I thought I’d gone through the most wrenching part of this memoir process in the writing of the stories. I was wrong. Yet again, memoir teaches me that I know so very little about the process of creation. That it’s different each and every time and no matter how much I steel myself for the rattling, it will always be more jolting and eye-opening than I could have ever imagined.
So, I started the process of compiling these stories that I’ve written over the past three and a half months of ritual. Let me be clear, while I wrote the bulk of the material in these past few months, the journey of memoir has been a decade plus long journey. For much of the walk I wasn’t sure what I was doing or how I was going to do it, I was just documenting these stories because they needed to be told, because I needed to tell them. I was just writing as that’s always worked for me in my fiction and essay writing and even in my poetry. But, memoir is so very different.
In January, I reached a stalemate. I had (and still have) all this material, dozens of stories/narratives, but couldn’t find the thread that cinched them together. Then I found it and I’ve been writing ever since. This story is about my relationship with my mother and what happened from 0-13 that I left and never moved back. I’ve been writing with that focus for these few months, trusting in my ritual of writing every night, accompanied only by a cup of mint tea, candlelight and aromatic oils. It worked. I trusted in the process and it worked.
Two weeks ago I knew. I knew the stories were written. I knew that I needed to start compiling them, those that came out in a seemingly unorganized way but the more I read the writings, the more I see the order in the chaos. I didn’t want to face this reality, though. I was scared. Terrified of what being so close to finishing actually means. Apprehensive of the bomba that’s about to drop on my family. Last Monday, during ritual, there was nowhere to run. The truth was staring at me on the stark white computer screen. I was trying to pull another story out of me. It was like trying to get a drop of water out of the driest desert on earth. I had nothing. And for the first time in a long time, having nothing was a good thing, a great thing, because it meant that I was ready to compile these stories. So, I’ve been doing that ever since.
I have a table of contents. I have the epigraph. I have a format for my stories, from the opening quote to the reflections. I can see the book. I can feel my fingers flipping the pages. I even had a vision of my book release party–images projecting on a screen on auto-slide, my books stacked on a table, the crowds of supporters that have come to share this wondrous moment with me.
You have to understand, this is the greatest confrontation of my life. I am so much more aware of myself and my growth, my actions and reactions, my resilience and dedication to the grind. I think one of the dopest things about going back and reading your work are those moments when you come across a line and marvel at yourself, your leaning into the pen. What’s even more bizarre and beautiful is that I don’t remember writing so many of these stories. It’s evidence that I was channeling something greater than myself, that I had surrendered, that I was all in.
So, I’ve decided to share a few excerpts that struck me, just because… 🙂
From the story Peleona:
“I was a peleona, always scrapping with someone over something. I didn’t let anyone mess with me. And it wasn’t because I was particularly fearless. In fact, I was always scared. I was scared of ghosts and the dark. I was scared of mom and her wrath. I was scared of disappointing Millie. I was scared of the beatings that inevitably followed each one of my fights. I was scared of the girls (and boys) that bullied and those I bullied. I was scared of my sister Dee. That she wouldn’t accept me, love me, share with me. I was a terrified child. But I was reckless with abandon. I was hungry. Hungry for attention and affection and love and acceptance, and that want overpowered my fear. So when I fought with Bionette those countless times in fourth grade, it was fear that drove me. Fear that she wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t, fear that I’d be seen as less than if I didn’t stand up to her. I was terrified of that short-haired bully in fourth grade (who was later placed in special ed class because her behavior became increasingly erratic and violent) and I was scared that her sister, who was obviously a butch and I could identify that because I had one close that adored me, would pound me to a pulp like she’d threatened she would. I was terrified that next day when we went to school so that I pretended to be sick and mom saw through it and sent me anyway. So I was surprised when I didn’t get beat up, that instead she took us to the store and told me to pick out a dollar worth of snacks. I received greater reinforcement that standing up for yourself will grant you praise. It took me longer to learn that standing up for yourself didn’t mean you had to pound someone.”
