died nine days after I turned eight. I’m not much in touch with his family other than occasional likes on fb statuses and a few of them reaching out to me about something I said about my dad that they didn’t like.
I’m longing for roots. I am searching for them as best as I know how right now.
Yesterday my partner Katia told me that though my mother and I don’t have a relationship, she is still my roots. We were in the car driving downtown. I looked out onto the NYC traffic and felt the car grow smaller around me. “No,” I said. “Roots hold a tree up and keep it from toppling. Roots take nutrients from the soil to feed the tree. Roots sustain.” I looked at her, my partner, this woman who loves me like I’ve never been loved. “My mother is not my roots.” Katia navigated through the cars on 6th Avenue. “I see what you’re saying,” she said.
I am searching for roots. I know that now.
What does being unmothered look like for me?
I traveled quite a bit over the past few weeks for this writing life I created for myself. I am doing what I dreamed of–traveling for my writing, to run workshops, to facilitate workshops, to share craft talks, to be a student. I didn’t call my mother once during these trips. I didn’t text to tell her I arrived safely. I didn’t reach out to share how much I was enjoying myself, how much I learned working with one of my literary icons Lidia Yuknavitch. I didn’t call her when I got into Tin House for the second year in a row. She never called me either.
I didn’t tell her when I moved in with my partner last year.
I didn’t call her when I had to go to the ER with exacerbated asthma last January.
I didn’t call her when my yearly pap showed abnormal results. I didn’t call her to tell her about how I couldn’t sleep until I saw the doctor. I didn’t call to tell her the relief I felt when my doctor said it was minor and antibiotics for three days would heal me right up. I didn’t tell her that I cried.
I don’t call to tell her that I miss her or am thinking of her. Even though I do…all the time.
I didn’t feel comfortable calling to ask for her help with filling out my family tree; to ask what year my father was born or to get the names of his parents, my grandparents, or to get her father’s last name.
Being unmothered means something inside of me collapses when I read posts and essays and poems about how great someone’s mom is, how supportive and loving and how “I’d be nothing without her.” Being unmothered means envying that.
It means I hide out on Mother’s Day. It means having to tell my partner I can’t go with her family to Mother’s Day brunch. It means she will find me in a ball on the couch when she gets home with flowers. She will try to console me. She knows she can’t but she will try. She loves me that much.
Being unmothered and, yes, unfathered (I wrote this for the first time today), means I often feel unrooted and unachored in the world. It means that I cringe inside when I see mothers walking and laughing and sharing with their grown daughters. It means that few things can unhinge me like watching a father giggle with his daughter.
It means a feeling of helplessness on some days that makes me want to hide from the world. I become irritable and quiet. I struggle to get out of bed. It is sadness. A sadness that is a hollow in my chest where my parents should be. It is loss. It is the wound that is the root of all my wounds.
It is why I am writing my memoir. Why I’ve been trying to write it for ten years. Why I am trying to make art out of my pain. It is me looking at my life, at the girl I was who climbed up into that plum tree to watch her mother in the garden. At the little girl who decided she was going to leave at 13, the girl who was willing to take her chances away from everything she knew and loved. And the girl who repeated the “love me, please, love me” cycle she learned from her mother. And the woman who became a mother and finally became a writer because it was always the only thing that felt right and true and where I felt like I had some sort of control over my life. And the woman who lost her brother and reeled into the darkest place in her life and learned there that she had to heal that primordial wound that is the wound of all wounds–my relationship with my mother. It’s nonexistence.
I am examining myself as a mother who parents in resistance to the way she was mothered… I am looking at all the bodies I’ve lived in, all the girls and women I’ve been…to how I’ve gotten here, not healed but definitely not an open cicatrix.
And still, there are days when I feel like an orphan. This week has been one of those weeks. I had no idea that a simple DNA test would have that effect but it just be like that sometimes.
Years ago, over breakfast at AWP in Boston, my mentor and friend Chris Abani said to me: “Vanessa, redemption is easy. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” This DNA testing is another way of me restoring myself, my roots…or at least trying to.
It is taking a lifetime.
Once, during my senior year in boarding school, in my philosophy class, I said: “I think humans by nature are inherently evil.” We were having a discussion about human nature. I remember one of my classmate’s faces when I said it. A brown haired senior with dark eyes like mine, he stared at me open mouthed. “No, I don’t think that’s true.”
“You mean you can’t believe that’s true,” I said.
That’s when he closed his mouth, swallowed his lips and looked down at his desk. His notebook was open. A pen on the notebook was still uncapped. He’d been taking notes. His glasses lay next to the notebook.
When class was done, he walked out without looking at me.
My teacher, a kind eyed Mr. Kerivan who that year introduced me to Joseph Campbell, asked, “You really believe that, Vanessa?” He was sitting at his desk, leaning back on his chair, his hands folded over his stomach. The chalkboard behind him was scribbled with notes.
I shrugged, finished packing up and walked out. He stared at me the entire time.
I don’t believe humans are evil by nature. I can’t believe that anymore. What changed? I started looking at myself…
I want to see and know myself and the genes that make me, me. Was there an artist in my lineage who was also lured by story and words? Did she stare at her face and wonder whose eyes she had? The long nose? The long chin? The dark hair that’s started to grey on the right temple. Long strands that stick up when she ties it back.
Does she wonder about those that walk with her? Whose memories are in her chemistry…her memories. They visit her in dreams. They are around a campfire. A drum beats in rhythm to her chanting. She is rocking herself as she tells the stories of her grandmothers and her grandmother’s grandmothers. It is done in song. In ritual.
