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Relentless Files — Week 71 (#52essays2017 Week 18)

*an essay a week in 2017*

What is toxic masculinity?

According to TheGoodMenProject:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.

 

What is male fragility? In an LA Times article entitled “Why is #masculinitySoFragile?”, Dexter Thomas writes: 

Does buying a rose gold iPhone 6s make you gay?

Sorry, that’s a dumb question. How could a color determine your sexual orientation – and even if it did, why would that matter?

But it’s a question that has been floating around on Twitter, and one that Anthony Williams, a sociology major at UC Berkeley, finds alternately hilarious and sad – especially because behind that question is the suggestion that being gay equals being less of a man.

Tuesday night, Williams began tweeting using the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag, in an effort to talk about violence and harassment that women face daily. Overnight, the hashtag started trending.

Williams woke up to death threats.

“When you challenge masculinity, it hits a nerve,” Williams said in a phone interview with The Times. “It makes some men nervous. But violence against women is a result of the fragility of masculinity. A woman can say ‘no’ to a man on a date, and she could end up dead. That’s what women have to deal with. And we as men have to recognize that.”

 

The internet has had a field day poking fun at men and their fragile egos. As a 41 year old woman, I don’t need the internet or anyone really to tell me that male egos are fragile. I’ve been dealing with that shit my entire life. I’m still dealing with it. Consider what happened to me on Mother’s Day last weekend:

I was using one of the squat stations, super-setting leg exercises (squats and lunges) with tricep exercises using free weights. I was about to do deadlifts (for hamstrings) when I saw a young man put a bar behind me to do the same. I told him I was going to use the space. I started with “I’m sorry but…” He huffed and moved. Rolling his eyes and pursing his lips but saying nothing. I made a note of his bitchiness but kept right on with my regimen. I was there to work out, not deal with his shit.

A few minutes later, another man came up to me to ask hen I was going to be done. Admittedly I’d been on the station for a while, but that’s just how it is at the gym–you wait your turn. I told the man that I only had a few more exercises to do and that he could use the station but I wasn’t done using the bar, as I was using it to do deadlifts. Of course the man who I had asked to move piped in to bitch. “You know, you can’t use the station and the space behind it.”

I tried to be nice. “I’m sorry. Was he talking to you or to me?”

He said: “Well, it’s loud enough for me to hear. You asked me to move…”

That’s when I cut him off. “You need to mind your business. You’re just mad I asked you to move.” He kept talking smack and I eventually told him to put his toxic masculinity in his pocket and shut the fuck up. At that point I was tired of being courteous. I’ve waited countless time for men to finish using the squat stations and other equipment in the weights area of the gym. I’ve had to deal with them being disrespectful and mansplainy as they insist on telling me how to do an exercise, never for a moment considering that I already know how. (I’ve been working out for more than 20 years now.) I once almost kicked a dude over for standing behind me and ogling my ass as I was doing squats. I just want to work out and be left the fuck alone. 

I should add that he told me to “watch your mouth” when I told him to shut the fuck up, because, you know, it’s not ladylike for a woman to curse at a man.

That only caused me to tell him to shut the fuck up two more times. 

***

I started this essay a few weeks ago when my homegirl Elisabet Velasquez wrote a status on FB calling men out on their problematic behavior of men. Some dude bro came on to tell her that she was being divisive and it wasn’t fair for her to address all men since “we’re not all the same.” He went on to say that this wasn’t the solution to the problem.

There’s always one fool that comes on to take attention away from the real issue to defend himself because that’s how fragile male egos are.

I started thinking about the countless times I’ve had to deal with men and their shit. Their fragile egos. Their toxic behavior. I started a list:

When: early 2000s

Where: club in NYC

I walked by a guy in a crowded club. He grabbed my arm. I pulled away and kept walking. Next thing I knew, his entire drink was on my back.

When: late 90s

Where: Washington Heights

I’ve traversed every borough except Staten Island on rollerblades and my bike. This time I was stopped at a light on my bike somewhere on Broadway in Washington Heights. Man who looks to be in his early 30s gets way too close and mouths, “Yo te quiero romper ese toto, mami.” I kick him hard and pedal as fast as I can. I don’t know where my foot lands, I just know it lands hard. I heard him groan and I am out of there. I don’t bother to look back but I imagine him curled on the street. The image still gives me a deep sense of satisfaction. 

When: Halloween 1998

Where: Halloween Parade in the Village

I am walking with friends among the crowds. It is night time. I am dressed as a black cat. I wear a shiny cat suit. I have a tail and ears and my face is painted elaborately. I feel him grab my ass. He cups my entire ass, grabbing the inside of my ass cheek. When I turn, he is laughing and walking away casually. I start running after him. We corner him. I yell. I slap him. I see the fear in his eyes and I feel bad. Why the fuck do I feel bad? He just assaulted me!

When: Spring 2001

Where: Broadway Hill in Washington Heights

I am power walking down the hill after power walking up. I am sweating and panting and feeling good. Teenager flies by on his bike and slaps my ass hard. He cackles, “Nice ass, mami.”

When: Sometime in early 2000s

Where: bar on the upper Eastside

Drunk, white guy at bar leans into me slurring. I can’t make out what he’s saying except every other word–“mami.” When I turn to walk away, he grabs my wrist hard. I yank away. He grabs my other wrist. I push him hard so he goes sprawling across the bar, knocking down two bar stools. Friend says as he helps drunk guy up: “You don’t have to be so harsh. He’s drunk.” Me: “Fuck that. Tell your boy not to grab women.”

When: 2001 or 2002

Where: Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC on Fifth Avenue

I am walking through the crowd in front of the Met. I don’t want to walk through the crowd but the two women I am with insist on it. I follow reluctantly. There is an area where men have created a tunnel of sorts. They are lined up so women have to walk through this tunnel to get to the other side. My heart starts to race. I ignore my gut instinct that tells me not to walk through that tunnel. I regret it immediately. I am cupped from behind, meaning my ass and vagina are grabbed in one fell swoop. I lunge around ready to destroy. There are dozens of men behind me screaming and laughing, blowing kisses, calling me “mami.” (Before you say anything, you should know I was dressed in an ankle length dress. What I was wearing shouldn’t fuckin’ matter though.)

To this day, I’ve never returned to the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

When: 2011

Where: after wedding reception in New Jersey

We are at the bar in the hotel. I am hanging out and dancing with friends. I feel a hard penis on my ass. I turn and push without hesitation. He goes flying to the floor. He too is drunk. He is a groomsman in the wedding. The groom, one of my best friends, picks him off the floor. Groomsman steps towards me. Says: “Did you see what she did to me?” Groom says: “You’ve had enough. You’re lucky she didn’t punch you in the face.” I later learn that the groomsman slept on the floor outside his room because his pissed off wife wouldn’t let him in.

When: 2000

Where: corporate office in midtown

Broker from Miami walks by my desk an unnecessary number of times. He always has a random question: Can you recommend a restaurant nearby to take a client? What clubs are hot in NY? Where can I get some good Spanish food? I entertain him at first. I’m working as an administrative assistant. It’s my job. Then it gets uncomfortable. Where do you go out? He’s leaning in so hard, I have to lean back on my chair. Take me with you one day. My responses become curt and monosyllabic. I shrug and avert my eyes when I catch him staring. I get him a Zagats restaurant guide, the one with the burgundy cover, but it has the opposite effect I hope for. I catch him staring often. He tells me about five star restaurants he wants to take me to. I ignore him. I go to Miami for vacation. He calls my personal cell. I’ve never given him my number. I pretend to be someone else. Say: “Vanessa’s not available.” He calls three more times. I get fired not long after I return from vacation.