“[M]om was so quick with the hands that I learned early on that violence was the way to resolve things, to get your way. And Millie added the commas, exclamation points and capital letters when she took me into the yard and showed me how to throw a jab, how much pressure it took on the temple or nose to knock someone out (“Cuida’o con la nariz que puedes matar a alguien con esa fuerza que tienes. Esas manos son de madera.”) I learned early on that I had to protect myself, that no one was going to do it for me. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
From the story,Dirty Feet:
“My sister would sit on her bed for hours and write (in her perfect cursive that looked almost like calligraphy to these envious eyes so that I tried for years to imitate it until I resigned myself to my own script, pretty and loopy but nothing close to her swift hand that would put any English quill holder to shame) Harlequinesque stories of romance, always a young blonde haired maiden, distraught and alone, being saved by a chiseled young lass with dark locks and a love for her unknown to mankind. (She confesses that now in her late 30s this “cheesy”—her word, not mine— genre remains her preferred reading.) I know she’s the one who put the writer bug in my fingertips. I’d wait until she was in school or off with her friends or a boyfriend to climb onto her top bunk bed and rifle through her papers. (Dee always had a boy she was either eying, giggling and gossiping over, or fighting for; she came home enough times with deep scratches on her face to attest to this boy craziness of hers.) The storyline may have always been the same but there was no denying that she had a way with telling a story. She reeled me in with her descriptions of scenes and the torrid love affairs that paralleled Spanish novellas with their drama. I could even hear the dramatic music (always a piano and violent violin) in the background when the plot twisted and a devastating secret was revealed–she was dying, he was being sent to war, her father was marrying her off. My nose was still too stuck in the Sweet Valley High series to attempt to write such juiciness but I’d read enough and, yes, seen enough episodes of mom’s addiction to over-dramatic Univision novelas to know what a tantalizing tale looked like, and Dee had it down. So, I read and I admired, and thus the writer seed traveled through my eyes to my little heart. And she lay nestled there, being watered by my curiosity and life experiences until I had the nerve to push her petals out myself. That didn’t happen until years later but I owe my sister for that much, for starting me on this journey.”
From First Light:
“I was put to take a nap on a large four posterbed with large round spheres on the ends of the posters to make them even more phallic than they already were, as if that were necessary. There wasn’t much space in the room. Just enough to fit the furniture, the large bed, queen size I’ll assume since my little body had enough space to somersault and fly kick and pounce high with the aim of touching the ceiling, first with my fingertips, then with the crown of my head, then with my fly kick if I could just propel my body a little higher. Yes, I was always ridiculously daring, dangerously so as I learned that day.
There was a lamp on each of the matching night tables. The white shades were covered in the factory plastic as was the furniture in the apartments of that era, plastic on the couches, armchairs, whatever could be preserved, made to last longer at the expense of one’s body parts. In the summer the backs of our bare legs stuck to the plastic so when we’d peel ourselves off so we learned how painful it must be for an orange to be pared of her skin. We lost layers of skin with each unpeeling, the sound like a suction cup slurp, pop, rip.
On the farthest side facing the door was a long mirrored bureau, the mirror I’d giggle at as I watched my image pouncing on the bed. It was the corner of that bureau that struck my shoulder when my little body hurtled off the bed. I’d miscalculated. I’d gotten too close to the edge in my umpteenth attempt to touch the ceiling, which realistically speaking I’d never gotten close to touching, not with my fingertips or toes. But I was too young or too naïve or too stubborn or too much of too much to know the difference or to give up or admit defeat. So I fell, my shoulder struck the edge of the bureau with a crack, my elbow struck the steel frame of the bed as my body came colliding down. I remember screaming. I remember the scream shattering my eardrums. Then I remember the hospital. Otra carrera con Vanessa.”
“My arm was put into a full cast up to the edge of my neck so that it stuck out at an awkward and uncomfortable right angle. The constriction mortified me. Yes, I was right handed and the injured arm was my left, but anything that inhibited my movement and freedom was a special assault to my spirit. Perhaps I carried memories of being laid on a plank when I was months old because my bones were too brittle to be held. Perhaps I remembered spending the first year of my life being sedated, pinched with hundreds of needles, the nodes adhered to my chest and head, suero through my head because my tiny veins were too weak on my arms and legs to hold onto the IV, the bruises from the constant poking and prodding and doctoral violations, all attempts to save my life, yes, but no less traumatizing for an infant. Perhaps it was those memories that invaded and caused me desperation, I’m not sure, but I remember it now as a lump with the mass and impact of a meteorite in the pit of my stomach, a throb in my chest that constricts my throat and clenches my jaw, a cartoon-sized fist to the middle of my spine.
How I tugged at the cast and banged it on the bars of the crib. How I cried. How I tried to climb out of the crib, scraping the one hand that I could wrap around the bars. Bruising my feet and legs when I kicked them against the bars and sides of the crib. Trying tirelessly to climb out, until I did and I ran off. No one expected me to do it. I was so little, a tiny two year old who was just starting to gain flesh on the bones that had been left after my life was saved. Who would have thought it possible for me to learn to use that casted arm as leverage on the top bar so I could push my feet on the side and propel my body up and over onto the cold linoleum floor? (I recall giggling at the shock of the cold on the soles of my feet.) No one expected me to do it and that’s why I could and did. It’s always been that way with me. What’s not expected, I do. I’ve always believed in the impossible.”