I am lost without those rituals. I am trying to reclaim them. These stories of my ancestors and their ancestors.
These memories are tied like chords into my helix. This lives in me. In the chemicals that make up my DNA. In the adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine.
They are chords like on a guitar. Except there is no guitar on which to play them. To hear their melody. I am trying to build that guitar with my hands. These hands that my Millie called “manos de madera.” If they are wood then surely they can conjure this wood I need to make my instrument.
I have to believe that. What else do I have?
It’s been proven that trauma can be carried from generation to generation in your genes.
Some Native Americans believe that our actions affect the seven generations in both directions. Think about that enormity of this. The possibilities. If I carry the trauma of my ancestors, it follows that I also carry their wisdom, yes? Can my healing help heal the seven generations that will come after me? And those that came before? Does it matter?
I have to believe that it does. I have a daughter. So much of my journey is to save her from carrying what I’ve had to…
It’s said that the brain can reformat itself. If you’re persistent, work relentlessly, the brain will be forced to build new neural pathways thus shifting your thoughts, beliefs… if only the heart could do that?
In her essay “Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors” by Dr. Judith Rich writes:
As you step to the front of the line in your ancestry, the energy they embodied has been passed on and is now expressing as you and those of your current generation in the lineage. As you transform, the energy of the entire lineage preceding you is transformed, for it is all happening now through you, as you. You are the one who can heal old wounds for your entire lineage, forgive old enemies, shift conditioning and beliefs, release pain that has held preceding generations captive for centuries.
This is the gift you bring them, for as they departed, they left behind the residue of their unfinished business, passed down through the ages, held in place by the unspoken family agreement to perpetuate it — that is, up until now. And now it’s your turn. Bringing completion to prior generations and setting up what happens for future generations now depends on you.
If this sounds like a huge responsibility, it’s because it is…but I’m carrying this anyway, right? Their traumas. I am unmothered because my mother is unmothered. There is a long history of trauma in the women in my family. Histories of rape and abuse and hunger and suffering, most that I don’t know but I feel. I feel acutely.
I felt it yesterday morning when I had a full on anxiety attack. I felt crazy. I was pacing and barely breathing and fighting the incredible urge to lash out and scream and yell and cry cry cry.
When I described it later, I likened it to The Hell Hole, a ride in Coney Island that I used to love when I was a kid. The ride operates on centrifugal force. You stand against the wall when the center unit starts to spin. The force pins you against the wall. You can’t move. If you try to move your head, it’s snapped back so hard your neck aches. Then the bottom falls out.
That’s what the anxiety attack felt like, and no matter what I did–tried to breathe and remind myself of where I was, tried to ground myself–nothing worked. Nothing.
I locked myself in my writing room and prayed and burned palo santo. I crumbled to the floor, put my first in my mouth and screamed a quiet scream that felt like it could shatter glass. I grabbed my crystals and stones and my Indio that stared and said, “take me with you today.” That’s when I felt the anxiety start to ebb. It slipped slowly and quietly out and off of me.
I know that shit is only partly mine. I know so much of that pain is ancient. And I know I have to do what I can to heal it…to heal me.
The only part I miss of my old hood is Inwood Hill Park. We drove by it on our way downtown yesterday morning. From the highway you can see one of the paths I hiked hundreds of times. I know where it starts and where it ends, how it snakes under the highway in two areas, the tunnels underneath that would make for great photo shoots. If you chased me into the park, I’d know how to get away easily.
I read that plants and trees have their own communication system through their roots.
No tree is an island, and no place is this truer than the forest. Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web.
The connections are made by the filaments of fungi that grow in and around plant roots and produce many of the forest mushrooms we know and love. They bond trees so intimately that the more you learn about them, the more it is a struggle to view any tree as an individual. Forest trees and their root fungi are more or less a commune in which they share resources in a fashion so unabashedly socialist that I hesitate to describe it in detail lest conservatives reading this go out and immediately set light to the nearest copse. ~Scientific American
In his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” Peter Wohlleben, a career forest ranger, shares scientific evidence that proves that trees can keep the stumps of long-felled companion trees alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. No one knows why.
For a long time I thought (hoped?) that when I got here, living this life I dreamt of, I would feel fulfilled. That I wouldn’t still feel unrooted. How could I feel this if I’m living this dream? If I’m doing what I dreamt when I was up in that plum tree telling myself stories 35 years ago. And yet, here I am. I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. One by one. And yes there’s more to be done but the point is how far I’ve come from that girl I was who shared a room with her sister and brother in that railroad style apartment in Bushwick.
When I told my mother that I was quitting my editing job to live this writing and teaching life, she said: “If there’s one thing I know about you, when you say you’re gonna do something, you do it.” But there’s one thing I haven’t been able to do–think of her and not wither.
Yes, I’ve healed so much of my pain. I am no longer a raw open oozing wound. But I still hurt over being unmothered and so much of the way I move in the world stems from that wound.
This week a writer friend offered to help me with a project that has become mammoth and overwhelming. She gave me a step by step layout and even gave me homework. She made it manageable so I thought, “yes, I can do this.” When I thanked her, she put her hand on mine and said: “you do so much. You deserve this.” I bit my lip so she wouldn’t see it tremble.
I give easily. Often to my detriment. I’m learning not to be so self-sacrificial.
It is hard for me to receive though. It is hard to accept help. To ask for it is nearly impossible. And yet, when I do, it comes in open armed waves. People are so willing to offer help. They say: “Here. Take it. It’s yours.”
My brujermana shared what a teacher told her once: “not being able to receive is a need for control. You are in control when you give. When you receive you are not.”