When: 2000

Where: Corporate Building in mid-town

Security guard at building I work in makes numerous passes at me. He leers when I walk by. Comments on my dress, my shoes, my hair, always something about my appearance. My floor to ceiling windowed office looks down into the lobby, where his security desk is. I catch him watching me. He does it all the time. He does not try to hide it. He finally asks me out. I smile, say no, thank you. He tries again and again and again. I say no every time. I smile every single time. One day, after the nth rejection, I see a dark shadow pass over his face. He says: “Aight, whatever. I get it. I ain’t good enough for you with my security job.” He stomps off. He stops saying good morning and good evening and hello. I still catch him staring up at me but now he glowers. He sneers. He tells my boss that I am disrespectful. Says I break security rules all the time. That I’m a problem. “Argumentative and hostile.” I try to defend myself but the boss says: “There you are being argumentative.”

I could go on with this list.  I could spend weeks adding to it. Weeks. 

The times men called me bitch and lesbian and ho because I didn’t give in to their advances or didn’t smile when they wanted me to.

The times they said: “You ugly anyway” because I kept on walking.

Men of all races and ethnicities and classes. Men from all walks of life. Construction workers and men on the street and men in suits at bars.

***

My daughter is 12. I often think of what my mother said when I told her I was having a girl: “Girls come into this world to suffer.” I’ve thought of these words often when I’ve had heart to hearts with my daughter about the world we exist in.

That time I had to tell her that if a man ever grabbed her, she should scream really loud. I made her practice how loud.

I’ve given my daughter boxing lessons. I’m looking for a self-defense class to enroll her in.

I don’t want to have teach my daughter this shit. But I know I have to…

***

I remember a time when I was in college and went to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn to visit my mom. I took a walk to visit a friend and returned after it was dark. I’d walked these streets so often as a kid. I felt safe there. It was home. I remember passing the guy sitting on a stoop on Palmetto Street, two blocks away from where I grew up and where my mom still lives. I heard his piropo but kept walking, like I always do. You learn early that this is what men do. I can’t remember when I got my first but I remember that I was barely pubescent. I learned to ignore them. I learned that this didn’t save you from being verbally attacked but that day I learned that it could also lead to violence. I wrote about the incident in my essay “The Danger of Being a Woman” published on TheToast.net:

I noticed when it was too late, when I heard his footsteps running up behind me. When I turned, he pushed me against the wall and started grabbing at me. He grabbed my breasts. He grabbed my crotch. He went to yank open my pants. Thank God I had a belt on.

I started punching and scratching and screaming. I remembered that teacher who told me when I was a tween, “If someone attacks you, don’t fight back.” “What? Hell no!” I said. I couldn’t hide my exasperation. “You’ll get killed,” she said, looking at me real serious. “Imma fight back,” I said, shaking my head and staring right back at her. And that’s exactly what I did. I fought. I screamed loud, “Get the fuck off’a me!” And I punched. I punched hard. I slapped. I clawed. But, shit, he was so strong.

He held me down with one arm across my chest, above my breasts, while he groped me with the other hand. I just kept screaming and hitting him with everything I had.

The entire incident probably lasted under a minute. When he ran off, he yelled, “I never wanna see you around here again, bitch!”

That day I learned again just how vulnerable I am. How dangerous this world is for women. That’s the day I learned how right I was to tell that teacher “I’mma fight back.”

When I got to my mom’s house, I was shaking and crying. She called the cops and we circled the neighborhood in a patrol car looking for that pendejo. Of course we didn’t find him. The cop, a heavy-set white dude with bright eyes and a worried face, said, “You have to be careful out here. You shouldn’t be walking alone.”

I looked at him. “And what if I don’t have anyone to walk with? Am I supposed to stay trapped in my house?”

He shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?” 

***

This is more common than folks want to admit and it’s us women who see it and suffer the consequences. The dude who calls you a ho and a bitch when you pay no mind to his catcalling. The one who throws his entire drink on you because you won’t dance with him. And, yes, the one who comes on a thread to say not all men and chastise you for dique lumping all men together because his masculinity is fragile as fuck and more important than the issue at hand :: that it’s fuckin dangerous to be a woman.

I wasn’t going to publish this essay. I started it and let it sit in my google drive. I’ve thought about it often over the past few weeks: when that fool at the gym gave me shit for asking him to move; when a guy on 125th Street nearly knocked me down because I didn’t move enough out of his way; when I noticed a guy following me on the 42nd Street platform after I’d ignored his winking at me… This list too could go on.

I’m publishing this because while there are so many articles and essays about toxic masculinity and male fragility and how it’s women who often suffer the most as a result of this shit, there obviously aren’t enough. Women are still being violated. We still live in fear.

When I saw that guy following me, I dug into my pocket and grabbed my keys. I put a key in between each finger, and wound my fist tightly around the ring. I had to make sure I was equipped to defend myself if I had to. Then I started darting through the crowd, looking back every few steps. I finally lost him when I ran down the stairs to the 7 train. There were hundreds of people around. I was still scared. I’m not the only one…

Relentless Files — Week 70 (#52essays2017 Week 17)

*an essay a week in 2017*

A couple I know had twins prematurely a few weeks back. My partner Katia and I went to visit them. They’re tiny. 26 weeks. Just over a pound each, they’re being held in incubators, fed through tubes in their belly buttons, they have tubes in their noses, and IV needles in their little arms, nodes on their chests checking their vitals. I didn’t realize I’d be triggered. I went to support this beautiful lesbian couple. I went to show them solidarity.

As soon as I walked into the NICU, I thought: That was me once…

The mom who carried the babies, is stoic and strong, but she was brought to tears that day when she said she couldn’t get her breasts to produce more than a few drops of milk. “It’s the only thing I can control,” she said through tears.

Her partner, who is always smiling and joking and making everyone around her feel warm, was all slumped shoulders and wet eyes. They both gush over their boys. They’re hopeful and so in love…

I can’t imagine what that must be like. I remember when I had my daughter nearly 13 years ago. The labor was so hard. 26 hours. I finally accepted the epidural at hour 18 when my doctor told me they would have to give me Pitocin to induce my labor because I was only dilated 3 centimeters. “I’m not supposed to tell you this but you’re having back labor, the most painful kind of labor there is. It’s gonna get a lot worse when we induce you. Take the epidural, Vanessa.” She brushed a wisp of hair form my forehead. I caved.

They finally decided to cut me open to get baby girl at hour 26. Nena started screaming before her body was out of me. Like she was sad to leave that place where I’d housed her.

Later, in the recovery room, a nurse came in and asked if there was a history of kidney disease in my family. I shook my head and asked, “What’s going on?” She said nothing but then asked me if I’d give them permission to do a spinal tap. “Just in case,” she said, a smile plastered on her face that I refused to believe. “No,” I shouted. “Bring me my baby.” They brought her to me a few minutes later. Her head was cone shaped because she was stuck in the birth canal for so long, she had my wide nose and these big, curious eyes that melted my insides. We stared at one another for a while. Then, I took out my breast and she latched on without issue.

I couldn’t imagine not loving this little girl. I couldn’t imagine not suffering if she suffered…

I think of my friends. I think of how they travel every day to the hospital to see their babies. I think of the photo they sent us when they were finally able to hold them. I think of how scared they are and hopeful…how hard they pray. I think of my mother.

I was that baby in an incubator. IV through my head because the veins in my arms and legs were too weak to hold a needle. I had nodes on my chest and head, monitoring my vitals. My body was bruised from the needle pricks. I spent much of my first year in the hospital.

It was an enzyme specialist visiting from Boston who took a look at me and discovered that I was born without enzymes to break down my food. That enzyme deficiency led to diabetes, or so I’ve been told. I didn’t know what all this meant except that I almost didn’t make it; and that it offered easy access guilting for my mother who talked about her “carreras con Vanessa.”

It’s now, at 41, after going to see my friend preemies, that I’ve really started to think about what it is I had and why my OB kept checking my sugar when I was pregnant with my kid.

***

enzyme

A 3D model of pepsin, an enzyme that digests food proteins into peptides. Source: LiveScience.com

Enzymes are very delicate proteins that are responsible for carrying out virtually every metabolic function, from the digestion of food to the synthesis of DNA.