What am I trying to control? The guilt that comes in swiftly. The feelings that I am not deserving. The worry that just maybe if I accept, I will see what they see in me and I will realize that it’s me fooling myself, that I am not undeserving, I am in fact worthy, I am loved and lovable; I work hard, I work smart, I care so much about what I do and how I do it, I deserve all the love and goodness…
Then why do I feel an acrid taste at the back of my throat like I want to throw up?
Is it the realization that I’m the fool? That it’s me who is wrong…or it is more of my shit coming up? And how is it that I can manage to make even a beautiful, affirming message coming in into something self-deprecating?
I watched the movie Arrival today. I keep hearing these lines: “If all I gave you was a hammer…everything is a nail.”
What if you could see into the future? Would you change anything? Or would you just try to reinterpret your story in a new way?
I can’t see into the future. I can only look at the past, my emotional truth in it. And I can try to reinterpret my story that way. And so I write it. I write all of it. It’s what I have…
*An essay a week in 2017*
On Sunday I finally landed from my last of 4 trips over 5 weeks: Minneapolis where I helped run VONA’s regional program on the ground in conjunction with The Loft Literary Center; Newport Beach, Oregon for a Tin House NonFiction workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch; AWP in DC where I was on a panel; & finally a gig at The Center for Women Writers in North Carolina this past weekend.
I was out on my deck looking at the night sky when it hit me: this swelling in my chest that felt like a lightening; a pulling in my cheeks that made a toothless smile appear and soon I was giggling at myself. I sat with this strange feeling when it hit me: it was pride I was feeling. I told my partner. She said: “You should be proud, babe. And this is just the beginning.”
Then came the discomfort. Pride feels self-lauding and congratulatory. The shame set in quickly. The who the fuck do you think you are? The: you have no right to be proud. You shouldn’t be proud. Pride ain’t ever a good thing, girl. Como te atrevez? Te crees gran mierda pero no lo eres. Bring yourself down a few notches, girl. Stop being so full of yourself.
Google defines pride as:
- a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. “the team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory” Synonyms include: pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, “take pride in a good job well done”
- a group of lions forming a social unit.
- be especially proud of a particular quality or skill. “she’d always prided herself on her ability to deal with a crisis” — synonyms: be proud of, be proud of oneself for, take pride in, take satisfaction in, congratulate oneself on, pat oneself on the back for, “Lucas prides himself on his knowledge of wine”
Where does pride live in your body? It lives in my chest. It feels light. Like the weight of never feeling like I’m enough is lifted. It feels like accomplishment. It feels like I finally feel worthy and capable. It is so damn fleeting.
I used to imagine this life. I used to wish for it: the travel, the meeting people, the writing and learning and sharing love and heart and stories. I used to wish for it so hard. The wishing make me work my ass off. I quit the safety net of a full time editing job to live this life. I risked so much: financial security, knowing where my next check was coming from, how I was going to pay the bills, the rent, the light, money to fill the fridge. There were days when I had to decide whether to pay the light or buy food for me and my little girl. I’ve gotten eviction notices. I’ve defaulted on my student loans. There were so many times when I couldn’t afford to go anywhere that required money so we spent a lot of time in the park, on the grass, sandwiches and fruit in my knapsack. That’s how much, how bad I wanted this. For me. For us. Me and baby girl.
People have called me irresponsible. What do I see? I see a woman who showed her daughter what it takes to live your dreams. I showed my daughter that she too can live her dreams if she is willing to work for it. She has learned some valuable lessons from her mama.
I know this life isn’t meant for everyone. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of talking to folks to realize just how risky it was.
At AWP, a friend whose memoir was recently released told me how much she sacrificed to make this life happen for herself. When she got her book deal, she was months behind on her mortgage payments. She was near foreclosure. But she knew she had to write this book. She just had to. It was a burning inside of her that would turn her into ash if she didn’t. So she did, and she got a fantastic two-book deal to make it happen. “You’re doing everything you need to do, Vanessa.” she said, outside of a bar where we had just rubbed elbows with agents and publishers, some who were interested in seeing my work and some who were dismissive and gross. (Let’s just say I walked out of there knowing the type of person I want to represent me and the type I don’t.) “Keep going. You’re on your way. You will have all of this. All of it,” my friend said. My eyes welled. I let the tears fall as I stared at the traffic on that downtown D.C. avenue. I didn’t know how badly I needed to hear those words. I know now that I did.
I thought of this as I felt the mixture of pride and shame that made my stomach turn sour. I wondered: Why can’t I be proud of myself? Why can’t I say “I did this” and it not feel like I need to bring myself down a notch? Is that the internalized outside gaze? Whose gaze? Who made me feel this shame? And how can I convert it into action? What can I generate from this? Can I turn it into an acceptance of this pride that I know I deserve and have earned?
Christian theology says pride is one of the deadly sins. St. Augustine wrote: “It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
According to DeadlySins.com:
“The sin of Pride is said by some to be the foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins. Hubris is the gateway through all other sins enters the mortal soul.”
What it is: “Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.”
The punishment in Hell: “You’ll be broken on the wheel.”
Woah. That’s some heavy shit right there.
I write about the human experience. As such, when thinking about pride this week, I started digging into my own life and the moments I was robbed of my pride. I started a list that I’m sure will grow as I continue to dig into this wound.
At my graduation dinner from Columbia University, while still draped in my graduation gown, the Columbia crown stitched into the lapel, my mother told me she knew I wasn’t going to do shit with my life (“Yo sabía que no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida”) when I told her I wasn’t going to law school. She slammed her fork down on the table so hard, it shook.
I have never regretted that decision.
In 8th grade, I came home excited from a dance performance. I’d finally earned a solo in an interpretive dance piece we did for the Black History Month celebration. I remember the poem started: “What shall I tell my children who are black…” (Thanks to google, I now know it’s a poem by Dr. Margaret Burroughs.)
Within minutes of arriving, my sister reminded me that I was “retarded” and “still ain’t shit.” I remember her curled lip and how she looked down at me from her top bunk. My sister has always been quick to be the needle to burst my bubble whenever I’ve felt good about myself or something I’d accomplished.
On Christmas, the last time I spoke to her, she told me my writing was bullshit and my followers are bullshit. When I told her that she is so much the reason for why I’m a writer because as a kid all I wanted was to be like her, she said: “I don’t give a fuck why you’re a writer, Vanessa.” I’ve saved the textument. I am quoting her verbatim.
A college professor once gave us the assignment of writing about someone we knew growing up. I wrote about Teresa, the neighborhood crackhead, and how fragile and beautiful she was. I was proud of that piece. I was so young, just 18 or 19, trying my hand at writing, and I was looking for support, encouragement. When the professor handed back the piece, he told me “this isn’t writing,” and he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it.
Aristotle considered pride to be a virtue. Neel Burton writes on his blog:
A person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate, for pride implies greatness. In terms of the vices, a person who thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them is vain, whereas a person who thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous. Compared to vanity, pusillanimity is both commoner and worse, and so more opposed to pride.
It’s often so easy to write about the difficult things we’ve experienced in life. But what about the joy? What about the times my pride was reinforced? What about the times that I was encouraged to be proud of myself and all that I’d accomplished? I think of my brother…
A few years ago, I was flown down to Atlanta when a book I co-wrote won an award. I called my brother from the veranda of the posh hotel I was put up in by the organizers of the Decatur Book Festival. It was right across the road from Emory College, and every morning I sat outside under the sun to eat a custom made omelet. I called my brother on one of those mornings. “I’m having breakfast on a veranda, bro! This is some All My Children shit.” He laughed: “What the fuck is a veranda?” Me: “I don’t know but I’m sitting on one.” We laughed so hard. Before we hung up, he said: “I’m proud of you, sis. You doing it.” He always told me he was proud of me. When I came home with good grades. When I got into boarding school and Columbia. When I wrote my first book. When I went to my first VONA and the four times I attended after. He was always the first one to say it and often the only one.
From what I can tell, there is a difference between the pride deemed a sin in Christian texts and the pride Aristotle called a virtue. The former is more about vanity; the arrogant, megalomaniac type, where the person is obsessed with himself and his power. The pride Aristotle refers to is earned pride in oneself and one’s work. A pride that is not all consuming but connected to self-worth and the work one does out in the world. A pride that encourages the person to continue producing.
In my research on pride, I found a fascinating article on Psychology Today called Pride and Creativity: How pride is pride related to creative achievement?
“You received a score of 124 out of 147, which is the 94th percentile. Great job on that! That’s one of the highest scores we’ve seen so far!”
When Lisa Williams and David DeSteno told this to their participants, they noticed a significant increase in perseverance on a difficult cognitive task. This intrigued them, so they fiddled with the dials to see what was going on. When they took out the “Great job” part and just told the participants they performed exceptional, they saw no increase in perseverance. When they put people in a generally positive mood by having them look at pleasant pictures, such as a wedding and a tropical landscape—again, no increase in perseverance. What was it about this particular phrasing that increased motivation?
The winning phrasing was effective because it activated one of our most deeply-rooted emotions: pride. Pride is receiving a lot of research attention these days, as researchers are increasingly realizing its potency. In a recent study, David Matsumoto and Hyi Sung Hwang distinguish pride from triumph, another deeply-rooted human emotion. Participants were in strong agreement about what pride looks like:
Pride may have evolved to motivate people to achieve social status in a socially valued domain. This emotion emotion is not just any feel-good emotion though. Pride particularly makes people feel good about themselves. Children are quick to associate pride with domains in which they feel competent, and are driven to further pursue those domains. In contrast, those who continually receive negative feedback in a domain quickly lose their motivation for achieving in that domain.
But here’s the paradox: pride is correlated with both positive and negative social consequences. Pride has always received mixed reviews. The ancient Greeks viewed pride as “the crown of the virtues” whereas the early Christian philosophers viewed pride as the “deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins”. Pride is quite the polarizing emotion!
To reconcile these different conceptualizations of pride, researchers have found it useful distinguishing between two different shades of pride: authentic and hubristic.
Authentic pride is fueled by the emotional rush of accomplishment, confidence, and success, and is associated with prosocial and achievement-oriented behaviors, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and positive mental health. Authentic pride is also associated with genuine self-esteem, which is high self-esteem controlling for narcissism. Authentic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment may facilitate behaviors that are associated with attaining prestige. People who are confident, agreeable, hard-working, energetic, kind, empathic, non-dogmatic, and high in genuine self-esteem would draw inspiration from others and would want to be emulated by others.
Hubristic pride, on the other hand, is fueled by arrogance and conceit, and is associated with anti-social behaviors, rocky relationships, low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of disagreableness, neuroticism, narcissism, and poor mental health outcomes. Hubristic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of superiority and arrogance, may facilitate dominance by motivating behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and manipulation…
No one said creativity is simple, or has a single cause. People may take different paths to the same outcome. At any rate, one thing is clear: pride plays an important role in fueling creativity.