We have around 3000 unique enzymes in our bodies that are involved in over 7000 enzymatic reactions.

Whattoexpect.com writes:

Metabolic disorders are conditions that affect the way the body uses food (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) and converts it into energy or fuel. Under normal circumstances, a baby takes in food and then enzymes in the digestive system metabolize (break down) the food (or breast milk or formula), turning it into needed sugars and acids that the body can use right away or store for later. When a baby has a metabolic disorder, the body can’t break down the food correctly, which can cause the body to have too much or too little of certain substances (amino acids, phenylalanine, blood sugar to mention a few). 

Allegedly, newborn screenings can detect dozens of metabolic disorders, allowing your baby to be treated before symptoms arise. But the screening they did on me in December of 1975 didn’t detect the condition I had.

According to LiveScience.com:

Enzymes are biological molecules (typically proteins) that significantly speed up the rate of virtually all of the chemical reactions that take place within cells. They are vital for life and serve a wide range of important functions in the body, such as aiding in digestion and metabolism.

Some enzymes help break large molecules into smaller pieces that are more easily absorbed by the body. Other enzymes help bind two molecules together to produce a new molecule. Enzymes are highly selective catalysts, meaning that each enzyme only speeds up a specific reaction.

According to my research, babies with metabolic disorders often seem perfectly healthy after birth and show no symptoms — they can appear at any age, even in adulthood.

Symptoms showed up for me when I was just weeks old. I’ve heard stories about how sick I’d get. The diarrhea. The dehydration. The projectile vomiting. Mom didn’t know what to do. She told me of her carreras to the hospital. How hard it was to get the diagnosis. That doctors at Elmhurst Hospital told her that I wasn’t going to make it. That there was nothing they could do. That’s when she took me out of there. She had to sign a release form so she couldn’t sue the hospital if something happened to me. She carried me, on a makeshift board, to Columbia Baby Hospital, and it’s there that I was saved. 

Mom says she took me back to Elmhurst Hospital when I was two. I was a chunky, bright eyed toddler by then. They didn’t believe it was me.

But it was that visiting specialist that saved me. He put me on a special diet that introduced amino acids to my body. I basically had to teach my body to create enzymes.

I think about the profundity of that, and I know there’s a metaphor there though I can’t think of it yet.

Dr. Babatunde Samuel writes: “A chemical reaction without an enzyme is like a drive over a mountain. The enzyme bores a tunnel through it so that passage is far quicker and takes much less energy.” (Source: Metamia.com

I was born without the ability to make things easier for myself. I had to teach myself this skill… I had to teach myself how to create shortcuts. How to dig tunnels. How to create my own pathways…

I had to do this when I was months old.

So it was at months old that I taught myself how to create a life for myself. How I taught myself to leave at 13, to make my way in the world. How I taught myself to reinvent myself so many times…like I did seven years ago, when I quit my job to live this writing and teaching life. And like I did four years ago, when my brother died and I had to teach myself a new normal. I had to confront this grief I’ve carried for decades…this mother wound.

At months old, I taught my body a skill that has carried me throughout my life: how to create my own pathways. Shit…

***

I’m tired of writing about my mother and this wound. I’m tired of this obsession of mine.

I think of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her autobiographical fragments that were later compiled in 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.”

Woolf’s mother died when she was just 13 years old. In his LitHub essay, Christopher Frizzle reveals that Woolf believed that the death’s “shock-receiving capacity” was what “makes me a writer.” Frizzle writes: “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.”

***

I’ve been rereading some of my essays from the Relentless Files Challenge I did last year. In Week 20’s essay, I wrote: “What I’m realizing is that what haunts me isn’t so much that I’m unmothered but why I am unmothered. What happened to my mother that made her this way? What happened to the women in my family that hardened them and made them unable to mother their children?”

Natalie Goldberg says: “Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.”

In his essay, Let Obsession be Your Ally: Be Haunted by It, Steve Almond wrote:

When young writers ask me what they should be writing about, I always say the same thing: write about what you can’t get rid of by other means.

Because your obsessions aren’t there simply to fill your mind and heart with junk. They are the deepest forms of human meaning, even if they seem frivolous or shameful.

I’ve written two novels where my protagonists have strained relationships with their moms. The women struggle to become women on their own, without the guidance of their mothers. In both books, the strained relationships are resolved in the end. I tried in fiction, to get what I haven’t gotten in real life: closure, understanding, restoration…

I’m not sure if that’s what I’m searching for in this memoir I’m writing. I know that this obsession is exhausting but it’s not going anywhere. It creeps in all the time. No matter how cheesy the movie or show, a scene between a mother and daughter easily undoes me.

Last night I watched that corny ass movie “Snatched” with Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer. There’s a scene where Schumer rescues her mom from where she’s being held captive. Schumer holds her mom and apologizes as she blubbers.“You’re always there. Sad or lonely, it’s 3 in the morning and I call… You always answer. You’re that person for me, mom.” I started tearing up. The scene was completely unbelievable and the movie is all sorts of absurd, but that scene still moved me. Why? Because I don’t have that. Because I’ve never had. Because I’ll never have that…hoping for it has caused more damage than I can describe, so relinquishing that hope was the safest and healthiest thing I could do for myself. And, still, there’s sadness in this. A deep sadness that walks with me.

There’s no sense in denying it. That won’t make it go away. I’m not sure anything will.

***

I was a mess when we got back from the hospital that day. I snapped at my partner, who was triggered for her own personal reasons. I’ve hesitated to write about this because this is a real situation that dear friends are enduring, and I don’t want to make it about me…but that’s not how obsessions or triggers work. They don’t ask for permission to come for you and drag you underwater. They don’t abide by any timelines or rules. They don’t have any sense of decorum or decency. They come and they haunt you. They demand that you pay attention and that you write about them. Here I am, listening…

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Relentless Files — Week 69 (#52essays2017 Week 16)

Writing has been a struggle over these last few weeks. I’m still revving up, as I described in my last essay. I am still that race car with its burning tires and smoke and trembling body. All this revving is painful but it is what it is, as it should be…or so I’ve told myself.

The spring session of my Writing Our Lives class just ended last Saturday. I am always surprised by the mourning period that follows. The melancholy that takes over like a surprise wave that pulls me under and fills my lungs. That’s all exacerbated by the fact that it’s Mother’s Day this coming weekend.

The countdown starts in April, just after Easter. That’s when Mother’s Day everything starts, the cards, the emails, the “make this your mom’s best Mother’s Day” ads. I hunker down. I get ready for the onslaught. That’s what it feels like–an onslaught. On past Mother’s Days I’ve avoided the world. I’ve shuttered myself in. I don’t even look out the window, worried I’ll see an adult daughter like me holding her mother close. Mother is holding a bouquet of flowers and balloons, a new bracelet on her wrist… For the world, mother is altar, mother is sacred goddess, mother is everything. But what about those us for whom mother is abyss?

***

Facebook has this sometimes wonderful and sometimes frustrating and annoying and downright disrespectful “on this day” memory list that shows up at the top of your timeline every day. I assume it happens to everyone. It can’t just be me it comes to torture, right?

I’ve been taking note of those that have appeared in my timeline over the past few days.

Two years ago today, May 11th, I published my essay “Unmothered on Mother’s Day”  with this intro: Today, the day after Mother’s Day, I was finally able to finish this essay. Maybe I just needed to feel all of it, the loss, the sadness. Maybe I needed to explain to people that this unmothered life is not an easy one and feeling this pain doesn’t negate all the beauty in my life, of which I know there is so very much. Maybe I just needed to sit here, in my messy room, flowers I bought myself to the right of me, gerber daisies and sunflowers, a picture of my brother and me to my right, to remember that though I may feel untethered sometimes, letting myself feel these emotions has made all the difference. Letting myself be vulnerable isn’t easy but it’s what I must do. As Leslie Feinberg said in Stone Butch Blues: “surrenderin is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!” But we ain’t surviving anymore, Vanessa. We’re learning how to live.

Before posting the essay, I shared excerpts as statuses: 

Excerpt 1: “I’ve been trying to write this essay for days. On Mother’s Day, I woke up and ran to the park. I sat on a bench by the water. Watched as little kids skipped by innocently as children do. One kicked a soccer ball, his cleats tapping on the pavement rhythmically. A woman sat on the other side of the bench with her son, who must have been three. They blew bubbles and I watched as the child ran after them. He laughed when he poked them and they burst. One splashed in his eye, he shrieked and mom came running. She pulled him close and soothed him. I saw that child lean into his mama, his safe space, sure that momma would make the ache go away. My chest tightened.

“A pigeon pecked at the floor. White with splotches of gray on its small body, his heart hung out of its chest. A soft mound that throbbed on the pigeon’s undercarriage. I marveled at this bird who still fed, still flew, with its heart softly pounding outside of its chest. I marveled at that heart that still sustained and kept that bird alive, pulsing just beneath where it’s supposed to be housed. I wondered about that heart. How it kept going, unaware that it was exposed and raw. It did what hearts do—it beat, it lived, it thrived.” ~excerpt from “Unmothered on Mother’s Day”

Later, when I was reading Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry collection “Salt,” I thought of this bird when I came across this poem: “in our own ways we all break. it is okay to hold your heart outside of your body for days. months. years. at a time. – heal”

Excerpt 2: “I know I am fierce and relentless. I know that I give my entire heart to everything I do; all the students I work with and have guided through the years. I am proud of the life I’ve created for myself. I also know that this pain of being unmothered is real and there will be times, like on Mother’s Day and the days leading up to it, that despite all my accomplishments and all the love I have in my life, that first wound will sting especially hard and I will feel untethered and unanchored in the world. I will feel distraught. I will feel like I’m not enough. I will be terrified of repeating that cycle, of failing my daughter. This has always been so; this fear, this suffering. And letting myself feel it when it comes does not negate the rest. It just is.” ~excerpt from essay tentatively titled “Unmothered on this Mother’s Day”

More statuses from that day:

I asked the universe, “And what of us who are not mothered? Whose mothers are incapable of mothering us?” The universe sent me Nayyirah Waheed’s “birth lessons”…

cruel mothers are still mothers.
they make us wars.
they make us revolution.
they teach us the truth, early.
mothers are humans. who
sometimes give birth to their pain.
instead of children.

Other “On this day” memories that have shown up this week include:

May 8th 2012: Memoir: a desperate attempt to chew yesterdays into smaller morsels easier to chew & get over…

May 7th, 2016:

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***

I’ve cried quite a bit over these past few weeks. I’ve cried for the girl I was, for my mother, for my students, for this healing.

Last night, during the full moon, when my daughter and partner were asleep and the house was quiet, I sat down in my writing room, surrounded by my books and pictures and the collage I created on Tuesday with my junior writers, the room lit by the string of lights that surround it’s circumference at the top. I didn’t want to write or, rather, I didn’t feel like the writing would cooperate. It hasn’t been over these few weeks, or rather, it hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to. We so often think we’re the ones in charge of our creativity when so often it’s the opposite–we are servants to it most, if not all, of the time. Still, I sat. I put on Pandora’s The Winter Radio, dabbed my wrist, neck and third eye with the Writers potion my brujermana Lizz gifted me. I burned palo santo, lit a candle and I started typing. 

One of my students sent me Chani Nichol’s newsletter titled “Truth and Transformation: Today’s Full Moon in Scorpio.” In it, she writes:

Nothing about our lives or about this world will ever change without our willingness to be relentlessly honest. Especially about our past. Especially about our present. Especially when accepting the truth means that it’s time to let something go.

A hope. A fear. A fantasy. Whatever it is, Wednesday’s full moon at 20° of Scorpio at 2:42pm PT is asking us all to be relentlessly honest about it…

Later Nichols writes: “Scorpio will drag you.”

And that’s so much of how I’ve been feeling these past few weeks: like I’m being dragged. What I’ve realized this week is that it’s not that at all, it’s that I’m shifting, and changes so big require an unraveling. I did say I was a revving race car, right. That kind of shaking hurts.

 

fall apart please

I have been carrying this unmothered wound for so long. I will always carry it. But as Mother’s Day approaches, I have been thinking about how I can reinvent myself. Reinvent how I exist in it and with it. How can I take my power back?

On April 28th, I wrote: When I write about being unmothered, when I say it’s a journey to navigate this reality, that sometimes it digs in and doesn’t let go, that I dread Mother’s Day and the cards and balloons and ads, it’s not that I don’t know that I’m blessed, it’s not that I can’t celebrate the mother I am that mothers in resistance to how I was mothered, it’s that this pain and this joy can exist in the same place at the same time. Life isn’t black and white like some of you think, fam. And ignoring the hurt of it won’t make it go away. The best antidote that I’ve found so far, is facing it and writing about it and dissecting it and getting to know this heart of mine and how it beats and how it’s triggered and how it, no matter what, holds on relentlessly to hope and faith and all that is good. This is what I know today. This is where love lives.

On May 1st I wrote: Today I described my sadness as a fog that rolls in and out. Always there, waiting off the shore for the right conditions to thicken so it can roll back in. I’m sharing this because I know so many who are not okay. We’re told to get over it, move on, work through it, do this, do that, but the thing is that we do. I go for hikes. I work out. I throw on the gloves and punch and kick the air. I grab the weights. I eat well. I read. I write. I go to therapy. And, guess what? The sadness is still there. I’m not asking for advice. I am holding up my mirror. This is my reflection. Look at yours.

Earlier this week I wrote: It is Mother’s Day this weekend. Sending love to those of us holding our breaths, sighing deep, squeezing our eyes tightly shut against the barrage of ads and balloons and cards. I see your soft hearts and hear your crushed whimpers. Know that you aren’t alone in this. Know that the mother myth is just that, a myth. Know that you are a warrior for having survived your mother. Know that though the world doesn’t understand you, I do. And I honor you and all your beautiful scars and tears. Thank you for reminding me that this too I’ve survived, and though holidays like these push and twist the thorn in my side that is the mother wound, I am doing what I can to push back and live and love in resistance. And some days, that is enough.

For the past several Mother’s Days, I’ve opted to avoid the world, the balloons and cards and folks dressed in pastels holding mama’s hand and glorifying her. This Sunday, I’ve decided to not do that for reasons I’m still finding words for but they include celebrating myself as a mother and my mothering in resistance. I can feel my unmothered wound and still celebrate. The thing is I’m still figuring out what that means…this is a step.

***

Over the past few weeks I’ve started several lists and essays. 

A list of things I didn’t learn because I was unmothered. The first item was: how to have relationships with women… I had to teach myself that.

I have started a list of things said to me about my being unmothered by people who don’t get the profundity of the wound or just don’t want to understand. It’s more absurd and insulting and triggering than you can imagine. The first item: “You have only one mother. You need to love her.”

I started a list of times I’ve dealt with toxic masculinity and male fragility, prompted by a friend’s post about these topics where a guy came on to say “not all men” and accused my friend of being divisive and being a part of the problem because heaven forbid a woman actually take men to task for their problematic behavior.  It starts:

When: early 2000s
Where: club in NYC
I walked by a guy in a crowded club. He grabbed my arm. I pulled away and kept walking. Next thing I knew, his entire drink was on my back. 

That list is several pages long.

I started an essay on rage, how anger is a form of anxiety–the fight in the fight or flight response. I’m chronicling this research I’m doing on anger and what it’s helped me understand about myself. How trauma exists in the body…

I started an essay on my shifting role as a mother, now that my daughter is months shy of 13 and doesn’t want to be with me all the time like she used to. How triggering this particular stage is for me because I left my mother’s house when I was 13 and never returned. The reality that I don’t really have a model of a mother-daughter relationship to go by.