Why can’t you be proud of what you’ve accomplished and the work you do without someone calling you arrogant or saying you should temper it? What’s wrong with feeling pride when you’ve struggled so much to get where you are, to create a life for yourself in spite of the odds and numerous obstacles? And what’s with this shaming when you say you’re proud? What’s this shame we impose on ourselves? Where does it come from? How can we push back on it and remind ourselves that pride in one’s work is a beautiful thing? You should be proud of what you do and how you exist in the world. I’m talking about a healthy dose of pride, whatever that means to you. Not the pride that makes you think you’re better than people. Not the pride that keeps you from helping others. Not the pride that makes you think people owe you something or should look up to you. Nah. I’m talking about pride in what you do, in your grind, in your accomplishments. Pride that will keep you doing the necessary, important work that will hopefully make this world a better place. That kind of pride.
During her lecture at AWP, Jacqueline Woodson said that even today, after having written 32 books and receiving countless accolades in the form of awards and prizes, she still wakes up some days amazed that she’s a writer. She said she can hardly believe it sometimes.
This begs the question: can you be humble and also be proud of the work you do and know its importance in the world? I think so. The thing is, we often have teach ourselves how to be. We’ve been taught as women, especially as women of color, to be humble to the point of self-deprecation, but if I can’t be proud of what I’ve accomplished, of having created this life for myself, then how can I teach my students to be proud of the work they do, of how they push themselves to dig deeper into themselves and their stories? How can I teach my daughter to be proud of her fabulousness, of being so talented and compassionate and such a hard worker, if I don’t show her that I am of her? That I am proud of myself? Our kids learn by impersonation.
This is my promise to myself: I will work on being proud of how far I’ve gotten, as an unmothered woman who had to learn to become a woman and mother through trial and error. A woman who lives and loves in resistance to the way she was taught in her formative years. I will work on being able to take compliments and being gracious when they come in instead of cringing and wanting to run and hide. I will work on opening my heart to receiving the beautiful recognitions people gift me via notes and emails and face to face gushing that makes me blush. I will work on being a better, more accepting of love, Vanessa. Why do I say this? Because I realize that this is love that is coming my way. People show their love in so many ways. They do it when they see me and run over and want to meet me. They do it by sending me notes telling me how much my work has influenced them. They do it by sending emails to the Director of the center that brought me on to facilitate a talk and generative class, telling her to please bring me back, that I’m one of the best facilitators they’ve ever worked with, that I gave so much of myself, with no ego, with vulnerability and heart.
I don’t want to be the one to slap the hand of love away. I’ve done that so much in my life already. This was me functioning from a place of trauma. I am working on being a better Vanessa. One who can accept and be open to love in all its forms…especially now, when I have to teach myself how to be. Word.
*An essay a week in 2017*
I’m three essays behind, well, two with this one, but as I learned while doing this challenge last year, sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack. I’ve traveled three times over the past month, twice on a plane. Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C. So yeah, you fall behind sometimes. Life happens. Be gentle with yourself. Push yourself but not to the breaking point. Just remember to write. Produce. If you want to catch up, cool. If not, then just start where you are. Remember what Daniel José Older says in his essay “Writing Begins with Forgiveness”:
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
I’ve been churning this excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir in my mind since I got back from Tin House. It’s about the trip to Turkey in the spring of my 8th grade year that convinced me that I was ready to go to boarding school.
The day we left to Turkey, we had to meet a bus outside the school where we had practices. We were there before the sun rose, me and my mom and the other 15 kids and their parents. The bus took us to JFK airport for our flight to Switzerland, where you could see the Alps from the airport, then on to Ankara. I held onto mom the entire bus ride to the airport. I barely looked out the window. I buried my face into her arm, inhaling her, the aroma a combination of Avon’s 24 Hour deodorant, Newport cigarettes and Estes Lauder perfume. When we arrived to the airport, I didn’t want to let her go. I cried as I watched them remove the luggage from the storage beneath the bus. “I don’t wanna go, mommy.” She hugged me tight, then cupped my face in her hands and said, “Go see the world, Vanessa.”
This was the first time I’d traveled anywhere without my family. I remember walking through Ankara with my host sister Asli, a blonde haired, blue eyed girl my age, who lived in a high rise condominium. From the windows in the apartment, you could see the entire city, the buildings with huge banners of the national hero Ataturk flapping in the wind, and the green covered mountains in the distance.
They had a live-in maid who I rarely saw. One day, I walked into the bathroom which was the size of the room I shared with my sister in New York. Asli’s period soaked underwear were in the tub. When I asked her to move them so I could shower, she sneered at me, “That’s the maid’s job.” One of the few times I saw the maid was that day, as I watched her grab the underwear and rinse them before taking them, still wet, into her room through a side door in the long hallway.
One day, towards the end of my weeklong stay there, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The women turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.
I can’t remember the exact moment when I knew I was ready to leave Brooklyn, but I came back knowing I was definitely going to do it: I was going to boarding school. ~A Dim Capacity for Wings by Vanessa Mártir
Lidia Yuknavitch asked: what’s the story behind the story? The writers in my group of six asked: what was it exactly that made me decide to leave? What was it about this trip that did it for me–made me say: Yes. Me voy. I’m out?
I’ve felt that acrid taste in my throat since that day way back in 1989. It was in Turkey that I first learned shame. Shame of where I was from. Shame for being from the people I was from. For being poor and brown and from the hood.
While at AWP last week, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, the insanely prolific and generous writer who has won so many awards and accolades, it’s ridiculous. But she’s also earned every single one. She’s written 32 books. Thirty-fuckin-two, yo. *pause for effect*… In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, which I devoured and just love love love, she wrote about the Bushwick she grew up in in the 70s and 80s. During her lecture she spoke about how in her research, she only found tragedy when looking for stories of the neighborhood in that era. She said she wanted to honor Bushwick, that neighborhood that shaped so much of who she is.
During the Q&A, I thanked her for writing about our hood. She asked where I was from, and it turns out we grew up just blocks from one another. I asked: “How did you get past the shame that is imposed on us for being where we’re from?” She said: “that shame grew to rage.” She knew she didn’t learn that rage at home. At home she learned love and pride and hard work. She learned quickly that that shame was from the “outside gaze,” and that was how she was able to transform it to rage. “Who was that person who made me feel that shame?”
My heart flashed to the last time I let someone make me feel ashamed of where I’m from.
It’s raining out. A cold early spring day. It is night time. We are on our way back to my small one bedroom apartment in uptown Manhattan. We have just left a poetry reading. A friend and her husband are staying at my place for the night. We are talking about how she has always wanted to live in NY. They are talking about the possibilities. Where could they live? Where should they look if the opportunity presents itself? He is listing the things he needs: sufficient space, an office, a living room, a washer and dryer. The list goes on. Then he says: “I don’t want to live in a dump just to live in NY.” My insides crumble.
I am a single mom. I live in a one bedroom apartment with my daughter. It is mine. The lease in under my name. It is the apartment I moved to in a neighborhood I love, close to my aunt, to help facilitate the writing life I am building for myself. I cannot afford a two bedroom. I can’t afford a building with a washer and dryer in the basement, much less an apartment with such luxuries. I am happy to get an apartment within my price range in the quieter side of the hood. I give my daughter the bedroom because girls need their own space. I learned this when I didn’t have my own room until I was 17 and a first year at Columbia University. I am proud of what I’d accomplished, on my own, a single mom who has recently quit her full-time editing job to live this writing life. All that pride comes crashing down when I hear that word: “dump.”
I feel small. Smaller than he probably intended. It probably isn’t a direct attack on me, but it sure feels like it. I know the smugness of class privilege well. I learned it in Turkey and I learned it in boarding school and at Columbia and in corporate America and in so many places.
This man grew up in privilege. His parents are college professors. He grew up in a house in the burbs. In my mind it is a two story brick beauty with a manicured lawn and even hedges and rose bushes. The kind of house I would walk by in Wellesley, MA, where I went to boarding school, and imagine the family that lived there. So different from me and mine.
This man does not have college debt. He now lives in a house he rents for his family. When he’s struggled to pay the bills, his family has chipped in. They send care packages with his favorite treats. He can say that he will not live in a “dump” just so he can live in New York. He can do so and not understand how hurtful that is. He can say that and not get how accomplished I felt (and still feel) for creating this life for myself, by myself. He does not get how that could feel good or fulfilling to anyone. All he sees is a dump.
I see freedom.
In Ankara, I saw myself in that maid when she picked up those blood soaked panties. I could relate more to her life than I could to Asli’s. Asli who lived in a high rise condominium with a view of the city from every room. Asli with her own bedroom that had space for two beds, one that I slept in. Asli with her Guess jeans and Benetton sweaters. Asli who stared at me then to her mom when she discovered I hadn’t brought her a gift from New York. I never did tell her that I couldn’t afford to.
I understood the maid’s slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. I understood why she hid. I knew my hometown probably looked more like hers than it did Asli’s.
I saw my greatgrandmother in that old woman begging in the street in the market. I’m still haunted by the fact that I let Asli push me away when that woman looked up to see who had filled her cupped hands with change.
And so it was in Turkey that I first felt shame for being from Bushwick. The rubble for blocks. The crack. The trash strewn lots. The poverty. The hunger.
In Turkey I realized I didn’t just want to get away from my mother and her abuse. I wanted to get away from Bushwick. From home. I wanted to see a different world and be part of a different world. I wanted to not feel what I felt when I saw that woman pick up those period soaked panties. When I saw Asli sneer and say, “That’s the maid’s job.” At 13, the only way out from that suffocating feeling was to go away to boarding school. I didn’t realize that that experience would break me in an entirely different way…
That outside gaze is a mothafucka. It will break you. It will teach you shame…and then you learn to transform that shame into rage.
While at AWP, I went to a reading in a tunnel. One of those abandoned metro stations that has been converted to an art space. One wall was graffitied up with some dopeness in bright colors and hues. I was mesmerized. Then I noticed the opposite wall where someone had written in large letters: There are no female graffiti artists in this exhibit. Women had begun to draw and write messages in marker. I wrote:
“Carry rage in your jaw. Don’t let them take it from you. That and love are your arsenal.”
I had a sister friend at AWP who kept telling me she didn’t belong there, amongst all those writers and poets and wordsmiths. This woman’s work is phenomenal. I can’t count the times her poetry has taken my breath. I’ve even teared up a few times.
She’s from Bushwick, like me. She’s unmothered, like me. In her, I see so much of myself. She said I had that shit down. That I could walk into any place like I belonged there. I said: “I had to teach myself how.”
Today I sent her a Muhammad Ali quote: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
I remembered how I felt at Tin House last year. I remembered how out of place I felt. I remembered that I didn’t feel that I belonged there. I thought of that so many times at my second Tin House workshop a few weeks ago. I thought about it as I stared at the ocean out my window. The Pacific crashing on the shore. The waves that started so far off the coast. The whale fin that came up off the water that last day. I knew I belonged there this year, just like I knew I belonged at AWP, just like I know my sister-friend did.
But remember what I told you: that outside gaze is a mothafucka.