I’ve told myself I haven’t been writing but I have. I just haven’t been finishing and that is okay too. This is my process. I go through months of being extremely prolific, then periods of seeming drought that aren’t really droughts. I am revving up. Today I was reminded.

***

May 28th is the 7th anniversary of when I quit my job to live this writing and teaching life. What is it about the seven year itch? I’ve been feeling drained. Exhausted. Bone tired. I’ve questioned what I’m doing in my teaching. I’ve wondered if this life is for me. If perhaps it is time to take a bold move like I did in 2010, so I made moves to do exactly that. I resigned from some of my steady teaching artist gigs. I said that this was my last semester teaching.

Then two weeks ago, I started working with my juniors. It was the first day of the college writing class where I introduce them to the college application essay and take them through the journey of writing a draft before they leave for the summer. I was rethinking my approach and decided to reinvent it: I introduced them to the topic of identity via the paintings of Frida Kahlo. I discussed how Kahlo’s identity influences her work: her identity as a mestiza, as a disabled woman and artist, as a queer woman, as the wife of muralist Diego Rivera, etc. I guided them through the process of critical analysis. Their faces lit up as they picked apart some of Kahlo’s iconic paintings. They made the connection to their own identities, and how the goal of the essay is to express a piece of their identities via words. I teared up as I watched them do group work, each group with a specific painting to analyze. I felt torn as I headed home. I remembered that I love this work I do, that it’s important and necessary. So what does that mean? I thought. I sat on it for a few days and came to this: it’s a break I need, not to quit.

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So that’s what I’m doing: taking a sabbatical over the next year. I am listening to the universe’s call to “go where your heart is…” I am taking some time off from some of my teaching to focus on developing my Writing Our Lives Workshop and, yes, bringing it online. I am going where my heart is. I love this work and am forever grateful that this class came into the world through me. It’s time to expand it, and to do that I need time and space so that means less teaching for a year, and more Writing Our Lives.

I also need to finish my memoir “A Dim Capacity for Wings.” I need to get this book out of me. I need to write it the best way I can, and to do so, I have to sit with it and be with it, and that requires time. I am gifting myself time.

Sometimes you have to dare, you have to risk to make this life happen. I am blessed to be able to do that.

***

I’ve found some incredible hiking trails in my new neighborhood. There are paths that go for miles, paralleling the Hudson River. Each day, I hike further and discover new paths and sights. Last week, the woods called me early, before 7am early, and I acquiesced. I hiked and explored further, five miles of hills and trees and chipmunks and birds of various species and sizes, some I can name and some I cannot. But when I came upon this tree, I was stunned into silence and gratitude.

I touched her and said thank you. Here she is, sheathed in half, internal bark exposed, she is scarred but she still blossoms and gives us oxygen and shade, and so much beauty. Gracias arbol maravilloso, for reminding me that we can continue to thrive and grow and give life and serve, even with our scars and pieces of ourselves missing…& perhaps this is what gives us the fuerza to keep doing it all–not unscathed but still fierce.

Relentless Files — Week 68 (#52essays2017 Week 15)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I used to write letters. It started when I was in boarding school. No, now that I think about it, it started before I left, when I was 12, when my first love and I would sneak letters to one another through my older brother Carlos, who was good friends with his mother and wanted us, me and Ruben, to be together. But in boarding school, letter writing became something else. It was a way for me to feel connected. To share. To vent and rage and long and want. To express myself in and through the intense solitude that were those four years of high school.

I learned solitude in boarding school. It was through letters that I peeked out into the world. That I showed my heart when I couldn’t show my face.

I wrote to everyone—to my first love Ruben and his sister Cindy, to my friends on the block, Zuleika and Eli and Peggy and her sister whose name I can’t for the life of me remember; to my best friends Marie and Nefertiri; to my sister though I don’t remember her ever writing back; to Chiquita whose name was Vanessa but they called her Chiquita because she was so tiny. I wrote to crushes. I wrote to anyone and everyone who would receive them. I wrote pages and pages and used my $8 a week allowance and the money I made at the babysitting jobs and whatever job I had (supermarket, ice cream store, accounting firm), to pay for stationary and fancy pens and so many stamps.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in those letters, but I remember saying “I miss you” a lot and “I miss home” and “I don’t fit in here.”

Once a friend asked me if I hated it so much, why didn’t I just leave. To be clear, I didn’t hate Wellesley. I just didn’t feel like I fit in, and I eventually stopped trying to. I went into myself and stayed there. But, no, I never considered quitting. I never considered returning to Brooklyn. I knew that once I left, I would never return. Yeah, I went back for vacations and breaks, but I knew I’d never live there again. Not in my mother’s house. I got out. I had to stay out. I knew that at 13.

***

I wrote my brother letters while he was in prison, the first time after he was caught with two balloons of heroin in his stomach on his trip back from Venezuela. I was in college then. I wrote him letters year later, when he went back to prison for violating his parole. I sent him stacks of letters. I bought colorful markers so I could adorn the envelopes. I found some of those letters when we cleaned out his house after he died. I found pages and pages of writing. It was the same story—he was sick of his addiction, he wanted it to end, he carried so much regret, and he always imagined a life, somewhere in the future, when he wasn’t addicted and depressed and a mess.

***

I haven’t been writing as much as I want to. There are days when I sit in front of the computer and just stare. Then there are days when I grab my journal and write the entire train ride downtown, to therapy, an appointment, a teaching gig. I look at those pages later. I read them. I try to type them. More often than not, the trying fails. I have so many starts though…there is beauty in that.

I am struggling with finding the words for what’s going on in my heart these days. It is a mixture of grief and ache and anxiety.

I have a clear visual though:

I am a race car revving up. I am burning tires and smoke. I am reeling body, jerking and swerving. Engine screeching and crying.

I am that race car. I am the burning tires. I am the smoke. I am the guttural roar from the engine.

All that revving is painful. It shakes my insides. My nerves are frayed. My anxiety is on turbo. It is frightening, and yet I know, this too is necessary.

There are no cars but me on the track. It is just me. Revving and raging. This challenge is with myself…

***

Today I wanted to write myself a letter…but all I got was the image and this:

Vanessa, You’ve been here before. You know what this looks like. You know the salt of it. The silt. The way it drags. Keep reading. Keep digging. Stay in that quiet space as much and as long as you need. Show up when you can and want. Go for those walks that feed you. Let your dog sit on your lap when he paws at you. Hold your partner close. Talk. Kiss your baby girl when she lets you. Your role of mother is changing. She is months shy of the age you were when you left. You have no context of a mother-daughter relationship at this age. You know this. It is pulling at you. Yanking. You will figure it out as you always have. Do the work you need to do. Write those recommendation letters. Finish those anthologies. Finish your Writing Our Lives Spring Semester class. Yes, you will miss them. Tell them that. Remember you’ve got the summer to write and be with yourself and your stories. No, don’t wait until then to write…but know that this, all of this, the whirl, the race car, the revving is a preparation…a getting ready. Stay open, love. Remember who the fuck you are.

howling_wolf

Relentless Files — Week 67 (#52essays2017 Week 14)

*An essay a week in 2017*

It is the fall semester of first year at Columbia University. I am 17. I am in the lounge of the 9th Floor of John Jay, the dorm I live in.

We are talking about our latest assignment in Logic & Rhetoric class, the required writing course all first years had to take. I have just completed my response to the assignment question: “What do you see outside your window…” I write about the poverty I grew up in my neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. I write about the rubble and the crack. I write about the slum lords who wouldn’t repair the falling walls, the powder that gave so many lead poisoning and gave me and my brother asthma. I write about the despair. I also write about the love. I share this with the people in the lounge. All first years like me. An Indian guy from California laughs mockingly at me. He says: “From my window I see our tennis court and the basketball court. I see my pool.” He gets up, laughs again in my direction and walks out. I shrink into myself. I go to my room to rewrite the assignment.