While at AWP, I gave myself permission one morning to stay in bed until noon. I caught up on Grey’s Anatomy and watched a bunch of nature shows. During one show on the tundra, I learned about the arctic woolly bear moth that spends fourteen years freezing and unfreezing. It spends nearly 90% of its life frozen. It feeds voraciously during the brief summer month of June before it freezes again. Then, in its 14th summer, it weaves a silk cocoon where it morphs into a moth.
This moth lives at the edge of what is possible. It lives a stop-go life for up to fourteen years to build up the resources it needs to finally pupate into an adult moth. It takes that moth a lifetime of fourteen years to get its wings…
We can all learn something from that little moth.
*An essay a week in 2017*
I’m late on this one. I’ve been processing. I’m still processing. I just got back from Tin House where I worked with the phenomenal Lidia Yuknavitch. If you don’t know who she is, I encourage you to pick up her memoir The Chronology of Water (check out Roxane Gay’s review of it here). That book shifted me when I read it last spring. It gave me the permission to write my memoir the way I want to write it. (While you wait for the book to arrive, because I assume you’ve order it by now, right?, read her essay “Woven” in Guernica.)
Instead of telling you how fuckin amazing that workshop was (because it was so dope, amongst the best workshops I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a quite a few so that says a lot), I’ll show you something I produced, because, yes, Lidia didn’t just workshop the pieces we submitted beforehand, she had us generate work too. Thanks again Lidia! I love you.
Lidia said: Locate a place where you came into consciousness. Pick one. Write about the placeness. What was it about your body that you knew you had a consciousness shift.
I’m in the backyard. I’m up in the plum tree. I look over at the junkyard next door. One of the feral cats has had kittens. I will go in later to catch them and play with them and pull the bugs off of them. Squash them between my thumb and index finger. The kittens will claw at me, scratch my arms. I will let them. They will learn that I will protect them and scratch them behind the ears. I will make them purr. Sneak them some milk in a bowl. Mom can’t see me. She’ll beat me if she does. Tell me she doesn’t buy milk for those malditos gatos.
I hear mom in the kitchen. I wonder when she will go out for a smoke or to El Faro, the supermarket down the block. She climbs out the window and goes to soil. I’ve seen her watching the yard. She was plotting but I don’t know what.
She looks up at me and sighs. “Te vaz a caer d’alli un dia. No creas que te voy a llevar al hospital.” Grumbles: “Machuda” befores she turns her attention to the ground and starts pulling at the weeds that up to her knees. She does this for hours, for days. When she finishes each day, her face and clothes are streaked with dirt and sweat.
Mom will plant a garden in the yard that spring. She will grow tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and squash, spices like rosemary and cilantro.
I will watch as she treats those seeds and plants with a tenderness she rarely shows me.
She won’t let me help her in the garden. That is her space. Her project. I will watch from my branch in the tree. Mid-summer, I will pluck a yellow plum off a branch and chew on it as I watch mom. The bitterness will burn my tongue and make me wince. I will keep chewing, grab another and bite down. Let it burn me.
Lidia asked: What’s the story underneath?
She will ask for volunteers to read. I will look around the room. The other five writers are looking around the room too. I think: Fuck it. I’ll share.
When I choke up when Lidia asks: What’s the story underneath. I know it, of course. The story underneath…
That I’ve always longed for and still long for my mother.
Later, when a writer apologizes for crying, Lidia will tell her never to apologize for her tears. She will tell us about her Lithuanian grandmother, who said “crying is the only language she trusted because it was the language of the body.”
Tin House Winter Workshops are held on Newport Beach, Oregon, three hours outside of Portland. The drive is gorgeous, through farm country and forest. And when you arrive, the Pacific greets you with all her majesty. Yemaya of the Pacific has a completely different energy than she of the Atlantic.
I’m processing quite a bit since returning from Tin House. I went into a story this past weekend that I’d willed deep into the recesses of memory. I’d never even written it down anywhere, not in my journals, nowhere, so I was shocked when it came barreling out. It made me realize a few things: 1. That I hadn’t forgiven the girl I was who broke her own heart so many times reliving the “love me, please love me” cycle I learned from my relationship with my mother, and 2. I carry quite a bit of shame around it. As I wrote yesterday and I shook and I cried, I knew I had to tell my partner. Why? She was on her way to pick me up so we could go food shopping, and she knows me so well, we’re so connected, that I knew she would pick up on my energy. I imagined sitting next to her as I penned the story. I imagined her walking into my writing room to check in on me like she does. I imagined her saying, “You okay?” knowing that I wasn’t. She always knows when something is off.
Telling her was the scariest thing. Scarier than exposing myself to the world. I worried: How will she see me? Will her feelings for me change? Can she, will she, still love me after seeing that kind of ugly? So, I told her. I told her minutes after she picked me up. I stared at the grey sky and told her. And she, in turn, held me and reassured me and reminded yet again, that I am safe with her.
Why am I sharing this? Because sometimes process requires that we move slow through the work. That we consider our lives and the people in it. That we confront these kinds of fears. That we let ourselves feel the stories and all that means before we share it with the world.
I keep thinking about what Lidia Yuknavitch asked us the first day of workshop: How many bodies have you been? I didn’t list the body of the girl I was who was so lost she did things that lost girls do. This weekend I learned that I have to forgive that girl. This is the journey.
You were 14 when he first said it: “When you’re 16, you’re gonna be mine.” Years later, this will make you tremble, but not in that good way it did back then.
You were 14 and you were fierce. You cut your eyes. You sassed. You said fuck you to the men on the corner who congregated by your grandmother’s apartment building in upper Manhattan. You loved to go there. Not for grandma. She was so much like your mother. When you angered her, sighed or gave attitude, she rolled up the thick Vanidades magazine she had stacked on her coffee table, and slapped you with it. Hard. She always went for your face.