***

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings:

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. 

I workshopped this chapter at Tin House in January, where I worked with Lidia Yuknavitch. She 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’m going to boarding school.?

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.

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I felt that shame again in boarding school. When I took out the lunch tickets I got to pay for lunch when everyone else was taking out their cash and buying extras that my lunch ticket didn’t cover. Lunch tickets got you whatever burger or chicken patty or soggy pizza was on the menu. Lunch tickets didn’t cover cookies or ice cream. Not even juice. A lunch ticket got you the milk and a cup of fruit dripping in sugar water or a soft plum.

I felt it again when I couldn’t afford to go to the movies or out to lunch when I got the pass to leave campus my senior year.

I felt it when the girl I became friends with showed up every week with a new pair of sneakers and Guess jeans. One time, she said: “Do you want this pair? I know you’ve been wearing those for years.” She pointed at the Reebok sneakers my brother had bought me with the little money he made at The Gap. I never wore those sneakers again.

I felt it when I was invited to do a student exchange program in Spain but couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. In all honesty, I didn’t ask my mother. How could I? She couldn’t afford it. I had to start working when I got there, babysitting until I turned 14 and could get my working papers. Then I started working at the local supermarket. I worked most of the time I was there in Wellesley, Massachusetts; at an ice cream parlor for a spell, at an accounting firm, and again at the local supermarket, countless babysitting jobs. I bought my own winter coat. I bought my clothes and my pencils and notebooks. How could I afford $2500 for a student exchange program? I couldn’t, so I didn’t.  

I felt that shame when I was invited to the house of the president of the board and saw the statue by the door of the monkey in a tux holding out a tray. We, all the scholarship kids who were invited, stopped and stared. We understood what it meant. We didn’t have the language to express our rage and hurt, but we knew. We knew we didn’t belong there, but we swam in that woman’s pool and we ate her food and the ice cream she made in that ice cream maker that she took so much pride in. I didn’t have one of those at home. I still don’t.

***

Over the past few months, I’ve seen various FB posts shaming folks who crowdfund. The language is very “you should have planned for this”/”take care of your own shit”/”the world should not have to carry you”/”you’re irresponsible/don’t know how to adult, etc. etc. etc.” I always think about my mother and the kind of poverty she grew up in in Honduras. I think about the stories she told us about how she didn’t have a doll until she was eight. She had one pair of shoes so she went to school barefoot, and how her grandmother Tinita made sure to get them to school early so they could have the powdered milk the school provided them in the morning. It was yellow and chalky and there were bugs floating in it, but they drank it because it was the only milk they had.

I grew up poor. We didn’t have the latest kicks and we couldn’t go on vacation often, but we always had a roof over our heads, even if the crumbling walls gave me and my brother asthma, and we always had food, even if it was just a can of corned beef with white rice. But my family in Honduras knows the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. My family knows hunger and war and death. My family knows what it is to lose children to diseases that could have been easily treated had they the money and the resources.

My mother once told me the story of a classmate in La Ceiba who died suddenly. As they were watching her body, parasites started climbing out of her nose and poking at the inside of her cheeks, so they had to open the dead girl’s mouth so they could squirm out. This is the kind of poverty my family knows. These stories live in me. All of them.

I know that much of how my family (and maybe yours?) survived was due to the kindness of a neighbor who saw the children hungry and offered a gallina to roast or a bit of frijoles and tortillas. My family still sends huge barrels of food and clothes back to Honduras a few times a year. This is why I react viscerally to people shaming others for asking for help. We’ve forgotten about what community means. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in this American individualism and capitalism that we’ve turned ourselves away from the generosity our ancestors taught us.

During my baby shower, there was a man in rags outside the hall begging for food. The custodian cursed and shamed him. My Millie screamed at the custodian, telling him: “A la gente no se le niega comida.” Millie limped inside (she already needed a cane to get around and would die months later). She filled a huge aluminum pan with food, two kinds of rice and chicken and pernil and salad and bread, and she took that food out to that man in rags. She said, “Donde hay uno con hambre, hay otros.” I will always remember this lesson. So should you.

***

successful-v-unsuccessful-3

Poverty is a cycle, and it is a cycle that is nearly impossible to break. There are tons of studies that prove this. I could cite sources for days and still there will be folks who will insist that there’s a way out. I was made to believe that my ticket out was education, so I went that route, attending a prestigious boarding program and then going on to an ivy league. I am still struggling. Let’s not even talk about the debt I’m in as a result of this education people claim is the way to get out of poverty. College debt is indentured servitude.  

These students are often being loaded up with staggering debt that is completely out of whack with the earnings boost they’ll likely get from a degree at a nonselective or less selective college. Already, average student loan debt is higher in Boston than any other metro area in the country, 44 percent above the national average, according to Credit Karma. But  more troubling, many of these low-income students — and, at some colleges, most of them — are not graduating. That means these non-completers are leaving campus saddled with lots of debt but none of the salary gains that traditionally come with a bachelor’s degree. Source: Boston Globe 

***

I have worked my ass off to make this writing and teaching life happen. That has meant an incredible amount of sacrifice. I have gotten eviction notices and three day notices. I have wondered how I will buy a metrocard to get to a gig or interview. I have spent my last pennies on a gallon of milk and bread. I know what it is to grind. I know what it is to save money and see it go on unexpected expenses. Shit is hard out here for all of us.

I’ve raised money numerous times to attend workshops. I raised money as recently as this past December so I could go to Tin House. Asking for help is hard. It is the epitome of letting oneself be vulnerable. We do it because we know this work we’re doing is necessary. I raised more than enough money in under 24 hours and paid it forward with the $1000+ I got over the amount I requested, offering extra scholarships for my Writing Our Lives spring semester class and donating money to different causes. I know folks helped because I stay helping others. I am incredibly generous with my time and resources. I teach. I mentor. I work and work and work. So, yes, when I see folks shaming others for asking their communities for help, it rubs me the wrong way. Folks will always say they aren’t shaming. Some go as far as saying that they are just offering advice. But if it looks like shaming, it’s shaming. I call a spade a spade.

If you don’t want to contribute, don’t. But shaming someone is not what community is about. Ever.

Mi gente, if you don’t want to support someone’s adventures, don’t. If you don’t want to donate to a gofundme or what have you to help a person get to a workshop or catch up on bills, don’t. We’re all fighting our own private wars. We don’t know what people are going through emotionally or spiritually or financially. We don’t know what they’ve endured to get where they are. Shaming them does nothing to help them or you. It’s also an asshole thing to do. We’ve all been in a rut. We’ve all fallen on hard times. Have some compassion. And, yes, check your privilege.

***

Poverty shaming insinuates that there is something inherently wrong with people who are poor. It says that they simply don’t work or don’t want to work; that they want the system to take care of them; that they are not self-reliant.

According to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer:

“Contrary to the criticism that the poor are just lazy, Edin and Shaefer found people who don’t want a government handout. They just wanted to work. And many do.

“Yet even when working full time, these jobs often fail to lift a family above the poverty line,” the authors write.

The narratives give context to the complexity of how people end up living on almost nothing. They often come from situations of sexual or physical abuse, addiction, or parental abandonment. And yes, their stories are also rife with bad decisions that keep them down.

Nonetheless, Edin and Shaefer provide a perspective that should stop us from telling poor folks that all they have to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps. What if you don’t even have a boot? Source: Boston Globe 

More evidence:

“According to a 2015 report (press release) from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the “large majority of households receiving SNAP include children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and working adults,” and “two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children.” Here’s more:

SNAP benefits lifted at least 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted more than 1.3 million children out of deep poverty, or above half of the poverty line (for example, $11,925 for a family of four). Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/01/food-stamps-snap-soda-nyt

Why am I including these statistics? Because I was a Sociology major at Columbia who studied poverty in depth so I know this shit. I know the reek of poverty shaming both personally and through my extensive studies.

Also, because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t always think people realize that they’re being fucked up and parroting the shaming many of us have experienced and witnessed as folks who grew up in poverty. Shit becomes easily internalized. I get that because I too am guilty of having done this.

Here’s the thing: I grew up on food stamps. This was when they came in little booklets and looked like fake money. I also applied for and received food stamps for six months a few years back when I was struggling as a single mom and couldn’t make ends meet despite working so much and so hard. And I was ashamed of it. I feel the bile of that shame in my throat as I type this.

When I took the card out at the market or the store, I looked around hoping no one I knew was around. I also tried to be discreet when taking it out, blocking the bright blue lettering and my picture in the corner with my hand. And when I swiped the card, I avoided looking at the cashier in the eye. I didn’t want her to see me…or my shame. 

I had to re-certify after six months. That means I had to go back to the SNAP office with evidence that I still needed the assistance. I never went back though I know I would have easily qualified. Why didn’t I go back? Because of shame.

I look back now and cringe at myself. I was just trying to feed my kid while I got through a rough patch. Why is this wrong? 

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It’s all of this that has made me who I am: someone who gives so generously, who offers a free one day five hour personal essay class, because I know not everyone has the resources to pay for my nine week class.

The other day in class, a student said: “You can charge so much more for this class than you do.” This student is in a PhD program. He talked about the classes he’s taken, what people pay thousands of dollars for, where he says they never learn the craft elements of writing that I teach for $620 for nine five hour classes. Other students chimed in, echoing the sentiment. I felt that familiar shame lean in. I said: “I want to keep the class accessible to my community.” And I do mean that. I mean that with my entire heart. But I also hear the echo of the message I’ve been told so many times: that I don’t deserve to ask for or expect more. How do you balance this? I’m still figuring it out. I want to keep this class accessible to the communities that I write for and to, but I also need to live, feed my family, pay my bills, etc.

Logically I know I am worthy. Logically I know that this shame is not mine. It is poison. It is vitriol…but the heart is another matter, and it’s hard to push back on these things that have been ingrained in us for so damn long.

***

I can’t tell you the times people told me that the only reason I made it to Columbia was because of affirmative action. How could someone like me, who comes from where I come from, who looks like me and talks like me, have possibly earned her seat at an Ivy League?

This is what shaming looks like.

***

While at AWP in March, I went to a lecture by Jacqueline Woodson, writer of more than 32 books. In her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, she wrote about the Bushwick we both 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. 

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During the Q&A, I thanked Woodson 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?”

“To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun. What is it you see then?”  —Margaret Atwood

There were so many places and people who made me feel that shame. I’m writing this to them. I am holding up a mirror and daring them to stare. I am challenging them to really look at themselves and the shit they’ve internalized. I am daring them to look at their privilege, to check themselves. I am here, with all my rage, saying: I dare you to look. Do you cringe? What will you do with that reflection? How will you change? 

I’m staring at that mirror too. Are you willing? How else can we change the world if not by first working on ourselves? #perspective

Relentless Files — Week 66 (#52essays2017 Week 13)

*An essay a week in 2017*

I haven’t been able to write for days. For two long weeks, I haven’t been able to write anything beyond a few sentences. Fragments.

Something is shifting in me. This something is heavy and dark and painful. This something is necessary..but shit, it’s so much when we’re in the shifting.

“…Transformation has some very harrowing phases. This full moon will exaggerate all that gets in the way of the balance we need to strike. This full moon illuminates the truth that balance isn’t static.

“Balance is a constant state of recalibration.” Chani Nicholas: Today’s Full Moon in Libra: Beauty Bound 

Yesterday, on my deck, after hours on my couch, I wrote this:

There is a hole where my words are. In the hole lives grief. Stealth and quiet with the fury of winds that can destroy. Annihilate. 

It is warm in NYC. I am on my deck smelling and tasting spring. Wondering when these seeds will blossom like those on the tree that peek into my window. Just yesterday they were tight in their buds. Today they are busting green. Aflame like my envy.

My hands cannot grip a pen. Those lines on the page stare. I grab my phone. I finally rise from where my body has made indentations in the cushions. They rise slowly, searching for space to be full.

Me…I miss my brother.

***

Today, I went to The Women Writers of Color group’s final installment of this year’s Breakaway Writing Workshop Series. The featured artist was Yesenia Montilla, who led a generative writing workshop inspired by women writers of color. She had us read poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Aracelis Girmay, Valzhyna Mort, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Natalie Diaz. After each poem, she gave us prompts and had us write for ten minutes. It was magical and hard and wrenching and necessary. So fuckin necessary.

Yesenia started by talking about duende, the term Lorca is said to have stolen from the gypsies of Spain. Duende is the idea of creating art that comes from darkness, from the ground, from the connection of the bottom of the feet to the earth. It is art created from the body.

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Lorca visited Harlem in the turn of the 20th century. That’s where he first heard blues, which he said was the closest thing to duende he’d ever heard.

Yesenia had us hear Kathleen Battle singing “Summertime” at the Met. Then she had us hear the Janis Joplin cover of the same song. 

The idea here is that there are two places an artist pulls from, and Battle and Joplin were examples of both.

Battle pulls from the ethereal. From the heavens. “A voice from God,” Yesenia said. 

Joplin pulls from the soles of her feet. Her voice is gravelly and gritty. She is tapping into her ache.

My discovery: I pull from my feet. From the mother that is earth. I pull from my pain, like Joplin. I listened to her sing as I typed this.

***

I bought a new journal at an art supply store steps away from Pratt where the workshop was held. I bought new pens. Paid $10 for a mechanical pencil. 10 fuckin dollars for a pencil?

I was inviting duende. Calling duende. I know that now.

Truth is I thought I’d left all my pens at home. I chastised myself on the train. If you know me, you know that I only write with the blue Pilot Precise V5. I found it in the fall of my freshman year at Columbia, back in ’93. I’ve been writing with it since. 24 years. I thought: How can I write without my pen? I sulked. Then I thought: “I’ll find one.” Sure enough I did. Later, I found that I had in fact brought a pen. It was tucked into The Body Keeps the Score, which I’ve been reading slowly and quietly, digesting the mirror it holds up, annotating it heavily.

***

Inspiration: “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Prompt: Start writing using the first few words of the poem: “Listen: there was…”

Listen: there was a girl
lost in the woods
lost in the spring
the earth just beginning to burst
with life… the wet of it a
pungent, mossy smell in
the girl’s nostrils… she searched
for the hawk whose cry
she heard loud through
the canopy.. She thought
she felt the whisper of
a wing on her cheek, but
when she turned, nothing
was there… just trees and
brambles and bushes
not yet fully green but
trying for life… reaching
for it…

She walked on, this girl
who was lost in the
woods… she followed
trails that had been
made by the feet of
souls long gone… they
too, lost… they too,
searching…

She, this lost girl, stayed
off the paved paths… she
didn’t/doesn’t trust
paths laid down by men…
she needed to feel the
dirt under her feet, she
needed to be cut by the
thorns that tore at her
bare legs…

Listen: this girl who is
lost, felt a hand on her
shoulder. She turned
around quickly, “Who’s
there?” she yelled. The wind
shook the trees. A blossom,
only days old and still
trying for life, fell at her
feet. She picked it up,
sniffed its sweetness
and walked on…

She came to a river.
There, she stripped down
to her underwear, and
walked into the water.
She felt something pull
her head back, a soft
tugging. This is a baptism,
she thought, as the
water rushed into her ears.
She opened her eyes
and saw her,
blurry,
hair dancing in the
current.
“Hija,” she mouthed, bubbles
floating out of her mouth.
The girl reached, cried
out, “Mamá.” She
swallowed water,
gagged as she felt a
push from the soles of
her feet, pushing her
body up so she could breathe…

When she came to, she was
on the shore.
Her dress back on her body.
A garland of flowers
on her head.