But when you visited grandma, you got cable. There was no cable in Brooklyn then. You got cable TV and you got the boy-men on the corner who blew you kisses and winked and told you you were so so beautiful. And that made you feel special. Beautiful, even. It made you feel seen. All you wanted was to be seen. But you didn’t want them to know that. You didn’t want them to think you weak or fresca or easy. So you curled your lip, and when one of them, the most atrevido of them all, dared to touch your long hair and get too close, you told him off and pushed him away. They laughed. They loved it. And secretly, so did you.
You were 14. They loved the spectacle of you.
But him, what was it about him? He was no different from them. Early 20s. A drug dealer. He smelled of cigarettes and Heineken. They all did. But him. His smile, missing a front tooth. Imperfect like you. The way he looked at you through his thick glasses. The way he made you feel seen. He called you by your name. Vanessa. He walked next to you. Not too close though. He never dared get fresh. He never dared touch you inappropriately. The first time he kissed you, when you were 16, it was so soft. He was so soft. Gentle. Like you were a doll. You so wanted that kind of tenderness.
You gave him a chance because he was soft with you. Because he treated you like you were porcelain. A doll. At least at first he did.
What can you say about that relationship? About your first. He wasn’t your first love. If only you’d stayed with that boy who grew up down the block from you in Brooklyn. The one that was born two days before you. You fell for him when you were 12. You were with him until you were 16. Until the drug dealer. The one who took your virginity. The one they named after an amphibian, because of his bottle bottom glasses and scratchy voice that was like a rasp. But that bottle bottom glasses wearer was a man when he got you. 24 years old, he knew what to say. He knew how to say it. And he knew how to touch you. Where to touch you. He knew to go visit you in Boston where you were attending boarding school. Where you felt the loneliness in the marrow of your bones.
So you lasted years. Your senior year in high school. Your four years at Columbia. And one year after. Until you said: “Ya.” Until you claimed to have woken up. But you hadn’t. You just went on to the next emotionally unavailable man. But that man with the bottle bottom glasses left you scarred. It’s been twenty years since you left him. And still, when you see him, something inside you squirms. You can’t be around him for long without being disgusted. More with yourself than anyone.
He tried to get you back years ago. After you had your daughter. You were single then. And you still wanted to be loved. Just not by him.
He tried to get you with the same game he got you with when you were 16. Except you were in your 30s by then. You were a mother. You were growing into your writer skin. You’d written a book where the antagonist Fabian was inspired so much by him. Fabian was a drug dealer too and had bottle bottom glasses too. He was vile. He was callous. Later your ex will claim that you wrote the book about him. You will laugh at this. You still laugh at this.
And that day when he cried to you, said he missed you, said you were the love of his life, you again laughed at him. You laughed at his tears. You laughed at him saying, “I can’t believe you had a kid. How could you do that to me?” You will look down at the overnight back that he brought with him and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You are so not comin’ home with me.” The fuckin audacity.
You know that so much of what happened in that relationship was your fault. You wince as you type this, but you know it’s still true. Because you allowed him to treat you like that. You allowed all the women, all the nights he didn’t come home. You fought, you accused, you cried, but you stayed.
You will flash to the memory of a night you have tried to forget, and you did for so long, until Tin House, when in her craft talk Melissa Febos asks you to write a list of things you could never write, and then challenges you to write one of them. The memory comes out in the writing.
It is 1994. It’s the fall of your sophomore year at Columbia. You’ve been together two years. He is staying with you in your dorm. He always has since you started at CU. Your first year you buy a futon to accommodate both your bodies. You do it with your first credit card, thus beginning a history of bad credit decisions.
That day he comes home late. So late you have to go down to the front desk to sign him in. This is before the guards know him so well, they just let him come up.
You have class early the next morning. He knows this. He doesn’t care.
He will barely look at you in the elevator on the way up to the suite, where you have a single room in an apartment with five other people.
You watch him, your arms crossed over your chest, wondering what he’s done now. He’s already done so much.
You want to be close to him. You want him to love you. Want you. It’s all you’ve ever wanted. For someone to love you. For him to love you.
You smell her later. The other woman. Her perfume and the acrid scent of her body. He didn’t even shower after being with her. You wonder, think: I’m not even worth that?
You want him to think of you when he closes his eyes. Not her. Never her… So you do things with him. To him. As you smell her all the while.
You don’t leave. You will stay with him for another three years. There will be more women. You still stay.
Weeks later, on your way back to your dorm, you will be pulled over by the cops a few blocks from where your dorm is on Claremont Avenue. The cop will tell you to get out of the passenger side of your boyfriend’s green convertible Volkswagen rabbit. You shake in the cold as the officer questions you. His tone changes when you show him your Columbia University ID. You point up the road, say: “I live up there at 47 Claremont. We’re on our way back. I have class in the morning.” He will tell you both to get back in the car and have a good night.
When you park, you watch as the man with the bottle bottom glasses pulls something out from under the seat you were sitting in. It is a brick, a kilo of cocaine. You will yell at him. You will rage. You will stay up that night as he sleeps next to you. You will think about how differently that police stop could have gone. How that could have fucked up your entire world. You know he has probably carried drugs in the car before with you in it. You know he will likely do it again. You still don’t leave.
How do you come to terms with that girl you were who put herself in such danger? Who accepted such treatment? Who didn’t love herself enough to know better? To demand better?
Last night, I went out on my deck and looked up at the moon. I mouthed: I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. I almost believed it.
*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.