***

Inspiration: “Kingdom Animalia” by Aracelis Girmay

Prompt: How do we imagine loss? How do we process death? Start with a line from the poem: “One day, not today, not now, we will be gone from this earth…”

In the red woods where
they took me that first day,
when my brother died,
I looked up at the
trees, their long, hairy
trunks… I learned that
these trees entangle their
roots with one another to
keep themselves upright…
These giants can’t be giant
without other giants…

I think of my brother.
I think of the last words
he said to me: “You have to
go write our stories, sis.”

I think of my second mom Millie, who
when I told her on her death
bed, “Millie, I think I
wanna write a book,” she
propped herself up on that
arm that was perpetually
swollen after the
mastectomy, and said:
“Pero negra, you’ve always
been a writer.”

In some forests, trees keep
stumps alive by feeding them sugar through their roots.

One day, I will be gone.
I know this… I don’t
want to. I think:
“What will I leave my
daughter?”

What did my brother
leave me? Permission.

What did my Millie
leave me? Validation.

What will I leave my
nena? Stories. Love.
The knowledge that I
loved her like my mother
couldn’t, wouldn’t love
me…

I leave her knowing
that she will hurt,
she will ache, and with
that, she can make
sancocho that will/
can feed.
She must gather her own
viandas, herbs and meats
to make her own sancocho.
Mamá will leave her
the broth.

***

Inspiration: “Belarusian I” by Valzhyna Mort

Prompts: This love loved to visit us… -or- I was born with… (An Argentinian poet wrote “I was born with red lipstick on…”)

I was born with sugar
on my lips.
Crystallized and syrupy,
I was born with honey
on my lips.
But mommy was no bee.
Mom was salt and glacier.
Mom was too much
vinagre in sofrito.
Mommy was a love song
on Super KQ —
one of those corta venas
ballads that she scream sang,
her head thrown back,
the King Pine scent
snaking up her legs,
underneath her bata…
to where I came into
the world…
This girl who was born
with honey on her lips.

But didn’t I tell you
Mommy was no bee?
She’d swat them away
with her heavy,
little hands.
She’d go to their hives and
snatch them out,
her skin impervious to
their sting.
She pulled their wings
off and cackled as they
cried… scurrying over
the earth they were
made to fly over.

I am the girl born
with honey on her lips
to a mother who
killed bees…
I have spent my
life trying to lick that
honey off. To banish it
from me. An exorcism…
But bee killers smell
honey from far away.
Their sense of smell keen
Iike a dog’s.
They smell honey and
think — kill,
think — destroy.

These days I am building
a hive for this honey
on my lips that I was
born with. I watch
over it, tending and
coddling. This hive.
These lips…

***

Inspiration: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

Prompt: Think about forgiveness and accepting forgiveness. Who have you not forgiven? Imagine the day you forgive that someone. -or- A blue door appears in the room. You go through it…

(I didn’t want to think about forgiveness. I wanted to stay mad…so, of course, she who I have not forgiven showed up, despite my resistance.)

Blue door beckons and says:
“Come.”
The words like a growl,
teeth clenched and grinding.
It calls to me.
I should be scared but
I’m not.
I was born with sugar on
my lips, pero that
was a front. Honey
to hide the growl in my
throat, the howl like the
sirens that coaxed so many
men to their deaths.

Beyond the door is a
field, there are flowers
of all variety and color, they
sway in the soft wind.
They are like whispers
beneath my bare feet.
I’m not surprised when
I feel the roots start
to tangle around my
ankles. They pull at me.
They snare.
I look down and I see her–
the weaver.
She who I want to but
can’t forgive.
I grit my teeth, the
siren crawls out of
my throat. I want to
whirlpool her.

I wonder how that happens —
how you can go from loving
someone and protecting them
to wanting to destroy
them.
To curling your lips when
you speak their name, and
so you don’t. That poison
doesn’t mix with your honey.

You think of the girl you were
who invited betrayal
and disloyalty because you
didn’t love yourself.
Couldn’t.
This was before you grew
to own that honey.
And even now, some days,
when the roots wrap
around your ankles and
pull, the thorns dig in
and you begin to bleed,
heavy drops beading
into the earth. You
let your skin be sacrifice.
You drip honey into the open
wounds.
You call your siren back into the
flower of your throat.

You look back at the blue
door and smile.
“Remember,” she whispers
back at you. “Remember.”

***

Inspiration: “From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde

Prompt: Think of mother figures. Think of the gods and goddesses we worship. Write an open letter to him or her.

Diosa,

Mi madre is my alter
and my abyss…
Why did you give me this
mother who could never
love me?
Was there no other way to teach me
these lessons I need to learn
in this lifetime?
Could the lesson not be
gentler?

Don’t answer that.
I know.

I am one who learns through
trials.
I have to drag my body across
fire stones, feel their scarring,
ripping at my
organs.
This is the way for us girls
born with honey on our lips.
Pero, mamá, madre eres, why
could you not gift me a mother
who could love?

My mother is
TNT.
She is dynamite.
She detonates
and erupts.
She destroys everything…
but me.
Me — she couldn’t.
Me — I didn’t let her.

My mother
whose body knows the
claws of rape,
who knows the fangs of hunger.
My mother who has wished
for death since she was 15 —
my mother…

I sit like her
One knee propped under my chin
The other leg tucked underneath.
I hum like her,
absentmindedly,
while I cook and clean and
stare off,
into nothing.
Here, but not.
I didn’t know this until I was 40,
after having left her house
at 13…

I carry my mother under
my fingernails
 like dirt…
This woman who is TNT.

***

Yesenia gave us time to share one piece we’d produced that day. One writer, a beautiful young woman with a hoop in her nose and tattoos on her arms, prefaced her piece with: “This poem is about my mother. All my poems are about my mother.”

And I said “Yasss.” And I felt that shame and anger in my body move and subside…that exhaustion with the altar and abyss that is my mother.

Why the fuck do I always have to write about my mother?

***

I listened to Janis Joplin as I typed this. In the gravel that is her voice, I saw myself, this woman who pulls from the ache in her joints, from the earth, from the soles of her feet…

Today, duende pulled at the siren in my throat. Today, duende grabbed and yanked at my pen. Today I surrendered to duende, and I’m so glad that I did.

Thank you Yesenia Montilla. You be magic, sis. Word.

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Writing Our Lives in the Park

We’re taking it to the woods, familia.

When? June 10th, 2017, 11am-3pm

Where? Inwood Hill Park, 207th Street and Seaman Avenue (on Manhattan Island)

Price? $35

If you know me, you know that I love nature and the outdoors and hiking, and you know I love love LOVE spring. You also know that I love Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan. What you might not know is that I also LOVE to write in the park. I’ve done numerous DIY (Do It Yourself) residencies in the park where I sit and write for hours, using the greenery, wildlife and river as inspiration. I’ve done some of my best work in that park, including essays that were later published. I’d love to share the magic of the park with you. Let’s do this!

This is a multi-genre workshop. We’ll be doing some hiking and lots of prompt driven writing. Let’s take in the park and see if the wood nymphs inject some love into our pens, shall we?

What you’ll need:

– A journal and a pen

– Water – it’s June in NYC

– Sneakers with traction – we’re hiking and may get off the paths a bit so be prepared!

– Long pants – because of mosquitoes and poison ivy

– Mosquito repellent – remember: it’s June in NYC

– A snack – there are tons of restaurants and delis in the area so no worries.

Afterwards, we’ll get some fruit and sandwiches (and maybe some spirits for the wine lovers like me), and have a picnic on the grass (so bring a sheet if you’re staying).

How to register? Send me an email to writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com with “Writing Our Lives in the Park” in the Subject Line. There’s a nonrefundable $15 registration fee (which reserves your spot) that can be paid via PayPal or Chase QuickPay. Your remaining $20 balance is due when you arrive to the park (or earlier).

See you soon! ❤

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